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The Senior Gypsy Economy

Sue Halpern —  Aug 31 2014 @ 3:27pm
by Sue Halpern

dish_trailerpark

Every so often a random confluence of articles makes it possible to see into the future with the clearest of crystal balls. In this case, the articles come from The New York Times and Harper’s, and the story they tell together should give us all pause. For years we’ve heard about how Americans were lousy savers, and how a significant segment of the population had done a poor job of planning for retirement. We heard less about what was going to happen to those people when they were no longer steady earners. But now we know.

Writing in the Times’ money column, David Wallis puts a romantic sheen on it: “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their possessions and Hit the Road.” Shedding the house and mortgage and sleeping on other people’s couches in one’s late middle age is shown to be a wonderful adventure. One can travel the world, help others, live unencumbered. Here’s fifty-year-old Stacy Monday, who used to be a paralegal:

“I sold everything I had,” Ms. Monday recalled earlier this summer from San Francisco before she headed to Las Vegas, Dallas, Memphis and Knoxville. “I paid off all of my debt. I have no bills and no money.” She estimates that she now spends $150 a month — sometimes less if she is saving up for a flight — and earns a modest income through “odds-and-ends jobs,” as well as the tip jar on her blog.

To stick to her tight budget, Ms. Monday volunteers for nonprofits and organic farms in exchange for room and board or finds free places to stay through Couchsurfing.org. The company puts its membership of people 50 and older at about 250,000.

So that is one vision of the future: American retirees, unrooted, becoming, in the words of one of them, “Bedouins.”

And here is another:

older Americans who can’t retire, and don’t have a house and possessions to sell, also roaming around, putting miles on their vehicles as they look for work here and there. According to yet another Times piece, “the number of workers employed through temp agencies has climbed to a new high — 2.87 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they represent a record share of the nation’s work force, 2 percent.” And some of them, it turns out, according to Jessica Bruder in Harper’s (subscribers only), live hand-to-mouth in their trailers, in Joad-like encampments, having been recruited to harvest beets or pull items for Amazon packages at barely minimum wages. According to Bruder, “Amazon first hired a handful of migrant full-time RVers in 2008 through a program the company later named CamperForce. As of 2014, it had expanded to employ some 2,000 workers, according to a recruiter I met in Quartzsite, Arizona.”

And she goes on:

The ads [for CamperForce] are surreal. They sound like an invitation to summer camp, and not just the ones for Amazon jobs. “Feel like a kid again!” and “Hey workamper, it’s time for fun!” are a couple slogans used by recruiters for Adventureland, a theme park in Altoona, Iowa where migrant workers run the rides, games and concessions for $7.25 to $7.50 an hour. Recruitment materials for the beet harvest, with 12-hour overnight shifts in subzero temperatures, refer to the work as “an unBEETable experience!”

This stuff is propaganda, pure and simple. It panders to the illusion that older Americans are free to retire, working only for fun, rather than acknowledging the reality that many folks need to keep bringing in money to survive.

The Harper’s article is not online for non-subscribers, but a haunting interview with Bruder is, and is worth reading.

Happy Labor Day!

(Photo of trailer park by Matthew Hester)

Here Today, Gone Forever?

Sue Halpern —  Aug 30 2014 @ 2:01pm
by Sue Halpern

 

dish_bitcoins2

Buried – sorry – in Biz Carson’s fascinating obituary of Hal Finney, who died this week from ALS, is a small aside with large implications. Finney, who was 58, was the first owner of bitcoins besides developer Satoshi Nakamoto (not his real name). This was in 2008, in a somewhat serendipitous turn of events, which Finney chronicled last year, typing via an eye tracker.

When Satoshi announced the first release of the software, I grabbed it right away. I think I was the first person besides Satoshi to run bitcoin. I mined block 70-something, and I was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent ten coins to me as a test. I carried on an email conversation with Satoshi over the next few days, mostly me reporting bugs and him fixing them. After a few days, bitcoin was running pretty stably, so I left it running… I mined several blocks over the next days. But I turned it off because it made my computer run hot, and the fan noise bothered me.

