Category Archives: Social Issues

White House launches public workshops on AI issues

The White House today announced a series of public workshops on artificial intelligence (AI) and the creation of an interagency working group to learn more about the benefits and risks of artificial intelligence. The first workshop Artificial Intelligence: Law and Policy will take place on May 24 at the University of Washington School of Law, cohosted by the White House and UW’s Tech Policy Lab. The event places leading artificial intelligence experts from academia and industry in conversation with government officials interested in developing a wise and effective policy framework for this increasingly important technology.

Speakers include:

The final workshop will be held on July 7th at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York. The Social and Economic Implications of Artificial Intelligence Technologies in the Near-Term will address the near-term impacts of AI technologies across social and economic systems. The event is hosted by the White House and New York University’s Information Law Institute, with support from Google Open Research and Microsoft Research.

The focus will be the challenges of the next 5-10 years, specifically addressing five themes: social inequality, labor, financial markets, healthcare, and ethics. Leaders from industry, academia, and civil society will share ideas for technical design, research and policy directions.

You can learn more about these events via the links to the event websites below, and each workshop will be livestreamed:

According to Ed Felton, Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer, “There is a lot of excitement about artificial intelligence (AI) and how to create computers capable of intelligent behavior. After years of steady but slow progress on making computers “smarter” at everyday tasks, a series of breakthroughs in the research community and industry have recently spurred momentum and investment in the development of this field.

Today’s AI is confined to narrow, specific tasks, and isn’t anything like the general, adaptable intelligence that humans exhibit. Despite this, AI’s influence on the world is growing. The rate of progress we have seen will have broad implications for fields ranging from healthcare to image- and voice-recognition. In healthcare, the President’s Precision Medicine Initiative and the Cancer Moonshot will rely on AI to find patterns in medical data and, ultimately, to help doctors diagnose diseases and suggest treatments to improve patient care and health outcomes.

In education, AI has the potential to help teachers customize instruction for each student’s needs. And, of course, AI plays a key role in self-driving vehicles, which have the potential to save thousands of lives, as well as in unmanned aircraft systems, which may transform global transportation, logistics systems, and countless industries over the coming decades.

Like any transformative technology, however, artificial intelligence carries some risk and presents complex policy challenges along several dimensions, from jobs and the economy to safety and regulatory questions. For example, AI will create new jobs while phasing out some old ones—magnifying the importance of programs like TechHire that are preparing our workforce with the skills to get ahead in today’s economy, and tomorrow’s. AI systems can also behave in surprising ways, and we’re increasingly relying on AI to advise decisions and operate physical and virtual machinery—adding to the challenge of predicting and controlling how complex technologies will behave.

There are tremendous opportunities and an array of considerations across the Federal Government in privacy, security, regulation, law, and research and development to be taken into account when effectively integrating this technology into both government and private-sector activities.

That is why the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is excited to announce that we will be co-hosting four public workshops over the coming months on topics in AI to spur public dialogue on artificial intelligence and machine learning and identify challenges and opportunities related to this emerging technology. These four workshops will be co-hosted by academic and non-profit organizations, and two of them will also be co-hosted by the National Economic Council. These workshops will feed into the development of a public report later this year. We invite anyone interested to learn more about this emergent field of technology and give input about future directions and areas of challenge and opportunity.

The Federal Government also is working to leverage AI for public good and toward a more effective government. A new National Science and Technology Council (NSTC)Subcommittee on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence will meet for the first time next week. This group will monitor state-of-the-art advances and technology milestones in artificial intelligence and machine learning within the Federal Government, in the private sector, and internationally; and help coordinate Federal activity in this space.

Broadly, between now and the end of the Administration, the NSTC group will work to increase the use of AI and machine learning to improve the delivery of government services. Such efforts may include empowering Federal departments and agencies to run pilot projects evaluating new AI-driven approaches and government investment in research on how to use AI to make government services more effective. Applications in AI to areas of government that are not traditionally technology-focused are especially significant; there is tremendous potential in AI-driven improvements to programs and delivery of services that help make everyday life better for Americans in areas related to urban systems and smart cities, mental and physical health, social welfare, criminal justice, the environment, and much more.

We look forward to engaging with the public about how best to harness the opportunities brought by artificial intelligence. Stay tuned for more information about the work we’re doing on this subject as it develops over the coming months.”

Ed Felten is a Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer.

Beards don’t actually have feces in them

Clickbait headlines claiming there is poop in people’s beards whipped around social media this week. It’s junk science based on common misconceptions about bacteria.

These headlines are shite: “Some beards contain more poo than a toilet shocking study reveals” – the Mirror “Shock new research reveals some beards contain more poo than a toilet” – “Some beards are so full of poo they are as dirty as toilets” –

Of course, I wanted to read the evidence for myself, like I do with all outrageous, suspicious claims. I couldn’t even find a study cited in any of the articles. All I found was some pretty crappy journalism~!

If there was no legitimate study by respected microbiologists and no instances of unintentional poop in people’s beards, where did this story even come from? As far as I could tell, the story originated from a local tv news segment out of  New Mexico, wherein a reporter swabbed some random men’s beards and sent it to a microbiologist to culture for microbes.

To some readers that might sound like legit science. Here’s why it isn’t:

That’s a very small sample size. The reporter pretty much stayed vague about how many beards he swabbed but it was a “handful”. All it would take is a couple unwashed faces to make a petri-dish grow some gross stuff. So, yeah… bad science.

Just because a microbe lives in the guts doesn’t mean it isn’t on your face. Microbiologist, John Golobic called some of the bacteria found “enterics”, meaning bacteria that normally live in the intestines, “the types of things you’d find in faeces,” he said, without telling the reporter or audiences how unbelievably common it is to find these microbes on various surfaces in everyday life, including shaved and unshaven faces. That’s all it took to get the rumor started and people rewrote, retweeted and reshared the story.

