Saturday, June 25, 2005

Global warming in a nutshell

To Alaskans and Alaskan tourists, global warming is obvious and visible:

“I’ve lived here 22 years, and the changes I’ve seen are tremendous,” said Mr. Page, the Seward kayaking guide. “The summers are much warmer and sunnier. We see things like white-sided dolphins, which don’t normally appear in these waters.”1

“At least four native villages in the far north may have to move inland or to higher ground to avoid being swept away by erosion from the sea…”1

“Alaska is changing by the hour. From the far north, where higher seas are swamping native villages, to the tundra around Fairbanks, where melting permafrost is forcing some roads and structures to buckle in what looks like a cartoon version of a hangover, to the rivers of ice receding from inlets, warmer temperatures are remaking the Last Frontier State.”1

“Out in the fjords, kayakers paddled into bays newly opened by other receding glaciers. They came to see the ice, a tour guide explained, to paddle around something that had been moving toward a tidewater destiny for thousands of years. And many of them were in a hurry. Glacial pace, in Alaska, no longer means slow.”1

To understand the state of environmental awareness among reigning politicians in America, consider the following:

“Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans, said mandatory emission limits should wait until scientists reach a consensus that human actions are the cause of the warming. But that consensus has already been reached by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last December, Science reported that a database search of 928 peer-reviewed papers on climate change over the past decade found not a single author disputing this consensus.”2

“A team of 300 scientists completed a four-year Arctic Climate Impact Assessment last November documenting the changes, which, they concluded, were driven largely by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. Alaska’s sole representative to Congress, Republican Don Young, immediately dismissed the report. ‘I don’t believe it is our fault,’ Young said, adding that his opinion is ‘as sound as any scientist’s.’2

What sheer, unadulterated hubris! What willful ignorance! What a breathtaking dismissal of scientific inquiry!

For Congressman Don Young, there can be no amount of scientific evidence that is sufficient to prove anything, because his own fact-free opinions carry equal or better weight, and there is no reason for us to believe that he limits this “philosophy” to only the science of global warming. This is just one more data point suggesting that the Enlightenment has come to an end, and we have returned to the Dark Ages when superstition and conjecture ruled all discourse, when truth was relative and scientists were agents of the devil. Now we have an administration that is disdainful of all who are “reality-based,” an administration that rewrites history the moment after it occurs, and elite government-run military schools that preach fire-and-brimstone in the course of the teaching day.

It really is enough to make my head spin. To paraphrase the song: “we won’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone” and God, but it’s going quickly.
1 “The Race to Alaska Before It Melts,” Timothy Egan, New York Times, June 26, 2005.
2 “Alaska’s Meltdown,” Charles Wohlforth, onearth, Summer 2005.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The fix is in

I wouldn’t even bother to open the things if I didn’t need to shred them to avoid identity theft. Nearly every day they arrive: credit card offers begging me to bury myself in debt with one bank or another. As I process them to feed the pertinent pieces into the shredder, every so often something catches my eye, and lately, it has been the word “fixed” - as in “A 0% fixed APR until the first day of the billing cycle that includes 11/1/2006. After that, 7.99% fixed.a

Searching the fine print for the tiny superscript “a” one learns that: “You understand that the terms of your account, including the APRs, are subject to change. This means that the APRs for this offer are not guaranteed; APRs may change to higher APRs, fixed APRs may change to variable [et cetera].”

Which leads me to wonder: what, exactly, is meant by “fixed” in this Chase Bank offer? It means “NOT fixed.” Is it legal for a company to redefine at will commonly-understood words, with the clear intent to mislead? A person believing that they are being offered what is stated will soon learn that they are being lied to, and that the bank has no intention of adhering to the offer so blatantly made. This is deceitful and borders upon fraud, but it does seem to be the way the game is played these days. Borrower beware.

Another huge scam I heard of recently involves mortgage refinancing. Assuming I understood correctly, a syndicated financial commentator said that in California (and perhaps he said nationwide), home mortgages are “non-recourse” loans, meaning that in the event of a foreclosure, if the sale of the home doesn’t produce all that’s owed to the bank, the bank cannot seek repayment from other assets of the borrower. In what appears to be a near secret (in my small survey of homeowners no one had heard of this), the refinanced mortgages are nearly always “recourse” loans, so those lenders can come after any and all assets to make up the difference between amount owed and amount recovered.

No one likes to think about a potential foreclosure, but bad things happen that can result in such a financial disaster. But I wonder just how many people who’ve refinanced their homes are fully aware of their vastly increased exposure to financial risk from this subtle change in the language of the fine print.

Here again, it appears that the intent is to mislead. One should not need a degree in law or accounting to competently conduct one’s everyday financial business, but that does seem to be the case. Lenders who behave in such a manner are unethical, but theirs are probably quite profitable enterprises, as they take advantage of the fact that many in today’s society are functionally illiterate, and one is led to conclude that lenders would prefer all their customers to be illiterate. We clearly need some re-regulation of the banking and money-lending industry, given their deceitful tendencies.

Borrowers deserve a clear explication of the terms and conditions of any loan, not the sort of bait-and-switch that has become commonplace by mainstream financial institutions. Instead it seems that banks try to drive borrowers into the very bankruptcy status that, thanks to bank lobbyists, can no longer be remediated by declaring bankruptcy. In other words, banks seem hell-bent upon driving as many people as possible into a state of financial ruin, from which there is no escape, and this antisocial behavior can’t be condoned, and should not be allowed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

More on “Death by disobedience”

It now turns out that Nicholas had been bitten by Rex, the family’s pit bull, earlier during the same day that he was killed by one or both of the dogs.*

The news article does not describe the severity of the bite(s), but this is yet more evidence that Nicholas’s mother was well aware of the potential for harm in the presence of the dogs.

Why have her other children remained in her care, when she has demonstrated such poor judgment in keeping Nicholas safe from harm? Why has she not been charged in the death of her son, when it seems clear that she is the party responsible, the person who knowingly housed her son alone with pit bulls that had a history of biting, dogs that each weighed about as much as Nicholas, and had already bitten him that very day?
* “Dead boy [bitten] before mauling, police say,” by Jaxon Van Derbeken, SFGate, June 15, 2005.

Follow-up (June 24, 2005): ”Mom jailed in pit bulls’ fatal mauling of son - she is charged with child endangerment for leaving 12-year-old boy alone with dogs,” by Jaxon Van Derbeken, SFGate, June 24, 2005

Sunday, June 12, 2005

One in ten

What would happen if, in tomorrow’s news, we read that the consumption of chocolate has been found to result in severe mental and physical health problems, making it impossible for chocolate-eaters to continue working, causing them to burn down their own homes or commit other violent acts upon their own family members, and leading them to kill members of the general public in a random manner, and that these side effects afflict one out of ten people who consume chocolate?

Would we continue to advertise and sell and glamorize chocolate hither and yon? Would we have whole magazines devoted to the preparation and consumption and presentation of chocolates from around the world? Would we continue to include chocolate at our tables for special holidays or everyday meals? Would directors include chocolate-eating in their movie scenes?

Or would we begin to see articles detailing the dire consequences of chocolate consumption? Would we be shown the “face” of chocolate-intoxication? The staggering, the drooling and slurred speech, the rage, the rotting teeth, the poverty and homelessness, the violence, death and disease, the despair and suicidal depression?

Obviously, I am writing not about chocolate, but about alcohol, the world’s most-abused drug, the drug that causes more heartache than any other, as it rips apart families, leads to fatal car collisions and most domestic abuse, and causes severe-to-fatal injury to brain, liver, and other essential organs of those ensnared by its addictive lure.

One in ten people who consume alcohol end up having a major problem with it for which they require outside help, help that all too often is unavailable. One in ten! Think of how many families are faced with one or more of their kin struggling with this deadly drug!

And yet, the pervasive messages about alcohol in every medium are positive ones, extolling flavor, and status, and glamour, and fun, and excitement, and sociability. Everywhere you look, alcohol positively sparkles!

Unlike tobacco, alcohol has no major advertising campaign detailing the realities of alcohol and its effects on the mind, the body, and society. The closest would be the MADD ads, but what we need is to de-glamorize its use.

Instead of gorgeous, gowned models tipping back their martinis, we need images of habitual drunks, staggering and drooling and fighting and retching on the floors of dirty restrooms. We need images of drunks veering down the highways, killing innocent people, and then in the dock being sentenced for murder. We need images of long-term drunks, with yellowing eyes and the glassy stare of cerebral edema. We need the images of lovely holiday dinners shattered by the excess drinking of one family member, the terror in the eyes of children when a parent is drinking. We need to hear the stories of families who have tried to rescue their kin from the street when drinking has resulted in homelessness and all the person wants is that next drink. We need all of these images, and more, lurking everywhere, on billboards and in magazines, on the sides of buses, on television and in movies and in newspapers.

