Wednesday, July 25, 2018


The perils of high-tech policing

Breakthroughs in policing technology are slowly chiseling away at our civil rights and liberties.  The Supreme Court took a small step to halt that erosion last week, ruling that before the government can seize more than six days of your cellphone location history, it must have probable cause to show you did something wrong, and a warrant.

Yet this narrow judgment should give you little comfort.  The use of surveillance and tracking technology by law enforcement agencies is expanding at a head-spinning speed, and the courts can’t keep up with the pace of change.  Drones will soon follow us from the sky; facial recognition technology will watch us on the ground; algorithms will pinpoint where crimes will supposedly occur next. This technology has promise—drones could help locate missing children, for example—but it could also do unfathomable damage.  

Privacy rights will wither if we can’t escape the government’s watchful gaze. And because so much street policing in recent years has focused on minority communities—think stop-and-frisk—algorithms that factor in past offenses will inevitably send officers to these places again and again. Lawmakers urgently need to regulate this brave new world of policing, because the technology is getting away from us, fast.
--Barry Friedman, New York Times

Credit card perks disappear

Credit card account holders are accustomed to being showered with an ever-expanding menu of perks.  But card companies have begun reeling back the buffet of free benefits, owing to what they describe as the low usage of the perks.

Discover, for example, began trimming its perks in February, getting rid of return guarantees, purchase protections, extended warranty protection, auto rental insurance, and flight accident insurance.   This month, Chase will also remove price and return protection from its cards, along with a handful of travel-related perks on selected cards. Citi is also pruning its travel-related perks on some cards as well as its return-protection scheme. Visit your card company’s website to check whether your individual card is affected.
-- Herb Weisbaum,

Health notes: The health benefits of ‘forest bathing’ . . .

The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”—using the senses to soak up the sights, smells, and sounds of the natural world—really does provide health benefits, new research suggests.  Scientists at the University of East Anglia analyzed the findings of more than 140 studies involving nearly 300 million people from 20 different countries, including the U.S., Spain, Australia, and Japan.  They found that spending more time outside in nature or living near green spaces, including urban parks, is associated with a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, early death, and high blood pressure, as well as with better sleep and stronger feelings of well-being, reports.  

“Forest bathing is already really popular as a therapy in Japan,” says the study’s author, Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett.  Our study shows that perhaps they have the right idea.”  That might be partly because time spent in green spaces promotes physical activity, exposure to sunlight and reduced pollution.  Breathing in phytoncides, which are organized compounds emitted by trees, may stimulate our immune systems and reduce inflammation.  Twohig-Bennett says the study found concrete evidence that green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol—a physiological marker of stress.

 . . . the ‘value’ of multi-vitamins . . .

People who take multivitamins to protect their heart health are wasting their money, new research has found. A review of 18 studies involving 2 million people followed for an average of roughly 12 years found no scientific evidence that these products help prevent heart attacks, strokes or death from heart disease regardless of people’s age, gender and level of physical activity.

These findings echo guidelines from the American Heart Association, which discourages the use of multivitamins for the prevention of heart disease. Nevertheless, dietary supplement sales are on the rise, and nearly 30 percent of Americans take multivitamins on a daily basis, assuming they’ll be healthier for it.  Some people even hope vitamins can make up for a poor diet or lack of exercise.  “I hope our study findings help decrease the hype around multivitamin and mineral supplements,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Joonseok Kim, tells The researchers say you can promote heart health by eating a healthy diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly and not smoking.
--The Week

 . . . and Vitamin D vs. colorectal cancer

Scientists have long known that vitamin D can strengthen teeth and bones by helping the body absorb calcium.  Now researchers believe that high concentrations of this key micronutrient could also help prevent colorectal cancer—the third most common cancer in the U.S., killing more than 50,000 people a year.  Dietary guidelines currently recommend that most adults get at least 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day for bone health, which can be done by eating fatty fish like salmon or trout and taking supplements or getting a judicious amount of sun exposure.  

But after analyzing data on more than 12,000 people in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, scientists at the American Cancer Society and other groups found that people with higher-than-recommended blood levels of vitamin D had a 22 percent lower risk of developing colorectal cancer.  Those with lower-than-recommended levels, meanwhile, had a 30 percent higher risk for the disease.  Study co-author Marji McCullough tells that people over age 70 should increase their vitamin D uptake to 800 IUs daily, noting that what’s optimal for bone health may not be optimal for colorectal risk reduction.

--The Week

The stock market's irrelevance

The stock market index is becoming meaningless. , GE, which has been a part of the Dow Jones industrial average since 1907, was replaced recently in the index’s basket of 30 stocks by Walgreens.  GE’s removal probably has to do with its sagging profits or the relative decline of industrial companies.  But it bears asking: What are the fortunes of 30 of country’s companies—out of 3,500 publicly listed corporations—supposed to tell us about our massively complex, globalized economy anyway?  

In truth, the Dow was made for another era, when people didn’t have nearly as much access to different kinds of information.  An index of a few dozen stocks is helpful for historical comparisons, but it no longer reflects our primary economic forces. As a matter of design, the Dow can’t include extremely high-priced stocks such as Google and Amazon because their values would wildly distort the average.  Share prices are also becoming detached  from traditional measures of a company’s worth, because digital firms are valued so differently. Costco had earnings per share of $6.08 last year, while Amazon had $6.15.
But Costco’s market value is $91 billion, while Amazon’s is $844 billion. If we want a snapshot of the economy, the real one that you and I live and work in, the Dow is not the best indicator.
--Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic

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