AMERICAblog News http://americablog.com A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Tue, 02 Sep 2014 21:21:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 BBC cuts Asian broadcast of lesbian “Dr. Who” kiss between human and lizard http://americablog.com/2014/09/bbc-cuts-lesbian-dr-kiss-human-lizard-appease-asians.html http://americablog.com/2014/09/bbc-cuts-lesbian-dr-kiss-human-lizard-appease-asians.html#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 21:17:51 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122469 The BBC censored a recent “Dr. Who” episode, cutting a scene of a lizard woman giving alien-mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a human woman, after concerns that the broadcast might violate Asian broadcast standards against public homosexuality on television.

The SCMP reports that the scene was cut from broadcasts in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

bbc-lizzard-kiss

Dr. Who’s kinda sorta lesbian kiss between a woman and a female lizard person.

I stopped watching “Dr. Who” about the time he got his latest assistant, but apparently the lizard woman and the human woman are “wives,” so even though the kiss was for “medical reasons” — and even though the relationships was between a woman and a lizard – it was still too gay for Asian censors.

Because in Asia, bestiality is only for opposite sex partners?

At least the BBC thinks so.

Madame Vastra (left) and her wife Jenny Flint (right), on "Dr. Who."

Madame Vastra (left) and her wife Jenny Flint (right), on “Dr. Who.”

Not that we don’t indulge in our silly season in America when it comes to what’s acceptable on television. Still, it says something when a broadcast network is willing to censor itself on a human rights issue — and let’s face it, gay civil rights are human rights, and if the Asian censors don’t like it, they can pull “Dr. Who” entirely.

What other minorities will the BBC be censoring next?

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I just found gay Grindr users in Iran, Brunei after Grindr “fixes” location problem http://americablog.com/2014/09/just-found-grindr-users-iran-brunei-grindr-fixes-location-problem.html http://americablog.com/2014/09/just-found-grindr-users-iran-brunei-grindr-fixes-location-problem.html#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 16:50:13 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122471 Only hours after gay smartphone app “Grindr” attempted to fix a glitch in its system that has already outed the exactly location of over 600,000 gay men in countries like North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Brunei, I was able to locate the exact position of dozens of gay men in Iran and Brunei, two of the most repressive anti-gay regimes in the world.

As you may recall, Grindr is an app that lets gay men find other gay men to date, befriend, or hook up with. The app works by finding your location, then showing you other gay men who are in your area.

While it does not show you where the other Grindr users are, it does show you their distance from you. However, it does not say which direction they’re in, making the distance revelation relatively safe, unless it’s for short distances like 100 feet.

Two weeks ago, a European Grindr user uncovered a glitch in the system that permitted anyone with an Internet connection to discover the exact location of any Grindr user online anywhere in the world.

As a result, I was able to locate the exact position of Grindr users in Russia, Iran, Brunei and anti-gay countries.

While Grindr’s only statement on the matter to date is that “we do not view this as a security flaw,” Grindr did turn off its location-disclosure functionality briefly last night, only to turn it back on again this morning.

The exact location of gay men currently on Grindr in Tehran, Iran, a country in which gay men are put to death. It appears, according to the anonymous Grindr user who uncovered the security breach, that Grindr is blocking the IP address of anyone attempting to find the exact location of its users. (Grindr is also requiring you to register a new account before massively violatig the privacy of their users.) But if Grindr thinks this is a sufficient fix, they might want to have a chat with the following gay men I just found in Tehran and Brunei. All you have to do, apparently, is create a new IP address and a new account, and voila, you’re in.

The following maps are zoomed out to protect the innocent. The detail of the map is down to the precise location on their street.

Brunei

The exact location of gay men currently on Grindr in Brunei, a country in which gay men can be stoned to death.

The exact location of gay men currently on Grindr in Brunei, a country in which gay men can be stoned to death.

Tehran, Iran

The exact location of gay men currently on Grindr in Tehran, Iran, a country in which gay men are put to death.

The exact location of gay men currently on Grindr in Tehran, Iran, a country in which gay men are put to death.

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We evolved to argue http://americablog.com/2014/09/evolved-argue.html http://americablog.com/2014/09/evolved-argue.html#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 12:00:32 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122252 They say that politics and religion are to be avoided in polite company, as they are likely to cause an argument. This is perhaps one of the dumbest social norms we have, as moral and political disagreement has been essential to our survival for millennia. If you don’t agree, let’s argue about it.

Let’s start with three simple facts about human beings:

1) The human brain evolved sequentially over time from simpler versions of itself (evolution tinkers, it doesn’t build from scratch);

2) the brain evolved to quickly identify patterns and respond to them, not to deduce truths through formal logic; and

3) human beings as a whole evolved to be social, omnivorous mammals.

These three facts have far-reaching implications concerning how we interact with one another: As our society has evolved far faster than our bodies, we’ve been left with 21st Century politics, ancient brains and the question as to how to reconcile the two.

The brain evolved on the fly

In the philosophy of science, Neurath’s Raft refers to the idea that science only makes progress in reference to itself. If you want to repair a raft while you’re already on the river, you have to stand on an existing plank of the raft at any given time; you can’t ever stop and build the whole raft over again. Evolution operates much in the same way: species never get to pause and start over; they instead make slight adaptations based on what already exists.

Arguing, via Shutterstock.

Arguing, via Shutterstock.

The anatomy of the human brain is perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon: while the details are obviously a bit more complicated, as a general rule the closer you get to the forehead and the farther away you get from the brain stem, the more complex and less-evolved the structure in question is. In other words, our brain evolved by building on itself from the bottom-up since it couldn’t replace what was already there.

Consciousness, which primarily resides in a small subset of outer-brain neuroanatomical regions, is the newest and, by extension, least-evolved addition to our cognitive arsenal. Importantly, as a corollary to the evolutionary Neurath’s Raft, it developed to improve upon, not replace, the structures that came before and reside below it. This means that the human brain in its current form is one in which conscious processes interpret and react to unconscious processes that are still very much “in charge.” To this point, the neocortex is in constant dialogue with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure that sits between the neocortex and the limbic system (responsible for emotional processing, among other things) and regulates which stimuli warrant conscious awareness.

In short, even consciousness is regulated by unconscious processes – in layman’s terms, we call this selective attention. When the brain is unable to efficiently regulate what should and should not reach consciousness, call it schizophrenia, and the disorder in part lies in the ACC.

The brain we have is the result of millions of years of primate evolution, and it shows. As we’ll see, when placed in the 21st Century and tasked with the responsibility of answering some very complicated questions, it reverts to eons-old heuristics in order to come up with workable solutions.

The brain doesn’t function like a computer

Early cognition was simple pattern recognition in response to stimuli; find a reflex that works and figure out the details later (this is why you involuntarily jump when you hear sudden loud noises). The way in which we currently process information is only a few steps more removed from that: our behavior is still founded upon the recognition of patterns and the selection of appropriate responses to those patterns. Over time, these behaviors become ingrained in networks of neurons that are activated more efficiently as the same, or similar, stimuli are presented.

The kicker here is that these networks of neurons need not be internally consistent, hence our varied reactions when logically identical situations are presented in different frames. The same person can be equally moved in opposite directions when it comes to supporting or opposing expanding the social safety net when it’s phrased as “aiding the poor” or “expanding welfare,” as the two phrases activate different arrays of neural networks. You can call that hypocritical, but you also have to call it natural, and we’re all susceptible to similar hypocrisies.

You’ll notice that this depiction of human cognition violates one of the principles required of rational actors, namely that the actor respond to situations which will produce identical outcomes in identical ways. A rational actor should be indifferent to framing effects concerning political issues, but we all know that’s not the case (“gay marriage” vs. “marriage equality,” “abortion” vs. “reproductive health,” etc.). The reason why these effects persist is that they are literally activating different parts of our brains and, therefore, the incoming political information is processed differently.

Unless they’re consciously laid bare, our mind has no need to iron out the kinks between these inconsistencies. However, when one is explicitly called out, we are prompted to refine our thinking and either rationalize or modify our predisposition. Sociologist Howard Margolis calls this the “seeing-that”/”reasoning why” process of judgment. Normally, simply “seeing-that” a given response conforms to our understanding of the world is a perfectly serviceable and efficient strategy to take; only when “seeing-that” proves insufficient is it necessary to consciously grapple with our existing mode of thought. By extension, this means that we can only learn and improve the process by which we evaluate information if we have someone to push us to provide reasons.

In other words, the brain evolved to be emotional and efficient at the expense of being logical or consistent. While this form of cognition is essential for survival, it is also prone to error, which can be disastrous in more complex situations, as we essentially sacrificed objectivity and consistency for decisiveness. What makes the tradeoff evolutionarily sustainable is a social environment in which errors are called out and corrected. Emotional, internally inconsistent, pattern-seeking humans are interdependent on each other to tell them when they’re wrong. In this way, large-scale rationality emerges from individual-level non-rationality.

