2011 - %3, May

Congressman: Why Is TSA Skipping Arabs?

| Tue May 31, 2011 6:20 PM EDT

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a video of Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia) talking about the TSA. According to Rep. Broun's statement on C-SPAN's Washington Journal, he saw the TSA pat-down a grandmother and a young child and let a man in "Arabian dress" sail right through. From Rep. Broun (10 minute mark in video embedded below): 

"And then right behind him [small child], was a guy in Arabian dress who just walks right through. Why are we patting down grandma and kids? We need to focus on those people who want to harm us. We have to identify those people, we do that through human intelligence, we do that through trying to get into the inner circle... and then focus on those individuals, not on the general public. Unfortunately, I think the Department of Homeland Security has focused more on the general public and has been afraid of political correctness: we've got to forget political correctness. We've got to start focusing on those people who want to harm us as a nation."

I'm not sure exactly what Arabian dress is (maybe baggy pants and a vest like Aladdin's?), but I actually agree with some of the things Rep. Broun is saying. I'm with Rep. Broun on the idea that the TSA needs to stop invasive searches and scans of the general public (which miss a lot of stuff anyway) and devote resources toward identifying actual, intended terrorists and their targets. However, Rep. Broun loses me when he implies that a dude in Arabian dress isn't part of the "general public". I can't tell if Rep. Broun wants the TSA to crack down only on men in ethnic dress, or on grandmas in Arabian dress too, but at any rate, stereotyping people and treating them differently based solely on their appearance isn't just "politically incorrect": it's discrimination.

In case Rep. Broun doesn't realize it, profiling has been happening for a while now, actually: many people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent have been erroneously suspected of terrorism, either by the TSA, pilots, flight attendants, or even fellow passengers. However, these amateur profilers fail to differentiate between a possible terrorist and, say, an economics professor at California State University. If Rep. Broun needs more examples, I'm sure the ACLU would be happy to provide them.

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Is the WHO Saying Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

| Tue May 31, 2011 5:31 PM EDT

There's been much freaking out about a World Health Organization announcement (PDF) about the link between mobile phone use and cancer: The group now considers radiation from cell phones a possible carcinogen. Sounds scary, but what does it actually mean?

Over at BoingBoing, there's a good post that explains why the WHO news isn't really news at all. It doesn't represent any new scientific findings; rather it basically tells us what we've known for a while: that while very limited evidence suggests there might be a connection between some brain tumors and radiation, there isn't enough to say for sure that cell phone use causes cancer.

Frustrating though this may be, it's par for the course for epidemiology. The fact of the matter is that proving causation is just really hard. Indeed, as the New York Times points out, other examples of "possibly carcinogenic" substances include some dry cleaning chemicals and pesticides, but also coffee and pickles.

Even the results of the Interphone project, the largest and most highly anticipated epidemiological study of cell phones and cancer to date, were maddeningly inconclusive when they came in last year. The researchers from the 13 participating countries did find that although very heavy cell phone users were about 40 percent more likely to develop glioma, but there were so many potentially confounding methodological issues that the ultimate conclusion was that cell phone use does not significantly increase cancer risk for the vast majority of people.

Unfortunately, all of this means we're pretty much just as in-the-dark as we were about the subject when I was reporting on cell phones and radiation a few years back. And frustratingly, as I noted before, we probably won't know more for at least a few years:

Finding subjects who have brain tumors and who have used their cell phones for more than 10 years is difficult, especially considering that the tumors typically take 10 to 20 years to develop. What's more, people are notoriously bad at remembering how much they've used their phones and which ear they hold their cell phone up to—especially if they're looking around for something to blame a brain tumor on. 

In the meantime, does that mean that you're all clear to sleep with your cell phone next to you on your pillow? Of course not; it just means that the researchers haven't yet proven anything one way or the other. As a precaution, the WHO panel suggests you'd do well to limit talking time, especially for kids.

Time to Get Off the Bus

| Tue May 31, 2011 5:18 PM EDT

I think I've now read at least half a dozen mainstream media figures lamenting the absurd level of coverage that the mainstream media is giving to Sarah Palin's bus tour cum summer vacation cum presidential campaign tryout. Note to the nation's editors: your own reporters think that chasing her around like a starstruck junior high school kid is nuts. Isn't it time to pull the plug and let her tour the United States with the privacy she allegedly wants?

The Top Media Policy Stories of the Week: Your So-Called Private Life

| Tue May 31, 2011 4:27 PM EDT

Editor's note: Every other week, The Media Consortium rounds up the latest media policy news in a blog called the The Wavelength, posted below.

Smart phones are hip, trendy, and loaded with user-friendly apps. But these devices also collect and store your personal information, leaving huge security gaps.

The prevalence of spyware in mobile technology and social networking sites has huge implications as a privacy issue, since users have no way of knowing who's peeping, or for what purpose. New concerns over mobile and Internet privacy have been raised at the federal and state level, and there's already push-back from some of the major players in the tech industry.


Privacy Please

As Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) writes for Care2, recent studies indicate smart phones and other mobile apps are being used as remote spyware. Franken, one of the leading advocates for Net Neutrality and other media policy issues on Capitol Hill, notes that researchers found that "both iPhones and Android phones were automatically collecting certain location information from users' phones and sending it back to Apple and Google—even when people weren't using location applications."

Did a Pork-Coated Bullet Kill Bin Laden?

| Tue May 31, 2011 3:52 PM EDT

Did a Navy SEAL kill Osama Bin Laden with a pork-coated bullet, thus denying him entrance to paradise? That's the highly unlikely claim coming from a shady website selling gun lubricants that it guarantees to be "13% USDA liquefied pig fat."

According to the purveyor of Silver Bullet Gun Oil, the product is "a HIGHLY EFFECTIVE Counter-Islamic terrorist force multiplier." Here's why: 

When fired, BULLETS are coated with SILVER BULLET GUN OIL containing the PIG FAT. The PIG FAT is transferred to anything the BULLETS STRIKE. The coating of OIL CONTAINING PIG FAT effectively DENIES entry to Allah's Paradise to any Islamo-Fascist terrorist KIA with a bullet coming from a firearm using SILVER BULLET GUN OIL in the barrel. SILVER BULLET GUN OIL uses the belief system of Allah's Islamo-Fascist terrorists to put fear of death into them, a fear they haven't had until NOW.

On his site, the anonymous figure behind Silver Bullet says his intentionally un-halal lube is quite popular among armed employees of the US government, stating that "Thousands of bottles of Silver Bullet Gun Oil have been distributed since July of 2004 by its creator to members of ALL U.S. Military branches." He also claims that the gun oil is used in tank and helicopter weapon systems and that "a number" of air marshals use it as well. On a Marine message board, he asserts (along with some harsh racial epithets) that his gun oil is helping win the war on terror: "I've been putting out SBGO for 5 and 1/2 years. I pushed the Pork additive [13%] long enough for the rags to get the message, which according to those that are using it in their [area of operations] puts some real FEAR into these mutts."

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [17]

| Tue May 31, 2011 2:49 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

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What's Your Problem?

| Tue May 31, 2011 1:52 PM EDT

Gallup says today that doctor-assisted suicide is the "most controversial cultural issue" in its recent poll. Why? Because it's the issue where opinion is divided most closely. I'm not sure that's really much of a proxy for "most controversial," but I guess it's their poll, not mine.

What struck me about their list, though, was how few of these things I object to. Out of 17 issues, there were only four I objected to, and even there my objections depend on circumstances. There really wasn't a single one that I just flatly, always think is morally unacceptable. I'm not sure what this says about me.

Anyway, here's the list. See if you can guess the four I found kinda-sorta unacceptable. (Hint: I don't really have a problem with human cloning, though I suppose I might change my mind if a cloned race of superhumans takes over the world and enslaves the rest of us.)

Building Better Teachers

| Tue May 31, 2011 11:35 AM EDT

Dana Goldstein, writing about our need for better teachers, sums up my skepticism over the entire ed reform agenda in one sentence:

But what if the United States is doing teacher reform all wrong?

Well, yes. What if we are? Unfortunately, this is a question that hangs over practically every initiative to improve our schools. We just don't know for sure if they work, and studies to prove things one way or the other are almost impossible to conduct properly.

So what's the problem with our efforts to build better teachers, anyway? Are we doing it all wrong?

That’s the suggestion of a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank funded mostly by large corporations and their affiliated foundations. The report takes a close look at how the countries that are kicking our academic butts — Finland, China and Canada — recruit, prepare and evaluate teachers. What it finds are policy agendas vastly different from our own, in which prospective educators are expected to spend a long time preparing for the classroom and are then given significant autonomy in how to teach, with many fewer incentives and punishments tied to standardized tests.

OK, fine. Here's some anecdotal evidence that this might be true. It comes from my mother, who was talking to one of her old teacher buddies, who recently got a job teaching teachers how to teach students to write critically about literature. Apparently it's to improve the performance of kids in AP English classes, who have been immersed in the wretched five-paragraph format their entire lives and don't know how to write coherently about abstract subjects.

And that's fine. But my reaction was the same as my mother's: aren't AP English teachers supposed to know how to do this already? Why do they need a coach? What have they been doing their entire teaching careers if they haven't been teaching their kids how to write about literature?

So that's that. But of course, the plural of anecdote is claptrap, so this doesn't mean anything. The real question is whether better trained teachers in the Finnish mode are really what we need to get better schools. Considering the almost universal contempt that teachers and everyone else have for ed schools, that's either hard to believe or else self-evidently true. I can't quite tell which. But there are a lot of other reasons that Finnish and Chinese schools might produce better test scores than ours, and adopting their models of teacher training would be fantastically expensive. So we had better figure it out before we commit to some massive nationwide program to train better teachers.

But how do we figure it out? Good question. See the beginning of this post for my non-answer.

Healthcare Reform and Political Coalitions

| Tue May 31, 2011 10:18 AM EDT

Robert Pear reports that hospitals are unhappy over new federal regulations that pay them based on the cost of care they provide to Medicare patients compared to other hospitals:

For the first time in its history, Medicare will soon track spending on millions of individual beneficiaries, reward hospitals that hold down costs and penalize those whose patients prove most expensive....Hospitals could be held accountable not only for the cost of the care they provide, but also for the cost of services performed by doctors and other health care providers in the 90 days after a Medicare patient leaves the hospital.

....Under the new health law, Medicare will reduce payments to hospitals if too many patients are readmitted after treatment for heart attacks, heart failure or pneumonia. In addition, Medicare will cut payments to hospitals if they do not replace paper files with electronic health records, and it will further reduce payments to hospitals with high rates of preventable errors, injuries and infections.

In related news, Aaron Carroll reports that physicians, who used to be rabidly opposed to national healthcare, are now substantially in favor of it:

Remember, this was support for federal legislation to establish National Health Insurance. That’s far more radical than the PPACA. And 59 percent of physicians supported it. That was an increase of 10 percent from what we found five years earlier, and it was statistically significant. More than half the respondents from every medical specialty supported it, with the exception of surgical subspecialties, anesthesiologists and radiologists. That means support included a majority of general surgeons, medical subspecialists and obstetricians/gynecologists.

Aaron calls this a problem for the AMA, and I suppose it is. But I think it's also a problem for hospitals: to a large extent, the interests of hospitals and physicians are not only diverging, but becoming actively opposed. In the past, physicians probably would have been as opposed to these new Medicare regs as hospital administrators, but I'll bet that's largely not the case anymore.

As an analogy, this strikes me as having mirror-image similarities to No Child Left Behind, another piece of legislation designed to force efficiency on a particular sector of the economy. At first, parents were largely in favor of NCLB while teachers and school administrators were largely opposed. But as time has passed and suburban schools have started to suffer from the law (either because they're given failing grades or because inner city schools start competing effectively for the best teachers), the ground has shifted: parents and teachers now find themselves frequently in agreement that NCLB has gone further than they like. This provides a growing political coalition to change or water down the law.

In healthcare, it's the same dynamic in the opposite direction: a political coalition is breaking up. Doctors and patients are starting to align one way, while hospitals and insurance companies are aligning in another way. The good news is that this makes it less likely that healthcare reform will be repealed. There just isn't a united political coalition in favor of it.

Will Clarence Thomas Recuse Himself on Health Care Reform?

| Tue May 31, 2011 10:11 AM EDT

Following a time-honored Washington tradition of dumping required but embarrassing information on a Friday night before a major holiday, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas finally released the details of his wife's income from her year or so working for the tea party group Liberty Central, which fought President Obama's health care reform law. His new financial disclosure form indicates that his wife, Virginia, who served as Liberty Central's president and CEO, received $150,000 in salary from the group and less than $15,000 in payments from an anti-health care lobbying firm she started.

The disclosure was apparently prompted in part by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who had been needling Thomas (including on Twitter) for months to disclose how much money his wife earned from Liberty Central. That's because challenges to Obama's health care reform law are likely to end up before the Supreme Court sooner rather than later, and if Thomas and his wife benefited from her income working against the bill, the justice has an enormous conflict of interest in hearing any legal challenge. Thomas had failed to disclose Virginia's income on his financial disclosure forms for 20 years; under pressure from Weiner and others, he had recently amended old disclosures to reflect hundreds of thousands of dollars she had earned working for the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that also opposed Obama's health care plan.

But, up until now, Thomas had not revealed how much money his wife made from her controversial Liberty Central work. When Virginia Thomas decided to take a high-profile role in the organization, she was immediately criticized because of the potential that her job might compromise her husband's independence on the bench. Eventually, she was forced to step down (a move also apparently prompted by her bizarre October phone call to Anita Hill, the woman who'd accused her husband of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing). When she left the organization, she created a new consulting firm, Liberty Consulting, which also did anti-health care reform lobbying. Justice Thomas finally released the details of her compensation Friday night, but the disclosure, and Weiner's triumphant press release announcing the move, were largely overshadowed by Weinergate.

Over the weekend, Weiner's Twitter account was allegedly hacked and Tweeted a photo of a near-naked man to a college student. Conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart published the photo on his site, Big Government, and the feeding frenzy was furious enough to ensure that Thomas' news barely saw the light of day. Still, if and when health care reform makes its way to the Supreme Court, Thomas will have a much harder time making his conflict of interest go away.