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41 posts from February 2009

February 28, 2009

That's Secretary Sebelius

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has accepted Barack Obama's nomination to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Recommended reading

-Democratic residents of Illinois' Fifth Congressional District, you have the opportunity of a political lifetime to vote for Tom Geoghegan on March 3! A truly pathetic turnout is expected for this special election, so the margin of victory will be very slim, probaly less than 1500 votes. Remember, when your neighbors stay home, your vote counts more. Cast your unusually valuable ballot for universal healthcare and pensions. [G-Spot/Observer]

-Disunite There: Harold Meyerson chronicles the civil war within one of the nation's most innovative and progressive unions, UNITE HERE. [Prospect]

-In other union disunity news, United Healthcare Workers-West is trying to split with the SEIU, over an issue that also divides UNITE and HERE, namely: Is it okay for union officials to cut deals with management whereby the bosses agree to allow a union to form in exchange for concessions from workers? SEIU and UNITE say yes, UHW-W and HERE say no. [MoJo]

-Sen. Roland Burris nimbly vaults over a dolly full of garbage to escape awkward questions from the press. [WaPo]

-The architects of the alleged Stanford Ponzi scheme went to church, drank protein shakes, and cultivated a clutch of adolescent protegees. [NYT]

-Contractors enslave guest workers to sustain US troops in Iraq. [Salon]

-The Snuggie: How infomercials made an over-sized backwards polar fleece bathrobe into a marketing sensation. [NYT]

-Obama and Holder have announced that the federal government is no longer going to raid medical marijuana growers in the 13 states where the cultivation of marijuana for medicine is legal. [Gawker]

Sen. Harkin: National Center for Alternative Medicine disproves too much alternative medicine

Careful what you wish for...

Sen. Tom Harkin, the proud father of the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, told a Senate hearing on Thursday that NCCAM had disappointed him by disproving too many alternative therapies.

"One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short," Harkin said.

The senator went on to lament that, since its inception in 1998, the focus of NCCAM has been "disproving things rather than seeking out and approving things."

Skeptics have complained all along that Harkin and his allies founded this office to promote alternative therapies at public expense, not to test them scientifically. Harkin's statement at the hearing explicitly confirms that hypothesis.

Harkin used his clout on the Appropriations Committee in 1992 to create the National Office of Alternative Medicine. In 1998 he co-sponsored legislation with Republican Bill Frist to upgrade the national office to a national center.

Over a decade later, Harkin's disappointed that the NCCAM's research is failing to confirm his biases.

Harkin doesn't seem to realize that by publicly pressuring an ostensibly independent research center to produce positive results, he's undermining the credibility of the center he worked so hard to create. If even if NCCAM does come up with positive results, Harkin's giving the scientific community an excuse to discount that research as tainted.

That's a shame, because if we're going to spend public money testing alternative medicines, researchers should be allowed to follow the evidence. Besides, ruling out therapies that don't work can be just as valuable as vindicating therapies that do.

A lot of modern medicine has roots in folk traditions. No doubt there are more therapies currently labeled as "alternative" that will eventually earn their rightful places in scientific medicine and the allied health professions when they are proven effective.

Video of Thursday's hearing on "integrative medicine" is available on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee website, here. Harkin starts talking about NCCAM's annoying habit of disproving cherished tenets of alternative medicine about 17 minutes into the hearing.

February 27, 2009

Actor who played steroid dealer in The Wrestler arrested for steroid distribution

Scott siegel mugshot One of my favorite guilty pleasures is the Dateline DEA newsletter, the Drug Enforcement Agency's a "bi-weekly email informant." The DD is drug war news you can use.

This week's edition is especially juicy. We learn that the DEA helped arrest 750 alleged members of the Sinaloa drug cartel after 21-month multi-agency investigation. The best part is that the investigation was called “Operation Xcellerator”--which suggests that unemployed porn writers have infiltrated the DEA, again.

Here's another item from this week's DD. The actor who played the steroid dealer in the movie The Wrestler was arrested on real-life steroid distribution charges:

New York Man Charged with Possession of Steroids and Assault on Federal Authorities

Scott Siegel of New Rochelle, New York, was charged with distributing and possessing with intent to distribute anabolic steroids, as well as assaulting federal officers. Mr. Siegel played the role of a steroid distributor in the movie “The Wrestler,” which was recently released. According to the complaint, on February 18, 2009, the defendant, when approached by law enforcement officers, fled in his car and intentionally hit several police department and DEA cars. In addition, the defendant drove his car directly at an officer with the DEA’s Westchester Resident Office in an apparent attempt to run him over.

More on Scott Siegel's alleged steroid-dealing from blogger Anthony Roberts.

Finally, an excellent DEA fun fact:

Did you know that the first female narcotics agent was hired by the DEA’s predecessor agency, the Bureau of Narcotics, way back in 1933? Elizabeth Bass rose to the position of District Supervisor in Chicago and was a longtime friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Nancy Pelosi opposes assault weapons ban

Yellow Shoe, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Go figure... [The Hill]

February 26, 2009

Quiverfulls and the OctoMom

My friend Kathryn Joyce has a new book out about the Quiverfull movement.The book grew out of a Nation article on the Quiverfulls, a conservative Christian movement dedicated to "building God's army" by having as many children as possible. My review copy in the mail and I can't wait to read it.

Nadya Suleman has recently become a household name after giving birth to octuplets as a single mother of seven. Suleman has been singled out for some pretty vicious criticism. Even her publicists got death threats. Consumers threatened to boycott companies that offered her free stuff.

I expected a lot of vitriol from conservatives. Predictably, they seized on Suleman as the epitome of a "welfare queen," an unemployed woman who sought infertility treatment to have a huge family she was manifestly unable to support.

It's hard to imagine anyone more demonstrably committed to pro-life ideology than Suleman, who told an interviewer that she insisted on having her doctor implant 6 embryos at once because considered them to be little people who deserved a chance at life outside the clinic freezer.

You could characterize Suleman's motives in two ways: i) She was the selfish baby-hoarding equivalent of a crazy cat lady; ii) she was so convinced of the intrinsic worth of children and motherhood that reproduction trumped all other concerns. Both are accurate. No doubt Suleman was surprised and disappointed when she was disqualified for the mantle of pro-life martyr for being unmarried and biracial.

I didn't expect such a strong feminist backlash. Katha Pollitt described Suleman as "the woman we love to hate." Liberal criticism of Suleman has usually been couched in terms of the well-being of her children, or the well-being of the planet.

Unless she's mentally ill, Suleman was wrong to seek IVF when she knew she couldn't provide for the children she already had. She should have known that she was diminishing the chances that her existing children would have a decent life.

But the highly personal eco-criticism rings false. In the grand scheme of things, the resources consumed by 14 extra poor kids in California is (sadly) negligible compared to other conspicuous consumption that is accepted as normal. We may look askance executives who earn and spend thousands of times as much as the average worker, but they don't usually get accosted by angry mobs at gas stations like Suleman was.

I doubt many self-identified feminists are issuing threats or joining mobs, but the nastiness is striking. Check out the comments on this post on Echidne of the Snakes, a well-known feminist blog. (I hasten to add that the post itself isn't nasty at all, but some of the comments are really ugly.)

It's easy for liberals to hate on Suleman and the Quiverfulls. They ostentatiously reject our values and our conception of the good life by defining their entire lives in terms of unchecked reproduction. They're trying to provoke us.

Ultimately it's counterproductive for feminists to single out individual reproductive choices for criticism after the fact. First off, it reinforces the general assumption that women's reproductive choices should be under constant scrutiny by strangers.

Second, moralizing about having too many kids isn't going to change anybody's mind. If we think people's otherwise legal behavior needs to change, we should be advocating for policies and social structures that make it easy and pleasant for people to choose to do what we think they ought to do.

If you want people to recycle, you don't browbeat non-recyclers for failing to sort their trash, you design new trash bins that make sorting easy and distribute them for free.

If you want people to have smaller families, you don't shame people who have lots of kids. You provide birth control for everyone who wants it, keep women in control of their own sexuality and reproduction, and expand opportunities so that most women have something they'd rather be doing than raising a huge brood of children.

The Quiverfulls and Nadya Sulemans of the world aren't going to stop because we disapprove. In fact, every time we criticize them, we reinforce the idea that having lots of kids is a big "Fuck You" to all those moralizing feminists and secular liberals.

My great grandmother had eight children but it wasn't a statement, it was just a biological and social reality of living on a farm in Alberta in the 1920s. She probably disapproved of those libertine Flappers in Toronto, but having eight kids wasn't a reproach to them.

I don't think Quiverfull would have made any sense to my great grandmother as a social movement. Of course you had as many children as God saw fit. Sure, there were folk remedies and probably even abortions, but they weren't all that reliable, either. Basically, your choice as a woman was wife or spinster. After that, fertility was like the weather, everyone dealt with it as it came.

Nowadays, thanks to science and feminism, choice has become implicit in understanding of reproduction. The default assumption is that families of nine don't just happen, even if you don't do anything to stop it, you really should have. Practically speaking, a woman on public assistance in the Mississippi Delta today may not have a lot more control over her fertility than my great grandmother did. But if she has a lot of kids, conservatives will judge her as if she made a fully autonomous choice.

Nadya Suleman had a lot of choices, which is why we feel okay judging her so harshly. I'm not a moral relativist. Of course we can fairly criticize her for shirking her responsibilities to her seven older children.

However, I'd like to see a day when reproduction ceases to be a public moral battleground. In an ideal world having too many children would be in the same category as making a disastrously irresponsible business decision. Sure, people who make reckless or selfish business decisions get judged and rightly so. If only a small number of people are directly affected, society at large is not going to get too excercised about some dime store in Iowa that goes out of business because of the owner was too disorganized to pay his suppliers. Some people may well end up on welfare as a result of his irresponsible decisions, but it's not considered a national moral emergency like those octuplets.

Small-scale bad business practices are accepted as bad, even wrong, but not as abominations that Must Never Be Allowed to Happen. Why can't we have the same equanimity about people who make unwise reproductive choices?

Weight-loss study re-confirms laws of thermodynamics

A new study shows that cutting calories, any kind of calories, leads to weight-loss:

That is the finding of the largest-ever controlled study of weight-loss methods published on Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine. More than 800 overweight adults in Boston and Baton Rouge, La., were assigned to one of four diets that reduced calories through different combinations of fat, carbohydrates and protein. Each plan cut about 750 calories from a participant’s normal diet, but no one ate fewer than 1,200 calories a day.

While the diets were not named, the eating plans were all loosely based on the principles of popular diets like Atkins, which emphasizes low carbohydrates; Dean Ornish, which is low-fat; or the Mediterranean diet, with less animal protein. All participants also received group or individual counseling. [NYT]

On average, all the groups lost (13 lbs) and subsequently regained (4 lbs) the same amount of weight.

The researchers also found a great deal of variability in between individual dieters assigned to the same programs. Next on their research agenda: Trying to understand why some people lost a lot more weight than others on the same diet.

Defenders of fad diets will seize on these individual differences as evidence that diets have to be tailored to individual "metabolic" differences. Cue the woo.

It's possible that diet itself wasn't responsible for the different amounts of weight loss. Maybe the subjects who lost the most weight were just the most conscientious dieters (or "cheaters" who ate less than the researchers told them) or the people with the fastest metabolisms. It's also possible that individual food preferences influenced compliance.

We won't know without further research.

[HT: Jezebel.]

February 25, 2009

Instant runoff voting and the Oscars

Did you know that Academy Awards are selected by instant runoff voting?

In a fascinating post, Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal describes the nuts and bolts of the Oscar voting process and discusses the relative merits of the current system compared to other proposed voting procedures.

Weekly Pulse: Czar 44, Where are You?

The Obama administration may be about to pull the plug on the newly-created office of health czar. What are the potential implications for healthcare reform? Find out, in the latest edition of The Media Consortium's Weekly Howard Dean on comparative effectiveness research, a new spray-on contraceptive, and much more.

February 23, 2009

Dustin Lance Black champions gay rights in Oscar acceptance speech for Milk screenplay

When Dustin Lance accepted his Academy Award for best screenplay for Milk, he addressed the bulk of his remarks to the gay and lesbian youth of America, promising them that the dream of Harvey Milk would one day would soon be fulfilled with full federal rights for all, including the right to marry:

Here's part of the text of Dustin Black's Oscar acceptance speech, courtesy of ThinkProgress:

BLACK: When I was 13 years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas, to California, and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life; it gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am and that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married. […] Most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told they are less than by their churches, or by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. And that no matter what everyone tells you, God does love you, and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.

I hate the Oscars, but that was really beautiful.