Tag: technology

I am my Data: WSJ Reports Planes Used in Spying Program

Design By Joseph Lapin
Design By Joseph Lapin

Right now, I’m sitting at the bar in Thorn Street Brewery in North Park, San Diego, drinking an American Strong Ale. B.B. King is on the radio, and a bartender is pouring pints, and she looks like one of the characters out of a Denis Johnson short story. This place feels like it’s about to turn into a juke joint, as they’re now blaring the “Mess Around,” glasses are clinking, and people are talking loudly over the music. The bartender is now shaking her hips, trying to tease the tips out of the wallets. What I’m thinking about is turning to the bald guy in the teal polo sitting on the stool next to me and telling him about a story I read recently in the Wall Street Journal, but I think he would end up thinking I was the neighborhood mad man.

Basically, I want to tell this guy next to me and the old woman drinking a beer in front of me like it’s a hot tea about the brand new American spy program. I want to tell them all about how “the Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of mobile phones through devices deployed on airplanes that mimic cellphone towers,” as reported by the WSJ. I want to tell them that this program has been instituted secretly since 2007, and it’s really freaking brilliant and scary and wrong and right all at the same time. I want to say this as I hear stiletto heels clomping along the hardwood floors and the bartender now complains how she is so hungover from her birthday last night.

Here’s what happens: the Cessna aircraft “mimic cell towers … and trick cellphones into reporting” their data in hopes of tracking down terrorists or drug dealers. The technology is so impressive that it’s reported to be able to pinpoint targets “under investigation by the government,” and it sweeps thousands of phones at the same time in order to nail down the targets exact location, even within a massive skyscraper, while pushing aside ‘innocent bystanders and “letting go” of their data.

Of course, the Justice Department is neither confirming or denying the report, but they are defending the action by the U.S. Marshals Service, as reported by several sources, and it’s in line with a much larger stance that our government has taken on data: Whatever works for the greater good and security of our country is within the Constitution and, yes, The Dark Knight.

But how many people were shocked by this news? I mean, Kim Kardashian broke the Internet, and it wasn’t the news of another American spy program. Now, relax, I’m not trying to get on a high horse here and discuss why it’s important that we pay attention to the news over celebrities showing their gorgeous and stunning booties (We only have one life [unless you’re a buddhist], and if you want to spend it cramming your brain with celebrities asses and their petty relationships, then I support you; I watch plenty of ESPN), but what really just shocks me is that we still don’t care that our data is being harvested like Monsanto corn and that we still don’t see this massive data collection as an invasion of privacy.

I actually argued this in a Salon article I wrote after I heard that our government admitted to the existence of Area 51, and I’m still trying to make this point today. (People shredded my article on the comment boards.) As a country, we’re so used to our authorities lying to us, spying on us, fucking with us, playing with us, tricking us, mind-fucking us, that we eventually stopped being shocked, we stopped being scared, we stopped caring.

The truth is planes collecting our data on a massive scale with approval from an actual court system that is relatively secret isn’t thought of as shocking anymore. Think about it: we’ve since this well before Will Smith starred in I, Robot. Remember Enemy of the State? This isn’t even the only movie that shows how invaded our civil liberties are in terms of data collection. There are countless.

Our pop culture and news have reported on data invasion more times than Kevin Bacon has appeared in films. I feel somewhat bad for the WSJ. They broke a gigantic story, but it’s already old. It’s almost a footnote in the battle for civil liberties in the digital age. I mean, this is what the ACLU said in the WSJ article:

Maybe it’s worth violating privacy of hundreds of people to catch a suspect, but is it worth thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of peoples’ privacy?

So yes, I get it. I’m not an idiot. Advancing technology can have a gigantic impact on the protection of our country. Yes, it’s important to use these new techniques to capture dangerous criminals in order to safeguard our communities, our people, our children, our infrastructure, the very bedrock of the American people. It’s important that I can have the freedom and the safety to sit in this bar and criticize my government while B.B. King just seduces Lucille with so much charm and sex that it feels the sound is about to melt the walls. (Yeah, I’m going overboard with my metaphors, but that’s my right as an American [lol!].) I’m not trying to take the stance that data can’t be used to help fight crime, but I am against the idea that collecting my data isn’t an invasion of privacy.

When the U.S. Marshals fly over “most of the U.S. population” collecting the remnants of my cellphone, I take that personally. I read that as they’re literally snatching pieces of my unconscious and conscious thoughts. What I surf on my phone, my location, my texts, my browsing history are really intensely personal parts of my existence. It’s like when someone drives your car and rifles through your music collection or the police walk into your home and check your browsing history or that Spotify is sharing with the world what you’re currently listening to without fully being cognizant of this information.

I am my data, and when I was born as an American, I didn’t sign a freaking terms of service that allowed the government to invade my privacy. I take offense to my government collecting my data with planes and fake cell phone towers without my permission, without my knowledge. Perhaps I would be all right with this type of security if I was given the options and the collection of my data was guaranteed to be private, but I don’t trust my government yet. I believe that whatever technology the media reports on the Justice Department will already be 1,ooo steps behind what  technology their currently using to “protect” our lives and invade them at the same time.

Wow, someone in the bar behind me just yelled, “you’re a fucking sniper.” Well, that’s it. I’m signing out from North Park, San Diego. Remember, your comments are always appreciated — especially if you disagree with me.

World War and the World Cup: Looking back 100 Years

As you might have read last week I’m starting a weekly column on this blog, and in order to figure out what to write about this Sunday, I asked twitter. @John_OB1 tweeted I should write about Monday. Lol! Funny. @contentnet said I should write about this:  “How do we create a poetic world in the midst of such emphasis on war and technology?” Well, I loved the idea from @contentnet. However, I find that sometimes the best poetry originates from war time, but the idea put war on my mind. Plus, I was thinking about the World Cup, so I suddenly saw the connection.

I picked up my weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal and flipped to the “Review” section. On the front page, there was an article titled, “World War 1 A Century Later,” by Dr. MacMillan, the warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, and the author of “The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.” In the essay, Dr. MacMillan pointed out that this coming week will mark the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of “the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife” and the spark that would eventually ignite World War 1.

War has always been devastating (no shit!), and the images of medieval warfare are so  primitive and disturbing that history books have seared illustrations of Dark Ages bloodshed into my mind with such intensity I can almost hear the historic screams of the wounded and the dead, but World War I brought on destruction never before seen from the hands of human beings based on scale that even the Dark Ages paled in comparison. As Dr. MacMillan points out: “more than  9 million men dead and twice as many again wounded–a loss of sons, husbands, and fathers.” The advances in warfare technology contributed to these atrocities. The author goes on to point out that World War 1 was responsible for the spread of influenza as soldiers returned home from war, and it also started the concept of being shell-shocked. A major point made by Dr. MacMillan’s is that looking at World War 1, even 100 years later, can explain the geopolitical circumstances of today, the origins of relatively new countries, and how war-torn countries can stabilize by analyzing past mistakes. By looking at the outcomes of war, we can then learn to improve our world.

Enter Iraq and the ISIS. Currently ISIS is taking over more towns in Iraq, and the stability of that country (if there ever was true stability) has been threatened so much that Time just released a cover design with “The End of Iraq” burned into a map of the Middle East. Clearly it’s important to think about the mistakes we have made historically with other countries after war, and I think we’re failing as a country, as a global community, in so many complicated ways that I’m not qualified to address. But we need to continue to find alternatives to war to solve conflicts — from the psychological to the cultural to the diplomatic to the technological. Yes, we should find a way to end wars…period, and even though that is far away, we should at least acknowledge that 100 years later we have made leaps and bounds in terms of World War and the prevention of genocide. Even though the threat of World War III has been propagated by fear mongers, the global destruction we have seen in World I and World II has not been replicated.


Of course, war is still waging in many countries, and there are many oppressed people. Yes, Americans are not exposed to the daily  violence that people in Syria and other countries face. The world confronts violence still at an unacceptable level. But we have really come so far since the days of World War 1, where men were sent into trenches to fight over inches of borders. We have come such a long way since the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. We have come such a long way since the League of Nations appeased Hitler. We have come such a long way since the draft in Vietnam. We have come a long way since the winners of war were thought of as takers of spoils. We still have a long way to go, but I think there have been many social, cultural, and technological advances in our world that have helped us try to eradicate war from our lives.

For example, the World Cup. Right now, it’s half time in the United States vs. Portugal game, and I’m writing this blog post in anxious anticipation of the outcome of the game. And it’s clear to me that soccer and international sport have a role to play in lessening the impact on war. The World Cup, where men and women and children from all around the world come to watch their team dominate the global sports world with their colors and logos brandishing into the sky like the knights presenting their coat of arms before battle, is an opportunity for catharsis. It’s an opportunity for each country to let off steam. It’s an opportunity for a country to claim suprmecy without the loss of life and exercise war-like behavior.

Countries and leaders are like little kids or dogs in a dog park when it comes to war. They need to feel that they are top; they need to feel that they are in charge; they need to feel like they are in control. Yes, this is an oversimplification of global politics and complicated balance of powers, but from outside, conflicts over power struggles is are childish responses to conflict that have cost the lives of so many men and women from the beginning of time; it’s a Game of Thrones still; and an international competition can serve as a way to take the place of bloodshed and pissing contests.

At the same time, because sports are also about narratives as well as technical skill, we learn more and more about people from all around the world. We hear the stories of their trials — like the floods in Bosnia. We’re given access into the lives of people from around the world — like the poverty in Brazil — and by seeing their struggles, we empathize and we understand that there is enough problems in the world today that jeopardize our quality of life.

In addition to competitive sports, technology has a major impact on the way we think about war. Social media and the access of video have given us insight into some of the most horrific and shocking circumstances in the world. We’re able to see the Syrian cities turned to rubble where woman and children live; we’re able to witness the bloodshed in Kiev; and we’re able to read the thoughts of individuals living within war-torn countries via twitter and Facebook.We’re making progress. For those who are dying, it’s not enough. But it’s been a 100 years since World War I. One day it will be a 100 years since World War II. A 100 years since Hitler. A 100 years since the atomic bomb. And if we can get to that point without another world war, haven’t we done something special?

Perhaps one day we will settle our global disputes over video games — or virtual versions of war — where war doesn’t cost the loss of lives. Perhaps one day our sporting events could serve to end a diplomatic crisis. Perhaps I’m naive. But the very concept of warfare is changing — cyber, drone, economic — and who knows what it will be like in the future. Maybe it will change so drastically we can’t even recognize it.

Since I wrote a draft of this blog post, the United States scored two goals and Ronaldo broke our dreams — at least temporarily — with this cross:

What A Writer Can Do With Social Media

So I’ve been working at my new job in Westwood for about a week, and I’ve already started some awesome projects with social media. But the way I’ve been thinking about social media over the last couple of days is how it can affect a business’ bottom line. And don’t worry, I’m not here to talk about that. I want to begin to talk about how social media is one of the most important tools for a writer.

Earlier today, Joe Clifford — the writer of Choice Cuts — posted a transcript of his interview at Digital Book Today. Well, it’s a cool interview, and it’s a bad-ass piece, where I even get a shout out. We were in his kitchen talking about writing and how the worst thing about being a writer is that you lose the magic as you learn the craft. You start to learn all the tricks.

Choice Cuts

Well, this is true about social media, too. There are a ton of tricks writers can use — not only to build an audience and share work but work on your craft.

In that same conversation Joe and I had in his kitchen in San Francisco, he said something on the lines of this: “It’s impossible to be a writer today and not use social media.” And he’s absolutely right, and Joe might just use Facebook better than any other writer I know out there.

For example, how did I find out about his interview: he shared it on his wall, and people started commenting, and eventually when I came home, I read it. But then I shared it; and someone else shared it; and now, here I am talking about it on my blog and hopefully you clicked on his link and started reading it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is how you build an audience: a piece gets shared. Plus, he shares great content and witty observations, and it functions as an extension of his narrative voice…in my opinion.

But the trick is how do you build that audience and how do you make it work for you?

Create a Community


What I admire the most about the way Clifford uses social media is that he’s social. It’s not always about him, and he always finds a way to help another writer out. For instance, when he shared the link to his interview, he posted it on my wall and another, highlighting the fact that we were referenced in the interview. Well, that community building must happen in order to create effective social media and identify oneself to others as a writer.

But this isn’t something new to the digital age. God, that would be a ridiculous statement. From talking to Joe, I know that he values the Beats — maybe not Kerouac’s craft completely — because they supported each other, promoted each other, and championed the work. That was what made the Beats’ so great; they were there to take on the world together. And they were obviously not the only literary community that used the tools of their time to help each other out. There are countless.

So use this in your posts, your tweets, your tidily winks. Give shout out to friends. Like other people posts. Comment on other people’s stories. And support. Unless you’re an asshole and don’t need anybody’s help.

Don’t Be Scared to Fail


I can’t tell you how many times I have posted something on Facebook, trying to illicit a response, and not a single person responded. Yes, that might look pathetic, because now I’m sitting there in silence, but in reality, people are probably busy or just not interested. Don’t let that hold you back! Go out there and post again. If you stay persistent and confident, then people will begin to write back, and there you are again, building your audience.

But this is a larger issue with being a writer; you’re going to fail so many freaking times and fall flat on your face. So what? You’re going to write a shitty story, a clunker, and what are you going to do? Stop writing? Please, move on. Take lumps. Work on the craft.

I’ll never forgot one day I was testing out some social-media marketing tips I found online. It said that the best time to share a post was on Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. So I posted at exactly that time, telling people this is the time everyone responds on social media — let me know if you’re out there.

Well, guess what? Yep, no one responded.

Until Joe Clifford saved me, and he made it into a joke by pretending I had thrown this big party and no one showed up but him. We were standing around the virtual chips, talking awkwardly and avoiding the obvious — no one showed up.

Fuck failing. You’re a writer. Get used to it.

Learn the Mediums

Two dogs

For some reason, I think that writers forget all of the lessons they’ve learned over the years and just start posting on social media as if they never thought about their audience or genre. Well, there are three things I used to tell my students to think about when they sat down to write a paper: audience, purpose, and genre. Think about those things and you will be golden.

So I started applying those lessons to Facebook and Twitter. They both have different make-ups, and the craft is different. The way I think about Twitter is that it’s kind of like flirting, where Facebook is kind of like a full-on relationship. Twitter, you have favorites, retweets, and follows. You’ve got to play coy and not seem desperate. Use these tools to attract complete strangers. Facebook is harder; you’re mostly speaking to people you know or met. Learn how to craft genre appropriate writing by looking at some of the best twitter writers out there. Two people I recommend are Bomani Jones and Roxane Gay.

Don’t Forget the Story

essay draft

Remember, most readers care about story; they care about struggle; they care about a narrative. Start thinking about your larger narrative — are you going to school to become a firefighter? are you trying to land a literary agent? are you trying to bike to work through traffic in the city? — and craft pieces off of that story. Let us fall into a larger thread, know your voice, and what you’re trying to accomplish. This way, we’ll stay with you beyond your wit.

Well, in the end, this is really only the beginning of my thoughts on social media. It can improve your career, your brand, or your audience, but there are tricks, just like there are in writing. And be forewarned, if you like just casually browsing through social media, then don’t try to learn the tricks behind the magic. It’s all a bunch of disguised bullshit — but so are stories in general.