Basic crypto errors and no public review at the Washington Post

The Washington Post doubled down this weekend on its ridiculous argument for new encryption that uses a “Golden Key” available only to law enforcement under a court order. This proposal has a few weaknesses; perhaps chief among them is that it is literally impossible.

Given that putative authorities like FBI Director James Comey are willing to ignore the reality of how cryptography works, it’s weird but understandable that the Washington Post could basically disregard the feedback from experts about the same. Still, to see the editorial board of such a major outlet to tell the nerds to get back to double-checking how math works is frustrating.

Compounding that frustration is the fact that the Washington Post has basically no public escalation track for review. The Post‘s reporting on cryptography issues can be very good, but when the editorial board makes serious factual mistakes, they go unchallenged.

The New York Times has Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who takes feedback from readers and says when the paper has erred. That’s not enough in itself—that the Times makes the same kinds of mistakes over and over is a pretty good indicator of its course correction ability—but it feels better than having no recourse. It also helps to defuse arguments from people (like Comey himself) who would cite the editorial approvingly if the paper’s own oversight has found problems with it.

The Post had an ombudsman until 2013, when they discontinued the role—over protests from former ombudsmen. They replaced it with a “reader representative,” who was a Post employee. The first person to hold the role was Doug Feaver, after he’d retired from an editorial role with 37 years at the paper. He held the reader rep spot for less than a year, when he left and was replaced by Alison Coglianese.

Doug Feaver was supposed to hold the paper accountable, but he did little of that. Per this Media Matters breakdown:

Of his 28 blog posts since April 5, 2013, 26 consisted simply of Feaver aggregating reader comments from Post articles and columns without additional commentary. The other two consisted of a piece declaring the paper free of any conflict of interest regarding the Post’s Jerusalem correspondent and Feaver’s initial post chronicling the initial inquiries he had received in his position (“the biggest issue to come to my attention was the disappearing print button on the article pages of washingtonpost.com”).

As far as I can tell, Coglianese only wrote one post as reader rep, about the stock and mutual fund listings accidentally being left out of the Sunday Business section one week. Searching her name on the site produces nothing more recent than that, and no announcements that the reader rep role had been discontinued. It just faded away.

So as it stands, there’s no public representative at the paper noting that the Post continues to propose a physical impossibility in its editorial pages. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine the conversation progressing intelligently while it continues to do so.

“Computers: The Truth of the Matter”

Disney Educational made a short film in 1983 that depicts the devil and an angel arguing over whether a young woman should learn about computers. It’s called “Computers: The Truth of the Matter,” and I got to see it at the Oddball Films archive on Friday as part of a screening of retro-computing shorts. I looked it up online later and found basically nothing, so I thought I’d write up a few words for future searchers.

The film starts with the young woman Jessica slipping into her school’s computer lab, excited for a few quiet moments alone to work with the machines. Her practice time is interrupted a second later when Luke, a devil-figure in a red fedora, appears in a puff of smoke and starts trying to dissuade her from learning, arguing that computers are hard and not really that useful anyway.

A minute later, the classroom door opens and blinding light appears behind it. Angelo, a chubby guy in white gold-trimmed sweats and a winged baseball cap steps out to argue the opposite, that computers are worthwhile to learn. When Jessica shows interest, he pulls her in and they teleport around seeing the applications of computer systems, and then back into the classroom to talk about input devices, CPUs, and output devices like displays and printers. At one point he shrinks the two of them down to walk on top of a microprocessor.

Image via Oddball Films

Image via Oddball Films

Throughout this, the devil figure keeps interjecting that she doesn’t really want to learn, that computers are unpredictable, and so forth.

Eventually Jessica’s convinced, and the devil zaps out of the classroom. In the last shot, we see him at a fiery desk counting the tally at this point: millions of converts for Angelo, zero for himself. Of course, he’s keeping the tally on a computer. When he sees the camera come in, he tries denying it, saying he was watching TV and typing a letter.

The movie is funny in a bit of a forced way, and of course very little of the substantive material “holds up,” in the sense that it would be useful educational material in a computer class today. The high level stuff is still correct, but the examples are decades out of date. But I couldn’t disagree more with the folks in, say, this forum thread who claim that it’s no longer relevant and so shouldn’t be prioritized for re-release.

Films like “The Truth of the Matter” have a really important place in the history of computers. It’s remarkable to see the lessons it teaches, not because of the content itself but because of what it says about what was once assumed, or needed to be explicit. One line in this movie that caught me by surprise was when it showed a student working on a term paper, and the narrator remarked that even though it would get corrections and multiple drafts, she would only need to type it up once. Surely it’s worth something to get a glimpse into a world where that was a point that needed to be made.

Anyway, the film hasn’t been reissued, and glancing through Worldcat it looks tricky to track down a copy. I might try nonetheless. I’m also interested to see some of the other Disney Educational shorts from that era, like the 1983 “Skills for a New Technology: What a Kid needs to Know Today: Living with Computers,” or the 1984 “Ethics in the Computer Age.”

Honoring the history of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on Wikipedia

The tragedy that unfolded in Charleston this week is practically beyond words: a racist gunman committing what can only be described as an act of terrorism, taking the lives of nine people who had just invited him into their bible study community. Many people have spoken much more eloquently than I’m capable of about the white supremacist system that allows, encourages this kind of violence.

Because yes, as horrible as these murders are, they are best understood as a symptom of a larger environment than some terrible anomaly. And other symptoms are less obvious, but profoundly tragic.

Wikipedia articles are, for better or for worse, a metric with a disproportionate impact on people’s perception of what is valuable. Thanks to its aim to be an encyclopedia of all human knowledge and its ubiquity at the top of search results, many people use it as a shorthand evaluation of importance. This isn’t a new observation—the organizers of the Art + Feminism Editathons, for example, have pointed to studies about how article lengths reflected gender bias on the site.

Before Wednesday’s shooting, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston had no Wikipedia page. It’s a monumentally historic place—the oldest black church in the south, co-founded by Denmark Vesey, and has hosted the likes of Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet, its absence from the Wikipedia belied that significance. Worse, it has knock-on effects: journalists absolutely refer to Wikipedia articles to quickly get up to speed on issues, and pundits look to it for context. The history of racist violence at Emanuel AME is critical context to this week’s news, but to Wikipedia readers it might as well have not existed.

Putting the page together was one way I that could contribute positively to that conversation, and—importantly—that I could do so without centering my own voice. Wikipedia authorship is imminently knowable but generally unknown.

On Wednesday night I started the article and asked on Twitter for people to help. Really, my contributions were minimal—I started a stub, found a picture, and put in some references. Over the last two days, over 40 different people have made over 150 edits to the page, and it is now a real and impressive article. Peter Murray, a library technologist in Columbus, made this amazing visualization of the page’s growth over just a few days. It’s not there yet, but it’s getting to be the article that such a beautiful and historic site deserves.

And in the last two days alone, the page has been viewed 36,000 times. This stuff matters.

Slow Chopin productivity music

When I’m writing, it’s nice to have music that won’t try to distract me. Unfortunately that rules out lyrics and sometimes even melodies. One trick I like is slowing down nice, existing music to the point where it is more of a texture than a song.

Here’s a public domain recording of Chopin’s “Anhang,” funded by the Musopen Kickstarter campaign to release free recordings of his entire oeuvre, slowed down by a factor of eight with Audacity’s paulstretch plugin.

When I went to upload it, I wanted a cool cover graphic. I took one of the only known photos of Chopin, and glitched it manually with a hex editor, entering new values, copying and pasting, and deleting things sort of at random. This was my first time glitching an image like that, and I relied heavily on tutorials from Doc Pop and Steen for how to do it. I couldn’t really get anything to work with a PNG, but once I converted to JPG I was able to get something like this.

Freddie Glitched

Oakland’s awesome public records request system

Oakland’s employee compensation database is the kind of public record that should be proactively available, even with historical versions, without requiring a formal public records request. But since I couldn’t find it online, I filed a request, and got to interact for the first time with Oakland’s very cool RecordTrac system for handling those requests. RecordTrac is a Code For America fellowship project that launched a year and a half ago, and it ensures the entire process is online and publicly available, so users can see every request that gets filed and what response it received.

The value of that system becomes obvious pretty quickly after you start using it. For example, when I started looking through the compensation database, one fact that jumped out immediately is that some Oakland police officers make significantly more than their base salary in payment for overtime work. In fact, the highest paid Oakland government employee in 2014 is a police officer who got some $165,000 in overtime pay. What could possibly be going on with overtime at OPD?

Searching through the public requests database turns up another person’s request, specifically covering OPD and overtime. Those documents were released in the last few days and are immediately available to me and any other interested member of the public. That’s incredibly helpful to both me and the city. I get the records I’m looking for much faster, and can send follow-up requests without waiting for another round trip, and Oakland doesn’t have to process as many duplicates.

It also comes in handy where there are no responsive documents. Traditionally those requests don’t see a lot of publicity because, well, there are no documents to report on. But sometimes their absence is an interesting data point itself. Take, for example, this request for agreements between the Oakland Public Library and law enforcement on disclosing patron information. It would be a much larger story if there were agreements like that, but it’s nice, too, to be able to refer to the request turning up no responsive documents.1

If all this seems familiar, it may be because services like Muckrock, where I’m a frequent user, have implemented the same kind of thing on the requester end. Every request gets a permanent URL, where all associated documents are connected and made publicly available. Like RecordTrac, it keeps the status of requests updated, and notifies requesters when new information has come in.

Muckrock definitely makes the public records experience better, and has built an impressive collection of returned documents. But there’s an emergent property of the agencies themselves putting all that information online in the first place.

Oakland was lucky to pilot this program, and the avalanche of requests related to Occupy likely taught the city a lesson about handling them efficiently.

RecordTrac is already free software, and as of about six months ago, the developers rolled the software into a hosted product called NextRequest(UPDATE: the main RecordTrac developer reached out to clarify that NextRequest is not affiliated with the original team. Apologies for the error, and I too hope governments embrace the more open solution.) Hopefully that means more pickup by agencies and governments, bringing a much-needed update to the public records requesting process’s usability and transparency. It can be funny to see Muckrock joke about how dated much of our country’s FOIA infrastructure is. But it’d be better to see it fixed.

  1. After I tweeted about this request, the Oakland Public Library reached out to emphasize its opposition to that sort of agreement. []