The Garret Tree
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
  Amazon situation updates
A few updates on the Amazon post.

My CBC colleague John Bowman posted a wrap up the Amazon situation in his Blogwatch column for April 14.

Although reports make it clear that Amazon e-mailed a news release to media that requested it, there is still no news release on the Amazon news release page, where the public would go to find it. So Amazon is still making mistakes.

One of the links that John points to in Blogwatch is a report from the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which was on the only media outlet on top of the story from the beginning (and, of course, is Amazon's hometown online newspaper)

In AmazonFail, An Inside Story,
"news gatherer" Andrea James (aren't there reporters any more?) recounts what happened as her sources at Amazon related.

Amazon is apparently still going with the spin that:

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as "adult," the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from 'false' to 'true.')

I've worked with computers, programmers, IT folks good, bad and indifferent (often indifferent) for a quarter century, so I do believe it when Andrea James quotes her source as saying:

The source wanted it known that mistakes do happen at -- they're all human.

"Most everyone at one point who works with catalog systems has broken some piece of the catalog," the source said.

Not all the comments on the Seattle PI site are buying that problem. And there's one big problem not mentioned by James her item. The customer service response to the original query by Mark Probst

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Ashlyn D
Member Services

In his two latest Live Journal entries, the first written later on April 12 and on April 13, Probst has shown a great spirit of forgiveness:

So my guess is, yes Amazon has a policy in place not to display the sales rankings of adult material, but no, they never intended for gay and lesbian material, per se, to be classified as “adult.” It’s a major faux-pas which I’m sure they mean to correct.

As a person who has struggled with the issue of forgiving all my life (see my work on the River Kwai) I am not yet prepared to give Amazon the complete benefit of doubt in a murky situation. I've always liked Ronald Reagan's statement that you have to "Trust but verify."

I have inside knowledge from my own sources of how customer service works at big organizations. My source is not at Amazon but I think it applies in this case.
Most tech support and customer service support operations now have a large database of canned answers which can be called up on to handle 85 per cent of all queries. (The other 15 per cent are escalated for detailed handling but the rep has to beware that if he/she escalates without a good reason, they are in big trouble)

When you call one of the major telecom companies for technical support you are not speaking to a techie (as you would have done in the 1990s) you are speaking to an actor who is "between engagements," since that telecom company hires actors who can read the database scripts and can sound authoritative even if they don't know the difference between Linux and laundry.

So it is that canned response to Mark Probst that makes me suspicious. It's my belief that the situation at Amazon was a cluster fark but it was a cluster fark based on a real Amazon policy on classifying books as "adult," whether warranted or not, that through a series of human and computer errors did get out of hand.

So that Amazon policy on "adult" content is still a danger to the freedom to read.

Amazon should post the criterion it uses for determining whether or not a work is "adult."

And let's just hope some kid doesn't get a call from an Amazon computer asking, "Do you want to play a game?"


Excellent article from the Washington Post from a tech expert on the assumptions that likely went into the algorithms Amazon uses to rank all books (not just the ones in the recent controversy)

See Why Amazon didn't just have a glitch by Mary Holder

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Sunday, January 25, 2009
  You can be replaced—by a Meccano set
You can be replaced—by a Meccano set. The 2009 version of that Meccano set (Erector set in the US) you got under the Christmas tree as a kid.

Professional photographers are, to use the football term, hearing footsteps from the citizen journalists, fearing their jobs are threatened by “user generated content.”

Now there’s a new threat, the whine of the servos and motors of a robot.

On Saturday Jan. 24, I went to shoot a yearly assignment, the Canadian Toy Association's Toy & Hobby Fair at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

I always wonder through the corridors between the booths and the big displays first at the trade show to look for the best toys to create a photo gallery. Not necessarily the hot toys of the year, but the ones that will be best for the gallery.

Almost as soon as I arrived there it was, a small almost insectoid robot making its way slowly but surely across a deep pile carpet.

I dropped to my knees, raised by camera and click,




Then the salesperson controlling the little ‘bot motioned me over to the counter where he was working a laptop.

Turned out the robot was shooting me as I was shooting the robot.

It’s the Spykee Spy Robot from the French arm of Meccano, a robot that has its own website at (Both Meccano and the U.S. Erector firms are now owned by the same company).

I was at a toy show, where I was tracked by a robot that can record audio and video.

I was recorded by a Meccano set! When I was a little kid, I got a Meccano set under the tree, girders and big screws that might make something that somewhat resembled an oil rig or a small girder bridge.

The control panel.

