Saturday, December 28, 2013

UPDATED: Obama's ties to the Gulen movement and the future of U.S.-Turkey relations

Yesterday, I noted the links between a charter school system connected to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and a U.S.-based religious figure credited for Turkey's recent political scandal, Fethullah Gulen.

As it turns out, there's a vast array of blogs and websites dedicated to tracking the Gulen movement's educational activities.

One, Charter School Scandals, has an incredibly exhaustive compilation. Another one, C.A.S.I.L.I.P.S, compiled trips made by U.S. Congress members between 2007 and 2011. Max Rust from the Sun-Times even made an infographic tracking state legislator trips overseas, and it turns out most of them went to Turkey.

In my piece, I also noted the awkward position that the Erdogan-Gulen fallout puts the Obama administration right now:
But there is one person definitely standing in between Madigan and Erdogan: President Barack Obama. In fact, both of these parallel Gulen dramas in Chicago and Istanbul may put the Obama Administration in a tight spot.

Part of the corruption probe revealed that between March 2012 and July 2013, the state bank Halkbank had subverted Iranian sanctions by allowing the country to buy gold with Turkish currency in return for natural gas and oil. Against US diplomats' wishes, pro-government newspapers put Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. on their front pages while the Turkish foreign minister called for Secretary of State John Kerry to banish him from the country.

This is all while the previously cooperative Obama and Erdogan administrations continue to clash over Syria, Kurdish Iraq and Egypt.

Meanwhile, turning the federal Gulen lens towards Chicago may potentially embarrass Madigan, "the King of Illinois" and one of the most powerful members of the Democratic Party, along with any other major Illinois Democrat with connections to both charter school support and Gulen. It could also draw further scrutiny to the president's own support for charter schools at a time when the party is debating the future of its economic platform.
Obama himself visited with students from the Gulen-linked K-8 Pinnacle Academy during the White House Science Fair on October 18, 2010. Additionally, White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships member Dalia Mogahed has praised the Gulen movement.

Interestingly, a leaked 2009 cable from then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffery, summarized Gulen's influence across the country and perceived role in crackdowns against pro-secular, anti-Islamist forces within the country. He concluded the cable with a recommendation for U.S. policy:
Given the current AKP-secularist schism in Turkey today, it should not be surprising that any Islamist movement in Turkey would choose to be circumspect about its intentions. Unfortunately, this simply feeds the reflexive tendency in Turkish society for conspiracy theories, and magnifies suspicions about the Gulen movement itself. While the purported Gulen goals of interfaith dialogue and tolerance are beyond reproach, we see aspects of concern in the allegations that the USG is somehow behind the Gulen movement. Accordingly, we would recommend the following standard press guidance: Q: Why is the U.S. sheltering Fethullah Gulen and doesn't this mean that the US is promoting a non-secular Turkey? A: -- The U.S. is not "sheltering" Mr. Gulen and his presence in the U.S. is not based on any political decision. -- Mr. Gulen applied for, and received, permanent residence in the U.S. after a lengthy process which ended in 2008 when a Federal Court ruled that he deserved to be viewed as an "alien of extraordinary ability" based on his extensive writings and his leadership of a worldwide religious organization. -- As a Green Card holder, Mr. Gulen is entitled to all the privileges which that status entails. His presence in the U.S. should not be viewed as a reflection of US policy toward Turkey.
On Christmas, Al-Monitor published an interview with Nedim Sener, a Turkish journalist jailed during his investigations of Gulen:
In that light, Sener draws attention to the very fact that the prime minister’s camp knows very well in which occupations and state institutions these Gulen movement members are. “They’re not searching for them with a torch in the darkness and trying to figure out who is from the Cemaat or not. They know very well who is who. They brought them into power in these occupations. And it is easy for the government now to dismiss them. That is why Fethullah Gulen lost control in his latest address to his followers and literally cursed on the Erdogan government,” he told Al-Monitor.

“I certainly don’t believe in the Cemaat’s sincerity in the fight against corruption. Since the day the Erdogan government came into power, there has been corruption. I personally reported them. ... There was, for example, the Deniz Feneri charity [where part of 41 million euros ($56 million) collected for charity from Turks living abroad was used outside its purpose]. The government dismissed those judges who tried to unearth this corruption, and the Cemaat did not express a thing about it then. Why have they become sensitive on corruption today but they were not yesterday! Turkey is not facing corruption charges for the first time. Therefore, we also need to question the Cemaat’s motivation in this setting, as well.”
Juan Cole's analysis of the ongoing Turkish scandal and underlying schism has a great analogy for the Gulen-Erdogan relationship:
More recently, Erdogan moved against his Muslim ally, Fethullah Gulen, deciding to close the private Muslim prep schools run by the Gulen movement. The Gulen movement has a strong corporate identity and had been an important constituency for the Justice and Development Party. (You could make a loose analogy to the role of the evangelicals in the American Republican Party. Many in the GOP are not evangelicals, but the latter have become important and are responsible for some of they party’s electoral successes.
Erdogan's political future remains to be seen. But as most of the Gulen movement's U.S. expansion occurred during its allegiance with the AKP, and given the movement's numerous bipartsian ties at all levels of American government, the future of U.S.-Turkish relations remain to be seen as well.

Update: Sharon Higgins, a founding member of Parents Across America who has written extensively about the Gulen movement's charter schools, pointed me to another C.A.S.I.L.I.P.S compilation of Gulenist-tied organizations and individuals who have donated to Obama.
Giving these massive Gulen Movement-associated campaign donations, will Obama or his staff be able to objectively consider the many concerns about abuses in the nationwide chain of Gulen charter schools? Charter schools are now receiving substantial grants from the federal government; for example, on Dec 28, 2012, an award letter was sent to Harmony Public Schools, a large chain of Gulen charter schools in Texas, informing them that they were to receive a Race to the Top grant in the amount of $29,866,398.00. This award is surprising in view of a front-page over-the-fold story in the New York Times in 2011 detailing related-party deals (some in the millions) in the Harmony school network, and also given the general controversy over Harmony's affiliation - and continued public denial of its affiliation - with the Gulen Movement. 
We sincerely hope that President Obama and his staff will see past campaign contributions, and make decisions based on the overall good of our nation.
Here's a fact sheet she also wrote about Gulen-linked Concept Schools Inc. that is operating in Chicago, that spells out further connections with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Update #2: Here are videos of U.S. Secretary of Education (and former Chicago Public Schools CEO) Arne Duncan accepting a 2007 Niagara Peace and Dialogue Award and 2010 RUMI Peace and Dialogue Award.

Interestingly, the 2007 award was also given to former Chicago Police Department Superintendent Philip J. Cline, DePaul University President Dennis H. Holtschneider, former Chicago State University President Elnora D. Daniel (who resigned in 2008 after using school money to publish a book about herself), and former NBC5 Chicago President and General Manager Larry Wert - now the President of Broadcast Media at the Tribune Company.

The Niagara Foundation video concludes with words for Gulen himself:
Such people who use their skills in speech, writing, art, poetry, music...towards extending a hand of dialogue to everyone are worth praise and award.
Something tells me he won't be recognizing Nedim Sener anytime soon.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

China, California, South Sudan (link round-up 12/23/13)

Latinos will outnumber white, non-Hispanics in California by 2014
The demographic landscape was not always a game of catch up. Fifteen year ago, the white non-Hispanic population outnumbered Latinos by about five million. Over the years, the Latino population increased through birth and immigration while the white population decreased through lower birth rates and people moving out of the state. Now, Latinos will reach a population of 15 million individuals, equivalent to the existing 15 million white non-Hispanics.

Although the Latino population has reached parity with the white non-Hispanic population, Latinos lag on income compared to their white cohorts. The median household income for Latinos was $44,300 in 2011 while the same measure for white non-Hispanics was $67,000. Latinos make up about 60 percent of low-wage laborers in California. Still, the community is changing rapidly.

Second-generation Latinos tend to experience greater upward mobility and to earn higher incomes. Meanwhile, immigrant youths are steadily closing the educational achievement gap.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel travels to China to promote Chicago
According to his public schedule, he's set deliver remarks at Tsinghua University in Beijing on Monday morning and later at a Choose Chicago luncheon. He's also set to address the minister of commerce, vice mayors and leaders of several major Chinese cities to sign an agreement related to trade with Chicago.

City officials did not immediately provide more details of his trip.
How the Federal Reserve was formed 100 years ago 
The U.S. financial system needed remaking. The United States had a long but less than illustrious history with central banking. Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary, believed a national bank would stabilize the new government’s shaky credit and support a stronger economy — and was an absolute necessity to exercise the new republic’s constitutional powers.

But Hamilton’s proposal faced opposition, particularly in the agricultural South, where lawmakers believed a central bank would primarily benefit the mercantile North, with its large commercial centers of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. “What was it drove our forefathers to this country?” said James “Left Eye” Jackson, a fiery little congressman from Georgia. “Was it not the ecclesiastical corporations and perpetual monopolies of England and Scotland? Shall we suffer the same evils to exist in this country?” Some founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, believed that the bank was unconstitutional.

By 1811, Madison was in the White House. The Bank of the United States closed down. Until, at least, Madison realized how hard it was to fight the War of 1812 without a national bank to fund the government. The Second Bank of the United States was founded in 1816. It lasted a little longer — until it crashed against the same distrust of centralized financial authority that undermined the first. The populist Andrew Jackson managed its demise in 1836. 
Fears grow of civil war in South Sudan as rebels seize town
Clashes between rival groups of soldiers in the capital Juba a week ago have spread across the country, which won its independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war.

President Salva Kiir, from South Sudan's Dinka ethnic group, has accused Machar, a Nuer whom he dismissed in July, of trying to launch a coup. The two men have long been political rivals.

Machar dismissed the charge but has since said he is commanding troops fighting the government.
Interactive: How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk
Most of the questions used in this quiz are based on those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project begun in 2002 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. The original questions and results for that survey can be found on Dr. Vaux's current website.

The data for the quiz and maps shown here come from over 350,000 survey responses collected from August to October 2013 by Josh Katz, a graphics editor for the New York Times who developed this quiz. The colors on the large heat map correspond to the probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did. The three smaller maps show which answer most contributed to those cities being named the most (or least) similar to you.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kanye West and Miley Cyrus: keeping Michael Jordan and Bulls nostalgia on top of the rap game

Last night, Kanye West performed at Chicago's United Center, the home of the Chicago Bulls (and Blackhawks).

During the show, he debuted a song in which he auto-tune sang/rapped about why the Chicago Bulls never should have let twice-retired Michael Jordan come back to play for the Washington Wizards:


Two months ago, I wrote about the Mike Will Made It/Miley Cyrus video for "23" - which is effectively a commercial for Nike Air Jordans:

In the Gapers Block piece, I noted how the timing of the video release seemed suspiciously close to the relaunch of the Adidas Derrick Rose shoe line.

Incidentally, Kanye West knows a thing or two about Bulls superstar-friendly shoe brands - he just left Nike for Adidas:
The sneaker endorsement arms race has officially reached a new level. Yesterday, after rapper Kanye West revealed he was leaving Nike to sign with Adidas , rival Drake told fans at a concert in Portland he was joining Nike’s famed Jordan brand. The announcements signal an escalation in the continued battle between the two sportswear giants to acquire celebrity co-signs for their most valuable product lines.

Rumors swirled over the last few weeks of Kanye’s imminent departure from Nike due to the brand’s refusal to give the rapper creative control over his Air Yeezy product line and pay him royalties as part of his compensation package. During an appearance on Hot 97 last week, Kanye explained that during negotiations, he told Nike, ”‘I need royalties.’ It’s not even like I have a joint venture. At least give me some royalties. Michael Jordan has 5% and that business is $2 billion. He makes a 100 million dollars a year off of 5% royalties. Nike told me, ‘We can’t give you royalties because you’re not a professional athlete.’ I told them, ‘I go to the Garden and play one-on-no one. I’m a performance athlete.’”
Drake's addition to the Jordan brand comes after becoming the global ambassador for the Toronto Raptors - a team Michael Jordan never played for.

In related news, my roommate is now the proud owner of a signed Joakim Noah jersey and three signed basketballs. Too bad the Bulls lost 95-

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

NSA, Bitcoins, and Chicago heroin (link round-up 12/18/13)

Let's play compare and contrast:

Snowden: NSA’s indiscriminate spying ‘collapsing’
The documents revealed Brazil is the top NSA target in Latin America, with spying that has included the monitoring of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s cellphone and hacking into the internal network of state-run oil company Petrobras.

The revelations enraged Rousseff, who in October canceled an official visit to Washington that was to include a state dinner. She’s also pushing the United Nations to give citizens more protections against spying.

In his letter, Snowden dismissed U.S. explanations to the Brazilian government and others that the bulk of metadata gathered on billions of emails and calls was more “data collection” than surveillance.

“There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying ... and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever,” he wrote. “These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
Merkel compared NSA to Stasi in heated encounter with Obama
Livid after learning from Der Spiegel magazine that the Americans were listening in to her personal mobile phone, Merkel confronted Obama with the accusation: "This is like the Stasi."

The newspaper also reported that Merkel was particularly angry that, based on the disclosures, "the NSA clearly couldn't be trusted with private information, because they let Snowden clean them out."

Snowden is to testify on the NSA scandal to a European parliament inquiry next month, to the anger of Washington which is pressuring the EU to stop the testimony.

In Brussels, the chairman of the US House select committee on intelligence, Mike Rogers, a Republican, said his views on the invitation to Snowden were "not fit to print" and that it was "not a great idea".
Chicago Bitcoin kiosk to be up by spring, local entrepreneur hopes
Gatz said he wants Windy City Bitcoins to be the "guinea pig" that brings Chicago into the bitcoin landscape. But while Robocoin's proprietary software will be compliant with federal regulations, state policies on bitcoin-to-cash exchanges range from murky to nonexistent across the U.S.

That's the case in Illinois, too.

Sue Hofer, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said Gatz is right that state regulation's haven't yet caught up with technology.

"It's something we've been looking at," Hofer said. "Our transmission of money and our ATM laws are both in need of some review as technologies change. And depending on how he sets it up, it could be an ATM, it could be a currency exchange matter, and none of those laws were written in the 21st century."

As for bitcoin-related state policy as a whole, Hofer said it is "on our radar, but we do not have new regulations about how it could work in Illinois."
Bitcoin plummets as China's largest exchange blocks new deposits
The price of bitcoin has plummeted following an announcement from China's largest bitcoin exchange that it would no longer be accepting new yuan deposits.

BTC China said that due to action by a third-party payment provider, YeePay, it could no longer accept deposits in the Chinese currency, although it would still be able to process withdrawals. BTC's chief executive, Bobby Lee, said that YeePay gave notice on Wednesday morning Shanghai time that it would no longer provide services.

Lee blamed government regulation for the decision. China's central bank warned in early December that bitcoin was not legally protected and had no "real meaning", and barred financial institutions from using the currency.

On Tuesday, the central bank extended that ban to payment companies like YeePay, and gave them until Chinese New Year, which begins on 31 January, to comply.
How heroin—and dealers—moved from Chicago to eastern Iowa
"I must say it was a surprise after leaving Chicago," she says. "In Chicago, they're on the streets hollering for you. There, it was word of mouth. You know, when you do that, you can tell when [other] people have done it. You say, where did you get that?"

