Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Kennedy effect

Smith to Kennedy: 'Agents of Change End Up Being Targets, As You Well Know'

Mark Finkelstein says he's measuring words carefully.
Harry Smith has raised the possibility that Barack Obama's life could be in danger.

The Early Show anchor interviewed Ted Kennedy this morning in the wake of his endorsement of Obama yesterday. Smith's initial broaching of the subject of danger to Obama was very cryptic.

HARRY SMITH: When you see that enthusiasm [for Obama] though, and when you see the generational change that seems to be taking place before our eyes, does it make you at all fearful?

Kennedy understandably had no idea what Smith was driving at, and gave an innocuous answer about people's desire for "a new day and a new generation." But Smith's follow-up left no real doubt as to what he had in mind.

SMITH: I just, I think what I was trying to say is, sometimes agents of change end up being targets, as you well know, and that was why I was asking if you were at all fearful of that.

When you tell a man with Ted Kennedy's family history that "you well know" about politicians becoming "targets," the implication is unmistakable.

This time, Kennedy [to his credit I would say] chose to ignore Smith's suggestion, giving another bland answer about Obama being a candidate for change.

What could possibly have possessed Smith to raise this specter?

Hmmmm. There must be a reason there's two asses in assassinate. Any guy who takes this line of quesitoning is insensitive and, well, a double asshole.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

dubious, moi? Esquire quashes annual list

Dubious Achievement??
Beloved Esquire Franchise, 'Dubious Achievements,' Becomes One
This article was published in the January 28, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.

“It would be like instead of re-imagining Eustace Tilley, David Remnick decided to behead him,” David Hirshey said. He was talking about Esquire’s decision to discontinue Dubious Achievements, the beloved, mischievous year-end roundup of folly that has been running in the magazine since 1962. Like a blooper reel but real, Dubious was an annual assessment of all the awful things that had happened in the world during the preceding 12 months. It was pronounced dead in this month’s issue of Esquire; according to a note from editor David Granger, the franchise has run its course because its descendents and imitators—available on the internet and TV “on a daily—if not instantaneous—basis” have rendered it redundant.
Mr. Hirshey, who presided over Dubious from 1985 until he left Esquire in 1997 for a career in book publishing, compared Mr. Granger’s decision to “Sports Illustrated killing its swimsuit issue because you can find better tits online.”
And yet, Mr. Granger is right to observe that the field has become crowded: in the 47 years since the feature debuted under Harold Hayes—the editor who made Esquire the greatest magazine of the ’60s—its tone (snotty, prankish) and its format (a frisky pinch of a headline followed by a succinct summary of a regrettable news item) have been copied so much that they have become not just conventional but nearly universal.
“We’ve asked ourselves every year whether we should continue to do it,” Mr. Granger said in an e-mail. “Dubious was an important part of Esquire. It was a great idea when it started and at some points of the magazine’s life, it was one of the best things in the magazine. For more than the last ten years, it’s seemed less and less necessary each year. There was more and more snark in the world and the Dubious format seemed increasingly less special. So, late last year, over lunch a bunch of us talked it over and I decided that this would be the last one.”

THAT DOESN’T MEAN it’s not sad seeing the original get put to bed three years shy of its 50th birthday. And while most of the guys who contributed to Dubious contacted for this story said they did not want to second guess Mr. Granger’s reasoning, everyone agreed there was plenty to grieve.
Michael Solomon, who edited Dubious with Mr. Hirshey during the 90’s, said one of the first items he wrote was about a Boy Scouts handbook advocating abstinence that had come out that year. The headline? “But you can still eat a Brownie now and then.” Easy, funny. This is what all the best ones sounded like.
“Putting it in Esquire at that particular time, it was an extraordinary smart move,” said Robert Benton, the filmmaker who, as Esquire’s art director, invented Dubious Achievements with David Newman. “Nothing comes from a vacuum, and there was a kind of cynicism and irony that showed up somewhere in the early 60’s. I’m not really gifted enough to tell you when it came in and why.”

When Lee Eisenberg worked on Dubious during the 70’s (he was the editor of Esquire from 1976 through 1978, and then again from 1984 through 1990), there was a cardboard box outside of someone’s office year round, and people would drop clippings into it whenever they came across something ripe in a newspaper or a magazine. Come August, Mr. Eisenberg said, the box would be dumped out and people around the office would share in the task of typing up short summaries of each item. For the next month and a half, whoever wanted to work on Dubious would get together for hours every day, choosing the best items, shouting out headlines, and arguing about how to phrase things.
Sometimes this would happen in the office, and other times it would happen across the street at the Berkshire Hotel bar, where Esquire editors ate lunch every day. “This was when you could still drink at lunch and eat peanuts,” Mr. Eisenberg said. “The Newsweek people who worked a couple blocks to the south would also come there.”
By the mid-80’s, Dubious was less of a staff-wide effort and more of a “guerrilla task force” made up of those who had the most enthusiasm for it, according to Mr. Eisenberg. Every year it was a slightly different cast, but the core group from 1985 until 1997, give or take, was Mr. Hirshey, Mr. Solomon, Lewis Grossberger, and Gil Schwartz (a.k.a. Stanley Bing). Michael Hirschorn, according to Mr. Hirshey, joined the team in the early 90’s.
From Labor Day until Thanksgiving or so, they’d work on Dubious almost every day, sometimes at Mr. Hirschorn’s Chelsea loft (known as the “Dubious Clubhouse”), sometimes in the office, but most often over three-hour-lunches at the handful of restaurants near Esquire headquarters below Central Park that would tolerate them. “It was jokes and food, always,” Mr. Grossberger said. “We were always joking and gaining weight. I don’t know if we could have done it without eating.”
Their favorite place to go was the Cosmic Coffee Shop on 58th and Broadway, a cheap Greek diner that served club sandwiches, eggs, and babka for dessert. One year, Mr. Hirshey said, they ran up a $4,000 dollar bill by the time Dubious season was over and got their picture hung on the wall; according to Mr. Solomon, the five of them would regularly order for 30.
On a good day, sessions like that would yield half a dozen useable jokes, most of which Mr. Eisenberg—Dubious’ “spiritual leader,” according to Mr. Solomon—would casually tear apart upon review. If he didn’t like a headline, he would either say it was terrible or mark it “TTB,” a bit of shorthand meaning “try to beat” that continues to haunt Mr. Hirshey and Mr. Solomon to this day. “He would torture us mercilessly over every headline,” Mr. Hirshey said. “He’d make us write 20 and then he would choose the first one.” Mr. Eisenberg did not apologize for this: “Hirshey is someone who likes to suffer,” he said.
By the time Mr. Hirshey left Esquire in 1997, the once-innovative headline-item format that had made Dubious such a distinctive voice in humor had inspired countless copycats: over the course of the 12 years during which he served as the section’s shepherd, Mr. Hirshey said, he “fired off rockets” to publications like Texas Monthly (which introduced their version of Dubious, “the Bum Steer Awards” in 1974), People Magazine, and Entertainment Weekly in which he asked them to please at least acknowledge the source of their inspiration.
Mr. Eisenberg said the imitators should have compelled the architects of Dubious to innovate: to deviate from or even abandon the original format and evolve so that everyone else was never not just playing catch-up.
“It probably could have used a shot of humor growth hormone once in a while,” Mr. Eisenberg said, sounding somewhat detached but disappointed.
Mr. Grossberger, meanwhile, lamented the fact that the feature was killed before it had the chance to turn 50.
“What lovely timing,” he said. “I’d say that’s pretty dubious! I guess the Hirshey gang will have to have its own 50th anniversary celebration at the Cosmic.”
He went on: “A few years ago I would have been outraged and denouncing it. But I sort of expect everything to end now. It’s like the whole culture seems to be coming to an end. Everything is stopping, ending, collapsing. So nothing surprises me… It would be nice if Dubious could keep going and it would be nice if our gang could keep writing it. But reality is not what it used to be.”

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Zell axes LA Times editor O'Shea

The Los Angeles Times has fired its editor in a dispute over budget cuts, just one month after the sale of the newspaper's parent company. According to the the Associated Press, the Times fired its top editor after he rejected a management order to cut $4 million from the newsroom budget, 14 months after his predecessor was also ousted in a budget dispute, the newspaper said Sunday.

James O'Shea was fired following a confrontation with Publisher David D. Hiller, the Times reported on its Web site. The story didn't say when the confrontation took place.

Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan said the newspaper would have no comment.

O'Shea's departure comes just a month after the Times' parent, Chicago-based Tribune Co., was taken private in an $8.2 billion buyout by real estate magnate Sam Zell.

The departure also follows that of his predecessor, Dean Baquet, who was forced to resign after he opposed further cuts to the newsroom budget in 2006.

O'Shea, then the Chicago Tribune's managing editor, was brought in to replace him.

At the time, he asked the news staff not to see him as "the hatchet man from Chicago" and promised to fight to ensure the Times would "remain a major force in American journalism."

"If I think there is too much staff I will say so," O'Shea told the paper's editors and reporters in 2006. "And if I think there is not enough I will say that, too."

O'Shea is the third Times editor to leave the newspaper since 2005, all of them departing in disputes with management over how much to cut the news budget.

When Editor John Carroll left in 2005 he was replaced by Baquet, who was then the Times managing editor. Hiller, former publisher of the Tribune who had worked with O'Shea in Chicago, then brought him out to replace Baquet.

Hiller had joined the Times in 2006 after former Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson was ousted for refusing to carry out budget cuts ordered by corporate headquarters in Chicago.

A month later, Hiller dismissed Baquet and brought in O'Shea to replace him.

Before coming to the Times, O'Shea had been managing editor of the Tribune since February 2001 and had worked at the newspaper in various capacities since 1979.

Before joining the Tribune he had been a reporter, editor and Washington correspondent for the Des Moines Register.

The Times is just one of many newspapers plagued by circulation and revenue losses to new media.

Last April, the Times announced it was cutting up to 150 jobs, including 70 newsroom positions, as a result of declining revenue. Times officials said at the time they hoped to accomplish most of those cuts through voluntary employee buyouts.

When he took over Tribune, Zell said he hoped to find ways to increase the company's revenue, calling continued budget cuts a "dead end." At the same time, he said he was giving greater authority to regional executives to manage the company's assets in ways they saw best.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sam Zwell's Quirky Handbook for Hacks

Some highlights of the company rules in the new Tribune employee handbook, released to his 20,000 Tribune employess by mogul Sam Zell:

"Rule #1: Use your best judgment.

"Rule #2: See Rule 1.

"That's it. That is the one hard and fast rule. Unless a serious mistake was made when you were hired, you have pretty good judgment."

From Tribune Company Core Values section:

"4. COMPETE. Play to win. Market shares add to 100%. We can't grow our share of revenue or audience unless someone else's goes down.

"5. PLAY FAIR. But remember that there is nothing unfair about taking advantage of a competitor's weakness. It's not unfair to scoop a competitor on a big story or closet them on a key account. Not playing to win is unfair to your teammates and to all of the company's stakeholders."

From the Employee Manual section:

"2.5. Discrimination based on gender, age, race, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or any other characteristic not related to performance, ability or attitude, protected by federal or state law, or not protected (such as inability to tell a joke, the occasional poor wardrobe choice or bad hair day), is strictly prohibited."

"4.1. Working at Tribune means accepting a creative, quirky, intelligent, odd, humorous, diverse, opinionated and sometimes annoying atmosphere.

"4.2. Working at Tribune means accepting that sometimes you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use. You might experience an attitude that you don't share. You might hear a joke that you might not consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.

"4.3. This should be understood, should not be a surprise and is not considered harassment."

"4.5. Making the building too hot, banging on trash can lids or loud bagpipe music are annoyances you can complain about, but this policy is about harassment on the basis of protected characteristics. It's really bad judgment to intimidate, persistently annoy, inappropriately touch, treat people differently because of their protected characteristics, or otherwise make members of our team uncomfortable, no matter how you do it."

"5.1. Under Rule #1, you may want to think twice before you enter into an intimate relationship with a co-worker. When you start, it might seem like a good idea. It's when you stop, or the wrong people find out (and they will) that you could discover that perhaps it wasn't."

"7.1. If you use or abuse alcohol or drugs and fail to perform the duties required by your job acceptably, you are likely to be terminated. See Rule 1. Coming to work drunk is bad judgment."

"18.1.1. Under normal circumstances, Tribune will not snoop in your e-mail or track your internet usage.

"18.1.2. Remember that cyber-slacking is not good judgment."

"18.2.2. It is expected that you will not share anything of a proprietary nature with anyone outside the company."

The Universe paints it black.

It's dark, man.
In fact, the 'Darkest ever' material created. Helen Briggs, the BBC News science reporter, reports on nanotechnology. (Good old Beeb.)

The "darkest ever" substance known to science has been made in a US laboratory.

The material was created from carbon nanotubes - sheets of carbon just one atom thick rolled up into cylinders.

Researchers say it is the closest thing yet to the ideal black material, which absorbs light perfectly at all angles and over all wavelengths.

The discovery is expected to have applications in the fields of electronics and solar energy.

Theoretical clues

An ideal black object absorbs all the colours of light and reflects none of them. In theory, it should be possible to make something that approaches the "perfect absorber".

They've made the blackest material known to science
Prof Sir John Pendry

But it has proved difficult to construct an object that does not reflect light at all.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, turned to carbon nanotubes - structures made from carbon, billionths of a metre across, that have unique properties.

Theory suggests that nanotubes might make a super black object, and experts are just starting to test these predictions.

Click here to see a nanotech future

A team led by Dr Pulickel Ajayan, who is presently at Rice University in Houston, Texas, built an array of vertically aligned, low-density carbon nanotubes. Dr Shawn Lin measured the optical properties.

The roughness of the material's surface was tuned to minimise its optical reflectance.

Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto holds buckyball model. Images: PA/BBC
Closed cages of carbon atoms
Appear as spheres and tubes
Electrical properties tuneable
Could form tiny circuit wires
Tubes make strong materials
Buckyballs will block HIV virus
Experiments showed that this "forest" of carbon nanotubes was very good at absorbing light, and very poor at reflecting it.

Reporting their findings in the journal Nano Letters, Dr Ajayan, Dr Lin and colleagues say the reflectance of the material is three times lower than previously achieved.

This makes it the "darkest man-made material ever".

"The periodic nanotube structures make an ideal candidate for creating superdark materials, because it allows one to tailor light absorption by controlling the dimensions and periodicities of nanotubes in the structure," said Dr Ajayan.

Commenting on the study, Professor Sir John Pendry, who first predicted that such a discovery might be possible, said the results were promising.

"They've made the blackest material known to science," the theoretical physicist from Imperial College, London, told BBC News.

"The application will be to things like more efficient solar cells, more efficient solar panels and any application where you need to harvest light," he added.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sean Penn takes aim at 'lamebrain' paper

Actor Sean Penn's days of corresponding for the San Francisco Chronicle may be over: according to the Associated Press, the feisty movie star now calls the publication an "increasingly lamebrain paper."

Penn offered the critique in a letter published Tuesday, written in response to a tongue-in-cheek article that focused on celebrity interest in Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
(Penn had met Hugo Chavez on location in Venezuela.) The humor column had listed a number of potential matchups between celebrities and dictators or other authoritarian figures.

Penn objected to the characterization, saying Chavez is a democratically elected leader.

Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein took the criticism in stride, calling Penn, "a great actor and a great director."

"People get riled up about a lot of things, particularly in this day and age; they get to express themselves. We were more than happy to print his letter," Bronstein said.

A call to Penn's publicist was not immediately returned.

Penn's past writings for the paper included a five-part series in 2005 about his experiences in Iran.

With brainstorms like this, the SF paper could have been a tad brighter :

Here are some other strongmen to choose from: Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah; Iran Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali KhamEnei; China paramount leader Hu Jintao; Burma head of state Than Shwe.Contribute your own ideas for celebrity-dictator matchups

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sex, Drugs, Race and the Chemicapocalypse

You can read the Worst US Science Stories of 2007, winners of the STATS Dubious Data Awards. Trevor Butterworth of the Statistical Assessment Service reports:

2008 seemed obsessed with the coming of the chemicapocalypse – the increasing fear that everything in the modern world is toxic and out to make us ill, disrupt our hormones, bend our genders, and make us infertile. In 2007, activists and journalists attributed all manner of health problems to absorbing tiny amounts of chemicals from everyday objects, even though the science is tentative, the evidence thin, and the risk of something materially bad happening to you hypothetical.

If it sounds suspicious, ban it
In June, San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, decided to ban plastic water bottles, in part because of concerns about recycling, which was reasonable enough, and in part because they contained “toxic” vinyl softeners known as phthalates, which was, at least metaphorically, garbage. The mayor – and the journalists who dutifully conveyed his fears to the public – seemed oblivious to the fact that plastic bottles do not contain phthalates; they are, instead, made with a polyester called polyethylene terephthalate, which is something quite different even though it seems to sound similar. But that’s chemistry for you. Poylethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, is not considered a health hazard by any regulatory agency in the world.

Perhaps a refresher course in puberty?

Phthalatophobia, a subcategory of chemophobia (the fear of chemicals), led the media to make all sorts of remarkable claims in 2007, none more ballsy, perhaps, than Time magazine’s decision to advance puberty beyond the bounds of biological plausibility with the claim, in September, that inhaling phthalates from air fresheners could decrease sperm levels in infants.

Perhaps, Time was demonstrating that the mere act of reporting on toxic chemicals can cause mental derangement, as a) infants don’t produce sperm and b), the author of the study on phthalates in air fresheners, Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council, admitted that had no “clear cut evidence here for health effects.” This comment was something of a let down from urgent wording of the NRDC press release, which claimed that phthalates were “particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies.”

According to Google News, there were, on average, 7.7 news stories about or referencing phthalates every day during 2007. And yet despite such concern, it was far from clear what people should really be concerned about in terms of an actual risk of something – anything – happening. California banned phthalates in children’s toys in October, even though the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the U.S. and the European Union’s scientific risk assessment found no cause for worry (Europe, however, had already ignored its scientists and banned phthalates in toys too). More to the point, the National Institutes for Health found that children’s exposure to phthalates was overwhelmingly through food and dust, so banning toys will have no discernible effect on exposure regardless of whether there’s a risk or not.

Some phthalates have been shown at very high levels to harm laboratory animals, but then you can make rodents sick if you give them too much of anything. One study has drawn a statistical association between exposure to some phthalates in the womb and borderline changes in genital development. But contrary to the way the media have reported this study, the children were all healthy and had normal reproductive functioning. Even the Guardian newspaper, which is ardently pro green, concluded in its “Bad Science” column (written by an actual doctor) that the data on phthalates was being “overstated.”

As for air fresheners, the NRDC only measured the presence of phthalates inside the product. As to how much evaporated into the air and was likely to be absorbed by a passing human, there was nothing. The Environmental Protection Agency has since turned down the NRDC’s petition to examine the safety of air fresheners, although the agency does note that they are highly flammable – and will likely kill you if you eat one.

So, um, don’t eat air fresheners.

iFear Apple
If one was to pick one of the key flaws in the way the media reported the risk from chemicals it would have to be the absence of any meaningful measurement. Few journalists, when faced with a press release or a study by some group claiming some new threat to our collective well being, say, “show me the numbers.” But without numbers, it’s impossible to assess just what the risk is.

Such penetrating questioning might have spared Apple computers from a whirlwind of negative publicity after Greenpeace ranked the company bottom in its list of enviro-friendly computer companies because its phones and computers contained toxic chemicals, like brominated fire retardants.

Most reporters failed to note that Greenpeace didn’t measure how much of these chemicals were in Apple’s products, and whether they leached out in a way that could be dangerous. Moreover, in the case of the fire retardant deca-BDE – the most widely used flame-retardant in consumer products – Greenpeace conveniently overlooked the fact that the European Union conducted a 10-year risk assessment, evaluating 588 studies on the chemical, and found it posed no health risk. The press didn’t catch them on this either.

Yes, there are health and environmental concerns over two other brominated fire retardants, “penta” and “octa,” but their use was phased out in the U.S. several years ago. A special exemption is required from the EPA to import any item containing these chemicals.

Attack of the Killer Mattresses
Fire-retardants are also a great example of how risk assessment requires balancing the risk of using certain chemicals against the risk of not using those chemicals. This is what the Consumer Product Safety Commission did when it imposed new fire safety standards on mattresses in July to delay the onset of flashover, one of the leading causes of fatal house fires. The CPSC estimated that as many as 270 people would be saved each year. Which, you would imagine is a good thing.

But what about the chemicals needed to meet the standards? The CPSC pointed to a huge body of research saying they were safe and, besides, they were buried inside the mattress. Nevertheless, the CPSC simulated the effects of sleeping on the mattresses in adverse conditions, such as bedwetting, and still the dermal or inhalation exposure was negligible. But that didn’t cut if for local TV news affiliates around the country, which began running stories about the toxic risks from the new standards, spurred on by an outraged consumer group, “People for Clean Beds.”

What news stations failed to make clear was that “People for Clean Beds” was, in effect, a “person for clean beds” – namely Mark Strobel, who just happens to make mattresses which are exempt from the standards and can only be bought with a doctor’s prescription.

Strobel, without any scientific justification, argued that the new fire safety standard might end up harming or killing 300 million people – which would put mattresses far ahead of the Black Death (approximately 40 million dead, one of the worst pandemics in human history), AIDS (approximately 25 million dead to date) and on a par with the total number of people worldwide who will, in the absence of any breakthroughs in treatment, cumulatively die from cancer over the next forty years (approx 240 million, based on World Health Organization estimates).

Hot air on ‘Fresh Air’
The chemicapocalypse reached a fever pitch on NPR’s Fresh Air in November, when Terry Gross interviewed Mark Shapiro, an investigative journalist who had just written a book on the topic: Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.”

Shapiro claimed that a litany of epidemiological evidence showed that chemical exposure might be behind “spikes” in the incidence of breast cancer, reproductive problems among young women, endocrine troubles, mutagenic effects in young children, and declining sperm counts.

The only problem is that all of these problems can be explained much more easily by other factors or dismissed as false or misleading: breast cancer rates, for instance, are falling; the spikes in incidence can be explained by such known factors as the surges in hormone replacement therapy use, increased fertility treatments, later age of first birth, alcohol consumption and increased numbers of women having mammograms. The rise in fertility issues is almost certainly a matter of greater reporting and more intervention, say doctors, especially in the marketing of high-end fertility treatments. Birth defect rates are also stable - and the claims for declining sperm counts have been widely attacked for poor methodology.

What Gross, Shapiro, and many other journalists during the year failed to do when it came to the evaluating the risk from trace amounts of chemicals was to think critically about the numbers. Epidemiology can show associations between any number of things; you could, in theory, show an association between green health products and increasing cancer rates if you mined the data enough; but a correlation is not evidence of causation. To establish a causal relationship between common chemicals in parts per billion and health problems, you have to prove that the correlation does not have other, better, and possibly really obvious, explanations.

Not every over-hyped, goof-ridden story in 2007 involved chemicals, the media also stumbled over sex, drugs, race and math.

Single women left at the altar by statistics

Time Out New York sent a wave of panic through the city’s single women in June by reporting in a cover story that there are 185,000 more single women than men looking for love. It turns out, however, that the excess number of single women is due to men dying at younger ages than women. If you look at the male/female numbers in the younger age groups, in most, there are significantly more men. For example, there are 211,590 men aged 18 and 19 in the NY Metro area – but only 201,282 women.

Husbandless teens languish at home

The New York Times went further and claimed in a front-page article in January that more women are living in the United States without a husband than with one. The claim could only be supported by counting women between the ages of 15 and 17, 90 percent of whom live at home with their parents.

Will one joint make you schizoid?

In July, the Associated Press – and many other news organizations – reported that “Using marijuana seems to increase the chance of becoming psychotic… even infrequent use could raise the small but real risk of this serious mental illness by 40 percent.” Since marijuana use rates have skyrocketed since the 1940’s and 50’s, going from single digit percentages of the population trying it to a peak of some 60 percent of high school seniors trying it in 1979 (stabilizing thereafter at roughly 50 percent of each high school class), we would expect to see this trend have some visible effect on the prevalence of schizophrenia and other psychoses.

Roughly one to two percent of the population has schizophrenia (and another two percent or so have other psychotic disorders), and this percentage does not vary much with the region within the U.S. Over time, diagnosis of schizophrenia has changed, making it almost impossible to evaluate whether low-level exposure to pot could increase the risk by as much as 40 percent.

Second generation diversity only please.

In March, The Washington Post reported on a new study by researchers at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania under the provocative headline “In Diversity Push, Top Universities Enrolling More Black Immigrants: Critics Say Effort Favors Elite Foreigners, Leaves Out Americans” While 13 percent of the U.S. black population is foreign-born, researchers at Princeton and University of Pennsylvania found that 27 percent of blacks in American universities were “elite foreigners”. The only problem is that American-born children of black immigrants were counted as "elite foreigners" who gained college admissions over American blacks, despite the fact that they are, uh, American. The study didn’t explain what percentage of the “elite foreigners” were actually American citizens.

Analyzing Avandia
Possibly the most damaging use of statistics in 2007 occurred when the New England Journal of Medicine published a study claiming that the risk of heart attack increased 43 percent among diabetics taking the drug Avandia. The study’s author, Steven Nissen, told ABC News that the deaths from Avandia may dwarf 9/11, and scare headlines led thousands of patients to stop taking their medicine.

On closer inspection, many of the cases of heart attack driving the statistical increase in risk came from one study where the diabetic participants already had congestive heart disease. Worse, Nissen excluded studies where there were no heart attacks. If you want to look at the safety of a drug, studies that don't find adverse outcomes are as statistically important as studies that found adverse outcomes. Nissen also wasn't able to control for the amount of time patients were exposed to Avandia relative to when they had a heart attack, which further undermined the certainly of his result. Even though a number of studies were published in medical journals criticizing the methodology, the media ignored them and continued to report the magic increased risk of 43 percent.

As Brian Strom, chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania noted: “You should not draw any conclusion based on this analysis. I would not recommend taking patients off of Avandia because of this."

The Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency both looked at all the data and decided, in July and October respectively, that the benefits of Avandia outweighed the risk and the drug shouldn’t be removed. Yet by the end of 2007, news organizations were still citing Nissen’s data without any qualification.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Blackwater 'shoots NY Times Mascot Dog in Baghdad'

While elsewhere in Baghdad, snowflakes are falling and astonishing the locals, the reputation of US contractor security is more like a snowball in hell - fading fast.

According to Reuters, the U.S. embassy in Iraq is investigating another deadly shooting incident involving its Blackwater bodyguards -- this time of the New York Times's dog, a hellhound named Hentish.

Staff at the newspaper's Baghdad bureau said Blackwater bodyguards shot Hentish dead last week before a visit by a U.S. diplomat to the Times compound. The K9 corps

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the dog had attacked one of Blackwater's bomb-sniffer dogs while a security team was sweeping the compound for explosives.

"The K-9 handler made several unsuccessful attempts to get the dog to retreat, including placing himself between the dogs. When those efforts failed, the K-9 handler unfortunately was forced to use a pistol to protect the company's K-9 and himself," she said in an e-mail to Reuters.

The U.S. embassy employs about 1,000 armed Blackwater staff to protect American diplomats in Baghdad.

The firm's role became a serious issue in Iraqi-U.S. relations when its guards opened fire on a Baghdad street in September, killing 17 people. Blackwater says its employees acted lawfully in that incident, which is under investigation.

State Department investigators have made two follow-up visits to the Times compound to investigate the shooting of Hentish, correspondent Alissa Rubin said.

"They were very solicitous and I thought took the incident very seriously," Rubin said. "It's not a dog that everyone's close to in the compound.

"But it's a dog that's been around a long time. It lived its whole life there."
And according to bloggers, it was inclined to sink its canines into the odd crotch...much like NY Times reporters that petted him.

(Reporting by Peter Graff; editing by Robert Woodward)