The Spykee Spy Robot can be controlled from anywhere on the planet (and possibly beyond) using internet WiFi connections.

The video quality wasn’t that good.

My immediate thought was wait six months and it will get better.

Then I realized, it’s a Meccano set. Someone with enough technical skill could probably convert it into a broadcast quality video and audio or print quality 200-300 dpi still image newsbot.

I left the show with the instructions for building the robot kit.

According to the website, the Spykee can also carry its own Ipod. So even if it’s a robot, it can ignore you just like humans do when they are in the world created by their Ipod.

A child can do it. Meccano says it's for ages 8 and up.

You can set up your laptop at a WiFi hotspot and control the bot. The Spykee website shows someone controlling a robot in Paris from New York.

There goes the Paris bureau. You can be replaced—by a Meccano set

Yes, you can imagine the beancounters sending in robots so they won’t have to pay salaries (just a little maintenance).

Newsbots have been a staple of science fiction since the 1940s. I remember stories of paparazzi robots chasing their targets, showing live video or sending pix back to an office.

A future Rover on Mars. (NASA/CalTech)

NASA has already created robots that are on Mars at the moment, sending back high quality images and robots that will head to the Red Planet will have even better images.

Three generations of Mars rovers. (NASA/CalTech)

Military forces in the developed world are planning combat robots. The Predators and other drones are in action over Afghanistan and Iraq. Iin Gaza, those reporters who were there often told of the constant noise of Israeli drones flying over Gaza.

With the Israelis blocking human journalists from getting into Gaza, why not send in the robots? Of course, combatants in a war zone would likely try to destroy the newsbots. And the newsbot would have to have a satellite link since all the WiFi cafes would be rubble. On the other hand, newsbots are relatively cheap and getting cheaper. So news organizations could send the robots into dangerous situations where humans might not want to go, heavy combat, forest fires, natural disasters.

It comes down to how the robots are managed, doesn’t it?

Here"s anoher look at the robocam image. Just for fun I converted it to black and white in PhotoShop and then applied the G-Force filter that is said to emulate Tri-X film. Not much difference between the robocom image and a picture taken with a very cheap camera loaded with good old Tri-X. And as I said, wait six months.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008
  The newscutter

For me the most fascinating talk at the David Lean Conference at Queen Mary University in London last last month (where I was speaking on The Bridge on the River Kwai) was by Linda Kaye, a senior researcher at the British Universities Film and Video Council.

Here's an abstract:

In January 1930, when David Lean was 21, he joined Gaumont Sound News as a cutter. He honed his editing skills at a time of rapid transition, as the sound revolution began to transform the film industry. Linda Kaye offers a unique insight into this experimental environment, which was to prove a key formative period in Lean's development. Linda Kaye is Senior Researcher on the 'David Lean and Gaumont Sound News' project at the British Universities Film & Video Council.

My emphasis on the word cutter.
For someone who has spent a great deal of my career in television news, Kaye's presentation was a "hey this is really neat" moment. How many times have I sat in an edit suite, going back to my first VO edit at CTV News (Remembrance Day viz from Ottawa in November 1988) on huge machines of two inch reel to reel video tape, then through Sony betacam to todays' desktop television editing on computer and server?

Well, here is where it all began (at least in the UK).

Kaye explained that in the transition from silent to sound came just at the same time as newsreels were coming alive, the "editor" was closer to what today we would call a news producer. What today we would call an "editor" was called a "cutter."

(And interestngly enough today there is a widely used Avid editing product called Newscutter. )

The special website David Lean and Gaumont Sound News (launched on August 1, 2008, just after the conference) takes you through the earliest days of editing news for the big screen.

There was a race in 1929 and 1930 in a highly competitve market to get the first news with sound on film (SOF or today SOT sound on tape) before the public.

If you want to skip the history (you really shouldn't) and just want to watch the news, you will find the Gaumont archive here.

Watch the item on a 1930 match play golf tournament and ask yourself just how different is it (if you forgive the muddy sound for a moment) with today's live coverage of a golf tournament with all cameras on Tiger Woods.

Listen to Stanley Baldwin warning about the deficit and the need for a balanced budget. (how little has changed! It's black and white not colour, otherwise, it's network news.)

Then there's BREAKING NEWS. "Breaking news" wasn't used, of course, but probably this was the first time the term would have meant something in film/video journalism (unlike today where "breaking news" is so over used that the public is beginning to ignore it). Unfortunately the clip is not on the website but here's the description:

The British R101 airship crashes at Beauvais, France with the loss of 48 lives including a Cabinet Minister. David Lean recalled recording the commentary for the first edition of Gaumont Sound News released early that evening. The newsreels claimed to beat the press to the news story of the year.

