August 2010 Archives

Politics & Rhetoric - Notes

Two quick notes, on how we participate in foiling political solutions:

Keith Humphreys on Politics and The Messenger is The Message

Keith Humphreys, who recently spent a year in the Obama Administration in the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) as the Senior Policy Advisor to the Deputy Directory, talked to Stanford's 1:2:1 program about his experience and about the California Propositions to legalize marijuana. Humphreys talked about who really uses medical marijuana, dispelled the idea that taxes would benefit state programs, and explained who would most likely control the market (tobacco). You can listen here, all very interesting.

At the end of his interview, when asked if anything surprised him about Washington DC, he said that one thing that struck him was how impossible bi-partisanship had become (transcribed by me, not exactly, from his interview):

"...At the moment at least, it's the messenger is the message entirely. What I mean by that is, for example, on the health care reform bill, we have health exchanges, where you aggregate a bunch of small buyers up and you get a big risk pool and you get a better price. That had been a Republican mainstay for decades, that suggestion could have been an applause line for you if you were giving a talk on health care at the American Enterprise Institute. But now for some reason it's become "socialism", because the president was for it. But it's the same proposal."

[Another example] "...We had a proposal in the drug strategy to give vouchers to people who were in addiction treatment, so that they buy things like a pair of workboots to go back to their job, or a babysitting so they could go to their AA meeting...That had been something the Bush administration had proposed, and we gave it the largest budget increase it had had.

When Bush administration proposed it, it was derided by people on the left as this is voucherization, it's the end of the public sector, how typical of those awful Republicans. And then when we did it was wonderful, giving poor people a choice, it's about time someone stood up for the poor. And it wasn't a similar policy, it was the same policy. It almost doesn't matter what you're for, it's who you are that controls all the perception. And that's what makes it really hard to have a bi-partisan proposal. Because almost by definition, if the other guy is for it, it can't be any good..."

Stanley Fish on our Perceptions and Crime

We deceive ourselves about culpability. Stanley Fish describes how people shift their rhetoric seamlessly as the facts of a crime emerge:

"If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon."

Tax Cut Extension: Multi-Millionaires Do the Math, You Should Too

The ruckus over Obama's proposal to extend only part of Bush's tax breaks -- not the part to ultra-ultra-ultra wealthy individuals -- is maybe playing second fiddle to the mosque ruckus. Maybe this should be obvious, since one involves a little math and reasoning, while the other can be argued from straight from the gut, therefore more people can chatter about Muslim community centers.

News Aimed to the Lowest Common Denominator

But it's a shame more people aren't talking about the tax cuts, because the GOP driven (w/ some Democrats on board) arguments against tax-breaks make no more sense than the ones against the Muslim Community Center, so they should be gossiped about. Plus, the tax-cuts arguably have more impact on the average American than the presence of a community center in downtown New York City.

The Tax Policy Center made a great chart showing who, exactly, would be touched by the Obama tax-cut extension plan. Not until you made $196,549/year would you your tax break be impacted even one cent by Obama's plan.

Once you made $196,540, the Obama plan would take an average of $2 off your $5,508 tax cut - two dollars. The most you would "lose" under Obama -- if you happened to make over $8,367,274 -- that is you were in the top 99.9 percentile in income, making $8.4 million dollars or more, would be $61,500.

That is, if you made about $8.4 million dollars, you'd still get $248,640 of the original $310,140 tax cut. You wouldn't get that extra $61,500 tax cut, so you'd miss out on, I don't know, that bottle of Bordeaux (not any Bordeaux, mind you, a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild). Put that in your pipe and smoke it T-partiers.

The Tax Policy Center notes that the Obama plan will actually only cut a very small part of the overall deficit - 7%. Obama would only change a very small, small number of peoples' incomes (not "small businesses" that would feel the pinch). The TPC says:

"How much will the President's proposal save? Unfortunately, not nearly enough to close the cumulative budget deficit. The administration's proposal shaves off about $680 billion from the 10-year deficit--a modest $68 billion per year"

But the cost of extending all the cuts is worse news. The Tax Policy Center writes: "From a budgetary perspective, the price of extending all of the cuts is steep; full extension would contribute $3.7 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years..."

