This American Lie

This week’s episode of This American Life is bound to ignite as much controversy as the episode it retracts: Mike Daisey’s critical story of factories in China used by Apple (and others) to manufacture electronics like iPads and iPhones. Parts of Daisey’s story was fabricated, which Daisey defends by saying that the theatre show from which it is excerpted serves to raise awareness about the issue by combining personal experience with other accounts.

It’s painful to listen to the “Retraction” episode. Daisey’s long silences before responding to questions from TAL host Ira Glass serve as a uncomfortable confirmation that he was willing to ignore the journalistic standards of This American Life to draw attention to himself and his own show. But just as unfortunate was the fact that Glass and his TAL team didn’t successfully fact-check the story before airing it. I’d say that the latter is the more important takeaway from the episode, but I’m afraid that it will be the less reported of the two.

Throughout the episode, Glass painted a story of This American Life as victim. He asked Daisey again and again why he lied to the show’s producers and to Glass himself. He assured listeners throughout the show that public radio programs had high standards and that they follow thorough processes for fact-checking.

But they didn’t work. And other than calling the airing a “screwup” and saying that they never should’ve aired the show, Glass didn’t apologize.

Was it wrong for Daisey to air his story on a show like This American Life? Definitely, and I agree with Glass’s “worldview” that Daisey’s performances should be marked as fictional. But for a host of reasons, sometimes sources lie. It’s a journalist’s job to find out what is true and what is not – and when there’s doubt about part of a story, it should be labelled as such (especially when the source in question sells a series entitled “All Stories Are Fiction”). The responsibility for the retracted episode is in Glass’s hands, not Daisey’s.

Why didn’t TAL producers corroborate the story with others who had visited the factories in question? Why didn’t they talk to Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz, a public radio reporter featured in the retraction episode who “heard the story and had questions about it”, before running the original monologue? Schmitz had been to numerous Chinese factories and had talked with some of the Apple supplier workers who were mentioned in the story.

The tragedy of the original story is that all stories about Apple supplier factories will now be tainted with uncertainty and doubt. That could’ve been prevented if the story never ran at all.

The retraction attempts to place the responsibilities of journalism on the subject of the story, not on the journalist. That’s the real tragedy.

March 19, 2012 at 7:53 am

Calling in and cashing in

Apple issued a curious media alert late Sunday night, saying that Apple’s CEO and CFO would be waking up early to hold a conference call at 9:00 a.m. Eastern / 6:00 a.m. Pacific (!) on Monday morning to address what they planned to do with their enormous cash reserves. I’ve been looking around the web to see what people expect they might announce, but a lot of the options don’t make a lot of sense. Let’s take a look at each of them and why they might not make much sense for Apple.

  • Announce a stock dividend. This seems to be the most popular guess. But Apple, above all else, is stubborn, and their stock has been doing remarkably well. I don’t think they’d see a dividend as beneficial, and I think some people may take it as a sign of weakness. (For the record, I own a single share of Apple stock. I bought at $367.24.)
  • Buy back stock. I’ll be honest: I don’t know much about stock repurchases. From what I’ve read, it seems like it’d make a lot of sense for Apple, and the fact that only serious investor-types know what the heck it is would explain the late notice and the early schedule. There’s a part of me that thinks Apple really doesn’t care that much, though, and would want to keep the reserve for investment down the line.
  • Buy Twitter (or such-and-such tech company). Some have said that it’d be a good idea to buy Twitter, noting how integrated it’s become into iOS. It certainly makes sense; Apple has a notorious reputation for controlling everything within their ecosystem. I’m not sure the Twitter guys want to be bought – and I think they might ask more than Apple’s willing to spend. Then again, Apple’s never been strong in the social space (see: Ping), so if they want some heavy-hitters in that area, Twitter might be their ticket. (See also: A Brief History of Apple Not Buying Things by Harry McCracken)
  • Buy a phone company. There have long been a few calls for Apple to buy Sprint, AT&T’s wireless division, or the American portion of T-Mobile. This, too, speaks to Apple’s desire to control everything. In this case, though, I think they may run into regulatory problems – and I don’t know if Apple wants to deal with the hassle of wireless infrastructure.
  • Buy a component supplier. Buying suppliers is right in line with Apple’s way of thinking, but I can’t remember a time in the past where they’ve announced such an acquisition on a conference call. They might if it were big enough, but the likely player in that scenario (Samsung) could trigger some antitrust issues.
  • Invest in Chinese factories. With all the press about their suppliers, Apple could decide to put a few billion to improve conditions in their Chinese supply chain. Frankly, though, I don’t think they’d want to attract additional attention to the issue so close to the This American Life controversy, and if they did, I think they’d do a bigger announcement than an early morning conference call. (But if they disregarded public opinion, as they have in the past, it would definitely be a good investment.)
  • Invest in non-Chinese factories. Many people want Apple to invest in American (or non-Chinese) factories. Tim Cook is a ruthless operations guy, though, and the logistics don’t pan out at scale (for details, start listening to this week’s This American Life at 42:40). If they did anything, it’d probably be mostly symbolic… but Apple hasn’t done much like that in the past. But again, I think they’d want a bigger event than a conference call for this kind of announcement.
  • Announce a component purchase. Apple likes to pre-buy components to save money, so a huge memory/display/battery reservation would seem in line. Not sure they’d announce this publicly either, though.
  • Announce a research and development program, or an incubation program for startup companies. It’s a noble thought, but I don’t think they’re at that place right now. It’s not completely out of character (remember the iFund?), but I think they’d want to use a bigger venue than a conference call for that kind of announcement (especially one at 6:00 a.m. Pacific).
  • Do nothing. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the option to do nothing. My guess? Tim Cook says something along the lines of, “We want to keep a reserve available so that we can continue to lead the industry and protect the products we’ve invested billions to develop.” but it’s a bit suspect that they’d announce this right as trading opens on a Monday.

