Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The End Times?

As I was taking up the subject of peak oil, Dr. Black weighed in with his disconcertingly blasé take on the whole thing. The lapsed economist writes:

I, too, generally get a bit puzzled about Kunstlerish views about the future of America in a world of rising oil prices. Certainly rising oil/gas prices, over time, might impact peoples' behavior in terms of what kind of car they use and how much they use it. Over a longer time horizon high prices might impact to some degree our land use and transit policies, and the relative desirability of certain locations. Obviously high oil/gas prices would cause economic pain for lower income people with a heavy reliance on automobile usage, and potentially tip the economy into a nontrivial recession.

But when I think through how various levels might impact behavior, and I've done informal polling on this blog about it before, it's just hard to see how any realistic scenario leads to the kind of of economic and social Armageddon that some authors predict. Even if there was a major price discontinuity, with gas shooting up to $10/gallon tomorrow, I just don't see the country going through a sudden wrenching overhaul. People would be pissed. Stuff would be more expensive. But I really don't see it in revolutionary terms.

Wow. Talk about people unclear on the concept. I was truly baffled by this, coming from someone who generally can distinguish between a hole in the ground and an essential orifice. Does he really think that the only consequence of higher oil prices is that it costs us more to drive to grandma's house? What is more, he doesn't seem to get that we aren't talking about a one-time spike in gasoline prices: we're talking about gasoline, and home heating oil, and diesel fuel (which includes tractor fuel), and jet fuel, and chemical and plastics and fertilizer feedstocks, growing more scarce and more and more expensive, year after year after year, forever.

A great difficulty for this essential discussion is that for reasons not entirely clear to me, though I have some hypotheses, the people who have been most assertive and prominent in calling attention to the reality of peak oil have also had oddly cultish tendencies. Many of them seem to revel in eschatology, actually looking forward to a prophesied destruction of Civilizationasweknowit and a kind of post-apocalyptic Jeffersonian agrarian utopia. James Howard Kunstler is their Nostradamus. Others -- with considerable overlap -- are prone to dubious conspiracy theories. I believe that political leaders have conspired to some extent to conceal the facts from the people, but the Peak Oil "movement" (and yes, they call themselves exactly that) also contains a high percentage of people who are convinced beyond doubt that the Cheney Administration orchestrated the 9/11 attack as the first step in their long-nurtured plan to seize the Middle East oil fields. While Michael Ruppert has at last retired to bedlam, his influence lives on. My personal view is that the long-nurtured plan is for real, but what happened on Sept. 11 2001 is that members of a violent cult that originated Saudi Arabia hijacked some airplanes and flew them into buildings because they believed they were defending the Islamic homelands. But what's the difference? I try not to get hung up about that.

Like global climate change, the toxicity of tobacco, and the age of the universe, the question of the finitude of the petroleum resource has also fallen into a left/right divide. The people who believe this particular truth are liberals who hate America; the people with moral values who know that the biggest threat facing the Godly is Islamofascism and the Vampire Lesbians of Sodom know that peak oil is just commie propaganda. (Now, it seems, we also have the sensible liberals like Atrios who say, "Oil, Schmoil." What that's all about, I cannot say.)

So, what do I think the consequences will be? I meant to tell you today, but I never got around to it. Patience.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A bit of news

Missy has returned to The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, so I will now take up the project again and continue on through the Bible.

Please do head over there and welcome her back.

That river in Egypt is mighty deep

In the last episode of our Hinges of History Review, I discussed the magical cloak of invisibility over the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, I've been nibbling at the edges of another Great Denial, known as peak oil. This is the most important geopolitical fact of our age, far more important in the context of international power struggles, war and peace, than global warming, infectious disease, water supplies, deforestation, mass extinction, human rights, you name it. Yes, you may care more about some of those other little problems, but governments, especially the ones that wield powerful militaries, do not.

Petroleum is what flows through the veins of our industrial civilization. It's obvious to you when you drive your car or heat your house, but the fact is that the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the house itself, are all ultimately made of petroleum. Not just transportation, but agriculture, manufacturing, even communication, are all fueled by petroleum. It's everything we do. It's how we live.

Everybody knows there is a finite amount of it in the earth, and everybody agrees that at some point, the effort to extract it will face diminishing returns, and the supply will decline. It's not that it will all suddenly be gone; it's that the investment needed to find and pull out what's left will be steadily more and more per barrel, the price will inevitably go up and up, and the world will have to do with less and less. The experts disagree about when this will happen. Specifically, the range of predicted dates for peak oil is from 2006 to 2030. Not a typo -- many perfectly sane, highly credible, well informed people think it has already happened. In fact, the range is narrowing and right now, about the latest anyone is really hoping for is 2017.

Now, have you heard any politician, of either party, at any level, even mention this? The candidates for president talk about war in Iraq; possible war against Iran; global warming; the long-term future of the economy including Medicare, Social Security, and the federal debt; but none of this has anything to do with peak oil, a phenomenon which does not even exist. Republicans, in fact, are still telling the people that we can eliminate our dependence on foreign sources of petroleum by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and eliminating all those pointyheaded liberal environmentalist restrictions on drilling off the coast of Florida. If you thought the Weapons of Mass Destruction™ and the Saddam-al Qaeda connection were egregious lies, why aren't you out in the street demonstrating about that one? Why do you think they told those other lies in the first place? It's because it is illegal to mention the real reason the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Michael Klare in The Nation offers a brief primer on the subject, but he has surprisingly little to say about the consequences. I have more to say, but that's for the next installment.

Monday, October 29, 2007


And to think, ever since Jerry Falwell helped put the amiable dunce Ronald Reagan in power, we've thought that Christian voters only cared about the sanctity of the blastocyst, the submission of the female, and the damnation of the sodomite. Now Rudy Giuliani is the Republican frontrunner, and it turns out those issues are secondary after all. What Christians care about even more is who will promise to torture and slaughter the greatest number of heathens, and repeal the Bill of Rights.

Sorry for the light posting lately, I've been brooding. I'll get over it soon.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The curtain of censorship

continues to lie across North America.

I'll bet you didn't hear about this through the U.S. corporate media.

Continuing destruction of the natural world is affecting the health, wealth and well-being of people around the globe, according to a major UN report.

The Global Environment Outlook says most trends are going the wrong way.

It lists degradation of farmland, loss of forest cover, pollution, dwindling fresh water supplies and overfishing among society's environmental ills.

The UN Environment Programme (Unep) says there is a "remarkable lack of urgency" to reverse these trends.

"There continue to be persistent and intractable problems unresolved and unaddressed," said Unep's executive director Achim Steiner.

"Past issues remain and new ones are emerging, from the rapid rise of oxygen 'dead zones' in the oceans to the resurgence of new and old diseases linked in part with environmental degradation."

Unep concludes that the well-being of millions of people in the developing world is put at risk by failure to remedy problems which have been tackled in richer societies.