The Battle Between Math & Rhetoric (hint: math is losing)

Paul Krugman also points out that the insistence on extending the tax cuts as opposed to going with Obama's plan makes no sense. He brings our attention to the craziness of what the GOP is quibbling over, rather than the insignificance of the cuts to the overall budget.

He writes:

"According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to following the Obama proposal, would cost the federal government $680 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. For the sake of comparison, it took months of hard negotiations to get Congressional approval for a mere $26 billion in desperately needed aid to state and local governments."

Even Alan Greenspan, forever shocked that the markets let him down, recommends suspending all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Aside from FOX News, where John Stossel is "tired of Greenspan", and finds it "ironic" that Greenspan once wrote for Ayn Rand, and (not ironic the way I do), what's up with the rest of the people?

Wikileaks - Publish & Perish?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, in an interview with John Pilger, was asked if it was difficult to publish secret information in Britain. Assange answered:

'When we look at Official Secrets Act labelled documents we see that they state it is offense to retain the information and an offence to destroy the information. So the only possible outcome we have is to publish the information."

While Pilger is trying to rally support for Assange, elsewhere, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a hunted man, or so it seems. Sweden charged Assange with rape but dropped the charges within hours. The real story remains elusive, but the tabloids explained. Aftonbladet asked one of the two women behind the charges whether the Pentagon was involved in generating the attacks, a rumor propagated by Assange himself:

De konspirationsteorier som mmar nätet just nu avfårdar kvinnan i 30-årsålden bestämt.

"Anklagelserna mot Assange är förstås inte iscensatta av varken Pentagon eller någon annan. Ansvaret för det som hänt mig och den andra tjejen ligger hos en man med skev kvinnosyn och problem att ta ett nej."

Google's Swedish app translates:

The conspiracy theories that are flooding the web right now dismisses the woman in her 30s decided.

"The charges against Assange is of course not orchestrated by either the Pentagon or another. The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl is in a man with skew kvinnosyn problems and to take no for an answer."

We're not sure about "skew kvinnosyn". But see? You can believe whatever you want, including the bit about the Pentagon.

While computer programmers have a reputation for being sometimes, how should we put it, socially rough around the edges, state agencies have been know to drum up reviling stories about people it wants to marginalize through public opinion. This incident does remind us of the story that came out earlier this year about US government's role in hanky-panky mischief making. As it was reported, the FBI listened in on a CIA Iraq Operations Group and learned of an unrealized plan by the FBI to make a fictional video of Saddam Hussein having sex with a teenage boy.

In another instance Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent wrote earlier this year about a CIA plan to use Afghan women to elicit sympathy for the war against the Taliban.

Either by his own hand, or that of his various detractors, Assange is battling some negative publicity.

South Africa's Media Crackdown

Note: Unfortunately, all The Times of South Africa links in this article have been paywalled.

South Africa's award winning journalist, Mzilikazi wa Afrika had been doggedly investigating government corruption, when he was arrested on August 4th by police outside the offices of his employer the Sunday Times. wa Africa1 had recently written a story about a shady real estate deal arranged by National Police Commissioner General Bheki Cele, a deal Cele vehemently denied was shady. A few weeks later, because of its shadiness, the deal was put on hold.

The journalist had also been investigating a story about some murders of public officials that took place in the Mpumalanga province, that police were failing to investigate.

Kidnapping and Treason Accusations for South African Journalists

He was held for 48 hours as police drove him from place to place. They stopped at his house and ransacked it, confiscating his computer and his eight year old son's, and taking his journalist notebooks - some 10 years old. He hoped they didn't bring him to the province of Mpumalanga where all the murders had taken place, and where those who were murdered appeared on a hit list that perhaps had his name on it. But they did. At one point the police dropped him at the Waterval Boven, Mpumalanga police station, where:

"one of the officers warned me that I was being left in this tiny town for my own safety. 'Don't eat or drink anything, we know they are going to try and poison you. These people want you dead' he said...."

