Why Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is a movie classic

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Why Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is a movie classic” was written by Priya Elan, for The Guardian on Tuesday 29th January 2013 11.28 UTC

Tina Fey may be planning a timely return to her 2004 film Mean Girls with a musical adaptation. “I’m trying to develop it with my husband, who does all the music for 30 Rock. And I think Paramount’s on board,” she said at the Screen Actors Guild awards on Sunday. Timely because nine years after its release the film remains a by-word for pop-culture savviness. In recent months it has been referenced by everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Barack Obama (his official Tumblr features a gif from the film in which Lindsay Lohan mentions “October 3rd”, to notify followers of the date for a presidential debate). So what accounts for its longevity?

The plot is simple. Previously home-schooled 16-year-old Cady Heron (Lohan) attends high school for the first time. She falls in with a Heathers-like gang, called the Plastics, who tutor her in the bitchy mores of the teen clique. But Cady has a plan of her own …

For the high-school genre, Fey’s hilarious script was unusually astute and provocative. Replicating teen doublespeak with brilliant authenticity, the dialogue was full of zingers, accounting for its continued life online. Not only has it spawned a huge number of memes and gifs, phrases like “fetch” and “word vomit” have fallen into common parlance. Its cyber-life has afforded the film a special cachet. Which is why when Mariah Carey asked Nicki Minaj to name all the film’s characters on American Idol a few weeks ago, Carey was subtly questioning Minaj’s own authenticity. It was a pointed exchange that would have made the film’s own queen bee, Regina George, proud. Only last week Amanda Seyfried, in the news for Les Mis, said that Mean Girls was her “best work”.

Fey gave us some real moments of societal commentary in the film too. Subjects such as the early sexualisation of children (Regina’s little sister grinding along to Kelis’ Milkshake on the TV) and body dysmorphia (the ritualistic cries of “man shoulders” as the girls examine themselves in the mirror) were tackled with wit. One key plot device, the Burn Book – a scrapbook that features a photo of a person you hate with a single-line diss (“Grotsky little byotch” and “made out with a hotdog”) – today looks like the precursor of internet trolling and cyberbullying.

The main theme, though, was girl-on-girl crime, from passive-aggressive takedowns to real physical violence. This battle for “social acceptance by any means necessary” is something that continues to be played out in real life, and duplicated in shows like Gossip Girl and The Real Housewives in the US.

Mean Girls continues to be relevant and, to misquote the film, is more grool than ever.

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The libertarian iCapitalists wouldn’t have anything to do with the state … would they?

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The libertarian iCapitalists wouldn’t have anything to do with the state … would they?” was written by David Priestland, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th June 2013 17.58 UTC

As Google reels from stinging condemnation for its tax avoidance from Margaret Hodge’s parliamentary committee, and the hi-tech companies are embarrassed by allegations of state surveillance, the general response has been one of astonished disbelief.

But we should not be surprised. The “iCapitalists” have long been zealots for a radically neoliberal vision of capitalism. It is their skill at making this harsh approach palatable to the modern zeitgeist which will probably save their skin – though with potentially disastrous consequences for our economy.

Big tech, originating in California’s Silicon Valley, has always been about more than cutting-edge engineering. It embodies a value system that merges a counter-cultural 60s romantic individualism with a cold-eyed commitment to free markets. Apple’s Steve Jobs, the Zen Buddhist of canny entrepreneurialism, captured the worldview with Apple’s famous 1997 slogan: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers …”

And it is this rebellious pose that reconciled a whole swath of the educated professional classes – the “creatives” – to free-market capitalism. In the 1980s, it was besuited corporates who were in the vanguard of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s neoliberal revolution – people such as the hard-faced, downsizing financier Mitt Romney. The iCapitalists, however, presented a far more appealing vision to liberals – one of denimed democracy, of gender-blind and colour-blind egalitarianism. For many of us, Google’s own Big Brother house-style offices, with their Play School sofas and pool tables, seemed the very epitome of a creative, “happening” workplace; while Facebook’s Silicon Valley HQ was a mini-utopia of subsidised gyms, dentists, and personal stylists.

But this is an egalitarian utopia only for the networked and highly educated, not for the many. For the iCapitalist culture is not so much liberal as libertarian, and is founded on the belief that we should be led by elite hi-tech businesses and their shinily packaged semi-conductors and microchips; the state, a lumbering, bureaucratic drag on creativity and innovation, has a minimal role.

This worldview lies behind Eric Schmidt’s defending Google’s tax affairs with reference to the company being “a key part of the electronic commerce expansion of Britain, which is driving a lot of economic growth for the country.” It is not necessary, it seems, to worry about taxation, and indeed the state, as long as company profits are trickling down to the rest of us. The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has taken this anti-state view to its logical conclusion, and contributed funds to “Seasteading” – a project inspired by the libertarian writer Ayn Rand, to create mobile “islands” of entrepreneurs on cruise-ships and oil-rigs, where they can be free of tax and state regulations.

As the iCapitalists have become richer, they have aspired to project this libertarian vision beyond their sunny, frisbee-friendly Californian campuses to society more generally. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has set up FWD.us to lobby American politicians. It has been pressing for looser rules on immigration – a cause his critics argue is primarily driven by company’s appetite for foreign tech-engineers, and a cheap alternative to improving the American education system.

Of course, we need hi-tech, and Britain should be investing more in the sector. But the iCapitalist vision of society is deeply flawed, and potentially destructive. It is based on the false premise that the tech industries are a triumph of and justification for pure laissez-faire economics – refusing to acknowledge, of course, that the US department of defence drove the development of Silicon Valley. Also, it erroneously assumes that economic growth can be driven by a small group of super-wealthy, highly educated individuals, producing technologies that allow employers to cut wage costs for the majority, while resisting taxation and redistribution. This was precisely the highly inegalitarian economic model that led governments to maintain consumption by allowing a debt build-up among us lesser mortals – contributing to the crisis of 2008.

Since the financial crisis, the iCapitalists, like the bankers, have come under more scrutiny. They will clearly now have to pay more tax, at least in the UK, and they are under pressure elsewhere.

And now we have the possibility that the tech companies have allowed the US government wide access to their users’ data, something that they have denied. If true, it leave them open to the charge of gross hypocrisy; for despite their much-vaunted libertarianism, it seems, they can also collaborate with an overbearing state.

It may be this scandal, rather than the tax-dodging, that undermines faith in big tech.

But there is little sign of any rebellion yet. For the iCapitalist vision of liberation and creativity still resonates with many of us, and particularly the young. British polls show that those born since 1979 are more likely to be socially liberal on race, gender and sexuality, but also more pro-market and anti-state than their older peers. They are also less likely to engage in boycotts of companies guilty of tax avoidance.

One explanation may be that this generation came of age when the iCapitalist vision seemed to be working and jobs were plentiful. And it may be some years before the hollowed-out neoliberal economy takes its toll and the flaws of iCapitalism are finally exposed.

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Carnegie medal winner Sally Gardner attacks Gove

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Carnegie medal winner Sally Gardner attacks Gove” was written by Alison Flood, for The Guardian on Wednesday 19th June 2013 11.49 UTC

Dyslexic author Sally Gardner, who today won the Carnegie medal for her dystopian story of a boy standing up to a totalitarian state, has slammed Michael Gove’s new curriculum for “exclud[ing] rather than embrac[ing]” those like her, “with a different way of seeing and thinking”.

Gardner, branded “unteachable” as a child and expelled by one of the numerous schools she attended, was 12 when she was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. The hero of her Carnegie-winning teen novel Maggot Moon, Standish Treadwell, is also dyslexic and is written off by teachers and bullied by his peers, who chant “Standish Treadwell / Can’t read, can’t write / Standish Treadwell / Isn’t bright”. But when his best friend Hector is arrested, Standish decides to take action against the oppressive power of the “monstrous Motherland” – an alternate version of 1950s England – where he lives.

Gardner has dedicated the book to “you the dreamers, overlooked at school, never won prizes … You who will own tomorrow”, and at the Carnegie’s prize-giving ceremony she launched a stinging attack on Gove’s “outdated” new curriculum, which, she said, “excludes rather than embraces those like me, and millions of others, with a different way of seeing and thinking”.

“Politicians need to get out of schools and let teachers do what they do best – teach. [They just] need to fund schools, rather than put their fingers in the pie. [There] should be a divide between politics and state education,” she told the Guardian. “I really think we are going back in time, not forward, and I find it so heart-breaking.” Gardner believes that “we need to nurture imagination, not crush it with standardised tests, which don’t mean a thing in the real world”.

“We test children into failure, and it’s got to stop, it’s not the right way forward,” she said, adding that dyslexic children are being “tested into depression and worthlessness – that’s how I felt at school”.

“I never got beyond Janet and John got a ball, I was on Janet and John got a ball until I was 11. Then I was diagnosed as word blind, and they finally gave me the word dyslexia. I couldn’t say or spell it – and to this day I can’t spell it. The diagnosis did make a difference, but I was very alone at school.”

Gardner, who sees dyslexia as a gift rather than a disability, went on to publish her first book in 1993. Her first full-length novel, I, Coriander, won the Nestle children’s book prize gold award in 2005, and Maggot Moon took the 2012 Costa children’s book prize. Winning the Carnegie, though – she beat novels from authors including Booker-winner Roddy Doyle – feels like she has “entered the hall of fame”, she said.

The UK’s most prestigious award for children’s writing, since it was established in 1936 the CILIP Carnegie medal has been won by some of the greatest names in British children’s literature, from Arthur Ransome to CS Lewis and Noel Streatfeild. Winning is “just unbelievable”, said Gardner – particularly for a novel she never thought would be published.

“I wrote this book out of contract – I didn’t have a publisher for it. And I didn’t think it would be published, I thought I had gone above the bar and publishers wouldn’t want to deal with it – there is a scene of great violence in it, and I thought that might mean I had made it unpublishable,” she said. “I still can’t believe I’ve won.”

Today’s ceremony also saw illustrator Levi Pinfold win the CILIP Kate Greenaway medal for only his second picture book, Black Dog, in which a little girl, Small Hope, faces down a huge black dog. Pinfold, who beat names including Helen Oxenbury, Jon Klassen and Emily Gravett to take the prize, said that winning was “fantastic”, and that he “couldn’t use the words ‘over-the-moon’ less lightly”. Gallery of artwork from Black Dog.

The prize winners are both chosen by librarians, and Pinfold said he was “always amazed at the passion for reading, looking and understanding that libraries inspire in everyone”.

“The availability of a whole universe of knowledge and inspiration in one place is something highly underrated, as is the importance of encouraging minds, young and old, on the pathway to discovery. I think we all have a lot to learn from libraries,” said the illustrator.

Chair of this year’s judging panel Karen Robinson called the winning books “true modern classics” that she believes “will be read and enjoyed by generations to come.”

“The heroes in both Gardner and Pinfold’s exquisitely realised and highly original books are the antithesis to the heroes we come to expect from Hollywood; both are small and without obvious talent,” she said. “But in the face of terror their pluck, courage and hope shines brightly through.”

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Boot up: Google Glass privacy, Facebook video ads, iOS 7 apps threat, Kazam smartphones and more

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Boot up: Google Glass privacy, Facebook video ads, iOS 7 apps threat, Kazam smartphones and more” was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th June 2013 06.30 UTC

A quick burst of 10 links for you to chew over, as picked by the Technology team

Privacy authorities issue Google a ‘please explain’ on Glass | ZDNet

Josh Taylor:

In April, Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim requested a briefing with Google on the device, and today he, and nine of his colleagues from Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, and Switzerland, among others, have written to Page asking for detailed information on Google Glass, stating that their knowledge on it comes "from media reports, which contain a great deal of speculation".

The commissioners state in the letter that Google has not approached them to discuss the associated ethical issues with Google Glass while the product is in early testing stages with developers.

They have asked Google eight questions around the associated privacy issues, including asking Google to explain how Glass complies with data protection laws, what the privacy safeguards are, what information Google collects through Glass, who that information is shared with, and whether Google has undertaken a privacy risk assessment.

The suspicion is that Google itself doesn’t understand all the ethical issues yet: that’s partly what the early tests are for. It’s a reminder that outside the early-adopter bubble, Glass’ privacy implications will be on the agenda for politicians as well as the public.


Facebook’s Video Ads Now Likely Delayed Until Fall >> Advertising Age

Cotton Delo:

As of late last year, Facebook was prepping video ads for their debut in the first half of 2013, but the launch was pushed back to the summer. Now it’s unofficially been pushed back until mid-October, according to a source familiar with the product. The given reason is that there are new features Facebook wants to release concurrently with video ads, and they require more software development.

Facebook needs to tread very carefully with this one to avoid a big user backlash, even if its sales teams are champing at the bit as AdAge suggests. I’m intrigued to see how video ads are handled on mobile, to avoid users hurtling through their data limits.


Radical iOS 7 Design Is Threat To Some Existing Apps >> ReadWrite

Brian S. Hall:

iOS 7 is a truly audacious redesign of Apple’s chief operating system. I have been using the beta version since last week and it’s abundantly clear that Apple is determinedly focused on ensuring that iOS–the software underpinnings of the iPhone and iPad–remains the simplest, purest OS on the planet. It’s also obvious that the new iOS 7 design and enhanced functionality will kill off many non-Apple apps, including some good ones.

Weep for the flashlight-app makers. The claim that "iTunes Radio should choke off all but the very best most-entrenched streaming music competitors" is debatable too – or, at least, there are plenty of other reasons why the not-so-best competitors will fall by the wayside.


Kazam Is Another European Startup Hoping Against Hope To Inch In To The Smartphone Hardware Market >> TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas (hat tip to @modelportfolio2003):

Details of how exactly Kazam plans to assault the Samsung and Apple smartphone duopoly were not forthcoming when I asked. Atkins declined to answer the bulk of my questions — including such specifics as whether Kazam’s planned smartphones will run Android and be skinned with a custom UI or keep the experience familiarly stock. Instead, he trotted out a repeated PR mantra: "Today we are just announcing that the Kazam brand is here, for the rest you will have to wait and see."

Remember the days when the UK had its own smartphone manufacturer, Sendo? That didn’t end so well. Now Kazam, launched by two former HTC executives, is having another crack at the market, with plans to launch devices later this year. But for now, it’s all brand and no (public) hardware.


The Humble Bundle with Android 6

The latest games bundle for Android devices:

Pay what you want for the underwater fantasy action-adventure game Aquaria; the chromatic minimalist puzzler Fractal: Make Blooms Not War; the retro zombie survival game Organ Trail: Director’s Cut; and the nail-biting stealth strategy platformer Stealth Bastard Deluxe. You’ll also receive a bonus game: the rhythmic audio-visual game Pulse: Volume One. If you pay more than the average, you’ll also get the intense tactical combat sim Frozen Synapse and the classic mystery point-and-click adventure Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars – Director’s Cut!

Many games developers criticise Android for its users’ perceived unwillingness to pay for content. Yet with 13 days to go, more than 68k people have stumped up just under 0k for the latest Humble Bundle. There’s life beyond the Google Play store…


Premium Smartphone Market: Why the Apple vs. Samsung Duopoly is Misleading >> Tech-Thoughts

Sameer Singh (hat tip to @HotSoup):

The chart above shows the ratio of premium (0+) smartphone shipments from other vendors to Apple’s and Samsung’s shipments. While the share of "Others" in the premium smartphone market doubled from 7% in May 2012, to 15% in May 2013, the pattern with respect to Apple & Samsung is quite interesting. In May 2012, premium smartphone shipments from "Others" were just 10% of Apple’s shipments and about 35% of Samsung’s shipments. By May 2013, the shipments from "Others" had grown to nearly 40% of Apple’s shipments and remained at 32% of Samsung’s shipments.

