Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cheaper Than Box Stores

Here's a question everyone wants answered:

We know that giant box stores - Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Sam's Club, etc. - have the lowest prices on SOME items. The problem is that near those eye-catching displays with the $14 DVD player, there are usually items that cost MORE than nearby stores charge.

How can this be so? Because they're businesses. Their job isn't to save you money, it's to make you THINK you're saving money, whether you are or not.

That's why I'm setting up a website - cheaperthanboxstores.com - where regular folks can share info about what they've learned about lower prices locally for items sold in those huge box stores. All I'm planning to do is host the forum where YOU share what you've learned. As the amount of information grows, I'll add links for different locations.

In the meantime: What have you found in your area that's sold for one price at the local box store, but can be found cheaper, nearby, at other locations?

Friday, September 25, 2009

"AIDS Vaccine" Story Gets Booster from Major News Outlets

Reuters reports that a test of an "AIDS vaccine" in Thailand has been shown "31.2% effective" in preventing HIV infection. The report also describes these results as "inconclusive," while the AP adds that 50% was the measure of success the study was designed for, to demonstrate "clear benefit." In other words, this vaccine cocktail of two proven-worthless vaccines has not demonstrated any clear benefit at all.

These are contradictions that need to be addressed editorially, and no report I have found yet does so. Even those reports that have now updated their boosterish headlines include reporting that assumes a cause-and-effect relationship from vaccine to prevention. The latest Reuters hed even rounds up (the miscalculated, see below) 31.2% to an even sexier (and 7.25% larger than truth) "1/3". Donald G McNeil Jr., at the NY Times, told me (see update below) that his editors did the same thing to his bylined story on the vaccine trial. (
The most recent version of his story has been updated to remove all implications of agreement with the researchers' overreaching conclusions.)

The exaggeration rampant in these reports (McNeil's excepted) is crazy boosterism, not responsible reporting. The editorial responsibility here is to be more cautious than the enthusiastic researchers themselves (plus others caught off-guard for a snap response on the phone). And that's where it's all gone wrong. No one has evaluated the numbers as numbers in context. And no one should be using unmodified verbs like "prevented" and "blocked" to describe these results until that analysis is complete.

In that spirit, my very limited, preliminary whack here, hoping to prod better qualified others':

Of about 16,400 normal-risk 18-30-year-old Thai volunteers in the study (by the US Army, Thai health officials and others), half received a vaccine cocktail of two previously ineffective vaccines, while half received a placebo. The trial was based on a "hunch" by researchers, not any previous evidence of effectiveness. Of the two groups, 51 and 74 study participants, respectively, became infected with HIV. Real people, divided in two groups beforehand. Not a randomized look at a randomized sample from a greater population.

I stress the sketchy parts, because they all undermine the pure numbers involved.

Col. Jerome H. Kim, MD, "manager of the army's HIV vaccine program" (per NYT) is quoted in all reports claiming "31.2% effectiveness" based on that difference of 23 from the placebo group's 74 infected.

First of all, 23/74= 31.08%! But Dr. Kim's 31.2 has been picked up by the New York Times, Bloomberg, and dozens of other news outlets. Anybody got a calculator? Remember long division?

The far greater problem is that while the study size was large, the differential of 23 is tiny. Twenty-three is an awfully small number to derive three decimal places from. So, how small would that number have to have been to be considered insignificant? The expert I spoke to today suggested that a difference of 17 might have been small enough to be statistically meaningless. Seventeen versus 23 is an awfully thin margin when talking about actual study participants and their individually unique high-risk behavior.

Not to mention proving that a vaccine works.

But it gets worse: The initial Times report mentioned,

The most confusing aspect of the trial, Dr. Kim said, was that everyone who did become infected developed roughly the same amount of virus in their blood whether they got the vaccine or a placebo.

Normally, any vaccine that gives only partial protection — a mismatched flu shot, for example — at least lowers the viral load.

So the vaccine seems to act as if it doesn't work at all. How about that!

Not only that, previous studies of each of the drugs showed a possible increase in HIV infection within the non-placebo groups. So not only do we have odd, scientifically questionable results, they come with tiny numbers, erroneously calculated . . . and reported as if they provided concrete evidence of effectiveness.