Mzilikazi wa Africa tells his story of being shuttled about by police here.

After 18 hours of being "carted about in fear of his life", as the headline put it, he was read his rights.

"At 1:40am, I was taken back to Mapiyane's office, where the general introduced himself as the lead investigator in the case and read me my rights. He said I would be charged with fraud and defeating the ends of justice...He asked me to make a statement, 'to make things easier' for me. I told him I could not do that without my lawyer present. Mapiyane was irritated and a colleague of his told me I was giving them problems by writing stories about Mpumalanga [a province]."

"Five-and-a-half hours after I first got there, I was taken to the Nelspruit, Mpumalanga police station. It was 3:20am."

"At 8am my legal team finally had access to me...One of the questions the police asked was: "Have you either directly or indirectly been discrediting senior office bearers of the ANC in Mpumalanga?"

They asked him: "Are you destroying the image and integrity of the ANC in Mpumalanga?" The police grilled him on a story he had not published.

wa Africa charged with fraud, forgery and uttering (passing forged documents - because he had been faxed a fake resignation of a Mpumalanga government official). People believe wa Africa's harassment is retribution for his investigative journalism, or a concerted police attempt to ferret out his sources, perhaps potential whistleblowers in the Mpumalanga province .

The police intimidation of the journalist has sent chills through South Africa and the world, especially in light of two initiatives sought by the African National Congress -- the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunals (MAT).

"The Sword is Mightier Than The Pen"

That the sword is mightier then the pen is the joke passed among journalists, as the South African government brims with ideas about how to curb the still vibrant press -- unruly by government standards. Thus the detention of wa Africa, not too mention scarier trends like calls by a youth league of the ANC to convict the journalist of "high treason" hint at the draconian potential of these moves.

The government proposes media appeals tribunals (MAT), yet admits excellent ombudsmen system already in place. As well, a bill being discussed in parliament called unconstitutional by the national lawyers bar would impose 15-25 years jail time for journalists who fail to support vague notions of "national interest".

As former journalist Sej Motau, from the opposition Democratic Alliance, wrote

"It's not about journalists; it's about every one of us in this country, and I'd like to appeal to the people of this country. If we fall asleep on this one, and we think, 'Oh no, it's only about the journalists', we're making a big, big mistake."

Indeed, if people can't ask why they don't have electricity and why the government isn't following through on promises, then all South Africans suffer. And if the ANC government can classify information willy-nilly, imprisoning journalists and newspapers who don't pen their line, businesses are in trouble too. As the Independent Online writes:

"If passed, the bill would also restrict access to information from regulators and state-owned enterprises, which critics say could cut investors off from information affecting equity, treasury and foreign exchange markets."

Business Speaks Out

Foreign companies like ArcelorMittal (steel, Luxembourg), and Lonmin (mining, UK) are also rightly concerned. Both have already been subjected to the corrupt business practices that benefited President Zuma and his associates. Domestic businesses are likewise worried, policies that favor ANC sycophants undermine their profitability too.

The business press gets it. Michael Skapinker, commenting for the Financial Times, and R.W. Johnson, writing in the Wall Street Journal, led the (rather anemic) international outcry earlier this week. Unfortunately, Johnson's column in the WSJ (it's worth noting) introduced some confusion about what South African bill was at issue.2 Johnson wrote:

"the government plans a "Protection of Personal Information Bill," which would only allow reporting about people's personal lives with their consent. Heavy penalties would thus prevent any more reporting of Mr. Nizimande's wine-bibbing or of illegitimate children born to President Zuma's mistresses. This is accompanied by a new "Information Bill" proposal, which would impose penalties of up to 25 years in jail for reporting about anything the government declares to be a matter of national interest, itself defined broadly to include anything which may be for the advancement of the public good..."

WSJ has confused two bills. The "Protection of Personal Information Bill" can be found here at KPMG, Africa, and there's more information here at Deloitte. This bill deals with how organizations deal with private personal information, and the need for standards in the public and private sectors guiding how some information needs to be protected while other information needs to be accessible. KPMG writes: "Over the years, the principles contained in the Bill have become recognized as the leading practice baseline for effective data privacy around the world..."

The WSJ is the only place I've read Johnson's unique interpretation of the Protection of Personal Information. The bill has been heralded by some human rights advocates because it will protect victims. Could be abused by government? I'm sure anything could happen, but it would also be highly unusual for WSJ (and the FT) to oppose KPMG and Deloitte. Security of personal information is important to democracy, and security is also a growing business sector. Condyn, an IT security contractor, recently issued a press release seeking to clear up just this type of confusion between the two similarly named bills.

No, the bill that worries everyone is the "Protection of (State) Information Bill", the ANC controlled government's wild grab to redefine how government officials classify and release information. It basically gives government officials free reign to classify any secrets as they wish into "classified", "secret", and "top-secret". The media appeals tribunal would impose the government's view.

Don't Go Hysterical About Tribunals Zuma Says -- Russia is Sharing Their Media Strategy With Us?

Of course President Zuma and members of government insist that the African National Congress,(ANC), is not trying to muzzle journalists, and will not impose "draconian apartheid laws to gag the freedom of the press".

Of course Zuma says that while complaining extensively that media is a consolidated institution destroying the good of the nation on the other. According to him: "South Africans rebelled against the media in June-July this year, united in their diversity" during FIFA. They defied the "media fraternity" and its "chorus of division and negativity", he said, peddling the notion that South Africa would be a Disneyland of green grass, ball playing, vuvuzelas, and international celebration if not for the negative media.

The discussion document accompanying the paper gets to the meat of the ANC media crackdown and exudes an anti-liberal (in the economics sense) view, although there's some blatant hypocrisy underlying the pronouncement:

"Our objectives therefore are to vigorously communicate the ANC's outlook and values (developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non sexism, working together) versus the current mainstream media's ideological outlook (neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism, etc)."

For journalists who resist being state messengers? Perhaps like the World Cup, it'll be loud droning vuvuzelas, kicks to the ribs, and shots to the heads. Zuma explains the tribunals:

"The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian?....During our State visit to Russia a week ago, Russian television was running a promotional jingle saying: 'How dependent is the independent media? Who pays for the news'?

Newspapers are profit motivated says Zuma, the the news isn't "independent". Therefore, why shouldn't the news be the megaphone of the ANC party? And what better example to reassure your countrymen of your intentions for the press -- than Russia? Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 153rd of 175 countries in the Press Freedom Index last year. As the International Press Institute reports, Russia remains one of the most dangerous places for reporters, a place where journalists are murdered with impunity. What a puzzling PR move. Is this a twisted way to get western investment? Or are public announcements about lessons from Russia on dealing with the media, just...governance as usual?

"Freedom" of the Press

With recent actions, the Zuma government has been compared to the oppressive states of Gambia and Zimbabwe. 37 of the country's editors signed a petition protesting the government's intentions to curtail freedom of the press. The international response, including that from top US media, is an unanimous call to drop the contentious bill and media appeals tribunals.

But the crackdown has been brewing for a while, and is not the first step the ANC has taken to sweep in some censorship. And the government has long derided newspapers and journalists who unveil information that doesn't paint the government in a favorable light. In 2007 we wrote about Africa's AIDS and public health crisis in hospitals, which the media persistently exposed. In response to the press attention, Mbeki pounded back in his own newspaper columns, including one Acronym Required dubbed "the mini-skirt memo". But Mbeki never did address the critical and deadly public health issues -- never in his whole term.

Mbeki's ANC consistently labeled anyone who criticized him as being unfaithful to the revolution, and Zuma seems to have picked up the same defense. This move to muffle the media more would be a blow for democracy, human rights, and business. But unfortunately, some countries have proven, like China and Russia and many others, that with the help of greed enabled complacency from US and Europe, freedom of information and freedom of press aren't necessarily requirements for state enrichment.

President Zuma urges people to "move away from hysteria dwelling on individual experiences". And he concludes: "We will use our right to express what we think. And we should not be silenced by claims of 'threats to press freedom'".

Acronym Required writes frequently about South Africa, especially issues involved the state's public health policies, HIV/AIDS progress, and media.


1a name he adopted meaning "of Africa"

2 No one would accuse these authors of being dedicated to politically liberal causes. Concurring with China, Skapinker this spring urged a ban on comment anonymity 'to promote civility', a trending meme that would slap a lid on many important forms of speech. While some people took exception to Skapinker's tedious idea, in one published letter to the FT editor, the writer agreed with Skapinker, and added that we should also identify motorists' identities via their license plates to promote highway civility, because as he noted absurdly, perhaps fooled by randomness or his own mind's machinations, people who drove cars with vanity plates were more polite.

RW Johnson for his part, recently outraged writers, academics, and civilians with a racist piece he wrote for the London Book Review. 73 signatories complained in a letter to LBR that his work was "often stacked with the superficial and the racist".

Notes on Plankton, Ginseng, Little Brown Bats, and Salmonella

  • Ceiling of Plankton No More?

    Many kids learn the story of phytoplankton and the food chain as their first lesson in ecology. Now they'll learn what happens when the number of phytoplankton shrink. Between 1899 and 2008, phytoplankton declined by 1% per year, according to a recent study in Nature. More alarming, that includes a 40% drop between 1950 and 2008. In addition to fewer phytoplankton diminishing all ocean life and along with that fishing and human food sources, there are other implications to the decrease. Phytoplankton give the ocean a greenish color, and less phytoplankton will make the ocean color bluer. Scientists recently published a study showing that the change in color could change the intensity, number and possible paths of tropical storms.

  • DPRK's Ginseng Economy

    North Korea owes the Czech Republic about $10 million dollars, which the Czech authorities refuse to forgive. So a North Korean delegation recently asked to barter 5% of the debt away with some ginseng -- about 20 tons worth. The FT reports that ginseng is "an invigorating root used in dietary supplements and teas that are supposed to improve memory, stamina and libido". However, unfortunately, the "now-capitalist Czechs are unconvinced they need an injection of vigour". The Czech Republic only consumes 1.4 tons of ginseng a year. Czech officials said they'd prefer to receive some zinc ore. Aha...but when life gives you ginseng...

  • Goodbye to the Little Brown Bat?

    A few years ago, in caves of hibernating little brown bats Myotis lucifugus near Albany, scientists discovered a disease they called white nose syndrome, that could killed up to 90% of the bats in a cave. The scientists found the fungus, Geomyces destructans settled on hibernating bats' bodies and wake them up, apparently because the fungus "tickles" them. Then the bats burn energy searching for non-existent food.

    Now scientists have run computer simulations that predict the fatal consequence of the disease. According to this model, there's a 99% chance that the bat will become extinct within 16 years. Little brown bats are important to the Northeast ecology. A single bat can eat hundreds mosquitoes and insects and hour -- they're vital to the ecosystem and agriculture. The fungus infects many species of bats but not as drastically as this one. A few bats in the US also seem to survive(though not enough to save this species). Interestingly, scientists have found that members of five species of bats in Europe carry the fungus but don't seem die. They suggest that perhaps the bats evolved with the fungus in Europe. Humans transport the fungus from place to place.

  • Salmonella Poisoning for Good

    Bacteria often colonize in tumors, prompting scientists to study this phenomena for the benefit of cancer inflicted patients. Salmonella is most commonly known for prompting the immune system to react in food poisoning. For therapeutic use, the bacteria could potentially deliver drugs to tumors, or potentially activate the bodies own immune system against the tumors. For years, they have researched how to deliver altered Salmonella typhimurium to cancer cells. Early patient trials simply increased the dose of the altered Salmonella in patients to understand patients' tolerance. Last week, scientists published an article in Science Translational Medicine describing how weakened Salmonella trigger human immune cells to attack melanoma cells. The altered bacteria produce a protein involved in communicating the presence of cancer cells to the immune cells, which causes the immune cells to attack the cancer. Scientists intend to test their results in humans.

AB-70 - Legislation on the Fly and Bring Your Genes to Cal

Update 08/13: AB 70 was defeated. However, the Bring Your Genes to Cal program was altered because they planned to do the analysis in Berkeley labs, which are not certified medical labs. In accordance with state demands the students will not receive their own results.

Legislation usually moves along at a crawl, slowly, glacially -- except if you're the California State legislature trying to corral the University of California, Berkeley's personal genomics walkabout offered to incoming freshmen. The state bill AB 70 was introduced in December, 2008 to encourage transparency on how school districts classify "English learners" to "proficient".* Now, the text of AB 70 the "English learners" bill has been parasitically devoured and replaced with text to impede the University of California, Berkeley's program for incoming students, known as: "On the Same Page: Bring Your Genes to Cal".

How the State Tries to Come Between Cal...and Your Genes

Like many universities, freshmen are welcomed to UC Berkeley with some thematic program. Historically that's meant they all read a book, for instance last year they read Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. This year they decided on a more interactive learning experience, asking incoming Freshman to spit in a cup and submit that for analysis of lactose, alcohol metabolism, and folate gene variants. The idea seemed fresh and relevant, and Berkeley went forward with it apparently without much internal debate. Certainly getting students involved in their own health can't be bad can it?

Some people actually thought it was bad, however, and eventually the state legislature got involved -- very late to the game, of course. But as the university mailed out saliva spit kits to students, AB 70 suddenly gained what seemed like unprecedented speed and "urgency". If passed, it will be "enacted immediately."

The original AB 70 proposed adding a section to the education code requiring that school districts report their criteria for assessing English proficiency. The bill languished until being amended June 24, 2010. The amended title reflected not-too subtle changes. The old sponsor and bill purposes were simply crossed out, and the new sponsor and purpose inserted so it read:

"Duvall Norby English learners. Public postsecondary education: genetic testing."

That's how an English learners bill morphed into a bill to stop UC Berkeley from teaching about genetic testing.

Legislation 101

English learners text was crossed out:

....This bill would require the department, as part of its duties in administering the English language development test, to gather from each school district that has one or more English learners the criteria that the district uses for the reclassification of a pupil from English learner to proficient in English and to summarize and report the criteria it receives...

And in its place, text warning about allowing "On The Same Page: Bring Your Genes to Cal":

  • Collecting, testing and storing genetic material presents "unique challenges to protecting individual privacy".
  • Medical testing "subjects" should receive "substantial" written and verbal explanation before supplying consent
  • Students "may feel coerced to participate in official activities involving widespread genetic testing"
  • A 2006 GAO report showed that tests are "unproven, misleading, meaningless.."
  • Students could "suffer consequences later in life" because of privacy breaches.

The June 24th version demanded that the school report quarterly, all the costs of the "solicitation" so that the state of California could recoup those expenses. The trouble with that legislation was that the solicitation already happened and was funded with a gift (probably, the funding is unclear). (The state only provides Berkeley with a small percentage of its funding.) So the August 02 amended version of AB 70 struck out "prohibits" and entered "requests" instead. The August version also struck out the demand for accounting of "unsolicited requests", and replaced that for a demand to account for "legal judgements or settlements resulting from violations of the informed consent requirements".

On Different Pages

The August amendments show the state adjusting to meet the realities of the program moving forward. It's a learning experience for all. Clearly the legislature is trying to wrap its head around the project, and adjusting as needed. As is Berkeley. As are organizations who oppose the program.

The text of the bill reflects very closely the rhetoric of the Massachusetts based Council on Responsible Genetics (CRG). Their primary concern seems to be privacy, and their multiple letters to California legislators practically dictate the content of AB 70. But as they gather more information about the project, they too change their rhetoric. In their most recent letter to California legislators, the Council For Responsible Genetics joined with the ACLU, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, The Electronic Freedom Foundation and others, urging the legislators to "request a full accounting" of the "On the Same Page: Bring Your Genes to Call" program, specifically issues of conflict of interest, funding, privacy, and data confidentiality.

The Berkeley program certainly brings relevant topics to the fore, and who can challenge the importance of this? But Berkeley scientists and the Council on Responsible Genetics have stuck doggedly to their talking points. Scientists advocating the program stress the need for education about genomics, and accuse critics of being anachronistic and paternalistic. They stress individuals personal right learn genetic information. Therefore, they would argue, this is a relevant topic worthy of the attention of the program.

Certainly healthcare in America is at such a nadir that anyone with half a brain in their head who has visited a doctor lately would agree that giving individuals more information to take more ownership of their own healthcare would be great. Personal genomics could give such insight, democratize information, and benefit health consumers. But this is one (there are others) big hitch. Direct to consumer genetics testing (this is related) walks a fine line between being innocuous information and a "medical test". Bring Your Genes to Cal proponents simultaneously push the importance of the students learning about genomics - and by pushing this they get necessary support, while at the same time belittling the relevance of the tests and their results - so as not to attract unwanted attention.

Meanwhile, critics are focusing on the very issues that the University is trying to downplay. CRG insists on repeatedly labeling the Bring Your Genes to Cal tests "medical tests" in order to prompt alarm and greater scrutiny. The critics dwell on privacy, data confidentiality, and interpretation of data. To me, if genomics data is important enough that it's worth building this program around (as innocuous seeming as these variants may be), than it's important enough for the critics' issues to matter -- even if the involved scientists twist themselves into knots to avoid those discussions.

The state, for its part, is trying to respond, quickly at that, without having a clear handle on the issues. Perhaps they yearn for 2008, when AB 70 was stymied in controversy over adding a webpage to assure transparency in schools' English Learner programs.


*AB 70 was also once a bill about state dams.

August Reading - Neural Coupling, Google Coupling, Bombast & War Rhetoric (Notes)

  • In Sync Communication

    In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), "Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication", Princeton researchers used fMRI to record the brain activity of people communicating. They found that people more successfully communicated when the listener's brain activity mirrored the speaker's brain activity. When people can anticipate and predict one another's speech, their brain activity becomes "coupled", which leads to better understanding.

  • Technological Coupling? Google AIandYou

    Once upon a time, Microsoft vowed, preposterously - it seemed at the time, to "put a computer on every desk, in every home." Another mid-1990's Microsoft marketing campaign asked whimsically, "Where do you want to go today?" We've come a long way. This week, Google's Eric Schmidt promised:

    "If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence... We can predict where you are going to go."

    Schmidt's declaration unnerved more than a few people. But if I were monetizing Google's growing collection of search data, I too would use this line when marketing to states, businesses, and advertisers. For the US military in the throes of the Wikileaks' revelations, Schmidt's announcement might be reassuring, an excellent business proposition. But is Schmidt's assertion possible? Or is it one of those technological promises like 'we will sequence the genome and cure disease', or 'voice recognition software will translate anything', that will ultimately fail to advance as promised?

  • Technological Unveiling

    Even if Google's promise doesn't reach its imagined apex, today's technology allows the unprecedented unveiling of people. From the article, "The Web Means The End of Forgetting", in New York Times:

    "In 1890, in perhaps the most famous article on privacy ever written, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology -- like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press -- ''gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.'' But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet."

    The author goes on to describe companies who make a business of restoring a marred on-line reputation, showing that the technological unveiling phenomena is certainly not hurting business for anyone, of course, and this is key. Now that Google reassuringly promises to restore the balance of power for business and governments that might feel as though information is a little too "free", by promising that not even one commenter will be inadvertently shielded, those who may have been threatened by the internet (governments) can relax?

  • Does the Internet Propagate Bombast, Polarity, and Cognitive Dissonance?

    On one hand Google promises to predict "where you will go next". On the other hand, for individuals who want to be heard, the internet is so vast their voices easily get lost. Although people who once held a prominent platform of authority seem most anguished in their reactions to this, public discourse in science, politics, economics, immigration, foreign policy -- anything -- now turns to YELLING, goes polar, spirals downhill, and gets crazy and scraped of tempered reason. Some people wonder if the web is to blame for the rumor cacophony.

    But strangely, some of the same people who have focused on the internet's role in incivility, have in fact been most falsely and most viciously maligned, not on the internet, but by talk show hosts with daily audiences in the millions -- Cass Sunstein by Glenn Beck, for instance. In his latest salvo Glenn Beck told audiences that Sunstein would lead government to tax "rumors". This might indeed undermine Beck's existence, if only it were true.

    As I've mentioned, I don't agree that the web has promulgated incivility. With the web, at least, there's some barrier of entry -- both internet access, and the ability to read. Talk shows on radio and TV are far more accessible not only to those who like to be talked at, but to the millions of workers/voters whose jobs involve driving or working everyday NOT at the computer. Arguably, Glenn Beck single-handedly contributes far more to the culture of incivility, intolerance, and hate crimes, than the skeeviest internet site or most prolific or vile commenter.

    But as I see it, the internet seems more unwieldy to the people/organizations/institutions who before the internet, enjoyed a much more exclusive and unassailable platform.

  • "Why American Writers and Speakers are Often Bombastic"

    People love to blame the rise of the internet for incivility and the like, but perhaps we've always been a society prone to uncivil bombast. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote of his observations traveling around America, in his book "Democracy in America:

    "Each citizen of a democracy generally spends his time considering the interests of a very insignificant person, namely, himself. If he ever does raise his eyes higher, he sees nothing but the huge apparition of society or the even larger form of the human race. He has nothing between very limited and clear ideas and very general and very vague conceptions; the space between is empty..."

    "Writers, for their part, almost always pander to this propensity which they share; they inflate their imaginations and swell them out beyond bounds, so that they achieve gigantism...By this means they hope to catch the eye of the crowd at once and easily keep it fixed on themselves, an object in which they often succeed..."

    Wrote Tocqueville: "Writer and public join in corrupting each other."

  • How Things Work: To War! With Excellent "Evidence"!

    The internet is not the only territory of falsehoods and rumors. Carne Ross, UK diplomat in charge of the Iraq dossier at the UN who resigned the Foreign Office over the Iraq War, cited some British documents detailing the risks of invading Iraq versus the successful containment policy at the time. What method did the US and UK use to convince the public? The Financial Times quotes Ross:

    "This process of exaggeration was gradual and proceeded by accretion and editing from document to document, in a way that allowed those participating to convince themselves that they were not engaged in blatant dishonesty. But this process led to highly misleading statements about the UK assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies."

    In comparison, the ("fictional") movie, "In The Loop" satirizes the British government's Iraq decisions for it's abrupt and buffoonish launch into war war. While the underlying arguments of mushroom clouds and the like have been proven groundless, we have a mix of theories as to how the UK and US managed the PR segue into war.

  • WikiLeaks

    Andrew Bacevich, and also the New Yorker, noted some hypocrisy in the US military's stance on WikiLeaks (no, not with the 'blood on their hands' drumbeat). They observe that the military's intention to punish the perpetrator of the Afghanistan documents leak runs opposite of the military's complacency about its own leaks in the past. Bacevich said (transcript):

    I do think is a reprehensible action. But it's also reprehensible when, in the summer of 2009, before President Obama had made his Afghanistan decision, that the McChrystal recommendation was leaked to the Washington Post, which effectively hijacked the debate over what the Obama administration should do about the Afghanistan war. And I don't remember Admiral Mullen or Secretary Gates or these other people deciding that they were going to go find out who leaked the McChrystal recommendations, because I believe that that is as reprehensible as this leak of the 90,000 documents. That was a direct assault on civilian control of the military. So if you're going to get upset about one, you ought to get upset about the other, too."

    WikiLeaks continues to be a fascinating case study for the military, technology, journalism, international law, and foreign policy, as well as bystanders.

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