Saturday, September 13, 2014

Unjustified Nursery Searches in Watertown

I'm writing this at night, thinking back a couple nights to the homeowners of Watertown. And I'm bothered by what the civilians had to endure. Certainly the police did amazingly well when they ultimately apprehended the suspect, to almost everyone's relief and surprise.

But I would hope the police learn from this tragic episode and revise methods when the next one happens. Because the next time is not a matter of "if" now, it's a matter of "when" unfortunately, and "where." And I see a lot the police did that was very wrong. No one's talking about it, but it's keeping me up at night.

The techniques the police used to catch the suspect could have been better organized. The police could have used thermal imaging first and they could have checked the obvious places to find the suspect before conducting invasive house to house searches. I'm only seeing reports of the infra-red in certain news outlets, but pictures show it was definitely used for verification after the location of the suspect was found on the ground.

So why wasn't thermal imaging used near the beginning before any houses were entered? Before mothers had to let the police into the nurseries at three in the morning, and before mothers and fathers had to open their doors to have four guns aimed at them?

That policy of home invasions by the police absolutely frightens and angers me. And not only me. I read a commenter ask why the people of Watertown hadn't revolted against the police. This show of force certainly wasn't any way to win the fuzzy hearts and minds of the electorate.

There was the failure of the police in not using the infra-red at the beginning of the raids, and it bothers me. Then there were threats of firearms on innocent civilians by the police in the place, their homes, where they feel most safe. And those inspections would naturally be especially disturbing to civilians in the small hours of the morning. Sure the police are saying they had to do it then. And luckily, the police were smart enough not to follow an earlier idea to question the 50,000 people every year who have bought that brand of pressure cookers going back for many years.Maybe having everyone on high alert was the only way to find the suspect. But I'm not so certain.

And the cost is tremendously high. I think a new feeling of anger towards the police and the government is being born in people who hadn't felt that way in the past. Civilians know that having a pistol in their home wouldn't have protected them from home invasions or threats from a lone suspect in public places. So did the police really need to make such an aggressive show of force before they exhausted every other angle? And why did it take them until the early hours of the dark night? Much about the Watertown incident disturbs my sense of peace and equilibrium.

The police had photos of the suspects, and that turned out to be an advantage in the search, along with the  discovery of the pressure cooker with nails. The photos must have built plausibility and trust in the minds of civilians, even if they weren't ultimately that useful in the actual endgame shoot-out, where the homeowner with the boat didn't even see the face of the suspect.

And the police should be encouraging the general use of cameras because that's what helped so much to identify the suspects. The confusion over the identity of the suspects immediately evaporated, at least for me, knowing it wouldn't take long to find them, and it was only a matter of time. One wonders with the hysteria, whether the discussion of immigration will lead to a backlash against certain foreign countries after this incident, and it wouldn't be surprising to find the will of the American people being whipped up in a way that is inimical to immigration.

And if civilians realize cameras are for their benefit and there isn't really any downside, they might be helpful and use them. But these protective measures have had a way of turning against civilians in the past in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. They've curtailed freedoms we used to have, to carry small beauty implements on aircraft, for example. People tend to lose their perspective when they're angered at the abuse of their vulnerability, and invaded where they believed themselves safe. If women have to worry that men will use the cameras against them to have them followed, for example, then civilians won't be as eager to help the police force find terrorists. The benefit has to outweigh the cost. And the good has to be shown in an extraordinarily powerful piece of persuasion or else it won't prevail.

The police system already has made us take off our shoes and metallics at the airports. What will be asked of us next? It's becoming ever more hazardous to venture out of the house because of the massive police presence. Police will pounce on us in Princeton, New Jersey, for being two minutes past the expired sign on a parking meter or for going ten miles an hour over a 25 mph. limit on the school run. Street cameras in New Jersey have charged the equivalent of more than twice the average family's weekly grocery bill for crossing a white line momentarily at a red light. And to see the police going door to door on television into Watertown nurseries absolutely strikes heart into homeowners. Perhaps it was worth it if it made the homeowner with the boat check on it, and be a little suspicious.

But repeated, these small infringements on liberty lead to great anger among innocent civilians and build up general sentiments of resentment. Over time civilians will be more sensitive and whipped up by unexpected police intrusions when it happens again. May God help America.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The More We Get Together, The Happier We'll Be

Have you been to a family reunion or important wedding this summer and perhaps shared folklore of distinguishing features of your ancestors and health information? Worldwide, there is a huge thirst for names of ancestors and many of us are interested in filling in quenching it and filling in those family trees. Yet sometimes even after names have been filled in on the charts, mysteries of personality quirks and health issues remain, and require interest in pursuing them further. Genetic genealogy is a way to fill in many of gaping holes, and changing the ways families enlarge conjectures they hold of their family heritage.

The first meeting of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) happened last weekend in beautiful Chevy Chase, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. 

ISOGG logo
From nearby National Geographic Society, Spencer Wells gave the keynote address with a video illustrating the history of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Wells had written a paper with Oleg Balanovsky, Head of the Research Center for Medical Genetics at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow, and Dr. Balanovsky then described Russian efforts to trace human migrations and languages.

Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore gave an entertaining talk about her own family history in genetic detail, about how hard it is to get people to donate their spit in a humorous way, and tips on how to carry out the necessary detective work with genetic information when the paper trail goes cold and results in research brick walls.

Representatives from companies such as 23andMe,, and a few others associated with the new field of genetic genealogy gave talks and explained how to research ancestors. It was a fascinating gathering, and I was privileged to attend this inaugural meeting of an entirely new discipline made possibly by the internet and advances in DNA technology.

Apart from the standard genealogical bread and butter advice to have family reunions and share information, genealogists can confirm (and sometimes) deny family relationships. Sometimes, the results can actually cause people to deny they have half-siblings they didn't know they had. CeCe Moore gave proof of this and described in detail how she discovered the Heming family relationship with the former American President Thomas Jefferson.

To find out more about health risks, inherited conditions, drug responses and distinguishing traits, 23andMe stands head and shoulders over other data providers. 

Once you have data, you can do a lot with it, and the most fascinating sites for me now are Promethease and SNPedia which I described here. I'm fascinated by any health information I can get that concern my children and ancestors. That's my primary motivation for researching my own ancestry further.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Promethease and SNPedia: Sites Worthy of Honor and Support

As I've remarked in earlier posts, my genes have been sequenced through various companies and the results have been analyzed through a very interesting organization and website called Promethease and the wiki site SNPedia, founded in 2006 by Greg Lennon. It would be a good idea to support their work. My results have been amazing and life-changing. 

The name Promethease itself could derive from legends surrounding Prometheus which typically have to do with honor and support.

PROMETHEUS Statue Courtesy: Buchhandler
Promethease is a fascinating site and company where you can directly send your genome data from another site such as 23andMe or most other sources and receive reports on your gene SNPs (or "snips), the so-called snips of your genes that make you who you are, and that make you different from your family. It's useful for everyone: members of large families who will learn more about their individual genetic predispositions and traits, orphans who could learn more personal family names or disease risks, and anyone can learn more about family lineages going back hundreds of years. For each person, genetic results are different. Certainly the healthcare field of doctors can use it as a research resource, genealogists searching for quirky character traits, maybe police forces searching forensically for an individual's DNA data. The uses for genetic information is in its infancy. Genetic data can be another useful and time-saving device and it's limited only by imagination.

A connected compendium of SNP results is organized into a wiki called SNPedia, founded by Greg Lennon and Mike Cariaso, both also of Promethease. Mike has made many informational videos explaining how to use the site.  SNPedia is a resource that can be used by the medical field around the world. It's meant to be updated like Wikipedia by doctors and medical students and provide  a database useful for biomedical research and discovery. SNPedia lists medical papers related to diseases connected to genes and SNPs, and much that is currently known about the current field of DNA interpretation.

Incoming Stanford and Harvard medical students will have their genes sequenced and will learn how to analyze genetic results to help patients in the future. That's how important this field is. As well as medics, anyone searching for medical information can broaden their understanding of disease and personality characteristics. Genealogists can find clues when paper trails have run their course and evolutionary biologists and anthropologists can use it as a resource. Many professionals now have another avenue to use for investigations, and have been finding that DNA can answer longstanding mysteries.

It's possible to look at a website about SNPs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but that website, unlike Promethease, doesn't give you a definition of each one of your SNPs, tell you whether your particular allele is in "good" or "bad" repute, how your personal risk compares in percentage size to the world population of your ethnicity. The NIH gives chromosomal raw numbers but without interpretation such as that found on Promethease, all that data is useless. The search mechanism of Promethease makes use of NIH's ClinVar (Clinical Variants) information from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which also aggregates and archives information, but doesn't yield popularly-useful interpretations. Promethease, in contrast, goes much further and describes what each SNP is and what diseases and traits it determines.

 At the related SNPedia site, it's possible to find papers to research for more information, and papers are continually updated into the site every day. For that reason, downloading your gene data into the site will yield updated information as the site forgets information after 45 days. The data is only searchable on Promethease when it's fresh, but can be kept in your files. Whether the service is free or not depends on whether you'd like to wait hours for the report or have it in a few minutes, and that cost is only five dollars, for results that were unavailable until now in any medium and will quickly become priceless to you. It's an easy to do and easy to understand. Recommend putting this on your to-do list. Everyone should try this at home.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Should Stay Out of Financial Games of Politics

"The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) is pulling millions of dollars in investments out of three U.S. companies tied to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
In a close vote at its annual assembly in Detroit on Friday, the church voted 310-303 to divest $21 million from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
The church says Caterpillar supplies products to Israel that are used to destroy Palestinian homes, Hewlett-Packard provides logistics and technology to help enforce the naval blockade of Gaza, and Motorola Solutions provides military and surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements.
But immediately after the vote, church leaders said the decision was not a judgment against Israel. "In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers," Moderator Heath Rada said." CNN

Here's why I don't agree with the recent announcement by the Presbyterian Church in America to sell investments in these companies. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is harming American industry and innovation and the hard work that the thousands of company employees do in their jobs every day. These are enormous companies: Caterpillar employed 125,341 people as of Dec. 2012, Hewlett-Packard: 317,000 in 2013, and Motorola Solutions: 22,000 in 2012. 

I didn't think I'd ever have to support American industry single-handedly, but I do think it's wrong for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to get into politics by making this decision because it's a two-edged sword. Where does entering world politics stop for a church? Surely every  multi-national company could be faulted for one reason or another. Apart from being narrow-minded, it's hypocritical in a church that should value inclusion and seems to me close to anti-Semitism.

It's thought that these companies aren't helping Palestinians. The importance of helping Palestinians is an attitude that has pervaded the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in recent years. It has already divested companies with operations in Israel, noting that church divestments in the 70s helped end Apartheid. That last assertion sounds rather grandiose to me; I'd need to see evidence of that. To me, limiting investments in these companies is an absurd stance and is a decision reeks of church politics, and someone always wins and loses with politics. Besides, what's wrong with investing in agricultural machinery, computers, and telephones?

These companies employ many thousands, and the ones singled out by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently employ thousands in America whose present salaries, future pensions, and the lives of their families, might be affected through no fault of their own. It's an insult to the personal histories of all employees and is hurting them for church-political reasons. The Church will instead help to contribute to global poverty and global hunger if these machines and devices aren't made and sold overseas. Who knows how the companies and my friends in Israel might retaliate? 

Full disclosure: it's a church I haven't joined. You may not know, as I haven't said this before on this blog, but I happen to be the grand-daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Canada, and grew up going to Church on Sundays in Ottawa with very devout parents. I think I have as much right as anyone to throw in my two cents, and hope my Canadian friends show better financial acumen than this.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"That's Just The Way It Is" Internationally In American Education

America has had trouble coming out in first place internationally in the field of education recently. 

The losing streak was beginning to show hope of fading after a report came out that supposedly highlighted how well America had done with problem solving skills. The idea, reported in the media, was asserting that American students were better at problem-solving and flexibility skills than students in other countries. 

Then I saw an article  in The New York Times called "American Students Test Well in Problem Solving, but Trail Foreign Counterparts." Note that even a subordinate clause in the title says that it really trails other nations. Yet NPR radio in reports had made it sound as if this result was a shining achievement of American education, when in reality, America trailed even here Singapore, South Korea, Japan, several provinces of China, Canada, Australia, Finland and Britain. And this was hailed by an American politician as a relatively "strong suit." It was hoped that the value of flexible thinking would redeem the weakness of American education, but it turns out the improvement was decided as only minor. Excuses were given to explain the higher standing of foreign countries, such as the emphasis on rote learning of facts and formulas in Asian countries. 

