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Wisdom of the ages

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The iOS App Store recommended that I check out a meditation app named “Calm”, featuring “Wisdom from Shawn and Camila”. Shawn is 22 years old; Camila is 24. With due respect, Apple, I’m not expecting a lot of wisdom from a couple younger than the sweater I’m wearing. There are many wonderful things youth can bring. Experience of a life long-lived is not one of them. I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly, but they’re 22 and 24, and I expect they’ll have little to offer on mid-career thoughts, or watching one’s parents grow older, or coming to grips with mortality.
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The girl in the Kent State photo and the lifelong burden of being a national symbol - The Washington Post

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Last May, when Mary Ann Vecchio watched the video of George Floyd’s dying moments, she felt herself plummet through time and space — to a day almost exactly 50 years earlier. On that afternoon in 1970, the world was just as riveted by an image that showed the life draining out of a young man on the ground, this one a black-and-white still photo. Mary Ann was at the center of that photo, her arms raised in anguish, begging for help.

That photo, of her kneeling over the body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller, is one of the most important images of the 20th century. Taken by student photographer John Filo, it captures Mary Ann’s raw grief and disbelief at the realization that the nation’s soldiers had just fired at its own children. The Kent State Pietà, as it’s sometimes called, is one of those rare photos that fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Like the image of the solitary protester standing in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Or the photo of Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalm that has just incinerated her home. Or the image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny, 3-year-old body facedown in the sand, he and his mother and brother having drowned while fleeing Syria.

These images shocked our collective conscience — and insisted that we look. But eventually we look away, unaware, or perhaps unwilling, to think about the suffering that went on long after the shutter has snapped — or of the cost to the human beings trapped inside those photos. “That picture hijacked my life,” says Mary Ann, now 65. “And 50 years later, I still haven’t really moved on.”

Mary Ann Vecchio has granted few interviews in 25 years, and as a child of the ’60s — with her own entanglement with the FBI — she’s still a bit wary. Partway through the first of what would go on to be a dozen interviews over the phone, she stops abruptly. “Are you doing this on your own?” she asks. I’m freelancing, I tell her. Is that what she means? No, she wants to know if I’m working with a political party. Or law enforcement. “When you’ve lived the life I have,” she says, “you still worry that maybe people are after you.” She also tells me she’s researched me before agreeing to speak. “I’m a little FBI-ish myself, in a renegade way,” she says. “And I’m also still that hippie kid who always sees a rainbow.”

Before Kent State, she says, she was a free spirit. “I was the kid rolling down the river on a raft,” she recalls. “I was magic. In my childhood, I believed anything was possible.” But her home in Opa-locka, Fla., not far from Miami International Airport, where her father was a carpenter, could be volatile. When her parents fought, she and her brothers and sisters would scatter, with Mary Ann hiding out in spots as far away as Miami Beach, some 15 miles from home. Soon she got in trouble — smoking pot, skipping school. So in February 1970, when the police told Mary Ann, then 14, that they’d throw her in jail if they caught her playing hooky one more time, she took off — in her bare feet. She says she wasn’t rebelling against her parents’ authority or seeking to join the antiwar movement: “I just wanted to be anywhere that wasn’t Opa-locka.”

Mary Ann Vecchio today. She is the 14-year-old kneeling in the Kent State photograph at top. (Jeffery A. Salter for The Washington Post)

Hitchhiking her way across the country, Mary Ann slept in fields, at hamburger shacks, at crash pads, working here and there for money for food, which she shared with other kids who were also bumming around. Seeing the country, meeting new people, sharing music and the occasional joint — the adventure had that feeling of magic from her childhood. Until, that is, she got to Kent State in northern Ohio, where, on May 4, student protests erupted over President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. Mary Ann, in her jeans, white scarf and a pair of hippie sandals someone had given her, headed toward a field where students were gathered. On her way to join the protest, she struck up a conversation with a guy in bell-bottoms. The two of them watched as another student waved a black flag, taunting the National Guard troops who had been sent in after protesters had burned down the ROTC building two nights before. The soldiers seemed to retreat to a nearby hill; then, in the next 13 seconds, they fired more than 60 shots.

Mary Ann dropped to the pavement and waited until the smoke had cleared to look up. Jeffrey Miller, the student she’d been talking to, was facedown on the ground; he’d been shot through the mouth. She knelt over his body as blood seeped onto the pavement. Other students walked by, too stunned or confused to look. “Doesn’t anyone see what just happened here?” she remembers crying. “Why is no one helping him?” As the soldiers approached, their guns at the ready, she recalls asking them a question that countless others across the country would soon ask as well: “Why did you do this?”

