The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon yesterday was undoubtedly surreal to anyone who followed the events as they unfolded, myself included. For the first time that I can recall since September of 2001, time seemed to slow down and attention seemed dragged to the center of a swirling vortex of sorrow, fear, and anxiety in Northeastern America.
The human reaction to the Boston bombing had many echoes of 9/11. Some Islamophobes immediately suspected and accused Muslim religious extremists; others spouted unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that the federal government was behind the bombings; and still others leapt to score cheap political points. People fixated on the negative, to be sure: 3 dead and over 120 injured. Fears and suspicions of broader terroristic plots have been raised and doubted.
But, as with 9/11, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of solidarity. People immediately focused on treating and organizing the wounded and bewildered–what a weirdly ironic blessing and/or oversight of the bomber(s) that the bombs went off in a location where hundreds of medical personnel and ambulances already were waiting to treat potential injuries incurred at the marathon!–and police already were onsite to cordon off the area and preserve the scene for evidence gathering.
And again, like 9/11, people from across the country and across the world came together to show support. Reddit, my favorite site on the internet, discharged its self-appointed duties with distinguishable honor. Redditors compiled, verified, and posted in real-time eight pages of updates, a summary of events, collected offers from Bostonians offering stranded marathoners ground transportation, airline flights, places to stay for the night, and even free pizza.
As Patton Oswalt, a prolific purveyor of perspective, wrote in an online piece, the response of almost literally everyone else was to help and heal, not to harm.
But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
The immediate legacy of 9/11 was to create a broad basis of support for a president that was already divisive; now we are in dramatically overpolarized political climate in dire need of some kind of common ground. Hopefully, one legacy of this atrocity will be a move back toward some sort of consensus that we are all Americans in it for the common good regardless of political party.
Unfortunately, there likely will be other sorts of echoes of 9/11 in the form of crass attempts at commercializing a tragedy. Your guess is as good as mine as to what color the donation ribbon/wristband/marathon bib will be. Where Boston will hopefully begin to really diverge from 9/11 is how America reacts to these acts of terrorism.
Aside from the bombings themselves, perhaps the biggest story that is apparent from the survey of coverage of the Boston bombing is the absolutely revolutionized technological landscape that now surrounds us as opposed to 11.5 years ago. The state investigation (as opposed to public, a significant difference in this case) may have simply proceeded with the more conventional 9/11-era tools such as bomb fragment analysis, call tracing, purchase tracking, etc. But what everyone already knows is that investigators will heavily rely on crowdsourced public surveillance. Surveillance cameras are distributed and located in every pocket and on every corner, making the public a far more efficient form of surveillance than any of the state’s tools of surveillance.
There are limits to the crowdsourcing. The data used in the investigation will be crowdsourced. The investigation will not be. A crowdsourced investigation runs a high risk of becoming a witchhunt, as we saw in the Newton shooting spree.
Hopefully, the vast comparative efficiency of crowdsourcing surveillance and intelligence to the clunky state methods of intelligence-gathering will prove itself as a source of American resilience in the aftermath of this tragedy. Even more hopefully, Boston will prove that the authorities can ask for information rather than demanding or simply taking the photos off of phones “for national security reasons.” And who knows, maybe this method of law enforcement will make Americans think twice about the decade of fruitless torture we have implicitly authorized through inaction.
This was a lesson we could have learned from 9/11 itself. After all, Flight 93 (the one headed for the Capitol) wasn’t brought down by the TSA or even the Air Force; it was brought down by American citizens on the plane who had unfettered access to crowd-sourced intel (in that case, cell phone calls to/from loved ones who had seen what happened to the World Trade Center). Of course, crowd-sourcing intel will undoubtedly lead to a lot of false positives, and it already has, but which is worse: some racist paranoids calling out turban wearers (which they already do), or giving the national security leviathan the power to control for everything all the way down to pressure cookers?
