Entries from November 2010 ↓

Digest 10

This digest is a trip back to about a month and a half ago — the distant past, as far as Internet info-junkies are concerned. Cool online reading you might have missed from September’s second half. Posting this, I excised stuff that wasn’t sufficiently evergreen, as journo slang goes. Back in ye oldie days of late September, offline I was (as I recall) moving from William Gibson’s Zero History to Deidre McNamer’s Red Rover for fiction-reading, and for music, I was moving from I’m not sure what to I’m not sure what, either, so I’ll just suggest you check out James McMurtry and Dan Dubuque for your ears.

  • At Talking Points Memo, Robert Reich (economist & former Secretary of Labor under Clinton) continues to explain just how doomed the American middle class is. Yo, if you’re in the USA reading this, he’s probably talking about you!

    The problem isn’t the cost of capital. Most businesses can get all the money they need. […]

    The problem is consumers, who are 70 percent of the economy. They can’t and won’t buy enough to turn the economy around. Most don’t qualify for more credit given how much they already owe […]

    Without consumers, businesses have no reason to borrow more. Except to speculate by buying back their own stock and doing mergers and acquisitions […]

    Say the White House and Ben Bernanke got everything they wanted to boost the economy. At some point these boosts would have to end. […]

    After three decades of flat wages during which almost all the gains of growth have gone to the very top, the middle class no longer has the buying power to keep the economy going. It can’t send more spouses into paid work, can’t work more hours, can’t borrow any more. All the coping mechanisms are exhausted. […]

    So what’s the answer? Reorganizing the economy to make sure the vast middle class has a larger share of its benefits. Remaking the basic bargain linking pay to per-capita productivity.

  • You want to look at this headline-and-picture-only page at The Onion, really, you do, after reading the above; it’ll make you laugh.

  • This nine-minute cartoon (with audio) by the Kaiser Family Foundation does a good job of explaining the new healthcare reform law (Affordable Care Act, as amended). (I noticed it thanks to the blog Alas.)

  • Thomas L. Friedman in the NYT can haz what appears to be legit economic troof:

    China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports; another is building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience, where the Beijing Genomics Institute this year ordered 128 DNA sequencers — from America — giving China the largest number in the world in one institute to launch its own stem cell/genetic engineering industry; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities. […]

    Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan. […]

    In this (October! I’m cheating!) full transcript of an interview with (timid?) progressive bloggers, Obama says the same and similar international competition worries him.

    What keeps me up at night is China, Germany, India, Brazil — they’re moving. They make decisions, we’re going to pursue clean energy, and the next thing you know they’ve cornered half the clean energy market; we’re going to develop high-speed rail in the span of five years — suddenly they’ve got high-speed rail lines going; we’re going to promote exports, here’s what we’re going to do — boom, they get going.

    And if we can’t sort of execute on key issues that will determine our competitiveness over the long term, we’re going to fall behind — we are going to fall behind.

  • This ~3 minute audio+video NPR animation, which I noticed on Boing Boing, tells about the highways miles above our heads, where billions of bugs travel daily. For me, the video and the information both are strangely moving. There’s always something to learn. And, we hope, life goes on.

  • The Onion reports that the Department of Defense has unveiled a new $83 million thing that shoots.

    Lynn also emphasized to reporters that the new device will only shoot at bad people.

  • In a NYT op-ed, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons brainily bust up self-helpers who make money off people’s hardwired cognitive biases. You know, THE SECRET and THE POWER and &tc, which take advantage of

    the [problematic] human tendency to see things that happen in sequence — first the positive thinking, then the positive results — as forming a chain of cause and effect. […] If we hear only about the crazy coincidences (“I was thinking about getting the job offer, and right then I got the call!”), not the unconnected events (“I thought about getting the offer, but it never came” or “I wasn’t thinking about the offer, then I got it”) or even the nonevents (“I didn’t think I would get the offer, and indeed I didn’t get it”), then we get a distorted picture. […] When Byrne tells her readers to “make a connection” between the good things they do and the good things that come to them, she is focusing their attention on positive examples of the law of attraction, thereby reinforcing the illusion that it actually works.

