Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Sanitized toilet seat covers and American exceptionalism.
Remember Holiday Inn’s “Great Sign?” (If not, click here to see it.) In a terrific Salon piece, Andrew Nelson limns the sign’s cultural, aesthetic, and commercial significance. The sign, Nelson argues, embodied Holiday Inn’s effort to bring non-sleazy lodging to middle class America. It was an “exploding supernova of light and neon built to draw drivers off the highway and into its rooms while spelling out the purity of both its ideals and its bed sheets.” Junked in the mid-1970s because of its supposed garishness, the Great Sign is actually a triumph of American design and “a symbol of American razzle-dazzle, for-sure-buddy-can-do optimism.” (Lots of great links in the story, too.)

Monday, April 29, 2002

We built this city on bowling alone.
The Austin-American Statesman has launched an ambitious study about what makes cities flourish. And its initial findings challenge much the received wisdom about social capital and prosperity. “Cities of ideas,” as the researchers call the most prosperous, high-tech, patent-producing locales, are quite comfortable bowling alone.

“[C]ities generally high on most traditional measures of social capital were lower in technology development, lower in income and population growth, lower in the production of patents,” says the paper. “Where many people attended church or were active in religious organizations, economic growth was the slowest.” (Emphasis added.)

But the most prosperous cities “were the exact opposite. They had fewer people going to church regularly, fewer joiners, fewer volunteers and fewer people engaged in traditional politics. . . . These places, however, scored high on two [measures of social capital]. These fast growing cities were home to people who had diverse friends. People associated with those who differed in economic class, race and religion. And, in these cities, citizens were more likely to engage in protest politics. They joined boycotts, protested, signed petitions and participated in local reform groups.”

The conclusion? Says one researcher, “[T]here is something dynamic about the individualistic and polarized types of communities.” Says the paper, "Instead of traditional cities founded on strong ties — in families, churches and civic organizations — cities of ideas are marked by many weak connections, momentary alliances, limited commitments, shifting affiliations.”

(Thanks to Carol Coletta for this link.)

Friday, April 26, 2002

What's an embryo?
The debate about somatic cell nuclear transfer (a.k.a. therapeutic cloning) has become a battle over the meaning of a few key words. And perhaps the most important is embryo. But, says anti-cloning activist William Kristol, "'embryo' is a word you won't find in the" pro-research Harry and Louise ads that premiered this week. That's too bad. Because while I love those ads, I think that if people actually knew what an embryo was, this debate would be over--and the anti-therapeutic cloning crowd would have to slither away. So, what's an embryo? Dr. Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College, has the answer. An embryo produced in the biomedical procedure Kristol wants to criminalize is a days-old "clump of cells . . the size of the dot on this i," Gazzaniga writes in yesterday's New York Times. "It has no nervous system and is not sentient in any way. It has no trajectory to becoming a human being; it will never be implanted in a woman's uterus." To place this clump of cells--non-sentient, nearly invisible, and never intended to become a human being--on the same (indeed, a higher) moral plan than actual human beings suffering from grave diseases just doesn't make sense. Let's hope the U.S. Senate agrees when it takes up the issue late next month.

Thursday, April 25, 2002

I, the jury.
My one thing for today has been jury duty down at the always interesting D.C. Superior Court. Looks like it'll be a one-day affair. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Harry and Louise—Part Deux.
They’re back—and better than ever! Harry and Louise—the comfortable Caucasian couple that iced the Clinton health care plan eight years ago—have returned. In a truly brilliant maneuver, a group of Hollywood producers has enlisted the dynamic duo in two TV spots aimed at blocking Senate legislation that would criminalize life-saving biomedical research.

(For those who haven’t followed the growing battle over somatic cell nuclear transfer, scroll down to J1Thing’s April 11 entry).

These ads make what are, to my mind, the two key arguments in this debate over therapeutic cloning. First, we’re talking about putting scientists in the pokey for doing basic research—a truly chilling prospect in a free country. Second, what’s being created in this procedure are indeed embryos. But an embryo isn’t a baby. It’s not even a fetus. It’s a microscopic collection of cells that’s smaller than the period that ends this sentence.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the ads:

Louise: One bill puts scientists in jail for working to cure our niece's diabetes.
Harry: So ... cure cancer, go to jail?
Louise: Alzheimer's, heart disease. Take your pick.
Harry: Is it cloning?
Louise: Nooo ... uses an unfertilized egg and a skin cell.
Harry: So, not making babies?
Louise: Just lifesaving cures

To learn more about this issue, click here. To sign a petition supporting freedom in biomedical research and open inquiry into new cures, click here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

The melting pot niche.
From California today comes a new study revealing that a whopping 84% of the state’s Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans get news and information from ethnic media. And 68 percent of the study’s respondents, according to the Wall Street Journal, “say they prefer ethnic TV stations over English channels for watching news.” Since California is the first majority minority state, this has interesting implications for the media landscape in a country that will be majority minority in the next several decades.

Monday, April 22, 2002

Ye olde women's movement.
A historian in northern England has unearthed a previously undisovered 370-year-old book arguing that women are wiser, more reverent, and more valiant than men. Titled Woman's Worth, the book, which dates to 1630 or 1640, has a subtitle that says it all: A treatise proveinge by sundrie reasons that woemen do excell men. "This book could prove very important," the historian told AP. "Events might have been brought forward by a few generations if it had been published."

Friday, April 19, 2002

Who wants to marry a skank?
In a ruling of profound jurisprudential importance, a California state appeals court this week determined that calling somebody a "skank" on the radio does not constitute libel. The plaintiff in the case, Jennifer Seelig, was one of the exemplary young women who lost out to Darva Conger on Fox Television’s “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” When Seelig later refused to appear on KLLC’s “Sarah and Vinnie” morning show to talk about her experience, one deejay called her a “big skank” . . . and a "local loser" . . . and, of course, a "chicken butt." Seelig then sued the San Francisco station and its parent company, Infinity Broadcasting, for slander, invasion of privacy, and infliction of emotional distress. (Jeez. Who would have thought that trying to sell your body and soul on national television would ever subject someone to ridicule?) Fortunately, in Seelig v. Infinity Broadcasting Corp., 02 C.D.O.S. 3262, the court tossed out her claim saying that “skank, “big skank,” “local loser,” and of course “chicken butt” are “are not actionable because they are too vague to be capable of being proven true or false.” Too bad the court didn't also call her a "litigious skank."

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Arizona's Diamondback.
John McCain is at it again. Yesterday he proposed establishing what amounts to a base closing commission to eliminate the billions in taxpayer subsidies that go to well-connected corporations and industries. Maybe this proposed corporate welfare commission is the start of McCain’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Those of you familiar with the Pink oeuvre (i.e. my wife) might remember that in 2000 I urged another presidential candidate, Al Gore, to borrow a page from the McCain playbook—and propose cutting corporate welfare and directing the proceeds to school vouchers for poor children. (For the full story, click here and scroll past the unlikely trio of Dennis Kucinich, Tommy Smothers, and Robert Dallek.) Gore ignored the advice. And Gore lost. (Well, he didn’t become President.)

So I’ll say it again: Corporate welfare is a sleeping giant of an issue for any politician with guts. McCain just might be that guy. Now if he’d only reconsider his retrograde position on biomedical research.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Sleepless in Sheboygan
The LA Times has a fascinating story about Provigil, a new drug that "allows people to remain awake and attentive when their bodies normally crave shut-eye, without suffering the unpleasant side effects and risk of addiction associated with caffeine, amphetamines and other stimulants." Designed to combat narcolepsy, Provigil is increasingly being used by shift workers, harried parents, and others who just aren't getting enough zzz's. Alas, even the makers aren't sure precisely how the drug works--indeed, scientists scarcely understand sleep itself--but I doubt that will stop sleep-deprived souls looking for an edge. Says the Times, "Instead of swigging Jolt cola and espresso, software designers under the gun could simply take Provigil, which costs about $4 per pill--not much more than the price of a double latte."

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Web man
OnFocus says the book that's gotten the most mentions on weblogs around the world is David Weinberger's new Small Pieces Loosely Joined. I think I know why: It's a great book--the most perceptive analysis of the web that I've read in a long, long time. (Also, David is now traveling through China with his 11-year-old son and blogging about it for the online Boston Globe. Check out the duo's dispatches here.)

Monday, April 15, 2002

Frist, do no harm.
I was puzzled last week when Bill Frist, the Senate’s only doctor, came out against therapeutic cloning. Now I understand why: he wants to be Vice President. According to Newsweek, the good doctor is positioning himself to replace Dick Cheney should the need arise. (Irony alert: Senator Frist is a heart surgeon.) “Frist’s decision this week to guard the president’s flank on human cloning dramatizes his desire to be seen as a Bush Team Player,” explains the magazine. The score at halftime: Political Science 1 Medical Science 0.

Friday, April 12, 2002

Department of Redundancy Department
No entry today. Please read yesterday's post instead.

Thursday, April 11, 2002

The future meets its enemies.
Forgive my lengthy post and lack of humor, but this is really important.

In the last few years, scientists have begun exploring the possibilities of “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” a research procedure that might lead to new remedies for Parkinson's disease, heart disease, juvenile diabetes, and other ailments. Now the U.S. Senate is considering a law that would punish scientists who conduct such research with fines as high as $1 million and jail terms as long as ten years. If the law passes, the effect would be devastating both for medical research in particular and open inquiry in general. Fortunately, you can do something to help – about which more in a moment.

At issue here is a single scary word: cloning. Many people think it means creating carbon copy human beings. Not quite. Almost nobody favors such "reproductive cloning"-- that is, duplicating embryos, implanting them in a woman’s womb, and bringing cloned children into the world. It’s dangerous. It’s dubious. And it probably won’t even work. But there’s another procedure—dubbed “therapeutic cloning”—that holds enormous scientific promise with, in my view, almost zero ethical concerns.

Here’s an example of therapeutic cloning at work. Suppose a child were suffering from juvenile diabetes. Scientists could collect some cells from the child, say, by scraping the inside of her cheek. Then the child’s mother (or some other woman) could donate an egg. Scientists would remove the nucleus of mom’s egg cell and inject the egg with the girl’s cells. In a laboratory dish, scientists could stimulate the egg cell to divide. Once the egg had grown into a ball of few hundred cells, scientists could extract what are called “stem cells.” Those could then be stimulated into becoming insulin-producing cells--and injected back into the sick child. Since these new cells would be genetically identical to her own cells, there’s less of a chance her body would reject them. No new human being would be created—just a microscopic clump of cells that could save this girl’s life.

That’s “therapeutic cloning.” And that’s the procedure the Senate is trying to criminalize. Sadly, this effort has the full backing of President Bush, who yesterday delivered an anti-research speech that his speechwriters studded with scare words appropriated from both the luddite left and the reactionary right ("destruction of nascent human life," “exploitation of women’s bodies,” "life is a creation, not a commodity," “designer tissue,” “a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications.”) Read the New York Times account of the speech here. (Side note: For those of you keeping score at home, this means the President has devoted two major presidential addresses to cloning--and zero to expanding health care coverage or encouraging personal health responsibility.)

Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of medical progress and scientific freedom. Here’s what you can do:

--- Sign a petition spearheaded by the terrific Virginia Postrel opposing the legislation.
--- Sign a petition by another collection of folks opposing the legislation.
--- Read why 40 Nobel Prize winners just announced their opposition to the legislation.
--- Learn more about the issue from the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, led by my friend Michael Manganiello.
--- Contact your own Senator.

Please do something. The future will thank you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Too bad you can’t eat delusions.
Let’s play America’s favorite parlor game: Juxtaposing Data™!

Begin with these numbers from the always informative National Center for Health Statistics. A whopping 61 percent of adult Americans are either overweight or obese. (If you’re a 5-foot-11 male, you’re overweight if you weigh more than 180 pounds; you’re obese if you weigh more than 215 pounds. Check your own Body Mass Index here.) What’s more, in the last twenty years the national obesity rate has doubled. And as NCHS revealed earlier this week, seven in ten Americans don’t get regular exercise, including four in ten who don’t get any exercise at all. Scary.

Now let’s juxtapose! In the exact same study, the NCHS found that only 9 percent of Americans consider their own health fair or poor. Ninety-one percent say their health is at least good. Nearly 70 percent say their health is very good or excellent.

JD’s™ conclusion: So much for the hue and cry over unattainable and life-wrecking standards of bodily perfection. The reality is quite the opposite: Most Americans are fat . . . and happy.

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

To err is doctoral.
This excellent Salon piece, which is nominally a review of a new book by a young surgeon, says it's likely that "medical errors kill more people each year than car accidents, breast cancer or AIDS." One possible remedy: further automating medicine, a solution with problems of its own.

Monday, April 08, 2002

If I had a hammer...
What's up with all the sharing? Last week I wrote about Booklend, which lends free books to strangers. Now I've just heard about a close cousin, the Tool Lending Center, which operates like a public library for C-clamps, belt sanders, and pruning saws. You can borrow the Center's tools at no cost. You just pay a fine if you return them late (two bucks for a tardy mortar hoe, a ten-spot for a late drain snake.) This non-profit venture is in San Francisco. (Of course.) But it's so dang American in its potent pairing of community spirit and individual self-improvement that I can imagine these centers spreading across the country.

Friday, April 05, 2002

Mini me?
The New Scientist's online edition has a stunner: the Italian doctor who's promised to clone a human being says a woman in his notorious project is now eight weeks pregnant. If this is true, it's the biggest story of the year.

Thursday, April 04, 2002

Don't panic.
Due to a series of mishaps and delays too boring to relate, I ended up seeing a movie last night that I never intended to see: Panic Room. Now, I’m a huge Jodie Foster fan—but her participation notwithstanding, Panic Room was truly awful. Imagine cardboard stereotypes (the scrappy single mom, the robber with a heart of gold, the smart-alecky but profoundly wise child) sleepwalking through a suspense-free plot. Ugh. The movie is essentially a gloomy Home Alone for grown-ups, yet somehow critics like Roger Ebert and Anthony Lane loved it. Go figure. Just don't go see it.

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Joltage, Sputnik, & Boingo
No, they’re not George Jetson’s law firm. They’re three WiFi companies who presented at last week’s PC Forum. This Business 2.0 column explains the basics of their businesses. Meanwhile, for proof of the power of WiFi, look no further than downtown Palo Alto, where two Silicon Valley companies have set up a wireless “hot zone.”

But before we rejoice at the prospects of WiFi Nation, the Wall Street Journal E-World columnist Thomas Weber warns that satellite radio companies “want the Federal Communications Commission to impose new restrictions” on WiFi, which could “kill the wireless revolution before it gets started.” So concerned is Weber that he’s urging readers to email FCC Chairman Michael Powell—even providing Powell’s email address.

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Truly free speech.
Two entrepreneurial good samaritans are spreading some love – free love, that is, of the literary kind.

Mark Anderson has launched Booklend, which he calls “the creation of a man with a postage meter, a roomful of books, and an urge to share.” Ask Mark for one of his books – and he’ll mail it to you for free. When you’re done reading it, send it back. He even pays the return postage.

Meanwhile, Russell Wattenberg has a “store” in Baltimore that actually gives away books – for keeps! It’s called Book Thing – and its mission, he says, is “to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them.”

Free. Books. Two great words that go great together.

Monday, April 01, 2002

Thought for food.
American Demographics is one of my very favorite magazines -- and the March issue (not available free online) helps explain why. The cover story, "What's Cooking?," about the interplay of demographics and the food industry is loaded with delicious cultural and statistical nuggets. Here are three:

1. "One-fifth of all meals today are consumed in a car."

2. "Tomorrow's foods will be spicier and more flavorful than today's. One major reason: Baby Boomers' taste buds are dulling, a reality that food industry experts say is a key factor driving the future of food in this country."

3. "81 percent of 10-to-13-year olds go out to dinner at least once a week."