BBC has a link to the full report, which is not up yet on the UNEP web site. Sigh.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Nukular Option

I'm sure all my readers are familiar with the basic story of how nuclear weapons came to be upon the earth -- although I fear that most young people today are not. (They think that WWII was fought between the U.S. and its valiant German allies against the Soviet Union.) Prominent physicists, led by the most famous of them all, Albert Einstein, feared that Nazi Germany would develop an atomic bomb, and so they urged Franklin Roosevelt to get there first. The program to develop the bomb was carried out in total secrecy. If truth is the first casualty of war, democracy is the second. (That's why Dick Cheney is so fond of it, for both reasons.) It turned out that Germany was never close to developing nuclear weapons, and Germany surrendered before the U.S. tested its first atomic bomb. The American people were just as surprised as the Japanese when the United States Army Air Force obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, using a single nuclear weapon, nicknamed Little Boy. The pilot who commanded the mission named the airplane after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets. His actions killed about 180,000 people, half immediately, the remainder over the next few months. Since then, thousands more have died from the latent effects of radiation. Nearly all of the casualties were civilians. The United States went on to destroy a second Japanese city, Nagasaki, three days later.

The motivation for the attack, and its morality, have been debated ever since. The U.S. had demanded that Japan surrender on July 26, but had not mentioned the atomic bomb. Many people feel that a demonstration, for example by exploding a bomb over the ocean near Japan, would have been just as effective in bringing about Japan's surrender as actually vaporizing a civilian population. A common interpretation is that the real motive was to impress the Soviet Union, as Japan's defeat was already assured in any case. I am not a historian, and in any case I know that nobody had the power to read Harry Truman's mind during his lifetime, so I don't know definitely why he gave the orders that he gave.

In any event, the Soviet Union definitely was impressed. Although U.S. leaders believed that their monopoly over nuclear weapons would lead to a pax Americana, the Soviets had started their own nuclear weapons program in 1943, and exploded a weapon in August 1949. The nuclear arms race was on. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. and Russia pulled back from the brink, and their arsenals have contracted somewhat from the peak.

Nevertheless there are currently approximately nearly 26,000 nuclear explosive devices on the planet. Russia possesses more than half of these, some 15,000, but most of its weapons are not currently operational. Russia and the U.S. have approximately equal numbers of operational weapons, 5,800 and 5,700 respectively. France has 350, China and the UK 200 each. Israel is believed to have about 80 but Israel blatantly lies to the world and pretends it doesn't have any. Pakistan has about 60, India about 50, and North Korea an unknown number in the single digits (which may or may not work).

One third of the United States' weapons are W76 hydrogen bombs, with an explosive yield of 100 kilotons -- about 7 to 10 times the power of the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The exact yield of these weapons is disputed. It's usually said to be 15 kilotons but may have been less.) The U.S. possesses other weapons with yields as high as 475 kilotons, and so-called "tactical" weapons with yields as low as 1 kiloton, which can be fired from artillery. Russian bombs tend to be bigger, because their missiles are less accurate.

The only purpose of the large bombs -- the majority in every nation's arsenal -- is to destroy cities and cause mass casualties, on the order of millions of people killed immediately and millions more horribly burned and maimed, many of whom will die sooner or later of radiation poisoning or cancer. The "tactical" weapons are intended to be used against targets such as military bases or troop formations, but they could just as well be used against population concentrations or industrial facilities.

As for delivery, the U.S., Russia and China can attack every place on the planet using land-based or submarine-based missiles, or long-range bombers. France and the UK can do the same using their nuclear submarine fleets.

The remaining nuclear powers are regional threats. India and Pakistan's arsenals are principally aimed at each other, although the possibility of some sort of conflict developing with China may have been on the minds of Indian leaders when they decided to develop their weapons. The rationale behind the Israeli arsenal is unclear. No regional nuclear power is capable of attacking Israel. It must be acknowledged, however, that nuclear weapons do not have to be delivered by missiles or aircraft. They could be placed on a ship and sailed into a harbor, or smuggled into a country and sent anywhere in an ordinary automobile.

The U.S. and Russia have pledged to reduce their "deployed" weapons to 2,200 each by 2012, although the effect of that is unclear, since non-deployed (so-called "stockpiled") weapons might be deployable within a short time. (This is the basis on which Israel maintains the fiction that it does not possess nuclear weapons - they have to tighten a bolt before the weapons become operational.)

The current White House occupant said recently that Iran cannot be permitted to have the knowledge necessary to make nuclear weapons. In that case, it is much too late. Here is a detailed, functional design for a nuclear weapon, specifically Fat Man, the weapon that destroyed Nagasaki, so you know it works. Now they'll have to kill you. Actually, Hiroshima style bombs are much easier to make, but they require weapons grade uranium, which is difficult to obtain. Fat man was a plutonium bomb. Plutonium is easy to get, it can be chemically separated from used reactor fuel, but it requires a more complex and precise bomb design.

Now, I personally do not know whether the Iranian leadership actually intends to make a nuclear weapon. The fact is, they have perfectly legitimate reasons for wanting to develop nuclear power. Iran has a lot of petroleum, but its production is declining even as its internal need for energy is growing. Nevertheless, if they do want to have nuclear weapons, it's pretty difficult to explain why they should not. It's perfectly okay for Israel, Pakistan, India, China, etc. to have nuclear weapons. What's different about Iran? We could, I suppose, get into an argument about what countries are and are not state sponsors of terrorism, or have unstable or irrational leadership, or are "rogue states," or whatever labels you like to throw around, but here's the bottom line.

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which all but four nations are signatories (Iran is a signatory; Israel is not), the nuclear powers are committed to ultimate disarmament. Based on that promise, the other states have pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons. But the United States has absolutey no intention of disarming. Indeed, the administration is proposing to replace its arsenal of W76 warheads with a new generation of similar weapons, and has also proposed developing entirely new kinds of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons which the U.S. proposes to retain in perpetuity are more than sufficient to destroy all of civilization and quite possibly exterminate humanity.

Iran has offered to participate in the creation of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. I don't know if they were serious, but the U.S. rejected the proposal out of hand, for the obvious reason that it would require Israel to disarm, and it would also require the United States to remove the nuclear weapons it currently maintains on ships in the vicinity of the Arabian/Persian Gulf -- and may, for all we know, have deployed at its airbases in Iraq. (It would not surprise me, how about you?)

Here's what I think. Nuclear weapons are an abomination which must not be permitted to exist. The other threats facing humanity are trivial compared to this one. We might find global climate change and resource depletion and infectious disease outbreaks will be awfully unpleasant, but we can survive them all with our civilization and cultural heritage largely intact. And, whatever harm comes from them, we did it by stupidity and short-sightedness and greed. We made nuclear weapons on purpose, for no other reason than to dominate people who don't have them and destroy them at our whim. That is stupid, and short-sighted, and greedy, but it is also evil.

Still backed up --

But here's food for thought. As I have said before, I'm no expert in this area but I've noticed a lot of credible people who say that peak oil has already happened. For some reason, they get ignored by the corporate media and policy makers and the most optimistic projections of remaining oil reserves are touted as the only credible ones.

