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The Value of Brief Synthetic Literature Reviews

The Cambridge Security Research Computer Laboratory has a really lovely blog series called ‘Three Paper Tuesday’ that I wish other organizations would adopt.

They have a guest (and usually a graduate student) provide concise summaries of three papers and then have a short 2-3 paragraph ‘Lessons Learned’ section to conclude the post. Not only do readers get annotated bibliographies for each entry but, perhaps more importantly, the lessons learned means that non-experts can appreciate the literature in a broader or more general context. The post aboutsubverting neural networks, as an example, concludes with:

On the balance of the findings from these papers, adversarial reprogramming can be characterised as a relatively simple and cost-effective method for attackers seeking to subvert machine learning models across multiple domains. The potential for adversarial programs to successfully avoid detection and be deployed in black-box settings further highlights the risk implications for stakeholders.

Elsayed et al. identify theft of computational resources and violation of the ethical principles of service providers as future challenges presented by adversarial reprogramming, using the hypothetical example of repurposing a virtual assistant as spyware or a spambot. Identified directions for future research include establishing the formal properties and limitations of adversarial reprogramming, and studying potential methods to defend against it.

If more labs and research groups did this, I’d imagine it would help to spread awareness of some research and its actual utility or importance in advancing the state of knowledge to the benefit of other academics. It would also have the benefit of showcasing to policymakers what key issues actually are and where research lines are trending, and thus empower them (and, perhaps, even journalists) to better take up the issues that they happen to be focused on. That would certainly be a win for everybody: it’d be easier to identify articles of interest for researchers, relevance of research for practitioners, and showcase the knowledge and communication skills of graduate students.

One Year Later

This long form photoessay showcases the absences that have been wrought by the pandemic in my city of Toronto, Ontario. The essay provides a meditation on a world of social isolation and distancing, and how the spaces that have historically united and bound Toronto’s residents have been left empty or made safe in response to being associated with risk and disease. Throughout, people are represented as separate from one another in their efforts to socially and physically distance, with individuals, pairs, or very small groups standing in juxtaposition to the much larger built world they inhabit.

All of the images were created using a combination of a Fuji X100f, Sony rx100ii, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro. Images were edited to taste using Apple Photos (for cropping) and Darkroom; two images had some healing applied using Snapseed.

(Parked I by Christopher Parsons)
(Looking to the Past by Christopher Parsons)
(Temporary Gigs by Christopher Parsons)
(Chance of Clouds by Christopher Parsons)
(Pals by Christopher Parsons)
(Unhoused by Christopher Parsons)
(Embracing Walk by Christopher Parsons)
(Time Alone by Christopher Parsons)
(Light and Tunnel by Christopher Parsons)
(Contemporary Ruins by Christopher Parsons)
(Stay Safe by Christopher Parsons)
(Urban Emptiness by Christopher Parsons)
(Comfort Run by Christopher Parsons)
(Down, Not Out by Christopher Parsons)
(Hope by Christopher Parsons)
(Dockside by Christopher Parsons)
(Not So Soon by Christopher Parsons)
(Signs by Christopher Parsons)
(Hydrophobic by Christopher Parsons)
(Social Distancing I by Christopher Parsons)
(Gateless by Christopher Parsons)
(Through a Glass Darkly by Christopher Parsons)
(Riderless by Christopher Parsons)
(Summer I by Christopher Parsons)
(Summer II by Christopher Parsons)
(Closing Time by Christopher Parsons)
(The Visitor by Christopher Parsons)
(Waiting for Next Summer by Christopher Parsons)
(Ride by Christopher Parsons)
(Parked II by Christopher Parsons)
(Christmas 2020 by Christopher Parsons)
(Message by Christopher Parsons)
(Racing the Light by Christopher Parsons)
(Midnight Stroll by Christopher Parsons)
(Spotlights by Christopher Parsons)
(Calm by Christopher Parsons)
(Arachnid Problem by Christopher Parsons)
(Urban Eatery by Christopher Parsons)
(Observer by Christopher Parsons)
(Couples by Christopher Parsons)
(Seeing Stars by Christopher Parsons)
(In The Neighbourhood by Christopher Parsons)
(Closed for New Year by Christopher Parsons)
(Social Distancing II by Christopher Parsons)
(The Walk by Christopher Parsons)
(They Are Legend by Christopher Parsons)
(The Theatre by Christopher Parsons)
(Focused by Christopher Parsons)
(Empty Stage by Christopher Parsons)

The Failure to Frame Covid-19 Mobility Data

(Photo by Gabriel Meinert on Unsplash)

For the past year, the Toronto Star has repeatedly run articles that take mobility data from mobile device advertisers, to then assess the extent to which Torontonians are moving too much. Reporting has routinely shown how people are moving more or less frequently, with articles often suggesting that people are moving too much when they’re supposed to be staying put.

