Tag Archives: News

The Future of Newspapers in 1995

My wife wanted to take a nap on Sunday, and since she said she didn’t care what was on the TV as long as it wasn’t Anime, I took the opportunity to watch some Season 2 episodes of Babylon 5. Estimations of future technology have always been kind of a tricky subject in science fiction. Some things it gets right, like the tablets, cell phones and laptop computers in Star Trek, and some things it gets hilariously wrong.

This one I’m not too sure about.

In episode 19 of Season 2, “Divided Loyalties” Ambassador Delenn and Captain Sheridan are standing in front of an unusual dispenser:

Instead of USA Today, Babylon 5 dispenses “Universe Today”. Subscribers deposit their previous day’s issue into the slot which is recycled with a flash, select their preferences, and are issued a new paper edition customized to their needs.

Now the logic of this is a little questionable. In the same episode Sheridan and Garibaldi have an extensive discussion about the lack of trees on the station (except for those in the orchard), and yet there is an ample supply of paper being shipped to the station for a newspaper. Presumably recycling the issues cuts down on the amount of stuff that would need to be shipped in, but paper can only be recycled so many times, and relies on everyone depositing their previous issue to get the new one.

Leaving this aside there are some things about the concept that are brilliant. I think a lot of us have a cycle of 5-10 sites we check every morning for news, media and whatever strikes our fancy. There are RSS feeds and news aggregators and even apps that deliver magazine like content from different to our tablets. The Universe Today concept takes news from what must be hundreds of sources and condenses it down to a particular user’s interests, like Delenn’s “Eye on Minbari” section. And it delivers it cleanly, in an easy to digest format.

Today, a lot of local papers are using news writing software to deliver personalized content about sports and financial stories. Technical journals with a very narrow audience are being automatically created using software as well, producing analysis and reports for very specialized needs.

The idea of the paper newspaper surviving until the 23rd century, let alone the end of the 21st century, may seem far-fetched. But personalized, customized, and even echo-chambered news is already here.

Now if only someone can make a White Star I’ll be all set.

White_star_fires

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Is Software Ethical?

CORRECTION: This was a WOSU (my home station) story, not an NPR story. I will direct my complaints in the appropriate direction. Here’s a link to the WOSU audio. Original post follows.

I heard a comment on WOSU this morning that really kinda pissed me off.

* GETS ON SOAPBOX *

* PUTS ON NERD GLASSES *

The comment was the button at the end of a story about software being used to write articles for the Associated Press and other news organizations (mostly for sports and financial stories and other statistics heavy articles). The question was asked: Can robots have morals or ethics in writing news stories?

Answer. No. Robots cannot have any ethics or morals. Morals are a human thing.

Here’s what annoyed me about this answer.

1) Robots: The term robot or “bot” has been colloquially used to refer to any automated process, whether it was ChatBots from the old IM days, or algorithms like this one. As an engineer “robot” has always seemed like a misleading term because it conjures a lot of images in people that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Robots are hardware, we’re really talking about software, and if we want to get technical, we’re talking about intelligent systems.

Intelligent systems are not AI or at least not in the sense that the general public would think of AI. Intelligent systems take a lot of forms, but basically they take in data and respond with a diagnosis, a solution, or a news story. What distinguishes Intelligent Systems from AI is that they’re not generalized. An Intelligent System can be complex, but it is essentially a bunch of algorithms designed to tackle one kind of problem, in this case, how to write informative, brief, and factually accurate news stories.

2) Ethics: To say that software doesn’t have ethics is like saying that a book doesn’t. Software is another form of human expression. It is written by a human (hey, like me), the requirements for what the software should do are all determined by humans, and it is evaluated by humans.

What are ethics anyway? Well in this case our interviewee was referring to a code of journalistic conduct, where the important morals are objectivity, lack of prejudice, and a basic understanding of what humans find important or insensitive.

The specific example discussed was a baseball game in which a pitcher pitched the first no-hitter game for a team in over a decade. The software wrote an article that had this information in the second paragraph. To me, that just sounds like a bad case statement, not an unethical or insensitive piece of software. The human writing the software needs to write code to look for instances we find significant (no-hitters) and what increases their significance (time since last no-hitter). If it crosses a certain threshold, it goes in paragraph one. Easy.

robot

Image Source: Yahoo Sports

 

How are ethics and morals implemented in software? Complex mathematical algorithms and/or a bunch of if-then statements.

Good intelligent systems are able to start from a set of rules, and modify (learn) new rules by doing. If there’s human feedback on the articles produced (or if there’s some other acceptable metric that can be tracked through a website: traffic, comments) software can determine what outputs worked better than others.

