Ranking the video apps

The good news, now that we’re all stuck working from home, is that there are so many free video calling apps available. The bad news is that there are so many free video calling apps available.

It’s now possible to video chat with people almost anywhere in the world. The problem is, everybody seems to have his or her preferred app, so you find yourself adding more and more of them to you phones and tablets. Assuming you can – Apple’s Facetime isn’t available to Android devotees like me.

The Washington Post tested out a bunch, including a new competitor from Facebook, and found that each one has advantages and disadvantages. But the increasingly ubiquitous Zoom, despite some security concerns, was the all-around winner:

No video chat app looked great every time, but one had clear video more often than the others: Skype. The app that helped create the idea of video chats with grandparents is still in the game.

When we held up an eye chart to the camera, Skype made it easiest to read the small type. It’s also what we used to make the video accompanying this column. Just know, its performance demands a lot out of your computer, so you may need to close other apps.

[…]

Membership in the Apple cult — we mean, club — has its privileges. Most of the security pros we spoke with said FaceTime was their go-to of our mainstream options. The problem is, of course, it only works if everyone you need to speak with also has Apple devices.

Group video calls of up to 32 people using FaceTime meet the gold standard of security with end-to-end encryption. That means they can’t be seen or heard by anyone else who might try to intercept them.

[…]

Yep, we’re sticking with Zoom, even after all those security problems — and in part, because of how it responded to them.

Zoom defines much of what we need from a group video conference. It gives you the simplest way to get up to 49 people together on one screen in happy rows of boxes, regardless of whether they have an account or whether they want to use an iPhone, Windows PC, or even an old-fashioned landline. Usually, everyone just has to click one link to get in.

Zoom’s features win the Goldilocks principle, sitting somewhere in between a work app (you can share screens) and a social one (you can turn your background into a Malibu dreamhouse). While it could still do better when participants have poor connections, Zoom’s call quality is good enough across a shockingly wide array of devices. Google’s Meet, a Zoom clone in many respects, never met our threshold for video quality and is utterly bereft of any fun features at all.

Then there’s simplicity. Our families and friends all know how to Zoom. Even after a week, we still can’t quite figure out — or trust — the sharing mechanisms of Facebook’s Rooms. Skype recently added a one-link-to-join option like Zoom, but you can’t use it for a scheduled meeting or put it behind a passcode. Houseparty is fun but requires too much coordination when you actually want to meet someone at a particular time. Apple’s FaceTime needs a rethink for the pandemic era where you can’t expect everyone you need to interact with owns an Apple device.

Of course my preferred video calling app, Google Meet, wasn’t the best in any category. But as someone who uses G Suite, I find that it incorporates the best in my email and calendar.

I seem to be in the minority, though. (Most clients I tell about it have never even heard of it, and Google has not helped its own case by having so many chatting and messaging apps – Duo, Hangouts, Meet – that seem to do pretty much the same thing.) So I guess I’ll have to keep several of these apps on my phone until a clear winner emerges.

Either way, the Post story concludes with a prudent warning about the price of “free”:

…Zoom’s main business is selling video chat software. It’s the only service we tested that you have to pay for after a limited window — $15 per month for calls lasting longer than 40 minutes. But we actually find that reassuring compared to some of its rivals mainly in the advertising and gadget-selling business. We know we sound like a broken record, but remember: If the product is free, that means you’re the product.

Into the Q-niverse

If you want to understand the Trump era (at the risk of getting really, really depressed) The Atlantic‘s deep dive into the QAnon conspiracy phenomenon is absolutely essential reading:

Conspiracy theories are a constant in American history, and it is tempting to dismiss them as inconsequential. But as the 21st century has progressed, such a dismissal has begun to require willful blindness. I was a city-hall reporter for a local investigative-news site called Honolulu Civil Beat in 2011 when Donald Trump was laying the groundwork for a presidential run by publicly questioning whether Barack Obama had been born in Hawaii, as all facts and documents showed. Trump maintained that Obama had really been born in Africa, and therefore wasn’t a natural-born American—making him ineligible for the highest office. I remember the debate in our Honolulu newsroom: Should we even cover this “birther” madness? As it turned out, the allegations, based entirely on lies, captivated enough people to give Trump a launching pad.

Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.

I’m not sure Trump really believes this, though you can never be sure. But he’s certainly not above using it to rile up his (shrinking) base.

The writer, Adrienne LaFrance, tried to reason with several QAnon enthusiasts. It went about as well as you’d expect:

Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Q frequently rails against legitimate sources of information as fake. Shock and Harger rely on information they encounter on Facebook rather than news outlets run by journalists. They don’t read the local paper or watch any of the major television networks. “You can’t watch the news,” Shock said. “Your news channel ain’t gonna tell us shit.” Harger says he likes One America News Network. Not so long ago, he used to watch CNN, and couldn’t get enough of Wolf Blitzer. “We were glued to that; we always have been,” he said. “Until this man, Trump, really opened our eyes to what’s happening. And Q. Q is telling us beforehand the stuff that’s going to happen.” I asked Harger and Shock for examples of predictions that had come true. They could not provide specifics and instead encouraged me to do the research myself. When I asked them how they explained the events Q had predicted that never happened, such as Clinton’s arrest, they said that deception is part of Q’s plan. Shock added, “I think there were more things that were predicted that did happen.” Her tone was gentle rather than indignant.

Harger wanted me to know that he’d voted for Obama the first time around. He grew up in a family of Democrats. His dad was a union guy. But that was before Trump appeared and convinced Harger that he shouldn’t trust the institutions he always thought he could. Shock nodded alongside him. “The reason I feel like I can trust Trump more is, he’s not part of the establishment,” she said. At one point, Harger told me I should look into what happened to John F. Kennedy Jr.—who died in 1999, when his airplane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard—suggesting that Hillary Clinton had had him assassinated. (Alternatively, a contingent of QAnon believers say that JFK Jr. faked his death and that he’s a behind-the-scenes Trump supporter, and possibly even Q himself. Some anticipate his dramatic public return so that he can serve as Trump’s running mate in 2020.) When I asked Harger whether there’s any evidence to support the assassination claim, he flipped my question around: “Is there any evidence not to?”

I do not expect Trump to win re-election this fall. He’s not picking up any states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and several of the states he did win – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina – are looking very shaky for him. Even freaking Georgia might be in play. Trump’s win was so narrow that he really can’t afford to lose anything, and his coalition sure as heck hasn’t grown in the ensuing four years.

But even if he loses in a landslide, there’s still a ride-or-die Trump cult consisting of up to one-third of American voters. Many of them are all-in on QAnon as well. And how will they react when it looks like the Deep StateTM got rid of their savior?

Was Florida Man right all along?

Weeks after some Sunshine State beaches reopened and got #FloridaMorons trending on social media, Florida has suffered around 43,000 COVID-19 infections and 2,000 deaths. Not good, obviously, but not nearly as bad as predicted – and not even close to the carnage wrought by coronavirus in New York.

And yet, as Renuka Rayasam and real-life Florida Man Marc Caputo note in Politico, New York is hailed as a model of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic while Florida is dismissed as an apocalyptic wasteland:

First, let’s just come out and say it: [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis looks more right than those who criticized the Sunshine State’s coronavirus response. According to the latest Florida figures, fewer than 2,000 have died, and around 43,000 have been infected. That’s a fraction of the dire predictions made for Florida when spring breakers swarmed the beaches, and those numbers are dwarfed by similarly sized New York, which has seen 12 times more deaths and nearly eight times more infections. (Check out POLITICO’s coronavirus tracker for more.) More people reportedly died in New York nursing homes than in all of Florida.

