The View From Your Window

Jul 24 2014 @ 11:02am

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Chengdu, China, 7.23 am

Strategic Countertrolling

Jul 24 2014 @ 10:30am

The State Department is hip to the fact that jihadists are using social media to propagandize and recruit supporters, and its $5 million Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is devoted to fighting back. The trouble, as Jacob Silverman reveals, is that they’re not very good at it:

The way the program works is fairly simple: The State Department’s analysts follow online chatter about the latest ISIL victory or news of a recent al-Shabaab massacre in Kenya, and then they try to insert themselves into the conversation. The idea is less to sway committed terrorists than to persuade fence-sitters not to join up or provide material support.

But State’s messages usually arrive with all the grace of someone’s dad showing up at a college party. The posts tend to be blunt, adversarial, and plagued by poor Photoshop work.

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Gaza’s Humanitarian Crisis

Jul 24 2014 @ 10:02am

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“While there have been many news reports on the number of people who have been killed (over 500) and wounded (over 3,000) in the Israeli offensive,” Elizabeth Ferris observes, “far larger numbers of people are being forced from their homes”:

In fact, displacement may turn out to be the defining characteristic of this terrible conflict. As the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) spokesperson Chris Gunness said today, “This is a watershed moment for UNRWA, now that the number of people seeking refuge with us is more than double the figure we saw in the 2009 Gaza conflict. We are seeing a huge wave of accelerated displacement because of the Israeli ground offensive.” …

People are warned to evacuate by the Israeli forces, but there are not many places to go as Gaza’s borders are all but closed. Some have taken shelter with family or friends, some have even sought protection in a Greek Orthodox Church, but many have turned to U.N. facilities for protection. Yet UNRWA’s facilities are close to capacity and, as numbers increase, conditions are likely to worsen. According to Doctors Without Borders, unhygienic conditions and overcrowding at UNRWA facilities “are extremely worrying.” UNRWA also may not be able to provide the protection which internally displaced persons (IDPs) are seeking. In fact, the agency reports that 64 of its buildings have been damaged in the offensive.

The war will also leave indelible psychological scars, particularly on Gazan children:

Read On

Bad Blood

Jul 24 2014 @ 9:35am

Your blood type, Carl Zimmer explains, may predispose you to certain types of illness:

Doctors first began to notice a link between blood types and different diseases in the middle of the 20th century, and the list has continued to grow. “There are still many associations being found between blood groups and infections, cancers and a range of diseases,” Pamela Greenwell of the University of Westminster tells me.

From Greenwell I learn to my displeasure that blood type A puts me at a higher risk of several types of cancer, such as some forms of pancreatic cancer and leukaemia. I’m also more prone to smallpox infections, heart disease and severe malaria. On the other hand, people with other blood types have to face increased risks of other disorders. People with type O, for example, are more likely to get ulcers and ruptured Achilles tendons.

These links between blood types and diseases have a mysterious arbitrariness about them, and scientists have only begun to work out the reasons behind some of them. For example, Kevin Kain of the University of Toronto and his colleagues have been investigating why people with type O are better protected against severe malaria than people with other blood types. His studies indicate that immune cells have an easier job of recognizing infected blood cells if they’re type O rather than other blood types.

The New War Voyeurism

Jul 24 2014 @ 9:01am

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Debra Kamin traces the pedigree of “dark tourism” back to the 1800s if not earlier, but in recent years, sightseeing in war zones has become big business:

Fueled by travel documentaries such as Vice videos and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, the broader adventure-tourism industry, which includes travel to war zones and political hotspots, has grown by an average of 65 percent annually over the past four years and is now estimated to be worth $263 billion. While some hyper-extreme tour operators, among them War Zone Tours and Wild Frontiers, have been around since the 1990s, the past decade has produced a bumper crop of plucky agencies catering to thrill-seeking wayfarers. …

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The Genetics Of Mental Health

Jul 24 2014 @ 8:35am

Jane C. Hu presents new research that found “autism is 55 percent heritable,” which is higher than previously thought:

The most surprising finding in this study is that the genetic risk for autism lies mostly in variations of common genes, and not specific mutations. A small mutation in a single gene can cause a disease such as Huntington’s, and mutation of the BRCA1 gene increases a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. These sorts of mutations account for only 2.6 percent of autism risk, according to the new PAGES study, compared with 52 percent accounted for by common genes. In the vast majority of cases of autism, there is no one errant gene that codes for the disease, but rather a combination of common variations predicts autism risk. “You get a lot of the bad side of the coin and eventually push you into a disease,” says [Kathryn Roeder, a Carnegie Mellon University statistics and computational biology professor who led the study].

Our understanding of schizophrenia is also improving:

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Underwear In Orbit

Jul 24 2014 @ 8:02am

“Space underwear have come a long way since their first use fifty years ago,” observes Alyssa Shaw in a review of “Suited for Space,” an exhibition at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia:

On display in the quirky exhibition are a few different models of spacesuit underwear, dish_nasasuit including a beige cotton one-piece with coil spacers affixed strategically to allow airflow. “Such underwear,” the suit’s caption reads, “was an absolute necessity; it kept an astronaut from overheating in a completely airtight spacesuit.”

And an absolutely necessity it was. A sketch from 1965 shows the Gemini EV spacesuit with its many layers, the first of which labeled “underwear,” others including “comfort layer,” “pressure bladder,” and “restraint layer.” In the late 1960s, Atlas Underwear Corporations designed the Apollo 11 “biobelt,” a soft layer worn against astronaut’s skin designed to monitor things like blood pressure, but not necessarily designed with the wearer’s comfort in mind. Commander Chris Conrad of the Apollo 12 mission wasn’t a fan of the biobelt. He mused, “It looks like I’ve got poison ivy under these things.”

But decades of research have improved the situation:

In 2009, [Japanese astronaut] Koichi Wakata wore the same pair of underwear for nearly a month while on the International Space Station. The material tested was alleged to be sweat-wicking, odor resistant, and insulating, qualities needed in closed quarters during those oh-so-cold space nights. Wakata later attested to their success, having had no complaints from his fellow astronaut travelers of odd smells coming from his trusty drawers.

(Image via NASA)

No Meds? Go Directly To Jail

Jul 24 2014 @ 7:27am

Sarah Kliff flags a study suggesting that a decade-old Medicaid cost-saving move may have shunted mentally ill people into prisons:

About a decade ago, Medicaid programs were struggling to keep up with skyrocketing prescription drugs costs. Between 1997 and 2002, drug spending in the program for low-income Americans grew by about 20 percent annually, hitting $23.7 billion in 2010. Medicaid directors began looking for ways to tamp down on those costs. One of the most popular policies was something called “prior authorization” for a new wave of more expensive, anti-psychotic drugs used mostly to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disease. These policies, in a sense, worked: they helped rein in how much Medicaid spent filling prescriptions.

But in another sense, they may not have worked at all: a growing body of research has begun questioning whether restricting drug spending may have just shifted costs elsewhere – particularly, into the prison system. A team of researchers published data Tuesday in the American Journal of Managed Care showing that prior authorization policies in Medicaid programs have significantly higher rates of severe mental illness in their prison populations. Schizophrenics living in states with prior authorization requirements in Medicaid were 22 percent more likely to be jailed for a non-violent crime than those in states without those restrictions.

The Best Of The Dish Today

Jul 23 2014 @ 9:15pm

I needed that.

I read two essays today from Israel that deepened my understanding of the current darkness. One by Gershom Gorenberg is unsparing in its criticism of Netanyahu – a tough, and honorable, position to take in wartime. The other by David Horovitz conveys the acute sense of beleaguerment and bitterness with which Israel is confronting the latest evidence that it has yet to overcome the profound resistance of those whose country and land were taken from them decades ago now. Together, the two pieces are bookends of despair. There is much more carnage ahead – paid for, in part, by you and me.

You can see some of the effects in the latest CNN poll on the subject. Among Democrats, 49 percent say they have mostly or very favorable views of the Jewish state; but 48 percent have mostly or very unfavorable views – it’s split down the middle. On the question of whether Israel was justified “in taking military action against Hamas and the Palestinians in the area known as Gaza”, Democrats are also split 45 to 42 percent. There’s also a generation gap: among those over 50, an overwhelming majority – 65 – 26 – believe the Gaza campaign is justified; among the under 35, it’s an even split: 47 – 45. I’d say this is a problem for the Greater Israel lobby. The differential between their lock-step Democratic support in the Congress and the real divisions in the party at large may soon become much harder to disguise.

Today, we rounded up the facts, data and opinions on the latest threat to the ACA; we pondered the long-term futility of endlessly bombing Gazans to smithereens; I wondered not for the first time why the Democrats are unable to make an aggressive, positive case for their policies; and remembered a time when a Republican president could tell Israel (and Britain and France) to go take a hike. To puncture some of the humid summer gloom, we also launched a contest for the best cover song of an original hit. Speaking of which:

The most popular post of the day was For Israel, There Is No Such Thing As An Innocent Gazan; next up: Some Clarity On Russia and Ukraine.

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See you in the morning.

In the face of a hopelessly deadlocked Congress, Ronald Brownstein expects Obama to act alone on the border crisis and on immigration reform more broadly. His chosen course of action, Brownstein adds, could have major consequences for the Republicans:

The president can’t provide [illegal immigrants] citizenship without action by Congress. But using the same theory of “deferred action” that he employed in 2012 for children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, he could apply prosecutorial discretion to allow some groups of the undocumented (such as adults here illegally with children who are U.S. citizens) to obtain work permits and function openly. Though the administration is still debating the reach of Obama’s authority, some top immigration advocates hope he could legalize up to half of the undocumented population.

Such a move would infuriate Republicans, both because the border crisis has deepened their conviction that any move toward legalization inspires more illegal migration and because the president would be bypassing Congress. They would likely challenge an Obama order through both legislation and litigation. Every 2016 GOP presidential contender could feel compelled to promise to repeal the order. Those would be momentous choices for a party already struggling to attract Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

Francis Wilkinson agrees that executive action is the only way forward, even though it will infuriate conservatives:

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