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It’s time to admit that mere transparency isn’t enough, and that every decision to censor content is a political decision. Companies should act accordingly. They must carefully consider the long-term effects of complying with requests, and take a stand when those requests run counter to human rights principles. The more we accept everyday censorship, the more of it there seems to be, and before we know it, the window of acceptable information will only be open a crack.

The Roundup for December 2-8, 2017 Edition

It feels like everyone I know has led a more stressful life this year. Beyond the chaos wrought on the global psyche by the American president, there have also been more deaths, serious illnesses, job losses, and emotional meltdowns than normal. In my own case, the death of two parents and ongoing revelations of sexual assaults and abuses near to my life have been incredibly challenging issues to deal with.

So it was with great interest that I read a piece by Ankita Rao on how she has turned dealing with her personal stress into a kind of science experiment. The tests and activities she points to reveal the number of factors in our lives that amplify underlying stress levels as well as the means we can use to reduce stress in our personal lives. I’ve made a commitment since mid-2017 to actively, and assertively, maintain a particular work-life balance. That involves taking on consulting clients only when the monetary outcome is necessary to address particular fiscal stresses (see: student loans) and ensuring that I actually spend time working out, taking photowalks, and letting myself engage in non-productive play.

I haven’t always been successful. But on the whole I’m exercising a lot more, have taken photos I’m incredibly happy with, and am overcoming a longstanding guilt that playing games is somehow undermining my productivity. I have a long ways to go to ensure the balance I’m trying to achieve is a permanent feature of my life but I feel like habits are starting to settle in, and my overall stress levels declining as a result.


Just prior to Netflix’s release of The Punisher some critics argued that the show had an opportunity to — and failed to — respond to the tragedy of gun violence in the United States. I haven’t quite finished the series but I tend to agree that the show is definitely not directly addressing that issue.

But the show isn’t about gun violence. It’s about what losing family means and drives a someone (read: white males) to do. It’s about the problems linked to how soldiers of all stripes are asked to endure physical and mental hardships and then return home without society acknowledging their sacrifices or providing support for their wounds. Or about how even when support is provided that there is no guarantee that those broken humans will ever be whole again. The show is about how fraught relationships become when we are separated from those we relate to, either by distance, by death, or by betrayal. Throughout the episodes I’ve watched a repeated motif, which does pertain to gun violence, is how firearms can prompt the aforementioned hardships, either by killing in the name of one’s country or in the name of one’s personal ideology or simply by accident when weapons are nearby.


I entered the workforce ‘late’ in terms of my ability to save for retirement. Since I went to school until my early 30s, and lived paycheque to paycheque to try and stay afloat, and have loan obligations, it’s not going to be until my late 30s or early 40s when I can ‘really’ save for my retirement. And that assumes that I save for retirement instead of for a home or condo that I own.1

So it was with interest, and trepidation, that I listened to a podcast put out by TVO entitled “Creating Retirement Security.” The conversation they had about people in their 30s was strange to my ears, with guests relying on different baseline facts for their assessments and recommendations. And significantly, not one of the guests recognized that loan payments for student debt are higher than with past generations, nor that repayment periods are longer now than in the past. Several of the guests held an assumption that persons would be saving in their early 20s. While this practice might be true for Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) contributions it’s presumably less the case for Register Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) that can grow significantly over the course of 40 years.

Each guest called frequently for ‘financial literacy’. While educational approaches matter and have merit, at the same time such calls assume that retirement decisions should be individualized. Does it fall to specific individuals to ensure that they are earning enough, saving enough, and investing wisely enough to be secure in their retirement? Or is retirement and aging a collective action problem that is best solved as a society as a whole?2

As with many areas of expert knowledge only the barest of basics of financial literacy are likely going to catch on with the general public. Were we, as a society, to take some of the lessons from behaviour economics we’d realize that experts are needed to develop appropriate ‘nudges’ to compel savings,3 while also updating savings models to recognize the precariousness of the labour market for those under 35. That constant threat of un(der)employment, need to service student debt, and potentially provide assistance to parents who have insufficiently saved for their retirement are all pressures on the largest generation now moving through the Canadian workforce. And that’s to say nothing of the need for people to decide if they want to save for their retirement or save for a home that they own. Until all those variables and conditions are appreciated any advice from experts seems to just fall flat.


Great Photography Shots

Flickr released the best 25 shots of 2017 and they’re pretty amazing. The ‘best’ in this case is derived from social and engagement metrics, combined with curation by Flickr’s own staff.

1-Iwona-Podlasinska-800x533
“Say Goodby…” by Iwona Podlasinka, at https://flic.kr/p/ZYM6Hd
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“Mi Fuego” by Albert Dros at https://flic.kr/p/Tbcpio

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Products

  1. I actually do save every month to the tune of about 10-15% of my paycheque, part for retirement and part for an emergency fund.
  2. Guests did spend some time talking about whether retirement savings should should be an individualized/collective problem. But the constant refrain that individuals need to be smarter means that individuals, first and foremost, are seen as the parties that have to assume responsibility for their futures and any collective action work is an idealized maybe-solution to aging in Canada.
  3. To be fair, nudges were discussed, but the hard lessons came down on individuals having to gain literacy to make their own decisions.
Aside

Watching someone switch from Android and to iOS for the first time is a really interesting experience. The ease of wirelessly transferring data between operating systems (and devices!) and automatic installation/configuration of apps like they’re set up on their iPad is pretty magical. The near-automatic warning that they’re out of iCloud space and thus need to pony up a monthly payment to Apple is the only jarring part of the experience so far; Apple really needs to increase the default amount of storage provided to at least 10GB or so.

Link

How Russia Polices Yandex

From Vice Motherboard:

This year, the “news aggregator law” came into effect in Russia. It requires websites that publish links to news stories with over one million daily users (Yandex.News has over six million daily users) to be responsible for all the content on their platform, which is an enormous responsibility.

“Our Yandex.News team has been actively working to retain a high quality service for our users following new regulations that impacted our service this past year,” Yandex told Motherboard in a statement, adding that to comply with new regulations, it reduced the number of sources that were aggregated from 7,000 to 1,000 with “official media licenses.”

The predicable result of the Russian government’s new law is that the government can better influence what information is surfaced to Russian citizens: when state news outlets release the same press release, en masse, Yandex1 and other major aggregators with a large number of readers are predominantly exposed to what the government wants them to see. So while Russia may interfere with foreign countries’ political processes by exploiting how social network and aggregator algorithms function (along with out-and-out illegal exfiltration and modification of communications data) they, themselves, are trying to immunize themselves to equivalent kinds of threats by way of the liabilities they place on the same kinds of companies which do business in Russia.

More broadly, the experience in Russia and changes in how Yandex operates should raise a warning flag for caution advocates in the Western world who are calling for social media companies to be (better) regulated, such as by striking down or modifying Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). While there are clear dangers associated with these companies operating as contemporary digital sovereigns there are also risks associated with imposing harsh liability systems for publishing other persons’ content.

While such regulations might reduce some foreign interference in political systems it could simultaneously diminish the frequency at which legitimate alternative sources of information which are widely surfaced to the public. It remains unclear just how we should regulate the spread of malicious political messaging2 but, at the same time, it’s critical to ensure that any measures don’t have the detrimental effect of narrowing and diminishing the political conversations in which citizens can participate. It’s the very freedoms to have such conversations that distinguishes free democratic countries from those that are more autocratic.

  1. Sidenote: Yandex is the only website I’ve ever had to block from scraping my professional website because it was functionally acting as a DDoS.
  2. One idea would be to deliberately cut down on how easy it is to spread any and all information. By requiring additional manual effort to share content only the most motivated would share it. Requiring actual humans to share content with other humans, if done in a robust way, might cut down on the ability of bots to automatically propagate content as though ‘real’ people were sharing it.
Link

Om Malik on the Blog Post Bribe Scandal

He writes:

The chase for cheap page views to arbitrage against advertising dollars is the real reason everyone at this mega page view factories willingly embraced this trend towards free content, which in turn left the whole experiment open to abuse. If you generate a lot of page views for these sites, you aren’t going away, because, in the end, it is all about page views.

On my other, professional, site I regularly receive requests from marketers to publish their content for some sort of payment. Many are outlandish in their requests whereas others have clearly done their homework and identified a range of posts the given brand wants to be associated with.

Some of the payment rates or product offerings are outlandish, others churlish, but none of them have ever overcome my baseline position: I own my professional web presence in order to build my reputation and brand. That brand is worth more than a few hundred or thousand dollars; it represents, at least in part, my ability to earn money over the span of the coming decades.

While there’s been some comic back and forth about charging marketers tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to post other parties’ branded content, I think there is legitimately something to the idea. If you view your web presence as a long-term part of your career, and damaging that presence could potentially cost you in terms of future employment opportunities or consulting prospects, then that kind of valuation starts to make some sense.

Link

What’s On My Homescreen, December 2017 Edition

Screenshot of my iPhone 7 homescreen from December 2017
Screenshot of my iPhone 7 homescreen from December 2017

My homescreen is mostly divided between stuff that I want immediate access to on a very regular basis and one or two ‘testing’ applications (in terms of position on the homescreen and/or whether I like them as applications). Without further ado:

Photography (Folder): I play with a lot of different photo apps, though I tend to alternate between Darkroom and Snapseed a fair bit and rarely use Polar anymore. Slow Shutter is something I’m playing around with off and on, and ProCam was free.

Reminders: I don’t like the application but since I basically just use it for groceries I’m not willing to spend money for a ‘better’ app.

Notes: Much of my life exists in Notes.  I wish there was better support for markdown and would love tagging support. And it’d be great if Apple would fix the freezing bug that was introduced in iOS 11! But on the whole Notes plays well across all my Apple devices and the interface just gets out of the way.

Messages: Not my default means of communicating with people, in part because I try to avoid sending SMS messages as best I’m able for security reasons, but it’s a necessary evil in my life.

Phone: I take and make a lot of calls.

WhatsApp: My preferred method of communicating because it’s a cross-platform app (don’t need to know if someone is on an iPhone, Android, Blackberry, or whatever else) and encrypts voice-, video-, and text-based messages end-to-end. Still, it leaks some metadata and so, in some instances I use…

Signal: The best of consumer-available secure messaging app. Unlike WhatsApp, Signal keeps the bare minimum amount of information required to process communications.

Podcasts: I listen to silly numbers of Podcasts. I had problems with the application in iOS 9 but they seem to have been fixed in iOS 10/11. Importantly, the application syncs well across all the Apple devices that I own.

Hello Weather: I wish I could download and use Dark Sky but it’s not available in the Canadian App Store. Hello Weather pulls data from the same repository as Dark Sky so it’s as accurate, if not as pretty.

Day One: I’ve kept digital journals in one format or another for well over 15 or 16 years. I’ve been using Day One for a few years and love the interface.

Ulysses: I keep coming back to Ulysses even though I don’t derive any joy from using it. It’s certainly functional and lets me publish to my WordPress websites and I enjoy how it does markdown. But the interface is the definition of ‘meh’ for me.

Reeder: Too much of my time is spent in Reeder. I follow a lot of wonky websites and blogs, plus fashion, tech, culture, and more. So much to read and so little time!

Paprika: A relatively new application in my life, I’m seeing whether the application fits  into my life. Previously I was using the Notes app to keep track of recipes but that didn’t scale very well. My hope is that Paprika really does take over part of my life and make shopping that much more pleasant.

iBooks: For pleasure reading I only purchase digital copies through iBooks. I realize it’s a walled garden but I’ve long since made my peace with that.

Activity: I’ve tracked my baseline activity information for almost ten year and this app collects daily information from my Apple Watch. I use a separate application — Healthview — to study longer-term trends in my personal fitness and health.

Halide: The newest application in my life! Though I usually shoot with my mirrorless camera, sometimes it’s not convenient and so I whip out my iPhone. Halide gives me more control over what I’m shooting and I really appreciate the ability to turn on focus peaking.

Safari: Because I, too, browse the Internet.

Mail: It’s not the best of clients but it’s as bad as most. And the really good ones would force me to move my mail through additional third-parties, and I’m not willing to engage in that kind of activity.

Tweetbot: I use Twitter a lot and a large portion of my professional network is located there. But the official Twitter application is just horrible in my view, whereas Tweetbot gets out of my way and lets me just enjoy the content steaming by.

Music: I usually have music playing in the background if I’m not listening to a podcast.

Link

(In)Security and Scruff

From The Verge:

Ashley: And then, you mentioned it in transit, do you store these on Scruff’s personal servers? When it’s on the server, is it encrypted? What kind of protections do you have on the server?

We take a number of steps to secure our network. Encryption is a multifaceted and multilayered question and process. Yeah, I can say that the technical architecture of Scruff is one that we have had very smart people look into. We’ve worked with security researchers and security experts to ensure that the data that’s on Scruff stays safe and that our members can use Scruff with confidence and know that their information isn’t going to be disclosed to unauthorized parties.

This is exactly the kind of answer that should set off alarm bells: the developer of Scruff doesn’t actually answer the specific and direction question about the company’s encryption policies in an equivalently direct and specific way. Maybe Scruff really does have strong security protocols in place but you certainly wouldn’t know that was the case based on the answer provided.

It’d be a great idea if someone were to develop the equivalent of the EFF’s or IX Maps’ scorecards, which evaluate the policies of digital and Internet companies, and apply it to online dating services. I wonder how well these services would actually fare when evaluated on their privacy and security and anti-harassment policies…