My expert was Prof. Joel Levine, chair of the department of Mathematics in Social Sciences at Dartmouth College (and, full disclosure, with whom I'm preparing a textbook on statistics). He did find the numbers potentially significant, but noted that by "quick and dirty" calculation, the standard deviation from the 74 infected folks would be about 56.8 through 91.2. In which case, 51 becoming infected while on the vaccine represent only six fewer than what might generally be expected randomly, a concept which, he carefully notes, "would depend on convention, no more (no less)," and, again, does not account for the peculiarities of high-risk conduct while contracting HIV.

57? Statistical noise. But 51 infected while on the vaccine proves it sometimes works? Not possible.

Prof. Levine stresses that statistical analysis is as much art as science, which can put a damper on the cause and effect behind 31.08% fewer infected study participants in the vaccine group. Different behaviors? Different meds? Poor sorting of the placebo/vaccine groups? Who knows? Reporting as if the cocktail caused the lowered numbers is akin to magical thinking, regardless of the enthusiasm and spin of very interested sponsors of the massive trial.

Are these results statistically significant enough for further investigation? Of course. Why not? But clearly, the cocktail is not effective enough. Can it be shown the drugs "prevented," "blocked," and "cut" infections, as reported? Sorry. No. No matter how many people shout it's so.

Given the the buckshot nature of statistical sampling with actual pre-selected humans (and their randomly distributed high-risk behaviors), to agree editorially with Dr. Kim and assert any "effectiveness" jumps well beyond the scope and defensible conclusions of this study. And let's not forget: The AP reports that the threshold of "clear benefit," beforehand, was to be established at 50% prevention.

That's probably where it should stay, despite today's exciting and suggestive numbers, and researchers' new suggestions that a vastly lower threshold demonstrates a clear benefit as well.

UPDATE: After composing this post, I spoke by phone with Donald McNeil, the author of the NY Times report (who contacted me by email in response to my notes to Senior Editor Greg Brock). He asked me precisely some of the questions here, particularly ("from one scientist--not a biostatistician"), "How many more infections would it have taken to make the difference statistically meaningless?" I have updated, above, to reflect changes he's made to his initial story.

He says he expects his hard look at these numbers to run in Sunday's Times. Bravo.

SUNDAY TIMES UPDATE: It's the lead story on the Times website, the cover piece of the Week in Review. Not surprisingly (as it closely follows this blog post!), I think he got it right. I'd rather be quoted, but glad to be recognized as a blogger "with a taste for biostatistics".

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When Is the News Selling Us a False Narrative?

Let's take a look at Sunday's NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. 

Mr. Holt opened the newscast with a lede that suggested Sen. Obama's foreign trip was running into trouble:

"Barack Obama's venture onto the world stage has already proven to be a walk onto a diplomatic and political tightrope, trying to balance his role as a US Senator versus that of a presidential candidate. He came face-to-face in Kabul today with--"

Face to face? With that tightrope, Lester?

No, with "the leader of Afghanistan to talk about a resurgent Taliban. But Obama is also talking US policy and his own vision of the future of American military power in the region. And his words tonight are reverberating from the war fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Pentagon. NBC's Richard Engel is covering Obama's visit and has the latest from the Afghan capital."

So what does Richard Engel report about the "tightrope", the "reverberations"? 

Engel sets out the Obama plan: "He wants to send 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and pull all American combat forces out of Iraq in 16 months, a timetable for Iraq the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today described as risky." 

We then see Adm. Mike Mullen, on FoxNews with Chris Wallace, saying, "I think the consequences could be very dangerous in that regard. Um, I'm convinced at this point in time, that, coming, making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important." 

Does Mr. Engel note that Sen. Obama's timetable DOES account for conditions on the ground? 

No. He reports it as he said/he said. Obama wants this, but Mullen wants that. No mention that they're not actually different. 

So Obama's words are "reverberating . . . to the Pentagon" in that the Pentagon wants to take potshots at the Democratic candidate, untethered to facts?

The second report comes from Andrea Mitchell, who "joins us [from Baghdad] to put this all in perspective."

