Archive

March 26th, 2016

Terrorists, Bathtubs and Snakes

    Are terrorists more of a threat than slippery bathtubs?

    President Barack Obama, er, slipped into hot water when The Atlantic reported that he frequently suggests to his staff that fear of terrorism is overblown, with Americans more likely to die from falls in tubs than from attacks by terrorists.

    The timing was awkward, coming right before the Brussels bombings, but Obama is roughly right on his facts: 464 people drowned in the U.S. in tubs, sometimes after falls, in 2013, while 17 were killed here by terrorists in 2014 (the most recent years for which I could get figures). Of course, that’s not an argument for relaxing vigilance, for at some point terrorists will graduate from explosives to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons that could be far more devastating than even 9/11. But it is an argument for addressing global challenges a little more rationally.

    The basic problem is this: The human brain evolved so that we systematically misjudge risks and how to respond to them.

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U.S. Congress is forgotten, but it isn't gone

    Remember that first branch of American government?

    With all the attention to the presidential race and the partisan fight over President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Congress seems an afterthought.

    The legislative branch isn't a pretty picture. In the House, the right-wing caucus is stymying Speaker Paul Ryan's plan to pass a budget. In the Senate, where the only priority of Republicans is to retain their imperiled majority, lawmakers are scrambling to come up with small measures to put on the April and May schedule.

    Yet a few substantive items might be enacted, such as parts of a bipartisan reform of the criminal justice system. And both sides will try to posture for maximum political advantage in the November elections.

    Moreover, Congress is teeing up big stuff for a certain post-election lame-duck session, possibly including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Garland nomination.

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So, President Obama gets only three years?

    Thank you, Merrick Garland. Your stalled appointment to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama gives me another outrage to write about besides Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

    This grateful pundit salutes you, although unfortunately the stubborn refusal of Republican leaders to grant you a proper hearing -- and up-or-down confirmation vote -- in the Senate comes straight out of the Trump school of single-finger social graces.

    Judge Garland, 63, who grew up in the Chicago area and serves on the District of Columbia Circuit of the U. S. Court of Appeals, comes highly recommended by experts from both parties, including three of the 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    "I believe he is not only a fine nominee, but is as good as Republicans can expect from this administration," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah about Garland in 1995, after President Bill Clinton nominated Garland for his current seat. "In fact, I would place him at the top of the list."

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Patent law is holding back scientific advancement

    One of the biggest stories in science right now is the fight over the Crispr patents. Crispr is a gene editing technique that promises to allow previously unthinkable feats of bio-engineering. It was discovered in stages, like most scientific breakthroughs, by multiple teams working at various universities and research institutes around the world. The final, key advancements were made more-or-less simultaneously by two teams of researchers -- one based in California and led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, the other based at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts and headed by Feng Zhang.

    The two teams will probably split the inevitable Nobel Prize. But they are now engaged in a bitter dispute over the patents. The California team filed for a patent first, but the Massachusetts team was the first to be actually granted the patent, since it filed a fast-track application. Crispr will probably create industries worth many billions of dollars, so lawyers are now preparing for an epic battle.

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Trump is not listening

    Republican elected officials, take note. Donald Trump is not malleable.

    How do we know this? There is the fact, of course, that people have been pressing him since the fall to name his foreign policy advisers and on Wednesday he admitted that he consults primarily with himself. "I'm speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I've said a lot of things," he said. "My primary consultant is myself, and I have a good instinct for this stuff."

    But even more important, we know that he is not malleable and will not take advice because we've seen a specific case of it acted out in relation to the most important issue put on the table by Trump in this campaign: civil order.

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Outrage And Scandal Is A Media Construct

    Some days I wonder if I'm qualified to express opinions about American politics anymore. See, I'm not particularly angry, and I also doubt that voters in general are any more worked up than usual. Voter outrage is mainly a media trope. Even at Donald Trump rallies, there's a whole lot of sheer entertainment and play-acting.

    Not that make-believe outrage can't have actual, even deadly, results. But does anybody really believe Mexico will pay for Trump's imaginary wall? Not really, but it makes people feel daring to play "let's pretend."

    Sure, it's a presidential election year, and people do get excited. However, people also work themselves into temporary frenzies over the NCAA basketball tournament, but everybody shows up for work after their team loses. Thankfully, for most Americans, politics is a lot more like sports than civil war.

    Back during Bill Clinton's first term, I often suspected that what was really bugging the Rush Limbaugh listeners was that they spent so much time stuck in traffic.

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The reality check on Cuba

    President Obama's trip to Cuba later this week, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years, marks a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations. This event, in conjunction with the recent announcement that commercial flights to the island will begin this year, has generated a surge of interest in travel to the island among Americans. Much of the excitement around traveling to Cuba can be best captured in a phrase I have been hearing with increasing regularity since relations began to warm: "I want to see Cuba before it changes."

    What "changes," exactly, do people want to avoid seeing when they visit Cuba? The arrival of U.S.-style capitalism? A post-Castro political era? Whatever those changes travelers wish to avoid may be, they stand in stark contrast with the will of the Cuban people, who are very much invested in any change that would bring a brighter future to the island.

    Cuba has long served as a canvas for the projection of American fantasies. This reality has resulted in a lack of appreciation for the complexities of life on the ground for most Cubans and the role of the United States in producing them.

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Mr. Trump goes to Washington

    The visit Monday wasn't quite like Jimmy Stewart's in the famed movie. But Donald Trump's day in D.C. revealed a version of the man different from the bragging, profane hotel tycoon who has become the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

    Temporarily laying aside his red "Make American Great Again" campaign cap and sporting a sedate tie and dark business suit, Trump visited the Washington Post editorial board, his new luxury hotel conversion at the Old Post Office Building and then the AIPAC conference at the massive Verizon Center, which houses the Washington Wizards pro basketball team.

    At each venue, he figuratively stepped out of phone booth without his cape, offering himself in uncommonly modest garb and temperament as a candidate determined to be perceived as presidential, after months of playing the bullying know-it-all.

    His self-confidence remained in place, but the tone was much more conciliatory than what has dominated his assault on the American political system since first declaring his political intentions nearly a year ago.

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Remember the 12 steps

    Addiction has long been medicine's unwanted stepchild. Doctors didn't understand it, didn't know how to treat it and felt helpless in the face of the wreckage it brought to their patients' lives. As a result, while providers addressed the consequences of addiction - endocarditis, liver failure, seizures, overdose - they rarely treated the disease itself. That mysterious task has been left to others: counselors, peers in recovery and 12-step programs.

    But this is changing. There is now a general consensus in medicine that addiction is best understood as a chronic disease that can be treated with pharmacological interventions. Providers now have access to an array of medications that reduce cravings and addictive behaviors. As a result, doctors in increasing numbers are seeking training in addiction management and are willing to assume responsibility for treatment of this complicated disease.

    This is all to the good. And yet.

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March 25th

I was a devout Catholic. Not being able to get birth control shook my faith.

    My religion has always been a big part of my life. I was raised Catholic, received a Catholic education and taught at a religious school for years. My daughter is in Catholic school now. But the church's attempts to block my access to health care have made me feel disillusioned. Frankly, I've lost a great deal of faith in their teachings.

    As a teacher at a religiously affiliated school between 2007 and 2015, my health insurance was managed by the Archdiocese. It didn't cover contraception. We were told that the plan was in line with the beliefs of the church.

    This wasn't a problem for me until 2011, when my husband and I had a baby. We had little money and couldn't afford to have another child. So I wanted to go on birth control. But I couldn't afford to pay for contraceptive care on my own. My doctor advised me to get an IUD, but that would cost nearly $1,000, a staggering expense at a time when I couldn't even afford birth control pills out-of-pocket.

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