1 Month Programming Challenge

I haven't done much programming lately, and I'm really missing it.  I've started relearning C++ (which I haven't used in a really serious way since the early 90's).  It's well established that doing something for 30 days makes it a habit, so for the month of September, I'm going to be doing a programming challenge.

The rules are as follows:  

  1. I must be working on a specific project.  In my case, it'll be a search engine.
  2. I need to program every day for at least 30 minutes.  No excuses.  
  3. Time spent looking things up doesn't count as programming time.

I'm going to try to remember to post some updates here.  Anybody want to take the programming challenge with me?  Maybe you can make something great!

Changes to this Blog

I've been accepted to the Data Analytics program at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.  That means that for the next few years, my brain will be entirely devoted to math, R programming, and data.  

This blog will reflect that to some extent.  It won't entirely be about how analytics works, though.  I'd like to spend some time discussing the ethics of data mining, big data and analytics in general.  It's my opinion that data analytics can be used for the public good, and it is my plan to do just that when I graduate.  

I'm still going to be discussing news related to data rights, the NSA and related topics.  Those topics are, after all, related to my major.  

Please Excuse the Lack of Posts

Please excuse my lack of posts lately.  There is a lot going on.  I'm moving to Harrisburg, PA.  My partner got a great job there, which is awesome, but it's put my entire life into upheaval mode.  I'm going to have to switch colleges, for one thing.  I'm also going to need to pack, move, unpack, etc. 

Harrisburg provides a lot of great opportunities for writers.  I'm very happy to be moving there.  This blog is not forgotten, and I will be updating on a more frequent basis once I've settled in Harrisburg. 



My Appeal to the NSA

The NSA denied my first FOIA request where I asked them if they had collected any metadata about me.  I've decided to appeal it.  I honestly don't expect the appeal to work, but for me, not trying is giving in.  (Edit:  Given this story on Bloomberg about a U.S. District Court Judge upholding the practice of collecting metadata, my chances are essentially nil.) Here's the appeal, with my FOIA case number and my address redacted.  I honestly encourage everyone to attempt to get information from the NSA.  Even the smallest victories will make a difference.  Someone has to watch the watchers.

I will, of course, post their reply as soon as I get it.  I have a reply to a third FOIA request I made, which I'll also post in the next few days.  I asked them to define "the adversary" in specific terms, which of course, they didn't.


I Received a Straight Answer from the NSA

In a previous FOIA request, the NSA denied my request for information about metadata collected about me from telecoms and through the PRISM program.  In order to file an appeal, I wanted to know the exact number of FOIA requests for the same type of information that were made over a 2 month period so I could figure out what percentage of the population were making FOIA requests.  If it is low (as it is), then it seems to me that revealing data to individuals presents no National Security threat.  I'll be mailing my appeal by tomorrow.  Of course, I expect it to be denied. Below is the response to this FOIA request, with my address and case number redacted. If you find the data useful in some way, feel free to use it.


My Response From the National Security Agency

I sent a FOIA request to the NSA on August, 17 2013.  The particulars of my request are on the last page of the embedded pdf, but basically I was asking them if they had collected any metadata about me via their Prism program.  I also asked what data had been collected and how long it would be held on to (data retention policy).  They denied my request on all counts.  I plan on appealing; I am waiting on more information(demographic info) so I can write out a solid appeal.  I've redacted my case number and my home address (I left city, state, zip and email.  If you see any identifying information other than my name, city, state, zip and email address in these documents let me know so I can fix it!) Enjoy the doublespeak.



What I Hope Jeff Bezos Does with The Washington Post

Jeff Bezos has purchased The Washington Post.  This purchase has nothing to do with Amazon.com, as Bezos made the purchase with his own money.  He plans on taking the company private, and it will no longer be publicly traded. So what can Bezos do with The Washington Post?  First off, I hope he doesn't gut the newsroom.  The Washington Post has some of the best reporters in the world.  It'd be really bad for the paper if he removes the Post's most important asset:  it's employees.  That being said, I'd like to see the Post move towards more blogging, and I would hope that Bezos would add some bloggers to the staff.

I suspect that he will eventually move the paper to an exclusively digital format.  This will immediately cut costs, and allow the post to spend more of its money on reporting.  Bezos knows that content is king, and good content is valuable.  I don't see him giving the paper away for free, and I suspect it'll be behind a paywall before too long.  While I don't like the idea of paywalls, it seems the only way to save the newspaper industry.

