CRF Blog

When Charter Schools Are Nonprofit in Name Only

by Bill Hayes

In When Charter Schools Are Nonprofit in Name Only, ProPublica reports on non-profit charter schools that pass nearly all their money to for-profit companies.

In the charter-school sector, this arrangement is known as a “sweeps” contract because nearly all of a school’s public dollars — anywhere from 95 to 100 percent — is “swept” into a charter-management company.

The contracts are an example of how the charter schools sometimes cede control of public dollars to private companies that have no legal obligation to act in the best interests of the schools or taxpayers. When the agreement is with a for-profit firm like National Heritage Academies, it’s also a chance for such firms to turn taxpayer money into tidy profits.

“It’s really just a pass-through for for-profit entities,” said Eric Hall, an attorney in Colorado Springs who specializes in work with charter schools and has come across many sweeps contracts. “In what sense is that a nonprofit endeavor? It’s not.” [more]

In the Heart of Mysterious Oman

by Bill Hayes

In In the Heart of Mysterious Oman for the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin reviews Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965–1976 by Abdel Razzaq Takriti and Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State by Marc Valeri.

On March 12, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, together with his foreign minister, his oil minister, the head of Iran’s central bank, and other senior Iranian officials, took a short flight across the Gulf of Oman to Muscat, the capital of Oman. Occupying the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where the Persian Gulf meets the Arabian Sea, Oman belongs to a part of the Arab world known for its hostility to Iran’s Islamic Republic. Several of Oman’s closest neighbors, including Qatar, Kuwait, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have been fighting an increasingly brutal proxy war with Iran in Syria; Iran has at various times threatened to block tankers carrying Arabian oil from passing through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which separates it from Oman.

But the purpose of this extraordinary visit — the first by President Rouhani to Arabia — was to discuss economic ties with Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, who has been ruling Oman for more than four decades. Within twenty-four hours, the two countries had concluded an agreement to build a $1 billion gas pipeline across the Gulf of Oman and provide Iranian gas to Oman for twenty-five years.

The deal showed just how quickly Iran’s position in the world has evolved. When Rouhani was elected, in June 2013, Iran was suffering from years of economic sanctions and isolation by the United States, which had deep alliances with Iran’s enemies — the mostly Sunni monarchies on the other side of the Persian Gulf. Since then, Iran has reached an interim agreement with the US to negotiate a new nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has lost considerable influence in Washington, and the Saudi-led alliance — the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Oman is a charter member — is increasingly divided. In June, when Sunni extremists swept across the northern half of Iraq, there was even talk of Washington’s and Tehran’s growing shared interests in saving the country. Though little noted in the press, the leader largely responsible for this dramatic shift was Sultan Qaboos, a staunch US ally and, measured by years in office, the most senior of the Arabian monarchs.

Unlike his flamboyant peers in Qatar and the Emirates, Sultan Qaboos has long had an aversion to publicity. But over the past year, the seventy-three-year-old sultan has asserted his country’s interests in regional affairs with unusual vigor. In August 2013, he was the first foreign head of state to visit Rouhani in Tehran, where he also met the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei; this was followed by revelations that Oman had secretly been the host for bilateral talks between Iranian and US officials that produced the breakthrough interim agreement last fall. [more]

Isis and what it means to be modern

by Bill Hayes

In Isis and what it means to be modern for BBC News Magazine, John Gray argues that although ISIS portrays itself as returning to medieval ways, it actually is quite modern.

When you see the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in Mosul announcing the creation of a caliphate — an Islamic state ruled by a religious leader — it’s easy to think that what you’re watching is a march back into the past. The horrifying savagery with which the jihadist organisation treats anyone that stands in its way seems to come from a bygone era. The fact that Isis — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has now changed its name to the Islamic State — claims that it wants to restore an early type of Islam, leads many of us to see it as trying to bring about a reversion to mediaeval values.

To my mind, this gives too much credence to the way Isis views itself. There’s actually little in common between the horribly repressive regime it has established in parts of Iraq and Syria and the subtle Islamic states of mediaeval times, which in Spain, for example, exercised a degree of tolerance at a time when the rest of Europe was wracked by persecution. Destroying ancient shrines and mosques, Isis is trying to eradicate every trace of Islamic tradition. It’s probably even more oppressive than the Taliban were in Afghanistan. In power, Isis resembles a 20th Century totalitarian state more than any type of traditional rule.

Surprising as it may sound, Isis is in many respects thoroughly modern. Like al-Qaeda before them, these jihadists have organised themselves as a highly efficient company. [more]

Georgia and Russia

by David De La Torre

In Dreams deferred, The Economist reports that Georgia, the country, seemingly is growing closer to Russia.

RUSSIA’S unacknowledged war in Ukraine did not start with the annexation of Crimea. The precedent was set six years earlier, during a five-day war between Russia and Georgia that resulted in Russia’s occupation of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Unwilling to confront Russia directly, Western leaders instead blamed the recklessness of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president at the time. That was when Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, reportedly began talking about Crimea.

On the face of it, Georgia’s relationship with Russia has since much improved. [more]

The view from inside North Korea

by Bill Hayes

In The view from inside North Korea, Fareed Zakaria interviews Suki Kim, who spent months in North Korea as a teacher.

A timely tale of the ever-changing GOP

by Bill Hayes

In A timely tale of the ever-changing GOP for the Los Angeles Times, Jim Newton reviews To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party by Heather Cox Richardson.

Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College and author of previous American histories, begins her story with the debates over slavery as it applied to America’s westward expansion. From there, she methodically re-creates the GOP’s wobbly path as it bounced between populist and elitist impulses. The party of Lincoln created the income tax and land-grant colleges and built the intercontinental railroad; after Lincoln’s death, it abandoned those democratic instincts and cozied up to Eastern finance.

Teddy Roosevelt revitalized the party by force of personality and introduction of Progressivism to its program. [more]

A History of the C.I.A.’s Secret Interrogation Program

by Bill Hayes

The New York TimesA History of the C.I.A.’s Secret Interrogation Program is a useful timeline of the program.

The Ebola Wars

by Bill Hayes

In The Ebola Wars for the New Yorker, Richard Preston reports on how genomics research can help contain the outbreak.

The most dangerous outbreak of an emerging infectious disease since the appearance of H.I.V., in the early nineteen-eighties, seems to have begun on December 6, 2013, in the village of Meliandou, in Guinea, in West Africa, with the death of a two-year-old boy who was suffering from diarrhea and a fever. We now know that he was infected with Ebola virus. The virus is a parasite that lives, normally, in some as yet unidentified creature in the ecosystems of equatorial Africa. This creature is the natural host of Ebola; it could be a type of fruit bat, or some small animal that lives on the body of a bat — possibly a bloodsucking insect, a tick, or a mite.

Before now, Ebola had caused a number of small, vicious outbreaks in central and eastern Africa. Doctors and other health workers were able to control the outbreaks quickly, and a belief developed in the medical and scientific communities that Ebola was not much of a threat. The virus is spread only through direct contact with blood and bodily fluids, and it didn’t seem to be mutating in any significant way.

After Ebola infected the boy, it went from him to his mother, who died, to his three-year-old sister, who died, and to their grandmother, who died, and then it left the village and began moving through the human population of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Since there is no vaccine against or cure for the disease caused by Ebola virus, the only way to stop it is to break the chains of infection. Health workers must identify people who are infected and isolate them, then monitor everybody with whom those people have come in contact, to make sure the virus doesn’t jump to somebody else and start a new chain. Doctors and other health workers in West Africa have lost track of the chains. Too many people are sick, and more than two hundred medical workers have died. Health authorities in Europe and the United States seem equipped to prevent Ebola from starting uncontrolled chains of infection in those regions, but they worry about what could happen if Ebola got into a city like Lagos, in Nigeria, or Kolkata, in India. The number of people who are currently sick with Ebola is unknown, but almost nine thousand cases, including forty-five hundred deaths, have been reported so far, with the number of cases doubling about every three weeks. The virus seems to have gone far beyond the threshold of outbreak and ignited an epidemic.

