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March 24 2017


FoldIt, an example of social gaming

Gamification is one of those off-putting words that sounds like nails on a blackboard*.

But it was front-and-center (no pun intended) on this week’s FullFrontal with Samantha Bee. And gamification — introducing gaming elements into things that aren’t games — has helped scientists solve problems related to AIDS and Alzheimer’s as well as explore new drug design.

In a segment on challenges faced by local news, Sam interviewed Canadian Gabe Zichermann. He explained that gamification makes things we should do, but don’t, more fun. And thus more likely that we’ll do them.

As an example, he gave a shout-out to FoldIt, a University of Washington crowdsourcing computer game that lets average folks contribute to scientific research:

After about 20 minutes of training, people feel like they’re playing a video game but are actually mouse-clicking in the name of medical science…

The game looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. A team that includes a half-dozen UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game both accurate and engaging.

Zichermann told Sam that FoldIt helped scientists solve a problem related to HIV. After 15 years of traditional science failing to find a solution, more than 40,000 people playing FoldIt produced an accurate 3D model in 10 days. Those findings appeared in the September 18, 2011 issue of Nature.

The UW project is ongoing and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux computers (not smartphones or tablets). Anyone can play, but there are also tools for educators to incorporate FoldIt into their classrooms.

Want to know more about gamification? The University of Pennyslvania has developed an online course on gamification. There’s a body of research.

Back in 2011, I expressed my view about the hype around gamification on Google+ where I shared Tim’ O’Reilly’s response to this review of Zichermann’s Gamification by Design:

In the course of but one year, “gamification”, the use of game design elements in non-game contexts, has managed to grow from a self-description used by some vendors and proponents to a placement on the Gartner hype cycle – and in the IT business, it doesn’t get much more ‘official’ than that. Yet the term still stirs hot debate. On one side, game designers and scholars despise the whole notion as an “inadvertent con” (Margaret Robertson). On the other, proponents counter that gamification already ‘delivers’ (in terms of numbers), yet is still in its infancy. Hence it would be premature to call foul on something so young, with no time to learn from failure and sort wheat from chaff. So who’s right, who’s wrong?


Watch the FullFrontal episode

Check out FoldIt

* For any youngsters reading this, blackboards were a mainstay of the 20th century classroom (and date to the 16th century). They were made of thin sheets of black or dark grey slate. You wrote on them with chalk, and if your nails scratched the board, they made a screeching sound. Eventually, blackboards would be replaced by chalkboards (green paint) and then white boards (which use colored markers).

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March 18 2017


Theft of Secret Service computer raises unanswered questions

Multiple news organizations reported Friday that a Secret Service agent left her agency-issued computer in a car outside her home, where it was stolen about 3 am.

Authorities are frantically searching for a Secret Service-issued laptop — containing floor plans for Trump Tower, information about the Hillary Clinton email investigation and other national security information — that was stolen from an agent’s car in Brooklyn, police sources told the Daily News Friday.

The car, with Maryland plates, was in the home’s driveway, per witnesses and surveillance video. According to news reports, the thief took:

  • the agency-issued computer
  • a personal laptop
  • ID pins that allow agents entry into security perimeters
  • an agency-issued radio
  • an access keycard
  • other “sensitive” documents
  • a black zippered bag with the Secret Service insignia

According to the NY Daily News, the agency computer “doesn’t contain classified information but could be used to access a server that does.” A Secret Service statement said:

Secret Service issued laptops contain multiple layers of security including full disk encryption and are not permitted to contain classified information.

And yet the theft “compromised” national security, according to a CBS report.

Questions not answered in news reports (with no suggestion that they were asked)

  1. Why would a Secret Service computer contain information about the Clinton email investigation?
  2. Why would a Secret Service agent leave her work computer, much less everything else reported stolen, overnight in a car?
  3. Why does the car have Maryland plates? Who owns the car? (Note: it’s possible that it belongs to the agent or her family, as they reportedly moved into the neighborhood last year)
  4. Is the agent a veteran of the Secret Service or part of the private security service Trump retained after the election?
  5. Why doesn’t the Secret Service have something like “Find My Device” on its computers? (And yes, I know that this requires an Internet connection.)
  6. Why doesn’t Secret Service have the ability to remotely wipe a computer, like I do with my (personal) MacBookPro?
  7. What is the Secret Service policy about agency-issued equipment? Is the agent suspended?

It has not been a good week for the Secret Service.

