The Times, They Are a’Changin

The Times of Israel was launched in February by David Horowitz, former editor of the Jerusalem Post. It’s an English-language news and comment site for Israel and Jewish-related news. About the same time as it launched, Haaretz’s English-language site began putting most of its content behind a paywall. This left a gap which the ToI immediately started filling.

The ToI seems to be modelled on the Huffington Post, the US news and megablog site founded by Arianna Huffington. The HuffPo was sold to AOL $315 million in early 2011, which provoked some controversy: many of the hundreds of unpaid bloggers felt that Arianna had taken their work and basically profited from it. Of course, 18 months later, the Huffington Post is still doing fine and has no problem attracting bloggers to write for it.

A similar debate was sparked about the Times of Israel’s bloggers after the President’s Conference, when Naomi Elbinger wrote a blog on her own site about whether ToI’s bloggers should primarily identify with their own platforms and outlets or with the ToI itself:

In a very short time, The Times of Israel has attracted over 100 bloggers that regularly publish on their site for free, using the Huffington Post-esque assumption that the very fact that your name appears on their site is payment enough….

…what struck me as most strange about the Times of Israel blogger crowd at the President’s Conference is that they introduced themselves as “My Name is X and I blog for the Times of Israel.”

Heck, they even got up in front of Alana Newhouse, a major personality in online Jewish publishing, and instead of promoting their own identity and brand, instead of letting her know about their own blog, business or cause, they promoted the Times of Israel.

All of this is my way of saying that last week I had a blog published on the Times of Israel. It’s about Israel and the Olympic Games, a subject relevant to the ToI’s readership. You can read it there.

I hope to write the occasional blog there. It has a large and increasing audience, and comment editor Elie Leshem has helped build a supportive bloggers’ community. But, to answer Naomi above, it’s not going to be my only platform. I’ll post blogs there when it’s relevant, and when I feel that they would benefit from the wider audience. In this case, for example, the subject was related to my day-job and so, though I wasn’t getting paid for writing it, neither was I doing it completely for nothing.

This blog will carry on as normal. I might sometimes write for other publications. I also ghost pieces pretty regularly (reasonable rates, email me for details). And I’ll also occasionally blog for the Times of Israel. It’s a big Internet out there.

Inventions by my friends

I have talented friends. At least two have book deals and are furiously writing while living off their advances. A few have been elected to Parliament. Some are advising ministers or writing Middle East peace plans.

On balance, this is a good thing, even if it does make me feel rather inferior by comparison.

Some are inventors. This is a good time to be an inventor, because as well as the traditional routes to Venture Capital, crowdfunding is really taking off. Two cool companies run by friends of mine have used Kickstarter to help launch new gadgets:

Triggertrap

My friends Haje and Matt invented Triggertrap, a series of cool ways of triggering cameras. The project got a $75,000 cash injection on Kickstarter, even though they were only looking for $25k originally.

There’s a Triggertrap Mobile app, which has a load of ways of triggering an iPhone or iPad’s camera using the device’s internal sensors. Some of these are pretty obvious, like timelapse, sound or motion triggers. Some are a bit more unusual, like face-recognition or magnetism. Some combine sensors with effects, like using GPS to create a “distance lapse” video, Long Exposure HDR, or taking photos of stars.

A photo by Milosh using Triggertrap’s HDR features

The app can also be used with a dongle and cable to trigger an SLR camera instead of the iphone’s internal camera.

There are also two triggertrap machines – the V1 (which is basically a little computer full of funky sensors) and a build-it-yourself version.

Triggertrap has already been used in some cool projects. If you’re interested in taking photos in interesting ways then it’s worth a look. Unfortunately for technical reasons it doesn’t work on Android (yet) but all iOS users should go for it.

Ringbow

Ringbow is, basically, a joystick built into a ring. This is really useful: for touchscreen gaming, for presentations and for anything where you need portable fine control. It’s a project of my friend Saar and his business partner Efrat, two Israeli entrepreneurs.

Some Ringbows

 

Ringbow isn’t available yet. It’s still at the Kickstarter stage seeking starter funding of $100,000, but they’re confident that they’ll ship in time for Christmas. As I write this, the project is 98.8% funded with ten days to go,The project has now met its funding target, so they’re doing pretty well. I’m looking forward to getting mine. If you want in, you might still have time to support it.

