Saturday, October 18, 2014

Some good news out of Africa about Ebola

Data is from an Associated Press story posted on Huffington Post:

We need a little balance to the terrifying fantasies of an out-of-control Ebola outbreak in this country.   Certainly, when health care workers in a modern American hospital get infected taking care of a patient, and when the CDC itself screws up in advising one of those nurses that she could take a commercial flight, even though she had an elevated temperature, it's time to get worried.    

But it's also time to learn from those mistakes -- which I believe everyone is doing.

We should not look just at our supposedly sophisticated medical facilities;  we should also learn from what they are doing in Africa.   Yes, 4,500 people have died in West Africa since it began seven months ago -- but what is remarkable is that they have kept the disease contained in five West African countries, and two of those appear to have "snuffed out the disease" within their borders.   The AP article calls this a "modest success in an otherwise bleak situation."

Senegal had one case, but kept it from spreading, and has had no other cases.   May I say that that is better than we did with the one case in Texas.   Nigeria had 20 cases (8 deaths), which stemmed from one traveler from Liberia to Lagos, Niberia.   Nearly 900 people were potentially exposed, and it could have been a disaster for Lagos' 21 million inhabitants.  Instead, with aggressive tracking and public health controls, there have been no new cases since August 31.    The World Health Organization called it "a piece of world-class epidemiological detective work."

Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are the hard hit countries, accounting for all but those 21 cases, with the disease threatening to overwhelm it's health care systems.   But even they are not seeing as widespread an epidemic as we might expect -- not yet, anyway.

The learning curve has to be fast, but this can be contained.   Tight border control, screening of airplane passengers, and meticulous tracking and isolation of those exposed can make a difference.

 The Texas hospital experience has shown how there is simply no room for error in the isolation techniques required in working with these patients.  Apparently a major problem is how to dispose of all the waste.  Everything -- from bed linens, to body waste, to iv needles -- must be incinerated or autoclaved.    And most important of all is the training of hospital staff in how to manage all this.   The training has to be serious and extensive, with the rigorous protocols followed to the letter.   That was the weak link in the Texas hospital;   the nursing staff weren't even required to go to the 'information session' that the hospital offered.   There was not a serious training program.  

 We know how to do this, but that information has to be disseminated and rigidly adhered to.  

As President Obama explained, at this point banning air travel from West Africa would be counter-productive.   We can screen -- or quarantine, if necessary -- those coming in from there.   But if we put in a ban, people will just fly to another country, and then fly here without disclosing where they originated.   Then we lose the opportunity to inspect and track those who might be infected.  That's how it gets out of hand.   Senegal and Nigeria have proved that it can be contained.   Can we follow the example of poor African nations?

We should not panic, and our politicians should take a solemn vow not to politicize this issue.   Listen to the experts, as President Obama is doing and letting his policy be informed by facts and experienced advice.


Friday, October 17, 2014

How the media focus on trivia instead of substance

The follow two posts illustrate the way the media focus on trivia and do a disservice to anyone who tries to be informed and think through the issues.    Part of the problem is the explosion of airtime, with 24 hour cable news channels, plus the internet.

Nevertheless, the mainstream media could do a better job.   Here are two examples from debates this week, one in the Kentucky senate race, the other in the Florida governor's race.


The media's absurd false-equivalency obsession

How did we get to the absurd place where the media are so obsessed with providing both sides of an argument, supposedly to avoid bias, but actually just ignoring fact or reason?  It results in some rediculously absurd false equivalences.

Kentucky's senate race is arguably the most important one this election, because it will decide the fate of senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, challenged by Allison Grimes.    And yet in picking the top story for each candidate, one was trivial and overblown, the other of major substance but downplayed.

1.  Grimes refused to say whether she voted for Barack Obama.

2.  McConnell gave a "word salad" of an answer to whether he supports Kentucky's successful health care insurance exchange KyNect, given that he vows to get rid of Obamacare, "root and branch."   And KyNect is very definitely a branch of the ACA, with a large number of its users getting federal subsidies for their health plans.   McConnell said it is "just a web site," which they can keep if they want to pay for it.

So the media treat theses two things as comparable negatives from the debate.   The one about Grimes probably got more air time, with a major discussion between Chris Hayes and Chuck Todd as to whether she is too scripted.

That is absurd.    Of course everyone knows Grimes voted for Obama, as almost all Democrats did.  They just want to force her to say it on tv, so McConnell can use the sound bite in an ad denouncing her as a tool for the unpopular Obama (unpopular in Kentucky, that is).

