Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Dandy Warhols INTERVIEW

Columbia City Paper shoots the breeze with Zia McCabe of The Dandy Warhols about their new LP- This Machine, future disco albums, Veronica Mars, and of course- Lana Del Rey.

FR: So you guys are back with This Machine- in a music scene dominated by youth, how does it feel to be the elder statesman and does this have any effect on the sound of This Machine

ZM: Well I prefer the term "Cougar" as opposed to "elder statesmen".  We've always said our crowd age made the span from 8-80 and now it seems truer than ever.  As far as effecting our sound for This Machine, um no.  No effect whatsoever.  We make music for ourselves first and foremost and once we're as happy as we can be with it and release it to the public, the more people that get something from it the better.

FR: Internet aside, what are the main differences between the young up-and-coming musicians of today and the ones that defined the era when the Dandy Warhols first became popular? 

ZM: I guess the hugest difference is how much more DIY the industry is all around- from recording to distribution and promoting.  It's not about world domination anymore it's all about finding your niche audience and creating your own little scene.

FR: After 18 years, what approaches does the band take to keep things new and interesting?

ZM: Our approach has remained the same all this time.  We ask ourselves, "What isn't being done in music currently that we would l like to hear?"  What have we not experimented with that we would like to?  These are questions that stay the same but the answers are always changing.

FR: Speaking of the current scene, how has the revival of keyboard and synth music affected your role in the band? 

ZM: Honestly we don't pay much attention to that stuff and really, if we're hearing keyboards everywhere- we aren't gonna feel like putting them all over our album right?  This Machine really doesn't have much in the way of synths.  I mean, I really only laid them down if I thought it was essential.  That doesn't mean I'm still not enthusiastic about some sort of disco album in the future, tracking layers of synth tracks sure is fun!

FR: How do you approach bringing the Dandy Warhols experience to a live setting?  Has that approach changed over the years? 

ZM: No matter how a song of ours was recorded- when it comes time to make them work out live, we decide how best to get the essence of the song across with just the four of us.  It can be a challenge and some of the songs flat out don't work- but most times we're able to find an authentic way to present our music in the live fashion. Good times.

FR: What is your favorite song to perform live? 

ZM: Hmmm, Godless, I Love You, Horse Pills, Pete International, Boys Better- big fun synth outro. Really, it's all pretty damned fun!

FR: What was the experience like working with the legendary Mark Knopfler on the last record? 

ZM: In this day and age, people just email files.  Didn't even get to meet the guy.

FR: I have to ask.   Have you ever watched Veronica Mars and if so, do you have a favorite character? As if "We Used to Be Friends" wasn't super catchy enough- that television show really implanted it into your head.

ZM: Oh man, I did totally used to watch that show, but I can't remember any of the characters at the moment.  Great use of that song though huh?

FR: Music now is available in a variety of formats.  You have digital downloads, CDs, vinyl of course, and even cassette tapes are making a modest comeback.  What is your favorite listening format for music and on which do you think the Dandy Warhols sounds best?

ZM: Vinyl will always be my favorite, cassette can be pretty fun too.  CD is my least favorite.  I hate the plastic cases that break right away and the dumb discs scratch so easy!

FR: So the music scene has really gone sideways in the past ten years from Napster to iTunes to Spotify.  The way people listen to music has changed and we touched on that a bit already.  But where do you see the music scene going in the next ten years?

ZM: I have no idea.  I try to live in the now.

FR: What are your thoughts on Lana Del Rey?

ZM: I have no idea who that is.

  - Fr. Jones

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mary C. Simms Oliphant's troubling history of South Carolina

By Will Moredock
Many observers have written over the years that South Carolina seems to inhabit some parallel universe, a place of different facts, different truths, maybe even a whole different reality than the rest of the United States. Here in the Palmetto State, a large number of white people still insist that the Civil War was fought over something other than slavery, that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with the state's racist heritage, and that race relations here are just hunky-dory.
There are many reasons — both cultural and institutional — for these popular delusions. My favorite malefactor is Mary C. Simms Oliphant. The name will sound familiar to many South Carolinians of a certain age. She was the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, the enormously popular 19th-century novelist, Southern nationalist, and defender of slavery. More importantly, she wrote the official state history used in public schools for half a century. My parents used Oliphant's books in the 1930s; I used them in the 1960s. Generations of minds were warped by their racist and Southern apologist attitudes.
These are some of the things I learned from my 1958 edition of The History of South Carolina: "The Africans were used to a hot climate," Oliphant wrote. "They made fine workers under the Carolina sun." Oliphant defended slaveholders and their "peculiar institution" this way: "Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one. As slaves, they were trained in the ways of civilization. Above all, the landowners argued, the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country."
Oliphant felt that slavery was a necessary but benign institution and described it this way: "Most masters treated their slaves kindly ... the law required the master to feed his slaves, clothe them properly, and care for them when they were sick." Elsewhere, she writes, "Most slaves were treated well, if only because it was to the planter's interest to have them healthy and contented." That there were so few slave uprisings in South Carolina "speaks well for both whites and Negroes," she writes.
During and immediately after the Civil War, Oliphant writes, "The Negroes for the most part stayed on the plantations or farms ... The relationship between the whites and Negroes on the plantations was at this time very friendly. Most of the slaves had proved their affection and loyalty to their masters ... For more than four years the women and children had remained on the land with only the Negroes to protect them."
But things soon changed. Here is Oliphant's very unreconstructed view of Reconstruction: "For the following eight years South Carolina was governed largely by a ruthless band of thieves." Carpetbaggers "took advantage of the ignorance and lack of experience of the Negroes ... Those who did not vote Republican were threatened and mistreated. Moreover, the Republicans had the encouragement of Congress and the backing of federal troops."
Oliphant adds, "The new legislature was made up chiefly of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and Negroes under their influence ... Many members of the legislature could neither read nor write."
But truth and justice were restored, Oliphant assured her young charges, by men in hoods and robes: "The sight of the mounted klansmen in their white robes was enough to terrorize the Negroes. When the courts did not punish Negroes who were supposed to have committed crimes, the Klan punished them."
Later editions of Oliphant's book were somewhat toned down, but this was by and large the official history of South Carolina — taught to black students as well as white — until 1984.
Oliphant's primary way of dealing with black people in South Carolina history was to ignore them. In her 432-page text are hundreds of illustrations, yet blacks are depicted in only nine. Of those nine, two show blacks picking cotton, one is a 19th-century engraving showing blacks running a cotton gin, while another shows blacks hauling cotton bails on the wharves in Charleston. The only black person identified by name in the entire book is Denmark Vesey, the accused organizer of a failed slave revolt in 1822.
The keepers of South Carolina's history, archives, and monuments have been ignoring black people for generations. This weekend we begin to correct that with two days of scholarship and observances honoring Civil War hero and Reconstruction reformer Robert Smalls. It is part of the Civil War sesquicentennial observance in the city where that terrible conflict began. The organizers of this four-year series of events are determined to avoid the mistakes of the centennial observance 50 years ago. These events will be dignified and historically inclusive. This weekend's observance will be a small step toward understanding that war and its aftermath. (For more on Robert Smalls, check out Charleston City Paper's cover story.)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Remember Stuxnet? Why the U.S. is Still Vulnerable

