February 2012

Officials with the California prison system have been having a tough time figuring out how to treat mental health problems among inmates. No money, you know.

There’s a shortage of psychiatric care and psychologists have been pointing to the need as a reason why they should be granted prescription privileges. Psychologists already have prescription authority, under supervision, in Louisiana and New Mexico.

The need for mental health care remains. But now, according to the New York Times, correctional centers have at least solved the problem of basic personal care for prisoners with dementia. They have recruited convicted killers to be their caretakers.

In a bizarre piece published online Saturday, the Times said:

“Secel Montgomery Sr. stabbed a woman in the stomach, chest and throat so fiercely that he lost count of the wounds he inflicted. In the nearly 25 years he has been serving a life sentence, he has gotten into fights, threatened a prison official and been caught with marijuana.

“Despite that, he has recently been entrusted with an extraordinary responsibility. He and other convicted killers at the California Men’s Colony help care for prisoners with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, assisting ailing inmates with the most intimate tasks: showering, shaving, applying deodorant, even changing adult diapers.”

I see a movie script here. The irony of these people, who at one point lost complete control of their own lives, taking care of each other in the not-so-grand finale to a lifetime prison sentence. As the Times notes, it’s a risky proposition, but one with which many tight-fisted taxpayers would agree.

The grim truth is that America’s prisons are filling up with oldsters who have been slammed with long prison sentences and won’t be getting out to spend their golden years sitting on a park bench peering wistfully out over a manmade lake. Instead of developments with warm, romantic names like Coconut Palm Bay, their final retirement home is more likely to have the word “Facility” in it.

There were twice as many people over the age of 55 sent to prison in 2010 than there were in 2005, the newspaper reported, and overall the number quadrupled to 125,000. Coping with prison life is hard enough when you’re young and quick, but the older inmates are falling victim to depression, substance abuse and physical injury. All of these things push them a little faster toward dementia than if they had been playing bridge at the clubhouse or going out with a couple of friends for an Early Bird.

“The dementia population is going to grow tremendously,” Ronald Aday, author of “Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections” told the paper. “How are we going to take care of them?”

Here’s your answer. Crying out for a movie treatment, certaintly. But more likely to end up as a new reality show that keeps audiences tuning in with its freakish story lines and oddly touching relationships.

Besides, the price is right: The prison caretakers make $50 a month.

* * *

When I read this USA Today story about super PAC fundraising I couldn’t help thinking about the famous photograph, below.

In the race for the White House, private and corporate donors are pouring mind-boggling amounts of cash into Repubican and Democractic candidacies for president. The Mitt Romney super PAC raised $6.6 in January; and Newt Gingrich’s PAC, $11 million, almost all of it from one married couple.

Ron Paul’s PAC received $1.7 million from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, the paper said. President Obama collected a breathtaking $29.1 million in January for his campaign and for the Democratic National Committee.

Yes, the candidates do get around and press the flesh, but they are all staged events where very little of substance ever occurs. They’re grand photo ops, and reporters put the press releases in their back pockets in hopes that the candidate says something silly.

Let’s be honest. The race has become pure pageantry and elected office seems just another commodity to be bought and sold. These days, nobody expects anybody to give anybody hell — unless it’s carefully planned out with a team of advertising execs and a focus group.

Photo: Harry and Margaret Truman via Wikimedia Commons

Who would enjoy a burger like this? Or: How COULD you enjoy a burger like this? It would be impossible to eat it like a sandwich, unless you’ve figured out a way to detach your upper and lower jaws.

It’s what happens when you mix food and theater, but clearly, it has nothing to do with taste or having a satisfying meal.

The Triple Bypass burger (the one shown is the Quadruple) at The Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas made it into the news recently after a patron actually suffered an apparent heart attack while eating one of these monstrosities. Last Thursday, the Physicans Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) wrote a letter a letter to the Grill’s owner, John Basso, saying: “Shut it down.”

“As a dietitian who has worked with people suffering from diabetes and heart disease, I’m writing to ask you to declare moral bankruptcy and close the Heart Attack Grill,” Susan Levin wrote.

“You may even think of your restaurant as an over-the-top send-up of America’s increasingly unhealthful diets. The Heart Attack Grill is certainly a more honest name than Burger King or McDonald’s. But the joke’s over.”

Basso complained later to Fox News about “intrusive busy-body groups that want to take away our right to have a simple hamburger, a Coke, some fries and enjoy our lives the way we want to.”

He also invoked the Founding Fathers, although something tells me Thomas Jefferson was not the Quadruple Bypass Burger type.

And, it isn’t exactly a “simple burger,” is it? But that aside, I hope that the PCRM penned a similar letter of outrage to the Travel Channel, where Man vs. Food remains one of more popular shows. It’s where you can find host Adam Richman power-eating omelets the size of footballs and 60-ounce New York Strip steaks.

This is showmanship, I would argue, not an endorsement of over-eating, and I’d say the same for The Heart Attack Grill. If I happened to be in Vegas, I might stop in the Grill just to see the show — the waitresses dressed as nurses, the ambulance parked outside.

I might order some french fries (cooked in lard) and a Coke.

My preference, though — and I don’t see much of this promoted on the Food Channel or Travel Channel — is a very thin burger on a thin bun, with some fried onions and a couple of pickle slices. Perhaps a little light mustard.

The key to this is bashing the patty while it’s sizzling on the grill, because otherwise the burger tends to contract. In other words, trade some of the vertical for a little more of the horizontal.

That, as Samuel L. Jackson once said, IS a tasty burger.

Photo: http://www.heartattackgrill.com/picture/Quadruple.jpg

There was a brief pop of pubicity several years ago when scientists first sounded the alarm about the decline in the population of honey bees. There hasn’t been much buzz about it recently (sorry), but that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.

According to the American Beekeeping Federation, which cites U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the bee population has been declining by roughly a third, give or take, every winter.

The 2010-2011 winter losses nationwide were at 30 percent from all causes. The losses were 34 percent in 2009-2010; 29 percent in 2008/ 2009; 36 percent in 2007-2008; and 32 percent in 2006-2007. New surveys are released in April.

Of course, new bees enter the stream every year, but the trend is downward. In Britain, the honey bee population has been cut in half since the 1980s. And without enough bees to pollinate crops, agriculture takes a big hit. There are estimates that a third of the food we eat is made possible by bee pollination.

Now, a new study is pointing at a type of widely used pesticide used on seeds and not plants. When the plant matures these types of pesticides, known as neo-nicotinoids, become infused in the plant. Bees ingest the material and it weakens their immune system, according to Jeffrey Pettis, U.S. Department Agriculture researcher whose work recently appeared in an academic journal. He found that tiny doses of the pesticide make bees up to three times more vulnerable to parasite infection.

Would stricter rules on the use of neo-nicotinoids cause the population decline to reverse itself? Apparently it’s not that simple. According to the Daily Mail, in London, France regulates the use of neo-nicotinoids but it hasn’t boosted the bee population.

Other researchers blame mites, disease, and habitat loss.

But this is one of those issues that requires more attention and research, because we could soon reach the point where a problem becomes a crisis.

The online news magazine AlterNet sounded the alarm this week with its story: “Have Bees Become Canaries In the Coal Mine? Why Massive Bee Dieoffs May Be a Warning About Our Own Health.”

“As a business, I think it’s over,” Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald said. “I think my business is no longer viable. I’ll continue to keep bees as best I can and may be able to pull off a halfway decent crop for another year or two but the trendline is down and over the edge of a cliff and that’s typical of what’s going on nationally.”

* * *

Remember when your mother used to say: “Don’t inhale your food”?

Well now you can say: “But mom… I’m just following directions!”

Because with AeroShot you can consume all the caffeine contained in a cup of coffee just by shooting the powdery contents of a lipstick-tube-sized cylinder into your mouth.

It was designed by Harvard professor David Edwards, who is interested in making inhalers for delivering all kinds of products, including “breathable foods.”

Anyway, here’s the copy promoting the AeroShot, which sells for $2.99 per tube:

“AeroShot’s patented delivery system is designed to work and work fast. There’s no liquid to slow you down or fill you up. Discover the freedom and control you can only get from airborne energy.

“No calories. No liquid. No limits. Each AeroShot delivers a unique blend of 100 mg of caffeine and B vitamins in about 4-6 puffs. One AeroShot contains about the same caffeine as one large cup of coffee. All of the energy. None of the other stuff.

“AeroShot is easy to use. Pull the yellow end to open, put the other end in your mouth, gently puff into your mouth and swallow. The powder dissolves almost instantly. Use it all at once or take a puff or two, push closed and save the rest for later.

“Hitting the books. Hitting the gym. Taking a roadtrip. Staying awake at your desk after devouring a bacon double cheeseburger at lunch. AeroShot is specifically designed with you in mind. Giving you the energy you need to go forth and conquer.”

No muss, no fuss, as they say. And let’s face it, it’s cheaper than a vanilla latte grande at Starbucks.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Store clerk to high school student: “Just the Coke?”

Student: “Yes.”

Store clerk: “Can I see some ID please?”

The scenario isn’t as far fetched as it might seem, if a proposal in last week’s journal Nature gains traction.

A commentary by Robert Lustig, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment at the University of California — San Francisco, and two other researchers, suggests that state or federal government regulate the sale of sugary snacks and soda water, using controls similar to those in place for alcohol and tobacco.

One option is for states to control the number of fast food and convenience stores, “especially around schools,” while encouraging the establishment of farmer’s markets.

“Another option,” they said in the Feb. 2 commentary headlined, The Toxic Truth About Sugar, “would be to limit sales during school operation, or to designate an age limit (such as 17) for the purchase of drinks with added sugar, particularly soda.”

The idea of putting additional sales taxes on soda and candy was also discussed, along with the possibility of banning ads for products that have added sugar.

They make good arguments about the health hazards of excessive sugar consumption. It has tripled worldwide in the last 50 years, they said, noting that early man was able to get sugary treats only in the form of seasonal fruits and occasionally honey — for which they had to fight off bees.

Here are two other interesting statistics: Worldwide, there are now 30 percent more obese people than there are people who are undernourished. And in the U.S., 25 percent of Army applicants are rejected for being overweight, prompting the Joint Chiefs of Staff to declare obesity a “threat to national security.”

But what are the chances that these types of regulations come to pass? Ask yourself the question next time you’re driving by the neighborhood fast food restaurant — and you see the line for the drive-thru snaking through the parking lot all the way out to the road.

* * *

You have several options while waiting for your flight at an airport. You can sit with the other antsy passengers and watch a generic TV news show or sports chatter on ESPN; you can work on your laptop; or you can head for the bar.

Now, San Francisco International Airport has come up with a fourth possibility: stretching your muscles at a “Yoga Room” designed for “contemplation and self-reflection.”

The room, in Terminal 2, is “enveloped in a calming blue color,” according to an airport news release. “Large felt-constructed rocks … will be arranged throughout in a nod to the Zen garden spaces of the Japanese tradition.”

Airports are awash in signs, and passengers in San Francisco will see a new one. It’s a pictogram of a person in the lotus position, directing people to the Yoga Room — a “space to relax and decompress.”

Another way to remind yourself that yes, you really are in California.

Sugar cube photo via Flickr.com