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Why a German Court Just Ordered A Vaccine Skeptic to Pay $100K

| Fri Mar. 13, 2015 4:39 PM EDT

Four years ago, vaccine-skeptical German biologist Stefan Lanka posed a challenge on his website: Prove to him that measles is, in fact, a virus. To the first person who could do that, he promised a whopping 100 thousand Euros (about $106,000).

Despite loads of long-standing medical evidence proving the existence of the measles virus, Lanka believes that measles is a psychosomatic disease that results from trauma. "People become ill after traumatic separations," he told a German newspaper.

German doctor David Barden took him up on the challenge. Barden gathered six separate studies showing that measles is indeed a virus. Lanka dismissed his findings.

But today, a district court in southern Germany found that Barden's evidence provides sufficient proof to have satisfied Lanka's challenge. Which means Lanka now has to cough up the promised cash.

This issue has taken on new urgency due to a measles epidemic in Berlin that began in October. Health officials announced last Friday that 111 new cases had been reported in the previous week, bringing the total number to 724. The majority of those affected are unvaccinated; last month an 18-month-old died of the disease.

Lanka said he plans to appeal the court's decision.  

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This Arizona Lawmaker Bravely Revealed Her Sexual Assault to Fight a Restrictive Abortion Bill

| Fri Mar. 13, 2015 2:18 PM EDT

Arizona state Rep. Victoria Steele (D) revealed during emotional testimony Wednesday that she was molested by a male relative when she was a young girl. Steele, who was speaking against a bill that would make it harder for women to elect abortion coverage in plans bought through the Affordable Care Act, hadn't planned to talk about her past abuse, she explained later. But when committee chair Kelly Townsend asked her whether she felt abortion was a medical service, she felt compelled to share her experience.

"When I was a child, I was molested for years by one particular person," Steele testified. "This is health care. Having the ability to get an abortion. This is health care. And that's why I see this as necessary."

Steele said she later found out there were multiple victims, one of whom told her their molester had told her he would "stick a pencil up there and take care of it" if she ever ended up pregnant.

After Steele's testimony, a state House committee approved the bill by a 5-3 party-line vote. The bill now faces a vote before the full House.

In an editorial for Cosmopolitan published on Friday, Steele said she expected the bill to survive further debate, but explained why she thinks it's  dangerous for women's rights:

I was sexually abused by an adult over a period of years when I was a young girl. My immediate family didn't know about this until long after I had grown up and left home. When I was a child, I thought I was the only one. Then I found out that this person had many victims.

What I want, what I'm really hoping will come of all of this is that people will realize that this bill will cause women who have been raped recently, who are now pregnant as a result of their rape, to have to tell their insurance panel, or even their insurance agent, about one of the most horrific things that can happen to a person in order to get the exception that this bill will allow.

Friday Hummingbird Blogging - 13 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 13, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

My physical collapse this week prevented me from taking any new cat pictures, and today I have a full day of workups in preparation for stage 2 of chemo. However, I did snap a new picture of our hummingbird babies yesterday. They seem to be growing nicely.

In the meantime, if you need a cat fix, my sister recommends this Daily Mail article about a human-cat translation device. Spoiler alert: it didn't go well.

The NYPD Is Editing the Wikipedia Pages of Eric Garner, Sean Bell

| Fri Mar. 13, 2015 11:03 AM EDT

Edits to the Wikipedia entries of several high-profile police brutality cases, including those of Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell, trace back to the headquarters of the New York Police Department, Capital New York reports this morning. The pages have been edited to cast the NYPD in a more favorable light and lessen allegations of police misconduct. The edits are currently the subject of an NYPD internal review.

In the case of Garner, who died while placed in a chokehold by a NYPD officer last summer, the word "chokehold" was swapped for "respiratory distress" and the line "Garner, who was considerably larger than any of the officers, continued to struggle with them" was added. The changes ostensibly suggest Garner's death was his own fault.

Such modifications echo the views of NYPD supporters, including Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) who adamantly declared Garner would not have died had he not been so "obese." In August, the city's medical examiner officially ruled Garner's death a homicide due to the chokehold.

The Wikipedia activity brewing at 1 Police Plaza took a distinctly more bizarre turn with edits to the pages "Ice Cream Soda," "Who Moved My Cheese?" "Chumbawamba," and "Stone Cold Steve Austin."

Following Capital New York's story on Friday, the Twitter account "NYPD Edits" was created to keep tabs on any future changes authored by the NYPD.

Oklahoma's Football Team Protests the Racist Frat Video With a Moment of Silence

| Thu Mar. 12, 2015 8:11 PM EDT

The University of Oklahoma football team stood arm-in-arm in black shirts Thursday in silent protest of the now-infamous video showing members of the campus Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter singing a racist chant.

Quarterback Trevor Knight posted a statement on Twitter on behalf of the team, urging the university to continue its investigation and declaring that the team would not practice this week. "These types of incidents occur nationwide every single year, and our hope is to shed light on this issue and promote meaningful change at a national level," the statement read. 

While African American students make up only five percent of the university's student population, the perennial bowl contenders represent a high-profile and influential group of mostly black students. Shortly after the video went viral, senior linebacker and captain Erik Striker criticized "phony ass" supporters who cheer for the team while insisting racism doesn't exist. On Monday, highly rated high school football recruit Jean Delance decommitted from Oklahoma, citing the video. Then, on Tuesday, the university expelled two fraternity members and shut down the chapter. University president David Boren told USA Today he expected more students to be disciplined as the school continues to investigate.

Athletic director Joe Castiglione has promised that the athletic department and Boren will meet with the football captains after spring break to discuss the investigation. 

This Fake App Just Summed Up Everything That's Wrong With Silicon Valley

| Thu Mar. 12, 2015 6:08 PM EDT

In Silicon Valley, a group of mostly white, mostly male twentysomethings have built a multibillion-dollar empire of sharing apps: shared housing (AirBnB), shared cars (Uber), shared dog-sitting (DogVacay)…you get the idea. But the so-called "sharing economy" doesn't actually share equally with everyone. One fake app wants to change that.

WellDeserved is an app that helps you "monetize" your privilege—be it racial, gender-based, or socioeconomic—by sharing it (temporarily, of course) with other people. The fictional app was the winning entry at last month's Comedy Hack Day in San Francisco, where creative agency Cultivated Wit challenged contestants to come up with a comedic app idea and pitch it to judges, all in 48 hours.

The app's promo video will make you laugh and cry: A Google employee sells his free Google lunch to a guest for $10, a dude charges a black man $5 to hail a cab on his behalf, and another guy walks a woman home so she won't get catcalled, asking himself, "Why don't I walk with them, spare them the harassment, and charge 'em like five bucks?"

The creators' (fake) plan for making the (fake) app work is summed up perfectly: "Our business plan is that VCs will just give us money. Because this is San Francisco, and we have an idea."

This post has been updated.

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One Thing I Wish Vox Understood About Wishes

| Wed Mar. 11, 2015 5:36 PM EDT

You can't wish...

...for more wishes.

4 Surprising Facts About Wheat and Gluten

| Wed Mar. 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Is bread the devil? No, but it's complicated.

Is wheat a "perfect, chronic poison," in the words of Wheat Belly author William Davis, or an innocuous staple that has been demonized to promote a trendy line of gluten-free products? I dug into the issue of wheat and its discontents recently, and walked away with some informed conjectures, but also a sense that the science is deeply unsettled. Now, a group of Cornell researchers (joined by one from Thailand) have performed a great service: For a paper published in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, they've rounded up and analyzed the recent science on wheat and the potential pitfalls of eating it. Here are the key takeaways:

Health Update

| Wed Mar. 11, 2015 1:03 AM EDT

On Tuesday I landed in the emergency room once again, and with the same results: there's nothing wrong with me. Nothing aside from a debilitating fatigue and lassitude, that is. But whatever it is, my oncologist doesn't think it's related to the chemo meds, and the ER doc was unable to find any other likely medical cause. So it's a mystery.

On the good news front, my biopsy results came back and were quite positive. So I'm now firmly scheduled for stage 2 of my treatment, a stem cell transplant at City of Hope. This will happen in April, but there are going to be plenty of preliminaries in the meantime. More details as they become available.

As for blogging, I just don't know. What's happened to me over the past week is unexpected, unexplained, and quite frankly scary. I don't know how I'm going to feel from day to day, but I have a feeling that the next few weeks—or perhaps months—are going to be fairly unpleasant and unproductive. I'll talk to my editors about this shortly and figure out a plan.

Wish me luck.

Joe Biden Blasts Republicans for Letter to Iran

| Tue Mar. 10, 2015 3:32 PM EDT

Joe Biden's pissed. Yesterday, 47 GOP senators sent a letter to Iranian leaders suggesting that the negotiations with President Obama over their nuclear program were essentially a waste of time, stating: "The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen...and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time." Biden, who served in US Senate for 36 years, responded with his own blistering rebuttal, writing that the senators' letter is "beneath the dignity of an institution I revere."

He wrote:

The senator’s letter, in the guise of a constitutional lesson, ignores two centuries of precedent and threatens to undermine the ability of any future American President, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States. Honorable people can disagree over policy. But this is no way to make America safer or stronger...

Since the beginning of the Republic, Presidents have addressed sensitive and high-profile matters in negotiations that culminate in commitments, both binding and non-binding, that Congress does not approve. Under Presidents of both parties, such major shifts in American foreign policy as diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China, the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis, and the conclusion of the Vietnam War were all conducted without Congressional approval....

In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary— that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them. This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments—a message that is as false as it is dangerous.

Iran's response to the GOP letter, which was spearheaded by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton who previously argued that the US should seek "regime change" in Iran rather than conduct negotiations, was similarly dismissive. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Monday chalked it up to little more than "a propaganda ploy" that had "no legal value," adding: "I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with 'the stroke of a pen,' as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law."

Biden goes on to note that the senators have offered "no viable alternative" to the diplomatic negotiations, and the letter seeking to undermine them sends a message to the international community that is "as false as it is dangerous."

Here's Biden's letter in full:

I served in the United States Senate for thirty-six years. I believe deeply in its traditions, in its value as an institution, and in its indispensable constitutional role in the conduct of our foreign policy. The letter sent on March 9th by forty-seven Republican Senators to the Islamic Republic of Iran, expressly designed to undercut a sitting President in the midst of sensitive international negotiations, is beneath the dignity of an institution I revere.

The senator’s letter, in the guise of a constitutional lesson, ignores two centuries of precedent and threatens to undermine the ability of any future American President, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States. Honorable people can disagree over policy. But this is no way to make America safer or stronger.

Around the world, America’s influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments. Some of these are made in international agreements approved by Congress. However, as the authors of this letter must know, the vast majority of our international commitments take effect without Congressional approval. And that will be the case should the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany reach an understanding with Iran. There are numerous similar cases. The recent U.S.-Russia framework to remove chemical weapons from Syria is only one recent example. Arrangements such as these are often what provide the protections that U.S. troops around the world rely on every day. They allow for the basing of our forces in places like Afghanistan. They help us disrupt the proliferation by sea of weapons of mass destruction. They are essential tools to the conduct of our foreign policy, and they ensure the continuity that enables the United States to maintain our credibility and global leadership even as Presidents and Congresses come and go.

Since the beginning of the Republic, Presidents have addressed sensitive and high-profile matters in negotiations that culminate in commitments, both binding and non-binding, that Congress does not approve. Under Presidents of both parties, such major shifts in American foreign policy as diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China, the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis, and the conclusion of the Vietnam War were all conducted without Congressional approval.

In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary— that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them. This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments—a message that is as false as it is dangerous.

The decision to undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system offends me as a matter of principle. As a matter of policy, the letter and its authors have also offered no viable alternative to the diplomatic resolution with Iran that their letter seeks to undermine.

There is no perfect solution to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. However, a diplomatic solution that puts significant and verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program represents the best, most sustainable chance to ensure that America, Israel, and the world will never be menaced by a nuclear-armed Iran. This letter is designed to convince Iran’s leaders not to reach such an understanding with the United States.The author of this letter has been explicit that he is seeking to take any action that will end President Obama’s diplomatic negotiations with Iran. But to what end? If talks collapse because of Congressional intervention, the United States will be blamed, leaving us with the worst of all worlds. Iran’s nuclear program, currently frozen, would race forward again. We would lack the international unity necessary just to enforce existing sanctions, let alone put in place new ones. Without diplomacy or increased pressure, the need to resort to military force becomes much more likely—at a time when our forces are already engaged in the fight against ISIL.

The President has committed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He has made clear that no deal is preferable to a bad deal that fails to achieve this objective, and he has made clear that all options remain on the table. The current negotiations offer the best prospect in many years to address the serious threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It would be a dangerous mistake to scuttle a peaceful resolution, especially while diplomacy is still underway.