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Haystack and the Myth of the Boy Wizard 127

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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  • Not surprising (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:05PM (#33601484)
    Journalists tend to be bad at covering tech news. It's not really surprising that they'd get it this wrong. Perhaps rather than having people cover everything at various points, they should move individuals around within the realm of technology. At least that way they can get some expertise in the subject.
  • by Ltap ( 1572175 ) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @01:13PM (#33601572) Homepage
    Another example of why I take network news no more seriously than I do blogs, /., BoingBoing, etc.
  • Re:Not surprising (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @02:36PM (#33602616) Homepage Journal

    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.

    I'm one of those tech journalists. You're right that the job is to ask questions, even when they sound stupid.

    The simple solution to getting your facts right (the Principia Mathematica of journalism, as it were) is to check your facts with an independent expert in the field (preferably more than one).

    There are single-source stories and multiple-source stories. If a dermatologist claims at a scientific meeting or in a journal article that his method cures baldness, I want to call another dermatologist who treats baldness and get his reaction. Even if the first guy is basically correct, the second guy can usually add some important qualifications. In the ideal situation, after I've interviewed 3 or 4 experts, I usually have a reasonably good understanding of the story. Then when I talk to the *next* expert, I can usually ask him really good questions. I may not be able to get the truth, but I can get as close as humanly possible by deadline.

    When I decide whether a news source is worth reading, the first thing I look for is whether they quote a single source, or get a reaction from a second source. Why should I waste my time reading an article that's wrong, when I can read an article that got its facts right? Why should anybody?

    I once gave a journalism course and told my students to look up stories in the New York Times. For example, here's a science story http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/earth/14fuel.html [nytimes.com] Did they just take the promoter's claims at face value, or did they check with an independent expert?

    One of the magazines I worked for would pay me $50 extra for every additional source I interviewed, up to about 2 or 3 sources. That reflected on the quality of the story, and the effort required, pretty well.

    The big problem today is that the pay for these stories has gone down. You used to have reporters on staff who could spend a full week working on a major story. Now newspapers have laid off half their staff and doubled up the work for the remaing staff. Freelance writers used to get $1,000 or more for a 2,000-word story that would take a week, and give them time to read the literature and interview a lot of people. Now they're lucky to get $500, and sometimes $150. You can't interview a lot of people for $150.

  • by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Thursday September 16, 2010 @03:41PM (#33603430)

    I'm betting that the whole thing was a propaganda op by our very own CIA, and now that it's unraveling, they're pinning it on a scapegoat.

    Close, but actually, this is one of those win/wins.

    Remember the primary objective: "Demonize Iran to hoodwink the public into releasing the funds for another catastrophic religious/resource war."

    This story pays out twice. Once when it announced defeat over the "Bad Guys", and then again when it turns out that the Bad Guys were not defeated after all. End result? More pent-up frustration which the Western Populace has been trained is most easily released through gun fire.

    A propaganda wet-dream, and I agree, almost certainly deliberate, given that the media is bought and paid for. They even have Jon Stewart in line these days.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 17, 2010 @01:12AM (#33607696)

    I actually posted the first time a Haystack article appeared on Slashdot but I think because I am AC readers may have thought I was trolling. I knew Austin very well in high school and I stated that this software was probably just a ripoff off already available tools. I also stated that even in high school both he and his mother were very actively engaged in sending out press releases about him. They would do this regularly and often without anything new going on with him. They were all generally of the "boy wonder programmer" variety. I once asked him why he would send out releases for no reason and he would say (I'm paraphrasing, its been ten years) "you never know who will pick it up/any publicity is good". He also had a habit of "embiggening" the events of his life, at one point telling me he designed the SprintPCS website (remember when it was called that). It's pretty disappointing to learn that the software was useless if not dangerous, but not too surprising to me given his track record of big talk little action.

Forty two.