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Why Is Israel Losing a War It’s Winning?

Six reasons why Israel is on the back foot even as it wins the battle against rockets and tunnels


An Israeli officer in a Hamas tunnel (Jack Guez/Reuters)


Things change, of course—the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change—but as I write it seems as if Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza).

This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception. Why is it happening again? Here are six possible reasons:

1. In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas’s leadership and Gaza’s civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)

2. Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this (for those who have forgotten about Hamas’s achievements in this area, here is a reminder, and also here and here), but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery. Here is The Washington Post on the subject:

The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.
3. People talk a lot about the Jewish lobby. But the worldwide Muslim lobby is bigger, comprising, among other components, 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations. Many Muslims naturally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. They make their voices heard, and they help shape a global anti-Israel narrative, in particular by focusing relentlessly on Gaza to the exclusion of conflicts in which Muslims are being killed in even greater numbers, but by Muslims (I wrote about this phenomenon here).

4. If you’ve spent any time these past few weeks on Twitter, or in Paris, you know that anti-Semitism is another source of Israel’s international isolation. One of the notable features of this war, brought to light by the ubiquity and accessibility of social media, is the open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us for more than 2,000 years; it is an ineradicable and shape-shifting virus. The reaction to the Gaza war—from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel’s behavior unfavorably to that of Hitler’s, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to, of course, the anti-Jewish riots in France—is a reminder that much of the world is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.

5. Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.

I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence—in particular security independence—can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way. A few months ago, President Obama told me how he views Israel’s future absent some sort of arrangement with moderate Palestinians:

[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers … is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?
Obama raised a series of prescient questions. Of course, the Israeli government’s primary job at the moment is to keep its citizens from being killed or kidnapped by Hamas. But it should work to find an enduring solution to the problem posed by Muslim extremism. Part of that fix is military, but another part isn’t.

6. Speaking of the Obama administration, the cause of a two-state solution would be helped, and Israel’s standing would be raised, if the secretary of state, John Kerry, realized that such a solution will be impossible to achieve so long as an aggressive and armed Hamas remains in place in Gaza. Kerry’s recent efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have come to nothing in part because his proposals treat Hamas as a legitimate organization with legitimate security needs, as opposed to a group listed by Kerry’s State Department as a terror organization devoted to the physical elimination of one of America’s closest allies. Here is David Horovitz’s understanding of Kerry’s proposals:

It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza — rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.
I’m not sure why Kerry’s proposals for a ceasefire seem to indulge the organization that initiated this current war. Perhaps because Kerry may be listening more to Qatar, which is Hamas’s primary funder, than he is listening to the Jordanians, Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians, all of whom oppose Hamas to an equivalent or greater degree than does their ostensible Israeli adversary. In any case, more on this later, as more details emerge about Kerry’s efforts. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll just say that Israel won’t have a chance of winning the current struggle against Hamas’s tunnel-diggers and rocket squads if its principal ally doesn’t appear to fully and publicly understand Hamas’s nihilistic war aims, even as it works to shape more constructive Israeli policies in other, related areas.


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There is no global warming, There is no global warming, There is no global warming…


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Awaiting Martin’s Beach decision: Attorneys give closing arguments, question constitutional property rights

Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Attorneys Mark Massara, left, Joe Cotchett, Eric Buescher and surfer Rob Caughlan gather for a press conference after Cotchett and Buescher presented closing arguments in the Martin’s Beach case at the County Center.
Attorney Jeffrey Essner, center, leaves court after representing Martin’s Beach property owner Vinod Khosla.

Attorneys for a wealthy property owner who contend it’s his right to gate off Martin’s Beach and environmental activists seeking public access to the coast presented closing arguments in a civil case to be decided by a San Mateo County judge within two months, with some predicting the issue could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The environmental activist group Surfrider Foundation filed the civil lawsuit in March 2013 in an attempt to reopen the secluded sliver of coast just south of Half Moon Bay to the public. The case now rests in the hands of Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach who is anticipated to rule in the next 30 to 60 days.

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla bought Martin’s Beach, previously open to the public for more than 100 years, in 2008 for $37.5 million and quickly closed the only access road to the public. The property became controversial as the rights of private property owners were pitted against California’s access to more than 1,000 miles of coastline.

