Later On

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Archive for August 6th, 2018

Trump promised to fix veterans’ problems. Now they call his hotline desperate for help.

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Jessica Cotrera reports in the Washington Post:

 The phones rang early in the morning and late in the evening. They rang, always, in the middle of the night. They were ringing now, as Mary Hendricks sank into a swivel chair and settled in beside her co-workers for another day of answering them.

The calls came from veterans who were about to be evicted. Veterans who couldn’t get hold of their doctors. Veterans who needed to talk about what they saw in Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam.
Mary pressed a button. Her headset clicked on.
“This is the White House VA hotline,” she said, introducing herself by first name only. “How can I help you?”
Here in a small West Virginia town, 74 miles from the White House, a Donald Trump campaign promise is being fulfilled. He told the country’s 20 million veterans that if they had an issue with the Department of Veterans Affairs, there would be a number they could call 24 hours a day to talk to a real person.
On this day in late July, as Mary was beginning a conversation with one of those veterans, Trump was standing before a crowd of them at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Missouri, introducing a new VA secretary, Robert Wilkie.
The department Wilkie was about to take over had endured months of turmoil. Trump had fired his predecessor via tweet. Longtime employees had been dismissed and demoted. The bipartisanship that once existed inside the halls of the federal government’s second-largest agency had been replaced by political infighting over how veterans should be cared for.
All the while, the veterans who were supposed to receive that care kept calling this room inside a nondescript office building to ­report what was going wrong with it.
“We’re going to try to get you some help,” Mary said to the man on her line now, an Air Force veteran who had erroneously received a bill for $350.18. He did not have $350.18.
“I will instruct my staff that if a valid complaint is not addressed, that the issue be brought directly to me,” Trump said in 2016. “I will pick up the phone and fix it myself if I have to.”
But for now, the only person trying to fix it was Mary, a 44-year-old widow with blond hair, a cross around her neck and long lavender nails that clacked on her keyboard. She had learned so much about VA that she wished she had known when her husband, an Army veteran, had been alive. But still, she could not make the $350.18 bill go away.
She could not see why it was sent. She could not access benefits or medical records, even with the man’s permission. She wasn’t allowed to call his provider. All she could do was type his problem and send it to a different team in a different place that would respond in approximately 60 business days, if it responded on time.
Listen. Type. Send. This was what the 60 customer service agents could do for the 107,000 calls that had come in since June 2017. On this day, there would be 584 more.
Some veterans believed it was helping. Some said it was just another layer of bureaucracy. Mary said only, “You’re very welcome, sir. Have a wonderful day,” and waited for the phone to ring again.
The history of the Department of Veterans Affairs is entwined with scandal, from its first leader — an embezzler — under President Warren Harding to the revelation under President Barack Obama that VA hospitals were lying about how long veterans were waiting for care. Obama brought in a new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, to fix it.
One of McDonald’s solutions: A hotline.
At first, the line was his cellphone number, which he gave out at news conferences, saying, “Call me Bob.” Then he created MyVA311, another line for an agency that has staffed hotlines for everything from quitting smoking to learning about the flu to coping after seeing “Saving Private Ryan.”
The new hotline, 855-948-2311, joins nearly 20 phone numbers VA has listed on its website as national hotlines, help lines or call centers. These are in addition to the call centers run by individual VA hospitals and veterans service organizations.
The allure of a hotline is that problems cannot be remedied unless they are first reported. But just because problems are reported doesn’t mean they will be fixed, said Joe Plenzler, spokesman for the American Legion. That’s why organizations like his are skeptical of Trump’s version of the idea, which has an annual budget of $7.4 million.
“We are asking: Is it action? Or is it just the appearance of action?” Plenzler said.
On the day after Trump’s speech with Wilkie, the action for Mary began with Diet Pepsi and Sheetz coffee, both of which she needed to get through eight hours of calls. (To protect the privacy of veterans, VA officials permitted The Washington Post to listen only to the call takers’ side of the conversations.)
“I am so sorry,” Mary told the first veteran routed to her phone, as if it were her fault that the Army reservist had been denied the benefits he believed he deserved. Her computer showed he had called many times. “Veteran with brain damage” was how the last call taker described the first of his problems.
Mary was quiet as his voice grew louder in her ear. This job wasn’t all that different from the bartending she had done for years.
“I still listen,” she said. “I just don’t get them drunk.”

She’d been working at a restaurant when she met her husband, Rod, who was in the Army during Desert Storm. In their 10 years together, every time she asked about his deployment, he changed the subject. She stopped asking. It stopped mattering to her once he was sick.
Headaches. Kidney problems. Dialysis three times a week, four hours a day. VA doctors and private doctors, bills and paperwork, a system she didn’t know how to help him navigate. She tried to be there for him in other ways, to pray for him, to be the wife he needed. The last question she asked him, in the moments before the heart attack that would take his life in 2015, was: “What do you want for dinner?”
A year later, she was working at a dollar store and on a hospital overnight cleanup crew during the 2016 presidential campaign. She had voted for Obama in 2008. But Trump seemed to be working to earn veterans’ votes. He didn’t hide behind his words. Mary thought Rod would have liked that.
She didn’t know it was Trump’s hotline when she saw the ad for a call center representative on ­ for a job that paid $12.50 per hour and required someone “compassionate to veterans’ concerns.” She immediately submitted her résumé. The contractor doing the hiring said she was the first to apply.
Now she was 10 months in, trying to show she was compassionate to this veteran’s concerns. “Want me to try to get through to the benefits administration?”
The Army reservist said he’d already tried that.
“I just want to yell,” he said, so Mary let him, because that was what she was trained to do.
For three weeks, the agents had been schooled on VA, its “I-CARE values” (Integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, excellence) and “Three E’s” (Effectiveness, ease, emotion), lessons that could never fully prepare them for the calls to come.
Like the woman who identified herself as a veteran calling from the Civil War. Or the older man who painted a vivid picture of his sex life, saying, “I can’t even . . . ” and “She has to . . . ” and all the agent could think to say was, “You do what you gotta do, sir.”
They were instructed not to disconnect unless they were being screamed at with profanity, which happened daily. (“I am so friggin’ nice when I call Comcast now,” Mary said.)
So she had listened for over an hour when a veteran called to relive every detail of her sexual assault. She’d listened to a man go on and on about a bill until she realized he was asking whether his wife would have to pay the bill when he died because he was about to kill himself. Suddenly he said, “Thank you so much, sweetie, I got to go,” and hung up. Mary called the crisis line to send the police to check on him. She doesn’t know what they found.
One call at a time, that was the way to get through.
“Like digging a hole through a mountain with a spoon,” said Steven Spaid, 50, an Air Force veteran who spent his career dropping supplies for combat troops out of planes before becoming a call taker.
“We really are their last resort,” said Jessica Coates, 36, an Army veteran who used a soothing voice to calm the callers — and short walks around the parking lot to calm herself.
To Mary, so many of the problems felt fixable, if only they had the powers, or permission, to fix them.
“There was this man,” she said as she waited for the phone to ring again. “And he just wanted a . . .

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The US is broken.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 1:59 pm

The local-news crisis is destroying what a divided America desperately needs: Common ground

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Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post:

Ken Doctor saw it coming. A few years ago, the media analyst looked at the trend lines and predicted that by 2017 or so, American newsrooms would reach a shocking point.
“The halving of America’s daily newsrooms,” he called what he was seeing.
Last week, we found out that it’s true. A Pew Research study showed that between 2008 and last year, employment in newspaper newsrooms declined by an astonishing 45 percent. (And papers were already well down from their newsroom peak in the early 1990s, when their revenue lifeblood — print advertising — was still pumping strong.)
The dire numbers play out in ugly ways: Public officials aren’t held accountable, town budgets go unscrutinized, experienced journalists are working at Walmart, or not at all, instead of plying their much-needed trade in their communities.
One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.
And there’s another result that gets less attention:
In our terribly divided nation, we need the local newspaper to give us common information — an agreed-upon set of facts to argue about.
Last year when I visited Luzerne County in Pennsylvania to talk to people about their media habits, I was most struck by one thing: The allegiance to local news outlets — the two competing papers in Wilkes-Barre, and the popular ABC affiliate, WNEP, or Channel 16 as everyone called it.
The most reasonable people I talked to, no matter whom they had voted for, were regular readers of the local papers and regular watchers of the local news. (The county was one of those critical places that had voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and flipped red to Trump in 2016.)
By contrast, those residents who got news only from Facebook or from cable news were deep in their own echo chambers and couldn’t seem to hear anything else.
Last week, President Trump, at his rally in Wilkes-Barre, again trashed the national media — to the crowd’s delight. But I would guess that many of the attendees would give a pass to their local media sources.
After all, the reporters and editors for those news outlets might send their kids to the same schools, shop at the same Dollar General, fill up their gas tanks at the same Sheetz.
When he made his prediction in 2015, Ken Doctor noted that the largest and the smallest of the nation’s newspapers seemed to have some immunity.
Tiny papers have little competition, an enduring connection with their towns, and thus still are able to attract advertising and reader loyalty. The largest of the papers — including the New York Times and The Washington Post — are finding new ways to support themselves with a combination of digital ad dollars and subscriptions, among other revenue sources.
But the regional papers, such as the Denver Post, have taken the worst hits. And to make matters worse, many are owned by hedge funds that couldn’t care less about journalism. They are only interested in bleeding the papers dry of whatever remaining profits they can produce with ever-shrinking staffs.
“Will hitting the halving point finally send a signal of news emergency?” Doctor asked. And he answered himself: “Probably not. Who would send it? Who would receive it? What does any citizen/reader feel he or she can really do about it?”
That’s the rub. What’s more, as papers decline, there’s less reason to subscribe because coverage isn’t what it used to be.
“We’ve had to make some tough decisions,” Ken Tingley, editor of the Glens Falls Post-Star, a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily in the Adirondacks region of New York, told me recently. With his staff down by about half, he has pulled in the news coverage from a far-flung region to concentrate on just the metro area.
What he worries about most, Tingley said, is that there’s not much of a career ahead for the young reporters on his staff.
“Where are they going to go?” he said, when bigger metro dailies keep shedding reporters like so many autumn leaves. (One recent example: The New York Daily News, which halved its newsroom.)
To be sure, the picture isn’t entirely bleak: Nonprofit news organizations spring up, relying on grants and membership; organizations such as Report for America help fill the gaps at shrunken news organizations; and in Denver, a new outfit called Civil is funding an alternative to the decimated Post with the digital Colorado Sun, and hopes to produce many more like it. Some regional papers have been bought by well-meaning philanthropists.
But you can’t argue with the numbers, or the crisis.
Yes, the emergency signal has gone out, if too faintly, and there is a response. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 12:41 pm

Posted in Daily life, Media

Spacetime Emergence, Panpsychism and the Nature of Consciousness

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Susan Schneider writes in the Scientific American:

As you read this, it feels like something to be you. You are seeing these words on the page and hearing the world around you, for instance. And all these thoughts and sensations come together into your conscious “now.” Consciousness is this felt quality of experience. Without consciousness, there would be no enjoyment of a beautiful sunset. Nor would there be suffering. Experience, positive or negative, simply wouldn’t exist.

At the heart of current theorizing about consciousness in philosophy isthe hard problem of consciousness, a puzzle raised by the philosopher David Chalmers. (See his Scientific American article “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience.”) Cognitive science says that the brain is an information processing engine. The hard problem asks: but why does all this sophisticated information processing need to feel like anything, from the inside? Why do we have experience? One influential approach to the problem, endorsed by Chalmers himself, is panpsychism.

Panpsychism holds that even the smallest layers of reality have experience. Fundamental particles have minute levels of consciousness, and in a watered-down sense, they are subjects of experience. When particles are in extremely sophisticated configurations, such as when they are in nervous systems, more sophisticated forms of consciousness arise. Panpsychism aims to locate the building blocks of reality in the most basic layer of reality identified by a completed physics. Indeed, panpsychists claim that it is a virtue of their theory that it meshes with fundamental physics, for experience is the underlying nature of the properties that physics identifies.

The view is at odds with cutting edge work in physics, however. At the very heart of contemporary physics is an apparent contradiction between the study of the big and the very small, i.e., between massive structures (e.g., black holes) in Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the subatomic realm of quantum mechanics. Work in the field of quantum gravity attempts to resolve this contradiction, and increasingly, it is saying something astonishing: the fundamental ingredients of reality are not spatiotemporal. Instead, spacetime emerges from something more basic, something that is defined in terms of a mathematical structure that dispenses with any temporal ordering or spatial metric. (For more detail, see George Musser’s Scientific American article “What is Spacetime?”) Just as the transparency of water is not found in a single molecule, at the finest level of resolution, spacetime drops out altogether.

If the more fundamental ingredients of reality are non-spatiotemporal, it is difficult to see how they can also be experiential. For if there is no time at this level, how could there be experience? Conscious experience has a felt quality that involves flow; thoughts seem to be present in the “now,” and they change from moment to moment. Timeless experience is an oxymoron. Relatedly, why say there are minds or subjects of experience at the fundamental level, if there is no spacetime? Minds would seem to have experiences. Without time, there are no mental events to unfold.

Here, the panpsychist could retort that our ordinary sense of time is an illusion. To be sure, debates over whether reality is timeless started over 2,000 years ago, when the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides claimed that reality was static and unchanging, like a mathematical equation. Heraclitus, in contrast, asserted that all was change, like the motion of a flame. Nowadays, physicists wrestle with similar issues. While Isaac Newton regarded time as being like a river flowing at the same rate every place throughout the universe, Albert Einstein overturned this picture, for both general relativity theory and the Standard Model of particle physics are temporally symmetric. These laws do not say whether time is moving forward or backwards. Nor do the laws identify so special a moment as appears to us as what we call “now.”

This Einsteinian picture has been called a static, “block universe” view of spacetime because it lacks any sense of a flow or passage of time. As Einstein wrote, upon the passing of a close friend, “For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Could the panpsychist appeal to this block universe picture to argue that time is an illusion? If so, perhaps panpsychism and quantum gravity are not at odds, after all. Suppose that our ordinary sense of duration is just an illusion, and reality is timeless. If this is the case, the point shouldn’t be that the fundamental layer of reality is experiential. The point should be, instead, that fundamental reality is nonexperiential, and that underlying ingredients, whatever they are, will somehow serve to explain away our ordinary sense of time. But the panpsychists are not trying to explain away experience in terms of something nonexperiential. For them, experience is basic.

If non-spatiotemporal ingredients truly give rise to more familiar building blocks of spacetime this would be an exciting discovery. But few have considered the impact such a discovery would have on our understanding of the nature of consciousness. Upon reflection, spacetime emergence seems to make the hard problem even harder. For how does conscious experience, which is so intimately tied to our perception of time and space, arise from timeless, non-spatial ingredients? Put another way, how . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

How the first federal investigation into the maker of OxyContin looked to overdose-affected families in western Virginia—and how it fell short.

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Beth Macy reports in Politico:

In February 2001, a 39-year-old IT worker named Ed Bisch was summoned home to his working-class enclave of Philadelphia after taking a frantic call from his daughter. She had found her 18-year-old brother incoherent in the bathroom the night before, and when she asked him what was wrong he said he’d had too much to drink. The next morning, she found him bluish and unresponsive.

Bisch arrived home to find a pair of emergency workers in front of his house. His son, Eddie, was a high school senior, a soccer player with decent grades and plans to attend a local culinary school. Eddie had complained of feeling sick recently, but it had not crossed his father’s mind that he was in opioid withdrawal. Bisch had suspected Eddie was drinking and maybe smoking pot but hadn’t considered pills. They had plans to fly to Florida for a father-son fishing vacation in just six days.

“I’m sorry,” one of the paramedics told Bisch. Eddie was dead.

As friends gathered, Bisch was still in shock and searching for answers when he asked Eddie’s friends what his son had taken.

“Oxy,” one said.

“What the hell’s an Oxy?” Bisch wanted to know.

The first time Ed Bisch heard the word “OxyContin,” his son was dead from it.

Within months, Bisch would find himself at the forefront of a parent-led nationwide pushback against Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful opioid OxyContin, organizing other parents of the overdosed dead and soon funneling their stories to a nascent federal investigation centered in western Virginia. Oxy overdoses had already swept through Appalachia and other distressed rural areas in the nation, reaching epidemic proportions in the Northeast and West and, eventually, in most corners of America. In 2012, the highest rates of opioid prescriptions per person in the country were in mostly Appalachian states.

The Virginia-led federal investigation culminated in a plea agreement in 2007 and a $634.5 million fine against Purdue’s parent company and its top executives for criminally misbranding the drug. Since then, more than 20 states have sued Purdue Pharma, and recently, the company dismissed most of its sales staff in response to mounting allegations over its marketing tactics. A federal judge in Cleveland is now presiding over massive multijurisdictional litigation against opioid distributors, retailers and manufacturers, including Purdue.

But the story of this first federal investigation illuminates how holding Purdue Pharma accountable was so hard in the first place, and why it took so long to rein in the marketing practices that led to widespread addiction and saddled local communities with costs that have overwhelmed law enforcement, hospitals and even indigent burial funds.

It also looks different 10 years on: We now know, in a document only recently made public, that federal prosecutors had originally recommended felony charges that could have sent top Purdue execs to prison if they were convicted. In that report, the prosecutors said the company had knowingly concealed OxyContin abuse shortly after the drug’s 1996 release. We also know that top Justice Department officials in the George W. Bush administration did not follow the Virginia prosecutors’ recommendations—and refused to indict the executives on felony charges, instead pursuing lesser misdemeanor charges for them and no jail time.

Ten years on, we know, too, that the key figures on Purdue’s side—ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was consulting for the company and leveraging the height of his post-9/11 popularity on its behalf, and Mary Jo White, the chief counsel for Purdue’s top lawyer, Howard Udell—went on to even more high-profile careers.

What we don’t know so much about is the improbable cast of grieving parents and western Virginia characters who worked to bring the case to court, and how their struggle to be heard over Purdue Pharma and Giuliani foretold the coming opioid epidemic.


The burgeoning OxyContin epidemic didn’t hit the national media until the same month Bisch came home to find his dead son, when New York Times reporters Barry Meier and Francis X. Clines swooped in to central Appalachia to deliver a front-page story on Operation OxyFest, a nine-month federal investigation that produced the biggest drug-abuse raid in Kentucky history. “We caught 207” user-dealers, a federal prosecutor told the reporters. Most of those arrested were Oxy-addicted patients who had coaxed pills out of doctors who were either busy, slipshod or quietly cooperative in overprescribing the drug. “We didn’t catch half of them; that’s how pervasive this thing is.”

From his home in Philly, Bisch retreated to his computer, where he was shocked to learn that his son’s death had been the region’s 30th opioid overdose in the past three months. How was that possible when he’d only just learned the word? “The internet was still new, and back then it was mostly message boards as opposed to websites,” he told me.

Bisch channeled his grief into computer code, forming a national coalition of parents of the dead, called Relatives Against Purdue Pharma, or RAPP. Hoping to warn other families, he created his own message board, giving it the bluntest moniker he could think of— Within weeks it had morphed into a scrolling database of grief, warnings and statistics. The website became a clearinghouse for the latest Oxy-related overdose numbers reported by local medical examiners and the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with heart-wrenching stories of high-school wrestlers and cheerleaders who had succumbed to OxyContin overdose. Bisch promoted news stories about OxyContin, such as when the New York Times noted that the drug’s sales in 2001 hit $1 billion, outselling even Viagra.

Bisch and the other parents made an informal alliance with a pair of people who were doing more than anyone in Appalachia to sound the alarm on OxyContin overprescription: Dr. Art Van Zee and Sister Beth Davies, an activist nun. Bisch had read about Van Zee and Davies in newspaper articles, and he knew about their unsuccessful David vs. Goliath fight to persuade Purdue to take OxyContin off the market in the early 2000s until it could be reformulated to be abuse-resistant. Then, as now, Davies counseled patients with Van Zee at her Addiction Education Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia. “Not a week goes by that I’m not talking with parents about their young adult children that are losing their jobs, spouses, children, and homes to this addiction,” Van Zee wrote in a 2000 letter to Purdue executives, noting that 20 percent of local high-school seniors had reported trying Oxy. And in another letter that year: “My fear is that these [addiction-hit rural communities] are sentinel areas, just as San Francisco and New York were in the early years of HIV.”

If OxyContin seeded the opioid deluge in communities across the nation, Bisch and his fellow activists nationalized the opposition to it. Relatives Against Purdue Pharma became his message board sprung to life, a nonvirtual resistance party that would assert itself politically and in person over the next decade.

Together the parents-turned-activists would lobby for the creation of statewide prescription monitoring programs, or PMPs, so doctors could check a patient’s prescription records and prevent themselves from being shopped. They would battle—online and at times in person—with chronic-pain patients who praised the drug for allowing them to function and to sleep through the night. They would march and hold up pictures of their dead children outside Purdue-sponsored pain management seminars.

Among RAPP’s first courtroom targets was the 2003 civil lawsuit against Purdue brought by former Florida Purdue sales rep Karen White. She’d been fired in 2002 for allegedly having paperwork irregularities, poor communication skills and declining sales, the company said. But White claimed in her legal filing that she was actually fired for refusing to sell to doctors who were illegally overprescribing OxyContin to their patients. “We had such high hopes that she would be one of our saviors,” said Barbara Van Rooyan, a RAPP parent in California who unsuccessfully petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to recall OxyContin until it could be made abuse-resistant, and to restrict its use to cases of cancer and severe pain.

At the time, Purdue’s legal bills were mounting—to the tune of an estimated $3 million a month—and the company still had 285 lawsuits pending against it. To help burnish its image in the face of mounting legal, financial and public-relations problems, Purdue had hired Republican insider Rudy Giuliani and his consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, in 2002. Just a few months after his lauded response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Giuliani’s job was to convince “public officials they could trust Purdue because they could trust him,” as the New York Times put it.

Purdue Pharma heaped praise on its American hero and new political star: “We believe that government officials are more comfortable knowing that Giuliani is advising Purdue Pharma,” Udell gushed in a promotional brochure. “It is clear to us, and we hope it is clear to the government, that Giuliani would not take an assignment with a company that he felt was acting in an improper way.”

After all, Giuliani also had just been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2001.

But RAPP hoped that Giuliani’s magic would not save Purdue from White’s wrongful-termination case. The parents believed the lawsuit would prove that Purdue’s marketing practices had crossed a legal line. In 2005, Bisch drove 12 hours from Philadelphia to White’s trial so he could sit in a federal courtroom in Tampa, Florida, beside Lee Nuss, who’d also lost an 18-year-old son to OxyContin overdose. It was the first case against Purdue to progress beyond summary judgment, and White was asking the jury to award her $138,000 in lost wages plus $690,000 for emotional pain. Depressed and anxious since her dismissal, she had never before been fired from a job.

“They were counting on us to run out of steam,” Bisch recalled. “They were all lawyered up and Rudy Giuliani’d up.” He counted 10 lawyers on Purdue’s side, not including staff, quarterbacked by the formidable Atlanta-based firm of King and Spalding, whose clients ranged from cigarette makers to Coca-Cola. White’s attorney estimated Purdue spent $500,000 defending the case, an amount a Purdue spokesman declined to confirm.

White had a single lawyer and no staff.

The jury ruled in favor of Purdue, whose lawyer called the case a “personal disagreement with promoting the drug in an entirely legal way.” While White believed calling on sleazy pill prescribers was illegal, her lawyer had not proved the illegality of the company’s sales strategies.

“The court basically said, ‘Don’t tell us what you believe. Tell us what you know,’” explained University of Kentucky legal scholar Richard Ausness, who has written about the difficulty of winning civil cases against Purdue, citing among other reasons the company’s hefty defense chest.

With that loss behind them, Bisch and the rest of RAPP geared up for another fight.


Back in western Virginia, a young U.S. attorney with political aspirations had been secretly working on his own attempt to defeat Purdue in court since 2002, when he started investigating the company’s marketing practices. In his mid-30s, John L. Brownlee was brash and a little bit of a cowboy. With a ruddy complexion and a mop of reddish-brown hair, he had a boyish appearance that belied his hard-charging demeanor. As a former paratrooper and Army Reserve JAG Corps captain, he was not afraid of high-stakes drama.

Or the press. He was married to a local news anchor, Lee Ann Necessary, whom he’d met on the job a decade earlier. He was so fond of calling news conferences that he traveled with a portable podium with fold-out legs.

When a New York Post reporter broke the news in 2005 that . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 12:23 pm

‘Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons’

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Meagan Day and Bhaskar Sunkara write in the NY Times:

Despite releasing a comprehensive and remarkably radical criminal justice reform agenda in 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders was accused throughout his presidential campaign of being insufficiently concerned with the topic, and of habitually changing the subject to economics. The reality is that Mr. Sanders has the clearest insight into the connections between criminal justice issues and economic inequality of any major politician today. And nowhere, perhaps, are those connections more obvious than in the instance of cash bail.

In late July, Mr. Sanders introduced legislation that would end cash bail on the federal level. “Cash bail” is the current bond system in which people arrested for even low-level offenses are detained pending trial — unless and until they pay a fee. The fees are often arbitrary and often beyond people’s means ($3,000 for allegedly stealing a backpack, $10,000 for a bicycle), leaving the poorest arrestees locked up, sometimes for years, without being convicted of a crime.

Under this system, freedom comes with a price tag, and those who can pay it get to walk while the rest languish in the United States’ bloated prison system. Citing a statistic showing that over 400,000 people are in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay bail, Mr. Sanders called for the endof “modern day debtors’ prisons.”

Mr. Sanders’ bill is more radical than one proposed last year by two of his colleagues, the Democrat Kamala Harris of California and the Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, which sought to reform but not eliminate cash bail. In completely prohibiting “the use of payment of money as a condition of pretrial release” on the federal level, the Sanders bill turns one of Black Lives Matter’s most broadly popular demands directly into legislation.

It may not pass under a Republican-controlled Congress, but the bill has garnered support from heavyweight liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, indicating the idea’s transformation from activist demand to mainstream policy proposal. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 11:30 am

Flood Thy Neighbor: Who Stays Dry and Who Decides?

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Lisa Song, ProPublica, Patrick Michels, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and Al Shaw, ProPublica, report in ProPublica:

This story is part of an ongoing collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Just after Christmas 2015, police showed up at the Starling Community Trailer Court in Arnold, Missouri, and told residents to get out. There was no time to stack sandbags, no time to pack. The big one was coming.

The mobile home park backed onto a rising creek, where the oldest residents were closest to the threat. Sarah Quinn raced to help her grandmother and great-grandparents get to safety. They narrowly escaped the rushing Meramec River, which snakes around Arnold and other St. Louis suburbs on its way to meet the Mississippi.

About 12 miles upstream, the Meramec climbed the steep banks of the city of Fenton and flowed across a road into the Riverside Golf Club, where Walt Wolfner was busy carting furniture and computers out of his clubhouse. He knew, because the course had flooded so often lately, that he and 20 workers would need two weeks to mop up the damage.

Thirty miles farther up the Meramec, the river was creeping up on the town of Pacific, too. Devin Brundick and Felicia Ammann, a young couple who owned a small green bungalow beside the river, hurried to load their belongings into a friend’s truck.

By the time the river crested, Wolfner’s clubhouse was under 11 feet of water, Brundick and Ammann’s bungalow was uninhabitable, and Quinn’s grandmother lost everything.

“Her sofa, her chair, her deep freeze, washer, dryer, bed, mattress, all of it,” Quinn said. “All of her books that she’s collected over the years … nothing could be saved.”

They were the lucky ones. The flood killed at least 20 people in the Midwest and broke records along the Meramec. It was a once-in-a-generation flood — or so they thought, until it happened again 16 months later.

Only one city escaped the destruction. Valley Park, just upstream of Fenton, stayed dry during both floods, safe behind a ring of dirt and concrete — a $50 million levee designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Valley Park resident Ryan McDougell. “The engineers that came in here and put the levee in, they did a great job. It sucks for the folks down below, because, I mean, this is going to happen every year.”

When rivers flood now in the United States, the first towns to get hit are the unprotected ones right by the river. The last to go, if they flood at all, are the privileged few behind strong levees. While levees mostly are associated with large, low-lying cities such as New Orleans, a majority of the nation’s Corps-managed levees protect much smaller communities, rural farm towns and suburbs such as Valley Park.

But why Valley Park? It wasn’t the biggest city or largest employer along the Meramec. Its neighboring towns all had homes and industry in harm’s way, too. But after almost a century of planning to protect all these communities, the federal government built a single 3-mile levee, shielding the low-lying area of just one town.

Exploring why that happened offers a window into the nation’s flawed approach to controlling rivers, in which — an investigation by ProPublica and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found — life-and-death decisions are dictated less by sound science than by economics, politics and luck.

Levees have been the nation’s most common method of flood control for much of U.S. history, despite a major drawback: Levees protect the land immediately behind them, but can make flooding worse for people nearby by cutting off a river’s ability to spread over the floodplain — the flat, low-lying land beside the river channel. This is a basic matter of physics and something the Corps has known since at least 1852, when a report it commissioned demonstrated that as levees confine a river to a narrower channel, they force water to flow higher and faster. A levee such as the one at Valley Park, on just one side of the Meramec, creates a traffic-jam effect that forces water higher on the opposite bank and upstream.

Twenty-five years ago, before it built the Valley Park levee, the Corps predicted that saving the city would cause just a few extra inches of flooding in areas close by. But it reached that conclusion based on outdated models, without factoring in wild cards such as additional development and climate change that often exacerbate flooding. After building the levee, the Corps never measured its actual impact.

Residents in Arnold, Fenton and Pacific weren’t just frustrated that they suffered repeated floods while Valley Park stayed dry. They blamed the levee for making the flooding worse.

Their accusations echo claims from residents near other levees: A 2011 flood along Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River raised suspicions that a levee had pushed water into unprotected communities. In Louisiana, engineering consultants projected that a proposed levee extension would raise flooding by about an inch, but local reporters uncovered another study that predicted up to 8 inches — a finding that prompted a lawsuit. And a recent paper found levees have aggravated major floods on the Lower Mississippi River.

People across the Meramec basin can only watch and wonder. Sitting in his new clubhouse, which he’s rebuilt twice since 2016, Wolfner peers out at the river and stews about the unfairness of it all. Besides the levee, what does Valley Park have that Fenton doesn’t?

The Corps “could have bought out everybody in that area for that kind of money and never built the levee and not hurt all these people, not hurt guys like me,” he said.

“Let the water go where it’s supposed to go.”

“Seldom Economically Justified”

The Army Corps of Engineers has a huge, complex job — reducing flood risk across the nation’s rivers and coasts and a requirement to do it in a way that benefits the country economically. To prioritize its resources, the Corps uses cost-benefit calculations.

In practice, those formulas determine who gets flooded and who gets saved.

They’re intended to bring some dispassionate reason to a contentious process. But the calculations favor highly valued property over less affluent communities. And the Corps has favored levee-building over nonstructural fixes such as buying out homes to create space for the river to spread out during a flood — practices that many experts say are more effective in the long run, but which the Corps concluded were “seldom economically justified.” . . .

Continue reading.

There’s much more and the trade-offs are interesting.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 11:25 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

David Frum sums it up succinctly

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David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 11:11 am

As wildfires rage, Trump administration plans to slash fire science funding

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No real surprise in the Trump administration actions: after the hottest summer ever with global warming clearly increasing, the Trump administration is strongly supporting the burning of fossil fuels (coal) and reducing gas-mileage requirements for automobiles. Trump seems to be actively trying to damage the US.

Randy Lee Loftis reports at

Bill Allen pointed to a north-facing slope of blackened pine and juniper forest. A thin vortex of pale white ash, picked up by a hot morning wind, rose from the black and gray landscape a wildfire left behind.

“It started right there,” said Allen, a rancher and retired hardware store owner.

Igniting May 31 on mountainous terrain, the fire grew quickly. Soon, more than 600 firefighters struggled to protect about 200 homes along the Cimarron River. When the fire was declared over 17 days later, it had burned 36,740 acres of forest and grassland.

Like all wildfires, the Ute Park Fire was dangerous and expensive. But no one died and crews saved every home – thanks in part to a century of hard-won firefighting knowhow.

Science played a vital role in this success story by helping develop the best ways to battle wildfires. But the Trump administration wants to slash federal funding for wildfire science, at a time when forest and brush fires are getting bigger, happening year-round and becoming increasingly erratic.

Federally funded scientists have been seeking new methods and technologies to predict, prepare and respond – critical for safeguarding people and property. They have discovered ways to reduce risks before fires and restore land and waterways afterward. And they explore how fuels, flames, terrain, smoke and weather interact.

Defunding those efforts will endanger lives, researchers told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

“A wildland fire (budget) cut is a human health cut,” said Donald Falk, a University of Arizona professor who has received research funding from some of the federal programs the White House has targeted.

