The National Security Agency is using its vast stores of communications data to build detailed graphs of Americans' social ties, according to a new report, raising new questions about the scope and legality of the spy agency's surveillance mission. A report published today by The New York Times says that since 2010, the NSA has been building a social graph capable of identifying Americans' associates, locations, and more. The agency is required to cite a foreign intelligence interest before running a query, but does not have to ensure that every email address and other piece of search data has a foreign origin.
The report, based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the Times' own interviews, describes how the NSA builds a detailed portrait of its targets by chaining together metadata from many different sources. "The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data," the report says.
A metadata collection system that records 20 billion events per day
The use of metadata was prohibited until recently, when restrictions were lifted in the name of combatting terrorism around the globe. Previously, the metadata analysis was limited to foreigners.
The report says that a major tool used by the NSA to chain targets' contact information together is known as Mainway. In 2011, the Times says, Mainway ingested 700 million phone records every day. In August of that year, it began taking in an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records per day from an undisclosed US service provider. In its 2013 budget request to Congress, which Snowden disclosed, the NSA revealed that it intends to build a metadata collection system that records 20 billion discrete events per day and can process them for an analyst's review within an hour.
The Times obtained a top-secret document that describes how the NSA searches for 94 "entity types," such as phone numbers, email addresses and IP addresses, and correlates them with 164 "relationship types" to map its targets' connections. The report suggests that even though the content of the communications is not recorded, the NSA can still get detailed information about a person's friends, family, therapy schedule, or extramarital affairs.
Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are making a big push into digital distribution, but if Grand Theft Auto V is any indication, Sony has some work to do to smooth out its process. Many PlayStation Network users have reported errors and failed downloads of the game in the days since its launch. Perhaps that's to be expected, seeing as GTA V hit the $1 billion sales mark in just three days. But when the game weighs in at a hefty 18GB on Sony's PlayStation Store, it's easy to relate to the aggravation that accompanies a corrupted download. PlayStation UK head Fergal Gara claims that gamers will see a significant improvement when it comes to downloading those huge files on the PlayStation 4, however.
"There are big innovations in the PS4 to make it more attractive," he recently told Eurogamer, highlighting that the console will let players start up a game before it's fully downloaded. "We've done a lot of work on pre-delivering files. It's not perfect. It's not seamless," he added, saying that digital distribution is a "major area of focus" and investment for Sony. The company has done a significantly better job than Microsoft with timely digital releases this generation, but there's clearly room for improvement on the infrastructure front.
The Obama Administration has pledged $320 million in aid to Detroit as the city emerges from bankruptcy. Bloomberg reports that a delegation of administration officials arrived in the onetime auto-manufacturing capital on Friday and announced a package of federal, state, and private aid.
Detroit, which declared the largest US municipal bankruptcy on July 18th, has more than $18 billion in debts and other obligations. Administration officials pledged grants for addressing crime, transportation, and housing needs. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama appointed Don Graves as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department to oversee the recovery effort.
Administration officials have said that Congress lacks the political will to fund a federal bailout of Detroit, leaving them to assemble the patchwork of grants and private aid announced this week. Among other things, the grants will be used to tear down and refurbish buildings, Bloomberg reported. The city has nearly 70,000 abandoned homes and 80,000 empty lots, the report said.
More than 200 employees of an Oscar-winning visual effects studio could finally get their back pay after two of their colleagues reached a $1 million settlement over layoffs earlier this year, Variety reports. Rhythm & Hues, which won Academy Awards for its visual effects on Babe, The Golden Compass, and Life of Pi, filed for bankruptcy on February 11th, leaving 238 people without jobs. Thomas Capizzi and Anthony Barcelo sued their former employers under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act, which requires that companies provide two months' notice in advance of mass layoffs.
Attorneys for the men reached an agreement with Rhythm & Hues' debtors, Variety reported. Each would get $10,000, with the remainder divided between the other employees and attorneys' fees. A bankruptcy judge still has to approve the settlement.
Nearly 500 visual effects artists gathered outside the Oscars earlier this year to protest the Rhythm & Hues layoffs and what they regarded as unfair treatment amid a string of recent studio closures. During the ceremony, event organizers cut off the microphone of one of the winning artists during his acceptance speech for the Life of Pi visual effects award.
