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Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Questions Asked a Ticket Agent: Time for a little source criticism

A Washington D.C. airport ticket agent offers some examples of 'why' our country is in trouble:

1. I had a New Hampshire Congresswoman (Carol Shea-Porter) ask for an aisle seat so that her hair wouldn't get messed up by being near the window. (On an airplane!)

2. I got a call from a Kansas Congressman's (Moore) staffer (Howard Bauleke), who wanted to go to Capetown. I started to explain the length of the flight and the passport information, and then he interrupted me with, ''I'm not trying to make you look stupid, but Capetown is in Massachusetts .''
Without trying to make him look stupid, I calmly explained, ''Cape Cod is in Massachusetts, Capetown is in Africa ''
His response -- click.

3. A senior Vermont Congressman (Bernie Sanders) called, furious about a Florida package we did. I asked what was wrong with the vacation in Orlando. He said he was expecting an ocean-view room. I tried to explain that's not possible, since Orlando is in the middle of the state.
He replied, 'don't lie to me, I looked on the map and Florida is a very thin state!''

4. I got a call from a lawmaker's wife (Landra Reid) who asked, ''Is it possible to see England from Canada ?''
I said, ''No.''
She said, ''But they look so close on the map.''

5. An aide for a cabinet member (Janet Napolitano) once called and asked if he could rent a car in Dallas. I pulled up the reservation and noticed he had only a 1-hour layover in Dallas. When I asked him why he wanted to rent a car, he said, ''I heard Dallas was a big airport, and we will need a car to drive between gates to save time.''

6.An Illinois Congresswoman (Jan Schakowsky) called last week. She needed to know how it was possible that her flight from Detroit left at 8:30 a.m., and got to Chicago at 8:33 a.m.
I explained that Michigan was an hour ahead of Illinois, but she couldn't understand the concept of time zones. Finally, I told her the plane went fast, and she bought that.

7. A New York lawmaker, (Jerrold Nadler) called and asked, ''Do airlines put your physical description on your bag so they know whose luggage belongs to whom?'' I said, 'No, why do you ask?'
He replied, ''Well, when I checked in with the airline, they put a tag on my luggage that said (FAT), and I'm overweight. I think that's very rude!''
After putting him on hold for a minute, while I looked into it. (I was dying laughing). I came back and explained the city code for Fresno, CA is (FAT- Fresno Air Terminal), and the airline was just putting a destination tag on his luggage.

8. A Senator John Kerry aide (Lindsay Ross) called to inquire about a trip package to Hawaii. After going over all the cost info, she asked, ''Would it be cheaper to fly to California and then take the train to Hawaii?''

9. I just got off the phone with a freshman Congressman, Bobby Bright (D) from Ala who asked, ''How do I know which plane to get on?''
I asked him what exactly he meant, to which he replied, ''I was told my flight number is 823, but none of these planes have numbers on them.''

10. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) Called and said, ''I need to fly to Pepsi-Cola, Florida . Do I have to get on one of those little computer planes?''
I asked if she meant fly to Pensacola, FL on a commuter plane.
She said, ''Yeah, whatever, smarty!''

11. Mary Landrieu (D) La. Senator called and had a question about the documents she needed in order to fly to China. After a lengthy discussion about passports, I reminded her that she needed a visa. 'Oh, no I don't. I've been to China many times and never had to have one of those.''
I double checked and sure enough, her stay required a visa. When I told her this she said, ''Look, I've been to China four times and every time they have accepted my American Express!''

12. A New Jersey Congressman (John Adler) called to make reservations, ''I want to go from Chicago to Rhino, New York.''
I was at a loss for words. Finally, I said, ''Are you sure that's the name of the town?''
'Yes, what flights do you have?'' replied the man.
After some searching, I came back with, ''I'm sorry, sir, I've looked up every airport code in the country and can't find a Rhino anywhere."
''The man retorted, ''Oh, don't be silly! Everyone knows where it is. Check your map!''
So I scoured a map of the state of New York and finally offered, ''You don't mean Buffalo , do you?''
The reply? ''Whatever! I knew it was a big animal.''

Now you know why the Government is in the shape that it's in! Could anyone be this DUMB?
I don't write it, I just offer it for your consideration. Like manure, you just gotta spread it around.

Now, the White Man here to answer that last question, Yes, anyone could be that dumb. But notice, the anonymous author didn't quote just anyone in this piece. He only quoted Democrats. Now, if Democrats can be that dumb, so can Republicans. The very fact that he only quoted Democrats brings out a strong marine odor: this piece is a fabrication, and it's unlikely that any of these quotes were actually made by the people to whom they were attributed. In fact, all of them show such remarkable lack of intellect that this collection was probably first compiled as a list of the Stupidest Questions Ever Asked a Travel Agent. Only later did an anti-Democrat pick it up and carefully add a list of plausible Democrat names to the quotes.

Now, I came up with all of this just from a quick read of the piece and an online check of  a few of the names. Let's see what Snopes says about it: Link here (it won't let me cut and paste).

Yep, I was exactly right. Notice that the names were all added in parentheses to an earlier version. The earliest version of all made no mention of members of Congress.

Now, see how easy that was? With only a single copy of this message, I was able--before I even finished reading it-- to spot it as a forgery, and to hypothesize that the names were all interpolations. A little search for external evidence soon showed my hypothesis to be spot-on.

I could add one more allusion to the art of textual criticism. Several times I have gone back through the text of this pericope and removed extraneous spaces, fixed capitalization errors, and replaced spaces that had been deleted. I didn't carefully check how many errors of each kind I encountered, but it's interesting that, at least in an electronic text, such errors do multiply as the text is copied--but only because changes are being made by the scribes themselves (or initiated by their spell checkers); in this case, changes of first deletion (of the original text), then replacement (of the corrections) and finally addition (of the interpolations). The sort of stylistic errors encountered did in fact point to the sort of editorial changes that had been made to the text--and this was all obvious from looking at a single copy; no comparison of copies was necessary, except to confirm what could already be seen to have happened.

America: A Plutocracy

I read a startling statistic, that less than half of the American electorate votes in any given election. Essentially, we are back to where we were before passage of the nineteenth amendment by white males over twenty-one: most adult Americans don't vote. The legal impediments have been replaced with social ones.

So, why don't Americans vote?

There are many reasons given in the thousands of articles written on the subject, but they all basically boil down to one thing: it doesn't matter. The majority of the populace has now come to the point where they don't see a link between casting a vote and a change in government. Witness, for example, the multi-million dollar get-out-the-vote campaign that culminated in the passage of Proposition Eight in California last election by nearly forty per cent of the electorate; Proposition Eight got the nod by a higher percentage of eligible voters in California in 2008 than Al Gore had in 2000. But after all the dust had settled, what difference did the $5.70 spent per 'yes' vote make? A single judge invalidated the will of seven million people.

When it comes right down to it, America is no longer a democracy--a rule of the majority of eligible voters. A majority of the eligible voters don't call the shots anymore--judges do. At the levels at which it matters, judges are all unelected. And the effort needed to overturn the lifetime appointment of a partisan judge is so massive that it has never been attempted, much less accomplished. The pro-8 camp successfully outspent the opposition in California, but didn't have near enough money do pull off what really mattered: vote in 60 senators to start impeaching autocratic judges. It really all comes down to money: spend enough of it, and your legislative agenda can be accomplished. Whoever runs out of funds first loses. Therefore our democratic government is now, for all intents and purposes, a plutocracy--a rule of the rich.

It doesn't have to be this way. Americans could vote in enough Tea Partiers to ram through the will of the majority. But the history of forced majority rule in this country doesn't bode well for the success of this mission. Eighty-four years after Jesse Owens brought down the theory of Aryan supremacy with his four-for-four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics--forty years after he wrote that there was "now no legal impediment for the ultimate equality of the Negro with the ruling Whites"--we are still hearing about "the first African-American since Reconstruction" to run for--or win--one national office or another from the various southern states. In other words, during Reconstruction, the majority black populations of the south enjoyed true democracy: they sent their own representatives to Congress in numbers that have yet to be approached, much less matched.

But democracy in the South only lasted as long as there were Federal troops present to enforce it. Once they pulled up stakes and headed back North, plutocracy descended--and has yet to be lifted. I don't doubt that the Tea Partiers, should they succeed in wresting real control back from the Plutocrats, will only be able to hold it as long as they can get--and maintain--control of the nation's military. And History teaches us that He who has the Gold, Makes the Rules. And He who has the Gun, gets the Gold.

Voting in Tea Partiers appears to be a noble cause, but ineffective in the long run. What do we have left of the Reagan Revolution only one generation later? A true revolution is brought about by a long, exhausting, armed struggle often lasting for several generations. The rich will give up neither their wealth, nor their power, except at the point of a gun.  Take away their votes--but not their guns--and they will have soon used the latter to regain the former.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Peer Review fails again

Zahler I have written earlier on the connexion between vaccines and autism, expressing my desire to see more research before reaching a conclusion. Just seeing research, however, is not sufficient; it must be evaluated. This is supposedly the task of Peer Review, which is thought to ensure that no pseudoscience makes it into print in the scholarly journals. Note that Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, wrote this about the peer review process (but not in his own magazine!):
We know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.
Perhaps nowhere has this process been demonstrated to have utterly failed more than in the case of Andrew Wakefield, who has been ostracized from the medical community over the publication (in The Lancet) of his study of the link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The first set of allegations against him (half of which were dismissed as unfounded), and his response, can be seen at this link. The 143-page fact sheet from the preliminary license revocation hearing of 3 of the article's authors (released this past January after 2½ years of investigation) can be found here.

As nearly as I can figure out, the only piece of evidence collected by Dr. Wakefield's team that is actually disputed is the condition of the children's intestines, and--what do you know--the original records have disappeared. This is how the Lancet article reads:

Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children, with measles infection in one child, and otitis media in another. All 12 children had intestinal abnormalities, ranging from lymphoid nodular hyperplasia to aphthoid ulceration. Histology showed patchy chronic inflammation in the colon in 11 children and reactive ileal lymphoid hyperplasia in seven, but no granulomas. Behavioural disorders included autism (nine), disintegrative psychosis (one), and possible postviral or vaccinal encephalitis (two). There were nofocal neurological abnormalities and MRI and EEG tests were normal. Abnormal laboratory results were significantly raised urinary methylmalonic acid compared with age-matched controls (p=0.003), low haemoglobin in four children, and a low serum IgA in four children.
The article concludes:
We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue. If there is a causal link between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and this syndrome, a rising incidence might be anticipated after the introduction of this vaccine in the UK in 1988. Published evidence is inadequate to show whether there is a change in incidence or a link with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. A genetic predisposition to autistic-spectrum disorders is suggested by over-representation in boys and a greater concordance rate in monozygotic than in dizygotic twins. In the context of susceptibility to infection, a genetic association with autism, linked to a null allele of the complement (C)4B gene located in the class III region of the major-histocompatibility complex, has been recorded by Warren and colleagues. C4B-gene products are crucial for the activation of the complement pathway and protection against infection: individuals inheriting one or two C4B null alleles may not handle certain viruses appropriately, possibly including attenuated strains. Urinary methylmalonic-acid concentrations were raised in most of the children, a finding indicative of a functional vitamin B12 deficiency. Although vitamin B12concentrations were normal, serum B12 is not a good measure of functional B12 status. Urinary methylmalonic-acid excretion is increased in disorders such as Crohn’s disease, in which cobalamin excreted in bile is not reabsorbed. A similar problem may have occurred in the children in our study. Vitamin B12 is essential for myelinogenesis in the developing central nervous system, a process that is not complete until around the age of 10 years. B12 deficiency may, therefore, be a contributory factor in the developmental regression. We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. Inmost cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.
One thing that greatly complicates the discussion is the latitude with which a diagnosis of Autism is dispensed. I read a billboard just the other day, that every 20 minutes another child is diagnosed with autism (where--in the hospital emergency room?). Yet the same child, with the same symptoms, can be diagnosed either with autism or pervasive development disorder, just on the basis of either not wanting to hurt the parents' feelings on the one hand, or qualifying for taxpayer-funded intervention on the other. It has become a political diagnosis as much as a medical one.

The research I have seen definitely points in the direction of a 3-fold link between:

1) Reaction to the MMR shots
2) Verbal and social regression around age 18 months
3) Casein and gluten allergy with cerebral symptoms

But millions of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder don't necessarily show this triad of symptoms. If meaningful research is to be done, children that show this triad must first be segregated from the great mass of those labeled with ASD.

In the mean time, informed parents will continue to do their own research and work out their own treatment regimens. Classic autism is clearly both preventable and treatable. If existing treatments don't work in any given case, it only shows that more study needs to be done.