Pretentious cover
books, review, tech

What is data doing to our species? — A review of Kitten Clone

My review in the Literary Review of Canada is finally released. It is behind a paywall now, but will open up in about a month or so. Or you could pick it up at your local magazine purveyor and support Canadian publishing!

The piece is mostly about “industrial innovation” and the wonderful (and forgotten?) legacy of Bell Labs. This is a common hobby horse of mine when debating innovation and startups (re: startups do not have a monopoly on innovation!). I hope you enjoy the review. In the meantime, I thought I would share some more thoughts on the visuals of this book, which I highlight in the review:

Writers in Residence partnered with Visual Editions to produce a book design that looks great and includes the unorthodox layout and typography that we have come to expect from Coupland’s books. Mere words are not enough for him. Like having a conversation with a high-spirited partner, Coupland uses visual clues to add emphasis to the content.

The book release was delayed for months and I can only imagine it had to do with the unorthodox layout and typography. Often when reading Coupland’s books, I use my smartphone camera to capture the unique layouts (I plan on putting together a few galleries in the future). Take the below page as an example: Coupland describes quantum computing in excruciating detail (qubits, integer factorization using Shor’s algorithm, the Church-Turing thesis, etc.). As the explanation descends into technical jargon, each line of the text becomes progressively smaller until it bleeds past the bottom margin of the page and to the edge of the page, continuing on into empty space beyond the authour’s (and presumably the reader’s) understanding. It is a cute trick.

Trailing off

In another example, he breaks line justification to emphasize the single word “bandwidth”. “Oh Douglas! I see what you did there! It is funny because the word is band ‘width’ and you make it cover the entire width of the page! You clever, cultural brain you!” I hope that doesn’t come off as too condescending… I like the idea of visual puns expressed in typography.

B-A-N-D-W-I-D-T-H

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Canada, privacy and surveillance

A victory against Bell’s use of customer information

Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa, has criticized Bell Mobility’s Relevant Ads Program (RAP), saying it “falls short on privacy.” His main concern is that it is opt-out, but he also points out some of the other problems of a telecom provider mining and selling user data. Much is coming to light about the extent of Bell’s user data collection since the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC) filed a complaint at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC).

PIAC’s Executive Director argued that “Bell has overstepped its role as a neutral provider of telecommunications services.” The President of the CAC pointed out that “Bell is trying to ‘double-dip’ by taking your subscription fees and then selling information based on your use of the services you just paid for.”

The application to the CRTC has produced some wins. Before, opting out of the program simply meant that targeted ads wouldn’t be shown to you. You weren’t opting out of your information being used. Now things are different. In Bell’s response to the PIAC’s filing, they promise (paragraph 41):

Bell has changed its opt-out process so that an opt-out will terminate all use of personal information for the RAP and the deletion of any browsing, interest and category information from existing profiles. This change was made retroactive to cover anyone who chose to opt-out since the initiation of the RAP.

To parse this a bit: this says just the CATEGORIES are what is being deleted, not the actual browsing history. In other words, Bell is still collecting information on browsing habits, it is just not categorizing those habits for use in ad targeting. I have emailed Bell’ Privacy Ombudsman for clarification. It remains an opt-out system, as criticized by Michael Geist above, but this is still a positive development: the flawed opt-out system has become somewhat more robust.

In any case, this change is an example of consumer power. Last year Shaw changed it’s process for storing service calls in response to my PIPEDA request. Now, the PIPEDA request I made revealing Bell’s 56 categories for ad targeting has contributed to reform at Bell. Luckily, thanks to a concerned citizen who found my post from last year, the results of my PIPEDA request were submitted as part of the PIAC filing. The process has been long and very involved, and I would like to publicly thank that concerned citizen for their hard work. I have not had any direct contact with PIAC or the CAC. Everything was mediated by this private citizen, who says:

As to why I got involved? The previous Privacy Commissioner of Canada stated something along the lines of, if you don’t put up a fight for your privacy, privacy lost will not be regained. Once it’s gone you are not getting it back … I’m not about to let corporate interests and shareholder-value tell me what privacy rights I have, so it was time to fight and speak up. PIAC was the force that started it, and I jumped in as the regular Joe that I am.

The fight isn’t over. More and more information is coming to light about how our telecoms treat their customers. Consumer organizations like PIAC know how to take action, but they need data. Thus, I encourage everyone to take five minutes and send off the form letters Chris Parsons prepared in his post to shed light on what our telecoms are doing, and give them the ammunition they need to effect change.

Also, if you are a Bell Mobility customer, opt-out of the RAP program here.

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books, history, review, science, tech

An overly positive contribution — A review of How We Got to Now

cover of How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now: The History and Power of Great Ideas by Steven Johnson

I have mixed feelings about this book. I am a big fan of Steven Johnson, and my familiarity of his work might be why I didn’t love this book.

In How We Got to Now Johnson explores the scaffolding of concepts throughout the history of innovation. This is the phenomenon where various social and scientific advances converge simultaneously so that a new invention or innovation becomes possible. It is the reason why co-invention exists, how radio can have more than 20 independent inventors all coming up with basically the same design within a span of a few years.

Terms like the “adjacent possible” and “network-based innovation” will be familiar to readers of Johnson’s earlier work. How We Got to Now seems like a re-hashing of his previous (and excellent I might add) book Where Good Ideas Come From. No, it more like an appendix. And a rosy-glassed one at that. From the outset Johnson removes himself from any judgement of the innovations he covers. He does admit that each innovation has had both good and bad effects on society: when discussing the vacuum tube, he raises Hitler at Nuremberg and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as examples. But on the whole, Johnson is focused on “progress.” He wears his techno-optimism on his sleeve, which is fine, but if you have read much of his previous work, this book may leave you wanting.

Furthermore, he walks a fine line in the story telling of the six innovations he covers (glass, cold, clean, sound, time, light). His conceit is the “hummingbird effects” of each innovation — how these effects ripple out and impact society through time. It is an analysis only enabled by 20/20 hindsight and comes mighty close to playing Six degrees of separation. The result is sometimes a wistful sentimentality, and positively Gladwellian. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” A pithy quote from Carl Sagan, and one of my favourites. But I would refrain from using it as a framework to write a social history of innovation.

“Hummingbird effects” are certainly fun to ponder. Even though they had been around for centuries, popular demand for eye glasses was finally sparked by the Gutenburg press. Prior to the explosion in literacy rates, the common folk simply did not perceive that they were overwhelmingly short-sighted. Johnson’s book is littered with examples like this.

Thinking of today, and my work in computers, I cannot help but wonder what the hummingbird effects of code literacy might be. In the past 30 years the world has been eaten by software (to paraphrase Marc Andreessen). Some argue that to understand the world around us we must understand the code. Therefore everyone should learn to program. But learning to program is difficult — personally, I have had a terrible time of it. Which leads me to ponder — like the above-mentioned hummingbird effect of Gutenburg’s machine on reading glasses — is there some sort of short-coming in the human brain that makes coding so difficult to grasp for most people? Some sort of analogue to short-sightedness for programming that we are only just becoming aware of? At some point in the next 50 years will I be able to buy mental “glasses” that will allow me to code, and thereby perceive the world around me with more clarity? Or to the contrary, once we attain that clarity, might we discover that code is not the right lens to view society? In the face of the zeitgeist of our technocentric modern culture, that would be an interesting hummingbird effect.

Which leads me to another shortcoming of Johnson’s latest work: Silicon Valley-centrism. In How We Got to Now Johnson debunks the proverbial single inventor and his lightbulb moment. A laudible contribution, yet he falls flat in the last few pages. After detailing how Bell Labs was responsible for much of innovation during the 20th century (the subject of an upcoming review of mine in the LRC), he ends the book with a paen to the garage inventor — a nod to startups just south of Marin County where Johnson lives. Diversity is certainly a desirable attribute for spurring innovation, but do not discount the effects of a center of excellence like Murray Hill. Bell Labs provided literally tons of infrastructure for some of the smartest people of the age to gather around and build upon. No wonder it is called The Idea Factory (the title of Jon Gertner’s excellent book, also recommended by Johnson in How We Got to Now).

For those that have never read a book by Johnson, you may very well enjoy How We Got to Now. It certainly aspires to inspire. But I would rather recommend Where Good Ideas Come From, and then maybe pick up a more critical take to temper your view on innovation.

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philosophy, tech

Pulling back the tattered ethical rags of the sharing economy

Mike Bulajewski has written a lengthy reflection on ethical consumerism singling out the “sharing economy.” His premise:

We’re led to believe that as consumers and suppliers for these services, we’re supporting ethical values of kindness, community-building and trust between strangers; living more sustainably by sharing unused property; building community wealth; reducing the power of centralized corporations by transacting directly with each other; and developing a new economic model which will solve global poverty.

We are wrong. Read the essay to find out why.

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internet, social media, writing

What sucks about blogging and how to fix it

Andrew Sullivan’s ending of his 15 years of blogging has sparked discussion about the health of blogging in 2015. I started blogging in 2004, pre-Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like. A friend and I created a group blog about foreign and current affairs. It was an auspicious time for blogging and I made many contacts and friends through the blog. At its height, we would post a few times a day, and had a decent amount of traffic. But things changed.

A few years later “blog networks” became a thing — think of Nick Denton’s Gawker network. The only way to collect on the so-called “digital dimes” was to gather together under a banner, pool audiences and centralize advertising (This has been recently happening in podcasting too). Later, news organizations started to blog. Blogosphere centralization started to set in. Professionalism of the writing (theoretically) increased, but the real number of independent bloggers began to fall (again, see podcasting).

Then social media happened.

I find blogging now to be a wholly different beast. Kottke says it is dead. It certainly has changed, mainly in terms of engagement.

For example, the media critiques I have produced recently received a fair bit of feedback… but none in the comments. All the engagement happened on Twitter and Google+ (lest we forget, I don’t use Facebook). Referring to Ben Thompson’s Social/Communications map below, engagement has gone symmetric.

Social communications map by Ben Thompson

This is a shame. On my media pieces, a lot of the feedback I got contributed to what I wrote. Rather than having a one-on-one communication with me, if the feedback had been posted as a comment on the original post, everyone would have benefitted.

The main difference between blogging then and blogging now is the disintermediation of engagement.

When you distribute your work out onto various social channels to “where your readers are”, they engage with you on those channels. RSS wasn’t interactive. Blog comments used to be a watering hole where everyone coalesced for group discussion. In the age of social media, this is no longer.

Vox co-founder Ezra Klein notes points out:

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own.

“[B]logging is a conversation,” says Klein, “and conversations don’t go viral.” Yet he is bullish on blogging, and talks about how both Vox and Gawker are “bringing back blogging” in 2015. I certainly have tried to up my output and blog more since late last year, so I am doing my part.

Okay, so old school blogging is a different modality. That’s fine. In the age of social media, how do we incentive the conversationality (even at the expense of virality)?

Novel commenting systems like what Medium uses, where comments are annotations, might be a solution. Inline comments are by definition in context. This makes comments on the post more valuable than their social media equivalents.

Another approach that I haven’t seen would be some sort of clipping service. Imagine a bookmarklet allowing a blogger to instantly send a social media post to the related blog post, appending it to the comments section. The blogger can harvest symmetric feedback, curating and aggregating the best commentary to the relevant post for the benefit of everyone.

The best solution may just be culture. Fred Wilson has no problem getting feedback on his blog. The comments section there is very lively. Using Disqus and social sign in certainly lowers the barrier to commenting on the page. But having a core group of commenters to show someone the ropes certainly helps. Like many things, the solution might be social rather than technological. From now on, when I get good feedback on social media, I intend to personally encourage those people to comment on the relevant post, and contribute to building that culture around my own blog.

To blog in 2015 like we did in 2005 takes a bit of strategy and audience education. The blogosphere now has to compete with social media. This is just another evolution of a web-native medium, and a sign of its maturity. Different is not dead.

