Apocalypse Soon

“Robert McNamara is worried. He knows how close we’ve come. His counsel helped the Kennedy administration avert nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, he believes the United States must no longer rely on nuclear weapons as a foreign-policy tool. To do so is immoral, illegal, and dreadfully dangerous.” (Foreign Policy)

One more in a series of warmongers who repent and advocate for peace and disarmament as they grow older and wiser. I wish there were a way they could come to their senses when they still had any real influence.

Life After Darth

Sorry, I don’t read the rightwing weblogs these days. I long ago concluded that there is little possibility of dialogue or reconciliation across the schismatic culture war, and that I don’t really need to study them to know the enemy any better. But now, through boing boing, I learn that Steve Silberman’s Wired article on George Lucas’ life after Star Wars has the conservative webloggers going ballistic, especially his supposed esteem for Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 911. Oddly enough, notes Silberman, most of the reactions to Lucas do not provide a link to his article but suggest the Lucas’ views exist out in some disembodied ether… like, maybe, The Force?

Bang Up to Date?

Book Review: Parallel Worlds: The Science of Alternative Universes and Our Future in the Cosmos by Michio Kaku:

“Cosmology books, explaining the probable origins and possible futures of our universe, have become the latest little black number: everyone seems to have one, many are appealing, but few match the classics. Michio Kaku is the latest to enter the lists, with his version of the history of the discovery of modern cosmology, of the mind-stretching array of mathematically-based calculations and speculations about possible far futures, including travel outside our universe into other multi-verses, and of his speculations on what it all means. Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, this is not a classic, but does raise many interesting ideas.” (Guardian.UK)

Statistically Improbable Phrases

Judging a Book by Its Contents: “Name that famous book from just these phrases: ‘pagan harpooneers,’ ‘stricken whale,’ ‘ivory leg.’ Or how about this one: ‘old sport.’

Yes, it’s Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, respectively, but the words aren’t just a game. They are Statistically Improbable Phrases, the result of a new Amazon.com feature that compares the text of hundreds of thousands of books to reveal an author’s signature constructions.

…(A commentator) thinks Amazon is currently just experimenting, but it will soon find intriguing ways, such as using authoritative texts to answer user questions, to wring profit out of what may well be the largest collection of electronic books in the world.

Bill Carr, Amazon’s executive vice president of digital media, confirms that this is a serious attempt to sell more books. ” (Wired)

In Clinical Trials, Drug Protects Brain From Stroke Damage

If continued trials are positive, “this is going to be a revolution in acute stroke”, says a neuroscientist commentator.

“Cerovive, given by an infusion over 72 hours, traps free radicals – highly reactive molecules that can cause cell damage. The drug will not save the brain cells immediately downstream of a clot, which quickly die from lack of oxygen. It is meant instead to counter damage over a wider area of the brain that can occur in the days following a stroke.” (New York Times )

After Sudden Lucidity, Firefighter Is Less Animated

“A brain-injured Buffalo firefighter who unexpectedly started speaking again on Saturday after almost a decade of silence has continued to have bursts of conversation since then, but he has not been as animated, his family said yesterday.” (New York Times )

As I predicted yesterday, inappropriate analogies to Terry Schiavo and allusions to his having been, in the words of his treating physician, “close to the persistent vegetative state”, are now emerging. Although I emphasize that I have no firsthand knowledge of his condition other than what I am reading, subsequent descriptions of Mr. Herbert’s condition over the last decade in the article suggest that he has always continued to show evidence of consciousness even though cognitive functions such as memory and language had been markedly damaged by the oxygen deprivation his brain suffered in his accident in 1995. This is a more crucial detail of his case than the more ‘sexy’ one the Times coverage is focusing upon, the admittedly fascinating Rip van Winkle-like drama of the information overload he will suffer, if he remains alert, in taking in all that has happened in both his personal life and the larger world over a missed decade. [Inexplicably, the Times‘ hyperbole in that sphere focuses on things like the Buffalo Bills’ performance over the intervening decade rather than, oh say, 9-11…]

According to the Times coverage, Mr. Herbert’s awakening may relate to a recent change in the cocktail of medications he has been taking.

“Mr. Herbert’s doctors said yesterday that they had tried using various combinations of drugs to revive him. Three months ago, when his condition worsened, they switched him to a cocktail of drugs that is normally used to treat depression, Parkinson’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His doctors would not name the drugs they had administered, but a number of medications have been shown in the past to stimulate awareness in a handful of people who were minimally conscious, even after several years.”

Realize that a psychopharmacologically based approach to altering his level of consciousness necessitates that there was a substrate of brain activity there to modify with medications! This is quite distinct from a persistent vegetative state, in which bodily functions such as respiration and circulation persist in the absence of demonstrable brain activity.

Judge Tosses Out Abuse Plea After the Ringleader Testifies

Mistrial in Lynndie England trial: The judge said England could not plead guilty to conspiracy to commit a crime after the defense brought previously convicted co-conspirator Charles Graner on the stand and he portrayed leashing naked Iraqi prisoners and posing for photos with them as standard military procedure and a training exercise. Graner’s testimony was supposedly an effort to convince the judge to be lenient in sentencing England but, if taken to mean that England thought her actions were in response to a legitimate order, it undercuts the basis for her plea bargain, which depended on a knowing admission of guilt.

The judge had earlier been impatient with other defense tactics seemingly undercutting England’s guilty plea. Graner had previously indicated to reporters that he was disappointed with England’s plea and that he would have preferred to see her fight the charges. It is hard to know whether Graner’s performance on the stand was a defiant unilateral action on his part or an aspect of a defense strategy.

This is all set against a backdrop of soap opera melodrama, with Graner supposedly having fathered England’s baby and having gone on to marry another of the GIs accused in the Abu Ghraib abuses. Gleefully reported juicy detail: England suggested that a courtroom artist sketching Graner yesterday should have included the “horns and goatee.”

My first reaction, echoing a friend’s comments to me yesterday, was that it used to be that people either this hapless or this sociopathic (I’m referring here to both England and Graner) couldn’t get into the military… and they had joined long before the current enlistment crisis the military is facing.

But we are taking our eyes off the target, I remind myself, in focusing on this melodrama. The real issue is the core barbarity and absurdity of US military adventurism in the Bush-era ‘war on terror’ (WoT®) creating the inevitability of incidents like Abu Ghraib. So even if the recruiters signing up the Englands and Graners weren’t desperately facing the quota pressures they are several years later, it served the Pentagon’s purposes not to look too closely at the intelligence, the motivations or the moral fitness of the people they were letting in. Again, as my friend commented to me, “It’s harder to get a job at MacDonald’s.” Let us hope the judge’s rejection of England’s guilty plea is seen for what it, wittingly or unwittingly, really is — an indictment of the real chief co-conspirators here, the Sanchezes, the Bushes and the Rumsfelds.

Reject Pat Robertson

“On Sunday morning, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson told TV viewers nation-wide that the threat posed by liberal judges is “probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.” When an incredulous George Stephanopoulos asked if Robertson really believed that these judges posed “the most serious threat America has faced in nearly 400 years of history, more serious than al Qaeda, more serious than Nazi Germany and Japan, more serious than the Civil War?,” he responded, “George, I really believe that.” [1]

These comments were not made in isolation. In fact, Robertson’s statement is only the most outrageous example of a growing effort from the extreme right to whip up an intense fear and hatred of American judges — including comments from Republican congressmen and senators intimidating, threatening and even justifying outright violence against judges. [2] The strategy is designed to build support for the Republican “nuclear” scheme to break the rules and stack the courts — and it is poisonous to our democracy. It must stop here.

That’s why we are launching a national petition demanding that Bill Frist and Tom DeLay publicly reject Robertson’s statement. If they do, it will send a clear signal that this type of dangerous incitement against officers of the law is not welcome in our democracy. And if they don’t, it will send an equally clear signal about how far they are willing to go. Please sign today.” (Move On)

Aging: Clues for the ‘Stay Sharp’ Diet

“Folate, or folic acid, a common ingredient in multivitamins, may be linked to faster mental deterioration in older people, even at the recommended doses.

Researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that older people who took folic acid supplements at or above the recommended daily allowance of 400 micrograms had a faster rate of mental decline than others their age. The effect was also evident in people whose diets were high in folate.” (New York Times )

Its routine inclusion in multivitamins aside, many health-conscious people have deliberately added folate supplement to their diets because of evidence that it has cardiovascular benefits. This is in addition to its established benefit in averting certain birth defects in the developing embryo when taken by women in pregnancy.

Bedside Wisdom

One of my favorite physician writers, Sherwin Nuland (How We Die) shares my malaise about the increasing penetration of ‘evidence-based medicine’ into medical practice. EBM is the slavish practice of basing medical decision-making only on the odds established by peer-reviewed research studies. It is all the buzz, and is especially amenable to the managed-care bureaucrats interested in denying reimbursement for healthcare itnerventions that aren’t ‘cost-effective’ or ‘proven.’ Evidence-based medicine, and the ‘treatment algorithms’ that accompany it, largely cripple what used to be one of the central intellectual tasks of the physician — being an intelligent consumer of the medical literature and a creative, indeed artistic, synthetist of research findings with one’s own clinical experience and the more anecdotal wisdom of one’s colleagues.

There are so many flaws with this way of doing business that I cannot begin to enumerate them in any better way than Nuland has done here. Just as consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, the belief in ‘objectivity’ is sometimes little more than the last resort of the uncreative, the subjectively challenged. The practice of medicine has been considered an art as well as a science; imagine if artists in other fields were constrained to produce only the types of art the market researchers had ‘proven’ would sell to the masses, or the cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists had ‘proven’ would activate the proper aesthetic centers in the brain as measured by PET scan or fMRI?

The so-called objectivity of medical research is a misnomer in many ways, among them the prejudiced opinions about what is worthy of publication of the academic journal editors and referees; the bias in favor of positive findings at the expense of negative, refutory research results; and the increasing fist-in-glove control of the research industry by the pharmaceutical industry. (Slate)

PBS Goes Inexorably Republican

GOP-Style ‘Objectivity’ Rules! “The CPB is the private, nonprofit corporation that Congress established in 1967 to bankroll PBS and its member stations, public radio, and online media. The CPB charter mirrors the language of the Fairness Doctrine, stipulating that the corporation adhere to ‘objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.’

The new CPB chairman, Republican Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, invokes the ‘objectivity and balance’ clause to demand that PBS abandon what he considers to be its liberal line. Tomlinson’s crusade, documented in a Page One story in yesterday’s (May 2) New York Times, includes the hiring of two CPB ombudsmen to inspect public television and radio content for bias. The Times says he’s put in the fix for a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee to take the recently vacated slot as CPB president and CEO. Tomlinson also helped raise funds for The Journal Editorial Report, the leaden public-affairs program produced in conjunction with the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, and has implored public stations to air it. Tomlinson cracked the CPB ‘objectivity and balance’ whip in December 2003 with a letter to the head of PBS stating that ‘Now With Bill Moyers does not does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting.'” (Slate)

Brain-Injured Fireman’s Recovery Takes Science Into a Murky Area

“When Donald Herbert broke 10 years of virtual silence on Saturday and announced that he wanted to speak to his wife, his family and doctors were astonished and bewildered.

Mr. Herbert, 44, a Buffalo firefighter who suffered severe brain damage after being struck by debris in a burning building in 1995, had mustered only ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers sporadically throughout the years, passing his days in front of a television that he could barely see because his vision was so badly blurred.

Neurologists said yesterday that such remarkable recoveries for people with severe brain damage are rare – but perhaps not as rare as the medical literature suggests.” (New York Times )

And, no, just to head off the inevitable Rabid Right take on this, his recovery has absolutely no bearing on Terry Schiavo’s case. You heard it here first.

Embracing the Random

The New York Times review of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival draws interesting parallels between the shape of a festival and the metaphysics of our technologically-mediated listening habits:

“A few years ago, some music festivals seemed to reflect a world that was increasingly organized around obsessive fan Web sites. Like-minded listeners were forming micro-communities online, and you would see something similar at multistage festivals: ravers in the D.J. tent, hip-hop kids watching the rappers, thrift-store shoppers swooning over the indie-rockers, and so on.

But this year’s Coachella festival suggested a different model: narrow obsession has come to seem less appealing than broad familiarity. Insular Web sites seem positively old-fashioned compared to the scrupulously eclectic world of MP3 bloggers and iPod Shuffle owners, all of them finding ways to make chaos part of their listening experience. As the current Apple slogan has it, ‘Life is random,’ and listeners seem to be finding ways to make that truism true.” (New York Times )