Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hunting


As I may have mentioned once or twice, I live in a rural area and my property abuts state forest -- or, more properly, a "state wildlife management area," which means a wilderness in which hunting is allowed. (In season, with a license, of course.) Hunting deer in the state forest is an arduous endeavor that requires considerable knowledge and skill. The land is rocky and steep, full of brambles and almost impenetrable stands of mountain laurel. It is infested with ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies. The deer are elusive and they can move through the terrain much faster and more easily than humans.

Nevertheless, guys go up there and take on the challenge. If they succeed, they put food on their table. I'm all for it. I even gave my neighbor permission to pursue them onto my property. There are more deer in New England today than there were when the first English settlers set foot here. With the Indians, cougars and wolves gone, somebody has to hunt them. And hunting animals for food is the natural human condition.

Walter Palmer, however, is not a hunter. The technical term for him is an asshole. He hired some guys to lure a lion with bait, and shine a spotlight on it, so he could stand there and shoot it. Oh yeah -- it was a bad shot, and it took the animal a day and half to die. And obviously, he didn't eat it. I have no idea why anyone would enjoy this activity, and even less how anyone could take pride in by displaying a "trophy." Why didn't he just buy an old lion from the circus, chain it in his back yard, and shoot it there? Seems like pretty much the same concept. It doesn't matter to me that the animal had been given a name, actually. What matters is that the act was utterly pointless.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The worst thing about the problem of climate change . . .

. . . is that it's impossible to adequately express its magnitude and urgency. Here's Joe Romm writing about James Hansen's latest offering, and the measured prose just rolls by. If they were to read that aloud on the nightly news, it would just be too much to register. Want to see what I mean?

[T]he New York Times reported last year on the news of the accelerating collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet that “The heat-trapping gases could destabilize other parts of Antarctica as well as the Greenland ice sheet, potentially causing enough sea-level rise that many of the world’s coastal cities would eventually have to be abandoned.”
That would include, hmm, let's see -- oh yeah, New York City. But, are Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. and Dean Baquet worried about it? Not nearly as much as they are worried about Hillary Clinton's e-mails. What is to be done?

Friday, July 24, 2015

The sorry state of the "profession" of journalism


Maybe you noticed a few days ago a flurry of news stories about an impending "mini-ice age." I did, on the front page of the CNN and CBS news web sites, among other places. The story claimed that a study predicted a "60% fall in solar activity" by the 2030s, which would produce an effect similar to that of the "Maunder minimum" in the 17th Century, which was associated with a cold spell in Europe.

This was, in fact, totally bogus, as Michael J. I. Brown explains for phys.org (which is a science news aggregation site that you ought to bookmark).

The predicted 60% decline is in sunspots, not solar radiation. The study made no prediction at all about the impact on climate, but:

a) The relative solar quiescence of the Maunder minimum may not have been the main cause of the cold spell in the first place;

b) Any effect of a repeat of a similar solar minimum in the 2030s would be overwhelmed by the higher concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today, resulting in at most a temporary slowdown in global warming, not a "mini-ice age."

What is most disgraceful about this is that the reporters apparently made the false deduction on their own, after a little Wikipedia research, and without consulting any relevant experts. And of course, climate change denialists jumped all over the completely false story and will, I am quite sure, never give it up.

And now the New York Times, apparently motivated by a corporately pervasive and completely irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton, puts out a false story about her stupid e-mails. Apparently the Justice Department has asked for a criminal inquiry into how a FOIA request for the e-mails was handled, with respect to classified information, and the NYT reporters assumed that the target was Ms. Clinton -- who obviously didn't even work for the State Department at the time the events in question occurred and had nothing to do with them.

Stuff this bad and worse happens every day, of course. It drives me crazy. I didn't go to journalism school, but I know how to get these stories straight. Really, they're just lazy and unaccountable.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

My quality of life has greatly improved . . .

by blocking Adobe Flash Player. You must do the same. Life will become so much sweeter.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brave New World


Prediction is hard, especially about the future, but something is going to happen with the technology called the CRISPR/Cas9 system. I've linked to the Gizmodo summary which is reasonably accessible, but it's very easy to come up with a whole lot more info using your favorite Internet search engine.

In a pistachio shell, this is a fairly new method for editing genes which provides higher efficiency (i.e., percent of targeted cells in which the desired edit is made) and accuracy (percent of cells in which an additional, undesired change occurs) than previous methods. If you're interested, it's derived from an immunologic system in bacteria and archaea that cuts up the genomes of invading viruses.

I was inspired to write about this today because of recent advances that improve the accuracy of the method. Even without fantastic accuracy, CRISPR/Cas9 will transform both biological research and biotechnology. We'll be able to learn a whole lot more about how specific genetic changes affect phenotypes. It will be possible to create designer organisms with much more specificity and detail than can be done today. You can speculate on the possible good and bad that may come of that but . . .
There is a specific organism called Homo sapiens that presents specific concerns. Right now, there is a voluntary international moratorium on genetic engineering of human germ cells and embryos. But, Chinese scientists recently tried it anyway on non-viable human zygotes (specifically, cells made for in vitro fertilization that had 3 sets of chromosomes) to see if they could fix the defect that causes the genetic disease beta thalessemia. They concluded that the technique wasn't ready for use in humans yet because it wasn't accurate enough.

However, what we are seeing today is that it's going to keep getting better. Moratorium or no, international ethical consensus or no, somebody is going to do it. They'll already be making meatier steers and milkier cows and goats that pis rayon. So why not make a smarter or taller or prettier person? It is true that we don't know enough about the multi-genetic determinants of most important human characteristics to do this yet, but we will. And people will do it.

Try to tell me why not.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The TPP: It's worse than you thought


Amy Kapczynski, in the new NEJM (Don't know if you'll be allowed to read the whole thing) manages to exponentially increase my bafflement over president Obama's push to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership signed. Even Paul Krugman has pretty much shrugged at it, saying it's not really a trade agreement, it's an intellectual property agreement, and who cares about that?

As Kapczynski says, the draft is a secret, and even members of congress can only see it if they agree to a gag order and not to carry even a pen into the room. But some chapters have been leaked and, Whoa!

For a bit of background, the only reason it is now possible to provide essential pharmaceutical treatments to millions of people in poor countries is because India, a major center for drug manufacturing, has comparatively liberal provisions on drug patents, not allowing patents for "me too" drugs or new uses of existing drugs. The TPP would outlaw such limits on patents. While India is not a party to the treaty, it is quite odd that the draft targets India's laws, "sometimes word for word" says Kapczynski, given that it is intended to gain additional signatories in the future.

The draft would also essentially override president Obama's own initiative to reduce the "data exclusivity" period (which prevents marketing of generics) for biologicals from 12 years to 7, which would cost U.S. consumers and taxpayers $4 billion over the next decade. Other provisions would also increase drug prices.

And there's this:

In March 2015, a third bombshell dropped: a draft chapter on “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS). It would empower foreign companies to sue member countries for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages in a wide range of cases in which they argue that their expected future profits have been undermined. These challenges would be heard by “arbiters” — typically private lawyers, many of whom cycle in and out of industry — with no prospect of independent review by a national court. . . . Firms have already used provisions like these to challenge an astonishing range of laws, from minimum-wage laws in Egypt, to tobacco regulations in Uruguay and Australia, to core aspects of patent law as they apply to medicines in Canada. The ISDS provisions alone could interfere with domestic health policy for decades to come. Under their auspices, policies covering a wide range of issues, from food and tobacco labeling, to patent law, to drug-pricing rules, to environmental protection could be challenged in participating countries — including, of course, the United States.
What are you thinking, Mr. President?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

No good options for chronic pain


In some not so good news, the FDA has substantially strengthened its warning on the risk of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDS. Although aspirin is literally a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, and has overlapping mechanisms of action with these drugs, it is not formally classified as an NSAID, basically because the term is designed to exclude it, as I will explain.

NSAIDS include ibuprofen, naproxen, and celecoxib, which was at one time heavily advertised based on safety claims. These are widely used by people with osteoarthritis and other chronic pain conditions. The problem, as the FDA now concludes, is that they strongly raise the risk of heart attacks and ischemic strokes. The risks are mostly reported in relative terms, so it's hard to pin down the absolute risk for an individual. But the risk is substantial even for people without heart disease or risk factors. And obviously, you really don't want a stroke or a myocardial infarct. The risk increases with dose and duration of use, which means that the kinds of regimens people take for moderate to severe arthritis are the most dangerous.

Aspirin actually lowers the risk of heart attacks and ischemic strokes, which is terrific, but it creates a risk of bleeding, including (comparatively rarely) hemorrhagic strokes and more commonly gastrointestinal bleeds. You might say, well, that's better than a heart attack, and I tend to agree with you, but doctors are very concerned about these events because it can be hard to find the bleeding point and they can be fatal  -- although they can also be fixed and Bob's your uncle. Anyway, for that reason, doctors don't generally recommend high dose aspirin long term. (Low dose aspirin is beneficial for people with cardiac risk, but at a dose that's too low for pain management.)

Then there is acetaminophen (Tylenol). It reduces pain but not inflammation, so it's not the most useful for arthritis anyway. But the big problem is that the difference between a clinically effective dose and liver damage is very narrow, especially but not exclusively for people who drink alcohol. Liver damage from acetaminophen is distressingly common.

Then there are opioids, and we already know what's going on with that. They are definitely not recommended for arthritis pain or most chronic pain syndromes.

And that leaves basically nothing as far as pharmaceutical treatment. Of course people can choose to accept risks in exchange for reduced pain and disability, and I'm sure many will. But we need better options. As the population ages, arthritis becomes more and more prevalent. I was lucky enough to have a form of arthritis in my hand that was treatable by surgery, but without that option, I would be very unhappy today. I was in constant pain and I faced real limitations on activities I cared about. But I never did take pills for it, for all the above reasons.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Utter disgrace


Spencer Ackerman has a good summary of the report on the American Psychological Association's collusion with torture, issued by former assistant U.S. Attorney David Hoffman. This information isn't really new, though some of the details are, but apparently we needed the report before anybody could do anything about it. Writes Ackerman:

Sources with knowledge of the report and its consequences, who requested anonymity to discuss the findings before public release, expected a wave of firings and resignations across the leadership of an organization that Hoffman finds used its extensive institutional links to the CIA and US military to facilitate abusive interrogations.
This whole atrocity is almost as strange as it is disturbing. I would venture to say that the vast majority of APA members are as outraged as I am. So how could the leadership have been so completely co-opted by Dick Cheney?

Well, the answer is money. With NIH research funding drying up, the Department of Defense was an increasingly important source of money for psychological research. And of course DoD directly employs a lot of psychologist as well, in intelligence as well as clinical work. Most of the APA members involved in crafting relevant policy had ties to DoD or intelligence agencies.

Money can buy unlimited immorality.

   

Sunday, July 12, 2015

T. Ronald Dump . . .

. . . or Donald T. Rump, or whatever his name is, has provoked many people to speculate, only half un-seriously, that he may be a double agent. Perhaps Hillary is even secretly financing him.

While that seems implausible, it is hard to figure out what exactly he thinks he is doing. While his ego is unconfined by the extent of the observable universe, surely he does not really believe that he will become president, or even the Republican nominee. Does he? And he doesn't need the publicity, nor is it good for his business, nor is he saying anything that the rest of the Republican candidates aren't saying, he's just saying it more crudely.

But that is not the point of this post. What I'm wondering is why Mr. Rump Dump has an avalanche of opprobrium landing on his head now, with severed business relationships and boycotts, when his insane campaign of birtherism had no such result.  Granted, his pretend interest in running for president previously was even less convincing, but still. He's been a highly offensive lunatic for many years now.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Stoopid Question

It so happens that I had a government background check done four or five years ago in order to do some work with the VA. Ergo, it appears the Chinese government now has a whole lot of information about me including my social security number, date and place of birth, and other info they could use to steal my identity and mess with me in all kinds of ways. I presume they aren't interested in doing that, in my case, but I also have to say you never know.

Douglas Rushkoff raises a very interesting question. Why is that database accessible via the Internet in the first place? It seems to me that most of these data breaches and other cybersecurity concerns, such as hackers taking down the electrical grid or whatever, involve systems that have no reason to be connected to the Internet in the first place. Examples include Home Depot heating and ventilation systems (which is how the hackers got into the credit card data in the cash register system), bank account data, and yes, the OPM background check database. If an authorized person wants to get access to a specific background check, for a good reason, they can send an e-mail and receive that individual background check in return, without having to connect the entire database to the Internet. This could even be automated. Yes, hackers might then be able to get background checks one at a time, but they would already need to have the individual person's identifying information.

Why are power grid components connected to the Internet? If they need to be controlled remotely, the electric company obviously is already connected to them and could just run parallel FO cable. You wouldn't be able to hack into it, you would need to physically breach the system -- which is already possible anyway. Ditto for my bank account. If somebody in a different branch needs my info, they can ask for it specifically without the underlying database being connected to the Internet.

Are Rushkoff and I missing something here?

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Kaboom!


No doubt you have heard of the latest Darwin Award winner (award not yet official) who removed himself from the gene pool by launching a firework off his head. Then there are two NFL players, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul  and  Bucs cornerback C.J. Wilson who lost fingers to fireworks this July 4. It was less well-publicized, but there was a second Darwin Award winner whose preferred launch pad was his chest.

So this got me to wondering exactly how big of a public health problem this really is. Well, that's kind of a subjective question. It seems more than 11,000 ER visits each year result from consumer fireworks along with more than 18,000 fires (mostly brush fires but 1,200 structural fires and 400 vehicle fires) causing $32 million in damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association, drawing on mostly government stats.

That sounds like a pretty heavy toll but it's a big country. It pales in comparison with motor vehicle injuries, obviously (2.5 million ER visits, and counting lost work and lifetime medical costs, well over $50 billion in direct costs. Also, of course, almost 34,000 deaths).

The significance of fireworks injuries and damage is therefore sort of imponderable. We don't have a denominator, i.e. how many people use consumer fireworks and how often, so I can't compute the individual risk for people who do. And you may feel that you're not a doofus and that it's probably doofitude (likely alcohol enhanced) that results in the majority of unfortunate events. I have no way of knowing how true this is either.

But, this is a fairly frivolous activity. There are safer ways to entertain yourself and you can always go to the professional display and mingle with your townspeople. So I would ask, is it worth it? As for legal restrictions, I think that too some extent you have the right to be a doofus but most injuries are to children, which does cut strongly against the libertarian point of view here. I am not personally inclined to make a cause out of this but you might want to just throw a frisbee instead.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Great news for our arachnid friends!


Science marches on, with important new research from Germany:

A trio of researchers working in Germany has discovered that male spiders do indeed have nerves in their genitalia, overturning prior research that has suggested otherwise. In their paper published in The Royal Society Biology Letters, Elisabeth Lipke, Jörg Hammel and Peter Michalik describe the various techniques they used to discover nerves in the arachnid palpal organ and their ideas on what purpose they serve.

For many years scientists have believed that the palpal organ in male spiders—the organ responsible for delivering sperm to the female —had no nerves in it. That would mean that the male would not be able to feel anything during intercourse, which some observers have likened to attempting sex with a fingernail in the dark. It appears prior researchers did not look hard enough, however, because the trio working on this new effort report that they have found evidence of nerves in the palpal organ.
To make their discovery, the team first cut up several of the organs (from a male Tasmanian cave spider) into extremely thin slices. They then looked at the samples using three different types of microscopes, one of which was a transmission electron microscope—and that allowed them to spot a tiny . More work revealed two clusters of nerves in the bulb. They also spotted two previously unknown glands also in the palpal bulb which appeared to be connected the nerves they found. Using data from the microscopes, the team built a 3D model of the palpal showing where the nerves are in the organ.

The researchers suggest that the nerves in the palpal bulb might serve to allow the male spider to feel stress on the organ during copulation, helping to improve placement and thus chances of successful fertilization. It is also possible, they note, that the nerves help with guiding the palpal to the female sex organ. They believe that it is unlikely that such nerves exist only in the species they studied, which means other spiders likely have them too. More research will be needed to find out. The team also plans to study the nerves they found to see if they can determine their true purpose.

Explore further: Cutting a bugs' penis shorter found to reduce reproduction chances
For many years scientists have believed that the palpal organ in male spiders—the organ responsible for delivering sperm to the female —had no nerves in it. That would mean that the male would not be able to feel anything during intercourse, which some observers have likened to attempting sex with a fingernail in the dark. It appears prior researchers did not look hard enough, however, because the trio working on this new effort report that they have found evidence of nerves in the palpal organ.
To make their discovery, the team first cut up several of the organs (from a male Tasmanian cave spider) into extremely thin slices. They then looked at the samples using three different types of microscopes, one of which was a transmission electron microscope—and that allowed them to spot a tiny . More work revealed two clusters of nerves in the bulb. They also spotted two previously unknown glands also in the palpal bulb which appeared to be connected the nerves they found. Using data from the microscopes, the team built a 3D model of the palpal showing where the nerves are in the organ.


Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-07-nerves-male-spider-genitalia.html#jCp
—A trio of researchers working in Germany has discovered that male spiders do indeed have nerves in their genitalia, overturning prior research that has suggested otherwise. In their paper published in The Royal Society Biology Letters, Elisabeth Lipke, Jörg Hammel and Peter Michalik describe the various techniques they used to discover nerves in the arachnid palpal organ and their ideas on what purpose they serve.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-07-nerves-male-spider-genitalia.html#jCp
trio of researchers working in Germany has discovered that male spiders do indeed have nerves in their genitalia, overturning prior research that has suggested otherwise. In their paper published in The Royal Society Biology Letters, Elisabeth Lipke, Jörg Hammel and Peter Michalik describe the various techniques they used to discover nerves in the arachnid palpal organ and their ideas on what purpose they serve.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-07-nerves-male-spider-genitalia.html#jCp
trio of researchers working in Germany has discovered that male spiders do indeed have nerves in their genitalia, overturning prior research that has suggested otherwise. In their paper published in The Royal Society Biology Letters, Elisabeth Lipke, Jörg Hammel and Peter Michalik describe the various techniques they used to discover nerves in the arachnid palpal organ and their ideas on what purpose they serve.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-07-nerves-male-spider-genitalia.html#jCp

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

While we're on the subject of The End, there's democracy


The other day an acquaintance told me that he had recently been at an event featuring Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. He asked the senator if the National Security Agency was blackmailing politicians. According to my friend, Blumenthal essentially ducked the question.

Really. So I decided to see what reasonably reliable sources have to say about this. Well, yeah, the ACLU is worried about it. It wouldn't be anything new, actually. J. Edgar Hoover did it, as is well known. The ACLU quotes Ronald Kessler's book on Hoover:

“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator,” said William Sullivan, who became the number three official in the bureau under Hoover, “he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter. But we wanted you to know this. We realize you’d want to know it.’ Well, Jesus, what does that tell the senator? From that time on, the senator’s right in his pocket.”

Lawrence J. Heim, who was in the Crime Records Division, confirmed to me that the bureau sent agents to tell members of Congress that Hoover had picked up derogatory information on them.

So, if the NSA is listening to Francoise Holland's and Angela Merkel's phone calls, it's pretty hard to believe they aren't listening to Barack Obama's and Harry Reid's. And the impunity of the CIA and NSA after the various revelations of late is quite noteworthy.

Andrew Rosenthal in the NYT notes that the NSA has collected embarrassing personal information about Muslim activists -- none of whom is accused of involvement in any crime -- in order to discredit them. Former NSA analyst Russell Tice might be a nut -- who was fired in 2005 for whistleblowing -- might be a nut, but then again he might not. He claims that the NSA spied on Barack Obama when he was a senate candidate and routinely spied on phone and email messages of Congress, the Supreme Court, reporters, and the military during his tenure. If so, they're undoubtedly doing it now. 

The eternally bloating budget of the national security establishment, and their absolute impunity, do make you wonder.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The End of the End Times


Ed Brayton, who must have a cast iron cerebral cortex, spends his days traversing the malaria infested swamps of wingnutistan. Lately he has come back with a remarkable harvest of reactions to the Supreme Court's decision on same sex marriage, from such as megapreacher Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins, not the original psycho but a more modern one, Glenn Beck associate Matt Walsh, and various others. Visit his blog and you can see them all!

What is passing strange about all this is that we have had same sex marriage in many states for many years now, not to mention most of western Europe and a few other places around the world. And in all of those places, the only thing that has happened is that people of the same sex have gotten married. The Obergefell decision just made this true in the rest of the states. So far, God has not withdrawn his hand of protection from Massachusetts, has not smitten Britain, and Muslim terrorists have not used same sex marriage as a rationale for attacking U.S. interests, among other non-happenings. When people get married in Alabama and Louisiana, and nothing else happens, what are these people who are currently foaming at the mouth and laying in the survival supplies going to say to their fans?

Just curious. On the other hand, they must really believe their own bullshit because it will be demonstrably just that very shortly.


Thursday, July 02, 2015

Biblical Marriage

Juan Cole explains it. I find it fascinating that most of the people who thump the Bible haven't read it. I don't have the link offhand (if anybody wants to look for it please do), but it has been found that atheists typically know more about the Bible than Christians.

Scripture is full of contradictions and absurdities.In any given time and place, it is read, and preached, selectively, to support whatever norms the preachers want to reinforce. Daniel Dennet has found that many ministers become atheists precisely because they are made to study the Bible in the seminary. I recommend to all the faithful that they actually read the Bible, carefully, from cover to cover. Then let's hear what lessons they draw.