Authorities say the heroin trade in Waterloo was controlled at that time by Appling and several underlings, most of them originally from Chicago, who saw a business opportunity.

Officials say Appling started out dealing small amounts of heroin himself, then hired others to distribute ever-greater quantities for him. Many of his sellers were users who needed to pay for their habits, and who knew Appling or his family through community ties in Chicago. Two sisters who bought from him had gone to high school with his parents.

Dealing didn't work the same way it did in Chicago. Rather than standing on the corner waiting for customers, heroin sellers met new customers through trusted acquaintances, who were usually paid in drugs for making the referral, known as "middling." Orders were placed by speaking in code or abstraction on phone calls and text messages.
On buying heroin on the South Side of Chicago
Though I was personally very fond of Earvin and he had proven to be an occasionally reliable source—he even managed to score a gram of raw heroin for me for which I paid $170 and which I ended up going through over the course of about 4 hours, after which I awakened in a cold sweat on the floor of my kitchen, a giant bruise on my forehead and a mound of vomit next to my face—my habit was becoming too demanding for a part-time hustler. It was around this time that I was walking along King Dr. one early evening when I was approached by a diminutive kid with Lil Wayne dreads who abruptly said, “I got what you come here for and I don’t fuck around; I wake up early in the morning and will deliver straight to you.” At which point he dropped a sample blow on the ground between us and gave me his phone number. Entering the number in my phone, I asked, “What’s your name?” He responded, “Little Man.”

One hot as fuck late-summer night I had become intolerably frustrated with Earvin and his repeated failures to keep the promises he made. I called Little Man and when he answered the phone I began to explain that I was David, the white dude from Hyde Park, and he cut me off, saying, “I know who this is.” I asked if he would be able to meet me near my apartment and he assented, saying he’d be there in about 15 minutes. Though I would eventually learn that sometimes with Little Man “15 minutes” meant three hours, this first time he arrived promptly. He invited me to sit in the passenger seat of his Dodge Charger and asked what I was looking for. I told him I had $50, which I gave him, and he quickly dropped five blows in my lap. I hurried impatiently to my apartment, knowing instinctively that I would never look to buy dope from Earvin or anyone other than Little Man, if I could help it.
A junkie's guide to Chicago's West Side heroin trade, and its residual criminal aspects
This is how it usually works. The real estate along the blocks that run perpendicular to Pulaski from roughly 30th Street to North Avenue is extremely valuable to drug dealers. Especially valuable are the blocks immediately surrounding certain train stops, most notably the Green Line train stops running along Lake Street. The Pulaski Green Line stop is so hot it sizzles. At any given time, three or four different groups of dealers may be working the intersection of Lake and Pulaski, and the police seem to know it.

Some blocks, like the 4000 block of West Monroe, may not have a permanent presence of dealers. I’ve been told that the shorties on this particular block are especially hated by cliques on other blocks, and that for this reason, there are more guns on the 4000 block of West Monroe than most blocks on the West Side. But if you walk down the street today, it appears to be totally vacant.

The shorties will be there soon. The shorties are the risk-takers. You see them at the more transient dope spots. All it takes is one resident.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on Chicago gang violence
What people who have never lived in these neighborhoods must get, is that, like the crooks, killers, and gangs, the police are another violent force that must be negotiated and dealt with. But unlike the gangs, the violence of the police is the violence of the state, and thus unaccountable to North Lawndale. That people who represent North Lawndale laugh at the idea of handing over more tools of incarceration to law enforcement is unsurprising.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ventra problems hit national media (link round-up 12/17/13)

[via Cubic]

Rick Perlstein: the Municipal-Industrial Complex Around the World
You could enjoy a nice around-the-world tour just traveling to cities where Cubic has screwed up fare collection. Gapers Block documented them: double-charging in Atlanta. Twenty-fold charging in Brisbane, Australia. Miami-Dade’s “Easy Card” system was dubbed “Easy Fraud”: this fall, “a 22-year-old man has stood trial over a a glitch allowing him (and members of a WSVN Channel 7 News team) to load money onto Easy Cards for free.” In San Francisco, “Cubic disclosed it received 38,000 customer service phone calls in August 2011.”

And then Los Angeles: in spite of “nearly consistent one-star reviews on Yelp, Cubic still got a six-year, $545 million contract extension.”

None of this bothered the city fathers of Vancouver, British Columbia, apparently. Their Cubic-built system “Compass” comes fully online this January. A large-scale Beta test, though, has already enraged citizens who realized that buying a fare through the traditional system, which will continue on buses, forced you to pay twice when transferring to trains, which only accept the new cards.

And so Cubic continues to thrive and grow, much to Wall Street’s delight. Wrote security analysts of Cubic’s military subsidiary, “2013 is likely to be a year of flattish revenue and lower earnings owing to tight defense budgets.” But “[t]here is no pure-play publicly traded fare-collection competitors,” so “[w]e see a solid growth story/existing backlog in Transportation,and believe that CUB’s efforts to expand its addressable market…. Scope for smart card penetration in existing U.S. transit systems is another growth lever.”
(See also parts one and two of his series focusing on Cubic and privatization)

Chicago's new smart cards make commuting even harder
Compared to other smart transit systems, Ventra is logging a fairly negative public review. Unlike Ventra, Boston’s contactless electronic CharlieCard system faced no huge bouts of complaints upon implementation in late 2006 and early 2007. In fact, despite minor problems, customers lauded the system.

The MBTA pre-encoded its CharlieCards so they would be ready to go; customers don’t have to fuss with online registration like Ventra. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) also rapidly deployed the cards in a matter of months, whereas the CTA is still trying to fade out old CTA cards four months after Ventra’s introduction. As a result, it had to push back transition deadlines.
May 2011: Cubic employee arrested for selling millions worth of illegally-made Boston transit cards
Since 2007, Andres Townes, 27, of Revere, produced thousands of Charlie Cards worth just under $5 million and sold most them online through Craigslist for a discount, officials said.

“He is charged with what is believed to be the largest scheme of illegally produced passes,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Townes worked for Cubic Transportation Systems of Beverly, which fulfilled online and phone orders for the majority of T monthly passes. As a fulfillment supervisor there, Townes had access to the secure room that houses the machines to produce the cards.

Authorities showed one of the illegal cards he allegedly produced. Its value was $235, but he sold it online for $200, they said.

Because at least hundreds of T riders bought their passes this way, the agency lost potentially millions in revenue. 
Words from a recently-fired Ventra call center employee
Even though the Ventra call center is nestled in a warm little city in San Francisco East Bay Area, December 13 was the coldest day of my life. Not only was I fired for giving out the correct information in that phone call on Dec. 12 (which was also my birthday), but I was also told that it wasn't what I said but my delivery. They said I was bringing bad press to Ventra.

Who fires a person 12 days before Christmas? Who fires a person for doing what they were told to do (provide excellent customer service)? I guess the same company that got an over half-billion dollar contract to make the transit in Chicago more convenient, but which is failing on every respect. Maybe it’s the same company that makes it mandatory that its customer service representatives work six days a week.

Maybe I shouldn't place all the blame on Ventra, maybe I was too tired when I took the call that day. I had been at work for 11 days straight without a day off in between. But I am sure that Ventra customers are not they only ones being let down by this company. I suppose this is just big business.
There's plenty more to write about Cubic, but I'll have to save it for another day.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Billion dollar military waste (again) and public transit profiteering

As I've written before, the U.S. Government - particularly the armed forces - is tremendously skilled at wasting tons of money in the name of national defense.

War profiteering, no-bid contracts, and unaccountable budgets are nothing new, yet they're still a big part of the American Way:
There’s ample evidence that the Pentagon has little idea where billions of taxpayer dollars are going. The five-sided building is awash in corruption and claims that an audit is impossible.

