NOVA on Holocaust Denial

This week the PBS show NOVA has an hour-long broadcast on Holocaust Denial focusing on the recently concluded libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt in Great Britain. Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, was sued in the UK by Holocaust denier David Irving who claimed she libeled him. Even with the UK’s ridiculously lax libel laws — she had to prove not only that the Holocaust was a historical fact but that Irving intentionally distorted historical facts to arrive at his denial position — Lipstadt easily prevailed. The NOVA broadcast apparently recreates some of the issues raised at the libel trial.

Stop the Social Security Madness

Last week Cathy Young had a very well done article for Salon.Com arguing that at least one good reason for voting for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush was his solid approach to Social Security reform. She has no illusions about Bush, hilariously noting that, “Of course it would be nice if Social Security privatization had a spokesman other than Bush; the man probably couldn’t make a convincing case for celebrating Mother’s Day, let alone privatizing retirement benefits,” but argues that compared to Al Gore’s “pernicious … handling of the issue” Bush is a solid alternative.

Now, I don’t plan on voting for Bush but Young’s dissection of Gore’s arguments are sound.

First, there is no Social Security trust fund. Look, by law when Social Security has a surplus the only thing it can do with that money is invest in government bonds. So Social Security buys a ton of government bonds, and the government takes the money and spends it. When Social Security wants that surplus it has to redeem the bonds. And guess where that money comes from? That’s right, out of our taxes. Gore recognizes this since his proposal calls for going one step further and paying Social Security recipients in part directly from general tax funds.

Second, Social Security isn’t a “sacred trust” (as I saw Gore call it recently). Rather it’s an investment opportunity that is so bad the government has to threaten people with jail if they don’t contribute. The return on Social Security is in the low single digits. You could probably get better terms from a loan shark.

Third, Social Security is largely an income transfer from the poor to the rich. Gore goes in front of Democratic audiences and says Bush will never be able to privatize Social Security for today’s young workers while simultaneously keeping its obligations to the elderly. But one of the problem is that Social Security transfers income to the elderly regardless of income. The wealthy retired person with an annual income of $100,000 gets the same Social Security benefit as the poorer retired person with an income of $18,000. And yet the idea of actually means testing Social Security benefits so they go to the elderly who truly need the benefit is anathema to Democrats. Apparently it breaks the sacred trust they have to tax the poor to subsidize the rich.

A system that combines privatization for younger workers while means testing benefits for recipients would go a long way to solving the problems with the poor performance of the SOcial Security system while simultaneously guaranteeing minimum income levels for the elderly poor.

(Which probably means it makes far too much sense to ever have a realistic chance of happening.)

October Was A Good Month

Not for me personally — I was sick most of the month. But the web server traffic is finally almost back to normal after the problems we experienced over the summer.

In October 1999, we served up about 260,000 page views. We’re off that level a bit in 2000 at 200,000 page views this month, but server traffic was 50% higher in October over September, so we’re definitely headed in the right direction. The way things are going and the new features I’ve been able to implement in the past few months, I’m pretty confident we’ll reach a 400,000 page view month sometime in Q1 2001.

Kinda small potatoes compared to some sites, but who would have thought at the beginning of the 1990s that in less than a decade it would be possible to reach hundreds of thousands of people for next to nothing (I’m currently paying $320/month for a dedicated server — I think we charged more than that for a full page ad in my college newspaper.)

Life is good.

Loftus Puts Nail In Recovered Memory Coffin

In the 1980s the so-called Recovered Memory or false memory syndrome (as its critics termed it) exploded onto the American scene with a vengeance. Not a few people were sent to prison based entirely on memories of abuse, much of it centered around alleged widespread Satanic cult conspiracies, that they claimed they repressed as children but were able to “recover” as adults with help from therapists. Sexual abuse guidebooks like Courage to Heal went so far as to suggest that most mental maladies faces by women, from low self esteem to overeating to depression, were likely caused by repressed memories of sexual abuse.

The recovered memory movement’s own excesses were its downfall. Although many people were credulous of the claims of Satanic conspiracies and repeated the mantra that victims could never be doubted, in fact the claims made by recovered memory therapists and patients became so bizarre that all but the true believers began to wonder if something else might be going on.

Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in memory who did pioneering studies on the fallibility of eye witness accounts of crime, helped take a lot of air out of the recovered memory claims by demonstrating that it was relatively easy to implant false memories into experimental subjects. Add to that the fact that many of the therapy techniques advocated by repressed memory experts used exactly the sort of methods Loftus found likely to result in fake memories, and by the mid-1990s recovered memory therapy was in full retreat. Some recovered memory therapists found themselves on the short end of civil lawsuits brought by their patients and/or people they had help put in jail based on recovered memory.

In an upcoming study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Loftus, Giuliana Mazooni and Irving Kirsch should manage to finally put the nail in the coffin of the recovered memory movement. In previous experiments, Loftus had demonstrated that false memories of routine events, such as being lost in a mall as a child, could be implanted, but now she’s managed to show that false memories of fantastic events — in this case demonic possession — could be implanted even in subjects who were initially skeptical about the very existence of the phenomenon.

In the experiments, conducted on 200 Italian students, subjects were asked to give a detailed life inventory including how plausible they felt demonic possession was and whether or not they had ever been possessed by a demon as a child. All subjects initially said they didn’t think demonic possession was very plausible and they had never experienced a demonic possession as a child.

Some of the respondents were then given a series of articles to read that dealt with demonic possession and portrayed it as something that was plausible and not uncommon. They were then asked to fill out a questionnaire about fear and anxiety, and some of the respondents were then falsely told that their particular set of fears indicated that they probably witnessed a demonic possession as a child. This is important because, again, the modus operandi of books like Courage to Heal is to tell people that if they are depressed or suffering from sexual dysfunction or whatever, it is likely a symptom of having been sexually abused as children regardless of whether the person has a memory of such an incident.

On a follow-up interview, 18 percent of the people told their responses indicated they had witnessed a demonic possession changed their original position and now agreed that not only was demonic possession plausible, but claimed they had witnessed a demonic possession as a child. Three-quarters of the rest of the subjects also changed their mind about demonic possessions, but not quite as drastically as the one-fifth who claimed to have witnessed a demonic possession themselves as a child.

“Previous experiments created memories that were plausible,” Loftus told Wired magazine, “But even something that’s implausible can be infused with plausibility. It’s a two-stage process. First you increase the plausibility of an event and then suggest it happened to the subject. It mimics the kind of thing that happens in a physician’s office. It’s like getting an X-ray and having the doctor tell you that you have pneumonia. But in this case, low self-esteem and depression means you were abused as a child. It’s an analog for that kind of situation. … This shows why people watching ‘Oprah’ or those in group therapy believe these kinds of things happened to them. People borrow memories from others and adopt them as their own experiences. It’s part of the normal process of memory.”

Most courts have already started routinely rejecting recovered memories as reliable for testimony, and this should help further that trend as well as helping to end the debate with those who still insist that recovered memories of ritual sexual abuse are genuine. Thanks to Loftus’ efforts, countless innocent people will be spared the horror of false accusations of sexual abuse and those who suffered from the witch hunt in the 1980s and 1990s might be able to restore a semblance of their lives.


Those memories can be made or simply borrowed. Scott LaFee, San Diego Union-Tribune, October 25, 2000.

Beware a rash of exorcisms. Leander Kahney, Wired, October 31, 2000.

Parkinson's Breakthrough in Monkey Research

Researchers experimenting with monkeys successfully tested a gene therapy technique that reversed the brain damage associated with Parkinson’s disease.

For reasons that are still not understood, people suffering from Parkinson’s disease do not produce enough of the brain chemical dopamine which is necessary for signals in the brain to be transmitted. As a result Parkinson’s sufferers experience a degenerative loss of motor control including difficulty walking, talking, smiling and swallowing. Secondary effects such as pneumonia and stroke end up killing many with Parkinson’s diseases.

In a study published in Science, scientists used a group of eight monkeys with a Parkinson’s-like disease and another group of eight monkeys without the disease. The monkeys suffering from the brain disease were injected with a genetically altered virus that was designed to boost dopamine production within the brain.

In both cases the virus dramatically boosted brain dopamine levels over the eight months of the of the study and ameliorated the Parkinson’s-like symptoms that the monkey’s experienced. Three of the monkeys in the first group who had severe Parkinson’s symptoms were restored to almost normal motor functions according to study author Jeffrey Kordower.

In the second group, five of the monkeys who developed Parkinson’s were given the virus while five were not. One monkey in each group died for unknown reasons. Of the four in each group left, three with the Parkinson’s symptoms were completely free of the disease after receiving the virus injection, while all four monkeys in the control group became severely impaired.

The researchers will soon be present the FDA with a proposal to test the gene therapy in humans and such trials could begin in 3 to 5 years. One possible obstacle is that the researchers are not sure if the brain cells that are responsible for dopamine production in human beings will respond in the same way that their counterparts in the monkeys did. Even if they don’t, however, this is important evidence that gene therapy designed to modify brain cells of Parkinson’s suffers to boost dopamine levels is likely to be a very viable avenue of research, even if the methods used to get there might be different in human beings than in monkeys.


Hope of Parkinson’s ‘cure’. The BBC, October 27, 2000.

Gene therapy may relieve Parkinson’s disease. Paul Recer, The Associated Press, October 26, 2000.

Jon Udell on Groove

Jon Udell has another article raving about Groove.

When you join a Groove shared space, you get all the stuff, and it looks the same to you as it looks to everybody else. It’s no more effort to invite a colleague behind a foreign corporate firewall than it is to invite a colleague in the next cubicle. And here’s the kicker: the shared space formed in this spontaneous way is secure. Really, really secure, both on the wire, and on every hard disk to which it synchronizes.

Udell goes on to contrast the Web/e-mail/news system of collaboration that he outlined in Practical Internet Groupware with a system like Lotus Notes that did much the same thing except that it was extremely expensive (I’ve worked at places where the IT department and users fell in love with Notes, but the price made implementing it a nonstarter). Among other things Udell likes Groove because like Notes its an integrated solution that doesn’t feel “cobbled together” and unlike Notes is basically free (with Groove apparently making its money by selling server space for clients who need it).

Okay, the security model Groove has is very nice — if you’ve got high security needs it seems to solve them pretty seamlessly. But for those without such high security needs I think Udell sells his original “cobbled” solution a bit short. the first thing that hit me after firing up Groove was that it looked great but do I really want to convince my friends and coworkers to download, install and learn to use yet another application?

The e-mail/web browsers combination are not just ubiquitous, but so is knowledge of how to use them. Not that Groove was particularly difficult to use (in fact its interface was great), but I’m really to the point of where if it’s not available via e-mail and/or web browser I’m really not interested.

I was very impressed by the latest version of Qualcomm’s Eudora, which I use for e-mail, which includes automatic file synchronization which Qualcomm calls the Eudora Sharing Protocol. The press release describes a possible use for the feature,

Here are some examples of how ESP can be used
A group of reporters might all be working on a large feature with multiple sidebars. With ESP, whenever any member of the group checks his Large Feature folder, he or she will see what other members of the group have written (their notes, etc.) and saved to the folder on their hard drives. When the editor edits the copy as it comes in and pulls the story together, all members of the team will have the same version of the feature in that folder on their hard drives.

Okay, first it’s pretty limited functionality, and second I don’t want to force the rest of the world which seems to be enchanted with Outlook to switch to Eudora, but I think Qualcomm’s on the right track: I don’t really want an entirely knew application, what I want are some open protocols and organizing applications to let me do more sophisticated collaboration with the tools I’ve got.

If Groove becomes as ubiquitous as the browser, at least with the people I want to collaborate with, I might end up using it but I’d still prefer to stick with just my e-mail client and browser.