  • Investigation 1: A man who jumped the fences (and a gate) surrounding the White House last Friday was on the grounds for more than 16 minutes before being captured.
  • Investigation 2: two agents who were assigned to protect President Trump’s grandson took selfies with the eight-year-old while he was sleeping.


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March 11 2017


Trump “fires” 46 U.S. attorneys: standard practice or outrage?

On Friday, the Trump administration ordered 46 U.S. attorneys to resign immediately, generating a hailstorm of publicity.

The announcement came on the heels of a Fox news commentator, Sean Hannity, calling for the Trump White House to “purge” Obama appointments:

In addition, the mass dismissal follows a memo from Attorney General Sessions to all U.S. attorneys “asking them to make fighting violent crime a priority.” The violent crime rate has been declining steadily since it peaked in 1991. In 2014, the murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate was at its lowest point since the early 1960s.

Moreover, media reported that incumbents were told to “summarily … clear out their offices.” CNN reported that at the time of the announcement, “many prosecutors had not been formally notified or even told before they were fired.”

Wholesale house cleaning is not out of the ordinary. However, abrupt dismissals are not normal, no matter how many stories you read that says “but Clinton did this” (nope – details below).

However, abruptly and counter-to-precedent is how this administration fired its diplomats, so the move should not be a complete surprise.

Is the Trump demand for resignations unusual?

To answer that question, let’s look backwards, recognizing that the law has changed (rather dramatically) twice.

According to the L.A. Times (2007), in their first two years:

  • Reagan replaced 89 U.S. attorneys
  • Clinton replaced 89 U.S. attorneys
  • Bush replaced 88 U.S. attorneys

Replacing U.S. attorneys at the start of a term of office is the norm.

Forcing abrupt, mass vacancies is not normal. It is also, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (CA), ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, contrary to prior White House promises:

In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn and asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once. Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity.

However, official statements suggest that is what Trump has done. Here’s Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores:

Until the new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our U.S. attorney’s offices will continue the great work of the department in investigating, prosecuting, and deterring the most violent offenders.

What happened in prior administration changes when there was a change in party in the White House?

Sending all U.S. attorneys packing on the same day is unprecedented.

The case of the New York attorney

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, came to this position after several high-profile investigations. One of those led to the resignation of Bush Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in 2007, while Bharara was chief counsel for Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY). That was the Bush-era #attorneygate scandal.

According to the NYTimes, the demand for a resignation was a surprise to Bharara:

In November, Mr. Bharara met with then President-elect Donald J. Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan and told reporters afterward that both Mr. Trump and Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general, had asked him about staying on, which the prosecutor said he expected to do.

Also, the timing of the demand for resignation comes on the heels of a request that Bharara investigate the president:

It also came the same week that government watchdogs wrote to Mr. Bharara and urged him to investigate whether Mr. Trump had violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars federal officials from taking payments from foreign governments.

The Manhattan district is a high-profile one; one of its most prominent cases involved Bernard L. Madoff.

A brief history

The Department of Justice operates with 93 U.S. attorneys in 94 districts located throughout the 50 states and U.S. territories. The last time I wrote about U.S. attorneys (not attorneys general) was in late 2006 during the Bush Administration #attorneygate.

U.S. attorneys are responsible for prosecuting federal crimes in the areas that they oversee and report to Department of Justice. For almost 100 years, when there was a vacancy, the district court appointed an interim U.S. attorney. The president would then appoint a replacement, who would be confirmed by the Senate.

Since 1986, however, the authority to appointment replacements in the case of a vacancy has shifted to the U.S. Attorney General. But the clock was ticking: if a nominee was not confirmed within 120 days, the district court would appoint an interim U.S. attorney, according to Sen. Feinstein.

The Patriot Act Reauthorization Bill of 2005 added another twist in the politicization of the Department of Justice. It enabled the President — through the office of the Attorney General — to arrange for U.S. attorneys to resign and then to replace them with political appointees not subject to Senate confirmation.

When introduced as HR 3199 in July 2005, the bill totaled seven pages (web text converted to PDF). When signed by the President in March 2006, it had morphed into Public Law 109-177, a “final print” behemoth at 277 pages.

Because of the changes in PL 109-177, the March 2006 reauthorization of the Patriot Act, U.S. attorneys can be appointed without Senate oversight until the end of the President’s term, instead of for only 120 days. This clause — as well as several other “miscellaneous” items — was added to the bill during the conference process. Behind closed doors.


