Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I was not able to go to the a2irv meeting (featuring Larry Kestenbaum), because of an emergency at the hospital. Then when I went to the State Of the Union Party in the Cavern, I could not stay. It is too far underground to get a reliable cell phone connection, and I had to be sure I could be called.

So, I went home and watched the speech from there. As I had anticipated, he had very little to say about the actual state of the union. In fact, most of the speech was about foreign policy.

Those of you who could not stand to watch the speech, did not miss much. Mr. Bush uttered only one important word during the entire speech: Iran.

The most important point he made is that we wants us to be willing to go to war in Iran.

It's about Iran. The rest of the speech was fluff.

DFA Presents 1st 2006 Candidate Forum

DFA Presents 1st 2006 Candidate Forum 7:00 PM, Wednesday, February 1, 2006 Pittsfield Township Hall 6201 West Michigan Avenue, Ann Arbor 48108 Lynn Rivers will moderate. Networking, socializing, refreshments, raffle and more! Democratic candidates have been invited to sit on the panel to answer questions written in advance by DFA and additional questions gathered from the audience. Confirmed panelists include: State Senator Liz Brater; challengers for the 7th US Congressional District: Daryl Campbell, Chuck Ream and Fred Strack; candidate for the 17th State Senate seat, Bob Schockman; candidates for the 53rd House seat: Leigh Greden and Rebekah Warren; and Terry Spryszak, Congressman Dingell's District Director (17th US Congressional District).
Written up by Anne. I encourage everyone in this voting district to attend. The candidates need to see that their constituents are interested and want to be involved. There is a psychological aspect to politics, and showing up at these kinds of events can make a difference. If nothing else, it shows the politicians that the people are paying attention; perhaps they will be more likely to behave themselves properly if they know we are watching, know we will challenge them if they do wrong, congratulate them if they do well. As I always say, "vote with your face."

Mixed Metaphors #65624

Finally, some mouthwatering eye candy of the much awaited KDE 4. The maintainer of the Planet Diaz web site has been collecting screenshots and mock-ups of the current development of KDE 4 and posting them in the site's forums to give us an early idea about the major new update of the popular open source desktop. From what we can see here and here, KDE 4 is going to be a radically different beast, with many interesting ideas being implemented as we speak. Although no firm release date is given, KDE 4.0 is expected to be out before the end of 2006.
Mouthwatering eye candy?

Original content is here.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Primary Care About To Collapse?

The headline may be a bit overdramatized, but it raises a valid and pressing issue: primary care physicians/practitioners (PCPs) are undercompensated, and the problem is getting worse.  
Primary care about to collapse, physicians warn
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
Mon Jan 30, 1:44 PM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Primary care -- the basic medical care that people get when they visit their doctors for routine physicals and minor problems -- could fall apart in the United States without immediate reforms, the American College of Physicians said on Monday.
"Primary care is on the verge of collapse," said the organization, a professional group which certifies internists, in a statement. "Very few young physicians are going into primary care and those already in practice are under such stress that they are looking for an exit strategy."

Dropping incomes coupled with difficulties in juggling patients, soaring bills and policies from insurers that encourage rushed office visits all mean that more primary care doctors are retiring than are graduating from medical school, the ACP said in its report. [...]
The article goes on to mention that fewer medical school graduates are choosing primary care fields.  They authors of the original article propose a variety of solutions, none of which seems very likely to solve the problem.  What they want the most is for Medicare to increase reimbursement rates for primary care practitioners.  That obviously would work, but it does not seem likely to actually happen.

They also want PCPs to have a more central role in coordinating health care for a given patient.  That is a good idea, everyone knows it is a good idea, but nobody wants to pay for it.  Coordinating care means spending a lot of time on the telephone, a lot of time requesting, reading, and organizing records, a lot of time writing and sending notes to other physicians, and a fair amount of time just sitting and thinking.  In some cases, it means spending time on the Internet or in a library, checking up on things.  No insurance company pays for any of that.  

To be honest, I think the reason nobody pays for it is that insurance companies are distrustful.  They worry that doctors will pad their bills, either by billing for things they did not actaully do, or by billing for unnecessary paperwork and phone calls...as if there are doctors around who actually want to do more paperwork and phone calls.

I can envision two possible solutions.  One would be to put all doctors on a salary.  That could cause other problems, and it would not be popular with doctors or with the government.  The other would be to have a standardized, comprehensive medical office software package that doctors would use for all pertinent activities.  The computer would make, record, and bill for all phone calls.  It would keep track of time spent dictating or typing notes.  It would keep track of time spent with patients.  It would keep track of all prescriptions that are written, faxed, or called in.  It would keep track of recommendations for nonmedical interventions, such as counseling for smoking cessation, recommendations for OTC products, and recommendations for alternative medical interventions.  

Such comprehensive software would be highly intrusive, and would invariably introduce security problems.  Doctors might resent letting anyone have such a comprehensive view of what they do with their time.  On the other hand, having such complete information might be valuable to policy researchers and others who are trying to get the system to be more cost-effective.

Another good thing about such a system would be that doctors would get paid for taking the time to explain things to patients, and to help patients feel comfortable as recipients of health care.  Of course, there still would be pressure to cut out all of that stuff that seems like a nice -- but nonessential -- extra touch.

A Dose Of Irony

The following statement was made in 1952:
The American people realize this cannot be made a fight between America's two great political parties. If this fight against Communism is made a fight between America's two great political parties the American people know that one of those parties will be destroyed and the Republic cannot endure very long as a one party system.
The person who said that was Senator Joseph McCarthy.  The context was the Red Scare.  Senator McCarthy, among others, went on to accuse the Democratic Party of succumbing to influence from the Communist Party.  McCarthy warned that casting the global struggle against Communism as a struggle between the Democrats and Republicans would cause irreparable harm to the USA.  Then he proceeded to do exactly that.  It did not do as much harm as he had anticipated, either to the USA or to the Democratic Party, and it probably did little harm to the Communists, either.  Some individuals suffered harm, and the whole thing turned out to be a waste of time.  

That is not to say there was no Communist threat.  The USSR was building  nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.  They had submarines and long-range bombers.  In addition, they had an enormous conventional military force; it may have been able to conquer all of Europe, even without nuclear weapons.  They even tried to put nuclear weapons in Cuba.  The point is that, even in the face of a substantial threat, there was no justification for the extreme tactics that characterized what came to be known as McCarthyism.  

McCarthy was correct, in that there was a great potential for our political system to be harmed by the identification of pro-Communist sympathies with one legitimate political party.  It did not turn out too badly, mostly because some politicians and some journalists (most notably, Edward R. Murrow) could see what was going on, and managed to convince a large number of voters that they could vote for Democrats and still be patriots.  Perhaps more importantly, in the 1950's only part of the Republican Party went along with McCarthy.  Had the entire party done so, the results might have been substantially worse.  

It would be easy to draw parallels between the situation in the 50's and that in modern times.  Substitute Al Queda for Communism, Karl Rove for Joseph McCarthy, and you see what one political party is trying to do to the other.  Again, we see a lack of unity developing in the Republican Party; not all are on board with the domestic spying business, for example.  We still need to see more effort on the part of journalists, and we need to see the American people get wise to the ploy.  With a little good luck, we can minimize the damage to our political system.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Plight of the Skeptic

I noticed a call for submissions to Skeptic's Circle, posted on Orac's site.  Then I decided to write about the controversy over the use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions in Iraq.  It is a subject that I have wondered about for years, but never took much time to research.  It caught my attention during the US military action in Kosovo, when I read in a newspaper that Russian diplomats had expressed concern to the US.  They stated, reportedly, that the US should not use DU munitions because they are "too dangerous."  I laughed a bit, because it seems that ammunition is supposed to be dangerous.  

Of course ammunition is supposed to be dangerous, but the question is not about the immediate, direct hazard created by a projectile with a lot of kinetic energy.  The question about the safety of DU munitions has to do with delayed toxicity, and the potential for that toxicity to be expressed at a distance from the battlefield, long after the battle is over.  

Anyway, I decided to look into it.  Some of the controversy seems to revolve around the fact that DU is slightly radioactive.  Others express concern about chemical toxicity.  Furthermore, there are concerns about statistical correlations that seem to indicate some risks, but which do not establish evidence of causation.

Eventually, I encountered the Wikipedia page on DU.  There is a notice on that page, that the content has been locked, pending resolution of the exact controversy that I was looking in to.  There is a link to a discussion page.  The discussion page contains a great deal of information, and illustrates well the controversy itself.  In fact, it is written much along the lines of what I was planning to write, so I guess there is not a lot of reason for me to do the same thing all over again.

But while the jury is still out on the question of whether DU is "too dangerous," the existence of the controversy leads to another point worth looking into.  It seems to me that the US military, among others, began using DU without doing much research into the possibility of toxicity that could be expressed over prolonged periods of time, or spread widely over a distance.  On one hand, that may be viewed as having been grossly irresponsible.  On the other hand, it is clear that DU munitions are effective for their intended purpose, and it is equally clear that, if we are going to be in a war, we want our troops to have the most effective weapons possible.  The point is this: once a war gets going, whatever the merits of the war, it is in our best interest to get it over, with as little loss of life (on our side, and among civilians) as possible.  Often, using potent weapons is a means to that end.  Additionally, it is conceivable that we could get engaged in a war so dire, that use of weapons with lingering toxicity could be justified.  

Thus the question: is our need for potent weapons so great, that the military is absolved of responsibility for testing the munitions for lingering toxicity?  If not, how extensive should the testing be?  After all, one can scarcely go around starting a war just to test the weapons, yet that is the only way to get a definitive answer to many of the most difficult questions.  

When DU is used in battle, some of it is converted from a solid metallic mass of uranium to various chemical compounds in gaseous and particulate forms.  Each different form will be spread around to a different extent, will come into contact with the body in different ways, and will do different things upon contact.  Some may be taken into the body, whereas others may not.  Because of these complicating factors, any assessment of risk would require that it be determined what compounds are formed in actual use, how much, where they go, how widely they are distributed, etc.  That kind of information can come from only one source.

A definitive answer would require testing the munitions in actual battlefield conditions. To do that, you need an actual battle.  Even that does not really solve the problem of how to do research on the issue.  Definitive answers to the questions about toxicity would require a controlled experiment: fight the exact same battle twice, one with DU munitions, the other without.  I guess it is obvious that such a definitive, controlled experiment cannot be done.  

This leads to another question: if no definitive study can be done, what lesser substitute is acceptable?  

Well, that question naturally leads to more questions.  It is really a question of relative risk: is the overall safety of our country enhanced by the use of DU munitions, or are there risks that outweigh the benefits?  Is it possible that there would be some wars in which the benefits would outweigh the risks, yet other wars in which they would not?

It seems that unjust wars would not justify the use of DU munitions, of course; but are there some just wars that are not sufficiently just so as to justify the use of a weapon that might have lingering toxicity?  Are there nuanced judgments to be made, and if so, who gets to be the one to make the judgment?

And the final question: is it the inevitable plight of the skeptic, to be drawn into a quagmire of unanswerable questions, whenever a question of any sort comes up?  And which is more noble: to ask the question, or to answer it?  And why do you ask?


UPDATE: there is a site out there offering to explain how you can detoxify yourself from DU. And it only costs $30!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Legislating From The Desk

One of the more contentious issues in the confirmation hearings for Alito has been that of presidential signing statements.  

One of the core principles in neoconservative philosophy is the opposition to the practice they refer to as legislating from the bench.  

The principle of division of powers calls for Congress to write and enact laws, the executive branch to carry out the laws, and the courts to interpret laws.  Legislating from the bench is said to be the practice of a judge writing law, rather than interpreting it.  

Isn't it true, then, that the presidential signing statement amounts to the same thing?  When a presidential signing statement is issued, the executive branch writes an addendum to the law, with the intent of limiting it, nullifying it, or expanding it, or altering its meaning in some significant way.  

I'm trying to figure out how the same people could say that one of these is good, while the other is bad.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

What Happened In Canada

CON 124 0 36.25%
LIB 103 0 30.22%
BQ 51 0 10.48%
NDP 29 0 17.49%
IND 1 0 .52%
OTH 0 0 5.05%

The Conservative Party gained strength, ending over a decade of rule by the Liberal Party.  The CBC explains what this means (HT Quirky Outtakes):
Hunger for change fed Tory vote: poll
Last Updated Tue, 24 Jan 2006 17:00:47 EST
CBC News

More than half the people who voted Conservative in Monday's election did so mainly because they thought it was time for a change, according to an Environics poll conducted for the CBC the weekend before the vote.

Only 41 per cent of them said they were voting for Stephen Harper's party because they wanted a Conservative government, compared to 54 per cent who said they were casting their ballots for the sake of change.

The remaining five per cent didn't know why they were voting Conservative or did not answer the question.
They discretely did not mention the effect of scandal on the attitudes of the voters.  If there is a lesson for US politicians, it is that sometimes people get fed up with scandal, and punish the party.  More broadly, sometimes voters get fed up with the status quo, and want a change.

BTW Quirky Nomads and Quirky Outtakes have podcasts here and here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Flickr in China

By browsing pseudo-randomly, I encountered the Chinese version of Flickr.

This is a photo of a guy making Dog Year lanterns for the "Spring Festival."  I assume that Spring Festival is how the Google translator translates the phrase New Year.  If you click on the link above, it takes you to the Chinese version of Flickr, via the Google translator.  

Unlike the USA version, the Chinese version allows you to browse through people's photos without having to log in.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Another "This Could Be Big...Or Not" Post

Sciencenews.org is carrying a story about hormone-like effects from a common chemical, bisphenol-A.  It is a chemical used in polycarbonate plastics, which occur in various household items, such as food containers.  The EPA considers it to be safe in the quantities one ordinarily would be exposed to.  Yet, it turns out that it may have a toxicity that previously was not recognized.
Diabetes from a Plastic?
Estrogen mimic provokes insulin resistance
Science News Online
Week of Jan. 21, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 3 , p. 36

Exposure to small amounts of an ingredient in polycarbonate plastic may increase a person's risk of diabetes, according to a new study in mice. [...]

The newfound contribution of the chemical to insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes, might partially explain the global epidemic of that disease, says Angel Nadal of Miguel Hernández University of Elche in Spain, who led the new study.

The finding is a "wake-up call" for public health researchers who are concerned by the prevalence of diabetes, comments developmental biologist Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri–Columbia.
Often, findings such as this turn out to lead nowhere.  For that reason, I would not ordinarily post about a finding that has the potential to be greatly alarming, but which has not been replicated or otherwise validated.  The thing is, type II diabetes mellitus is so dangerous, and is getting to be so prevalent, that anything that might offer a clue as to the reason for the increasing incidence could turn out to be important.

We've all heard stories like this, and we all of seen some of them fade into oblivion, forever relegated to the historical dustbin of false alarms.  I certainly would not recommend that anyone actually do anything differently at this point, to respond to the concern.  It is worth keeping an eye on the subject, though.

Aurora Australis


Aurora australis as captured by NASA's IMAGE satellite.  Go here to see a Quicktime video.

