Archives for the month of: October, 2008
This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

Competition between colleges is as tough as it ever was and will definitely get tougher. But this seems ridiculous. My friends at Ethics Newsline brought to my attention that turns out that Baylor University has been paying students who are already admitted and attending the school — to retake the SAT. Just sitting for the exam can win $300 textbook credit and raising your score by 50 points wins you $1,000 in scholarship money. Considering that SAT scores can easily vary by 50 points from sitting to sitting, this is a good bet for any incoming student.

Why would Baylor want its already-admitted kids to retake the SAT? Easy: The SAT is a major part of the US News & World Report’s college ranking system. Baylor’s got a strategic plan called Baylor 2012 that evidently includes a cornerstone goal that it will do better on the US News rankings. They’re on their way, according to The Lariat, the student newspaper. Baylor’s average score SAT went from 1,200 to 1,210.

Baylor’s vice president for marketing, John Barry, first told The New York Times that there’s no problem because any other college could have done it too: “Every university wants to have great SAT scores. Every university wants to be perceived as having a high-quality class. We all wanted that. Were we happy our SAT scores went up? Yes. Did our students earn their scores? Yes they did.”

Some critics of standardized testing in general are pouncing on this because they say it reveals how evil they are. I don’t see it that way. The SAT is just a tool. So are the US News rankings. Baylor was misusing one tool to game the other – that doesn’t make the tools wrong, it makes Baylor wrong. Indeed, according to the influential Inside Higher Ed, Robert Morse (the US News “ranking czar”) made clear that the magazine “disapproves of any educational policy designed solely to manipulate the ranking.”

This episode shows how careful leaders have to be when they set goals — because staff throughout the organization might think that reaching the goal is the most important thing, not how you get there. In some areas, that can work. Schools? Not so much.

This is also a great example of gaming a system without breaking the rules. In other words, it’s a great example of the difference between what’s legal and what’s right.

While Baylor’s Barry at first said the university was “very happy with the way [the program] turned out,” they must not have been too happy about being caught. They’ve promised to cut the program, saying it was a “goof.”

The story first broke in Baylor’s student paper, The Lariat. It didn’t die with that one piece, either. In a recent editorial, The Lariat points out that:

Ultimately, the decision about SAT scores is really just a symptom of a larger problem. As Baylor progresses towards its 2012 goal, it’s seems more and more intent on fulfilling as many of the imperatives [in the strategic plan] as possible. There is a serious problem with this mentality, though. We seem so anxious to reach these goals that we aren’t considering whether we’re actually improving as a university. In this case, we’re trying to improve the appearance of our student’s scores without actually attracting higher-scoring students.

Many business schools now make ethics courses a central requirement to get that MBA, in an effort to improve things. According to Fox News religion correspondent, Lauren Green:

In the wake of the Enron collapse there’s been a bumper crop of ethics courses added to the business curriculum. The nation’s number one business school, Harvard began its much heralded and mandatory Leadership and Corporate Accountability course five years ago. . . . And Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School was established last year . . . for the express purpose of turning out business school graduates who’ll work to the corporate culture of greed to a culture favoring more socially responsible leadership.

But this assumes the problem is that people somehow need more knowledge in order to make ethical decisions. No: they need a moral compass coupled with some backbone. The Lariat’s insightful analysis shows it doesn’t take smarts and a degree to make the right decisions — it takes guts.

Someone, somewhere along the line, should have been able to stand up and say, “Um, boss? This SAT plan is wrong.” Maybe a memo to that effect will come to light, which would restore my faith in humanity.

Meanwhile, seemingly the last line of defense for Baylor’s reputation, the student editors of the paper hold out hope that should also be coming from the halls of the administrative offices: “With any luck, the damage done is not irreversible, and we can reaffirm our university as fair and ethical.”

These are my notes from yesterday’s Pajamas TV segment, which was live yesterday. If you check this page, you can see the video. I’m slated to be on again this Friday, October 24, at 6:00 pm Eastern.

It’s easy to pick on the Garden State of New Jersey, almost too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Former Democratic state senator Wayne Bryant, who is embroiled in a corruption trial, has asked the state elections authority for permission to use his $640,000 campaign war chest for his legal bills. The authority said no and yesterday a state appeals court heard arguments on the issue.

Bryant is accused of conspiring with the dean of a medical school to steer state money to the university in return for a no-show job that would boost his pension from $36,000 to $81,000. I’m telling you, it’s like The Sopranos! Only there’s more. Stay tuned . . . .

* * * * *

Bryant is not the only New Jersey state official using campaign money to pay for corruption defense. Former state Sen. and Newark Mayor Sharpe James (D-Essex) and former Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D-Bergen) used their campaign money for their legal fights – only they didn’t ask permission first.

Coniglio used $90,000 leftover in his war chest when Feds were looking into whether he took money from Hackensack University Medical Center in return for steering money to the hospital. He was indicted on that in in February. And former mayor James spent $50,000 of campaign money for his defense against conspiracy and fraud charges. He was convicted in April and is serving 27 months in prison and had to pay a $100,000 fine.

What’s incredible is that, in fact, New Jersey’s rules are stricter than the federal election commission’s when it comes to using campaign money – on the federal level, battling corruption charges is deemed to be an expense “relating to the duties of a federal office holder.”

So there’s something to think about next time you whip out your check book to support a candidate – might this guy end up using the money to defend against being a crook?

These are my notes from my latest Pajamas TV segment, which was live yesterday. I don’t yet have a link to the Flash (free) version, but if you check this page, you can see the video as soon as they have posted the free version. (I am not sure they are going to keep on posting free versions; it is meant to be a paid service.)

I’m slated to be on again today and this Friday, October 24, at 6:00 pm Eastern.


Personal identity crisis continues. What will it take for companies to take this as seriously as they should? First, there’s a report from Georgia Tech that with cell phones getting more complicated and more connected, it turns out they are perfect targets for hackers. Just imagine a horde of cell phones being programmed to periodically dial toll numbers. They’ve even got a name: “zombie phones.”

But even more scary, officials have found small devices in European point of sale card swipe machines that send selected transaction information to Pakistan. These are the card machines you use at the grocery store — totally plain vanilla. The devices appear to be untraceable and are inserted in some made-in-China MasterCard boxes. The best way to find out if a store has been infected is to literally weigh their card swipe machines. Bad machines weigh four ounces more than good ones.

This is affecting large, chain stores, including a British unit of Wal*Mart and Tesco.

It is not isolated or off the beaten path. And it really is diabolical. The machines can be set, evidently, to just send a few transactions, say like every tenth Visa Platinum transaction, once a day. They can also get new instructions when they send their take — so their work is quite hidden. Add that up over time.

What happens to the information once it goes to Pakistan? It gets used, of course. Bank withdrawals are made, plane tickets and other merchandise get purchased. So far, the estimates are between $50 and $100 million. The motivation appears not to be a espionage, but plain old theft. Authorities are watching, though, in case there is a terrorism link, the destination being in Pakistan and all.

What can companies do? That’s a tough question and it may be one of those things where the bad guys are always one step ahead of the good guys. But the good guys can get a little more serious about this. Yes, they will say they have security experts and yes, they will say that such piracy hurts them as much as it hurts, say, Joe The Plumber. “Security is our top priority.”

Nevada has instituted new rules that companies must encrypt the information they keep. But this may not be enough. The whole data chain needs to be protected, just like the food chain.

I think I am going to start paying cash for everything I can!

These are my notes from my latest Pajamas TV segment, which was live yesterday. I don’t yet have a link to the Flash (free) version, but if you check this page, you can see the video as soon as they have posted the free version. (I am not sure they are going to keep on posting free versions; it is meant to be a paid service.)

I’m slated to be on again this Friday, Octopber 17, at 6:00 pm Eastern.

Even as he unveils a new stump speech in which he pointedly avoids personal attacks on his opponent, John McCain is getting slimed in cyberspace by a chain email that is making the rounds. This should not be a surprise; there are a number of similar emails out in the wild about Barack Obama and, more recently, Governor Sarah Palin. But this appears to be the first chain email about McCain. (There have been a few spurious emails, but they are nowhere near the level of vitriol that is aimed at Obama.)

(And see here for my friend Richard Harwood’s take on when hate wins.)

The person who appears to be the author claims that the Washington Post is working on a story about this. About a week ago, she said to expect it in about a week.

The email has the left-leaning blogosphere in a bit of a tizzy. To their credit, they are trying to fact check it.

This new email about McCain purports to be a description of one writer’s vacation encounter with the Senator in Turtle Island in Fiji, shortly before the 2000 election season. The writer says that she spent a week sharing meals and conversation with the Senator, and came away disgusted.

The McCain in the email comes across as a hilarious caricature, obsessively quoting from Faulkner night after night, referring to his adopted Bangladeshi child as a “black thing,” telling a fellow guest named Amy that she needs to lose weight, and saying that if he was in charge he would “nuke Iraq to teach them a lesson.”

Originally there was a name attached to the email, a professor at University of California Santa Cruz, but this professor has categorically denied writing the email. She says she received it and forwarded it on September 16, but not under her name.

But some left-wing bloggers have been pushing to find out who wrote the original email and the name that’s come up is Anasuya Dubey, who in 2005 was a bay-area psychology student. An Australian blogger has spoken to someone who says she is Ana and has published an email from her that claims that Michael Leahy of the Washington Post is working on a story.

Friends, I was on yesterday’s “The Whip” segment of PJTV, which is a segment where they invite their guests to talk about what the “mainstream media” is not covering, is missing, or is just not paying enough attention to. While PJTV is a subscription-based service, this link ought to take you to my segment for free (I am the second guest).

I am slated to be on PJTV on Monday and Friday next week, October 13 and October 17, at about 6pm Eastern.

Here are my notes from yesterday’s segment:

The Chinese version of Skype evidently spies on users. This was discovered by a University of Toronto researcher in relatively simple fashion — by checking out what happened when he used the f-word in a message.

(To be clear, this is a joint venture between a Chinese communications company, TOM, and Skype.)

It turns out that not only are messages being filtered, and not only are they being logged, but it was being kept on an insecure server that was easily accessed through the cyber version of guessing that someone might keep their housekey in the flowerpot.

Skype says they are very concerned about the fact that these messages were insecurely stored — which is sort of like an adulterer saying he’s sorry he got caught. As for the whole message-interception thing, they say that’s just the requirement of the Chinese government and they don’t have any say. And their past public statements about the issue have been contradictory.

This is not at all the first time there have been well-founded worries about what happens when US companies bump up against China — Google has had to promise they won’t house personal info on Chinese soil. Yahoo’s CEO had to publicly apologize to the family of someone who was jailed as a result of their disclosures to the government.

This sounds like it’s all far away — but it matters close to home too.

In the first place, the monitoring is possible not only for users of the TOM/Skype — but also domestic users who interact with the people on the Chinese system.

Secondly, it brings up the issue of what large — and rightly trusted — organizations do about their partners. This affects anyone who has ever purchased anything — point of sale data is typically handled by a contractor, for example. You might trust, say, Best Buy — but you also need to know you can trust their contractors not to lose your personal data. The untold story of the last couple of years has been the rise in inadevertent data breaches. Many millions of records have been divulged, and it’s not just because government workers accidentally take home laptops — according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, since January 2005 there have been more than 245,000,000 individual records divulged accidentally or as a result of malicious hacking.

Yes, 245 million.

I am not saying there ought to be a law — but I am saying that large companies need to get ahead of this issue. Yes it will cost money. It is money well spent.