The Apps That Help Blind People Shop

For consumers who are blind or have low vision, a shopping trip can be rife with challenges. More than 8 million Americans reportedly have a vision impairment, but they can’t count on store staff to offer assistance or stores to have clutter-free aisles or easy-to-navigate layouts. Just entering or exiting some businesses can be difficult.

Now some tech companies are developing products to make shopping less of an ordeal for customers with blindness or low vision. A San Diego startup called Aira (Artificial Intelligence and Remote Assistance) has launched an app that allows people with vision impairment to connect with trained professionals who remotely provide visual assistance, and is partnering with retail stores and other businesses to integrate the technology.

Suman Kanuganti got the idea for Aira in 2015, after speaking to a blind communications professional about how Google Glass technology could be used to help the blind become more mobile. Aira has described the app as “OnStar for the blind.”

How it works: When users download the Aira app, they’re linked to an operator who accesses their smartphone camera to view their surroundings. (Users pay a monthly subscription fee and can also subscribe to a plan that comes with smart glasses and a camera accessible to Aira operators.)

At the grocery store chain Wegmans, for instance, which recently began offering Aira services at all its stores, blind and low-vision shoppers can activate the Aira app to connect them with professionals who help them move around the store, find what they want, and direct them to the shortest checkout lines. By speaking with these customers on the phone, the agents essentially act as a second pair of eyes for them.

Aira is available in some restaurants, college campuses, and airports, and is branching out to other places like AT&T stores. During a time when discussions about inclusion in retail have often focused on size, gender, or race, the emergence of technology like Aira underscores the importance of challenging ableism by making shopping more accessible for people with physical impairments.

Ray Myers

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Online Global Education Conference – Reminder

The online Global Education Conference began on Monday, September 17. Please join in throughout the week.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-2018-global-education-conference-registration-49538109820?aff=erelexpmlt

Cautious Tech Leaders

When Joe Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas, greeted Jack Dorsey at a congressional hearing last week, he sounded flummoxed.

“I don’t know what a Twitter C.E.O. should look like,” Mr. Barton said. “But you don’t look like what a C.E.O. of Twitter should look like.”

The congressman had a point. Mr. Dorsey — who sported a nose ring, a popped-collar shirt and a craggy Moses beard — looked more like a hipster version of a Civil War officer than a tech icon. Yet more striking than his look was his manner before skeptical lawmakers.

Faced with tough questions, Mr. Dorsey did not mount an aggressive defense of his company and his technology, as an earlier generation of tech leader might have. Instead, he demurred, conceded mistakes and generally engaged in a nuanced and seemingly heartfelt colloquy on the difficulties of managing tech in a complex world. Even in response to Mr. Barton’s comment about his look, Mr. Dorsey was solicitous. “My mom agrees with you,” he said.

Ray Myers

(Excerpted from NY Times, 9/13/18)

P.S.

The online Global Education Conference begins on Monday, September 17, please join in throughout the week.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-2018-global-education-conference-registration-49538109820?aff=erelexpmlt

What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

Research shows that students, especially boys, benefit when teachers share their race or gender. Yet most teachers are white women.

By Claire Cain Miller

Sept. 10, 2018

283

Zara Gibbon helps a new sixth grader at Animo Westside Charter Middle School in Los Angeles. A majority of teachers in American schools are white women.

As students have returned to school, they have been greeted by teachers who, more likely than not, are white women. That means many students will be continuing to see teachers who are a different gender than they are, and a different skin color.

Does it matter? Yes, according to a significant body of research: Students tend to benefit from having teachers who look like them, especially nonwhite students.

The homogeneity of teachers is probably one of the contributors, the research suggests, to the stubborn gender and race gaps in student achievement: Over all, girls outperform boys, and white students outperform those who are black and Hispanic.

Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math: Rich, White and Suburban DistrictsJune 13, 2018

Yet the teacher work force is becoming more female: 77 percent of teachers in public and private elementary and high schools are women, up from 71 percent three decades ago. The teaching force has grown more racially diverse in that period, but it’s still 80 percent white, down from 87 percent.

(Excerpted from NY Times, 9 /11/18)

Ray Myers

Libraries to the Rescue – Bedrock of Civil Society

Is the public library obsolete?

A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so. In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function. Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded.

Libraries are already starved for resources. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down. In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $10 aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.

But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance. Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up. The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”

Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.

Libraries are an example of what I call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.

I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.

For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing. For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.

For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too. For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.

In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another

To appreciate why this matters, compare the social space of the library with the social space of commercial establishments like Starbucks or McDonald’s. These are valuable parts of the social infrastructure, but not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.

Older and poor people will often avoid Starbucks altogether, because the fare is too expensive and they feel that they don’t belong. The elderly library patrons I got to know in New York told me that they feel even less welcome in the trendy new coffee shops, bars and restaurants that are so common in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Poor and homeless library patrons don’t even consider entering these places. They know from experience that simply standing outside a high-end eatery can prompt managers to call the police. But you rarely see a police officer in a library.

This is not to say that libraries are always peaceful and serene. During the time I spent doing research, I witnessed a handful of heated disputes, physical altercations and other uncomfortable situations, sometimes involving people who appeared to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. But such problems are inevitable in a public institution that’s dedicated to open access, especially when drug clinics, homeless shelters and food banks routinely turn away — and often refer to the library! — those who most need help. What’s remarkable is how rarely these disruptions happen, how civilly they are managed and how quickly a library regains its rhythm afterward.

The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. But that has changed. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.

Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.

This summer, Forbes magazine published an article arguing that libraries no longer served a purpose and did not deserve public support. The author, an economist, suggested that Amazon replace libraries with its own retail outlets, and claimed that most Americans would prefer a free-market option. The public response — from librarians especially, but also public officials and ordinary citizens — was so overwhelmingly negative that Forbes deleted the article from its website.

We should take heed. Today, as cities and suburbs continue to reinvent themselves, and as cynics claim that government has nothing good to contribute to that process, it’s important that institutions like libraries get the recognition they deserve. It’s worth noting that “liber,” the Latin root of the word “library,” means both “book” and “free.” Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that — even in an age of atomization, polarization and inequality — serve as the bedrock of civil society.

If we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need. (NY Times, 8/9/18)

Ray Myers

Senator “Whitehouse” Slams Supreme Court Nominee

WHITEHOUSE REVEALS KAVANAUGH’S PRO-CORPORATE, RIGHT-WING RECORD IN SCOTUS HEARING OPENER

Judge Kavanaugh advances right-wing and corporate interests 91 percent of the time Kavanaugh sided with conservative “friends of the court” 91 percent of the time

Washington, DC – At today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) pinpointed Kavanaugh’s troubling bias in favor of right-wing and corporate interests throughout his career in Republican politics and on the federal bench, and compared Kavanaugh’s partiality to the same bias that has taken root in Chief Justice John Roberts’s Supreme Court.

Senator Whitehouse’s as-prepared remarks are below.

Whitehouse also released analysis, incorporated into his opening remarks, of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and Kavanaugh’s judicial record.  Summaries and links to the full analysis are provided below.

READ:  The Roberts Five: Advancing Right-Wing and Corporate Interests 92% of the Time

A review of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence during the Roberts Era reveals that in the most controversial and salient civil cases – those decided by bare 5-4 or 5-3 majorities – when the right wing of the Court has voted en bloc to form the majority, they do so to advance far-right and corporate interests a striking 92 percent of the time.  In those cases, the “Roberts Five” – Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Antonin Scalia (replaced last year by Justice Neil Gorsuch) – have reliably voted in lockstep to help Republicans win elections, to protect corporations from liability, to abridge civil rights, and to advance the far right social agenda.

READ: Brett Kavanaugh in Partisan 2-1 cases: Advancing Right-Wing and Corporate Interests 91% of the Time

A review of Brett Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence on the D.C. Circuit reveals that in the most controversial and salient civil cases – those decided by bare 2-1 majorities – when Kavanaugh is in the majority with another Republican-appointed judge, he votes to advance far-right and corporate interests a striking 91 percent of the time

READ: The Roberts Five: Siding with Conservative Amici Curiae 92% of the Time

An examination of the Roberts Court’s 5-4 decisions reveals that, when the Roberts Five (Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, Justice Kennedy, Justice Scalia/Gorsuch, and Justice Thomas) forms the Court’s majority, they agree with conservative amici curiae (“friends of the court”) 92 percent of the time.  Further, in these cases, the Roberts Five has endorsed the positions advanced by the high-profile conservative groups the Chamber of Commerce, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, and the Washington Legal Foundation 100 percent of the time.  In its 5-4 decisions, the Roberts Five have opened up the doors for dark money to flood the political system, rolled back important voting rights and environmental protections, and made it easier for employers to discriminate against their employees.  

READ: Brett Kavanaugh: Siding with Conservative Amici Curiae 91% of the Time

An examination of District of Columbia Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s written opinions reveals that he sided with conservative amici curiae (“friends of the court”) 91 percent of the time.  In these cases, Kavanaugh wrote opinions limiting collective bargaining rights, letting polluters pollute, blurring the line between the separation of church and state, protecting corporations from liability, and expanding the scope of the Second Amendment.

READ: Select Cases Showing Brett Kavanaugh Delivering for Right-Wing and Corporate Interests

Before beginning his remarks, Whitehouse joined colleagues in calling out the Trump administration’s dubious assertion of privilege over 100,000 pages of documents related to Kavanaugh, and the eleventh-hour dump of an additional 42,000 pages of documents from Kavanaugh’s work in the Bush administration – documents Democrats had no hope of reviewing fully before Kavanaugh’s hearing began.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s Complete Statemeny

Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing Opening Statement

September 4, 2018 – AS-PREPARED FOR DELIVERY

When is a pattern evidence of bias?

In court, pattern is evidence of bias all the time; evidence on which juries and trial judges rely, to show discriminatory intent, to show a common scheme, to show bias. 

When does a pattern prove bias?

That’s no idle question.   It’s relevant to the pattern of the Roberts Court when its Republican majority goes off on its partisan excursions through the civil law; when all five Republican appointees — the Roberts Five, I’ll call them — go raiding off together, and no Democratic appointee joins them.

Does this happen often?  Yes, indeed. 

The Roberts Five has gone on 80 of these partisan excursions since Roberts became chief. 

There is a feature to these eighty cases.  They almost all implicate interests important to the big funders and influencers of the Republican Party.  When the Republican Justices go off on these partisan excursions, there’s a big Republican corporate or partisan interest involved 92 percent of the time.

A tiny handful of these cases don’t implicate an interest of the big Republican influencers — so flukishly few we can set them aside.  That leaves 73 cases that all implicate a major Republican Party interest.  Seventy-three is a lot of cases at the Supreme Court.

Is there a pattern to those 73 cases?   Oh, yes there is.

Every time a big Republican corporate or partisan interest is involved, the big Republican interest wins.  Every. Time. 

Let me repeat:  In seventy-three partisan decisions where there’s a big Republican interest at stake, the big Republican interest wins.  Every.  Damned.  Time. 

Hence the mad scramble of big Republican interest groups to protect a “Roberts Five” that will reliably give them wins — really big wins, sometimes.

When the Roberts Five saddles up, these so-called conservatives are anything but judicially conservative. 

They readily overturn precedent, toss out statutes passed by wide bipartisan margins, and decide on broad constitutional issues they need not reach.  Modesty, originalism, stare decisis, all these supposedly conservative judicial principles, all have the hoof prints of the Roberts Five all across their backs, wherever those principles got in the way of wins for the Big Republican interests. 

The litany of Roberts Five decisions explains why big Republican interests want Kavanaugh on the Court so badly that Republicans trampled so much Senate precedent to shove him through; so let’s review the litany. 

What do big Republican interests want?  Well, first, they want to win elections.

What has the Roberts Five delivered?

Help Republicans gerrymander elections:  Vieth v. Jubelirer, 5-4, license to gerrymander.

Help Republicans keep minority voters away from the polls:  Shelby County, 5-4 and Bartlett v. Strickland, 5-4.  And Abbott v. Perez, 5-4, despite the trial judge finding the Texas legislature actually intended to suppress minority voters.

And the big one:  help corporate front-group money flood elections — if you’re a big special interest you love unlimited power to buy elections and threaten and bully Congress. McCutcheon, 5-4 counting the concurrence; Bullock, 5-4; and the infamous, grotesque 5-4 Citizens United decision (which belongs beside Lochner on the Court’s roll of shame).

What else do the big influencers want? 

To get out of courtrooms.  Big influencers hate courtrooms, because their lobbying and electioneering and threatening doesn’t work.  In a courtroom, big influencers used to getting their way have to suffer the indignity of equal treatment. 

So the Roberts Five protects corporations from group “class action” lawsuits:  Walmart v. Dukes, 5-4; Comcast, 5-4; and this past term, Epic Systems, 5-4.

The Roberts Five helps corporations steer customers and workers away from courtrooms and into mandatory arbitration:  Concepcion, Italian Colors, and Rent-a-Center, all Roberts Five.  Epic Systems does double duty here: now workers can’t even arbitrate their claims as a group.

Hindering access to the courthouse for plaintiffs generally: Iqbal, 5-4.

Protecting corporations from being taken to court by employees harmed through pay discrimination, Ledbetter, 5-4; age discrimination, Gross, 5-4; harassment, Vance 5-4; and retaliation, Nassar, 5-4.  Even insulating corporations from liability for international human rights violations: Jesner, 5-4.

Corporations aren’t in the Constitution; juries are.  Indeed, courtroom juries are the one element of American government designed to protect people against encroachments by private wealth and power.   So of course the Roberts Five rule for wealthy, powerful corporations over jury rights every time — with nary a mention of the Seventh Amendment.

What’s another one?   Oh, yes.  A classic: helping big business bust unions.  Harris v. Quinn, 5-4; and Janus v. AFSCME this year, 5-4, overturning a 40-year precedent.

Lots of big Republican influencers are polluters. They like to pollute for free.

So of course the Roberts Five delivers decisions that let corporate polluters pollute.  To pick a few:  Rapanos, weakening wetland protections, 5-4; National Association of Home Builders, weakening protections for endangered species, 5-4; Michigan v. EPA, helping air polluters, 5-4;  and, in the face of emerging climate havoc, there’s the procedurally aberrant 5-4 partisan decision to stop the EPA Clean Power Plan.

Then come Roberts Five bonus decisions advancing a far-right social agenda:  Gonzalez v. Carhart, upholding restrictive abortion laws; Hobby Lobby, granting corporations religious rights over the health care rights of employees; NIFLA,  letting states deny women truthful information about their reproductive choices—all 5-4, all the Republicans.

Add Heller and McDonald, which reanimated for the gun industry a theory a former Chief Justice once called a “fraud”; both decisions 5-4.

This year, Trump v. Hawaii, 5-4, rubber stamping President Trump’s discriminatory Muslim travel ban.

And in case Wall Street was feeling left out, helping insulate investment bankers from fraud claims: Janus Capital Group, Inc., 5-4.  

No wonder the American people feel the game is rigged.

Here’s how the rigged game works: big business and partisan groups fund the Federalist Society, which picked Gorsuch and now Kavanaugh.  As White House Counsel admitted, they “insourced” the Federalist Society for this selection. Exactly how the nominees were picked, and who was in the room where it happened, and who had a vote or a veto, and what was said or promised, is all a deep dark secret. 

Then big business and partisan groups fund the Judicial Crisis Network, which runs dark-money political campaigns to influence Senators in confirmation votes, as they’ve done for Gorsuch and now Kavanaugh.  Who pays millions of dollars for that, and what their expectations are, is a deep dark secret.  

These groups also fund Republican election campaigns with dark money. The identity of the big donors?  A deep dark secret.

Once the nominee is on, the same business front groups, with ties to the Koch Brothers and other funders of the Republican political machine, file “friend of the court,” or amicus briefs, to signal their wishes to the Roberts Five.  Who is really behind those “friends” is another deep dark secret.

It has gotten so weird that Republican justices now even send hints back to big business interests about how they’d like to help them next, and then big business lawyers rush out to lose cases, just to get them up before the friendly Court, pronto.  That’s what happened in Friedrichs and Janus.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the biggest corporate lobby of them all.  It’s the mouthpiece for Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Guns, you name it—and this year, with Justice Gorsuch riding with the Roberts Five, the Chamber won nine of the 10 cases it weighed in on.

The Roberts Five since 2006 has given the Chamber more than three-quarters of their total votes. This year in civil cases they voted for the Chamber’s position nearly 90 percent of the time. 

People are noticing.  Veteran court-watchers like Jeffrey Toobin, Linda Greenhouse and Norm Orenstein describe the court as a delivery service for Republican interests: 

Toobin has written that on the Supreme Court, “Roberts has served the interests . . . of the contemporary Republican Party.” 

Greenhouse has said, “the Republican-appointed majority is committed to harnessing the Supreme Court to an ideological agenda.”

Orenstein described, “the new reality of today’s Supreme Court: It is polarized along partisan lines in a way that parallels other political institutions and the rest of society, in a fashion we have never seen.”