Impeachment Update

I have no idea how reliable this source is, but the conservative-leaning Insight Magazine has published an article suggesting that the impeachment pot is starting to simmer:
Impeachment hearings: The White House prepares for the worst
Posted On: 1/23/2006

The Bush administration is bracing for impeachment hearings in Congress.

"A coalition in Congress is being formed to support impeachment," an administration source said.

Sources said a prelude to the impeachment process could begin with hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. They said the hearings would focus on the secret electronic surveillance program and whether Mr. Bush violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Administration sources said the charges are expected to include false reports to Congress as well as Mr. Bush's authorization of the National Security Agency to engage in electronic surveillance inside the United States without a court warrant. [...]
Of course they don't say who the "administration source" is, nor do we have any way of knowing the agenda of that source.  I would not be surprised if it turned out that this was a calculated leak, intended to assess the reaction to the "news."  The Insight article concludes:
Administration sources said Mr. Bush would wage a vigorous defense of electronic surveillance and other controversial measures enacted after 9/11. They said the president would begin with pressure on Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Bush would then point to security measures taken by the former administration of President Bill Clinton.

"The argument is that the American people will never forgive any public official who knowingly hurts national security," an administration source said. "We will tell the American people that while we have done everything we can to protect them, our policies are being endangered by a hypocritical Congress."
Part of their defense will be to say that Clinton did it too.  If that is part of their planned defense, they must be getting nervous.  Needless to say, it is no defense at all.  Plus, it does nothing about the part about submitting false reports to Congress.

Monday, January 23, 2006

State of the Union: A Heck of a Job!

Heck of a Job

I was listening to WCBN this evening, and heard them read an announcement for the State of the Union Party that is holding at the Cavern, in Ann Arbor, before, during, and after the President's State of the Union spiel. That got me to thinking about the state of the union at this point in time, and to try to anticipate what the speech will contain.
"The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Article II, Sec. 3, U.S. Constitution
It will be an interesting exercise to see if he actually does what the Constitution tells him to do, or if, like most presidents (regardless of political affiliation), he uses it as a free opportunity to manipulate people. If he's honest, he'll let us know that he fumbled the ball during Katrina, made a mess in Iraq, did nothing about Social Security, screwed up Medicare (also see this), spent the country into oblivion with the military budget, increased the wealth gap, and lied to us about the domestic spying program.

Instead, he'll probably tell us about his plans to fix the health care system, strengthen the economy by making the tax cuts permanent, and address the energy crisis.

The thing is, he has not done anything right. It seems as though everything he tries to fix, gets worse. Why should we let him try to fix anything else? Congress really should just walk out when he starts to speak.

Illustation credit: http://www.customsigngenerator.com/george-bush.asp

Is This Too Cynical?

Sometimes I worry that I might offend people with my cynicism. But usually I just go ahead and post it, anyway.

HT: Michael Parker's Journal. Church sign generator: churchsigngenerator.com

This Has Got To Be Irritating

According to the Washington Post, the cost of college textbooks tripled from 1986 to 1994.  One study indicates that 40% of students sometimes don't get all of the books.  Another study says that 60% of students forgo some of the books.  

I can't help but think that textbook publishers are going to price themselves right out of the market.  Isn't there some kind of publishing model that would allow for royalties to get to the authors, yet bypass the publishing houses?  Perhaps professors could put PDF versions of the chapters up on an iTunes-like server, and have people pay 99 cents for each chapter.  That would rely to some extent on the honor system, obviously, but if the students knew that that the professors knew who had downloaded the chapters, perhaps they would be honorable.  Or perhaps the Universities would pay the royalties directly to the authors, and collect the fees from the students.  That would be enforceable, although it would leave the students with no option but to pay the fees if they wanted credit for the class.

Maybe it wouldn't work, but it seems as though something has to be done.  Plus, doing everything with PDFs would save a lot of trees, and it sure would make it easier for a student to move out of the dorm at the end of the year.  A single flash drive, instead of innumerable boxes of books!

Visual Loose Association



I don't know why, but I felt like juxtaposing these two pictures.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Immune System and Serotonin

There is a complex relationship between the immune system and the human brain.  A discussion of that is way beyond the scope of a simple blog post, but I trust anyone reading this knows how to look into the subject if interested.  (Hint: Google immune system brain and you get over nine million hits.)  Now comes a study that shows that the relationship between the brain and the immune system is more complex than previously recognized.  Certain immune system cells communicate using serotonin, which is one of the major chemical messengers in the brain.  That means that factors that affect signals in the brain also can affect signals between immune system cells.
Commonly Used Antidepressants May Also Affect Human Immune System

Washington, D.C. -- Drugs that treat depression by manipulating the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain may also affect the user’s immune system in ways that are not yet understood, say scientists from Georgetown University Medical Center and a Canadian research institute.

That’s because the investigators found, for the first time, that serotonin is passed between key cells in the immune system, and that the chemical is specifically used to activate an immune response. They do not know yet, however, whether these SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) drugs— including the brands Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and others— could have either a beneficial or a damaging effect on human immunity.

“The wider health implication is that commonly used SSRI antidepressants, which target the uptake of serotonin into neurons, may also impact the uptake in immune cells,” said Gerard Ahern, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pharmacology at Georgetown and lead researcher on the study. [...]
The article goes on to say that the researchers do not know if antidepressants increase or decrease (or alter in some other way) the action of the immune system cells that they were studying.  In fact, they don't know if they have any effect at all.  The real significance of the study is not that antidepressants might affect the immune system; rather, it is that some immune system cells communicate with each other in a way that was not recognized previously.  The implication is that it might be difficult for us to perform interventions on the brain without also affecting the immune system.  

A few points of clarification are in order.  The immune system cells that were found to use serotonin to communicate are called dendritic cells.  This has nothing to do with the parts of nerve cells called dendrites.  Also, note that some non-SSRI antidepressants, such as the tricyclic antidepressants, affect serotonin in the same way that SSRIs do.  The specific reference to SSRIs is probably a journalistic tactic to get the attention of readers, sort of like making an offhand reference to Paris Hilton, when the story really is not about Paris Hilton.

Another thing to keep in mind about the study, is that when nerve cells communicate using serotonin, those cells are in a fixed position, right next to each other.  The reuptake of serotonin is one of the three ways that the signal from the serotonin is turned off.  In the case of immune cell communication, the cells are not fixed in close proximity, thus passive diffusion of the serotonin is probably much more important than the reuptake mechanism.  Furthermore, when nerve cells communicate, the precise timing, duration, and frequency of the stimulation are all very important factors.  Thus, anything that modulates the signal has the potential to be very important.  In contrast, it appears that the exact character of the signal (timing, duration, frequency) between immune cells is not so critical.  Therefore, it may not matter very much if a drug inhibits the reuptake of serotonin into a dendritic cell.  

On the other hand, it might matter a great deal.  That is one of the points made by the Dr. Ahem:
“But it is something that should be explored because we really have no idea what SSRIs are doing to people’s immune systems.”
At first, that statement may seem alarming.  But in fact, you could write any statement about a class of chemicals Xs and a physiological system Y, in the form...

We really have no idea what Xs are doing to people's Y systems

...and it probably would be true.  So while we cannot really ignore it, at this point I would not make much of it, either.  What is important about the study is that is shows yet again how complex these systems are, and how little we know about them.  Although it does not give us a specific reason to worry, it does illustrate why, in general, we should be circumspect about putting chemicals into people's bodies.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Just Like Us

The whole point of the invasion was to get them to be just like us.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Many ordinary Iraqis voted to ratify their new constitution without knowing much about what was in it.

"I didn't read it. Friends told me it was good," said Mohammed Hashim, a 26-year-old Shiite cook, who voted "yes" in the Oct. 15 referendum. [...]
It worked!  They are just like us!

This Doesn't Make Sense To Us

After the release of the latest Bin Laden tape, the President's spokesman, Scott McClellan, stated:
White House Rejects bin Laden Truce Gambit
by UPI Wire
Jan 20, 2006

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2006 (UPI) -- The White House rejected Osama bin Laden's truce offer Thursday and said there would be no let up in the war against terror.

"The terrorists started this war, and the president has made it clear that we will end it at a time and place of our choosing," spokesman Scott McClellan said.

"We are not going to let up. We are taking the fight to the enemy. We are continuing to pursue them, wherever they are. And we will bring them to justice, and we will win in this war against terrorism." [...]
If Bush can choose the time to end the war, why doesn't he hurry up and end it already?

It's tough talk, sure enough, but it doesn't make any sense.

Sombrero Galaxy

From Netscape's "Month in Space" channel.

Ineffective "Reforms" Proposed

I agree wholeheartedly with this.  Neither party is going far enough with proposals for reform.  HT: Truthdig.

January 18, 2006 | Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) questioned the effectiveness of the myriad lobbying reform proposals being rolled out on Capitol Hill this week. Melanie Sloan, CREW’s Executive Director, asked today “why doesn’t a single one of these proposals include any oversight or enforcement mechanisms? Without oversight or enforcement rule changes are virtually meaningless.” Sloan noted that many of the activities engaged in by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Members of Congress he lobbied are already prohibited. For example, both House and Senate rules already prohibit Members from accepting meals totaling over $100 in the course of a year, and from accepting travel for recreational purposes. // read more

Friday, January 20, 2006

Can the government track your cell phone's location without probable cause?

This is old news (September to December 2005), but seems pertinent today, as we learn more about the government's attempts to find and utilize new ways to learn about the activities of US citizens.  The EFF has been reporting on the government's efforts to track the location of cell phone users.  There have been cases in which the government has attempted to do exactly that, claiming they had no need to show that there was any reason to think that a crime had been committed.  
When is the government allowed to track your cell phone's location? What legal standards must the government meet before a judge can authorize such surveillance? That's the issue in two recent cases where two federal magistrate judges, in an unprecedented move, rejected Department of Justice requests to track cell phones without a search warrant. Setting aside the secrecy that shrouded these requests, the judges sharply rebuked the government. Both courts found the government's arguments completely unpersuasive, variously describing them as "contrived," "unsupported," "misleading," "perverse," and even a "Hail Mary" play. Yet, as the decisions further reveal, the Justice Department has routinely used its bogus legal theory to get secret authorizations for cell phone tracking from a number of courts, probably for many years.
Apparently, they do something similar with tracking credit card usage.  

Checking the links on the page linked above, we learn that -- interestingly -- the government has lost three out of the four cases that have been brought to court, and decided not to appeal the three that it lost.  They probably are waiting until the Supreme Court is effectively stacked with proponents of an imperial president.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Changes Proposed for Drug Patents

According to Reuters Heath Information, reported on Medscape, experts testifying before a panel from the Institute of Medicine has suggested that drug safety could be improved by granting a patent extension to companies that comply with recommended post-marketing safety studies.  Apparently, the Institute of Medicine was asked to make recommendations, after the trouble with Vioxx, and the stories about antidepressants being associated with increased risk of suicidal thinking in adolescent patients.  They are in the process of preparing a report for the FDA.  
More US Patent Time Suggested for Drug Safety Data (free registration required)
The U.S. government should consider extending patent protection on pharmaceuticals if drug makers conduct new safety studies after a product reaches the market, scientists told an expert panel on Tuesday.

Regulators often request additional studies of drug side effects after medicines are approved. In most cases the research is voluntary.

Lengthening patent life could provide a needed incentive for companies to complete the studies, some academic experts told an Institute of Medicine panel that is studying the Food and Drug Administration's drug-safety monitoring.

Patent extensions have been successful in enticing firms to study how their medicines behave in children, scientists said. Companies can secure hundreds of millions of dollars in added sales for the six-month patent extensions they win in exchange for pediatric studies.

"If you do what's required, you'll get an incentive in your patent life. We know it's worked" for pediatrics, said Dr. Alastair Wood, a clinical pharmacologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. [...]

Personally, I would favor the proposal I made a while ago, that pharmaceutical companies could get liability protection in exchange for ongoing safety studies.  True, the patent extension is attractive, mainly because it already has been shown to work (in the case of pediatric safety studies.)  Still, the incentive of liability protection seems more attractive to me, if only because it ties the incentive more directly to the purpose of the additional studies.  That is, in exchange for the companies' effort to reduce the risk to patients, they get reduced risk of liability for safety problems.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What Time Is It

You can display the current exact* time in the USA by clicking here. You must have javascript enabled to see the display.
*Actually, the disclaimer says that it is accurate to within two tenths of a second.

How Much Is So Much?

A while back, I noticed myself saying, "thank you so much," and paused to wonder what it meant. SO much? How much is SO much? Then I wondered why I was saying something that actually did not mean anything. Then I realized that Todd Mundt and Charity Nebbe kept saying exactly that during the WUOM fund drives. I must have picked it up from them. Then I stopped saying it for a while, and realized that I kind of missed it. So now I say it again, even though I normally eschew meaningless constructions.

Supreme Court Rebukes Administrative Branch

It was with some concern that I blogged about a case that had been pending in the Supreme Court, pertaining to Oregon's assisted suicide law.  My concern was not about the assisted suicide per se; rather, I was concerned about the implications for the balance of power.  Specifically, it appeared that the federal government was trying to supersede traditional State regulation of medical practice.  Moreover, it appeared that they wanted to give a law enforcement agency -- the DEA -- the authority to make medical decisions.  

Now, it turns out that SCOTUS did not support these extensions of federal authority.  In a 6-3 decision, the majority of justices rebuked our former attorney general, John Ashcroft (now a highly compensated lobbyist, making $100,000 per month, bless his soul).  
Kennedy suggested that Ashcroft set the stage for a "radical shift" of state power to the U.S. government.  [...]

The ruling in the Oregon case comes amid a national debate over the breadth of the executive branch's power, particularly Bush's authority to order domestic wiretapping without court approval to fight terrorism.

The decision revealed that most of the court — even without O'Connor, who was in the majority Tuesday — is concerned about moves to expand executive authority.

"At one level this is a very technical, dry case about when deference is owed (to an executive interpretation of federal law). But Kennedy is trying to rise above the technicalities to make a point about executive overreaching," said Vikram Amar, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. "Kennedy likes to remind people of the big picture."
This "very technical, dry case" has a great many implications.  For one, it shows why the Alito nomination is so important to a man who would be an imperial President.  For another, it illustrates why it is important to understand the implications of a law on an abstract level, rather than focusing on the day-to-day practical application of the law.  

The justices correctly determined that the essential feature of this case, in fact, was not about physician-assisted suicide.  One could argue the issue of assisted suicide for decades, and still not cover all the implications.  But the SCOTUS decision was not about assisted suicide.  It was about the balance of power -- within our government, but also within society at large.

In fact, the term "assisted suicide," in the context of the Oregon law, is a misnomer.  The patient are not committing suicide, in the sense that neither they, nor their physicians, are determining whether they will live or die.  Rather, they are influencing whether they will die today or tomorrow, in comfort, or later in the week, in pain.  To call that suicide is really an overdramatization.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Blogroll Maintenance

I decided to do some blogroll maintenance.  This was spurred by the move of Pharygula and Living the Scientific Life to a site sponsored by Seed Magazine, called, appropriately, Science Blogs.  

