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76 posts from August 2007

August 31, 2007

Tancredo to Gulf Coast - Drop Dead

(The J Train here again.)

GOP presidential longshot Tom Tancredo (R.-My Ass) plumbed previously unexplored levels of chutzpah today as he told those freeloading Katrina victims that it's time to get off the Federal teat.

GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) said Friday it is “time the taxpayer gravy train left the New Orleans station” and urged an end to the federal aid to the region that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.

“The amount of money that has been wasted on these so-called ‘recovery’ efforts has been mind-boggling,” said Tancredo, who is running a long-shot presidential campaign. “Enough is enough.”

Citing administration figures, the lawmaker said that $114 billion has been spent on the effort to rebuild a large stretch of the Gulf Coast after the storm hit New Orleans in August 2005 and claimed more than 1,600 lives.

“At some point, state and local officials and individuals have got to step up to the plate and take some initiative,” said Tancredo. “The mentality that people can wait around indefinitely for the federal taxpayer to solve all their worldly problems has got to come to an end.”

For those scoring at home, $114 billion is about half of the supplemental bill for Iraq that Bush is getting ready to request (~$200 billion). Which is on top of the $500 billion we've already spent in Iraq.

The federal government has covered the Gulf Coast in a sticky brown substance, all right, but it ain't gravy.

August 30, 2007

Berlin Wall fragment

A piece of the Berlin Wall, preserved at the Imperial War Museum.

New Orleans doctor finally tells her side

The J Train here...while serious and important tasks* will likely prevent me from adding much to this open guest blogger call, I wanted to follow up on a post I wrote here almost two years ago.

At that point there were only rumors that some patients had died after being given large doses of morphine as a New Orleans hospital was being evacuated.  It was almost a year later when Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses were arrested, charged with four counts of second degree murder.  The charges against the nurses were dropped.  The grand jury refused to indict Dr. Pou, but not before Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti made a colossal grandstanding ass of himself over it.  (He earned the #4 spot on the Ten Worst Prosecutors 2007 list, and there was some damn tough competition for that honor this year.)

Now Newsweek has an interview with Dr. Pou, and from the sound of it the situation was even worse than I imagined.  It never occurred to me that people would want to use the hospital as a shelter; the hospital couldn't really say no, but it must have made things difficult.  The battlefield-style triage I described in my earlier post was being done quite literally, with numbers taped to patient's chests.  For some reason the part I have the hardest time envisioning is the pitch-black darkness.

I should read more about Foti's pursuit of the case, because I just don't understand what he hoped to gain.  I guess he was trying to pander to the God Squad, but did he really think there was a net gain in vilifying a respected surgeon who stayed behind to care for and evacuate a hospital full of patients?  It's like trying to indict one of the firefighters who went back into the burning towers on 9/11.  Even if what she did was 100% wrong (and, I stress, it wasn't), she did it after two straight nonstop days of a job no one should have to do in conditions no one should have to endure.  I'd love to believe that even the people still wearing their Save Terri T-shirts understand that.

I suppose Dr. Fou was supposed to "trust the Lord" and wait for a miracle.  I have to tell you--if I'm ever in a pitch dark 100-degree hospital with five feet of water on the first floor, 2000 patients and refugees cramming the hallways, and my city falling apart around me, I'm going to go ahead and assume that God is not on my side.

(Check me out over at The J Train.  It's been pretty haphazard lately, but it has its moments.)

* Metroid Prime 3

August 29, 2007

A wonderful human mind: Jerry Andrus (1918-2007)

Jerry Andrus, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

"I can fool you because you're a human," Jerry Andrus liked to say, "You have a wonderful human mind that works no different from my human mind. Usually when we're fooled, the mind hasn't made a mistake. It's come to the wrong conclusion for the right reason."

Magician, illusionist, skeptic, and humanist Jerry Andrus died Sunday of cancer at the age of 89.

Jerry was one of the greatest closeup magicians in the world. He toured the world demonstrating his celebrated optical illusions, including the Paradox Box, The Tri-Zonal Space Warper and the Brass Nuts illusion.

I first met Jerry when I was about 10. I'll never forget my first visit to Jerry's Castle of Chaos, a small Victorian house in Albany, OR. The Castle was packed to the ceiling with books, tools, and inventions.

Jerry had customized everything. He refitted a treadmill with a computer so that he could walk and type at the same time. He reconfigured his keyboard and added levers to make typing faster. One of his favorite drinks was ToCo--tea and cocoa. He told us he made up both the word and the drink.

Jerry was one of the most brilliant people I've ever met. Illusionism was his second career. After serving in WW2, he worked as a lineman for an Oregon power company before taking early retirement at age 53 to pursue writing and inventing full-time. I don't think it ever occurred to him that he was too old to take up a new career, or that his lack of formal scientific training was any barrier to living the scientific life and making important discoveries about the human perceptual system.

I last saw Jerry at Skeptics Toolbox in Eugene this summer. I had the honor of co-facilitating a breakout discussion section with Jerry. Later, Jerry did his final magic act at the Toolbox banquet.

This has been a tough summer. First we lost Steve Gilliard, then Dad, now Jerry...