The problem? The ways in which ‘too much’ is assessed runs contrary to public health advice and lacks sufficient nuance to inform the public. In the most recent reporting, we find that:

Between Jan. 18 and Feb. 28, average mobility across Ontario increased from 58 per cent to 65 per cent, according to the marketing firm Environics Analytics. Environics defines mobility as a percentage of residents 15 or older who travelled 500 metres or more beyond their home postal code.

To be clear: in Ontario the provincial and local public health leaders have strongly stated that people should get outside and exercise. That can involve walking or other outdoor activities. Those activities are not supposed to be restricted to 500 metres from your home, which was advice that was largely provided in more restrictive lockdowns in European countries. And we know that mobility data is often higher in areas with higher percentages of BIPOC residents because they tend to have lower-paying jobs and must travel further to reach their places of employment.

As has become the norm, the fact that people have moved around more frequently as (admittedly ineffective) restrictions have been raised, and that people are ‘region hopping’ by going from more restricted zones to less restricted ones, is being tightly associated with personal or individual failures. From a quoted expert, we find that:

“It shows that once things start to open, people just seem to do whatever, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

I would suggest that what we are seeing is a pent up, pretty normal, human response: the provincial government has behaved erratically and you have some people racing around to get stuff done before returning to another (ineffective) set of restrictions, and a related set of people who believe that if the government is letting them move around then things must be comparatively safer. To put it another way, in the former case you have people behaving rationally (if, in some eyes, selfishly) whereas in the latter you have a failure by government to solve a collective action problem by downloading responsibility to individuals. In both cases you are seeing an uptick in behaviour which is suggestive that they believe it’s safer to do things, now, than weren’t before when the government assumed some responsibility and signalled that moving was less safe and actively discouraged it by keeping businesses and other ‘fun’ things shut down.

Throughout the pandemic response in Ontario, what has been evident is that the provincial government simply cannot develop and implement effective policies to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. The result of muddling through things has been that the public, and especially small business, has suffered extraordinarily whilst the gains have been meagre. The lack of paid sick leave, as an example, has seriously stymied the ability of lower-income workers to actually keep themselves apart from others while they wait for diagnoses and, if positive, recover from their infections.

To be fair, the Toronto Star and other outlets have covered paid sick leave issues, along with lots of other failures by the provincial government in its handling of the pandemic. And there is certainly some obligation on individuals to best adhere to public health advice. But we’ve long known these are collective action problems: there is a need to move beyond downloading responsibility to individuals and for governments to behave effectively, coherently, and accountably throughout major crises. The provincial government has failed, and continues to fail, on every one of these measures to the effect that individuals are responding to the past, present, and expected future actions of the government: more unpredictability and more restrictions on their daily lives as a result of government ineptitude.

Whereas the journalists could have cast what Ontarians are doing as a semi-natural response to the aforementioned government failings, instead those individuals are being castigated. We shouldn’t be blaming the victims of the pandemic, but I guess that’s what happens when assessing mobility data.

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.

Solved: Apple Home Automation Not Firing After Buying New iPhone

(Photo by Dan Smedley on Unsplash)

One of the best pandemic purchases I’ve made has been a HomePod Mini. One of the many reasons that I’ve liked it is I can use a Home automation to set a playlist or album to wake up to. This corrects an annoyance with the iPhone’s Alarms app, where you need to download a song to your device to reliably use it as an alarm.

However, I recently got a new iPhone which broke my alarm automation. I couldn’t figure out what was going on: I deleted and re-created the automation a few times and totally restarted the HomePod Mini. Neither of these actions helped. Not only did the automation not work at the designated times but the automation wouldn’t even work while using the test feature.

The settings for the automation were:

  • Enable This Automation (Only when I am home): On
  • When: Weekdays at a given time (Only when I am home)
  • Scenes: Weekday morning
  • Accessories: HomePod Mini
  • Media: Play Audio (Designated playlist, Shuffle, Set Custom Volume)

No matter what I did, the automation never fired. However, I figured out that as soon as I disabled the location-specific triggers the automation worked. This helped me to start narrowing down the problem and how to correct it.

You see, when I moved all of my data to my new iPhone it failed to transfer a setting that told the Home app to use my iPhone as the location to from which to trigger events. As a result, setting an automation to only fire when I was home couldn’t work because the device which had been triggering the Home automation (i.e., my old iPhone) wasn’t never geolocated to my network. You can fix this, however, by opening: Settings >> Privacy >> Location Services (On) >> Share My Location >> My Location (Set to “This Device).

You can fix this by opening: Settings >> Privacy >> Location Services (On) >> Share My Location >> My Location (Set to “This Device”)

Now that the Home app knows to use my iPhone’s location as the way of determining whether I’m at home, the trigger fires reliably.

The End of Blogs

(Observer by Christopher Parsons)

I’d been deliberately putting off reading Ming Thein’s last several blog posts. Not because I wasn’t excited but because they seemed to have stopped being published. I feared that either something had happened to him, or that the blog had reached an end. 

Fortunately he continues to do well. Sadly, his blog is done. 

Ming has been writing for a whole lotta years, and has focused his blog on photography writ large. There’s some gear reviews but the real thing I learned, and still learn, from his work is how to think more deeply about making images, about telling stories with them, and letting narratives emerge as years of images are collected, edited, and set aside until a time they should be made public. 

His explanation for ending the blog is, well, that he’d written everything. There was no topic he hadn’t covered, and he stated that:

… I’ve done enough thinking and dissection about how and why I shoot that the whole enormous mass has become intuitive – and I want to go back to applying that and shooting the things that interest me, for me, without feeling the need to create content for the entertainment of somebody else.

His blog isn’t alone—I was inspired to blog more than two decades ago by blogs and bloggers that are long-lost to the link rot of the Internet—but is the most recent of the sites that are just over. He plans to keep it alive and running for the foreseeable future but, as the Internet has taught us, it’ll eventually fade away from sight. 

On the one hand I’m a bit morose about this state of affairs, and feel like maybe our digital artifacts should just operate this way: as present, delightful, and ephemeral. But, on a more positive note, I guess I see it as an author hanging up their keyboard because a given work is concluded. As a professional writer I can appreciate and respect, and deeply understand, why that happens even as I wish the writing would just continue ad infinitum.

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Finding a Foreign Policy for the Internet

Justin Sherman and Trey Herr have an outstanding essay that clarifies the need for Washington and its allies to build a cohesive foreign policy for the Internet instead of simply opposing the strategies presented by competitors such as China.1 Poignantly, they write:

Washington needs a foreign policy for the internet that advances a vision for the internet that speaks to the language of trust and embraces the need to focus on the role of individuals, grasps the utility of iterating small changes instead of grand bargains, and embraces the reality that the clock cannot be turned back. This strategic product must do more than reject the sovereign and controlled authoritarian internet model, based on principles of tight state control over internet data routing, tight state control over data storage, and limited content freedom. A foreign policy for the internet must build on not just U.S. government agencies but allies and partners overseas, and leverage the influence that the American tech industry has over internet infrastructure. It must realistically address the shortfalls and risks of a free and open internet but seek to maximize and revitalize that internet’s benefits—across everything from speech to commerce. A foreign policy for the internet should rest on three assumptions; there are myriad others but these three are systemically significant.

These strategies absolutely must be developed and cohere given the importance of the Internet for day-to-day life; the Internet underlies everything from trade coordination, military engagements, and is increasingly lifeblood for civic life or organizing. It is time for the West to make clear what it is for, and how it plans to navigate the challenges that the Internet has wrought, without succumbing to fear or abandoning the democratic principles which have undergirded the Internet and its composition for the last several decades.


