Earthquake, tsunami

I'm sure the death toll will go up. And others will make the following point, I am sure. But the difference in death between Chile and Haiti is incredibly striking. And one further reason why those who happen to be unlucky enough to get themselves born into poverty and a poorly run country get hit from every conceivable angle. One can only come away from a comparison with the hideous thought of how preventable many of the Haiti deaths must have been.

And in answer to the question posed at Always Judged Guilty, I absolutely do not remember this advance notice for a tsunami. There is something so unnerving about knowing those giant waves are traveling and traveling. If I remember correctly, the tsunami of a few years ago had very poor advance notice. Let's hope the advance notice can actually allow people to get their act together to evacuate.

Soft vapidity of low expectations

Many states of mind ago, I wanted to be a film reviewer for a newspaper or magazine. I believed that my background in film (B.A. and M.A. in film studies) would be considered an asset. I was, of course, naive.

All that mattered was a background in journalism. Most film reviewers did not have any special expertise in film, but became film reviewers after working their way up the newspaper chain. Some do have a great amount of expertise. Many more do not.

We have very low expectations of journalists, it seems. They do not have to have any expertise in what they write about. They just have to be willing to call experts and quote them. But they are not equipped (and more perniciously, don't seem to feel as if they have to become equipped) to actually evaluate what experts are saying. (For the record, I'm a big fan of preserving split infinitives. But I digress.)

One sees this in writing on science and medicine, in articles about, say, the vaccine debate that present what each "side" has to say. But, unable to assess what makes one of these sides worth taking, each side is merely taken at its word.

One sees this in political writing. Why do journalists make a horse race out of the health care debate? Do Wolf Blitzer and Gloria Borger or any member of the best political team on television ever actually evince knowledge of the intricacies of policy? It took Nate Silver and his blog to really analyze poll results and do the delegate math during the recent presidential election. No political reporter was doing it in such detail. The only truly detailed work I've seen on health care is Jonathan Cohn. So what do reproters with no expertise even have to say? All they can say is what they think someone with no knowledge of any of this will think (and how nice for them that they may consult their own response to guide them in this). Something that we'll all know anyway in a few days when poll results are in. They talk about the horse race, because that's all they can talk about.

Obviously, there are major exceptions. In the three areas I feel qualified to assess someone's knowledge, i.e., film, philosophy, cognitive science, I can say that, for example, William Saletan is reasonably well-informed in applied ethics, Jonah Lehrer knows cog sci, and Manohla Dargis knows film. Among others.

But the exceptions serve to highlight the main problem: they didn't need this expertise to get their jobs. Plenty of people have similar jobs without this knowledge.

Perhaps their profession would not be in such peril if they were not mere amanuenses, but critical thinkers able to relate and evaluate information.


Does this mean they'll start laying odds?

This is why I didn't bother to watch the health care summit. (OK, this and the fact that I was working, and they tend to prefer it if I see patients instead of watching C-SPAN.) Our friends at Slate decided to headline their summit reaction piece thusly:
GOP 1, Obama 1, Democrats 0

I haven't read the article yet, so maybe I'm being unfair. Perhaps it's just chock full of policy details. Wait a sec. I'll read it.

Nope. The entire thing is about appearances, and who "won." Not whose facts or talking points were more accurate. It is a quintessential politics-as-horserace piece, which is frankly all I've really seen coming on the heels of the summit. Who won? Who got in the best "zinger"? How will this shift momentum in the ongoing progress toward the bill's passage or failure?

And this was all that was ever going to result. It was all so much pointless political theater, and right now I'm just really bored with pointless political theater.

The only correct answer

I can't tell you how pleased I am about this (via the KJ):
An out-of-state organization that funded much of last year's successful campaign against same-sex marriage must testify before The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, the commission voted Thursday.

The panel is conducting an investigation into possible violation of Maine's campaign finance disclosure laws. On Thursday, it rejected requests by the organization to drop two subpoenas the panel issued in its investigation.

The organization, National Organization for Marriage, gave more than $1.9 million to the Stand for Marriage Maine Political Action Committee, which helped fund the campaign to overturn a law the Legislature passed last year legalizing same-sex marriage.

National Organization for Marriage did not register as a political action committee here, and the ethics commission wants to know who donated to the organization, and for what purpose.

Really, this doesn't bear much commentary. The National Organization for Marriage wants to contribute nearly two million smackers toward the bigoted (and successful) campaign to strip me of my hard-won right to get married, that's its right. But why on earth it thought it should be able to do so while ignoring Maine's campaign finance laws is beyond me. I can understand that donors might have preferred to keep their bigotry quiet (what with it being such an ugly commentary about the kind of people they are, and all), but nobody is forcing them to donate and the NOM knew about Maine's law (or certainly should have) before they sunk the cash.

On that note, this makes me smile a big, fat wide one.
In 2008, National Organization for Marriage raised millions in support of the successful constitutional amendment in California known as Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In that campaign, the group formed a political action committee and reported its donors as required by California law.

"For some reason, in 2009 in Maine they decided not to do that," Wayne said. "NOM told donors they would not be disclosed. ... I don't know why they made that statement."

Oh, too bad for NOM! I have a pretty good theory about why NOM made that legally unsupportable statement (see above re: wanting to keep one's financial contribution to bigotry quiet), and it fills me with a warm, fuzzy feeling to see it fall flat.

It just couldn't happen to a nicer organization.

Random ranting

Every so often I feel the need to do this. I beg your indulgence as I get this out of my system.

To Parents Everywhere:

1) If you reek of cigarette smoke, please do not lie when I ask about it and either deny that you smoke or insist that you do so exclusively "outside." I will not call you a liar to your face, but neither will I credulously take your word for it in defiance of my own sense of smell. I am not an idiot.

First of all, it complicates our relationship when you make it obvious that you are willing to be flagrantly dishonest. Secondly, in cases when the inarguable fact of your children's exposure to your second-hand smoke is complicating their health (eg. recurrent respiratory infections, asthma), it makes it nigh unto impossible to discuss ways of making them healthier. Dancing around the fact of your smoking is uncomfortable for both of us. Be honest about it. I make a point of being respectful, kind and patient when people are forthcoming with information of this nature.

2) There are times when you will have to accept the reality of your child's symptoms. Sometimes there are problems I cannot fix, and which must simply get better with time. As unpleasant as it may be, you may have to tolerate the cough/diarrhea/fussiness for a while. I promise that I will investigate symptoms that are not resolving in the time frame considered normal. But within that time frame, if I have told you that there is nothing I can do about Symptom X, it is because there is nothing I can do about symptom X. I am not withholding the relief you seek. If I did not prescribe anything, it is because no remedy exists. This is frustrating for all of us, but being hostile or rude will not effect the magical appearance of a cure.

3) On that note, if I have spent the time discussing a behavioral approach to your child's behavioral problem, it is because that approach is much better than simply trying to medicate it away. Psychiatric medications are horribly over-prescribed these days (as I have posted before, but am too lazy to look for now) and have lengthy and often unpleasant side effect profiles. Abjectly refusing to attempt the behavioral approach (or a similar alternative) will not break my spirit and force me to write a prescription for the sedative of your choice. Sometimes doing right by your kid (my patient) means saying "no" to you and risking your anger. In the long run, you and your kid will be better off if you can find an alternative to Problem X instead of seeking recourse through pharmaceuticals. See above re: the effectiveness of rudeness and hostility.

Thank you. That is all for today.



There is really very little that bears saying in the appalling case of Dr. Earl Bradley, a Delaware pediatrician who stands accused of molesting over 100 of his patients. I like to think that I have a facility for words, but I cannot find the right words to describe how I, as a pediatrician, feel about what this man has done with the trust given to him as a member of our shared profession. I am disgusted and horrified and infuriated in a manner unlike most of my more commonly-expressed ire. (While the obvious caveat about being innocent until proven guilty obviously applies, the existence of video evidence for many of these crimes makes that chance seem fleetingly small.)

Over at Not A Potted Plant (a blog I happened upon a little bit ago when it and our wee humble blog were both given simultaneous shout-outs at Ordinary Gents, and which I recommend heartily [except to the religious and easily offended]), Burt Likko (not his real name) offered some humorously-phrased but genuinely helpful legal advice. (In short, never ever talk to police without legal advice.) It's probably the kind of advice that, to him, seems like such common sense that it doesn't need to be said. In that vein, I offer some (more earnestly-phrased) medical advice, which seems obvious to me but clearly was not to the parents of over 100 children in Delaware.

