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.