27 March 2008

How the Youth of Today get their news

Finding Political News Online, the Young Pass It On
Not surprisingly, this article about how the young share news online was emailed to me by a good friend. The general issue of the article isn't new to me, but maybe it is to the journalists. Rather than sitting down and watching the nightly news, or reading the entire paper, the young read articles online, especially ones recommended by friends, and then pass links on to others. There are some interesting lines that really capture the idea.

Ms. Buckingham recalled conducting a focus group where one of her subjects, a college student, said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

College students don't have the time to sit down and read the NYT or watch the 5 o'clock news. The news has to get to them, and that comes as emails, link shares on Facebook and instant messenger. But even if its delivered straight to our inbox, most people I know are more likely to read something that has been recommended by someone they know. When you use your friends as a filter, you know what kind of a filter you are getting; George likes stories about China and other Asian countries, Ann only sends stories about abortion and birth control, and Crazy Joe sends stories about Ron Paul with mocking comments. Plus, you automatically have someone you can discuss the piece of news with.

In the days after Mr. Obama’s speech on race last week, for example, links to the transcript and the video were the most popular items posted on Facebook. On The New York Times’s Web site, the transcript of the speech ranked consistently higher on the most e-mailed list than the articles written about the speech.

I think the reason is pretty clear; we are aware that punditry is not real information. "Political analyst" is a term thrown about with so little care and tossed on to so many talking heads on the churning 24 hour news that many don't trust that the "analysis" we're getting. We have seen why we need to go to the source document, and its not because the dust of history has clouded meaning, but because the slime and mud of the pundits has obscured the truth of each action and word.

Maybe we should worry that the "real" news isn't getting through, that people of like minds will filter the news so that we only hear things that confirm what we already believe. Will the college student that only cares about football only get news from other friends that care about football? Maybe, but is that really any worse than the local news that feeds us soft stories from the national feed about rescued puppies rather than the violence is Darfur, Burma and Nepal?

I'm a young adult, and my friends are people I respect and like, and what they find interesting in the news is probably interesting to me too. My friends consistently care about what is going on in the wider world. I can't say the same for some media outlets that report international news with the sigh of a child cleaning her room.

21 March 2008

What happens if you don't vaccinate.

Public Health Risk Seen as Parents Reject Vaccines

One of my favorite bloggers, Orac over at Respectful Insolence, blogs a fair bit about the "Autism is caused by vaccines" crowd. He's been noticing that for many its not just about the unproven link to autism, its really just straight up anti-vaccination silliness. And as public health officials have been warning for ages now, if you don't get your children vaccinated, you risk an outbreak. Well, its happened, and the anti-vaccine folk seem to be unapologetic.

“I refuse to sacrifice my children for the greater good,” said Sybil Carlson, whose 6-year-old son goes to school with several of the children hit by the measles outbreak here. The boy is immunized against some diseases but not measles, Ms. Carlson said, while his 3-year-old brother has had just one shot, protecting him against meningitis.

“When I began to read about vaccines and how they work,” she said, “I saw medical studies, not given to use by the mainstream media, connecting them with neurological disorders, asthma and immunology.”

Ms. Carlson said she understood what was at stake. “I cannot deny that my child can put someone else at risk,” she said.

Vaccinating your children is not sacrificing them. To acknowledge that you are putting other children at risk of potentially deadly disease, and yet do nothing, thats selfish. The article latter says that some see the anti-vaccine parents as a parasites benefiting from the protection of the vaccinated majority. Parasite is a little strong, but the analogy is apt.

Alexandra Stewart, director of the Epidemiology of U.S. Immunization Law project at George Washington University, said many of these parents are influenced by misinformation obtained from Web sites that oppose vaccination.

“The autism debate has convinced these parents to refuse vaccines to the detriment of their own children as well as the community,” Ms. Stewart said.

Whats that line about a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing? This is one of those times when the inability to tell the difference between real science and quackery is dangerous. Usually its benign, or it will con you out of some money. Some more dangerous quackery will lead people to delay or refuse treatment. But this is dangerous to more than just the poor schmuck that gets taken in. This is dangerous to the rest of us.

There is substantial evidence that communities with pools of unvaccinated clusters risk infecting a broad community that includes people who have been inoculated.

For instance, in a 2006 mumps outbreak in Iowa that infected 219 people, the majority of those sickened had been vaccinated. In a 2005 measles outbreak in Indiana, there were 34 cases, including six people who had been vaccinated.

The disease can use the unvaccinated as a petri dish, changing its genome and then jumping over to the vaccinated. Now different enough from the vaccine to spread among the vaccinated, the outbreak really gets going.

So get your children vaccinated, not just for their health, but for all of ours. The risks are small, the benefits huge. Its like paying your taxes or not breaking the sewer system. Its just the good thing to do.

19 March 2008

The key is subtlety

Justices Overturn Louisiana Death Sentence
Yes, there is still racism in this country, and no its not just private citizens being idiots. There is still racism entrenched in our justice system, and not just in the drug laws, or the racial profiling by the cops.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction and death sentence of a Louisiana man who killed his estranged wife in a jealous rage, finding that the trial judge “committed clear error” in excluding black jurors from the trial.

A black man was convicted and sentenced to die by an all white jury in the south. In 1996. Were talking about stupidity that belongs back in 1954, not in my short lifetime.

Sure the prosecution had some excuse for not seating black jurors, but those excuses hardly hold up in the light of day.

Justice Alito wrote that the prosecutor’s explanation for dismissing Mr. Brooks — that he was worried that Mr. Brooks’s nervousness over his studies would incline him to vote against a death sentence to avoid long deliberations — was not believable.

“The implausibility of this explanation is reinforced by the prosecutor’s acceptance of white jurors who disclosed conflicting obligations that appear to have been at least as serious as Mr. Brooks’s,” Justice Alito wrote, noting that a white juror who had expressed concerns over his wife’s illness and the conduct of his independent contracting business had been seated.

This is the sort of racism whose subtlety has allowed its practitioners to hide behind a shrug of the shoulders and a claim of ignorance. (There is a sexism, closely related, that does the same.) But just because this bigotry doesn't scream on the streets, doesn't mean its any less hurtful, any less ignorant or any more acceptable. So much of the racism and sexism in this country is like neutrinos that pass through every barrier and stream through all of us all day. But unlike neutrinos, these bigoted ideas hurt, cut and kill.

I'm glad that the Court was able to see this for what it is and send a message to all the lower Courts that this is not acceptable. You cannot pack the jury then shrug your shoulders and say "What? That's just coincidence!" Maybe we really can have a legitimate discussion about race in this country. As John Stewart said last night about the coincedentally timed speech by Sen. Obama, "So at 11am on a Tuesday a Politician talked to Americans about race as if they were adults."

Lets talk about this like the adults we are.

18 March 2008

More lead from China and Reebok's money

Reebok's deadly lead charm draws $1 million federal fine

Two years after a Minneapolis boy swallowed part of a charm bracelet given away with a pair of athletic shoes and died of lead poisoning, the shoes' maker, Reebok, has agreed to pay the government $1 million to settle allegations that it violated the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

One million isn't that much for a company like Reebok, but it is more than the government usually fines. But this is not a case where the facts were really in question. The charm the little boy swallowed was 99% lead and there is no question that it directly lead to his death.

Reebok International representatives could not be reached for comment Monday night. But Heuer (the family's attorny) said company executives and lawyers were "compassionate and professional" about the recall. They issued a quick public apology and did not force Jarnell's family into extensive litigation, he said. "Most corporations, when something like this happens, get up and deny, deny, deny," he said.

Sometimes even the big corporations, with legions of lawyers, have to admit that they made a huge mistake. Thankfully no one else died and the recall went smoothly.

The question remains, however, when Reebok designed this little charm and contracted out the job, how did they end up with a product that was nearly pure lead? I'm sure that they didn't ask for a lead charm, but when they contracted it out, did they check the reputation of the manufacturer, or did they just look at the price?

I'm starting to think that "Made in China" should be treated as a type of warning label in and of itself.

11 March 2008

Unionizing in the AG's office

Union battle heats up in A.G. Swanson's office

Since there is a lawyer in my family, I've been hearing rumblings for a while. The allegation of union busting isn't new, but some of the attorneys have gone public about what they've seen.

Lawler said she was on the job just a week when an attorney, who introduced himself as the head of the office social committee, took her out for coffee and delivered a strong anti-union message.
Lawler said the same attorney later approached her and other employees, asking them to sign what she described as a loyalty petition.

"The second paragraph is all about how great Lori Swanson is, how she's the first attorney general to graduate at the top of her class, how she's the first attorney general with such extensive public and private experience, how she never brings politics into the office, how she's all around a great leader," Lawler said. "And then the last paragraph is about how we decry the union's tactics, we don't want them representing us and they don't speak for us."

While union busting tactics have been around for as long as there have been unions to bust, but Lori Swanson ran for the AG seat as a Democrat with an endorsement from the DFL. If we had known that she was going to actively suppress unionizing, she wouldn't have gotten the DFL endorsement and that would have seriously hurt her chances at getting the job.

But this isn't over yet. Lawler was interviewed on MPR and in that interview she brought up some ethical issues she had encountered on the job along with the aforementioned issues of union busting. For bringing up her concerns in public, rather than through the proper channels at the AG's office, Lawler has been suspended.

AG's office defends suspension of attorney
During an interview, Lawler also described wrestling with ethical issues in her job. She said one issue came up when Swanson directed her to quickly file lawsuits against mortgage foreclosure consultants even though the attorney general had no defendants in mind.

"And that was kind of the case across the board," she said. "She's just have an idea about a lawsuit, and she'd want it filed as quickly as possible. The biggest was she wanted people who'd be willing to appear at press conferences."

Those ethical issues, which Lawler also shared with other reporters, were specifically referenced in the letter from Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson notifying her of the administrative leave.

Interesting timing don't you think?

Back in the first article they make it clear that this isn't just about having a union or not having a union. Its about having the State Attorney General's office staffed with good lawyers who want to be there.

Jody Wahl left the attorney general's office in January after 25 years. Wahl said she saw more than 50 professionals leave the office in the past year, but it appeared to her that Swanson wasn't interested in the reasons.

She said the attorney general never recognized the union discussion as a management issue.

"There wasn't an understanding that this was truly an internal, staff-driven effort to have conversations with their colleagues about whether obtaining union representation would work to benefit the work of the attorney general's office," Wahl said. "Instead, it appears there was a sense that this was driven by outside forces, by former political rivals or former staff members, or whatever. And that isn't the case."

I have a feeling this is going to get worse before it gets better.