• Comments off

    Keep Politics Out of Our Schools

    Inspired by an intelligent 16-year-old named Greta Thunberg, grade school students across America were allowed to skip classes on September 20 to participate in marches and demonstrations expressing fears of climate change. The media coverage was global and no doubt helped bring about much needed discussions about climate change. The importance of those discussions cannot be overstated.

    Such discussions are often hampered by individuals on the extreme ends of the debate – left or right – generally refusing to have a constructive conversation. Those who deny climate change have their heads in the sand. Alternately, those who preach Armageddon within ten years if we don’t make drastic changes have their heads just as deeply embedded in the sand. The Washington Post reported that Al Gore “believes humanity may have only 10 years left to save the planet from turning into a total frying pan.” That was in 2006. I guess we dodged that bullet.

    Israeli astrophysicist Nir Shaviv, a scientist who has allegedly studied the issue for years, concluded in 2007, “[T]here is no concrete evidence – only speculation – that man-made greenhouse gases cause global warming.”

    Little has changed in the rhetoric of these two extremes since then. Unfortunately, those extremes get the press. Moderate views or those who simply want to understand the truth are rarely heard. That doesn’t sell papers or raise TV ratings. Whether we will ever know the reality we face is ill served by the partisan approach taken by too many.

    But letting grade school students off from school to protest or march is a huge mistake for two important reasons.

    First, we send our children to school for the purpose of learning in a calm and considerate environment. This is particularly true of our youngest, when their brains are not yet fully wired and need the kind of special nurturing only great teachers provide. That is not to say classrooms should ignore issues like climate change. Quite to the contrary. It is a teacher’s job to provide  balanced analysis and lead discussions. To teach. It is inappropriate to substitute teaching for shouting crowds who have no interest in hearing any balanced debate. Such public displays of emotion – on either side of any issue – are for adults, not children.

    There is an even more insidious mistake in this exercise in recess from school. If you adopt grade school strikes as part of the learning experience of our children, where do you draw the line on issues that warrant an official dismissal from much-needed schooling? You can’t discriminate on the choice of issues that warrant a march or demonstration. Doing so would be pure hypocrisy.

    Considering the above example, it is not farfetched to see movements wanting recess for marches on the right of choice to abort pregnancy, provided there is also one supporting the right to life. Or a march on ending gun sales, provided there is one in support of the NRA. The list is as endless as is the politics surrounding them. The truly important debate is this – do we want to foster an atmosphere that interrupts the time our children spend in school? Should grade schoolers become pawns for liberal and conservative politics? I think the answer is obvious, at least for moderates who are still capable of seeing two sides to an argument.

    I’m all for teaching our kids about these topical issues. But in a classroom, not on the streets. If parents want their kids to participate in demonstrations or marches, that’s fine. That is their choice to make. Equally, it is a parent’s choice that their children not participate in public demonstrations. Let those who want their kids to march do so on weekends or holidays. Schools are here to teach in a safe and controlled environment without being interrupted by politicians and pundits bent on advancing their partisan initiatives.

  • Comments off

    Does North Korea’s Progressing Arsenal Violate the UN?

    Suspicions are rising among the United States and their Asian allies as reports further hint at an advancing North Korean arsenal (Council on Foreign Relations).

    While this development could be in danger of violating the United Nations Charter, President Trump has commented that “any concerns are overblown.” (New York Times)

    Intelligence officials offer information that presents a stark contrast the President’s comments. According to the New York Times, experts believe that the missiles Kim Jong-un is testing have “greater range and maneuverability that could overwhelm American defenses in the region.” Furthermore, reports claim there is evidence of a North Korean program that has the potential to defeat Japanese defenses. It is also worth noting that North Korea is using American technology to do so, much of which they stole.

    What do these developments mean for diplomatic relations?  Korea’s most recent test of the Hwasong-15 missile peaked at an estimated altitude of 4,500km – 10 times higher than the International Space Station (BBC). The improved short-range missiles could potentially reach Japan and South Korea, and at least eight American bases in those two countries.

    Those bases house over 300,000 US troops.

    The debate on whether or not America should be concerned continues. The Defense Intelligence Agency estimates North Korea has enough fuel for roughly a dozen new nuclear weapons. These newly uncovered resources beg the question of where this impoverished country got the funding for arsenal expansion.

    Given our checkered history with North Korea, we can only assume their intentions are questionable at best. Stay tuned for further updates.

  • Comments off

    Facebook’s Hidden Likes

    Both social scientists and media bigwigs are beginning to explore the influence of social media on human behavior. Starting with the whispers of Instagram’s hidden follower and like-count experimentation, Facebook has now thrown its digital hat into the ring – they, too, are prototyping hidden likes privately. Instagram is already testing the function publicly in seven countries (TechCrunch).

    Facebook confirmed this testing September 2nd when Jane Manchun Wong, an enthusiast in uncovering app features pre-launch, discovered code for the feature in its Android version.

    Beta testing of hidden like counts makes sense in the context of this generation’s outcry to address mental health and well-being. Research studying how social media affects the mental health and self- esteem of target groups (teens and young adults) is mixed, however.

    Pew Research Center’s 2018 study found that teens yield benefits like inclusion, deeper friendships, and help understanding different points of view from interacting with social media. The same study also says teens often feel overwhelmed by the drama of social media and tend to unfriend those causing it, or those espousing political views they disagree with.

    An article by the National Center for Health Research compared the increase of mental health issues in those target groups with the high usage of smartphones and social media in the same group. Among other discouraging facts cited, one study mentioned in the article found that greater Instagram usage is associated with greater self-objectification and concern about body image.

    Facebook (also owners of WhatsApp and Instagram) refuses to disclose the results of their Instagram testing or explain why they’ve expanded to other social media. One would hope their intention is to meet the demands of their negatively impacted users. Though, such a change would certainly impact ad revenue and the general marketing platform these outlets have come to depend on. It appears there would have to be very compelling reason(s), positive or negative, to risk a sizeable income hit.

    We’ve seen Facebook and its collective apps in and out of the hotseat recently for the alleged misuse of personal information leading to an influence on user buying habits, and even their perceptions of current events. Could this new development be a preventative measure? Or is it an answer to the requests of the app’s user base?

  • Comments off

    The North Philly Standoff

    Last week, six Philadelphia police officers were injured while serving a narcotics warrant.

    The incident later evolved into a seven-hour-long shootout that occurred in a neighborhood near Temple University. According to USA Today, Police Commissioner Richard Ross described the outcome as “nothing short of a miracle” as there were thankfully no fatalities. A tear gas barrage ultimately caused the shooter to surrender.

    Thirty-six-year-old Maurice Hill was identified as the gunman who the Philadelphia Inquirer said had “an extensive record of gun convictions and resisting arrests.”

    Officers had to navigate the narrow, tightly packed streets while Temple University’s campuses were put on lock-down. Commissioner Ross held phone negotiations to deescalate Hill. Two officers were trapped in the building protecting three prisoners—one of whom was stranded in a bathroom—and ultimately saved by SWAT (USA Today).

    President Trump took to Twitter the following day:

    “The Philadelphia shooter should haven never been allowed to be on the streets. He had a long and very dangerous criminal record. Looked like he was having a good time after his capture, and after wounding so many police. Long sentence—must get much tougher on street crime!”

    Such an event raises the question of how a convicted felon had the opportunity to commit the crime. Is there a bigger conversation that needs to be had? Research indicates that overall, violent crime in the U.S. has significantly decreased in recent years, falling 49% percent between 1993 and 2017. According to the Pew Research Center, there are large variances in crime rates depending on geographic location. Moreover, public perceptions of the crime rate tend to differ vastly from actual statistics.

    Where, then, do we place the blame when these mass acts of violence happen? President Trump’s focus on street crime might be misplaced.

    Nonetheless, a huge thank you goes out to the first responders who played vital roles in keeping everyone involved safe. We appreciate you.

     

  • Comments off

    The United Kingdom on Digital Advertising

    Day by day, digital marketing is increasingly seen as invasive of users’ personal data, rightly or wrongly. Take for example the leaked video titled “The Selfish Ledger,” a disturbing glimpse into the near-future of the intuitive technologies. Whether it is reality or not belies the concerns raised.

    Arguably, digital technology can deliver content users are inclined to consume with targeted ads. From the marketplace perspective, this is a very efficient way to deliver ads of interest and not random pitches. But it also raises concerns about how deeply the technology can dip into personal data and whether consumers are informed about what they are sharing. Beyond blind consumerism, it is argued that analytic tools can be used to determine how you respond to an item and even influence the pages and posts you are exposed to in your web browsing.

    The United Kingdom’s Competitions and Marketing Authority (CMA) has now expressed its concern in a very direct fashion.

    Beginning July 3rd, the CMA launched an investigation into the alleged harm digital advertising has on consumers. More specifically, the purpose of its investigation is to see how much control consumers have over their personal data, and if these activities are anticompetitive in a free market

    An invitation was extended to those concerned with the issue to submit comments. The window for commentary closed July 30th, and the investigation is well underway. From now until January 2nd, 2020, the CMA will be collecting data on digital advertising practices across the UK. After a report outlining their findings is published, the CMA has until July 22nd of 2020 to determine whether or not further action needs to be taken. What that action, if any, might be is unknow, and speculation is a fool’s errand.

    You can find the initial report here.

    This begs some questions. Depending upon the CMA’s findings, could we be at yet another crossroads where control further shifts to consumers? If so, is that shift truly beneficial to consumers in a free market? What will that mean to the lure digital platforms offer advertisers? Only time will tell.

  • Comments off

    The 2020 Citizenship Question

    The Trump administration has been pushing a citizenship question on the decennial United States census questionnaire since January of 2018. As immigration tensions rise and the 2020 U.S. census nears, the addition of this question to the document has been hotly debated.

    The Supreme Court and the administration are at a stalemate, with the Court temporarily blocking the movement in June saying the reasons cited were insufficient. It ordered the case back to the lower courts.  The block, however, eliminated the time needed to debate this issue and make a final decision in time for to print the questionnaires. So for practical, not legal, reasons, the opponents won that round.  But what would be the advantage of having such a question added? The public must continue to wonder what would be the negative impact of adding it?

    So last week, Trump ceded the issue. Instead, he pivoted and stated that the missing information will be compiled by other documents via an executive order issued to government agencies (BBC). In other words, yes, the census would be printed without the question, but the battle to obtain the citizenship status of the U.S. population is far from over.

    Adding a query regarding citizenship to the questionnaire is not a new idea. Dating back to the mass from Ireland in the 1820’s to the 1950 census, some variant of a citizenship question was included. Until 1920, the question was only asked of men as their citizenship status was considered an umbrella for their respective wives and children (PEW Research Center).

    So, why are we reconsidering the question now?

    Opponents assert that the question is being used as a scare tactic to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of cracking down on illegal immigration. However, the American Community Survey already includes a question about the status of a participant’s citizenship. This survey is taken every year with a sample group of over 3.5 million, and neither the information from that survey nor the U.S. census can be used to enforce legal action or disclose the information of participants. Critics also worry that those here illegally would opt out of taking the census all together, eliminating any information on a sizeable portion of those residing in the country (Daytona Beach News-Journal).

    Those in favor of the question argue that the information of those residing in the country illegally can help better inform civil rights action, apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, and allocation of aid to states.  The illegal immigrant population in certain areas could determine the distribution of over $675 billion in federal spending (Associated Press).

    There are strong opinions on either side of the issue, along with the questions of seizing highly classified government records to discern an individual’s citizenship.

    As this debate continues, there appears to be agreement on one issue.  Citizenship matters in critical decisions that need to be made.  This solution is not in partisan politics that has become today’s norm.  Once again, our leaders on both sides of the aisle are failing in their Constitutional duties.

    When will this end?

  • Comments off

    The Artificially Intelligent Gatekeepers of News Broadcasting

    It is no secret that the tradition of news and broadcast is changing.

    In the Kovach and Rosenstiel book, The Elements of Journalism, the authors write that the two most essential obligations of a journalist are to tell the truth and to have an unyielding loyalty to the citizens. Regrettably, their advice has fallen by the wayside. Today, truth and loyalty have taken a back seat to speed and controversy. With the advent of technology, allegedly accurate news reporting is limited only by one “click” of a mouse, “tap” of a screen, or question to Siri, Alexa or Google. All that matters now is breaking the story before your competitors. For the sake of speed, journalists on all sides of the issues have sacrificed the core principles that make their role in society so important. Now they only care about the 24-hour-news cycle and driving headlines, tweets, and falsely described “breaking alerts.”

    Can it get worse?  Yes. In fact, the very face of broadcast journalism has recently changed, and in a major way.

