Equality, Shmequality

Rick Santorum had this to say a few days ago:

“Where do you think the concept of equality comes from?” Santorum said on the campaign trail last Friday (Jan. 20). “It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions. It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

This resulted in the mouthpiece of the Hindu American Foundation calling Santorum’s comments bigotry.

Now I am no fan of Santorum (link NSFW), but is equality really such an important concept in Hinduism? Do Dalits and Brahmins drink wine from the same cup? Do the Hindu religious texts and figures teach Brahmins and Shudras to marry each other?

Jains, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists were also outraged according to the article.

Does religion really teach equality of all? Seems to me that all these religious spokesmen doth protest too much. Their religions preach equality. Except when they don’t (which is often).

Your Genes, Regulated?

The FDA had a meeting the last two days:

FDA is convening this two-day meeting to seek the Panel’s expert opinion and input on scientific issues concerning Direct to Consumer (DTC) genetic tests that make medical claims.

This meeting is focused specifically on issues regarding clinical genetic tests that are marketed directly to consumers (DTC clinical genetic tests), where a consumer can order tests and receive test results without the involvement of a clinician.

The American Medical Association of course wants to limit genetic testing so that you would need a doctor to supervise everything.

We urge the Panel to offer clear findings and recommendations that genetic testing, except under the most limited circumstances, should be carried out under the personal supervision of a qualified health care professional, and provide individuals interested in obtaining genetic testing access to qualified health care professionals for further information.

23andme had two presentations at the meeting which they have posted on their blog.

In our presentations, we take the position that all genetic testing services, whether ordered by a physician or offered through direct access, should adhere to the same standards. We simultaneously request that the FDA consider redefining and establishing regulatory standards, including some fundamental definitions, to accommodate large-scale genetic testing and support innovation of its technologies and applications. We also request that regulation be based upon evidence and not fear of potential harm to individuals which, to date, has not been demonstrated. In fact, growing numbers of participating individuals and independent studies focused on this issue provide preliminary evidence that the vast majority of people understand the information presented and experience no significant negative effects.

Genomics Law Report had an overview of the issues beforehand as well as a Twitter roundup of the meeting. Here are his thoughts after the first day:

First and foremost, I fully expect the MCGP (Molecular and Clinical Genetics Panel) to note, likely more than once, that given the complexity of the questions put to it by the FDA it should be afforded far more time to deliberate and research prior to making any recommendations.

If taking time out for further debate isn’t an option, what is the MCGP likely to recommend? Based on today’s deliberations, I think it’s a safe bet that the MCGP will advise the FDA to (1) demand clear proof of analytical and clinical validity for all genetic tests and (2) require that most, or perhaps even all, genetic tests with demonstrated or potential clinical significance be (to use the FDA’s terminology) “routed through a clinician.”

In other words, I think the odds strongly favor an MCGP recommendation to the FDA that clinical (as defined by the FDA, which is itself a separate issue) direct-to-consumer genetic testing, when offered without a requirement that a clinician participate in the ordering, receipt and interpretation of the test, be removed from the marketplace. At least for the time being.

If you read my blog, you probably know my politics as being quite liberal. I do, however, think that any regulations have to be shown to have actual tangible benefit and prevention of harm. Simple misinterpretation of genetic results by a regular joe causing hypothetical harm is not enough justification.

So what can you do? Razib Khan is already on the task.

1) I am going to release my own 23andMe sequence into the public domain soon. I encourage everyone to download it. I would rather have someone off the street know my own genetic information than be made invisible by the government. That is my right. For now that right is not barred by law. I will exercise it.

2) Spread word of this video via social networking websites and twitter. The media needs to get the word out, but they only will if they know you care. Do you care? I hope you do. This is a power grab, this is not about safety or ethics. If it was, I assume that the “interpretative services” would be provided for free. I doubt they will be.

3) Contact your local representative in congress. I’ve never done this myself, but am going to draft a quick note. They need to be aware that people care, that this isn’t just a minor regulatory issue.

4) The online community needs to get organized. We’re not as powerful as a million doctors and a Leviathan government, but we have right on our side. They’re trying to take from us what is ours.

5) Plan B’s. We need to prepare for the worst. Which nations have the least onerous regulatory regimes? Is genomic tourism going to be necessary? How about DIYgenomics? The cost of the technology to genotype and sequence is going to crash. I know that the Los Angeles DIYbio group has a cheap cast-off sequencer. For those who can’t afford to go abroad soon we’ll be able to get access to our information in our homes. Let’s prepare for that day.

Here are the links to contact your House Representative and your Senators.

Georgia Primary Election 2010

For me, the primary election season started with an early July 4 gift from the Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp asking me to submit proof of my citizenship. Strangely, I have actually voted in an election since I registered to vote. According to the letter, my driver license record doesn’t show that I am a citizen, which is true since I last renewed my license before I naturalized as a US citizen. Efficient that I am, I even called Driver Services after becoming a citizen to ask if I needed to do something to update their records, but they said to wait until the next renewal. Thus, I spent my July 4th (slight exaggeration) making copies of my passport to send to the county registrar.

Georgia is a fairly red state and I live in an even redder part of it. So there are a bunch of contests where there are either no Democrats running or just one running unopposed as the likely sacrificial lamb for the November general election. I have a rule about voting against unopposed candidates. I simply write in some name and never vote for anyone running unopposed.

Now on to who is running in the Democratic primaries and who I am voting for tomorrow.

US Senate:
Incumbent: Johnny Isakson, Republican, who’s running for reelection

Democrats running in the primary are R. J. Hadley and Mike Thurmond. While neither of them will likely have much of a chance in the general election, I am voting for Mike Thurmond.

U.S. Representative, District 6:
The incumbent, Tom Price, is running unopposed in the Republican primary and there are no Democratic candidates.

Governor:
There are a bunch of candidates of which the two front-runners are former governor Roy Barnes (who lost his reelection bid in 2002 to current governor Sonny Perdue) and Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

I was planning on voting for Roy Barnes until he came out in support of the Arizona anti-immigrant law. Being an immigrant who has had his share of fuck-ups by USCIS, I am not at all in favor of states causing more problems for immigrants (both legal and illegal). Therefore, I am voting for Thurbert Baker.

Lt Governor:
Incumbent, L.S. Casey Cagle, is running unopposed in the Republican primary while Tricia Carpenter McCracken and Carol Porter.

Since I cannot find a website (or any other info) for McCracken, I am supporting Carol Porter.

Secretary of State:
Gail Buckner, the Democratic candidate in 2006 (who lost badly), is running again. Angela Moore, 3rd in teh crowded 2006 primary, is also running again. Gary Horlacher, the polygraph guy, is the most interesting candidate since he took a lie detector test to start off his campaign. There’s also Georganna Sinkfield.

I met Michael Mills at the start of the campaign season and liked him. So I am going to vote for Michael Mills.

Attorney General:
Ken Hodges and Rob Teilhet are running in the Democratic primary. I’ll vote for Rob Teilhet.

State School Superintendent:
None of the Democratic candidates, Beth Farokhi, Joe Martin, or Brian Westlake seem to be for education reform and testing, so I am in a quandary. I’ll likely vote for Brian Westlake.

Commissioner Of Labor:
Terry Coleman and Darryl Hicks are the two Democrats running. I’m planning to vote for Darryl Hicks.

Unopposed Statewide Races:
J.B. Powell is the only Democrat running for Commissioner of Agriculture while Mary Squires is the only one running for Commissioner of Insurance. Similarly, Keith Moffett is the only Democratic candidate for Public Service Commissioner, District 2 Eastern.

As is my practice, I’ll write in some random name in these races.

Georgia House District 46:
Paul Kennedy is the only Democratic candidate, so I won’t vote for him.

Georgia Senate District 56:
There is no Democratic candidate, but I have seen lots of signs for the three Republican candidates.

Fulton County Commission:
Commissioners for Districts 1 and 2 are elected at large in Fulton county. The Democratic candidates John Eaves (Dist 1) and Robert Pitts (Dist 2) are running unopposed in their primaries. Thus, I’ll write in someone random.

I live in District 3 where the only candidate for County Commissioner is Liz Hausmann running in the Republican primary.

Election Day 2009

Election Day is Tuesday (I support Why Tuesday? in changing it to a weekend or a holiday), November 3. Since this is an off year, there aren’t any big contests.

Here in the city of Milton in North Fulton county, we have some city council elections.

The current mayor, Joe Lockwood, is running unopposed. So we are left with three city council members. Interestingly, the council members are elected at large, i.e. by all of Milton, with the condition being that the candidates must reside in the district which they want to represent. The at-large election means that voters like me have to think strategically about the balance of power in the city council rather than just the suitability of individual candidates.

Two good resources for the election are the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Voter Guide, which provides information about all of the Atlanta metro area, and the Access Milton blog for local Milton news.

The main issue for the city council election is development and growth. This area of Fulton county used to be very rural in the recent past and even now there are big farms in most of Milton. However, there has been some development too, especially in the Crabapple area and on Highway 9. Lots of people here want to keep the “rural character” and oppose extension of sewer and “high density” development. I put high density in quotes because around here 1 acre lots count as high density. We come from much higher density of course. We lived in the AtlantaPiscataway, NJ (density: 2,688.6/sq mi). Milton’s density is about 556/sq mi.

I don’t mind growth. In fact, I like growth. And I don’t like the idea of local governments limiting growth and encumbering the free market. Of course, growth can be dumb or smart. And mindless growth at the time of a real estate boom can leave lots of ghost neighborhoods. But that is something that can be managed such that the city grows naturally and in a smart and sustainable way. I should probably also mention that I live on a quarter acre lot which is tiny by Milton standards. I don’t know why the people who like free markets and dislike the government, like they do here in North Fulton, are so big on using the municipal government to stop the evil developers.

Let’s look at the individual races for the Milton City Council.

In District 1, where I live, the contest is between the incumbent Karen Thurman. According to her detractors, Thurman is in the pocket of developers. Wolff wants to keep the rural character of the city. I was leaning towards Thurman but what pushed me over to her was the discovery that Wolff was part of the dishonest Swift Boat Sailors & POWs for Truth campaign against John Kerry in 2004.

In District 3, incumbent Bill Lusk is the only one on the ballot but Al Trevillyan is running as a write-in candidate. Al’s basically the anti-sewer candidate. I am not entirely sure about this one, especially since I can’t find much information about Lusk’s position on the issues. But I am leaning towards voting for Lusk.

In District 5, incumbent Tina D’Aversa is running against Joe Longoria. D’Aversa is supporting the challenges to Lusk and Thurman, so she’s on the anti-development side, though Milton’s local politics has been very acrimonious and personal, so there might be more to it than a difference of opinion on the issues. I must say I have found reading D’Aversa’s website, press releases and campaign literature difficult because of over-the-top self-praise. Also, D’Aversa has an ethics complaint filed against her for trying to bribe her opponent to withdraw. I agree with Longoria that Milton’s top challenge is raising enough revenue to provide good services and infrastructure. Thus, I am supporting Longoria.

Going over the candidates’ biographies, it’s interesting that I am supporting a Georgia Tech graduate (I am one too) and two engineers (Software and Civil Engineering) while I am an Electrical Engineer.

UPDATE (Nov 3 11:57am): Just voted at my local precinct. There was almost nobody there.

UPDATE (Nov 4 8:09am): The candidates I endorsed for the city council, Thurman, Lusk and Longoria, won. The turnout was 19.4%.

iTunes U and Podcasts

Since I got my iPhone, I have started listening to podcasts and courses put online by universities.

Specs listed the podcasts she listens to and Razib also mentioned a podcast recently, so I thought I should list the stuff I have been listening to on my iPhone and may be Razib and others can chime in with some suggestions.

Here’s my current list of podcasts:

In addition, here are some courses and lectures on iTunes U and as podcasts that I have been listening to or that are in my listening queue:

What do you recommend?

The Audacity of Hope

I read Obama’s book about his political program during the election and inauguration.

I don’t usually read books by politicians, especially about current politics. However, being an Obama supporter and volunteer, I thought I should read his book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

I had already read Dreams From My Father and loved Obama’s writing style. The Audacity of Hope is also written well. Of course, I liked Dreams From My Father better, but that’s because of its subject of autobiography and identity.

The Audacity of Hope was written when Barack Obama was a US Senator and I started reading it a bit before the election. I finished it around inauguration time. As to why I didn’t read it earlier? I got it early in 2008 but then most of my spare time was consumed by the election campaign. I started the book only when I went to Pakistan for a couple of weeks in October.

In this book, Obama explains his views and his political program. Having followed his career since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, I was familiar with a lot of his views. But two things still stood out. One is how Obama is actually fairly moderate. The other is Obama’s tendency to give an honest airing to conservative views and even agreeing partly before arguing for his liberal viewpoint on any issue. This quality, the so-called post-partisanship, was evident throughout the book.

Torture, Prosecution, CIA and Public

Torture is what keeps me up, it’s what’s on my mind. I am afraid that it’s a policy that while discarded now will return another day as the country is almost equally divided on its use.

I have been knee deep in torture recently. No, I haven’t been tortured nor have I tortured anyone. I have been reading about torture. I recently wrote about torture in my review of Taxi to the Dark Side where I collected links to my previous writings on the subject as well. I also discussed US public opinion about torture a few months ago.

With the recent release of the OLC torture memos, the torture debate has restarted again. There have been calls for prosecuting those who carried out the torture and/or those who made the policy decisions. Obama has called for looking forward instead of backward (imagine if every criminal had the same attitude). Senator McCain is against investigating torture or prosecuting anyone.

I am generally of the opinion that if the state must fall it must fall but we should get to the truth. However, after reading a lot about torture I have a distinct feeling that there is not going to be any prosecutions and even if there are, the chances of acquittal are very high. I find myself agreeing with most of the points Tyler Cowen makes against prosecution. The public opinion just isn’t there against torture (more on this in a bit). Hence, I believe it is more important to build a consensus against torture than to prosecute, as Matt Yglesias argues.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. For starters, we should make sure that the architects of the torture policy, like George Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, etc. are kept far from the levers of power. Therefore, I support efforts to impeach Jay Bybee, former head of OLC and currently a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Also, we need a commission or some other mechanism to make public all the details about torture as practiced during the Bush era.

There are some who think that it was the higher echelons of the Bush administration that was responsible for torture. I think it’s clear now that this is wrong. Democratic leaders might not have ordered the torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) but some of them knew about it and some even approved. Similarly, other Western governments or their intelligence agencies were complicit, directly or indirectly, in renditions, torture, black sites, or sharing intelligence.

While there were courageous people in the military, government and civil society who opposed torture and did try to stop such practices, there were also a lot of others, lawyers, military commanders, CIA personnel and others, who were fully complicit in requesting, approving and implementing torture. I am about to finish reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and it makes the case in detail. See, for example, former CIA counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer’s response or Condi Rice’s defense of imperial powers for the President.

That’s why I found the case of abolishing the CIA to be worth considering. CIA has a history of illegal activities (see Family Jewels and Church Committee Report and Iran-Contra report). Spencer Ackerman argues against abolition of CIA, but I found Quincy Adams and Matt Yglesias more convincing.

As for arguments about torture and its efficacy, I think torture is wrong regardless of whether it can yield any useful information or not. It is possible for torture to extract true information, though typically there’ll be lots of false confessions as well. However, it’s inhuman and morally wrong and that’s why we shouldn’t do it. As Obama said recently:

waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. […] And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways — in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kevin Drum’s reasons for opposing torture.