The number of times I have examined non-adolescent patients without a parent present is zero. It is something I never do. A reputable pediatrician is highly unlikely to examine your child without you there. We want you there for your child's comfort and security, we want you there if we need help holding or calming your child to get the exam done, and we want you there for our own protection so everything we do is known to you. For adolescent patients, I defer to the preference of the patient, and generally ask if they want their parent present while the parent is still in the room. And I never, ever, ever perform any kind of gynecological exam without explaining why I'm doing it and without either a parent or other female chaperone in the room.

Any request to examine a child in the absence of a parent should be met with deep suspicion. (An exception worth noting is in cases of suspected child abuse, in which case another chaperone is typically present.) Parents who trusted Dr. Bradley to care for their children are absolutely not at fault, though I cannot imagine the guilt they must feel. But no doctor deserves to be left alone with your small child unless measures to ensure his or her safety have been made plain to you. Good ones would never ask in the first place.

Measures that would make a difference

I know I should probably be paying more attention to the health care summit kabuki going on in DC today. (Or, given the current GOP obstructionism, perhaps a better metaphor would be "noh." Hey-oh!!! Oh, never mind.) Honestly, I know I should pretend to care about the summit, and be following a live-blog somewhere. But I just don't care, because I don't think anything that happens today will change the political dynamics of health care reform. This is all about giving the President political cover by having a public display of bipartisanship before they try to pass the reform bill through reconciliation (a course of action of which I approve, by the way), and the GOP is going to flog its usual talking points and there will be precisely zero deviation from a course that was determined for all involved parties long, long ago. Yawn-o-rama. (And it looks like I have plenty of company with this attitude, and I'm a political junkie.)

So, instead, I'm going to talk about kids' teeth. From the KJ:
Last November, Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Augusta and president of the Maine Dental Association, saw a 4-year-old patient for the first time in that child's life. The child's teeth had significant damage and needed five or six fillings, he said.

He asked the child's mother why she had waited so long to see him.

"She felt embarrassed," he said, "but she said the only reason that she didn't come sooner was because her insurance didn't allow it."

Maine law currently allows dental insurance companies to decide when to offer insurance to children. On Wednesday, the Insurance and Financial Services Committee heard arguments in favor of requiring companies that offer dental coverage in Maine to offer it to children from birth.

No one testified against the bill, though several insurer representatives expressed concerns about how it might affect their bottom lines.

Full disclosure (not that I think anyone out there cares about my Integrity as a Blogger) -- Dr. Shenkin happens to be a friend of mine. That being said, kids' dental health has been an issue of particular interest to me since we moved to Maine, to the point that I recorded public information spots for the Watch Your Mouth campaign a few years ago.

It is vitally important to children have good dental coverage. Dental problems account for significant amonts of missed school and numerous ER visits every year for millions of children, and are a source of both pain and psychological distress. (Not only are dental infections very painful, which can cause dietary problems for children who cannot chew normally, but cavities and missing teeth can make children very self-conscious. It is heart-breaking to hear stories about kids refusing to smile for pictures because they are embarrassed.) I am also powerless to help children with dental infections. I can prescribe an antibiotic, but they typically recur if the diseased tooth is not filled or extracted. For kids with no insurance, there are often few choices.

It is beyond ridiculous for insurance companies to "provide" dental coverage for children but to arbitrarily choose an age far past the recommended onset of dental care. For some children, it's already years too late. Yes, proper prevention can obviate much of the need for some of these services. However, no matter how much information we disseminate, there will still be plenty of kids who get cavities and abscesses. Public education campaigns can only do so much.

Insurance companies continue to make hefty profits, year after year. It is stomach-churning to consider that they would put those considerations before the needs of children with genuine, acute need. But there you have it. This is a need that needs to be addressed, and I wish Dr. Shenkin every success with his efforts.

Update: For a[n unsurprisingly] contrary view on the importance of today's summit, I give you The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn.

In which I probably make too much of a chance encounter

Last night, the Better Half and I opted for pizza. (Play along with me that this is not a dinner option that we exercise regularly.) When I went to pick it, Lindsey Vonn's rather spectacular wipe-out was being replayed and discussed on the TV.

What followed was one of those rare occasions wherein I am mistaken for a heterosexual. (It happens, people. Typically when I avoid using words like "wherein.")

Pizza guy #1: She better be careful not to do anything to that body.

Pizza guy #2: If she can't keep skiing, I'll bet she could make some money posing for Playboy.

Me: Or they might put her on a box of "Wheaties." *beats hasty retreat*

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Lindsey Vonn has won a couple of medals during these Olympics. One of them was gold. She is considered the best female American alpine skier, right?

Now, I know that this was just a Random Conversation at a local pizza place. I don't think Pizza Guys #1 and #2 are valid proxies for heterosexual guys in general. But neither do I think their notions are completely divorced from social attitudes as a whole.

Nobody (that I'm aware of) thought that Bode Miller would turn to a career in nude modeling after his incredibly over-hyped and disappointing showing in Turin four years ago. (With the exception of disaffected one-time GOP baby daddies, nude modeling is generally considered a poor career choice.) Despite his being a handsome chap, America was and is far more interested in his athletic prowess than his relative hotness.

This is not to say that Lindsey Vonn doesn't have a slew of promising endorsement deals waiting for her, or that she is not deservedly respected as a world-class athlete of the highest degree. To aver otherwise would be absurd. But I suspect that for a lot of American sports viewers (read: heterosexual men), her hotness is the first thing they notice, and respect for her athleticism is a secondary consideration.

What say you, readers? Women, do you think I'm right? Straight men, am I being unfair? Gay men, do you secretly hope that Bode Miller considers nude modeling as a possible career choice? The comments are yours.

New York, New York!

Wait a minute. Does New York have the worst governor currently serving? Yes! (Although I'm open to advocates for others in the comments).


Sarah Palin, useless advocate

There's an article in the Daily Beast about how Sarah Palin is letting down disability advocates. Um, yeah.

Listen, just because she has a disabled child does not mean she is obliged to agitate for every tenet generally held dear by disability advocates. Lord knows, I don't. I'm not even all that familiar with what they are advocating for (although I hope to learn more about that soon). But she promised that families with special needs kids would have a "friend and advocate" in her. So far her advocacy seems to consist in two things:

1) Discussing her decision not to abort despite a diagnosis of Down syndrome, and implicitly urging others in a similar situation to do likewise.

2) Getting angry about use of the word "retarded."

Besides her tendency to be polarizing, as many disability advocates quoted in the article mentioned, there are a few problems with this:

a) To many people, she is the face of special needs parenting. Perhaps there's Jenny McCarthy for autism, but no person who has a child with mental retardation is better known than she. And it was in her most widely-seen public appearance to date that she designated herself an advocate. So most people associate her with the cause. What she says about the cause becomes what the majority of people think special-needs parents are most upset about.

b) It may well be the right thing not to abort a fetus with a diagnosis of Down syndrome. I leave that aside. As a parent of a special needs kid, I am neither helped nor hurt if any other parent decides to have a kid with Down syndrome or other disease. And I don't think I am at all hurt, or perhaps trivially hurt, by anyone using the word "retarded." She is advocating nothing of any use to a special needs family.

c) As the article mentioned, most people view her unfavorably.

This is an opportunity. Not only is she squandering it. She is distorting it, and misleading people as to what's important.

Those who advocate not getting an abortion - if you are really interested in making sure kids with genetic disorders do not get aborted, you can repeatedly yell or sneer at people whose moral intuitions differ from yours. Or you can make life as easy as possible for those who have special needs kids. If you absolutely insist that money cannot come from goernment (who I thinkis the only entity able to bear the cost), then start a charity.

Might I suggest some ideas for issues to get behind:
i) Improved Medicaid. My son, who is 5 months old, already has medical bills well into the seven figures. Having a baby with a genetic defect, with no government help, is the ruin of the family.
ii) Respite care
iii) early intervention services that do not vary widely from county to county
iv) more daycare for the medically fragile
v) humane residential option that encourage family involvement
vi) bullying


In which I gently disagree with my colleagues

It appears that the American Academy of Pediatrics has some ideas about how to prevent choking.
Parents and caregivers should... be made aware of foods that could be choking hazards. The risk of choking depends on the shape, size and consistency of the item, along with the developmental and behavioral capabilities of the child. Many foods that are thought to be “kid friendly” are actually dangerous. Foods like grapes, popcorn and nuts can easily become lodged in a young child’s throat or lungs. Hot dogs pose the greatest risk, as they cause more choking deaths than any other food.

“If you were to design the perfect plug for a child’s airway, you couldn’t do much better than a hot dog,” said Dr. Smith, also a Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “It will wedge itself in tightly and completely block the airway, causing the child to die within minutes because of lack of oxygen.”

So far, so good. All of this is entirely true. Hot dogs are not kid-friendly foods, at least not in their original conformation. Increasing awareness of this risk so parents can take proper steps to obviate the risk of choking is a good thing. Maybe not so good are these other recommendations:
According to the policy statement, the AAP recommends:
• Warning labels on foods that pose a high choking risk
• A recall of food products that pose a significant choking hazard
• The establishment of a nationwide food-related choking-incident
surveillance and reporting system
• A commitment from food manufacturers to design new food and redesign
existing food to minimize choking risk, to the extent possible

Er. Methinks this goes a wee bit far.

I don't have a problem with warning labels per se. While I'm not familiar with any evidence that they actually effect much change (and if anyone out there actually has data on this, please feel free to share in comments), neither would warning labels on hot dogs be terribly onerous.

The other three recommendations I think are patently ridiculous, and I can only assume are part of some quasi-Dadaist attempt to raise awareness of the issue by creating a stir about the crazy, alarmist AAP.

Aside from hot dogs (which I'll get to in a minute), the other foods mentioned by the lead author are grapes, nuts and popcorn. Proposing a recall of these foods is absurd. They aren't choking hazards because of a design flaw, unlike recalled toys. They're choking hazards because of how they are naturally formed. A recall would do... what? This recommendation is so laughable I can't believe it made it into the statement.

The same goes for a national surveillance and reporting system. Choking doesn't occur in outbreaks. If some child chokes on a hot dog on the beach in Malibu, it has no bearing on the choking risks of anyone else. Assuming that most children who have choking-related emergencies are given emergent medical care, the data on choking as a health risk is already available. I suppose one could posit some manufactured food that caused a wave of choking deaths, in which case there could possibly be some benefit to a reporting system. But again, the foods that are cited as being the worst risks have been that way forever and ever, and a surveillance system will have no impact on their inherent risk. (One could make an argument about toys, but the recommendation specifically says "food-related.") From what I gather, the FDA is already doing a decent job of covering issues related to new foods, so this seems like over-reach.

Which brings us to the proposal for a redesign. Again, this can only apply to hot dogs, unless there's a mutant nut research project going on about that I don't know about. Clearly, the way hot dogs are currently manufactured produces a risk of choking for children. It is a problem inherent in the design.

Which is why parents need to cut them up. Yes, an intervention is necessary to prevent injury. That intervention is most appropriately effected at the point of consumption by those who are most directly responsible for the care and safety of children -- their parents. While hot dogs do cause more choking deaths per year than any other food, the number is still very, very low. Rather than rejiggering an iconic food, consumed safely by untold millions of Americans every year, in the hopes of preventing less than 100 (admittedly tragic) deaths, it would be best if we focused more on discussing choking hazards at well child visits, and encouraged parents to communicate with other caregivers about what foods are safe and which are to be avoided, even on fun trips to the ballpark.

He should have retired earlier

It looks like Harry Reid is getting some traction on the Democrats' jobs bill. Via TPM:

Five Republicans joined Democrats in a key cloture vote moments ago, allowing debate on a jobs package to move forward. After overcoming this hurdle, debate on the bill can begin.

Good. Glad to see that a few dissonant voices have broken through the Filibuster Chorus. Let's see who decided to let the sunshine in.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) broke with his party and voted with the Democrats. So did Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kit Bond (R-MO) and George Voinovich (R-OH).

Hmmm. Scott Brown, you say? Happy to see that. I'm still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Also happy to see the Ladies from Maine doing a bit to shore up that (questionably valid) reputation for bipartisanship. No surprises there. Ditto Voinovich.

But... Kit Bond? Kit Bond?!??! Really? This Kit Bond?

I have no idea what to make of this. If Bond's impending retirement had shown other signs of inducing sanity, then this wouldn't be so surprising. But, in addition to his unhinged criticism of Obama over closing Gitmo, he's also not been particularly supportive on the domestic front, either. He's been a rock-ribbed Republican party-line voter since the Dawn of Ever, so this is a very surprising turn of events.

If, however, this signals a late-breaking passion for actually accomplishing things, then I applaud his decision to retire and lament that it didn't come sooner.

Update: Oh, the humanity!!

Speciesism and teleology

An interesting post, and interesting comments, on Philosophy, etc. on cognitive enhancement. The writer, in an argument against teleological thinking, asks the following: given a "severely retarded" human, Hugh, and a typical monkey of approximately the same cognitive capacity, Moe, what reason do we have to want to improve Hugh's condition before Moe's?

A commenter says, and I agree that he has set up his argument so it could not fail. By insisting from the first that there the reason must be non-instrumental (because the instrumental reasons are pretty f-ing overwhelming) and Moe and Hugh cannot differ psychologically in any significant way, then one cannot argue against it without resorting to teleology.

But I strongly suspect there could be no way in which Hugh and Moe are psychological twins. First, both have social desires. Social desires are mostly desires to be with one's species. A cognitive enhancement for Hugh would improve his relations to his species, a cognitive enhancement for Moe would damage them. Humans also have desires to maximize talents while monkeys do not. While Hugh and Moe may have similar cognitive capacities, they cannot have the same desire set. Hugh would likely have a desire to maximize his talents that Moe would not.

And perhaps I am a teleologist. But I think it is one of my obligations for both children in my care to maximize their talents. I do not feel that same obligation for the cats in my care. That seems to be an obligation we owe uniquely to humans, and not solely because they are rational beings - because we owe it to them even when they are not rational beings. And it is for their sakes, not for my sake or any other instrumental reason. To each of my sons, one of whom may well not have much better cognitive abilities than a chimp, I owe every effort to maximize talents that I would not owe a chimp in my care. This seems pretty fundamental.

Update: On further thought, I just can't see how someone does not see a cognitively impaired individual as less lucky than a chimp.


Cougar self-deception

One thing jumped out at me from Dan's alternately amusing and terrifying post below on ChatRoulette (talk about treating people as mere means!):
Social rejection. Feeling old in one's mid-30s. Random masturbators. Poor spelling.

This put me in mind of something I've been thinking recently, after I shelled out embarrassing amounts of dollars for a teensy jar of face cream. I am 36, and therefore, in that charming quoted man's words, "too old." But I don't believe it.

Apparently, there are a bunch of studies that show that heterosexual men regularly mistake mere friendliness on the part of a woman (a smile, say) as sexual interest. Men regularly deceive themselves as to how interested women are, and in what way they are interested.

Alas, I've come to think we women deceive ourselves, too.

I am aware that it is a fact that men, in general, prefer younger women. But this doesn't hit home. I totally think I'm more attractive now than I was when younger. Part of that is because I was much heavier when younger. But the thing is, even setting that mitigating factor aside, I don't feel as if my age impacts my looks at all. And while I am aware of male preference for whippersnappers, I am always absolutely shocked whenever I read of its existence, as I did recently. Past my prime at 26, or 31? Bah, humbug!

I used to wonder, when I was a snotty little young'un, why older women bothered putting on make-up. Now I know. We post-prime women are totally lying to ourselves.

Ah, well. I'm married.

Advertising aimed at children

On the way home today, I was listening to a discussion on NPR (Tell Me More) about Michelle Obama's initiative to combat childhood obesity. I didn't listen to the whole thing, but it seemed focused on junk food advertising. The argument seemed to be going something like this:

1) Data show that junk food advertising is directly linked to childhood obesity.
2) Childhood obesity is harmful.
C: Ban junk food ads.

The speakers were very insistent that they were not opposed to advertising aimed at children in general. Only junk food advertising was the problem. They also seemed to be careful not to talk about it in traditional ethical terms (e.g., the wrongness of advertising to children) but solely in terms of utility: scientific data and harms.

But the thing is, there is quite obviously a moral problem with advertising meant for children. And it's not only junk food advertising (although that is probably even worse than, say, toy truck advertising). All advertising to children is seriously morally problematic.

When advertising to children, one is quite obviously treating children as merely a means to an end (of profit, of course), and not treating them as ends in themselves. Advertising, which may well be morally questionable for adults in certain cases, is clearly flat-out manipulation when it comes to children. It is taking advantage of children's lack of ability to a) understand the motives of an advertiser in making the advertisement, b) look at advertising with a skeptical eye, c) resist impulses, and d) respond non-rationally to certain types of stimuli. Children cannot understand what advertising really is. They are impulsive and easily led.

Obviously, one must do some guiding for children. Children need guidance in order to flourish and one day become rational, thoughtful people. It is one thing, however, to instruct them in what is in their own interest as developing people (as when one teaches children why one shouldn't hit other children, or why one should eat one's vegetables). Advertisers are, quite baldly, leading them to make certain choices that are not in children's interests, but in the advertiser's. It is coersion, plain and simple -- regardless of whether children gain weight or grow unhealthy because of it. It's immoral to coerce even if it does not harm the health of children.

Of course, just because it is immoral doesn't mean it should be illegal, and plenty of things that are immoral are not illegal, and shouldn't become illegal (e.g., lying, adultery, etc.) And let me add the caveat that I know relatively little about philosophy of law. But the usual justification for the right of freedom of speech is that such a protected right gives rise to the greater good of a "marketplace of ideas." The truth or best ideas will arise, it is thought, from the open airing of all ideas, even bad ones. But the value of such a marketplace presupposes that rationality of its consumers. For irrational consumers, a marketplace of ideas is much less useful. It seems perfectly plausible to me to have a general presumption in favor of a right of freedom of speech derived from a need for a marketplace of ideas, but still think that speech aimed at children may be excepted from such protections.

Hell for the Twitter-averse

The Fug Girls flagged an article about an Internet phenomenon of which I knew nothing until just now -- ChatRoulette. They found the article hilarious. I found it horrifying for two reasons.

First of all, let's get a sense of what this ChatRoulette is.
The site activates your webcam automatically; when you click “start” you’re suddenly staring at another human on your screen and they’re staring back at you, at which point you can either choose to chat (via text or voice) or just click “next,” instantly calling up someone else. The result is surreal on many levels. Early ChatRoulette users traded anecdotes on comment boards with the eerie intensity of shipwreck survivors, both excited and freaked out by what they’d seen. There was a man who wore a deer head and opened every conversation with “What up DOE!?” A guy from Sweden was reportedly speed-drawing strangers’ portraits. Someone with a guitar was improvising songs for anyone who’d give him a topic. One man popped up on people’s screens in the act of fornicating with a head of lettuce. Others dressed like ninjas, tried to persuade women to expose themselves, and played spontaneous transcontinental games of Connect Four. Occasionally, people even made nonvirtual connections: One punk-music blogger met a group of people from Michigan who ended up driving eleven hours to crash at his house for a concert in New York. And then, of course, fairly often, there was this kind of thing: “I saw some hot chicks then all of a sudden there was a man with a glass in his butthole.” I sing the body electronic.

I entered the fray on a bright Wednesday afternoon, with an open mind and an eager soul, ready to sound my barbaric yawp through the webcams of the world. I left absolutely crushed. It turns out that ChatRoulette, in practice, is brutal. The first eighteen people who saw me disconnected immediately. They appeared, one by one, in a box at the top of my screen—a young Asian man, a high-school-age girl, a guy lying on his side in bed—and, every time, I’d feel a little flare of excitement. Every time, they’d leave without saying a word. Sometimes I could even watch them reach down, in horrifying real-time, and click “next.” It was devastating. My first even semi-successful interaction was with a guy with a blanket draped over his lap who asked if I wanted to “jack of” with him. I declined; he disconnected. Over the course of an hour, I was rejected by what felt like a cast of thousands: a teenage girl talking on her cell phone, a close-up of an eyeball. It started to feel like a social-anxiety nightmare. One guy just stared into the camera and flipped me off. Another stood in front of his computer making wave motions with his hands, refusing to respond to anything I typed. One person had the courtesy to give me, before disconnecting, a little advice: “too old.” (I’m 32.) A girl with heavy makeup looked terrified when my image popped up on her screen—I actually felt guilty, a few rounds later, when the engine of randomness threw us back together and she had to look at my face for another excruciating half-second. My longest exchange was with a guy who seemed to be wearing one of those protective cones you put on a dog after surgery. “LICK YOU ELBOW,” he typed. “Why?” I asked. He disconnected.

Social rejection. Feeling old in one's mid-30s. Random masturbators. Poor spelling.


The author ended up trying it again in the company of a friend, and that somehow made it much more enjoyable. I will concede that the only way I could find this experience palatable (at all) was if my best friend were to sit through it with me. (You know who you are. On that note, the only person I can think of who would be less inclined to try ChatRoulette than me is the Better Half.) Otherwise, the appeal of this is completely lost on me. I've structured my life in such a way that I spend as little time as possible randomly interacting with weirdos, and it's seemed to work out well. (Office hours not included, of course.)

Which brings me to the second reason this is so horrifying to me. I am clearly Old.

This is even less appealing to me than Twitter. (As for that medium, the few people whose thoughts I am interested enough in to follow are the ones with whom I am in regular contact via that antiquated technology called the "telephone.") But (pace George Packer) I don't think ChatRoulette will make me stupid or anti-social or prone to sexual indiscretions with strangers on other continents. I don't think it's evil or a sign of the Death of Society. It's merely unappealing.

And I think this is a sign that I am generationally out of sync with where technology is leading. Reading about ChatRoulette simply makes me want to spend time in real space with my 3D friends. Despite my obvious interest in the Internet (here I am, after all), my truest pleasure still comes from reading a book printed on the remains of a dead tree. Having spent time with the vastness of cable TV, I am content with about four channels.

I suppose this was bound to happen some time. There's nothing to be done but to get a rocking chair, put it on my front porch, and start yelling at neighborhood kids to get off my lawn.


2666: pages 231-290

I think I'm beginning to get this book. Maybe. While I can't say that love it, I think I begin to understand why it has earned its acclaim.

This is probably due, in part, to my abandoning the desire to understand what's going on at any given point in the action of the novel. Perhaps every episode and encounter in some way informs our understanding of the book as a whole, but to a great extent this connection is lost on me. What I do perceive is a general sense of what the book points toward, and how it seems to be unfolding.

First off, some initial thoughts about The Part About Fate. Reading the description of Fate's mother (and I suppose the joke's on those of us who read the name for this Part and thought it referred to kismet) and her neighbor, laid out after their respective deaths, I couldn't help but be reminded of Wallace Stevens' great poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream." The imagery of death, with its finality and attendant mourning, is stark and unsettling.

Very briefly, I still am not entirely thrilled with what seems to be a preoccupation on Bolaño's part with homosexuality (Fate's musings about the man on the Springeresque talk show and Chucho Flores) and was not particularly happy to see yet another use of "faggot" (page 257), which felt dangerously close to gratuitous. On the other hand, Bolaño's bone-dry description of why Mexicans are short as a result of genetic ineptitude on the part of the colonizing Spaniards struck me as appallingly funny in a way that probably rubs some women the wrong way, so I'll try not to make too much of it.
It seems increasingly clear to me that the crimes are the crucial Part to understanding 2666. As we get closer to them, various aspects of the previous Parts become more clear. The critics, who live in a rarified space, come to Santa Teresa for their own ends, and for whatever effect it has on them they do not see the reality that stretches before them. Amalfitano feels the imminent dread of the place, but is impotent to stop it. Even the cynical self-mutilation of Edwin Johns and the pugnacious posturing of Marco Antonio Guerra seem faintly ridiculous in the livid light that gleams over the action of the novel. Thus far Fate appears to be the only character with any intention of actually seeing the crimes, who chooses to turn his attention toward them.
We'll see how this plays out for him in the last half of this Part.
[Blogger is apparently eliminating the paragraph breaks for the latter half of this post. I realize nobody but me cares, yet it is driving me to distraction. *shakes fist impotently at screen*]
Update: Those of you who are here via the main Bolaño page, please accept my hearty apologies for what appears to be a triple posting on my part. Truly, I am beset with blogging gremlins today.

Okay. Financiers really aren't like me or you.

Jonathan Chait has a post about a WSJ article on some artist who struck it rich painting portraits of Alan Greenspan.

Now (silly me), with the minuscule bit of knowledge I have about the current art world, I assumed that these portraits must be ironic or implicitly critical in some way. Sort of like Marge Simpson's portrait of the nude, shriveled Mr. Burns. This description of the work, "Working from photographs she found online and in newspapers and magazines, Ms. Crowe produced colorful, whimsical canvasses that highlighted Mr. Greenspan's wrinkled forehead, pursed lips, droopy ears, hand gestures and oversize glasses" seemed to bear that out. The purchasers would be, I assumed, liberal art world Brooklyn-dwelling hipster cognoscenti, displaying the portraits prominently in brownstones with a big wink.

But, um, no.
In Washington, Kevin Dolan, a former senior vice president of Merrill Lynch, bought his painting for $3,000. He decided to donate it to a charity auction that took place on the firm's trading floor in December 2006. It went for nearly double the price, he recalls.

He doesn't believe that would happen now, saying he is relieved that he donated his painting to charity when Mr. Greenspan "was still a god."

Dallas hedge-fund manager David Norcom still has his Greenspan, which he purchased for $3,000 when the Fed chairman's reputation was sterling. "There is not one person who comes to my office that doesn't talk about it," says Mr. Norcom. "When Greenspan was more admired, people walked in, looked at him and made positive comments about him," says Mr. Norcom. These days, the comments are more acerbic.
Wow. I mean, I sort of thought the portrait days were over. If one still were inclined to hang a portrait unironically in one's home, it might someone considered morally admirable (MLK, pope, whomever). But Alan Greenspan?! I understand (and agree) that what financiers do is necessary for everyone's current standard of living. But is the architect of Federal financial policy worthy of the hushed awe of an admiring portrait?

And it seems as if the artist did not intend to be making an ironic statement either, but rather, remuneratively scoring off financiers' self-love.
"I rode those paintings as far as you can imagine, so how can I complain?" she says.

Ms. Crowe hasn't abandoned her niche in the art world, and has now turned her attention to the current Federal Reserve chief, Ben Bernanke.

"It is a fresh face, it didn't have so many wrinkles, it felt baby-like," she says. She hopes to put together a Bernanke show.

But the new Fed chairman's market value can't compare with Mr. Greenspan's at his peak. One patron who had paid Ms. Crowe $10,000 for a Greenspan asked her to paint Mr. Bernanke. But he only wanted to pay her $5,000, she says.

"I thought, 'Yikes,' " Ms. Crowe says. "That is a hefty pay cut."


Bad trends in higher education II

I joke about the uselessness of philosophy all the time. Even among academic disciplines, always mocked for irrelevance to the real world, locked away in ivory towers, philosophy is the discipline singled out for the absolute most ridicule.

(I and every philosopher I know absolutely dreads being asked by a stranger at social gatherings, "So, what do you do?" -- responses to hearing "I'm a philosopher" or "I teach philosophy" range from curiosity (rarely) to confusion (mostly) to outright hostility (not frequent, but more often than you would think).)

That said, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, if two worlds were exactly the same in every respect, but one world had philosophers and had made some progress on philosophical problems, and the other world did not, most would choose to live in the one with philosophy. Which indicates it has some value.

I have former students come up to me and tell them how excited they were by my classes, that it introduced this or that great philosopher to them, or taught them how to think clearly. I think some of them are even semi-sincere.

We teach people how to think more clearly, more consistently, and start to realize what's at stake with the fundamental questions of their lives (of course, it helps when they don't text in class).

If philosophy has a value, and I think it does, it is in a general sort of clear-headedness and enlightenment. Perhaps it is even an end in itself. But no, it will not usually make the trains run on time, or improve worker productivity, or create green jobs.

There has been a recent move afoot in England for academic funding to be disbursed based on "impact." I.e., measurable impact, ideally economic or social impact. Exactly what philosophy does not do. Prominent philosophers (with tenure!) are getting the axe to make way for such socially valuable utter nonsense as "Digital and Visual Culture." There's a nice article here on what practical things might be lost if we insist on funding only practical academics. And an interesting article here discussing how the recent drastic changes in English higher education have reversed the traditional positions of English and American higher education. While (whilst?) English higher education used to put greater emphasis on academics for their own sake, now we find more of that here. But if demanding "impact" from academia is appealing to the Brits, it's hard to see how it would not occur to people here.

Let's hope such pernicious moves don't happen here more than they already have. Due to the economy and state budget cuts, the philosophy job market has never been so terrible as this year. Talented philosophers are leaving the field. If we start insisting, as the British already have, on showing very immediate impact to justify academic funding, we may lose something very valuable in the long term.

Bad trends in higher education I

I agreed a while ago to teach a class online this summer. Our department is encouraging it when possible, especially for summer classes, and there is something of a movement more generally to online classes. While it's great for me (I can work totally from home at whatever hours I want), I've been thinking it can't help but be a drag on students. Yes, students who can't travel can still get an education. But a good part of a college education is not simply learning course material, but being in an environment where people pursue education. One catches excitement from profs, from other students; one opens one's horizons. One learns from a discussion in class, especially in philosophy classes. I know I can't answer questions as well on a discussion board or in email as in person.

I think the old-fashioned teach-in-a-classroom has advantages that simply cannot be recreated online. Perhaps less important, but still valuable if financially feasible, is the model of living away from one's parents' house and gathering at a university.

Applying for grad school in philosophy

It has been lo these many [embarrassing number of] years since I went through the harrowing and dehumanizing process of applying for grad school in philosophy. But I remember it all well enough that my heart goes out to poor Hitler.


Why I am not a Republican, part gabillion

Another touching moment at CPAC. (Via TPM):

One gathers from the background of this picture that this charming young lady is one of the Concerned Women of America. Sadly, being ringless, it appears that she is not yet involved in a "traditional marriage" for me and my homosexual brethren to destroy. We'll have to bide our time, I suppose.

Rest assured, however. As soon as Smiley McBigot here and her future betrothed register at whichever upscale retailer they choose, one of our minions (we're everywhere) will replace her tasteful Wedgewood china pattern with this.

Girlfriend has it coming. Reason enough to be Concerned, I suppose.

Does this count as "bickering"?

The front page of today's Kennebec Journal features an AP article about Susan Collins, and her prediction that Congress could pass a health care reform bill in six weeks if it could get beyond "partisan bickering." I may be paraphrasing a bit, since there appears to be no link to the article on the indescribably useless KJOnline site. For those of you who fear I may be misrepresenting Sen. Collins's sentiments, I invite you to head to the coffee shop downstairs where I got my muffin this morning and check for yourself.

Anyhow, that was the gist. Were it not for all that unpleasant, unhelpful, Bayh-vexing partisanship, Sen. Collins and company would sail health care reform through Congress like a knife through hot butter. While some may question her motives, I'll play along and take her at her word.

Does this mean she's going to head across Washington and kick Eric Cantor in the shins? [Confidential to SC: I will donate generously to your re-election campaign war chest if you head across Washington and kick Eric Cantor in the shins.] Via TPM:
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) isn't exactly laying the foundation for the bipartisan part of next week's bipartisan health care summit at the White House.

At CPAC this morning, Cantor declared that "we will say no to this health care bill because no is what the American people want."


Cantor said Democratic health bills are predicated on "back-door dealing" and declared that "these bills are ultimately designed to lead this country to a single-payer system, something that the American people reject."

First of all, let's pause to note that Cantor is arguing against a provision that appears nowhere in either the House or Senate versions of the health care reform bills. There is nary a whisper about single-payer care, and in fact many people have criticized the bills as a boon for the insurance industry because they conspicuously include said companies in their approach to universal coverage. Cantor blathers about where the bills are "ultimately designed to lead" (always the sign of a weak argument) because otherwise his party's rank obstructionism is much harder to justify.

And on that note, can we just call this what it is? This is not "bickering." This is not a sign of mutual failure. This is one party deciding that it is in its best interests to fight tooth and nail against any attempts at health care reform, because it manifestly cares more about winning elections that delivering health care to people who need it. Despite the overtures toward them offered by the President in the upcoming health care summit, the GOP already has its mind made up and its strategy planned.

Sen. Collins's words are all very pretty, but let's see how hard she works to make the needed difference with her fellow Republicans. You'll forgive me if I don't hold my breath.

Again with obesity

For those who are also interested in whether we should wage a war on obesity, two interesting articles arguing against it by Daniel Engber here and here. I will add, as someone who has been a both a size 6 and a size 24, that the difference in treatment received from everyone, from shopkeepers to strangers on the street to colleagues to doctors to loved ones (even family members) is drastic - far more so than skinny people, I think, suspect. Interestingly, the difference in treatment received is MUCH greater between, say, size 14 and 24 than it is between 6 and 14.

What, no Phyllis Schlafly?

I have argued in the past that there is a place for genuine, intelligent conservative principles in American governance. Unapologetic liberal that I am, I have no illusions that small-L liberalism has cornered the market on all that is of value in our civil discourse. Despite the GOP's wholesale abdication of all responsibility to actually be the voice of intelligent conservatism, the United States is strengthened when there is a clear voice for American conservatism.

The gigantic pile of stupid called "The Mount Vernon Statement" ain't it. Despite the support of a number of prominent American conservatives (who all have remarkably similar handwriting, it appears), there is nothing clear or intelligent about it. Admittedly, I am a bit biased against the document, as I would rather be trapped in an elevator with an irritable, flea-infested orangutan than spend five minutes with most of the signatories. But click on the link and check it out for yourself. No matter what its press release may say, I will give a shiny nickel to anyone who can show me where the statement actually "defines the principles, values and beliefs of the conservative movement."

I'm not going to go through the entire thing paragraph by paragraph. Most of it is too mealy-mouthed to be worth deconstructing. But there are a couple of bits that are too inane to pass up.
We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding. Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law. They sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.


Each one of these founding ideas is presently under sustained attack. In recent decades, America’s principles have been undermined and redefined in our culture, our universities and our politics. The selfevident truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist. The federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant.

I defy anyone to name a single federal government official (of either party) who is on record as dismissing the Constitution as obsolete or irrelevant. [Important note -- disagreeing with how said government official interprets the Constitution does not count.] You could feed a herd of cattle with the straw used in the manufacture of this statement's supposed opponents.
Some insist that America must change, cast off the old and put on the new. But where would this lead — forward or backward, up or down? Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception?

I don't know. Is it? Asking rhetoric questions is not the same thing as building an affirmative case. These people would have placed dead last in any halfway decent high school debate tournament. And I love the "forward or backward, up or down?" questions. (Obsessive Simpsons fans will join me in wondering if they considered including a line about "twirling, twirling toward freedom.")
A Constitutional conservatism based on first principles provides the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda.

And that consistent, meaningful policy agenda is...? Because from here, it looks distressingly like risible pablum.


Why I supported a public option

Well, this (via TPM) is just appalling:

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today will release a new report showing more dramatic health insurance premium increases are proposed in Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington.

Keying off the Obama administration's recent probe into a planned 39 percent rate hike from Anthem Blue Cross in California, Sebelius will detail large increases in six other states and say that given record insurer profits, health care reform has never been more urgent.


Among its specific findings:

Anthem of Connecticut requested an increase of 24 percent last year, which was rejected by the state.

Anthem in Maine had an 18.5-percent premium increase rejected by the state last year as being "excessive and unfairly discriminatory" - but is now requesting a 23-percent increase this year.

In 2009, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan requested approval for premium increases of 56 percent for plans sold on the individual market.

Regency Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon requested a 20-percent premium increase.UnitedHealth, Tufts, and Blue Cross requested 13- to 16-percent rate increases in Rhode Island.

And rates for some individual health plans in Washington increased by up to 40 percent until Washington State imposed stiffer premium regulations.

The report finds that "[w]hile rising health care costs is a known problem with our broken health care system, some of the premium increases requested by insurance companies are 5 to 10 times larger than the growth rate in national health expenditures."

So long as there is no competition from a large-scale non-profit alternative, the insurance industry in the United States will continue to squeeze the American people for all they are worth. The big insurers are always and only a business, and their concern has nothing to do with health care access and everything to do with profit.

The failure of the Senate to support a public option remains one of its most appalling and disappointing actions. (Considering the doldrums in which even the lukewarm bill it passed is languishing and slowly sinking, it makes me even more upset that they didn't try to pass a better version.) One wonders how insurance executives sleep at night (big piles of money are probably bad for the back), but since their sense of shame and human decency seems to be an imperfect impediment, it will probably take more cojones than our current pusillanimous Democratic Party has to make any difference.

In which I overthink Project Runway

This season has seen the return of Project Runway to New York, and let's hope that Lifetime never makes the mistake of moving it elsewhere again. It's not PR if Nina and Michael aren't regular judges, and while the previous season was lackluster mainly because of blah contestants, the absence of those two didn't help. (Attention Lifetime executives -- also, please fire the person in charge of your online viewing. It's awful.) This season is so very much better, more so since they got rid of soporific Anna and lunatic Ping.

However, the timing still seems very wonky. New York Fashion Week is going on right now, and there are still nearly a dozen contestants to go on the show. (For those of you unfamiliar with the show who are still inexplicably reading this post, the top three contestants get to show a collection at Fashion Week, which is the basis for determining the winner.) This means that there were seven decoy collections shown this week to avoid spoiling the remaining episodes.

The first season the only decoy to show was Austin Scarlett (a man so gay he makes me look like Steve McQueen). Now, obviously the whole point of competing in Project Runway is to win, but thus far only one winner has had the combination of charisma and talent necessary to actually emerge as a serious, up-and-coming American designer. For both the winners and the runners-up, showing at Fashion Week is a big deal, bringing them to the notice of the major labels and landing them good jobs in the industry.

By including ten designers in the show, it makes it too long and dilutes the attention of the people in attendance. While this is all very well for the people who otherwise wouldn't have made the cut, for the better designers it diminishes the value of making it so far. Further, it devalues the impact of the show itself, and weakens its brand.

Much of what I love about Project Runway is how it showcases genuinely talented people (for the most part), and actually helps them advance in their chosen, highly-competitive careers. I'd hate to see it lose its mojo, and hopefully the people at Lifetime are savvy enough to figure this out.

A new home for foreign policy obsessives

Back in (what I consider) its heyday, The New Republic had a thriving band of merry reprobates who commented regularly. I am not ashamed to admit that I wasted far more time than I could possibly justify getting into lengthy discussions of varying degrees of seriousness with many of them, and I'm happy that I managed to cajole a few of them into wasting their time here now. (You know who you are.) All joking aside, the quality of the comments there was several cuts above what one normally finds on teh Internets, and it was a pleasure getting to know (in a manner of speaking) a number of the regulars.

So, with that introduction, I'd like to direct you toward Always Judged Guilty, the shiny new blog by one of the more colorful TNR denizens of old. If one can accurately describe a person one has never met in 3D space as a friend, then I'm happy to send you to my friend Brian's page. For all the ribbing I regularly dished out [this is as nice as I'll ever be, boneill, so don't get used to it], the man happens to know an impressive amount about Yemen, which has been in the news a bit lately. (Apparently, there's more there than incendiary undergarments.)

For anyone interested in getting an informed perspective on a fascinating corner of the world, it's worth a look.


Just leave out the middle man (you know, the fat one)

Okay, so in the comments on a previous post, I promised a further post on why I disagree with Michelle Obama's focus on fighting obesity -- I would rather she focus on health. I know you've all been waiting with bated breath. Let me state that my opinion is based on the following:

1) Calorie reduction (by which I mean something like Weight Watchers - wherein no matter what your appetite or your desires, you eat a prescribed number of calories) and exercise reduce weight in the short term.

2) Calorie reduction and exercise do not work in the long term. Ten years out, 98% of people who lose weight have gained it back. Most have put more on. Quitting heroin and cigarettes have a much higher success rate.

3) I do not believe those 98% wanted to gain weight back, or were indifferent to whether they regained weight. I do not believe they have significantly greater weakness of will than heroin addicts.

4) I infer from 2) and 3) that we have much less conscious control over what we weigh than is generally believed to be the case.

5) Reduction of calories, in the long term, seems to cause obsessional thinking about food and irritability.

6) High weight correlates with ill health. It has not been definitively established to cause ill health.

7) Eating fruits and vegetables is correlated with good health.

8) Eating less refined flour and sugar is correlated with good health.

9) Exercise is correlated with good health.

10) People who are thin, or merely overweight, are not warranted to infer that because they are able to resist eating certain desired foods, that everyone else could resist just as easily.

Why do we care about obesity at all? Because it is associated with poor health. It's not obesity in itself, it is claimed, is the problem. If fat people did not have poorer health, we would not care if they were fat. So fighting obesity is merely a means to an end. Thinness is not our goal, the goal is, really, health.

But obesity does not seem immediately under our control. One can stamp one's foot and insist that it is, but studies show again and again: diets don't work. The only thing that seems to work for weight reduction is bariatric surgery.

If our end is, ultimately, health, why not focus on health itself? Why focus on a not-always-reliable predictor of health? There are steps we can take (fruits and vegetables, exercise) to make our health better. They may be only correlated with health, too. But those steps are MUCH easier than reducing weight permanently. If our goal is, ultimately health, let's not waste time on obesity, which is only a middle man between our behavior and our goal.

As it happens, I believe (but have no proof) that doing the following:
a) eating a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
b) with no processed foods (including white flours and refined sugars)
c) eating of such foods to one's heart's content (i.e., not counting calories and forcing undesired portion control)
d) cooking at home
e) exercising
will (over time) reduce weight without the unpleasant psychological side effects and yo-yoing of calorie reduction. Even if it doesn't, however, such measures have been correlated with good health, and are worth trying to see if it is a cause of such good health.

Part of the problem with the focus on obesity rather than health is that it a) makes skinny people think that whatever they eat is fine, and b) encourages consumption of processed diet foods, from low-fat milk to aspartame sodas to special K cereal bars. If we encourage exercise and a whole foods diet, however, everyone could re-examine what they eat and improve their health directly, rather than through the indirect means of weight control.


Stop making me defend Sarah Palin!!!

Oh, Lord. This is going to be one of those posts where, by the end, I feel like I'm ready for a healthy dose of nerve tonic and a few calming episodes of Murder, She Wrote before hitting an earlybird special and going to bed. Bear with me, people. Sometimes my inner bluenose comes out.

Wouldn't it be nice if maybe, just mmmmmmmmmmmaybe we all backed off a little from our current cultural obsession with making every last little thing the subject of humor? Somewhere between early seasons of The Simpsons (still my pick as the best television of all time) and now, we've all apparently decided that the most important thing these days is to evoke the kind of gasping laughter that signals disbelief on the part of the listener. South Park (which is, God help me, genuinely funny) is responsible for much this, but I think it's reached its apotheosis in the oeuvre of Seth Macfarlane. Whatever happened to class?

Jonathan Chait flags the most recent frontier of sub-basement level humor over at TNR -- Trig Palin. From the Times Arts blog:
In the episode [of The Family Guy] , shown Sunday on Fox, the teenage son Chris Griffin courts a female classmate named Ellen who has Down syndrome. During a date with Chris, Ellen tells him, “My dad’s an accountant and my mom is the former governor of Alaska.” The joke appeared to be a swipe at Ms. Palin, whose son Trig also has Down syndrome.

The Palins (by way of Bristol) have responded by calling the writers of The Family Guy "heartless jerks." And they're absolutely right. I would say that Macfarlane and Company are actually something worse, and more reminiscent of the less pleasant digestive functions of large barnyard animals, but the sentiment is the same.

Here's the thing. I cannot stand Sarah Palin. She is (to date) the nadir of American politics, as far as I am concerned. And yes, I think there is room for legitimate criticism of how Trig Palin has become something of a talking point for her. (Somewhere within the murky depths of Andrew Sullivan's dark obsession with her are some honest and important questions.) But mockery isn't legitimate criticism, and nobody (nobody) deserves to have a loved one mocked on national television this way. When the odious Perez Hilton cackles along with you (and if you think I'm linking to his blog, you're nuts), you're on shaky ground. Furthermore, all this will do is add luster to Palin's claim that she is unfairly persecuted by the media.

So, go after Sarah Palin all you want. Tina Fey, you are a national treasure. Feel free to go after every wink and evasion and crib note. But Trig Palin has done nothing to anyone that merits his being the punchline of a mean, cruel joke (even if he never sees it and wouldn't get it), and seeing him used this way just makes me really, really angry.

Dept. of Thin Gruel

The usually whip-smart Michelle Cottle has rather a dud of a piece over at TNR about the pitfalls of modern tech for the middle-aged user. She starts promisingly, then falls on the landing. Like Sasha Cohen, but with fewer sequins.

I was totally with her with this:
I’m sorry, but from where I sit, it ain’t the young’uns having notable trouble setting barriers and using technology with any level of discretion, reserve, or common sense. Rather, every time you turn around, an ostensible grown-up has done something monumentally stupid like sexting his mistress, sending filthy instant messages to strapping young House pages, or tweeting about his congressional delegation’s classified landing in Iraq. And how about that moron in North Carolina who googled the many and varied ways to kill a person in the days before killing his wife? Now there’s a guy in need of a lesson on the dangers of interconnectivity. This is not to say that younger users don’t do plenty of stupid stuff as well. But, as often as not, it’s the older generations that clearly can’t be trusted to navigate even basic media and networking tools.

Just last week, two unrelated news stories drove this point home for me. The first and more respectable involved a new Pew study showing that most American teens, usually early adapters of tech innovations, have no use for Twitter. And within the slim 8 percent of “online teens” who do use Twitter, most are tracking the goings-on of celebrities. (A related question found that 19 percent of online adults “use Twitter or similar services,” although the different wording of the question makes an apples-to-apples comparison impossible.)

On the one hand, I'm delighted to see that my lack of interest in Twitter means I'm still in step with Kids These Days. On the other hand, all the proof I need that blogging is past its prime is the simple fact that I am doing it.

Where Cottle flubs is in trying to tie her thesis in with the scandale du jour:
I was still pondering teens’ underappreciated level of tech maturity when I was smacked in the face by the latest installment of the John-Edwards-Is-a-Pig-and-an-Idiot drama. As it turns out, not only does an Edwards-Rielle Hunter sex tape exist, it is the focus of a legal battle between Hunter and Edwards dogsbody turned sex-scribbler Andrew Young. On February 5, Young was scheduled to appear in a North Carolina court to contest an injunction filed by Hunter, who seeks to prevent dissemination and to regain possession of “a personal video recording that depicted matters of a very private and personal nature.” Depending on who tells it, the tape was either stolen by Young from a hatbox full of Hunter’s very important personal effects or discarded by Hunter when she fled the North Carolina home the Youngs had been renting for her in late 2007. Either way, Young somehow found himself in possession of a home movie of the sort that drives the tabloids to stuff filthy wads of cash into one’s trousers. He is willing to fight Hunter for it (perhaps even eager, seeing as how he has a book to promote), and, at this point, there’s not much Edwards can do but sit back and watch his once-golden image gather even more layers of slime.

Now, admittedly, allowing oneself to be videotaped banging one’s pregnant mistress (Hunter is reportedly heavy with child in the tape) while in the thick of a presidential campaign may not be as cutting edge as emailing a mistress photos of one’s penis. (Go Tiger!) But it is no less jaw-droppingly stupid, not to mention naïve about where even marginally interesting footage tends to wind up these days. (I’m now taking bets on how long before bits of this masterwork hit YouTube.) So unless Edwards expects us to believe his romp was recorded without his knowledge (one of the few claims of innocence he hasn’t yet attempted), we must assume he is a complete fool. At least when young hotties like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian make sex tapes, they manage a career boost from it.

I certainly agree that John Edwards is an idiot of truly titanic proportions. But video-taping one's self having sex only to face a career-damaging scandal is a problem (at least for celebrities) that has been around for at least 20 years. The Edwards-Hunter fiasco has next to nothing to do with the fraught questions that surround our Facebook-addicted culture, and feels a lot like padding. I think the question of who is actually using social media is an important and interesting one, and deserves more than a phoned-in article by a reporter who usually does better.

Holding out for leprechaun power

Sometimes I yell at the radio. (It's gotten a lot better since I aged out of listening to Top 40 stations, but it still happens from time to time.) A few days ago, en route to picking up the Critter from the sitter's, it happened again. Courtesy of MPBN:
"I am so concerned for the health of my children and my husband and myself. I'm afraid that the wind tower sounds and vibrations that they make will be unbearable for my family," says Heidi Emery, who lives in Highland Plantation in Somerset County, where developer Highland Wind plans to clear several hundred acres to build its $230 million project.

She's among The Friends of Highland Mountains who gathered to Portland to call on other Mainers to protect the ridgelines where the turbines would be sited -- views cherished by hikers on the Applachian Trail. "It's the lakes, and the ponds and the nature and the feeling of being somewhere pure and natural," Emery says. "But there's nothing pure or natural about wind power. And it feels like the death of Highland is coming, and I feel so helpless. Highland is the way life should be."

"Vibrations"? "Nothing pure or natural about wind power"? As opposed to the bucolic charm of a nuclear reactor?

What do you people want?!?!? Do you think electricity comes from elves in trees? Are you hopeful that the Department of the Interior will harness the unbridled power of unicorns? What could possibly be more pure or natural than wind power?

I'm notably skeptical that we're going to windmill our way to energy independence. But for people who are adamantly opposed to burning fossil fuels and nuclear power (I'm all for the latter), I wonder what suggestions they have if they're also going to oppose putting wind turbines anywhere pretty. Over to you, Gov. King:
For his part, wind developer King says that he welcomes a public hearing on the project, which he says creates renewable energy and lessens reliance on foreign oil. "It's not good enough to say I'm for doing something about global climate change but just not near me. If the worst thing that results from this project, is that people look out from the top of Mt. Bigelow and they see some windmills, I think that's a fairly low price."


The limits of libertarianism

If you're a libertarian on a matter of principle, that's one thing. But many libertarians make the claim that the market consistently provides the best political solutions. It's not just an ideological adherence, but a pragmatic position. The market will solve problems that governments cannot. Leave businesses alone, it is claimed, and we'll achieve the most happiness for the greatest number.

The Post last week has an article which indirectly shows how that's not true. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, very few restuarant workers have paid sick days. Even if they did get paid sick days, they are paid so little without tips that it wouldn't much benefit them to get sick leave.

So restaurant workers show up to work sick. Endangering us all.

There is no market solution for this. Workers are often not apparently sick, especially in the kitchen, so even if consumers could be well-informed about a particular restaurant, they wouldn't know to avoid such a place. It is clearly in the restaurant's interest to let this occur, but it is not in society's interest. A guaranteed sick leave policy that somehow took tips into account would make society as a whole healthier. And can't be enacted by the market alone.


Criticizing religion

If you want evidence that Andrew Sullivan's beliefs are based on raw emotions rather than well thought out principles, he has provided us with a lovely example today. Background: Sullivan and Leon Weiseltier have been having a back-and-forth over what Weiseltier takes to be Sullivan's anti-Semitism. In the process, Wieseltier suggests dismissively that Christianity is an incomprehensible form of polytheism. In this go-round, Sullivan approvingly quotes a reader:
It's downright evil to excuse saying terrible things about other people's faiths, especially when the things you are saying misconstrue what those people themselves believe about their own religion [italics and outrage all the reader's].
Really? It's evil? Me, I'm going with disrespectful.

A double standard seems to be in play here. This from the guy who endlessly blogged about the right - nay, the obligation - to publish cartoons that offended Muslims?

He wrote a few days ago:

Leon is describing the central tenets of the Christian faith - the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God - as a step backward for religious thinking. He is dismissing as stupid and backward the Incarnation. He goes so far as to insult it by decrying it as a regress to polytheism. And not just polytheism but crude polytheism.

I am not one to take offense at such things. My own faith can withstand the cheap pot-shots of others. But can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar derogatory and condescending and cheap remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?

Yes, of course, you can.

Forgive me if I do think he takes offense. Not just the letter from the reader, but the owrds he uses: "derogatory" "condescending" "cheap" X2. And that it's not just Muslims and Jews whose faith has trouble withstanding cheap pot-shots.

2666: The Part About Amalfitano

I really hoped to be able to write that I was loving this book by this point.

But I am not loving this book. At least not yet.

It's a bit dispiriting, to be honest. One wants so much to Get It. To belong to the coterie of enlightened readers who truly appreciate some new, great novel, and to partake in the shared enjoyment and understanding. By that same token, one fears that the inability to join in on the love is a reflection of some flaw in the reader. (Which is to say, me.) Perhaps I am too lazy. Too lacking in erudition. Too dull. For while I don't exactly apologize for hating either great classics or contemporary darlings (I thoroughly detested The Corrections) not to my taste, there is always the niggling. bothersome suspicion that a "better" reader would have appreciated them more. And so far, I just don't understand why 2666 is such a lauded piece of fiction.

Thus far, 2666 is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. Where it succeeds most truly is in its creation of atmosphere. The Part About Amalfitano is nothing if not atmospheric. One gets a genuine sense of vague foreboding and barely suppressed frustration, and Bolaño's writing is deeply portentous. An arid menace and desolation pervades the pages. If nothing more, I will concede that a stage has been well set.

I am still enjoying the book well enough to keep going without undue effort. Bolaño is an expressive writer, though I suspect I would admire his prose more in the original Spanish. (My high school/medical Spanish is laughably insufficient to tackle this challenge.) Strangely, the part I enjoyed most about this Part was Amalfitano's decision to recreate a Duchamp ready-made in his backyard (thus clearing up a mystery from the previous part); it's an odd state of affairs when the aspect I enjoy most about anything has anything to do with Marcel Duchamp. But there we are.

I ended last week's 2666 post on an up note. Sadly, I'm going to end this week's rather differently. While it wasn't enough on its own to make me dislike this section of the novel, neither was I endeared to The Part About Amalfitano by its preoccupation with homosexuality. It begins with Lola's malcathected [tip o' the hat to DFW] obsession with a gay poet, and continues with Amalfitano's father, the disembodied voice that speaks to him at night, and Guerra's son. More bluntly -- enough already with "faggot." Yes, I realize that Enlightened Readers should be past such petty concerns as the use of ugly, unpleasant words in the service of Art. Fine. But, as a gay male reader, I don't really love reading that particular word over and over and over, and if I'm going to be asked to read it thusly, I'd like to get a sense that its use is earned. I realize that Bolaño is an Artist, and has a certain degree of license. But he chose to make this Art this way with these characteristics, and I'm not entirely sure I understand why he felt the need to hit that note quite so hard. (I felt similarly during Pulp Fiction wherein Quentin Tarantino gave us White Guy So Down with Black People He Can Use the Word "Nigger"a Lot, and then obnoxiously cast himself as said WGSDBPHCUWNL.) If it's meant as some kind of indictment of the various characters who use it, it seems lazy and a bit heavy-handed. (The voice's insistence that it doesn't dislike gay people per se while still using a term of abuse for them [aka the Eminem defense] was a tidy, well-done little example of hypocrisy, I will grant.) In any case, I'm not accusing Bolaño of being a homophobe, and I don't think it ruins the novel or anything so hysterical. But neither did it enhance my enjoyment thereof.


Your dose of local color

On behalf of everyone here at the Bleakonomy Northern Office, I'd like to wish Augusta native Julia Clukey the very best of luck at the Vancouver Olympics, where she is on the US luge team.

Focus on childhood health, not obesity

Paul Campos has an article in the New Republic arguing against Michelle Obama's declared war on childhood obesity. He tends to use overheated rhetoric, and I don't feel equipped to judge his claim that obesity is not harmful (I do, however, think it is at least worth questioning whether obesity is a cause of ill health or a correlation with it).

I do, however, feel equipped to agree with him that there is overwhelming evidence that the proposed solutions for childhood obesity are ineffective at solving obesity. More exercise and better nutrition positively impact health, but they do not, in the long term, reduce weight.

Given that we don't really know why obesity is increasing, and we don't know how to solve it, but we do know how to improve health - I totally agree with Campos that Michelle Obama has the wrong focus. Making a focus on health more generally will make a positive change, without stigmatizing heavier kids or their parents.

Update [via Dan]: Ambinder weighs in. (See what I did there? Oh, never mind.)

Update II: Electric Bugaloo [via Elizabeth again]: I think Ambinder has some good points. I would like to be clear. I am by no means saying we should throw up our hands about children and nutrition and health. I also do not wish to say that childhood obesity rates do not indicate there's a problem. I'm just not sure whether the obesity rate is merely an indication, or the root cause. I strongly believe in the benefits of a diet of whole foods (by which I mean non-manufactured, non-processed), home-cooked meals eaten together as a family, healthy foods in school, and exercise. Reduced TV is good, too. But I am in favor of these measures not because they reduce obesity, but because they promote health.

If FLOTUS were to focus on the nutrition and exercise issues, I think that would be far more useful. Success would also be much easier to achieve, and therefore people would stick to it longer. It is far easier to persist in eating healthily when your goal is to eat healthily, then it is to wait for the scale to move down (and such a wait is often in vain). Success in eating healthily is achieved on a daily basis. Success in losing weight is extremely hard won, and almost never maintained. Again, look at the statistics here.

Such a focus would also encourage parents of skinny kids to sit up and take note.

Ambinder's bigger blunder

There are a host of sites I visit with particular frequency. One of them is the Politics page over at The Atlantic, edited by Marc Ambinder. In addition to original content, at the bottom of the page is a "What We're Reading" feature that directs you to other articles of interest on the Web. This morning they got sloppy, if not downright irresponsible.

One of the linked articles had this teaser:
Palin's Bigger Blunder

Click on the link, and you'll be directed to an article in the Yale Daily News about Sarah Palin's appearance at the Tea Party convention. Now, being no big fan of Sarah Palin's, I am always happy to read about her various blunders, regardless of size. In this case, however, even she deserves better.

The article castigates her for wearing a black memorial wristband during her appearance to commemorate her son Track's service in Iraq. Black bands should be reserved for those who are mourning the loss of a loved on, not those (like Palin) whose loved ones have returned safely. According to the author, she is callously and carelessly appropriating a symbol of sacrifice her family has not made.

Except she isn't. Way at the bottom of the article is this:
Author's Note: In my column in the News Wednesday, I criticized former
Alaska governor Sarah Palin for wearing a black memorial bracelet with her son’s
name on it, as Track returned unharmed from Iraq last fall. However, Sarah
Palin's bracelet was not black; instead, it was a dark brown "DeployedHero"
bracelet worn by those who have loved ones currently serving in the military.
The bracelet is different from the black one associated with men and women who
are killed in action overseas. Recognizing this, I apologize to the governor and
to any reader who might have been misled by my piece. I hope that this serves as
an important lesson for anyone interested in the importance of these

In other words, the author was mistaken about Palin's wristband, and compounded the error by penning the piece.

None of this is even remotely newsworthy, and an editorial mistake with subsequent mea culpa hardly merits a mention at The Atlantic. But still the link and misleading teaser are there, creating the impression that Palin did indeed blunder in some way. Readers who click the link and don't read all the way to the bottom might miss that the criticism is unfair.

One of my biggest complaints (among many) about the Huffington Post is that the headlines and teasers it touts are often misleading, and misrepresent the content in the linked material to make it seem more controversial, sexy, or otherwise eye-catching. I've learned not to trust them, in other words. I expect better of The Atlantic and its editors.