Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 20th, 2012

Extremely cool: Crowdsourcing transparency

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This is so cool I can’t believe it. Someone needs to set up—there must be free platforms for this—groups that can work cooperatively on a single station, with each group’s progress rates posted for all groups to see (healthful competition). That in itself would attract attention, which would lead to more joining…

Daniel Victor in ProPublica:

Every local broadcast station has a repository of documents about political advertising that you have a legal right to see but can do so only by going to the station and asking to see “the public file.”

These paper files contain detailed data on all ads that run on the channel, such as when they aired, who bought the time and how much they paid. It’s a transparency gold mine, allowing the public to see how campaigns and outside groups are influencing elections.

But TV executives have been fighting a Federal Communications Commission proposal to make the data accessible online. They say making the files digital would be too burdensome — it “could well take hundreds of hours for a single station,” according to comments filed with the FCC by the National Association of Broadcasters.

Others have taken their case a step further. As reported by Bloomberg Government, Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, said in an another FCC filing that online availability “would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government.” (NPR’s On the Media did an excellent segment recently on broadcasters’ opposition to the proposal.)

We tend to like the idea of public data being online. Since TV stations won’t put it online themselves, we decided to do it ourselves — and we want your help.

Working with students at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University, we looked at five local stations in the Chicago market.

You can explore the results yourself: Here are detailed breakdowns of when the ads aired, during which programs, and how much each spot cost. See the documents from the local affiliates of ABCNBCCBSFOX and CW.

Big thanks to Medill students David Tonyan, Julie O’Donoghue, Vesko Cholakov, Safiya Merchant and Gideon Resnick, who visited the stations Monday.

We intend to enlist more readers in checking their local stations as the election campaigns slog on. The general election is likely to usher in even greater spending, and such spot checks could keep an eye on how big spenders are influencing the election. If you’d like to join in, please fill out this form.

Campaigns and super PACs are required to report their spending on independent expenditures to the Federal Election Commission within a day or two, but they often just report how much they paid ad-buying firms, which can disguise how much actual ads cost and where they’re airing.

What’s more, the files could be a window into what may be otherwise undisclosed spending by “dark money” nonprofit groups that are playing an increasing role in the elections .

For our experiment, we asked our Chicago volunteers to . . .

Continue reading. You can bet that the industry executives don’t want this information made truly public: our overlords and masters think it unwise for their machinations and minions to become too visible. They will fight this one hard: when their controls are visible, they’re less effective as controls (and more provocative of questions—and authority hates questions).

Man! Would this ever make a terrific high school semester-long (or year-long or on-going) project for a civics class: something done a little each week, on the side, with periodic reports of what’s being found there (by the class) and in the region (through the group-progress software/sharing/forum/thingie).

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 2:17 pm

When the test fails

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Lena Groeger reports in ProPublica:

The aftermath of last week’s killing of 16 Afghans has prompted a flurry of speculation into the mind of 38-year old U.S. combat staff sergeant Robert Bales. In particular, the injuries to it.

Traumatic brain injuries are so common among today’s troops that the military has spent over $42 million for a test to detect them, a test that Bales most likely took before his final deployment to Afghanistan. The problem is, that test has failed miserably.

More than a million soldiers have taken the 20 minute computerized test, known as the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, or ANAM test. But as we reported last year in a ProPublica investigation, the test has been heavily criticized as an ineffective tool to detect brain injuries.

Many news outlets, including the New York Times, have cited military officials saying Bales was treated for a traumatic brain injury during his past deployments in Iraq. Bales was reportedly injured in Iraq when his vehicle rolled over. The Army Medical Command would not comment on any specifics of Bales’ medical history or testing, but spokeswoman Maria Tolleson said that Joint Base Lewis McChord, where Bales was stationed, was fully operational with the ANAM testing program.

“It would be expected that a deploying Army service member from that base would have a pre-deployment cognitive baseline completed,” said Tolleson.

Problems have plagued the test since its introduction. Critics charge the military chose the test through a biased selection process and then ignored years of warnings that the test was fraught with problems. They also say the military has not administered the test properly.

Soldiers are meant to take the test twice – once before deployment and then again after a suspected head injury. Soldiers must answer a series of questions that score basic thinking abilities such as reaction time, short-term memory and learning speed. In theory, the initial test serves as a baseline to compare the results of the second test; a discrepancy signals a possible injury and the need for more evaluation.

But the test – which a former Army surgeon general has called no better than a “coin flip” – is rarely implemented that way. The Army was so unconvinced of the test’s accuracy that it issued an order not to send soldiers with a troublesome score for further medical evaluation.

While there is no scientific consensus on the best test for traumatic brain injuries, alternatives do exist. . .

