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Archive for January, 2010

I read an article other day about migraine in The New York Times.  It told me that migraines “stem from a genetic disorder (yes, you have your parents to blame)”, and that migraineurs “inherit a hypersensitivity to physical and emotional events”, and “don’t respond well to change”.  Having suffered for the last four years from mostly hormonally triggered migraines, I naturally feel qualified to comment: first, in particular to this article’s remarks on migraine; and second, in general to this being an example of a pervasive and prevailing pattern these days of going for the negative.

First.  The article also mentioned that 36 million people in the US, over 1 in 10 of us, suffer from migraines.  Now there are descriptions of migraine going back at least 2000 years, but many more of us suffer from it now than in the past.  Job didn’t suffer from migraine, which affects a higher number of people than even diabetes, the rate of which has also soared in recent times, to 7-8% of us.  And nor was he afflicted with diabetes.  Or a range of other ailments, from autism to asthma, which are also now proposed as arising from defective, malfunctioning genes – though they’ve recently increased in prevalence.

Characters in Agatha Christie novels suffer from a range of intriguing early 20th century afflictions, from adenoids to neurasthenia, but I don’t recall any of them having migraine or diabetes.  Did any Shakespeare characters suffer from migraine?  Jane Austen?  My point is that it seems very strange for all of these newly suspected disease-causing genetic defects to suddenly manifest themselves across the populace now.  Has our genetic makeup ‘evolved’ so quickly over the last few decades to include these ‘defects’?  No, of course not.  But the level of knowledge and care that goes in to reporting news seems certainly to have decreased lately.

It’s just much easier to make declarative statements than it is to seriously consider an issue.
And genetics is hot now.  Explanations for just about everything about us are being sought in our genes.  Voila!  If you have a problem, it must have arisen in your genes.  Therefore your genes are defective.  But couldn’t it be that modern day circumstances, not defects, are causing our otherwise perfectly reasonable genes to misfire?  Why this assumption of defect?

Here’s an example of how silly this is.  I’ve also read recently that short people have a slightly higher risk of heart disease than tall people.  So, are their genes defective?  Should we research ways to make people taller?  Well, maybe not, as it also turns out that taller people are at a slightly higher risk of getting cancer.  Insulin-like Growth Factor, which increases tallness, also helps cancer cells grow.   Researchers don’t know the connection between shortness and heart disease, but we’re assured that they hope to discover the genetic pathways which cause these ‘deficiencies’ in order to rectify them.  What deficiencies?  Can’t we just as reasonably consider these genes as beneficial, protecting tall people from heart disease, and short people from cancer?

Another example.  I read about this in The New Yorker a few weeks back.  Years ago, some four year olds were tested on their ability to resist eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes on the promise that they’d then get to eat two if they succeeded.  Now that the kids are in their middle age, it’s been found that the successful waiters, the ‘high delayers’, have been found to be more successful, with better careers and more financial stability.  Which naturally means the low delayers are ‘less successful’, with the accompanying implication of impairment.  But what’s success?  What about variety, lots of experiences etc?

I suspect the researchers are probably high delayers.  I say this as a very high delayer myself. I slept in on Christmases, knowing Santa wasn’t going to come back and take all the presents away before I got up.  I can attest to the downside of deferring reward for future gain. There’s no question that it’s good to expend a little effort for one’s own future benefit – to put off eating the marshmallow in order to have two later – to be kind to one’s future self:  taking time to write down passwords; putting car keys in their usual place, that sort of thing.  But sometimes self-sacrifice in the present, delaying a reward for the future, can go too far.

I used to  – with, for example, a plate of homemade cookies – each day eat the smallest cookie on the plate, letting my future self have the pleasure of the larger cookies, until the grand finale, the moment of anticipation, getting to eat the biggest cookie at the end as compensation for it being the last one.  But one day it dawned on me that saving the biggest for last meant never getting the biggest at all.  By the time it’s the last, it’s not the biggest cookie any more, it’s the only one.  Now I eat the biggest one first.

I suggest that being able to delay gratification for future, greater benefit, and opting for immediate satisfaction both have their benefits.  It’s not that one way is ‘good’, and the other ‘bad’, but a matter of discerning when each is appropriate.  But according to The New Yorker article, the researchers conducting these studies are analyzing brain function in order to figure out how to alter it.  They’d like to chemically or genetically enable us to increase our self-control.

To my relief, the article did mention that some old-fashioned training involving visualization (pretend the marshmallow is a cloud, not something sweet to eat), also helped the low delayers learn to wait.  (Works for me.  I came up with several visualizations years ago to help myself lose weight:  a pile of sugar on a plate with a cocktail toothpick stuck in to it holding a little sign saying “Rat Poison”; imagining the grocery store cookie aisle as smelling like the cleaning products aisle; etc.)  So maybe low gratification delay isn’t a ‘condition’ or a ‘disorder’ so much as a lack of training in how to use what’s in our mental tool box.   Maybe the researchers could take a little more training in applying their own mental skills.  Is lack of self-control really such a ‘defect’ that we need to alter genetic function in the brain in order to ‘correct’ it?

Here’s still another example of our endemic propensity these days to assume the worst.  Ever since we’ve figured out that bacteria can make us sick, we’ve regarded them as nasty, dangerous harmful things.  But it’s only in recent years that we’ve come to pop antibiotics at the first sign of being sick whether or not bacteria have caused the illness, that we’ve started putting antibiotics in our socks, the animals we eat, and even in our soap.  Talk about accentuating the negative!  We’re doing this even though researchers have known for years that not only do most bacteria not bother us, but far more importantly, there are some we can’t live without.  We harbor our own internal bacterial gardens, necessary for our good health.  There are more of these charming little entities inside us than our own cells.  They’re not enemies, they’re allies.  Turns out we really are not alone, and no one’s an island.

Every time we down an antibiotic when we’re feeling ill, it’s like we’re spraying herbicide over the entire front lawn in order to kill some dandelions.  And just as dandelions will come up first in bare dirt, the nasty germs will come back easier and faster next time without the good bacteria to help fend them off.   Which isn’t to say we should do nothing when we get sick, but that we’d do far better for ourselves by keeping positive as well as negative considerations in mind.  Just as healthy grass keeps the dandelions down, so do our own internal flora help to keep the bad bacteria at bay.  We help ourselves by helping them, rather than always opting to kill everything off in order to nail some unpleasant germs.

Here’s yet another pet example of negative assumptions bringing negative results.  After years of being encouraged to encase our feet in ever more elaborate shoes to protect and support and cushion and guide them in various activities until it looks like we’re all walking around in little SUV’s, foot experts are now concluding that we may be damaging our feet with this treatment.  There are groups now advocating running barefoot, or at least in shoes that let our feet feel the ground, as being better for them.  As a large-footed person always looking for light, non tank-like shoes, I’m thrilled by this.  Where did we get off on the wrong foot, so to speak, with our shoe designs?  I think it comes from defining our feet as having ‘imperfections’ and ‘defects’ needful of bracing and protection.  Maybe it’s not our feet, but their circumstances, what we subject them to that make them hurt.

Which brings me to my second general observation.  We apply negative assumption – i.e. a person has a problem, therefore there’s something ‘wrong’ with the person – far beyond health issues.  For example, a person who is poverty stricken is too often assumed to be a failure.  We don’t seem able, or willing, to consider that this could be a quite capable person who’s burdened by circumstance.  It’s standard routine in the prejudice, line, often unconsciously.  “Why didn’t all those black folks leave New Orleans when they were warned to?”  “Why did HL Gates have to be so rude to the police officer?”  I heard both these questions firsthand, and was kind of shocked in both cases that the questioners were so oblivious to the circumstances of those whom they were critiquing.

Such negative assumption is hugely hurtful when we apply it to others, but its consequences are hurtful to ourselves as well. Yet not only do we indulge in it, we seem to enjoy being fearful, seeing ourselves as suffering damage, as set upon by the world.  Perhaps this viewpoint is so common these days because politicians and disseminators of news find it effective in stirring up audiences.  Both groups have been long renowned for pulling our strings by aggrandizing the negative.  Perhaps we’ve collectively just come to adopt the habit.  Or perhaps it’s just easier than looking for underlying explanations.

Not to say there aren’t some very negative, bad, dangerous beings out there, monsters whether viral, bacterial or human, and that we shouldn’t try to fend them off.  But where do you stop with the assumption of badness, the pre-emptive defense, the kill ‘em all just in case mode of thinking?  Carried too far by people in power, that approach creates paranoid police states.  As if suffering some political autoimmune disease, such a country attacks its own populace on the negative assumption that it probably contains those with bad intentions.  It ends up eating away at itself as it creates enemies by the armload out of its own people.  How do any of us feel when someone assumes the worst about us?  Being pre-emptively attacked for possibly being dangerous can make monsters out of the mildest, out of those who until then never paid us any mind.

Some very influential people, such as Gandhi and MLK in our own era, and the widely quoted individual who figures so prominently in that book of which Christians are quite fond, have argued we shouldn’t ever act based on an assumption of badness.  I’m not that open-hearted or brave (some would say foolhardy), but it doesn’t take much courage to dispense with pre-emptive fending, just a willingness to look past negative suspicion and fear and consider circumstances.

Here’s a great example of success with such an outlook.  MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a form of staph bacteria that is now a serious problem through overuse of antibiotics.  It’s killed more people in the US last year than died of AIDS.  It’s evolved as a result of constant attack to defend itself (no surprise) and now most antibiotics can’t harm it.  Recently to my surprise I saw a blip on some internet news front page that announced that Norway has eliminated MRSA from its hospitals.  They achieved this not by being even fiercer in attempts to eradicate it, but by banning the use of most antibiotics – that is, by ending the attacks.  http://www.tampabay.com/news/health/medicine/how-norway-beat-a-bad-bug/1062228.

Seems counterintuitive at first, but it shows that changing the circumstances rather than defensively reacting to negative assumptions can dispel otherwise difficult problems.  Just as providing enough transportation can enable people to flee hurricanes.  And not threatening to arrest someone inside his own home for breaking into it when he’s already shown proof that it’s his might reduce his testiness.

It’s at least worth trying.  If we’d stop so often assuming the worst – because of location, looks, skin color or species, or whatever strikes us as negative – we, like Norway, might face fewer monsters.  Personally and collectively.

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We business numbers people don’t talk about our jobs much – what’s to talk about?   January, when it’s time to tally up and close out the previous year’s books for delivery to the accountants, the job is even more uninteresting, being filled as it is with even more than usual uninteresting work.  Generally there’s not much brain juice left at the end of January days for interesting endeavors such as blog posting.  I’m finding this year, however, that there is enough left to be playing video games with.  And no question, playing FFVII is more entertaining than writing about it.

This January, trying to keep myself from becoming too numbered out, I’ve been taking a break during the days to participate in a yoga class, a new experience for me, and one with which I’m quickly falling in love for the way it mixes deceptively graceful yet challenging movement with a cheering, assurance-improving mental outlook.  Then when I get home, between feeding the animals and myself, I’ll play hackysack for a half hour or so, another activity to which I’ve become addicted.  For an amateur such as myself, it’s a pretty phenomenal aerobic and agility booster.

What’s been interesting is how playing the video game each night has inserted itself into these other activities.  Working through number discrepancies, I imagine myself solving puzzles to open locked doors.  Some of the yoga poses seem right at home in fantasy video games – ‘humble warrior’, ‘dancing king’.  And imagining weapons training for battle exchanges with evil minions goes perfectly with hackysack.  I’m quite enjoying the way my mind is melding these endeavors together.

One thing video games don’t have a lot of is wordiness, and neither does my head these days.   Words and numbers take quite different modes of thinking in my attic region, and they don’t mix very well.  I hope to be out of number mode in the next week or so.  Then I’ll see how well words and video games mix.  Can I blog and play FFVII at the same time?  I dunno…I sure see what people mean when they talk about checking out and going in to hermit mode to play these games.  I’ll send out some smoke signals or a carrier pigeon if I find I’ve become too isolated.

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Gobsmacked

President Obama accepted the Republican House members’ invitation to engage in a question and answer session.  Obama suggested the event be televised, and they agreed.   I expect they are regretting their invitation now because Obama wiped up the floor with them.

Did they forget that Obama taught Con Law at Chicago?  The Republican caucus is child’s play for anyone who survived that arena, where combat-by-brainpower is the order of the day, every day.

No getting past it:   Obama is smart.  He is smart in several ways:   he prepares, so that he has facts ready to hand to substitute for Republican lies and distortions.  When some cracker from Texas accused him of jacking up the deficit to 24 percent of GDP, Obama reeled off facts:   there was a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit when he came into office, the Republicans passed entitlements like the Medicare Prescription plan without paying for them;  they started two wars and paid for them with enormous  loans from China, the interest from which piles up higher every day.  Some eight trillion of the current deficit was built into laws they passed, a disaster waiting to unfold when Obama took the oath of office.

I read letters in my local paper every day from Republicans wishing that Obama would stop “blaming the previous administration” for our current troubles.   What–he is supposed to cover up the truth?   Because it is unpleasant for Republicans to hear?

Obama is also smart because he knows how to listen–he actually hears what people say, and tries to answer the questions they ask (this is hard with Republicans because they don’t seem to know how to ask questions without rattling off a list of talking points).   And he points out that he is answering their questions as he does so.

A house member from Georgia waved a Republican bill on health  care reform, complaining that it was ignored by Democrats.  Now the Republican health care bill is about as factual as their budget, which had no numbers in it.   Obama had his hands full trying to say why this happened without saying that their bill is crap (you can see its suckiness at gop.gov).   He finally said that the trouble with Republicans is that if they don’t get 100% of what they want, or even 80%, they claim their proposals are being ignored.   He pointed out that the current bill has ideas in it put forward during Clinton’s presidency by leading Republicans such as Bob Dole, and that there are hundreds of Republican amendments in it.

Not good enough for the Rethugs.  So Obama demonstrated another way in which he is smart:   he actually thinks.   He pointed out that Republicans have boxed themselves in.  Having told their constituents over and over that he is “some kind of bolshevik” and that he has a “crazy plan to take over the country,”  they cannot now lead or govern or legislate, because if they do, they look like they are cooperating with a man and a party they have designated as socialist and anti-American.

Late in the discussion someone asked if he had time for one more question (probably hoping that he had to rush off somewhere).  He said, “Sure.  I’m having fun!”   Intellectual give-and-take is a kind of fun that was at home in ancient Athens and that used to be alive and well in American politics (Lincoln and Douglas, Webster and Calhoun). Today’s conservatives hate it, though, because it requires them to think, to reconsider their boiler-plated arsenal of talking points and its relation to reality.   What do you want to bet that they will all be calling Obama “arrogant” today?

Obama’s performance reminded me of John Dryden’s lines about the proper way to remove someone’s rhetorical head:  don’t use an axe;  use piano wire.   So now the Republicans have two choices:   they can go on pretending that their underwear isn’t showing, or they can pull it up out of sight.   Anyone want to  bet on which way they go?

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Boston Baked Beans

The Boston Globe reports that the new Senator from Massachusetts visited with a group of pastors today.  Here’s the photo:

It sure looks as though a good time is being had by one and all.   Or one or all are being had.  Something.

The comments mostly glow about the new Senator.  Here’s one that doesn’t:

“People who think politics is all rainbows and unicorns are idiots, pure and simple, and this thread’s full of them. It’s about resources, access to them, and fiercely competing interests. Always has been. It’s amazing how gullible the feel-good 3% who put Brown over the top is. If good-looking, smiling performers make you warm and fuzzy inside, consider voting on the next American Idol, but please leave the real voting to the adults.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Too late?

Yeah, if I was a politician of any stripe, I’d be scared to death by the SCOTUS decision, because now it’ll be that much easier for any amoral megalomaniac with a thirst for power to sell his soul I mean vote to the devil I mean corporations for enough financing to knock me out of my seat.  If Congresspeople want to keep this from happening to them, they better enact campaign finance reform quick.  But it may already be too late.  I suspect that calls are even now being made to the megalomaniacs already in office:  “Vote against this ‘reform’ garbage and we’ll ensure that you stay in office for as long as you like.   You take care of us and we’ll take care of you, ol’ buddy!”

Maybe we should all incorporate ourselves so the Supremes’ll watch out after our interests, too.   Their ruling really was bizarre, more radical than conservative, but I’m not sure what kind of radical.  I think you’re right, Doc, most conservatives themselves don’t realize who they’ve put on the Court.  They didn’t expect this.  Now they’re going to be receiving their corporate marching orders, or face being marched right out of their seats.  In which direction will their venality and self-interest teeter – toward ridding themselves of even more blatant corporate armtwisting and string pulling, or toward grabbing the moolah (before someone else does)?

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Eddying Out

Well Trep, JD Hayworth has decided to run against John McCain for one of Arizona’s Senate seats.  Hayworth is a Limbaugh clone, an empty-headed loudmouth who runs on whatever slogan the right has decided to push on a given day.   He represented my crazily gerrymandered district for about five minutes once, until Arizonans decided they couldn’t take his blowharding any longer.

As if McCain wasn’t already threatened on his right by the former head of the Minutemen.  You know, the guys who blow up trains and buildings and banks to make a point, however obscure it may be.

People from other states must wonder who is running the asylum in Arizona.

Not that I have any sympathy for McCain.   He just looked defeated when interviewed about the Supremes’ decision to allow corporations to run the country.  Here’s what he said:  “I was not surprised at the Supreme Court decision . . . I went over to observe the oral arguments.  It was clear that Justice Roberts, Alito and Scalia, by their very skeptical and even sarcastic comments, were very much opposed to BCRA (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act).”

“He added that justices of the past that supported financing limits, despite their usual conservative positions, had experience in politics and knew the ramifications of their decision.”  (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2010/01/mccain-skeptical-supreme-court.html?wprss=44)
So not only did Republicans appoint ultra-conservative judges, they got a bench full of ill-informed smart alecks into the bargain.  And they realized this when, exactly?

At least McCain cared enough to walk over to chambers to hear the arguments.  Keith Olbermann noted last night that Senator Jim DeMint, when told that the Supremes’ decision would allow foreign states to give money to American candidates, at first said “I don’t believe it” and then admitted to not having actually read the decision (transcript at ABCnews.go.com)

Keith’s response:   “Hop to it, Sparky.”

I can’t imagine commenting to a reporter about something I had not read.  Perhaps Republican talking points are supposed to save Senators from having to do the dirty little chore of reading anything.

Maybe there is a good side to the Supremes’ decision?  Ezra Klein said in the WaPo today that this decision would finally get people to realize how desperately we need campaign finance regulation:  “But it’s definitely a shocking articulation of our system’s vulnerability to corporate capture. That might refocus attention on campaign finance reform and convince people to move towards the policies that seem both constitutional and effective.”

I sure hope he’s right.  Ezra is a young dude, and optimism suits the young.  Optimism is a bit harder to come by when you’re a geezer like me.

I do see another ray of hope in this decision, though.  Smirking John Roberts and Snidely Whiplash Scalia might move even the stupid Republicans to see the ugly downside of their ultra-conservative politics. If said Republicans ever get around to reading the decisions handed down by the people they put on the bench for life, that is.

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…Make Stuff up About it.

I’ve been wondering lately whether the industrial scale slavery practiced in this country was no more or less than economically driven.  Lots of $$ were to be made growing tobacco and cotton and sugarcane for rum.  The racism just served as a justification of sorts.  And so have interpretations of history.  We can’t quite ignore that chapter of our own past, but we can deflect some of the judgment.  (What’s the rhetorical term for that?)  “There’s always been slavery, after all,” we say.  “We were only doing what’s always been done.”  Then we point to, oh..say..the pyramids.  “See, there’s been slavery for thousands of years.”  Except that now Egyptian archaeologists, having dug into the facts on the ground so to speak, have learned that our western interpretation of the last 200 years isn’t the case at all.  The pyramid laborers were paid well, housed well and ate well, and were honored if they died on the job by burial near the Pharoah’s tomb.  Hmmm.  How did the assumption come about that the pyramids were built by slaves, anyway?  Looks like slavery apologists are going to have to tweak their justifications.

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