The Meaning of 9/11

Unlike some people who have said so, I am quite excited to celebrate on September 11. No, I do not condone the destruction which occurred on that day in 2001. Rather, I celebrate because 9/11 is the day my first child was born. For me, 9/11 never meant the commonplace ‘religious fundamentalism attacks freedom’. Now, however, I have a better reason to remember the day. Additionally, two people who I have known also celebrate their birth on that day as well. Granted, I was really hoping for the 6th of September, but only because 4 close family members were born on that day.

On Vaccines

I am going to be a parent soon. One of the (many) big debates in parenting for the past decade or so has been whether or not vaccinate a child. There’s a lot of talking points, but there tends to be little in the realm of hard data and evidence in the discussions (at least from my experience of them). Fear not, however, for I am doing the research. I wish to divide this post into three parts: outlining the main positions, outlining the quality research I can find, and discussing the two groups of points. At the very least, I hope this remains a useful starting point for others’ research. While I do not expect everyone to accept my opinion, I would like to hear others’ arguments and evidence — perhaps I’ve missed something.

 

The Contenders

For the sake of simplicity, I am reducing the main positions to three: (1) standard vaccination, (2) delayed vaccination, and (3) withheld vaccination.

Standard Vaccination

The standard vaccination programmes* (US, CanadaUK) are pretty intimidating. One interesting bit from looking at just these three programmes is that Canada apparently allows a few types of delayed vaccination in addition to the early infancy schedule. The UK’s recommendations are a bit accelerated (main vaccines done at months 2, 3, and 4 while the US and Canada do them at months 2, 4, and 6). The primary reason for vaccinating a child is the obvious one: to prevent diseases (the CDC’s answer repeats this five times — the same reason is repackaged). Considering that some countries are only just seeing the end of some of these diseases (in February 2012, India was able to claim that it hadn’t had a new case of polio in the wild for a year — the US crossed that threshold in 1979). The main criticism of this programme is that there are serious — sometimes fatal — reactions to the vaccinations. According to one post by John Snyder, the following are adverse reactions just to the measles vaccine (other vaccines have similar reactions):

One in 1000 cases of measles results in encephalitis, with a high rate of permanent neurological complications in those who survive.
Approximately five percent develop pneumonia.
The fatality rate is between one and three per 1000 cases…
[D]eath is most commonly seen in infants with measles.
Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a rare complication of measles infection that occurs years after the illness in approximately 10 of every 100,000 cases.
It causes fever and a mild rash in 5-15% of recipients.
0.03% will have a febrile seizure – likely not a result of the vaccine itself, but simply a child’s individual predisposition to febrile seizures.
One in 10,000 children will have a more serious event following the vaccine, such as a change in alertness, a drop in blood pressure, or a severe allergic reaction.

Delayed Vaccination

The argument to delay vaccination centres on the criticisms outlined above regarding the standard vaccination programme. Many people have heard that there was a link between the MMR vaccination and autism, and they have used this link to delay (or withhold) vaccines. The primary objection to delaying vaccinations hinge on the importance of vaccines: they prevent the spread of disease (see John Snyder’s post linked above). The criticism brings out a contradiction in the concept: the only way one can safely delay vaccines is if the majority of others follow the standard programme, but delaying vaccination decreases the number and subsequently increases the chance of the diseases for those who have delayed vaccinations.

Withheld Vaccination

Similar to the delayed vaccination position, the argument to withhold vaccinations focuses on the criticisms to the standard vaccination. However, this argument follows the delayed vaccination argument to its extreme: it is better to delay vaccination forever rather than risk the adverse reactions associated with vaccinations. Such an argument is especially true in some relatively rare situations. Because the argument for withholding vaccinations is similar to the argument to delay vaccines, it should be no surprise that the criticism is similar: withholding vaccinations increases the chance of diseases and, more importantly, the possibility of new strands and mutations to occur which would affect more than just those who have not been vaccinated.

 

The Data

The main question of concern should  be clear: do the risks involved with vaccines outweigh the benefits and do the risks involved with withholding or delaying vaccines outweigh the benefits? To answer these questions, an investigation requires at least a risk assessment of individual children and a risk assessment of society.

To see where problematic side effects occurred, I used the VAERS database maintained by the CDC and ran a query for all serious (hospitalisation and above) events since 2000 reported for the recommended vaccines for children under the age of 2. There was a total of 43,000 reports.

The risks of not having vaccines varies by location. For example, Hepatitis B is recommended in the US, yet the number of cases is minimal (there are only 350 million worldwide, and 600,000 deaths per year worldwide). The primary manner of infection is as an STI or through shared needle use (i.e. in certain drugs). Of the adults who contract it, 95% have a full recovery, though children and newborns have a much lower recovery rate — and they generally contract it from their mother during birth. Diptheria is a more serious disease (the fatality rate is 5-10% and it is airborne), but widespread vaccination has reduced it to less than 5 cases in the US over the past decade (and Canada, Europe, and other industrialised nations have similar levels). Likewise, pertussis is a another serious disease (responsible for 17 deaths in 2001 alone) which has seen an increase in cases since 1980 largely because of parents not vaccinating their children against it. Tetanus is yet another serious disease (over 66% of cases tend to be fatal), but it is eliminated in many countries (especially Western and industrialised ones). The story continues similarly with other immunizations — especially those recommended in many countries.

 

The Discussion

Given that the birth rate has averaged at least 4 million per year since 2000, one can safely assume that a third of those born are vaccinated according to the standard programme. That gives a total of 16 million children vaccinated over the 12 years. To continue the conservative streak, even doubling the number of reported serious effects occurs in one out of 184 children vaccinated will have some degree of a serious reaction (a half of one percent). The main offenders (over 5% of or 1000 reports) are DTaP, the combo 5-in-1 [DTaP, Hep-B, IPV] (only during first 6 months), PCV-7 (but not PCV-13), MMR (before 6 months and after 12), IPV (before 6 months), Hep-A (after 12 months). The odds of having an adverse reaction from vaccines is 183 to 1  – one is more likely to commit suicide within one’s life than have an adverse reaction. It seems that the risks of immunisation are minimal.

Returning to the MMR-autism link mentioned above, the majority of those who have heard of it do not know that (1) the journal which published it has retracted it, (2) almost all of the thirteen authors have disowned it, (3) further studies have not corroborated the link, (4) the original study did not find evidence of such a link, and (5) the primary author (Andrew Wakefield) was barred from practising medicine. Attempts to find links between immunisations and other diseases/conditions (such as autism) simply do not pan out regardless of what celebrities and a very small minority of physicians (some who have questionable qualifications). Not only that, but studies have suggested that delaying (or withholding) vaccination does not improve mental faculties. As a result, I cannot find a strong argument against vaccinating children according to the recommended schedule; but this is not the end of the discussion. In fact, I have not yet found a strong argument for the recommended immunisation schedule — most, if not all, of those arguments work strictly against withholding vaccines. Why? They argue that there is a strong chance of an unwelcome (to say the least) outcome if one encounters one of the diseases in the wild. They also argue that it is necessary for the healthy well-being of human society for its members to be vaccinated. However, the two arguments do not imply that one must be vaccinated as early as possible after birth — especially in the context of a society which has nearly eradicated the virii in question. In other words, the anticipated risk of encountering a disease in a country like the US are rare, provided that the general population does vaccinate at some point.

To bring these strands together, there is enough research and educated medical opinions to accept that (1) immunisation does prevent some horrible diseases and (2) it is a good idea for society that individuals are vaccinated against at least some of the more serious diseases. This means that withholding vaccinations completely is a horrible gamble because it places a person at risk of contracting one of these diseases  as well as weakens the communal protection of others. This leaves a parent’s choices to either the recommended schedule or a delayed schedule. Since I have not found a convincing argument to require one over the other, I will leave the issue open at that.

——

*NB: Basic data for recommended vaccinations is as follows for the first 18 months (all numbers represent age in months):

USCanadaUK
Hep-B0,2,64 (total of 3 after month 4)(None)
DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis)2,4,6,152,4,6,182,3,4,15
IPV (Polio)2,4,62,4,6,182,3,4
PCV2,4,6,122,4,6,122,4,12
HIB2,4,6,122,4,6,182,3,4,12
RV (Rotavirus)2,4,6(None)(None)
Varicella (Chicken Pox)1212(None)
Hep-A12(None)(None)
Men-C(None)2,4,6,123,4
MMR121212

 

Organising Files

As some of you may know, I’m now employed full-time at a computer firm doing web design and program work (I have more to say on this, but I’ll keep that for a later post). It’s a Drupal-heavy shop (with a significant though minor WordPress presence). Because of this switch for me, I’ve been wanting to re-organise my development directories to isolate projects from one another so that the git repo has only files relevant to the actual project (i.e. why keep up with WordPress files when they’re easily available?) and that my local test environment has access to all project files (e.g. I’ve set up a WordPress test site at wordpress.lan which can access all of my WP-related projects).

In addition to this desire (nay, necessity), I’ve also made a switch from using Kdevelop (which I love) to using Eclipse. This is mainly so that I can utilise Xdebug straight from my IDE (which is very handy). Because Eclipse likes to use different directories for its projects, I thought I would incorporate this into my changes.

As a result, I’ve done the following:

  • Everything is located within ~/workspace (still)
  • There are three special directories: archives (for old projects), sources (for upstream sources, like jQuery plugins, which can be used in multiple projects), and [workname] (for all projects with my new job — though I hope to integrate this into my regular schema)
  • In addition to the special ‘root’ directories, there are regular project-area directories: joomla, drupal, wordpress, interlude, laravel, android, and openframeworks.
  • Within each project-area directory, there is a single special directory (sources) where I place anything I do not maintain there (e.g. core Joomla distribution, third party plugins, etc) in both directory and zip/tarball (in case I’ve changed anything). For example, my WordPress sources directory has a wordpress directory along with buddypress, debug-bar, etc. I have a global Git ignore directive for the sources directory so that none of these appear in my repo. These ignore directives are in addition to any kind of sensitive data (e.g. config files) and user-generated data (caches, uploads, etc).
  • Beside the sources directory, I have directories for each of my own projects (a lot in WordPress: media-libraries, adjunct-db, activists-without-lobbies, etc). Each of those directories are separate Git repos (and most are available on GitHub).
  • Within the [project-area]/sources/[project-area]/ directory, I add symlinks in the proper locations for my own projects (all WP plugins are symlinked in sources/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/*) so that when I load the test site, I can access them.
  • Apache is configured somewhat logically as domains using the .lan TLD (e.g. wordpress.lan, joomla.lan, drupal.lan, etc) to point to the [project-area]/sources/[project-area]/ directory. Xdebug is also configured to work here.
  • MySQL is also configured for easy usage. I use a single test user (e.g. test) which has a wildcard access to all databases prefixed by that name (so test_joomla and test_wordpress are automatically accessible by the test user). I use a silly password (it’s my dev environment so I don’t really need anything more secure than “pleasework”).

As I mentioned above, I’ve switched to using Eclipse. I’ve set up a number of workspaces within Eclipse that reflect the organisation above: each workspace is dedicated to a particular  project area, and I’ve created workspace projects within that workspace for each of my projects in addition to the [project-area] source and any major third party extensions which I use often (mainly for faster reference).

Lastly, I’ve switched to using the git-flow branching method (and I’m slowly migrating everything I’m still actively working with to this). Being able to use Xdebug from the IDE is all the more possible with this methodology because I am no longer worried about committing to the repo a debugging echo (or var_dump, printf, etc) — all of that data is available using the debugger. Now, every commit is useful (though I still need to work on committing more often).

 

Social Capitalism

I’ve been thinking a lot about the opposition between ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ which groups like the Tea Party reinforce. However, I am beginning to think this opposition is artificial in some serious way. By taking the current economic climate as a ‘capitalism in practise’ and following it to its logical conclusion, I want to argue that the end result will largely be no different from ‘socialism’. This is primarily a speculative fiction through which an argument by analogy can be made. My argument hinges on two primary concepts: (1) owners within capitalism will pay as little as possible for everything — labour, goods, etc — and the least they can pay is nothing, and (2) governments take the responsibility for public welfare precisely in the places where ‘normal’ people are unable to afford the ‘luxuries’ of a healthy, productive life.

The current state of affairs is that there is rampant unemployment. One of the dominant ways corporations exploit this is through unpaid (or horribly underpaid) internships whereby a person who needs an income to live ‘normally’ undertakes massive debt to work at below-market rates in order to get a job which pays at market rates. In some places (e.g. Georgia’s Georgia Works program and the new federal ‘Bridge to Work’ variation, UK’s workfare program), the government supports this initiative by pushing unemployed workers currently receiving unemployment funds to work at corporations which do not need to pay for that labour in return. In other words, corporations are receiving unpaid labour while governments compensate the workers involved at rates well below the minimum wage — hence my two central concepts above.

With the continued push for privatisation of every imaginable public service (education, construction, military, prisons, medicine, etc), we are seeing the rise of corporate ownership and control rather than any kind of ‘free market’ idealised utopia which libertarians so desperately want. Combining all of these elements, the logical conclusion is the collapse of a capital-based economy because the majority of people within the system will continue to be institutionally marginalised, de-valued, and discarded as anything but property. People will continue to work, but their subsistence will not come in the form of wages from their employer-owners but in the form of corporate-sponsored social programs which dictate the lives of their worker-slaves from what workers can ‘purchase’ with their work credits to how workers can spend their ‘free time’. A central government will disappear because its primary source of revenue — taxes from the working class — will have dried up; if it continues to exist, it will do so only through loans and bailouts from private corporations which shall use that power to control the social order.

