The Roundup for June 1-30, 2020 Edition

(Urban King by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


I put together, and self-published, another photobook that is entitled “Pandemic Chronicles: Book I”. Each week that my city has been in (functional) lockdown, I’ve gone out once or twice and made images while just stretching my legs outside.

Over the past four months it’s often been hard to figure out how, exactly, I’ve been processing the life changes that have been imposed as a result of the pandemic. My life has, in many respects, reverted to that of my life during my PhD. So, lots of time inside and rarely leaving leaving my home, and having considerably less social contact than normal.

I think that it’s through my photos that I can best appreciate how I’ve felt, in retrospect, and understand how those images reflect how I see the world. The book that I made isn’t particularly dark: it’s just…lonely. It showcases the city that I live in, without the people that make it the city that I love. It shows people living their lives, often alone or separate from others, or while engaging in ‘safe’ behaviours. And, towards the end, it shows the light returning to Toronto, though in a format that differs from prior summers.

Photography has, and remains, a way for me to engage a creative part of my brain that otherwise would lie fallow. And, also, it’s operated as a meditative process that uncovers how I have been in the world, and how the world has been presented to me. As someone who has struggled with the idea of a ‘narrative’ in image making, I think that this book is a breakthrough because it ‘says’ something in aggregate that is more than just a presentation of visually pleasant images: it speaks to where I live, and how it has endured in the wake of the city’s closure. Is it the height of art? No. But it’s the closest I’ve come in this medium so far!


Inspiring Quotation

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

Austin Kleon

Great Photography Shots

(Photos included in ‘Pandemic Chronicles: Book I’ by Christopher Parsons)

Music I’m Digging

This month has been packed with a lot of listening, with some alternative and R&B pretty tightly mixed in with hip hop. The best of what I listened to in June includes tracks from Yung Tory’s Rastar (including Mizu, Water Pt 2, and Netflix & Chill), Kali Uchis’s TO FEEL ALIVE (EP), HONNE’s no song without you (Single), and 6LACK’s 6pc Hot(EP).

Neat Podcast Episodes

I’ve been listening to a pair of new podcast shows over the past month that I’d recommend. From the CBC, there’s This Is Not A Drake Podcast, which uses Drake as a way to talk more about the history of rap and hip hop. So far I’ve really appreciated the episode on mixtapes, as well as the connotations of Nice Guy rappers.

Very differently, I’ve also been listening to the Globe and Mail’s series, Stress Test, which is about money issues facing millennials in the time of Covid. The episodes haven’t been staggering brilliant (a lot of the advice is pretty time tested) but the caution and suggestions are all helpful reminders.

