More plants, less meat

For this assignment I wanted to try something really simple. The “do something” component of a lot of stories about the harm caused by the meat industry is fairly straightforward — asking people to eat less or no meat. This is of course a more tractable problem in theory than, say, how an average reader would go about “doing something” about Boko Haram. But just because people can theoretically modify their diets doesn’t make such changes all that likely.

My premise was what motivates one person to change their diet is different than someone else, so showing pictures of overcrowded hen houses to someone who is mostly concerned about reducing their saturated fat intake might make the “you can make changes that have real impact” message sound preachy. So I hid each (brief — could use development) reason for changing diet under a sub head. I can’t really tell how well it works as a concept so feedback is appreciated.

In retrospect I think this piece could have benefitted from more focus on the “how” of changing your diet as opposed to the “why,” and perhaps with more “further reading.”

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MIT’s Finances

Gideon Gil, Michael Greshko, and I set out to figure out MIT’s “Brown Book,” its yearly report on its finances. This is a work in progress and more visualizations are coming, but we found a number of interesting facts.

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Universities and Patents

From algorithms to microchips, biotech to batteries, legal battles rage on, with patent owners seeking millions or even billions of dollars of royalties from those who they say use their protected technology. But private companies aren’t the only players in the high-stakes world of intellectual property. Prominent research universities and the companies they spin off have also chosen to assert their patents in court seeking large payoffs.

Just last month, MIT filed a lawsuit against Micron Technology, a supplier of random access memory chips for several Apple products, on claims that it violated a 1997 laser-cutting patent in the production of the chips. Seeking damages and royalties on all the devices Apple sold that include the allegedly infringing chip technology, MIT stands to collect a massive sum if it is successful.

This is part of a growing trend of research universities going to court to assert the patents they or their spinoff companies control.

The legal basis for university patents

Before 1980, inventions made from federally funded research had to be turned over to be owned by the federal government. But the Bayh-Dole Act passed that year allowed universities to disclose and own intellectual property originating from such grants. Following the passage of the bill, many research universities started technology transfer programs — offices that help researchers patent new developments when appropriate, and which sometimes transfer patent ownership to startups in exchange for royalties or equity.

MIT’s patents 

MIT’s Technology Licensing Office serves this function for MIT. Its self-described function is advising students and faculty on whether to patent technology, assisting in the patent filing process, and transferring patents to startups for which it also helps find seed funding.

When, for example, a faculty member comes to TLO with a new invention, the office may advise the professor to file for a patent. The TLO will then pay the legal costs of the filing. If awarded, the royalties from the patent may be split in thirds between MIT, the inventor’s lab, and the inventor after the deduction of fees. Alternatively, if the inventor wants to use the patented technology to start a company, TLO will help find venture capitalist investment for the startup and MIT will take a “small percentage” of equity in exchange for transferring or exclusively licensing the patent to the company. About 27 percent of its licenses were transferred to 16 startups in FY2013.

The office made nearly $80 million in FY2013, mostly from royalties and fees on patents, while it said it spent about $19 million on filing patents, a task for which it says it uses mostly outside patent counsel. 

It appears the number of patents issued to MIT has been increasing over the past few decades. The Tech reported the Institute was awarded 126 patents in 1992, by far the most for any university that year. MIT TLO’s own statistics show it was awarded patents at a rate of 140 to 175 per year throughout the 2000s, but this jumped to 199 in FY2012 and 288 in FY2013.

The trend seems to extend to universities well beyond MIT. There were 1,491 patents issued in total to all U.S. universities in 1992. According to the Intellectual Property Owners Association, just the top seven patent-seeking universities combined surpassed that number in 2013.

Legal Battles

MIT’s litigation against Micron over its use of RAM is asserting a patent issued to an MIT scientist and his co-inventor in 2000 but owned by MIT. The move is certainly not unprecedented for MIT, which is listed as being the plaintiff in 32 litigation campaigns since 2000 by RPX, a patent litigation search engine. MIT’s cases cover a wide range of industries.

Companies that have exclusive licenses from MIT account for some of the litigation around MIT patents, even when the company rather than MIT is leading the claim. And while most cases end in settlement, some do go to trial. In 2003, a jury awarded MIT a rare patent loss on its claim that a Lockheed Martin satellite phone system infringed on its speech encoding intellectual property.

MIT is certainly not alone as a university asserting its patents in court. RPX lists Stanford with 14 campaigns as plaintiff since 2000, with all its cases in the biomedical industry. Most notably, Boston University sued many companies in a bid to assert a 1997 patent regarding a step in the production of blue LEDs. While many defendants settled, more suits have continued.

Some universities, in attempts to make unused intellectual property profitable, have turned to selling their patents. But some of these are often snapped up by non-practicing entities or “patent trolls,” firms that exist simply to own patents and collect licensing fees, and which are quick to sue companies that they claim are infringing on their patents.

Trolls are widely criticized as preying upon companies without legal resources to defend themselves, trying to extract fees or settlements by claiming infringement on the sometimes absurdly broad and vague patents they own. A study published in the Stanford Law Review in 2012 found 45 universities had sold patents to a particularly notorious troll, Intellectual Ventures, or its shell companies.

Even if the patents don’t fall into the hands of trolls, some contend that universities seeking to assert old patents in high-stakes court battles are harming innovation and betraying their principles. 

The payoff

Does it make sense for universities to engage in this type of technology licensing and transfer? A report from the Brookings Institution suggests that for many universities, the answer is no. It found that for 87 percent of universities with a technology transfer office, the program did not even break even in FY2012. It also found that a fairly stable group of top-earning universities netted more than all other universities combined. MIT had one of the most profitable programs, and was ranked third in the report.

It appears MIT’s TLO is profitable, making nearly $80 million in royalties and fees and spending just $19 million to file patents, but these numbers may not include its settlement wins or patent litigation fees. But even the TLO cautions other universities seeking to replicate its apparent success, “Do not expect to break even for five years or more.”

[In response to  I originally expected to mostly focus on MIT’s own TLO/patent history and just re-make their statistics with nicer graphs and visuals, but it turns out that the whole world of university patent lawsuits is interesting enough that I wanted to focus on digesting all the reports and information I found. I hope to expand this with more multimedia elements later.]

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Tsarnaev trial through tweets

This is my attempt to curate the tweets of the many journalists live-tweeting the Tsarnaev trial. After taking quite a while to collect all the data, I tried some pretty complicated things to try to group them about event chronologically. Ultimately the grouping didn’t ever work that well, and it still wasn’t producing a good summary. After trying a lot of different things, I found it was best to simply highlight tweets that had many more retweets than usual for that user, so I stuck with that approach to automatically choose which of the >10k of Tsarnaev trial-related tweets to highlight from these users.

I have had been having a bit of trouble debugging the second part of the timeline feature, but for now at least here is the semi-automatic livetweet summary of the Tsarnaev trial:

A threat to our democracy… ?

Some public officials have been sounding the alarm about a type of crime they say goes unpunished and has devastating consequences for American democracy. These officials have proposed laws in recent years to prevent instances of this crime, but their critics have said that those laws are an overreaction to a tiny problem and that the proposed laws do far more harm than what they’re trying to prevent.

Before we talk about the complicated details about this issue, let’s try to understand how prevalent this specific crime — let’s call it X for now — is by comparing it to more commonly discussed violations of the law.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 11.42.06 PM

The FBI compiled the statistics on the violent crimes, and in America there are thousands or millions of instances of these crimes per year. But X is so rare that there are no centralized records of it. An expert on the subject found there were at most only 22 “credible cases” of X between 2000 and 2010, and only 9 more from 2010-2014. Virtually all other analyses find similarly miniscule rates of X. But it’s not a violent or high profile type of crime.

So what is X and why are some politicians so worried about it?

We’re talking about in-person voter impersonation — the possibility that someone would vote using the name and voter registration of someone else, or perhaps the identity of a deceased person. It doesn’t sound like a very effective way to cheat an election and, not surprisingly, is therefore almost never attempted.

Of course, politicians are right to want to ensure that elections are fair and equitable, and if there were a massive epidemic of impersonation, a swift response would be appropriate. After all, in today’s often close elections, even a few tenths of percentage points can make a difference to the outcome. But the “problem” of impersonation in elections is so rare as to have almost no effect.

Even if all 31 of the possible instances of voter misrepresentation in the past 15 years were actually criminal attempts to cheat the vote rather than simple clerical errors, and even if they all had occurred together in even the closest national election during that period, they couldn’t have changed the outcome. In fact, there were 1 billion votes cast during that period, meaning in-person voter fraud accounted for at most .000000031 percent of those votes.

To put it another way, comparing the ratio of impersonated votes to real votes is like comparing your running speed to the speed of light.

Well, even if it’s not a big problem, what’s wrong with still trying hard to prevent it?

Most politicians who say they want to crack down on this type of unlawful voting do so by proposing new, strict laws that require people to have certain types of identification — often photo ID — to vote.

In 2014, 31 states had standing laws requiring some form of ID. Many new laws have been added since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder to strike down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to prevent discriminatory voting laws.

But these laws aren’t harmless. Many people don’t have the right kind of ID already, and getting that ID might be too expensive for some, putting up high practical barriers to people who want to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

A study by a bipartisan government group, the Government Accountability Office, found that 5 to 16 percent of people lacked proper identification depending on the state. It also found that after some states implemented strict voter ID laws, voter turnout decreased as much as two percent or more.

In particular, this type of ID law seem to discriminate against poor people and people from racial minority groups.

From the same study, the direct costs of obtaining the type of ID could range from $14.50 to $58.50, a more significant burden for those of limited means.

In one of the studies considered by the GAO’s analysis, 85 percent of whites versus 81 percent of African-Americans had the correct type of ID. In a study by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, just 8 percent of white respondents who didn’t vote in the 2008 general election cited having the wrong ID as a “major” or “minor” factor in not doing so, compared to 24 percent of Blacks, 28 percent of Latinos, and 78 percent of Asians.

So what are proponents of voter ID laws really trying to do?

There’s evidence that the people proposing strict voter ID laws have more sinister motives. Almost all those proposing stricter voter ID laws are Republicans, and those people less likely to have proper ID and therefore have a higher bar to voting under such laws tend to lean Democrat.

According to the Caltech/MIT study, almost 16 percent of Democrat non-voters cited having the wrong ID as a “major” or “minor” factor for not voting in the 2008 general election, compared to about 9 percent for Republicans.

More importantly, some of the people in favor of such laws admit their intentions. One Pennsylvania lawmaker said an ID law, later struck down, would allow Republican Mitt Romney to win the state in the 2012 presidential election.

What’s the takeaway?

We should be skeptical of those who use vague fears to pass laws that restrict people’s freedom to vote.

Further reading:

UFO Sightings Are More Common Than Voter Fraud

[Comments: I went into this expecting to do a lot of charts/visualizations/maps, but then realized that a number of the sources I was looking at did a great job with the subject, but these would simply never be seen by people with pre-decided views on the subject. So instead I decided to just link to them in the piece without even mentioning the parts of the issue that could turn people off until I had tried to draw in the reader, and then colorfully convey the extent of the “problem” before going into a more detailed argument about the laws. I can’t really tell if the technique works well or if it comes off as patronizing, so feedback is appreciated. I also made sure to avoid using the term “voter fraud,” because it is politically charged and because voter ID laws are irrelevant to the type of voting fraud that is most common.]

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A chat with Miguel Paz

I finally seem to have figured out SoundCloud, so here’s a link to my interview.

I decided a mix of the sound clips and some simple text would work a bit better than trying to have me narrate the story radio-style, so that’s what I did. I tried to let Miguel speak for himself, while also keeping it in a narrative format that didn’t go into too much detail.

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Student’s bid to reenter MIT raises questions about medical leave process

I started the story below just over four hours ago with an interview. I suppose I should add a slight reflection/qualification first. We often hear about students having bad experiences with MIT medical leave or readmission after it. It’s often tough, though, to sort out legitimate complaints that can serve as the basis of a critical story from hearsay or more dubious objections to a process that will likely leave people disappointed even in the best case. But in this case, between the possible legal action (with decent precedent), the crowdfunding campaign, significant attention and support from on-campus email lists, the subject’s own documentation and willingness to go on-the-record, and the added issue of financial hardship during medical leave, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally explore this issue. I only had time to incorporate one side, but I hope to add in all the nuance later that I think makes this story interesting.

That being said, this story is not ready to go to print. Due to the four hour limit, I have yet to get/seek comment from MIT (though it will likely just be a “no comment” for privacy reasons). I also want to incorporate far more documents and direct quotes into a longer, more interesting piece for The Tech. And since colorful writing or its absence so often makes or breaks feature/profile pieces, and this piece feels so dry, I expect a lot of revision will be necessary.

I’m quite used to writing stories quickly in news style, but getting even the skeleton of a profile done in 2.5 hours from a 1.5 hour interview is pretty tough. In retrospect, perhaps this wasn’t the best choice of topic given the time constraint, but it also grew significantly over the course of the interview.

Here’s the current version:


According to Joshua Hernandez, his story is not uncommon at MIT. Following his February 2013 stay at McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont due to an “intense depressive episode,” he went on voluntary medical leave from the Institute. Two years and two failed applications for readmission later, his fledgling campaign to raise money to mount a legal challenge to MIT’s latest decision has prompted discussion on campus — and commiseration from those with similar stories they say stem from a flawed approach by MIT administrators.

Hernandez feels the latest denial of his readmission application lacked a solid medical basis and said it runs counter to the recommendations of his therapist — a possible violation of Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But he also emphasized the struggles embarking on medical leave without stable finances or home life, stresses he described as comparable to those at MIT.

Hernandez knew he had bipolar II disorder before a period of depression and resulting alcohol abuse led to his hospitalization. His assigned therapist summarized his progress during his stay to MIT Mental Health, a division of MIT Medical tasked with handling the clinical side of such cases. A day before his discharge, he learned from MIT Student Support Services (S^3) that he had little choice but to voluntarily go on medical leave. “I was told that it would be extremely difficult for me to return to MIT” if forced onto mandatory leave, he said.

Though Hernandez said he was upset with the decision and felt it was “not handled as well as I think it could be,” he said, “Ultimately I did kind of agree with … the assessment that I could use time away from MIT.”

His next move, though, was less straightforward. Hernandez, whose family lives in Mexico, said his situation at home was unstable, partially due to fraught relationships with his parents. He said MIT pushed for him to move back in with his them, though he deemed it impossible due to complications of moving internationally and the emotional toll of living at home.

He ended up staying with a friend in Cambridge and attending five weeks of daily therapy through the Triangle Program in Boston at the behest of MIT. He said that the daily commitments made it even more difficult to find work, already a difficult prospect for someone seeking temporary positions without an undergraduate degree.

MIT requires students on medical leave to take classes or work full time while away from the Institute, but Hernandez expressed displeasure with the policy, suggesting it was extremely stressful for students with few resources to quickly find employment.

“It’s kind of biased against … people that come from poor families because it assumes you have a stable home environment to return to.” In addition to difficulties finding work and residence, Hernandez said his finances were complicated by the loss of his high degree of financial aid, which, along with an on-campus job, he had counted on to make ends meet.

Hernandez moved to Seattle in May 2013 to live with his stepfather and began to work as an online physics tutor while still meeting with a therapist regularly.

His first proposal for readmission, submitted in November and December of 2013, included letters of recommendation from his employer and therapist, an academic plan, an essay about what he learned from his time away, and a detailed list of his activities since his hospitalization.

When he learned from a call with MIT Mental Health that his insomnia had endangered his readmission bid, he went to a sleep clinic and was diagnosed and successfully treated for sleep apnea, and he informed S^3 of the development. He said his therapist was confident that his alcohol abuse was only a symptom of his depressive episodes — one that had not resurfaced since his hospitalization — and told MIT as much. Nevertheless, insomnia and alcohol abuse were listed as the reasons for denial of his readmission proposal in January 2014.

Hernandez was upset that his application was denied due to issues — insomnia and excessive drinking — that he felt had come under control and were unlikely to plague him at MIT. Nevertheless, he continued his leave, still working as a tutor and eventually moving in with grandparents in Mexico. When he applied for readmission in late 2014, he felt confident he had addressed all the issues that had derailed his previous bid.

But in a four-way phone interview with MIT Mental Health and S^3 representatives, he was asked how he planned to control his violent tendencies, which Hernandez said had never been an issue or even concern throughout his illness, treatment, or leave. He said he told the interviewers about his displeasure with MIT’s process and what he considered their far-fetched concerns.

Unsurprisingly, he said, his application was rejected again, this time with unspecified concerns from an S^3 dean as the critical factor.

Hernandez thinks the vague medical basis of the rejection is a violation of section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires “reasonable accommodations” for illnesses including mental issues, and said he hopes to see broader changes in MIT medical leave policy in addition to the reversal of his readmission denial. He is firm in his judgment that MIT officials are in the wrong, but he still insists that they are well intentioned and that tough decisions on medical leave are still sometimes necessary.

Though he didn’t want to go into detail about his legal options, he said that he is interested in keeping a lawyer who specializes in higher education student mental health cases on retainer with any funds raised by the crowdfunding campaign, which he described as a long-shot idea suggested by his friend. As the fundraising link has circulated on certain campus lists, the vast majority of commenters have expressed support. Hernandez said three quarters of the messages he has received about the issue have described similar experiences with medical leave readmission applications.

Austin Hess Media Diary

I started this assignment in an effort to make a real timeline out of my media consumption. I knew I wanted to track my reading speed and volume, not in some cruel optimization of reading efficiency, but rather just to see what I find. It turns out that, at least when I’m busy, I consume articles in chunks: several in a sitting, possibly with a long piece thrown in that I had been waiting to read. And I seem to read opinion, essays, and features much more slowly.

Here is the link to the animation: