August 8, 2013 9:16 am
A few months ago, the internet was abuzz with a new, dangerous craze sweeping Japan: eyeball licking.
The Telegraph wrote that a “craze for “eyeball licking” among Japanese schoolchildren is reportedly causing a surge in eye-related infections.” ABC’s headline feared “are we next?!” Their story described a practice in which “corrupted youths slide their bacteria-laden tongues across the eyeballs of their willing victims.” CBS said that the trend could cause people to go blind.
Well, it’s a good thing that the eyeball licking scare of 2013 was too weird to be true. The trend never happened. It turns out that the story was a case of media hype combined with mistranslations. Mark Schreiber, over at Number 1 Shimbun, explains where the story came from:
The source wasn’t that difficult to find. An article in Japanese titled “Shogakusei ni gankyuname hentai purei ga dairyuukou” (The perverted play of eyeball-licking is a hit among primary schoolers) appeared on Friday, June 7 on Bucchi News, a site for subculture enthusiasts.
The story’s sole informant was “Y,” an anonymous teacher at a primary school in Tokyo, who revealed how he had traced an epidemic of pink eye at his school to “hentai (perverted) play” in the form of rampant eyeball licking among students. Notably lacking in attribution and details, the story had all the trappings of an urban legend.
It turns out that Bucchi News isn’t exactly a reliable news site. They’re published by Core Magazine, whose company was raided by police in April and who were forced to shut down several of their magazines. A former Core Magazine editor was the first person arrested in Japan under their new child pornography ban. The story was picked up by other sites, cherry-picked for details, and grew to outsized proportions in the wilds of the internet.
Schreiber called a few professional organizations in Japan, including two ophthalmological associations to see if they had heard of the horrid spread of disease by eyeball licking. None of them had.
So, never fear. We are not next to suffer from the eyeball licking craze, because that craze never actually existed.
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August 7, 2013 1:25 pm
Sixty-two years ago, Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American, passed away from cervical cancer in Johns Hopkins Hospital. But not before a sample of her tumor cells were taken without her consent. Her cells went on to become the immortal HeLa line, infinitely reproducing and leading to scientific insights into cancer, AIDS, genetics and much more. Her case has raised significant ethical questions about the nature of research, consent and genetic material, but now, a comment piece, published today in Nature, suggests that the contention surrounding Lacks and her surviving family members may come to an end.
As journalist Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, made clear, Lacks’ family harbored a deep discontent about their relative’s stolen cells. They were never informed that Lacks’ cells were taken; they never received any royalties from the HeLa line; and researchers often ignored Lacks’ great personal legacy.
Here’s the run-down of the key events in this story:
- 1951: Henrietta Lacks passes away. Doctors take a tissue sample from her body, without her consent and without informing her family.
- 1970s: Researchers begin asking the Lacks family for DNA samples, and the family finds out about the HeLa line.
- 1976: The Detroit Free Press and Rolling Stone publish stories about Lacks. Without a clear explanation of what has happened to Lacks’ cells, some of her family members believe that clones of their relative are walking around or that Lacks somehow is still alive.
- 1980s and 90s: Reporters hound the family, who soon become hostile towards anyone seeking information about their famous relative.
- 2010: After around a decade of research, including spending extensive time with Lacks’ family, Rebecca Skloot publishes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
- July 2011: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services solicited public input on participants’ roles in research, including questions about consent regarding samples taken in the past. The department is still working on a new proposal based upon that feedback.
- March 2013: Scientists from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory sequence and publish Lacks’ genome online, making the information freely accessible. Though this move did not break any rules, Lacks’ family members were not consulted, and were upset. The genome sequence is taken down.
The incident last March inspired the U.S. National Institutes of Health to create an agreement with the Lacks family regarding access to the HeLa genome, the commentary reports. The authors continue:
Together, we have crafted a path that addresses the family’s concerns, including consent and privacy, while making the HeLa genomic sequence data available to scientists to further the family’s commitment to biomedical research.
After three lengthy meetings with the Lacks family and several one-on-one meetings with NIH scientists, the family consented to allow scientists to use the HeLa genome, so long as it is kept in a control-access database. To gain access, researchers will have to file applications with the NIH and agree to terms set by both the agency and the Lacks family. Additionally, researchers who use this database will have to list the Lacks family and Henrietta Lacks in their acknowledgements.
Not to waste any time, scientists have already begun giving Henrietta Lacks and her family an appropriate hat-tip. From the acknowledgements section of a new paper, also published today in Nature, that delves into HeLa’s genome, researchers from the University of Washington write:
The genome sequence described in this paper was derived from a HeLa cell line. Henrietta Lacks, and the HeLa cell line that was established from her tumour cells in 1951, have made significant contributions to scientific progress and advances in human health. We are grateful to Henrietta Lacks, now deceased, and to her surviving family members for their contributions to biomedical research.
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July 31, 2013 12:44 pm
The documents leak from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has not stopped dripping, and in a new story today, the Guardian lays out a NSA program called X-Keyscore. The system lets the security agency collect, search and read “nearly everything a user does on the internet.” All jokes about President Obama checking your email aside, the report, says New York University journalism theorist Jay Rosen, is “in some ways the most disturbing yet” of the Snowden leaks. The Guardian:
The files shed light on one of Snowden’s most controversial statements, made in his first video interview published by the Guardian on June 10.
“I, sitting at my desk,” said Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email”….
[T]raining materials for XKeyscore detail how analysts can use it and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.
Previously the news broke that the National Security Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense, was able to collect the metadata of phone calls and emails and other internet activity—saying who was talking to whom, where they were, when they conversed and how often they did so. X-Keyscore goes further, says the Guardian: this system doesn’t just deal with metadata, but with the contents of those communications.
To search for emails, an analyst using XKS enters the individual’s email address into a simple online search form, along with the “justification” for the search and the time period for which the emails are sought.
The analyst then selects which of those returned emails they want to read by opening them in NSA reading software.
… Analysts can also use XKeyscore and other NSA systems to obtain ongoing “real-time” interception of an individual’s internet activity.
Going through the documents provided by Snowden, the Guardian outlines the extent of the NSA’s tools:
Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media.
An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, used to read the content of stored emails, also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages.
According to the Guardian, the NSA says that the “NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests.” Though X-Keyscore and the other NSA tools can, and have, been used to monitor Americans, they are legally only supposed to spy on foreign targets.
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July 24, 2013 9:08 am
Wikipedia is a great repository of information. It can tell you about physics, the history of the weird Aerican Empire and how people in Michigan turn left. It can also tell you a lot about sexism, conspiracy theories and what we, as humans, like to fight about. (Or, at least, what mostly white dudes like to fight about.)
One researcher has quantified the most controversial Wikipedia entires of all time in ten different languages. Taha Yasseri is working on a book about Wikipedia and recently published a draft of his chapter on the most controversial topics. He and his team created a formula to quantify controversy. It focused on what are called “reverts”—times when one editor undoes another editor’s changes entirely. The team then downloaded all of the articles available to them in March of 2010 and calculated this controversy value for each.
What came out on top? In English, the top ten most controversial topics were:
Some of these you might expect. Religion and race are some of the most controversial topics around. But others are a little more surprising. Anarchism and circumcision certainly are controversial, but would you have guessed they’d be in the top ten? And the list of World Wrestling Entertainment people?
Other languages had quite different results, as well. Here are the top ten most controversial Spanish language pages:
So sports might be a bit more controversial in the Spanish speaking world than they are for English speakers. The authors also looked at how different entries might group together. They found three main groups: English, German, French and Spanish all seemed to generally hang together. Czech, Hungarian and Romanian made up the second group, and Arabic, Persian and Hebrew the third. The authors write:
Ultimately by visualizing the controversy in Wikipedia, we’re able to see both topics that appear to have cross-linguistic resonance (e.g. Arab-Israeli conflict), and those of more narrow interest such as the Islas Malvinas/Falkland islands article in the Spanish Wikipedia. The data presented here therefore offers a window into not just the topics and places that different language communities are interested in, but also the topics that seem worth fighting about.
At least worth fighting about to Wikipedia editors.
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July 22, 2013 11:09 am
Helen Thomas was a lot of things to a lot of people. She was the first woman ever elected as an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the first to be elected to the Gridiron Club, a group of Washington journalists that, 90 years after it was founded, had never included a woman in its membership. Her questions were blunt, and her work ethic incredible. On Saturday, Thomas died in her home at the age of 92.
The New York Times calls Thomas “a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and who was later regarded as the dean of the White House briefing room.” The Washington Post‘s obituary headline calls her the “feisty scourge of presidents.” President Obama gave her a cupcake for her 89th birthday, and on Saturday said of the reporter, “She never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”
Thomas had a reputation as an incredibly tough journalist. In a 2006 interview with the New York Times, the reporter asked her how she tells the difference between a probing question and a rude one, to which she replied “I don’t think there are any rude questions.” And for nearly 30 years she asked whatever questions she pleased from her front row seat at presidential news conferences.
In an interview with Ms. Magazine, Thomas expressed her view of the presidency. “I respect the office of the presidency,” she told them, “but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth.”
She also told Ms.,“We don’t go into journalism to be popular.” And she certainly wasn’t, in certain crowds. Conservative talk-show hosts and pundits often wondered when she would go away. In 2003, she told another reporter that she thought George W. Bush was “the worst president in American history.” He went for three years not calling on her at his news conferences. When he did, she reminded him that nothing had changed. The Washington Post remembers:
“I’d like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — your Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth — what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil — quest for oil — it hasn’t been Israel or anything else. What was it?”
She and Bush went toe to toe, interrupting each other as the president attempted to respond.
In another characteristic interaction in 2009, Thomas confronted Obama’s spokesperson Robert Gibbs every day about whether or not a public option would be part of the health care reform package. CNN reports:
In the back-and-forth that ensued, Thomas said that she already had reached a conclusion but could not get a straight answer from the presidential spokesman.
“Then why do you keep asking me?” Gibbs inquired.
“Because I want your conscience to bother you,” Thomas replied.
Her outspokenness got her into trouble too, when in 2010 she was caught on camera saying that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” Thomas apologized, stating that her remarks did not reflect her true feelings, and that she hoped one day for peace and that one day both parties would learn “mutual respect and tolerance.” The incident lead Thomas to retire.
Many credit Thomas with breaking the glass ceiling for women in journalism. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton remembered Thomas’ tenacity together, writing, “Helen was a pioneering journalist who, while adding more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling, never failed to bring intensity and tenacity to her White House beat.”
Thomas’s death on Saturday came after a long illness. She will be buried in Detroit, and her family is planning a memorial service in Washington in October.
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