Friday, 8 June 2018

Two Years in London

Do you remember the snow in March? That was good.
They say time flies when you’re having fun - but it feels like the second year hasn’t even started yet. Due to a combination of lecturer strikes that consumed all of my uni contact hours in March, my measly three exams which we got two months off to revise for, some extremely poor lecturing, and a two day week in uni because of the way the timetable worked out, the amount of effort I’ve been required to put into my course has been minimal. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy though.

I moved back to London in early September, spent a wonderful two weeks in Stratford, moved to Bow in mid-September and began working non-stop until the middle of April. I’ve had a wonderful time this year jumping from meetings with university management, to talks from HuffPost editors; shooting and editing a news show over the course of a day, spending endless hours on the phone with Robyn, and enduring the necessary torture that is patronisingly dull child-safeguard training for a Scout group - and all that was just a random Tuesday last February. In 1986, a great man once said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Looking like an ostentatious arsehole: presenting the
first episode of The Print's Mile End in a Minute
The Print
I can’t talk about my second year at uni without talking about the newspaper. Despite finding some moments extremely difficult, I loved every second of being editor. I loved the variety of writing I read, the stories I heard, and the people I met. I'm honestly going to miss editing and I just hope I did people proud.

I love London as much as I hate London
For every positive, there is a negative. London hosts a level of blatant rudeness you’d find nowhere else in the world. Were you in this queue? I don’t think so, matey. On the flip side, this does mean that random acts of kindness go a long way. It’s a city where too many people take themselves too seriously, however it is one of the best places to express your eccentricities. The air quality is noticeably awful in areas, however people all around London try to save the planet and conserve fossil fuels by not using their car indicators. I love those people. They’re the best.

The Flat
As with London, I’ve had a love hate relationship with my flat. It’s fantastic because it’s a 10 minute walk from Queen Mary, and a 2 minute walk from the Slammersmith and Pity (what us locals call it) and the Docklands Light Railway. However, the laminate floorboards in my bedroom have a carpet of hair that doesn’t belong to me; and despite cleaning the floor almost fortnightly, it’s not going away. Also, the hot and cold taps in the bathroom being the wrong way round to what they should be bugs the hell out of me, the ice cream van that plays the ‘Match of the Day' theme tune outside at 10 to 6 every day drives me up the wall, and the fact I only met my next door neighbours when I ran into them in the stairwell and they accused me of having friends round who nicked the front tyre of their bike doesn’t make for the warmest of neighbourhoods. Jokes on them, I never have friends round.

Profound Conclusion
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this year, it's to be difficult (but for the right reasons, of course). I remember talking to a friend at the end of March about the feeling of being sick of arguing with people, but looking back, I’m pleased I picked the fights I did. Hopefully some of them have resulted in making some people’s bittersweet relationships with London a smidgen more sweet at times, whether they’re colleagues, students, or friends.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Cambridge Analytica scandal isn’t a scandal, it’s a business model

Cambridge Analytica recently closed down following a joint investigation from Channel 4 and The Observer which exposed that the company had been collecting Facebook user data without consent and targeting messages during the 2016 European Union referendum.

Since then, founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has faced questions from the US Senate; which mostly consisted of people who barely knew what they were talking about, piecing together semi-literate, broad questions which were mostly irrelevant. And, the EU Parliament; which entailed 75 minutes’ worth of very specific and nuanced questions followed by Zuckerberg speaking vaguely about general themes that came up, rendering both of these sessions rather pointless. Facebook needs proper scrutiny and despite what Zuckerberg thinks, the technology industry cannot regulate itself. This is evident by the fact that the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal was not caused because Facebook enabled it - rather, it was caused because they encouraged it.

Facebook’s business model is rooted in the notion that companies pay to target adverts based on user data that Facebook has collected. Despite what many might think, the customers aren’t the users, the customers are the organisations and businesses willing to pay for user data. What Cambridge Analytica did was simply an extension of this; they found a loophole.

Let's be clear, targeting political adverts based on user behaviour and interests is not illegal. If it was, Facebook would not be the tech behemoth it is today. They’ve been reasonably transparent about this too as they state exactly what data they collect and how they use it in their Privacy Policy.

Critics enjoy pointing that this is unethical as nobody reads privacy policies because they are too long - as The Wall Street journal pointed out, revised and condensed policies from 30 of the top apps still span the length of an American football field. They could shorten these policies however realistically, unless the whole policy can be summarised in less than 100 words, it is very unlikely that the majority of users are going to read it; a task that would be virtually impossible.

Facebook collecting data and aggregating it for advertising use is how they make their money. Yes, Cambridge Analytica went above and beyond to exploit this but ultimately, it’s not too different from any Facebook targeted advertising.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

When news isn't news

Modern news apps aren’t as ground-breaking as Google and Apple might think

At I/O 2018, Google announced they are relaunching their news app so it brings users a customised feed of stories based on their interests and what they've previously read. In short, this is Google's take on Apple News. These news apps, which are basically glorified RSS feeds, are well-intentioned however ultimately problematic. Technology promised to eliminate some of the issues associated with old media, however I fear that they've only made them worse.

The main issue is that letting an algorithm pick news for you based on interests you've told it and your reading history is not a good way to digest news. Google has proved their algorithms for generating content don't really work – as demonstrated by the YouTube Trending page where fake news, violent videos, and copyrighted material often surfaces to the top. To be fair, this isn't a problem limited to Google. Facebook makes a hash of providing news too. They spent the whole of 2016 doing nothing about the unchecked saturation of fake news circulating around their platform.

Secondly, displaying stories based on previous reads does not mean they are the pieces you should be digesting. Google says, through “reinforced learning,” the app will learn what topics and publishers you like. Apparently "the more you use it, the better it gets." However most people are drawn in by clickbait and non-stories with glorified thumbnails. Fall for them three or four times and presumably this means Google will start thinking that you have an appetite for pointless listicles and trivial news, so you will be shown more.

Thankfully, there is a simple fix to these problems: editors.

Call me old fashioned but what is wrong with allowing actual human beings to decide what are the most important issues of the day and giving stories some gravitas by putting them in the public eye? This would serve readers better too as it would diversify the topics that appear in the feed.

The obvious opposition to this idea is the fact that editors have biases. Of course they do. But, as do algorithms. It has been proved numerous times over the past decade that algorithms reflect the people who write them so they're not truly impartial either. At least with a group of editors, there is someone to hold accountable if you don't think the news is neutral.

In a society where there is now a large need for views to be challenged and news not to simply reinforce a person’s 'confirmation bias', Google News is doing little to address the challenges. In an ideal world, Coffee House blogs from The Spectator should be put in front of liberals and ‘Comment is Free’ think-pieces from The Guardian should be exposed to conservatives. Instead, it would appear that Google is keener to associate their news efforts with buzzwords like 'machine learning' and 'AI' in order to satisfy investors - rather than creating an information tool that would benefit society.

This is nothing new though. It's unlikely that someone on the political left would go out and buy The Daily Mail or someone on the right The Observer. However, technology has the ability to bring people more balanced news and to expose people to analysis that they might not agree with. Moreover, the companies which are providing platforms for news (Google, Apple and Facebook) have a duty not just to host the content but to prioritise the content which is actually factually correct. Simple as it may sound, this is something an algorithm currently struggles to do.

In Google's defence, they do try and partly address this problem. The news app has a tab called 'Headlines' which Google claims will help readers "understand the full story." On Stage at I/O, Trystan Upstill said, "Today, it takes a lot of work a lot of work to broaden your point of view and understand a story in depth. With Google News we set out to make that effortless." Cut through the waffle and fundamentally this is just a feed of top stories from a wide variety of trusted sources.

Inside of this, they’ve created a 'Full Coverage' feature which will allow users to see how a story is being covered from a variety of sources - including fact checking sites. Google says that everyone will see the same content in Full Coverage. "It’s an unfiltered view of events from a range of trusted news sources."

So why not build the whole app with this foundation, rather than hiding it in a niche corner of the app? When you open the app, you still land on the 'For You' tab which serves you a plate of sources you like the taste of.

Although Google – and others – have the capacity to incite positive change to the media landscape and democratise information to provide the world with more balanced news, Google News has the same problems as old news media, but in a modern format and with “light, easy, fast, and fun design choices.” Thanks for nothing, Google.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Google's quest to end real life human interaction

Why talk to another person when you can talk to Artificial Intelligence?

Google I/O 2018 was where Duplex was announced
At Google’s developer conference earlier this month, the tech giant announced a new feature in Google Assistant called ‘Duplex’ which will make calls to organisations and businesses on your behalf. “Hey Google, book me an appointment at the barbers” - and voilà! Google will make that very simple call that you are apparently too busy to make.

I am sceptical of this new gimmick. Ethically, Google Duplex will need to start every call by declaring that it is a bot. Legally, I don't see how this gets around the two-party consent needed in some US states for recordings to be made (as all the processing will be done on Google’s servers). And seriously, why does the voice speak with fillers like “urm” and “hmm”? Google has a lot of questions to answer.

Say what?
Even though CEO of Google Sundar Pichai says, “Duplex can understand the nuances of conversation,” I suspect the prospect of tech like this working seamlessly is still a long way off. When I was watching the keynote on YouTube (a Google company), I couldn’t help noticing that the automatically generated captions were still nonsensical drivel – proving that text-to-speech and vice-versa technology is still more of a novelty than a reliable tool.

In the demo, they got Google Assistant to call a 'real' hair salon and book an appointment. However the conversation still seemed rather simulated. I wonder how Duplex will respond to disgruntled, underpaid restaurant workers with a strong accents. Will Duplex give as good as it gets when called a “wee bint”?

Thinking about the future of this product, offloading scheduling calls that you don’t want to make to restaurants, masseuses, and alike are just the beginning. How long after the launch of Duplex will I be able to say, “Hey Google, catch-up with my best friend”? Then for it to call them; outputting extracts of my voice so it can murmur along and ask broad follow-up questions as they drone on and on about their banal endeavours in the club last night.

Tech giants like Google always appear to have altruistic intentions on the surface, however I can’t see many realistic long-term advantages of Duplex. It will only decrease actual human interaction and make the few interactions we do have with strangers more negative. What kind of message are you sending to the kabab shop or dry-cleaners if you get Duplex to call them rather than making the simple call yourself? You’re basically asking for your someone to gob in your doner meat or lose your knickers, Mrs I’m-too-important-to-deal-with-you-little-people.

I’m labouring the point here, but Google is making the large assumption that people will want to interact with bots. I know I certainly don’t. So, even though calls to businesses are often mundane, cherish these little pieces of actual human interaction whilst you can.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Interview with Queen Mary's Principal for The Print

Last month, I interviewed President and Principal of Queen Mary Colin Bailey for The Print. We discussed the higher education sector, student safety in London, his vision for Queen Mary and much more. Listen below or on iTunes. Alternative, search 'The Print Podcast' wherever you get your podcasts.

Questions were by myself and Sophie Mitchell, with additional help from Queen Mary students who submitted questions via our web form.

Apologies for the poor sound quality at times; the interview its self was recorded using my phone's microphone.

I'd love to hear your feedback and suggestions for future guests who would make good interviews (preferably people who do something that is of interest to students). So, feel free to Tweet at me. In the meantime, happy listening.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Dating apps are killing romance

Unpopular opinion: I hate dating apps. They're just sad. Maybe I’m refusing to acknowledge that we now live in a world where the most fundamental and basic of human interactions (i.e. finding a partner) cannot be done without algorithms, profiles, and a lot of swiping. Obviously, using a dating app is a lot easier than asking a boy or girl out in person but since when was love (or sex) supposed to be easy.

A whole genre of movies is grounded in this idea of meeting someone and a connection forming. Pretty soon romance films are going to be closer to fantasy because the notion of seeing a person across a crowded bar and asking for their number will be an alien concept to the next generation. Hell, CBS managed to milk 208 episodes out of a boy meets girl story (HIMYM). Just imagine if that show was set 15 years later: 'I saw your mother’s holiday pic from last summer with the girls and I thought, “damn girl, u hot” so slid into her DMs with a pic of my dick’.

I hate Cards Against Humanity

Many a night during secondary school, I would invite friends over, we would drink Desperados, eat Fajitas, and play Cards Against Humanity. I also played Cards Against Humanity almost every time I went camping… and I go camping a lot.

So, why have I grown out of the game? It's repetitive - and nothing is less funny than a joke that’s already been told before. Once you’ve been through the whole deck a dozen times, you practically know every card so you’re no longer shocked by the outrageous and edgy white card that is played. The laughs are cheap and come from banally reading a crude phrase some guy in America has wrote from a piece of cardboard.

I hear you thinking ‘Yes, but there are dozens of black cards and hundreds of white ones so there are endless combinations!' No, once you’re familiar with all the white cards, the fun is dead.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

I'm going to miss being 19

“You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely.” - Ogden Nash

Today is my last day being a teenager.

I spent today how I’ve spent a lot of April Fool’s Days… camping. Even on the eve of becoming a teenager I was camping.

There in one story in particular about the eve of my 13th birthday (well, technically my 13th birthday itself) that gets recited to me every Easter year-upon-year. Picture this: It’s night-time, a 12 year-old Liam Pape has been in bed for a few hours and wakes up in his sleep at one of his first Scout camps, crying and yowling because he wants to go home and spend his birthday with his family.

Ben, one of the older boys at the end of the tent, tells me to be quiet. Harry, one of the more considerate boys at the other end of the tent takes me to a leader instead. On waking the leader, I explained that I wanted him to call my mam so she could come and pick me up. The leader, Mark, instead gives me another blanket and tells me it’s 3am so he’s not calling anybody. I go back to my tent and eventually fall asleep. Unknowing that I wouldn’t live that down for the next six years.

Once of the best things I heard about being a teenager came from my secondary school history teacher. In 2013, I’d been invited to a peers event at the House of Commons as part of an anti-tobacco industry campaign I was part of at the time. He came with me as a chaperone and on the train down to London he said to me, “Don’t be afraid to look stupid today. You can get away with it. You’re a teenager.”

Me, looking smug about being a naïve, juvenile teenager
Even though, I’ve come to learnt that most people look stupid well into their old age nowadays, I’m sure I will look back at these teenage years with nostalgia that I will no longer be able to laugh off idiocy as “well I’m just a teenager.”

The main thing I’m going to miss about being a teenager isn’t any of the perks that come with these magical years (if there any any perks at all that is - spots, puberty, and PE lessons don’t sound that great to me). Rather, the actuality of being able to say that I’m a teenager. I still very much associate being 19 with adolescence. At the end of the day, it’s still the decade of your life when you went to Primary School and Secondary School. But being 20, nah son, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Being the big two zero means that you're in the decade of your life where most people start a career, buy a house, and have kids. Being 20 is adulthood.

It’s not the expectations that bother me though, it’s the whole notion of adulthood associated with being 20.

Some of the best pleasures I’ve had in the last year or two, especially in London, have been the expressions of people who thought that I was way older than 19. Their surprise when I proudly declare that I’m only 19 is fantastic!

I fondly remember a conversation with a colleague at work last year. She was 35 years old and had recently came out of a long-term relationship but was looking to get back onto the dating scene. She asked me if I had any single friends I could set her up with. “Pah! I’m 18. Basically all my friends are single!” I chortled. She laughed it off, said that she thought I was in my early 30s and then declared that she was old enough to be my mother.

By far my favourite ‘being 19’ story happened this February. I was in a club and a woman (who I later found out was 24) asked me for my Instagram username - I can only assume this is the 2018 way of asking for someones number? She followed me and I followed back as she was very pretty.

Marin and Kyle went ballistic when I told them I had no plans to slide into her DMs though because I felt like a catfish. “What the fuck do you mean? She’s seen you in person though?” they said to me. However, the poor woman definitely thought I was far older than I was though.

Imagine if we went on a date and she says, "I’m a part-time model and work for an auctioneers. What do you do for a living, Liam?" and I then need to explain that I’m a student so I spend most of my time dossing around in my flat and watching David Dobrik videos on YouTube. Then what happens when the bill comes? I gently need to nudge it over to her side of the table with a pitiful expression as I explain, “student loan, sorry luv.”

Since their 20s were the decade that my parents got married and had me, I’ve decided to set a goal to spend my 20s trying to find ‘the one’ and seeing if I can unearth my true callling in life.

I’m shitting you.

I’ll probably just continue to overwork myself until an early grave.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Making 'The Camp 3'

Is camping - and scouting in general - still relevant to the youth of today?

In The Camp 1 and 2, we looked at what makes the 8th Darlington different to other Scout groups and why people, young and old, agree to spend one week every year in a boggy field. I thought answering those two questions over the course of 50 minutes collectively was a suffice summary of summer camp with the 8th. I was wrong.

In June 2017, I discovered that there was an appetite for a third camp film. I was told that although many of the events that happen at summer camp are the same year upon year, the way they are done and the characters involved are different - and therefore still worth covering. Over a string of emails with Alec, it was decided that we should try to answer the question of whether camping is still relevant to the youth of today throughout the course of the film.

As usual, we tried to maintain two main genres: informational documentary and humour. Hopefully most references can be understood by a wider audience and scenes that are about events unique to the 8th (such as PL’s choice and the X-fire) are explained thoroughly enough that outsiders get the gist of the what is going on.

Since the film is about a small community and for a small community, nobody cared if it was filmed on an iPhone 4S or a Canon EOS C200 4K Camcorder. Nobody cared for sweeping HDR aerial shots or dramatic sepia colouring in post-production. The characters and overarching theme are paramount. Nothing else.

I think we did a good job getting the theme of camping’s relevance in the 21st century to run throughout the film. In the opening, the reasons for why we are asking that question are identified and explained in an intriguing way with an overly-emotive soundtrack and edgy editing. Before the end of the second day of camp is concluded, Maverick gives a really wishy-washy interview where he cannot come to any conclusion whatsoever about camping’s relevance. But gradually, as the film goes on, the interviews get better and the audience can make up their own mind. This is of course accompanied by the documenting of the week with the highs and lows, the fun and the work, the silliness and the seriousness.

I have been asked if the last scene was scripted/faked for dramatic effect. But it actually happened… with perfect timing actually as it occured in the last hour at camp when I still hadn't figured out an ending to the film. Once Erika described what, to her, made camping relevant to young people, I went away and sat quietly, filming people at a high frame rate knowing it could be slowed down to look dramatic and poignant in the edit - like a nature photographer trying not to interfere with the wildebeests… or a pervert with a telescope.

Is The Camp 3 the best of The Camp trilogy, or even better than 100 Years with the 8th for that matter? Only Mark Kermode knows for sure, but you can judge for yourself, I suppose, by watching it here ---->>