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January 28th, 2011
06:22 PM ET

Remembering Challenger

I get emotional every time I see images of Challenger exploding in the sky. The footage always feels fresh. Maybe that’s why I think I have memories of a day I was actually too young to remember.

NASA image

Seven crewmembers boarded Challenger on January 28, 1986. For the first time ever, one was a civilian. Millions of people tuned in to watch the launch on live TV. But 73 seconds after lift-off, something went horribly wrong. The shuttle broke apart, killing everyone inside.

President Ronald Regan best expressed the shock and sorrow felt after their deaths. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'" FULL POST

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Filed under: Personal musings • Space
January 26th, 2011
05:17 PM ET

Social Media, Social Change

It can happen in very visible ways. Protesters in Egypt have used social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, to organize large demonstrations in the streets.

That followed a similar scene in Tunisia, where unrest ousted a president. A group of Tunisian natives even gathered at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, California, to "thank Facebook for enabling our nation (both inside and outside the country) to freely share their opinion online, bridging our way to democracy."

But in China, it seems to be more subtle. We aren't talking about anything on the scale of anti-government marches... merely criticism of the Communist Party. Social media serves as an outlet for frustration.

From youku.com

Take the case of Li Qiming. He's the son of a senior Chinese police official. And he inspired a catchphrase for abuse of power: "My father is Li Gang."

Witnesses say that's what he shouted while allegedly trying to flee the scene of a drunk driving accident. It sparked outrage among China's netizens and inspired viral videos like this.

Li is accused of hitting two women with his car. One died. The Xinhua news agency reports he is now awaiting sentencing. He faces three to seven years in prison. Chinese media report Li's family already agreed to pay the victim's family 460,000 yuan. That's about $70,000.

The court proceedings have also met with some online outrage. On the microblog Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter), user Cheng Shi writes, "RMB 460k + 3 years of sentence = 1 fresh life! Is this really the end of the Li Gang case?"

Maybe. But it's certainly not the end of social media promoting social causes in China. The latest involves a migrant worker trying to go home for Lunar New Year. Chen Weiwei says he was unable to get a train ticket because other people, possibly with connections, cut the line. So he stripped to his underwear in protest. Netizens are showing the "naked man" some sympathy.

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Filed under: China • General • Social networking
January 25th, 2011
07:31 AM ET

Admiring Andy Murray

Getty Images

I was going to call this post “The Strife of Supporting Scottish Sportspeople” but I appreciate there’s only so much alliteration people can stomach in one sitting.

Let me first make my shocking confession: I really do admire Andy Murray. His tennis style can be spectacularly entertaining – but his off-court antics delight me just as much. In the Age of Beige, when sports stars are typically media trained to within an inch of a coma, Murray is nothing if not unpredictable. In his post-match interviews, he is frequently grouchy. But he is just as often very funny. In fact, only Australian Open comedy queen Caroline Wozniacki has challenged him in this department of late.

FULL POST

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Filed under: General • Personal musings • Sport
January 19th, 2011
12:13 AM ET

Apple of the media's eye

I hear it in the newsroom every time Apple announces a product:

“Why are we covering this? Aren’t we just giving Apple free advertising? We wouldn’t do this for any other company.”

The sentiment isn’t wrong. We probably wouldn’t give the attention we give Apple to any other company. But Apple isn’t any other company.

Apple is unique because it’s able to project influence far beyond the marketshare it holds. It’s not just journalists and consumers hanging on to their every word: Apple can shape the direction of the entire technology industry.

Need proof? Look at the glut of tablets at CES. You’d think if any company could influence the future of computing, it’d be Microsoft. Remember, 91% of all the computers on the planet run Microsoft's Windows. But when Bill Gates tried to usher in a new age in 2002 with Windows XP Tablet Edition, nobody answered the call.

Nine years on, tablets finally arrived. The catalyst for turning Gates' prediction into reality? Apple's iPad.

Here’s more: In the quarter ending in September 2010, Apple sold 14 million phones. Over the same period, Nokia sold 110 million. But which company transformed the role of the mobile phone from communications device to pocket computer? Apple.

And I haven’t touched upon Apple’s influence in consumer electronics (the iPod), how it made the computer accessible to all (the Mac OS), or how it’s changed the music business and operates the world’s biggest music store (the iTunes Store), because it’s more than just the products themselves that make Apple stand out. It’s also about Apple’s fanatical following.

Apple doesn’t have customers, it has supporters or fans. Why? An answer might lie in the words of this cult’s leader, Steve Jobs. Look at what he said way back in 1985 when he was forced to leave Apple:

“If Apple becomes a place where computers are a commodity item, where the romance is gone, and where people forget that computers are the most incredible invention that man has ever invented, I'll feel I have lost Apple.”

Those words still ring true 25 years later, when Jobs introduced the iPad by calling it a “truly magical” product. Apple does not treat its products as commodities; it treats them as creations. That mindset is why Apple applies the extra care, detail and polish to elevate its products and itself above the rest.

All of this is what makes Apple so fascinating to watch. It’s why we hang on every word Steve Jobs says: Because he dreams about building products that change the world - and he has the ability to pull it off.

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Filed under: Gadgets • Technology
January 18th, 2011
02:23 PM ET

Think "China." Think... "stunning supermodels?"

Chinese president Hu Jintao is in Washington this week, and China has prepped the ground with a star-studded U.S. media blitz.

A 60-second promotional video (as seen here - apologies for the shaky camera) 
is airing on the super screens of New York City's Times Square. It will also air on U.S. television during Hu's three-day tour.  The spot features a slew of Chinese celebrities including basketball star Yao Ming, director John Woo, astronaut hero Yang Liwei and a bevy of Chinese beauties including actress Zhang Ziyi and supermodel Zhang Zilin.

Interestingly, it also features a selection of China's business elite including Netease CEO Ding Lei, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma and China Mobile CEO Wang Jianzhou. A comprehensive campaign "who's who" can be found here on the Baidu Beat blog.

So why the video diplomacy?

Not long ago, China emerged as a common adversary before the U.S. midterm elections. Political campaigns ran ads showing China stealing American jobs and benefiting from unbalanced trade deals.

There's also been growing concern about the rapid growth of China's military muscle.

China's "soft power" push this week has been in the works for months. According to the State Council Information Office, China began preparing the commercials last summer to promote a "prosperous, democratic, civilized and harmonious" image of China.

"We come in peace."  That seems to be the message Beijing wants to get across to Americans with the video spot... complete with superstar gloss.

January 18th, 2011
08:13 AM ET

Did Ricky Gervais Really Cross the Line?

Another awards show. Another dissection of Hollywood’s dress sense – or lack thereof (naming no names, Helena). Each year after the Oscars forerunner, more column inches are inevitably geared towards gowns than globe winners.

On Monday’s News Stream, we examined the Twittersphere’s take on hits and misses in the style stakes. (No surprise that #globesfail was a trending hashtag throughout the ceremony.) But there was one fact we couldn’t ignore. The most talked-about individual was neither dressed to impress nor guilty of a frock shock.

Not even Tilda’s toga could upstage the man of the moment – awards host Ricky Gervais.

Getty Images

Few in attendance – or otherwise – avoided falling victim to the barbs of a man described variously on Twitter as “cheap”, “insightful”, “a mean-spirited bully” and “a legend”.

In the aftermath of the Golden Globes, viewers and news outlets alike have fallen over themselves to offer opinion on the Brit’s prickly performance.

Was he simply taking overdue potshots at a Hollywood elite many regard as self-absorbed and self-congratulatory?

Were his jibes just too callous for an evening of celebration?

Were the top brass at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (organizers of the whole shebang) even speaking to him by the end of it all?

On this last point, it seems highly unlikely the HFPA would take umbrage. Gervais is, after all, a man who rose to international prominence thanks to “The Office”, a TV show in which jokes about racism and disability came entirely as standard.

[CNN’s Marquee Blog offers more evidence as to why Gervais’s repartee should surprise absolutely no-one.]

NBC / Getty Images

Most commentators have sought to address the following question: Did he cross the line?

Needless to say, the views vary wildly.

The issue of crossing the line is a thorny one. The line in question shifts wildly according to location, context, audience and all sorts of other variables.

I have personal experience of straddling the line and risking falling onto the wrong side. In my previous job as a reporter, a few moments spring to mind:

  • Suggesting that the best thing about one town in our news patch was the road leading out of it;
  • Comparing Scotland’s First Minister to Scotland’s national dish (haggis) in both shape and substance;
  • Stopping just short of donning a transparent pink kilt after a last-minute decency warning from management

In each case, a decision was made based on the story I was telling – and the manner in which it was being told.

The report we aired on Monday’s News Stream contained two carefully-selected, equally acerbic offerings from Gervais. And viewers were left to decide which side of the line he was standing on.

Yet many news organizations have stepped across the editorial line in defense or disparagement of the host. Here’s just a selection:

  • The LA Times called Gervais’s efforts a “snarkfest” with a “corrosive tone”
  • The New York Daily News led with the headline: “Ricky Gervais digs himself into irreversible hole”, later noting “Gervais missed “fun” the same way he missed “funny””
  • The Washington Post’s review of the show even endorsed violence : “You kept hoping the crowd would rise up and pummel Gervais.”
  • Britain’s Daily Mail congratulated him for mocking the Beverly Hilton brigade, noting “You have to recall that these starlings of global glitter are dim birds”

The Hollywood Reporter didn’t disguise its approval either. But it did include one undeniably astute paragraph:

“Gervais's jokes were so incendiary that when he went missing during the second half of the show, the Twitterverse lit up with suggestions that he'd been fired backstage. Clearly, Gervais had done so much damage entertaining the viewers at home (or appalling them, depending on their belief in decorum), that he became the story of the night.”

People that unfailingly toe the line don’t command much press attention – and they don’t command much audience attention either.  When Piers Morgan (himself an adept attention-grabber) interviews Gervais on CNN this Thursday, you can bet the viewership – and subsequent column inches – will be pretty darn sizeable.

January 17th, 2011
06:54 PM ET

The Legacy of Steve Jobs

For the second time in two years, Apple's CEO is taking a medical leave of absence. Steve Jobs sent an email to employees... letting them know that COO Tim Cook would be taking over for an unspecified period of time.

This news broke just as News Stream ended. The team decided to stay late and provide analysis for World Business Today.

We gathered images of Jobs through the years to use in our coverage. I admit that I would not have recognized pre-2004 pictures of the man had he had not stuck to such a strict dress code. Apple aficionados know he  was battling pancreatic cancer by then.

Jobs' appearance has been scrutinized for clues about his wellbeing ever since. In 2008, investors even demanded full disclosure of his health status on the lines that the company's share price is somewhat tied to its CEO. The timing of today's announcement can be seen as no coincidence. U.S. stock markets are closed for a holiday... and Apple puts out its highly anticipated quarterly results on Tuesday (though after the closing bell).

In many minds, Jobs is Apple. But the company has done fine even during the time he was not at the helm. Jobs announced a 6-month leave of absence on January 14, 2009. If you take a look at Apple's stock you'll see it has been on an upward path ever since.

Jobs' letter to his staff ended with these words, ""I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy."

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Filed under: General
January 12th, 2011
06:19 AM ET

Meet a Planet Hunter

NASA’s Kepler mission has found the smallest planet outside our solar system. Its name, Kepler-10b, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But you’ll definitely want to remember it. Scientists are calling Kepler-10b the “missing link” in the search for Earth’s twin.

An artist's rendering of Kepler-10b. NASA image

That's because most discoveries have been large and gaseous planets... like Saturn or Jupiter in our solar system. But Kepler-10b is different. It’s rocky, like Earth, meaning we would be able to stand on it. There’s just one little problem. Kepler-10b has the right composition… but it doesn’t fall into what’s known as the “Goldilocks zone.” That would be an area that’s not too hot and not too cold.

Kepler-10b orbits 3.2 million kilometers away from its star. That's more than 20 times closer than Mercury is to our sun! Temperatures on this new planet can exceed 1,371 degrees Celsius,  hot enough to melt iron. Not exactly an ideal place for life as we know it... but we're getting warmer. (Unfortunately, too warm this time!)

So how do we know all this about an object some 560 light-years away from us? Listen to Kristie’s conversation with planet hunter Natalie Batalha below.

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Filed under: General • Space
January 7th, 2011
06:53 AM ET

Demonstrating the Deluge

Getty Images

 It's the size of France and Germany combined. It's the size of Texas. It's the size of Egypt.

All impressive facts to convey the scale of the flooding affecting northeastern Australia. But comparisons like these – thrown casually into a broadcast script – are now so commonplace that (in the words of an episode of Cougar Town I watched last night) the news becomes white noise. We work in TV, so we have a duty not just to tell people how big a floodzone is; we have a duty to show them.

News Stream prides itself on the strength of its visuals. And visuals are key when telling a story like the Queensland floods.

At the moment, floodwaters in places like the city of Rockhampton have reached a peak and have – give or take a few centimeters – remained at that peak for three days. They're expected to remain there for another week. It's safe to assume life is getting worse for the hundreds of people who've been displaced. Frustration, anger and exhaustion are sure to be on the increase.

But the numbers, the comparisons and the extremities in this story are going nowhere. So it's up to us as writers, producers and newsgatherers to take our output forward in an engaging way.

Thursday's News Stream offered an example of this. We've seen countless aerial shots captured from the skies above Rockhampton, Bundaberg and elsewhere. But we hadn't yet seen the view from further up. Thanks to our friends at NASA, we were able to demonstrate what three weeks of record rainfall looks like from space.

Here's the view of the Fitzroy River Basin on December 14:

NASA

And here's the same view on January 4:

NASA

There. That probably conveys more than saying something's the same size as somewhere half the world away, doesn't it?

But if you're going to do comparisons from space, it's pertinent to show how the situation has changed from a Queenslander's perspective.

We were fortunate that CNN meteorologist Mari Ramos drew our attention to a particularly eyecatching example.  The image below may look like your average estate agent web page, advertising a two-storey home in need of a spot of repair. "Roll up your sleeves," the site advises prospective buyers. "There's work to be done."

 Now have a look at this shot from Getty Images, taken this week:

Getty Images

As we stated on News Stream, the website might want to consider changing its health warning to "Roll up your trouser legs. There's even more work to be done".

The home described as being "a stone's throw from the Fitzroy River" has now found itself in the middle of it.

A useful exercise in comparison and a sobering depiction of the human cost of the Queensland floods, rolled into one.

Tune into News Stream today at 9pm Hong Kong, to see (and hear!) where we take the story next.

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Filed under: General • News Stream ephemera • Space
January 6th, 2011
03:20 PM ET

Vanity Hair

Getty Images

I want to start by clearing one thing up. On Thursday's News Stream Kristie may have uttered the words "News Stream favorite" in conjunction with pint-sized pop star Justin Bieber. The clarification goes something like this: by "favorite" we meant someone whose Twitter antics cause us to raise our eyebrows, roll our eyes, and who we like to poke a little fun at (all in a good-natured way of course).

The thing is, Bieber - the boy, the micro-blogging phenomenon, the floppy hair - seems to be cropping up with alarming regularity on our program. Take Wednesday's "Over and Out There" segment for example. We were discussing the Twitter phenomenon #lessambitiousmovies, but how did we do it? By saying it was trending higher than Justin Bieber!

So today, there I was, prepping for our daily editorial meeting and guess which CNN blog caught my eye: Justin Bieber's New Year's resolutions. What could the boy-who-has-everything possibly wish for in 2011, I thought. Well apparently he has big plans. "This year, I mean, I hope that I win a Grammy, 'cause I'm up for two", the teen idol told MTV News.

So to the end of Thursday's News Stream. Our "Over and Out There" focused on a magazine that hits news-stands in New York today. The February edition of "Vanity Fair" contains an explosive portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, complete with allegations of backroom bickering and legal wrangles.

But of course nobody is talking about that...because look who's on the front cover:

From Vanity Fair

Yes, you guessed it, Justin Bieber.

He's now sweet sixteen, but from this image he would be lying if he said he has never been kissed (well that, and the rumors circulating about the time he's spending with Disney favorite Selena Gomez).

It will shock few of you I'm sure to discover that the Canadian singer considers himself to be extraordinary; he told Vanity Fair that he is not a normal teenager. Just one of the quotes we pulled out of the interview may give you something of that impression: "I'm crazy, I'm nuts". It seems Justin's also got quite a high opinion of his personal appearance, telling readers that it is not his music, but his looks that make him irresistible to girls. "I'm not trying to be arrogant...but maybe I'm good-looking, right?" he asks. Well, I leave that up to you to decide...

And so we return to another of the pop star's New Year's resolutions, and one that could have Bieber fans in floods of tears. Justin has threatened to chop his mop-top!

Is the world ready for a balder Bieber? Will he, like Samson, lose his strength when his luscious locks are cut? Only time will tell.

Moreover, could this mean the end of News Stream's love-hate relationship with Justin Bieber? In the words of the teen star himself, "never say never". With six million followers on Twitter, his online presence is sometimes difficult to ignore (even if I wish I had never laid eyes on his bare-chested profile picture).

For the record, my New Year's resolution is simply this: henceforth to leave the all mention of Justin to the "Beliebers" or even "True Beliebers". Or maybe just News Stream writer Nicol.

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