I learned that several of the sites in my blogroll had made that move, so I updated them.  While I was at it, I added all of the blogs at Science Blogs to my blogroll.  There were a few good ones that I had not known about before.  Afarensis was thoughtful enough to provide a list of the blogs, and that made it easier for me to see what I had to do.  

As always happens with blogroll maintenance, I found several links to sites that had not been updated in a few months.  I deleted those.  In the event that I was overzealous, or made an errant click that deleted someone's link that they would rather I had not deleted, just let me know and I will restore it.  Or, if there is someone who who link for me to link to them, and I have not, just let me know.  I tend to link to eclectic sites that have a mix of science and/or medicine, and politics or social commentary.  I sometimes link to art or photography sites, and sometimes to sites of people I know, or people who have linked to me, or people who have left thoughtful comments -- even if I disagree with them -- or sometimes just on a whim. Plus, I alway keep a few links to right-leaning blogs, just for the sake of variety.  And yes, I actually do read them, from time to time.

During the cleanup, I only got through the B's, so I know that there probably are some dead links later in the alphabet.  I will get to those eventually.

More Good News From Iraq

There's so much good news coming out of Iraq, I can hardly stand it.  Here's one of the highlights:
U.S. military frees two Reuters journalists in Iraq
Sun Jan 15, 2006 3:13 PM GMT
By Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military freed two Iraqi journalists who work for Reuters on Sunday after holding them for several months without charge.

Ali al-Mashhadani, a television cameraman who was arrested in August, and Majed Hameed, a correspondent for Reuters and Al Arabiya television who was detained in September, are both based in Ramadi, one of the centres of Sunni Arab insurgency.

They were freed from Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison after being held there and at Camp Bucca, a U.S. jail in southern Iraq.

Some 500 other detainees were released at the same time.

At least three other Iraqi journalists for international media, including a freelance cameraman working for Reuters in the northern town of Tal Afar, remain in custody.

Reuters has urged the U.S. military also to free Samir Mohammed Noor, who has been held without charge since his arrest at his home in Tal Afar seven months ago. A cameraman for U.S. television network CBS in Mosul has been held since April. [...]

Reuters and international media rights groups have repeatedly voiced concern at the long U.S. detentions of journalists without legal process.

They have in particular criticised the military's refusal to deal more quickly with suspicions apparently arising from the reporters' legitimate journalistic activities covering the insurgency. [...]
HT Cervantes, via Today In Iraq.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

How the War On Science Makes Us Less Safe

Support for the current Republican administration is waning.  The support that remains is persisting primarily because of the misperception that the Republican Party is more likely to keep us safe.   However, one could make a case that the current policies are making us substantially less safe.  

Perhaps the most popular argument used to make this case, is an argument that I do not like.  Some say that the war in Iraq has turned Iraq into a breeding ground for anti-American terrorists.  That is probably true, but I don't like that argument because there is no way of knowing whether any of those terrorists-in-training really present a threat.

But what about the war on science?  How does that make us less safe.  The central tactic used in the war on science is like that used by Microsoft: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.  People are not sure what software to buy, so they go with the name that they recognize the most.  Once FUD rears its head, logic goes out the window.  

When buying software, it is most appropriate to do careful testing to see which product does the job the best.  But when faced with a clever FUD attack, it is difficult to trust the results of the test.  Empiricism is replaced by creeping doubt.  The decision-maker no longer focuses on what is most likely to happen; rather, the focus is on trying to prevent some lurking catastrophe, that, while possible, is highly unlikely to happen.  

This tactic is most likely to be successful when the probability of the lurking threat cannot be quantified.  In such cases, people tend to estimate the probability of the catastrophe in proportion to the intensity of their emotional reaction to the thought of the catastrophe.  

Look at the tactics used by the Administration in the battles over climate change policy.  They repeat the mantra that experts do not agree, we can't be sure of the science, the jury is still out, whatever: all variations on the FUD theme.  Likewise, when it comes to security policy, they trumpet claims such as "Iran poses a grave threat," or the most egregious: "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Although there never was any reliable evidence that Iraq had a nuclear weapon, nobody could prove that there were no weapons.  The probability could not be quantified.  So a lot of people substituted the magnitude of their fear (which could not be quantified, but which was known to be large) for the numerical probability (which could not be quantified, but which which was in fact very small).  

This is analogous to the argument used against global warming.  With global warming, there is a lot of evidence to show that the climate is changing, and a lot of evidence that human industrial activity is accelerating those changes. Before the invasion of Iraq, there was a lot of evidence that Iraq had disbanded their pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that there were no weapons to be found.  

With climate change policy, it is argued that all kinds of terrible things will happen if we follow the Kyoto protocol.  Before the invasion of Iraq, it was argued that all kinds of terrible things would happen if we did not go to war.  

In both cases, the Administration argued against the logical conclusion.  In both cases, the logical conclusion was that we should expect the most likely outcome: the one with the greatest amount of evidence to support it.  But by using the FUD tactic, logic was bypassed, and illogical actions were undertaken.  

The analogy is not exact.  In the case of climate change, the most fearsome outcome was downplayed; in the case of Iraq, the fear was exaggerated.  The fear that was played up was the fear of spending a lot of money needlessly, perhaps ruining the economy and costing people their jobs.  

But in both cases, the "junk logic" of FUD was used to invalidate objective analyses of the situations.  The war on science amount to a systematic invalidation of empiricism, with FUD to replace it.  

Some people think that the point of the war on science is to supplant science with religion.  That is not the case.  Religion has nothing to do with it.   The point of the war on science is to replace objective analysis with executive fiat.   But by abandoning logic, we are damaging our own security.

If security really is the main objective, then it would make sense to take an inventory of all the things that make us less safe.  At the moment, the things leading that list would be things like alcohol and nicotine addiction, lack of exercise, uncontrolled firearms, unsafe driving, pandemic viruses, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the exploding federal deficit, unemployment, pollution, poorly-planned communities, lack of access to health care, and domestic violence.  Once the inventory is completed, we would look at the various interventions available, and the cost of implementing those interventions.  Then, we would decide how to put our resources to their best use, to make us all safer.  

Following this kind of analysis, we would not be building more F-22 fighter jets, we would not be giving cost-plus no-bid contracts to Halliburton, we would not be drawing up plans to invade Iran, and we would not be rebuilding New Orleans.  We would be implementing a universal health system, we would be building resilient, sustainable, rebuildable communities, we would be enforcing tough fuel economy standards, and we would be tweaking the economy to maintain a strong middle class.  We would be developing decentralized power production, with a diverse portfolio of energy sources.  We would be encouraging greater use of locally-grown foods, and charging a premium for foods that have to be transported long distances.  There are many of things we would be doing, and we all would be better off because of it.  After all, the point of national security is to make people safer, and to make social structures more resilient.  The war on science is undermining those goals.

Decent Science Journalism

Recently I wrote a mild critique of a news article about brain cells. I pointed out the use of a tactic that made the article sound more important than it was. This, I argued, should not be necessary. A well-written science article should stand on the quality of its portrayal of the science.

This is from EurekAlert.org, apparently echoed from Harvard University's new release site. It is a good example of a journalist (or perhaps a PR person) describing the science in detail, and placing it in a meaningful context.
Long-term memory controlled by molecular pathway at synapses

[...] "It has been known for some time that learning and long-term memory require synthesis of new proteins, but exactly how protein synthesis activity relates to memory creation and storage has not been clear," says Sam Kunes, professor of molecular and cellular biology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "We have been able to monitor, for the first time, the synthesis of protein at the synapses between neurons as an animal learns, and we found a biochemical pathway that determines if and where this protein synthesis happens. This pathway, called RISC, interacts with RNA at synapses to facilitate the protein synthesis associated with forming a stable memory. In fruit flies, at least, this process makes the difference between remembering something for an hour and remembering it for a day or more." [...]
Well, maybe there is not enough detail there. Those of us with nothing better to do on a Friday night are left wondering exactly how they " have been able to monitor, for the first time, the synthesis of protein at the synapses between neurons." Note that the explanation of the significance of the stuff came from the investigator himself. All the writer had to do was ask, and not embellish it.

By the way, there is another notable item at EurekAlert. This one does have some details about the bench work:
Rockefeller researchers discover a biological clock within a clock Meyer, a physicist by training, found himself frustrated by how little he could see of what was occurring in a cell. "The truth is, we really don't know, mechanistically, what happens in the cytoplasm, and how things are being done in such a precise way," Meyer says. So he turned to a technique invented in 1948, called fluorescence resonance energy transfer; FRET gauges interactions between proteins by fluorescently tagging them and measuring how they react to different wavelengths of light. But although the technique can provide useful information, it's so complicated that researchers rarely use it. And no one had ever thought to use it to follow proteins in a single cell for an extended period of time.
They go on to explain that the FRET methodology, explaining that it enabled the researchers to study the interaction of two type of protein over a period of several hours, rather than capturing a single moment of the interaction. What they found was that the interaction between the two proteins -- somewhat like the resonant frequency of a crystal, used as a timekeeper in an electronic circuit -- acts as a fundamental, but figurative, egg timer within a cell.

This beings to mind a post I saw earlier today: Circadian Clocks are NOT designed! at Science and Politics. But that's another issue; I won't go into it here -- coutunix has done that already.

UPDATE: Coturnix is thinking about expanding upon the significance of the paper by Young, Saez, and Meyer on circadian rythms. Presumably, he will post it at Circadiana soon.

Patches With Catnip Toy

Patches with catnip toy

Patches caught a calico mouse, stuffed with catnip. Otherwise, she mostly just lays around and sleeps.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Patches on Futon

Patches on futon

The cat lounges on the futon-couch while I surf. Her pupils did not really come out near-black in the picture, so I altered them electronically to improve the photo's truthiness.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Transgenic Green Pig

A transgenic green pig jostles normal pigs Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2006, in Taipei, Taiwan. A research team at Taiwan's leading National Taiwan University succeeded in breeding three male green pigs by injecting fluorescent green protein into embryonic pigs. There are partially green pigs elsewhere in the world but those three pigs are the only ones that are green from inside out, including their hearts and internal organs. (AP Photo/Simon Lin)
This is the photo of the day at CNews, from Canoe.ca.

So here is the green ham; where are the green eggs?

Activist Astrocyctes

There is an article in Nature Neuroscience that raised an eyebrow or two at MSNBCs online column, Livescience.  In the Livescience acticle-about-the article, the reporter conveys the following about the significance of the study:
Star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes were traditionally thought of as housekeeping cells that helped nourish the brain under the direction of the neurons. The new study found that the astrocytes can directly control blood flow without being told.
The MSNBC article present the new study as being a big challenge to the traditional way of thinking about astrocytes, stating "The discovery challenges a basic assumption in neuroscience."  Basically, the study show that astrocytes are not merely housekeeping cells; they have important regulatory functions as well.  

An astrocyte shown in (false-color) green

That is fine, except that it has been known for years that astrocytes have important regulatory functions.  In 1998, a different article in Nature Neuroscience (Astrocyte-mediated potentiation of inhibitory synaptic transmission) reported that astrocytes have a role in mediating the synaptic activity of neurons.  In 2001, there was an article in the PNAS entitled New Functions for Glia in the Brain.  (Glia are cells in the brain that are not neurons; astrocytes are a kind of glial cell) In the PNAS article, it is stated:
Ten or twenty years ago, glial cells were considered minor players in the nervous system, even though they outnumber neurons 10-fold. Glia were thought to function as passive support cells, bringing nutrients to and removing wastes from the neurons, whereas the latter carried out the critical nervous system functions of information processing, plasticity, learning, and memory. Recent studies, reviewed here, are changing this view and demonstrating that glial cells play a key role in these essential brain functions [Sharma and Vijayaraghavan (1) and Ullian et al. (2)].
So if the old idea actually was overturned several years ago, why is the MSNBC writer implying that it is a new challenge to the old idea?  I suppose they do that in order to make the current article sound more important than it really is.  

It seems unfortunate to me, that the journalist would resort to that tactic to make the article seem more important.  On the one hand, I do like to see these kinds of articles in the popular press, since there is a chance that members of the general public will take an interest in an obscure topic.  On the other hand, if the mission is to get the public interested in science, wouldn't it do just as well to explain why the study is really important, rather than making up a reason?  It seems to me that the public would be better served by a straightforward explanation of the real significance of the study.  It would be perfectly fair for them to say that the new study is the latest in the past few years to challenge the old conception of astrocytes, and to go on to say that the more we learn about how the brain works, the more likely we are to be able to figure out how to fix it when something goes wrong.  That would be just as captivating to the general public, and more accurate.  

Perhaps some science journalists think the general public can't grasp the subtleties of the implications of the research.  Perhaps they are right, and I am overestimating their readership.  I don't think so, though.  I think that most people can appreciate the fact that not every research study produces a paradigm shift, but that incremental advances are important nonetheless.

Furthermore, the author could take the opportunity to point out that scientists are coming to understand that most things in the body serve more than one function, and that nothing in the body is passive.  Everything constantly communicates with the other anatomical structures in its environment.  For example, your bones aren't just sitting there like so many pieces of concrete.  They actively resculpt themselves in response to weight-bearing activity.  The serve as a buffer in the control of the level of calcium and phosphate in the blood.  The mineral crystals that form the latticework for the bones are constantly broken and reformed.  In other words, bones are an active participant in various physiological processes.  The new study about astrocytes provides confirmation of the general idea, that everything in the body is active all the time.  I think people can appreciate the fact that this is not a revolutionary thought, but that it still is interesting and important.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Peace Café

Just got back from the Peace Café, held at Arbor Brewing Company, in their "Tap Room".   Annie and Ron Capps were there, playing folk music, delightful as always.  There were a few empty chairs, but not many.  There were a lot of people standing too, so probably if everyone had sat down, all the chairs would have been filled.  

Phillis Engelbert spoke for a few minutes about the domestic spying program, then took comments from the audience.  We took a straw poll to sample opinions about whether Michigan Peaceworks should take up the domestic spying program as an issue to focus upon, or stick with the sole focus on ending the war.  We also talked about whether it would be wise to spend resources on the Impeach Bush campaign; and if so, whether that should focus on impeachment, or take a more moderate path of pushing for accountability and investigations first, with impeachment mentioned as a likely outcome.  There was a good discussion, with several points of view being presented.  One of the participants wanted us all to start thinking about the 2006 elections, given that it is going to be difficult to get anything progressive done with a Republican majority in both houses.  

We had to leave early, but we did stay long enough to hear Annie and Ron sing and play Empty Boots (5.1 MB mp3 file), one of their more emotionally-provocative antiwar songs.

Don't Read Headlines

Some readers might have deduced that I spend a fair amount of time reading headlines.  Why, then, would I entitle this post "Don't Read Headlines"?  The reason is that the headline often is the most slanted, manipulative part of the article.

For example, look at the follwoing three headlines, from three articles about the same subject:

Never mind what the articles say.  The headline is what you are going to remember -- along with the emotional response that the headline engendered.  The first in the list portrays "Alito" as a man on the defensive, which is a position of weakness.  The second presents "Judge Alito" as "a powerful match," obviously, a position of power.  The third is less biased, but the subtext implies that he is obstinate and unforthcoming, and more subtly portrays him as being on the defensive.  