Prohibition clearly does not work. But an ad campaign that focuses on the reality of alcohol abuse, if all those images could possibly be lodged in the memories of drinkers, just might provide enough of a reality check that people who begin to have problems with alcohol will recognize that fact, and address it at a much earlier stage, when it is more easily treatable. And, if such a campaign prevents some people from drinking at all, so much the better. Because “one in ten” turns out to be a very large number!

Death by disobedience

12-year-old kid mauled to death at home by pit bulls: whose fault was it? the dogs’ fault? the parents’ fault? Oh, no, no, no. It was the kid’s fault, because he didn’t obey his mother:

“ ‘I put him down there [in the basement], with a shovel on the door…he had a bunch of food. And I told him, “Stay down there until I come back.” Typical Nicky, he wouldn’t listen to me.’ […] Apparently, Nicholas found a way to get the door open and come upstairs.”*

And so, he died, a horrible, nightmarish death. And it all happened simply because he didn’t obey his mother.

“ ‘Even after the whole thing,’ she said, ‘I’m not mad at my dogs. I just love them to death.’ ”*

“Deeply remorseful, Faibish says she continues to think of what she might have done differently. For one, she wishes she’d persuaded Nicholas to go to a picnic with his younger sister, Ashley. But she insists, ‘I have no regrets about that day,’ Faibish said.”*

Clearly, this woman does not accept any responsibility for her son’s gruesome death, but for her to say she “has no regrets about that day” is nothing short of breathtaking.

She’s not even mad at her dogs, she says. Less than eight days after her son’s tragic death, she is accepting of it, saying : “It’s Nicky’s time to go…when you’re born you’re destined to go and this was his time,”* and even telephones a newspaper reporter to spew forth her version of events. What a stunning absence of grief. Where is any indication of her profound loss, of her sense of accountability? But perhaps, this is merely typical of people who would choose to bring such dogs bred for killing into their homes.

Every time another of these pit bull kills hits the news, their defenders sound off about what loving dogs they are, and note that more people are bitten by other breeds than by pit bulls, so why does public disdain focus so sharply on pit bulls? But to be bitten by a cocker spaniel or golden retriever is a very different encounter than what can be expected from a pit bull. There is no excuse for people being bitten by dogs of any sort, but the potential for serious injury is far, far greater when the attacking dog is a pit bull (or rottweiler or presa canario); the comparison simply does not wash.

The other common refrain from other pit bull owners is along the lines of “I take full responsibility for my dog, and with training, pit bulls are no more dangerous than any other dogs.” This argument fails in numerous ways.

First, it assumes that a well-trained pit bull will never revert to type, and this contention has been demonstrated to be false by well-trained pit bulls who have, without provocation, attacked and seriously injured people. How often have we heard a killer pit bull described as being “the sweetest dog I’ve ever known”? The pit bull has been specifically bred to attack and to kill, and possesses both the equipment and personality to do so, inherent in its genetics, and no amount of training can ever remove that breeding in a fail-safe manner.

Second, it presumes that all pit bulls will receive such training, and that clearly is not the case. How can we-the-public distinguish between well-trained pit bulls and their non-trained look-alikes? I cannot trust that a pit bull that I encounter anywhere has had any significant training.

Third, what, exactly, does “I take full responsibility” mean? In short, it means absolutely nothing. The person saying it is not the person who suffers the actual consequences, and no amount of retribution is sufficient to balance the experience of a full-on pit bull attack, even assuming the victim is not mauled to death. It is merely empty rhetoric with a subtext of “I will do whatever I choose, and then maybe, I might say I’m sorry afterward.”

Having pit bulls in our midst is a bit like leaving live grenades laying around. As long as everyone is trained to treat them correctly, they’re perfectly safe, and life goes on according to plan. But if even one is handled in the wrong manner, there is hell to pay, and nearly always, that hell is paid by an innocent party, not by the person responsible for the presence of the danger.

Ultimately, the question that needs to be asked regarding whether pit bulls should be allowed in our midst is: what good can come of it? What, exactly, is the benefit of having pit bulls around? And how does this compare with their detriment? Is it worth the risk of severe injury or death to innocent people to allow other people this choice of pet? If so, why not also allow cougars, bobcats, alligators, gila monsters, or bears as pets? Does the freedom to choose a particular breed of dog take precedence over the safety of the public at large? What motivates the choice of a pit bull for one’s pet? Why would anyone want to risk being responsible for causing such grievous harm to any other person, family member or not?

Because ultimately, that is the bottom line. Whether Ms. Faibish will admit to it or not, her son is dead because of choices she (and her husband) made, heedless of the obvious risks posed to her children and others. She (and he) set the plot into motion on the day they brought those dogs into their home, just as surely as if they’d brought in a randomly-activated bomb. And now, unbelievably, she wants not only our sympathy, but even wants us to hold her blameless. Perhaps this, then, is the profile of a typical owner of pit bulls.

* “Mother shut boy in basement to protect him from pit bull: 12-year-old was killed by family dog; owner sees death as tragic accident but defends the breed as loving pets,” by C.W. Nevius, Cecilia M. Vega, Chronicle Staff writers., June 12, 2005.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Trans fats and autism: a follow-up

Regarding my March post on this topic . . .

A current article in NewScientist directly addresses this suspected link, the first time I’ve seen the connection made in print:

“…[trans-fatty acids] not only pile on the pounds, but are implicated in a slew of serious mental disorders, from dyslexia and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to autism. Hard evidence is still thin… It seems that some of the damage may be mediated through triglyceride…found at high levels in rodents fed on trans-fats… Brains are about 60 percent fat…” (1)

Trans fats should be entirely eliminated from the food supply but until that happens, everyone, but most especially, young children and pregnant women, would be well-advised to actively avoid all foods containing trans fats, especially since there are plenty of alternatives available. Zero tolerance for this food-adulterating ingredient would seem to be the only rational way to respond to the developing scientific evidence regarding its toxicity: the stakes are simply too high to behave otherwise.

(1) “11 steps to a better brain - Food for thought (second section of article series)” in NewScientist, 28 May 2005.

PS: Interestingly, this article comes on the heels of my recent letter to the editor of NewScientist, with the two crossing in the mails. I am reassured that the connection has at last been made, because perhaps serious efforts will now be made to prevent its consumption by developing brains.

======my letter to editor of NewScientist======

Sent: Sunday, May 22, 2005 12:48 PM
Subject: Autism - Lots of Clues But Still No Answers (14 May, p. 14)


I continue to be surprised that in articles about autism (14 May, p. 14-15), no mention is made of a possible link between autism and the consumption of trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils). Based upon reports that brains of autistics show hippocampal damage (1, 2) and that rats fed trans fats sustained damage to the hippocampus (3), it would seem that such a suspicion deserves exploration.

The corresponding increase between the quantity of trans fats present in typical diets and the incidence of autism lends some epidemiological evidence to the possibility that autism is due at least partly to the consumption of synthetically-hydrogenated fats, and the high fat content of brains adds to the significance of what types of fats are consumed, especially during early development. If dietary trans fats do cause brain changes that contribute to autism, twin studies become far less useful for teasing out the genetic components, given the near-equal exposure of twins to dietary inputs, both in utero and in early childhood.

Trans fats also adversely alter the ratio of HDL/LDL cholesterol, earning them the moniker “metabolic poison” from Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health (4), so the question becomes: why are trans fats still so prevalent in people’s diets? Meanwhile, pregnant women and parents of young children should be warned that trans fats may cause real and lasting harm, something we cannot know until epidemiologic studies are done, which may never happen.

(1) DeLong, G.R. Autism, amnesia, hippocampus, and learning. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1992 Spring;16(1):63-70.

(2) Saitoh, O., Karns, C.M., and Courchesne, E. Development of the hippocampal formation from 2 to 42 years - MRI evidence of smaller area dentata in autism. Brain, Vol. 124, No. 7, 1317-1324, July 2001.

(3) Phillips, Helen. Fears raised over the safety of trans fats. NewScientist, 6 Nov 2004.

(4) FDA Urged to Require Restaurants to Disclose Use of Partially Hydrogenated Oils. Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Note: Parts of this letter are excerpted from my (obscure) blog posting of March 18, 2005: Trans fats: linked to autism too?

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