Friday, November 20, 2009

Decoding the Surrealistic Landscape of Health Reform

By this time anyone reads this the arguments in Congress may be over.

Joseph Lieberman et al may have even prevented a vote. My prediction: Leiberman's next incarnation will be as Shining Path Maoist. Based on principle, you know.

Regardless, this whole "health care reform" plan is a travesty. It's a giveaway to private insurance companies, a sop for big pharma, and makes care more complicated for the average person to obtain.

Anyone who thinks about this issue, and does not work or lobby for, the insurance industry, can see that using private insurance and linking it to employment is a recipe for wasteful and inefficient spending.

The solution has been staring us in the face for decades, but particularly in the last few months.


What we need is a single payer system.

This does not mean the end of private practice. In fact, it very closely resembles Medicare, which is, pardon the expression, a single payer system that is known to work.

The Veterans Affairs medical programs (some of which are a substandard disgrace) are also single payer, and if Republicans stopped obstructing and obfuscating everything that crosses their desks, Congress would allow an increase in spending for the VA health care system.

Somehow, I am chosen to participate in telephonic town hall meetings. Always happens at dinner time. The phone rings, I answer with typical trepidation, and am informed that I have been selected for this cyber town hall thing.

The first one was for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who took many calls, a high percentage tearful, from people begging to know how health reform will help them. Small business owners were also wary.

When my turn finally came to talk, I asked, since most of the previous callers were complaining about medical insurers, why was the single payer option eliminated without serious consideration? Why are we catering to the insurance industry, I asked, and was then placed on "listen only."

I cannot recall was Rep. DeLauro said, but a male aid of hers told me that a single payer system would make workers who receive benefits through their jobs unduly "anxious" about the system.

Right. Workers have no anxieties in Connecticut, do they?

The answer was silly. When 64-year-old Americans become 65, they are eligible for Medicare, and he sky does not fall. The heavens do not darken. The federal government does not grind to a halt.

The 65-year-old receives a Medicare card, and gives the information to his doctor. His doctor probably takes Medicare cases. If not, he finds a doctor who does.

Covering everyone in the country with an expanded Medicare plan would cut billions of dollars in waste by insurance companies whose sole motive is to collect money, and keep money by refusing claims.

Given a choice between arguing with a disinterested government official and an unidentified professional confounder at an insurance company, I know what I would rather choose.

Instead of the simple Medicare for all plan, if health reform pans out, we will be able to keep the plans we're on, or shop for insurance from an exchange, including an anemic public option.

If you remember the complexity of Medicare Part D, the prescription plan with the famous doughnut hole, the coming plethora of plans will seem familiar. Figuring out the best, or least bad, Part D plan was the equivalent of breaking the German enigma enciphering machine.

The insurance companies would not release their formularies, and could change them without notice. There was a substantial penalty for not signing up quickly.

Well, you can imagine what "shopping on the exchange" will be like. You'll get a list of covered items, premiums and deductibles, along with a list of exceptions. Everything will require pre-authorization, I suspect.

One plan I recently saw for mental health requires prior authorization, and does not cover marriage counseling, pervasive developmental disorder, or a bunch of other conditions. You call the company for authorization and talk to someone, clearly not a doctor, with a Mumbai accent, I'm imagining.

If health care is a right, as some people claim, the system we are likely to end up with is a mockery.

Which also points out that regardless of what our elected officials say, our domestic and foreign policy is determined by ExxonMobil, Well Point, Humana, SmithKlineGlaxo, General Dynamics, Boeing Lockheed, and Wall Street.

Each woman is an individual and her breast care is her business

The federal Preventive Service recommendations on mammograms is not about rationing health care, although it does involve economic considerations.

Repeat, the "fewer mammograms" suggestion is not about parsing care, it relates to breast cancer as a public health issue, not a personal one.

Here it is in a nutshell: Do the anxiety, biopsies, surgeries, and expenses of mammograms justify their current use by women, not at any special risk, starting at age 40.

Studies show that one case of breast cancer is discovered by mammogram per 1,904 women tested. The problem is that the other 1,903 women may receive false positive results, meaning that they then undergo a biopsy, and possible surgery.

complications in biopsy and surgery are rare, but not unknown. Depending on the skill of the doctor "reading" the mammogram, the x-ray may show benign lesions, cysts, or "artifacts" such as shadows that aren't really there.

Suppose there were an extremely rare fatal disease curable if caught before the age of 5. Say this disease struck 1 person in 1 million. Even if the test were cheap, easy and accurate, a million people would need to take and pay for the test to reveal that single case, on average.

Clearly, for the diseased individuals, these kinds of screening tests can be lifesaving. But what if your doctor recommended the test, even though the chances of it occurring in your child were minuscule?

You might ask your pediatrician if it made sense to test everyone, because the risk is only 1 in 1 million, getting time off from work is a hassle, a doctor bill is a hassle, and putting a toddler through a medical test is emotionally and physically draining.

On the other hand, diseases like measles, mumps and rubella were so common and the vaccines so inexpensive and effective that virtually all children in the U.S. receive them before they are allowed to attend school.

Currently, about 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Breast cancer is not a single disease; there are aggressive, invasive types, and slow growing types. Women with certain genetic mutations are more likely to develop breast cancer.

So undergoing mammograms at age 40 seems reasonable.

The five-year survival rate for breast cancer in women in the U.S. is about 89 percent, which is encouraging.

Here's what puzzles and confounds many men and women. Canadians followed 40,000 women ages 50 to 59 in the 13-year study that concluded in 2000. The women were split into one group who received physical exams and another that were given mammograms.

The Canadians found that though more cancers were detected by mammograms, their death rates were no lower than the physical exam group. The inescapable conclusion is that yearly mammograms did not increase survival rates after cancers were detected.

Can this be true? It makes little sense. The methodology of the test was criticized, including the quality of the mammograms. The age of the participants is another issue. All of the women probably faced an elevated risk, skewing the results.

This is why it is so important to read and understand medical reports and journal articles. Why it is important to study biology and physiology. You don't need to agree with evolution to be a good doctor, though genetics is part of an educated person's knowledge.

Even if the study had been conducted perfectly, epidemiology has to do with large numbers of people. Medicine pertains to the individual.

So when all is said and done, here's what you should do: Consult your own doctor or doctors about whether they think you should get or delay mammograms. Because you're the person at risk for breast cancer.

This is your life, and you should not allow an obscure public health meta-study to dictate what medical tests you choose, and when you choose them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Leave it the way you found it

For mysterious reasons, many people seem concerned about the moon.

Recently NASA hit a crater on the moon with a bus-sized vehicle to see if there was frozen water under the dust. There was general alarm. Is it ethical to bombard another object in the solar system? Did we have the right? Are we in danger of messing up space?

Some of the people worrying about the moon do not have the same level of concern for global climate change on our own planet. But that's another story.

As anyone with binoculars or a telescope can tell, the moon has been hit hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of times by leftover solar system debris. The only places without craters on top of craters are the "seas" and "lakes" covered with relatively smooth melted and solidified rock. In a few billion years these areas will be just as pocked as the rest of the surface.

Humans have hit the moon repeatedly since the 1960s with jettisoned lunar landers, and probes of various kinds. Humans have left stuff there either because the instruments are impossible to retrieve, or the cars, tools, and all of that other moon landing material were too heavy, cumbersome or useless.

Should we dispose of garbage by sending it to the moon? No, of course not. Even if it were possible. it's just not right to trash a pristine world.

The idea of messing up space is different. Because, if you haven't noticed, most of the sky is space. Or it appears to be. There is a lot of invisible dark matter unaccounted for, not to mention dark energy.

If we ever want to get to another galaxy, scientists will have to figure out a non-destructive, practical way to bend or twist space.

That could make the trip short enough to tolerate. Unfortunately, whatever we beam up to warp space can only travel at the speed of light, so to reach a star 100 light years away, the beam would have to travel 100 years.

The irony is that once humans get to wherever they are going, it would turn out to be just like it is here, because Earth is a non-exceptional planet orbiting a non-exceptional star, in a non-exceptional galaxy in a non-exceptional universe, among million, billions, or an infinity of other universes.

So, the short answer is, don't worry about the moon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fate is full of fat

A recent study found that posting the caloric content of fast food does not make any difference in what people order.

Come on. If you go to a place that fries or deep-fat fries everything on the menu, it's safe to conclude that the food contains a lot of -- yes -- fat.

Double maximize the order with a gallon of sugary soft drink, three or four patties of beef, or whatever that stuff is, top it all off with mayonnaise, or some other equally fattening, oily, condiment, and in one meal you exceed the number of calories you require for a day and a half, you get a month's worth of fat, and more sodium than you can shake a salt shaker at.

The problem with this study, at least as it was explained in a newspaper, is that by "posting," fast food places mean that the numbers are available if you search long enough and with a magnifying glass.

Some franchises list nutritional details in handy take-home folders, that the staff never places in your bag. Others have them on the wall, but the letters and numbers are only visible if you have a step ladder.

What we need is something that is chewy, like meat, that tastes like meat, and that contains something that feels like fat, and something else that tastes salty but isn't. Or foods like french fries could be cooked in highly pressurized and superheated helium.

McDonald's had a non-meat hamburger a few years ago. It wasn't bad, basically because it was slathered with mayo and ketchup, and loaded with pickles, lettuce, and so on. But it disappeared quietly. No one noticed.

Is there not some method to render tofu into an ersatz hamburger, a convincing one? There's got to be a way. Soybeans are certainly less expensive than beef. Do it right and no one would know the difference.

Because, as we now know, no one looks at the ingredients or the calories.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Watson, come here -- look out for that car! -- I need you.

Some of today's teens are "texting" on their cell phones while driving.

This obviously is distracting. But the real question is, physically, how do they do it? Using the microscopic keyboards is difficult for palsied middle aged parents with paws, who are sitting at sitting at a desk, concentrating.

Are the drivers doing the texting with one hand, and steering with the other? Are they holding the electronics in both hands on top of the wheel? Can they touch-type, or touch-thumb, or however they manipulate the keys?

Changing the music on an iPod running through the car's radio is simpler, but still requires averting eyes from the road for about a minute or two, or roughly a mile or two at Interstate speeds. It's terrifying, but if you've been listening to Public Enemy for two hours and want to counterbalance your brain by switching to Schubert (or Schumann) for a while, you have no choice.

That is, unless you pull into a rest area, but who has time for that? And really, if you can keep the vehicle in your lane, what can happen in a mile and a half? Those of you who have experienced automobile collisions know that it's not the mile, the problem is the last 50 or 100 feet. Anyway.

A loony teenager, who was seriously injured texting and driving, was on television recently. She had been writing to a friend when she collided with a truck. After she recovered from a broken leg, broken pelvis, and a few other injuries, she went right back to text-driving, and had another crash. And she's still doing it!

The amount of multi-tasking, coordination, and fearlessness, is fascinating.

Never mind the irony of using a telephone to correspond when you could just talk. That was originally what was so liberating about telephones: Instead of laboriously writing, addressing, and posting letters, , you could just dial a few numbers and talk.

We need people like these driving texters to fly drones over Pakistan and Afghanistan. They might even be able to pilot a drone, fires missiles at the Taliban and drive, simultaneously.

If you're going to risk your life like that, and you can drive, read, write and think about something else, all at the same time, why not "give something back" to your country?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I'm the guy with the apple over his face

Preparing for a recent flight out of Bradley, in Windsor Locks, I was treated to the updated homeland security scan.

Obviously we are not terrorists, nor did we want any on board. So we followed orders.

My family was first directed through a "sniffer," a machine that puffs air at you to detect traces of explosives. No big deal.

Then we had to stand with our arms extended, palms up, while personnel went over us with sensitive metal detectors. It detected the wire embedded in my sternum during heart valve repair surgery, and, of course, the zipper on my pants.

The security guy declined an offer to view my sternum scar, which I would have happily shown him. I did have to turn my belt buckle and pants over, to make sure, I'm not sure what for.

Again, no problem. Seemed like standard stuff.

Then, I was in front of a counter, behind which stood a woman, who had all of my personal items: my key ring and pill case, my wallet, my cell phone, pens, change, and a few other odds and ends.

The woman started to chat with me, as if to pass the time pleasantly. That's a pill case. What kind of pills? she asked. Prescription pills from home that I use to quell my claustrophobia inside airliners, I said. Alprazolam. Xanax.

In a hushed voice she said she knew someone who got hooked on Ambien. "So sad," she said. I declined to explain to her that Ambien and Xanax are not similar or similarly used. What was going on?

It began to dawn on me that she was interviewing me, looking for signs of something. Maybe I seemed nervous, or not nervous enough.

Then we came to my wallet, which she opened without concern. She leafed through some family photos, my insurance card, and an ancient press card I'd never bothered to remove. "Oh, you work at a newspaper," she said. How nice!

Used to, I replied.

Then she pulled out a pack of assorted do-it-yourself business cards, including a version containing a Magritte painting of a man's face obscured by an apple. "Is this you?" she asked, laughing.


Then she pulled out a battery powered, credit card-sized magnifying glass that I had stuck in there and never used. This was what they suspected was a calculator. What's wrong with a calculator? Not sure.

Having answered that question, she gave my possessions back to me and we flew to Chicago on an Embraer jet.

No one I've spoken to has ever had his or her wallet opened and explored. Maybe she was new and extra zealous? I don't think so. Maybe she wanted to see my reaction to her pawing through my most personnel papers, doctor's numbers, bank statements from ATMs, a card of assorted passwords.

She crammed the looking glass thing back in the wallet and we were on our way, but the whole business left me with an uneasy feeling that would not lift. We were told that our family had been chosen at random for special attention.

Which is the dumbest, least effective way to catch would-be terrorists. Perhaps the random checks are intended to be a deterrent. That doesn't seem to make sense either.

The trip back to Bradley was uneventful.

But I still can't shake that feeling.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Few Simple Steps to Happiness

Scan the "health" magazines at Wal-Mart and you will recognize that versions of the same articles are published over and over.

There is always a story on how to quickly obtain a flat abdomen; the best way to lose weight; and the keys to higher quality sex. Freud famously wondered what women want, and apparently to this day no one knows.

Not even women. Especially not women.

The same holds for men, whom the magazines always portray as sleek, competitive business types obsessed with sports, sex with women, alcohol and adventure. But most men are not like that, just as few women achieve the weird look that marks the American female ideal.

Lists on the cover sell magazines, so you see "10 ways to trim fat," "12 days to six-pack abs," "26 ways to drive him wild in bed," "100 ways to get any woman you want," and so on. Have your cake and eat it too, in five easy steps.

All of the articles repeat the same advice, which everyone already knows: eat less, exercise more, and improve communications with your partner.

These adolescent issues coagulate in a new HBO series called "Hung," which features an impoverished man with a large penis who becomes a male prostitute for straight women. His pimp, a sensitive woman, has to keep reminding him not to behave like a Neanderthal.

The series is very amusing, and is sure to increase orders for cockeyed "penis enlarging" pills. These pills are sold in spam that you probably automatically discard. Yet these products are out there and even advertised on television.

This whole industry is an exercise in the placebo effect, because biologically speaking, there is no nostrum that will enlarge a specific part of the anatomy. Usually, things that make body parts bigger are bad.

Steroids increase muscle mass while destroying the liver and causing other unpleasant effects.

A steady diet of alcohol will enlarge one's liver to the point that it is a mass of fatty cells that no longer function. And, of course, no one wants to bulk up with cancerous cells. Bigger lymph nodes, larger eyeballs, enlarged gallbladders, swollen appendixes, growing prostates, thickened airways -- all bad, very bad.

Add it all up and neither men nor women take any prizes for brains, health or emotional well-being.

Maybe Freud was asking the wrong question.

Your quivering Voice Supposedly Gives You Away

Emotions are so complex that there really is no way to physically detect liars.

Yet people keep trying to devise instruments to judge stress levels, breathing patterns, perspiration, blood pressure, increased activity in the frontal lobes, and other types of functional brain scanning to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

The polygraph was once considered to be a scientifically dependable method of detecting lies, except that the act of being "polygraphed" creates an enormous amount of stress, and everyone feels guilty about something.

Except for sociopaths lacking a conscience, empathy, or remorse. Consequently, the polygraph is usually used as a prop on the unwary, to squeeze confessions out of suspects. The results themselves are not allowed as evidence in a trial.

Now a voice analyzer has been patented and the inventor, Charles Humble, of the National Institute For Truth Verification, (whatever that is), contends that vocal cords can give you away.

To paraphrase a bit of his lengthy press release:

Humble, the founder of the NIFTV, created the CVSA II (Computer Voice Stress Analyzer). US Patent # 7,571,101, for “Quantifying Psychological Stress Levels Using Voice Patterns."

It should be obvious to all that we speak differently when sad, angry, guilty, depressed, anxious, sleepy, bored, insulted, humiliated, praised, rebuffed, and on and on. Since there is no one location for "lying" in the brain, a lie must be gathered from an array of mysterious places in the brain.

This is why voice stress is no different than polygraph. Same idea, different technology.

There are less expensive ways of obtaining confessions, according to research conducted in China during the Korean War. Under duress, sleep deprivation, disorientation, and continual questioning, most people will ultimately confess to anything, just to end the torture.

People also make notoriously bad eye witnesses.

Scientists currently have to real idea of how the brain works. They understand the functions of nerves, and can detect activity in brains, but how do we think? No one has a clue.

Not even, thank goodness, people like Charles Humble.

Monday, August 3, 2009

To hell with the bill of rights

This may come as a shock, but victims of crime in this country do not have any special rights.

They have the same civil rights as anyone else. No more, no less.

That includes the right to a trial, to face accusers in court and to be considered innocent unless proven guilty. Defendants have these kinds of rights because they need protection from the state or federal governments, which in certain cases are trying to kill them, or lock them up for life.

The states and federal government enjoy a tremendous advantage over the average individual. As George W. Bush showed, the government can pluck people from literally anywhere and stick them in a prison indefinitely, without requiring that they be charged, or informed why they are imprisoned, and without any recourse.

That's why our Constitution guarantees criminal suspects certain rights. Like the presumption of innocence, even if "everyone knows" that the suspects are guilty. In a case like this, "victims rights" comes across as "No need to wait for a trial, let's string 'em up right now."

That's why upholding the Constitution is so important, even when dealing with people who allegedly murdered a doctor's wife and killed the couple's two daughters by tying them to beds and setting them on fire.

It is unsightly and even a bit frightening when the surviving doctor complains that the suspects have not been executed quickly enough.

Let's just string 'em up right now.

Lying about health care

Many of the opponents to health care reform seem to require some health care themselves -- mental health.

Members of the "Tea Party," (whatever that really is) contend that Hitler and Stalin both instituted government-controlled health care, with disastrous results. Yes, the two dictators killed millions of their own, but not through health care.

Nazi Germany relied on an out of pocket system, unless the patient was born with certain "defects," in which case he might be euthanized to keep the gene pool clean. In the Soviet Union, everything was government run, at least officially.

Most Russian doctors were women, and were not well paid. The authorities dealt with subversives by putting them in "mental hospitals" where they were drugged into oblivion and otherwise rendered mad.

But Hitler and Stalin are not the point here. No politician is suggesting that the government should take over health care. This is unfortunate because a majority of Americans seem to prefer a single-payer government system, like Medicare or the Veterans Administration system.

Meanwhile, emergency departments are increasingly becoming primary care givers, which does no one any good, insurance companies only issue policies to young healthy people, which does most people no good, or they charge outrageous and unaffordable premiums.

What is true, is that the United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system.

That's what history will record.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Oh, those sludgy squdgy valves.

Shell says in its recent batch of television commercials, that the petroleum titan is adding nitrogen to its gasoline to clean gunk off of valves and other moving parts.

Those who understand how an automobile engine works should immediately recognize the colossal blunder in the ad.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere is already almost 80 percent nitrogen by volume, so there's already loads of the inert gas entering the cylinder. After the gasoline burns, the catalytic converter quickly breaks the nitrogen oxides created at high temperatures, into nitrogen gas and water.

So, what is it Shell is adding? Nitrogen is present in protein, and countless other compounds. But it is most often associated with explosives, (the nitro in nitroglycerin), ammonia, hydrazine rocket fuel, ammonium nitrate, and all sorts of nasty stuff. Of course, so is oxygen, carbon, and every other element, other than xenon, helium, and stuff like that.

Did you figure out the blockhead mistake in the ad yet? The ad shows gasoline showering down on a cylinder valve, cleaning away accumulated sludge. That would mean gasoline in the rocker panels and on the cam shafts. Gasoline never gets into cam shaft territory and certainly does not stream onto the tops of cylinder valves.

The only gasoline that hits the top of a valve would be a gas-air mixture, vapor really, from an ancient device called a carburetor, which cars don't use these days.

That makes the add doubly mysterious. Companies put all sorts of compounds into gasoline to maintain the engine, such as nitrogen-containing detergents, petroleum distillates, and who knows what else. But nitrogen?

And someone should have pointed out that if gasoline reaches the external tops of the valves, something is seriously wrong with the engine, like it's in the middle of a horrendous crash and is disintegrating.

To clean the tops of the valves, put some cleaning goop in the oil. Gasoline goes into the cylinders via the valves, and the valves are lubricated and cleaned, or not, by oil that circulates through the engine.

T0 clean the underside of the valves, where the high temperature gas-burning takes place, add something to the gasoline.

Don't expect that nitrogen-laced gasoline is going to make your engine last 500,000 miles.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mommy, can I please get this toy bull pup assault rifle?

Why are children, especially boys, drawn to guns?

Many parents avoid buying toy guns, do not expose their babies to violent TV shows or games, and yet, the youngsters want squirt guns, Nerf guns, or will fashion substitutes.

More than one baby has bitten a piece of toast into the shape of a pistol, horrifying and puzzling his parents.

While babies seem to be born with an innate fear of heights, darkness, snakes, and a few other things, gun lust is unlikely to be genetic. Aggression may be in our genes, but not the preference for a particular weapon.

Children must acquire a knowledge of guns from their environment. Television shows have greatly reduced explicit gun violence. Twenty or thirty years ago the Lone Ranger, Eliot Ness, Ben Cartwright and other characters routinely shot and killed people. The victims, not displaying any injury or blood, instantly dropped dead.

How does a child shielded from CSI, Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Mortal Kombat, and restricted to family-friendly Disney movies, learn about guns?

Possibly because of what's happening in the world.

Most children won't go near a newspaper, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan leak in through discussion, and television news. Columbine and other notorious school shootings are over-covered by 24-hour news channels, and are apt to be overheard.

Perhaps the knowledge comes through their friends: "I'll be Osama bin Laden and you be the 10th Mountain Division. I'll take the AK-47 and you get the M-16."

Maybe a gun, even a toy one, gives children a feeling of safety in a post 9/11 world with a scary former vice-president predicting Armageddon, flag-draped coffins being unloaded from Air Force cargo planes, neighbors being shot, and stray rounds crashing through bedroom walls.

Can you really blame a kid for wanting to protect him or herself, even symbolically?

People, pellets and public health

Almost everyone is mixed up about air guns.

Let's briefly put aside the issue of taking an air gun to school and shooting a fellow student.

That obviously is wrong and requires disciplinary action. The 9-year-old Celentano School student who shot an airsoft gun at a another boy on a bus probably now appreciates that carrying a weapon of any sort, even something as innocuous as an airsoft gun, poses more risk than safety.

"Air gun" encompasses many different types of weapons, ranging from toys to rifles capable of killing small game.

Airsoft guns were introduced in Japan in the 1980s for teens fascinated with real guns, which are illegal and difficult to find there. Participants played a "combat" game like paintball with these plastic guns, which were considered toys.

Air soft guns employ bright orange barrels to indicate that they only fire plastic pellets, but it is a simple matter to paint the barrel or cut it off.

They were considered toys because they fire small (6 mm) plastic pellets at a slow velocity. Since kinetic energy equals the mass of the pellet times the velocity multiplied by itself, and all of that divided by two, it is clear that the only way to seriously injure someone with an airsoft gun is to use it like a club.

The one exception is that eyes are delicate and unprotected, so goggles had to be worn, along with plastic "armor."

Then there is the BB gun. BB guns were devised to fire BB-sized bird shot. Most BBs are made of steel or copper. The .177 caliber spheres can travel at 300 to 400 feet a second, and could conceivably cause serious injury. These are not toys.

The next step up the air gun line is air rifles. Some use a built-in pump to compress air. More powerful air guns compress air using a large, powerful spring. The highest quality air rifles are made in Germany and cost more than conventional firearms.

Spring loaded air rifles can fire a .177-cal. pellet at up to about 1,000 feet a second. The speed of sound is about 1,100 feet a second, and supersonic pellets make a loud "crack," which is self-defeating. Europeans (mostly) use these weapons to eliminate rats, and keep rabbits, starlings and other unwelcome small animals away from farm lands.

The most powerful air rifles propel .22-cal pellets at 800 to 900 feet per second.

Many of these rifles are used for target shooting in lieu of conventional rifles, because air rifles are the same size, but are relatively quiet, use inexpensive ammunition, and do not require a permit.

All air rifles should be treated as "real" guns, should be equipped with trigger locks, locked in a cabinet, and pellets should be locked in another container. As with firearms, you always act as if the rifle is cocked and loaded, never point it at anything you do not intend to shoot, and consider what is behind the target, because it is in the line of fire.

Hardly any robber uses an air rifle because the arms are large (45 inches long), heavy and unwieldy. Moreover, a conventional pistol has a higher muzzle velocity and much heavier projectiles, and can readily inflict lethal wounds.

Consequently, many criminals use use real-looking airsoft guns, or pellet-firing pistols to commit crimes. Perhaps they think that using an air weapon will aide their legal defense when caught, but it doesn't.

But air soft gunfs are cheap and easy to acquire and are sufficiently gun-like to scare potential victims. The least we can do is make realistic toy guns illegal.

If kids want to play games -- and they seem to be genetically programmed to fight mock battles -- they can use Nerf guns that are fancifully shaped and shoot light foam cylinders at low velocity. No one could confuse a Nerf gun with the real thing.

Ultimately, here's what needs to happen: toy manufacturers must stop producing realistic-looking weapons; air rifle ownership should be regulated, and only people with a demonstrable need should be allowed to own real firearms.

Unfortunately the Second Amendment is ambiguous and grammatically obscure, so gun fanciers and the firearms lobby will continue to ensure that gun ownership if widespread.

The question is, would the National Rifle Association consider a ban on air soft guns to be an assault on our Constitutional rights?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How about a bit of common sense

There are a lot of reasons that people in other countries are not cozy with the United States.

Here is one minor example of why.

The problem here is drill bits, or rather, describing the diameter of drill bits. The rest of the world uses the metric system, which is simpler than whatever it is that we're using.

Here's the assortment of bits: 1/16th of an inch; 5/64ths; 3/32nds; 7/64ths; 5/32nds; and 3/16ths. Using this method requires thinking about common denominators, admittedly not a tough mathematical problem, for the most part.

Seven 64ths of an inch is one 64th from being 1/8th of an inch. Three 32nds is one 32nd from 4/32s, or 1/4th of an inch. What's the difference between 5/32nds and 3/16ths? One 32nd of an inch. Why not make all of the bits in 32nds? Too simple.

In the metric system, the same set is 1.59 millimeters; 2 millimeters, 2.38 mm; 2.8 mm; 3.18 mm, 3.97 mm and 4.8 mm. There are 25.4 mms in 1 inch. So 2.38 mm is a little less than 1/10th of an inch, which we call 3/32 of an inch. Which is a little less than 1/10th of an inch.

Can't we at least use 10ths of inches? Instead of using odd little increments like 5/32s?

Or, you can ignore the whole thing and just eyeball which bit you want. Then a few weeks later your shelves fall off the wall.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Phone home if you dare

Chances are that once in a while your cell phone cannot project its tiny radio signal to the nearest relay tower.

So, it's not like you're holding a 50,000-watt transmitter against your head. You're holding a thing the size of a pack of gum.

Yet researchers in Australia have concluded that using a cell phone (against the ear) for 10 years doubles the risk of brain cancer (for you, not them). Aside from the fact that dozens of studies of the same hypothesis have found absolutely no link, 60 Minutes, the Australian version, apparently, decided that a man with brain cancer must have developed it because he used a cell phone.

This guy is a farmer. Who was he talking to? Anyway, the report, by a hyperventilating Aussie, would be enough to make you throw away your LG unless you think about it for a fraction of a second.

First off, we are constantly bombarded through and through with FM, AM, shortwave, emergency band, and other sources of radio waves. If you could see radio waves, your room's walls would be glowing furiously. Not to mention television, computers, and everything else that creates electromagnetic radiation.

Remember: 20 years before cell phones there were cordless phones. Now almost everyone has a cordless phone, even though it seems to old fashioned. Cordless phones work by -- you guessed it -- radio waves, from your phone to your base station.

So we should have seen the doubling of brain cancer by now. And yet we haven't. Just to get to the heart of this, some electromagnetic radiation is sufficiently energetic that it can knock apart atoms and molecules. This is called ionizing radiation, x-rays for example, and they are not good for you.

Radio waves, on the other hand, have far longer wavelengths, and consequently, they are way less powerful. Radio waves do not ionize. Microwave ovens do not ionize. Gamma rays ionize. Cells phones, no.

This business with cell phones is worse than Paul Brodeur and his fantasy about carcinogenic electromagnetic fields around power cables. There may actually be something to that. Probably not, and if there is, it is so rare that it is impossible to pick out from the epidemiological noise.

The opposite of, say, working in a coal mine and developing black lung disease.

Just to be on the safe side, hold the cell phone at arm's length and yell into it. Especially while on public transportation.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A billion is way bigger than a million.

Okay. Here's a little math for people who are livid about $165 million in "bonuses" to employees of the corporate carcass once known as American International Group.

AIG received $30 billion from the Federal Reserve to somehow rid itself of insane insurance policies on a sliced and diced mixture of below-prime-rate mortgages. Or, what we now call "toxic assets."

How galling is it for a Greenwich millionaire cum-crook to get a million or two or three dollars for sabotaging the company while becoming filthy rich, causing untold misery to everyone else?

Pretty high on the Gall Scale. Right up there near the top.

But people want the money back as recompense for the $30 billion. Let's consider the numbers 165 million and 30 billion.

One million is 1 followed by 6 zeroes One billion is 1 followed by 9 zeroes. Three additional zeroes, or you might say, three orders of magnitude. Now, think about it.

Since Earth's population is about 6 billion, then 30 billion would be the number of people on five Earths. By contrast, 165 million is about the populations of the 10 largest cities on Earth.

Or, to put it another way, 1 million seconds is 13 days. One billion seconds is 31 years. A million hours ago it was 1855. A billion hours ago humans did not exist.

One more. There are about 10,000 grains of rice in a cup. Sixteen cups equals 1 gallon of rice. So, 1 million grains of rice would be 6.5 gallons. One billion grains of rice would be 6,500 gallons.

Consequently, $165 million is about half of one percent of $30 billion. It's chump change.

Of course, $165 million would make us chumps pretty rich -- but paupers compared to a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet.

By the way, 1 trillion seconds ago Neanderthals were hunting mammoths and trying to stay warm.

Earmarks for dummies

Many trivial-sounding "earmarks" are criticized as a waste of money, usually by people who don't understand the value of basic research.

Earmarks have faded from the news, pushed into the background by enormous bail-outs that are orders of magnitude larger than the supposed pet projects in the proposed federal budget.

Here are a few projects revealed earlier this month by New York Time columnist Maureen Dowd:

+$2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York. There's nothing funny about this to the growing U.S. wine industry. There are roughly 600 varieties of grapes, 54 of which comprise the main ingredients in most wines around the world.

Genetics are very important to wine.

Phyllorexa, a plant louse that loves grape leaves, appeared in the 18th century, first in America and then in Europe. Ultimately, after some back and forth, America began to provide phyllorexa-proof roots to Europeans, who graft on local grape varieties.

The point is, resistance to rot, insects, fungus, nematodes, etc. lies in genes, and the more we understand about grape genes, the safer the wine industry. California's wine industry alone is worth about $20 billion a year. So $2 million to assure its safety seems like a n0-brainer.

+ $1.7 million for a honey bee factory in Texas. Bees are essential to pollinating many crops, and bees are mysteriously disappearing. If the factory helps figure out what's going on the money will be well-spent.

+ $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa. Big joke, except that pig poop could be a source of biofuel, either by collecting the methane it gives off as it rots, or through some other biomass process. Do you want to live next to a pig fuel plant? No, because of the odor. So this grant has a serious purpose.

+ $2 million to develop and promote astronomy in Hawaii. Part of the reason that astronomy is conducted in Hawaii is because the mainland is wasting prodigious amounts of light, lighting up the night sky and obscuring stars, galaxies, and possibly even some planets. The skies over Kitt Peak (near Tuscon, Arizona) are way clearer than the skies over the East Coast. But Arizona cities are spreading like phyllorexa.

What's important about astronomy? Are you curious about the origin and future of the universe and the solar system; life on other planets; or the possibility of colonizing Mars or predicting asteroid collisons? That's astronomy.

There's more, but you get the idea.

A couple of centuries ago, how ridiculous it would have seemed to study why apples fall to the ground. That story about Isaac Newton may be apoccryphal, but you never know where a simple question will lead.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

House Rules

This is an obvious question, but why does no one really know how to put the economy back together?

If an airliner crashes, experts can find the faulty part or parts and correct them. If a bridge collapses, building a new, safer, bridge is not a mystery.  Should a new bacterial or viral pathogen emerge, researchers have some idea how to cope with it. 

But the U.S., economy, is different. Iceland went under. They're no less intelligent than we are. How could they not stop that from happening? People are being cast out of their homes, jettisoned from their jobs, and left living in cars, and fixing the whole mess is an inexplicable mystery.

Incompetent executives are rewarded with truckloads of money. The people who seem to have created this disaster are now collecting billions or trillions of dollars. Those two problems are clear, but somehow impossible to fix. 

Sure, securities, and credit markets and the fed, mortgages and loans are complicated. But are they really so complicated that no one knows how to wrestle them back into order? Is our economy like a nuclear power plant that's so complicated that its operators will be faced with crises they do not recognize?

Everyone knows: write off the useless securities cobbled together with sliced and diced mortgage loans to people who could not afford to pay them. Who pays? The cobblers, slicers and dicers, with money borrowed from the treasury.

How could there be more than one opinion on how to proceed? Is righting the economy like choosing between a suspension bridge and a truss bridge? That does not seem to be the case, because such an issue could be solved relatively easily by comparing cost, durability, capacity and  longevity.

Why should we suppose that economics is rational? Because there is a Nobel prize in economics. People study economics. Is it a branch of mathematics, philosophy, or psychology?
Or is economics a spongy discipline like sociology?

It's hard to tell because economics is both abstract and immaterial.  There seems to be no applied economics. It's all just bits of symbolic data flowing through computers, and apparently, no one really understands it.

Or, some people understand economics but they keep everyone else in the dark so that they can make fortunes, at others' expense. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Trilobites redux mea culpa, ipso facto

As readers -- if there are any -- of this thing know, I am very partial to trilobite fossils.

The first ones I acquired were at the Peabody Museum. An Elrathia Kingii,  I believe, a few Ptychagnostuses, (they're small), and a bunch of Diacalymenes, many of which are found in Morocco. 

 Then I had to have more. A giant Phacops, from I don't remember which store. These shops are around if you look for them.  Many of the fossils were scratched as only Moroccans can scratch them. I bought them anyway.

As I became more serious, I acquired "Trilobites," by Riccardo Levi-Setti, who just found a new species. This book contains photos of some of the best finds, including a few whose soft limbs were preserved in iron pyrite.  These fossils are locked up in the Peabody, along with many other fantastic specimens. 

I collected and collected, and spent and spent, like a lunatic, until I accepted the fact that I could never collect "one of everything" unless I had billions or trillions of dollars, and that my collection would never be as magnificent as Levi-Setti's

Almost all of my little buddies (some call them "bugs") are now resting in the attic. I keep four out for show. One has eye stalks (broken off and glued back on), another has small spines, and the third is curled up so that his cephalic spines, cheek bones, if you will, are sticking up like a "U."

The fourth is a very nice mortality plate of a species I have not identified. Either their molted shells were collected by currents, or a living bunch of them were buried under silt.  This one is a Moroccan fossil, purchased by me at the Peabody, and has scratches all over it,  and fissures where the plate broke and was glued together (not uncommon).  It is a very good piece, and probably could have sold for $500 to $800 on the Web. 

It's wonderfully three-dimensional, with trilobite atop trilobite. All together there are about 15 trilobites. I am slowly grinding away at some of the worst scratches. 

I'm only going into this much detail, because I know from Google analytics that perhaps 7 people read this mish-mosh once in a while.

Anyway, the point is that I belatedly heard that some of the Peabody staff were made uncomfortable by the last entry I wrote about Moroccan trilobites made out of Bondo.

 I feel bad about this. I never meant to imply that they were trying to foist fakes off on the public, or were acting in any but the most honorable way.

My feeling is that this country is trilobite-illiterate, and someone, somewhere, has to make a stand.

I think everyone ought to know about trilobite fossils. The sad truth is that some of them are half Bondo, (the fossils, I mean),  but this is not the museum's doing. It goes on all over the place.  Maybe all  sellers of fossils should post little cautionary signs.

 Nothing bigger than an ElrathiaThat's all.

And besides, the gift shop is one of my favorite places, and, really, when you get down to it,  I don't know anything about anything. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

Oh, What a Tangled Web

 The jungle under the desk is puzzling.

All of the cables, lines, transformer boxes, hubs and the rest of the connections that keep the computer and all of the peripherals functioning together inevitably turn into a tangle.

And not a trivial tangle -- this morass of copper wire is practically impossible to straighten out.  The reasons are not clear. There must be an applicable branch of mathematics,  topology, knot theory, that could explain how and why the tangle happens, and more importantly, how to resolve it. The Koenigsberg bridge problem, that kind of thing.

Why bother? The tangle makes diagnosis of hardware issues extremely difficult. If a drive disappears from the desktop, is it because it is unplugged, or did the USB cable detach, or is it a more serious problem?

The other issue is fire prevention. Somehow a knot of electrical cords seems hazardous, although circuit breakers would presumably trip before the whole house is engulfed. 

One issue seems to be that the power lines and the cables want to go in different directions. All of the plugs want to go to the power strip, while the cables seek a firewire hub,  a usb hub, the back of the computer, speakers, or the desk top. (The real desk top, the piece of wood holding up the computer).

The other problem is that the cords are too long. This would not be a drawback unless you're working in an room the size of a broom closet and all of the component are on top of each other. A six-foot cable connecting components that are 18-inches apart leaves a lot of extra cord available for a tangle.

The collected wires seem to want to tangle. A straightened out set of wires can turn into a jumble if you look away for a second.

Consequently, the non-tangle strategies involve bundling and shortening. "Bundling" here means wrapping wires into loops and then either putting a rubber band around them, or sticking them inside a plastic cable tube. 

We all remember from physics that moving a wire through a magnetic field generates a current, and that sending an alternating current through a wire creates a magnetic field. This is how electric motors, transformers, and many other devices work. It's called induction.

The question, then, is, are all of those knots of cable under the desk radiating magnetic fields, and if so, what potential effect could that have on how the hard drives, and all the rest, function. Perhaps the wires are supposed to be in a tangle to prevent this from happening.

One of these bundles will make a cheap compass deflect a little bit.  So the confined wires are creating magnetic fields of some intensity. Is the person sitting at the desk unknowingly bathing in several electromagnetic fields? What if Paul Brodeur was right? 

We know that it is possible to make a fluorescent tube glow if you hold one on the ground under high voltage wires. Is the field from the wires creating a current in the tube? Let's put all of these questions aside for a moment.

Shouldn't there be a formal way of  laying out a configuration of wires in such a manner that you're not inadvertently creating transformers under your desk? Algebraic geometry anyone? Matrices? Functions? 

So, you can see that trial and error is the least complicated way forward. Or so it would seem. 
See all of those diagrams? Or attempted diagrams?

How can you find a solution when you can't even figure out the problem. Let's hope the house doesn't burn down. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

There's no fossil in that fossil

With a heavy heart,  someone  must reveal the secret about the trilobites for sale at the Peabody Museum gift shop.

Otherwise, a visitor may pay hundreds of dollars for a lump of mostly epoxy formed to look like a trilobite fossil.  Or, a few real fossils epoxied onto a piece of Devonian rock.

All of this confusion could be avoided if the merchandise was correctly labelled. For example, "model fossil for educational purposes or display."

For those who don't appreciate a good trilobite, they are long-extinct marine creatures with antennae, lots of legs, shells, and other arthropod features. They also possessed compound eyes.

Trilobites, as the name suggests, are composed of three segments, a central "spine" with rows of "legs" or "gills" on both sides. They lived between 550 million and 250 million years ago. There were hundreds of species, from the tiny to foot-long. 

They are found in sedimentary rock that is 250 to 550 million years old. Such outcroppings occur in the Western United States, New York state, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Basically, everywhere except New England.

Some of the most spectacular specimens are found embedded in rock that comprises the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.  Many of these fossils are laboriously removed from the rock using tiny sand blasting tools and picks. These fossils tend to be expensive because separating one kind of rock from another complex shape of different composition, is time consuming.

Enterprising Moroccans also dislodge fossils from the same areas. They do not have expensive tools or the inclination to spend days slowly removing the matrix rock. Instead, they use screw drivers, nails, and and whatever else is handy to scratch away the matrix. 

Thus, it's possible to instantly recognize most inexpensive Moroccan fossils. They are crudely scratched. Others are unscathed, but sometimes assembled from  fragments of different fossils. They tend to be either tan or black, in gray or rust-colored rock. 

The fossil producers discovered a long time ago that most souvenir collectors cannot distinguish between a real fossil and one made mostly out of the type of  epoxy used to repair automobile bodies. 

Epoxy is hard, like rock, malleable before it sets, and easily scratched. 

The trilobites at the Peabody are from Morocco and some show obvious signs of modification or assembly. Hints: If many fossils are on a quilt-like surface of different shades, chances are that these real fossils were cemented together to form a more expensive plate. The other typical Moroccan fake is the large Paradoxides  of the  Redllichiida order.

The fossils appear to be tooled and outlined and the rock (or whatever that stuff is) is carved with attractive radiating lines. 

A few years ago a lunatic such as myself brought this to the attention of the museum. This guy washed off the Paradoxides he had purchased there. The underlying  "fossil" was suspiciously colored, and the border between colors was a straight line. Our sleuth disassembled more of the fossil and found that there wasn't any fossil in the fossil. 

He brought his findings to the museum's attention, but was brushed off. So today, you can go to the gift shop and still see modified, doctored trilobite fossils.

This is ironic, because the Peabody has one of the best and most significant collections of real trilobite fossils in the world.

These specimens are  beautiful and priceless. Unlike the crude recreations in the gift shop.

Coffee does a lot, but can it keep you sane?

The idea that coffee reduces the risk of dementia is kind of silly, if you think about it.

First of all, coffee has many effects. Too many to narrow down. For example, coffee could reduce the hours spent sleeping, or might increase exercise. We also know that it is a diuretic, and that it makes the heart beat faster and increases blood pressure. And it's a stimulant.

All of that aside, consider the history of coffee consumption and the incidence of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Per capita coffee consumption was about 20 gallons in 1910. It was also about 20 gallons in 2005. Coffee drinking peaked just after World War II, to just under 50 gallons per person per year.  Then soft drink consumption rises, and coffee declines back to early 20th century levels.

So, since most dementia has a decades-long latency period, many of the people who are slipping away now were born at a time when coffee drinking was highest. Consequently, their parents drank a lot of coffee.  They were still drinking more coffee growing up than people drink today.

So, one might ask, why is dementia and Alzheimer's increasing as the rate of coffee consumption drops, if coffee protects against dementia?

One obvious factor is that people are living longer now than ever before.  Many people probably used to die from other causes before they had a chance to develop dementia. 

In other words, the coffee hypothesis makes no epidemiological sense.  The crude data seems to suggest that coffee drinking is linked to higher rates of dementia. But, as we all should know, linkage doesn't necessarily reveal any causal connection. 

The only positive side to this research is that it encourages behavior that's already taking place. People do not have to give up coffee, the same way they're supposed to quit smoking and cut back on fatty foods. 

Keep the java coming.