5 x 8: Dear America, from Vlad Putin

1) VLADIMIR PUTIN, COLUMNIST

We are unaware of any other time when a Russian (or even Soviet) leader has penned a lengthy letter to Americans. Vladimir Putin writes today’s op-ed in the New York Times to apparently set the record straight on what’s going on in Syria.

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.

Then he assesses us, with a reference to the previous administration:

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

And brings it home by reminding us we’re not that special. Ouch.

And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

(Update: The Washington Post annotated the op-ed)

Related: Backers Of Israel Press For Strikes On Syria (NPR)

2) TRANSPARENCY AND THE MINNEAPOLIS CRIME STATS

Maybe it’s coincidence; maybe not. But right after MinnPost unveiled a Minneapolis crime map based on statistics released by the Minneapolis Police Department, the department announced it’s no longer going to make the data available in a workable format. The Excel spreadsheet format, as you may know, is the easiest way to use the data and import it into an existing program.

Instead, the department said it will release the reports in PDF format, which can still be used to update the map, but requires more work.

Was MPD trying to make life tougher for people wanting to analyze crime or have there been cases where someone has manipulated the data to make crime look either better or worse.

The architects of the map — Alan Palazzolo and Kaeti Hinck — asked the police and got this fairly mysterious reply:

The crime stats are subject to being corruptible in an excel sheet. They have been changed in the past by persons unknown and this affects the veracity of the original data posted. If stats are posted on-line in a PDF format, this reduces the risk of contamination. Note if data was kept on a SQL, the data could be viewed, manipulated and accessed by many and yet keep original and intact. This is cost prohibited and will not be pursued. Effective immediately the stats should just be posted in a PDF format.

It is an explanation that doesn’t yet make a great deal of sense, the two note:

At this point, it is unclear who “persons unknown” refers to — internal employees corrupting the data before publication, or citizens and consumers, like MinnPost, who are using the data they have released publicly.

If it is the latter, segregating the data to PDF does not prevent it from being manipulated. Data in any format can be manipulated; it is up to the source, in this case the MPD, to confirm the accuracy of the data. The more accessible the data formats are, the easier it becomes to confirm the validity of that data when it is used by third parties. And while we can use PDFs as a data source, it is a more complicated process than using Excel or other raw data, and creates more possibilities for errors to be introduced.

For the record, crime in Minneapolis was up almost 9 percent last month over the same period a year ago, assuming the numbers weren’t contaminated.

Mayor Rybak saw the brouhaha on Twitter yesterday and promised to intervene.

More crime: Grand jury testimony today in Terrance Franklin's death (Minnesota Public Radio News)

3) “PINK” AND THE ART OF THE OBITUARY

We stop to honor the life and obituary of Mary A. Mullaney of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, who died early this month and left us with another memorable description:

If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop and Consider: Mary A. Mullaney—you probably knew her as “Pink” who died on Sunday, September 1, 2013. Her spirit is carried on by her six children, 17 grandchildren, three surviving siblings in New “Joisey” , nieces, nephews, in-laws, and a large extended family of relations and friends from every walk of life and corner of the globe, who were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years. Among the most important: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones for rosary repairs, to tie the gutter, child-proof the cabinets, tie up the toilet flapper, or hang Christmas ornaments. Also: If a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn’t leave, brush him for twenty minutes and let him stay. Let a dog (or two or three) sleep in bed with you. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. Cry at the consecration, every time. Give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend after mass. Go to a nursing home and kiss every person there, and let them have communion, no matter if they are Catholic. When you learn someone’s name, share the story of their patron saint and when the feast day is, so they can celebrate. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner. If they are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to “listen with an accent.” Never say mean things about rotten people, instead think of them as “poor souls who we should pray for.” Put the children who are picky eaters in the laundry chute in the basement, close the door and tell them they are hungry lions in a cage and feed them their veggies through the slats. Correspond with the imprisoned and have lunch with the cognitively challenged. Do the Jumble every morning. Keep the car keys under the front seat “so they don’t get lost.” Make the car dance by lightly tapping the brakes to the beat of songs on the radio. Offer rides to people carrying a big load or caught in the rain or the summer heat. Believe the hitchhiker you pick up who says he is a landscaper and his name is “Peat Moss”. Offer to help anyone struggling to get their kids in a car, into a shopping cart or across a parking lot. Give to every single charity that asks. Choose to believe the best about what they do with your money, no matter what your children say they discovered online. Allow the homeless to keep warm in your car while you are at Mass at Gesu. Take magazines you’ve already read to your doctors’ waiting rooms for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label … “Because if someone wants to contact me that would be nice.”

In her lifetime, Pink made contact time after time. Those who’ve taken her lessons to heart will continue to ensure that a cold drink will be left for the garbage collector and the mail carrier on a hot day, that every baby will be kissed and every person in the nursing home will have a visitor, that the hungry will have a sandwich and the visitor will have a warm bed and a soft nightlight, and the encroaching possum will know the soothing sensation of a barbecue brush upon its back. And above all, she wrote Everyone. You may be reading this and you may recall a letter you received from her that touched your life or made you laugh, or even made you say “huh?” Pink is survived by those whose photos she would share with prospective friends in the checkout line, and her children and grandchildren: Tim (Janice) their children, Timmy, Joey, T.J., Miki and Danny; Kevin (Kathy) their children, Kacey, Ryan, Jordan and Kevin; Jerry (Gita) their children, Nisha and Cathan; MaryAnne; Peter (Maria Jose) their children, Rodrigo and Paulo; and Meg (David Vartanian) their children, Peter, Lily, Jerry and Blasé; as well as her siblings, Anne, Helen and Robert. Pink has joined in heaven six of her siblings and is reunited with her favorite dance and political debate partner, her husband Dr. Gerald L. Mullaney. Friends (and strangers she would loved to have met) can come to visit with Pink’s family at the Feerick Funeral Home on Thursday, September 5th from 3:00 until 7:00 pm. Mass of the Christian Burial will be celebrated at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Whitefish Bay on Friday, September 6th at 3:00 pm. Dress casual with a splash of pink if you have it. In Pink’s memory donations may be made to Dominican High School, 5635 N Santa Monica Blvd, Whitefish Bay, WI 53217 or Saint Monica Parish, 160 E Silver Spring Dr, Whitefish Bay, WI 53217 or any charity that seeks to spread the Good News of Pink’s friend, Jesus. Valet Parking at the funeral home on Thursday on East Capitol Dr.

(h/t: Audrey Kletscher Helbling)

4) THE LONG CLIMB

Fifteen Iraq and Afghanistan vets, many of them disabled, climbed Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park yesterday, NPR reports. The climb is the culmination of a three-day hike, which for many of the vets has had the therapeutic effect of reproducing a combat patrol — just without the bombs or bullets.

5) NO CHILD LEFT UNTABLETED

“I just don’t like the idea of looking at a screen and not at the students,” a teacher tells the New York Times Magazine. She’s talking about the latest trend in education: tablet computers.

Carlo Rotella, a teacher, wrote the story and had the same misgivings about the Department of Education’s program to put more tablet computers in schools.

There are reasons to be skeptical about the invisible hand’s mystic touch. Educational technology opens new avenues for marketers to reach students in a school setting, and links between screen time and childhood obesity raise public health concerns. Despite all the research showing that the educational benefits of new technology depend on good teaching, it can be easier to find money for cool new gadgets than for teachers. The Los Angeles school district, for instance, cut costs in recent years by laying off thousands of teachers yet is now using bonds to finance the spending of $500 million on iPads. And privacy issues can arise because school systems lack the experience to negotiate data agreements that anticipate all the ways technology companies could put student information to use.

But the current method isn’t working, and perhaps it’s indicative of the notion that kids simply don’t learn things now the way they did 50 years ago.

I’d love to hear from teachers (and students) on this.

Related: BBC News – Formal school lessons should start 'above age of five' (BBC).

Bonus I: For Native Americans, Mental Health Budget Cuts Hit Hard (NPR)

Bonus II: WATCH: Just How Fast the Yosemite Fire Spread (PolicyMic).

TODAY’S QUESTION
Would your life be better without a cell phone?

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: There’s more to health care than doctor visits and health insurance. Research notes a set of powerful “social determinants of health” that contribute to health inequities around the world and right here in Minnesota. We generally think of these social conditions as financial stability, quality housing, and access to healthy food, among others. But it also includes a person’s sense of power or agency in the larger society. So how does your social position/status affect your health?

Second hour: Writer Paul Schneider, whose newest book is “Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History.”

Third hour: Should we abolish tipping?

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): A panel discussion about Syria, sponsored Wednesday by the Universty of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

The Takeaway (1-2 p.m.) – Five Years After the Collapse, The Debate Over Financial Regulation Rages On.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) - . Eighteen Minnesota residents are suing the state, saying their driver’s license data was improperly accessed. It’s the latest in a string of lawsuits accusing the state of violating federal law by not adequately protecting people’s personal data. MPR’s Elizabeth Dunbar will have the story.

Doctors at New Yorks Lincoln Medical Center are trying a new approach to help patients battling obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma. While they usually give out medications, now they’re actually giving out prescriptions to fruits and vegetables. NPR looks at the idea of food as medicine.

  • Guest
    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      Excellent. thanks!

  • MrE85

    1) Did the Putin op/ed come with a photo of him shirtless, riding a stallion? Because THAT’S the kind of leader America craves.
    3) Yet no mention of her singing career, or her skill on the trapeze….

  • Linda

    #3 is the best thing I’ve read this week. What a great tribute.

    #5 had me expecting another ADD/over-medicated article.

  • BReynolds33

    On Putin… the man makes some solid points, and then completely loses anyone paying attention with his justifications. We must honor the UN Security Council vetoes? Really? Like Russia did with Georgia? We need to listen to the Pope? From a country that participated in religious persecution for decades? The rule of law is important? From a country that has banned not only gay marriage, but being gay altogether? Come on, Vlad…

    On the iPads… any district considering buying tablets needs to be wary. The district administration will lie to you to get them, then find every way they can to milk you for more money once they have them. Child psychologists have been calling for less screen time for years, and schools said, “Nah, let’s give them more.” I love technology, and love what it can do, but I don’t understand why a pencil and a book don’t work anymore.

  • Kassie

    Don’t most government agencies provide statistics in PDFs instead of an easily manipulated format? The one I work for does.

    • David

      Do they use PDF because they are trying to be difficult, or because they don’t know any better?

      • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

        I THINK the PDF that’s being produced is taking data off their Excel sheets, and they had previously issued the data on BOTH PDF and Excel.

    • Kat S.

      Depends on the agency and the kind of data. Mine provides our commonly requested statistics and data in a .csv or .dbf format (as well as an online view), but annual reports and summaries are .pdfs. The two have different audiences: we expect our stats and data to be used in larger inquiries. We expect the reports to be used as-is.

      I don’t think our department has ever been concerned about “manipulation” (anyone with Acrobat Pro can get around that using OCR) so much as display.

      I remember this debate a few years back around ARRA and its reporting requirements and public websites. The federal government’s reporting site didn’t use .pdfs, but was still stupidly hard to get downloadable data from. They loved their interactive maps too much. The state ended up providing excel spreadsheets of each quarter’s federal reports, which were far more useful.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    #2 – As some who works with data for a living I would hope that the official release of the information would be in an immutable format. An image PDF that doesn’t allow you to strip the text from it. It should contain instructions on how to obtain the raw data and that should be provided as a CSV text file. (Comma separated value) These are easily imported into Excel or any other tool for analysis. More importantly the data file is both human and machine readable. It then becomes a simpler task to determine if the data has been “cooked” for analysis.

  • Julie

    #5: Technology more amplifies the reality of our schools than change it. If tablets are a portal to a world of information that frees students from rote memorization to focus on analytic and creative thinking, great. If it’s a toy to run drill and kill games to prepare for low level standardized tests, awful. When teachers are cut, curriculum is narrowed, and bubble sheets reign supreme, technology is more likely to exacerbate deeper problems in education than improve them.

  • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

    Interesting to note that yesterday, the Met Council — I think it was the Met Council — put out its metro growth release with a link to the Excel statistics. So I was able to take them, process them, add some extra calculations and sort them, which allowed me to notice there really wasn’t a lot of news there — that most communities will grow at the same RATE be they city or suburb . So i was a bit surprised to see the big headline in the PiPress today that the suburbs will lose out to the inner city yada yada yada, when, in fact, they made that claim based on NUMBERS not percentage . So the availability of data in a usable format was extremely valuable to me and I appreciated it being available.

    Also, Case Shiller makes the home prices index (which includes the Twin Cities) available each month in a manipulative format and I similarly find great value in that.

    If you can’t further analyze stats that are given to you, they only can be EASILY used in whatever form the agency wants them to be used in, which might not be compatible with the news business. Maybe that’s what they mean by “contamination.”

    I call it “analysis.”

  • Anonymous

    #5: My skepticism dropped a bit when the admin at my child’s school praised the iPad as the “most exciting thing to happen to teaching in 50 years”. After watching my daughter peck out a research paper with her index fingers on that flat, virtual keyboard, my skepticism promptly returned. Yes, tablets are a new tool, but if they’re used to mimic the “old ways” of learning, what’s the point? Hopefully, outfits like Amplify will lead the way there…

    Relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

  • GZ

    Putin’s statement that, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” jives well with my perception of his style of leadership. People who see themselves as exceptional are more likely to question the actions of their leaders, which is something Putin has shown little patience for over the past 10+ years.

  • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

    I regret that I cannot approve comments that don’t have a name and contain a fake email address. I’m sorry.

  • Pat Fair

    Pink. I wish I had met her. What a lovely obituary. Thanks for posting it.

  • DavidG

    #2: At what level are they worried about “corruption” of the data? If outsiders are able to alter the source Excel file, that other members of the public are downloading, isn’t their primary problem network security?