Unprecedented timing. If, as the official statement implies, all 46 were told to pack up and leave on Friday, outrage is not misplaced. If the spokesperson misspoke, and all are remaining in place until their successors are confirmed by the Senate, then this is politics-as-usual.

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March 06 2017


Just say no to political “copy/paste” shares on Facebook

The latest “Please copy/paste and share widely” meme spreading like wildfire on Facebook this weekend asks readers to call Congress and say “vote no” on a list of 10 bills.

They all sound awful (just looking at the titles).

FB political share

Screen capture of Facebook share request

But … how many of these House measures have actually been booked for a hearing in a committee? How many have more than a handful of co-sponsors? How many are being proposed by a congressman who is actually ON the relevant committee?

And have any already been voted out of the House? [Hint: yes. Calling about that one makes you look woefully uninformed and devalues any future feedback.]

There were 12,063 measures introduced in the House and Senate (some were resolutions) in the most recent session of Congress (2015-17). Only 661 bills came up for a vote in one of the chambers over that two-year period. Of those, only 329 became law (passed both chambers, signed by the President or veto overridden).

The same percentage (3%) passed in the 94th Congress (1975-77) but more than twice as many measures were introduced 40 years ago.

Do the math: it does not make sense to oppose a bill simply because someone introduced it.

Exception: is the prime sponsor from your state’s delegation and the same party as your representative? If yes, and this is important to you, ask that your rep not sign on as a co-sponsor.

How to effectively contact your elected representatives

It’s best, when bills are at this stage, to talk to your Representative about your concerns about the environment or health care or <insert your hot button issue>. Focus. Focus. Focus.

Unless your Rep is on a committee. Then it’s appropriate to ask them to vote no should a bill come to a committee vote.

Congressional staff are smart.

They know when you’re responding to a chain mail (or its current Facebook equivalent – the anonymous copy&paste).

Also, I recommend that you call or write the local office. Your written missive will be read more quickly (because of scale at the Congressional post office and security measures). You are going to talk to a staff person, anyway, so call locally and bypass the scale challenge affecting the Congressional switchboard (busy signals).

The local office is the front-line for interacting with constituents. To ensure that you’ll speak to a staffer, call during business hours. Please be patient; you’re speaking with a front-line customer service person.

Relative to your two Senators (who represent the entire state), members of the House of Representatives have smaller budgets and staff. Both have interns. (I was a Senate intern, back in the day, and a lobbyist once I graduated.)

If you care deeply about an issue, make an appointment with the local office and organize several people to meet and share specific stories/concerns.

Why those copy&paste requests are a bad idea

Please don’t share the anonymous-and-undated copy&paste, specifically when it is a political call to action, as a matter of principle. This is the modern equivalent of chain email.

  • There is no provenance (which means, credibility is MIA)
  • They are, in my experience, never dated. I’ve seen month-old (and, thus, expired) calls-to-action shared this way

Any political call to action made by a legitimate organization will have been a public post. Public posts are shareable, even if you saw the post shared by a friend with a “friends only” setting. Share the original, not your friend’s posting.

Facebook also penalizes frequently repeated content (the same image uploaded and shared over-and-over for example) per a 2014 announcement.

But the issue is important to me!

Great! You care about the issue and want to communicate that to your elected representatives. Yeah!

I have only one ask: if the issue is important to you, please take a moment to research the call-to-action. (This is a best practice before any share, actually, but I’m concerned primarily with political ones.)

Then tell us where where you found the information; date it; give us links. Provide footprints that everyone (even if the post is friends-only) can see. Add something to the original request to it to make it your own.

In other words, think slowly (thank you, Daniel Kahneman), rather than knee-jerk react. That’s what these posts are designed to do — trigger a knee-jerk, quick (also known as “thought-less”) emotional response.

That’s right: I’m asking you to invest some of your own time.


That list of 10 House measures

The copy&paste request making the rounds this weekend did not even include a link to the bills. In my original Facebook post, I linked to each measure as a comment. I’ve put them in chronological order here. Note that bill titles often bear only a limited resemblance to the actual content of the bill. See the Senate one listed as an example.

1. HJR 69 Repeal Rule Protecting Wildlife

PASSED THE HOUSE on 2/17 (225 – 193)
IN THE SENATE, received 2/17

2. HR 83 Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Bill

Prime sponsor, Rep. Barletta, Lou [R-PA-11]
Only nine (9) co-sponsors
01/23/2017 Referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security

3. HR 147 Criminalizing Abortion (“Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act”)

Prime sponsor, Rep. Franks, Trent [R-AZ-8]
**59 cosponsors*
01/23/2017 Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice

4. HR 354 Defund Planned Parenthood of 2017

Prime sponsor, Rep. Black, Diane [R-TN-6]
** 136 co-sponsors **
01/25/2017 Referred to the Subcommittee on Health.

Here’s the companion bill in the Senate

S.241 – Protect Funding for Women’s Health Care Act
(yes that’s really its name)
Prime sponsor, Sen. Ernst, Joni [R-IA]
**26 co-sponsors** (that’s a lot)

Here’s the bill from the prior session

She introduced the same bill in 2015-16

5. HR 370 Repeal Affordable Care Act (the FB “title”)

“To repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and health care-related provisions in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010” (Congress.gov title)
There is more than one of these ACA repeal bills – this is NOT the primary one

Prime sponsor, Rep. Flores, Bill [R-TX-17]
** ZERO co-sponsors **
02/10/2017 Referred to the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs.

6. HR 610 Vouchers for Public Education

[also repeals a rule relating to nutrition standards]
Prime sponsor, Rep. King, Steve [R-IA-4]
** Three (3) co-sponsors **
01/23/2017 Referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

7. HR 785 National Right to Work

Prime sponsor, Rep. King, Steve [R-IA-4]
** 15 co-sponsors **
02/01/2017 Referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce

8. HR 808 Sanctions against Iran (FB title)

Iran Nonnuclear Sanctions Act of 2017 (Congress.gov title)
Prime sponsor, Rep. Roskam, Peter J. [R-IL-6]
** Four (4) co-sponsors **
02/01/2017 Referred to House Oversight and Government Reform

9. HR 861 Terminate the Environmental Protection Agency

Prime sponsor, Rep. Gaetz, Matt [R-FL-1]
** Three (3) co-sponsors **
02/10/2017 Referred to the Subcommittee on Environment.

10. HR 899 Terminate the Department of Education

Prime sponsor, Rep. Massie, Thomas [R-KY-4]
** Seven (7) co-sponsors **
02/07/2017 Referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.


Nine of these 10 measures were featured in a dodgy left-leaning website, which might have provided the impetus for the post.


The post Just say no to political “copy/paste” shares on Facebook appeared first on WiredPen.

February 25 2017


February 22 2017


Citizens confront congressmen at town halls around the country

[UPDATED3] President’s Day is a national holiday, and U.S. senators and representatives held town halls around the country this week.

However, many congressmen seemed to share this point of view:

Consequently, in a whole lot of communities, citizens held town halls without their congressmen.

On Friday, Alabama U.S. Representative Mo Brooks (R) acknowledged the movement on local radio:

I don’t know if we’re going to be able to repeal Obamacare now because these folks who support Obamacare are very active, they’re putting pressure on congressman and there’s not a counter-effort to steel the spine of some of these congressmen in tossup districts around the country.

Lest you think that Rep. Brooks thinks this is a good idea …

And you may not even see a vote to repeal Obamacare, you might see something where they call it a repeal but really it’s an amendment. You and I have talked about this before. We need an outright repeal of Obamacare and then whatever’s gonna come after it, fine, let’s have that discussion. But this monstrosity needs to be repealed and right now, in my judgment, we don’t have the votes in Congress to pass a repeal bill, in part because of what these people are doing

Party leadership, starting with the President, have characterized the citizens as agitators trying to “bully” the Congressmen. Brooks echoed this refrain, claiming that there are “some anarchist types, criminal element types, disruptor types.” Headlines are noticeably missing reports of this type of behavior, and “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Scenes from

  1. Alabama
  2. Arkansas
  3. California
  4. Colorado
  5. Connecticut
  6. Georgia
  7. Florida
  8. Idaho
  9. Illinois
  10. Indiana
  11. Iowa
  12. Kentucky
  13. Louisiana
  14. Maryland
  15. Maine
  16. New Jersey
  17. New York
  18. North Carolina
  19. Ohio
  20. Pennsylvania
  21. Tennessee
  22. Texas
  23. Virginia
  24. Washington










San Diego




















Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told local business leaders that “winners make policy and the losers go home.”








New Jersey


New York







North Carolina


















Photo: Seattle Women’s March, 21 January 2017
POSTED: 11.23 pm Pacific, 21 February
UPDATED: 11.45 pm Pacific, 22 February
UPDATED: 6:20 pm Pacific, 24 February

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February 19 2017


Donald Trump’s America: week four

This week’s (11-17 February) episode of Donald Trump’s America brings us the following:

Day 29, 17 February 2017

Day 28, 16 February 2017

Day 26, 15 February 2017

  • Andrew Puzder Withdraws From Consideration as Labor Secretary.
    Republican senators who expressed concerns included Susan Collins (ME), Johnny Isakson (GA), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rob Portman (OH), John Thune (SD),  Thom Tillis (NC), and Tim Scott (SC).
  • The FBI released 400 pages of records from the government’s race discrimination investigation into Trump’s real estate company.  “In October 1973, the Civil Rights Division filed a lawsuit against Trump Management Company, Donald Trump and his father Fred Trump, alleging that African-Americans and Puerto Ricans were systematically excluded from apartments. The Trumps responded with a $100 million countersuit accusing the government of defamation.” The parties settled the litigation with a consent decree in 1975.
  • TWITTER: Trump castigated the media (“fake news”).

Day 26, 14 February 2017

Day 25, 13 February 2017

Day 24, 12 February 2017

Day 23, 11 February 2017


Cabinet Tracker (link provides current information)

  • February 16: Scott Pruitt confirmed as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (52-46)
  • February 16: Mick Mulvaney confirmed as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (51-49, McCain voted with the minority)
  • February 14: Linda E. McMahon confirmed as Administrator of the Small Business Administration (81-19)
  • February 13: David J. Shulkin confirmed as Secretary of Veterans Affairs (unanimous)
  • February 13: Steve Mnuchin confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury (53-47, Manchin III voted with the majority)
  • February 10: Tom Price confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services (52-47)
  • February 8: Jeff Sessions confirmed as Attorney General (52-47)
  • February 7: Betsy DeVos confirmed as Secretary of Education (50-50, tie cast by Vice President Pence)
  • February 1: Rex Tillerson confirmed as Secretary of State (56-43)
  • January 31: Elaine L. Chao confirmed as Secretary of Transportation (93-6)
  • January 24: Nikki R. Haley confirmed as Ambassador to the United Nations (96-4)
  • January 23: Mike Pompeo confirmed as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (66-32)
  • January 20: John Kelly confirmed as Secretary of Homeland Security (88–11)
  • January 20: James Mattis confirmed as Secretary of Defense (98–1)

See CabinetVotes.org to track your Senators.

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February 11 2017


Donald Trump’s America: week three

This week’s (4-10 February) episode of Donald Trump’s America brings us the following:

Day 22, 10 February 2017

Day 21, 9 February 2017

Day 20, 8 February 2017

Day 19, 7 February 2017

Day 18, 6 February 2017

Day 17, 5 February 2017

Day 16, 4 February 2017

In addition, the White House travel ban continued to lose in court:

So now the WH may rewrite the executive order. Or maybe it won’t.

News from Congress:

  • Republican Congressmen grilled by constituents at their own town halls (TN, UT)
  • Republican Congressmen cancelling town halls (AL, NY)
  • Citizens demanding Congressmen hold town halls (NY)

Congressmen grilled at town halls

California, Florida, Tennessee, Utah

Much more on Rep. Chaffetz town hall in Utah on Storify

Congressmen cancelling town halls

Alabama and New York


Citizens demanding town halls

Arizona, New York

Coming up over the weekend


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February 07 2017


Collins and Murkowski bear responsibility for Betsy DeVos being Education Secretary

For the first time in the history of this country, a vice president had to break a tie vote (50-50) on a cabinet nomination.

The nominee was Betsy DeVos. The tie was because two Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins (ME) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK) voted against their party.

In back-to-back floor speeches, the lawmakers said Ms. DeVos was unqualified because of a lack of familiarity with public schools and with laws meant to protect students, despite her passion for helping them.

Shout-outs to these two Senators have already begun. They are misplaced.

Had either of these senators — Collins or Murkowski — voted against DeVos in committee, her nomination would never have come before the Senate.

DeVos “passed” the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on a 12-11 party-line vote.  Collins and Murkowski both voted to RECOMMEND that DeVos be elevated to Secretary of Education.

Nothing has “come out” about DeVos in the week between the committee vote and the full Senate vote that is “new”. If DeVos is unqualified today, as both Senators contend, she was unqualified then.

In other words, Collins and Murkowski have a lot of explaining to do to their constituents. And the nation. Because the work of Congress takes place in committee.

Senators and Representatives cannot have subject matter expertise — or subject matter staff — on every issue that comes before the legislative body. They delegate those tasks to other legislators, just like voters delegate subject matter expertise to elected representatives. The world is too complex for anyone to know everything about everything.

Although Collins and Murkowski bear responsibility for the HELP Committee recommendation, GOP moderates bear responsibility for her being elevated to a position that she seems qualified for only by virtue of her $200 million gift to the GOP. Lust for power trumps common sense, much less common decency.

No swamps are being drained.

Neither Collins nor Murkowski stand for re-election in 2018.


Photo credit: official Senate photos of Collins (in blue) and Murkowski (in red).

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February 06 2017


Meteor seen across midwest early Monday morning

The things you see on Twitter! I took a peek before heading to bed, only to see that the National Weather Service of Chicago had tweeted a dashcam from an Illinois police car … showing a meteor falling from the sky. Timestamp: 01:25.

In case you’ve forgotten your science classes:

A meteor is a space rock—or meteoroid—that enters Earth’s atmosphere. As the space rock falls toward Earth, the resistance—or drag—of the air on the rock makes it extremely hot. What we see is a “shooting star.” That bright streak is not actually the rock, but rather the glowing hot air as the hot rock zips through the atmosphere.

Meteorites are meteors that reach the Earth’s surface; they are rare.

So I started poking around. The meteor was seen in at least two states, Illinois and Wisconsin, and perhaps Iowa and Indiana.


Chronology of meteor sighting, as posted on Twitter

Times are Pacific.


00:17, Wisconsin


00:30, Wisconsin


00:51, Wisconsin


00.55, Wisconsin


1:13, Illinois


1:18, Wisconsin


1:35, Wisconsin

Famous meteors

At least 16 witnesses captured the 1992 Peekskill, NY, meteor on video, “making it one of the best-documented meteor strikes in history.” Pretty sure that record just turned into dust.

The Ensisheim Meteorite (1492) landed near the town of Ensisheim in Alsace, France. It is the earliest meteorite “witnessed in the Western world” from which we have samples.

Featured photo is montage from this tweet

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July 22 2016

For Storify / storify.com/kegill/tracking-the-helen-thomas-obit-revival
For Storify / storify.com/kegill/tracking-the-helen-thomas-obit-revival

June 26 2015


A southern daughter looks at her past. Warts and all.

Sunset south georgia

Two months ago, I phoned my husband while driving through classic southern red clay fields and tree-lined hills.

“Remind me why I don’t want to live here,” I choked, eyes watered. “I mean, I know I don’t want to live here, but the pull of the land…” I couldn’t continue.

“Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”
~ Gerald O’Hara, Gone With The Wind, 1936

My mother instilled this message long before I read GWTW. And I read the book long before I saw the movie. That was, after all, long before VCRs and DVDs.

“The land” of my mother represented a rootedness that did not jibe with my desire to get away. I left for college with the (unarticulated) goal of never seeing a farm or farmer again … yet I would get a master’s degree in agricultural economics and then work for a northeastern dairy cooperative.

Nevertheless, I had flown the coop.

After moving to the Pacific Northwest, I swore I’d not return to the south during the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day. (Those days of white shoes, burning sun and sweltering humidity.)

BBQ Joint - Photo by Kathy GillVisits to southwest Georgia revolve around end-of-year holidays, family reunions, and the occasional wedding/anniversary. They are marked by cultural touchstones: a Waffle House breakfast, boiled peanuts, fried catfish, sweet tea, camellias in bloom (if I’m lucky). Coca-Cola, with its high sugar load, is a treat of the past.

As I have aged, each visit has become a little more painful due to the troubling words that wash over me from the mouths of relatives and neighbors and friends.

The changes on display in the South do not seem to be those of progression but rather of regression. For example, when I was in the eighth grade, we had a girl’s-only sex ed class. I cannot image such a thing in today’s political climate.

Today’s South seems more evangelical, more enamored with a glorified past, less open to opposing views. People do not seem to hear the bigotry sprinkled throughout their speech. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, since oral history was the only post-Civil War regional history that we were taught. Just as a fish is not aware of the water that surrounds it, we unconsciously absorb and integrate cultural messages. One of those messages was that the symbols of the Confederacy were to be venerated.

Not too long after I had become part of a community of motorcyclists who like good food and spirited debate, I got into an argument about the reasons for the Civil War. It was not slavery, I insisted, but northern industrialization that was subsidized by tax dollars.

I was wrong.

I didn’t know that Alexander Stevens, Confederate States of America vice president and 50th Georgia governor said this, to applause:

“Our new government is founded upon … the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

Nor had I learned in school that the Confederate flag bandied about today is a 20th century fabrication, as well as the chosen symbol of the KKK [1]. Come to think, that ugly symbol of hate seems far more routinely displayed today than when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s.

trees in sunlight

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~ The Life of Reason, Santayana, 1905

Perhaps this lack of contextual history can explain South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s flip-flops on the Confederate flag flying at the capitol.

The first generation American daughter of Indian immigrants was born and reared in South Carolina. Somehow – I’m not sure how – she thinks that her election “fixed” the historical racism that South Carolinians have exhibited towards black Americans.

Moreover, in an election debate last fall, she quipped:

“What I can tell you is over the last 3½ years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

It seems impossible that she could speak those words if she knew of the political hay that has been made with the Confederate flag. Dixiecrats nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond as a candidate for the presidency after the 1948 national Democratic convention, where the Confederate Battle Flag waved boldly. Afterwards, “[s]ales of Confederate flags, long moribund, exploded.”

It was not until 1961, on the 100th anniversary of South Carolina triggering the Civil War when it attacked Fort Sumter, that the Confederate flag would begin flying above the S.C. state Capitol.

In-between those two events: Brown v The Board of Education.

Confederate Battle Flag, NPSThis very flag, the Battle Flag, flew over “an army raised to kill in defense of slavery.” It was “revived by a movement that killed in defense of segregation.” And last week, a modern version was “flaunted by a man who killed nine innocents in defense of white supremacy,” Yoni Appelbaum wrote in The Atlantic.

On Monday, bowing to national outrage, Governor Haley told the S.C. legislature that she wants the flag to come down. That will require a two-thirds vote. Note that demands like this one do not have a great track record when it comes to future political livelihood.

But come down it must.

And all vestiges of the Confederacy must be excised from my home state flag as well.

The Confederate Battle Flag became a central part of Georgia’s state flag in 1956. And what was happening then? Outrage at the Brown decision and desegregation.

I suddenly have a better understanding of why this historical information is as foreign to me as Mars: my education was hobbled by current events.

In 2003, Georgia’s citizens approved a new flag design that substituted the original and lesser known flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, for the Battle Flag. Although it does not carry the emotional punch of the Battle Flag, it remains a conscious tentacle to a past marred by slavery.

Can you imagine a German municipality deciding to create a new flag that incorporated a swastika as its centerpiece? Me, either. So why do we whitewash our own tributes to hate? And willfully fail to acknowledge them?


I’m left wondering about my heartstrings.

Yes, April was an emotional period: my dad was in the hospital after having a mild stroke and carotid artery surgery. But that alone cannot explain my sudden and irrational exploration of ways I might find gainful employment in a rural corner of Georgia.

The heat and humidity cripple me. The farm has AT&T mobile data as its “broadband” Internet. It’s miles from town and even further from the closest city. None of these things create an inviting environment.

But it will always be home, warts and all. And warts? They’re caused by a virus. The virus is more likely to cause a wart when it contacts skin that has been cut or otherwise damaged.

“Every wart is a mother wart that can have babies. You need to get rid of all visible warts whenever they appear so you don’t have more spread,” dermatologist Robert Brodell, MD, told WebMD.

The Confederate flag is like a virus. Bigotry is the wart that it creates when minds are susceptible to its connotation. Removing that symbol — with very public dialog about why it needs to be removed — is one step towards excising the larger, persistent social ill that is racism.

“It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity.”
~ J.B. Jackson

Photos by Kathy E. Gill. Battle Flag, NPS.

[1] The St. Andrews Cross became a Confederate Army Battle Flag; the it was always square. A horizontal version of this flag appeared mid-20th century. In addition, the dark blue of today’s pop culture Confederate flag is borrowed from the Stars and Bars.

Huffington Post || kegill/cultural-touchstones-and-social-warts-a-southern-daughter-looks-at-her-past-427c47505d87">Medium || The Moderate Voice

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May 31 2015


Tip: delete blank rows in Excel, Mac Office 2008

If you haven’t upgraded Mac Office because 2008 does what you need to do … this tip may be for you: how to delete Excel blank rows.

I’m working with data from AT&T, and the CSV has a blank row between each row of data. (Think “double-space” in writing.) I want to rid the data of the blank rows without having to manually click-and-delete each row.

1. Select the blank rows that you want to delete.

All the how-to’s online suggest including the row “above” and “below” the affected area.

Data file with blank rows

This CSV from AT&T comes complete with a lot of blank rows.

2. Press “Control+G” to bring up a special “find” window

I have not been able to find this window in Excel menus.

Excel' go to menu

Keyboard command: Control + G

3. Select “Special…”

Excel Go To dialog

Select “Special” on the “Go To” dialog

4. Select “Blanks” in the “Go To Special” dialog

Excel Go To Special dialog

Select “Blanks” in the Go To Special dialog

5. Click “OK” on the “Go To Special” dialog

Your “blank rows” are now highlighted.

Excel - highlighted blank rows

Press OK to highlight the blank rows

6. Press “Control+minus” to delete the highlighted rows

That’s the “minus” key (to the left of the plus key on top row).

7. Select “Shift cells up”

Excel - shift cells up

Select “Shift cells up” and click “OK”

8. Success!

Your blank rows are gone!

Excel - blank rows deleted



Thanks to comments on HowToGeek and Windows instructions on Chandoo.org.


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May 19 2015


User task analysis: does this starting page work for you?

The Washington Secretary of State has an application called MyVote which is a portal for registered voters to update address, find elected officials, and so forth.

Scenario: You’ve just moved to Washington and want to register to vote. You’ve been given the MyVote link as your starting place to register to vote. You’ve not decided if you want to register online or in person.

Task: Figure out your voter registration options.

See one task analysis in this YouTube screencast.


What do you think? Am I too harsh? What’s your experience?

Here’s the link to MyVote.

Cross-posted from UX Notes.

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May 14 2015


Crafting effective error messages (cute is not enough!)

seattle times 404 error

I encountered this 404 page after following a link in a blog post (only a day old). Either the referring URL was wrong or the backend (not WordPress, apparently) didn’t have the information on the new URL in its database. It’s not clear when looking at the two URLs which might have been the culprit:

My initial reaction was a big smile. I appreciated the local humor.

But upon reflection, I realized that the page wasn’t helpful.

I couldn’t find the story I was looking for by shortening the URL “back” to the word “politics” as a way to get to stories about politics.

And there is no “politics” bucket in the main navigation.

I didn’t see a search box. Only now, while reflecting on the screen capture, do I see the magnifying glass (metaphor for search). But it’s to the right of the login/subscribe links … my brain does not put “search” in the same functional bucket as login.

Plus, when looking for a way to search, I look for a search box (something to type in).

So I went back to the Seattle Times home page, where I finally saw the magnifying glass icon.

How might the 404 page be more helpful?

  • Provide a more detailed content outline on the 404 error page
  • Provide redirects from “for the backend” URLs to “how people see the site” pages. Any URL that suggests it is a content bucket (“politics”) should “work”
  • Provide 404 error pages customized to the directory where the error occurred


Related to Jakob’s 10 heurestics. Cross-posted from UX Notes.

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May 13 2015


A word about chart junk

Charts that cheat by showing only part of the vertical axis will exaggerate any change in data compared to a chart with a complete vertical axis.

This example comes from two data points in a recent Pew study.

Chart junk in line charts

By truncating the vertical axis in a line chart, you exaggerate any changes reflected in the data.

The chart on the left shows the change from 2007 to 2014 using a complete (0-60) vertical axis.

The chart on the right does more than zoom in when it shows only data points 49-55; it changes the slope, making the change look more dramatic.

Technically, this is legitimate because of the clear “break” in the vertical axis. But the emotional/connotative impact of the two charts is very different, and that’s what gives me heartburn. And leads me to label charts like the one on the right as chart junk.

Here are some direct examples from the the study summary:

two pew charts

Two Pew charts illustrate this problem.


There’s not a lot of slope (change) evident in these charts. Try to imagine how little slope there would be if you saw the complete vertical axis.

I understand why charts are presented this way in print: for effect or because of space constraints. The effect is exaggerated change, so that’s an editorial choice. But on the web, where is the space constraint?

Line charts are traditionally used to show change over time. But in this case, there are only two points. A bar chart would be more visually neutral. And intellectually honest.

Bar chart comparison

In this example, two bar charts are more visually neutral.


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April 17 2015

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