Building a Strategic Vision to Combat Cybercrime

The Financial Times has a good piece examining the how insurance companies are beginning to recalculate how they assess insurance premiums that are used to cover ransomware payments. In addition to raising fees (and, in some cases, deciding whether to drop insuring against ransomware) some insurers like AIG are adopting stronger underwriting, including:

… an additional 25 detailed questions on clients’ security measures. “If [clients] have very, very low controls, then we may not write coverage at all,” Tracie Grella, AIG’s global head of cyber insurance, told the Financial Times.

To be sure, there is an ongoing, and chronic, challenge of getting companies to adopt baseline security postures, inclusive of running moderately up-to-date software, adopting multi-factor authorization, employing encryption at rest, and more. In the Canadian context this is made that much harder because the majority of Canadian businesses are small and mid-sized; they don’t have an IT team that can necessarily maintain or improve on their organization’s increasingly complicated security posture.

In the case of larger mid-sized, or just large, companies the activities of insurers like AIG could force them to modify their security practices for the better. Insurance is generally regarded as cheaper than security and so seeing the insurance companies demand better security to receive insurance is a way of incentivizing organizational change. Further change can be incentivized by government adopting policies such as requiring a particular security posture in order to bid on, or receive, government contracts. This governmental incentivization doesn’t necessarily encourage change for small organizations that already find it challenging to contract with government due to the level of bureaucracy involved. For other organizations, however, it will mean that to obtain/maintain government contracts they’ll need to focus on getting the basics right. Again, this is about aligning incentives such that organizations see value in changing their operational policies and postures to close off at least some security vulnerabilities. There may be trickle down effects to these measures, as well, insofar as even small-sized companies may adopt better security postures based on actionable guidance that is made available to the smaller companies responsible for supplying those middle and larger-sized organizations, which do have to abide by insurers’ or governments’ requirements.1

While the aforementioned incentives might improve the cybersecurity stance of some organizations the key driver of ransomware and other criminal activities online is its sheer profitability. The economics of cybercrime have been explored in some depth over the past 20 years or so, and there are a number of conclusions that have been reached that include focusing efforts on actually convicting cybercriminals (this is admittedly hard where countries like Russia and former-Soviet Republic states indemnify criminals that do not target CIS-region organizations or governments) to selectively targeting payment processors or other intermediaries that make it possible to derive revenues from the criminal activities.

Clearly it’s not possible to prevent all cybercrime, nor is it possible to do all things at once: we can’t simultaneously incentivize organizations to adopt better security practices, encourage changes to insurance schemas, and find and address weak links in cybercrime monetization systems with the snap of a finger. However, each of the aforementioned pieces can be done with a strategic vision of enhancing defenders’ postures while impeding the economic incentives that drive online criminal activities. Such a vision is ostensibly shared by a very large number of countries around the world. Consequently, in theory, this kind of strategic vision is one that states can cooperate on across borders and, in the process, build up or strengthen alliances focused on addressing challenging international issues pertaining to finance, crime, and cybersecurity. Surely that’s a vision worth supporting and actively working towards.


  1. To encourage small suppliers to adopt better security practices when they are working with larger organizations that have security requirements placed on them, governments might set aside funds to assist the mid-sized and large-sized vendors to secure down the supply chain and thus relieve small businesses of these costs. ↩︎

Two Thoughts on China’s Draft Privacy Law

Alexa Lee, Samm Sacks, Rogier Creemers, Mingli Shi, and Graham Webster have collectively written a helpful summary of the new Chinese Data Privacy Law over at Stanford’s DigiChina.

There were a pair of features that most jump out to me.

First, that the proposed legislation will compel Chinese companies “to police the personal data practices across their platforms” as part of Article 57. As noted by the team at Stanford,

“the three responsibilities identified for big platform companies here resonate with the “gatekeeper” concept for online intermediaries in Europe, and a requirement for public social responsibility reports echoes the DMA/DSA mandate to provide access to platform data by academic researchers and others. The new groups could also be compared with Facebook’s nominally independent Oversight Board, which the company established to review content moderation decisions.”

I’ll be particularly curious to see the kinds of transparency reporting that emerges out of these companies. I doubt the reports will parallel those in the West, which tend to focus on the processes and number of disclosures from private companies to government and, instead, the Chinese companies’ reports will focus on how companies are being ‘socially responsible’ with how they collect, process, and disclose data to other Chinese businesses. Still, if we see this more consumer-focused approach it will demonstrate yet another transparency report tradition that will be useful to assess in academic and public policy writing.

Second, the Stanford team notes that,

“new drafts of both the PIPL and the DSL added language toughening requirements for Chinese government approval before data holders in China cooperate with foreign judicial or law enforcement requests for data, making failure to gain permission a clear violation punishable by financial penalties up to 1 million RMB.”

While not surprising, this kind of restriction will continue to raise data sovereignty borders around personal information held in China. The effect? Western states will still need to push for Mutual Legal Assistant Treaty (MLAT) reform to successfully extract information from Chinese companies (and, perhaps in all likelihood, fail to conclude these reforms).1

It’s perhaps noteworthy that while China is moving to build up walls there is a simultaneous attempt by the Council of Europe to address issues of law enforcement access to information held by cloud providers (amongst other things). The United States passed the CLOUD Act in 2018 to begin to try and alleviate the issue of states gaining access to information held by cloud providers operating in foreign jurisdictions (though did not address human rights concerns which were mitigated through traditional MLAT processes). Based on the proposed Chinese law, it’s unlikely that the CLOUD Act will gain substantial traction with the Chinese government, though admittedly this wasn’t the aim of the CLOUD Act or an expected outcome of its passage.

Nevertheless, as competing legal frameworks are established that place the West on one side, and China and Russia on the other, the effect will be further entrenching the legal cultures of the Internet between different economic and political (and security) regimes. At the same time, data will be easily stored anywhere in the world including out of reach of relevant law enforcement agencies by criminal actors that routinely behave with technical and legal savvy.

Ultimately, the raising of regional and national digital borders is a topic to watch, both to keep an eye on what the forthcoming legal regimes will look like and, also, to assess the extents to which we see languages of ‘strong sovereignty’ or nationalism creep functionally into legislation around the world.


  1. For more on MLAT reform, see these pieces from Lawfare ↩︎

Overclassification and Its Impacts

Photo by Wiredsmart on Pexels.com

Jason Healey and Robert Jervis have a thought provoking piece over at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The crux of the argument is that, as a result of overclassification, it’s challenging if not impossible for policymakers or members of the public (to say nothing of individual analysts in the intelligence community or legislators) to truly understand the nature of contemporary cyberconflict. While there’s a great deal written about how Western organizations have been targeted by foreign operators, and how Western governments have been detrimentally affected by foreign operations, there is considerably less written about the effects of Western governments’ own operations towards foreign states because those operations are classified.

To put it another way, there’s no real way of understanding the cause and effect of operations, insofar as it’s not apparent why foreign operators are behaving as they are in what may be reaction to Western cyber operations or perceptions of Western cyber operations. The kinds of communiques provided by American intelligence officials, while somewhat helpful, also tend to obscure as much as they reveal (on good days). Healey and Jervis write:

General Nakasone and others are on solid ground when highlighting the many activities the United States does not conduct, like “stealing intellectual property” for commercial profit or disrupting the Olympic opening ceremonies. There is no moral equivalent between the most aggressive US cyber operations like Stuxnet and shutting down civilian electrical power in wintertime Ukraine or hacking a French television station and trying to pin the blame on Islamic State terrorists. But it clouds any case that the United States is the victim here to include such valid complaints alongside actions the United States does engage in, like geopolitical espionage. The concern of course is a growing positive feedback loop, with each side pursuing a more aggressive posture to impose costs after each fresh new insult by others, a posture that tempts adversaries to respond with their own, even more aggressive posture.

Making things worse, the researchers and academics who are ostensibly charged with better understanding and unpacking what Western intelligence agencies are up to sometimes decline to fulfill their mandate. The reasons are not surprising: engaging in such revelations threaten possible career prospects, endanger the very publication of the research in question, or risk cutting off access to interview subjects in the future. Healey and Jervis focus on the bizarre logics of working and researching the intelligence community in the United States, saying (with emphasis added):

Think-tank staff and academic researchers in the United States often shy away from such material (with exceptions like Ben Buchanan) so as not to hamper their chances of a future security clearance. Even as senior researchers, we were careful not to directly quote NSA’s classified assessment of Iran, but rather paraphrased a derivative article.

A student, working in the Department of Defense, was not so lucky, telling us that to get through the department’s pre-publication review, their thesis would skip US offensive operations and instead focus on defense.

Such examples highlight the distorting effects of censorship or overclassification: authors are incentivized to avoid what patrons want ignored and emphasize what patrons want highlighted or what already exists in the public domain. In paper after paper over the decades, new historical truths are cumulatively established in line with patrons’ preferences because they control the flow and release of information.

What are the implications as written by Healey and Jervis? In intelligence communities the size of the United States’, information gets lost or not passed to whomever it ideally should be presented to. Overclassification also means that policy makers and legislators who aren’t deeply ‘in the know’ will likely engage in decisions based on half-founded facts, at best. In countries such as Canada, where parliamentary committees cannot access classified information, they will almost certainly be confined to working off of rumour, academic reports, government reports that are unclassified, media accounts that divulge secrets or gossip, and the words spoken by the heads of security and intelligence agencies. None of this is ideal for controlling these powerful organizations, and the selective presentation of what Western agencies are up to actually risks compounding broader social ills.

Legislative Ignorance and Law

One of the results of overclassification is that legislators, in particular, become ill-suited to actually understanding national security legislation that is presented before them. It means that members of the intelligence and national security communities can call for powers and members of parliament are largely prevented from asking particularly insightful questions, or truly appreciate the implications of the powers that are being asked for.

Indeed, in the Canadian context it’s not uncommon for parliamentarians to have debated a national security bill in committee for months and, when asked later about elements of the bill, they admit that they never really understood it in the first place. The same is true for Ministers who have, subsequently, signed off on broad classes of operations that have been authorized by said legislation.

Part of that lack of understanding is the absence of examples of how powers have been used in the past, and how they might be used in the future; when engaging with this material entirely in the abstract, it can be tough to grasp the likely or possible implications of any legislation or authorization that is at hand. This is doubly true in situations where new legislation or Ministerial authorization will permit secretive behaviour, often using secretive technologies, to accomplish equally secretive objectives.

Beyond potentially bad legislative debates leading to poorly understood legislation being passed into law and Ministers consenting to operations they don’t understand, what else may follow from overclassification?

Nationalism, Miscalculated Responses, and Racism

To begin with, it creates a situation where ‘we’ in the West are being attacked by ‘them’ in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or other distant lands. I think this is problematic because it casts Western nations, and especially those in the Five Eyes, as innocent victims in the broader world of cyber conflict. Of course, individuals with expertise in this space will scoff at the idea–we all know that ‘our side’ is up to tricks and operations as well!–but for the general public or legislators, that doesn’t get communicated using similarly robust or illustrative examples. The result is that the operations of competitor nations can be cast as acts of ‘cyberwar’ without any appreciation that those actions may, in fact, be commensurate with the operations that Five Eyes nations have themselves launched. In creating an Us versus Them, and casting the Five Eyes and West more broadly as victims, a kind of nationalism can be incited where ‘They’ are threats whereas ‘We’ are innocents. In a highly complex and integrated world, these kinds of sharp and inaccurate concepts can fuel hate and socially divisive attitudes, activities, and policies.

At the same time, nations may perceive themselves to be targeted by Five Eyes nations, and deduce effects to Five Eyes operations even when that isn’t the case. When a set of perimeter logs show something strange, or when computers are affected by ransomware or wiperware, or another kind of security event takes place, these less resourced nations may simply assume that they’re being targeted by a Five Eyes operation. The result is that foreign government may both drum up nationalist concerns about ‘the West’ or ‘the Five Eyes’ while simultaneously queuing up their own operations to respond to what may, in fact, have been an activity that was totally divorced from the Five Eyes.

I also worry that the overclassification problem can lead to statements in Western media that demonizes broad swathes of the world as dangerous or bad, or threatening for reasons that are entirely unapparent because Western activities are suppressed from public commentary. Such statements arise with regular frequency, where China is attributed to this or to that, or when Russia or Middle Eastern countries are blamed for the most recent ill on the Internet.

The effect of such statements can be to incite differential degrees of racism. When mainstream newspapers, as an example, constantly beat the drum that the Chinese government (and, by extension, Chinese people) are threats to the stability and development of national economies or world stability, over time this has the effect of teaching people that China’s government and citizens alike are dangerous. Moreover, without information about Western activities, the operations conducted by foreign agencies can be read out of context with the effect that people of certain ethnicities are regarded as inherently suspicious or sneaky as compared to those (principally white) persons who occupy the West. While I would never claim that the overclassification of Western intelligence operations are the root cause of racism in societies I do believe that overclassification can fuel misinformation about the scope of geopolitics and Western intelligence gathering operations, with the consequence of facilitating certain subsequent racist attitudes.

Solutions

A colleague of mine has, in the past, given presentations and taught small courses in some of Canada’s intelligence community. This colleague lacks any access to classified materials and his classes focus on how much high quality information is publicly available when you know how and where to look for it, and how to analyze it. Students are apparently regularly shocked: they have access to the classified materials, but their understandings of the given issues are routinely more myopic and less robust. However, because they have access to classified material they tend to focus as much, or more, on it because the secretive nature of the material makes it ‘special’.

This is not a unique issue and, in fact, has been raised in the academic literature. When someone has access to special or secret knowledge they are often inclined to focus in on that material, on the assumption that it will provide insights in excess of what are available in open source. Sometimes that’s true, but oftentimes less so. And this ‘less so’ becomes especially problematic when operating in an era where governments tend to classify a great deal of material simply because the default is to assume that anything could potentially be revelatory to an agency’s operations. In this kind of era, overvaluing classified materials can lead to less insightful understandings of the issues of the day while simultaneously not appreciating that much of what is classified, and thus cast as ‘special’, really doesn’t provide much of an edge when engaging in analysis.

The solution is not to declassify all materials but, instead, to adopt far more aggressive declassification processes. This could, as just an example, entail tying declassification in some way to organizations’ budgets, such that if they fail to declassify materials their budgets are forced to be realigned in subsequent quarters or years until they make up from the prior year(s)’ shortfalls. Extending the powers of Information Commissioners, which are tasked with forcing government institutions to publish documents when they are requested by members of the public or parliamentarians (preferably subject to a more limited set of exemptions than exist today) might help. And having review agencies which can unpack higher-level workings of intelligence community organizations can also help.

Ultimately, we need to appreciate that national security and intelligence organizations do not exist in a bubble, but that their mandates mean that the externalized problems linked with overclassification are typically not seen as issues that these organizations, themselves, need to solve. Nor, in many cases, will they want to solve them: it can be very handy to keep legislators in the dark and then ask for more powers, all while raising the spectre of the Other and concealing the organizations’ own activities.

We do need security and intelligence organizations, but as they stand today their tendency towards overclassification runs the risk of compounding a range of deleterious conditions. At least one way of ameliorating those conditions almost certainly includes reducing the amount of material that these agencies currently classify as secret and thus kept from public eye. On this point, I firmly agree with Healey and Jervis.

Shifting from Mendeley to Zotero: A Real PITA

(Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash)

Over the course of the pandemic I’ve finally built up a good workflow for annotating papers and filing them in a reference manager. Unfortunately, the reference manager that I’ve been using announced this week that they were terminating all support for their mobile and desktop apps and pushing everything into the cloud, which entirely doesn’t work with my workflow.

