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Obama on Free Trade


The Daily Telegraph:

Free Trade Cartoon - (Barrie Maguire at Boston.comObama voted in the US senate against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, is a critic of the free trade agreement with China, and expresses strong reservations about trade deals in general.

He has even threatened to withdraw the US from the North American Free Trade Agreement – which created the largest trading bloc in the world – if the other members, Canada and Mexico, do not agree to renegotiate its terms.

This statement is reinforced by an article on Obama’s website; an article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 2005.

Globalization is not someone’s political agenda. It is a technological revolution that is fundamentally changing the world’s economy, producing winners and losers along the way. The question is not whether we can stop it, but how we respond to it. It’s not whether we should protect our workers from competition, but what we can do to fully enable them to compete against workers all over the world.

At first this stance seems like a case of Obama’s protectionism gone awry. But is it? Is DR-CAFTA really free trade? I’m sure Stiglitz would agree with Obama on this one. Is it more important to fight to provide fair trade agreements, or to just have free trade agreements in place?

Without fairer trade agreements, the benefits from trade will not be realized. NAFTA and CAFTA will increase poverty because they prematurely open markets to US agricultural goods which are subsidized, making local farmers unable to compete with imports, and the nations in question do not have the ability to bear the costs of switching resources with their available capital, nor deal with the consequences of even short-term unemployment. These agreements have been more geo-political than economic, and the essential problem with recent bilateral agreements, including CAFTA, is that they are not free-trade agreements. More generally, bilateral agreements fail to produce all the benefits expected, in part because of the inequality of the negotiating position of the parties involved.

In this case, I believe Obama is fighting for the just cause and not just the cause that is most beneficial for Americans.

(The final quote is adapted from the Opposition section of the DR-CAFTA entry on Wikipedia. It discusses the main points of Joseph Stiglitz’ opposition to the DR-CAFTA free trade agreement. The paragraph is flagged as requiring citation, but if you have read Stiglitz’ Globalization and its Discontents or Fair Trade for All you will know that it follows his views pretty closely.)

The Placebo Effect – Once More With Feeling

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PlacebosPlacebo is not what you think (MindHacks) is a great article on one of my favourite medical subjects; the placebo effect. It offers a great round-up of the current research into this phenomenon and discusses some possible future changes to its use in a professional capacity.

Given the pervasiveness of placebo success in medical trials, it always surprises me that the use of placebos by medical professionals is explicitly banned (even taking into account the fact that a person in a position of trust would be deceiving you). However, the above article links to an interesting paper written by Adam Kolber – a Bioethics and Law professor, and author of the Neuroethics and Law blog – on the possible ethical use of placebos by medical professionals. Here is its abstract:

Placebo treatments, like sugar pills and saline injections, are effective in treating pain and perhaps a host of other conditions. To use placebos most effectively, however, doctors must mislead patients into believing that they are receiving active medications. While placebo deception is surprisingly common, its legality has rarely been tested. In November 2006, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a new ethics provision categorically prohibiting doctors from using placebos deceptively. In so doing, the AMA shifted the legal landscape, making it almost certain that courts will decide that placebo deception violates informed consent requirements.

I argue that the AMA’s new policy is overbroad, insensitive to patient preferences, and likely to have unforeseen consequences. While deception is often exploitative, placebo deception can genuinely benefit patients. Absent stronger evidence to justify a ban than we currently have, deceptive placebos should be treated as scarce medical resources–used sparingly but not categorically prohibited.

One glaring problem with this – no matter how valid the conclusions – is that to use placebos safely and correctly we would need physicians who have the time (and inclination) to thoroughly peruse patient histories – something the overstretched NHS is severely lacking.

On a lighter note, it always amazes me that I learn something new and fascinating every time I read more about the use of placebos. This time my education came from the following paragraphs:

Furthermore, studies done in the 1970s showed that when heroin users inject water (sometimes done deliberately to alleviate cravings when drugs are in short supply), they can experience drug-like euphoria and have been observed to show opiate-like physiological signs such as pupil constriction.

This last point also demonstrates that placebo is not solely about expectancy, belief or ‘being fooled’, as the heroin users knew they were injecting themselves with water. Conditioned responses play a role.

Of course, as with most cases of classical conditioning, this response eventually becomes extinct as the initial stimulus (real heroin) is repeatedly withheld. Still fascinating, though!

(Bonus points if you know why I gave this post its title.)

Life Without a Memory – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


I have recently finished reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a book by eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks taking the form of ‘clinical anecdotes’ – or, informal case-histories – on some of the more interesting patients he has encountered throughout his long and distinguished career.

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing… (I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase and entire life.) – Luis Buñuel

The above quote is from The Lost Mariner, a chapter discussing one of Sacks’ patients, Jimmy G, who – due to Korsakoff’s syndrome – lost both his memories from the previous 35 years, and the ability to create new ones. It’s a touching and sad story where you feel that the only redeeming quality is the fact that this man cannot create new memories; at least then he doesn’t know that he has this problem.

Six months ago my family-life was ticking along as normal; everything was fine. Then, during a routine operation, my grandmother passed away, leaving my grandfather – a very self-sufficient man approaching 90 – alone in their home of 30 years. While interim accommodation arrangements were being made, my grandfather was found unconscious after suffering a stroke and was admitted to hospital – not even two weeks after his wife’s funeral.

Three months in hospital saw him recover well, and he was eventually placed in a geriatric recovery ward in preparation for release. Whenever I visited him he would get angry at the sports results and moan about the “boring sods” with whom he was sharing a ward with and who refused to go outside for a walk around the hospital’s rather beautiful grounds. This was perfectly normal behaviour.

However I was fearing the worst, and it appears that these fears were well-founded. A month ago he started to develop severe dementia, leading me to make the obvious comparisons between him and Sacks’ patient, Jimmie G, whom I was reading about at the time.

The retrograde loss of memory – and losing the ability to create new memories – is a horrible thing to witness; nothing can really prepare you for it. At the same time it’s difficult to become truly sad at this fact: how can we, when the ‘patient’ themselves is oblivious to the fact – and is seemingly content – due to the fact that the condition itself causes them to lack the ability to comprehend what’s going on?

But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being – matter of which neuropsychology cannot speak. And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him… Neuropsychologicaly, there is little or nothing you can do; but in the realm of the Individual, there may be much you can do. – Alexander Luria in a letter to Sacks regarding Jimmie G.

These sort of medical conditions always raise interesting issues, but when combined with the general (and severe) decline of physical health in an older patient, some more interesting – and controversial – philosophical, moral, and political subjects are brought up. An important one of which is the topic of non-eugenics euthanasia.

Highly regulated, I believe that euthanasia would be a crucial addition to our public health system for a few exceptional and well-defined situations and circumstances. However, as this is unlikely to happen, I believe strongly that the topic of euthanasia is so important that it is at least worth serious consideration and debate – not just by medical professionals, but by both politicians and the public.

Of course, views on this vary wildly by culture, religion, and even within each individual (agreeing in some cases and not in others, even when the actual medical circumstances are the same), and for one moment please don’t think my family and I are planning any mercy killings – it just raised a debate between us and I wanted to spread the love and ignite your internal debating chamber.

In my family, many of us have made it clear that if we were in such an awful physical and psychological state that life were no longer enjoyable and was a chore, that we wouldn’t want to be kept alive. One member has even gone so far as to say (in all seriousness), that if this were the case they would be eternally grateful if we were to assist them in dying. Of course, current legislation makes entertaining this thought pointless.

Designing Your Résumé (CV) – Some Links


For those of us stuck in the formal, corporate world (for now), résumés (CVs) are a fact of life that we usually try to avoid and just deal with when it’s required of us. However, heeding some good advice can really change your perspective and make your résumé something you’re actually proud of.

And remember, résumés aren’t just for job-seekers: keeping mine up-to-date and editing it on a regular basis has helped me keep my personal and professional development goals on track.

A great starting point when looking to create/renew your résumé is LifeClever’s Give Your Résumé a Facelift; one of the best résumé design resources I’ve come across, giving simple but effective results.

Sample Résumé (CV)Following on from that, if you’re looking for something a bit more special you could do worse than checking out these 36 Beautiful Résumé Ideas That Work. However, making your résumé stand-out as much as some of these do may not be advisable in some sectors, and I wouldn’t imagine that all 36 work. Instead, Michael Gowin shows a few of the best (see image, right).

Of course, design will always be secondary to content; write, re-write, and then triple-check your résumé. Here are some great articles giving some worthwhile advice (with some overlap, ordered by importance):

My tip? Stick to a constant grammatical voice. It’s my grammar Nazi showing, but there’s nothing worse than reading a sales document (what your résumé/CV really is) that intersperses the passive and active voice; choose one and stick to it, damn it! Personally I would choose the active, remove the word ‘I’, and start sentences with action verbs – very powerful.

Don’t forget to write that killer cover letter!

And is it just a new job you want, or a new career? Maybe the Princeton Review Career Quiz will shed some light on what you should really be doing?

(I originally meant to post this on (an abstract is there instead), but decided against it as it didn’t seem to fit with the shorter, link-based posts I usually put there. Aren’t you lucky?)

EMI Embracing the Future?

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I have just read that EMI – one of the ‘big four’ record labels – has appointed Douglas Merrill as the president of its ‘digital strategy’; a post covering “all of the company’s digital strategy, innovation, business development, supply chain and technology activities“.

This in itself is not that impressive. What makes this newsworthy, however, is Merrill’s past… as CIO and vice president of engineering at Google.

Google’s corporate information site says of Merrill (for now, at least):

Douglas Merrill joined Google late in 2003 as Senior Director of Information Systems. In this capacity he led multiple strategic efforts including Google’s 2004 IPO and its related regulatory activities. He holds direct line accountability for all internal engineering and support worldwide.

Previously, Douglas was senior vice president at Charles Schwab and Co., Inc, a multinational financial services company. At Schwab, he was responsible for such functions as information security, common infrastructure, and human resources strategy and operations. Prior to his tenure there, Douglas worked at Price Waterhouse as a senior manager, ultimately becoming a leader in security implementation practices. Before that, he was an information scientist at the RAND Corporation, where he studied topics such as computer simulation in education, team dynamics and organizational effectiveness.

Douglas holds a BA from the University of Tulsa in Social and Political Organization, and an MA and Ph.D. in Psychology from Princeton University.

I for one think this is great news. With the music industry in deep trouble and constantly being crushed by new technologies, they need new ideas… and fast. Litigation is only going to go so far in helping a struggling company to increase its profits.

As I’ve said before; “we can’t hold back technological advancement and especially the evolution of music and its distribution“. With that said, what the big labels need to do is not sue, but evolve. A ‘digital business model‘ is what is required to revive the industry and with this move it seems that EMI have realised this glaringly obvious fact.