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Current Topic: Society

Malwebolence - The World of Web Trolling
Topic: Society 9:40 am EDT, Aug  1, 2008

In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word “troll” to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities. Early trolling was relatively innocuous, taking place inside of small, single-topic Usenet groups. The trolls employed what the M.I.T. professor Judith Donath calls a “pseudo-naïve” tactic, asking stupid questions and seeing who would rise to the bait. The game was to find out who would see through this stereotypical newbie behavior, and who would fall for it. As one guide to trolldom puts it, “If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”

Today the Internet is much more than esoteric discussion forums. It is a mass medium for defining who we are to ourselves and to others. Teenagers groom their MySpace profiles as intensely as their hair; escapists clock 50-hour weeks in virtual worlds, accumulating gold for their online avatars. Anyone seeking work or love can expect to be Googled. As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.

Malwebolence - The World of Web Trolling

Trading Places: The Demographic Inversion of the American City
Topic: Society 7:15 am EDT, Aug  1, 2008

In the past three decades, Chicago has undergone changes that are routinely described as gentrification, but are in fact more complicated and more profound than the process that term suggests. A better description would be "demographic inversion." Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city--Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center--some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white--are those who can afford to do so.

Developments like this rarely occur in one city at a time, and indeed demographic inversion is taking place, albeit more slowly than in Chicago, in metropolitan areas throughout the country. The national press has paid very little attention to it. While we have been focusing on Baghdad and Kabul, our own cities have been changing right in front of us.

Atlanta, for example, is shifting from an overwhelmingly black to what is likely to soon be a minority-black city. This is happening in part because the white middle class is moving inside the city borders, but more so because blacks are moving out. Between 1990 and 2006, according to research by William Frey of the Brookings Institution, the white population of Atlanta has increased from roughly 30 percent to 35 percent while the black population has declined from 67 percent to 55 percent. In this decade alone, two of Atlanta's huge suburban counties, Clayton and DeKalb, have acquired substantial black majorities, and immigrants arriving from foreign countries are settling primarily there or in similar outlying areas, not within the city itself. The numbers for Washington, D.C. are similar.

So ... Atlanta's still just as hosed as Munich, right?

The Economist ran a story on this back in February:

Victorville has no traditionally white areas because it has no traditional areas of any kind.

At the moment, one of the engines that has driven this migration is stalling. Victorville and Apple Valley are mired in a housing crisis: San Bernardino county had 22,000 foreclosures last year, compared with 7,800 in 1996. Fewer people are moving as house prices fall. Yet this seems to have slowed, not stopped, the black exodus from Los Angeles.

The pull of the suburbs is strong.

Trading Places: The Demographic Inversion of the American City

The Traffic Guru
Topic: Society 7:15 am EDT, Aug  1, 2008

Traffic engineers are rather obscure characters, though their work influences our lives every day. A geographic survey of East Lansing, Michigan, for example, once found that more than 50 percent of the retail district was dedicated to “automobile space”—parking, roads, and the like. By and large, the design and management of this space is handed over to traffic engineers, and our behavior in it is heavily influenced by their ­decisions.

In the last few years, however, one traffic engineer did achieve a measure of global celebrity, known, if not exactly by name, then by his ideas. His name was Hans Monderman. The idea that made Monderman, who died of cancer in January at the age of 62, most famous is that traditional traffic safety ­infra­structure—­warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so ­on—­is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect.

The Traffic Guru

The joy of boredom
Topic: Society 7:20 am EDT, Jul 29, 2008

A DECADE AGO, those monotonous minutes were just a fact of life: time ticking away, as you gazed idly into space, stood in line, or sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Boredom's doldrums were unavoidable, yet also a primordial soup for some of life's most quintessentially human moments.

But are we too busy twirling through the songs on our iPods -- while checking e-mail, while changing lanes on the highway -- to consider whether we are giving up a good thing? We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life's greatest luxuries.

Paradoxically, as cures for boredom have proliferated, people do not seem to feel less bored; they simply flee it with more energy, flitting from one activity to the next. Ralley has noticed a kind of placid look among his students over the past few years, a "laptop culture" that he finds perplexing. They have more channels to be social; there are always things to do. And yet people seem oddly numb. They are not quite bored, but not really interested either.

From the archive:

I believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, ... I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.

Despite our wondrous technologies and scientific advances, we are nurturing a culture of diffusion, fragmentation, and detachment. In this new world, something crucial is missing -- attention. Attention is the key to recapturing our ability to reconnect, reflect, and relax; the secret to coping with a mobile, multitasking, virtual world that isn't going to slow down or get simpler. Attention can keep us grounded and focused--not diffused and fragmented.

To be sure, time marches on.

Yet for many Californians, the looming demise of the "time lady," as she's come to be known, marks the end of a more genteel era, when we all had time to share.

When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and, more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention.

Today, our collective will to pay attention seems fairly weak.

The joy of boredom

Reentry: Reversing mass imprisonment
Topic: Society 7:20 am EDT, Jul 29, 2008

There are now 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a fourfold increase in the incarceration rate since 1980. During the fifty years preceding our current three-decade surge, the scale of imprisonment was largely unchanged. And the impact of this rise has hardly been felt equally in society; the American prison boom is as much a story about race and class as it is about crime control.

One-in-nine black men in their twenties is now in prison or jail. Among young black men who have never been to college, one in five are incarcerated, and one in three will go to prison at some time in their lives.


Nearly a century ago, Eugene Debs, at his sentencing under the Sedition Act in 1918, offered a moving account of the moral significance of the prison. “Your Honor,” he said, “years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Debs’s vision was radically egalitarian. Because we are joined by a common humanity, the imprisonment of one incarcerates us all.

From the archive:

The following paragraph basically sums up everything that is wrong with the American criminal justice system, no matter what the context is.

A handful of cases — in which a predator does an awful thing to an innocent — get excessive media attention and engender public outrage. This attention typically bears no relation to the frequency of the particular type of crime, and yet laws—such as three-strikes laws that give mandatory life sentences to nonviolent drug offenders — and political careers are made on the basis of the public’s reaction to the media coverage of such crimes.


We law-abiding, middle-class Americans have made decisions about social policy and incarceration, and we benefit from those decisions, and that means from a system of suffering, rooted in state violence, meted out at our request. We had choices and we decided to be more punitive. Our society — the society we have made — creates criminogenic conditions in our sprawling urban ghettos, and then acts out rituals of punishment against them as some awful form of human sacrifice.

Reentry: Reversing mass imprisonment

The Road to the Information Age
Topic: Society 7:20 am EDT, Jul 29, 2008

What are the consequences of all this information for the human brain, which must act as the final filter? And how does mere access to information translate to knowledge and, ultimately, intelligence?

Is it conceivable that today’s Internet, which resembles in so many ways the information utility that was envisioned back in 1964, is not amplifying our intelligence, but in fact making us stupid?

The Road to the Information Age

Online, R U Really Reading?
Topic: Society 7:20 am EDT, Jul 29, 2008

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount.

Online, R U Really Reading?

The Future Is So Yesterday
Topic: Society 8:17 am EDT, Jul 22, 2008

What's interesting about Tomorrowland's newest future is its focus on what doesn't change. This Dream Home future at 360 Tomorrowland Way in Disney's original California park is intentionally reassuring. The cast evokes a multigenerational intact nuclear family, the Eliases, which includes one daughter ("Princess") and two sons and two vigorous grandparents who live so close as to routinely drop by. This future has the sound of crickets outside the front door, and a light breeze forever blowing through its flowering vines. This future, in Dad's room, has Lionel trains.

The Future Is So Yesterday

Young Drivers Getting A Lesson in Economics
Topic: Society 8:17 am EDT, Jul 22, 2008

As the nation's unprecedented jump in gas prices takes a toll across the region, many teenagers say they, too, are feeling the pinch. Some have a harder time wresting car keys from their parents. Others are looking for second part-time jobs to help foot the bill. Some are using Metro more often or getting around in other gas-saving ways.

This reality check comes at a time in their lives when many think of driving as exciting: a symbol of age and hard-won freedom, a rite of passage, an escape. But the price of gas has tempered the thrill for many teens, especially those who use their own money to fill up.

They talk of fewer evenings out. Less cruising around. More riding together and pitching in to buy a few gallons.

See also, from San Diego, average decreases in vehicle counts, based on freeway sensor data.

Young Drivers Getting A Lesson in Economics

One Star for McMaster, One Cheer for the Army
Topic: Society 7:17 am EDT, Jul 21, 2008

George Packer:

H. R. McMaster is a humanist, with a doctorate in history, who is allergic to the military’s culture of PowerPoint presentations where the jargon and diagrams do the thinking for you. He once told me that if an idea couldn’t be put in paragraph form, it didn’t deserve consideration.

One Star for McMaster, One Cheer for the Army

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