My dream, though, is for the Post to become something new.  Bezos is certainly not afraid of innovation.  He might reshape The Washington Post into a model of what Journalism in the future could be.  How he would do that is unknown, because no one has cracked that nut yet.  If anyone can figure it out, Bezos can.  Currently, The Washington Post online looks exactly like a newspaper.  Online content and digital content are two very different animals, and I hope Bezos can move the Post, and thus the entire industry, towards a more sustainable and interesting model.

Some Thoughts on RSS Readers

Given the end of Google Reader, I've been thinking about RSS readers again.  Those who know me are aware that it's a subject I've been thinking about for a long time.  I've already decided to write my own, and Reporters' Labs Better RSS Reader challenge has me thinking about what an RSS reader should be.

1. An RSS Reader Should be Simple

This is why I don't like magazine style layouts.  I can't find what I need.  RSS is, without a doubt, one of the more useful ideas to come along, and it's great that people are using it in different ways.  For me, though, an RSS reader that's beautiful isn't necessarily better than one that's functional.

2. It Should Aggregate, Not Suggest

Google Reader could suggest feeds based on what you had already subscribed to.  Do we really need that?  I know I have never used it.  Just because I subscribe to XKCD doesn't mean I want to subscribe to SMBC (though I subscribe to both).  Feed discovery is an entirely different process from feed aggregation.  There are plenty of sites that can help someone find new things to read.  Reddit and Hacker News both come to mind.

3. Analytics are Important

This seems to conflict with the first point, but analytics can be incredibly useful.  It's nice to know what I'm actual clicking on.  It's great to know how long it's been since a feed has been updated.  NetNewsWire does a good job of this.  It could be better, though.  How about indicating what stories are being reported across a wide range of followed sources, and even more importantly, which stories aren't being reported as often.  An even more interesting property would be how many sources various sites are referring to for any particular story.  If it all leads back to one source, it is most likely bogus, or at least suspect.  Obviously, implementing "source tracing" would be non-trivial, but I'm sure it can be done.

4. Social Media Sharing isn't Necessary

I don't need a button to share posts on Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc.  If I want to share something, I can load it in my browser very easily.  This is just a pet peeve, of course, and I'm sure many will disagree.  For me, though, RSS readers are about aggregating, not sharing.  I'm also not interested in social features built into RSS Readers.  I honestly don't care what feeds my friends are reading.  If they find something interesting, they'll probably share it somewhere else.  Social content is a distraction and it makes RSS readers less useful.  (See point 1).

5.  Syncing is of Vital Importance

If I can't check my reader on every device I own, then I'll rarely check my reader.  Simple as that.

6.  I Have to Have Control Over the Sync Mechanism

The end of Google Reader should be a huge wake up call about depending on a third party.  Implementing a syncing system is a problem, of course.  If I write a Reader, and I provide a syncing mechanism, then I'm a third party and you shouldn't trust me.  Instead, there should be a mechanism where the third party doesn't matter (I'm thinking of things like Dropbox, Google Drive, Skydrive, etc.  If you can sync using all of those services and more, it doesn't matter if one goes away).

Note:  I'm not opposed to third party services.  This blog uses Disqus, for example.  I can always turn on WordPress's internal commenting system if Disqus goes away.  When Google Reader goes away that's a more difficult problem to deal with, because at this point, I depend on it for syncing everything.  That's a single point of failure, and that's bad.

7.  A Reader Should be Open Source

I realize this is a personal choice.  I use plenty of software that is closed source, but it's usually because there is no open source option that works as well.  (DevonThink and Scrivener come to mind).  If Google Reader was open source, there wouldn't be a problem.  I could run it on a server of my own, and so could others.  Someone could even build a business model around it, if they chose to.  There are plenty of open source RSS readers, and many are very good.  Many of the good ones use Google Reader to sync, however.  Perhaps there should be an open source syncing service.  Feedly is working on a clone of Google Reader's syncing API.  But what happens if Feedly goes away?


I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface of what an RSS reader should be.  These are just the things that came to mind right away.  Comment if you wish.  I'd really like to see a discussion start about what's wrong with RSS readers, and how we can fix them.

Here We Go Again

So I'm starting another blog.  I've decided that, as a Communications major, I'd really like to blog about Communications issues.  In particular, I'm interested in things like Data-Driven Journalism, Entrepreneurial Journalism, and media issues.  That's what this blog will be about.  Occasionally, there will be off-topic posts, but I promise it will be rare.