The virus is extremely infectious. Experiments suggest that if one particle of Ebola enters a person’s bloodstream it can cause a fatal infection. This may explain why many of the medical workers who came down with Ebola couldn’t remember making any mistakes that might have exposed them. One common route of entry is thought to be the wet membrane on the inner surface of the eyelid, which a person might touch with a contaminated fingertip. The virus is believed to be transmitted, in particular, through contact with sweat and blood, which contain high concentrations of Ebola particles. People with Ebola sweat profusely, and in some instances they have internal hemorrhages, along with effusions of vomit and diarrhea containing blood.

Despite its ferocity in humans, Ebola is a life-form of mysterious simplicity. A particle of Ebola is made of only six structural proteins, locked together to become an object that resembles a strand of cooked spaghetti. An Ebola particle is only around eighty nanometres wide and a thousand nanometres long. If it were the size of a piece of spaghetti, then a human hair would be about twelve feet in diameter and would resemble the trunk of a giant redwood tree.

Once an Ebola particle enters the bloodstream, it drifts until it sticks to a cell. The particle is pulled inside the cell, where it takes control of the cell’s machinery and causes the cell to start making copies of it. Most viruses use the cells of specific tissues to copy themselves. For example, many cold viruses replicate in the sinuses and the throat. Ebola attacks many of the tissues of the body at once, except for the skeletal muscles and the bones. It has a special affinity for the cells lining the blood vessels, particularly in the liver. After about eighteen hours, the infected cell is releasing thousands of new Ebola particles, which sprout from the cell in threads, until the cell has the appearance of a ball of tangled yarn. The particles detach and are carried through the bloodstream, and begin attaching themselves to more cells, everywhere in the body. The infected cells begin spewing out vast numbers of Ebola particles, which infect more cells, until the virus reaches a crescendo of amplification. The infected cells die, which leads to the destruction of tissues throughout the body. This may account for the extreme pain that Ebola victims experience. Multiple organs fail, and the patient goes into a sudden, steep decline that ends in death. In a fatal case, a droplet of blood the size of the “o” in this text could easily contain a hundred million particles of Ebola virus.

Inside each Ebola particle is a tube made of coiled proteins, which runs the length of the particle, like an inner sleeve. Viewed with an electron microscope, the sleeve has a knurled look. Like the rest of the particle, the sleeve has been shaped by the forces of natural selection working over long stretches of time. Ebola is a filovirus, and filoviruses appear to have been around in some form for millions of years. Within the inner sleeve of an Ebola particle, invisible even to a powerful microscope, is a strand of RNA, the molecule that contains the virus’s genetic code, or genome. The code is contained in nucleotide bases, or letters, of the RNA. These letters, ordered in their proper sequence, make up the complete set of instructions that enables the virus to make copies of itself. A sample of the Ebola now raging in West Africa has, by recent count, 18,959 letters of code in its genome; this is a small genome, by the measure of living things. Viruses like Ebola, which use RNA for their genetic code, are prone to making errors in the code as they multiply; these are called mutations. Right now, the virus’s code is changing. As Ebola enters a deepening relationship with the human species, the question of how it is mutating has significance for every person on earth. [more]

Theirs for the Taking

by Bill Hayes

In Theirs for the Taking for the New York Times Book Review, Benjamin Wallace-Wells reviews The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner

The man, whose name was Roger Holder, was not actually a member of the Weatherman, or of S.D.S. He was a traumatized, unemployed drifter, whose only accomplice was his 20-year-old girlfriend, Cathy Kerkow, who until a few days earlier had been working in a San Diego massage parlor. They were radicals only casually, with no obvious aptitude for terrorism: Holder consulted astrological charts to ease his mind during the hijacking, and when it turned out the plane lacked the capacity to fly across the Pacific, he chose a new destination — Algiers, where the charismatic Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver had taken up residence.

And yet, despite their obvious limitations, this unlikely pair succeeded. In an era when skyjacking was shockingly common, they pulled off the longest–distance hijacking in American aviation history, and then, equally amazingly, stayed mostly ahead of the law ever since. [more]

Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone — Especially the Wealthy

by Bill Hayes

In Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone — Especially the Wealthy for the New Republic, Michael Lewis reviews Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust by Darrell M. West.

Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, West notes that the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of American citizens has returned to levels not seen in a century. One percent of the population controls a third of its wealth, and the problem is only getting worse: from 1979 to 2009 after-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by 155 percent while not changing all that much for everyone else. By another measure of inequality, which compares the income controlled by the top 10 percent with that of the bottom 40 percent, the United States is judged to come forty-fourth out of the eighty-six nations in the race, and last among developed nations. But the object of West’s interest is not the top 10 percent or even the top 1 percent, but the handful of the richest people on the planet — the 1,645 (according to Forbes) or 1,682 (the Knight Frank group) or 1,867 (China’s Start Property Group) or 2,170 (UBS Financial Services) people on the planet worth a billion dollars or more. (The inability to identify even the number of billionaires hints at a bigger problem: how little even those who claim an expertise about this class of people actually know about them.)

Billionaires seems to have been sparked by West’s belief that rich people, newly empowered to use their money in politics, are now more likely than usual to determine political outcomes. This may be true, but so far the evidence — and evidence here is really just a handful of anecdotes — suggests that rich people, when they seek to influence political outcomes, often are wasting their money. Michael Bloomberg was able to use his billions to make himself mayor of New York City (which seems to have worked out pretty well for New York City), but Meg Whitman piled $144 million of her own money in the streets of California and set it on fire in her failed attempt to become governor. Mitt Romney might actually have been a stronger candidate if he had less money, or at least had been less completely defined by his money. [more]

Demolition Derby

by Bill Hayes

In Demolition Derby for Foreign Policy magazine, Gregg Carlstrom looks at how in the wake of renewed terrorism, Israel is reviving its policy of demolishing the homes of accused terrorists.

“When you’re dealing with people who have no qualms whatsoever about killing themselves in order to kill others, deterrence is a problem,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, told Foreign Policy on Nov. 24. “How do you deter someone who’s willing to kill themselves in order to get others?”

It’s a question the Israeli army established a commission to study over a decade ago, though, the group ultimately concluded that home demolitions were not the answer. The panel, headed by Gen. Udi Shani and convened as the Second Intifada died down in late 2004, was the first serious study on the subject, and its findings were stark: “There is no proof of the deterrent effect of house demolitions,” it reported, after speaking with everyone from military officers to philosophers. As a result, the policy was largely suspended. [more]

Reason and the Republic of Opinion

by Bill Hayes

In Reason and the Republic of Opinion for the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier looks at “how to improve opinion in a republic of opinions.”

One of the most absurd charges against reason is that it is authoritarian. The postwar Marxist intellectuals who conflated reason with “instrumental reason” and “instrumental reason” with authoritarianism helped to perpetuate this canard. There is nothing rational about tyranny: it is stupid and it is mad. Its “rationality,” which is to say, its internal coherence and its capacity to function, is not the same as reason. Quite the contrary: it is reason that exposes this rationality for what it really is. More importantly, reason is essentially anti-authoritarian because a rational discussion is never closed. (Whereas nothing shuts down a conversation more brusquely than an emotion.) That is why modern thinkers still engage with ancient thinkers. That is why science never ends. New objections and new findings are always welcome. In the war against reason in much of contemporary philosophy, one of the cleverest tricks is to present reason’s rigor, its insistence upon the importance of the inquiry into truth and falsehood, as discouraging to thought. But the contrary is the case. What could be more encouraging to thought than the belief in the possibility of intellectual progress? This is a gathering to which all minds are invited. They have merely to agree to behave like minds. But then minds are not supposed to behave like hearts.

Reason frightens some people, but reason is never as frightening as its opposite.

“The God of my heart is the God of my mind,” wrote Hermann Cohen. Leave God out of it for a moment: I have never known quite how to read that sentence. The union that it extols seems to liquidate the benefits of our multiplicity. Did he mean that the mind will be like the heart or that the heart will be like the mind? Either way, he was performing an amputation.

The application of reason to public affairs is sometimes confused with technocracy. Yet there are no technocrats of first principles, no specialists in what to believe. Some people regard themselves as such experts, of course; but too much authority is conceded to them. Good judgment cannot be prescribed or outsourced. There are no blue-ribbon panels on truth and goodness. The responsibility for belief falls equally on all of us. The search for values, and for the grounds of values, is catch-as-catch-can: it may lead the thoughtful individual to books, to films, to travel, to participation, to conversation, to friendship and love, as the long work of mental clarification proceeds. A sense of the provisional about one’s view of the world is usually a sign of intellectual probity: most conviction exists in the vast cold space between perfect obscurity and perfect certainty. The thoughtful individual is condemned to an existence of corrections and amplifications, both analytical and empirical, in which Jamesian leaps are the selfish indulgences of impatient minds.

An open mind is not an empty mind. [more]

Now at the Sands Casino: An Iranian Hacker in Every Server

by Bill Hayes

In Now at the Sands Casino: An Iranian Hacker in Every Server, a feature story, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at an under-reported hack of the Sands Casino and what it might mean in light of the Sony hack.

This was new. Other countries have spied on American companies, and they have stolen from them, but this is likely the first time — occurring months before the late November attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment (SNE) — that a foreign player simply sought to destroy American corporate infrastructure on such a scale. Both hacks may represent the beginning of a geopolitically confusing, and potentially devastating, phase of digital conflict. Experts worry that America’s rivals may have found the sweet spot of cyberwar — strikes that are serious enough to wound American companies but below the threshold that would trigger a forceful government response. More remarkable still, Sands has managed to keep the full extent of the hack secret for 10 months.

In October 2013, Adelson, one of Israel’s most hawkish supporters in the U.S., arrived on Yeshiva University’s Manhattan campus for a panel titled “Will Jews Exist?” Among the speakers that night were a famous rabbi and a columnist from the Wall Street Journal, but the real draw for the crowd in the smallish auditorium was Adelson, a slightly slumped 81-year-old man with pallid jowls and thinning hair who had to be helped onto the stage by assistants. With a net worth of $27.4 billion, Adelson is the 22nd-wealthiest person in the world, thanks mostly to his 52 percent stake in Las Vegas Sands. He has built the most lucrative gaming empire on earth by launching casinos in Singapore and China whose profits now dwarf those coming from Las Vegas. An owner of three news outlets in Israel and a friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson also spends large sums of money to support conservative politicians in the U.S.; he may be best known for contributing some $100 million in a failed attempt to unseat President Obama and elect Republicans to Congress in the 2012 election.

At Yeshiva he described how he’d handle talks with Iran about its ongoing nuclear program. “What are we going to negotiate about?” Adelson asked. “What I would say is, ‘Listen. You see that desert out there? I want to show you something.’ ” He would detonate an American warhead in the sand, he said, where it “doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes and scorpions or whatever.” The message: The next mushroom cloud would rise over Tehran unless the government scrapped any plans to create its own nukes. “You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position,” Adelson said, to light applause. It took only a few hours for his remarks to be posted on YouTube (GOOG) and ricochet around the Internet. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded two weeks later, according to the country’s semiofficial Fars News Agency, saying America “should slap these prating people in the mouth and crush their mouths.” [more]

The Mysterious Use of Lie Detectors

by Bill Hayes

In Lie detectors: Why they don’t work, and why police use them anyway for Vox, Joseph Stromberg goes through the research on the polygraph and tries to figure out why they are relied on so much.

Polygraphs are also regularly used by law enforcement when interrogating suspects. In some places, they’re used to monitor the activities of sex offenders on probation, and some judges have recently permitted plea bargains that hinge on the results of defendants’ polygraph tests.

Here’s what makes this all so baffling: the question of whether polygraphs are a good way to figure out whether someone is lying was settled long ago. They aren’t.

“There’s no unique physiological sign of deception. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that the things the polygraph measures — heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and breathing — are linked to whether you’re telling the truth or not,” says Leonard Saxe, a psychologist at Brandeis University who’s conducted research into polygraphs. In an exhaustive report, the National Research Council concluded that “Almost a century of research in scientific psychology and physiology provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy.” [more]

Over-Budget Construction Projects Around the World

Infographic: Over-Budget Construction Projects In Comparison | Statista

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