Friday, March 31, 2006

Mike Scanlon and the "Wackos"

has posted a PDF ( large: 26 MB) containing memos from the Abramoff trial.  One of the memos contains the following information (page 119) about one of their strategies for increasing voter turnout to support their cause:

We plan to use three forms of communication to mobilize and win these battles.  Phones, mail, and Christian radio.  We believe that if you are on TV you are generally loosing battles like this.  Our mission is to get specifically selected groups of individuals to the polls to speak out AGAINST something.

To that end, your money is best spent finding them and communicating with them using the modes they are most likely to respond to.  Sinply put we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip right past them.   The wackos get their information form [sic] the Chistrian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone trees.
The memo was written by Michael ; it pertains to their efforts to get people to vote against certain gambling operations.  Apparently, the idea was to get certain persons out to vote against the proposal, while not even raising the issue with those who might take the opposite position.  I assume that is why he wants to avoid the use of television ads: the ads cannot be targeted narrowly enough.  

This is very similar to the strategy involving gay marriage.  

I have a few comments on this.  First, note how the strategy subverts the democratic process:  Rather than promote honest and open debate, they use private channels to manipulate people.  I guess there is no news there, but I find it noteworthy, if not newsworthy.  

Second, I suspect that all political operations use strategies like this.   The take-home message is that we all need to be careful when we are the recipients of targeted political messages.  Such messages should be viewed with a critical eye, since they are likely to be worded in such a way as to be manipulative.  

Third, it is ironic that the very technologies that could be used to create a global village also can be used to do the exact opposite.  Internet sites, email, and special-interest cable and broadcast media can be used to divide the population into groups that receive only a narrow subset of information, rather that getting the whole picture.  Rather than bringing us together, such splits us apart.  Sometimes, these messages seem compelling, in part because the recipient may feel that he or she is getting inside information.  Being the recipient of inside information can boost one's self-esteem, because it can make the recipient feel special.  The recipient might have an altogether different feeling, if he or she knew that the person who concocted the message thought of the recipient as a "whacko."

Intelligence Redo Is Harshly Judged

Intelligence Redo Is Harshly Judged
A Judge Critiques 9/11 Overhaul, and Finds It Top-Heavy

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006; Page A17

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard A. Posner sharply criticized the restructuring of U.S. intelligence agencies last week, telling CIA lawyers that the overhaul has done nothing to rectify flaws exposed by al-Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and that the changes "in the end . . . will amount to rather little." [...]
Posner has a book coming out on the subject, but it does not sound as though he was trying to solicit publicity for the book when he made that statement.  His main concern is this:
In Posner's analysis, the director of national intelligence (DNI), created by Congress to be the president's top intelligence adviser, was given too much to do. DNI John D. Negroponte oversees the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies, including those at the Pentagon. Negroponte's staff, which has grown to about 1,000, "has become a new bureaucracy layered on top of the intelligence community," Posner said.
As I recall, that was one of the major concerns that was raised when the reorganization was planned.  It sounds as though that concern was justified.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

National Sleep Awareness Week

National Sleep Awareness Week

This week (March 27, 2006 - April 2, 2006) is National Sleep Awareness Week. So, I assume that Circadiana will get a lot of hits this week. Perhaps if you all link to it.

So there you have it.  Bora reminds us that this is National Sleep Awareness Week.  Check the link for interesting tidbits of information, including some little-recognized clues to the possible presence of a .  If I can stay awake long enough, I will get into the spirit and post some on some sleep-related topic.


OK, here's one.  Researchers have found a strong correlation between CSF levels of hypocretin, and the occurrence of excessive daytime sleepiness:
Hypocretin Deficiency Associated With Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Mar 29 - Hypocretin deficiency is associated with excessive daytime sleepiness in patients with narcolepsy with cataplexy, according to a report by researchers in Zurich. [...]

Dr. Baumann and colleagues investigated the relationship between CSF hypocretin levels and clinical findings in 18 patients with narcolepsy with definite cataplexy.

Twelve patients had undetectable levels of hypocretin in the CSF, three patients had low levels, and three patients had normal levels, the researchers report in the March issue of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

Multiple sleep latencies were significantly shorter in patients with undetectable hypocretin levels than in patients with detectable hypocretin, the authors report. [...]
is a neurotransmitter that is produced by a small clump of neurons in the hypothalamus.   The association between loss of hypocretin-secreting cells and is old news.  The new study refines that finding a little bit, by showing a strong correlation between low hypocretin levels and one of the cardinal symptoms of narcolepsy: excessive daytime sleepiness.  The outcome of the study is no surprise; but of course, in science, you can't skip doing the study just because you think you already know what the results are going to be.

Crazy Cat Terrorizes Connecticut Town

Crazy Cat Terrorizes Connecticut Town

March 29, 2006 10:15 a.m. EST

Nidhi Sharma - All Headline News Contributor

Fairfield, Conn (AHN) - Residents of the neighborhood of Sunset Circle say they have been terrorized by a crazy cat named Lewis, The Associated Press reports.

Lewis, for his part, has been uniquely cited, personally issued a restraining order by the town's animal control officer.

Janet Kettman, a neighbor said Monday, "He looks like Felix the Cat and has six toes on each foot, each with a long claw. They are formidable weapons."

The neighbors said those weapons, along with catlike stealth, have allowed Lewis to attack at least a half dozen people and ambush the Avon lady as she was getting out of her car.

Some of those who were bitten and scratched ended up seeking treatment at area hospitals. It was the first time such an action was taken against a cat in Fairfield.

In effect, Lewis is under house arrest, forbidden to leave his home. The cat's owner, Ruth Cisero, was also arrested on charges of failing to comply with the restraining order and reckless endangerment.

Sounds familiar.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Free On-line CME from MedPage

MedPage Today has free online continuing medical education articles.  Each one only provides 0.25 credits, and there are not enough articles for this to be sufficient as the only source of CME.  Even so, it does not cost anything, and it can be a good supplement to other CME sources.  

One thing I noticed about MedPage CME articles is that a lot of them focus on improving communication with patients.  That is not something I have seen in other CME courses.  

Patients these days often come to the office with questions about medical topics that have been in the news.  Many of the MedPage articles seem to be aimed at educating physicians about the science that underlies the news items.  This serves two purposes.  For one, it is a decent source of background information that has some direct clinical utility.  Secondly, it prepares physicians to give their patients useful answers to their questions.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Old News

Sometimes it is instructive to take a new look at old news:
Larry Lindsey: A "top economic adviser" to Bush who was ousted when he revealed to a newspaper that a war with Iraq could cost $200 billion. Fired, December 2002.
Of course, it is now well past that figure, but apparently even the lowball estimate was too much for the Administration to handle.

Medical Schools Must Get Down To Business

An item at the UM Medical School news site caught my attention:
Medical Schools must get down to business (03/27/06)
Medical School leaders nationally must manage their institutions more like a business. The U-M Medical School is leading the way.
The reason it caught my attention is that I have a strong negative visceral reaction to the use of the phrase "run like a business."  The phrase was used often here in Michigan by the former governor, John Engler.  It that context, it meant to ignore humanistic values, maximize profits, and specifically to ignore the plight of the underprivileged.   Obviously, none of that would be appropriate for a medical school.

Besides, I learned in a high school Business Management class that something like 80% of new businesses go out of business within the first three years.  I don't recall the exact figures, but is was something like that.  The point is, that in empirical terms, to run something like a business means to adopt practices that are almost certain to fail within a short period of time.  The fact is, most businesses are not successful.

The article is about the new CFO of the University of Michigan Medical School, William Elger.  For what it is worth, it does not provide a direct quote of him saying that the Medical School should be run like a business.  Instead, it talks about some sophisticated mathematical models he has developed to help understand what is happening with the School's financial status.  I have no problem with that; obviously, it helps to have a clear idea of what is going on.  It helps to be able to model various "what-if" scenarios, to anticipate problems before they occur, etc.  
“Medical schools must have rapid-fire, up-to-date information on measurable, critical success factors, including market share, expenditures and revenue sources. We face eroding federal and state support for medical research and education, so it is essential that we understand existing resources and identify the ones we need to grow as an organization,” Elger says. “Without the metrics to assess key performance measures, we won’t be top medical schools down the road.”
I would have been happier to see a clear statement of the need to balance the harsh financial realities with the mission of the School, which has to be fundamentally humanistic in nature.  But I won't be too critical, since that is not what the article was about, anyway.  (The article was about an article that Elger wrote in the latest issue of Academic Medicine.)

Still, I hope that the School does not focus too much on "market share, expenditures and revenue sources."  They do need to strive for the appropriate balance between financial security and fulfilling their missions of patient care, teaching, and research.  

Or, as some would say, research, teaching, and patient care.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Blogworthy Articles in NEJM

The most recent (3/25/06) issue of the New England Journal of Medicine contains several items that deserve a mention here at Corpus Callosum.  It is worth noting that there are three items related to psychopharmacology; this degree of attention is unusual in a general medical journal.  All require a subscription for the full text.

There are two papers that report on results from the STAR*D (Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression) project.  One study shows what happens when patients are switched from one antidepressant that is not working for them, to a different one.  The other shows what happens when a second drug is added to the first one.   The third paper discusses what is known about the cardiovascular risk of stimulant medications used to treat ADHD.  Continue reading here.