Most of the headlines and editorials about this left out that it was merely a bacteria that can also be found inside the intestine, and reported that actual poop was on people’s face, which has nothing to do with the original story and beyond bad science – it’s bad reporting.

Scientists in the microbiology field and pretty much anyone who has followed current thought on the subject know that the human body is home to vast diversity of microbes. Bacteria like E. coli is commonly found all over the body, inside and out.

Readers might remember a similar viral story about unidentified DNA found on swabbed subway cars, implying there are millions of unknown microbes people are being exposed to. In reality everything in the world is covered in millions of microbes, and there isn’t any real danger from being exposed to them everyday.

If you are looking for media that debunks the dangers of microbial paranoia, check out NPR’s articles about probiotics and Mythbuster’s entertaining critique of the “five second rule”.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Fake Time? Bill Maher and AntiVaccination

Bill Maher threw softballs at the most famous anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on”Real Time”

Kennedy isn’t the only prominent vaccine denier but he’s the current media darling for whatever reason. After several hints in the past about vaccine paranoia,  Maher took it to the next level and had a notable anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist on the show for a one on one interview. His normally pro-science stance and no-bullshit interview style was strangely abandoned and at one point Maher himself actually went on an anti-vaccination rant, falsely claiming the anit-vaccination crowd has some kind of legit point. I’ll unpack the rant after the video, below.

“Why can’t we have a kind of grand bargain on this?”

Because a lot of people will die, many of them children, if we don’t act appropriately. The anti-vaccination rhetoric isn’t just easy to fall for, it’s catchy. People hear the soundbites and repeat them, or share articles off of persistent tabloid sites that feed off of the traffic it causes. Spreading false or controversial medical data isn’t without it’s consequences.

“It just seems like we’re calling each other kooks and liars.”

That’s because spreading fear about vaccines is a kooky lie, since there isn’t any data supporting the accusations that vaccines are dangerous. That’s crazy, and if you participate in the lie, you are, in fact, lying. On other subjects, like, say, Climate Change Denial-ism, Bill Maher would be first in line to tell an anti-science arguer they are being crazy or outright lying. The point is that the pro-vaccine side of the debate has an abundance of reliable data supporting it’s efficacy- so much that neither Maher nor his guest tried to make a case that vaccines don’t work. Vaccines aren’t just safe, they are saving people from untimely, rather unpleasant deaths. Denying that is kooky at best.

“It seems like common sense that vaccines, even thimerosal, probably don’t hurt most people — if they did, we’d all be dead, because they’re in a lot of vaccines that we all took — but some do.”


Saying Thimerisal “contains” mercury is like saying table salt contains a dangerous explosive just because one of the atoms in the molecule is sodium. Sodium explodes violently on contact with water. Is there an anti-table salt movement? nope.

It’s hard to even follow this because Maher’s conversational grammar is confusing. His grasp of the topic isn’t really demonstrated. It appears he thinks thimerisal is the name of a vaccine. Or maybe he left some words out? It’s hard to decipher a position that is illogical and wrong in the first place.

Marketed under the trade name Merthiolate, Thimerisal can be used as a preservative in vaccines. It has several other uncontested uses: immunoglobulin preparations, skin test antigens, antivenins, ophthalmic and nasal products, and tattoo inks. European Union, and a few other countries freaked out about it after an erroneous report of its link to autism back in the 1980’s. The current scientific consensus has repeatedly assured the public that it isn’t dangerous but the rumor of mercury poisoning and other ailments has persisted.



Obviously some minority gets hurt by this stuff.

Uh, no, actually it’s not obvious. What stuff? Thimerisal? Vaccines in general?


I don’t understand why this is controversial?

Because an embarrassingly ignorant internet meme successfully increased every American’s exposure to measles. It’s making people sick, dude.


Why we have this emotional debate about something that– there is science there.

No, There is no science supporting the anti-vaccine side. None.

It astounds me that liberals, who are always suspicious of corporations… and defending minorities, somehow when it comes to this minority that’s hurt…

It’s not about corporations. Liberals want people, including corporate entities to behave ethically. In this situation, the unethical behavior is not on behalf of a corporation. Secondly, there is no wounded minority. No one is getting hurt. Just the opposite.


It’s like, ‘You know what? Shut the fuck up and let me take every vaccine that Merck wants to shove down my throat.’


No, it’s not like that, obviously. If there was any alarming study demonstrating a dangerous aspect of vaccination the anti-science vaccination deniers wouldn’t be able to tell. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. By putting anti-vaccination talking heads on tv and lending legitimacy to their wolf-cries, Bill Maher is helping to confuse the general public. Bill Maher references a vague minority that doesn’t actually exist. There is no evidence of anyone being hurt by vaccines. Liberals might defend oppressed minorities but there general public, the mainstream are the ones being threatened by a dangerous minority opinion in this case.  If liberal America impartially stood up for all minorities, they would be defending climate deniers and Ku Klux Klan members. The fact that the anti-vaccine rhetoric has to put words in an imaginary opposition’s mouth should speak for itself.

I’m surprised Bill Maher took this position but he did hint at it last February, when he told guests and audiences he’s an “anti-flu shot guy” and has a problem with anti-vaccinators being told to  “shut the fuck up” and “don’t ask any questions.” It might be appropriate to tell someone in a crowded theater to shut the fuck up if they keep yelling fire, or persistently asking the audience if the theater is on fire despite no smoke or alarms. Yelling fire is dangerous and gives people wrong information that may lead to a percentage of the hypothetical crowd being injured or killed in the ensuing panic.

Back in February, Real Time guest Marianne Williamson, agreed with Maher and objected to anti-vaccination supporters being called “anti-science” or “kooks”, which is silly because it is a blatantly anti-science position and that makes it pretty kooky to give it airtime.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Understanding Cognitive Bias Helps Decision Making

noun: intuition
  1. the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

People tend to trust their own intuition. Has there been much formal study about the veracity of intuition?

Brain science itself is a young field, and the terminology has yet to mature into a solid academic lexicon. To further increase your chances of being confused, modern life is rife with distractions, misinformation, and addictive escapisms, leaving the vast majority of society having no real idea what the hell is happening.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to do something kind of recursive. I am going to document my mind being changed about a deeply held belief as I explore my own cognitive bias. I am not here to tell you what’s REALLY going on or change your mind about your deeply held beliefs. This is just about methods of problem solving and how cognitive bias can become a positive aspect of critical thought.

Image: "Soft Bike" sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

Image: “Soft Bike” sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

I’m advocating what I think is the best set of decision making skills, Critical Thought. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. (I’m torn between the terms Critical Thinking and Critical Thought, although my complaint is purely aesthetic.)

Ever since taking an introduction to Logic course at Fitchburg State college I have been convinced that Logic is a much more reliable, proven way to make decisions. Putting logic to practice when decision-making is difficult, though. Just like a math problem can be done incorrectly, Some logic can even counter-intuitive. My favorite example of intuition failing over logic is always chess. Even as I write this I can’t convince myself otherwise: I have regretted every intuitive chess move. It’s statistically impossible that all my intuitive moves have been bad moves yet logic works in the game so much better that my mind has overcompensated in favor of logic. In the microcosm of chess rules, logic really is the better decision-making tool. Often the kernel of a good move jumps out at me as intuition but then must still be thoroughly vetted with logic before I can confidently say it’s a good move.

In high school, I was an underachiever. I could pass computer science and physics classes without cracking a book. My same attempt to coast through math classes left me struggling because I could not intuitively grasp the increasingly abstract concepts. The part of my mind that controls logic was very healthy and functioning but my distrust for my own intuition was a handicap. I would be taking make up mathematics courses in the summer but getting debate team trophies during the school year.


Photograph of Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz posing for the photographer Julian Wasser during the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art, 1963 © 2000 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.

I’m not just reminiscing; everyone’s decision making process is an constantly-updating algorithm of intuitive and logical reasoning. No one’s process is exactly the same but we all want to make the best decisions possible. For me it’s easy to rely on logic and ignore even a nagging sense of intuition. Some people trust intuition strongly yet struggle to find the most logical decision; everyone is most comfortable using a specially-tailored degree of intuition and logic. People argue on behalf of their particular decisions and the methodology behind them because a different method is useful in for each paradigm.

In chess, intuition is necessary but should be used sparingly and tempered with logic. It’s my favorite example because the game can be played without any intuition. Non-AI computers are able to beat the average human at chess. Some AI can beat chess masters. So, I’m biased towards logic. Chess is just a game, though. People are always telling me I should have more faith in intuitive thinking.

“But,” you should be asking, “Isn’t there an example of reliance on intuition as the best way to decide how to proceed?”

At least that’s what I have to ask myself. The best example I found of valuable intuition is the ability to ride a bike. It is almost impossible to learn to ride a bike in one session; it takes several tries over a week or longer to create the neural pathways needed to operate this bio-mechanical device. Samurais trained to feel that their weapon was part of themselves, or an extension of their very arm.  The mechanical motion of  the human body as it drives a bicycle becomes ingrained, literally, in the physical brain. The casual, ubiquitous expression, “It’s like riding a bike”, is used to idiomatically describe anything that can be easily mastered at an intermediate level, forgotten for years, but recalled at near perfect fidelity when encountered once again.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day episode 133

Destin at Smarter Everyday put together a video that shows the duality of intuitive thinking. It is completely possible to train the human mind with complicated algorithms of decision making that can be embrace diversification and even contradictory modes of thinking.

Cont. below…

After watching this video, I embraced a moment of doubt and realized that there are very positive and useful aspects to intuition that I often don’t acknowledge. In this case of reversed bicycle steering, a skill that seems to only work after it has been made intuitive can be “lost” and only regained with a somewhat cumbersome level of concentration.

The video demonstrates the undeniable usefulness of what essentially amounts to anecdotal proof that neural pathways can be hacked, that contradictory new skills can be learned. It also shows that a paradigm of behavior can gain a tenacious hold on the mind via intuitive skill. It casts doubt on intuition in one respect but without at least some reliance on this intuitive paradigm of behavior it seems we wouldn’t be able to ride a bike at all.

This video forced me to both acknowledge the usefulness of ingrained, intuitive behaviors while also reminding me of how strong a hold intuition can have over the mind. Paradigms can be temporarily or perhaps permanently lost.  In the video, Destin has trouble switching back and forth between the 2 seemingly over-engaging thought systems but the transition itself can be a part of a more complicated thought algorithm, allowing the mind to master and embrace contradictory paradigms by trusting the integrity of the overall algorithm.

Including Confirmation Bias in a greater algorithm.

These paradigms can be turned on and off and just as a worker might be able to get used to driving an automatic transmission car to work and operating a stick shift truck at the job site and drive home in the automatic again after the shift.

This ability to turn on and off intuitive paradigms as a controlled feature of a greater logical algorithm requires the mind to acknowledge confirmation bias. I get a feeling of smug satisfaction that logic comprises the greater framework of a possible decision making process anytime I see evidence supporting that belief. There are just as many people out there who would view intuition as the the framework of a complex decision making process, with the ability to use or not use logical thought as merely a contributing part of a superior thought process. If my personal bias of logic over intuition is erroneous in some situations, can I trust the mode of thinking I am in? Using myself as an example, my relief at realizing data confirms what I have already accepted as true is powerful.

That feeling of relief must always be noted and kept in check before it can overshadow the ability to acknowledge data that opposes the belief. Understanding confirmation bias is the key to adding that next level to the algorithm, in the video example from Smarter Everyday, steering a normal bike is so ingrained in the neural pathway that the backwards steering’s inability to confirm actually fill in the blank and the mind sends an incorrect set of instruction of the mechanical behavior to the body. Understanding the dynamics of confirmation bias would enable the mind to embrace the greater thought system that would enable the mind to go back and forth between those conflicting behavioral paradigms. I’m positing that it should be possible to master a regular bike and the “backwards bike” and be able to switch back and forth between both bikes in quick succession. The neural pathways between both behavior paradigms can be trained and made stronger than the video shows.

I believe that with practice, someotrciksne could alternate steering mechanism quickly and without as much awkwardness as we are seeing in the video just as my initial confirmation bias, now identified, doesn’t have to dictate my decision and I might be more open minded to an intuitive interpretation leading to the best decision in certain situations.

An inability to acknowledge that one’s own mind might be susceptible to confirmation bias paradoxically makes one more susceptible.  Critical thinking is a method of building immunity to this common trap of confidence. Identifying the experience of one’s own confirmation bias is a great way to try and understand and control this intuitive tendency.  No matter what your thoughts are regarding logic and intuition, examining one’s confirmation biases and better embracing them should lead to better decision making skills.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

So You Have Dense Breasts. Now What?

Catharine Becker at her home in Fullerton, California on April 14, 2014. Becker started to get mammograms at age 35 because she had a family history of breast cancer (Photo by Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News).
Catharine Becker at her home in Fullerton, California on April 14, 2014. Becker started to get mammograms at age 35 because she had a family history of breast cancer (Photo by Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News).


Earlier this year, Caryn Hoadley received an unexpected letter after a routine mammogram.

The letter said her mammogram was clean but that she has dense breast tissue, which has been linked to higher rates of breast cancer and could make her mammogram harder to read.

“I honestly don’t know what to think about the letter,” said Hoadley, 45, who lives in Alameda, Calif. “What do I do with that information?”

Millions of women like Hoadley may be wondering the same thing. Twenty-one states, including California, have passed laws requiring health facilities to notify women when they have dense breasts. Eleven other states are considering similar laws and a nationwide version has been introduced in Congress.

The laws have been hailed by advocates as empowering women to take charge of their own health. About 40 percent of women have dense or extremely dense breast tissue, which can obscure cancer that might otherwise be detected on a mammogram.

But critics say the laws cause women unnecessary anxiety and can lead to higher costs and treatment that doesn’t save lives or otherwise benefit patients.

Catharine Becker of Fullerton, California, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at 43 despite having a clean mammogram.  The mother of three didn't know she had dense breast tissue until after she was diagnosed (Photo by Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News).

“While I think the intent of these laws is well meaning, I think their impact is going to be a significant problem, where we end up doing more harm than good,” said Dr. Laura Esserman, a University of California-San Francisco surgeon and breast cancer specialist.Typically, the laws require a notice be sent to a woman if she has dense breast tissue seen on a mammogram. Some notifications suggest that a woman talk to her doctor about additional screening options.

But in some states, not including California, the laws go further by requiring health providers to offer a supplemental screening like an ultrasound to women with dense breasts even if their mammograms are clean. Connecticut, Illinois and Indiana evenrequire insurers to pay for screening ultrasound after mammography if a woman’s breast density falls above a certain threshold.

Otherwise insurers do not routinely cover supplemental screening for women with clean mammograms, even if they have dense breasts. The Affordable Care Act does not require it.

The problem, Esserman says, is that no medical consensus exists on whether routine supplemental screening for women with dense breasts is worthwhile.

A recent Annals of Internal Medicine study using computer modeling found that offering an ultrasound to women with dense breasts after a clean mammogram would not significantly improve breast cancer survival rates but would prompt many unnecessary biopsies and raise health care costs.

Dr. Jane Kakkis, a breast cancer surgeon in Fountain Valley, California, supports dense breast notification laws (Courtesy of Dr. Kakkis).

Another study conducted in Connecticut after its notification law went into effect found that supplemental ultrasound screening for women with dense breasts did find a few additional cancers – about three per 1,000 women screened – but the probability that such screenings would find life-threatening cancers was low.Dense breast notification laws have added another layer of complexity to the long-running and often emotional debate over how best to screen women for breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer among American women, behind skin cancers, and the second leading cause of cancer death. An estimated 231,840 U.S. women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society.

About 38.5 million mammograms are performed each year in an attempt to find signs of cancer early enough to treat it successfully. Emerging technologies like tomosynthesis, a 3-D digital X-ray of the breast, may become cheap enough to replace conventional mammography and make the notification laws irrelevant, but their widespread use is years away.

Edith Santos, Becker's mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 56. This picture was taken two weeks after her lumpectomy (Becker Family Photo).

For a long time, women were advised to start yearly mammograms at about age 40, but in 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued controversialrecommendations that most women without a family history of breast cancer or other risk factors should wait until age 50 to begin mammograms, and repeat them every two years. Patient advocates decried the recommendations as “rationing” preventive health care for women.

In the meantime, Nancy Cappello, an education administrator from Connecticut, was pushing to pass what became the nation’s first dense breast notification law. Just two months after a clean mammogram, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.  She had extremely dense breasts, something her radiologist knew but Cappello was not told. Dense breasts have more glandular and fibrous tissue, which block the X-rays used in mammograms more than fatty tissue does.

Eventually, she founded the patient advocacy organization  and took her campaign national.

“There’s no evidence that we’re scaring women. Most women I’ve talked to are very happy to get these notifications,” said Cappello, whose cancer is in remission. “We want to make informed decisions…to have a better chance of surviving the disease.”

Dr. Jane Kakkis, a breast cancer surgeon in Fountain Valley, Calif., supports dense breast notification laws and testified in front of Nevada lawmakers before that state passed its law in 2013. Like Cappello, she dismisses concerns that the notification laws will cause undue fear.

“You have no idea what fear is until you have a cancer that’s already spread to your lymph nodes,” Kakkis said. “Patients will say in disbelief, ‘but I just had a mammogram and it was normal.’ They can’t believe how advanced it is. Dense breast notification is bringing up a whole conversation about risk that wouldn’t come up otherwise.”

Caryn Hoadley, 45, from Alameda, California, with her two children. Hoadley received a letter that said her mammogram was clean but that she has dense breast tissue, which has been linked to higher rates of breast cancer (Courtesy of Poppins Photography).

One of Kakkis’ patients, Catharine Becker of Fullerton, was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. She’d felt a lump three months after a clean mammogram. Because Becker had a family history of breast cancer – her mother died from the disease – she started mammograms early, at age 35. But they never showed any cancer. Until she was diagnosed, she didn’t know she had dense breast tissue.

“To be told at age 43 I had stage 3 cancer after a clean mammogram was really a shock,” Becker said, crediting her survival to breast self-exam and her doctors. “I’d rather have more information than less.”

Women with moderately dense breasts have about a 20 percent higher chance of getting breast cancer than women who don’t. Those with the highest-density breasts have about double. To put these numbers into perspective, if an average 50-year-old woman has a 2.38 percent chance of getting cancer in the next 10 years of her life, a woman with the highest density breasts would have a 4.76 percent chance of being diagnosed.

New ways of classifying dense breast tissue could put even more women in the category of receiving dense breast notifications, said Dr. Priscilla Slanetz, who recently wrote a New England Journal of Medicine article questioning the effectiveness of dense breast notification laws.

One reason she wrote the article, she said, was “in our state [Massachusetts] very few of our primary care providers have any knowledge about breast density and strengths and limitations of these different tests” for supplemental screening.

The same may hold true in California, where a small survey of primary care doctors found that only half of them had heard of the state’s 2013 dense breast notification law and many felt they didn’t have enough education to address what breast density meant for their patients.

On this point, both supporters and critics of the laws agree: doctors need better tools to help their patients identify their individual cancer risks.

To that end, specialists are developing more personalized screening protocols that result in low-risk women being screened less often than higher-risk women.

“It’s not rationing, it’s being rational,” said Esserman, who has a $14 million grant to study the issue.   “We should be testing different approaches for screening women with dense breasts, and then pass legislation once we know what to do.”

Are cyberbullies victims as well?

Cyberbullying or online harassment often stems from the misuse of social networking sites, and is now recognized as a serious public health issue. Victims of cyberbullying, when ousted online for being gay or humiliated on Twitter, could suffer severe feelings of isolation and distress.

It is natural to feel empathy towards a victim of cyberbullying.

But what about cyberbullies themselves? Should they be ousted and shamed for their actions? Or should they be helped as they may too suffer mental health problems, which are often similar to those of their victims?

In my pursuit to better understand this phenomenon as a health researcher, I have conducted group interviews with college students to learn about their experiences with cyberbullying. One student in particular admitted to creating a social media account using an alias and tormenting a woman who had been a bully several years ago.

We know that cybervictims struggle with low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. The media has covered extreme cases of cyberbullying that have resulted in suicide, such as the case of Jessica Logan, who felt so distraught when her ex-boyfriend sent her nude photos to hundreds of teenagers that she took her own life.

We also know that bullies may be perceived as callous.

Cyberbullies may need help as well

However, research shows that cyberbullies may be in need of help as well. Cyberbullies struggle with higher levels of depression, stress and anxiety when compared to students not involved in such victimization.

In other words, they are distressed.

Cyberbullies may suffer from mental health issues because they were likely victimized in the past, and have lingering emotional trauma. Victims may lash out and become bullies in retaliation.

Cyberbullies may have been victims of cyberbullying.
Keypad image via

In fact, students who fall into the category of victim-bullies often endure worse health outcomes.

In a recent study of college students, both bullies and victim-bullies showed increased chances for depression. What is more, bullies were also over four times more likely to have problem alcohol behaviors.

Victimization is a cycle and is not easily forgotten. In my experience, I have found that “hurt people hurt people.”

Cyberbullies may be victims too

So, how should we handle the cyberbullies?

While there is some discussion about criminalizing cyberbullying, others believe that rehabilitation is a more sustainable approach.

While this debate will likely continue into the future, we need to start thinking about best strategies. We know that aggressive personalities can develop from exposure to childhood abuse and hostility. We should, therefore, take it upon ourselves to stop the cycle. Instead of focusing on only helping the victims, we should remember that cyberbullies may have once been a victim, too.

After all, only 11% of teens report cyberbullying to a parent for fear of appearing immature. If victims don’t receive adequate counseling, they may take matters into their own hands and retaliate.

This needs to be addressed so the victims don’t become cyberbullies themselves. Research shows cyberbullies are more likely to be involved in drug crimes and in aggressive actions. It is better to take steps early on, so as to prevent any more serious criminal action later.

This is not to say that cyberbullies should escape consequences, especially in extreme cases of repeated, severe harassment. There needs to be accountability when it comes to one’s behavior.

The way we treat cyberbullies could help send a clear message. We could choose to communicate that they are unwanted and isolate them, or we could set standards for acceptable behavior and help them achieve it.

Of course, we cannot minimize the seriousness of cyberbullying and how destructive it is, in the first place. But the problem of cyberbullying cannot be solved, unless we address the issues of the victimizers as well.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

7 Reproductive Rights Issues to Watch in 2015

To say abortion opponents are feeling fired up in 2015 would be a massive understatement.

In their first week back at work, congressional Republicans introduced a sweeping prohibition on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy (H.R. 36, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act), as well as bills that would ban sex-selective abortions, target funding for groups like Planned Parenthood, require abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, and let doctors and nurses opt out of providing abortion care, even in emergencies.

In the states, where the 2014 elections gave Republicans control of two-thirds of state legislative chambers, incoming lawmakers also have supersized their abortion agendas.

But abortion is just one issue on the minds of activists focused on reproductive rights. There’s also birth control, conscience clauses and personhood. Here are seven key trends and themes to watch for this year.

1. A New Wave of Abortion Restrictions

Despite the GOP-controlled Congress, a Democrat in the White House means that many of the most significant battles over abortion will continue to take place in statehouses and courtrooms, not on Capitol Hill.

Expect to see a torrent of 20-week bans like the one Congress has proposed (13 states already have similar laws on the books). These bills are being advanced by groups like the Susan B. Anthony List; a report by the group’s research arm, the Charlotte Lozier Institute, recently noted that in most countries where abortion is legal, the procedure is limited to early pregnancy. “The U.S. is in very rare and unsavory company in allowing abortion [after 20 weeks],” Lozier’s president, Chuck Donovan, said in an interview, pointing to China and North Korea as two other outliers. Even if President Obama ends up vetoing some version of the 20-week ban, Donovan said, “It could actually heighten awareness of the issue.”

In a few states, lawmakers are expected to dust off retro theories (a Missouri bill, for example, would require women to get permission from the fetus’s father to have an abortion, an idea ruled unconstitutional in 1992). An Indiana bill that would make it illegal for doctors to perform an abortion based on a fetal abnormality such as Down syndrome echoes abortion foes’ efforts in Ohio, North Dakota and elsewhere to position themselves as protectors of the disabled.

Other bills will be aimed at tightening abortion restrictions already in place2014 lengthening waiting periods to 72 hours, for example, and making it harder for teens to use judicial bypass procedures to obtain an abortion without their parents’ permission. (A new Alabama law gives the fetus in such cases its own attorney.) “It’s possibly an easier lift to amend an existing law,” said Elizabeth Nash, a senior policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute. “It’s smart.”

Also on the horizon: a likely clampdown on medical abortions (those induced by drugs). Meanwhile, all sides will be watching to see how the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, deals with Texas restrictions known as TRAP, or Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, laws 2014 rules that purportedly make clinics, and abortion, safer but could shutter most of the clinics in that state. A key question: how many clinics have to shut down before the TRAP laws create an “undue burden” on women’s right to abortion, effectively rendering Roe v. Wade moot?

2. The Rise of Religious Exemptions

This trend has its roots in two recent Supreme Court decisions: last June’s Hobby Lobby ruling and the 2013 Windsor case upholding gay marriage.

At the center of Hobby Lobby was the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that the government can only “substantially burden” the exercise of religion if it has a “compelling state interest.” The Supreme Court’s precedent-shattering interpretation 2014 that RFRA applied to closely held companies like the retailer Hobby Lobby, whose owners objected to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on religious grounds 2014 was “a minefield,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned.

And sure enough, the past six months have brought an explosion in religious-exemption challenges involving everyone and everything from a Missouri lawmaker who didn’t want his teenage daughters to have access to birth control to Native Americans battling federal rules that make it illegal to possess the feathers of certain types of endangered eagles without a permit. (The feathers are used in religious ceremonies.)

Some state lawmakers, meanwhile, have taken inspiration from the Hobby Lobby decision to fight back against the stunning gains of the marriage equality movement since Windsor. They have introduced a deluge of RFRA-type bills that would allow business owners, local government officials, and health care professionals to refuse to provide services to gay people 2014 rent a banquet hall, issue a marriage license, perform in vitro fertilization2014 that violate their religious beliefs. Same-sex marriage may be the immediate target, but state RFRAs would likely have a much broader impact, said Katherine Franke, co-director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia, granting “a kind of blanket indemnity from compliance with all sorts of otherwise applicable laws.” That could erode not just reproductive and gender rights but eventually, Franke said, protections against race discrimination as well. Catholic hospitals 2014engaged in high-profile battles with the ACLU in Michigan and elsewhere over limits on reproductive care 2014 would also benefit.

3. Conscience Clauses for Non-religious Groups

Back in Washington, anti-abortion groups have been working to extend religious-type “conscience” exemptions to non-religious organizations 2014 starting with themselves.

Last summer, March for Life 2014 the organization behind the demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court every January 22 on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade 2014 filed a lawsuit demanding an exemption from the ACA’s contraception mandate, arguing that it “fundamentally violates” the group’s core principles.

“Because they aren’t a religious organization, they can’t claim an exemption under RFRA,” said Casey Mattox, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal powerhouse that brought the suit. The same is true for many other anti-abortion organizations. “We think we have a conscience claim beyond religious belief,” the Lozier Institute’s Donovan said. Their argument: Denying abortion opponents the same exemption given to religious groups violates their constitutional right to equal protection.

4. Battles Over Contraception

One of the most striking aspects of the March for Life suit is its assertion that birth control 2014 the hormonal kind, as well as intrauterine devices 2014 are “abortifacients” (meaning they cause abortions). Indeed, the Lozier Institute published a paper last year arguing that emergency contraception is essentially no different from abortion because it purportedly prevents implantation of a fertilized egg. (Women’s groups and their allies say the scientific evidence proves otherwise.)

The arguments are part of a larger strategy that reproductive rights advocates say has been gaining strength in recent years, with a major boost from Hobby Lobby. “Birth control is very much in the [anti-abortion] movement’s cross-hairs,” Guttmacher policy researcher Joerg Dreweke wrote in a recent analysis, “and antiabortion advocates are working to stigmatize contraception by blurring the lines between contraception and abortion.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops, meanwhile, also are also likely to zero in on birth control and sterilizations as they begin the process of revising their rules governing Catholic health care.

5. A Revamped Personhood Playbook

Last November was supposed to be a turning point for the personhood movement, which argues that establishing the legal rights of “pre-born humans” is the key to overturning Roe. And the 2014 election was a turning point 2014 but not in the way supporters had hoped. A “human life amendment” to North Dakota’s constitution that had been expected to win overwhelming approval ended up being trounced at the polls; ditto for a ballot measure in Colorado. The election results triggered what Gualberto Garcia Jones, national policy director for the National Personhood Alliance, called “an existential crisis” for the movement. In a tough-talking post-election analysis on LifeSite News, he warned, “[A] lot has to change.”

One sign of change is the emergence of NPA itself. Instead of the statewide ballot measures favored by Personhood USA, the heretofore leader of the movement, NPA will promote what Garcia Jones called “asymmetrical tactics … engaging the enemy in municipalities and counties that we know we control.” Daniel Becker, NPA’s Georgia-based president, said he’s looking for “opportunities to personalize the child in the womb” via fetal rights legislation on everything from inheritance to adoption. He also favors statutes like those in Alabama and Tennessee that target drug use during pregnancy.

A key goal, Becker said, is “to create tension in the law” that would require courts 2014 and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court 2014 to act. Part of that strategy, he added, is to identify potentially sympathetic judges like the ones on the Alabama Supreme Court (see ProPublica’s story about one of those justices here).

As the personhood movement regroups, expect reproductive rights organizations to start talking more about personhood, too 2014 the personhood of the mother-to-be.

“When you look at [these laws] collectively, you cannot miss the fact that people with a capacity for pregnancy have a second-class status in this country,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which fights measures like the ones Becker supports “They haven’t achieved full personhood. That is what the battle really is.”

6. A Broader Agenda for  Reproductive Rights Activists

For years, protecting Roe v. Wade has been the almost singular focus of reproductive rights advocates. But more recently, many have become convinced that narrow focus could spell doom. The ideological divide over “choice” vs. “life” “doesn’t fit the reality of many families,” said Denicia Cadena of the New Mexico group Young Women United. In many parts of the country, even among those who favor abortion rights, abortion is a topic that “stops conversations,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, which focuses on the South. “It shuts people down.”

The soul-searching 2014 some of it painfully public 2014 has led to a shift that will become more evident in 2015.

Advocates in a number of states are focusing on proactive bills that aim to improve the lives of women and children by raising the minimum wage, requiring paid sick leave, strengthening protections against pregnancy discrimination, and pressing for education and criminal justice reforms. More groups are talking about the intersection between LGBT and reproductive issues, often in the context of transgender health. There is, said Simpson, less talk about “choice” and more about “justice.”

Meanwhile, groups such as the recently formed CoreAlign are working with allies in conservative areas to develop a 30-year strategic plan that might reframe reproductive rights issues and transform public opinion. One part of the plan: Training a new generation of leaders 2014 many from communities of color 2014 who can see it through. Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, a think tank that supports state activists, pointed out that anti-abortion groups did much the same thing, with considerable success. “They started local. They made a coordinated effort to work their ways into the legislative and political process, and eventually they created a tipping point,” Miller said.

Which is not to say that reproductive rights groups are abandoning their core issue. Last year saw the introduction of more new state laws protecting abortion than at any time since 1990.

7. The California Exception

For reproductive rights advocates, California has been one of the few bright spots in recent years. In 2013, for example, the state passed a law that allowed trained non-doctors to perform first-trimester abortions 2014 the largest expansion of abortion access in the U.S. in a decade. Researchers affiliated with the University of California2013San Francisco are expected to publish more studies on abortion safety 2014as well as the real-world consequences of preventing women who want abortions from having them. This research has been influential well beyond the state’s borders.

Which is one reason anti-abortion groups are paying such close attention to the next big California case on the horizon: A determination by insurance regulators last year that every health plan in the state must cover all maternity-related services, including abortion 2014 even plans offered by Catholic schools and hospitals. Americans Defending Freedom has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and religious and anti-abortion groups are girding for an epic battle.

Mars isn’t a One Way Trip Anymore

150 Cubic Meters of Ice Means a powerful rocket fuel can be synthesized on Mars – powerful enough to escape Mars gravity for the return trip to Earth.

Turns out Mars has 150 billion cubic-meters worth of ice that’s been frozen for so long it’s covered with Mars’ ubiquitous red soil. NASA knows this because of  radar measurements from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The ice is spread out among a few ginormous belts made of countless glaciers.

There’s been evidence of a once liquid ocean on Mars’ surface.  Curiosity rover found riverbeds back in September 2012 with NASA able to estimate two pints of water for every cubic-foot of soil. In early 2014, Spanish researchers were able to prove glaciers dug canyons 3.7 billion years ago. Water leaves chemical byproducts of various reactions and residues.

No one expected such a big find, except maybe anyone who saw the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Total Recall.

If you are wondering where Total Recall got the idea for underground glaciers, scientists  have suspected glacial activity below the Martian surface for decades. The debate centered around formations that would not be abel to hodl their particular shape without glacial activity but was the frozen material water ice, dry ice, or a muddy mix of red dust and water or some other frozen gas or liquid.


Using logic and science, the evidence available can now be interpreted to be enough to cover Mars with a meter of liquid water, if it melted – and if Mars was completely smooth.

Glaciers of Mars Image: Mars Digital Image Model, NASA/Nanna Karlsson


“We have looked at radar measurements spanning ten years back in time to see how thick the ice is and how it behaves. A glacier is after all a big chunk of ice and it flows and gets a form that tells us something about how soft it is. We then compared this with how glaciers on Earth behave and from that we have been able to make models for the ice flow.”

Read Nanna Bjørnholt Karlsson entire press release on the subject.

Water can easily be separated into hydrogen gas and oxygen, making breathable air and a powerful rocket fuel that can be used for other space missions, including a return trip to Earth. Water can also be used to cultivate food and animal crops on Mars, making colonization a hell of a lot more appealing.

Oh, and one more thing:

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

American Revolutionary Edward Snowden in the News this Week

Controversial hero of the information revolution to some, traitor to the American empire to others, Edward Snowden is popping up in headlines again.

A lot of Cosmoso might have caught the John Oliver interview.

The interview is an instant classic and will be talked about for a long time but it was also genuinely funny, with some unexpected chemistry between Oliver and Snowden. It also featured probably the second best extended tech metaphor involving dicks.

Silicon Valley

That’s right. I said second best.

Other superficial highlights include John Oliver losing his mind during the half hour before Snowden showed up late, the alarming but totally unsurprising ignorance of Americans during the man-on-the-street interviews about privacy and a concise but fleeting description of Snowden’s Patriotism for the layman.


Snowden Bust 2

The morning after the interview aired, another iconic moment in revolutionary journalism happened. Three, anonymous street artists erected a bust of Edward Snowden in Brooklyn, video and still pics documented exclusively by AnimalNewYork. The work was covered with a tarp and removed within twelve hours because it was put atop an existing war monument, and done without permission.


A hologram of Snowden is currently being shown in the spot where the bust was removed, courtesy of The Illuminator Art Collective who used two projections and a cloud of smoke  to show a likeness of Edward Snowden at the Revolutionary War memorial, releasing an accompanying statement:

“While the State may remove any material artifacts that speak in defiance against incumbent authoritarianism, the acts of resistance remain in the public consciousness, and it is in sharing that act of defiance that hope resides.”

Snowden Hologram

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Raising the minimum buying age for tobacco could mean fewer people start to smoke

In 2005, the Boston suburb of Needham tried a new tactic to reduce youth tobacco use: the town raised the legal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. The results were dramatic – tobacco use among high school students dropped almost in half, and Needham’s decline in high school smoking rates far outpaced the surrounding suburbs.

In the past two years, communities around the country have begun to follow Needham’s lead. To date, more than 50 communities in seven states have raised their tobacco sales age to 21, including New York City in 2014. And the momentum keeps growing. And at least 10 state legislatures are now considering Tobacco 21 legislation.

Earlier this month, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, released a 335-page report detailing the benefits of raising the tobacco sales age to 21, which would match the minimum age for purchasing alcohol.

Of all the options for addressing tobacco use, why are Tobacco 21 policies catching on? Why do they work?

Smoking is a pediatric epidemic.
Teenager and cigarette via

Tobacco use is a ‘pediatric epidemic’

Think about the people you know who smoke. How many of them smoked their first cigarette before age 21? How many of them wish they had never smoked that first cigarette? The likely answer to both of these questions is: all of them.

The US Surgeon General has referred to tobacco use as a “pediatric epidemic,” because it almost always begins in youth. Indeed, despite all we know about the harms of tobacco, it is still the case that one in four high school seniors is a smoker and youth tobacco rates have barely budged over the past decade.

Of those who begin smoking as youth, 80% will smoke into adulthood, and one-half of all adult smokers will die prematurely from tobacco-related diseases.

The flip side of tobacco use being a “pediatric epidemic” is that the likelihood of starting to smoke declines markedly with age. The older you are, the less likely you are to start smoking. Although the tobacco industry has been increasingly targeting college-age students with its marketing, it remains the case that if someone makes it through high school without smoking, it is unlikely that he or she will ever start.

The tobacco industry has recognized this for years. In a 1982 memo, a researcher from the tobacco company R J Reynolds stated: “If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are three-to-one he never will. By age 21, the odds are twenty-to-one.”

Make it through high school without smoking and it’s likely that you will never start.
Cigarettes via

Why do Tobacco 21 policies work?

Tobacco 21 policies are effective because they make it much more difficult for middle and high school students to access tobacco. This is because youth tobacco experimentation and use is driven by legal tobacco sales, not by illegal ones.

Today, at least in most places, 18- and 19-year-olds can legally purchase tobacco products and then supply them to younger kids (who, at least in the early stages of smoking, only use cigarettes occasionally). Raising the minimum age to 21 puts legal purchasers outside the social circle of most high school students.

Of course, raising the tobacco sales age to 21 will not keep all high school students from finding ways to access tobacco products, but the experience in Needham suggests it will significantly reduce the amount of youth tobacco use.

Given the scope of the problem – more than 3,800 kids under the age of 18 start smoking every day – the public health benefits could be enormous. Using conservative assumptions, the IOM study concluded that a nationwide Tobacco 21 policy would avoid nearly 250,000 premature deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019. Other public health benefits, such as a reduction in low birth weight and pre-term births, would be far more immediate.

The desire for nicotine can become wired in the developing brain.
Brain via

We also now know that a legal age of 18 for tobacco is out of touch with what the scientific evidence says about adolescent brain development. As discussed in the recent book The Teenage Brain, brains do not fully mature until people reach their early 20s (and possibly later).

For a still-developing brain, exposure to nicotine causes long-term neurological harm; in essence, the addiction to nicotine gets hard-wired into the developing brain. This leads to a stronger nicotine addiction and makes it much more difficult to quit later on. For this reason, the recent explosion in youth e-cigarette use is deeply troubling, and Tobacco 21 policies should also include e-cigarettes, hookahs and other products that deliver nicotine.

18 is not a magic number

Federal law prohibits the FDA from raising the tobacco sales age above 18; only Congress can do that for the nation as a whole – and it’s hard for Congress to get anything done these days. But every state and most communities have the legal authority to adopt Tobacco 21 laws, which is exactly what they are starting to do.

The opposition to this emerging movement (primarily tobacco companies and tobacco retailers) chants “old enough to vote, old enough to smoke.” But tobacco use is not a right or a privilege; it is an addictive and deadly activity. For the overwhelming majority of smokers, tobacco use is not in fact an “adult choice;” it is the result of an addiction that began when they were in high school or younger, and one that they are trying hard to kick.

There is nothing natural or unchangeable about a minimum age of 18. In traditional British common law, the “age of majority” (adulthood) was 21. In the US, the voting age was not lowered from 21 to 18 until 1971, but soon thereafter states began raising their drinking age from 18 to 21 when they realized that teens were disproportionately responsible for drunk driving accidents.

More recently, states that have sanctioned the legal use of marijuana – a drug far less deadly than tobacco – have set 21 as the minimum age. In short, it has long been the case that there are different minimum ages at different times and for different purposes.

Something we can agree on

Because no one (except for tobacco companies) wants the next generation to smoke, raising the minimum age to 21 is one tobacco control policy that nearly everyone can agree upon. It’s no surprise then, that a recently published study found that more than seven in 10 adults favored increasing the tobacco sales age to 21, including strong majorities in every demographic category (including current smokers and 18-20 year olds). This is the rare policy measure that is bipartisan, popular, and effective. What are we waiting for?

The Conversation

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