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Haystack and the Myth of the Boy Wizard 127

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the something-to-think-about dept.
Jamie sent in an interesting writeup about The Myth of the Boy Wizard. No, it's not about Hogwarts, but rather about Haystack and its creator, Austin Heap. Last summer the media covered the programmer, the software, and its supposed effect on Iranian censorship. But as is often the case, truth is less interesting than reality. What happened is that the story managed to press some magic buttons, and the media ran with it. This one is worth a read.
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Haystack and the Myth of the Boy Wizard

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  • The Media (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sonicmerlin (1505111) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:09PM (#33601520)
    Getting the media to "run with it" isn't much of an accomplishment in this era of 24 hour news cycles. I don't assign a great deal of respect to their integrity or seriousness.
  • Re:Not surprising (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MozeeToby (1163751) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:11PM (#33601548)

    Even the journalists that focus their entire career on tech subjects often don't gain any appreciable expertise in the field. Besides, journalists aren't meant to be experts, they're meant to know exactly enough that they know when they should be asking questions. That usually isn't that much but for whatever reason (maybe they don't want to look stupid, maybe they don't want to appear to be dumbing down the article) journalists are quite reluctant to do so when it comes to technology issues.

    Look at it this way, if someone had claimed to have invented something that... I don't know, neutralized the pepper spray that the riot police were using to break up the demonstrations. Do you really think that the journalist would have just taken them at their word, published stories to the effect that they were saving the world from tyranny? They would have wanted pictures of it in use, to talk to people who had used it successfully, maybe even interviewed a local chemist for his take on it. For whatever reason, technology stories just don't get the same level of scrutiny that other topics do.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:12PM (#33601550)
    The problem is then the people in management don't understand it so they force the tech people to "dumb it down" to the point where it becomes essentially false. For example:

    Cookies can store data about where you have been and what ads you have seen. Therefore, cookies can be used to track you.

    Soon becomes:

    Cookies track data about people.

    Eventually becomes:

    Cookies are a privacy threat.

    Which gets read by the masses as:

    Cookies are viruses.
  • Why Is He Upset? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by quangdog (1002624) <quangdog&gmail,com> on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:14PM (#33601578)
    The author seems shocked to read a news article that did not receive enough research from the reporter before being published. Why is he upset about this? It happens all the time.

    Maybe I'm just jaded, but I always approach news stories as only containing a grain of truth, with a heavy slant towards the agenda of the reporter / reporting agency.
  • Re:Not surprising (Score:2, Insightful)

    by laederkeps (976361) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:15PM (#33601596) Homepage
    Posting to undo an accidental "Redundant" mod. Really meant +1 (Sad but true).
  • Re:Not surprising (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:21PM (#33601664)

    Look at it this way, if someone had claimed to have invented something that... I don't know, neutralized the pepper spray that the riot police were using to break up the demonstrations. Do you really think that the journalist would have just taken them at their word, published stories to the effect that they were saving the world from tyranny? They would have wanted pictures of it in use, to talk to people who had used it successfully, maybe even interviewed a local chemist for his take on it. For whatever reason, technology stories just don't get the same level of scrutiny that other topics do.

    Yes they probably would take his word for it. The level of scrutiny in mass media is less than the level of scrutiny on Wikipedia. The mass media doesn't care about "following up" on stories, they just want to tell you that (in the words of Ross Noble) "Bad Shit is happening in the world, there's loads of shit happening in the world". They don't care if you understand it, Americans are so used to seeing fancy things on TV and then forgetting about it. It seems like every month there is some new breakthrough that "cures cancer" that we never hear another word about.

    The masses have a really, really short memory.

  • by YesIAmAScript (886271) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:27PM (#33601746)

    Actually a very boring article. The author spends most of this time just telling you that he's smarter than the press. Including a mea culpa for "letting" the Guardian get away with misreporting without falling under his wrathful hammer.

    The sole piece of information here that isn't self-aggrandizement is a nice little whiff of info explaining what the metaphor of "The Boy Wizard" means. This part is nice, but it gets drowned out in the "I told you so" parts.

  • Way off the mark (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <`fairwater' `at' `gmail.com'> on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:32PM (#33601808) Homepage

    From TFA:
     

    Journalists deal with people pushing stories and press releases every single day. Part of their job is to look through the claims and dig out the reality. That didn't happen for Haystack.

    Today the press is reporting the opinion of computer security experts, why didn't they ask when the story first broke? The answer, I think comes in the form of The Myth of the Boy Wizard.

    TFA's author misses the mark in two big ways;
     
    First, like pretty much everyone he's very confused about what journalists do. Journalists write news stories, and the need to feed the public's (including much of Slashdot, though they think otherwise) unending gluttony for input. Seriously, the exceptions are rare and notable - the horsecrap about "what journalists are supposed to do" is a fantasy right alongside Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I can't understand how anyone over the mental age of twenty can continue to believe in any of the three.
     
    The second miss is in understanding why the media leapt all over the story of Haystack. It has nothing to do with the Boy Wizard - and everything to do with the public's (especially[1] including much of Slashdot, though they think otherwise) uncritical desire to hear about anything related to 'fighting back' against Iran. Like a five year old with a bowl of ice cream, they stick their faces in it and pig out. And also like a five year old, you take away the half eaten bowl, give them a new bowl with a different flavor, and they go right back to pigging out - the old bowl forgotten with the first mouthful of the new.

    [1] I single out the 'Slashdot demographic' (young, hip, wired) for especial scorn because they're the worst of the lot - ever willing to 'amplify the signal' because it makes them feel like they're Doing Something without actually having to do anything. They'll forward, share, and re-tweet endlessly because it makes them feel better. Until the next shiny outrage meme comes along, then whatever they were previously outraged against vanishes forever down the memory hole.

  • by rs1n (1867908) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:35PM (#33601848)

    The author seems shocked to read a news article that did not receive enough research from the reporter before being published. Why is he upset about this? It happens all the time. Maybe I'm just jaded, but I always approach news stories as only containing a grain of truth, with a heavy slant towards the agenda of the reporter / reporting agency.

    Why is this being modded insightful? Did you completely ignore the last bit? From the article itself: "It's not just bad journalism to take someone at their word and publish glowing articles, in this case it's downright dangerous. Real people inside Iran could have been endangered by this over-hyped piece of software."

  • by YesIAmAScript (886271) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:38PM (#33601900)

    I do agree that people wanted to hear that people were "fighting back", and the Boy Wizard in this case was allegedly making it possible. In the Boy Wizard world, evil government is an old person problem, Haystack was the young wizard solving it.

    I disagree it is the media's job to repeat incorrect info. Good journalism has fact checking and such. Take that away and you're just a blogger repeating "common knowledge" regardless of truth.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:5, Insightful)

    by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:57PM (#33602144) Homepage Journal

    But the problem in this case isn't with engineers that don't know tech, it's with journalists that don't know journalism. Consider what the article's author asked Newsweek:

    In your article "Computer Programmer Takes On the World's Despots" you appear to have taken the author of the supposed Haystack program at his word. There are no quotes from people who've used the software, nor from people who've seen the software. How do we know that Austin Heap is telling the truth, and, more importantly, how do we know that the software works as advertised?

    Surely, it's very basic journalism to have talked to more than one person about this subject.

    There John Graham-Cumming hits the head right on the nail: they spoke only to Austin Heap and failed to get a second source. That isn't a failure to understand tech, that's a failure to understand Journalism 101.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Devout_IPUite (1284636) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @02:15PM (#33602370)
    Journalism isn't decaying. It's ALWAYS been terrible.
  • Re:Not surprising (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 16, 2010 @02:21PM (#33602426)

    No they're not. They're good at what they do. The problem is that the goal of journalism today isn't correctness. Instead, they're desperately trying to create content that draws people to read it.