And what shall we sing along with Mitch? More he said/he said!

Lester Holt asks her to explain the differences between Obama's position and McCain's, and she answers, "There really has been a lot of clarity. The differences have become very apparent between Obama and John McCain, especially, even in the last couple of days, since he started on this trip. Obama believes that the surge has not given the Iraqi enough political progress. John McCain believes that the surge has worked, and even takes credit for it."

The President's stated goal for the so-called surge was to give the Iraqi government space for political conciliation, which hasn't happened, given that the Kurds have walked out of the government. Any mention that Sen. Obama is quoting the President's own goals while McCain is moving the goalpost to the 20-yard line? 


Mitchell goes on:  "Obama believes that there should be a withdrawal in 16 months, based on the conditions on the ground. John McCain says that's dangerous, and only today, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen, said it would be, quote, 'very dangerous'."

OK: Mitchell has mentioned that Obama, just like Adm. Mullen, agrees withdrawal from Iraq must be attuned to "conditions on the ground." Except that she, like Richard Engel, never notes that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs isn't actually contradicting Obama.

At the end of Mitchell's report, Lester Holt nods twice, briskly, as if his narrative of the "Obama tightrope" has been explained, when in fact we've now had three reporters, Holt, Engel and Mitchell, all failing to do their jobs, parroting Administration criticism--issued via Adm. Mullen--without providing any context at all for the Admiral's misleading words. 

And NBC has some of the best network coverage. If that's the best, no wonder we're in such trouble.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

How can we read Vid Hardt at the AtLargely site?

Hey Question Authority!

Is it true you're also writing at Larisa Alexandrovna's blog, AtLargely.com?

Mai Shill

Dear Shill--


Here's the link for my first piece there, under my legal name of David L Steinhardt.

( http://www.atlargely.com/2008/04/the-margin-of-e.html )


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

What About the March 14, 2003 John Yoo Memo?

Hey, The Question Authority--

Exactly why am I supposed to care that an 81-page memo got released today, that was renounced 9 months after it was written?

A. Plante

Dear Planted Questioner:

It's all about saying torture, which is illegal, is legal. Got that?

Let's go through it page by page!

Scary to see legal authority deriving from, right at the top, other blind assertions of legal authority! Since when are legal memos from Charles Colson or William Rehnquist (when he was WH counsel), to Nixon, legal precedents? Nixon was headed to impeachment, and Colson went to jail! Considering the talk of "unelected judges" by Republicans (which always contrasts with oaths to "protect, preserve and defend the Constitution"), not-even-confirmed White House counsels are far below that threshold of establishing US law!

p 2:

"We believe that necessity or self-defense could provide defenses to a prosecution." Thank you, Consigliere Yoo! Torture may not be legal, but here's how you defend yourself at your war crimes trial!

p 4:

"Given the massive destruction and loss of life caused by the September 11 attacks, it is reasonable to believe that information gained from al Qaeda personnel could prevent attacks of a similar (if not greater) magnitude from occurring in the United States." Never questioned, in the memo, is this notion that torture actually works. Which it doesn't.


"...the structure of the Constitution demonstrates that any power traditionally understood as pertaining to the executive--which includes the conduct of warfare and the defense of the nation--unless expressly assigned to Congress, is vested in the President." Which is why the president can ignore laws?


"Recognizing this authority [to detain prisoners], Congress has never attempted to restrict or interfere with the President's authority on this score." Except when they have, which is why Yoo had to write this memo.


Yoo throws the kitchen sink at the 5th Amendment, citing Salerno (1987) that the USG can detain, and in 1937's Cummings v Deutsche Bank Und Discontogesellschraft that CONGRESS may enact laws seizing property of enemies and Eisentrager (1952) that enemy aliens are subject to arrest and deportation "whenever a 'declared war" exists." FOOTNOTE 11, on this page, shows why: "Our analysis here should not be confused with a theory that the Constitution somehow does not 'apply' during wartime. The Supreme Court squarely rejected such a proposition long ago in Ex parte Milligan" 1866 "and at least that part of Milligan is still good law." Those who are jumping up and down about FN 10, which asserts the 4th Amendment doesn't apply when the military acts within the US, can calm down a little.