Many examples of waste are relatively unknown. And with the New Year approaching—a time of reflection and account taking—we’ve drawn up a short list of military cautionary tales from the past year.

Remember, this is a short list, and it’s drawn from the projects and stories we know about. A comprehensive litany of Pentagon waste is far, far longer. 
Needless tanks, overpriced battle ships, failed auditing software, and unstable, decayed munitions in storage depots - all to the tune of billions of dollars. Private contractors alone are raking in billions from the Pentagon:
In theory, these contractors are supposed to save taxpayer money, as efficient, bottom-line-oriented corporate behemoths. In reality, they end up costing twice as much as civil servants, according to research by Professor Paul C. Light of New York University and others has shown. Defense contractors like Boeing and Northrop Grumman cost almost three times as much.

Essentially, the federal government operates two contracting systems, separate and unequal. One hires profit-making corporations, the other handles nonprofits.

Washington lavishes taxpayers’ money on for-profits. Many smaller contracting firms making good money for doing relatively little work ring the nation’s capital and are commonly known as Beltway Bandits. Remarkably, some of these enterprises set themselves up with a Bermuda mailbox to escape paying the federal taxes – perhaps most notably Accenture, which runs the IRS website. (Accenture maintains that its structure was not designed to avoid taxes.)
Shockingly, even the defense industry has it's profit limits. Enter Cubic - the company behind military technology, training, and...Chicago's new public transit fare payment system, Ventra.

As The Nation's Rick Perlstein explains, there's a reason an active defense contractor would be investing in fare collection:
Consider another revealing chart in Credit Suisse’s report on Cubic for investors, in the “Sales Growth Outlook” section. It shows “Backlog as % of Forward Two-Year Sales” over a four-year period. That’s a way of describing projected payments in a contract that are guaranteed down the line, but can’t yet be counted as revenue. The chart has three lines. Two of them, for Cubic’s Defense Systems and Mission Support divisions, turn worrisomely south. Like the man said, “The threat of sequestration continues to hang over defense segment funding, and we think Mission Support will be under pressure owing to DoD scrutiny of contractor sources.” But the Transportations Systems line, conversely, shoots promisingly skyward.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

White Jesus, digital NPR, and Greek-Chinese statues (link round-up 12/15/13)

That allegation doesn't sit well with Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who is on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

"What disturbs me is apparently they did not tell the truth to the Congress. The CIA did not tell the truth to the American Congress about Mr. Levinson," McCain said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "If that's true, then you put this on top of things that our intelligence committees didn't know about other activities, which have been revealed by (NSA leaker Edward) Snowden -- maybe it means that we should be examining the oversight role of Congress over our different intelligence agencies."

Iran's government repeatedly has said it is not holding Levinson and does not know his whereabouts. During a September interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was asked what he could tell Levinson's family.

"We don't know where he is, who he is," Rouhani said. "He is an American who has disappeared. We have no news of him."
NPR gets $17 Million in grants to expand coverage and develop digital platform
Almost $10 million of the new funding will go to development of what NPR calls a “seamless local-national listening platform” that will allow listeners to switch smoothly from, say, a clock radio to a web-enabled car.

Some larger public radio stations, as well as NPR, already have mobile apps, but listeners who want to aggregate programs and podcasts from numerous sources often use outside services, such as TuneIn or Stitcher, both of which also include commercial content.

NPR’s new mobile app, which is being developed with six local stations and is expected to go into public testing next year, will wrap together on-demand local and national public radio content to create playlists, partly driven by algorithms and using geo-targeting to pull in local news.

Interactive and shareable, “this app is clearly, we think, going to be very appealing to younger consumers of our content,” said Charles Kravetz, general manager of WBUR-FM in Boston, a pilot partner.
Chinese terracotta warriors inspired by ancient Greek art
"It is perfectly possible and actually likely that the sculptures of the First Emperor are the result of early contact between Greece and China," writes Lukas Nickel, a reader with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in the most recent edition of the journal Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. (A reader is a position comparable to an associate or full professor in the American system.)

Nickel's evidence includes newly translated ancient records that tell a fantastic tale of giant statues that "appeared" in the far west, inspiring the first emperor of China to duplicate them in front of his palace. This story offers evidence of early contact between China and the West, contacts that Nickel says inspired the First Emperor (which is what Qin Shi Huangdi called himself) to not only duplicate the 12 giant statues but to build the massive Terracotta Army along with other life-size sculptures.

Before the First Emperor's time, life-size sculptures were not built in China, and Nickel argues the idea to build so many of them, so suddenly, came from kingdoms in Asia that had been created and influenced by Alexander the Great's campaigns.
The problem with insisting on a white Jesus
The myth of a white Jesus is one with deep roots throughout Christian history. As early as the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance, popular Western artists depicted Jesus as a white man, often with blue eyes and blondish hair. Perhaps fueled by some Biblical verses correlating lightness with purity and righteousness and darkness with sin and evil, these images sought to craft a sterile Son of God.

The only problem was that the representations were historically inaccurate.

Modern Western Christians have carried these images over into their own depictions of Jesus. Pick up a one of those bright blue “Bible Story” books in a Sunday School classroom and you’ll find white Jesus waiting for you, rosy cheeks and all. Or you could survey the light-skinned Jesus in any number of modern TV or film portrayals, including History Channel’s hit series The Bible.

Interestingly, the Bible is far less descriptive on the matter of Jesus’ skin color than we are. Christian scriptures say very little about Jesus’ physical appearance. They do not comment on his nose, eye color, skin pigmentation, or hair. The glaring exception is Isaiah 53:2, which prophesies that the messiah won’t be much to look at, another fact that places the Bible at odds with the “well-groomed surfer-dude Jesus” who's often put forth.
East Libyan separatist rebels refuse to re-open oil fields
The leader of an autonomous movement in eastern Libya has refused to end the blockade of several oil-exporting ports, dashing hopes of ending a months-long standoff with the central government in Tripoli.

Ibrahim Jodhrane, head of the security guards at the ports, said on Sunday that his group's demands for more autonomy in the country's east and a cut of oil shares had not been met. The group is also asking for an investigation into claims of government corruption over oil sales.

"We have failed to reach a deal on these conditions with this [Tripoli] government," Jathran told reporters at his group's home base in Ajdabiya in the eastern part of the country.

"I therefore confirm that we will not reopen the ports for this corrupt government," he said.
Human DNA is hiding a secret, second code: researchers
Since the genetic code was first explained in the 1960s, scientists have thought that it was used entirely for the purpose of writing information about proteins. Scientists at the University of Washington were surprised to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One explains how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell about how genes are controlled. According to scientists, one language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long.

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” remarked John Stamatoyannopoulos, University of Washington associate professor of genome sciences and of medicine, in a news release. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons. The scientists discovered that some codons, which they called duons, can have two meanings, one associated with protein sequence, and one associated with gene management. These two meanings seem to have formed at the same time as each other. The gene control instructions appear to help with the stabilization of some useful features of proteins and how they are made.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Beyonce's "visual album" and Bitcoin Spice Girls (link round-up 12/13/13)

The iTunes exclusive "visual" album, retailing for $15.99 contains 14 tracks -- not available for a la carte purchases until Dec. 20 -- and 14 accompanying videos, along with other bonus video content. As of this morning, no set date has been announced for the CD release to physical retailers or of its availability on other digital download sites.

In just a three-hour sales window (closing at midnight Friday PT), "Beyonce" reportedly sold over 80,000 copies, according to industry sources. It's still too early to judge what the set will do over the full three days left in the sales tracking week (which ends Sunday night), but with prior projected leader, "Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades Of Influences" by Garth Brooks, estimated to shift 150,000-160,000 units, Beyonce is already halfway to that sum. And in the time it would take someone to fly from New York to Miami.
Unlike Snoop Dogg, former Spice Girl selling new music via Bitcoin
Alas, representatives of the singer said it was a joke. The second-half of the tweet kind of gives it away, because while it’s not outlandish to imagine Snoop Dogg embracing bitcoin, it’s hard to imagine his record label has.

But, there is a singer who is planning to accept bitcoin. Who, you ask? Melanie Brown, aka Mel B, aka Scary Spice, who said she will be selling her new song, “For Once in My Life,” on Christmas Day, and will accept bitcoin as payment on her website.
Matthew Yglesias: why it's hard to charge for music
The problem here is one of supply and demand. It's not that people won't pay for Pandora because they don't see any value in Pandora's service. It's that Pandora's paid service has to compete with Pandora's ad-supported service. Pandora could solve that problem by eliminating its ad-supported service, but it's pretty clear that there's a robust market for an ad-supported music-streaming service so then Pandora would need to compete with a new player. Personally, I really do enjoy an ad-free music streaming experience so I have a paid Rdio subscription which works on my computer, on my mobile phone, and on my home Sonos setup.

So good for me. But if I was a teenager with no money or ran into financial difficulty as an adult and needed to cut back, this would be an easy call to chop. Not because music isn't valuable but because the margin of convenience offered by a paid service versus a free one just isn't that big.
Netflix Generation? Americans Love Binge-Watching TV
"Our viewing data shows that the majority of streamers would actually prefer to have a whole season of a show available to watch at their own pace,” Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said in a statement.

It was that demand that encouraged Netflix to create its own original programming this year, including the hit shows Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. Netflix shares finally recovered from the 2011 pricing debacle this year, soaring 302% in 2013 to record highs.

The company may be able to use the positive data from the survey as leverage in its negotiations with cable providers as Netflix seeks to increase its licensing portfolio or as fodder to grow its own original programming.
Scarecrow Video: the world's largest video rental store

PS: you can stream/buy my band's latest album here.

John Boehner just proved Francis Fukuyama right


Francis Fukuyama has a timely essay in the latest issue of The American Interest.

His thesis is that American political institutions have decayed for three uniquely historical reasons:
The first is that, relative to other liberal democracies, the judiciary and the legislature (including the roles played by the two major political parties) continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies. Americans’ traditional distrust of government thus leads to judicial solutions for administrative problems. Over time this has become a very expensive and inefficient way to manage administrative requirements.

The second is that the accretion of interest group and lobbying influences has distorted democratic processes and eroded the ability of the government to operate effectively. What biologists label kin selection and reciprocal altruism (the favoring of family and friends with whom one has exchanged favors) are the two natural modes of human sociability. It is to these types of relationships that people revert when modern, impersonal government breaks down.

The third is that under conditions of ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy. The decision system has become too porous—too democratic—for its own good, giving too many actors the means to stifle adjustments in public policy. We need stronger mechanisms to force collective decisions but, because of the judicialization of government and the outsized role of interest groups, we are unlikely to acquire such mechanisms short of a systemic crisis. In that sense these three structural characteristics have become intertwined.
Nearly on cue, House Majority Leader John Boehner has defended the latest bipartisan budget proposal and slammed conservative and Tea Party interest groups over their continued criticism:
"He personally has thick skin, but attacking what Chairman Ryan has done got under his skin," the aide said, referring to Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan who led the GOP effort to put together the budget deal with his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray.

The fact that conservative groups started attacking the budget deal before it was even announced particularly bothered Boehner, the aide said. He said as much when asked by CNN's Dana Bash why he was taking them on.

"When groups come out and criticize an agreement they have never seen you begin to wonder just how credible those actions are," Boehner said. "So yesterday, when the criticism was coming, frankly, I thought it was my job and my obligation to stand up for conservatives here in the Congress who want more deficit reduction, stand up for the work that Chairman Ryan did."
Naturally, there has been some push-back from these groups, particularly Heritage Foundation's activist branch, Heritage Action:
“The people who were very close to the deal knew we were going to be opposed, knew when we were going to come out and be critical of the framework. And we actually talked to them ahead of time and said, ‘hey, are the press reports true? If not, tell us where they’re wrong and we’ll stand back,’” says Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action.

“They weren’t able to tell us how the press reports were misleading of the coming deal. We gave them every opportunity to set the record straight. At the end of the day, they didn’t because everybody knew what the deal was,” he adds.
Conservative pundits are also weighing in:
“I think John Boehner is one of the prime examples of worthless, worthless Republicans,” Beck said Thursday on Mark Levin’s radio show. “All these people saying, ‘Hey, the Republicans aren’t as bad,’ no. I think they actually might be worse, because they claim to be something that they’re not.”

Beck told Levin, who called Boehner “utterly feckless,” that Boehner and those like him “have got to go.”

“I will not vote for another Republican who is just a Republican who says, ‘Well, you know, we got to do what we got to do.’ No we don’t, we have to take a stand,” Beck said, citing Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for standing up.

The pair advocated a strategy for defunding Obamacare that led to the government shutdown in October.
But like David Brooks, not everyone is aghast, regardless of their opinions on the Obamacare rollout:
This is a good moment to advocate greater executive branch power because we’ve just seen a monumental example of executive branch incompetence: the botched Obamacare rollout. It’s important to advocate greater executive branch power in a chastened mood. It’s not that the executive branch is trustworthy; it’s just that we’re better off when the presidency is strong than we are when the rentier groups are strong, or when Congress, which is now completely captured by the rentier groups, is strong.

Here are the advantages. First, it is possible to mobilize the executive branch to come to policy conclusion on something like immigration reform. It’s nearly impossible for Congress to lead us to a conclusion about anything. Second, executive branch officials are more sheltered from the interest groups than Congressional officials. Third, executive branch officials usually have more specialized knowledge than staffers on Capitol Hill and longer historical memories. Fourth, Congressional deliberations, to the extent they exist at all, are rooted in rigid political frameworks. Some agencies, especially places like the Office of Management and Budget, are reasonably removed from excessive partisanship. Fifth, executive branch officials, if they were liberated from rigid Congressional strictures, would have more discretion to respond to their screw-ups, like the Obamacare implementation. Finally, the nation can take it out on a president’s party when a president’s laws don’t work. That doesn’t happen in Congressional elections, where most have safe seats.
National consensus on executive branch power will probably always be as popular as whoever happens to be President.

But it wouldn't hurt to streamline the American government's ability to actually govern.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Australia re-bans gay marriage, India re-bans gay sex

Australia's High Court recently reversed a territorial law allowing gay marriage, which has further legal implications:
 Had the nation's top court upheld the Australian Capital Territory's gay marriage legislation it would have opened the door to similar laws being passed across the country, pressuring the government to make it legal at a national level.  
 In a unanimous decision, Australia's highest court ruled that the federal parliament -- not state and territory authorities -- had the ultimate say over marriage, and whether it was extended to same-sex couples was a matter for lawmakers.  
 "The Marriage Act does not now provide for the formation or recognition of marriage between same-sex couples," the court said.
Meanwhile, India's Supreme Court has reinstated an implicit ban on gay sex itself.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits sexual activity “against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.” Violators, including those involved in consensual relationships, face fines and up to 10 years in prison.

While the law has rarely been enforced, analysts say it allows the police to shake down and otherwise harass homosexuals. India, despite having produced the Kama Sutra and being home to sexually suggestive temples and monuments, remains socially conservative.

Homosexuality is still taboo in much of the country, even regarded in places as a form of mental illness, forcing many people to live double lives.
This is especially noteworthy in light of the United Kingdom's upcoming plans to legalize:
That the Indian Supreme Court should re-criminalise gay relationships based on a colonial law that the United Kingdom has long thrown out the window is an irony that has not gone unnoticed in the U.K., where a much-awaited government announcement promising a spring deadline for same- sex marriages has just been made.
Back in the United States, couples are debating whether to cross state lines:
Whenever Tim Bostic would lament that he couldn't marry his partner, Tony London, in Virginia, his sisters had a ready solution: Move to Maryland, where same-sex marriage is legal.

Carol Schall and Mary Townley already had much to show for their relationship. They had a commitment ceremony in 1996 and, 12 years later, were legally married in California.

The two couples are nearly as committed to Virginia as they are to each other, however. Bostic and London, who live along the Lafayette River here, have been together for almost 25 years; Schall and Townley, residents of Richmond, for nearly 30. Moving isn't in the cards. And, therefore, neither is marriage in Virginia – yet.
The global campaigns continue, but time will tell.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Protests and riots rock the globe this week (link round-up 12/11/13)

Kiev protesters attacked by police, despite PM assurances
Thousands of riot police carried out a co-ordinated attack on barricades in Kiev during the dead of night on Wednesday – a determined and unexpected crackdown on protesters who have occupied the centre of Ukraine's capital for the past fortnight. 
As temperatures fell to -13C (9F) during the coldest night of the winter to date, columns of riot police closed in on Independence Square, hub of the protests that erupted after President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of an association pact with the EU that had been due for signing at a summit in Vilnius last month. Shortly after 1am battalions of police approached the vast square from all sides and began to dismantle the makeshift barricades that have been erected in recent days. 
Ukraine's prime minister, Mykola Azarov, said later on Wednesday the operation by police was a question of clearing the roads. "No force will be applied against peaceful protesters. Do you understand this? Calm down!" he said as he opened a government meeting.
Thai protesters and government supporters continue to clash, paralyze country
The impasse is a reminder of the turmoil that has overshadowed Thailand for much of the last decade. On one side is Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who redrew the political map by courting rural voters to win back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005 and gain an unassailable mandate that he then used to advance the interests of major companies, including his own.  
On the other is the elite and establishment, threatened by his rise. Thaksin's opponents include unions and academics who saw him as a corrupt rights abuser, and the urban middle-class who resented, as they saw it, their taxes being used as his political war chest and regard his sister as a puppet.  
It is a confusing picture characterised variously as a class war, a rural-urban split, a clash between ancient and modern or a showdown between the royalists and republicans. 
Scottish writers take up the cause of national independence from Britain
“I’ve written this poem,” Bissett continued, glint of mischief in his eyes, “to try tae show you the error of your ways. It’s called Vote Britain.”

Bissett is one of a number of Scottish writers to have emerged as significant new voices of the independence movement. Their words, from a platform provided by the publishers Word Power Books, the National Collective arts movement and blogs like Bella Caledonia, spread like wildfire among activists.

Vote Britain, a fiery ironic poem sending up common Scottish stereotypes, went viral among Yes campaigners last year. In it, Bissett blasts the most pressing and painful issues of the campaign: the appropriation of Scotland’s oil money, the presence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent Trident in Scottish waters, Britain’s imperialist past, the overwhelming Englishness of Scotland’s landowning class.
Egypt arrests students in fiery clash
The ministry said that the critically injured student was in intensive care with a bullet wound to the chest after the clashes at Al-Azhar University on Monday.

Riot police fired tear gas at protesters at Al-Azhar University and a security official said several police cars were set on fire and petrol bombs thrown at officers in fresh clashes.

The students, supporters of ousted former president Mohamed Morsi, have held persistent protests since the start of the academic year in September.
Argentina hit by wave of looting and deaths amid police wage protests
Calm was restored after a late-night deal to double the starting police wage to 8,000 pesos ($1,300) a month and officers returned to patrolling the streets, Mr. Bacileff said during a news conference. "The situation was out of control…there was going to be a massacre."

President Cristina Kirchner railed against both the looters and police in a speech Tuesday to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of country's dictatorship and return to democracy. To "see people who have cars looting is shameful," she said. She also blasted the "extortion" from the police and accused unnamed political opponents of instigating the unrest.

The looting is shaping up as a major challenge for Mrs. Kirchner as the steep economic growth of the past decade fades and surging inflation makes it harder for the poor to make ends meet. Economists say Argentina's inflation tops 25%, even though the government says it is far lower.
 Singapore charges 24 Indian men after riot
The charges stemmed from violence Sunday night in Singapore's Little India district, a popular hangout for migrant workers. Nearly 400 South Asian workers skirmished with police and medical workers after an Indian national was crushed to death under a bus driven by a Singapore man, according to police reports and television footage. The 55-year-old bus driver was released on bail after being arrested on suspicion of causing death by a negligent act, police said. He hasn't been charged in court; it's unclear if he has legal representation.

As many as 39 law-enforcement and emergency-services personnel, as well as the driver and conductor aboard the bus involved in the accident, were injured. More than a dozen police, emergency-services and privately owned vehicles were damaged, including five that were burned.

The riot, Singapore's first since racial disturbances in 1969, is sparking public concern about the socioeconomic impact and sustainability of Singapore's dependence on overseas labor. Workers from South Asia dominate sectors like construction.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ventra and Metra, a match made in...nevermind

Yesterday, I wrote a Gapers Block piece exploring the hurdles that Chicagoland's Metra train system faces in adopting the much-loathed Ventra card.

Meanwhile, Chicago weather has hit below freezing, and Ventra is still having problems - both in the technical and public relations sense:
CTA officials said, while the driver did not “kick anyone off of the bus,” charging riders is not part of the agency’s protocol during outages.

“The operator should have let the customers on the bus without requesting a fare since there was an obvious problem with the Ventra reader,” said CTA spokesperson Lambrini Lukidis. “Even if there’s a problem with the Ventra reader, if someone has cash or a magnetic strip, the drivers are instructed to just wave people through. In that case, people should not have had to wait in line in the cold.”
Good luck, future Metra commuters.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Fast food The Macaulay Underground & Nico (link round-up 12/9/13)


I'm trying to write more articles and essays for other websites. At the same time, there are plenty of interesting stories I read that fit broader patterns that I believe deserve attention. 

So instead of writing out longer essays (like my Lily Allen/Juicy J piece) that connect a variety of dots, I'll be posting self-explanatory, themed link round-ups (like last week's collection marijuana law news) more frequently where I see fit. 