Although, if 9/11 is our historical guide, I’ll give you one guess as to the direction that our public approach to civil liberties will take.
“They can give me a cavity search right now and I’d be perfectly happy,” said Daniel Wood, a video producer from New York City who was waiting for a train.
It has been said that you can understand a culture by examining their founding mythology. What does that say when we find that our heroes are all the same across cultures? Does it mean, in the words of most fictional villains, “We’re not so different?”
Joseph Campbell, a name that might be familiar to high schoolers, argued in The Hero With a Thousand Faces that our shared stories say quite a lot about us. Campbell points out that despite the cosmetic differences between nations and cultures, there are more fundamental stories we will always share. The fact that those stories have any kind of resonance speaks to our innermost and unchangeable feelings and ways of seeing the world. Because we share our common foundation as human beings that make us subject to the same biological imperatives and urges, we can come to understand other culture’s essential commonality with ourselves.
An evolutionary psychologist (or someone who’s simply read more Jung than I have) might have more insight into possible explanations for why Campbell’s thesis is true on a neuro-/psychological level, but the point is that there are bedrock experiences that we can relate to across cultures. If you want a more comprehensive version of the story, Campbell and Bill Moyers got together to produce a six-part miniseries called The Power of Myth, which was just released for free online.
Campbell suggests that the fact that archetypal events like the flood myth and characters like Orpheus (whose tale of travels to the underworld to save a loved one appears not only in Ancient Greece but also in Feudal Japan, Sumeria, and Mayan cultures) or Jesus (whose life-death-ressurection heroic antecedents existed in Medieval Europe, Ancient Egypt, Hinduism and Buddhism).
And of course, for those wise enough to slavishly learn the lessons of history, like George Lucas or the Wachowskis, you can make a movie that appeals across all cultures. Which is why people who don’t like Star Wars or The [Original] Matrix probably shouldn’t be trusted.
Timed just so that I would miss including it in my last post is the latest overblown reaction to attempts at preserving privacy on the net.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) freaked out when Mozilla decided to implement “Do Not Track” and block third party cookies (which are often the carriers of viruses and other malware), and said it would be the death of “American small business” because it relies online advertising.
“Thousands of small businesses that make up the diversity of content and services online will be forced to close their doors,” said Randall Rothenberg, IAB’s president. “This move will not put the interest of users first. Nor does it promote transparency or ‘move the web forward’ as Mozilla claims in its announcement.”
Maybe the simpler answer is that websites and content providers just need to find a better way to generate revenue than requiring, as a condition of ever using their site, the ability to follow you off their own webpages and onto the rest of the net to collect your personal information. They seem to be upset that they’ve left Firefox to guard the hen-house because they didn’t want any guards at all.
Does it feel like things are finally starting to turn a corner when it comes to online data privacy? It seems like a lot more people are starting to care about privacy, at least as an issue, if not as a personal ethic. Sure, some people are starting to use Facebook’s privacy settings, but because those things change all the damn time, it’s hard to tell whether that will make much of a lasting difference.
I’m also not convinced that people are seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to online privacy or the retention of their own civil liberties. People have never seemed to care that data is used to sell them stuff they “already want,” or that current and prospective health insurers are getting all sorts of data on what you Google. Nor do they care that their reading list–something the Founders would have considered sacrosanct–has been accessible by government since the PATRIOT ACT.
Data companies can capture information about your “interests” in certain health conditions based on what you buy — or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as “allergy sufferers” and “dieters.” Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an “online search propensity” for a certain “ailment or prescription.”
People don’t seem to care about whether their information is up for grabs because they don’t understand how easily comprehended and quantified they are. Everyone thinks he or she is immune from easy prediction, but with the rise of big data, prediction is getting scarily smart. For example, analyzing Facebook “likes” is enough to predict a lot about your personality that you probably wouldn’t tell a stranger, let alone some amoral marketing firm trying to figure out ways to extract money from you.
The researchers used a pool of 58,000 volunteers in the United States. Based on “Likes” alone, they were able to predict whether a user was African-American or white 95% of the time, male or female 93% of the time.
They were able to gauge sexual orientation 88% of the time for men and 75% of the time for women. They were also able to predict political leaning (Republican versus Democrat) 85% of the time. On a more personal level, the researchers were able to predict whether your parents divorced when you were a kid 60% of the time.
The study also could make reasonably accurate guesses about whether you were a drug user, drinker, or smoker, as well as a host of other attributes, including emotional stability, satisfaction with life, and extraversion.
And in many cases, it’s not even a question of prediction; it’s simply data analysis because people live enough of their lives on the web for there to be sufficient data to determine all of those characteristics.
On a small side note, this attitude has had serious implications. Except for Rand Paul and a few others who have been written off as right-wing loonies (and not without some justification), no one really seems to be talking about the near-omnipotence of government vis-a-viz individual civil liberties and freedom from state monitoring, as long as lip service is paid to the correct constitutional priority. Didn’t liberals care about civil liberties at some point? Wouldn’t they be crowing about the horrendous abuse of executive power if Bush was still in office, authorizing drone strikes or signing off on memos that allow for unilateral targeting and assassination of anyone it designates an enemy combatant? People have been placated in this permanent surveillance state by having Obama institutionalize the violations that began under Bush. In that way, greater damage has been done to civil liberties in the failure to restore them than the initial infringement could ever do.
Government’s hunger for data also fuels its passive allowance of private companies to do its collection and data mining for it. Sure, government is constrained by the Fourth Amendment, but Facebook, Google, Apple, and the like aren’t. And they do respond to subpoenas.
Other than certain kinds of protected data — including medical records and data used for credit reports — consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, “There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.”
In terms of online privacy, though, I think it’s that people are starting to get possessive about their data, and it’s because it’s becoming increasingly easy to care about privacy as it is to not care about it. Of course, the additional effort means that most people will stay in-by-default than opted-out. But there are ways to start to default to an opt-out. For example, there are user-side solutions like “Do Not Track“:
The customer demand for stronger data controls led to the introduction of the “do not track” feature. “Do not track” is a setting that can be now found on all the major browsers: Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari. When turned on, it asks sites not to track that person’s online activities. A Microsoft survey found that 75% of people were concerned about online tracking and thought the setting should be turned on by default.
And then, there are the more forcible opt-out solutions, that can opt-out your data from being further used and abused. Sure, it’s more effort, but those who care enough can take the steps to opt-out. That scheme stands in stark contrast to the state of civil liberties, where an opt-out gives rise to automatic suspicion.
Papa, besides being the wonderful person you are,
You were my first hero. And you were also my first friend. How could you not be? Outside of my parents, you spent more time with me the first year of my life than any other person.
Early on, you delighted in teaching me a great many things: how to make a “constipated face,” how to burp on command, what a “barking spider” is, how to ride a horse, how to drive a car, when to flip a “hickory burger,” and you even tried to teach me how to sell dresses (although the last part never really stuck for me).
You taught me to restlessly pursue your goals, literally, even (or especially) if that means getting up at 4:30 in the morning to do so. You taught me my work ethic, my moral ethic, and my life ethic.
And even though you’re gone now, I know that you will live on in our memories as a friend, a grandfather, and a hero.
As a friend, I’ll always remember your amazing sense of humor. One of my favorite jokes was when you would quip that you had more hair than you needed; you had closets full. I don’t know why, but that one has special meaning to me.I’ll remember the conspiratorial jokes we’d share at dinners after a long day of work at the Water Wheel Cafe, the sly comments with a quick wink on the side that would let me in on the joke.
As a grandfather, I’ll always remember how you would play “midnight poker” with us grandkids, so long as we were playing at midnight, Eastern Standard Time. You were a kid at heart, and always had us grandchildren share in your fun, whether it was when you sat at the kids’ table, or when you taught us to read your horoscopes and fortune cookies by reciting “besides being the wonderful person you are,” before reading the rest of it.
