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Monday, June 29, 2009

I can't help myself - I just love politics

On Sunday morning, I collected signatures for Stephanie Miner and chatted with some cool "Valley" Democrats.

Then tonight I went to a fundraiser for Donna Marsh O'Connor, a MoveOn friend who's running for Onondaga County legislator. Listened to her strategizing with a rep from the Working Families Party (Hillary), who noted that they're trying to "flip the leg," i.e., make the Dems the majority party in the Onondaga County legistature - a goal I can get behind! Later our State Assemblyman, Al Stirpe, who hosted the party, joined the conversation. I LOVED IT! I just enjoy it so much - these people are smart and engaged in the process and know what's going on. It's SO refreshing compared to most of the people I interact with.

When I was leaving, Donna told me that the Dems are looking for someone to run for the seat that Kathy Rapp is vacating in District 5. Ha ha! I don't live in that district (I live in District 4), and I couldn't do it right now even if I did, but it was SURE fun to think about and even nicer to be considered. Maybe some day.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

More celebrity death

After what happened to Natasha Richardson, I cannot believe that Billy Mays went to bed after a bump on the head, without seeing a doctor. Really sad. The American Head Injury Association, or whatever relevant group, really needs to do a public education campaign!

P.S. So much for bad things happening in threes!


Saturday, June 27, 2009

More about Michael

My friend Rachel, who's about 7 years older than me, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about Michael Jackson - he was just a singer, she says, he didn't do anything, he didn't change the world like the singers of her time - Bob Dylan, people like that. It almost made me laugh - everyone thinks the singers of their generation captured something special and spoke for their time. I pointed out that MJ created "We Are the World" and sang about racial harmony, etc., but I'm not sure she was convinced.


Friday, June 26, 2009

"Dress code may violate civil rights"

Interesting story on NPR this morning which raises all sorts of issues - does the club have the right to prevent undesirable elements coming in or is this just racial profiling?

. . . a new entertainment district in Kansas City, Mo., has established some pretty strict rules that some claim discriminate against young African Americans and Latinos. Sylvia Maria Gross reports for member station KCUR.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bad day for icons

Nothing makes you feel your mortality like watching the people you worshipped in high school dropping like flies. It was sad enough that Farrah Fawcett died today at age 62 after several years of what had to be misery, fighting anal cancer. Then I got home last night, turned on the news, and heard the Michael Jackon died at 50, probably from an overdose of prescription drugs. An inglorious end to both, after reaching dizzying heights in their heyday. Especially Michael Jackson, who is literally the soundtrack of a generation. As Quincy Jones said, he was a talent that comes along, "not once in a lifetime, but just once." R.I.P.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Letter to Dept of Environmental Conservation

Sent to Commissioner, Asst Commissioner for Natural Resources, District Commissioner, my State Assemblyman (Al Stirpe) and my State Senator (John DeFrancisco).

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you today to express my serious concern about the recent elimination of bridges in the Clay Marsh recreation area. I recently spoke with Gary Pratt, the wildlife biologist for the northern wildlife areas. I understand that the deterioration of the bridges has created liability concerns, and I understand that maintaining the bridges is not financially viable. What I don’t understand is how the DEC arrived at the conclusion that Clay Marsh is not utilized by the public. Mr. Pratt informed me that removing the bridges would have no impact because “no one” uses the area. That is patently and demonstrably untrue. I use the area almost daily to walk my dog and I see other people year around - walking their dogs, skiing, hunting, etc. I also see ample evidence of other use, including fire pits, beer bottles, and used condoms.

I respect the department’s need to make a judgment call about public use, but I’m troubled by the method utilized to come to this conclusion. I never saw any official personnel in the park assessing usage. I never heard of any public hearing on the topic of usage. I never received any correspondence regarding usage. I never even saw a sign informing the public that the bridges would be removed and not replaced.

As a concerned citizen who took the time to inquire about public space, I was taken aback to be blithely informed by a public official that “no one” uses the area. I’m not “no one” - I’m a voter and a tax payer. As such, I am not out of line requesting a more thorough explanation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Evo psych succumbs to EVIDENCE

Loved this excellent article by Newsweek's terrific science writer, Sharon Begley, explaining how the underlying principles of evolutionary psychology (stating that modern male domination is based on evolution) have been mortally wounded by research evidence. Here are some excerpts:

These have not been easy days for evolutionary psychology. For years the loudest critics have been social scientists, feminists and liberals offended by the argument that humans are preprogrammed to rape, to kill unfaithful girlfriends and the like. (This was a reprise of the bitter sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 1980s. When Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson proposed that there exists a biologically based human nature, and that it included such traits as militarism and male domination of women, left-wing activists—including eminent biologists in his own department—assailed it as an attempt "to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race, or sex" analogous to the scientific justification for Nazi eugenics.)

Evo psych took its first big hit in 2005, when NIU's Buller exposed flaw after fatal flaw in key studies underlying its claims, as he laid out in his book Adapting Minds. Anthropological studies such as Hill's on the Ache, shooting down the programmed-to-rape idea, have been accumulating. And brain scientists have pointed out that there is no evidence our gray matter is organized the way evo psych claims, with hundreds of specialized, preprogrammed modules. Neuroscientist Roger Bingham of the University of California, San Diego, who describes himself as a once devout "member of the Church of Evolutionary Psychology" (in 1996 he created and hosted a multimillion-dollar PBS series praising the field), has come out foursquare against it, accusing some of its adherents of an "evangelical" fervor. Says evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci of Stony Brook University, "Evolutionary stories of human behavior make for a good narrative, but not good science."

Like other critics, he has no doubt that evolution shaped the human brain. How could it be otherwise, when evolution has shaped every other human organ? But evo psych's claims that human behavior is constrained by mental modules that calcified in the Stone Age make sense "only if the environmental challenges remain static enough to sculpt an instinct over evolutionary time," Pigliucci points out. If the environment, including the social environment, is instead dynamic rather than static—which all evidence suggests—then the only kind of mind that makes humans evolutionarily fit is one that is flexible and responsive, able to figure out a way to make trade-offs, survive, thrive and reproduce in whatever social and physical environment it finds itself in.

. . . "Depend on"? The very phrase is anathema to the dogma of a universal human nature. But it is the essence of an emerging, competing field. Called behavioral ecology, it starts from the premise that social and environmental forces select for various behaviors that optimize people's fitness in a given environment. Different environment, different behaviors—and different human "natures."

. . . Evolutionary psychology is not going quietly. It has had the field to itself, especially in the media, for almost two decades. In large part that was because early critics, led by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, attacked it with arguments that went over the heads of everyone but about 19 experts in evolutionary theory. It isn't about to give up that hegemony . . . evo psych remains hugely popular in the media and on college campuses, for obvious reasons. It addresses "these very sexy topics," says Hill. "It's all about sex and violence," and has what he calls "an obsession with Pleistocene just-so stories." And few people—few scientists—know about the empirical data and theoretical arguments that undercut it. "Most scientists are too busy to read studies outside their own narrow field," he says.

. . . And for a final nail in the coffin, geneticists have discovered that human genes evolve much more quickly than anyone imagined when evolutionary psychology was invented, when everyone assumed that "modern" humans had DNA almost identical to that of people 50,000 years ago. Some genes seem to be only 10,000 years old, and some may be even younger.

That has caught the attention of even the most ardent proponents of evo psych, because when the environment is changing rapidly—as when agriculture was invented or city-states arose—is also when natural selection produces the most dramatic changes in a gene pool. Yet most of the field's leaders, admits UNM's Miller, "have not kept up with the last decade's astounding progress in human evolutionary genetics." The discovery of genes as young as agriculture and city-states, rather than as old as cavemen, means "we have to rethink to foundational assumptions" of evo psych, says Miller, starting with the claim that there are human universals and that they are the result of a Stone Age brain. Evolution indeed sculpted the human brain. But it worked in malleable plastic, not stone, bequeathing us flexible minds that can take stock of the world and adapt to it.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Health care reform

My friend Russ sent me an interesting essay from the Wall Street Journal (not a publication I take as completely objective), which makes some thought-provoking points. It's title is "The Myth of Prevention" but it's more about cost cutting in general. Below is an excerpt:

. . . despite being an admirer, I just don’t see how the president can pull off the reform he has in mind without cost cutting. I recently came on a phrase in an article in the journal “Annals of Internal Medicine” about an axiom of medical economics: a dollar spent on medical care is a dollar of income for someone. I have been reciting this as a mantra ever since. It may be the single most important fact about health care in America that you or I need to know. It means that all of us—doctors, hospitals, pharmacists, drug companies, nurses, home health agencies, and so many others—are drinking at the same trough which happens to hold $2.1 trillion, or 16% of our GDP. Every group who feeds at this trough has its lobbyists and has made contributions to Congressional campaigns to try to keep their spot and their share of the grub. Why not?—it’s hog heaven. But reform cannot happen without cutting costs, without turning people away from the trough and having them eat less. If you do that, you have to be prepared for the buzz saw of protest that dissuaded Roosevelt, defeated Truman’s plan and scuttled Hillary Clinton’s proposal. The good news is that the AMA, representing perhaps 15% of active practicing physicians, is not as powerful as it was in Truman’s time, and in the eyes of the public and many in medicine, it’s identity in the reform debate, is that of a protectionist, self-serving, organization; as a result, even their most progressive statements are viewed with suspicion. I’ve found the views of the American Medical Student Association particularly exciting—the next generation of physicians I sense has a deeper commitment to affordable health care for all than ours; they are, simply put, better people.

We may not like it, but the only way a government can control costs is by wielding great purchasing power to get concessions on the price of drugs, physician fees, and hospital services; the only way they can control administrative costs is by providing a simplified service, yes, the Medicare model (with a 3% overhead), and not allowing private insurance to cherry-pick patients (some of them operating with 30% overheads, the cost passed on to you).

Contrary to what we might think, comparative studies show us that the US when compared to other advanced countries, does not have a sicker population: we actually use fewer prescription drugs and we have shorter hospital stays (though we manage to do a lot more imaging in those short stays—got to feed the MRI machines). The bottom line is that our health care is costly because it is costly, not because we deliver more care, better care or special care. Alas, a solution that does not address the cost of care, and negotiate new prices for the services offered will not work; a solution that does not put caps on spending and that instead projects cost-savings here and there also won’t cut it. Leaders have to make tough and unpopular decisions, and if he is to be the first president to successfully accomplish reform there does not seem to be much choice: cut costs.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Movie disappointments

The Pilot's Wife. What the hell was this movie about? A couple of years ago, I started to read the novel it's based on, but I got bored pretty quickly and never finished it. The movie (and I assume the book) starts out about one thing - a distraught wife who discovers her dead husband was leading a double life. Then it goes off in a completely different direction (for awhile), focusing on the IRA and terrorism and who knows what. Then, in the end, it casually comes back to the original story and the wife makes peace with her massively deceptive husband and moves on with her life. The terrorism and the death of the 104 innocent people on the plane are moved past without comment. Holy cow - I never saw a terrorist act used as a plot device before. SHAME!! As long as her and her daughter are o.k., I guess the rest of the people don't matter. Crazy, weird, unsatisfying movie. It just couldn't decide what it wanted to say. A waste of a terrific cast and 90 minutes of my life.

The International. This really should have been in the same league as movies like Syrianna, but just didn't hold together. We all got bored despite a first rate cast and decent performances. At the end, I wondered SO WHAT??? I thought the point had been lost - what was the filmmaker trying to say? Needed more of a point of view. Reminded me of Vantage Point, which started strong, but ended with a whimper instead of a bang, and didn't have much of a point of view despite the title. If you're going to go to the trouble to make a movie about an Important Topic, you should bother to make a substantial movie! I had pretty low expectations because the reviews had been lukewarm and the movie did not catch on with audiences. But I foolishly thought it was too intelligent for the rank and file (I'm smug like that). Instead it's flaws were fully on display. Really frustrating, because I wanted to like it.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

The next big thing

I've heard a couple of interviews with the people involved with Food Inc and it strikes me that as a nation, on the food issue, we're about where we were maybe 10 or 15 years ago regarding global warming - there's a solid minority that is aware of the issue and is advocating for change, but we haven't reach a critical mass, or the issue hasn't quite hit the mainstream. It astonishes me the progress that has been made on climate issues - average people switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs and bringing their own tote bags to the grocery store. Concern about the climate used to be such a fringe issue and now it's a common and pervasive conversation. I suspect that corporate food production will get into the public consciousness a lot faster than global warming did, because now we're more used to considering these issues, and because people keep getting sick from food.


Friday, June 19, 2009

"Why doctors hate science"

This excellent column from Newsweek writer Sharon Begley exlains the value of "effectiveness research" in medicine (this is from the February 28 issue of the magazine). Here's an excerpt:

It's hard not to scream when you see how many physicians, pharmaceutical companies, medical-device makers and, lately, hysterical conservatives seem to hate science, or at best ignore it. These days the science that inspires fear and loathing is "comparative-effectiveness research" (CER), which is receiving $1 billion under the stimulus bill President Obama signed. CER means studies to determine which treatments, including drugs, are more medically and cost-effective for a given ailment than others. A study in February in the journal Lancet, for instance, compared treatments for severe ankle sprains, concluding that a below-the-knee cast is superior to a tubular compression bandage. A 2006 study of schizophrenia drugs found that old-line antipsychotics were as effective as pricey new ones.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

"The myth of early detection"

This April column by Newsweek writer Sharon Begley made a big impression on me and I've often thought of it since. Here's an excerpt:

. . . the truly infuriating, head-scratching thing about all early-detection studies: that the results are not an unambiguous, slam-dunk positive. If the hype is right, then finding a tumor when it is small should mean a better chance that surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy will eradicate it, allowing you to live until something else kills you. Early detection should produce clear, unquestionable benefits.

Yet it doesn't. Not the PSA [prostate cancer test], not early detection of lung or testicular or pancreatic cancer, or glioblastomas, a type of brain cancer. Even mammography is iffy, since trials showing a decrease in mortality were done before the age of adjuvant therapy. Colonoscopy might cut mortality, but it has never been tested in a randomized, controlled trial, notes Barnett Kramer of the National Institutes of Health, lead author of one of the new PSA studies. The Pap test for cervical cancer and the fecal occult blood test for colorectal are about the only screening tests shown to decrease mortality from the cancer they target. If the failure of most early detection to strongly affect whether you live or die makes no sense to you, you're not alone. "The medical community has done such an extraordinary job getting out the message that early detection is tantamount to cure, it's incorporated into people's bone marrow," says Kramer.

One reason early detection doesn't make a bigger difference is that, absent effective therapy, it hardly matters when a tumor is found: early or late, you're doomed. This is pretty much the case, sadly, for glioblastomas and pancreatic cancer. But the benefits of early detection also vanish if therapy is so terrific, or the malignancy so slow-growing, that the cancer can be vanquished even if caught late. This describes many testicular cancers. It is for cancers such as breast and colorectal, where therapies sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, that early detection should help.

But the natural progression of cancers also undercuts the value of early detection. "All the common cancers have a spectrum of aggressiveness," says Kramer. Some are slow-growing, while other cancers of the same organ are aggressive and deadly, speeding from birth to an advanced stage before you know what hit you. If you look for cancer in asymptomatic people—as screening does—you are much more likely to find an indolent one for the simple reason that indolent cancers, by definition, spend more time in an early, nonthreatening stage, whereas aggressive cancers speed through that early stage. "You may pick up tumors that can be cured, but which never needed to be treated in the first place," says Kramer. Failing to detect an indolent cancer early doesn't necessarily put you at much of a disadvantage.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Women, especially, want single payer healthcare

Terrific editorial in the Boston Globe. Her's an excerpt:

. . . single-payer plans eliminate the $300 billion to $400 billion that insurance companies spend annually in administrative overhead and waste. Second, single-payer plans are best positioned to take on the enormous challenge of reducing or eliminating the financial incentives that have led to so much overtreatment and undertreatment.
[ . . . ]
Women in particular have much to gain from single-payer healthcare. Our country has an excess of medical specialists, and is in desperate need of more primary caregivers - such as general internists, family practice physicians, nurse practitioners, and licensed midwives - who are often more aptly trained than specialists to provide the comprehensive services women need. A single payer plan would eliminate the financial incentives that have been obstacles to training more primary care professionals. It would also eliminate the need for so many medical malpractice lawsuits, as people would not have to worry about paying for medical care whenever they experienced bad outcomes.

The only national plan for healthcare reform that explicitly includes women's reproductive health services, including abortion, is one sponsored by Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat. Other sponsors of single-payer plans are also amenable to including women's reproductive health services.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

High speed chase ends in tragedy

This happened only a couple of miles from where we lived - 3 children, all under the age of 10, were killed when a car being chased by police crashed into the sidewalk where they were standing in front of a house in the Feltonville section of Philadelphia. Awful. I hope the police are seriously punished for engaging in a high speed chase in a residential area. Of course, the driver is responsible, but this has occurred before from high speed chases and the issue of whether it's worth it is discussed every time. IT'S NOT WORTH IT!


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Tasered grandmother

This big burly cop had NO option other than to subdue this little old lady with 50,000 volts! She was "belligerent" and she "dared" him to do it. So I guess it's o.k. Ridiculous and offensive. This guy is going to face no disciplinary action.


Monday, June 08, 2009

"One makes me feel tough"

From the Get Your War On blog by David Rees:

As a relatively lazy person who resents doing difficult things, this analysis makes me sympathetic to Cheney. If you gave me the choice of

A.) making a sustained, disciplined intellectual investment in understanding the structure, motivation, cultural origins of, and systemic characteristics of terrorist organizations (organizations, remember, based in a culture I knew almost nothing about, which means I’d probably have to read even more books), or

B.) pouring water up some guy’s nose … there’s no question what I’d do.

One option makes me feel tough, and the other is BORING and a lot of work.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Psychology and public policy

I had heard of the book Nudge, but this report on NPR gave it new resonance. Here's some excerpts from the story:

Cass Sunstein, President Obama's pick to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is a vocal supporter of the program, because it's an economic policy that shapes itself around human psychology. Sunstein is just one of a number of high-level appointees now working in the Obama administration who favors this kind of approach.

All are devotees of behavioral economics — a school of economic thought greatly influenced by psychological research — which argues that the human animal is hard-wired to make errors when it comes to decision-making, and therefore people need a little "nudge" to make decisions that are in their own best interests.

And that is exactly what Obama administration officials plan to do: By taking account of human psychology, they hope to save you from yourself.

This is the story of how obscure psychological research into human decision-making first revolutionized economics and now appears poised to remake the relationship between the government and its citizens.

[ . . .]

The ideas that underlie the Obama administration's approach to social policies got their start in 1955 with Daniel Kahneman.

[ . . .]

Kahneman was surprised by the pure visceral power of his own certainty. He eventually coined a phrase for it: "illusion of validity."

It's a problem that afflicts us all, says Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on this subject. From stockbrokers to baseball scouts, people have a huge amount of confidence in their own judgment, even in the face of evidence that their judgment is wrong.

