Later On

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

Archive for July 22nd, 2013

Marty Kaplan on the Weapons of Mass Distraction

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From Bill Moyers & Company:

Across the world — Greece, Spain, Brazil, Egypt — citizens are turning angrily to their governments to demand economic fair play and equality. But here in America, with few exceptions, the streets and airwaves remain relatively silent. In a country as rich and powerful as America, why is there so little outcry about the ever-increasing, deliberate divide between the very wealthy and everyone else?

Media scholar Marty Kaplan points to a number of forces keeping these issues and affected citizens in the dark — especially our well-fed appetite for media distraction.

“We have unemployment and hunger and crumbling infrastructure and a tax system out of whack and a corrupt political system — why are we not taking to the streets?” Kaplan asks Bill. “I suspect among your viewers, there are people who are outraged and want to be at the barricades. The problem is that we have been taught to be helpless and jaded rather than to feel that we are empowered and can make a difference.”

An award-winning columnist and head of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, Kaplan also talks about the appropriate role of journalists as advocates for truth.

Watch the video.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Media

Very tasty spread, two versions

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One is a “country” version, I would say:


Jennie Benedict’s Benedictine (the original)

• 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
• 3 tablespoons cucumber juice
• 1 tablespoon onion juice
• ¼ – ½ teaspoon salt [original was 1 tsp salt, but tastes have changed quite a bit—way too salty with 1 tsp – LG]
• A few grains of cayenne pepper
• 2 drops green food coloring (I omitted instantly)

To get the cucumber juice, peel and grate a cucumber, then wrap in a clean dish towel and squeeze juice into a dish. Discard pulp.

Do the same for the onion. [What I actually did: grate the cucumber and onion and just put the pulp into the dish. Sort of a compromise with the next version. – LG]

Mix all ingredients with a fork until well-blended (using a blender will make the spread too runny). Serve as a dip or as a sandwich filling.

Lilly’s Benedictine

• 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
• 1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and chopped
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 cup chopped red onion
• 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper
• 1 teaspoon fresh chopped dill

Combine ingredients and mix well.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 5:44 pm

When the US fights a war and leaves, what do battleground countries do?

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Our country has not done well for the nations where we’ve fought. Quite apart from the great number of civilian deaths, we also destroy the environment and the future. Drew Brown has a report in McClatchy about what we left behind in Vietnam:

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 5.14.25 PM

The affects of Agent Orange in Vietnam are felt through the generations

DA NANG, Vietnam — In many ways, Nguyen Thi Ly is just like any other 12-year-old girl. She has a lovely smile and is quick to laugh. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up. She enjoys skipping rope when she plays.

But Ly is also very different from other children. Her head is severely misshapen. Her eyes are unnaturally far apart and permanently askew. She’s been hospitalized with numerous ailments since her birth.

Her mother, 43-year-old Le Thi Thu, has similar deformities and health disorders. Neither of them has ever set foot on a battlefield, but they’re both casualties of war.

Le and her daughter are second- and third-generation victims of dioxin exposure, the result of the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. Air Force sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over parts of southern Vietnam and along the borders of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The herbicides were contaminated with dioxin, a deadly compound that remains toxic for decades and causes birth defects, cancer and other illnesses.

To this day, dioxin continues to poison the land and the people. The United States has never accepted responsibility for these victims – it denies that Agent Orange is responsible for diseases among Vietnamese that are accepted as Agent Orange-caused among American veterans – and it’s unclear when this chain of misery will end.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama will meet with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang at the White House, only the third meeting between chief executives of the two countries since Vietnam and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1995.

The two countries share many contemporary concerns. The White House says Obama plans to discuss cooperation on regional issues and trade, plus other U.S. priorities such as climate change and human rights. The two countries share a strong common interest in countering China, which has become increasingly assertive over potentially oil-rich areas of the South China Sea.

Many Vietnamese say it’s time for the United States to do more to address the issue of Agent Orange and its victims, so that the last tragic chapter of the Vietnam War finally can be closed. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 5:17 pm

Our Coming Food Crisis

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As readers of the blog know, I’ve been beating this particular drum for a long time. Gary Paul Nabhan writes in the NY Times:

THIS summer the tiny town of Furnace Creek, Calif., may once again grace the nation’s front pages. Situated in Death Valley, it last made news in 1913, when it set the record for the world’s hottest recorded temperature, at 134 degrees. With the heat wave currently blanketing the Western states, and given that the mercury there has already reached 130 degrees, the news media is awash in speculation that Furnace Creek could soon break its own mark.

