Thursday, February 27, 2014

WaPo claims dramatic rise in child deaths from flu--but CDC graph shows lowest percentage of hospitalizations in children of past 5 flu seasons

The Washington Post  claimed last week: ‘Swine flu’ strain returns; dramatic rise in deaths of young adults, children.  But CDC does not collect info on young adult deaths.  It does collect info on child deaths, however.  And it collects data on hospitalizations. It is actually the 50-64 year olds who are suffering more hospitalizations this year.  Kids are doing quite well. Only 52 deaths in children have had an association with flu.  From CDC:

Click on graph to launch interactive tool2

GCHQ collected, stored webcams of 1.8 million users during a six-month period in 2008 /Guardian

This article is also based on documents from the Guardian's Snowden cache.

How can people believe that NSA, GCHQ and their ilk are not storing all phone calls (full audio files, not just metadata) when it takes so much more storage to college webcam information?

Let's get real.  Every digital signature you have left during the last many years (five? ten?  fifteen?) has been collected, possibly reviewed, but is definitely in storage, awaiting a time it might be useful.  That is why NSA's Bluffdale facility was built:  to store this and so much more in future.
Britain's surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the US National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing, secret documents reveal.
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images ofYahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.
 In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.
 Yahoo reacted furiously to the webcam interception when approached by the Guardian. The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of "a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy".
 GCHQ does not have the technical means to make sure no images of UK or US citizens are collected and stored by the system, and there are no restrictions under UK law to prevent Americans' images being accessed by British analysts without an individual warrant.
 The documents also chronicle GCHQ's sustained struggle to keep the large store of sexually explicit imagery collected by Optic Nerve away from the eyes of its staff, though there is little discussion about the privacy implications of storing this material in the first place.
Here's the thing.  They spied on anyone, random people, to supposedly test the system. Or because they do spy on everyone. Hey there squeaky clean, that means you, too. From Time:
According to the documents, the British spy agency  GCHQ snooped on “unselected” Yahoo users—that is, people who were spied on at random regardless of whether or not they were suspected of any wrongdoing—during webcam chats and took millions of still shots at five-minute intervals. 
From CNN:
The GCHQ estimated that up to 11% of the digital images it collected from the webcam chats were explicit, the Guardian reported, citing the leaked documents.
Eleven per cent????!!!!

What has not been made clear from media reports is whether snapshots were being taken when people were not using their webcams.  NSA has been alleged to have the ability to view us through the computer's internal camera when we believe the camera is "off ".  

If GCHQ and NSA are taking shots at random through your computer, and your computer is in the bedroom, it would explain why so much nudity and sexually explicit material was being caught.

Mumps outbreak at Fordham University -- every affected student had been vaccinated/ ABC

From ABC News in NYC:
The outbreak of the mumps at Fordham University has spread from one campus to another.
There are now 13 reported cases, 12 at the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx and one at the Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan.
 The symptoms are similar to the flu, but the virus can also cause painful swelling.
All of the infected patients had the mumps vaccine, but doctors say it's not 100 percent effective...
From TechTimes:
Most kids in the United States receive mumps-containing vaccine but vaccination does not give guarantee that the disease will be avoided. "Studies suggest that the mumps vaccine is 80% to 90% effective," the NYC Health Department said. "That means that for every 100 people vaccinated, 80 to 90 of them will be fully protected, but 10 to 20 are at risk for the disease." 
Health experts also said that vaccination does not give 100 percent protection. Dana Saltzman, a disease specialist, said that virus-induced immunity against a disease can wane. "The immunity that's induced by the virus starts to wane. They believe that it holds until at least late teenage years, but then it starts to wane," Saltzman said. "There's no way to predict who's going to lose their immunity or not."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Combating Corruption by Creating an International Corruption Police Force/ NY Times