Workers will be evaluated and valued according to their production; those who produce more will be valued more. Teachers will be evaluated according to how many of their students can understand basic instructions to become workers. Universities will be valued according to the direct ‘usefulness’ of their research (which shall be reduced to disciplines in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) because they will have become departments of industrial research for their corporate owners. Police and courts will be evaluated according to how many people are disciplined (through tickets and fines which require more work from the workers, or imprisonment for those which reject the corporation’s right to labour). Politicians will become corporate representatives and the political process will become one of agreeing on ways to exploit workers for corporate accumulation of capital. All media (internet, television, films, radio, etc) will be much the same — that is, artificially produced — with the added effect of being 100% propaganda for corporations.

Perhaps my handful of readers are wondering how would this be ‘socialism’. The answer is simple: workers have access to all basics of life — food, shelter, medical care, etc — without a mediating system of exchange (i.e. currency). Everything is reduced to a distorted version of Marx’s labour theory of value. This distortion arose through a capitalist supply-and-demand moment of inspiration: massive unemployment through the replacement of paid human labour by unpaid machine labour has produced an excess supply of labour which has driven down its value to nearly nothing. Every worker in the corporate system is reduced to a status equal to that of machines and nothing they produce has any value (because their labour value is also nothing). Instead, the value which corporations desire is the value of flesh — and they begin to exchange workers and potential workers while simultaneously trying to takeover each other. In the end, only one corporation remains and owns everything. In other words, those owners (which also eventually are reduced to one) have accumulated everything of value because they own the entirety of the planet despite the proliferation of brands which have no actual difference because their products are produced in the same factories by the same workers using the same source materials. The branding of products, corporations, and workers is used to control the workers by making them believe that there is a competition amongst brands and that their brand is demonstrably superior to all others.

The analogy to this fictive dystopia is simple: this planet has limited resources. The logical end of capitalism as it is currently practised and as a ‘free market’ ideal which libertarians and others wish it to become is the kind of future I describe. By going to its logical conclusion (albeit only through speculative fiction), there are clear dangers in taking the existing economy and moving towards a ‘free market’ utopia. The first danger is that it will actually produce a sort of corporate-controlled ‘socialism’ that most proponents despise. The second danger is the abuse of a corporate-government alliance to overstep government boundaries and revoke civil liberties. The obvious response is to increase regulations on corporations and break the marriage between corporations and governments rather than to deregulate, privatise, and lax regulations.

Education for Profit

Open admissions sounds like a good thing. Who doesn’t want to enable people a chance to get a university education? However, this has two major flaws: most students are underprepared academically and, at least in the case of a for-profit institution, there is a distinct cycle of abuse. I will address both of these flaws dealing from my own experience from within an open admission, for-profit university (OAFPU).

Underprepared

The first is fairly straightforward: most students (from my experience) who attend open admissions universities do so because they are unable to gain admission at a ‘normal’ (i.e. selective admissions) university. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. Many community colleges are geared towards taking in underprepared students and building up an underprepared student’s knowledge. Some might require a student to first complete remedial courses before enrolling in other courses. This is a good thing because it prepares students for higher education and it prevents the (further) ‘dumbing down’ of courses. However, when remedial courses are prescribed as ‘optional but recommended’, students only harm their own education. For example, at one of the for-profit universities where I have taught, I have found students who are unable to cite material in any format, double-space a paper (in MS Word), or even properly format a header. That’s in addition to having little to no grasp of grammar and spelling. The result is that these students do poorly in written assignments despite having some intriguing content (the university’s grading rubrics require a dedicated grammar component). What’s sad, though, is that this includes students in their third and fourth years of their education.

Connected to being underprepared, I have noticed that most of these students simply do not have the time or effort to do their assigned work. Students rarely, if ever, read the assignments beforehand. In order to fit their schedules, many classes at the OAFPU meet just once per week for four hours each meeting. Oftentimes, the material for one intro-level course is compressed further so that one meeting might cover what other universities might have made into an entire course by itself (e.g. the Mathematics course covers trigonometry in one week, statistics in another, etc). Add into that mix the fact that most students want to leave an hour early because they have to wake up early (as early as 6 hours from the end of class) for work, family, etc. The result of this mix is that the OAFPU has reduced its educational goals to overly-simplified ideas which do not resemble those of a university. For example, it is an institutional requirement that students upon completion of intro level (100/1000) courses are merely able to identify concepts. For a world religions course, this means being able to correlate a pantheon of deities (with names, of course) to Furballism.

Again, this might sound practical, but the way in which it gets executed is horrendous. The tests, as mandated and planned by the institution (i.e. instructors are not supposed to go rogue and make their own examinations), really focus on how well a student can look up the information in their textbook. To suit this end, the institution has created the tests online in their learning management system (LMS) and indicated that these tests are open book and have a very generous time limit (roughly one hour for every twenty multiple choice answers). If an instructor wants to do these in-class (many of my students ask for this because they claim to not have time outside of class to do the tests outside of class), that’s one to two hours less of lecture material. When I have asked about the open book tests, the response from the administration has been that students really only need to learn how to look up information rather than waste their time learning Hamster Fur Weaving or Gerbil Literature (despite these being required general education courses). Oh, and I should not forget that many students arrive late — despite any penalties attached to it. An instructor might only have 30 minutes of good class time in a week if she were to follow the institutional requirements and wait for students to appear.

At the OAFPU, instructors are expected to be engaging and provide a good educational service to their students. This means that instructors should not lecture for more than fifteen minutes at a time, should incorporate ’30-minute documentaries’ (read that as ‘shows from Discovery and History channels’), lengthy group discussions about students’ opinions on the material, and anything else which might involve students. The rationale behind this is based on the theory that ‘adult learners’ are different from other learners and do not wish to ‘suffer through traditional lectures’ but rather want to add their own insight and discuss the material (the same material which they have not read). The institution uses the process of administrative observation to verify that instructors aren’t ‘boring the students with a lecture’. The wondrous observation occurs randomly and consists of the observer counting to see which students are concerned with the class session, regardless of content (i.e. even if the ‘presentation’ is ‘engaging’ according to their plan, students which can’t be bothered to be engaged count against the instructor).

Abused

I now wish to turn to the more important aspect of this post: the cycle of abuse. It is deeply connected to the OAFPU’s ‘commitment’ to educating the underprepared. For students to attend the great OAFPUs, they must, of course, spend money. Tuition at these institutions tend to run much higher than the local public/non-profit open access institutions. Places like the University of Phoenix charge around $10,500* a year for a full-time load over five years in a BA/BS program in business marketing (total is $53k provided that the student does not repeat any classes). In contrast, local open admissions schools cost a third of that price (even their out-of-state/non-resident costs are lower) despite these schools providing the same degree of education with the same schedule flexibility.

Instead, the primary site of financial abuse is through student loans. Like many universities, the OAFPU accepts federal financial aid (loans and grants) as well as other education benefits (e.g. GI Bill). Many students enroll at OAFPU because they will get a refund check from their financial aid. The attendance policy at an OAFPU is very liberal (a student is dropped only if she is marked absent for four consecutive weeks), and the academic integrity policy is a joke (the worst consequence listed is a F for the course in which the student was caught plagiarising — and that’s only if the student is a repeat offender with a major infraction). However, these two policies keep students enrolled so that the university gets profits. This is in addition to the OAFPU’s aggressive policy of getting students to enroll in future terms (regardless of academic standing) and to attend often enough to evade being dropped from their courses. Some of these activities include the administration phoning absent students weekly, the requirement that instructors are also to communicate with the absent student, and paid academic advisers who spend two-thirds of each term phoning students either to enroll or encourage students to communicate with their instructors and attend class.

The worst case of students are those who enroll and attend until they receive their financial aid check. Chances are, these students have no intention of paying back any loans. Rumours have circulated that there is a subset of students who transfer from OAFPU to OAFPU until they are expelled after the many generous probationary terms. However, the generous and liberal nature of university policies which allow these students to persist leads me to suspect that the primary purpose of these policies is so that the university can extract as much profit from these students rather than to attempt to educate them (or remove them if they are not interested in acquiring an education). I believe that is the danger and harm in corporatising education: the goal of profit will always supersede the goal of education often at the expense of education.

To take underprepared and uninterested people as students and cater to their desires (e.g. a degree without any difficult academic work) is a great recipe for profits. However, it is also a horrible recipe for a university; and this is where the corporatised university leads us: the decision to provide education as an institute of higher learning versus the decision to make profits as a ‘student-oriented’ corporation selling an ‘education product’ through ‘engaging lectures’.

 

*NB: Phoenix seems to have two different prices: a nationwide cost per credit hour for ‘lower-level’ courses and a regional cost per credit hour for ‘upper-level’ courses, so the price may fluctuate a bit. I compared the prices for New Orleans, LA; Philadelphia, PA; and Denver, CO; I used the least expensive of the three.