A smart look at the data, but do you agree with the conclusion that "the 0+, premium smartphone market may begin to lose its relevance in a year"?


Musical Identity >> The Echo Nest

From the music technology company’s new Musical Identity blog:

Can your music taste predict your taste in other forms of entertainment (books, movies, games, etc)? This post focuses on some (hopefully) amusing, interesting examples of what our Taste Profiling technology can uncover about the relationship between one’s taste in music and one’s taste in movies.

BREAKING: Fans of romantic comedies also like Céline Dion. But there are some interesting insights here, and implications for how the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google may be able to learn from our preferences in one area to recommend things in others.


Rihanna Passes Justin Bieber as Most Viewed Artist on YouTube >> The Hollywood Reporter

William Gruger:

Some time early Tuesday morning, June 18, Rihanna passed Justin Bieber as the most-viewed artist on YouTube. The 77 videos on Rihanna’s official VEVO channel now have a combined 3.784 billion views in total, surpassing the total view counts of the 79 videos on Bieber’s official VEVO channel by roughly two million views.

It’s all about the subscribers, apparently: Rihanna has 8.73m while Justin has 4.9m. Still, Bieber remains Twitter king with 40.6m followers. Perhaps he should start tweeting more YouTube links at them.


One year later, the Nexus 7 has gone from the best to worst tablet I’ve ever owned >> Android and Me

Dustin Earley:

I don’t remember when it first started happening, but most say it was when Android 4.2 began hitting devices. The new features and changes in Jelly Bean, 4.2, were certainly welcome additions, but my Nexus’ new found love of life in the slow-lane was not. I have not spent a full year using the Nexus 7 as a daily driver, only the last six months. So at first, I didn’t notice just how bad things had gotten. I thought maybe it was an illusion from using so many high-end Android phones. Until I started asking around.

Commenters suggest (a) SSD hitting the end of its read-write life (b) Google Currents sucking up resource (c) too little free disk space (d) he’s been mistreating it.


Why can’t Facebook help Emma Watson with her naked photo problem? >> Graham Cluley

So, if I’m seeing these messages, and readers of this blog keep seeing these messages, why isn’t Facebook’s security team seeing these messages?

Or is it that they *are* seeing the messages, but they either:

a) don’t care?

b) aren’t capable of doing anything effective to stop them?

Whatever the explanation, it’s disturbing to continue to see spams and scams spreading so effectively across the world’s most popular social network.

There aren’t any nekkid pics. The app pretending there are will take a lot of liberties, though.


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FISA court oversight: a look inside a secret and empty process

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Fisa court oversight: a look inside a secret and empty process” was written by Glenn Greenwald, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 18th June 2013 23.36 UTC

(updated below [Wed.])

Since we began began publishing stories about the NSA’s massive domestic spying apparatus, various NSA defenders – beginning with President Obama – have sought to assure the public that this is all done under robust judicial oversight. "When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he proclaimed on June 7 when responding to our story about the bulk collection of telephone records, adding that the program is "fully overseen" by "the Fisa court, a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them". Obama told Charlie Rose last night:

"What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls … by law and by rule, and unless they … go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause."

The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, told CNN that the NSA "is not listening to Americans’ phone calls. If it did, it is illegal. It is breaking the law." Talking points issued by the House GOP in defense of the NSA claimed that surveillance law only "allows the Government to acquire foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S.-persons (foreign, non-Americans) located outside the United States."

The NSA’s media defenders have similarly stressed that the NSA’s eavesdropping and internet snooping requires warrants when it involves Americans. The Washington Post’s Charles Lane told his readers: "the government needs a court-issued warrant, based on probable cause, to listen in on phone calls." The Post’s David Ignatius told Post readers that NSA internet surveillance "is overseen by judges who sit on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court" and is "lawful and controlled". Tom Friedman told New York Times readers that before NSA analysts can invade the content of calls and emails, they "have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress."

This has become the most common theme for those defending NSA surveillance. But these claim are highly misleading, and in some cases outright false.

Top secret documents obtained by the Guardian illustrate what the Fisa court actually does – and does not do – when purporting to engage in "oversight" over the NSA’s domestic spying. That process lacks many of the safeguards that Obama, the House GOP, and various media defenders of the NSA are trying to lead the public to believe exist.

No individualized warrants required under 2008 Fisa law

Many of the reasons these claims are so misleading is demonstrated by the law itself. When the original Fisa law was enacted in 1978, its primary purpose was to ensure that the US government would be barred from ever monitoring the electronic communications of Americans without first obtaining an individualized warrant from the Fisa court, which required evidence showing "probable cause" that the person to be surveilled was an agent of a foreign power or terrorist organization.

That was the law which George Bush, in late 2001, violated, when he secretly authorized eavesdropping on the international calls of Americans without any warrants from that court. Rather than act to punish Bush for those actions, the Congress, on a bipartisan basis in 2008, enacted a new, highly diluted Fisa law – the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA) – that legalized much of the Bush warrantless NSA program.

Under the FAA, which was just renewed last December for another five years, no warrants are needed for the NSA to eavesdrop on a wide array of calls, emails and online chats involving US citizens. Individualized warrants are required only when the target of the surveillance is a US person or the call is entirely domestic. But even under the law, no individualized warrant is needed to listen in on the calls or read the emails of Americans when they communicate with a foreign national whom the NSA has targeted for surveillance.

As a result, under the FAA, the NSA frequently eavesdrops on Americans’ calls and reads their emails without any individualized warrants – exactly that which NSA defenders, including Obama, are trying to make Americans believe does not take place. As Yale Law professor Jack Balkin explained back in 2009:

"The Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, effectively gives the President – now President Obama – the authority to run surveillance programs similar in effect to the warrantless surveillance program [secretly implemented by George Bush in late 2001]. That is because New Fisa no longer requires individualized targets in all surveillance programs. Some programs may be ‘vacuum cleaner’ programs that listen to a great many different calls (and read a great many e-mails) without any requirement of a warrant directed at a particular person as long as no US person is directly targeted as the object of the program. . . .

"New Fisa authorizes the creation of surveillance programs directed against foreign persons (or rather, against persons believed to be outside the United States) – which require no individualized suspicion of anyone being a terrorist, or engaging in any criminal activity. These programs may inevitably include many phone calls involving Americans, who may have absolutely no connection to terrorism or to Al Qaeda."

As the FAA was being enacted in mid-2008, Professor Balkin explained that "Congress is now giving the President the authority to do much of what he was probably doing (illegally) before".

The ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director, Jameel Jaffer, told me this week by email:

"On its face, the 2008 law gives the government authority to engage in surveillance directed at people outside the United States. In the course of conducting that surveillance, though, the government inevitably sweeps up the communications of many Americans. The government often says that this surveillance of Americans’ communications is ‘incidental’, which makes it sound like the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails is inadvertent and, even from the government’s perspective, regrettable.

"But when Bush administration officials asked Congress for this new surveillance power, they said quite explicitly that Americans’ communications were the communications of most interest to them. See, for example, Fisa for the 21st Century, Hearing Before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 109th Cong. (2006) (statement of Michael Hayden) (stating, in debate preceding passage of FAA’s predecessor statute, that certain communications ‘with one end in the United States" are the ones "that are most important to us‘).

The principal purpose of the 2008 law was to make it possible for the government to collect Americans’ international communications – and to collect those communications without reference to whether any party to those communications was doing anything illegal. And a lot of the government’s advocacy is meant to obscure this fact, but it’s a crucial one: The government doesn’t need to ‘target’ Americans in order to collect huge volumes of their communications."

That’s why Democratic senators such as Ron Wyden and Mark Udall spent years asking the NSA: how many Americans are having their telephone calls listened to and emails read by you without individualized warrants? Unlike the current attempts to convince Americans that the answer is "none", the NSA repeatedly refused to provide any answers, claiming that providing an accurate number was beyond their current technological capabilities. Obviously, the answer is far from "none".