Continue reading. The military will, of course, try to conceal the problem and deny everything, and then when it does come out, the military will use all its power to punish, persecute, and prosecute the person(s) who leaked the information and, for the military’s own failure, punish the lowest-ranking person in sight, preferably not an officer. (Cf. every military scandal previously exposed.)

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 2:09 pm

Successful outing

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I’m still getting accustomed to being mobile again, so an outing still is more fun than usual. A haircut, at long last (schedule interrupted by surgeries and recoveries), and an excellent one. (I got to Supercuts.) And I discovered that I’m at panic weight once more—a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia along the way contributed, no doubt—so I successfully resisted several food temptations: first, no sushi lunch. Then, at Whole Foods, I thought about Cherry Garcia, but easily rejected that. Had a bit more trouble rejecting a quiche, but as I thought about eating it, I realized how it would be delicious but completely unsatisfying: my appetite was not really for food but comfort, so I would enjoy the taste, be uncomfortably full, and then regret eating it because I would still not have satisfied the craving—though clearly cold, soft, smooth food is somehow attractive right now.

So my treat instead is a whole Spanish mackerel, which I’m steaming as we speak: protein for lunch and for dinner. I also got some veg and will cook the chard, I think, for the greens, with some chopped veg (a leek, garlic, jalapeño) that I’ll sauté with some leftover rice.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food

Iran: March of Folly Redux

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Another post by James Fallows that’s well worth reading: Israel’s leadership now seems convinced that an attack on Iran will go well. (Like Cheney’s saying that the US can invade Iraq and be “welcomed as liberators.”)

This one’s important: the US may be dragged into a war that could grow ominously large.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 10:26 am

Posted in Mideast Conflict

Getting organized despite technology

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Very interesting article in the NY Times by David Allen, the Getting Things Done guru:

HOW do you think most workers would respond if you asked them, “Do you feel more productive now than you did several years ago?” I doubt that the answer would be a resounding yes. In fact, even as workplace technology and processes steadily improve, many professionals feel less productive than ever.

It may seem a paradox, but these very tools are undermining our ability to get work done. They are causing us to become paralyzed by the dizzying number of options that they spawn.

Is there a way out of this quandary? Yes, but it’s not going to come from the usual quarters. To be successful in the new world of work, we need to create a structure for capturing, clarifying and organizing all the forces that assail us; and to ensure time and space for thinking, reflecting and decision making.

Most professionals are still using their subjective, internal mental worlds to try to keep it all together, but that’s a poor way to navigate the new work environment. It results in unclear, distracted and disorganized thinking, and leaves frustration, stress and undermined self-confidence in its wake.

Workers need a set of best practices that is sorely lacking in the professional world. Without it, we are seeing a growing angst — even a sense of desperation — in the workplace, as more employees feel that there is no rest and no way out. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see resurging interest in Sartre’s books and Beckett’s plays as a result.)

These are the kinds of comments I hear in my work as a consultant:

• “I’m overwhelmed, and with all the changes going on here, it’s getting worse. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do my job.”

• “I have new responsibilities that demand creative and strategic thought, but I’m not getting to them.”

• “I have too many meetings to attend, and I can’t get any ‘real’ work done.”

• “I have too many e-mails, and, given day-to-day urgencies, the backlog keeps growing.”

• “I feel like I’m not giving the right amount of attention to what’s most important.”

And here’s a common kicker, for those willing to admit it:

“I just can’t keep going like this.”

One could argue that these kinds of complaints are as old as work itself, and that no matter how productive we are, we’ll always find something to grumble about. That’s human nature. But a closer examination of these grievances reveals that they all relate to a sense of suboptimal performance. The core message is, “I don’t feel good about what I’m not getting done.”

TO better understand the realities of the accelerated work world, it helps to remember how far we have come. Imagine if you didn’t have a spreadsheet on your computer: How much effort would you need to produce the computations you can now perform in minutes?

Fifty years ago, how many hours would you have spent wandering library stacks and poring over volumes of materials to find information you can now get in a few moments online?

When there was no next-day delivery, e-mail or Web conferencing, how much energy would you expend traveling to meetings to discuss issues, make decisions and produce results now accomplished in short order, with people all around the world?

Productivity gains have not been limited to technology and transportation. Over time, better understanding of business processes has allowed companies to accomplish more with less effort and resources, and with more focus on quality, creativity and innovation. And support for workers’ satisfaction continues to spread, in forms like flexible schedules, more comfortable office space, and a range of professional and personal development programs.

Today, we really do live in a much cooler world in which to work, travel and communicate. So if we’re getting so much more bang for the buck, with this exponential leap forward in technology and support, why aren’t we reaping the benefits of productivity day to day as individuals?