Business news combines with street actuality and natural sound (with no idea of the long term consequences of what is happening) with the collapse of the German economy and a run on a Berlin bank in 1931

It's part of a larger project co-sponsored by ITN and Reuters to put many of the old British newsreels on the web. It's called the News of the Twentieth Century Project and you can see British news from the 1920s until the 1970s.

Memo to newspaper managers: Watch the Oscars

Watching those first newsreels cut by David Lean and those other young men (as far as I know there were few young women in the field at the time) from their late teens to early twenties all those years ago, made me think about my newspaper colleagues who are jumping into video.

Video is the latest saviour for newspapers, especially in the United States where newspaper industry has been grossly mismanaged by their corporate overlords. The same emphasis on video is happening in Canada where, so far, newspaper corporate management seems to have kept their heads on their shoulders.

And figures do show that page views on newspaper pages does go up if there is video.

I have seen some great video on newspaper sites. But in many cases, the editing of some of that newspaper video is not as good as the work from those teenage film editors in 1930.

The difference is editing.

Lean first made his mark as a newscutter. He then became a feature film editor. He directed his movies with editing in mind. He directed Oscar winning movies with editing in mind.

at work the other day, I stopped an editor friend of mine in the hall and asked her, "How long does it take to become a good editor?"

An executive producer just happened to be passing at the time and she said, "Ten years," as she walked by.

My friend the editor nodded in agreement. "Anyone can read a software manual," she said. "Anyone can top and tail. (cutting a one shot sequence so it is at the beginning you want and the ending you want-RR) But it takes along time to know how craft a piece." (And I would add, save the reporter's or producer's ass if something wasn't shot or not shot properly)

Yet this is the typical job ad we see for newspapers today:

A minimum of xxx years experience in photography is required, training or education in photojournalism and video production is an asset expertise with PhotoShop, Final Cut Pro, slideshows and video is required

I recently saw an ad for a journalism professor at an American university that demanded both a Phd and expertise in Final Cut Pro. (Can you do both at the same time???)

Once, not long ago, a young photographer would pay his/her dues, gain experience, find a style in smaller newspapers before working up to a major metropolitan daily newspaper (like The Daily Planet).

In many ways, today's system works better for young talent. In the desperate search for the younger audience, news organizations are hiring young talent and the good ones are working at their full potential in major news organizations (at least until the next round of layoffs)

Newspaper managers are expecting people to read the manual for Final Cut Pro (newspapers are Mac based operations) and then produce quality work. A tiny talented few can. Many others can't and most will take years to learn the craft. (Only at that point does TV have to watch out. But TV managers get ready)

So newspaper managers mark your calendar so you have time to watch the Oscars. Some star opens the envelope for best achievement in editing. And another star opens the envelope for the best achievement in sound editing.

Then, newspaper manager, ask yourself, if anyone can do this, why are there Oscars for those fields?

Let the shooters shoot. If they're good at stills let them shoot stills. If they can shoot both stills and video beware of multitasking (when I see newspaper colleagues trying to do both I keep wondering, are they going to miss the good video moment when they are shooting stills and miss what what be an award winning still photo moment while fiddling with the video camera?)

So hire a newscutter to edit the video your folks shoot.
Who knows that kid you hire might win an Oscar one day (after that kid moves from news to the movies)

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Peter Power

This was England by Paul Gorbould

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Friday, June 06, 2008
  The David Lean Anniversary Conference

This year, 2008, as we've all heard from the superheated publicity, is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of author Ian Fleming.

The fact that 2008 is also the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of one ot the greatest film directors David Lean, has had less hype.

There have been events in London all year marking the anniversary and one is a conference at Queen Mary University on July 25 and 26, 2008, that "offers an opportunity both to celebrate David Lean's career and to evaluate the nature of his achievement."

You can find out more about the David Lean conference on both the conference website or, if you're on Facebook, by joining the Facebook group David Lean 100th Anniversary Conference QMUL.

Facebook Event page for the conference.

I'll be speaking about "that movie" that it is what many former prisoners called The Bridge on the River Kwai on the afternoon of July 26, officially on "The Reception of The Bridge on the River Kwai among Former Far East Prisoners of War." It was a love hate relationship with that great film for many former POWs.

And I'll tell the conference why.
Hope to see you there.

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

New blogs as of Sept. 2009
Robin's Weir
Tao of News

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