Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Life, death, life, death, whatever

Clang, Clang, Clang, Beep, Beep. It must be that stealth soldier again. Fire at the beeps--The Pentagon has long coveted the notion of the high-tech soldier. Donald Rumsfeld was a leading proponent. The military has spent half a billion dollars for a new high-tech gear for the modern soldier, part of Rumsfeld's now-discredited notion that the wars of the future can be won by a small, highly technical, mobile army. The gear includes displays of maps on helmet headpieces showing the position of the unit, radios using encrypted electronic messages to replace hand signals, gun-mounted video cameras to peek around corners and over walls, and a small, light computer to rule them all.

The intent is the creation of a combat intranet. It’s all on its way to Iraq.

There’s only one flaw in the latest version of this equipment, dubbed the Land Warrior System: soldiers hate it and even in training exercises refuse to use it. “It’s just a bunch of stuff we don’t use, taking the place of useful stuff like guns,” one soldier told Noah Shachtman of Popular Mechanics. Among other things, it adds weight (16 pounds) and slows you down, he explained. In the desert heat of Iraq, it will not be greeted, well, warmly. It would bring the total weight of the armor and equipment they shlepp around to 80 pounds.

It sounds wonderful. The flip-down eye-piece would show every other soldier in the unit as a blue triangle, the first time a soldier could track his mates without having to actually see them. That might even cut down on friendly fire incidents. The eye-piece also will show nearby vehicles and maps of the immediate area. The unit includes a battery pack, a paper-back sized computer, a GPS transponder and a controller on the chest armor.

Some of the equipment is off-the-shelf from Fryes Electronics (after the initial defense contractor blew the development and several million dollars). Some of it is already wildly outdated, including the processor running the system which is circa 1999.

Response is slow, taking seconds to create an image on the video monitor, which could get somebody killed.

Fortunately, the Pentagon is rethinking the funding. A billion here, a billion there.…

We’re very squeamish about executing people so just lie there quietly while I try to find a vein to put the poisons in--For several years, lawyers for condemned prisoners have petitioned courts to cancel executions on grounds the method of choice these days, IV-inserted lethal drugs, was cruel and unusual punishment. For years, these claims were rejected as just another excuse to delaying a death penalty. But recently, courts and state legislatures are coming around to the notion that the drugs, which would be illegal for vets to use putting your dog to sleep, really are not a humane way to kill someone, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron. Now there is scientific evidence to support the claim.

Two of the three drugs, including the anesthesia used in the standard protocol, are not administered in a way that would provide a painless death. Indeed the sometimes leave the prisoner fully conscious, in excruciating pain and unable to move or scream.

The multi-institutional study, published in the Public Library of Science’s PLoS Medicine, of executions in California and North Carolina also found that the drug designed to stop the prisoner’s heart often didn’t.

First used in 1982 (in Texas, of course) as a humane way to executions, lethal injection now is used in all but one of the more than 30 states with a death penalty. The protocol employs one drug to render the prisoner unconscious, another to paralyze him or her, and third to stop the heart. What apparently happens is “chemical asphyxiation.”

Questions about the procedure have led 12 states (not including Texas, of course) to put executions on hold while all this works out. Two states, New Jersey and Maryland appear close to ending capital punishment altogether.

I believe the only way to finally end capital punishment in the U.S. is to use the guillotine and televise the executions, probably on Fox. The blood and gore would put the act in its proper context and hopefully, when the public is done vomiting, they'd decide to change the law. One would hope.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Freedom of the press belongs to him who owns one and he may be an idiot--UPDATED

When I grow up, I'm going to be a newspaper CEO. I don't have the brains to do anything useful--From time to time we’ve reported on the declining state of American journalism here, and this is a really good time to do it again. I have a new set of heroes and a surprising non-hero. [And don't miss the update below]

A dozen Wall Street Journal reporters based in the Middle East, have sent a letter of protest to the newspaper over contract negotiations in which the Journal seems intent on cutting benefits and diminishing the scope of news coverage. This is, I remind you, one of the three best newspapers on America. The letter, printed in Jim Romenesko’s great journalism blog here, came from both union and non-union reporters and had a really nasty and totally justifiable tone to it. These are the reporters who live in the most dangerous places on earth, risking their lives on a daily basis, while executives of the newspaper cash checks. Keep in mind one of their colleagues, Danny Pearl [below, left], was beheaded by terrorists while on assignment for that newspaper.

The pay package of the CEO, Rich Zannino was particularly galling. [The pay packages of all CEOs is galling--actually, they are immoral]. While the reporters are risking their lives and providing the product, Zannino is making obscene amounts of money. Here are excerpts:
* In 2006, Mr. Zannino received $173,441 to cover commuting costs from his Connecticut home to Manhattan. That means that each and every working day the company pays $667 just to get him to show up at the office. He gets far more just to sit in the back of a limo on his way to work than we get to go into combat.
* Mr. Zannino’s compensation package more than doubled when he became CEO in 2006, to $4.16 million from $2 million. Peter Kann was both CEO and chairman the previous years, yet his compensation was just under $3 million. So Mr. Zannino earned 42% more for half the job.
* If Mr. Zannino does that job badly and gets fired, the company has agreed to give him $10 million to clean out his desk.
It's very clear: We take the risks; top managers reap the rewards
They go on to point out that what sells the paper isn’t the skill of the CEO but the reporters and editors who report and write the news, even from such God-forsaken places as Pakistan (where Pearl was killed) and Iraq (where almost 200 journalists have died). They point out that after the last contract negotiations, a group of some of the best reporters quit the newspaper, which certainly doesn’t improve the product any.

The Journal, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, is family controlled, one of the reasons it remains a great newspaper. There really is no excuse for this.

It gets worse, at my old newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. So hard up are they for reporters to gather the news after massive layoffs and the sinking of Knight-Ridder, Gail Shister, the long-time television critic, has been taken off the job and put on feature writing. The Inquirer says it can no longer afford a television columnist and needs her body covering news. She has had the job for a quarter of a century and is one of the most esteemed television critics in the country. If the Inquirer doesn’t have enough reporters to cover the news maybe they shouldn’t have laid off so many.

Somewhere, in a conference room of overpaid executives, faced with declining circulation and advertising, a decision was made to give the customers less of a product. These same executives are now puzzled and lamenting the continued decline. Shister, incidentally, is considering suing, but I’m not sure on what grounds. Stupidity is not actionable. Her wisdom, knowledge, connections, and her readers are not important enough to the management.[The line about the product comes from Gene Roberts, the legendary editor of the Inky in its glory days. He won his own Pulitzer this week and a hearty mazel tov to him. Live long and prosper]

Bill Marimow, my old colleague who is now running the Inky said that moving her to features is part of the Inquirer’s move to focus on local coverage and she was covering national stuff. The Inky also brought back its last foreign correspondent for the same reason. Shame on him.
[The Baltimore Sun let its political cartoonist go giving the same rationale. The Sun continues to sink in the east as every day there is less and less reason to buy the paper. They teach this shit in business schools?] The owners of the Inquirer will learn that self-mutilation is not a business plan.

I have a friend, Laurie Garrett, who won a Pulitzer for her incredible coverage of AIDS around the world, a project very few newspapers would try now: It costs money and is not productive to the bottom line. She was asked to give a speech to stockholders of her newspaper (Newsday, then, I think, owned by Times-Mirror before the horrors of the Tribune Co.). She pointed out that newspapers play a unique role in a democracy, one of the reasons the press is singled out in the U.S. Constitution. While it is certain that newspapers are not charities and should earn a profit, the profit is not superior to the other responsibilities of the press. She suggested that if they, the stockholders, were not prepared to earn a bit less so that the newspapers can do their job in a democracy well, they ought to take their money and invest it someplace else--and leave us the hell alone!


I hope Marimow recovers from his bout with prostate cancer and lives a long, happy life. Maybe it's the chemotherapy that made him silly.


Oh, it gets worse.

I was in Philadelphia over the weekend and got a chance to read the Inquirer. Most of the front section now consists of AP stories in a newspaper that once covered most of everything itself. No reflection on wire service reporters (I was one for 7 years), but the Inky had superb reporters around the country and the world and they had an unexcelled level of coverage. Except for the local stories, all done well, incidentally, the coverage of the rest of the world was no different than what you would get in the Fairbanks News-Miner. A really great city (I love Philly) deserves better.

And, according to the New York Times, the Inky is now instituting a column paid for by a bank. What the Times doesn't seem to get into in much detail is the foul ethics of such a thing. I think the word is whoring.

Meanwhile, the Tribune Co., which is systemmatically destroying itself has announced layoffs at the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. They seem intent on eliminating reasons to buy their product. Of course the Tribune Co. is going private, a move that will enrich the executives while reporters, editors and photographers are being forced out the door. Feh!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

He is going where?

If the temperature falls below -35, Sunday school is canceled--A personal note, if you don't mind. Wondering what the hell I was doing in Alaska? Getting a job.

I thought you all would like to know that starting in mid-August, I become adjunct professor of journalism (Snedden Chair) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. It's a one-year appointment and I'm the first person to hold the position. I just came back this week from five days in Fairbanks. I'm also happy to report that Hannah is coming with me next year, and will start 9th grade at West Valley High School in Fairbanks. She is already wearing a Wolf Pack sweatshirt. Carol will join us periodically when her job permits--she hates cold weather. We hope to live on campus and will return to civilization once or twice during the academic year. We also intend to maintain a place in Alaska through next summer for exploration. It is very beautiful.

I will teach two courses, Prospectives in Journalism, which I can design myself (think corporate ownership, the new media, political pressure etc.) and science writing. Additionally, my students and I will be working on a year-long project, probably on climate change, which is occurring in Alaska faster than anyplace else in the world--or at least is being better measured than anyplace else. I hope to turn it into a book. All that will require some time in the field, an adventure. Muck-lucks and whale blubber, yum. The International Arctic Research Center is based at the university, so a major resource is up the street.

We will return to Baltimore late spring next year. We're home until August 13th or so. Alaska is allegedly the best-wired state in the country so I will not be out of ready touch. I will keep this going until then and then I'll either post on my Alaskan adventures here or start a blog for that purpose. I've had requests.

And the line about the Sunday school--it's an actual message on the website of the only synagogue in Fairbanks, which claims to be the northernmost synagogue in the world. Now imagine kids trudging off to Sunday school in -35 degrees and darkness. The frozen chosen. Oh, and the bear photo? That is a nine-foot Kodiak bear on display at the Anchorage airport. One's only possible reaction to seeing a nine-foot bear--even stuffed--is 'oh shit.'

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Now where the hell did he go?

Time to rent the John Wayne movie--If you are wondering why this site seems neglected, your obedient servant is on the road--in Alaska--and won't be filing until next week. There is a logical (well, maybe not) explanation for all of this, probably the result of too many episodes of "Northern Exposure" and I will explain. At the moment it is 6 a.m. in a pitch-dark Fairbanks and I will soon explain the bear at the airport. By the way, if Douglas Adams ever found out that the restaurant at the end of the universe is a Pizza Hut, he'd have been pissed.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Rectal exams and the son-of-a-bitch gene

Do you ever wonder how medical students practice prostate exams?--Prostate cancer doesn’t get nearly as much attention as, say breast cancer, for reasons sociological, not medical. It is the second greatest killer of men after lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 232,000 men will be diagnosed with the disease this year and 27,000 will die of it. Thanks in some part to PSA testing, the death rate is declining rapidly, a drop of 32.5 percent in 10 years. If it is caught early, 100 percent of men are alive five years later; if it has metastasized, only 34 percent are still alive.

In a really important study, scientists have found a genetic basis for the disease that has all kinds of ramifications. They also found more evidence that the politically correct attack on the notion of race as a biological attribute is hogwash.

The researchers found seven genetic risk factors, all bunched close together on chromosome 8 that predict a man’s probability of developing prostate cancer. Five are newly discovered; two were known before and the experiment, done at USC, the National Cancer Institute and a company in Iceland, confirmed them. That of course does not mean it’s all genetic; other risk factors like environment also play a role, but if you have the genes you know to be extra cautious and get tested regularly. The role the genes play in this still is unknown. The study is reported in Nature Genetics.

An interesting aspect, however, is it may explain the disparity between blacks and whites in prostate statistics. A black man is twice as likely to die of prostate cancer than a white man and the reason now appears to be genetic. For several decades some scientists have been attacking the whole biological definition of race, claiming it has no scientific meaning. This, of course, is politics, not science, and is nonsense. The list of ailments that have a racial component is long and impossible to ignore and with prostate cancer, there is now a demonstrable genetic explanation: blacks tend to have more of those genes.

And the answer to the question above is: on themselves. And good practice it is. Haven’t you always wanted to stick something up a classmate’s ass?

Oh, on second thought, maybe we should look for the cute and cuddly gene--James Watson, Nobel laureate and codiscoverer of the helix structure of DNA, thought it might be fun to have his DNA scanned using a new technology that would make it possible for all of us peons to knows what lurks in our genes. The technology comes from 454 Life Sciences, a company that hopes to bring the cost of genome scanning down to manageable levels from the several hundred thousand dollars it costs now. They asked Watson to be the first to be scanned and he agreed. Now it seems he is chickening out. According to David Ewing Duncan at Technology Review, Watson first asked the company to delete any results for genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Now he is worried that publication of the rest of his genome will violate his privacy and that of his sons. And since there is now a firm genetic basis for certain behavioral traits, they might be able to show genes in his scans for arrogance and temper. Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome, who may also have the arrogance and temper genes, appears less concerned and is still planning on release his.