Life update: I’ve started a new job as an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, a school that bears a refreshing resemblance to my alma mater, the University of Michigan. I feel so fortunate to have landed here. The UBC School of Journalism, in particular, is pretty remarkable — an intimate and innovative program within an enormous research university. Here’s to a productive year!
Henry Rees-Sheridan invited me to speak on Monocle’s Globalist podcast today. They’ve been running a series on press leaks, so Henry and I discussed the new wave of encrypted communication tools and their role in connecting confidential sources to journalists. You can find the full episode here (I come on around 21:30) or listen to an excerpt of my segment below:
As a break from dissertation writing, I accepted an invitation from the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review to write an article revisiting last year’s Tow Center report on the use of SecureDrop in newsrooms. Here in the early months of the Trump presidency, all indications point to an incredible surge in the use of secure whistleblowing tools among Washington insiders hoping to contact journalists anonymously. A handful of my sources not only confirmed that this is the case, but also offered some sense of how they’ve coordinated this growing stream of information. Find the article here.
Just for the record, it’s been one month since this stretch of our time on Earth became Historically Interesting (but in the very bad sense implied by Chinese proverbs).
In other news, today I was interviewed for The Setup, which sounds like it might be a gangster movie, but it’s actually a website where various and sundry nerds talk about the gear they use for work. Huge thanks to Daniel Bogan for the invitation, and especially for going through with it even after I subjected him to several rounds of threadjabber about how his website performs a perverse Marxist reversal towards conspicuous production and productivity fetishism. For those unfamiliar, Bogan is a delightful Australian man who assumes the moniker @waferbaby, and yet recently had the good fortune to acquire a genuine human baby.
If you haven’t visited The Setup before, do yourself a favor and browse around. The interview with John McAfee is just remarkable. It’s almost like he’s channeling some sort of Hunter Thompson who emerged from the ooze of the dotcom boom.
My tools for national security consulting are primarily a semi-auto .22 rifle with a silencer. They are virtually completely silent and can pierce car doors and other light armor. They are perfect for urban environments.
My accessory tools are mostly extremely strong espresso and research chemicals from China that are classed as “Smart Drugs”. They allow me to solve 2nd order partial differential equations in my head and to spontaneously create 4 dimensional images of software structures that I can mentally manipulate.
I also do my most productive security designs while having extended sex. I apologize if you think I am pulling your legs but, God’s truth, these are the facts.
Erik Spiekermann’s interview reveals his taste to be precise and totally impeccable. No surprise there. And you can really hear his voice in the prose — glib and yet totally serious: “Yes, I do have residences in all those places.” It makes me miss Berlin.
And it appears that Bruce Schneier either does not have an arsenal of magical security gear, or else he is too shrewd to disclose it on a gear blog. If anything at all is true in the Schneier post — and this is not just an act of misdirection for would-be attackers — I’m just damn surprised that he doesn’t use Linux.
One thing that’s not surprising is how much overlap I have with Ben Welsh, a data journalist at the LA Times who also started PastPages, a continuously updated archive of front pages for news websites.
(Sidenote: one of the stranger things I’ve noticed about the general perception of data journalism is that many people assume it’s boring work, or even that data journalists themselves are dull. Totally false. These people are hackers, not accountants. In fact, data journalists are often among the most clever, creative, and even subversive people in any newsroom. These are the ones pushing the field forward. /Sidenote)
At any rate, you should check out The Setup to learn about things you can buy for work.
Posting this a bit late, but I was invited to speak on the podcast “It’s All Journalism” back in June. They were curious about my research on SecureDrop and I think we covered the subject pretty well in just under thirty minutes.
You can tune in here:
And my report on SecureDrop is available here:
Cheryl Phillips and I just published an article-length version of our report “Teaching Data and Computational Journalism” in the Columbia Journalism Review. Find it here:
The text below the fold is an excerpt from “Teaching Data and Computational Journalism”. I wrote this part hoping to broaden the scope of ‘emerging’ technologies to include not just today’s newest inventions, but also the broad range of creative practices that promote ‘emergence’ itself.
Old and New Technologies
The history of technology often appears to move in regular cycles of emergence and obsolescence, but in fact old technologies are rarely eclipsed entirely. We must be cautious with the concept of ‘emerging’ technologies because we risk missing the continued utility of old ones.
For example, microcontrollers like the Arduino have minimal computing power by contemporary standards, but they are powerful enough to process a set of programmed instructions for projects like gathering sensor data. These devices have proved especially useful because of their simplicity, not in spite of it. Similarly, as we promote spaces for journalism schools to explore technologies so new that their uses are not yet apparent, it will be worthwhile to maintain a perspective broad enough to consider the utility of seemingly obsolete technologies.
We should also bear in mind the long histories of platforms like virtual reality and holograms as part of our cultural imagination, if not yet as successful mass products. In past conceptions of the future, we may rediscover promising avenues for innovation.
Cheryl Phillips and I just published a report called “Teaching Data and Computational Journalism.” It covers a lot of ground. We surveyed the course offerings of accredited journalism schools in the U.S. to see where and how data and computational skills were being taught. The results were pretty grim: roughly half teach no data skills at all, and half of the schools that do teach data are only teaching at the most basic level. We hope that this snapshot establishes the importance of taking data and computational instruction and research more seriously. To that end, we also offer a set of model curricula and institutional recommendations to help schools move forward.
The report is available online through GitBooks:
I enjoyed this piece on the recent meeting of Ai Weiwei, Jacob Appelbaum, and Laura Poitras in Beijing. There’s a nice anecdote on the curious artifacts that emerge from bootleg publishing.
Monday morning after breakfast, Ai, Appelbaum and Poitras walk to a nearby park. Along the way, they stop into a DVD store to try to buy a copy of Citizenfour. The store only has a pirated copy of the movie, they learn, with cover credits that declare that the film stars “Queen Latifah” and “Common.” Ai asks the store clerk if the movie is any good. “It’s okay,” the clerk replies in Mandarin, seemingly unaware that the film’s director is staring at him.
It’s funny, sure, but this variety of corner cutting has a long history in publishing, pirate or otherwise. Viz these woodcuts from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. Notice the uncanny similarity between the cities of Verona and Mantua:
Media history helps to put things in context. These woodcuts are arguably as inaccurate as the bootleg DVD cover, and probably for similar reasons: to save time and money during production. In The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns illustrates just how often books have been ‘pirated’ throughout the history of print, often with errors and inaccuracies that far exceed the shortcuts in the Nuremberg Chronicle. In the long run, I’d rather have a curio like “Citizenfour starring Queen Latifah” than an authoritative replica, just as many book collectors would probably prefer to have a copy of the Wicked Bible.
Images from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.
Hat tip to Prof. Andie Tucher for reminding me of the source of these woodcuts.
This reverse OCR engine is delightful. It draws and morphs random lines until they are recognized by an optical character recognition program. The resulting oddities provide a powerful reminder that the alphabet — like so many symbols — could have taken shape quite differently. And when we force the poor computer to make sense of our arbitrary scribbling, the rules it develops and the inferences it draws will inevitably reflect this alien semiotic divide. Bravo.
This registered as the word “unicorn”: