CRF Blog

Crooks Are Using an International Messaging System to Rob Banks

by Bill Hayes

In Crooks Are Using an International Messaging System to Rob Banks, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the latest cybercrime.

Since the Bangladesh job came to light, other banks have come forward. In Ecuador, a commercial bank said it was held up for $12 million last year. A bank in Vietnam said criminals tried, and failed, to steal $1.1 million in what experts say may have been a practice run for Bangladesh. By late May as many as a dozen more banks, mostly in Southeast Asia, reported break-ins. All of the attacks were committed by cybercriminals, and at least some made use of a messaging system run by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, better known as Swift. [more]

The long march from China to the Ivies

by Bill Hayes

In The long march from China to the Ivies, 1843 looks at how Chinese students prepare to be admitted to top American universities.

It is one of China’s curious contradictions that, even as the government tries to eradicate foreign influences from the country’s universities, the flood of Chinese students leaving for the West continues to rise. Over the past decade, the number of mainland Chinese students enrolled in American colleges and universities has nearly quintupled, from 62,523 in 2005 to 304,040 last year, according to the Institute of International Education. Many of these students are the sons and daughters of China’s rising elite, establishment families who can afford tuition fees of $60,000 a year for America’s top universities — and the tens of thousands of dollars needed to prepare for the transition. Even the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s president and the man driving the campaign against foreign ideas, recently studied — under a pseudonym — at Harvard University.

Among Western educators, the Chinese system is famous for producing an elite corps of high-school students who regularly finish at the top of global test rankings, far ahead of their American and British counterparts. Yet so many Chinese families are now opting out of this system that selling education to Chinese students has become a profitable business for the West. They now account for nearly a third of all foreign students in America, contributing $9.8 billion a year to the United States’ economy. In Britain, too, Chinese students top the international lists. And the outflow shows no sign of subsiding: according to a recent Hurun Report, an annual survey of China’s elite, 80% of the country’s wealthy families plan to send their children abroad for education.

Not every Chinese student is driven … by the desire to escape the grind of the gaokao and get a more liberal education. For many Chinese families, sending a child to a Western university is a way of signalling status — yet “another luxury brand purchase,” as Jiang Xueqin, an educational consultant, puts it. For students faring poorly in the gaokao system, moreover, foreign universities offer an escape valve, and a way to gain an edge in the increasingly competitive job and marriage market back home. And for wealthy families seeking a safe haven for their assets — by one estimate more than $1 trillion in capital left China in 2015 — a foreign education for a child can serve as a first step towards capital flight, foreign investment, even eventual emigration.

The vast majority of Chinese applicants end up in large state universities, many in the American Midwest, where populations of more than 4,000 Chinese students (out of student bodies of more than 30,000) can segregate into miniature Chinatowns on campus. But name-brand universities have a cult-like allure. Every aspiring overseas student in China can rattle off the names of the top ten or twenty American universities. Chinese bookstores are lined with memoirs and how-to guides with titles such as “Stanford Silver Bullet” or “Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge”. The original bible of this motivational genre, “Harvard Girl Liu Yiting”, describes the “scientifically proven methods” that a couple used to turn their daughter into an academic star. In one of the tests they devised, she held ice in her bare hands for long periods to toughen herself up.

Competition for entrance into these schools is ferocious. Of the roughly 40,000 Chinese students applying to universities in the United States last year, around 200 were accepted into Ivy League schools. As a Beijing-based consultant puts it drily: “Harvard only accepts seven or eight Chinese students a year, and one of them is bound to be the offspring of a tycoon or a leader.” American applicants have it easy by comparison. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, accepted 9.7% of domestic applicants in 2015 — and a mere 3% of international applicants.

The application process can seem bafflingly complex. [more]

How to Stop Humans From Filling the World With Trash

by Bill Hayes

In How to Stop Humans From Filling the World With Trash, the Atlantic looks at how we can produce less trash.

The average American produces about 130 pounds of trash a month, and an article in the journal Nature estimates that global solid-waste generation will triple, to 11 million tons a day, by 2100. Meanwhile, we’re running out of space for landfills, especially in Japan and Europe. Here, drawn from interviews with scientists, environmentalists, and sanitation experts, are ideas for how to tackle this looming problem.

One way to get people to produce less garbage is to charge them for it. [more]

Forget It

by Bill Hayes

In Forget It for the New York Times Book Review, Gary J. Bass reviews In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies by David Rieff.