Such speculation, though, misses the real concern posed by the heat wave, which covers an area larger than New England. The problem isn’t spiking temperatures, but a new reality in which long stretches of triple-digit days are common — threatening not only the lives of the millions of people who live there, but also a cornerstone of the American food supply.

People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense contribution to American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the net farm income for the country normally comes from the 17 Western states; cattle and sheep production make up a significant part of that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops, barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will undeniably diminish both the quality and quantity of these foods.

The most vulnerable crops are those that were already in flower and fruit when temperatures surged, from apricots and barley to wheat and zucchini. Idaho farmers have documented how their potato yields have been knocked back because their heat-stressed plants are not developing their normal number of tubers. Across much of the region, temperatures on the surface of food and forage crops hit 105 degrees, at least 10 degrees higher than the threshold for most temperate-zone crops.

What’s more, when food and forage crops, as well as livestock, have had to endure temperatures 10 to 20 degrees higher than the long-term averages, they require far more water than usual. The Western drought, which has persisted for the last few years, has already diminished both surface water and groundwater supplies and increased energy costs, because of all the water that has to be pumped in from elsewhere.

If these costs are passed on to consumers, we can again expect food prices, especially for beef and lamb, to rise, just as they did in 2012, the hottest year in American history. So extensive was last year’s drought that more than 1,500 counties — about half of all the counties in the country — were declared national drought disaster areas, and 90 percent of those were hit by heat waves as well.

The answer so far has been to help affected farmers with payouts from crop insurance plans. But while we can all sympathize with affected farmers, such assistance is merely a temporary response to a long-term problem.

Fortunately, there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill, or of climate change legislation at all.

One strategy would be to . . .

Continue reading.

Emphasis added. Business is all about short-term profits, and devil take the future. (Of course, it doesn’t help that a substantial portion of Congress continues to think global warming is a hoax perpetrated by climate scientists for the big bucks of… of what? I don’t know. The Tea Party thinks like this:

1. Scientists show that climate change is happening.

2. ??

3. Profit!!

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 5:01 pm

Posted in Business, Food

Which 5 US cities have the lowest upward mobility?

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Well, first guess in what section of the country they are…  Yep. That was easy. But the ac

1. Memphis, Tennessee: Children born in the lower fifth of the economic ladder only has a 2.6 percent chance of raising to the top fifth.

2. Eufaula, Alabama: Kids only have a 2.7 percent chance of getting to the top fifth area of incomes if they are born in the lower fifth.

3. Clarksdale, Mississippi: There’s only a 2.9 percent chance of moving way up the economic ladder here.

4. Greenville, Alabama: Children born in the lower fifth of the economic ladder here only have a 3.0 percent chance of raising to the top fifth.

5. Vicksburg, Mississippi: Kids born here only have a 3.5 percent chance of getting to the top fifth area of incomes if they are born in the lower fifth.

There’s a lot more in this NY Times article.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Daily life

What kind of reader are you?

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Laura E. Kelly did this graphic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Books

Fatherhood and Managerial Style: How a Male CEO’s Children Affect the Wages of His Employees

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Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Science

How the vegetarian diet is going

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Pretty well, in fact. Meals somehow seem easier to assemble, and so far very tasty, quite filling, and undoubtedly nourishing. I continue to think first of the greens I’ll use (broccoli rabe for todays lunch: I cooked a bunch yesterday), then the starch (today, Calrose medium grain rice), then the protein (today, Jackson Wonder Beans, which with the rice does the job). All three were cooked yesterday, so today I just put in a bowl a layer of the greens, a layer of the beans, and a layer of the rice, heated it up, added some chopped sweet onion and pepper sauce, and thoroughly enjoyed the lunch.

Next time I’ll use black rice, though: more nutrients. The Calrose rice offers one nutrient: starch. Just a tiny bit of iron, but everything else is absent. I like a little more substance with my starch. Even potatoes have a lot of potassium, for example.

