Social media encouraging graffiti in National Parks

An Associated Press story by Michelle L. Price dated April 28, 2016, states that rangers in Arches National Park were investigating graffiti carved so deeply into an arch that it might be impossible to erase.

According to park Superintendent Kate Cannon, the carvings measure about four feet across and three feet high, and are part of a “tidal wave of graffiti” at national parks in recent years.

Two years ago, at least eight national parks began cleaning up graffiti on famous  landscapes after damage was shared and discovered on social media.

Social media seems to be driving this increased vandalism, but Cannon also noted that  graffiti generally has become inexplicably popular among visitors. She hopes public outrage can reduce the behavior.

Defacing surfaces in a national park is illegal and punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

My Take

Clearly, six months in jail and $5000 is not enough of a deterrent to protect the parks.

I remember a National Parks public service campaign years ago that said, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” As a child, those simple words left a lasting impression … as did the parks themselves. Never have I felt as close to the creator as I have when visiting our national parks and immersing myself in their incomparable splendor. Four billion years of geologic history are exposed within the walls of Zion Canyon, one of the most magical and mystical places on earth.

It deeply troubles me that defacing such wonders has become a social media sport. Surely, this isn’t what the inventors of FaceBook had in mind as they were inventing the network. How pathetic these vandals are … desecrating sacred places in minutes that took eons to make.

Every national park I have ever visited has something special about it that sets it apart from the surrounding countryside. Each park is part of our priceless national heritage, something visionary men and women fought to preserve for all mankind and all time.

How popular are the parks? I’m not the only person to feel as strongly about them as I do. Here’s an amazing statistic. NFL attendance last year was approximately 17 million. But national park attendance during the same period was more than 307 million. That’s 18 times more! Also consider that the U.S. population during 2015 was estimated to be 321 million.

I lump the thoughtless, misguided, narcissistic delinquents who deface our parks right down there with terrorists.

We should borrow a slogan from the anti-terrorism handbook – “If you see something, say something … whether it’s in the parks or on the Internet.” Clearly, rangers can’t be everywhere at once. Give them a hand.

New billboards track people’s movements

Michael Balsamo of the Associated Press reported on May 1, 2016, that New York Senator Charles Schumer is calling for a federal investigation into an outdoor advertising company’s latest effort to target billboard ads to specific consumers. Schumer called the Clear Channel Outdoor Americas billboards “spying billboards,” a claim denied by Clear Channel.

Clear Channel, which operates more than 675,000 billboards throughout the world, argues that “spying” is inaccurate. The company insists it only uses anonymous data collected by other companies that certify they are following consumer protection standards. Further, Clear Channel claims it aggregates the data to protect confidentiality.

In a video on its website, Clear Channel says it “measures consumers’ real-world travel patterns and behaviors as they move through their day, analyzing data on direction of travel, billboard viewability, and visits to specific destinations.”

Clear Channel then maps that data against Clear Channel’s displays, allowing advertisers to buy ads in places that “reach specific behavioral audience segments,” says the company.

Clear Channel calls this program RADAR.

Senator Schumer says an investigation is necessary because “most people don’t realize their location data is being mined, even if they agreed to it at some point by accepting the terms of service of an app that later sells their location information.”

My Take

Advertisers have always tried to target consumers as tightly as possible to maximize the efficiency of their ad budgets. Nothing new there!

But it’s not immediately clear how the content of billboards changes based on the group of people meandering through a place like Times Square at any given moment. Nor is it immediately clear how the data is aggregated and how large the aggregations are. Finally, it is not clear whether the company has the ability to dis-aggregate data to track specific individuals. For instance, could the data be used to track the movement of someone through a city? And, in less scrupulous hands, could the technology be used to harvest highly personal information from my phone, such as account numbers, health data, etc.

I personally don’t want a billboard company tracking all of my movements. While I DON”T mind seeing relevant information on billboards, I DO worry about the erosion of personal privacy.

Cell Phone Use Affecting Restaurant Wait Times

A story in the Daily Mail claims that a manager at a ‘busy NYC restaurant’ found that customers constantly using their cell phones were to blame for a dramatic increase in restaurant wait times nowadays.

The proprietor reviewed surveillance videos from 2004 and 2014. He found that the average time people spent in the restaurant skyrocketed from one hour and five minutes to one hour and fifty-five minutes during that period.
He claims that the videos showed customers are now preoccupied with checking texts and emails, taking photos, and complaining about problems connecting to WiFi.  According to the article, cell phones have become a large distraction for customers, and  are preventing them from ordering and eating as efficiently as they once did.

Holding down table turn times are the key to profitability in any busy restaurant. The longer people linger, the fewer customers restaurants can serve, and the longer people at the door have to wait. The proprietor finished with a plea for common courtesy.
This increase in restaurant wait times is yet another unintended consequence of new media. People are too busy interacting with people they are not with to pay attention to the people they are with. They slow service for everyone.

Signs of Cyberbullying in Children

The Center on Media and Child Health publishes an electronic newsletter called Media Health Matters. The October 2014 edition contained tips to help parents  understand when their children could be being cyberbullied. The phenomenon itself has received much attention in mainstream media. However the tips for spotting cyberbullying have not been.

Children are often reluctant to tell parents that they have been cyberbullied because they fear reprisals or criticism.  Here are some tips offered by the Center that may help start a dialog. Look out for these warning signs, says the Center:

  • Becoming upset or sad after using the internet or mobile phone
  • Avoiding talking about computer or cell phone use.
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, and activities that they typically enjoy
  • A sudden or gradual drop in grades
  • Not wanting to go to school or specific activities, especially when peer groups are involved
  • Changes in behavior, attitude, sleep, appetite or showing signs of depression or anxiety.

For more information, read their entire article on Cyberbullying.

The Productivity Paradox

American society is built on contradictions. We worship independence but crave connection. We want freedom, but seek commitment. We venerate efficiency, but chase new technologies that can actually decrease our productivity. I call this the Productivity Paradox.

Huh? Case in point: Apple IOS 7. I hate it. Somebody must like it; Apple sure is selling a lot of iPhones and iPads. But to me, most of the changes are a major step backward in productivity. They changed the way features work without really improving their functionality in most cases. The result is confusion that saps productivity. It’s frustrating.

Example 1: The calendar function. The purpose of keeping a calendar is to provide reminders of important events. Apple gave the world a gift when it built alerts into its calendar system. I would be lost without them. But in IOS 7, they actually hid the alert function. I spent ten minutes today looking for it. I was ready to throw my iPhone in the trash when I accidentally clicked on something that didn’t appear to be clickable and discovered where they had hidden it. I’m sure some designer was basking in the afterglow of his simple, elegant interface … that totally baffled the user – me, someone who has never used anything but Apple products for the last 30 years. Duh? Why would you hide the reminder feature in a calendar. Does no one do usability testing anymore?

Example 2: The Map App. This actually works better than it used to … if you can figure out how to use it. In previous iterations of the Map App, you would type in an address, press go and be guided to your destination. Now you type in your address and are confronted with six meaningless, non-intuitive icons which you must press randomly to get into “guide me there” mode.

If these were isolated examples, I would dismiss them. But they aren’t. They’re typical of this so-called upgrade which amounts to little more than an elegant purple fart from one of the world’s great technology companies. Somebody, somewhere has lost their way at Apple. They’ve traded “simple” for the “appearance of simple.” They’ve confused design changes with productivity improvements.

Apple wasn’t the first to try to pass off a new look for productivity improvements. Microsoft has been changing the location of features in its popular Office suite for years without adding much to the functionality of the software. Every time they move functions around, I waste time looking for them.

But Apple has outdone even Microsoft. On top of senseless changes to its IOS, Apple has done away with documentation so that users are forced to figure out these non-intuitive changes on their own. Net net: the 200 plus improvements in IOS 7 that Apple brags about are wasting my time. Somebody please put the adults in charge again.

Why do I call this the Productivity Paradox? Designers and developers must have the freedom to improve their products. But they they need to realize that every time they change a widget, it’s going to force their most loyal users to relearn the software. Developers sell these changes as productivity improvements but they actually decrease productivity.

If there’s a genuine improvement, great. But if there isn’t, please don’t fix what ain’t broke.

Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s by Robert Rehak

Uptown_CoverIt’s been a month since I’ve posted on this site. I’ve been busy completing a new book referenced in the previous post.  The book is Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s by Robert Rehak.  You can now pre-order it on Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com.

The coffee-table-sized book (9.5″ x 13″) will be in bookstores before Thanksgiving. Published by Chicago’s Books Press, an imprint of Chicago’s Neighborhoods, Inc., the book contains 272 pages, 250+ illustrations, plus an introduction and captions that put the images and the place in historical context. For photographers, the book also contains notes about the equipment and techniques used when taking the photos.

Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s by Robert Rehak is a time capsule from 40 years ago. It shows you what life was like in one of Chicago’s most diverse and densely populated neighborhoods. Although the book specifically focuses on one neighborhood in Chicago, almost every large city in America has a neighborhood coping with similar challenges.

When I posted several of the images on my photoblog, bobrehak.com, they immediately went viral. I’d like to thank all the readers who took their valuable time to write me with notes of appreciation and to help flesh out details that make the book a much richer experience. They provided the inspiration for this book.

Viewed as a book, instead of a website, these photos become even more powerful. The images are much larger and higher resolution, revealing details not visible on the Web. The images are also arranged in a more logical sequence – when putting together the website, I was responding to reader requests. Finally, when you see all of the images back to back, as opposed to opening them one by one, it’s easier to see the forces that were shaping this fascinating neighborhood and the way ordinary people adapted to them. Below are two sample spreads from the book.

uptown-spreads-for-websitePhotographing in Uptown for four years made me much less judgmental and much more understanding of the troubles other people face. I experienced firsthand the plight of parents forced to chose between shoes and food for their children. I wish every senator and congressman had the opportunity to walk the streets of Uptown in the 1970s. It might have changed some of our national priorities.

Once again, thank you all for all your help. I hope you enjoy the book and am eager to hear your feedback.

 

Impact of Responsive Design on Website Usability, Aesthetics, Support and Costs

responsivesquareEarly in the life of this blog, I posted on responsive design. For those not familiar with the term, responsive design is a type of website design that dynamically reconfigures the site for each user’s access device. Responsive sites look one way on a smartphone, another on a tablet, and yet another on laptops or desktops.

When a user accesses a responsive site, the site interrogates the user’s access device to see what the size and aspect ratio of the screen is. Then, the site serves up information from a database according to guidelines established by programmers. In practical terms, this means that for smartphones, the site is most likely dished up as one column with larger type and navigation nested under an icon.

Benefits of Responsive Design

The benefits to the user are immediately apparent. The site is “usable” on even the smallest platform. This is important because Google estimates that by 2015, half of all web searches will be from mobile devices.

The benefits to the company sponsoring the site are also clearly apparent: more users, a more satisfying user experience and lower support costs. To optimize the experience for each user, they now need only support and update one site instead of four different ones.

However, for the designers creating the site, the benefits are not so apparent. For a responsive site to work, you need  to design for the lowest common denominator (i.e., the smallest screen) and work upwards from there.

You need to keep all elements within their own areas on a rigid grid for each size so that the layouts can be reconfigured as the elements rearrange themselves. That means, the elements can’t overlap because they may no longer even be adjacent to each other as you move from one size to another.

Tradeoffs

As a result, responsive sites score far higher on functionality and usability than they do on cutting-edge design. Another consideration for responsive design is cost. Responsive sites  generally cost more than traditional sites because of their complexity.

Steep Learning Curve

My company has developed several responsive sites so far this year. The first was by far the biggest and most complex – 560 pages in seven languages. If you haven’t yet created a responsive site, I highly recommend starting with something less ambitious. The complexity of designing all those pages for all those devices in all those languages was daunting to say the least. One of the biggest problems: it just takes more words to say things in some languages than others. Some languages used 50 percent more words than English. After much tweaking, the client’s site now looks great and works great. The client loves it.

As we got in the responsive groove, each of the next three sites we designed took less time. The first contained about 100 pages and took about three weeks. The second and third each contained about 200 pages. The last of those took less than a week.

Some Modest Recommendations to Save Your Shirt

If you work in a small design shop or ad agency, here are some recommendations that can make your first foray into responsive design easier:

  1. Start small with a simple site to help get up the learning curve. Calculus isn’t for kindergarten.
  2. Don’t try to break the grid with your design. Stay within the box. Make the excitement come from the elegance, simplicity and sophistication of the overall architecture. Those techniques they taught you in art school to build visual excitement, such as establishing a pattern and then breaking it, won’t work in a responsive design. You may find a workaround, but it will be very, very costly and will probably break your site at some point.
  3. Learn the differences between content management systems before you start. Drupal, for instance, gives you far more flexibility than WordPress but WordPress is much easier to work with. Unless a) you’re an expert PHP programmer, b) you’re willing to hire one or c) you have some other compelling reason to go with Drupal, such as foreign language support, stick with WordPress. WordPress offers a wide variety of themes (templates), some of which are easily customizable (within limits), and the system is much easier to grok.
  4. The first time out, don’t try to create a responsive site yourself, especially if you’re new to content management systems and especially if the content management system you’re using is Drupal. Find a good programming firm to help you. You’re going to need a spiritual guide through the wilderness of technology.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try something new like responsive design. That’s how you grow. Every year, I try to do at least one thing that makes me really stretch. This year, it was responsive design. It makes being creative much harder because of the complexity. But in the end, it’s worth it. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy to achieve.

Media Multitasking and Depression

shutterstock_104973152In my two previous posts, I explored the relationship between depression and Internet addiction, then depression and television viewing. Academic researchers have found positive correlations in both cases. This caused me to wonder whether a relationship existed between depression and multitasking.

Increase in Multitasking

Overall media use among America’s youth increased by 20% over the past decade. However, the amount of time spent multitasking with media (simultaneously interacting with more than one form of media) increased by 119% during the same time period [1].

Study Links Multitasking to Depression

Mark W. Becker, Reem Alzahabi, and Christopher J. Hopwood of Michigan State University published a study called Media Multitasking Is Associated with Symptoms of Depression and Social Anxiety in the February, 2013, issue of the journal Cyberspychology, Behavior and Social Networking. They studied 319 people and found that media multitasking was associated with higher rates of depression.

The authors couldn’t tell whether multitasking led to higher stress and depression or whether depressed people distracted themselves with multitasking to avoid coping with negative emotions. Given the relationships previously discussed between television viewing, Internet addiction and and depression, I have formulated an opinion on the relationship.

My Take

I personally subscribe to the theory, which Becker and his colleagues cite at the beginning of their study, that multitasking may be replacing face-to-face interactions [2], resulting in lower quality social interactions [3,4] and impaired psychosocial functioning [5,6].

Talking face-to-face and working side-by-side with friends and family is an infinitely richer and more rewarding experience than self-entertainment through media multitasking. It’s like the difference between healthy food and junk food.

Instead of working out their problems with others or honing their social skills, teens escape into a world of media multitasking. This world doesn’t argue with them, mock them, bully them or ostracize them. It’s a pleasant form of escapism that numbs the senses by overloading them. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It’s much easier than dealing with the real world. And it doesn’t have the stigma or costs associated with drugs or alcohol.

Kids can even pretend to be doing their homework while working on their laptops. The noise coming from TV, music, and video games combines with the distraction of social networks, emails and texts to help them forget whatever is causing their depression. Being able to multitask is even considered a positive trait among many in business.

Multitasking isn’t all bad unless it turns into an addiction, such as a shopping addiction. Shopping addicts shop because their purchases give them a pleasant buzz. Then, when the bill comes due (which they can’t pay), it deepens their depression, leads to more shopping and a downward spiral. A similar mechanism may be at work with multitasking for the segment of the population prone to depression.

We’ve all fallen into the trap from time to time of mistaking activity for achievement. We succumb to the tyranny of the urgent and the easy over the important. Answering emails, texts, and checking social networks somehow seems more important than that big long-term project due at the end of the week.

The scary thing about 10.5 hours of multimedia exposure per day with kids and teenagers is that it happens at a time when their cognitive and thought processes are being formed. To the extent that it becomes a habit or an addiction, the pattern becomes hard to break.

Statistics On Depression

Depression takes a huge toll on America’s health and productivity.  According to Mental Health America, It affects more than 21 million American children and adults annually and is the leading cause of disability in the United States for individuals ages 15 to 44. Lost productive time among U.S. workers due to depression is estimated to be in excess of $31 billion per year. It is also the principal cause of more than 38,000 suicides in the U.S. each year.

____________________________

  1. Rideout V, Foehr U, Roberts D., Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010.
  2. Nie NH. Sociability, interpersonal relations, and the Internet: Reconciling conflicting findings. American Behavioral Scientist Special Issue: The Internet in everyday life. 2001;45(3):420-35.
  3.  Lee PSN, Leung L, Lo V, Xiong C, Wu T. Internet communication versus face-to-
    face interaction in quality of life. Social Indicators Research. 2011;100(3):375-89.
  4.  Moody EJ. Internet use and its relationship to loneliness. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 2001;4(3):393-401.
  5.  Kraut R, Patterson M, Lundmark V, Kiesler S, Mukophadhyay T, Scherlis W. Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist. 1998;53(9):1017-31.
  6. Shapira NA, Lessig MC, Goldsmith TD, et al. Problematic internet use: Proposed classification and diagnostic criteria. Depression and Anxiety. 2003;17(4):207-16.

The iPad and Physical Fitness

Any time a new communication technology is introduced, people rapidly discover new uses for it that may go far beyond the inventor’s intentions. I’m reading a Bill Bryson book called At Home. It contains an anecdote about the early days of the telephone. The telephone, according to Bryson, was originally intended to be a means of rapidly distributing weather, emergency and other time-sensitive information. The thought that people would use it to converse with family and friends seemed wild and implausible since you could talk to them in person.

Likewise, I remember back in the early days of personal computing in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, clients having heated debates about why someone would want a personal computer. Some people actually thought housewives would want them to store and organize recipes. Other people thought kids might find them useful for playing educational games. Their potential as a serious business tool was seriously underestimated.

Thirty years later, along comes this thing called the Apple iPad. It’s diminutive form factor made it look like a more portable laptop or an smartphone on steroids. I bought one and quickly became addicted to reading e-books. At first, I rationalized it based saving trees.

Three years after purchasing my first iPad, I now look at it in an entirely new way – as a physical fitness tool.  Last year, I had bypass surgery. If you’ve never had your chest cracked, all I can say is, “Avoid it at all costs.” But I digress. During my recuperation from the surgery, I bought an exercise bike because I had too many accidents on street and mountain bikes. I also reasoned that an exercise bike would remove weather as an excuse to avoid a workout. (Houston has two seasons: summer and August. The heat and humidity here can be daunting at times.)

I quickly found that boredom was my biggest exercise challenge. Riding for an hour a day gets old quickly, but that’s what it takes to get in shape and stay in shape.

iPad to the rescue. Now, when I get on the bike, I flip my iPad case over the console. During my hour-long ride, I can answer emails, catch up with friends on Linked-in, read e-books, or watch a video on Amazon Prime or Netflix. For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching a series of fascinating TED Talks on Netflix.

At the end of an hour, I’ve pedaled between 20 and 25 miles. Dull, repetitive drudgery has turned into fascinating intellectual exploration with some of the brightest minds in the world.

Some people may say, “You could always watch TV on your exercise bike.” That’s true, but it’s not quite the same thing. With the iPad, I can start the video at the start of the ride. I also get a lot more variety. If I don’t feel like TED, I watch a documentary, or catch up on my reading.

Now here’s the best part. I’ve had the bike almost exactly a year. During that time, I’ve pedaled almost 6000 miles! That’s across the country and back again! And I, Robert Rehak, have lost 80 pounds and eight inches from my waistline! I now weigh what I did when I graduated from college and was playing competitive sports. I tell people that I feel forty again. I met a college classmate not long ago and he told me I looked exactly the same as when we went to Northwestern together (except for the gray hair).

The transformation has been remarkable. I didn’t lose the 80 pounds because of exercise or nutrition apps on the iPad. I lost them because the iPad kept me interested in working out.

Curiously, I find another factor at work, too. I find that when I get lost in a good book or video while riding that it diverts my attention. I forget how tired I am and start pedaling faster. Yesterday, I averaged almost 25 MPH while watching a series of TED Talks on the application of mathematics to everyday life.

Hey, 80 pounds is all the math I need. Thank you, Steve Jobs, wherever you are. I doubt this is what he had in mind when he and the good people at Apple conceived the iPad. It’s simply a side effect. An unintended consequence. And I love it.

The Internet and Free Speech

The Internet brought self-publishing to the common man. That may have done more for free speech than the First Amendment. But all that unfettered freedom has a dark side, too. The freedom to lie. The freedom to libel. The freedom to make false allegations. The freedom to bully. The freedom to invade privacy. And the freedom to destroy competitors, ex-lovers, neighbors with yapping dogs, 14-year-old girls having bad-hair days, the cop who gave you a ticket for doing 90 in a school zone, and the overworked waitress who took too long to refill your iced tea.

Having fun yet? Oh, I forgot the freedom to do it all anonymously.

As a writer, I’ve always believed that Free Speech is the most important freedom Americans have. But I’ve also come to believe in recent years that the greatest threat to Free Speech is people who lie and libel with impunity online.

shutterstock_125458373Before the “irresponsibles” spoil it for all of us, we need to draw a line in the sand, Dude. That line is Truth with a capital T. Yes, I know Truth isn’t always black or white. But let’s leave the shades of gray out of this for the moment and consider only one of the extremes. Should anyone have the right to damage you with blatant, outright lies?

Any reasonable person would take a New York nanosecond to shout “NO!” But sadly the answer is “YES” – at least in the free-fire zone called the Internet.

Have you ever been caught in the cross-fire? Sorry, Bucky. You’re collateral damage to a higher cause – Free Speech.

If you want to read a real-life horror story filled with the sad sagas of dozens of victims, read a book called Violated Online: How Online Slander Can Destroy Your Life by Steven Wyer. It should be required reading for anyone with Internet access and a voter registration card. That includes judges and legislators.

Mr. Wyer’s sobering book contains numerous examples of how people’s lives have been ruined by a perfect storm of new, converging laws, technologies and trends, such as:

  • Anti-SLAPP statutes
  • Internet anonymity
  • Social networks that facilitate viral communications
  • Anonymous text bots that relentlessly record the location of every piece of information on the Internet whether it is true or false.
  • Online information archives, such as the Library of Congress, that dutifully store false allegations
  • Search engines that lead people directly to those lies for decades

Want to see how easy it is to damage someone? Just visit any complaint site like RipoffReport.com, AbusiveMen.com, PissedOff.com or DatingPsychos.com. Anyone can start a vicious rumor about someone he or she doesn’t like, such as the poor kid in class who wore mismatching socks, a competitor, or political opponent. The bigger the lie, the faster and farther it spreads. And once it’s gone viral, it’s impossible to stop.

Want to see how long you can keep the fun going? Read the story on Snopes.com about an email circulating since 2005. It lists compensation details of CEOs of major charities. Only one problem: the information is bogus. Who knows how much suffering this email caused by diverting badly needed contributions from those in need!

In Texas, at least one politician has already used the state’s new anti-SLAPP statute as a shield to attack private citizens. Texas courts have upheld the politician’s right to do so. And the Texas governor vetoed an ethics bill last month that contained a provision that would have made it more difficult for politicians to attack private citizens anonymously.

A growing body of research underscores how psychology as well as technology can fuel the persistence of misinformation and “belief echoes.” Most people tend to continue believing misinformation even after it has been proven untrue. Most often, attempts to expose lies actually strengthen belief in the misinformation.

The Internet is like an echo chamber. When social networks pick up the news and the Library of Congress archives all the Tweets about you, you suddenly become a Number One search result on Google, sentenced to a virtual pillory for life without due process.

Your phone stops ringing. Your friends shun you. Even your dog pees on your rug. It’s game over, Bubba. So what if they lied! They got to vent.

Want to clean up this mess? A good start would be to teach kids NEVER to trust people using pseudonyms online. Perhaps someday we could even make the use of online pseudonyms illegal. If people fear they might be held accountable for damaging lies, they might think twice before publishing them to the world.