  1. Should you doubt that China has a cohesive strategy for the Internet, I’d recommend reading about the prospect of a splinternet forming as a result of China and its allies building out competing standards that prioritize placing control in centralized and obedient-to-government hands. ↩︎
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Towards A Genuinely Progressive Feminist Foreign Policy

Gabrielle Bardall has written an article on the current failings of Canada’s feminist international assistance policy, which is part of the government’s broader feminist foreign policy. In part, she writes:

A feminist approach to democracy development must be more than a simple numbers game to increase the number of women and minority groups in democratic institutions that sustain existing power structures. A feminist approach must instead involve people of all genders working together to advance democratic institutions, processes and values that disrupt those patriarchal power structures and prioritize gender equality across diverse populations and partisan lines. It is measured by the extent to which those institutions and processes are transformed by feminist principles and feminist actors (male and female), not just by the percentage of seats held by each sex.

In past professional settings I’ve been critical of Global Affairs Canada’s modes of applying gendered lenses and feminism into foreign policy processes, not because I disagree with doing so conceptually, but because it has so routinely felt non-progressive by focusing less on feminism and more on sex. Bardall‘s framing, of needing to move towards a non-neoliberal concept of feminism, nicely captures my disquiet and does so far more elegantly that I’ve managed in the years I’ve been stewing on this issue. Until a model of feminism is adopted into Canada’s foreign affairs policies that is explicitly anti-patriarchal then any adopted feminist approach will serve to principally adjust who is at the table without striving to redistribute power itself in a more equitable manner.

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A Clubhouse for Whom?

(Photo by Stephen Crowley on Unsplash)

Mark Stenberg has a good assessment of the challenges facing Clubhouse, the newest ‘hot’ social media app that involves individuals having audio discussions in real-time with one another in rooms that are created on the platform. He suspects that Clubhouse may work best in quarantine:

A glimpse of Instagram brings a fleeting burst of serotonin, but a second’s worth of Clubhouse is meaningless. Will you then, at night, leave your family in the other room so you can pop your headphones in and listen to strangers swapping their valuable thoughts on the news of the day?

When commutes and daily life return, people will once again have a few parceled-off periods of the day in which they can listen to audio entertainment. If there are no good Clubhouse conversations at those exact times, the app is far less valuable than a podcast platform or music-streaming service. The very characteristic that makes it so appealing — its real-time nature — will make it challenging for listeners to fold it into their lives when reality returns.

Whether a real-time app that depends on relative quiet and available time, and which is unsuitable for multitasking, survives in its current form as people emerge from their relative isolation will be interesting to measure in real-time once vaccines are widely spread throughout society. But, equally interesting (to my mind) are the assumptions baked into that very question: why not just ask people (e.g., essential workers) who continue to commute en mass and inquire about whether they are, or will be, using Clubhouse? Why not ask those who do not have particularly fungible or quiet lives at the moment (e.g., parents who are homeschooling younger children while working their day jobs) whether the app is compelling during quarantine periods?

To put it another way, the very framing of Clubhouse presupposes a number of affordances that really mostly pertain to a subset of relatively privileged members of society. It’s lovely that some tech workers, who work from home, and journalists who have similar lifestyles are interested in the app. But that doesn’t mean that it’ll broadly interest people, just as most people are dismissive of text-based social media applications (e.g., Twitter) and even visual-based apps (e.g., Instagram).

But, at the same time, this may not matter. If the founders are aiming for growing and sustaining the existing platform and not for the typical Silicon Valley viral growth, then their presently suggested modes of deriving profits might work. Specifically, current proposals include, “tipping, subscriptions, and ticketing” which, if adopted, could mean this is a social networking platform that doesn’t rely on the normal advertising or data brokerage models which have been adopted by most social media platforms and companies.

Will any of this work? Who knows. Most social media companies are here today, gone tomorrow, and I bet that Clubhouse is probably in that category. But, at the same time, it’s worth thinking through who these kinds of apps are designed for so that we can appreciate the politics, privilege, and power which are imbued into the technologies which surround us and the ways that we talk about those technologies.

Aside

#2021.2.16

Ran into a weird iPhone 11 Pro issue today. When I took it off it’s charger this morning it registered as draining down the battery at a rate of around 1% every couple of minutes and couldn’t detect all the AirPlay 2 devices in my home. After rebooting the phone I went from 78% to 94% battery and could connect to everything around me. So utterly random!