On Torture and Polls

Posted by Sappho on December 17th, 2014 filed in Torture


In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, are Americans OK with the torture that the CIA inflicted? I’m reviewing several polls. Let’s start with the Pew Research Center’s latest poll: http://www.people-press.org/2014/12/15/about-half-see-cia-interrogation-methods-as-justified/

The Pew Research Center headlines this one “About Half See CIA Interrogation Methods as Justified,” while Alternet looks at the results in dismay and writes “Americans Are Basically OK With CIA Torture Methods Like Rectal Feeding”: http://www.alternet.org/shock-poll-americans-are-ok-cia-torture-methods?akid=12581.131729.6SuFjE&rd=1&src=newsletter1028782&t=2

The question being answered in the poll is “Were the CIA’s interrogation methods following 9/11 justified?” A slight majority say yes, with the remainder divided between “no” and no opinion. A similar majority say that the CIA’s interrogation methods provided intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks, and survey participants lean against the Senate Intelligence Committee releasing their report. It is, in any case, a report that most respondents weren’t reading; only 23% say they followed the release of the report closely.

This is a depressing result, given that “the CIA’s interrogation methods” in this case were, well, torture, didn’t in fact give us better information than we got by other methods, and were things that, even if they *had* gotten us information, we shouldn’t have done anyway, because, well, torture. I’d have been much happier if more of my fellow citizens reacted as Jim Henley did (http://www.highclearing.com/archivesuo/week_2003_03_02.html#003885) when torture first became a matter for public debate (and has consistently reacted since, good for him):

No. He’s *not* an American citizen. *We* are. Dammit but I don’t recall “By Any Means Necessary” appearing on the nation’s coinage.

Surveys, though, often give varied levels of support depending on how you word the questions, so I’m also going to look at some other surveys.
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Marijuana and Indian sovereignty

Posted by Sappho on December 12th, 2014 filed in Law, News and Commentary


This strikes me as an appropriate recognition of Indian sovereignty. Its effect on drug law, though, may be complex; the Los Angeles Times reports that the Justice Department “will tell U.S. attorneys to not prevent tribes from growing or selling marijuana on the sovereign lands, even in states that ban the practice,” but also that “The federal government will continue to legally support those tribes that wish to ban marijuana, even in states that now permit its sale, Purdon said.” And that tribal views vary on what they want.

Some tribes see marijuana sales as a potential source of revenue, similar to cigarette sales and casino gambling, which have brought a financial boon to reservations across the country. Others, including the Yakama Reservation in Washington state, remain strongly opposed to the sale or use of marijuana on their lands.

Purdon said in an interview that the majority of Native American tribes, mindful of the painful legacy of alcohol abuse in their communities, appear to be against allowing marijuana use on their territory.

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So If Crime Paid, Would It Be Okay?

Posted by WiredSisters on December 11th, 2014 filed in Guest Blogger, History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Torture


Remember when the most interesting issue in governmental semantics was what the meaning of “is” is? Except for grammarians, linguists, and philosophers, that was pretty tame stuff, even in the context of a president’s sex life. Now the big question is what the meaning of “torture” is. We are likely to spend a bit more time debating that, and the issue seems to relate to whether the “intense interrogation” causes any permanent damage. Oddly enough, none of those involved in the debate have yet raised the issue of permanent psychological damage (PTSD, for instance.) Given what we now know about PTSD, it will undoubtedly turn up in the debate, sooner rather than later. Watch this space.

But the other element in the torture debate that professional ethicists have not yet latched onto is whether the distress deliberately inflicted upon the victim has ever resulted in any useful information. The administration’s repeated response that, even if it had, that wouldn’t justify it, seems to be viewed by everybody else on both sides as an evasion. Everybody else is obsessed with the factual question: will a torture victim say anything at all to make the torture stop? Or at any rate, will a torture victim say what he thinks the torturer wants to hear, in reckless disregard of its truthfulness? The only person speaking to that issue who has personal experience as a torture victim, Senator McCain, says yes. Some more conservative “experts,” including otherwise criminal-defense-oriented Alan Dershowitz, say no. But does the effectiveness of torture really matter, if it is inherently immoral?

Which turns my memory back to my draft counseling days. Return with us now… Many of the young men I counseled, who were dealing with the morality of the Vietnam War, began by saying “War never accomplishes anything.” As an erstwhile history major, I was a little dubious about that. Fifty years later, it seems fairly clear that the Vietnam War itself, in particular, didn’t accomplish much, and that many of the accomplishments it could claim? were trivial at best, and negative at worst.*  And I am increasingly persuaded that World War I’s effects were in the same league, except perhaps in the area of literature. WWI did produce a lot of good writing, both poetry and prose. Did that justify it? Even a hardcore reader like me would have trouble with that. But World War II is a different matter. Its accomplishments were both positive and negative, but they were certainly not trivial.

So, after a few weeks of hearing this trope over and over again, I got into the habit of responding, “So if war did accomplish anything, would that make it okay?” Some of my counselees were pretty clear that it would. From the point of view of Selective Service (the agency that administered our country’s system of military conscription at the time), that made them “selective objectors,” or made their objections “merely political,” and thus ineligible for exemption from military service as “conscientious objectors.” **

But many of the others said, in good faith, no, it wouldn’t. The end doesn’t justify the means. That runs counter to much of American legal and political thinking. A homicide (as we know from recent discussions) may be “justifiable” if it prevents even the most remotely imaginable injury to a police officer. The legal defense of “necessity”, in many states, will deem almost any action “justified” if it was “necessary to prevent a greater harm.” In practice that doctrine is rarely applied, and often restricted by courts of appeal. Supporters of the reproductive rights of women often justify the resort to abortion by pointing to the often-disastrous consequences of unwanted pregnancies. So far, that line of argument has not found its way into the legal debates on the right to birth, except where the mother’s life or health would be endangered by continuing a pregnancy, or where the unborn child will certainly (or very probably) suffer a major disability. But it is a staple in the moral debates.

If torture doesn’t “work” in terms of getting useable information, then we don’t have to confront the inherent conflicts in our vision of America as both a “city built on a hill,” a paragon of national morality, and a “can do” country that will always succeed in getting what it wants and is rightfully entitled to. Years ago, I heard Daniel Ellsberg say, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, that in that war “we weren’t on the wrong side, we were the wrong side.” Sooner or later, in some hot, cold, or lukewarm war, we will have to confront the reality that we may have become the wrong side. Why can’t we talk it out now?

CynThesis

*Most notably, perhaps, a proliferation of Vietnamese restaurants featuring good variations on soup (pho) and sandwiches (banh my), and a lot of cheap clothing labelled “made in Vietnam.”

**If readers of this post are interested in a more detailed recounting of my experience as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War, I will be glad to respond to popular demand in another post.

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And Now For Something Completely Different

Posted by WiredSisters on December 9th, 2014 filed in Computers


No more politics! No more religion or spirituality! No more sex and violence! Today, we’re going to talk about——–

Printer cartridge fraud!!

It has already been established by assiduous research (see both the article and the comments for http://www.zdnet.com/article/the-printer-cartridge-scam/#comments) that, the cheaper the printer, the more expensive the cartridges, and the more often they need to be replaced. It’s not even an even trade—buying a cheaper printer will result in having to pay as much as 75% more for the cartridges.

Every now and then my admittedly cheap HP printer tells me one of the color cartridges is out of ink, and refuses to function until I replace it. Most recently, it told me the cyan cartridge was running low, and gave me the option of printing only in black, and I figured “Good, they’ve finally caught on that I’m a lawyer and have very little need for any other color, now maybe I can get some work done.” But two days later, it told me the cyan cartridge was completely depleted, and refused to function until I replaced it. What happened to the cyan ink after I told the printer to use only black ink? How did it get depleted if it wasn’t being used?

One of the commenters to the article I cited above says the problem is that cartridges have memory chips implanted in them, to make them run out after a specific period of time, rather than when the ink actually gets used up. He claims to have found the chip on one of his cartridges, and made a brand new cartridge get recognized as empty by punching a pinhole through it. (Now, if he could figure out how to get an “empty” cartridge recognized as full by some equally simple operation…) If so, unless the instructions or the warranty of the cartridge actually tells the user about it in nanoscopic print, that sounds like fraud. In fact, it has the makings of a class action. I like this idea so much I am going to consult my brother the techie to verify the innards of a cartridge, and then start work on a class action. If you or someone you know has already done some of this work, please let me know.

CynThesis

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A criminal justice blog round up

Posted by Sappho on December 8th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch, Law, Race


Radley Balko discusses the Department of Justice report just released on the Cleveland Police Department, which indicates a pattern of unreasonable force.

Erik Loomis of Lawyers, Guns, and Money passes on some trenchant commentary from Thurgood Marshall on police chokeholds. I found this part interesting (the “officers are taught to” part refers to what officers were taught in the LAPD in the 1970s):

Moreover, the officers are taught to maintain the chokehold until the suspect goes limp, despite substantial evidence that the application of a chokehold invariably induces a “flight or flee” syndrome, producing an involuntary struggle by the victim which can easily be misinterpreted by the officer as willful resistance that must be overcome by prolonging the chokehold and increasing the force applied.

So, regardless of whether a suspect was “resisting arrest” in the sense of actual forcible resistance before a chokehold is applied, raw instinct ensures that he’ll struggle as best he can during the chokehold.

On a more encouraging note, NPR has an interview with civil rights attorney Constance Rice on how she built trust with police. Andrew Sullivan, from whom I got the link, highlights this part:

I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren’t overtly racist. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men. I know a lot of white cops who have told me. And I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them I didn’t realize that they needed an outlet to talk.

At Slate, Reihan Salam discusses the conservative case for reforming the police. He reconmends Mark Kleiman’s book When Brute Force Fails, and a localized approach to criminal justice exemplified by the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

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“I Can’t Breathe” and #CrimingWhileWhite

Posted by Sappho on December 4th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary


Two thirds of all residents of NYC (but only 43% of residents of Staten Island) see “no excuse” for the officer’s actions. The medical examiner’s report ruled the case a homicide. Conservatives like Rod Dreher, Sean Davis, and AllahPundit (some of whom supported the grand jury’s decision not to indict in the Darren Wilson case) have expressed shock. As Sean Davis puts it,

The second-degree manslaughter charge requires only two factors: 1) the person charged must have caused the death of the victim, and 2) the perpetrator must have caused the death of the victim via reckless means….

So an officer used a banned practice that is known to lead to the deaths of people who are subjected to it? That certainly seems to satisfy the second condition of a second-degree manslaughter charge. And again, I have to stress that the entire incident was caught on tape. The evidence is unequivocal. And yet, no indictment.

Why, it’s almost as if the grand jury system is just a convenient means for prosecutors to get the outcome they want wrapped in a veneer of due process….

And yet, for reasons I can’t fathom (having seen the video), the grand jury refused to indict, and, for reasons I can’t fathom, some are still arguing that the cops did nothing that deserved an indictment, that Eric Garner’s death was all his fault, because he “resisted arrest.” Rod Dreher has gotten some such admonitions in the thread where he expressed dismay over the grand jury decision. So, here’s what I wrote there.
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Triangulation, 529andYou, and Genome Mate

Posted by Sappho on December 3rd, 2014 filed in DNA, Genealogy


I keep procrastinating this post because I’m picturing myself writing the perfect genetic genealogy post, and then, of course, I don’t get around to it. So, screw it, I’ll write the imperfect genetic genealogy post, that links other people, better genetic genealogy bloggers than me, for fuller explanations.

There are several basic tools in genetic genealogy: mitochondrial DNA (which passes only through the female line), Y DNA (which only men have, and which passes only through the male line), X DNA (which passes through both men and women, but with a complicated inheritance pattern, given that men only get it from their mothers – you can find X DNA inheritance charts here), and autosomal DNA, which you can inherit every which way.

One of the keys to doing genealogy with autosomal (and X) DNA is triangulation. Here are the rules:

  1. If you and one of your DNA cousins (someone identified as a cousin because you share sufficiently large segments of DNA) share another DNA cousin, and your shared segments are in completely different places, you might share a common line. Or you might not. You might share a common place. Or you might (especially if all of your shares are small) just have each other in common by chance. But it’s a clue. Even more so if you turn out to share a lot of DNA cousins, and all of you have a connection with a common place (such as, say, colonial Connecticut); common cousins can point to which side of the family someone is related to you on.
  2. If you and one of your DNA cousins share another DNA cousin on the same segment that you share with each other, and you both share with that DNA cousin on that same segment, then all of you must share a common line, somewhere back. The reason we can figure that is that both cousin A and cousin B share the same half IBD with you, either the one you got from your mother or the one you got from your father, both you and cousin B share the same half IBD with cousin A, etc., through however many cousins all mutually share that segment.
  3. If you and cousin A share a long segment on a certain chromosome, and you and cousin B share that same long segment, and cousin A and cousin B don’t share that segment, then cousin A and cousin B each inherited the half IBD that the other didn’t, so they’re related to you on different sides, one on your mother’s side and one on your father’s side.
  4. If the segments are sufficiently small, you can’t infer that much from them, as far as common inheritance. A shared 5 cM segment, for instance, might be what’s called Identical By State, rather than Identical By Descent. A shared segment of 10 cM or more, on the other hand, is almost certainly Identical By Descent.
  5. If you share multiple segments with someone, often you got all segments from a common line, and you can use information about where one segment comes from to pin down another. For instance, if I share with someone on chromosome 2, and also share a large segment on X, I might infer that the segment we share on chromosome 2 also came on the same line as the X, and therefore on a line that can pass X DNA to me (so that I can rule out, for example, all lines from my father’s father, or my mother’s father’s father). However, multiple segments don’t always come from the same line, particularly if you’re dealing with inbred populations, such as Ashkenazi Jews, French Canadians, Mennonites, or colonial Americans. (Not all of these populations are equally inbred; my French Canadian DNA cousins share many more segments with each other than my colonial American DNA cousins. But they all went through enough of a bottleneck that sometimes multiple segments may come from different lines, all in more or less the same place.) More rarely, you can even inherit multiple shared segments from different sides that aren’t related to each other at all. (I have just found one DNA cousin, identified as a 3rd to 6th cousin by 23andMe, who is probably more distant than that, because it turns out that I get one of our shared segments through my mother, and the other through my father, even though Mom’s and Dad’s ancestors came from completely different ends of Europe.)
  6. Very close cousins are useful for sorting everyone into, say, mother’s side and father’s side (though your actual mother and father are better for this if you can still test them), or a particular grandparent’s line. Someone who shares large segments both with you and with your first cousin probably is related to both of you on the same line, even if the segments aren’t on the same chromosome. However, be careful of inferring too much from the fact that someone shares with you and not with your first cousin, because DNA cousins don’t have to be all that far removed before some people in the family start losing the relationship from their DNA. (I have a lot of DNA cousins, for instance, that my own sister doesn’t share, and she has a lot that I don’t share, but she and I share all the same ancestors.)
  7. Close cousins can also be useful for figuring out where mystery geographic connections come from. For instance, I know that I share many of my French Canadian DNA cousins with a first cousin once removed, who is a first cousin to my mother on her mother’s side. This is why I figure my mystery French Canadian connection for being on my maternal grandmother’s side (and other genealogical information lets me pin the likely source down further).

Now, to sort all these triangulated cousins, it helps to have some way of keeping track of who is related to you. For this, chromosome browsers are useful, and both 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA have them. (Ancestry has just introduced another way of showing how cousins are connected, called DNA Circles, of which I can’t say anything because I’m not in any DNA Circles yet, and so can’t really see how, or how well, it works.) DNA Explained has a post here about chromosome browsers.

Another way of triangulating cousins, one that allows you to compare cousins turned up by multiple testing companies (if you have been tested at multiple places) is to use external tools. One such tools is Genome Mate, the use of which is described here. Genome Mate is easier to use with 23andMe if you use the 529andYou Chrome browser extension, the use of which is explained here.

I have been using Genome Mate for a while now, after previously entering my matches by hand in a spreadsheet to keep track of them, and Genome Mate makes life much easier. I can more quickly identify shared cousins, and I easily save my notes and mark who is related to me through which grandparent. I do still keep, outside of Genome Mate, some charts where I have marked which parts of my (and my sister’s and brother’s) chromosomes come from which grandparent, and X inheritance charts for my mother and father; you can track all of this information in Genome Mate, but I like having a backup method.

Later I’ll talk about mtDNA and Y DNA lines.

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From Rodney King to Michael Brown

Posted by WiredSisters on November 27th, 2014 filed in Guest Blogger, Implicit Associations Tests, Law, News and Commentary, Race, Science


Nobody seems to be looking at the Ferguson/Michael Brown case and its various relatives going all the way back to Rodney King from the point of view of technological development.   Perhaps it’s time we did.  Police misconduct allegations BRK (before Rodney King) almost always turned on the question of who was more worthy of the fact-finder’s credence—the criminal (or suspect, at least) or the peace officer sworn to serve and protect us.  All we had, most of the time, was the testimony of both of them, and perhaps a few post facto photos and medical reports that might indicate that the suspect had been injured, but not how or by whom, or even, in some situations, when.  What judges most regrettably call “he said/he said.”  Not surprisingly, most of the time, the trier of fact chose to believe the police officer.

But the Rodney King case and all of its descendants have brought the judicial system kicking and screaming into the age of digital documentation.  Everybody and his great-aunt has a still camera, and/or a video camera, as close as his/her pocket or purse.  Many would-be police reformers are asking for all police officers to wear cameras whenever on duty; many police cars are already camera-equipped.  It almost doesn’t matter, because somebody is going to record almost any police interaction with the public more interesting than putting a parking ticket on a car window.

So how is the judicial system to deal with this new age of evidence of police misconduct?  Who are you going to believe, we ask the trier of fact, me or your own eyes? The Rodney King case laid it out for us.  If the court can no longer question the fact that the suspect was injured by the police officer, the police advocates have to come up with, and the court has to get into the habit of accepting, some reasonable explanation for what would otherwise be an unreasonable action by the police.

The Supreme Court said, in 1989 (BRK, as we would say now) that the action of the police officer must be evaluated through the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”  This puts the evaluation of the police action at two removes from where the rest of us might see it. A reasonable police officer, the Supreme Court presumes, is different from an ordinary reasonable (civilian) person.  And that officer’s judgment of the situation on the spot is obviously going to be different from even the most professional police officer’s evaluation of his actions after the fact.  Or before the fact.  Or in the course of training.  While other first responders are presumed to be trained to override their first impulse, or to change that impulse (for instance, to learn to run into a burning building rather than away from it), the police officer’s first impulse is presumed to be reasonable, whether it is right or wrong.

Recent psychological data on when people perceive a situation to be dangerous seems to indicate that most of us (police or civilian) are likely to perceive persons of color as more dangerous than colorless people, controlling for all other circumstances.  If the person in question has something in his hand, or appears to be reaching for something, the color of his skin will affect whether the observer construes that something to be a weapon or a phone.  The studies have not yet been refined to control for training or experience or recent events in the observer’s life.  Will a police officer—or a civilian urban resident—who sees violence every day be more or less likely to perceive danger where there is none, or to ignore it when it really threatens?  We don’t know yet.  In the absence of that knowledge, we also don’t know how a “reasonable police officer” can be expected to behave at a traffic stop in a marginal neighborhood.  Neither do judicial triers of fact.

In the meantime, should these triers of fact be allowed to presume that a civilian of color will act differently—and more dangerously–than the judge or juror herself would in the same circumstances?  And should that presumption require such a civilian to accept, without recourse, treatment from the police that the judge herself would never accept if it involved a member of her own family?  Psychology needs to get us better data, and the Supreme Court needs to revisit this issue after obtaining that data.  Clearly, the 13 years since Rodney King has already been too long to wait.

Red Emma

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Both sides of the river, we died just the same

Posted by Sappho on November 21st, 2014 filed in Blogwatch, Law, News and Commentary


Eric Posner, law professor at the University of Chicago and son of federal appellate judge Richard Posner, writes in Slate that Obama’s Immigration Plan Is Perfectly Constitutional, and a routine exercise of presidential power. What interests me most, though, are the reasons he gives, which are not broad ones about prosecutorial discretion, but particular reasons why “Immigration law is special.” They have to do with a conflict between America’s “huge and insatiable hunger for cheap labor,” our laws making labor more expensive than what we want to pay “workers to mind the kids, trim the hedges, pick strawberries, and slaughter chickens,” the availability of a lot of people south of our border who are willing to work for less than our minimum wage, with fewer protections than our labor law imposes, and how Congress has chosen to resolve that conflict.

The contradiction between ideological opposition to guest workers and the huge demand for cheap foreign labor is the key to the present controversy. To avoid the appearance of a legally recognized caste system while allowing one to exist in reality, Congress has given nearly full legal rights to legal immigrants and passed tough laws to keep everyone else out—while appropriating far too little money to enforce them. This throws to the executive the task of deciding whom to enforce the laws against. Because Congress appropriates only enough money to deport 400,000 people per year out of 11 million, the president by necessity must pick and choose whom to deport. It’s no surprise that for decades every president has deported mainly criminals while leaving most everyone else alone….

Nor does the government put much pressure on employers. In 2012, immigration authorities fined only 495 employers for illegally hiring undocumented aliens; the aggregate fines amounted only to $12.5 million, a pittance when you consider that 8 million unauthorized migrants are employed. (Republicans might be interested to know that zero employers were fined in 2006 and two employers were fined in 2007, under the Bush administration.)

You can see Posner taking a Republican slant even as he defends Obama; he would prefer a formalized guest worker program, and points the finger at Democrats as the party that opposes this solution. But whether you agree with him or not about the optimal solution, he has a point about the contradictions inherent in existing immigration law.

Other links relevant to Obama’s recent executive order on immigration:

A full transcript of Obama’s speech.

The opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel, made public by the administration, on “the scope of the Department of Homeland Security’s discretion to enforce the immigration laws.”

The law blog Balkinization has a Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law.

Predictably, though the bloggers at the Volokh Conspiracy aren’t normally Obama’s biggest fans, this turns out to be just the issue where you can find a defense of Obama’s action there (this one by Ilya Somin. (Equally predictably, Patrick Buchanan is just as passionately on the other side of the issue from Ilya Somin as you’d expect.)

Wikipedia has a list of countries by foreign born population, as of 2013. The US has the largest number of immigrants, but nowhere near the largest percentage of the population (the Gulf states run away with that distinction, with the United Arab Emirates having a whopping 83.7% of its population foreign born). This leaves me wondering exactly what it is that makes immigration a political issue in one country but not another, because it tracks surprisingly badly with how many immigrants you have (considering that Greece has a smaller proportion of immigrants than the UK, which has a smaller proportion than the US, and that’s the exact inverse of how worried the three countries are about immigration). I assume the state of the economy is a factor (that would explain Greece), but there must be others. I’m also trying to imagine what it’s actually like to live in a country where most people are guest workers. Come to think of it, some members of my extended family did live in one of the Gulf states for a while, so I could always ask them.

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Has Dean Hamer been vindicated?

Posted by Sappho on November 19th, 2014 filed in DNA, Sexuality


Some months ago, I blogged for a while about the odd “gay germ” hypothesis, and, in the course of that, talked a bit about the possibility of a “gay gene.” At the time, I mainly meant simply to argue that the “germ of the gaps” argument that male homosexuality, in particular, has to be caused by some germ, because a “gay gene” is somehow impossible in evolutionary terms, didn’t make sense, because it’s so easy to generate theories that might explain a gene that sometimes doesn’t exactly enhance reproduction that, even if you reject any one of them (let’s say, the “good gay uncle” one where uncles enhance the survival of their siblings’ children), there would still be some other (let’s say, the “sisters are more fertile” one, or the “some women go for more feminine men, and most of the men carrying the gene are straight” one) that might fit the bill. But of course, that means, not that a “gay gene” is proven as soon as you can come up with a “just so” story for it, but that the way to know whether the thing exists is to apply all the usual ways of testing a behavioral genetics hypothesis, from twin studies to studies of the genome itself.

It happens that there’s a new study that does just that. Like Dean Hamer’s old, and till now not replicated, study, it suggests an X chromosome link to homosexuality (which, if you’re tallying evidence for evolutionary theories, could fit with the “fertile females make up for less fertile males” theory). However, there’s still some dispute as to how far vindicated Dean Hamer is by this study. It uses an older technique for looking for genetic associations, genetic linkage.

In the meantime, the genetic linkage technique has largely been replaced with genome-wide association (GWA) studies. A linkage study identifies only broad regions containing dozens or even hundreds of genes, whereas GWA studies often allow the association of a specific gene with a certain trait in the population. That approach would be preferable, but a linkage study was the only way to directly replicate Hamer’s work, Sanders says.

Kendler, who is an editor at Psychological Medicine, says it was somewhat surprising to get the submission from Sanders and Bailey’s team using the older technique. “Seeing linkage studies in this world of GWAs is rare,” he says, but he maintains that the study “really moves the field along.”

Neil Risch, a geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco, disagrees. The paper does little to clear up question about Xq28, he says. Risch collaborated on a 1999 study that found no linkage at that region and says that more recent evidence casts further doubt. He also says the two linkages reported in the new work are not statistically significant.

A genome-wide association study is in progress, that may either back this finding up or refute it.

