Mar 5, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America

I found this short video very educational.  The facts are startling, but as far as I know, they are accurate and uncontroversial.

It seems essentially everyone agrees this is the reality, and it is a problem, but we disagree on solutions.  Nevertheless, simply waking Americans up to the reality of the problem is half the battle.

Jan 26, 2013

Hacktivist who took his own life faced 30 years in prison, $1 million in fines

The well-known internet activist and hacker Aaron Swartz took his own life this month, at age 26.  He helped create Reddit, made books freely available to the public on the Internet Archive, and started a grassroots movement against last year's anti-piracy SOPA bill, among other accomplishments. explains the overzealous and disproportionate federal charges which may have lead to his untimely death:

JSTOR provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals online. MIT had a subscription to the database, so Aaron brought a laptop onto MIT’s campus, plugged it into the student network and ran a script called that aggressively — and at times disruptively — downloaded one article after another. When MIT tried to block the downloads, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, culminating in Swartz entering a networking closet on the campus, secretly wiring up an Acer laptop to the network, and leaving it there hidden under a box. A member of MIT’s tech staff discovered it, and Aaron was arrested by campus police when he returned to pick up the machine.
The JSTOR hack was not Aaron’s first experiment in liberating costly public documents. In 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer, which normally charged the public eight cents per page. The free access was only available from computers at 17 libraries across the country, so Aaron went to one of them and installed a small PERL script he had written that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud. Aaron pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive. 
The FBI investigated that hack, but in the end no charges were filed. Aaron wasn’t so lucky with the JSTOR matter. The case was picked up by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann in Boston, the cybercrime prosecutor who won a record 20-year prison stretch for TJX hacker Albert Gonzalez. Heymann indicted Aaron on 13 counts of wire fraud, computer intrusion and reckless damage. The case has been wending through pre-trial motions for 18 months, and was set for jury trial on April 1.Larry Lessig, who worked closely with Aaron for years, disapproves of Aaron’s JSTOR hack. But in the painful aftermath of Aaron’s suicide, Lessig faults the government for pursuing Aaron with such vigor. “[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying,” Lessig writes. “I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”

JSTOR declined to file a civil suit against Aaron, and asked the federal government to drop its criminal case.  MIT was not as quick as JSTOR to rush to Aaron's defense.  

In response to Aaron's death, the internet activist group Anonymous hacked a federal judicial website, As of this posting the website is still down.

Weren't the charges against Swartz a disproportionate and inefficient abuse of judicial power?

Nov 4, 2012

The Man Without a Plan

It hasn't been easy nailing down exactly what Mitt Romney's positions are on a number of issues.  After re-branding himself as a conservative in order to win an unusually extreme Republican primary, he's tried to reverse course to appeal to mainstream voters, while concealing the appearance of flopping around like a fish on the issues (abortion, for example).  The result is that he sometimes plays hide-the-ball when confronted with simple, direct questions about what he would actually do, if elected.  But occasionally the real Mitt Romney shines through, in spite of his best efforts.

One area where the real Mitt Romney can be reasonably guessed at is tax policy and entitlements.  Here's what Romney said about half of America, at an intimate $50,000-per-plate fundraiser which was secretly recorded:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what … These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. ... [M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
"Those people" Romney doesn't worry about includes people who work hard but earn modest wages, like the waitresses serving Romney while he was insulting them, or the fitness trainers standing by to help him work off the extra calories the next morning.  The 47 percent includes the elderly, the poor and disabled, students, young people working part time, and soldiers serving overseas.  They aren't all permanent members, either:  one-fifth of them are expected to start paying income tax again as the economy recovers.  These moochers are still subject to payroll, local and sales taxes, of course.  Many of them would earn enough to pay federal income tax, too, if not for the Bush and Obama tax cuts.  (Alas, that's an unfortunate side effect of lowering taxes:  it benefits the mop technicians and the job-creators alike.)  And, awkwardly, Mitt Romney himself paid no income tax last year, instead paying the IRS only 14 percent on capital gains of $21 million.  To make sense of Romney's contradictory statements, you have to add a giant asterisk to them:  tax cuts are good *if they benefit the wealthy.  Paying no income tax is irresponsible *unless you are wealthy.

Romney's response to the leaking of this video was a hasty press conference in which he doubled-down on his comments, admitting only that they were "not elegantly stated".  (Is there an elegant way to say, during a sumptuous banquet, that people are not even entitled to food?  Pass the caviar.)  In case that didn't stick, Romney tried to suggest his comments were taken out of context.  (Not so.  The full video has been released.)  When none of these excuses worked, Romney finally decided that what he meant to say about what he meant to say was that his comments were "completely wrong".

But those "completely wrong" remarks are consistent  with his stated policy positions--more consistent than usual for Romney, at least.  Romney's tax plan consists of a few specific guarantees that will benefit the wealthy; mathematically impossible promises about lowering taxes across the board without increasing the deficit; and vague threats to the middle class and poor about eliminating deductions and "loopholes", and "expanding the tax base".  Which deductions would be on the chopping block?  When asked directly if this includes things like the Earned Income tax credit for people with modest wages, the child tax credit, the home mortgage deduction, or deductions for college tuition and student loans, Romney won't say.  Eliminating such "loopholes" would indeed suffice to "expand the tax base" on those free-riding 47 percenters.

Well, most of the 47 percenters, anyway.  We need that asterisk again, since Mitt Romney would give wealthy 47 percenters like himself historic tax cuts.  This is where Romney's tax plan gets specific.  

He will repeal the estate tax, which would benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans who die each year whose estates, like Romney's, will be subject to this tax (it affects inheritances exceeding $5 million).  Under Obama, the estate tax rate was reduced to an historic low (35 percent; it was 45 percent under Bush, and 55 percent under Clinton), but why pay that when you can pay nothing?  Sure, repealing the estate tax would increase the deficit by $29 billion per year, but that can be offset by cutting public programs the wealthy don't need (like Big Bird).  

The other thing Romney will repeal is the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).  The AMT affects 4 percent of taxpayers and is supposed to ensure that wealthy individuals and corporations pay at least some tax.  There goes another $26 billion per year.  Obama's budget will reduce the number of taxpayers affected by the AMT by permanently indexing it for inflation, but that's not enough to benefit ultra-rich guys like Mitt Romney.  

Finally, Romney pledges not to raise taxes on capital gains.  What a relief that will be for so many Americans who, like Romney, made $21 million in capital gains last year while paying less tax than a bus driver as a percentage of income.  By contrast, under Obama the capital gains tax will increase 9 percent (still lower than rates under Reagan) for households with income in the top 2 percent.  Socialism!

Nov 3, 2012

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on conflicts of interest in medicine

According to the Houston Chronicle, the University of Texas is allowing a limited waiver to its conflict of interest policy in order to allow the president of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Ronald DePinho, to maintain his financial ties to drug companies.  Dr. DePinho has the largest interests in Karyopharm and Metamark, which he co-founded, and nearly $4.9 million of stock in Aveo, and the Chronicle says these companies are the most likely to propose clinical trials at M. D. Anderson.

I'm scratching my head here.  If this isn't a conflict of interest in medicine, then what is?  Kudos to Sen. Grassley (R-Iowa) for his comments to the Chronicle:
The limited waiver was criticized by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has investigated conflicts of interest in medicine and championed legislation to make ties more transparent.
In an email Tuesday, Grassley said "the onus" is on the UT System to explain how the "arrangements completely protect patients and the integrity of medical research."
"Even if Dr. DePinho's financial holdings are in a blind trust, the perception of bias by M.D. Anderson researchers toward companies co-owned by the boss could taint their research," Grassley wrote. "And why is it important for the head of M.D. Anderson to have been active in 'commercialization activities?'
"The emphasis on 'commercialization' is potentially inconsistent with the goal of treating patients, so the university should explain further how the public benefits."

Nov 2, 2012

Weather on steroids

Bloomberg published an interesting article about Hurricane Sandy and global warming.  Here are some snippets:
Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change. Men and women in white lab coats tell us -- and they’re right -- that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode. Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.
... Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, offers a baseball analogy: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”
... If all that doesn’t impress, forget the scientists ostensibly devoted to advancing knowledge and saving lives. Listen instead to corporate insurers committed to compiling statistics for profit.

On Oct. 17 the giant German reinsurance company Munich Re issued a prescient report titled Severe Weather in North America. Globally, the rate of extreme weather events is rising, and “nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America.”

From 1980 through 2011, weather disasters caused losses totaling $1.06 trillion. Munich Re found “a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades.”
Business gets it.  They can't afford not to.

Oct 30, 2012

Should human genes be patentable?

The issue came up at a seminar.  My gut reaction was to agree with James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, that patenting human genes is "lunacy".  In June, Watson reiterated his beliefs in an amicus brief filed in a lawsuit against patents on two human genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer.  A central legal question in this lawsuit is whether human genes are "products of man", which you can patent, or "products of nature", which you can't.

But maybe I'm wrong on this.  At the seminar where the issue came up, a professor contended that the thing being patented is the kit for isolating a particular cancer gene, not the gene itself.  Kits are man-made, commercial products.  Kits help the advancement of science and medicine by making it easy for researchers to isolate a biological agent and start doing further experiments with it, without having to re-invent the proverbial wheel.  

However, according to the ACLU the patents don't claim the kits, but the genes themselves:
"Gene patents – unlike patents on drugs or tests – cannot be “invented around” because they claim DNA itself. While another company can create a new drug to treat the same condition as another patented drug, patents on DNA block access to people’s genetic information. They stop other labs from testing the patented genes – regardless of the testing method that is used or whose sample is tested – and chill researchimpeding the progress of science."
So I'm not sure what to think.  Patents don't last forever, so whatever the courts decide, sooner or later all genetic information will end up in the public domain.

What do you think?

Oct 7, 2012

Member of House Committee on Science: evolution, embryology, big bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of Hell"

Here is Congressman Paul Broun (R-Ga.), secretly filmed at a church-sponsored event, enlightening the audience with his breathtaking knowledge of all things science.  This guy is a medical doctor, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and chairs its Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.  Words fail me.

Sep 30, 2012

Should conservatives embrace Obamacare?

J.D. Kleinke, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former health care executive, argues in a New York Times article that Obamacare represents reform in a traditional conservative, free-market mold, not a liberal/socialistic one. 

I have to extend a heartfelt slow-clap to Kleinke for expressing so eloquently what I have been (clumsily) arguing about Obamacare for a long time now.

What say you, conservatives and liberals?

Sep 25, 2012

Grad student life in the natural sciences

Here are two laugh-out-loud funny videos on what it's like being a lab rat.  The first video is a parody of the Lady Gaga song "Bad Romance".  Bravo, Zheng lab!

The second video is a parody of of the movie Downfall, in which "Herr Professor has his latest manuscript reviews back, and he's not thrilled with the editorial decision".  Hilarious!

Sep 22, 2012

The GOP platform on climate change

Can you guess where the following quotes come from?
"Human economic activity ... has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere."  
"As part of a global climate change strategy, [we] support technology-driven, market-based solutions that will decrease emissions, reduce excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, increase energy efficiency ... " 
Why, those quotes are straight from the GOP Party 2008 platform.  Reading these quotes in context you will see what is proposed is a conservative approach to tackling climate change--but what is noteworthy here is that it does at least address climate change.  And can you guess who said the following?
"We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great ... I will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears.  I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges. ... A cap-and-trade policy will send a signal that will be heard and welcomed all across the American economy.  And the highest rewards will go to those who make the smartest, safest, most responsible choices. ...  We have many advantages in the fight against global warming, but time is not one of them.  Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming, or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring." 
I'll give you a hint:  it was a 2008 presidential candidate.  Can you guess now?  No, it wasn't Barack Obama.  No, it wasn't Hillary Clinton, either.  In fact, the speaker in the above quote was John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.

However, no concern about climate change is found in the GOP 2012 platform, or in Mitt Romney's energy plan.  And I mean literally zero discussion of climate change.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zippo.  As the amount of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere increased in the last four years, the Republican Party's concern about it decreased.  The Washington Post covers this shift towards extreme climate change denial in more detail.  In 2008, the party was at least taking part in some kind of rational debate about how to solve the problem.  But this year, the Washington Post concludes, "not so much".