Is that an app in your pocket, or are you just happy to overthrow my government?

(Cross-posted at

Secrets, startups and awkward questions for USAID

Here are two curiously colliding stories about how the U.S. government provides aid and encourages democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in other countries. They reveal the awkward mix of altruism and agenda within USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. They might also inspire a bit of paranoia about who’s behind some of those clever apps on your phone.

US secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest

This provocative investigation from The Associated Press describes a secret program within USAID to build ZunZuneo, a mobile social network – a Twitter clone, really – for Cuba. USAID, which is part of the State Department, has an explicit mandate to promote democracy in other countries, so there’s nothing surprising about an attempt to enable more freedom of expression in Cuba, an island dictatorship that, like North Korea, remains frozen in an antiquated state of Cold War repression. But the clandestine nature of USAID’s ZunZuneo project, dangerous not only for its operatives but, potentially, for unsuspecting Cubans who used it, implies that the agency works more like an intelligence or espionage agency than like one focused, transparently, on building good will by sending U.S. money, resources and ideas to other countries. There was nothing transparent about this program, although it should be noted that AP seems to have pieced together the story not only with the help of sources and leaked documents but also from a variety of public records.

The ZunZuneo story raises serious questions for Americans who want their government to operate transparently, and for leaders and citizens of any country where USAID operates. We all have good reason to wonder: What other secret operations are under way, financed or funneled through USAID? How truthful are USAID claims about good will? How do we know any USAID program, say, one to train journalists, isn’t really a cover for a secret effort to encourage dissent, or to destabilize or overthrow a country’s government?

These are serious and practical, on-the-ground questions for aid workers and programs funded by USAID, including many, such as those of the NGO Internews, devoted to training and sustaining independent journalism.

The investment, startup and tech community will also focus on the ZunZuneo story’s inclusion of some well-known entrepreneurs, including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and the implication that the U.S. government is secretly funding and controlling some tech startups.

One other note: this sort of thing may be awkward for USAID to explain because it’s supposed to be an agency of diplomacy, soft power and American good will. But it would be completely “on mission” for a spy or military agency devoted to covert operations, which makes you wonder about where the playbook came from and what else is going on in secret tech startup spyland … on top of what we know from the Snowden files about the NSA’s work with every major tech company to intercept communications by anyone, anywhere …

Associated Press: US secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest

US agency shifts approach to global poverty.

Meanwhile, just as AP published its investigation, USAID announced a major overhaul of its approach to aid. The agency has created the Global Development Lab, a new unit to create new solutions to poverty and other problems.

From Nature:

The announcement marks a shift in USAID’s approach to global development, from funding organizations to meet specific goals with existing technologies to instead identifying problems and funding research into new technological interventions to solve them.

So at the same time that it’s facing what should be a storm of controversy about how it operates, USAID is also investing in a completely new way of solving big problems – not just by paying for food, services, training and other programs, but as an engine for new approaches through research, experimentation and collaboration.

To be completely optimistic, this holds the promise of completely new definitions for aid itself.

To be completely cynical, the new AP report reveals a hidden world of high tech intervention. So it’s also worth noting that USAID director Rajiv Shah compared the new Global Development Lab to DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. That’s a military R&D group, best known for creating the Internet.

“At DARPA, they define needs they are trying to meet — and find partners best suited to help find solutions, test them and scale them,” Shah said in Nature.

That description could well fit the ZunZuneo program in Cuba – which makes you wonder just what kind of new thinking will come out of the lab.

Nature: US agency shifts approach to global poverty

Photo Credit: “Havana pay phones” by Susan Sermoneta via Flickr / Creative Commons

Is it news or torture?


Unlike political campaigns, the battle for the hearts and minds of DC’s insiders never ends. Political media is big business. See: Politico. National Journal. Congressional Quarterly. Bloomberg Government.

Still, it was nice, in an old-school, bloggy nod to the wider web, to see links to elsewhere in the Washington Post’s first “edition” of Read In, a new morning summary launched today and “aimed at you, the Capitol Hill, K Street and campaign communities.” That’s not me, even if I do live in an approved Northern Virginia suburb. But I gave it a try and mostly liked it. I like to keep up, the less effort the better.

But here’s something I really, really, really did not like: the morning rundown of what to know referenced a new government report about “enhanced interrogation.” You had to click through to an Associated Press story to find the word the Post avoided: torture. Was that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos being hands-off or hands-on with his $250 million side project? There’s no good answer, and the omission is a price of admission I’m unwilling to pay, even for a freebie. It was also a reminder that words count, even when human dignity and suffering don’t.

The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.
Sarah Lewis on the gift of failure (via explore-blog)


Yesterday at SXSW, Barton Gellman and I did a one-hour introductory Q&A before Edward Snowden’s appearance. Right after Snowden and his colleagues from the ACLU wrapped up, I sat down and wrote up their event for The Guardian, who’ve just posted my impressions:

Snowden described the…


Anonymous asked:

neil im feeling suicidal and i think i might actually do it today... i just wanted to say that your one of my biggest inspirations on youtube. You taught me how to be happy. You taught me that things get better. You've helped me in many ways that i cant even list right now im grateful for what you have done for me along with other youtubers. I just cant thank you enough Neil. You taught me many things unlike my mom. i just cant thank you enough goodbye Neil.

my-name-is-really-neil-mcneil answered:

I’m 100% serious, please do not leave messages like this anonymously on tumblr.

If you’re feeling suicidal, please reach out for help. 

The future of photography is blurry

I am still in love with my Fujifilm X-E1, which I got for my birthday last July. I like the compact, retro rangefinder looks (I’ve got the silver model) – and I love the old-school experience and feel of shooting photos, of using an aperture ring and a shutter speed dial to adjust the exposure. It feels like photography as I learned it, with film, in the ’80s. It’s tactile. My fingers reach for switches and feel their mechanical clicks which, along with lots of digital, mirrorless magic, allow me to experiment, play and occasionally come up with good photos.

But this most wonderful camera of mine can not do this:

That’s a demo of the “refocus” capabilities in Nokia’s newest smartphones, which is similar to the infinite focus capabilities of the revolutionary Lytro Lightfield Camera, and apparently of Samsung’s newest flagship smartphone, the S5.

I wouldn’t trade my Fujifilm for any of them. But they’ve gotten me thinking. Photographers love to talk about the blurry background “blokeh” that the fastest and best lenses can produce, and these new cameras more than hint at new kinds of imaging technologies and apps that I suspect will soon render “fixed” focus cameras and photography obsolete. Post-processing digital photos in Photoshop / Lightroom / Aperture and other software is already a fundamental of photography, even for non-professionals who enjoy the filters in Instagram and other photo apps.

When focus can be figured out and manipulated after the shot has been captured, along with color, lighting, cropping and so many other parameters now adjusted with software, the term “post-processing” will itself become obsolete. Processing will be the real show and an extension of composition itself. The hardware will become trivial, lens apertures and shutter speeds forgotten. Even the “shot” itself may be forgotten when continuous capture of video makes the light squeeze of a shutter, or the tap of a finger, simply an on-off gesture handled with an eye-blink. The work of the photographer will come later, on a screen. It will be more like painting.



Curious that some recent posts and “analysis” about the failure of live video from old-guard news orgs such as The Washington Post and New York Times don’t mention the explosion of Youtube channels and networks, the rise of Youtube stars or successes with other kinds of non-fiction video from Vice and others.

OK, so bad, boring live video was a flop and even live video done well may have a limited audience if it’s on a computer or phone screen. Duly noted. But stories are crackling all around us, and story-tellers are pouncing on them with their video cams. Even late, there’s no reason to think that big media companies can’t figure out how to play in that space and add to it.

Some more difficult questions for big media companies: What do they add with their video? What’s their style? What’s their voice? Who is their audience?

Here’s a video from Vice Media’s, about British hip hop. It isn’t brilliant, but it’s lively, a little naughty and takes me somewhere new.



Do Brits Get Hip-Hop?

The UK hip-hop scene is a largely maligned part of British music. It’s often mocked for its propensities for peaked beanies, bad lyrics, silly names, and the overwhelming stench of cheap skunk. Clive and the team headed down to Bristol—the spiritual home of the British B-Boy scene—to investigate if people from the UK can rap, or if they should just leave it to the Americans.

No they don’t



Amtrak has begun offering “writers’ residencies” to, well, writers – long roundtrip rides aboard Amtrak trains dedicated solely for the purpose of writing. 

After New York City-based writer Jessica Gross took the first “test-run” residency, traveling from NYC to Chicago and back, Amtrak confirmed that it is indeed planning to turn the writers’ residencies into an established, long-term program, sending writers on trains throughout its network of routes.

First, let’s get it out of the way: The Wire is 100 percent on board with this idea. Pun intended, because we’re writers. We love writing, and we love trains, and we love them both together…