  • Lifehacker says Google’s Chrome browser continues to gain favor over Firefox among the Net’s power users (who these users are, I’m not sure, but Cory Doctorow has to be among them, though at last check he’s still a Firefoxer). Me? I use Firefox, for now. Or rather, I POWER-USE Firefox. Anyway, the LifeHacker post offers some reasons for Chrome’s ever-increasing power-popularity.

  • Speaking of Cory, here he is in The Guardian talking about artists’ e-biz.

    The sad truth is that almost everything almost every artist tries to earn money will fail. […] Consider the remarkable statement from Alanis Morissette’s attorney at the Future of Music Conference: 97% of the artists signed to a major label before Napster earned $600 or less a year from it. And these were the lucky lotto winners, the tiny fraction of 1% who made it to a record deal. […]

    If you’re an artist and you’re interested in trying to give stuff away to sell more, I’ve got some advice for you, as I wrote here […]

    But I don’t care if you want to attempt to stop people from copying your work over the internet […]. I mean, it sounds daft to me, but I’ve been surprised before.

    But here’s what I do care about. I care if your plan involves using “digital rights management” technologies that prohibit people from opening up and improving their own property; […] if your plan involves bulk surveillance of the internet to catch infringers, if your plan requires extraordinarily complex legislation to be shoved through parliament without democratic debate […]

    And this is the plan that the entertainment industries have pursued in their doomed attempt to prevent copying.

  • Boing Boing gives you a glimpse inside a stolen credit card site. Users purchase stolen credit card information using gray-market, anonymizing currencies such as Belize-based Webmoney.

  • “A team of researchers from Facebook,” starts this SmartBlog on Social Media post, and here I have to stop to evoke the image of a bunch of profile pics becoming self-aware and creeping across cables to gang together all for the purpose of doing research on actual humans: “A team of researchers from Facebook.” Sounds like a horror movie. Anyway. The researchers in question have found a way to predict Facebook users’ ethnicity by fiddling with name data and Census data. Among the team’s findings:

    The ethnic makeup of Facebook users has steadily become more diverse and now generally reflects the U.S. population, unlike a few years ago, when Caucasians and Asian/Pacific Islanders were over-represented.

    Users are more likely to be friends with, and communicate most often with, people of the same ethnicity.

  • The NYT praises a new documentary about Glenn Gould, the eccentric and genius pianist who specialized in playing JS Bach.

  • Wired reports the FBI stuck a GPS tracking device on a car to spy on an actually innocent 20-year-old student in California. In his private driveway. Apparently without a warrant.

    His discovery comes in the wake of a recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying it’s legal for law enforcement to secretly place a tracking device on a suspect’s car without getting a warrant, even if the car is parked in a private driveway.

  • Dan Ariely, a Duke Professor of Psychology & Behavioral Economics, author of The Upside of Irrationality and the NYT Bestseller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, and Psychology Today blogger, (whew!), writes of forcing people to save, saying, among other things:

    I was impressed with [Chile’s] system and wondered how it would fly in the United States, where our own mandated savings program—Social Security—undergoes sporadic efforts to privatize it.

    I suspect Americans would consider the Chilean system heavy-handed and limiting—a flagrant example of nanny-state control. […] Paradoxically, we happily accept deeply controlling (and expensive) regulation on our behavior in other areas with little thought or protest. […] Wear a seat belt. Drive this speed. Bear the cost of air bags. Pollute only this much. Don’t text while driving.

    Why do we accept so much government intervention in driving but chafe when it comes to a few simple rules that would help us make better financial decisions? It’s probably not because we think we’re smarter about finances than driving. I think the reason has to do with our ability to imagine negative consequences.

    Not to mention disinformation designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer; recently, Rick Perry (unfortunately the Governor of Texas) has called for allowing states (including Texas) to secede from (federal) Social Security and health care delivery.

  • Several states, including Texas and California, have outsourced some (formerly) public libraries to a private company, LSSI. The company chooses the library books.

    Under the new contract, the branches will be withdrawn from county control and all operations — including hiring staff and buying books — ceded to L.S.S.I. […]

    “There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”

    Maybe the Old Spice guy can stop the privatization of libraries.

  • A Salon article calling for a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which stops federal funds from going toward abortion.

  • Writer John Scalzi’s hilarious review of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.

    Rand is an efficient storyteller that way: You know early on what the rules of her world are, she sticks with those rules, and you as the reader are on a rail all the way through the story. […] Basically, I find her storytelling restful, which I suppose isn’t a word used much to describe her technique […]

    That said, it’s a totally ridiculous book which can be summed up as Sociopathic idealized nerds collapse society because they don’t get enough hugs. […] Indeed, the enduring popularity of Atlas Shrugged lies in the fact that it is nerd revenge porn — if you’re an nerd of an engineering-ish stripe who remembers all too well being slammed into your locker by a bunch of football dickheads, then the idea that people like you could make all those dickheads suffer by “going Galt” has a direct line to the pleasure centers of your brain. [… Rand’s heroes] disappear into a crevasse that Google Maps will not show because the Google people are our kind of people, and a year later they come out and everyone who was ever mean to them will have starved. […]

    All of this is fine, if one recognizes that the idealized world Ayn Rand has created to facilitate her wishful theorizing has no more logical connection to our real one than a world in which an author has imagined humanity ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt.

  • With a 7-6 vote right in time for Governor Rick Perry’s unfortunate re-election, Talking Points Memo reports, the Texas State Board of Education has warned textbook publishers to get rid of allegedly “pro-Islamic, anti-Christian” teachings. (NPR’s version.) One parent supporting the move said:

    she read through a section of her son’s history book and found four pages on Islam and only one reference to the Bible. Asked by a board member what the section was titled, she replied, “Life in the Eastern Hemisphere.”

    Don McLeroy, one of the board’s “most conservative members” said

    textbook publishers have been biased in favor of Islam for years. He argued that “one of the greatest gifts to the world was medieval Christendom,” citing an essay he had written in 2002 titled “The Gift of Medieval Christendom to the World.”

    Crusades, anyone?

    Many worry that because of the size of the Texas market, the State Board of Education’s warnings to publishers have nationwide implications. (A dissent on this point: Secretary of Education Duncan).

  • It turns out Bill Clinton eats a “plant-based diet.” Video and transcript at the link; Boing Boing discussion here.

  • The NYT Editorial Board reminds you healthcare reform isn’t causing the spiking premiums you might be seeing, with few, minor exceptions.

    you can blame economic reality. The cost of medical care continues to soar upward, and the recession led many healthy people to drop coverage, leaving less-healthy enrollees who cost more to insure.

    As for health care reform, the major elements, and major costs, don’t even kick in until 2014. The only provisions with the potential to affect premiums right now are a handful of consumer protections that are popular with the public, and not especially costly to implement.

  • Sociological Images blogs about ethnic maps of cities made by Eric Fischer. Here’s what he says about the Fort Worth map (which applies, I presume, to the others as well):

    Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people. Data from Census 2000. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA

    And here’s the Fort Worth map itself. Notice the segregation caused by freeways.

  • Found at Boing Boing: Netflix pays live actors to praise, in disguise, the company to the press at an event.

  • The American Prospect discusses real-world tyranny: America’s secret killing program directed at its own citizens who aren’t charged with anything and who have no due process. You think I’m wearing a tin foil hat? Read on.

    This is the sort of thing that belongs in repressive dictatorships or dystopian sci-fi movies; Tea Partiers like to blather about the injustice of their tax dollars going to poor people, but this — the unrestrained exercise of violence by the state — is an actual perversion of America and its values.

    The Prospect excerpted Glenn Greenwald’s original article at Salon, which says:

    In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration late last night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims. That’s not surprising: both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality. But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.

  • The freshly minted US Cyber Command is calling for a government VPN! Well, sorta. More like a darknet.

  • Have you ever wondered the best strategy for surviving an elevator plunge (can I use “wondered” as a transitive verb? Does my poetic license extend that far?)? I used to think you were supposed to jump right when the elevator hit the floor, but NPR (actually, Mary Roach, quoted) says jumping only delays the inevitable. Instead you should lie down, on your bottom.

  • Another noticed off Boing Boing: Al Jazeera feature story on the US drones now patrolling the entire US-Mexico border.

    James K Polk, America’s former president, claimed in 1846 that Mexico “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil”.

    It wasn’t true, but no matter. The lie justified a war […]

    “The border patrol has gone from about 10,000 to 20,000 agents in less than a decade, [and] many of their new hires are coming directly out of military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq or other theatres in the ‘war on terror’,” says Geoff Boyce […]

    The predator drone itself is “leading the situational awareness revolution” with “surveillance, reconnaissance and hunter-killer missions over land and sea”, according to manufacturers. The drones on the US-Mexico border are to be used for surveillance, not targeted killings, but the Predator B model can be equipped with weapons capability. […]

    when Janet Napolitano, the US homeland security secretary, announced new drones and other “security” measures on August 30, she admitted that crime rates were low along the border.