21st Century politics and morality evolved from ancient adaptive advantage

However, this only works if there is variation of thought and interaction between those variations, which brings me to the last plank of my argument: humans evolved ideological diversity as a consequence of overcoming the omnivore’s dilemma concerning what to eat. The theory, posed by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, goes like this:

For carnivores, the decision as to what to eat is fairly straightforward. For herbivores, it’s only slightly more complicated, but as a general rule it’s safe to eat green things. However, omnivores in competition with each other for calories have to decide how exploratory they want to be when it comes to ingesting the things they find in nature: be too picky and your competitors will get more calories and have more offspring, washing you out of the gene pool; too exploratory, and you eat the wrong things and die off, exiting the gene pool even more quickly.

The key to winning this evolutionary game isn’t to get lucky and evolve into a species that just “gets” exactly what is and isn’t OK to eat, especially as new species of plants and animals are constantly dying off and being introduced into the environment. The species that wins is the species that includes a variety of adventurous and picky eaters – one could safely call them liberals and conservatives – that form an equilibrium throughout the population. Remnants of this evolutionary process show up on ideological lines. Conservatives register more marked physiological reactions to disgusting images than liberals. Conservatives today are also, on average, pickier eaters, and are even more likely to carry the gene that makes one sensitive to phenylthiocarbamide (PTC), a chemical similar to the one found in cilantro that makes the plant taste bad for some and not others.

And as society gets more complex and the big questions begin to move beyond what to eat, similar ideological equilibria emerge. As questions concerning over how to interact with outsiders, how to orient oneself towards authority and how to punish those who violate the social contract arise, communities that allow varied answers to compete for public acceptance will be more sustainable than communities in which one dogma dominates. And when it comes to these questions, self-described liberals and conservatives are predisposed to serve different functions when it comes to answering them. This is true down to our cognitive physiology and behavior: On average, conservatives have larger amygdalae, the brain structure most closely associated with threat perception, than liberals. Unsurprisingly, they were also less-distracted by nearby stimuli than liberals when tasked with identifying an angry face as being angry in a laboratory setting.

There are two extremely important caveats here, both of which Haidt makes in his book: First, while ideological orientations (and the propensity to participate in politics at all) are in part genetic, biology is not wholly deterministic. As cognitive scientist Gary Marcus notes, “Built-in does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” Second, none of this evidence alone makes either ideological orientation better or worse a priori; it just makes them different – different to the point at which the two groups really do consider morality across fundamentally different channels. In other words, the liberal and conservative sides of the ideological spectrum evolved together, and it’s likely that neither would be sustainable alone.

So, with all this taken together, what we’re left with is a species in which disagreement about the big questions concerning how best to live is both inevitable and necessary. We need to push each other on our beliefs and actions, as that is both how we learn and society progresses. The individual mind is too primitive to answer large-scale social and moral questions alone.

But don’t we suck at arguing?

Well, kinda. But we’re good enough to make it work.

In a twist of sad irony, it seems as though the reasons why we have to argue are also the reasons why we argue so inefficiently. That our brain processes political information via an emotional, associative process instead of a cool, calculated one means that we are unlikely to readily admit when we’re wrong. To that point, when a team of researchers set about using hard data to challenge participants’ beliefs concerning politically-charged information, they found that the more mathematically competent you were, the less likely you were to change your mind in the face of evidence. For the participants, and fitting with the model of the brain outlined above, conclusions came first, and those who understood data were able to rationalize their positions more effectively than participants who couldn’t explain away the numbers.

And this is why Reddit (and, I’m sorry to say, the comments section on this article) isn’t the saving grace of American democracy. Just because you have two people who disagree with each other talking doesn’t mean that the result will be in any way productive. However, argumentation oriented towards amicable compromise and agreeable outcomes is both possible and useful on a large scale. If that sounded too unicorns-and-rainbows-y, take a look at the participatory budgeting process, first pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

The process goes something like this: A percentage of the city’s budget is set aside to be allocated by deliberative bodies of regular citizens. In a typical example, a city is divided up into a number of regions, which are then divided up into neighborhoods (think wards and voting precincts), who then meet to discuss how best to allocate the budget. Decisions are made by majority vote, but not before everyone who wants to speak has spoken. Neighborhoods then elect representatives to argue for their district’s interests at regional meetings, where the budget is finalized and sent to the mayor for approval. If the mayor vetoes the budget, the regional council can either modify their budget or override the veto with a two-thirds vote.

If you’re familiar with American political science, this probably sounds a lot like Robert Putnam and his work on social capital (Bowling AloneMaking Democracy Work, etc.), since you’re bringing people together to talk politics, but the PB actually goes a few steps beyond Putnam to address two major criticisms of his theory: First, even if you can get people to go bowling together, who says that they’re going to talk about politics? Second, the civic traditions that made democracy work so much better in southern Italy than in the civically-barren north also made fascism work better, suggesting that civic traditions make government work better, not just democracy.

In places where participatory budgets are implemented along the lines of the one modeled above, citizens’ standard of living and overall wellbeing immediately improve. As the participatory budget in Porto Alegre cut out clientelism and graft in the political process, money was freed up for schools, roads and basic public services, such as sewage. Furthermore, and more relevant to Putnam, regardless as to how the budget gets divided up, opening up governance to participatory processes improves citizenship, as measured by the number of neighborhood associations, cooperatives and other organizations pertaining to local governance, as well as lower levels of tax evasion and higher voter turnout. While Putnam’s theory seems to suggest that civic traditions are in the historical cards for some and not others, cities’ experiences with participatory budgeting suggest that you can create civic traditions where few previously existed, making the whole democratic system function more smoothly.

The biggest cause for skepticism in processes like this is that the discussion will be dominated by more sophisticated citizens. However, in Porto Alegre, while education and gender initially affected whether or not a citizen spoke up, by the time a citizen had attended three meetings the only significant predictor of their participation was how many meetings they had attended. As noted by the researchers who were observing the process, repeated deliberation elevated the political capacity of ordinary citizens and led them to establish collaborative relationships with citizens both in and out of their neighborhoods.

The success of the participatory budget jives with what we’d expect given the evolution and functionality of our brains. Political argumentation is, in many ways, the sharpening of mind on mind through reasoned speech: When we put competing interests and thought processes in the same room and pit them against each other until an agreement emerges, everyone is elevated a little bit; materially, socially and intellectually. So long as the institutional framework is such that a fight can be avoided, an argument is healthy.

So, the next time you find yourself at dinner and someone mentions the 2014 elections, don’t change the subject. Sit up in your chair and have an argument, keeping in mind that your interlocutor may not be evil, or even wrong. Believe it or not, you will quite literally making our species slightly more viable in the long term.

For a far lengthier account of this and other topics related to political cognition, you can download my senior honors thesis here.

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“Grindr” gay smartphone app turns off “distance” option in face of privacy concerns http://americablog.com/2014/09/gay-grindr-smartphone-app-turns-distance-option-privacy-complaints.html http://americablog.com/2014/09/gay-grindr-smartphone-app-turns-distance-option-privacy-complaints.html#comments Mon, 01 Sep 2014 23:40:26 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122447 UPDATE: Grindr has turned the location functionality back on, and there’s no indication that they’ve made any other changes to their system. Grindr’s only statement on this ongoing problem: “We do not view this as a security flaw.” I suspect gay men living under threat of stoning to death in Brunei might feel differently.
_______

The popular gay smartphone app “Grindr” has turned off its “show your distance” option, apparently in response to concerns raised last week by privacy advocates.

Grindr, an app used by gay men to meet other gay men (for dating, finding friends, or just hooking up), uses your location to find other Grindr subscribers in your area. Users are given the option of showing how many feet, meters, miles or kilometers they are away from the other users. Because the app doesn’t show which direction you are from the other user, it was considered to be relatively safe.

That was until an anonymous Grindr user in Europe found a way to easily identify the near-exact location of any Grindr user anywhere in the world.

Using the security glitch, the exact location of over 630,157 Grindr users were located in 131 countries, including 622 in Egypt, 349 in Iran, 2,311 in Russia, 753 in China, 333 in Iraq, 926 in Turkey, 29 in Saudi Arabia, 134 in the UAE, 30 in Qatar, 228 in the West Bank, and incredibly, 134 unique Grindr users were located in North Korea, the most oppressive state in the world.

Here’s an interactive map, created by the anonymous good Samaritan, totalling all the Grindr users exposed in just one week:

grindr-users-identified

The other day I found every Grindr user (online) in Iran, a country in which gays are reportedly put to death, and then found the exact locations of everyone online in Tehran.

