August 2011


I try not to wade too deeply into presidential politics until the first real contests are held in January. But the Republican field has been quirky, and I found myself perusing early polls over the weekend to see what was what.

As you may have heard – even if you don’t follow these things closely 14 months before the election – Texas Gov. Rick Perry has surged ahead in many polls after announcing his candidacy the prior weekend.

Perry is up by 2 points in Iowa and 3 in Ohio. He’s up by 11 points in a national Gallup Poll and beats Obama in Florida by a point in a new Mason-Dixon poll.

It’s interesting, but not surprising, that the GOP field has steered clear of health care issues except to slam the health care reform law and promise repeal. Even Mitt Romney is onboard with this because although the Obama plan was based loosely on his Massachusetts model, Romney can make the case that this is only something that should be done on a state-by-state basis.

Republicans aren’t coalescing around a health care plan because no matter what they would propose, it would be controversial. The only thing that truly makes sense is to increase the number of medical providers, but good luck getting the American Medical Association to go along with it. So it’s simpler and safer to say nothing.

Somewhat along these lines, Perry claims Texas has been attracting more physicians to the state because of malpractice reform. He claims 21,000 new doctors have opened up a practice thanks to a friendlier law on this issue, passed in 2003.

The only problem is, that’s not true, according to a report published Friday on the website PolitiFact.com.

Although there are more physicians licensed to practice in Texas, not all of them are practicing in the state, according to PolitiFact. The actual increase between 2003 and 2011 is 12,788, and most of that was due to population increase.

Taking into consideration the population increase, the actual number of physicians now practicing in Texas because of malpractice reform is 1,608, but perhaps as many as 5,000 if you include administrators and other licensed physicians who don’t see patients.

But PolitiFact also points out that in the nine years the before the new rules went into effect, the number of new physicians grew twice as fast as the population growth.

So, the Perry claim makes a good splash but the statistics are not particularly meaningful.

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We hear a lot these days about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, proponent of 100 percent pure capitalism and author of Atlas Shrugged.  (I’ve tried twice to get through this book but found the story and prose a bit stilted. But then, I’m more of a Michael Connelly-Randy Wayne White-Elmore Leonard-guy.)

But I did find this 1959 Mike Wallace interview with Rand very interesting and I’d recommend it regardless of your politics. A link to it was posted over the weekend by Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.

There are bound to be a lot of opinions on it and the comments following the post are pretty interesting. Rand is far more influential in death than she ever was in life.

Photo: Tea Party protester in Chicago, 2009, holding a sign that refers to one of the key characters in Atlas Shrugged. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been preoccupied following the meanderings of Hurricane Irene and its potential impact on the U.S. As of Monday, what was good news for Florida looked like bad news for the Carolinas – and almost certainly for the Bahamas.

 But there was still hope the Irene would turn out to sea completely and give the East Coast another break, as happened so often during the active 2010 season.

 I did happen across one health-related story that caught my eye. It reminded me how quickly the media moves from one subject to the next and how yesterday’s news – as big as it may be at the time – has all the staying power of last night’s dreams.

 It was only about a year ago that the Chilean miners story was all over the newspaper front pages. Viewers followed minute-by-minute coverage on cable news channels.  When the 33 trapped miners were rescued in October, it was a worldwide sensation. The trendiest Halloween costume that year was, of course, miners garb complete with the headlamp attached to a hard hat.

 CNN called it the feel-good story of the year. The miners were certain to be worldwide celebrities and be rewarded richly for their personal stories of the two-month ordeal.

 But the BBC reports that almost a year later the men whose every word and movement was reported by the world media have virtually slipped into obscurity.

 Some are unemployed; others are working odd jobs here and there to make ends meet. Some are still battling to deal with the psychological effects of their entrapment and remain on sick leave.

 Other mining companies are reluctant to hire the men because they fear they are psychologically damaged by their experiences.

 Although there was an element of nationalism in the Chilean miners’ story – a lot of flag waving went on and singing of the Chilean National Anthem – 31 of the miners are suing the government for allowing the mine to operate. The government in turn is suing the mining company.

 Jean Romagnoli, the miners’ trainer while they were still trapped, told the BBC: “The money-making thing has been slow. The promises that were made to them when they reached the surface, like for example that they were going to all have a job in the national mining industry, they’ve all vanished.”

 There is a movie being made. Jose Rivera, who wrote “Motorcycle Diaries,” has been hired to write the script. But no studio has been tapped to distribute the movie, and no word on how much the miners will receive for selling their stories.

