Monday, December 31, 2007

2008: live to see it

A Happy New Year's Eve.

If, like many, you are going to drink while celebrating it, don't drive!

See you in 2008.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Looking back, Part V

Sports, it has been said, are the toy department of life. In 2007, though, all the conventional wisdom was proclaiming at the top of its frenetic collective lungs that the toy called baseball was severely contaminated with, not lead, steroids (and other performance-enhancing drugs).

As with politics--and, in reality, this, too, is politics--the old rule of thumb that volume of declamation is inversely proportional to fact content therein remains true here.

The claims set forth against PEDs are four, simply summarized:

  1. They are medically harmful.
  2. Their use by major-league players leads children to use them.
  3. They artificially distort records and achievements.
  4. Their use by some coerces unwilling others to use them to remain competitive.
Each of those is mainly or entirely untrue, and there is plenty of fact to back up that statement.

The "medical risks" claims are on a par with those of "Reefer Madness". While there is no doubt that there are some risks from PEDs--as there are from any medication whatsoever--those who prefer their facts from scientific studies as published in peer-reviewed medical journals, as opposed to from ignoramuses, will find that the risks are low in probability, are mild when encountered, and disappear when use of the substance is discontinued.

Mind, that is the case for adults; use of PEDs by adolescents, whose bodies are still growing and shaping, appears to be very bad business. So, one might think, at least the second reason makes sense. Well, it would were it true; but it's not. While it's possible that some adolescents might wear their baseball caps back to front because they've seen athletes doing it, that they will also start shooting up with expensive illegal substances is not a logical corollary.

But we don't have to stand on common sense alone. Numerous medical studies have shown that adolescents use steroids--to the extent that they do, which is perhaps 2% of them, not exactly an epidemic--first and foremost because they are boys trying to grow muscles to impress the girls; second, because they have severe body-image problems (the obverse of bulemia and anorexia), third because they are athletes (mostly in high-school football) who want an edge, and fourth because they are generally screwed up psychologically and are indulging in a horrifying spectrum of seriously risky actitivites.

Rarely if ever are kids primarily motivated by a desire to emulate "heroes" (a word they'd probably choke with laughter over), and even when their primary reason is not emulation but one of the things listed here, the reported use of PEDs by ballplayers scarcely enforces their desire or justification. The reality is that professional scare-mongers are stirring up parents ("Reefer Madness" again) for purposes of their own.

But at least no one can doubt that PEDs have jumped home-run production and tainted records . . . can they? Of course they can, because none of those things have, in cold fact, happened. We don't have to wonder if use of PEDs caused the effects because the effects aren't there.

This reality is hidden by two things: first, there is and has always been a slow but steady long-term uptrend in power production in baseball, starting over a hundred years ago; and that is exactly what we would expect, in light of better training, better nutrition, expanded pools of talent (first blacks, then Latin America, and now Asia), more professionalism, and so on--all the reasons why achievements in every field of athletic endeavor whatever always slowly but surely go up over the years.

Second, superimposed on that upward drift have been several instances of juicings of the ball itself, whether purposeful or merely as a side effect of changed manufacturing processes. Two such have occurred well within living memory: one, in 1977, when MLB officially switched manufacturers, the other (denied by MLB) in 1993, when the manufacturing process was changed.

The evidences and proofs of this lack of effects of things other than the ball itself come from several independent sources (including me), all using somewhat different approaches, but all agreeing on the fact: no boost.

How can that be so when "anyone can see" the musculature effects of steroids? Two answers: one, how exactly do you discern the difference between muscularity obtained by unaugmented weight training from that assisted by steroids? And two, there is a very substantial differential between the effects of steroids on upper-body muscles and on lower-body muscles--they do far more for upper-body strength.

As to reason one, recall that no ballplayer is developing to his maximum possible musculature (a few freakish-looking bodybuilders might, but that's not the issue); that necessarily being so (because none look like those muscle freaks), all that steroids can do is reduce the time needed to reach a given level of strength. That is, they don't make players stronger, they just let them get strong a little faster.

But reason 2 is really the crux: hitting is all about lower-body strength--the very kind that steroids don't do much for. So a ballplayer can get biceps and triceps and deltoids and suchlike pumped up all he wants; it might impress the baseball Annies, but that won't help him hit home runs. As the inimitable Casey Stengel famously said, "you could look it up".

Finally, the ultimate hypocrisy, claim #4, that poor, innocent, doubtless-churchgoing ballplayers are being "coerced" into using those Big Bad PEDS to remain competitive. Well, first off, that's bullshit because PEDs, as we saw, do not help make anyone more competitive. Second off, so what? PEDs are not seriously harmful--certainly vastly less so than tobacco, which is not banned by MLB, much less law. If we just had a little basic education on the point of their lack of effectiveness, no one would want to bother: they're expensive, not entirely risk-free, and above all illegal. Why screw with them for no perceptible gain other than a buffed look?

And never forget that when Congress was "considering" the proposed law that made steroids and hGH "controlled substances", there was vigorous testimony against the law from, among many others, these folks:
  • American Medical Association
  • U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
Any far-left hippie pinko crazies in that lot? But no, the Congress that had the very year before publicly announced that steroids were just as addictive, harmful, and EVIL as--ready for this?--cocaine, that Congress decided to enact the law anyway. Isn't it nice to know that we can sleep sound in our beds, watched over by such solons, safe from attack by knife-wielding crazed ballplayers under the influence of steroids?

Good night and good luck.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Looking back, Part IV

If--as is beginning to seem frighteningly less likely every year--humanity is still around a thousand years from now, what do you suppose their history books will have in them about our times? Does anyone suppose that they will pay any more attention to our wars and famines and political crises than we do to King Aethelred's wars with the Danes, or the eruption of Mount Merapi? (What were those? Well, that's my point.)

One thing will be what we did about global warming, which I discussed the other day. But I suspect that another will be our exploration of the solar system. The average person's reaction to Mars data is an excellent example of how quickly we adapt: what was jaw-dropping only a very short time ago now rarely makes the news at all, much less a lead story. Most people have heard of Titan, but how many could tell you what Enceladus is?

surface of marsYet we have images coming in daily of the surface of Mars that are as detailed as what you would see standing there.
More to the point, as the images continue to come in, the probability that Mars once supported life--and may even now have at least some sort of active microbial life--goes ever up.

surface of TitanSo do the possibilities that perhaps Titan and Enceladus (as Casey Stengel once famously said, "You could look it up") might host life. Moreover, all these possibilities are of the conservative "life as we know it" form: the possibilities for more exotic yet scientifically plausible forms (biochemistry different from terrestrial sorts) expand considerably the range.

It is also true that the continuing discoveries of planets around other suns greatly raises the possibility--now, to many, probability--that a sufficiency of Earth-like specimens will be found such that the probability of life there will be high. But the crux for contemporary humankind is that it is in our astronomical backyard that we may well find the first definitive proof that life is not unique to Earth. True, we have a ways to go before anyone could expect that proof even if life does exist elsewhere in our solar system. But this year is remarkable and may well be memorable as the time when the tide turned, and cautious skepticism in the scientific community turned to cautious optimism.

The impact of definite knowledge that life is not unique to Earth is hard to estimate. The conventional wisdom is that it would cause massive upheavals and be a watershed in the history of humankind; me, I doubt it. The ability of human beings to turn the sensational to the boring in no time flat is astonishing. I suspect that the discovery would be a nine-days' wonder and little more, at least outside the scientific community. The idea that religions would crumble sorely underestimates the durability of established religions, and their ability to either co-opt or disregard almost anything; think how many Americans (it's 48% if you were wondering) still do not believe in--not doubt but disbelieve--simple evolution. Some microbes on Mars are going to mean nothing.

Whether we will discover even the traces of prior life, much less actual living organisms, somewhere within the solar system is still a bit iffy, however much hopes have risen. But with the extra-solar planetary spottings coming in, it would take a true ostrich to deny the probability that somewhere out there is life, and, given size of the numbers, almost certainly intelligent life (though exactly what that term might signify for extraterrestrial life forms is itself dicey).

Many still wait hopefully for Project SETI to cough up some promising result. The problem with it and analogous searches is its inherent assumption that we have a reasonable handle on how extraterrestrials might signal over interstellar distances; but our deductions on that point are necessarily grounded in our current best understandings of physics. It might be well to remember that less than a hundred years ago, it was suggested in all seriousness that we arrange geometric patterns of bright lights (even large bonfires) to tell the presumed aliens that we are here. What seems "obvious" today may look just as silly another hundred years down the road.

But, to round out, I do think that if there are literate humans in a thousand years, our era will be remembered (to the extent it is at all) for our breaking out in search of life beyond our own world; and 2007 may well be seen as the year attitudes began to change.

Those interested in following up will find satisfactory starting points at the Wikipedia articles listed below:

Drake equation
Extraterrestrial life
Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Darwin mission

Friday, December 28, 2007

Looking back, Part III

Perhaps the most frightening thing to emerge in 2007 is the stunning lack of public understanding of and concern over global warming.

Sure, it's been in the news a lot. Gore got a Nobel, diligent news readers could see the word Bali now and again, pontificators pontificated, hands were duly wrung--and so what?

What, in fact, have we really done? What does anyone care? A recent survey (very recent) showed that on the list of issues voters have in the upcoming elections, global warming is not even in the top ten (#12 for Democrats, #15 for Republicans).

Truly, the public Just Doesn't Get It. Very obviously, they are writing this off as just the latest delivery from the fad-of-the-month club, yeah, sure, I'll look at it when I get the time, why did we ever sign up anyway?

(A recent and relevant article is "Remember This: 350 Parts per Million" in the Washington Post.)

Look, folks, we're really and literally talking about The End of Civilization As We Know It here--and that's the problem. The fact that one can write that phrase with initial caps shows clearly how terribly trivialized "disaster scenarios" have become, from the Y2K nonsense to an endless stream of apocalyptic movies dealing with silliness from monster floods to earthquakes (all in places where they're virtually impossible).

The "boy who cried wolf" problem never loomed larger. To the average American, "global warming" is almost meaningless--at most, a basis for another tawdry movie. The depth of extant ignorance is made manifest in imbecilic dismissive remarks everywhere from neighborhood bars to newspaper columns (and the United States Senate).

To those who can read without moving their lips, global warming is manifestly the crucial issue facing this nation and the world right now; nothing else is really even close. If we want to apportion blame, we could look at the current administration, whose approach to the problem is to deny it because admitting it might cost some of its dear, dear friends in big business a little money; but that's cheating. That administration was elected (well, maybe), and in any event, where's the public uproar for immediate fixes? A public that could arouse itself to a raging fever pitch for months over whether one man had private consensual sexual activity outside marriage just couldn't care less about a possible-moving-quickly-to-probable global disaster.

I suppose we could look even farther back, and try to decide who is responsible for the gutting of our so-called educational system, so that the same kids who are no longer taught any English grammar whatever, and show it, are also taught little or no real science, and show that, too.

Indeed, one can easily get side-tracked into an endless blame game. For one thing, it's a lot easier to work on throwing blame around--which requires nothing but a keyboard--than on actually solving the warming problem, which requires expensive action rather than cheap talk. It's a classic symptom of seriously bad management skills: ask about how we got into this instead of how we get out of this.

Right now, the most important thing any one of us not in some special position of power can do is try to see that those who do occupy positions of special power understand the stupendous importance of the problem and of working hard on solutions. Clearly that means the Democratic candidate for president (Republicans appear allergic to science-based matters); which candidate no longer matters except to the 2½% of the population, those in Iowa and New Hampshire, who will actually determine which candidate runs in the general election.

Fortunately (and as is so often the case, especially over the past seven years), many state governments--and even some cities--are running well ahead of the federal government in trying to do meaningful things. So it behooves each of us to also pay careful attention to candidates for major statewide or, in large cities, municipal candidates as to their attitudes, experience, and commitment to resolving the global-warming problem.

We need to address this issue now.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Looking back, Part II

As with yesterday's page, this is not about something that is contained in the year just ending, but it is something that has come into particularly sharp focus in that time. The "something" is the developing health-care crisis.

Let us take note that insurance coverage, while it has been the chief facet of the issue being talked about, is just that: one facet. If we ask why so few people are covered at all, and why so many who are "covered" have mediocre to poor coverage, we get at the deeper problem: that health care is very, very expensive, and getting more so every day. If we project out current trends, in the not terribly far future health care is all we'll be paying for, as individuals and as a nation.

Obviously--as is well known--one cannot project out any given trend to some logical absurdity: there is always some limitation that arises to preclude the absurdity (which is why it's absurd). But what is the limiting factor in considering health-care costs? What it would seem to be limitation on the amount of health care the average person can receive.

The reasons health care is expensive, and growing more so, are several and various. In the United States, we pay doctors far more than other "first-world" industrialized nations do, and that is one reason health care is delivered so much better in virtually all of those nations: it costs less per quantum of care, so more quanta can be supplied for a given cost. But their costs are rising, too, and the U.S. is only a harbinger of the problems that eventually all nations will have to face.

Another matter is that medical knowledge, like all knowledge, is an ever-expanding sphere; that means (without straining the analogy too far) that the surface--the border between the known and the unknown--increases geometrically faster than the radius, the scope of our knowledge in any one direction, which is to say aspect of medicine; moreover, the volume within that sphere, the sum of our knowledge, increases faster yet. Ever more diseases and conditions shift from being untreatable to being something we can treat, or something we might (with further expenditure) be able to treat. And the treatments are expensive.

But, in a sense, the "cure" is more knowledge yet. As the science essayist Lewis Thomas elegantly points out (Thomas is always elegant) in his essay "The Technology of Medicine" (collected in The Lives of a Cell), medical technology falls into three classes.

First is what he calls "nontechnology", the methodology of what is best described as "caring for". But, while essential, it is nonetheless "not technology in any real sense, since it does not involve measures directed at the underlying mechanism of disease." But it is what most doctors spend the largest part of their time doing. Also, it is very costly, in good part because of the great chunks of time it takes from physicians and other skilled medical personnel.

Second is is what Thomas calls "halfway technology". This, he says, "represents the kinds of things that must be done after the fact, in efforts to compensate for the incapacitating effects of certain diseases whose course one is unable to do very much about." It includes such things as organ transplants and artificial organs, radiation and chemotherapy. To the public, it is all very gee-whiz, and seems to signify the pinnacle of medical science. But while in one way it is very sophisticated, in another way it is quite primitive: we still aren't doing anything about the actual problem. All the high-tech stuff is simply cleaning up after the disaster. This type also is stupendously expensive, to devise and to effect.

The third level is "the kind that is so effective that it seems to attract the least public notice; it has come to be taken for granted. This is the genuinely decisive technology of modern medicine, exemplified best by modern methods of immunization . . ." It consists of the means to prevent or cure conditions based on a substantial understanding of their basic nature. And it is by far the cheapest. And it is typically simple and readily delivered.

As Thomas remarks, "I cannot think offhand of any important human disease for which medicine possesses the outright capacity to prevent or cure where the cost of the technology is itself a major problem." There is much food for thought there--though it was written a third of a century ago now, before the drug companies had fully realized how readily they could squeeze money out of human pain and suffering.

Thomas sums up: "If I were a policy maker, interested in saving money for health care over the long haul, I would regard it as an act of high prudence to give high priority to a lot more basic research in biologic science."

But "policy makers" today aren't interested in "the long haul": they are interested in whatever is the upcoming election cycle. Where is the presidential candidate whose "health-care policy" mentions major investment in basic science research? Where is the presidential candidate any of whose policy statements includes the very word "science"?

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Looking back, Part I

It is traditional at this time to reflect on the year just being wrapped up, and, usually, to draw large conclusions from it.

Today's sermonette isn't really about the year just passed, but about the seven years just passed, the Bush administration, but it is, I think, appropriate because we are coming into the final stretch of the race to replace Bush.

I am not here going to castigate Bush or Cheney or the gang as a whole; anyone who by now does not grasp the depths of the damages they have done is beyond convincing. Rather, I ask again, How did this happen? That is the question we need to ponder in our reflections.

The huge difference between this administration and all that have gone before is not their perfidy, though that may be record-shattering: it is that they have largely been quite open about most things. Consider the Nixon administration: when the dirty laundry overflowed the hamper, we were ready to throw Nixon out via impeachment. Today, those who suggest impeachment as a remedy for the Bush-Cheney axis are an irrelevant minority (sorry, but you are). When some gob of dirt comes to light, this administration makes barely pro forma efforts to deny it, visibly laughing behind their sleeves. They don't care who knows: their attitude from Day One has been We don't care, we don't have to. And the problem has been that they are 100% correct.

How have we descended so far so fast? I suspect that the descent is not so sudden as it seems; what makes it appear sudden is that till 2000 and Bush, no one had expressly recognized the watershed shift in the American public's hebephrenic refusal to assume any responsibility whatever for its present and future condition. The facts had been gradually shifting since, oh, who knows--perhaps the dawn of the television era--but Cheney and his sock puppet were the first to expressly realize that no one cares any more, and to take overt advantage of that spaced-out attitude.

What is the future? Optimism comes hard: history does not offer us many examples of a reasonably free society losing interest then somehow stopping and reversing the inevitable concomitant slide into an initially comfortable despotism. Mind, much is new and unique in this era, notably the speed of communications, so I suppose there is some hope, and in any event all we can ever do is the best we can on the ground as we find it.

Moreover, we have to keep in mind the difference between what we would like to be able to do, and what we can actually accomplish. There are no demigods striding the Earth to whom we can harness our wagonload of hopes: we have to make do with who is actually out there. While that means a focus on electable candidates for the presidency, it also means a focus on electable candidates all the rest of the way down. In presidential-election years it is easy to lose focus on the other races, from Senator and Representative down to town council, but they are all important.

This is not, however, a call to mobilize for the election. Yes, we should all do that; but more important, we need a dialogue on means, and some action consequent on that dialogue, for turning around the American public's slide into ennui. We need to wake people up to how close to the cliff edge we are dancing, and of the consequences of falling over that cliff. We need to shatter the complacent attitude that if our favorite isn't the one voted off the island, all's well with the world.

Once it was bread and circuses. Today, it's just circuses. The kind of circus playing today is so mesmeric that it is like an addiction, and the crowd, like junkies, ignore even the lack of bread, just so long as the circus keeps playing. That has to stop. Ways in which we might stop it are another matter, for which we so urgently need that dialogue I spoke of. This isn't a prescription, it's a diagnosis.

I had, for a change, selected my topic for today before reading the news. I since found two articles that seem to me quite relevant, and recommend them:

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

And to all a goodnight

. . . and a copy of Jon Pertwee's I Am the Doctor. It just doesn't get any better.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Not a creature is stirring, not even me

Bench with snow and icicles

Tonight, we say bah to news (because it's invariably bad.)

Cheery fireplace

Sit by a cheery fire and think pleasant thoughts. I will.

Good night to all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Frissons of fear

What many are now calling the "sleeper issue" in the upcoming presidential contest is what is sometimes referred to as the Imperial Presidency. Though it is scarcely any secret that the Bush-Cheney administration has savaged both the Constitution and American tradition to an unprecedented degree, I suspect that most of the public still doesn't appreciate the staggering scope of the harms done--the worst of which is that this horrid hypertrophy of concentrated power is largely irreversible.

Much turns on that word "largely". While no president is likely going to willingly surrender much if any of the accumulated powers of the office, there are surely differences between individuals as to how vigorously they would attempt to continue and assert the existing powers, much less seek even more. To my mind, an assessment as accurate as one can make it of each candidate's probable attitudes toward presidential power in a Constitutional setting is the single most important datum to use in evaluating that candidate. Attitudes toward issues of the day are important, but in the end all of those issues will go away as time rolls on; but changes in the very way we can deal with issues, our Constitutional structure, will be with us so long as we remain a nation.

Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe has a new article out, in which he details the responses the various candidates gave to a 12-item questionnaire from the Globe about points relating to presidential power. The article itself is, of course, worth reading (and pay attention to the left-side links to the actual questions and answers), but perhaps even more useful (because less restrained by mainstream-media politeness) as information is Glenn Greenwald's scathing analysis of the candidates' replies. Greenwald especially focusses on Mitt Romney, and, it seems, with good cause.

But by far the most extraordinary answers come from Mitt Romney. Romney's responses--not to some of the questions but to every single one of them--are beyond disturbing. The powers he claims the President possesses are definitively--literally--tyrannical, unrecognizable in the pre-2001 American system of government and, in some meaningful ways, even beyond what the Bush/Cheney cadre of authoritarian legal theorists have claimed.

After reviewing those responses, Marty Lederman concluded: "Romney? Let's put it this way: If you've liked Dick Cheney and David Addington, you're gonna love Mitt Romney." Anonymous Liberal similarly observed that his responses reveal that "Romney doesn't believe the president's power to be subject to any serious constraints." To say that the President's powers are not "subject to any serious constraints"--which is exactly what Romney says--is, of course, to posit the President as tyrant, not metaphorically or with hyperbole, but by definition.

If you read Greenwald's entire piece, which presents a great deal more detail about Romney's exact responses, you cannot help but shudder at the thought that this man has even a one-half of one percent chance of becoming the next president.

How do the other candidates come out?
All of the leading Democrats--Edwards, Dodd, Biden, Clinton, Richardson and Obama--submitted responses, as did Mitt Romney, John McCain and Ron Paul. Refusing to respond to the questions were--revealingly--Giuliani, Thompson and Huckabee. Significantly, if not surprisingly, all of the candidates who did respond, with the exception of Romney, repudiated most of the key doctrines of the Bush/Cheney/Addington/Yoo theories of executive omnipotence, at least for purposes of this questionnaire.
Giuliani has already made clear, in numerous ways, that his concepts of the presidency are at least as terrifying as Romney's. One could bet that the reticent Huckabee and Thompson are rowing in the same boat. As to the rest, this little graphic from the Savage article, pertaining to the vile use of presidential "signing statements", is interesting.

(Savage has specialized in his reportage on the issue of presidential power, and some of his earlier works are well worth review, such as "Hail to the Chief", in which he details Dick Cheney's fanatic and jaw-dropping campaign to aggrandize the presidency.)

It seems clear now that the least-objectionable Republican candidate with even a snowball's chance of actually being nominated is, by far, John McCain. Not that McCain is not objectionable: he is objectionable, very much so, on a number of grounds that are not my subject here. But he is so much less objectionable than the others that it's like night and day.

It's somewhat like rooting for a sports team in the playoffs: one can get all het up about whom one would like to win here and there in the eliminations so as to maximize the chances for one's favorite, but in the end, no fan has any control. No Democrat has a say in whom the Republicans will nominate. (Well, maybe in some of those crazy "open primary" states they might.) But if Democrats are trying to decide whom they would prefer to get the Republican nod, there are two ways of looking at it: does one want the candidate with the (estimated) worst chance of winning, or does one want the candidate who would be least objectionable if elected?

I suppose it comes down to how much of a chance the "least likely to win" candidate--constraining the possibles to the realistic (no Ron Paul, for example)--really seems to have. Remember that this is not the first or the second time in recent history that a Democratic win seemed "inevitable": the Democrats have shown an amazing gift for snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. If one thinks, just to make an example, that of the possible Republican candidates Giuliani would run worst against a Democrat, does one wish for hizzoner to get the nomination? Not if there's the least chance in hell that he might win. On the other hand, if--as seems to be the case from national polls--McCain would run best against a Democrat, does one still wish for McCain to get the nomination because if the Republican were to win, he would be the least disastrous one?

As I say, it's not up to the Democrats, but it will be morbidly fascinating to see who does eventually emerge from of the current Republican "none-of-the-above" campaign.

Building stories

Some of the items I have been mentioning are growing legs.

Former members and staffers of the 9/11 Commission have concluded that the CIA withheld videotapes of harsh interrogation sessions even after specific and "very detailed" requests about the two prisoners whose tapes were later destroyed, according to a review of classified material by the panel. There will be more on this one in the weeks and months to come.

And the Los Angeles Times now reports that [EPA Administrator Stephen] Johnson overruled his own staff's findings in denying California's waiver, after agency staff had argued unanimously that the Golden State had met all of its requirements. This one was so egregious that even in these jaded times, people are sitting up and taking notice.


The AP reports that Americans are falling behind on their credit-card payments at an alarming rate, sending delinquencies and defaults surging by double-digit percentages in the last year and prompting warnings of worse to come. This is seen, no doubt correctly, as further fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis.

Notably, though, even with all the delinquencies and actual defaults, "the credit card business is still quite lucrative, thanks to interest rates that can run as high as 36 percent, plus late fees and other penalties."

These sorts of stories, just like the subprime crisis itself, invariably present the debtors as unfortunate (to say "poor" might be misleading, or it might not) victims of nearly or actually criminal acts of fraud. I don't think so. What is so cryptic about an interest rate? If our schools are turning out citizens who literally cannot do simple arithmetic, the problem is not in the arithmetic they have to do, it's in our school system.

How dumbed-down do contracts for credit cards or mortgages have to be before one can say "Yes, the consumer knew what he or she was signing up for"? Anyone who has ever gotten a home-loan mortgage will remember the seemingly countless disclosures, usually in simple language and of some length, that one has to read and autograph as part of the process. If a borrower simply will not read those, and just signs them unread to get on with things, whose fault is that?

The government has always been seen as the final safety net for businesses, at least if they are big businesses: run your company into the ground, Uncle will always bail you out in the end. But in modern times, Uncle is also being called on to bail out stupid consumers, when their numbers are large enough on some particular matter.

Friends, Uncle is us. Ask not for whom the cash register tolls: it tolls for thee. At what point do we step back and say "Sorry, you made your own bed, &c &c"? Moot question, I suppose, especially in an election year.

J. Edgar redux

If you think the recent disclosures about Fatso's grandiose plans to impose martial law on the nation in 1950 are creepy, try this one: "FBI Prepares Vast Database Of Biometrics: $1 Billion Project to Include Images of Irises and Faces". I generally consider articles that see information-gathering as Satanic per se to be more than a little artificial. But this looks like something someone ought to be keeping a sharp weather eye on.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Something old, something new

Just the facts

On The New York Times Op-Ed page for today is an essay, co-authored by Jonathan R. Cole, professor of sociology at Columbia. and Stephen M. Stigler, professor of statistics at the University of Chicago titled "More Juice, Less Punch". They carefully examined the stats for baseball players identified as steroids users, and concluded (to the surprise of no one except the brain-dead sports press):

An examination of the data on the players featured in the Mitchell report suggests that in most cases the drugs had either little or a negative effect.
But, regrettably, those are just facts, which aren't as sexy as wild, uninformed, baseless accusations and pontifications.

Tough, but not impossible

The Los Angeles Times has an article today dilating on the kidney-transplant story I mentioned yesterday. The title, "Tough calls in transplant case", is indicative. For a change, the insurance-industry rep they quote had something intelligent to say:
[T]he case shows how few employers, and even individuals, want to pay for experimental care coverage when they buy insurance, but that when people find themselves in dire health, everyone wants it.
The article goes on:
Dr. Goran Klintmalm, chief of the Baylor Regional Transplant Institute in Dallas, said the operation that UCLA wanted to perform was a "very high-risk transplant" and "generally speaking, it is on the margins."

But Klintmalm said he would consider performing the same operation on a 17-year-old and believes the UCLA doctors are among the best in the world.

"The UCLA team is not a cowboy team," he said. "It's a team where they have some of the soundest minds in the industry who deliver judgment on appropriateness virtually every day."
The bottom line, at least to me, is that the well-qualified doctors on the spot thought it was the right thing to do, but the bean counters didn't, and someone died to save some of those beans.

All you had to do was ask

That's the CIA's current line of defense for why they did not provide the 9/11 panel with the now-destroyed interrogation tapes. As The New York Times reports,
A review of classified documents by former members of the Sept. 11 commission shows that the panel made repeated and detailed requests to the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003 and 2004 for documents and other information about the interrogation of operatives of Al Qaeda, and were told by a top C.I.A. official that the agency had “produced or made available for review” everything that had been requested.
So the punch line is how are you supposed to ask for what you don't know exists? The CIA held onto the tapes till the panel was done, in case they somehow got wind of them, and soon after the panel completed its work, the tapes went bye-bye (presumably in the hope that thereafter no one would get wind of their prior existence). Nice work.

The imperial presidency

It looks likely to endure, which is no surprise. King George took arrogant absolutism to levels never before dreamt of in the presidency--and that's saying something, considering what his predecessors have dreamt of--and it's a legacy that won't go away when he does. The Congressional Quarterly has an article well worth reading, in which they examine the positions of all the leading candidates for the presidency and conclude that none of them would be likely to much diminish the magisterial powers the office has acquired. What a surprise. Thanks again, Mr. Nader.

The Avis of superpowers

Fareed Zakaria at Newsweek has an analysis I recommend to you on the significance of China's arrival at the status of #2 superpower in the world.

Ah, for the days of yesteryear

Just-declassified documents show that two weeks after the onset of the Korean War, the abominable J. Edgar Hoover sent a letter to President Truman. It seems that J. Edgar had this neat idea for suspending the rules against illegal detention and then arresting up to 12,000 Americans he suspected of being "disloyal". The fatso's exact words:
The index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven percent are citizens of the United States. In order to make effective these apprehensions, the [proposed] proclamation suspends the writ of habeas corpus.
Thank whomever you thank that the President then was Harry Truman, whom Merle Miller once famously described as "the last human being to reside in the White House." So far as I can see, subsequent history has not altered the truth of that view.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Humbug, as in Bah!

This is truly a must-read story

No matter if you are left, right, center, or from Mars, if you can read this amazing (and indubitably true) first-person story and not be shocked--and I do not use the word lightly--you urgently need to see a mental-health specialist.

A seriously Broken Reid

The more I think about Harry Reid, the angrier I become. Glenn Greenwald at Salon has been keeping the fires stoked, and I strongly recommend his latest comments on Broken Reid (when will others pick up that nickname?) and his gang (including notably Jay Rockefeller) of Republicans-masquerading-as-Democrats.

Where does it stop?

Another continuing story: the EPA's amazing decision about California's attempt to regulate automobile emissions within that State. The phrase "there seems no limit to their arrogance" has been used so many times over the last seven years that it has lost some its bite, but we really need to consider its sense. There truly does seem to be no limit to this administration's willingness to openly and contemptuously spit in the public's face, and why should there be? They have been doing it with swaggering arrogance from Day One and what has it cost them? With our lapdog mainstream press and a public more interested in who's getting voted off the island than who's being jailed or tortured, that flamboyant "screw you all" attitude has, in fact, been nothing less than a raging success. We have all tasted sin here.

Is it possible, though, that this is starting to change? After all, on this EPA matter the fertilizer is starting to really hit the wind generator. The New York Times opined on its Op-Ed page:

The Bush administration’s decision to deny California permission to regulate and reduce global warming emissions from cars and trucks is an indefensible act of executive arrogance that can only be explained as the product of ideological blindness and as a political payoff to the automobile industry. . . .

It has been hard enough to trust Mr. Bush’s recent assertions that he has finally gotten religion on climate change. It all seems like posturing now.
To refresh ourselves on just why this particular decision by the EPA has gotten so many people's knickers in a twist, you have to realize how utterly political and anti-fact and anti-law it was: it was one man, the Bush-appointed head of the EPA, who over-rode everything his own staff told him (not to speak of common sense and decency). From the Los Angeles Times article on the matter:
"California met every criteria . . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers," said an EPA staffer. "We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts."

Technical and legal staff also concluded that if the waiver were denied, EPA would very likely lose in court to the state, the sources said.

But if Johnson granted California the waiver and the auto industry sued, "EPA is almost certain to win," said two sources quoting the briefing document. They advised him to either grant the waiver outright or give California a temporary one for three years.

Instead, three sources said, Johnson cut off any consultation with his technical staff for the last month and made his decision before having them write the formal, legal justification for it.

"It's very highly unusual," said one source with close ties to the agency.

Normally the technical staff would be part of the final decision-making process, including briefing the administrator and writing the formal legal document before his decision. In this case, the briefings were done, but the formal finding has yet to be drafted.
But we've seen media hand-wringing before. Now let's see some Congressional action--then, maybe, we could say things have changed.

And why is that?

Patients in hospital emergency rooms across the nation are suffering pain and often injury owing to specialist physicians' not making themselves available for ER calls on them. As MSNBC reports,
Crucial minutes, hours and even days can go by as patients suffering from trauma, strokes, broken bones and other maladies await evaluations by neurologists, orthopedic surgeons and other specialists because hospitals are having difficulty getting them to serve 24-hour emergency "on-call" shifts.

"It can mean death," said Linda Lawrence, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians and a practicing emergency department doctor in California. "Patients have died in transport, or waiting to find a neurosurgeon, or getting to a heart center for a cardiologist."

The shortage of specialists is the result of a fear of malpractice lawsuits, a reluctance to go without pay when seeing uninsured patients, and a growing intolerance for the disruption in their personal lives and private practices, the experts say. Many specialists are also decreasing their work for general hospitals.