Alexander Lebedev penned the following NY Times Opinion piece.  He is "a businessman and former senior officer in the K.G.B., is an owner of the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta and publisher of The London Evening Standard and The Independent" according to the Times. He suggests that $30 trillion (yes, with a T) has been embezzled worldwide over the past 15 years.  Want to identify a MAJOR contributor to global economic decline that is hardly discussed? This is it. Lebedev posits one possible approach:
Whenever government representatives from around the world meet, they’re often able to make progress in many areas of common interest: combating climate change, poverty, the drug trade, Islamic extremism, human trafficking and modern-day slavery, even cybercrime — the list is long. What these officials often fail to dwell upon is corruption. All of their nations suffer from it; they agree it’s a cancer of our age and should be stamped out. But they do precious little about it.
This is bizarre, when you consider the scale of the problem. What is corruption? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power.” And “by those in power” I would include those working for corporations and institutions that are part of the ruling elite.
According to the Tax Justice Network, an independent group promoting efforts to curb tax avoidance, crooked business people, working with corrupt officials, have embezzled $30 trillion over the last 15 years — or half of the world’s annual gross domestic product.
From China, nearly $4 trillion is thought to have disappeared between 2000 and 2011, much of it the profits of corruption, channeled into secret offshore financial havens. From Russia, the figure is close to $1 trillion. In the European Union, the total is put at $1.2 trillion.
In the West, the best-known figures linked to high-level fraud include Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, Jérôme Kerviel of Société Générale, Kweku Adoboli of UBS. And everyone knows of the subprime debt scandal and the criminal rigging of the Libor rate. In my country, Russia, there have been similar scams: the theft of $5 billion from Bank of Moscow; $4 billion from BTA Bank and AMT Bank; $4 billion from Rosukrenergo; $3 billion from Globex and Sviaz Bank; $2 billion from Russian Agricultural Bank; $1 billion from Rosagroleasing; and $1 billion from VEFK Bank.
Many of the perpetrators of these scams have been able to move abroad, where they draw upon the expertise of what I term the “financial services oligarchy” of international banks, law firms and accountants to ensure they can continue to live off the proceeds of their crimes. Some, like Andrei Borodin, former chief executive of Bank of Moscow, have been granted political asylum (Mr. Borodin, in Britain)....
 If governments want to have any chance of recovering what has been lost, they must join together to create an international anticorruption force, along the lines of Interpol, to defeat these financial oligarchs...
Without such a body, it is difficult to see how the battle against corruption can be won. Ranged against national police forces and investigators is an entire corps of professional advisory firms well-versed in assisting those who want to put their wealth beyond the authorities’ reach. Aiding and abetting those who have committed fraud are offshore tax havens that structure their laws to help those seeking total secrecy and security. This oligarchy can be broken only if governments fight like with like — by creating a well-equipped sleuthing agency that is not afraid of anybody or aligned with any particular nation...
Governments around the world are struggling to raise funds to counter the global downturn, but they can’t simply keep increasing taxes on the middle- and higher-income brackets. Rather, they must pursue cash anywhere they can — and one source has to be the proceeds of corruption. (After all, in many cases, it’s government money that was spirited away in the first place.)
I propose a relatively cheap, effective solution to one of the world’s most pressing issues: an international body to police corruption. And we must have it now, not at some date far into the future. It’s our money — and we want it back.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

CDC reports high FLU death rates in young Americans, but may be overestimating by 300%

CDC notes the following, where P stands for pneumonia and I stands for influenza:
Among 14,628 P&I deaths reported through the 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System from September 29, 2013 to February 8, 2014, a total of 571 (3.9%) were influenza-associated (i.e., they had influenza listed on the death certificate as an underlying or contributing cause of death), of which 352 (62%) were in persons aged 25-64 years, 194 (34%) in persons aged ≥65 years, and 25 (4%) in persons aged 0-24 years.
The first thing to notice is that CDC likes to lump pneumonia and influenza numbers together.  But when you only look at deaths, only 3.9% of deaths associated with pneumonia and/or influenza (in an area of 27 million Americans used by CDC for medical surveillance purposes) actually had influenza listed as a cause or contributor to death.  That means over 96% were due to pneumonia in the absence of flu.

Let's look at these numbers more carefully. From end September of last year until 2 weeks ago today, CDC says 571 people died (in 122 cities) who had influenza listed on their death certificate. Twenty-five were allegedly aged 0 through 24 years old.  Remember, this is in a group of only 27 million Americans.  If you extrapolated this death rate to 317.5 million Americans, you would have 294 deaths in the 0-24 years age group this year.

Except it seems we have no where near that number.  CDC never measures total deaths from influenza by death certificate. Nor does it measure total US deaths associated with influenza from other records. But flu deaths in children are required to be reported, so CDC does keep records of flu-associated deaths in children aged 0-18 years

In the next paragraph, CDC says that only 50 deaths in children associated with influenza have occurred in the entire US this flu season, through Feb. 8. Checking the Fluview website, we see 2 more pediatric deaths were reported between Feb 9 and Feb. 15.

Now look at hospitalizations for different age groups for lab-confirmed influenza (Figure 3).  To estimate actual flu death rates in those aged 18-24, for whom CDC does not provide specific numbers, I will use 2014 flu hospitalization rates by age as a rough estimate of flu-associated death rates, by age. I am doing this because there are no good overall US statistics for flu-associated deaths in those over 18.

The following graph shows that children aged 0-4 years have the third highest rate of severe illness (requiring hospitalization), after those 50-64 and over 65 years.  Hospitalizations in those aged 5-17 occur at only 15% of the rate of younger children, and people aged 18-49 are hospitalized at half the rate of those aged 0-4.

Using comparative hospitalization rates to extrapolate flu deaths for Americans aged 0-24 from the data on those aged 0-18, you would only expect about 25 additional deaths in those aged 18-24, or a total of 75 deaths in those aged 0-24 throughout the US through Feb. 8, 2014--instead of 294 (the extrapolation using CDC's 121 Cities data).

Therefore, either the 121 cites data dramatically overestimated flu deaths this season in those under 25, or the pediatric death reports are extremely low.  But they are in line with those of previous, recent years.

One explanation might be that most of the deaths for which death certificates list flu as a contributor, were not considered flu deaths and were therefore not reported as such to CDC.  The discrepancy cannot be explained at this point, but it does suggest that CDC's announcements of high mortality in children and young adults could be off -- perhaps by 300%.

FIGURE 3. Rates of hospitalization for laboratory-confirmed influenza, by age group and surveillance week - FluSurv-NET,* 2013-14
The figure above shows rates of hospitalization for laboratory-confirmed influenza, by age group and surveillance week during 2013–14. CDC monitors hospitalizations associated with laboratory-confirmed influenza in adults and children through the Influenza Hospitalization Surveillance Network (FluSurv-Net), which covers approximately 27 million persons, 8.5% of the U.S. population. From October 1, 2013 through February 8, 2014 (week 6), a total of 6,655 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations were reported. This yields a rate of 24.6 hospitalizations per 100,000 population.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Covering Up Corruption: KBR and Halliburton/ WP

Whistleblowers have some protections under US law.  In fact, those who report on corruption that costs the government money are entitled to a large chunk of what $ is recovered as a result of their whistle-blowing.  This often results in multimillion dollar payouts from what are termed "qui tam" or False Claims Act lawsuits.

But apparently Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root were not happy about the possibility that their employees might blow the whistle if they discovered fraud... and these companies have in fact been found liable in such lawsuits in the past.

Between 2002 and 2011, KBR was the largest U.S. contractor operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, winning nearly $40 billion worth of federal work, according to the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. KBR has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and allegations of fraud relating to contracts with the U.S. government, according to the war commission and the Justice Department.
So the companies required employees to sign confidentiality statements that prohibited employees from speaking to government officials or anyone else, under penalty of termination and legal action.  From the Washington Post:
One of the nation’s largest government contractors requires employees seeking to report fraud to sign internal confidentiality statements barring them from speaking to anyone about their allegations, including government investigators and prosecutors, according to a complaint filed Wednesday and corporate documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Attorneys for a whistleblower suing Halliburton Co. and its former subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, said the statements violate the federal False Claims Act and other laws designed to shield whistleblowers...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is this a very severe flu season?/ WP and CDC

Today's Washington Post headline reads "‘Swine flu’ strain returns; dramatic rise in deaths of young adults, children." But the data do not bear this out.

Swine flu isn't really "back"-- since 2009, it never left, but there are more cases this year than the last two, relative to other flu strains.  After the 2009-10 swine flu epidemic, two studies I saw suggested that at least 60% of the population developed antibodies (presumed immunity) to the disease.  Which begs the question whether all the measured antibodies were effective at preventing H1N1 swine flu.

What is CDC saying about this year's epidemic?  Influenza is winding down in most parts of the country.  In Maine, where I live, it never really got going.  

This graph plots the percent of outpatient visits to medical providers for flu-like illnesses. It looks like an average year.  And we are well past the peak.

national levels of ILI and ARI
Here are pediatric deaths by week.  Again, an average year.

Click on image to launch interactive tool
And in this chart, CDC looks at deaths due to either pneumonia and/or influenza in a select group of cities.  Again, it looks like an average year.

