Defending Freedom of Speech Thru Gag Orders or Belief Versus Knowledge

I am a fervent supporter of the separation of Church and State for several reasons.  Among other things, I believe that people should be able to hold any spiritual, religious, and crackpot notions in their head that they want.  Thus, if Tom Cruise wants to believe that the director of the galactic confederacy (a guy named Xenu) brought aliens to this planet, stacked them around volcanoes, and killed them with H-Bombs 75 million years ago, causing their essences to pollute us ever since, then that’s fine.  If Christians want to believe that children are born inherently sinful, great, go for it.  If Buddhists want to believe that they will be reborn after they die, not necessarily as a human, but reborn nonetheless, fine.  None of them should be able to tell the others what to believe anymore than I should be able to tell them that when we Frisbeetarians die our souls go up on the roof and we can’t get them down.

That’s what faith is about.  A belief in something without evidence.  Yes, the Catholic church believes in miracles.  Documentation on the other hand, is iffy.  Never mind.  Let them believe.

Behavior on the other hand is a different thing.  If we are to agree on public policies that affect everyone, they really need to be based on things we can demonstrate to each other.

For instance, it is generally agreed that stepping off a cliff is a bad idea.  You can demonstrate this in many ways.  I prefer dropping a watermelon rather than an actual person, but we can clearly demonstrate, time and again, that whether the watermelon hits the ground or the ground hits the watermelon, it’s not going to end well for the watermelon.  This is called evidence.  Whether I’m an atheist, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Scientologist, we can agree, stepping off cliffs–generally bad.

Interestingly enough, it was probably only anecdotal, at first.  “I heard this guy, named Ugh went off the cliff after the mastodon and it was not pretty.” “Yeah?”  Then, through something we call inductive reasoning, we saw that every time someone went off the cliff (and lets not be petty, we’re talking cliff, not a slight drop–fifty feet minimum) there was clean-up involved.  (Unless you landed in a big pile of dung like what happened during the second defenestration of Prague.  And there was still clean-up involved.)

So, here’s where I get really incensed.  I believe that our public policies on health should be based on this evidence thing.  I don’t want people going, “Oh, my brother-in-law got aids and they threw him off a cliff.  It cured him completely.”  In particular, I am upset with the Anti-Vaccination movement, a “health” movement that is killing people daily. In the 1980’s there was doubt raised about the safety of vaccinations and ingredients used to preserve those vaccinations.  When concerns are raised, people conduct studies.  They investigate the concerns.

Consider Vioxx (rofecoxib).  On September 30, 2004, Merck voluntarily withdrew rofecoxib from the market because of concerns about increased risk of heart attack and stroke associated with long-term, high-dosage use.  Previous and subsequent studies demonstrated an 4-fold increase of heart attack and stroke.

In the late eighties, a concern was raised about vaccinations, the preservative thiomersal, and autism.  There was a concern so studies were done.  There was no correlation.  Tiomersal was removed from vaccines though in 1999 and in the interval since, there has been no drop in autism.  More detail here.

And still the anti-vaxxers claim it causes autism, though they’ve mostly shifted their attacks to the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.  Again, evidence is against them.  Unfortunately, their influence has increased the number of families who don’t vaccinate their children leading to increased outbreaks of these diseases, some leading to death or permanent disability.

Here’s a related insanity, aptly described by Rebecca Watson of Skepchik and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

Pandemic Flu Prep

How can something so purty be so deadly?

FLA_Medic of the Avian Flu Diary announces a new, incredibly useful resource, Get Pandemic Ready.

This issue isn’t getting much news play, but public health officials remain very worried about bird flu. Pandemics happen at the rate of about 3 per century, and we are overdue for one. The 1918 Spanish Flu killed at least 50 million people, and some estimates put it at 100-150 million — 2-5% of the world’s population, iow, with 20% infected. At that death rate, with almost 7 billion people on the planet, avian flu would kill as many as 350 million people, in a 12-18 month period. That’s the equivalent of the US population. Imagine the global impact. 1.5B would be infected.