Good Reads

  • Reflections from an “Accidental” Mentor // Prof. McNamara’s discussion of what it means to be a mentor— first and foremost modelling who we are, as individuals, rather than fitting within a particular narrow category of who we are normatively expected to be—is good advice, and important if we are to expand what is ‘normal’ within academia. She also focuses on celebrating the commonality across scholars; we’re all nerds, at heart, and so should focus on those attributes to create community. I agree, but for myself it’s more than that: it’s also about ensuring that the structures of professional environments are re-articulated to enable more junior persons to experience their jobs and professions in ways that weren’t possible, previously. It’s not just about focusing on commonality but, also, assessing baseline principles and values and ensuring that they conform in theory and practice with welcoming, creative, equitable, and inclusive environments. And, finally, it’s about accepting and making clear that as mentors we are fallible and human, and creating workspaces where others can also betray these inherently human (and humanizing) characteristics.
  • Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In // Jon Stewart’s comments throughout this interview are worth the read; his assessment of the problems of contemporary political media—centred around the ‘need’ for content to fuel a 24/7 media environment—as well as for the media to engage in structural assessment of practices, are on point. Similarly, his discussion of the nature of racism in American society (but, also, Canada) strikes to the heart of things: even if someone isn’t deliberately malicious in deed or thought, they are conditioned by the structures of society and power in which they live their lives. And those very structures are, themselves, racist in their origin and contemporary design.
  • Hacking Security // Goerzen and Coleman do a terrific job in unpacking the history of what is secured by computer security experts, and why certain things are within or outside of bounds for securing. Critically, while experts may be involved in protecting ‘assets’ or combatting ‘abuse’, where threats to assets or abuse arise from the underlying profit mechanisms associated with large technology companies, those mechanisms are seen as outside of bounds for security teams to engage with. Similarly, the failure of security teams to consider, or address, ‘political’ issues such as abusive speech, harmful video content, or propagation of racist or white supremacist content all showcase the need to critically interrogate what is, and isn’t, made secure, and to expand security teams by adding social scientists and humanities scholars: technology is political, and we need security teams to have members who are trained and competent to consider those politics.
  • Once Safer Than Gold, Canadian Real Estate Braces for Reckoning // Canadians have been doubling down on their debt-loads for over a decade to the point, today, that on average Canadians owe north of $1.76 per $1.00 of income, with that number rising in the country’s largest cities. Housing is particularly vulnerable and, if it is destabilized, can be devastating to the Canadian economy more broadly given that it accounts for around %15 of GDP; slowdowns in housing will delay the revival of the Canadian economy, while simultaneously threatening the ability of Canadians to stay in their homes—now—or retain their savings to invest for their retirements—in the future. If anything good comes of this, maybe it will be a reminder that allocating the majority of your savings into a single asset is, indeed, not a good long-term investment solution which could have knock on effects if investors decide they want to move to their next bubble, and let the housing bubble deflate as gracefully as possible.
  • Sure, The Velociraptors Are Still On The Loose, But That’s No Reason Not To Reopen Jurassic Park // McSweeney’s, once more, showcases the merits of satire in the vein of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, this time in the era of government failures in the face of pandemic.
  • You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument // “I have rape-coloured skin.” Not only is this perhaps the most poignant lede I’ve come across in an opinion piece in years, it also sets the stakes for the Williams’ article; the very skin of many Americans (and Canadians) is a testament to violent and racist actions taken against women who were forced from their homes to live as slaves. That testament continues, today, and not just in the monuments that were established in the Jim Crow era to deliberately attempt to continue subjugating Black persons, but in the very skin inhabited by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of enslaved people.
  • Vladimir Putin’s war of fog: How the Russian President used deceit, propaganda and violence to reshape global politics // I take issue with some of MacKinnon’s choice of language in the first ¼ of the article—he suggests that truth is substantively confused and that Putin’s tactics are more successful that I think are appropriate to concede—but beyond that he’s done a masterful job in creating an overview of who Putin is, what he’s done, and how he’s come to (and held onto) power. If you’re a long-time Russia watcher you may dispute where MacKinnon puts some of his emphasis, or in his assessment of some events, but I don’t think that you can deny that this is a helpful article that provide the broad contours of Putin’s life and career. And, after having read it, it will hopefully inspire people to learning more of the financial, military, or other scandals that have happened throughout Putin’s leadership of Russia.

Cool Things

  • iPad OS + Magic Trackpad 2 // Lots of people already have figured this out but…the new version of iPad OS + a Magic Trackpad 2 and a keyboard is a really, really compelling combination. I’ve using this as my writing and work system for a little while and it continues to prove to me how robust the iPad actually is, and how many of the pain points have been, or are being, ground away with each version of the operating system. That said, some of the gestures are very, very opaque—in particular those associated with the slide over window—and so you may want to review how, exactly, those gestures really work to get the most out of the process (and not get frustrated when certain windows just won’t go away!)

The Roundup for December 1-31, 2019 Edition

Alone Amongst Ghosts by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


This month’s update is late, accounting for holidays and my generally re-thinking how to move forward (or not) with these kinds of posts. I find them really valuable, but the actual interface of using my current client (Ulysses) to draft elements of them is less than optimal. So expect some sort of changes as I muddle through how to improve workflow and/or consider the kinds of content that make the most sense to post.


Inspiring Quotation

Be intensely yourself. Don’t try to be outstanding; don’t try to be a success; don’t try to do pictures for others to look at—just please yourself.

  • Ralph Steiner

Great Photography Shots

Natalia Elena Massi’s photographs of Venice, flooded, are exquisite insofar as they are objectively well shot while, simultaneously, reminding us of the consequences of climate change. I dream of going to Venice to shoot photos at some point and her work only further inspires those dreams.

Music I’m Digging

I spent a lot of the month listening to my ‘Best of 2019’ playlist, and so my Songs I Liked in December playlist is a tad threadbare. That said, it’s more diverse in genre and styles than most monthly lists, though not a lot of the tracks made the grade to get onto my best of 2019 list.

  • Beck-Guero // I spent a lot of time re-listening to Beck’s corpus throughout December. I discovered that I really like his music: it’s moody, excitable,and catchy, and always evolving from album to album.
  • Little V.-Spoiler (Cyberpunk 2077) (Single) // Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most hyped video games for 2020, and if all of the music is as solid and genre-fitting as this track, then the ambiance for the game is going to be absolutely stellar.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • 99% Invisible-Racoon Resistance // As a Torontonian I’m legally obligated to share this. Racoons are a big part of the city’s identity, and in recent years new organic garbage containers were (literally) rolled out that were designed such that racoons couldn’t get into them. Except that some racoons could! The good news is that racoons are not ‘social learners’ and, thus, those who can open the bins are unlikely to teach all the others. But with the sheer number of trash pandas in the city it’s almost a certainty that a number of them will naturally be smart enough and, thus, garbage will continue to litter our sidewalks and laneways.

Good Reads

  • America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions // Ismay’s longform piece on cluster munitions is not a happy article, nor does the reader leave with a sense that this deadly weapon is likely to be less used. His writing–and especially the tragedies associated with the use of these weapons–is poignant and painful. And yet it’s also critically important to read given the barbarity of cluster munitions and their deadly consequences to friends, foes, and civilians alike. No civilized nation should use these weapons and all which do use them cannot claim to respect the lives of civilians stuck in conflict situations.
  • Project DREAD: White House Veterans Helped Gulf Monarchy Build Secret Surveillance Unit // The failure or unwillingness of the principals, their deputies, or staff to acknowledge they created a surveillance system that has systematically been used to hunt down illegitimate targets—human rights defenders, civil society advocates, and the like—is disgusting. What’s worse is that democratizing these surveillance capabilities and justifying the means by which the program was orchestrated almost guarantees that American signals intelligence employees will continue to spread American surveillance know-how to the detriment of the world for a pay check, the consequences be damned (if even ever considered in the first place).
  • The War That Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later // The combination of the (re)telling of the first Russia-Chechen War and photographs from the conflict serve as reminders of what it looks like when well-armed nation-states engage in fullscale destruction, the human costs, and the lingering political consequences of wars-now-past.
  • A New Kind of Spy: How China obtains American technological secrets // Bhattacharjee’s 2014 article on Chinese spying continues to strike me as memorable, and helpful in understanding how the Chinese government recruits agents to facilitate its technological objectives. Reading the piece helps to humanize why Chinese-Americans may spy for the Chinese government and, also, the breadth and significance of such activities for advancing China’s interests to the detriment of America’s own.
  • Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach: There is still much to learn from the radical legacy of critical theory // Benhabib’s essay showcasing how the history of European political philosophy over the past 60 years or so are in the common service of critique, and the role(s) of Habermasian political theory in both taking account of such critique whilst offering thoughts on how to proceed in a world of imperfect praxis, is an exciting consideration of political philosophy today. She mounts a considered defense of Habermas and, in particular, the claims that his work is overly Eurocentric. Her drawing a line between the need to seek emancipation while standing to confront and overcome the xenophobia, authoritarianism, and racism that is sweeping the world writ large is deeply grounded on the need for subjects like human rights to orient and ground critique. While some may oppose such universalism on the same grounds as they would reject the Habermasian project there is a danger: in doing so, not only might we do a disservice to the intellectual depth that undergirds the concept of human rights but, also, we run the risk of losing the core means by which we can (re)orient the world towards enabling the conditions of freedom itself.
  • Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai // This very curious article explores the recent problem of ships’ GPS transponders being significantly affected while transiting the Yangtze in China. Specifically, transponders are routinely misplacing the location of ships, sometimes with dangerous and serious implications. The cause, however, remains unknown: it could be a major step up in the (effective) electronic warfare capabilities of sand thieves who illegally dredge the river, and who seek to escape undetected, or could be the Chinese government itself testing electronic warfare capabilities on the shipping lane in preparation of potentially deploying it elsewhere in the region. Either way, threats such as this to critical infrastructure pose serious risks to safe navigation and, also, to the potential for largely civilian infrastructures to be potentially targeted by nation-state adversaries.
  • A Date I Still Think About // These beautiful stories of memorable and special dates speak to just how much joy exists in the world, and how it unexpectedly erupts into our lives. In an increasingly dark time, stories like this are a kind of nourishment for the soul.

Cool Things

  • The Deep Sea // This interactive website that showcases the sea life we know exists, and the depths at which it lives, is simple and spectacular.
  • 100 Great Works Of Dystopian Fiction // A pretty terrific listing of books that have defined the genre.
Link

A Deep Dive Into Russian Surveillance In The Silicon Valley Area

Via Foreign Policy:

This focus on signals and technical intelligence persisted until much more recently, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me. “It was almost like everyone they had there was a technical guy, as opposed to a human-intelligence guy,” one former official recalled. “The way they protected those people — they were rarely out in the community. It was work, home, work, home. When they’d go out and about, to play hockey or to drink, they’d be in a group. It was hard to penetrate.” The same official also noted that San Francisco was integral to the discovery by U.S. intelligence of a new class of Russian “technical-type” intelligence officer, working for the rough Russian equivalent of the National Security Agency, before this organization was eventually folded by Putin back into the FSB. This group, which was not based at the consulate itself, was identified via its members’ travel patterns — they would visit the Bay Area frequently — and the types of individuals, all in high-tech development, with whom they sought contact. According to this former U.S. official, these Russian intelligence officers were particularly interested in discussing cryptology and the Next Generation Internet program.

But it was the consulate’s location — perched high atop that hill in Pacific Heights, with a direct line of sight out to the ocean — that likely determined the concentration of signals activity. Certain types of highly encrypted communications cannot be transmitted over long distances, and multiple sources told me that U.S. officials believed that Russian intelligence potentially took advantage of the consulate’s location to communicate with submarines, trawlers, or listening posts located in international waters off the Northern California coast. (Russian intelligence officers may also have been remotely transmitting data to spy stations offshore, multiple former intelligence officials told me, explaining the odd behaviors on Stinson Beach.) It is also “very possible,” said one former intelligence official, that the Russians were using the San Francisco consulate to monitor the movements, and perhaps communications, of the dozen or so U.S. nuclear-armed submarines that routinely patrol the Pacific from their base in Washington state.

All in all, said this same official, it was “very likely” that the consulate functioned for Russia as a classified communications hub for the entire western United States — and, perhaps, the entire western part of the hemisphere.

There is a lot to this very long form piece, including descriptions of Russian intelligence operations and communications patterns, how lawful Russian overflights of American territory might be used for a variety of intelligence purposes, and the Trump administration’s likely cluelessness about why closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco was so significant. But most interestingly, for me, was how the consulate likely functioned as an outpost for Russian signals intelligence operations, both due to the depth of analysis in the article but also for what it tells us about how Western-allied consulates and diplomatic facilities are likely used.1 In effect, the concerns raised by former FBI and other American counter-intelligence officers speaks to how America and her allies may conduct their own forms of surveillance.

  1. In a provincial sense, the concerns and opinions espoused by American counter-intelligence officers also raises questions as to the role of Canada’s significant number of diplomatic facilities scattered throughout China and other regions where the United States is more challenged in building out State Department facilities.
Aside

There’s something…special…about being ‘covered’ by an organization that is the actual definition of fake news/Russian propaganda.

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.
Quote

This dark concept of total distrust was mostly spread via the Internet because it was what the Internet was built for—sharing ideas. Although the Internet is the most democratic means of communicating, it can be also be misused by governments and other groups.

Does this mean we should accept the concept that the Internet carries more threats than benefits?

The creators of the Internet supported the opposite concept. Unlike Putin, they believed in people and built the global network under the assumption that it would be used for sharing something good. They may look naïve these days, but we have our modern linked-up technological world thanks to their concepts, not Putin’s. These days, we all speak the language of suspicion and threats posed by the Internet. In a way, in means we are speaking Kremlin’s language. Do we really need to?

Link

The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.

As the year draws to a close, it now seems possible that there will be multiple investigations of the Russian hacking — the intelligence review Mr. Obama has ordered completed by Jan. 20, the day he leaves office, and one or more congressional inquiries. They will wrestle with, among other things, Mr. Putin’s motive.

Did he seek to mar the brand of American democracy, to forestall anti-Russian activism for both Russians and their neighbors? Or to weaken the next American president, since presumably Mr. Putin had no reason to doubt American forecasts that Mrs. Clinton would win easily? Or was it, as the C.I.A. concluded last month, a deliberate attempt to elect Mr. Trump?

