Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Hello! Anyone Home? It's Getting Hot in Here!

I'm driving my Hummer over to see the Al Gore movie, but don't worry, I'll drive slowly--The latest outrage in the wingnut culture is Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," about the effects and dangers of global warming. Conservative commentators are predictably foaming at the mouth at this latest liberal outrage. It and the scientists who support the idea that humanity is about to really screw up planet Earth, have been called unAmerican. I can't comment as I haven't seen the film yet, but we are going to next week.

So how accurate is the film? Apparently, very.

The National Geographic Society took environmental scientist Eric Steig of the University of Washington to the movie. Steig reports: "I was looking for errors. But nothing struck me as overblown or wrong." Gore claimed that the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes had doubled last year. True. Heat waves are increasing. Also true. Deaths from global warming will double in just 25. A reasonable extrapolation. More than a million species will be driven to extinction in 50 years. Ditto. Sea levels could rise more than 6 meters and Central Jersey would become beach front property. Yup. Move upland.

Then the Associated Press, about as neutral a news sources as you are likely to find, did a survey of more than 100 climate researchers to ask them if they thought the film accurate, including the few remaining skeptics. Those who saw the film or read Gore's book agreed he nailed it. "I sat there and I'm amazed at how thorough and accurate [it was]. I was blown away," said Robert Corell, chairman of the worldwide Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

Actually, I wasn't surprised. About 15 years ago, Gore came to Stanford to talk about the environment in general and global warming. I was blown away. He really, truly knew his stuff and was articulate and impassioned. What happened to the articulate and impassioned guy during the 2000 campaign is another story, but anyone who messes with Gore on this issue comes up looking like an idiot. He has been at it for almost a generation and has it nailed.

This, of course, doesn't stop the idiots. See here and here. Part of the problem, I maintain, is the the media (usually not science writers), still cover the issue as if it was controversial. It isn't. The number of scientists who reject Gore's premise can be counted on the fingers of one hand and most of them take coal industry money. The other problem for the wingnut critics is that the film is doing extremely well for a not terribly action-packed documentary. (Jon Stewart says it has the record for the most people who went to see a PowerPoint presentation). It has already grossed $131 million!

Unfortunately, the one man who we most need to see the film says he won't. Of course not.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Your world. Delivered. Straight to an illegal database.

This is the AT&T Operator. Can you type a bit slower? the NSA is have a difficult time keeping up--AT&T, the ghost of Ma Bell, which used to be SBC or something, is in the cross-hairs of a serious controversy and lawsuit and has responded by--how shall we say this--well, lying. And it gets worse. The company (I get tired of looking for the ampersand), as you know, has an operation in San Francisco dedicated to spying on its customers for the National Security Agency, which, as you also know, hasn’t bothered to get subpoenas for their eavesdropping. Now, it turns out, there is yet another operation in Missouri, probably spying on Internet traffic. If you are using AT&T to read this, congratulations, you’ve probably made a probably illegal government database. Salon reports that two former AT&T employees say the company has a highly secured room in Bridgeton, Mo., that may contain another operation. But not to worry. It gets worse.

The company has now notified its customers (and I wish I were one so I could tell them to shove it) that your Internet records on its network are the company’s property and they will give out the details to whomever the hell it feels like. The policy will go into effect tomorrow. Asked to explain, a spokesman said that was nothing new, they were just updating the policy and that was always the deal. They are just trying to make the policy easier to read. He is lying. No, it wasn’t part of the previous contract.

The company also is the subject of a law suit by the State of New Jersey (ray!) demanding to know if AT&T was compromising its customers’ privacy. The Justice Department has now sued New Jersey to stop them from proceeding with the suit, claiming of course, national security, the excuse given by every despotic regime in history for hiding illegal activity.

I’m waiting for the people to get really pissed. I may wait a while. I’m mad as hell! Why aren’t you?!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Liar, liar, pants on fire. OK, maybe not

Did you ever play cards with Aldrich Ames? Yes? Why is your heart racing? Why is my heart racing--The Washington Post has an interesting if somewhat incomplete story on the confusion over polygraph tests in the intelligence community. The National Security Agency doesn’t trust the polygraphers at the CIA, the Pentagon doesn’t trust the FBI’s, and the courts don’t trust any of them. The story, by Shankar Vedantam depicts several people caught in the confusion and distrust. The story mentions that master spy Aldrich Ames fooled CIA polygraphs three times. He is hardly the first or last person to fool the machines or their operators.

The story doesn't mention that polygraphs reached the status of religious belief in the intelligence community years ago and challenging them can be dangerous to your peace. See below. The operators essentially are their own cult.

Missing most of all in the story is that polygraphs are crap science. They do not measure truthfulness; they measure anxiety. They are not permitted as evidence in court for that reason and the courts are right. With the exception of Israel (and they may no longer use them either), no intelligence or law enforcement agency in the world uses them or gives them any credibility. They can not only be fooled--and apparently are regularly--but produce false positives at an alarming rate. A false positive means they (or more likely the operators) say someone is lying when they are not. Exact figures are classified (now I wonder why that is) but according the best estimates I was able to reach for a story I did several years ago, it runs about 15%. The article linked to above from Wikipedia, says 10%. That means that people are accused of lying 10-15% of the time when in fact they are being truthful .

Much of the efficacy is determined by factors other than technology. The nastier the polygraph operator is the better the test; intimidation is the juice polygraphs run on. More important, the more convinced you are that the machines work, the better they work, although that does nothing about the false positive problem. On the other hand, if you believe something is true even if it is not, you will fool the machine because you are fooling yourself. Again, it measure anxiety not truthfulness. In some cases, people can be taught to fool the machines, and it is not difficult, experts say, to guarantee an ambigous result. There are even websites that advertise ways of beating the machines. I don't know if those sites actually offer anything useful, but the machines are stupid things to hang national security on.

Even critics of polygraphs point out they are not entirely useless. If you have a small store and someone is raking off profits in the cash register, polygraphs probably can find the culprit because they are honing in on a specific incident among a small number of people and they are all scared to death. If, on the other hand, you use it the way the CIA, FBI, NSA and all the other places do--general screening--you are essentially running a scam. The operators will do every thing they can to convince you this is science, this works, and if you lie to them they will nab your ass. It isn't and it doesn't but they may nab your ass anyhow, perhaps even falsely. If you walk in convinced the tests are crap, you will get a negative or contradictory result or get caught in the 10-15%. Intimidation by the operators is key. One subject in the Post story had an argument with a polygraph operator over the bra size of a teenager he did not abuse.

The Post quotes someone as saying that analyzing polygraphs is more art than science. Actually it is not science at all and art is in the eyes of the beholder. There is no published scientific study supporting polygraphs.

By the way, the piece I did on polygraphs was for a major science magazine which, because of outside pressure on the editor, did not print the article. She is deceased now and refused to tell me what happened to the story before she died, but the pressure was clear and unambiguous. I never forgave her. I must add that the defenders of polygraphs were the most aggressively offensive people I’ve met in almost 40 years of journalism. My opinion above is not unbiased.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Putting the good doctor back together

My son, the doctor, the philosopher, the rabbi, the lawyer. And you still don’t call--He was one of history’s great geniuses. He was a world-famous physician and scientist at a time when Christianity did it’s best to suppress science and scientific medicine. In his spare time, he codified Jewish law and for all practical purposes, created the Judaism of the last 800 years. He absorbed Aristotle and influenced Aquinas. He may even be the reason why there are so many Jewish doctors. And he would love what’s about to happen.

Moses Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon), the 12th century philosopher-physician, left a good bit of his life’s work in a hole-in-the-wall storage room in a Cairo synagogue. Fragments of his life’s work are scattered in libraries around the world after being recovered from the receptacle or genizah, along with the works of other Jewish philosophers. Now, thanks to the Internet, scholars in Britain are going to piece the fragment together to see what they contain.