While I do fix vegetarian meals, I am perfectly willing to eat meat or fowl or fish on occasion, and I definitely plan to have mussels, clams, or oysters every couple of months for the B12. But the switch has been very easy: I don’t feel that I’m working uphill, but enjoying my food.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Food

Food producers hate being required to give consumers information about the food

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Food producers are all for “voluntary guidelines” because then they can simply refuse to volunteer: voluntary guidelines are abandoned in exactly the circumstances in which consumers would want them followed. The solution is regulation: rules backed up with the force of law. But every step meets fierce resistance from businesses. (Safety glass in US automobiles had to legally required, window by window: the manufacturers simply would not do it until it was a legal requirement. So also with seat belts, back-up lights, etc. Of course, the regulations didn’t say that a car should not explode into flames on low-speed impact, so Ford put out the Pinto, which burned various customers to death—but the company had estimated the likely number of deaths and the likely costs of settlements, and that, unfortunately for the victims, turned out to be less than it would cost to build the cars so they wouldn’t burst into flame. This all came out at the trial, but of course no Ford employee was punished. The company simply wrote a check to pay the fine, and still came out ahead. All’s well that ends well, eh?) The point is that businesses will constantly search for ways to cut costs and boost profits, and regulations must be well thought out and rigorously enforced or consumers will suffer. (Here’s a sterling—well, at least aluminum—example. More information in this post.)

Food producers fought bitterly to avoid listing ingredients on the package. Indeed, some would print the ingredients list in (say) pale yellow on paler yellow, or hid the list in a fold of the package. Much fun was had some decades back in Congressional hearings as members of Congress trotted out examples from their local stores. So finally the ingredients list was legally required. Same with the Nutrition Facts labeling: food companies hated it, but the law went through and I find I use both kinds of information—the list of ingredients and the Nutrition Facts—more or less constantly. Example: if a product contains high-fructose corn syrup, I don’t buy it. I find some other solution, up to and including homemade. We avoid wheat because The Wife cannot eat it.

Now there’s a proposal to label meat showing the country in which it originated. OMG, you would think it’s the end of civilization. Why on earth should producers want to avoid labeling the country of origin of meat, fish, and fowl? Well, because some countries (China) have had serious problems in their food supply, so if one has a choice, one might want to avoid foods from there, at least until they get their act together. Also, some Americans want to buy products that come from the USA. Is that so bad?

Rob Hotakainen writes for McClatchy:

After surviving years of drought and watching the size of the U.S. cattle herd fall to its lowest level in more than 60 years, Texas cattleman Bob McCan would just as soon steer clear of the U.S. government’s latest meat-labeling rules.

For many U.S. consumers, it’s a popular idea: Label packages to let them know what country the meat comes from.

But with his herd of roughly 4,000 including cattle from Mexico, McCan said there’s no good reason to segregate the animals when he sells them. All it would do, he said, is create hundreds of millions of dollars of extra handling costs that would get passed on, driving up the price at grocery stores.

“We don’t want beef to become a luxury item,” said McCan, a fifth-generation rancher from Victoria, Texas.

McCan, now the president-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, is among a group of cattle producers and meat companies that has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for moving ahead in late May with new country-of-origin labeling rules.

In a lawsuit filed July 8 in U.S. District Court in Washington, the groups claim the labels will hurt beef exports and are unconstitutional as “compelled speech” that doesn’t advance a government interest.

Backers of the new rules, who say labeling can be done at a minimal cost, are braced for another battle with cattle producers.

“They’re totally wrong – consumers have the right to know where products are from,” said Joel Joseph, chairman of the Los Angeles-based Made in the USA Foundation, a group that promotes labeling and products manufactured in the United States. “It’s not forced speech. It’s just consumer information, the same kind of information that’s on a label of a new car that says where an engine’s from.”

He offered some advice for McCan: “If he doesn’t want to segregate his cattle, then he shouldn’t get cattle from Mexico.”

McCan said labeling is a marketing issue that should be left to the private sector.

“We’re not anti-labeling at all,” he said. “We just kind of feel like the government doesn’t really need to be in our marketing system. It doesn’t have to be dictated to us.”

Cattle producers aren’t the only unhappy ones.

The new labeling rules also could ignite a trade war with Canada, which is threatening to retaliate. Last month, the Canadian government called the new rules a “protectionist policy” that discriminated against foreign competition. Ottawa said it might respond by imposing tariffs on a long list of products, including pork, fruits and vegetables, pasta, chocolate, cheese, office furniture and many more. The Canadian government fears that its beef exports to the United States would decline under the new rules, with U.S. retailers more likely to reject foreign meat.

Canadian officials immediately complained to the World Trade Organization, but they say it could take more than a year to resolve the case.

As a result, John Masswohl, director of government and international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, called the new rules a tactic by the U.S. Agriculture Department “to buy themselves another year of discrimination.”

And he predicted that the threat of tariffs will quickly affect U.S. businesses.

“If the market thinks tariffs are coming, businesses make plans to adjust,” Masswohl said. “So my feeling is that if you are a producer of one of the products on that list, your banker might have some issues with your line of credit.”

The issue has become tortuous for the Agriculture Department, which last year got sued by labeling proponents who accused the government of dragging its feet on adopting new rules.

And for consumer groups, labeling has become the issue that never goes away, even though it wins strong backing in polls.

“I thought we were done with it, and all of a sudden it’s still going on,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

But he said industry groups have opposed country-of-origin labeling since it first appeared in Congress’ farm bill more than a decade ago.

“They’ve been trying to delay it ever since,” Waldrop said. “This is just another effort to do that, but the public is not on their side on this. . . . Consumers want more and more information about where their food comes from and how it’s grown, and not less.”

He cited a poll released by the Consumer Federation in May, which found that 90 percent of Americans back mandatory labeling of meat products. . .

Continue reading. One interesting statement for a meat producer: “They might say they care, but most of them really don’t care what country it comes from. Beef is beef.” Well, since customers don’t care, why is the meat industry fighting the labeling requirement? Their story doesn’t hold water.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Business, Food, Government

First, Close all the Coal Plants: MIT Study Shows they Shorten Lives

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Juan Cole posts at Informed Comment:

“Data from China show that large amounts of coal emissions shorten lives”:

The MIT Energy Intiative reports:

” A high level of air pollution, in the form of particulates produced by burning coal, significantly shortens the lives of people exposed to it, according to a unique new study of China co-authored by an MIT economist.

The research is based on long-term data compiled for the first time, and projects that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River are set to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy due to the extensive use of coal to power boilers for heating throughout the region. Using a quasi-experimental method, the researchers found very different life-expectancy figures for an otherwise similar population south of the Huai River, where government policies were less supportive of coal-powered heating.

“We can now say with more confidence that long-run exposure to pollution, especially particulates, has dramatic consequences for life expectancy,” says Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics at MIT, who conducted the research with colleagues in China and Israel.”

PTV PH also reports:

Continue reading. Video at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 1:35 pm

How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement

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If you’ve been reading my various posts on memes, and my speculation that we as persons consist largely of memes in terms of our identity—a constantly shifting collection of memes, with many stored externally—as when you enter a person’s study and look around, you are seeing an aspect of the person: the memes s/he’s collected. This book that seems related to that idea. The publisher’s description:

An increasingly influential school of thought in cognitive science views the mind as embodied, extended, and distributed, rather than brain-bound, “all in the head.” This shift in perspective raises important questions about the relationship between cognition and material culture, posing major challenges for philosophy, cognitive science, archaeology, and anthropology. In How Things Shape the Mind, Lambros Malafouris proposes a cross-disciplinary analytical framework for investigating the different ways in which things have become cognitive extensions of the human body. Using a variety of examples and case studies, he considers how those ways might have changed from earliest prehistory to the present. Malafouris’s Material Engagement Theory adds materiality — the world of things, artifacts, and material signs — into the cognitive equation definitively. His account not only questions conventional intuitions about the boundaries and location of the human mind but also suggests that we rethink classical archaeological assumptions about human cognitive evolution.

Arguing that the understanding of human cognition is essentially interlocked with the study of the technical mediations that constitute the central nodes of a materially extended and distributed human mind, Malafouris offers a series of archaeological and anthropological case studies — from Stone Age tools to the modern potter’s wheel — to test his theory. How do things shape the mind? Considering the implications of the seemingly uniquely human predisposition to reconfigure our bodies and our senses by using tools and material culture, Malafouris adds a fresh perspective on a foundational issue in the study of human cognition.

It really strikes me as looking at the meme version of the microbiome: the memebiome, if you will. Without our memes, we don’t exist as ourselves.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 12:43 pm

Posted in Books

The US is a sick nation, even speaking purely in medical terms

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Laudon Aron writes in the New Scientist, reprinted in Slate:

Americans die younger and experience more injury and illness than people in other rich nations, despite spending almost twice as much per person on health care. That was the startlingconclusion of a major report released earlier this year by the U.S. National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

It received widespread attention. The New York Times concluded: “It is now shockingly clear that poor health is a much broader and deeper problem than past studies have suggested.”

What it revealed was the extent of the United States’ large and growing “health disadvantage,” which shows up as higher rates of disease and injury from birth to age 75 for men and women, rich and poor, across all races and ethnicities. The comparison countries—Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom—generally do much better, although the United Kingdom isn’t far behind the United States.

The poorer outcomes in the United States are reflected in measures as varied as infant mortality, the rate of teen pregnancy, traffic fatalities, and heart disease. Even those with health insurance, high incomes, college educations, and healthy lifestyles appear to be sicker than their counterparts in other wealthy countries. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank, described the report as “a catalog of horrors.”

Findings that prompted this reaction include the fact that the rate of premature births in the United States is the highest among the comparison countries and more closely resembles those of sub-Saharan Africa. Premature birth is the most frequent cause of infant death in the United States, and the cost to the health care system is estimated to top $26 billion a year.

As distressing as all this is, much less attention has been given to the obvious question: Why is the United States so unwell? The answer, it turns out, is simple and yet deceptively complex: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Fitness, Health, Medical

Slow ideas

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Atul Gawande writes well of medical issues—he wrote a famous article on how medical checklists reduce medical errors (and patient deaths), although it is quite difficult to get physicians to use such things (ego problems, primarily). He wrote a book on the same topic: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. And now he addresses the problem of why some improvements in medicine spread rapidly while others don’t spread well at all. Here he is in the New Yorker:

Why do some innovations spread so swiftly and others so slowly? Consider the very different trajectories of surgical anesthesia and antiseptics, both of which were discovered in the nineteenth century. The first public demonstration of anesthesia was in 1846. The Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow was approached by a local dentist named William Morton, who insisted that he had found a gas that could render patients insensible to the pain of surgery. That was a dramatic claim. In those days, even a minor tooth extraction was excruciating. Without effective pain control, surgeons learned to work with slashing speed. Attendants pinned patients down as they screamed and thrashed, until they fainted from the agony. Nothing ever tried had made much difference. Nonetheless, Bigelow agreed to let Morton demonstrate his claim.

On October 16, 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital, Morton administered his gas through an inhaler in the mouth of a young man undergoing the excision of a tumor in his jaw. The patient only muttered to himself in a semi-conscious state during the procedure. The following day, the gas left a woman, undergoing surgery to cut a large tumor from her upper arm, completely silent and motionless. When she woke, she said she had experienced nothing at all.

Four weeks later, on November 18th, Bigelow published his report on the discovery of “insensibility produced by inhalation” in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Morton would not divulge the composition of the gas, which he called Letheon, because he had applied for a patent. But Bigelow reported that he smelled ether in it (ether was used as an ingredient in certain medical preparations), and that seems to have been enough. The idea spread like a contagion, travelling through letters, meetings, and periodicals. By mid-December, surgeons were administering ether to patients in Paris and London. By February, anesthesia had been used in almost all the capitals of Europe, and by June in most regions of the world.

There were forces of resistance, to be sure. Some people criticized anesthesia as a “needless luxury”; clergymen deplored its use to reduce pain during childbirth as a frustration of the Almighty’s designs. James Miller, a nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon who chronicled the advent of anesthesia, observed the opposition of elderly surgeons: “They closed their ears, shut their eyes, and folded their hands. . . . They had quite made up their minds that pain was a necessary evil, and must be endured.” Yet soon even the obstructors, “with a run, mounted behind—hurrahing and shouting with the best.” Within seven years, virtually every hospital in America and Britain had adopted the new discovery.

Sepsis—infection—was the other great scourge of surgery. It was the single biggest killer of surgical patients, claiming as many as half of those who underwent major operations, such as a repair of an open fracture or the amputation of a limb. Infection was so prevalent that suppuration—the discharge of pus from a surgical wound—was thought to be a necessary part of healing.

In the eighteen-sixties, the Edinburgh surgeon Joseph Lister read a paper by Louis Pasteur laying out his evidence that spoiling and fermentation were the consequence of microorganisms. Lister became convinced that the same process accounted for wound sepsis. Pasteur had observed that, besides filtration and the application of heat, exposure to certain chemicals could eliminate germs. Lister had read about the city of Carlisle’s success in using a small amount of carbolic acid to eliminate the odor of sewage, and reasoned that it was destroying germs. Maybe it could do the same in surgery.