H5N1 is still out there. Right now it’s killing 60% of the people who contract it, and it is slowly spreading and evolving to be a better match to our upper respiratory tract. Researchers are looking for solutions, and they’ve made some progress in developing means to detect and vaccinate against the disease. But huge obstacles remain with regard to production and distribution of vaccine and medications to fight it.

A pandemic will last a year or more. At even moderate rates of infection, as much as 20-30% of the work force will fall ill. Food distribution, utilities, even hospitals will shut down for extended periods. Therefore, experts recommend people stockpile now, before the pandemic hits.


The hallmark of Get Pandemic Ready is that households should stockpile three months of food, water (or purification capability), medications, and basic supplies.

I’ve already done this for myself and my family. Consider: if it doesn’t happen and you have prepared, you simply have some extra supplies you can use. If it does happen and you aren’t prepared, things will be much worse than they have to be for you and your family.

As FLA_Medic puts it:

Once a pandemic erupts, there will be a mad scramble to prepare. Millions (likely billions) of people will be caught flat footed and will all be trying to acquire the goods they will need to survive, all at the same time. Most will find they waited too long, and won’t be able to get everything they will need.

The time to prepare is now, before a crisis begins.

Just take it a step at a time. But don’t wait. Nobody knows when the pandemic will hit. Everything you do now will be one less thing you have to do then.

In Praise of Foreign Gum


Barb returned from another trip to Japan last weekend, and she brought back something wondrous for me:

BlackBlack Chewing Gum.

Now, if you’re like me (and I know I am), you’ll be asking, “What’s so wondrous about BlackBlack Chewing Gum? Does it have a unique, delicious flavor? Does that flavor last a long, long time? Do the packages contain decoder rings that enable one to discover Jessica Alba’s phone number hidden within the text of her Wikipedia entry?”

The answer to all of the above is “No, who needs that stuff? If I want a unique, delicious flavor, I’ll eat a nectarine. [Rory: A nectarine is a kind of fruit.] If I want flavor that lasts a long, long time, I’ll consume a clove of garlic. And if I want Jessica Alba’s phone number, I’ll look for it in my kitchen trash, which is where I threw it after hearing that she’s having a baby with another man.”

“So what’s the attraction?” you’ll ask. “If BlackBlack’s flavor isn’t especially unique, delicious, or long-lasting, and it’s no help in stalking starlets, then why all the BlackBlack love?”

One word, my poor, deprived Brainiacs:

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Meme: A Year In Posts

Meme: Post the first line of your first blog entry of each month for 2007 (via Greg Van Eekhout) (And not one is about zombies.)

aztec calendar
December 1, Steve: From Oni Press: For centuries Jumpers have lived among us — special individuals with the ability to teleport or “jump” nearly anywhere in the world.

November 1, Madeleine: In honor of the first of November I invite you to check out Lupo the Butcher.

October 1, Morgan: NASA launched a probe last Thursday to study Ceres and Vesta, the two largest asteroids in the asteroid belt.

September 1, Caroline: How am I not Madeleine?

August 1, Maureen: I’m making dinner for Bob’s band tomorrow.

July 1, Rory: I don’t know shit about this guy, except what’s on the Wiki, and this article in my favorite music magazine, Paste.

June 2, Caroline: By now, everyone and their dog has heard the story about the American TB patient who ignored his doctor’s advice and traipsed off to Europe to get married.

May 1, Morgan: Update: Corrected carbon dioxide levels to reflect latest research.

April 1, Steve: On this day in 1957 8 million television viewers . . . watched a program on Spaghetti Trees.

March 1, Morgan: Katrina survivors rebuke President Bush, who is going to New Orleans for a series of photo ops.

February 1, Brad: It’s been said that Kansas, where I was raised, is the Buckle of the Bible Belt – which can only mean that I now live in the Zipper.*

January 2, Steve: Yesterday was Sunday, today is Monday.

My Fun Saturday Night . . .

I had a swell blog post planned for this week, but I was thwarted.  Instead of regaling y’all with my fantastic wit, I was spending my Saturday night at the emergency room, which isn’t as much fun as it sounds.

I was prescribed Cipro on Thursday.  Saturday night my shins started itching to beat the band.  A few minutes later I started coughing.  It felt like I had a cat hair caught in my throat — which wouldn’t be all that unlikely at Casa Spector — except the coughing wouldn’t stop.

