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As President Bush prepares to leave office, his appointees in the executive branch agencies seem to be doing their best to cover his tracks. With President-elect Barack Obama set to announce his choice of Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy later today, that department is trying to make it harder for the public to dig into its activities. Secrecy News reports that the Bush DOE wants to remove a guideline that encourages it to release information under the FOIA that it's not legally required to release if doing so would serve the "public interest." The likely result would be that the DOE would never release information unless under a legal mandate, echoing a policy former Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft implemented at the Justice Department, which actually encouraged withholding information whenever there was a "sound legal basis" for doing so. Secrecy News, which is run by the Federation of American Scientists, has FAS' comments on the proposed regulation:

[T]here is a widespread and well-founded expectation that the incoming Obama Administration will rescind the Ashcroft FOIA policy and define a more forthcoming disclosure policy. In light of that probable scenario, I would urge DOE to cancel its proposed revision of [the public interest balancing test], or else to suspend action on it for six months while the new Administration prepares new government-wide FOIA guidance.

Seeing as the Bush administration won't extend the courtesy of allowing the Obamas to move into the official White House guest house a few days early, it seems unlikely that DOE will hold off on its proposed revision out of amity toward the incoming administration. But I guess it's worth a shot.

DC Charters

DC CHARTERS....The Washington Post reports today that DC's charter schools are doing well:

According to a Washington Post analysis of recent national test results for economically disadvantaged students, D.C. middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than the regular public schools in reading and 20 points higher in math.

....The two public systems are, in general, educating students from similar backgrounds. About two-thirds of the students in both systems live in poverty, and more than 90 percent are minorities, according to school records.

I'm basically a fan of charter schools. I hope they are doing well in DC. But before we pat ourselves too hard on the back here, let's read a little more:

Charter schools must accept any student who applies, using a lottery if they have more applicants than spaces. That prevents the schools from cherry-picking applicants. But each school is free to set its own rules on expelling students.

....For each elementary student enrolled, a District charter school receives $11,879 in tax dollars, including $8,770 to match per-pupil academic spending in the regular public schools and a $3,109 facility allotment to help pay for buildings....Charter schools can use the facilities money for any purpose, and that funding stream can provide a crucial advantage over traditional public schools. For schools with 300 or more students, the funding often exceeds building costs, and the surplus has gone to hire additional staff and buy extra computers and books.

....Friendship Public Charter Schools — the city's largest charter network, with five schools and more than 4,000 students — has a surplus of $3.4 million that has funded cutting-edge equipment, including computerized interactive whiteboards that are found even in preschool classrooms.

The extra funding, it turns out, coincides with improved academic performance: The schools with the largest surpluses have ranked at the top on test scores.

....Some charter schools have been especially successful at supplementing taxpayer funding with charitable grants from donors as large as the Bill and Melinda Gates and Walton foundations and as small as their friends and neighbors. Thurgood Marshall charter school, founded by Georgetown University's Street Law Program, expects $1.7 million in contributions this year, accounting for 25 percent of overall spending, according to its budget.

Let's summarize. Charter schools can't "cherry pick," but their students all come from families that have chosen to apply for a place. This means their student bodies are automatically far different from those in standard public schools, since they include only students whose parents care about education in the first place. This is a very, very big difference.

And charters get to expel students who cause problems. "Our success is not from moving kids out," says Susan Schaeffler, who heads the KIPP program in DC, and that might be so in raw numbers. But the ability to get rid of even a small number of serious behavior problems can have a substantial impact.

Finally, it turns out that charters get more money than traditional schools — both from the city and from private sources. And they use that money to buy extra books, hire more staff, and create programs that attract good students. And the schools with the most money seem to perform the best. Amazing!

Look: even your most novice educational researcher knows that comparing test scores is useless unless you control pretty carefully for things like parental involvement and expenditure levels. And most of the studies I've seen suggest that once you do that, charters perform about the same as traditional schools. At most, they perform only slightly better.

Now, I don't know what such a study would show of DC's charters, but neither does the Post. And you can certainly make the case that offering DC parents a choice is a good thing regardless. I certainly think it is. But pretending that charters have improved test scores is journalistic malpractice. The Post simply hasn't presented any credible evidence that this is the case.

All-Seeing Olympians

ALL-SEEING OLYMPIANS....Ezra Klein responds to David Brooks:

Meanwhile, a question for Brooks. He asks, "Why do so many of the plans being offered rely upon a Magic Technocrat — an all-knowing Car Czar who can reorganize Detroit, an all-seeing team of Olympians who decide which medicines doctors will be allowed to prescribe?" Can he — can anyone? — name the sponsored piece of legislation, or even proposed piece of legislation, that would appoint "an all-seeing team of Olympians who decide which medicines doctors will be allowed to prescribe?"

Well, in fairness, here is Ezra himself glossing Tom Daschle's description of his proposed Federal Health Board:

Appoint a politically insulated board of doctors and academics and advocates and stakeholders and let them make decisions informed by expertise and experience, much of it private sector experience. It's an idea that substantially limits congressional authority over the health care system....What Daschle is offering is a decision-making body insulated from political pressures and profit considerations, imbued with the power and funding to gather real evidence, and run by trusted authorities, and thus able to lay claim to real legitimacy.

"All-seeing team of Olympians" is obviously hyperbole, but the fact is that many of us who support national healthcare do indeed support the idea of a technical body that would set standards for treatment, including the kinds of medicines that a national plan would pay for. I happen to think that's a reasonable alternative to the mess we have now, but it's hardly unfair for Brooks to disagree.

(Technically, of course, doctors could still prescribe anything they wanted even if some governing body declined to put it on the federal government's formulary. But for most people covered by a national plan, medicine that's not on the formulary might as well not be available, so this is a fairly thin distinction. What Brooks really ought to be asking himself, though, is whether the all-seeing Olympians who currently work for insurance companies are preferable to all-seeing Olympians who work for the federal government. It's not really clear why they would be.)

One Two Three Four

ONE TWO THREE FOUR....The New York Times reports today on Iraqi reaction to the reporter who threw his shoes at George Bush on Sunday. This is from Najaf:

In the holy Shiite city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, demonstrators chanted: "Bush, Bush, is a cow, your farewell was by a shoe," and, "The shoe got its goal straightly, but Maliki turned it away."

I sure hope this sounds better in the original Arabic. Otherwise the odds are low that it will enter the hall of fame of angry chants anytime soon.

The Best Albums of 2008

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The word of 2008 may be "hope," but the uniting theme of the year's best albums is more like "anxiety." This year, TV on the Radio and Portishead looked ahead with trepidation, while M83 and Hercules and Love Affair found solace in excavating the past, and Kanye, Beach House and Lil Wayne gazed inward at their own troubled souls. However, bubbling under is a celebratory, genre-hopping eclecticism from Santogold, The Very Best, Vampire Weekend and Flying Lotus, a nascent vision of a new world. Maybe there's hope after all?

When you choose a person as your partner on a presidential ticket, what are you saying about that person? If you're acting honestly and in the best interest of the American people, you're saying that he or she is the second most qualified person in the country, after you, to be president. (Or, to bow somewhat to political realities, you are saying he or she is the second most qualified person who also happens share your ideological leanings.)

That's why it is completely absurd that on Sunday, John McCain wouldn't tell an interviewer that he would support Sarah Palin if she chose to run for president in 2012, saying "I can't say something like that. We've got some great other young governors." McCain cited Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah. Why, then, wasn't Pawlenty or Huntsman his choice for VP?

Let's get real. In 2012, McCain is going to endorse someone for the Republican nomination who is hawkish on foreign affairs but socially and environmentally moderate. He'll endorse from the point of view of 2000 John McCain instead of 2008 presidential election John McCain. He most certainly will not chose someone who is a rabid right-wing fundamentalist Christian.

Meaning he won't endorse the person he wanted to install in the White House just a few short months ago.

UN to Assist in Preserving Mass Graves in Afghanistan

The UN pledged today to preserve Dasht-e-Leili, a mass grave site in northern Afghanistan, which was recently excavated and emptied of bodies, allegedly by Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum is believed to have removed the corpses out of fear that shifts in Afghan leadership might open him to charges of war crimes. The story was first reported by McClatchy.

Norah Niland, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters that the UN "remains ready to assist all Afghan stakeholders, including victim groups, to take immediate and concerted action to preserve grave sites."

The move comes a little late, as the remains have already been excavated. The site was thought to contain the bodies of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners captured by the Northern Alliance after the siege of Kunduz in late 2001. News reports at the time indicated that a small number of prisoners had suffocated by accident after being left in shipping containers. The truth, based on recent FOIA release from the US government, indicates that the deaths were not accidental and were far more numerous than previously thought.

From Physicians for Human Rights, a Washington-based NGO that initially investigated the deaths in 2002 and subsequently filed the FOIA request with the Defense Department, the State Department, and the CIA:

The FOIA response reveals startling information that contradicts official US public statements. The Bush Administration stated in 2002 that only several dozen prisoners had died during transport to Sheberghan prison after surrendering to General Dostum and to US Special Forces. The FOIA response, however, contains a State Department intelligence assessment from November 2002 advising government officials that the remains of between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals were deposited at the site, and that approximately four Afghans who witnessed the death of the prisoners and/or the disposal of their remains had been detained, tortured, killed, and/or disappeared. Despite having this information, the US Government did not revise its public statements on the issue, nor did it launch a vigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding these alleged crimes.

According PHR chief Frank Donaghue, "removing evidence of an alleged mass atrocity is itself a war crime and must be investigated." What about concealing knowledge that a war crime has taken place?

Network Neutrality Update

NETWORK NEUTRALITY UPDATE....Slowly but surely, support for network neutrality on the internet is eroding:

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

....Separately, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have withdrawn quietly from a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality. Each company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies. In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.

....Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service.

It's not too surprising that big content companies are quietly changing their tune on this: big companies are usually willing to pay for preferential treatment that helps them keep little guys little, and preferential access to the internet is no different from any other competitive advantage. But if even Lessig is starting to give in on this, the jig might truly be up.

If I had to take a (tentative) stand on this, I'd say that preferential treatment might be justified for things like television and video-on-demand services, which require infrastructure buildout and higher service levels just in order to be competitive. (TV subscribers simply won't put up with standard internet quality of service.) But for ordinary content providers merely looking for an edge over possible upstarts? I think that's as corrosive as Standard Oil locking competitors out of the railroads in the 19th century or Ma Bell prohibiting third party equipment on their lines in the 20th century. We shouldn't put up with it.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure how to draw the right distinctions here. Nor, in an environment where network traffic is growing at triple-digit rates but the subscriber base is barely growing at double digit rates, am I sure what incentive the backbone providers have to build additional capacity unless they have some way of charging someone for the additional bandwidth. It's a genuine problem, and I'm not sure what the solution is.

UPDATE: Lessig says the Journal is wrong: his views are the same as they've always been. Long story short, he's OK with network providers offering higher service levels to companies willing to pay for it, but only if they offer the same deal to everyone.

Google responds to the Journal here. They say the only thing they've done is offer to colocate Google-specific caching servers within broadband providers' own facilities. Needless to say, your mileage may vary on whether you think this is a violation of net neutrality.

President Bush is in Baghdad today for a surprise visit to mark the finalizing of the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the presence of American troops in Iraq going forward. One journalist at the press conference Bush held with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki decided to use the opportunity to express his feelings about Bush. Watch it below.

Bush stated in a recent interview that he wants his legacy to rest, in part, on the fact that he "liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace." But let's be real. There isn't any glory in Bush's legacy. There isn't even dignity. The final image of our occupation of Iraq during the Bush Administration will be an Iraqi citizen making a small, futile, but enraged attempt to make a statement about his supposed "liberator."

And, by the way, that man will never have to buy a drink in Baghdad again. Whenever he gets out of Gitmo, of course.

Monday Update: When I made a joke yesterday about this journalist (whose name is Muntadhar al-Zeidi, by the way) being a local hero and being tossed in Gitmo, I didn't think I'd be right one day later. The headline from today's Washington Post article on the subject: "Across Mideast, Arabs hail shoe-hurling journalist." From the article:

Metadata

METADATA....So what was it that Jack Goldsmith and James Comey threatened to resign over in 2004? It was some aspect of the NSA's surveillance program, and according to Barton Gellman in Angler, it wasn't just Goldsmith and Comey who were up in arms about it: virtually the entire senior staff of the Justice Department was ready to resign over it until President Bush decided to back down at the last minute. But exactly what part of the program caused the rebellion? Daniel Klaidman reports in Newsweek:

Two knowledgeable sources tell Newsweek that the clash erupted over a part of Bush's espionage program that had nothing to do with the wiretapping of individual suspects. Rather, Comey and others threatened to resign because of the vast and indiscriminate collection of communications data....The program's classified code name was "Stellar Wind," though when officials needed to refer to it on the phone, they called it "SW."

....The NSA's powerful computers became vast storehouses of "metadata." They collected the telephone numbers of callers and recipients in the United States, and the time and duration of the calls. They also collected and stored the subject lines of e-mails, the times they were sent, and the addresses of both senders and recipients. By one estimate, the amount of data the NSA could suck up in close to real time was equivalent to one quarter of the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica per second. (The actual content of calls and e-mails was not being monitored as part of this aspect of the program, the sources say.) All this metadata was then sifted by the NSA, using complex algorithms to detect patterns and links that might indicate terrorist activity.

The metadata sweep has been part of this story almost since the beginning (see here and here, for example), and the New York Times reported last year that it was data mining of some sort that probably sparked the rebellion at DoJ and the showdown in John Ashcroft's hospital room. So this report isn't entirely new. Still, it does add a bit of meat to the bones of the story, and then adds a disturbing coda: apparently we still don't know if, in the end, the rebellion worked:

Days after the hospital clash, Bush shut down the massive data-collection program and stopped searches of the data that had already been stored. (It's unclear whether the administration has since found new legal justification to return to at least some of these activities.)

Looks like the ball's in your court, president-elect Obama. At least, it will be soon, anyway.