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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Land doesn't vote. People do.

Data scientist Karim Douïeb created a more accurate representation of how American's vote. He used colored circles, sized proportionally to population. Better than the usual method but still not quite accurate. Within each dot, there are both blue voters and red voters. Using shades of purple might be the better answer. Still, this is damn good, yes?

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Wandering attention in life drawing class


No naked, dancing, wood nymphs posed for our life drawing class. And yet there she was, a naked wood nymph balanced on one toe in the corner of a life drawing sketch pad. 

In truth, our model was an older woman wearing heritage clothing. And the student was a quiet, young girl who seemed very serious, very studious, not at all the free spirit. Still, a dancing wood nymph appeared off to the side, near the bottom corner, of the large sheet of paper.

When class was over, the student tore the page from the pad and discarded it. The emotionless portrait might have been kept and handed in for a mark but for the presence of the vibrant, naked nymph sharing the page. I believe the young girl found the presence of the little nymph embarrassing.

I asked the artist if I could reclaim her art from the trash bin. She said yes. Today both images hang on my hallway wall. The artist has gone on to become an executive with a high-paying office job in a San Fransisco highrise tower. She no longer draws, keeping her desire to draw naked dancing ladies a closely guarded secret.

Did a journalist rush to judgment when pointing to suspected perpetrators?



A weekly column demands an essay be written every seven days. It should come as no surprise that a good number of the columns pumped out by journalist-columnists contain filler. Take this week's column by journalist-editor-column-writer and journalism school instructor Larry Cornies.

Cornies tackled the story of a noose found hanging in Warbler Woods near a popular southwest London public trail. The trail attracts hikers from all around the area. In fact, the trail is so popular there is a small parking lot for the public at the trail entrance near Commissioners Road West.

Cornies quotes Dr. Javeed Sukhera, chair of the London police services board, who called the noose "a symbol of white anger." He said, "A noose is never 'just' a piece of rope. It is a direct threat to my family and [me]."

Yet Cornies writes, "I suspect, this week’s incident was the work of bored, pandemic-bound youths looking to provoke a little conflict or excitement in their affluent neighbourhood . . . "

If I were editing Cornies piece I'd remove his conjecture. What evidence does he have that rich, bored kids were behind this. None that I know of. If he does have information, he should come forward, speak to the police. What are the facts behind his suspicions?

Is this another instance of a journalist rushing to judgment driven by the desire to write a tidy story?

Monday, June 29, 2020

The thoughts of a dying photojournalist: Part II

Let me be clear. I have a very bad heart. It is failing. But, that said, I watch my diet, I stopped jogging and have eliminated all exercise that causes a heart to race and I lost all the extra weight I was carrying.

The result is that I am doing far better than many would have foreseen. I am now on my second pacemaker/ICD and my granddaughters are rooting for me to get a third.

On the downside, I have my off days. Yesterday was an off day. My limbs felt like lead. When I took my blood pressure it was clear why I felt so sluggish. My blood pressure had dropped to 79 over 50. My pulse rate was at 50 bpm, my pacemaker's lowest setting.

I am a little panicked about getting my thoughts out and I'm finding it far harder than I had ever imagined. Journalist do not want to hear, let alone consider, any criticism. Damn but they are thin skinned. I have had very little push back when it comes to facts. But I have endured a lot of nasty insults, many lies have been hurled my way. After tweeting an insult, the nastiest journalists cut our connection and block or mute me.

This is a reaction that I believe would make Donald Trump proud. If journalists want to be taken seriously, journalists have to respond to serious criticism, thoughtful takes on the problems facing the industry. They must respond with measured words and not angry, emotional insults reminiscent of the childish insults of a school yard bully or an orange-haired president.

Speed kills

I like to say news stories are put together at warp speed because the speed, often demanded by a fast approaching deadline, warps the stories. Sometimes to the breaking point. Reporters strive to tell the truth, to be fair, to stick to the facts. But how does one recognize truth, recognize a fact? This can be harder that you might imagine, especially when your time is limited.

When I was working as a journalist for an online digital publication, I covered an Ann Coulter talk at Western University. When she cancelled her next night's talk at the university in Ottawa,  I wrote a piece on that as well.

My report drew a lot of flak from a local journalist, a very good journalist I might add. He is one of my reporter heroes. I found it very upsetting that he took such strong umbrage at my article.

As I recall, he wrote an opinion piece saying Canada had been embarrassed by the cancellation of Coulter's talk. Universities should not be places where free speech is blocked by mob action.

Coulter had claimed she was forced to cancel by the large number of unruly protesters who had gathered a short time before she was slated to speak.

He challenged me to a debate in the weekend paper. He said he could back up every fact as he had checked them all with other journalists at other publications.

I agreed to debate him. I had a different take because I'd take a different approach. I knew I was right. I'd contacted the Ottawa university, the police tasked with providing security, I tracked down people who attended the event, or non event as it was cancelled, and I talked to Ann Coulter's people as well. And I downloaded some unedited images of the crowd I obtained thanks to the Coulter team.

I was able to prove the talk had been cancelled many hours earlier than was being reported. It was cancelled before any large group, any mob, had gathered. Coulter's own unedited photos disproved her claims. The journalist begged off. We would not have a debate in the weekend paper.

The lesson here is that it is very dangerous to get one's facts from other publications. When I got into the news business, this might not have happened. We had more time to chase down facts in the early '70s. Good journalism takes time and the business has always short-changed journalists when it comes to time but today the problem is worse. Hedge funds don't care about news.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The thoughts of a dying photojournalist.

I was on my first pacemaker/ICD when this was taken.
As I write this post, I'm publishing the developing piece online. If any journalists have suggestions, I'm listening.

Soon, I will be 73-years-old. Will I see my 74th birthday? I hope so but I am not sure. I have a relatively rare, gene-based, heart disease: ARVC. This is a progressive condition where the heart's right ventricle muscle slowly converts to fat and fibrous scar tissue.

Strenuous exercise aggravates the condition by causing the heart to expand. The heart tears under the stress. The tears heal with fat and scar tissue. As this continues, heart failure ensues.

In my case, my expanding, deteriorating heart stretched its electrical system to the breaking point. As a result, I have a 100 percent heart block. I'm on my second pacemaker/ICD. Without a pacemaker, I'd be dead.

But, today I am alive and I'm going to make the most of it. I'd like to spend some of my now very valuable time by attempting to improve the profession I've spent a lifetime dancing about the fringes: journalism.

More than a half century ago, I was introduced to photojournalism by reporter/photographer Andy Whipple. Andy opened my eyes to the magic offered photographers by a long lens. Using my 300mm lens he created images I had never dreamed possible. When Andy died from Parkinson's disease, the Bulletin in Oregon did a lovely piece on their Renaissance man.

Andy was just the first of a long list of inspired and inspiring photojournalists I have had the good fortune of knowing. Many of those photojournalists were men and woman with  whom I worked at The London Free Press. Others were dedicated members of the NPPA in the States, or the ONPA in Ontario.

For many years I had the honour of running the annual ONPA photojournalism seminar held at Western University in London, Ontario. It was thanks to my time running the popular seminar that I got to know world-famous photojournalists like Eddie Adams, the man who took the photo of Vietnamese Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong on the streets of Saigon with a shot to the head.

After spending years giving back to the profession I love, I am now going to expand my interests to involve journalism proper. I would like to right some wrongs, force journalists to confront problems that all to often they ignore and maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to leave the world a better place.

Donald Trump has propelled the damning words "fake news" to the forefront of many discussions on media honesty. So, let me make one thing clear; I hate the term "fake news." I have personally known too many good reporters doing incredibly good work to smear the entire profession with those words. And yet, I must admit that honesty in journalism can be improved.


Consider how the media erred so egregiously when it widely promoted Liberation Therapy. For a brief time, many in the media claimed it was a miraculously successful treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS). Ask  yourself, how did a fine investigative journalist like Randy Richmond, lauded as Canada's top journalist in 2020, get a story so very wrong as he did in 2011 with a piece headlined "Out of the fog"?

