The Chancellor speaks

Ten years ago Angela Merkel discovered podcasts. Not ‘In our Time’ or ‘This American Life.’ No, no, not the joy of listening to podcasts. She discovered podcasts as a means of communicating to the public. You might say, broadcasting.

Now the German government isn’t meant to broadcast. There are independent private and publicly-funded radio and TV stations for that. But video podcasts and YouTube clips are a grey area. Do they technically constitute broadcasting?

Every week Merkel records a short question-and-answer session with a young person. They’re usually likable, often students, who pose fairly soft-ball questions to the chancellor. She is obviously prepared, because she’s never flustered and always provides a neat 20-30 second answer.

I asked her office a few questions about these podcasts recently and I’d like to share the answers:

Q: How many viewers did the podcasts get in 2016?

A: The 42 video podcasts in 2016 was accessed 13.5 million. On average, each episode was accessed about 320,000 times. In addition, previous years’ podcasts were accessed 2.3 million times last year.

Q: How many hours work went into each podcasts.

A: The production of the podcasts is tendered anew each year and the amount of work hours doesn’t influence the price. As such, they aren’t recorded.

Q: How much did Merkel’s weekly podcasts cost in 2016?

A: The costs for each episode were €2,350.25 (incl. VAT)

Dubious Sources

When reading what someone has to say about the state of the world, does it matter who they are? It can. You’d expect a chicken farmer to be skeptical about vegetarianism, and a scientist to take a dim view of homeopathy. A person’s background doesn’t automatically dictate their opinion, but it helps if readers can put their views into context.

So why do some media outlets seemingly go out of their way to obscure who they are interviewing?

Here are two examples from Russia Today, or RT, a broadcaster controlled by the Kremlin:

  1. In an article headlined ‘Germany, not Donald Trump, is biggest threat to the EU,’ Russia Today has an interview with someone they described as “Graham Moore, political commentator,” who believes Merkel is bad and Russia is good. RT doesn’t say which think tank or university Mr. Moore works for, so I had to dig a little. Turns out, there’s a Graham Moore who has appeared on RT in the past and who uses similar phrases on his Twitter feed (e.g. referring to Muslims as “Muhammadans”). And this Graham Moore is a leading figure in a fringe far-right party called English Democrats. He may be commenting on politics, but would “political commentator” be the first way you’d describe him? No, he’s a far-right politician.
  2. In another article headlined ‘Award for Merkel over migration policy during 2015 crisis raises eyebrows on social media,’ Russia Today goes for the online vox pop by citing people on social media who disagree with Merkel getting the award. Both of the people they cite are actually long-time critics of Merkel’s refugee policy. One of them, a former ‘pickup artist’ called Kolja Bonke, seems to spend most of his day on Twitter bashing Merkel and refugees. Yet RT refers to them as “some people” and Bonke simply as “another person” – as if it were a random sample.

Those two articles appeared on RT’s website on the same day. It probably wouldn’t be hard to find similar examples from other days, where the people RT uses to present its arguments are carefully picked from a small pool of vocal but unrepresentative campaigners who are neither experts nor ordinary members of the public.

When reading someone’s opinions, always remember to remember to look them up – especially if the media outlet they appear in doesn’t tell you much about who they are.


Why the Lumia 950 failed and what phone makers should learn from that

Some people stick to what they know. Once an iPhone, always an iPhone. Others like to try new things every once in a while. In doing so, there’s always the risk of picking a dud.

My first smartphone was a Sony Ericsson P1. Followed by an iPhone 2. Then a Samsung Galaxy S2. Then another iPhone (first 3, then 4s). So when the time came to update, I thought I’d get the Lumia 950 _ Microsoft’s attempt at establishing its Windows operating system in the smartphone market.

Why? I was tired of iPhones:

  • they are expensive;
  • the operating system is slick but restrictive (transferring files onto a PC is complicated);
  • and the poor battery was driving me crazy: I need a good 12 hours of heavy use out of a phone otherwise there’s a risk I’ll be left with a brick by the end of a long day’s reporting, just as I’m about to file. Not good.

I’d tried Android phones and various models looked interesting, but for security reasons my employer only allows Samsung phones and the Galaxy S6 didn’t appeal.