And the American public knows it, too.  The American public thinks the Supreme Court treats corporations more favorably than individuals, compared to vice versa, by a 7-to-1 margin. 

Now, let’s look at where Judge Kavanaugh fits in.  A Republican political operative his whole career, who’s never tried a case.  He made his political bones helping the salacious prosecution of President Clinton, and leaking prosecution information to the press.

As an operative in the second Bush White House, he cultivated relationships with political insiders like nomination guru Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society architect of Kavanaugh’s court nominations. On the D.C. Circuit, Kavanaugh gave more than 50 speeches to the Federalist Society.  That’s some auditioning.

On the DC Circuit, Kavanaugh showed his readiness to join the Roberts Five with big political wins for Republican and corporate interests: unleashing special interest money into elections; protecting corporations from liability; helping polluters pollute; striking down commonsense gun regulations; keeping injured plaintiffs out of court; and perhaps most important for the current occupant of the Oval Office, expounding a nearly limitless vision of presidential immunity from the law. 

His alignment with right-wing groups who came before him as “friends of the court”?  91 percent.  

When big business trade associations weighed in?  76 percent.  This is what corporate capture of the courts looks like.

There are big expectations for you.  The shadowy dark-money front group, the Judicial Crisis Network, is spending tens of millions in dark money to push for your confirmation.  They clearly have big expectations about how you’ll rule on dark money.

The NRA has poured millions into your confirmation, promising their members that you’ll “break the tie.”  They clearly have big expectations on how you’ll vote on guns.

White House Counsel Don McGahn said, “There is a coherent plan here where actually the judicial selection and the deregulatory effort are really the flip side of the same coin.”  Big polluters clearly have big expectations for you on their deregulatory effort.

Finally, you come before us nominated by a President named in open court as directing criminal activity, and a subject of ongoing criminal investigation.  You displayed expansive views on executive immunity from the law. If you are in that seat because the White House has big expectations that you will protect the President from the due process of law, that should give every Senator pause. 

Tomorrow, we will hear a lot of “confirmation etiquette.”  It’s a sham. 

Kavanaugh knows the game.  In the Bush White House, he coached judicial nominees to just tell Senators that they will adhere to statutory text, that they have no ideological agenda.  Fairy tales.

At his hearing, Justice Roberts infamously said he’d just call “balls and strikes,” but the pattern – the 73-case pattern – of the Roberts Five qualifies him to have NASCAR-style corporate badges on his robes.  

Alito said in his hearing what a “strong principle” stare decisis was, an important limitation on the Court.  Then he told the Federalist Society stare decisis “means to leave things decided when it suits our purposes.”

Gorsuch delivered the key fifth vote in the precedent-busting, but also union-busting, Janus decision.  He too had pledged in his hearing to “follow the law of judicial precedent,” assured us he was not a “philosopher king,” and promised to give equal concern to “every person, poor or rich, mighty or meek.”

How did that turn out?  Great for the rich and mighty: Gorsuch is the single most corporate-friendly justice on a Court already full of them, ruling for big business interests in over 70 percent of cases, and in every single case where his vote was determinative. 

The president early on assured evangelicals his Supreme Court picks would attack Roe v. Wade.  Despite “confirmation etiquette” assurances about precedent, your own words make clear you don’t really believe Roe v. Wade is settled law.

We have seen this movie before.  We know how it ends. 

The sad fact is that there is no consequence for telling the Committee fairy tales about stare decisis, and then riding off with the Roberts Five, trampling across whatever precedent gets in the way of letting those Big Republican interests keep winning 5-4 partisan decisions. 

Every.  Damned.  Time. 

###

 Ray Myers

What’s So Funny, Twitter?

Some call it the “social media dopamine loop.” The short-attention-span jolt of Twitter is perfect for a few specialized things: breaking news, viral links – and presidential hissy fits. But it turns out, Twitter is perfect for jokes.

“A Twitter habit, like any other Internet addiction, is an endless dopamine loop. Your brain doesn’t have a satiety signal for social media updates. It just wants you to check your screen again and again for new content until you die. (NY Times, 7/29/18).”

Many want to opt out of the social media loop altogether. But their hedonic treadmills are turned up so fast that it’s hard to make the leap. Real life seems drab now, compared with the high-speed barrage of ironic banter online. It’s the dream of our sitcom-watching childhood come true: nothing but punch lines as far as the eye can see.

