health is contagious

Posted on: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 10:20 By: Tom Swiss

A few weeks ago I argued that one reason for intervention in the health care marketplace is that health is contagious. So I was fascinated to see this New York Times story about how data from the famous Framingham Heart Study backs up this idea:

...When they ran the animation, they could see that obesity broke out in clusters. People weren’t just getting fatter randomly. Groups of people would become obese together, while other groupings would remain slender or even lose weight.

And the social effect appeared to be quite powerful. When a Framingham resident became obese, his or her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese, too. Even more astonishing to Christakis and Fowler was the fact that the effect didn’t stop there. In fact, it appeared to skip links. A Framingham resident was roughly 20 percent more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese — even if the connecting friend didn’t put on a single pound. Indeed, a person’s risk of obesity went up about 10 percent even if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight.

“People are connected, and so their health is connected,” Christakis and Fowler concluded when they summarized their findings in a July 2007 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, the first time the prestigious journal published a study of how social networks affect health. Or as Christakis and Fowler put it in “Connected,” their coming book on their findings: “You may not know him personally, but your friend’s husband’s co-worker can make you fat. And your sister’s friend’s boyfriend can make you thin.”

...Smoking, they discovered, also appeared to spread socially — in fact, a friend taking up smoking increased your chance of lighting up by 36 percent, and if you had a three-degrees-removed friend who started smoking, you were 11 percent more likely to do the same. Drinking spread socially, as did happiness and even loneliness. And in each case one’s individual influence stretched out three degrees before it faded out. They termed this the “three degrees of influence” rule about human behavior: We are tied not just to those around us, but to others in a web that stretches farther than we know.

health care reform: it is a matter of life and death

Posted on: Wed, 09/23/2009 - 18:14 By: Tom Swiss

A reminder of the stakes involved in health care reform, from MoveOn.org:

Dawn Smith is an aspiring playwright in Atlanta. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with a rare, but treatable brain tumor. Her doctors are ready to remove it, but they can't because CIGNA refuses to pay for the surgery.

Dawn has been fighting CIGNA on her own, but now she's asking for our help. CIGNA may be able to ignore her, but they won't be able to ignore millions of us standing together.

Can you sign this statement of support to shine a light on Big Insurance's abusive tactics, get Dawn the care she needs and make sure they don't do this to anyone again?

A compiled statement with your individual comment will be presented to H. Edward Hanway, CEO of CIGNA.

Some more info at MoveOn's Facebook page: "CIGNA, her insurer, refuses to pay for the care she needs because the only hospitals qualified to treat her are out-of-network. And after years of fighting, Dawn just received her final denial letter."

The publicity may make CIGNA do the right thing (though this is the same company whose death panel of accountants delayed and delayed treatment until Nataline Sarkyian died); but we can't rely on every case of abuse by health insurance companies to become a cause celebre. There must be real reform, now.

Soviets built a doomsday device -- and it's still armed

Posted on: Tue, 09/22/2009 - 21:25 By: Tom Swiss

Nothing puts one's own personal tribulations into perspective quite like learning that during the 1980s the USSR built a "doomsday device" meant to ensure that, in case of a nuclear war, a retaliatory strike against the US would still occur -- and that this system still exists today.

To Moscow [Reagan's SDI missle-defense initiative] was the Death Star -- and it confirmed that the US was planning an attack. It would be impossible for the system to stop thousands of incoming Soviet missiles at once, so missile defense made sense only as a way of mopping up after an initial US strike. The US would first fire its thousands of weapons at Soviet cities and missile silos. Some Soviet weapons would survive for a retaliatory launch, but Reagan's shield could block many of those. Thus, Star Wars would nullify the long-standing doctrine of mutually assured destruction, the principle that neither side would ever start a nuclear war since neither could survive a counterattack.

...The system, Reagan insisted, was purely defensive. But as the Soviets knew, if the Americans were mobilizing for attack, that's exactly what you'd expect them to say. And according to Cold War logic, if you think the other side is about to launch, you should do one of two things: Either launch first or convince the enemy that you can strike back even if you're dead.

Perimeter ensures the ability to strike back, but it's no hair-trigger device. It was designed to lie semi-dormant until switched on by a high official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosions. Before launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. If it seemed that one had, the system would check to see if any communication links to the war room of the Soviet General Staff remained. If they did, and if some amount of time—likely ranging from 15 minutes to an hour—passed without further indications of attack, the machine would assume officials were still living who could order the counterattack and shut down. But if the line to the General Staff went dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker—bypassing layers and layers of normal command authority. At that point, the ability to destroy the world would fall to whoever was on duty: maybe a high minister sent in during the crisis, maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy. And if that person decided to press the button ... If/then. If/then. If/then. If/then.

Once initiated, the counterattack would be controlled by so-called command missiles. Hidden in hardened silos designed to withstand the massive blast and electromagnetic pulses of a nuclear explosion, these missiles would launch first and then radio down coded orders to whatever Soviet weapons had survived the first strike. At that point, the machines will have taken over the war. Soaring over the smoldering, radioactive ruins of the motherland, and with all ground communications destroyed, the command missiles would lead the destruction of the US.

It's also cheering to learn that the "Permissive Action Links" that were supposed to prevent unauthorized use of US nukes by requiring a numerical code, were set to a string of zeros.

David Kurtz: "Culture of Dependency"

Posted on: Thu, 09/17/2009 - 15:09 By: Tom Swiss

From David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo:

Tea partiers complain that the DC subway system wasn't prepared for last weekend's rally and that some protesters were forced to rely on free market solutions (i.e., taxis) to get to the demonstration.

About What You Would Expect Update: The congressman complaining about the DC Metro voted against the stimulus package that boosted funding for the subway.

on crime, bloodlust, and the "samurai sword killing"

Posted on: Thu, 09/17/2009 - 10:59 By: Tom Swiss

Posted in response to the comments on a comments on a Baltimore Sun editorial about the recent "samurai sword killing" in Baltimore. (Links have been added to this version.)

Wow. The bloodlust displayed by many comments on this incident makes me sad.

We don't have all the details, but it seems Mr. Pontolillo was probably acting in justified self-defense. I'm a martial arts instructor and a gun owner, and I stand solidly behind his right to do so.

But one of the few teachings that has stuck with me from my abandoned Catholic upbringing is that every single human being has the potential for redemption, regardless of their past mistakes. Mr. Rice has lost his chance at redemption, and that should sadden us.

If the very best thing that we, as a society, could do with Mr. Rice's human potential was let it bleed out onto the ground, then we are in sorry shape indeed.

Thanks to right-wing "tough on crime" policies, along with the economics of the prison-industrial complex, prisons have abandoned any attempt at reforming inmates. And so we see the sort of "revolving door" system that did nothing for Mr. Rice. A recent NPR story about Folsom prison notes that four decades ago, when it was a model institution where almost every prisoner got education and job training, most never returned to prison. Now, only 10% get job training -- and the recidivism rate is 75%.

So here's the end result of the "tough on crime" attitude spouted by those cheering Mr. Rice's death: more crime, more violence, lives wasted, and ordinary citizens with blood on their hands.

Did Glenn Beck Rape and Murder a Young Girl in 1990?

Posted on: Tue, 09/15/2009 - 23:19 By: Tom Swiss

Well, I certainly don't think that Glenn Beck raped and murder a young girl in 1990. But, as this parody site asks -- applying the same logic that Glenn himself often uses:

Why won't Glenn Beck deny these allegations? We're not accusing Glenn Beck of raping and murdering a young girl in 1990 - in fact, we think he didn't! But we can't help but wonder, since he has failed to deny these horrible allegations. Why won't he deny that he raped and killed a young girl in 1990?


There's a whole section of links to evidence on your left there, in the navigation section titled "Evidence". We await evidence that he *didn't* rape and murder a young girl in 1990!


Why is the MSM not reporting that Glenn Beck might have raped and murdered a girl in 1990? Why are they not investigating these allegations?


So, there's this thing going around the internets...some people say that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a girl in 1990. I'm not saying that it's not possible, I'm simply saying there are questions to be answered. After all, why else would so many people say that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a girl in 1990?

Ars Technica discusses the story:

The controversy started a week ago in the Fark forums, where someone picked up on an old Gilbert Gottfried roast of the "comedian" (scare quotes fully intended) Bob Saget. During the roast, Gottfried repeatedly said (watch the video) that Saget had "not raped and killed a girl in 1990." The Fark forums took the joke about the power of insinuation and applied it to right-wing talk show host Glenn "Obama is a racist" Beck.

One of the Fark readers then took the forum meme to the next level, registering a domain name and launching a web site in order to make a point about talking head TV demagoguery. "Why won't Glenn Beck deny these allegations?" asks the site. "We're not accusing Glenn Beck of raping and murdering a young girl in 1990—in fact, we think he didn't! But we can't help but wonder, since he has failed to deny these horrible allegations. Why won't he deny that he raped and killed a young girl in 1990?" At the very bottom of the page was a small text disclaimer saying that the site was satirical.

I spoke to the anonymous owner of the site, who tells Ars that launching it "just felt right"—it flipped the "birther" non-falsifiable conspiracy theories about Obama's birth and citizenship around and applied the same tactics to one of the biggest talking heads (no pun intended?) on cable news. It's just "using Beck's tactics against him" and is a small way of "directing all this frustration" with Beck and others into action.

faked photo from teabagger's protest

Posted on: Tue, 09/15/2009 - 15:14 By: Tom Swiss

We've already discussed how the astroturfers behind the teabagger protest on Friday couldn't count the number of people there, and then lied about ABC being a source for their grossly inflated estimate.

But wait -- there's more.

To show their numbers, they've been circulating a photo of a packed National Mall. The problem is, it's not from this weekend.

This is clear from what's missing -- the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened five years ago, isn't in the picture. The photo in question is apparently from a 1997 "Promise Keepers" rally.

In every photo and video I've seen of this "event", it looks like there are a lot of people -- crowded in front of the camera. If you look in between you can see that the crowd is as shallow as an insurance industry lobbyist's ethics.

most doctors favor a public option; why non-profit co-ops are not enough

Posted on: Tue, 09/15/2009 - 13:44 By: Tom Swiss

A recent New England Journal of Medicine poll found that 62.9 percent of physicians favor a public option as part of health care reform. An additional 9.6 percent favored a completely government-run single payer option.

The alternative to the public option being put forth by industry shills is some sort of co-op. Now normally, I'm all in favor of co-ops and other non-profits: they're a great illustration of how a non-capitalist organization can function in a free market. But the idea of for-profit competing with non-profit organizations doesn't work for insurance, because of the nature of pooled risk.

Let's say you've got a bunch of people, half of whom -- call them group A -- are going to get significantly sick this year, and half -- group B -- that aren't. Pulling numbers out of the air for illustrative purposes, let's say that a group A person consumes $1,500 worth of health care over some period of time (including the necessary administrative costs), and a B consumes $500.

In an efficient non-profit insurance system, one that does the best job of spreading the risk, we set everyone's cost at the average, at $1,000.

But now, let's introduce a for-profit provider into the model. If you can tell ahead of time who's an A and who's a B -- based on things like medical history and age -- you can offer Bs a plan priced at $900. That's cheaper than the $1000 they're paying now, and since Bs only consume $500, you make $400 on the deal. Wow! What's not to love?

The problem is that this cherry picking takes Bs out of the risk pool. Say that, with that $100 incentive, half of the Bs leave the non-profit and buy into the for-profit plan. Then the non-profit's risk pool now has twice as many As as Bs. The average cost to provide care to the non-profit group jumps from $1,000 to $1,167, so that's the new cost of the non-profit plan. (Either that, or the non-profit plan has to start kicking As off its rolls.)

And so more Bs leave the non-profit pool to join the for-profit plan. And -- here's the fun part -- with that increased demand, and the costs of the general pool rising, the for-profit plan can raise its price! At, say, $1,050, it might be more expensive than what a B was paying before the for-profit plan came along, but it's cheaper than the non-profit's new prices.

teabaggers can't count, then lie about it

Posted on: Tue, 09/15/2009 - 02:13 By: Tom Swiss

So this weekend, a bunch of teabaggers showed up in D.C., protesting health care reform and "voicing opposition to big government". Now, I have to wonder why these "no big government!" types only come out when there's some threat to the aristocracy -- where were these guys when the Patriot Act was signed, or when Bush the Second deployed a whole lot of big government power in its rawest form to Iraq? I guess there just wasn't anybody to astroturf these folks into shape the way "FreedomWorks" -- founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray -- is doing now.

But, hey, free speech and all, and it's not like 60,000 to 70,000 protestors is a big deal by D.C. standards. But then FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe went and claimed there were 1 million to 1.5 million people there -- and falsely claimed ABC News as a source for their grossly inflated estimate.

Not only have they had to apologize for the false attribution, they've had to admit that the millions-men number was B.S., and have cut their estimate roughly in half, to between 600,000 and 800,000 -- though that's still an order of magnitude more than any disinterested party's estimate.

UK offers apology for treament of Turing

Posted on: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 10:15 By: Tom Swiss

Alan Turing was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the Twentieth Century -- indeed, one of most brilliant mathematicians ever. During World War II he was instrumental in breaking the Nazi's "Enigma" code. In the process, he developed much of the theoretical framework for the field of computer science. The mathematical model of computers that every comp sci major learns about, the "Turning machine", was his invention. Every time you use a computer -- such as reading this -- you are benefiting from his genius.

But let's get back to the fact that he helped defeat the Nazis and thus helped save the UK, and all of Western civilization.

Usually, people who help save a nation are treated with gratitude. But Turing was gay.

In the homophobic society in which he lived, that was a crime. His security clearance was revoked, he was prosecuted, and sentenced to "chemical castration" via hormone injections. In 1954, he committed suicide.

Over 55 years later, the UK has finally apologized for its wretched treatment of this heroic genius.

Subscribe to politics