Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Ruling Class

I haven't posted here for a few days because I've been busy with events in Afghanistan, which have been quite outrageous. Anyway, I'm back here now with a different outrage.

You may recall a whiff of corruption affecting my employer, which I recounted a week ago. Well, the ever reliable BMJ is back with the subject for this Monday's post. It seems, according to Anderson et al, that of 442 publicly traded health care industry companies in the U.S. for which information on their Board members was available, 180 had at least one director who was affiliated with academic medicine. That includes 19 of 20 top NIH-funded medical schools. They include 8 medical school deans as well as 121 professors and 15 university presidents or provosts.

Oh yeah -- their average compensation was $193,000 per year. As far as I'm concerned, this is completely unacceptable. As David Rothman says in an accompanying editorial, if the companies want advice from these people they can get it without putting them on the board of directors and matching their academic salaries in exchange for attending a few meetings a year. This is bribery, and it has to stop.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

A mighty wind

The current National Hurricane Center forecast puts the bullseye for hurricane Joaquin precisely on my ass. Fortunately for me, though possibly not for some other people, the meteorological blogger Jeff Masters at Weather Underground (no link because this is so ephemeral) explains that this is just splitting the difference between models that take it out to sea, and models that bury it in the mid-Atlantic. It's far too soon to know what will happen, but regardless they are predicting a lot of flooding rain and onshore wind.

That will cause a lot of damage, and maybe kill some folks, but it would be a lot less if congress didn't spend your money to encourage people to build houses in places where they will inevitably be destroyed. The National Flood Insurance Program is incredibly stupid for many reasons. Here, according to the General Accounting Office, is the first one:

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is a key component of the federal government’s efforts to limit the damage and financial impact of floods. However, it likely will not generate sufficient revenues to repay the billions of dollars borrowed from the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to cover claims from the 2005 and 2012 hurricanes or potential claims related to future catastrophic losses. This lack of sufficient revenue highlights what have been structural weaknesses in how the program is funded. While Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—the agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responsible for managing NFIP—intended that NFIP be funded with premiums collected from policyholders and not with tax dollars, the program was, by design, not actuarially sound. As of December 31, 2014, FEMA owed the Treasury $23 billion, up from $20 billion as of November 2012. FEMA made a $1 billion principal repayment at the end of December 2014—FEMA’s first such payment since 2010.
Another reason it's stupid is that it uses private insurance companies as intermediaries, rather than administering the program itself, and like all corporations, insurance companies are evil and they screw claimants even as 40% of premiums go to administrative expenses, most of that paid "to private insurance intermediaries who sell and manage flood insurance policies on behalf of the federal government but do not bear any risk."

Finally, of course, the sensible thing to do would be to retreat from the rising seas and allow salt marshes and barrier beaches to replace the shore front developments which keep getting wiped out and rebuilt with taxpayer dollars. That would also be good for the marine ecosystem, since the destruction of those regimes has meant loss of spawning grounds and marine biomass production. In the long run, it's inevitable.

But you know, people are stupid.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Political Chronosynclastic Infundibulum

You Vonnegut fans know that is a distorted region of the space-time continuum where all possible opinions are true. Hmm.

Donald T. Rump continues to have a dominating lead among likely Republican primary voters even though, according to PolitiFact (yeah, yeah, they should fact-check themselves more often) of 100 statements by Trump they have fact checked, they find not one to be completely true and only 5 to be mostly true -- and those are mostly insults of other Republican candidates.

While Mitt Romney was running for president, he told 533 lies in 30 weeks. Yeah, he lost by 3% in the end but it wasn't because of lying, which the corporate media completely ignored.

Carly Fiorina just keeps repeating her lie about the "Planned Parenthood" video, which has a) nothing to do with Planned Parenthood, b) probably wasn't even made in the United States and c) does not depict an abortion but a non-viable pre-term delivery.

Obviously none of this matters to Republican voters, or to CNN or NPR. It doesn't matter if it's true, according to Cokie's Law, what matters is that "it's out there." In 2012, the New York Times "public editor" questioned whether the newspaper should be a "truth vigilante." It isn't the job of reporters to point out when politicians are lying, it's their job to channel the lies.

We are seriously screwed.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Crazy Party

I'm finding it hard to blog these days because the country has simply gone mad. As Jonathan Chait tells us all too patiently and calmly, the U.S. Republican party is the only major political party on the planet that denies the reality of climate change and insists that nothing can or should be done about it. Obviously there are conservative parties all over the world, but not one of them takes that position -- even though many of them are in countries that have important fossil fuel sectors. (Of course the Middle Eastern monarchies don't have political parties per se -- he's talking about countries with representative government.)

As Chait also points out, even classic libertarianism recognizes the existence of environmental externalities and that there is justification for building them into the price structure. In other words, a carbon tax would be the conservative solution to climate change, in a sane conservative party.

Then there's universal health care, which is universally supported outside of the U.S. There's, you know, evolution. The cold fact that U.S. military power is limited in what it can achieve. That most people who get nutrition assistance are in fact working (or children or disabled) but their jobs don't pay enough to keep them fed. That fetuses are not babies. I could go on but these people are just completely nuts, and they control our legislative branch, most state legislatures, and get completely respectful treatment by the corporate media.

We are, in other words, in very big trouble. And I'm not sure how we got here.

Friday, September 25, 2015

More on the People's Car

Belle Waring agrees with me that a lot of VW employees must have known about the rigged emissions tests. The commenters, most of whom as far as I can tell don't have any particular expertise, are of varying opinions about that, with some claiming a small group of software engineers could have done it. I don't buy that, because the engineers who designed the engine would have known perfectly well what it was capable of. And executives, regardless of whether they came out of engineering or marketing or manufacturing, would have to know enough about the technology to have a pretty good clue, even if they maintained plausible deniability.

So CEO Martin Winterkorn, who either knew or didn't know, whichever you think is worse, walks away with at least $32 million and maybe twice that much. The poor man, he's out of a job. On the same day we learn that VW rigged the emissions test on 2.8 million vehicles in Germany.

"The manipulation of diesel emissions by Volkswagen is forbidden and illegal, there's no doubt about that," Alexander Dobrindt, the government's top transport official told lawmakers.
So guess who is going to pay for this world historical psychopathy. Employees who will be out of work as the company's sales collapse, shareholders who obviously knew nothing about it, and the thousands of people who are sick or dead from breathing UFP and NOx. Also the owners of the vehicles, whose property is now worthless and who may not even be able to get their registrations renewed.

Meanwhile, a woman is doing ten years for taking a single valium.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


I'll get to the evil part in a minute, but first I have to say that the stupidity of Volkswagen's executives is incomprehensible. Obviously they were going to get caught eventually. While corporate psychopathy is the norm, the billions of dollars drug companies make from fraudulent research and illegal off-label marketing far exceeds the fines they end up paying. They don't care about their brand image because people don't buy prescription drugs for the brand name, their doctors prescribe them.

This is different. VW is going to end up losing far more than any ill-gotten gains from selling a few more cars than they might have otherwise. I must also note that hundreds, if not thousands of VW employees must have known about this, but nobody ratted them out. That speaks to German efficiency and discipline, for sure.

Now, as for the evil part. I know that your average Republican thinks that regulating tailpipe pollution is tyranny, and that we have a God-given right to breathe oxides of nitrogen and ultra-fine particles. But here's the cold truth from my friends Doug Brugge and Wig Zamor. "PM2.5" means particles smaller than 2.5 microns. When motor vehicle fuel burns (gasoline or diesel, but diesel somewhat more so) vapor comes out of the tailpipe which then condenses into tiny particles -- you could call it hydrocarbon steam. Here's what Doug and Wig have to tell us:

[T]he most recent estimates still suggest that more than 100,000 Americans die each year, mostly from cardiovascular disease, from breathing in the (reduced) levels of PM2.5 that remain in our air. Indeed, PM2.5 appears to have health consequences similar to the effects of second hand smoke, an exposure that the public will no longer tolerate.

