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Pigs, Everywhere

Since March 4th, workers have fished 3,300 5,916 6,601 13,000 (03/18/13) dead, bloated pigs out of a river in Shanghai. Last week there was little information about where they were coming from, how they got there, or what they died from, only general agreement, as Bloomberg put it, that "Nothing good comes from a dead-pig tide".

The Huangpu River feeds the drinking water supply for some of the city and although officials have so far assured citizens that the water is safe, and that they're taking water samples regularly, doubts persist.

If Pigs Could Fly

How the pigs got there is still a bit of a mystery. The carcasses are ear-tagged but officials can't decipher the tags, so they don't know the exact situation. Most likely, farmers dumped diseased pigs (some are infected with porcine circovirus) into the river at some upstream province. Despite the gruesome pig panorama, citizens are told not to fear the safety of pigs originating from the suspect provinces.

Piglets

Piglets
via Wikicommons.

China produces half the world's pigs, five times what the U.S. produces. Pork is so central to the economy that pig price fluctuations effect the cost of living. This means that the large scale pig deaths over the past several months, albeit only tens of thousands in a pig population of millions, concern not only water drinkers and pork consumers but economists too.

When other food products befall catastrophe, the story may be different. When frosts freeze orange groves in Florida, for instance, producers warn consumers in the Northeast U.S. that orange juice prices might go up. Pig parts, however, are found in hundreds of products besides rinds and bellies and chops and loins. For instance, eighty percent of the U.S. heparin supply comes from pigs raised on farms in China, according to the director of Pharmacy at Boston Children's Hospital.

A few years ago, an epidemic of blue ear pig disease (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV)) ended up killing so many pigs that producers met the demand for heparin by adulterating the drug with a chemically similar substance. As the crisis unfolded, analysis detected oversulfated chondroitin sulfate that caused hundreds of severe allergic reactions and 175 deaths worldwide.

In the aftermath, journalists investigated the supply chain and found that the FDA had alarmingly little oversight into the production practices on pig farms in China. Since then, the FDA has increased its oversight. However, even last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FDA found contaminated heparin from fourteen more Chinese suppliers. The FDA put them on a watchlist with eight others.

They'd Fly Away?

Pigs provide material for many human life-saving technologies. A recent study describes the possibility of using porcine small intestine patches for pediatric patient cardiovascular reconstruction. Scientists are experimenting with porcine (and bovine) matrices for things like abdominal wall reconstruction.

Although some medicines, like insulin, are no longer made from pigs, the widespread use of pig parts in medicine often goes unacknowledged. Some religions forbid the use of pigs even for medical treatment, and some people get squeamish about pig body parts, according to designer Christien Meinderstsma in this Ted Talk. One Dutch heart valve company wouldn't send her their valve because they didn't want people associating their life-saving technology with pigs.

In her talk on the book, "Pig 05049", Meinderstsma highlights 185 products made with a pig she followed. A Greek cigarette uses pig parts to make a more "healthy", lung-like filter. Some frozen beef steak is made with beef bits glued together with pig fibrinogen or "meat glue". Some collagen injections for facial rejuvenation come from pigs. Pigs are also used to make soap, train brakes, fine bone china, and bullets (not silver, according to the picture...), and more than one hundred other things. They're amazingly ubiquitous, pigs, and floating in China's rivers too.

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Some related posts include Avian Flu In China (2005); Streptococcus suis in China (2005); a note on the heparin adulteration (2008) the H1N1 pandemic - (2009), and here.

Films to See: "Escape Fire" and "The Waiting Room"

Many people muster strong opinions about Oscars - not I. Having enjoyed some of 2012's awarded movies, I watched the Oscars with appreciation, albeit distracted by the din of our crowd. The only thing that always disappoints me, every year, is how many important subjects and films get left out. The 2012 documentary movies "Escape Fire" and "The Waiting Room" focus on healthcare in the U.S.

"Escape Fire"

Escape Fire airs this weekend on CNN. The film isn't shy about its agenda, as one commentator puts it: "We don't have a healthcare system, we have a disease management system." The disease management system in the U.S. comprises many industries - pharmaceutical, insurance, hospital chains, and doctors' groups, so the film covers a lot of ground.