"These cases AND THE UNTENABLE CONSEQUENCES FOR THE PRESIDENT'S CONDUCT OF A WAR THAT WOULD RESULT FROM THE APPLICATION OF THE DUE PROCESS CLAUSE demonstrate its inapplicability during wartime--whether to the conduct of interrogations or the detention of enemy aliens."

Quite the leap there.


"These canons include the avoidance of constitutional difficulties, inapplicability of general criminal statutes to the conduct of the military during war, inapplicability of general statutes to the sovereign, and the specific governs the general. The Criminal Division concurs in our conclusion that these canons of construction preclude the application of the assault, maiming, interstate stalking, and torture statutes to the military during the conduct of the a war."


"In light of the President's complete authority over the conduct of war, in the absence of a clear statement from Congress otherwise, we will not read a criminal statute as infringing on the President's ultimate authority in these areas."




"...the courts generally defer to executive decisions concerning the conduct of hostilities."



Congress can't "make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces", footnote 13 on p 13, because Yoo says so. And all the citations on the page itself, are other legal opinions by executive appointees, not judicial.

"...we will construe potentially applicable laws ... not to apply to the President's detention and interrogation of enemy combatants.... We believe that this approach fully respects Congress's authority." Again: unless Congress says WE REALLY MEAN IT, we will assume laws do not apply, because they couldn't possibly have a different view of the USConstitution than we do.


Yoo eats his own tail here: in the absence of REALLY MEAN IT Congressional action, Congress can't regulate "properly authorized acts of the military during armed conflict," which are, of course, whatever the president says they are, regardless of the law.

SUPER OMINOUS PART: "For many years, our Office has also applied this canon in several highly classified contexts that cannot be discussed in this memorandum."

A spurious graf follows asserts the "ridiculous" notion that if laws applied to soldiers, they wouldn't be allowed to kill people.

Then: "This canon of construction, of course, establishes only a presumption." And mentions that the War Crimes Statute does indeed regulate military behavior in wartime.


US v Nardone says laws cannot wreak "absurdity" upon the prerogatives of the executive. Yoo takes this molehill and makes a mountain.

All Yoo's citations, in graf 2, that laws may not limit the president's "conduct of interrogations" are of books. Not laws, not legal decisions. Just books.

FN 14 cites five more books.


"Under our Constitution, the sovereign right of the United States on the treatment of enemy combatants is reserved to the President as Commander-in-Chief." What article of the Constitution would that be?

Graf 2: likens regulating interrogations to a case where police held up mail because the mail carrier was arrested for murder. "For the reasons we explain above, the application of these general laws to the conduct of the military during the course of war would create untenable results."

graf 3 insists that "the torture statute" does not apply to the conduct of military personnel.


"It could be argued that Congress specifically enacted section 3261 to extend special maritime and territorial jurisdictional crimes to the members of the Armed Forces and those accompanying or employed by them. Such a contention would, however, be incorrect." Because we say so.


Section 2340--the torture stature-- IS a clear statement of intent by Congress, but since it uses language less broad than in the War Crimes Statute, it's OK to ignore it because that "would raise grave separation of powers concerns."


Yoo forgets about the law, and just bellies up to the bar to offer his rationale for a lawless executive:

"It may be the case that only successful interrogations can provide the information necessary to prevent future attacks upon the United States or its citizens. Congress can no more interfere with the President's conduct of the interrogation of enemy combatants than it can dictate strategic or tactical decisions on the battlefield. Just as statutes that order the President to conduct warfare in a certain manner or for specific goals would be unconstitutional, so too are laws that would prevent the President from gaining the intelligence he believes necessary to prevent attacks on upon the United States."

Specific goals? As in the authorization of force again 9/11 plotters?

No citations.

Section B, pp 19-32

Laws do apply, and (FN 23, p 23) our reading might not pass Court muster, but . . . there are possible criminal defenses to these crimes. You can beat the rap if you're not specifically trying to violate it.

