Later On

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Archive for November 4th, 2013

I have seen the future, and it is drone-heavy

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Tim Johnson of McClatchy reports:

U.S. drone attacks in places like Pakistan and Yemen have gathered a lot of attention. Less so is the explosion of drone usage in Latin America.

The issue of drones came up last Friday before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and one of the speakers was Santiago Canton, an Argentine lawyer who was the commission’s former executive secretary and now is director at the RFK Partners for Human Rights, a Washington advocacy group.

Canton said 14 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean now deploy drones or have already purchased them. Others have hosted U.S. drones.

“The Argentinean army has developed its own drone technology for aerial surveillance. Brazil is the country of Latin America that has the highest number of drones, both produced nationally and purchased outside the country,” Canton said.

“Bolivia has just purchased drones for its air force, and it has signed an agreement with Brazil to have Brazilian drones identify coca-producing areas. Chile has sophisticated drones and they’ve bought Iranian ones for their borders and for surveillance throughout their country.

“In addition to joint exercises with the United States, Colombians have manufactured and purchased (drones) and used their own technologies. They use them for their borders, operations against the FARC and also for intelligence gathering.

“The Ecuadorean army has purchased them and is using its own technology to develop them and use them on its border with Colombia.

“Mexican Federal Police are using drones in security operations and anti-drug-trafficking. Mexico City uses them for demonstrations. Panama uses them to monitor drug trafficking. The Peruvian army uses drones for the Apurimac area where the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path guerrillas) operate.

The Uruguayan army also has a drone program while Trinidad and Tobago has plans to acquire drones for drug trafficking monitoring, he said. Belize has used drones mainly for conservation purposes, and Costa Rica uses them for volcanic studies.

“El Salvador apparently has purchased drones from Israel, and U.S. drones have been used in The Bahamas, Colombia, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Panama, Aruba and Curacao,” Canton said.

In most cases, drone usage is under military control with no civilian oversight. With the exception of Brazil, Canada and the United States, there are no regulations for domestic use of drones, Canton said.

“We see the chilling effect that this can have on societies … When people want to have public demonstrations, drones can have a chilling effect and can intimidate people from doing this.”

So even as the United States debates its drone policy, the issue is percolating South of the Border.

Soon increasingly active in the US.

The core driver: Some corporations stand to make a lot of money if they can sell a lot of drones, so the chance to make money means that these companies will lobby Congress, contribute to campaign funds, write legislation, stimulate grass-roots support where their factories are located, and basically do whatever it takes to drive up sales.  And they will generally succeed in getting laws passed to promote their sales. Everyone is rewarded: the company, the Representatives and Senators, the people who have jobs as a result. This is how we got private prisons, and subsequently mandatory minimum sentences, and three-strikes laws: filling the prisons.

This is exactly why Eisenhower warned quite bluntly against the military-industrial-Congressional complex. (He was convinced to remove the last, but it was in there originally.) You see the process repeatedly, and so we know this is highly likely, just as the spread of SWAT teams.

I bet a lot of drone makers really hope to keep the War on Drugs churning along, requiring ever more equipment and manpower. Lots of money to be made in drugs: selling them or waging war on them.

UPDATE: Drone use in Latin America constitutes the out-of-town tryouts before hitting Broadway.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 4:49 pm

Why Healthcare.gov Broke: Two Competing Story Lines

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Interesting article by Charles Ornstein in ProPublica:

This weekend brought more than a modicum of clarity to what happened behind the scenes in the run-up to the Oct. 1 launch of Healthcare.gov.

In a devastating story, Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post dissected how politics trumped policy when it came to the Affordable Care Act. In two key paragraphs, they wrote:

Based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former administration officials and outsiders who worked alongside them, the project was hampered by the White House’s political sensitivity to Republican hatred of the law — sensitivity so intense that the president’s aides ordered that some work be slowed down or remain secret for fear of feeding the opposition. Inside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the main agency responsible for the exchanges, there was no single administrator whose full-time job was to manage the project. Republicans also made clear they would block funding, while some outside IT companies that were hired to build the Web site, HealthCare.gov, performed poorly.

These interwoven strands ultimately caused the exchange not to be ready by its Oct. 1 start date. It was not ready even though, on the balmy Sunday evening of March 21, 2010, hours after the bill had been enacted, the president had stood on the Truman Balcony for a champagne toast with his weary staff and put them on notice: They needed to get started on carrying out the law the very next morning. It was not ready even though, for months beginning last spring, the president emphasized the exchange’s central importance during regular staff meetings to monitor progress. No matter which aspects of the sprawling law had been that day’s focus, the official said, Obama invariably ended the meeting the same way: “All of that is well and good, but if the Web site doesn’t work, nothing else matters.”

The Post also posted online a May 2010 letter written by David Cutler, a Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign, to Larry Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council. In it, Cutler wrote:

My general view is that the early implementation efforts are far short of what it will take to implement reform successfully. For health reform to be successful, the relevant people need a vision about health system transformation and the managerial ability to carry out that vision. The President has sketched out such a vision. However, I do not believe the relevant members of the Administration understand the President’s vision or have the capability to carry it out.

Another piece worth a read: “What’s Really Obstructing Obamacare? GOP Resisters,” by Michael Tomasky of Newsweek/Daily Beast. Tomasky writes that while media reports have focused on the problems of Healthcare.gov, not enough attention has been paid to the efforts by Republicans to obstruct the law. He wrote:

All across the country, Republican governors and insurance commissioners have actively and directly blocked efforts to make the law work. In August, the Obama administration announced that it had awarded contracts to 105 “navigators” to help guide people through their new predicaments and options. There were local health-care providers, community groups, Planned Parenthood outposts, and even business groups. Again—people and groups given the job, under an existing federal law, to help people understand that law.

What has happened, predictably, is that in at least 17 states where Republicans are in charge, a variety of roadblocks has been thrown in front of these folks. In Indiana, they were required to pay fees of $175. In Florida, which under Governor Rick Scott (who knows a thing or two about how to game the health-care system, you may recall) has been probably the most aggressive state of all here, the health department ruled that local public-health offices can’t have navigators on their premises (interesting, because local public health offices tend to be where uninsured people hang out). In West Virginia, Utah, Pennsylvania, and other states, grantees have said no thanks and returned the dough after statewide GOP elected officials started getting in their faces and asking lots of questions about how they operate and what they planned to do. Tennessee issued “emergency rules” requiring their employees to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks.

America, 2013: No background checks to buy assault weapons. But you damn well better not try to enroll someone in health care.

I suspect in the weeks ahead, we will see more reporting on both story lines: how the administration mismanaged the rollout of the law and how Republicans have tried to ensure its failure. But let’s not lose sight of consumers, whose lives will be directly affected by the act and what’s happening now.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 2:45 pm

NIST to Review Standards After Cryptographers Cry Foul Over NSA Meddling

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Interesting. I imagine that NIST is ashamed, much as a sitting judge would be by the disclosure that s/he had accepted bribes from the prosecutor. Jeff Larson has the story in ProPublica:

The federal institute that sets national standards for how government, private citizens and business guard the privacy of their files and communications is reviewing all of its previous recommendations.

The move comes after ProPublica, The Guardian and The New York Times disclosed that the National Security Agency had worked to secretly weaken standards to make it easier for the government to eavesdrop.

The review, announced late Friday afternoon by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, will also include an assessment of how the institute creates encryption standards.

The institute sets national standards for everything from laboratory safety to high-precision timekeeping. NIST’s cryptographic standards are used by software developers around the world to protect confidential data. They are crucial ingredients for privacy on the Internet, and are designed to keep Internet users safe from being eavesdropped on when they make purchases online, pay bills or visit secure websites.

But as the investigation by ProPublica, The Guardian and The New York Times in September revealed, the National Security Agency spends $250 million a year on a project called “SIGINT Enabling” to secretly undermine encryption. One of the key goals, documents said, was to use the agency’s influence to weaken the encryption standards that NIST and other standards bodies publish. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 2:42 pm

Herbal supplements, unregulated, untrustworthy

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I’m certainly going to review my own supplements. Take a look at this NY Times article by Anahad O’Connor.

Americans spend an estimated $5 billion a year on unproven herbal supplements that promise everything from fighting off colds to curbing hot flashes and boosting memory. But now there is a new reason for supplement buyers to beware: DNA tests show that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds.

Using a test called DNA barcoding, a kind of genetic fingerprinting that has also been used to help uncover labeling fraud in the commercial seafood industry, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.

Consumer advocates and scientists say the research provides more evidence that the herbal supplement industry is riddled with questionable practices. Industry representatives argue that any problems are not widespread.

For the study, the researchers selected popular medicinal herbs, and then randomly bought different brands of those products from stores and outlets in Canada and the United States. To avoid singling out any company, they did not disclose any product names. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Health

Gamers, take note: The next step in game hardware

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Fascinating, even to a non-gamer like me. This Washington Post article by Andrea Peterson describes the goals and development methodology of the Valve Steam Machine.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 2:26 pm

Tapping Medical Marijuana’s Potential

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Because the Federal government has classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug—no medical benefits—and research into possible medical benefits is not allowed (because there aren’t any, as stated in the law), we really don’t know much about the benefits of marijuana (other than the benefit of enormous sums of money flowing to law enforcement, which (probably coincidentally) opposes legalization).

Jane Brody, in the NY Times today, discusses where we might go from here:

Marijuana has been used medically, recreationally and spiritually for about 5,000 years. Known botanically as cannabis, it has been called a “crude drug”: marijuana contains more than 400 chemicals from 18 chemical families. More than 2,000 compounds are released when it is smoked, and as with tobacco, there are dangers in smoking it.

Medical marijuana clinics operate in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and its recreational use is now legal in Colorado and Washington. A Gallup poll conducted last month found that 58 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana.

Yet researchers have been able to do relatively little to test its most promising ingredients for biological activity, safety and side effects. The main reason is marijuana’s classification by Congress in 1970 as an illegal Schedule I drug, defined as having a potential for abuse and addiction and no medical value.

American scientists seeking clarification of marijuana’s medical usefulness have long been stymied by this draconian classification, usually reserved for street drugs like heroin with a high potential for abuse.

Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said the classification was primarily political and ignored more than 40 years of scientific research, which has shown that cellular receptors for marijuana’s active ingredients are present throughout the body. Natural substances called cannabinoids bind to them to influence a wide range of body processes.

In a lengthy report entitled “Blurred Boundaries: The Therapeutics and Politics of Medical Marijuana,” published last year in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr. Bostwick noted that the so-called endocannabinoid system has an impact on the “autonomic nervous system, immune system, gastrointestinal tract, reproductive system, cardiovascular system and endocrine network.”

There is evidence that several common disorders, including epilepsy,alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, involve disruptions in the endocannabinoid system, suggesting that those patients might benefit from marijuana or its ingredients.

The strongest evidence for the health benefits of medical marijuana or its derivatives involves the treatment of chronic neuropathic pain and thespasticity caused by multiple sclerosis. Medical marijuana is widely recognized as effective against nausea and appetite loss caused bychemotherapy, although better treatments are now available. But preliminary research and anecdotal reports have suggested that marijuana might be useful in treating a number of other conditions, including irritable bowel syndromeCrohn’s diseaseglaucomamigraine,cancer growth, abnormal heart rhythmsAlzheimer’s disease,fibromyalgia, incontinence, bacterial infections, osteoporosis, intenseitching, Tourette’s syndrome and sleep apnea.

“Medical experts emphasize the need to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug to facilitate rigorous scientific evaluation of the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids and to determine the optimal dose and delivery route for conditions in which efficacy is established,” Diane E. Hoffmann and Ellen Weber, legal experts at the University of Maryland, wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Marijuana’s best-known ingredient . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 11:42 am

Posted in Drug laws, Medical, Science

Intrinsic sources of Obamacare complaints

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One problem, of course, is the lack of qualifications to Obama’s promise, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” which required one more phrase, “if your insurer continues to offer it.”

It’s the lack of that phrase that raises people’s ire as insurance companies cancel the junk healthcare insurance policies that are no longer legal (e.g., pays only doctor visits, not hospital stays; requires $40 co-pay for doctor visits; no prescription coverage; annual cap on covered expenses at $2,000, lifetime cap at $6,000—but the premiums are really low. I think you can see why. (Somehow I remember Woody Allen’s gag in Annie Hall: “The food at this resort is terrible,” says one, and the other responds, “Yes, and such small portions, too.”

Ezra Klein takes a look at the tradeoffs in this informative column in Wonkblog at the Washington Post:

Health-care consultant Bob Laszewski buys insurance on the individual market in Maryland. His plan’s benefits are excellent. “I can access every provider in the national Blue Cross network––about every doc and hospital in America––without a referral and without higher deductibles and co-pays,” he writes.

And there’s no catch. “My plan covers about everything,” he continues. “Never had a procedure for either my wife or myself  turned down. Wellness benefits are without a deductible. It covers mental health, drugs, maternity, anything I can think of.”

But his plan is ending. The replacements all have tighter networks, higher deductibles, and higher premiums. And Laszewski isn’t alone. Many Americans who currently buy insurance on the individual markets are seeing their plans canceled and finding the replacement plans have higher premiums or stingier benefits. For them, President Obama’s promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep it,” is proving a cruel hoax.

These cancellations are the direct and inevitable result of Obamacare’s most popular promises: That it would put an end to discrimination based on preexisting conditions, that it would limit discrimination against the old, and that it would make sure your health insurance actually cover you if you got sick.

That sounded good every time the president said it. But part of the reason it sounded so good is that the people benefiting from this discrimination didn’t know they were benefiting from it. But people in the individual market right now are paying less because of discrimination against the old and sick. When that discrimination ends, a lot of them will end up paying more.

I don’t have any special knowledge of Laszewski’s plan. But the likely explanation for why his rate is going up is reasonably simple: Sick people will be able to join his plan, too.

A plan like the one Laszewski has is extremely attractive to anyone who is sick, or thinks they might one day get sick. So insurers tend to discriminate for those plans aggressively. That’s not to say no one who joins the plans ever gets sick. They do, and they’re happy to have such excellent coverage when that day comes. But the premiums are much lower because the insurer is keeping out the people who their actuarial models say will need the plan most.

The Affordable Care Act changes all that. Insurers in Maryland can no longer turn people away because they’re likely to get sick. That means they have to assume that the average applicant in a plan like Bob’s is about to get a lot sicker — and that means they have to raise the premium. To return to the health-care trilemma, Laszewski’s plan just went from here: . . .

Continue reading.

Insurance companies have obvious financial reasons for wanting to sell their policies only to those unlikely to need them, and to refuse to sell to those who are likely to need insurance. But that’s not the direction we want. The next step would be simply to mail to the insurance company a check every month, in return for which you get a “thank you” postcard. No insurance need change hands, since they are selling only to those who are very unlikely to use it. As Klein points out:

That’s bad for Laszewski, who also makes too much money to qualify for subsidies. But it’s good for the people who couldn’t get into the plan previously. Laszewski’s low(er) premiums were a function of the fact that they literally couldn’t buy the insurance. Now they can. The previous system was better for Laszewski and terrible for them. The new system is worse for Laszewski but vastly better for them.

Sarah Kliff adds more detail to the picture with this article, on what we now know about Obamacare shoppers. Well worth the click, with a variety of graphs and charts.

And Arit John has an intriguing article at the Atlantic Wire: “Don’t Let Your For-Profit Insurer Pick Your New Healthcare Plan“.

UPDATE: Consumers Reports debunks one of the “rate shock” horror stories: “That Florida woman’s canceled Blue Cross policy? It’s junk insurance. – She can get a real plan for only $165 a month“:

Did you recently get a notice saying that your insurance company is canceling your policy because it doesn’t meet the new health law’s higher standards? Thousands of people are, and many are angry about it. But before you rush to judgement, it might not be as bad as it seems.

Conisder the case of Diane Barrette, a 56-year-old woman from Winter Haven, Fla. Her story was featured in this CBS News report and endlessly echoed on the Internet. She was upset because Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida was canceling her $54-a-month “GoBlue plan 91” and offering to replace it with a $591-a-month “Blue Options Essential plan.”

Sounds terrible—except that Barrette’s expiring policy is a textbook example of a junk plan that isn’t real health insurance at all. If she had ever tried to use it for anything more than an occasional doctor visit or inexpensive prescription, she would have ended up with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical debt.

Here are some of the gory details. (You can see the rest for yourself on this complete plan summary from the insurance company.)

  • The plan pays only the first $50 of doctor visits, leaving Ms. Barrette to pay the rest. Specialist visits can cost several hundred dollars.
  • Only the first $15 of a prescription is covered. Some prescriptions can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month
  • The plan only pays for hospitalization for “complications of pregnancy,” which are unlikely given Ms. Barrette’s age and in any event only the first $50 is covered.
  • It pays $50 for a mammogram that can cost several hundred dollars, and only pays $50 apiece for advanced imaging tests such as MRIs and CT scans and then only when used for osteoporosis screening.

“She’s paying $650 a year to be uninsured,” Karen Pollitz, an insurance expert at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, said. “I have to assume that she never really had to make much of a claim under this policy. She would have lost the house she’s sitting in if something serious had happened. I don’t know if she knows that.”

In fact, had Blue Cross Blue Shield allowed her to keep the plan, she would have been fined for going uninsured in 2014. Limited plans such as these are considered “excepted benefits” that don’t fulfill the new obligation to have health coverage.

Okay, but can’t we be outraged that Ms. Barrette will have to fork over $591 a month for a replacement plan? Actually, no, because she has other and better options than the costly plan Blue Cross Blue Shield wants to put her in. She get real insurance that covers all essential health benefits for well under $200 a month. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 10:46 am

Looking at the Internet in 1988

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The problems discussed in the previous post were still latent back in 1988, when a cub reporter at the Washington Post was assigned to write a piece about this thing they call an “internet.” Worth reading for those of a certain age.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 10:29 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Looking for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook

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The key is that habits of thought—psychological responses and triggers that are routinized (checking text messages and quickly sending replies)—shape one’s personality: behaviors (including responses) become a part of the person. This can, of course, be excellent or horrifying, depending on the habits. A habit of judicious consideration of available evidence leads to one sort of person, the habit of leaping in without a thought or care to another.

In the NY Times Andrew Reiner looks at the habits of mind and patterns of behavior that follow from some of our new communications media:

IT WAS the only time I have ever allowed college students to have their cellphones out during class, in their hands no less.

“I want you to send a text to a friend,” I told students in my course, “The Search for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook.” “It has to be a text that shares your true feelings about something this friend has done or said that upset you but that you never said anything about. And you can’t spend a lot of time agonizing over the wording. Say what you mean and hit ‘send.’ ”

Their eyes bugged wider than when we had talked about hookups. “I’m really hating you right now,” one student murmured, half-jokingly, her eyes locked in the oncoming headlights.

This dilating of my students’ apertures, I’ve come to believe, is exactly what they need both in and outside the classroom if they are going to have the kind of success and fulfillment they desire. That’s because the parts of their lives that truly matter to many of them during college — high marks and solid “A” social lives — are undermined by a widespread, constricting social anxiety that comes, paradoxically, from two of their greatest pleasures: texting and social media. A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness. Perhaps not surprisingly, this angsting can also lead to an unhealthy quest for perfection, a social perfection, which breeds an aperture-narrowing conformity.

I got my first glimpse of this at Towson University, where I teach. When I entered the classroom for the first time, I was baffled by glaring contradictions. Students arrived to class early yet they sat still, avoided eye contact and rarely took part in discussions. (If and when they finally spoke up, it usually came on the heels of another student’s comment, and they invariably prefaced their remarks by saying, “First of all, I agree with what you just said,” even if they contradicted their classmate in the next breath.) They handed in assignments (on time) that were formatted with the kind of attention to detail and design you might find in a shareholders prospectus. Yet the ideas darted in so many directions like dragonflies, never penetrating the surface.

I implored students to dig deeper, to mine the complexity and creativity of their ideas; they responded with fancy fonts and grammar check. Frustrated and looking for answers, I took the direct approach and asked students to journal about their risk-taking reticence. A few brave souls confessed to fearing classmates’ judgment for saying or writing something “stupid” or, worse, something that “set them apart.”

I remembered quiet classrooms from my college days, but this was different. Their avoidant silence ultimately hurt their grades and was part of the reason I developed the intimacy course.

More than another literature or creative writing course, these students needed a guide to the twisted subterranean landscape beneath their plugged-in social lives. Texting seemed like the logical place to drop our first pin. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 10:19 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Issues around labeling GMO foods

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Very interesting article on Wonkblog by Brad Plumer taking a careful look at issues involved in genetically modified foods:

On Tuesday, Washington state residents will vote on whether to approve Initiative 522, which would require genetically modified foods sold in stores to be labeled accordingly. If it passes, it would be the first such law in the country.

GMO foods

An image from an hour-long documentary on GMOs produced by Washington’s public television network.

Here’s the text of the law (pdf). Those in favor, including organic food companies and food activists, argue that Washington state residents have a right to know what’s in their food. The “yes” campaign has raised $7 million, much of it from small donations.

Those opposed, including various food and biotechnology giants, say the law could lead to higher prices at the grocery store and frivolous lawsuits. The “no” campaign has raised at least $22 million, with large food companies and agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg donating heavily.

The vote in Washington state is likely the first of many labeling fights to come. At least 20 states are now considering similar laws, and a small-but-growing contingent in Congress is backing a bill to require mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods. So here’s a primer on the broader debate:

How do you genetically modify food? Farmers have been selectively breeding crops for tens of thousands of years in order to produce desirable genetic traits. But that’s not what’s at issue here. Since the 1990s, scientists have been able to manipulate the genomes of crops and animals directly.

That might involve things like taking a few well-characterized genes from a different species (say, bacteria) and transplanting them into a crop (say, corn) to produce certain desired traits. This is very different from traditional plant breeding, and it’s what is causing all the controversy.

Why would anyone manipulate genes like that? For a variety of reasons. Some crops are modified to be resistant to herbicides — such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans — so that it’s easier to spray fields with weed-killer [i.e., pour more toxins on land used to grow food – LG]. By contrast, Bt corn is modified with a bacterial gene in order to secrete a poison that kills pests. That can actually reduce the need for chemical pesticides.There are other potential uses, too: Golden rice has been modified to help alleviate Vitamin A deficiency among children in countries such as the Philippines. (So far, however, golden rice is still in the testing phase and has met fierce opposition from protesters.)

So there’s no one single type of genetically modified food? Right. Simply saying that a food is “genetically modified” doesn’t tell you very much. Genetic modification is a tool that can be used for many purposes.

In practice, biotech companies like Monsanto tend to focus their research efforts on making crops more profitable, rather than, say, making foods in poorer countries more nutritious. But some researchers, such as U.C. Davis’s Pamela Ronald, are interested in harnessing genetic techniques for sustainability purposes.

How prevalent are GM foods? More than 88 percent of the corn and soy planted in the United States is genetically modified in some way. Most of that ends up as animal feed or ethanol or corn syrup, which in turn gets into lots of foods. Cotton, sugar beets and canola are also common genetically modified crops. Roughly 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain at least some genetically modified ingredients.

Are GM foods safe, health-wise? So far, there’s been little scientific evidence that they’re harmful. At this point, billions of people around the world have been eating GM foods for decades. And numerous scientific bodies have concluded that genetically modified crops pose no more of a health risk than conventional crops.Here’s what the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said in a 2012 statement: “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” The American Medical Association agrees with this. So do scientific bodies in Europe.

A small minority of scientists, however, insist that more research needs to be done before GM foods can be so definitively considered safe. In a dissent to that AAAS statement, 21 researchers argued that U.S. testing of genetically modified foods is still voluntary, and that things like increased herbicide use — which can occur with things like Roundup Ready crops — may have health effects we don’t yet know about. So, they say, why not label and let consumers make up their own minds?

Are genetically modified crops good or bad for the environment? So far, most government agencies are unconvinced that genetically modified foods pose an environmental threat. Here’s the National Research Council in 2010: “Generally, GE crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”

In some cases, GM crops can benefit the environment. Cotton that’s engineered to be pest-resistant can allow farmers to use fewer chemical pesticides. Insecticide use in U.S. corn fields has fallen significantly since 1996 as genetically modified Bt corn has become more prevalent (see chart above).

Still, there are some legitimate concerns. For instance, farmers planting herbicide-resistant GM crops tend to use a limited range of herbicides on their fields, which in turn has given rise to some herbicide-resistant “super weeds.” That, in turn, leads to the search for new herbicides — what critics have called a “chemical treadmill.” And there’s the risk that genetically engineered traits could escape into nature.

That all said, there are risks to conventional crops, too, and the National Research Council found genetically modified crops, on balance, less harmful.

So what would Washington’s law actually do? . . .

Continue reading.

As in any major decision, there are tradeoffs, and one should not ignore the costs involved in either approach.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 10:01 am

Posted in Business, Food, Science

Collateral damage in the War on Drugs

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It should be noted that the War on Drugs is totally discretionary: there are many other approaches to drugs than warfare, and the other approaches turn out in practice to be less expensive and more affective. Of course, they don’t involve guns…

Robert Kahn reports at Courthouse News:

Every so often, powerful government officials pull a stunt so arrogant and stupid you have to wonder whether they’ve lost their minds.

Such was the case in a lawsuit filed in Houston this week against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Courthouse News reporter Cameron Langford wrote in his Thursday story: “DEA officials ‘commandeered’ a small businessman’s truck and left him to pay for the damage after it was ‘shot to smithereens’ in a shootout between federal agents and the Zeta drug cartel.”

That’s right: Without telling the businessman, who owned two trucks, the DEA arranged for him to hire an undercover snitch to drive a load of dope in one. But the Zetas got wise, shot the truck to pieces, killing the snitch and wounding a sheriff’s deputy – and the DEA stuck the businessman with the bill for the bullet-riddled truck.

Then the DEA had the brass to demand to search the poor businessman’s house.

No one who has had to deal with the DEA will doubt this story. It reminds me of a man I met when I worked as a paralegal inside U.S. immigration prisons.

This fellow had a signed letter from a death squad threatening to kill him for working with the DEA, but I couldn’t help him apply for political asylum.

This was in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was arming, training and covering up for death squads who were murdering and torturing to death thousands of innocent people in Central America.

The fellow with the letter from the death squad was not innocent. He was a drug dealer. He told me so. The DEA got him busted in his home country and turned him into a snitch. With his help, the DEA intercepted a ship carrying more than 1,000 tons of marijuana, then blew his cover and left him at the mercy of the cartels.

He fled to the United States, was busted by the Border Patrol and sent to an immigration prison, where he told me his tale.

He showed me the letter from the death squad, which stated clearly, in Spanish, that they would kill him for working with the DEA. He saved the envelope, too, with the postmark. He showed me two newspaper articles about the bust of the ship.

There was no question that the DEA had turned this guy and then thrown him to the sharks.

I couldn’t help him because he didn’t qualify for political asylum. He was a criminal.

I told his story to our attorneys and asked if there was anything we could do for him, as he was a dead man in his home country.

The next day, news of the Iran Contra scandal broke, and the DEA snitch got lost in the shuffle. I don’t know what happened to him.

Also lost in the shuffle, by a spineless U.S. press, was that Uncle Sam’s criminal intermediaries were allowed to fly planeloads of cocaine and marijuana to the United States after the CIA contract planes had been emptied of missiles for the ayatollah.

This was a key element of the Iran Contra deals, but practically no one remembers it, or was informed of it at the time.

I have no beef with the frontline agents of the DEA. They are brave men and women. They risk their lives every day dealing with murderous scumballs. If they turn the scumballs into snitches on their bosses, so be it.

But there is no excuse for the DEA to entangle an innocent businessman in its toils, at the cost of half of his “fleet” of trucks; nor to make him pay to repair his truck after the DEA-inspired bloodbath; nor to endanger his life because the shootout, which made the evening news, made him, according to the federal lawsuit, “fear, of course, that his identity would be discovered by the Zeta cartel and that they, believing he had cooperated with … the Task Force, might seek retribution.”

It’s arrogance and stupidity like this that is making the United States hated around the world, and now, even at home.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 9:24 am

Posted in Drug laws

Marijuana and alcohol: A NY Times editorial

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People are beginning to wake up to the tradeoffs that we made in having alcohol be legal and marijuana illegal. The editors of the NY Times write:

Americans are growing more comfortable with marijuana, with 58 percent favoring legalization, according to the latest Gallup poll. At the same time, some researchers believe they have identified a side benefit to increasing availability of the drug: It could lead to decreased consumption of alcohol among young people.

In a paper in the winter issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, two researchers — D. Mark Anderson of Montana State University and Daniel Rees of the University of Colorado at Denver — report that legalization of marijuana for medical purposes has been associated with reductions in heavy drinking, especially among 18- to 29-year-olds, and with an almost 5 percent decrease in beer sales. In addition, the increase in the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 seems to encourage greater marijuana use among people under 21, usage that drops sharply when they reach the legal drinking age.

If marijuana is widely legalized for recreational purposes (only Washington State and Colorado have taken that step), the consequences are far from clear. But assuming the argument that alcohol and marijuana are “substitutes” bears out, that could be good news, especially for road safety. Of the two substances, alcohol is far more hazardous.

For the most part, marijuana-intoxicated drivers show only modest impairments on road tests. Several studies have suggested that drivers under the influence of marijuana actually overestimate their impairment. They slow down and increase their following distance. The opposite is true of drivers under the influence of alcohol.

A lot of statements about the effects of legalizing marijuana are pure supposition with no grounding in experience, and experience is still rich enough to offer surprises: it’s better to base conclusions on evidence rather than “common sense.”

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 9:13 am

Posted in Drug laws

Special Investigation: How Insurers Are Hiding Obamacare Benefits From Customers

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Dylan Scott writes at TPM DC:

Donna received the letter canceling her insurance plan on Sept. 16. Her insurance company, LifeWise of Washington, told her that they’d identified a new plan for her. If she did nothing, she’d be covered.

A 56-year-old Seattle resident with a 57-year-old husband and 15-year-old daughter, Donna had been looking forward to the savings that the Affordable Care Act had to offer.

But that’s not what she found. Instead, she’d be paying an additional $300 a month for coverage. The letter made no mention of the health insurance marketplace that would soon open in Washington, where she could shop for competitive plans, and only an oblique reference to financial help that she might qualify for, if she made the effort to call and find out.

Otherwise, she’d be automatically rolled over to a new plan — and, as the letter said, “If you’re happy with this plan, do nothing.”

If Donna had done nothing, she would have ended up spending about $1,000 more a month for insurance than she will now that she went to the marketplace, picked the best plan for her family and accessed tax credits at the heart of the health care reform law.

“The info that we were sent by LifeWise was totally bogus. Why the heck did they try to screw us?” Donna said. “People who are afraid of the ACA should be much more afraid of the insurance companies who will exploit their fear and end up overcharging them.”

Donna is not alone.

Across the country, insurance companies have sent misleading letters to consumers, trying to lock them into the companies’ own, sometimes more expensive health insurance plans rather than let them shop for insurance and tax credits on the Obamacare marketplaces — which could lead to people like Donna spending thousands more for insurance than the law intended. In some cases, mentions of the marketplace in those letters are relegated to a mere footnote, which can be easily overlooked.

The extreme lengths to which some insurance companies are going to hold on to existing customers at higher price, as the Affordable Care Act fundamentally re-orders the individual insurance market, has caught the attention of state insurance regulators.

The insurance companies argue that it’s simply capitalism at work. But regulators don’t see it that way. By warning customers that their health insurance plans are being canceled as a result of Obamacare and urging them to secure new insurance plans before the Obamacare launched on Oct. 1, these insurers put their customers at risk of enrolling in plans that were not as good or as affordable as what they could buy on the marketplaces.

TPM has confirmed two specific examples where companies contacted their customers prior to the marketplace’s Oct. 1 opening and pushed them to renew their health coverage at a higher price than they would pay through the marketplace. State regulators identified the schemes, but they weren’t necessarily able to stop them. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 9:10 am

The Celts were smarter than we think

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Their history, alas, was mainly written by their conquering enemy. Laura Miller discusses in Salon Graham Robb’s book on discovering the remains of the Celtic civilization:

Graham Robb is an ambling historian. His best-known book, The Discovery of France, was based on his travels over 14,000 miles of road by bicycle. France, he argued, is not the culturally homogenous whole it’s typically assumed to be, but an assemblage of distinct and often insular local cultures. As Robb sees it, history, and especially its concealed but detectable residue, can be better understood up close, by putting your feet on the ground where it happened.

Perhaps fittingly, then, Robb’s new book, The Discovery of Middle-Earth, constitutes a detour. I should state immediately that this work has nothing to do with J.R.R. Tolkien, and was published under the title “The Ancient Paths” in the U.K., where Robb lives. But “The Discovery of Middle-Earth” might well appeal to the more cerebral and historically inclined portion of the Tolkien fan base, and the title is not inappropriate: Long before Tolkien adopted the name Middle-earth for his imaginary land, the term was used by Celtic and Nordic people for the world we inhabit, halfway between the realm of the gods and the underworld.

It’s the Celtic version of Middle Earth that interests Robb. He was researching a new book by biking along a very old road called the Via Heraklea, which, according to legend, ran from a promontory in Portugal (considered the edge of the known world in classical times), through the Pyrenees and the Alps to Liguria in Italy. The road was said to have been laid down by the Greek hero Hercules, but only fragments of it have survived to modern times, and parts of its course have long been a subject of contention. “In its original, mythic incarnation,” he writes, “the Via Heraklea marches in a straight line like the son of a god for whom a mountain was a paltry obstacle.”

Robb found that if he plotted out the trajectory of this line, it strikes an Alpine pass where sits a spring sacred to the Celts who also associated it with Hercules. In addition, this trajectory follows the angle of the rising sun at the winter solstice as it would have been 2,000 years ago. Another phenomenon that intrigued Robb were six place names along the Via Heraklea that are variants of “Mediolanum,” a name given to about 60 known sites in the ancient Celtic world of continental Europe. (The Italian city Milan is one of them.) Mediolanums are somewhat mysterious, as they seem to have had some significance, yet many of them are in the middle of nowhere (now and historically) and devoid of the religious artifacts typically found at sacred sites. Why were so many of them near the Via Heraklea, and was there some significant connection?

In short, yes, at least according to Robb. he Discovery of Middle-Earth is very much Robb’s own discovery — of what he asserts to be a magnificent, overarching, gridlike pattern, based on the heavens, determining the Celtic settlement of Europe during the Iron Age. At one point, Robb got on his bike (with an unnamed friend) and set off across country, following equinoctial and meridian lines. He describes finding the ruins of temples, forts and towns, questioning assorted experts and slowly assembling this daring theory. Once, while traveling through Picardy, his little expedition stumbled upon “the water-repellent roof of reed thatch and the tan-colored daub of an Iron Age house,” complete with turf fire and an “ancient Gaul” tossing a plaid cloak over his shoulder. The man turned out to be playing a part in an educational exhibit, but since Robb felt like a “visitor to the Iron Age” as it was, the encounter was propitious.

If there were ever an example of history being written by the winner, such is the case with the Celtic civilization that inhabited and at times dominated Europe between about 800 BC to AD 600. This culture was proto-historic: Although the Celts were literate, none of their writings survive, so the only contemporaneous accounts we have were written by Greeks or Romans. The most famous of these is Julius Caesar, who knew these people as the Gauls and conquered them in the Gallic Wars. According to Caesar and other classical historians, the Celts were a loose confederation of warlike and barbaric tribes — albeit, with a learned priestly class called the Druids — who practiced human sacrifice. Romans regarded the Celts in much the same way that Europeans viewed Native Americans, sometimes as noble savages, but as savages all the same.

This picture of the Celts has been slowly corrected over the years, but when Robb visited an underground archaeological site in southern France recently and suggested that some of the remarkably durable engineering in evidence might have been Gaulish in origin rather than Roman, the guide laughed in his face. So to propose, as Robb does in “The Discovery of Middle Earth,” that the Celts were consummate astronomers and surveyors flies in the face of persistent popular conception. The peculiar rhomboid shapes of many Celtic structures have provoked derision, for example (they can’t get anything straight, etc.), but Robb believes that, in fact, the shapes correspond to a method for plotting the circumference of an ellipse using two posts and a string. (If you happened to catch the movie Agora, you saw Rachel Weisz demonstrate this technique in the role of Hypatia of Alexandria describing the orbit of the earth.)

As Robb’s investigations — in libraries, with digital maps and on the road — progressed, he found more and more reason to question the old picture of Celtic backwardness. Romans get credit for building most of Europe’s early roads, but Caesar himself remarked on how quickly the Celts were able to travel, and chariots excavated from Celtic tombs have wheels too delicate to have survived unfinished terrain. Robb is particularly good at ferreting out aspects of the landscape that have endured for centuries or even millennia. New roads tend to be laid down on existing ones, so “a large-scale modern map is not just a snapshot of the network at a given moment, but a multidimensional scan that reveals all the successive strata that make up the present roadscape.” He also believes he has identified a network of shouting stations used by the Celts as a kind of telegraph, allowing news to travel throughout the region with a speed that astounded the Romans.

Above all, Robb believes that the expanding settlement of this famously mobile people was meticulously designed to follow a precise geographical pattern adopted from the skies, “a weirdly accurate projection of the upper world onto Middle Earth.” This would have been no . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 8:59 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with

Key Dodd-Frank Agency Is Being Undermined By Budget Cuts

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The GOP’s tactic when they lose votes to establish a government regulatory agency or does other service to benefit the public is two-fold: Use holds and filibusters to prevent the agency from gaining a manager in charge, and to defund the agency so that it cannot fulfill its function. If they cannot win, they will destroy; if they lose the game, they will burn down the stadium.

Alan Pyke reports at ThinkProgress on the GOP effort to kill another agency in order to eliminate protections for the public:

Congress is underfunding and understaffing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), preventing the agency from fulfilling the expanded role given to it by a very different set of lawmakers under the 2010 Wall Street reform law. The lack of resources is forcing the commission to drop investigations it would likely otherwise pursue, according to top CFTC officials who are close to the end of their terms in office.

Despite facing a higher caseload and more responsibilities, the agency’s enforcement division actually has a smaller staff than it did three years ago according to outgoing director David Meister. At 155 employees, the CFTC enforcement staff is 10 percent smaller than when Meister came into the job, and exactly the same size that it was 11 years ago. “That’s a very small staff compared with the size of the job,” he told the Wall Street Journal. The lack of resources was directly responsible for the CFTC’s decision not to pursue charges against two JP Morgan traders over their alleged involvement in the London Whale trading scandal, even though the two have faced charges from other, better-funded agencies.

As a whole, the commission has just 40 more staffers than it did 20 years ago. Those two decades have seen the financial industry become ever more dependent on technology, requiring similar investments and innovations from regulators in order to keep up. The high-frequency trading that Wall Street’s technology advantage makes possible is supposed to be regulated by the CFTC, which is still drafting the rules. While Congress has upped the agency’s budget from $111 million to $200 million over the past five years, that increase looks less impressive compared to the increase in the scope of the CFTC’s responsibilities. Changes to the law in 2010 increased the size of the markets the commission oversees by more than ten times.

After the high-risk, complex financial products called derivatives helped turn the subprime housing bubble into an international financial crisis, reformers in Congress put the commission in charge of regulating the market for derivatives. That new regulatory system involves an immense and brand-new technology platform for trades involving a type of derivatives called “swaps.” The platform went live on October 1 — the first day of the government shutdown caused by Republican efforts to dismantle Obamacare. “With more than 95 percent of their staff on furlough,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported, CFTC officials “had limited ability to analyze the flood of data” from the new trading platform.

Now the government has reopened, but the CFTC still doesn’t have the budget and staff it needs to properly implement the exchanges, let alone turn the data the exchanges provide into effective oversight of the derivatives market. “Every time I ask someone to go dig into the data, they ask me what three projects do I want them to drop,” CFTC head Gary Gensler told Businessweek. “We’re stretched that thin.” Fellow commissioner Bart Chilton told the Financial Times that the agency simply “will not be able to do everything Congress instructed us to do.”

On top of the underfunding and understaffing, the CFTC has had to contend with internal enemies. Commissioner Mark Wetjen has fought to water down derivatives rules throughout the drafting process. While the agency has earned praise from reformers for its accomplishments under all this strain, Chairman Gensler is stepping down at the end of the year. Insufficient resources and internal divisions make Gensler’s legacy fragile, and the CFTC has a lot of work still to do to fulfill its Dodd-Frank mandates.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 8:44 am

HealthCare.gov: How political fear was pitted against technical needs

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Very interesting after-action report, looking at contributing factors to HealthCare.gov’s abortive launch. Amy Goldstein and Julian Eisperin report in the Washington Post:

In May 2010, two months after the Affordable Care Act squeaked through Congress, President Obama’s top economic aides were getting worried. Larry Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, and Peter Orszag, head of the Office of Management and Budget, had just received a pointed four-page memo from a trusted outside health adviser. It warned that no one in the administration was “up to the task” of overseeing the construction of an insurance exchange and other intricacies of translating the 2,000-page statute into reality.

Summers, Orszag and their staffs agreed. For weeks that spring, a tug of war played out inside the White House, according to five people familiar with the episode. On one side, members of the economic team and Obama health-care adviser Zeke Emanuel lobbied for the president to appoint an outside health reform “czar” with expertise in business, insurance and technology. On the other, the president’s top health aides — who had shepherded the legislation through its tortuous path on Capitol Hill and knew its every detail — argued that they could handle the job.

In the end, the economic team never had a chance: The president had already made up his mind, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid. Obama wanted his health policy team — led by Nancy-Ann De­Parle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform — to be in charge of the law’s arduous implementation. Since the day the bill became law, the official said, the president believed that “if you were to design a person in the lab to implement health care, it would be Nancy-Ann.”

Three and a half years later, such insularity — in that decision and others that would follow — has emerged as a central factor in the disastrous rollout of the new federal health insurance marketplace, casting doubt on the administration’s capacity to carry out such a complex undertaking.

“They were running the biggest start-up in the world, and they didn’t have anyone who had run a start-up, or even run a business,” said David Cutler, a Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign, who was not the individual who provided the memo to The Washington Post but confirmed he was the author. “It’s very hard to think of a situation where the people best at getting legislation passed are best at implementing it. They are a different set of skills.”

The White House’s leadership of the immense project — building new health insurance marketplaces for an estimated 24 million Americans without coverage — is one of several key reasons that the president’s signature domestic policy achievement has become a self-inflicted injury for the administration.

Based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former administration officials and outsiders who worked alongside them, the project was hampered by the White House’s political sensitivity to Republican hatred of the law — sensitivity so intense that the president’s aides ordered that some work be slowed down or remain secret for fear of feeding the opposition. Inside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the main agency responsible for the exchanges, there was no single administrator whose full-time job was to manage the project. Republicans also made clear they would block funding, while some outside IT companies that were hired to build the Web site, HealthCare.gov, performed poorly. . .

Continue reading.

This topic interests me because I’ve worked on quite a few software projects, some of which did have launch problems, though no so severe as HealthCare.gov (which is probably more complex than the systems on which I worked).

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 8:38 am

Report Outlines How the C.I.A. and Department of Defense Violate Medical Ethics

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Brian Feldman at the Atlantic Wire:

A new report from a taskforce of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession has outlined how doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers for the federal government violated their ethical agreements when dealing with terror detainees. As the report outlines, “Military and intelligence-agency physicians and other health professionals, particularly psychologists, became involved in the design and administration of that harsh treatment and torture—in clear conflict with established international and national professional principles and laws.”

The report, based on public record, outlines how the government agencies facilitated medical workers to violate ethical standards, the first and foremost being to do no harm. Among their policies, the Department of Defense classified medical staff members as “safety officers” to avoiding explicitly acknowledging their healthcare role, established policies that necessitated doctors to violate doctor-patient confidentiality so that interrogators could utilize such information, made physicians and nurses force-feed hunger strikers, and failed to implement a system that allowed the reporting of detainee abuses.

The report also says that the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services played an essential role in devising enhanced interrogation techniques and that medical officers were present when torture such as waterboarding did happen.

Gerald Thompson, a member of the task force, told The Guardian, “It’s clear that in the name of national security the military trumped that covenant, and physicians were transformed into agents of the military and performed acts that were contrary to medical ethics and practice. We have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again.”

According to the report, the government “continues to follow policies that undermine standards of professional conduct.” Recently, a hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay over the summer resulted in prisoners being force-fed.

Physicians and psychologists are often co-opted for (or voluntarily participate in) torture regimes: the Nazis doctors who experimented on death-camp prisoners are an obvious example, but “healers” also actively supported torture in the Soviet Union, in Argentina, Chile, the US, and other countries. The New England Journal of Medicine has an article for 2004 on the US use of doctors in its own torture programs, and of course Martin Seligman, one-time president of the American Psychological Association, counseled the government on how to break prisoners psychologically, using his knowledge of “learned helplessness.”

And here’s another article on doctors who aid in torture.

The medical and psychological associations, so far as I know, offer no sanctions against members who assist in torturing people.

UPDATE: Hayes Brown at ThinkProgress also has a post on the report:

A new report released Monday claims that the Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency directed doctors and other medical professionals in their employ to ignore their Hippocratic oaths and other ethical codes in order to facilitate the interrogation of detainees.

The new report from the Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centres — titled “Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the ‘War on Terror’” — doesn’t shy away from bluntly referring to the “advanced interrogation techniques” implemented after 9/11 as torture, castigating the Pentagon and CIA for ordering medical practitioners to ignore their oaths in carrying it out. In both the CIA and DOD, the report alleges, officials “facilitated that involvement in similar ways, including undermining health professionals’ allegiances to established principles of professional ethics and conduct through reinterpretation of those principles.”

When first designing the methods used to extract information from high-value detainees, the report explains, the Defense Department put together what they dubbed Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), which typically are built around a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a mental health technician. The first BSCT, deployed at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2002, recommended the use of what have become familiar methods, including sleep and sensory deprivation, exposure to extreme noise and temperature variations, and the use of stress positions. While waterboarding was not included in the recommendations, they made their way up the chain of command and were approved for use against detainees.

Despite the continuing presence of these medical officers while torture was being committed, the CIA and military alike adopted language to shield their role, the report alleges. Military members of BSCTs began in 2004 to be referred to as “safety officers,” there to keep the detainees from being too badly injured. Instead, the Task Force writes, the military was at the same time directing BSCT members to “advise interrogators in exploiting detainee vulnerabilities,” a role that they say continues today.

The desire to treat certain medical practitioners as above the rule is strong enough, the reports says, the Pentagon now believes that physicians’ “duty to avoid or minimize harm […] does not apply to the BSCTs involved in interrogation because they are not involved in clinical treatment.” DOD has gone so far as to classify doctors and psychologists on BSCTs as combatants, the report alleges, who are thus not subject to the rules of their profession even though they are still required to be licensed.

The report also seeks to make clear the troubling blurring of lines between the medical responsibilities these medical officials have sworn to uphold and the standards that DOD and CIA say trump them:

Unlike an interrogator, who may create stress for a detainee so long as he or she acts within legal standards, including those prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,a health professional has an obligation not to participate in acts that deliberately impose pain or suffering on a person. replacing ethical standards with a legal one — that is, only to refrain from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment –eviscerates the ethical standards.

“Putting on a uniform does not and should not abrogate the fundamental principles of medical professionalism,” said Institute on Medicine as a Profession President David Rothman in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “‘Do no harm’ and ‘put patient interest first’ must apply to all physicians regardless of where they practice.” Both the IMP and the Open Society Foundation supported the work of the Task Force in drafting the report.

ThinkProgress spoke with Leonard Rubenstein, of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights, who helped organize the Task Force and took the lead in drafting the final report. Accord to Rubenstein, the panel met with DOD and CIA officials a number of times over the three year investigation, providing them with advance warning about the critiques they were developing in the hopes of having some sort of reform. So far, he says, there hasn’t been much progress towards a change in the rules in place.

“Most of the rules in the beginning have been reaffirmed and others have become more draconian,” Rubenstein told ThinkProgress, specifically pointing to the recent force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo. “We hope that once the public and policymakers and the medical community as a whole gets more engaged in these problems, there’s a chance of restoring ethical practice,” he added.

The six-month long hunger strike was among the worst that the military has seen from the detainees still being held in Guantanamo Bay, years after the promised closure of the installation and while many of those cleared for transfer still remain incarcerated. Medical officials from around the world slammed the Department of Defense for demanding that the strikers be force-fed intranasally, a practice that the American Medical Association condemnedand the United Nations deemed a violation of international law.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 8:30 am

Posted in Medical, Torture

The Stunning Collapse Of Infrastructure Spending In One Chart

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I blogged a few days ago about the bad direction the US is going in maintaining its infrastructure. Thanks to a monomaniacal determination by the GOP to cut all spending (save the military and the NSA and the CIA and the like), the US is not maintaining its physical plant. We’re like a homeowner who has stopped painting the house and fixing leaks, broken windows, and cracked sidewalks. What was once a livable home devolves toward being a hovel, and so it is with the US. Alan Pyke has a good post at ThinkProgress on this:

The austerity fervor that’s seized Washington ever since the 2010 elections has lead to a sudden, steep drop in spending on building things. The collapse in infrastructure spending is illustrated in this chart from investment research firm BCA Research:

infrachart-11113 (1)

After hovering around $300 billion per year from the middle of President George W. Bush’s tenure through 2010, government spending on building things not related to defense fell by about $60 billion in just a few years. The drop is a result of Republicans blocking President Obama’s efforts to invest in infrastructure that the country needs.

As the Financial Times’ Cardiff Garcia notes, the policy choices represented in the chart above aren’t compatible with a responsible effort to cut the country’s debt. Indeed, they’ll make things worse: “It’s also likely that much of the investment that has been forgone in the name of fiscal consolidation will have to be made eventually anyways — only it will be made when rates are higher, exacerbating the long-term fiscal outlook rather than improving it,” Garcia writes. In order to bring America’s infrastructure up to a reasonable level by 2020, Congress needs to be spending about $450 billion per year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Infrastructure spending levels are tied fairly directly to economic performance. Continued underfunding in this arena over the coming years will cost businesses a trillion dollars in lost sales and cost the economy 3.5 million jobs. Infrastructure spending enjoys overwhelming support from voters. Democrats want to create a national infrastructure bank, something that would require just a $10 billion up-front investment but would provide an ongoing, sustainable funding stream for infrastructure projects.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 8:17 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Still learning—but a good shave

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SOTD 4 Nov 2013

In the comments to a recent shaving post, one reader commented that he has consistent problems lathering Mystic Water, so I decided to stick with Mystic Water for a few shaves and see what I could discover.

I’ve never had any problems lathering Mystic Water Sensitive Skin. Although I do not have sensitive skin, I like the lather and the fragrance imparted simply by the ingredients. This time I watched as I lathered. The brush is a Rooney Emilion, and a very nice brush indeed. I wet teh knot well before my shower—I’m experimenting with that as well—and at the sink worked up a good lather. Recalling how many problems I had lathering Mike’s Natural shaving soap until I followed advice to use a LOT more water while loading the brush, I did add some water part way through loading the brush today: a driblet of hot water into the center of the brush.

I got a very good lather, and the brush help plenty for all passes—i.e., no third-pass fade. Tomorrow I’ll try a different Mystic Wtaer soap, since there may be variation from soap to soap.

I was also experimenting with blades after getting some nicks with the iKon Slant. Someone suggested a Polsilver, but unfortunately my total stash of those went to The Son a while back. So I used an Iridium blade today. I still got a couple of small nicks on the upper lip. (It could be bad technique, not the blade, of course.) I think the next brand to try is the Swedish Gillette blade.

BBS finish, nicks closed with My Nik Is Sealed, and a good splash of Saint Charles Shave Very V to finish.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2013 at 8:12 am

Posted in Shaving

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