The polling disparity: DeSantis is actually polling worse than [NY Governor Andrew] Cuomo in their respective states, and the Florida press is wondering why. Part of that is style. Cuomo has a smooth delivery, a deep and calming voice and an attitude that projects he can answer any question. DeSantis sometimes comes across as peevish and defensive, has made a misstatement or two and was mocked for struggling to put on a mask. But most of the difference between DeSantis and Cuomo is due to politics. DeSantis governs a politically divided state. Cuomo is a scion of Democratic royalty in a deeply Democratic state.

Yes, there’s media bias, too. Cuomo also has something else DeSantis doesn’t: a press that defers to him, one that preferred to cover “Florida Morons” at the beach (where it’s relatively hard to get infected) over New Yorkers riding cramped subway cars (where it’s easy to get infected). In fact, people can still ride the subways for most hours of the day in New York, but Miami Beach’s sands remain closed. Maybe things would be different if DeSantis had a brother who worked in cable news and interviewed him for a “sweet moment” in primetime.

DeSantis can’t quite take a victory lap, however. For one, he can’t take all the credit. He deferred to local leaders early on as they issued closure orders in places like Miami-Dade County — the most populous in the state, and the one with the most coronavirus cases — which shuttered dine-in restaurants and nightclubs two months ago.

And, for all of the relatively OK news about coronavirus infection and death rates, there’s a looming problem associated with coronavirus and Republican rule of the state: Florida’s horrendous unemployment compensation system, which can’t handle the volume of claims and, critics charge, was designed to discourage people from getting government help….

Florida’s warm climate could be a factor, for all we know. Either way, while it’s far too early to declare COVID-19 beaten in Florida, it’s certainly true that the worst predictions simply haven’t come true, and that media figures who pushed that narrative should admit their error and resolve to be more careful in the future.

(Note: they won’t.)

By October, if Florida has still been spared the worst, I expect the Vaccine Denier in Chief to make this media failure a part of his rambling stump speech. And for once, he’ll have a point.

Another day, another insane conspiracy theory

Three and a half years after he was elected, we all sort of accept that the most powerful man on earth regularly tweets things like this:

What’s he going on about? When Scarborough was a Congressman, one of his interns died because of a heart condition. There’s absolutely no evidence it was a murder.

…Trump was referring to a longstanding, long-debunked theory that while a Republican congressman for Florida’s 1st District in 2001, Scarborough had an improper relationship with aide Lori Klausutis and, perhaps to cover it up, murdered her. Subsequently, the theory went, local authorities helped to conceal Scarborough’s crime.

Insofar as anyone, including the Fort Walton Beach medical examiner can tell, Klausutis, 28, “lost consciousness because of an abnormal heart rhythm and fell, hitting her head on a desk,” at the congressman’s local district office. “The head injury caused the death,” the medical examiner said.

As the St. Petersburg Times reported shortly after Klausutis’ death, she had suffered from a series of pre-existing conditions. “Relatives said she had been taking medication for acne and that she suffered a head injury in a traffic accident when she was a teenager that left her in a coma,” the paper wrote. “When she recovered, she had signs of short-term memory loss.”

Those in the dark concerns of the media that trafficked in conspiracy theories grabbed this personal tragedy and spun it into internet gold, creating and broadcasting a narrative that eventually made its way to more mainstream outlets, including the Daily Kos (site founder Markos Moulitsas was a particularly outspoken proponent). At one point, documentarian Michael Moore registered the domain name JoeScarboroughKilledHisIntern.com.

A conspiracy theory that started on the fringe left and eventually made its way to the not-so-fringe right. Horseshoe Theory strikes again.

It’s hard to feel too bad for Scarborough, though. If not for he and Mika, Trump might never have made it this far.

Flim-Flamdemic

It took a couple of years after 9/11 for the pseudo-documentary Loose Change to come out. But in 2020, with nineteen years of technological advances and the rise of social media, a conspirozoid movie about the COVID-19 pandemic is going viral just months after the virus appeared.