Section C, pp 32-47

Though the War Crimes Statute and prohibition against torture don't apply, here's a roundup of why they don't. Even though (FN 38, p 33), Article 3 violations are war crimes under Section 2441. p 34: "conduct toward members of al Qaeda could not constitute a violation of common Article 3 . . . and thus could not violate Section 2441 (c)(3)," because we've previously said it doesn't.


2340-2340A (torture act) applies in Afghanistan, but not at GTMO.

51- 53

Reagan construed torture as only the worst treatment, with lesser abuse equated to the language of the 5th, 8th and 14th amendments, and even though Bush 41 backed off that a bit, mind-altering substances would be OK so long as it didn't nearly kill the prisoner.


If I can convince you we're not violating 2340, then we're not violating the Convention Against Torture either. And even though our "reservations" amount to gutting the treaty, and that's explicitly not OK under the Vienna Convention on Treaties, if we say we're not gutting it, we're not gutting it. FN60: even though we're not party to Vienna.



"Some may argue that permitting the assertion of justification defenses under domestic law, such as necessity or self-defense, would place the United States in violation of its international obligations. Such an argument would point to article 2(2) of CAT, which provides that '[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.' We do not believe, however, that a treaty may eliminate the United States' right, under international law, to use necessary measures for its self-defense."

And proceeds to justify self-defense itself, as if that were the issue!


It's impossible to violate a treaty, because violating it invalidates it!

"Although these [torture] actions might violate CAT, they would still be in service of the more fundamental principle of self-defense that cannot be extinguished by CAT or any other treaty. Further, if the President ordered that conduct, such an order would amount to a suspension or termination of the Convention. In so doing, the President's order and the resulting conduct would not be a violation of international law because the United States would no longer be bound by the treaty."


Sure, torture is illegal in the US, but only when it's UNNECESSARY.


If a detainee might have info, deprivations/interrogation methods are not "wanton or unnecessary."

In other words, kids: there ain't no law if we say there ain't no law. Another step toward fascism, documented because the ACLU sued to have it released, and because today's Vanity Fair article about the war's lawlessness is so damning, the government figured today would be the best time to release it.

The Question Authority

Friday, March 28, 2008

Should We Abolish The Electoral College?

Dear The Question Authority:

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is the latest politician to say it's time to eliminate the Electoral College.

Is that a good idea?

Sen. Bill Nelson

Dear Sen. Nelson:

No. Your idea stinks.

Want to know why?

Remember 2000? Scouring each and every Florida hamlet in search of the several votes that could swing the presidency?

Now imagine a national election that was that close. Now imagine trying to scour every fucking election district in a nation of 300,000,000 people, searching for SINGLE VOTES.

Listen: the fact is that elections are not airtight. There's shrinkage, fraud, error and more.

That's why we have 51 separate elections, in each state and DC, to decide the presidency. That way, the worst that can happen is that there's a scramble within a state, not the whole country.

The Electoral College may be archaic, undemocratic, and weird. But it works.

The Question Authority

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is Cannabis Prohibition Constitutional?

Dear The Question Authority,

Banning booze took a constitutional amendment in 1920. How is it that marijuana is illegal without such a constitutional change?


Maria Janowski

Dear Mary Jane,

Good question.

First off, the law is what judges say it is, so yes, marijuana prohibition has passed all legal processes, so I wouldn't light up a joint on 3rd Street and tell your arresting officer to go stuff it.

But let's not forget the Ninth Amendment to the US Constitution. It states,

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

So what does it mean?

It means, basically, that any rights which the people of this country had before the Constitution, are retained even if the Constitution is silent about them.

So what do we know about our rights before the US Constitution?

Well, the Declaration of Independence declares that we have rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The Bible, that favorite legal text of right-wing crazies, states in Genesis that humans have dominion over all the plants and animals. And, regarding hemp specifically, we have George Washington's log entry regretting that he failed to kill his male hemp plants one year--essential only for growing smokable hemp, not industrial hemp for rope.

The Question Authority can thus state confidently that the Ninth Amendment SHOULD render all marijuana prohibition laws unconstitutional, because it tramples on a right the people brought into this union: the right to grow what we please and enjoy it.

But we'll have to wait for a few more hep-cat types to hit the Supreme Court before such laws will ever be struck down on Constitutional grounds.

The Question Authority