A look at the exact locations of 100s of Grindr  users across Iran.

A look at the exact locations of 100s of Grindr users across Iran.

And here’s a look at the specific locations of some 50 gay Grindr subscribers in Tehran. I have intentionally zoomed out, as the zoomed in view would show you the exact street corner they’re on.

tehran-small

Why would the exact location of a gay person be a problem?

1. If you live in a rural area, they know exactly who you are.

2. There are still parts of America, and the world, in which it’s not safe to be gay.

3. What if it’s a gay teen who’s not out to his parents?

4. Russia, Iran, Africa. North fricking Korea!

A report from Egypt claims that the government there, along with the government of Iran, are using Grindr to find gays, who they then arrest.

Egyptian government spies are using dating apps, including Grindr, to catch gays and lesbians in the act, CairoScene can reveal.

A source close to the gay and lesbian community claims that the apps are putting the country’s homosexuals in danger.

“It’s a bad system right now,” he said. “There have been a number of arrests in the last few months linked to these applications. They are using technology to triangulate the location.

“It is possible to tell a user’s position within a few hundred metres, and many users include personal pictures, making them easily identifiable to cops.

Grindr’s only official comment on the controversy was to suggest last week that the security glitch was in fact a feature that Grindr was proud to defend.

Last night, however, the anonymous Grindr user who initially discovered the security breach informed that Grindr had apparently turned off its “distance” option, no longer making it clear what exact distance users were from each other. In fact, he is correct.

It would seem that Grindr may have finally started to get the message. Time will tell.

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Groupon selling Uzi target practice same week girl shoots Uzi instructor dead http://americablog.com/2014/08/groupon-selling-uzi-target-practice-week-girl-shoots-uzi-instructor-dead.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/groupon-selling-uzi-target-practice-week-girl-shoots-uzi-instructor-dead.html#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 20:28:03 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122420 Only days after a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot her firearms instructor to death with an Uzi submachine gun, Groupon is offering its subscribers target practice packages that include Uzis.

Groupon initially shut down its gun packages after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newton, Connecticut, where nearly two dozen young grade school kids were shot to death. The packages however started up again six months later.

Here’s one from Groupon’s Florida operation. It, and the deal below from Texas, include Uzis:

Miami-Guns-Incxx

Miami-Guns-Incxxx

And here’s Texas:

DFW-Shooters-Academy-Dallas-Deal-of-the-Day---Groupon-Dallasxxx

DFW-Shooters-Academy-Dallas-Deal-of-the-Day---Groupon-Dallas-words

The AR-15, also mentioned in the above ad, is the weapon used by Adam Lanza to kill the schoolchildren in Newtown.

Gun safety advocates were not amused by the latest news.

“It’s clear now that Groupon’s concern after Newtown was about perceptions, not the underlying problem of gun violence,” said Naomi Seligman, director of the Gun Truth Project, which has successfully campaigned against gun-range deals in the past. “They’re putting aside the safety of their customers to service their own bottom line.”

The Uzi accident earlier this week happened in Las Vegas, after some tourists thought it would be a good idea to train their daughter how to shoot an Uzi submachine gun. The instructor set the 9-year-old girl’s gun on automatic, which lets the gun shoot 600 bullets per minute, and the girl quickly lost control of the gun, swinging around and shooting her instructor in the head. He later died.

The 9-year-old girl moments before she lost control of the Uzi and shot her instructor in the head, killing him.

The 9-year-old girl moments before she lost control of the Uzi and shot her instructor in the head, killing him.

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Oh mighty ISIS http://americablog.com/2014/08/oh-mighty-isis.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/oh-mighty-isis.html#comments Thu, 28 Aug 2014 23:30:36 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122415 “Oh mighty Isis.”

oh-mighty-isis

It seemed time :-)

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This gun owner thinks it’s nuts to hand a 9 y.o. an Uzi http://americablog.com/2014/08/gun-owner-thinks-nuts-hand-9-year-old-uzi.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/gun-owner-thinks-nuts-hand-9-year-old-uzi.html#comments Thu, 28 Aug 2014 21:17:39 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122405 John wrote earlier about the 9-year-old girl in Las Vegas whose parents thought it would be a good idea to let her shoot an Uzi submachine gun.

Not surprisingly, the gun, set on automatic — a setting at which it fires 600 rounds per minute — went wildly out of control in the little girl’s hands. As she lost control of the weapon, it shot her instructor in the head, killing him.

Simplifying somewhat, there are basically three ways a gun or rifle can fire. (Not going to get into single-action vs double-action.)

One: The gun fires. and then you need to do something to chamber another round, like a pump-action shotgun or a lever-action rifle for example. Or a breach-loading shotgun.

Then there are semi-automatics. These fire one shot for every time you pull the trigger. If you’ve seen a 9mm handgun with a magazine and a slide-action, that’ll be a semi-auto. Most of the assault rifles out there carried by civilians are semi-auto. Even these ones require a bit of training to use responsibly.

To own a fully-automatic gun requires a special federal firearms license (FFL). If you do not have this license, you could technically still own an Uzi, for example, but only if it has been disabled for fully automatic operation.

There is a gigantic loophole in this law (actually several loopholes.). Yes, you need the FFL, which isn’t cheap. However, you as the owner of said fully-automatic firearm can grant permission to just about anybody to fire it in your presence, even a tiny child.

The 9-year-old girl moments before she lost control of the Uzi and shot her instructor in the head, killing him.

The 9-year-old girl moments before she lost control of the Uzi and shot her instructor in the head, killing him.

I’ll tell you something else about fully-automatic firearms: Have you ever fired a gun? Ever watched someone actually shoot a gun? (And Hollywood movies don’t count.) They kick. The barrel invariably wants to go up. The peculiarity of Uzis and other rapid-fire full-automatics is they not only go up, they also push the barrel to the left (part of this is the effect of the rifling inside the barrel and part is due to the ejection of the spent rounds). Hold down the trigger for more than a couple seconds and, unless you are strong and well-braced, that sub-machine gun will literally try to make you spin around in place.

That “instructor” made a whole series of stupid mistakes. But the first mistake? Letting what appears to be a 70lb 9-year-old child fire a fully-automatic sub-machine gun. No child that size can control a weapon like that. Disaster was all but guaranteed.

The second mistake was standing exactly where the barrel was all but guaranteed to go the instant she put her finger down on the trigger.

But really, mistake #1 outweighs everything else. Nobody should be surprised that this happened.

Hell, even if he hadn’t been standing where he was, that little girl still would have lost control of that submachine gun. If not him, it could’ve just as easily been the person who was filming the event, or other bystanders.

Grown adults (unless trained), who are physically capable and knowing exactly what to expect, will have trouble controlling an Uzi. (In fact, it’s also why Uzis are actually pretty crappy guns to begin with. They’re the archetype of ‘spray and pray’ firearms whose military value was based more on fear and intimidation than in actually being able to hit anything reliably… but I digress.)

This wasn’t just an accident and a tragedy. In my opinion, this was an act of gross negligence on the part of the “instructor” and the girl’s parents.

The detail that boggles me, even among the gun aficionados who acknowledge it was criminally stupid to let a 9-year-old fire an Uzi on automatic, is how many insist that children need to be taught how to handle and shoot a gun safely. I’m sorry, but as a gun owner myself, and even given the family I grew up in, this is a bs statement. Very young children do not need to be taught how to ‘handle and shoot’ guns. Their first lesson with firearms should be: “Do not touch or go near a gun. If you see a gun, find an adult because these things are dangerous.”

When a minor is old enough to qualify for a hunting license, that’s another matter. (In many states, the age is 12 years and up.) Even then, questions of physical ability and mental fitness of the kid, and appropriateness of the specific firearm need to be addressed. I remember a time when my kid brother was demoted by our father to pack-carrier, because he carelessly wouldn’t pay attention to where the barrel of his 20ga was pointed. That’s how you teach a kid to use a gun.

An Uzi submachine gun, via Shutterstock.

An Uzi submachine gun, via Shutterstock.

We do not let children drive cars or motorcycles because we have deemed that they lack the emotional maturity and physical prowess to do so without endangering others.

We do not let children drink alcohol or buy cigarettes, because we’ve deemed they lack the maturity to do so responsibly.

We do not give children the right to vote for the same reason.

And yet there’s almost no restriction on letting a child use a device that, when used as intended, is fully capable of maiming or killing.

It’s nuts.

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9 y.o. girl shoots instructor dead while learning to fire Uzi machine gun http://americablog.com/2014/08/9-y-o-girl-shoots-instructor-dead-learning-uzi-fire-machine-gun.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/9-y-o-girl-shoots-instructor-dead-learning-uzi-fire-machine-gun.html#comments Thu, 28 Aug 2014 16:34:02 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122397 The parents of a 9-year-old girl from New Jersey, visiting Las Vegas, thought it would be a neat idea to teach their fourth grader how to shoot an Uzi.