This means that I’m giving Zotero another shot (I tried them back when I was doing my PhD and the service wasn’t exactly ready for popular use at the time). On the plus side, Zotero has a good set of instructions for how to import my references from Mendeley. On the negative side, Mendeley has made this about as painful as possible: they encrypt the local database so you need to move back to an older version of the application and they then force you to manually download all of the documents which are attached to entries before the full bibliographic entries can be exported to another reference manager like Zotero. They have also entirely falsely asserted that the local encryption is required to comply with the GDPR which is pretty frustrating.

On the plus side, the manual labour involved in importing the references is done, though it cost me around two hours of time that could have been used for something that was actually productive. And Zotero has an app for iOS coming, and there is another app called PaperShip which interoperates with Zotero, which should cut down on the hopefully-pretty-temporary pain of adopting a new workflow. However, I’m going to need to do a lot of corrections in the database (just to clean up references) and most likely have start paying another yearly subscription service given that the free tier for Zotero doesn’t clearly meet my needs. Two steps backwards, one step forwards, I guess.

Developing a Remote Work System

I have the privilege of working at a place where remote work has been a fact of life for some of our employees and fellows, whereas the bulk of us have worked out of a beautiful workspace. Obviously, the pandemic has forced everyone out of the office and into their homes and, with that, has come a forced realization that its important to get a lot better at handling remote work situations.

For the past few months I’ve been trying to collect and read resources to ensure that remote-based work, works. To date the most helpful resources have definitely been the huge set of resources that Doist has published, and their ‘book’ on leading distributed work forces in particular, as well as some of the publications by Steph Yiu based on her own remote work experiences at Atomattic. I’m also slowly working through some of the work that’s come out of Basecamp, and I’m keen to dig into Remote: Office Not Required over the fall.

Some of the most valuable stuff I’ve picked up has been around re-thinking which communications systems make sense, and which don’t, and how to develop or maintain a team culture with new and old colleagues. And some of these things are really basic: when someone joins an organization, as an example, rather than just saying ‘hi’ or ‘welcome!’ over chat, all members of a team can instead state who they are, their position, some of their areas of responsibility, and one or two personal things. By providing more information the new team members start to get a feeling for what the rest of their team does and, through the personal attributes, a sense of who they are working with.

Given that many of us are likely to be working from our homes for the foreseeable future—and some of us permanently, even after the pandemic—it seems important for employers, managers, and employees alike to think through what they want to change, and how, so that we can not just enjoy the fact that we’re still employed but, also, that we’re working in ways that provide dignity and respect, and which are designed to best help us succeed in our jobs. We’re all 5-6+ months into the pandemic and we should be very seriously asking what kind of world we want to inhabit both throughout the rest of the pandemic, as well as afterwards, and we can’t keep saying that things are ‘unprecedented’ to excuse not trying to make our work environments better suited to the current and future realities we’re within.

Review of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Mongomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, explores how decades of urban design are destructive to human happiness, human life, and the life of the planet itself. He tours the world — focused mostly on Vancouver, Portland, Bogotá, Atlanta, and Hong Kong — to understand the different choices that urban designers historically adopted and why communities are railing against those decisions, now.

The book represents a tour de force, insofar as it carefully and clearly explains that urban sprawl — which presumed that we would all have cars and that we all wanted or needed isolated homes — is incredibly harmful. The focus of the book is, really, on how designing for cars leads to designing for things instead of people, and how efforts to facilitate car traffic has been antithetical to human life and flourishing. His call for happy cities really constitutes calls to, first and foremost, invest in urbanization and densification. Common social utilities, like transit and parks and community spaces, are essential for cities to become happy because these utilities both reduce commutes, increase socialization, and the presence of nature relieves the human mind of urban stresses.

While the book is rife with proposals for how to make things better, Montgomery doesn’t go so far as to argue that such changes are easy or that they can be universally applied everywhere. The infrastructure that exists, now, cannot simply be torn up and replaced. As a result he identifies practical ways that even suburban areas can reinvigorate their community spaces: key, in almost all cases, are finding ways to facilitate human contact by way of re-thinking the structures of urban design itself. These changes depend not only on — indeed, they may barely depend at all upon! — city planners and, instead, demand that citizens advocate for their own interests. Such advocacy needn’t entail using the language of architects and urban designers and can, instead, focus on words or themes such as ‘community’ or ‘safe for children to bike’ or ‘closer to community resources’ or ‘slower streets’ or ‘more green space’. After robustly, and regularly, issuing such calls then the landscape may begin to change to facilitate both human happiness and smaller environmental food prints.

If there is a flaw to this book, it is that many of the examples presume that small scale experiments necessarily are scalable to broad communities. I don’t know that these examples do not scale but, because of the relatively small sample-set and regularity at which Montgomery leverages them, it’s not clear how common or effective the interventions he proposes genuinely are. Nevertheless, this is a though-provoking books that challenges the reader to reflect on how cities are, and should be, built to facilitate and enable the citizens who reside within and beyond their boundaries.

The Roundup for September 3-9, 2018 Edition

(Respects by Christopher Parsons)

Over the years that I’ve been engaging in photography, it’s largely been either a solo activity or undertaken with one or two close friends. I think it’s probably fair to say that, in the time I’m been shooting, I’ve typically been the most enthusiastic photographer when I’ve been out. Most of my learning has been in my own, whether through watching YouTube videos, reading books, being inspired in Instagram, or visiting museums and art galleries.

I recognize just how amateur my shots are and, also, that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I even can, let alone alone should or need to, learn, if I’m to improve the quality, kinds, and nature of my images. The past few years have been as much about learning basic camera functionalities, a set of tricks that I find enjoyable, some styling, basic editing methods, and muddling through composition. I have a lot of bad images but, increasingly, more and more that I’m satisfied with (and some I’m even happy with!). I can also see progress in what I’m shooting, year over year, so I’m confident that the images I’m producing are at least becoming more pleasurable for me to look at and enjoy, and that’s great given that I shoot for myself first and foremost.

However, this weekend I did something that was a bit scary for me: I joined a Toronto photography group and wandered around part of Toronto with them. There were a total of five of us, and I was by far the youngest and most amateur person there; some had been shooting for thirteen years longer than I’d been alive! But it was a really positive experience, insofar as I could see how people engaged with the environment according to what they found interesting. It was also an opportunity to see how people go about getting consent to take other persons’ photos: the thing that’s always kind of scared me about street photography is taking other people’s images, but how it’s (responsibly) done is a little bit clearer after the walk. The other reason the walk was great? All of the people who I was on the walk with were super nice and friendly and inviting to me, the newcomer.

I also appreciated the opportunity wander with good company and for the express purpose of taking photos: there was a nice sense of camaraderie that I hadn’t experienced in this way before. That other people planned their recreation around photography — going to different locales, near and far, for the purpose of photographing the world while also enjoying where they were visiting — was inspiring because while I’ve read about, and listened to, people who are so committed to photography I’d never actually met such people in the flesh. In some respects it almost feels like I’ve found my ‘tribe’ of folks, and I’m looking forward to the next walk I’ll have with them to explore my photography (and city!) with the group.


Example of Journalling Style

I’ve been trying another journaling technique over the past week that’s inspired from an application I was referred to. Rather than producing elongated entries (the kind I’ve pretty well always written) I have the date along the left hand side of the paper, and then sentences with a major thing or thought that I had in the day beside it, with each sentence separated by a slash symbol (i.e. ‘/‘). I’ve been finding it pretty useful for speeding up reflections, to the point that it takes about 3-5 minutes, whereas a longer entry has historically taken me 20+ minutes. These shorter journals won’t replace the more occasional longer journals — which tend to be more focused and in-depth on a given subject or issue — but I could see them as becoming a very regular part of my routine.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“How well you take criticism depends less on the message and more on your relationship with the messenger. It’s surprisingly easy to hear a hard truth when it comes from someone who believes in your potential and cares about your success.”