The topic fascinated me and I decided to look further into the 2012 scores of the Program of International Student Assessment (P.I.S.A.) published in December 2013 and only now being reported in the popular press. America's losing streak appears to be continuing however the press wants to spin it.

In this article in the Washington Post article mathematics:
"The U.S. percentage was lower than 27 education systems, higher than 22 education systems, and not measurably different than 13 education systems."

In science literacy, a similar story:
"The U.S. percentage was lower than 17 education systems, higher than 27 education systems, and not measurably different than 15 education systems."

Even reading literacy wasn't exceptional:
"The U.S. percentage was lower than 14 education systems, higher than 33 education systems, and not measurably different than 12 education systems."

Where, besides Sarah Palin, do Americans get the idea of American exceptionalism, or of America as the hub where people must be seen and live to become "known"?  Exceptionalism doesn't appear to have any basis in reality if these test results are any guide. If any American students go to university primarily to play sports instead of to learn academic studies, then I don't suppose anything will ever change and their standings will never improve except in the unreal world of American propaganda. 

According to this article in The Atlantic magazine:
"The U.S. ranks fifth in spending per student. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland spend more per student. To put this in context: the Slovak Republic, which scores similarly to the U.S. spends $53,000 per student. The U.S. spends $115,000."

Worse, even the advanced state of Massachusetts lags two years behind Singapore at the high school level, so that foreign students fall behind if they attend American high schools, and have a huge advantage if they attend American universities. This education failure sadly is an old refrain, and I hope to have a more optimistic tone, as I usually do have, in my next post. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Is the Act of Forgiveness Dying?

Last week I attended a conference for women in business where the keynote speaker said that for women in business it's wrong to apologize and say "I'm sorry." The speaker exhorted us to promote rather than apologize and ask permission and said instead of apologizing to say "excuse me" or "please go on" and that apologizing is now supposedly a sign of the weakness of women in a business setting. But I have to say here (in my one still and tiny voice) that "I disagree."

Her speech about gravitas and how to have it was given to a huge audience of influential women here in the Princeton area of New Jersey. The lady who said it (and who shall remain nameless to avoid trouble) gave a talk otherwise laudable and praiseworthy, and I recognize that I'm taking this single topic straight out of context (and apologize).

It's the height of arrogance not to apologize when circumstances warrant outpouring expressions of kindness. It makes the person who made a mistake own it (along with shame, guilt, fear) and makes him/her into a better and more trustworthy person, and the apology must be said with sincerity and forgiveness requested and granted or else it won't be believed. Showing empathy and compassion shows your human nature in its best light.

Forgiveness is possibly a genetically inherited character trait, a sign of strength, of empathy, and of compassion. It isn't the sign of a healthy relationship if the other person doesn't admit they are wrong, doesn't take responsibility or ever admit to being at fault. In fact being callous and remorseless has been called a sign of psychopathy.

Not all apologies are equal. We've all heard someone apologize in a sarcastic or insincere way, such as to an opponent in reference to winning a competitive game "I'm sorry to say I won that match." That isn't really meant as a deep apology, and perhaps this casual use of the phrase is inadvisable except in the most casual of settings. 

I do think there is a place even in business for a sincere apology. Apologizing shows respect for the feelings of others. Saying you've made a mistake should also in turn be respected. It does get easier to say the more you say it and you will feel better for saying it. In fact, they are the two (or three) sweetest words I can hear from someone with whom I've had a disagreement, and who I feel is truly at fault.

It's not that I'm a fine example of a businesswoman (far from it), but from an international point of view as I generally have I don't agree that apologizing is a sign of weakness. Apologizing and asking forgiveness is a method useful for reconciliation and continuing diplomacy engaged as a sign of true humility and repentance.

Sincerely, I hope that asking for forgiveness doesn't soon become a lost art because forgiveness helps us all move on with our lives. Apologies are meant to signal that water has passed under the bridge so why not strengthen that metaphorical bridge and not ignore it? Apologizing and asking forgiveness is a useful interpersonal diplomatic tool when the end goal is peace. Don't we all want that?

File:Richmond Bridge Panorama.jpg
wikimedia: Richmond Bridge Tasmania

Friday, January 17, 2014

Jane McGonigal's Extraordinary TED Talk

Jane McGonigal, Game Designer 

Thanks, Jane! In Jane McGonigal's TED talk, she talks about how to add ten years to your life. 

After people have had trauma similar to Jane's severe head trauma, goals they often share are to:

1) do whatever makes them happy
2) feel closer to family and friends
3) understand themselves better
4) know who they really are now
5) have a clear sense of meaning and purpose in life
6) be better able to focus on goals and dreams.

When people are dying, the regrets most often expressed are the opposite and reinforce the above positive goals. They often wish they had:

1) not worked so hard
2) stayed in touch with friends
3) let themselves be happier (for example, by playing video games)
4) had the courage to express their true selves
5) lived lives true to their dreams instead of what was expected of them.

To review, those who lived on average ten years longer continually boosted four types of resilence:

1) physical - by never sitting still for more than an hour at a time
2) mental - by tackling tiny goals to boost willpower
3) emotional - by achieving the three-to-one positive emotion ratio
4) social - by reaching out to one other cared-for person every single day

McGonigal's a game designer and approves of games. Scientific literature proves that when we play a game we tackle challenges with greater creativity, determination, optimism, and we're more likely to reach out to others for help, be more courageous, ambitious, and committed to our goals.

Video games can help with survival and longevity with behaviors we can adopt for use in real life. Another reason to like online video games is that "groundbreaking clinical trials recently conducted at East Caroline University showed that online games can outperform pharmaceuticals for treating clinical anxiety and depression. Just 30 minutes of online game play a day was enough to create dramatic boosts in mood and long-term increases in happiness." 

Here's the entire transcript of the video and it's well-worth watching or reading.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Michelle Obama Is A Vital Asset to America's International Image

Michelle Obama has always had a difficult journey to walk in the White House. From the beginning of her husband's first term as 44th and current President of the United States, her husband's political opponents have taken it on themselves to criticize her at every opportunity, most vocally for her choices of clothes.

And now she's staying in Hawaii for a few weeks as a gift from her husband, staying at Oprah Winfrey's house while the East Coast freezes, and the petty jealousy in the press is everywhere. The neverending cheap and nasty sniping and the publishing of disrespectful and unflattering photos makes me sad. It's extremely obvious that her opponents use the race card at every opportunity, since Michelle Obama is the first African-American First Lady.

Michelle Obama is a beautiful, accomplished, experienced individual whatever her detractors have to say. She was born Michelle LeVaughn Robinson in Chicago, attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School before returning to Chicago to work at the law firm Sidley Austin, on the staff of Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and for the University of Chicago Medical Center.

The First Lady has used her platform in the White House to draw attention to the problems of poor children by starting a Task Force on Childhood Obesity. She grew organic vegetables in the first White House vegetable garden and started bee hives that supplied fresh organic produce and honey at state dinners.

Michelle Obama has been involved in the many aspects of being wife of the President, and she will leave a lasting legacy as an advocate of LGBT rights, and on many issues of concern to military and working families. I wish her opponents could wise up to her assets within the realities of this farflung multinational country.

Monday, December 30, 2013

23andMe Offers Personalized Medicine Today

The article called "I Had My DNA Picture Taken, With Varying Results" in the New York Times is useless. The 23andMe $99 home test kit was compared to other kinds of tests: blood tests and test kits that have to be ordered and received by a doctor that effectively remove information from the realm of the tested. Worse, it's unhelpful to see the New York Times publishing such drivel in its influential news outlet. In an article to review a $99 dollar home test from 23andMe, why didn't it compare apples to apples instead of to oranges? Why not compare an equally-priced $99 home test kit, for instance, one from Ancestry DNA? Instead, the New York Times indulged in shoddy journalism, and by that I'm suggesting the article was a lazy, inaccurate, and narrow summary of the facts and I'm worried it will be taken seriously by everyone (patients, doctors, the F.D.A.) when it should have been published somewhere else. The New York Times is just one newspaper, albeit an influential one, but it could have done a whole lot better at checking the facts than it did.

Why didn't the New York Times ask me and other hundreds of thousands who have benefited from 23andMe without any other reasonable alternative? Did it take the effort to check its references of 23andMe by reading threads of glowing testimonials for the company, of which I could add another?

The real story that was missed is the story behind genetic testing: about how lazy and sloppy the F.D.A. has been for millions of American doctors who are unable to tell patients their true genetic risks because of agreements with genetic testing companies to keep results secret, as for example this linked article points out, written by an expert for the benefit of other doctors. That deceit isn't in anyone's best interest, and is a murky truth that has already drowned in the miry swamp of everyday medicine. 23andMe is helping mitigate this widespread spiral down into ignorance.

The last lines of that unhelpful article sum up the current state of health advice for most patients: "Step on a weigh scale." Full stop. Certainly, a weigh scale (and self-journaling, I might add) go far in helping patients achieve better health. But we knew all that already. Why settle for little when so much more is possible? Huge fountains of personalized medicine facts are (were until recently) inexpensively available from the 23andMe reports, authorized by a CLIA lab (also used by LabCorp), through the generosity and intelligence of the founders.

23andMe reports help us understand how to be healthy our entire lives. The unique and essential information from 23andMe is life-changing. Whether or not the 23andMe results agree with other company reports is trivial. A positive diagnosis would be worth double- or triple-checking. A website says that primary care doctors can understand 23andMe reports in ten minutes. 23andMe is the premier personalized medicine site democratically allowing patients personal insights within the ever-shifting quicksands of science. It's definitely a step in the appropriate direction.

I'm healthy enough I wasn't going to pay for a full genomic sequencing without any medical reason. As it turns out, I inherited medical conditions from both parents that aren't probably strong enough for medical intervention and that I was unaware of, but might need medical care at some time in the future. And I'm literate enough to understand the reports, which opened up a new direction for my own personal medical research. Just one person, I remain grateful to thoroughness of the plethora of information and scientific articles about studies at 23andMe.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Shameful Example of Poor Leadership in Texas

'Affluenza' case in Texas

Judge Jean Boyd of the Fort Worth Juvenile Court, shown in 2012, has sentenced a 16-year-old to 10 years' probation and ordered him to get therapy, for which his wealthy family will pay, to settle a drunk-driving case in which four people died.

The story of the student in Texas who killed four people driving his car drunk and for legal punishment went to live in a country club paid for by his parents to learn horseback riding is truly bizarre and inexcusable by any international standards.

My readership is international, and I would say to Judge Jean Boyd in person if I could: "It doesn't look good."As a lawyer friend said, "There must be something we don't know."

I say shame on Judge Boyd. Shame on the entire American legal system, too, for ultimately letting this one boy get away with murdering four people without any punishment when everyone knows it wasn't fair from an international perspective. Sadly, I don't suppose any shame will be felt.

As Shakespeare said, "Justice has to be seen to be done," and justice wasn't seen to be done here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where's the borderline between privacy and protection?

The topic of this post is to attempt to identify where to draw a line between individual privacy and  security protection. America enjoys being an open society, and readers have grown to expect privacy in many places, in online banking, an within our homes. Outsiders historically haven't been allowed access to our centers of individual privacy without our knowledge, nowithstanding nanny cams.

Perhaps that's why the NSA's collections of data from phone calls strike many as upsetting invasions. 

Where should the national security and military write an official line of policy between an invasive police state on one hand, and protection from international terrorists on the other? 

The importance of surveillance cameras at specific locations for specific risks made headlines in the Boston bombings, when a department store camera helped identify the bombers and strengthened personal security. Any and every photo was potentially useful at the time.

A lot of people feel safer knowing that cameras are following their footsteps in public places, just as they feel safer with security systems in certain specific locations than without. 

How much surveillance is enough? Factors depend on individual locations. Both surveillance and privacy are important values protected by the American Constitution. The bottom line probably concerns a meaningful personal security issue topic: lives saved. America lacks meaningful relevant statistics about the widely misunderstood topic of weapon availability and criminal acts and has no idea how to counteract violence with all their centuries of wisdom. This despite other countries being able to successfully boast of greater personal safety and very little crime. Perhaps this topic should be studied: what actually does help lessen crime rates? Perhaps there are societal factors, as this quote from the National Bureau of Economic Research makes clear:

"Many attribute New York's crime reduction to specific "get-tough" policies carried out by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration. The most prominent of his policy changes was the aggressive policing of lower-level crimes, a policy which has been dubbed the "broken windows" approach to law enforcement. In this view, small disorders lead to larger ones and perhaps even to crime. As Mr. Guiliani told the press in 1998, "Obviously murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes. But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other." "

The installation of traffic lights as one example has been historically controversial and inflammatory. A 2009 ruling by the 7th US Circuit court of Appeals rules there isn't an expectation of privacy while driving on the road, so traffic cameras are authorized to take photographs only when a vehicle has run a red light, and not the occupants or driver. 

Police abused their powers in the small municipality of Segrate in Italy, when they synchonized two traffic lights. Drivers either broke the speed limit or passed during the red light as a fraud thereby increasing income from tickets. The program took months to dismantle.

Well-known alternatives to fines that attract any driver's attention in time to stop are: 

1) retiming lights and decreasing red lights,
2) increasing duration of amber lights,
3) adding a limited short period at a traffic light where all directions have a red light.

 To review, the issue of protection opposing privacy will likely take years to play out in courts. Novels can be and have been written on this topic. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Long Live the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II
Courtesy: wikimedia
The Queen of England has worked hard for decades. The Royal office owns and manages real estate, residences, and art collections, and opens bridges, ships, shopping centers, and nursing homes. The Queen opens and closes parliament each year, and holds veto power over laws. She signs every law in the UK. The official website of the British Monarchy outlines her duties:

"Some are public duties, such as ceremonies, receptions and visits within the United Kingdom or abroad.

Other duties are carried out away from the cameras, but they are no less important. These include reading letters from the public, official papers and briefing notes; audiences with political ministers or ambassadors; and meetings with her Private Secretaries to discuss daily business and her future diary plans.

Even when she is away from London, in residence at Balmoral or Sandringham, she receives official papers nearly every day of every year and remains fully briefed on matters affecting her realms.

In front of the camera or away from it, The Queen's duties go on, and no two days in her life are ever the same."

She does rule by popular consent, and could be overthrown if she became tyrannical. Her massive powers have lately "gone dormant" and aren't used unless on the advice of her Ministers. In a nutshell: Queen Elizabeth has the power to dissolve parliament, fire a Prime Minister, break a treaty, declare war, but she can't raise an army on her behalf, raise taxes for herself, or make and enforce any new law. 

The United Kingdom is fortunate in having a phenomenally calm period under her reign now, and since her Investiture in 1952. The world can hope for her continued good health.

For further insights into the British Monarchy, please read these excellent articles. The Telegraph calls Queen Elizabeth the most dutiful monarch in a thousand years. Newsweek said the Queen has been "briefed every Tuesday by 12 different Prime Ministers, knowing they'll one day leave their jobs." 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Who's Behind F.D.A. Director Mansfield's Ignorant, Absurd, and Ultimately Misguided Attack on 23andme?

From the New York Times, an article here says: "Elizabeth A. Mansfield, director of personalized medicine in the F.D.A.’s medical device division, said the agency agreed that people had a right to their genetic information. The concern, she said, was that 23andMe was also providing interpretations of what that data meant medically."

This is the opposite of the truth of what happens to the clients of 23andme. The Director at the F.D.A. would know if she had only taken the test for which she sits in judgement, as she obviously hasn't done. Makes me angry. Elizabeth Mansfield doesn't know her stuff, and yet she is making a stiff judgment when other gene testing companies go unregulated.

23andme actually does do the responsible act of sifting through 5,000 studies in spades, and links them to the gene and related health implications far more efficiently than would be expected for the price, or than any other company has had the knowledge and experience to organize ever before in the history of humanity and medicine. 

After the patient becomes familiar with the 23andme website, and climbs an admittedly steep learning curve, one that anyone who's taken introductory genetics has already taken, the information becomes understandable, and a huge amount of helpful advice in this deep website is straight ahead already collected as a service. This website has further resources such as the interactive features for group memberships and I have visited those groups every day since joining several months ago. It has a special site page for genes and SNPs, a site for blogs from geneticists and scientists about research results, and videos and written advice from medical doctors who are experts in their fields in links to pages. I can't begin to express all the gratitude I have for all the hard work the company has done.

The nebulous mystery I have is why the F.D.A. is picking on this company when Americans spend billions on psychics and vitamins and unnecessary medical tests every year. Exactly who is pushing Director Mansfield? The medical doctors who have invested thousands in screening machines for medical tests of all kinds, including mammogram machines that squeeze women every year (and their pocketbooks in America) when small matchbox-sized electronics could do the trick

23andme is growing in popularity mostly through word of mouth and has clients around the world. It's not "cold reading" or "psychic powers" or "folklore" but the science of genetics that will lead to innovations in biotechnology and also down the same road to the practice of medicine. Genetics could help with making some of these invasive and expensive tests unnecessary and cause disruption but it would be short-sighted, stubborn, inflexible, and inexperienced if the F.D.A. misunderstands the complex nature and extraordinary usefulness of 23andme.

An email from the founder of 23andme kindly says that we are among the first people in the world to ever get access to our genomes. We are "genetic pioneers." I love that phrase! It's been a privilege and a pleasure to serve an incredibly brave new pioneer of business: 23andme.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

23andMe: A Company Worth Supporting

23andMe is a company worth supporting, and it's in trouble with the government for regulatory issues for all the wrong reasons. Individual patients are now able to take control of their medical outcomes and overall fitness to a greater extent than was possible in the past when this technology didn't exist. 

The disruption this company may be causing is:
1) misunderstood by doctors who write scripts for tests that may not be required out of caution because of their own ignorance and panic, not that doctors can be expected to keep up with all the advances in genomics.
2) misunderstood by all those, including government regulators, who haven't been tested or used the company or benefited from the information the company provides.
3) understood by those who have been tested and can begin to understand the impact of the technology to the future of medicine. 

It amazes me to hear that doctors supposedly advocate full mastectomies on the basis of the 23andMe saliva test when the company explicitly states that further tests should be made in the service of accuracy.

One example I can report concerns my former gastroenterologist. This gastroenterologist recommended an endoscopy which she could give me (and profit from) after I mentioned (verbally) that my 23andMe test results showed I had three times greater than average chance of having celiac disease. I know I have a chance only, and that results from 23andMe were not diagnoses, but I asked for the doctor's advice. The doctor looked at the statistics from 23andMe, admitted she’d not ever heard of the company before, and based her appeal for an endoscopy on the 23andMe score while I was with her in her office.

Endoscopy, for those unfamiliar, is an invasive test requiring the same preparation as for colonoscopy. The patient's digestive tract must be entirely emptied of food before the surgery. The patient can't drive away from the center outside of the hospital after the surgery because of having endured general anesthesia, and then a whopping charge arrives in the mail like a sonic boom after the fact if all goes as planned. Add to that the risk of fatal complications and a possibly expensive stay in the hospital. None of it is pleasant. Worse, it wasn’t necessary.

Trying to avoid this surgery, I asked for a second opinion from another gastroenterologist about my chances of having celiac disease, and this second one said that a simple non-fasting blood test should also rule it out, and indicated I could have an invasive endoscopy if necessary after the blood test. In fact, the blood test did rule out the endoscopy, if the blood test is to be believed. The biopsy gained in an endoscopy supposedly gives a more trusted result than a blood test, but I'm not going to have the procedure.

It's clear to me that most of my doctors in New Jersey haven't heard of 23andMe, and so far I haven’t had one who’s taken the test. The founder of 23andMe wanted to be disruptive, and she can be sure that the disruption has already started as this article claims. I don't think critics should comment on 23andMe without using the product being sold, unless they don't believe their weigh scales, home blood pressure kits, or blood test results from LabCorp. The 23andMe homepage says it uses Labcorp, one of the two nationwide competitors in America trusted for blood tests (the other is Quest). I also read LabCorp and 23andMe use Illumina for testing. 

Some people try hard to escape medical truths, and disparage the company without having facts on which to base their remarks.

Perhaps the company could distribute kits free to doctors as a service. And perhaps the company should change its name, but defintely keep the service. I love it. One of my doctors asked me, "Did you say 22 and me?"