Contrary to the claims by NSA defenders that the surveillance being conducted is legal, the Obama DOJ has repeatedly thwarted any efforts to obtain judicial rulings on whether this law is consistent with the Fourth Amendment or otherwise legal. Every time a lawsuit is brought contesting the legality of intercepting Americans’ communications without warrants, the Obama DOJ raises claims of secrecy, standing and immunity to prevent any such determination from being made.

The emptiness of ‘oversight’ from the secret Fisa court

The supposed safeguard under the FAA is that the NSA annually submits a document setting forth its general procedures for how it decides on whom it can eavesdrop without a warrant. The Fisa court then approves those general procedures. And then the NSA is empowered to issue "directives" to telephone and internet companies to obtain the communications for whomever the NSA decides – with no external (i.e. outside the executive branch) oversight – complies with the guidelines it submitted to the court.

In his interview with the president last night, Charlie Rose asked Obama about the oversight he claims exists: "Should this be transparent in some way?" Obama’s answer: "It is transparent. That’s why we set up the Fisa Court." But as Politico’s Josh Gerstein noted about that exchange: Obama was "referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – which carries out its work almost entirely in secret." Indeed, that court’s orders are among the most closely held secrets in the US government. That Obama, when asked about transparency, has to cite a court that operates in complete secrecy demonstrates how little actual transparency there is to any this.

The way to bring actual transparency to this process it to examine the relevant Top Secret Fisa court documents. Those documents demonstrate that this entire process is a fig leaf, "oversight" in name only. It offers no real safeguards. That’s because no court monitors what the NSA is actually doing when it claims to comply with the court-approved procedures. Once the Fisa court puts its approval stamp on the NSA’s procedures, there is no external judicial check on which targets end up being selected by the NSA analysts for eavesdropping. The only time individualized warrants are required is when the NSA is specifically targeting a US citizen or the communications are purely domestic.

When it is time for the NSA to obtain Fisa court approval, the agency does not tell the court whose calls and emails it intends to intercept. It instead merely provides the general guidelines which it claims are used by its analysts to determine which individuals they can target, and the Fisa court judge then issues a simple order approving those guidelines. The court endorses a one-paragraph form order stating that the NSA’s process "’contains all the required elements’ and that the revised NSA, FBI and CIA minimization procedures submitted with the amendment ‘are consistent with the requirements of [50 U.S.C. §1881a(e)] and with the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States’". As but one typical example, the Guardian has obtained an August 19, 2010, Fisa court approval from Judge John Bates which does nothing more than recite the statutory language in approving the NSA’s guidelines.

Once the NSA has this court approval, it can then target anyone chosen by their analysts, and can even order telecoms and internet companies to turn over to them the emails, chats and calls of those they target. The Fisa court plays no role whatsoever in reviewing whether the procedures it approved are actually complied with when the NSA starts eavesdropping on calls and reading people’s emails.

The guidelines submitted by the NSA to the Fisa court demonstrate how much discretion the agency has in choosing who will be targeted. Those guidelines also make clear that, contrary to the repeated assurances from government officials and media figures, the communications of American citizens are – without any individualized warrant – included in what is surveilled.

The specific guidelines submitted by the NSA to the Fisa court in July 2009 – marked Top Secret and signed by Attorney General Eric Holder – state that "NSA determines whether a person is a non-United States person reasonably believed to be outside the United States in light of the totality of the circumstances based on the information available with respect to that person, including information concerning the communications facility or facilities used by that person." It includes information that the NSA analyst uses to make this determination – including IP addresses, statements made by the potential target, and other information in the NSA databases.

The decision to begin listening to someone’s phone calls or read their emails is made exclusively by NSA analysts and their "line supervisors". There is no outside scrutiny, and certainly no Fisa court involvement. As the NSA itself explained in its guidelines submitted to the Fisa court:

"Analysts who request tasking will document in the tasking database a citation or citations to the information that led them to reasonably believe that a targeted person is located outside the United States. Before tasking is approved, the database entry for that tasking will be reviewed in order to verify that the database entry contains the necessary citations."

The only oversight for monitoring whether there is abuse comes from the executive branch itself: from the DOJ and Director of National Intelligence, which conduct "periodic reviews … to evaluate the implementation of the procedure." At a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday afternoon, deputy attorney general James Cole testified that every 30 days, the Fisa court is merely given an "aggregate number" of database searches on US domestic phone records.

Warrantless interception of Americans’ communications

Obama and other NSA defenders have repeatedly claimed that "nobody" is listening to Americans’ telephone calls without first obtaining warrants. This is simply false. There is no doubt that some of the communications intercepted by the NSA under this warrantless scheme set forth in FAA’s section 702 include those of US citizens. Indeed, as part of the Fisa court approval process, the NSA submits a separate document, also signed by Holder, which describes how communications of US persons are collected and what is done with them.

One typical example is a document submitted by the NSA in July 2009. In its first paragraph, it purports to set forth "minimization procedures" that "apply to the acquisition, retention, use, and dissemination of non-publicly available information concerning unconsenting United States persons that is acquired by targeting non-United States persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States in accordance with section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, as amended."

That document provides that "communications of or concerning United States persons that may be related to the authorized purpose of the acquisition may be forwarded to analytic personnel responsible for producing intelligence information from the collected data." It also states that "such communications or information" – those from US citizens – "may be retained and disseminated" if it meets the guidelines set forth in the NSA’s procedures.

Those guidelines specifically address what the NSA does with what it calls "domestic communications", defined as "communications in which the sender and all intended recipients are reasonably believed to be located in the United States at the time of acquisition". The NSA expressly claims the right to store and even disseminate such domestic communication if: (1) "it is reasonably believed to contain significant foreign intelligence information"; (2) "the communication does not contain foreign intelligence information but is reasonably believed to contain evidence of a crime that has been, is being, or is about to be committed"; or (3) "the communication is reasonably believed to contain technical data base information, as defined in Section 2(i), or information necessary to understand or assess a communications security vulnerability."

Although it refuses to say how many Americans have their communications intercepted without warrants, there can be no question that the NSA does this. That’s precisely why they have created elaborate procedures for what they do when they end up collecting Americans’ communications without warrants.

Vast discretion vested in NSA analysts

The vast amount of discretion vested in NSA analysts is also demonstrated by the training and briefings given to them by the agency. In one such briefing from an official with the NSA’s general counsel’s office – a top secret transcript of which was obtained by the Guardian, dated 2008 and then updated for 2013 – NSA analysts are told how much the new Fisa law diluted the prior standards and how much discretion they now have in deciding whose communications to intercept:

"The court gets to look at procedures for saying that there is a reasonable belief for saying that a target is outside of the United States. Once again – a major change from the targeting under Fisa. Under Fisa you had to have probable cause to believe that the target was a foreign power or agent of a foreign power. Here all you need is a reasonable belief that the target is outside of the United States …

"Now, all kinds of information can be used to this end. There’s a list in the targeting procedures: phone directories, finished foreign intelligence, NSA technical analysis of selectors, lead information. Now, you don’t have to check a box in every one of those categories. But you have to look at everything you’ve got and make a judgment. Looking at everything, do you have a reasonable belief that your target is outside the United States? So, cast your search wide. But don’t feel as though you have to have something in every category. In the end, what matters is, ‘Does all that add up to a reasonable belief that your target is outside the United States?’"

So vast is this discretion that NSA analysts even have the authority to surveil communications between their targets and their lawyers, and that information can be not just stored but also disseminated. NSA procedures do not ban such interception, but rather set forth procedures to be followed in the event that the NSA analyst believes they should be "disseminated".

The decisions about who has their emails and telephone calls intercepted by the NSA is made by the NSA itself, not by the Fisa court, except where the NSA itself concludes the person is a US citizen and/or the communication is exclusively domestic. But even in such cases, the NSA often ends up intercepting those communications of Americans without individualized warrants, and all of this is left to the discretion of the NSA analysts with no real judicial oversight.

