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Reflections from the 3/5ths mark

[29 Jul 2014] [tags: the_latest opennews ]

update: Today marks my 6-month waypoint at The New York Times, a fact I learned upon trying to swipe myself through the turnstile in the lobby and having my card rejected!

Time is having its way with us, my friends. I just realized that I’m roughly 6 months out in my New York Times fellowship. 3/5ths complete, now is a perfect time for reflection. Here are the main takeaways from my amazing time at The New York Times as a Knight/Mozilla OpenNews fellow!

While my experience will definitely differ from those of my fellow fellows, and even those of future NYT fellows, I hope this small glimpse into my experience so far is illuminating for you, dear reader.

###1. You’ll feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory###

A veritable treasure trove of code libraries, frankenstein-y demos and PoCs, and wacky ideas. I often feel like Scrooge McDuck taking a swim in his vault: Underscore, Backbone, Pourover, ML Run, Streamtools, Stocker (a cool wrapper for Docker) just to name a few of the awesome technologies I’ve learned to work with by their creators themselves. Also, once you’re an OpenNews fellow, you’ll soon understand that you’re carrying quite a brand behind you. One thing that I’ve loved so far is the weight of that brand grants you access to people and organizations that you never would have dreamed you’d have access to. Nothing beats having your n00b questions answered immediately by the person who wrote the library because they’re sitting literally right across from you.

###2. There’s so much more to a newsroom than I’d thought###

I’ve had the pleasure to work with and learn from people in so many departments– Interactive, Computer-Assisted Reporting, R&D, Security, Machine Learning Group, and Archives, just to name a few– and I’ve come to learn that I really have a lot of value to impart to the organization despite my lack of a J-School education.

When I came to the times, I knew absolutely nothing about journalism. Fast forward 6 months, and the same is still pretty much true. The only difference is, when I arrived, I was apologetic; now, I am much less so! Of course, this is not to say that I’ve been disinterested in the day-to-day tradecraft of the newsroom. In fact, working on specific technological solutions for these journalists has changed my perspective on how I go about designing software tools.

In grad school, you’ll probably read an article by Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” in which the author posits that code itself is inevitably inbued with the politics of its author. For example, with some airlines, it’s notoriously difficult to transfer frequent-flyer miles to a family member if said family member does not share the same last name. This is exactly how politics come to bear on code itself; and as I’ve always loved ruminating upon this idea, I’m only now coming to experience this first hand. Some choice anecdotes?

  1. In the infosec community, it’s “cool” to be skeptical of Google products. As the maxim goes, “if you aren’t paying for the product, you ARE the product!” This is true– I don’t want to undermine the fundamental truth in that (and also, it’s cool to be skeptical of everything!) However, the argument often lacks nuance when waged. In the newsroom, I’ve learned that, since the Times’ internal infrastructure is Google for Enterprise, the very financial contract between two veritable giants (Google and NYT) insures a much greater level of security, anonymity, and privacy that easily supersedes the efforts of the various open-source projects we constantly champion. Once again, I do not wish to undermine any of those efforts. Obviously. But, that nuance itself has guided a lot of the decisions I’ve made about writing software this year, and I’m truly thankful for it.

  2. Back when Michael Moore released Fahrenheit 9/11, we learned of the “warrant canary”– the simple loophole employed by librarians, who, pressured under the Patriot Act to divulge what certain people would check out from the library, which influenced how the security community responds to such requests today. Because such a request from the government requires complete silence, the librarians decided they would let their silence indicate they were under such an order. At the beginning of each staff meeting, someone would announce that they ~had not~ been subject to inquiry. That way, if ever a meeting started without the standard disclosure, it would be implied that they had been compelled to comply with an inquiry. Fast forward; past Lavabit, past TrueCrypt, through WikiLeaks, and Snowden, Poitras, Gellman & Greenwald; we wonder if the warrant canary is enough. Judges are “hip to our tricks” now, and can rule canaries, dead man’s drops, etc. as obstructions of justice. We know PGP, SecureDrop, Globaleaks, WikiLeaks, Tor, etc. work. They work WELL. But can we build other provisions into these technologies to successfully protect us when the adversary is not a hacker, but the Attorney General?

So, TL;DR. Working here has opened my eyes to the nuances inherent in software development when you apply theory to praxis. This has been a red-pill year, and I feel that I’m serving my community better having had this experience.

###3. It’s not about them; it’s all about YOU!###

Walk into people’s offices and ask them a question; ask them how you can help. Get those stamps on your passport! Submit your talk to that conference, and then go speak there!

Hack everything, everywhere! Go for it.