So the question is, now that he has died, what happens to Finney’s virtual currency?

It’s the same question any one of us can ask, looking ahead, about our virtual “possessions,” whether they are documents stored on Dropbox, or passwords to our email accounts, or game characters.

Finney, who has been cryogenically preserved, was clearly a forward-looking guy. Before he died, he secured his bitcoins in a safe deposit box. But will it be enough to ensure that his son and daughter inherit them? And what about our stuff, stored “up there,” somewhere, “in the cloud,” where there is no safe deposit box?

Last month, in an unprecedented move, Delaware became the first state to enact a digital inheritance law. The Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act is meant to give authorized individuals brief, “peek and copy” access to third-party accounts. Apparently, the tech companies are not pleased and have formed the “State Privacy and Security Coalition” to fight it. They will be even less pleased when some version of the law is adopted in other states, as it is expected to be:

Jim Halpert of DLA Piper, a law firm that represents the coalition, told the Wall Street Journal that the group opposes the laws because accounts may contain information the deceased do not want to disclose, and because they may “conflict with a 1986 federal law forbidding consumer electronic-communications companies from disclosing digital content without its owner’s consent.”

But Jeff John Roberts thinks this is weak:

Neither of these explanations are particularly convincing, however. Despite the companies’ profession of privacy concerns for their late users, the reality is that people have been dying — and leaving behind artifacts for relatives and others to find — for a very long time. The digital dimensions of our personal lives don’t change that.

[Note to self: do not leave will on iCloud.]

(Photo of bitcoins by Steve Garfield)

 

 

Death To Monarchs, Ctd

Sue Halpern —  Aug 29 2014 @ 8:33pm
by Sue Halpern

Monarch

Finally a little good news to offset the bad news in my earlier post about the precipitous decline of the eastern monarch butterfly population. The first is that this year’s population appears to be more robust than last year’s, which plummeted to an all-time low. Monarch watchers at Ontario’s Point Pelee Park, a traditional migratory jumping off point for the butterflies on their way to Mexico, have seen many more monarch butterflies and monarch caterpillars, as has Professor Chip Taylor of the University of Kansas who runs the monarch conservation organization Monarch Watch. Taylor estimates that the numbers could be up by thirty or forty percent, though he points out that even so, the increase won’t offset last year’s precipitous decline.

Awareness of the monarch’s plight has reached the highest echelons of government, which is the other bit of good news.  In a letter circulated today, the naturalists Gary Nabhan and Ina Warren who have spearheaded Make Way For Monarchs, an international effort to protect the monarch from, especially, the deleterious effects of habitat destruction, note that “The White House has appointed Fish and Wildlife Director Ashe to head up the ‘high-level working group’ to work with Mexico and Canada on recovery plans, and 14 federal agencies have formed work groups and “communities of practice” to reorient their work plans toward monarch recovery.”

The Executive may not have a plan to deal with ISIS. It may be backing off on immigration reform and pretending it never heard of the Keystone XL pipeline, but at least it understands the value of monarchs.

(Photo by Joel Olives.)

Don’t Speak, Memory, Ctd

Sue Halpern —  Aug 29 2014 @ 4:00pm
by Sue Halpern

It is the rare question that can elicit polar responses where both of them make perfect sense. In this case–asking if you’d erase or sweeten bad memories if you could–it is partly because people’s traumas and the circumstances of those traumas are different, partly because we are all psychologically and emotionally different, and partly because it is philosophical question as much as it is a practical one, and what we might want as individuals is different from what we might want as a society. For instance, while we might want to erase the memories that cause a person to suffer from PTSD, erasing the memories of war or, worse, sweetening them, may make us, collectively, more bellicose. Sometimes we forget that forgetting comes with its own costs, too.

I am reminded of the sentiments of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, author of the book Memory, History, Forgetting, whose thoughts about mourning are central to those about forgetting.   

This work of mourning is a long and patient travail, which brings under
interrogation the ability to narrate it. … To narrate otherwise what one has done, what one has suffered, what one has gained and what one has lost. The idea of loss is fundamental to life.

I hear echoes of Ricoeur in the words of these Dish readers:

You wrote, “Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to erase or in some way circumvent the memory of being mugged?” Not me. As unpleasant as the memory of a mugging might be, one can learn from such events. As the old saying goes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

I lost my great love to a fire some 30 years ago, and I was shattered by the event. I took over a decade to really get my life back on track after his death, but I still would rather have the memories of him and my love for him than to lose those horrible memories of his death and suffering. A life of only good memories sound soulless and shallow indeed.

Another:

I believe that there are certain difficult things that we would choose to remember because they inform who we are and let us learn from our mistakes. However, I also believe that when someone is thrust into a situation over which they have no control, such as war or molestation, that the kindest thing we could do for that individual would be to relieve the psychic pain that causes the person to live a haunted life. I have a son who suffers from PTSD and a young granddaughter who was sexually molested by her step-father. I would give anything for them to find peace and to forget.

Another:

I happen to be very interested in this subject. As a clinical social worker in a law enforcement agency, part of my responsibility is helping officers and other first responders affected by critical incidents. There are already some very effective short-term interventions that can be used with traumatic memories. They involve brain stimulation through bi-lateral body stimulation (EMDR) or via ‘meridian points’ (TFT/EFT) similar to acupuncture.

The pain of a traumatic incident is mainly in its aftermath. The thing that happened is not happening in the present but the horror, fear, and revulsion experienced during the incident (in the past) is associated with recalling that event (in the present). And that associated reaction is so intolerable that people will develop ways to avoid thinking the thought (although not usually successfully) which can also impede their ability to process and talk about the event. By detaching the reaction from the memory, we allow the person to review the situation without recreating the unbearable pain. It doesn’t mean that the memory is insignificant, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving or otherwise dealing with a loss. Quite the opposite. By making the memory bearable, they can move forward without the debilitating effects that cause them to try to avoid dealing with it altogether. It’s very exciting stuff.

Darknet Visible

Sue Halpern —  Aug 29 2014 @ 1:04pm
by Sue Halpern

grams

It turns out the NSA’s ICREACH search engine, the one that may be sharing the intimate details of your life among a thousand analysts, isn’t the only secret, Google-inspired search engine out there. Say you’re interested in buying  some of those credit card numbers that Russian hackers are so good at lifting from American banks like J.P. Morgan. Or some meth or heroin or the services of a hitman. All these things have long been available through the Internet’s “darknet,” but tricky to get at. They become much more accessible with the “GRAMS” search engine, which looks just like Google (and ICREACH) (why mess with a winner?), and works essentially the same way. Type in the word “weed” and you will be offered 5 grams of Santa Maria weed from a vendor in Germany, a pound of “chronic outdoor low grade” weed from a seller in the United States, and so on. Type in the word “handguns,” and the first two listings are for “The Terrorist Handbook” and “The Terrorist Encyclopedia” which are all about making explosives from various substances available at the hardware store. The third listing is for the latest CAD files for making 3D printed guns. Like eBay, each listing has a link for other items in the vendor’s virtual store and comments from buyers:

Stars Review Freshness
ok 1 day ago
Exceptional 1 day ago
Perfect, thanks ! 1 day ago
Great feedback! Recommend 1 day ago
got wat i paid for 1 day ago
Everything ok – honest seller as expected! Thanks! 1 day ago
Good service fast delivery. 1 day ago
Thanks mate. Great product! 1 day ago

To get to GRAMS, and to the Darknet more generally, you have to go through Tor, the anonymizing browser developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, which is now an open source project. Because Tor hands off each message in pieces to many different relays–there are 3000 in all–it makes those messages very difficult to trace and to read in transit. As a consequence, TOR has been useful for journalists needing to shield a source, or dissidents working against oppressive regimes, or victims of domestic violence, or ordinary people concerned with government overreach.  It’s also been very good for cyber criminals, drug dealers and pedophiles.

You might expect that Tor traffic would be fertile ground for NSA spying, and it would be if it could crack the encryption and de-anonymize users, but it’s been challenging. One of the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden was called “Tor Stinks,” and detailed all the mostly failed attempts to get into Tor. But since the Snowden leaks, there have been lots of speculation about the NSA’s growing abilities to crack it. On July 4th, when Tor administrators warned users that the service had been breached, fingers didn’t point at the government directly, but at a group of computer scientists at a Carnegie-Mellon lab funded by the government. From the July 31 WSJ:

In a blog post, Tor said outsiders “affected” some users in the first half of the year.

“Unfortunately, it’s still unclear what ‘affected’ includes,” the post said. “While we don’t know when they started doing the attack, users who operated or accessed hidden services from early February through July 4 should assume they were affected.”

Users who act as Tor relays, or hop points, should update their software, the group said. At the Black Hat hacker conference in Las Vegas next week, the Carnegie-Mellon researchers planned to demonstrate a hack that allowed them to unmask some Tor users. They relied on techniques similar to the tactics unveiled by Tor on Wednesday. Lawyers for the university cancelled the talk last week.

Fast-forward to earlier this week when former Health and Human Services employee Timothy DeFoggi was convicted on child pornography charges after a lengthy investigation by the FBI, which had broken into a darknet website run by a man in Nebraska named Aaron McGrath:

The FBI installed malware remotely on the machines of visitors of McGrath’s websites which could identify computers’ IP addresses, as well as its MAC addresses, directly identifying PCs’ networking cards, and other identifying data.

The malware and other FBI techniques “successfully revealed the true IP addresses of approximately 25 domestic users who accessed the sites (a small handful of domestic suspects were identified through other means, and numerous foreign-based suspect IPs were also identified)”, prosecutors wrote in a court document.

DeFoggi, like many pedophiles, thought he was safe from view because McGrath’s site, “Pedobard,” was run through Tor. DeFoggi’s job at HHS? Chief of Cybersecurity.

An Apple A Year

Sue Halpern —  Aug 28 2014 @ 8:29pm
by Sue Halpern

 

Apple

What do I (think I) know about the new iPhone 6? That it’s going to have a bigger screen. That’s it’s going to have two bigger screens since there will be two models. That the model with the even bigger screen is not going to be available right away. That both screens are going to be made from “stronger than steel” sapphire glass. That it is going to have rounded edges, just like the old days. That it is going to have a whole new operating system. That it will be able to measure my heart rate and count my steps. That it will be my e-wallet. That it is being unveiled on September 9th. That it is going to be cool. Really cool. So very cool that something on the order of 80 million people will ditch their previously really cool phone and buy one of these new, cooler, ones.

What do I know about the new iPad? That’s going to have a bigger screen. Way bigger than the iPad mini, which the company was finally compelled to produce after Samsung, Asus and Google showed that a segment of the population wanted to downsize. And it was great. But this new iPad is going to be greater. Literally. By about four inches greater. Why is bigger better? Bigger is always better, except when smaller is better. (Let’s hear it for the diminutive 11 inch MacBook Air on which I am typing this!)

What do I know about the new iWatch? That Apple hired a marketing executive from an actual watch company, which must mean that it is finally about to enter the wearable tech sector. That the iWatch is going to be announced along with the new iPhones on September 9th. Maybe.

And how do I know these things? I couldn’t tell you, exactly. There is an ambient quality to “information” about new Apple products. They swirl through the atmosphere. They are traded like bits of intelligence among children anticipating Christmas morning. Apple hardly needs a marketing department. The marketing department is us. This, among other things, is the legacy of Steve Jobs.

And since Jobs studied zen, here is a koan in anticipation of September 9: Why do Apple products cost more? Because they do.

As Leonid Bershidsky points out:

As long as the Cupertino company is able to sell millions of devices at prices that reflect nothing but the brand’s cachet, it doesn’t have to care about its shrinking market share: it will continue to skim the cream while rivals sweat every dollar.

And, he goes on:

After receiving hundreds of insulting messages every time I have the gall to question Apple’s superiority, I am convinced its products are cult objects made in heaven as far as its fans are concerned. Apple adherents don’t care about the Samsung provenance of the “revolutionary” 64-bit processors in their phones: to them, anything the company touches is sanctified, be it a Qualcomm camera module or a Bosch accelerometer.

Apple would be stupid not to use this incredible — and, after three years without a truly innovative product, inexplicable — competitive advantage. Its devotees will believe anything: That a $1,200 phone costs so much because it has a sapphire screen, because it’s bigger than before, simply because it’s the new iPhone. Tell them that using sapphire only adds about $15 to the cost of the phone, or that the Galaxy S5’s 5-inch screen costs $63 compared to $41 for the iPhone 5s’s 4-inch one — not a major difference considering the fat margins — and they will shrug: Apple wins.

(Image: Apple’s press invite to its Sept. 9th event.)

The Spiral Of Silence

Sue Halpern —  Aug 28 2014 @ 7:32pm
by Sue Halpern

Pew Silence

When I read this Pew report last week, about how social media does not foster meaningful dialog about public policy among people who might not share one’s own view, I can’t say that I was surprised. Researchers, interested in finding out if Facebook and Twitter encouraged people to engage with each other on divisive current events, interviewed slightly less than 2000 Americans, asking them if they would share their views about Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations with their social media “friends.” Apparently, in the pre-Internet olden days, people were shy about voicing an opinion on controversial topics when they weren’t sure of the viewpoint of their listeners. This reticence was deemed “the spiral of silence.” Might social media turn that around?

The survey reported in this report sought people’s opinions about the Snowden leaks, their willingness to talk about the revelations in various in-person and online settings, and their perceptions of the views of those around them in a variety of online and off-line contexts. This survey’s findings produced several major insights:

People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person. 86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.

Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media.

In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For instance, at work, those who felt their coworkers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation.

That people behave on social media much the same that they do in other parts of their lives probably should not surprise us. Social media is a platform; most likely it doesn’t change our instinctive behaviors when a real name is put to an opinion. (The kinds of behaviors encouraged by social media anonymity is another thing altogether.)

Writing about the Pew study, Jamie Condliffe observes:

Our social networks are increasingly powered by algorithms designed to feed us news that aligns with what we want to see and hear. It’s only natural that the upshot of that kind of tuned information delivery would make us worry about sharing opinions that were out of step.

It seems counter-intuitive–if we’re getting only what Facebook thinks we want to get based on everything they know about us, which is a lot, shouldn’t we assume we are always among friends? But it makes sense. We’re worried about losing friends, which is to say that we’re worried our number of friends will diminish.

What’s peculiar about the Pew study is how the questions were asked. Though the survey took place in the months after Snowden’s revelations, the subjects were asked will you and would you… not did you. Using the conditional to report on behavior that already might or might not have happened tends to make the whole exercise, well, an exercise.

It turns out, too, that the spiral of silence does not only extend to individuals. Take this week’s revelation about the NSA’s Google-like search engine that shares something on the order of 850 billion data points such as private emails obtained without a warrant from ordinary American citizens among numerous government agencies. This is a big deal for many reasons, not the least of which is that it may enable the FBI or the DEA to illegally obtain evidence and cover their tracks while so doing. Yet the mainstream media almost uniformly ignored the story. When I searched ICREACH today, only the online tech media had picked it up and run with it. Is it possible that the mainstream media is afraid of losing friends, too?