During the next few years, he perfected ways to use carbolic acid for cleansing hands and wounds and destroying any germs that might enter the operating field. The result was strikingly lower rates of sepsis and death. You would have thought that, when he published his observations in a groundbreaking series of reports inThe Lancet, in 1867, his antiseptic method would have spread as rapidly as anesthesia.

Far from it. The surgeon J. M. T. Finney recalled that, when he was a trainee at Massachusetts General Hospital two decades later, hand washing was still perfunctory. Surgeons soaked their instruments in carbolic acid, but they continued to operate in black frock coats stiffened with the blood and viscera of previous operations—the badge of a busy practice. Instead of using fresh gauze as sponges, they reused sea sponges without sterilizing them. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Medical

What 200 calories looks like for different foods

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Interesting tableau.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 11:45 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

What We Still Don’t Know About the Agency’s Internet Surveillance

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Justin Elliott at ProPublica:

Among the snooping revelations of recent weeks, there have been tantalizing bits of evidence that the NSA is tapping fiber-optic cables that carry nearly all international phone and Internet data.

The idea that the NSA is sweeping up vast data streams via cables and other infrastructure — often described as the “backbone of the Internet” — is not new. In late 2005, the New York Times first described the tapping, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. More details emerged in early 2006 when an AT&T whistleblower came forward.

But like other aspects of NSA surveillance, virtually everything about this kind of NSA surveillance is highly secret and we’re left with far from a full picture.

Is the NSA really sucking up everything?

It’s not clear.

The most detailed, though now dated, information on the topic comes from Mark Klein. He’s the former AT&T technician who went public in 2006 describing the installation in 2002-03 of a secret room in an AT&T building in San Francisco. The equipment, detailed in technical documents, allowed the NSA to conduct what Klein described as “vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the internet — whether that be peoples’ e-mail, web surfing or any other data.”

Klein said he was told there was similar equipment installed at AT&T facilities in San Diego, Seattle, and San Jose.

There is also evidence that the vacuuming has continued in some form right up to the present.

A draft NSA inspector’s general report from 2009, recently published by the Washington Post, refers to access via two companies “to large volumes of foreign-to-foreign communications transiting the United States through fiberoptic cables, gateway switches, and data networks.”

Recent stories by the Associated Press and the Washington Post also described the NSA’s cable-tapping, but neither included details on the scope of this surveillance.

A recently published NSA slide, dated April 2013, refers to so-called “Upstream” “collection” of “communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.”

Upstream side (Washington Post)

Upstream side (Washington Post)

These cables carry vast quantities of information, including 99 percent of international phone and Internet data, according to research firm TeleGeography.

This upstream surveillance is in contrast to another method of NSA snooping, Prism, in which the NSA isn’t tapping anything. Instead, the agency gets users’ data with the cooperation of tech companies like Facebook and Google.

Other documents leaked by Edward Snowden to the Guardian provide much more detail about the upstream surveillance by the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA’s U.K. counterpart.

GCHQ taps cables where they land in the United Kingdom carrying Internet and, phone data. According to the Guardian, unnamed companies serve as “intercept partners” in the effort.

The NSA is listening in on those taps too. By May 2012, 250 NSA analysts along with 300 GCHQ analysts were sifting through the data from the British taps.

Is purely domestic communication being swept up in the NSA’s upstream surveillance? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 11:43 am

California’s Teeming Prisons

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California screwed up its prison system in various ways, mainly by subcontracting prisons to private enterprise. Private enterprise requires that profits increase continually, so if you’re running a prison system, what can you do? Cut staff to some degree, cut food costs as much as you can, and so on, but that soon hits an effective limit. So the answer is to get more people into prisons: thus the private-prison industry lobbies hard for mandatory minimum sentences—and longer minimums are preferred—and pushes things like the 3-strikes laws, which provide lifetime prisoners. The prison guards union cooperates, because more prisons = more union members. And if you think members of Congress roll over easily when offered bribes money campaign donations, check out state legislators,  So we now have a mess with overcrowded prisons because the state simply can’t afford to build more. (Of course, many prisoners are in prison for non-violent offenses like using or growing marijuana—legalize that and you keep a lot of people out of prison.)