Personally, I think Alito should be on the defensive, and I suspect that he is obstinate and unforthcoming.  I think a lot more than that, too, but that is not my point today.  Even though I agree with the bias shown in two of the three headlines, it bothers me that respectable newspapers would do that.  Biased headlines should be the prerogative of bloggers, not journalists.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The New Big Chill

When the New England Journal of Medicine puts a journal article on their website, and makes it openly accessible, it usually is worth reading.  Most of their stuff requires a subscription.  They provide open access only when the editors think that an article is crucial for some kind of current, important public discussion.

The January 5, 2006, edition has such an article: The Big Chill — Inserting the DEA into End-of-Life Care, by Timothy E. Quill, M.D., and Diane E. Meier, M.D.  The authors express concern about a proposal to expand the authority of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to include medical judgment-making about the use of certain medications in end-of-life palliative care.  

A bit of background: The DEA is a part of the Department of Justice.  It is a law enforcement agency.  It is not a medical agency.  Traditionally, the practice of medicine is regulated by state agencies.  Each state has a Board of Medicine and a Board of Pharmacy.  Determinations about appropriate use of prescription medication are the responsibility of the state boards.  
On October 5, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gonzales v. Oregon. On the surface, this case is about the legitimacy of physicians' prescribing of medications under Oregon's Death with Dignity Act and whether the federal government can overrule the states in defining "legitimate medical practice." Just beneath the surface, however, lies the risk of empowering agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) — whose traditional role is to prevent drug abuse and diversion — to evaluate the end-of-life practices of physicians whose patients die while receiving prescribed opioids or barbiturates. A finding in favor of the Justice Department would not only nullify the Death with Dignity Act, permitting the DEA to penalize physicians for providing medications to hasten the deaths of terminally ill patients, but also have a chilling effect on physicians' willingness to treat patients' terminal symptoms.
The Big Chill is one of those articles that is difficult to write about using excerpts, since every paragraph is important.  But to get to the main point, the authors cite some legal cases in which large judgments were rendered against physicians, when juries determined that those physicians had not done enough to relieve pain and suffering of persons who were dying.  

It is easy to see the problem here.  If Mr. Gonzalez gets his way, then physicians will be in a bind.  If a physician does not give enough medication, there is a risk of civil liability.  If too much medication is given, there would be a risk of criminal prosecution.  

The authors do not carry this argument as far as I would.  I would add that, since different standards are applied in the civil and criminal determinations, it is even theoretically possible that a doctor treating a dying patient could be sued for not providing enough relief of pain and suffering, AND, in the same case, be found guilty of giving too much medication.  The authors point out that it should be possible, in 90% of cases of terminal suffering, to provide adequate pain relief.  But in 10% of cases, it is not.  Imagine one of the cases in which it is not.  
For the infrequent instances in which all palliative care alternatives have been exhausted without providing adequate relief from the symptoms of advanced terminal disease, there is a growing consensus that sedation to the point of comfortable sleep is permissible.
The physician keeps escalating the dose of medication, but cannot attain adequate pain control.  Then a sedative is given, and the patient dies.  The family sues because adequate pain control was not achieved, and the DEA prosecutes because, in their opinion, the sedative hastened the death of the patient.  Unlikely, perhaps, but the absurdity of the situation points out the absurdity of the DOJ's initiative.

Incidentally, this is an instance of an Administration trying to exert strong centralized executive control, overriding established law.  There seems to be a lot of that going around lately.

Hadn't Heard That One

Bush, who has faced a barrage of criticism over his handling of Iraq, said Americans know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being handled "and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people."
I thought I had heard all of the claims of the partisan critics.  I guess not.  Did some critics claim that we went to war because Bush misled us?  I must have missed that.  I had thought that he misled us because he wanted to go to war for some other reason.  

Monday, January 09, 2006

Some Recognition

Hedwig T.O. has gotten recognized twice: a Best of Blogs award, and a Red Orbit Blog of the Day citation. No permanent job, yet, but I hope it feels good to at least get some recognition from one's peers. She cetainly deserves it. Red Orbit offers, is a gallery of interesting science photos. This one seems appropriate: The butterfly-shaped crater was formed by an oblique impact: almost, but not quite, a direct hit. With luck, the next one will be perfect. For the full size image, click here.

Update on Deep Brain Stimulation

I wrote about this at some length previously.  Those interested in the experimental deep brain stimulator, being developed as a treatment for Major Depression, may be interested in a Medscape interview with Dr. Helen Mayberg, one of the investigators.  The interview provides some background on the treatment and how it was developed:
Our original hypothesis was that stimulation of the subgenual cingulate region would disrupt activity in the subgenual cingulate cortex and produce secondary remote effects in brain regions functionally linked to this region via adjacent white-matter fibers. On the basis of these known connections, we anticipated potential changes in the brain stem, hypothalamus, nucleus accumbens, and various regions of the orbital, medial, and prefrontal cortex.

We also had previous imaging evidence that the activity in this multinodal depression "circuit" was dysfunctional. We therefore saw DBS as a means to influence the balance between this highly interactive set of brain regions at the level of the subgenual cingulate.
Further in the interview, we learn that six more patients are getting this experimental treatment, in addition to the six already studied.  To me, the most interesting part of the interview was this exchange, in which Dr. Mayberg described the experiences of the patients:

Medscape: One of the major differences between what you're seeing here with DBS and what is observed with other treatments for depression is the acute effects. Can you describe some of the acute effects of stimulation?

Dr. Mayberg: The acute effects in the operating room were unique for each patient, but all shared certain features. In general, patients described a sudden disappearance of something negative, which was more often than not a change in a visceral state: a sudden sense of intense calm and relief, clearing of mental heaviness, lifting of a black cloud, the disappearance of a void, fading of a burrowing dread in the pit of the stomach, are some examples. Of interest, the turning off of these negative sensations was followed almost immediately by a change in attention and interest with objective evidence of increased spontaneous speech and motor speed. Such effects, when present, were contact- and dose-specific and could be reproduced in a blinded fashion with repeated testing. Their time course was quite rapid, occurring approximately 15-20 seconds after initiating stimulation at the specific electrode contact.

Importantly, the mood effects were quite specific. Patients did not experience positive mood effects; rather, their chronic negative mood was attenuated. [...]
The reason this is so important, is that is both highlights and refutes a common misunderstanding about the treatment of depression.  No existing treatment actually elevates mood, or causes euphoria.  When successful, treatment of depression merely eliminates pathological negative mood states.  It does not give the patients anything they did not have to begin with.  

Another interesting aspect of this research is that it may help us understand more about consciousness and emotional experience in general, not just in persons with mental illness.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Is Michigan Next?

I just got back from the talk by Bob Fitrakis (links), sponsored by Washtenaw County Democracy For America, and hosted by Mary Shindell.  The talk was entitled: Is Michigan Next?: Ohio Election Fraud and the Diebold Debacle.  Mr. Fitrakis gave an overview of the evidence that the Presidential election was tainted by election fraud in Ohio, in 2004.  

I did not take notes, being rather new at the activism stuff, so I apologize that I can't name everyone else who spoke.  After Mr. Fitrakis spoke, we heard from several concerned citizens who filled us in on the voting rights situation in Michigan. Jan BenDor spoke at length about this, and was very informative.  The good news is that Michigan does not have some of the same bizarre election laws that Ohio does, thus it is more difficult to perpetrate election fraud here. 

I don't mean to imply that Michigan voters should be complacent.   Legislation has been proposed that would strengthen voter protection in Michigan.  Senator Liz Brater is leading the charge in Lansing, having proposed SB 0005, SB 0006, SB 0144, and SB 0145.   However, she has run into some serious opposition: the legislative committee (Committee on Government Operations) that is responsible, will not sign off on it.  Therefore, there is little chance of it getting an up or down vote; this is an ominous sign.  

Voter protection is not a partisan issue.  It was mentioned, at the event tonight, that many persons from both the Democratic and Republican parties support election reform.  Yet, in Michigan, it is Senate committee members from only one party that are impeding the reform legislation.  So far, I have not been able to come up with a good explanation for that.  I am tempted to conclude that it is not a good sign.  Fortunately, there are groups ready to respond by mounting a petition drive, in the event that the reforms are buried in committee.  One such group is the Women Progressive Activists.  They handed out a flyer describing their proposal for changes to Michigan election law.  A PDF version (163KB) is available here.  I encourage all Michigan citizens to go read it.  Consider signing their petitions, too.

(For the sake of clarity, I should add that election reform legislation has been proposed not only in Michigan, but also on a federal level (S 450/ HR 939).  The US Senate bill was introduced by Hillary Clinton; the House bill, by Stephanie Jones.)

Ann Arbor City Clerk (and Register of Deeds) Larry Kestenbaum chimed in with some clarifications about Michigan voting law.  He mentioned that in Michigan, a voter's criminal record is irrelevant.  Apparently, one tactic for voter suppression is for unscrupulous groups to misinform those who have been indicted or convicted of crimes, telling them that they cannot vote, or that they will be arrested if they try to vote.  That is not the case.  

Bob Alexander got up and spoke about some changes that he would like to see in how the Michigan Democratic Party chooses the candidates that will get financial support for their campaigns.  His impression is that too much money goes to those who will almost certainly win anyway; not enough to those who could mount a credible challenge but who face an uphill battle.

Ron Suarez spoke a bit, and emphasized the need for people to make use of social technology such as video blogging and Upcoming.org to maximize the effect of their efforts.  He added that it is still a good idea to talk to people face-to-face, too.  

Overall, it was a good event, in that it was well attended, and there was a lot of lively discussion.  Not everyone who wanted to speak got enough time.  That is unfortunate, in a way, but it is good to see that there are people out there who have something to say.   And like I said before, I did not take notes, so I apologize to those who spoke, whom I did not mention by name.  

Links pertaining to Bob Fritakis:
  1. http://www.bobforohio.com/
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Fitrakis
  3. http://www.freepress.org/index2.php

"The Scandal Is The Rules Themselves"

There is a disturbing article in the NYT about the rise in lobbying activity: Go Ahead, Try to Stop K Street, by Todd Purdum.  The article conveys the implication that one factor that spurred the rise of lobbying activity has been the increase in the size of government and the complexity of government regulation:
But the problem is broader than Mr. Abramoff, Mr. DeLay or even the inherent potential for abuse in one-party rule of all three branches of government. It also has to do with the astounding growth of the lobbying industry, a growth that has tracked the growth of the federal government itself. The rise of government regulation - first in the New Deal and then in the 1960's and 70's - spawned a parallel rise in the private sector's efforts to master the new system. Between the early 1970's and the mid-1980's, the number of trade associations doubled; in the first half of the 1980's alone, the number of registered lobbyists quadrupled, according to The Washington Monthly.
Of course, any time the system changes, there are people who will try to figure out how to make a profit from those changes.  Another point here is that correlation is not causation.  It may not entirely be accurate to say that the lobbying efforts increased in response to increased regulation.   In fact, it seems probable that some of the increased regulation occurred as a result of lobbying.  

There are some apparent good guys in all of this.  Some are trying to tighten the rules pertaining to lobbying:
"The scandal here is not that the rules were broken; the scandal is the rules themselves," said Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts, who with a Republican colleague, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, and Senators John McCain and Russell D. Feingold, has been a leader in pressing to overhaul campaign finance and ethics rules. "Lobbying is part of our system, but there is a set of ethical standards and rules that ought to be followed."

Together with Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Mr. Feingold, Mr. Meehan has introduced legislation that would, among other things, require lobbyists to file quarterly financial disclosures, instead of semiannual ones and to disclose just whom in the government they lobbied. Former members of Congress would also not be able to lobby their colleagues for two years, as opposed to the current one year. Members would be required to submit detailed itineraries and descriptions of expenses for privately sponsored travel.
Personally, I don't think those proposed changes would have much effect.  I would propose something that would be intended to have a powerful psychological effect.  Specifically, I would like to have members of congress be required to personally stand up each month, in front of a video camera, and read a statement detailing all of their contacts with lobbyists, and all transactions that have taken place between them, their staffs and families, and lobbyists.  The readings would be tedious and unpleasant.  The recordings would be saved by the opposition and used during election campaigns.  That is perfectly fair.  The members of congress might not engage in certain activities, if they know that the tape will come back to haunt them.

Mr. Gingrich may be on the right track with this:
Mr. Gingrich has offered more ideas. He would allow unlimited fund-raising in members' states or districts, but bar fund-raising within the District of Columbia, and would require that all contacts between lobbyists and elected and appointed officials be posted weekly on the Internet.
I do think that a personal, videotaped reading would be more effective than an Internet posting, but the posted data would be easier to collate for reporting purposes.  Perhaps another idea would be to require that meetings with lobbyists be broadcast live with a webcam.  Perhaps most effective, though, would be a financial disincentive.  Former members of congress often become lobbyists themselves, after leaving office.  I propose that any profits they make from such activities should be subject to a special tax.  Something in the neighborhood of 75% might do the job.  That is fair, too.  After all, it was their public service that enabled them to make those profits, so some of the money rightfully ought to be returned to the public, as a royalty of sorts.

Science Roundup: Killing Time, On the Internet

When I surf around for science news and neat stuff, if I find a site that (fairly often) seems to have something worthwhile, I put a bookmark to it in a folder named "Science Roundup."  Then, when I get a hankerin' for something scientific to read, I middle-click on that folder.  It opens a couple dozen tabs, each with the homepage of a science-oriented site.  Then I look at each tab, to see what has come up.  Of course, this only works with a tabbed browser, such as Firefox.  

It takes a while for all those pages to load, so I have to find something else to do for a minute or two.  Read email, or get something from the refrigerator, like a ham sandwich, or do some stretches.  

I have similar "roundup" folders for major newspapers, etc. for those occasions when I am in the mood for something else.  

Today, I picked out a few CDs from local musicians who played at the last Michigan Peaceworks benefit concert: Chris Buhalis, Jo Serrapere, and Dave Boutette.  I got them while I was waiting for the tabs to load.  

Upon returning, one thing that catches my eye is this:
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
2005-11 2005, Volume 29 6, Nov/Dec
That is a list of online articles in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer.  That evolution/creation thing again.  Won't read that now, but will add a bookmark in my Del.icio.us.  

At Sciscoop, there is a link to an article on quantum computing.  It says that a group at the University of Michigan has developed a scalable, mass-producible quantum chip.  I skim that to get a general idea of how the chip works.  I am interesting in knowing if we are any closer to having an actual quantum computer.  The answer: not very much.

Semiconductor quantum computer chip being wired up. 

On the Scientific American site, I find an article on the symbiosis between ants, bacteria, and fungi.  I read that entire article, just because.  The I see an article on the Sciencenews.org site.  That is a description of a material that can be used to trap carbon dioxide.  I notice that one because I had read about the topic before, although I can't remember where.  Then, at Biopsychology.com, I see this page, which has a link to an NYT article that I missed.  The link is dead, in that the article it points to has been put in the archive.  But it is possible to read those articles, by retrieving them from the NYT RSS feed.  It is a bit of a pain to do that, and I do it, but then I read the article and find it rather uninspiring.  A bit of a waste.  

I could go on, but nobody cares what 25 articles I skimmed tonight.  You get the idea, though; surfing is good for the brain.