October 2006 Archives

"Making the Safe Skies Safer" -- Flying Under the Radar

Pilot Fatigue

The Wall Street Journal published a piece in last Saturday's edition, called "Pilot-Fatigue Test Lands JetBlue In Hot Water", describing how U.S. carrier JetBlue Airways tested pilot fatigue in an illicit experiment a year and a half ago, unbeknownst to passengers. The airline recruited pilots to spend more time at the controls than the strict eight hour limit set by the FAA. The Wall Street Journal quoted David Stempler, president of Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for travelers who said, "passengers would be shocked that this was going on."

Would they? 439 million people flew on scheduled domestic and international flights on U.S. airlines during the first seven months of 2006, according to a Bureau of Transportation Statistics press release in October, 2006. But public demand for information about airline safety seems tepid and the issue is barely covered by the media. Individuals don't seem to know or care how fatigue leading to pilot error translates to a personal fatality risk. Or perhaps they know full well and choose to accept the risk.

In the Wall Street Journal's rundown of the JetBlue story, the airline worked with Mark Rosekind, an alertness researcher and ubiquitous airline consultant whose company markets a product called "Alertness Metrics Technology (AMT)" --an actigraph and personal digital assistant (PDA). A group of volunteer JetBlue pilots flew ten or more hours a day and the devices helped the pilots record their 24-hr sleep/wake patterns and physiological information.

According to the article, word got out that JetBlue was scheduling pilots on longer shifts. The pilots union complained to the Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA). If the FAA allowed JetBlue to flout the rules, than arguably union affiliated airlines would be compelled to compete with JetBlue's cost saving measures.

Pilot fatigue is influenced by a host of factors, including age, fitness, and individual physiology. One pilot error can and has caused hundreds of deaths. Current FAA regulations impose an eight-hour limit for a pilot's flight time during a 24-hour period, and the pilot must have eight continuous hours of rest in the preceding 24-hour. They limit continuous duty to 16 hours. Pilots increasingly report that they fly longer hours with shorter breaks, that scheduling is chaotic and asynchronous, and that flight delays cause longer work days. Studies indicate the extent of the problem:

"in a 4-year study of regional airlines that ended in 1998, 88 percent of the crew members indicated fatigue was a common occurrence, and 92 percent reported fatigue as a moderate-to-serious safety issue".

The FAA rules have not been changed significantly since the 1940's. During one House of Representatives hearing on pilot fatigue Vernon S. Ellingstad, Director of Research and Engineering, National Transportation Safety Board complained:

"the Department of Transportation has spent over 20 million taxpayer dollars to research operator fatigue, but little has been done to apply the knowledge gained from this research."

The FAA readily points out that it was forced to drop changes it proposed in 1995 because of years of disagreement, complaints, congressional hearings and lawsuits among invested parties.

JetBlue - In Hot Water?

In the meantime, the FAA is not enforcing the rules effectively. JetBlue seems to have designed its own regulatory guidance by increasing pilot flying times during this experiment. The Wall Street Journal account seems incomplete if not spurious. "It has been nearly 18 months since [JetBlue's] novel experiment", they say.

However, on January 24, 2006, 9 months ago, the Washington Post wrote about JetBlue's plan. The story, "Poor Behavior, Fatigue Led to '04 Plane Crash; Proper Procedures Not Followed", focused on the crash of a corporate jet in 2004 that investigators attributed to fatigue¹. In the last couple of paragraphs it talked about JetBlue's pilot scheduling. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, claimed that even as investigators found fatigue fatal in that crash, JetBlue was trying to get around the eight-hour limit on pilots' flying hours:

'"I am most concerned -- no, paranoid -- about the pressure for profits and productivity that JetBlue and others are trying to get even more hours in a single duty day,' Woerth said. He claimed that JetBlue, whose pilots are not union members, was trying to get around the eight-hour limit on pilots' flying hours."

In response, the JetBlue spokesperson, according to the paper, "said the airline received a temporary exemption in May allowing some of its pilots to fly more than the limit as part of a study on pilot fatigue", and that the airline was not trying to 'squeeze the most out of crew time for the carrier.'

Last Saturday's paper said that JetBlue claimed it got the OK for the experiment from the regional New York office and that FAA headquarters had no idea the experiment was being carried out. But on Janary 21, 2006, three days before the Washington Post report, JetBlue wrote its own press release about the experiment. That press release, "JetBlue Plans Innovative Alertness Management Safety Program.", which has since been removed from the airline's site, didn't mention the FAA regulations or that its pilots were flying longer hours then the FAA allowed. But it did announce the experiment and describe aspects of it, albeit sugarcoated with marketing:

"This program will help us reduce risks associated with fatigue," said Dave Barger, JetBlue's President and COO. "Safety has always been our top priority and, with our collaboration with Alertness Solutions, we will be able to make the safe skies even safer."

On January 24, 2006, the FAA also put out a press report. Taken in context with JetBlue's press release and the Washington Post report, its hard not to see the FAA's press release as a response to JetBlue's announcement, the pilots union reaction to the airline's press release, and the fact that the news had dribbled out to the press -- although the Washington Post was the only paper to report the story. The FAA press release noted that its rules "have evolved along with advances in commercial air travel". It seemed to speak directly to the JetBlue experiment:

"The FAA is confident that, overall, the airline industry complies with the FAA's current rules....The current rules are fundamentally sound but the FAA remains open to any new research or data on fatigue that would assist the agency with developing a new proposal."

In summary, the information the Washington Post reported January 24, 2006, was available in a JetBlue press release January 21st. The FAA said on January 24th that they were open to new research. But, the Wall Street Journal article last Saturday reports that when FAA headquarters found out about JetBlue's experiment they were incensed. They were "red-faced", and a "high-ranking FAA policy maker" said "'We don't allow experiments with passengers on board, period.'" But if they only found out about the experiment in January, and were surprised, why did they say at the time they were "open to any new research on fatigue"? Is JetBlue really in "hot water"? The Wall Street Journal reports:

"...the FAA reprimanded JetBlue, ordered it to clarify procedures as well as flight manuals and Mr. Ballough personally chastised management. But the agency closed its investigation without imposing any monetary fines on the carrier, adding that it was not 'an effort to squeeze the most out of crew time for the carrier'. Since then, FAA officials say headquarters has ordered closer scrutiny by inspectors of all JetBlue. But the agency closed its investigation without imposing any monetary fines on the carrier. " [emphasis ours]

If the FAA was so incensed why didn't they fine JetBlue? Why did their January press release note that they welcomed research? Why are they welcoming research when according to all parties, they don't act on the abundance of research that exists? There are several possibilities.

When Airlines are Nimble and the FAA is Not

The airline industry responds rapidly to the expanding and changing market by outsourcing maintenance, flying fuller flights, establishing low-cost carriers, and cutting costs wherever feasible. However an audit of the FAA's oversight of the changing industry by the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general in June, 2005, indicated that the agency can't keep up with the rapid changes.

Five major airlines studied in the audit "retired 664 aircraft, stored 166, closed 42 maintenance facilities, cut 9,920 pilot jobs and 12,873 mechanic jobs", in a couple of years after 9-11. Yet FAA could not adjust its operations to the changing profile of the industry, in part because of personnel shortages. Much of the report focused on the agency's failure to properly oversee maintenance operations². The audit also noted that there were more incidents and accidents when airlines were in bankruptcy and because of "prolonged psychological stress and fatigue that pilots had experienced as a result of major pay cuts and flying extra hours to make up for the loss of pay". The audit recommended that the FAA increase its vigilance commensurate with the gravity of these circumstances and adjust its inspection regime for better oversight of the rapidly expanding low-cost carriers, JetBlue and others.

While the results of excessive fatigue can be catastrophic, public and legislative attention focuses elsewhere unless there is a fatal accident. At a congressional hearing following the crash of an American Airlines flight, when attention to the problem piqued, a US Department of Transportation official expressed his frustration:

"The Safety Board's first aviation recommendation related to human fatigue was issued in May 1972, more than a quarter of a century ago, and it asked the FAA to revise FAR 135 to provide adequate flight and duty time limitations. Twenty-seven years later, we are still examining the issue of fatigue, this time in the accident involving American Airlines Flight 1420 that crashed on landing on June 1st in Little Rock, killing 13 people...