I don’t care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law. I don’t care about the difference between torture and “harsh treatment.” I don’t care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists. I don’t care whether it “works.” I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement. But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn’t be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn’t be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there’s no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide. Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great. Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eye blink.

Let’s look at recent polls about torture and investigation.

In the NBC/WSJ poll, 50% disapprove of Obama ordering the closing of Guantanamo detainee prison and 53% disapprove of the release of the OLC torture memos. 53% think that the Bush administration used torture while 30% say that they didn’t. 46% say that the harsh interrogation helped the US extract information while 42% think it hurt the US by undermining its moral authority. And only 33% want a criminal investigation of the Bush torture policy.

In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, 53% support Obama’s release of the torture memos. 48% think there are cases when torture should be considered and 51% support an investigation of the treatment of detainees.

In a Gallup poll, 51% favor an investigation of harsh interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration, but 55% think such treatment of terrorism suspects was justified.

30%, seem to agree with Cheney’s position that the ends justified the means and that no investigation is necessary. Nearly as many (25%), though, would appear to side with many congressional Democrats who say the techniques should not have been used and an investigation is warranted. Twenty-three percent think the techniques were warranted yet still favor an investigation, while 10% think the methods should not have been used but nevertheless oppose an official inquiry.

66% of Democrats favor an investigation while only 48% of independents and 37% of Republicans do. 39% of Democrats think use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects were justified while 55% of independents and 80% of Republicans agree.

In the New York Times/CBS News poll, 37% say waterboarding and other aggressive techniques are sometimes justified to extract information from a suspected terrorist while 46% disagree. Interestingly, only 16% of African Americans think they are justified. Only 71% consider waterboarding to be torture. 34% want Congress to investigate torture and warrantless wiretapping. 47% want to keep the Gitmo prison while 44% want to close it.

As you can see, there is some variation in these surveys. Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman try to explain why that is. While support for torture investigation varies from 33% to 51% in the various polls, the other numbers are a bit more consistent. The country seems to be almost equally divided on whether the torture memos should have been released and whether the Gitmo prison should be closed. Those who think torture is sometimes or always justified seem to vary from 37% to 55% while opposition to torture never reaches majority status either.

Looking at my previous writing on public opinion about torture, there doesn’t seem to have been any big change in public opinion in the US.

Finally, Pew did a survey about torture breaking down the numbers by religion, attending church, political party, etc.

Often justified Sometimes justified Rarely justified Never justified
Total US 15% 34% 22% 25%
White evangelicals 18% 44% 17% 16%
White non-Hispanic Catholics 19% 32% 27% 20%
White mainline Protestants 15% 31% 22% 31%
Unaffiliated 15% 25% 29% 26%
Attend religious services at least weekly 16% 38% 19% 25%
Attend religious services monthly 18% 33% 23% 23%
Attend religious services seldom or never 12% 30% 27% 26%
Republican 15% 49% 21% 14%
Independent 19% 35% 23% 19%
Democrats 12% 24% 22% 38%

Only a quarter of Americans are against torture under all conditions. This is astounding, but even worse is that only one of six white evangelicals and one in seven Republicans thinks torture is never justified. Even if we are generous and add up the numbers for those who think torture is rarely justified to the “never justified” ones, only 47% of Americans are against the use of torture. But only one-third of white evangelicals and 35% of Republicans are opposed to torture. I guess we could call these people the American Taliban.

While the Pope has come out against torture, among his followers American White Catholics a bare majority believes torture is often or sometimes justified. I wonder if any priest will deny communion to these torture-supporters.

The only groups (among those listed) with a majority who think torture is never or rarely justified are White mainline Protestants (53%), the unaffiliated (55%), those who seldom or never attend religious services (53%) and Democrats (60%). It’s disappointing that even these numbers are so low.

It can be argued that this support of torture by the religious is not a result of their being religious but rather due to the fact that those who are more religious are more likely to be Republicans in the US. I would agree with that, however, if religion can’t even get the deeply religious to oppose such an inhuman practice as torture, what use is such religion?