Most Americans are unaware that particulate pollution is the single most deadly pollution they face (and the pollutant of greatest economic consequence). Nor is there much awareness that existing regulations are inadequate. EPA is likely to propose lowering the PM2.5 standard modestly as part of a legally mandated review, a reduction that would save lives, but not eliminate the hazard. Despite the cautious nature of this proposal, EPA is under attack for “killing jobs” rather than lauded for trying to saving lives.
So the regulations aren't stringent enough, but VW was grossly violating them. That means they were killing people. For money. Throw the bastards in jail.

Monday, September 21, 2015

You may become obssessed .. .

. . . with the open tree of life. The link leads to a page which you may find to be unprepossessing, but it is in fact the very broad outline of the evolutionary relationships among the three major kingdoms of the terrestrial biota. On the left is a node labeled "cellular organisms," which represents the last common ancestor. You will then see three more levels -- bacteria in the middle, archaea at the top, and scroll down for the eukaryotes. Click on a node and it expands to show the relationships further out on the tree, and of course you can keep going.

Want to find yourself? Click as follows: Eukaryota --> Holozoa --> Metazoa --> Bilateria and Placazoa --> Deutorostomia and Protostomia --> Tunicata and Chordata --> Vertebrata --> Euteleostomi --> Tetrapoda --> Amniota --> Mammalia --> Theria --> Eutheria --> Euarchontoglires --> Primates --> Happlorhini --> Simiiformes --> Cattarhini --> Hominidae --> Homininae --> Homo.

But you can digress anywhere along the way. This is dry stuff I suppose, and you won't know what most of the words mean, but they have a lot of other resources to explore. Just click around! Check out the blog, and the more accessible educational sites under construction.

This is put together from innumerable studies and is always growing. Right now it lists 1.8 million species, and all of their proposed evolutionary relationships. It took more than 3 billion years for all this to happen, but we've figured a lot of it out.

Aren't you lucky that you have the curiosity and imagination to understand and explore this, and don't have to live in the narrow, cramped world of creationists? This is the truth folks, and it's wondrous.

Friday, September 18, 2015

This is seriously ugly

And, it concerns my employer. A study published in 2001 reported that the anti-depressant paroxetine was safe and effective for treating depression in adolescents. Long story short, it isn't either one. The trial failed to show any significant benefit over placebo, and it failed to report on the very troubling association of paroxetine with increased suicidality and self-harm.

Although many critics recognized that the trial did not seem to support the conclusions, two million off-label prescriptions for the drug were written for children and adolescents in 2002 alone. In 2012, GlaxoSmithKline, the study's sponsor and the drug's manufacturer, paid a $3 billion fine for several criminal violations regarding off-label marketing, the most important of which pertained to paroxetine.

The occasion for this post is that the BMJ has published a re-analysis of the data establishing with precision and rigor that the original report was fraudulent. But, the journal has not retracted it, despite many calls to do so over the years, and the principal author's university has taken no action whatsoever and has stonewalled all inquiries. That happens to be Brown University.

There is a "circle the wagons" mentality in academia, unfortunately, which does a disservice to the public and to the mission of the university, obviously; but also to our students, and to our investigators who work with integrity. I'm disappointed to find it here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Food for Thought

The online journal Democracy is one of the best free things on Your Intertubes. The new edition is up and as always, I recommend you check it out. While there are several far more important issues I could comment on, for now I'll riff off of Michael Tomasky's speculations on the future of Foobaw.

Like Tomasky, I'm a lifelong fan. It's just something Americans with Y chromosomes absorb through the pores, and I was into it as a little kid. But now that we know it's turning the players' brains into oatmeal, we have a major problem. We tell ourselves that the new concussion protocols that sideline players until their symptoms clear up will fix it. Well, at least with new rules and stricter enforcement to reduce the frequency of brain injuries. And maybe having kids start later, and have less full-contact practice, and new helmet designs . . .

But maybe not. Probably not. It's not just symptomatic concussions that cause problems, it's the cumulative effect of unnoticed milder head bumps. Maybe the proportion of players who end up with encaphalopathy and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and chronic depression will be lower, but we don't actually know how much lower it can be. Can we comfortably sit in our living rooms snarfing down nachos, knowing that some substantial percentage of the young men performing for our mindless titillation are going to end up veged out or shooting themselves? Yes, this is a problem.

Tomasky envisions future political consequences, not only because of this minor question of traumatic brain injury but also because of the legal and ethical issues swirling around the college football business model and the compensation of college players. He foresees blue states banning first youth football, then high school football. And NCAA football with players getting paid can only work where there's enough revenue, and that mostly means the South and redder states of the Midwest. (Actually he does make one mistake, I think, which is that the liberal Pacific coast could probably sustain big-time NCAA football at such institutions as USC and Oregon.)

The result, Tomasky fears, is that working class families will blame liberals and Democrats for destroying their beloved cultural heritage. I think that's quite speculative, but I do see foobaw becoming more of a divisive cultural and political issue. As if we needed another.

Still, I'll be watching on Sunday.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Alternate Reality?

CBS News is not normally my go-to source but this description of the scene at the Rowan County courthouse makes me feel like I'm there, so props to the anonymous scribe.

Because most people are religious in some way, and I am unable to comprehend religious experience or understand why anybody would literally believe in religious teachings, I suppose I must have a form of disability. Maybe it's an autistic spectrum disorder. And it's not for lack of a proper education. My uncle was a minister and my mother taught Sunday school. We went to church every Sunday, I was in the Christmas pageants and I was even thinking about confirmation and then it occurred to me that it is all a total crock. Which should be obvious to anybody.

Let me just make a few points to Ms. Davis and her fans, which I'm sure would bounce off them like nerf balls. But what the heck.

In the first place, if God in fact doesn't like homosexuals (despite having, you know, created them) and doesn't want same sex couples to marry, why do you have to get involved? Can't God take care of his own problems? If all these sinners go to hell or whatever, it doesn't affect you. God's on the job, right?

In the second place, how do you know what God wants you to do? If you find it in the Bible, he wants widows to marry their brothers-in-law, as a second, third, or fourth wife. Also, men can have sex slaves ("concubines") in addition to their wives. So what are you planning to do about that?

In the third place, just for one example, same sex marriage has been happening in Massachusetts since May 17, 2004, and so far God has not gotten around to smiting what remains one of the most prosperous places on earth.

I do not see how anybody can avoid noticing that religion is just made up. There are thousands of different religions and not one of them has any way of distinguishing its truth claims from the claims of any other. The only reason you pertain to any given religion and believe what you believe is because you were indoctrinated as  child. The person next to you was indoctrinated differently, and therefore has a different religion. It's completely arbitrary. Some Christians think same sex marriage is fine. God hasn't smitten them either.

I could go on but I just don't get it. What I am proposing here is just common sense. How can anybody with an otherwise functional brain not see it?

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Our dean has asked us for our thoughts about the refugee crisis currently afflicting the world and what the School of Public Health can do about it. I'm not sure how to answer because this is, obviously, fundamentally a political problem, with three major dimensions.

It doesn't take any particular public health expertise to see that, in the short term, the 60 million or more refugees on the planet, need water, food, shelter and sanitation. As Nicholas Kristof points out today, regarding those 650,000 or so refugees currently causing so much turmoil in Europe, you ain't seen nothing yet if the UN can no longer feed the millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Which it basically can't -- the World Food Program just cut off 229,000 refugees in Jordan because it ran out of money. So that's dimension number one. The multiple crises, with Syria and Iraq being the worst but far from the only major ones, are draining the coffers of the international humanitarian infrastructure. If the millions of people currently harbored in the countries neighboring Syria all get desperate enough to try to make it to Europe or somewhere, anywhere, that they can survive . . .