 In any case, you have to wonder how successful such a movie would be. It’s not easy to keep people on the edge of their seats with a story in which the outcome is already known. It has been done effectively, in the case of Apollo 13, for example.

 But really. Can you name the Apollo 13 astronauts? No, one of them was not Tom Hanks.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/loganz/5134965150/

Three Facebook stories caught my attention this week. With apologies to Clint Eastwood, they reminded me of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly that has become social networking.

The first is an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania focusing on the value of Facebook and Twitter to help the country’s emergency responders do a better job on health-related, weather-related and ecological disasters.

The authors point out that Facebook allows emergency officials to “harness crowd-sourcing technologies” that make their job of communicating much easier and faster. And since 40 million Americans use Facebook, Twitter and other web networks, that’s a pretty long reach.

“By sharing images, texting, and tweeting, the public is already becoming part of a large response network, rather than remaining mere bystanders or casualties,” the authors said.

They suggest setting up a “buddy system” during heat waves and blizzards (and hurricanes) where people can check up on each other to make sure they’re all right.

An increasing number of emergency governmental agencies are on Facebook and Twitter. This year, the National Hurricane Center in Miami set up a site, and individual National Weather Services agencies have Facebook pages to distribute news and forecasts. People can make comments and sometimes there’s interaction with the agencies if someone asks a question.

The number of people following the Centers for Disease Control on Twitter grew by 20 times over the past year, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

I use Facebook to keep up with what’s going on with friends and acquaintances, and it is nice to hook up again with people you have’t heard from in years.  But when it comes to using Facebook as a professional resource, you have to wonder how much attention people actually pay to their Facebook “friends.”

To wit: A reporter for Slate.com, decided to change his birthday in his Facebook profile three times to see if anyone would notice. Many people mindlessly wished  writer David Plotz a happy birthday each time — all of them in July — even though his actual Big Day is Jan. 31.

(Facebook allows you to change your birthday on your profile as often as you like, according to Plotz.)

The first day, July 11, he received 119 birthday wishes, the standard of which is: “Happy Birthday!!” The second day, on July 25, he received 105 birthday wishes. And 45 of them came from people who had just wished him happy birthday two weeks earlier.

The third time, on July 28, he scooped up 71 birthday best wishes. Thirty of them had wished him a happy birthday one of the previous times, and 16 people wished him a happy birthday all three times.

He concluded: “Don’t mistake my observation for derision. Mass electronic communication is destroying our memories, since we rely on devices to protect us from embarrassing ourselves. I routinely send an email to a friend on a Tuesday, and then send her exactly same email on Thursday.

“Even so, the Facebook fake birthday experiment did end up confirming my worst fears about the network. All too many birthday wishes are autonomic….”

For a Facebook finale, there’s the story of the 42-year-old Australian mom who adopted the persona of a 14-year-old girl so she could sign up with her daughter’s network and find out what was really going on.

“The mother of two quickly amassed 76 friends, despite using a fake profile with a picture of a fairy – proving how easily predators could do the same,” reports the Herald Sun of Melbourne.

She read about a 15-year-old girl who was trashed by a boy for being a “drunk slut” after she said he tried to rape her.

She said: “I was shocked by what I saw, especially the rape comments.”
Cyber safety experts told the paper that what the mother did was “wrong in the extreme” and violated Facebook’s conditions.

Photo via Flickr.com: Http://www.flickr.com/photos/spool32/5045502202/sizes/m/in/photostream/

LANCASTER, PA – Traveling in Amish country last week, I stopped at a restaurant recommended for its local fare. You would imagine Amish food to be just plain home cooking, and that’s what I got. Tables and tables of it. 

It was a buffet and so I sampled alot of different dishes and ate maybe four or five times the amount of food that I normally eat at any meal.

I started out with a plate of macaroni and cheese and plain buttered noodles, along with a slab of meatloaf and several ham meatballs. For my second helping, I chose a rich beef stew, mashed potatoes and a piece of baked cod. 

I then went back for a plate of vegetables – buttered cut corn and broccoli – and I added a scoop of chicken pot pie. The pot pie was good, but like the beef stew, it was thick with lots of flour. 

This was all topped off with a wedge of apple pie. 

Much more food, I suppose, than an Amish family normally eats in one sitting, but it got me thinking. It was a meal loaded with carbohydrates and I wondered if the Amish suffer from type 2 diabetes as much – or perhaps more – than the general population. 

My theory was that they didn’t, but I wasn’t sure why that was my assumption. Maybe because despite the volume of food, it was good, healthy stuff. And most of it is probably locally grown and locally prepared. I don’t think the Amish incorporate much processed food in their diet. 