An Uzi is a submachine gun. The kind of gun that when you hold the trigger down it just keeps shooting and shooting.

So they took the child to the Last Stop, a combination extreme shooting range and burger joint where kids and adults can shoot machine guns and launch grenades.

Oh, and they throw in a free burger too.

So guess what happened next?

9-year-old-girl--uzi

Moments before the 9 y.o. girl shot her instructor in the head with an Uzi, killing him.

After shooting one shot, the instructor told the girl “all right,” and then switched the machine gun to fully automatic — where if you hold down the trigger the thing keeps shooting 10 bullets per second. The child was unable to control the rapid-fire machine gun, swiveled while shooting it, and shot her instructor in the head, killing him.

Yes, who could have imagined that handing a 9-year-old girl a machine gun might lead to carnage?

Interestingly, the NYT story on this is focusing a lot on the shoot-em-up burger joint, and not at all on the parents of a 9 year-old girl who thought it would be a neat idea to train their young grade schooler on a weapon of war.

The man is dead. The girl is scarred for life. And the parents? Proud defenders of the Second Amendment.

Are we a great country, or what?

bullet-and-burgers

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Time to get your flu shot http://americablog.com/2014/08/time-get-flu-shot.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/time-get-flu-shot.html#comments Thu, 28 Aug 2014 12:00:14 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122391 It’s time to start thinking about getting your flu shot for this year.

The flu vaccine is available in some locations sites now, and will be available at most other places in a few weeks.

Remember that it takes a few weeks to build an antibody response to the antigens in the flu vaccine. You’re not immediately protected against the flu as soon as you are injected. So it’s preferable to get it before cases of the flu start popping up around you.

Most cases of flu usually occur in January and February (in the US). But a number of cases often start occurring in October, so getting vaccinated early is a good idea. Waiting puts you higher risk of getting exposed to the flu and not having a prepared immune system.

Flu shot via Shutterstock

Flu shot via Shutterstock

Remember, that if you wait, and this year’s flu outbreak is serious, there may not be vaccine available when you want it. Manufacturers usually make about 150,000,000-180,000,000 doses of the vaccine each year. So vaccine supplies may be exhausted later in the flu season.

The vaccine is manufactured to protect against three (trivalent) of four (tetravalent) different strains of the flu virus. The CDC and other groups, try to predict which strain(s) will be the most prevalent ones in a given year. But it’s impossible to predict which strain will be the one that causes the most illnesses.

Also, a percentage of patients may not make enough antibodies to protect them against flu. It makes sense to further protect yourself by doing things like washing your hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, avoiding sick people, etc.

Also, if you do get the flu, try to avoid spreading it to others. The elderly, immunocompromised babies and other groups can develop serious complications from flu that could result in death.

You can locate sites where you can get needed vaccine injections (not just flu vaccine) on this map.

Be sure to check out some our earlier coverage about flu vaccines, including evidence that a flu shot could help reduce your chances of having cardiovascular problems, lots of evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism, and more on how anti-vaccine “truthers” have helped bring back whooping cough and measles.

Get your flu shot.

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American Heart Association raises concerns about e-cigarettes http://americablog.com/2014/08/american-heart-association-raises-concerns-e-cigarettes.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/american-heart-association-raises-concerns-e-cigarettes.html#comments Wed, 27 Aug 2014 22:16:37 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122385 The American Heart Association (AHA) has come out with a policy statement on the use of e-cigarettes (ecigs), making a case for tighter control of e-cigarette sales and use.

The policy statement was published online in the AHA’s journal, Circulation.

The article cites studies, information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health organizations. The article also refers to statements made by the American Lung Association (ALA), American Thoracic Society (ATS) and the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS.)

Among the points raised was one I’d raised previously — namely, that the content of ecig cartridges is largely unknow.

E-cigarette via Shutterstock

E-cigarette via Shutterstock

Cartridges contain nicotine in varying amounts, and there are no current satisfactory labeling requirements for ecig cartridges. Many contain glycerol, propylene glycol, flavoring compounds, stabilizers and other additives. The FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products says that it can’t say definitively what is in the solution in the cartridge, or in the inhaled vapor. Some chemicals, when heated during smoking an ecig (vaping), can undergo a chemical conversion to one, or more, different compounds that may have different effects from the parent compound. Glycerol and propylene glycol, for example, when heated, can undergo chemical changes to formaldehyde and acetaldehyde which are carcinogens.

In addition to nicotine, carcinogens may be produced. The New York Times has an article and video on the subject. Depending on exactly what else may be contained in the cartridge, other harmful substances may be released, as well. The FDA, and other organizations, want to require the manufacturers of ecig cartridges to provide a list of exactly what compounds are present in the cartridges that they market.

More from the article in the journal Circulation:

Although the levels of toxic constituents in e-cigarette aerosol are much lower than those in cigarette smoke, there is still some level of passive exposure to organic compounds, nicotine, and fine particles.

To date, there is insufficient evidence to support the notion that exposure to exhaled aerosol has a deleterious impact on bystanders.

Some studies have found very low concentrations of air pollutants across different types, liquids, puff durations, and nicotine concentrations.

The levels of particle and nicotine exposure vary with the composItion of the liquids, the type of e-cigarette, size of the room, puff duration, interval between puffs, and the number of users. Nevertheless, there is concern that nonsmokers will be involuntarily exposed to nicotine, which could be substantial where there is heavy e-cigarette use in confined spaces.

Moreover, unregulated e-cigarette use has the potential to recreate a social norm around tobacco product use in public places, unraveling decades of work on comprehensive smoke-free air laws. (emphasis mine)

In addition, it may promote the image that vaping is accepted and popular. One study, done in teens, showed that many had positive impressions of vaping, saying that it was “cool” and “high tech.” Some said that they felt like rulebreakers when they used (or watched others use) ecigs. They could vape where others couldn’t smoke and could get around “no smoking” restrictions.

Children, teens and young adults constitute a growing population of ecig users. Ecigs all contain nicotine which is known to be addictive. By 2012, over 1.7 million high school students were estimated to have used ecigs. This is a 50% increase over date from previous years.

Public health experts are concerned that using ecigs will lead to the teens to using regular cigarettes as well. One study showed that some teens went on to become regular cigarette smokers; some used both products: ecigs and regular cigarettes.

The CDC reported in April of this year, that there have been increasing numbers of cases of children who have been exposed to the liquid nicotine formulation used in e-cigarettes. The CDC cites calls to poison control centers. Many of the calls involve young children who have been exposed to the liquid. It is toxic and can poison the children if they inhale it or drink it. It is also toxic if absorbed through the skin, so some children have been exposed by damaging cartridges and then playing with them.

The WHO has said that smoking ecigs poses risks not only to pregnant women, but to their developing fetuses as well. Research has shown that nicotine (and its metabolites) cross the placenta. One of their effects can be to decrease blood flow to the placenta and, thus, to the fetus. The nicotine can actually be concentrated so that the fetus is exposed to a higher concentration of nicotine than the mother. The effects are dose-dependent. The more nicotine that the mother inhales, the more deleterious it is to the fetus.

Ecigs have been touted as a means to quit smoking by substituting one form of nicotine (supposedly “safer”) than other forms (inhaled tobacco smoke, smokeless tobacco, etc.) Yet, some research shows that some smokers use ecigs simply as a bridge until they can smoke their next cigarette. They are not trying to quit, merely getting one or more doses of nicotine when they can’t smoke tobacco.

FIRS (an international group of professionals who are specialists in lung diseases) says in a position paper:

• The safety of electronic cigarettes has not been adequately demonstrated.

• The addictive power of nicotine and its untoward effects should not be underestimated.

• The potential benefits of electronic nicotine delivery devices, including harm reduction and as an aid to smoking cessation, have not been well studied.

• Potential benefits to an individual smoker should be weighed against harm to the population of increased social acceptability of smoking and use of nicotine.

• Health and safety claims regarding electronic nicotine delivery devices should be subject to evidentiary review.

• Adverse health effects for third parties exposed to the emissions of electronic cigarettes cannot be excluded.

• Electronic nicotine delivery devices should be restricted or banned, at least until more information about their safety is available.

• If electronic nicotine delivery devices are permitted, they should be regulated as medicines and subject to the same evidentiary review of other medicines.

• If electronic nicotine delivery devices are not regulated as medicines, they should be regulated as tobacco products.

• Research, supported by sources other than the tobacco or electronic cigarette industry, should be carried out to determine the impact of electronic nicotine delivery devices on health in a wide variety of settings.

• The use and population effects of electronic nicotine delivery devices should be monitored.

• All information derived from this research should be conveyed to the public in a clear manner. (emphasis mine.)

So, ecigs contain nicotine which is addictive. They can produce carcinogens, particulates and, possibly, other compounds that are dangerous. Nicotine from ecig cartridges can be toxic and even fatal to children. Nicotine can cause fetal damage and death when pregnant women use them, much like regular cigarettes. Ecigs can be attractive to children and teens from a psychological standpoint. Their ability to help people to stop smoking has not been well demonstrated.

What the FDA aims to do is to require that the makers of ecigs:

  • Register with the FDA
  • Provide a list of ingredients
  • Seek FDA approval to market their products
  • Seek approval to make direct and implied claims of reduced risk
  • Include health warnings

These do not seem to be excessively restrictive requirements. Even to the degree that two ecig manufacturers are supporting what the FDA is planning to do.

Lorillard agrees with the FDA’s position and has said that it has already started to implement some of the proposals.

NJOY, another manufacturer, says that it wants to make tobacco smoking “obsolete.” NJOY feels that ecigs are better alternatives to tobacco and will reduce both heart disease and cancer in those who use ecigs vs. smokable tobacco products.

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Grindr smartphone app outs exact location of gays across Iran http://americablog.com/2014/08/grindr-smartphone-app-outs-exact-location-gays-across-iran.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/grindr-smartphone-app-outs-exact-location-gays-across-iran.html#comments Wed, 27 Aug 2014 19:16:48 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122348 A design flaw in the popular smartphone app “Grindr” permits anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world, to identity the near-exact location — to within about 100 feet (30 meters) — of every gay men, worldwide, who is using the app at any given moment.

The locations of over 200,000 gay men, across the world, have already been pinpointed by the security breach in the past week, according to the gay European who discovered it.

As an example of how serious this really is, I just used Grindr to find the location of every gay man in Tehran, Iran who was online at the moment I checked. If I were to click the blue dots, you could see their profile.

Every gay man in Tehran, Iran who was on Grindr when I checked it using the security glitch:

every-gay-in-tehran

Here is every gay man in Iran who was online at the moment I checked. If you zoom in further, you can find the exact street and corner they’re on.

Keep in mind that just a few weeks ago, Iran executed two men, human rights authorities believe because of their gay sexual orientation.

All 189 gay men identified in Iran since the security glitch was discovered, with their exactly location:

iran-grindr

All 189 gay men identified in Iran since the security glitch was discovered, with their exactly location.

Here’s one young gay Iranian I easily found, to the detail of his street corner, in Bandar-e Anzali, Iran — population 110,000. I have blurred his face, and have zoomed out the map, so that he can’t be identified.

Bandar-Anzali-Iran

I easily found the location, to the detail of his street corner, of a young gay man in Bandar-e Anzali, Iran — population 110,000. I have blurred his face, and have zoomed out the map, so that he can’t be identified.

Now, you might think that a 100 foot margin of error is enough to hide the exact location of the  young Iranian gays. But what happens if authorities go door to door, to the two or three homes or apartment buildings in the area, and show this young man’s photo to every occupant? It would likely be easy to find him.

I’d reported on this problem extensively yesterday, showing examples of gay men in America, Paris, Uganda, Turkey, Jordan, and even in the British House of Commons and the Republican party headquarters in Washington, DC.

In a nutshell, services like Grindr, which basically are applications used for dating and/or hooking up, show you how many feet, meters, miles or kilometers you are from other users in your area. What the app does not do is tell you exactly where those users are, or even what direction they are from you — so it’s impossible to know where they actually are.

The security glitch, discovered recently by a gay European Grindr user who prefers to remain anonymous, permits anyone to find that exact location. The person who discovered the glitch has protected the data so that no one can access who is online in particularly sensitive countries that Grindr serves (like Iran). They gave me special permission to peruse those countries, under the agreement that I make every effort to obscure the exact location and identity of the Grindr users.

Here is an example of what a typical Grindr user sees when checking out the profile of another  user — note the person’s distance from me, 2 miles:

grindr

The design flaw, however, permits you to locate the near-exact location of every single Grindr user who is online at any one time — down to a 100 foot (or so) margin of error.

Using the security glitch, I was able to find dozens of gay men in Tehran, down to the location they were on a particular block. Again, I’m making this map very small so that it’s impossible to actually tell where the men are.

Here is Tehran and all the gays online on Grindr just a few hours ago. If you click the blue dots, you get to see their screen name and profile image. A number of them use their actual face as their profile image.

tehran-small

Grindr gays online in Tehran, Iran at any one time.

Here’s an example of how detailed the searches, and the resulting maps, really are. I did not attempt to locate any gays in this particular map, rather I zoomed in to show you how detailed the map is when you zoom in all the way. Here is Tehran, at full resolution. It shouldn’t be terribly difficult to locate someone once you now what block they’re on and have a photo of their face.

tehran-map

Here are more of the gay teens and men around Iran that I found over the past 12 hours.

Shiraz, Iran — population 1.3 million:

shiraz-iran-grindr-zoom-outxx

Sowme’eh Sara, Iran — population 36,000:

Someh-Sara-Iran-Grindr

Isfahan, Iran — population 3.8 million (again, this is zoomed out for their protection):

Isfahan, Iran, population 3.8 million.

Meet the gays of Isfahan, Iran, population 3.8 million.

Amir of Tabriz, Iran — population 1.4 million:

amir-of-tabriz-iran-grindr

Meet Amir, of Tabriz, Iran — population 1.4 million.

Grindr’s recent claim that the security breach isn’t a glitch, but rather an intentional feature, rubbed many the wrong way.  First, Grindr’s statement:

“We don’t view this as a security flaw. As part of the Grindr service, users rely on sharing location information with other users as core functionality of the application and Grindr users can control how this information is displayed. “For Grindr users concerned about showing their proximity, we make it very easy for them to remove this option and we encourage them to disable ‘show distance’ in their privacy settings. “As always, our user security is our top priority and we do our best to keep our Grindr community secure.”

A friend who has a PhD in physics from MIT begged to differ. Here’s what he sent me, in response to Grindr’s claims:

Grindr is violating its users’ security and privacy, and they are doing it by design. Grindr’s design permits anyone with a computer connection to make a map showing the locations — accurate to about 100 feet — of every Grindr user in the world.

I believe Grindr when they say this is something they “intended all along”. Any service which permits anonymous users to access a distance to other users from an arbitrary position nearby, and permits those users to submit multiple locations, empowers the users to triangulate locations of identified users. It is a design flaw – from the point of view of security and privacy – to permit this capability. Grindr gives users the ability to suppress this — by turning off “Show Distance” under “Settings…Privacy”. But a user shouldn’t have to take proactive steps themselves to fix the unanticipated security and privacy risks that Grindr poses: Grindr should be proactive in protecting their users’ security and privacy, and right now, they are not. The Grindr app poses a danger to their users’ security and privacy, in its design.

Here’s a few ways how using this app poses a danger to their users’ security and privacy. In Iran (and many other countries), it is illegal to be gay — and often, in those countries, they’re not tied up on issues like a burden of evidence, the mere implication being enough. The police force in Tehran can make three internet queries to Grindr, and they will have the location and photograph of every Grindr user in Tehran, accurate to 100 feet. They can then send out officers with these photographs and locations, start knocking on doors, and showing the photographs around, until they find the user — which, with only 100 foot large region, will be very quickly. In a day, the police could round up every Grindr user in Tehran, and they’d be executed soon thereafter.

There are a couple of ways Grindr can overcome this “threat to privacy-by-design”. One way is to remove “distance” entirely from the fields provided. That would make it impossible for third parties to make a map of users. That would be the best way. Grindr can still respond to queries from legitimate users with, say, the 50 closest other users, but not provide the distances. That would completely thwart nearly all distance-based security/privacy threats.

Another way is to make a decision, and by design, not give out location accuracy to better than, say, 1 mile. However, one flaw of this approach is that it makes an assumption about what is “safe” — and 1 mile may be safe enough in a dense urban environment, where a 100,000 people might live, but could still be dangerous in a sparse rural environment.

Another way is to give Grindr users options: “How accurately do you want others to know where you are?:” and give options: 100 feet, 1 mile, 10 miles, “Do not show”. In each case, Grindr’s broadcasted “distances” would only be accurate to the stated distance, and would thwart triangulation to an accuracy better than the stated distance.

Finally: Grindr should *include* in their app the ability to map out other nearby Grindr users. Grindr says this information is available by design, but what we’re seeing now is many Grindr users did not work through that this meant anyone, anywhere can see exactly where they are. By providing users a map with the locations of other nearby users (with pictures), it would inform their users what information about them is actually being broadcast by grindr, so that their users could take action to protect themselves, like degrade how accurately others can see their location, or turn location services off entirely.

Stay tuned. I’ve got a whole lot more stories coming.

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Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine as Putin embraces the Bush legacy of foreign failure http://americablog.com/2014/08/russian-soldiers-captured-ukraine.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/russian-soldiers-captured-ukraine.html#comments Wed, 27 Aug 2014 12:00:42 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122316 Kiev has captured ten Russian paratroopers who admit crossing int Ukraine. And Russia has finally admitted what has been obvious since the start of the Ukraine crisis: Russian soldiers have been fighting Ukrainian forces in Ukraine.

Putin looks more like the Russian George W. Bush every day. Putin has whipped his country up into a war fever with fraudulent claims of atrocities being committed by the Ukraine government. Putin is fighting a covert war in the hope of provoking an excuse for an invasion. And every use of force by Putin has only made his political and military situation weaker.

Lets recap what has happened in Ukraine in the past twelve months.

This time last year, Ukraine was a close Russian ally, and the Russian lease on the Sevastopol naval base was completely secure.

Putin used to run the domestic equivalent of the KGB.

Putin used to run the domestic equivalent of the KGB.

Ukraine was considering closer ties to the EU, with a tariff agreement but that would benefit Russia almost as much as Ukraine.

Putin’s heavy-handed attempt to block the deal with the EU led to protests in the Ukrainian streets. And what the protestors were most insistent on rejecting was Putin himself. The Ukrainian opposition are not anti-Russian, they are anti-Putin.

By February, President Yanukovych of Ukraine was on the run as he faced impeachment proceedings and prosecution for embezzlement on a massive scale. Panicking, Putin ordered his forces already stationed in Crimea to commence an occupation leading to annexation in March.

The historical joke here is that the glorious Russian victory in capturing the Crimea was never much of a gain. The Crimea is a desert; the only strategic asset being the port of Sevastopol. And that is strategically worthless without control of the Bosphorus strait.

Annexing Crimea actually makes Russia’s long term position considerably weaker. It is a question of when, not whether, Russia relinquishes control yet again. It may take decades, a century even, but Russia will eventually leave. And Ukraine isn’t going to be at all friendly to Moscow until it does.

There is a large Russian speaking minority in eastern Ukraine. But speaking Russian is not the same as wanting Putin to rule your country. Americans, for example, speak English. That does not, however, mean that they miss the Queen.

Putin appears to be adamant that he will not allow Ukraine to leave Russia’s sphere of influence. But everything Putin does only deepens the divide. The only way that Putin can prevent the total collapse of his proxy forces in Ukraine is to mount an invasion, an enterprise that is surely doomed to defeat. The Soviet Union had a population of almost 300 million, but went down to ignominious defeat attempting to occupy Afghanistan with a population of a mere 10 million at the time.

The population of Russia is 145 million; off Ukraine, 45 million. Imagine for the sake of argument that a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine succeeds, and Putin declares Mission Accomplished from the deck of a Russian battleship. Where does Russia find the troops to occupy Ukraine? And how does Putin prevent other parts of the decrepit Russian empire from breaking away while the majority of his armed forces are tied down in the southwest?

Unlike the US in Iraq, Russia does not enjoy an overwhelming military advantage over Ukraine. (And Iraq remains a thorn in America’s side.) What’s more, we are now in late August and winter is coming. It’s not exactly the optimal time to take over your neighbor.

Putin’s head is now in a noose of his own making. He can’t withdraw without a loss of face that would completely destroy the brutish self-image he has striven to create. But invading Ukraine might trigger the breakup of what remains of the Russian empire.

And then, Russia’s geopolitical foes, internal and external, will all be singing “Mission Accomplished.”

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ESPN reports on gay Rams rookie Michael Sam’s showers http://americablog.com/2014/08/espn-reports-michael-sams-showers.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/espn-reports-michael-sams-showers.html#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 20:28:45 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122336 I’m not 100% sure that I’m as upset about this as others are.

An ESPN reporter, Josina Anderson, when asked how new Rams recruit Michael Sam was faring (Sam is openly gay), reported something she’d heard from one of Sam’s teammates. Namely, that Sam seemed to be skipping the showers while his other teammates were there. Ostensibly not to make them uncomfortable.

I think it’s newsworthy, and a bit sad, that Michael Sam himself may have chosen not to take showers with his teammates in order to not make them uncomfortable.

And I’m not at all convinced that ESPN’s Anderson did anything wrong in her reporting on it. She reported what she heard, then talked to other teammates who seemed to undercut the story. (It would be good to know if Sam himself had anything to say about it.)

michael-sam-showerLook, “showers” are an unfortunate issue we’ve had to deal with in the gay right arena for decades. It was one of Sam Nunn’s favorite arguments when he was busy torpedoing President Clinton’s effort to lift the ban on gays in the military back in 1993. So, I think we do ourselves a disservice when ignoring the “shower” issue.

Having said that, I think Anderson, and whoever was hosting over at ESPN, could have perhaps done a better job here by throwing in the point that the whole issue of “showers” is a bit silly. But it is an issue for some of the homophobes, so I don’t think we should ignore it, or avoid it.

And I have to say, the way Anderson handled it pretty much put the issue to bed, as it were. As I said above, I’m not a big fan of ignoring the elephants in the room when discussing civil rights issues, or any other “conflict.” Of all the ways Anderson could have handled this, I wasn’t terribly offended by what she did.

Am I wrong?

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Grindr security glitch exposes gay users in Uganda, Russian Kremlin http://americablog.com/2014/08/grindr-security-glitch-exposes-users-uganda-russian-kremlin.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/grindr-security-glitch-exposes-users-uganda-russian-kremlin.html#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 17:54:40 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122322 I wrote this morning about the disturbing security glitch in the popular gay smartphone app “Grindr,” which permits anyone with an Internet connection — including people who are not registered with Grindr, and who are not even logged into the service — to determine the precise location of any Grindr user.

Moments ago I was able to find three Grindr users in one of the most homophobic countries in the world, Uganda, and 3 more inside the Russian parliament and the Kremlin itself.

Here are the Grindr users, blacked out by me so they’re exact location isn’t disclosed.

uganda

And a colleague of mine was also able to find two Grindr users inside the Russian state Duma (parliament), and one inside the Kremlin itself (the Kremlin is the lower red circle, the Duma the top). And as my colleague notes: “It might be worth mentioning that the Duma is completely closed to the public. The Kremlin has open hours are 10am-5pm, but that image was taken at 9:22pm Local Moscow Time, well after the Kremlin was closed to the public.” In other words, these gay people likely work there.

duma-kremlinAs I noted in my earlier story, while apps like Grindr routinely show the distance one user is from another user, they do not show the users’ precise locations. Here is an example of what Grindr actually shows.

grindr

In this case, it shows this person as being 2 miles away from me, which really doesn’t give me any actionable information were I wanting to harm this individual.

What Grindr’s security glitch provides, however, is the person’s exact location to anyone — not just to Grindr users, but to anyone with an Internet connection.  That might be a problem for the three Grindr users I just found in Uganda’s capital, let alone the three Grindr users in Russia’s homophobic Duma and Kremlin.

To give you a sense of the breadth of the problem, here’s an earlier example of a popular neighborhood in Paris (note: the map zooms in much closer than this, but I didn’t want to make it too obvious where these guys lived):

paris

The thing is, while Grindr claims that this is a necessary and expected part of its service, it is nothing of the kind. I use Grindr, and have for years. Grindr users are not aware that by going on Grindr they are divuling their exact location to anyone with an Internet connection. They think they’re simply telling people how far away they are, without indicating the direction. There’s a big difference in telling a total stranger that you’re two miles away, and telling them that you live in the second house from the corner on Maple Street in Peoria, Illinois. And the problem is especially grave when Grindr users have no idea that this information is in fact being divuled publicly.

When Grindr users choose to turn their location data on (you can turn it on or off in the settings), they are not making an informed decision about their privacy, as they simply do not realize that their precise location is so readily available. This is a serious privacy violation that Grindr can no longer afford to ignore.

The risks are serious enough for any typical Grindr user, let alone gay men (and teens) in places like Uganda, or the Kremlin.

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Popular gay dating app Grindr faces creepy security breach allegations http://americablog.com/2014/08/grindr-users-unwittingly-giving-away-exact-location.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/grindr-users-unwittingly-giving-away-exact-location.html#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 12:00:25 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122285 The wildly popular gay dating app “Grindr” is facing accusations that a glitch in its system is giving away the actual location of its users to anyone with a Web connection.

The charge, first reported by NDTV – which I tested and found to be accurate — is that someone not even signed in to the phone/tablet application can find the location of any Grindr user to within about 100 feet.

Among the locales in which gays were detected by my test of the security breach: Turkey, Jordan, the British House of Commons, and the DC headquarters of the Republican National Committee.

