Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fox's Padded Greenroom

After refusing to cover press conference, Obama doesn’t call on Fox

After its affiliate was the only network not to carry President Obama's press conference Wednesday night, Fox News is out in the cold.

At Obama's press conference, which lasted nearly a full hour, Obama called on a wide array of reporters, representing media organizations from the Detroit News to the Associated Press. He also called on all three major networks — ABC, NBC and CBS.

But not Fox News. Fox (its sister network) decided not to carry Obama's press conference live, instead deciding to run the drama "Lie to Me." The networks generally carry presidential press conference live, but executives have grumbled because the events shave advertising dollars off the evening's schedule.

Use Condoms or Make Hitler

By Willa Paskin

German condom advertisement.A truly astounding series of German condom advertisements are making the rounds this morning—each features a sketch of a sperm made to look like Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden or Mao Zedong. Their not so subtle message being, "Better wrap it up... unless you want to bring evil into the world!" The ads are arresting and hilarious, but the self-flagellation inherent in them strikes me as being distinctly German: I can't imagine many American dudes susceptible to the suggestion that their sperm wear swastikas, or, to use a more purely American parallel, KKK outfits. (Obviously, their sperm have 90 mile an hour fastballs, good looks and a working familiarity with the art of the deal). It's a dark take on procreation, informed by an everyday awareness that people can go really, really bad. Of course, people can go good as well, and I almost expect to see these images re-purposed for an anti-condom or pro-life campaign, with sperm made to look like Jesus, Abe Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama seeks to change crack sentences

By Larry Margasak

U.S. President Obama speaks about newly sworn in Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius in Oval Office at White House in WashingtonWASHINGTON – The Obama administration joined a federal judge Wednesday in urging Congress to end a racial disparity by equalizing prison sentences for dealing and using crack versus powdered cocaine.

"Jails are loaded with people who look like me," U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, an African-American, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the administration believes Congress' goal "should be to completely eliminate the disparity" between the two forms of cocaine. "A growing number of citizens view it as fundamentally unfair," Breuer testified.

It takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the same harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the committee, said, "Under current law, mere possession of five grams of crack — the weight of five packets of sweetener — carries the same sentence as distribution of half a kilogram of powder or 500 packets of sweetener."

Durbin said more than 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were African-American, although only about 25 percent of crack cocaine users are African Americans.

Congress enacted the disparity during an epidemic of crack cocaine in the 1980s, but the senator said lawmakers erred in assuming that violence would be greater among those using crack.

Breuer said the best way to deal with violence is to severely punish anyone who commits a violent offense, regardless of the drug involved.

Google on the defensive as book deal starts to come apart

by Richard Koman

With the Google Book settlement showing signs of coming apart at the seams, Google has taken to its blog to make its case for the deal.

Background: The settlement, reached in October between Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, would create a $125 million fund that authors would be paid out of. The authors and publishers sued in a 2005 class action over Google's giant book-scannning operation, which has been scanning both public domain and copyrighted works.

Opponents say the deal gives Google a monopoly on online book access.

Google's argument, in the words of Book Search product manager Adam Smith:

Until now, we've only been able to show these users a few snippets of text for most of the in-copyright books we've scanned through our Library Project. Since the vast majority of these books are out of print, to actually read them you have to hunt them down at a library or a used bookstore. And if you can't find them — because the only known copy is at a library on the other side of the country–you're unfortunately out of luck.

…The settlement won't just expand access to out-of-print books, either. Because authors and publishers will have the ability to let users preview and purchase their in-print books through Google Book Search, readers will have even more options for accessing in-print books than they have today.

The problem with this theory is in the text of the post.

We've only been able to show a few snippets . . .

News flash to Google: The world - even the online world - of books, literature, history and pulp fiction actually is bigger and more diverse than Google. Readers might or might not be happy with a Google-owned one-stop-shop for all books online. That's not the point. To the extent the deal makes forward motion on orphan works - those works that were retroactively covered by the Copyright Act of 1976 (which removed the requirement of copyright registration) but whose copyright holders can't be found - it gives Google a monopoly on the legal right to use the works.

Larger point: Google's entire business model is the commoditization of other people's content. See Google News, Gmail, AdSense/Adwords, etc. Book Search puts Google in the driver's seat of determining how online books are monetized, at what rates, what share Google, authors and publishers get, how the metrics are determined. Books are reduced to data. Competitors are cut out. Other players remain unable to use the orphan works. Google leverages the audience.

Young pilot's tale is a real cliffhanger
A Taylorcraft single-engine plane piloted by Jake Soplanda of Anchor Point hangs over the edge of a cliff near the summit of an unamed peak east of Talkeetna. Soplanda and a passenger escaped injury after a landing attempt went awry.


After a cliffhanger of a plane landing in the Talkeetna Mountains earlier this month, 21-year-old Matthew "Jake" Soplanda of Anchor Point and a skiing buddy managed to climb away from Soplanda's dated, single-engine Taylorcraft as it hung perched over a 1,500-foot drop.

Click to enlargeEmbarrassed by the botched touchdown that nearly turned deadly, all Soplanda wanted was to recover the airplane from the teeth of the rocky ridge that held it so he could fly again.

Given the ubiquitous nature of digital cameras and the Internet, however, he got more.

A photo shot from another aircraft that overflew the precariously perched airplane has made Soplanda's Taylorcraft -- if not the pilot himself -- something of an Internet sensation among small plane pilots.

His mother, Jolayne, said by telephone from Anchor Point on Tuesday that her son wishes the attention would all just go away. He would have preferred to learn his lesson in private.

He is now trying to avoid talking about it, she added.

He knows how lucky he is, she said. "I know it. We know it."

Minnesota Poll: Most want Coleman to call it quits

The Republican should end his recount fight, most say, and fatigue over the six-month ordeal is clear.

Nearly two-thirds of Minnesotans surveyed think Norm Coleman should concede the U.S. Senate race to Al Franken, but just as many believe the voting system that gave the state its longest running election contest needs improvement.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found that 64 percent of those responding believe Coleman, the Republican, should accept the recount trial court's April 13 verdict that Democrat Franken won the race by 312 votes.

Only 28 percent consider last week's appeal by Coleman to the Minnesota Supreme Court "appropriate."

Large majorities of those polled said they would oppose any further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Should Coleman win at the state Supreme Court, 57 percent of respondents said Franken should concede. And 73 percent believe Coleman should give up if he loses at the state's highest court.

"I voted for Coleman, but this thing has gone on way too long," said Mike McCombs, 50, a Lakeville furnace and air conditioning salesman. "Obviously, the Republican Party is trying to keep Franken's vote out of the United States Senate. We should get another [senator] in there."

Congressman reads long list of sex acts on House floor

By David Edwards

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) read a very long list of sex acts not covered by the hate crimes bill on the House floor Wednesday. One observer speculated that he "likely set a congressional record" for citing the most sex acts of any speech in Congress.

"I apologize to our transcriber, but I want to put into the record what we have to put up with in the Rules Committee," said Hastings. What followed was a very long and unusual list of sex acts not protected by the proposed bill.

Hasting was reading the list of sex acts with reference to an amendment introduced to the hate crimes bill that he asserted made a mockery of what was a determined effort by House Democrats to pass a federal hate crimes law.

Among the sex acts to be protected in the amendment included asphyxiphilia, necrophilia, toucherism and tranvestite fetishism.

"We can't legislate love," Hastings said. "But we can legislate against hate."

The House passed the hate crimes bill Thursday.

This video is from C-SPAN, broadcast Apr. 29, 2009.

Spread The Love… And The Swine Flu!

By Stew

sneezeSo, here's a fun little game to pass the monotony at your office desk! Ever wanted to be Typhoid Mary for a minute? Oh sure you have: to maintain your own health but to just see how far you could spread a potentially deadly disease and create a world-wide pandemic? Well, here's your chance! Check out SNEEZE! where you can infect your friends and random strangers, it's a blast!

RIAA’s Hostile Takeover of the Internet

by Jens Roland

Until recently, the recording industry were committing publicity suicide by routinely issuing legal threats to file sharers. Now, they seem to have changed the routine, going for fewer, but bigger targets. The goal is clear: if you own the Internet, you don't have to worry about pirates — or anyone else.

Earlier this month, four Pirate Bay visionaries were given harsh fines and jail sentences. Their only crime: creating the largest, free, uncensored, versatile file sharing platform on the Internet. Soon after, Taiwan passed 3-strikes legislation for copyright violations. The recording industry is no longer targeting pirates - they are actually trying to hijack the very fabric of the Internet.

The apparent strategy:

1. Outlaw file sharing
2. Outlaw personal encryption and anonymization services
3. Set up a global, privately-run Internet surveillance program to spy on everybody all the time without a warrant — run by ISPs and paid for by the taxpayers
4. And finally, get the authority to block anyone from the Internet entirely, without the involvement of police, courts or any verifiable trail of evidence

We can not let this happen.

"It is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state." - Bruce Schneier

One of the main reasons why the recording industry are currently succeeding in this hostile takeover of the Internet, is that most people simply don't understand what file sharing is, or why it matters to them in the first place. Whenever civil liberties are sacrificed, it is always on the bonfire of ignorance. We need to educate the world - neighbors, parents, judges and lawmakers - as to why the Internet must remain free, neutral, and uncensored.

It sometimes helps to explain that a file sharing technology like Bittorrent is the digital society's equivalent of the wheel. It allows fast and easy transportation of data between users and businesses alike. But like the wheel, file sharing needs a stable, flat surface to perform at its best. In this analogy, The Pirate Bay is nothing short of the largest, best maintained, and most stable network of such 'digital roads' in the world. And it's free to use for anyone, at any time, for any purpose.

Naturally, as is always the case where people congregate in a free society, some of the people who drive their wheeled carts on this network of roads will be carrying things in their carts of questionable quality, purpose or origin. In any system or society that is based on freedom rather than censorship or distrust, there is no question that individual transgressions can take place. This is the most basic cost of liberty.

As a digital society in its teens, we have yet to realize the enormous potential of file sharing in culture, education, knowledge sharing, and business. But already, we are seeing massive opposition against it from the likes of IFPI, the RIAA and the MPAA. This opposition, of course, stems from some of the aforementioned wheeled carts transporting 'questionable goods', in the form of copyrighted material.

The ensuing battle has been disguised as a legal matter concerning rights holders and 'pirates', but that is only the tip of the iceberg. It is true that the recording industry wants to stop criminals, but they are attempting to prohibit the wheel and all building of roads to pull it off. These lawyers are prepared to sacrifice our liberties, our privacy and our digital freedom in order to reach their goal. It is a grossly disproportionate and misdirected attack, and it has already begun: Once the verdict of the Spectrial was in, the Swedish anti-piracy office immediately began issuing legal threats against other file sharing networks. They are bulldozing every street and burning every car to prevent any possible (mis)use of the wheel. And worse yet - we are letting it happen.

The case of The Pirate Bay was not a case of artists vs. freeloaders, or even the recording industry vs. pirates. There were no artists on the accusing side, nor were there any pirates on the defending side. It was, and is, a case of misguided frustration by industry executives and lawyers, directed not against the actual violators of copyright law, but against the most outspoken proponents and enablers of a fundamental digital technology. A technology that allows fast and easy transportation of data - all data - between users and businesses alike.

We must never blame the network for the actions of individuals. Both rights holders and lawmakers must respect the fundamental principle of personal, individual responsibility. Let each peer be responsible for his own actions, just as every driver is liable for his own car.

The Pirate Bay is not illegal. File sharing is not illegal. Using file sharing for illegal purposes is illegal. The difference may be subtle to a layman, but in legal terms, the distinction is clear as day. The fact that the judges in the Pirate Bay case failed to recognize this, is a judicial travesty bordering on flat out corruption.

It cannot be stressed enough: this is not a question of copyright, of music, or of piracy. This is a question of a private organization now aiming to subvert several of the most important digital inventions since the World Wide Web, and our judges and politicians turning a blind eye in a staggering display of ignorance and corruption. This fight is about much more than The Pirate Bay. When our liberties are taken from us, we must rise, united in one voice, and fight for them.

Matthias Rath - steal this chapter

by Ben Goldacre

imageThis is the "missing chapter" about vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath. Sadly I was unable to write about him at the time that book was initially published, as he was suing my ass in the High Court. The chapter is now available in the new paperback edition, and I've posted it here for free so that nobody loses out.

Although the publishers make a slightly melodramatic fuss about this in the promo material, it is a very serious story about the dangers of pseudoscience, as I hope you'll see, and it was also a pretty unpleasant episode, not just for me, but also for the many other people he's tried to sue, including Medecins Sans Frontieres and more. If you're ever looking for a warning sign that you're on the wrong side of an argument, suing Medecins Sans Frontieres is probably a pretty good clue.

Anyway, here it is, please steal it, print it, repost it, whatever, it's free under a Creative Commons license, details at the end. If you prefer it is available as a PDF here, or as a word document here. Happy Easter!

This is an extract from
BAD SCIENCE by Ben Goldacre
Published by Harper Perennial 2009.

You are free to copy it, paste it, bake it, reprint it, read it aloud, as long as you don't change it – including this bit – so that people know that they can find more ideas for free at

The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutritionists may fantasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don't own a flat. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow.  Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.

On this last point there is, however, one small consolation, and I will spell it out as a cautionary tale: I now know more about Matthias Rath than almost any other person alive. My notes, references and witness statements, boxed up in the room where I am sitting right now, make a pile as tall as the man himself, and what I will write here is only a tiny fraction of the fuller story that is waiting to be told about him. This chapter, I should also mention, is available free online for anyone who wishes to see it.

Matthias Rath takes us rudely outside the contained, almost academic distance of this book. For the most part we've been interested in the intellectual and cultural consequences of bad science, the made-up facts in national newspapers, dubious academic practices in universities, some foolish pill-peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-marketing techniques, and transplant them out of our decadent Western context into a situation where things really matter?

In an ideal world this would be only a thought experiment. AIDS is the opposite of anecdote. Twenty-five million people have died from it already, three million in the last year alone, and 500,000 of those deaths were children. In South Africa it kills 300,000 people every year: that's eight hundred people every day, or one every two minutes. This one country has 6.3 million people who are HIV positive, including 30 per cent of all pregnant women. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans under the age of seventeen. Most chillingly of all, this disaster has appeared suddenly, and while we were watching: in 1990, just 1 per cent of adults in South Africa were HIV positive. Ten years later, the figure had risen to 25 per cent.

It's hard to mount an emotional response to raw numbers, but on one thing I think we would agree. If you were to walk into a situation with that much death, misery and disease, you would be very careful to make sure that you knew what you were talking about. For the reasons you are about to read, I suspect that Matthias Rath missed the mark.

Let’s Hear It for the Bees

Honey bee nectaring on button willow.

By Leon Kreitzman


Gardeners know that plants open and close their flowers at set times during the day. For example, the flowers of catmint open between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m.; orange hawkweed follows between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.; field marigolds open at 9:00 a.m.

In "Philosophia Botanica" (1751), the great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus proposed that it should be possible to plant a floral clock. He noted that two species of daisy, the hawk's-beard and the hawkbit, opened and closed at their respective times within about a half-hour each day. He suggested planting these daisies along with St. John's Wort, marigolds, water-lilies and other species in a circle. The rhythmic opening and closing of the plants would be the effective hands of this clock.

Plants have carefully timed routines determined by internally generated rhythms. In 1729, Jean-Jacques d'Ortous de Mairan, a French astronomer, put a Mimosa plant in a cupboard to see what happened when it was kept in the dark. He peeked in at various times, and although the plant was permanently in the dark its leaves still opened and closed rhythmically – it was as though it had its own representation of day and night. The plant's leaves still drooped during its subjective night and stiffened up during its subjective day. Furthermore, all the leaves moved at the same time. It took another 230 years or so to come up with the term circadian – about a day – to describe these rhythms.

In a similar vein, tobacco plants, stocks and evening primroses release their scent as the sun starts to go down at dusk. These plants attract pollinating moths and night-flying insects. The plants tend to be white or pale. Color vision is difficult under low light, and white best reflects the mainly bluish tinge of evening light.

But plants cannot release their scent in a timely manner simply in response to an environmental cue, like the lowering of the light levels. They need time to produce the oils. To coincide with the appearance of the nocturnal insects, the plant has to anticipate the sunset and produce the scent on a circadian schedule.

