The value of questions that are hard to answer

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One of the problems that excites me most in journalism is what you do when you’re presented with a lack of information. It’s been the genesis of some of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on, including Ghost Boat (“how can you find people who disappeared?”) and the MITTR Covid Tracing Tracker (“who is doing what with digital contact tracing?”)

So I was really interested by this Buzzfeed investigation that effectively asked “Where are China’s internment camps?” and answered it with real sharpness, insight and cunning. (The answer, it turns out, is that they’re blanked out on Chinese maps, making them hard to confirm and describe.)

You don’t need to read very far to understand the impact here.

In the most extensive investigation of China’s internment camp system ever done using publicly available satellite images, coupled with dozens of interviews with former detainees, BuzzFeed News identified more than 260 structures built since 2017 and bearing the hallmarks of fortified detention compounds. There is at least one in nearly every county in the far-west region of Xinjiang. During that time, the investigation shows, China has established a sprawling system to detain and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities, in what is already the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II.

Part one | Part two

As they say in the behind the scenes piece, the breakthrough came when they noticed the blank squares and strange behavior in Baidu maps. This wasn’t stone cold evidence of internment camps of course (it isn’t exactly unheard of for maps to obfuscate high security buildings, and China is very controlling of cartography: it’s actually illegal to make maps there without authorization.)

But still… trying to answer a seemingly impossible question brought them some surprising results.

Week 35, 2020

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TOUGH WEEK. Almost six months into lockdown, the wildfires encircle San Francisco and fill the skies with smoke. Suddenly even the limited ways we are able to go out into the world have become a bad idea. Some days are better than others, but the mornings are nearly always the worst; the smell of smoke invades everything, a blanket of smog sits in the sky and my chest stretches to grasp at the air. Combine this with the first week back at virtual school for L—a new school, a new class, a new everything really—and there was barely a moment where normality felt possible.

With everything else going on, it’s hard to stay on course sometimes. Anger, hopelessness, anger again. But I’m lucky that the dark clouds of my mood pass quickly. Hopefully you can manage the same.

Books I read: After a bye week, I managed to get through a couple of novels and some essays. Making my way through Maigret continues, Georges Simenon proving an easy and speedy palate cleanser: this week it was The Late Monsieur Gallet (I’m meandering through in some kind of rough chronological order.) I also read The 392 by Ashley Hickson-Lovence, a fast and lively piece of work which I really wanted to like—it’s an ensemble piece about my version of London—but couldn’t. There was talent in there, but I ended up disappointed by the caricatures.

Wrapped up week 35 with a busman’s holiday The Art of Making Magazines, a compilation of talks given by various industry luminaries to students at Columbia. I found half of it inspiring or insightful—Tina Brown’s contribution was honest and clear, Peter Kaplan’s gossipy and energetic, Michael Kelly’s deliciously blunt—but the other half felt unnecessarily romantic or wrapped up in a self aggrandizing myth. It was funny because these pomposities were punctured by flashes of mundanity, that showed either how much the world has changed or how out of date the conveners of the J-school’s program were (one interview with Chris Dixon, the creative director of New York magazine, became almost a parody when the old school editor who was interviewing him started asking about tools in a way that felt remarkably like “Wow, so you use computers now?” “Yes, we use computers.”) Not highly recommended.

Stories I worked on: The dark fascination with QAnon and the people who are sucked into it continues, with Abby Ohlheiser’s look at how the conspiracy theory is targeting and recruiting evangelicals (there’s a direct line from the satanic panic to pizzagate to this current omniconspiracy.) Last week, Patrick Howell O’Neill produced this deep dive on the Israeli spyware giant NSO, which has suddenly started talking a lot about how it’s changing but without much to back it up, and a follow-up interview with the CEO. Also along the way: an attempt to block spyware sales to Hong Kong, and a contact tracing study.

The blindness of media

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There are many pieces about the problems of journalism, and of journalists, and Sarah Ditum has certainly written one of them. I hesitated to post it because at some points it felt tritely rosy about life in the trenches of journalism before the internet, and at others it’s stuck in a stage of pseudo-self-awareness as an example of the very thing that it regrets. The seemingly mandatory piece of thinly-veiled commentary on outrage culture didn’t help either. (I looked it up and discovered that she is—perhaps unsurprisingly given what I see back in Britain—a writer with a documented history of unpleasant views on trans rights. Ugh.)

But at certain moments it resonated, probably because I’ve navigated the same period in history, saw the same characters in local newspapers, the same arc of damage swinging down on the national press.

The majority of people who now enter journalism will only have the latter experience [of professional vulnerability], and even if they wind up on staff, this will be what forms them. They are weak actors reliant on weak institutions. This weakness is what you have understand before you can make sense of the strange cowardice that afflicts the media.

I often wonder what I would do if I wasn’t a journalist. Back home the options were the toothbrush factory or the sausage factory. At college I mainly worked crunching data or doing research. My first job out of college was running numbers for a management consultancy. They’re all jobs, all alternative futures (or alternative histories now, I suppose.) Journalism felt like an escape, an opportunity to keep learning new things. Now I don’t know that I could be much else; at least, even in the times when I haven’t always been exactly a journalist I’ve still been relying on those skills and that editorial judgment.

But the solipsism of this story, ultimately, is that it sees journalism as anything other than a reflection of society. It’s not that the collapse of journalism has been a disaster for democracy, it’s that the collapse of everything has been a disaster for democracy.

In 2016, after Trump was elected, I wrote that American media was actually a better representation of the anxious white working class than the miners who got trotted out time and time again as political proxies. But journalists don’t see what they have in common with everybody else—the same fault lines, the same biases, the same endangered existence—they see how they are exceptional. Journalists are unloved and vulnerable? Tell that to somebody who’s worked their whole life on a string of zero hours contracts, paying off university debt, suffering the pangs of austerity or laid off three times before they’re 25.

Everyone lives in this teetering precariat now.

Week 33, 2020

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Books I read: Unintentionally, both my reads this week were about the ways in which men dominate women, and the ways in which rules can be made to damage people. First up was The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s probably 20 years since I read it—I was struck by how vibrant and clear it felt, and of course how much more possible everything seems now than when I read it in the glow of turn-of-the-century optimism. Next up was The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which was very different but equally mesmerising. Still processing that one.

Stories I worked on: A mixture of the short (oceans on Ceres! England’s second try at a contact tracing app!) the medium (contact tracing apps in Germany and Ireland) and the long (the lessons TikTok creators are learning! How psychiatry and big data can diagnose mental health based on the words you talk or type!)

Neguine Razaii

Week 32, 2020

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A WEEK OF SMALL VICTORIES, none of which I can really talk about yet—but some projects pushed forward and some assignments came together that I’m excited about. There were some frustrations, too, mainly about trusting my instincts. On a personal front, things have gone very quiet: we’re holding it together, just about, but the summers in San Francisco are the greyest time of the year. In the meantime, reading list ticked up another two. Finished up Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking: tragic, remarkable, painful. Then for dessert I whizzed through a rather disappointing set of Edmund Crispin (Fen Country) —all intellectual whizz and no guts.

Stories I worked on: Busy week editing the space beat as well as the usual. Developments in quantum-proof cryptographyfooling face recognition using some gnarly deep learning techniques; a guide to TikTok’s clones/competitorsSpaceXspace junk; a look at qualified digital contact tracing successes from Germany and Ireland.

Arundhati Roy on the pandemic

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Only just found this extremely salient piece from April:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Gary Younge on Europe vs America

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I’ve never read anything better, more lucid, on the difference between racism in America and Europe than this Gary Younge essay in the New York Review of Books. He’s particularly sharp on the reasons that the troubles of Black Americans get much more attention in Europe than the troubles of Black Europeans.

So much is quotable, but here are a couple of lines that hit.

From the vantage point of Europe, which both resents and covets American power, and is in no position to do anything about it, African-Americans represent to many a redemptive force: the living proof that the US is not all it claims to be and that it could be so much greater than it is.

Though Europe has a proven talent for antiracist solidarity with Black America, one that has once again come to the fore with the uprisings in the US, it also has a history of exporting racism around the world. Tocqueville was right to point out that “no African came in freedom to the shores of the New World,” but he neglected to make clear that it was primarily the Old World that brought those Africans there. Europe has every bit as vile a history of racism as the Americas—indeed, the histories are entwined. The most pertinent difference between Europe and the US in this regard is simply that Europe practiced its most egregious forms of antiblack racism—slavery, colonialism, segregation—outside its borders. The US internalized those things.

In a world where black writers and thinkers are being called on to push society forward, I think Gary is an undervalued leader. I was always in awe at the Guardian when he would be in the office or debating the issues of the day at morning conference.

Ancient bum wiping

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Link / Workbook

“The Romans had two primary ways to clean themselves post-bathroom break. Option one? A tool called a tersorium, which was “used to clean the buttocks after defecation.” Imagine a loofah, but made of fresh sea sponge, attached to a wooden rod—similar to back-washers sold in drugstores today. After using the stick to aim and the sponge to wipe, the person would dunk the sponge in a bucket full of water or vinegar to clean it off for the next user.

“But what if you were too poor to afford a tersorium, lived in a place where they weren’t available, or didn’t happen to have one at hand when the need arose? In that case, you’d turn to one of the most readily available—and free—commodities in the world: discarded pottery.”

This is how they wiped themselves in ancient Rome, JSTOR Daily

Week 31, 2020

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THIS LAST MONTH feels like things have been closing in. The limits haven’t changed, just my ambition to challenge them. Not leaving the house isn’t a temporary situation any more; it’s now the normal state—things could be happening a block or two away without me ever realizing. (In fact, they are happening without me realizing: I hit up the local news websites to discover that a new bar is opening on Haight, just a stone’s throw away, or that existing restaurants and bars are back, or that there was a significant encampment of people living in tents on our old block, just a few streets away. Meanwhile, the cafe one and a half blocks away has changed hands and is about to reopen, and I knew nothing of it.)

Documenting the weeks gets a little harder because of this and the fact that now that I’m trying to limit my time on screens outside of work. It’s not necessarily compatible with blogging more, but something’s got to give and that is it.

Anyway, I managed to read another Maigret (four books down now, 71 to go) and made my way through four of my son’s Star Wars graphic novels. How do you count graphic novels towards the total?

Stories I worked on: This podcast episode about Canada’s tech industry • EU sanctions on Russian, Chinese, and North Korean hackers • New developments in quantum cryptography.