Uncategorized #5 – Encrypt Everything in the Open

February 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

Welcome back! I hope you had a great week. We added a number of subscribers this week. We are now up to 55, including myself, and including my new [Protonmail] email address—more on that later. It’s now Sunday afternoon and I’m a little behind with writing this. I was feeling kinda irritated this morning. It was mostly directed at the construction crew who decided to set up camp directly below the apartment and start building who knows what with every power tool under the sun. They’ve been at it all weekend and I finally lost my cool. So, I decided to go for a walk up to the Brooklyn Museum with the family and get some pizza. All better!

Previously

[Last week] we got into the importance of “play.” It was super relevant, because this week I got to witness the potential outcome of this type of behavior first hand! I talked a bit about being playful in our work, and it occurred to me that for some of you, the examples I mentioned (writing code with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s API) might not seem very playful or even fun at all. I should probably address that. In a nutshell, it is, for me. I find that crafting little ideas through code can be super playful and creative. It’s sort of a never ending cycle of problem solving. I want to figure out how to do something, I figure it out, and it leads me to another thing. I think of it like throwing a bunch of blocks on the floor and just pushing them around until I have a structure, toppling it all over and doing it again. The end result isn’t always pretty (especially for someone like me who is more interested in the backend type of code that often has no graphical manifestation) but it leads me places, and that’s all I want.

This Week

This week was mostly spent on a trip up to Boston to visit the [MIT Museum]. [The Studio]  has recently engaged in a new project with the museum, so we headed up there to do a two day workshop and kick off our project in person. I was really taken aback by the place, the campus, the museum as it currently stands, and the [new building] they will be moving into sometime in the not too distant future. MIT is just dripping with creativity and playfulness. By the end of the trip my head was spinning from the energy. You can just feel it! 

One of the highlights was definitely our quick romp through the [MIT Media Lab]. I’ve of course known of the lab for a really long time, but being there in person was really something. Walking through the halls reminded me of scenes from “[Real Genius]” with Val Kilmer, where there’s nothing but awkward freshman running up and down the halls doing odd experiments and “personal projects.” In the lab itself you could easily be overwhelmed by all the innovation, design, and engineering that was just sort of happening right in front of you. I geeked out pretty hard over the robot lab and [Hiroshi Ishi’s] lab of fun. It’s all just sort of on display behind giant glass walls. 

Walking around campus for two days reminded me of how much I loved college. There is something so warm and inviting about being a student on a campus like that. At my undergrad at R.I.T. I never really realized this until after I had left, but at grad school years later, I really felt it. Unbridled time for creative exploration, tuition and costs all paid in advance, nothing really to worry about at all. On the MIT campus, people are working out at the gym, hanging out at the library, walking down the long corridor, or riding a bike share to a nearby coffee shop. It all looks so easy. Of course, when you are in it—when you are all wrapped up in your present life—it doesn’t ever seem that way. 

Joining NewInc reminded me of this same feeling. At least at first. It’s this place, full of like minded creatives, all trying to build something. Only at NewInc it’s focused on entrepreneurship. Still, it’s certainly a similar feeling, and it’s a big part of why I have decided to stay year after year.

Working in the Open

While walking through the MIT Media Lab, something occurred to me. It came up in conversation later at dinner, and I sort of got into it a little more deeply the next day in one of our workshop sessions. I kept noticing how the lab was a big open space. I mean, there are glass walls and doors keeping people from walking right up to someone’s desk, but you can easily see what people are working on, you can easily watch people walking about, conversing with colleagues, and handling their experiments and ideas. Some of the end results are even sort of on display. It’s to some degree, all out in the open.

I started to think about another project I am fond of called [Who’s on First]. This was a project by the now defunct Mapzen, and my friend and former colleague, [Aaron Cope]. I won’t even try to explain what the project is, but the one big part of it that I always really appreciated was that the entire project was created, coded, and built out in the open. Even the very rough draft parts, and the early parts, were all hosted publicly on GitHub, and made accessible for anyone to watch unfold. It wasn’t just an open source project, it was a project being created in the open, in real time.

I wondered about this idea at dinner, and we all talked about what it really means for a museum to have an “Open Access” initiative. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate for museums and cultural orgs to publish their data in whatever way they can, but the reality of most Open Access policies at museums is that they are a small fraction of the actual institutional data held within the org. It would be silly to think an organization could publish everything. But, there is still a big difference between extracting a section of data, curating it in a way, cleaning it to a certain state, and then releasing it to the public, vs. just hosting the working data publicly online and updating it in real time. You could sort of think of it like writing a book in an open Google Doc, vs. writing the book, and then letting anyone see the finished product for free. 

Of course we had a lively discussion about Open Access vs. Working in the Open. There is a lot of fear and risk involved for any organization. But it brought up some interesting “what ifs.” 

Currently, I’ve decided to start doing some work in the open for myself! I’ve recently (again) decided to learn a little more of the “[Go]” programming language. It’s just another curiosity to me at this point. I’ve decided to do this all in the open, and post my code snippets, programs, and ideas all on GitHub as I do them. You can follow along [right here], but I suspect it might not be too interesting at this stage, so please check back again in a few months!

I’ve been thinking about learning Go for a while now. I spent some time working with it on another project a while back, and I’ve read lots of interesting things about what it can do. I started to wonder if I can make art with Go. I don’t even really know what that means, but I figured, why not?

Encryption Everywhere

I mentioned at the start of this post that I had a new email address using something called Protonmail. It’s true, I recently signed up for a Protonmail account. I also signed up for Signal and Telegram. I’ve been curious lately about secure messaging on the big wide inter hubs. It’s just something I think about in the late hours when I can’t sleep. 

The fact is, most email services these days come with a decent encryption standard built right in. Most messaging tools do as well. But, the companies that own these services typically have the keys to decrypt your stuff, and that can be pretty problematic if you are concerned about anyone reading your stuff, which most people should be, especially if the big company providing the service is also selling your data to third parties or generally using it for bad. 

The end result for me was to try out a few services. As always, everything is just a little not quite as nice as the tools provided by the big tech companies. This is to bee expected. The UI of Telegram and Signal are years behind WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, or even just iMessages on Apple’s cloud. The UI and features of Protonmail are also kind of minimalistic, to put it nicely. But their encryption offerings, paired with their VPN service, seems like a nice place to start. They even offer “secure” emails where you just send someone a password so they can read a temporary message on the web (vs. in their email client). It can even be set to self destruct, which seems very Mission Impossible, but is actually just an obvious feature any secure messaging service should have these days. Protonmail has a pretty clean and simple UI, and although it won’t replace Google for me anytime soon, it’s been interesting to just poke around at what it can do. 

I also signed up for Signal and Telegram, but I’ve only used it once or twice. I guess you need to have friends who are also using it to make it something worth paying attention to!

Playlist

I actually don’t think I listened to any music this week whatsoever. I did rewatch this [Led Zeppelin Documentary]. So the Playlist will take a short hiatus this week, and hopefully will return next week!

Reading List

I switched gears this week from Machine Learning by Hugh Howey (still have about 40% left to read) to a book called [Severance] by Ling Ma. It’s a book I picked up in hardcover almost a year ago. I honestly forgot what it was about and decided to take a look and now all the sudden I am realizing that it’s a story about a virus that starts in China and kills most everyone on the planet. I’m sure the story is more than just that, but yeah, I’m on page 22.

Epilogue

I mentioned I walked up to Brooklyn Museum this morning. It was a nice escape from the apartment, and a good way to suck in some cold crisp air, as well as some pizza afterward. In the museum, we walked through the JR exhibit once again. I noticed a few pieces I hadn’t the first time through, but I also noticed they were using QR codes to send visitors to short YouTube clips featuring the artist. The QR codes we cleverly disguised as mini-portraits, and worked flawlessly with my iPhone (now that iOS has a QR reader finally built right into the camera). I often joke about the use of QR codes in museums. They are a little ugly, especially when positioned right there by the wall label. But, I have to say, after spending so much time in Hong Kong (where you can pay taxi drivers with a QR code), I have found a new love for the seemingly outdated tech. It’s such a simple technology, nearly invisible when placed well, and it just kind of does what it says on the tin! 

One little side project I did while at Cooper Hewitt was to add QR codes to all collection records. They are still there and still working, hidden in plain sight. Just go to any object page and add “/qr” to the URL, like this [https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18637881/qr]. There’s just nothing wrong with QR codes. I hope more people use them for more creative things in the future!

As always, thanks for making it this far! So far nobody has unsubscribed, so I am really happy you’ve all decided to hang with me, and I look forward to our next check-in, next week!

Until then, have a good week!

-micah


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