My top guesses, in order: do nothing, buy back stock, and invest in Chinese factories.

Whatever the case, this proves that there’s no such thing as a minor announcement when Apple is involved.

March 18, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Not looking

Here’s a partial list of what’s happening in the Bangor area tonight:

  • Boeing Boeing at Penobscot Theatre
  • Brewer Winterfest kickoff fireworks over the Penobscot River
  • Eastern Maine Class B basketball quarterfinals at the Bangor Auditorium
  • Husson Eagles basketball vs. Johnson State at Husson University
  • UMaine hockey vs. Massachusetts at the Alfond Arena
  • Avenue Q by the UMaine School of Performing Arts at Hauck Auditorium

If you don’t think there’s anything to do around Bangor, you’re not looking.

February 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Pin It!

The attribution ambiguity of Pinterest highlights another issue as far as sharing is concerned: it’s tough to tell if a site-owner wants their content to be pinned. Sharing has a number of benefits; the exposure (especially for pins from content that encourages click-throughs) can be an amazing boost for a site. Understandably, though, some artists wouldn’t want their content duplicated or spread without their approval.

This supporter versus critic situation reminds me a lot of the Live Music Archive. The LMA is an amazing resource to find bootlegged audio from concerts, and before the days of YouTube is was a great site to visit if you wanted to find out if you’d still like your favorite band after you heard them live. The LMA faced a similar permission issue, and they solved it by requiring (and publishing) a confirmation from the artist (or their management) that taping and sharing was OK.

Does Pinterest need this kind of registration system? I think it’s way too much of a hassle, and frankly I don’t think it’s practical.

Over the weekend I found that Pinterest has an option to put a Pin It button on your website (scroll down on the page to “‘Pin It’ Button for Websites”), similar to the buttons for Facebook and Twitter sharing. I quickly added it over on both the blog and store at Pine Tree Photography, and it’s an awesome fit. The website button benefits site owners in two ways; it reminds people to share their content if they like it, and it gives a stamp of approval from the artist saying that he wants his content shared.

If Pinterest continues to grow and thrive, I’m convinced that it will face permission issues from artists. The Pin It button for sites is a perfect solution for both site owners and Pinterest users, and we should encourage every social-friendly artist we know to add them. Let’s make those buttons the standard way to tell if an artist says, “I’m OK with being pinned.”

February 15, 2012 at 8:24 am

Pinterest and an artist’s dilemma

I’ve been watching Pinterest pretty closely over the past couple of months. It’s the most interesting new player in the social space since Twitter debuted, largely because of its extraordinary growth (especially among women). Personally I see it as a kind of visual Delicious, combining my visual interest with my love of collecting and organizing.

Pinterest’s growth creates challenges, though. They need to make sure the site is beneficial both for users of the site who want to share and for artists who create work worth sharing.