    China’s government run news agency, Xinhua News, introduced the first male, artificial intelligence (AI) newscaster at 2018’s World Internet Conference in eastern Zhejiang. Powered by the agency’s stream of news and Beijing-based search engine Sogou, he delivered a short broadcast discussing the technology along with China’s plans to launch their first Mars probe in 2020. His segment ended by sending good wishes to journalists across the country (CNBC).

    Female AI broadcast journalist “Xin Xiaomeng” joined Xinhua’s team of presenters shortly after. Each has an English-speaking counterpart modelled after human anchors currently on their news team (Daily Mail).

    The goal of AI presenters is to stoke the fire of a 24-hour newsroom. Completely cutting out middleman who might research and verify the veracity of a story and its sources, artificially intelligent anchors deliver a constant stream of news text generated by China’s government. Skeptics fear that the human connection between viewers and flesh-and-blood anchor will be lost, while others feel that the robotic delivery is “very dull.” (BBC)

    The issue at hand is much more than the sentiment of a traditional news model or entertainment. We have already seen what can happen when artificially generated news stories spread and influence the minds of a target audience. The horrendous outbreak of misinformation and opportunistic propaganda about the Sri Lanka bombings in April that lead to a countrywide temporary ban on suspect social media is just one example.

    While AI newscasters may be able to provide a constant stream of information to an ever more demanding audience, they do so at the sacrifice of true journalism. Live journalists have their own moral compass to consult. As imperfect as that compass can sometimes be, it is far better than a machine with no soul or conscience. With all the fake news we have to deal with today, now is not the time to allow technology to make matters worse. Maybe it is time to embrace the older principles when stories were researched, sources were checked and verified, journalists were respected and media reporting was accurate and balanced.

  • Comments off

    2020 Candidate Circus

    The election may seem far away but it looks like it will be another long, nasty, convoluted fight that is certain to confuse voters to the point of giving up by the time it comes to pressing “VOTE” in the booth.

    The Democrats are visibly scrambling to become a front-runner.  This creates a confusing state of issues as they each try to distinguish themselves from one another by taking aggressive positions knowing they will never be accepted by rank and file lawmakers.  Nonetheless, they need to raise their poll numbers to qualify for the stage at a debate.  That requires headlines.   Headlines do not happen to candidates with moderate views.

    The most notable exception may be Joe Biden.  He received a lot of buzz after his announcement.  Then for several weeks, women came forward and claimed they experienced “uncomfortable interactions” with Biden in the past.  This led to a rehash of the controversial treatment Anita Hill received from Biden and others at her appearances in 1991 before the Senate Judiciary Committee discussing claims of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.  After profuse apologies from Biden, the tempest seems to have calmed.  However, it is assuredly something that other candidates and the media will raise again.  They will exploit the vulnerability.   With Biden currently viewed as the front-runner, all the other candidates must knock him off that perch if they hope to win the nomination.  Do not expect civility in that endeavor.

    Then there is the returning progressive, Bernie Sanders.  Sandbagged by the Clinton campaign, he may be again from the Biden front.  We shall see.

    Other Dems in the running are puzzling.  Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bill de Blasio — none of them have a national following and de Blasio has a hard time generating an audience at his campaign stops.  The rest of the list hails from various states and cities with disparate backgrounds and notoriety.  So far, it looks like all have earned nicknames from President Trump as he goads them into losing focus.

    My question is, do people in this country really know who these candidates are?  I bet most know only one or two.  Even more do not care.  So with twenty-three democrats running (so far), how will they all fit on stage in a debate?  They cannot all fit.  That is why the solution appears to be two nights of debates.  The first night for the candidates who poll the highest.  The second night for the rest.  An A Team and a B Team.  Look for the B Team to be the more entertaining of the two debates.  The B Team has nothing to lose if they hope to get elevated to the A Team as the debates move forward.

    In truth, is this not simply more of what we saw in 2016 when the Democrats mocked the size of the Republican list of candidates?

    That is politics as usual.  Behavior that Democrats decry one day because the Republicans commit it suddenly becomes acceptable when they later engage in the same conduct.   When that happens, the Republicans, of course, condemn the Democrats.  It is a never-ending circle of lies and hypocrisy.

    Yet we wonder why Americans have no respect for Congress or Washington.  Our politicians have no one to blame except for themselves.

  • Comments off

    The FEC and Cyber Security

    Since 2016 presidential race, we have seen a growing movement to unearth and eliminate any political interference in our elections by foreign nationals, most notably Russia.

    Russian hackers who infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s database and private email servers of both Democrats and Republicans was only the beginning.  The digital attacks expanded to bot-generated political ad campaigns dispersed among social media and more.  This cyber-war on democracy has been calculatedly discreet. You can find a timeline of the attacks here.  I suspect you’ll be surprised at how many there have been.  I was.

    In efforts to combat a faceless yet relentless enemy, Defending Digital Campaigns, Inc. petitioned the Federal Election Commission with an offer of free or low-cost cyber security for political candidates running for office.

    DDC is the brainchild of Robby Mook, 2016 campaign manager of Hillary Clinton; Matt Rhoades, 2016 campaign manager of Mitt Romney; and Deborah Plunkett, former Director of Information Assurance at the National Security Administration. The organization is an offshoot of Mook and Rhoades’s collaboration at Harvard’s Belfer Center on the Defending Digital Democracy Project, or D3P. In 2018, Mook, Rhoades, and Plunkett petitioned the FEC for permission to offer their campaign services.

    The obstacle with the company’s offer stems from policies restricting corporations from contributing to candidates/parties in support, or opposition.

    In the FEC petition, DDC argues that their services are neutral. They are offering security products and services to any candidate polling nationally at 5% or congressional candidates that qualify for the general election ballot, regardless of party or political affiliation. FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub raised concerns about creating a “loophole” in their current ban on corporate contributions. Not only that, but the Chair is warry of why two experienced practitioners who happened to be victims of the cyber security breaches of 2016 would offer their work for little to no cost (C&E).

    One can’t help but wonder how benign such a generous donation is, given the contributors’ respective political histories.

    Mook and Rhoades claim that because of their experiences with cyber terrorism, DDC aims to keep American digital campaigns safe from attack rather than seek any distinct political gain as is suspected with their contribution. A brief overview of first-quarter filings revealed a scant investment, if any, in cyber security for political campaigns (Slate).

    With the 2020 election looming, a policy decision of this caliber is something to keep in mind. If we do nothing, nothing will change.  If we do not consider new alternatives, the status quo will continue.  So I urge the FEC to approve the DDC petition.  Monitor them.  Require reporting to assure its neutrality.  But don’t sit and do nothing.

     

  • Comments off

    What Has Changed with the GOP’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

    After coming out of tax season, we are entering the time where refunds are in the mail.

    Despite all the excitement surrounding the tax cuts, many of the refund checks we see might only be marginally different from last year. For some, this means a smaller refund. For others, this means that they owe more to the IRS than they have in years past.

    This has left many with questions. One of President Donald Trump’s big campaign promises was to create fairer taxation for the middle class. But there is more to taxes than we see on our refunds now in the mail. The GOP’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has been at work longer – and harder — than the many in the public realize.

    The perceived refund shrink is explainable. One reason is quite simple: lower taxes on your gross income each pay period. You might have noticed in February of last year that you had a larger paycheck each pay period than you expected in the past. This is because of tax cuts resulting in less money withheld from your pay.

    Another bright side of new tax legislation is a larger Child Tax Credit for children under 17 years old. Parents can now claim a CTC of $2,000 per qualifying child; a far cry from the $1,000 under old tax laws. This part of the GOP bill is set to be phased out by the year 2025 (Tax Act).

    Unfortunately, as with any tax-related legislation, things are complicated. How beneficial the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is to you depends on your income bracket. If you land between $9,525-$200,000 each year, you were taxed an average of 2% less. The same applies for an income of over $500,000 per year. Those that lie in the $200,000-$500,000 range saw no change to their paycheck (Tax Foundation).

    Also, if you didn’t adjust your W-4s for the amount you wanted withheld in accordance to new tax codes, you may have been impacted negatively (Time Magazine). This explains why some people might end up with an unchanged income compounded by a smaller refund.

    The GOP’s tax bill eliminated personal exemptions as well, which amounted to nearly $4,050 per filer in 2017. Personal exemptions were replaced instead by a standard deduction double what it has been in previous years. For example, a person of single filing status went from $5,650 worth of standard deduction to $12,000.

    All that said, there were also losers in the new structure. With the cap on state property taxes and elimination of the state and local tax (SALT) deductions, many who live in the New York, New Jersey, California and other highly taxed states will pay more.

    Year to year, tax codes are a daunting puzzle. Did you feel cheated or triumphant after winding through the maze of 2019’s tax season?

Page 2 of 1212345...10...Last »