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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Eight ways the iPhone has changed society in 10 years

On June 29, 2007, the day the iPhone first went on sale, it would have been hard for anyone to imagine the monumental impact the device has had on society, even now-late Apple CEO Steven Jobs.

Ushering in the smart phone era has changed the way people interact, and perhaps even re-wired the brain. It has played a part in everything from love to war to politics to crime.

This won’t be the only blog today list on the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone, so I’ll keep with the theme of my latest novel and focus on the way these pocket-sized computers have transformed social interaction. Why am I listing eight ways instead of 10? Because in the age of mobile news, who has the patience to scroll down a 10-point list?

No more privacy in public

I hear a lot of prior generation athletes talk about the wild times they had on the road, partying and drinking and saying outrageous things in bars. Rarely did any of the details come to light, and when they did, it was based on memories, not proof.

Now, anytime something remotely controversial happens, it’s often captured on a camera phone. If there’s a pro athlete or celebrity involved, that’s almost a certainty. So people can’t simply mouth off without consequences.

The language of emojis

The emoji was created in 1998, but it didn’t take off as an common part of language until the smart phone. Text messaging, Facebook and Twitter are arts of the written word. Emojis says things that words can’t quite say, or they emphasize the meaning of sentences.

Unlike words, emojis can’t be translated into vocal language. There’s also unregulated and unlimited. No 26 characters here.

I’m still waiting for the first all emoji novel.

Constantly plugged in

People used to access the internet mostly at home or in the workplace on a desktop computer, or on a bulky laptop at a rare WiFi hot spot. Now the vast majority of the country has wireless internet access through a cellular network, and websites have been configured for mobile views, which is the fastest growing segment of traffic.

The good news is people can work and stay plugged into information remotely. No more sneaking out of the wedding to check the score on the TV at the bar. There’s no reason to drive around looking for a restaurant or a gas station.

The bad news is work has become inescapable. No matter where you go, people can email you and text you. People with important responsibilities are expected to respond no matter what. So it’s harder to truly unplug.

Instant information

I started journalism in college, writing for the Miami Hurricane student newspaper and then as an intern at the St. Augustine Record in 1999. There’s been a huge change in the expectations for news delivery over the years, especially since the smart phone era began.

People used to receive a brief overview of the day’s news during the evening telecast, and then a more detailed analysis in the next morning’s paper. Now, not only is the morning paper full of old news, so is the evening telecast. First people expected websites with stories updated regularly, hopefully within an hour of breaking news. That’s no longer good enough. With mobile phones in hand, people scroll Twitter and Facebook for instance news - reports within seconds of events, or even live streaming video.

Social media works so fast that some traditional news sites simply embed a social media feed about an event instead of writing a story (which I find highly annoying).

The drawback here is accuracy. The faster a reporter works, the easier it is to make mistakes. It can take time to verify information, but the pressure of instant news doesn’t allow for any delays.

Forever documenting the moment

Having a camera phone at all times allows people to capture every moment of their lives, but is capturing the moment the same as living in the moment?

At concerts and sporting events, especially in Miami, a huge amount of people are on their phones. Are they truly engaged in the action? Or are they trying to create a video to shows off to their jealous friends? A football games, some people are so distracted by their fantasy football league that they aren’t into the game in front of them.

Entertainment is personal

A decade ago, most home entertainment was spent in front of the TV screen or video game console. A family might be watching the same show on one set so they could share their experiences, or some family members might segment into different rooms to view their favorite programs.

Now, the TV is no longer king. Nielsen says that TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds has declined 39 percent since 2011. It also fell sharply in the 25-34 age group. That’s because millennials are spending more times on smartphones than watching TV.

So now family members can sit in the same room, and all be occupied by their individual devices - watching shows, playing games, surfing the web. They are together physically, not socially.

Shopping assistant

The smart phone has made it easier than ever to buy things no matter where you are. That’s great for the sake of convenience, no more trips to the store for one thing - as long as you can wait a day or two.

For compulsive shoppers, that means there’s no escape.

Redefining intelligence

In my high school and college years, certain classes focused on memorization. If you could memorize historical or scientific facts, etc, then you were smart. Even today, many game shows center around memorizing and repeating facts.

Under that definition of intelligence, anyone with a working smart phone is a genius. They can pull up any historical information, scientific fact, pop culture reference, spell perfectly, master geography, and solve the most common math problems. What’s the point of memorizing all of that when the information is one second away in a pocket-sized device? And why are many classes still structured as if smart phones were never invented?

So what’s it mean now to be smart. Perhaps the new intelligence means the ability to separate real information from fake news.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How many people need to die on Facebook Live until tech giant pulls the plug?

Sadly, people are murdered and committee suicide every day. Few of these incidents attract the global spotlight. That’s where Facebook Live and other instantaneous social media platforms come in.

Steve Stephens gained his 15 minutes of fame by fatally shooting complete stranger Robert Godwin, 74, in Cleveland live on Facebook. In Thailand, Wuttisan Wongtalay hung his 11-month-old daughter on Facebook Live before killing himself on the same platform.

Would these crimes, and many before them, have occurred without a global platform to broadcast these murders? These videos were viewed hundreds of thousands of times before Facebook pulled them. It appears that Stephens wanted to draw attention to himself as he dealt with personal problems. Shooting someone in anonymity would be another murder among hundreds every day. But a murder on Facebook Live, that put Stephens’ face all over the world.

That’s why live social media has become more frequently used by young people to broadcast suicide. Drawing more attention to their deaths has a greater impact on the people they blame for their suffering.

I anticipated this trend in my novel Famous After Death, where Miami teenagers commit murders in creative ways and post them online. In my story, most of these murders were recorded and posted soon after without the teens identifying themselves, but several of the crimes occur online in real time - similar to Facebook Live.

The question for Facebook, one of the 10 most valuable companies in the world, is what it’s prepared to do about it. After Godwin was murdered, CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed to improve the monitoring of videos on Facebook Live. Right now the company depends on users reporting questionable content. It’s working on artificial intelligence, but that could be years away.

Until a better system is in place and Facebook Live can’t be effectively policed, Zuckerberg should consider taking it down. The world will survive without Facebook Live, and so will the company. It’s a nice feature, but it’s not a crucial part of the website.

What can’t be replaced is the lives of people like Godwin.

Of course, Facebook makes plenty of money off these videos. There are more than 8 billion daily views of Facebook videos. Mobile video advertising is a multi-billion dollar market. So there are financial incentives for Facebook not to back down.

This isn’t only a Facebook problem. Platforms like YouTube, Periscope and Snapchat have been used to promote violence. In some cases, terrorist groups have posted propaganda videos on social media that went unchecked for months. This issue has caused YouTube to pull paid advertising from certain categories of videos, since advertisers didn’t want to run the risk that their ads would run alongside offensive videos.

Facebook Live has the potential to be a great platform. I wish politicians would broadcast all their meetings live on social media instead of striking backroom deals.

But until Zuckerberg and Co. can police it, one murder is too many.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A new wave of viral violence begins with brutality on live stream

As social media evolves to become more instantaneous than ever, viral violence has once again hijacked the ride.

Why wait five seconds to post a video of your life? Services like Facebook Live and Periscope provide a real-time look at what’s in front of your face. With instant audience metrics and feedback, they make life like a mini TV station. What more can the host do in that moment to grow an audience and go viral?

Four teenagers in Chicago found a way to juice their Facebook Live viewership past 15,000. They kidnapped a mental disabled teenager they went to high school with, tied him up, mercilessly beat him, cut his scalp with a knife, and taunted him with racial insults. The victim was white and the attackers were black, so this might be classified as a hate crime.

The video went on for 30 minutes on one of the suspect’s Facebook Live page, with viewership building as the seconds tick by. Facebook removed the video after the four suspects were arrested.

This story has some strange parallels to my novel Famous After Death. In my story, the teenagers are also abusing victims for the gratification of an online audience. However, they mostly posted the videos after the fact, using public wifi and a device that couldn’t be traced directly to them, and they didn’t put their faces in the video. When there is an attack in my book that is filmed live on the internet, it’s the victim’s camera phone being used for the live broadcast, not the attacker’s phone. They don’t want to be caught!

With these suspects in Chicago, they acted with zero regard for evading capture. Not only did one suspect post this on a Facebook profile using a personal device, they all appeared in the video. You know, just to make sure there’s no doubt. Yet, like the characters in my novel, there was a pack mentality. Get a bunch of people together with bad intentions and a camera, and the watch their aggression multiply.

Were these teenagers so proud that they could beat the poor guy that they wanted to show the world?

Here’s the other thing that gets me. Did any one of the Facebook Live viewers bother calling the police?

Violence can’t go viral unless an audience supports it.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hacking isn’t journalism, it’s a crime

I might take heat from other journalists for saying this, but someone needs to speak up.

Hacking to obtain information isn’t journalism. It’s a crime, and journalists should stop supporting it.