So here's the latest, reported, as usual, in the British media but not in the United States:

World oil production has already peaked and will fall by half as soon as 2030, according to a report which also warns that extreme shortages of fossil fuels will lead to wars and social breakdown.

The German-based Energy Watch Group will release its study in London today saying that global oil production peaked in 2006 - much earlier than most experts had expected. The report, which predicts that production will now fall by 7% a year, comes after oil prices set new records almost every day last week, on Friday hitting more than $90 (£44) a barrel.


The report's author, Joerg Schindler, said its most alarming finding was the steep decline in oil production after its peak, which he says is now behind us.

The results are in contrast to projections from the International Energy Agency, which says there is little reason to worry about oil supplies at the moment.

However, the EWG study relies more on actual oil production data which, it says, are more reliable than estimates of reserves still in the ground. The group says official industry estimates put global reserves at about 1.255 gigabarrels - equivalent to 42 years' supply at current consumption rates. But it thinks the figure is only about two thirds of that.

Global oil production is currently about 81m barrels a day - EWG expects that to fall to 39m by 2030. It also predicts significant falls in gas, coal and uranium production as those energy sources are used up.

I already have my firewood laid in for the winter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Coming soon: The Nukular Option

It may surprise people a bit, but the first of our many crises that I plan to address is the threat of nuclear armageddon. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fading of Cold War tensions, it seems we've grown complacent about nuclear weapons. The only danger, according to Emperor Cheney, his corporate media sychophants, and President Knucklehead, is that Iran might obtain nuclear weapons. Wrong.

I will discuss all this tomorrow, but today is one of those days that makes me wonder how all these bloggers who, like me, have actual jobs, manage to throw something at the Internet every day and make it stick. I don't have time today, so I will share with you an e-mail I received that makes me wonder how we've managed to survive this long as a species.

Welcome To The Orbital Forcing Homepage

Global Warming is caused by the planet Venus

The lunar calendar and more accurately the Mayan long calendar predicts 2012 to be the date the gravity of the planet Venus negatively affects the Moon's lunar trajectory and causes disruptions in the weather patterns on the planet Earth. Known only as, and exacerbated by Global Warming. Though for communities of the time, then dependent largely on agricultural industries, this was known as the beginning of the good times, the end times or the apocalypse.

The event of Venus' orbit pulling the moon away from us happens every so often and coincides with landmark claims and maps of human survival such as the book of Genesis, the book of Revelation and the predictions of the Maya.

In order to thwart this new enemy, or threat from outer space as I like to call it, we need to re-engineer the moon's orbit back to a position agreeable with life on earth. This should be the sole focus of Global Warming talks and endeavours.

That new bomb the Russians invented should do the trick. Just detonate it alongside the trajectory of the moon and nudge it back into place. Do this every once in a while and we'll have a very nice planet to live on for a long time to come.

Site Updates

I've added a Guest Book, a list of useful links, contact information and a link to the US Department of defense for your comments or queries

Getting Rich Quick--From My Site!

Well one way to get rich quick from my site is to realize Global Warming wasn't caused by us on earth solely.

Another way to get rich quick from my site is to develop/support or otherwise become involved in the development or application of the tremendous sciences involved in solving this thing.

For help with that contact the US department of Defense.

Behind the Scenes of the Orbital Forcing homepage

I developed the Orbital Forcing homepage in order to further the advancement of science on Global Warming. While my theory is correct and the underlying force changing our environment, or smoking gun missing from any previous theories which failed to look outside the box if you will, I do not want to stage or detract from any other more than necessary information on the cause of Global Warming from a strictly terrestrial view.

For more information on that I direct you to

Global Warming Wikipedia.

Contact me

Norman Christian Hoffmann
105-2820 Heather St
Vancouver BC
V5Z 3J6
or point your browser to the address below

If anybody cares the check it out, let me know what you find.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cleaning up before moving on

This weirdly tropical late October day in Boston would be a good one on which to start taking on our specific crises, but I'm a little too busy for a decently researched post today, and there are still a couple more points I want to make about the fundamentals.

First, regarding the humanity/nature false dichotomy (or maybe not so false, in the view of some commenters) I'm inclined to view this question pragmatically. As long as we're around, we're going to have a big impact on the ecosystems around us. Whether that is for better or for worse is a question that we can only answer, ultimately, from our own point of view. To accuse me of speciesism is feckless, because if we weren't around, some species would be better off and others would be worse off. And I'm not just talking about our companion animals, and cockroaches and rats.

In New England, for example, there are numerous species, including some very charismatic ones such as cottontail rabbits and numerous kinds of birds, who depend on the patchwork landscape of woods and fields that is maintained by humans -- the forest boundary is a unique niche. With forest now replacing much of the land the earlier settlers cleared, some of those species are declining. There is nothing ethically preferable, in my view, about an ecosystem that develops in the absence of humans compared to one with us in it.

But there are some characteristics of ecosystems which are preferable both from our point of view, and for the long-term productivity of the terrestrial biomass. These include species diversity, complexity of food webs, and of course sustainability, which refers to the cycling of materials such as water, carbon and nitrogen, the maintenance of physical substrates, notably top soil, and low levels of substances which are broadly toxic to life. Note that doesn't mean no toxins -- plants and animals manufacture all sorts of toxins. It's a matter of degree. So without positing some mythic "state of nature," we can still think about nature and how to live sustainably on the earth, as part of it, and still be human. Unlike all the other creatures, we can have these thoughts, and make such choices. Kudzu and snakeheads can't.

The second point has to do with cultural relativism. People struggle with this all the time. I don't like the way women are treated in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia (or, for that matter, the Southern Baptist Convention). But is it any of my business? Those are different cultures, they have their own values, and they don't think much of mine either. So here's where I rely on the distinction I made earlier between morals and ethics. I don't care if women cover their hair or men have to wear neckties -- actually I do care about that, I hate them, but I don't have a choice sometimes. However, where there are important ethical issues at stake, my moral relativism dissolves. The status of women matters not only because of the manifest justice issue, but also because sustainability and prosperity, and the ultimate welfare of children living today, depends on it. Societies with relatively greater gender equity are healthier, wealthier and they even have fewer children and stable populations. Therefore, it is not because of ethnocentrism or cultural chauvinism that I condemn the oppression of women: it is for the long-term health of both humanity and nature.

Finally, there is the question of means. My only significant power is the one I am exercising now: the power to think and express my thoughts. And that's something everyone can do, whether they agree with me or not. The idea is not to win the argument, but to find the truth.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Humanity and Nature

Since I started this project, the commenters have consistently been ahead of me, getting on to the next issue. So, since ya'll bring it up . . .

The human/nature dichotomy is obviously ancient, because it is stated early in Genesis: God gives humanity dominion over the rest of nature. Archeaological evidence suggests it is much more ancient than that. When this clever, rapacious species hit cultural takeoff some 70,000 years ago (or maybe even earlier in a few places), it rapidly increased its ability to exploit its local environment, and frequently exhausted whatever resources were available. No problem -- its unprecedented behavioral flexibility and inventiveness meant it could just move on to the next place, or a different resource.

The powerful modifying effect of humans on their environment is such that it's hard to say what it would mean for humans to live in a "state of nature." The woodland Indians who lived in what is now New England before the European invasion set fires to clear the understory from the forest and make traveling and hunting easier. I have read -- and I do not doubt it -- that there are more white tailed deer in New England than there were when the Wampanoag and the Pequots and the Ho De No Shau Nee hunted them relentlessly.

But once our ancestors started planting crops and herding sheep and cattle, "nature" almost ceased to exist in those lands where they were at all populous. Now we are even strip mining the biomass from the oceans and pumping fossil water out of the bedrock to turn deserts into vast photosynthesis factories. Even places where few humans ever go -- such as large "nature" preserves and very remote, inhospitable realms such as Antarctica and that portion of the Siberian oak forest that isn't for sale yet at Home Depot -- are profoundly altered by our impact on the air, the climate, and the neighboring areas with which they interact. It's much less fun being a penguin than it used to be.

The good news is that just as our global impact is becoming absolutely, finally, untenable and unsustainable, we're gaining an understanding of exactly what it is that we're doing and how it might cost us. This has forced a lot of soul-searching and fundamental reassessment of that ancient dichotomy. We won't have the luxury of thinking of ourselves as somehow standing outside of nature if nature stops delivering breathable air, drinkable water, and edible biomass. But the "business case" for environmental protection falls far short of newly emerging values, and it is even offensive to many, who maintain that "nature" is valuable for its own sake, not just because it's useful to us.

But there are some deep conundrums in making this claim. Nature includes us. Humans emerged on the earth like every other species, and we've been modifying nature ever since. Many species have an even more profound effect than we do -- much more profound. Photosynthetic organisms created the oxygen-rich atmosphere that drove earth's original biota deep underground, and led to the realm of the aerobic bacteria and the eukaryotes with their mitochondrial endosymbionts. (That includes us, in case you didn't know.) As earthworms continue their slow recolonization of northern latitudes following the last ice age, they fundamentally change forest ecosystems, eliminating innumerable species and encouraging others. All species reshape their environment to some extent, and there is no "balance of nature" or "state of nature." Nature is fundamentally dynamic, constantly changing. How we are to judge that some change we cause is less legitimate or less acceptable than one caused by worms or plankton or wild turkeys?

Remove humans, and you won't have nature as it has ever existed before. You'll have an earth that we have already radically remade, evolving and changing in unprecedented directions. What is natural nature, what is wild nature? It's impossible to say.

So what do we really mean when we say we value nature, or want to live in harmony with it, or would even prefer us not being part of it if we're going to trash everything? I might have an answer to that question, but what is yours?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My Ism

I am usually reluctant to accept standard labels for my beliefs, because I try not to be a follower of any school but rather to think for myself. For example, I don't like to call myself a liberal in the sense the term is used in U.S. politics, although I am more accepting of the label in the old-fashioned sense.*

It also turns out that I have come on my own to a position that may fairly be called humanism. Wordnet gives this definition for humanism:

2. of or pertaining to a philosophy asserting human dignity and man's [sic -- sorry about that] capacity for fulfillment through reason and scientific method and often rejecting religion; "the humanist belief in continuous emergent evolution"- Wendell Thomas

Well yes, but I'm going to dig a little deeper to define my version of humanism. We find ourselves in this world. How are we to understand it, our place in it, and ourselves? Consider your resources. What tools do you have? You have your senses, which give you information about reality, and you have your reason, with which to interpret that information. You have curiosity -- you find pleasure in learning. What else do you want? You want good and sufficient food, comfortable temperatures, sexual gratification, and perhaps your acquisitiveness goes much further -- but you also want companionship, reciprocal relationships of trust and support, a community, and you want the people around you to be happy and safe and you want them to like you and you want to like them. You want to cooperate, you want to build, you feel good when you are generous and helpful.

These are your endowments. With the the knowledge we have today about the world, reason can explain them all. Computer simulations of evolution among social entities show that cooperation can readily emerge, and that a kind of morality emerges spontaneously among even very simple simulated entities, called tit for tat. Your best strategy is to trust and assist others unless they show themselves to be untrustworthy, whereupon you stop trusting and helping them. That way you'll win and keep friends, and lose the associations you don't want. In the long run, the good guys do well and the bad guys not so well. As for senses and reason, they must be giving us an accurate enough picture of what the world consists of and how it works, or our ancestors would not have survived to produce us. So let's trust our perceptions, and our instincts -- until we have a good reason to doubt them.

And what a fantastic privilege it is to have this profound, complex consciousness. Why we are conscious is a mystery, but there it is. We think, we see, we feel. The universe out there, but it is within us as well. What more does anyone need for spiritual reward?

And what should be our aspiration?

It has to pertain to this universe, not an imagined one beyond, because this is the only universe we have. And it has to be about humans, because, well, I'm with the home team. We have no idea how rare it may be for intelligence to arise in the universe. Unlike some of my friends, I would be very sorry to see humanity pass away -- something so extraordinary and, some of the time anyway, so beautiful it stabs us in the throat. There is no telling what we might one day accomplish, what we might one day become. The liberal concept of human nature, as I wrote earlier, is that it is what we make of it. Therefore let us make of ourselves a species, a community, that can live sustainably on the earth, and then look beyond it. Let's make of ourselves a single community that cares for everyone within it -- all of humanity. Let us become more than we are, and enrich and make meaningful the universe.

In the present time of crisis, then, how can we go about such a daunting project?

* From, some definitions of "liberal":

4. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
5. favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
6. of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
7. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.
8. open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc. of

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rough day

No time today to continue my project of Thinking Deep Thoughts, it will return tomorrow. I spent most of the day at a symposium on access to cancer clinical trials for minorities, where I facilitated a workshop. An interesting subject though a bit more complex, in my view, than many of the other participants see it. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are all grossly underrepresented in clinical trials of cancer treatments. That should not be.

On the other hand, it isn't quite accurate to view access to trials as a benefit to the individual patient. The principal of "equipoise" means that in order for a trial to be ethical, we really have to not know whether the experimental treatment is better or safer -- or worse or less safe -- than the standard treatment. The only time access to trials is really a benefit is when people are terminally ill and standard treatments have failed; then, you might as well go ahead and try something. This is the situation in so-called Phase II trials, which are small and intended mostly just to establish a basic level of safety and some evidence of efficacy, to justify a larger scale Phase III trial.

Anyway, the issue gets to the root of major problems in our health care and biomedical research infrastructure: lack of minority investigators, lack of minority health care providers, and failure to involve affected communities at all stages, from setting research goals, to selecting therapeutic targets, to planning trials, to recruiting participants. We need a new paradigm of community based participatory research, to make the enterprise equitable and democratic. But you've probably gotten tired of hearing that sort of thing from me.

Anyhow, now I have to read student papers - and grade them, which I really dislike doing. So hasta mañana.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Moral Values

Where do they come from? As we were created by evolution, so were our moral values -- but it's not that simple. The most distinctive human attribute is culture. Human culture rests upon human nature, but common building blocks can make an infinite variety of structures. One of the cutting edge projects in social science these days is the effort to identify the common elements of morality across cultures, which has the equal and opposite effect of illuminating the differences.

As the religious claim over morality depends on telling us what God wants us to do, religions must perforce claim to show us God's instructions, which since the rise of literacy has generally been found in an old book. Since those various old books contain many odd and conflicting stories and claims, they have to be explained to us by a clearly labeled caste that mediates between God and the rest of us. One common objection to religious beliefs is that they are simply arbitrary. You have to pick one of the books, and one of the societies of priests, and believe what those particular priests tell you. Ipso facto, you must disbelieve all the rest. So the first consequence of religious belief is that you must conclude that the vast majority of humans believe in falsehoods, about which you know better -- and furthermore, that the vast majority of people fail the test of moral values, whether because they don't engage in the right rituals, don't observe the sabbath on the correct day, call God by the wrong name, don't observe the right marital, or sexual, or dietary taboos, or for some other category of transgression.

It is obviously correct that most people try to conform their behavior to some religious prescriptions. For example, people attend religious ceremonies, typically according to a 7-day rhythm, all around the world. People everywhere depend on religious ceremonies to accomplish marriage and sometimes divorce, the creation of an identity for a newborn, the dissolution of an identity at death, condemnation of deviance, encouragement of conformity -- with the occasional twist of empowering a deviant minority by creating within-group solidarity using the language of rebellion. Religious institutions in many societies are responsible for functions such as record keeping, maintenance of libraries, psychological counseling, physical healing using scientific medicine, care of orphans, care for the dying, matchmaking, and other public goods.

Religious institutions are also frequently responsible for torturing and murdering dissenters, oppressing creativity and diversity, stealing vast sums from poor people, preposterous self-aggrandizement and pretension, and the denial of obvious physical reality in the cause of their own power, i.e. massive and remorseless lying.

Whatever their specific behavior and relationship to the dominant culture, religious institutions proclaim a bewildering variety of prescriptions, proscriptions, principles and metaphysical bases for morality.

So if morality does come from God, no-one can come up with a convincing argument why we should prefer one version of What God Wants Us To Do over another. They're all pulling it out of the air anyway, and at most only a small minority of humans can possibly be right about exactly What God Wants Us To Do, which is to say the chances are overwhelming that both you and I are going to hell, unless we can somehow pluck the single magic straw from the haystack.

Rather than grasp at straws, I say that God is a human invention and morality can be explained with God as at most an intermediary variable, i.e. a process within the human psyche that may be separately definable. The subject of exactly how the psychological foundations of morality evolved, and how the universal building blocks of morality may be described, is still an active area of investigation. Here's one recent popular discussion of one investigator's studies of chimpanzees, but others are studying humans directly. For example, as I discussed a while back, Marc Hauser and Peter Singer have set up a web site where you can respond to various scenarios posing moral problems. By seeing how people of various religions, cultures, and social backgrounds respond to these problems, they are extracting an understanding of the universal basis of moral reasoning.

The moral impulse given us by evolution is not hard to explain in general terms. We are social animals; we succeed by cooperation, by protecting and teaching our young and working together for the good of the group. Without going into a lot of evolutionary biology, I'll just say that it's easy to explain how reciprocal altruism evolved among kin, but it gets a little trickier to explain how and why it expands beyond our biological relatives. One essential goal of the humanist project is to expand moral status from close kin, to community, to nation, and to all humanity. Racists and nationalists -- such as dominate our political discourse today -- do not really share this goal, but it feels right to me.

While the universal principles of morality have to do with respecting others and caring for their interests and feelings, religious morality is highly prescriptive -- based on detailed rules. Here are some interesting examples of the morally pure.

If there are to be rules, I prefer to derive them rationally from principles, not the ravings of some long-dead eccentric who heard voices in the night. And so we will press forward on that basis. Whatever vocabulary you may prefer, I will say ethics to refer to the principles of respect, caring and reciprocity with which evolution has endowed us as social beings; and morality to refer to the detailed rules, prescriptions and proscriptions of religion and convention. Some such rules may be helpful to lubricate society, but rules with such purely pragmatic justification -- e.g., drive on the right -- have a different status from basic principles of ethics. We will work diligently to observe the difference.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Human Nature

I'm really glad I started this project, the comments have been fabulous. In this post I'm going to touch on issues that various people have raised, so while I have the monopoly of the top level here I don't want people to feel that I'm privileged in this discussion. Please do read everybody's comments, they're as good as what I have to say.

So, anthropologists and social psychologists have been on a quest for quite some time now to understand what may be universal about human behavior, and what may contingent. This problem gets conceptually complex very quickly because the possible contingencies interact, because we have to think about mutability over time as well as space, social position, and at the level of both individual variation within groups, and variation between groups, and because it is maddeningly difficult to sort out factual problems from arguments over definition and morality.

For this format, I have to simplify and strip down the discussion to get to the nut. That includes throwing down some categories without bothering to justify or even rigorously define them. This is just an outline, in other words.

Some universals are pretty obvious and well accepted. All humans are social beings, who live in groups and interact according to various social roles. Kinship is an important category of role relationship in every human society. Like all mammals we have the mother-child relationship but we also keep track of our fathers, our grandparents, our cousins, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews. Chimpanzees live in bands of related individuals, but it does not appear that they make much, if any distinction beyond motherhood, although father generally refrain from murdering their own offspring.

We universally have language, but we have thousands of different ones and they all change over time and have all sorts of regional and subgroup variations. There are commonalities at a very deep level but they are far from apparent. It is possible to say things in some languages that simply cannot be said in others. On the other hand, some concepts can be mapped quite clearly onto all languages. It is extremely important to note that language does not only represent reality. In fact most natural discourse has other functions, defined by speech acts, which are social resources exchanged through language -- such as making a promise, expressing feelings, praising, condemning, ordering, permitting, soothing, etc. I haven't gotten the big NSF grant to do the research to prove it, but I'm willing to bet 50 pounds of fresh Brandywine tomatoes that the taxonomy of speech acts is universal across human cultures.

And so on and so forth. Cultures are all built from these same blocks, but the constructions are astonishingly various, from the Spartan warrior culture to Polynesian fishers, from Haight-Ashbury hippies to Hells Angels biker gangs. Within every culture there is also enormous individual variation in temperament, talents, anti- and pro-social behavior.

There is also complex feedback between culture and the "nature" of the humans who are part of it. For example, we make everybody go to school. This not only develops specific skills such as reading and computing -- the use of which changes our brains, our temperaments, our beliefs, our social behavior -- and directly fills our heads with knowledge and beliefs, it also teaches us to live by a clock, to sit quietly in rows unless we have permission not to, to speak only in turn or when called upon, and so on. All of these are habits necessary to the work environment into which we will one day graduate. This makes our nature different from that of people who do not go to school, and therefore all of us are very unlike everyone who lived 3,000 years ago.

To finally get to the point, one of the important divides in our contemporary culture is between what I will label the conservative and liberal views of human nature. For the most part, these views are held by people who would merit, and likely accept, the corresponding political labels, but there are exceptions.

The conservative view is that there is an essential, fixed frame of reference human nature which has important moral status, and must be protected against threatening cultural forces or technological developments. The liberal view is that human nature is what we make of it, that we can strive to enhance it, expand it, grow it into new possibilities. Of course, these are just tendencies of preference and thought, and from either side one runs into paradoxes, which I'll let you work out for yourselves if you care to.

The reason I think this is so important is that the world in 50 years is not going to be very much like the world today, and even less like the world of the late 19th Century which is the American conservative Golden Age. We're going to need a different kind of human to succeed in that world. It will have to be a world of much greater equality between the genders, less individualism and more commitment to community, much greater comity and cooperation among communities and cultural groups (whether in the guise of nation-states or otherwise) and at the same time with far more universality of education, critical thinking skills, and opportunity. So that's a liberal position, obviously.

Next: Where do morals come from?

Thursday, October 11, 2007


I have written quite a bit here about epistemology, including this rather odd post called The Epistemological Foam, and a happily somewhat less creative follow-up simply entitled Truth. Then there is this more technical take on philosophical arcana in which I express more affinity with Karl Popper than is currently fashionable. I'm not going to belabor all that, if anyone is sufficiently interested in my philosophical dilettantism, I hope you will read these posts.

For present purposes, there are two main ideas I want to emphasize. First, the domain of science, indeed the fascination of everyone who embraces a post-enlightenment world view, is ignorance, not truth. We are drawn to mystery and excited by uncertainty. What we already know obviously matters, for practical purposes -- knowledge is the basis of technology. But for spiritual nourishment, knowledge is most important as the ground on which we stand to explore the unknown. Alas, it is not smooth or stable ground. Most of what we purport to know we only believe, and if we truly maintain the spirit of discovery, we accept that even our greatest verities might just collapse under our feet one day.

I grew up thoroughly immersed in modern culture and it was at a surprisingly late age that I realized that many people simply do not want to live in this world of continual revelation and remodeling of belief. Apparently it seems frightening or much too challenging or just incomprehensible, and so they demand certainty and eternal stability of truth. They demand to be wrapped in the comfort of delusion.

And that bring us to the second point, which has to do with the cultural history I introduced in the previous post. Perhaps I should have identified the cultural takeoff of 50,000 years ago as the first Great Transformation, but as I've already set up my numbering system, we'll have to call it Great Transformation Zero. It took another 40,000 years to get to the beginning of Great Transformation One, which shortly produced not only cities and princes and priestly castes but also the most marvelous, most essential technology behind the Great Transformation, the instrument I am wielding at this moment, writing.

Writing vastly accelerated and deepened the development of human culture by expanding the possibilities for accumulation of knowledge. Our discoveries could no longer be forgotten, our stock of information was no longer limited by the capacity of our brains, its accuracy was now defensible against the imperfection of memory. With literacy a systematic and progressive enterprise of scientific investigation became possible. Unfortunately, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for those who require absolute truth, writing is equally powerful. It created a new kind of authority, the authoritative text, which unlike the personal authority of a respected teacher or a powerful potentate, was not limited by human mortality but could be congealed for centuries, or millenia, or as long as humans could still read and write.

And so it gave us scripture, which does as much to impede the great project of human discovery as learned treatises and technical manuals do to advance it. If I were to find myself in a strange place, I would begin to explore, to use my senses and my reason to understand where I was and what the place was like. Suppose I came upon a written tract purporting to tell me the answers. I would probably experiment with trusting it, but as soon as I found it to be contradicted by observable reality, I would trust it less. Far too many people nowadays reject that common sense procedure when it comes to scripture.

So, the point of this excessively long-winded digression is that in my view, by far the most important challenge facing us today, our greatest crisis, is the retreat from reason, the rejection of discovery, the mass movement to burrow into the warm nest of certainty, to embrace the comforts of delusion. This reactionary movement, infused with self-righteousness, has given us utterly disastrous leadership at a time of mortal peril. It is the single greatest threat to our future, transcending all of the specific, concrete problems that we face.

For humanity to live, faith must die.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


The first problem we need to be concerned with is our own nature. We must decide what we are, how we matter, and what else matters to us before we can begin to think about exigent problems. Note that all of these questions can only be answered reflexively, that is with reference to the entity which is doing the asking and the answering, which would be us. The hall of mirrors at the very entrance to the Palace of Understanding stymies many.

I smash the mirrors with the rock of evidence. We have found the fossilized skeletons of creatures that appear exactly like ourselves -- what we call anatomically modern humans -- that are somewhere around 150,000 years old, with a margin of error of 20,000 years or so, in Africa. These are unlikely to have been the very earliest such creatures, so maybe animals that look exactly like us have been on earth for 200,000 years, not likely much longer. DNA evidence accords with this time frame, by the way.

However, evidence relating to the behavior of these creatures does not show evidence of the rapid cultural change and technological development characteristic of modern humans until about 100,000 years ago at the earliest, with what seems to be a notable inflection point -- a sudden acceleration -- about 50,000 years ago. This event -- cultural takeoff -- is the most important in our past. It is when we became the sort of being we are today, in a fundamental way.

It gets tricky, though, because the essence of the cultural takeoff event is that we change over time through a novel mechanism, that is the evolution of culture, which happens with extraordinary rapidity compared with the usual time scale of biological evolution. So, in saying that we are fundamentally like those people of 50,000 years ago I create a bit of a paradox, since it follows that we must not be much like them in some ways.

Beginning with these observations, we have a substantial agenda ahead of us, if we are to understand ourselves. For starters, we are obliged to sort out what is essential, and what is subject to cultural distinctiveness. We note, for example, that there are commonalities among cultures about morals, and also differences. How then, are we to decide what constitutes goodness, rectitude, and the proper objects of endeavor? In doing this exercise, we must be very careful not to go from is to ought, or from ought to is -- both kinds of fallacy are extremely common.

For people who do not already accept my factual contentions so far, the agenda will include a demand that I prove them. So, before continuing with the question of what exactly we are, I will have to digress to discuss how we can go about answering questions.

The Big Picture

Here's why I needed a break. I'm sure that for as long as there has been history, people have thought that they lived in a particularly important historical moment. So maybe my perception, which is widely shared, that we are now in the midst of a third Great Transformation is a solipsistic illusion. But there is plenty of support for this perception.

