CRF Blog

Is Big Data Spreading Inequality?

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Is Big Data Spreading Inequality?

Social media companies depend on selling information about their users’ clicks and purchases to data brokers who match ads to the most receptive individuals.

But the Federal Trade Commission and the White House have called for legislation that would inform consumers about the data collected and sold to companies, warning of analytics that have “the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections.”

Does the collection of data by companies threaten consumers’ civil rights? [more]

12 powerful websites that can replace your desktop software

by Bill Hayes

PCWorld lists 12 powerful websites that can replace your desktop software.


Let’s face it: As ubiquitous as they are in the workplace, traditional presentations are booooooring. Prezi turns the stale state of affairs on its ear by reimagining presentations as lush, wide-open visual canvases, allowing you to zoom and pan around from point to point. It’s fun to use and utterly gorgeous to see in action. When’s the last time you heard that about a PowerPoint slide? [more]

The Gas Tax Is Running on Empty

by Bill Hayes

Congress passed a strange workaround to temporarily fund the Highway Trust Fund. In The Gas Tax Is Running on Empty, Bloomberg Businessweek explains why the gas tax won’t cover needed repairs.

Raising the federal gasoline tax, which provides the bulk of federal highway revenue, would seem to be the obvious solution. First passed in 1956 to pay for the more than 40,000 miles of road in the Interstate Highway System, it’s been stuck at 18.4¢ a gallon since 1993 — the longest it’s ever gone without an increase. As a result, revenue from the gas tax has remained almost unchanged. In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy have co-sponsored a bill to raise the national gas tax by 12¢ over the next two years and then index it to inflation — a plan that might prevent Congress from having to vote on raising it ever again.

The problem? Even that approach wouldn’t permanently fix the Highway Trust Fund shortfall. [more]

Infographic of the Day: Where’s the Oil?

Where Is The Oil?


… One Book Out

by Bill Hayes

In … One Book Out, an essay for the New York Times Book Review, Amy Wilentz explores the difficulties of getting rid of books on bookshelves to make way for more books.

Sometimes, my husband and I try to select books we want to jettison — otherwise how can we buy more? I mean, a house is for living in, right? We have to have space for beds, chairs, a table and some kitchen tools and appliances. (I guess we could buy another house for the books.) So we try to find books to dump. My husband will present me with a stack he has taken hours to curate. “These could go,” he’ll say, casually. I’ll look through them. Except for the copy of one of our bibles, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” by Richard Hofstadter, they will exclusively be my books. I can’t part with them. And the same thing happens when I do the triage.

But we’re getting tougher. [more]

The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges

by Bill Hayes

In The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges for the New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg reviews Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, and translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

By the early 1940s, nacionalistas were marching in the streets of Buenos Aires, chanting slogans in support of the Nazis. During World War II, Borges was closely aligned with socialist and liberal writers. And during the most oppressive years of Juan Domingo Perón’s government, in the early 1950s, he was assigned a detective to keep track of his moves and monitor his lectures, which were often caustically critical of Perón.

Yet in the conundrum of Argentine politics of those days, his liberalism was shot through with ambivalence. In principle, he favored a centralized, European-style democracy, but he worried that such “progressivism” amounted to “submitting to being almost–North Americans or almost-Europeans, always almost-others” — a threat to Argentina’s precarious cultural maturation. He also knew from experience that, given free elections, Argentines would, more often than not, vote into power a tyrannical caudillo with no interest in cultivating an independent judicial system or other reliably democratic institutions. Perón, who was elected president in 1946 when Borges was forty-seven, was a prime example of this. “Our vernacular imitation of fascism,” he called Peronism, with its roving bands of pampered workers, modeled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts, who acted as street enforcers and unofficial thugs.

The conundrum led Borges to the misguided belief that what Argentina needed was an enlightened dictatorship that would train its citizens in the ways of true democracy, and then oversee free elections. His public support for the violently repressive juntas of Generals Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, in the 1970s, has left a permanent stain on his reputation. Without excusing it, one can comprehend it as an act of despair, as Argentina tumbled toward bankruptcy and civil war, and a seemingly endless succession of inept governments collapsed. At the time, no political faction offered anything resembling a solution.

While an official guest of Pinochet, in 1976, Borges spoke of the “sword of honor” that would draw “the Argentine Republic out of the quagmire” just as it had done in Chile. Referring to the underground guerrilla groups that were battling the junta in Argentina, he said he preferred “the sword, the bright sword” over the “furtive dynamite” of the enemy. While in Spain, he called Videla’s junta “a government of soldiers, of gentlemen, of decent people.” [more]

20 Things You Didn’t Know About … Noise

by Bill Hayes

Discover magazine looks at 20 Things You Didn’t Know About … Noise.

3. For a really big bang, you should have heard Krakatoa in 1883. On Aug. 27, the volcanic island in Indonesia erupted with the explosive power of 200 megatons of TNT. The eruption could be heard nearly 3,000 miles away, making it the loudest noise in recorded history.

4. There are people who would outdo it if they could. They pack their cars with stereo amps to pump out 180-plus decibels (dB) of noise at so-called dB drag races. That’s how loud a jet engine would sound — if it were a foot away from your ear. [more]

What ailing pteropods tell us about climate change

by Bill Hayes

In What ailing pteropods tell us about climate change for the Los Angeles Times, biologist Larry Taylor says the tiny creatures are issuing a huge warning about the effects of global climate change.

