In Saudi Arabia, breaking the law can lead to the chopping block for a public beheading—even for minors, according to a new report. The first fact-finding visit by a human-rights group allowed by the Saudi government turned up disturbing evidence about the country’s justice system: children under 18 are routinely tried as adults, with potential sentences of flogging, amputation, or death; legal counsel is often unavailable for youth offenders; and juvenile-detention facilities are so overcrowded and poorly supervised that minors sometimes end up in the same cells as hardened criminals. Many of the tens of thousands of children trafficked into the country—for use as beggars or for sexual exploitation—end up on the streets, where they’re treated as criminals and risk deportation. Youths can be detained for exchanging phone numbers with the opposite sex, and girls can face prosecution for “seclusion,” or being alone with a male who’s not a relative. The authors report that at least 12 children have been sentenced to death in recent years, and that at least three were executed in 2007.
—“Adults Before Their Time: Children in Saudi Arabia’s Criminal Justice System,” Human Rights Watch
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Think you can spot a spy? Cold War caricatures won’t help: a study by a Defense Department think tank finds that the profile of a homegrown spook has changed significantly in the past two decades, reflecting new threats from abroad. The report compares data on nearly 200 Americans caught spying on their countrymen since 1947, using public records and classified files from federal agencies. Today’s spies tend to be much older than their Cold War predecessors, more educated (twice as many have advanced degrees), and less likely to be drunks or gamblers. Blackmail—of the compromising-photo variety, say—is no longer a salient motivation. In fact, according to the study, no one is known to have been coerced into spying since 1980. Most spies are not even lured by cash: in the past two decades, only 7 percent of spooks passed on secrets solely for the money (74 percent did so during the Cold War), and 81 percent received no money at all. Instead, they’re typically spurred by loyalty to other countries and causes, partly because many more of them are foreign-born. More than half of the most recent cases involved terrorists, and spies are now much more likely to pass secrets to stateless groups like al-Qaeda—which technically may not be a crime. The ambiguous legal framework governing espionage dates back to World War I and seems to address only spying done on behalf of foreign states.
—“Changes in Espionage by Americans: 1947–2007,” [PDF] Katherine L. Herbig, Defense Personnel Security Research Center
Despite spending ever more time and money on the Internet, Americans don’t seem to be wising up to online scams. According to a report by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, while total complaints about online scams remained flat last year (at some 200,000), fraudsters made off with more dough than ever—$239 million, up about 20 percent over 2006. Fraud on auction sites like eBay caused the most complaints. But with an average loss of $484 per incident, such schemes are small change compared with investment fraud ($3,548 per incident), check scams ($3,000), and Nigerian e-mail rope-a-dopes ($1,923—no joke). The feds also warn about secret-shopper scams, in which victims are hired to help evaluate retail outlets or restaurants. They get a bad check in the mail and are told to quickly wire a percent of the total to a third party to cover costs; by the time the check bounces, their money is gone. Scammers also snared many victims through their hearts, on dating and social-networking sites. In these cons, the putative love interest asks for money to pay for travel to an amorous meeting, then claims to undergo a series of expensive disasters—and asks for more cash.
—“2007 Internet Crime Report,” [PDF] Internet Crime Complaint Center, FBI
Critics of the Teach for America program, which recruits top college graduates to teach in poorly performing public schools, have long questioned whether the program’s instructors are properly prepared, citing evidence that links teacher effectiveness to experience. However, the first study to examine Teach for America at the secondary-school level, recently released by the Urban Institute, finds that its teachers are in fact more effective than those with traditional training—at all levels of experience. The study measured performance on state exams and found that students of Teach for America instructors did significantly better in all subject areas tested, and especially in math and science. The authors found that even though the program’s teachers are assigned to “the most demanding classrooms,” they’re able to compensate for their lack of experience with better academic preparation and motivation. As a result, the authors say, students are better off with Teach for America instructors “than with fully licensed in-field teachers with three or more years of experience.”
