Did Postmedia attempt to smear the NDP in the @vikileaks30 affair?

After a most momentous week in Canadian politics — namely, one in which a government with an absolute majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate was at least momentarily thwarted in its efforts to pass Bill C-30 — the @vikileaks30 twitter account has been retired. It simply no longer exists. However it has had one hell of an effect, and the way in which it was reported about should definitely raise a lot of eyebrows.

For those who don’t know about this story, @vikileaks30 was an anonymous account launched on Wednesday which broadcasted certain salacious details about Vic Toews, including parts of affidavits from his 2007 divorce — largely his ex-wife’s testimony — and many interesting details of expense claims by Mr. Toews as a government minister.

Soon after the novelty twitter account appeared on the scene Ottawa Citizen tech news reporter Vito Pilieci came up with an interesting plan to figure out who was posting on it and came up with the idea to send the twitterer a web site link which was unique for that particular user. There’s nothing wrong with that technique, I’ve used it myself a couple of times, and twitter’s use of URL shorteners makes that technique discoverable only with some difficulty. The IP address which was used to visit the link turned out to have been one connected with the Parliament buildings. That much can be reliably established.

What I find a little more difficult to understand is the way that the story was reported both by Pilieci himself and Postmedia flagship paper the National Post. Starting with the title, which was surely written by a higher-up: “Vikileaks Twitter account on Vic Toews linked to ‘pro-NDP’ address in House of Commons”. Indeed the original Ottawa Citizen story used the considerably less “inciteful” (if you will) “Vikileaks30 linked to House of Commons IP address”. But this is only the start of the smear. In the story itself we see this paragraph:

Aside from being used to administer the Vikileaks30 Twitter feed, the address has been used frequently to update Wikipedia articles — often giving them what appears to be a pro-NDP bias, actions that have attracted the attention of numerous Internet observers in recent months.

I’ve taken the liberty here to put in bold type the second instance of the smear. Note the use of “weasel language” here — the author (almost undoubtedly Pilieci himself) double-qualifies the statement so as to obviate the necessity of backing that statement with actual evidence, which he indeed does not provide.

So, that’s interesting. Without any more specifics this certainly looks like an attempt to smear the party that currently holds the position of Official Opposition in the House of Commons. Now why would someone do that and be this specific about it?

Well, the Ottawa Citizen, which currently employs Pilieci, is owned by the Postmedia Network, which is a group encompassing several newspapers, including my hometown’s The Gazette newspaper and Canada’s second national daily, the National Post (which should be no surprise to you as the link shown above goes to a NatPo story). The National Post, pretty much since its inception, is regularly accused of running a pro-Conservative slant on the political stories it covers, which clearly explains why they chose to edit Pilieci’s story  from the rather more neutral “Vikileaks Twitter account traced to House of Commons” (the title of the story on Thursday) to the, well, deliberately less equivocal title they chose to run on Friday. Am I supposed to think that this is just some kind of “oversight” or absent-minded error? Maybe others can think so, but I’m not that gullible. The smear is clear and deliberate.

OK, so maybe you think, this is a one-off thing… well, no. On Friday the Citizen ran this Stephen Maher editorial, this time with a neutral, toned-down title: “Maher: Toews made himself Twitter target with ‘pornographers’ crack” about how the @vikileaks30 story started. Read the story, though, and the ugly smear rears its head again in connection with the IP address:

That IP address also was linked to some Wikipedia pages where someone had written pro-NDP comments, which the Citizen reported.

Actually I do wish that Postmedia hired better editors because what Maher is saying now is not quite the same as what Pilieci was saying earlier, but this seems to me little but a barely-disguised attempt at repeating the smear. And then not content with doing it once, Maher pipes up again soon after:

It may be that that person is a secret NDP supporter, and enemy of Vic Toews, or it may be that there is some confusion over the IP address.

Does Maher think we’re all blind here?.. this is getting pretty blatant. Again, note the use of the weasel phrase “it may be”. Overall the article is pretty weak stuff by a national  Postmedia correspondent. In Canadian print journalism this is as senior as it gets without getting bumped up to a position involving more management duties, this isn’t the young guy who writes the computer column (that would be Pilieci, who is a staff member at the Ottawa Citizen and not really staff with the Postmedia “mothership”).