Happy Birthday Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum is 30 today, making it a few months younger than I am.

Apparently, the Spectrum was the first home computer to break into the mass market in the UK due to its low price-point and decent catalogue of software. But I didn’t know any of that at the time.

I don’t remember when we got our Spectrum, but I vaguely remember that we didn’t have one and then at some point we did. I don’t think it was new when we got it, and it wasn’t our first computer – there was an old Commodore PET in a cupboard that I had never seen. The Spectrum was a tiny thing, with its famous rubber keys and assortment of wires.

(years later, when I was aged 8 or 9, I remember having an argument with my schoolfriends who insisted that the keyboard of a PC was only a keyboard and that the computer was a big box that the keyboard plugged into. I told them they were being ridiculous. If my old computer was small and fitted in a keyboard surely, I argued, the modern computers of 1989 would have been even smaller).

It had to be hooked up to the TV using a special output cable. Software came on audio-tapes but It didn’t have a tape recorder built in – we had to connect one to it using a line-in cable. The joystick (and we used an old Atari 2600 stick at first) had to plug into a special Kempston card that had to be plugged into the machine. If anything was knocked or dirty then it all wouldn’t work.

Loading a game took time – from a minute for a short one to several minutes for a long, new one – and if a tape had more than one game on it you had to fast-forward it first. Then we’d hear the famous loading sounds – the low header pulse while the screen’s border flashed cyan-and-red, followed by the high-pitched screeching data sound while the screen-border went yellow-and-blue. And when it was finally done we could play a game. If we were lucky.   If we were unlucky we’d have to start again.

I remember playing games with my Dad – the old text-based adventures at first, like the Hobbit and the Hitchhikers’ Guide, both famously hard, and the classic Batman game. I remember the excitement when we got Elite, and the frustration when the special Lenslok copy-protection meant we had to look at the screen though a special piece of plastic to play the game – and it didn’t work so we had to get a new one. Eventually I got and played my own games: the Dizzy series, Mercenary, Rainbow Islands, even Tetris with its eerie music (not the Russian music you know from the Gameboy – this music).

We had all these old computer magazines, and some of them had programming tips in them. I started writing BASIC programs young; I even wrote a sort-of-functioning version of a game a bit like Snake. We bought a game that let you make other 3d games for the Spectrum. I played with it for hours but never made a game that worked.

I also bought the classic magazine Your Sinclair, famed for its sense of humour as the Spectrum gradually slid towards obsolescence. The sarcasm, surrealism and self-deprecation I learnt from YS have served me well in life.

At some point we bought a newer Spectrum – with a built-in tape recorder – and we scoured carboot sales, buying up tens of games for a pound as people sold off their old tapes.

Eventually we got a Sega Mega Drive and a SNES and we put away the Spectrum for good. But, 30 years after its release, I realise how much it changed my life. I learnt how to program, how to play co-operatively and how to read technical manuals, and I think back to those Sunday mornings watching my Dad play Elite and remember what a good time it was (of course, these days he still plays more computer games than I do).

I leave you with this video which reminds me of the Good Old Days.

Get the picture?

Avi Mayer called it first, when he asked if the photo below was genuine.

Photo tweeted by @KhuloodBadawi

He guessed it wasn’t.

Over the last few days, hundreds of increasingly sophisticated rockets have been fired into Israel by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The rockets have been able to reach large cities like Ashdod, Beer Sheva and even Gedera, only 25 miles south of Tel Aviv proper. Most of those have been shot down by the Iron Dome system, an anti-missile defence system that actually works. Some, inevitably, have got through. A rocket hit a school yesterday, but luckily it was empty, all students in south-central Israel told to stay home to keep them safe.

Israel’s response has actually been pretty restrained – hitting the small rocket crews from Islamic Jihad and the PRC and operational leaders. There had been no reports of a girl being killed.

Avi found some websites using the picture in 2009, which was enough to prove that it didn’t happen yesterday.

I put the photo into Google Image Search, which brought up a lot of 2008 sites claiming that the girl was Iraqi, a victim of a white phosphorus attack by the US on Fallujah in 2004. I tweeted this:

So I kept digging. Playing with the time-window, I could find no record of the photo before 2006, and several in August 2006, which suggested that this might the time it was taken. Eventually I found an left-wing Israeli website called Mahsom. The photo was captioned:

הילדה רג’א אבו שעבאן בת ה-3 נהרגה בידי הצבא ב-9 באוגוסט. צילום: סוכנות ופא

which translates as:

The girl Raja Abu Shaban, aged 3, killed by the [Israeli] army on the 9th of August. Photo: WAFA

This was the only source that named the girl, so it seemed to be genuine. But to double-check, I googled “Raja Abu Shaban” in English to see what came up. One of the first hits was this Little Green Footballs post, from August 2006, which revealed that AP and Reuters had retracted their stories about the poor girl.

AP published the following note:

EDS NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT ** A Relative carries the body of Rajaa Abu Shaban, 5, into Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006. On Thursday, doctors said that the 5-year-old Palestinian girl initially believed to have been killed by an Israeli military strike Wednesday apparently died after sustaining head injuries during a fall from a swing in the same area shortly before the strike.(AP Photo/Adel Hana)

I passed on my info to Avi

He found a similar note from Reuters, including their photo recall note. And then he spread the word to his 4000 followers. He forced Twitter user @ManaraRam, who had spread the photo into admitting it was false. And then the blogs picked up on it – the IDF’s official blog and the Times of Israel. Honest Reporting traced the original tweet to a UN employee.

Some thoughts on the Twitterstorm:

First, perhaps I’m naive, but I try to follow the advice of the sage Yehoshua ben Prachia, who used to say:

“הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות”

“Judge every person favourably”

Or perhaps I’m ultra-cynical, because I also do my best to live by Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

My point is that I don’t assume the people who used these incorrect photos were deliberately lying. Maybe they made a mistake with their image searches, or didn’t check dates properly. That doesn’t mean I rule out malice absolutely, but I don’t assume it. People are generally quite capable of screwing up.

That said, no doubt there are some anti-Israel campaigners who would say “Well, this might not be an actual photo, but I’m sure it reflects the essential truth about what’s going on”. Or something. In fact, a load of them have answered in just such a predictable way. This article by Lynette Nusbacher wisely notes:

The IDF Spokesman blog says that the photos have been proven false.  False is, in context, irrelevant.  The picture has spoken its thousand words, and the one word “false” is not an adequate response.

Dr Nusbacher is partly wrong; “false” is not irrelevant, and it’s important to expose distortions when they appear. Bur she’s also right to note that the damage is done, and the wider narrative that the picture re-enforces is already well-established. Despite hundreds of rockets, the international media narrative has been “Israel hits Gaza”.

Knocking down false photos isn’t nearly enough. But it’s a start.

London riots and media ‘blackouts’

I will write a fuller blog on the London riots later, but just wanted to comment on a theme seen in some of the tweets and chatter: that the media somehow covered up the latest rioting in Enfield and other places in London.

The news is rarely instant. It often takes hours for something to be reported as “BREAKING NEWS”. That’s because newsrooms are big and have lots of things happening. It takes time to get cameras to a scene when something’s happening. Sometimes the initial reports take time to make it to a news-desk, or are contradictory by the time they get there.

Twitter means that we can (and often do) know about things before they appear on the mainstream news. As a twitter-addict and news-addict, I follow in turn many people with the same twin afflictions. I am very used to seeing a big story break on Twitter hours before it appears on the BBC. Lots of other people are less used to this, so when they saw hundreds of tweets about trouble in Enfield but no footage on the BBC, they assumed it was some kind of cover-up.

When journalists on the scene showed empty buildings rather than ongoing riots, some people assumed it was part of a conspiracy rather than because the looters were in cars, moving fast and not wanting to be on the news nicking  42-inch tellies.

When the BBC news website wasn’t updated, they assumed there was a D-notice rather than that it was a Sunday night in August so maybe the BBC website team was just a little light on the ground.

When nobody reported on the riot in Hemel Hempstead, they complained but didn’t consider the possibility that there wasn’t actually a riot in Hemel Hempstead.

Tonight proved again that Twitter is now the primary medium for news. This doesn’t mean that journalists have no role to play. I got my news tonight from the Guardian’s Paul Lewis on the scene in Enfield and Edmonton, the Telegraph’s Andrew Hough in Brixton, and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy (who’s still out on the streets of Walthamstow trying to help). Two of those are broadsheet journalists and all were using Twitter.

In a public incident, Twitter will always beat traditional news media for speed. We’re all just going to have to get used to that rather than scrambling about for conspiracies.