Nov. 25, 2012: Egypt’s New Dictator, Black Friday Fury, and Mammograms

I know it’s tempting to kick off the week with the obvious local Black Friday headlines, but let’s start with a wider gaze, shall we? You probably recall the Arab Spring that began unfolding around two years ago. It’s not clear, however, if the revolution did the region much good.

Egypt, which featured a great deal of positive press coverage during the revolution, is perhaps the most obvious example, as it is now under the thumb of new president Mohammad Morsi. On Wednesday, Morsi won widespread praise for his role in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas forces — many commentators in western nations called out Morsi for apparent partisanship toward the Hamas faction, but much of his own country hailed his work as a shining success. On Thursday, however, he stunned the people in his fledgling democracy by granting himself incredibly broad new powers, making his own unilateral decisions trump those of any Egyptian court.

The declaration, which was read on national television, indicated that Morsi “can issue any decision or measure to protect the revolution…. The constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.” Morsi insisted that his move was merely a temporary measure, but it evoked concerns about how liberally such “temporary” measures might be enacted in the future.

Some are concerned that Morsi is quickly becoming just another oppressive dictator, rendering the much-heralded Arab Spring pointless. It’s easy to see how they got that impression. After all, even Hosni Mubarak, the longtime Egyptian leader who was ousted in the Arab Spring, never had powers like those Morsi just gave himself.

And that’s why the protests are beginning anew. On Friday, demonstrators in Tehrir Square, which was the heart of the Arab Spring protests, began what they say will be a week-long sit-in. As one protester said,

We are heading towards a totalitarian regime again for the second time. This is not what we revolted for. I elected Morsi myself the last time and now Morsi is repeating Mubarak’s mistakes.

The U.S., the U.K., and the European Union have all expressed concerns about Morsi’s power grab, particularly given its apparent conflict with the pro-democracy tone of the revolution. In the mean time, clashes between police and protesters have already turned violent, with security forces firing tear gas canisters to disperse some of the crowds. The protesters, in turn, were tossing rocks and burning a police truck, in a disturbing mirror of the conflicts that reached their climax last year. It’s no wonder that some analysts now wonder whether the great Arab Spring may have done nothing more than replace one problem with another.

How many Arab Springs will it take before we stop seeing the region in flames?

Speaking of democracy, Facebook doesn’t want to hear what you have to say anymore. At least, that’s the message many are taking from the internet giant’s move away from letting users vote on policy changes. Facebook has traditionally given its users the right to vote on major changes to its terms of service, but it seems that the administrators are tired of bothering. So now it’s asking users to engage in one last vote, to abolish their own right to take part in deciding future changes.

That’s right: Facebook wants its users to vote to abolish their right to vote.

Facebook established its current system of interactive governance in 2009, when the system had “only” 200 million active users. That system, which remains in effect today, works as follows: when Facebook administrators want to enact a new policy change, they post it on the site. If the changes receive at least 7,000 comments within a week, then they are put to a vote among all users, and if at least 30% of active users vote either for or against the change, then that decision becomes final.

Evidently, Facebook’s administrators hope to restructure its entire governance system. Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan told reporters on Tuesday that the site has grown beyond this outdated system, as getting 30% of users to vote on any particular topic is an increasingly tall order. In the last site governance vote, for instance — which users triggered through their comments, mind you — only 0.038% of all active users voted.

Clearly, these votes are becoming less and less meaningful as users consistently fail to meet the minimum threshold for the vote to count. Furthermore, campaigns like the anti-information gathering movement last year have made administrators wary of users commenting and voting without understanding the content of proposed changes, further making the system pointless. As the company’s VP of Communications, Public Policy, and Marketing Elliot Schrage put it,

[W]e found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality. Therefore, we’re proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement.

Egan says that Facebook would continue taking user feedback, of course, but that they would simply do so in other ways. As she said, under the new system, administrators would instead consider user feedback through other means like question-and-answer sessions — but users would have no definitive votes.

Still, many advocates are concerned that while the need for a user vote is rare, removing that ability may disenfranchise the site’s tremendous user base. After all, as many have noted in the past, if Facebook was a country it would be the third-largest in the world, trailing only China and India. (Yes, Facebook is bigger than America.) For now, it’s a democracy, albeit an imperfect one. It may soon become a dictatorship.

As it currently stands, there’s only one way for the change to be blocked. First, at least 7,000 users have to comment on the proposed change. Second — and this is the tricky part — at least 30% of users must vote, and the majority must oppose the change, in order for that decision to be binding. That demand comes to about 300 million of the roughly one billion active users casting a virtual ballot. We’ll soon know whether Facebook’s governance will radically change, or whether its users will show up en masse, demanding to keep the power in their voices.

We should also address a rather critical healthcare topic. For several years, researchers and policymakers alike have questioned whether routine mammograms really serve a purpose in breast cancer treatment, or if they are merely a waste of time, inconsistent as an early detection tool and prone to causing damage of their own.

A new study by researchers at Dartmouth College reignited this debate on the value of breast cancer screening. Their paper, which was published on Thanksgiving Day in the New England Journal of Medicine, acknowledged that regular mammograms have, indeed, caught more incidents of breast cancer than were detected prior to the screening practice. However, this effect has been negligible. Only 122 out of 100,000 women screened in the study received a positive diagnosis for breast cancer, and of those 122, a mere eight would have progressed to later stages which would actually warrant life-saving treatment.

The other 114 women who received a cancer diagnosis never would have otherwise never have been at risk, whether due to slow-developing cancers or mere temporary abnormalities that would eventually recede — although it is impossible to know which eight cancers would have progressed, and which 114 would have remained effectively (if not clinically) benign. Mammograms seem to have minimal benefit, the authors concluded, even while missing more severe forms of cancer that develop quickly, making annual or biannual screenings useless.

But many feel that this wasn’t the authors’ most important finding. After all, even if only eight lives were saved through every 100,000 mammograms, aren’t those eight lives enough of a reason to keep up the practice?

Not so, say many commentators, because there’s a darker side to the story. You see, the authors also found a startling number of overdiagnoses — discoveries of cancer that would never actually pose a threat, but which would lead to invasive treatments like biopsies, chemotherapy, and mastectomies that may irreversibly alter the lives of those women who go through them.

The authors ultimately determined that in the past 30 years, these have amounted to a whopping 1.3 million needless diagnoses. In 2008, the most recent year examined in the study, overdiagnoses amounted to 31% of all breast cancer diagnoses. In sum, for every one woman saved by early diagnoses, the authors estimated that another three are overdiagnosed, which mirrors the findings of a study completed in New Zealand earlier this month, even though their standard is only one mammogram every three years.

However, there are those who argue that even those unnecessary treatments are a small price to pay in order to save thousands of lives. They make a good point. It is true that some women who go through invasive mastectomies are never able to come to grips with the change in their identities and self-image, but many others say that while adjusting to their new realities took a great deal of work, it was certainly worth maintaining their health and their lives.

The big problem is that breast cancer treatments are themselves dangerous. Chemotherapy and surgery carry risks of their own, after all. Some have even speculated that more women die from unnecessary cancer treatments than those who were saved by early detection, a damning allegation to be sure.

Furthermore, while breast cancer mortality for women under 40 years old declined by 42% over the 32 years examined in the study, it fell by only 28% for those older than 40. Given that mammograms are almost never given to women under 40, the disparity in these mortality rates suggests to some analysts that the declining mortality rates which they observed were borne of improved treatments, not early detection.

These commentators are led to proclaim mammograms little a humiliating hassle at best, and at worst, the reason for countless personal lives being needlessly shattered over nothing more than propaganda. There has been some outcry against the study by those who call it an attempt to deny women access to treatment through “malicious nonsense,” and some organizations have questioned the researchers’ statistical methodology. Many others, though, are beginning to wonder whether routine mammograms are really worth the price we pay.

(On a side note, I’m perfectly aware that men can also contract breast cancer. But given that the health guidelines under fire deal with screening for women, as do most studies and analysis on the subject, I chose to confine the above commentary to female welfare.)

Alright, that’s enough of that for now; I suppose it’s time to satisfy our consumerism. This year, more than any other before, Black Friday began to leak into Thursday itself, with the traditional post-Thanksgiving sales starting before the day had even ended. With some families abandoning their dinner tables early on “Gray Thursday” in order to go shopping, some wondered what the new trend means for business in the U.S., as well as the broader moral implications of allowing one holiday to be overtaken by purchases for another. Perhaps, as some commentators have claimed, Black Friday is now a holiday of its own.

In any case, some shoppers welcomed the early start to the holiday sales, with many stores drawing the hefty crowds that were previously reserved for the day after Thanksgiving. Others, however, believe that as Black Friday becomes longer, its impact is thinning, with more money being spent during the holiday season but fewer doing so as part of the mad Black Friday rush. One projection estimated crowds of 147 million people hitting stores from the start of the sales through today, down from 152 million last year.

Perhaps declining Black Friday attendance should come as little surprise. Many potential shoppers were disturbed by the shopping spree’s infiltration into Thanksgiving Day itself, while others simply avoided the typical in-store chaos and did their shopping online. Not to mention those customers who were more inclined to support local stores on Small Business Saturday than to throw more cash at multi-billion dollar corporations on Black Friday.

Speaking of the corporations, Walmart was home to disgruntled employees throughout the affair, with scattered employees across the U.S. going on strike to protest the company’s low wages and high insurance premiums. Not that it had much of an effect — despite quite a bit of hype early in the week, few employees actually participated, so it was hardly as though any stores were shut down. In fact, the retailer recorded its best Black Friday sales total of all time.

Other Black Friday activities were quite a bit more noticeable. If you know anything about Black Friday, you should be expecting these. We have the San Antonio man who pulled a gun on other customers for cutting in line. Then there’s the Walmart in Tallahassee, Florida where two people were shot in a dispute over a parking space. We also have the uncontrollable mob in Georgia; the Massachusetts man who left his girlfriend’s two-year-old son in the car while purchasing a 51-inch television, then took home the TV and left the toddler behind; and the drunk 71-year-old in Washington who ran over two pedestrians and left them pinned under her SUV.

…How did this become mundane? When did this become ordinary?

Black Friday. How delightful.

As for entertainment news, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is on track to remain atop the box office this week after taking the number one spot with a $141.1 million debut last weekend. In case there are any fans among my readers, I’ll spare you the pain of stumbling across unwanted spoilers here. (Psst: Snape kills Dumbledore.)

Whether you’re entranced by the series or find it deplorable, the controversy it carries, at least, is entertaining to behold. When a book series sells 100 million copies and compels even the Vatican to go on the offensive, when fans of literally all ages proclaim their love for the main characters and have their fanfiction licensed for mainstream publication while detractors compile signs of an abusive relationship within the supposed fairytale romance, well, you may as well watch the skirmish.

Enough said.

If nothing else, it’s better than seeing the near-repeat of the Colorado movie shootings from earlier this year. Blaec Lammers, a 20-year-old Missouri resident and sufferer of various psychological disorders, planned to gun down moviegoers at a Twilight showing with two assault rifles and 400 rounds of ammunition. Authorities detained him on Tuesday before he could carry out the attack. Lammers was previously arrested in 2009 for entering a Walmart with a knife and ski mask. He said he was looking for an “easy victim” after watching Halloween.

Okay, let’s switch to sports. Hockey has been, well, more of the same. The NHL has now cancelled all games through December 14, and the 2013 All-Star Game is officially off the calendar as well. With each passing week, it looks more and more likely that the entire season is going to evaporate.

At this point, it’s hard to even speculate about the future of professional hockey itself, as many fans are tired of feeling betrayed by both the league and the players association. For some, the international game is quickly growing in its appeal. For others, college, high school, and other amateur competitions are the place to be.

And for a select few, it’s all about the weekly EA Sports simulations. Calgary, San Jose, and Chicago lead their respective divisions in the West, while Montreal, New York, and Washington are clinging to their leads in the East. And the St. Louis Blues are 7-10-2. Come on, couldn’t this be just a little less accurate?

The gridiron brought its own share of drama on Thursday night, but not for the reasons you may have expected. Sure, there were some interesting football games, but the real shock was a ruling that came during the tight battle between the Houston Texans and the Detroit Lions.

In the third quarter of their Motor City showdown, Texans running back Justin Forsett appeared to be tackled near his own 25-yard line. Even his own players slowed, assuming that the play was over, but the referees never signaled that he was down. Forsett himself evidently didn’t think that his knee actually touched the ground, so he fought through the defenders and continued running right past his bewildered opposition, ultimately running the length of the field for a touchdown.

Naturally, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz angrily threw his challenge flag, certain that when the referees reviewed the play, Forsett’s score wouldn’t count. The problem? By rule, all scoring plays in the NFL are automatically reviewed anyway, so Schwartz received an unsportsmanlike conduct. And a rule change from two years ago indicates that if a team is penalized, they lose the opportunity to have the previous play reviewed — even if it otherwise would have received an automatic review.

So Forsett’s touchdown, the longest in Texans history, stood despite blatantly obvious video evidence that his knee hit the ground. Even Forsett himself acknowledged that, based on the film, he should have been called down.

More importantly, that touchdown may well have decided the game, as Detroit ultimately fell late in overtime, 34-31. Had the touchdown been reversed, which undoubtedly would have happened if the little red flag had stayed in Schwartz’s pocket, then the Lions might have upset the team with the best record in the NFL rather than falling to 4-7.

Well, at least there’s one uplifting sports story this week. A U.S. professional team sports record fell on Friday night, as the San Diego Sockers of the Professional Arena Soccer League took down the Toros de Mexico in a 14-4 rout, sealing their 41st consecutive victory. Prior to Friday night’s showdown, the Sockers were tied with the Sioux Falls Storm, which won 40 straight United Indoor Football games from 2005-2008.

San Diego hasn’t lost a match since falling 9-8 in overtime on December 27, 2010. The first of their 41 straight wins came two days later.

These guys now hold the all-time record.

Let’s close with an especially timely story. I’m sure that most of us enjoy a scoop or two of ice cream every now and then. Just thinking about it makes the mouth water. Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, turkey….

…Turkey?

Well, if you visit Scooptacular in Arizona, then yes. Store owner Nindi Wadhwa and his staff handcraft their concoctions, and they’re offering a number of specialty flavors for the holidays, turkey included. Other samplings in their unique selection include cranberry, pumpkin pie, sweet potato and sweet corn.

Asked how they make ice cream taste like corn, Wadhwa responded that his staff drops morsels of the food into the ice cream while they prepare it. So if you want some turkey ice cream, you’d better be ready for a meaty surprise in your snack.

Well, it’s still probably better than being caught in the stores on Black Friday.

It's only funny because it's true.

Other articles of interest:
Absentee voting impacts ‘integrity’ of elections
UN criticizes Russia over torture allegations
4D scans show foetuses yawn in the womb
What Should Children Read?
Postcard mailed in 1943 finally arrives
At Launch, Does Wii U Lack a Game That Matches the Wii?
Instagram’s Thanksgiving Is Its Busiest Day Ever
Dwarf planet Makemake examined for the first time
Super-Earths Get Magnetic ‘Shield’ from Liquid Metal

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