Traditionally, many specialists agreed to pull on-call duty in exchange for admitting privileges and use of a general hospital's facilities to perform operations and other procedures as part of their regular practice . . . But the rise of physician-owned specialty hospitals and outpatient surgical centers over the past 15 years has reduced doctors' reliance on the general hospital.

"It's our responsibility to take care of these patients, because that's what we do. That's part of our inherent fiber of being an orthopedic surgeon," said Leon S. Benson, . . . who is active in the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, a professional association. "But there's no question that as the inconvenience and fatigue and poor compensation and difficulty in having appropriate resources to take care of patients build up, you get this perfect-storm effect where more and more people are thinking, 'Gee, I don't know if I want to do that anymore.' "
Considering that the core cause, by far, of the outlandish costs of the American health-care system compared to the systems of all the rest of the industrialized nations is physician compensation, the gall of those who take the attitudes expressed here--which are simply "What's in it for me?"--are to make one's blood boil, which, fortunately, is not actually a medical condition needing emergency treatment.

How many beans make a life?

Speaking of our health-care system: a family is accusing its health insurer of murder, claiming that the bean counters let their daughter die needlessly. Based on available information, they sure look like they have a valid claim morally, and--I urgently hope--legally.

Nothing succeeds like failure

Baseball's team owners are unanimous and effusive in their praise of Commissioner Bud Selig's performance: "Bud Selig could be baseball commissioner for life if he wanted" says a USA Today article. Can you spell B-R-A-I-N-D-E-A-D? I think y'can.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

This 'n' that

A major news outlet has indicated some preliminary interest in the steroids-in-baseball paper I have worked up; let's see what happens. It should be ready for real release by--I hope--the start of the coming week.

Meanwhile, Joan Walsh at Salon reports on the clash at The New York Times between sports columnists who can't agree on whether the long singling-out of Barry Bonds was unfair. Walsh sides with black writer William C. Rhoden, who--like many others--clearly implies that there is a racial component to the fanatic and savage attacks on Bonds. I concur.

Elsewhere . . .

Unsurprisingly, California and the other 16 or more states whom the EPA yesterday denied the right to set their own auto-emissions standards above and beyond the EPA's own will be seeing the EPA in court.

Also perhaps unsurprising, considering the current administration, experts say that the EPA's decision was remarkable, and not in a positive way. "This decision baffles me – it makes no legal sense at all," says Bruce Buckheit, a lawyer and former director of the air-enforcement division of the EPA until he retired in 2003. In a detailed legal analysis of California's waiver request for a private client, he says he found no conflict under the Clean Air Act between the EPA and California regulatory authority.

Some suspect that a key factor in the EPA's new position is the Bush administration's concern--echoed by industry groups--that granting California a waiver to regulate auto emissions could quickly lead to greenhouse-gas regulations for other industries. Deary me, that might even lead to--gasp!--clean air! Can't be havin' with that: it might cost some energy multi-billionaires a few bucks.

U.S. News and World Report's Marianne Lavelle points out that while the Bush administration's decision on California's climate change program wasn't made on a Friday (always the day for burying unpleasant news), it was made after business hours the week before Christmas, and about eight hours after President Bush signed into law an energy bill that the administration obviously thinks will give it perfect cover for what it has done.

Is there anything whatever, any least, teeniest, tiniest thing whatever, that this administration has done that is not nauseating? And we thought Nixon had nailed Worst President Ever to the mast so firmly that no one would ever after be able to dislodge it. Ha!

If Rudy Giuliani's brief illness on the campaign trail was nothing of consequence, why is his staff so very reluctant to let out any information on it? if it was just a dose of the flu, as they are implying, why the secretiveness? Is it just Giuliani's notorious and chronic fetish for secrecy?

As just about everyone is noticing Giuliani's campaign, whose strategy has puzzled observers from the start, is now faltering (to put it mildly). Of course, Huckabee's surge is still consider by most his 15 minutes of fame, but it is at the least indicative of neither Giuliani nor any of the other front-runners being exactly to their party's taste.

Here's an intriguing stat: The 49-member Senate Republican minority has done something no Senate minority in American history has ever done: they’ve filibustered more bills than any Congress ever has — and they broke the record with a full year to spare. Moreover, as Glenn Greenwald at Salon notes, "this extraordinary obstructionist behavior has hardly been highlighted at all by most journalists covering Congress. Part of the reason for that is the fault of Senate Democrats, who have, in essence, allowed Republicans to filibuster without forcing them actually to filibuster, thus removing the theatrical display of the obstructionism." Thank you yet again, Broken Reid.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Looney tunes and merry melodies

For those keeping track, my full-scale report on steroids is essentially done, but I am waiting for some requested peer-review "beta test" feedback before going fully public with it. Stay tuned. And now the news . . .

More loud objections to the Baseball Hall of Fame's omitting Marvin Miller while inducting Bowie Kuhn.

Here's a shocker: the U.S. economy is headed for big, big trouble soon.

George Bush wants to take control of military lawyers; I guess the military has gotten too pinko commie for him.

The nation is still sorely unprepared for major disasters, whether natural or man-made. Well, geez, give 'em some time.

A former NRA employee says it's not about gun rights, it's about enriching NRA executives. What, just because "The parking lot at the association's twin-glass-towered filled with shiny new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes." Or is it the million-dollar incomes? (OK, OK, only $950,000.)

Both government and private-organization automobile crash tests get it pretty right as to cars, but very badly miss the boat on trucks: in the case of both NHTSA and IIHS, trucks that received the worst possible crash-test rating had on average lower driver fatality rates than trucks that received the best possible crash-test rating.

Yet another fox guarding a henhouse has had a snack: EU ministers are poised to agree a deal on aviation that would see aircraft emissions continue to rise and possibly hand a cash windfall to the airlines.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, American motorists are not prepared to "drive at any price"--there is developing evidence of a barrier at about the $3/gallon level. How this will play out against the energy industry's belief that anything would go, forever, remains to be seen.

Giuliania of the day: first, Bernie Kerik just won't go away as an issue; moreover, both the New York firefighters--who abominate his guts--and victims of a molesting priest high in Giuliani's confidence are preparing to batten down and go national in a big way. The campaign is starting to struggle, which is to say, falter. And his polls are dropping like a rock.

No cure for the cold yet, but scientists have finally figured out how those "causeless" traffic jams pop up.

More exciting by far, scientists now think they have for the first time spotted an active glacier on Mars. That is incrementally more evidence that life may exist there, even if only microbial.

This just in (sort of): the EPA has--ready for this?--decided that California and a number of other States cannot set their own automobile-emissions-level rules, and that EPA rules necessarily trump them. Mind, now, none of these states were seeking to bypass or undercut the extant EPA rules: they wanted to impose stricter levels above the EPA minima. The icing on the cake was E.P.A. administrator Stephen L. Johnson's statement that “The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules. I believe this is a better approach than if individual states were to act alone.” The act insulted our basic rights (aren't conservatives supposed to be big on "states' rights"? I guess only when the states want to weaken, not strengthen, citizen protections), but it needlessly insults our intelligence as well. Or maybe Johnson's so stupid himself that he doesn't even realize how stupid that was.