Legal constraints v technical capabilities

What is vital to recognize is that the NSA is collecting and storing staggering sums of communications every day. Back in 2010, the Washington Post reported that "every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." Documents published by the Guardian last week detail that, in March 2013, the NSA collected three billions of pieces of intelligence just from US communications networks alone.

In sum, the NSA is vacuuming up enormous amounts of communications involving ordinary Americans and people around the world who are guilty of nothing. There are some legal constraints governing their power to examine the content of those communications, but there are no technical limits on the ability either of the agency or its analysts to do so. The fact that there is so little external oversight is what makes this sweeping, suspicion-less surveillance system so dangerous. It’s also what makes the assurances from government officials and their media allies so dubious.

A senior US intelligence official told the Guardian: "Under section 702, the Fisa court has to approve targeting and minimization procedures adopted by the Attorney General, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence."

"The targeting procedures ensure that the targets of surveillance are reasonably believed to be non-US persons outside of the US", the official added.

"Moreover, decisions about targeting are memorialized, reviewed on a regular basis and audited. Moreover, Congress clearly understood that even when the government is targeting foreign persons for collection, communications of US persons may be acquired if those persons are in communication with the foreign targets, for example as was testified to in today’s hearing when Najibullah Zazi communicated with a foreign terrorist whose communications were being targeted under Section 702.

"That," the official continued, "is why the statute requires that there be minimization procedures to ensure that when communications of, or concerning, US persons are acquired in the course of lawful collection under Section 702, that information is minimized and is retained and disseminated only when appropriate. These procedures are approved on an annual basis by the Fisa court.

"Compliance with them is extensively overseen by the intelligence community, the DOJ, the ODNI and Inspectors General," the official said. "Both the Fisa court and Congress receive regular reports on compliance."

UPDATE [Wed.]

The classified documents referenced here that were submitted by the NSA to the FISA court are now published here.

• The story was amended on 21 June to correct a quote attributed to Yale law professor Jack Balkin. Balkin has corrected the original statement on his blog, which now reads: programs can "listen to a great many different calls (and read a great many e-mails) without any requirement of a warrant".

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Could the free university movement be the great new hope for education?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Could the free university movement be the great new hope for education?” was written by Harriet Swain, for The Guardian on Monday 28th January 2013 19.30 UTC

The smell of warm herbs and sound of clattering plates waft in from the next-door room, where a vegan lunch for 70 is being cleared away, and where from time to time a toddler loses balance and thumps against the door.

But, bent over pieces of scrap paper, students at the Thursday afternoon script-writing course in the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project are concentrating hard on today’s assignment.

There are two of them – Richard Ince, 72, and Ben Woodling, 38 – and they have been meeting their tutor, Niall Drennan, a performance writer and former probation officer, for two hours every other week since early summer, although no one can remember exactly when. Tutoring them in the alternate weeks is Alison Fisher, a former scriptwriter for EastEnders. Others have attended from time to time – they recall a Spanish group under the impression it was about improving English language skills, and a French woman who was living in a tent and writing a novel – but Ince and Woodling are the regulars.

“I’ve always been a great reader and like words,” says Ince, who first came to the centre eight years ago to volunteer after retiring from his job as an administrator with IBM. “At my age I haven’t the drive to do something with it, but it’s something I’m interested in.” Woodling, who studied geography at Hull University more than 10 years ago, says he likes learning, but being on incapacity benefit meant he couldn’t afford adult education. He has done a music course at the centre and then drama, “which was very challenging for my mental health issue s and shyness”, and he just happened to be around when the scriptwriting course started. “It’s been interesting and fun and made me think about things, just by getting into the heads of characters,” he says. “So I’ve just kept coming.”

The scriptwriting course is one of dozens of free courses, workshops, lectures and discussions advertised by the new Free University Brighton, tagline “education for love not money”.

The “free university” is the brainchild of Ali Ghanimi, a Green party activist who has worked in the public sector managing organisational change The idea, she says, is to offer “something for the whole community, regardless of their financial means or previous education”.

Recent free learning opportunities advertised on the website range from a lecture at Sussex University by philosopher Simon Glendinning on “The end of history”, to a knitting group at Hove Library. It also has a wish list of subjects that people would like to learn more about, from introductory philosophy, to the Brighton sky at night, to furniture upholstery, with an appeal for potential tutors to come forward.

Many already have, and when the FUB officially launches in May, Ghanimi will put them in touch with their students in spaces offered, for free, by local libraries, community centres and cafes around Brighton. They also have the use of a caravan and 1950s Airstream trailer.

“It’s nice to do things in a group and learn and share skills and knowledge,” says Ghanimi. “But it’s also really important in the current economic climate.”

This year has seen rising interest in alternative university models, inspired not only by a difficult economy, but also by the rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 and by the success of Tent City University, which organised lectures, discussions and workshops with anti-capitalist protesters occupying the area around St Paul’s in London last winter.

Funding changes in higher education have been encouraging alternative ways of looking at learning for the past couple of years. The Social Science Centre in Lincoln, which welcomed its first nine students this term, was conceived by Mike Neary, dean of teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln, in 2010, as a result of proposals to cut the teaching grant to arts, humanities and social science subjects. It charges no fees, but stude nts and teachers, who meet at locations around Lincoln, are able to pay one hour of their income a month through PayPal. At the end of three years of study, students are promised the equivalent of a higher education degree.

The Free University of Liverpool, which also operates from different locations around its city, offers courses delivered voluntarily by academics and others in culture. It was also a protest against the privatisation of higher education. A similar project, the Really Open University, was started around the same time in Leeds.

Just before Christmas, the movement even had its own first conference, Sustaining Alternative Universities, which took place in Oxford. Its organiser, Joel Lazarus, says: “A lot of people are motivated by the exclusion of more and more people from education, and particularly higher education opportunities. This is a response to the commodification of education and privatisation of university.”

Tim Huzar, a Phd student in philosophy at Brighton University, who has helped to set up the FUB, says the response is also practical. “It’s important to realise an alternative and demonstrate it,” he says. “But it isn’t just a political act. It’s a real service. It gives people access to education and it makes them realise that learning is something they should expect lifelong – not just something you do if you can afford £9,000 when you’re 18.”

Organisers of alternative models insist they do not want to threaten existing universities. Both Neary and Lazarus, who teaches international politics and international development at Oxford, Reading and London, point out that they continue to work within the system to change things, and many of those involved in these projects hope they will encourage more people to think of higher education as something potentially open to them.

The desire to make learning more accessible to those without the time or resources to attend a formal course is also prompting many traditional universities to put materials online, and has inspired other online projects, such as the tuition-free University of the People, founded in 2009. But Ghanimi argues these cannot replace the benefits of people meeting face-to-face in their local area and learning together. “It’s a way for people to share common interests and build relationships,” she says. “That’s about building stronger communities.”

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‘Mint the coin’: why the platinum coin campaign doesn’t even work as satire

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Mint the coin’: why the platinum coin campaign doesn’t even work as satire” was written by Heidi Moore, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 4th January 2013 18.59 UTC

Twitter is a great news source and a hotbed of idea generation. But one of its major downsides is that it allows cranks and trolls to quickly and efficiently coalesce around ridiculous ideas. The latest bored-financial-nerd meme is this: the minting of a trillion-dollar platinum coin to save the US economy from the dithering of Congress.

There is a Twitter hashtag – #mintthecoin – and a wan, spindly White House petition created on January 3 that needs around 25,000 signatures and currently has just under 2,000, which makes it resemble the winsomely pathetic Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Here is the background behind this inane, yet media-consuming, project.

The US is coming up to its debt-ceiling limit soon. The debt ceiling is the amount the US Treasury is allowed to – and has already – spent. Raising the debt ceiling means allowing the US Treasury to pay its bills; if the debt ceiling is not raised, the US will default on its financial commitments and put at risk its credibility as well as the health of the bond and stock markets. The US already went through a bruising debt-ceiling fight in 2011, which resulted in a downgrade. Members of Congress, mostly led by the hapless and disorganized Tea Party, are preparing to do exactly that: hold the debt-ceiling vote hostage and refuse to raise the debt ceiling until they get a giant package of spending cuts.