  • Adam Grant

Great Photography Shots

On the one hand, I think that Wire Hon’s shots with superheroes in everyday situations are just funny. But from a technical level I find what he’s doing pretty amazing: using forced perspective, he makes the toys appear as life-sized and involved with him, his family, and each other. Hon’s work is a reminder that you can do a lot of impressive work without photoshop if you just prep your scene effectively.

Music I’m Digging

  • ZHU – Ringos Desert // I’m really enjoying this for generally walking about but, in particular, when I’m heading to the gym.
  • Tash Sultana – Flow State // I really can’t get over how amazing the vocals and instrumentals are throughout his this record. While I enjoyed Sulana’s earlier EP, Notion, this record is far more sophisticated.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Dissect (Season One) // I’m only partway through the first season of Dissect but I’m already blown away. The thesis of the show is that it will spend one season doing a deep dive analysis on a particular album. The first season kicks things off with a focus on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. The depth of analysis that takes place on this show is exceptional: it shows how Kendrick’s lyrics build between albums and the relationships between tracks’ lyrics and his life growing up, as well as the playful multiple interpretations that come up routinely across the album. If you like Song Exploder then you’re probably going to love this show.
  • Clear and Vivid – Cheryl Strayed Shares Her Advice on How to Give Advice // I’m continuously impressed with Alan Alda’s work on developing better communication. His episode with Strayed, of Modern Love fame, emphasizes how having compassion and wanting the best for the person whom you’re giving advice to helps to develop empathetic bonds that facilitate communication. She also notes that in presenting oneself as vulnerable, advice that is provided tends to resonate more with the receptive to because both parties are reducing the barriers between themselves.
  • CBC’s Ideas – It’s Alive (Frankenstein at 200) // Like most people, I was first exposed to Frankenstein through visual mediums and it was only much later in life that I read (and…forgot…) the actual novel. In this long-form piece, Ideas unpacks the significance and meanings within Shelley’s masterpiece. I came away from the episode with a deeper appreciation for the work and recognition of just how critical the book was of the scientific activities being undertaken at the time and, arguably, today as well.
  • CBC’s Ideas – The 2017 CBC Massey Lectures: In Search of a Better World, Lecture 5 // This was a beautiful, if hard, episode to listen to. The lecture is given by Payman Akhavan and explores the state of basic human dignity, the challenges faced by persons living in our time, the importance and value of human rights, and the hopefulness that humanity can strive to overcome its darkest impulses.
  • CBC Ideas – The Politics of the Professoriat: Political diversity on campuses // This was a maddening episode, where Ideas largely interviewed conservatives who assert that campuses are overly political biased, and that there are things that students have identified as threats and harms that conservatives themselves scoff at. I include it because it’s important to listen to — and disambiguate — the kinds of issues that some conservatives raise about the problems of campuses; specifically, that social progress, integration, advancement of basic rights, and support for more multicultural and integrated systems are somehow problematic, as opposed to emphasizing the need for social order predicated on police forces and so forth. It was deeply disappointing that instead of opening some of the conservative thinkers’ positions to debate they were, instead, left to make assertions about the state of the academy without challenge.

Good Reads for the Week

  • Lonely City // Xu’s photoessay of longing and loneliness in Taipei felt like it hit all the right notes: the text was minimal and interspersed through a series of photos that were well-curated for the mood he was seeking to convey.
  • How the Dutch Do Sex Ed // In a comparison of Dutch and American policies towards sexual education, Rough finds that effective and comprehensive sexual education both reduces unwanted pregnancies (and decreases abortion rates), the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and the rates of sexual violence. Given these benefits, it’s particularly heartbreaking that the current government in Ontario is adopting a regressive policy concerning sexual education in public classrooms, largely in a mirror of American politics linked to sex ed.
  • All of Toronto is getting older, but it’s tougher to age in the suburbs // May Warren’s opinion column focuses on the challenges of the elderly living in the suburbs, with a core problem being that those parts of the city were designed in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ’70s with the assumption that residents will have cars. In effect, urban planning errors — which include not only not building sidewalks, but also failures to invest in transit and separation of living space from social and commercial space — continue to have serious impacts on the persons who try to live in the city. Despite the awareness of the problems in planning, however, Toronto as a city continues to prioritize cars by investing in road systems at the expense of improves cycling and walking spaces: lessons, seemingly, have yet to be learned about what is needed to keep the city itself safe and functional for all users, not just those who ride around in automobiles.
  • Teaching in the Age of School Shootings // Throughout this piece I felt like I was on the verge of tears, as teachers explained what they had done in the immediate aftermath of school shootings and the trauma that they tried to cope with following the event. It never ceases to amaze me that, despite the relative regularity of school shootings in the United States of America as compared to other countries, authors still are obligated to include language such as “[l]ess than 1 percent of all fatal shootings that involve children age 5 to 18 occur in school, and a significant majority of those do not involve indiscriminate rampages or mass casualties.” Despite the empathy of the piece, that the author had to include this language speaks to the fundamental bizarreness of American gun culture as juxtaposed with gun cultures elsewhere in the Westernized world.
  • Do You See Camera As A Photographer’s Tool Or A Gadget? // Robin Wong’s assessment of talking about photography equipment isn’t novel, per se, insofar as the idea that photos are more important than the gear used in making the photos. But he makes this argument with an honesty and enthusiasm that’s infectious and delightful.
  • Ming Thein’s Artist’s Statement, 2018 edition // While I can’t really imagine myself ever engaging in photography at the level that MT does, I find myself routinely inspired by his images and the thoughtfulness that permeates his work.
  • He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost // In this Modern Love essay, Sanders recognizes that how ‘consent culture’ in the #metoo era has entered the bedroom can be stiff and challenging: the regular verbal requests for affirmation seem legalistic, as opposed to trying to read the situation and move ahead. And, more broadly, that the consent culture doesn’t extent to caring culture: it’s a caring of not violating physical boundaries, but doesn’t carry with it a caring of another’s emotional wellbeing when someone ghosts following a romantic encounter. With regards to the regular questions concerning consent, I think that some of that is linked with men just starting to figure out/learn what is or isn’t required or appropriate; it’s a social norm and set of behaviours that will evolve as men, who may not have previously sought clear consent, integrate consent into the ways in which they interact with their romantic partners. But the author’s broader issue — that consent culture isn’t caring culture — is an excellent point…depending on what the relationship is intended for; if it’s designated as a particular kind of physical relationship, expecting it to extend to something else is perhaps unfair for the other party involved. But where the relationship is predicated, first and foremost, on the potential or expectation of mutual care then the failure to act in a caring way is a violation of social norms…though not necessary one that is, or should be, satisfied by consent culture.

Cool Things

  • Gluten Free Restaurant Cards: Eat Safely As a Celiac, Anywhere in the World // I know a bunch of people who have severe gluten sensitivities; these cards would be awesome for when they’re travelling the world.
  • Conserve The Sound // As our old technologies fade to the mists of time, this German website is collecting the sounds of classic electronics (mostly from the analogue and early-digital ages) so that we don’t forget their auditory characteristics.
  • Shed of the year 2018 finalists // Some of these sheds are absolutely amazing. But what’s more amazing is that there even is an 11th annual best sheds competition; stumbling across this kind of randomness reminds me of how the Web was once packed full of wackiness.
  • Warren Buffett’s 5/25 Rule Will Help You Focus On The Things That Matter // I appreciate how quickly this video outlines a method of setting goals (make 25, prioritize 5, exclusively work on those top 5 and only add another goal when one of the five is completed) but was left wondering about what constitutes a goal that can be ‘completed’: for open ended projects, aspirations, or goals, do they just get closed at some point? Or is it, instead, key that all goals have definable conclusions/points of ultimate success?

The Roundup for August 20 – September 2, 2018 Edition

Above the Surface by Christopher Parsons

I think that I really fell in love with photography after purchasing, and shooting with, a used Fuji x100. It was a terrifically flawed little camera: autofocus was terrible, it was generally slow, and battery life was subpar. Furthermore, I didn’t really know what I was doing: I had shot on an iPhone for years and I didn’t really understand how to configure the x100 for semi-automatic shooting (e.g. setting aperture priority, the importance of difference ISO settings, etc.). Frankly, the x100 was probably too much camera for me at the time…but I loved it, nevertheless.

But as I’ve written about previously, I’m not entirely certain that I really enjoy shooting in the 35mm format. Some of that, I suspect, is associated with how I fell (back) in love with photography. I originally bought my Olympus OMD-EM10ii to travel to Cuba, and purchased a Panasonic 25mm 1.7 lens for the trip. While it’s inadvisable to take a new camera and lens with you when you travel, that’s what I did, and I walked out of Cuba with a lot of images that I really, really loved. I shot exclusively on the 25mm (50mm equivalent) and it lead me to understand how the lens worked in ways that I don’t think I’d have ever appreciated had also brought and use a zoom lens. However, I bought the lens because it was what reviewers said was a good ‘first’ lens insofar as it’s pretty versatile for anything and everything: you can do some portraiture (not really my cup of tea), can do landscape (as I did for that week in Cuba), and some architecture shots (also, as I did in Cuba).1 But without learning other focal lengths I was just going on what other people said the 50mm equivalent lens was good for without understanding from practice what I thought of it.

Fast forward to last week, when I travelled into the United States of America for a wedding and some quiet time in Savannah. Before I left I had to answer a hard question: what lenses should I bring with me? I decided to bring the Olympus 17mm 1.8 and the Panasonic 25mm 1.8, with the goal of trying to learn which I might prefer for general walkabout photography, and why I prefer one over the other.

To be honest, for general walking I think that I really enjoy the Olympus 17mm lens. I truly began to appreciate the ability to capture a broad scene, in excess of what the 25mm lens could capture. And I truly, absolutely, with all of my heart love the manual/automatic focus clutch; I tend to shoot exclusively in manual with the 17mm and it just feels right.2 I also started to come to terms with the differences in how the lens present colour; I don’t know that I prefer one or the other and, instead, just appreciate the differences that come from either one of them.3

However: I also learned that I really, really, really dislike how the 17mm presents humans — and in particular my own body — when not carefully used. I saw one picture in particular and was shocked: was that how I appeared? Was my entire sense of my body inaccurate?

I mean, I’m sure that my perception and the world’s perception of my body varies. But the 17mm could be incredibly unflattering if not used with a degree of deliberateness that I’ve never required with the 25mm. (It can also produce some pretty nice portraits, too, based on some shots a friend took of me.) For anyone who’s shot these two focal lengths for any period of time this won’t come as any kind of a shock. And I’ve seen enough online tutorials to know that what I saw was to be expected. However, I’d never actually lived the reality of having shots of myself, from 35mm equivalent and 50mm equivalent lenses, put beside one another. It’s meant that I have a pretty visceral and lived reality with either focal lens which is, in and of itself, a photography experience that I’m delighted to have had. Even if it made me question my body for a little bit until I figured out why some shots appeared one way, and others another!


I do a fair bit of personal reading that is like eating candy — i.e. fiction that caters to my guilty pleasures — and some that is like eating fibre — i.e. non-fiction and fiction alike that impress upon me the lived realities of other cultures, groups, and persons.

I just finished Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa and, at various points in the book, I felt like I’d been hit by a baseball bat. The kinds of actions which were taken against persons living in the Congo were, at their best, barbaric. What was most striking was how those historical facts were so carefully hidden away, destroyed, and removed from the minds of Western and African persons alike. I’ve read anti-colonial literature in the past but this was the first book that helped me genuinely appreciate the horrors inflicted by Western nations on persons around the world; the stories from the victims, quoted in their entirety, were particularly painful and sickening to read. I think that it’s also the book that has opened my eyes to some of the challenges around excavating history of colonialism, and how such excavation and hardship is the necessary pre-condition to coming to terms with the past: Western governments and elites buried the past and, before the past can be reconciled, it must first be made present in our daily lives.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“People matter. Meaning matters. A good life is not a place at which you arrive, it’s a lens through which you see and create your world.”

— Jonathan Fields

Great Photography Shots

One of the things that I’m trying to get better with is presenting images according to how I imagined them. This is distinct from how things may have looked: I often want to transform the scene in some way to present something that was in excess or slightly aside from the scene itself. It’s for this reason that I really like Gilmar Silva’s shots that juxtapose the ‘before’ and ‘after’ portraits he takes. In taking us behind the scenes of a final shot it’s easier to think through the logistics and editing that may enter into making an image, as opposed to snapping a photo.

Music I’m Digging

  • Gang Starr – Daily Operation // I’ve had this 1992 album on repeat for the past week or so; the tracks are incredibly solid mind melds of DJ Premier and The Guru. What’s striking — and depressing — is that so many of the tracks on racism and segregation in America (and North America more broadly) are as poignant and accurate, today, as they were when written over twenty years ago. Whither progress?
  • Seafret – Tell Me It’s Real // Seafret reminds me of Banners in terms of their sound and topics that they sing about. And, to my ear and taste, that’s a good thing! The album spends time focusing on the themes of love, loss, and despair, all themes that have resonated deeply with me over the past few months.
  • Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems // Cohen is a staple in my daily listening, and has been ever since I visited an exhibit/memorial to him in Montreal last December. His dry, cutting, lyrics combined with his lyrical whimsy were what caught me, and it’s the pain of love and life that keeps me coming back listen after listen.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • On the Margins – Jason Kottke and Twenty Years of kottke.org // I have to admit that I’m having a hard time with On the Margins. On the one hand, I find the idea of having discussions with authors about the bookmaking process to be pretty neat. On the other, I find that Craig Mod (the interviewer) is too heavy handed in some of his engagements; he has a tendency to push the conversation in unnatural or forced ways. All that having been said, this episode on kottke.org, one of the older websites in existence, is pretty interesting insofar as it digs into the rationales for why the site exists in the first place, projects that have been considered and set aside, and reflections on what comes next.
  • The Daily – When We Almost Stopped Climate Change // Warning: this is a deeply enraging podcast, because it walks through how there were active efforts that almost led to real action to affect climate change in the 1980s…and which was stopped by conservative politicians on the basis of their economic interests. The episode does a good job in walking through efforts to raise awareness and combat climate change while, at the same time, making it very clear how naked capitalist interests are responsible for selling out the next generations.
  • The Daily – The War Inside the Catholic Church // I don’t follow religious politics particularly closely, but am aware that the current Pope is in routine conflict with more conservative elements of the Catholic church. As a non-Catholic I personally believe that Pope Francis is the best thing that could have happened to the Church, at the time it’s in now, and so it’s particularly distressing to learn how American conservative Catholics are actively engaging in warfare meant to diminish the current Pope. (As an aside, Francis’ book, The Name of God is Mercy, is a beautiful book that clearly both sets him as a progressive while simultaneously acting as a curious introduction into what the Church could and should be through his understanding of Catholicism.)
  • The Art of Photography – Your Camera Is Better Than Ansel’s // It’s easy to get caught up in gear that is used to make images but focusing on equipment mistakes the importance of technology versus vision. This episode emphasizes the need to develop our vision first and foremost, with equipment being of tertiary importance.

