Monday, August 28, 2006

Caption Contest Victory

My sole entry in Outside the Beltway's Thursday caption contest was a winner.

Check it here.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Fox Journalists Nabbed in Gaza

USA Today reports that a Fox correspondent and his cameraman were abducted today in Gaza City. According to the paper,

Palestinian gunmen ambushed a car carrying a Fox News crew in Gaza City on Monday and kidnapped two of the journalists inside, according to witnesses and Fox.

"We can confirm that two of our people were taken against their will in Gaza," Fox News said in a statement.

This incident, coming hard on the recent press coverage of the arrest of Jill Carroll's alleged abductors and her descriptions of her ordeal, is sure to inspire commentary on the dangers of covering the news in the unstable parts of the world.

I regard the usual dangers of the war zone - - flying bullets, shrapnel, errant bombs - - as part of the job. The use of journalists as trade tokens in violent political struggles, however, strikes me as particularly distasteful. Daniel Pearl's abduction and murder was the first one that brought it home to me, though just a little Googling reveals journalist abductions and murders go much further back than that.

Israeli-Hizbullah Conflict the Fault of Bush and Blair, Just Because

Here's a bit from Africa News Dimension in which the interviewee, Cathy Safi, a Lebanese South African, pins the current Israeli-Hezbollah conflict on Bush and Blair:

When AND asked Safi who she felt was responsible for the current conflict in Lebanon, she admitted that she was not entirely up-to-date with the whole history of the region, but that America's involvement had fuelled tensions in the volatile Middle East.

“I am angry at [American president] George Bush, and at [British prime minister] Tony Blair.

“When you see Bush on television, he actually comes across as if he's a god.

“And Condoleeza Rice [US secretary of state], she always has this big smirk on her face while people are losing their lives,” Safi said.
Safi admits that, “I see Bush and I feel so much hate”.

How do you argue with that?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Caption Contest Victory

Sweet! Posting as "Gilly," I won 1st Place AND an Honorable Mention at OTB's Monday Caption Contest.

Check it.

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Two Proteins Key in Slowing Alzheimer's Amyloids

An interesting bit on Yahoo News concerns research that has shown that two particular proteins, HSF-1 and DAF-16, act as cellular janitors, cleaning up the sticky amyloids that would otherwise hinder brain function. The proteins are found on a gene pathway called insulin/IGF-1, which is a key gene in the aging process. As the body ages, the efficiency of HSF-1 and DAF-16 decrease, allowing the amyloids to build up and leading to the symptoms typical of Alzheimer's patients. The theory is that boosting the function of HSF-1 and DAF-16 can slow or prevent the buildup of amyloids.

As part of the research, the scientists discovered that the "clumping" of amyloids typical of advanced stage Alzheimer's patients is actually a defense mechanism carried out by the DAF-16 protein, which clumps the substance together in a way to make them less toxic to the brain.

Humans have the same insulin/IGF-1 gene pathway, so there is hope that this research, which was carried out in roundworms, will translate into the human population as well.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Statue of Liberty to Remain Closed

According to a letter received by Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn, the National Parks Service has given up on attempting to reopen the interior of the Statue of Liberty to the public. The statue was closed entirely in 2001 following the attack on the World Trade Center. The pedestal was reopened in 2004.

Weiner's press release is available here.

The metaphoric content here is so rich it's hard to know where to start.

I have to assume that the main concern is providing access to the internal supports of the statue and not, as the Parks Service asserts, concern over fire safety. Fire issues, if there were any, would long predate the events of 9/11.

But at the end of the day, what is the Statue of Liberty, really? It's copper and steel put together in a way that is symbolic of an idea. It is not the idea itself, nor is it even the embodiment of the idea. What happens, then, to the idea if you should take away the symbol?

Nothing. Liberty itself, as an idea, is not harmed in the least if someone blows up the Statue of Liberty. And if anything, it would steel the resolve of those who live under the idea of liberty to do what is necessary to defend it.

On the other hand, locking down the statue protects the copper and steel, but does great damage to the notion of liberty itself. Weiner is right - - the terrorists win.

So someone blows up the Statue of Liberty and they dance in the streets in Najaf or wherever. We rebuild it, and go about our lives. Let them blow it up a hundred times. We will put it up again one hundred one times. I have faith that our resolve is greater than theirs.

Otherwise, we are killing the idea to protect a particular arrangement of copper and steel that becomes, in the absence of the idea, meaningless.


Coke Canned in Some Indian States

The state of Kerala in southern India has banned the sale and production of Coca-Cola. The New York Times has this:

Indian State Bans Coke, Pepsi Products

NEW DELHI (AP) -- A southern Indian state on Wednesday banned the sale and production of Coke, Pepsi, Sprite and other soft drinks made by the Indian subsidiaries of Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., an official said.

Four Indian states have already banned the sale of Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks at schools, colleges and government offices after a research group in New Delhi last week claimed they contained high levels of pesticide residue.

. . .

The moves likely will hurt sales of Coca Cola and PepsiCo beverages in India. The two companies account for nearly 80 percent of India's $2 billion-plus soft drinks market.

. . .

Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi insist their drinks are safe.

''For three years we have looked very hard at this and engaged the best scientific minds in the world, and all of the data and all of the science point to the fact our products in India are absolutely safe, just as they are elsewhere in the world,'' said Dick Detwiler, a spokesman for PepsiCo's international division in Purchase, N.Y.

. . .

India's Supreme Court has since asked the two companies to disclose the contents of their soft drinks. Four Indian states -- Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh -- had earlier imposed a ban on sale of Coke and Pepsi at colleges, schools and government offices. Several other states have said they are examining the issue.
Coke doesn't say the studies are inaccurate, just insists that their products are "safe." Here's a snip from Coke in India's fact sheet:
Water used in the manufacture of all Coca-Cola products undergo a rigorous multiple barrier filtration process to eliminate pesticide residues, other organic and inorganic impurities that are normally present in water. This process is endorsed by the World Heath Organization (WHO) and ensures that the water used (1) meets the specifications prescribed by the PFA, and (2) meets the BIS standard for Packaged Drinking Water viz., IS 14543:2004. The BIS standard for pesticide residues is similar to the world’s most stringent standards, viz., that of the European Union.
The American Council on Science and Health says this:
Pesticides are present in the groundwater throughout India due to overuse by farmers, and as a result, negligible levels end up in the Coke and Pepsi that is produced in India. It also ends up in everything else that the Indians drink, but that hasn't stopped the Center for Science and Environment from crying bloody murder.
Other parts of the world are less eager to jump on Coke's wagon, as in this piece from the Gulf Times:

Cola issue viewed with ‘seriousness’
Published: Tuesday, 8 August, 2006, 11:28 AM Doha Time

New Delhi: Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss yesterday said that his ministry views the contamination of soft drinks with utmost seriousness.

"The ministry of health and family welfare has taken note of the studies carried out by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) as well as its discussions in the print and electronic media on August 2. The report of the CSE is being examined," Ramadoss informed parliament.

The ministry views "the contamination of soft drinks with utmost seriousness and is committed to protecting the health of the consumers and would take all necessary steps to ensure this".

Three years after it shocked the nation with a report showing exceedingly large amounts of pesticide content in leading soft drink brands, CSE last week released its second study ‘Soft Drinks - Hard Truth II’ showing three to five immune-suppressive pesticides again in 11 brands.

A fresh survey conducted by it has found that the brands of the Coke and Pepsi family had on an average 24 times more pesticide residues than what it had found in 2003.

Curiouser and curiouser. Everyone seems to agree that there are pesticides in the product. For what it's worth (admittedly not much) Coke shares were up two tenths of a percent in pre-market trading.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Gasoline Prices Approaching "Minimally Acceptable"

I've long said that the price of gasoline is too low until it results in consumers changing their consumption habits. Since gasoline started its most recent climb, I've seen precious little except yammering and handwringing about "skyrocketing" prices. Today's New York Times online and the Pew research it cites is the first time I've seen a discussion that rising prices are actually beginning to curb consumption. In my mind, that means we are just barely nosing in to where gasoline prices should be:

Gas Prices Alter Habits of Many, but Far From All - New York Times

DENVER, Aug. 8 — Car owners across the country braced themselves on Tuesday for another smack in the face at the gasoline pump, as the shutdown of the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska rippled through energy markets and consumer psyches.

But Justin Ogle, a newly minted light-rail commuter, was calm. Mr. Ogle and his wife, Lauren, bought a new home two months ago, partly to be near the train tracks.

“Rising gas prices are going to force us to be more efficient,” Mr. Ogle, 29, said, looking up from the newspaper as his train rattled toward downtown Denver, where he works as an architect.

Americans are deeply divided in their responses to high gasoline prices, as they are on so many other things, including politics, class and culture. Many say they are using less gasoline, but for every Mr. Ogle, there may well be a Glennis Claxton. Ms. Claxton, a 26-year-old student at Rice University, does not own a car, but she said she had gotten so fried by riding the sweltering buses in Houston that she was thinking of buying one, even with the price of gas what it is.

Researchers, pollsters and ordinary Americans in interviews on Tuesday said they saw no broad national experience or commonality of sacrifice when it came to gasoline, even when the nation endured a jolt like the one from Alaska.

. . .

In the Pew Research survey of 1,182 Americans — 1,048 of them drivers — 55 percent said they were driving less because of the recent increases in gasoline prices. The poll, taken from June 20 to July 16, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Yet Americans’ overall gasoline appetite has barely budged. Total use this year is up about one-half percent to 1 percent compared with 2005, according to federal figures — a slower rate of growth than in the past, but hardly the mark of a nation with its foot fully on the brake.

There are anecdotal glimpses of a drop in driving. The number of passengers taking rail service in Los Angeles County in June was up 11 percent from last year. And the number of cars passing through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 in the Colorado Rockies, which has been rising slightly since 2002, fell slightly in July compared with the same time last year. The decrease is the first since 2001, according to the State Department of Transportation.

. . .

Researchers at Pew say the pattern of consumers using less when high prices linger has been seen before, in the gasoline price spikes of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Per capita consumption of gasoline has fairly consistently mirrored the average price per gallon since at least 1977, falling when prices increased, rising when prices fell, according to the Pew study, which is scheduled to be released Wednesday.

Other experts say the nation’s shifting economic, demographic and urban terrain in recent years — greater disparity of rich and poor than in the 1970’s, and more transportation options than a generation ago, including mass transit rail lines in more cities and hybrid cars — is making this spike different.

. . .
Still, as the article points out, the evidence is mostly anecdotal at this point. So I'm not yet ready to say I like where the prices are. But it's getting closer.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Another VA Computer Gone Missing

According to a VA press release dated today, another VA computer has gone missing with the possibility that it contains medical information for 36,000 veterans.

According to the press release,

It is believed the desktop computer may have contained patients’ names, addresses, Social Security Numbers, dates of birth, insurance carriers and billing information, dates of military service, and claims data that may include some medical information.

. . .
Initial estimates indicate the desktop contained information on approximately 5,000 patients treated at Philadelphia, approximately 11,000 patients treated at Pittsburgh, and approximately 2,000 deceased patients. VA is also investigating the possibility the computer may have contained information on approximately another 20,000 people who received care through the Pittsburgh medical center.
The contractor in question is Unisys, apparently hired by the VA to assist in insurance collections for medical centers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

I've read a dozen or so stories online this afternoon, but none of them do much more than rehash the press release or offer guesses as to what VA and/or Unisys was thinking (or not thinking). As this story fleshes out, I'd sure like to know why there was such a concentration of patient information on one computer in the first place. Thefts and misplacements happen, after all, despite the best policies and procedures, and concentrating that much data in one place - - with a justifiable business reason - - goes against standard risk management practices. Secondarily, I'd like to know why the data wasn't encrypted. The process is straightforward enough and for an organization like Unisys should be standard practice. Particularly when the file includes names, social security number, and date of birth.

As to VA's aspirations:

“VA is making progress to reform its information technology and cyber security procedures, but this report of a missing computer at a subcontractor’s secure building underscores the complexity of the work ahead as we establish VA as a leader in data and information security,” Nicholson added.

