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Smile! You’re On Candid Camera Phone

It was many years ago, when I worked in a large city and I often had to walk several blocks from one large office complex to another during the course of the average work day. One afternoon I was trudging between buildings, head bent, lost in thought; I passed the entrance to a small, dark alleyway just as a new Porsche roared up from the gloom. The car fishtailed to a stop a few inches from my kneecaps, and I froze, immobile with fear. The driver was a budding Master of the Universe—thirtyish, well dressed, obviously used to money, privilege, and a certain quantum of power.

From the Fall 2018 Culture Shift issue of California.

Reading Roundup: Facebook, Fires, Fashion, and More

Freaky Fires

While it’s not news that the golden state has taken on a crackling red hue from recent wildfires, reports of the fires’ behaviors are blazingly bizarre.

It’s been commonly observed by firefighters that fires slow down at night, according to Scott L. Stephens, UC Berkeley professor of fire science. But a number of recent fires have said “to hell with the slow burn!” and begun spreading quickly even when the sun goes down.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Facebook?

We may never know the true number of Facebook users who suffered data breaches as a result of Cambridge Analytica’s antics, or what it all means in terms of personal security. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg certainly didn’t provide a great deal of insight when he testified before Congress today.

Underlying the brouhaha are a couple of overriding questions: Who’s to blame, and how to fix it? Also, perhaps, is Facebook’s time done? Is the breach one of trust as much as data, and is it so damaging that the social media giant will founder?

Truth and Power

In a letter to an Anglican bishop in the late 19th century, English Catholic Baron John Dalberg-Acton would drop what would become one of the most popular aphorisms about the nature of man: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For a hundred some years post-Acton, the bulk of scientific research supported this ubiquitous idea, with countless studies revealing that when humans are handed power, they become more self-serving and ruthless.

From the Winter 2017 Power issue of California.

We Know Russia Used Big Tech to Meddle In the Election. Now What?

Representatives from three of Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech firms—Facebook, Google, and Twitter—trooped up to Capitol Hill last week and told senators they were really, really sorry the Russians hacked their platforms and may even have influenced the recent presidential election. But their contrition wasn’t followed by substantive plans to remedy the situation.

Antidote to Fake News: The Investigations Lab Teaches Digital Skepticism

For criminal investigators, seeing is not believing. The keys to their work are skepticism, multiple hypotheses, and guarding against bias. It takes specialized training to apply that mindset in the digital world where yearly, a trillion photographs and videos are uploaded. Teaching students how to rigorously verify open source material found on social media is the mission of the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center’s Investigation Lab at Berkeley Law.

Paint by Numbers: Algorithms for the Artistically Challenged

As a 10-year-old growing up in Shanghai, Jun-Yan Zhu often avoided homework with furtive doodling. He’d sketch comics or movie characters in pencil, then erase the evidence before his mother saw it. Much as he loved drawing, however, he wasn’t very good at it. He dreamed of a world where everyone, even those who lacked the talent, could easily communicate in pictures.

From the Winter 2016 Reality Bites issue of California.

Bye-Bye Balance: Skewed and False News Is on the Rise

Democrats are still stumbling around in the smoldering rubble of the 2016 presidential election, struggling to identify just what went wrong for them. Several theories are vying for primacy: voting fraud (or at least, inaccurate ballot counting), the Democratic Party’s disconnect with white working class voters, Trump’s bonding with the same, Trump’s uncanny tapping of surging nativist and xenophobic sentiment, the American susceptibility to celebrity, and Clinton’s bedrock weakness as a candidate.

Step Right Up: I’m a Voter and a Lab-Rat

If you shared Facebook’s “I’m A Voter” app in a recent election, you might have become a nice data point for the social media giant and a couple of resourceful political scientists. In the 2010 midterms, the graphic was pinned to 61 million newsfeeds and it turned out that users who saw that their friends were voting were .4 percent more likely to vote than those in the control group (the people without the app). Apparently, this social pressure added 340,000 new voters to the 2010 election cycle.

From the Fall 2016 The Greatest Show On Earth issue of California.

Step Right Up: How to Feign Political Competence in Your 20s

In the Internet age, saying “I don’t know” about a political issue is considered socially unacceptable. After all, if we have all this information at our fingertips, the least we can do is a quick Google search. Like, really. It’s the least we can do. And the least is what most people do.

It’s hard to take a long look in the mirror and see blatant indecision staring back at you. So to avoid this self-reflection, there are ways to fake political knowledge. You know you don’t know anything about politics, but nobody else has to know that.

From the Fall 2016 The Greatest Show On Earth issue of California.

Are You Paid Less Than a Tech Intern? Cal Student Conducts Eye-Opening Survey

Tales of internship compensation are typically depressing, in that there is, all too often, no compensation. But in the spirit of misery loving herself some company, recent findings by a UC Berkeley student revealed how much students are being offered for summer internships at top U.S. tech companies—finally giving people with “real jobs” a turn to feel sad and underappreciated.

Confessions of a Tech Reporter: Like Other Freethinkers, I Did What Steve Jobs Wanted

For a brief moment, back when the tech revolution was young, I was an early adopter.

I was sucked in by that 1984 Apple ad that ran during the Super Bowl. I can’t recall a thing about the game, but I remember every detail of that ad: the woman running in her tank top one step ahead of the goons; the rows of corporate weirdos staring in open-mouthed horror; the hammer sailing toward the giant screen, smashing the Big Brother cult.

From the Winter 2015 Breaking News issue of California.

Confessions of an Online Journalist: How I Killed My Profession

In the fall of 1994, when I was a young reporter struggling to pay the rent, I wrote a cover story for the San Francisco Bay Guardian: “Plugging In: An Idiot’s Guide to the Internet.” I explained why a 14.4 baud modem was a great deal, and reported that the Internet was a fantastic resource because “all kinds of information are available.”

I am so, so, sorry.

From the Winter 2015 Breaking News issue of California.

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