The Dangerous Potential of War With Iran

Yesterday, U.S. bombing killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport in Iraq. This was an act of war ordered by the U.S. president against Iran (itself an impeachable offense since it was unconstitutionally executed without Congressional authorization). Now it’s a real possibility that the United States may soon become involved in a war with Iran. This is quite concerning for a number of reasons, one of which is that U.S. military intervention since the end of WWII has typically been disastrous for the invaded country. There’s the killing of civilians and bombing of civilian infrastructure (notably the dams) in North Korea, the Vietnam war that people there are still suffering from (estimates are that “at least 350,000 tons of live bombs and mines” remain there), and the criminal invasion of Iraq that resulted in a few hundred thousand deaths, just to name a few examples. So there’s this record of disaster for American military adventures, and there might soon be yet another one to add.

There’s also the U.S. backed overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953, which lead to the dictatorial Shah ruling Iran until 1979. It was recently revealed through declassified documents that — surprise surprise — the reason for the U.S. doing this was for oil contracts that would benefit American oil corporations. But shouldn’t the American government be nicer to Iran based on what it did to it in the past?

It should be, but it hasn’t been. And the CIA backed overthrow may be the most significant U.S. event against Iran, but it isn’t even the only one. There are at least two more events.

One of them is when the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s government when it used a chemical weapons attack against Iran. As shown with the outrage over 2018’s chemical weapons attacks around Syria, it is a heinous type of attack and correctly condemned as an atrocity in war. How interesting it then is that the U.S. government knowingly supported a military that did this, and how interesting how seldom this is mentioned today.

The other event is when the U.S. shot down a civilian Iranian plane in July 1988, which killed the 290 civilians on board. The U.S. government maintained that it was an accident, and maybe it was, but it’s difficult to trust that’s the truth considering what else the U.S. was doing to Iran in the 1980s. In April 1988 for example, an engagement with Iran known as “Operation Praying Mantis” resulted in the death of two American pilots shot down with their helicopter.

In any case though, if Iran had shot down a civilian American plane with 290 civilians — including 66 children — it would clearly be an event remembered much more in America than the Iran Air Flight 655 incident is. That’s a useful thought experiment — to compare what the U.S. has done to damage other countries and try imagining a scenario where other countries did the same to the U.S.

Additionally, invading Iran isn’t like invading comparatively defenseless countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia. Iran is actually a developed country and it has a real defense system, one that’s been at $13 billion (about 2.67 percent of Iranian GDP) annually but could increase quickly. It may be defeated by the U.S. in a war, but it would put up a fight that would almost certainly lead to real direct damage to the U.S. Who wants to imagine the possibility of Iranian bombers flying over American cities?

In sum, a war with Iran is an incredibly reckless and stupid decision. If it happens, people will face significant unnecessary suffering and the world will clearly be worse off because of it.

AI Becomes Very Good at Diagnosing Breast Cancer

Artificial intelligence is becoming more of a hot topic, and people should remember more that AI can be used both to hurt humans and (as in this case) help humans.

A computer programme can identify breast cancer from routine scans with greater accuracy than human experts, researchers said in what they hoped could prove a breakthrough in the fight against the global killer.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, with more than 2 million new diagnoses last year alone.

Regular screening is vital in detecting the earliest signs of the disease in patients who show no obvious symptoms.

In Britain, women over 50 are advised to get a mammogram every three years, the results of which are analysed by two independent experts.

But interpreting the scans leaves room for error, and a small percentage of all mammograms either return a false positive – misdiagnosing a healthy patient as having cancer – or false negative – missing the disease as it spreads.

Now researchers at Google Health have trained an artificial intelligence model to detect cancer in breast scans from thousands of women in Britain and the United States.

The images had already been reviewed by doctors in real life but unlike in a clinical setting, the machine had no patient history to inform its diagnoses.

The team found that their AI model could predict breast cancer from the scans with a similar accuracy level to expert radiographers.

Further, the AI showed a reduction in the proportion of cases where cancer was incorrectly identified – 5.7 percent in the US and 1.2 percent in Britain, respectively.

It also reduced the percentage of missed diagnoses by 9.4 percent among US patients and by 2.7 percent in Britain.

“The earlier you identify a breast cancer the better it is for the patient,” Dominic King, UK lead at Google Health, told AFP.

“We think about this technology in a way that supports and enables an expert, or a patient ultimately, to get the best outcome from whatever diagnostics they’ve had.”

Computer ‘second opinion’

In Britain all mammograms are reviewed by two radiologists, a necessary but labour-intensive process.

The team at Google Health also conducted experiments comparing the computer’s decision with that of the first human scan reader.​

If the two diagnoses agreed, the case was marked as resolved. Only with discordant outcomes was the machine then asked to compare with the second reader’s decision.

The study by King and his team, published in Nature, showed that using AI to verify the first human expert reviewer’s diagnosis could save up to 88 percent of the workload for the second clinician.

“Find me a country where you can find a nurse or doctor that isn’t busy,” said King.

“There’s the opportunity for this technology to support the existing excellent service of the (human) reviewers.”

Ken Young, a doctor who manages mammogram collection for Cancer Research UK, contributed to the study.

He said it was unique for its use of real-life diagnosis scenarios from nearly 30,000 scans.

“We have a sample that is representative of all the women that might come through breast screening,” he said.

“It includes easy cases, difficult cases and everything in between.”

The team said further research was needed but they hoped that the technology could one day act as a “second opinion” for cancer diagnoses.

Major Benefits of Reducing Air Pollution

Air pollution has for many years been a major public health problem that doesn’t receive much attention despite its significant effects on the population. It has been estimated that the majority of people in the world are regularly breathing unclean air.

Reductions in air pollution yielded fast and dramatic impacts on health-outcomes, as well as decreases in all-cause morbidity, according to findings in “Health Benefits of Air Pollution Reduction,” new research published in the American Thoracic Society’s journal, Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

The study by the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) reviewed interventions that have reduced air pollution at its source. It looked for outcomes and time to achieve those outcomes in several settings, finding that the improvements in health were striking. Starting at week one of a ban on smoking in Ireland, for example, there was a 13 percent drop in all-cause mortality, a 26 percent reduction in ischemic heart disease, a 32 percent reduction in stroke, and a 38 percent reduction in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Interestingly, the greatest benefits in that case occurred among non-smokers.

“We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive,” said lead author of the report, Dean Schraufnagel, MD, ATSF. “Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes followed reduced exposure to air pollution. It’s critical that governments adopt and enforce WHO guidelines for air pollution immediately.”

In the United States, a 13-month closure of a steel mill in Utah resulted in reducing hospitalizations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma by half. School absenteeism decreased by 40 percent, and daily mortality fell by 16 percent for every 100 ?g/m3 PM10 (a pollutant) decrease. Women who were pregnant during the mill closing were less likely to have premature births.

A 17-day “transportation strategy,” in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 Olympic Games involved closing parts of the city to help athletes make it to their events on time, but also greatly decreased air pollution. In the following four weeks, children’s visits for asthma to clinics dropped by more than 40 percent and trips to emergency departments by 11 percent. Hospitalizations for asthma decreased by 19 percent. Similarly, when China imposed factory and travel restrictions for the Beijing Olympics, lung function improved within two months, with fewer asthma-related physician visits and less cardiovascular mortality.

In addition to city-wide polices, reducing air pollution within the home also led to health benefits. In Nigeria, families who had clean cook stoves that reduced indoor air pollution during a nine-month pregnancy term saw higher birthweights, greater gestational age at delivery, and less perinatal mortality.

The report also examines the impact of environmental policies economically. It highlights that 25 years after enactment of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. EPA estimated that the health benefits exceeded the cost by 32:1, saving 2 trillion dollars, and has been heralded as one of the most effective public health policies of all time in the United States. Emissions of the major pollutants (particulate matter [PM], sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and lead) were reduced by 73 percent between 1990 and 2015 while the U.S. gross domestic product grew by more than 250 percent.

Given these findings, Dr. Schraufnagel has hope. “Air pollution is largely an avoidable health risk that affects everyone. Urban growth, expanding industrialization, global warming, and new knowledge of the harm of air pollution raise the degree of urgency for pollution control and stress the consequences of inaction,” he says. “Fortunately, reducing air pollution can result in prompt and substantial health gains. Sweeping policies affecting a whole country can reduce all-cause mortality within weeks. Local programs, such as reducing traffic, have also promptly improved many health measures.”

Abortion Reversal — The Dangerous Practice You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

In the United States, many more laws have been implemented that restrict or ban a woman’s ability to have an abortion. Abortion reversal is a new technique that hasn’t undergone much medical testing since the one test on it showed significant harm to the women.

Several states now require women who seek medication abortions to be provided with dubious information that the procedure could be stopped, allowing a pregnancy to continue.

But when researchers attempted to carry out a legitimate study of whether these “abortion reversal” treatments were effective and safe, they had to stop almost immediately – because some of the women who participated in the study experienced dangerous hemorrhaging that sent them to the hospital.

By passing these abortion reversal laws, “states are encouraging women to participate in an unmonitored experiment,” Creinin said.

Creinin and his colleagues detailed their concerns in a commentary in the journal Contraception, and they will publish their study in January’s edition of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Medication abortions, which are used up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy, consist of taking two pills in sequence. The first pill in the regimen, mifepristone, loosens the pregnancy’s attachment to the uterus. The second pill, misoprostol, forces the uterus to contract to push out the pregnancy. The pills must be taken consecutively to complete the abortion, and there’s a chance the pregnancy will continue if the second pill is not taken.

A total of 862,320 abortions were provided in clinical settings in 2017, according to the Guttmacher Institute, about 39 percent of which were medication abortions. Research has shown that using these drugs is a safe way to end a pregnancy.

Some antiabortion activists and legislators claim that not taking the second pill, or giving a woman high doses of the hormone progesterone after taking mifepristone, can help stop, or “reverse,” a medical abortion.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists firmly states that “claims regarding abortion ‘reversal’ treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards” and say the purported studies that underpin these antiabortion arguments lack scientific rigor and ethics.

Despite this, the claims made in these discredited studies have worked their way to antiabortion lawmakers, who in turn have put them into abortion reversal legislation that was signed by governors in North Dakota, Idaho, Utah, South Dakota, Kentucky, NebraskaOklahoma and Arkansas. The laws are currently blocked or enjoined in Oklahoma and North Dakota.

Because reliable research on these treatments is nonexistent, earlier this year, Creinin and his colleagues designed a legitimate double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial that aimed to observe 40 volunteers who had already elected to have a surgical abortion.

Their goal was to see if giving progesterone to women who took the first pill in the prescribed regimen would effectively and safely halt an abortion.

After the women took the first pill in the abortion protocol, mifepristone, rather than take the second pill, misoprostol, they were either given a placebo or a dose of progesterone.

Researchers only enrolled 12 women before they had to stop the study.

Bleeding is normal during a medication abortion. But three of the women who enrolled in the UC-Davis study experienced far more serious bleeding than anyone could have anticipated when the second pill was not administered.

One woman “was so scared she called an ambulance,” while another woman startled by the amount of blood “called 911 and crawled into her bathtub”, Creinin said. A third woman who went to the emergency room needed a transfusion. One of the women had received a placebo, while two others had taken the progesterone.

Creinin and his colleagues halted the study as soon as it became clear that they could not proceed safely.

“I feel really horrible that I couldn’t finish the study. I feel really horrible that the women … had to go through all this,” Creinin said. Because the study ended prematurely, the researchers could not establish any evidence that progesterone was an effective way to stop a medication abortion.

“What the results do show, though, is that there’s a very significant safety signal” when it comes to disrupting the approved medication abortion protocol, Creinin said.

In their upcoming paper in Obstetrics and Gynecology, the researchers warn that “patients in early pregnancy who use only mifepristone may be at high risk of significant hemorrhage.”

Medical experts are so concerned about abortion reversal laws that the American Medical Association joined a lawsuit against North Dakota’s abortion reversal law, which was blocked by a federal judge in September.

The North Dakota abortion reversal law, signed by Gov. Doug Burgum (R) in March, instructed health-care providers to tell a woman “that it may be possible to reverse the effects of an abortion-inducing drug if she changes her mind, but time is of the essence” and to provide a woman with literature on how to do this. The law fails to specify what that literature would include, or what such a treatment might entail.

In 2019, 27% of Denmark’s Power Was from Wind

A model of clean energy that other countries should take note of.

COPENHAGEN, Jan 2 (Reuters) – Denmark sourced almost half its electricity consumption from wind power last year, a new record boosted by steep cost reductions and improved offshore technology.

Wind accounted for 47% of Denmark’s power usage in 2019, the country’s grid operator Energinet said on Thursday citing preliminary data, up from 41% in 2018 and topping the previous record of 43% in 2017.

European countries are global leaders in utilising wind power but Denmark is far in front of nearest rival Ireland, which sourced 28% of its power from wind in 2018 according to data from industry group WindEurope.

Across the European Union, wind accounted for 14% of consumption last year, the group says.

The higher proportion of wind energy in Denmark last year was partly due to Vattenfall starting operations at the Horns Rev 3 offshore wind farm in the North Sea in August.

The share of power from wind turbines at sea increased to 18% last year from 14% in 2018, Energinet said. Onshore wind accounted for 29% last year.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in October that while power generated from wind turbines at sea only accounts for 0.3% of today’s global electricity generation, capacity is set to increase 15-fold over the next two decades.

Denmark aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030, with a new climate law passed late last year targeting an increase in the share of electricity sourced from renewable power to 100%.

Denmark, home to wind turbine giant Vestas and the world’s largest developer of offshore wind Orsted, has favourable wind conditions and began investing heavily in wind power in the 1970s.

Orwell’s 1984 — Too Real in the 2010s

The interpretation of Orwell’s 1984 that I have is that the mere possibility that people may be being watched by a powerful, corrupt state changes behavior in a way that has significant implications across society. It’s been found in research that people change their behavior when they know they are being watched.

There’s no poking holes in the Party’s control, no loose thread for any opposition to pull. If there is a Resistance, it vanishes halfway through. The book is designed to make The Party and its machinery of oppression look entirely infallible. You accept, like the protagonist Winston Smith, that it can never be overthrown. This isn’t The Hunger Games. There is no cartoonish YA villain like President Snow for a defiant Katniss Everdeen to topple. Even Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid’s Tale, destroyed Gilead in a far-future postscript.

But 1984? So far as we know, it’s boots on human faces all the way down.

How come? The Party doesn’t get its power from spying on its citizens, or turning them into snitches, or punishing sex crimes. All were presented as mere tools of the state. How did it come to wield that control in the first place?

Orwell, aka Eric Blair, a socialist freedom fighter and a repentant former colonial officer who had a lifelong fascination with language and politics, knew that no control could be total until you colonized people’s heads too. A state like his could only exist with loud, constant, and obvious lies.

To be a totalitarian, he knew from his contemporary totalitarians, you had to seize control of truth itself. You had to redefine truth as “whatever we say it is.” You had to falsify memories and photos and rewrite documents. Your people could be aware that all this was going on, so long as they kept that awareness to themselves and carried on (which is what doublethink is all about).

The upshot is, Winston Smith is gaslit to hell and back. He spends the entire novel wondering exactly what the truth is. Is it even 1984? He isn’t sure. Does Big Brother actually physically exist somewhere in Oceania, or is he just a symbol? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Winston is what passes for well-educated in his world; he still remembers the name “Shakespeare.” He’s smart enough not to believe the obvious propaganda accepted by the vast majority, but it doesn’t matter. The novel is about him being worn down, metaphorically and physically, until he’s just too tired and jaded to hold back the tide of screaming nonsense.

Don’t call him Winston Smith. Call him Mr. 2019. Because it’s looking increasingly like we live in Oceania. That fictional state was basically the British Isles, North America, and South America. Now the leaders of the largest countries in each of those regions — Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro — are men who have learned to flood the zone with obvious lies, because their opponents simply don’t have the time or energy to deal them all.

As we enter 2020, all three of them look increasingly, sickeningly, like they’re going to get away with it. They are protected by Party members who will endure any humiliation to trumpet loyalty to the Great Leader (big shout-out once again to Sen. Lindsay Graham) and by a media environment that actively enables political lies (thanks, Facebook).

All the Winston Smiths of our world can see what the score really is. It doesn’t seem to make any difference. But hey, at least we’re all finally aware of the most important line in 1984, which is now also its most quote-tweeted: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

In the decades following its 1949 publication, the message of 1984 became corrupted. Popular culture reduced it to a single slogan — Big Brother is Watching You — and those with only a vague memory of studying the book in school thought the surveillance state was the main thing Orwell was warning against.

That was certainly where we were at in 2013, when Edward Snowden released his treasure trove of documents that proved the vast scale of NSA spying programs. “George Orwell warned us of the danger of this kind of information,” Snowden told UK TV viewers in his “alternate Christmas message” that year. “The types of collection in [1984] — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today.”

Which was true, but also beside the point. Orwell doesn’t actually claim the surveillance system in Oceania is all that strong. It would have strained credulity to have a Party that watched all of its members all of the time. It sounded like a bad science fiction plot. (In China, where the growing state systems of facial recognition and social media post ranking make NSA programs look like amateur hour, it no longer does).

In 1984, the only time we definitively know a telescreen is watching Winston is when he’s doing morning exercise and a female instructor calls him out for not pushing hard enough. Here in the real future, people pay Peloton $2200 plus $40 a month for the same basic setup.

It isn’t that Big Brother is watching — that too is another Party lie. It’s that he may be watching, just as knowing there may be a speed camera around the next bend keeps your mph in line. Against that possibility, citizens can still rebel. For much of the book, Winston and Julia are able to escape all cameras, out in the post-atomic countryside. Avoiding surveillance doesn’t matter. What causes their capture is the fact that they fell for a lie (the “Brotherhood,” a fake Resistance operation run by the Inner Party member O’Brien).

We are invited to consider whether we too are falling for The Party’s lies. The book-within-a-book that explains the shape of Winston’s world turns out to be written by O’Brien, the master liar. The rocket bombs dropping on London are dropped by the Party. All the in-universe truth the reader has to go on is Winston’s word, and by the end — as he is tortured into genuinely seeing O’Brien hold up three fingers instead of two, then thinks he hears news of a final victory in the endless war — even that isn’t reliable.

By the end of this decade, even words like “Orwell” and “Orwellian” had become ambivalent. I realized this in 2017 when my wife, knowing my love of the book, had bought me a cap that said “Make Orwell Fiction Again.” I loved it until I found it had been made in a state that voted for Trump, by a company with a line of libertarian merch. We saw the cap as a riposte to the MAGA mentality, but it was also possible to see it as a reinforcement: Make Orwell fiction again by helping Trump fight Deep State surveillance, man!

If there is hope for Oceania in the coming decade, it may come from uniting people under the banner of all that 1984 warns against — starting with the bare-faced lies that Orwell was most concerned about. The lies that social media gatekeepers have taken way too long to notice, if they notice them at all.

If we can’t agree on basic facts of science and history, we’re lost. But if we the people can do that, there’s no surveillance system or endless war or sexcrime we can’t dismantle. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four,” Winston wrote in his diary. “If that is granted, all else follows.”

By remaining skeptical about all we read, but still reading widely and clawing our way back to a world of truths that are as simple and as objective as math, we can prove that we finally learned Orwell’s lesson. And we can make 1984 merely a masterpiece of fictional worldbuilding again.

Study: Facts Misremembered to Fit Personal Biases

Reality is sometimes very unpleasant to see, but there are clearly problems in people choosing to cloud their clear views of reality.

A recent study by Ohio State researchers found that people tend to misremember information to match commonly-held beliefs.

If you’re looking for who’s responsible for all the misinformation out there, you might want to take a peek in the mirror.

OK, OK, it’s not all your fault.

Although external sources of misinformation like “fake news” and purposeful disinformation campaigns draw a lot of attention today, recent research at Ohio State University indicates we might misremember information all on our own.

In a recent study, Ohio State researchers found that when given accurate statistics on a controversial issue, people tended to misremember numbers to match their own beliefs. Then, when researchers gave study participants accurate information and asked them to convey it to others, the information grew more and more different as it was passed from person to person.

“What our research would suggest is there’s a lot of focus on external sources of misinformation, but we also have to pay attention to these internal sources,” said Jason Coronel, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State.

For the study, participants were given factual numerical information about four societal issues. Based on pre-tests, researchers found that the numbers for two of the societal issues matched many people’s understanding of the matter. But for the other two issues, the numbers didn’t fit with their understanding.

For the numbers that were inconsistent with how people view the issue, participants were more likely to remember the numbers incorrectly, in a way that matched their probable biases.

For example, researchers presented participants with information showing there were 12.8 million Mexican immigrants in the United States in 2007, and fewer — 11.7 million — in 2014. When participants were then given a memory test, they were more likely to remember the statistics incorrectly, in a way that agreed with many people’s understanding that the number of Mexican immigrants would be higher in 2014 than 2007.

In a second portion of the study, researchers examined how memory distortions can be spread among social circles as individuals share the misinformation they created. Mimicking a game of “telephone,” researchers presented a participant with accurate numbers about a societal issue.

For example, the participant was asked to write down the numbers of Mexican immigrants in 2007 and 2014 from memory. The numbers from the first person were then given to a second person, and the process was repeated to a third person.

Researchers found that as the retellings increased from person to person, the information transformed to be more consistent with people’s understanding of the issue rather than the factual numbers.

It’s one thing to believe information yourself without fact-checking it first, said Shannon Poulsen, a doctoral student at Ohio State who conducted the study with Coronel and fellow doctoral student Matthew Sweitzer. But the second portion of the study shows the danger of then sharing inaccurate information with others, she said.

“Now the issue is not just you … now you’re sharing information,” Poulsen said.

Then, you can become part of the bigger problem, Coronel said.

“If you don’t scrutinize on what you’re remembering and you decide to talk about it and pass it on to another person, you just turned into an external source of misinformation,” Coronel said.

It may be a bit unsettling to think you can’t trust your own brain, but researchers hope the study leads to better understanding about how we remember things and encourages healthy scrutiny and skepticism.

“It can be a little bit scary,” Poulsen said. “But if it’s enough to increase … a little bit of skepticism to a point where people can be accurate, that’s great.”

People tend to think of their memories as simply a video recording device, taking in everything and repeating it back when they need it, Coronel said. But lots of research in psychology indicates memory doesn’t work that way.

Instead, think of memory as a jigsaw puzzle, he said — sometimes you’re missing some pieces, or you’ve got pieces from multiple boxes dumped on the same table.