Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for November 8th, 2009

Pelosicare? or Obamacare?

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I imagine that, if the Senate can bring itself to pass a decent bill, the US will have made its first big step toward universal healthcare—something that advanced nations have had for decades. At that point, it will be an honor to any politician whose name is attached to the program. So far the names I’ve heard proposed are Obamacare and Pelosicare.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Daily life, Healthcare


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Yesterday, 26 minutes. Today, same distance: 25 minutes.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Daily life, Fitness, Health

Making healthcare better

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David Leonhardt has a lengthy and important article in the NY Times Sunday Magazine. It begins:

During one of our first conversations, Brent James told me a story that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear from a doctor. For most of human history, James explained, doctors have done more harm than good. Their treatments consisted of inducing vomiting or diarrhea and, most common of all, bleeding their patients. James, who is the chief quality officer at Intermountain Healthcare, a network of hospitals and clinics in Utah and Idaho that President Obama and others have described as a model for health reform, then rattled off a list of history books that told the fuller story. Sure enough, these books recount that from the time of Hippocrates into the 19th century, medicine made scant progress. “The amount of death and disease would be less,” Jacob Bigelow, a prominent doctor, said in 1835, “if all disease were left to itself.”

Yet patients continued to go to doctors, and many continued to put great in faith in medicine. They did so in part because they had no good alternative and in part because, as James put it, they wanted a spiritual counselor with whom they could talk about their health. But there was something else, too. There was a strong intuitive logic behind those old treatments; they seemed to be ridding the body of its ills. They made a lot more sense on their face than the abstract theories about germs and viruses that began to appear in the late 19th century.

So the victory of those theories would require a struggle. The doctors and scientists who tried to overturn centuries of intuitive wisdom were often met with scorn. Hippocrates himself wrote that a physician’s judgment mattered more than any external measurement, and the practice of medicine was long organized accordingly.

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 12:35 pm

Protecting businesses, not consumers

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Very bad news reported by Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger in the LA Times:

More than 1,000 Toyota and Lexus owners have reported since 2001 that their vehicles suddenly accelerated on their own, in many cases slamming into trees, parked cars and brick walls, among other obstacles, a Times review of federal records has found.

The crashes resulted in at least 19 deaths and scores of injuries over the last decade, records show. Federal regulators say that is far more than any other automaker has experienced.

Owner complaints helped trigger at least eight investigations into sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the last seven years. Toyota Motor Corp. recalled fewer than 85,000 vehicles in response to two of those probes, and the federal agency closed six other cases without finding a defect.

But those investigations systematically excluded or dismissed the majority of complaints by owners that their Toyota and Lexus vehicles had suddenly accelerated, which sharply narrowed the scope of the probes, the Times investigation revealed.

Federal officials eliminated broad categories of sudden-acceleration complaints, including cases in which drivers said they were unable to stop runaway cars using their brakes; incidents of unintended acceleration lasting more than a few seconds; and reports in which owners did not identify the possible causes of the problem.

NHTSA officials used the exclusions as part of their rationale to close at least five of the investigations without finding any defect, because — with fewer incidents to consider — the agency concluded there were not enough reported problems to warrant further inquiry. In a 2003 Lexus probe, for example, the agency threw out all but one of 37 customer complaints cited in a defect petition. It then halted further investigation, saying it "found no data indicating the existence of a defect trend."

Meanwhile, fatal crashes involving Toyota vehicles continued to mount…

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8 November 2009 at 11:53 am

Another strong reason to support gay marriage

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If gay marriage were legal, these situations would not arise.Theresa Vargas writing in the Washington Post:

If anyone could have talked himself out of being gay, Kimberly Brooks said, it was her husband.

He wanted to be straight; she wanted him to be straight. She once followed his gaze across the beach to another man but quickly dismissed the thought. No, he couldn’t be. Then he started spending more time with one particular friend, and an unease pushed Brooks to ask the question that ultimately confirmed her fears: Was that friend gay?

"He said, ‘I don’t know.’ And in that moment, I knew," said Brooks, who is a therapist in Falls Church. "That day, the marriage was over."

As the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage in the District grows louder and more polarized, there are people whose support for the proposal is personal but not often talked about. They are federal workers and professionals, men and women who share little except that their former spouses tried to live as heterosexuals but at some point realized they could not.

