tecznotes

Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Dec 8, 2010 3:07pm

winter 2010 sabbatical: days four, five, six, and seven

It’s been almost a full week since my previous sabbatical update. Where was I? Oh right, maps. I’ve been making progress on two fronts: one is a series of updates to Walking Papers, the other is the a print project that currently lacks a name. The Wikileaks affair has also been completely engrossing, more on that below.

As I described last week, Walking Papers will have a multi-page atlas feature Real Soon Now, probably within a few days. I’ve been using the opportunity to improve the overall quality of the print and scan production process and also moved the whole site from its previous home on my overburdened Pair.com shared hosting account to a fresh new Linode instance. I’m also doing a fair bit of behind-the-scenes work on the scan decoding process, which I’m embarrassed to say has been riddled with problems from day one. The SIFT-driven corner-finding process has never been a major issue, but a lot of scans seem to fail because the QR Code reading library (Google’s Zxing) often can’t find a message in an image that’s nothing but crisp, isolated, beautiful code. I don’t know enough about the internals of Zxing to fix the problem there, but I can insert a manual step to allow people to simply type in the address contained in the code in the event of a read failure. Boring, but necessary. The other bit of sub-surface work I’m starting on is the ability to use a normal digital camera to read back the scans, hopefully with U.C. Berkeley’s Sarah Van Wart and prompted by Ushahidi’s Patrick Meier. Sarah has used the project to great effect with Richmond High School students and Patrick knows from firsthand experience how much of a pain it can be to find a scanner while everyone’s got cameraphones in their pockets.

The other print project is something I’m collaborating on with my friends Adam Schwarcz and Craig Mod, bicycle-enthusiast and book-maker respectively. It’s a long-time-in-the-works bicycle map of San Francisco and Oakland based on government data and OpenStreetMap, with a barcode-driven print/digital connection that we’re still brainstorming about. This was only my second exploration in the area of data-driven automatic print design when Adam first suggested the idea last year, but I’ve had enough experience with talking paper in the intervening time that I’m using my sabbatical to jump back into the project. Look for more on this in the next few weeks.

Alon Salant over at Carbonfive was gracious enough to offer a desk for a few days, and while working on these various projects I’ve also had a privileged view on what an agile workplace looks like. It’s been fascinating to observe from inside a development process that seems built around conversation, and while camped out at a loaner desk in their 2nd St. office I heard the beating heart of design and technical arguments that I’m more accustomed to experiencing via text.

At the moment I’m in Chicago, in what the bellhop (bellhop!) tells me is Al Capone’s old dentist’s office. Need to buy gloves, eat, and then head to the Art Institure where Walking Papers is part of the Hyperlinks exhibit.

Meanwhile, Uptown...

This week, I am helplessly transfixed by the Wikileaks story. There’s so much meat to this unfolding event, well-covered so far by Andy Baio’s Cablegate roundup. What’s really caught my interest has been the reactions of businesses like Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, and Visa - all supposedly independent businesses suddenly acting in concert to isolate and marginalize a strange new actor. The timing of the response suggests that it wasn’t triggered by the release of the diplomatic cables at all, but rather by Julian Assange’s promise to release future documents related to the activity of an unnamed major bank. It’s like Naked Lunch, a moment when time grinds to a halt and you can see what’s sitting on everyone’s fork as they raise it from their plate. Hypothetical arguments about the likelihood of cloud data providers like Amazon or payment processors like Paypal cutting connections evaporate instantly: here is a clear-cut example of a inconvenient release of information scaring the shit out of someone enough to apply the screws.

Assange’s past writings about conspiracies and invisible governments painted a picture that was too large and too diffuse to elicit a local reaction. A conspiracy as subtle and far-reaching as that described by Assange might not be worth reacting to, because how can it be distinguished from simple alignment of interests? How can a private individual successfully act in response? Here, though, we see pieces of the whole suddenly illuminated as by a camera flash: milquetoast diplomatic chatter causes Amazon to suddenly decide that it cannot abide the hosting of unauthorized material. A strangely-timed sexual assault charge leads to an unprecedented Interpol warrant for Assange’s arrest. Senators and congressmen opine that if pursuing Wikileaks is difficult under the law we have, then perhaps we might look into changing the law?

The decision to leak a stream of diplomatic cables (as opposed to any one particular cable) is a sharp departure from typical journalistic approaches, which is really what I’m finding so engrossing in this story. Yesterday on the radio, a former general counsel of the C.I.A. complained that the released data lacked a “patina of journalism” or an editorial function (and therefore did not qualify for constitutional protection), which suggests to me that the government is now actually quite comfortable with the occasional fallout of the shocking revelations of journalism-as-usual. Even sustained evidence of state-run torture and of course that fucking war hasn’t led to the breadth and depth of reaction we’re seeing now: “All hands, fire as they bear.” Why now? The amusing dullness of the leaked cables shows that Wikileaks has decided to hunt upstream, taking aim at the metabolic processes of communication and secrecy. If there is in fact a conspiracy, and this is how it talks to itself, maybe we play a few games with its own internal communications to see what happens?

What’s currently happening is that all sorts of actors are responding in unexpected ways. Like a meadow crossed with underground gopher tunnels, Amazon’s reaction suggests that at least a few widely-separated individuals are in fact quite deeply connected and spooked enough to show themselves above ground in surprising places. Maybe a simple response is that I take our (four-figure per month) Amazon Web Services business to a competing cloud provider? Maybe another is that I route around Paypal in the future? On the other hand, how could I conceivably avoid Mastercard and Visa? Hopefully, Julian Assange is what he says he is: a spokesman and intentional fall-guy for a much larger group that can act without him.

Meanwhile, I’ve got my bowl of popcorn sitting here and it’s looking like a fascinating ride.

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