Ray Myers

P.S. I will be taking some time off during August. I will only be posting blog updates on Mondays of the month, but will resume M-W-F postings after Labor Day (no post), on September 3.

Investing in EdTech Around the World

EdTech is everywhere as we know but most of the investment in this field is not in the classroom, also something that most of us may know. But just for the record, here are some of the recent numbers. In 2017, EdTech investment reached a record high of over 9.52 billion. The majority of that investment, however, will never see a classroom.

“In 2017, global investments made to learning technology companies reached over $9.52 billion, up 30% from 2016, which set the previous record for EdTech funding at $7.33 billion; 913 EdTech companies were funded in 2017, the highest since the record of 728 set in 2015. Yet although this was a record year, only a small amount went towards Pre-K-20 Education. Pre-K-12 companies received 13% of the overall global investment, or 13% of the overall global investment, or $1.2 billion, and higher education companies got 8%, or $682 million (EdTechTimes, March 2018).”

Major EdTech investment in the U.S. and China is somewhat expected. Another major shift is a huge increase in Africa, particularly for startups in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria. This may be due to a growing market in the continent for EdTech that goes beyond the typical classroom, an environment that is inaccessible to many children in those regions.

Ray Myers

Need a Hobby? Go Online!

On Monday, I posted a blog about one NY Times’ writer’s decision to stop “Tweeting” and spend time on other pursuits. Perhaps she would like to take up a new hobby? That seems to have been the solution for many other who have now found that the Internet can be a place to learn new skills by connecting with other “hobbyists.” Pottery, painting, cooking, you name it!

While much of this is not new, the way the Internet can help steer us toward something useful bears mentioning in the name of growing digital skepticism (see Monday’s blog). It is a reminder that the Internet’s most effective trick is connecting disparate individuals into a coherent whole. There may only be a small number of potters in any given city, but online there is a whole ceramics metropolis willing to help.

Art, for example, is an empowering thing. Most people think they can’t do it, and when they realize they can, it’s amazing – it opens up a whole new world, and that world doesn’t really have time for a lot of “fighting and fussing.”

Ray Myers

Political Messaging on Facebook

Trump is now the single biggest political advertiser on Facebook. So what’s your favorite addiction? Politics or social media? I think it is now safe to say after the last election, that if you like to get your “fake news” online, you were among those who were the most helpful in getting Trump elected. He may not have gotten the most individual Americans’ votes, but he certainly knew where the most counted and where to place his political ads, Facebook.

He still continues today and will probably continue to take the most advantage of Facebook’s hypnotic hold on those who believe that everything that they read or see online must be true! This is now the age of believing in your own opinions, regardless of what the facts may be. “If it’s online, it must be true.” As discussed on this blog on Monday, political consultants have said that Democrats who are running for election are spending a smaller percentage of their ad budgets on digital ads than their rivals, sometimes as little as 10 percent versus 40 percent for Republicans. That has spurred volunteer efforts in Silicon Valley, which is widely regarded as liberal, to help bring Democratic campaigns into the digital age.

The new digital political age? And if you can’t get enough followers, make them up.

Ray Myers

Screen Time as a Stress Reducer

“Device addiction is as likely a symptom of anxiety as a cause.”  Every teenager seems to have a device that is at their disposal any time of night or day.  It can help you to always be connected on your own terms with whomever you want to be, and feel you have established your own independence.

“But this may really be only an uncertain independence, many having been raised under the whirring of helicopter parents, over-involved and trying to fix every problem for their children. This suffocates independence at a time when teenagers should be exploring autonomy, limits the development of self-reliance and grit and may even directly produce anxiety and depression . . .

Yes, we should devote resources to making smartphones less addictive, but we should devote even more resources to address the public health crisis of anxiety that is causing teenagers so much suffering and driving them to seek relief in the ultimate escape machines (NY Times, 7/15/18).”

Ray Myers

How to Win an Election – Campaign Technology

Forget about your “hanging chads,” fake news and dirty tricks. Get some savvy technology tools to load onto your campaign bandwagon. And, of course, the right people to make it all work. Democrats obviously have the greater need.

“Democrats are often thought to be tech savvy, because the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were celebrated for their online touch and because much of Silicon Valley backs the party’s candidates. In fact, . . . Democrats in congressional and state-level races have been out-matched by their Republican rivals, who benefitted from the heavy tech investments during the Obama years and their enthusiastic embrace of targeted ads on platforms like Facebook and Google.