(Update: Using the Grindr security glitch, I just found three gays in Kampala, Uganda; and a colleage found two inside the Russian state Duma (parliament), and one inside the Kremlin itself.)

(Update: The security glitch has now exposed the locations of nearly 200 gay men in Iran, a country in which gay men are hanged.)

Grindr has responded, claiming that the ability to identity the location of its users isn’t a security flaw, but rather, something they intended all along.  That claim might come as a surprise to Grindr’s users, who, like me, probably had no idea that they were divulging their exact location to anyone.

Online privacy while gay

Now, why would knowing someone’s location be a problem?

First, there’s personal safety. Sometimes you just don’t want everyone knowing where you live, especially strangers you chat with online.

Second, sometimes you value your anonymity because you’re not “out.” Many gay people are not out of the closet, either because they just aren’t comfortable having everyone know they’re gay, or because they live somewhere where it’s not safe being gay (such as Russia, Africa, certain parts of America, etc.)  They could also be a minor who’s not out to their parents.

How Grindr determines location

Many Grindr users give permission for their general location to be known to other Grindr users – and I emphasize “general.” Depending on the options the user selects, the app will show the distance in feet, meters, miles or kilometers between the user and any other nearby users.

For example, here’s someone 2 miles away from me. Note that while Grindr tells me the person is 2 miles away, I get no additional information as to where they’re located, so I really have zero idea where the person actually is. I can’t even guess what town he’s in, as there are probably 3 towns within that distance from where I am:

grindr

But while the app shows that you’re, say, “1000 feet” from a nearby user, it does not show the direction of the other user. Thus, while you know that he’s 1,000 feet away, he could be north, south, east, west, or anywhere in a 360 degree arc; making it impossible to know where he actually is.

The “flaw,” however, uses triangulation to permit anyone to determine the actual location of that user within around 100 feet.  And as one reader notes below, that’s all you need to out someone, especially someone who lives in a rural area:

Wow, I just tried this on myself. I’m currently in a very rural area, and it pinpointed to my exact location. Because there’s no address anywhere near 100 feet of me, anyone can find exactly where I am.

Very alarming! I’m not closeted and don’t generally feel threatened here. But for any homophobe or sociopath to be able to anonymously determine how to get to my front door or window is very disturbing… I’ll likely discontinue Grindr until I see this resolved.

I tested the triangulation via a Web site posted by an anonymous person. The site permits you to zoom in on a map of the US or Europe and find which Grindr users are online, and where they’re located on the map. In my case, the Web site was able to find me on a map within 100 feet of my actual location. (I tried other continents, but was unsuccessful.)

In contrast to some reports online, when I turned off the “show distance” setting in Grindr, my blue dot did in fact disappear from the Web page. It then came back when I turned “show distance” back on.

Examples of locations of Grindr users

Here are some examples of Grindr users the site was able to find in the US and Europe.

Here’s Chicago’s downtown:

downtown-chicago

Here’s the neighborhood just south of Paris’ Place de la République:

paris

Here’s Malta:

malta

And Palermo, Sicily:

palermo
And Turkey (I’m intentionally not zooming in all the way, so it’s not entirely clear where these people are):

turkey

 

And Jordan (intentionally blurred):

jordan

Israel and Gaza:

Israel-gaza

And here’s Moscow, just north of Red Square (I obscured the exact locations):moscow

Here’s Kyiv, Ukraine:kyiv

Here are the US Senate office buildings, circled in red:senate-and-congress

And here are the US House office buildings:US-house-

And here’s someone “working” late in the British House of Commons:house-of-commons-better

And here’s, apparently, an intrepid employee of the Republican National Committee in Washington, DC.rnc-dc

Grindr says it’s not a bug, it’s a feature

Per Joe My God, Grindr has apparently responded to the concerns, saying that this isn’t a security flaw:

“We don’t view this as a security flaw. As part of the Grindr service, users rely on sharing location information with other users as core functionality of the application and Grindr users can control how this information is displayed. “For Grindr users concerned about showing their proximity, we make it very easy for them to remove this option and we encourage them to disable ‘show distance’ in their privacy settings. “As always, our user security is our top priority and we do our best to keep our Grindr community secure.”

Well, that’s a bit disingenuous.

When I’ve used Grindr, or any online app that estimates my distance to another user, I never imagined that someone could use the app to find my actual location within 100 feet. So when Grindr users make a decision as to whether to “show distance,” they’re not necessarily making an informed decision to “show location” as well.

And I seriously doubt that any Grindr users were aware that showing their near-exact location (and to someone who doesn’t even have an account on Grindr and isn’t even signed in) was a “core functionality of the application.”

It’s actually kind of creepy.

Also note that the not-a-bug doesn’t just show anonymous blue dots. It shows you the name and picture associated with the user’s profile, when you click the blue dot.  For example, here’s Chicago again, when I clicked on the blue dot at Wabash and Monroe:

chicago-grindr-pic

Personally, I find Grindr’s answer disturbing.  I don’t sign in to Grindr in order to let people track my near-exact location as I move around town, and I doubt most of Grindr’s users do either.  Especially Grindr’s users in Russia, Africa, and lots of other places where it’s downright deadly to be gay.

I’m also awfully curious how this comports with Europe’s notoriously strict privacy laws.

This is a security flaw, and it needs to be fixed now.

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The latest on the African Ebola outbreak http://americablog.com/2014/08/latest-african-ebola-outbreak.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/latest-african-ebola-outbreak.html#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 19:33:20 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122275 The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has declared an Ebola outbreak.

The government says that as many as 13 patients may have died from the disease, including a doctor and a few nurses. The government says that the area is already quarantined and people will not be permitted to enter or leave. As of today, these cases had not been confirmed by the WHO. DRC says that the strain isolated from two of the cases is different from the strain currently causing Ebola elsewhere. Again, that has not been demonstrated by the WHO.

Ebola outbreaks tend to occur during the dry season (roughly the end of October to March.) That’s the timeframe when the current West African outbreak started. The government of the DRC did not release any information as to whether any of the suspected Ebola patients had been out of the country. The DRC is a more common site of Ebola. Ebola in West Africa, until now, was rare.

The WHO, and a personal contact I know who is working closely on the Ebola outbreak, both suggest that the outbreak seems to be slowing a little in Nigeria and Guinea.

“[The]WHO expressed “cautious optimism” that the spread of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation where four deaths out of 12 confirmed cases have been recorded since July, could be stopped.

Tourist photographer travels on a pirogue on the jungle of the central Africa. In 30 september, Congo Brazzaville, Africa. Tourist photographer travels on a pirogue on the jungle of the central Africa. In 30 september, Congo Brazzaville, Africa.

Tourist photographer travels on a pirogue on the jungle of the central Africa. In 30 september, Congo Brazzaville, Africa. Tourist photographer travels on a pirogue on the jungle of the central Africa. In 30 september, Congo Brazzaville, Africa.

It also described the situation in Guinea, where the virus made its first appearance in West Africa in December, as currently “less alarming” than in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The WHO said it was working with the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) to ensure food delivery to 1 million people living in Ebola quarantine zones cordoned off by local security forces in a border zone of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.”

Some of the affected countries have instituted blockades of areas within their territories to prevent the movement of those suspected of having Ebola. The governments are now making sure that food, some medications and other supplies are available to that populace. Leaving them unsupplied would only encourage them to travel to obtain needed food. One are, West Point a slum in Monrovia, has been cordoned off. Water and supplies are being passed into the residents, but no people are allowed in or out.

Those Ebola patients who fled the Liberian quarantine site when it was attacked by rioters, have been found and placed back in isolation at another hospital. A government spokesman says that teams of workers will go door-to-door in Monrovia. They will try to educate and calm the locals and get them to come in to a clinic if they feel ill.

Three African doctors in Liberia, who are infected with Ebola were treated with ZMapp. Mapp, the manufacturer of ZMapp has no more of the drug left. Even if more were available, the primary method of stopping the outbreak would still be quarantine and control of infected citizens, protective garb, frequent hand washing, etc.

Abraham Borbor, one of three doctors in Liberia who had contracted Ebola and had received the experimental drug, ZMapp, died.

Even though the WHO is supposed to be supplying the affected areas with money and supplies, apparently it is slow in doing so. Some Liberians report that burials in some areas have been halted due to the lack of body bags. Protective rubber boots are almost gone, as is hand sanitizer.

Reports seem to show that all of the cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone stemmed from one woman. A healer-herbalist claimed that she could cure Ebola. This triggered a wave of patients to come from Guinea to visit her for her “treatment.” Officials feel that the influx of patients brought Ebola to Sierra Leone. The herbalist became ill herself with Ebola. However she apparently continued to infect others even after her death through mourning rituals that allowed attendees to come into contact with her. The virus spread in the region and there have been about 365 deaths from Ebola.

A British nurse, William Pooley, a volunteer who had been working in Sierra Leone, is the first UK citizen confirmed with Ebola. He was flown back to Britain, in isolation, and has been taken to a hospital there for treatment.

Nigerian doctors, who had been on strike over pay and working conditions issues with the government, finally agreed to suspend the strike and go back to work. So far, there have been about 15 cases of Ebola reported in Nigeria with five deaths.

The New York Times has a good article profiling a nurse, and her colleagues, from Sierra Leone. She is in charge of the Ebola isolation unit at a hospital. Most of her colleagues have died from Ebola. Some health care personnel have been thrown out of their homes by family or spouses who fear that they will get Ebola.

A possible case of Ebola, isolated in Sacramento, CA tested negative for the disease.

Patients have been placed in isolation, suspected of having Ebola, in a number of areas throughout the world: Vietnam, Myanmar, Germany, Ireland and a few other locations.

As a reminder, most of these cases are being isolated even if there is a tiny chance that they could have Ebola. The watchwords are that medical facilities and doctors are using an “abundance of caution” when confronted with anyone who is showing symptoms that could be Ebola coupled with a positive recent travel history to the involved countries.

Some countries are closing their borders to travelers from the countries involved in the outbreak. Some airline crews are refusing to fly into countries where Ebola is found. Additional airlines are canceling flights to the region. Of course, this is making economic conditions worse in these countries that already have such poor economies. Nigeria, with a much more robust economy is not feeling the bite as yet. But should Ebola continue to spread there, it could also suffer economic repercussions.

The Japanese government says that a drug developed by Toyama Chemical company, Avigan, might prove useful against Ebola. The drug was developed for treatment of influenza. Researchers postulate that it might be effective against Ebola, but it’s never been tested for that use. It has been approved in Japan for use in treating the flu. The company has about 20,000 doses available and will send them to the affected areas if the WHO requests the medicine. Toyama is discussing the possibility of testing the drug against Ebola in humans.

A Canadian drug manufacturer reported that it has an anti-Ebola vaccine that looks promising. Four monkeys, immunized with the vaccine survived a dose of Ebola virus that should have been fatal to them. Two other monkeys who got the virus dose, but not the vaccine, died within a week.

A few other vaccines are in various stages of development. Two may enter clinical trials as in just a few weeks.

However, production and human of vaccines will take quite some time. The emphasis now needs to be on diagnosis and isolation of people stricken with the disease.

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If animals really looked the way kids draw them http://americablog.com/2014/08/animals-really-looked-way-kids-draw.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/animals-really-looked-way-kids-draw.html#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 17:38:14 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122270 Dutch artist Telmo decided took some drawings he made of insects, animals, and objects at age 4, and reimagined them today as though the objects looked, in real life, just as he drew them as a kid.

Here are two of his recreations, you can find the rest on his Web site.

FLIEAF2

WHALE-finnsmall

It would be a fun project to expand on, including looking at how kids see adults.

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Brain-dead teen, only capable of rolling eyes and texting, to be euthanized http://americablog.com/2014/08/brain-dead-teen-capable-rolling-eyes-texting-euthanized.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/brain-dead-teen-capable-rolling-eyes-texting-euthanized.html#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 15:02:08 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122260 “The Taggart family of Cedarville, Oregon set off a firestorm of controversy after petitioning the state for the right to end the life of their 13-year-old brain-dead daughter….

“At the age of 12 Caitlin slipped into a persistent vegetative state confining her almost entirely to Facebook.”

facebook-euthanized

“We just keep reminding ourselves that the real Caitlin is gone. It’s just her body texting.”

This is absolutely hysterical, from the Onion:

Screen-Shot-2014-08-25-at-9.55.49-AM brain-dead-facebook

daughter-brain-dead-texting


Brain-Dead Teen, Only Capable Of Rolling Eyes And Texting, To Be Euthanized

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Aaron Schock finds a new reason to show off his chest http://americablog.com/2014/08/aaron-schock-finds-new-reason-show-chest.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/aaron-schock-finds-new-reason-show-chest.html#comments Sat, 23 Aug 2014 16:40:06 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122245 Aaron Schock, the “conservative” “anti-gay” Republican congressman who never misses an opportunity to show off his “hot” bod, has found another reason to bare his “too busy to date a girl” pecs.

Schock took the ALS challenge, a recent rather-effective gimmick to raise money, and publicity, for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.  Basically, people take video of themselves having ice water poured on their heads.

aaron-schock-als-challenge

Reportedly, “more than 2 million ice bucket challenge videos featuring tech giants such as Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos have helped raised more than $20 million for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research and awareness since July 29.”

Some have taken umbrage at ALS raising money, and awareness, from such a goofy campaign. For example, this has been flying around Facebook:

als-ice-charity

But I say, why not? Fundraising is per se “goofy.” People don’t just give money to various candidates and causes because it’s a good idea. You generally need to find a hook to get them to give. That hook can be a specific threat (“oh my God, the Republicans are about to pass legislation killing Social Security!”), or it can be giving the donor something in return (such as the celebrity-studded galas that organizations throw as fundraisers).

You shouldn’t have to throw a champagne dinner in order to get someone to give to a civil rights cause, but it’s what works, so that’s what groups do to raise money.

So, rather than criticize ALS for what was a rather brilliant marketing and fundraising scheme, I suppose you should be criticizing human nature. But I’m not entirely sure what good the criticism really does. I do know what good the ice challenge is doing — it’s raising real cash for a real disease, and that’s definitely something.

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Advair, Symbicort charge Americans 5x what they charge Europeans http://americablog.com/2014/08/advair-symbicort-charge-americans-5x-charge-europeans.html http://americablog.com/2014/08/advair-symbicort-charge-americans-5x-charge-europeans.html#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 11:18:40 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=122225 International pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca are charging Americans approximately five times what they charge the French for the popular asthma medicines Advair (Seretide in France) and Symbicort.

Advair 500 goes for $73 (55 euros) in France, while in America GlaxoSmithKline charges a whopping $391 for the drug (the most recent price at Costco). That’s 5.36x what they charge the French for the same exact drug.

And Symbicort goes for $60 (45 euros) in France, while in America AstraZeneca charges $272 for the drug, or 4.5x what it charges the French.

Advair sells as "Seretide" in France, where the drug is five times cheaper than it is in America.

Advair sells as “Seretide” in France, where the drug is five times cheaper than it is in America. And not because the French subsidize the price, but rather because they negotiate the price and the US refuses.

Merck is even worse. The pharmaceutical giant charges Americans $197 for Asmanex 200.

And how much does Merck charge the French? $25 (19 euros). Yes, Merck charges Americans 7.9x what it charges the French for the exact same drug.

Oh, and that’s the price the French pay BEFORE their insurance picks up most or the tab.

I confirmed the price discrepancies while shopping at a local pharmacy in Paris this week.

As the chart below shows, the drug companies’ actions are even more duplicitous than simplying charging customers more based on their American citizenship.

Over the past five years, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has raised the price of Advair by 43% in the US market. But in France, GSK dropped Advair’s price by 13% over the same period.

AstraZeneca similarly raised its prices for Symbicort in America by 40% from 2009 to 2014, while dropping its prices by 17% in France over the same period.

advair-symbicort-asmanex

We’ve written extensively about the incredible mark-up pharmaceutical companies charge Americans.  It’s the reason a growing number of US insurance companies are refusing to pay for Advair at all.

Of course, as I noted in a story earlier this year, the NYT got it wrong when it suggested that Advair competitor Symbicort was somehow charging a fair price in comparison. AstraZeneca’s price is only “fair” if you consider gouging Americans with a 4.5x markup better than gouging us with a 5.36x markup.

As economics professor Steve Kyle explains, the reason the prices are different in the US and France is because the French government negotiates drug prices while the American government does not.

In fact, it’s illegal for the US government to negotiate the price the Medicare program pays for prescription drugs. Why? Because of US senators like Delaware’s Tom Carper, who are a wholly-owned subsidiary of the drug companies — in Carper’s case, the company that owns him is AstraZeneca. (The Republicans are just as bad).

So the next time you consider giving Carper a donation, or voting for him, keep in mind that he’s the reason you’re paying nearly 5x what you should be for that asthma drug that’s saving your kid’s life — assuming you can afford it at all.

In fact, an American mom just posted the following on Facebook:

My son needs Symbicort for his asthma but even with insurance we cannot afford the $90 copay so we no longer buy it. There is no generic. We just keep our fingers crossed he does not have an asthma attack. This article really upsets me.

As Dr. Thoma wrote yesterday, high copays is one of the ways that insurance companies still manage to undercut health care for people they’re required to cover under Obamacare.

We’re #1.

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