Wed Sep 21 23:29:51 EDT 2016

Health Matters

Various web links related to health issues.

  • A Medical Mystery of the Best Kind: Major Diseases Are in Decline
    Gina Kolata in The New York Times The Upshot

    Something strange is going on in medicine. Major diseases, like colon cancer, dementia and heart disease, are waning in wealthy countries, and improved diagnosis and treatment cannot fully explain it.
    ...
    Perhaps, he said, all these degenerative diseases share something in common, something inside aging cells themselves. The cellular process of aging may be changing, in humans' favor. For too long, he said, researchers have looked under the lamppost at things they can measure. Perhaps, he said, all these degenerative diseases share something in common, something inside aging cells themselves. The cellular process of aging may be changing, in humans' favor. For too long, he said, researchers have looked under the lamppost at things they can measure.

  • You Can't Trust What You Read About Nutrition
    by Christie Aschwanden in fivethirtyeight.com

    Spurious Correlation: We found a link between cabbage and innie bellybuttons, but that doesn't mean it's real.

    When it comes to nutrition, everyone has an opinion. What no one has is an airtight case.
    ...
    Our foray into nutrition science demonstrated that studies examining how foods influence health are inherently fraught. To show you why, we're going to take you behind the scenes to see how these studies are done. The first thing you need to know is that nutrition researchers are studying an incredibly difficult problem, because, short of locking people in a room and carefully measuring out all their meals, it's hard to know exactly what people eat. So nearly all nutrition studies rely on measures of food consumption that require people to remember and report what they ate.
    ...
    Nearly every nutrient you can think of has been linked to some health outcome in the peer-reviewed scientific literature using tools like the FFQ, said John Ioannidis, an expert on the reliability of research findings at the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford. In a 2013 analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Ioannidis and a colleague selected 50 common ingredients at random from a cookbook and looked for studies evaluating each food's association to cancer risk. It turned out that studies had found a link between 80 percent of the ingredients -- including salt, eggs, butter, lemon, bread and carrots -- and cancer. Some of those studies pointed to an increased risk of cancer, others suggested a decreased risk, but the size of the reported effects were "implausibly large," Ioannidis said, while the evidence was weak.

  • How exercise is "rebranded" as complementary and alternative medicine
    Respectful Insolence in ScienceBlogs

    "Complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM), now more frequently referred to as "integrative medicine" by its proponents, consists of a hodge-podge of largely unrelated treatments that range from seemingly reasonable (e.g., diet and exercise) to pure quackery (e.g., acupuncture, reiki and other "energy medicine") that CAM proponents are trying furiously to "integrate" as coequals into science-based medicine. They do this because they have fallen under the sway of an ideology that posits a false dichotomy: To practice true "holistic" and "preventative" medicine, physicians and other health care professionals must embrace the pre-scientific, pseudoscientific, or anti-scientific ideas about medicine that underlie much of the "alternative medicine" being "integrated."

  • Medical errors may be third leading cause of death in the U.S.

    In fact, the study, from doctors at Johns Hopkins, suggests medical errors may kill more people than lower respiratory diseases like emphysema and bronchitis do. That would make these medical mistakes the third leading cause of death in the United States. That would place medical errors right behind heart disease and cancer.
    ...
    One reason there's such a wide range of numbers is because accurate data on these kinds of deaths is surprisingly sparse. That's in part because death certificates don't ask for enough data, Makary said. Currently the cause of death listed on the certificate has to line up with an insurance billing code. Those codes do not adequately capture human error or system factors.

  • A Cavity-Fighting Liquid Lets Kids Avoid Dentists' Drills

    The Food and Drug Administration cleared silver diamine fluoride for use as a tooth desensitizer for adults 21 and older. But studies show it can halt the progression of cavities and prevent them, and dentists are increasingly using it off-label for those purposes.
    ...
    The main downside is aesthetic: Silver diamine fluoride blackens the brownish decay on a tooth.

  • Seriously, stop with the irresponsible reporting on cellphones and cancer

    This is just one study (we shouldn't dismiss it, but it's possible the results were simply due to chance). The effects were only found in rats (and may not translate at all to humans). And this needs to be weighed against other evidence that cellphones aren't a big risk for people (we've been using phones for decades now with no uptick in brain cancer). This is an important bit of research and deserves careful scrutiny and follow-up. But it's not an occasion for fear-mongering.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed Aug 31 16:19:49 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Bernie Sanders's post-campaign political revolution is off to a rocky start

    Not only have Sanders-backed candidates generally struggled to knock off opponents backed by the Democratic establishment, but the national organizations created to help them have already become mired in petty infighting and legal difficulties.

  • "I don't like the idea of capitalism": Charles Koch, unfiltered

    Billionaire businessman, philanthropist and political donor Charles Koch grabbed headlines this weekend for focusing a semiannual gathering of wealthy conservatives on a surprising topic: income inequality. It is a topic that has loomed increasingly large in Koch's mind recently and one that he expounded on in the spring in an interview with The Washington Post's Jim Tankersley.

    If they make it through by rigging the system, then that's horrible, and that's a good part of the disparity we have. Whereas the median income -- which I think is a much better metric on well-being than GDP, hasn't gone up in the last decade -- and productivity has barely moved. And I think it is because of this corporate welfare and the Fed. So what we see happening is that because of that combination -- free money to big companies like ours or established companies and the difficulties in getting permits to do something new with all of the handicaps on innovation -- that rather than going in and investing in increasing productivity, it is investing in buying other companies.

    To my surprise there's more I agree with than disagree with.

  • Washington's Sunni Myth and the Civil Wars in Syria and Iraq

    In the first of two articles, a Westerner with extensive on-the-ground experience in Syria and Iraq explains how the West's understanding of sectarian identity in the Middle East is fatally flawed.

    Similarly, these same voices describe the Syrian government as an "Alawite regime" that rules and oppresses Sunnis. However, Sunnis are heavily represented at all levels of leadership in Assad's government. The territory it controls at this point in the war and at all points past is majority Sunni. And the Syrian armed forces are still majority Sunni. Alawites may be overrepresented in the security forces, but all that means is that they get to die more than others. It if it is an "Alawite regime," isn't it odd that includes and benefits so many non-Alawites?

    Sunnis not only have political power in Syria, but they also have social power, more opportunities, and a greater range of choices in life compared to other states in the region ruled by Sunni heads of state. At the heart of this negligent misapprehension of what is actually happening in the Middle East is an acceptance and mainstreaming of notions of Sunni identity propagated by the most extreme voices in the Sunni world: Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

  • Part 2: http://warontherocks.com/2016/08/washingtons-sunni-myth-and-the-middle-east-undone/

  • The truth about the gender wage gap

    Instead, the workforce disadvantages women in subtler ways -- ways that ultimately show up in their paycheck but don't always begin there. The highest-paying jobs disproportionately reward those who can work the longest, least flexible hours.

    These types of job penalize workers who have caregiving responsibilities outside the workplace. Those workers tend to be women.

    ... The data tells us that this can't be the entire story. It can't explain why the wage gap is so much bigger for those with kids than those without. One 2015 study found that childless, unmarried women earn 96 cents for every dollar a man earns. Remember that study we started with, the one about the MBA graduates? It showed that women with kids had a wage gap twice as large as women without.

  • Are Replicas Changing the Way We Experience Art?

    Precise Digital Reproductions Allow More People to Own and View Masterpieces, Minus the Work's Soul

    One might pay a fortune to get a work entirely painted by Rembrandt, or a more modest sum for a work designed by Rembrandt but largely painted by his staff. This did not mean that the less expensive option was poorly made, and technically, it could even still be called a "Rembrandt." This process was an entirely legal, artist-sanctioned form of forgery.
    ...
    Experts and art lovers can tell the simulacrum from the authentic work. The rest of the world could, likewise, if they tried, but they may not care to. Perhaps they are just as happy with a Relievo Collection van Gogh on their walls? A danger arises when amateurs and bogus experts aren't able to tell the difference between what's real and what's reproduced. Worse, they might see the digital copy and decide that it is not worth the effort to see the original. They might not think that the work is better, but it is unarguably more convenient to access.

    Has there been a scientifically controlled study that proves experts and art lovers can actually tell the difference just by looking?

  • The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority

    It suffices for an intransigent minority --a certain type of intransigent minorities --to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences. Further, an optical illusion comes with the dominance of the minority: a naive observer would be under the impression that the choices and preferences are those of the majority. If it seems absurd, it is because our scientific intuitions aren't calibrated for that (fughedabout scientific and academic intuitions and snap judgments; they don't work and your standard intellectualization fails with complex systems, though not your grandmothers' wisdom).
    ...
    A Kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food, but a nonkosher eater isn't banned from eating kosher.

  • Scientists propose why we cannot find life in space

    The reason we cannot find other life outside of Planet Earth is because we may be ahead of the curve, according to scientists from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
    ...
    Life first became possible 30m years after the Big Bang, when stars first provided the universe with enough carbon and oxygen. Life is predicted to end in 10 trillion years when all the stars in the universe have faded and died. Loeb and a team of researchers considered the likelihood of life between those two parameters.

  • Spiritual emergency

    After decades of practising as a psychotherapist, I am convinced that our treatment of psychosis is thoroughly wrong-headed

    Most of modern psychiatry dismisses the idea that psychotic experience is a meaningful response to the condition of one's life in favour of the view that the voices, the visions, come from meaningless disease. By contrast I've learned to distinguish between the ravages of chronic psychotic disorder in the long and persistently afflicted, and the kind of acute aberrations experienced by Martha, which can usually be better understood as a 'spiritual emergency' instead of an impersonal state of disease.
    ...
    Among the many fascinating facts that Whitaker has gathered is that if you suffer a psychotic breakdown, your odds of complete, treatment-free recovery are much, much better if you are treated in a third-world country that cannot afford psychotropic medication. In poor countries they treat psychotic breaks with various forms of social support, and largely leave the brain alone and unaltered.

  • 'Googlement' Pushes Aside 'Government Sachs'

    Google/Alphabet's annual spending on lobbying, for example, went from less than $1 million a decade ago to $16.7 million in 2015, putting it behind only Boeing and General Electric among American corporations.
    ...
    Since Obama took office in January 2009, at least 250 people have left Google and related companies for jobs in the administration or vice versa. Oh, and in 2012 Schmidt actually helped recruit the Obama campaign technology team and spent election night in the campaign "boiler room" in Chicago.

  • The big puzzle in economics today: why is the economy growing so slowly?

    1. Theory 1: We're running out of innovations
    2. Theory 2: There's too little spending`
    3. Theory 3: Bad corporate governance is causing companies to under-invest
    4. Theory 4: The economy is weighed down with debt
    5. Theory 5: Excessive regulation is holding back growth
    6. Theory 6: There's too much housing regulation in big cities
    7. Theory 7: The economy is becoming dominated by big, incumbent companies
    8. Theory 8: A slow-growing, aging population is hurting growth
  • The Effect of Population Aging on Economic Growth, the Labor Force and Productivity

    Population aging is widely assumed to have detrimental effects on economic growth yet there is little empirical evidence about the magnitude of its effects. This paper starts from the observation that many U.S. states have already experienced substantial growth in the size of their older population and much of this growth was predetermined by historical trends in fertility. We use predicted variation in the rate of population aging across U.S. states over the period 1980-2010 to estimate the economic impact of aging on state output per capita. We find that a 10% increase in the fraction of the population ages 60+ decreases the growth rate of GDP per capita by 5.5%. Two-thirds of the reduction is due to slower growth in the labor productivity of workers across the age distribution, while one-third arises from slower labor force growth. Our results imply annual GDP growth will slow by 1.2 percentage points this decade and 0.6 percentage points next decade due to population aging.

  • Research suggests being lazy is a sign of high intelligence

    Results of the study revealed the thinking group were far less active than the non-thinkers

    Findings from a US-based study seem to support the idea that people with a high IQ get bored less easily, leading them to spend more time engaged in thought.

    And active people may be more physical as they need to stimulate their minds with external activities, either to escape their thoughts or because they get bored quickly.

    But note it ends with,

    Despite highlighting an unusual trend, generalising the findings should be done with caution due to the small sample of participants, it added.

    Sounds bogus to me.
  • Tyler Cowen's three laws
    1. Cowen's First Law: There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).
    2. Cowen's Second Law: There is a literature on everything.
    3. Cowen's Third Law: All propositions about real interest rates are wrong.

    There is of course a common thread to all three laws, namely you should not have too much confidence in your own judgment.

  • What Happened to WikiLeaks?

    WikiLeaks has hit rock bottom. Once dedicated to careful vetting and redaction--sometimes too much redaction--the "whistleblower site" is now gleefully basking in its dump of thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee--most of which are full of personal, non-newsworthy information--published with the express intent of harming Hillary Clinton's political campaign. In this latest release, there is no brave whistleblower in sight, just an anonymous hacker believed by the FBI and U.S. intelligence community to be a front for Russian intelligence services. The WikiLeaks project has fallen far from the lofty heights of its founding a decade ago, when Julian Assange promised to "facilitate safety in the ethical leaking movement."

  • Browserprint.info

    Does your web browser have a unique fingerprint? If so your web browser could be tracked across websites without techniques such as tracking cookies. Additionally the anonymisation aspects of services such as Tor or VPNs could be negated if websites you visit track you using your browser fingerprint. This service is designed to test how unique your web browser's fingerprint is, and hence how identifiable your browser is.

  • Dark Patterns are designed to trick you

    User Interfaces Designed to Trick People

    It happens to the best of us. After looking closely at a bank statement or cable bill, suddenly a small, unrecognizable charge appears. Fine print sleuthing soon provides the answer--somehow, you accidentally signed up for a service. Whether it was an unnoticed pre-marked checkbox or an offhanded verbal agreement at the end of a long phone call, now a charge arrives each month because naturally the promotion has ended. If the possibility of a refund exists, it'll be found at the end of 45 minutes of holding music or a week's worth of angry e-mails.

    Everyone has been there. So in 2010, London-based UX designer Harry Brignull decided he'd document it. Brignull's website, darkpatterns.org, offers plenty of examples of deliberately confusing or deceptive user interfaces. These dark patterns trick unsuspecting users into a gamut of actions: setting up recurring payments, purchasing items surreptitiously added to a shopping cart, or spamming all contacts through prechecked forms on Facebook games.

  • Russia Without BS

    Welcome dear reader, to Russia Without BS, the foreigner-in-Russia blog that strives to give all those interested in Russia an insight into life in the capital from the perspective of an ordinary working American. If you're interested in Russian life and politics without the bias and sensationalism of Western journalism or the farcical Russophilia of the Putin fan club, you've come to the right blog. If you're interested in living and working in Russia and you're skeptical of the expat literature that's full of embellished, exaggerated, and occasionally fabricated tales of nightly debauchery or James Bond fantasies, read on.


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Fri Aug 12 12:23:56 EDT 2016

Problems with Science

More on a topic I've blogged about before here and before that here.

  • The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists

    1. Academia has a huge money problem
    2. Too many studies are poorly designed
    3. Replicating results is crucial -- and rare
    4. Peer review is broken
    5. Too much science is locked behind paywalls
    6. Science is poorly communicated
    7. Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful
    Conclusion: Science is not doomed

    "I think the one thing that would have the biggest impact is removing publication bias: judging papers by the quality of questions, quality of method, and soundness of analyses, but not on the results themselves," writes Michael Inzlicht, a University of Toronto psychology and neuroscience professor.

    Some journals are already embracing this sort of research. PLOS One, for example, makes a point of accepting negative studies (in which a scientist conducts a careful experiment and finds nothing) for publication, as does the aptly named Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine.

  • A Rant on Peer Review

    George J. Borjas

    I have a few pet peeves. One of them is how "peer review" is perceived by far too many people as the gold standard certification of scientific authority. Any academic who's been through the peer review process many times (as I have) knows that the process is full of potholes and is sometimes subverted by unethical behavior on the part of editors and reviewers.
    ...
    The point is that many human emotions, including nepotism, professional jealousies, methodological disagreements, and ideological biases go into the peer review process. It would be refreshing if we interpreted the "peer-reviewed" sign of approval as the flawed signal that it is, particularly in areas where there seems to be a larger narrative that must be served. The peer-review process may well be the worst way of advancing scientific knowledge--except for all the others.

  • Why Most Clinical Research Is Not Useful

    John P. A. Ioannidis

    • Blue-sky research cannot be easily judged on the basis of practical impact, but clinical research is different and should be useful. It should make a difference for health and disease outcomes or should be undertaken with that as a realistic prospect.
    • Many of the features that make clinical research useful can be identified, including those relating to problem base, context placement, information gain, pragmatism, patient centeredness, value for money, feasibility, and transparency.
    • Many studies, even in the major general medical journals, do not satisfy these features, and very few studies satisfy most or all of them. Most clinical research therefore fails to be useful not because of its findings but because of its design.
    • The forces driving the production and dissemination of nonuseful clinical research are largely identifiable and modifiable.
    • Reform is needed. Altering our approach could easily produce more clinical research that is useful, at the same or even at a massively reduced cost.

  • A Crisis at the Edge of Physics

    DO physicists need empirical evidence to confirm their theories?

    A few months ago in the journal Nature, two leading researchers, George Ellis and Joseph Silk, published a controversial piece called "Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics." They criticized a newfound willingness among some scientists to explicitly set aside the need for experimental confirmation of today's most ambitious cosmic theories -- so long as those theories are "sufficiently elegant and explanatory." Despite working at the cutting edge of knowledge, such scientists are, for Professors Ellis and Silk, "breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical."


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Fri Jul 29 12:16:26 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • fMRI bugs could upend years of research

    This is what your brain looks like on bad data.

    The problem is simple: to get from a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain to a scientific conclusion, the brain is divided into tiny "voxels". Software, rather than humans, then scans the voxels looking for clusters.

    When you see a claim that "scientists know when you're about to move an arm: these images prove it", they're interpreting what they're told by the statistical software.

    Now, boffins from Sweden and the UK have cast doubt on the quality of the science, because of problems with the statistical software: it produces way too many false positives.

    In this paper at PNAS, they write: "the most common software packages for fMRI analysis (SPM, FSL, AFNI) can result in false-positive rates of up to 70%. These results question the validity of some 40,000 fMRI studies and may have a large impact on the interpretation of neuroimaging results."

  • One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana

    They found that, in the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law. The drops were quite significant: In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication.
    ...
    The tanking numbers for painkiller prescriptions in medical marijuana states are likely to cause some concern among pharmaceutical companies. These companies have long been at the forefront of opposition to marijuana reform, funding research by anti-pot academics and funneling dollars to groups, such as the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, that oppose marijuana legalization.

  • In clinical trials, for-profit review boards are taking over for hospitals. Should they?

    Institutional review boards -- which review all research that involves human participants -- have undergone a quiet revolution in recent years, with many drug companies strongly encouraging researchers to use commercial boards, considered by many more efficient than their nonprofit counterparts.
    ...
    "IRBs are hired by the sponsor," Schreiner said. "They are paid by them. And so if they turn down the study, then I think they're unlikely to get repeat business."

  • Highest-paid CEOs run worst-performing companies, research finds

    Research firm finds businesses led by lower-paid CEOs earn greater shareholder return.

    In fact, even after adjusting for company size and sector, companies with lower total summary CEO pay levels more consistently displayed higher long-term investment returns.

  • Why the D.N.C. E-Mails Aren’t Scandalous

    Do these e-mails strike anyone as appalling and outrageous? Not me. They strike me as . . . e-mails. The idea that people might speak casually or caustically via e-mail has been portrayed as a shocking breach of civilized discourse. Imagine! People bullshitting on e-mail!

    Here are the latest, most damaging things in the DNC’s leaked emails.

  • Donald Trump"s Ghostwriter Tells All

    "The Art of the Deal" made America see Trump as a charmer with an unfailing knack for business. Tony Schwartz helped create that myth--and regrets it.

    People are dispensable and disposable in Trump's world." If Trump is elected President, he warned, "the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows--that he couldn't care less about them."

  • Transgender people: 10 common myths

    1. Myth #1: Transgender people are confused or tricking others
    2. Myth #2: Sexual orientation is linked to gender identity
    3. Myth #3: Letting trans people use the bathroom or locker room matching their gender identity is dangerous
    4. Myth #4: Transitioning is as simple as one surgery
    5. Myth #5: All trans people medically transition
    6. Myth #6: Transgender-inclusive health care is expensive
    7. Myth #7: Children aren't old enough to know their gender identity
    8. Myth #8: Transgender people are mentally ill
    9. Myth #9: Transgender people make up a third gender
    10. Myth #10: Drag queens and kings are transgender

  • 'Healing' detected in Antarctic ozone hole

    Researchers say they have found the first clear evidence that the thinning in the ozone layer above Antarctica is starting to heal.

    The gains have been credited to the long term phasing out of ozone-destroying chemicals.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Tue Jul 19 00:00:00 EDT 2016

Problems with Science

More on a topic I've blogged about before, Problems with Science.

  • John Oliver mocks misleading scientific studies with fake Ted Talks

    His solution? 'Todd Talks'

    The reason for all the confusing findings? According to Oliver, "Scientists are under constant pressure to publish, with tenure and funding on the line. And to get published, it helps to have results that seem new and striking. Scientists know nobody is publishing a study that says, 'Nothing Up With Acai Berries.' And to get those results, there are all sorts of ways that -- consciously or not -- you can tweak your study."
    ...
    Per usual, Oliver has an amusing solution to the problem: Scientists' sourcing and methodology should be explained when their results are shared everywhere from viral stories to news segments. "I know what you're thinking: `Hold on, if that happens, where where am I going to get all my interesting bulls-- from?" says Oliver. "Don't worry -- we have you covered.'"

    Video

  • Physicists Must Accept That Some Things Are Unknowable

    The next logical question about our origins, of course, then becomes that of where did inflation come from? Was it a state that was eternal to the past, meaning that it had no origin and always existed, right up until the moment it ended and created the Big Bang? Was it a state that had a beginning, where it emerged from a non-inflationary state in spacetime some finite time in the past? Or was it a cyclical state, where time looped back on itself from some far future state?

    The difficult thing here is that there's nothing we can observe, in our Universe, that allows us to tell these three possibilities apart. In all but the most contrived models of inflation (and some of those we can rule out), it's only the last 10^(-33) seconds or so of inflation that impacts our Universe. The exponential nature of inflation wipes out any information that occurred prior to that, separating it from anything we can observe by, well, inflating it beyond the portion of our Universe that we can observe.
    ...
    The total amount of information accessible to us in the Universe is finite, and hence, so is the amount of knowledge we can gain about it. There's a whole lot left to learn and a whole lot that science has yet to reveal. But some things we will likely never know. The Universe may yet be infinite, but our knowledge of it never will be.

  • Why is So Much Reported Science Wrong, and What Can Fix That?
    • 1998: Year in which the British medical journal The Lancet published a study suggesting a link between autism and vaccines.
    • 2010: Year The Lancet published a retraction of the discredited study.
    • 33: Percentage of American parents surveyed by The National Consumers League in 2014 who believe vaccines are linked to autism.
    • 10: Factor by which retraction notices in scientific journals increased between 2000 and 2010.
    • 44: Percentage of retractions attributed to "misconduct," including fabrication and plagiarism.
    • 44: Percentage of health care journalists who said, in a 2009 survey, that their organization sometimes or frequently reported stories based only on news releases.
  • How do we fix bad science?

    Independently verifying research can help science regain its credibility, argues Laurie Zoloth.

    Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, wrote in April: "Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness."

    Something needs to change. In this spirit in November 2011, a group of American scientists led by Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, began The Reproducibility Project.

  • Why String Theory Is Not A Scientific Theory

    Although there was an entire conference on it earlier this month, spurred by a controversial opinion piece written a year ago by George Ellis and Joe Silk, the answer is very clear: no, string theory has not yet risen to the level of a scientific theory. The way people are trying to turn it into science is -- as Sabine Hossenfelder and Davide Castelvecchi report -- by redefining what "science" is.
    ...
    If you want to rise to the level of a scientific theory, you have to make a testable -- and hence, falsifiable or validatable -- predictions. Even a physical state that arises as a consequence of an established theory, such as the multiverse, isn't a scientific theory until we have a way to confirm or refute it; it's only a hypothesis, even if it's a good hypothesis.

And related to the problem:

  • Why Critical Thinking Is in Short Supply

    While information is cheap and getting cheaper, meaning is increasingly expensive. We are beset by confirmation bias, our tendency to look for and accept evidence that supports what we already think we know and ignore the rest. Per motivated reasoning, we tend to reject new evidence when it contradicts our established beliefs. Sadly, the smarter we are, the more likely we are to deny or oppose data that seem in conflict with ideas we deem important. Finally, bringing true believers together in a group tends only to compound the problem.

  • On skepticism, pseudo-profundity, Deepak Chopra, and bullshit

    And sometimes even bullshit is made to sound scientific.

    Of all the slick woo peddlers out there, one of the most famous (and most annoying) is Deepak Chopra.
    ...
    Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.


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Thu Jun 30 19:43:02 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • The interesting thing that happened when Kansas cut taxes and California hiked them

    In 2012, voters in California approved a measure to raise taxes on millionaires, bringing their top state income tax rate to 13.3 percent, the highest in the nation. Conservative economists predicted calamity, or at least a big slowdown in growth. Also that year, the governor of Kansas signed a series of changes to the state's tax code, including reducing income and sales tax rates. Conservative economists predicted a boom.

    Neither of those predictions came true. Not right away -- California grew just fine in the year the tax hikes took effect -- and especially not in the medium term, as new economic data showed this week.

    Now, correlation does not, as they say, equal causation, and two examples are but a small sample. But the divergent experiences of California and Kansas run counter to a popular view, particularly among conservative economists, that tax cuts tend to supercharge growth and tax increases chill it.

  • Billion-dollar brain training industry a sham--nothing but placebo, study suggests

    Sampling bias and a belief in malleable intelligence may be behind small IQ changes.

    In a study designed to assess the experimental methods of earlier brain-training studies, researchers found that sampling bias and the placebo effect explained the positive results seen in the past. "Indeed, to our knowledge, the rigor of double-blind randomized clinical trials is nonexistent in this research area," the authors report. They even suggest that the overblown claims from brain training companies may have created a positive feedback loop, convincing people that brain training works and biasing follow-up research on the topic.

    "The specter of a placebo may arise in any intervention when the desired outcome is known to the participant--an intervention like cognitive training," the authors note. Coupled with evidence that "people tend to hold strong implicit beliefs regarding whether or not intelligence is malleable" and that those beliefs may skew research findings, the authors conclude that past research is basically bunk.
    ...
    Such a placebo effect isn't worthless, the authors caution. It may be useful for future studies to assess how far the placebo effect could get brain training-believers. But to truly assess effects of the training, researchers need to turn to trials where participants don't self-select their group or know the point of the study--randomized, controlled studies. "By using such methods, we can begin to understand whether true training effects exist and are generalizable to samples (and perhaps populations) beyond those who expect to improve," the authors argue.

  • Is there a reproducibility "crisis" in biomedical research?

    The new NIH rules are a step in the right direction but clearly don't go far enough. I don't believe that reproducibility in science is in "crisis," as so many are claiming, but I do believe it's a significant problem that needs to be addressed in a thoughtful way. I also have to concede that it's scientists' fault that we're in the mess we're in and that we haven't addressed problems with reproducibility more robustly before now, given that this problem has been festering for a while. If it takes labeling the problem as a "crisis" to get some action, I suppose I can live with that.

    In considering how to encourage good science and discourage bad science, it is important to note that not all science, particularly biomedical science, should be assumed or expected to result in findings that have direct applications or to result in treatments for humans. As Ioannidis and Begley put it, an efficacy "of 100% and waste of 0% is unlikely to be achievable", even as they note that there is "probably substantial room for improvement." It is also important to note that, contrary to the way some paint this problem, the concerns about reproducibility in science don't invalidate the scientific method itself nor disprove "scientism." Science-based medicine has yielded incredible benefits to human health over the last 150 years. Indeed, the solutions to this problem being proposed are intended to enhance the rigorous application of science, not to abandon it. Finally, I can't help but note that it is scientists themselves who are being openly self-critical and debating how to fix perceived problems in science. That is a major strength, not weakness, of science.

  • The Mistrust of Science

    Atul Gawande commencement address at the California Institute of Technology

    Today, you become part of the scientific community, arguably the most powerful collective enterprise in human history. In doing so, you also inherit a role in explaining it and helping it reclaim territory of trust at a time when that territory has been shrinking. In my clinic and my work in public health, I regularly encounter people who are deeply skeptical of even the most basic knowledge established by what journalists label "mainstream" science (as if the other thing is anything like science)--whether it's facts about physiology, nutrition, disease, medicines, you name it. The doubting is usually among my most, not least, educated patients. Education may expose people to science, but it has a countervailing effect as well, leading people to be more individualistic and ideological.

    The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people--the bigger the better--pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.

  • Rethinking Robin Hood

    Angus Deaton

    Huge strides have undoubtedly been made in reducing global poverty, more through growth and globalization than through aid from abroad. The number of poor people has fallen in the past 40 years from more than two billion to just under one billion -- a remarkable feat, given the increase in world population and the long-term slowing of global economic growth, especially since 2008.

    While impressive and wholly welcome, poverty reduction has not come without a cost. The globalization that has rescued so many in poor countries has harmed some people in rich countries, as factories and jobs migrated to where labor is cheaper.

  • Race, Activism, and Hillary Clinton at Wellesley

    Hill and the other four African-American women who graduated from Wellesley's four-hundred-and-twenty-person class of 1969 remember Clinton, with whom many of them still communicate, fondly.
    ...
    At graduation in 1969, the entire class, many parents, and faculty members watched as Clinton rebuked a sitting Republican senator, Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts, during her now famous, largely improvised commencement speech. (Earlier this month, Wellesley posted an audio clip of the speech on YouTube.) Students stood and cheered when it was over. Faculty and parents mostly remained in their seats. It was the last time a student spoke after a visiting commencement speaker. "Did she move over the course of four years from being a Republican to a Democrat? Yes," Wilson said. "But I don't think any of us saw her as a radical. In her speech, she was provoked by Senator Brooke's endorsement of the war and the fact that he was rather patronizing."

  • Why Startups Are Struggling

    While Stern and Guzman show that high-growth firms are being formed as actively as ever, they also find that these companies are not succeeding as often as such companies once did. As the researchers put it, "Even as the number of new ideas and potential for innovation is increasing, there seems to be a reduction in the ability of companies to scale in a meaningful and systematic way." As many seeds as ever are being planted. But fewer trees are growing to the sky.

    Stern and Guzman are agnostic about why this is happening. But one obvious answer suggests itself: the increased power of established incumbents. We may think that we have been living in a business world in which incumbents are always on the verge of being toppled and competitive advantage is more fragile than ever. And clearly there are industries in which that has been the case--think of how Amazon transformed book retailing, or how digital downloads and streaming disrupted the music business. But as Hathaway and Litan document, American industry has grown more concentrated over the last 30 years, and incumbents have become more powerful in almost every business sector. As they put it, "it has become increasingly advantageous to be an incumbent, and less advantageous to be a new entrant." Even in tech, the contrast is striking between the ferment of the late 1990s, when many sectors had myriad players struggling for share, and the seeming stability of today's Google/Amazon/Facebook-dominated world.

  • Google's Remarkably Close Relationship With the Obama White House

    Over the past seven years, Google has created a remarkable partnership with the Obama White House, providing expertise, services, advice, and personnel for vital government projects.
    ...
    As the interactive charts accompanying this article show, Google representatives attended White House meetings more than once a week, on average, from the beginning of Obama's presidency through October 2015. Nearly 250 people have shuttled from government service to Google employment or vice versa over the course of his administration.

    A chart of lobbyists' White House visits reveals its close ties with Google

  • The Future of Podcasting

    Podcasting is giving me a case of déjà vu… The variety and quality of work being done is thrilling; outside attention is growing; new formats are evolving. We're seeing the same unlocking of creative potential we saw with blogging, and there's far more good work being produced than anyone has time to take in. The question now is whether podcasting's future will play out as the last decade of blogging has.
    ...
    A major challenge in podcast monetization is the complete lack of data: listeners still download MP3s and that's the end of it; podcasters can measure downloads, but have no idea if the episode is actually listened to, for how long, or whether or not the ads are skipped. In a complete reversal from the online world of text, the measurement system is a big step backwards from what came before: both radio and TV have an established measurement system for what shows are watched, and the scale of advertising is such that surveys can measure advertising effectiveness. Thus the direct marketing advertisers: they can simply do the measurement themselves through coupon codes or special URLs that measure how many people responded to a podcast ad. It's not totally efficient -- some number of conversions forget the code or URL -- but it's something.

  • RentAFriend

    RentAFriend.com has Friends from around the world available for hire. Rent a Friend to attend a social event, wedding, or party with you. Hire someone to introduce you to new people, or someone to go to a movie or a restaurant with. Hire a Friend to show you around a new town, teach you a new skill/hobby, or just someone for companionship.

  • Nordic countries: Highest in gender equality and intimate partner violence against women

    Insights into the phenomenon dubbed the 'Nordic paradox'

    The Nordic countries are the most gender equal nations in the world, but at the same time, they also have a disproportionately high rate of intimate partner violence against women. This is perplexing because logically violence against women would be expected to drop as women gained equal status in a society. A new study explores this contradictory situation, which has been labeled the 'Nordic paradox.'

  • Why I "Need" an AR-15

    The AR-15 is less a model of rifle than it is an open-source, modular weapons platform that can be customized for a whole range of applications, from small pest control to taking out 500-pound feral hogs to urban combat. Everything about an individual AR-15 can be changed with aftermarket parts -- the caliber of ammunition, recoil, range, weight, length, hold and grip, and on and on.
    ...
    For what it's worth, I do actually believe the fact that this violent nutjob who had been interviewed by the FBI three times was able to get a gun is so obviously messed up that it's foolish to suggest otherwise. In an even slightly less crazy world, this guy would never have had a weapon -- not even a Cricket children's rifle.

  • Psychiatrists Can't Tell Us What They Think About Trump

    Because 1,189 told us what they thought about Goldwater.

    In the aftermath, Goldwater sued Fact (and won), Fact went defunct, and the American Psychiatric Association tried to make sure that none of this would ever happen again. The result was Section 7.3 of the APA's Principles of Medical Ethics

  • The Spectacle of the Spectacles

    A recent little sensation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art delights and bemuses. Two teen-age boys from San Jose were perusing, with perplexity, the museum's exhibits of contemporary art when they had a notion. One of them, Kevin Nguyen, sixteen, set his opened eyeglasses on the floor, neatly perpendicular to a nearby wall. He and T. J. Khayatan, seventeen, then stood back to watch what ensued: viewers observing the glasses with the curiosity and respect befitting a work of art--which, under the circumstances, they were.
    ...
    But consider: an object manufactured to enhance seeing, presented as something to see. By being underfoot, the glasses were divorced from their function and protected only by the don't-touch protocol of museums. They might have seemed, to a suggestible audience, to be about being-in-a-museum--and that audience could have included me. Suggestibility, undaunted by fear of proving foolish, is essential to art love.

  • Brutalist websites

    In April, the internet seemed to abruptly discover a trend that had been lurking in its midst for years: Brutalism, an aesthetic borrowed from architecture and applied to minimally designed, bare-knuckle websites.
    ...
    As a descriptor, "Brutalist" seems to imply that the sites are somehow ugly or offensive to the viewer, but this isn't always the case. Often, it just means a website is constructed from essential coding elements and very little else -- no frills, redundant images, or advertising.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Fri Jun 10 13:28:16 EDT 2016

Election Matters

Various web links related to the 2016 primaries and the election of US President.

  • The Elites and the Rise of Donald Trump

    To start with the simplest case, the pundits, who are all free traders, get really blank faced when the topic of protectionism for doctors, dentists, lawyers and other highly paid professionals comes up. Just as there are hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who are prepared to do factory labor for a fraction of the pay of our manufacturing workers, there are tens of millions of really smart ambitious people in the developing world (and Europe) who would happily train to U.S. standards and work as professionals here for a fraction of the pay of our doctors and lawyers. The difference is that we have designed our trade deals to subject our manufacturing workers to competition, while we have maintained or increased the protection for our doctors and lawyers.
    ...
    Then we have our financial sector where the bankers benefit from "too big to fail" insurance from the government. We also exempt trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives from the same sort of sales tax that applies to clothes, cars, and most other products. Even an extremely small tax in the financial sector could raise over $100 billion a year, while putting many of the Wall Street high rollers out of business.

  • I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist.

    Here's what they said.

    Kagan is wrong. Donald Trump is not a fascist. "Fascism" has been an all-purpose insult for many years now, but it has a real definition, and according to scholars of historical fascism, Trump doesn't qualify. Rather, he's a right-wing populist, or perhaps an "apartheid liberal" in the words of Roger Griffin, author of The Nature of Fascism. He doesn't want to overthrow the existing democratic system. He doesn't want to scrap the Constitution. He doesn't romanticize violence itself as a vital cleansing agent of society. He's simply a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he's interested in oppressing.

  • The System Isn't `Rigged' Against Sanders

    Clinton's winning because more Democrats want her to be the nominee.

    Realistically, if you throw everything together, the math suggests that Sanders doesn't have much to complain about. If the Democratic nomination were open to as many Democrats as possible -- through closed primaries -- Clinton would be dominating Sanders. And if the nomination were open to as many voters as possible -- through open primaries -- she'd still be winning.


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Tue May 31 14:19:05 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Growth of income and welfare in the U.S, 1979-2011

    John Komlos, NBER Working Paper.

    The major consistent findings include what in the colloquial is referred to as the "hollowing out" of the middle class. According to these estimates, the income of the middle class 2nd and 3rd quintiles increased at a rate of between 0.1% and 0.7% per annum, i.e., barely distinguishable from zero. Even that meager rate was achieved only through substantial transfer payments. In contrast, the income of the top 1% grew at an astronomical rate of between 3.4% and 3.9% per annum during the 32-year period, reaching an average annual value of $918,000, up from $281,000 in 1979 (in 2011 dollars).
    ...
    With interdependent utility functions only the welfare of the 5th quintile experienced meaningful growth while those of the first four quintiles tend to be either negligible or even negative.

  • How the Pentagon punished NSA whistleblowers

    Long before Edward Snowden went public, John Crane was a top Pentagon official fighting to protect NSA whistleblowers. Instead their lives were ruined -- and so was his.

    The first is Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the very same NSA activities 10 years before Snowden did. Drake was a much higher-ranking NSA official than Snowden, and he obeyed US whistleblower laws, raising his concerns through official channels. And he got crushed.
    ...
    But there is another man whose story has never been told before, who is speaking out publicly for the first time here. His name is John Crane, and he was a senior official in the Department of Defense who fought to provide fair treatment for whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake -- until Crane himself was forced out of his job and became a whistleblower as well.

  • Intuitive And Reflective Responses In Philosophy

    Cognitive scientists have revealed systematic errors in human reasoning. There is disagreement about what these errors indicate about human rationality, but one upshot seems clear: human reasoning does not seem to fit traditional views of human rationality. This concern about rationality has made its way through various fields and has recently caught the attention of philosophers. The concern is that if philosophers are prone to systematic errors in reasoning, then the integrity of philosophy would be threatened. In this paper, I present some of the more famous work in cognitive science that has marshaled this concern. Then I present reasons to think that those with training in philosophy will be less prone to certain systematic errors in reasoning. The suggestion is that if philosophers could be shown to be less prone to such errors, then the worries about the integrity of philosophy could be constrained. Then I present evidence that, according to performance on the CRT (Frederick 2005), those who have benefited from training and selection in philosophy are indeed less prone to one kind of systematic error: irrationally arbitrating between intuitive and reflective responses. Nonetheless, philosophers are not entirely immune to this systematic error, and their proclivity for this error is statistically related to their responses to a variety of philosophical questions. So, while the evidence herein puts constraints on the worries about the integrity of philosophy, it by no means eliminates these worries. The conclusion, then, is that the present evidence offers prima facie reasons to ascribe a mitigated privilege to philosophers' ability to rationally arbitrate between intuitive and reflective responses.

  • Scientists say there's such a thing as "ethical amnesia"

    and it's probably happened to you

    A study published (paywall) today (May 16) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that when we act unethically, we're more likely to remember these actions less clearly. Researchers from Northwestern University and Harvard University coined the term "unethical amnesia" to describe this phenomenon, which they believe stems from the fact that memories of ourselves acting in ways we shouldn't are uncomfortable.

    "Unethical amnesia is driven by the desire to lower one's distress that comes from acting unethically and to maintain a positive self-image as a moral individual," the authors write in the paper.

  • Is Big Data Taking Us Closer to the Deeper Questions in Artificial Intelligence?

    A Conversation With Gary Marcus (with Edge Video and audio).

    Even though there's a lot of hype about AI and a lot of money being invested in AI, I feel like the field is headed in the wrong direction. There's been a local maximum where there's a lot of low-hanging fruit right now in a particular direction, which is mainly deep learning and big data. People are very excited about the big data and what it's giving them right now, but I'm not sure it's taking us closer to the deeper questions in artificial intelligence, like how we understand language or how we reason about the world.

  • An introduction to The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox

    Nordic societies seem to have it all: a historic tradition of women's entrepreneurship, modern welfare states that provide support to working parents, outstanding levels of women's participation in the labour market and populations that strongly support the idea of gender equality. It therefore comes as a surprise that Nordic countries, in one international ranking after another, are shown to have few women among top-managers and business owners. Another surprise is that the three Baltic countries, which have more conservative societies and a more small-government approach than their Nordic neighbors, have more women managers, top executives and business owners.
    ...
    In this book, Dr. Nima Sanandaji shows that the apparent paradox has a simple answer: Nordic welfare states are -- unintentionally -- holding women back. Public sector monopolies and substantial tax wedges limit women's progress in the labour market. Overly generous parental leave systems encourage women to stay home rather than work. Welfare state safety nets discourage women from self-employment.

  • Denmark Ranks as Happiest Country; Burundi, Not So Much

    The report found that inequality was strongly associated with unhappiness -- a stark finding for rich countries like the United States, where rising disparities in income, wealth, health and well-being have fueled political discontent.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed May 25 00:00:00 EDT 2016

Economic Matters

Some web links related to economics and finance.

  • Chameleons: The Misuse of Theoretical Models in Finance and Economics

    • Cherry Picking in Empirical Research = Carefully Selecting Data to Support a Desired Result
      • If one has sufficient freedom to select the data, one can support almost any result.
    • Potential Cherry Picking in Theoretical Research = Searching for a Set of Assumptions that Produces a Desired Conclusion
      • If one has sufficient freedom to select assumptions, one can create a model to support almost any result.
      • Are the assumptions reasonable?
      • Are there other more reasonable assumptions that explain what we see?

  • Risk Doesn't Stand Still

    Review of Greg IP's book, Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe

    In this provocative new book, the Wall Street Journal's chief economics commentator Greg Ip contemplates how actions to reduce and control risk are often discovered to have increased it in some other way, and thus, "how safety can be dangerous."

    This is an eclectic exploration of the theme, ranging over financial markets, forest fires, airline and automobile safety, bacterial adaptation to antibiotics, flood control, monetary policy, and financial regulation. In every area, Ip shows the limits of human minds trying to anticipate the long-term consequences of decisions whose effects are entangled in complex systems.

  • The State of the Art in the Economics of Education

    the most promising areas for policy are:

    • Teacher effectiveness is by far the most important thing that matters in school. The difference in outcomes for pupils taught by effective or ineffective teachers is huge.   . . .
    • Investment in the early years of child development is very important.   . . .
    • A coherent market structure for schools to operate in is very important.   . . .
  • Jeremy Grantham's Take on Oil, Metals and Agriculture

    Quarterly market outlook from the hedge fund manager.

    The commodities guru argues that oil stocks can recover while farmland is his "first choice" for the long run.


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Thu May 12 22:52:57 EDT 2016

Encryption Backdoors

  • Exploiting Emotions About Paris to Blame Snowden, Distract from Actual Culprits Who Empowered ISIS
    Glenn Greenwald

    One key premise here seems to be that prior to the Snowden reporting, The Terrorists helpfully and stupidly used telephones and unencrypted emails to plot, so Western governments were able to track their plotting and disrupt at least large-scale attacks. That would come as a massive surprise to the victims of the attacks of 2002 in Bali, 2004 in Madrid, 2005 in London, 2008 in Mumbai, and April 2013 at the Boston Marathon. How did the multiple perpetrators of those well-coordinated attacks -- all of which were carried out prior to Snowden's June 2013 revelations -- hide their communications from detection?

  • Spying on Congress and Israel: NSA Cheerleaders Discover Value of Privacy Only When Their Own Is Violated
    Glenn Greenwald

    In January 2014, I debated Rep. Hoekstra about NSA spying and he could not have been more mocking and dismissive of the privacy concerns I was invoking. "Spying is a matter of fact," he scoffed.
    ...
    But all that, of course, was before Hoekstra knew that he and his Israeli friends were swept up in the spying of which he was so fond. Now that he knows that it is his privacy and those of his comrades that has been invaded, he is no longer cavalier about it. In fact, he's so furious that this long-time NSA cheerleader is actually calling for the criminal prosecution of the NSA and Obama officials for the crime of spying on him and his friends.

  • Why Governments Lie About Encryption Backdoors
    Lauren Weinstein

    They know that the smart, major terrorist groups will never use systems with government-mandated backdoors for their important communications, they'll continue to use strong systems developed in and/or distributed by countries without such government mandates, or their own strong self-designed apps.

    So it seems clear that the real reason for the government push for encryption backdoors is an attempt not to catch the most dangerous terrorists that they're constantly talking about, but rather a selection of "low-hanging fruit" of various sorts.

  • What the FBI Really Wants from Apple -- and Why Apple Has Said No
    Lauren Weinstein

    In other words, what we're seeing play out right now may be the federal government's first real attempt to get "the camel's nose under the tent" of strong phone encryption systems, to try demonstrate any feasibility of full-blown backdoor attacks against these systems.
    ...
    For if the government can gain access to these systems in such manners, it is axiomatic and unquestionable that evildoers of all stripes will find ways to do so as well, in a black hat hacking dream come true.


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