This tale of poker cheats has all the signs of a Hollywood movie: high-tech contact lenses, marked playing cards, corrupt casino employees, and the French Riviera. Back in 2011, an Italian man codenamed "Parmesan" racked up 70,000 euros in one day of poker winnings followed up by 21,000 more in another visit, according to The Telegraph. He and his accomplices — which included two casino employees — found a way to mark the cards with invisible ink. Parmesan, a 56-year-old man whose real name is Stefano Ampollini, then used infrared contact lenses purchased online for 2,000 euros from a Chinese company to read his competitors' hands.
Like many other card sharps, the men's downfall was their success. The casino's lawyer told The Telegraph that "security found his behavior rather strange as he won very easily and, above all, because he folded twice when he had an excellent hand, suggesting he knew the croupier's cards." As with other schemes, it's one thing to figure out a way to beat the house. It's quite another to replicate that success without raising alarms in casinos with complete surveillance. This week Ampollini was handed a 100,000 euro fine and a two-year prison sentence for his crimes, while another accomplice was fined the same amount with a three-year sentence. One last man in on the deal was given a 30-month sentence and a 50,000 euro fine.
Jonathan Lethem makes no secret of his influences. His first published novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, riffed on the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. He’s written an academic novel in the style of Don Delillo (As She Climbed Across the Table), and crossbred E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with John Ford’s The Searchers, transporting the Western to an alien world in Girl in Landscape. He’s even written about “the ecstasy of influence,” reminding us that no creative act arrives ex nihilo — it’s all, like his own work, a product of influences and appropriations, conscious and not.
His latest novel, Dissident Gardens, follows three generations of utopian seekers whose American dreams are thwarted by reality. They’re activists to varying degrees and, as Lethem says, fundamentally uncomfortable in everyday life. Their stories trace a particular vein running through the country’s history, from the Communist cells of the 1930s to the Occupy movement of today.
By telephone from his home in California, Lethem discussed the porous borders between science fiction and “the mainstream,” how contemporary fiction acknowledges (or doesn’t) technology and capitalism, and wanting to write about his grandmother’s sex life.
Last time we talked, we discussed Philip K. Dick, a science fiction writer who had a great influence on you — not just as a writer, but as a person. You've mentioned early in your career wanting to align yourself with genre writers, who you called “those exiles within their own culture.” As someone well into your career, with more than a half-dozen published novels, what's your relationship to science fiction today?
That's a really great and really complicated, wide-open opportunity there. There are so many different angles on what it even means to speak with confidence about a science fiction genre. It's a bit like an oasis in the desert that looks coherent from a distance, and when you get closer is not just a mirage — there's something there — but some of it was a mirage. And certainly, there's a lot of sand between the trees and the little trickle of water that looked like one coherent thing in the distance.
By the way, every time I laugh, you should insert [laughter], okay? I think it just makes things much better, because I'm constantly being taken for a pompous asshole when I was just trying to be funny about something. Something about my tone requires a tremendous number of [laughter], okay?
Do you want me to —
Yeah, that's all on the record. You can say that whole thing.
So, speaking as a novelist, I feel great confidence that the hard-boiled detective story is a genre. When I read Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett or Ross Macdonald or the very early James Ellroy, I see the pattern. When I wrote Gun, with Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn, those were genre novels: the hard-boiled detective story gave me a reliable template.
I don't feel that way about everything. The “crime” section contains those hard-boiled detective stories, but it also contains this other genre, which is about the criminal protagonist. They’re the kinds of books you encounter in Charles Willeford and Donald Westlake. They may both be read by people who dig mysteries, but they're different things. And they're different things yet again from the well-ordered, English-style Agatha Christie pursuit-by-armchair-detective, sequence-of-likely-suspects-leading-to-apprehending-the-culprit-by-way-of-organized-clues that makes you go “Aha!” and “Oh ho!” That's another genre.
But all of those things are hiding in what gets called “mysteries.” I just think “mystery” is not a genre, not in a literary sense.
And I feel that way a hundred times over about what gets called “science fiction.” Even though I'm very well versed in a lot of things that lurk underneath that label, and I've perpetrated some of them as a writer, and I read variously under that label, and I've hung out with people — a lot — who feel that they're walking around under a meaningful umbrella called “science fiction.” To them it seems like one big, clear thing. It just doesn't to me. It seems like a whole host of different phenomena. And some of them are literary practices, and many others are social formations. Or ideological formations.
"By the time I was good enough to have anyone pay any attention, I'd already conceived the very, very pompous ambition to write 'literary science fiction.'"
That's the world of science fiction that I see, so any time I talk about it, I'm forced to smash up the terminology and reinvent it, so that I can become comfortable answering your question — insert [laughter] here.
