Monday 30 January 2017

The authors who predicted Trumpland (revisited).

In 1945, whilst most, contemporary mainstream commentators were unable to look beyond the ends of their noses, with a perfect sense of irony, Eric Arthur Blair a.k.a. George Orwell (1903-1950) presented fact as fiction in an insightful 'fairy story' entitled, 'Animal Farm.' He revealed that totalitarianism is merely the oppressors' fiction mistaken for fact by the oppressed.

In the same universal allegory, Orwell described how, at a time of vulnerability, almost any people's dream of a future, secure, Utopian existence can be hung over the entrance to a totalitarian deception. Indeed, the words that are always banished by totalitarian deceivers are, 'totalitarian' and 'deception.'

Sadly, when it comes to examining the same enduring phenomenon, albeit with an ephemeral 'Capitalist' label, most contemporary, mainstream commentators have again been unable to look further than the ends of their noses, but with the arrival of Trumpland, that situation now seems to be rapidly changing.

An increasing number of people are buying and reading Orwell's thought-provoking works (particularly 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'), but unfortunately, many commentators still fail to understand that Eric Arthur Blair was actually presenting fact as fiction to expose the phenomenon of fiction mistaken for fact .

See original image
'I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and silencing them forever.'
SINCLAIR LEWIS, It Can't Happen Here

Ten years prior to the publication of 'Animal Farm,' an American satirical author, Sinclair Lewis, produced another apparent work of dystopian fiction which today reads like a step-by-step instruction manual for Donald Trump and his associates.

David Brear (copyright 2017)


The Trump era's top-selling dystopian


Book jacketsImage copyrightPENGUIN/HARPERCOLLINS

Donald Trump has sparked a sales bonanza for publishers of dystopian fiction - as well as his own books on business success. Here are the titles currently enjoying a boost on the back of his arrival in the White House.

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis

Sales: As of Friday, the eighth best-selling book on Amazon. It was out of print in the UK but publishers Penguin launched a new edition following the inauguration - promoting it as the book that predicted Trump - and has so far ordered three print runs, totalling 11,000 copies, a spokeswoman said.
Plot: A charismatic demagogue, Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, runs for president on a promise to restore American greatness, dragging the country into fascism.
The Trump factor: Sales of this relatively obscure 1935 satirical novel took off when critics began claiming it was essentially the Donald Trump story. Sally Parry, of the Sinclair Lewis Society, claims there are parallels with Trump in the way that Windrip targets his message at disaffected white working class males - The League of Forgotten Men in the book - sweeping to victory on a wave of anti-immigrant, nationalistic sentiment.
But she adds: "Some of his satire is not necessarily towards Buzz Windrip, the fascist character, but towards the lazy intellectuals, the lazy liberals who say 'well, things will go along' and the constant refrain of 'it can't happen here', this is America, we are exceptional."
Parry herself admits she initially fell into this category: "I thought how can so many people fall for this guy?"
But the comparisons only stretch so far, says Parry. Lewis was writing at a time of far greater economic turmoil than today and against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe. He was also a member of the America First committee, which opposed America's entry into World War Two.
Key quote: "My one ambition is to get all Americans to realise that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth, and second, to realise that whatever apparent Differences there may be among us, in wealth, knowledge, skill, ancestry or strength - though, of course, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us - we are all brothers, bound together in the great and wonderful bond of National Unity, for which we should all be very glad."

1984 - George Orwell

George Orwell's 1984Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Sales: As of Friday, the best-selling book on Amazon. Since Donald Trump's inauguration, sales have increased by 9,500%, according to American publishers Signet Classics, which this week ordered an additional 100,000 copies of Orwell titles, including 1984 and Animal Farm. In the first three weeks of January sales increased by 20% in the UK. The book has never been out of print since it was published in 1948, selling close to 30 million copies to date. The last sales spike occurred in 2013 during Edward Snowden's spying revelations.
Plot: A man crushed by a totalitarian, surveillance state - presided over by the all-seeing and possibly non-existent Big Brother - attempts to rebel.
The Trump factor: Orwell's classic dystopian narrative shot to the top of the Amazon sales charts after Donald Trump's senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said the White House was issuing "alternative facts" in a row over the size of the crowd at his inauguration.
A key part of Orwell's book is the way that the Party uses simplistic slogans to warp reality, so Black is White, 2+2=5, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.


But it was written, in part, as a warning against Soviet communism and America is not a one-party state with no personal freedom. Andrew Simmons, a writer and history teacher from California, who uses 1984 in the classroom, thinks people are reaching for Orwell's book and other nightmarish visions of the future as a "safety valve," enabling them to "freak out and think about the worst possible destination for American democracy".
"The cultural mood in America is dystopian, particularly among people who read a lot of classic fiction," he adds. But he also argues that for some readers 1984 contains echoes of Trump in its attitude to "scientific progress" (in 1984, science doesn't exist) and the way he has played on Americans' fears about foreigners.
"The president's promise that he was the only person who could protect them does potentially echo for people the Party's pattern of whipping up fear among the populace and then presenting them with a narrative trumpeting victory over the source of said fears."
Key quote: "And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed - if all records told the same tale - then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. 'Reality control,' they called it: in Newspeak, 'doublethink.'"

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

Sales: Another dystopian novel that was not in Amazon's top 100 sales chart two years ago but which is currently in the top 10.
Plot: Set in 2540, it depicts a world where the population are willing slaves to totalitarianism, kept docile and compliant by drugs, constant entertainment, technology and a surfeit of material goods.
The Trump factor: For some cultural critics Huxley's 1935 novel provides a far more accurate representation of our cosseted, anaesthetised times, than the world portrayed in 1984 or Animal Farm.
"Orwell feared we would become a captive culture," writes the late Neil Postman in his 1995 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
"Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy."
Key quote: "A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude."

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Man reading Ray Bradbury bookImage copyrightAFP

Sales: Currently tussling with Donald Trump's book (see below) for the 15th slot in the Amazon chart.
Plot: A 24th Century fireman Guy Montag, whose job is to burn illegally-owned books and their readers' homes, starts to question the value of his profession and his life.
The Trump factor: Another warning about the dangers of censorship, propaganda and the stifling of free thought. Bradbury's 1953 book predicts the death of the written word and its replacement by screens. TV is the bogeyman, however, not social media.
Key quote: "With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be."

The Art of the Deal - Donald Trump

Child reads Art of the DealImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Sales: As of Friday, this was the 15th best-selling book on Amazon. First published in 1987, it spent 51 weeks in the New York Times best-seller list. He went on to publish several other books, some of which have also seen an increase in sales in recent weeks.
Plot: A work of non-fiction, the Art of the Deal is Trump's personal manifesto, offering readers 11 steps to business success.
The Trump factor: As a primer in the way Donald Trump thinks and operates, the Art of the Deal is seen by many readers - and the man himself - as hard to beat. "The voice that sprang from the pages was entirely original, seemingly candid, relentlessly boastful and refreshingly unafraid to take swipes, settle scores, and opine with an I-am-what-I-am gusto," wrote Timothy L O'Brien in a biography of Trump.
That voice was crafted by Tony Schwarz, who unusually for a ghost writer received half of the royalties and got a credit on the cover. Schwarz, a lifelong Democrat, has since spoken of his "deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is".
Key quote: "The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration - and a very effective form of promotion."
Brian Wheeler (BBC copyright 2017)

Sunday 29 January 2017

Thursday 26 January 2017

Betsy DeVos and 'Neurocore.'

DeVos-Backed Company Makes Questionable Claims on Autism, ADHD

Betsty-Devos-Confirmation-Hearing-Blog.jpgPresident Donald Trump's nominee to head the federal Education Department is a major backer of a company claiming its neurofeedback technology can "fix" problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and has "proven and long-lasting" positive effects on children with autism.
Current scientific evidence does not support such claims, according to the clinical guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics and three leading researchers consulted by Education Week.
"It's misleading the public to say neurofeedback is effective in treating kids with ADHD and autism," said Nadine Gaab, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston Children's Hospital and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 
"It's still an experimental treatment that needs more rigorous research," she said.
Launched in 2006, Neurocore is based in Grand Rapids, Mich. That's also the hometown of billionaire school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick to become U.S. Secretary of Education.
DeVos sat on Neurocore's board from 2009 until November, when she resigned the position to avoid potential conflicts of interest should she be confirmed. As part of her divestiture plan, which has been approved by the federal Office of Government Ethics, DeVos and her husband will maintain an indirect financial interest in the company. On her disclosure forms, DeVos valued that stake at between $5 million and $25 million.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee is scheduled to vote on DeVos' nomination on Jan. 31. Democrats have unsuccessfully pushed for a second chance to publicly question DeVos, whose plan to shed potential conflicts of interest had not been approved and made public at the time of her Jan. 17 hearing before the committee. Critics have also questioned DeVos' grasp of federal special education law and commitment to evidence-based science, among other complaints.
A spokesman for the DeVos family declined to respond to Education Week's inquiries about their investment in Neurocore.
"Currently, questions such as this and others submitted by senators are being answered and will be provided to the committee," John Truscott, the president and principal of Michigan public-relations firm Truscott Russman, wrote in an email.
The Trump administration did not respond to Education Week's request for comment.
Neurocore CEO Mark Murrison defended his company's work and marketing. He pointed to an emerging body of research in which neurofeedback in general has shown promise, as well as information Neurocore collects from its clients.
"What we provide to our clients truly makes a difference, and our internal outcomes data and testimonials bear that out," Murrison said in an interview.

An area of interest for the FTC

Over the past two years, the Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on a number of other companies for making unsubstantiated and misleading claims about "brain training" products and services, such as digital learning games.
That work is ongoing, said Michelle Rusk, a lawyer in the FTC's division of advertising practices. In an interview, Rusk declined to comment on whether the commission is looking at companies promoting neurofeedback treatments as part of that effort. In general, she said, investigating companies claiming to help children with neurological disorders and elderly consumers worried about memory loss remain a priority.
"Autism and ADHD are serious, and we would expect there to be high-quality scientific support for any claim of cognitive benefits in treating those conditions," Rusk said.
Neurocore's service is based in part on analyzing clients' brainwaves and other biological signs, then providing "neurofeedback sessions" through which users can ostensibly train their brains to function better.
A complete 30-session cycle costs $2,200. Neurocore partners with a health-care-lending firm to help clients finance those charges.
The company says it has worked with more than 10,000 children and adults at eight centers in Michigan and Florida. Another site is scheduled to open in Florida next month, and Murrison said he hopes to expand by as many as seven additional centers in the coming year.
Neurocore has "no plans to work with K-12 schools," he said.
The company does work extensively with children and families.

Questionable claims of effectiveness

On its website, Neurocore makes a number of claims about how its technology can help individuals, including children, with conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, depression, memory loss, migraines, and sleeplessness.
With regard to ADHD, for example, the company repeatedly describes its treatment as "proven and approved," saying that 76 percent of users "achieve nonclinical status" and 90 percent "report improvement."
"Overcome ADHD—without drugs," Neurocore's website says. "As you or your child progress through our natural treatment for ADHD using biofeedback and neurofeedback, you may find it possible to reduce or even eliminate medication."
The company makes similar claims with regard to autism, presenting itself as a "drug-free solution to curb the negative behaviors" associated with the condition.
"There is currently no cure for autism, but the symptoms can greatly improve through Neurocore's proven, natural autism treatment program," the website says. "Research shows that biofeedback can be an effective treatment."
Neurocore also claims that users of its neurofeedback training improve their IQ by an average of 12 points.
A "Why It Works" page purports to help potential customers "explore the science and research behind our brain-based program and life-changing results."
But many of the links direct readers to preliminary studies or popular news articles. The rigorous, independent, peer-reviewed studies referenced are about neurofeedback and biofeedback more generally, not Neurocore specifically.
Murrison, Neurocore's CEO, said his company "employ[s] protocols demonstrated to be effective in research such as this."
He acknowledged that there have to date not been any such high-quality studies conducted about Neurocore specifically. The first peer-reviewed study of the company's outcomes, for clients with anxiety and depression, "should be going to press in the next few months," he said. Another peer-reviewed study of Neurocore's impact on clients with ADHD is in the works.
When asked why his company would make direct claims of effectiveness prior to such research being completed and published, Murrison cited internal company data. Neurocore administers surveys to clients in which they self-report on their conditions before and after treatment.
"We've been in business for 10 years," Murrison said. "If we weren't able to make a difference in people's lives, we wouldn't be able to keep serving communities and expanding."
Neurocore also points to a document from a third-party company called PracticeWise, which indicates that biofeedback has been rated by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a high-quality support for treatment of ADHD.
But that document is not accurate, according to a letter sent by the academy to other companies making similar claims. 
The letter, which had not previously been sent to Neurocore, states that the academy's official position is that "more research is needed" on neurofeedback as a treatment for ADHD. It asks companies using the document referenced by Murrison to support claims of approval from the American Academy of Pediatrics to correct their websites and promotional materials.

A step back for science?

Scientific research frequently lags behind the private sector when it comes to evaluating new commercial applications for new technologies, said Michael Dougherty, a professor of psychology and the director of the Decision, Attention, and Memory Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park.
And innovation isn't a bad thing, Dougherty said.
The problem, he maintained, is when companies go too far in their marketing.
In 2015, for example, the Federal Trade Commission agreed to a $2 million settlement with Lumos Labs Inc., the creators of Lumosity, a hugely popular suite of computer- and app-based brain-training programs and games. The company had claimed its technology had "the potential to change lives" and was effective at improving children's working memory and protecting against cognitive impairments associated with attention-deficit disorders and other conditions. 
The commission also reached smaller settlements with a number of other brain-training companies. Among them: LearningRx, which the FTC cited for making "false and deceptive claims about improved cognition" for a wide variety of populations, including children with autism and attention-deficit disorders.
As states, districts, and schools across the country seek to implement and adjust to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the question of what kind of evidence companies can use to justify claims of effectiveness will continue to grow in importance.
Given that, it's worrisome that the country's new education secretary nominee would remain closely tied to a company that has apparently made exaggerated and misleading claims about its service, said Ken Koedinger, a professor of psychology and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"The department of education has made a lot of progress in the last 10 years or so in trying to help people in the field distinguish snake oil from the real thing," Koedinger said.
"I'd hate to see a step backwards with respect to the importance of scientific evidence in improving education."

Education Week (copyright 2017)


Betsy DeVos Won’t Shed Stake in Biofeedback Company, Filings Show

Betsy DeVos, the education secretary nominee, and her husband own part of a company that operates nine “brain performance centers.” CreditAl Drago/The New York Times
Betsy DeVos, the billionaire school choice advocate selected by President Donald J. Trump to serve as education secretary, is a strong supporter of using biofeedback technology to help children and teenagers enhance their performance in school.
Ms. DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., are major financial backers of Neurocore, a Michigan company that operates drug-free “brain performance centers” that claim to have worked with 10,000 children and adults to overcome problems with attention deficit disorder, autism, sleeplessness and stress.
In an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics made public Friday, Ms. DeVos said that she had stepped down from the Neurocore board but that she would retain her financial interest in the company. She valued that stake at $5 million to $25 million in her financial disclosure statement.
On Friday evening, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he would delay the initial vote on Ms. DeVos’s nomination by a week, until Jan. 31, as Democrats argued that the process had been rushed through, without enough time to answer remaining questions about her financial disclosures.
Continue reading the main story
Ms. DeVos and her husband promote Neurocore heavily on the website for Windquest Group, a family office the couple use to manage some of their many investments. The website, for instance, includes a link to a Washington Post article about Kirk Cousins, a Washington Redskins quarterback who describes how he “retrained” his brain to better perform on the field by going to a Neurocore center.
But the claims that Neurocore’s methods can help children improve their performance in school could present a conflict for Ms. DeVos if she is confirmed as education secretary — especially given that the company is moving to expand its national reach.
Neurocore, founded about a decade ago, operates seven of the brain performance centers in Michigan and recently opened two in Florida. It has said it has plans to open as many as seven other centers across the country this year. Ms. DeVos’s financial disclosure shows that she and her husband have an indirect interest in the company through a family partnership.
Richard W. Painter, a White House ethics adviser under President George W. Bush, said he was familiar with Neurocore and applauded the business and education concepts behind it — but he said the DeVoses would be better off selling their interests in the company.
“This is not an appropriate investment for the secretary of education,” Mr. Painter said in an email. “How schools respond to attention issues is a vitally important policy question and ties right into achievement. In my view, there should be support, including financial support, for alternatives to A.D.H.D. drug treatments that are covered by health insurance whereas alternatives often are not covered.”
He added, “The secretary would be barred from participating in that important policy decision if she or her husband owned an interest in this company.”
Ms. DeVos has drawn criticism from some Democrats and public education supporters because she has been an outspoken critic of public schools and supports charter schools as an alternative. In Michigan, she and her husband have been active in promoting charter schools.
She caused a stir this week at her confirmation hearing, which took place before the Office of Government Ethics had released her financial disclosure form, when she said that some schools might want to keep guns on hand to deal with possible grizzly bear attacks. She also did not seem to be familiar with a federal law that requires equal treatment for children with disabilities.
In her agreement with the ethics office, Ms. DeVos said she would “not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter” that could benefit Neurocore and seven family businesses in which she would continue to have a financial interest.
Ms. DeVos’s financial holdings may be the most complex by any of Mr. Trump’s cabinet nominees. At 108 pages, her financial disclosure form is longer than the one Mr. Trump himself filed last year.
She and her husband, according to the disclosure filing, have $583 million to $1.5 billion in assets.
The size of the family’s wealth is no surprise. Mr. DeVos’s father founded Amway, a multilevel marketing firm that specializes in selling health and beauty aids and had over $9 billion in sales in 2015. Richard DeVos Sr. is the 88th-richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine.
The DeVoses’ financial holdings include a minority stake in Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs and an interest in the N.B.A.’s Orlando Magic, as well as an array of private equity firms and real estate entities.
In her filing, Ms. DeVos said she also had a financial interest in Theranos, the embattled blood-testing firm that was once a darling of Silicon Valley but was forced to close its laboratories and lay off 40 percent of its workers after a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal raised questions about its technology.
Ms. DeVos, in her filing, said that within 90 days of being confirmed, she would divest herself of her financial interest in 102 companies and investment funds.
Neurocore, however, appears to be an investment that Ms. DeVos and her husband have a particular interest in.
The company’s website claims impressive outcomes: for example, that 90 percent of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder report improvement and 76 percent “achieve a nonclinical status.” But Neurocore has not published results in the peer-reviewed literature.
A year ago, the company hired Dr. Majid Fotuhi, a physician and neuroscientist trained at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, as its chief medical officer. He said Neurocore had recently begun analyzing its data and results would be published soon in a scientific journal.
Dr. Fotuhi said that Neurocore had no immediate plans to team up with schools but that he could envision that happening.
“Betsy DeVos really believes in improving brain performance and helping children who have syndromes such as attention deficit disorder,” he said.
An article in September in MiBiz in Michigan about Neurocore’s expansion plans said the DeVoses’ family office, Windquest Group, was the company’s main financial backer. In the article, Mark Murrison, Neurocore’s chief executive, said, “We’re a local company with sights on national expansion.”
On its website, Neurocore claims to use “data-driven, brain-based diagnostics and treatments” to help children and adults. The company says it uses “data from quantitative electroencephalography” to help diagnose problems and then treats them with “proven neurofeedback therapy.”
Neurocore, which charges about $2,000 for a recommended treatment of 30 sessions, has a deal with Prosper Funding, an online lending platform, to provide financing to clients. Neurocore also says that some insurance plans may cover treatments.
But in 2015, the Michigan State Department of Insurance and Financial Services upheld a denial of coverage determination by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for a person who had sought treatment from Neurocore for migraine headaches. The insurer had denied coverage, saying the “treatment was investigational.”
In its marketing materials, Neurocore makes a direct pitch to parents, featuring the personal stories of numerous children in YouTube videos and offering tips on Twitter about helping students focus at school.
On Friday, Neurocore posted a typical tweet — “Do you suspect your child may have teen ADHD? Check out these common signs” — with a link to its website and a photo of a student at his desk.
Not all experts are convinced of the effectiveness of Neurocore’s methods. A 2013 article in The Detroit News questioned the efficacy of diagnostic testing for A.D.H.D. through electroencephalography, citing an article in the American Academy of Pediatrics News that suggested more research was needed.
Still, Dr. Fotuhi expressed confidence in the field. “It’s in its infancy,” he said, “but I can envision in the coming years, we’ll have objective data.”

New York Times (copyright 2017)