I had to talk about it eventually, and Thursday’s news was a good impetus. Newsweek had a big “scoop” potentially unmasking the founder of Bitcoin. The magazine saved this story for the cover of their return-to-print issue. The story features stalking masquerading as investigative journalism, as the author tracked down this man through national records, then tracked his interests to a model train forum, where she emailed him purporting to be interested in trains, then began asking about Bitcoin (at which point he stopped responding). Then she tracked down his home and family members, and interviewed them extensively about the man and itcoin. She finally paid him a visit at his home, and instead of answering the door he called the cops. This surprised her. Read the article in full, if you’d like to know more about the lengths some people will go to find people who don’t want to be found (and who haven’t done anything wrong).(After some sushi and a car chase the man himself claims he is not involved with Bitcoin).
Don’t know anything about Bitcoin? That’s okay! It’s a cryptocurrency that’s difficult for me to easily explain, but this essay does an excellent job at it, beginning by answering two questions:
1) Should I buy Bitcoins?
2) But I keep seeing all this stuff in the news about them and how
No. Tech journalism is uniformly terrible, always remember this.
Bitcoin has numerous issues in my opinion, all covered neatly by that article, with passages that point out:
“the Bitcoin network now must use vast amounts of power just to maintain itself, power typically generated by fossil fuel plants and in amounts far out of proportion to its actual usefulness. It is a tremendous waste of actual real-world resources that could be better used on something important “
And additionally, subverting the hopes and dreams of technolibertarians everywhere:
“If Bitcoin actually became popular as a currency and not just as a speculative commodity, the blockchain would swell to an absurd and unmanageable size. Visa (for example) maintains multi-terabyte (at least) databases of financial transactions; now imagine if everybody who wanted to safely use a Visa card had to have a copy of all that data (including lists of everybody else’s transactions).”
Businessweek also details a bit more about the damaging aspects of Bitcoin and Bitcoin mining. At least if Bitcoin crashes or if eventually too many Bitcoins are stolen (like with exchanges Mt Gox and Poloniex and the Bitcoin bank Flexcoin) we’ll have some pretty sweet computer gear. A lot of people were attracted to the secrecy and anonymity of Bitcoin, but they may be realizing that they were investing real money into something easily stolen, without anyone standing by to insure your money is returned (thanks, FDIC!) We’ll see how the popularity of Bitcoin is affected by these revelations, or if new Bitcoin exchanges will step up claiming to be more secure than their predecessors, and the cryptocurrency will live on!
Using secure devices and tools that help protect your privacy is always a good idea. However, many people don’t use them because they’re not easy to use (or because they believe the fallacy that they have nothing to hide so it doesn’t matter). Now, companies are starting to realize the importance of user experience and good design when implementing popular and useful security tools for the masses. Writing about a new secure smartphone called Blackphone, John Pavlus remarked “The value of obscuring my personal communications from surveillance just didn’t seem tangible.” But the phone is attempting to change that, as the Blackphone’s “apps are intended to look and feel just like the normal phone, texting, and address book apps you’re already used to using, so whenever possible the user doesn’t need to learn any new skills or complex steps in order to reap the benefits of privacy." (Speaking of smartphone security, beware of malware like this on your android device)
Changes are happening in other realms beyond smartphone development. Social media efforts are being made, for example by some students who:
“built a new interface for community-sourcing oral history and family photos and documents. They built privacy questions into the site so, for example, every photograph uploaded required documentation of who was in the photo and what level of permission had been given to display it. You could not post the photo without addressing all the questions—questions that themselves had arisen from a community-based discussion about privacy.”
By putting the emphasis on privacy rather than ease-of-sharing, the risks of sharing on the internet are made transparent. For example, “if the goal is to save people from the over-centralized riskiness of Facebook and Gmail, you’re not going to get anywhere without offering a user experience that is at least comparable to those shiny, accessible services.”
Open source software efforts aside, much of security and privacy-focused efforts seem to be available only to those with the money to buy them or the time to spend configuring and using them. Indeed, it may be that “In our data-saturated economy, privacy is becoming a luxury good. After all, as the saying goes, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. And currently, we aren’t paying for very much of our technology.” Silence is also becoming somewhat of a luxury, as “not only do we value it in a general sense, we’re willing to pay for it.” Technology has a large part to play in this change, as it “has both increased our perceived need for silence and created (or at least improved) the means of attaining it. We’re assaulted by incessant technological “noise” and reliant on technology to control it.“
Reading tech journalism is stressful, weird, and insular at times. I don’t recommend it too much, even if it is still interesting to me. Let’s talk about photography instead.
Getty Images, one of the largest image licensing entities in America, recently changed tactics and rather than sue people who used unlicensed versions of their photos, are now making 35 million of those photos available as embeds. Nieman Lab goes into more detail about how to use them and how they will work on the web. Previously Getty Images has been in the news after partnering with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization to provide more “representative” stock photos of women, as well as when they partnered with social media site Pinterest to provide more context for unsourced images.
Photography as a medium, however, is far more interesting to explore. John Quincy Adams was the first president to be photographed, and his reactions upon viewing the photographs are reflective on the value of photography:
“In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.””
Photography is typically valued now due to its faithfulness to the subject, perceived as a medium which lessens the distortion of the situation. But John Quincy Adams preferred his painted presidential portrait, and as Greg Ross continues,
“Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?””
Does the near-exact likeness produced by a photo indeed capture the “true representation” of a person? Or is there more to be gained with the finesse, creativity, and interpretation involved in other artistic media?
Choosing whether or not to take a photograph at all, is a difficult decision. Julia Phillips, an essayist who followed along on a sled dog race in Siberia was faced with this reality after witnessing the wildness of the dogs as they attacked. As she recounts, “I lifted my camera to take a picture. “Don’t,” she said. “Who needs to see this?””
What should be recorded, and what should be left silent to memory and history?
Another form of photography is film–the moving picture. Sergei Eisenstein pioneered the technique of montage in film, most notably through a depiction of a (fictitious) massacre on the steps of Odessa. The Kuleshov effect further reveals the power of montage: “An audience reacts not to a film’s elements but to their juxtaposition — the sequence of images suggests an emotion to them, and they project this onto the actors.”
While Eisenstein’s most famous scene was staged for the purposes of the film (a Soviet propaganda film), Dziga Vertov is most renowned for his documentary filmmaking style, recording life through the interpretation of the camera. You can watch the entirety of his most famous film, Man with a Movie Camera, on Youtube.
Finally, to close out this week’s newsletter, here is a song about bicycles by Rob Cantor.
As always, thanks for reading!