Attorney Joe Cotchett, who represents Surfrider in its lawsuit, said although Wednesday may be the last he argues the case in the San Mateo County Superior Court, he doubts the results will end the saga to reopen the beach. The case, Cotchett said, has turned into a seminal one for private property rights and could have a broader effect on other disputes.

“I think this is the case Mr. Khosla wants to take to the Supreme Court,” Cotchett said. “[It’s a] philosophical divide between those who have and those who have not. … This case is not stopping here.”

Surfrider claims the billionaire property owner violated the California Coastal Act when he changed its land use by painting over signs and closing the only access road to the secluded beach before garnering mandated permits from the California Coastal Commission.

The respondent contends private property rights are historically protected under the Constitution and ceasing voluntary public access on private property is not considered development under the Coastal Act.

Jeffrey Essner, the attorney representing Khosla’s Martin’s Beach LLCs, said the California and United States supreme courts uphold the rights of individuals to control access to their property.

“The county, the Coastal Commission and now Surfrider by this action, and Mr. Cotchett’s demand for penalties, are forcing my client to accede his constitutional rights by extortion and give up a protected and cherished (private property) right,” Essner said. “This is forbidden by the Supreme Court and the United States Constitution.”

Surfrider maintains arguments over the constitutionality of the California Coastal Act and its assurance to maintain public access to coastal resources should be discussed in front the Coastal Commission and insist Khosla abide by the law.

Prayer for relief

On behalf of the Coastal Commission, the court can assess fines between $1,000 and $1,500 for each day someone violates the California Coastal Act. Cotchett urged fines be assessed beginning October 2010 and be paid into a special fund through the California Coastal Conservancy, which is overseen by the Legislature and can only be spent on coastal protection activities.

Cotchett said the court should penalize Khosla as he knowingly violated the Coastal Act and to ensure he follows through with applying for permits, Cotchett said.

“Somewhere, somehow, justice has to reign down on this individual, Mr. Khosla, and force him to go to the Coastal Commission and unlock that gate,” Cotchett said.

Essner argued groups like Surfrider and the Friends of Martin’s Beach, which filed a lawsuit alleging Khosla violated the state’s Constitution and was shot down last year, equate to coercion.

“The threat of an activist organization to impose tens of millions of dollars for exercising his constitutional rights is the type of extortion … the Supreme Court explicitly found unconstitutional,” Essner said.

Wealth and status

Both sides argue Khosla’s wealth has been used as a pawn in the case with Surfrider alleging the billionaire believes he is above the law and Essner contending the previous owners, the Deeney family, was never questioned over their disclosure of when to open or close the beach.

Fluid throughout the case were tales of Martin’s Beach historically being a prized surf break, a place for families to picnic and a unique gem along the coast. However, Essner argued that era has passed.

“My client understands that generations of families visited Martin’s Beach. The cherished memories they made there. But the fact is those treasured spots in the sand have long since washed away,” Essner said. “Martin’s Beach was no longer the place it was in the past and my client cannot be forced to recreate history and give up his constitutional rights.”

Surprisingly, Essner stated Khosla originally planned to keep Martin’s Beach open in a manner similar to the Deeney family, but the county sent a letter questioning why he closed it during the winter and instructing him to operate the beach as though it were a business.

Essner argued operating Martin’s Beach as it was previously would require bathroom upgrades, picnic tables, trash cans and would ultimately force Khosla to operate a business at a loss.

Surfrider has argued Khosla was well aware of the access conditions prior to buying the property and is required by law to receive approval from the Coastal Commission if he wishes to close Martin’s Beach to the public.

Other efforts

Khosla had not spoken publicly about owning Martin’s Beach until subpoenaed to testify in the case. Surfrider and state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, have said Khosla has dismissed all opportunities for an amenable compromise.

Concurrent with the Surfrider case, Hill proposed Senate Bill 968, which would require Khosla to negotiate with the State Lands Commission to reopen the beach. If a compromise cannot be met by Jan. 1, 2016, Khosla could face the state using condemnation for a right-of-way easement to create an access road off Highway 1.

Hill’s legislation easily passed the Senate and was amended in the Assembly to encourage, but not require the State Lands Commission to use its already allotted authority to use eminent domain. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Appropriations where it must be heard by August. Should it pass, the bill will go to the Assembly floor where it will need at least 41 votes to pass.

Eric Buescher, an attorney representing Surfrider, maintains the case isn’t about the constitutionality of the Coastal Act and Martin’s Beach has been needlessly closed for too long and the public need not wait any longer.

“The question here is not about the defendants private property rights. The question here is about whether the defendant violated the Coastal Act. … Disagreeing with the Coastal Act is not a valid reason to refuse to comply with it,” Buescher said. “The time for [Khosla] to be held liable and accountable for [his] contract is now, so the 6 million people who live within an hour’s drive of the San Mateo County coast are not deprived of its resources.”

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106


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How Chick-fil-A Hires: The Christian Way

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The chicken chain’s hiring practice is long and controversial; but it’s hard to argue with results. Credit: J. Reed

There are a few things you need to become a franchisee operator of a Chick-fil-A.

A commitment to the company. A strong belief in “wholesome values”. A willingness to endure a year-long vetting process. And it helps if you are married.

What don’t you need? A lot of money.

Chick-fil-A is, store-for-store, the most successful fast food restaurant in America, despite all of its locations being closed once a week (Sundays). And yet, to become a franchise operator, a person only needs $5,000, compared to the $1.9 million it takes to open a KFC.

Rather than looking for operators with cash, S. Truett Cathy – the company’s founder – has always focused on finding people committed to the company’s mission statement. And what is that?

“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us,” it reads. “To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

The Hiring Process

Chick-fil-A gets between 10,000 to 25,000 applicants a year from aspiring franchise operators to fill the 60 to 70 open slots that open up each year, according to As part of the application, Chick-fil-A asks candidates to disclose their marital status, number of dependents and their involvement in community, civil and religious organizations, according to

The company’s vetting process can include more than a dozen interviews with an applicant – some lasting hours – and the applicant’s family, including with their children, according to Forbes.Cathy told the magazine he is looking for married candidates (he believes they are more industrious) who are loyal, wholesome and treat their families well.

“If a man can’t manage his own life, he can’t manage a business,” Cathy said, according to Forbes.

Chick-fil-A’s hiring practices have been met with opposition, as the company has been sued at least 12 times on charges of employment discrimination, according to Forbes. And yet that has done little to stop the company from becoming the most successful fast food restaurant in America on a per-store basis.

The average Chick-fil-A store produced $2.7 million in revenue in 2010, which was $300,000 more than second-place McDonald’s, according to And turnover at Chick-fil-A stores for both franchise operators and hourly workers are both far below industry averages, according to Forbes.

One quick note, unlike many fast food chains, Chick-fil-A owns all of its stores and has franchise operators instead of owners. The setup seems to be mutually beneficial, as the average Chick-fil-A franchise operator makes $190,000 a year, more than most franchise owners, according to

The Bottom Line

Chick-fil-A’s hiring process is like Zappos in same ways: it has a very clear culture and makes cultural fit a top priority. The results are hard to argue with, as the company is one of the most successful restaurant chains in America, despite Forbes reporting that its closed-on-Sunday edict costs the company $500 million a year.

Saying that, there are many critics to the restaurant’s hiring practices and it seems to be a lawsuit-magnet. And by looking for a certain profile, the company is potentially excluding great candidates.

Ultimately though, what makes the company successful is its top-down commitment to one, clear vision, whether you agree with it or not. And that is epitomized in its hiring practice.

About VoiceGlance

VoiceGlance is a cloud-based hiring tool used by forward-thinking companies to hire smarter, instead of harder. Learn more here.


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Mad Men or Mad Math? The Decline and Rebirth of Online Advertising 


by Satish Polisetti –

As more sites like Facebook, Twitter and Buzzfeed blend ads directly into a user’s content stream, the future of online advertising is quickly shifting. It’s a brave new world defined by content, not dimensions; mad math, not mad men. Science and data, not merely creative endeavors.

Where are we today? Currently, online ads are defined primarily by size and dimensions — with IAB ad unit guidelines describing leaderboards (728 x 90 pixels), skyscrapers (160 x 600), and full banners (468 x 60), to name a few.

These very basic but widely accepted standards are based on the artistic perspectives of a previous generation – from the minds of creative geniuses you might see on Mad Men. These have more to do with traditional ad buys, and print ad dimensions, ones that have not really changed much in the past few decades since the swinging 60’s of Don Draper.  When we jumped into internet advertising, the look and feel of advertising changed, but standards failed to get with the times.

And then there were banners:

The history of the online banner ad can be traced back to Yahoo! and a nascent online advertising ecosystem. These are where the leaderboards, skyscrapers and full banners really claimed their moment. A full decade later, tech giant Google was using AdWords and text based advertising to push a new kind of content-based advertising that set the tone for the next stage in ads: Facebook and the news feed.

Facebook, which quickly conquered the world’s attention – and their data, figured out how to actually use the massive amount of user data they had at their fingertips to makes ads better — by creating editorial-based stories on your news feed.

So if the online ad has experienced so much growth, why are we still living in a world where the standards are based in the era of the Yahoo! banner ad?

Luckily there’s a new set of standards gaining traction within our industry, which are semantic rather than dimensions based.

Core content, API’s, and the future of online advertising

It’s a game-changing question: What if this old idea of an ad being defined  by its size was replaced by editorial content and a description? What if ads were essentially the same as content? That’s what API’s and semantic standards are here for.

These new advertising standards make banners work like chameleons – blending into and adjusting to any type of website design.  What’s more, they take just 1/10 of the time to integrate than a traditional ad, they’re easy to implement, and they increase user engagement.

If this massive shift in direction continues – which I am confident it will – banners as a branding mechanism will start to fade away and a new ads standard will be fully accepted into the fold. Soon, all online ad experiences will be seamlessly integrated into your newsfeed or mobile experience. Already major budgets are being shifted to Facebook and Twitter advertising, and these shifts will make new API-based dimensions for banner ads the new standard. Entire industries will be changed accordingly. Companies that don’t make the transition will simply die a slow death – like the old advertising standards themselves.

Satish Polisetti Bio:

Native advertising expert and founder of AdsNative ( He’s a TechStars 2013 graduate, Mayfield Fund Fellow and 30 under 30 alumni of India’s #1 private university.


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Criminals Target Stubhub with New ‘Cyber Scalping’ Tactics

stubhub-hit-by-intense-network-of-cyber-fraudstersThe recent hacking of the world’s largest ticket marketplace, StubHub, points to new lengths in which criminals will go to turn their online capabilities and opportunities into illegal monetary gain. Seven criminals from around the world turned the San Francisco-based vendor’s online customers against them by hacking 1,600 accounts and laundering $1.6 million in fraudulent wire transfers and PayPal transactions.

“The assault on StubHub showcases the creativity of the cybercriminal underground,” said Trend Micro vice president of technology and solutions JD Sherry.  “They have taken ticket scalping to the next level in the form of ‘Cyber Scalping.’ Any event with a social aspect such as concerts or sports that conduct commerce with a large online community are primary targets for these sophisticated crime syndicates.  The sick twist on this form of scalping is that they are acquiring the tickets at no cost and garnering 100% profit.”

Trend Micro, a global leader in cloud security, also warns that cybercriminals are not yet done with the pilfered accounts and system information obtained illegally by the thieves. Rather, StubHub and its customers should be on the lookout for more fraudulent activity as the stolen content is more than likely making the rounds within the underground markets for purchase.

An attack of this magnitude can start with as little as the click of a link or the opening of a weaponized attachment. Another possibility would be popular watering hole sites or drive-by downloads that prove difficult to avoid and even more complicated to detect. Vendors who provide goods and services online to customers are increasingly becoming the target for these sorts of attacks, and should take a serious look at what anti-fraud capabilities they have in place.



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U.S. leads in number of people unconcerned about climate change and environmental disaster

The poll, conducted by U.K. research organization Ipsos MORI, was conducted in 20 countries across the globe, and gathered feedback from over 16,000 people. The poll asked eight climate change and environment-related questions.

When asked the question, “To what extent do you agree or disagree? We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly,” only 57.3% of the respondents in the U.S. said that they agree. Of the countries surveyed, the U.S. came in last in the number of respondents who agreed with that statement.

The ranking of countries surveyed when asked the question: To what extent do you agree or disagree? We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly. China had the most number of respondents to agree with that statement. The U.S. had the least. (Ipsos MORI)

China, which has been the leading emitter of carbon dioxide according to the Environmental Protection Agency, had the most number of respondents agree with the statement that the world is heading for a disaster. The Unites States is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and comes in 13th in energy efficiency, according to ascorecard released by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Air quality issues in China might have played a role in these results. The smog problem is notoriously bad in the country, and could be in the forefront of peoples’ minds as they answer questions about the environment. The U.S., on the other hand, has seen a marked improvement in air quality since the mid-20th century, when some regions’ pollution rivaled China’s current levels.