And they equate Grimes' minor skirmish over a sound bite with McConnell's vow to get rid of Obamacare -- which would destroy the popular KyNect as well, unless the state agreed to pay all those subsidies itself.   That should be of major concern to Kentucky voters;   who Grimes voted for in 2012 is inconsequential.

How can the electorate be "well-informed" when we are so poorly served by the media?


Florida governor seems petty and frightened over a FAN ???

Wednesday night, there was a televised debate between Florida Republican governor Rick Scoott and his challenger, Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who left the party and is running as a Democrat.

Crist was introduced and entered the stage.  The moderator then announced that Scott will not join the debate because Crist has an electric fan under his podium.  Scott's team claimed that violated the terms of the debate, which banned any "electronic devices."

Wow.  That's quite a stretch.   Isn't there a difference between "electric" and "electronic?"   I would consider a fan electric -- that's what they used to be called in the old days, "electric fans."    Banning electronic devices in a debate surely refers to things like smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc where answers could be fed to the participants.

Scott's team has also claimed that they showed Crist's people where in the agreement it says "no fans."   Crist says that fans were not banned as far he he knew.   It's true that debate agreements are minutely detailed;   they specify the exact height of the podiums, the temperature of the room, etc.

Whatever . . . it seems a tempest in a teapot where Rick Scott came out looking petty, insecure, and on the run.    What if it's true that Crist was violating an agreement?   Come on stage and expose him;   don't pout in your dressing room like a diva who refuses to go on stage until the woman in the front row removes her hat.

If it was a ploy to embarrass Cbrist, it failed badly.    Scott eventually came on stage, after the audience had booed at the announcement, and the debate went forward. 

But all the news was about "Fan-gate," which Crist's campaign is already using in a fund-raiser.


PS:   Scott's lame attempts to explain it all are just making it worse.   Last night his team was all about what was in the agreement.    Then Scott tried to say that it was Crist who didn't show up, and he was waiting for him.   Of course the tv cameras showed Crist entering, showed the announcement, the loud booing, and then, after 7 minutes of confusion and uncertainty, Scott walked on.

Now today, he has come up with trying to blame it on Crist for refusing to go on stage if he couldn't have his fan.    Both just better shut up and take the lumps.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Good news lost among the bad

Ebola, Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL, voter suppression, abortion clinics closing, immigration reform on hold, -- lots of bad news.

Buried in that are some real success stories:
1.  Applications for unemployment compensation have dropped to a 14 year low.

2.  Despite the impression you get from Republican compaigners, the budget deficit has dropped dramatically over the past three budget cycles.

3.  The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is doing unexpectedly well:   more people enrolled and lower costs than even expected.

I wish Democratic candidates had the courage to claim those accomplishments instead of just playing defense and being overly cautious about giving the other side sound bites for TV ads.


Time for SCOTUS to intervene -- again -- in a draconian Texas law

The New Orleans based 5th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals is widely considered to be the most conservative of all our federal courts.    On Tuesday, even our conservative majority Supreme Court overturned a decision of the 5th Court that had allowed the extreme anti-abortion law to go into effect pending the hearing of the appeal.    That law will close all but 8 of the clinics that provide abortions in the state of Texas.    Now that SCOTUS has stepped in, at least some of those can remain open until the final appeal is decided.

Now it's time for SCOTUS to act again, again in a Texas case and the 5th Circuit Court's response.   This one is the draconian voter ID law that will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Texans who do not have, and cannot easily get, an official state-approved photo ID in time for the election.

First, the ideology appalling -- trying to disguise a blatant attempt to suppress Democratic-leaning votes by calling it protecting the sanctity of the ballot box against the non-existent ballot-box fraud.   That means people showing up to vote at the polls pretending to be an eligible voter when they are not. 

A recent academic study has shown what we have long known:  There are almost no examples anywhere of this even existing, much less being a significant problem.   But this case is more than that.

Second, the 5th Court's reasoning is simply absurd.   It upheld the right to impose this law, while it is still under appeal -- and this close to the election -- by saying the decision was "in the interest of the status quo."

The law is not the status quo, because it has not yet been used in an election.   The law was first struck down by a federal district judge;  then the 5th Circuit Court agreed to hear the appeal and has now ordered that the judges decision be "stayed" (ie not implemented) until the appeal can be heard.   But it was the judge's overturning of the law that was stayed, meaning that the photo ID law will go into effect immediately, for the first time -- here three weeks before the election.

Actually, the status quo in Texas is what has been the practice -- no requirement to show a photo ID at the polls.    Implementing that law -- here three weeks before a major election -- will be inviting the chaos on election day that the 5th Court seems to be saying it wants to avoid.

What screwy non-thinking.   The Supreme Court needs to step in and reverse this very bad decision.


ADDED 10/16:   After writing this, I learned that the SCOTUS vote to overturn the stay of the anti-abortion law was 6-3 with Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissenting.   That means Roberts and Kennedy joined the liberals.    Doesn't mean they would vote the same when they hear the case, however;  but at least they apparently thought it likely enough the pro-life challenge would prevail that they didn't want the clinics to have to close in the meantime.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"Earthquake" at the Vatican on acceptance of gays

Pope Francis has already shaken the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church with his radical departure from the traditional pomp and distanced theology toward a life of humble service and compassion.

Now the assembly of 200 bishops he brought to the Vatican for a week of discussion on the family has heard a Vatican document calling for a changed attitude toward gays, as well as toward heterosexual couples who are not married.

According to a report from Reuter's news service:
"While the text did not signal any change in the Church's condemnation of homosexual acts or its opposition to gay marriage, it used language that was less judgmental and more compassionate than past Vatican statements under previous popes. . . .  

"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities?. . .   Are our communities capable of proving that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"
These are questions that the bishops will discuss in the second week of the assembly, and it will be the subject for Catholics worldwide to reflect upon during the coming year.

John Thavis, an expert on the Vatican, called the document an earthquake that "clearly reflects Pope Francis' desire to adopt a more merciful pastoral approach on marriage and family issues."

What a departure from his predecessor, Benedict, who referred to homosexuals as "intrinsically disordered."   Francis hinted at such a change last year when he said "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

Indeed.   We in the United States have our tsunami of expanding marriage equality.   The Vatican has an even larger constituency.  Where we are 310,000,000, Catholics are 1,200,000,000.   Not all will agree with him, but if anyone could influence them, this gentle, good pope is the one.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Republicans' strategy: Suppress the vote and frighten the people

According to an article in the New York Times, Republicans nationwide seem to have found their campaign theme:   be very afraid for our safety.   It's being sounded in campaigns across the country, ballyhooed on Fox News and talk radio, and splashed across tv screens with ads paid for by secret funds and SuperPacs, much of it from the Koch Brothers.

Images of masked terrorists all in black with automatic rifles or knives for beheadings.  Images of people dying of Ebola virus.   Claims that ISIS terrorists are streaming across our Southern border and infiltrating the country.

Their message is:   Obama cannot protect you from these dangerous forces.

That's the message.  Add to that the methods of voter suppression.   From voter ID laws and limitations on voting times and places to foot-dragging in processing the floods of new registrations that Democrats have been collecting in their drives to register new voters, Republicans in control of state governments have been suspiciously slow at processing them.

For example, here in Georgia, the Secretary of State, who himself is up for re-election in a surprisingly close race -- and as a Republican likely to benefit himself from keeping out new voters -- has not given any satisfactory answer to why 40,000 registration forms submitted by the New Georgia project have not yet shown up on the voter lists.

There is good evidence to show that a group backed by the Koch Brothers has sent out incorrect information to voters in North Carolina about registration deadlines and about voting places, etc.     Beyond trying to buy the election with wealthy, right-wing donor money, this actually constitutes trying to steal the election.

Honestly, I would be ashamed to belong to a party that saw no way to win except to suppress the vote and foment fear -- plus outright lying and election fraud.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Budget cuts = no Ebola vaccine

Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, said this about the Ebola crisis:  "We'd have a vaccine by now if it were not for budget cuts."

Elaborating on that assertion in an interview with Huffington Post's Sam Stein, Collins said:
"NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001.  It's not like we suddenly woke up and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here.'   Frankly, if we had not gone through out 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.

"We would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference."
The saddest words . . . "If only . . ."

But I'll say them anyway:   If only one Supreme Court Justice had voted differently in Bush v. Gore . . . 

Because, you see, Bush would not have had the opportunity to appoint John Roberts and Samuel Alito to SCOTUS -- and we wouldn't have had the Citizens United or Hobby Lobby decisionsThe Voting Rights Act wouldn't have been gutted, which resulted in all these voter-suppression laws.


PS:   I just saw one of the hardest hitting political ads ever, and it picks up on this same theme of budget cuts leaving us vulnerable to Ebola -- only it ties the budget cuts to Republicans.    It's worth the trouble of copying and pasting the following link:

How should we read SCOTUS' "We pass" on gay marriage cases?

For background, see my prior posts (Oct 7 and 8 about the U. S. Supreme Court's "indecision" a week ago (has it been only a week?) in refusing to take any of the cases on overturning the bans on same-sex marriage.

It's still not clear what message they were trying to send.  Or, indeed, whether it was a consensus message or the result of a particular combination of votes that failed to reach the requisite four to agree to hear a case.    Perhaps three conservates wanted to take them and reverse the decision, joined by three liberals who didn't want it to go that way -- or vice versa.

Bloomberg News had an intesting article (Oct. 13), "The Supreme Court's Decisive Indecision.," which draws two conclusions.   (1) The court is content to let gay marriage take root throughout the country, as opposed to trying to stop it, which seems very significant;  and (2)  The court wants to avoid settling the issue in one fell swoop while it is still contention.

The article backed up this second point with the example of Brown v. Board of Education, a unanimous decision that is "unequivocal on paper yet still unrealized 60 years later."   Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made a similar point about Roe v. Wade, saying that it was prematurely decided and thus has never been accepted but new onerous restrictions are passed; and even the federal courts are inconsistent about decisions to the challenges.   In other words, the Court does well in such socially contentious matters not to get too far ahead of the American people.

That's all very well to say -- but we are dealing with matters of justice that affect the lives and legal rights and finances of real people who are living now.   They need justice now.

But back to the question of what is the Court's message in its "Decisive Indecision?"  That got more complicated later in the week, when Justice Anthony Kennedy, usually the swing vote that renders favorable gay rights rulings, acted in his role to issue emergency rulings for the jurisdiction that includes Idaho.   Idaho had asked for a stay on lifting the ban in their state, and Kennedy granted that stay.

However, a day or two later, the court as a whole voted to let the appellate courts' lifting of the ban remain in effect -- so that couples can go ahead and marry in Idaho.

Of course, Kennedy's putting a stay on implementation of a ruling, to an emergency request, might have meant only that he wanted the full court to decide.  But it is curious that Kennedy was the one to act to let a ban on gay marriage remain in effect pending appeal, while a vote of the nine means they found at least five votes to reverse his stay.    

That suggests that there is another favorable vote for gay marriage other than Kennedy and the four liberals.

It remains a fascinating game of speculation.   What we can say is that there does not seem to be a majority wanting to uphold the states' bans on gay marriage.   After years of politicians dodging the issue by saying it should be the states' decisions, SCOTUS is clearly not going that route.    Because every appellate court yet that has rendered a decision has overturned the states' decision -- and SCOTUS is letting those stand.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

When is it illegal to photograph someone in public? . . . even when showing too much skin?

I was outraged when I first saw the headline:  "Upskirt Photos Don't Violate a Woman's Privacy, Rules D. C,. Judge."

My assumption was that this was another clueless, probably older, male judge who lacked sensitivity to women's vulnerability to Peeping Toms and to creeps using mirrors to take photos up under their skirts.

Not so, not at all.   Turns out the judge is a woman, and the situation was quite different.    The photographer was a man, that's true.   But he did nothing out of the ordinary to get his pictures (like using a mirror).  

He simply photographed some women sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.   They were wearing dresses or skirts, and apparently they were sitting indiscreetly so that their crotches and butts were partially exposed.

He did not photograph anything that was not plainly open for anyone to see who happened to be in that spot.

Although the judge said she found the photographer's actions "repellant and disturbing," she was not convinced that what he did warranted his being arrested.  She dismissed the charges.

Categorically, is there any difference in photographing a crowd scene at the President's inauguration and a crowd sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?    If women do not want to have their nether regions exposed in a published photograph, they should not sit in a way that makes this possible -- so goes one argument.

What about at a nude beach?    Or a locker room?   Or a celebrity at a cozy restaurant with someone other than his/her spouse?

You could say that it should be illegal to photograph someone in public without their permission.   But photographs can easily be taken without a person being aware they're being caught on film.    With a telescopic lens, or a smart phone camera in almost every hand in public, how could you possibly know you were being photographed in order to object? 

The responsibility could be put on the publisher for print media.  But then there's the internet and all the other social media, where anyone can put up anything, without editorial oversight.  

The article on Huffington Post about this ended with the statement:  "Just because women's bodies are in public, doesn't mean they are public property."

That's a sensible statement.   But is it true?   Of course, not public property to abuse;  but, by appearing, are you not making yourself available for viewing?  Admiring?   Does it then become wrong if the viewer ogles lustfully?   Suppose that admiration is expressed with a whistle . . . or a prosposition?    When does is become wrong?   Is it wrong just to photograph . . . or only if the picture is published or even shared on the internet?  And if you say any of that is wrong, how on earth do you regulate it

I don't know.