The partial answer is the use of the anecdote. Journalists rely on anecdotes to add a human dimension, a rich, emotional overlay, to a narrative. In doing so, all too often journalists make the error of sampling bias.

Let's examine The London Free Press story which was part of a series on the shortcomings of the Canadian healthcare system. Randy introduced us to a local London woman, Susan Skeffington, who suffers from MS and was forced to travel to the Arizona Heart Institute in search of treatment. There she had the Liberation Therapy procedure. OHIP refused to cover the cost of a procedure unavailable in Ontario.

From Randy's story we learn: "Balloons were inserted into three of (Skeffington's) veins, bringing blood back to her heart to expand the walls. The balloons were collapsed and removed. The blood flow keeps the walls expanded.

Skeffington said she immediately noticed the effects of the procedure. "When I was sitting in recovery I was looking around the room and I thought, I am really moving my eyes easily."

Back home at the beginning of March, she has noticed more improvements. Her hands still have some pins and needles, but are more nimble. She has more energy, though she is not pushing herself.

"The brain fog is gone," she says.
It's a great story but it is an anecdote and anecdotes can be unreliable. This is not science. At least two Canadians died from complications after undergoing Liberation Therapy. In the end, as CBC Radio reported in December, 2017, Dr. Zamboni concluded the therapy he devised was an "ineffective technique; [and] the treatment cannot be recommended in patients with MS." 
It turns out the London woman was given excellent advice by her doctors. OHIP was right to refuse to cover the cost of the quickly discredited procedure.

One would think a man who went on to become Canada's top journalist would know well the danger posed by sampling bias. In the end, it was clear this story was lost deep in the fog of an unreliable anecdote. To the best of my knowledge, neither The London Free Press nor Randy Richmond every corrected the original story. But, the tale does appear to have disappeared from the newspaper's web site.

Pack Journalism or Herd Instinct

Journalists hate being scooped. When I worked at the local television station, every day there was a morning meeting to discuss what stories would be part of the six o'clock news. One big consideration was what was on the front page of the local newspaper that morning. If a story made the paper, it would make the nightly newscast.

The UFFI story is an example of pack journalism at its worst. As I recall, a U.S. investigative journalism television program, possibly 60 Minutes, originally broke the UFFI story. It made for gripping entertainment. The rest of the American media hated being scooped and immediately ran their own stories on what was claimed to be a growing health crisis. The Canadian media, for instance Marketplace, jumped on the band wagon and finally the daily newspapers raced to grab a piece of the story.

The problem, and this may surprise you because the truth is still not widely known, the story was a crock from start to finish. The media did a great job at spreading the UFFI myth but has failed miserably at getting the correction out. The myth was a front page story. The correction gets buried.

I recall taking pictures of a retired gentleman living in South London. He personally removed the brick from the exterior of his home, he could not afford to have it done, he scrapped the foam out the foam filled the space between the studs, treated the empty cavity, filled it with Fiberglas batt insulation and then rebricked the dwelling.

He was angry and rightly so. He had read everything he could about the various types of home insulation. It was clear that UFFI was the way to go. He insulated his home with the foam and then, within months, the UFFI story flipped. The media was filled with UFFI horror stories. Although neither he nor his wife had had any health problems, the couple watched their home, their retirement nest egg, become almost worthless.

He knew many of the "facts" being reported were wrong and I knew it too. How did I know. I had UFFI in my home as well. And like the gentleman rebricking his home, I still had the advertising bumph. We could show beyond any doubt that the supposed promises made by the manufacturers were never made or at least were not made to either of us. We both agreed the newspaper reports were bogus.

I recall driving to Grand Bend with a fine reporter by the name of Bill Eluchok. We were going to Grand Bend for a story on bacterial contamination of the water along shoreline of the Lake Huron resort. When we reached Grand Bend, Bill introduced me to a fellow from the Ministry of the Environment and told him I thought the UFFI story was hooey. Bill was surprised when the fellow agreed with me but he only agreed off-the-record. He was not prepared to take on the entire North American media.