The way many news outlets are covering WikiLeak’s irresponsible data dump, including personal passwords stolen from emails, is encouraging the hackers. The chairman of Clinton’s campaign had his phone and social media accounts taken over because the hackers shared his passwords with the world.

That’s not blowing the whistle on corruption. That’s harassment.

There are many times when journalists will write important stories based on documents that parties didn’t intend to release. In the Panama Papers series, for instance, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists shared documents about international banking that a whistleblower found at their law firm with a team of journalists. That resulted in many stories about public official corruption and questionable transactions. However, the journalists didn’t release every single document, and they certainly didn’t put personal information out there. They created a searchable database that tied individuals to companies.

Compare that to WikiLeaks, which has released social security and credit card numbers in its unedited data dumps. What’s the journalistic purpose in that?

The Panama Papers came from a whistleblower at the bank who had access to the documents. Many times, people who see something wrong can’t come forward without getting in trouble, so they pass on information they were privy to.

You could also argue that Edward Snowden was a whistleblower because the government information he had access to shook his moral compass, although he could have been much more careful not to release confidential information that put lives at risk. Snowden has criticized WikiLeaks for its “hostility to even modest curation."

The hackers who have stolen emails from politicians are not blowing the whistle because they didn’t have the right to access that information in the first place. It’s akin to the Watergate break in where operatives for President Nixon stole files from the Democratic Party. But this time the media is playing along and publicizing the documents that were stolen. Since we know that the hackers have a political motive, how can the media trust that the information supposedly in the email is accurate?

Maybe because there hasn’t been a real bombshell. But that’s besides the point.

This isn’t a political issue. It’s a crime that can be used against any party, or company. Remember when North Korea hacked Sony Pictures because they were offended by a comedy movie about Kim Jung-Un? I spoke out against that too.

Hacking will happen whether the media covers it or not, but promoting hacked material helps the criminals injure their victims. It’s like when people share videos of teens getting bullied or beaten up on social media, and how that amplifies the pain and embarrassment. The more it hurts, the more likely the bully will strike again, and that goes for the hacker as well.

In the never-ending battle for ratings and clips, sometimes journalists need to stop and think about the behavior they’re promoting.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Carspotting in Israel, an international menu of automobiles

During my two-week vacation in Israel, I did a lot of double takes at the car logos. What's that lion? That's not the "S" for Subaru or Suzuki, so what is it? Who makes a car with a winged arrow?

The selection of cars in Israel is even more international than in the United States. Yes, they have all the brands that we have plus they've mixed in brands from automakers in Europe and Asia that aren't available in the United States. Even the familiar brands, such as Nissan, Toyota and Kia, sell special models in Israel, and Europe as well.

Israeli auto preferences are decidedly different from the United States. Small is the rule over there. Cars like a Toyota Corolla or Hyundai Elantra are considered full-sized sedans. It's common to have cars even smaller than that, Euro-style cars where you either have a second row or a trunk in use, not both. That's because the city streets in much of Israel are narrow. People often park on the street, so the smaller you are, the easier it is to maneuver and find a space. For people with a driveway, it's often very tight. Garages are extremely rare, reserved for the most luxurious homes.

An SUV simply wouldn't fit into many Israeli neighborhoods.

Another factor, gas is extra expensive in Israel so people usually don't get big cars, SUVs and trucks. Luxury nameplates are fairly rare because they're extra costly to buy in Israel. On the other hand, some of these European brands are less expensive.

On with the carspotting.

The lion logo is a Peugoet, a French brand that has made cars since 1882. It's a subsidiary of PSA Peugeot Citroën, the latter name also being a car brand. This particular model is a tiny 107.

The French-made Citroën has a double arrow logo. It makes a variety of cars, from minis to station wagons like this C4 to vans and work vehicles.

The Škoda Octavia and its arrow with wings logo. Škoda is headquarted in the Czech Republic, although it's now a subsidiary of Volkswagen.

The diamond logo is for Renault, a French company around since 1898. Pictured is the little Renault Clio and a mid-sized Renault Fluence taxi (I rode in one of those).

The design of the Renault Kangoo (not kangaroo) is a typical Euro/Israeli work truck. It's sort of an SUV in the front and a van in the back. Many brands have a nearly identical model, such as the Citroën Jumpy and the Peugeot Partner. They usually have work equipment in the back and, for some reason, all the ones in Israel were white. 

The Dacia Duster, a great name for a desert-driving SUV. Dacia is a Romanian car manufacturer founded in 1966, although it's now a subsidiary of Renault. It's actually the largest company by revenue in Romanian.

