Archive for October, 2008

Weekly News Roundup: Special Halloween Edition

By Melissa Lafsky | October 31, 2008 3:57 pm

• Get in touch with your inner polar bear—and kick some climate change a$$.

• Attention: Cruddy voting machines = cruddy news for voters.

• The Economist smacks down pretty much the entire science journalism establishment. Don’t worry, we won’t mention how you weren’t exactly first in line to predict the financial crisis.

• We love voter databases (even if they don’t love us). Unfortunately, Ohio’s might not even make it through a single fraud check. Ask us how shocked we are.

• Man v. the Internet: Did the Web hinder (or help) the financial crisis?

• Obama’s groundbreaking Web campaign: “Controlled chaos” (that looks like it’ll work).

• And if you’re looking for last minute Halloween costume ideas, look no further.

Think You're an Undecided Voter? Your Brain May Disagree.

By Melissa Lafsky | October 31, 2008 12:33 pm

With less than a week before showtime, the polls are already jam packed. But the real stars of the eleventh hour are the undecided voters, who still (incredibly, miraculously) haven’t made up their minds. And apparently they’re more numerous than one might think, with one in seven voters saying they might go either way, according to a recent poll.

But are these vacillating voters really still deciding? Or could their minds have already formulated a choice, without their even realizing it? University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek suspects the latter is true, and has partnered with colleagues at Harvard and the University of Washington to test whether humans form mental associations that differ from what their conscious recognizes.

To do this, the researchers used the Implicit Association Test, which has been up and running for a decade now and has logged around 7 million responses. Since the 2008 presidential race began, the team has tested more than 25,000 voters on their implicit preferences concerning the two candidates. Of that group, around 4,000 (15 percent) declared themselves undecided. But the test results for a significant number of these so-called undecideds showed a clear implicit preference for Obama or McCain. Here’s how the team summarized their results:

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McCain's Chances of Winning Still Higher than His Chances of Melanoma Recurrence

By Melissa Lafsky | October 30, 2008 12:26 pm

Just how likely is it that McCain will die of cancer in the next few years? Do a little Web surfing, and you’ll find around a gazillion (and that’s a low estimate) different answers, very few of which rely on clear, unbiased fact. To cut through the jargon and get the real picture, check out my feature story on the truth about the Arizona Senator’s melanoma risk. (Spoiler: It’s low.)

It’s worth noting that not every member of the medical establishment was willing to discuss the Republican nominee’s health. In particular, the communications director of a prominent cancer foundation informed us that if the word “McCain” would be mentioned anywhere in the piece, not a single physician or expert would agree to comment. When pressed, she said that if she set up any interviews for a piece on McCain, even just to talk about melanoma on background without answering specific questions about the Senator’s condition, she would “definitely be terminated.”

So much for the freedom of medicine from political influence (not that we ever really thought it existed).

RB: The Truth About McCain’s Melanoma: He Faces a Very Low Risk

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health Care, The 2008 Election
MORE ABOUT: cancer, mccain, melanoma

Let's Save Science! Inside the Innovation 2008 Science Policy Conference

By Melissa Lafsky | October 29, 2008 11:57 am

For the past few weeks, we’ve been posting thoughts from some of the biggest names in science regarding what the next U.S. president needs to do to promote/engender/rescue science in this country. And luckily, we’re not the only ones hammering away at this issue. Last week, scientists, business leaders, and policymakers gathered in Minnesota to discuss the future of science at the Innovation 2008 Conference. Here’s a report on what went down, from guest blogger and conference participant Darlene Cavalier.

“Everybody supports science, motherhood and apple pie, but when it comes to funding, it’s a different story,” IEEE-USA President Russ Lefevre told a national audience last week at Innovation 2008: Renewing America through Smarter Science & Technology Policy.

The event was co-hosted by Science Debate 2008 and the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. It presented public sessions on critical issues facing the next United States president, including: Innovation and Competitiveness; Renewing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education; Health Science Policy; Integrating Science and Technology in America’s Artistic and Civic Culture; and Energy Security and Sustainability.

“Energy and broadband are two critical fields where more attention is warranted,” Lefevre stressed. So what’s the sharpest thorn in these areas? Access.

The first step, the experts agreed, is to create Smart Grid technologies that can help manage the delivery of electricity better, and a national transmission grid to help open access to wind and solar resources.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Energy

Voting in America, Redux: You Can't Vote Here, But You Can Vote in Space

By Melissa Lafsky | October 28, 2008 5:10 pm

astronautOne week left ’til Election Day 2008, and voter turnout is expected to obliterate records. Of course, whether those record numbers of voters turn into record numbers of counted votes remains to be seen. In addition to the smorgasbord of disasters that could befall your vote before it gets tallied, the first hurdle will be voter registration, creating a gatekeeper you’ll have to pass just to get in the door.

Chances are, your voter registration information has been entered into a computer database run by your state. And chances also are that it’s been entered wrong—no, seriously, it has. As a result of all this error and confusion, just about everyone is worried that legions of voters could be turned away at the polls. Even the Association for Computing Machinery is getting in the act, stating the following in press release:

Experts from ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM) will be monitoring and analyzing the reliability of registration records and voting equipment around the nation as Election Day approaches.

ACM’s report on VRDs [voter registration databases] includes 99 high-level recommendations to help states establish best practices for computerized statewide electronic databases…For example, the ACM report recommends that when driver registration databases are used for eligibility checks, they should apply only to screening voters, not to automatically enrolling or de-enrolling them.

Yes, great idea! Call us when it’s implemented in 2012.

Of course, in the irony of all ironies, NASA is making sure that any Americans currently in orbit are able to vote from space, courtesy of a secure electronic ballot uplinked by the Johnson Space Center. This year, two men aboard the International Space Station plan to cast their ballots from 220 miles above the Earth. Let’s just hope they’ve been reading the news.

RB: Voting in America: Let the Pre-Game Mess Begin!
RB: Lose Your House, Lose Your Vote, Lose Your Self-Esteem
RB: Advocacy Group May Have Registered Phony “Voters.” But Does It Matter?
RB: Be Very Afraid: Online Voting Systems Fail Even for Political Bloggers

MORE ABOUT: space, voting

Could Twitter Be a Tool for Terrorists?

By Melissa Lafsky | October 28, 2008 3:26 pm

The Army has always been clever at thinking up all the vast and strange ways our enemies might use to kill us (or vice versa). Now Wired writes that an intelligence report is circulating containing warnings that terrorists might plan an attack using that deadliest of all technological terrors: Twitter.

The 11-page paper in question [pdf] is not solely devoted to Twitter—in total, it includes the following topics:

Pro Terrorist Propaganda Mobile Interfaces
Mobile Phone GPS for Movements, Ops, Targeting, and Exploitation
The Mobile Phone as a Surveillance Tool
Voice Changers for Terrorist Phone Calls
A Red Teaming Perspective on the Potential Terrorist Use of Twitter

In assessing Twitter’s danger to the free world, the authors note that the micro-blogging site was used as a “countersurveillance” tool by activists at the Republican National Convention, who used it to Tweet the location of local police. (What they fail to mention is that said local police could have pretty easily monitored the Tweets in question and adjusted their plans accordingly). The paper then goes on to lay out three possible “Twitter Attack!” scenarios:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Rant of the Day: Hitchens Slams Palin on Science

By Melissa Lafsky | October 27, 2008 4:15 pm

Here at Reality Base, we’ve taken great pleasure in covering the irreligionist arguments of anti-theist writer Christopher Hitchens. We’ve also delved into the world of GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin, whose ruminations on science have been most…interesting. So when we saw that the former had taken on the latter today in Slate, on the subject of none other than science, we were about as thrilled as anyone with a 401K could be these days.

Hitchens takes the well-heeled (literally) candidate to task for recently denouncing fruit-fly research as a wasteful and unnecessary—not to mention “un-American,” since some of the research took place in France—expense. Fruit flies, or Drosophila, will likely ring a bell for most readers—as they should, since they’re one of the great laboratories of all genetics research. As Hitchens points out, the fly can be easily grown in a lab and is a valuable research tool because it lives for a very short time, breeds vigorously, and displays plenty of genetic mutation in each generation. He writes:

[S]ince Gov. Palin was in Pittsburgh to talk about her signature “issue” of disability and special needs, she might even have had some researcher tell her that there is a Drosophila-based center for research into autism at the University of North Carolina. The fruit fly can also be a menace to American agriculture, so any financing of research into its habits and mutations is money well-spent.

He then goes on to lambast Palin’s reported belief in creationism:

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MORE ABOUT: genetics, hitchens, palin

When the Economy Tanks, We Suddenly "Develop" ESP

By Melissa Lafsky | October 27, 2008 2:18 pm

If you’ve picked up a newspaper, watched a TV, or checked your 401K in the past few months, there’s a near-perfect chance that you’ve experienced the full miasma of fear, anxiety, and helplessness that accompany loss of control. We hate that feeling—it’s a trait embedded in the human condition. And we’ll go to any lengths—including “developing” the ability to talk with the dead, see invisible patterns, and read the stars—in order to avoid it.

Sharon Begley at Newsweek writes that a whopping 90 percent of Americans either think they’ve experienced a paranormal event, or believe that they can happen. And when occurrences—like oh, say, worldwide financial crises—remind us just how futile our desire for order and control really are, our “ability” to see the future in tea leaves by no coincidence begins to rise. As Begley puts it:

Historically, such times have been marked by a surge in belief in astrology, ESP and other paranormal phenomena, spurred in part by a desperate yearning to feel a sense of control in a world spinning out of control.

There’s also the study in this month’s issue of Science finding that lack of control directly increases our “invisible pattern-seeing” ability (or perception of one). People primed with a sense of powerlessness saw more images in static, found more conspiracies in written stories, and imagined more patterns in financial markets than those who were left alone.

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Weekly News Roundup

By Melissa Lafsky | October 24, 2008 2:23 pm

• Check your state’s voter-machine-hackability rating (chances are, it’s high).

• It was only a matter of time: The official “Palinisms” video game launches.

More on the “What exactly is a ‘green job’ anyway?” question.

• For that matter, why not throw in a “Green New Deal” to save the economy (and the planet, while we’re at it)?

• While we’re on the subject of good news—aka the planet and the economy—it’s worth asking: Does the rise of one necessarily mean the fall of the other?

• A rundown of autism myths—though at this point, there are almost too many to count.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, The 2008 Election

A Republican, a Democrat, and a Baseball Manager Opine on Health Care

By Melissa Lafsky | October 24, 2008 1:39 pm

Massachusetts Senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry, former Speaker of the House and conservative icon Newt Gingrich, and Oakland A’s manager and minority owner Billy Beane aren’t a trifecta you’d expect co-penning op-eds in the Times. But co-penning they are, on behalf of a common cause: health care.

Specifically, they’re making the argument that just as baseball has profited from a “data-driven approach” to recruiting and payrolls, we need to up our use of “evidence-based” technology—as opposed to the current practice of “informed opinion”—in the U.S. health care system. The crux of the argument is this:

Remarkably, a doctor today can get more data on the starting third baseman on his fantasy baseball team than on the effectiveness of life-and-death medical procedures. Studies have shown that most health care is not based on clinical studies of what works best and what does not —be it a test, treatment, drug or technology. Instead, most care is based on informed opinion, personal observation or tradition.

It is no surprise then that the United States spends more than twice as much per capita on health care compared to almost every other country in the world—and with worse health quality than most industrialized nations. Health premiums for a family of four have nearly doubled since 2001. Starbucks pays more for health care than it does for coffee. Nearly 100,000 Americans are killed every year by preventable medical errors. We can do better if doctors have better access to concise, evidence-based medical information.

Sound points, all—though many doctors might be less than pleased to hear their careers’ worth of experience described as “informed opinion.” Still, as the doctor shortage looms, the need for databases containing accurate records and medical information will likely become more important than ever. After all, somebody/thing’s gotta keep track of all those boomer hip X-rays.

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