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Archive for September, 2010

L.A. Times (Almost) Blamed by Union for Teacher Suicide

September 30th, 2010 2 comments

Photo by Abhijit Tembhekar.

A panel yesterday at UC Berkeley saw Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch discussing the paper’s decision to publish the “teacher ratings” of teachers in the Los Angeles schools. Before you ask, yes, that’s presumably that’s the reporter’s real name; as far as I know, he’s not a former member of the punk scene.

The Times published a database of the names and ratings of 6,000 both high- and low-performing elementary school teachers from a L.A. city government study, in its project “Grading the Teachers: Value-Added.” According to a story in the San Jose Mercury News (via comments in MediaBistro), the article alleged that while the City of Los Angeles is ignoring the results, the information should be public. “There is a culture, not just in Los Angeles schools but across the country, where differences in instruction are ignored,” Felch said at the UCB event.

The problem? The paper’s been taking heat since Sunday’s apparent suicide of a fifth-grade Los Angeles Unified School District teacher named Rigoberto Rueles, who received a “slightly below-average overall rating.” The teachers’ union demanded the database of teachers be unpublished. The same union had previously organized a boycott of the Times for publishing the information.

Read more…

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ZeuS Attack! £6 Million UK Ring and LinkedIn Spam

September 30th, 2010 No comments

Image from Cisco Systems' blog.

Remember ZeuS? It’s a Trojan that steals banking information by keystroke logging, and according to the BBC, it’s still kicking. This week, London’s Metropolitan Police Central e-Crimes Unit arrested fifteen men and four women, allegedly members of a gang that’s stolen £6 million in over the last three months. Individual users were targeted, resulting in the siphoning of money from their accounts. Meanwhile, yesterday CNET reported that faked LinkedIn emails are spreading the ZeuS trojan anew, with the largest such attack to date accounting for as much as 24% of all spam sent within a 15-minute period.

The BBC on the UK arrests:

Detectives said that the gang had harvested log-in details operated by a range of major banks. Once the gang had the personal details, they transferred cash into accounts set up solely to gather the money before it was laundered onwards.

Detective Chief Inspector Terry Wilson of the Metropolitan Police said it was likely that the amount known to have been stolen would “increase considerably” as the investigation continues.

Also known as Zbot, PRG,Wsnpoem, Gorhax, and Kneber, Zeus is by drive-by downloads and phishing, and first surfaced in July 2007. In 2009, it compromised “over 74,000 FTP accounts on websites websites of such companies as the Bank of America, NASA, Monster, ABC, Oracle, Cisco, Amazon, and BusinessWeek,” according to Wikipedia. It’s had several outbreaks since then, including several earlier this year — in April and then again in July. It also targets mobile phones.

Of the LinkedIn attacks, Cisco’s blog reported a huge increase in the percentage of all spam accounted for by the attack, to the point where messages in this attack represented as much as a quarter of all spam in a given 15-minute period.

Cisco’s report isn’t clear at all on what it means by “the largest such attack” — the largest LinkedIn attack, the largest ZeuS attack, the largest trojan attack — but the scale of the attack is clearly enormous. Sez Cisco:

This is not the first time that criminals have subverted brands associated with online social media. The criminals controlling the Cutwail botnet routinely send email messages impersonating major social networks and governmental organizations. What makes this attack unique is the combination of the extremely high volume of messages transmitted, the focus on business users, and the use of the ZeuS data-theft malware. This strongly suggests that the criminals behind this attack are most interested in employees with access to financial systems and online commercial bank accounts. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaints Center, criminals stole more than US$100m in 2009 from commercial bank accounts using this and similar methods.

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Twitter Meme Tracker “Truthy” Targets Political Astroturfing, Is Delightful Data Pr0n

September 30th, 2010 No comments

truthySay hello to Truthy, and data nerds say goodbye to the next few hours of your life. This meme tracker is a lovely timesuck, endlessly fascinating, a political junkie geek’s new drug, and has me eager to see new meme topics added ASAP.

There is a hell of a lot of bullshit on Twitter, and yet it’s also probably the top source for breaking (and unreported) news. Everyone with an agenda has been gaming Twitter in a billion different ways to do everything from sell shit (including themselves), and astroturf political opinion. The latter is what got researchers at Indiana University — “the Truthy Team” — interested in using Twitter’s API to not only track political memes, but to analyze them for truthiness. And emotion, and more: to deal with the inevitable gaming of their own system, they’ve even crated and automated form called the Profile of Mood States test to evaluate the “mood” of the data being sent. This test scans word use to look for indications of mood, including signs of Tension-Anxiety, Anger-Hostility, and Depression-Dejection. They make neat diffusion networks, like this one for @LadyGaga, and #DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) neat videos, too:

I found this item on Fast Comapny’s Stephen Colbert-Inspired Site “Truthy” Is a Swift Boat Torpedo for Twitter Users, but I prefer the Ars Technica article Twitter, algorithms, crowdsourcing used to spot truthiness. Snip:

(…) Now, a bunch of academics at Indiana are attempting to use a combination of crowd-sourcing, Twitter, and automated text and network analysis to bring instances of political truthiness out into the open.

The team has set up a site, Truthy.indiana.edu, to show off and explain the system. Their focus is on Twitter, due to some recent election results; apparently, an organization called the American Future Fund set up a bunch of Twitter accounts to spread some truthy statements on election day, and managed to spam about 60,000 people before the company shut the accounts down. Other political controversies, like Governor Scwarzenegger’s ability to see Russia from Anchorage, have played out on the service.

Twitter also offers APIs for access to the content flowing through its system, and the Truthy site will be using this feed to obtain raw material for its analysis. As a first pass to winnow down the flood of tweets, the system will focus on what its creators define as memes. These include @-mentions, hash tags, and URLs that are either experiencing significant growth or account for a substantial proportion of the total traffic on the site. A filter will then classify these using a set of keywords to determine whether they’re likely to be political discussions.

The system will track basic features that are accessible through either the API or by mining the data. This will include things like the number of retweets, the rate of spreading, number of unique users involved, etc.

So far, however, there’s probably no system that can identify the actual accuracy of a tweet, so that’s where the crowd-sourcing comes in. (…read more, arstechnica.com)

Portrait of a Troll: Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell

September 29th, 2010 No comments

andrew ShirvellI think a book profiling the everyday, offline lives of digital serial stalkers and trolls would be fascinating. Chilling and upsetting, like this news item, which is going to piss you off, but still compelling. I think what stands out most for me here is this glimpse into that thing we all wonder at some point: in real life, who — and what kind of person — is that online vicious troll? Hateful stalker trolls leave evil comments, they impersonate, they threaten their target, they make hate blogs, they target across various social networks, they do everything they can think of to distort their target’s image, and they consider serial attacking an individual to be a hobby. We tend to think they’re male and live in their parent’s basement, and are around age 14. Not in this case… To the outside world, online trolls “pass” as regular people, for the most part. Just like Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell, now revealed to be one of the sicker anti-gay obsessed trolls to be exposed yet. I still have two stalker trolls who have harassed me for years. And like him, they claim “First Amendment rights” whenever we all scratch our heads and try to figure out ways to make them stop. Most online attackers, like Shirvell, also tend to have a history that makes their hardcore trolling sadly unsurprising.

However, I don’t think anyone expected that the person who dedicated his “off hours” time to a sick hate blog targeting one gay young man, the new head of student government at the University of Michigan, to actually be Michigan’s Assistant Attorney General. Here’s a snip from the CNN piece, click through to watch him explain to Anderson Cooper that he is a “citizen exercising my First Amendment rights.”

(…) Using the online moniker “Concerned Michigan Alumnus,” Shirvell launched his blog in late April.

“Welcome to ‘Chris Armstrong Watch,’” Shirvell wrote in his inaugural blog post. “This is a site for concerned University of Michigan alumni, students, and others who oppose the recent election of Chris Armstrong — a RADICAL HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVIST, RACIST, ELITIST, & LIAR — as the new head of student government.” Among other things, Shirvell has published blog posts that accuse Armstrong of going back on a campaign promise he made to minority students; engaging in “flagrant sexual promiscuity” with another male member of the student government; sexually seducing and influencing “a previously conservative [male] student” so much so that the student, according to Shirvell, “morphed into a proponent of the radical homosexual agenda;” hosting a gay orgy in his dorm room in October 2009; and trying to recruit incoming first year students “to join the homosexual ‘lifestyle.’ ” (…)

Shirvell said he works on the blog during his off-hours.

On “AC 360,” Shirvell made no apologies for his blog postings, which include a picture of Armstrong with “Resign” written over his face. The same picture also had a swastika superimposed over a gay pride flag, with an arrow pointing toward Armstrong.

Shirvell acknowledged protesting outside of Armstrong’s house and calling him “Satan’s representative on the student assembly.” (…read more, cnn.com, via @ejacqui)

High Pressure Experiments Duplicate Conditions 1,800 Miles Underground

September 29th, 2010 No comments

Earth's Interior

Public domain image from Wikipedia.

As a dedicated Hollow Earth Nerd, I’m always fascinated by the idea of structures hundreds or thousands of miles beneath the surface of the Earth, especially if they involve bright lights and colors, not to mention bad acting. Unfortunately for dinosaurs and Victorian explorers alike, Earth ain’t hollow, but every time I hear about something a few thousand miles underground, my mind bends.

This latest gem (!) is that UC Berkeley and Yale Scientists are doing research into the unusual phase of magnesium silicate perovskite in the extreme reaches of the Earth’s mantle. The mantle is the layer between the crust (think “dirt”) and the outer core, made of nickel and iron. Perovskite, which forms most of the mantle, is compressed at the bottom of that layer into a 125-mile thick boundary, about 1,800 miles down, of “post-perovskite,” a phase of the substance that only exists at extreme pressure and depth.

As reported in this week’s issue of the journal Science (the abstract is public — full text requires a subscription) and summarized on Indian website domain-b.com, The Yale-UCB team compressed perovskite glass to a pressure of two million atmospheres (two million times the air pressure on the surface) and a temperature of 3,500 Kelvin or 6,000 Farenheit to create post-perovskite, then hit it with X-rays at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

What they’re trying to find out is why different kinds of seismic waves propagate differently between the mantle and the core. The answer is anisotropy — polarization of the waves parallel with or in opposition to the crystal structures of the ultra-compressed post-perovskite.

This is the seismic wave equivalent of light the old polarized-filter trick, where two polarized filters will form a transparent surface when the polarization is lined up. Turn them at a slight angle and the pair of filters becomes opaque. That’s because light travels in waves like seismic energy, and polarized filters (or post-perovskite) block waves along a single orientation. This affects the propagation of seismic waves through the mantle.

Plus, of course, the Lava Men are skeet-shooting our seismic waves with Negatroid Rays. But they’re really lousy aim.

If you’re a geology nerd, you may already know that while the core-mantle boundary is called the CMB, the boundary between the mantle and crust is known as the Moho, for Mohorovičić Discontinuity.

Important Moments in Space Junk

September 29th, 2010 No comments

Screencap from the Ball Aerospace informational flyer (PDF Link).

An MSNBC article about the launch last Saturday of the US Air Force’s Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite gives those foaming-at-the-mouth mildly-left-of-centrists the opportunity to link to an oldie by a goody: the 2008 Space.com article listing the ten most important moments in space-junk history.

Said Top 10 List was published on the occasion of the shoot-down of USA-193, a military satellite launched in 2006 that malfunctioned and was destroyed in February 2008 by a RIM-161/SM-3 ship-based missile launched from the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie west of Hawaii in a move probably intended to tell China to quit eyeballin’ our space junk.

Poor USA-193 gets no respect, however; it’s only number 10 on the list. The other 9 make cheerful reading, including a woman in Oklahoma who got hit on the head by a piece of a rocket, the Australian discovery of supposed alien spheres later said to be water tanks from Gemini V, and the 1978 re-entry of Soviet nuclear-powered satellite Kosmos 954 over Canadian territory, for which the Sov’s were billed over CA$6 million, just for starters. There’s a significant dose of tragedy, as well, as with the Columbia disaster.

But what’s all this about the Space-Based Space Surveillance? No, it’s not a branch of the Homeland Security Department of Homeland Security Departments. It’s a Department of Defense program coordinated by the Air Force designed to track space junk viewed as potential future threats to “U.S. space assets.” The satellite launched this weekend is an SBSS pathfinder, the first of

There’s an official informational video about the system here, and you can check out the Ball Aerospace informational PDF that looks like it was crafted at the height of the Kennedy era when guys my Dad’s age were chainsmoking Tareytons and wearing black ties with short sleeve shirts.

If you’re into that sort of thing, users at YouTube have posted several different videos of this weekend’s Vandenberg Air Force Base launch of the Minotaur IV bearing the SBSS pathfinder, from varying sources. One was even shot from someone’s back yard.

Oh, and if you’re a complete nerd, CelesTrak.com has a completely awesome post-event analysis of the 2008 interception at USA-193 complete with bizarre screencaps straight out of a flight simulator circa 1983.

John Sweeney Revisits the Church of Scientology

September 26th, 2010 No comments

The BBC’s John Sweeney investigated the Chrurch of Scientology back in 2007 and had a now-infamous meltdown during the process. I reported on that meltdown, with video and John Travolta’s reaction when it happened in May ’07. In this fascinating article (with video) he returns to not only the topic of the “church” but also to revisit the people he spoke to — at least one of whom has since left the church — and finds his worst fears finally confirmed.

In 2007, while investigating the Church of Scientology for Panorama, reporter John Sweeney had a dramatic on-camera confrontation with a church spokesman named Tommy Davis. The church was accusing the reporter of bias and it attempted to stop the documentary from being broadcast – a campaign backed by Scientology A-lister John Travolta. Sweeney has returned to investigate the church again.

Panorama Archive: Scientology and Me

I never meant to shout.
Strangers had been on my tail. Scientologist Tommy Davis and his colleague Mike Rinder – my handlers – had been on my case, day in and day out.
They had taken me to an exhibit called ‘Psychiatry: Industry of Death’ on Hollywood Boulevard, where a Scientologist told me psychiatrists set up the Holocaust. I feared I was being brain-washed.
And then I lost it – big time.
The Church of Scientology put out my impression of an exploding tomato onto the internet which millions had a laugh at courtesy of YouTube.
It was no way for me to behave. I apologised then and I apologise now.
Shortly after that programme, Scientology & Me, aired in 2007, I received a tip-off that Mike Rinder had left the church.
Three years on and my old adversary came to me to shed some light on what had been going on behind the scenes in the days leading up to my infamous meltdown and screaming session in Los Angeles.

via BBC News – Panorama – John Sweeney revisits the Church of Scientology.

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UN Appoints Alien First Contact Representative

September 26th, 2010 2 comments

Mazlan Othman

If the human race ever hears the infamous words “take me to your leader!” from an alien race, it has been decided Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman will be the person presented to our new imminent intergalactic over-lords (assuming they are able to talk and not mere ameba).

Mazlan works as the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna. No we didn’t know there was a UN department for alien first contact either, but now you know.

She says that “When we [make contact with aliens] we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.”

Let’s just hope that the first thing the aliens want to do is sit down and chat with Ms Othman, and not blast the earth in to 2^999999999 pieces.

[via News.com.au]

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Dept. of Defense Pulps Army Reserve Officer’s Memoir, Drives eBay Price to $2,000

September 26th, 2010 No comments

The Department of Defense purchased and destroyed almost 10,000 copies of the St. Martin’s Press first printing of black-ops team leader Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer’s Afghanistan memoir Operation Dark Heart, says CNN, “because they contained information which could cause damage to national security.”

Buy you can still read it, with most of the good parts freshly redacted. St. Martin’s Press has already released a second printing with changes the government requested. To wit, from CNN:

From single words and names to entire paragraphs, blacked out lines appear throughout the book’s 299 pages….One of the book’s first lines reads, “Here I was in Afghanistan (redaction) My job: to run the Defense Intelligence Agency’s operations out of (redaction) the hub for U.S. operations in country.”

A statement St. Martin’s site said:

On Friday, August 13, 2010, just as St. Martin’s Press was readying its initial shipment of this book, the Department of Defense contacted us to express its concern that our publication ofOperation Dark Heart could cause damage to U.S. national security. After consulting with our author, we agreed to incorporate some of the government’s changes into a revised edition of his book while redacting other text he was told was classified. The newly revised book keeps our national interests secure, but this highly qualified warrior’s story is still intact. Shaffer’s assessment of successes and failures in Afghanistan remains dramatic, shocking, and crucial reading for anyone concerned about the outcome of the war.

“While I do not agree with the edits in many ways, the DoD redactions enhance the reader’s understanding by drawing attention to the flawed results created by a disorganized and heavy handed military intelligence bureaucracy.” —Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer.

I feel pretty confident that, well, you know that howling sound you don’t hear? That’s the sound of an old and pissed-off citizen soldier putting a brave face on it.

The author’s lawyer, Mark Zaid, said the manuscript was cleared through Shaffer’s military superiors prior to printing, which presumably means the the Army Reserve, the DOD did not clear it.

Shaffer’s lawyer, Mark Zaid, said earlier this month that the book was reviewed by Shaffer’s military superiors prior to publication: “There was a green light from the Army Reserve Command.” But a Defense Department spokesman said that the book had not been cleared by the Army itself or by DOD, and therefore did not follow proper DOD procedure.

Lt. Col. Shaffer is a Bronze Star recipient and US Army Reserve officer. The Defense Department will reimburse St. Martin’s for the cost of the books. CNN cites at least one unverified listing on eBay claiming to be a copy of the first (unredacted) for $2,000.

Rain-Soaked Latte Zombies Called Out by Smog-Choked Double Espresso Vampires

September 25th, 2010 2 comments

Image via Thoughtcatalog.com.

So now a post on Thought Catalog alerts me that my generation murdered irony? Transcontinental Ironic Bitchfight! Denver, go get the video camera!

New York blog Gawker, which once called “stunt novelist” Tao Lin “the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with,” then told its friend it liked him, then told its other friend it like like liked him, seems to have started hating him again at some point, as if the rest of us give a flying fuck.

This past week Gawker called out those “rain-soaked latte zombies” in Seattle for their cover story on Lin, by Lin, and in doing so managed to step in a big squishy irony turd, which is gonna be tough to get out of those point-toed goth shoes you New York vamps always wear.

This all has something to do with some man who calls himself “Jonathan Franzen,” who apparently writes some sort of books or something, and whom Time magazine, which has made a habit lately of working my last Goddamn nerve, seems to like enough to light up like a neanderthal statue in the Houston Science Museum.

Now, I read lots of books. And yet, somehow, the sum total of my knowledge of Jonathan Franzen before this fandango was that I had seen his books on the shelves and I thought it was really weird that Time lit him up like a Neanderthal in a science museum, since he was the first living novelist on Time’s cover in ten years. Wow, this douchebag must be pretty hot shit, even if he’s no Neil Simon.

Turns out Franzen is the guy who didn’t want to be on Oprah because men don’t read, which is another can of worms I don’t blame him for. The only thing I can blame Franzen for, in fact, is the bizarre pull-quote generated when he just today told the Guardian that he must be near the end of his career because people are starting to approve, which comes as a great relief to those of us who read constantly, have barely heard of him and don’t give a damn.

But whether I approve of Jonathan Franzen, I’m sure, is as critical to his life and art as whether Gawker noticed that the Stranger piece on and by Lin was a parody of Time’s (by general consensus irredeemably pretentious) Franzen profile.

What leaves Sacramento so bewildered — and here I speak for my re-adopted hometown of Manure-Huffing Coke Zero Werewolves the same way Gawker seems to speak for the Big Apple whenever suckerpunching Seattle — is that this is apparently now a grudge match. I don’t know where the irony starts and where it ends. Gawker’s Seattle-aimed bitchslap last month had a lead that ended with a question mark:

Wait, I’m confused. Is his post insane or not? Are you being ironic or serious? Is that a typo or have you got some sort of speech impediment? Now bloggers can have speech impediments? Do you people even speak Yiddish? Wait, now I’m being ironic? I can’t tell!!! Help me!!!

I hold none of this against Franzen or Lin, of course — I haven’t read either of them, and it is my very weirdly non-ironic opinion that novelists should be judged primarily by people who read their novels. I haven’t read Franzen’s Time profile. I haven’t read Lin’s parody of Franzen’s Time profile. But “Rain-Soaked Latte Zombies”? Come on, Gawky. Drinking lattes doesn’t make you eat brains. It makes you write blog posts!

In fact, this has become a grudge match so ironic that I can’t tell who’s mad at whom or if they’re all just ribbing each other. Is The Stranger really mad at Jonathan Franzen? Is Gawker mad at Tao Lin? Is Time mad at me? Does anyone even know I exist? Do I exist? Somebody explain it to me!

We’re pretty dim-witted lately out here in California. I think all this sun is cooking the brains of our Pinot Noir Serial Killers. Honestly, I know we started this irony shit but we’re starting to lose track of it. Please, people, I’m old. Will somebody just sing me a Johnny Cash song?

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