Tag Archives: Computers

Dear Geek: The Era of the Dumb Jock Is Just So Over

Originally published by Breaking Modern:

Would you date someone who couldn’t spell “misspell?” I didn’t think so. Welcome to the Brave New World, where dumb jocks no longer stand much of a chance. And where spelling and grammar are everything.

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LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: iDeasy

iDeasy

It sounded like a great idea at the time: L.A. would give students a boost into the 21st century by putting tech directly into their hands. The city’s United School District would buy 700,000 iPads from Apple, each loaded with educational software supplied by Pearson, the major textbook publisher.

“In June 2013, the [Los Angeles] Board of Education approved a deal with the Apple/Pearson team after senior staff assured members that its proposal was both the least expensive and highest in quality, Pearson provided curriculum; Apple was to supply iPads,” Howard Blume writes in the Times.

Apple’s sleek tablets appeared in 47 Los Angeles public schools during the 2013-14 academic year. Right out of the gate, however, it became clear that there were problems with the $1 billion contract. At a time of drastic budget cuts and brutal teacher layoffs, Apple charged L.A. more per device than other districts had paid. Pearson’s software was glitchy and incomplete. Schools weren’t set up to deal with security concerns — protecting the hardware, and blocking students from viewing inappropriate Internet content proved difficult. The district bought iPads at full cost even though their model was about to be replaced by a newer version. “Students at three campuses, for example, deleted security filters so they could browse the Internet — prompting officials to prohibit the use of the devices outside school. At times, officials also provided conflicting or incorrect answers about the project to a technology committee headed by school board member Monica Ratliff.”

When government bureaucracies wind up paying too much money to private contractors for goods and services that fall short — especially when the deal gets cut quickly — it’s reasonable to wonder whether the bidding process was open and transparent. Based on a series of emails disclosed at the request of the Times under the California Public Records Act, communications between L.A. schools superintendent and executives at Pearson and Apple, and the complaints of rivals who tried to land the district’s business, appear to indicate that an arm’s-length approach gave way to a level of institutional coziness that verges on outright political corruption.

“It looked like Apple was positioned to be the choice,” Chiara Tellini of Irvine-based Mind Research Institute, groused to Blume.

From Blume’s report:

In one email, from May 24, 2012, then-Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino seems to strategize with higher-ups from Pearson, an international education-services company, on how to ensure that it got the job.

“I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one,” wrote Aquino, who was an executive with a Pearson affiliate before joining L.A. Unified.

Deasy was one of the last to participate in that email exchange and made his comments after Aquino’s, which covered several topics.

“Understand your points and we need to work together on this quickly,” Deasy wrote. “I want to not loose [sic] an amazing opportunity and fully recognize our current limits.”

Charming.

(More from Blume: “On Sunday, Deasy said that the conversations were only about a ‘pilot program we did at several schools months before we decided to do a large-scale implementation. We did work closely on this pilot.'”)

Under fire and possibly facing an ethics probe, L.A. Unified has suspended the Apple/Pearson deal.

“You should make every bidder think they have a slim chance of getting the job,” Stuart Magruder, a school bond oversight committee member who questioned the deal at the time and got fired over it only to be later reinstated, told Times columnist Steve Lopez. Deasy “didn’t do that.” Lopez is not alone in wondering aloud whether Deasy’s days at L.A. Unified are numbered.

If not, they ought to be. In politics as in business, there’s little effective difference between the appearance of impropriety and outright corruption. Taxpayers have the right not to have to wonder whether their money is being safeguarded — and students have the right not to know they’re being shortchanged by a regime heavy on high tech and low on actual teaching.

LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: RoboSheriff

Minority Report

 

Computer algorithms drive online dating sites that promise to hook you up with a compatible mate. They help retailers suggest that, because you liked this book or that movie, you’ll probably be into this music. So it was probably inevitable that programs based on predictive algorithms would be sold to law enforcement agencies on the pitch that they’ll make society safe.

The LAPD feeds crime data into PredPol, which then spits out a report predicting — reportedly with impressive accuracy — where “property crimes specifically, burglaries and car break-ins and thefts are statistically more likely to happen.” The idea is, if cops spend more time in these high-crime spots, they can stop crime before it happens.

Chicago police used predictive algorithms designed by an Illinois Institute of Technology engineer to create a 400-suspect “heat list” of “people in the city of Chicago supposedly most likely to be involved in violent crime.” Surprisingly, of these Chicagoans — who receive personal visits from high-ranking cops telling them that they’re being watched — have never committed a violent crime themselves. But their friends have, and that can be enough.

In other words, today’s not-so-bad guys may be tomorrow’s worst guys ever.

But math can also be used to guess which among yesterday’s bad guys are least likely to reoffend. Never mind what they did in the past. What will they do from now on? California prison officials, under constant pressure to reduce overcrowding, want to limit early releases to the inmates most likely to walk the straight and narrow.

Toward that end, Times’ Abby Sewell and Jack Leonard report that the L.A. Sheriff’s Department is considering changing its current evaluation system for early releases of inmates to one based on algorithms:

Supporters argue the change would help select inmates for early release who are less likely to commit new crimes. But it might also raise some eyebrows. An older offender convicted of a single serious crime, such as child molestation, might be labeled lower-risk than a younger inmate with numerous property and drug convictions.

The Sheriff’s Department is planning to present a proposal for a “risk-based” release system to the Board of Supervisors.

“That’s the smart way to do it,” interim Sheriff John L. Scott said. “I think the percentage [system, which currently determines when inmates get released by looking at the seriousness of their most recent offense and the percentage of their sentence they have already served] leaves a lot to be desired.”

Washington state uses a similar system, which has a 70% accuracy rate. “A follow-up study…found that about 47% of inmates in the highest-risk group returned to prison within three years, while 10% of those labeled low-risk did.”
No one knows which ex-cons will reoffend — sometimes not even the recidivist himself or herself. No matter how we decide which prisoners walk free before their end of their sentences, whether it’s a judgment call rendered by corrections officials generated by algorithms, it comes down to human beings guessing what other human beings do. Behind every high-tech solution, after all, are programmers and analysts who are all too human. Even if that 70% accuracy rate improves, some prisoners who have been rehabilitated and ought to have been released will languish behind bars while others, dangerous despite best guesses, will go out to kill, maim and rob.

If the Sheriff’s Department moves forward with predictive algorithmic analysis, they’ll be exchanging one set of problems for another.

Technology is morally neutral. It’s what we do with it that makes a difference.

That, and how many Russian hackers manage to game the system.

(Ted Rall, cartoonist for The Times, is also a nationally syndicated opinion columnist and author. His new book is Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia is the New Middle East.)

Get Ready for ObamaCare!

On October 1, 2013, Americans are supposed to start shopping for insurance under new Healthcare Insurance Marketplaces established under the Affordable Care Act. But there has been no attempt by the government to explain what people should do. And the system is buggy and complicated. Here’s an “easy” guide to make it simple for you.

Of course, in case it isn’t obvious, the crappy graphics and excessive gradients and tiny fonts are intentional and an attempt to satirize the complexity and the inability of the government to make things simple and understandable.

Believe it or not, one entire paragraph is word for word taken from an official government press release about this. See if you can guess which one it is.

Sacramento Bee Cartoon: Google’s Driverless Cars

I did this cartoon for The Sacramento Bee. The California state senate has passed a bill approving road-testing of driverless cars. Imagine the possibilities!