Scott Lemieux discusses the issue in The American Prospect:

Nearly 30,000 California prisoners are on hunger strike to protest various abuses, including the extensive use of solitary confinement. This strike is the latest reflection of just how broken the state’s prison system is. And in turn, the problems in California showcase the myriad messes that increasingly define American crime-control policy.

The disastrous state of California prisons two years ago compelled the federal courts to intervene. The Court ruled that the overcrowding had become so dire that it violated the Eighth Amendment, upholding a lower court order that the prison population be reduced. California governor Jerry Brown, however, has been resistant to meeting the target of set by the courts (which require California to reduce its prison population to “only” 137.5 percent capacity.) Declaring the problems in California prisons solved, Brown has issued a plan that flatly refuses to meet the targets. That proposal was again rejected by the Ninth Circuit. The hunger strike makes it clear that Brown’s unilateral declaration of victory is, to put it mildly, premature.

While Brown’s actions cannot be defended, it must be conceded that past policymakers and California’s cumbersome institutional rules have created a policy quagmire with few good solutions. The current prison situation in California is a perfect storm created by two policies that have dominated recent American political life: mass incarceration and anti-tax mania.

In their new book Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?, Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll identify several key policy changes that have spawned a prison population far larger than that of any other liberal democracy: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 11:34 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Interesting: The government can track your cellphone even if it’s turned off.

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Doubtless very useful as we move to CGC (complete government control). Details here.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 11:24 am

Did you know the federal government thinks doctors can work 50-hour days?

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In the Washington Post John Sides goes over the deceptive practices used by the medical profession to gouge out higher fees:

Most Wonkblog readers, I would imagine, have a sense that our health care system doesn’t work quite perfectly. One major source of that dysfunction is a secretive committee that sets prices for a $2.7 trillion industry. Meet the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Update Committee.

The inner workings of the Relative Value Update Committee are becoming a little less secretive. Peter Whoriskey and Dan Keating wrote a fantastic piece over the weekend that that revealed how off-base the RUC’s value estimations are, following on excellent work earlier this month from Washington Monthly’s Haley Sweetland Edwards. Taken together, the two are one of the clearest windows we have into the bizarre world of medical prices. Here are six of the details that jumped out at me in reading the two pieces:

1. Thirty-one people meet in private, once every three years, to determine the entire country’s health care prices. The Relative Value Update Committee (the RUC, pronounced “ruck” by health wonks) has members that represent various medical specialties. In 2013, they gathered at a hotel in Chicago, and went about their business of setting price data for one of the country’s largest economic sectors.

“The purpose of each of these triannual RUC meetings is always the same: it’s the committee members’ job to decide what Medicare should pay them and their colleagues for the medical procedures they perform,” Edwards writes. “How much should radiologists get for administering an MRI? How much should cardiologists be paid for inserting a heart stent?”

2. The American Medical Association spends $7 million developing these prices. Medicare has a half-dozen, part-time workers to review the data. The RUC does not have the final say in medical prices; once they have determined the relative value of procedures, the MRIs and heart stents and hundreds of other things, Medicare reviews their findings. But they don’t have much manpower in this area. “The government has about six to eight people reviewing the estimates provided by the AMA, government officials said, but none of them do it full time,” Whoriskey and Keating write.

This helps explain a data point from Edwards’ piece: In the past 22 years of turning prices over to Medicare, the agency “has accepted about 90 percent of the RUC’s recommended values—essentially transferring the committee’s decisions directly into law.”

3. If the RUC’s estimates were right, some doctors would literally work more than 24 hours each day. One way the RUC figures out how much doctors should earn is by estimating how long it takes to do a particular procedure, like the average time of a colonoscopy. Those estimates, Whoriskey and Keating’s analysis suggests, are inflated. If those numbers are right, 78 doctors in Florida must work more than 24 hours a day to perform all the medical procedures they bill. One especially impressive doctor finds time for 50 hours worth of procedures in a given day. You can see that here, in this interactive graphic: . . .

Continue reading. Beyond the graph, there’s quite a bit more. For example: “5. The economists who created the RUC now think the RUC works horribly.”