Pneumonia And Influenza Mortality

In 2011, Tony Blair told Rebekah Brooks (editor, News of the World) how to beat the rap: publish a "Hutton"-style report. Hutton whitewashed David Kelly's almost certain murder for Blair./ BBC

David Kelly was the UK WMD expert and weapons inspector who was found "dead in the woods" in 2003 after he told a BBC reporter that the Blair government memo on WMD did not conform to the facts, and specifically that Saddam could not hit the UK with a nuke in 45 minutes.  This undermined Blair's entire case for war 4 months after the war started.

Immediately after, or possibly before Kelly's death, Blair had his former flatmate, Lord Falconer, set up an investigation of the death.  About three hours after the death, Falconer contacted Lord Hutton to conduct an inquiry into the matter.  Hutton's inquiry failed to explain how exactly Kelly died, and why many items at the scene, including the packet of pills he allegedly took and the knife he allegedly used to cut his wrists (neither of which was proven to have been a cause of death) were devoid of any fingerprints. Falconer stopped the inquest, and documents about the case were sealed by Lord Hutton in 2010 for 70 years "for the sake of the family."

So when Tony Blair told his good friend (Brooks) to create a "Hutton-style" report to help her get off bribery and illegal surveillance charges, Blair is telling her how a fixer would operate--but he is also telling her that Hutton was a fixer.  And he is strongly implying that Hutton covered up Kelly's murder. (Disclosure:  I met Kelly once or twice at anthrax conferences--Nass)

From the BBC:
The phone hacking trial has heard details of an email sent by Rebekah Brooks in which she claims to have received advice from former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Mrs Brooks spoke to Mr Blair on the telephone and passed on what he said to James Murdoch, who was then News International executive chairman, the Old Bailey trial heard.
The email read:
"Only got ten minutes before I see Charlie for confiscation!
But I had an hour on the phone to Tony Blair.
He said:
1. Form an independent unit that has a outside junior council, ken macdonald, a great and good type, a serious forensic criminal barrister, internal counsel, proper fact checkers etc in it. Get them to investigate me and others and publish a hutton style report.
2. Publish part one of the report at same time as the police closes its inquiry and clear you and accept short comings and new solutions and process and part two when any trials are over.
3. Keep strong and definitely sleeping pills. Need to have clear heads and remember no rash short term solutions as they only give you long term headaches.
4. It will pass. Tough up.
5. He is available for you, KRM and me as an unofficial adviser but needs to be between us.
He is sending more notes later."
Ken Macdonald, whom Mrs Brooks referred to in the email, is a former director of public prosecutions.
Mrs Brooks also said Tony Blair had urged her to set up a "Hutton style" inquiry. This was a reference to the inquiry into the death of government weapons adviser Dr David Kelly. Its report exonerated Mr Blair and other officials over flawed evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, including the so-called "dodgy dossier".

How does the US minimum wage compare to other developed nations?/ The Guardian

The UK Guardian published the following chart in October 2012.  PPP stands for purchasing power parity, or how much the minimum wage is able to buy in its country.  In terms of PPP, we are still beaten by every nation with a higher minimum wage, except Japan.  So we cannot say the US' low minimum wage is offset by cheaper goods, because it isn't.

The Ozzie minimum wage, in pounds sterling, was worth more than twice the US minimum wage. Luxembourg has almost double the US rate. Only Greece, Spain and Portugal (in this chart) had lower minimum wages than the USA.

Minimum wage table

Here is wikipedia's chart on minimum wages throughout the world.

UPDATE: GAP announced it is raising its corporate minimum wage in the US:  Gap Chief Executive Glenn Murphy announced on Thursday that the company will sets its minimum hourly rate for U.S. employees at $9 this year and $10 in 2015.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

World press freedom index 2014: USA sinks to #46

The World Press Freedom Index is issued yearly by international NGO Reporters Without Borders. The methodology for ranking nations is described here.

180 nations are included.  At #46, the US is assessed as having less freedom of the press than Papua-New Guinea, Romania, Slovenia, Latvia, and South Africa, to pick a few. However, we did beat out Haiti, at #47.  The US' ranking is consistent with the Committee to Protect Journalists' report from October 2013, which I wrote about here.

Freedom of the press could be considered the right of reporters a) to confidential discussions with informants, b) to inspect the scenes of events, and c) not have their safety put at risk because of the work they do.  We now know that confidentiality no longer exists and communications of reporters with sources have been specifically sought out by government; that war correspondents are spoon fed information and are restricted in their movements by military officers; and that in some cases reporters have been targeted by military operations.  The unusual death of Michael Hastings, whose reportage led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, and was working on a story about NSA surveillance techniques before he died, likely put an additional damper on investigative reporting in the US.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cook from scratch--or beware your future health!/ Guardian

I gave a "super-easy" cooking class this morning.  Why is a doctor giving cooking classes?  Because the quality of the ingredients in processed food is so poor, I believe it is ushering in an age of chronic ill health.  At least when you cook from basic ingredients, you know what they are.  I may have to start printing recipes on this blog in future.  For now...  From the Guardian:
Fake-food scandal revealed as tests show third of products mislabelled
Consumers are being sold drinks with banned flame-retardant additives, pork in beef, and fake cheese, laboratory tests show 
Consumers are being sold food including mozzarella that is less than half real cheese, ham on pizzas that is either poultry or "meat emulsion", and frozen prawns that are 50% water, according to tests by a public laboratory.
The checks on hundreds of food samples, which were taken in West Yorkshire, revealed that more than a third were not what they claimed to be, or were mislabelled in some way.
Their results have been shared with the Guardian.Testers also discovered beef mince adulterated with pork or poultry, and even a herbal slimming tea that was neither herb nor tea but glucose powder laced with a withdrawn prescription drug for obesity at 13 times the normal dose.
A third of fruit juices sampled were not what they claimed or had labelling errors. Two contained additives that are not permitted in the EU, including brominated vegetable oil, which is designed for use in flame retardants and linked to behavioural problems in rats at high doses. 
Experts said they fear the alarming findings from 38% of 900 sample tests by West Yorkshire councils were representative of the picture nationally, with the public at increasing risk as budgets to detect fake or mislabelled foods plummet...

Friday, February 7, 2014

EU losing an estimated 120 Billion Euros yearly to Corruption/ EU

It is great to have this long-awaited EU report on corruption make the news around the world. Yes, corruption is now visible almost everywhere, from petty officials demanding bribes from anyone to the awarding of major government contracts.  We knew that.  Now this is an estimate of size.  However, when you estimate the magnitude of corruption--something that is illegal--you have only a very rough sense of how big it truly is.  Turns out that 120 Billion Euros is only about 1% of the GDP of Europe.  From the NY Times:
Ms. Malmstrom said the commission’s estimate that corruption costs Europe €120 billion, or roughly $162 billion, annually was almost certainly too conservative. The figure is equivalent to about 1 percent of the €11.7 trillion gross domestic product of the 28-nation European Union. Ms. Malmstrom did not provide a breakdown of how officials had arrived at the €120 billion figure... 
Transparency International, a nonprofit organization that monitors corporate and government corruption, said in a statement that the report was “an important step in the E.U.’s collective effort to scale up its anti-corruption efforts.” But it noted the commission had failed “to issue detailed recommendations in the area of whistle-blowing, access to information and lobbying.”
...A survey of companies by the European Commission showed that 75 percent of businesses said corruption was widespread in their countries. The worst was the construction industry, where four out of five companies said so, including nearly 100 percent of construction companies in Greece, Spain and Italy. 
What the reader should not assume is that the problem is "over there".  Here in the US, the stakes are bigger, the wars are larger, government contracting is over the top-- (for example, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to build the not-that-complicated website that still had bugs when I checked it out this morning) and the fines and penalties issued (those rare times when they get issued) for corrupt activities have been insufficient to serve as a deterrent.  I suspect that the drag on the economy caused by corruption, in all sectors, is the underlying reason why we cannot get over the recession. The gray money just doesn't get added to the economy--instead it winds up in offshore accounts. Or sweet deals. Or buys something really expensive, maybe under the wrong name.

Now HHS is going to partner with Pharma to bring us better drugs.  Really?  Were Pharma's double digit yearly profits insufficient to fund the search for blockbusters? Unlikely.  More likely, this partnering is just another way to spend public funds on healthy private companies that are doing just fine, thank you, so fine they have more lobbyists in DC than any other industry.  Of course the industry found a way to tap the public coffers. Why else are those lobbyists there?

What is really needed is using public funds in the US and around the world to fund new agencies that are given the power to investigate all local corruption.  I have lots of ideas about the types of investigations that would likely bear fruit.  The agencies need major political clout and they need to be protected. Then we might see comparable interst in the subject in the US.