The first Great Transformation, of course, was the transition from the hunter-gatherer way of life of the first humans to existence in settled communities based on agriculture, which brought with it complex societies with hierarchy and occupational specialties, accumulation of surpluses -- to be owned, invested, and fought over -- rapid technological development, and a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and their environment. The second was the industrial revolution based on energy from fossil fuels, an era which has also seen the rise of an international system based on the universality of the nation-state. While people have talked about the present era as "post industrial," that doesn't really refer to any radically different basis for human society, but merely an incremental shift in economic activity toward services, and toward tighter global integration of markets.

What will truly post-industrial civilization be like? That depends on the solution -- or ultimate failure to resolve -- several interrelated crises. Some arise from basic resource limitations -- petroleum, water, arable land, and to a lesser extent some minerals and elements. Others arise from the basic challenges and risks of trying to live together in such enormous aggregations of humanity, including infectious disease, socio-cultural conflicts, and the infrastructure demands. Others arise from the exponential acceleration of human technological capabilities, presenting severe dangers from expanded possibilities of violence, as well as largely unintended and hard to predict social and ecological transformations. And finally, we face crises from cultural change and ideological conflict, particularly, in my view, an (irony intended) eschatological conflict between the claims of reason and reactionary religious faith. I say eschatological because it will bring about the end of an era of history and usher in a new world, one way or another.

With all this on my mind, it is hard to write day-to-day about topical issues. While the issues I discuss here are important in their immediate impact on people, and embedded in our larger problems, I often feel as though I'm working and writing in a cave, contemplating a narrow patch of landscape and sky. So what I'd like to do for a while is step out and climb to the hilltop and look at the big picture. Where are we, and how did we get here? And how should we decide what to believe, and what to do? I hope you won't mind if I wax a bit grandiose for a while, and really try to wrestle with the big questions.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Taking a break

For the next couple of days, I will engage in no activity resembling intellectual endeavor. Stayin' Alive will be back bigger and better soon, probably en el Dia de la Raza.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The A word, revisited

I don't know that I have much to say about this subject that hasn't been said before, but Rudy Giuliani's travails with the so-called "Christian" evangelical movement have made it once again timely. Greg Sargent commits the bizarre sepuku of calling these people "pro-family" leaders, but whatever they are, it's obviously bad news for a would-be Republic Party candidate that James Dobson and his co-conspirators say they will refuse to vote for any candidate who does not pledge "himself or herself to the sanctity of human life."

Of course, these people despise human life. One of their followers is the founder and president of Blackwater USA (corporate motto: Who Would Jesus Massacre) and their favorite Big Government projects of late are invading Iraq and bombing Iran. Meanwhile, they couldn't give a stale communion wafer about sick and dying children in poor countries, or right here in the US of A where God's Representative on Earth has just vetoed a bipartisan effort to provide health care to kids whose families can't afford it.

The entities to which they impute "sanctity" are not human beings, but anything that's kind of like a human being, in having human DNA, but is otherwise unlike what most of us think of us being human in having no ability to survive independently, and no consciousness. And where do they get the idea that lives of microscopic balls of cells, fetuses with unformed cerebral cortexes, and former humans whose cortexes have been destroyed, are somehow "sacred"? They obviously don't get it from the Bible. There is not one word about abortion anywhere in the Bible, Old Testament or New, even though abortion, and for that matter infanticide, were widely practiced in the Biblical world. For that matter, the Bible certainly does not put forth any concept of the "sanctity of life." The Hebrews are commanded at various times to slaughter people, steal their land, rape their women, and enslave their children. God himself massacres innocent children in Egypt and elsewhere. God commands the Hebrews to stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the sabbath.

And of course, the Bible could not possibly assert that "life begins at conception" because people in Biblical times didn't have the slightest idea what conception was or how fetuses developed. In fact, if you believe in God, then you also have to believe that God is the most prolific abortionist in history, by many orders of magnitude, because something like 2/3 of "human lives" -- the zygotes created at the moment of conception -- never successfully develop. Most of the time, the woman is not even aware that she was ever pregnant. If abortion is murder, this is the death of tens of millions of innocent children every year. Should it not be the absolutely highest priority of medical research to save those babies' lives? But you never hear a peep from these people about it.

Christian prohibition of abortion is an entirely modern phenomenon, dating at its very earliest to the late 19th Century. And what happened at that time to suddenly provoke the concern of the Pope? It wasn't any scientific discovery -- understanding of the nature of conception and the zygote did not come until about 100 years later. No, what got the Christian fathers riled up was the women's movement. The idea that sex could be uncoupled from reproduction, or that women could choose not to become mothers, was appalling to the (putatively) celibate old men who ran the Catholic Church, and later to the Evangelical "Christian" conservatives who share their views on the semi-human status of women, although they otherwise think Catholics are heretics who God intends to torture for all eternity. And vice versa.

The reason I bring all this up, although you already know it, is because nobody in public life seems willing to take this issue on at the fundamental level of morality and logic. The most assertive anyone is willing to be about it, including NARAL, is to say that people differ in their views of the morality of abortion and that the law should not impose one view on everyone. I say it's time to get serious about this and expose the hypocrisy and fundamentally nonsensical basis of "pro-life" activism. Answer these lying bigots who would lead the world back into darkness. Explain to people why their views and public discourse makes no sense. Reveal their true agenda, to oppress women and for that matter all of humankind. To rule the world through terror and deceit.

Not a damn thing Christian about them.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Miracle Cure

Cymbalta is an antidepressant which Eli Lilly got approved just as its patent on Prozac was running out. Whoo, that was close! Fortunately for their executives and shareholders, they now had a patented drug they could market aggressively and sell for a high price, even as generic versions of their former best seller were coming onto the market for a few cents a pill. They sold $1.3 billion (that's right, billion with a 'b') dollars worth last year.

So now the FDA has determined that some of their advertising "overstates effectiveness and omits some of the most serious and important risk information associated with its use." So they have asked Eli Lilly to withdraw the offending material. That's right, asked. They can only ask. Lilly's response? "The company is working with the FDA 'to gain a greater understanding of their concerns,' Lilly spokesman Charlie McAtee said. Lilly will take action once it has 'more clarity' on the agency's comments, he said." And, if they never happen to feel that they have clarity, well then they'll just continue the advertising.

Now let me tell you something about Cymbalta. It's addictive. Once you start taking it, you can't stop without suffering serious withdrawal symptoms. No wonder they sold $1.3 billion dollars worth.

If you want to know more, you may be interesting in reading some testimonials from customers. Sample:

I am currently on cymbalta, I had to ween down to 30 mg a day 60 was to much. still have a dry mouth and nausea ocasionally, but if I forget this medication, I definitly know it, I get and awful feeling and become disorientated in a way hard to explain. I fear stopping this medication. if anyone has advise send it to me...