Last week, the latest wildfire tragedy struck Redding, California, where scientists said a super-hot, tornado-like “fire vortex” reached almost 5 miles high. Six people, including two children, have been killed and more than 1,400 homes and buildings have been destroyed so far in the Carr Fire.

Since 1983, about 72,000 fires  have burned the American landscape every year. That number has not grown. But the acreage has – 10 million acres burned last year, which is nearly eight times as much as in 1983.

Nevertheless, fire science funding has been eroding for more than a decade, even before President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts.

Nancy French, a senior research scientist at the Michigan Tech Research Institute who has federal funding, said she is “extremely frustrated, more so than I’ve ever been in my life.”

“You would think with people’s houses burning in California and the concern that we have for air quality that it wouldn’t be hard to find a way to fund someone like me to make sure that my capability is used to help solve some of these problems,” she said.

Interim U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen did not respond to requests for comment about fire research, and the administration’s budget documents contain no explanation for the cuts. But during a Senate hearing in April, she said the administration’s new budget “does reflect hard choices and difficult tradeoffs.”

Wildland fire science emerges from a small community of physicists, chemists, ecologists, meteorologists and others working for government agencies and universities to understand one of nature’s most violent forces.

The U.S. Forest Service, Interior Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and even the Defense Department have roles. Fire research budgets at these agencies, always small and declining for decades, would take a major hit under Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget.

One proposed cut would eliminate the Joint Fire Science Program, a cooperative venture by the Forest Service and six Interior Department agencies. Even if Congress steps in to fund the program, the financial uncertainty already has forced it to suspend new research proposals for next year.

In the past 10 years alone, the program funded 280 projects by 1,045 scientists at various universities and other institutions, with studies designed to meet the needs of local and state firefighters. This year’s budget is $3 million.

The program’s research “is indeed being utilized in decision-making on the ground,” said University of Arizona research scientist Molly E. Hunter, a science adviser to the program.

Northern New Mexico’s Ute Park Fire, ignited by an unknown cause, is an example of science’s contributions. Homes, mostly vacation retreats, stayed safe during the fire due in part to a fuel reduction plan that Colfax County adopted in 2008 after studies funded by the federal program.

Bea Day, incident commander of a federal-state wildfire team based in New Mexico, said fire and smoke models developed at forestry department research labs – whose budgets are targeted for cuts – helped map her team’s daily strategy to fight the Ute Park Fire. Also in the toolbox are geographical information systems, global positioning systems, satellite observations, air quality monitoring and other science products.

“We utilize all these tools daily,” Day said in an email.

John Cissel, who retired this year as the program’s director, called the Trump administration’s move to end the program a major mistake.

“It seems so short-sighted, especially with a program that’s so meticulously constructed,” he said. He said his decision to retire wasn’t related to Trump’s budget cuts.

The research “has changed the culture and knowledge base around wildfire,’’ said Zander Evans, a scientist and executive director of the nonprofit Forest Stewards Guild, a group of foresters.

The Trump administration has offered no reason for targeting the Joint Fire Science Program. It’s among dozens of areas the White House has proposed slashing or eliminating science funding.

As in the White House’s 2018 budget request, only the Pentagon, Department of Veterans Affairs and NASA would get increased research funding in 2019.

Fire appears only once in the White House’s explanation of its 2019 research and development budget: “In the wake of natural disasters, including a devastating hurricane season and catastrophic forest fires, it is more important than ever to invest in the tools necessary to predict, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from natural disasters.” There’s no mention of wildland fire science.

In the budget proposal, the Forest Service’s spending for all research would drop by 16 percent, or $46 million, from the 2018 level. Interior Department science spending would decrease 21 percent, or $205 million. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 10:47 am

My other Monarch, J.M. Fraser shaving cream, Baby Smooth, and Myrsol Agua de Limon

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I realized that I favor my other Monarch shaving brush and I think I know why: the knot of the other brush (see the photo for yesterday’s shave) is fluffier, and also the handle of the other has the interesting grain whereas this handle is a plain white. One never wants to judge merely on appearances, but think the other brush just looks better than this one. But this brush does a very fine job, this morning using J.M. Fraser’s excellent shaving cream: an enormous amount (1 lb) at a low price ($14 when I got it, $17 now). It has a light lemony fragrance, and it really seems to me an excellent shaving cream—and you can’t beat the price.

My drab Monarch created a fine lather, and the Baby Smooth babied and smoothed my face. I continued the lemon theme with Myrsol’s Agua de Limon.

It was really a totally enjoyable shave, and I set out on my morning walk in excellent spirits. I felt energetic enough to stride along briskly and finished my usual 3.2 mile route in 60 minutes rather than yesterday’s 63 minutes, which made me feel good. The distance is as Pedometer++ estimates (6700 steps), but the time is dead on.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 9:07 am

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