You loved your family, a good joke, taking a nap in a movie theater, and a song, as long as you could belt it at the top of your lungs.
And when it came to your heroism, you idolized and emulated the silver screen cowboys: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Ronald Reagan. You strove to live like they did, and achieved that lifestyle on your own terms. But unlike those silver screen heroes, your heroism was never faked, always genuine, and a pure product of the choices of your spirit, not some contrived circumstances.
Papa, besides being the wonderful person you are, your heroism will never die. Your memory will always stick with us, and your friendship and generosity of spirit will live on through our memory of you and your vision of the world that you helped shape. I know that you were proud to have lived larger than life, as a hero not only in the mind of a grandson who will always miss you, but never forget you.
Given the near-constant international economic angst over energy security, you would think that the discovery of trillions of dollars of oil in Australia could be the most significant geopolitical development in the recent past. For a frame of reference, the estimated 133,000,000,000-233,000,000,000 barrels of oil that was discovered = 7,000-12,000 days of America’s aggregate oil consumption = 20 years worth of American oil consumption = approximately 4 years of global oil consumption.
That’s a pretty big deal, considering the implications that has on the predictions of some doomsayers who predicted the world would not be able to find a replacement for oil before it ran out in our lifetimes. And its an even bigger deal when you consider the find’s effects on the ability of OPEC to control prices when another non-member state like Australia becomes a major net exporter and can break up the oligopolistic control over pricing that has kept consumers simultaneously addicted to oil and resistant to change for so long.
Interestingly enough, the Australian find comes at the heels of similarly major discoveries and innovations in the exploitation of shale oil in the United States. These discoveries and new techniques may lead to the United States surpassing Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading producer of petroleum, which has other obvious geopolitical implications for a slightly less oil-hungry United States. And let’s not forget the non-outsourceable jobs that will be created to harness and process those reserves. Now there’s a big gain.
However, if these oil discoveries are like every other such discovery, it is likely that most of the positive externalities of additional oil reserves are likely to be mostly internalized by private entities that will be exploit those reserves for their own profit. By contrast, there is another giant, natural resource with incredible potential may soon be tapped: the wireless spectrum.
The FCC has recently proposed that portions of the electromagnetic spectrum be reserved for large free public use, that consumers could eventually use to make calls or access the Internet. Unlike those seemingly trollish networks labelled “Free Public Wi-Fi,”
The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.
The new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.
(Note, most of that should have used the word “could” rather than “would”). You might ask why the FCC hasn’t already done this, and the reason is that it was assumed that people wouldn’t be able to figure out how to use free spectrum without the FCC telling people which frequencies they may use. Until now, the FCC has accepted the economists’ logic that, in the face of the tragedy of the commons that is electromagnetic spectrum, the public is best served by slicing up the spectrum and selling it to various stewards who can make sure it gets commercially exploited by someone with an interest in efficient levels of use.
However, when it comes to a resource like the electromagnetic spectrum (and the transmission of information, in particular), traditional arguments don’t fare so well. Device makers have been figuring out how to use even extremely limited spectrum without interfering with the usage of others since the advent of WiFi itself, which was invented on–and continues to operate on–the sliver of electromagnetic spectrum the FCC left open for garage door openers. And now, the truth of technology has finally caught up to logic and the historic justification for regulation of the electromagnetic spectrum: the FCC is finally treating the spectrum like the public resource it is, and we may see that it gets used for the public’s maximal benefit.
The result of legitimately free (as in freedom, if not as in beer) access to the spectrum would be an explosion of communication, innovation, culture, socio-economic fairness, and yes, even commerce. Though the proposal doesn’t necessarily mean that free (as in beer) internet access will be provided, it seems likely if companies like Apple, Google, Cisco or Microsoft can build in technology on their devices that can figure out ways to connect to an Internet backbone. Think about how much money could go directly back into the pockets of how many people who pay telecommunications providers, and how much innovation and freedom would be promoted by allowing companies to try new things in the most free environment possible.
