Media literacy and #Ferguson livestreams

I’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri all this week. There is a movement growing as a lot of ugly forces in American life are becoming impossible for a certain mainstream to continue ignoring. At the same time, it’s been really remarkable from a media perspective: a lot of the story built on social media, and in a lot of ways that continues to be the most thorough and timely source of information.

Media literacy is more important than ever with a story like this. A lot of the most important sources of info don’t have the traditional trappings of authority; people are independent or reporting from previously unknown organizations, they’re livestreaming or posting photos to Twitter, articles are interspersed with a constant stream of updates.

Readers and viewers need a command of media literacy not just to evaluate what news is timely and important, but also to contribute to the conversation where necessary.

I pulled this clip out of a livestream from Argus Radio. I’m not sure most people can do that with the tools they know how to use, which is a real shame. Being able to copy and paste from video like from text is an essential part of media literacy in 2014, and will only get more important.

I use a tool called youtube-dl to download videos, and then edit with a combination of different pieces of software. If you don’t know where to start, look at the software that comes with your operating system. On Mac OS X, for example, Quicktime Player has some basic trimming and clipping functions to allow for basic editing right out of the box.

It goes beyond video, of course. One journalist, a sports editor in DC, used a Google Maps screencap and what appears to be OS X’s Preview app to make an annotated map of the areas in Ferguson where the major news stories are taking place.

And late last week, as many were upset about a proposed Day Of Rage coinciding with an earlier and more community-driven initiative called the National Moment of Silence, my friend Sarah Jeong did a very basic image edit that drove that point home. These things don’t have to be complex; a simple image got this point picked up by major media outlets.

Different people will find different things that work for them. But if you can’t interact with the media you’re observing, it can be hard to have a voice.

An email signature to encourage encryption use

A great way to encourage more ubiquitous email encryption is to let people you’re emailing know that you’re equipped to use it, and that they can be too.

Some people use PGP signatures for that purpose, but inline signatures can be off-putting to people who don’t know what they are, and attachments can be similarly confusing. (Not to mention that, as XKCD notes, the security benefits are pretty slim.)

A one-line addition to an email signature is a good compromise. I propose the following:

I prefer to use encrypted email. My public key fingerprint is 4FF3 AA1B D29E 1638 32DE  C765 9433 5F88 9A36 7709. Learn how to encrypt your email with the Email Self Defense guide.

In my case, because I’ve got my key available on an HTTPS site, I’d probably link to it directly as well.

This system isn’t perfect, and in particular is not a very secure way to distribute your fingerprint. But it could be a good nudge to people who might be considering learning about email encryption while flagging you as somebody who might be able to help, and especially if you post to publicly archived mailing lists, it’s a way of getting your fingerprint tied to your emails in lots of places.

Uber passenger ratings and algorithmic discrimination

For a few hours today, Uber users could view their passenger rating thanks to a how-to posted by Aaron Landy.1 Uber gives both passengers and drivers ratings, probably by averaging the post-ride ratings each gets, and they affect whether riders can get picked up and whether drivers keep their jobs.

Passenger ratings like these raise two kinds of concerns: first, that opaque and inaccessible metrics don’t allow for recourse or even explanation; and second that driver ratings aren’t very consistent or reliable raw material for those metrics.

You hear stories from people who missed a pickup because of buggy notifications, for example, and those people all of a sudden just can’t catch a cab. Any kind of technical error can skew the ratings, but because they’re invisible they’re also treated as infallible.

But more fundamentally, when you condition catching a cab on how drivers rate passengers, you run the risk of amplifying human biases. We may think it’s ok for a rude or inconsiderate passenger to get low ratings, but what is the effect on people who speak with an accent, or people who have been drinking, or get picked up or dropped off outside a gay bar, or pregnant or nursing women?

It’s easy for somebody not used to being marginalized to say these ratings just provide an incentive to be kind and respectful. But it’s only from a position of privilege that one can know kindness and respect will result in a favorable rating.

It may seem strange to focus this much scrutiny on Uber, which is admittedly a luxury. But the questions raised come up in more basic issues of algorithmic discrimination. Just look at the metrics, currently being examined by New York regulators, that deny people even basic bank accounts.

Turning back to Uber: Passengers don’t know if drivers are trained to rate consistently or whether those ratings get audited or normalized in some way. Tech like Uber could be helping to erase discrimination in transportation, but if it’s not done thoughtfully it could just as easily entrench it much further.

Note: I originally wrote a version of this in response to a request for comment from The Guardian. That story has been published and incorporates quotes from the original that appear here too.

  1. Aaron happens to be Julie Samuels’s cousin. []

Maira Kalman on copying and learning

Maira Kalman is one of my favorite illustrators, so I was excited to see this short documentary about her made by a project called Portraits in Creativity. I got the link from Kottke, who ran it under the headline “Copying is my way of learning.” I actually missed that line on the first and second pass, but found it the third time through. Here’s video and a transcript of that short section:

Copying is my way of learning, and when I copied the Bernard, I realized how extraordinarily difficult it was. Of course everything that’s fantastic looks so simple, and it’s fantastic to immerse yourself in somebody else’s painting and try to do a copy of it, which I thought was, you know, not bad.

Of course it’s not unique to Maira! Copying is an essential part of learning, and really the most identifiable part for most of us. Some artists, tempted by the myth of genius, feel a stigma around talking about copying. Nice to see somebody great like Maira Kalman address it directly.

Public domain shot of the NSA Utah Data Center

Although the main point of my airship trip over the Utah Data Center was to announce the launch of Stand Against Spying, I did have a pretty great view of the facility. Inspired by Trevor Paglen’s efforts to supply a new “visual vocabulary” to the conversation about national intelligence, I got EFF to release one of the photos I took under a completely free CC0 waiver.


This is a low-res version. Click through to EFF or Wikimedia Commons to see the full high resolution version.