Archive for the ‘Gear and Software’ Category

Supreme Court paints a bull’s-eye on the ‘cloud’

U.S. Supreme CourtA high court ruling this week that sent a renegade over-the-air TV provider reeling could leave a scar that stretches into the digital ‘cloud.’

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court cinched shut a legal loophole that let upstart Aereo tap the prime-time broadcast signals of the major networks and stream them directly to customers, bypassing cable and satellite providers altogether and skirting the systems and agreements networks created to charge for their broadcasts. Those charges created a revenue stream worth about $4.3 billion in 2013.

A legal challenge arose almost the moment Aereo started two years ago intercepting the network signals relayed from the antennas atop the Empire State Building in New York City and sending those signals straight to subscribers’ computers or mobile devices. Aereo grew to serve 11 metro areas.

The networks said what Aereo was doing amounted to copyright infringement. Last year, a federal appeals court disagreed.

But the Supremes ruled 6-3 on Thursday that Aereo resembles a cable TV service and so should comply with federal rules cable and satellite providers follow in distributing copyrighted material. The rules were first laid in place in 1984, when home VCR recording was popular, and were extended in 2008 to cover remote storage and DVR usage.

Aereo is not expected to survive. However, Thursday’s ruling likely will ripple out much further.

Aereo logoDuring the case’s oral arguments, held before the Supreme Court in April, a point arose that widely available cloud storage services managed by Apple, Dropbox and Google are not held to the same standard as Aereo though they offer similar remote data access. Currently, the onus of copyright violation involving files stored in the cloud falls on users and not the services themselves.

In other words, if a pirated broadcast is discovered in someone’s Dropbox account it’s the account’s owner who suffers, not Dropbox.

The Supremes stepped gingerly away from the door they opened by saying, “We cannot now answer more precisely how (copyright provisions) will apply to technologies not before us.” Analysts of the ruling say this just opens a path for data providers to squeeze usage fees out of cloud storage providers.

“The court is sending a very clear signal that you can’t design a system to be the functional equivalent of cable,” University of Maryland legal scholar James Grimmelmann told Vox. “The court also emphasizes very strongly that cloud services are different. But when asked how, it says, ‘They’re just different, trust us.’”

If it ever comes down to making a legal distinction, cloud users may also suffer, says Mark McKenna, associate dean and professor of law at Notre Dame.

“That’s the cloud companies’ concern — do they have to now make sure all of their users are only making available things they own?” he told


David Sheets is a freelance writer and editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.



Still using Windows XP? Then stop using Microsoft’s Web browser

A word to the stubborn ones among you who refuse to ditch Windows XP: You take a big risk clinging to a 12-year-old computer operating system after Tuesday.

Windows XP logoHowever, there’s one thing you can do to minimize that risk: Stop using Microsoft’s own Web browser, Internet Explorer, because the browser contains open paths for hackers to compromise the OS.

Microsoft ended free support for Windows XP on April 8, meaning the company no longer tweaks the OS, fixes it, or ensures protection against evolving security risks unless devotees pay for it. The cost is around $200 per PC for the first year and slides upward in succeeding years.

But Tuesday, the company released a series of security updates for its newer Windows systems that hackers could analyze and compare against XP to find flaws in the older system.

Microsoft also will release security updates for the IE browser; however, end of support tends to be comprehensive and means those fixes probably won’t make it to IE browsers run on XP, either.

Switching to a non-Microsoft browser lessens the chance of a hacker peering through the Web into XP.

Analyst estimates vary on how many PCs in the United States still run XP, but the average seems to be 13 percent. Among the die-hard users are numerous local, state, and federal agencies; financial institutions; public utilities; and media outlets.

Why cling to an OS that predates much of the modern Web? Cost is a prime reason. Microsoft nudged XP’s lifespan further down the calendar in large part because of a lukewarm reception to successor Windows Vista, which was too robust to run on most XP computers. The Vista replacement, Windows 7, received generally better reviews, but it debuted in 2009 when America’s economy was in the tank and businesses inflicted severe cuts in their own expenses, infrastructure upgrades among them.


David Sheets is a freelance writer and editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.


Snapchat snafu serves as an important reminder

Snapchat logoToday, many Snapchat users are no doubt gnawing their nails over the clothing-sparse selfies and booze-infused party pics they shared on assumptions of privacy. They’re wondering whether insulting memes and embarrassing explanations will result.

They’re probably kicking themselves over believing Snapchat was different from other social sites, and kicking themselves again for ignoring the reality of digital secrecy — that there really is no such thing.

On Thursday, Snapchat, the mobile messaging service that distinguished itself by guaranteeing all of its clients’ sharing was time-limited and disposable, agreed to settle Federal Communications Commission charges that it could not deliver on that guarantee. The settlement comes despite insinuations and accusations that the guarantee lacked legitimacy from the start.