This is a real problem, and in a couple of months – when we hit the debt ceiling – every American will be so sick of the insane discussion that we may all collectively vomit. But the fact remains: how to get out? What to do?

A small but relentless group of impish bloggers and columnists – including Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider and Josh Barro of Bloomberg, as well as hapless Congressman Jerry Nadler – have created a large-scale trolling project that is meant to pressure the US Treasury into creating a trillion-dollar platinum coin to solve this problem. (The former head of the US mint, Philip Diehl, says it is legal, but legal, of course, doesn’t mean something is a good idea. It just means no one in legislative circles anticipated this particular idiocy.)

Their reasoning is this: the US Treasury has the power to create platinum coins of any size and denomination. It could easily print one with a face value of $1tn and deposit it at the Federal Reserve, thus immediately adding $1tn to the Treasury’s bank account and giving it breathing room to avoid the debt ceiling fight.

This is an elegant solution – if you are a cartoon villain given to sitting in a vast underground bunker and innovating plans for world domination while petting a white cat. It makes less sense for real mortals. In fact, it has all the aspects of a group of well-financed mad scientists plotting to create a giant slingshot to avert an asteroid hurtling towards the earth.

The #mintthecoin project is not meant, of course, to be completely serious, although they may play at it on TV. In the minds of its creators, is supposed to be a kind of Swiftian Modest Proposal that highlights the ridiculousness of the recurring debt ceiling hostage-taking by offering an equally ridiculous solution.

Even as satire, it does not work. Leave aside the strange hashtag and the stringy petition. Leave aside the somewhat science-fiction-like idea of a magic coin, as if the US economy is a video game.

Here is one big problem: the US Treasury spends approximately $100bn per month. A trillion-dollar coin would buy the Treasury only about 10 months of breathing room. It is dubious at best that a Congress full of reckless legislators will surely come to their senses in only 10 months, given that they haven’t for the past 18 months since the same last debacle. Delaying the Debt Ceiling Reunion Tour will not achieve the primary goal here, which is ending it.

Another problem with the trillion-dollar coin is that the US mint probably doesn’t have the capacity to create one out of real bullion, which will likely be required for something with such a historical importance. The US mint no longer produces platinum coins, except in collector’s editions that retail for $1,892 at the moment. A real platinum coin – the American Eagle – that was produced as recently as 2009 contains 31.12 grams of platinum and has a face value of $100. There is not enough platinum in the US in a year’s supply to create that. The US produces all of 3,700 kilograms of platinum a year.

The mint could, on the direction of Treasury, just make a platinum-finished coin that bears the face value of $1tn, but that would just create a nonsensical level of inflation in the value of the US dollar.

Another point, perhaps, is that it’s no worse for the Treasury to print a trillion-dollar gold coin than it is for the Federal Reserve to buy trillions in mortgage securities to save banks and the bond market. There is more meat to this – the US government is not nearly done meddling in the world of the economy and the markets, and minting a new coin is very much in the interventionist mold of the past four years. But the Fed’s programs don’t require scouring the US reserves for platinum and creating some unnatural currency beast. It can at least masquerade as an intellectual exercise.

The most insulting thing about the campaign to mint the trillion-dollar platinum coin is this: there are some – a few! – in the financial world who do not have the memory capacity of goldfish. Those people who can think as far back as 2011 remember that we went through the drill on the platinum coin back then – all the commentary, the punditry, the absurd speculation about it was first created at the time of the last debt-ceiling fight. Then, as now, it attracted the efforts of bored bloggers, chattering among themselves. And guess what? It didn’t impress upon Congress the recklessness of their approach. The US came within hours of default anyway. If anything, we have a more unreasonable and humorless Congress, even less likely to be swayed by satire or ridicule. The platinum joke, played once last year, is played out now.

But the biggest disadvantage of the platinum coin campaign is that it is frivolous, when there is a serious failure of US governance at stake. Allowing the “mint the coin” campaign to take over the news cycle may be good for the media exposure of the bloggers involved, but it does nothing to dissuade stubborn lawmakers from a silly path they chose once and are likely to choose again.

A Congress like this doesn’t need to be reminded of how ridiculous it is; it already knows that. It needs to be reminded of the nobility and dignity and importance of the offices they agreed to hold, and which they are now dragging through the mud.

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Stockton, California: ‘This economy is garbage’

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Stockton, California: ‘This economy is garbage'” was written by Aditya Chakrabortty, for The Guardian on Friday 2nd November 2012 17.12 UTC

In some towns, visitors are warned to keep an eye on their stuff, or to watch out late at night. In the Californian city of Stockton, the anxiety is more precise – and it kicks in early. “Take care downtown after 5pm,” one local person told me. “Don’t hang out too long.”

A few hours later, I saw what she meant. Almost as soon as the offices shut, the city centre empties. Then the sun goes down and a different cast takes to the streets: the homeless, the drug dealers, and clusters of young men patrolling up and down on bicycles.

Stockton ranks among America’s 10 most dangerous cities, and everyone here seems to operate under a self-imposed curfew. The commuter admits she doesn’t dare go to the cinema after 8pm; the father expects his 18-year-old daughter home by 10 – “and she totally gets why.” Others prefer not to go out at all. All give the same reason: the spiralling number of violent crimes.

Last weekend, the city notched up its 60th murder of the year, up from 24 for all of 2008. At just under 300,000 residents, this river port has about the same population as a London borough. Imagine a couple of your neighbours getting killed every week, and you’ll understand why almost all the conversations here touch on a recent homicide.

It happened in this park, they tell you; outside that drive-through; on a first date. Then the inevitable coda: “It happened in broad daylight.”

The last time Stockton attracted so much attention was in 2008, as the biggest housing bubble America had ever enjoyed was turning into the biggest bust it had ever suffered.

With nearly one in 10 homes repossessed that year alone, the city became known as the foreclosure capital of the US and formed part of the backdrop of economic catastrophe against which Barack Obama was elected president.

Then: nothing. For the next four years, the name barely cropped up in the news, so that you’d have been forgiven for believing the bad times had eased off. Until this summer, that is, when it became the largest city in America to file for bankruptcy. The bushfire had not died down, far from it – while the rest of the world was not looking, it had escalated.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive there inland from San Francisco moves from coastal grooviness to municipal crack-up. You’re told as much by the local TV news network, whose reports bear the strapline Stockton in Crisis. Or you can infer it from the defensiveness of the signage. “Stockton is Magnificent!” reads one banner. “Don’t give up!!!” says the hoarding over empty shop fronts.

Apart from the odd grocery store and a giant wig emporium, what downtown Stockton has in abundance is abandoned shops.

What makes the dereliction disconcerting is that it nestles amid civic grandeur, some of it quite recent. Stockton rivalled Seattle and San Francisco for importance as a transport hub during the gold rush on the 19th-century west coast, which must help to account for its grand boulevards, spacious enough to march elephants.

But there are also marbled bank offices, refurbished theatres and government offices, none of which look more than a few years old.

“The downtown could have been like Paris’s 6th arrondissement!” local property developer Dan Cort tells me. While it sounds preposterous now, his claim underscores one thing: there can’t be many cities in America unravelling as fast as this one.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Stockton as a curio, an outlandish disaster that couldn’t happen here, for three reasons. First, many other towns in California, a state of 40 million that on its own would count among the 10 biggest economies on earth, are scrambling to avoid bankruptcy. This tale shares elements of the debacles in Greece, Spain and Britain, too – almost as if all the factors behind the western meltdown had been chucked in a Walmart blender and poured over one small town. What’s unfurling here sums up the distinctive, dangerous way in which the great slump is playing out. Extreme it may be, but Stockton’s story is also one version of a future that awaits many other cities, including those in Britain.