I found one study on the Amish and diabetes, conducted by the University of Maryland.

 “It’s interesting,” said Alan Shuldiner, professor of endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “The Amish are just as obese as the general US population because they also eat a lot, yet they actually have about one-half the prevalence of type 2 diabetes compared to the general population.

 “We believe the reason is that the Amish are very physically active and it’s been shown that high levels of physical activity can actually prevent the progression to type 2 diabetes in people who are genetically susceptible,” Shuldiner said in a 2005 interview.

 The Amish lifestyle is rich in close family relationships and great home-cooked food, but it’s no piece of cake. People mostly work on family farms and they rely on sweat and long hours to get things done. 

At Amish.net, a typical day is described in an Amish household:

 The husband: “He would get up about five a.m., go to the barn and feed the animals, milk the cows and process the milk to the cans for truck delivery to the local dairy. He would then join the family for prayer and breakfast. Depending on the season, he would work in the fields, preparing the fields for planting (late winter), planting the crops in the spring or harvesting the crops in late summer or fall. He usually works from sunup to sunset in the fields for planting and harvesting with a break for lunch. In the evening, the cows would need to be milked again.”

The wife: “She would also get up about five a.m., help with the milking, prepare breakfast, and if laundry day (usually on Monday) get the gasoline motor started on her wringer washing machine to do the laundry, hanging them out on the line to dry. She would work in the kitchen garden, preparing it for planting (with help from her husband), or harvesting vegetables for meals. If there are children, she would also get them ready for school, including packing lunch boxes, etc. Daytime household duties would be done, i.e., ironing, washing dishes by hand, baking, and cooking lunch and dinner. Depending on the season, she would can fruit and vegetables, making jams and jellies, etc. She will also sew clothes for herself, her husband and their children.” 

Compare this to an average day in the culture at large, with morning trips to McDonald’s, hours spent at a desk with a Diet Coke and a bag of Fritos, and KFC takeout for dinner. An evening of reality TV and an hour or two on Facebook.

Yes, I know. You’ve been thinking of switching to the slow roasted chicken but now you have to wonder if that will really be enough.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jennfortune/2399699483/

The health-related effects of long-term unemployment are grim, especially for people in their 50s and 60s. One study released last year showed that the chances of a heart attack or stroke among out-of-work people 51-61 is double that of the employed.

To make matters worse, many of these people have lost their health insurance and are unable to access medical care. That’s particularly true when it comes to preventive services that could stop cardiovascular disease before it starts.

With states cutting back on Medicaid, it looks like the problem is only going to get worse.

As a country, the problem of long-term unemployment is front and center the first Friday each new month, when the job creation report/ unemployment rate is published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for those who are out of work, or marginally attached to the workforce, it’s a daily issue.

So I was impressed with a new project called “Down But Not Out,” developed by “The Lookout,” a Yahoo news blog. It’s really about as basic an idea as you can get: Provide a forum for people to write in about what their life is like as an unemployed American.

The emphasis in the stories is on financial hardship, but you can read between the lines to sift out the emotional crises and the personal toll they have already taken.

The creators of this project asked in June for stories of people unemployed for at least six months. They got 1,000 emails and 5,000 comments from people. Last I checked, 65 posts had been published online.

I recommend reading them in bits and pieces because it’s pretty depressing stuff. But have a look after the next job report to help put some real faces on the cold statistics.

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 The British Academy of Medical Sciences has just released a report after two years of weighing the risks of inserting human DNA into animals. It’s a necessary part of medical research because it allows study of unique human diseases and disorders. But the practice also brings up some mad scientist scenarios.

The consensus was that we need to steer clear of giving more advanced creatures, such as chimpanzees, language ability. That may sound like science fiction, but it’s not that far-fetched.

The Academy’s report says: “Evidence for true language acquisition, even in higher NHP species such as the chimpanzee, is controversial and inconclusive … It is likely that more genes underpinning speech development will be identified in future. However, even if all the genes underlying these processes could be introduced into an NHP, it remains a matter of speculation whether the brain of the modified animal would then be capable of language acquisition.”

Fergus Walsh, medical correspondent for the BBC, says one of the report’s authors told him: “If you come home and your parrot says – ‘who’s a pretty boy?’ – that’s one thing. If you come home and your monkey says it, that’s quite another.”

But could there be a legal issue as well?

A BBC reader commented: “Let’s have it all. Talking animals, humanoid animals, animals with complete human-level (or greater) sapience. Ethics is in the eye of the beholder; I certainly don’t have a problem with the above. Just make sure to do the fundamental medical and bioengineering first before you get sued by the animals.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons