Monday, March 31, 2014

A Sweet Deal

(Cartoon by Eric Alley published 7/10/13 and featured at  Click on image to enlarge and then return.)

As the deadline looms for obtaining health care under the Affordable Care Act, "Obamacare", some hints as to the problems to come were examined by the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

How sick they [policy holders] are and the size of their medical bills will be front and center in the weeks to come as insurers begin drawing up next year's insurance rates, which will become public this summer.

The outcome — hefty rate hikes or more modest increases — in the pivotal state of California could help shape political races nationwide and the future of enrollment for President Obama's signature law.

WellPoint Inc., parent of California's leading health insurer in the exchange, Anthem Blue Cross, has already predicted "double-digit-plus" rate increases on Obamacare policies across much of the country.    ...

But health insurers aren't wasting any time sizing up what patients are costing them now and what that will mean for 2015 rates.

Hunkered down in conference rooms, insurance actuaries are parsing prescriptions, doctor visits and hospital stays for clues about how expensive these new patients may be. By May, insurance companies must file next year's rates with California's state-run exchange so negotiations can begin.

"If rates in California increase by 20%," said Robert Laszewski, a healthcare consultant in Virginia, "enrollment will go down and any healthy people will bail."   [Emphasis added]

If the public thought the roll-out of the ACA website by the Obama Administration was a disaster, wait until those bills for the next year's premiums come due.  I predict a whole lot of howling, unless, of course, individual state insurance commissioners have the authority and the will to rein in those premiums where it is appropriate.

The difficulty is that even the most zealous insurance commissioners are going to have a tough time with the big companies simply because the ACA was written with the private insurance companies sitting at the table.  Yes, they finally agreed to cover pre-existing conditions, but they didn't give up the right to charge heavily for that coverage.  Nor did they agree to keep premiums low even if the insured should, heaven forfend, actually use the policy for health care.  And they made certain that a public option, a Medicare-like policy, was off the table before they even sat down at that negotiating table.

Now, there's some good stuff in the ACA, like the ability of parents to include their adult children up age 24 in their policy, and it is a first step in making medical treatment available to more people.  But it's only a partial answer, and we need that next big step into Medicare for all.

As I'm wont to say these days about all sorts of things, "How long, O Lord?  How long?"

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Funnies

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published 3/26/14 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Cartoon by Jim Morin published 3/27/14 in the Miami Herald and featured at McClatchy DC.

Cartoon by Lee Judge published 3/25/14 in the Miami Herald and featured at McClatchy DC.

Click on images to enlarge.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bonus Critter Blogging: Echidna

(Photo by Thorsten Mise and published in National Geographic.  Click on link to learn more about this Tasmanian critter -- a truly weird one.)

A Winning Strategy

Click on image to enlarge
Ted Rall is at it again and he absolutely nails it with this cartoon and comments from his blog:
Republican Andy Vidak won an upset victory in last year’s special election for a state senate seat representing the San Joaquin Valley, prevailing despite the Democrats’ 22-point advantage in voter registration.

How’d he do it? His explanation: “Our message was that common sense has no party lines.” But as The Times’ Patrick McGreevy writes, his common sense might also have a lot to do with knowing when to shut up. “He sidestepped gay marriage and some other divisive issues — while taking a moderate approach to immigration,” writes McGreevy. ...

A February piece in the right-leaning Examiner lays out “Five things Republicans should just stop talking about already.” Number 3 is social issues. “Republicans should deemphasize social issues. Voters are split on issues like gay marriage and abortion, but they are much more united on the twin issues of the economy and Obamacare.” Number 4 is immigration. “In contrast to the economy, immigration is an issue where many Republicans are at odds with a strong majority of voters.”

The old question is, should a party stick to its long-standing convictions, even if it means losing elections? Or should it accommodate its positions to reflect the changing opinions of voters?

What’s new here is the suggested tactical compromise: maintain your platform as is, do whatever you can to promote your ideals — in this case, opposition to gay marriage and illegal immigration — after you win enough elections to be in a position to do so. But don’t talk about those issues to voters. Because if they knew what you were all about, they’d vote against you.

Count on people’s ignorance. Bait and switch. Your future relies on lies of omission.   [Emphasis added]

If nothing else, Mr. Vidak got California Democrats' attention.  Maybe they will finally start taking elections more seriously and start doling out money to candidates even in "safe" seats. 

And he did run a good campaign.  He avoided discussing the hot-button issues of gay marriage and immigration, and he came across as a man with common sense willing to use logic in the solution of problems.  Who knows?  He might even be such a know, a moderate Republican.  Lord knows we certainly need such a person and for several reasons.

First of all, I like the two-party system (or three-party, etc.) because it keeps the parties in check and on their toes.  Debates, formal or otherwise, are healthy in a democracy, but only if differing views are presented for voters to choose among.

Second, I think a Republican Party with an open moderate wing unafraid to compromise for the good of the state and nation would mean that things would finally get done!

Third, if the "center" of the political spectrum shifts because the Republicans become less Tea Party-ish, then perhaps the Democrats will see fit to shift a little bit to left of center.  If the Democrats hope to maintain their majority in the Senate and to win the House, they have to stop running like centrists ("Republican-lite").  We need Roosevelt Democrats, not Eisenhower Democrats, you know?  The "Third-Way" Dems and the DLC didn't do their party or the nation any good.  None.  Zip.  I keep waiting for the party leaders to notice that.

So perhaps Mr. Vidak's election isn't quite the disaster folks, including Ted Rall, think.  At least I hope not.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Cat Blogging is good.

Granny Bird Award: Medicare Advantage Plans

The Granny Bird Award is given from time to time to those who violate or in any way harm the rights of the elders, or who use the elders to rip folks off.  Today's award goes to the Medicare Advantage insurers who rip off our precious Medicare system.

Michael Hiltzig of the Los Angeles Times put these plans in his spotlight and explains just why they are a way for insurers to take advantage of government largesse in order to turn a buck.

Here's what he had to say in his March 26, 2014 column:

A big part of the argument made by enemies of the Affordable Care Act that the Act is hurting Medicare applies to a category of health plan known as Medicare Advantage. New evidence has just come in showing that Medicare Advantage is a ripoff that fattens the health insurance industry while scarcely helping its enrollees, all at public expense. ...

Medicare Advantage plans differ from traditional Medicare by offering its enrollees ostensibly better care and sometimes broader services--free eyeglasses, even gym memberships--in return for reimbursements from the government that are 14% higher than traditional Medicare reimbursements, or more. And yes, the Affordable Care Act aims to pare the government's reimbursements for Advantage plans by a total of about $200 billion over 10 years. ...

Critics have long argued that the extra reimbursements for Advantage plans are a waste of money, just a handout to the insurance industry. A new paper by three Wharton School economists gives the critics powerful new ammunition.
The authors, Marc Duggan, Amanda Starc, and Boris Vabson, found that only about one-fifth of the extra reimbursement gets passed through to patients in the form of lower premiums, better care or more services. Where does the money go? Insurers pocket much of it as pure profit. Some they spend on advertising--to attract more Advantage members, so they can claim more of the enhanced reimbursement, which they use to advertise to get more can get dizzy following this daisy chain. ...

You shouldn't be surprised that the health insurance industry is leading the charge against Advantage cuts, terming them "devastating for seniors." Devastating to the insurers' bottom lines, they mean to say. It's important to remember that the money comes from premiums paid by non-Advantage enrollees in Medicare, and from taxpayers. 

Republicans love to portray themselves as guardians of the public purse. Yet here they are, lining up to protect one of the most wasteful claims on government resources of all. What could account for that?   [Emphasis added]

I wish I'd had this information when I turned 65 and promptly signed up for my Medicare Advantage Plan.  It even included a Part D to cover my pharmaceutical expenses.  It turns out that it only pays a fraction of the two drugs I take not covered by the hospice people, and those two drugs are expensive.  Unfortunately, I signed up again with the same plan and I'm stuck with it until the end of the calendar year (if I live that long).  Trust me:  I won't make that mistake again!

Once again, Mike Hiltzig does his job well as a consumer columnist, and for that I am grateful.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ahem, Cough, Gasp

(Cartoon by Lee Judge published 3/3/14 in the Kansas City Star and featured at McClatchy DC.  Click on image to enlarge and then drag yourself back here.)

Unfortunately, it's not just the conservatives burying their heads in the sand when it comes to climate change.  Most of the world is ignoring the consequences of using carbon based fuel.  Maybe the latest report from the World Health Organization will get some attention.  Maybe.

From the L.A. Times:

Air pollution kills about 7 million people a year and is linked to 1 in 8 deaths worldwide, according to a report released Tuesday by the World Health Organization.
The finding more than doubles previous estimates “and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk,” the agency said.
An estimated 4.3 million people died in 2012 as a result of indoor air pollution, mostly from cooking inside with coal or wood stoves in developing countries, according to the report by the public health agency of the United Nations. An additional 3.7 million died from outdoor air pollution.

Many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, so deaths attributed to each cannot simply be added together, the agency noted. Because of the overlap, the combined estimate for 2012 is about 7 million deaths.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Maria Neira, the agency's public health and environment director.   ...

The greatest health risk is posed by fine particles -- also known as PM2.5 -- which include diesel soot, wood smoke and chemical-laden droplets. Experts say those combustion particles, less than 1/30th the width of a human hair, cause most of the fatalities because they penetrate deep into the lungs, inflame the airways and put strain on the heart and other organs.

”People don’t die of air pollution alone; they die of other things the pollution tends to exacerbate,” said Michael Kleinman, a professor of toxicology at UC Irvine, who was not involved with the report. “It's a contributor to many deaths, and the more we learn, the more effects can be attributed to air pollution."

Last year the WHO's cancer research arm declared air pollution a human carcinogen, saying it increases the risk of lung and bladder cancer.

Reducing pollution levels could save millions of lives, according to the agency.
“The evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe,” Neira said.  [Emphasis added]

The report attributes many of the deaths, especially in Asia and other lesser-developed nations to the use of coal and wood burned to cook meals.  That said, in the industrialized nations much of the air pollution is caused by the burning of carbon-based materials such as natural gas and oil as demands for energy increase, especially in areas hard hit by climate change.

Yes, reducing pollution levels would save millions of lives, and, yes, a concerted action to clean up the air (and the water and the ground) is necessary.  Now, all we need is the will to do so.

How long, O Lord, how long?

NOTE:  The W.H.O report is available here.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Drawing On A New Hobby

(Cartoon by Rogers published 12/3/13 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and found here.  Click on image to enlarge.)

The War on Women continues apace.  The latest battle is at the Supreme Court as arguments were heard on the issue of whether an employer of a non-religious corporation could refuse to include contraceptives in the health insurance provided employees.  The owners of these businesses, I'm embarrassed to say, are some of my co-religionists who are still into the punishing the Eve in all of us.  They claim (but I don't think they really believe this) that the contraceptives are a form of abortion, and therefor evil and against their deeply held religious beliefs.

Further, they argue, the requirement that contraceptives be included in the health insurance under the ACA is an intrusion by the federal government into their religion.

I'm not buying the arguments, nor is the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times.  In the editorial published 3/25/14, the board also pointed out the danger that the employers might not have noticed in making those arguments.

From that editorial:

American law has traditionally bent over backward to accommodate individuals forced to choose between obeying the law and complying with their beliefs. If that privilege is pushed too far, public support for accommodating religious objections could erode.

Two principal issues will be argued Tuesday: Can a for-profit business claim a religious exemption from the mandate under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act? And does the requirement that employers provide contraceptive coverage impose a "substantial burden" on their exercise of religion? Under the law, such a burden is permissible only in pursuit of a compelling government interest and only if the law is narrowly tailored.

The first question is easily answered. It isn't just, as a federal appeals court in Philadelphia pithily put it, that businesses "do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously-motivated actions." It is that business corporations are legal entities distinct from the individuals who create them. As the Obama administration persuasively argues, the owners of Hobby Lobby aren't entitled to an exemption for their businesses "based on their individual religious beliefs."

But even if moneymaking corporations were to be viewed as religious believers, the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate isn't a substantial burden on their exercise of religion. The mandate doesn't require an employer to do anything more than make it possible for a female employee to decide for herself whether to use contraceptives.   [Emphasis added]

The arguments made on behalf of the employer relied heavily on the First Amendment freedom of religion clause.  The freedom of religion rights of the female employees apparently don't matter.  And, of course, their right to choose didn't come up, even with the Roe v Wade still being the law (at least for the time being).  Once again, given the current make-up of the Court, it will be a close decision, with Justice Kennedy probably being the swing vote. 

We certainly do live in interesting times.


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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Let The Sun Shine In

(Cartoon by Jack Ohman published 3/21/14 in the Sacramento Bee and featured at McClatchy DC.  Click on image to enlarge and then be so kind as to return.)

It's silly season again, and campaigns for the June primary are in full swing.  Also in full swing is the pouring of "dark" money into various campaign, including those involving propositions.  George Skelton took a good look at the issue of "hidden" campaign donations in his Los Angeles Times column.  Of course, what he's talking about is the use of 501(c)4 organization to hide identities.

From that column:

There's bipartisan agreement in California's Capitol that hiding the identities of political fat cats is bad for democracy. ...

But they've gotten hung up over exactly when to begin shining the light on shadowy mega-donors.

Democrats say start exposing them during this fall's elections.

Republicans claim that wouldn't be fair. It's "changing the rules in the middle of the game." They're insisting on one more election of donor-hiding.

They're like the drunk who promises to seek treatment, but first needs to go on one last binge.

The GOP stance is indefensible. If a rule is rotten, it should be chucked immediately. Why allow it to continue spoiling the political process?

That said, we are talking about crass politics, after all. Nobody should be shocked by any doublespeak or opportunism. And Democrats should compromise here for the long-term public good.   [Emphasis added]

So, what brought on the flurry of activity in the state legislature?  Well, in the last election, all sorts of money poured in to affect a couple of ballot measures somebody had a stake in:

The measure stemmed from the laundering of $15 million in "dark" money that was dumped into two 2012 ballot measure campaigns. Part of it was to fight Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase. The rest was to promote an initiative that would have crippled political spending by unions.

The skullduggery backfired, souring many voters against the laundry machines. The tax hike won and the anti-union measure lost, both overwhelmingly.

The state could only trace the money back to such innocuously and disingenuously named sources as "Americans for Responsible Leadership," "Americans for Job Security" and "The Center to Protect Patient Rights." All were legally classified as nonprofits, largely immune to being required to disclose the real names of their donors.

No one still can say with certainty who actually forked out the millions, but the secretive network of nonprofits had ties to right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch. So virtually everyone assumes it was the out-of-state Koch brothers who were secretly playing in California politics.   [Emphasis added]

While I'm not big on compromise these days, feeling that our president and our Congress have done enough to last a lifetime, I would settle this time if it meant that our November elections wouldn't be so tainted.

And I'd like to see the L.A. Times, S.F. Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and all other state newspapers make a BIG DEAL of the passage of such a bill so the rest of the nation could start pressuring Congress for a comparable change in the law regarding 501c(4)s.

It's  time to stop the buying and selling of elections shrouded in secrecy.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Ahem, Cough, Cough...

(Cartoon by Tom Toles, 11/25/12, and found here.   Click on image to enlarge and then please return.)

I've been a whiny-ass titty baby for the past week to ten days, primarily because I've been fighting off another infection, which increased my need for drugs which, in turn, required going off ice cream (my favorite food group) until the antibiotic regimen ended.  Then I fell into some financial difficulties which required me to haul out the begging bowl, always a blow to my ego.  And then ...

This news didn't exactly cheer me up:

In a Louisiana swamp several miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, about 3,000 construction workers are building a massive industrial facility to liquefy natural gas, preparing for a new era when the U.S. will begin exporting energy around the globe.

The $12-billion project is one of the largest single industrial investments in the nation, part of a massive transformation of the energy sector that has led to a boom in drilling, transportation and refining from coast to coast.

Five years ago, the idea of exporting U.S. gas and oil was not only unheard of, but, in the case of most U.S. crude oil, illegal. At that time, the United States was facing a future of dwindling domestic supplies and vulnerability to foreign producers. It was anxiously building facilities to import natural gas, worried about ever-higher prices and building much of its foreign policy on the need to secure energy supplies.

But U.S. energy production has boomed with the technological revolution of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and the ability to tap newly accessible massive reserves. The nation surpassed Russia in 2009 as the largest producer of natural gas and is expected to zip past Saudi Arabia next year to become the largest oil producer in the world.

Now, the U.S. energy industry is pushing for a new era of exports.   [Emphasis added]

What the frack??!!!??

I mean, really.

Here in California we're in the fourth year of a drought because the jet stream has been pushed northward, sending our badly needed precipitation eastward.  Folks in the eastern half of the country have had a brutal winter, with snow and ice storms as far south as Atlanta, and that weather is freaking continuing even as I pound on my poor laptop's keys.

The UK and parts of Europe have been hit with similar disastrous weather and Beijing China has had several bouts of smog radiating out for over 400 miles which amounted to at least ten times the particulate level marking extremely unhealthful air.

The whole world and all of the living things in it are suffering because we continue to use carbon-based fuels for energy.  And now we've found a new way, a dangerous way, to pump even the most difficult-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas, so that our water supplies are even more directly affected.

For what?

So that a few rich titans, like the Koch Brothers, can get richer and richer as the rest of us die off.  And our government is going to help them do it.

Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy
Lord have mercy

I have none to spare.


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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Here We Go Again: Help Needed

(A re-run for those who may have missed this yesterday.)

 Friday Afternoon was the afternoon from hell.  My bank called to let me know that I was seriously overdrawn and I got a notice from the pharmacy which delivers my non-pulmonary meds that if I didn't clear up the balance they were going to cut me off from my thyroid and blood pressure medications (my hospice group only covers the pulmonary drugs and my Part D doesn't cover the full cost of the meds, primarily because they are delivered to the Cuckoo's Nest).

I had really hoped I wasn't going to outlive my finances, especially since my on-line friends bailed me out just a few months ago, but my body and spirit are still hanging on.  While I'm grateful to be this side of the dirt, I also am suffering some anguish at my financial state.  If any of you have a few extra coins after paying your taxes, please consider hitting the PayPal donation button above.

As always, thanks.  And I promise to rein in my smoking even further.


Sunday Funnies: A 2-fer

Cartoon by Steve Sack published 3/19/14 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Cartoon by Matt Wuerker published 3/20/14 at the Daily Kos.

Again, click on images to enlarge!


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bonus Critter Blogging: Burmese Python

(Photo by Eureka/Alamy and published in National Geographic.  Click on link to learn about the amazing navigational skills these critters have.)

Here We Go Again: Help Needed

Yesterday afternoon was the afternoon from hell.  My bank called to let me know that I was seriously overdrawn and I got a notice from the pharmacy which delivers my non-pulmonary meds that if I didn't clear up the balance they were going to cut me off from my thyroid and blood pressure medications (my hospice group only covers the pulmonary drugs and my Part D doesn't cover the full cost of the meds, primarily because they are delivered to the Cuckoo's Nest).

I had really hoped I wasn't going to outlive my finances, especially since my on-line friends bailed me out just a few months ago, but my body and spirit are still hanging on.  While I'm grateful to be this side of the dirt, I also am suffering some anguish at my financial state.  If any of you have a few extra coins after paying your taxes, please consider hitting the PayPal donation button above.

As always, thanks.  And I promise to rein in my smoking even further.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Cat Blogging

We need to talk.  Now.

I Know ... Let's Make It Easier

(Cartoon by Ted Rall published on his website 3/19/14.  Click on image to enlarge.)

You know, all along I've objected to those damned dog-and-pony secretive show trials down in Guantanamo Bay as a travesty of American principles.  I was certain that the American civilian judicial system was more than capable of dealing fairly and openly in trying those suspected of the 9/11 attacks and other planned attacks.  I looked to trials such as the current one involving Sulaiman Abu Ghaith to prove my point.

Now, I'm not so sure.

From a CNN report:

In a scathing ruling, a federal judge has denied a request by Osama bin Laden's son-in-law to have alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed testify in his defense at trial, either by teleconference from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp or via deposition.

In a motion to the court over the weekend, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith's defense team said Mohammed can provide evidence that their client had no knowledge of planned terror attacks and asked that portions of an unsworn, written statement by Mohammed be allowed before the jury even if his testimony was not.
Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, issued a rambling defense of Abu Gaith, who is on trial in New York. Abu Gaith is accused of being al Qaeda's propagandist in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The rare statement by Mohammed was in response to questions from Abu Gaith's attorney and was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Sunday night.
At a hearing on the matter Tuesday morning, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan called the defense motion "entirely baseless" and said nothing Mohammed may testify to is relevant to Abu Ghaith's case.    [Emphasis added]

What's next?  The judge issuing simplified jury instructions which directs the jury to find the defendant guilty?

I am deeply ashamed. 

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Cuckoo's Nest: Time To Pay Attention

As I've mentioned before, many of the people here in the Cuckoo's Nest suffer from varying degrees and various kinds of dementia.  Ironically, five years ago I feared that I would be one of them.  Both my father and my older brother died of complications of this Alzheimer's, and, after testing, I showed some very, very early signs of continuing the family tradition.

I shouldn't have worried.  So far, I'm still in pretty good shape cognitively, although occasionally I can't remember a word when I'm speaking or writing.  At this point, I attribute that to having a full hard disc and accessing some data just takes longer than it used to.  My problems are primarily physical, due mainly to smoking for over 50 years.  I'm lucky.  I get to enjoy the here-and-now of whatever time I have left.

Some of my fellow residents and their families are not so lucky, and it's heartbreaking in all sorts of ways.  One of my favorites obviously was a brilliant man and on good days that brilliance shines through.  Unfortunately, however, those days are fewer with longer spaces between them.  And he knows that he's slipping deeper into the dementia.  That's hard on him and it's hard to watch.

I was heartened to see the Los Angeles Times editorial board address this issue on March 19, 2014:

A recent study in the journal Neurology estimated that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's figure on deaths attributable to Alzheimer's in 2010 — 83,494 in the U.S. — is a fraction of the true number, which it estimated at more than 500,000. Officials at the CDC admit that the agency's number is significantly low.

Just as alarming is this: A study by researchers at Rand Corp. and other institutions calculated that the direct cost of care for people with Alzheimer's and other dementia in 2010 was $109 billion. In comparison, healthcare costs for people with heart disease was $102 billion; for people with cancer, it was $77 billion. Yet cancer research will be allocated an estimated $5.4 billion this year in federal funds, and heart disease will get $1.2 billion — while research on Alzheimer's and other dementias comes in at only a fraction of that, at $666 million.

It's time to substantially increase that budget.   [Emphasis added]

Amen! to that.

Do me a favor and drop a note to your congress critters and the president requesting a sizeable increase in the allocation of funds for Alzheimer's research.  We can't afford not to.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Things That Make You Go Wow!

(Cartoon by Jen Sorensen/3/18/14 and published at the Daily Kos.  Click on image to enlarge and then be kind enough to return.)

I'm always amazed and impressed by scientific discoveries -- especially those that deal with cosmological issues.  An announcement of a HUGE discovery was made yesterday and reported on for us lay folk today.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Scientists staring at the faint afterglow from the universe's birth 13.8 billion years ago have discovered the first direct evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation — the mysterious and violent expansion after the big bang.

The findings, made using radio telescopes at the South Pole, support the idea that our known cosmos make up just a tiny fragment in a much larger, unknown frontier that extends far beyond the reaches of light.

During this period of inflation, which happened just a fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe ballooned from smaller than an atom to 100 trillion trillion times its original size, at a rate faster than the speed of light.

The research, submitted to the journal Nature for publication, also provides direct evidence of ripples in the structure of space-time made by gravitational waves, and it affirms the often tense link between quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. ...

Scientists have long wondered why this faint background light is so uniform across the sky, Carlstrom said. Stars clump into galaxies, and galaxies cluster together unevenly across the heavens.
 But no matter where you look, the cosmic microwave background seems to look essentially the same.
Why was the cosmic microwave background so smooth while all the stuff that came after it looked so lumpy?

In 1980, theoretical physicist Alan Guth of MIT came up with an answer: All that stuff from the early universe had originally been in a single tiny spot when it was ripped outward in a violent expansion.
Because the universe was compressed and experienced a single sudden expansion, the characteristics of the background radiation would be roughly the same.

It would require a massive spurt of inflation that scientists could barely comprehend. In less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the universe popped into existence, the newborn cosmos expanded from the size of a tiny subatomic particle to roughly the size of a basketball.

As the universe continued to expand at a slower rate and then cool, it carried with it the signature of this early trauma. ...

The signal from the cosmic background microwave has weakened over time, making it exceedingly difficult to find the signature of this ancient inflation behind all the cosmic "noise."

The only hints could come from distortion in the fabric of space-time, created by the trauma of inflation. That could be detected by looking for a particular pattern of polarized light in the cosmic microwave background, known as B-mode polarization.

The theory was that sudden inflation, based on Einstein's theory of relativity, should cause an onslaught of gravitational waves that ultimately would change the polarity of the background radiation, leaving behind a distinctive swirling pattern.   [Emphasis added]

These discoveries don't "just happen," they are the culmination of years of hard work and a whole lot of creativity to build the technology to help answer the questions and then prove/disprove the hypotheses.  That's what happened here, and this old broad is hopping-foot-to-foot excited, pleased, and very impressed with the people who worked to pull us this far in our knowledge.

And to my co-religionists who pooh-pooh the findings and mouth the same old nonsense of "6,000 years", I say this:  "I'm sorry your god has such a low opinion of humankind that he didn't give it any brains and any work ethic.  My God is bigger than that, and s/he is cheering loudly."


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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

And Yet Again ...

(Cartoon by Ted Rall and swiped from his blog, which you all should visit anyway.  Click on image to enlarge.)

For the second time this year, Duke Energy has hit the news with another nasty bit of dumping. 

From the Los Angeles Times:

While poring over regulatory documents for Duke Energy coal ash ponds, environmentalists at the Waterkeeper Alliance grew suspicious of the way the giant utility was handling the toxic ash waste left over from burning coal.

They decided to send up a team in an aircraft to photograph Duke's shuttered Cape Fear coal-burning power plant and ash ponds, tucked into piney woods in this tiny community in central North Carolina.

The photos revealed what the Waterkeeper Alliance says is evidence that Duke, the nation's largest electric utility, is deliberately pumping toxic coal ash wastewater from the containment ponds into a canal that eventually feeds into the Cape Fear River, a source of drinking water for downstream cities.

In the photos, two portable pumps and hoses can be seen drawing water from a coal ash pond and dumping into the canal and into nearby woods. According to the environmental group, that is a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act and state laws.  ...

State regulators said the pumping could be illegal, and added that they were investigating the incident.

The allegations came as Duke and state regulators are under intense public and political pressure following the massive Feb. 2 Duke Energy coal ash spill that coated the Dan River with toxic coal ash sludge for at least 70 miles in North Carolina and Virginia. Hazardous heavy metals such as arsenic and lead were dumped into the river.   [Emphasis added]

What is so maddening about this news is that it took a citizen's group, Waterkeeper Alliance, to uncover this latest dump.  The state agency was fully aware of the prior problems, yet it appears it simply closed the books after the February 2 spill, not checking out the other sites within the state. 

What is up with that?

That's what the feds wants to know:

Federal prosecutors have announced a criminal investigation into the relationship between the state agency and Duke Energy. They have said they are seeking evidence of any money or gifts exchanging hands.

Kudos to Waterkeeper Alliance for doing another fine job.  I suggest you click on the link to their official site, nose around a bit, and check to see if they have a local unit you could support in some fashion.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Good Idea? Or Not

(Cartoon by Steve Sack/Minneapolis Star Tribune and found here. Click on image to enlarge)

I've always enjoyed the opinion columns of Erwin Chemerinski, a professor at UC-Irvine School of Law, because in addition to providing an understandable presentation of the legal principles at the heart of the issue he's discussing, he also presents a healthy dose of pragmatism to the mix.  His latest column, however, has me scratching my head.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should retire from the Supreme Court after the completion of the current term in June. She turned 81 on Saturday and by all accounts she is healthy and physically and mentally able to continue. But only by resigning this summer can she ensure that a Democratic president will be able to choose a successor who shares her views and values. ...

...simply leaving before the next election isn't enough. If Ginsburg waits until 2016 to announce her retirement, there is a real chance that Republicans would delay the confirmation process to block an outgoing president from being able to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. In fact, the process for confirming nominees for judicial vacancies usually largely shuts down the summer before a presidential election. ...

...Some might question whether a justice should be so calculating in choosing when to retire. But not doing so ignores the reality that ideology matters enormously in Supreme Court decision-making. This is nothing new.   [Emphasis added]

Some indeed "might question whether a justice should be so calculating," me included, and for several reasons.

Yes, yes.  I get that the Democrats might/probably will lose their Senate majority in 2014 and might even lose the White House in 2016.  But, first of all, that assumes that this president has the cojones to nominate someone who shares Justice Ginsburg's views and values.  He hasn't exactly consulted the liberal "binder" all that often in his other nominations to the federal courts or other positions.

Secondly, as Prof. Chemerinsky himself has pointed out, she is healthy and fully capable of continuing.  Just because she's 81 does not mean she is going to immediately lose her capacities or her desire to continuing service.  There is no indication whatsoever (that I'm aware of) that retirement is necessary this year or even two years from now.

Finally, isn't it a shame that such machinations are even a part of our conversation, that the people we send to Washington are so ideologically bent that our even our Supreme Court is affected.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Funnies: Two From Mike

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich published 3/11/14 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich published 3/14/14 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

As always, click on image to enlarge.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bonus Critter Blogging: Grizzly Bear

Photo by John Eastcott and Yva Momatiuk and published in National Geographic.  Click on image to enlarge.

More Beep For Our Buck

(Cartoon by Dana Summers (3/4/14) and found at Tribune Content Agency.  Click on image to enlarge.)

On March 3, 2014, I examined one facet of the Pentagon Budget which hadn't been trimmed.  Yesterday, I found another one, one that is perhaps even more surprising.

From the Los Angeles Times:

As the Pentagon moves beyond the relatively low-tech wars in the Middle East and turns its attention to future national security challenges, it has doubled down on sophisticated new radar-jamming devices that aim to render adversaries' air defenses useless.

Although the U.S. faced limited resistance in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan, that would not be the case in Asia, where the Obama administration plans to shift its diplomatic focus and strengthen its defense strategy in the coming decade.

China and North Korea, for example, have quietly invested in advanced sophisticated radar systems, surface-to-air missile batteries, and power-projection capabilities.

So when the Pentagon revealed its fiscal 2015 budget proposal last week, much of the attention was given to a boost in spending on drones and cybersecurity. Less heralded, but vital to U.S. strategic success, experts say, was the high-dollar investment in radar-jamming technology and other electronic warfare.  [Emphasis added.]

Interesting,  yes?

We can afford fancy electronic jamming equipment so we can fly over countries which don't want us flying over, but we can't afford extended unemployment insurance, investments to replace or repair aging  infrastructure, Medicare expansion, school lunch programs.

I guess human security isn't as important as "national" security.  Or something.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday Cat Blogging

Yeah, That'll Work

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Ah, Ted Rall is at it again!  This time his target is the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.  That's a pretty broad target -- the LASD has had a lot of problems the past few years, including an investigation by the feds involving prisoner abuse and taking bribes to smuggle in drugs and cell phones -- but Ted has narrowed things down to the latest idea by the Department.

The county jail system is dreadfully over-crowded, primarily because the state prison system was ordered by a federal judge to reduce the prison population because of over-crowding.  So the state system just passed on a whole lot of prisoners to the various county jails, which is what state government does whenever possible.  The Sheriff's Department is looking to find ways to reduce the number of prisoners in the County Jail  by way of early-release. 

In the past, early release was given to those who had served most of their sentence and had behaved themselves (and, apparently, hadn't squealed to the feds about conditions).  Someone has now decided that there might be a better way to determine who should be released early, a more scientific way.  Dating-sites on line have an algorithm to match people of for dates, and on-line retailers have an algorithm to decide, based on past purchases, what the customers should buy next.  Why not use the computer to decide which prisoner should be released early?

But math can also be used to guess which among yesterday’s bad guys are least likely to reoffend. Never mind what they did in the past. What will they do from now on? California prison officials, under constant pressure to reduce overcrowding, want to limit early releases to the inmates most likely to walk the straight and narrow. ...

Washington state uses a similar system, which has a 70% accuracy rate. “A follow-up study…found that about 47% of inmates in the highest-risk group returned to prison within three years, while 10% of those labeled low-risk did.”

No one knows which ex-cons will reoffend — sometimes not even the recidivist himself or herself. No matter how we decide which prisoners walk free before their end of their sentences, whether it’s a judgment call rendered by corrections officials generated by algorithms, it comes down to human beings guessing what other human beings do. Behind every high-tech solution, after all, are programmers and analysts who are all too human. Even if that 70% accuracy rate improves, some prisoners who have been rehabilitated and ought to have been released will languish behind bars while others, dangerous despite best guesses, will go out to kill, maim and rob. [Emphasis added]

I'm as skeptical as Ted Rall is, and I agree with his conclusion:

If the Sheriff’s Department moves forward with predictive algorithmic analysis, they’ll be exchanging one set of problems for another.

Technology is morally neutral. It’s what we do with it that makes a difference.   [Emphasis added]

Before the County of Los Angeles goes and spends millions of our dollars on this new computer system and on training those members of the department who will use it, I'd suggest they read Ted Rall's column in its entirety. 

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Thursday, March 13, 2014


(Cartoon by Jack Ohman (3/12/14)/published in the Sacramento Bee and featured at McClatchy DC.  Click on image to enlarge.)

Oh, my!  Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Dino, CA), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is extremely upset with the CIA.  What has the august senator's knickers in a twist?  She claims that the CIA has been nosing around her computer records and those of other committee members.

From the Los Angeles Times:

A long-simmering dispute between the CIA and its Senate overseers erupted into public view Tuesday when the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the agency of possible crimes and of attempting to intimidate committee staffers investigating the CIA's former use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee chairwoman, said the CIA secretly searched computers used by Senate staffers and might have violated constitutional provisions on separation of powers and unreasonable searches, a federal law on computer fraud and abuse, and a presidential order that prohibits the CIA from domestic searches and surveillance.

So Sen. Feinstein demands the White House investigate this intrusion.

Oh, please!

Why on earth did the good senator think she and members of her committee were exempt from all the domestic spying going on (and on ... and on) for lo, these many years. Did she really think that her computer was sacrosanct because of her position?  Her status as a cheerleader for everything the CIA, Defense Department Intelligence, the NSA does apparently isn't enough.

Welcome to our world, Dianne.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

George Was Wrong

(Cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published 3/5/14 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  Click on image to enlarge.)

So, what's the deal with Putin?  Is he crazy?  Taking a page from the Hitler playbook?  Masha Gessen, a Russian American who wrote a political biography of the Russian leader, says "no" to both questions in a column written for the Los Angeles Times.

From Masha Gessen's op-ed piece:

[Putin's] graduation to dictator took years. In that time, he dismantled Russia's electoral system, took over its media, saw many of his opponents killed, jailed or forced into exile, created one of the most ruthlessly corrupt government systems in history, made peaceful protest punishable by jail time, waged a long and brutal war on his own country's territory and a short one against a neighboring country, Georgia, a piece of which Russia bit off in 2008.

But it was only after he invaded Ukraine last month that Americans' image of him took another drastic turn. ...

...Putin was acting the way he always has, like a playground bully. It was the last thing an American audience expected. The dramaturgy of war would seem to dictate that Putin issue a rousing call to arms. But bullies do not aspire to lead through rhetoric; they dominate by intimidation. When confronted, they either lash out or they obfuscate.

Putin said the troops occupying Crimea weren't Russian, then promised to deploy the Russian military to protect civilians in Ukraine, then disowned deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. ... This is a tried-and-true intimidation strategy: Bald-faced lies render opponents helpless. ...

The political culture Putin has created in Russia is based on the assumption that the world is rotten to the core. ...

...the Putin world view: He believes that all governments would like to jail their opponents and invade their neighbors, but most political leaders, most of the time, lack the courage to act on these desires. ...

This belief that everyone, without exception, acts solely out of base self-interest is what has led Putin to ratchet up the aggression, meanness and vulgarity of both his public statements and political actions over the years.  [Emphasis added.]

In my opinion, that's a pretty solid analysis, one that certainly explains Mr. Putin's behavior in the Ukraine and earlier in Georgia.

What occurs to me, and this is quite discomfiting, is that this analysis also tends to fit various other non-governmental leaders.  Certain of our oligarchs also share some of these characteristics and behavior patterns, which would certainly explain a lot about this country's recent history.

And now the question becomes, "What do we do with these bullies?"

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

GOP Gender Gap

(Cartoon by John Darkow, published 4/10/12, and featured at Cagle.Com.   Click on image to enlarge.)

I'm still giggling over the CPAC conference this weekend.  It reminds me that silly season is getting closer and closer.  The 2014 elections are just around the corner, and then the campaigns for the presidential nominations will get started in earnest.  CPAC laid out quite nicely just how silly the run-up to the nominating conventions are going to be.

One thing CPAC made clear is that the GOP still hasn't figured out this whole thing about women.  That was evidenced by their line-up of speakers.  Yes, yes:  Madame Palin spoke and even did some poetry, but she was one of the few women speakers.  Robin Abcarian noticed the same thing when she saw the list of speakers. Her March 7 column in the Los Angeles Times did the math:

By my count, the CPAC mobile app listed 163 speakers and panelists. Men outnumber women by far

The breakdown: 128 men (78%) vs 35 (21%) women. That’s a 57-point gender gap, people. If Republicans have any hope of stopping the Democrats' blockbuster narrative that they are waging a war on women, they must first solve their own war of attrition on women.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who closes CPAC on Saturday evening, is expected to be a highlight for many attendees. But one woman with mega-star power is not enough to dispel the notion that CPAC (and by association the Republican Party) is a retrogressive boys’ club.
When is the next Sarah Palin going to get some CPAC love?

Even a writer on the conservative website,, was brutal: “CPAC could have invited South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez," wrote Mary Chastain. "These women are not only in a position of power, but they are also minorities. Martinez can reach out to women and the Latino vote, which leans to the left. They did not even bring in Condoleezza Rice … she is respected on both sides of the aisle. CPAC also left out Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.”

In a way, I can understand Cardenas’ obliviousness. He’s got man blinders on.   [Emphasis added]

I guess the GOP just doesn't get it.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Vice Presidential Material?

(Cartoon by Lee Judge/Kansas City Star (3/7/14) featured at McClatchy DC.   Click on image to enlarge.

We're still about eight months from 2014 elections, but campaigning for the 2016 election appears to be in full swing, especially among Republicans.  This past weekend, many of those who seek the GOP nomination appeared at the CPAC convention to present their credentials to the party's more conservative faithful.  In anticipation of that meet-and-greet Sean Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote a rather interesting column which speculates on just who might wind up being the GOP's Vice Presidential nominee. 

I know, I know, that kind of speculation is way premature.  I still found it interesting.  Of course, a lot depends on what happens in the 2014 elections (the Tea Party wing might cost the GOP its shot at winning the Senate), and a lot of the names in the two lists are people who are clearly interested in the Number One slot, not the second. But most of them might very well be considered by the nominee of their respective parties.

Here are the possibilities for each party:


5. Brian Sandoval. On paper, the governor of Nevada is just what the GOP needs. He's a popular, moderate Hispanic executive from a swing state. ... But not so fast. He's pro-abortion rights and expanded Medicaid in his state, two things that won't sit well with the conservative base. ...

4. Bobby Jindal. It's no secret that Jindal is thinking about running for president. ... The question is whether someone so ambitious about his own rise could also be a loyal lieutenant. Still, Jindal occupies a space in which he can appeal to the base and the party establishment. ...

3. Scott Walker. Like Jindal, Walker appears to have his eye on the top job in 2016. His resume is tailor made for a run at either job: Midwestern swing state governor who became a conservative hero when he took on organized labor and survived the backlash. ... Walker wouldn't be a safe VP pick. Picking him would gin up both the liberal and conservative bases. He could be the Paul Ryan of 2016 -- which could be good or bad depending on the political climate.

2. Marco Rubio. ...  Rubio is also eyeing a run for president. Rubio's strengths: He gives one heck of a speech, has a great personal story, is young, telegenic and may be the Republican best equipped to occupy the sweet spot between the party's conservative wing and its establishment wing. ...

1. Susana Martinez. The top pick on this list is someone who has declared zero interest in running for president. Martinez, who is the first Hispanic female governor of New Mexico, is also the only GOP woman on this list. If Clinton runs and wins, Martinez could emerge as a powerful counterweight in the battle for women voters. ...


5. Cory Booker. Young, energetic and never camera-shy, the new New Jersey Senator could provide a boost of energy (and youth) for a Democratic ticket led by Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden. The New Jersey senator is African American, which would help Democrats as they aim to keep up (or at least not lose too much of) the enthusiasm among African American voters that was there for President Obama's two historic campaigns. ...

4. Kirsten Gillibrand: Gillibrand has quickly gone from obscure swing district House member to popular liberal senator from New York with a growing national profile. She's been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, but if Clinton runs, kiss any chance of her also making a White House bid goodbye. ...

3. The Castro brothers. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was introduced to the country to rave reviews when he keynoted the 2012 Democratic National Convention. His brother Joaquin serves in Congress. Viewed as two of the brightest rising stars in the party, the Castros, who are Mexican American, would have to be considered top choices for Clinton. Like Booker, they would add some youth and newness to the ticket. ...

2. Elizabeth Warren. There is no Democrat right now with stronger appeal to the Democratic Party's liberal base than the Massachusetts senator. At a time when fatigue over Obama is on the increase, Warren has been just the shot in the arm the liberal movement has been looking for. ... Clinton has never been a favorite of the left and adding Warren to the ticket could give the ticket a much-needed boost of liberal energy.

1. Deval Patrick. The governor of Massachusetts seems open to the idea of a national bid. ... Keeping African American voters enthusiastic without Obama at the top of the ticket will be a challenge for Clinton, if she runs. Picking Patrick would give the ticket an experienced figure with a strong ability to reach out to black voters.

 Well, that's an interesting set of lists.  It'll give those of us who can't seem to get enough of electioneering plenty to think about for the next couple of years.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Keith Knight and published at Daily Kos.)

(Cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published 3/2/14 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

(Cartoon by Jim Morin, published 3/7/14 in the Miami Herald and featured at McClatchy DC.)

As always, click on image to enlarge.


Saturday, March 08, 2014

Bonus Critter Blogging: Blue-Footed Booby

(Photograph by Tim Laman and published at National Geographic.  Click on link to see more pics of Galapagos Island critters.)

Puff Puff Puff

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Ted Rall's cartoon and column in the Los Angeles Times really caused me to laugh loudly, which is pretty damned hard for me to do these days.  Here's a taste:

In musings that might surprise those who remember his "Moonbeam" period (but not those who have noticed there's no squarer square than an old hippie), Gov. Jerry Brown took to Sunday morning TV to worry aloud that emulating Colorado could leave the state defenseless against (a) foreign business competition and (b) terrorism.

"How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?" Brown mused. "The world's pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together." ...

I'm always interested in policy appeals motivated by fear. Politicians have unleashed an awful lot of threats -- a few real but mostly imagined -- during the last decade and a half. And they haven't exactly made us a better, stronger or more economically successful nation. Brown's thoughts are nowhere close to the depraved paranoia of Dick Cheney; the idea that California will be morally and economically weakened, its security undermined, because a tiny minority of the state's residents regularly indulge in the evil weed seems about as serious and substantial as a puff of smoke[Emphasis added]

Now that's some masterful snark.  but I would expect no less from Mr. Rall.

Will California pass a recreational marijuana law if it makes the ballot in November?  Probably not.  It took a while to get a medical marijuana law passed, and after it did, state and local governments fussed around so long trying to set up regulations that a lot of potential dispensary owners lost interest.  I suspect the general public, even in "liberal" California won't be thrilled with another experiment in better living through chemistry, especially since the pharmaceutical companies can be expected to fight long and hard alongside the liquor industry again to defeat the proposition.

And that's a shame.  The state could make some easy cash on taxing the weed.  And it just might make a dent in the illicit drug trade being run by the Mexican cartels and their gangster sales reps.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Friday Cat Blogging

Mine.  All Mine.  No, you may NOT pet her.

A Little Bit Of Good News

(Cartoon by Randy Glasbergen.  Click on image to enlarge.)

It's been a while since I've checked to see what the drug companies are up to, especially with respect to their "bribing" doctors to prescribe their drugs.  As I've pointed out in previous posts, drug companies would pay doctors to speak at special conferences in exotic locations or take the doctors and staff out to expensive lunches or give doctors and their staffs expensive gifts. I'm not saying that all doctors prescribed medications unnecessarily, or even prescribed newer, more expensive drugs when the old drugs worked just as well.  But if these marketing techniques hadn't been successful, the drug companies wouldn't have done it.

The ethics (or, rather, lack of ethics) behind these gifts were scrutinized pretty closely by news outlets, medical schools, and medical societies.  They all agreed the practice smelled bad.  Well, doctors and the drug companies finally got the message, albeit it took a lot of clamoring by some good guys and some changes in the law to accomplish a pretty major turn-around with respect to the speaking "fees" paid to doctors by the drug companies.

Here's the good news as reported in the Boston Globe:

Some of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies have slashed payments to health professionals for promotional speeches amid heightened public scrutiny of such spending, a ProPublica analysis shows.

Eli Lilly and Co.’s payments to speakers dropped by 55 percent, from $47.9 million in 2011 to $21.6 million in 2012.
Pfizer’s speaking payments fell 62 percent over the same period, from nearly $22 million to $8.3 million.

And Novartis, the largest US drug maker as measured by 2012 sales, spent 40 percent less on speakers that year than it did between October 2010 and September 2011, reducing payments from $24.8 million to $14.8 million.
The sharp declines coincide with increased attention from regulators, academic institutions, and the public to pharmaceutical company marketing practices. ...
In addition, the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, part of the 2010 health care overhaul law, will soon require all pharmaceutical and medical device companies to publicly report payments to physicians. The first disclosures required under the act are expected in September and will cover the period of August to December 2013.  [Emphasis added]

That doesn't solve all the problems with drug company marketing techniques by any means.  For example, I'm seeing more and more television ads for prescription drugs, and I'm sure other media have been deluged with "direct-to-consumer" advertising.  I'll save that post for another day.

In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy this good news.  Who knows?  Maybe this will give the FDA the spine to look further into drug pricing ... nah... I need to be more realistic.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

...Um ... By The Way

(Cartoon by Felipe Galindo and found at Cartoon Stock.  Click on image to enlarge.)

We've had non-stop coverage of the Russian "invasion" of the Ukraine for about a week now.  The latest is that the U.S. and the E.U. are offering loans/loan guarantees to the interim government in Kiev and the U.S. is still threatening Russia with economic sanctions of one kind or another.  We're getting plenty of information and we're getting an education on the history and geography of the area.  It's a serious situation and deserves all of the coverage.

That said, however, I'm a little puzzled by the lack of coverage for another area in crisis, one closer to home.  While there have been a few articles buried in newspapers, little, if anything, has been said on television for at least a week.  I did find something of recent vintage in my hometown newspaper from a few days ago:

From the March 2, 2014 Los Angeles Times:

Tens of thousands of students and other opponents of the Venezuelan government filled the streets of the capital Sunday, putting a damper on President Nicolas Maduro’s hopes that a mandated holiday might bring a respite to weeks of protests.

The march originated at four points near universities in Caracas that have been opposition hotbeds and converged on the Chacaito barrio where opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was arrested Feb. 18 for alleged incitement to violence.

Opposition leaders say the charges against Lopez are politically motivated and have demanded his release from the military prison where he is being held in isolation.

Each of the four “feeder” marches Sunday had a theme built around a complaint against the Maduro administration: justice, scarcities, freedom and censorship [Emphasis added]

OK, that's some coverage, but nowhere in the article could I find a statement from the White House or the State Department.  Apparently there has been none.

Here's what columnist Ruben Navarrette had to say about the silence from the White House:

In Venezuela, for the last few weeks, blood has stained the streets of Caracas and other major cities. It started with massive student protests on Feb. 12 against the social and economic "crisis" plaguing the country -- corruption, high crime rates, skyrocketing inflation, etc. -- under a government they consider illegitimate. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro responded with violence, as if he were suppressing a coup attempt at all costs.

Former President Hugo Chavez was crazy. But what Maduro is doing -- using armed soldiers and plainclothes goons on motorcycles to beat and kill people in order to stifle dissent and keep power -- is flat-out criminal. The casualties are young people who look like they're barely old enough to order a drink in a bar. ...

This is how they roll at the intersection of socialism and fascism. ...

...the unrest is framed differently. When people rise up against their government in Ukraine, the media call it a revolution and present those stories in a positive light. But when it happens in Venezuela, you are not likely to hear the word "revolution" and you might hear it described as simple unrest.

It all amounts to a crisis in our backyard that President Obama is not up to dealing with. ...  [Emphasis added]

The Secretary General of the United Nations has stepped  up and urged negotiations among the parties, as has the Pope.  Yet all we hear from our government is the sound of crickets.

Maybe it's because Venezuela is a major petroleum producer, but that certainly didn't stop the E.U. from speaking out and many of its members rely on energy products from Russia.

Or maybe it's because the Venezuelans are ... well, brown ... non-European.

Whatever the reason, I find the silence of our president shameful.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Dumb Da-Dumb Dumb

(Cartoon by Lee Judge/Kansas City Star (3/4/14) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)

Vladimir Putin's sudden move into Crimea took most of the world by surprise.  Since the tanks and troops moved in to take over the airport, world leaders and their governments have sat on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next move.  So far, no shots have been fired and those troops and tanks have remained at the airport, neither moving into the western areas of the Ukraine nor giving any indication of returning to Russia itself.

President Putin's excuse for this rather precipitous move was that with the turmoil in the Ukraine and a new government taking power in Kiev under what he considered to be suspicious circumstances he wanted to ensure the safety of Russians in the Ukraine and wanted to protect the Russian fort which was allowed to accompany access to the Crimean Sea.  Some analysts suggest that the real reason for the move was to show the world and the Russian people that Russia was still a world power.

Although some foolish people in this country have suggested some kind of serious sabre rattling in response to President Putin's actions, up to this point wiser heads have prevailed.  David Horsey's March 4, 2014 column suggests that economic sanctions would be a much better and a more effective course.

Russia’s current autocrat, Vladimir Putin, may be thinking his easy capture of Crimea from the fledgling government of Ukraine is a bold and clever move. Under the pretext of protecting Russians, he may have plans to snatch Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern industrial region. And he can act with the certain knowledge that, unlike the 1850s, Western powers have no stomach for war.

But that only proves Western leaders have learned the lessons of history. In the intertwined world of the 21st century, the power that really counts is economic power. Sure, the United States and the European Union have no inclination to send troops to defend Ukraine, but they have economic weapons that could severely undermine Russia’s tottering economy.  [Emphasis added]

Of course, the United States could simply sit back and do nothing, allowing the Ukraine's European neighbors to respond in some fashion.  I doubt, however, that either our European allies or our Congress will give President Obama that luxury.

The next few weeks are going to be interesting.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

"For I Have Promises To Keep ..."

(Cartoon by Matson and found here.  Click on image to enlarge.)

Karen Greenberg (a professor at Fordham University) had an interesting analysis of Obama's presidency from the standpoint of some of the promises he made during his campaign and during the early days of his administration.  Those in the progressive base who worked so hard to get him elected were elated.  The eight-year long nightmare of the Bush Administration was finally over.  Unfortunately, things haven't exactly worked out the way many of us hoped. Greenberg's scorecard on several issues nicely captures our disappointment.

From the 2/27/14 Los Angeles Times:

Ending torture

On his first day in office, Obama ordered an end to the practice of torture, or as the George W. Bush administration preferred to call it, "enhanced interrogation techniques." In the president's words, "effective immediately" individuals in U.S. custody "shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in the Army Field Manual."

Of the four promises, this is the one the president has come closest to keeping.

Greenberg notes that the "black site" prisons were closed down and Obama did set some limits on interrogation techniques (although forced-feeding continued.)

Closing Guantanamo

On his first day in office, Obama also pledged to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility — home at the time to 245 detainees — within a year. That proved politically impossible. As of January, 155 detainees remained at the prison, including 77 who had been cleared for release. But the president insists he is still trying. In his State of the Union address last month, he urged legislative action: "This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay."

But even if the president is successful, there's a catch: He has made it clear that he means to close Guantanamo only in the most technical sense. While he would like to empty the facility, he is quite prepared to keep the strikingly un-American Guantanamo system of indefinite detention itself intact, allowing some suspects in Washington's war on terrorism to be held indefinitely without charges or trial if they are considered a risk to national security.  [Emphasis added]

Unless and until President Obama ends the concept of indefinite detention of anyone, including citizens, not only has this promise been broken, but is totally unacceptable treatment by an allegedly constitutional government.

Ending unnecessary secrecy

Another goal Obama identified on his first day in office as key to his presidency was establishing a "sunshine" administration. He pledged to end the excessive secrecy of the Bush administration and put more information in the public arena.

Obama's self-professed aim was to restore trust between the people and their government by pledging to promote accountability and provide "information for citizens about what their government is doing." Toward that end, the president quickly released a number of previously classified documents from the Bush years on torture policy.

But that, as it happened, was the end of the sunshine. In the five years since, little of note has occurred in the name of transparency and much, including a war against whistle-blowers, has been pursued in the name of secrecy. The administration has also, even after Edward Snowden's devastating revelations, continued for the most part to defend the  NSA's massive, secret, warrantless surveillance.  [Emphasis added]

The NSA has been strengthened and has extended its reach into who knows how many homes and computers, and there is no way for the victims to do anything about it because they don't know about it.  The drone program operates in a similar super-secret fashion, spying and even assassinating.  This is not the transparent government Obama promised.

An end to war without limits

At the outset of Obama's presidency, the administration downplayed the notion of a borderless battlefield that encompassed the globe. It also threw on the trash heap of history the Bush administration's term "global war on terror."

In his recent State of the Union address, the president stated his continued aversion to the notion that Washington should pursue an unlimited war. He was speaking by now not just about the geography of the boundless battlefield but of the very idea of warfare without an end point. "America," he counseled, "must move off a permanent war footing."

But despite the president's insistence on placing limits on war, and on the defense budget, his brand of warfare has helped lay the basis for a permanent state of global warfare via "low footprint" drone campaigns and special forces operations aimed at an ever-morphing enemy usually identified as some form of Al Qaeda."  [Emphasis added]

The use of drones, satellite imagery, and interception of phone and email messages, justified by the use of the magic words "Al Qaeda" and "terrorists", has continued to burgeon under the Obama administration. 

The cartoon, showing Obama morphing into George W. Bush, provides an apt image for what we have seen over the past five years.  All those promises broken, and in the most expensive way imaginable, and I'm not talking about just the dollar cost.

 This is not what I voted for.  Not at all.

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