Taylor Swift, superfunds, Magritte

A Letter

Taylor Swift got a lot of press for her new album today but I feel it’s only fair I draw attention to her lesser known work as an information security professional. This story is deceptively simple but should give pause to anyone who makes things on the web: whatever steps we take to secure a site or protect our users’ privacy (assuming we take any steps at all) can and will disintegrate when it comes into contact with those users’ real lives. Expecting people to take the time and effort to really learn about security is saying that only wealthy people with a lot of time on their hands and questionable hobbies have a right to privacy. It’s saying that those with the most need for privacy—because they are most vulnerable—are the least deserving of it. As Swift wisely points out, this is our fault.

An essay written by Meghan Murphy after the Newtown shooting in 2012 asks why we seem perpetually unable to investigate the one most obvious element of mass shootings: the shooter’s gender. It would be trivial to update the middle part of Murphy’s essay—which walks through events from prior years, and is almost indistinguishable from shootings that have happened since. Gun control and better mental health services are of course things we should address, regardless of whether they have any direct impact on mass shootings. But until or if we figure out how to address the underlying issues that make masculinity a vector for violence, we’re going to keep asking the same questions.

A few blocks from where I’m typing this is the proposed site for a new Brooklyn parole center. This is on the banks of the Gowanus canal, a former industrial area turned superfund cleanup effort, where luxury apartments rise almost as fast as sewage leaks into the water. A neighborhood response predictably opposes the parole center, on grounds that neatly avoid addressing the underlying racial issues that suffuse the entire prison industry. Rather than fighting for, say, decriminalization of marijuana (effectively already a legal drug for white Brooklyners) which would, in turn, reduce the prison population, they fight to keep the consequences of the prison system out of sight. Writing nearly two decades ago, Angela Davis notes, “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.”

Chimamanda Adichie responds to the racist coverage of Ebola in Nigeria in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Much reporting assumes that eradicating Ebola was the result of American action, erasing the work and sacrifices made by Nigerians and fulfilling a myth of American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, Gov. Christie reneged on his earlier statements and released the nurse who had returned from working with Doctors Without Borders and was being held in an unnecessary quarantine. The nurse, Kaci Hickox, composed a smart and full-throated narrative of her experience on her phone, via texts, to a writer from the Dallas Morning News.

Sara Watson, writing in Al Jazeera, unpacks iOS’s new QuickType feature and notes that while it may let you respond to your partner’s missive to pick up beer on the way home in fewer clicks, it will also systematically avoid more sensitive topics; for example, QuickType will never return the words “abortion,” “cuckold,” “marijuana,” or “suicide.” (My own experiments confirm it also won’t complete “Ebola” or “fuck,” but I could get it to suggest “fucktard.”) This is a handy reminder that every feature of software emerges from and is dependent upon the politics of its creators, and is, as such, complicit in them.

Jenn Schiffer transposed Magritte into JavaScript and it’s fucking brilliant. The detailed explanation of the methods is as satisfying as the result. She writes, “If you told me a few years ago I’d be spending a day making an apple and hat out of CSS and laying gradient backgrounds to some bilboquets, I’d probably say you were crazy and ‘what is a bilboquet, even?’” I imagine Magritte would approve. Schiffer’s writing on Medium displays a similar capacity for irreverence and is, by any objective measurement, the apotheosis of that, well, medium.

Voter ID laws work exactly as expected. This is what a comet looks like up close.