These tiny snails make up the base of many oceanic food webs. Without them, everything in the food chain above them suffers, beginning with salmon and similar fish, then progressing to the species that eat the salmon and so on. Unfortunately, more than half of these snails collected in a recent survey showed extensive damage: Their shells are literally dissolving, killing them off in astounding numbers. [more]

Migration to the United States

by David De La Torre

In Under-age and on the move, The Economist looks at crisis on the American border.

The Rio Grande Valley is now the hottest spot for illegal crossings of the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico. And an increasing number of border-jumpers are children travelling without their parents. The number of unaccompanied children caught crossing has surged to about 52,000 so far this fiscal year, which started in October, up from 15,700 in fiscal 2011. Most of them have come not from Mexico, but from Central America. Of the youngsters caught so far this fiscal year, 15,000 are from Honduras, more than double last year’s number and five times the 2012 tally. (Plenty more get nabbed earlier in the journey: Fernando Lezama, the chief migration official in Corinto, says up to 5,000 unaccompanied Honduran kids have been deported from Mexico so far this year.) The sudden influx of children into the United States has nearly overwhelmed the agencies that must deal with it. Detention facilities for children who cross the border illegally are horribly overcrowded. On June 5th Breitbart Texas, a conservative news site, published leaked photos showing dozens of children crammed into bare rooms. Barack Obama speaks of an “urgent humanitarian situation”. [more]

Companies Choose Profits Over Productivity

by Bill Hayes

In Companies Choose Profits Over Productivity, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on why businesses are not showing increased productivity.

Although there are many reasons for the productivity rut, one of the primary ones is that businesses aren’t investing in their workers. Business investment fell almost 25 percent during the recession and hasn’t come back the way many economists had expected, especially given that low interest rates make borrowing less expensive. Growth of capital spending during this recovery is about 30 percent below the average of the prior five recoveries, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC). That’s left many workers without the equipment, software, and structures — which economists call “capital” — that they need to be more productive. Whether it’s a computer or a forklift, workers are stuck using outdated machines. The average age of equipment in the U.S. is 7.4 years, the highest in 20 years, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. [more]

At the World Pun Championships

by Bill Hayes

In At the World Pun Championships, the LA Weekly’s cover story profiles some punners and their awful progeny.

Gruber speaks six languages and can pun in them all. Last year she moved to Monterey to get a master’s in teaching a foreign language, but her fellow students didn’t always appreciate her puns — like when a linguist named Dr. Walqui was giving a lecture, she went around asking if anyone was going to the “Walqui talkie.”

“Sometimes I’ll make a pun that I expect the class to laugh at it and they don’t,” she says. “We’re all language geeks, so why aren’t we appreciating it more? But it may be I’m out of line and we’re talking about something else and it’s not funny time, it’s serious time.” She recently left grad school and moved to San Diego.

The dinner also attracts first-timers, such as a tall Brit wearing a name tag that said D’arren Walsh….

Walsh says he won the U.K. Pun Championships, which took place in a comedy club. “I was the organizer,” he says. “I was also the judge.”

In London, he’s primarily a stand-up comic. “I have a very understanding girlfriend. Doing puns and having a girlfriend is accomplishment enough,” he says. Scanning the crowd, he adds, “I may be the only one.”

Most participants appreciate an environment in which they can let their puns loose without fear of glares. But there is pressure to measure up. When one competitor, Lisa Bonos, meets Walsh by the vegetable platter, he starts by saying things like, “There’s a DIP in the conversation.” She says later, “I was wondering if I was punning enough.”

At one point Gruber helps lead a discussion of favorite puns. One competitor says, “What’s The Onion newspaper’s biggest competitor?” Ziek quips, “Is it Wiki-Leeks?” The punster seems embarrassed as he reveals his passable but inferior answer, the Garlic Press. [more]

Will Putinism triumph?

by Bill Hayes

Fareed Zakaria discusses the question: Will Putinism triumph?

You can also read his Washington Post column on The Rise of Putinism.

How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined

by Bill Hayes

In How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined for the New York Review of Books, Alice E. Marwick looks at how private companies have a lot of information about you.

The recent revelations regarding the NSA’s collection of the personal information and the digital activities of millions of people across the world have attracted immense attention and public concern. But there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.

Here I will discuss two things: the involuntary, or passive, collecting of data by private corporations; and the voluntary, or active, collection and aggregation of their own personal data by individuals. While I think it is the former that we should be more concerned with, the latter poses the question of whether it is possible for us to take full advantage of social media without playing into larger corporate interests.

The industry of collecting, aggregating, and brokering personal data is known as “database marketing.” The second-largest company in this field, Acxiom, has 23,000 computer servers that process more than 50 trillion data transactions per year, according to The New York Times.1 It claims to have records on hundreds of millions of Americans, including 1.1 billion browser cookies (small pieces of data sent from a website, used to track the user’s activity), 200 million mobile profiles, and an average of 1,500 pieces of data per consumer. [more]

Interview of the Day: Historian Jay Winter

by Bill Hayes

In The five things Americans should know about the Great War, Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison interviews Yale historian Jay Winter.

Why is a war this devastating barely a blip to Americans?

The war did not affect the United States in fundamental ways. It’s not written into family history. What people remember is the crossing of family history and global history. The United States was at war for 16, 17 months, and it suffered a bloody nose. Most of the major [European] countries suffered a wound that to some degree has never healed — 1.4 million Frenchmen killed, 1 million people who wore British uniforms killed. In French and British family life, everybody had somebody who was wounded or killed in the First World War. The American Army lost 100,000 men in the First World War, and half of them died of the Spanish flu. [more]

How to create great charts and graphics in Excel

by Bill Hayes

PCWorld has a nice explanation of How to create great charts and graphics in Excel.