Nearby were more bodies. Allison Krause was shot in the chest; William Schroeder in the back. Sandy Scheuer, who was just passing through the area on her way to class, was struck by a bullet that hit her jugular vein. Four dead in Ohio.

“I would have stayed anonymous forever,” Mary Ann says. “But that guy from the Indianapolis Star, he knocked out my future.”

John Filo was a senior at Kent State in May 1970, a student photographer who almost missed out on covering the protests because he’d been in the woods taking pictures of teaberry leaves for his senior thesis that weekend. All the other photographers on the student paper had assignments from out-of-town papers, so John, 21, was working in the newspaper office to help process their pictures. On his lunch break, he grabbed a camera and stepped outside. He went straight toward the action, where a student in the no man’s land between soldiers and students waved a black flag. John snapped a photo thinking, “Okay, I’ve got my picture.” A moment later, the soldiers formed a rifle line. “I put my camera to my eye and trained it on one of the soldiers,” he says. “He aimed toward me, and then his gun goes off. The next thing I know, a bullet hits a tree next to me and a chunk of bark flew off.”

John dropped to the ground and waited out the 13 seconds of gunfire. When the smoke cleared, he stood and patted his arms and legs, checking to see if he’d been hit. “It was like slow motion. I just kept wondering, ‘How come I’m not shot?’ ” Then, not 10 feet away, he saw a body on the ground. John was running out of film as he saw a girl kneel beside the body. “I knew the boy was dead, but I could tell she didn’t know,” he told me. “I could see something building in her, and all of a sudden she lets out this scream and I shoot. I shoot one more picture, and I’m out of film.” By the time he had reloaded his camera, the girl was gone.

John remembers the soldiers ordering students who were lingering at the scene to disperse — “or they’d shoot again.” A few moments later, soldiers using bullhorns announced that the university was closed. “They ordered everyone to go home.”

Mary Ann just remembers running. She didn’t know anyone at Kent State; she’d known Miller for only 25 minutes. But she saw National Guard troops herding students onto buses, so she followed in a daze. Some two hours later, when the bus arrived in Columbus, the soldiers told everyone to get off. Many of the students ran to waiting parents. Mary Ann stumbled around the streets of the city; she’d never even heard of Columbus.

Back on campus, students were yelling at John, calling him a pig, a vulture. John yelled back. “No one’s going to believe this happened,” he told them. “This,” he said, pointing to his camera, “is proof.” When he saw Guard troops cutting down electric lines, John ran to his car. After hiding the film inside a hubcap, he drove two hours to the office of his hometown newspaper in western Pennsylvania to process his film. As he watched the film develop, he knew he had something the world needed to see.

When he called the Associated Press from the newsroom of the Valley Daily News of Tarentum, he was told the news service had plenty of Kent State photos coming in from its bureau in Akron, Ohio, and that its entire wire capacity was being used to transmit those photos. But when there was an unexpected break in the transmissions from Akron, John jumped on the wire and sent his photo. His image of the grieving girl ran on the front pages of newspapers all over the world the next day. The caption identified her simply as a “coed.”

I remember seeing the picture in my hometown paper. At 12, I wondered if the nation’s adults were intent on killing their own children, in Vietnam and now at home. But Mary Ann cannot remember the first time she saw the photo; she has no memory of the moment when she became the most famous unknown person in the world.

Photographer John Filo in 2014. As a student, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Kent State shootings, including the iconic image featuring Mary Ann Vecchio. Today, he is the head of photography for CBS. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

Protesters gather around Jeffrey Miller. He and three other students were killed in the shootings. (John Filo/Getty Images)

LEFT: Photographer John Filo in 2014. As a student, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Kent State shootings, including the iconic image featuring Mary Ann Vecchio. Today, he is the head of photography for CBS. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic) RIGHT: Protesters gather around Jeffrey Miller. He and three other students were killed in the shootings. (John Filo/Getty Images)

The days after the shooting went by in a haze for her. She hitchhiked out of Columbus, drifting west and sleeping wherever she could. She had heard she was wanted by the FBI, so she didn’t tell anyone who she was. She wound up at a crash pad in Indianapolis, thinking that if she could just get to California, she could start her life over again, but a kid at the house where she was staying recognized her and tipped off a reporter from the Indianapolis Star. Mary Ann, barely disguised in a granny gown and fake glasses, talked to the reporter, hoping he’d give her bus fare to California in exchange for her story. The reporter got his scoop, then called the authorities, who put her in juvenile detention as a runaway.

“I would have stayed anonymous forever,” she says. “But that guy from the Indianapolis Star, he knocked out my future.” Within days, she was back home in Opa-locka.

Many people refused to believe the nearly 6-foot-tall girl with the long, flowing hair and the mournful face was only 14. Her family received calls and letters calling her a drug addict, a tramp, a communist. The governor of Florida said she was “part of a nationally organized conspiracy of professional agitators” that was “responsible for the students’ death.” While some people saw her as a symbol of the national conscience, some Kent State students expressed resentment about her fame, saying she wasn’t even a protester.

Back in Kent, Ohio, local business owners ran an ad thanking the National Guard. Mail poured in to the mayor’s office, blaming “dirty hippies,” “longhairs” and “outside agitators” for the violence. Some Kent residents raised four fingers when they passed each other in the street, a silent signal that meant, “At least we got four of them.” Nixon issued a statement saying that the students’ actions had invited the tragedy. Privately, he called them “bums.” And a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for their own deaths; only 11 percent blamed the National Guard.

The FBI also questioned John. They demanded his film, he says, and when he refused, he remembers them tailing him for nearly a week. He says his phone rang nonstop with crank callers insisting that the photo was fake. He got hate mail, including a letter that, as he recalls, read, “I had a friend die in Vietnam. You’re next.”

John was still reeling from his close call with the Guard when the Indianapolis Star ran the story identifying the subject of his photo not as a college student but as a teenage runaway. That, he says, “was a heavy weight to carry.”

On “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer said Mary Ann “wasn’t a symbol of the tragedy of the Vietnam War. She wasn’t a symbol of anything.”

Back in Opa-locka, Mary Ann couldn’t go to Royal Castle for a burger without reporters and hecklers following her. Death threats filled the Vecchio family mailbox. “It’s too bad it wasn’t you that was shot.” “What you need is a good beating until you bleed red.” “I hope you enjoyed sleeping with all those Negroes and dope fiends.” “The deaths of the Kent State four lies on the conscience of yourself.” At 14, she was a human flashpoint, her face on magazine covers, posters and handbills. The humor magazine National Lampoon ran a fake ad for a Kent State playset, complete with toy soldiers, protesters and “1 kneeling student.” And not that long ago, the Onion ran a satiric news story calling a loss by the Kent State basketball team a “massacre.” Mary Ann’s face is photoshopped onto the body of a cheerleader, kneeling over a fallen basketball player.

Her father sold T-shirts with Mary Ann’s grieving image on the front. She signed the shirts — and the occasional autograph — still in a state of shock. “People thought we were getting rich, but we never had any money,” she says. “It sounds bad, but my dad did what he did for me. He was taking care of me in the only way he knew how.”

What the traumatized teenager didn’t get was counseling. It didn’t even occur to her. “I was too afraid,” she says. “He,” she notes, referring to Jeffrey Miller, the boy in the photo, “was a college student. I was just a runaway. I felt less than. And I felt like I did something dirty because that’s the way I was treated.”

She ran away from home again and got caught, ending up in juvenile detention. “They tried to give me Thorazine,” she says. She ran away from there, too, was caught again and returned. But when she was sent back home, she recalls, the police followed her incessantly, arresting her for loitering, for smoking pot. “I was a mess, like I was trying to punch my way out of a paper bag,” she says.

Later, in 1977, Mary Ann was profiled by “60 Minutes” as a “maladjusted kid.” For the segment, she read aloud from the hateful letters she’d received, which were spread out on her parents’ dining table. Morley Safer said she “wasn’t a symbol of the tragedy of the Vietnam War. She wasn’t a symbol of anything.” Just a “14-year-old nobody hitchhiking from nowhere to nowhere.” He seemed, at least to me as I watched the segment recently, to take smug satisfaction in the trouble she had after Kent State, turning her into a national cautionary tale.

“Everyone had a piece of me,” Mary Ann says. “And when everyone in the world thinks they know who you are, you don’t want to be who you are.”

Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling by the body of Jeffrey Miller after National Guard troops shot at protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. (John Filo/Getty Images)

John Filo’s picture would win a Pulitzer Prize. His photo, Time magazine said, captured the sense that the Vietnam War had come home and “distilled that feeling into a single image.” But he, too, was haunted. “I felt very guilty,” he says. “An arm’s length to my right, a guy was shot. An arm’s length or two to my left, that’s where Jeffrey Miller was killed. I’m alive and I’m relatively famous, and they’re dead.” And when he read that the police had been harassing Mary Ann, he felt responsible.