As punishment, Snapchat must restate its privacy goals and live up to them while under federal surveillance for the next 10 years. No monetary penalty was announced, but in our fast-moving digital world the surveillance period is tantamount to living with a parole officer for two lifetimes, and trying to sneak past the guard could invite a fatal smack in the wallet.

Snapchat apologized in brief on its blog, alleging that some of the FTC’s charges were addressed well before Thursday’s announcement and concluding its mea culpa by saying, “We are devoted to promoting user privacy and giving Snapchatters control over how and with whom they communicate. That’s something we’ve always taken seriously and always will.”

But promises are made to be broken, and a tech startup’s erstwhile intent lacks armor against those who merely feign concern for anyone’s social well-being. The Snapchat snafu thus serves as yet another piquant reminder that a person’s secrets are best protected by their owners and not by anyone who’s capable of putting a dollar value on indiscretion.

And so, the reminders go out again, to journalists and non-journalists alike:

  • Don’t trust your privacy to anything digital.
  • Don’t consider any kind of social networking to be a secret conversation. Your first clue? It has the word “social” is its name.
  • Don’t talk to people online in ways you wouldn’t talk to them in person.
  • Don’t share digital data unsecured or unencoded.
  • Don’t think Snapchat’s apology amounts to an epilogue on this story.


David Sheets is a freelance writer and editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.


Making videos on the go just got much easier

Software developer Adobe has simplified video production and editing for any journalist on the go who’s armed with an Apple iPad. The company officially unveiled today its new Adobe Voice app, a kind of PowerPoint on steroids now available for free at Apple’s iTunes Store.

Quite simply, Voice makes video possible without actually filming any video.

Through a simple step-by-step process, users simply insert their own photos or animation clips or download images from rights-free sources into a kind of storyboard template, then add text from a selection of more than two dozen preinstalled themes and 25,000 icons.

The app gets its name from the feature that allows users to then record narration by tapping the microphone icon at the bottom of each page as they assemble a scene. Voice also includes a music list to lay down an audio foundation.

Once complete, each video can be shared on social media, blogs, and websites, or uploaded for display on Adobe’s own servers, by tapping another icon.

Adobe predicts Voice could make the most noise at schools, where students and teachers can make quick videos without the hassle of complicated equipment or software. Net Worked however predicts a faster adoption by the public — and certainly by street journalists looking for yet an even quicker way to make a good first impression.


David Sheets is a freelance writer and editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.


The secret to success for early adopters

Early adopter(Editor’s note: A version of this post first appeared at

We all enjoy occasional trips along the cutting edge. Spurred by our adrenaline and excitement, these trips can lift moods and egos by suggesting that we’re smarter, faster, better than the masses.

Those who live by this routine are called early adopters, or “trendsetters.” They’re a step removed from innovators but enjoy the cachet of being first at anything.

They constitute a distinct population, whereas most of us prefer hanging with the masses and steering wide of the danger zone, because the comfort zone has lounge chairs and mini refrigerators.

But what if there seems no choice but to join the early adopters?

That was the feeling people had last week before flaws and a resulting wave of bad press beset two high-profile tech arrivals: Windows RT 8.1 and

Both were supposed to address pressing national issues. Both were touted as easy fixes for those issues. And both went public after intense PR campaigns nudging the public toward early adoption.

Now, both are case studies for caution.

Windows RT 8.1, an operating system update released last Thursday, aimed to fix the balky, user-unfriendly Microsoft Windows 8 for tablet PCs. Less than two days later, RT was withdrawn from the free-download section of the Microsoft Store because of reports that it was rendering tablets unresponsive or inoperative., the official registration site for the Obama administration’s health care expansion, was promoted as an easy-open door to health care for millions of Americans without any. But it nearly drowned from a flood of applicants after going live Oct. 1, then suffered complaints that it was confusing and difficult to use.

Microsoft resumed Windows RT 8.1 downloads Sunday and showed dismayed users how to resurrect their failing tablets. Exactly what went wrong in the first place was not announced.

The federal government meanwhile says it will enlist “experts” to repair ― which sounds as if they weren’t already on board ― but time is against them; the deadline for millions of uninsured Americans to register is late March, and the site was supposed to handle much of the load.

Early adopters relish the exclusivity that being first provides. This emotional impulse puts these people out front and keeps them there.

But the impulse works two ways; a segment of the early adopter population simply seeks completion. Members vie for first place not to brag but to escape the crowd. Their comfort zones lack room for more than one person.

I was among them until becoming personal technology editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For six years, part of my job involved reviewing new devices and software before they went public and wrestling with whatever hardships ensued. The main benefit was that I learned how to fix computers and other gadgets without guidance, because sometimes the equipment was too new to have any.

The secondary benefit was an awareness of what it took to be a successful early adopter: research. Those who take risks at any level and count their success in bunches also prepare for failure to come just as often. They examine what precipitated innovation and see obstacles as challenges. They have read about other people’s mistakes, even interviewed the people who made them. They trade wisdom and warnings, share insights and incentives.

In short, they’re prepared to accept the pain just as much as the pleasure of early adoption.

Close observers of Microsoft understand that Windows has a history of quirkiness. That’s not necessarily a dig against Microsoft, rather an acknowledgement that computer operating systems are complex and difficult to perfect.

Web developers understand that any site meant to guide millions of visitors simultaneously through a maze of information by disparate and perhaps conflicting sources needs testing and re-testing before going live. That’s not necessarily an assault on’s creators, rather a reminder that huge sites require a huge amount of testing no matter whose name is on them.

In hindsight, it was smarter to wait on Windows RT 8.1 and hold off jumping into So, next time you’re pressured to be an early adopter, consider looking back before taking the lead.


David Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.


Interactive newspaper, anyone?

No, I don’t mean those icky PDF-based “e-edition” replicas of print editions that are available online but aren’t interactive or updated. I mean, what’s the use when you can keep up with breaking stories AND get yesterday’s news on the full website?

No, I mean imagine a print edition that’s on paper … but it reacts to you like a touchscreen, and you can type on it, click on it, scroll it or swipe it.

The Japanese company Fujitsu has developed a way to make anything — a piece of paper, for instance — a touchscreen by using a special projector. So a newspaper can sell a onetime projection unit (once the costs drop down to realistic levels) to subscribers, and send a daily “newspaper” that can be projected on paper, or maybe on a wall (maybe the bathroom wall!).

Ah, technology. You gotta love it.


Pinterest and Instagram get married

Yes, this idea had to happen sooner or later: Two incredibly popular social tools have merged.

Pinstagram's "Popular" page

Pinstagram shares the same basic layout design as Pinterest.

And just last week, the merger occurred out of humor. It’s called Pinstagram, an amalgamation of Pinterest and Instagram employing the former’s downward-streaming interface design as a display setting for the latter’s broad public appeal of kitchy imagery techniques.

Ideally, Pinstagram provides a desktop environment for a mobile application that didn’t have one of its own, explained co-creator Pek Pongpaet in a Wired interview. This way, Instagram lovers now can view entire portfolio themes and concepts in a Web page-size environment distinct from Instagram lovers’ blog sites.

Not that this deeper realization originally factored into Pinstagram’s creation. Pongpaet revealed in Wired that he and business partner Brandon Leonardo concocted it as a joke — playing off the Pinterest and Instagram names — but saw value in the idea after mulling it awhile longer.

Because it’s so new, Pinstagram has only a few thousand image shares and even fewer members, but the registration rate has been prodigious. And Pinstagram possesses many of the same traits that make Pinterest a convenient and creative platform for photojournalistseducators and job hunters.

A version for iPad is said to be in the works.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.


Change your sorry tech habits — now

We live in awe of technology, demonstrated with each remarkable advance over the generations. From the cotton gin to the computer, the tools we contrive to enrich our lives have affected how we behave as well as how we work.

Then the awe fades and we begin behaving badly, treating our tools as toys, or worse, as trash. That’s because once the bloom is off our newest gadgets, we slip into boredom and let bad habits sprout. We allow gadgetry to supplant or interfere with things it shouldn’t, such as responsible behavior, and then we have the nerve to be disappointed with the results. Pretty soon, we’re itching for another innovation to come along and make us feel better about our ourselves and our devices when the one thing that really needs to change is … us.

So, start making that change now by:

Improving your passwords — For a couple of decades, technologists have implored us to use passwords that are roundly more complex than our pets’ names, or our maiden names, or our nicknames, or — for God’s sake — the word “password.” Yet we are well into the 21st century and still making bad choices when pretending to protect what little security we have left. Get creative with passwords now, before someone gets creative with your personal information soon.

Standing, or taking a walks — Among the latest in fear-provoking research is a study out of Australia that says too much sitting can shorten your lifespan by 40 percent. And why not? The research material abounds: we’re in cars, at workstations or in front of the TV much longer than we’re on our feet. Other studies show that inactivity leads to weight gain and potentially fatal blood clots. Do more strolling, less trolling, and add years to your life in the process.

Changing chairs — When we sit, we don’t do that properly, either. Part of the blame lies with our poor posture, another part lies in the one-size-fits-all workstations employers impose on staffs. Work can be stressful enough; why compound it with sorry seating? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers suggestions for improving workplace comfort. Study these to create the optimum working environment at home, and make suggestions to your employer’s human resources department about replicating that environment at the office.

Taking better care of your equipment — Face it, computers and tablets are not appliances; they require somewhat more care and attention than the average bagel toaster. That includes:

  • System updates, to improve performance and security. Do these at least once a week.
  • Software backups, to prevent loss of critical data. Do this daily.
  • Battery optimization, to improve power-source performance. This involves running batteries all the way down, after their first use, before charging them all the way up again.
  • Cleaning and dusting, to reduce strain on components. Even solid-state devices such as cell phones require regular cleaning to prevent dust and grit from damaging their connectors, and to prevent germs from causing you grief.

Putting it all away — There are numerous optimum places to use gadgetry. Your car and your bed are not among them. For the sake of safety, avoid texting or talking on the phone while driving. And for the sake of sanity, set the phone or the tablet on the nightstand and leave them there. No amount of technology compensates for lack of sleep.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.


Four good uses for Foursquare

Just about everywhere these days, chances are good you’ll see walkers, talkers and (unfortunately) drivers with their faces tilted toward their smart phones as they text and tweet their every move. A byproduct of our digital lives has been an urge to let the world know where we are every moment, whether the world is interested or not.

This is a bane to the digitally uninterested but a boon to everyone else, particularly journalists, who are in the business of finding and talking to people. And topping the list of socially invasive tools with serious people-tracking capabilities is Foursquare, the 3-year-old location-based social networking site for mobile devices that now claims well over 15 million registered users worldwide.

Foursquare utilizes a mobile device’s global-positioning hardware to report where members are at a given moment when they “check in” at venues listed in the application database. The member can acquire “friends,” leave “tips” or advice about each location and post photos. Frequent visits earn travel points and the possibility of becoming “mayor” of that location. Furthermore, Foursquare awards “badges” for patterns of behavior, whether it’s visiting several coffee shops, seeing lots of movies or participating in product promotions.

The useful aspect for journalists is the digital trail Foursquare leaves; they can monitor member movements if they are “friended” by those members. In following this trail, it’s possible to track:

Frequent visitors — Foursquare lists real-time data on location, the current mayor, the latest tips posted by visitors, and the Foursquare identities of frequent visitors. Journalists can sift those lists for potential interview subjects if, say, it’s important to find interview subjects who are knowledgeable about particular locations or the clientele who visit them.

Personal behavior — When members check in at a location, all their friends can see where they are at that moment. Foursquare also displays lists of member badges, mayorships, tips, favorites and approximate arrival time at the last check in. Accumulated points hint at how often members are out and about, so it’s possible to guess an individual’s travel habits.

Trends — Besides seeing where people go, Foursquare shows how many other members are at a location. By clicking “Explore,” and then “Trending,” Foursquare shows potential social hotspots by listing all current check-ins, not just those by members’ friends. Want to find the most popular restaurant, the busiest nightclubs, the best concerts or surprisingly heavy traffic? Just watch where the Foursquare crowd is going.

Location information — Foursquare tips provide reasonably good detail from members about what’s going on at each location, whether it’s bad service at a restaurant or gridlock on the interstate. And Foursquare compiles the tips it receives, helping indicate whether a pattern of activity or potential news is breaking.

Foursquare isn’t the only geo-tracking social medium available, just among the most popular. Other tools worth trying are Gowalla, Loopt, Where, Yelp and, of course, Facebook, which added location-tagging about a year ago.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.


Digital Media Tools: One click away


As we near the SPJ convention in New Orleans; it’s a good time to remind you of all the digital media tools we have written about in the past year.   Just in case you’ve missed some of our past blogs, here is a list of topics we’ve covered.  

How to use Facebook in Journalism

Making Maps with UMappter 

Social media marketing tools for journalists

Getting started with quick, easy data visualization

Data Visualization and Infographic Sites to Bookmark

Build your website for free

Tablet or laptop? For some of us, the choice is obvious

Streamling your social media posting

Quora tries to answer all your questions

How to participate in a Twitter chat

Using Windows Movie Maker to edit audio clips

Google Charts Part 2 of 2: Motion charts

CuePrompter: No more memorizing scripts for your video blog

Digital media skills every young journalist needs 

Tools that help you get more from Twitter

Rebecca Aguilar is an Emmy award winning freelance reporter in Dallas, TX. She is the vice chairman of the SPJ Digital Media Committee, and a board member with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Fort Worth Chapter of SPJ.  She has 30 years of experience: television news, online news and video producing.  She can be contacted at


Newest Posts

Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14 July 25, 2014, 5:49 pm
Annual reports – the pros July 25, 2014, 6:39 am
Must read FOI stories – 7/18/14 July 18, 2014, 6:04 pm
Social Media’s Place in the Society’s Ethics Code July 16, 2014, 3:07 pm
SPJ in the news: White House letter reaches its destination and then some [updated 7/15] July 15, 2014, 6:00 pm
FOIA should be proactive, not reactive July 15, 2014, 4:14 pm
Third draft out on ethics code revision July 14, 2014, 7:32 pm

Copyright © 2007-2014 Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