Ice served at Guangzhou, China KFC and McDonald's restaurants is dirtier than toilet water
CCTV reporters sent ice cubes from the Chongwenmen outlets of KFC, McDonald's and Kungfu for lab tests. The KFC ice cubes were 20 times the limit, and 13 times higher than water samples taken from toilet bowls. 
The amount of bacterial colonies found at McDonald's and Kungfu ice cubes reached 120 CFU and 900 CFU (colony-forming units) per milliliter respectively, exceeding the national limit of 100 per milliliter.
The CFU level of Kungfu's ice cubes was six times higher than toilet water, CCTV reported.
Domino's sees India becoming second-largest market
Domino's Indian franchises don't offer the same menu we see here in the U.S. — about half the items are specific to the country. The menus are tailored to Indian tastes, emphasizing vegetarian options and boosting spiciness. 
For instance, instead of a packet of Parmesan cheese, pizzas come with an "oregano spice mix" that has a dash of garlic and chili peppers. Recent additions include a Lebanese roll — a spicy roll with peas and cheese — and Taco Indiana — a folded and stuffed pizza crust that one American reviewer says is many things, but is "not a taco." 
Doyle says some of those ideas have spread to Britain. 
"There are pizzas from India that are now being sold in the U.K., like paneer pizza, chicken tikka masala pizza and keema do pyaaza pizza," he tells the Economic Times. "The crust, the sauce and the cheese can be the same everywhere, but the topping, which is where a lot of flavor comes from, varies and can easily be localized."
How the Japanese pioneered the energy drink market
It took a while for this sort of stimulation in a can to catch on in America. There was cocaine in Coca-Cola at one point, but that didn’t last long. In 1949, a chemist from Chicago invented Dr. Enuf, a caffeinated soft drink made with vitamins. Early advertisements called his drink “the answer to a housewife’s prayer, the bosom companion of a tired farmer or businessman and a shift into high gear for young Johnny or Mary.” (Although it never sold very well, the beverage still exists.) In the 1980s, other soda brands tried in vain to muscle in on coffee’s turf: Jolt Cola promised “all the sugar and twice the caffeine”; Coke started pushing “Coca-Cola in the morning”; and Pepsi introduced the short-lived breakfast product “Pepsi A.M.” 
Meanwhile, Japanese energy drinks made their way from Asia to Europe. Dietrich Mateschitz, the international marketing director for an Austrian company that sold bathroom products, discovered the supercharging tonics while on a business trip to Bangkok. In 1984, he quit his job to partner up with the Thai manufacturer of a beverage made with caffeine and taurine called Krating Daeng, and three years later he debuted a carbonated version of the same in his home country under the Red Bull label.
Pepsi and Coca-Cola using biotech companies to test new drinks
PepsiCo, in collaboration with San Diego-based biotech firm Senomyx, is in the late stages of developing a "taste modifier" that would essentially fool taste buds into thinking they are getting more sugar than delivered. The ingredient, which is called "S617" and still requires regulatory approval, would theoretically allow for PepsiCo to lower the amount of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in full-calorie beverages such as regular Pepsi, while keeping the same sweet cola taste. 
Coca-Cola, meanwhile, continues to experiment with steviol glycosides, which are the sweet, calorie-free extracts from South American stevia plants. The first cola version, called Coca-Cola Life, was launched in Argentina in the summer. In the U.S., the company is examining results from a recent test market of stevia-infused line extensions Sprite Select and Fanta Select.
U.S. fast-food workers protest for better pay
That's the message that thousands of fast-food workers rallying Thursday in about 100 U.S. cities — from Oakland to Memphis to Washington, D.C. — are trying to get across. A living wage in big cities is closer to $14 an hour, and it jumps to about $20 an hour for an adult supporting a child.

The protests are part of a growing campaign backed by a coalition of advocacy groups, religious organizations and union organizers aimed at raising fast-food wages to $15 an hour.

But not everyone agrees that raising the federal minimum wage will fix the problems of fast-food workers struggling to make ends meet. "I would oppose raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour," says Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute.

Such a hike in wages would lead to higher prices at the fast-food counter for all of us, Strain says, and employers would hold back on hiring. In addition, fast-food chains might replace people with new automated technology, which could be cheaper over time, he says.
Applebee's will install 100,000 Intel-backed tablets next year
When I wrote about the Chili’s deal, several servers reached out to me expressing concern that tabletop tablets would be a threat to their jobs. Suri admits that with technology like his tablets, such concern will always be there. E la Carte stays agnostic about how restaurants choose to use its systems, the company says, and Applebee’s insists that it won’t downsize staff after this massive rollout is completed.

“Very clearly, our intention is not to replace servers, who provide a personal connection that is invaluable in our restaurants and to our ‘See You Tomorrow’ experience,” Archer says. “This is about building on to the experience for the guest, not saving on labor.”

Companies like Ziosk and E la Carte argue that their systems are actually a net benefit for waitstaff who often receive higher tips from diners paying over the tablet. Right now, both Chili’s and Applebee’s have chosen systems that don’t allow you to order your meal over the device but only put in requests for additional drinks and dessert.

As diners become acclimated to these systems, however, the use cases will increase to include video streaming and social media interaction. When tablets become the norm at restaurants, users may start complaining that they’re being held back by being able to place a drink order but not their entrees.
Macaulay Culkin presents...The Pizza Underground?

...The recovering music nerd in me feels obliged to point out that the Jackson Browne-penned "These Days" and recently-departed Lou Reed's "Take A Walk On The Wild Side" aren't even Velvet Underground songs - but I'll let the music critics squabble over this slice of celebrity novelty.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

China and Japan clamp down on free press, Snowden still free from U.S.

The Japanese Parliament just enacted a law barring anyone (including journalists) from seeking or sharing "state secrets":
Under a special state secrets bill expected to pass on Friday, public officials and private citizens who leak "special state secrets" face prison terms of up to 10 years, while journalists who seek to obtain the classified information could get up to five years. 
Critics of the new law say it marks a return to the days of prewar and wartime Japanese militarism, when the state used the Peace Preservation Act to arrest and imprison political opponents. 
"It is a threat to democracy," said Keiichi Kiriyama, an editorial writer for the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, adding that the legislation would "have a chilling effect on public servants, who could become wary about giving the information" to journalists.
Though organizations like the Free Press Association of Japan exist and operate worldwide, the Japanese press has a history of being prone to collusion, distortion, and propaganda, as demonstrated in Adam Gamble and Takesato Watanabe's A Public Betrayed: An Inside Look at Japanese Media Atrocities and Their Warnings to the West.

Meanwhile, China has threatened to expel foreign journalists:
Two things seem to have compelled the government to reverse course. In 2011, the uprisings in the Arab world unnerved the Chinese government by raising the prospect that the combination of technology, information, and dissatisfaction could undermine even a government that appeared secure to itself and outsiders. “If we waver,” Wu Bangguo, a senior official, told a meeting in Beijing in March, 2011, “the state could sink into the abyss.” The Arab Spring created a climate of sensitivity, but it was the events of the following year that tipped the balance. In 2012, the Times used Chinese records to calculate that the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had acquired a fortune of $2.7 billion during his time in office. Bloomberg produced a similar story on the incoming President, Xi Jinping. In retaliation, the government took steps to punish the bottom line of both companies: it blocked a Times Web site aimed at Chinese readers, and it ordered financial customers not to buy any new Bloomberg terminals. Those measures remain in place.
While the increasingly nationalistic Japanese and Chinese governments are currently at odds over their territorial boundaries, they would likely agree that the ripple effects of someone like Edward Snowden in their own countries could spark mass outrage and a collapse of power at home and abroad.

In fact, the intertwined journeys of Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (who I interviewed last year) in publishing U.S. state secrets concerning secret international surveillance have been profiled in a recent Rolling Stone article:
To the likes of Brooks, Snowden was a disconcerting mystery; Glenn Greenwald, though, got him right away. "He had no power, no prestige, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family, totally obscure, totally ordinary," Greenwald says. "He didn't even have a high school diploma. But he was going to change the world – and I knew that." And, Greenwald also believed, so would he. "In all kinds of ways, my whole life has been in preparation for this moment," he says.
Whatever bodes well for the geopolitical aims of China and Japan also runs the risk of clamping down free, critical public discourse worldwide.

But that's what any given military would prefer.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Watch me talk Ventra on last night's "Chicago Tonight"

Last night, I was part of a panel of Chicago transportation journalists on Chicago Tonight's special live episode about Ventra.

During the interview, CTA President Forrest Claypool said a lot of interesting things about the system, and fielded hard questions (to varying degrees of success) from host Phil Ponce and audience members.

At the 18:46, you can watch me pose a question, and listen to Claypool backpedal ever-so-slightly on his previous statement.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sophocles, Slient Film, and Google Books: What Gets Lost To History?

The other night, I was reading (or attempting to read) Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles' "Ajax". The introduction to the copy I read mentioned the startling fact that only 9 of 123 plays have survived into the present day.

As he died around 405/406 B.C., that loss is understandable.

However, a new study about the loss of silent films made within the past 90-100 years floored me:
The American silent era produced about 10,919 films. Just 2,749 of those are still with us in some complete form, either as an original American 35mm version, a foreign release, or as a lower-quality copy. That's just 25 percent of the silent era still available. A further five percent of films survive in an incomplete form, and the remaining 70 percent of work from the era is completely lost to history.
According to the study, many of the losses happened early on. Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox lost more or less the entirety of their silent film archives in a 1930s fire. Universal-International destroyed its remaining silent film copies in 1948. And those studios who opted to keep the material around usually did so cheaply — and poorly. Once the silent era gave way to sound, most studios put their silent film reels in storage.
Between this, the nearing end of movies being made on actual film, and the unreliability of digital film storage, there's a very real possibility of countless hours of cinematic history - however breathtaking or mundane - to be lost forever in the coming decades.

Although paper and celluloid are easily destroyed, digitizing them for archival purposes is no guarantee of flawless preservation - just as Google Books:
The obsession with digital errors in Google Books arises from the sense that these mistakes are permanent, on the record. Earlier this month, Judge Denny Chin ruled that Google’s scanning, en masse, of millions of books to make them searchable is legal. In the future, more and more people will consult Google’s scans. Because of the speed and volume with which Google is executing the project, the company can’t possibly identify and correct all of the disturbances in what is supposed to be a seamless interface. There’s little doubt that generations to come will be stuck with both these antique stains and workers’ hands.
Shaykin was an M.F.A. student in graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design when he was given an assignment to choose a book from Brown’s library that would serve as the basis for a series of projects. Even though he had the physical books readily available, he found it easier, as many people do, to access them through Google Books. Once he came across the first hand, he was hooked, and started digging deeper into Brown’s special-collections library, which was digitized by Google. He came upon many more anomalies. “In addition to hands and fingers, I found pages scanned through tissue paper, pages scanned while mid-turn, and fold-out maps and diagrams scanned while folded,” he explained. “The examples were everywhere. I quickly became obsessed, and filled my hard drive with gigabytes of downloaded PDFs.” He collected his strangest findings in a book called “Google Hands,” which ended up as one in a series of a dozen small hand-sewn books, each focussed on a different type of glitch. Through social media, he came into contact with like-minded collectors, and they began swapping artifacts.
With Kindles and Nooks replacing books, BitTorrent  and Bandcamp replacing album sales, and Netflix and Redbox replacing niche theaters and video stores, it'll be scary to see what doesn't get passed on into the hazy digital future.

Or if future generations will even be able to notice the difference.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

420 Friendly or Reefer Madness? (Link Round-Up 12/3/13)

There are a remarkable number of news stories lately about legalization/decriminalization of a certain controlled substance. Here's quick round-up:

Final Uruguay Marijuana Legalization Vote Expected Next Week
Once the law goes into effect, Uruguay will have become the first country on the planet to break the global prohibitionist consensus embodied in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and subsequent treaties when it comes to marijuana legalization.

The Dutch have long allowed limited retail sales, but they remain formally illegal, and the supply remains criminalized, and other countries have decriminalized possession, but not taken the next step. Two US states have taken the next step, but marijuana commerce remains illegal under federal law.

Under the bill, Uruguayan marijuana consumers will have choices. They will be able to grow their own individually (up to six plants) or collectively, they can buy it in pharmacies, or they can seek access as medical patients through the Ministry of Public Health.
Courts, US public at odds over worker firings for 'legal' marijuana use
The issues to consider are legion: How much discretion do firms have over how to handle workers who smoke pot in their nonwork hours? Can some kinds of workers (officers of the law, public transit drivers, school teachers) be held to a stricter standard than others? And perhaps most germane, when does federal law, which still outlaws marijuana possession and use, trump state law?
Jackson police will allow possession of marijuana on private property after public vote
"Target is private property, for example," Heins said. "But we don't think it was the public's intention to allow a 21-year-old to possess marijuana at your local Target."
Denver backs off plan to curb pot smoking ahead of legalization launch
The Denver City Council on Monday rejected an ordinance to prohibit marijuana use on front porches, in front yards, or anywhere on private property in public view, The Denver Post reported.

Many localities in Colorado and Washington state are nevertheless in a race to avoid full-scale legalization by pushing through last-minute laws aimed at telling adults where they can and cannot smoke.

In Colorado, legal pot sales start on Jan. 1. The Denver City Council is expected to take its final vote next week on the revised measure that allows people to smoke on their properties or with permission from the property owner, according to The Denver Post.
Denver Marijuana Warehouses Creating Massive Energy Demand, Emissions
Denver is now home to dozens of massive marijuana growing warehouses, and CBS4 obtained a full listing of their locations. Most are clustered along Interstate 70 north of downtown and South Santa Fe Drive, south of Interstate 25. And these massive warehouses are taking a toll on the energy grid, according to growers and scientists.

According to a 2011 study on energy use in the marijuana industry, indoor pot production uses about $6 billion worth of energy every year, using enough electricity to power 2 million average homes. The study by researcher Evan Mills at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reports the marijuana industry is using 1 percent of national electricity consumption and is creating greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to that of 3 million cars.
Bill Clinton: ‘I Never Denied That I Used Marijuana’
Clinton might have been the first U.S. president to come clean about his marijuana use, but that didn’t translate into lenient drug policies.

He embraced a tough-on-crime approach to federal sentencing while in office. Federal and state prison populations rose more under his guidance than under any other president before him. Many of those inmates entered the penal system for drug crimes.

He also backed laws that excluded drug felons — even those convicted of simple marijuana possession — from receiving welfare, food stamps or public housing.
Chris Christie says no to bill expanding medical marijuana program
Christie told reporters today he is "not open to it," and believes it's just a back door way to legalize marijuana for everyone.

"See this is what happens. Every time you sign one expansion, then the advocates will come back and ask for another one," the governor said during a press conference from his statehouse office this afternoon. "Here's what the advocates want: They want legalization of marijuana in New Jersey. It will not happen on my watch, ever. I am done expanding the medical marijuana program under any circumstances. So we're done."
Medical marijuana fight could impact Florida governor's race
On Thursday the justices will consider a measure asking voters to allow doctors to prescribe the drug.

"It matters. The make-up of the electorate and what this amendment may do is bring out young people, may bring out more liberal people," said Corrigan.

If that happens, it could leave the GOP in the weeds. But the Republican Party is not sitting idly by; party leaders have challenged the ballot measure, saying it misleads voters.
1,326 applications submitted for marijuana licenses in Washington
Not all of those applications will be good ones. Many are submitted by the same business/person. Some cities and counties have moratoriums or outright bans on marijuana businesses. But the liquor board has said it will issue licenses even for areas of the state that don’t want pot businesses. Those cities and counties will likely face lawsuits for attempting to ban businesses permitted by state law.
Washington State Growers Roll The Dice On New Pot Licenses
"You don't get your license until it's done, until you have your final inspection," she says. "That is a huge cart-before-the-horse, where you're investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and transformers and leases and everything else, and technically you don't know if you're going to get a license or not."

Still, Rosellison thinks the potential payoff is worth the gamble.
California Appeals Court: Cities Can Ban All Medical Marijuana Homegrowing
The case revolves around the City of Live Oak, which passed an ordinance in 2011 banning medical marijuana cultivation. Patients there sued and a local judge sided with the city. Patients then appealed and the 3rd District Court of Appeals in Sacramento upheld the ban last week, according to reports, and said state law and previous court decisions "do not pre-empt a city's police power to prohibit the cultivation of all marijuana within that city."

There is no "unfettered right to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes," the appeals court said.

The appeals court held that banning medical marijuana growing in a city or county does not conflict with Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act approved by voters in 1996, or the 2003 Medical Marijuana Program approved by the Legislature.
Behold, the sloppy mechanics of state and national democracies at work. That alone is enough policy wonkery to take up your time for a while.


What you always suspected about Disney Channel stars
The first time I smoked weed was with Demi and Miley. I must have been 17 or 18. They kept saying, “Try it! Try it!” so I gave it a shot, and it was all right. I don’t even smoke weed that often anymore.

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