Science and Technology

Education on the Cheap

(Flickr/DraXus)
Publicly funded online schools run by private companies have been controversial with teachers groups and some education advocates since they started to take off a few years ago. But the concept of educating kids by computer has a strong appeal—not just among lawmakers but also among portfolio managers and investors. The two biggest companies offering online education—K12, Inc. and Connections Academy—are both for-profit, and until recently K12 had been a stock-market favorite. But an article this week on Seeking Alpha , a major investment website, casts doubt on the long-term profitability of K12 in light of poor student results. In the past few years, school districts and charter schools have increasingly subcontracted out certain operations to either Connections Academy or K12, Inc. In many states, lawmakers embraced the idea, which promised to bring private-sector efficiency to education. Online education also offered an idyllic image: Kids can take classes anywhere, at times that...

Smile For the Camera, Citizen

A taste of what's to come (Flickr/webjones)
The last few years have not been good to people who care deeply about privacy. Every few months, some new story comes to light about how corporations or government are gathering, sorting, and storing huge amounts of information about us. After a brief spate of interest, people generally go back to what they were doing before. "My iPhone is tracking my movements? Wow, that's creepy. But is Siri awesome, or what? I can't wait for the iPhone 5..." But what if the invasion of your privacy was a little more physical? Alexis Madrigal suggests that when drone aircraft start buzzing over our houses, we may finally get off our duffs and demand some limits to the spying: Drones, in my mind, make it clear how many of our feelings about privacy rest on the assumption that surveillance is time consuming or difficult. If someone smokes a joint in her backyard, she [is] making the (pretty good) calculation that a police officer is not watching. In our cars, we assume we can quickly send a text...

Q&A: What to Make of Facebook's IPO

Flickr/Thos003
Not being particularly tech-savvy, I've found following the Facebook-going-public news to be a bit perplexing. Sure, I know that the Internet behemoth just filed its IPO registration yesterday , revealing for the first time that the company has been profitable for three years and brought in $3.7 billion in revenue in 2011. But what does that mean? And what does Facebook's entry into the public market mean for the Internet? For Google? For the hundreds of millions who use the site? To get some answers, I called up Nicco Mele . Mele—named one of the "best and brightest" in 2003 by Esquire—pioneered Internet fundraising as webmaster for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. He later founded EchoDitto, which consults on Internet strategy with both Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits, and also had a hand in several Internet start-ups. He's currently teaching at Harvard's Shorenstein Center for the Study of Press, Politics and Public Policy. According to Mele, the information raises...

Facebook Bares Its Soul

The company's initial public offering files reveal what its aspirations are, even as competitors play catch-up.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
"Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg writes in the letter included in the initial public offering (IPO) filings his company deposited with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) yesterday. "These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits." Facebook's $5 billion IPO filing reveals much about the economics and inner workings of the company. You can read elsewhere for the specifics on that front. The 150-page document also offers a glimpse of what the company believes and seems to be thinking as it moves more decisively onto the public stage. Some early takeaways: There's More to Life Online than Advertisements. For many years, Facebook's business model has been simple. Take the vast quantities of personal data we willingly shovel onto the platform. Add in the meta data we reveal as we move about the site...

Indiana Wades into the Culture Wars

Indiana is hardly a state known for its intense culture wars and political battles. Mostly, it's known for one of the greatest sports movies of all time . But this year, Indiana is entering territory usually occupied by places like Kansas and Texas. The state legislature is not only about to pass a controversial bill to decrease union power; a measure to teach creationism has already passed out of the state Senate's Education Committee. The right-to-work legislation is hurtling at lightning speed for Governor Mitch Daniels's desk. After a year of fighting, including recent boycotts from Democrats, the legislation passed the state's House last week, leaving little doubt that the measure, supported by the governor and most of the state Senate, will soon become law. Indiana will be the first state in the Rust Belt to pass such legislation, which prevents mandatory union membership and forbids unions from collecting fees from anyone who chooses to opt out. Proponents argue that the move...

Newt's Final Frontier

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—I'm an avowed space nerd who would love nothing more than to see a human land on Mars during my lifetime. So last night's debate was the most entertaining for me of the unending series in this year's election. Thanks to vapid moderation from CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the majority of the debate was devoted to personal life questions better suited for Oprah's couch than a debate stage. He ended the night by asking the candidates why they were the most electable candidate, essentially requesting each of them to offer a shorter version of their usual stump speeches. One of the few moments where the candidates actually engaged on policy was when the discussion turned to space; specifically the bold vision Newt Gingrich had announced the day before during an event along the Space Coast. Gingrich defended his plan for a lunar colony and a Northwest Ordinance for Space while his opponents harrumphed, claiming it was impractical during a time when Republicans are eager to see...

And Then There Was Light, Man

Mimicking a familiar format, Alan Lightman's Mr. g fails to create a unique world.

As an undergraduate student, in order to acquire financial aid, I agreed to take a special first-year seminar called The Creative Process. In the class, we discussed such questions as “What is art?” and, in more concrete form, “Why do we refer to the urinal in the bathroom as simply a place for waste when we call the urinal on the gallery wall a masterpiece?” Halfway through the semester, the professor, a 50-year-old woman with dyed-black, bobbed hair and a necklace that featured a grapefruit-size bust of Jack Skellington, instructed us to consume—to consume —the book Einstein’s Dreams , which, despite its name, was fiction. I did not have high expectations. I could already imagine that the experience was going to be something of a “groovy” ticket to the mother ship. In many ways, I was right. What I hadn’t expected, though, was author Alan Lightman’s uncanny ability to turn psychedelic scientific concepts and abstract philosophy into concrete images and scenes. Which is precisely...

The End of the Internet?

As Wikipedia and Google protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a rival bill offers a middle road to protecting copyrights.

Nancy Scola/yfrog
Google Google featured a censored doodle in protest of proposed SOPA legislation Wednesday. After President Barack Obama released a statement over the weekend that he would not sign any bill resembling the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Representative Darrell Issa postponed Wednesday’s hearing on the proposed law. News as of today is that SOPA is DOA. Since December, prominent tech figures and digital activists, including luminaries like Sergey Brin of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter, have characterized the bill as a draconian measure that would chill online innovation. A number of popular websites like GoDaddy, Reddit, and Wikipedia have threatened to black out service for a day to boycott the law, and Craigslist, in its rudimentary script, has a running message on its site protesting the measure. New legislation introduced by Issa and Senator Ron Wyden called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) looks to avoid a number of the problems with SOPA that...

Virtual Justice

The head administrator of Ninja Video is sentenced to 22 months in prison.

Updated 9:00 a.m. Hana Beshara, the head administrator of Ninja Video, a TV- and movie-streaming site seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in June 2010—and the subject of my article, “ A Ninja In Our Sites ,” in the January/February issue of the Prospect —was sentenced on Friday to 22 months in prison. Upon release, she will be required to complete 500 hours of community service and pay $209,827 in restitution to the film industry’s lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Restitution payments have been set at $150 a month, which means Beshara is expected to give a chunk of her future income to the MPAA for a little over 116 years. Federal prosecutors in Virginia are trying to send Beshara to prison sooner than later. At sentencing, the judge approved voluntary surrender, meaning Beshara would take herself to prison in a few weeks. Over the weekend Beshara criticized the prosecution and the terms of her sentencing on Facebook and chat boards. On...

Jimmy Wales Needs Your Help

Amid concerns over its shrinking editor base, Wikipedia sets out to prove it can survive and expand on small donations.

Robertolyra, Creative Commons license M uch of the Internet's attention the last two months has focused on stopping the various copyright bills being entertained in Congress, but at the same time, Wikipedia has been quietly running its annual fundraising campaign. With awkward banner ads featuring Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia Foundation staffers, and volunteers, the campaign aims to cover Wikimedia's operating budget of $25 million. If working to halt bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act is a defensive move, Wikipedia's fundraising campaign is an offense. Just ten years old, Wikipedia has become a go-to repository of the world's knowledge, pulling in nearly half a billion unique visitors a month—enough to make it one of the top six websites in the world. Its success is improbable. "The problem with Wikipedia," a Wikipedia contributor named Gareth Owen writes , "is that it only works in practice. In theory, it's a total disaster...

A Ninja in Our Sites

An aggressive federal enforcement effort targets online piracy—and threatens the open Internet.

I n February 2008, Ninja Video went online and quickly distinguished itself in the unsightly, often malfunctioning world of Internet piracy. The site’s silver, black, and crimson palette spoke to a punk aesthetic, but the content and layout were fastidiously organized. The main page posted a nightly lineup of colorful movie and television banners, rather than the drab link text found on most pirate sites. Popular TV programs like Lost and Fringe would be up five minutes after the latest episode ended. New movies were often on the site before their nationwide premieres. The Ninja staff bundled cinema packages devoted to LGBT issues, classic films, and presidential debates. News services otherwise unavailable in the U.S., like Al Jazeera and the BBC, were streamed live, and Ninja offered one of the largest documentary collections on the Web. Everything was free. All a user had to do was click a logo and press play. PC World named Ninja Video one of the top 100 products of 2009,...

Your Brain Is Racist

ICYMI : ProPublica and the Washington Post took a look at whether people of any particular race are more likely to receive presidential pardons. You'll be shocked, I'm sure, by what they found: White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities... Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president's ultimate act of mercy, according to an analysis of previously unreleased records and related data . Current and former officials at the White House and Justice Department said they were surprised and dismayed by the racial disparities, which persist even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence are considered. "I'm just astounded by those numbers," said Roger Adams, who served as head of the Justice Department's pardons office from 1998 to 2008. He said he could think of nothing in the office's practices that would have skewed the recommendations. "I can recall several African Americans...

One Small Step for Newt

AP Photo/Bill Ingalls
GRINNELL, IOWA—The emerging narrative for Newt Gingrich is that that he is an unstable politician prone to indulging in crazy theories more fitting a fantasy author than a presidential contender. He's been doing his best Chicken Little impression for years, running around warning about the threat of an EMP attack knocking out the nation's electrical grid (hint: it's not much of a threat). And, he is such a Steven Spielberg fan that he became convinced that the U.S. should invest in building a real-life “Jurassic Park.” During the debate last weekend, Newt's stance on space policy got Mitt Romney chuckling. "Places where we disagree?" Romney said in response to some prodding from debate moderator George Stephanopoulos. "Let's see, we can start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon, I'm not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that." The Republicans in the crowd laughed it up with Romney, who had used a similar line of attack the day before...

B Is for Betrayal

At a time when women's reproductive rights are under attack on many fronts, the last thing we need is for the Obama administration to join in.

Less than a day after President Barack Obama’s soaring speech on restoring the American middle class, progressives who felt that the administration was finally heading in the right direction stumbled back to reality Wednesday with a baffling decision from Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius overruled the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) on its recommendation to make the contraceptive Plan B—a morning-after pill that reduces the risk of pregnancy after unprotected sex—available over the counter alongside contraceptives like condoms. Even girls younger than 16 would have had access to Plan B under the FDA's recommendation. In a statement explaining her decision, Sebelius argued that the FDA had not studied the potential impact on girls as young as 11 who could misunderstand the effects of the pill. As a result, she determined it was premature to make the pill available over the counter. "After careful consideration of the FDA summary review," Sebelius...

Made in America — Again

Leaders discuss returning manufacturing to the U.S. in a Prospect roundtable.

AP Photo/Madalyn Ruggiero
Andy Grove was, successively, the director of engineering, president, CEO, and Chairman of Intel Corporation. In an article last year, Grove proposed levying tariffs on goods produced offshore and dedicating the funds to help companies scale up production in the United States. Andy Grove was, successively, the director of engineering, president, CEO, and Chairman of Intel Corporation. There are three distinct causes for the jobs we’ve lost. First, the declining demand for products. So everybody focused on the stimulus—they assumed that the demand cycle and the employment cycle are related like they used to be. But they’re not. I don’t understand pure Keynesianism at a time of global flows like we have now. If we turn on a spigot to increase demand for consumer products, we need to have some factor that measures the portion that goes to a domestically made product. That portion in the last ten years must have changed in a very major way. You want a measure? How about asking for the...

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