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politics, tech

Long Morozov

The New Left Review has an excellent in depth interview with Evgeny Morozov called Socialize The Data Centres! Too bad that was the headline they went with, because his argument is more subtle than that, and the article contains so much more. For example, we learn about Morozov’s upbringing in Belarus and his early intellectual development (a major in Business Admin!?). Even better is discussion about his ideological evolution since writing his books. I find this interesting because while he has been working on his PhD at Harvard we have been only getting the occasional opinion piece. I can imagine he is going through a transformation and look forward to the resulting book(s?) at the end. Below are a few choice quotes from the article, however I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

On the problem:

… the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley, which I think is probably more consequential than the encroachment of the nsa into our civil liberties.

… we’re in danger of ending up with a kind of idiot history, in which everything starts in Silicon Valley, and there are no other forces or causes.

On the solution:

Right now all we can do is try to articulate some kind of utopian vision of what a non-neoliberal, but technology-friendly, world might look like.

The question is how can we build a system that will actually favour citizens, and perhaps even favour some kind of competition in its search engines. It’s primarily from data and not their algorithms that powerful companies currently derive their advantages, and the only way to curb that power is to take the data completely out of the market realm, so that no company can own them.

Some related links:

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community, Kelowna, media

Who watches the watchers?

Full disclosure: I back CANADALAND on Patreon.

Turning a critical eye towards the national news media is an important and valuable endeavour. But the daily lives of Canadians are influenced far more by local news. Although Jesse Brown’s eps on Hamilton and New Brunswick are informative forays into local conditions (and how terrible they are), it is too much to expect Jesse to cover every local media landscape.

That is the reason I started the Kelowna news media audit. It is an attempt to start a discussion, and to map out our local news media landscape to discover where it serves us well, and where it is weak.

Often the newsmedia is the lens the citizenry uses to observe the doings of local government. Thus it is of vital importance that we as citizens are precisely aware of the condition of that lens. It is key to government and public relations, and vital to a healthy community.

My piece from last week has generated some discussion. I made an appearance on CBC Radio’s Daybreak South with host Chris Walker, and I met the editor of another local outlet for some one-on-one time. And of course there has been some interesting feedback via Twitter. Overwhelmingly many have asked: what’s next?

I am not sure if I want to take the mantle of “Okanagan’s Jesse Brown.” It is a matter of time and training (I have neither). But the media audit certainly did bring up a lot of questions, and some potential paths of research. For example:

  1. Historical analysis: I listed the number of reporters on the beat (which was problematic since “the beat” doesn’t really exist any more). I would be interested in comparing this current number to 5, 10, 15 years ago.
  2. What went down with Kelowna.com? I have talked to two members of that team and I would like to pursue this story. The fact they had 11 reporters backed by tech entrepreneurs makes this story fascinating to me. In the meantime, check out this writeup from one of its former reporters.
  3. Wider context: While I listed the outlets responsible for civic reporting, I did not bring up the city’s public relations department, or other ways a citizen can get information on civic issues. There are more contours to this landscape, and we should be aware of them all.
  4. Related to #3, 15% of our population is foreign-born (according to ancient stats from 8 years ago because we haven’t had a decent census — a topic for another day) but I only covered mainstream English-language outlets. How do our sizable South Asian, Filipino, Korean, Iranian and other minority communities get the news?
  5. Inspired by this tweet, it would be interesting to take attendance for media that show up to council (since apparently some only show up sporadically). Who shows up when, and during what discussions? What conclusions can we draw from this?
  6. Would the media orgs in the community be willing to have a round-table discussion about the landscape here? I would be willing to facilitate, if we couldn’t find a media scholar to do so. Such a discussion would be valuable to the community, methinks.

If there are any media studies or journalism students that would like to tackle these questions, or even just concerned citizens like myself, feel free to get in touch. Maybe we can work together to get a better handle on how we see our own community.

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Kelowna, media

Kelowna news media audit

kelowna newsmedia logos

I was inspired by the story of Joey Coleman, an independent and crowd-sourced reporter in Hamilton, who I learned about from this great episode of CANADALAND about the collapse of local news. It made me think about my local news media landscape, and I decided to compile a list of all the news media outlets in our fair city.

There are two conditions to be on this list:

First, I am only including outlets that provide some amount (however small) of local, civic content. In other words, I exclude outlets that are purely about culture, wine, tourism, festivals or other community events. Not that those aren’t great, I am just more focused on outlets that contribute to an informed citizenry. I want to list the type of outlets that would have a reporter in a city council meeting (hopefully every time…).

Second, I want outlets that create original content. I did not want to include aggregators, of which there are a ton. The orgs on this list have live bodies that type stories on a keyboard, or even better get sent outside to gather news.

The list below is based on what I could find out online, and asking around on Twitter and via email. It is probably not complete, but I am confident I have a pretty good foundation. If you have anything to add, please do so in the comments and I will update the list. Or, if you want to reach out privately, contact me here.


TV

Global News Okanagan. Owned by Shaw Media. 2 field reporters and 1 web reporter in Kelowna; 1 field reporter each in Vernon and Penticton. (source)

ShawTV Okanagan. Owned by Shaw Media. No real news coverage, but they do broadcast City Council meetings on Channel 11.

CTV Okanagan. Owned by Bell Media. 1 news reporter, 1 videographer/editor, and a Facebook page. Responsible for covering BC interior for CTV Vancouver. (source)

Radio

CBC Kelowna including Daybreak South and Radio West. The local incarnation of our public broadcaster, owned by us. Covering the entire Okanagan (and more): 1 reporter, 2 asst. producers, 2 producers, 2 radio anchors, 1 news editor. (source) But no podcast… that’s how I listen to The Current and Spark and all my fave CBC shows!

AM1150. Owned by Bell Media. 4 reporters. (source) Soundcloud which basically means podcast. Provides news coverage to the two other Bell Media radio stations in Kelowna: 99.9 SunFM and 101.5 ezRock.

The other stations don’t seem to have any news coverage, aka:

Newspapers

Daily Courier. Owned by Continental Newspapers Canada Ltd. 1 reporter? (awaiting response).

Capital News. A Black Press paper, owned by David Holmes Black (no relation to Conrad). As far as I can tell, 1 reporter covering civic news (a couple more doing sports and the like). (awaiting response)

Web

Castanet. Owned by Nick Frost. 4 reporters? (awaiting response by email) I like that they have audio uploads of city council and are even distributing them as a podcast, but what they should be doing is recapping them and providing analysis.

InfoTel. Owned by Bonnie Derry. 2 reporters. According to our Lord Mayor, these guys are regulars at City Council.

KelownaNow. Owned by Jim and Nikki Csek and one other minority shareholder. 5 “journalist reporters” in total (confirmed by email with the GM). Not sure how many actually cover civic affairs.


So what does this all mean? Could Kelowna support a Joey Coleman? Considering he is only approaching the break-even point in a market that is four times the size of us, I am doubtful. Yet one reporter for every 10,000 residents seems too low. Well, with only a 30% voter turnout (about 30K people), it is more like one reporter for every 2000 voters. I wonder if these two problems are linked?

Although I am not a media scholar and have no framework for analysis, I certainly think we could be doing better. That is in both quantity and quality. Shaw and Bell own a lot of our traditional news media, while the web-based news orgs are all private and self-identify as "marketing" companies. It'd be nice to see the CBC step up here, maybe add a digital presence, but they have a lot going on already.

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internet, politics, tech

Computing in North Korea

RedStarOS screencap

There has been a wave of information about the computing environment and networking capabilities of North Korea coming out in the past week. Vice reported on the the release of a torrent of RedStar OS, a North Korean fork of Fedora. Combined with heightened interest over the purported Sony hack, there have been a lot of tear-downs of RedStar on security sites, including this one of the Naenara browser. Among other things, it hints at how the Nork internet is like a SME intranet, and not a private part of the global internet.

Another great piece is this CCC talk about teaching computer science in North Korea. Will Scott taught at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science & Technology) in 2013, a couple of years after Suki Kim did. Her book about her experience there is recommended (read my review: Emotional prisoner — a review of Without You, There Is No Us). In this talk Scott gives a demo of RedStar, and puts it into context of the day to day computing in North Korea, which he says is mostly WinXP. The demo is sort of a bizarro world Steve Jobsian demo, as the RedStar UX is heavily, heavily influenced my Mac OS X. He also demos an Android tablet.

Language is obviously a challenge, since not a lot of English-speaking security researchers can read Korean. But the code is much more legible, being that most coding conventions are based on English (a little bit of Anglo developer privilege there). Regardless, any glimpse into the “Hermit Kingdom” is a welcome one.

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Columns at Persepolis
Canada, internet, iran, politics

Foreign Affairs: Cash but no plan

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada announced $9 million dollars in funding in partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T for something called the “Digital Public Square project.” The CBC dubbed the project an experiment in digital diplomacy. The Globe called it “direct diplomacy.” The coverage in the National Post, Toronto Star et alia related how the project aims to allow government firewall circumvention, information sharing, and increase government accountability for citizens in “oppressive societies.” Leaving aside the questions around the efficacy of “digital diplomacy” (UPDATE: Taylor Owen outlines some of the perils), I was curious as to why there were no details on the “how.” Where is this money going to? Much of the news coverage focused on current efforts to engage Iranians, which is pretty confusing since the project seems to be about spreading to other countries. But how can we tell? There is no roadmap, and the hard questions have yet to be asked by the press. How can you announce $9M without saying how it will be used?

Until we get some more information, I took a look at the current Munk Center-backed program to engage Iranians.

Rial politik

The Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran site and its accompanying Google moderator sites sure don’t seem like something you throw $9M at. The RouhanimeterThe Rouhani Meter is some pretty good transparency propaganda, but Iran is awash in foreign propaganda (see below). The results seem impressive:

On May 10th, 2013, the Munk School launched a new kind of digital public square for Iran. … within two weeks, more than 360,000 unique users had connected with the Global Dialogue from inside Iran, and had visited the site over 1,490,000 times.

I am unclear as to how you would measure success. Iranians are notoriously political. Robert D. Kaplan once compared getting into a taxi in Tehran with getting into a taxi in Damascus: in Tehran the cabbie would right away start bitching about the government, while in Syria the cabbie was silent.

My experience was like this too. In 2004, during Ahmadinejad’s antagonistic era, I was in Iran covering the US presidential election (when George W. Bush was elected for a second term). Everybody wanted to talk to me about politics. Admittedly, I did spend most of my time with the kind of people who would hang around foreigners. They all listened to the BBC because they couldn’t trust their own newsmedia. However the blue-collar folk that I stayed with for my last week thought the BBC was propaganda. There are sharp divisions in the country to be sure, but Persian-language satellite channels, radio, websites etc. abound, especially thanks to the diaspora in Los Angeles. For years now, there has been a lot of civic activity around getting anti-regime voices to Iranians in country. I am unclear as to how a “digital public” square would be perceived any different. And it doesn’t explain how Iranians are being protected online.

Too many tomans?

So why is the Canadian government putting $9M in? That is a princely sum for a small startup guy like myself. Just from the news coverage, I don’t get it. I reached out to the Munk Center on Twitter and they recommended a couple of sources. Again, they related only to the current Iranian efforts, nothing about the future. Still, it did answer a couple of my questions.

Psiphon Inc logoFor example, circumvention. Psiphon originated as a project at the Citizen Lab (one of my fave orgs). They use a combination of VPN, SSH and proxies to get you around official barriers. Open source too. I am sure these guys could use some funding, so I hope they see some of that 9 mil.

Another org Munk pointed me to is ASL19, which seems like a sort of Citizen Lab focused on Iran. They have links with other orgs and other cool sites like Meidoon Watch which is kind of like a Hacker News for Iranian stuff. Seems useful. I wish I knew how much activity on that site is actually from inside of Iran. The Iranian diaspora is in the millions.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems… need mo’ info

There is certainly a network of organizations working on the Iran problem. The new Foreign Affairs money must be going to replicating these networks in other countries. I am just frustrated that Foreign Affairs and the Munk Center aren’t giving us more information on their plans, and that the press hasn’t asked for more. Sorry for this rambling post, but there is a bit of an information vacuum here, and I thought I would draw attention to it. I will gladly update this post if someone can provide answers. Or feel free to add some in the comments.

Photo credit: Me.

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