"Nicholson" is Honorable R. James Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Somehow, I don't think it is the "complexity" of the work that is really the issue.

UPDATE: Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) is calling for Nicholson's head. " Less than a month after promising to make the VA the 'gold standard' in data security, Secretary Nicholson has again presided over loss of personal information of thousands of veterans," Reid said in a Washington Post article. Opportunistic, but not an entirely unfair comment.


There Oughtta be a Law . . . . Against Shopping Carts?

The American Association of Pediatricians has recommended shopping cart restrictions for children. In a press release dated August 7, the AAP states that:

In 2005, more than 24,000 children were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for shopping cart-related injuries. Most of these injuries occurred when a child fell from a shopping cart, the cart tipped over, the child became entrapped in the cart, or the child fell while riding on the outside of the cart.

A closer look at the technical report reveals something interesting. In more than half the incidents involving children under 5, the mechanism of injury was falling from the cart (as high as 58% of injuries in one study). Further, parental use of child restraints is remarkably low. In one study discussed in the report, an intensive PR campaign succeeded in raising the rate of shopping cart seat belt usage from 1% to 15%. Direct intervention by third parties raised the rate to 51% in one study and from 15% to 49% in another. Only 4% of the injuries required hospital admission, and the majority of those were for fractured or broken bones. The vast majority of incidents overall resulted in nothing more than bumps and bruises.

The libertarian side of me says parents should be free to be idiots. I buy that to a point, though I take a more statist approach when kids are involved. Five year olds, for example, can't help it if their parents are idiots, and they (unfortunately) bear the brunt of it.

At the same time, one can't discount that legislative mandates come with a price tag. The cost of manufacturer and retailer compliance with new standards is necessarily passed along to consumers, sooner or later. And at the end of the day, this really comes down to parents exercising common sense. If direct human intervention only results in a compliance rate of 50% for use of child restraints, then I don't see much hope for new manufacturing standards having an effect on the overall rates of injury here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Healthy Experiment

The nation's governors have assembled in South Carolina for their annual meeting and are discussing, among other things, health care reform.

Two years ago, the nation's governors were wrestling with soaring healthcare costs, rising populations, and agonizing choices over how to keep their Medicaid programs afloat.

Now, as governors are holding their annual summer meeting, healthcare seems less hopeless. Their choices are vastly different as many states embark on unprecedented experiments to revamp the healthcare program for the poor, and healthcare overall.
Massachusetts has captured the spotlight with a universal health insurance plan that demands everyone in the state get insurance, and gives them help to get it. In different shapes and sizes, other states have begun experiments, from West Virginia to Idaho, Florida to Maine.
At the moment I'm less interested in what each state is doing (since New York isn't doing much, and that's where I live) than in the fact that many states are doing many different things. That aspect of the present system is one of the least articulated but strongest arguments against a single system, regardless of who administers it. In a unified system, when things start to go wrong, there is simply no escape.

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This is What Democracy Looks Like

Cindy Sheehan has resumed her peace protest in Crawford, Texas. While I have every sympathy for Ms. Sheehan, it's difficult for me to get behind what she is doing:
As Secret Service agents stood silently, Ms. Sheehan held up her California driver's license and said she wanted to meet with the president.

"It doesn't say my new address, but I do live here now," said Ms. Sheehan, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and recently bought land in Crawford for war protests. "My name is Cindy and Bush killed my son."

The group then chanted, "This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy sounds like!"
Or more like, this is what stalking looks like. But then something interesting happened:

As Ms. Sheehan spoke, saying "our hearts are connected," regardless of people's races, countries or religions, a man disrupted the service with loud questions and shouts of, "This is unpatriotic!" before the protesters asked him to leave.

Apparently in the universe that war protestors inhabit you have a right to protest, but not to protest the protest. I wonder whether someone protesting the protest of their protest would be permitted. But you see how quickly things would get too confused. Better just to stick to one side of things. That, after all, is what democracy looks like. Right?

Linked at Outside the Beltway.

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Watch this Space

Well, this is the beginning of things.