Eventually, at age 22, Mary Ann took off from Florida, moved to Las Vegas, married and got a job in a casino coffee shop. She was rarely mentioned in news stories commemorating the events of May 4, 1970. In May 1990, she told the Orlando Sentinel that the photograph had “really destroyed my life.” Still, she said, she was proud of a job where she wore a nicely pressed blouse and skirt and where she’d built a new life far removed from the shooting. “Kent State has nothing to do with my life,” she said.

By that time, she’d also learned it was risky to tell people that she was the girl in the iconic photo. “The less I said, the safer I felt,” she recalls. And while she took pride in her job and the stability she’d achieved, underneath she carried a sadness about the way her life had turned out. “My life was already upside-down by the time of Kent State, but with some different guidance, maybe I could have made something of myself,” she says. “Maybe I could’ve done something good with my life. That’s the damage, when you don’t get to be who you were going to be.”

Meanwhile, John went on to have a successful career as a photographer. (Today he’s the head of photography for CBS.) He says that not a day went by that he didn’t think about the Kent State students — or Mary Ann. Sometimes he had nightmares about her. When he became a father and looked in his daughter’s eyes, he saw Mary Ann’s eyes. He tortured himself by wondering how he’d feel if someone had taken his daughter’s photo in such a vulnerable moment. “I thought about reaching out to her many times,” he says. “But I figured she hated me.”

It was Gregory Payne, a professor at Emerson College and author of “Mayday, Kent State,” who had an idea that he thought might help them both. In 1995 he organized a 25-year retrospective on Kent State and Mississippi’s Jackson State, where students had been shot and killed by police around the same time. He invited both Mary Ann and John to attend. “Mary Ann was open to the idea, but John wasn’t initially,” Payne says. “He always felt terrible about trapping her in that picture, and he’d read that she said it ruined her life.” The day before they were to meet, Payne recalls, he asked Mary Ann what she was going to say to John. “She said she had no idea.”

“I was kind of mad at [John] for a long time,” Mary Ann says. “He’s lucky. He’s done very well. He’s got a nice house. He’s got everything. He got the pony.” She laughs at that. “I got the crap.”

John says he “dreaded ever meeting Mary Ann,” but he accepted Payne’s invitation to the retrospective, unsure, until the last minute, if he would go through with it. When Payne brought the two of them together for a private meeting before the opening ceremony, no one knew what to expect. “John looked so scared,” Payne says. But Mary Ann surprised everyone. “I saw the anguish in his eyes,” she says of John, “and, you know, I felt sorry for him.” She smiled, took his hand and hugged him. They both cried.

Even though they’d never before met, Mary Ann says that she and John had the instant bond of a pair of old army buddies. “It was kind of a war,” she says. And neither of them had ever really been recognized as among the casualties. Kent State had haunted them both, from opposite ends of the lens.

Later that day, as Mary Ann spoke to the assembled group about the trauma of the Kent State shootings, John had an epiphany about the power of his photo. “It was because she was 14, because of her youth, that she ran to help, that she ran to do something. There were other people, 18, 19, 20 years old, who didn’t get close to the body. She did because she was a kid. She was a kid reacting to the horror in front of her. Had she not been 14, the picture wouldn’t have had the impact it did.”

After the retrospective, John gave her a signed copy of the photo. The inscription: “For the courageous Mary Ann Vecchio, I cannot fathom how this photograph affected your life. I’m proud to call you a friend.”

The public glare defined her as someone she never was. Now she’s who she wants to be.

Mary Ann lived in Las Vegas for nearly 20 years, moving up from her job in the coffee shop to the casino floor, where she had the keys to pay out the slot machine jackpots. She says she dreamed of being a lawyer. But something told her, “Don’t get too successful, don’t get too visible. Don’t be too happy.” Hiding was much safer, she says.

In 2001, however, she took the story of her life back into her own hands. She had earned a high school diploma at the age of 39; now in her mid-40s, she was ready to study for a career in health. She also ended an unhappy marriage and started over again by returning to Florida. She bought a 24-foot camper, worked full time at the Trump Spa at Doral, enrolled at nearby Miami Dade Community College and studied to be a respiratory therapist. Between shifts and classes she spent time nursing her dying mother.

“Everybody at the Doral loved Mary Ann,” says longtime friend Charlotte Brewer, 85. “She has this very caring personality.” Still, Mary Ann didn’t tell her about the photo until it popped up on Charlotte’s phone one day. “That’s me,” Mary Ann said. At first Charlotte couldn’t believe it, but she soon understood: The girl who ran to help an injured student at Kent State was the same person who saw her massage work as healing treatments for her clients and who was training to help patients with respiratory problems. Charlotte and her fellow massage therapists were so happy to see Mary Ann on a new professional path, they took her out to lunch after she passed each course. “Maybe that’s why I got such good grades,” Mary Ann says.