Pinterest’s problem

Sharing images on social networks is nothing new, but Pinterest takes a different (and more troubling) approach. On sites like Facebook and Twitter, there’s often a reasonable assumption that someone will click through an image or link to find more information about a photo that’s been shared by friends. When you click on a shared link on those networks, you’re taken to the image’s original source.1 That’s great for content creators, as it brings new people to their site and gives the creator the chance to show new visitors their work.

Pinterest is different. When you add a new pin, you’re asked for the address of a web page; the site loads the page, pulls a prominent image from the page, and shows it within Pinterest. While you’re viewing your friends’ pins, there’s no direct way to visit the original source; a source link is only available on the pin detail popup. (Clicking the full-size image or the inconspicuous source link above the image sends you to the source site.) These popups show images at full size, so there’s very little motivation for normal users2 to visit the original author’s site; the Pinterest user can view everything from his friends without ever leaving the site.

It’s worth noting that it’s possible to separate pins into two categories: those that encourage a user to visit the original source (recipes, products, craft tutorials, etc.) and those that don’t (photographs, style, and design). I see Pinterest as an amazing opportunity for the first group; a user would see a photo of a great recipe, for example, and would take the time to head to the source site to find ingredients and steps. Pins from the second group don’t fare so well for the original author; for a pretty sunset photo, it would be much easier for a normal user to comment right within Pinterest and move onto the next pin than it would be to visit the source site to view more from the original artist. That’s a lost opportunity for a photographer, artist, or designer.

I’ve heard some people respond by saying that Pinterest won’t hurt artists; the increased exposure could benefit them, and even if it doesn’t, it wouldn’t cause them to lose any business they would’ve otherwise had. I think that’s true in most cases, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t cause problems for Pinterest – or that there aren’t better ways to approach it.

A likely scenario

Given how popular Pinterest has become, it’s only a matter of time until some artists, designers, and photographers decide that they want to control how (or if) their content appears on Pinterest. It’s happened with Napster, it’s happened with YouTube, and eventually it will happen with Pinterest. There are two ways they could do this within the current system.

Some will likely send DMCA-backed cease and desist notices to Pinterest on the grounds of copyright infringement. This will probably cause Pinterest to develop some sort of system to blacklist certain sites from being pinned (say, hypothetically, pins of pages from cnn.com wouldn’t be allowed on the site). It’s an inconvenience for users – and probably not the best option for content creators, either – but the legal road is quick and effective.

A more creative (though, I’d argue, even more annoying) solution would be for artists to add prominent watermarks to all the images they post. It’s one way for an artist to maintain the exposure via Pinterest while still branding the images from her site. Again, though, it’s not an ideal solution for either the artist or the viewer; watermarks have a tendency to wreck the aesthetics of an otherwise beautiful image.

Needless to say, I don’t like either of those options. But what’s the alternative?

A branded solution

Mockup of a pin with source panel on Pinterest

I want Pinterest to succeed. I really do. I think it’s a great concept, and I think in the end it helps content creators more than it may hurt them. There’s also an amazing opportunity waiting to happen for artists if Pinterest decides to offer it.

I’d love to see Pinterest offer a way for content creators to claim their source sites within Pinterest. An artist could verify that he owns certain sites (for example, justinrussell.com and pinetreephotography.com), and any pins from that site would have the generic gray box underneath each pin replaced with a small, branded panel customized by the site owner. YouTube does something similar with their Partner program; popular uploaders can customize the channel name area that appears above each video. (Head over to Lauren’s channel to see an example.)

What then? Well, with a source program in place, Pinterest could offer the opportunity for users to follow artists or brands. If you like one post by a particular artist or designer, how about having the chance to see whenever anything new is posted from that person?

My guidelines

I’m going to start using Pinterest a lot more, but I want to be sure I’m supporting the artists and content creators behind the images I find there. Here are my personal ground rules:

  1. For pins from one of those categories that don’t encourage a click-through, I’ll always credit the photographer and source in the caption for the pin.
  2. I’ll never write a caption that discourages people to visit the source site (for example, explaining the steps of how to make a craft).
  3. I may use watermarks on some of the photos on my sites, but I’ll never make them obtrusive. I’ll try my hardest to preserve the integrity of the photo.

I want to use Pinterest for the same reasons I use other social networks: finding great stuff and sharing it with the people I know – all while supporting the awesome people who make the stuff I love.

___

1 This has changed a bit recently on Facebook as people have started to download images to their computer and then upload them as “Wall Photos”, but you still can’t enter an image URL on Facebook to have it shared without attribution. The difference here is that Facebook and Twitter draw out this process and put the burden on the user to download and re-upload a photo. On Pinterest, the default “Add a Pin” behavior is to grab images from another site via a URL.

2 The term “normal users” is tricky. I think there’s a small segment of the site users who will investigate original sources anyway: most likely other artists, photographers, etc. I think the behavior of a typical user would be to stay within the at-a-glance, self-contained system of Pinterest, though, without investigating further. I’d love to see stats from Pinterest that show click-through rates to sources.

February 9, 2012 at 8:42 am

Then and now

“Today, unelected judges cast aside the will of the people of California who voted to protect traditional marriage. … I believe marriage is between a man and a woman and, as president, I will protect traditional marriage and appoint judges who interpret the Constitution as it is written and not according to their own politics and prejudices.” – Mitt Romney on Proposition 8, yesterday

“We regard the decisions of the Supreme Court in the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power. It climaxes a trend in the Federal Judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the reserved rights of the States and the people.” – Southern Manfesto re: Brown vs. Board, 1956

“[Integration] will destroy our race eventually… In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.” – Rev. Jerry Falwell, 1958

February 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Donate your rewards points to charity

Last year I spent a couple of nights in a Comfort Suites hotel and earned a handful of points in their loyalty program for my stay. I don’t stay in hotels often enough to redeem any rewards, but I don’t want the points to go to waste.

Many loyalty programs have expiration dates for points or miles at the end of the year. If you don’t plan on using them – or if you don’t have enough to redeem for any awards – see if they have an option to donate your points to charity. You may not have enough saved for a gift card at your favorite restaurant or store, but some programs let you donate in smaller increments to a good cause.

Sure, the $5 donation I made to the Red Cross with my expiring points isn’t a huge amount. But it’s a lot better than letting the points disappear!

December 27, 2011 at 10:28 pm

The Luxo Jr. shift

Just over a decade ago I started my college’s computer science program. I’d always loved computers; I remember the days playing games on the computer of my best friend who lived down the street, before my family bought one of our own. Once we did, I remember writing stories on some old DOS software and then finally venturing into the world of Windows 3.1 and Windows 95.

I was rather late to the Mac owners’ guild, at least by my friends’ standards; I started with one of the Luxo Jr.-style iMac G4s with the round base and the flat panel in April 2002, during my first year of college. Now of course I’d used Macs before I’d entered college; some of my first experiences with computers were on Apple IIe boxes in my elementary school’s computer lab, playing really basic games in green pixels on a black screen with nothing but a 5 1/4″ floppy drive. Through middle and high school I worked on a bunch of computers through my school’s technology clubs and programs, and for my junior and senior year in high school, I took some time in an independent study to refurbish Power Macintoshes with a goal of supplying each classroom in the building with a computer with OS 7.6. Through this love of tinkering, I entered college thinking computer science was a natural choice. I still use the concepts I learned in those first C++ classes every day.

The big shift

But after I set that iMac on my dorm room’s desk, something happened. I started looking at more than just the code. I studied how things looked and worked. If it didn’t make sense, I wasn’t happy with it. It wasn’t enough for me to go from point A to point B in a program – you had to get there well. You had to get there and enjoy the experience. Now of course, this kind of thing didn’t make sense to a lot of the computer people around me at the time; computers are supposed to help us get something done, so who cares how it works as long as it works?

Eventually I switched to new media to investigate some of these other facets of technology, and I ended up graduating with a degree in new media and minors in computer science and psychology.

I never noticed it until a few days ago, but there’s a strange correlation between the time I’ve used Macs and the time I studied design, usability, and how technology feels. And though I’m still technically a coder both by title and occupation, my true love has really grown into this analysis of how things work, how they’re used, and in a similar vein, how we can use technology to do things we’d never imagined possible.

Time travel

I have no real interest in time travel. I doesn’t really care to see what life was like when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I don’t really want to see how life will be two hundred or a thousand years from now. I like living where I am and seeing where it goes on its own. But if there’s one journey I’d make, I’d take my iPad back to around 1950. I’d like to show those people what we can do: the power we hold in our hands with a magical web that connects all of us, and this device I hold in my hands. I’d show them that this machine, lighter than most books, can access an almost infinite amount of information as well as being used for drawing, used for reading, used to hear and see entertainment, used to see a friend’s face in real time from across the country or the world. I’d like to see their reaction, and I’d want them to guess the time from which I came. I think a lot of them might expect the 2300s or 2400s. I’d love to see what they would say when I told them we’d have all this power, all this possibility, in our hands in less than a century.