I called the urgent care nurse and she said to go to the ER.

On the drive to the ER, I keep thinking, “Okay, how long does it take to die from asphyxiation?  Two, maybe three, minutes?  How long before there’s irrepairable brain damage?”  Okay, so perhaps I was getting a little melodramatic.  

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The Becca Papers

I’ve known and adored Becca since the late 1990’s. She’s one of the warmest people I know, and one of the hardest-working, among many other excellent qualities. And John, her husband, is one of the most alive people I’ve ever met.

But Becca has one serious, nearly unforgivable, flaw. It is this:

She’s probably smarter than I am.

Which, unfortunately, means that she’s definitely smarter than you are.

I know… I know…. This is tough to deal with. We’re all used to always being able to convince ourselves that we’re the smartest person in the room. It took me three or four years to cope. Eventually, you’ll be okay about it, too, as I am. It’s not really her fault, and she tries to slow down for the rest of us, but you can tell that it’s sometimes a strain for her.

She’s in her second year of med school at UTMB, and is doing quite well, thank you very much. Because it’s a foregone conclusion, we already call her Doctor Becca, though she hates that .

She’s given me permission to post a couple of pages from her journal, on the subject of cadavers. I find some of the advanced medical terms used by her and her colleagues to be a bit over my head, but I’m going to look the words up soon. The good thing is that it gives me even more faith in the professionalism and deep stores of arcane knowledge possessed by our doctors.

I’ve placed it below the cut because of the extreme graphic nature of her descriptions.

And now, without further ado, the Becca Papers –

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Shades of the Andromeda Strain


So, first there was this meteor which smacked down into the ground at a village in Peru located in the high Andes department of Puno in the Desaguadero region, near the border with Bolivia.

Residents complained of headaches and vomiting brought on by a “strange odor,” local health department official Jorge Lopez told Peruvian radio RPP.

Seven policemen who went to check on the reports also became ill and had to be given oxygen before being hospitalized, Lopez said.

Rescue teams and experts were dispatched to the scene, where the meteorite left a 100-foot-wide (30-meter-wide) and 20-foot-deep (six-meter-deep) crater, said local official Marco Limache.

“Boiling water started coming out of the crater and particles of rock and cinders were found nearby. Residents are very concerned,” he said.

However, people were suspicious of this. There hasn’t been a recorded case of illness coming from any satellite we know of (unless you count being extincted on account of tons of rock falling on your butt, but we weren’t actually around for that one.) Also, various astronomers questioned the size and shape of the crater. People speculated it might be space debris, instead, like, say, the kind that carried the deadly virus to earth in The Andromeda Strain.

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Human to Human Transmission has Occurred: Avian Flu Update

I just came across this news article. A 2006 outbreak of avian flu in Sumatra has now been confirmed as involving human-to-human transmission.

H5N1 virusAs folks are aware, the flu virus H5N1 is widely regarded by public health experts as a serious threat. It originated in birds (hence the “avian,” though in fact, most flus are avian flus), and bird populations in many locations around the world have it. Humans are susceptible and it is extremely deadly, although fortunately, current forms are not easily transmitted from human to human. Yet. H2H, as they call it, is one of the main mutations the virus has to make, in order for a pandemic to occur.

Many companies and organizations are racing to understand how the virus works, and develop a vaccine. There is no guarantee that H5N1 will become the pandemic that so many public health officials fear. But there is a real risk. The flu has a greater than 50% mortality rate. Of the eight people who were infected in the Sumatran outbreak in 2006, seven have died.

This is a very dangerous flu. If a pandemic comes, it hits a lot of places and people at once, and could take down local infrastructure. Think about Katrina. How would your community deal with 30% or more of its population sick, many hospitals overwhelmed with large numbers of severe cases and deaths?  Preparations at the personal level could mean the difference between life and death for you and your family.

Get educated, be prepared, and stay up-to-date.

All Shook Up…


Though I don’t have adorable kitty pictures this week, (not that I couldn’t have adorable kitty pictures at the drop of a hat, mind you) I do have a collection of random stuff that’s been floating in the ether at Casa Spector. (I know. I should really clean the freaking ether up here.) 