Sunday Loose Association Blogging

Ambling around the Internet, following links from fellow Ann Arbor bloggers at Mousemusings and An Empire Wilderness, plus a few tangents, I came across the following pair of related ideas:

From Common Dreams, about the Academic Bill of Rights:
"In Baxley's bill -- which is really the Horowitz bill -- students are customers, whose tastes and prejudices must be accommodated. Professors are likened to vendors who must take care not to offend or disturb those who have come to purchase their wares."

"It's like the Wal-Mart model: Maybe they can import holographic images of professors made in China, attractive classroom automatons who can be programmed to present marketable and politically acceptable material," she said dryly.
From Neil Bush's Ignite! Learning:
Dear Teachers,

Ignite! Learning is thrilled to introduce you to The COW (Curriculum On Wheels), a program designed to let you deliver lessons in the same way professional presenters do.

The COW (including computer, projector, and speakers) comes pre-loaded with all of Ignite!'s Science or Social Studies courses. You just plug it in and start teaching!

Please contact us to learn how to get The COW for your classroom.
Context: Barbara Bush made a "generous" donation to the Katrina relief fund, but earmarked the funds, so that they had to be used for the purchase of curriculum materials from her son's software company.  

from Houston Chronicle

This is as good of an example as you can get, of the Culture of Corruption.  

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Just a Question

I just ate the first solid food I've had since Wednesday night. (That is not typical for me.) My brain still is not up to speed, still have a fever, cough, etc. I find that it is much easier to think about politics than about science. What does this mean?

Marcinkowski for Congress

I don't live in Michigan's 8th Congressional district, but if I did, I would vote for this guy.

Online gamer punished with virtual crucifixion

Banning online players for in-game offenses is common, but a new multiplayer game has gone a step further. Roma Victor, a game set in Roman-controlled Britain, has virtually crucified a player for killing other players repeatedly. Cynewulf, a character played by a Flint Michigan resident, will hang in a public square for seven days. Other players have been stopping by to watch and even taunt Cynewulf.
I saw this on Tom's Hardware.  It is a sign of the times.

You Have To Wonder About This

Courtesy of American Samizdat, we learn that the screening of shipping containers for radioactive materials has been outsourced to a Hong Kong company.  

Courtesy of Think Progress, we learn that screening of all containers would cost about $400 million.  Yet a budget amendment that would have appropriated that amount was defeated.  Sure, there are difficult decisions to be made in any budget, but the budget also calls for an extra $1.7 billion for missile defense.  

Is there anyone who seriously thinks that the missile defense program is more important?  And does it make sense to spend so much on something that does not work, in favor of something that will work?

It's just corporate welfare, that's what it is.

Muddle Machine

OK, so I sometimes miss the story and end up behind the times.  

There is a topic that I have been meaning to write about for the past two weeks.  Then, when I got to writing, I did a Google blog search, and found that 15 others have already posted on the subject.  Some of the posts are almost a year old.  Plus, over 60 people have linked to the article on del.icio.us.  So it is hardly a new subject, and it already has gotten a fair amount of attention.  But I decided just now to go ahead and write about it anyway, partly just to see if I could find a new perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a post on the curiously-named blog, Notional Slurry.  Tozier pointed out an article on Edutopia entitled The Muddle Machine.  The article reveals that many high school textbooks actually are written by a committee; the author of record may not have had anything to do with the actual writing.  

I won't get into the details; the original article does a fine job on its own.  The main points are these: a lot of money is wasted on high school textbooks; also, the process of creating the textbook all but guarantees mediocrity.  

I have two thoughts about this.

First, high school textbooks are written specifically to avoid controversy.  At first glance, this may seem like a sort of institutionalized political correctness.  It is not.  The idea behind political correctness is that it is a good idea to go out of your way to avoid offending people.  That is not the same as avoiding controversy.  There is nothing about political correctness that says you shouldn't express an idea that someone might object to.  Indeed, if that were the case, it would never be politically correct to say anything.  No, the point of political correctness is to be aware of the potential impact of what you say, and to take reasonable steps to make sure it is no more offensive than it needs to be.

Second, it occurs to me that part of our national agenda, right now, is to encourage the growth of the creative class, to foster innovation, to capitalize on one of our Country's few remaining strengths.  Writing insipid textbook is hardly the way to accomplish that.

UPDATE: Dr. Free-Ride has a nice post that shows that the duty to teach well is a serious matter, with important ethical prinicples involved.
What makes life hard for the folks interviewed for this story is that they recognize their duty to provide a quality education to the students in Arkansas schools. If they're charged with teaching science, they have a duty actually to teach science and not to omit important bits because they might upset some people.
It is an interesting and informative perspective.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Rolling Downhill

This is one of those studies that reaches a conclusion that seems so obvious, it is hard to know why the study was even done:
Study: Workplace abuse can trickle down

A Georgia State University study suggests supervisors who believe they've been unjustly treated might vent their resentment by abusing their duties.

Researchers found that supervisors engage in more abusive behavior when they perceive their employer is using unfair decision-making to allocate valued resources.

For example, if a company doesn't seem neutral or respectful when distributing benefits and other attractive incentives, the boss may become rude, assign blame, or publicly ridicule those that report to him or her.
In practice, though, it often is a good idea to actually do a study, even if the conclusion seems perfectly obvious.  Every once in a while, the results are different than what one would expect.  

Reading more closely, it turns out that the results of the study are not really the same as what is implied in the title: "Study: Workplace abuse can trickle down."  What the study actually says, it that supervisors who perceive themselves as being treated unjustly are more likely to be abusive to subordinates.  That appears to be the case, regardless of whether the perception is accurate.  That suggests that top-level managers might be able to reduce the incidence of the propagation of abusive practices by making sure that supervisors understand the rationale for decisions pertaining to the allocation of resources.  

Of course, that is what is really interesting: once we figure out how this kind of thing happens, we then have to figure out how to stop it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

We May Have To Change the Constitution, Then

This is a very serious issue, outlined in the LA Times (free registration required) :
Justices May Further Restrict Domestic Violence Testimony
By David G. Savage, Times Staff Writer
March 20, 2006

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appears poised to make it far harder to prosecute cases of domestic violence when victims are unwilling or unable to testify in court.

Today, the high court will hear the appeals of two men who were convicted of assaulting women based, in one case, on a recorded 911 call, and in the other, on a police officer's testimony of what the victim told him.

Over the last two decades, prosecutors in domestic violence and child abuse cases have relied heavily on testimony by police officers and counselors who interviewed the alleged victims when they could not or would not appear in court.

But those prosecutions have a formidable foe in Justice Antonin Scalia. He insists the Constitution guarantees all defendants a right to confront their accusers in court, and sees no basis for an exception in cases of domestic violence or child abuse. [...]
I understand that changing the Constitution is a serious matter, but it is essential to the well-being of our nation and our people that these prosecutions procede without impediment.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Antiwar Update

As expected, I was not able to go to the peace rally and march, earlier today.  However, two local Flickrites have already posted photos.  Argusmaniac has a set here.  Peter Honeyman has a few also.  [UPDATE] Bob Goodsell has a couple of photos on his blog, too.  [UPDATE] More Flickr photos by Jacques Strappe and Boston Fan in Michigan.

Peter Honeyman

one of Peter Honeyman's photos

In non-local news, King of Zembla has posted about the Pentagon's practice of sending troops back into combat after treatment for depression and/or anxiety disorders.  I would take that as a sign of desperation.  The article says that the troops involved often are eager to go back.  That may be so, but I can't help but think that it is a really bad idea to send them back.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Antiwar Protest

San Francisco Chronicle

This is a photo of the peace march that was held in San Francisco today, one of many around the world.  The protest in Ann Arbor will be held tomorrow.  I won't be able to go, but I except that many will.  There should be a lot of young people, finally.

Michigan Peaceworks

Friday, March 17, 2006

Two-Headed Turtle Found in China


March 17, 2006—In biology, two heads are rarely better than one. But this unusual golden coin turtle, found in China, appears to be doing just fine. A businessman from the city of Qingdao says he bought the reptile at an animal market last year.

According to press reports, the turtle's two heads cooperate well and can even eat at the same time. Its owner says the reptile eats more than one-headed turtles do and has grown over the past year.

The creature most likely developed its unusual anatomy while still in the egg. Its embryo began to split in two—the process that gives rise to identical twins—but then failed to fully separate.
Think that's cute? Be sure to see this other recent item: Polar Bear Triplets Born in Zoo -- A First?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Election Reform

This is an election year. It has not heated up yet, but it will soon. As it does, I encourage people to think about election reform topics. These include the need for voter-verified paper records of votes, instant runoff voting, and perhaps abolishing the electoral college.

I am still in light-blogging mode, so I will not discuss each of these. However, I encourage people to do a little background research on them, using their favorite search engine. One hint: check out this post at Middle Earth, regarding the electoral college.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Kids These Days

The University of Michigan Medical School is actually hosting medical student blogs. What is the world coming to? And where do they find the time?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Reports on D-Cycloserine

Posting may be a little on the light side here, over the next 10 days or so.  In fact, if there are any aspiring bloggers out there who might want to try blogging, but don';t have their own blogs, and who are interested in neuroscience or progressive politics, let me know in the comments.  Perhaps you could be a guest blogger for a few weeks, give it a try, to see if you want to start your own.  Just leave a note in the comments section.  Don't be shy, now...