Worse, Rieff worries that memory could not just spark violence, but prolong it. In order to end a war, or get a dictator to yield power to democrats, it’s often necessary to negotiate with murderous leaders who will demand their own amnesty — blotting out their own past cruelties to assure future peace. (Nuremberg, the preferred precedent of human rights lawyers, is almost always the wrong example. It was only after a hard-won unconditional victory that the Allies could put Nazi Germany’s rulers on trial, but most wars don’t end so decisively.) While Rieff would prosecute war criminals whenever feasible, he rejects the legalistic “absolutism” of those human rights activists who insist on justice above peace or other worthwhile political goals. He prudently warns that Chile’s return to democracy could have been scuttled by a Spanish warrant for the arrest of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. And in Bosnia, he convincingly argues that the injustice of a Dayton peace agreement that spared the bloodstained Slobodan Milosevic was still far better than continuing a ruinous war.

Rieff makes a powerful case for reconciliation and compromise, and exposes how politicized our nationalist histories are. [more]

Backgrounder on the Islamic State

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State is a militant Sunni movement that has conquered territory in western Iraq, eastern Syria, and Libya, from which it has tried to establish the caliphate, claiming exclusive political and theological authority over the world’s Muslims. Its state-building project, however, has been characterized more by extreme violence than institution building. Widely publicized battlefield successes in 2014 attracted thousands of foreign recruits, while insurgent groups and terrorists acting in its name carried out attacks ranging from the United States to South Asia.

The group’s momentum in Iraq and Syria withered in 2016 as local forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, ousted Islamic State fighters from much of the territory they controlled. But major cities, including Mosul and Raqqa, remain in ISIS hands. In both Iraq and Syria there are few signs of the political progress that, analysts say, would likely be needed to sustain military gains. Meanwhile, across the region, and as far away as Europe and the United States, followers of the Islamic State have often eluded counterterrorism agencies, raising the possibility that the group will continue to motivate attacks even if it’s pushed out of Iraq and Syria. [more]

Interview of the Day: Steve Silberman

by Bill Hayes

In How Autistic People Helped Shape the Modern World, Wired magazine interviews Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

WIRED: In your book you write about Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who did early work on autism in the 1930s. Why is he so important?

SILBERMAN: The more that I discovered about Asperger’s conception of autism, the more it struck me as incredibly prescient. He saw autistic people as a subset of humanity that had accelerated the evolution of science and technology. They were a hidden thread in the weave of culture. They had always been here. Asperger conceived of autism as a condition that lasted from birth to death. It was not just a childhood disorder.

And yet he didn’t get credit for discovering autism. This guy Leo Kanner, who wrote a paper that came out in 1943 in English, got nearly all the credit for discovering it, and Asperger was reduced to a footnote. [more]

The Bail Trap

by Bill Hayes

In The Bail Trap for New York Times Magazine, Nick Pinto reports on how bond court keeps many people behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail.

Of the 2.2 million people currently locked up in this country, fewer than one in 10 is being held in a federal prison. Far more are serving time in state prisons, and nearly three-quarters of a million aren’t in prison at all but in local city and county jails. Of those in jails, 60 percent haven’t been convicted of anything. They’re innocent in the eyes of the law, awaiting resolution in their cases. Some of these inmates are being held because they’re considered dangerous or unlikely to return to court for their hearings. But many of them simply cannot afford to pay the bail that has been set.

Occasionally, these cases make the news. In June, Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell in Texas after failing to come up with $500 for her release. But often, they go unnoticed. The federal government doesn’t track the number of people locked up because they can’t make bail. What we do know is that at any given time, close to 450,000 people are in pretrial detention in the United States — a figure that includes both those denied bail and those unable to pay the bail that has been set. Even that figure fails to capture the churn of local incarceration: In a given year, city and county jails across the country admit between 11 million and 13 million people. In New York City, where courts use bail far less than in many jurisdictions, roughly 45,000 people are jailed each year simply because they can’t pay their court-assigned bail. And while the city’s courts set bail much lower than the national average, only one in 10 defendants is able to pay it at arraignment. To put a finer point on it: Even when bail is set comparatively low — at $500 or less, as it is in one-third of nonfelony cases — only 15 percent of defendants are able to come up with the money to avoid jail.

Bail hasn’t always been a mechanism for locking people up. When the concept first took shape in England during the Middle Ages, it was emancipatory. Rather than detaining people indefinitely without trial, magistrates were required to let defendants go free before seeing a judge, guaranteeing their return to court with a bond. If the defendant failed to return, he would forfeit the amount of the bond. The bond might be secured — that is, with some or all of the amount of the bond paid in advance and returned at the end of the trial — or it might not. In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that ‘‘excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.’’ The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

But as bail has evolved in America, it has become less and less a tool for keeping people out of jail, and more and more a trap door for those who cannot afford to pay it. Unsecured bond has become vanishingly rare, and in most jurisdictions, there are only two ways to make bail: post the entire amount yourself up front — what’s called ‘‘money bail’’ or ‘‘cash bail’’ — or pay a commercial bail bondsman to do so. For relatively low bail amounts — say, below $2,000, the range in which most New York City bails fall — the second option often doesn’t even exist; bondsmen can’t make enough money from such small bails to make it worth their while.

With national attention suddenly focused on the criminal-justice system, bail has been cited as an easy target for reformers. But ensuring that no one is held in jail based on poverty would, in many respects, necessitate a complete reordering of criminal justice. The open secret is that in most jurisdictions, bail is the grease that keeps the gears of the overburdened system turning. Faced with the prospect of going to jail for want of bail, many defendants accept plea deals instead, sometimes at their arraignments. New York City courts processed 365,000 arraignments in 2013; well under 5 percent of those cases went all the way to a trial resolution. If even a small fraction of those defendants asserted their right to a trial, criminal courts would be overwhelmed. By encouraging poor defendants to plead guilty, bail keeps the system afloat.

‘‘What, did they arrest all of Brooklyn today?’’ one court officer asked another on a recent Sunday night in one of the two bustling arraignment courtrooms in Downtown Brooklyn. Defendants, a vast majority of them black, paraded past the judge in quick succession: Unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. Open container of alcohol in public. Marijuana possession. Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Misdemeanors, many of them minor, some aggravated by an outstanding bench warrant for failure to appear in court on another case, failure to complete court-ordered community service or failure to pay a fine. Hundreds of people were awaiting arraignment, first in central booking across the street, then in cells on the ninth floor and finally in a small communal cell called ‘‘the pen’’ behind the arraignment courtrooms on the ground floor. On this night, there were more than a dozen men in the cell waiting to see a lawyer, pacing, sitting on benches, crouching in corners. [more]

Charlie Rose Interviews Larry Wilmore

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews Larry Wilmore, whose Comedy Central show was recently cancelled.


There’s scientific consensus on guns

by Bill Hayes

In There’s scientific consensus on guns — and the NRA won’t like it for the Los Angeles Times, Harvard professor of public health David Hemenway surveyed scientific researchers for their views on the safety of guns in homes.

I also found widespread confidence that a gun in the home increases the risk that a woman living in the home will be a victim of homicide (72% agree, 11% disagree) and that a gun in the home makes it a more dangerous place to be (64%) rather than a safer place (5%). There is consensus that guns are not used in self-defense far more often than they are used in crime (73% vs. 8%) and that the change to more permissive gun carrying laws has not reduced crime rates (62% vs. 9%). Finally, there is consensus that strong gun laws reduce homicide (71% vs. 12%). [more]

Saved by the Bell

by Bill Hayes

In Saved by the Bell for the New Republic, William Giraldi reviews Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby.

Here’s the thesis driving Lit Up (please type it out and hand it to your teen): “The liberal arts in general, and especially reading seriously, offer an opening to a wider life, the powers of active citizenship (including the willingness to vote); reading strengthens perception, judgment, and character; it creates understanding of other people and oneself, maybe kindliness and wit, and certainly the ability to endure solitude, both in the common sense of empty-room loneliness and the cosmic sense of empty-universe loneliness. Reading fiction carries you further into imagination and invention than you would be capable of on your own, takes you into other people’s lives, and often, by reflection, deeper into your own.”

And here’s the clincher: “If literature matters less to young people than it once did, we are all in trouble.” There’s really no “if” about it, and so yes, we are all in trouble. The question is: How pernicious, how permanent is that trouble? Lit Up is no alarmist screed but a steadfast appeal by a writer who understands that without a devotion to literature, we’re a hamstrung bunch. [more]

Flying high

by David De La Torre

In Flying high, The Economist reports on a “new crop of hands-on universities.”

[A] trend … is reshaping how some students learn. Geoff Mulgan of Nesta, a British think-tank, calls it the “rise of the challenge-driven university”. In the past 15 years dozens such institutions have been set up, from Chile to China. Many more are planned. Though they differ in scope, they share an approach. They reject the usual ways of getting young adults to learn: lectures, textbooks, slogs in the library, exams — and professors. Instead students work on projects in teams, trying to solve problems without clear answers. Companies often sponsor the projects and provide instructors. Courses combine arts, humanities and sciences. (The slogan of Zeppelin University, founded in 2003 in Germany, reads: “The problems within our society are ill-disciplined, and so are we!”)

There have been earlier attempts to disrupt higher education. Experimental College, in Wisconsin, attracted hundreds of free-spirited students when it was founded in 1927 without schedules or mandatory classes. The Experimental University, in Paris, was established by frustrated intellectuals after the protests of 1968. Both closed within a few years. (The Parisians may have been too eager to expand access: one lecturer gave a degree to someone she met on a bus.) Other experiments, however, continue. University College of North Staffordshire, renamed Keele University in 1962, became the first English university to offer dual honours courses when it was set up in 1949 by A.D. Lindsay, an Oxford don who complained about academic over-specialisation. “[The] man who only knows more and more about less and less is becoming a public danger,” he warned.  [more]

When the State Wilts Away

by Bill Hayes

In When the State Wilts Away, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at how environmental stress can affect weak states.

Global water shortages are predicted to decrease global gross domestic product by as much as 14 percent by 2050, according to a recent report by the World Bank, which predicts that this “severe hit” will spur conflict and migration across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. Even resource-rich countries previously considered to have stable economies, such as Brazil and Russia, have become more susceptible to environmental disequilibrium. Last year production of coffee, one of Brazil’s most important commodities, fell 15 percent as a result of drought. A lack of rain in Russia this fall damaged a quarter of its cereal crops. The last time the country’s harvest failed, rising global prices contributed to the Arab Spring in countries dependent on imported grain. Even Islamic State’s political power may soon be affected by drought. As water levels in Lake Assad in Syria plummet, Raqqa, the group’s stronghold, is facing severe shortages. Last year, Islamic State’s press officer, Abu Mosa, told Vice News that it would consider attacking Turkey to gain access to additional water resources.

Climate science has an explanation for why environmental forces can have this kind of destabilizing effect. [more]

System Overload

by Bill Hayes

In System Overload for the New Yorker, James Surowiecki looks at America’s infrastructure.

From the crumbling bridges of California to the overflowing sewage drains of Houston and the rusting railroad tracks in the Northeast Corridor, decaying infrastructure is all around us, and the consequences are so familiar that we barely notice them — like urban traffic congestion, slow-moving trains, and flights that are often disrupted, thanks to an outdated air-traffic-control system. The costs are significant, once you reckon wasted time, lost productivity, poor public-health outcomes, and increased carbon emissions. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of “Move,” a recent book on the subject, told me, “Infrastructure is such a dull word. But it’s really an issue that touches almost everything.” [more]

True Grit

by Bill Hayes

In True Grit for the New York Times Book Review, Judity Warner reviews Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough.

Four years ago, the New York Times Magazine journalist Paul Tough published a book titled “How Children Succeed,” which argued that the modern obsession with increasing student scores in reading and math misses most of what matters in education. Instead, character traits like grit, curiosity, persistence and self–control are the keys to success in school, college and life.

Test-weary parents and teachers embraced the message, and Tough spent the next few years speaking, traveling and reporting on programs laboring to put these ideas into practice. But in doing so, he noticed a “paradox” — many of the educators who were unusually good at teaching grit and self-control didn’t use those words to describe their aims. Often, they weren’t even aware that they were avatars of what Tough believed was a groundbreaking new approach to education. [more]

Most Talked About Speeches at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

Democratic National Convention

Day One, Monday

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey

First Lady Michelle Obama

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Democratic National Convention

Day Two, Tuesday

U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley of New York

Former President Bill Clinton, husband of Hillary Clinton

Democratic National Convention

Day Three, Wednesday

Former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

Vice President Joe Biden

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Democratic vice presidential nominee

President Barack Obama

Democratic National Convention

Day Four, Thursday

Khizr Khan

Retired Gen. John Allen

Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, Democratic presidential nominee