The problem is that better overall productivity in an organization may not translate into increased productivity for an individual worker. . .

Continue reading. His book is quite useful—along with the venerable Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. (Here’s a useful guide (PDF) to the latter.)

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 10:22 am

Posted in Books, Business, Daily life

Seven brilliant lectures by Richard Feynman

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Richard Feynman was an amazing guy. I’ve read several books about him, and TYD just recenty sent me a link to seven brilliant lectures on physics that he gave—well worth your viewing. (The Older Grandson will love these.)

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 10:14 am

Posted in Education, Science, Video

More signs of the decline of the US

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One mark of failing governments is that they are rotted through with corruption—much like the Federal and state governments in the US. The editors of the NY Times comment on the situation in an editorial this morning:

State governments have long been accused of backroom dealing, cozy relationships with moneyed lobbyists, and disconnection from ordinary citizens. A new study suggests those accusations barely scratch the surface.

The study, issued Monday by a consortium led by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, found that most states shy away from public scrutiny, fail to enact or enforce ethics laws, and allow corporations and the wealthy a dominant voice in elections and policy decisions. The study gave virtually every state a mediocre to poor grade on a wide range of government conduct, including ethics enforcement, transparency, auditing and campaign finance reform. No state got an A; five received B’s, and the rest grades of C, D or F.

For all the reform talk by many governors and state lawmakers, very little has really changed in most capitals over the decades. Budgeting is still done behind closed doors, and spending decisions are revealed to the public at the last minute. Ethics panels do not bother to meet, or never enforce the conflict-of-interest laws that are on the books. Lobbyists have free access to elected officials, plying them with gifts or big campaign contributions. Open-records acts are shot through with loopholes.

And yet all the Republican presidential candidates think it would be a good idea to hand some of Washington’s most important programs to state governments, which so often combine corruptibility with incompetence. In a speech on Monday, Mitt Romney said he would dump onto the states most federal anti-poverty programs, including Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance, because states know best what their local needs are.

States, however, generally have a poor record of taking care of their neediest citizens, and could not be relied on to maintain lifeline programs like food stamps if Washington just wrote them checks and stopped paying attention. In many states, newspapers and broadcasters have cut their statehouse coverage, reducing scrutiny of government’s effectiveness and integrity.

The new study shows that several of the states doing the best anti-corruption work had to endure years of scandal to get there. The state with the best grade (B+) was New Jersey, which may be surprising considering its reputation for cronyism and payoffs. In 2005, however, after years of embarrassing scandals, the state passed some of the toughest ethics laws in the country. Lobbyist gifts are prohibited, state contractors cannot give to campaigns, ethics training is mandatory for state employees and an ethics board has real power to enforce the laws.

New Jersey still has problems, including lax financial disclosure laws and no ban on lawmakers’ holding two public jobs, but it is doing much better than New York, which got a D. There is little enforcement in Albany of campaign finance limits, and the final budget process is done in secret. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new ethics commission is filled with many loyal to him and the Legislature and is still untested.

At the bottom of the heap was . . .

Continue reading. And don’t think the military is one bit better. The Army is taking its cues from Obama on how to treat people who expose waste, corruption, and incompetence: attack them with everything you have and, if possible, put them in prison. That will teach them the cost of exposing wrongdoing! Good old Obama. And good old Army, always so quick to talk about “honor” and “duty,” though not so quick as to attack those who speak out. Marisa Taylor reports for McClatchy:

The military’s embattled crime lab is trying to fire an outspoken whistleblower who’s spotlighted its problems.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory warned its firearms branch chief, Donald Mikko, in a memo of its plans to fire him, in part for talking to a McClatchy reporter.

As part of an internal investigation, Mikko was interrogated for about four hours and questioned about his contacts with McClatchy, according to his attorney Peter Lown. The Army Criminal Investigation Command, which oversees the lab, launched the inquiry after McClatchy published a story late last year about the lab losing evidence.

McClatchy has written more than a dozen stories about the lab since last March, which included details of the misconduct of two former analysts who made serious errors during DNA and firearms testing and who later were found to have falsified and destroyed documents when confronted with the problems.

As a result of McClatchy’s articles, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s top-ranking Republican member, urged the military to look into the lab’s handling of the misconduct by one of the analysts. An investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general is ongoing.

“The Army is looking for a scapegoat to blame for the recent adverse media reports,” Lown said.

The Criminal Investigation Command, abbreviated as CID, says it’s never targeted anyone for talking to the news media, and it’s asserted that McClatchy’s series of stories has overblown isolated mistakes and misconduct that shouldn’t reflect on the lab’s overall reputation.

Mikko’s potential firing would come as his division is expected to take up the analysis of evidence in the killings of 16 Afghan civilians last week, allegedly by a U.S. soldier. The lab analyzes evidence in about 3,000 criminal cases a year.

“It seems more than a bit ironic,” Lown said. “The guy they are firing is one of the most respected firearms examiners in the world, with over 22 years of experience.” . . .

Continue reading. But I don’t see the irony: the Army clearly is not very concern about competency, but it hates anyone who exposes its problems. (Cf. Roman Catholic church hierarchy for a similar example.) It’s almost impossible to keep hierarchical organizations free of corruption: power corrupts, as Lord Acton observed, and the whole idea of a hierarchy is to concentrate power as you move up the pyramid of the hierarchy: sooner or later the power available starts corrupting people, with some unfortunate positive feedback: people corrupted by the power they have will misuse that power without hesitation in order to gain more power, which corrupts them further, etc. Power addicts fall apart as badly as meth addicts, though with better teeth.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 10:04 am

A review of Pagels’s new book on Revelations

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I have a hold on the book already at the local library. I have my own copy of The Gnostic Gospels, absolutely fascinating. This new book sounds very good in this NY Times review by Dwight Garner:

How well should a historian write? That’s a complicated question, but it’s hard to disagree with George Orwell, who thought that any exemplary book should not only be an intellectual but “also an aesthetic experience.”

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, possesses a calm, sane, supple voice. It’s among the reasons readers have stuck with her over a nearly four-decade career, often on hikes through arduous territory, like her commentary on ancient Christian works that were banned from the Bible. She’s America’s finest close reader of apocrypha.

Ms. Pagels is best known for “The Gnostic Gospels” (1979), which won a National Book Award and was named one of the best 100 English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century by the Modern Library. That book spawned a million biblical conspiracy theories, as well as “The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown’s hyperventilating novel. Few seem to hold that against her.

The cool authority of Ms. Pagels’s voice serves her almost too well in her new volume, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.” She surveys this most savage and peculiar book of the New Testament — an ancient text that is nonetheless, as the novelist Will Self has put it, “the stuff of modern, psychotic nightmares” — as if she were touring the contents of an English garden. She’s as unruffled as the heroine of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” who declared in one of that excellent television show’s best episodes: “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”

Her “Revelations” is a slim book that packs in dense layers of scholarship and meaning. The Book of Revelation, attributed by the author to John of Patmos, is the last book in the New Testament and the only one that’s apocalyptic rather than historical or morally proscriptive. It’s a sensorium of dreams and nightmares, of beasts and dragons. It contains prophecies of divine judgment upon the wicked and has terrified motel-room browsers of the Gideon Bible for decades.

Ms. Pagels places the book in the context of what she calls “wartime literature.” John had very likely witnessed the skirmishes in 66 C.E. when militant Jews, aflame with religious fervor, prepared to wage war against Rome both for its decadence and its occupation of Judea. She deepens her assessment of the Book of Revelation by opening with a troubled personal note. “I began this writing during a time of war,” she says, “when some who advocated war claimed to find its meaning in Revelation.”

Because he feared reprisals John wrote this condemnation of Rome in florid code. He “vividly evokes the horror of the Jewish war against Rome,” Ms. Pagels writes. “Just as the poet Marianne Moore says that poems are ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,’ John’s visions and monsters are meant to embody actual beings and events.” For example, most scholars now agree, she says, that the “number of the beast,” 666, spells out Emperor Nero’s imperial name. . .

Continue reading. Sounds fascinating. I would imagine this will top best-seller lists given the current fervency of Bible-oriented Christians.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 9:52 am

Posted in Books, Religion

Superb shave: One of the extra-smooth ones

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One of those shaves where everything comes together. I used the Veleiro pre-shave soap, whose earthy fragrance I like a lot, and then worked up a creamy lather almost immediately using the G.B. Kent BK4 brush, a long-time favorite and little brother to the BK8 shown in the cover photo of the book. (I decided that I liked the BK4 better for face-lathering, my normal practice.)

Mitchell’s Wool Fat shaving soap is finicky with hard water apparently, but almost immediately produces a lush lather if the water’s reasonably soft. My Weber has the new Weber handle that he just released, and it really makes a terrific little razor. I’m partial to the shorter handle, and the heft and diameter of this one make it quite comfortable. The head with the DLC does glide nicely over the skin. The blade is a much-used Feather, still going strong (I imagine good prep extends blade life).

Three very smooth passes, a splash of Pashana, and today I’m walking downtown to get a haircut: I have to get some physical exercise.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2012 at 9:48 am

Posted in Shaving

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