Speaking of shyness, there is another report out about the use of D-cycloserine (DCS)for treatment of Social Phobia, AKA Social Anxiety Disorder.  I blogged out that a while back, after a small pilot study was done.  And now we have...another small pilot study.  (Drug development is like that sometimes.)  The more recent study is a little different, though.  The first one looked at treatment of simple phobia.  Simple phobia generally does not require drug treatment, so the original study was more of a proof-of-concept kind of thing.  In contrast, finding a new, good treatment for social phobia would be a significant advance.

The original study was published in Arch Gen Psych, here.  Unfortunately, you don't get to see the full article without a subscription.  There are additional reports available, both of which give slightly different subsets of information (1 2).  

Because I am trying to get to be less compulsive, I am not going to recap the study.  You can just follow the links and read the articles and the abstract, then read my commentary.

The first comment I have is that the articles are a little misleading about the significance of the study.   They mention that social phobia can be rather serious.  From the #2 link:
Social Anxiety Disorder is the third most common psychiatric condition in the U.S. behind depression and alcohol abuse. If left untreated, the disorder typically follows a chronic, unremitting course that can lead to substantial impairments in vocational and social functioning.
That certainly is true.  Social phobia can be a career-threatening condition.  It can lead people to get stuck in bad -- even dangerous -- relationships.  It can lead to chronic under-employment, or overt unemployment.  Now, I know that it sometimes has been disparaged as a made-up disease; just as Hallmark invented Secretary's Day to sell greeting cards, some people allege that drug companies have invented Social Anxiety Disorder to sell drugs.  I am not going to argue that point now.  You will have to trust me; it is real, and in some cases, it is debilitating.  

The thing is, the study only showed short-term benefit for persons with public speaking anxiety.  While it is true that anxiety with public speaking is a form of social phobia, in fact it is a lot more like a simple phobia.  Most patients with serious social phobia have much more pervasive anxiety and avoidance behaviors.  Showing that something helps with a specific type of performance anxiety is interesting, but from a clinical standpoint, it is not very exciting.  We already have Xanax for that kind of problem.

My second comment is this: DCS is an antibiotic used for tuberculosis.  Widespread use of that could lead to drug resistant strains, and drug resistant TB is already a big problem.  We most certainly do not want to do anything to make that problem worse.  I would want to see a lot of careful analysis, to be convinced of the wisdom of using DCS for social phobia.  

My third comment is this: If someone is looking for a blockbuster drug that will have a big clinical impact, they need to find something that works for generalized social phobia, works at least as well as MAOIs, and does not have all the side effects, drug interactions, and dietary requirements...AND I would want to see long-term efficacy studies, that show reductions in avoidance behaviors.  After all, it is not the anxiety that ruins people's lives; the avoidance behavior is what causes all the problems.  

A drug that does all that would get my attention, and get me to call my stockbroker (if I had one, which I do not.)   So far, all they have shown is a reduction in anxiety levels in one particular kind of situation.  That is more of a curiosity that a clinical breakthrough.

No, the real reason that the DCS studies are interesting, is that they may provide some avenue for exploring the neurochemistry of social phobia.  Perhaps that could lead to  the development of a new class of molecular entities.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

What We Learn From the Ports Fiasco

We still do not know if there really is a security risk from the Dubai Ports World fiasco.  We do know that there is a big political showdown brewing, and it reflects badly on the Bush Administration.  Brad DeLong points us to another post (on Nouriel Roubini's Blog) that explains one aspect of this that seems to be overlooked by the media.  That is, regardless of whether there is a security issue, the port fiasco illustrates the fact that foreign companies are buying America.  Not content to settle for the relatively low returns on Treasury bonds, foreign governments and companies are increasingly turning to equity investments in America.  This is an inevitable consequence of the USA running a deficit.  Mathematically, there is no way around that.  As DeLong puts it:
"Economic growth produces about $1.3 trillion of new net wealth in America every year, and at a current account deficit of $1 trillion only $300 billion of that is an addition to the wealth of Americans--the $1 trillion that matches the current-account deficit is an addition to the wealth of foreigners."
At first, that seems to be inexplicable.  Why would our government pursue policies that lead to greater foreign ownership of American assets?  The usual explanation is that certain fiscal conservatives -- the "Norquistas" -- want to "starve the beast."  That is, by running deficits, they force cutting of social programs.  