But that article isn’t what really rang a bell for me on the smear question — rather, what made me see the big picture was the follow-up by Pilieci following the @vikileaks30 poster’s announcement that the account was now retired. See if you can spot the difference from the (youthful?) exhuberance of his former column:

A further look into the IP address associated with Vikileaks30 found the address had been used in a range of online activities, including to edit several entries on the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia ranging on topics from the history of ice hockey to a biography of Whitney Houston, as well as to alter content on a variety of politically charged topics that span the political spectrum. It does not appear the poster was targeting any specific political party or affiliation.

This went to publishing after it was clear that the NDP slur had failed to gain any traction in the House of Commons or indeed with public sentiment. What a difference a day makes, I say.

It still remains a good question as to whether there was a concerted effort by the Tory-friendly Postmedia to deliberately steer hostility towards the NDP at a time when the Conservative Party was in a bit of a crisis. The coverage in the first story mentioned actually lead to quite a few angry words in the House of Commons, mostly coming (as the second story reports) from rather easily-influenced Tory attack dog John Baird:

“Not only have they stooped to the lowest of the lows, but they have been running this nasty Internet dirty-trick campaign with taxpayers’ money,” he said.

That’s the head of Canadian diplomacy shooting himself in the foot there, taking Pilieci’s story as gospel truth (his was the main story that included the smear). Oh dear.

I for one will be following further developments regarding this aspect of the C-30 story, and I certainly hope that others will start asking questions about the possibility of spin or even possible fabrications by the newspaper conglomerate that bills itself as “the largest publisher by circulation of paid English-language daily newspapers in Canada”.

Either that, or they need to take a serious look at who they keep on staff.

Note: in order to avoid any confusion if any of the three aforementioned stories should be edited or somehow deleted, I have taken screen captures of all 4:

  1. The original IP address story as it appeared on the National Post web site on 2/16
  2. The same story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site
  3. The Stephen Maher story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17
  4. The later story by Pilieci as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17

“Lawful access” — coming very soon to a computer near you

Public Security Minister Vic Toews is planning to introduce his so-called “lawful access” bill to the House of Commons later today. So, how does it measure up?

According to Ottawa U Law professor Michael Geist, it’s going to create a panopticon society where online privacy essentially no longer exists and is replaced with a sort of Big Brother. Which is pretty funny when you consider that the Tories are also about to introduce their bill to scrap the long gun registry and proactively delete any and all data therein. Apparently guns don’t kill people, but the freedom to go about one’s own business does… that pretty much tells you what you need to know about Stephen Harper and his cronies.

And then there’s the issue of cost, which is entirely offloaded onto the ISPs themselves, who will now have to keep a record of everything you do online — well, everything you do online taking the direct route via your ISP, making it trivial to circumvent — for 90 days. I rather pity the ISPs who are going to be stuck storing all that data at their own expense. You can be certain that they’ll be glad to pass the savings onto you, of course.

So what’s the justification for this garbage? Mr. Toews, never one to shy away from stooping to scrape the bottom of the barrel, claims that either you are with him or you are siding with “the child pornographers”. Never mind that there have been a number of child porn busts recently which have not required any of the new police state powers Mr. Toews insists are absolutely crucial to fight that crime. Personally I’ve always thought that it was illegal, but apparently by senile old Vic’s reckoning it was impossible to fight this crime before! Of course it wasn’t. Mr. Toews is just pulling his Maud Flanders act, and it sells out very well out West, where evidently people ignorant or mad enough to vote for the insane old codger think “internet” is a kind of potato blight.

But why should we let Vic the impaler set the terms? I say, unless you are against this so-called “lawful access” bill, you are siding with the fascists. I guess the Conservative Party has yet another self-renaming in the works.

Something fans of irony can appreciate

After spending the last couple of weeks twisting foreign and corporate arms (successfully) to take down Julian Assange, the United States takes a break in order to celebrate “World Press Freedom Day”. Clearly the US State Department would be unable to detect irony even if “irony” was a baseball bat that was used to repeatedly smash the limbs and skulls of whistleblowers.

Clearly this is double-plus-ungood. Really, Americans, do you think anyone’s taking you seriously on that one?

The Barnes & Noble Nook: a Critical Canadian Review

A few months ago on a business trip to the USA I went to Barnes & Noble and decided to purchase a Nook, which is B&N’s answer to the Kindle. I’ve been using it for some time now and thought it would be a good idea to review the device for the benefit of those also thinking of procuring themselves one.

Discerning readers will realize from the title alone that the review isn’t going to be gushingly positive. In theory the Nook is a pretty solid device; it comes with 2 gigabytes of memory (roughly 1.3 gigabytes usable for books), it uses a combination of a 6″ e-ink screen for text display and a 3.5″ color touchscreen for navigation and book-cover display; there are also page-turning buttons set on both sides of the device. All in all it’s a smart-looking device. The Nook connects to your computer via a micro-USB slot, and as with other e-readers it comes with a USB cable and a wall-plug adapter for those times when you’re not near a computer but need to recharge the battery. The battery itself is user-replaceable, which I’m told is not the case for all reader devices.

It supports Adobe Acrobat (PDF) and EPUB format documents; PDB documents are also supported, although I have yet to come across one of those. Note that DRM’d documents can only be displayed if they were purchased from the B&N ebook store. If you live in the USA, that is. More on that later.

PDF support is quite good on this device, as long as your PDF files have been scanned for text using optical character recognition (OCR). As long as that’s done the text is formatted acceptably on the e-ink display. If you have a scanned PDF, well, the results aren’t going to be so good, because then the PDF renders each and every page as one image, and the Nook will by default display one page image entirely. This almost always results in an unreadable document because the text is very small. Those of you with Acrobat Professional will want to make sure that you both optimize and scan your documents with OCR before uploading them to the Nook. Those of you who don’t have Acrobat Pro, well, good luck. Then again I find that most of the public-domain documents you see on the internet will have been OCR’d before they’re made available.

The Nook’s memory can be expanded by adding a micro-SD card… maybe. Now that we’re past the spec stage and onto the actual user review, things tend to look rather less rosy, to be honest. There is no question that there is, in fact, a micro-SD slot on the back of the unit, next to the battery, the user guide tells you in detail how to insert a memory card in it. My question is, to what extent is micro-SD actually supported by the Nook software? My experience is that support is patchy at best, and tends to vary a great deal. Of course when I got the device home the first thing I did was to add a 8GB micro-SD card to it; I have a large-ish PDF collection I wanted to get onto the Nook, so having less than 1.5GB of space wasn’t really going to cut it. I manage my ebook collection using Calibre (the Nook itself doesn’t come with any software for ebook management), and that seemed to work well with the Nook at least for a while. To save time I put the entire collection on the micro-SD card; it doesn’t come anywhere close to filling it up, it’s less than 1000 documents. Surely that wouldn’t be a problem, right?

At first the Nook worked with the card. However as time has gone by it seems to have become unusable. When you start up the Nook and go into the Library, it automatically checks for content. Now my Nook with the micro-SD card installed, when it starts up and I navigate to the Library, displays the “Checking for new Items” message… and seems to get stuck in that mode. Because it’s a battery-powered portable device it eventually goes into power-saving mode (I have mine set to do that after 20 minutes), and when you wake it up it’s still “Checking for New Items”. One particularly frustrating morning after syncing new content into it the evening before I picked it up, and it was still “Checking for New Items”. After looking over the Support/QA forum for the nook it seems I’m not the first or only person with this problem.  Oh yes, and to add insult to injury, under “Checking for New Items” appears the message “This will only take a moment”. Which I suppose could be considered accurate if you’re a geologist. Personally I’m not that patient. I restarted my Nook over an hour ago and it’s still displaying the “Checking for New Items” message (I keep pushing on the page-turn keys periodically so it doesn’t go to sleep), so you really can’t accuse me of not being patient enough. In this time I’m certain that I could have read out the titles and author names of all 800-odd volumes in my PDF collection, yet the Nook is still struggling, with no way for me to know if it’s working or if it’s just plain frozen.

As the saying goes this leaves me high and dry. There’s not enough space in the built-in memory to put my collection, but if I use a micro-SD card the whole device becomes completely unreliable.  B&N advertises the capacity of the built-in memory as “1500 books”, but that’s the domain of fantasy. It could be 1500 epub-format books that you download from B&N (if you can do that at all, that will be looked at later), but that means that you should shell out (using average figures) at least $15,000 to Barnes & Noble. These people must be as imaginative as those Sony execs who think that people will unquestioningly re-purchase their entire DVD collections in Blu-Ray format, and while the people I know aren’t necessarily average consumers I can’t imagine that someone would be enough of a sucker to do that. Most ebooks out there are in PDF format and significantly larger in size than epubs; my ebook collection certainly is, and in that world 800 titles take up about 6 gigabytes, or 3 times the “capacity” of the Nook which is advertized as 2GB but is in fact about 1.27GB once you factor out the OS and interface.

I’ve tried to make it work again, to little avail. The one time I was able to get it to work acceptably again, I deregistered the Nook from my B&N account, slow-formatted the micro-SD card (quick format didn’t work for this), reset the Nook to factory settings, re-registered it, and re-transferred the ebooks to it. This workaround worked, but it took several hours. Not the kind of timeframe that’s acceptable if I just want to add a couple of publications to the device.

I wish I could reset the firmware to a “clean” version, but that is not an available option; you can go through the software but the only thing this does is wipe out your user settings. I attempted downloading the 1.4 firmware, transferring it to the Nook’s built-in memory and restarting it, but because I already had the 1.4 firmware installed I only get the message “Invalid Update” on the bottom right corner of the e-ink screen. Clearly whoever designed the Nook software has no idea that software can get “crufty” and corrupted over time. I’ve been in the computer business long enough to know that this happens all the time. It’s not supposed to, but it does.

Yes, I could cut down on the number of books I have on the device so it all fits in the internal memory. However, that’s a workaround, not a solution. In my experience the Nook just does not work as intended once you use the micro-SD slot which is supposedly supported by the device. That’s like someone selling you a car with shot suspension and telling you that you should only drive down smooth paved roads.  That wouldn’t be acceptable either. You’d probably punch that guy in the nose and knee him in the groin for having the audacity to tell you that it’s a functional car, and you’d be right in doing so.

I’m also not thrilled about the interface of the Nook on those occasions in the past when it did eventually manage to work. When you have a large number of items in your library navigating to a title is very frustrating but in a “we really didn’t think this thing through” kind of way. For one thing, the only way to navigate through titles is through pages that show 10 items. You can’t search for a title (not in the “My Documents” section anyway), for one thing. The titles display doesn’t “wrap around” either, so that if you feel like opening “Zymurgy for Beginners” (that’s beer-brewing BTW) and you have a large collection of ebooks you are in for a frustrating time indeed — in my case that would involve pushing the “next page” button 81 times. Now once you do have it open you can reopen it by touching the “Now Reading” button on the navigation window, and once you have opened it you will find it quicker by switching the book sort order to “recent”, but it’s still a huge flaw in the fundamental function of the reader. So not only was this not designed by a very experienced software person (see above), it clearly wasn’t designed by someone who’s ever managed an even moderately-sized documents library. The Nook also does not support folders, so the idea of categorizing anything goes out the window. You can have folders in the file structure of the device, but in the Nook interface the display assumes a flat “hierarchy” where everything is at the same level. Again, that would have been a very easy to implement; all the Nook would have needed to do is retain the way in which the files it contains were originally organized when they were transferred to the device, but the interface flattens everything and undid all the good work previously done by the user.

Nor was the Nook designed by someone familiar with even the basic rudiments of the English language, either. How do I know this? Well, when you have a book called “The science of [something]”, you naturally would file that book under “S” for “Science”. The Nook files it under “T” for “The”. This is pretty elementary stuff. You don’t need a diploma in Library Science to figure that out. Yet the Nook software fails at this, and when you have a large document library — which the Nook and other e-reader devices should be good at managing, they’re usually marketed as a way to “carry your entire library around”, the Nook specifically states in its overview “Store as many as 1,500 eBooks, eNewspapers, and eMagazines”, but if everything is filed under “The” or “A”, it’s going to be hellish just finding the publication you want to open. Calibre is an open-source, free application, and it has that bit figured out. Why can’t the Nook, which you have to pay money to get? It’s not even a particularity of English. The use of definite and indefinite articles is something that’s seen in most languages. But the Nook software completely misses that well-known grammatical feature.

And finally, the tags you add to the book in Calibre may or may not work without any apparent rhyme or reason. Good luck trying to figure out what the book “entitled” “0192853791.pdf” is — the title and author are clearly visible in Calibre, but for some reason that got lost in the rather long time it took to get copied over to the Nook (which long time could be Calibre’s fault). Not very reliable, that.

Of course the principal purpose of the device, from B&N’s point of view, is that it will help sell books, but if you’re not in the United States, right now, it’s not going to happen. The shipping address of my B&N account is in Canada where I live, and practically speaking there is nothing available to people outside the United States, not even free books that are in the public domain — and I’m talking about stuff like The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton in the late 1700s, and which is available from any number of other web sites but not from B&N. In my experience even those public-domain works that are hosted on Google Books aren’t available from the “Shop” button on your Nook, even if you can read them directly on the Google Books site from a computer located in Canada! Even worse, if you do try and “buy” it from the site you get a horribly misleading error message that states “You must have a billing address in the United States, U.S. territories, or Canada for B&N.com to process your order”. I do have a billing address in Canada on my account, I double-checked. I’m afraid that this oversight is rather typical of a product that’s been rather poorly designed and QA’d. Being physically in the United States does not help with this problem either because it’s based on the billing address in your account.

To be fair, there are about a handful of books that I could purchase through B&N.com in electronic format, but it’s a tiny fraction of 1% of the content that the store has. It’s an almost negligible selection of Simon & Schuster titles, plus stuff from some boutique publishers. People on the Nook support board seem to think that it’s some political issue.

However, in contrast, I’ve looked up random content I would be interested in on amazon.com, and in an interesting reversal it seems that the stuff that’s unavailable to me as a Canadian customer is very, very small. Chances are if they have it I can in fact buy it. Frankly if I’d been aware of this when I purchased an ebook reader, I would have bought a Kindle, but this was a bit of an impulse buy when I was physically at a store.

What else have I not covered yet… the Nook has a very basic web browser built-in, but the less said about it, the better. It’s just a beta anyway. Navigation is done through the secondary screen, but the process is pretty clunky. The Nook has a virtual keyboard for those occasions when you need to enter text, but this is clearly a data consumption (and not production) device; the keyboard has to fit the small touch screen so the keys are very small, and men will have serious difficulties using it without touching the next letter from the one they want to type, even those like myself who don’t have particularly large fingers. There are two games built-in, sudoku and chess, but again the navigation is just completely unsuited to the task at hand. Why not have a crossword instead, it would make more sense at least. The Nook has a built-in audio player, but with only 1.27GB to work with you’d have a very hard time fitting much music on there if you want to, you know, actually have books available. There are just so many flaws to the whole design that it might be understandable if the Nook had preceded the Kindle to the market, but it didn’t. Even the very idea of a touch screen for navigation is terrible because in comparison to the Amazon device it is an energy waster, not as practical as a keyboard and joystick, and when you use it in not-so-well-lit conditions it annoys the eyes and is distracting (it’s a regular backlit screen).

To be frank that’s the sort of experience (though it’s by no means the only one) that has led me to not go physically shopping anymore. In this case I’ve splurged some $200 (Nook wifi, cover, screen protector) on an unreliable device that really doesn’t suit my needs or work as intended, and being light it doesn’t even make a good paperweight. I cannot in good conscience recommend it, so if you get a Google ad at the top of this page advertising a Nook for God’s sake don’t buy one.

Can I recommend the Kindle? No. I haven’t tried it out at all, so it’s entirely possible that it suffers from the same problems as the Nook. Which I will likely find out when the Kindle 3 becomes available again, as it’s currently sold out. I could buy a Kindle DX which I think would suit me better, but that’s almost $400, if I’m going to spend that much I might as well throw some more money at the issue and get an iPad which is an entirely different and more capable device.

So my Nook seems destined to end up on top of the rather embarrassingly large pile of tech gadgets I now regret having purchased. The presentation in the stores is very good, but it’s organized carefully in such a way that the customer will just not see the major usability and reliability issues that the device suffers from; that’s what marketing is for. The Nook does have a saving grace, and it’s that it’s been cracked (“rooted”) by a group of developers over at nookdevs.com, with whose work I will hopefully be able to make a useful device out of it. Sure it’ll void my warranty, but at this point I can’t return the thing — I’m hopelessly past the 14-day satisfaction guarantee, and AFAIK the unit functions as well as B&N expects it to work — and it just isn’t usable for me in its standard configuration so I don’t really feel that I’m losing anything.

But if there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that you should never, ever just buy electronics as an impulse purchase. Take it from a guy who’s spend thousands upon thousands over the years on useless stuff so you don’t have to.

Li’l bundles of hate

What do Klan kids watch? Apparently it’s The Andrew Show, a show by white supremacists for white supremacists, broadcast on the web from a site called White Pride TV which bills itself as “a family friendly site”, although it’s distinctly less friendly to certain families than to others. For older kids there’s the equally not-colorful Youth Focus, which caters to racist teens, an often overlooked demographic. The article has a photo that might as well have been captioned “the family that burns crosses together stays together”. Note that the second and third links in the article go to the shows’ pages on the White Pride TV site, so you might want to not click on those.

There’s low, and then there’s *low*

There are many, many questions regarding the police handling of the G20 summit that took place in Toronto recently, but this one takes the cake — a 57-year-old leg amputee had his artificial leg forcibly removed by Toronto police because “it could be used as a weapon”, and when he asked for it back he was told to hop. Since when is this in any way acceptable behavior for any human being? Also, when you consider that 700 people were arrested and released without charge, doesn’t that mean that there was little to no consideration of whether arrests were made with cause?