This week: How entire U.S. towns now rely on food stamps. The regrets of the Iraqi “sledgehammer man,” whose image became famous in Western media when Saddam’s statue fell. The Obama administration’s epic (and hypocritical) focus on secrecy. The demise of Google Reader and what it portends for Net-i-fied life and culture. The sinister rise of an all-pervasive — and unblinkingly embraced — Orwellian Big Brotherism in the age of Big Data, with a focus on Facebook’s “Like” button, Google Glass, and Google’s vision of “a future of frictionless, continuous shopping.” A surge of ghost sightings and spiritual troubles among survivors of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. The rise of the “Little Free Libraries” movement in America and abroad.
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Food stamps put Rhode Island town on monthly boom-and-bust cycle
Eli Saslow, The Washington Post, March 16, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Obviously, this article isn’t just about Rhode Island. Or to say the same thing a different way: if this article is about Rhode Island, then we’re all Rhode Island now.]
At precisely one second after midnight, on March 1, Woonsocket [experienced] its monthly financial windfall — nearly $2 million from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Federal money would be electronically transferred to the broke residents of a nearly bankrupt town, where it would flow first into grocery stores and then on to food companies, employees and banks, beginning the monthly cycle that has helped Woonsocket survive.
Three years into an economic recovery, this is the lasting scar of collapse: a federal program that began as a last resort for a few million hungry people has grown into an economic lifeline for entire towns. Spending on SNAP has doubled in the past four years and tripled in the past decade, surpassing $78 billion last year. A record 47 million Americans receive the benefit — including 13,752 in Woonsocket, one-third of the town’s population, where the first of each month now reveals twin shortcomings of the U.S. economy:
So many people are forced to rely on government support.
The government is forced to support so many people.
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Saddam’s Statue: The Bitter Regrets of Iraq’s Sledgehammer Man
Peter Beaumont, The Observer, March 9, 2013
Teaser: Kadom al-Jabouri became famous when he took his hammer to the dictator’s statue. Now he wishes he had never done it.
Ten years ago, Kadom al-Jabouri became the face of the fall of Baghdad. Pictured with a sledgehammer while attempting to demolish the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in the city’s Firdos Square, Jabouri’s jubilant act of destruction made front pages around the world. For Tony Blair and President George W Bush, the image was a godsend, encapsulating the delight of a grateful nation that their hated dictator had been ousted. The US networks showed the statue’s fall for hours on end.
However, almost exactly a decade later, the “sledgehammer man” — who was helped by a US tank carrier to finally topple the statue — furiously regrets that afternoon and the symbolism of what he was involved in. “I hated Saddam,” the 52-year-old owner of a motorcycle spares shop told the Observer. “I dreamed for five years of bringing down that statue, but what has followed has been a bitter disappointment. Then we had only one dictator. Now we have hundreds,” he says, echoing a popular sentiment in a country mired in political problems and corruption, where killings still occur on an almost daily basis. “Nothing has changed for the better.”
. . . . The “saturation coverage” of the fall of Saddam’s statue — according to the most in-depth analysis by the New Yorker’s Peter Maass two years ago — “fuelled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less.” The reality, as seen by Jabouri and other Iraqis with the benefit of hindsight, is that the worst times were only beginning, not coming an end.
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Obama’s Secrecy Fixation Causing Sunshine Week Implosion
Glenn Greenwald, On Security and Liberty, The Guardian, March 14, 2013
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his pledges of openness and transparency were not ancillary to his campaign but central to it. He repeatedly denounced the Bush administration as “one of the most secretive administrations in our nation’s history”, saying that “it is no coincidence” that such a secrecy-obsessed presidency “has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight.” He vowed: “as president, I’m going to change that” . . . . Obama continues even now to parade around as a historically unprecedented champion of openness.
. . . . Along with others, I’ve spent the last four years documenting the extreme, often unprecedented, commitment to secrecy that this president has exhibited, including his vindictive war on whistleblowers, his refusal to disclose even the legal principles underpinning his claimed war powers of assassination, and his unrelenting, Bush-copying invocation of secrecy privileges to prevent courts even from deciding the legality of his conduct (as a 2009 headline on the Obama-friendly TPM site put it: “Expert Consensus: Obama Mimics Bush On State Secrets”). Just this week, the Associated Press conducted a study proving that last year, the Obama administration has [sic] rejected more FOIA requests on national security grounds than in any year since Obama became president, and quoted Alexander Abdo, an ACLU staff attorney for its national security project, as follows: “We’ve seen a meteoric rise in the number of claims to protect secret law, the government’s interpretations of laws or its understanding of its own authority. In some ways, the Obama administration is actually even more aggressive on secrecy than the Bush administration.”
Re-read that last sentence in italics. Most of those policies have been covered here at length, and I won’t repeat them here. But what is remarkable is that this secrecy has become so oppressive and extreme that even the most faithful Democratic operatives are now angrily exploding with public denunciations. . . . It is telling indeed that even Democratic loyalists are losing their patience with Obama’s secrecy obsession, as it reveals just how extreme it is. And all of this from a president who not only centrally vowed in his campaign to usher in a new era of transparency, but who still praises himself for having done so.
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Farewell, Dear Reader
Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker, March 15, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In case you hadn’t heard, Google is officially shutting down Google Reader, its excellent RSS feed and keyword search management service that many of us formerly used or still use as a primary means of keeping up with the world of online reading. Despite the fact that Google as a whole has become a kind of graveyard of failed Internet products, the news that they’re pulling the plug on Reader is particularly jarring and poignant, for reasons that are nicely articulated in this online piece by Joshua Rothman for The New Yorker (although one can, and should, disagree with Rothman’s judgment that Twitter and its ilk represent “a better model” for readers and reading). It’s also worth noting that the same article and phenomenon highlight the fact that, inside the existentially vacuum-like virtual realm of the Internet, the span of time that’s necessary for generating or accessing the experience of nostalgia is undergoing a dramatic and, when it comes right down to it, rather surreal compression.]
When I found out yesterday — via Twitter, of course — that Google would be shutting down its Google Reader, I felt a surprising wave of nostalgia. I don’t spend much time using Google Reader nowadays, but for a few years, when I was a newspaper columnist for the Boston Globe, it was the first Web site I saw in the morning and the last I saw before bed. . . . Today, in an exploratory spirit, I logged back in. Google Reader, I discovered, is like an infinite attic. Inside it, your old interests, which you’ve outgrown or set aside, keep on growing. It’s as though your old passions wandered off and lived their own lives, without you.
. . . . In announcing the closure of Reader, Google said that usage has been declining, and I can see why. Reader was made for absurdly ambitious readers. It’s designed for people like me — or, rather, for people like the person I used to be — that is, for people who really do intend to read everything. You might feel great when you reach Inbox Zero, but, believe me, it feels even better to reach Reader Zero: to scroll and scan until you’ve seen it all. Twitter, which has replaced Reader (and R.S.S.) for many people, works on a different principle. It’s not organized or completist. There are no illusions with Twitter. You can’t pretend, by “marking it read,” that you’ve read it all; you don’t think you’re going to cram “the world of ideas” into your Twitter stream. At the same time, you’re going to be surprised, provoked, informed. It’s a better model.
But Reader had a lot going for it, too. Using Twitter feels, to me, like joining a club; Reader felt like filling up a bookcase. It was a place for organizing your knowledge, and also for stating, and reviewing, your intentions and commitments. It kept a record of the things you meant to read but never did; of the writers you loved but don’t anymore. I won’t miss Reader when it shuts down, on July 1st. But I will miss the old me — the person I described in Google Reader, without knowing it.
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Tools, Platforms, and Google Reader
Nicholas Carr, Rough Type, March 14, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a typically insightful reaction to the above-mentioned news of Google Reader’s demise, from the author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain. Carr is of course already familiar to Teeming Brain readers, and here he puts his finger on the wider and deeper trajectory of trends and meanings in which we’re all enfolded by Internet culture, as called out by Google’s recent decision.]
There are tools, and there are platforms. Tools tend to be simple things. They help you get some particular task done — they lend you their power when you need it — but they otherwise pretty much stay out of your life. They’re like little amplifiers of the self. Platforms are more complicated. They may help you do some of the same things that tools help you do, but, in granting that assistance, they demand that you become entangled in a bigger scheme, a scheme of someone else’s devising. Rarely do you know fully what the scheme consists of, what its ends are, or how it will develop in the future. A tool holds no secrets; a platform holds many. You use a tool; a platform uses you.
RSS is a good tool. It gives you a simple way to shape and filter the web’s content to suit your own needs. It lends you its power when you need it without requiring any broader entanglement.
. . . . Google was once a tool-maker. Now, it’s a platform-builder. Like Facebook. Like Apple. Like Microsoft. Like Twitter. Like all the rest. And so Google is officially killing off its popular RSS tool Google Reader. . . . “We’re living in a new kind of computing environment,” said Google engineer Urs Hölzle in announcing that Google Reader would be swept away in a “spring cleaning.” He’s right. The tool environment is gone. The platform environment is here. Consider yourself entangled.
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Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, 2013, excerpted at NPR
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This book excerpt and the three items directly below it are mutually and reciprocally illuminating.]
Book Summary: This revelatory exploration of big data, which refers to our newfound ability to crunch vast amounts of information, analyze it instantly and draw profound and surprising conclusions from it, discusses how it will change our lives and what we can do to protect ourselves from its hazards.
Excerpt (via NPR):
The fruits of the information society are easy to see, with a cellphone in every pocket, a computer in every backpack, and big information technology systems in back offices everywhere. But less noticeable is the information itself. Half a century after computers entered mainstream society, the data has begun to accumulate to the point where something new and special is taking place. Not only is the world awash with more information than ever before, but that information is growing faster. The change of scale has led to a change of state. The quantitative change has led to a qualitative one. The sciences like astronomy and genomics, which first experienced the explosion in the 2000s, coined the term “big data.” The concept is now migrating to all areas of human endeavor.
. . . . One way to think about the issue today — and the way we do in the book — is this: big data refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more.
But this is just the start. The era of big data challenges the way we live and interact with the world. Most strikingly, society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not knowing why but only what. This overturns centuries of established practices and challenges our most basic understanding of how to make decisions and comprehend reality.
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Big Data, Big Brother and the ‘Like’ Button
Kevin Charles Redmon, Pacific Standard, March 12, 2013
Teaser: When you add them all up, what do your Facebook Likes reveal about you? More than you might think.
[W]hat if your most naked data aren’t the details you furnish directly — favorite film, religious views, alma mater — but the little slices of self you reveal every time you click the “Like” button? As it happens, what you “Like” on Facebook says a lot about who you really are—whether or not you openly acknowledge it. In a paper published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, three Cambridge researchers report that a user’s lifetime of “Likes” can predict everything from her religion and political persuasion to sexual orientation and drug habits.. . . . Privacy concerns or no, Facebook continues to process 2.7 billion “Likes” every day. Because while most users are careful to curate their interests, photos, and privacy settings — no Cabo photos for mom, or Office Space GIFs for the boss — “Likes” hardly seem so serious. After all, what’s one tidbit of data? “It’s so easy to click a ‘Like,’ ” [Cambridge researcher David] Stillwell says. “They’re so seductive. It’s an impulsive thing to do. But eventually, over time, those things add up. Four years later, those ‘Likes’ can say quite a lot about you.”
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Private Traits and Attributes are Predictable from Digital Records of Human Behavior (pdf)
Michael Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 11, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Here are the concluding paragraphs of the study discussed above.]
Predicting users’ individual attributes and preferences can be used to improve numerous products and services. For instance, digital systems and devices (such as online stores or cars) could be designed to adjust their behavior to best fit each user’s inferred profile (30). Also, the relevance of marketing and product recommendations could be improved by adding psychological dimensions to current user models. For example, online insurance advertisements might emphasize security when facing emotionally unstable (neurotic) users but stress potential threats when dealing with emotionally stable ones. Moreover, digital records of behavior may provide a convenient and reliable way to measure psychological traits. Automated assessment based on large samples of behavior may not only be more accurate and less prone to cheating and misrepresentation but may also permit assessment across time to detect trends. Moreover, inference based on observations of digitally recorded behavior may open new doors for research in human psychology.
On the other hand, the predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behavior may have considerable negative implications, because it can easily be applied to large numbers of people without obtaining their individual consent and without them noticing. Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even one’s Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation, or political views that an individual may not have intended to share. One can imagine situations in which such predictions, even if incorrect, could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life. Importantly, given the ever-increasing amount of digital traces people leave behind, it becomes difficult for individuals to control which of their attributes are being revealed. For example, merely avoiding explicitly homosexual content may be insufficient to prevent others from discovering one’s sexual orientation.
There is a risk that the growing awareness of digital exposure may negatively affect people’s experience of digital technologies, decrease their trust in online services, or even completely deter them from using digital technology. It is our hope, however, that the trust and goodwill among parties interacting in the digital environment can be maintained by providing users with transparency and control over their information, leading to an individually controlled balance between the promises and perils of the Digital Age.
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Google Glass: Orwellian surveillance with fluffier branding
Nick Pickles, The Telegraph, March 19, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who somehow haven’t heard, the term “Google Glass” refers to “a wearable computer with a head-mounted display (HMD) that is being developed by Google in the Project Glass research and development project, with the mission of producing a mass-market ubiquitous computer. Google Glass displays information in a smartphone-like format hands-free [and] can interact with the Internet via natural language voice commands.” The takeaway from this article by privacy advocate Nick Pickles about the technology’s import might validly be stated in horror movie form: “Be warned. Be very warned.”]
Teaser: New technology will make us all agents for Google. Nick Pickles, Director of Big Brother Watch, says the implications for privacy are profoundly worrying.
Google Glass is the first major salvo in an arms race that is going to see increasingly intrusive efforts made to join up our real lives with the digital businesses we have become accustomed to handing over huge amounts of personal data to. The principles that underpin everyday consumer interactions — choice, informed consent, control — are at risk in a way that cannot be healthy. . . . Imagine if Google or Facebook decided to install their own CCTV cameras everywhere, gathering data about our movements, recording our lives and joining up every camera in the land in one giant control room. It’s Orwellian surveillance with fluffier branding. And this isn’t just video surveillance — Glass uses audio recording too. For added impact, if you’re not content with Google analysing the data, the person can share it to social media as they see fit too.
Yet that is the reality of Google Glass. Everything you see, Google sees. You don’t own the data, you don’t control the data and you definitely don’t know what happens to the data. . . . If choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without, then Google Glass goes to the heart of what it is to live in a digital world and what it is to exercise choice about your privacy. The danger is that we lose our privacy and Google gains the power. The reality is that as profit-making strategies go, there’s nothing better.
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The Surreal Side of Endless Information
Evgeny Morozov, The New York Times, March 9, 2013
Organizing the world’s information was just prelude to a far more important goal [for Google]: becoming a universal shopping gateway. Last week’s news that it will introduce Shopping Express, a same-day delivery service to contend with Amazon, confirms the obvious: shopping is essential to Google’s future. By analyzing our information streams, it can predict what purchases make us happy, and remind us to keep shopping. It already underpins the Google’s most intriguing smartphone app, Field Trip.
A future of frictionless, continuous shopping fits with Google’s vision for a world where we no longer need to search for anything, since we ourselves are perpetually monitored, with the relevant product or information sent to us based on perceived need. “Autonomous search,” they call it. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, even wants to give us a “cybernetic friend” that could satisfy our wants before we are aware of them. By monitoring our conversations, e-mails and reading habits, he said, “it may pop up and say: ‘Well, you mentioned two weeks ago you were worried that vitamin B12 isn’t getting into your cells. There was new research just released two seconds ago that speaks to that.’”
. . . . Google’s “cybernetic friend” will turn us into anxious information machines, our neurosis curable only by endless consumption of its recommendations. Remember Clippy, Microsoft’s annoying office assistant? The “cybernetic friend” is just like that, only on steroids and with a second job as a pushy salesman.
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Haunted by Trauma, Tsunami Survivors in Japan Turn to Exorcists
Ruairidh Villar and Sophie Knight, Yahoo! News (Reuters), March 5, 20123
The tsunami that engulfed northeastern Japan two years ago has left some survivors believing they are seeing ghosts. In a society wary of admitting to mental problems, many are turning to exorcists for help. Tales of spectral figures lined up at shops where now there is only rubble are what psychiatrists say is a reaction to fear after the March 11, 2011, disaster in which nearly 19,000 people were killed.
“The places where people say they see ghosts are largely those areas completely swept away by the tsunami,” said Keizo Hara, a psychiatrist in the city of Ishinomaki, one of the areas worst-hit by the waves touched off by an offshore earthquake.”We think phenomena like ghost sightings are perhaps a mental projection of the terror and worries associated with those places.” Hara said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might only now be emerging in many people, and the country could be facing a wave of stress-related problems.
. . . . Many people in Japan hold on to ancient superstitions despite its ultra-modern image. . . . In some places destroyed by the tsunami, people have reported seeing ghostly apparitions queuing outside supermarkets which are now only rubble. Taxi drivers said they avoided the worst-hit districts for fear of picking up phantom passengers.
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Little Free Libraries
Marti Attoun, American Profile, March 12, 2013
Little Free Library, Easthampton, Massachusetts
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Little Free Libraries phenomenon has been gaining steam across America, and also internationally, for the past few years, and its arrival as a cover story in American Profile, the magazine supplement that appears in more than 10 million Sunday newspapers around the country, would seem to represent a watershed moment. The fact that the movement also appears to represent a bona fide example of Morris Berman’s “monastic” response to fundamental cultural decline being enacted at a grassroots level, but on a scale that’s astonishingly large and widespread for such a thing, makes it additionally striking. Oh, and also see the recent feature stories from NPR and USA Today, the latter of which is likewise quoted below.]
Boosting reading and neighborliness is exactly what Todd Bol, 56, had in mind when he launched the Little Free Library movement in 2009. In memory of his school-teaching mother, he built a library resembling a one-room schoolhouse for his front yard in Hudson, Wis. (pop. 12,719). Bol added a sign — “Take a book, Return a book” — and was delighted when children and adults began making regular visits and taking photos of his miniature library. “People feel like it’s a gift to the neighborhood,” Bol says. “I’ve actually seen people hug the library.”
When other book fans began building libraries on their lawns, Bol and his friend Rick Brooks established the Little Free Library as a nonprofit organization to map the movement. Caretakers who register their libraries for $25 receive a sign and number. The founders initially hoped to surpass the 2,509 large libraries funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie from 1883 to 1929, but now they envision tens of thousands of Little Free Libraries worldwide.
FROM USA TODAY: After building the first library, Bol thought the idea had potential to spread. He contacted his friend Rick Brooks, who is an outreach program manager for the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Together, they have helped launch a small, but growing movement. The men provide logistical assistance and support to people who want to become mini-librarians. They have a Website, littlefreelibrary.org, that provides drawings people can use to construct the boxes. It also has a map that tracks the location of Little Libraries.
Today, Little Free Libraries can be found in at least 24 states and eight countries, Brooks says. He guesses there are 300 to 400 in existence. “We are estimating that for every one we know about, there are two or three others being built,” Brooks says. Little Libraries can now be found on lawns from Oakland, Calif., to Yarmouth, Mass. Overseas, you can find them in places such as Berkamsted, England, Hamburg, Germany, and Accra, Ghana. In Wisconsin, Brooks says prison inmates recently started building the libraries, which will soon be posted in several Wisconsin communities. He says a project is in the works in New Orleans to create libraries out of Hurricane Katrina debris.