Good Reads for the Week

  • We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised // In another analysis of the obesity epidemic, Monbiot asserts that it’s less about people exercising less, less about the quantity of foods people are eating, and more about the manner in which foods are chemically designed. He writes, “we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed (there are purchase numbers only from 1992, at which point they were rising rapidly. Perhaps, as we consumed just 9kcal a day in the form of drinks in 1976, no one thought the numbers were worth collecting.) In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed.” This kind of assessment is important because it pushes back on the concept that people become obese because of a lack of motivation or other self-drive rationale: weight gain is a community problem, driven by chemists and marketers, and obese individuals are their victims.
  • Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany, New Research Suggests // This study again speaks to the ills of the filter bubble economy: to drive engagement, persons are shown more and more polarizing material which often includes anti-immigration materials. This polarization isn’t ‘just online’: it leads to increases in physical violence towards immigrants, and when Internet outages take place the rates of violence decline in statistically significant ways. At some point the mountain of research has to showcase that services like Facebook are prone to increase misinformation and threaten certain communities in serious and lasting ways.
  • ‘We Cannot Afford This’: Malaysia Pushes Back Against China’s Vision // While the prospect of China assuming greater and greater regional power isn’t necessarily surprising, the pushback against Chinese efforts is curious. The article, generally, provides a good overview of Chinese-Malaysian relations but what got me laughing was how obviously corrupt some of the business dealings have been. As an example, a company who’s past work included building a zoo and bird park was hired to build a series of artificial islands as well as establish a deepwater port capable of hosting an aircraft carrier. I guess building cages for animals made them well suited to build housing for military vessels?
  • Woman: My iPhone was seized at border, then imaged—feds must now delete data // The suit against the government for having seized and imaged the woman’s iPhone is novel. But it was the 90-day period for which devices can be retained that struck me: what is the time delta for updates to be developed to successfully crack iOS devices these days? Is the period of time for which devices are retained functionally the period of time required before attacker’s can successfully overcome Apple’s protections?
  • Prosecutor: Suspect must give up his phone’s passcode in fatal hazing case // Case law in the USA remains disturbingly unsettled concerning whether compelling a person to disclose their decryption password constitutes a Fifth Amendment violation. This Louisiana case adds further confusion as to how to interpret that law; it’s only a matter of time until the Supreme Court is compelled to determine the scope of Fifth Amendment protections as they pertain to securing contemporary electronic devices. God help us all if they find that decryption doesn’t infringe up existing rights, as such a ruling would likely have a cascading global impact, to the detriment of citizens’ rights around the world.
  • How the Trump Administration Is Remaking the Courts // Zengerle has done a masterful job analyzing and assessing how the Trump presidency has been quickly and significantly affecting the political leanings of courts throughout the United States, and how his actions rely on the Senate having changed its own rules concerning judicial appointments. The impacts of these appointment will likely be felt over decades, not days or months, and could ultimately lead to significant changes in the nature of American jurisprudence as old norms are overturned based on novel legal philosophies taking hold in courts across the United States.
  • What about those mandate letters, Premier Ford? // An apt column by John Loric summarizes the significance — and historical precedent — of the Ontario government refusing to publish the letters to the Cabinet. Those letters indicate the objectives Ministers are expected to meet; absent them, and absent a real campaign platform, the public has no real way of understanding what the government is specifically directed to do or whether everything is just being made up on the fly. The Ontario government’s decision is bad for democratic accountability which is, ostensibly, one of the issues voters had identified as an issue in the previous government.
  • Researchers Edited Mice Genes to Stop Them from Dreaming // Though the researcher’s ultimate goal of the research — to better understand the role(s) of REM sleep to human well-being — is a serious goal, the article itself almost reads like a finding one would stumble across in a dystopia hellscape. “Researchers liberate workers from non-productive sleep elements, ensuring the regime’s productivity.” On second thought, I could imagine an ever-so-slightly modified headline of that type in at least a half-dozen western newspapers in as many different countries…

Cool Things

Footnotes

  1. I know: 35mm is often regarded as better for landscape and architecture alike, but I personally enjoy how you can isolate particular characteristics of a scene using the Panasonic 25mm.
  2. Although for the love of all things even marginally holy I wish that Olympus would push a firmware, so that when I set the clutch to manual the camera would activate focus peaking. It drives me nuts that this is only included in the Pro line of lenses.
  3. I’ve found a particular editing aesthetic with the 17mm that I like; it seems to start to approximate Fuji’s Classic Chrome look (the sole reason I wish I owned a Fuji is for that look!). In terms of the 25mm, I like the vibrancy of its images, as compared to the more neutral colours of the 17mm. For both lenses I tend to shoot jpg and in the ‘Natural’ colour filter on the camera.

The Roundup for August 13-19, 2018 Edition

The Wall by Christopher Parsons

I have a long history of ‘dating’ furniture and other adornments for my home before buying them. Before buying my coffee table, as an example, I spent about 4-5 months looking at coffee tables all across the city I live in. I wanted to get a sense of different styles, sizes, materials, and prices before deciding on the piece that I ended up purchasing. The same is true of almost all other major pieces of furniture and electronics that I own. In effect, I spent a lot of time searching for beautifully designed and highly functional items.

For the past three or four weeks, I’m been looking to get a single statement piece for a chair in my living room. I’m in a small space and, as a result, I’m going to see the given accent piece multiple times a day: I want each viewing to be enjoyable. Several weeks ago, I’d found the pillow that I knew was perfect for the chair but held off purchasing it to evaluate other options and explore more possibilities. Before choosing something that was going to reside with me for years I wanted to be certain there wasn’t anything else that was superior or competitive.

When I went to get that perfect pillow this weekend…it was sold out. Limited run, so unless I can find it second hand I’m going to have to just continue the search. Which is fine; there will be another accent piece that will fit that chair. But I’m going to regret not moving more quickly on it for a while.

I think that, when done by ‘normal’ people, the pickiness I personify is probably what drives a lot of minimalist homes. I think of people like Steve Jobs, who famously refused to purchase furniture that didn’t appeal to his design aesthetics. And in watching, and listening to, people who live ‘minimalist’ lives a key element of their very being focuses on neither wanting a lot of things nor wanting ugly things; that which they own should bring joy to their lives, and that which wouldn’t bring joy should be eschewed so they can concentrate on that which is joyful.

There are lots of reasons why people abstain from minimalism. But at least one is likely linked to being taught that it’s not ‘right’ to live in semi-furnished environments: you should be filling your home with all the pieces that society designates as ‘normal’ as soon as you move in. The actual ability to furnish homes so quickly, and frankly so cheaply, is made possible both because of low credit rates and ‘fast’ furniture: think budget IKEA pieces and other stores’ furniture that looks beautiful…until scratched to reveal the particle board (or other cheap materials) underneath. Forty or fifty years ago it wasn’t strange for people to sometimes wait years before they acquired all of the furniture for their home, much of which was well built and could be passed along to another generation.

Minimalism, contra to that past era, is arguably less about passing things along to the next generation.1 But it is about waiting, patiently, until the right pieces are available at the right time. And to find a piece of furniture you need to spend time looking: it’s not as simple as walking into any store’s showroom and picking up the pieces that you want. Minimalism involves caring about what is coming into a home and proactively being involved in genuinely looking for furniture, accents, or other things you will be living with for years to come. And that very act of slowing down and acting deliberately is what makes the hunt for pieces that come into my home both meditative and frustrating. Meditative because it forces me to slow down and move more deliberately and carefully. Frustrating because I’ve become so used to getting whatever I want, as soon as I want it. Minimalism is, in some ways, a call back to a past that isn’t that long ago, and certainly isn’t lost forever.


While I’m still keeping my stuff in Apple Notes — a problem I had with the app functionally being unresponsive was addressed a few point updates ago — I remain tempted to switch things over to Bear so I can work in Markdown. Michael Tsui has a nice summary of how to transfer notes out of Apple’s product. The caveat is that there’s no way to export attachments, which makes this export method a non-starter for me, personally.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

Your art comes from your community. You must attend to your community.