It’s an old joke among software engineers that “software can do anything”. It’s not true, except everybody thinks it is and so we have to figure out a way to make it true. But to me, a code of journalistic ethics sounds a lot like a requirements document. A good engineer will figure out a way to take that code, and write those evaluations into decisions the software makes. He or she has ethics, therefore the software does, or at least has morals implemented.

One last thing: Software might actually be better at getting rid of institutional prejudice based on age, gender, skin-color, etc. Even the best of us as humans have to get over how we thought about things before. We have to decide we’re not going make decisions about what we write based on any of those factors and we still might have underlying prejudices we can’t even acknowledge. In software, you just take those evaluations out. They’re gone forever. Software can be truly impartial.

Next time you’re doing a story like this one, get an engineer in the discussion. Don’t just ask a writer. We’re easily frightened.

And lose the term “robots”.

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Pull Your Pants Up, Or Else

Ocala, FL has enacted a law imposing a $500 fine or up to six months in jail for anyone wearing (or barely wearing) saggy pants on their streets*. As you might suspect, this is a law that disproportionately affects young people, and men of a certain racial persuasion. NPR’s Code Switch does a great survey of the potential racial motivations and consequences involved, and the history of clothing discrimination throughout American history.

Not being able to speak with great authority on this side of the issue, I’ve chosen instead to suggest new laws that might counterbalance any perceived racial motivation, and target items of clothing that are no less a threat to our fashion decency. Feel free to contribute any suggestions of your own.

Tiny Fedoras – Unless you’re this guy, or living in the 30s.

Justin-Timberlake-Fedora

Endless Scarves – You’re just hurting the economy. We need scarf turnover so we can keep the garment industry afloat. Scarves were meant to have a beginning and an end.

red-polyester-boston-solid-red-infinity-scarf-236169-95-1600-0

Hipster Glasses – Unless you need them to see, are this guy again, or are a girl (which admittedly is pretty cute). This picture actually contains two violations.

504b14bce7251-194x

I would have mentioned Crocs, but wearing them is punishment enough, as my co-worker who sliced his foot on a rock whilst wearing a pair of these can attest.

I’d love to hear your suggestions. And seriously, check out the NPR post. This stuff is kind of nuts.

*In case it wasn’t abundantly clear from the tone of the post, I find this law ridiculous and potentially harmful to whole groups of young people. I might yell at a guy to pull up his pants (and often they’re white in my area), but I’d never throw him in jail.

 

 

 

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Current Events Blogging Criteria

There are a lot of current events issues going on right now that I will probably never write about. It’s not that I don’t have opinions, because like every American I usually do, it’s just that they’re not particularly worth sharing, or expounding on for 500 words.

When thinking about whether or not to write on a topic I use a variant of something I heard from Craig Ferguson:

1) Does this need to be said?

2) Does this need to be said by me?

3) Does this need to be said by me now?

For me these three statements boil down to three criteria: redundancy, authority and stakes.

Redundancy or “Am I adding anything to the conversation?”

I don’t expect to have a 100% unique opinion on anything. In fact I’m hoping there’s a segment of the population that thinks like I do, or can be convinced to do so with enough coaxing. That said I don’t want to be an echo chamber. If I’m basically regurgitating someone else’s argument without putting forth my own idea, then I’m better off saying nothing. That way, when I have something I actually want to say, it isn’t lost in a whole lot of rambling about things people have heard a million times.

Authority or “Do I know enough to comment intelligently?”

I think there are two kinds of authority: inherent and learned. Inherent authority is when I write knowledgeably about something that is part of my everyday life. I’m engaged professionally in Writing and Programming (Technology) so I feel comfortable writing on these topics frequently. Similarly, if there’s a subject I’ve done a lot of reading about, or have been following in the news, then I might be able to summarize what I’ve learned intelligently. But there are definitely gaps in my knowledge. For a while I was kind of avoiding the situation in Syria, and only in the last couple of months have I made more of an effort to at least be conversationally aware of what’s been going on for two years now. I think we all have these gaps, and when we’re thinking of what to write about, we need to be aware of them.

Stakes or “Do I sound like an outsider?”

I’ve been reading a lot about “Common Core” and STEM emphasis in education lately. As a technical professional, and as a writer I do have an opinion that’s forming in my brain on these topics, but I would feel a little disingenuous writing about them, since they are issues that largely pertain to parents of children in school. Kids might be in my future, but I need a little practical experience on the parent side of school before I will write on the subject. It’s not that I couldn’t put together a good argument, but there’s an intangible quality to actually being invested in the topic. Writing about the NSA leaks has stakes for me, as I work in this industry and I use the internet like just about everybody else. The border dispute between Georgia and Tennessee has no stakes for me, though it is a bit funny to think about changing state lines at this point.

What standards do you use to decide on what posts to write?

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