I've done a number of blog posts on the UFFI story. I suggest you read them. Each one reveals another way that journalism failed readers while inflicting harm.


Sunday, April 5, 2020

I'm proud of how good Londoners are at following orders

Last night my wife and I picked up seven bags of groceries without entering the store or making contact with anyone. As we left the lot, we noticed a very loose line-up of people patiently waiting to get into the LCBO (Liquor Board of Ontaro) store. The line wrapped right around the store.

My wife  and I are both amazed at how willing Londoners are to follow the social distancing guidelines. (My picture is not from the LCBO. Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera with me to the grocery store. Oops.)

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Call in your grocery order and simply pick up later

A car sits with its rear hatch door open as the owner waits to have his groceries brought from the store to his car. With the fear of catching COVID-19 growing daily, more and more Londoners are taking advantage of the Express service offered at some area grocery stores.

Call the store, give them your order, when your order is ready the store staff will call, pay with your credit or debit card and then drive to the store for pick up. There are reserved parking spots at the front of the store. Use your cell phone to tell the store staff you are there and within minutes your groceries a have been brought out and placed in your trunk.

I wonder if the service will be as popular once the coronavirus has been brought under control.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

There's a new normal.

I have some friends, who on returning to London from a cruise, self-isolated. They believe it's the best thing to do and at the end of two weeks it will be over. Life will return to normal. The danger will have past. Maybe not.

COVID-19 is highly contagious. Why? Because it hides. Consider the Diamond Princess. Tests of most of the 3,711 people aboard the large cruise ship confirmed that 634, or 17 percent, had the virus; 328 of them did not have any symptoms at the time of diagnosis.

“Children with very mild disease are probably going to be one of the major contributors to spreading the virus across the population,” says Graham Roberts, an honorary consultant paediatrician at the University of Southamptons. -- BBC Future

COVID-19 can spread quickly and quietly. The fact that it attacks the old in a dramatic fashion and not the young means in a youthful population it may go almost unnoticed. But let the virus get into a senior's home and all hell breaks loose. Again consider the Diamond Princess. On board the cruise ship those 70 and older were most vulnerable, with an overall fatality ratio of about 7.3 percent.

COVID-19 is ripping through our world. The number of infected spikes higher daily. The death toll continues to climb. Self-isolate, practise social distancing and you, even if you are old, get through this. Soon herd immunity will bring the numbers down. But the danger will not be over despite what my friends seem to think.

Until there is a vaccine, this new coronavirus will linger. Hiding in the young and the asymtomatic. It will make those younger than fifty mostly mildly ill, if at all, but it will infect our seniors and an uncomfortably large number will die.

In the near future going out to shop or attending a family gathering will carry a ominous undertone: COVID-19. The virus may well become endemic: a part of life until a vaccine is arrives to eradicate it.

70 or older? It's time to self-isolate.

Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario, is instructing  all Ontarians over 70 and those of any age with compromised immune systems or underlying health condition to stop going out. Stay home. Avoid visitors. Practise self-isolation and social distancing. And do it now.

People in these categories should keep appointments and access services by phone or online, and have family, friends or neighbours run essential errands for them: groceries, prescription pickups, etc.

If you must go out, say to take the dog for a walk, keep 6-feet away from anyone you encounter. But strangers are not the only ones to steer clear of; avoid visits from loved ones.

The rules are tough but the danger from not following to them is tougher. You can die.

If you want one ray of hope in all this bleak news, check the case fatality rate for children up to age nine: 0%

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

If snow closes schools, the strike is off as well

It's snowing in London today and it is forecast to continue through the night. If it does, the school buses may be canceled. If that happens, school may be canceled. And if that happens, then the school strike walkout, slated for tomorrow, may be canceled. Striking on a full snow day hardly inconveniences the school board but it does cost the teachers a day's salary.