  • Ann Patchett

Great Photography Shots

Unlike every other week, I only have a single photo this week, from Peter Baumgarten. His photo is amazing. But what was even more inspiring to me was his discussion of what went into making the photo: shots like this are the result of a bunch of work and a dash of luck!

Music I’m Digging

  • Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova – Once (Music from the Motion Picture) // It’s been years since I listened to the tracks on this album and, to this date, there are several that strike right at my heart. The movie itself was excellent and largely made so because of the music; if you’re looking for a series of songs about the rise, lingering, and collapse of love, then this is an album for you.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • The Documentary – Neighborhood: We Might As Well Be Finnish // An overview of both the political situation that Finland finds itself in, today, as aggression from Russia increases as well as a history lesson of the challenges Finland has undergone over the past two centuries. This podcast helped me learn a bit more about the political history of a country that I was otherwise pretty ignorant about.
  • The Documentary: Norway’s Silent Scandal // What happens when a BBC journalist intrudes into the relatively sleepy country of Norway? On the one hand, you learn a lot about the issue of child protective services taking children away from their parents with disturbing regularity. On the other, you learn just how unwanted foreign journalists are when they apply their journalistic interests to situations that might receive less, or different, attention from domestic journalists.
  • The Documentary – Not Making Babies in South Korea // In this episode, the BBC examines the social and gender reasons for the startlingly low birth rates in South Korea — women are currently expected to have 1.05 children in their lives. In an unsurprising spoiler, the higher costs of child rearing, the challenges women face at work when wanting to become mothers, and failure to shift domestic norms around distributions of domestic and professional labour are all linked to the country’s low birth rate.
  • Dear Sugars – Talking About Privilege // Two different kinds of privilege are discussed in this episode: male privilege associated with expectations that women take a man’s last name upon marriage, and male white privilege, where the man refuses to meaningfully engage with his African American partner’s racial identity. In both cases it felt like the men had fundamentally failed to engage with their partners as full partners in their life journey; in neither case, it seems, did the men recognize that the difficulties and questions their partners had identified needed to be genuinely worked through together. The problems, in effect, weren’t recognized as ‘group’ problems — save that they affected both parties — and were instead problems that the women needed to fix. This style of contemplating difference and challenges in interpersonal relations strikes me as a poor way of building strong and robust relationships which, to my mind, are predicated principally on open communication.
  • Clerks! (Part I) and Clerks! (Part II) // I had no idea what, in precise detail, law clerks for the Supreme Court of Canada did on a regular basis. I knew the basics — they helped with writing legal memos/briefs, argued with their Justices’, etc — but not the history of clerking in Canada, the rationale to increase the numbers of clerks assigned to each Justice, nor the breadth of activities that clerks are sometimes tasked to accomplish. I found it interesting that, in the assessment of past clerks, those who would benefit from the experience are likely those who move into academia or the non-profit sections, whereas those who shift into corporate practices are less likely to benefit from their year in Ottawa.

Good Reads for the Week

  • When Self-Care Turns into Self-Sabotage // Wilding provides a good assessment of the kinds of self-care exercises we undertake, and which are counterproductive, as opposed to those which tend to be more challenging and active, and which also satisfy our existential needs. Central to the ‘good self-care’ activities is a mindfulness that accompanies an activity: they aren’t retreats from the world, per se, but are designed towards developing ways to build emotional, social, and physical resiliency in the face of stressors.
  • AP Exclusive: Google tracks your movements, like it or not // Another damning indictment of Google’s anti-privacy activities.
  • Bribes, Backdoor Deals, and Pay to Play: How Bad Rosé Took Over // A good take on the bad practice of companies trying to buy their way onto prestige wine lists. I’d never considered this as part of how wine lists were chosen but it makes me that much more curious about how, and why, restaurants’ lists are produced.
  • The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won // Confessore’s article outlines, in depth, just how California’s newest privacy legislation was crafted and passed. Perhaps more importantly, it showcases how dedicated small sets of individuals can come together to press for political change when they are opposed by incredibly well-resourced companies.
  • In Pakistan’s Financial Crisis, an Opening for Chinese Lawfare // China is aggressively expanding its foreign influence. From building space bases in Argentina to creating and arming new islands in the South China Sea to engaging in hostile loan practices, they are behaving exactly like a rising power ‘should’. They are also trying to push, pull, or drag other countries to shift off the US dollar as their trading currency; if they can woo key US allies, such as Pakistan, it will merely continue to speak of the rising global dominance of China, and especially in their close region of influence.

Cool Things

  • Anthropocene looks to be an incredible movie about the sheer impact that humanity has on the Earth, and the broader implications it has for understanding ourselves and where we live.

Footnotes

  1. Indeed, there is a fundamental issues of being unable to find people who will inherit actual possessions; when we all have our own homes filled with furniture, why would we want out parents’? And even if we did, where would we put it?

The Roundup for August 6-12, 2018 Edition

Screwed by Christopher Parsons

Over the past few weeks I’ve been visiting art galleries and spending a lot of time — sometimes 20 minutes or more — in front of certain paintings to try and understand why the artist made their composition decisions.1 This has involved both trying to understand the positionality of different subjects, the roles that light played in directing attention across the canvass, and more broadly trying to understand the emotional or intellectual responses that I experience when spending time with the work. To be frank, it’s a strange kind of experience just because standing, silently and quietly, in front of something in public contemplation feels abnormal. However, it’s a feeling that I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with: for a long time, it didn’t make sense to me that someone would spend tens of minutes, or even hours, or longer over the course of years, to view particular works. But I’m very slowly starting to really appreciate why people do that; in my case, probing a piece of art seems to involve letting go of myself to explore, consider, evaluate, reject, and refine thoughts that I have when taking in the artist’s works.

I’ve read, repeatedly, that photographers can benefit from spending time looking at paintings and other canvass-based pieces of artwork. Photography, in many respects, aims to accomplish many of the same things as paintings: good photos affect the viewer’s mind and emotions, while telling a story that is more or less simple. Even the starkest abstract or architectural photographs can ‘say’ something to the viewer. This is contrasted against snapshots that may capture a moment in time, but which aren’t necessarily meant to affect how the view experiences their lives. There are, of course, difficulties because what are sometimes regarded as snapshots may, in fact, be photographs: good street photography, as an example, may resemble snapshots but is actually meant to convey a more-or-less subtle story to the viewer.

None of this is to say that snapshots are bad kinds of images. They can hold incredible value: snapshots I’ve taken over the years of family gatherings, as an example, hold immense value to me. This value is heightened when they’re the only ‘real’ reminder I have of certain family members who have since died. But they’re not ‘artistic’ in isolation.2

It’s in the process of sitting or standing, silently, with our own photographs that I think we can come to imminently realize whether whatever was shot genuinely crosses the line between a snapshot and a photograph that is seeking to convey something beyond what was captured. And, over time, I think that it’s this practice that leads to photographers capturing more of a scene that is self-evidently visible in the pigments and paper used to print on: it’s by careful study of our own work, and that of other photographers, that we can train our minds to almost automatically see what is a photo, why, and how to capture it in its entirely instead of simply snapping a quick shot. Unless, of course, a snapshot is all that you want to capture at the time!


It’s baffling to me that Apple Music lets users create profiles, so that we can share what we’re listening to with other users, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to link into our profiles from the public web. It seems like another of Apple’s failures to understand that social discoverability shouldn’t be exclusively be constrained to very limited sharing within their closed environment.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

  1. Stop caring with other people think.
  2. Choose your bosses carefully. Bad habits are difficult to unlearn.
  3. Turn the fucking Internet off. Do the work.
  4. Choose must.
  5. Know where you are going. 100% of people who go to a train station know where they want to end up.
  6. Chase the work. Not the money.
  7. Raise your standard.
  8. Tell yourself better stories.
  9. It takes courage to stand out.
  10. Be a beautiful outside.