by Megha Rajagopalan ProPublica
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security revealed a rash of cyber attacks on natural gas pipeline companies. Just as with previous cyber attacks on infrastructure, there was no known physical damage. But security experts worry it may only be a matter of time.
Efforts to protect pipelines and other critical systems have been halting despite broad agreement that they're vulnerable to viruses like Stuxnet — the mysterious worm that caused havoc to Iran's nuclear program two years ago.
The Frankenstein-like virus infected a type of industrial controller that is ubiquitous — used around the world on everything from pipelines to the electric grid.
Experts say manufacturers haven't fixed security flaws in these essential but obscure devices.
Why hasn't more been done? Here's why Stuxnet remains a top national security risk.
Q. What is Stuxnet, anyway?
Stuxnet first made headlines when it burrowed into computers that controlled uranium centrifuges in Iran's renegade nuclear program. Its self-replicating computer code is usually transmitted on flash drives anyone can stick into a computer. Once activated, the virus made Iran's centrifuges spin out of control while making technicians think everything was working normally — think of a scene in a bank heist movie where the robbers loop old security camera footage while they sneak into the vault.
Q. Who created it?
Whoever knows the answer to this isn't telling — but if cybersecurity researchers, the Iranian government and vocal Internet users are to be believed, the two prime suspects are the U.S. and Israeli governments.
Q. How does it work?
Stuxnet seeks out little gray computers called programmable logic controllers, or PLCs. The size and shape of a carton of cigarettes, PLCs are used in industrial settings from pretzel factories to nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, security researchers say the password requirements for the devices are often weak, creating openings that Stuxnet (or other viruses) can exploit. Siemens made the PLCs that ran Iran's centrifuges; other makers include Modicon and Allen Bradley. Once introduced via computers running Microsoft Windows, Stuxnet looks for a PLC it can control.
Q. How big is the problem?
Millions of PLCs are in use all over the world, and Siemens is one of the top five vendors.
Q. After Iran, did Siemens fix its devices?
Siemens released a software tool for users to detect and remove the Stuxnet virus, and encourages its customers to install fixes Microsoft put out for its Windows system soon after the Iran attack became public (most PLCs are programmed from computers running Windows.) It is also planning to release a new piece of hardware for its PLCs, called a communications processor, to make them more secure — though it's unclear whether the new processor will fix the specific problems Stuxnet exploited. Meanwhile, the firm acknowledges its PLCs remain vulnerable— in a statement to ProPublica, Siemens said it was impossible to guard against every possible attack.
Q. Is Siemens alone?
Logic controllers made by other companies also have flaws, as researchers from NSS labs, a security research firm, have pointed out. Researchers at a consulting firm called Digital Bond drew more attention to the problem earlier this year when they released code targeting commonly used PLCs using some of Stuxnet's techniques. A key vulnerability is password strength — PLCs connected to corporate networks or the Internet are frequently left wide open, Digital Bond CEO Dale Peterson says.
Q. What makes these systems so tough to protect?
Like any computer product, industrial control systems have bugs that programmers can't foresee. Government officials and security researchers say critical systems should never be connected to the Internet — though they frequently are. But having Internet access is convenient and saves money for companies that operate water, power, transit and other systems.
Q. Is cost an issue?
System manufacturers are reluctant to patch older versions of their products, government and private sector researchers said. Utility companies and other operators don't want to shell out money to replace systems that seem to be working fine. Dan Auerbach of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, formerly a security engineer at Google, says the pressure on tech companies to quickly release products sometimes trumps security. "There's an incentive problem," he said.
Q. What's the government doing?
The Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or CERT, work with infrastructure owners, operators and vendors to prevent and respond to cyber threats. Researchers at government-funded labs also assess threats and recommend fixes. But government agencies cannot — and do not attempt to — compel systems vendors to fix bugs.
The only national cybersecurity regulation is a set of eight standards approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — but these only apply to producers of high-voltage electricity. A Department of Energy audit last year concluded the standards were weak and not well implemented.
Q. So is Congress weighing in?
Cybersecurity has been a much-debated issue. Leading bills, including the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, would enable government and the private sector to share more threat information. But while CISPA and other bills give the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies more power to monitor problems, they all take voluntary approaches.
"Some of my colleagues have said nothing will change until something really bad happens," said Peterson, whose consulting firm exposed vulnerabilities. "I'm hoping that's not true."
Q. What does the Obama administration want?
The White House has called for legislation that encourages private companies to notify government agencies after they've faced cyber intrusions, and recommends private companies secure their own systems against hackers. But the White House stops short of calling for mandatory cybersecurity standards for the private sector.