    A story about a kid claiming to have found a way around censorship that probably doesn't work since it hasn't been through any peer review from anyone of repute in the security community is unreadably boring. One about a wunderkind who was so moved by the plight of the oppressed people in Iran that he hacked out a brilliant solution in a week will sell papers, ad impressions, etc.

    If we can figure out a way to align the goals of tech reporters with getting the technology aspect correct, we'll see them get it right. But as long as their goals aren't aligned, they'll pursue their own goals first. Journalistic integrity is a myth of a bygone era when reporters didn't have to fight as hard for attention.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DragonWriter (970822) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @03:09PM (#33603020)

    Even the journalists that focus their entire career on tech subjects often don't gain any appreciable expertise in the field. Besides, journalists aren't meant to be experts, they're meant to know exactly enough that they know when they should be asking questions.

    The problem here is that you are saying that they are supposed to be ~A but B, when ~A -> ~B.

    Being able to understand new events in a field well enough to explain them usefully to non-technical audiences requires both skill at communication and substantial expertise in the field. The job of a journalist is essentially to act as a teacher without the luxury of substantial lead time to develop a lesson plan, and usually via a static medium where there is no feedback from the audience.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Darinbob (1142669) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @03:29PM (#33603282)
    But this wasn't "tech news" per se. There was a whole lot more to it that was interesting to journalists. Journalists don't care about a new type of encryption or a sneaky way to hide data, but they care about the application of that tech or responses to it. Ie, bypassing censorship, countries forbidding Blackberries, etc.
  • by Ash Vince (602485) * on Thursday September 16, 2010 @03:32PM (#33603318) Journal

    First, like pretty much everyone he's very confused about what journalists do. Journalists write news stories, and the need to feed the public's (including much of Slashdot, though they think otherwise) unending gluttony for input. Seriously, the exceptions are rare and notable - the horsecrap about "what journalists are supposed to do" is a fantasy right alongside Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I can't understand how anyone over the mental age of twenty can continue to believe in any of the three.

    Maybe this is widely accepted as being the case where you live, but here in the UK a great many people still cling to the belief in the concept of journalism. This is especially true of all the Grauniad readers I know since it really does have the image amongst those on the left in the UK as being the last bastion of journalistic integrity.

    So why some unknown English paper did not check its facts might be a non-question to someone who has never heard of it (are you American?), but to many people in the UK it is an interesting question. Personally I have not bought the Guardian in years but I do come from a family of ardent fans so will be using this as a stick to beat them with as soon as an opportunity arises :)

    The second miss is in understanding why the media leapt all over the story of Haystack. It has nothing to do with the Boy Wizard - and everything to do with the public's (especially[1] including much of Slashdot, though they think otherwise) uncritical desire to hear about anything related to 'fighting back' against Iran.

    The full full article made great mention of the Guardian running this story because it is completely unlike your description. It is generally far more Iran friendly then much of the English press. It spends far more column inches on the "evil US of A" and how Iran desperately needs nukes to defend itself from the "terrorist state of Israel". Please note the quotation marks, I am not stating an opinion on Israel at all in this post as it is so far off topic its not even funny.

    The only thing you may get slightly right is that the Guardian is apparently popular amongst young techies but since I have not been one of them in many years I am not really qualified to say.

    Finally, if you have such a problem with the Slashdot demographic, then just leave. Delete your account and do not come back. Maybe you were just trolling for a million angry responses from the young people you describe, but if that is the case you should try and do more research about things first as the best trolls often know something about the subject.

    The full article was less about Haystack, and far more about the Guardian and BBC's coverage of Haystack. Both of these are widely respected news sources in the UK and hence this sort of basic journalism failing is actually worthy of comment, although maybe not to people outside the UK.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MaskedSlacker (911878) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @04:47PM (#33604330)

    No, good example, you're just an asshole who thinks using ignorance to control the populace is a good thing.

The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it. -- E. Hubbard

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