Quarterly review: FY14Q2

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more indepth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

Although I am still a few books ahead of schedule on my 2014 Goodreads reading challenge I have slowed down my pace a bit. I haven’t been listening to audiobooks as much this month since I have had a lot of World Cup related podcasts to keep up with, specifically The Ramble and The Guardian’s World Cup Football Daily. In fact, the only short reviews I have written are the following:

★★★★☆ Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age

★★★☆☆ Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture

★★★☆☆ Extraordinary Canadians: Marshall McLuhan

I have a forthcoming review of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age coming out in print this summer [UPDATE: Here is my contributor link at the Literary Review of Canada. They haven’t made the article publicly available on the net, yet]. Also, I intend to write a post about the changing view of startup/tech culture in novel form soon as a threeway review of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (1995), JPod (2006) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle. So, more to come from me in the next quarter.

Film

This quarter I watched a lot of crappy action films (which is a guilty pleasure of mine). It was an amazing quarter in the sense that I saw and enjoyed both Captain America: Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past. They were great but by far the best film I saw was Captain Phillips. However, I only felt the need to comment on the following films:

★★★½☆ The Raid

★★★½☆ The Fault in Our Stars

★½☆☆☆ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Shaw follow up

Upon receiving some strange results when I asked Shaw Communications about what information they had on me, I followed up with their investigations unit to see if they were aware that they had released information about other people in my privacy request for information. Here are the relevant bits of the email:

Upon investigation we have determined that Service Calls are tied to the service address, not the customers themselves. We have changed our process to ensure Service Calls per customer are sent upon request, rather than all historical Service Calls tied to that service address.

Excellent. I am glad they are changing their process, though I have no idea how we can ensure this change will actually happen.

Upon further investigation regarding the trouble ticketing details you received from your neighbor, we found that there was a data entry error … The staff responsible for the error has been re-trained and additional flags have been put in place within Trouble Ticketing and on the associated account(s) to notify others of this error. This should ensure this does not occur again in this case.

Another win. Hopefully the staff fully recovered from “re-training” … 😉

One other note for those interested, the privacy officer informed me that “Information may be retained for a minimum of 7 years”. Seems long, but that is a term dictated by the company, not by PIPEDA.

Well, I am glad that just a few minutes of work on my part identified bugs in Shaw’s system so that they can improve their operations. I am sure you have heard of Linus’s Law, one of the principles of Open Source, “that given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Imagine if every person in the country wrote their telecom providers, imagine how many bugs we might find, and then imagine the better and more privacy-protecting processes that would come out of such a letter-writing campaign? We should not depend solely on government regulators to audit the carriers, not especially when there is such a simple tool for the public to audit. So I encourage you, take five minutes and send off the form letters Chris Parsons has prepared for you in his post: Responding the the Crisis in Canadian Telecommunications.

PS. I am still waiting on Bell Mobility’s results, which I will post as soon as they come in.

[UPDATE July 11, 2014] Here is Bell’s response.

Hack startups — The state of ink-stained disruption

Two of the scariest areas in startupland are healthcare and education. These are monolithic, highly regulated sectors with long sales cycles — not particularly prone to “disruption.” In this year’s Kleiner Perkins annual internet trends report, Mary Meeker argues that these two sectors might be at an inflection point. I remain sceptical.

Another sector with hundreds of years of history and entrenched players is investigative journalism. Newspapers have been struggling since their heyday in the 1980s. Revenues are down, churnalism is up, and there are less employed reporters out there chasing down leads.

Newsroom employment over time in the US

Something needs to change, but since most revenue still comes from print, newspapers are loth to experiment too wildly. In effect, newspapers are prisoners of their own business model.

Within journalism, investigative reporting is the most difficult to produce because of the capital required and the long turn-around times involved. In our instant-gratification-mediascape, investigative journalism has fallen by the wayside. What was once a valuable service, subsidized by the the inefficiencies of bundled media empires, is now withered and cut as media behemoths look to slim down in the face of internet disintermediation. This is happening across the board of public interest content — just look at the troubles at the CBC.

I don’t think it can be argued that investigative journalism should be done away with. It is a valuable institution for our democracy — the venerable Fourth Estate. (The Fifth Estate is an extension, not an evolution). Thus, with an established pain (ie. the need to know what is going on in the halls of power) and a market (ie. every citizen), the opportunity for startup disruption is obvious, non? There are certainly a lot people tackling this problem.

AngelList has 194 companies under the “Journalism” market. Most fall under a few categories:

  • marketplaces selling for photos, videos or writing
  • content management platforms for writers, editors, publishers
  • citizen journalism platforms
  • delivering breaking news (usually via social)
  • aggregators and curators (again, backed with social)

Many are solving the problems of “information overload” (through curation) or distributed workforces (through publishing platforms) but as far as I could tell, none are focused on solving the business problem of funding long-term, quality reporting. Paywalls and online advertisements do not suffice.

One solution is lots of money. Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay, started First Look Media with some interesting new ideas on how to fund real journalism (I encourage you to watch the video). Last year, Jeff Bezos of Amazon purchased The Washington Post. We are still unsure of how WaPo will change.

I am one of the few people that is actually willing to pay for content. I have subscriptions to a few established news outlets (Foreign Affairs, Globe and Mail, The Economist etc) and I have even supported some startups in the space. I backed Matter (later acquired by Medium) which tries to solve the problem of terrible science and technology reporting. They had a community-based editorial board where members could vote for allocating commissions.

Another outlet I have used in the past is Atavist. They have an interesting model in that they are a product company that commissions longer pieces to feature its platform. The non-fiction pieces can sometimes approach investigative journalism. The business model is subscriptions and micropayments, and the selling of their publishing platform Creativist.

Most recently I have discovered a Canadian startup Ricochet Media. I heard about them on Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast. Ricochet is trying to square the circle of funding independent, investigative journalism in Canada. Like Beacon, Vourno and Contributoria they are going with a crowd-funding model. Like Matter they have a community-driven editorial process. They are trying to get off the ground by crowdfunding themselves on IndieGogo. We shall see how they do.

Journalism is a “hard problem.” Some have argued that it has been failed by the market because you cannot treat citizens as consumers. Some say public-interest journalism should be considered a public good. If this is true, traditional startups will have trouble disrupting anything due to their market-first orientation. There could be some business model innovation that could work, or maybe a SocEnt solution. It might come down to [shudder] consumer education and teaching people to pay for valuable things. I don’t know the answer, but this is a sector that I am deeply interested in and hope we get a solution soon.