But that mistake is just one of many cognitive errors identified by Kahneman and his frequent collaborator, psychologist Amos Tversky. For more than a decade, the two worked together cataloging the ways the human mind systematically misjudges the world around it.

. . . if the ideas of Kahneman and Tversky had simply stayed in the realm of academic psychology, there wouldn't be much of a story to tell.

The economist Richard Thaler, frequently mentioned as a contender for a Nobel, was the one who integrated Kahneman and Tversky's ideas about human irrationality into economics.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

"Outdated medical lore"

I loved this essay from Newsweek that explains why we STILL think we need to drink 8 glasses of water a day. Here's an excerpt:

Now, the authors are back with Don't Swallow Your Gum! (Griffin Original), a book of medical myths and half-truths that will be published next week. Among the 66 myths, there's something to surprise everyone: that, despite what Mom told us, vitamin C does not cure a cold and even the highest SPF sunscreen will not prevent all sunburns. But what's more surprising than the myths they debunk, is how strongly their friends, colleagues and readers protested their research. Both Vreeman and Carroll have been repeatedly told they're incorrect, misinformed or flat-out wrong, that these are medical facts they're messing with. "It's not like we discovered something new, we just reviewed the literature," says Carroll. "But people still won't take it, it's like nothing would be enough to convince them otherwise."

Why do we believe and cling to these seemingly unimportant nuggets of information? Why is it so difficult for us to accept that reading in poor light won't ruin our eyesight and we don't actually need to drink eight glasses of water each day? Turns out, we're pretty likely to side with the things our doctors and parents have told us, myths we've seen reinforced with our own eyes, even when research tells us to believe otherwise. "People often take rumors or anecdotes as fact," says Vreeman. "We tend to give those things as much weight as we would a scientific study because they're connected to people in charge. We sometimes reason things out after the fact, come up with patterns to explain what we saw happen."

The body of research on belief formation is relatively sparse. One expert in the field, York University psychologist James Alcock, admits that it's difficult to trace where beliefs start. "Even as individuals we usually can't explain where beliefs come from," says Alcock, who is currently at work on a book about the psychology of belief. "Why should you drink eight glasses of water? People will say they heard it somewhere. Sometimes it's impossible to trace the source, but it just gets repeated over and over." Some myths begin with a kernel of truth that gets misinterpreted, like the eight-glass theory. In 1945, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council stated that adults should take in about 2.5 liters of water a day and that most of this is contained in prepared foods. Ignore that last part of the recommendation and you've got the eight-glass mandate. Others are couched in what seems like common sense, like the idea that reading in the dark is bad for the eyes. After all, our eyes do hurt after reading in the dark, so it makes sense to assume that some kind of damage is taking place.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"The Situation"

Matt and I watched this decent movie about the war in Iraq. Good performances and well-made, with several especially affecting scenes. A tiny bit cliche, but how can you avoid that?


Monday, June 01, 2009

Determining your political affiliation

My friend Suzanne sent me this fascinating column by Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times about recent research on political affiliation. George Lakoff (Moral Politics; Don't Think of an Elephant) has made a similar argument for many years (about the values underlying political perspectives). Here's an excerpt, the first few paragraphs:

If you want to tell whether someone is conservative or liberal, what are a couple of completely nonpolitical questions that will give a good clue?

How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?

Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.

Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

By the by, I would slap my dad with his permission (if he were living) and I'm not much of a germ-phobe, so my liberal credentials are intact!

Here's an excerpt from the end that I especially liked:

So how do we discipline our brains to be more open-minded, more honest, more empirical? A start is to reach out to moderates on the other side — ideally eating meals with them, for that breaks down “us vs. them” battle lines that seem embedded in us. (In ancient times we divided into tribes; today, into political parties.) The Web site www.civilpolitics.org is an attempt to build this intuitive appreciation for the other side’s morality, even if it’s not our morality.

“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”

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