People don’t understand how not far along we are as a party (Democratic). Obama was really good at tech, but it never trickled down to a Senate race, let alone the state-level stuff. (NY Times, 7/14/18).”

Ray Myers

Supreme Court Pick and Tech Freedom

Is Net Neutrality really unlawful? Our new Justice seems to think so. Trump announced on Twitter last week that he would name a nominee to serve on the highest federal court in the United States at 6 p.m. PT Monday night. The choice comes about two weeks after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would retire by July 31. (Check out out the full coverage at our sister site CBSNews.com.)Trump’s choice, if confirmed by the Senate, will have a say on landmark cases for years to come. Supreme Court justices make rulings that affect everything from education to marriage equality to free speech. Tech has increasingly appeared on the court’s docket. In 2018, the justices ruled on cases that affected online shopping and phone location data history privacy.  In its next session, which starts in October, the Supreme Court is expected to hear cases on tech issues again, including an antitrust argument over Apple’s App Store.Kavanaugh, 53, has served as a US Court of Appeals judge for the DC Circuit for 12 years, providing opinions on key tech issues like net neutrality andThe potential Supreme Court justice sided against net neutrality in a 2017 dissent, arguing that it was “one of the most consequential regulations ever issued by any executive or independent agency in the history of the United States.”Kavanaugh wrote that net neutrality was unlawful because it prevented internet service providers from controlling what type of content they provide to people, violating a company’s First Amendment rights. He compared it to cable providers being able to control what customers could watch.Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, called Kavanaugh out for his stance on net neutrality in a tweet on July 3.”Kavanaugh frequently sides with powerful interests rather than defending the rights of all Americans like when he argued that the FCC’s #NetNeutrality rule benefiting millions of consumers was unconstitutional,” the senator tweeted.  The circuit court judge has also argued in support of the NSA’s massive surveillance program.In 2015, the US Court of Appeals declined to hear a case on the NSA’s phone metadata collection, first unveiled by whistleblower Edward Snowden.In his opinion, Kavanaugh argued that the NSA’s surveillance program was consistent with the Fourth Amendment, even without a warrant. He said that data requests from the government were reasonable for national security.”In my view, that critical national security need outweighs the impact on privacy occasioned by this program,” Kavanaugh wrote.He cited the “third-party doctrine” established in 1979, which allows law enforcement to obtain data on a person without a warrant if they obtained it from a third party (CNET 7/10/18).Ray Myers

Twitter is Trump’s Song Bird

Twitter used to be an apolitical forum where you could type and hashtag away just about anything that seemed important or “interesting” to you. But times have changed as we all know, and the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has turned it into his most powerful propaganda tool. But can’t Twitter do something about that? A Washington Post reporter recently (Manjoo, 7/5/18) asked that same question to Vijaya Gadde, head of the legal policy and trust office at Twitter. “She declined to answer directly, pointing instead to a January statement in which the company stated that blocking a world leader’s tweets ‘would hide important information people should be able to see and delete.’ But what if that important information conflicts with Twitter’s mission to promote a healthy public conversation? Sooner or later, Twitter’s executives and employees are going to have to make a decision about which is more important, Mr. Trump’s tweets or the company’s desire to promote a healthy public conversation. It’s hard to see how both are tenable.” Ray Myers

Where Have All the Reporters Gone? To the Internet Every One

“The Internet, put simply, is a low-cost communications network. Everything else, like the web, builds on top of that. And having so much information online can be a gold mine for reporting . . . Silicon Valley is a caldron of innovation.

But all of the big issues surrounding technology impact on the world – like automation, economic opportunity and income disparity – are playing out outside the tech hubs, across the $20 trillion American economy. Tons of research is being done on those subjects, and it’s all online . . . What it means is that you can test your assumptions for any trend or explanatory story . . . The other similar change is the ease, speed and cost of one-to-one communication means you can talk to far more people, wherever they are, on any given story. (NY Times, 6/28/18).”

So it’s all about the innovation and change. But that may not be the information people are looking for. It seems that a lot of Americans (not the majority) felt that the country had to be made “Great Again.”

Ray Myers

P.S. Happy Fourth of July. Enjoy the holiday “week.” Will be back on Monday, July 9th.

Amazon in Your Face in a Special Place

Be careful, Mouseketeers, Mickey may be watching. Yesterday, I posted some news about Facebook in your face and space. Today it’s a warning about surveillance in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World.

It might be a small and probably temporary win for privacy advocates, but it’s a significant win nonetheless. The City of Orlando, Florida has announced that they will be ending the use of Amazon’s facial recognition software in response to protests staged by the ACLU and dozens of advocacy groups. While the government is still keeping the door open to using the technology again in the future, Orlando residents can rest assured that the frighteningly accurate Amazon Rekognition won’t scanning their faces again any time soon.

It had the makings of a police-state dystopia you’d only see in fiction and China. The ACLU’s investigations into business transactions between Amazon Web Services and the Orlando Police Department as well as Oregon’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office revealed how Amazon’s face recognition technology is being used more than just outside of retail but in law enforcement as well. Given Amazon’s depth of data on US customers, the accuracy of its face recognition, and the inclination of government to cast a very wide net, privacy advocates immediately sounded the alarm.

As with any face recognition technology used for surveillance, the fear is that it will be used for more than just tracking actual criminals. Simply having a suspicious face, or joining protests, could land you in the system in a snap. Given the novelty of the technology as a law enforcement tool, there are also few laws to protect people’s privacy and freedom against mass surveillance.

And it worked, somewhat. While Orlando has indeed dropped its pilot program, according to The New York Times, it might still do so at a later date. Washington County, on the other hand, is sticking to its guns but defends that the technology, used for more than a year now, is not being used for mass surveillance of any kind.

Ray Myers

Facebook in Your Face

“Facebook has filed thousands of patent applications since it went public in 2012. One of them describes using forward-facing cameras to analyze your expressions and detect whether you’re bored or surprised by what you see in your feed. Another contemplates using your phone’s microphone to determine which TV show you’re watching. Others imagine systems to guess whether you’re getting married soon, predict you socioeconomic status and track how much you are sleeping.”

But with more than two billion monthly active users, most of whom share their thoughts and feelings on the platform, Facebook is amassing our personal details on an unprecedented scale. That isn’t likely to change. “There is no indication that Facebook has changed its commitment to watch everything we do, record everything we do and exploit everything we do.” (NY Times, 6/24/18)

The social network has considered tracking almost every aspect of users’ lives. #ISTE2018

Ray Myers

Apple to Stream Children’s Programs, and HBO Partners With Sesame Workshop

Although it is a nonprofit educational organization, Sesame Workshop has no intention of being left behind in the midst of the deal-making craze that has accompanied the rise of the streaming industry.

As the result of a recent deal with Apple, it is making a concerted effort to expand beyond “Sesame Street” the series that began on PBS in 1969 and now counts HBO as the home for its first run episodes. Sesame Workshop has its biggest programming slate in 15 years, with a new animated series, “Esme and Roy,” expected to premiere on HBO in August – just before the school year starts. Of course, HBO is a pay-for-view service. So we have come a long way from “public broadcasting.”

I wonder how much “Big Bird” is making? Stream, baby, stream. It’s all online and don’t forget HBO!

Ray Myers

IBM’s New Program Would Like to Have a Debate with You

“Understanding natural language is such a complex and difficult task, systems like IBM Debater lean on a wide range of systems, each handling a different part of the problem. One system will identify information that helps fuel an argument on one side of the debate. Another will generate the text of the argument. And so on.”

“But understanding language is far more complex. That means systems that perform fairly complex language tasks – like writing a Wikipedia article, let alone engaging in a serious debate on a random topic – may still be light years away.”

Let the debates begin – man vs. machine!

Ray Myers

P.S. Sorry about the late posting today.

Cartoonist Plans to Trump White House Tweets

I am a fan of political cartoons that taunt and tease political leaders. Particularly in the case of over-bearing, pompous, and presumptuous elected officials who believe they are beyond reproach. I think you may have known one or two, but if you don’t, please take a look at the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Rob Rogers, a political cartoonist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 25 years, recently lost his job for not being politically correct in the eyes of the newspaper’s owners. Here is how he described his ouster by the owners: “I was trained in a tradition in which editorial cartoonists are the live wires of a publication – as one former colleague put it, the ‘constant irritants.’ Our job is to provoke readers in a way words can’t. Cartoonists are not illustrators for a publisher’s politics.”

Rogers promises that: “The paper may have taken an eraser to my cartoons. But I plan to be at the drawing table every day of this presidency.”

Ray Myers