Flowers of a given species all produce nectar at about the same time each day, as this increases the chances of cross-pollination. The trick works because pollinators, which in most cases means the honeybee, concentrate foraging on a particular species into a narrow time-window. In effect the honeybee has a daily diary that can include as many as nine appointments — say, 10:00 a.m., lilac; 11:30 a.m., peonies; and so on. The bees' time-keeping is accurate to about 20 minutes.

The bee can do this because, like the plants and just about every living creature, it has a circadian clock that is reset daily to run in time with the solar cycle. The bee can effectively consult this clock and "check" off the given time and associate this with a particular event.

Party of No(body)?

Republican party identification, which had already been at fairly low levels, in fact appears to have slumped further since Inauguration Day, although the gains are being had not among Democrats but by voters who identify themselves as independent.

Several polls conducted within the last week have attracted attention for their notably low levels of self-reported Republican voters. In particular, ABC/WaPo reported the number of Republicans as 21 percent, CBS/NYT at 20 percent, NBC/WSJ also at 20 percent (not counting "leaners"), and Pew at 22 percent.

FOX, by contrast, which generally reports higher numbers of Republicans and Democrats but fewer independents, put the number of GOPers at 30 percent (although this nevertheless represents a decline from most of their recent polling). Rasmussen put the number of Republicans at 33.2 percent in March, essentially unchanged from recent months; they have yet to report their results from April.

The following chart combines the numbers from these six organizations since August 2008, while adding LOESS regression trendlines.

Per the LOESS curves, the number of Republicans has decreased by about 5 percent since Inauguration Day, from roughly 27 percent to 22 percent. The number of Democrats has also decreased slightly, however, from 38 percent to 35-36 percent. The gains have been made by independents, whose numbers have increased from 30 percent to about 36 percent, such that there are now roughly equal numbers of independents and Democrats.

Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture

By Brandon Keim


The expanding torture scandal has left the American public horror-struck at how casually the Bush administration and its employees countenanced torture techniques like sleep deprivation, waterboarding and stress positions. However, another form of torture was not just used on detainees, but is being used on at least 25,000 Americans right now.

That's the number of people currently held in long-term solitary confinement in the United States, living for years in 80-square-foot concrete cubes lit by round-the-clock fluorescent light, with little or no human contact. The U.S. is alone among developed countries in using long-term solitary confinement on a regular basis.

Academic scientific analysis of solitary confinement is still in its early stages, but the results are obvious, and echo the experiences of Americans who've been held in solitary confinement by terrorists or as prisoners of war. Human beings evolved to be social creatures. Solitary confinement drives us mad. spoke with psychologist Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, an expert on long-term solitary confinement. Asked if it's torture, Haney replied, "For some people, it is." Everybody's talking now about waterboarding and sleep deprivation and stress positions, but I haven't seen solitary confinement mentioned much. Why is that?

Craig Haney: My interpretation is that the other techniques are generally regarded as more severe. But solitary confinement is in the background of all this. It's assumed to be part of the environment in which torture is occurring. And it is itself a painful, potentially harmful condition of confinement. What have you seen in your own work?

Haney: First let me note that solitary confinement has historically been a part of torture protocols. It was well-documented in South Africa. It's been used to torture prisoners of war.

There are a couple reasons why solitary confinement is typically used. One is that it's a very painful experience. People experience isolation panic. They have a difficult time psychologically coping with the experience of being completely alone.

In addition, solitary confinement imposes conditions of social and perceptual stimulus deprivation. Often it's the deprivation of activity, the deprivation of cognitive stimulation, that some people find to be painful and frightening.

Some of them lose their grasp of their identity. Who we are, and how we function in the world around us, is very much nested in our relation to other people. Over a long period of time, solitary confinement undermines one's sense of self. It undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion. The appropriateness of what you're thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we're so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.

That leads to the other reason why solitary is so often a part of torture protocols. When people's sense of themselves is placed in jeopardy, they are more malleable and easily manipulated. In a certain sense, solitary confinement is thought to enhance the effectiveness of other torture techniques.

No, really, this jerk is a judge!