—“Making a Difference?: The Effects of Teach for America in High School,” by Zeyu Xu, Jane Hannaway, and Colin Taylor, the Urban Institute and the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research
Shopping at medieval markets was a risky business, in which “caveat emptor” was the wisdom of the day. But according to an economist at the University of California at Irvine—who analyzed mercantile records, internal guild documents, and other commercial artifacts—the market evolved to compensate for this risk through the proliferation of “conspicuous characteristics” that helped customers identify which guild had produced their goods. The author notes that because medical treatments were unreliable in the Middle Ages, the stakes for purchasing quality products, especially tools, were high: one out of every six accidental deaths took place in an agricultural field, on a construction site, or in a workshop. But high costs meant that buyers couldn’t easily replace flawed goods. To make matters worse, it was hard to hold manufacturers accountable for the quality of their products, because buyers usually dealt with roaming merchants, not local craftspeople. As a consequence, buyers were willing to pay more for goods that came from reputable outlets, and this encouraged manufacturers to fashion their products with identifying features, such as uniquely colored cloth, fabric with a recognizable weave, or pewter that resonated at a particular pitch when dinged. Cooks familiar with the distinctive pattern of Damascus steel will not be surprised to learn that the knives’ lacy look was a conspicuous characteristic that identified swords forged in Damascus as “stronger, sharper, and sturdier” than the competition’s.
—“Brand Names Before the Industrial Revolution,” Gary Richardson, National Bureau of Economic Research
“I hate snakes!” says the otherwise fearless Indiana Jones. He’s not alone: according to a new study, humans may have a built-in aversion to snakes and their hissing, slithering, menacing ways. Two researchers at the University of Virginia asked 120 preschool-age children and their parents to look at two sets of nine color photographs on a monitor. They told the subjects to pick out the one photo that was “threat-relevant” (a snake) among eight others that were nonthreats (flowers) from the first set. Then they asked the subjects to pick the one flower among eight snake pictures in the second set. Each time, they measured the subjects’ response times. The adults, as expected, found the snake more rapidly than they found the flowers. But the children—even those who had had no prior exposure to snakes—also picked out the threat significantly faster. When the experimenters repeated the test, substituting frogs and caterpillars for the flowers, the kids still found the snake fastest—suggesting an innate predisposition to see a snake as a threat. The authors note that serpents are one of the most common causes of phobias, and even trigger fearful responses in other primates. They speculate that humans could “have an evolved tendency to rapidly detect” a snake’s physical features.
—“Detecting the Snake in the Grass,” [PDF] Vanessa LoBue and Judy S. DeLoache, Psychological Science
Considering that Americans invented the Internet nearly four decades ago, the U.S. has had a tough time actually getting people online. According to a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the United States ranks 15th out of 30 developed countries in broadband performance, as measured by speed, price, and subscribers per household. Since widespread broadband access appears to result from both happenstance and good governance—with an emphasis on the former—America will likely have trouble catching up with the survey’s leader, South Korea, and with other highly ranked countries such as Sweden. Although the U.S. and South Korea have similar percentages of urban residents, more than half of Korean housing units are large apartment complexes, compared with only 3.2 percent in the U.S. As a result, Korean Internet operators can reach 10 times as many people as a provider in an East Coast suburb using the same amount of fiber-optic cable. Policy-wise, the U.S. also faces an uphill battle: the Swedish government has spent roughly $90 per citizen to encourage broadband deployment; a similar commitment in the U.S. would cost more than $30 billion. Though the study found that factors beyond government control, like population density, explain about three-quarters of the differences in broadband performance, the authors offer some recommendations for Uncle Sam, like better tax policies, programs to boost digital literacy, and a coherent national broadband strategy. But absent a government takeover of Verizon, or mass migrations into towering apartment complexes, our broadband access is likely to lag far behind that of our high-tech peers.
—“Explaining International Broadband Leadership,” [PDF] Robert D. Atkinson, Daniel K. Correa, and Julie A. Hedlund, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation