Friday, December 16, 2011

The FDA and our government

What's right, what's wrong, and what that says about the US Government

It's easy for anti-government comments from Libertarian sources to inflame a debate focusing on good work done by our current government. Watching the reaction to a profane, vulgar, and hilarious rant from Penn and Teller supporting the Ron Paul campaign provides a good example that focuses on the Food and Drug Administration. It's easy to say that's a ridiculous agency to pick on, when the FDA is obviously doing a useful job for so many people. But there's a deeper message here about what's wrong with our government. The question this video should raise is not whether the FDA is helping anyone; they are. It's why High Fructose Corn Syrup is ubiquitous in US foods, but not in other countries?

Let's start with what the FDA does right. I recently found myself scolding someone who was advocating to an ill friend a quack herbal remedy: "colloidal silver". Through a funny twist, some people only know of this "remedy" because of its association with harming Libertarian candidate Stan Jones. Watchdog organizations like Quackwatch make it easy to debunk the claims of those selling this product to make a profit from the uninformed. In a true Libertarian environment, that sort of information gathering police work, combined with the right judicial environment for individuals to sue those making phony claims, would be sufficient to prevent these products from reaching a large market.

The FDA is serving as exactly that sort of watchdog in this case. One of the reasons ingesting this toxic brew isn't more popular is because the times their labeling and advertising has gone too far, the FDA in combination with the FTC has smacked them down, hard. "Big government" in Australia has done that one better, legislating even further reaching defenses against this sort of fraud. People like me know better, but ultimately if there wasn't an FDA, we'd be compelled to reinvent something like it. It's quite reasonable to say we can't expect individual people to cope with the scale of the problem.

It seems an organization whose job it is to collect information about good and bad things you might eat or drink, and a related one for medication, is a necessary component to managing the complexity of modern life. They would need the ability to sue on behalf of public safety when both uninformed sellers and immoral criminals tried to sell the clearly bad products to uninformed people. We have one right now, and most of the time it does the right thing. But as Penn Jillette's angry rant points out, it's not done a thing to protect the public from the obvious, documented dangers of high-fructose corn syrup. Why hasn't the FDA acted to rule HFCS harmful?

The problem here is that the legislative and organizational structure that ultimately defines the FDA is set and managed by people whose concerns go beyond the public interest. They're motivated heavily by their corporate sponsors. In the HFCS case, that's a long list going from all the food manufacturers saving money using HFCS to the corn industry producing it. It's even easier to see this at work on the drug side of the office.

In 2004, FDA whistle-blower Dr. David Graham reported the agency as "virtually incapable of protecting America". One of the drugs he called out as unsafe, Accutane, was removed from the market in 2009. Was it because the FDA shut them down? No; it was because of the massive number of personal injury lawsuits against the company. If drugs this dangerous are not being stopped, if it takes private lawsuits to get them off the market, you have to ask just what the FDA is really doing. Isn't saving individuals from needing to file their own lawsuits to eliminate dangerous items from the market the whole reason they exist?

Dr. Graham's comments came from a look into the investigation over Vioxx being withdrawn from the market, its own sad story of lax FDA work. There's more information about that available from the Union of Concerned Scientists at and further comments from him in another interview. There Graham describes how the FDA "views industry as its client, and the client is someone whose interest you represent". This is not a problem isolated to the FDA.

The easiest such case to follow is also one of the biggest, around the banking industry. Here the Securities and Exchange Commission serves a similar role to the FDA, or at least it would if it weren't actively manipulated by the people it's supposed to police. That the corporate influence of what's called the "revolving door" of the SEC prevents it from acting to protect the public is also well documented. And the stories told by SEC whistle-blowers sound awfully similar to the ones heard about the FDA.

What our current government is demonstrating in many areas is that if you allow elected officials and their offices to accept large amounts of money from companies, they will then create favorable conditions for those companies to make more money--and therefore continue financing the official or office. On the elected official side, since it's almost impossible for anyone who isn't playing that game to pay for enough advertising to win an election, this is an almost unbreakable vicious circle. It exists across every part of our government right now. This situation where corporations are seen as the "client" of a government office--rather than the voters--is far from unique. It's ubiquitous.

And it's obvious that problem goes all the way to the top of the US government. Does anyone really think the Bush and Obama administrations were capable of confronting the large financial firms that caused so many problems with the US economy, when money from them was a necessary component for both presidents to be elected? Every single one of the discussions around the TARP bailouts should have included these two tables so it was clear the money being distributed was advocated by presidents on the payroll of those receiving it: Bush contributors, Obama contributors. These companies aren't favoring the Republican or Democratic sides; to be safe they purchase as much influence as they feel necessary from every candidate who will accept it. A vote for either is supporting the same kleptocracy. If you'd like to see what a candidate sponsored by the voters looks like for comparison, see Ron Paul contributors.

The real problem isn't that there is a FDA and it's sponsored by pooled government funding. The problem is that its agenda is ultimately influenced by how much money everyone from "big pharma" to the corn industry passes through the hands of our legislators and our government offices. The extreme positions Libertarian candidates and their advocates sometimes use is reflecting the fact that every single one of our government organizations, as they exist right now, are pushed by forces that do not have the good of the voters as their primary motivator. People can be conned into doing things if you have enough resources to convince them. There's this thing called advertising, turns out it works really well. And right now we're a nation that has been conned into voting for a massive tower of corporate influenced corruption, top to bottom, every agency, as our government. We're now letting corporations act like people in every way, with campaign contributions and lobbying as a proxy for voting (which, again, turns out to work really well). Actual people are letting themselves get outvoted every time. And by definition a corporation has no morals.

The idea of little or no government may not really be viable across our large and diverse population. Advocating too strongly in that direction enables a debate based on the merit of the existing organizations. The fly in the Libertarian ointment is that the percentage of the self-interested and outright criminals in our world is so high, with these obvious examples going from herbal medicine quacks to banking industry leaders, that it's hard to imagine any way to stop them all without building a big organization. It seems the easiest way to make the cost of policing them, and they will pop up in every single place possible, is to build something that looks an awful lot like government.

But the government we have right now has already been actively reorganized by literally amoral corporations to benefit their needs. Don't let the fact that some parts of our existing government are functional despite that fool you. There are good meaning people at all levels too, and organizations like the FDA are helpful more often than harmful. But for every FDA, there's an SEC--a regulatory body so warped by corporate influence that they fail to protect the voters from the very things they were chartered to do.

The real reason to single out the FDA as a source of trouble is to highlight that even there, an organization which for the most part does enormous good for our population, there is massive corporate-driven fraud driving its agenda. Does our entire government need to be wrecked to completely eliminate that taint, to be restructured as something that really is driven by the voters this time? That's not a question you should just shrug off as ridiculous. And arguing over the details of which parts of our government currently do something useful despite that is missing the point.

Copyright 2012, Gregory Smith
Use of this text is allowed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rhythmbox playlist editing with the magic of command-line diff

As a near full-time Linux desktop user, I haven't found anything I like better for music than GNOME's Rhythmbox. The UI is a little funky sometimes, but all I really want from a music player is the ability to find all the songs in my library and make playlists.

One of the problems I run into sometimes relates to my fanatical music ripping. I extract all the audio from my CDs in both FLAC, for high quality, and MP3 formats. I only put the FLAC version into the main music library, the MP3 copies are strictly for copying over to my portable player (Sansa Fuse, which also works fine with Linux with no special software). Every now and then I make the mistake of adding the directory that contains the MP3 files to my music library, and then I'm screwed. There's now two copies of every song, and weeding them out is a giant mess.

When I did this again recently, decided to just wipe my whole library out and start over. I added most of the same songs back in again. One ugly surprise though: all of my playlists were deleted! Now that I know what not to do here, I wanted to share that info.

One of the things I like about Rhythmbox is that all its metadata is stored in simple XML files, so I've recovered from errors like this before. Depending on what version you're running, below your home directory should be .local/share/rhythmbox/playlists.xml or its older variation, .gnome2/rhythmbox/playlists.xml

Since I'm paranoid, I made a backup of this file and the music library before I touched anything, so I had the original playlist file with all the songs for reference. Apparently what happens here is that when you exit Rhythmbox, it removes any file in a playlist that isn't in the library anymore. So the procedure I had to go through went like this:

  1. Restore the original big playlist file
  2. Add the directories I think it was missing to the library, then exit
  3. Compare the original playlist file with the new one, to see what files are missing.
  4. Repeat until no files are missing.

In command line form, that looked like this:
cp $HOME/backup/playlists.xml $HOME/.local/share/rhythmbox/playlists.xml 
kdiff3 /home/gsmith/personal/music/playlists.xml /home/gsmith/.local/share/rhythmbox/playlists.xml &

After a few rounds of that, I got to where the difference between the original and new playlists was down to only three files. The common thing about these files is that they had punctunation characters in them: comma and ampersand, AKA ",&". For reasons I haven't fully figured out, when I added those files back to the library, the format it saved those names in was escaped slightly differently. So they were in the music library, but didn't match the playlist perfectly, and thus deleted at every exit.

To fix this, I manually copied those files from the library back into the playlist again. Then I exited the program and figured out what order they used to be in like this:
diff -c $HOME/backup/playlists.xml $HOME/local/share/rhythmbox/playlists.xml

This form of context diff makes it straightforward to see what lines the song originally appeared in. I tweaked the file using a regular editor (vi worked fine) until the differences were all adjacent lines, so that the new file names were directly replacing the original ones, comfirming the edits with that same diff again. Save that, and finally my original playlists are back in the order I liked them in.

Now that I realize how easy it is to lose playlist entries, I've now added playlists.xml to the list of files I keep under version control. One last twist here to be aware of. Normally, the way I do that is put the file into my personal git directory, then symbolically link the original location to it. The version of Rhythmbox I have here does not respect this at all. When exiting and saving, it silently overwrote the configuration file with

This "wipe out everything I don't like when exiting" behavior from Rhythmbox is rather immature, given it's a program that could be running with a music library mounted over intermittent network storage. And not following symlinks is just absurd. But, at least with plain text, readable XML files, I can use standard UNIX tools to fix all those limitations. It's still far less stupid to recover from than what happens, say, when you screw up your iTunes library after running into the same sort of limitations, like bad behavior with intermittent network mounts. Binary configuration files suck.