I was on cymbalta for 4 months to treat depression. Within the first 2 weeks I was experiencing the common side effects. By the beginning of the 4th month I was experiencing the unlisted, rare side-effects...including extreme jaw pain, insomnia. I weaned off the cymbalta creating full fledged withdrawals. I was completely off the med, but was forced back into weaning. I'm currently on 10mg per day - home-made capsules since cymbalta's lowest dose is 20mg. I'm in my 3rd month of major withdrawals which have not eased up. Withdrawal symptoms include major brain zaps, flu-like symptoms, pin point pains throughout my body almost like fibromyalgia, withdrawal induced depression, night terrors -- though I already suffer from night terrors, the withdrawals have made them dangerous. Other withdrawal effects include audio hallucinations, and the feeling of the brain not connected to the body.

I am not going to be nice to cymbalta. I took it at 60mg for six months; spent another three months tapering it to "0" and the last 4 months (near the end of tapering, and following its discontinuation) with near death-like illness: constant suicide ideation; thousands of "brain zaps" and blackouts every day; convultions; vomiting 10+ times a day; unable to sleep at all -- even with ambien; incessant, debilating headache; sweating, sweating, sweating (day and night, hot or cold; deep, constant depression x10 worse before use of the drug; unmitigated, uncontrollable anger (just drop a paperclip); chills; blurred vision; intolerable body pain everywhere that did not occur prior to use of the drug; and more to numerous to list.

I wish to provide a response to those who have taken cymbalta for only a few weeks or month and report it to be "sunshine in a bottle". The true character of this drug comes only after months of use. Scores of people say the same thing: it was great at first, then something went wrong. I am in this group. They return to their doctor and the dose is increased. Shortly thereafter, a person begins to know there is a problem. We all know the music of our bodies and are acutely aware of what substance is causing a problem and the problems it is causing. For cymbalta it simply quits working and then causes the problems. Once you figure it out, and decide to quit its use, its too late. Instinctively, you know if you continue its use you will die; but you cannot simply stop its use. The withdrawal is pure HELL, and it does not seem to matter much if you slowly taper the dose.

And so on and so forth. So you might want to keep your $1.3 billion in your pocket, folks.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Wait till next year

No, I'm not talking about the Mets, and actually I guess I really mean the year after next, but Chimpy vetoing expansion of S-CHIP, even if it does injure and kill a few more kids, is not accomplishing what he says he is accomplishing, which is to protect the private health insurance industry against the Black Death of creeping socialism.

Nope, he's just tying one more cinder block to the ankles of Republic party candidates in 2008 -- and astonishingly, most of them are putting their finger on the knot while he ties the bow, because they just can't break the habit of joyously affirming devotion to Dear Leader, the Sun of the Nation and of Mankind.

The term "filibuster" instantly disappeared from the vocabulary of the nation's political reporters the instant Harry Reid became Senate Majority Leader. Now, it seems, it's not that the minority obstructs the proverbial "up and down vote," it's simply that Democratic measure fail in the Senate because they don't get the 60 votes required for passage. But even if the corporate media refuse to report that what's really going on is that the Republic party is obstructing Democratic legislation by threatening to filibuster, there is no way for them to disguise a presidential veto. And when the override votes happen, it will be Republic party legislators, and Republic party legislators only, who obstruct enactment.

I don't even think ABC news will find a way to hide that.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Oh Canada!

I should have gotten around to this sooner, but as you may recall much of the staff of the Canadian Medical Journal quit last year in a dispute over editorial independence and integrity. Now, the new journal Open Medicine helps to keep Canada moving forward while its neighbor to the south keeps racing backwards toward the Dark Ages. As James Maskalyk explains on behalf of the editors of Open Medicine:

To attain their true worth, medical journals need to place the knowledge on their pages into as many capable hands as possible. In the past, this opportunity was limited mainly to those with a university library close by. Now, because of the Internet, one simply needs to be near a telephone line. The capacity of medical journals to disseminate knowledge has never been greater.

Unfortunately, physicians attempting to answer a clinical question are faced with two unappealing options: to navigate a sea of unedited pages of varying quality, or to pay for access to more carefully reviewed scholarly information. It seems an anathema to the spirit of medical research that, largely for economic reasons, the information it produces remains hidden from many potential users. Access is limited not only for health professionals in poorer countries, but also for health care providers in wealthy countries (most of whom do not have "free" access to information unless they work in universities), and for patients, who deserve the opportunity to become informed about research that affects their lives. The transformation of research findings and discussion of the results — the application of knowledge — is curtailed. Just as importantly, the debate over its merit is stifled before it can properly begin. . .

Traditional modes of medical journal publishing can also exact a price in other, less noticeable, ways. There is clear evidence of publication bias in medical journals predicated on financial conflicts, geography and poverty. There are also several important instances where information and debate have been stifled because of private and political concerns over making knowledge public. To an important degree, the impetus to launch Open Medicine arose from widespread dismay in the Canadian and international medical community over one such attempt to suppress open discussion and restrict the scope of health care discourse. Further, too much of the revenue that sustains medical journals comes from pharmaceutical advertising that attempts to influence physicians into making decisions based on brand recognition rather than on discerning scholarship.

So what does Open Medicine offer to you? How about butt kicking essay by Jerome Kassirer? A little taste:

Earlier this year the New York Times reported that in selecting drugs for cancer patients some American physicians took into account the profit the drugs would achieve for their medical practice.9 The same week a study in PLoS Medicine showed that pharmaceutical company sponsorship of controlled trials of statins was closely correlated with positive results of such trials, suggesting that the trials were deliberately biased.10 Early this summer, reporters disclosed that unqualified researchers who were receiving payments for enrolling patients in clinical trials were practising shabby research.11 This past spring we learned that physicians with financial ties to the company that makes Epogen were inappropriately represented on a US National Kidney Foundation committee that recommended potentially dangerous doses of the drug.12–15 These recent revelations are just a continuation of reports over the past 10 or so years;11,16–24 dozens more examples of serious financial conflicts are described in my recent book.1

Financial payments have swayed professional medical organizations to make inappropriate recommendations for use in practice by their members,25,26 influenced industry-paid speakers to recommend risky drugs, biased FDA panels,27,28 and yielded inappropriate behaviour by NIH scientists.29,30 Free drug samples encourage doctors to use the newest and most expensive drugs, and the samples themselves often get into the wrong hands.31 Drugs such as Natrecor, approved for use in acute heart failure only in hospital settings, have found widespread use in doctors’ offices for a variety of less serious conditions where they were unlikely to provide benefit, costing American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.32

And what have leaders of the profession done to counter a trend in which the profession has become increasingly beholden to industry, at times to the detriment of the public? Not much. Policies of the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians and many other physician organizations permit their members to receive gifts and meals, to serve as consultants on marketing issues, and to serve on pharmaceutical companies’ speaker’s bureaus.25 Most have no proscription against members’ involvement in developing or just signing off on educational materials for the companies. In fact, most American medical society rules are no more stringent than those of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association.

So read the whole thing. Then enter your zip code in the little icon right under Chimpy and let your members of Congress know that you want something done about conflicts of interest in medicine and medical research.

And congratulations! You have won a free subscription to a leading medical journal. Now let's see whether JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine have a future as exclusive clubs for the wealthy and well positioned. I say no.