Several car brands have an "S" but you won't find this style in the United States. SEAT is from Spain. It was founded by a state-owned company in 1950, although its now controlled by Volkswagen. Pictured is the cute little Ibiza.

The "O" stands for Opel. The "Z" is silent. Opel is a long-time German car manufacturer, although it's been a subsidiary of the U.S.'s General Motors since the 1930s. Most of its cars, like this Opel Corsa, are fairly small. Perhaps that's why the GM hasn't introduced this brand into the U.S.

The Terios from Japanese car-maker Daihatsu. It's actually the oldest auto company in Japan having been founding in 1907. It makes mostly small cars and SUVs. Fun fact, it previously produced a truck called the Daihatsu Naked.

This big truck is made by MAN. That's a Germany manufacture of industrial vehicles, one of the most commonly-found brands in Israel. I guess the U.S. isn't MAN enough for this company.

Ever seen a Nissan Micra? You won't find it in the U.S. This super-mini is sold in Europe, Asia, Latin America and, yes, Israel. You could fit four in the typical American garage.

I've seen many Toyotas, but not a Space Verso like this. This model is a five- or seven-seater that's sold in Israel, Europe, China and South Africa. It's what they call a compact MPV (multi-purpose vehicle). Think of it like the mini version of the seven-seat SUV.

With a name like Picanto, you can guess that this Kia is pretty small. Heck, it makes a Kia Rio look huge.

I thought all Fiats were tiny little things. In Israel, Fiat has plenty of vans and work trucks.

I did see some Alfa Romeos and some DS cars driving around, but I couldn't get their photos because I didn't want to bother the drivers. Alfa Romeo is an Italian brand that makes small, sport cars and it's now part of Fiat Chrysler. DS is the luxury spin-off of Citroën, which created it in 2009 and made it a separate brand in 2014.

After seeing all these international models, which one would you most like to see introduced in the United States?

I can't wait to go off-roading in a Dacia Duster.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My observations about life in Israel

After spending two weeks in Israel, I learned a lot about what it’s like to live there. While there are so many things I have yet to grasp about life in the Holy Land, let me share my observations - both big and small - with you.

The condo boom followed me! There are more construction cranes in Israel than in Miami. Everywhere I looked, they were building something, especially in central Israel. I was told that many Jews from Europe are moving to Israel, or at least buying condos in preparation for a move, for personal safety reasons. Many wealthy Jews want to own a piece of Israel, even if they don’t live there. All of this is great for the construction industry, but these new condos are very expensive for the average working-class Israel. Sound familiar, Miami?

Israeli cities are pretty dense. Most of them have busy city centers and multifamily buildings packed together, a very urban feel. However, there are large open spaces and agricultural areas between the cities. That’s partly due to the cities being construction where the government built the water supply. Unlike in Florida, you can’t just dig a well anywhere and find water.

How scare is water? We really take it for granted in Florida. The one home I visited that had a full grass yard and a pool had a water bill of $1,000 a month in the summertime. It’s a luxury. So is a garage.

Despite the dense cities, Israel has many parks. The newer cities are well-designed with frequent pocket parks, often with playground, outdoor fitness equipment, and combo basketball/soccer courts. BTW, I saw the kids using those courts only for soccer, not basketball. Those parks make the neighborhoods great for kids. (Are you listening, South Florida?)

Israel also has many small, neighborhood markets. People often walk a few blocks for their groceries.

Paseos (alleys between streets) save time while walking to parks, markets or visiting neighbors. Not every square foot has to be used for development. (Pay attention, South Florida.)

Instead of traffic lights at every corner, Israel has many roundabouts. Traffic flows through them fairly smoothly, as long as people obey the rules.

Israel has solar power, sort of. Most homes have solar-powered water heaters on the roof. The good news is this saves on electricity. The bad news is that you shouldn’t take too long in that hot shower.

When I visited Eilat on the southern tip of Israel, I was pleased to find it had city-wide free WiFi. That’s a great idea for a tourist spot. It also has a city-sponsored app. This Red Sea resort is so much fun.

Most malls in Israel had indoor entertainment activities for kids (for a fee, of course.) These ranged from indoor playgrounds to the ice rink and roller coaster in the Ice Mall in Eilat.

There's serious security at malls, and at many other public places in Israel. They don’t have flashlights. These guards are armed and they are constantly looking for suspicious people, often asking questions and inspecting bags. It’s just a part of life.