Bad Astronomy has also written a tribute to Jerry.

Dear Heineken,

Women drink beer, too.

If you'd like women to drink your beer, perhaps you should rethink ad campaigns like this one

That's right up there with those Volkswagen "Fast" commercials.  Remember them?/a>

Count me as one consumer who will not be buying your sorry excuse for a beer.

Love, Zuzu

Avoiding arrest

Transit Police, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Two nights ago, I was in the Liverpool Station transit hub when a fight broke out on the platform. Several police officers intervened to separate the women who were fighting. (The accompanying illustration was taken earlier.)

An officer approached me, placed his hand on my lens (!), and said cheerfully, "No photographs, or you'll be arrested."

Ordinarily, I would have asked "on what basis"? But my mother was there. I knew she'd never forgive me if I got myself thrown in jail on our trip.

But I've got to know... What are the laws in England regarding journalists photographing police operations in public places? Are there specific rules about taking photographs in the transit system?

'Ordinary' Influenza: A Public Health Failure

This post by ScienceBlogling revere about the horrendous human cost of influenza is getting some serious exposure.  This gives me an excuse to mention something I haven't in a long time:

Stop worrying about avian influenza.  Get serious about 'ordinary' influenza.

Why?  Last year, 'ordinary' influenza killed roughly 36,000 U.S. residents.  That's about equal to breast cancer which kills 40,000 annually.  Before the polio vaccine, the polio virus killed 3,000 people annually, and, even if you adjust for population increases, that number would be roughly 9,000 in today's terms. HIV/AIDS kills about 18,000 U.S. residents annually. That means, in the U.S., for every person who died from AIDS, two people died from influenza. With AIDS and breast cancer, people run, walk, jump, skip, and pogo stick for The Cure. Lots of bleeping ribbons. But influenza is a silent killer.

And most of those deaths could be prevented.

I've described elsewhere how a sane vaccination strategy could lower influenza deaths by eighty percent--that's over 28,000 lives.  And we don't need to piously invoke Hope for a Cure.  We just have to vaccinate more people--and the right ones.  It's that simple.

Could you even imagine the kind of pandimensional shitstorm that would ensue if we could reduce AIDS or breast cancer by eighty percent, and we didn't, simply because we couldn't get it together?

For a long time, I was willing to support the concern about avian influenza because I figured that the steps needed to prepare for avian influenza could be 'repurposed' for ordinary influenza. All of the things we'll need to stop a pandemic are the same things we can use every year to treat the annual influenza outbreak: the ability to rapidly produce hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine, a serious distribution system (actually, having a system would be helpful), and educating people about proper public hygiene.

None of that has happened. We don't produce enough vaccine to adequately vaccinate the U.S. population against the annual epidemic (we would need roughly 200 million doses), and that's a reflection of our 'surge' capability, so good luck if an avian pandemic happens.

But what's truly scandalous is our vaccination strategy--or lack thereof. Let's leave aside the fact that people actually have to pay money to receive a vaccine against a disease that kills 36,000 people annually.

Actually, rattle that last sentence around in your noggin.  For that not to be utterly insane, you have to have Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged shoved so far up your ass that it's sticking out of your mouth.

And the people who are vaccinated are the wrong people. Yes, elderly people should receive the influenza vaccine because it reduces their likelihood of death by about thirty percent. The focus on the elderly, however, ignores a basic, albeit Yogi Berra-esque, rule of viral transmission: the best way to avoid getting influenza is to not come in contact with people who have it. In other words, we have to vaccinate those who spread the disease: medical workers, nursing home patients and staff, and children aged 5-18. Studies indicate that vaccinating seventy percent of children aged 5-18 could reduce influenza deaths by up to eighty percent.  In other words, the grandchildren are killing their grandparents.

All that requires is enough vaccine and a system to get it to the people who need to take it (for children, it's called schools).  Since we can't even do this right, even though we know that we will have an ordinary influenza 'epidemic' every year, I don't think we stand a chance against a real pandemic. 

The reason we haven't implemented these simple steps, I think, is because we've been far too focused on avian influenza. Quite simply, people don't really care about avian influenza. They're too focused on trying to get by, not losing their jobs, and, to use El Jefe Maximo's phrase, "putting food on their family." Worrying about something that might happen isn't even on their radar screens in any serious sense*.

We need to stop focusing on a possible pandemic, and start focusing on the annual epidemic. Because right now, we're not prepared for either.

*Of course, if you ask people, they'll state they're worried, but not enough to do anything about it, which is what matters.

Crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist

August 28, 2007

Insert Your Life Story Here

Some mixed media graffiti near Brick Lane, London.

Untitled, London

Bruises?, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Here is the image as it appeared in the original RAW capture. The light subject against the dark wall gave a high-key effect.

The discolorations on the woman's neck are especially apparent before correcting the exposure, as I did in the image below.


Red Dress, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

I happened upon this woman in mid-morning on a side street off Brick Lane in London. She was arrestingly beautiful in the natural light. The unexpected swathe of sunshine transformed the grungy garage door into a high fashion set.

It wasn't until I got home and reviewed the capture on screen that I noticed the strange markings on her neck.