Let’s begin with that last point. Most recessions follow a familiar waltz. First, there is the economic downturn, then there are the politicians’ responses, before the social fallout: cause, effect, aftermath. But Stocktonians don’t talk about a recession; they call it a depression. With one in eight workers out of a job, unemployment is almost double the national average. Six years after the peak of the market, house prices are still around half what they once were.

The local council’s cash used to come from property and sales taxes; when those dried up, it rammed through cuts: the police force was shrunk by 25%, the fire department slashed by 30%, libraries and community centres either closed or are on short hours. Finally, this summer, officials ran out of services to shut, and declared the city bust.

As has happened in southern Europe, and threatens to happen under David Cameron too, this slump has been so severe and so prolonged that the economic, political and social crises are now overlapping, and amplifying each other.

To see that play out, head to Weston Ranch, a southern suburb devastated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. According to research by Maianna Voge at George Washington University, almost one in three houses on some blocks suffered foreclosure in the bust.

When a Guardian reporter last dropped by, in 2008, he noted a forest of estate agents’ boards and window signs: “Bank-owned – no trespassing”. Four years on, there’s much less of either. Buyers have since come along – but, rather than the families of old, they’re often speculators, holding out for a blip in the market before offloading their auction bargains. While waiting, they rent the properties out carelessly and cheaply. Among these Frank Capra-esque homes, the signs of distress are now more subtle: cracked windows and lawns with overgrown brown grass.

On this afternoon, the only activity is on one driveway with a removals van. Sure enough, the bank is foreclosing on Susan and her family in the morning. Within a few minutes it all comes out: how her father moved them all here from Fremont in San Francisco’s Bay Area; how his ultra-low “teaser rate” mortgage repayments rocketed without warning. How, just as that happened, property prices plunged so that they were “upside down”, with the house worth less than they’d paid for it. How the lender didn’t return their calls. How her father was diagnosed with cancer. Finally: how he’d died at the start of this month, just as the new buyer, one of the investors taking over the area, had offered her $3,000 to return the keys and leave without smashing the place up.

The story you’re sometimes told about the sub-prime bubble is that it was a bunch of people who should never have been lent a dime suddenly being given the keys to the palace of debt. Wherever that applies, it isn’t Weston Ranch. As Voge points out, household incomes here average between $60,000 and $80,000 a year: enough to warrant a middle class lifestyle, but insufficient to afford one in the pricey Bay Area. So, just as Susan’s father did, they moved further and further out.

“At 4am, you’d see the house lights come on,” is how another Weston Ranch resident, Alicia Calhoun, remembers life during the supposed good times. “By 6am – click! — the garage doors would go up and the street would empty out.” Calhoun worked in customer services for a bank in Palo Alto: at least a four-hour round trip, on top of the 9-5 job and looking after her kids.

That commute, those dodgy mortgages, this entire “bedroom community” deep in the Central Valley: all were products of a country growing vastly more unequal within a generation. According to IMF researchers Michael Kumhof and Romain Rancière, by 2007 the richest 5% of Americans were pocketing 34 cents of every dollar earned in the US; a level of inequality last seen just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Most of the rest of the country saw negligible rises in their wages, and had to rely instead on borrowing. What followed was the crash of 2008 – and human and civic wreckage in places such as Stockton.

In T-shirt and shorts, Susan’s mood flits between volcanic and eve-of-holiday. “You know how many homes here have been foreclosed? That one. That one. That one.” She’s jabbed her finger along almost the entire cul-de-sac. “Only the family next door haven’t. I give them six months.”

Weston Ranch, which is about 80% non-white, is basically Obamaville: full of the middle-class families he claims as his bedrock. But throughout the sub-prime freefall, his administration in effect delegated responsibility to local governments and market forces. And even in the last days of this campaign, neither Obama nor Mitt Romney has seriously addressed the housing crash. Yet according to the Chicago economist, Amir Sufi, the property bust and the recession have between them wiped out the 20 years’ worth of savings by middle-income and poor families.

Susan’s brother Dusty has been helping shift boxes. Another jabbing finger: “He fought in Iraq and now he’s back here and the only jobs around are in warehouses at $9 an hour.” Breath. “This economy is garbage.”

The rec where Susan used to stroll has got so violent it’s been dubbed Bullet Park. And last summer, she says, about 60 teenagers got into a pitched battle on the grass in front of her house. “They were going at each other with metal poles.” Her husband phoned the police again and again, but they were too short-staffed to help. “It went on for hours.”

When I run this story by police sergeant Kathryn Nance, she is puzzled: “We would have come out for an incident like that.” Yet as we sit in her patrol car, she taps at the laptop: 6.30 on a Friday evening and there are already 27 outstanding calls for assistance. Top of the list is a rape reported an hour and a half ago, yet which no officer is free to deal with.

Nance’s officers pile into a run-down area to chase some warrants. It’s a sweep that the accompanying local TV reporter seems ecstatic about filming, but which feels like a formulaic show of police strength; strength that the downsized force no longer has. A colleague, Mark, estimates there are promising leads on more than a dozen murder cases but no manpower to investigate them. Nance talks about how the cuts made by various council departments are making parts of Stockton into no-go areas. She drives past one block and sighs: “There used to be parks and it was cleaned up. In the past four years it’s gone bad again: dope dealers and vagrants.”. And hassling drug dealers has become an occasional pursuit

If you don’t want your area to go bad, you have to lay on your own services. On the “miracle mile”, the boutiques spend their former marketing budget on a security patrol and street sweepers. They even maintain municipal car parks. A local hotelier pays to keep two public swimming pools open.

Such a sudden, drastic downgrade in what Stocktonians can expect from their mortgage lender, their council, their police, their neighbours, not to mention their own homes and pensions is dizzying even for the well-off.

As a developer of affordable housing, Carol Ornelas patiently talks me through what the sub-prime crisis means for her customers. Then she mentions her own situation – and the rush of words is like letting the air out of a balloon: “I used to live in middle-class America; now I don’t know where I live. What I’ve seen come into my neighbourhood after all the foreclosures … I don’t even want to be around it.” Again, she talks of fights in the yard just opposite.

Yet a quarter of an hour’s drive from Nance’s block-gone-bad is Brookside: an empty six-lane highway, a country club, and a string of small gated communities bearing such names as Nostalgia, where houses back on to fake lakes. Sneak inside and you see marble statues of cherubs. One cliché about recessions is that they make rich and poor slightly more equal. Not this time: according to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, the top 1% saw their incomes soar by 11.6% in 2010; the wages of the other 99% grew only 0.2%.

“The American dream used to be within reach of the middle class,” says Ornelas. “Now it’s on offer only to an elite.”

Stockton’s city hall bears an inscription: “Let that which the fathers have builded inspire their sons to civic patriotism.” Inside, the mayor’s office is full of photos of what the city fathers have built in the past decade: a baseball stadium, an arena (where Neil Diamond played to a half-empty auditorium for a million-dollar fee), a swanky hotel – all around a redeveloped waterfront. They’re the kind of job-free cultural makeover projects that middle-aged officials threw up all over the west in the noughties. In Stockton, estimates Jeffrey Michael at the local University of the Pacific, they were largely paid for by $100m in bonds issued over three years. For Ann Johnston, who only took over as mayor after the building spree: “Paying for these things is why we’re now bust.”

Well, yes and no; Stockton’s problems go much deeper. Spend even a little time here and you notice something missing: middle-income employment. To the south are low-wage warehouses and food-processing plants, but the local public sector is the only home for anyone who wants a middle-class job without having to drive two hours. The city’s regeneration and its encouragement of new housing estates was an attempt to bring in middle class people while skirting over the lack of decent private-sector employment. “They wanted a white-tablecloth kind of town,” says former planning official Denise Jefferson.

The most grotesque example of that was a restaurant. Paragary’s does a roaring business in the state capital of Sacramento, selling hand-cut rosemary noodles with seared chicken to people with large expense accounts. The city paid $2.7m in redevelopment funds to build a branch of Paragary’s: its valet parking and expensive menu drew more resentment than custom, and it closed down within months.