Great Photography Shots

I was really stuck by Oleg Tolstoy’s photographs of Japanese taxi drivers, both because of her artist’s statement — she wanted to explore persons who were almost from another era, given their dress and professional silence while transporting passengers — as well as because the images themselves possess an almost cyberpunk-cinematic quality. I also found that the photos were evocative insofar as how the drivers were staring into the distance were incredibly effective in directing my on attention through the photographs. It’s obvious as soon as you look for it but, prior to then, it’s a subtle forcing of the eye through the frame which brings out a lot. In pulling myself away from how I’m ‘meant’ to look at the photo I quickly shift to a series of (to my mind) interesting questions: what is, and isn’t drawn clearly into our visual frame as we follow the subjects’ eyes? What can we learn from what our eyes are ‘told’ to ignore or to pay attention to? What would be the difference in how the pictures were viewed, based on whether you were trained to read left to right, right to left, or top to bottom?

Music I’m Digging

  • The Prodigy – Need Some1 (Single) // I’ve long been a fan of The Prodigy and this song has all the hallmarks of their better work: it’s almost impossible not to start moving as soon as it starts playing!
  • Nine Inch Nails – Add Violence (EP) // The second of three short EPs published by the Nine Inch Nails, the dull and gritty sounds of the album are really striking. I’m less a fan of Trent Reznor’s ‘louder’ songs, and far prefer ones which are more haunting. The songs ‘The Lovers’ and ‘This Isn’t the Place’ are the standout tracks for me, with the latter song in particular being strikingly haunting and, to my ear, amongst the band’s better work in the past few years.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Eat This – Barges and Bread // An in-depth discussion of the historical ways in which wheat was transported in Britain, even prior to the Romans developing fortifications around contemporary-day London. I learned both a lot about how and why wheat was transported in the bulks that it was, as well as the difficulties in using barging systems today to transport grain and other materials across British waterways.
  • The Daily – The Trump Voters We Don’t Talk About // Based on a relatively large-n sample, and measured across time, this episode unpacks the demographic groups that voted for Trump. Moreover, it looks at which groups are steadfastly supporting him, and where Trump’s voting base may have begun to fall away.
  • Lawfare – The Challenge of Digital Evidence // While encryption has sucked up a lot of the air concerning the difficulties that law enforcement agencies have in prosecuting crimes, this podcast focuses on all the other (often more serious) problems authorities have in obtaining digital evidence. The episode is a good introduction to the solvable problems: figuring out ways for authorities to determine who has the relevant data they need, educating authorities so they can actually process contemporary digital evidence, and establishing an central office that can coordinate authorities’ requests for data. It’s a solid overview of the non-encryption problems facing American law enforcement along with generally reasonable solutions.
  • The Sporkful – Michael Ian Black Is A Man Who Eats Salads // Like many episodes of The Sporkful this one uses food as an entry point into a discussion about more serious social issues. In this case, food and eating is used as a way to engage with concepts of often-toxic masculinity, the social constructions men live (and chafe) within, and the challenges associated with food and body image that men often experience. I found my head nodding throughout the episode as Michael carefully works through some of his own issues with how masculinity is constructed and the ways in which he tries to grapple with the associated social norms.

Good Reads for the Week

  • Ontario brewers should think twice before they buck themselves // While the craft beer market remains in an uneasy state in Ontario, any breweries that start producing dollar beers are almost certain to produce swill and irreparably damage their brands. Plus, should craft breweries attain any real market share as a result of producing dollar beers the big breweries will almost certainly just sell their own beers at a loss to run off ‘craft’ brews selling for under a buck.
  • America’s electoral system gives the Republicans advantages over Democrats // The Economist provides a sharp overview of how changing demographics, gerrymandering, and the electoral college combine to disadvantage the Democratic Party in American politics. It’s not new research but it is succinctly outlined and argued.
  • How to Photograph a Vacation // Rose’s suggestions for image making on vacation resonate with me: the different techniques he uses (e.g. anchoring shot, unique shots, isolation shots, etc) are things I’ve done to varying degrees of success, but that I find helpful regardless. I also really like the idea of culling a trip to a small number — he suggest six — of photos that ‘define’ the trip. While my number tends to be higher, I may also spend a lot more time engaging in photography while travelling? (Disclosure: I tend to shoot prolifically when on vacation, to the tune of hundreds or thousands of images. Shooting is a key element to my experiencing a happy vacation.) Regardless, I find that culling down to the best 10-30 images is something that I actually enjoy doing because it’s a good learning moment; it compels me to ask what photos are my best, and why?
  • The disturbing record behind one of B.C.’s top billing doctors // While over billing was a serious issue with this doctor, the more deeply problematic element was his incredibly poor medical care that left women scarred mentally and physically. Persons who haven’t dealt with bad obstetrician-gynecologists really can’t understand how deeply debilitating their actions can be or how long it can take to recover. I can only hope that this case encourages Canadian colleges of physicians to more carefully monitor and police their members, though I’m not confident that’ll be the case.
  • “9/11esque” Tweets and the Saudi Spat // Craig Forcese has a terrific (academic) blog where he reflects on the terrorist promotion and advocacy statutes in Canadian law and asks: would they apply to tweets sent by parties friendly to Saudi Arabia and which showed a plane tunnelling towards the CN Tower?
  • How Big Is the Alt Right? Inside My Futile Quest to Count // While far from scientific, Grey Ellis argues that the alt-right in the United States is once more being pushed underground on the basis that fewer people are likely to turn up to public events. However, this assessment discounts the effectiveness of online recruitment; while those persons may not show up in person to demonstrate they will be woven throughout society and able to exert their views in perhaps more subtle ways as they harass individuals, discriminate on a local level, and spread their hate and prejudice in more private settings. Pushing hate underground doesn’t inherently make it any less of a social evil.
  • Workplace Wellness Programs Don’t Work Well. Why Some Studies Show Otherwise // I’ve been suspicious of wellness programs for a long time; they’ve struck me as ways of externalizing poor health issues onto employees and then blaming them for not being proactive about their health. But where my worries have mostly revolved around the issue of insurance cost hikes, this analysis by the New York Times showcases that wellness programs don’t really lead to significant improvements in quality of health for those in wellness programs when appropriate controls are established. So the idea that wellness necessarily leads to better health for employees generally doesn’t hold. Instead, there are just certain classes of people inside, and outside, of wellness programs who will live healthier lifestyles. It’s a person-thing, not a wellness-member thing.
  • Tree Bark Generates a Weird Force That Defies Gravity // While many people think that the internal fibres of trees are responsible for their upright posture (I definitely did!) it turns out that trees’ bark growth plays a significant role in maintaining vertical stability. This is why some parts of tree bark are thicker than other parts: those thick elements are used to maintain posture, and removing or weakening that element of the epidermis of the tree will cause it to begin to tilt. Fascinating.

Cool Things

  • Fire in Cardboard City // What if fire broke out in a land of cardboard? How would a city respond and with what consequences?
  • Native Land // A mapping of the lands the indigenous people in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand once claimed as their own.
  • IKEA’s “ENEBY” Bluetooth Speakers // I already have three separate speaker systems for my 1-bedroom condo. But I really, really like the idea of picking up some of these IKEA speakers (assuming they sound good enough) to install in my bedroom and bathroom. I just wish that they were Airplay 2 compatible so that I could stream music throughout my home without having to constantly be re-pairing with different speaker sets.

Footnotes

  1. Generally I’ve been focusing on European art from between the 1600s to 1800s.
  2. There is a case to be made that, assembled in aggregate, what might have been snapshots can become proper photographs with a story and emotive element. But at least with the snapshots I’m thinking of — and seeing scroll on my TV — they definitely don’t rise to the level of a photograph with a particular intent behind them besides documenting a time and moment.