If it wasn’t already obvious enough that this move would have serious benefits to consumers, just look at who’s opposing it: the $178 billion wireless industry. These are the same guys making 97 percent profit margins on their “almost comically profitable” internet services because there are only a few major players in the market and prices can be fixed relatively easily. Remind you of any other industry that seems to get a lot of its crazy profits from exorbitant and seemingly unavoidable charges to consumers?
The ISPs also oppose basically any new innovation or change in the marketplace on the grounds that they “have to capitalize on what [they]‘ve invested.” Which is to say, the official policy is that the telecommunications companies plan no more innovation until they’re forced to innovate further as a result of competition. And until the FCC’s latest proposal, it seems like Google was the only company with the size to give the ISPs a reason to even consider improving their infrastructure in a way that would pass the benefits along to the consumer. And even a company as large as Google is only rolling out Fiber in Kansas City as a way of testing the water.
So, for the rest of us, we’ll have to put some public trust in the FCC, and hope that the difference between spectrum and oil is that the spillover benefits will flow to the public.
I just got engaged. And even though I’m not interested in starting any hardcore planning, I do have thoughts/ideas/curiosities/fantasies about what might take place some time down the road. So I figured that I might as well do what all newly engaged people seem to do to fritter away pent up ante-nuptial energies, and I joined Pinterest.
Pinterest calls itself a “virtual pinboard,” which lets users organize images, recipes and other things they find on the Web. Despite the fact that it was formed by three dudes, Pinterest seems (from my anecdotal experiences using it) to be populated almost exclusively by women (If you’re a fan of actual numbers, it has been reported that 83% of its users are female). I guess that comports with the ration of women to men who are actively involved in planning a wedding, but I have no doubt that there are economists far more capable than myself studying the question.
Another explanation may be that, at bottom, Pinterest seems to be about nesting (an activity associated with females as well). The central activity of Pinterest involves taking shiny things from one corner of the web or another pinner’s nest and adding it to one’s own. Once in the nest, the beautiful idea or product represents a call to action or inspiration, there to sit and stare you in the face, almost like the pinups an adolescent cuts out and pastes to their walls. The act of pinning is not so much active and involved as it is aspirational and reflective. Like the brightly colored, glossy magazines at the grocery store checkout, Pinterest allows users to bathe themselves in a fantasy that the images set before them represent the user’s actual life. It’s sort of like The Secret brought to social networking (a Pinterest board is nothing if not a vision board, after all).
However, despite all that is legitimately laudable about Pinterest, I do have a few gripes based on my limited experience. Because people don’t have to actually consume/buy/use whatever products they pin, you end up seeing a lot of impractical or half-baked (literally) ideas and inexpert or unartful labelling and categorization by amateurs. For example, adding a random fruit juice to champagne DOES NOT CONSTITUTE A COCKTAIL, ladies of Pinterest. Nor is anything with caramel in it a martini of any kind, no matter what glass you put it in. And if the word “decadence” is in the name of the drink, you’re probably doing it wrong. One thing Pinterest can definitely show you is the depths of the varieties of flavored vodka: “iced cake” and “kissed caramel” vodka are actual things apparently used by people in drinks.
Of course, you can chalk up anything distasteful to the tastes of the users themselves. The fact that you see a lot of stuff you’d disagree with on an aesthetic level just shows that Pinterest is much like other social networks in terms of displaying a profile of each user. What may set Pinterest apart is that the user gets to re-examine their own pinboard, a composite of their tastes, interests, and habits. Users may even perform some analytics on themselves (and hopefully their drinking habits) in order to figure out what it is each user actually wants in their nest. Luckily for me, I already found my lady.