There is neither the space nor the time to go into his work and influence. I’ve begun a course on him and know little. [He’d like that] Click here for a start. The man is huge. His influence on the world in general, Judaism in particular, is hard to exaggerate. He is referred to in yeshivot in the present tense as if he was in the next room. Actually, he may be. He not only codified Jewish law, he produced the 13 Articles of Faith that underlies post-sacrificial Judaism. Back to the science.

The genizah is the place they hid manuscripts that contained God’s name and therefore could not be thrown out. The Cairo genizah was discovered in 1896 and is one of the great treasure troves of Jewish literature. Scraps of documents in the genizah were widely distributed. About 10,000 pieces are in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands University Library, but 300,000 tiny fragments are known to exist.

Using a $670,000 grant from the British government, the Manchester Center for Jewish Studies researchers will post images of the fragments on the World Wide Web. Others around the world will post what they have and then the community will try to reassemble the pieces into a coherent whole on the Internet, a bit from here and a bit from there. Until current imaging technology, that was impossible. No one has any idea what we will learn from this, which is exactly the point.

Maimonides would love it. “Teach thy tongue to say 'I do not know,' and thou shalt progress.” Yes, doctor.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Do not put strawberries on whale meat, whatever you do--UPDATED WITH THE VOTE

Today we are going to talk about eating. Maybe it is because I’m coming off a birthday in which virtually every present was edible. We’re talking brownies and cherry tarts and cookies.… Nevermind. Oh, yes. And there will be whales.

Hand me that six-pack of Guiness. I’m under doctor’s orders. Maybe you have to be a guy to appreciate the delicious irony (pun intended) but new research shows that a main ingredient in that brew you have in your hand, could deter prostate cancer. It’s a guy thing. Researchers at Oregon State University, a party school of course, believe that xanthohumol, found in hops, inhibits a specific protein in the cells lining the prostate gland. They have been researching this for about 10 years, and I doubt they've had problems signing up sophomores for test subjects. The protein acts as a signal switch in turning on attacks on cancer cells. Xanthohumol is a flavanoid that can trigger cell death in cancer cells. The Germans, who know beer, now have a brew with 10 times the xanthohumol and it’s advertised as a health drink. The good news is you have to drink a lot of beer to get the benefit, about three six packs. While three six packs of Miller Lite may be offensive, there is always Guinness.

UPDATE: It gets better: seems the same stuff is in pizza sauce. Remember I wrote recently how all those guys who dropped dead jogging would have lived longer had they been lounging on a couch eating pizza and drinking beer? You read it here first!

Liars, liars, flukes on fire--An environmental group in Japan says that despite what the Japanese government and the whaling industry says, the Japanese are eating much less whale meat and the stuff is piling up in freezers. The Japanese have long opposed limits on whaling because, they claim, it is part of their normative diet. According to the Tokyo-based Dolphin & Whale Action Network, that ain’t so. "The Fisheries Agency continues to carry out whaling based on a fictitious public opinion," the writer of the report, freelance writer Junko Sakuma told a news conference, showing data released by the agency pointing to an increase in stockpiles of whale meat. Many people think the Japanese like whale meat and therefore continue whaling. That's not true." The Japanese oppose the 20-year ban on whaling. Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission, which will meet later this month in the Caribbean, is likely to chip away at the restrictions. For the first time, pro-whaling countries are in a majority.

UPDATE--The vote reached a plurality for dropping restrictions but failed to get the 75 percent necessary to actually lift the ban. It is the first time that has ever happened. If you are a whale, be frightened. Be very frightened.

Strawberry fields for ever and ever--I’m one of the few people in the world who moved to California to be near strawberries. I am delighted to report they are good for you. They help the heart and some diseases. Well, maybe. Sometimes you just run into science that you really want to be true. According to a story in the Santa Cruz Sentinel [click headline], a couple miles north of all those luscious strawberry fields, research at UCLA shows that the antioxidant attributes of strawberries are good for the heart and help fight some neurological disease. There have been lots of stories about which foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, fight what diseases--and I’ve written some myself--and the science is really murky. But they are delicious, they are cheap at the moment, and as my sainted grandmother once said, they can’t hurt. Mangia! Mangia!

And finally, the grapefruit mystery--I earlier pointed out that some of my medicines come with a warning not to eat grapefruit while taking the medicine. I wondered what the hell could be in grapefruits that interfered with drugs. The answer appears to be furanocoumarin. Furanocoumarin in grapefruit juice,interferes with the enzyme CYP3A, that breaks down the drugs so the body ends up absorbing more of the drug. That comes from the University of North Carolina. It may, the researchers say, be possible to produce grapefruit juice without the stuff. More important, furanocoumarin could also be added to drugs to improve their absorption into the body. [Corrected, I think.]

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Google me this, Google me that--UPDATED Goggle me chicken

Look, if you are going to acquire a conscience, I’m going to invest elsewhere--
Sometimes business leaders get hung on their scruples. Take for example, Google. Google, the world’s largest search engine, agreed to rules from the government of China that essentially censored the Internet, removing things the government did not want its citizens to see. Google, founded like most everything else in the world in the Stanford dorms, had long bragged that it had rules to do no harm in the world, and when it got out that they had agreed to censorship, they had a small hypocrisy problem. At first, the company defended the move. But this week, in an appearance in Washington that got surprisingly little publicity, one of the young founders of Google, Sergey Brin, admitted they may have made a mistake. Brin said Google agreed to censorship demands only after the Chinese blocked its service in the country. Want to do business in China? Obey the rules, “a set of rules we weren't comfortable with.”

"We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference," Brin said. “Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense..." It's perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say, 'Look, we're going to stand by the principle against censorship and we won't actually operate there.' That's an alternate path," Brin said. "It's not where we chose to go right now, but I can sort of see how people came to different conclusions about doing the right thing."

The danger is real. Reporters Without Borders in Paris said Tuesday Google’s site in China was blocked in most Chinese provinces by the government and the whole operation was down May 31. The Chinese may be paying attention.

Meanwhile, more attention must be paid. Google was one of the few American corportions to tell the Justice Department to shove it in their illegal attempt to eavesdrop on citizens without warrants, so maybe they actually mean what they say.

UPDATE: After several writers, including moi, concluded that Brin was having a fit of conscience, he went out of his way to assure us this wasn't necessarily so. They are not making any changes. Chinese customers currently have two choices to Google. If they use the world-wide site, they can get uncensored content but at very slow speeds. The Chinese ISP companies go out of their way to screw it up and make it unusable so the Chinese will migrate to, which is very fast and censored. Almost everyone in China uses the regular, uncensored site presently.

All the world hates finks, or at least someone else’s finks--If Google was leaning toward the high road, Yahoo was paying a penalty for taking the low road. The union representing journalists in the United Kingdom and Ireland called on its members to boycott Yahoo for its actions in China. The company apparently gave the Chinese government information that led to the jailing of pro-democracy writers. In a letter to Yahoo’s European headquarters, the National Union of Journalists denounced the company and said it would stop using all Yahoo services. "The NUJ regards Yahoo!'s actions as a completely unacceptable endorsement of the Chinese authorities," wrote Jemima Kiss, chairman of the NUJ new media council in the letter to Yahoo. Yes, Jemima Kiss. I think I'm in love. That's an actual picture of her.

Someday you’re gonna wake up and we’ve stolen the bed-sheets, the bed, the house, your car and your daughter--Meanwhile, there is more Google news and they sure as hell better be paying attention in Redmond, Washington. Microsoft, fat, stupid, disorganized and lazy as it is, got another wake-up call this week from Google. Google announced it was posting a beta of a spreadsheet program on the web. Excel it isn’t. It is nowhere as complex or as good a program as Microsoft’s spreadsheet but that’s not the point. It is on the web. It permits multiple users to access and use it--and it’s free. And things can be added and improvements made. It is part of Google’s move to put most of the programs most users need free on the web, challenging one of Microsoft’s main revenue sources. They posted a calendar program last month. Their gmail is stupendously successful, and rumors have it they are working on a word processing program. All of which makes Microsoft Office look like an endangered species. Add to that the problems Microsoft is having getting Vista, it’s new operating system, out the door, and you things may get fun out there.

[Picture of Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google via AP, Jemima Kiss from NUJ, and fat and stupid by way of Donar Animations.]

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Fields of screams, fields of dreams

Hey, let’s make up another disease. We haven’t done that in a while. Why are you throwing that chair?--The psychiatric community has discovered another disease. They do so every couple of weeks. It means they have something else to treat and the drug companies love it: they get to sell more drugs. This disease is called intermittent explosive disorder, or IED. It is defined as uncontrollable anger attacks often leading to violence, things like spousal abuse and road rage. Naturally, they have found it is not as rare as one might think--4-5% of the people in a study at Harvard and the University of Chicago, have it. See Archives of General Psychiatry here. They have physically assaulted someone, threatened bodily harm or trashed something. We’re not talking simply being pissed off here, we’re talking repeated acts of violence. Since the psychiatric community discovers “an unrecognized major mental health problem” regularly, it should be taken with a grain of salt. If 4 to 5% of people really had such a thing, I’d stay home every day. And don’t bother me there. I’m warning you. I'm working! I’m getting really steamed. Now GET OUT.


But if we drug the little bastards early, we can stop IED--I’m sure this makes the world a safer place. Psychiatrists [their day in the barrel, apparently] are prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to children five times in the years between 1993 and 2002. In a report in the Archives of General Psychiatry [they are having a busy month], researchers said that these medications were prescribed at a rate of 1,438 per 100,000 children, up from 275 in the period from 1993-1995. In part, one suspects, it is because there are more anti-psychotic drugs out there and if you make it they will prescribe it. Another reason is that children and adolescents now have problems given new psychiatric labels and as new labels are invented, why more patients show up. See above. It needs to be pointed out there is very little data on what those drugs do to children as such studies are simply--and happily--not done. Except that’s what we are doing now, isn't it, one giant experiment to see if the drugs do any harm.

“I didn’t realize that that was the only day”--This story is only tangentially about medicine, but it is too sad to pass up. In Phil Robinson’s screenplay to W.P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe, "Field of Dreams," a fictional Ray Kinsella goes searching for a baseball player who appeared only once in a major league game, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, played by Burt Lancaster. [The screenplay was better than the novel, by the way]. There was such a player, who played for the New York Giants in one game in 1905. See page 275 of the Baseball Encyclopedia. He was called up to play the outfield against the Brooklyn Dodgers but never got an at-bat. He was in the batting circle when the game ended and he never played again. His entry contains nothing but zeros. “Back then, I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days,’” he says in the film. “I didn’t realize that that was the only day.” There is a contemporary counterpart to Graham. Meet Adam Greenberg, who has yet to appear in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Last year, Greenberg, 24, was called up from the minors by the Chicago Cubs. Last July 9, Greenberg went to bat against Valerio de Los Santos of the Florida Marlins, his first at-bat in the “Bigs.” De Los Santo’s first pitch hit him on the batting helmet and knocked him down. In the days before batting helmets, he might have been killed. For months he suffered from dizziness, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. The dizzy spells have gone away, but he hasn’t played since. The Cubs released him last week at his request. He is looking for a team. The real Moonlight Graham did indeed become a doctor in Minnesota, as Kinsella wrote, but probably never met “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, or played with ghosts in an Iowa corn field. Robinson pays no attention to dates in the film and scrambles chronology. Graham died in 1965 at the age of 88. By the way, both Graham and Greenberg graduated from the University of North Carolina. For a really splendid story, see Mike Downey’s piece in the Chicago Tribune here. [Registration required].

[Greenberg picture from the Chicago Tribune]

Thursday, June 01, 2006

If I pretend I'm running, will the evil eye be fooled?

I don't really want to get off the couch so could you just pass me a piece of pizza--An obituary in the Baltimore Sun struck me this morning. I hope I am not invoking what my grandmother called the Evil Eye by writing this but.... A veterinarian named E. Andrew Whittington died in Florida. A Baltimore native, he was a marathon runner, swimmer, and bike rider, described as a nationally ranked amateur athlete. He ran in at least 20 marathons. He spent hours ever day exercising and the picture in the paper showed him to be handsome and really well-well built. I'd love to look like that. What with my personality, I'd be rich and famous. He was so into excersise he was in the process of quitting his vet job to become a full-time personal trainer and if I was into having a personal trainer (I actually had one once), I'd hire him in a flash. I can't. He dropped dead at the age of 58. Heart attack.

Ever since James Fixx [picture above] died while running, I've been keeping an informal list of really healthy seeming people who dropped dead exercising. There was Grace Kelly's brother John Jr., in Philadelphia, who every morning sculled up the Schuylkill River and then went running. He dropped dead in front of my office building one day. Or the former governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, who fell off his exercise machine. Then there was the law professor at Stanford, John Kaplan, a renowned expert on Constitutional law and a really nice man, who ran vigorously every morning. Meanwhile, a tumor was growing in his brain. I wonder if all that pumping blood made it worse.

I am sure exercise is good for you. I am surer that mortality depends on too many other things, mostly genetics. There is no reason to go out every morning and hurt yourself.

I can't prove it but I think it is likely that had every one of these guys shed their running shoes, found a good lounge chair, a cold beer and watched more baseball on television, they'd still be alive.

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The sky fell--Most scientists agree that the dinosaurs became extinct because a huge meteor crashed into the Earth about 65 million years ago, striking what is now the Yucatan peninsula. But how did the dinosaurs rise? Same thing. Meteor. This one hit what is now the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, although it wasn’t an ice sheet then. Researchers from Ohio State said they found a 300-mile-wide crater more than a mile under the ice that could date back 250 million years, to the Permian-Triasic extinction when most of terrestial life was killed off. That created the world that the dinosaurs would dominate until the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction. The earlier blast could have been responsbile for shoving Australia northward and breaking up Gondwanaland. The researchers used orbiting satellites to measure gravity fluctuations to locate a 200-mile wide mascon, the eruption you get in impacts like that.

Look, if it’s on a blog it must be true--That statement, which you have found on a blog and is not true, has had tragic consequences for an Indiana family. It seems their daughter, Laura Van Ryn, a student at Taylor University, was in an automobile accident. Her sister, Lisa, set up a blog to keep the family abreast of what was happening, sitting beside a patient she was sure was her sister. As the woman regained consciousness after five weeks in a coma, Lisa discovered she had made a terrible mistake. It wasn’t her sister. She wrote on the blog:
What may come to us as a shock, does not shock the One who made us. We have some hard news to share with you today. Our hearts are aching as we have learned that the young woman we have been taking care of over the past five weeks has not been our dear Laura, but instead a fellow Taylor student of hers, Whitney Cerak. There was a misidentification made at the time of the accident and it is uncanny the resemblence that these two women share. Their body types are similar, their hair color and texture, their facial features, etc. During the past couple of days, as Whitney had been becoming more aware of her surroundings, she'd been saying and doing some things that made us question whether or not she was Laura."
Laura, it turned out, had been dead and buried a month but her family thought she was recovering in the hospital. The two women do, by the way, look alike. Click on the headline and see pictures of both. Then there is the family that thought they buried their daughter and found she is still alive. Oh aaargh! I don't know why I thought this was appropriate for this blog, but I guess it is just a warning to be careful in life.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Just plug it in and scream.

First you have to tear open the shrink wrap. Just have scissors and bandages ready)--Here’s a fun one. Think of the 25 worst technological inventions of the electronics age. The people at PC World did and you may agree or find your own. (They, by the way, headline their story “The Worst Tech Products of All Time” as if the gas-powered leaf blowers, electric chairs and crock pots were not technology). Their list includes lots of stuff only geeks would know about (Ashton-Tate's d BASE IV, to name one, a $795 data base program up grade so bad it drove the company out of business in two years) and I don’t even know what Presspay and Musicnet are. But some candidates are obvious and uncontroversial.

Number one on the list has to be--and is--AOL. [You knew that was coming somehow, huh?] Sometimes known as the Internet for Idiots or the Web With Training Wheels. It was a con job from the start (1989), with “awful software, inaccessible dial-up numbers, rapacious marketing, in-your-face advertising, questionable billing practices, inexcusably poor customer service, and enough spam to last a lifetime.” Remember when AOL CDs seemed to fall from trees? I know someone who decorated a huge Christmas tree with them. That’s only the start. Even trying to cancel was so bad they got hit with a law suit in New York State and had to pay $1.25 million, but that only covers New York customers. It walled off its customers from the Web until they rebelled. It still is clunky and unnecessary.

Others on the list include: RealNetworks RealPlayer (1999) which simply didn’t work; Microsoft Windows Millennium (2000), which was even worse than every other Windows; Sony BMG Music CDs that hacked your computer when you weren’t looking (see here); Disney’s Lion King CD (1994), which didn’t work on many computers because of problems with the Microsoft software; Microsoft Internet Explorer (2001), still in use by most users and still dangerous to use and three generations behind everything else out there [do we see a pattern here?], the IBM PCJr, which was useless [God, I forgot about that one], the anniversary PCs from both Gateway and Apple, overpriced and marketing disasters; and the Mac Portable (1989), which was portable only if you pumped iron in our spare time.

Oh, and anything shrink-wrapped.

You are welcome to add your own. Love to hear from you.

And for some really cool moments, may I refer you to this, from


Friday, May 26, 2006

Monkey poop and dope--hey, it's a holiday weekend

So I send you to medical school and the best you can do is sniff through a pile of monkey poop?--Well, yes. And the result is that we now know that the HIV virus that causes AIDS originated in chimpanzees in Cameroon, Gabon or the Congo. It turned out the monkey shit contained the missing link in the scientific hunt for the virus' origin. The result was not unexpected. At least one subspecies of chimps carries a simian immune deficiency virus related to HIV, but no one was sure of a direct link until an international team tested hundreds of piles of poop. Also unknown is when the virus jumped species (the first cases popped up in the U.S. in 1981). The best guess is that it happened 50-75 years ago, based on genetic data. Likely, someone infected from a chimp (they either killed one or ate one—it's done) travelled to Kinshasa or Brazzaville, infected someone else and someone hopped a plane. There still remain gaps in the record, but the discovery, reported in Science adds an important clue. Larry Altman's story in the Times is here, Reuters is here, and AP here. Forty million people have caught the disease, 25 million have died, mostly in Africa.

You put that toke down this minute, you idiot, and go buy me a pack of Marlboros at the 7-11.—Let's all gather around and watch the logic. Cigarettes undoubtedly cause cancer and heart disease and kill millions of Americans every year. They are legal, if expensive. Alcohol brings tragedy in multiple ways to millions of others, either because they become alcoholics, or have alcoholics in the family, or do bad things under the influence of alcohol, and it is legal, widely advertised, relatively cheap and a foundation of our social structure. Marijuana, on the other hand is absolutely illegal according to the federal government, even when used for medicinal purposes and even when voters in about a dozen states have tried to legalize it. A study at UCLA, the largest ever concluded, has shown no relationship between the dope and lung cancer no matter how much you smoke. Not only did they not find a link, there is a hint that marijuana actually has some protective qualities. The researcher involved, Donald Tashkin, has been cited for years by the feds defending federal policy on marijuana, so the study should be inconvenient, or it would be if actual thought was going into the policy. Tashkin still thinks marijuana can be dangerous (there is no solid evidence yet to support that unless you get stoned and drive off a cliff) but opponents of legalization are going to have to find some new arguments.

[Chimp photo from the Jane Goodall Institute, Tashkin from UCLA]

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cheesesteaks in Philly, razzberries in Chicago—UPDATED AND REVISED

The barbarians have left the gates in Philadelphia...--Good news, I think, about a story I care very much about, the fate of the two newspapers in Philadelphia. [It's not science but humor me.] It's hard to find a downside. The papers no longer will be controlled by the incompetents at Knight Ridder, they haven't been sold to Singleton or Gannett, and Wall Street will have no influence. Indeed, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News will become a rarity--major metropolitan dailies returned to local control after 36 years of erratic corporate control.

[For those not paying attention to this blog as much as you should--scoundrels all--I was science writer at the Inquirer for 11 years during the Roberts era, when the Inky was probably the best newspaper in America. I had the best job in American journalism. That was before Tony Ridder turned to slimy mush at the alter of high stock prices. I care a lot. See this.]

The two papers were sold to McClatchy, probably the best newspaper chain remaining in America, but McClatchy wanted no part of them. They were profitable but not as obscenely profitable as Wall Street would have it and not enough for McClatchy, who promptly announced they were for sale. (The fact they were unionized probably had something to do with that decision, which otherwise makes no sense.) About half a dozen corporations put in bids. Philly, America's most under-rated city and my personal favorite, is having some wonderful years at the moment and there is no reason why good newspapers couldn't flourish there.

Yesterday, it was announced that a group of local investors, using mostly borrowed money, will buy the two newspapers. Included in the new owners is Bruce E. Toll, a developer and another hero of mine—he's the man who saved the Metropolitan Opera radio concerts after a foul oil company halted sponsorship. Most of the money came from banks, especially the Royal Bank of Scotland, which owns a local Philly bank. The owners pledge to stay out of the newsroom and not interfere with what is still one of America's best regional newspapers. Since here are no outside investors, Wall Street cannot impose its destructive influence.

The only shadow is the presence of businessman Brian Tierney, an outspoken advocate for causes and friends. He has represented Sunoco and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He once led a group of Catholics in picketing the newspaper and his attempted interference with one reporter led to that reporter being fired and suing the newspapers—and winning. See the New York Times story here. Max King, the editor who had the unenviable task of replacing Roberts after Roberts quit rather than continue his fight with the bean counters at Knight Ridder, worries that there may be a conflict, but Tierney has pledged to stay out of editorial decisions. What would happen if one of the investors broke his non-interference pledge? "I'll beat the crap out of anyone who tries it," he said. Can't ask for more than that.

"I understand the concern, but we don't want to be involved in that," Tierney said. He said his expertise was in advertising and marketing and he would focus his energies on those. "The best way to kill this as a business," he said, would be to tamper with the integrity of the papers, "so I pledge to you that won't be the case."

Zach Stalberg, former editor of the Daily News, however, says Tierney is an honorable man who knows everyone will be watching him. If Zach's cool about it, so am I.

All in all, it seems to be the best possible outcome for a really bad situation. The new owners have rejected the notion of further cutbacks and lay-offs, and they will continue publishing the tabloid Daily News. There must be huge sighs of relief in the city room.

It is my opinion that publicly held corporations cannot run great newspapers. The pressure from investors, interested in immediate gratification rather than the long-term health of their investment, makes that impossible unless there are provisions to keep them at bay. That is the reason why the three best newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) in America are family controlled and why a fourth newspaper (Los Angeles Times), that used to be family-owned, has declined precipitously once the family sold it. With the Inky and the Daily News in private hands, good things can be happening in Philadelphia. Nice to report good news.

...and are alive and well in Chicago—Not all the news in journalism is good. The Chicago Sun-Times went through the now-customary idiocy of offering buy-outs to its senior writers, a way of cutting costs and the newspapers' throat at the same time. One of those taking the deal was Wynne Delacoma, the classical music critic. The newspaper also announced he will not be replaced. That leaves a major newspaper in the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera without a professional critic. It speaks volumes about both the state of newspapers in America and that of classical music. Say that, Barenboim fellow? Isn't he the second baseman for the Cubs?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Three cheers for Wired

There still be heroes--Today, Monday, Wired News struck something of a blow for American democracy by publishing forbidden documents on AT&T’s spying on its customers. The documents are part of a law suit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) alleging that A&T participated in an illegal, warrantless domestic wiretapping program for the National Security Agency. The accusation came from a whistle-blower at the company, Mark Klein and came to the website by way of investigative reporter Ryan Singel.

Documents in the suit have been sealed by a federal court because AT&T has insisted release would suffer harm as the material is proprietary. News media lost a motion to the federal court in San Francisco to have it released. What part of those documents are among those released by Wired is not known but the wired resource appears to be quite extensive. In a sidebar, Wired said that having reviewed the documents it had, AT&T was full of shit (they were more polite) and that the issue is so serious that “the public’s right to know the full facts in this case outweighs AT&T’s claims to secrecy.” You bet!

In the documents, Klein describes a secret room in an AT&T building in San Francisco, where they eavesdropped on its customers at the request of the NSA without the prior approval of a court, which is required by law. Wired’s story provides links to all the documentation. Spread it around.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sex in Elmhurst, pastrami in Rancho Santa Margarita and why you might want to stay away from Milton Keynes

So I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere, I've run out of Nicole Kidman movies and gotta kill some time--Sometimes the World Wide Web will astonish you, even now. You gotta go try Google Trends, and I thank the estimable Mark Morford at SF Gate and the San Francisco Chronicle for the tip.

Google Trends provides you with a view of who searched for what, or at least which community used which search words the most over any period of time. For instance, the good citizens of Portland, Oregon, used the search term “impeach Bush” more than any other American city, followed by Madison, Wisconsin and San Francisco. Austin, Texas came in eighth. Amazing. Elmhurst, Ill., was the community that searched the word “sex” the most, which means there is some serious stuff going on in Elmhurst and I can’t imagine what. As Morford writes:
Turns out Elmhurst is also, at least for 2006, the town most actively looking up "anal sex" (followed closely by Norfolk, Va., and, of course, San Antonio, Texas). And also "porn." And also "gay porn" (just ahead of Las Vegas). And also "vibrator." Do you sense a trend? I sense a trend. And also someplace I might need to get a summer home.

There’s more:
“American Idol?” Honolulu, Hawaii -- by a strangely huge margin. "Gas prices"? Minneapolis. "Dildo"? That would be Oslo, Norway. "Dildo," among U.S. cities? Tampa, Fla. "Tom Cruise"? Cambridge, Mass. "Tom Cruise gay"? Irvine and New York. "Da Vinci Code"? Salt Lake City. "Gun control"? Cincinnati. And "Viagra," for 2006? That's Fort Worth, Texas. Go figure.
You can also graph comparisons and find news stories that are matched to the graphs. This is too much!

So I did my own checking, randomly. If you are a child, you want to stay the hell away from Milton Keynes, England, where they look up “spanking” more than any other place in the world. They also look up “spanking girls” more than any place. Cairo is the world-wide winner for “sex” outside the U.S., followed by three cities in India and then Turkey. Detroit is into “nude celebrities” and Salt Lake City comes in sixth.

More people looked up “evolution” in Salt Lake City than any place else and “intelligent design” is very big in Philadelphia, which makes no sense whatsoever. Jesus is very big in Salt Lake City [they spend a lot of time on computers there, don't they?] and Spokane is high on Moses, even if the Jewish community is negligible. Ms. Kidman is big in Nashville even if she can't even sing very well, while Tom Hanks ranks highest Lake City. Hmmm.

It’s in beta but you could blow a good afternoon wandering around. Meanwhile, I’m off to Rancho Santa Margarita, California, where more people looked up the word “pastrami” than any place else in America.

[Photo: Elmhurst, Ill.]

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The wonderful world of animal sex, or Jerry Fallwell's ancestors screwed chimps

If you’d put down that banana and come here, we could cuddle and pick lice--Sometime in the dark past, human and chimpanzees had a common ancestor. We all know that--well, most of us anyway. And some time, millions of years ago, the two species split and headed in different directions. When, is controversial, and now how, is going to send the fundamentalist up walls. It turns out that for lots of years--how do I say this--our human ancestors were doing it with the chimp ancestors. They were fucking monkeys. [Sorry.] They were interbreeding. [That’s better.] According to a new paper in Nature by scientists at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., the split of the two species occurred 7 million years ago based on skull evidence, and 5.4 years ago based to genetic evidence. That doesn’t compute. The best theory to explain this little discrepancy is that there were two splits: one that allowed interbreeding between the two species, and a second one that resolved into species too divergent to breed, except by perverts. In other words, for more than two million year, our know. The first humanoid fossils were bipedal; the chimp ancestors dragged their knuckles on the ground when they walked. This apparently did not stop romance. Since hybrid populations usually produce sterile offspring (see the mule), the most logical explanation would be for hybrid females to mate with male chimps, which explains professional wrestling. We humans derived from both the hybrid population and the original humanoids.

What’s snow white, has a hump, and now is the time to run like hell?--Speaking of hybrids and sex between species, researchers in Canada have confirmed that an American hunter killed a polar-grizzly hybrid bear last month. People have suspected such a thing was possible--they’ve been paired in zoos-- but this bear is the first found in the wild. That is one serious bear. It was shot last month on the southern end of Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea, Northwest Territories. The Inuit guide, who knows his bears, thought it looked really odd. It’s eyes were ringed with black, the rest of the fur was white, its face was slightly indented, it had a hump and very long and very sharp claws. The hunter, Jim Martell, who paid $45,450 for a license to kill polar bears, was allowed to keep the trophy.

OK! I’ll refinance! I’ll grow a larger penis! I’ll buy your Viagra! Just shut up--And speaking of animals... For several years, a Silicon Valley company, Blue Security, has been at war with spammers who used spam for extortion. There were miscreants, mostly in Central Europe and Russia, who would bombard companies with enough spam, to jam a company’s system. Then, for a fee, they’d stop. When the Mafia acts like that, it’s called extortion. Eran Reshef, the founder of Blue Security, worked out a way to fight back. He would protect your company by spamming the spammers. At one time, he bombarded the spammers with messages from all 522,000 of his customers simultaneously. It shut them down for a while, and some of known spammers quit. But not all. One Russian spammer recently counterattacked, hijacking tens of thousands of computers to flood Blue Security’s network. It brought down the security company’s website and spread to others. The spammer also warned that unless Blue Security surrendered, it would shoot virus-laden messages at Reshef’s clients. This week, Reshef gave up, his company is out of business. His server is offline. The FBI is investigating but we all know how efficient they are.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Country's in the Very Best of Hands

O Lil' Abner, you are such a cynic--

Them city-folks and we-ums,
Are perty much alike.
(Though they ain't used to livin' in the sticks)
We don't like stone or cement,
(But we is in agreement,)
When we gets down to talkin' politics....

The country's in the very best of hands,
The best of haaaaaaaaaaaaaands,
The best of hands.

The Treasury says the national debt is climbin' to the sky.
And government expenditures have never been so high.
It makes a fella get a gleam of pride within his eye,
To see how our economy expands.
The country's in the very best of hands!

The country's in the very best of hands,
The best of haaaaaaaaaaaaaands,
The best of hands.

You oughta hear the Senate when they drawin' up a bill.
"Whereases" and "to whits" are crowded in each codicil.
Such legal terminology would give your heart a thrill,
There's phrases there that no one understands.
The country's in the very best of hands!

The building boom they say is getting bigger every day,
And when I ask a fella, "How can everybody pay?"
He comes up with an answer that makes everything OK:
Supplies are gettin' greater than demands.
The country's in the very best of hands!

Don't you believe them Congressmen and Senators are dumb.
When they run into problems that is tough to overcome,
They just declares a thing they calls a moratorium,
The upper and the lower house disbands.
The country's in the very best of hands!

Us voters is connected to the nominee.
The nominee's connected to the Treasury.
When he ain't connected to the Treasury,
He sits around on his thigh bones.

They sits around in this place they got,
This big Congressional parking lot,
Just sits around on they you-know-whats!
Up there they calls 'em they thigh-bones.

Them bones, them bones, gonna rise again,
Gonna exercise the franchise again
While the budget doubles in size again,
When they gets up off-a their thigh-bones.
The country's in the very best of hands,
The best of haaaaaaaaaaaaaands,
The best of hands.

"The farm bill should be eighty-nine percent of parity."
Another fella recomends it should be ninety-three.
But eighty, ninety-five percent, who care's about degree,
It's parity that no-one understands.
The country's in the very best of hands!

Them GOPs and Democrats, each hates the other one.
They's always criticizing how the country should be run.
But neither tells the public what the other's one and done.
As long as no-one knows where no-one stands,
The country's in the very best of hands!

They sits around in this place they're at,
Where folks in Congress has always sat.
Just sits around on their excess fat!
Up there they calls 'em they thigh-bones.

They sits around 'til they starts to snore,
Jumps up and hollers "I has the floor!"
Then sits right down where they sat before.
Up there they calls 'em they thigh-bones.

Them bones, them bones, gonna rise again
So dignified and so wise again.
While the budget doubles in size again.
When they gets up off of their thigh-bones.
The country's in the very best of hands,
The best of haaaaaaaaaaaaaands,
The best of hands.

The money that they taxes us is known as revenues,
They compounds the collateral, subtracts the residues
Don't worry 'bout the principal, or interest that accrues,
They're shippin' all that stuff to foreign lands.

The country's in the very best of haaa-aaaaaaa-aaands!

[(c) Johnny Mercer, 1956

Friday, May 12, 2006

Not only will I respect you in the morning, when you are done sucking we can go for dinner--UPDATED

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue--
Voltaire meet the Bush Administration. In its non-ending war on science, the Bushies attacked a meeting of the Centers for Disease Control on sexually transmitted disease just concluded. The conference was to discuss how the promotion of abstinence-only sex education could undermine the fight against STDs by reducing or eliminating the time spent discussing other forms of protection, particularly condoms. The list of speakers went through the usual peer review, and included at least one outspoken opponent of abstinence-only education. When the political appointees at CDC were done, that speaker was eliminated and two proponents were added. The moderator also was changed and the symposium, a respected international meeting, had a title change. It went from "Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?" to"Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth." The Christianists in the Bush Administration are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs. ("Christianists" is a wonderful new word to describe those who push Christianity into government.)
Abstinence, of course, is complicated. If young people all kept their virginity until marriage it is absolutely true that STDs would disappear. Unfortunately, the world and youthful hormones don't work that way. Study after study has shown that most kids who make those pledges don't keep the promise or at best delay the first sexual encounter a year or so and then just do it.

UPDATE--According to a study just published, [not yet posted] in the American Journal of Public Health, Janet Rosenbaum, a doctoral student at Harvard, found that more than half the kids who take the vows deny they did so a year later, usually after they have become sexually active. And of course, there is the 10% who lie. They had, in fact, been screwing around, claimed they were still virgins and would not do whatever it was they said they never did. It reminds one of Oscar Levant's line that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin. According to the Washington Post:
Rosenbaum said her study shows that efforts to evaluate such programs' effectiveness is complicated by teenagers' reports of behavior that may be influenced by religious or social factors. "Whatever environment you're in, you're more likely to conform," Rosenbaum said.
Additionally, teens have redefined virginity to include the usual act of a penis in a vagina and but exclude oral and anal sex, which has their own dangers. (The comedian Sarah Silverman once said: "I didn't lose my virginity until I was twenty-six. Nineteen vaginally, but twenty-six what my boyfriend calls 'the real way.'" Whatever.) One might also suggest that the wedding night is about the last night you want to learn what the hell to do with that other body in bed, but that's another argument.

In some Christian circles, the hymenally challenged have become something of a fetish. The hilarious San Francisco columnist Mark Morford describes Purity Balls, where dad dresses up in a rented tuxedo and his little girl (sometimes as young as 7) dresses in the latest creation from J.C. Penny and they head off to the nearest Marriott or Holiday Inn ballroom. They dance and then:
It begins. At some point the daughter stands up, her pale arms wrapped around her daddy, and reads aloud a formal pledge that she will remain forever pure and virginal and sex-free until she is handed over, by her dad (who is actually called the "high priest" of the home), like some sort of sad hymenic gift, to her husband, who will receive her like the sanitized and overprotected and libidinously inept servant she so very much is. Praise!
The High Priest then responds by pledging that he will protect his daughter's virginity at all costs, so help him God.

While I'm on the subject, a comment from the Jewish desk. Yes, premarital sex is forbidden by all streams except the left wing of Reform. Birth control is fine except for the right wing of Orthodoxy. In Orthodox Judaism there even is a rule against using a condom or any birth control if you are married and still childless, it being a mitzvah to have children (fruitfulling and multiplying and all that). One consequence is that young Jews are getting married later so that they will, they feel, be ready when the babies come. They are up against the rule on birth control. In a meeting in Jerusalem this week, Modern Orthodox rabbis (those are the guys not wearing black hats) suggested that perhaps the rule ought to be bended rather than have people delay marriage. But one guy came up with a killer of an idea. According to the Talmud, says Rabbi Tzvi Zohar, horny young people can be accomodated. Concubines. A single man and a single woman can be assigned to each other to do each other. As long as the women goes into a mikvah, a ritual bath, before she services the guy, she is not commiting a sin.

Is this a great religion or what!

[Illustration: "The Loss of Virginity" by Paul Gaugin]

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Decline of Western Civilization--Part VIII. Cody's closes

Buddy, can you spare a trilogy?--Every writer I know loves bookstores (of course) and particularly loves independent, family-owned bookstores. I'm not sure why, except most writers love underdogs and independent book owners are underdogs. These stores fight the dumbing down of culture, where people stop reading books to watch television, and they fight huge chains that undercut their prices. It's a losing battle and most just fold.

Another legendary bookstore has been added to the list. Cody's, the institution in Berkeley, will close its main store. It has been losing a fortune and you can't feed your family on sentiment.

It's been there for 43 years, on Telegraph Avenue, in the heart of Berkeley near the University of California campus, one of the great intellectual and political centers in America."We have lost over $1 million attempting to keep the store open,'' said owner Andy Ross. "As a family business, we cannot continue to afford these ruinous losses.'' In fact, it's been losing money for 15 years, faced with competition from the chains and Amazon and BN on the web. Let's face it, it's easier to sit at your computer and buy a book than shlepp to the store, as pleasant as that may be. I'm about to do it, in fact, this afternoon, research for my next project.

Part of the problem, it must be said, is Telegraph Avenue, which long ago became a singularly unpleasant place to visit, what with panhandlers and scores of people who have not been taking their medicines like good people, and many of the older readers didn't like going there. Nonetheless, Cody's was a retreat; the minute you walked in the door you were in another world, a world full of books and people who read books. It is my definition of heaven, to be surrounded by more books than I can possibly read and people who want to read them as much as I do.

It has a unique history. In 1989, after a minor firebombing, the store announced that it would continue to sell Salman Rushdie's controversial Satanic Verses -- a decision that Ross called "our finest hour.''

"Rushdie came to the store once, a surprise visit when he was still in hiding,'' Ross said. The author gave the bookstore five minutes' notice to announce that he was in the store and would sign books. "There's a hole above the information desk from the bombing. Someone scribbled 'Salman Rushdie memorial hole.' When Rushdie was here, he looked up and said, 'Some people get statues, others get holes.' "

Being old, loved and good at what you do, is not even remotely protection from the changes in culture, economics and society. Kepler's, Cody's equivalent in the Bay Area, folded last year but its customers would not let it die and resurrected the store. It's still there, hanging on. Barely, I presume. Many classic stores in New York City folded. Cody's is not completely dead; it has two satellite stores that will continue to operate, in nicer neighborhoods. And my favorite bookstore is still there, having beaten off one chain and apparently learned to live with another. A bow to Neal and the folks at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Long life and prosper.

And, if anyone is going to be in Baltimore on June 17th, I am doing a booksigning at the Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road. And a salute to them as well.

Here's the story in the Chron.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Really, really old men and really, really young babies and the decline of Western Civilization Part VII

[And now for some of the stuff I didn’t get around to doing while I was earning a living]

Methuselah lived 900 years and posed a serious threat to the Social Security program. Okay, serious question: If Noah could live 950 years, Adam 930 and Methuselah almost 1,000, how come we can get to maybe 80 and croak? What did they know we don’t, or, more important, what was different then? Yes, I know, I’m taking those numbers literally and I don’t believe them any more than you do but, if you take the Bible literally, you do have a problem. They lived a lot longer than we do. And I won’t even mention Sarah having a baby (Isaac) when she was in her 90s. Even she laughed at that. A mathematician--and True Believer--has actually come up with a statistical explanation that to him, at least, makes sense. He is Arnold C. Mendez Jr, on, and I’m assuming he is a mathematician because he understands what a coefficient of determination is and I don’t. He is intrigued by the fact the great flood was something of a turning point and longevity was at its longest just before and after.
After the flood the earth was completely different than the earth before. There were widespread global differences. These would include changes in the climate, composition of the atmosphere, hydrologic cycle, geologic features, cosmic radiation reaching the earth, ozone concentration, ultra violet light, background radiation, genetics, diet, and a host of other subtle and/or profound chemical and physiological changes. These changes caused a rapid decline of the longevity of post flood humanity.

He came up with the formula: y=487.78exp(-0.0907x) where x represents the generation number. [I have absolutely what I have just pasted here and if it turns out to be obscene, forgive me]. After 20 generations, longevity matched reality and the decline perfectly--more or less--matched an exponential curve. He submits that’s a lot more mathematics than the alleged authors of the Bible could have known. Of course he also admits an 11% margin of error, but we’re talking metaphysics and statistics here. [And thanks to Laurie Snell and the good folks at Chance News at Dartmouth. May you live 546 years.]

We still have the best medicine in the world and--oh my--is that a baby crying? Can't be Latvia--Just below I did my screed on health care and people who argue against “socialized” medicine. I pointed out that the claim that we already have the best medical care in the world is nonsense and not a valid argument against universal insurance. New data supports my claim. It turns out we rank on the bottom of the list for the survival rate of newborns. We are down there with Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Malta. If it make you feel better, Latvia has it worse. We have a death rate of 5 per 1,000 babies born. Almost 30 other countries do better. Vietnam and Colombia had the best record. They all have universal health care. You know all those people falling through the cracks in our harebrained system? Well, most of them are babies.

[Cartoon from, chart from the AP]

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Can doctors treat the illogical? Will insurance pay for it?

Don’t you try that socialized medicine stuff here in America, pal. I like my health care dysfunctional--One of the reasons often given for not having universal health care is we in the U.S. enjoy the best medical care in the world. By God, we don’t wait in line for months for hip replacement surgery like those fools up in Canada. We can go see any doctor we want, whenever we want, for whatever we want, not like those foolish Brits. It’s an interesting argument, partially fueled by the propensity for Americans to assume that everything we do or touch or create is superior to everything anyone else has. It happens, of course, not to be true, and it is particularly untrue of health care. A new study out shows the problem with that line of argument. It turns out that the middle-aged British, even with their troubled national health care system (generally conceded to be something of a mess), are healthier than we are.

If you, like me, are fully insured, and live in a city with first-rate (even world-class) hospitals and medical schools (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore as examples), you really do have access to some of the best medical care in the world. That doesn’t mean you will get it, just that it is a possibility. I have a dear friend who died at Stanford University Hospital because her doctor at the vaunted Palo Alto Clinic misread her mammogram, and screw-ups here at Johns Hopkins are by now legendary. Recent studies have shown that if you are hospitalized, your chances of getting the appropriate care are about 50-50, even at teaching hospitals. If you live far from major medical centers or, like almost half of Americans, are uninsured, you do not get the best medicare in the world. Period.

What we most certainly do have is the most expensive health care system in the world. We spend twice the money on health care ($5,200 per capita) than the Brits do yet we have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, lung disease and cancer. Even the Fat American doesn’t provide an explanation. Accounting for that variable still produced the same result. Smoking rates are the same and the British drink more. This holds despite income or educational level. A well-educated, prosperous middle-aged Englishman is healthier than his counterpart in the U.S. The study, published in JAMA surprised health care experts but I’m not sure why. It is well known that the U.S. trails in life expectancy and in infant mortality and the reason is clear. In the year 2000, the World Health Organization reported: "Basically, you die earlier and spend more time disabled if you’re an American rather than a member of most other advanced countries."

In fact, we spend more money in our health care system than the rest of the world combined, and we rank 27th or 28th in most indicators for longevity. And, every one of those countries ahead of us has single-payer, government-run health care in one form or another. Every one.

Our health care system is totally and completely dysfunctional, immoral, inefficient and scandalous. There are some things in life for which the answer to all problems is not capitalism (or “free market”) and health care is one of them. Every other developed country in the world (and most undeveloped ones) have universal, government-run health care systems and despite the problems, they work better than our system does.

The other argument is that, well, I sure don't want government bureaucrats telling me what treatments I can or cannot have. You'd rather have an insurace clerk do it?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Lay still. This is going to hurt you more than it's going to hurt me

I think I'll write this with my legs crossed. Wait. It's too late--The AIDS epidemic in Africa is not laughing matter, actually. Indeed, it is one of the worst medical calamities in history. One does feel a slightly warm feeling however that one way of helping control it may be a very very old religious practice--circumcision.

Several studies have shown that removing the foreskin cuts down on transmission as well as making you Jewish. OK, half right. One study in Brazil last year showed this was true and while the evidence is still underwhelming, physicians in Africa are so desperate they are not waiting for peer reviewed articles to show them the way. For $3, doctors in Zambia will do the surgery. Without the beard and the wine and the food. About 400 men a month are requesting the procedure, far more than the physicians--who are not nearly as fast as your average mohel--can handle. (A mohel--pronounced moy-el--is a rabbi specializing in circumcisions and generally takes less than 2 minutes to do the job. The actual surgery takes seconds and is done before the baby--8 day old boys--know what happened to him.) Swaziland also is beginning to look into the practice. The research seems to show that the procedure dramatically cuts transmission of the HIV virus both to and from the man. The theory is that the cells in the underneath part of the foreskin is very susceptible to the virus as are the inevitable cuts and abrasions.

One published journal article actually shows the opposite, that it makes men more likely to contract the virus, but that study seems to stand alone. Many physicians in Africa are waiting for the World Health Organization to make a decision, which it has yet to do, awaiting more definitive studies. Two such studies are underway in Kenya and Uganda and results are due next month. And things out there are fairly desperate.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Guest Columnist--Alors! To the barricades! And then please send someone to clean the house

[Your esteemed servant is on deadline for a paying project and has again turned over the podium to a guest columnist, in this case, his son, who has appeared here before. He is, I can assure you, handsome, bright, articulate, funny--and incidentally, single. He also is absolutely right].

By Jon Shurkin

I think I have finally figured out the crux of the immigration debate. Apparently, the problem is that there are a thousands of people who come to this country who don't look like us and don't speak English. Living in the state of California, the city of San Francisco, and in a Spanish neighborhood named after a Mission established by Spanish priests, I was not aware that this is a problem.

I am wrong.

What this all means, though, is that what really is driving this debate isn't necessarily the immigration per se, but the fact that one day, all those people living in their white-bread suburbs and exurbs woke up and realized that some of the people who work in the restaurants, on their lawns, and in their factories have names like Jose and/or Luis and don't speak English. Because it's all different and new, it means that this is a problem and SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

Actually, what I find fascinating about the whole debate is how much the protests have become an issue. Especially the one on May 1st, in which a lot of immigrants were planning to--gasp--not go into work. You know, it's okay to protest, just don't do it when you might inconvenience the rest of us. Our food won't get served by itself, you know.

Well, that's not entirely true as the whole idea of protesting has becoming an issue. We like our minorities docile, not uppity, it turns out. But you know, mock the French all you want for all their protests and what their protesting, but at least if something happens that pisses them off, they'll go out in the streets and try and do something about it. Unlike us who, when we get pissed off, tell a bunch of pollsters that we're really pissed off and then vote in the same clowns we voted for in the first place. Unless, like in '92 or '94 we decide to vote in a whole new bunch of clowns, totally ignoring the big floppy shoes and the paint on their faces.

Not to sound like one of those crazy commies or anarchist types, but this whole thing shows just how much the Man has us down. We've made it so that people who protest for their rights and try to fight from getting screwed over, come off as the bad guys. Among other things, it's easy for us white folks to get all angry that Latinos are protesting, but we're not the ones being threatened with deportation. And it just shows up how much crap we're able to put up but aren't prepared do a damn thing about it. Just look over the past 20 years or so-- we've had downsizing and outsourcing and have a health care system that's falling apart and pensions being robbed. And that's just the economic stuff; we're not even getting into elections being stolen or fucked-up wars. Yet we, as a people, pretty much do nothing about it. Or when we do get pissy, it's over stuff like abortion or gay rights or stuff that matters, yet not really.

I guess what I'm saying is that if all the protestors really wanted to be American, they should do what we do when get pissed off at something- watch Bill O'Reilly.

[My son, the writer, lives in San Francisco, works for a huge software company that will not be named but it's leader has a very big yacht. He also is a columnist for and, believe it or not, currently appears on an advertising billboard on Times Square.]

Friday, April 28, 2006

Guest columnist--Love the cheeks. Are you storing peanuts for the rest of the flight?

By Spyros Andreopoulos

A mumps outbreak of more than 1,000 cases in Iowa and six neighboring midwestern states, and their possible link to two infected airline passengers, exemplifies the ever-present threat of contagious diseases and raises new concerns about recycled cabin air as a source of spreading disease during flights.

Past reported outbreaks aboard commercial aircraft have included Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), tuberculosis, measles, influenza and smallpox. SARS aboard Air China Flight 112 in 2003 showed that we still have much to learn about how viruses are transmitted in airline cabins because the disease was spread to as many as 25 passengers. During the SARS epidemic, in which some 8,000 people in more than two dozen countries got sick and 812 died, the United States reported 192 suspected SARS cases among internationalair travelers, according to the World Health Organization. Eight cases showed positive laboratory evidence of infection, and there were five deaths. Canada reported 251 probable cases, and 38 deaths.

Despite evidence that proper ventilation within confined spaces is
critical in reducing the spread of contagious diseases, there has been little study of medical issues related to behavior of micro-organisms in cabin environments. As air travel increases and the population ages, the number of medical events aboard commercial aircraft will get worse. Computer models indicate that doubling the ventilation rate can cut the risk of infections in half.

There was a time when airline passengers breathed fresh air that
circulated through the cabin every three minutes. In the mid-’80s the airlines, in an attempt to boost fuel economy, redesigned the ventilation systems for planes so that instead of 100 percent fresh air they use 50 percent fresh air and 50 percent recirculated air. Critics claimed that recycled air made people uncomfortable and often very sick. Congress has debated the issue with no resolution because of doubts that fresh air in an airline cabin would have any effect. Conventional wisdom is that any risk of contracting a viral infection is related to the proximity of the infected source, which might be little comfort if you are seated next to someone with a hacking cough or explosive sneeze. At least in this regard, airplanes are not much different from other forms of mass transit. But in an airplane, passengers don’t have the option of leaving the flight in midair.

Some airlines have moved on their own to improve cabin air-quality standards, including installation of high-efficiency particulate filters (HEPA). Filtering of cabin air to reduce exposure of infectious particles is established in the scientific literature and supported by the medical community. But carriers are not required to use HEPA filters, and there are serious gaps, thus many air passengers are breathing unfiltered air. A 2005 U.S. General Accounting Office survey of major U.S. air carriers found that 15 percent of large commercial aircraft that recirculate cabin
air and carry more than 100 passengers did not use HEPA filters. The number in smaller regional commercial fleets approached 50 percent. At congressional hearings a year ago, witnesses testified that regulations requiring HEPA filters for all aircraft that utilize recirculated air should be considered.

The Flight Attendants Association, representing 40,000 members, and
otherorganizations has asked Congress to require the Federal Aeronautics
Administration (FAA) to set a high standard for in-flight air quality. Germs are not the only concern of flight attendants. Studies have reported instances of increased carbon-monoxide levels in aircraft cabins causing headaches and even brief loss of consciousness in passengers during long flights.But with airlines facing severe economic pressures, these issues do not seem to be a high priority on FAA’s agenda , as the necessary study has dragged on for years.

Advice on what travelers can do to protect themselves from infection
during flights remains good personal hygiene. Dr. Lucy Tompkins, professor and chief of infectious diseases and geographic medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, for example, advises passengers to wash their hands frequently, particularly before eating, to cover their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and to wash their hands afterward to protect others.

Colds (rhinoviruses) are usually transmitted from droplets spread via sneezing or picked up from contaminated surfaces, such as an armrest or a washroom basin.

Short of wearing a mask on the plane, Tompkins says, hand hygiene is the only avenue for a passenger to protect against infections that can be transmitted from surface contamination. She recommends the use of alcohol gels for hand hygiene.

Air travel is allowing diseases that once took years to spread from
continent to continent to move as quickly as a transatlantic flight.
Solutions will depend on renewed commitment to research that brings
together talents from aircraft engineering, computer science, mathematics, epidemiology, infectious diseases, immunology, ventilation technology and other fields. They require international collaboration in surveillance of emerging infectious diseases, which currently is discouraged by fears of bioterrorism and government policies that restrict involvement of foreign citizens and communication of scientific information. They require educating the public on the importance of immunization, good hygiene and
even cough etiquette.

Unless we develop a shared culture of awareness and responsibility about what needs to be done, and Congress adopts unambiguous policies to help the public-health professionals who are trying to minimize this threat, we will be facing continuing problems with each developing crisis.

Spyros Andreopoulos is a science writer and director emeritus of the
Office of Communication and Public Affairs at the Stanford University
School of Medicine. The article represents his opinion alone.


Copyright 2006 SF Chronicle