After school, the woman who perhaps had been the most visible symbol of protest against the Vietnam War worked at the Miami VA hospital, where she cared for men who’d served in that war. But she never told them she was the girl from the Kent State photo. Sometimes, she says, she wanted to tell the veterans who she was so she could explain that the protesters weren’t anti-soldier, just antiwar, and that they did what they did to bring soldiers home. Instead, she operated on a “no-need-to-know policy.” She wanted “to be in the vets’ shoes,” she says. “I had to make a connection on a spiritual level.”

By working with veterans, she learned about resilience and came to understand what being in the line of fire had done to her. “I tried to hide my shell-shockedness from them,” she says, but she saw ways in which they were traumatized that echoed some of her own behaviors. “I’m very positional,” she says. “Wherever I go, I sit with my back to the wall so I can see what’s coming in the front door.”

Mary Ann is retired now — she didn’t remarry or have children — and leads a quiet life, growing avocados and oranges on a small plot at the edge of the Florida Everglades. Payne, who keeps in regular touch with her and has invited her to speak to his classes at Emerson, credits her “incredibly strong spirit” for her survival. “She also still has that unaffected purity,” he says. “That’s what you saw in the photo on May 4th. And that’s still who she is.”

Charlotte says Mary Ann is more like a neighborhood sprite. She pops in to see their older neighbors, bathing them and delivering home-cooked meals. She gets offers to work for pay, but she prefers to “be that surprise person that shows up with banana bread.”

Last May, however, when she watched the video of George Floyd’s death, she was so shaken, it was as if the electronic scrim of her TV had dissolved. She jumped off her couch and yelled at the crowd in the video, “Why is no one helping him?” She sobs as she describes that moment to me. “Doesn’t anyone see what’s going on?”

“Mary Ann,” I say. “It seems to me that you’re still that girl in the photo, you’re still that girl saying, ‘Doesn’t anyone see what’s happening here?’”

She stops crying abruptly. “But it’s been 50 years,” she says. “Why can’t I move on?”

What would it take to move on? I ask.

“Maybe if I do some good for the planet,” she says. She tells me that she does small, secret acts of charity every weekend, when she goes “undercover” to the Walmart parking lot near her home and leaves canned foods, staples and her homegrown avocados in an empty shopping cart for someone to discover. “I feel like I need to do something good,” she says, crying again.

You’ve already done something profoundly good, I tell her. “In that moment when you knelt over Jeffrey Miller’s body,” I say, “you expressed the grief and horror that so many people were feeling. You helped end the Vietnam War.”

“You can say that,” she says, “but I can’t feel it.”

Today, Mary Ann Vecchio is retired in Florida. No one follows her or sends her hate mail, though once in a while she receives an autograph request. (Jeffery A. Salter for The Washington Post)

Nowadays, the girl who wanted to be anywhere but Opa-locka lives not far from there. No one knows her as the girl from the photo. No one follows her or sends her hate mail, though once in a while she finds an autograph request with a faraway address in her mailbox. Sometimes students find her online and send her letters saying they read about her in their history books. This cracks her up. “I’m a living person,” she says with a laugh. “And I’m in a history book! Not many people can say that.”

For me, it’s hard now not to look at that photo and see a 14-year-old girl, unaware of how that single moment will shape her entire life. She’ll become a public figure — as a minor — with no consent and no control over her image or her reputation. Well before there’s such a concept as victim-blaming, before social media or Us Weekly, she’ll become an object of national fascination — a target for some, a footnote in history to others. She’ll be the subject of a photo known the world over, but never really known as a person.

And yet, she eventually defied the narrative that was written for her. She built a new life on her own terms. Far from the public glare that defined her as someone she never was, she’s now who she wants to be: someone whose life is both private and purposeful. And on weekends, as she roams the Walmart parking lot near her home, leaving gifts for strangers, it’s possible to see that 14-year-old girl before the shutter is snapped, that kid who thinks she’s magic.

Patricia McCormick is a two-time National Book Award finalist. She writes about the effects of trauma on young people.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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1165 days ago
Super interesting read
Buffalo, NY
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Digg Killing Off Digg Reader, I Go Back to NewsBlur

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Well, I DID have plans to write a DIFFERENT article this week but APPARENTLY they have been PRE-EMPTED. As you might be able to tell by the OCCASIONAL CAPS I am just a LITTLE BIT STEAMED.

I got home, went through Nuzzel, and refreshed Digg Reader to catch it up as I’d been gone all day. And this little bit popped up:

screenshot from 2018 03 14 19 06 40

So almost five years to the day after Google Reader announced its shut down, Digg Reader is shutting down.

I’m really upset. I know on the scale of human problems this barely moves the needle, but for keeping up, I need an RSS feed reader. And I need a cloud-based reader; I follow so many RSS feeds that desktop RSS feed readers tend to crash.

Happily in this case I knew immediately where I was going to be transferring my RSS feeds. So in this article I’ll walk through exporting my RSS feeds from Digg Reader and importing them into my new choice for RSS feeds — NewsBlur, at

Oh NewsBlur, I Betrayed You. Please Forgive Me.

When Google Reader first went belly-up, I split my time between trying Digg Reader and another RSS reader I quite liked called NewsBlur. But apparently at the time NewsBlur could not handle the ridiculous number of RSS feeds I had, and I ended up sticking with Digg Reader. For 2013-2016, though, I kept paying for a NewsBlur account, because I liked it and I wanted to support it. Now I’m back and paying up again. NewsBlur appears to have one developer, it’s open source, it’s been adding features and growing for years, and it’s a good product. This is the kind of Internet I want to support. And I should have tried to stick with it in the first place. Sorry, NewsBlur.

That doesn’t mean that this switchover won’t have its difficulties. First of all I’ve got to export my RSS feeds from Digg. Second, NewsBlur does not appear to be as integrated with Pocket as Digg Reader was, so I’ll have to address that.  Finally, I’ll have to import my feeds to NewsBlur and do that first big sweep.

First things first: let’s get my RSS feeds out.

Exporting from Digg

When you export RSS feeds, you’re not taking them out one at a time. Instead you’re using a file format called OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) which exports feeds in one big collection.

To export feeds from Digg Reader, you open the settings page at and head down to the bottom of the page, where Digg makes it real clear that you need to get your feeds out:

screenshot from 2018 03 14 21 09 19

Once you click the Download button you’ll get a file called digg_reader_subscriptions.xml . How large the file is depends on how many feeds you have; mine was about 500K. Once you’ve got that, you can head over to NewsBlur.

Importing to NewsBlur

NewsBlur’s home page, once you’ve logged in, has an Import Sites link. I clicked on that and discovered I still had some sites saved since I was last using NewsBlur regularly.

screenshot from 2018 03 14 21 13 19

I clicked Upload OPML File and uploaded the OPML export file I’d gotten from Digg, after which this screen looked slightly different. See if you can spot it.

screenshot from 2018 03 14 21 14 12

Now you know why desktop-based RSS feed readers don’t work that well for me.

As you’ll note in the screenshot above that it’s going to take NewsBlur a little while to digest the ridiculous number of RSS feeds I subscribe to. While it’s getting on with that, I’ll proceed with step 2 of my RSS feed reader switchover: making sure that saved stories go to Pocket.

Making NewsBlur Pocket-Ready With IFTTT

I poked around in NewsBlur for a while and couldn’t find a way to easily save stories to Pocket, a read-later service. I have to have Pocket functionality; if I can’t save stories for later it messes up my work flow. My solution to this is to connect NewsBlur to IFTTT ( ) and use that to save interesting stories to Pocket.

IFTTT, which stands for “If This, Then That,” is a service which allows you to take data from one service and have it trigger an action with another service – for example, to take a picture you’re posting on Instagram and also post it on Twitter. (You can get an idea of how to use IFTTT from an article I wrote last year.) In this case I’m going to connect NewsBlur and Pocket so when I save an item in NewsBlur, it automatically saves to my Pocket account.

IFTTT makes this really easy. I already have Pocket connected to IFTTT, and IFTTT already has a “recipe” for doing this so I don’t have to make one.

screenshot from 2018 03 14 21 59 28

All I had to do was click the Turn on switch. I had not yet given IFTTT permission to access NewsBlur, but that was simple:

screenshot from 2018 03 14 21 59 14

… and now I have Pocket functionality. Whenever I save an item when reading NewsBlur, I’ll be able to find it later in Pocket. More about that a little later when we’re looking at NewsBlur.

Oh heck. Let’s just look at NewsBlur now.

Getting Used to a New Interface

In the time it took to get IFTTT and Pocket hooked together with NewsBlur, NewsBlur was able to finish digesting my big list of RSS feeds, so let’s take a look at the Import Sites section again to see if it’s been able to import all my feeds yet.

screenshot from 2018 03 14 22 14 40

Yup, looks like NewsBlur has imported all my feeds, no problem. But things in NewsBlur look a bit different from the way they looked in Digg Reader.

If you’ve ever used an RSS feed reader, either Web-based or on a desktop/laptop, you’ll remember that it looks a lot like an old email reader — a list of sources on one side, and content on the other side. In that Digg Reader and NewsBlur are a lot alike. It’s the features they offer beyond that that are a bit different.

Here’s what my NewsBlur setup looks like:

screenshot from 2018 03 14 22 26 01

That screenshot mixes up feeds with new content and feeds without new content; there is a switch at the very bottom of the screen to show feeds with content only, but I’m leaving that turned off for now because a) NewsBlur isn’t done fetching new feed content and how can you blame it and b) I’ll need to go through all my feeds and remove/alter the ones NewsBlur marks as problematic (it does this with a giant, unmissable orange exclamation point.)

Now that I’ve got the RSS feeds in, let’s take a look at an individual entry from an RSS feed.

screenshot from 2018 03 15 06 03 21

The title and the body of the feed entry aren’t that surprising (how much is in the body depends on the RSS feed). Your tools for managing a particular entry are on the right. You can email a story, train a story, save a story (this normally saves it to NewsBlur, but since I’m using IFTTT, will save an item both to NewsBlur and Pocket) and/or share a story to Facebook or Twitter.

All of those are fairly self-explanatory except for the “Train Story” option. NewsBlur addresses this in its FAQ; when you’re training a story that means you’re telling NewsBlur what you like and don’t like about it, so that NewsBlur can be more intelligent about the stories it offers you. Unfortunately my interests are broad enough that I don’t think this will work for me and I probably won’t be using it much. NewsBlur notes that you don’t have to train stories to find it useful.

Really, there’s a lot in NewsBlur that I haven’t gone into here: the sharing community, the followers, the stats, the site organization. That’s because the focus on this article is getting out of Digg Reader before its death and getting your RSS feeds into something else. (I can do a deeper dive later if there’s interest.) But the fact is that it’s an extensive reader and offers a lot for power users.

… but if you don’t pay for it you’re going to find it limited. The free version of NewsBlur is restricted in a number of ways, including RSS feeds limited to 64, you can’t tag saved stories, you can’t share content privately, search is extremely curtailed, and you’re not helping feed the developer’s dog. The premium version of the site is $36 a year, and I’m happy to support him.

RSS Isn’t Flashy, But It’s Reliable

Periodically, I’ll read a take that RSS feeds are done, nobody uses them, all RSS readers are going to die, etc. Then I read that WordPress powers 30% of the Web (not 30% of all sites using CMS, 30% of the Web.) And guess what? WordPress offers RSS feeds by default. That means that there’s a huge number of feeds out there whether a site wrangler is deliberately adding them or not.

If you’re trying to do any amount of site or information monitoring on the Internet, RSS feeds are critical, and therefore so are RSS feed readers. I’m not happy about my solution for the last five years, Digg Reader, going away. But I think NewsBlur will make a fine replacement — as long as my huge number of RSS feeds doesn’t make it too creaky to use.

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2313 days ago
Buffalo, NY
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About Our “Spending Problem” (Revisited)

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@TBPInvictus here

It’s a well established fact that the Obama administration has been spending like a drunken sailor since the day he was inaugurated. I first wrote about his spendthrift ways here, toward the end of 2010 (has it already been three years?).

Some time has now passed, so how’s it going? Let’s take another look at Federal government spending – including and excluding defense – for the last five administrations, indexed to 100 in the first quarter of each administration.

First the overall picture:


Now, let’s strip out the defense portion:


Please think of these two charts the next time you hear someone say, “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.” Present these charts and ask precisely where that spending problem is.

What goes on at the state and local level also obviously impacts the trajectory of our economy, including GDP and our employment picture. While the Federal government does not have direct control of state and local economics, it is certainly a meaningful indirect influence, as Federal policies ripple through state capitals and subsequently through local town halls.

Here’s what that picture looks like over the past five administrations:

state and local

[NOTE: Gotta say, the degree of state and local austerity surprised even me.]

Put it all together, and this is what government at all levels has added to (or subtracted from) GDP for the past five years:

govt cont to gdp

Finally, and sadly, the NY Times ran an article last week about the deleterious effects already being felt by the recent cut in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps). The damage being done to those who can least afford it cannot be overstated. Beyond the pain it is inflicting on the poor, the adverse “trickle up” effect is already taking hold:

The cuts are also hurting stores in poor neighborhoods. The average food stamps household receives $272 a month, which then passes into the local economy.

At a Food Lion in Charleston where as many as 75 percent of the shoppers use food stamps, managers were bracing for lower receipts as the month wore on.

At a Met Foodmarket in the Bronx, where 80 percent of the 7,000 weekly customers use food stamps, overall food sales have already dropped by as much as 10 percent.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be that fast,” said Abraham Gomez, the manager. Losing that much revenue could mean cutting back hours for employees, he said.

For some perspective on the SNAP program, here’s how it stacks up versus our spending on defense:


Source: BEA Table 3.12 Government Social Benefits and BEA Table 3.11.5. National Defense Consumption Expenditures and Gross Investment by Type

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3899 days ago
Buffalo, NY
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Library Card Mosaic

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Steve Campion writes:

I was building a library card gallery (scroll down the page: and decided to gather them together in one image.  The mosaic came from that.  I think the gallery is pretty cool.  It shows off the individual cards and the variety and vitality of the public libraries across the state.  85% of the libraries — large and small — contributed cards or images for my gallery/mosaic.

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3994 days ago
Buffalo, NY
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STEM talent: It’s a distribution problem

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french startup feat

There’s a bill in Congress right now to increase the number of visas for highly skilled workers — the H-1B visa. This is an issue that techies have trumpeted loud and proud, saying that there aren’t enough domestic computer programmers to meet the Silicon Valley need.

But two studies recently published call this de facto problem into question. Separate organizations mapped out stats on the domestic IT workforce  — the Economic Policy Institute and employment recruiting startup Bright — and they came to similar conclusions. They found that there’s not a lack of qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates in the US, and that increasing the number of H-1B visas would tackle a salary and distribution problem of IT workers in the US, not a supply problem.

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 2.00.27 PMThe number of US Citizens enrolling in computer and mathematical graduate fields has grown by 88 percent in the last 10 years. Students are taking notice of the market forces at work and they’re gravitating to computers and coding. In other words, being a geek is the new kind of cool.

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 2.07.54 PMUnfortunately and surprisingly, it might not be the most employable kind of cool. The Economic Policy Institute found that a third of students who studied computer science, but weren’t working in comp-sci after they graduated, said it’s because they couldn’t find a job in that field.  How is that possible when Silicon Valley is supposedly stumbling through a parched talent desert in search of developers? Job seeking site Bright studied supply and demand in cities across the US, and they think they found the answer.

Although there may not be enough qualified people in Silicon Valley, there’s no lack of domestic programmers across the US. The Bright research showed there’s approximately one qualified programmer to meet every job, but those programmers may be located in podunk, middletown, not San Francisco. “We looked at localized labor, and in the Valley there is a shortage of qualified computer programmers,” David Hardtke, Bright’s Chief Scientist, said. Hardtke pointed out that international applicants are more willing to move to where the jobs are, but US based programmers may not be as flexible.

So the problem is one of distribution, not necessarily supply and demand. My editor compared it to the international food issue — in America 13.2 million tons of food gets thrown out every day, and yet in other geographical regions, people go hungry.

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 2.16.32 PMBut there’s another side to the story: STEM jobs may not be the most attractive for the top STEM grads. The Economic Policy Institute found that half the students who studied computer science, but weren’t working in comp-sci after they graduated, said it’s because they found a better job. Grads can make more money in managerial and professional positions, where the median annual salary is $20,000 higher according to 2009 U.S. Census data. Wages have remained stagnant in the IT sector for the last decade, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s report.

Expanding the number of H-1B visas may keep wages stagnant. When Bright compiled the numbers on who was intending to apply for H-1B visas, it found that 80 percent of the twenty companies filing the most applications were outsourcing firms — like Wipro and Syntel — that bring talent into the country and then “rent” them out to other companies on a contract basis. If the number of H-1B visas is lifted across the board for the entire country without restrictions on who can file for those visas, then these firms will benefit the most.

Why does that matter? Because as NPR has reported, these outsourcing firms pay foreign IT employees less than domestic workers would receive. As a result, tech companies save money by contracting out work to one of these outsourcing firms (they call themselves “consulting firms”) instead of employing a domestic IT worker. If these consulting firms can file more visas, than they can continue to undercut domestic workers and lower the median IT salary.

So here’s the gist. More students are getting STEM degrees now than in the past, but only one student of every two with a STEM degree gets hired into a STEM field. The reasons vary: Some may not live in Silicon Valley or other tech friendly locations, others say they found a better job elsewhere. They may have found a better job elsewhere that pays more.

Increasing the number of H-1B visas is a roundabout way to solve some of these problems, albeit to the detriment of domestic workers. Foreign employees are more willing to move to the locations where STEM workers are needed, like Silicon Valley. But outsourcing firms, the largest consumer of H-1B visas, will take advantage of an increase in visas issued to hire foreign workers and potentially pay them less than domestic workers receive.


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3997 days ago
Buffalo, NY
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