Big Data Shows Big Promise in Medicine

In handling some kinds of life-or-death medical judgments, computers have already have surpassed the abilities of doctors. We’re looking at something like promise of self-driving cars, according to Zak Kohane, a doctor and researcher at Harvard Medical School. On the roads, replacing drivers with computers could save thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost to human error. In medicine, replacing intuition with machine intelligence might save patients from deadly drug side effects or otherwise incurable cancers.

Consider precision medicine, which involves tailoring drugs to individual patients. And to understand its promise, look to Shirley Pepke, a physicist by training who migrated into computational biology. When she developed a deadly cancer, she responded like a scientist and fought it using big data. And she is winning. She shared her story at a recent conference organized by Kohane.

In 2013, Pepke was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She was 46, and her kids were 9 and 3. It was just two months after her annual gynecological exam. She had symptoms, which the doctors brushed off, until her bloating got so bad she insisted on an ultrasound. She was carrying six liters of fluid caused by the cancer, which had metastasized. Her doctor, she remembers, said, “I guess you weren’t making this up.”

She did what most people do in her position. She agreed to a course of chemotherapy that doctors thought would extend her life and offered a very slim chance of curing her. It was a harsh mixture pumped directly into her abdomen.

She also did something most people wouldn’t know how to do — she started looking for useful data. After all, tumors are full of data. They carry DNA with various abnormalities, some of which make them malignant or resistant to certain drugs. Armed with that information, doctors design more effective, individualized treatments. Already, breast cancers are treated differently depending on whether they have a mutation in a gene called HER2. So far, scientists have found no such genetic divisions for ovarian cancers.

But there was some data. Years earlier, scientists had started a data bank called the Cancer Genome Atlas. There were genetic sequences on about 400 ovarian tumors. To help her extract useful information from the data, she turned to Greg ver Steeg, a professor at the University of Southern California, who was working on an automated pattern-recognition technique called correlation explanation, or CorEx. It had not been used to evaluate cancer, but she and ver Steeg thought it might work. She also got genetic sequencing done on her tumor.

In the meantime, she found out she was not one of the lucky patients cured by chemotherapy. The cancer came back after a short remission. A doctor told her that she would only feel worse every day for the short remainder of her life.

But CorEx had turned up a clue. Her tumor had something on common with those of the luckier women who responded to the chemotherapy — an off-the-charts signal for an immune system product called cytokines. She reasoned that in those luckier patients, the immune system was helping kill the cancer, but in her case, there was something blocking it.

Eventually she concluded that her one shot at survival would be to take a drug called a checkpoint inhibitor, which is geared to break down cancer cells’ defenses against the immune system.

At the time, checkpoint inhibitors were only approved for melanoma. Doctors could still prescribe such drugs for other uses, though insurance companies wouldn’t necessarily cover them. She ended up paying thousands of dollars out of pocket. At the same time, she went in for another round of chemotherapy. The checkpoint inhibitor destroyed her thyroid gland, she said, and the chemotherapy was damaging her kidneys. She stopped, not knowing whether her cancer was still there or not. To the surprise of her doctors, she started to get better. Her cancer became undetectable. Still healthy today, she works on ways to allow other cancer patients to benefit from big data the way she did.

Kohane, the Harvard Medical School researcher, said similar data-driven efforts might help find side effects of approved drugs. Clinical trials are often not big enough or long-running enough to pick up even deadly side effects that show up when a drug is released to millions of people. Thousands died from heart attacks associated with the painkiller Vioxx before it was taken off the market.

Last month, an analysis by another health site suggested a connection between the rheumatoid arthritis drug Actemra and heart attack deaths, though the drug had been sold to doctors and their patients without warning of any added risk of death. Kohane suspects there could be many other unnecessary deaths from drugs whose side effects didn’t show up in testing.

So what’s holding this technology back? Others are putting big money into big data with the aim of selling us things and influencing our votes. Why not use it to save lives?

Bloomberg View

How the World Can Prepare for the ‘Day After’ ISIS


The Manchester terrorist attack by an alleged ISIS “soldier” will accelerate the push by the United States and its allies to capture the terrorist group’s strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. But it should also focus some urgent discussions about a post-ISIS strategy for stabilizing the two countries.

For all of President Trump’s bombast about obliterating ISIS, the Raqqa campaign has been delayed for months while US policymakers debated the wisdom of relying on a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG that Turkey regards as a terrorist group. That group and allied fighters have been poised less than 10 miles from Raqqa, waiting for a decision.

All the while, the clock has been ticking on terrorist plots hatched by ISIS and directed from Raqqa. US officials told me a few weeks ago that they were aware of at least five ISIS operations directed against targets in Europe. European allies have been urging the United States to finish the job in Raqqa as soon as possible.

The horrific bombing in Manchester, England, is a reminder of the difficulty of containing the plots hatched by ISIS — and the cost of waiting to strike the final blows. ISIS is battered and in retreat, and its alleged “caliphate” is nearly destroyed on the ground. But a virtual caliphate survives in the network that spawned Salman Abedi, the alleged Manchester bomber, and others who seek to avenge the group’s slow eradication.

The Raqqa assault should move ahead quickly, now that the Trump administration has rejected Turkish protests and opted to back the YPG as the backbone of a broader coalition known as the “Syrian Democratic Forces”. These are committed, well-led fighters, as I saw during a visit to a special forces training camp in northern Syria a year ago.

The Trump administration listened patiently to Turkish arguments for an alternative force backed by Ankara. But the Pentagon concluded that this force didn’t have a significant battlefield presence and that the real choice was either relying on the Kurdish-led coalition to clear Raqqa or sending in thousands of US troops to do the job.

The White House rightly opted for the first approach several weeks ago. To ease Ankara’s worries, the United States is offering assurances that the Kurdish military presence will be contained and that newly recruited tribal forces will help manage security in Raqqa and nearby Deir al-Zour.

The endgame is near in Mosul, too. Commanders say only about 6 percent of the city remains to be captured, with 500 to 700 ISIS militants hunkered down in the old city west of the Tigris River.

Once Raqqa and Mosul are cleared, the challenge will be rebuilding the areas of Syria and Iraq, with real governance and security — so that follow-on extremist groups don’t quickly emerge. This idea of preparing for the “day after” ISIS has gotten lip service from US policymakers for three years but very little serious planning or funding. It should be an urgent priority for the United States and its key partners, such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Intelligence services from several key allies are said to have met in recent weeks with many leaders to form a core leadership that can take the initiative. But so far, this effort is said to have produced more internal bickering than clear strategy — a depressing rewind of failed efforts to build a coherent opposition in Syria.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo told me and several other journalists in an interview Tuesday that he plans to move the agency to a more aggressive, risk-taking stance. Here’s a place to start.

The Kurds are the wild cards in both Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Kurds are already governing the ethnic enclave they call “Rojava.” That should be an incentive for Syria’s Sunnis to develop similar strong government in their liberated areas. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have told US officials that they plan to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence soon, perhaps as early as September.

US officials feel a deep gratitude toward Iraqi Kurds, who have been reliable allies since the early 1990s. But the independence referendum is a potential flash point, and US officials may try to defer the Kurdish question until well after Iraqi provincial elections scheduled in September.

Iraq and Syria need to be reimagined, better-governed, more inclusive confederal states that give minorities room to breathe. The trick for policymakers is to make the post-ISIS transition a pathway toward progress, rather than a continuation of the sectarian catastrophe that has befallen both nations.

Washington Post

The Trump Administration Might Put the ‘Extreme’ in ‘Extreme Vetting’


Most foreigners arriving in the United States are greeted by Customs and Border Protection officers asking routine questions, such as the reason for the trip, where they’re staying and who they’re visiting. But the Trump administration is now considering a far more intensive screening process for visitors and visa applicants from some of our closest allies.

The new process would allow Homeland Security officials not only to go through social media content, but also to inspect cellphones for suspicious contacts. The process under consideration could apply to visitors from a broad cross-section of countries, possibly including the 38 countries whose citizens can usually enter the country without a visa per the Visa Waiver Program, such as Britain, France and Japan.

Even more alarming is a potential entrance questioning on ideology that would assess a visitor’s beliefs on issues such as the treatment of women in society, ethics in military conflict and the “sanctity of life,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Some have argued that these policies represent the president’s effort to fulfill his campaign promises of “extreme vetting.”

Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly succinctly articulated the administration’s considered approach for the seven countries included in the administration’s travel ban during a February congressional hearing: “If they come in, we want to say, what websites do they visit, and give us your passwords. So, we can see what they do on the Internet . . . If they truly want to come to America, then they will cooperate. If not, next in line.” And while it’s too early to tell what the final policy will look like, the proposed procedures would, if adopted, set a dangerous precedent for privacy.

The proposal represents a marked break from core American values. As a model of democracy, we must protect both our citizens’ privacy and the privacy of non-citizens. We can’t cherry pick which values we embrace and to whom we apply them.

And not only is it bad for democracy, but also it’s bad for business. In 2014, international travel and tourism generated more than $1 trillion in spending around the world. We host many visitors each year in Las Vegas for CES, where more than 180,000 attendees — including more than 60,000 international attendees — gather to do business and drive the global technology market. Visitors to the United States not only buy American products, they stay in American hotels, eat in American restaurants and participate in American culture.

If we make it harder for international travelers to come to the United States we not only discourage business and tourism but also encourage a retaliatory response from other nations. How many of us would travel outside the United States if we had to give up our passwords, contacts and perhaps other information on our cellphones?

What’s more, social media screenings so far have resulted in dead-ends as a security tool. Last December, former US Citizenship and Immigration Services director Leon Rodriguez told Congress that most information acquired through such screenings had not been helpful.

Every day we get better tools to weed out the visitors who mean us harm — tools that don’t require giving up a password from what could well be a bogus account or asking everyone to share their private conversations and content. We can do gait analysis and facial recognition to confirm identities. We can employ biometrics to determine stress levels. We can use algorithms to analyze facial micro expressions to tell law enforcement whether someone is being deceptive. And apps such as Moodies and others can listen to a voice for as little as 20 seconds and determine the speaker’s emotion.

By combining the smart use of technology with modern questioning techniques such as those used by Israel to remarkable effect in their airports, smart security can strike a balance between our need for privacy and our need for safety. We can debate the privacy issues surrounding such use of these technologies, but certainly we can agree these are less immediately invasive — and more effective — than demanding passwords for cellphone and social media access.

The United States’ unique role as a model for democracy, a home for free enterprise and a beacon for the world’s best and brightest has been the reason for our global lead in innovation and our consistently strong economy. If we are to prosper, we must resist the urge to shut our doors and instead develop innovative ways to reduce the risks of imported terrorism.

‘Mother of all Bombs’ and Mr. President


“Mother of all bombs” is really scary, it weighs ten tons and has unprecedented explosive capabilities, if we exclude the nuclear bomb. The bomb is designed to penetrate barricades and invade dungeons and tunnels. There is no hope for anyone in the targeted place. It is like a ruthless programmed earthquake.

There is no exaggeration in describing it as the “mother of bombs” – ISIS, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters must think twice about this. Setting fire to any US asset is truly now a suicide mission. US is capable of reaching everywhere.

What used to be a safe haven no longer merits that name.

Tunnels no longer sufficient to hide from the rage of the Mr. President at the White House.

Russian generals will most likely be considering this for a long time. Their army doesn’t have the capability of turning cities into fields of destruction. Dreading this bomb alone is enough to challenge them and create deep cracks in the spirits of their partners. The generals know that what is more important than the power of this bomb is the fast decision that can be taken to launch it.

Let’s set the Russian officials aside under their vast nuclear umbrella.

No doubt that “mother of bombs” is meant towards the North Korean leader who is addicted to the policy of nuclear and missile blackmail. He received the news while preparing to celebrate the anniversary of his grandfather amid an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. His generals should learn from what happened on the Afghani arena.

It is the same thing for Iranian generals who managed to shift the approach of diplomatic and missile tunnels into a permanent policy. They are aware that the bomb, equipped with explosives and messages, came just a week after US showered Shayrat airport with missiles. They also know that taking the decision to launch these missiles is far more dangerous than actually doing it.

It is most likely that the military generals in Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Syria are sorry that Obama’s presidency is over. During Obama’s era, the US “red line” became a joke on social media outlets. Some were hasty into thinking that the US is a paper mâché tiger.

Can a journalist venture and say that Trump’s actual period began when he targeted the Syrian airport and was confirmed when he approved the launch of “mother of all bombs”? And can we say that what is more dangerous than this dreadful bomb is the alteration of the image of the current president residing in the Oval Office?

Since he took office, Trump had been under his allies and enemies’ surveillance and his 100-days’ test was not an easy one with so many talks about the mayhem in the new administration and its lack of a unified vision and team.

The latest period was not short of contradicting statements and hasty decision. Many even predicted that Trump’s presidency will be damaged beyond repair internally before externally; a damage that will make it similar to Obama’s time and his famous red line.

It is clear that Trump had listened to the advice of his generals and members of staff. US have to be strong if it wants to have an influence. It had to regain its power and recreate a clear image of the president; one in which he doesn’t hesitate to take tough decisions when he thinks they are crucial to protect his country’s interests in the world.

So, Trump acted on the basis that during his presidency, US is capable of assuring its allies and worrying its enemies.

The missiles that targeted the Shayrat airport brought the US red line back to life. Trump’s administration benefited from the chemical attack and the president took a quick decision which put the Syrian regime back in the position of the guilty – and damaged the image of the Russian president and his country’s role. This came along with a very important political move when Trump waived the card of improving relations with China if Russia decides to go along with protecting the Syrian regime’s actions and its non-commitment to a serious political process.

The bomb on Afghanistan came to confirm that US is leading the war from Afghanistan to Mosul through Raqqa and that the role of Russia is shady or incomplete.

Through both strikes, US looked like it was back in the driver’s seat which made it capable of distributing guarantees, assurances and cautions. Trump’s return from Twitter to the US institutions will have a resonating effect on the international balances if it continued.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin most likely made a huge mistake when he hesitated in launching a serious and convincing political process in Syria, as he preferred to wait for a full deal. Had that been the case, Trump would have no other choice but to support the Russian Syria to eliminate the chances of an Iranian Syria.

When Mr. President of the US takes back the leadership and brings back the fierceness of his country’s diplomacy, Mr. President of this country or that one, should reconsider matters.

Trump Gets a Taste of Success


For a reminder of how new administrations can quickly get into trouble in foreign policy, consider that Monday, April 17, marks the anniversary of the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Bad things can happen to good presidents, and vice versa.

President Trump, after a mostly disastrous first two months, has had a good run these past two weeks in foreign policy. He acted decisively in Syria, gained China as a possible partner in dealing with North Korea, repaired relations with NATO and began addressing the serious tensions with Russia.

Why is Trump making better decisions now? And what could disrupt his progress toward a more coherent foreign policy?

Trump is making gains because he has assembled a competent national security team — and listens to its advice. There was a consensus among his top advisers for a quick, limited strike on a Syrian air base, and Trump took the recommendation. He didn’t amplify, augment or otherwise disrupt it with his own tweets. He allowed the process to work.

If Trump goes back to his freewheeling, tweeter-in-chief role, or if the disruptive would-be chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon regains influence, then chaos could return. But for now, Trump has bonded with his core team. And in this White House, starved for a win, nothing succeeds like success.

Contrast the quick, relatively clean decision on the military strike in Syria with the chaotic White House discussions about the 1961 Cuba invasion. The CIA didn’t level with Kennedy about its doubts that Cuban exiles could succeed without air cover; the Pentagon resented the covert paramilitary operation; Kennedy let himself get dragged into a mistake that prefigured the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and nearly led to nuclear war.

The Bay of Pigs illustrates what happens when a policy process goes bad. Other administrations have also had bumpy starts. President George W. Bush had a messy first few years, with recurring feuds between Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney. It was only in Bush’s second term that he really got the balance right. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also had ragged beginnings.

The Trump team, for now, is basking in self-congratulation. Bannon’s power is diminished and H.R. McMaster has taken over as a disciplined national security adviser. Comity reigns in part because Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hammer out common positions before every meeting in the Situation Room.

Trump’s strength and weakness is his emphasis on personality politics. That was evident in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which included nearly four hours of one-on-one conversation. Trump was bubbly at a news conference Wednesday in describing the “good chemistry” of the meeting. Such talk is the elevator music of summits, but in this case, the two do seem to have developed a mutually opportunistic bond. Xi is signaling that China’s interests are served by working with the United States to check North Korea, short of war. Will that last? We’ll see.

Trump’s North Korea strategy had a coherent rollout. First Mattis visited the region, followed by Tillerson; as tensions rose this week, the United States signaled resolve by dispatching an aircraft-carrier task force. Behind these tactical moves are some big strategic ideas about a future North Korea that wouldn’t threaten China’s interests.

The danger is over-personalizing policy. Trump likes people who make him look good (as Xi has done). But personal success can’t be the engine of statecraft.

Trump’s first two months were a case study in self-destructive actions. An example of how he undermined his team’s good ideas was a plan back in January for defusing trade and immigration tensions with Mexico.

The centerpiece would have been a visit to Washington by President Enrique Peña Nieto. But Trump got defensive about criticism that he was backing away from his campaign rhetoric and unleashed an inflammatory tweet that led Peña Nieto to cancel the visit.

The Mexico flap added to the uproar and disarray of Trump’s first weeks. Trump was running at government with his head; he was behaving like a guy who gets into bar fights. Somebody (presumably Bannon) must have told him that this was a good idea.

Over the past week, Trump has adopted a different approach — more careful and consensual. Yes, it brings him closer to the foreign policy mainstream that he and Bannon derided during the campaign. But it also gives him a taste of the success he craves.

The Washington Post

A Strike in Syria Restores Our Credibility in the World


After President Bashar al-Assad of Syria once again attacked his own citizens with poison gas, the civilized world recoiled in horror at images of children writhing in pain and suffocating to death.

President Trump voiced this justified outrage at a news conference on Wednesday, and the next day he took swift, decisive action against the outlaw Assad regime. But these strikes did more than simply punish Assad and deter future attacks; they have gone a long way to restoring our badly damaged credibility in the world.

It’s hard to overstate just how low the standing of the United States had fallen because of President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red line” against Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. I was one of the few Republican members of Congress who supported strikes against Syria then. Because of that, I’ve heard from dozens of world leaders expressing their doubts about the security commitments of the United States.

It wasn’t only Mr. Obama’s refusal to act in the moment that undermined our credibility. The fig leaf to justify inaction was an agreement with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, which Russia and Syria plainly violated from the outset. Yet Obama administration officials continued to celebrate it as a triumph.

It’s also worth remembering that Mr. Obama backed down partly because he so badly wanted a nuclear deal with Assad’s patron, Iran. But his weakness in Syria only emboldened Iran.

In one night, President Trump turned the tables. He showed the world that when the United States issues a warning, it will back up its words with action. There was no hand-wringing, no straw-man choice between doing nothing and launching a massive ground invasion, no dithering for consultations with others who do not have the power to act.

The American president voiced his disapproval, conducted an orderly and secret process at the National Security Council, and then delivered a retaliatory strike many years overdue.

The world now sees that President Trump does not share his predecessor’s reluctance to use force. And that’s why nations across the world have rallied to our side, while Russia and Iran are among the few to have condemned the attack.

Mr. Obama’s lack of credibility is one reason the United States watched in isolation as Russia and Iran took the lead at recent Syrian peace conferences. It’s also why Iran got the better of us in the nuclear negotiations and North Korea has defied us for years.

With our credibility restored, the United States can get back on offense around the world. In Syria, Assad knows that we have many more Tomahawk missiles than he has airfields. So do his supporters in Moscow and Tehran.

Further, leaders in Iran must now question the risks of being put “on notice” earlier this year by President Trump. After all, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo are noted Iran hawks. If they recommended decisive action in Syria, the ayatollahs have to wonder if they may be next.

Finally, Russia’s geopolitical standing has taken a severe blow. Mr. Putin was powerless to protect his client in Damascus. Moscow now faces a Hobson’s choice of empty words of condemnation or escalation on behalf of a global pariah, which risks further American action. After years of Russian aggression being met by empty American words, Putin finds his credibility at stake.

In every theater, President Trump now has the opportunity to press our advantage and protect our interests with strong diplomacy backed by America’s restored credibility. It’s been a long time coming, but friend and foe alike have been reminded that the United States not only possesses unmatched power, but also once again will employ our power to protect our interests, aspirations and allies.

The New York Times

Trump Was Right to Strike Syria


President Trump’s air strikes against Syria were of dubious legality. They were hypocritical. They may have had political motivations.

But most of all, they were right.

I’m deeply suspicious of Trump’s policies and competence, but this is a case where he is right and Barack Obama was wrong. Indeed, many of us believe that Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake was his passivity in Syria.

But Trump changed US policy 180 degrees after compelling photos emerged of children gassed in Syria. Should a president’s decisions about war really depend on the photos taken?

Here’s why I believe he was right.

Since the horrors of mustard gas during World War I a century ago, one of the world’s more successful international norms has been a taboo on the use of chemical weapons. We all have an interest in reinforcing that norm, so this is not just about Syria but also about deterring the next dictator from turning to sarin.

For an overstretched military, poison gas is a convenient way to terrify and subdue a population. That’s why Saddam Hussein used gas on Kurds in 1988, and why Bashar al-Assad has used gas against his own people in Syria. The best way for the world to change the calculus is to show that use of chemical weapons carries a special price — such as a military strike on an airbase.

Paradoxically, Assad may have used chemical weapons because he perceived a green light from the Trump administration. In recent days, Rex Tillerson, Sean Spicer and Nikki Haley all suggested that it was no longer American policy to push for the removal of Assad, and that may have emboldened him to open the chemical weapons toolbox. That mistake made it doubly important for Trump to show that neither Assad nor any leader can get away with using weapons of mass destruction.

Look, for a Syrian child, it doesn’t matter much whether death comes from a barrel bomb, a mortar shell, a bullet, or a nerve agent. I hope Trump will also show more interest in stopping all slaughter of Syrians — but it’s still important to defend the norm against chemical weapons (the United States undermined that norm after Saddam’s gas attack by falsely suggesting that Iran was to blame).

Critics note that Trump’s air strikes don’t have clear legal grounding. But Bill Clinton’s 1999 intervention to prevent genocide in Kosovo was also of uncertain legality, and thank God for it. Clinton has said that his greatest foreign policy mistake was not intervening in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide; any such intervention also would have been of unclear legality — and the right thing to do.

There are risks ahead, of Russia or Syria targeting American aircraft or of Iran seeking revenge against Americans in Iraq. War plans rarely survive the first shot, and military interventions are easier to begin than to end. But as long as we don’t seek to topple Assad militarily, everybody has an interest in avoiding an escalation.

Many of my fellow progressives viscerally oppose any use of force, but I think that’s a mistake. I was against the Iraq war, but some military interventions save lives. The no fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s is one example, and so are the British intervention in Sierra Leone and French intervention in Mali. It’s prudent to be suspicious of military interventions, but imprudent to reject any use of force categorically.

Want proof that military interventions in the Middle East can work? In 2014, Obama ordered air strikes near the Syria-Iraq border against ISIS as it was attacking members of the Yazidi minority. Those US strikes saved many thousands of Yazidi lives, although they came too late to save thousands more who were killed or kidnapped as slaves.

In Syria, the crucial question is what comes next.

There’s some bold talk among politicians about ousting Assad from Syria. Really? People have been counting on Assad’s fall for six years now, and he’s as entrenched as ever.

Moreover, if this was a one-time strike then the larger slaughter in Syria will continue indefinitely. But I’m hoping that the administration may use it as a tool to push for a ceasefire.

The New York Times

When is politics like a tree?


If you study and write about happiness as I do, you become attuned to patterns. For instance, when I walk into a workplace, I can usually tell, based on my first few conversations, if the environment is happy or not. And in the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.

I subjected this observation to a bit of analysis, and sure enough, the numbers bear it out. I analyzed the 2014 data from the General Social Survey collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to see how attention to politics is associated with life satisfaction. The results were significant. Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being “very interested in politics” drove up the likelihood of reporting being “not too happy” about life by about eight percentage points.

My results did not prove causality: People who pay close attention to politics might also tend to have some latent source of unhappiness. But behavioral science shows that the link might just be causal through what psychologists call “external locus of control,” which refers to a belief that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on one’s life.

An external locus of control brings unhappiness. Three social psychologists showed this in a famous 2004 paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review. Studying surveys of college students over several decades and controlling for life circumstances and demographics, they compared people who associated their destinies with luck and outside forces with those who believed they were more in control of their lives. They conclude that an external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.

Incidentally, the researchers also found that this external locus of control has been increasing among students since the 1960s. No surprise here, as young people have been increasingly exposed to trigger warnings, sensitivity about microaggressions and safe spaces. Awareness of oppression is crucial, of course, but the research suggests that today’s campus trends carry tangible academic and psychological costs.

To be sure, an external locus of control is not necessarily inaccurate. If someone is directly affected by a political action (having her immigration status changed or losing her health insurance, for example), her attention will naturally be occupied by events outside her control. However, the external locus of control can also be based on an illusion that something affects us — meaning that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary.

Which brings us back to the opening question of this essay: When is politics like a tree? In his classic book “Living With the Himalayan Masters,” the Hindu guru Swami Rama recounts the day his master taught him the nature of “maya,” or illusion. Without warning, his master tightly grabbed hold of a tree and cried out: “Help me! My body has been caught by this tree trunk.” Swami Rama exhausted himself trying to pry his master off the tree, but to no avail. Finally, his master let go, and said, laughing, “This is maya.” He explained that we needlessly attach our fate to external things, bringing misery. The simple solution: Just let go.

The question today is how much of our political consumption is like the tree, and thus expendable in order to raise our happiness. We all have political opinions — some of them strongly held. But much of what actually happens in politics is far beyond our individual influence. That doesn’t mean it is intrinsically unimportant, but let’s be honest: Many of us consume political news and commentary in a compulsive, concupiscent sort of way, voluntarily subjecting ourselves to gratuitous information and stimuli, particularly on social media.

The unhappiness results speak for themselves. A friend of mine — a well-known journalist with a large social media following — once confided in me that there is little that brings him more anxiety than checking his Twitter feed. As he clicks on his notifications, he can feel his chest tighten. Maybe you can relate to this.

So what is the solution? First, find a way to bring politics more into your sphere of influence so it no longer qualifies as an external locus of control. Simply clicking through angry political Facebook posts by people with whom you already agree will most likely worsen your mood and help no one. Instead, get involved in a tangible way — volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.

Second, pay less attention to politics as entertainment. Read the news once a day, as opposed to hitting your Twitter feed 50 times a day like a chimp in a 1950s experiment on the self-administration of cocaine. Will you get the very latest goings on in Washington in real time? No. Will that make you a more boring person? No. Trust me here — you will be less boring to others. But more important, you will become happier.

So go ahead, let go of the tree.

The New York Times

War in Space Is Becoming a Real Threat


Among the memorabilia in Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s office is a fragment of the Wright brothers’ first airplane. But the most intriguing items may be two small plastic satellites on sticks that can be maneuvered to simulate a dogfight in space.

Space is now a potential battle zone, Goldfein explains in an interview. The Air Force wants to ensure “space superiority,” which he says means “freedom from attack and freedom to maneuver.”

If you think cyberwar raises some tricky issues, get your mind around this next big threat worrying the Pentagon. Similar problems exist in both the cyber and space domains: U.S. commercial and military interests are interwoven but deeply suspicious of each other; the technologies are borderless but are being weaponized by hostile nation-states; and attacks on satellites and other systems may be invisible and difficult to attribute.

Today’s digital world hangs on the satellite networks that invisibly circle the globe. They’re the wiring system for many commercial and military operations down below, and they’re highly vulnerable to attack. Russia has jammed GPS reception in Ukraine; China has hacked U.S. weather satellites; North Korea has jammed signals over the demilitarized zone.

The cloud overhead is thickening: As of mid-2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists counted 1,419 satellites orbiting the globe, including 576 from the United States, 181 from China and 140 from Russia. More than half are in low Earth orbit; most of the rest are geostationary, about 22,000 miles from Earth. Roughly 350 satellites, or 25 percent of the total, are for military use. At least 12 nations now have space-launch capability.

Space warfare has been a staple of science fiction for decades, but real-world fears were checked by a 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned the use of nuclear weapons there. But the treaty didn’t ban the use of conventional weapons in space, and Russia began its first anti-satellite weapons program in 1961, according to leading expert Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. After the Cold War ended, fears eased about space conflict.

A wake-up call came with China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile that destroyed a Chinese target in space (creating more than 3,000 dangerous fragments). The Chinese have now conducted a total of eight tests of satellite-killer rockets, Weeden says. Russia, too, has resumed similar tests. The United States is also thought to have what amount to anti-satellite rockets in the “midcourse” leg of its missile-defense system.

Rocket attacks against satellites worry the Pentagon less these days than electronic ones. Satellites could use jammers to sabotage other satellites. Ground systems can already create electronic bubbles that block GPS signals. The Russians used this technology to disable a Ukrainian drone in 2014, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, cited by Weeden.

Keeping space systems safe is crucial for the planet, but protection is dispersed among a jumble of overlapping and conflicting authorities. The military and the intelligence communities barely talked to each other for decades on this issue, but last year the Air Force created a Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center that will soon have about 200 representatives coordinating operations across agencies.

But military liaison with private space users is still primitive. A “commercial integration cell” at the Air Force Joint Space Operations Center (yes, it’s a different entity) works with six big companies. But most commercial concerns share their satellite-location data through the Space Data Association, based in the Isle of Man. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is eager to extend supervision of commercial flights to space activity, said Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online.

The United States is even warier of sharing its space secrets than its communications intelligence. There’s no “Five Eyes” partnership yet, though Britain, Australia and Canada are creating space-operations centers that could someday share data with an Air Force unit that was established 11 years ago. One little-discussed U.S. snooping operation is the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, which has four satellites monitoring the other traffic 22,000 miles above the planet.

As on Earth, the hidden danger is hacking, official or otherwise. Orbits can be changed; sensors can be blinded; data can be corrupted. Facts could become as fragile in space as on Earth, if systems aren’t protected. But first, suspicious space mavens must learn to talk with each other.

When space is a battleground, such cooperation is difficult. As Goldfein said in a recent speech, “There really is no such thing as war in space, it’s just war.”

The Washington Post

The Animal Spirits in the Jobs Report


Has the presidential election of Donald Trump reawakened the animal spirits in the US economy, giving businesses more confidence to create jobs? Judging from the latest data, it may have — particularly if you’re a miner, a machinist or a construction worker.

The employment report for February brought positive news for Trump. Nonfarm employers added an estimated 235,000 jobs, bringing the three-month average to 209,000 — more than enough to compensate for natural growth in the labor force. The unemployment rate edged down 0.1 percentage point to 4.7 percent. And in a sign that the demand for labor is translating into bigger pay raises, the average hourly wage gained 2.8 percent from a year earlier, exceeding the average pace of the past several years.

Some industries punched well above their weight, contributing more to job gains than their share of overall employment. Mining — particularly in areas such as coal, as opposed to oil and gas — saw the biggest turnaround: In the three months through February, employment grew at an annualized rate of 9.2 percent, compared with an annualized decline of 4.5 percent during the previous five years. Construction, including heavy and civil engineering, rose at a 6.7 percent pace, up from 3.9 percent in the previous five years. Other winners included machinery and finance.

What’s so special about these sectors? One possible explanation is that they’re expecting to gain from Trump’s policies. The president has already signed orders easing restrictions on coal miners, and has pledged to revive production. His plan to invest $1 trillion in roads, bridges and other infrastructure should be good for construction (though warm February weather may also have played a role), and certain domestic manufacturers could benefit — at least in the short term — from his efforts to raise barriers to imports. In finance, he has promised to roll back regulation and has ordered a review of a retirement-advice rule that much of the industry had opposed.

Others are tougher to explain. The strong growth in hiring at clothing and accessories stores, for example, contrasted with weak overall job growth in retail trade. Service providers, which account for more than two-thirds of all employment, hired at a slower pace than they did in earlier years, suggesting that the optimism remains far from pervasive.

To be sure, these are early days: Trump has president only a few months, not enough time to implement an economic agenda. So far, some employers appear to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. For that confidence to spread, he’ll have to follow through successfully on policies — such as well-crafted infrastructure investment and sensible measures to make banks simpler and stronger — that could benefit the economy overall, rather than boosting specific sectors at the expense of the environment or financial stability.