In some ways, the entire debacle was no different from what much of Britain tried under New Labour. Except that, since Californian cities depend on property and retail taxes, Stockton council had a vested interest in inflating its bubble – only then could it keep paying for services and infrastructure to the new housing estates. As former city manager Dwayne Milnes says, “The entire system was a Ponzi scheme.”

The result is a glut of houses and a glut of debt, both of which will take a long time to sort out. It’s hard to imagine a time when the builders’ cranes will start up again. The downtown developer Dan Cort tells me about a rival who recently pulled plans to build new houses on land by the motorway. “He’s made it a walnut orchard instead.” En route to the airport, the University of California sociologist Jesus Hernandez and I stop off and there they are: instead of rows of suburban homes, lines of walnut trees. Far away is the belch of Central Valley traffic; close up is the hiss of sprinklers.

As we set off, I mumble something sentimental about Stockton’s retreat from postmodern financial engineering back to its agricultural roots. Jesus corrects me: “He’s probably passing it off as farmland and getting a great tax break.”

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Biden promises to offer gun control recommendations by Tuesday

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Biden promises to offer gun control recommendations by Tuesday” was written by Adam Gabbatt in New York, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 10th January 2013 19.22 UTC

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, said he expects to report his gun control recommendations to Barack Obama as early as Tuesday, declaring that the public had been reviled by images of children “riddled with bullets”.

Biden, speaking before a meeting with representatives of the National Rifle Association, said he would make his recommendations well before Obama’s stated deadline of the end of January.

Earlier this week, the Biden met gun-safety groups and families of victims of mass shootings. He said suggestions made to his gun control taskforce had included consistent support for “universal background checks” on gun ownership and an agreement on the “need to do something about high-capacity magazines”.

Biden said in a Washington news briefing that he would deliver his findings early because of the “tight window” the government had in which to act.

The vice-president has already pledged that the president “is going to act” on gun control, and he invoked the tragic events of Newtown on Thursday.

“There is nothing that has pricked the consciousness of the American people,” he said. “There is nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the visual image people have of little six-year-old kids riddled – not shot with a stray bullet – riddled, riddled, with bullet holes in their classroom.”

As Biden was speaking, reports emerged of a shooting at Taft High School in Kern County, California. A spokesman for the sheriff’s office told the Associated Press that one student had been shot at the school. The suspect had been taken into custody.

Biden said the suggestions he had heard so far involved more than “just closing the gunshow loophole”. A common theme from the meetings, which have included one-on-ones with families of the Virginia Tech and Aurora shootings, had been “support for total universal background checks, including private sales”, Biden said. Critics of America’s gun laws argue that the current legislation on private sales enables anyone to purchase firearms without the background checks required in gun stores.

Another much-discussed issue was the possibility of regulating high capacity-magazines Biden said. The “need to do something” about the magazines, which can allow a shooter to fire as many as 100 rounds without the need to reload, was something that the vice-president’s taskforce had “heard spontaneously from every group we’ve met so far”, he said.

“The last area is the whole subject of the ability of any federal agency to do research on gun violence,” he added. The NRA has long lobbied against federal funds being spent on research into gun laws and ownership, while Obama’s healthcare legislation includes a provision that prevents the government and health insurers from asking about gun ownership, prohibiting the ability for the government to collect data.

Biden compared the current regulations on the government collecting data on firearms with 1970s restrictions on federal research into the cause of traffic fatalities. He said there was a need to find out “what kind of weapons are used most to kill people” and “what kind of weapons are trafficked weapons”.

On Wednesday Biden had promised that “the president is going to act” on gun control during meetings with victims’ groups and gun-safety organisations. Two survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, where 32 people died, were present, as well as the stepfather of an Aurora, Colorado, massacre victim.

Biden will meet with representatives from six gun groups on Thursday, including the NRA and the Independent Firearms Owners Association, which are both publicly opposed to stricter gun-control laws. The vice-president will also meet with Walmart, the biggest US gun seller.

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CES 2013: as big as ever, but is it out of date?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “CES 2013: as big as ever, but is it out of date?” was written by Rory Carroll in Las Vegas, for The Guardian on Wednesday 9th January 2013 08.53 UTC

The world’s biggest consumer technology expo opened on Tuesday to a familiar scene: thousands of gadget buffs streaming down Paradise Road to the cavernous Las Vegas convention centre, eager to glimpse the devices and trends of the future.

For the next four days the Consumer Electronics Show will unveil technological advances and launch 20,000 products and prototypes – a vast bazaar showcasing new phones, new televisions, new tablets, new everything.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here!” squealed a voice as crowds surged through the doors. Tweets from those visiting the booths of Samsung and the like declared them “awesome” and “amazing”.

The event is as big as ever: around 150,000 industry professionals – entrepreneurs, executives, designers, bloggers – crawling over 1.85m sq ft of exhibition space. The chief executive of mobile chip maker Qualcomm, Paul Jacobs, who delivered the keynote speech on Monday night, said its wares would change the world. “There are almost as many mobile connections as people on earth. Pretty soon mobile connections will outnumber us.”

But there is a problem. Sceptics say that the world has changed faster than CES, that the pre-eminence of the internet and software has marginalised an event still tethered mainly to hardware, and that CES is sliding into limbo as a consequence.

Wired, the technology magazine, declared on the convention’s eve: “As software matters more and more, CES matters less and less. The internet is already the world’s largest trade show. Gadget blogs are the new conventions.

“Sure, big electronics shows offer the opportunity to meet people and forge relationships. But even that transaction is being moved online in the era of real-time social media.”

Hardware has become increasingly meaningless as upgrade cycles accelerate and spread across platforms, it argues, citing the Nokia Lumia 900, a flagship phone hailed as the next big thing at last year’s CES. It was a hardware triumph but disappeared after Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8, rendering the Lumia, which used Windows Phone 7.5, obsolete.

Wired at least sent reporters to Las Vegas. The news site BuzzFeed boycotted and published a story headlined “Why We’re Not at the Biggest Tech Show in the World.”

After years of dwindling relevance CES was no longer the most important place to go to see trends in technology, it said. “Seriously doesn’t the word ‘electronics’ in the conference’s dusty title make your eyes instantly droop a bit?”

One problem raised by the news site BuzzFeed was the event’s focus on hardware at the expense of software and services. The other was that social media had displaced traditional conventions as forums to showcase products and ideas. It noted that none of the four technology companies which “truly matter to people” – Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – were exhibiting at the expo.

For years Microsoft’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer, had given the keynote speech at the Venetian resort hotel. But the company pulled out this year, handing the job to Jacobs of Qualcomm. In his speech Jacobs exuded optimism and said “Gen M” – generation mobile – would keep the industry humming. He underlined his point by unveiling Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 800 Series processor. Due on the market this summer, it should improve the performance of smartphones and cars and give rival Intel a run for its money. And as if to rebuff accusations of dwindling relevance, Jacobs spiced up his speech with eclectic celebrity guests. Director Guillermo del Toro came on stage to show a clip of his new robot film, Pacific Rim, streaming it from a tablet that uses a new Qualcomm chip.

“Snapdragon ensures the film you see will be viewed exactly as I want it to be seen. When you’re watching a great film, you want a great experience.”

The Nascar driver Brad Keselowski displayed an app which lets fans follow drivers during races. The actor Alice Eve lauded a new app for her new film, Star Trek: Into Darkness. Big Bird from Sesame Street appeared to plug an app which helps children with vocabulary. For the industry audience the biggest and most welcome surprise was Microsoft’s Ballmer, who made a cameo to talk up the tech giant’s new generation tablets and smartphones.

This week’s CES is expected to be dominated by ultra HD TVs, supersized smartphones, acrobatic PCs and sensors which replace the mouse by tracking gestures and eye movements. If any of that catches on CES will claim, as ever, that you saw the future here first.

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