So that's the second political problem. Ultimately, we can't warehouse all these people in wretched tent cities and truck in flour and cooking oil to keep them biologically alive. They need to be settled in communities, as human beings, with the chance to make a living and make a home. But the influx is, predictably, bringing out the worst as well as the best in people. It's obviously bringing out the worst in Americans. John Kerry says we should accept 100,000 people next year, but don't hold your breath. Not when this is happening.

Kristof touches on the third political problem: we have to stop the war in Syria, and while he doesn't say so, obviously by extension the various other circumstances around the world that are forcing people to flee their homes. Patrick L. Smith has something to say about that. The Syrian civil war, the Afghan civil war, the anarchy in Libya, the desperate poverty in central Africa and Central America that have brought about civic collapse -- these are all the legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the presumption by European civilization that it can and should run the world. This is a lot of complicated history and it's not the story we are taught in school or see on the nightly news. While Kristof is obviously right in principle, I very much doubt that the western powers will ever try the right solution, which doesn't involve freedom bombs or giving weapons to "moderates," meaning our bastards --  until they turn on us.

Oh yeah, climate change. It was actually drought that precipitated the Syrian civil war. If you think 60,000,000 refugees is a lot, just you wait.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The New Jim Crow

I didn't have today off, actually, because I facilitated what they call a "first reading" seminar for incoming freshmen. This is something a lot of schools are doing nowadays. The admitted students are all given a book assignment and then they meet with a prof to talk about it before classes start. Partly it's just an ice breaker -- a way for people to meet, get a little bit comfortable with college level discourse before there starts to be competitiveness and grade pressure, and an introduction to how professors interact with students.

In this case, there was I think an additional agenda. Brown is trying hard not to be the bastion of privilege and finishing school for the ruling class that Ivy League universities have been. Most of the kids still do come from privileged backgrounds, and they maybe need some consciousness raising; and at the same time the university is more diverse than it once was and the community has experienced tensions of various kinds, meriting discussion about racial, ethnic and other kinds of diversity and attendant prejudice from jump street. So this year the assignment was The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

If you haven't read it, or heard about it, it's a solid argument with a few moving parts that essentially views the War on [some classes of people who use some] Drugs as a mechanism of racial oppression, pretty much the essential means by which the racial caste system in the U.S. has been maintained after the passage of civil rights legislation and the elimination of de jure segregation. The great virtue of it, for this purpose, is the appearance of color blindness. It's not about race, it's about crime.

If you aren't conversant with these issues, or don't believe it, I won't take the bytes here to try to explain the entire argument. I will point out, however, that a) most people in jail or otherwise under criminal justice supervision are drug offenders only, users or low-level dealer/users; b) the vast majority of them are Black or Latino; c) the vast majority of low-level drug dealers and users are white.

If Weston, Massachusetts were policed in the same way as Harlem, with the police randomly stopping and frisking young men and searching motorists' cars, and then charging the people with felonies if they found marijuana or other illicit drugs, a whole lot of rich white high school kids and many of their parents, for that matter, would be felons. And in case you didn't know it, felons are largely unemployable, ineligible for public benefits, can't serve on juries, and can't vote. In some states, all of that is true for the rest of their lives.

This is true and cannot be denied. And that is why Weston and Harlem are not policed in the same way. Furthermore white high school kids who smoke pot or use ecstasy are not perceived as criminals, and they aren't treated like criminals even if they do somehow have the misfortune to be caught. But Black kids the same age, doing the exact same things, are, thereby destroying their lives.


Friday, September 04, 2015

This is very simple

If it's against my religion to sell bacon, I can't work in a bacon store. That's why Jehovah's Witnesses don't work for the blood bank.

The End

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A brief digression about the Iran deal

Okay, I'm not exactly an expert on everything but I have followed the Middle East very closely for more than 25 years. Now that Barbara Mikulski has endorsed the agreement with Iran, it will happen -- Congress has no path to block it. But I'll let you in on a little secret -- they were never serious about blocking it in the first place. The entire "debate," as it is presented in the corporate media and indeed, by politicians moving their lips, is a shadow play. It isn't about anything they say it is about.

Somehow I got on the e-mail list of the Zionist Organization of America. These people are batshit crazy, which is to say they are in a permanent Vulcan mind-meld with Bibi Netanyahu. They continually bombard my in-box with panic over the existential threat to Israel which supposedly the Iranians have promised to eradicate and Obama just wants to give them the means to do so. So here's the first correction: some Iranian political leaders, notably the former powerless president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have made statements to the effect the state of Israel should not exist. This does not mean that the population of Israel should be annihilated, it means that the political entity should be replaced by a secular state. However, even if you think that the Iranian leadership would wish, for some reason, to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon . . .

Israel possesses from 100 to 200 nuclear weapons -- I'm betting on 200 -- and the means to deliver them by missile and bomber. Were the Iranians to smuggle a primitive nuclear weapon into Tel Aviv (obviously Jerusalem and anywhere near it, along with any location that could affect Gaza or the West Bank are completely immune no matter what you think about Iranian intentions) and detonate it, the Iranian nation and Persian culture would very shortly cease to exist. Every city, every shrine, every military installation, every ayatollah, would be vaporized. The only Farsi speakers left in the world would be expatriates. Full stop.

So, Bibi and the ZOA are not in fact worried about that. They also know perfectly well that without a deal, Iran will go ahead and make a nuclear weapon, probably within a year or two. So what is this really all about?

They do not want Iran to rejoin the community of nations. They want the sanctions regime to remain in place, forever. They would not accept any deal, of any kind, no matter it meant for the Iranian nuclear program, if it allowed Iran to freely sell its oil on the international market and participate in the international financial system. You may think this is a legitimate goal, but it is also unachievable because Russia, China and probably most of Europe would not go along with it, and the U.S., by itself, cannot impose meaningful sanctions on Iran.

Except for a few deluded wingnuts, the Republican congressional leadership knows this. Were they to succeed in stopping the deal, the sanctions regime would fall apart, Iran would make a nuclear weapon, and oh yeah, the dollar would no longer be viable as an international reserve currency because it could not be used to purchase Iranian oil. That would probably not make the Republicans or the ZOA look very good.

That is all.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday Sermonette

Scientific American just came out with a special issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein's publication of the theory of general relativity. Special relativity, the description of the space-time continuum, the speed of light as a cosmic speed limit, and the equivalence of mass and energy, came 10 years earlier, in 1905. General relativity is the theory of gravity, which Einstein struggled with in the intervening decade.

I'm not a physicist so I would say that I barely have an intuitive understanding of this stuff. But I know enough about how physicists and cosmologists, with the information provided by observational astronomers, have put together the pieces of the puzzle that produce our modern understanding of the universe to believe it.

But a lot of people don't. I can understand why. First, the physicist's universe is sharply contrary to our intuitions and our experience. If you tell people that mass warps space and gravity slows time, that light is bent by gravity and that mass increases with acceleration, for example, it just sounds nuts.

More important, when we discovered the cosmos, the revelation destroyed the entire history of philosophy and culture. Many scientists are reluctant to say it, and some haven't accepted it, but religion -- at least anything resembling religion as we know it -- cannot survive cosmology. You can make up some new meaning for the word religion, I suppose, but Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, you name it, are all destroyed. To believe any of them, you must believe that the actually existing universe does not exist.

Disposed with the bathwater of mythology is the baby of meaning. No, God doesn't care about us - or exist, for that matter - and we don't matter at all to any entity but ourselves.  Many people just can't live with that. The challenge for the cause of reason is to help them find a way.