I don’t pay attention to most of the popular culture in the United States. Mainstream music, movies, and television are almost all garbage, and the National Football League is another worthless piece of junk that isn’t worth spending neurons on. (It should also not be overlooked that the NFL is owned by some of the most disgusting, money-hungry, ultra right-wing conservative billionaire men in the world, but that’s a subject for another post)
However, because I don’t pay attention to any of this trash, I frequently find myself out of the loop when it comes to memes and discussions on the internet. Just yesterday I found myself facing a confusing number of upset posts about something having to do with the Super Bowl and Spongebob Squarepants. I couldn’t even tell you the final score of the game, let alone why Spongebob had something to do with the Super Bowl, so I headed over to /r/OutOfTheLoop to see what was going on.
Fail State is a documentary which investigates the rise of the for-profit college industry in American higher education. The film provides a fantastic map of how we arrived at the place we are at now. Here is my brief summary:
Before World War II, the American population with a college degree was small. However, with the return of 15 million service members following the end of WWII, the U.S. government decided to provide an array of servicemen benefits through the GI Bill, particularly in the area of education. Millions of veterans went to college after the war thanks to the GI Bill and the number of college degrees earned per year more than doubled. The federal investment in education inspired states to follow suit and nearly every state made large investments in public college systems.
The amount of federal and state funds flowing into public colleges led to a blossoming of fantastic institutions. The competition these low-cost, high-value public colleges created for students led to considerable application decreases for private colleges. This existential threat for private colleges led them to push for legislation to save themselves: the 1972 Higher Eduction Act. This legislation changed the way that federal funds flowed to higher education. Instead of providing funds directly to colleges, the federal government would give the money directly to students in the form of loans, work-study programs, and grants. This would allow students to use the funds to choose the higher eduction institution of their choice, be it private, public, or even for-profit.
This change suddenly allowed for-profit colleges to receive federal money through student loans. The for-profit industry quickly expanded while failing to follow through on their promises of a quality education. Complaints to the government about the fraudulent behavior of for-profit colleges soon began surfacing, but Democrats fought the closure of schools as they saw them as good resources for poor people who had not been well served by traditional higher education.
By the early 1980s, it was becoming evident that the claims against for-profits were true as increasing numbers of graduates were unable to find jobs, forcing them to default on their federal student loans. Initially, it was the Republicans and Southern Democrats who were upset by the behavior of for-profit institutions. They saw the waste of federal money as unacceptable and opened investigations into many for-profit colleges which eventually led to thousands being shut down.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush signed into law regulations intended to curb for-profit abuse:
Enacted the 85/15 rule: Said that for-profit institutions had to get at least 15% of their revenue from sources other than federal student aid. (This rule was eventually changed to 90/10.)
Forbid paying bonuses to recruiters for enrolling new students.
Enacted the 50/50 rule: Said that at least 50% of a college’s students had to attend a brick-and-mortar campus.
The 1972 Higher Education Act not only created an environment for an abusive for-profit education sector to thrive, it led to a significant decrease in education funding for public institutions. The act decided that states would be in charge of handling public higher education. The result was that almost immediately states began cutting their higher education budgets. Higher education spending was viewed as the largest item of discretionary spending. It was viewed as unnecessary spending that could yield large savings if cut and therefore it was.
Additionally, during the 1980s the Reagan Administration decided to cut federal spending on higher education. Their argument was that during the 1970s the responsibility of putting a child through college shifted from the child and their parents to the government and they were giving that responsibility back to the family. Instead of providing funding, the Reagan Administration decided that they would increase the amount of money students could receive through loans.
After the regulations imposed by President George H.W. Bush, for-profit colleges quietly went about their business until his son arrived in the White House. With the presidency of George W. Bush, interest was lost in policing the for-profit education sector. Upon taking office Bush installed the chief lobbyist for the University of Phoenix, Sally Stroup, as his head of policy for higher education at the Department of Education. Bush also put Bill Hanson, a lobbyist for the student loan industry, as the Deputy Secretary of Education. Immediately, these two people pushed to dismantle the safeguards put in place a decade earlier by Bush’s father, H.W. For example, Bill Hanson led an effort which put loopholes in for-profits’ ability to compensate recruiters for enrolling new students. Another effort between Sally Stroup and John Boehner eventually passed legislation that removed the 50/50 rule, opening up a windfall of enrollment at online colleges.
In addition to easing regulations through the Executive branch, for-profit institutions also ramped up donations to members of the Legislative branch. Money for political donations was easy to come by as Wall Street took an interest in the for-profit sector. The increasing amount of contributions allowed favored legislators to quickly rise through the ranks of the Republican party. Once these people comprised the leadership, the rank-and-file quickly fell in line to support for-profit education.
Resistance to the expansion of for-profit colleges did not return until President Obama came to office. However, by that time the for-profit sector had so thoroughly purchased politicians on both side of the aisle that Obama was unable to propose meaningful regulations. Nevertheless, watered-down regulations were passed during the Obama Administration. However, now that President Trump and Betsy DeVos are at the wheel they have dismantled the meager regulations passed under the Obama Administration, opening up the for-profit sector for another cycle of taking billions of dollars in federal student loans in return for a worthless education.
As depressing as this subject is, the documentary does a great job at laying out how the government created the conditions for for-profit colleges to flourish and how the government continues to allow for-profit colleges to take advantage of the most vulnerable members of our population. The film is definitely worth a watch.
Ever since the Camp fire occurred I’ve been conscious of my local air quality and I recently discovered a handy little app that helps me track readings.
Air is a Mac menu bar app created by a fellow named Gabriel Lewis. The application displays the local air quality index (AQI) reading for my location and automatically refreshes this reading periodically.
The application does not automatically track my location. Rather, it provides me with a field to enter the ZIP code where I am located and uses that information to grab my local air quality reading.
Something I’ve noticed since installing Air is that humans release an enormous amount of pollution, even in the environmentally conscious Bay Area. Nearly every morning the AQI reading rises above 50, which is going from the ‘good’ pollution category into the ‘moderate’ pollution category, and then falls back below 50 in the late evening. This cycle clearly shows that the increase in human activity during the day is noticeably degrading our air quality.
Making this cycle even more impressive is the fact that wind speeds increase during the day. Wind blows away pollution replacing it with clean, unpolluted air, so the fact that pollution readings still rise during the day shows just how much pollution we produce. Seeing this behavior, it comes as no surprise that around 1/3 of all Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. We’re like fish swimming in an ocean of polluted air. But hey, if it makes a few people rich it’s all worth it, right?
I subscribe to The British Museum’s channel on YouTube and recently watched one of their videos featuring a discussion between a man named Ian Hislop and a writer/director named Armando Iannucci. The talk was amusing but too short, so I looked up more about Armando Iannucci and found his film ‘The Death of Stalin’. The film turned out to be a gem worth sharing.
Based in Moscow in 1953, the Monty Python-esque film is a highly comedic, yet remarkably accurate portrayal of the death of Josef Stalin and the subsequent scramble for power over the Soviet Union. Featuring familiar names such as Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor, ‘The Death of Stalin’ is a constant procession of good laughs.
If you don’t already use it, Alfred (a.k.a. Alfred app) is a free application launcher and productivity application for macOS. It’s similar to Apple’s Spotlight feature built into all Macs, but it is significantly more powerful. To make a comparison, using Apple’s Spotlight is like watching a high school play in a rural town whereas using Alfred is like watching a multi-million dollar Broadway musical in New York City. The two are nearly incomparable.
This post is not about Alfred though. This post is about a workflow I created for Alfred.
Several years back I got fed up with listening to commercials while watching baseball, basketball, or football games. Sure, I could mute the video player and switch to another window to do something else for a moment, but doing that often caused me to entirely forget about the game I was watching and miss significant portions of play. There had to be a better way.
This got me thinking about what the situation would be like in a perfect world. Well, in a perfect world the commercials would automatically mute when they started and unmute once they were finished playing. Unfortunately, I do not know how to build an audio/video artificial intelligence system that would analyze the incoming stream to determine if a commercial was playing. However, the idea of creating some kind of timer that would automatically unmute the audio on my computer after a set period of time seemed possible. This is what I ended up building.
My finished creation is a workflow for Alfred which I call ‘Temporary Mute’. This workflow allows a user to mute the volume on their computer for a specified duration of time. Once the duration of time has elapsed, the computer’s volume is automatically unmuted to its previous volume. The user can also manually unmute the volume at any time before the define duration is over.
The workflow has two modes which can be used:
Mute for: Using the “mute for” keyword phrase allows the computer to be muted for the exact number of seconds specified. Simply include a number after “mute for” and the volume will remain muted for that number of seconds. [Example: “mute for 145”]
Mute time: Using the “mute time” keyword phase allows the user to select from predefined periods of time for muting the computer. After typing “mute time”, select one of the predefined durations and the computer will be muted for that amount of time.
While this workflow is incredibly useful, it is not perfect. As I already mentioned, it does not automatically recognize when commercials end. If you set a mute time that exceeds the duration of the commercial break, you’ll end up missing a few moments of the game when it comes back. Though, over time you will become familiar with the standard break lengths used in each sport. For example, baseball’s commercial breaks tend to be close to 90 seconds whereas basketball’s come in around 120 seconds and football’s can reach 180 seconds or longer.
Additionally, this workflow was built to be used with the default audio device on your Mac. If you use a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) or other external audio playback device, unfortunately this workflow will not function correctly.
Finally, this workflow obviously requires that you use Alfred. You can probably hack at it so that it functions elsewhere, but it won’t work like that out of the box.
When I first started voting, like many others I would simply show up at the polls, put a checkmark next to anyone with a D next to their name, and then randomly vote yes or no on the propositions. This form of uneducated voting was unproductive.
One year I encountered a proposition that was so obtusely worded that I could not figure out whether I wanted to support or oppose the effort, even after thoroughly reading the official voting guide provided by my local county. For the first time I decided to go to Google to figure out what the proposition was about and what I found amazed me.
There exist some incredible voter guides on the internet. Not only are they easy to navigate and read, they provide clear descriptions of each candidate and proposition, an explanation of financial implications, and a list of groups supporting and opposing each candidate/proposition. These voter guides are so helpful that they make me wonder whether our government purposefully complicates the wording on the ballot to confuse and discourage voters. Regardless of whether the effect is on purpose, voter participation usually comes in around 35% for any California election and uninterpretable ballot information is one reason that number is so low.
After learning that voter guides exist on the internet, I will never again vote in any election without consulting those guides. Any other approach would leave me underinformed.
Below is a list of the best voter guides I have used:
Voter’s Edge California – Voter’s Edge California is a joint project between MapLight and the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund. VEC provides a comprehensive look at all the available candidates and measures on your ballot.
CALmatters 2018 Voter Guide – CALmatters is a non-profit, non-partisan, member-supported news organization focused on California. In addition to insightful and comprehensive reporting on news matters, CALmatters has put together an excellent guide to the November 2018 election.
Ballotpedia – While not the easiest site to navigate, Ballotpedia contains a true wealth of information about every aspect of voting. This page provides a solid central navigation point for learning about the upcoming November 2018 election. To learn specifically about the November 2018 California ballot propositions, click here.
Ballot.fyi – A non-partisan guide to the ballot propositions on California’s 2018 ballot. This guide is put together by a two person team, an engineer and a journalist with help from The Knight Foundation.
League of Women Voters of California – When looking for voter guides, the League of Women Voters of California voting guide is probably the most referenced guide on the internet. While they do not win the award for the most exhaustive guide, the LWVC have been putting together great information in their voting guides for many years. Their voting guides are easy to use as you can quickly assess whether you agree or disagree with their endorsements.
Green Party of California State Voter Guide – This is a simple list of endorsements from the Green Party of California. It’s nothing special, but if social justice and the environment are important to you, these are probably the votes you want to cast.
The Staircase is a multi-episode documentary which follows the trial of Michael Peterson after the death of his wife under suspicious circumstances in 2001.
There exists countless murder-mystery documentaries, but what grabs my attention about this film is the fact the even after watching the full series, I am completely torn about whether Michael Peterson is guilty. Throughout episodes 1-8, I was led further and further towards believing that Peterson was guilty. His remarkably odd behavior and lack of remorse, along with quite damning evidence, seem to prove his guilt. However, once the verdict is read in episode 8, my opinion almost immediately flipped. Episodes 9-13 suddenly show Michael Peterson in a completely different light which points towards his innocence.
After finishing the last episode, I have no idea how I should feel about the case. The fact that I could assume such strong feelings of both guilt and innocence is remarkable. In the end, I am left with feelings of sorrow about how the tragedy affected the lives of a family.
Every morning when I sit down at my computer I engage in the same routine of checking websites and my email to bring myself up to speed with what is occurring in the world around me. Reddit and the Washington Post provide a view of the larger world, but when it comes to California news nothing beats the California Sun email newsletter.
The California Sun is a daily weekday newsletter written by two men, a former correspondent and a former staff editor for the New York Times. They compile a list of the most important news articles about California and provide the list in a format that is easy to quickly digest. Each newsletter follows the same format: The first section is called The Lede and focuses on the most important California story. Next comes statewide news followed by a section with Northern California stories and another section with Southern California stories. The final section usually contains three stories that do not fit neatly into other sections of the newsletter. Several subjects are summarized in each section and each summary comes with a link to a media outlet for the full story. When relevant, subjects will contain links to multiple media outlets which provide different views.
I have a remarkable appreciation of the California Sun because it is comprehensive and well built. The newsletter allows me to both quickly bring my understanding of the news up-to-speed as well as dive deeply into topics I want to know more about. After reading 6 email newsletters and listening to 7 news podcasts every day, I feel that removing the California Sun would have the largest impact on my understanding of current events.
Give the California Sun newsletter a try for one or two weeks. They won’t send you anything except the newsletter and unsubscribing is as simple as a single click if you want the subscription to end. I promise that you will not be disappointed.
This documentary provides a fantastic look at the life of Robin Williams. I was quite surprised to learn that while he attended the Claremont Men’s College, now renamed to Claremont McKenna College, Williams spent a good portion of his time chasing the girls who attended Pitzer College. This struck me as odd given that CMC is closer to Scripps College, an all-girls school, than it is to Pitzer. I suspect that Pitzer’s drug-loving, hippy reputation had something to do with it.
Sortem for Amazon is an extension for Google’s Chrome web browser which provides an additional sorting option when looking at search results on Amazon.com.
To find the best products, one might think that sorting by product rating (avg. customer review) is the best way to find the highest quality products. After all, if people like a product they will rate it highly. However, that sorting method does not consider that products with fewer ratings are more likely to be rated higher than products with many ratings.
For example, if product A has a single 5-star rating, it will be ranked above product B which has 1,000 4 and 5-star reviews. This is because a single perfect 5-star rating is ranked above 1,000 reviews which average out to a 4.5-star rating.
While sorting by the number of reviews doesn’t magically display the absolute best product as the first result, it does provide a useful sorting option that can be used in conjunction with filtering by product rating.