Sunday, May 30, 2010

Did Bush Liberate Iraqi Kurdistan?

Surely, whatever one thinks of George W. Bush's successes and failures, he has to be given credit at least for liberating Iraqi Kurdistan?

Er, maybe not. This is a sensitive subject for the writers at NRO, some of whom have apparently gone on trips funded by Kurd groups. Also there are apparently some Americans, mainly Republicans, who are cashing in by doing various kinds of lobbying/consulting for Kurd leaders. See Michael Rubin here and here, and the opposing comments he links to.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fears: Plastics and Vaccines

1. Jerome Groopman in the New Yorker tackles the question: are we right to fear plastics and certain other man-made chemicals, to spend fortunes studying them, when all indications are that, with the possible exception of people who have intensive long-term exposure, the harm they do is marginal at worst?

Long-term studies have provided the most compelling evidence that chemicals once considered safe may cause health problems in communities with consistent exposure over many years. Researchers from SUNY Albany, including Lawrence Schell, a biomedical anthropologist, have worked over the past two decades with Native Americans on the Mohawk reservation that borders the St. Lawrence River, once a major shipping thoroughfare, just east of Massena, New York. General Motors built a foundry nearby that made automobile parts, Alcoa had two manufacturing plants for aluminum, and the area was contaminated with PCBs, which were used in the three plants. Several Mohawk girls experienced signs of early puberty, which coincided with higher levels of PCBs in their blood.

The piece does have a section of "on the other hand":

Critics such as Elizabeth Whelan, of the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer-education group in New York (Whelan says that about a third of its two-million-dollar annual budget comes from industry), think that the case against BPA and phthalates has more in common with those against cyclamates and Alar than with the one against lead. “The fears are irrational,” she said. “People fear what they can’t see and don’t understand. Some environmental activists emotionally manipulate parents, making them feel that the ones they love the most, their children, are in danger.” Whelan argues that the public should focus on proven health issues, such as the dangers of cigarettes and obesity and the need for bicycle helmets and other protective equipment. As for chemicals in plastics, Whelan says, “What the country needs is a national psychiatrist.

To illustrate what Whelan says is a misguided focus on manufactured chemicals, her organization has constructed a dinner menu “filled with natural foods, and you can find a carcinogen or an endocrine-disrupting chemical in every course”—for instance, tofu and soy products are filled with plant-based estrogens that could affect hormonal balance. “Just because you find something in the urine doesn’t mean that it’s a hazard,” Whelan says. “Our understanding of risks and benefits is distorted. BPA helps protect food products from spoiling and causing botulism. Flame retardants save lives, so we don’t burn up on our couch.”

Several studies also contradict the conclusion that these chemicals have deleterious effects. The journal Toxicological Sciences recently featured a study from the E.P.A. scientist Earl Gray, a widely respected researcher, which indicated that BPA had no effect on puberty in rats. A study of military conscripts in Sweden found no connection between phthalates and depressed sperm counts, and a recent survey of newborns in New York failed to turn up an increase in a male genital malformation which might be expected if the effects from BPA seen in rodents were comparable to effects in humans. Richard Sharpe, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, and an internationally recognized pioneer on the effects of chemicals in the environment on endocrine disruption, recently wrote in Toxicological Sciences, “Fundamental, repetitive work on bisphenol A has sucked in tens, probably hundreds of millions of dollars from government bodies and industry, which, at a time when research money is thin on the ground, looks increasingly like an investment with a nil return.”

With epidemiological studies, like those at Columbia, in which scientists observe people as they live, without a control group, the real-life nature of the project can make it difficult to distinguish between correlation and causation. Unknown factors in the environment or unreported habits might escape the notice of the researchers. Moreover, even sophisticated statistical analysis can sometimes yield specious results.

But Groopman loops back to the "progressive" view:

The inadequacy of the current regulatory system contributes greatly to the atmosphere of uncertainty. The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, does not require manufacturers to show that chemicals used in their products are safe before they go on the market; rather, the responsibility is placed on federal agencies, as well as on researchers in universities outside the government. The burden of proof is so onerous that bans on toxic chemicals can take years to achieve, and the government is often constrained from sharing information on specific products with the public, because manufacturers claim that such information is confidential. Several agencies split responsibility for oversight, with little co√∂rdination: the Food and Drug Administration supervises cosmetics, food, and medications, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticides, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission oversees children’s toys and other merchandise. The European Union, in contrast, now requires manufacturers to prove that their compounds are safe before they are sold.

My question: are "natural" products like tofu and soy going to be subject to the same test? I saw a documentary once that stressed how dangerous radon, a source of naturally occurring radiation, can be. If it is in your basement, and you sleep in the house every night, the effect builds up. So they started questioning a woman who was picketing the Three Mile Island site. How many people have ever been harmed by Three Mile Island? Probably none. Are you aware of radon, natural radiation? Not really. Your neighbourhood in Pennsylvania is known to have a lot of it. Have you ever been checked? No. But that radiation is more of a threat to you than Three Mile Island. That can't be: surely the artificial stuff is more dangerous than the natural stuff.

Groopman's big finish:

How do we go forward? Flame retardants surely serve a purpose, just as BPA and phthalates have made for better and stronger plastics. Still, while the evidence of these chemicals’ health consequences may be far from conclusive, safer alternatives need to be sought. More important, policymakers must create a better system for making decisions about when to ban these types of substances, and must invest in the research that will inform those decisions. There’s no guarantee that we’ll always be right, but protecting those at the greatest risk shouldn’t be deferred.

He is close to supporting the so-called precautionary principle. Nothing should go forward until it is tested, and nothing should be in daily use unless it is proven to be free of risk. Of course, this is insane. If we knew an individual who lived that way, we would call them insane (in our ruder moments). They would almost certainly not have children; if they did, the children would be kept indoors, in a padded room without paint; food would be God knows what, and exercise would be on a padded hamster's wheel. Why should we expect governments to act in a way that we otherwise regard as insane?

Also in the past week or so: Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who almost single-handedly created the scare suggesting that the MMR vaccine caused autism in children, has been stripped of his licence to practice medicine in the UK. He based his sensational conclusion on a study of 12--yes, 12--children. In the face of repeated reputable studies showing the MMR was safe, he stuck to his conclusions. He subjected children to dangerous and unethical tests--proving he was a torturer as well as a quack.

The real question is how this nutbar could have persuaded so many people. Obviously there is an openness to the possibility that man-made products and actions are harmful to children, unlike mother nature who protects Bambi. This is nonsense, but it is extremely popular nonsense today, especially with boomers. For people who continue to support Wakefield, see here and here.

By the way, I don't agree with the plastics person that obesity is a dangerous epidemic, and of course I have issues about viruses and alleged pandemics as well.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Psychiatry Again

Is there such a thing as mental illness? Or are we simply less tolerant of departures from the "normal" than our ancestors were?

For one example, were chronically depressed people just accepted as sad people, whereas now there is the idea that we have some kind of right to be happy, and even cheerful?

Obsessive/compulsive people could basically be laughed at? Sure they would be difficult people to be married to, but that was true of a lot of people.

And of course: some of the "mentally ill" were considered to be inspired directly by God or the devil, or some other kind of divinity or spirit. This could mean veneration--or instant death.

h/t grand rounds/Dr. Val's Better Health.

Bait Shop and Taxidermy

When is the last time you saw a shop advertising "taxidermy"?

This is at Jane St. in Toronto, not far from the 401/400/Black Creek interchange. If you go a bit west you're at Weston Rd, and the old town of Weston, long since part of Toronto. I guess this shop dates from the time when people may have been heading up north to cottage country, hunting/fishing etc. I just think it looks very funny on a busy street today. I've seen it from the bus when we take an alternate route, and on Thursday I ran by it and decided to take some photos.

I didn't go in and ask if the guy actually does taxidermy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Possible new U.K. rules?

Apparently it is part of the Coalition deal that it will not be possible to dissolve Parliament unless there is at least a 55% vote in the Commons in favour of doing so. Critics of the plan seem to confuse it with confidence votes.

The first signs of dissent surfaced over the coalition’s proposals to change the way parliament can vote to remove a government if it proves unpopular during its five-year term.

Under the plan, Britain would have fixed-term parliaments, ending the prime minister’s right to decide the timing of an election. Any vote on dissolving a parliament mid-term would need the support of at least 55 percent of lawmakers.

Critics say the change is unconstitutional and would give the coalition too strong a grip on power as it has 56 percent of the seats in parliament.

The number of lawmakers opposed to the plan was unclear, but those who went public said they wanted any vote to be decided by a simple majority.

“This is nothing less than a stitch-up,” former interior minister David Blunkett told the Guardian. “It’d be impossible, even if every opposition MP united against this coalition, for the (lower) house to express its lack of confidence in it.”

The proposal seems to be that after a confidence vote, which the coalition government might lose by 50% + 1 (just like any government in a parlliamentary system can lose a confidence vote), there is no automatic dissolution/election--even if the PM happens to want one, finds the timing good for an election, or whatever. Rather, a "super-majority" of the House would have to be willing to dissolve and face an election. If the government has lost a confidence vote, it may be possible for the same PM to present a different budget or other proposal that will win a confidence vote; or put together a slightly different coalition. Or: a different party leader might try to put together a coalition and avoid an election.

The principle that is being attacked is that a PM, once he/she has won a confidence vote, can trigger an election whenever he/she wants. Both Cameron and Clegg, the PM and Deputy PM, seem to want the new Parliament to last five years. With fixed election dates in Ottawa, but the understanding still in place that losing a confidence vote leads to an election, in theory it is actually the Opposition, not the Government, that can trigger an election--by voting non-confidence in a government that was planning to stick around for a while. Of course Harper has indicated that as long as he has a minority, rather than a majority, he plans to retain the prerogative to trigger an election when he wants.

If the Coalition lasts five years, it will be interesting to see if the two parties choose not to run candidates against each other, at least in swing ridings, or choose to run Coalition candidates. If some kind of Alternative Voting has been introduced, it will be possible for voters to rank one of the Coalition parties first, the other one second, so that the Coalition could get a lot of combined first and second votes.

The U.K. Coalition

(Largely written on May 7)

Closer to final: 306 Conservative, 258 Labour, 57 Liberal Dem, 29 others. The one "small" party that might work with the Tories is the Democratic Unionists with 8 seats--still not enough to give the Tories a working majority. If the Tories get a chance to form government, rather than strike a formal deal with anyone they might simply introduce a budget with some goodies for some groups, and then go for a confidence vote, basically daring other parties to trigger another election. Many Labour members might simply stay away from a vote, as Liberals have been known to do federally in Canada.

There may be a coalition--which involves actual ministers, taking an oath of confidentiality and so on, from different parties.

In any case, small parties may be a factor.

I didn't realize until this morning that Sinn Fein has been winning seats in Northern Ireland. They are committed to a united Ireland being totally separate from the UK, and once elected, they refuse to take the oath to the Queen so as to take up their seats. I gather this means they don't draw pay cheques as MPs, and they will never collect a pension. When you compare this to the Bloc Quebecois, I think this approach has a lot of integrity.

So: Sinn Fein's 5 seats will not be a factor, except that they slightly lower the total that is needed for a working majority in the Commons.

Democratic Unionist: Northern Irish who definitely want to remain in the UK: 8 seats, likely to support the Tories.
Others might join Labour:
Scottish National: 6 seats (with only 1.7% of the vote--it helps to have your vote geographically concentrated).
Plaid Cymru: something about Welsh nationalism. 3 seats.
Social Democratic and Labour: 3 seats
Green: 1 (I'm guessing this lady might become a minister).
Alliance: 1
Independent: 1
The Speaker: 1

UK Independence: claiming to be libertarian, wanting out of Europe, wanting to limit immigration, claiming to be non-racist: 3.1% of the vote, 0 seats. 900,000 votes makes them the fourth-most popular party--with three times as many votes as the Greens. Some are saying Cameron the Tory leader could have won some of this vote if he'd been tough on Europe and immigration, and this might have won a few more seats. Sounds pretty speculative. You'd have to have some way of working out how the seats gained by the Tories moving to the centre, saying they wanted to carry out Tony Blair's mandate, match up against the seats (arguably) lost by not being tough enough on Europe.

What might be puzzling to outsiders is the linkage between "immigration" and "Europe." It is not necessarily visible minorities from Britain's ex-colonies who are the biggest concern; it is people from Central and Eastern European countries, now entitled by European treaties to seek education and work in the UK. Skilled newcomers can get work in a new economy more easily than unskilled Brits.

BNP: Not quite as non-racist as UKIP claims to be: 1.9% of the vote.

So there wasn't really much of an anti-immigrant vote.

(Largely written on May 14)

It looks like it will be Conservatives + Liberal Democrats, in some kind of coalition with shared Cabinet seats. [Lib Dems got five Cabinet seats, including Clegg as Deputy PM]. Gordon Brown has resigned as PM, and David Cameron has been sworn in.

When a bright, politically savvy Brit worked in our branch at work, he advised me that one rule for understanding British politics is: the English hate the Scotch. (Yes, I believe that word is used over there; only in Canada do the kilt-wearing types get all upset about it). They will only take so many Scottish Prime Ministers. Tony Blair's father had been adopted by a Scotch couple; his mother was from a Northern Irish family that had originally been Scottish. Gordon Brown is 100% Scottish. Cameron, depressingly enough, is a Scotch name, but there is really nothing Scotch about David Cameron.

I'm only half joking. If there had been a Labour-Lib Dem deal, this still wouldn't have been enough for a majority. There probably would have to be a deal with the Scotch nationalist party, who are the main rivals of Labour for seats in Scotland. This would have been a "league of the losers"; there was no trend in the recent election that showed any of those groups gaining in popular support. The tiny Scottish group may have had the whip hand on some issues. There were some senior Labour people who thought 1)this would have been undemocratic, and wrong; 2) the public wouldn't stand for it; 3)it's better to let the Tories carry out spending cuts (something the Scots, Welsh etc. would have resisted) and live to fight another day.

Possibly Labour as a whole was not willing to promise any legislation that the Lib Dems wanted, other than a new electoral system. And on that, many Labourites--although probably not as many as in the case of the Tories--would have voted against change. The old Labourites tend not to take the Lib Dems seriously: if you basically favour Labour policies, why not join us?

Clegg the Lib Dem leader has apparently gone back to Cameron and said: it still may be possible for the Lib Dems to make a deal with Labour, or face an election fairly soon. So Clegg may have strengthened his bargaining position--to get actual Cabinet seats, more of what he wants on an electoral system, etc. Clegg probably has a lot of supporters who don't particularly want to join the Tories, and will expect something in return for doing so. Cameron on his side may now be able to secure two years without losing a confidence vote--maybe even longer than that. [He got five years, supposedly].

If the UK moves to a proportional system, they would probably not grant seats to any party that got less than 5%, or even 10% of the vote. Neither the Greens nor the UKIP would qualfy based on the recent result.

What's most interesting to me is that Cameron and Clegg together could build a center-right coalition that could have quite a bit of staying power.

I like reading about 19th century British politics, partly because there was so much suspense about how votes would go in the Commons--who would be in, and who would be out. Over the course of decades, the old Whig party, which had become pretty conservative, disappeared, to be replaced by a less conservative Liberal party. The Conservative party also moved to the left, although it remained the home of right-wing views on Ireland and even, occasionally, free trade. Left-wingers would say the Tories defended rich land-owners--to some extent "old money"--while the Liberals defended factory owners--"new money." Lord Palmerston for a while had a kind of one-man party which could win parliamentary majorities. Gladstone became the legendary Liberal leader, and Disraeli his Tory arch-rival; they had both been in the old Conservative party in the 1840s.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Bit on My Grandfather

We have never known a great deal about my maternal grandfather. (All four grandparents ended up in Alberta, three of them coming from Ontario, two of them having grown up there, yet for all four there is almost a sense that we know so little about pre-Alberta lives or relations, it is almost as if they sprang up from the earth east of the Rockies). My grandfather's marriage to my grandmother was his second marriage; he had two children by the first marriage, and my brothers and I always knew these two as our aunt and uncle-their children as our cousins. He and my grandmother had two children, my mother and her sister, but they did not live under the same roof very much--perhaps five years in total between their marriage in 1926 and his death in 1951.

My aunt has done some searching, and learned that he was the oldest of nine children raised for the most part in the Toronto area. His father was born in Newfoundland. Recently we learned that he homesteaded in Alberta from 1914 to 1920. Yes, there was still homesteading that late in Alberta: north and a bit east of Edmonton, not on the main line to Saskatoon but a bit north of it. The Alberta government has a data base to search for names mentioned on homestead documents. When you have a hit, they warn you that this name may only be mentioned in passing. In this case, though, there are several records connected to my grandfather's homestead.

On a form stamped June 15, 1914, he signed an Application for Entry for a Homestead, a Pre-emption of a Purchased Homestead. I gather the idea was that he could work his way to owning it. He lists no one with him, says his age is 25, country of birth Canada, specifically Ontario, last place of residence Edmonton, previous occupation Printer. His address seems to be Gen. Del. Edmonton. He would have turned 26 in October of that year. Any experience farming? Whatsoever? I don't know, but I kind of doubt it.

On a Form B, Affidavit in Support of an Application for Entry, also June 15, 1914, he solemnly swears that there is no one residing on the land, there are no improvements on it, etc., and that he has not previously obtained an Entry for a Homestead on Dominion Lands.

Next we come to August 11, 1920. On a sworn statement with that date, with a recommendation following on Dec. 3, 1920, and an acceptance dated Jan. 5, 1921, he provides some information about what has gone on for six years. He is now 31, a printer and farmer, Post Office address Edmonton. When absent from homestead, what has he been doing? Printer in winter and farming in summer. Obtained homestead entry June 15, 1914. Built his house in April 1915. Moved onto the property "Dec. 7th 1914 in a tent." Resided there Dec. 7, 1914 to Feb. 23, 1916; again about a month from Sep. 25, 1916 to Oct. 28, 1916; from April 24, 1917 to Oct. 15, 1917; and from May 8, 1920 to June 30, 1920.

So he resided there more than a year, including a good chunk of two winters; spring and summer of 1916 he was gone; my aunt was born March 1916. Somehow he presumably met and married his wife while living on the homestead in 1915. They must have started living more in Edmonton once they had a baby. A month in the fall of 1916, then gone until April. Spring summer and fall of 1917 on the farm, then gone for more than two years. My uncle was born in December 1917. The flu epidemic, which made both my grandfather and his first wife sick, and killed her, would have been 1918 and 1919.

Question 6: Of whom do your family consist?; when did they first commence residence upon this homestead?, and for what portion of each year since that date have they resided upon it? Answers: 2 children, wife dead. [crossing out Aug. 1 1915] Feb. 1 1915 to Feb. 23 1916. There are sworn statements from two neighbours, and one says "Two children during [hard] years 1915 and 1916." Sad words; here are my aunt and uncle, their mother dying when one was a baby, the other perhaps 3.

He itemizes the number of acres of land he has broken (a total of seven acres, two in 1915, five in 1916), and the livestock he has. When asked if his livestock is sometimes kept somewhere else, he says "On my father in law's hstd."

Asked to describe his house and its present cash value, he says "12/14 log, $250." Asked about other buildings, he says "Log shed, tent roof--burnt down in 1919." You might say 1919 was a hell of a year.

March 9, 1921, there is an official document from the Department of the Interior saying a patent for the land has been issued to him after a hearing on Jan. 20, 1921. A certificate of title will be issued upon receipt of his application, and payment of the proper fees. Did he ever actually secure title? We still don't know.

We don't know anything to speak of about his life before 1914, and it's hard to get a picture of his marriage to my grandmother. My mother used to say that her father would look her mother in the face and say "No one can ever replace my first wife." Maybe something like that is true--or at least his sadness over those years may never have left him.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Questioning the Official Scientific Line

Here's an example that's unrelated to diet or climate science--two of my hobby-horses.

Does psychiatry, especially in its reliance on mood-altering medications, do more good than harm? What is the evidence? Robert Whitaker has written a book exploring this question in some detail. Of course he acknowledges that some patients are helped by drugs, and would be unlikely to get the same kind or degree of help in any other way. But what about large groups of patients, prescribed drugs over a long period of time? What are the results in comparison to no drugs are far fewer drugs?

Here Whitaker tells the story of how his book was taken apart in a review by a psychiatrist--who is obviously trying to defend the status quo, regardless of the science.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

More Oil Spill

Matt Yglesias is once again quite sensible:

It’s of course true that oil rigs don’t “generally” cause spills in the sense that on the vast majority of days there is no spill. The problem is that when spills do happen, it’s catastrophic. It’s never been accurate to say that hurricanes Katrina and Rita didn’t lead to drilling-related spills and now we’re seeing today once again that offshore drilling poses a clear and present danger to the surrounding ocean. If that were the only problem with drilling, it would probably be a problem worth living with, but given that there are many reasons to think we should be attempting to transition to a post-oil economy endangering the oceans to simply postpone adjustments that are needed anyway seems shortsighted.

If we actually need the energy, and there are no reliable alternatives, then we should be willing to pay the price of what is often a dirty, dangerous, even disgusting business--extracting and burning the so-called fossil fuels. If offshore drilling is unlikely to produce much energy, the danger to human beings and other living things is extreme, and there are good reasons to switch to other sources of energy, then those arguments should be considered. Damage to the environment, especially if it is short-term, does not determine the whole debate by itself.