The Washington Post headline reads Key Setbacks Dim Luster of Democrats' Year. Read it and weep.

The "just say no to sex" crowd, who believe that teaching kids nothing but a single one-syllable word constitutes "sex education", have their knickers in a twist over the numerous studies that show that they are apparently looking at the wrong planet. Their claim, which I present here for its amusement value only, is that the rising pregnancy rates in groups taught abstinence only compared to the falling rates in those receiving actual information just shows that it's all the more important that we do it their way: if it's not working, we need to do more of it. "Any kind of assertion of blame is a disingenuous attempt to turn these statistics into a political agenda," insists Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association. Um, excuse me: what other kind of agenda is the allocation of public resources supposed to be? Hierophantic?

And last but not least, scientists have now determined that monkeys can the perform mental addition about as well as college students given the same test. Now if only we could get Bush and Cheney up to that level . . . .

That's all, folks!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Congratulations to Senator Dodd

The public does not seem to have an adequate understanding of the tremendous significance of the FISA bill that was before the Senate the other day. The crux was a provision, included at the choice of Senate majority leader Broken Reid, that would have given blanket immunity to all telecommunications companies that had participated (and are probably still participating) in the probably illegal and possibly un-Constitutional surveillance of American citizens.

President Bush has said that the program is necessary to the security of Americans at home and our troops in Iraq--yet he threatens to veto the bill that funds it if that bill does not contain the immunity provision. So we must conclude that giving big corporations a free pass on criminal wrongdoing is more important to Mr. Bush than the safety of the nation and its troops.

In all this, we should all honor those few Democrats with the fortitude to stand up to the little weasel that Broken Reid is turning out to be (along with a few weasel den-mates like Jay Rockefeller), and especial kudos to Chris Dodd for undertaking an emergency trip to the Senate from Iowa, where he had been campaigning, and for being willing to undergo the great physical and mental strains of a true filibuster.

A crucial point in all this is that Broken Reid severely dissed Dodd and the anti-amnesty Senators by refusing to honor a "hold" Dodd had placed on the bill. If you don't know the informal rules by which the Senate works, you may not fully grasp the immensity of that move, but you'd best believe it's a highly public slap in the face.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon has a good status report on the fight, with links to more good coverage.

You can and should read the roll call for the Senatorial vote (here, a "Nay" is the proper vote). But the ten Senators who stuck up for the right deserve the honor of being individually named:

Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Dodd (D-CT)
Feingold (D-WI)
Harkin (D-IA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Wyden (D-OR)
The other campaigning Democrats sent Dodd their best wishes for success, but could not be stand-up enough to actually go and do something vital to the future of this nation. You'd think they could have put their heads together and said "Look, if we all go, no one loses here, so let's do it." I doubt any one of them would have held out. I mean, that's their job, isn't it? But no.

Recounts, anyone?

The Ohio Secretary of State has rejected a large number of electronic voting machines after they failed a major re-testing program.

While some tests to compromise voting systems took higher levels of sophistication, fairly simple techniques were often successfully deployed.

“To put it in every-day terms, the tools needed to compromise an accurate vote count could be as simple as tampering with the paper audit trail connector or using a magnet and a personal digital assistant,” Secretary Brunner said.

Of course, as many experts have been saying for a long time now, our entire simplistic voting system may nearly as bad as it can be; Newsweek discusses another suggested improvement.

Pardoning "humble Christian men"

Michael Huckabee's padron of killer/rapist Wayne DuMond is something that these days Huckabee tries to shrug off as just one of those mistakes that are made in a governor's busy life. But as Joe Conason puts it over at Salon:
How could anyone believe that he would let a vicious killer and rapist walk free? It is all too believable, if only because Huckabee continued to exercise his powers of clemency and commutation just as foolishly and frivolously for years after he should have learned better from the DuMond mistake. He bestowed those favors on prisoners he happened to meet, on prisoners with personal connections to him or his family, and especially on prisoners recommended to him by pastors whom he happened to know from his own previous career as a Baptist minister and denominational leader. As with DuMond, whose case was pleaded by a preacher named Jay Cole, prisoners guilty of heinous crimes could be washed clean in Huckabee's estimation if a pastor of his acquaintance importuned him. Among the thugs to whom he granted clemency was a robber who had beaten a man to death with a lead pipe. . . .

The pattern could not have been clearer, as described by Arkansas columnist Garrick Feldman, who crusaded against Huckabee's feckless, faith-based clemency and pardon policies. Killers and rapists need not express remorse, as the Green case showed. They need only profess their salvation, "especially if a minister from Huckabee's circle vouches for their jailhouse conversion."

Read the whole thing. Any day now, the other Republicans are going to start smiting Huckabee hip and thigh with this stuff.

Sorting out Bali

The so-called about-face by the U.S. at the Bali climate conference has gotten some press, but what really went down? As an article in Time--not exactly a left-wing rag--put it:
It should be difficult for a country to make the final concession that allows a landmark deal to fall into place, and still appear selfish and churlish — but the U.S. somehow managed to do that. Years of blocking climate action at every turn meant the Bush Administration came into the Bali talks with little public credibility, and while there was a sense before the talks that the U.S. might show flexibility, that hope was quickly dispelled. Throughout the negotiations the U.S. — with help, at least until the last night, from Canada, Australia and Japan — blocked attempts to make climate diplomacy match the urgency of climate science. "The U.S. needed to come in here and build up its credibility," says Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Instead, they just burnished their Darth Vader image."
It was the European Union's surprising demonstration of backbone that finally brought the modest concessions the U.S. did make: Germany in particular issued a threat to boycott upcoming "major emitter' conference", which is the Bush attempt to bypass the Bali path and substitute his own "climate control" scheme. That much egg on its face even this administration couldn't stand, so it caved--a little.

Beavis and Butthead as terrorists

That's the general take on the Liberty City Seven trial, the so-called "terror cell" of which then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (remember him?) said that if "left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al-Qaeda."

The jury didn't quite agree: they acquitted one and gave up on the other six. Things that may have influenced the jurors, aside from the childish ineptitude of the dingbats in question, were that the famous warehouse site was in fact paid for by the FBI, and that the defendants moved their operations there at the suggestion of an undercover informant who was also paid by the FBI. The literally ridiculous videotaped swearing-in ceremony (seen by the jury) was led by the informant--who at another point had suggested a plan to bomb FBI offices in Miami. "The case was written, produced and directed by the FBI," defense attorney Albert Levin said in his closing arguments.

And it was. A "big hit" was needed for credibility, so the Feds made one up out of whole cloth, roping in a few imbeciles who couldn't find the sun at noon. Your FBI, in peace and war.

Don't confuse me with facts, I'm conservative

The Washington Post reports that at least 14 states have either notified the federal government that they will no longer be requesting funding for any "abstinence-only" sex-education programs.

The reason is absurdly simple: they do not work.

I don' gotta listen to no stinkin' judge

U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy had ordered the Bush administration in June 2005 to safeguard "all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay." They responded by destroying over 200 hours of videotape of detainee interrogations. Now they are telling Kennedy that he has no business looking into that destruction.

If all else fails this lot, they could always open a foundry with their spare brass.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Well, I am still "scribbling" on the Mitchell Report. I have now evaluated the "Executive Summary" (plug in your favorite jokes about executives), and suspect it will be indicative of the main body of the Report. It is not so much that anything asserted (with one whopping exception) is wrong as it is that everything, virtually everything, is slanted. The bias may not be drastic in any one instance, but the cumulative effect is highly persuasive--persuasive of a fallacious view, that is. You'd almost think the thing had been writen by lawyers . . .

The crucial error is the implicit assumption--the unspoken axiom, as it were--that use of steroids in fact confers some great advantage. But the reality is that it does not. If one believes that it does, one has a whole range of spurious concerns of the sort manifested almost everywhere today, from sportswriters (God help us all) to the poor fans who rely on those pillocks for real information. If one examines the evidence, and the several careful, technical studies that have been done on that evidence, and thus does not believe the Unspoken Axiom, one reaches a whole other set of conclusions.

Owing to the continuing time press while I review the Report, I have only one other note today: a Newsweek article draws attention to what has been simmering on the back burner for years, if not decades: the seriously defective way in which we vote in elections. Not, that is, who but how--the sheer mechanical process of selecting a winner. The topic quickly gets heavy with mathematics, but of course this article doesn't delve into them. Still, it's important reading if you are unaware of the issue.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Some Baseball Homework

I'm still slogging away on a definitive web page on steroids, but here--in no special order--are a few important links that have fallen out of my quest, and I urgently recommend them to anyone at all interested in this topic. Let me just say that just about everything you thought you knew is probably wrong.

"Breaking Bonds", Matt DeMazza, Playboy blog, 11.19.07

Wikipedia: Anabolic steroids: "Misconceptions and controversies"

In 2000, scientists at the University of Rhode island physically examined baseballs from several widely separated seasons.

A CT scan of 1998 baseballs done by Pennsylvania State University in conjunction with Universal Medical Systems also found, um, interesting things about them.

Professor Arthus DeVany's paper (available on line), "Steroids, Home Runs and the Law of Genius"

Sports Illustrated's Curious COVERage of Barry Bonds

The Physics of Baseball by Robert K. Adair (Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics, & Senior Research Scientist in Physics, Yale University).

Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise, Charles E. Yesalis

Pumped-Up Hysteria (Reason magazine)

Sports Illustrated's Curious COVERage of Barry Bonds

Science Buzz, May 17th, 2006: Do steroids help Barry Bonds hit home runs?

Science Buzz, May. 04th, 2007: A numbers game -- Gustavus students study steroids' impact on home-run hitters

Baltimore Sun, October 24, 2007: Effects of hGH a cloudy issue, experts say

Chicago Reader, "Hot Type", September 28, 2007: The Dope and the Dopes

Sabernomics, September 28th, 2007: Another Good Article about GH

Salon, "King Kaufman's Sports Daily", May 16, 2005: "We want to burn witches" -- an interview with Will Carroll, author of "The Juice"

Steroid Law, April 29, 2005: Steroids and Sports: interview with Norm Fost, M.D.

The Boston Globe [December 12, 2004]:"Are steroids as bad as we think they are?"

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh?

Today's title is attributed to Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, on his receiving of the latest volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from its author, Edward Gibbon (in full: Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?); the remark is considered indicative of the finely tuned intellectual and esthetic sensibilities of the British aristocracy.

OK, I am still busy on the Mitchell Report. Or, more correctly, am busy building a long reference page on why what most people think they know about performance-enhancing substances is very wrong; I've just about now gotten to the Report itself.

Meanwhile, on a completely different topic:

Wines you probably don't know

There are altogether too few types of wine well known in the U.S. Many folk think it a daring triumph to pour a Sangiovese or a Viognier. Some time spent with a reference such as Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes would be a revelation. It's not merely the many hundreds of recognized varietals grown around the world for wine production: it's the number of them that experts consider more or less "world class" varietals, too many of which rarely get vinified more than a few dozen miles from their home vineyards.

Let me just mention a couple that come to mind: Petit Verdot ("one of Bordeaux's classic black grape varieties") and Aglianico ("deep ruby colour, full aromas, intense flavours which make the variety, at least potentially, one of Italy's finest").

One need not go so far to find specimens, either. Escafeld Vineyards in California's Monterey County does a splendid Petit Verdot at a reasonable price (and their other offerings are quite good, too). Meanwhile, in San Luis Obispo County, Dave Caparone makes what I believe is the western hemisphere's only Aglianico. Like all of Dave's wines, it is deep, full, and eminently age-worthy (we are drinking some Caparones 15 years old and still improving). And now one no longer physically truck down to the winery to buy his products.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Busy, busy, busy

Working on the Mitchell Report is taking more time than I anticipated, especially with the time I am putting in constructing a full web page on the folly of the entire steroids affair, so no comments on it yet, save a very few very short pickings from here and there about what others have said.

John Blanchette, whom I select as a sample purely because he writes in the only daily newspaper we receive, had--among other crisp comments--this to say:

This was a bloated timeline salvaged only by a couple of locker-room dirtbags with no place to turn, just as a leak-happy lawyer and a mad mistress drove the Bonds story.

Other notes

Of course, the attempts to bring even a tincture of sanity to our national Farm Bill failed. Most interesting, to me, was this detail:
The recipients include farms run by the Arkansas Department of Corrections, which produces cotton and other crops using convict labor. Federal subsidies to a state plantation worked by prisoners who don't get paid: now that's enterprising.

Japan has its knickers in a twist over Australia's suggestion that the Australian government may well use military aircraft and ships to monitor and document Japan's "research" whaling within Australia-declared whale sanctuary in the Antarctic Ocean. With such evidence, Australia could haul the Japanese up in the International Court of Justice in The Hague or the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. The Japanese are smoked: how dare someone document their violations? Especially another nation! Dear me.

The Washington State Attorney general has called for changes in the law governing who can buy guns to prevent people who have been committed to a 14-day involuntary inpatient program for "mental-health issues" from being eligible (as it is, nothing less than a 90-day involuntary commitment is an obstacle to buying a gun in Washington State). It will be interesting to see what the gunzos put up in their inevitable opposition. "Nutzos have rights, too"?

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