It's a complicated problem and the solution is not straight-forward. But in a bureaucratic agency like the FAA this lack of pressure can lead to dangerous complacency in the public, regulators and legislators.

Flouting the FAA -- Or Not?

The Wall Street Journal article noted that JetBlue "says it never intended to mislead anyone at the FAA, and the JetBlue spokeswoman chalked the situation up to 'a miscommunication.'" However the same sort of miscommunication happened with American Airlines several years ago.

Following the crash of an American Airlines flight in Little Rock, Arkansas that investigators blamed on fatigue, the FAA issued a warning to all airlines that it would increase enforcement of crew rest rules. American Airlines asked for an extension of the December, 1999 extension, as did most major airlines, according to a story in the Dallas Morning News -- "Pilots feel pushed despite rest rules". (May 12, 2002)

The FAA did not grant American Airlines extension request and followed up, as it warned it would, with an audit of the airlines practices. It found 825 infractions of the rest rules between December 1999 and May 2000. However when the FAA cited the airline for not complying with the rest rules, not hiring extra pilots to cover shifts, and ignoring the FAA's request, a spokesperson for American Airlines said "The [FAA's] Southwest Region knew what we were doing."

Because of the ambiguity of the deal struck between the local office and American Airlines, the company wasn't fined, despite ample evidence of each of the 825 infractions, admissions from the pilots, and no evidence of any agreement between the airline and the regional office. The FAA ended up citing the airline for 38 violations which occurred in two weeks following the FAA's audit. It fined the airline $285,000 for violations of crew rest rules.

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, "had the FAA chosen to fine American the maximum amount, those violations could have cost the airline more than $9 million." Even after being fined American Airlines continued its practices by suggesting that pilots lower their altitude on flights from Dallas to Honolulu in order to the shorten flights. However the plan rarely worked, so airline crews continued to fly long days in violation of the FAA rules. (New York Times, August, 2001)

At the time of the bungled American Airlines audit, the FAA also audited Delta Airlines' pilot rest practices. Delta didn't have records of rest in its computers and, according to the same news Dallas Morning News report "Delta was unwilling or unable to provide historical detail", therefore it wasn't cited by the FAA.

Fatal Errors-- Cost Benefit Analysis

Fatigue errors can be deadly, but major airplane crashes are fairly rare. In a congressional hearing on pilot rest requirements, the issue of cost-benefit analysis was broached by one Congressman:

Representative Defazio: [Oregon] How do we calculate benefit in preventing one crash which kills 1 or 200 people; what is that worth? What value are we currently putting on life? You always have a value. I am just curious what it is today.

Margaret Gilligan (Deputy Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification of the Federal Aviation Administration): I believe the number that is still used by the Department is on the order of $2.7 million. There are econometric models that we apply for that analysis....

As a multi-billion dollar operation, the airline industry needs to adapt business practices that benefit the bottom line. But if JetBlue can fly pilots for longer hours and call it "research", don't all airlines need to do the same in order to remain competitive? As long as the perception remains that it's safe to fly, it appears that disobeying the FAA, even chalking up 825 infractions in six months, doesn't carry significant consequences. While American Airlines doesn't seem like the best bet, according to fatality statistics at Airsafe.com, the airline, for whatever reason, seems to attract a disproportionate number of terrorist threats, probably not due to fatigue.

While its easy to say, after an airline accident, that the passengers would have probably not minded being a little late, passengers often don't necessarily prioritize the same way when their delayed to their important 9:00 meeting in Manhattan. Catastrophe is still rare in aviation, even though the risks are continuous and growing. So when passengers don't question the issue of pilot fatigue they explicitly or implicitly agree to share the economic cost-benefit with the airlines. They either intuitively comprehend and accept the risks, or they don't know the risks therefore don't complain.

The FAA seems to know and understand the risks. It also has the technological knowledge to make the changes, even as, oddly, it calls for research. The question is, does the agency fail to change because the public pressure isn't high enough? Because management practices are so disfunctional that it can't? Or is the FAA so feeble or beholden to the airlines that it repeatedly allows companies to dictate which rules they follow and which ones they ignore, fails to fine airlines for infractions, and bows to pressure when it does initiate change?


¹ According to the post crash analysis, the Corporate Airlines Flight 5966 (which connected with American Airlines) met its demise as the two person flight team were "joking and cursing at one another" at the end of their 14 hour day, while "ignor[ing] guidance about when and at what speed to descend the plane". The National Transportation Safety Board Report (NTSB), which carried out the analysis and listened to the tapes before the crash, recommended that the FAA update its pilot work-rest rules.

² The agency didn't have enough inspectors, and failed to complete an average of 26% (United 42%, Delta 40%, American 27%, Northwest (18%), US Airways 15%) of its inspections of five major carriers. In "identified risk areas", the inspectors failed to complete on average 55% of the inspections, and rarely inspected maintenance operations at night (1-3% of the total inspections).


Acronym Required wrote Crash Tests For Dummies", also about the airline industry. We periodically cover other US government agencies such as FEMA and the FDA.

Autism, TV, Precipitation: Dismal Science

There's a lot of buzz around a recent web publication by professors of business, policy, and economics at Cornell and Purdue Universities, who theorize that allowing children aged 0-3 to watch television causes autism. The authors compared TV exposure times to annual precipitation and come up with a theory that they outline in 67 pages of analysis and findings. Finally they conclude:

"Hence, our results suggest that early childhood television watching, or whatever is the trigger driving our finding of a positive correlation between autism rates and precipitation and autism rates and cable, is an important factor in autism diagnoses both from statistical and absolute standpoints." [emphasis ours]

67 pages for the "whatever is the trigger" theory?

Scientists are sure to question the ambiguous conclusion. But maybe they should take heed. Maybe the researchers are right. Perhaps more economists, policy and business professors should do science research. Scientists struggle to understand the causes of autism. They undertake extensive studies trying to isolate the myriad factors underlying increasing rates of autism diagnosis. They analyze a dizzying number of possible genetic and environmental triggers. Are they making mountains out of molehills?

The authors show how to cut this tedium by parsing the plethora of possibilities and inputs with their special brand of academic/business/economic/management Jujitsu. They derive a simple conclusion: TV viewing causes autism. For whatever reason, this theory eluded scientists, public health experts and physicians for decades. Worse still, according to these brazen science barons, even "the possibility" was "ignored" by researchers.

The methods may seem unconventional by science standards, but by simply ignoring the time intensive processes scientists habitually undertake, these authors stride forward with unprecedented speed to reach conclusions and propose future research and policy. We sifted through their study aiming to convince ourselves of their theory. Could we resolve autism by reducing TV time? How simple, how easy -- what a perfect solution. Why didn't these new kids on the block show up earlier to let the air out of the tires of the tall truck stuck under the short bridge?

Of course, we don't for a moment pretend to understand all their research, we've only dabbled in any of these subjects - autism, economics, business or policy (we didn't even have TV growing up). But here we'll take the authors' cues and audaciously deconstruct their methodology. Step by step, we'll show how we think they did it following ten simple rules (1-10), and how you too, can arrive at such compelling conclusions. When we don't understand their methods or magic we'll wave our hands, skip over the details, bluff, and make a joke of it all.

1) First, disarm your reader by acknowledging many possible causes for autism. Continue to do this throughout the study, but shed doubt on these possibilities to bolster support for your own theory. Choose any simplistic theory, make it your theory, then without hesitation, **prove it**. The authors declare that TV is the environmental trigger for autism. Sure, autism could be genetically linked or triggered by toxicants or air pollution. There are hundreds of possibilities. But trivialize these briefly and dismissively en route to proving your own theory.

2) Slight other theories about autism by pointing out flaws in decades worth of scientific research, but cite only a handful of studies. Say that genetics is altogether "discredited". Say the air pollution links are "intriguing". Suggest the preposterous with a straight face: "families who are more prone to have autistic children for other reasons, tend to locate in areas characterized by higher pollution levels." It's well-accepted that the perception of higher rates of autism is because we have better diagnosis methods. Seed doubts about this by saying that researchers have "mixed conclusions".

3) Having quickly acknowledged then dispelled previous scientific research, move on to explain the "rational" behind your theory. Call your impressions and ideas "reasons", and keep the number of them low, ie: "Four reasons to suspect TV".

  • First Reason: "Historical data are not very good" (the case of California):

    The US Department of Education only changed requirements that effected autism reporting in the 1990's, making rises in the incidence of the condition difficult to discern. However California passed laws in 1969 requiring the establishment of service centers to provide services for developmentally disabled children. Rates of autism at these centers increased during this time. So did TV watching. Aahha!

    But this could be explained by increased numbers of diagnoses of autism and more parents visiting service centers. Or the fact that there actually were service centers, could have, all on its own, led to the increase. Increases in toxicants or pollution also would cause increase visits. Fortunately, you've thrown out these possibilities already, no need to revisit them. Autism rates have increased in the past decades, most people agree, and now you've linked this to television viewing. It never hurts to reinforce your point, so cite some more irrelevant data to support it, like the increased sales of VCRs, cable deregulation, the rise of Nickleodeon and Disney, and increases in the number of television sets per household.

  • Second: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD):

    You managed to find one paper showing a correlation between ADHD and television viewing. Note that there were no controls and no proven cause and effect in this paper, but say that the results "are suggestive", "of interest", and "certainly suggestive". [We'd suggest something more, that since ADHD begins with "A" and Autism begins with "A" too, TV could cause both.]

  • Third: High risk kids "engage" with TV: Cite a study showing that children were more likely to become autistic if they were at "high risk" for autism, defined as those who had a sibling with autism. You previously discounted the genetic link, but whatever. These children were found to "disengage" more slowly from TV than their "low-risk" peers, therefore you theorize that they get more TV exposure and more autism.
  • Fourth: The Amish. There are low rates of autism in the Amish, according to some reporter somewhere. Acknowledge that this is sort of speculative, but say that "even with all these caveats", the reporter's "findings provide intriguing evidence". Important not to shy away from using words like "evidence". Sprinkle authoritative sounding science words liberally throughout your paper: "evidence" (30 times), "data" (85 times), and "results" (64 times).

4) Having explained the reasons you suspect the link, now explain your methodology, no matter how convoluted. You chose three states, California, Washington, and Oregon, because of their "high precipitation variability". This allows comparisons between areas of low precipitation and high precipitation with corresponding autism rates. Explain the onerous county and state data collection process that no doubt stymied other researchers. For instance of the three states, Washington was "unwilling to provide autism data". And "Oregon only reported the county autism count when it was greater than or equal to ten". Since the data are obviously totally inconsistent between states, counties, cohorts, explain how you resolved this. For example:

"For Oregon we use age-specific counts by county in 2005 and then construct autism rates by dividing by the corresponding county-level age-specific population taken from the 2000 census. For the case of California we focus on cohorts born between 1982 and 1997 (vs cohorts born between 1987 and 1999 for Oregon) and use the county autism count in the year a birth cohort was eight yrs old...dividing by that year's corresponding county-level age-specific population....For example, for children born in LA county in 1990 we use LA county's autism count of eight year olds in 1998...."

Continue like this, variable by variable, Black and Hispanic coefficients, income coefficients, education coefficients, sex of interviewee coefficients, household type, child gender, etc., paragraph after paragraph, page after page. This helps shed light on the morass of inputs and the challenges that have made conclusive answers so difficult, but also potentially increases the *wow* factor of your paper. Say that you've considered all of this and controlled for every nuance.

5) Since you may well have lost the reader by this point, model the data, as any economist would, into four easy to follow formulas, included below.

  • For example, this formula represents the television viewing of a child measured in precipitation at the respondent's location on the day of the survey, and other variables:

    "TVi= β12PRCPi + β3PRCPi²+ β4Xi+ <βZi+&epsiloni"

  • Most of this is fairly intuitive.

    "AUTk=&beta1+&beta2PRCP+&epsilonk", and

    "AUTk12PRCPk3logPOPk+ β4INCk + β5REGk+ β6HISPk7BLKk+ β8INDk+&epsilonk"

    Here in the second and third formulas "AUTk denotes the 2005 autism rate among school-aged children in county k. PRCPk is the average precipitation level in county k between 1987 and 2001, logPOPk is the logarithm of count k's total population in 2000, INCk is county k's per capita GNP in 1999, HIS and BLK and IND represent Hispanic and Black and Indigenous children...."

  • Finally, this fourth formula represents pooled data between the states, for another look at the relationships:

    "AUTk,b12PRCPk,b3TIMEb+ β4logPOPk + β5INCk+ β6REGk7HISPk,b+ β8BLKk,b+ β9INDk,b+&epsilonk,b"

6) Restate your conclusion, which unsurprisingly, was your theory. Dismiss any "anomalies." Now that you've modeled all of this like Play-Doh you can state authoritatively:

"There is a positive relationship between autism and precipitation in Oregon and Washington, but no [sic] in California...We present the precipitation and autism maps for each state[..] It is clear from the maps that there is a very strong correlation in each state between precipitation and autism."

Each state except "no California". Ouch. Tackle this conundrum, that even after your incredible machinations, one-third of your data set - California - doesn't fit your theory.

You can pull this out. The map shows that where it doesn't rain there are still high rates of autism--well it's more complicated -- higher than the median for the state. Suggest that there could be other factors, such as "urban density", concurring with high autism rates which might make precipitation levels irrelevant. [This theory would also fit the OR and WA data]. Manipulate the data to erase this aberrant possibility by using the "fixed-effects specification". Since your releasing this on the internet, most people don't know what that is, oh well. Just observe that autism rates vary as precipitation deviates from the "average". Does this prove that there aren't other inputs? Say it does. Now you've accounted for that whole "urban density" issue as well as other possible perturbations. The alarmingly titled "omitted variables problem" is eliminated, so phew, therefore California fits your theory.

7.) Note some problems with the study, then dismiss them. Suggest that one potential problem with this data is that indoor activities in general, not just TV watching, may account for higher rates of autism in places with greater precipitation. If this were the case, any indoor toxicant may result in higher autism rates since TV time is coincidental to indoor time. Explain that you've resolved this by comparing Pennsylvania and California cable subscription rates with autism rates. Let the reader wonder why you chose these two states. Pennsylvania? Ignore precipitation for this analysis. Does it matter, for instance, that that most of Pennsylvania has higher rates of precipitation than California? Whatever.

Model your findings for this: "AUTk,b=&beta1+&beta2CABk,b+&beta3TIMEk+&beta4POPk+&beta2INCk+&beta6REGk+&beta7HISPk+&beta8BLKk+&beta9INDkk"

Say that increased cable subscriptions correlate with increased rates autism. Does this prove that indoor toxicants are irrelevant? Or has increased technology coincidentally increased with autism? Never mind. Say indoor toxicants are irrelevant.

8.) State your theory again: Television watching causes autism "or whatever is the trigger driving our finding of a positive correlation between autism rates and precipitation and autism rates and cable". Humbly consider the flaws in your research, ie:

"because we do not provide a direct test of the effects of television watching on autism, we do not consider our results to be definitive evidence in favor of the television viewing as trigger hypothesis."[emphasis ours]

9.) Now that you've duly noted potential flaws, like, the whole study might be hogwash, ie: 'we do not consider our results to be evidence of TV viewing as a trigger for autism', pretend you didn't say that. Instead, forge ahead and state with confidence that autism is caused by cable viewing. Declare that cable TV viewing causes "seventeen percent of growth in autism". Assert that TV watching due to precipitation causes "just under forty percent..of diagnoses".

Then tell everyone else how to proceed. Describe some experiments that scientists can do. Make policy recommendations for the American Academy of Pediatricians (who already recommend that kids under 2 don't watch TV).

10.) Publish this paper on the internet ahead of extensive peer review, or any peer review whatsoever, for that matter. Disperse the information widely in the popular press. People will be intrigued, interested, scared, nervous, possibly guilt-ridden. Sure, they may note the problems with the research, or they may say that your conclusions were obvious, but some will also say, perhaps jealously -- 'we said that first!'.

Tsk, tsk, children, children, stop squabbling or no more TV rights! As for you, dear researcher, you've probably got dozens of parents toting TVs out of their houses. And you got credit for your intrepid ideas! True or not.

Ex-FDA Boss, Hasty Departure, now Criminal Charges

Lester Crawford quit the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), "abruptly" in September, 2005. As we reported at the time, he took his leave suddenly, in a move that "took the pharmaceutical and medical industries by surprise". It was a quick end to a long FDA career, surprising -- even though as acting FDA head and commissioner he drew consistent ire from Democrats and women's health advocates for making policy seemingly driven by politics. His most controversial moves, failing to pass Plan B birth control drug and assigning a male veterinarian to head up the women's health division, directly proceeded his resignation.

He explained to his staff in a memo at the time: "after 3½ years as deputy commissioner, acting commissioner and finally as commissioner, it is time at the age of 67 to step aside". Earlier this year, however, and when Acronym Required reported a sudden switch in FDA ideology around Plan B, it had come to light that Mr. Crawford faced criminal charges of an "undisclosed nature".

Today New York Times reports that the Justice Department has charged the former commissioner with "making a false writing and conflict of interest". Mr. Crawford and his wife owned stock in Embex, an agriculture biotechnology company whose board he also served on while he headed the FDA. He also claimed that he had no financial holdings that would represent a conflict of interest, when in fact he held significant amounts of stock in Kimberley-Clark and Sysco Corp., and others. He also simultaneously chaired the FDA's Obesity Working Group while holding shares of Sysco and Pepsico.

While at the FDA, Mr. Crawford more often partnered with the Justice Department to regulate the pharmaceutical industry, ostensibly protecting the consumer " from unsafe products and economic deception alike", by enforcing rules, "rooting out and prosecuting health care fraud", and "protecting American consumers from counterfeit and unsafe prescription drugs..." However, under his tenure some legislators criticized the FDA of currying too cozy a relationship with pharmaceuticals. It is expected that in his newest role he will plead guilty to the charges.


Toxoplasma Antibodies and Male Babies

Researchers report in Naturwissenschaften (via Science) that women who test positive for antibodies to the Toxoplasma gondii virus bear more boys than girls. The virus infects over 20% of the world's population. Transmitted through raw meat or cat feces, it causes "flu symptoms" like muscle aches and pains in humans it infects, but is not considered dangerous unless the person's immune system is compromised or if they are pregnant. However, for women who have antibodies to the virus (from being infected previously) the sex ratio is increased from 51, meaning there 104 boys born for every 100 girls, to 60, which translates to 150 boys born for every 100 girls. Women with the highest levels of antibodies, about 72, have 260 boy babies per 100 girl babies.

No Recall - Washington Memory Glitches

The non-science world reels with bad news -- national, international, all of it. We shudder and shut our eyes tightly as we pass the news stands, we cover our ears when we hear a radio or TV. But while much of the bad news emanates from Washington, DC. People in the capitol seem to have mastered an uncanny ability to forget it all. Have you noticed? Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, when asked why the U.S. invaded Iraq when Korea posed an imminent nuclear threat, said that "North Korea was sui generis", a particular case. Veterans of the Korean War, stunned by Korea's bellicosity, plea that we don't forget North Korea's aggression in the "forgotten war". But the Secretary of State can't seem to even keep track of recent wars. Asked about why the U.S. invaded Iraq, she recalled spuriously: "We actually went to war against Iraq in 1991 because they invaded and tried to annex Kuwait...", as if she forgot when and why the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and by declaring events this way could distort her listeners memories too.

Not long ago, when reports suggested that Rice might have had a meeting with George Tenet before 9/11, and he warned her of possible Al Qaeda attacks, she morphed into apoplectic horror. She declared herself appalled by the allegations. The idea that Rice "does not recall" -- seemingly, anything -- alarms us. Is she afflicted by a rare disease, previously disregarded -- like chikungunya, but that affects neural cells? Has she caught a virus endemic to "Foggy Bottom"?

Unfortunately Rice can't be described as "Sui generis" in this way. Donald Rumsfeld scratches his forehead through every interview, squinting into the distance and wending and winding his way around various outcomes of his decisions. Shouldn't the leader of the Pentagon be sharp as a tack? Reportedly he had only the "vaguest recollection" of warnings by top brass on the ground in Iraq about his strategy. In his 'fruit in a fruitbowl' analogy, he compared escalating insurgent attacks in Iraq incongruously to apples and bananas and oranges.

Congress, of course, epitomizes the symptoms of the memory affliction. In the latest in a long string of scandals, key Republicans knew about Mark Foley's flagitious ways but forgot to oust him, or, alternatively, lost the facts in the legislative shuffle. No one informed Senator Hastert of Foley's messages to pages, or perhaps Tom Reynolds told him but "brought it in with a whole stack of things". Our elected legislators find multi-tasking onerous, apparently. Foley on the other hand, takes a break from harrassment to "remember" that he's an alcoholic, an abused child, a gay and in need of rehab -- thus maligning and misrepresenting all who are abused, gay or alcoholic. We're nervous, scared maybe, to watch Washington come apart into a billion little pieces.

The forgetfulness afflicts news reporters too. Millions of Americans protested the Iraq invasion 3 years ago and have kept up the chatter ever since, but some pundits didn't seem to know that Iraq policy was amok. Only now do they declare Iraq policy officially a disaster, now that Bob Woodward says so in his book. Woodward himself didn't realize the gravity of Iraq for two whole best-selling books, despite his experience in Vietnam and the sleuthing skills he honed in the 1970's. It's obvious, he now declares amnesiacally in State of Denial, that Mr. Bush isn't measuring up as the great president he was a year or so ago.

These memory glitches may help legislators forge ahead to their next crisis, but it seems detrimental to the world's welfare. How could so many Phi Beta Kappas be so forgetful? We've previously chalked up these lapses, these failures to keep apprised of the truth, to willful mendacity. But if we weren't convinced that this is a case of crooked, deceitful, greedy and cavalier leadership, we would think that such rabid forgetfulness is disease based (not really their fault). Scientists often feel besieged by politics and politicians, but if we were to treat this like a disease, we would brush that chip off our shoulders and reach across the aisle. Science can help. We'd start low tech -- rest, relaxation, exercise, simple nutrition. Perhaps if all of Washington were to eat yellow curries containing curcumin they would remember more -- or at least be less prone to amyloid plaque formation which can lead to Alzheimer's disease. If they despise curry they could follow a simple Mediterannean diet, which reduces inflammation of the brain and may also protect against Alzheimer's. No Freedom or French Fries, no ketchup, etc.

If the forgetfulness persisted then we could apply more high tech solutions. Drugs could help, maybe, although doctors question their efficacy. Drugs that increase levels of protein kinase A reportedly may benefit the hippocampus but may harmfully affect the prefrontal cortex, which is also involved with memory. Anti-psychotic drugs, already disputed by psychologists for their inefficacy for other conditions are not recommended by doctors for treatment of memory loss, but perhaps desperate times require desperate measures. Finally technologists like to remind politicians that fact checking becomes easier with the internet, they could check their facts, or the voters will check for them. Google could remind politicians and citizens what's fact and fiction. Finally, there's always elections, the ultimate surgical but low-tech cure.

What Can I do About Global Warming?

For those concerned about global warming, who are plagued by the question -- what can I do? -- Andrew Postman details some steps he took to reduce his energy output in The Energy Diet", published yesterday in the New York Times. . He defines an activism goal for everyman: "very little pain, not insignificant gain".

Postman calculated the tons of carbon dioxide emissions his family produced via the survey on climatecrisis.net. When you plug in a few numbers, these ubiquitous online calculators -- specific to wherever you live, New Zealand, Japan, the UK, Canada, etc.-- estimate the tons of carbon dioxide you produce from energy consumption at home, driving, and flying.

To reduce his emissions, the author took all the usual measures, switched to energy saver lightbulbs, lowered the thermostat, washed an occasional dish by hand. It's no 'holier than thou' account. His emissions baseline was well over the average of 7.5 tons per person, so small actions made quite a dent, not unlike a 400 pound person cutting back from 20 to 14 soft drinks per day. He insists he will never part with his plasma TV and he disgards taking steps that would be too much bother.

In lieu of some sacrifices, he chose to offset some of his emissions. There are many places online that provide this service. Some calculators, after determining your reduction in emissions, calculate what the effect would be if everyone else in your country -- in Japan, for instance -- also reduced their emissions that much. His message resonates -- anyone and everyone can reduce their emissions.

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