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 11:11 am

The two-class society (haves vs. have-nots) advances

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Taking down the public transportation system because the elite can afford private transportation services. Kevine Roose writes in New York:

After I wrote earlier this month about the class divide surrounding San Francisco’s transportation strike, several thoughtful commenters accused me of being excessively paranoid about the growth of private-sector services like Uber and Lyft, and the shuttles run by Silicon Valley tech companies like Google and Facebook. In particular, my worry that “when [Bay Area] policy-makers begin to see [Uber, Lyft, corporate tech shuttles] as legitimate replacements for public infrastructure, their incentives to make public services better will disappear” seemed to strike some folks as overblown. Why would local politicians throw public transportation under the bus, just because premium options exist?

In fact, my paranoia was somewhat off-mark. My mistake was using the future tense, when, in fact, these politicians are already caving to Silicon Valley’s transportation preferences.

Here’s a summary from the Chronicle:

The Municipal Transportation Agency is proposing an 18-month test of a shuttle policy designed to support the private buses, which transport as many as 35,000 workers a day, mostly to and from tech companies in Silicon Valley, while reducing conflicts with Muni buses and establishing guidelines to help the private and public buses get along.

Silicon Valley shuttles have been commandeering Muni stops for years. It’s always been illegal. And yet, city officials have mostly turned a blind eye. Now, instead of forcing these buses off their turf, they’re bowing. It’s as if Goldman Sachs were running its own trains on the 2/3 line, and instead of shutting them down, the MTA decided to rearrange its own schedules to make sure Goldmanites could get from the Upper West Side to work on time.

In my experience, these Silicon Valley shuttles are very popular with the young, educated, upper-income tech workers who take them, and abhorred by most other city residents. According to the Chronicle, residents have been filing “complaints about shuttles forcing Muni buses to disgorge passengers in the middle of streets, blocking crosswalks, backing up traffic, traveling on restricted streets and interfering with bicycles using bike lanes.”

These buses do have positive effects — for one, they displace thousands of private cars that would otherwise be driven to work. But they also carry costs. And now, those costs have been passed to Muni passengers, thanks to local authorities who have looked at a functioning, well-funded network of private, wi-fi enabled luxury buses, compared it to the dilapidated and problem-plagued public bus system, and decide to let the former to continue to encroach on the latter. As a result, the private grid continues to grow and improve, while Muni gets the shaft. If you’re a working-class San Francisco resident who gets stuck in the middle of the street thanks to a Facebook bus, or is late for work because the Genentech shuttle is idling at your bus stop, you could be forgiven for a little hostility toward the tech sector, and the local politicians who continue to capitulate to it.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 11:07 am

Another governor who tried to exercise untoward control

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So Ken Cuccinelli is running for governor on a platform that proclaims that he and his wife never practice oral sex. Rather too much information, I think, but it seems par for the course for the GOP. Look at this post by Juan Cole at Informed Comment:

In a disturbing development, the Associated Press has revealed emails in which former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels advocated banning the use of Howard Zinn’s text, “A People’s History of the United States” in the state’s educational systems. What’s troublesome is not dislike of a book but that Daniels seems to have been willing to misuse his power in an attempt to shape what is taught by trained professionals. Also troubling: Daniels is now president of Purdue University!

Professional historians also often have problems with Zinn’s text. But the way to deal with them is to teach it against critiques or alternative points of view. Banning books or arguments on merely ideological grounds, which is what Daniels apparently wanted to do, is the opposite of a liberal arts education. Where an argument is wrong or pernicious, scholars should debate it and learn how to show what is faulty in it. Daniels’ attitude is a mirror image of that of the apparatchiks in the old Soviet Union on the look-out in books like Doctor Zhivago for bias toward the business classes.

It is a principle of university administration in the United States that an administrator never gets to interfere in the syllabus of a teacher merely on the basis of ideology. Some state universities have charters of independence from the state legislature; where they don’t, sometimes a used car salesman who happened to get elected to something decides he is a Ph.D. and attacks a course or text choice. Anti-intellectualism and powerful ignorance is not the same as democracy.

Bill Bigelow writes at the Howard Zinn Education project:

“Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

But Gov. Daniels, now president of Purdue University, was not content merely to celebrate Howard Zinn’s passing. He demanded that Zinn’s work be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”’

Democracy Now! reports:

You can see a transcript of that Democracy Now! program at the link above.

One point worth noting: Mitch Daniels never, in fact, points out any errors in a book that he claims has an error on every page. Let’s see a few of those errors, if you please. Be specific.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 11:02 am

Posted in Books, Education, GOP

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