In another survey question, respondents were asked if they agree that the climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity. 54% of U.S. respondents said that they agree — the lowest agreement ratio of the 20 countries polled. In China, 93% agree that human activity is to blame.

In America, climate change often seems to boil down to party lines. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication suggests there is a way to communicate the scientific consensus without triggering political polarization. They offer the solution of “using short, simple, declarative sentences or simple pie charts” when communicating the science to the public. They also note that while metaphors and analogies can be proven successful, it’s important to remember that “simple, sticky messages” are most effective.


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Algorithms in the Mist: How researchers try to decode Facebook’s newsfeed

Algorithms in the Mist

The algorithms used by Facebook and others are murky at best. Researchers are working to understand them.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

by Alex Dalenberg

The UpTake: Algorithms are a fact of digital life, but the inner-workings of the likes of Facebook’s newsfeed and Google Search are famously opaque. These researchers are working to change that.

The algorithms that power applications likeFacebook‘s newsfeed and GoogleSearch shape the contours of our digital lives, but only a handful of engineers know how they actually work.

That was the upshot at a luncheon forum this week at Harvard’s Berkman Center Internet and Society in which three researchers described their efforts to decipher Facebook’s newsfeed from the outside.

Even the most technically savvy can only make educated guesses at how these tools function. Silicon Valley companies zealously guard their algorithms as proprietary secrets. They’re also constantly changing (here’s an interactive showing how Google Search worked in 2007).

For most Web users they remain out of sight, out of mind. A recent study of Facebook users suggests that a lot of us aren’t even aware of their existence.

When Karrie Karahalios, an associate professor in computer science at theUniversity of Illinois, and her colleagues went to test how Facebook chooses what to display on its newsfeed, the majority of their 40 study participants (about 62 percent) had no idea that Facebook was even making choices about what they saw or didn’t see in their newsfeed.

To do this, Karahalios and her team built an app using Facebook’s API showing everything happening in a user’s network, no filter, placed alongside the regular, filtered newsfeed that users see when they log into Facebook.

In short, it was the first time many of the participants realized they weren’t getting updates from certain friends, family members or other pages because of choices made by Facebook algorithms.

The MIT Center for Civic Media has a nice play-by-play breakdown of the entire presentation here. The Berkman Center website hasn’t posted the video of it yet, but when they do, it should show up here.

There’s a lot to unpack in this presentation–far more than in a short post–but I thought it was worth pointing out as part of a growing trend of academics, journalists and other advocates calling for what might be described as algorithmic transparency. For example, Nick Diakopoulos, a Tow Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School, has argued that poking and prodding at algorithms should be its own journalism beat.

Why is it important? For one thing, algorithms determine what gets an airing in the marketplace of ideas. The companies that build these algorithms also have their prerogatives, and they don’t necessarily line up with the user’s when it comes to what they see and when.Christian Sandvig of the University of Michigan, who also presented at the Berkman Center, writes in detail about this here.

Recall the firestorm over the news that Facebook experimented on users by making newsfeed changes to test its impact on their emotions as well as the company’s tepid response. This conversation isn’t going away.


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Gangs, guns and Judas Priest: the secret history of a US-inflicted border crisis

Central America didn’t always have a gang epidemic. We exported that

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central america gangs
Children and migrants are fleeing rival gangs from the northern triangle of Central America, but the cycle of violence began further north than that. Photograph: Luis Romero / AP

Visiting El Salvador over the past year, it was hard not to think the country’s number-one job is standing around outside with a gun. In the region from which child migrants are fleeing to the US, personal security is largely a question of what you can afford to pay. El Salvador has, by one estimate, 25,000 private guards in a country with 20,000 police officers. In Honduras, which boasts the highest murder rate in the world and has seen the largest exodus of young people to the American border this year, guards outnumber cops five to one.

Wealthy Salvadorans can retreat to residential compounds that resemble a militarized version of a Palm Beach retirement community, complete with golf carts. Behind high walls and even higher voltage wires, one economist gushed to me: “This place has everything – we never have to go outside!” For the rest, those who stay and those who get sent back, gangland drama is a fact of life.

For Americans behind our own wall, there is a sense of bewilderment. We wonder why these young people are showing up at our borders, if they are enticed by some false promise of amnesty. And then we send them back.

But child migrants escaping north are not so irrational, and the current wave is neither new nor terribly mystifying. The factors that push and pull them – extreme violence, extortion, forced gang recruitment and a desire to reunite with family – are rooted in the United States’s heavy hand in the region.

Central America didn’t always have a gang epidemic. That was exported there by us. And the current immigration crisis is as much a United States legacy as it has become a local tragedy – a consequence of US-financed civil wars from the 1980s that sparked the first migration wave, and of US policies toward those migrants after they arrived.

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The origin of MS-13’s trademark devil-horns hand sign comes from an English-language metal band and the streets of Los Angeles Photograph: Ulises Rodriguez / EPA

Both major gangs now plaguing the region originated in Los Angeles. The gang that became MS-13 was originally an informal collection of teenage civil war refugees and metal-heads who borrowed their devil-horns hand sign from Judas Priest. Their onetime ally-turned-rival, Mara 18, traces back to the 1940s but shared with the newer gang an open-door membership for Central Americans that put them both at odds with the area’s more established, exclusively Mexican gangs. When those gangs began to terrorize the new immigrants, MS-13 and Mara 18 fought back. Only later would they spread to the countries which their parents had left, through deportations, and contribute to today’s migration wave.

In time, MS-13 and Mara 18 came to surpass their oppressors, thanks in part to a citywide police sweep that preceded the 1984 LA Summer Olympics, busting up the known Angeleno gangs but overlooking the new Central American rivals – and also their propensity for violence, notoriously favoring machetes for attacks.

These street battles would have been of little concern to most Americans were it not for President Clinton and his desire to triangulate Republicans on crime. In 1996, he signed a law that ratcheted up deportations of immigrants with criminal records – including those with citizenship – by making things like drunk driving and petty theft deportable offenses.

Shipping off undesirable immigrants proved enormously popular among Democrats and Republicans alike, and mass deportations continued apace under Presidents Bush and Obama – overwhelmingly to Mexico and Central America. According to Homeland Security data, annual criminal deportations to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have since jumped more than five-fold, from 1,987 in 1995 to 106,420 in 2013. Add the non-criminal deportation boom that will explode this year should Obama get the expedited deportation authority he’s currently seeking, and you’ll have the makings of yet another migration crisis just down the road.

Of course, deporting hundreds of thousands of criminals has been far less popular in the countries to which deportees are sent “home” – to a place many left as toddlers and do not remember. Mostly unemployable, some speaking little to no Spanish, many reconstituted their maras in countries ill-prepared to deal with them, still in the midst of postwar reconstruction, with underequipped and easily corruptible police in only nominal control of public safety.

It’s a cycle: With each planeload of deportees, the gangs grew stronger, expanding their activities and recruiting younger members by force – taking a page from the armies Washington had backed a generation earlier – and it is precisely those children they target who await processing in our border detention facilities today.

Once again, migrants fleeing a conflict zone we helped create are showing up at our doorstep, and our solution, once again, is to send them back. Basic humanity dictates that we consider the plight that brought them here, and that we prioritize family reunification. So, too, does the law – one which Congressional Republicans, who routinely charge Obama with not enforcing immigration law, are now clamoring for him to ignore, and Obama remains just as eager to oblige them.

During El Salvador’s recent presidential elections, the opposition party posted billboards in regions from which the largest number of migrants are leaving. Under pictures of Salvadoran families in DC, California and New York read lines like I WANT TO RETURN TO A COUNTRY FREE OF GANGS. It’s an ambition unlikely to be realized as long as the US believes we can deport our problems away, because eventually, those problems tend to come back to haunt us.


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The benefits cliff: when minimum wage increases backfire on the people in need

For many Americans living in poverty, the real cost of higher minimum wage could be benefits lost by a few dollars gained

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A 50-cent raise could result in many Americans losing childcare benefits, thus plunging the family deeper into poverty. Photograph: Chris Rout/Alamy

Here’s the paradox of the minimum wage: even as the higher minimum wage attempts to lift low-wage workers out of poverty and help them get off benefits, it might actually leave them worse off than before. The reason? The few extra dollars tacked onto their pay checks cause them to lose their federal benefits, including food stamps or housing subsidies.

For example, a wage of about $11 to $12 can cost a single mother with two children their food stamps, also known as Snap benefits. A wage of about $15 to $16, similar to the minimum wage recently enacted in Seattle, can leave that same family without any childcare benefits.

“This is a big issue with deciding [social] programs, because you want the programs to be targeted towards the people that most need them,” explains Curtis Skinner, director of family economic security at National Center for Children in Poverty. “On the other hand, you don’t want to create this disincentive, which is possible, to earn more or to take a promotion.”

It’s the benefits cliff, and it’s very real.

“There is this issue of the benefits cliffs, where some programs are designed so just a very marginal increase in earnings can result in a loss of a very important benefit. And a lot of states, unfortunately, have structured their childcare subsidies programs that way,” explains Skinner.

“Typically, pay rises, income rises, but at some point you lose eligibility for a subsidies all together and it’s an abrupt reduction in that family’s resources,” Skinner says.

In the world of benefits, nuclear families are far from the norm. Very often, the benefits are calculated on the income of a single breadwinner – usually a mother.

A single mother with two children is “a common family type, it’s not an anomaly at all,” explains Derek Thomas, a senior policy analyst at the Indiana Institute for Working Families.

Minimum wage wars: $10.10 v $15

The current proposal in Washington to increase the national minimum wage to $10.10 would help families keep their benefits.

“Such families would retain these benefits at $10.10,” explains Skinner. “Families would also qualify, most importantly, for childcare subsidies at this level of income.”

Increasing minimum wage, however, affects the pay of all low-wage workers.

It’s the $11 to $11.50 hourly wage where families begin to lose their Snap benefits, says Thomas.

The higher the minimum wage gets, the less in benefits the family is eligible to receive.

“Raising minimum wage to $15 an hour, you also have the same problem with childcare in Indiana. Because going from $15 to $15.50, you lose almost $9,000 in childcare benefits in Indianapolis,” explains Thomas.

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In Indiana, the most dramatic benefit ‘cliff’ occurs when child care subsidies are lost between the wages of $15.00 and $15.50 per hour – a total net resource loss of $8,454, and about 25% loss in annual resources. Photograph: Indiana Institute for Working Families

The problem is not unique to Indiana. A higher minimum wage improves a family’s financial situation, but too often, not by enough.

“In many places, $15 minimum wage would still be too low to make ends meet for a family of three in large cities,” says Skinner. “The big issue is that it could cause some families to lose childcare subsidies – well over $10,000 a year. The families would have to balance the tradeoff between the wage increase and losing the childcare subsidies if they need them.”

Childcare is the most expensive benefit to lose.

Living wage

How to fix this is the thorny issue.

“The minimum wage is not the way to go,” says Skinner, pointing out that by the time it’s finally implemented, it’s likely the wage will be once again outdated.

Considering all this, advocates have begun calling for a move away from the minimum wage and the adoption of something called a living wage. Or as Thomas puts it, a self-sufficient wage.

“Everyone likes the idea of self-sufficiency,” Thomas says. When earning a self-sufficient wage, a mom with two kids wouldn’t need to rely on any governmental assistance to make ends meet.

“The math is clear. We need to bring [minimum wage] up to living wage so that we spend less on benefits. That’s the goal,” says Susan J. Roll, an assistant professor at the School of Social work at the California State University in Chico. “No one wants to live on benefits.”

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Protesters hold ‘Strike for 15′ signs at the Brighton Park McDonald’s in Chicago during a protest for higher minimum wage. Photograph: Steve Rhodes/Demotix/Corbis

The last bill to increase the federal minimum wage was passed in 2007. Increasing minimum wage to the proposed $10.10 in the current US political climate seems difficult enough. Moving to a living wage might well be impossible.

Unfortunately, calculating a living wage is no easy task. A self-sufficient wage would not be the same for all areas in the US. It can also vary significantly across counties of any given state.

While the self-sufficient wage in Indianapolis is $19, there are other counties where it’s even higher, notes Thomas, adding that in some places it’s as high as $22 an hour.

There is a reason why the gap between the current minimum wage and the living wage is so high. “The wages have remained basically the same and the cost of goods has increased,” explains Thomas.

Bringing the issue back to the communities

As a result, many state and local governments have taken the matters into their own hands. Recently, Seattle raised their minimum wage to $15 an hourChicago is mulling doing the same.

When considering an increase in minimum wage, states should also revisit the issue of their benefit eligibility levels, says Thomas. “That’s a good time for states to deal with both issues at the same time.”


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