Thursday, February 07, 2008

Taking a break

I'm taking a break from my daily postings and will return Monday. Enjoy the weekend.

"Double Bubble" trouble in California

This is part II of a conversation with my friend John McCarthy, who is an election reformer, computer whiz and Obama supporter in California.

Some “voting irregularities” create presidents. The current White House occupant may well owe both his terms to voting screw-ups, or worse, in Florida and Ohio.

Who knows what the consequences might be of strange-goings-on in the California primary last Tuesday. A delegate here or there could determine who the nominee of the Democratic Party is this summer. And that could determine who sits in the White House a year from now.

So what’s with irregularities in California?

My friend John McCarthy, who worked on the Obama campaign and who has also been involved in voting reform nationally, described to me the problems, particularly for independents who wanted to vote in the open Democratic primary. Obama, it should be noted, drew two-thirds of the independent vote in a state where 20 percent of the electorate identifies itself as independent.

John reports that in some places, independents were told flat out, and wrongly, that they couldn’t vote.

Then there was the so-called “double bubble” issue. Independents, or “decline-to-state” voters, who wanted to vote in the Democratic primary asked for and, with some exceptions, were given ballots. In voting, they marked the oval (“bubble”) next to the candidate of their choice. The problem was that many were unaware of another bubble that had to be marked indicating that, as an independent, they wanted to vote in the Democratic primary. Even if they happened t see the second bubble, it must have seemed a strange request, since they had just asked for and been given the ballot.

Too bad for them if they failed to mark the second “bubble.” Their votes were disqualified.

Preliminary reports of the 784,000 “decline-to-state” ballots cast in Los Angeles County show that about half were disqualified, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

There were some technical problems too, John reports. A number of touch screens frooze up, which was mostly embarrassing.

John says that voting reform efforts should require tally audits in every election, not just in close ones or in elections where problems have arisen. He says that, minimally, one percent of each precinct’s votes should be hand counted. Further, the closer the race, the more extensive the audit should be. And, any discrepancy should trigger a still wider audit.

The argument for audits is clear, he says. They discourage fraud, they make sure elections are fair and they detect not just fraud but technical difficulties.

It’s shocking that there are still half a dozen states (Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee) that have no paper trail of their voting.

The good news is that a dogged campaign at the state and national levels is demanding audits, which would require paper trails.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A post-election call to California

I decided to check in with The Red Electric’s Barack Obama correspondent in California (Berkeley to be exact) on the day after the big primary.

John McCarthy, an old college friend, leapt onto the Obama bandwagon early and helped precinct leaders navigate computer data in the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote. John has been into the political uses of computers from the early days, but that’s another story.

“Hey, we didn’t do badly,” he exclaimed. “Two weeks ago we were down by 20 points,” The gap was narrowed to nine points in Tuesday’s vote, he pointed out.

Besides, he added, the delegate count is proportional, so Obama’s surge in the closing days netted convention votes.

So where does it go from here? Some in the campaign are painting a “nasty scenario,” he said.

If the contest goes to the convention without either candidate having a clear majority, there’s talk of a rules committee fight over whether delegates from Florida and Michigan should be seated. Because the state parties in the two states moved their primaries up, the national party punished them by disallowing their delegates.

Because no delegates were at stake, the candidates didn’t campaign in Michigan and Florida — except Clinton, who, absent opposition, won the two elections.

A decision by the convention’s rules committee could be appealed to the floor of the convention for a real donnybrook.

Enter the 20 percent of the delegates with “super” status. These are party functionaries who weren’t elected by flesh-and-blood voters.

John surmises that the “super-delegate” pols could view their choice in two ways.

They might see Obama, with his demonstrated strong appeal to independent, new and young voters, as a sure winner in November. For the super-delegates, that means longer political coattails helping elect Democratic Party candidates deeper down on the ticket.

Obama has even demonstrated some appeal to Republicans who are ready for his “change” strategy and are fed up with more of the same. With Hillary as the nominee, the same Republicans are likely to stick with a McCain.

Then again, super-delegates don’t get to be super-delegates without putting in their time and pressing the flesh. They may owe chits to the Clintons stretching back to 1992 or even farther. Talk about coattails.

John and I talked about a disturbing reality that has emerged from the voting. Large numbers of voters are casting ballots based on race and gender. Consider the preponderance of women voting for Clinton and the preponderance of blacks voting for Obama. Call that prejudice “for.” Its flip side is prejudice “against”: white men voting against Clinton; Latinos voting against Obama. In California, a big surprise was the Asian-American vote that was 75 percent for Clinton (or against Obama.)

What is there to explain this besides race? (Quick now, what’s the issue that leads Asian-Americans to vote three to one for Hillary?)

Little of this voter bias shows up in pre-voting polling because no one wants to admit to being a bigot. But the bias is undeniable in the results and it is scary.

John had some interesting observations about voting irregularities in the California primary, but I’ll save them for tomorrow.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

An "Essential Skill" for the 21st Century

One of the most “information-rich” sites devoted to media literacy is Frank Baker’s. He occasionally looks in on my media literacy musings here to comment and counsel.

As you will see when you visit his site, Frank has been a prime mover in persuading schools to offer media literacy to kids.

Here in Oregon, the subject is barely beginning to get much needed attention. The media literacy movement has begun with a handful of parents, teachers and activists, including health-care professionals concerned about health consequences of excessive screen time.

School district administrators and officials have been largely out to lunch. When they get back, the rest of us would like them to sit down for a chat and a strategy session.

We might invite Frank to join us.

The State Board of Education is circulating a draft of “essential skills,” which would be phased in and required of all high school graduates, starting with current 8th graders when they graduate in 2012.

The skill that comes closest to media literacy (without explicitly saying so) tops the list. It reads:

1. Read and comprehend a variety of text* at different levels of difficulty. This skill includes all of the following:
• Demonstrate the ability to read and understand text.
• Summarize and critically analyze key points of text, events, issues, phenomena or problems, distinguishing factual from non-factual and literal from inferential elements.
• Follow instructions from informational or technical text to perform a task, answer questions, and solve problems.

* Text includes but is not limited to all forms of written material, communications, media, and other representations in words, numbers, and graphics and visual displays using traditional and technological formats

The term “text,” an academic term of art, can confuse and obscure. Notice that television, computers, cellphones and the internet are not mentioned although our children, on average, spend five to six hours a day with them.

A couple of other "skills" listed in the draft apply broadly, namely:

#5. Think critically and analytically across disciplines


#6. Use technology to learn, live, and work

There is a link to a full description of the draft diploma skills on a survey that I mention at the end of this post.

The point is this: We need desperately to talk and teach about communication in all its forms, including — and perhaps especially — omnipresent visual communication.

That’s where Frank Baker, our own local Media Think and other media literacy advocacy groups come in.

We must press Oregon school administrators, elected public officials and the Oregon Department of Education to establish media literacy as an “essential skill” for citizens in this century.

If you want to weigh in on this issue, go to the “Essential Skills” survey that the state department of education has put online.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Screens: When more is harmful

Jean Rystrom, my friend and fellow member of the Healthy Kids Watch Less TV coalition, once again has shared some of the 2007 research that bears on our interest in the consequences of excessive screen time for kids. Jean is Kaiser-Permanente Northwest's regional practice director for pediatrics.

Here is what she has written us:

This is the last of my series of brief impressions from important medical studies in 2007 pertaining to screen time. Consider all of the usual caveats: I'm not a researcher, and I "might" be biased.

The first message simply updated the status quo: By age 12 months, the average baby is watching about 1 hour per day, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no screen time before age 2.

The second message showed significant delay in language acquisition associated with screen time in very young children, and sustained exposure was associated with problems in aggression (by far the strongest), sleep, self control, attention and cooperation.

The third message looked at the rapidly growing information about attention issues, where there is still much controversy. But it appears that there is some sort of connection, perhaps a tendency to become accustomed to rapid pacing from entertainment media, which leads to boredom with the real world.

Now, finally, the news on obesity, hypertension, and one article that ties together the issues with media, sleep and learning.


* Family eats together, more likely to serve fruits or veg

* Television on, less likely to serve fruits or veg

* Having dinner together does not overcome the adverse effects of having the television on during mealtime in terms of fruits and veg

Fitzpatrick et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2007


Looking at children who are obese, researchers found that both severity of obesity and daily TV time were significant independent predictors of the presence of hypertension.

* As is well supported elsewhere, TV time was positively correlated with the severity of obesity.

* Children watching 2-4 hours per day had 2.5 times the odds of hypertension compared to those watching less (adjusted for BMI, race, and site, but not SES), and 3.3 times the odds for over 4 hours per day of watching.

* The odds of having hypertension increased by 26 percent for each hour of TV watched per day.

Pardee, et al, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, December 2007

Sleep, memory and learning:

Very small German study in which 13 year old boys were given sleep studies and memory tests on 3 separate days: a) after 1 hour of "mild violence" video game, b) after a PG movie, and c) no screen time.

* Significant changes in sleep patterns were found the night after the video game and the movie, with greater changes for the computer game than the movie (hypothesis: the movie was pretty ho-hum for these boys, who are generally unrestricted in their viewing)

* The sleep pattern changes seen may be related to the learning "consolidation process" which takes place during sleep

* Verbal memory performance was much lower after the video game and also after the movie (but not quite statistically significant for the movie)

* The effect of media on sleep patterns could explain some of the negative association between school performance and screen time

Dworak et al, Pediatrics, November 2007

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Seeing is believing — or is it?

Do birds, squirrells and coyotes sing together in Jeep Liberties?

Will adding something called Benefiber to your diet make you look like a supermodel?

Will a kid’s head be blown off by the yoghurty taste of Fizzix?

Will a bored “Neopet,” a cuddly, online ‘virtual’ fuzzy pet, be satisfied if you buy it virtual “costumes” with your real dollars?

Last week two Media Think colleagues (Joan Rutkowski and Matt Stockton) and I presented a televised discussion about television advertising.

We examined four ads for the above products in some detail.

In the course of the Metro East, cable access program, “Community Hotline,” we considered several questions:

Who made these ads? How were they made and at what cost?

For whom were they made?

What devices were used to appeal to the “target audience”

How successful were the ads in appealing to the audience?

What were the ads NOT telling viewers that they needed to know about the product.”

One hour wasn’t enough time to do justice to the questions or the answers, but we made a start. (The program will be rebroadcast, and I’ve listed the times below if you are interested in seeing what we had to say.)

The ability to “read” visual images critically (yes, I know, words are also visual images) is a necessity in our media-saturated culture. The field of media literacy tries to address that need. Media Think, one of dozens of groups around the country, is lobbying to make media literacy a “life skill” and a required subject in our schools.

Without the skill, we will be increasingly vulnerable media messages aimed not at our minds but at our emotions and basest instincts—never mind the cost to us, our society or the planet.

As I’ve done my own critical thinking about our on-air ad analysis, I wish we had shared some key concepts of media literacy and applied them to the ads.

Better late than never.

You can find varying lists of these concepts, but here are the ones that the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA) circulates. After each. I’ve included my own parenthetical comments in hopes of giving you a sense of the concept’s significance.

1. All media messages are “constructed.” (This very list was constructed with a purpose and an audience in mind. How was it constructed, by whom, for whom, why? Now ask the same questions of all media messages.)
2. Each medium has different characteristics, strengths, and a unique “language” of construction. (What messages are best suited for television, the internet, magazines, radio, billboards? How does the message change to fit the medium?)
3. Media messages are produced for particular purposes. (Sell, inform, deceive, convince, frighten, etc.)
4. All media messages contain embedded values and points of view. (patriotism, eternal youth, consumerism, motherhood, loyalty, security, beauty etc.)
5. People use their individual skills, beliefs and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages. (No two people see the same message in the same way. Your understanding of, or reaction to, a message is uniquely yours. Helpful hint: check perceptions.
6. Media and media messages can influence beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, and the democratic process. (Why do you think those political candidates are spending all that money on advertising? Why do you know what ‘Aflac’ means?)

Here’s that schedule for the rebroadcast of our discussion:

• Mon., Feb. 4 through Fri., Feb. 8, 12 p.m., Ch. 22
• Mon., Feb. 4, 9 p.m., Ch. 11
• Mon., Feb. 4, 8:30 a.m., Ch. 21
• Mon., Feb. 4, 5:30 p.m., Ch. 21
• Wed., Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 22

Replays on Channels 11 and 21 will reach Portland and the East Metro area.

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