Category Archives: U.S. Politics

Yet Another Link Roundup #

Anti-Vaxxer Craziness #

Sometimes, people are stupid. Our sensationalist (and often scientifically clueless) media doesn’t help matters.

Back in January, Kottke collected a handful of links about how schools are dealing with anti-vaccine nutters, including banning students who never got measles vaccinations (there was a local outbreak at the time). My favorite line: “If my kid can’t bring peanut butter to school, yours shouldn’t be able to bring preventable diseases.”

Last week, a blog sponsored by Boy Scouts of America posted a somewhat tongue-in-cheek admonition for scouts to be properly vaccinated. The anti-vax crowd descended in force, claiming “extensive scientific evidence” supporting such a link (nope!), and down-voting anyone disagreed with their crack-pot fringe misinterpretations of science.

(Do I feel strongly about this? Why, yes, yes I do. As the parent of a kid who at times had a very compromised immune system, I sympathize with parents in similar plights. Yes, if one has a legitimate religious objection, that’s one thing, but if a parent doesn’t vaccinate because of fears of autism linkage, they’re just wrong.)

So, I ended up going down the rabbit hole. Because someone is wrong on the Internet.

Scientific Research

First, there is extensive evidence that vaccines are not linked to autism. It is the strong consensus of the scientific community.

To list just a few:

  • Taylor B., et al. (1999) “Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association” The Lancet (353:9169), 12 June 1999, pp. 2026–2029. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(99)01239-8 (Sample size 498 persons with autism.)
  • Frank DeStefano, Robert T Chen. “Negative association between MMR and autism” The Lancet (353:9169), 12 June 1999, pp 1987–1988 doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(99)00160-9 (These Lancet articles were both early responses to the original claim.)
  • Flaherty, D. K. (2011) “The Vaccine-Autism Connection: A Public Health Crisis Caused by Unethical Medical Practices and Fraudulent Science” Annuals of Pharmacotherapy (45:10) pp. 1302–1304 doi:10.1345/aph.1Q318 (Key quote: “The alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”)
  • DeStefano, F, et al. (2013) “Increasing Exposure to Antibody-Stimulating Proteins and Polysaccharides in Vaccines Is Not Associated with Risk of Autism” Journal of Pediatrics pp. 561–567 pdf (Perhaps the biggest, most authoritative study, conducted, in part, by the CDC. Sample size of more than 3,000.)

Other articles of interest:

Some History

The “anti-vaxxing” controversy started with Andrew Wakefield, via an article published in The Lancet in 1998. The article was later thoroughly discredited. Journalist Brian Deer demonstrated that in addition to poor methodology, Wakefield also falsified many of his findings in the study based on only 12 (yes, twelve) patients and minor temporal association (stuff happened close together, but one did not necessarily cause the other). Contrast that with many studies since with hundreds or thousands of patients that show no link. It was also discovered that Wakefield’s undisclosed agenda was to support a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. One by one, the paper’s co-authors withdrew their support for the paper and its conclusions, and the paper was officially retracted by the journal in 2010.

In addition to forging data, other problems with Wakefield’s sample included undisclosed familial ties between 2 of the 12 patients (they were brothers), mis-representing autism diagnoses for at least 3 patients, not disclosing that parents of one patient were active campaigners against the MMR vaccine, incorrectly describing developmentally delayed patients as “previously normal”, and parents of another were blaming vaccination. (See, e.g., Brian Deer, “How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed”, 6 Jan 2011)

In any case, the whole of “scientific evidence” claimed by ant-vaxxers in top, peer-reviewed medical journals rests on Wakefield’s single article about 12 patients, data for most of was fraudulently altered. No study since has been able to replicate those findings. (There is another paper, also retracted for error of data, which anti-vaxxers cling to. Snopes has a takedown of that claim.) To the contrary, multiple credible studies, each with thousands of participants have demonstrated no observable statistical link.

(See also, Goodlee, F. “Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare”)

So, can we please stop believing there is no evidence against an autism–vaccine link? Study after study has been unable to find a link, or has significant statistical results demonstrating no link.

Pretty please?

Afterward

For LDS readers: The LDS Church has officially endorsed vaccinations for more than 35 years (according to a 1978 letter from the First Presidency letter; “We urge members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to protect their own children through immunization.”, Spencer W. Kimball, from “Immunize Children, Leaders Urge”) In 2003, the Church donated $3 million to fund measles/MMR vaccinations through its Humanitarian Services Division, and continues to provide millions in funding for pro-vaccination initiatives. (“Church Makes Immunizations an Official Initiative, Provides Social Mobilization”, Church News, 13 June 2012)

Legislator Sponsorship Discolusures #

Yes, this was from last year (sat in my drafts folder unnoticed!), but someone had the idea of the decade!

This person was responding to an article on a bill under discussion in the Utah Legislature that would have crippled infrastructure and expansion for municipal fiber providers (like UTPOIA), and said:

Just like Nascar, members of Congress should wear sponsorship decals on their suits for any corporate entity that gave them campaign donations totaling more than, say, $10,000.

Then when one of them offers up a bill that is so obviously pandering to a certain campaign donor, youll immediately think oh, well, now it makes sense.

Comment on “Utah bill would stop regional fiber networks from expanding”, Ars Technica, 5 Feb 2014.

Slate: America’s schools are segregating again #

In recognition of the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Slate concluded schools are segregating again. Not really a surprise, given the ethnic maps I linked to previously—my anecdotal experience is consistent with the conclusion. My son, for example, attend a majority black school. Last year, he was the only white kid in his class. Our district is predominantly black; the school district across the street (on three sides) is predominantly white.

The average white student, for instance, attends a school that’s 73 percent white, 8 percent black, 12 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian-American. By contrast, the average black student attends a school that’s 49 percent black, 17 percent Latino, 4 percent Asian-American, and 28 percent white. And the average Latino student attends a school that’s 57 percent Latino, 11 percent black, 25 percent white, and 5 percent Asian-American.Jamelle Bouie, Brown v. Board of Education 60th anniversary: America’s schools are segregating again., Slate, 15 May 2014

Interesting. Not sure about the methodology: In some of the states out West, schools are predominantly white because the population of the state/county/city is predominantly white, so this would tend to greatly skew the results of white participants. I did start to see some schools in Utah with large Hispanic/Latino populations when other schools in the same district had much lower percentages. I wonder whether blacks are more likely to congregate than other cultures. The key point, however, is this:

School segregation doesn’t happen by accident; it flows inexorably from housing segregation. If most black Americans live near other blacks and in a level of neighborhood poverty unseen by the vast majority of white Americans, then in the same way, their children attend schools that are poorer and more segregated than anything experienced by their white peers.Ibid.

I have visited twenty or so public and private high schools this year. The differences between those in the richest and poorest neighborhood are near appalling. As previously linked, states can get involved by implementing policies that bring greater funding equity across districts. There is also a social gap in college financial aid. Surely there are solutions that can be implemented on the housing side as well. Some of the difficulty is that race is still too strongly correlated with income. We haven’t yet overcome generational effects.

“Income has become a much stronger predictor of how well kids do in school,” Reardon says. “Race is about as good a predictor as it was 30 years ago. It’s more that income has gotten more important, not that race has gotten less important.”

Sarah Garland, “When Class Became More Important to a Childs Education Than Race”, The Atlantic, 28 August 2013

TSA Confiscates “Dangerous” Stuffed Toy Accessory #

A TSA agent in St. Louis made air passengers everywhere rest easier by confiscating a “dangerous” two-inch prop gun that was accessorizing a stuffed animal. [via Lowering the Bar]

On Monday, the TSA issued a statement, saying “TSA officers are dedicated to keeping the nation’s transportation security systems safe and secure for the traveling public. Under longstanding aircraft security policy, and out of an abundance of caution, realistic replicas of firearms are prohibited in carry-on bags.”Susan Wyatt, “TSA agent confiscates sock monkey’s pistol”, KING 5 News, 8 December 2013

Right. Because a 1/5-scale toy the size of a couple of quarters is a “realistic replica.”

EFF: “Thank You, Patent Trolls” #

The EFF, lauding the Innovation Act of 2013, also offers thanks to patent trolls:

But, really, the trolls have done all the hard work for us. They targeted app developers for using generally available technology. They sued small city governments for using bus tracking software. They went after businesses for using scan-to-email technology and the kind of WiFi routers you would buy off the shelf at Best Buy.

Julie Samuels, “EFF Thanks Patent Trolls for Best Troll-Killing Bill Yet”, EFF.org, 23 October 2013

Ars has a great write-up of the bill too. Time to contact your Congress-person.

Obamacare’s broken website cost more than [your senator] #

It’s been one full week since the flagship technology portion of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) went live. And since that time, the befuddled beast that is Healthcare.gov has shutdown, crapped out, stalled, and mis-loaded so consistently that its track record for failure is challenged only by Congress.Andrew Couts, “We Paid Over $500 Million for the Omabacare Sites and All We Got Was This Lousy 404 [UPDATED]”, digitaltrends.com , 8 October 2013

Zing. And this, from a guy who claims to be totally in favor of Obamacare.

Couts continues throwing volleys:

The site itself, which apparently underwent major code renovations over the weekend [despite taking more than three years to build], still rejects user logins, fails to load drop-down menus and other crucial components for users that successfully gain entrance, and otherwise prevents uninsured Americans in the 36 states it serves from purchasing healthcare at competitive rates – Healthcare.gov’s primary purpose. The site is so busted that, as of a couple days ago, the number of people that successfully purchased healthcare through it was in the “single digits,” according to the Washington Post.

The reason for this nationwide headache apparently stems from poorly written code, which buckled under the heavy influx of traffic that its engineers and administrators should have seen coming. But the fact that Healthcare.gov can’t do the one job it was built to do isn’t the most infuriating part of this debacle – it’s that we, the taxpayers, seem to have forked up more than $500 million of the federal purse to build the digital equivalent of a rock.

Ibid.

The “poorly written code” he links to, is in my not so humble opinion, a horrifying example of the type of code one might get back from very low-paid outsourcers and consultants, typically in countries on the other side of the world. I’ve seen awful code generated right here in the U.S. of A., mind you, but in my limited outsourcing experience, and with the exception of working with some incredibly smart people in first-world countries (specifically, in Europe and Australia) on open source projects, I have yet to get back code from overseas outsourcers that I would be willing to maintain.

For some context to the numbers, Couts shares the amount of money raised by popular, oft-used, if somewhat less complex, Internet companies. The comparisons aren’t totally apt, as these companies bootstrapped some equity the old-fashioned way (you know, selling stuff), but it does provide a sense of scope.

But for the sake of putting the monstrous amount of money into perspective, here are a few figures to chew on: Facebook, which received its first investment in June 2004, operated for a full six years before surpassing the $500 million mark in June 2010. Twitter, created in 2006, managed to get by with only $360.17 million in total funding until a $400 million boost in 2011. Instagram ginned up just $57.5 million in funding before Facebook bought it for (a staggering) $1 billion last year. And LinkedIn and Spotify, meanwhile, have only raised, respectively, $200 million and $288 million.Ibid.

The $500 million number is called into question by Mark Thompson (“How $55.7 Million Doesn’t Equal $634 Million”), but even $55 million (what Thompson claims has been paid) or $97 million (what Couts says is the initial contract award amount) seem ludicrously high for three years of work building a site that doesn’t function.

Via Popehat

UPDATE: Also worth reading: Megan McArdle, “Republicans Didn’t Sabotage Health Exchanges, Obama Did”, Bloomberg.com, 7 Oct 7, 2013.

One Response

Lavabit appeals #

The secure email service Lavabit shut down in protest, after being required by a U.S. court to reveal its SSL private key. The certificate was later revoked because they hadn’t kept it private. The crux: the same certificate protected all 400,000 of its customers, so the government would have been able to intercept and decrypt private private emails. Lavabit refused and was slapped with contempt charges. Eventually, Lavabit complied, and then immediately closed its doors in protest, rendering the government’s possession of the key useless.

They’re now appealing the contempt citation in court, and asking for a further finding that the forced sharing of their security keys was unconstitutional:

First, the government is bereft of any statutory authority to command the production of Lavabit’s private keys. The Pen Register Statute requires only that a company provide the government with technical assistance in the installation of a pen-trap device; providing encryption keys does not aid in the device’s installation at all, but rather in its use. Moreover, providing private keys is not “unobtrusive,” as the statute requires, and results in interference with Lavabit’s services, which the statute forbids. Nor does the Stored Communications Act authorize the government to seize a company’s private keys. It permits seizure of the contents of an electronic communication (which private keys are not), or information pertaining to a subscriber (which private keys are also, by definition, not). And at any rate it does not authorize the government to impose undue burdens on the innocent target business, which the government’s course of conduct here surely did.

Second, the Fourth Amendment independently prohibited what the government did here. The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to be founded on probable cause that a search will uncover fruits, instrumentalities, or evidence of a crime. But Lavabit’s private keys are none of those things: they are lawful to possess and use, they were known only to Lavabit and never used by the company to commit a crime, and they do not prove that any crime occurred. In addition, the government’s proposal to examine the correspondence of all of Lavabit’s customers as it searched for information about its target was both beyond the scope of the probable cause it demonstrated and inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement, and it completely undermines Lavabit’s lawful business model. General rummaging through all of an innocent business’ communications with all of its customers is at the very core of what the Fourth Amendment prohibits.

Finally, the grand jury subpoena was oppressive, unduly burdensome, and ought to have been quashed. Compliance with the subpoena inflicted grave harm on Lavabit. It was required either to cease operations entirely or perpetrate a massive commercial fraud on its customers and business partners, by lying to them about the security of services that were purchased because of their security. While the grand jury’s investigative powers are broad, courts have never hesitated to quash subpoenas that intrude so gravely on the interests of innocent people. To commercially ruin a third-party small business using a grand jury subpoena is per se oppressive—indeed is close to the Platonic ideal of an unreasonable demand that ought to have been promptly quashed, especially in light of Lavabit’s ability to provide the government with the information to which it was entitled by other, far less intrusive, means.

United States of America v. UNDER SEAL; Record No. 13-4625(L) [pdf]. Filed 2013-10-10

Whoo-boy. Not all of the metaphors in the brief explaining the technical stuff are sound enough, I think, but I sincerely hope the legal argument is.

Via Ars Technica.

View of Mount Rushmore Blocked #

Even the view from what is presumably a state road is subject to the federal shutdown. Daft.

Further evidence this is more about inconveniencing the public than actually shutting down expenditures.

One Response

How the Broken Media Helped Break the Government #

The triumph of opinion-driven cable TV and the collapse of newspapers has created an American news media that does an increasingly poor job of informing the public. And an excellent job of dividing it.

Creating cable television and social media bubbles where one’s political views are affirmed has proven popular and profitable. Angrily declaring one’s opponents imbeciles enriches pundits, corporate executives and stockholders. The result for many Americans, though, is confusion, cynicism and division.

David Rohde, How the Broken Media Helped Break the Government”, The Atlantic; via Next Draft

This is why I can’t stand to listen to most news/opinion channels. The polarization and demagoguery are huge turn offs.

UPDATE: This isn’t just limited to politics, but is perhaps most visibly present there. As Rene Ritchie points out (via Jim Dalrymple), the state of tech reporting—even in national outlets—isn’t much better.

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