Snap quiz:  What do the following verses have in common?

And that’s how it went
all afternoon, one lizard
after another

It made me wonder
if snow leopards have a taste
for joggers as well

As is typical,
the Pope stayed above the fray
and did not comment.

Whether such tactics
will have a chilling effect
remains to be seen.

Answer: All four are inadvertent haikus, composed by humans but discovered by machines.

The first two come from a Tumblr blog created by New York Times editor Jacob Harris, who adapted some open-source compter code to scan the homepage of the New York Times, looking for snippets of text that conform to the Haiku syllabic structure: 5:7:5.

“Sometimes it can be an ordinary sentence in context, but pulled out of context it has a strange comedy or beauty to it,” Harris told the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The next two come from Haikuleaks, a project that searched for serendipitous poetry among the thousands of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010.

A purest might say these poems are not really haikus, since they lack the requisite seasonal reference (kigo), and the twist (kireji) that injects the last line with surprise.

“Not every haiku our computer finds is a good one,” Harris wrote on the Times Haiku blog. “The algorithm discards some potential poems if they are awkwardly constructed, and it does not scan articles covering sensitive topics. Furthermore, the machine has no aesthetic sense. It can’t distinguish between an elegant verse and a plodding one. But, when it does stumble across something beautiful or funny or just a gem of a haiku, human journalists select it and post it on this blog.”

Both the Times project and Haikuleaks have their roots in Haiku Finder, an open source python script that crawls through text and ferrets out haiku. You can try it yourself by copying a large block of text—the bigger the better—and pasting it into the Haiku Finder search box.

If you do that with, oh, say, Nova Scotia’s broken Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Haiku Finder coughs up this ironic bit of poetic wisdom:

Where accuracy
is critical, please consult
official sources.




Chief Electoral Obfuscation Officer

Before the end of June, each year, Nova Scotia law requires the Chief Electoral Officer to a publish all the political contributions made in the previous year. For the years 2007, 2008, and 2009, Christine McCulloch complied with the law, posting the information to the Elections Nova Scotia website in a manner that was accessible, searchable, printable, and even, with effort, downloadable to a citizen’s own database.

This gave every citizen the tools to determine whether contractors who won big roadbuilding contracts, storeowners who won liquor commission franchises, or communications consultants (like me!) who were selected for Communications Nova Scotia’s Standing Offer List were also disproportionate donors to the governing party (or any other party). The system was accountable, transparent, and fully compliant with the law and with the province’s website accessibility standards.

This summer, McCulloch quietly kneecapped it.

The data is still there; It’s just that McCulloch has deliberately impaired the citizen’s ability to access it in a useful way. The 2010 political donations appear in a locked, graphic PDF file. This means a citizen can read it, but can’t search for a name, address, donation amount, or any other information it contains, other than by leafing through it. It’s as if Canada411 replaced its searchable database with a hard copy phone book.

In an email, Elections Nova Scotia spokesman Dana Philip Doiron defended the change on grounds that the agency  is ”bound by the Privacy Act, which requires that we guard against misuse of private information — names, addresses, etc.’ [My emphasis.] Doiron didn’t say whether he meant the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP), or the federal Privacy Act. The latter has no application to the provincial government. Since the Chief Electoral Officer reports to the Speaker of the House of Assembly, it’s extremely doubtful whether the provincial act applies either, even if one excepts the dubious claim that the FOIPOP Act prohibits release of names and addresses specifically mandated by another act.

In any case, the new restrictions don’t shield the names and addresses of donors. They’re all there for anyone willing to take the time and effort to find them. They’re just unsearchable and un-copyable. This makes the information less useful to citizens, researchers, and reporters. Whether McCulloch’s retreat from accessibility is an actual violation of the law requiring disclosure, or merely an affront to its spirit, a skeptical citizen would be forgiven for concluding that she deliberately chose a method of publication that would subvert accessibility, openness, and transparency. The fact that the news release announcing the 2010 donations list failed to disclose the change, and that it listed a link to the document that does not function, doesn’t increase confidence.

It’s extremely disappointing that Ms. McCulloch would behave like this. If the Nova Scotia’s Chief Electoral Officer won’t stand up for transparent and accessible disclosure of political donations, who the heck will?

H/T: Wallace McLean