Happy Graduation! Here's The Best, Most Depressing Journalism on Student Debt

by Blair Hickman ProPublica,
Outstanding student loans now top $1 trillion, more than the nation's credit-card debt. We rounded up some of the best explanatory and accountability journalism on student debt.
We're also reporting on student debt on an ongoing basis. If you're struggling with your loans, we'd love to hear from you.
On the state of student debt — where we are:
Degrees of Debt, New York Times, May 2012 This sweeping overview of the state of student debt, and its effects on students and their families, includes a useful interactive that lets you discover the average student debt at your alma mater.
Student Loans: Is There Really a Crisis?, TIME Ideas, May 2012 Before giving up on college altogether, you may want to take a look at some of the stats in this piece by Andrew J. Rotherham, who also runs the EduWonk blog. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson echoed his points in a quick post that included a helpful graphic on the share of student loan debtors by amount.
Seeking Arrangement: College Students Using 'Sugar Daddies' To Pay Off Loan Debt, Huffington Post, July 2011 As student debt soared, and jobs became scarce, some students and recent grads turned to an alternative method to pay off their loans: websites that pair the smart and broke with "wealthy benefactors" who might help with the bills in exchange for sex. Contributed by @BostonReview
On debt collection:
Taxpayers Fund $454,000 Pay for Collector Chasing Student Loans, Bloomberg, May 2012 The government relies on a little-known pool of collection agencies to recoup student loans made by banks and other private lenders. They can counsel a borrower to avoid default, but they receive massive amounts more for collecting defaulted loans — up to 37 percent of a borrower's entire loan amount, half in collection costs and half in taxpayer-funded commissions. Contributed by @KYWeise
Obama Relies on Debt Collectors Profiting From Student Loan Woe, Bloomberg, March 2012 The private debt-collection companies helping the Education Department recoup $67 billion of defaulted student loans made about $1 billion in commissions last year — while also facing growing complaints that they're forcing troubled borrowers to pay more than they legally owe. Contributed by @paulkiel
Unrepaired Education Department System Leaves Thousands Stuck in Default, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2012 After The Chronicle reported on problems with the government's debt-management system in December, the Education Department promised to fix the issues. Checking in, they found thousands of borrowers still stuck in default, even though their loans should have been restored to good standing and their credit histories cleared. We also chronicled issues with changes in the servicing of federal student loans in April 2012.
Education Department Bureaucracy Keeps Disabled Borrowers in Debt, ProPublica, February 2011 Students who become severely disabled are entitled to have their loans forgiven, but our reporting found big problems with the Education Department's review program — and refusal to adopt a basic reform.
A closer look at student loan stats:
NYU Students: Debt and Debtor, Village Voice, September 2011 NYU is on a "multi-decade spending spree," but as tuition has skyrocketed, financial aid hasn't kept up. When the Village Voice story was published in 2011, NYU ranked number one in student debt, with the exception of for-profit colleges. This piece gives a nice overview of how NYU's hefty price tag came to be — and why students keep paying it. Contributed by @seleross
The 'Small' Numbers on the Student Loan Interest Hike, Ed Money Watch, April 2012 In July, the interest rate on some federal student loans is set to double. But is the outrage overplayed? This piece breaks down student loan interest rates by the numbers; the author also appeared on Marketplace to discuss the same issue.
And for a bit of Friday fun, we leave you with Barack Obama and Jimmy Fallon slow-jamming this spring's news on student loan interest hike. Aired in April 2012.
Our education reporter Marian Wang helped curate this list.

Friday, May 4, 2012

AT&T, Feds Neglect Low-Price Mandate Designed to Help Schools

by Jeff Gerth ProPublica,
At the dawn of the Internet era, Congress set out to avert a digital divide between rich and poor students. In a landmark bill, lawmakers required the nation's phone companies to provide bargain voice and data rates to schools and to subsidize the cost of equipment and services, with the biggest subsidies going to the schools with the most disadvantaged children.
More than a decade later, as schools struggle for funding amid widespread budget cuts, there is growing evidence that the program's crucial low-price requirement has been widely neglected by federal regulators and at least one telecom giant.
A decade after the program started, AT&T was still not training its employees about the mandatory low rates, which are supposed to be set at the lowest price offered to comparable customers. Lawsuits and other legal actions in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York have turned up evidence that AT&T and Verizon charged local school districts much higher rates than it gave to similar customers or more than what the program allowed.
AT&T has charged some schools up to 325 percent more than it charged others in the same region for essentially the same services. Verizon charged a New York school district more than twice as much as it charged government and other school customers in that state.
The companies say they comply with the rules of the program, known as E-Rate.
Meanwhile, the federal government has made scant effort to enforce the requirement that companies give the preferential rate to schools. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the program, has yet to bring an enforcement action against any carrier for violating the low-price rule, according to interviews and documents, some obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. And the FCC, acting through the private company that administers the program, has provided little if any guidance to companies on how to apply the best-price rule. Indeed, in 2010, companies such as AT&T and Verizon sought clarification on the rule.
"Time and again, we find that schools are rarely advised by the telephone companies of their best available rates," said Howard Rotto, whose New York consulting firm has represented dozens of schools in the Northeast for four decades. "When representatives of the carrier do not even know of the existence of their best pricing," Rotto asked, "how can such a rate ever be offered or known?"
At the most basic level, the victims of this failure are the nation's schoolchildren who receive suboptimal broadband access. Many requests for assistance cannot be funded under the current program. If lower prices were charged, more schools could benefit.
But there's another set of victims: the vast majority of people with a cellular or landline phone contract.
As designed by Congress, telecom companies must contribute to a fund, administered by the federal government, that subsidizes the equipment and services provided under the program. Most of the companies raise this money by directly charging their customers.
Sift through that pile of papers at home and take a look at your monthly bill. Amidst all those charges you've never really understood you'll probably find a small one labeled "Universal Service Fund." Skimmed off every consumer's payment each month, those dollars and nickels add up, creating a pot of money of about $2.25 billion to subsidize telecom and Internet services for America's schoolchildren and library users.
Schools and libraries draw on this fund to help pay for the services provided by the telecom companies — virtually all schools are eligible, but the poorer the school, the more it can draw. Requests for help almost always exceed the available funding. So when phone companies charge inflated rates to schools and government regulators turn a blind eye, this fund is depleted faster; fewer schools and libraries benefit; and money taken from millions of telephone customers goes to boost corporate profits instead of to help as many schoolchildren as possible.
Indeed, a perverse bureaucratic process denies most schools the funding to carry broadband services all the way into actual classrooms. Here's how it works: Schools are rarely if ever turned down for funding to bring broadband main lines to the exterior walls of the schoolhouse.
But the internal connections, from wiring to jacks, that complete the last leg and extend connectivity down to actual classrooms, computers and telephones are deemed a lower priority, so-called "Priority 2." (Priority 2 also includes maintenance.) As a result, only the very poorest schools are eligible for this funding. The rest — including many poor-but-not-destitute schools — don't get the subsidies to carry broadband that last crucial stretch from outside the schoolhouse to inside classrooms.
Last year, the E-Rate program received Priority 2 requests totaling more than twice as much money as it could fund. Worse, many schools don't even bother to apply for "Priority 2" services because they know they'll be turned down. Wisconsin estimated in 2005 that 98 percent of its schools and libraries do not qualify. In 2010 New York wrote to the FCC, "Many otherwise needy schools and libraries have received no Internal Connections funding — ever!" And the FCC itself declared in 2010 that "the vast majority" of schools and libraries "do not receive funds for the internal infrastructure necessary to utilize increased broadband capacity."
From 2009 to 2011, Priority 1 services accounted for about two-thirds of the funds committed. This year, the estimated demand for Priority 1 services will essentially exhaust the entire fund.
How could Congress's plan have gone so far awry?
An examination of the program by ProPublica shows that from the beginning, oversight of how the money was spent was turned over to private companies that employ numerous former telecom executives.
The leading company hired to oversee the program provided little if any training or guidance to phone companies over the past decade in how to calculate the bargain prices, known as "lowest corresponding price." Instead, according to documents and interviews, it focused on the schools, examining whether their purchases of equipment were cost effective.The company and the FCC even forced schools and libraries — many of them unskilled in negotiating complex telecom contracts — to pay millions of dollars in penalties for failing to follow the program's voluminous and cumbersome rules.
Yet 16 years after the law passed the FCC has not brought even one case against a phone company for violating the "lowest corresponding price" requirement. Efforts to enforce the rule have come exclusively through private legal action, such as lawsuits, and one Justice Department-led investigation that examined pricing in Indiana.
Much about the E-Rate program remains hidden from public view. Telecom contracts are mostly private, so it is not possible to judge how frequent or widespread violations of the lowest-corresponding-price rule might be. For this report, ProPublica relied on documents, many obtained from lawsuits, as well as dozens of interviews.
Mike Balmoris, a spokesman for AT&T, declined to answer specific questions about the company's practices but released a statement saying "AT&T complies fully with the E-Rate requirements, including the lowest corresponding price rule."
In an email, Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said the company regularly trains its employees on all legal obligations, "including requirements of the E-Rate program," as part of a larger effort "to conduct business with all our customers at the highest ethical standards." The FCC also declined to answer questions.
A statement provided by an FCC spokesman, Mark Wigfield, cited the program's overall success; the commission's efforts to improve "safeguards against waste, fraud and abuse;" rules requiring schools to engage in competitive bidding to ensure low prices; and audits by the private company regulating the program that compare prices that companies charge schools to "those charged other customers."
The FCC declined to make those audits available. But through a FOIA request, ProPublica requested every audit for the first 12 years of the E-Rate program involving the lowest-corresponding-price rule. The government provided what it said was a complete set — a mere nine audits.
In broad terms, they show that regulators paid little attention to telecom service providers while coming down hard on schools. Indeed, most of the audits deal with the companies as a side issue; the main focus is on whether the schools, not the companies, complied with the program's complex regulations. Some of the audits are heavily redacted, but in the available text none mentions lowest corresponding price, the key cost-saving requirement.
The E-Rate Program
E-Rate was created through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which President Bill Clinton made law through the first e-signing of a federal bill. The act mandated broader telecommunications access through four programs, including E-Rate for the nation's schools and libraries.
When a school or library qualifies for E-Rate, the fund subsidizes 20 percent to 90 percent of the telecom bill, depending on how poor the school or library is. (A key measure of poverty: the percentage of students who qualify for the government's free or reduced-cost school lunch program.)
The FCC says the program has been a success. At the time of E-Rate's launch, 65 percent of public schools were connected to the Internet. By 2005, about 97 percent were, thanks largely to E-Rate, according to the FCC.
A few days after signing the act, Clinton highlighted "a requirement for companies to provide a discount for connecting all of our classrooms and libraries to the information superhighway."
One reason for the bargain-rate requirement is to make sure that as many schoolchildren and library patrons as possible benefit. Another reason to require companies to provide preferential rates, according to the FCC, is that many schools and libraries suffer from a "lack of experience" when it comes to "negotiating in a competitive telecommunications market." Indeed, telecom pricing is notoriously complex and opaque, and the E-Rate program benefits "many of nation's poorest and most isolated communities," according to an FCC document.
Under FCC regulations, schools are required to try to obtain competitive bids from phone companies, while the companies are required to charge no more than their "lowest corresponding price," which the agency defined as "the lowest price [a telecom company] charges to similarly situated non-residential customers for similar services."
Weak Enforcement
Almost from the inception of the program, phone companies have advocated for leeway in determining the lowest corresponding price. In 1997, representatives from five former Bell companies — three of which are now part of AT&T — wrote to the FCC that companies should be allowed "to determine the lowest corresponding price … based on a consideration of factors normally used in determining prices within a competitive market."
Meanwhile, the FCC has repeatedly declined to back the pricing rule with tough enforcement. In 1997, the FCC proposed that companies could get reimbursed through the program only if they first certified that they had complied specifically with the pricing rule — a strong legal requirement that might have left companies liable to the federal False Claims Act if they misrepresented their prices. The FCC cited the "universe of records" a company "must review to determine lowest corresponding price." But the agency never enacted that certification proposal.
In 2005, the FCC again proposed that service providers, as part of their annual E-Rate filings, certify specifically they had charged the "lowest" price to schools and libraries. But after industry opposition, the plan was dropped, according to public filings. Wigfield, the FCC spokesman, declined to say why the agency did not require certification. (The FCC does require a broad, annual certification, in which companies are instructed to affirm their compliance with E-Rate rules.)
The FCC, through the nonprofit firm Universal Service Administrative Co., or USAC, has taken action against phone companies for a variety of infractions — but never has it demanded a refund or penalty for violating the lowest-corresponding-price rule.
As for AT&T, as recently as 2007 it issued its employees a 61-page "E-Rate Compliance Training" manual, used as part of an annual required course for employees. The pricing rule is not mentioned.
In its statement to ProPublica, the company spokesman said, "AT&T has implemented training and procedures to ensure compliance with all E-Rate requirements."
Unequal Pricing
Working out of his modest home in Waupun, Wis., Todd Heath runs a niche business: He takes a cut from any refunds he manages to obtain for telecom customers, mainly schools. In 2008, Heath wondered why schools he represented, in small cities like Kaukauna, West Bend and Fond du Lac, were paying far more than others for essentially the same services from the same company: Wisconsin Bell, a unit of AT&T.
The schools were all in the E-Rate program, and it wasn't long before Heath accused the company of violating the lowest-corresponding-price rule. His complaints are now in federal court.
Under whistleblower laws, if the suit results in a financial settlement, Heath stands to gain a portion of that money.
Heath's complaint alleges that in 2005, school districts in Burlington, Grafton, Cudahy and Altoona paid as much as 80 percent more for the "identical" central office exchange service from Wisconsin Bell than did the Fond du Lac School District.
Also that year, according to the court complaint, Milwaukee, West Bend and Sheboygan were paying far higher rates for office exchange services than what was available under an agreement between Wisconsin Bell and the state of Wisconsin that allowed schools and libraries to get the same favored rate the state was getting. For example, the Wisconsin state contract price for a service called ISDN/PRI, which integrates voice and data into a single line, was $390 per month, according to the complaint. But schools in Fond du Lac, Hartford, Kaukana, Kimberly and West Bend were billed at prices ranging from $640 to $1,268 per month, the complaint states.
Heath's complaint asserts that "Wisconsin Bell routinely has withheld information about these available rates from public school and library customers, and it has billed almost all of them at much higher rates, sometimes three times as high as LCP," or lowest corresponding price.
The allegation that Wisconsin Bell hid the state rates from schools is wrong, the company says, because the contract rates were "publicly known."
E-Rate regulations, however, require that the lowest corresponding price be more than just publicly known; that price must be provided to schools and libraries in the program. Phone companies "shall not charge" schools or libraries "a price above the lowest corresponding price," the regulations state. (There is an exception for a rate so low that the company loses money, but the FCC must sign off on this exception. An agency spokesman, asked about any such cases, did not provide an example.)
Wisconsin Bell is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit on various grounds. One is that the FCC has, in essence, neglected its duty to train phone companies on how to determine the preferential rate. The agency, according to a Wisconsin Bell court filing, has "yet to provide authoritative benchmarks with respect to application of the lowest corresponding price requirement."
The AT&T spokesman declined to discuss the Heath case but said the company "has worked diligently with industry to seek additional FCC clarifications of these rules where appropriate."
Heath's suit continues.
Regulatory filings with the New York State Public Service Commission paint a similar picture, but with Verizon. From 2005 to 2011, in the E-Rate program, Verizon charged far more to the Bronxville, N.Y., school district for ISDN/PRI and plain old telephone services than what was available under the state-negotiated rate. For example, according to the filings, the state rate for PRI since 2008 has been $275 per month, but Bronxville has been charged more than twice that: $611 per month.
Verizon originally contested the claim using a strategy similar to one AT&T deployed in Wisconsin: putting the onus on the school. In a filing last summer, Verizon said that the state master contract "process requires customers to submit a request to receive the discount," and there is no evidence that the Bronxville school district "requested" the state rate for telephone service.
E-Rate regulations, however, prohibit phone companies from charging more than the lowest corresponding price.
Verizon and Bronxville recently settled the case, according to Rotto, the consultant, who worked with Bronxville on the matter. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
While declining to discuss specific disputes, Verizon spokesman McFadden said the company "is committed to resolving any such disputes fairly."
"If we make a mistake," he added, "it is our goal to fix it."
Justice Department Steps In
USAC, the nonprofit company that administers the program on behalf of the FCC, audited the E-Rate bidding process in Indiana and gave it a clean bill of health. But a law firm's examination of the same bidding process, done for the state, found problems and led to multimillion-dollar settlements with the Justice Department, according to department records.
One of those settlements took place in 2009, as the Justice Department was considering filing civil claims against an AT&T subsidiary about its Indiana E-Rate service, including for "overbilling the E-Rate program for services provided." The telecom giant paid $8.3 million to settle. It did not admit wrongdoing.
The lowest-corresponding-price rule is not referenced in the settlement but figures prominently in a related compliance agreement with the FCC, executed the same day. There, AT&T agreed it "shall prepare a written analysis sufficient to document its compliance with the requirement that the rates it charges for E-Rate services in Indiana are not above the lowest corresponding price."
This compliance agreement is the only example cited in the FCC's statement to ProPublica, but records show it was the Justice Department —not the FCC — that led the investigation of the case. The FCC played a role in the latter stages.
AT&T declined to comment on the 2009 settlement.
The following year, AT&T urged the FCC to drop the pricing rule altogether. "The current competitive circumstances," the company wrote the agency in 2010, "warrant elimination of the lowest corresponding price rule."
"A Regulatory Wild West"
Numerous reports by Congress, the GAO and the FCC's inspector general have criticized the E-Rate program over such issues as waste, fraud, poor management and the program's hybrid oversight structure involving two private companies with links to the telecom industry.
The FCC is the final authority for E-Rate policies and oversight, but USAC administers the program, conducts audits, approves or rejects applications and pays invoices. USAC, in downtown Washington, employs "numerous" former telecom executives, according to Eric Iversen, USAC's spokesman.
The back-office work for USAC is actually performed by another company, Solix, based in New Jersey. Solix is owned by fewer than 200 investors, some of which are small telecom companies, and Solix employees also include ex-telecom industry executives, according to public records and John Parry, the chief executive officer of Solix.
Both USAC and Solix say they hold their employees to stringent codes of conduct to eliminate potential conflicts of interest, and they have added protections in response to criticism.
Still, in an interview a former FCC official who spoke on condition of anonymity called the arrangement "a regulatory Wild West."
USAC provides training to phone companies on how to comply with E-Rate rules, and its training materials from 2001 through 2011 are available on its website. Not once is lowest corresponding price mentioned in those materials. Indeed, in 2010, the telecom industry publicly complained to the FCC that USAC has not "provided any guidance" on the rule.
But while largely ignoring the rule requiring companies to provide the bargain rate, USAC requires schools, no matter how impoverished or small, to find a "cost-effective" price through competitive bidding and other means.
In 2004, USAC hired an outside accounting firm to audit 100 schools and libraries — not phone companies — in the E-Rate program. One section of the lengthy audit protocol calls for checking with phone companies to see if they were complying with the mandate to charge the lowest corresponding price, according to documents provided by the FCC. The auditors found no violations.
After that, USAC said in a statement to ProPublica, it "updated our audit program to perform separate audits of beneficiaries and service providers," which allowed for more "focus" on the telecom industry. Still, the more recent audits found no violations of the lowest-corresponding-price rule, according to the USAC statement.
Punishing Schools
What USAC and the FCC have done is penalize schools that uncover overcharging.
The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) hired auditors to review mountains of tedious phone bills. The auditors, who work on a contingency basis and are commonly used by businesses and government, won refunds for several millions of dollars in overcharges dating back almost a decade.
But when city officials went to return part of those refunds to the E-Rate program, they were effectively punished for doing so.
FCC spokesman Wigfield said he could not comment because the matter is pending. Others familiar with the New York City matter say there have been discussions between the parties, but no resolution.
The education department's quandary was explained in an Oct. 17, 2003, letter to the FCC. Three outside billing firms, the letter explained, had documented about $2 million in "overcharges" by Verizon and its predecessors. Verizon provided a refund.
The city then figured out how much of the refund to share with the federal fund. E-Rate subsidized the New York City schools at a rate of 78 percent. So first, New York deducted the audit fees, about 25 percent, then multiplied the remainder by 78 percent. That's the amount it wanted to return to the E-Rate program.
But in August 2003, USAC informed the New York education department that it owed the fund's share (78 percent) of the audit fee as well, according to New York's filing with the FCC. In effect, USAC was refusing to pay its share of an audit that saved money for both New York and the E-Rate program.
This "exceedingly poor public policy," the city told the FCC, "would penalize NYCDOE for its initiative," and "discourage" similar audits.
At that time, USAC was auditing only schools in the E-Rate program, not phone companies.
The FCC says audits are not considered educational services under E-Rate rules and thus are not eligible for reimbursement.
Verizon, in a statement emailed by spokesman McFadden, declined to comment on any particular dispute, but McFadden said "occasional disagreements are unavoidable" and that the company's "goal" is to issue refunds "promptly and in the correct amount."
The last outside audit of New York City's telephone bills was in 2009. Both Verizon and New York City would not discuss the results, which are still being resolved. Two people familiar with the results of the latest NYCDOE audit, who declined to be identified because of the ongoing negotiations, said the amount of overcharges detected exceeded $10 million.
New York is not alone. The Yonkers school district and the Detroit Public Schools, records show, have encountered the same disincentive.
Detroit hired a private firm to audit the school district's telecom services, provided by AT&T. That 2010 audit recommended a recovery of almost $3 million for a variety of erroneous charges. Among its findings: "under the E-Rate program AT&T failed to offer [the Detroit Public Schools] the most favored rate," according to a summary of the audit.
But Detroit is still reviewing the audit, according to spokesman Steven Wasko, who noted in an email the FCC's disincentives for audits. "Savings identified can actually amount to additional costs for the district," he wrote.
Detroit has chosen to "strengthen its own reviews" rather than rely on outside auditors, Wasco added.
AT&T declined to comment on the Detroit audit.
Schools have other complaints about the E-Rate program. Many say their requests to enroll get mired in a regulatory "black hole," while others protest applications exceeding 300 pages. And there are hundreds of cases of rule infractions, some technical, that force schools to return money to the program, according to FCC documents.
The FCC spokesman says the agency has "streamlined" the application process.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Congress must pass the End Racial Profiling Act

By Will Moredock
Profiling. We all do it in one form or another. It's a primordial skill we developed on our way to becoming Homo sapiens. It was an early mark of our growing intelligence that we could categorize things. Once we developed the skill, it was easier to find sources of food and quicker to identify friends and enemies. Of course, it wasn't foolproof. Some of our ancestors no doubt learned that the hard way when they poisoned themselves with a wild berry or mushroom.
The truth is profiling is a handy skill, whether you are selecting fresh produce at the grocery story or a book to take along to the beach. There are characteristics we are attracted to or put off by. But it is important to remember that profiling is not scientific. It's an intellectual shortcut in a big, complicated world. And it's especially insidious when we start applying it to people. Not only is it ethically wrong, but when it's law enforcement doing the profiling, it can lead to legal complications.
Racial profiling has a long and shameful tradition, especially in the South. Southern police — who were exclusively white until a few decades ago — have traditionally harassed and intimidated black citizens for reasons both political and personal. Until recently, it wasn't even considered an issue. Indeed, it was part of the job description, as anyone who grew up in a small Southern town a half-century ago would understand.
Today, racial profiling is a national issue, especially in regions with large minority populations. The killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., seems to be a particularly tragic and malicious example of the practice. The courts will ultimately have to sort out what led a self-appointed neighborhood watchman to shoot the unarmed 17-year-old.
Advocates as diverse as presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and attorneys general John Ashcroft and Eric Holder have spoken out against racial profiling, yet it persists. The charge has recently been made against the North Charleston Police Department, among others. I have had black friends tell me that being watched and stopped by police while driving and even walking down the street is just part of being black.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2011 the New York Police Department did a "stop-and-frisk" on 684,330 people. Of those, 87 percent were black and Hispanic individuals, although they comprise approximately 25 percent and 28 percent of New York City's total population respectively. Of those stopped, nine out of 10 were not arrested nor did they receive summonses. Reports of traffic stops and searches show that people of color are no more likely, and very often less likely, to have drugs or weapons than whites, according to the ACLU.
Federal and state government agencies have documented the failure of relying on race as a proxy for criminal activity, while the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world's oldest and largest nonprofit membership organization of police executives, has condemned the practice.
Furthermore, racial profiling diverts police attention away from more effective, evidence-based law enforcement techniques, wasting police time and resources and causing distrust among targeted groups. People who fear the police are less likely to assist law enforcement in their communities or call police when they are the victims of crime.
Congress has finally taken action on this issue with the End Racial Profiling Act now under discussion. The act would define racial profiling and prohibit it on all law enforcement levels — local, state, and federal. It would create an enforcement mechanism to ensure that anti-profiling policies are being followed and victims of profiling are able to report complaints against police officers. Federal law enforcement agencies would be required to collect demographic data on routine investigatory activities, develop procedures to respond to racial profiling complaints, and develop policies to discipline officers who engage in the practice.
Two weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a hearing titled "Ending Racial Profiling in America." Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott was among a group of South Carolinians who traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress on the issue.
In a contentious era, this is an issue that Democrats and Republicans have been able to come together on. They just need a little nudge to assure them it's safe to act. This would be a good time to pick up the phone and remind your senator and congressman it's time to end racial profiling.
"Racial profiling is not just another 'tool in the toolbox' of police," Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said last week. "And it should bother all of us, if we want to live in a community that values equal treatment and fairness."

New Study Predicts Frack Fluids Can Migrate to Aquifers Within Years

by Abrahm Lustgarten ProPublica
A new study has raised fresh concerns about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, concluding that fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than experts have previously predicted.
More than 5,000 wells were drilled in the Marcellus between mid-2009 and mid-2010, according to the study, which was published in the journal Ground Water two weeks ago. Operators inject up to 4 million gallons of fluid, under more than 10,000 pounds of pressure, to drill and frack each well.
Scientists have theorized that impermeable layers of rock would keep the fluid, which contains benzene and other dangerous chemicals, safely locked nearly a mile below water supplies. This view of the earth's underground geology is a cornerstone of the industry's argument that fracking poses minimal threats to the environment.
But the study, using computer modeling, concluded that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, exacerbated by the effects of fracking itself, could allow chemicals to reach the surface in as little as "just a few years."
"Simply put, [the rock layers] are not impermeable," said the study's author, Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist whose clients include the federal government and environmental groups.
"The Marcellus shale is being fracked into a very high permeability," he said. "Fluids could move from most any injection process."
The research for the study was paid for by Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, two upstate New York organizations that have opposed gas drilling and fracking in the Marcellus.
Much of the debate about the environmental risks of gas drilling has centered on the risk that spills could pollute surface water or that structural failures would cause wells to leak.
Though some scientists believed it was possible for fracking to contaminate underground water supplies, those risks have been considered secondary. The study in Ground Water is the first peer-reviewed research evaluating this possibility.
The study did not use sampling or case histories to assess contamination risks. Rather, it used software and computer modeling to predict how fracking fluids would move over time. The simulations sought to account for the natural fractures and faults in the underground rock formations and the effects of fracking.
The models predict that fracking will dramatically speed up the movement of chemicals injected into the ground. Fluids traveled distances within 100 years that would take tens of thousands of years under natural conditions. And when the models factored in the Marcellus' natural faults and fractures, fluids could move 10 times as fast as that.
Where man-made fractures intersect with natural faults, or break out of the Marcellus layer into the stone layer above it, the study found, "contaminants could reach the surface areas in tens of years, or less."
The study also concluded that the force that fracking exerts does not immediately let up when the process ends. It can take nearly a year to ease.
As a result, chemicals left underground are still being pushed away from the drill site long after drilling is finished. It can take five or six years before the natural balance of pressure in the underground system is fully restored, the study found.
Myers' research focused exclusively on the Marcellus, but he said his findings may have broader relevance. Many regions where oil and gas is being drilled have more permeable underground environments than the one he analyzed, he said.
"One would have to say that the possible travel times for a similar thing in Arkansas or Northeast Texas is probably faster than what I've come up with," Myers said.
Ground Water is the journal of the National Ground Water Association, a non-profit group that represents scientists, engineers and businesses in the groundwater industry.
Several scientists called Myers' approach unsophisticated and said that the assumptions he used for his models didn't reflect what they knew about the geology of the Marcellus Shale. If fluids could flow as quickly as Myers asserts, said Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University who has been a proponent of shale development, fracking wouldn't be necessary to open up the gas deposits.
"This would be a huge fracture porosity," Engelder said. "So I read this and I say, 'Golly, does this guy really understand anything about what these shales look like?' The concern then arises from using a model rather than observations."
Myers likened the shale to a cracked window, saying that samples showing it didn't contain fractures were small in size and were akin to only examining an intact section of glass, while a broader, scaled out view would capture the faults and fractures that could leak.
Both scientists agreed that direct evidence of fluid migration is needed, but little sampling has been done to analyze where fracking fluids go after being injected underground.
Myers says monitoring systems could be installed around gas well sites to measure for changes in water quality, a measure required for some gold mines, for example. Until that happens, Myers said, theoretical modeling has to substitute for hard data.
"We were trying to use the basic concepts of groundwater and hydrology and geology and say can this happen?" he said. "And that had basically never been done."

Beach House- Bloom REVIEW

A generation primarily built on ironic defiance, the hipster uprising of the last decade has eluded true journalistic pigeonholing solely due to it's flexibility in the face of definition*.  While this self-aware adaptability has yielded new heights of both creativity and accelerated mania- by 2012, the scene itself more resembles the abrupt diversity of a 60-gig playlist on shuffle than the relevant paradigm it truly is.  Traditional continuity is increasingly rare these days mainly because reinvention and experimentation seem to be the calling card of artistic survival.  When a Playlist Mentality breeds a narrow attention span, it’s a huge risk to sound familiar- but it’s an even bigger gamble to sound like yourself, which is one reason why Beach House is such a refreshing act.  From their 2006 self-titled debut through 2010’s Teen Dream, the Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have found new, polished ways to create the same ethereal sounds.  Whatever your opinion is on the fluttery dreampop of Beach House, Bloom, their fourth full-length album, will do little to sway that stance.  They may be the most reliable indie band in the business- and for that reason, it’s fun and ultimately very gratifying to welcome them back with open arms.

The release date for Bloom was announced last month and the feeling in the air seemed to dictate a sure-footed preparedness- as if people appreciated the early heads up as a means to systematically ready themselves for the album of the summer.  Somehow this occurred a.) without feeling the slightest bit anticlimactic but b.) while still seeming amazingly low-key in it’s inevitability.  Then Beach House released the first single from Bloom, “Myth”- a tune so lovely, so snowflakey, so Beach House- that it seemed to somehow render the album’s success even more of a foregone conclusion.  It's a wonderful song of dueling notes- reassuring both in terms of the band and music itself.  And along with M83’s “Midnight City”, it may be one of the most iconic flagship singles of the past five years.  As for Bloom itself- well, of course it’s pretty great.  A cornucopia of hypnotic synths, shimmering strings, and delicate fuzz, it plays like one, big auditory blanket leaving little doubt that it is the defining testament to the band's meticulous, atmospheric sound it aspires to be.  The ten-song tracklist even offers some competition for “Myth”- “Wild”, “Lazuli”, “The Hours”, and “Wishes” can all firmly stand up against the best Beach House output from albums past.  Victoria Legrand has also never sounded better as the heavenly production values from Teen Dream are in full force- although the intensity from that previous album is decidedly not.  This lack of weight is the only aspect of Bloom where it truly falls short.  Edginess is not something the new album strives for- in fact, it often feels so lush that you half expect it to spontaneously flutter away mid-listen.  These songs may fog up the mirror, yet they never threaten to break the glass- as it is, the album feels alarmingly slight at times.  And for this next phase of Beach House to be truly evolutionary, it probably needed a little more heft.  That doesn’t mean that Bloom is anything less than the lovely, divine offering it truly is (and this is ultimately a very small quibble that is taking up too much space)- but in order for each successive release to be as foregone as this one, here’s hoping that Beach House throws us a curveball next time, even if it ends up in the dirt.

Nobody ever said you weren't pretty, Beach House.  But damn.

*Sure, it's easy to cast a label by external appearance.  But this was a generation primarily defined by the music- and the music scene has developed into an accelerated smorgasbord of subgenres and bedroom sounds.  After all, who knows what's playing on the earbuds in 2012?

 - FJ