From Tel Aviv to Eilat, Israel has great beaches. If you are a surfer, Herzliya had the best waves. Eilat has the best diving because the coral reefs are right off the beach. Most of the beaches have great restaurants, including South Beach’s food stand on the sand in Herzliya.

Not all the food is kosher. Most malls have a kosher McDonalds (home of the Big American) and a non-kosher McDonalds (home of the Big American, with cheese). But if you eat kosher, Israel is culinary paradise.

Most restaurants don’t have napkin dispensers and many don’t have ketchup dispensers either. You have to ask. Israelis must be cleanly eaters. Do they have menus in English? Only in tourist spots. But many Israelis know some English.

Driving around, I saw huge office towers branded by tech companies like Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google. Israel is clearly a tech hub.

Be careful following Waze for directions while driving around. This app, which was created in Israel, recommends the shortest route but not always the most secure route. Some neighborhoods aren’t friendly to certain religious groups or ethnic groups, and some neighborhoods shouldn’t be driven through on religious holidays. I recommend traveling with someone who knows Israel.

Speaking of driving, I was amazed by the array of international cars in Israel. It has many brands you won’t find in the United States. That will be the subject of my next blog.

There were so many places in Israel I could have seen but I didn’t get a chance to in my two weeks there. Granted, this was my third visit. I’m looking forward to seeing Israel again.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Panama Papers: Money laundering loopholes are nothing new

No one who’s been paying attention to the real estate or financial markets should be surprised over the off-shore tax havens and money laundering schemes uncovered by the release of the Panama Papers. World governments have been aware of these loopholes for years.

The only question: Will the publicity storm prompt the United States and other governments to stop the flow of dark money?

Hundreds of journalists around the world [sadly, not including me] worked through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to comb through about 11.5 million leaked documents from the Panamanian law firm and corporate register Mossack Fonseca. Among the 214,000 offshore companies it listed, some were used to conceal from the public and from governments that politically connected individuals, known criminals and people who had no apparent sources of wealth controlled significant amounts of money. In some cases, these offshore companies owned real estate, including in Miami.

Of course, not all of these companies were registered offshore. States like Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming also allow LLCs to be registered without listing a managing member.

The fact that this is going on isn’t news. The Panama Papers made headlines because it named names.

Hey, how did that hair dresser from South America buy a $1 million condo on Brickell? You can't ask those questions if you don't know who's really buying.
Law enforcement has known since the 1980s that dirty money found its way into Miami real estate through shell corporations. Watch the documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” to see how drug money built much of this town. In 2013, I wrote the story “Condos, Cash, and Criminals” in the South Florida Business Journal addressing the concerns of many experts that dirty money was contributing to the surge of cash real estate deals.

Politicians and law enforcement have known this was a problem for decades. And yet, it has persisted. Who knows who really owns our real estate? Many people would rather not know, as long as they're making money off it.

Having covered both banking and real estate in South Florida, I can tell you that I often run into companies with no clear path of ownership. Sometimes they’re registered in Delaware, or offshore in places the Isle of Jersey or the British Virgin Islands.

Other times, they’re Florida-registered LLCs but the managing member clearly isn’t the owner. There’s no requirement that Florida LLC’s list the owner, only a person to handle the company’s affairs. Sometimes this is innocent, such as a famous athlete who makes his attorney the manager of the LLC because he doesn’t want to be bothered at his home.

It could also be used by money laundering drug dealers to set up straw managers to buy real estate through. There’s really no way I can tell that the LLC isn’t funded by terrorists, drug dealers or corrupt officials.

Some homes are bought by trusts. It’s extremely difficult for the public to know who controls them. You just have to trust that the lawyers who set them up did their due diligence.

As we saw in the Panama Papers, there’s a temptation for incorporation law firms to think money first, due diligence second. Plus, law firms don’t face the strict “know your customer” and “source of funds” rules that banks must comply with.

U.S. authorities could ask more of incorporation law firms. Federal and local governments could take measures to require ownership disclosure for LLCs. Authorities have started asking title companies to disclose the LLC owners in $1 million-plus deals in Miami and $3 million-plus deals in Manhattan

Until authorities start taking aggressive measures to promote disclosure, it’s clear they aren’t serious about addressing this problem.

It’s not so easy, though. Miami, New York and many other international cities are enjoying windfalls of foreign cash that have spurred building booms. That’s created jobs and increased property taxes, although some argue it’s also made real estate less obtainable for working families. I have a feeling that some, or perhaps most, Miami condo projects would fall apart if these loopholes were closed.

Should we start turning money away because we don’t trust the source? Or do we turn a blind eye?