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I had to give up drinking coffee a couple of years ago.  For the most part, I was successful at this, though I have been known to poach coffee from The Dude at Saturday breakfast.  (Saturday breakfast is a tradition Sven Knudson started about twenty years ago.  A fluctuating group of malcontents show up at various restaurants to consume vast quantities of food – and to bitch.) 

Anyway, I met a friend at Starbucks the other day.  I haven’t been in Starbucks since I quit drinking coffee.  Not unlike the alcoholic who should stay away from bars, I found just being in a place so redolent of brewing Sweet Nectar of the Gods was more of a temptation than I could stand for the first year or so. 

My friend arrives and gets an iced coffee.  Being the shameless mooch I am, I ask if I can have a sip of her enticing cold beverage.  (Mmmmm, caffeine.)  She graciously obliged.   

I take a sip. And then I have that moment we’ve all had, (girls more so than guys I suspect) the, “Do I spit or swallow?” dilemma.  Because what I have in my mouth is not Sweet Nectar of the Gods, but rather Satan’s Piss.   

You know: The Devil’s Urine.  Beelzebub’s tee tee.  Lucifer’s pee.  Mephistopheles’s piddle.   This stuff is so foul I’m pretty sure they must have an EPA permit to sell it. 

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Someone Else’s World


I love competence and professional pride. I think they’re sexier than broad shoulders or tight glutes, and right up there with a good voice and beautiful hands (hey, everyone has their buttons). But like most people, I get tunnel vision about all the different kinds of competence that are out there. Just because I’ve never wanted to be a butcher doesn’t mean that there aren’t artists out there for whom the proper filleting of a chicken breast is a deeply satisfying thing.

So: this morning I went in to have a crown put in, but my dentist wasn’t satisfied with it. Seeing that the crown is for the upper front tooth that I cleverly smashed last month, having it look like it belongs with the teeth on either side is important (in building design this is referred to as “vernacular architecture”). The dentist left it up to me whether this was something to worry about, but it clearly bothered her that the crown didn’t play well with others, and considering that it’s likely to be in place as long as I have teeth, well, her concern made some sense to me. Which is why I found myself driving to another part of the city, to the dental ceramics lab, so that her “crown guy” could get a better match for me.

My dentist warned me beforehand that this was not a glamorous place–just a ceramics lab. And in fact it was several rows of old desks littered with tools and magnifying lamps, and a patina of ceramic dust covering everything. Kind of a dreary place, not somewhere I’d want to work. I had to wait for a few minutes, until the “crown guy” arrived (tearing down the hall on a Razor scooter!) and turned out to be a tall, handsome, middle-aged Chinese guy with a deep voice, who looked at the crown he’d originally produced, shook his head, and announced that that one was all wrong. He then stood me in the light and spent five minutes debating with himself between two shades that were almost indistinguishable to my eyes. He swapped them one for the other in situ, hmming to himself as I grinned like a serial killer. And I realized that it was a matter of pride to the Crown Guy that he make my crown as close to the tone of my teeth as he possibly could. I’m gonna look great because making me look good makes him look good.

I get tunnel vision sometimes; there are all sorts of jobs I wouldn’t want to do, and many, many jobs I never even imagine. Making ceramic dental crowns is one of them. And the Crown Guy reminded me that it’s not just a job–for him, at least, it’s a calling. Cool.

Dizzy. I’m so Dizzy, My Head is Spinning …


Okay, I’m a few days late on my Saturday post.  But I have some really good reasons:

Bob (New Cat’s new name) spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at two different emergency clinics. He’s okay, but for about forty-eight hours it looked scary.

There were potentially frightening X-rays, the possibility of his heart being enlarged, terrible anemia, and an odd lab result on one of his liver readings. After more tests, his heart is fine and the one odd liver value is coming down. His red blood cell count is back to normal. He’s home and tormenting Dave (the other tabby) so all there is good.

Then on Sunday, I had vertigo. I’m not talking about, “Ooo, I’m a little light-headed.” I’m talking feeling as if I’d drunk four bottles of tequila, got into one of those human-sized gyroscopes, and then taken a roller coaster ride. To make things worse, I hurled during the urgent care exam. It was mortifying.

I’ve never experienced anything like it. At one point, I couldn’t move my eyes without sending the room into an impressive axis-tilting whirligig. It was one of the worst twenty-four hours of my life.

I couldn’t walk straight. The Dude had to help me walk into the clinic. During the exam, the doctor said he had to ask if I was intoxicated because my physical behavior was so screwed up. (He didn’t really think I was drunk, btw.) I would have been dead of alcohol poisoning long before I drank enough to reach this stage of incapacitation.

There wasn’t much for them to do. They sent me home, and The Dude went out for Meclizine. I took some and, amazingly enough, felt well enough to get out of bed and go lie down on the couch.

Monday I was better, but my balance was still off. I’m good today, just tired. I’m going to the “Dizzy Clinic” next week to start some physical therapy.

I’ve been through this before. I had Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. My doctor explained this as the rocks in your head going where they’re not supposed to. They basically treat your head like those kids’ puzzles where you try to get the ball bearings into the little holes. It’s less fun than it sounds.

And that’s why I didn’t get my post done this weekend.

You got a problem with that? Come on over to my house. I’ll spin around a couple of times, and we’ll see what happens . . .

Take My Blood, Please

I have waxed rhapsodic about the joys of apheresis–the process by which blood is taken out and useful bits (plasma, platelets, red cells) removed, and then what remains is returned to you. As done by the Blood Center of The Pacific downtown in San Francisco, it’s nearly a spa-experience. Heated blankets, solicitous attendents, movies and an internet connection. People coming by to thank you for being a good person. I mean, really. I’ve always really liked doing apheresis: it’s an excuse to lie around in the middle of the day watching a movie or snoozing, while people come around to make sure that you’re comfy. And there’s the Virtue factor, which is not inconsiderable.

But the last time I went in they wouldn’t take my blood. Or rather, I was turned down for apheresis (they cheerfully took a pint of the whole red stuff). And it’s not a one-time thing. I can give platelets and packed red cells, but no plasma any more. And that goes for a huge percentage of potential donors. Between the last time I did apheresis and my next scheduled appointment, the rules changed. Apparently they have discovered that a small number of plasma recipients react violently–potentially fatally–to an antibody present in the blood of any woman who has ever been pregnant. Doesn’t matter if you’ve had a child or were only pregnant for a week: you have the antibody, and you can’t donate plasma. And if you don’t have a sufficient iron count they won’t take packed red cells (which requires a much higher iron count than just donating a pint of red), and if they aren’t taking at least two blood constituents they don’t do apheresis.

Of course, the need for plasma, platelets, and packed red cells, doesn’t diminish just because the number of donors does. And summer is a particularly difficult time for blood supply. So: if you’ve never been pregnant–if you’re a guy, and therefore out of that part of the reproductive race, or if you are a woman who’s never been pregnant even for a day–consider doing apheresis. It’s one of the easiest ways to stockpile good karma, and they treat you like royalty. Go do it for me (and watch all the cool little wheels and rheostats and stuff. It’s nifty tech).

I got the Rockin’ Pneumonia . . .

By now, everyone and their dog has heard the story about the American TB patient who ignored his doctor’s advice and traipsed off to Europe to get married. 

In all fairness, apparently Mr. Speaker did not know that the strain of tuberculosis he had was the deadly, antibiotic-resistant strain, XDR TB, when he left for Europe.  But, you know, to my way of thinking, that doesn’t matter. He knew he had TB. 

And anyone with half a brain (and by all accounts Mr. Speaker has at least that. He’s a lawyer) would have known that TB is a contagious disease.  Yes, I know that it was unlikely that anyone would have been infected by Mr. Speaker given the low amount of TB in his sputum, but would you have volunteered to sit by him on an eight-hour trans-Atlantic flight? 

A lot of blame is being directed at the C.D.C. and at a US Border Agent who let Speaker back into the country after he was tagged as a carrier of dangerous infection.  But let’s cut the crap.  The primary person responsible for this fiasco is Mr. Speaker. 

I am staggered by his sheer selfishness.  Given a choice between changing his wedding plans and risking infecting other people, he chose his wedding.  What a guy.  What a romantic. 

And his callousness is revealed by the back-door manner in which he came back to the US when informed that he had this deadly strain of the bacterium. 

Since the media storm has broken on this case, Mr. Speaker and his new bride have made tearful appearances on TV talk shows from Speaker’s hospital room in Denver.  He’s apologized for putting people at risk.  Wow, what a guy.  What a paragon of humanity. 

Speaker claims he was afraid if he didn’t get to the clinic in Denver he would die.  Yeah, because healthcare in Europe is so terrible.  And that statement says it all, doesn’t it?  His health was what mattered.  No one else’s. 

The thing that’s even more scary to me about this whole scenario isn’t just that he put the passengers on his flights at risk, but the extent of the vectoring that may have occurred because of his actions.  All those passengers were bound for other destinations. 

He flew from Atlanta to Paris, took two other short flights to Greece and Rome, and then made his sneaky, back-door return to North America by flying from Prague to Montreal, then driving to New York.  Just think about how many people came in contact with him.  Think about the different countries they went to from Rome, from Paris, from Greece.

Mr. Speaker will get no sympathy from me.  He’s likely going to have part of one of his lungs cut out to remove the TB infection.  He’ll be on medications that can damage his liver.  And he may be in the hospital for as much as two years.  That is indeed a harsh reality.  But irresponsibly exposing other people to a similar fate because you’re a narcissistic jerk — well, it almost seems like poetic justice.


My Right Hand

I am intractably right-handed. When I try to do something without recourse to my right hand…well, at best, the effort lasts about three seconds. At worse, chaos right out of the I-Love-Lucy-Universe ensues. One of the more irritating things about encroaching age is that my using my right hand is not as easy as it used to be. The image above, by the way, is not my right hand, but it is someone’s right hand. In short order I may have a photo of my own to post.

A couple of years ago I started developing carpal tunnel syndrome. It was explained to me that I was very likely posturing in my sleep: squinching my thumb in close to my hand as I slept. So I was told to get a brace to hold my hand in a non-squinched position while I slept. The carpal tunnel problems diminished hugely. Then, lately, I’d been experiencing some soreness around my thumb; I was pretty sure this was RSI, but it wasn’t terrible, so I didn’t worry about it much.

And then, a few weeks ago, I was doing something and I felt a **pop** below my thumb. Doing certain things (putting my hand into my pocket; playing guitar; washing my face; holding hands with my beloveds) hurts like hell. Other things don’t hurt at all. Shortly the area below my thumb began to swell–not hugely, but enough. I let it alone for a while to see if benign neglect would wreak any change, but…no. Ow. So today I went to see the doctor, who clicked his tongue and agreed with me that I sure did something to my hand. X-rays were ordered. I will be informed of the news tomorrow, but I expect the medical consensus to be along the lines of “you sure did something to your hand.” What they’ll want to do about that, I don’t know.

Meanwhile, I’m trying not to use my right hand so much. Except that I am intractably, stubbornly, impossibly right handed. At the dog park I try to use the Chuck-It (no relation) with my left hand, but that doesn’t last long. At home, I try to open jars left-handed, pick things up left-handed. Not so much luck. Knitting: bad. Last week, when I was cleaning out the Barn, I was carrying, prying, sweeping, scrubbing, all right-handed. Sometimes hurt, sometimes not. Go figure. And writing? Writing anything more than a thank-you note or a check hurts. I can still type without too much discomfort, but what if that becomes harder too? Or if I’m ordered into a cast and can’t type for a few months?

I’ve heard all manner of uplifting stories about people who lose the use of their primary hand and learn to use the other. I like to think that I could do that, but right at the moment I’m kinda hoping there’s a quick fix. In the meantime, there’s NSAIDs and ice, and news about the X-ray tomorrow. As medical problems go, it’s not a patch on Rory’s leg, or some of the other stuff Brains have confronted. Maybe I’ll have to learn new tricks; learning things is supposed to be good for the mind, after all. As well as the Brain.