Now of course, Steve Jobs isn’t solely responsibly for my shift to design and usability, and he’s not solely responsible for the technology we hold in our hands that would baffle and mystify those living just a few decades ago. But more than any other single person, Steve showed us that it’s good to push the expectations of what is necessary and possible.

I respected a lot about Steve. I respected his taste, his refinement, his eye for a good idea. I loved the way he thought through a product and wasn’t satisfied with anything less than the best.

I’m just glad I was alive to see everything that’s happened over the last decade, and I’m excited to see where we go next. Above all, it’s safe to say that if there’s one person in my lifetime I see as an inspiration, it’s Steve. Thanks for all you did, both for the world and for me.

October 10, 2011 at 11:26 am

The dancers down the hall

I’m at the University of Maine right now, looking down the hall at a bunch of barefooted undergrads walking around outside Hauck Auditorium. It’s second nature for them; they’re dancers taking a break while practicing for the dance showcase later this week. They’re not even dancing, but I’m smiling here in the Union’s Lookout area.

A bunch of people always ask why I spend so much time taking photos of the dance shows here. The simple answer: I love it. I’ll take as much time as I possibly can spare to watch dances, plays, and concerts. I love the passion, the creativity, and, in the case of dance, the athleticism and artistry.

But there’s a larger reason, too. We’re at a great time for the arts for central Maine. There’s a core, devoted group of people who are trying to do everything possible to create a vibrant arts community in the area. Ten years ago, nobody would think that we’d be able to bring top-tier acts to the Bangor area. This year, we have Lady Antebellum, B.B. King, and many more visiting the Bangor waterfront. The Folk Festival brings 100,000 people each August to appreciate music from all around the country. Bangor area theatres are packed for amazing productions.

The dancers down the hall are doing their part. Over the past few years, I’ve met many of them in one way or another, and they all love to perform and love to push the envelope of what they can do. They’ve brought the dance program forward, and they’ve brought dance outside the auditorium to the stages of UMaine and beyond.

I bring my camera not only because there are hundreds — if not thousands — of beautiful shots within each performance, but also because I want to capture all of this as it happens. I want to embrace the creativity and innovation that’s happening every day around me in any way I can.

Maine — and the world — is changing, and I want to be there. I may not be one of the dancers down the hall, but like each of them, I can’t stand still.

April 26, 2011 at 6:39 pm

If you give a kid an iPad

Last night the Auburn School Committee decided to take a big leap in educational technology: every kindergartener in the city will receive an iPad this fall. Critics of the plan didn’t waste any time finding the comment sections of daily newspapers across the state. Can you blame them? Why would you want to give a $500 device to a kindergartener?

The answer: we don’t live in the 20th century anymore. A decade ago, Maine decided to embark in a one-to-one learning environment with the state’s seventh and eighth grade students by giving each an iBook. Since then, the program’s been extended to high schoolers.

Kindergarten isn’t the same as seventh and eighth grade. But then again, the iPad’s not the same kind of device as a laptop.

Try this: find a family with young children (under five years old) and an iPad. Ask which person in their household uses the iPad the most. Don’t be surprised if they name a child. I know at least four families with kids under five, and not only can the children understand how to use the iPad, they enjoy it and use it often. Some have even joked (or not) that they need a second iPad as a result.

The major criticism of Auburn’s plan (other than the expense) seems to be that kids shouldn’t need iPads to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, or that they shouldn’t rely on technology to learn new material. It’s important that iPads and other educational technology are used as part of a rich experience for children, particularly in younger years. Students need time to play, interact in groups, and use tactile objects to learn. iPad time shouldn’t take away recess, just as a video or book shouldn’t take away nap time.

But if you’ve used an iPad, you know the experience is nowhere near the stereotype of a workstation computer from the 1970s. Technology can supplement traditional methods of teaching and learning by offering a rich, engaging, and memorable environment that helps children learn and retain material faster and more completely. Forward-looking educators know this. The George Lucas Educational Foundation showed this brilliantly in a seven-minute video they produced from a visit to Portland’s King Middle School. Apple produced a video about fourth graders using iPod touches for improving literacy.

Maine students can’t be left behind as the rest of the world adopts technology. Is one-to-one learning the best approach at a young age? Maybe, maybe not. But I commend the Auburn School District for introducing new and modern ways of learning and helping Maine to stay on track in an ever-changing world.

April 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm