Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will speak via videoconference to the attendees of South by Southwest Interactive later this morning, and you can bet a much wider audience than just those here in Austin will be watching.
Snowden will be speaking from Russia, which is still offering him asylum since he's facing felony charges of espionage here in the U.S. The man behind leaks that revealed U.S. surveillance tactics and scope is expected to talk about the impact of that surveillance on the technology community. He's also expected to call for technologists to better built tools with user privacy in mind.
Not everyone thinks Snowden has the authority to speak on this topic. Congressman Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., wrote an open letter to conference organizers on Friday calling Snowden a traitor and demanding that they rescind their invitation to the former contractor. Pompeo wrote Snowden's "only apparent qualification ... is his willingness to steal from his own government and then flee to that beacon of First Amendment freedoms, the Russia of Vladimir Putin." SXSW hasn't responded.
Despite the objections of some U.S. leaders, the long lines Saturday for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's videoconference on similar topics indicate Snowden's appearance will draw monster crowds. Conference organizers will have a handful over spillover rooms set up for viewing the talk from outside the main venue, and the nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune will be livestreaming the Q & A session for anyone with an Internet connection.
The festival has long offered a sprawling range of topics. But this year it's taken a harder edged programming turn to online privacy and surveillance implications. The conversations come at a moment when social media's driven Americans to willingly share more data about ourselves than ever before, and the digitally savvy are more skilled than ever in using that data for various purposes.
"[Privacy's] a big focus at the 2014 event, as well it should be," said SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest. "It's something I think impacts all of us given how much social is now just a part of our lives. It's essentially woven into everything we do."
What do an eccentric British detective, a cut-throat Washington pol and a bunch of nerds at Caltech have in common?
They are characters in some of the most popular foreign TV shows in China.
Over the past five years, The Big Bang Theory alone has been streamed more than 1.3 billion times. To appreciate how much some young Chinese love the BBC series, Sherlock, step inside 221B Baker Street. That's Holmes' fictitious address in London as well as the name of a café that opened last year in Shanghai's former French Concession.
Good luck, though, finding a table.
"Business has been very good since the premier of the third season," says Eric Zhang, the café's twenty-seven-year-old owner. "People have to line up or make reservations in advance on Saturday and Sunday, otherwise they can't get a seat."
Like many young people here, Zhang grew up reading the detective classics by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, translated into Chinese. Zhang says his father is a detective and used to share murder, smuggling and arson cases with him.
"Actually, I aspired to be a policeman," says Zhang, "but I didn't pass the physical and opened a café instead."
The café - all wood and leather — is drenched in Sherlock paraphernalia. On the wall next to the bar are hand-written, Sherlock plot-lines. By the window sits a tableful of what is supposed to be Dr. Watson's medical equipment, including a microscope and old glass syringes retrieved from the basement of a Chinese hospital. On the bookshelves sit seemingly endless photos of Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes in the series. Zhang explains the shrine-like treatment of the British actor.
"To tell you the truth, girls are especially fond of him," says Zhang. "He has personal charm. It's irresistible."
Indeed, nearly every customer here today is female. Tina Zhou, 25, works for a Chinese state-owned company. She says Cumberbatch - whose Chinese nickname is "Curly Fu," a reference to his hair — plays a great Holmes.
"He combines all these qualities," she says. "He's intelligent, pretty humorous, has a sort of a dry humor. He's charming, talented. He carries himself in an elegant way. A gentleman."
If many young women here can't take their eyes off Cumberbatch, millions of other Chinese are transfixed by a very different foreign TV character, Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician at the center of Netflix's House of Cards.
The series, which debuted here on Valentine's Day, is the hottest foreign TV show in China right now with more than 83 million streams. Andrew Jiang, who binge-watched all 13 episodes in a single day, thinks House of Cards may be more interesting to Chinese than Americans.
"Because you get this kind of political drama all the time," he says, "while in China, there is no political drama."
The Communist Party would never allow such a dark portrayal of its own politics, and when China does produce political dramas, Jiang says, they tend to be period pieces filled with stock characters.
"Everyone is like a hero and everyone is like a great statesman," Jiang says. "It's just propaganda, but in House of Cards, what you are going to see is the sausage-making process."
Jiang, who grew up in Beijing and is now a law student in Illinois, says another attraction to this season is its China storyline. The plot features Xander Feng, a corrupt Chinese businessman with close ties to the Communist Party who's trying to cut a secret deal with the White House. In one scene, he tells a U.S. official that Washington should reinstate a lawsuit to continue to put pressure on China to allow its currency to rise.
"When you do, there will be those on the [Politburo] standing committee who will protest," Feng tells Underwood's chief of staff, "but I will handle them. The majority want reform."
The plot point is far-fetched, but Jiang says it illustrates a political truth: the Communist Party is anything but monolithic.
"This shows American people and all those freshmen congressmen who don't know too much about Chinese politics, actually, there is division," says Jiang.
Dwarfing Sherlock and House of Cards in longevity and overall popularity here is The Big Bang Theory, which for many young Chinese became must-see TV, usually streamed on a computer or iPad. A big reason is because many identify with the main characters: nerdy science guys.
The show has been a big hit with Chinese college students, who are more bookish than their American counterparts. When Yu Wenting attended Sichuan University a few years back, she says many of her classmates were just like The Big Bang Theory's lead characters, Sheldon and Leonard.
"They themselves were having exactly the same issue as the guys in the show, of finding girlfriends and talking to girls, because their life is full of work and lacks a social aspect," Yu says.
Young Chinese recognize other traits in the cast, such as Sheldon's self-absorption. In one scene, Sheldon becomes irritated with next door neighbor Penny for giving him a Christmas present, which he sees as an imposition.
"I know you think you're being generous, but the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity," says Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons. "You haven't given me a gift. You've given me an obligation."
Dan, a grad student in southeast China's Jiangxi province, says Sheldon's self-centered nature reminds her of many only children in China.
"After the one-child policy began in China, there are many single children," Dan says. "They grew up in an environment without many siblings, so they all — to some extent — regard themselves as infallible."
The Big Bang Theory — now in its seventh season — is losing some of its appeal here. People say the writers seem to be running out of gas, but newer foreign shows are coming along, attracting audiences. Young Chinese are increasingly drawn to an eclectic mix, which includes 2 Broke Girls, The Vampire Diaries and Masters of Sex.
It's an hour before suppertime, and the line outside Lone Oak First Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., is wrapped around the building. The people are waiting for more than a Bible sermon; there's a raffle tonight. Twenty-five guns are up for grabs.
There's nothing new about gun raffles in Kentucky, even at a church. Last year, there were 50 events like this one in the state. The Kentucky Baptist Convention says it's a surefire way to get new people through church doors.
Sunday school teacher David Keele says everyone who knows has a gun. The church giveaways, he says, are a rallying point.
"We're doing two things here. One, we're going to talk about the Second Amendment to bear arms. But that isn't the primary thing," Keele says. "The primary thing is who Jesus is."
Inside during the steak dinner, the church band ditched the hymnal for the evening and played "Mustang Sally" instead. These are not worship services. They're meant to be unintimidating to non-believers, although it turns out most of the people here already go to church, if not this one.
In attendance is Tom Jackson, who's not a particularly regular churchgoer. "I do believe in God and I do believe in living the way that he wants you to live, let's put it like that," he says.
Jackson says believes in turning the other cheek, but also in the right to defend himself and his family how he sees fit. You can turn the other cheek, he says, only to a point.
"[If] somebody kicks your door down, means to hurt your wife, your kids, you — how do you turn the other cheek to that?" Jackson asks.
The dinner drew 1,300 people, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, chowing down on steak and potatoes. On a stage full of elk heads and stuffed bears, Chuck McAlister gets everyone's attention.
"I brought a gun with me tonight," McAlister says. "I know that's very controversial."
McAlister is a self-described master storyteller and former host of an outdoor TV show. Southern Baptists in Kentucky recently hired him to be a full-time evangelist as denomination membership has declined.
And he welcomes the controversy; the best seats in the house are reserved for reporters. On stage, he cocks what he calls his most valuable gun.
"It's a Browning Sweet 16. It's my granddaddy's bird gun," McAlister says.
The family heirloom is the centerpiece of a sermon he's preached in dozens of congregations now. He talks about scars left in the gun and scars left from sin. The former pastor talks about becoming a man and taking a responsibility, and eventually gets around to discussing accepting Jesus Christ.
Along the way, McAlister gets in political jabs.
"There's no government on the face of this earth that has the right to take this gun from me," he says to thunderous applause.
In an interview, McAlister says he's just meeting people where they are.
"If simply offering them an opportunity to win a gun allows them to come into the doors of the church and to hear that the church has a message that's relevant to their lives, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that," he says.
But you don't have to go too far outside the church walls to find questions about the event.
The Machaen family lives across the street from the Lone Oak Church. On a recent winter day, Cesar Machaen is lobbing snowballs with his wife and three children. He hadn't read the signs promoting a gun raffle.
"Real guns? I don't know what to say," says Machaen, who was raised Catholic. "You go to church for peace, not to kill or fight."
Back at the raffle, the actual drawing comes after the altar call, so no one leaves early.
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, reminds winners that they have to pass a background check before claiming their prize. He also explains that church money wasn't used to buy the guns.
"These weren't purchases," Chitwood says. "These were donated."
While deer rifles are the big draw here, there are Bibles available, too. They're stacked up on tables by the stage. Some even come with waterproof pages and camo covers. Unlike the guns, the Bibles aren't free — they're for sale.
Christylez Bacon attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a prestigious high school in Washington, D.C. that also counts Dave Chappelle and Meshell Ndegeocello among its alumni. When it came time to write a final paper for his U.S. Government class, he wanted to craft something more reflective of his upbringing in the city's Southeast quadrant — an area hit hard by crime and drugs in the 1980s. Bacon convinced his teacher to let him deliver an essay on public aid in the form of a rap called "Welfare Check."
"For me to be here, and to be a product of Southeast D.C. — that's a feat," says Bacon, who now makes his living as a hip-hop musician and performs "Welfare Check" as part of his repetoire. "I always make sure that I state that I am from there, because you could be of your environment, but that doesn't have to keep you from being who you want to be in the world."
Christylez Bacon spoke with NPR's David Greene about learning rhythm as a bucket drummer, collaborating on a Grammy-nominated album and his newest release, Hip Hop Unplugged. Hear more at the audio link.
It's taken several years, but in many parts of the country, home prices are nearly back to where they were at the peak. In places like Florida, where the housing recession hit hard, home prices rose last year by one-fifth or more.
A major factor in the price rise is hedge funds, private equity firms and other large investors. They've moved aggressively into the residential market over the last two years, buying tens of thousands of distressed properties, often at bargain prices.
Some analysts are worried those bulk purchases will leave middle-class buyers out in the cold.
One place investors have been very active is Florida's Palm Beach County. Jeff Lichtenstein is a real estate agent there and he's busy. He's listing and selling homes at a pace reminiscent of the go-go days of the last real estate boom back in 2005 and 2006. "I have 19 or 20 under contract right now, which is the most I've had at any given time," he says.
Lichtenstein is currently showing a home he has listed in PGA National, a resort and residential development with more than 5,000 homes. It's a community of palm trees, lakes, golf courses and manicured lawns.
"This was built in '92 or '93. Three bedrooms, three baths," he explains as he shows off the house, which has a back patio looking out onto a golf course. "The view is what people come here to Florida for."
The home is listed for $499,000, a bit below what it would have sold for at the peak, Lichtenstein says. But in Florida, Arizona, Las Vegas and parts of California, prices are rising fast. In South Florida, home prices climbed 21 percent last year.
Big-Money Investors, Buying To Rent
Homes, especially foreclosures and short sales, are being snapped up as soon as they go on the market, mostly by large investment groups. Companies like the Blackstone Group, Colony Capital and Starwood Property Trust have spent billions over the past two years buying homes across the country and putting them on the rental market.
It's a buying frenzy that was just getting underway when, in 2012, famed investor Warren Buffett said on CNBC, "If I had a way of buying a couple hundred-thousand single-family homes and had a way of managing [them] ... I would load up on them. And I would take mortgages out at very, very low rates."
Since then, that's exactly what dozens of investment groups, big and small, have done. But as prices have risen and foreclosures have slowed, there are fewer bargains out there. Some investors are cutting back on their buying.
One still in the market is Chip Bryan of reBOUND Residential, a company that's bought nearly 200 homes in South Florida.
As investor groups go, Bryan's company is tiny. But it operates much like the big guys: Buy homes at a discount. Rent them out for a good return until prices rise. And then sell when the time is right.
Bryan says that, after going through foreclosures, many former homeowners now find themselves renting in their old neighborhoods. Once their credit improves, Bryan expects they'll be looking to buy.
"That's kind of the pattern we see," he says. "So, everybody that was a displaced homeowner as a result of foreclosure is most likely a renter — and most likely is going to be a buyer again at some point."
Outbidding The Competition
Up to now, the main downside to all the investor activity has been that individual homebuyers have largely been left out. With tight credit, many prospective buyers have found mortgages hard to come by. And when a bargain is on the block, cash buyers are usually the winners.
Jack McCabe, an independent real estate consultant, has worked with some of these investment groups. He says he's seen many cases where they outbid the competition by paying more than the asking price, in some cases 25 to 50 percent more.
"You ask yourself, 'Why would these smart financial guys be overpaying for things?' " he says. "I believe it's to bolster the market, to shut out their competition and to realize as much profit as they can in as short a period of time as they can."
Some analysts worry that the big investors have artificially inflated prices, making them too steep for middle-class wage earners. McCabe says a recent federal housing report shows South Florida is already becoming unaffordable.
"We have about 30 percent of our population that's already paying 50 percent of their income or more, just for their housing expenses," he says. "When people start having a hard time deciding whether to make a mortgage payment, buy their medicine or put food on the table, that's when you have a troubled market."
And it raises a question — when the hedge funds and other investors are ready to sell, who will their buyers be?