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:50 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

New Scientist magazine

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I’ve just posted snippets and links to a variety of interesting reportage in New Scientist, and I barely scratched the surface of the issue. (You can see the entire table of contents here, with links to the various articles). And pretty much every (weekly) issue has this much good stuff.

So I would recommend that you subscribe. It’s a terrific source of information.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:45 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Stopping myopia in its tracks

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Full disclosure: I suffered from myopia beginning before I started school, though I got my first glasses in second grade (thanks to a school eye screening). I later got LASIK, which much improved my vision, though glasses are still needed. But maybe the whole thing could have been nipped in the bud. Nora Schultz in New Scientist:

The decline was rapid. I got my first pair of glasses aged 9, and by my mid-teens could no longer read the title on the cover of New Scientist at arm’s length. With my mum’s eyes just as bad, I always assumed that I’d inherited my short-sightedness from her and that I could do little to stop my vision from becoming a little blurrier each year.

Around the same time, however, rates of short-sightedness, or myopia, were rising to epidemic proportions around the world. Today, in some of the worst-affected countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, around 80 per cent of young adults are myopic, compared to only 25 per cent a few decades back.

Rates are lower in western countries – between 30 and 50 per cent – but myopia seems to be rising steadily here too. What could be causing this mysterious epidemic? It is clear that genetics alone can’t explain the condition, and the long-standing theory that reading was to blame has failed to play out in subsequent studies.

Large-scale epidemiological surveys ensued, which have pinned down the specific aspects of modern lifestyles that cause children’s eyesight to deteriorate. With just a few simple measures, it now looks like we could easily prevent future generations from descending into my blurry world.

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:42 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

A new approach to meteorology

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A truly fascinating look at some new ideas in meteorology (which we all know is not the same as climatology, right?). Robert Matthews writes in New Scientist:

WE’VE all watched those vast heaps of cotton wool float across the sky. Lofted and shaped by updrafts of warm air, cumulus clouds mesmerise with their constantly changing shape. Some grow ever taller, while others wither and die before our eyes. All bear witness to the ceaseless roiling of the ocean of air we call the atmosphere.

About 80 years ago, the British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson was pondering the shapes of such clouds when a startling thought occurred to him: the laws that govern the atmosphere might actually be very simple.

Even at the time, with scientific meteorology still in its infancy, the idea seemed absurd: key equations governing the behaviour of the 5 million billion tonnes of air above us had already been identified – and they were anything but simple.

No one was more aware of this than Richardson, who is recognised as one of the founders of modern weather forecasting. Even now, the world’s most powerful computers are pushed to their limits extracting predictions of future weather and climate from the equations he wrestled with using pencil and paper.

Yet Richardson suspected that behind the mathematical complexity of the atmosphere lay a far simpler reality – if only we looked at it the right way.

Now an international team of researchers analysing signals from satellites, aircraft and ground-based stations have found clear evidence that Richardson’s intuition was right and that the complexity of the atmosphere could really be an illusion.

The results point to a new view of the atmosphere as a vast collection of cascade-like processes, with large structures the size of continents breaking down to feed ever-smaller ones, right down to zephyrs of air no bigger than a fly.

The implications promise to transform the way we predict everything from tomorrow’s local weather to the changing climate of the entire planet. "We may never be able to view the atmosphere and climate in the same way again," says team member Shaun Lovejoy of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "Rather than seeing them as so complex that only equally complex numerical models can make sense of them, we’re seeing a kind of scale-by-scale simplicity."

Richardson had a reputation for having ideas decades ahead of his time. He pioneered the study of …

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:37 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Usability tests reveal shortcomings in artificial horizon display

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Paul Marks describes — and illustrates — how bad the current artificial horizon display in aircraft is compared to a revision. Very interesting article—and take a look at the two displays.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Dreams as a learning tool

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Ewen Callaway writing in New Scientist:

FREUD thought that dreams reveal unfulfilled sexual desires – but if slumbering video game players are anything to go by, their job is to help us learn new skills.

"It really looks like if you’re not dreaming about it, you’re not getting better," says Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School. He led one of two gaming studies that strongly suggest that dreaming and learning are intertwined.

That sleep aids learning and memory is well known. Whether the specific content of dreams plays a role in this process was not. To investigate, Sidarta Ribeiro and André Pantoja of the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil turned to the visceral, monster-filled, first-person shoot-’em-up game Doom.

They persuaded 22 volunteers to …

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:29 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

A monster volcano underneath Naples

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Axel Bojanowski writing in New Scientist:

To ancient Romans the Phlegraean Fields hosted the entrance to Hades. In modern times it is better known as the site of a "supercolossal" volcanic eruption 39,000 years ago.

Will we see the next disaster coming? That’s one of the questions an ambitious drilling project hopes to answer by sinking boreholes into Campi Flegrei, as the giant collapsed volcanic crater is now called. Starting as early as next month, the Campi Flegrei Deep Drilling Project is planning to drill seven holes in the region (see map).

Though the researchers on this particular project point out that any risk is small, it will begin amid debate about whether such endeavours are safe, given the unknowns of a volcano’s interior. A few say drilling might even trigger a major eruption.

Though the caldera has no visible volcanic cone, it dwarfs nearby Vesuvius. "Most of the metropolitan area of Naples is located within the caldera," says Giuseppe De Natale of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology’s (INGV) Vesuvius Observatory in Naples, who is leading the project.

"A major eruption, like the one 39,000 years ago, would leave large parts of Europe buried under a thick layer of ash," says Agust Gudmundsson of the Royal Holloway University of London, one of the researchers involved in the drilling project. Since then, smaller eruptions have occurred every few centuries.

According to a study of the region by Roberto Isaia of the INGV and colleagues, Campi Flegrei is "one of the highest risk volcanic areas on Earth" and may now be primed for a blast. Isaia and colleagues found deposits from an intense period of eruptions around 4000 years ago. Before the eruptions the Earth’s crust rose by several metres all across the caldera. Worryingly, crustal uplift is exactly what has happened recently. Since the late 1960s, the port of Pozzuoli near the caldera’s centre has risen by around 3 metres. Hazard planners should prepare for eruptions in decades or less, Isaia concludes (Geophysical Research Letters, in press)…

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:26 am

Military top brass: Fix climate change or else

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From New Scientist:

If the world fails to act soon on climate change, "preserving security and stability even at current levels will become increasingly difficult". That’s the blunt message of a statement released in Washington DC (PDF) last week by 10 high-ranking military officials from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US.

The group, which makes up the military advisory council of the Institute for Environmental Security in The Hague, the Netherlands, is calling on governments to produce an "ambitious and equitable" international agreement at the Copenhagen climate talks in December (see Instant Expert: The Copenhagen climate change summit).

"Environmental security and climate change in particular are now issues which threaten world security and peace," says Brigadier General Wendell King of the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

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8 November 2009 at 11:20 am

Governments have a dangerous attitude toward drugs

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David Nutt was chairman of the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs until he was dismissed last week by the UK home secretary. Nutt writes in New Scientist about why the government’s attitude toward drugs is dangerous:

If there is one thing that politicians can and should do to limit the damage caused by illegal drugs, it is to take careful note of the evidence and develop a rational drug policy. Some politicians find it easier to ignore the evidence, and pander to public prejudice instead.

I can trace the beginning of the end of my role as chairman of the UK’s official advisory body on drugs to the moment I quoted a New Scientist editorial (14 February, p 5). Entitled, fittingly enough, "Drugs drive politicians out of their minds", the editorial asked the reader to imagine being seated at a table with two bowls, one containing peanuts, the other the illegal drug MDMA (ecstasy). Which is safer to give to a stranger? Why, the ecstasy of course.

I quoted these words in the Eve Saville lecture at King’s College London in July. This example plus other comments I have made – such as horse riding is more harmful than ecstasy – prompted Alan Johnson, the home secretary, to say that I had crossed the line from science to policy. This, he said, is why I had to go.

But simple, accurate and understandable statements of scientific fact are precisely what the advisory council is supposed to provide. Why would any scientist take up some future offer of a government advisory post when their advice can be treated with such disdain?

As well as ignoring its own advisers, the UK is falling out of step with international trends. When Portugal softened its drugs laws in 2001, drug use remained roughly constant, but ill health and deaths from drug taking fell. Decriminalisation quietly crept up the agenda in Vienna this year at a meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, where governments heard new, independent evidence on how the harms of criminalisation were outweighing the benefits. In August, President Felipe Calderón of Mexico approved a law decriminalising possession of small amounts of marijuana and other drugs. And just last month, Eric Holder, the US attorney general, instructed federal prosecutors to stop hounding medical users of marijuana in the 14 states where such use is legal…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2009 at 11:18 am

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