Now, personally, I think that is a sociopathic thing to do, but I acknowledge the fact that there are smart people who think that it is a good idea to cut spending on social programs.   Not being an economist, perhaps there is something about this that I do not understand.  But in trying to figure it out, I came across this at the Economic Policy Institute:

I had to shrink the graphic a bit to get it to fit in my template, which causes distortion.  But of course everyone will click on the graphic to go to the full article, and see the graphic in its original, undistorted glory.  The graph shows the consequences of the current budget projections.  The flat line for social spending reflects an actual, gradual decrease, due to the effects of inflation and increasing population.  The increase in debt service payments indicates a real increase.  Soon we will be paying more to foreign lenders and investors than we will be paying for our own social programs.

So that is how you starve the beast: you feed the dragon instead!  How does that make sense?  

I have no particular quarrel with China, or any of the other foreign investors.  I mean, I wish they would hurry up and improve their human rights policies; but frankly, I am more concerned about human rights here in the USA.  What concerns me is the shift in relative power.  The trends illustrated in the graph can only make our country weaker, and other countries stronger.  That makes no sense to me, and I am practically a pacifist!  How does it makes sense to the hawks?  Is it really so important to starve the beast, that it makes it a good idea to weaken ourselves in relation to the rest of the world?  Forget about the ports.  We are selling our entire country.

Am I missing something here, or are the people who made this policy just plain idiots?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Political Agenda

This is an election year.  Those of us who are over 18 in November should all go out and vote.  As we prepare to engage in this civic responsibility, I recommend that we each decide for ourselves what our agenda is.  It seems that, too often, we let the politicians decide what the agenda should be, and they shape the political discourse and debate around the agenda that they think is most conducive to a victory for their party.  

We should not let them do that.  We are perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves, what is important to us.  We should decide for ourselves, and prod the politicians to discuss and debate what is important to us.  We also should resist the temptation to vote based upon any single issue.  Politicians like to act as though there is only one issue, and pretend that the one issue overrides all others.  If we fall for that, we makes ourselves easier to manipulate.  

Don't fall for it.

More on Authenticity

There are is a couple of comments on my recent post.  Greg P., of Information is Free, included the following statement:
...So you put him on an SSRI, and he changes. He changes so much that suddenly the family has a different person they're taking home, like aliens came and replaced their husband/father. And to some extent, you're not sure they can adjust to the "new" guy...
That got me to wondering: if there is such a thing as authenticity of mind, who decides what the authentic state of mind is?  At first glance, it would seem that the person is question decides for himself or herself if his/her state of mind is authentic.  But the reaction that Greg mentions, suggests that perhaps it is the acquaintances of the person who decide what is authentic.  

By the way, it is unusual for there to be such a dramatic change, upon initiation of antidepressant treatment, but it does happen.  In fact, there is a condition known as pseudodementia, in which a person is thought to have dementia, but is in fact suffering from depression.  In such cases, antidepressant treatment can produce dramatic results.  

On a related note, there is a couple of articles (1 2) on Science News regarding the effects of exercise and diet on brain functioning.  Exercise is beneficial, of course, but what is less obvious is that there is evidence for a protective effect against the development of dementia.  
Out of the variety of neurotrophic factors released during exercise, however, scientists found that one in particular stood out: brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. This protein seems to act as a ringleader, both prompting brain benefits on its own and triggering a cascade of other neural health–promoting chemicals to spring into action.
As detailed in the second article, the authors explain that omega-3 fatty acids may have a protective effect in cases of brain injury, and that they reduce the number of amyloid plaques in mouse models of Alzheimer disease.  Similarly, curcumin, a component of the spice, turmeric, also reduces amyloid plaques.  

It is not always valid to assume that what happens in rodents will have parallel effects in humans.   But regardless of the specifics, these studies demonstrate that, in general, it is possible for ordinary activities, such as exercise or the selection of certain types of food, to have significant effects upon brain function.  This again raises the question: if changes in brain function can lead to an inauthentic state of mind, then which changes are authentic, and which are not?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Impeachment Update

I know this may seem tiresome, but somebody's got to be the drummer and keep the beat going.  The Wall Street Journal published an article on March 6 pertaining to the impeachment question:
Impeachment Proves Risky Political Issue
Some Democratic Activists Push
Removing Bush From Office,
But Mainstream Steers Clear

March 6, 2006; Page A4

If Democratic candidate Tony Trupiano wins a Michigan House seat this fall, he pledges that one of his first acts will be to introduce articles of impeachment against President Bush.

That has earned Mr. Trupiano the endorsement of ImpeachPAC, a group of Democratic activists seeking to remove Mr. Bush from office. ImpeachPAC's Web site lists 14 candidates offering similar commitments, which are reminiscent of the Republican drive to oust former President Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But Mr. Trupiano's pledge hasn't much impressed Democratic Party leaders, who are keeping their distance from impeachment talk. They remember how the effort boomeranged on Republicans in the 1998 midterm elections, when Mr. Clinton's adversaries expected to gain House seats but lost ground instead.

"If you are looking for a message to take back the House and the Senate or the White House, there are better ways to go about it," says Democratic communications ace Joe Lockhart, a media aide to Mr. Clinton during the Republican impeachment effort.

That puts mainstream Democrats, on this issue at least, echoing the Republican National Committee. "Voters elect candidates because they understand the issues rather than engage in leftwing fantasies," says RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt. It also guarantees tension between some of the party's most fervent members and its electoral strategists, who are directing efforts to recapture Capitol Hill.

Impeachment advocates are undaunted. "Just because you can't win a political battle doesn't mean certain battles shouldn't be fought," says Bob Fertik, a founder of the ImpeachPAC effort. "If we don't hold a president accountable for lying to start a war, we might as well throw out the Constitution of the United States." [...]
First of all, the title "Impeachment Proves Risky..." is misleading.  There is no proof that the issue is risky; the author shows only that it is controversial.  Second, the main point seems to be that the fight to impeach Clinton was politically costly for Republicans, thus, arguing by analogy, fighting to impeach Bush might also be risky for Democrats.  However, the graphic in the story indicates that this analogy might not be valid:

Republicans lost face with the public, because the public did not support the impeachment of Clinton.  But a slim majority supports the impeachment of Bush, under the condition that it can be shown that he lied about the rationale for the Iraq war.  There appears to be pretty good evidence that he did exactly that.  Granted, we do not know how well that evidence would hold up under a formal inquiry.  However, I have to believe that if the administration had exonerating evidence to present, it would have done so by now.  After all, the President's approval ratings have been going down like a plumber's snake.

Monday, March 06, 2006

On The Authenticity Of Human Personality

I am just an amateur at this kind of thing, but sometimes I just blurt things out.  One argument that people sometimes raise, against the use of psychotropic medications, is that the state of mind that results from the use of such substances is somehow not authentic.  Part of this argument is seen in the controversy about so-called enhancement technologies, in which people argue about the propriety of using technology to make people "better than well."  That phrase seems to be used particularly in the context of persons using medical technologies when they are not ill, in order to enhance some functional capacity.

It has been reported that some nondepressed  persons taking SSRI antidepressant medication become better than well.  Some may argue that there is a problem with such a mental state.  One of the arguments is that such a mental state is not authentic, and thus it is to be avoided.  In this post, I question the validity of that argument, making reference to a study that is suggestive, but not conclusive, of a finding that complicates the analysis of this argument.  Continue reading here.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Freud Lives

Barton dam, in Ann Arbor

Early Saturday morning, I looked at some pictures of post-Katrina New Orleans.  The flood damage was terrible, as we all know.  Then later that day, I went out and took pictures of a dam.  It seemed to be a whim, with no specificity of purpose.  But there are dozens of places I could have gone to take pictures, so why did I choose this particular destination?

Pediatrician as Psychiatrist?

Dr. Hebert (Homepage) asked if it would be possible to ease the shortage of child psychiatrists, by offering pediatricians a one-year fellowship in child psychiatry.  Personally, I think it would be a good idea.  That is not because it would be an ideal solution, but because it would be a practical solution.  

Ordinarily, it takes five years of training (after medical school) to become a child psychiatrist.  Obviously, there is no way to duplicate that in a single year.  Thus, any such program would have to have fairly modest goals.  The goals would be to enhance the pediatricians ability to recognize and manage ADHD and depression.  The ADHD part would be fairly straightforward.  The depression part is more difficult, because recognizing depression in children and adolescents is complex.  

One of the more perplexing aspects of the history of psychiatry is the fact that it was long believed that children and adolescents do not get major depression.  It is hard to be sure of the reason for that, but part of it has to do with the fact that nuanced verbalization of emotions requires verbal abilities that are still developing when a person is young.  As an aside, there are some who believe that the reason men are less likely to be diagnosed with depression, compared to women, is that men have a harder time recognizing and verbalizing their emotions.  

Young people certainly do express emotion, so the problem is not in the absence of expression.  The problem is that it is hard for adults to calibrate their interpretation of the intensity of the expressed emotion.  Also, I think it is hard for kids to know what to do, when it is evident that what they have to say is not being heard or appreciated.  

Anyway, it does seem as though a one-year fellowship would be sufficient for someone already qualified as a pediatrician to get a pretty good understanding of those two conditions.  Pediatricians already have a lot of experience communicating with kids, and trying to understand them.  Most of them probably are pretty good at listening to kids.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Mandarin Fish

This is a picture of mandarin fish, taken by JP Trenque, the winner in BBC's Photographer of the Year 2005 contest. The BBC site showing some of his pictures is here. To see more photos by JP Trenque visit his website: www.jptrenque.com.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Michiganders, Help Me Out

I am disgusted with the Republican Party, and less than thrilled with the Democratic Party.  For that reason, I propose that we start a new Party: The Michigan Moose Party.  The MMP will run on a platform of fiscal responsibility, since budget woes are the Number One problem in Michigan.  If a few people pitch in and Say Yes! to Michigan, we can make this work.

Many independent parties style themselves as parties with  Big Ideas.  That is preposterous.  The MMP will be modest and realistic.  We will present ourselves as having only One Idea, but, like the great chess master José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, our One Idea will be the Right Idea.
Reporter:  "How many moves do you see ahead while playing chess?"
Capablanca: "Only one, but it's always the right one."
You see, to save this Great State of ours, we need only One Idea, but it has to be the Right Idea.  True to our Principles, we will rely exclusively on Michigan talent to implement the Right Idea.  The Right Idea will enable us to cut taxes, balance the budget, and eliminate unemployment!

The Right Idea goes like this: we refuse to sell cars to any State, unless that State agrees to become an Independent Business Owner (IBO).  This is important.  We have to move people in the direction of Self Sufficiency.  We also have to have some way of insulating ourselves from the Bad Actions of any IBO that Breaks the Law or does Something Unethical.  Because the BOs are Independent, we can absolve ourselves of any guilt, if they do Something Unethical.  

Anyway, once we get a few States to sign up as IBOs, we agree to sell them cars.  The Stroke of Genius that underlies the Right Idea, is that the IBOs have to pay Michigan a cut of their profits.  Since we make them sell the cars at inflated prices, that profit will be Large.  Now why, you may ask, would any other State agree to this?  Simple.  Once they become IBOs, they then have the right to sign up other States as IBOs.  Those states will pay profits to the States that signed them up, and of course Michigan will get a cut of that, too.  The other States will go along with it, because they will Get Rich Too.

"But Wait!" you exclaim! What happens when we run out of States?  Won't the States on the bottom tier get stuck?  

Hah!  That's were the Military comes in!  We simply create more States!  After all, it is said that the demand for Buicks is rather large in Venezuela.  MMP über alles!

Six months after Hurricane Katrina

Originally uploaded by icki.

This is a photo from an Ann Arbor blogger, known to the world as Icki, who has been in New Orleans lately. This is from his Flickr collection.

His blog is called Down on the Street.

For some reason, this photo got my attention. Icki's caption is: "Six months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward, one of the worst hit areas, remains largely untouched by clean-up efforts."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

This Could Change Everything

Courtesy of Zembla, I was tipped off to this news item:
SA solar research eclipses rest of the world
Willem Steenkamp
February 11 2006 at 12:50PM

In a scientific breakthrough that has stunned the world, a team of South African scientists has developed a revolutionary new, highly efficient solar power technology that will enable homes to obtain all their electricity from the sun.

This means high electricity bills and frequent power failures could soon be a thing of the past.

The unique South African-developed solar panels will make it possible for houses to become completely self-sufficient for energy supplies. [...]
One of the world leaders in solar energy, German company IFE Solar Systems, has invested more than R500-million in the South African invention and is set to manufacture 500 000 of the panels before the end of the year at a new plant in Germany.

Production will start next month and the factory will run 24 hours a day, producing more than 1 000 panels a day to meet expected demand. [...]
Production will start next month!  This could change everything, and I hope it does.  For example, the problem with electric cars has been that the electricity has to come from somewhere.  If it comes from burning coal, you don't really avoid the pollution problem.  But if it comes from the sun, then the only pollution is that associated with the manufacturing and disposal of the solar panels, batteries, etc.  

An earlier article gives us some indication of the potential cost savings associated with this technology:
Work done over the last two years indicates that panels can be produced in commercial volumes at a cost of about R 500 for a 50 Watt panel. This is much cheaper than existing solar panels available on the market. CIGS is a remarkably stable material and conversion efficiencies should be sustainable for 15-20 years in any given panel.
One South African Rand is worth about sixteen American cents.  That comes out to about $80 for a 50W panel, or $1,600 for a kilowatt.  If we see next month that this is meeting expectations, I would say that we could start bringing our troops home.  

In related a development, Donald Rumsfeld has directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for an invasion of the Sun.