Threatening to cut off the NSA’s water supply in Utah

Here’s one way to fight a political battle against the NSA: consider stopping the flow of water to a facility you don’t like.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would shut off the water spigot to the massive data center operated by the National Security Agency in Bluffdale, Utah.

The legislation, proposed by Utah lawmaker Marc Roberts, is due to go to the floor of the Utah House of Representatives early next year, but it was debated in a Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday. The bill, H.B. 161, directs municipalities like Bluffdale to “refuse support to any federal agency which collects electronic data within this state.”

The NSA brought its Bluffdale data center online about a year ago, taking advantage Utah’s cheap power and a cut-rate deal for millions of gallons of local water, used to cool the 1-million-square-foot building’s servers. Roberts’ bill, however, would prohibit the NSA from negotiating new water deals when its current Bluffdale agreement runs out in 2021.

The law seems like a long-shot to clear legislative hurdles when Utah’s legislature re-convenes next year, but Wednesday’s committee hearing was remarkable, nonetheless, says Nate Carlisle, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune who has waged a fight with the NSA and Bluffdale officials to determine how much water the data center is actually using. “What’s noteworthy is no one on the panel said: ‘Hey, wait a minute, we can’t do this,’” he says. “They had some specific concerns about the language of the bill, but there was no outright opposition.”

All of this does suggest an interesting tactic in the arsenal of local governments yet I have a hard time imagining the possible outcomes. The federal government finds an independent water supply? There is a massive lawsuit about whether a local government can limit the water supply to a federal agency? The threat pushes the federal government to move their facilities elsewhere? The federal government ensures any new facility has much longer contracts for basic services? Regardless, I would guess this situation wouldn’t be resolved quickly.

Related thought: given serious droughts – like the one in California – could the government require a larger share of water to maintain “critical” functions over the needs of other users?


What it takes to approach a rate of zero traffic fatalities

An expert discusses Sweden’s efforts to get to zero traffic fatalities:

But in Vision Zero, the accident is not the major problem. The problem is that people get killed or seriously injured. And the reason that people get serious injuries is mainly because people have a certain threshold where we can tolerate external violence, kinetic energy. And we know quite well now how much violence we can tolerate.One of the major things with Vision Zero now is to put that more explicitly on the table. It’s like if we’re talking about the environment, and you know you have a certain threshold when it comes to poison, or whatever. You can tolerate up to a certain level. So it’s not just to stop the traffic. You can actually allow traffic. But if you have places in your system where you have unprotected road users and protected road users, according to Vision Zero you can’t allow a higher speed than 30 kilometers per hour [18.6 mph]…

I will say that enforcement plays of course a role in Sweden, but not so much. We are going much more for engineering than enforcement. If you have a very dedicated police staff and they think it’s the most important thing, then you can be quite effective working with police. But I don’t think you will get a safe system. You will reduce risk, but you will not achieve a safe system.

What about camera enforcement?

We are doing it, but in a different way. First of all, it is a national policy. We have both rural and urban areas, and we work with both. And when it comes to safety cameras, which is what we call them, we have put them on most rural roads. We have one of the largest safety camera systems in the world, per population.

But they are not catching people — it’s nudging people. So we put up the cameras on a stretch, and we tell everyone, OK, now you’re going in this area, and in a friendly but firm way we say you have to keep the speed in this area because we have a history of crashes.

It sounds like this would create some interesting discussions in the United States: do we really want to nudge drivers in such directions or do we truly think cars and vehicles should the rulers of the road? Right now, many of our roads are geared toward helping drivers get from Point A to Point B as fast as they can. But, safety is an important issue and one that concerns a lot of people given the number of vehicle deaths.

A sociologist discusses the political leanings of Katniss Everdeen

Would Katniss fit in with political progressives, the Tea Party, or libertarians? One sociologist weighs in:

“I was convinced to read them by a vegan radical historian I knew from Japanese camp,” she says. While reading it in the context of the growing income gap, and the frustration that was causing, in the States, Armstrong-Hough recalls that it was impossible not to notice the social commentary, nor to untie the strands of it from the plot. And yet, particularly given the flipped switch of Mockingjay, wherein the revolutionaries show their own capacity for cruelty and depravity, she says, “I don’t think the franchise is promoting any particular kind of society.”Instead, according to Armstrong-Hough, it’s a model of total resistance. “We see politicking, corruption, and unjustified violence from both the guardians of the status quo in the Capitol and the architects of the rebellion,” she says. “Katniss, whom we naturally align ourselves with, rejects both these systems.”

This double rejection feels timely, Armstrong-Hough notes. “So many Americans are disenchanted with politics itself, not just one side of the aisle or the other.”

“What I did see, though, was a sort of theory of social change that I found surprisingly sophisticated,” she says, adding that the books remind her of the ideas of James C. Scott, a Yale-based social and political theorist. An influential, self-described “crude Marxist” professor who lives on a farm and raises animals in between publishing tomes about anarchism, Scott is a figure of interest to people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. The New York Times called one of Scott’s books “a magisterial critique of top-down social planning that has been cited, and debated, by the free-market libertarians of the Cato Institute… development economists and partisans of Occupy Wall Street alike.”…

Beyond just advocating personal resistance to forces of political control, she says the books put forth the idea that “violence breeds docility.” “I don’t mean that threatening people with violence makes them docile, because it doesn’t. I mean that teaching people to be violent and consume violence makes them docile,” she explains. “The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.”

So The Hunger Games is a Marxist critique where the games distract everyone from the oppression from the Capitol? Or is it at the end primarily about not giving into revenge and instead establishing a stable society (since Katniss shoots Coin rather than Snow)?

The book ends like a lot of these kinds of stories often do: the heroine returns home, troubled by all the conflict, settled into “normal” family life. In fact, there isn’t much vision at the end of what Panem has become. We are told that kids are taught about the Hunger Games. But, what kind of government do they have? How do all the districts get along? The story isn’t terribly concerned with all of this; much of the energy of the series is about fighting the long battle, not about depicting the better society.


Predicting more Thanksgiving traffic due to a closed car-to-plane gap?

One way to predict traffic on the roads at Thanksgiving is to look at the car-to-plane travel gap:

Drivers will make up about 89.5 percent of holiday travelers this year, a gain of 0.1 percentage point from 2013, while air passengers will drop by the same amount to 7.5, forecasts prepared by Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Inc. show. A 0.1 point increase may not seem like a lot, but based on last year’s estimate that 39.6 million people traveled by car for Thanksgiving, that would roughly equate to at least another 40,000 people piling onto America’s highways.

The car-over-plane travel choice is made easier by the fact that airfares aren’t coming down like gasoline pump prices are. While the plunge in oil has driven down wholesale jet fuel prices 17 percent since August, almost matching the 18 percent drop in retail gasoline, airfares have risen 3.4 percent over that time, data compiled by industry groups show…

“Right now the airlines aren’t in the sharing mood,” Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of the Dallas-based travel website, said. “They just went through six years of multi-megamergers and dividing the country up by city with little or no competition, so they’ll pocket whatever difference they may get for a while.”

Gasoline’s drop will save the average U.S. driver about $500 annually, helping boost consumer spending, according to IHS. U.S. auto sales have risen 5.5 percent to 13.7 million in the first 10 months of 2014, on pace to be the strongest in eight years, Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based data provider Autodata Corp. said.

A few thoughts:

1. Having 40,000 more people on the roads at Thanksgiving is going to complicate traffic all across the United States? Spread these people cross hundreds of metropolitan areas and assume they aren’t all leaving at the same time (Wednesday after work) and adding that kind of volume may not matter much at all.

2. The prediction of future traffic is interesting to me. This reminds me of Carmageddon fears, first in Los Angeles (twice) and then in Chicago earlier this year. This seems like the creation of news: get prepared for more Thanksgiving traffic now! It is the kind of fear-based reporting done by many local news outlets about things like weather or traffic, fairly mundane events that occasionally turn out to be horrible.

3. The Carmageddon cases hint at another piece of this prediction: making such claims could change future behavior. If Americans hear that there will be more drivers at Thanksgiving, even just a few of them changing their plans (not driving or changing their departure times) might go a long ways toward relieving the predicted traffic. Perhaps this forecast is all part of some plan to actually reduce Thanksgiving traffic?

4. Just from personal observation: plane tickets appear to be really high during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s this year. As the article notes, airlines are looking to make money and haven’t budged much in their prices even with the recent gas price drops.



New “Dry City Brew Works” reminds Wheaton of its dry past

A new brewery in Wheaton has a name that highlights the community’s past stance toward alcohol:

Exposed brick walls, metal accents, a wooden ceiling and plans for local musicians to regularly perform give Dry City Brew Works the feel of an urban coffeehouse…

The name, of course, is a reference to Wheaton’s history of being a dry city until the mid-1980s.

“A lot of people, especially from the Wheaton area, are telling us, ‘Wow, finally, it’s so good to have something like this in Wheaton.’ They love the name and the play on Wheaton and the reaction to the actual product has been good,” Jessica said.

Friends, family and strangers helped the brewery raise $15,000 through a campaign to help with some of the startup costs. The owners are now in the process now of rewarding the backers with Dry City-stamped T-shirts, glasses and other items.

A bit of a change for a community which voted for its own prohibition after the Federal prohibition ended. Read an earlier post about Wheaton’s dry past and reactions to Ale Fest a few years ago. The ban on alcohol sales was revoked in part because of arguments that such sales would help the downtown: enhance the downtown experience, attract businesses and restaurants, and thus boost tax revenues. A brewery downtown would seem to contribute to all this though it remains to be seen how successful a brewery in Wheaton can be.

The reasons behind a collection of dead shopping malls in the Chicago suburbs

Another shopping mall in the Chicago suburbs closes, joining several other “dead” malls:

Last week, it was announced that Lincoln Mall in suburban Matteson would close after the holiday season, due to its operator’s inability to keep the mall properly maintained and staffed. However, the 700,000 square foot shopping center is not alone, as it joins a growing list of dead malls in the greater Chicagoland area. Chicago photographer Katherine Hodges has been documenting so-called dead malls and other abandoned sites for several years, and has visited numerous shopping centers throughout the Midwest that have either completely shuttered, or are on the verge of closing for good.

Hodges shoots many other sites beyond malls that are on death row, however the images of humungous vacant shopping centers speak for themselves. One mall that Hodges has highlighted — The Plaza in Evergreen Park — was the first modern shopping mall in the Chicago area, having originally opened in 1952. It closed last summer. The Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, another mall featured in Hodges’ series, is currently the focus of a major redevelopment effort that could potentially revive the shopping center.

With big empty spaces comes big problems. Some shopping centers have been successful in turning things around, and others — not so much (Lincoln Mall for example). However, with these vacant spaces come new opportunities, and in the case of Lincoln Mall, there have already been some ideas floated for a possible redevelopment of the property. It’s still a bit early to speculate exactly what will happen to the site, but at least for now, it’s certain that the mall will join the area’s growing shopping center dead pool.

There are a variety of forces at work with these shopping malls – and I’ll throw out some speculative ideas as well:

1. The economic crisis of recent years did not help: consumer spending slowed and stores simply couldn’t have locations all over the place.

2. Population shifts can contribute. Malls are often built in thriving suburban areas but there are no guarantees that the communities around the malls will continue to thrive.

3. Big box stores can locate right next to malls but probably compete for customers. Outside of department stores, malls feature a variety of smaller, niche stores. But, a Walmart or a Target can sell a bunch of goods in one location.

4. How much has the Internet hurt malls? This would include actual sales but might also include less need for a physical social gathering spot (which can now happen online).

5. Malls themselves have changed design over the years. The old model was to construct a large facility of stores with lots of surrounding parking lots. More malls today have added other uses, particularly sit-down restaurants, in order to attract people to the mall and keep them there longer. Malls are not just for shopping; they are now often lifestyle centers.

It may be difficult to imagine but suburban shopping malls don’t have to exist in the future.

“Sociology’s most cited papers by decade”

Kieran Healy looks at the patterns among the most cited sociology papers:

Again, we’re looking at the Top 10 most-cited papers that were published in the 1950s, 1960s, and so on. This means that while the eleventh most-cited paper from the 1980s might outscore the fourth most-cited paper from the 1950s in terms of cumulative citations, the former does not appear here whereas the latter does. There are some striking patterns. One thing to notice is the rise of articles from the Annual Review of Sociology in the 2000s. Another is the increasing heterogeneity of outlets. Of the top ten papers written in the 1950s or before, seven appear in the American Sociological Review, two in the American Journal of Sociology, and one in Social Forces. (That is SF’s only entry in the list, as it happens.) ASR and AJS rule the 1960s, too. After that, though, there’s more variety. Strikingly, for the 2000s only one of the ten most-cited articles is from ASR and none is from AJS—a complete reversal of the pattern of the ‘50s and ‘60s. You can also see the long shadow of post-war university expansion and “Boomer Sociology”. The most-cited work from before 1970 is not nearly as widely cited as the most-cited work from the ‘70s and ‘80s, despite having been around longer. The drop-off in citation numbers in the Top 10s from the ‘90s and ‘00s is to be expected as those papers are younger. American dominance—or insularity—is also evident, as the only non-U.S. journal to make any of the lists is Sociology, and that was in the 1970s.

Turning to the subject matter of the papers, I think you can see the importance of articles whose main contribution is either a methodological technique or a big idea. There are fewer papers where a specific empirical finding is the main contribution. If you want to hang in there as one of the most-remembered papers from your decade, it seems, give people a good concept to work with or a powerful tool to use. Of course, it’s also true that people tend to have a lot of unread books lying around the house and unused drill attachments in the garage.

It is tempting to connect these two patterns in the data. To speculate: ASR and AJS remain amongst the journals with the very highest impact factors in the discipline. Publishing in them has become more important than ever to people’s careers. Yet the most-cited papers of the last two decades appeared elsewhere. These journals demand the papers they publish meet high standards in methods and ideally also innovate theoretically, along with making an empirical contribution to knowledge. That, together with a more competitive and professionalized labor market, produces very high-quality papers. But perhaps it also makes these journals less likely than in the past to publish purely technical or purely theoretical pieces, even though some papers of that sort will in the end have the most influence on the field.

Outlets like Sociological Methods and Research and Sociological Methodology now publish articles that might in the past have appeared in more general journals. Similarly, big-idea pieces that might once have gotten in at ASR or AJS may now be more likely to find a home at places like Theory and Society or Gender and Society. At the same time—perhaps because the state of theory in the field is more confused than that of methods—theoretical papers may also have been partially displaced by ARS articles that make an argument for some idea or approach, but under the shield of a topical empirical literature review. In a relatively fragmented field, it’s also easier for methodological papers to be more widely cited across a range of substantive areas than it is for a theory paper to do the same.

These seem like reasonable arguments to me. It is also interesting to see that a few subfields attract more attention, like theory and methodology but also social networks, social movements, gender, and cultural sociology, while other subfields are not among the most cited.

The historical (in)accuracy of Assassin’s Creed Unity

Video games can help shape our understandings of historical events. Thus, a debate over the portrayal of the French Revolution in the new Assassin’s Creed:

The former leftist French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, called it “propaganda against the people, the people who are [portrayed as] barbarians, bloodthirsty savages,” while the “cretin” that is Marie-Antoinette and the “treacherous” Louis XVI are portrayed as noble victims. “The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more self-loathing and déclinisme in the French,” he told Le Figaro. The secretary general of the Left Front, Alexis Corbière, said on his blog:

To all those who will buy Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I wish them a good time, but I also tell them that the pleasure of playing does not stop you from thinking. Play, yes, but do not let yourself be manipulated by those who make propaganda.

Ubisoft, the maker of the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, which has been going since 2007 and has sold more than 70 million copies, is in fact French. One of the makers of the game replied that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a “consumer video game, not a history lesson” but did say that his team hired a historian and specialists on the Terror and other aspects of the Revolution. Le Monde lays out seven errors in the game here (in French).

In fact, the debate over who are the heroes and villains of the Revolution goes back to the 1790s. British counter-revolutionary thought often focused on the suffering of the monarchy in their stories, such as the King’s tearful goodbye to his family before his execution on Jan. 21st, 1793 or Marie-Antoinette’s perhaps apocryphal last words to her executioner after stepping on his foot just before her head was cut off: “Pardon me sir. I did not mean to do it.”

So perhaps the game simply reflects the ongoing debates of which actors in the French Revolution should be cast as heroes or villains? This all intrigued me because one of my classes recently considered how historical narratives are constructed and then played several historical video games to see how each portrays history. Some games clearly try to impart more historical accuracy – and these seem to be ones more intent on educational purposes – while others suffer from the gamification of history. This can lead to two things:

1. The games differ in their levels of ambiguity; after all, there has to be a winner. But, even as this debate illustrates, it is not always easy to depict who benefited or should have benefited from particular events. On one hand, it is easy to fight Nazis – there are a video game go-to for a clear enemy – but other events or periods are much more unclear. One solution is to simply drop in an outside story – as the Assassin’s Creed line does – and make it up from there.

2. This often means there is the potential to change history. This may just be a modern fad – This American Life recently asked some Americans about time travel and there was a subset of people who wanted to change big events:

Jonathan Goldstein

And even though they’ve been mulling this over for so long, many still reach for the most well-trodden sci-fi comic book staple.

Man 4

My first impulse about time travel is the same one that I would guess that everybody has. You know, thinking that I’m going to go back and I’m going to kill Hitler.

Sean Cole

What’s funny is that they know it’s kind of lame. You can hear it in their voices.

Man 4

Or kill Hitler when he’s a baby, or kill his mother or something.

Jonathan Goldstein

They preface it with phrases like–

Woman 1

It’s the thing everyone always says is–

Sean Cole

And then they say it anyway.

Woman 1

If there hadn’t been a Hitler–

Man 5

Put a bullet in Adolf Hitler’s head when he was still a student, I guess…

And of course, no one imagines that they’ll end up with an iron collar around their neck, working in a quarry. Instead, they have a starring role in the historical docu-drama. Like this guy, who’d set the controls for the Revolutionary War.

Man On Street 2

I don’t think I’d be like, a general in the field or anything like that. But I’d probably be more of like an adviser to Washington. Like Alexander Hamilton was, right? And a few other folks. So yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

I love how you’re already an officer in this.

Man On Street 2

Exactly. Yeah.

Historical games can pose an interesting “what if?” yet also lead to improbable events or outcomes.

I would guess most of these action-oriented games are not concerned much about historical accuracy outside of how it can enhance the backdrop or the gameplay. Yet, given the sales of these games, the amount of time spent playing them, and who purchases them (often younger people), such games could go a long way toward influencing perceptions of the past.

Watch for how Chicago’s new “Array of Things” signs communicate information

Big data about Chicago is to be communicated to the public in a few different ways, including from public signs:

But the information it gathers is only half of what the Array of Things does. It will communicate that data in a complete, machine-readable form online, for users to search, analyze, and adapt. The sensors, however, will also communicate the data to passers-by.And that presents an interesting design dilemma. Most public signage seems self-evident and intuitive, like stop signs and walk signals, but it tends not to change very much, and when it does, it’s iterative. What do you do when you’re designing a new form of public signage, on the cheap, and one that has the possibility to communicate a wide range of information? To find out, I spoke with the array’s designers, SAIC professor Douglas Pancoast and master’s student Satya Batsu.

The obvious approach would be to use a screen. But screens are fragile and expensive. “We knew we didn’t want to have screens,” says Pancoast. “We wanted it to be visible—it couldn’t be too small, it couldn’t be too big, and you couldn’t mistake it for traffic.”…

That also led the designers to the current design of the Array nodes. (Not final, necessarily—the 3D-printed screens are cheap, quickly produced, and replaceable in a few minutes with off-the-shelf hardware.) The hexagonal shape of the lights in a honeycomb pattern is meant to further distinguish the Array nodes from traffic signals—a simple, familiar shape that’s still different from the language of signage that will surround it on city streets…

From that, Pancoast and Batsu narrowed down the nodes to their current iteration, leaving open the question of what information they’ll communicate and how people will recognize it. And that’s where the community comes in. The Array of Things is “neighborhood asset mapping,” in Pancoast’s words; residents are likely to be interested in different data in different places. In one place, they might be interested in air quality, an “asymmetrical” issue across the city. In another, sound or temperature.

This could present some interesting opportunities for observation to see how residents will interact with these public signs. Will they stand around them? Glance at them quickly as they walk by? Ignore them? I’m curious to know what information these signs could provide on a regular basis that would be better than what residents could gather on their smartphones or that would add value to their daily routine.

Should environmentalism promote pristine wilderness or more urban parks?

Debates over the legacy of John Muir pose an interesting question for environmentalists: to support pristine wilderness or more urban parks?

Christensen and others see Muir’s beliefs as antiquated in the face of 21st century environmental challenges that the bushy-bearded Scot could not have imagined: population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts, climate change.

The debate boils down to Muir’s primary ethic: The wilderness is a temple to be left undisturbed, so man occasionally can experience nature in its purity. That precept helped shape a century of conservation, ensuring that there would be unspoiled wilderness for succeeding generations…

To Christensen and others, however, Muir’s notion that immersing people in “universities of the wilderness” — such as Yosemite — sends the message that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, at the expense of smaller urban spaces…

Critics also see a correlation between the emotional, biblical language of Muir’s writings and the demographic makeup of national park visitors and the ranks of the largest environmental organizations — mainly aging, white Americans.

The Sierra Club, which Muir founded, and the Audubon Society are struggling to connect with California’s diverse population, particularly Latinos, who polls show are among the most devoted environmentalists in the state. A strong and diverse membership in California, where Latinos are expected to become a majority by 2050, is important to influencing political decisions and raising funds to support missions of conservation and environmental education.

Interesting issue. A few thoughts:

1. One could argue that there really aren’t many natural places completely undisturbed by human activity. Even the supposed “pristine wilderness” of the New World discovered by Europeans was really land that had been cultivated and altered by people for a long time.

2. The majority of people in the United States and in many countries now live in urbanized areas where they may have little time or resources for “pristine nature.” But, urban nature is a very human-altered form: for example, the design of Central Park in New York City is very intentional with its rock formations, water features, and set of paths and pedestrian areas (let alone space for vehicles and large buildings).