In fact, the Russian hack-and-dox scheme accomplished all three goals.

This is an absolutely brilliant piece of journalism by Harris, Singer, and Shane. It unpacks the publicly available information about the intrusions into the Democratic National Committee’s systems and how information was subsequently mobilized and weaponized. These sorts of attacks will continue to be effective because all it takes is a single failure on the part of defenders, often in the face of hundreds or thousands of discrete attacks. As a result the remediation process is, today, arguably the most important of a cyber-security event because a dedicated and resourced attacker will eventually penetrate even the best secured networking infrastructure. And the Democratic National Committee, and Democratic Party more generally, still lacks a remediation policy months after the attacks.

Link

WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing

Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.

All campaigns need to have internal discussions. Taking one campaign manager’s email account and releasing it with zero curation in the last month of an election needs to be treated as what it is: political sabotage, not whistle-blowing.

These hacks also function as a form of censorship. Once, censorship worked by blocking crucial pieces of information. In this era of information overload, censorship works by drowning us in too much undifferentiated information, crippling our ability to focus. These dumps, combined with the news media’s obsession with campaign trivia and gossip, have resulted in whistle-drowning, rather than whistle-blowing: In a sea of so many whistles blowing so loud, we cannot hear a single one.

This is one of the best arguments against the recent activities of Wikileaks. Not because Wikileaks is operating as a front for Russia. Not because the contents of the recent leaks aren’t newsworthy. Not because the public doesn’t find the revelations to be interesting and fun.

No, the core issue with the latest rafts of leaks is that they were not sufficiently currated, with the impact being that obstensibly private information is taken and circulated and mischaracterized. This has the effect of stunting the electoral process while, simultaneously, reconfirming to persons in power that they need to adopt a culture of oral communications and decisions. This is not a governance direction that is in the public’s best interests.

However, it’s important to also situate Wikileaks’ activities in some context. Wikileaks is designed to clog up the machinery of government states and bureaucracies. Part of its mission is to scare organizations with the threat of leaks in an effort to hinder what Julian Assange/Wikileaks regards as harmful or objectional activities. So the leaks associated with the DNC and staff affiliated with Clinton are perfectly aligned with Wikileaks’ raison d’être. In the past such activities may have been regarded are more legitimate – the organization was principally focused on state level activities – but it is now focused on deliberately releasing information at core points in an electoral cycle. Doing so may have affected the unfolding of the election but it’s important to acknowledge that Wikileaks’ intent was not driven by Russia (presuming that was a source of at least some of the leaked information): instead, this was a case where Russian and Wikileaks just happened to have directly overlapping objectives.

Link

Russian Hackers Now Targeting U.S. Think Tanks That Specialize in Russia

Russian Hackers Now Targeting U.S. Think Tanks That Specialize in Russia:

“Any respectable think tank has been hacked,” Lewis told Defense One on Monday. “The Russians just don’t get the idea of independent institutions, so they are looking for secret instructions from Obama. Another benefit is they can go to their bosses and show what they took to prove their worth as spies.”

Any respectable think tank is proud to have such garbage security that the intellectual property it hopes to profit from, to say nothing of political advocacy, is available to unauthorized third parties.

Right….

Link

Turns Out You Can’t Trust Russian Hackers Anymore

Turns Out You Can’t Trust Russian Hackers Anymore :

Navalny denies receiving funding from Soros and says he has had no support from Yandex. Laura Silber, a spokesperson for Open Society, said the foundation has never supported Navalny and that the edited documents posted by Cyber Berkut amounted to a libelous claim.

The Kremlin, Navalny wrote in an email to Foreign Policy, “really likes that type of tactics: posting fake documents among real hacked documents.” The goal, he wrote, is to create a mess for the opposition.

“At the end of the day everyone will understand — documents are fake, but it will be a two-week-long discussion: ‘Is [the] opposition and Navalny in particular using Soros’ money?’,” Navalny wrote.

The Kremlin hates George Soros because Open Society, his marquee philanthropy, focuses on boosting democracy in the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere. Silber says Open Society “supports human rights, democratic practice, and the rule of law in more than 100 countries around the world.”

We can’t fully believe all the documents that are stolen, and then subsequently posted online by Russian-affiliated groups with an agenda of discrediting certain parties?

Shocking.