So…yay?

A slickly produced 26-minute video called Plandemic has exploded on social media in recent days, claiming to present a view of COVID-19 that differs from the “official” narrative.

The video has been viewed millions of times on YouTube via links that are replaced as quickly as the video-sharing service can remove them for violating its policy against “COVID-19 misinformation.”

In it, filmmaker Mikki Willis conducts an uncritical interview with Judy Mikovits, who he says has been called “one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation.”

Never heard of her? You’re not alone.

Two prominent scientists with backgrounds in AIDS research and infectious diseases, who asked not to be identified over concerns of facing a backlash on social media, told NPR that they did not know who she was.

And who is the esteemed Dr. Mikovits? You guessed it: a crank.

When Judy Mikovits co-wrote a 2009 research paper that linked the mysterious condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome to a retrovirus that came from mice, thousands of sick patients hoping for relief rallied behind her. The scientific riddle was solved, they thought.

Less than two years later, those hopes were dashed when follow-up studies failed to replicate the findings and the respected journal “Science” retracted the paper. Researchers posited that the study’s inaccurate conclusions were the result of contamination of the lab samples, and the theory that a virus might be the source of the still-mysterious condition died.

But Mikovits’s conviction that her theory was correct, and her belief that the top scientific minds in the United States conspired to ruin her career, never faded.

She has now accused the scientific establishment of conspiracy again. In a film called “Plandemic,” and in a recently published book that topped the Amazon bestsellers chart this week, she makes a bizarre and false claim: that the doctors and experts shaping public policy in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic have silenced dissenting voices and misled the public for sinister reasons.

She falsely claims that wealthy people intentionally spread the virus to increase vaccination rates and that wearing face masks is harmful.

[..]

After her legal mess, Mikovits wrote her first book with anti-vaccine advocate Kent Heckenlively in 2014, called “Plague.” Their second book, “Plague of Corruption,” was published by Skyhorse Publishing this year and was listed as No. 1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list as recently as Friday morning, beating out presales for Stephanie Meyer’s upcoming addition to the massively successful “Twilight” series.

Much more about the film’s half-truths, errors and blatant lies here. Unfortunately, I’ve seen several people who should know better (and also many idiots) sharing the movie on Facebook.

The best-case scenario is that this kind of burns out like the “9/11 Truth” movement did. But considering that “Doctor” Andrew Wakefield still has followers despite being as discredited as it’s possible to be discredited, the virus troofers are likely to plague us for years to come. No pun intended.

In Australia they think they know the culprit. (To be fair I’m also in favor of arresting Bill Gates, but for Windows 95.)

Newfoundland closed

My home province has responded to COVID-19 with a travel ban that might make even Donald Trump think they’ve gone too far:

On April 29, 2020, the Chief Medical Officer of Health issued a Special Measures Order ordering that, effective May 4, 2020, the only individuals permitted to enter the province are those who are:

Residents of Newfoundland and Labrador;

Asymptomatic workers and individuals who are subject to the Updated Exemption Order effective April 22, 2020; and

Individuals who have been permitted entry to the province in extenuating circumstances, as approved in advance by the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

All other individuals are prohibited from entering Newfoundland and Labrador.

Police have been given the power to detain and remove people from the province, though early reports about police being allowed to enter homes without a warrant are being walked back.

Even during a global health emergency, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms still applies. Veteran Newfoundland blogger Edward Hollett, a former special assistant to premier Clyde Wells, raises some serious questions about whether this is constitutional:

In response to a reporter’s question about the constitutionality of the ban, health minister John Haggie replied on Monday that section 13 of the public health protection law says any measures imposed during an emergency should be limited to what is necessary. 

That reply did not address the question of whether or not the ban violates the guarantee under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Nor did the minister provide an explanation of why a ban on entry to all non-residents, except for specific exempt individuals who are also free from other restrictions, was necessary.

Section 6 (2) of the Charter provides that every Canadian has the right to “move to and take up residence in” another part of Canada.  On the face of it, this section would not confer on Canadians the right to travel but to travel related to residence.  The people covered by this section of the Charter and potentially abused by the travel ban would be any people who own property and who lie in the province periodically. 

Haggie also said other provinces had adopted similar travel bans. 
They have not.  

[…]

Potential issues with the Newfoundland and Labrador ban:

Potential constitutional violation. (Section 6(2))

Absence of explanation or justification (potential violation of Public Health Promotion and Protection Act)

Unparalleled scope and type of travel restriction (complete ban on non-residents).

No description of potential reasons for exemption that could be granted by Chief Medical Officer. (Lack of transparency and clarity)

No provision for travel related to child-custody or similar orders.

No allowance for emergencies.

Of these, the first two are the most serious.  The order may be unconstitutional.  Someone should challenge it in court.
More likely, the ban is excessive and unnecessary.  This has both political and legal dimensions. Politically, the government owes a duty of transparency to the public to explain why it is taking a measure as draconian as banning all travel to the province by non-residents.

As much as it pains me not to be able to get home this summer, I’m not going as far as Hollett and agreeing that this policy is unnecessary. To paraphrase an old Amercan saying, the Charter is not a suicide pact. But I would like to see the courts weigh in on this, and I don’t think people should just accept it uncritically.

On a related note, the Royal St. John’s Regatta has been cancelled for the first time since the Second World War. Sadly, this year, people in St. John’s won’t know the joy (or agony) of Regatta Roulette.

Don’t look away

(Warning: graphic video)

Back in my really early blogging days after 9/11, I posted a link to the Daniel Pearl beheading video and wrote that people should watch it, to really see what we were up against. More recently, following the worst shooting rampage in Canadian history, I wrote that we shouldn’t abstain from writing the killer’s name or reporting details about his life. We needed it to really understand the whole story.

And today, I think people should view this video (warning: graphic) of what looks like a modern-day lynching in Georgia – for which the perpetrators have not been indicted two months later:

The killers thought their victim, 25 year-old Ahmaud Arbery, had been involved in a robbery and tried to carry out a “citizen’s arrest.” Allahpundit, no bleeding-heart liberal, explains how this made absolutely no sense under state law:

…There’s no reason why the McMichaels should have confronted Arbery even if he’s guilty of everything they suspect him of. They’re not cops. They didn’t personally witness him commit any crime. The risk that they would misidentify an innocent man as a criminal was perfectly foreseeable, especially to a former cop like McMichael. They should have called the sheriff, who could have stopped Arbery lawfully and used the surveillance video mentioned in the police report to determine if he really was the burglary suspect they’re looking for. Why didn’t they do that?

If they can get away with this then the “citizen’s arrest” statute is license for legalized vigilantism. Indict them.

I’ll admit it: I often roll my eyes when people start going on about “white privilege.” But when you see two white men do something like this and not get immediately indicted, well, what else can you call it?

Not surprisingly, since the video went viral, people are pronouncing that Georgia and the American South haven’t changed much since the days of Emmett Till, whose brutal killing happened within living memory of people who live there. Till’s murderers walked away free from a grand jury. Hopefully, the grand jury to be convened in Arbury’s case will be more successful.

Personally, I’ve been to the South several times and enjoyed every minute. I’ve long said that if I had to move to the United States, I’d start looking for properties in Nashville. But then again, it’s not my ancestors who were legally second-class citizens there even after the Kennedy assassination.

Even for those of us who love the food, the music and the stock car racing, that region’s darker side is never far from memory. I hope and pray that the state of Georgia in 2020 shows us that it really has a justice system, not just a legal system.

Saying the quiet part out loud

Let me be clear: there are absolutely no circumstances, no matter what happens between now and November, under which I will support Donald Trump’s re-election as President. Even if Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden are true, they don’t even come close to the number of times Trump has been accused of assaulting and harassing women, with much stronger evidence to boot. And the Trump Presidency – as the great Anne Appelbaum explains in this Atlantic piece – has strengthened authoritarians around the world and wounded America’s reputation to the point where it may never recover:

…The “disinfectant” comments—and the laughter that followed—mark not so much a turning point as an acceleration point, the moment when a transformation that began much earlier suddenly started to seem unstoppable. Although we are still only weeks into this pandemic, although the true scale of the health crisis and the economic catastrophe is still unknown, the outline of a very different, post-American, post-coronavirus world is already taking shape. It’s a world in which American opinions will count less, while the opinions of America’s rivals will count more. And that will change political dynamics in ways that Americans haven’t yet understood.

[…]

I wish I could say for certain that a President Joe Biden could turn this all around, but by next year it may be too late. The memories of the prime minister at the airport, welcoming Chinese doctors, will remain. The bleach jokes and memes will still cause the occasional chuckle. Whoever replaces Pompeo will have only four short years to repair the damage, and that might not be enough.

And if Trump wins a second term? Any nation can make a mistake once, elect a bad leader once. But if Americans choose Trump again, that will send a clear message: We are no longer a serious nation. We are as ignorant as our thoughtless, narcissistic, ignorant president. Don’t be surprised if the rest of the world takes note of that, too.

That said, don’t think I didn’t notice this:

Tolchin, a former New York Times reporter and founder of Politico, was responding to a Times editorial calling for the Democratic National Committee to investigate allegations against its nominee. And Tolchin, an alleged journalist, thought this was too much and that the media has a duty to cover for Biden.

I, too, think defeating Trump is our top priority. But I am not a journalist and do not pretend to be a journalist. I express my opinions on a blog when I’m not busy with my day job.

Tolchin does purport to be a journalist, and he is demanding that his colleagues put their thumbs on the scale. He is entitled to his opinion as much as anyone else – indeed, I kind of appreciate it when journalists reveal their partisan and ideological leanings – but that is not the same as openly calling for his profession to refrain from doing its job.

And I don’t doubt for a second that many of his colleagues agree with him, even if they’re more discreet about it. In the long run, that will destroy the reputation of mainstream journalism more than anything the President tweets about.

The courts TORE HIM APART!

Tommy Wiseau, visionary behind The Room, has been ordered to pay $750,000.00 to Canadian filmmakers whose documentary he tried to shut down:

The eccentric actor and director attempted to block the release of Room Full of Spoons three years ago by filing an injunction against the Canadians who made it, accusing them of copyright infringement and invasion of privacy.

Room Full of Spoons not only utilizes an abundance of clips from The Room (69, to be exact), but it takes a much closer look into the mysterious life of Wiseau, 64 — an individual who is known well for keeping his personal life private.

Wiseau’s lawsuit was powered by the “outrageous” arguments that Room Full of Spoons was “too negative,” contained too many clips from The Room and revealed too much about his identity — including his Polish descent — as seen in court papers provided by the defendants Richard Harper, Fernando Forerero McGrath, Mark Racicot and Richard Towns.

On April 23, however, following a counterclaim filed by the four filmmakers, Ontario Superior Court Judge Paul Schabas deemed that Wiseau filed the lawsuit with the “improper purpose” of delaying the release of Room Full of Spoons.

Judge Schabas suggested that the documentary was simply “disliked by Tommy Wiseau” and that he likely found it uncomplimentary.

The filmmakers have posted legal documents and the written decision on their website, but if you’re pressed for time someone has posted a short summary of the case on Reddit. And it turns out Wiseau is exactly the kind of litigant I expected:

Tommy decided to represent himself in court after firing his previous 4 (or possibly 5) lawyers, and asked for the case to be dismissed… because he doesn’t have a lawyer!