Banksy banana mastermind?

Banksy banana mastermind?
image from beglen

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Blogging, (jlogging) or logging?

I'll take what I can get - any chance to make a record of something and get it published.Why publish? I like reading the records that others make, thus it makes sense that I want to share my own records.

A record is something that is documented. It could be a photo, a video, a news article, an essay or poetry. A record is something that is saved, something that represents part of life.

I do not know why I feel this compulsion to document things and make records.

Last December I split from my girlfriend of 18 months. I've kept all of the little things from our relationship - a couple love notes, a few birthday cards, the half-finished quilt she made me. Even though we had many fun times together, it was absolutely the right decision to split. Does this mean that I want to erase that part of my life - to forget everything? Not a chance. I want the record.

Don't get me wrong - there is a time and place for documenting.

There are those who can't stop snapping pictures with their phones - living their entire life just to upload it to a social networking site. I feel bad for them. Their desire to document (or, in my opinion, advertise) their every waking moment, means they miss out on the simplicity of being present. A few years back, I went on a long cycling trip across the country. The trip, which started in Brooklyn, New York and ended in Vancouver, BC via Jasper, Prince George and Prince Rupert, lasted nearly three months. The day before I left, my camera broke. The handful of photos that I have of the solo trip are those that others took of me along the way and later emailed to me. All of the incredible images, mountain ranges and scenes that I witnessed are only documented in my brain. I did, however, keep a journal for every day. Looking back, I would rather have the journal over any photos.

So what does this all mean? Not a whole lot, I suppose. I think for me, my biggest fear in life is not living it to the fullest. Documentation - either via brain memory, computer memory or a pen and paper - seems like a good way to hold myself accountable for living.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why I became a journalist.

When I was 20 years old, I bought a recorder and started asking people to tell me their life stories in one minute. I recorded nearly 100 people all across the United States. I never knew what to do with the project, but I knew that I loved hearing people tell their stories. Two years later, I decided to go to college to become a journalist.
These are a few of those recordings.


Sometimes at the end of it all, you’re left feeling a bit hollow. This is a different feeling than that of loneliness. It’s a juxtaposition of two personalities into the same space. They are there, but they are only there. The water bottle and the magnet eventually came to know each other. Disagreements and fights never happened, but at the cost of unmeasured love dozing organized and succinct in the cupboard. Juliet screamed. Juliet cried. John slept facing the other direction. And life continued, the shadow of commercials and sitcoms staining their eyes and hearts. Everything was fine, and most things only hurt a little. Spring hadn’t come in years, and its fragrance of birth and vitality was replaced by fabric softener and greeting cards. The floor, bathroom, garage, kitchen, bedroom, everything- spotless, silent, and in order. Let the chords fall and fade, their message undelivered and forgotten. We’ve made it ourselves, this glaze. We have air, but we suffocate. We have food, but we starve. We have friends, but we know no one. We need........ let us.....

Forward. Stepping. My neck is turning and I look up into the rafters, straining to see some sort of direction or explanation. It's snowing sideways outside, and the high mountain wind is fierce. Out there, everything is hostile. In here, it's mostly unknown. My parka is very warm, but it's all I've got and the moment I open the doors, I'm starting a journey that could last for as long as I'm alive. Even in a storm as violent as this, it's silent. Far off on the horizon the clouds become thin until eventually the sky is clear and the moon is bright. But here- where I am now- the white sleep is relentless and angry, thickening near the pass. Solitude's first cousin is the cold, and their reunion steadies my gaze, but races my breath. My fingers sting, my heart beats, and I am alive.

My eyes are lasers and my heart is real. My eyes are lasers and my heart is real.

Visualizing the Drug War

The Agence France-Presse, a french news agency, published an article in June 2013 documenting the use of social media by Mexicans as a way to report on the drug war. The article was picked up by many news outlets, including The Raw Story.

"With traditional media often intimidated by drug cartels, social media has given Mexicans a way to stay appraised about the dangers lurking their towns and cites."

How bad is the violence that many media outlets refuse to cover it? How real are the threats? There are many accounts of violent killings and attacks on non-cartel civilians (including journalists), but how pervasive are these attacks?

Diego Valle, a Mexican blogger who frequently writes about the drug war, generated a chart which shows how drug war violence is spread across mexico.

His visualization helps to put the violence in perspective. Using the line graph, one can adjust the options to see how drug war violence has changed over time. The map helps put in perspective where this violence is occuring.

Stephanie Yamkovenko, an award-winning data journalist, discussed 5 tips for data visualizations in Quill, a publication of The Society of Professional Journalists.

One of the five recommendations she has is to search for information or data that is not included in a data set. Impressively Diego Valle does this very well by combining many different data sets - each one adding another piece of information or perspective that is not included in the others.

Just like video or photography, effectively using data visualizations can make a story much more understandable and compelling to the reader.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Danger of Automated Content

Last week I watched a February 2011 TED Talk by Eli Pariser.

Eli Pariser is the author of The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You. Pariser joined MoveOn.Org in 2001, is currently the board president and most recently, he started Upworthy - a content curation site.

The subject of Pariser's TED speech was the potential danger of automated content algorithms - curated search results, news feeds, etc.

According to Pariser, even when you're not logged in, Google search evaluates 57 different signals - things like what type of computer one is using, what type of browser, etc - that are used to help curate results.

"You don't get to decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don't see what gets out," Pariser said.

According to Pariser, prior to the information/internet revolution, editors at media organizations were the "gatekeepers" to content. The spread of the internet, he noted, gave everyone a chance to find content for themselves. For Pariser, now the new gatekeepers are the algorithms that tailor search results, news feeds or other content. And this, he said, is dangerous.

At the end of his speech, Pariser called out to Google, Facebook and other tech companies who were in the audience. 

"We really need to [sic] you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they are transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determine what gets through our filters."

After watching his TED Talk, I began to wonder about the ethics of programming. Is this something that is being taught in universities? Are there any guidelines?

The Association for Computer Machinery, a computer science trade organization founded at Columbia University in 1947 that has more than 100,000 members around the globe, has two sets of ethical guidelines - a general code of ethics and professional conduct and a software engineering code of ethics.

 The general code of ethics starts off with a list of eight moral imperatives.

 The first imperative is that all ACM members must, "Contribute to society and human well-being... An essential aim of computing professionals is to minimize negative consequences of computing systems, including threats to health and safety."

To what extent could not including what may be deemed as non-relevant to an user's historical interests, but potentially important to one's safety, be labeled as a threat to threat to health and safety?

The second imperative continues along the same path.

All ACM members must, "Avoid harm to others...

"Well-intended actions, including those that accomplish assigned duties, may lead to harm unexpectedly. In such an event the responsible person or persons are obligated to undo or mitigate the negative consequences as much as possible. One way to avoid unintentional harm is to carefully consider potential impacts on all those affected by decisions made during design and implementation."

Again, we see how it could be argued that curation could fit into this imperative as leading to harm unexpectedly.

The first principle in the software engineering code of ethics focuses on the public.

"Software engineers shall act consistently with the public interest. In particular, software engineers shall... Approve software only if they have a well-founded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests, and does not diminish the quality of life, diminish privacy, or harm the environment. The ultimate effect of the work should be to the public good."

I wonder how one would argue that curating results goes to the public good. Certainly it goes to the personal good - to the fulfilment of one's wants and desires, but does it go to the public good? Could this be interpreted to read that, in this case, the importance of the public good should overtake the desire for the personal good? Is the act of curation unethical?

Pariser gave his talk in February, 2011. In the three years since then, has anything changed?

At least one thing has. In November of the same year, Google added a new search option, known as "verbatim" searches, which, according to this blog post, search for just the terms that have been entered and nothing else.

It's a nice addition, but how many people are going to redo their search results a second time with the "verbatim" search activated? How does Google safeguard against over-curation of standard searches?

Unfortunately, I highly value my privacy and as such haven't had a Facebook account since 2008 or 2009, and can't comment on how curated its system is.

In all, Pariser's talk offered an important and insightful comment on the general direction of the internet. While it's hard to gauge how much damage curated results may be doing to our society, it's something that needs more thought and consideration.

As computers become more vertically integrated in our lives, Pariser and the ACM's call to a standard of ethics is going to become more and more important. As a society, it is our job to take this charge with seriousness as we move forward in a world ever-more controlled by and enveloped in computers.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


I'm not a video guy, but I think the things that Brian Storm, the founder of MediaStorm, an NYC-based production company he founded in 2005, said about storytelling were important and spot-on.

"Focus on the characters," Storm said.

Storm spoke about not letting the weight of any story overtake the emotions and personalities of the characters who tell it. One chapter of Driftless: Stories from Iowa focuses on Harry and Helen, a married elderly couple who have spent their life together as farmers in small-town Iowa. The story focuses on the struggles that family farmers face in competing with modern corporate farms.

Throughout his two-hour speech, Storm reemphasized the importance of using the emotions and voices of the characters in the story. In the case of Driftless, Storm could have used the facts and statistics of corporate farming to explain how many family farmers are being put out of business, but instead, he let the characters show how the corporate farms were ending their way of life. In the video, Harry says that he literally believes that the food of corporate farms is what caused his wife to get Alzheimer's.

As a text journalist, it is easy to get caught up in the numbers and statistics of a story. While these are important and certainly have their place, it is important never to lose that "human face."

In 2006 MediaStorm published Undesired, a project by Walter Astrada and made for the Alexia Foundation

One can see that while statistics are at times used, MediaStorm primarily relies on the voice of characters to progress the story.

As a side note, I'd like to say that MediaStorm has an interesting business model. The production company seems to  cater to all publishers and clients - news organizations, for-profit corporations and non-profits alike. I think it's economically progressive and smart for them to label themselves as story tellers rather than journalists, advertisers, or documentary film-makers.

 Check out MediaStorm's website to see more of their films.

Self-Censorship and Staying alive in the Mexican Media

“Jose Luis Ortega Mata was a brave publisher of Semanario, a weekly newsmagazine [sic] in the Mexico-U.S. border town of Ojinaga, Chihuaua. He denounced drug trafficking in that northern region of Mexico and the relationship between drug lords with local police, politicians and businessmen. Early in 2001, he was about to publish a new report on how drug money was being used to finance political campaigns when a gunman shot him twice in the head, killing him on his way to the office.”

Raymundo Riva-Palacio, a Nieman Fellow, former managing editor of El Universal, and current columnist for – a Mexican news site, knows firsthand the dangers of covering Mexican drug cartels.

In his article Self-Censorship as a Reaction to Murders By Drug Cartels, published in the summer 2006 edition of the Nieman Reports, Riva-Palacio examines the problems posed by cartel violence against the media.

As Riva-Palacio notes, Mexican media organizations face a unique challenge – how to cover corruption, drug violence and trafficking effectively while evading the threat of direct retaliation from the cartels themselves. The threat of violence against the media often leads to self-censorship – a dangerous proposition for a democratic country whose government is mired in corruption and heavily influenced by criminal organizations.

[T]he case of young reporter Alfredo Jiminez, from el Imparcial in Hermosillo, who disappeared in April 2005 on his way to meet a federal police source. Jiminez was a notorious investigative reporter who had several scoops on the whereabouts of a number of members of one drug cartel in the region. Federal authorities investigating the crime didn't know that Jimenez was fed information from a rival cartel to damages its enemy and, when the “enemy” found out the original source of information; they are presumed to have murdered him.”

Riva-Palacio explained that the pressure exerted on the media by cartels has caused media organizations to rethink how to cover the issues.

This year [2006] some Mexican news organizations decided to confront this challenge by working together. Their model is based on the U.S. Experience of the Arizona Project, created by independent journalists to continue the work of investigative reporter Don Bolles, who was assassinated while researching mob activities in Arizona. The Mexican newspapers agreed to investigate collectively the whereabouts of EL Imparcial reporter Jimenez and publish every step in their investigation on the same day, without a byline, to protect the reporters involved in the project.”

Perla Gómez Gallardo, a law professor and researcher at the National University of Mexico, noted the importance of a strong media in an article published in the Mexican Journal of Communication in September 2009 titled, El ejercicio periodístico como profesión de riesgo (The Profession of Journalism as a profession of risk").

“Ante el clima generalizado de inseguridad, ejecuciones, secuestro amenazas y extorsiones, el panorama resulta desolador para la socieda mexicana. En tal contexto, el ejercicio periodístico cobra especial relevancia por la función social que desempeñan sus practicantes al intermediar entre los sucesos de interés publico y los ciudanos.”

“In face of a general state of insecurity, executions, threats of kidnapping and extortion, the outlook is a devastating situation for Mexican society. In such context, the profession of journalism is especially critical for the social role it carries as an intermediary between events of public interest and citizens.” 

Now, more than ever, the Mexican media must regroup and rethink how to cover the important and dangerous topic of drug cartels.  Its coverage, while risky for the reporters and media, is possibly the only check on a system that is spinning out of control.