Your medical records on the Web, thanks to Microsoft.
(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)
Marion Jones admitted to taking steroids and will plead guilty to lying to federal agents about it. She faces up to six months in jail and the loss of her 2000 medals. Jones' spins: 1) My coach told me it was flaxseed oil. 2) When the agents asked me about it, I was trying to protect my coach and myself, and I panicked. Critics' reactions: 1) She thought it was flaxseed oil even though her coach told her "not to tell anyone about" it? 2) She didn't just take the drug; she lied about it repeatedly. 3) Stop blaming the men in her life. 4) She's going to cost her relay teammates their medals, too. Defenders' rebuttals: 1) Everybody does it. 2) She was the best athlete even without drugs. 3) Barry Bonds is using the same ignorance alibi, but he's getting away with it because his supplier, unlike hers, is refusing to talk. (Related columns: steroids vs. LASIK; steroids vs. steak; Olympic doping.) Should Jones' relay teammates lose their medals, too? Discuss in the Fray.
Microsoft launched a Web site for storing and sharing individual health records. Google and major health insurers are developing similar plans. Sample uses: 1) Your doctor puts your records on the site, where you can access them anytime. 2) You check your blood pressure or glucose at home, and your monitor automatically sends the data to your online records, where your doctor can access them. Microsoft's spins: 1) This will improve health care. 2) All your doctors will know all the medications you're taking. 3) We'll keep your records encrypted and totally private; only people you designate can look at them. 4) Consumers will get used to this just as they have with online banking. Skeptical reactions: 1) Private? Riiiight. 2) Even if the system is safe, people won't believe it, so they won't use it. 3) People don't care enough about their health to eat vegetables, much less manage their medical information. (Would you put your records on the Web? I would.)
Companies are peddling new home robots: 1) a roof-gutter cleaner; 2) a hospital robot through which doctors can interact with patients; 3) a Roomba-like Webcam you can steer around your house from far away, allowing you to "participate in family moments even though you're working late" or "read your kids a story and see their faces light up" while you're on a business trip; and 4) a "video surveillance" robot that can watch your pets while you're on vacation or spy on your kids if they're home alone. Industry spin: The new robots help you "connect" with your loved ones. Critiques: 1) They help you pretend you're connecting while you spend your life at the office. 2) They teach your kids that you need to spy because you don't trust them, even though you don't love them enough to be there in person. 3) Serves you right when some thief or pervert hacks into your Webcam robot. (Related stories: remote-controlled pigeons; remote-controlled hunting; remote-controlled aerial drones; remote-controlled flying saucers.) Human Nature's view: My wife would deactivate the robot on Day 1, after my son spent the afternoon mooning it.
Nearly half of the male-to-female transsexuals in a small study say they've achieved postoperative orgasm. All the participants had feminizing genitoplasty, i.e., "their penis surgically removed, their urethra repositioned and female labia constructed." In a follow-up subsample, roughly 90 percent had installed a vagina and a "neoclitoris" made from their penile glans. Findings: 1) Twenty-three percent had regular intercourse. 2) Forty-eight percent achieved orgasm. 3) Fourteen percent "reported having an overly sensitive clitoris." 4) Twenty-nine percent "were troubled by vaginal hair growth." Researchers' conclusion: Most patients were happy with the surgery. Human Nature's prediction: The next (but much rarer) breakthrough procedure will be adding a vagina while keeping your penis. Laurels to the first reader who can find a case in which this has already been done. (As always, post the URL in the Fray.)
The U.S. government's high-tech "virtual fence" is failing. Plan: Mobile towers monitoring the border with cameras, radar, and thermal imaging. Problems: 1) The cameras and radar "have had trouble distinguishing people and vehicles from cows and bushes." 2) Moisture foils the cameras and sensors. 3) So do canyons and plants. 4) Operators can't adjust the cameras fast enough to catch up with border crossers. Rosy spins: 1) Gosh, it worked so well in the lab. 2) All great ideas begin with glitches. Rebuttals: 1) So do all bad ones. 2) "Secure Border Initiative," meet Strategic Defense Initiative. 3) By the way, the low-tech border fence is moving along nicely. (Related: two previous updates on the "virtual" fence.)
A company is tailoring ads to monitored phone calls. The offer: Advertisers subsidize your (Internet-based) calls by paying for ads on your computer screen during the conversation. The catch: The ads you get are determined by voice-recognition software that monitors your conversation and shows you products related to it. Company's spins: 1) The software ignores naughty words. 2) We don't keep records of what you said. 3) This is no different from Google's practice of scanning your e-mail box and tailoring ads to the topics it finds there. Critics' view: Tech-industry invasions of privacy have become so common that we should stop and think before going further. Company's view: Tech-industry invasions of privacy have become so common that today's young people have lost the expectation of privacy, so let's go right ahead. And now, a word from Victoria's Secret … Question: Would you take the deal? I would.
Government contractors are proposing to catch carpool lane cheaters through "infrared head-counting." The companies have been hired to operate high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes around Washington, D.C. They need to deter solo drivers from using the lanes for free by masquerading as carpoolers. The infrared works by "measuring the reflectivity of human skin," which differs from dogs and dummies. Companies' spins: 1) Don't worry, we'll blot out your face on the screen so our operators won't know whose skin they're seeing in such detail. 2) Your car isn't really a private zone anyway. 3) You gave up your privacy when you installed E-ZPass. 4) Being scanned is better than being pulled over for a head count. 5) If you don't want to be scanned, stay out of the carpool lane. Human Nature's predictions: 1) Somebody will start selling carpool dummies made with human skin. 2) Next, traffic enforcers will install cameras inside your car. (Related: Invasion of the naked body scanners.) Reader contest: Find a human-skin carpool dummy on the Internet and post the link here. Prize TBD.
A transsexual is suing the IRS to get a tax deduction for her sex-change surgery and hormone treatments. Cost: $25,000. The tax break officially applies to treatment of "disease," to "alleviate or prevent a physical or mental defect or illness." IRS interpretation: Sex-change surgery is cosmetic. Rebuttals: 1) The patient was formally diagnosed with "gender identity disorder." 2) She endured years of counseling and hormone treatments, which proves she really needed the sex change. 3) The IRS allows deductions for birth-control pills, abortions, vasectomies, and alcohol rehab. 4) By second-guessing shrinks, the IRS is "practicing medicine without a license." (Related: government-funded sex-change surgery in Brazil; transsexuality, transhumanism, and self-mutilation.)
"Improvised explosive devices" are defeating U.S. forces in Iraq. They've killed about 2,000 U.S. troops and wounded 20,000 more. In Afghanistan, IED attacks have gone from 22 per year to more than six per day. Ingredients: 1) explosives, which Iraq is loaded with; 2) egg timers; 3) detonation via cell phones, key fobs, wireless doorbell buzzers, or toy-car remotes; 4) Web sites to "share bomb-building tips, emplacement techniques, and observations about American vulnerabilities and countermeasures." U.S. responses: 1) tougher armor and vehicles; 2) explosive-hunting dogs and bees; 3) robots to check out and disarm the bombs; 4) electronic devices to jam the detonating signals. Official U.S. military spin: Now it takes the enemy four IEDs instead of one to kill or wound one of our guys. That's progress! Unofficial military spin: Yeah, but they're producing more than four times as many IEDs as before, so it's a net loss. Military's conclusion: The bad guys are winning because "they're not tied to technology." Human Nature's conclusion: The bad guys are winning because their technology is simpler, smaller, and cheaper. (Related column: Are remote-controlled drones the answer to terrorism?)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of nun on Slate's home page by Digital Vision.