But the first thing I'll say is that I love science fiction — I grew up reading it with none of the awareness I just described. I thought, “What a cool zone of operation. I want to be there. I want to operate that stuff myself.” Then, even as I was developing my ambition to be a writer, my appetite for other kinds of fictional play was overtaking that first impulse and complicating it.
"I liked having a cult reputation. It felt very appropriate to me."
By the time I was good enough to have anyone pay any attention, I'd already conceived the very, very pompous ambition to write “literary science fiction.” That was the simplest thing to call it at the time. Something like that of a J.G. Ballard, let's say, or a Thomas Disch, that demanded to be taken other ways. And specifically evoked the higher consciousness of language that's more typically literary. I wanted to be breaking out of the genre before I even wanted to be in it. So I tried to do that, and I certainly talked about it ceaselessly to the people who were publishing me early on. Or the scattering of times I would get interviewed back when I was an apprentice writer, before I had anything except kind of a cult reputation.
Which was cool. I liked having a cult reputation. It felt very appropriate to me — for exactly the reason that you gave in quoting that remark back to me: I like marginal identities. I feel like a dissident [chuckle] inside daily life and inside literary culture and inside my identity as a citizen of the United States of America. That feeling of being eccentric, being from the periphery, working the margins — the benefits and costs of that kind of position have always seemed very much my legacy. That's where I would be.
Which is why I end up confusing people so much, I think, and sometimes outright bugging people so much when I seem to be refusing to obediently play the role of the major novelist. I just made a really awkward quote because it didn't have any [laughter] next to it in Salon, where I said I'm taken too seriously. [laughter] And of course it needed [laughter] not to seem obnoxious.
Because when someone who seems to other people to have all these privileges — and I do have all these privileges — scoffs at them, it's a double insult. Not only are you top dog, but you're pissing on those who through their regard and interest in your work have made you top dog. How dare you!
"I like that Philip K. Dick and the science fiction writers that I fell in love with were intrinsically in this termite role, nibbling around the edges of the culture."
But the problem is: I just think there's something really, really wrong with my privileges and really, really wrong with the way hierarchies set themselves up in the arts. So that I keep not getting to operate as a cult figure or a marginal operator — and I don't anymore; there's no question I don't, right? — means that instead I have to do these perverse gestures to try to rupture what we now know to call “hegemonic authority.” Insert [laughter].
I like that Philip K. Dick and the science fiction writers that I fell in love with were intrinsically in this termite role, nibbling around the edges of the culture. I know it was uncomfortable for them, and it certainly didn't pay as well as they might have liked, but it meant that their work had a relevance and vitality and disreputable energy that, for me as a younger reader, hands-down won over the official literary product of the same time period.
Though one of the things that's wrong with marginal identities is that you tend to act as though the big hegemonic center is all one thing itself. “The mainstream” doesn't agree with itself or make any kind of sense or have a coherent position, except in the very small matter of believing itself to be the only action. That's the only thing it agrees about. [laughter] The rest of it, if you really pay any attention and care, and I started to care about all kinds of novels and all kinds of literary ventures, and possibilities — different kinds of lives that writers led — the rest of the mainstream is pretty much at one another's throats over various matters of style and politics, minor grudges and so forth. But it looks like one big thing if you're in exile from it.
These questions of subculture within literary practice really matter to me enormously, and I was very responsive to them because I came from a background where I took being in a subculture or being on a margin or being at a dissident position from normative constituent stuff as not only a given, but I was happy about it and wanted that to be replicated in what I did.
"It's not only science fiction writers who have seen their job in the latter half of the 20th century as coping with technology and capitalism."
Science fiction, in terms of its self-defined engagement with ideas like extrapolation or technology as an inevitable human encounter in the 20th century, or its rationalist bias — some of these things were really vivid and attractive to me, and they also seemed really problematic. They were things to argue with or tease at. And I did so, because the writers I liked were engaged with this material, and coming of age in the postwar 20th century, inside a late-capitalist disaster area, requires you to be interested in those things if you're alert to anything except primal emotional experience. Some novelists try to restrict themselves to primal emotional experience, but it's not only science fiction writers who have seen their job in the latter half of the 20th century as coping with technology and capitalism.
I was, in a very predictable way, equally excited the minute I knew people like Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon existed. Those two are understood as literary writers because of their disposition and their remove from participation in any subcultural literary-social milieu, but by the nature of their interests could easily be science fiction writers.
In Pynchon's case, he borrows from science fiction writers right and left. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop’s power of knowing where the rockets are going to fall seems to derive pretty directly from Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint. In his newest book, unless I'm crazy, there's a total Alfred Bester riff about time travel.
So I don't think there's any important difference between science fiction and “the mainstream.” That was a really long way of saying that. [laughter]
I think your description nicely brings us to your latest novel, Dissident Gardens, the way you've described these dissident and marginal identities as seated in cultural artifacts, with differing degrees of overt ideology.
Comic books, for example, may not always have had an overtly subversive message, but as cultural objects they were not mainstream — not countercultural, necessarily, but marginal, sort of grimy and overlooked. So I'm interested how that contrasts with what's going on in the new book, which covers a time in which identification with a specific, oppositional ideology — communism — was more prevalent than today. It seems a much different idea of dissidence.
Sure — so, Captain America hardly seems like a subversive figure. But there's something about the milieu and the form and the tone and even the reading protocols of comics. They screw you up: you have to figure out this new way of inserting yourself in the space between these panels and drawings and word balloons. Where is the meaning in that space? Everything about those comic books is undermining — not to mention what you called the griminess. Though we should be careful about too much fetishizing of griminess; there's lots that's grimy and it's boring.
But yeah, comic books are an eruption. They contain irrational pressure on the status quo. They seem to be begging you to see things differently. They're uncomfortable. Where they came from is bizarre; where they're going is bizarre.
So the new book is about people who are... putting actual political spectrums or movements aside; let's forget left, right, center. People who are out of sorts. They're uncomfortable in the world they're in. They're in helpless revolt against the position that everyday life seems to cast them in. Sometimes that's an incredibly energizing and procreative situation. When Lenny is trying to give birth to the Sunnyside Proletarians [a professional baseball team “of, by, and for the working man”] from the sweat of his fevered brow, there's a crazy vitality to his impossible dream. It’s a muddle of American can-do optimism, baseball-and-apple-pie wedded to this ostensible revolutionary sedition: that the country itself needs to be torn down from its foundations.
It's hardly about a coherent ideological position so much as it's about the feeling that your fantasy of transformation is so real that it might actually catch fire. It might catch fire in someone else's brain; it might catch fire in the world. We all walk around with fantasies of transformation. But when they're organized along this political–ideological axis...
People have sometimes been prone to ask me questions like the one you're asking me about the development of my interests, but in order to use the phrase “fantastic element.” When I wrote Motherless Brooklyn, which was my first tacitly “realist” book, I would always say, “Well, actually, language is the fantastic element.” Because it runs out of control. In J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, you meet our world plus these floods that are tall enough to cover skyscrapers. In Motherless Brooklyn you meet our world drowning in the Tourettic language — it's just totally running amok.
I would say in a way utopian-visionary belief is the fantastic element in Dissident Gardens. It's this riotous element that stands for all irrational possibilities, the unnameable yearnings and despairs and pressures everywhere around us in daily life. But they're not tangible; you can't rap on them like a desk and prove they're there. Yet they're pushing on everything. In this book, that fantastical stuff is the utopian belief, given various names. Most simply, given the name “the American Communist movement,” when that was sustainable. But it's not by the later stages of the book. Yet it's still there. The last couple chapters are about the strange pressure of this unnameable force that's still there.
What drew you to this particular story, to this unnameable force?
I have the blessing and the curse of total identification. I become what I'm writing, whatever it may be. I've always leaned toward the kind of ill-defined socialism or Kropotkin-style, accent-on-the-commune Communism. I was such a revolutionary while writing this book that when Occupy emerged I thought, “Holy shit, my book has a happy ending — the last thing I need!” [laughter] Like this would be really great for the world, but it was really going to screw me over.
No one starts with a theme; I'd certainly be horrified if I thought I did, or if people got that impression. I wanted to write a book about my grandmother's sex life. I wanted to use these legacies of being a kid who was both embarrassed and proud to be marching around New York City all the time, in favor of daycare and against nuclear power. I was never done going to demonstrations as a kid.
"No one starts with a theme; I'd certainly be horrified if I thought I did, or if people got that impression."
I wanted to scrape up these residues, these legacies from my grandmother's life, which is, incidentally, quite mysterious to me. I still don't know whether she was actually in the Communist Party. I know that she was enough of a fellow traveler that it gave cause for my uncle Fred to taunt her for the rest of her life. There was just this dark area that wasn't being described about her life. So I decided that it was that she was a fully functioning member of a cell. But god knows it's all guesswork.
So this stuff was there for me to think about and feel fascinated by and embarrassed by. And eventually to recognize that, “Oh, I'm thinking about lives in the way that I think about lives when I'm going to make up characters and write a book.” It was about the streets of Sunnyside. It was about the contradictions even as a child I could detect in my grandmother's pride in her American identity and her pride as a New Yorker; that she was anti-authoritarian, but all the men in her imaginative life were presidents or mayors or beat cops. And I thought, “She kind of loves uniforms. And rank. What's that?” [laughter] So this is where the book comes from. Not from deep thoughts
We all know the feeling. You're sleepless in the sad hours of the night or stumbling around early on a hazy weekend morning in need of something to read, and that pile of unread books just isn't cutting it. Why not take a break from the fire hose of Twitter and RSS and check out our weekly roundup of essential writing from around the web about technology, culture, media, and the future? Sure, it's one more thing you can feel guilty about sitting in your Instapaper queue, but it's better than pulling in vain on your Twitter list again.
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On 'GTA V'
Tom Bissell struggles through relationship to GTA V with a letter to the game's Niko Bellic.
Grantland: Tom Bissell - A letter to Niko Bellic about Grand Theft Auto V
Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person. Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people.
On organ donation
Daniela Lamas writes about how public campaigns for organ donations on the web are affecting established organ allocation systems.
The New Yorker: Daniela Lamas - To donate your kidney, click here
“The obvious potential problem is that someone who’s smart or connected can make the system work for them in ways that other people without those advantages can’t,” Dan O’Connor, a Johns Hopkins researcher who studies the ethics of the exchange of medical information in online social networks, told me. “Whenever you’re using platforms like Facebook, the question is, what kind of person, what demographic profile has the time and energy and communication skills to make this work?”
On Alfonso Cuarón
With Gravity hitting theaters next week, Dan P. Lee profiles director Alfonso Cuarón and takes a look back at his work since 1991's Soló con Tu Pareja.
New York: Dan P. Lee - The Camera's Cusp: Alfonso Cuarón Takes Filmmaking to a New Extreme With Gravity
So many technical troubles and issues could have been alleviated by setting the film in the future. “It would have been so easy to set it 100 years from now, with super-cool astronaut suits and spaceships and stuff,” he told me. But this was contrary to Cuarón’s intent. “We wanted to surrender to the reality of the technologies that exist. We went further: We wanted it to be a journey in which people recognize the world that we’re talking about. We wanted it to almost have the experience of an Imax documentary gone wrong.” Even the use of the space shuttle, which is no longer in commission, was purposeful—they wanted viewers to recognize “the iconography that they know.”
On internet horses
Choire Sicha writes about the @Horse_ebooks debacle.
Kottke.org: Choire Sicha - Horse
Once upon a time there was a horse, free and proud. He lived in Russia. Then when he was old enough to want more than his simple life he poked his head up and found he had admirers, people who liked listening to him. You are who your last dozen tweets say you are, he knew. Some of those admirers wanted to pay for his thoughts. He had an invitation from a sponsor who paid him to move to New York City.a
On the bus
Returning to the oft-discussed buses of Silicon Valley, Kitty Morgan talks about living and working in California and feeling left out of the tech boom.
San Francisco magazine: Kitty Morgan - Stop That Bus (I Want to Get On)
And then there’s the whole celestial rapture language. Investors are angels. Walking into an Apple Store, with its soft pure daylight and white surfaces, is like stepping onto a Hollywood movie set of heaven. The June cover of Wired—still improbably printed on dead trees—is an image of an otherworldly pastel sky. “Awake,” the headline reads. “When the objects around us can talk to one another, the elements of our physical universe will converge and spring to life.” And lo, on the seventh day, Silicon Valley rested.
On Ramona Pierson
Ashlee Vance tells the powerful story of Declara co-founder Ramona Pierson and her recovery from an 18-month coma and 11 years of blindness after being hit by a drunk driver while running.
Businessweek: Ashlee Vance - Declara Co-Founder Ramona Pierson's Comeback Odyssey
The blindness was terrifying. But it also forced Pierson to expand her ability to solve puzzles in her mind. As she listened to her doctors and other people, she began to “see” them as what she calls “glow globs,” patterns of light with different properties. Then she recognized patterns within descriptions others gave her—such as how items were arranged in a grocery store or how the figures on a spreadsheet interconnected. “I learned to create a cognitive map of the world, sort of like The Matrix,” she says. “I see the world in my head.”