The Lumia 950 on the other hand looked like a good phone:

  • It has a large battery and USB-C, the next generation cable standard;
  • The camera is superb;
  • Microsoft promised all the necessary apps would be available for Windows 10;
  • It offered seamless integration with my desktop operating system

After six months I can say that the Lumia 950 was a poor choice. I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so. Sales have been weak and Microsoft recently announced it was scaling down its smartphone business. This indicates that the company has realized it can’t compete with Android and Apple.

Things could have been different. If Microsoft hadn’t rushed out the phone and made clear it wouldn’t maintain it, the Lumia line could have been the start of a genuine rival system to Android and iOS. Here’s what went wrong:

  • The big battery, a key reason why I bought the phone. It has 3,000 mAh, which in layman’s terms means it’s got more juice than most smartphones out there (the iPhone 6S has 1,750 mAh; the Galaxy S6 has 2,550 mAh). In practice, though, it drains quickly. Various updates have brought some improvement but it appears this was achieved by throttling the WiFi and phone signal. The biggest drain remains the screen. Why smartphone makers don’t just offer smaller screens (e.g. 4.5 inch instead of 5-5.5 inch) and thicker batteries (4,000 mAh seems a good size) is a mystery to me. What’s the use of a big screen if the battery is dead or you can’t get WiFi 5 meters away from the router?
  • The apps available for Windows 10 mobile are truly disappointing. Sure, Wunderlist, Slack and the New York Times are there. So are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (BETA). But many of the apps seem to be nothing but interfaces for the website; others haven’t been maintained since Windows 8.1, and some are so full of bugs that they’re basically useless. Surprisingly, it’s not just the 3rd party apps. The latest update of Microsoft Maps has basically broken the app. It now sends me in the wrong direction, messes up public transport times and regularly ‘forgets’ all of my favorites by logging me out of my account when there’s no cell signal. Other apps that I’d like to be able to use simply aren’t available, including Bambuser (live video streaming), NewsRepublic (great news app) and for my online bank.
  • The overall system has a few nice touches but overall it suffers from horrendous glitches. One of them is that the phone likes to update at random, and this involves restarting. When it does that, various settings are restored to default, including language, temperature (I don’t use Fahrenheit!), location and quiet times. Most problematically, for a journalist, is the fact that the SIM PIN needs to be entered after every reboot (even though I’ve got PIN security off), meaning I risk not receiving calls for hours after the phone randomly updates in the middle of the night. Another problem that shows Microsoft engineers just haven’t used the phone in the real world is that not all phone calls appear in the call list. How can this happen? It’s absurd.

You might ask why I haven’t thrown the phone into a lake yet. Well, first of all it’s expensive and doesn’t belong to me. Secondly, the phone does have a few nice features. These include:

  • Built-in call recording at the touch of a button, which is very helpful;
  • Good cross-integration of Outlook and Gmail calendars (though again, why can’t items be moved between calendars after they’ve been created?);
  • The camera is really, really good (though I’m disappointed Microsoft dramatically cut space on Onedrive and videos sometimes have visible glitches when panning);
  • The phone charges quickly, provided you’ve got a USB-C cable and the right power adapter to hand;
  • Plug it into a PC and the phone immediately appears as another drive, just like it should (that’s where you lost me, Apple)

I expect smartphone makers are already using the Lumia 950 as a case study in how not to try to break into the Apple-Android duopoly. The question is, will anyone dare to try again and do better than Microsoft, or are we going to be left with those two systems forever more?

Update (July 29, 2016): Last week I received an email from Amazon that they are killing their app for Windows Phone. A few days later the map maker HERE, once Microsoft’s stablemate, announced a new app that won’t be available for Windows Phones. I think it’s pretty clear where this is heading…

Update (Oct. 3, 2016): It was inevitable. After one nighttime wake-up alert too many from a phone that simply can’t remember core settings I’ve ditched the Lumia 950 and gone back to Android. All the apps are there and they all work as designed. I miss the great camera on the Lumia, that’s for sure. I also notice that some of the annoying ‘tracking’ features of apps are back: Twitter, for example, seems to give me only selective tweets based on ones that I interacted with in the past. But otherwise it’s a relief to be back in the mainstream.