  • Via Boing Boing (once more!): Columbia law professor Tim Wu, who coined the term Net Neutrality, speaks in this ~35min video about the Google-Verizon alliance against it. Despite what FOX says, Net Neutrality promotes four freedoms: the right to access any internet site, use applications one chooses, hook up one’s gadgets to one’s other gadgets freely, and be dealt with transparently. Google was the most powerful advocate for it in DC, and supposedly they still are, but their interest in the smartphone market (i.e. the pressures of $$$) seems to be reversing their position in actual practice.

    As to Net Neutrality: Do you want a choice of, say, only three smartphones, which block you from accessing the other smartphone companies’ websites, and from accessing, say, Wikileaks or Al-Jazeera or whomever DC might want blocked in exchange for granting the companies’ near-(effective)-monopoly power? It’s an ideological war, and smartphones, Wu says, are the computers of the future.

  • Mother Jones reports on whether your favorite organic egg company is a factory farm in disguise. They researched and produced a handy scorecard grading organic egg companies on such things as outside verification.

  • The culture of hackers, politely explained at the Atlantic, by means of a syllabus.

  • In the NYT teaching assistants give great advice for incoming freshmen. For outgoing humanities undergrads, on the other hand, there’s this animation:

  • Andrew C. Revkin at the NYT blogs on the question: “In Pursuing Progress, Should Borders Matter?.” A commentator told him:

    The only moral obligation we have is to first help those in our country. After that, should we have the time and money, we can help in the third world. But there is no moral obligation.

    Revkin replied:

    This is one of the fundamental issues of our time: Figuring out where borders of various kinds end. When your pants are made in Bangladesh, your cellphone components require minerals from gorilla habitat in Congo, your next deadly flu threat comes from a poultry/pig farm in China and your (and China’s) emissions (slowly) influence the climate and coastal future around the world, where do your interests — and responsibilities — end?

    My answer in support of local altruism (as opposed to altruism aimed at foreign recipients) is, despite my preference for a citizen-of-the-planet approach, basically that engagement with one’s community leads to better benefits overall: you get to know more people who can help, you can personally vouch for the success of your charity, you can see the results and adjust your strategies, etc. I don’t have the maths to prove my sense of it, and I imagine a lot of this will continue to change with them thar globalization…and utilitarianism doesn’t seem to cut it in any ethical case…

  • At Salon, Laura Miller discusses the literati’s fight over the use of the present tense versus the past tense in fiction.

    So is this much ado about nothing? Not if you teach creative writing or judge literary contests. Whenever I find myself talking to people who have done either, I ask them if they’ve noticed any trends in subject matter or form. On three separate occasions recently, this has prompted long, exasperated rants about the present tense. “They can’t even say why they’re doing it,” remarked one writing teacher of his students. “They just see it a lot and start using it because it seems ‘literary’ to them. It’s a mannerism.” I judged a literary prize myself last year, and can testify that a preponderance of enervated, present-tense fiction made up the daily portion of entries I slogged through.

  • From Wired, noticed off (where else?) Boing Boing, a pamphlet authored by “federal law enforcement” contains tips for spying on your neighbors to see if they’re terrorists — authoritarian snitching culture. Tips include suggestions such as: Watch for “the adoption of a new name”; Watch for “behavior that could indicate participation in surveillance of potential targets”; etc.

  • I like the blog Alas, but here the comments school the blogger, in my opinion, on the original post’s philosophical meanderings about public schools. I’m glad for the post, though; the discussion was worthwhile, and if everyone’s posts had to be perfect, there wouldn’t be any posts.

  • The best editorial cartoon on the need to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

  • NPR on the Stuxnet malware, perhaps the first shot in cyber-warfare. Here’s the take at Boing Boing. Some think (thought?) it was/is aimed at Iranian nuclear facilities. Totally something out of Neuromancer.

  • Speaking of Neuromancer, here’s a duo of interviews with its author, William Gibson, currently promoting his latest, Zero History. Interview #1, at Maud Newton’s place.

    [Gibson:] Someone said that if a fourteen-year-old boy writes a novel, it’s got to be set in a post-apocalyptic world, because a fourteen-year-old boy doesn’t know anything about how the world works (laughs). But if you smash the shit out of it, it’s easy to depict, and he can do a rather convincing job of depicting how people would behave in it.

    I think I was in somewhat that position when I began to write. I didn’t have the confidence to depict more complex emotional characterization. Some people have unkindly assumed that this is characteristic of much genre SF and fantasy anyway. So it could have something to do with science fiction having been my native literary culture. But as I’ve gone along, with quite a bit of effort, I think I’ve been able to widen that bandwidth a little. […]

    I see [the blurring/mixing of meatspace and cyberspace] as inevitable. I mean, in order to stop it, something so drastic would have to happen that none of us would be having a good time at all! It’s just what we do. We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time. I think that’s where it’s at, as people used to say in the sixties. It isn’t as though I have any space in which to stand and say “This is loathsome!” or “This is exciting!” It seems an awful lot like Frederic Jameson’s definition of the postmodern sublime, which if I recall correctly is the mingled apprehension of dread and ecstasy.

    Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts — diary entries of individuals encountering those things — it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.

    Interview #2. At an event hosted by Intelligence Squared, Gibson and Cory Doctorow had a wide-ranging hour-long discussion; the complete audio is embedded below (check the link for a pop-out with additional functionality), as is the teaser video; to (legally) watch the full video, you have to pay serious dough to join Intelligence Squared, which you can do here.

  • And a bonus. CuspTech from the WilliamGibsonBoard.com snapped a picture with himself, Zero History, and the 2010 marker for the South Pole.

  • In step with recent moves by regimes such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the Obama Administration wants — the NYT originally reported — to press for sweeping new legislation in early 2011 that requires any and all communication devices (including the ‘Net) to respond (via backdoors) such as to allow the US government to be “able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.”

    As best as anyone can make out — including, I surmise, Wikileaks — end-to-end AES-256 encryption is (now and perhaps forever) an absolutely unbreakable cryptography scheme that allows private citizens to say to one another “Neener-neener, NSA” or to have cybersex with one another or to communicate whatever without being surveilled/wiretapped by the powers-that-probably-shouldn’t-be-and-who-don’t-care-about-warrants. But if your comm gadget sends un-encoded (“plaintext”) messages through the backdoor to the authorities at the same time as it sends top-secret encoded messages to your buddy, your encoding (crypto) efforts are in vain. The NYT says “unscramble encrypted messages” but given AES-256 it seems “bypass encrypted messages” is more what is meant.

    The EFF reports on this hopefully-not-forthcoming 2011 backdoor plan, and security expert & civil libertarian Bruce Schneier tears the plan apart:

    Formerly reserved for totalitarian countries, this wholesale surveillance of citizens has moved into the democratic world as well. Governments like Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom are debating or passing laws giving their police new powers of internet surveillance, in many cases requiring communications system providers to redesign products and services they sell. More are passing data retention laws, forcing companies to retain customer data […]

    Obama isn’t the first U.S. president to seek expanded digital eavesdropping. […] Since 2001, the National Security Agency has built substantial eavesdropping systems within the United States.

    These laws are dangerous, […] government eavesdropping reduces privacy and liberty; that’s obvious. But the laws also make us less safe. […]

    Any surveillance and control system must itself be secured, and we’re not very good at that. Why does anyone think that only authorized law enforcement will mine collected internet data or eavesdrop on Skype and IM conversations?

    These risks are not theoretical. […] The most serious known misuse of a telecommunications surveillance infrastructure took place in Greece. Between June 2004 and March 2005, someone wiretapped more than 100 cell phones belonging to members of the Greek government — the prime minister and the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and justice — and other prominent people. Ericsson built this wiretapping capability into Vodafone’s products, but enabled it only for governments that requested it. Greece wasn’t one of those governments, but some still unknown party — a rival political group? organized crime? — figured out how to surreptitiously turn the feature on.

    Now that the midterm elections are over, stopping all this will probably become my next civic-responsibility project.

  • A concluding item: Norm Mangusson’s I-75 art-activism project, which I learned about off the blog Sociological Images. Two pics should give you the gist.

That’s all, folks! Return to your November world, so far away!