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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

 
Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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Clear It With Sidney

Mon, Jun 11, 2012

x-posted from In These Times

Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist credited with popularizing the term "virutal reality," spoke at Personal Democracy Forum on Monday about how to avoid a cyberplutocracy. These are some ideas from his talk.

Democracy requires openness, fluidity, and freedom of speech but these are not enough. Democracy also needs a strong middle class. Without a bell-curve-like distribution of clout, the nominal right to petition our government is of limited use.

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x-posted from In These Times

Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist credited with popularizing the term "virutal reality," spoke at Personal Democracy Forum on Monday about how to avoid a cyberplutocracy. These are some ideas from his talk.

Democracy requires openness, fluidity, and freedom of speech but these are not enough. Democracy also needs a strong middle class. Without a bell-curve-like distribution of clout, the nominal right to petition our government is of limited use.

So, where does middle class clout come from? The pre-high-tech economy was marked by Gilded Ages and races to the bottom. There were huge social struggles in which middle class people fought to achieve some measure of material stability. In each case, they created some small barrier to the flow of money: academic tenure, taxi medallions, unions, and copyright. Lanier calls these barries "levees."

These levees are concessions to biological realism--aging, illness, the need for time off to raise a family, and so on. In order to have dignity we have to have some constancy. These levees provided a modicum of weath as opposed to income for middle class people. "So you don't have to earn every single day anew, you don't have to gig live every day," Lanier, a former professional musician, explained. 

The wealthy build wealth easily in our system through capital gains, dividends, interest, and so on.

Levees used to maintain the balance of power. In the modern, high-tech, networked economy, the wealth side suddenly got more fluid. Companies could suddenly network all this information from all over the world to put themselves in a much better information position relative to everyone else. The concentration of wealth accelerated. The 1% used their increased power to dismantle as many levees as possible.

Some people think we can use the power of petition, which is enhanced by networking, to restore the balance of power in the networked age. The problem, according to Lanier, is that you can't fight wealth concentration with petition alone.

Lanier sketched an alternative vision for building up middle class wealth, based on the work of Ted Nelson. Nelson envisioned a system for mashups and remixes that would keep track of all the source material and deliver micropayments to the creators. Lanier envisions this system as a way to create robust long-term middle class without levees. Google translator stated with examples of good translation by translators. Under a Nelsonian system, all original provders of good translation would get micropayments. Any internet user who is living a good life, or skilled at something (mixing drinks, curing diseases, making hotel reservations) is being watched online by many cloud algorithms that use her behavior as an example. We are being studied, but we aren't getting compensated for our creative efforts. Lanier is arguing, in effect, that we should all get royalties.

It was a fascinating talk, even though Lanier didn't explain how a Nelsonian royalty system could come about in a world ruled by the 1%. He's working on a book about these ideas. I look forward to reading it.

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Mon, Jun 11, 2012

Today and tomorrow, I will be blogging from the ninth annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. The event bills itself as the world's premiere forum on the nexus of democracy, politics, social advocay and public life. The theme of this year's forum is "The Internet's New Political Power." Panels will grapple with issues ranging from internet freedom in China to online consumer organizing to political fundraising in the digital age. Stay tuned.

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Today and tomorrow, I will be blogging from the ninth annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. The event bills itself as the world's premiere forum on the nexus of democracy, politics, social advocay and public life. The theme of this year's forum is "The Internet's New Political Power." Panels will grapple with issues ranging from internet freedom in China to online consumer organizing to political fundraising in the digital age. Stay tuned.

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Fri, Jun 8, 2012

  • Rich Yeselson takes a hard look at what Scott Walker's recall victory means for the labor movement.
  • Jin Zhao of AlterNet on New York workers' battle for paid sick leave.
  • Unemployed jobseekers were bussed to London to work for free at the Queen's diamond jubliee celebration and told to camp under London Bridge the night before, the Guardian reports.
  • Food trucks are all the rage in New York City, but a broken permitting system is driving vendors onto the black market, Ilya Marritz reports for WNYC.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

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Wed, Jun 6, 2012

Pam Belluck's outstanding story on the science of the morning after pill and the politics of its labelling sits at the nexus of investigative and science reporting and embodies the best of both traditions:

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Pam Belluck's outstanding story on the science of the morning after pill and the politics of its labelling sits at the nexus of investigative and science reporting and embodies the best of both traditions:

But an examination by The New York Times has found that the federally approved labels and medical Web sites do not reflect what the science shows. Studies have not established that emergency contraceptive pills prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, leading scientists say. Rather, the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.

It turns out that the politically charged debate over morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work. Because they block creation of fertilized eggs, they would not meet abortion opponents’ definition of abortion-inducing drugs. In contrast, RU-486, a medication prescribed for terminating pregnancies, destroys implanted embryos. [NYT]

Back in October, I reviewed the research on the workings of the morning after pill to settle an argument with some friends. I came to the same conclusions as Belluck. A body of elegant in vitro and in vivo experiments in tissues, animals, and humans show that the morning after pill (aka high-dose birth control) works like birth control, namely, by preventing ovulation.

One minor quibble: Belluck frames the story as part of the abortion debate, which is certainly how the anti-choice faction is approaching the issue. But even if emergency contraception did prevent implantation, EC would be no more an abortifacient than an IUD, a popular form of birth control that does prevent implantation. According to medicine, and common sense, abortion presupposes pregnancy, and pregnancy presupposes implantation. If you're not pregnant, it's not an abortion. But once again, anti-choicers are trying to redefine medical terminology for partisan ends.

At a time when science journalists are pressured to hedge, defer to authority, and give equal time to opposing sides regardless of their intellectual merit, Belluck bucked the trend, assessed the evidence, and stated her conclusion for the record.

Then Belluck went on to hold powerful institutions accountable by asking pointed questions. If the science says that the morning after pill is birth control, why do government-approved labels and health information resources raise the specter that the emergency contraception is an abortifacient? As you might expect, conservative pressure groups like the anti-choice Family Research Council are very interested in FDA labelling because these descriptors shape medical and policy conversations. Belluck reviewed the records on FDA approval for emergency contraception and found that the caveat about preventing implantation was grandfathered in from earlier labelling discussions about birth control pills. There is some question about whether daily birth control pills might discourage implantation by thinning the lining of the uterus. This conjecture remains unproven for regular birth control, but follow-up studies have shown the question to be a moot point for emergency contraception. One large dose of hormones doesn't have time to alter the lining of the uterus the way daily birth control pills do.

The labels were written in a period of genuine uncertainty. Today, the scientific consensus is clear, but anti-choice groups are campaigning to keep the misleading labels intact. With any luck Belluck's outstanding reporting will spur citizens to demand that scientific accuracy prevail over ideology.

[Photo credit: Grasshopperkm, Creative Commons.]

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Tue, Jun 5, 2012

Historian and Rolling Stone contributor Rick Perlstein travelled to Wisconsin last weekend to report on the final days of the historic campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Perlstein met up with musician, and 2012 Hillman Officers' Award-winner Tom Morello on the campaign trail:

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Historian and Rolling Stone contributor Rick Perlstein travelled to Wisconsin last weekend to report on the final days of the historic campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Perlstein met up with musician, and 2012 Hillman Officers' Award-winner Tom Morello on the campaign trail:

Then I reached my destination, Madison's Labor Temple, and saw another Wisconsin on full display – a lucky thing or I would have just about jumped into Lake Mendota.

I saw police officers there, too — relaxing in the sun getting ready to enjoy a Friday get-out-the-vote concert put on by the independent group We Are Wisconsin and starring Jackson Browne, Mike McColgan of the Dropkick Murpheys, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against, rapper Brother Ali, and mighty Tom Morello, who put it all together and MC'ed. These officers wore T-shirts reading "COPS FOR LABOR." There were little old ladies, too, sporting "PROUD TO BE A UNION THUG" T-shirts. There were young people, and middle aged people, and people of color, yuppies and blue-collars — just like the congregations of 100,000 and more who descended upon Madison's state capitol day after frigid day the moment Governor Walker introduced his union-busting bill. That, back in February of 2011, Tom Morello told me backstage before the show, was the first thing he noticed about the Madison Uprising: "not just the usual suspects of young anarchists and old hippies, but, you know, firefighters, policemen, Green Bay Packers, longshoremen."

"And vets, and farmers,” Jackson Browne chimed in. “It almost sort of presaged Occupy." [Rolling Stone]

[Photo credit: Tom Morello in Wisconsin in February, 2011. By Dave Hoefler, Creative Commons.]

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Mon, Jun 4, 2012

HBO joined forces with the Institute of Medicine, the CDC, the NIH, and Kaiser Permanente to create "The Weight of the Nation," a four-part documentary about obesity in America. All four full-length films can be viewed online for free. The first episode, "Consequences," examines the health impact of obesity in America. The second installment, "Choices," attempts to explain why lasting weight loss is so difficult and what the average person can do to take control of his or her weight. "Children in Crisis," documents the effects of childhood obesity. The final episode, "Challenges," explores the economic, cultural, and political factors that make it so difficult, even for highly motivated people, to eat well and maintain a healthy weight in the U.S. today.

After watching the first two episodes, I'm impressed. Experts present the mainstream consensus on overweight and health in accessible language. They explain the connection between obesity and diabetes, the link between excess fat and cardiovascular disease, the distinctive health risks of abdominal adiposity, the role of a fatty liver in producing the metabolic abormalities associated with obesity, and how stress hormones predispose us to overeating and weight gain.

The documentary pulls no punches about the dangers of overweight, but it presents fat people as compelling and relatable subjects, not as objects of repulsion or pity. We don't see any clicheed "headless fatties" shuffling along. The fat subjects are charismatic, funny, and self-aware. They come from all walks of life, some are call center employees, one is a judge. The message is clear: Their predicament is our predicament.

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Fri, Jun 1, 2012

  • Your average kid forms a very strong opinion at a very early age about whether s/he's a girl or a boy. Most kids find their sense of self aligns with their anatomy, but some youngsters quickly become aware of an acute and troubling disconnect. In New York Magazine, Jesse Green explores how the parents of trans kids navigate the years between the time their children figure out who they are and the time they're old enough to consent to permanent gender reassignment surgery. Puberty-delaying drugs can keep secondary sex characteristics at bay until a young adult is old enough to decide. These drugs are a godsend for some families, but other parents are reticent.
  • At the age of 31, after settling into a stable family life in the U.S., Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda learned that he was one of two boys who survived a 1982 massacre in his native Guatemala. ProPublica has the story.
  • Today in transparency, Bill Hooker of 3QuarksDaily is circulating a petition asking the federal government to make publicly-funded research accessible to the public. This is an issue of special interest to journalists, but it affects everyone. Research paid for with our tax dollars is being published in private journals with the copyright going to the publisher and citizens having to pay upwards of $40 to read the research they already paid for. Does that sound fair to you?
  • More than 200 events are taking place nationwide to coincide with Walmart's June 1 shareholders meeting. The events will highlight how Walmart needs to change in order to do right by its employees and their communities.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

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Thu, May 31, 2012

The Romney campaign has released a new ad about how the Romneys' strong marriage helps them cope with Ann Romney's multiple sclerosis. About 400,000 Americans are living with this progressive, debilitating, and as-yet incurable neurological condition. Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic has mixed feelings about the ad because, as touching as the Romneys' personal story may be, the fact remains that Mitt Romney's policy platform would make life a lot worse for ordinary people with MS and other chronic diseases.

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The Romney campaign has released a new ad about how the Romneys' strong marriage helps them cope with Ann Romney's multiple sclerosis. About 400,000 Americans are living with this progressive, debilitating, and as-yet incurable neurological condition. Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic has mixed feelings about the ad because, as touching as the Romneys' personal story may be, the fact remains that Mitt Romney's policy platform would make life a lot worse for ordinary people with MS and other chronic diseases. Cohn explains

But if you have MS, or any other serious chronic illness, you need more than a devoted spouse. You need a way to pay your medical bills. And, historically, many people with MS have struggled with that. MS is a long-term, progressively debilitating disease, requiring ever more costly treatments and equipment. The bills are high enough that even patients with private insurance have struggled with out-of-pocket expenses or run up against annual or lifetime limits on payments. And those patients have been, in some respects, the lucky ones. People who buy coverage on their own or through small businesses frequently end up with exorbitant rates or skimpy benefits, or can’t get coverage at all. Those are just some of the reasons the MS Society has long supported reforms that would, among other things, provide “comprehensive, quality health care available to all.” [TNR]

Cohn won the Hillman Prize in 2010 for his outstanding coverage of health care policy.

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Wed, May 30, 2012

A Florida judge agreed with OSHA that SeaWorld endangered its trainers by making them swim with whales. The ruling is part of the fallout from a 2010 incident in which a trainer was drowned by an orca as horrifed spectators looked on:

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A Florida judge agreed with OSHA that SeaWorld endangered its trainers by making them swim with whales. The ruling is part of the fallout from a 2010 incident in which a trainer was drowned by an orca as horrifed spectators looked on:

A judge has ruled that SeaWorld is endangering its trainers by allowing them to swim with killer whales after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau by a killer whale in 2010.

In his order released on Wednesday, Judge Kenneth Welsch sided with OSHA, which believes the best way to keep trainers safe is to keep them out of the water and behind a barrier while working with orcas.

SeaWorld is developing several new ways to keep trainers safe, including a quick-rising pool floor that would lift the trainers and the whales out of the water in an emergency. [WKMG/AP]

In retrospect, it's amazing that trainers were ever allowed to swim with whales on the job. What part of a 120-pound human getting in a tank with a 22,000-pound creature known as a "killer whale" sounds safe? I might add that performing at SeaWorld is no dream job for the whale, either.

The head of OSHA called the judge's ruling a victory for the trainers, but OSHA's victory was only partial. The judge reduced SeaWorld's fine from $75,000 to $12,000 and downgraded the most serious citation from "willful" to "serious." 

[Photo credit: SeaWorld San Antonio, The Brit_2, Creative Commons.]

 

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Tue, May 29, 2012
Some of the nation's biggest chemical, cosmetic, and personal care companies are spreading money around Washington like SPF-30 at a nude beach, Russ Choma reports for the Open Secrets blog. Big Sunblock is lobbying furiously to forestall FDA changes to sunscreen labelling requirements: 
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Some of the nation's biggest chemical, cosmetic, and personal care companies are spreading money around Washington like SPF-30 at a nude beach, Russ Choma reports for the Open Secrets blog. Big Sunblock is lobbying furiously to forestall FDA changes to sunscreen labelling requirements: 
Consumers might not consider sunscreen a powerhouse industry, but many of its manufacturers, as well as makers of other products that claim to offer some degree of sun protection, are actually part of giant cosmetics or chemical companies -- which are heavy-hitters here in Washington (for instance Merck, which owns the popular Coppertone sunscreen brand.) Two trade organizations closely aligned with the cosmetics industry have gone to bat on the labeling rules, demanding the FDA roll them back -- the Personal Care Products Council, which has spent about $140,000 on lobbying so far this year, and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which has dropped about $210,000 so far in 2012. The Personal Care Products Association spent $890,000 in 2011, and well over $1 million the previous two years, while the Consumer Healthcare Products Association spent $835,000 last year, and $3.2 million in 2010. Both report lobbying the FDA.
 
Turning this into a full-blown beach brawl, a handful of senators are now promoting legislation -- the Sunscreen Labeling Protection Act -- to force the FDA to speed up the process. But don't confuse that with the Skin Cancer Prevention, Education, and Consumer Right-To-Know Act, another piece of proposed legislation to begin enforcement of the new rules. Both pieces of legislation are currently stuck in place.

In the best tradition of Big Tobacco, the European chemical giant CIBA created a front group called Citizens for Sun Protection, Choma notes. CIBA is part of an even larger company that claims to manufacture half the world supply of UV-blocking chemicals.

[Photo credit: Amy McTeague, Creative Commons.]

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