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A defense of Russian chivalry, and other links

Posted by Sappho on November 12th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch


Natalia Antonova: For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

Jarrod Hayes: Carl Sagan and Reflections on the Significance of IR (“IR” here is “International Relations”)

xkcd: Efficiency (via my college friend Andrew)

What I particularly like about this defense, by Thoreau at High Clearing, of legalizing buying and selling pot, not just simple possession of small amounts: I like the way that he avoids the thing some libertarians do, of starting from their ideal policy that we don’t have, and then arguing that anyone who instead supports a more modest change in their direction is an unacceptably tyrannical statist (yes, socialists sometimes do that, too, in a different direction), instead saying frankly that
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Of Eagles and Hobbits

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2014 filed in Books, Movies


I gave platelets on Saturday (third platelet or plasma donation since my long deferral – first for cancer and then for travel – ended), and, for my movie, I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As Peter Jackson broke The Hobbit into multiple movies, this one ends with the giant eagles flying the dwarves and hobbit out of danger and closer to their destination, the Lonely Mountain. Why the eagles don’t fly the party all the way there isn’t explained in the movie (but is in the book). More interesting to me, though (because the answer may be less mundane) is the often asked question, why couldn’t the giant eagles fly the Fellowship of the Ring all the way to Mordor, and short circuit the entire adventure in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

One kind of explanation points to the logistical difficulties that an eagle flight to the Crack of Doom would actually have faced. Here you can find a cute video of what an eagle flight to Mordor might have looked like, and then a discussion of how such a flight might have failed in practice: giant eagles are much less stealthy than hobbits, the Crack of Doom was so constructed so that you had to traverse a tunnel too small for eagles once you got there, and minions of Sauron, alerted by the very visible entrance of the eagles, might well have made short work of the fellowship and taken possession of the Ring.

I, though, lean to a more spiritual explanation. There is a reason, besides stealth, that hobbits are the best candidates to carry the Ring. Though all creatures can be corrupted by the Ring, hobbits show themselves more resistant to its power than others. And this fact isn’t an accident, tied to some odd quirk of hobbit DNA; it is, instead, tightly bound to a major theme of the story. Hobbits are more resistant to the temptation offered by the Ring because they are small, weak, and particularly humble creatures. This is why Galadriel refuses the Ring, knowing what it could make of her. It’s why it can’t be born by someone like Gandalf, or even Aragorn. Blessed are the meek, and it takes a particularly meek Ringbearer to make the journey and not succumb to temptation as Boromir did.

And this gets me to a point made in this defense of Ayn Rand lovers (by a conservative who, as a Christian, has reservations about Rand).

2. It’s possible to dissociate a book from its politics

According to my totally nonscientific sense of things, the singlemost popular work of fiction among Silicon Valley geeks is The Lord of the Rings. (And even if it’s not the MOST popular, it’s still undeniably popular.) Much has been written about the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley culture. But Lord of the Rings is profoundly and explicitly anti-technology; Tolkien clearly associates the forces of evil with industrial modernity, and his picture of Eden, whether the Hobbits’ Shire or the Elven realms, is pre-technological. Peter Thiel, who may be the most techno-utopian futuristic billionaire in Silicon Valley, has also named not one, not two, but three companies after items or characters from Lord of the Rings. How does he reconcile these contradictions?!?!?!?!?!

It’s probably very easy for him, because you don’t have to love a piece of art’s politics to love the piece of art itself.

It’s true; Tolkien’s attitude toward technology is vastly different from the views of his Silicon Valley following. How do you reconcile that contrast? Pretty easily, actually. Part of why you can love a piece of art without loving its politics is, surely, the merits of the particular piece of art, in terms of storytelling, which in one case may be good characterization, in another good plot pacing, and in another a well developed alternate world. But I think that, along with whatever “pure art” merits you can list, the reason we sometimes love a piece of art whose politics we don’t love is that, even if not all of the message of the piece resonates, there’s part of the piece that does. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, it’s easy enough to associate those particularly industrially modern forces of evil with ecologically insensitive uses of technology (lots of eco-friendly techno-utopians in Silicon Valley), but, more important, the central theme, of the value of the small and humble, resonates in Silicon Valley as much as anywhere.

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Paranoia Sweepstakes–the Winner

Posted by WiredSisters on November 4th, 2014 filed in Church History, Guest Blogger, Moral Philosophy, Sexuality


I apologize to any of you out there who have been waiting with bated breath to find out the winner of the current paranoia sweepstakes. To refresh your memories: Three paragraphs max, more or less. One end or the other needs to be grounded in reality (ie, either the means or the end must be an observed phenomenon–computer chips in pet animals is well-documented, using them for espionage isn’t. Or lots of homeless people on the street is an observable phenomenon, getting them out there by hiring out-of-work actors isn’t.) So you need to give examples of the observed phenomenon, then track it back to the means (how did we get here?) or forward to the end (What else could this be used for?) you are imagining. No UFO aliens, please. The prize is a gift card at our local spy store.

So here it is, from Linda Preston, of LaGrange Park, Illinois, and (full disclosure here) my godson’s mother, a longtime friend, and a member of my congregation:

This summer, a Baptist church in Florida refused to hold a funeral for a man because they discovered, after his death, that he had been gay. Their justification was
a) the Bible says we can’t, b) homosexuality is a sin. What an ugly action to be associated with God’s holy name! The Bible labels many things that people do as sins, people do these things anyway, and they continue to be church members and to have church funerals. Adultery, murder, child abuse, theft, whatever. Except in this case. What’s really going on here?

God, as it says in all holy books, is forgiving. (Two of many examples: “Judge not lest ye be judged; “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”) What makes God really angry, however, is the sin of Nineveh, the sin of Sodom, recorded in the story of Abraham and the story of Jonah – cruelty toward each other. This outrageous cruelty towards a grieving family, this sad refusal to offer a person who is part of the church the last rites, these are examples of what the Bible tells us God does not want. Actions like this, and the hatred that caused them, stray far from actual Biblical teachings. This happens because they were planted within the church by people who are not of the church. Think Trojan horse. The Greeks fought for 10 years to subdue Troy, without success. Finally, they packed up to leave, and left a huge wooden horse at the gate of Troy, supposedly as a gift. Trojans opened their gates and took the horse past their guards. During the night, the host of soldiers hidden inside came out and attacked Troy from inside. Troy was totally defeated, by the agency of what seemed like a gift.

Thinking of that, note that the increasing pitch of hatred directed towards gay people within the church has, within the last 30 years, moved from a background issue to a singling out of gay people as the group to hate. It has come to seem “obvious” to many Christians, but homosexuality was not always a headline issue, a litmus test of belief. Where did this change of perspective come from?

It is not a coincidence that, within the same 30 year period, many Americans have suffered under an array of hardships – millions of hard-working families losing their homes to foreclosures, tens of millions of jobs outsourced, millions of citizens who want to find work but are out of work for years, and finally find jobs for lower salaries and without benefits, cities without water and lights, the disappearance of pensions, the crippling of unions. At Nineveh, Jonah was there, in the name of God, to denounce such cruelty to ordinary citizens. Where are today’s churches?

I believe that the movement of the issue of gay sexuality, from background issue to litmus test, did not happen by accident. The headlines, the books, the articles, the media mentions, were paid for, crafted, and planted as carefully as a Trojan horse, seeming to shed light on the true nature of the church, while at the same time changing the course of some Christian discourse away from social and economic issues to a focus supposedly on sexuality, but actually on identifying a group of people within the church who are “different from you,” “inferior to you,” and ”the cause of all your troubles.” This has resulted in a strange thing, noted by many pundits and thinkers–a huge and growing group of people vote against their own economic interests. The new emphasis on sexuality came with the seductive and seemingly religious idea that sexual morality was more important than economics. If this were true, than it would not matter if you lost your job, if you would retire without a pension – if you were even able to retire, or even if you didn’t have enough money to pay for health care. The important thing, this supposedly Christian logic said, was that you stood against sexual immorality, that there was another “group” of people who were different from you and dangerous to you, and you opposed them.

Of course, this switch in theology would also benefit the very wealthy, since it would effectively remove the churches from the opposition to growing economic sabotage. It would be well worth it for wealthy corporate executives and folks from the new, suddenly-wealthy class to pay whatever it took to buy out media sources, to create saleable and inflammatory ideas, and to create and staff groups that would spread these ideas. The reward for their investment has been to neutralize one of the big players in the civil rights movement, by focusing its attention elsewhere, and by fomenting discord within its ranks. Perhaps it will work for them. Or perhaps the churches will wake up, read their Bibles, and go back to defending their flocks from economic suicide.

Linda Preston

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Notes from an Ultraviolet Voter

Posted by WiredSisters on November 4th, 2014 filed in Anarchism, Democracy, Guest Blogger, Health and Medicine, Uncategorized


The Tea Partiers and, to a considerable extent, even the Respectable Republicans, are fond of calling the President an “extreme liberal.” They aren’t paying attention. Or, more likely, they just know that American voters don’t like any kind of extremists. I can still remember Barry Goldwater, of semi-blessed memory, saying that “extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice” in the 1964 presidential election. It put him on the wrong end of one of the biggest landslide votes ever. That was not a blip.

But neither the Respectable Right nor the Radical Right have, in all likelihood, ever met an extreme leftist. For one thing, real leftists consider “liberal” a synonym for wishy-washy. “Extreme liberalism” would be an oxymoron, like “extreme center” or “extreme moderate.” (Or “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence.” Extremism in the pursuit of moderation is no vice?)

Okay, as a veteran of the anti-war movement of the 1970s, I have met more than my share of extreme leftists. I can tell you from personal experience that Maoists always come on time to meetings, but Stalinists are more fun at parties; that socialists tend to have dogs, pacifists have cats, and anarchists often have both, plus assorted lizards and parrots. I can also do a pretty good job of distinguishing undercover Red Squad plants from real left-wing nuts, and real left-wing nuts from rational leftists.

I do not consider myself a left-wing nut, or a liberal. I guess I’m a rational leftist. And, while I understand the president’s difficulties in getting anything more radical than the Magna Carta through this Congress, I would be happier if he picked bigger battles to get shot down in. “Obamacare” is not “socialized medicine.” I am willing to accept it as an improvement on the fee-for-service system, and the best improvement we are likely to get for a while. But it’s less radical than Medicare, which was the wave of the future 50 years ago.

Like most rational leftists (but, alas, not all of them) I support the president in getting the best deals he can from this Congress. But I won’t call those deals “liberal.” At best they are centrist, much like Clinton’s. I consider both of them the most rational Republicans to run the country since Teddy Roosevelt. And I think the worst blot on their legacies is that they have allowed our political discourse to become so badly corrupted that they have never disputed being called “extreme liberals.” Or liberals at all. I think, in fact, that what the various self-styled liberals who served in our government during Newt Gingrich’s takeover of Congress should have done then was join the Republican Party en masse, and force it to fight out internally what were essentially Republican issues.

Instead, we leftists are left (you should pardon the expression) with the party of “yes, but..” Yes, big government is evil, but… Yes, government spending is dangerous, but… Yes, the United States is destined to be the world’s top cop, but…. Yes, we are a less racist country than we were in 1965, but…

Unfortunately, nobody, on either side, has the inclination, the time, or the smarts to debate these issues on their merits right now. It’s hard to fix the roof when it’s raining, and when the sun is out, we’d rather work on our tans.

Red Emma

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Some apolitical links on the eve of Election Day

Posted by Sappho on November 3rd, 2014 filed in Blogwatch


Andrew Shields has A pragmatic consideration of the intentional fallacy.

Noah Millman has a weakness for unpleasant protagonists.

Some genealogy humor.

Is it harder for high-caste men to coordinate?

For Stress-Free Penguins, Use a Rover.

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I voted

Posted by Sappho on October 29th, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions


I’ve spent the past few days researching how to vote on my absentee ballot. I meant to blog my thoughts as I went, but it wound up being easier for me to take notes in a file on my computer (which I then didn’t have to organize for public consumption), leaving asterisks next to the races and propositions where I hadn’t had to make up my mind yet. Those of my readers who are in California will have many of the same choices I did, but, for those of you who are not in California, here’s what my ballot looked like: Six statewide propositions, three local ones (two for Orange County and one for Lake Forest), a zillion judges (but only one contested judicial race, the rest yes/no), about half a dozen partisan statewide offices, some partisan legislative races (federal and state), one non-partisan statewide office, a local community college board, a local school board, a local tax assessor, and a local city council. No water district races this time, which is a relief, because it’s nearly impossible to find information about water district candidates.

In addition to the information in the voter pamphlet, which was both mailed to our house and accessible online, I was able to use some of the online resources I’ve already linked, like Ballotpedia (which has the various races as well as the ballot proposition link I just gave you), VoteSmart, etc. And I did a lot of web searches to find what papers and blogs were saying about various candidates. In the case of the local city council race, a lot of the blog posts, on multiple blogs, were by one of the candidates, and others came from people with different political slants, so I had to carefully check and track the biases of my sources, as well as taking notes on what they said.

Though local races are all non-partisan, and the ballot does not list the party affiliation of the candidates, there are people who track these local candidates and make lists of who is Republican and who is Democrat, and Orange County has local branches of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Tea Party, all of which field lists, on their web sites, of who they endorse. The candidates have web sites and Facebook pages, the Orange County Register has articles about candidate forums for local city councils (including mine), and the OC Weekly often has dirt on one candidate or another. Though nearly everyone running for office in Orange County is Republican, there are definite factions within each race, so that candidates for the South Orange County Community College District can often be placed as to their alignment with one of two longstanding community college district factions, and there appear now to be four distinct factions related to the Lake Forest City Council.

I’m not going to list all my votes this time, but I am first going to endorse my friend Daniel Faigin’s reasoning on the judicial races, and then say how I made up my mind on the propositions (except for Propositions 45 and 46, because I’ve already blogged about those – friends seeing this on Facebook who missed my blog post can ask me what I think).

Proposition 1: This was an odd one, because nearly everyone I’d normally listen to was urging a yes vote, while the Friends Committee on Legislation of California, a Quaker lobby with which I normally agree, was almost alone in urging a No vote, on wildlife conservation grounds. We’re in the middle of a drought, and, though Proposition 1 likely won’t do anything fast enough to help the current drought, it’s a reminder that we need to conserve water for future droughts. Water isn’t really FCL’s area of expertise, so I was inclined to wonder: were they letting the best be the enemy of the good? Was the ideal water proposition they hoped for actually politically possible? Proposition 1 follows several failed attempts to put a water proposition on the ballot. Karen Street suggested I check what the Pacific Institute had to say (water being their specialty). They neither endorse nor oppose Proposition 1, but do have a detailed analysis. In the end, I was swayed by the Los Angeles Times endorsement.

It probably took the crippling drought, now in its third year, to even get this measure on the ballot, given the state’s decades-long standoff over water…. It is a clever compromise, and makes the bond a package deserving of voter support.

Proposition 2, requiring an annual transfer to a state budget stabilization account, has widespread support from both parties and most major papers. It also fits with my Keynesian economic views (contrary to what some of the critics of Keynes on the right suggest, Keynesian economics is not about spend-spend-spend, but about building a surplus in good times so that you can afford to run a deficit in bad times). This, for me, is an easy Yes.

Proposition 47 is an easy Yes for me for different reasons. If I’m willing to disregard FCL on water issues (not their area of expertise), I give them heavy weight on criminal justice issues, which are their area of expertise, and where their values align well with mine. So I’ll link their ballot recommendation. (I’d quote from it extensively, but it’s a PDF file, and my browser isn’t letting me do a copy/paste, nor am I eager to type that much before work. So you can follow my link to read it.) Proposition 47 reduces certain non-violent offenses (drug possession and property offenses below a certain dollar amount) from possible felony to mandatory misdemeanor. This will relieve overcrowding in the prisons, allow California to comply with a federal court order to reduce its prison population without releasing more dangerous, violent criminals, and leave fewer people subject to the legal discrimination that comes with having a felony conviction, thus making it easier for petty criminals to go straight when they come out of prison. I voted Yes.

Proposition 48 is an Indiam gaming proposition. I always vote Yes on Indian gaming on Indian sovereignty grounds, so I did so this time, as well.

Orange County Proposition E bills itself as a fair elections proposition, but is opposed by a local Common Cause leader and a local League of Women Voters leader. So I voted No.

Orange County Proposition G is a proposition stating that you can’t be appointed supervisor if you lost the last election. No one bothered to argue against this one, so I voted Yes.

Lake Forest Proposition X is a term limit proposition. If you believe in term limits, you should look into the specifics of this one and decide how to vote. Since I believe that elections should be sufficient term limits, I voted No.

And there you have it. And of my friends who have questions about the various races, which I didn’t cover here, and want to know what I found out, can ask me. Note that the two candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction have distinctly different views on education, so you probably do prefer one or the other of them. Also, since California has a new system where we vote on all the candidates in the primary and the two top vote getters in the general election, there’s a good chance that you already voted on each race. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to take notes on why you voted the way you did in the primary, so that, in the general election, if your preferred candidate is still on the ballot, you can just check whether there’s a reason to change your mind in that race, and start from scratch only on those races where your preferred candidate is no longer in the running. With so many things on the ballot, it’s good to be able to target your ballot research time. This is why I save notes from previous elections, not just for this year, but also for past elections. They sit in a director on my computer, and I can check my old files, to see if I’ve seen a particular local candidate before, and if there’s something I should remember about him or her.

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California ballot blog post round up

Posted by Sappho on October 24th, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions


I still hope to blog some more of my own thoughts about ballot measures, but, in the meantime, here are the thoughts of some other bloggers. I don’t necessarily agree with them on all six propositions (and they don’t agree with each other on all six propositions), but both Josh Flaum and Daniel Faigin have done a good job of explaining the propositions and why they’re voting the way they are.

Josh Flaum’s Personal Guide To The California Props – 2014 Edition

Daniel Faigin’s November 2014 Election Analysis – Part I: The Major Offices

Daniel Faigin’s November 2014 Election Analysis – Part II: The Propositions

The Pacific Institute is all about water. Officially neutral on Proposition 1 (the water bond proposition), they have put out an independent analysis of the proposition. Their president gives a summary in the Huffington Post.

Feel free to let me know about any other links, that I haven’t featured yet, with useful information and analysis about the California ballot propositions.

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Proposition 1

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in Environment


Proposition 1 is a water bond proposal. It appears that the argument in favor is that we need that water in the current drought, while the argument against is that it relies too much on dams that put wildlife conservation efforts at risk.

Is this a good idea? A bad idea? If I have any Californian readers left after my scarcity on the blog back when I was going through cancer treatment, feel free to weigh in.

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Proposition 45 and Proposition 46

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions


It’s getting close enough to the election that I should probably suspend posts about issues on which I won’t be voting, and instead try to figure out how I’m going to vote on all the propositions and down ballot races. (For any of my readers who are bored with politics, I’ll try to work in a post about genetic genealogy, triangulation of cousins, and tools like Genome Mate.) This year, we have six statewide propositions to vote on. I’ve already posted links to some general sources of information, so for this post, I’ll just link Ballotpedia on California ballot propositions in 2014. Let’s start with the two propositions related to healthcare, Proposition 45 and Proposition 46.

“Prop. 45 Attacks President Obama’s Affordable Care Act,” announces a flyer sent to my house. The flyer warns that “Right-wing groups will use Prop. 45 as a legal tool to dismantle Obamacare in California.”

On the face of it, this warning sounds plausible enough. After all, opponents of Obamacare have been pulling out all the stops to scuttle the law ever since it was passed: votes to repeal it in the House, lawsuits in court to have it ruled unconstitutional, attempts to use the debt ceiling vote to get Obama to surrender his signature legislative achievement. Why not a ballot proposition in California to dismantle it?

A look at the list of who supports and opposes Proposition 45 shows that the story isn’t quite so simple. The proposition, which “Requires changes to health insurance rates, or anything else affecting the charges associated with health insurance, to be approved by Insurance Commissioner before taking effect,” is supported by the sort of people you’d expect to want insurance rate changes regulated (mostly Democrats) and opposed by the sort of people you’d expect not to want an added layer of rate regulation (insurance companies). Whether or not you buy the argument that Proposition 45 will undermine Covered California, it’s not likely that this particular set of people intended for the proposition to dismantle Obamacare or Covered California.

The flyer’s not entirely wrong, though. Though Proposition 45 isn’t meant to undermine Covered California, some do fear that the proposition may in fact have that effect. Some Covered California board members have expressed concern about the proposition, and some newspapers have endorsed a No vote. The Los Angeles Times, for example, writes

Proposition 103 has saved consumers an enormous amount on auto, home and other policies while still allowing insurers to make a profit, so the idea of extending its purview to health plans is appealing. But now would be the wrong time to pass such a measure. Thanks to the state’s implementation of the 2010 federal healthcare reform law, buyers of individual health plans have a new ally that other insurance shoppers don’t: an independent state exchange, Covered California, that negotiates with health insurers for better deals. Although many people don’t shop for insurance through Covered California, insurers have to offer their Covered California plans to all state residents. Yet Proposition 45, which was written before Covered California opened for business last year, doesn’t acknowledge the exchange or any of the other major changes wrought by the 2010 law.

The paper believes that there are conflicts between the proposition, as written, and Covered California, and that we’re better off waiting to see how the new system works out before adding an additional layer of rate regulation.

I’m leaning toward a no vote right now, as “make one major change to the healthcare system at a time” appeals to the quality assurance professional in me (it’s easier, that way, to judge the effect of your changes, and know what you may need to tweak). But feel free to try to persuade me that I’m wrong (or right), since I haven’t voted yet, and I find figuring out how to vote on such propositions tricky.

Proposition 46 has a different set of complications.
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More on Ebola and travelers

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Health and Medicine


This seems like a good idea: U.S. to funnel travelers from Ebola-hit region through five airports.

Five airports sound like a large enough number to make it easy for humanitarian workers to travel as needed to help put out this wildfire where it started, and also enough that we don’t have to worry about the possibility that travelers from the Ebola stricken countries will lie about where they’re from and go underground where we can’t track them. At the same time, it’s a small enough number that we can hope that the people screening for Ebola at all five airports will be properly trained. The main lesson I take from what went wrong at Texas Presbyterian (besides the fact that the CDC’s Ebola guidelines for hospitals evidently needed the revision they just got) is that, even if we don’t literally need to send all Ebola patients to the four hospitals with the special rooms (those isolation rooms are more for airborne illnesses like SARS), our experience dealing with Ebola in the US appears thin enough that we’re best funneling everyone to a manageable number of people and train those people well. Sending travelers through only a few airports, and then sending anyone who does have Ebola to one of only a limited number of hospitals, sounds like a good policy.

This is darkly humorous: Rwanda is screening all travelers from the US for Ebola.

Here’s a Nature article on contact tracing, which has been the key to fighting Ebola, and has worked well in Senegal and Nigeria (both now declared Ebola free), and also appears to be working in the US. Unfortunately, in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the healthcare system has gotten so overwhelmed that contact tracing is difficult.

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‘Cause there ain’t no cure, and there ain’t no pill for Ebola

Posted by Sappho on October 16th, 2014 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Health and Medicine


The parody’s an old one, a bit of black humor from the days when all known Ebola outbreaks had been deadly, sure, but short term deadly, beaten back in short order in the country where they began.

I got it in Zaire, and it made me ill,
‘Cause there ain’t no cure, and there ain’t no pill for Ebola
E-BO-L-A Bola

The doctor says I’m sick, and I won’t last long,
But at least I’ll survive till the end of the song – [break off and mimic dying]

The black humor hasn’t quite been funny to me for many months now, as I’ve followed the news of the epidemic, for I have family in Senegal. Senegal’s one of the worried well countries of West Africa. Despite sharing a border with Guinea, one of the three countries hard hit by the epidemic, Senegal has stayed free, so far, of the disease, beyond one imported case. Tomorrow, WHO is expected to pronounce Senegal Ebola free, a designation that requres that

a country must pass through 42 days, with active surveillance demonstrably in place, supported by good diagnostic capacity, and with no new cases detected. Active surveillance is essential to detect chains of transmission that might otherwise remain hidden.

The period of 42 days, with active case-finding in place, is twice the maximum incubation period for Ebola virus disease and is considered by WHO as sufficient to generate confidence in a declaration that an Ebola outbreak has ended.

Trying to protect itself from Ebola, Senegal has applied a controversial closing of its border with Guinea, despite warnings from WHO that border closings are ineffective. Senegal has also, while keeping its border closed, opened a humanitarian corridor at an airport to speed aid to stricken countries.

Some other countries have applied travel restrictions, with Kenya and South Africa instituting travel restrictions for the three afflicted countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, and Saudi Arabia turning down 7,000 requests for hajj visas for Ebola concerns.

Now that two nurses have caught Ebola in the US, the calls are starting for travel restrictions here. I’m seeing it from people like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage (whom I pretty much discount, as looking for any sort of cudgel to hit Obama), and I’m seeing it from some in The American Conservative (whom I take more seriously, as they generally strike me as people making an honest effort to reflect on policy from a perspective that sometimes differs from my own, rather than people looking to make wild claims about the treasonous motives of the Other Side).

How do I explain my mixed feelings in discussions of travel restrictions? Why I’m sympathetic with some and impatient with others? Well, I will try.
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