Escape Fire

Doctors and patients dependence on pharmaceutical drugs gets shown via an arresting story of a veteran being weaned off of painkillers. The pharmaceutical industry's economic calculations, deadly to patients, are recounted by Dr. Steven Nissen and the familiar story of Avandia. The insurance industry's stake in it all is discussed and memorably captured in a shot of all the insurance company representatives sitting around the table negotiating Obama's healthcare plan. The filmmakers somehow patch together an optimistic if controversial package of solutions for the impenetrable seeming morass they depict. A Safeway executive marshals employees to exercise and lose weight. Media-popular doctors hold forth with various remedies.

The story thread I appreciated most was that of a primary care doctor. To her dismay, time with patients kept being shortened to meet new economic demands. Supervisors told her to "get her productivity up", so she changed jobs more than once, hoping for a position that allowed her to adequately care for her patients.

Aside from patients, primary care physicians have taken the toughest hit in our *efficiency* driven system. There aren't enough of them, and the care in some parts of the country has become so slapdash it's dangerous. Yet at the bottom of every health article, at the end of every pharmaceutical ad, in every news piece about this or that medical research is a bright, incongruous little instruction: "Ask Your Doctor". As if. As if we had the same level of medical intimacy and trust, just technologically superior, as when my great grandfather worked through nights, house to house in his little town.

Interestingly, the system depicted by the riveting film "Escape Fire", however sickly, is what the healthiest patients get, those who have the very best insurance in a places chocked full of excellent hospitals. Fifty million uninsured patients in the U.S. don't get that.

"The Waiting Room"

Which brings us to the excellent film "The Waiting Room", by Steven Nicks, shortlisted in the top 15 Oscar picks. The movie's setting is Oakland, California's Highland Hospital waiting room, over 24 hours. It focuses on a different aspect of the problem than "Escape Fire" and takes a different tone. If on the continuum of polemic reporting, Michael Moore's "Sicko" scored a 9-10, "Escape Fire" might get a 6-7, and "The Waiting Room" would score a 0-1. Healthcare has been ruthlessly politicized in the U.S. and most people will bring some opinion to this film. In turn, the film strives to be empty of politics. It provides details for its characters, but doesn't do voice-overs, doesn't judge, and doesn't demand your defined conclusion.

Deplore the public cost of diverse homeless populations plagued by addictions, unemployment, poverty and in need of medical care? Those people end up at Highland Hospital. Disdain college grads who don't pay for health insurance? They too, sit in this waiting room. Despair a healthcare system that allows people to get sick and sicker until they end up in emergency rooms instead of getting primary care? Those sick people are here. Agonize how social services have been ruthlessly cut in poor cities? Highland Hospital helps these people also.

They sit shoulder to shoulder in our emergency rooms - our institutions of last resort. Every age, gender, and nationality, they're all here, men plagued with chronic labor-related injuries, primly dressed women abruptly out of work, twenty-year olds surprised by tumors, stroke victims who couldn't afford medicine, kidney dialysis patients from other states, and alcohol/drug addicts living on the streets.

The Waiting Room

But the film doesn't run all their stories together like I just did, in a big forgettable jumble. It follows each person. How did a little girl with tonsillitis end up in the emergency room instead of in primary care? Her parents are separated, but both show up at the hospital. Her dad lost his job and missed his day with her yesterday on account of transportation. He anxiously hops around her during intake. His son died at two. The nurse, half his size, counsels him to settle down so he doesn't scare his daughter. The girl seems numb to it all.

Triage

Whatever you feel about their plight, whatever sentiment or opinion, the frenzied emergency room healthcare system doesn't have time for any of it. Sentimentality? No. Compassion? Yes. Medical technicians and intake nurses and doctors and interns triage when all beds are full and patient tempers are short. They treat patients as best they can, when specialists have months long waiting times, when "non-profit" hospitals turn away poor patients, and when community safety-nets like churches run out of giving.

The outcomes at Highland Hospital can stretch the boundaries of adequate medical care. Fresh gunshot wounds get run into a trauma room, a steady stream of community catastrophes delivered by ambulance, while men with not fresh but unhealed gunshot wounds groan for hours, days, in the waiting room. A homeless man occupies one bed for too long because he has no place to go. Someone who can't get surgery seems pleased with a pain med prescription. This is where the 50 million uninsured people who are not short-changed in the scenes of "Escape Fire" land sometimes enduring hours of wait before they see a doctor.

At discharge, patients summon fragments of pride. They negotiate payments and answering questions about unemployment checks and family resources awkwardly, over a small desk, everyone caught up in unfortunate circumstances. "The Waiting Room" captures the tension of these situations in a refreshingly empathetic way.

If the movie doesn't hammer home a message, it embraces realism. A new doctor, stunned, is told what to say to a family, told exactly which forms of the verb "to die" to use. After one trauma team struggles to save a gunshot wound victim, they attach a tag to a fifteen year old's toe and he gets wheeled into the morgue. We read a small sign next to the refrigerator door: "Put The Body in Any Available Space".

The film, being so good, won't say this, but economically, ethically, and psychically, everything that brought this Oakland boy to that place costs society. Whatever your politics - in every way, it costs you.

Escape Fire and The Waiting Room, two films highly worth seeing.

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The Waiting Room played all over last fall, and aired on PBS. It is now playing a few other places around U.S., and is also available for purchase. The film team also produces an interactive multi-media site.

Rent-Seeking & The Fiscal Cliff

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner mentioned on several Sunday morning shows last week, that one program targeted for spending cuts was direct payments to farmers, which would total about $46 billion over ten years and could contribute to the large cuts needed to negotiate away from the "fiscal cliff".

WikimediaCommonsAlfalfa

Alfalfa, Alicante, Spain (Wikimedia Commons)

The government initiated direct payments to farmers in the wake of the Great Depression, as a way of encouraging farmers not to abandon rural areas for the cities when the price of crops decreased because of surpluses. The practice quickly caught on, as Joseph Heller described in his 1955 book Catch-22:

"Major Major's father . . . was a . . . God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. . . .

His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major's father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any man in the county."

--Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996), p. 93 (first published in 1955)

[From the back cover of Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 116, No. 3 (June 2008) Published by: The University of Chicago Press]

Talking Turkey and How To Pick The Correct "-ologist"

In 2007, we wrote in Thanksgiving - all Things Ottoman, about the origins of the turkey, as well as some other Thanksgiving day staples, many of which were thought mistakenly to originate in the country of Turkey.

You've Come So Far, Turkey

The ancestor to our domesticated turkeys was thought to be a wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo, domesticated in Mexico then brought to Europe, as we wrote in a post about the historical confusion about the turkey's origins:

"The Spaniards fancied the turkey when they invaded Mexico where turkey was indigenous, and then introduced the bird to Europe when they returned in the early 1500's. However, during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, turkeys were thought by northern Europeans to be a product of Turkey..."

The great thing about science is it's always moving on. Research forever advances as new technology is developed or because scientists think of new experiments to test ideas and previous research.

Wild_turkey_eastern_us
Wild Turkey Eastern US
via Wikimedia Commons, used with permission, Creative Commons.

Since 2005, research has significantly advanced our knowledge of turkeys. In 2010, scientists finished sequencing the turkey genome. Turkey is the second most important agricultural fowl, the chicken is the first, so sequence data provides information for researchers to learn more about both the origins of the turkey as well as information to improve breeding and production. For instance scientists have compared the turkey genome to the chicken genome, the two shared an ancestor 40 million years ago and have analyzed and compared today's domesticated turkeys with various fowl and ancient turkeys (including ones from museums).

This year scientists ventured out for other interesting turkey research. Archaeologists unearthed evidence they published in PLoSONE, describing (perhaps) domesticated turkey remains at a Mayan site in Guatemala that date back to 300BC-AD100, almost 1000 years before the turkey was known to be being raised in captivity in Mexico. Although their evidence needs bolstering because it's based on scant DNA samples, they also hypothesized that this new research pointed to possible turkey trade between the two places.

Wild or Mexican? Turkey Talk

I found this papers comments at PLoSONE interesting. Whereas most scientific journals depend on peer-review prior to publication, this particular PLoS journal research depends more on post-publication peer-review. Comments are theoretically key to evaluating the paper in PLoSONE, then, an interesting twist that many people are unaware of. For this paper, one commenter takes issue with a common name the authors give to the turkey Meleagris gallopavo - "Mexican Turkey". It's "not and never has been" called a "Mexican Turkey" he writes, it's called a "Wild Turkey". It's "misleading and incorrect", he says. The researcher is an ornithologist.

The lead author of the paper writes back. We chose to call the bird a "Mexican Turkey" to designate that it was a Mexican bird found in Guatemala, they say. They point out that they were archaeologists, they'd conferred with other archaeologists, and archaeologists were their "primary audience".

The first author writes back again, chastising the paper author for "inventing your own English-language" name for a species, a name that is "inherently confusing and could be interpreted as somewhat disrespectful to the ornithological community". Not only that, he writes, there are other species of turkeys indigenous to Mexico that could also confusingly be called "Mexican Turkeys."

The paper's lead author writes back again: "I am an archaeologist, not an ornithologist", she writes, and re-explains her position, including that they consistently used the Latin names also, so readers shouldn't be confused.

I found this fascinating for several reasons. One, it was great to see the journal's goal for discussion being fulfilled - so many papers go without comment. More discussion about other aspects of the paper would have been even more interesting.

But since I'm not an expert in either ornithology or an archaeology, which expert we should believe, the ornithology expert or the archaeology expert? PLoSONE is by design not a journal for a specialist or expert audience, in fact isn't it just the opposite? So how is the average reader to know? Sure there are good ways to work through this issue if a) you read the comments in the first place and b) needed to write something as a journalist, say, but I venture that excludes a good number of readers.

This is an incredibly common and general problem, that of conflicting expertise, therefore it's important to keep in mind, with which expert do you choose to confer? Which expert ("expert") do you choose to believe? How do you know?

Who Is He - Romney?

The first time we commented on Mitt Romney was in April, 2005, when as governor of Massachusetts, he was changing his position on stem cells. The Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives had passed a bill allowing human cells to be cultured for stem cell research. Romney hadn't succeeded in stopping the bill through lobbying, and the legislatures' overwhelming favor of the measure prevented him from vetoing it. Romney explained:

"I think you're going to see at the national level an interest in legislation which limits the creation of new embryos though cloning...So I think you're going to see a national effort to define the boundaries of ethics, and I hope that proceeds."

Seven and a half years ago Romney gave a clear indication about where he was aiming.

ManWithCompass

Drawing of Man Using Compass via Wikimedia Commons

He was crafting his positions for a run as president in 2008, as we wrote, and figuring out that stem cell research was a controversial "ethical" issue -- his statement signaled that he was in step with what he called a "national effort to define the boundaries". He woodenly hewed to the GOP message, the one that qualified him as A Contender. Only later, in 2006, did he start to make a more fluent story around his change of position, taking strident stands against abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Romney's message massaging seems in retrospect indicative not only of his political ambitions, but of the man he is and maybe always was, a man whose convictions are politically defined not personally held. Although he once hailed the potential of embryonic stem cell research, he then showed the nation how easily he could adapt.

Did Romney's Position on the Stem Cell Issue Indicate His Positioning on All Other Issues?

Back when Bain needed capital in the early days and the only people willing to give him money ran shady Salvadoran shell companies, well, that's where he started. Decades later, when the people who had likely campaign donations questioned how he planned to win, he asserted that the only people who don't like him were the ones taking government hand-outs. The shifting hue and cry of Romney campaign has been constant, on stem cells, on immigration, on foreign policy, on climate, etc.

Although as Massachusetts governor he defied Norquistian demands for far-right economic positions, he now clambers out that pole, sleeves up to his elbows, ready to get to work dismantling whatever public institutions have profit making potential or regulatory aims on business. So of course he marched behind the religious right and their "sanctity of life" claims in 2005, because he's an adaptable guy. Which is exactly what concerns us most, that in his forever changing positions he seems totally unattached and untethered from any position or "truth" whatsoever.

What Sort of President Would Romney Be? (C'mon, Ot'll Be Fun)

Since he's so often equivocal, we're forced to make assumptions about the president he'd be. To do so, we'll look at the people he's campaigning to and for. For example, we've observed that people who scream about the "sanctity of life", often want to get rid of the life-saving government agencies like FEMA or the EPA. Strange. It's also worth noting that they're also keen to halt certain science and technology, the very science and technologies that we know are key to curing disease and enabling a decent quality of life for humans. In fact if you've ever read up on the positions of people like those who George W. Bush appointed to his President's Council on Bioethics, you'll know that their ideal world would abolish science altogether. Here's the view of Peter Lawler:

"In the Brave New World the tyrants will be the experts...We have a hard time seeing experts as tyrants, because they don't claim to rule through personal authority but on the basis of the impersonal results of scientific studies...most Americans have no idea of the extent to which they have already surrendered their sovereignty to such experts" (Lawler, Peter Augustine: Does Human Nature Have a Future? The end of history, Bobos, and Biotechnology)

Lawler's fear-mongering positions might seem far-fetched, but consider the larger agenda. A rational person would argue for, I'll say, the need for clean water and air, for technology investment, for women's rights to healthcare, for scientists, for expertise, and yes, for experts. But this bioethicist insists that the very scientists who are experts, who would show the health merits or clean air and water, are actually evil, co-opting You, and not to be trusted. (Forget that he says this as the author of a book claiming expertise in bioethics).

He labels biotechnology morally suspect along with numerous other things, sex except for procreation for example. In the same book, he notes on evolution:

"The interesting question today is whether Darwin will follow the other two great secularist system builders of the nineteenth century, Marx and Freud, onto the ash heap of history."

This religious play pulls in the most susceptible, those who believe that God reached down and molded everything from planet Earth to penises a couple thousand years ago. It bamboozles people into believing that empirical thinking can be supplanted with simplistic answers provided by politicians. Some of these people then line-up to dismantle the very systems that support a civil democracy, erecting flags and chanting U-S-A. Who can argue against U-S-A? No one.

For years, this has all seemed to me some bizarre far-off world of an unpleasant and distant past, best to be ignored. But it's not far-fetched as it seems if you listen to the current political debates fronted with "ethical" positions.

Or Not

For instance, the Indiana Senate contender said a few weeks ago that abortion should be banned ("sanctity of life") because God created the children of rape. Mourdock's comment was no less than sociopathic - violent not only to women but men, insulting to intelligent humans, sacrilegious and vile. Where was presidential candidate Mitt Romney? Silent and continuing to run TV ads supporting his Indiana GOP candidate...

Silent. A silence that assures supporters he'll toe whatever line is politically prudent. The calculated silence of a church going man who poses square-jawed and leader-like, yes, but whose compass now seems alarmingly stuck at a magnetic pole, needle wavering this way and that. So how would he be as president? Optimistically, people argue that Romney is a moderate, now just all revved up in campaign mode. I might agree. However when my thinking trends alarmist, I fear for the liberties we think are important, the right to clean air and water, progress in science that helps people live better lives, rights for women to control their bodies and work for fair salaries, rights for disabled people, immigrants, the poor, and on and on, all the things that democracy promises and a plutocracy wants to threaten...

That's all. Vote.

"Black Tuesday" and South Africa's Secrecy Bill

On October 19, 1977, the apartheid government of South Africa banned 19 news publications and organizations who stood with the Black Consciousness Movement, including, The World, the Sunday World, and Pro Veritas.

ANCWikipedia.jpg

The National Press Club called on sympathizers to wear black clothes, ribbons, and armbands, and since then, October 19th has been referred to as Black Wednesday.

Black Tuesday

Now, 34 years later, some South African media groups refer to Tuesday, November 22, 2011, as "Black Tuesday". Why? That was the date the lower house of the South African Parliament controlled by the African National Congress (ANC) approved the Protection of State Information Information Bill, 229-107. The bill will allow the state to classify documents as "secret" in the name of "national interest". Anyone caught possessing such a document would serve 25 years in jail. The bill will be debated and voted at the upper house of parliament, the ANC controlled National Council of Provinces, before it goes to President Zuma to sign. [The Wikipedia page for South Africa's ruling political party the African National Congress (ANC) was temporarily "censored" in protest of the secrecy law, shown here]

When Governments Aim to "Own" The Media

South Africa's National Editor's Forum chairman, Mondli Makhanya, said the press corps were devastated
"watching the bill become law." As he put it:

"We never thought we would come here dressed in black to witness the Constitution of our country being betrayed by those who built it."

The motivations behind the bill are of course suspect. The media has been avidly covering the antics of the wife of the ANC's State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, convicted of running an international drug ring. We previously covered President Mbeki's threats against the media for their coverage of his AIDS and public health policies and corrupt public health minister. Two years ago, we wrote on President Zuma's successful bid to get the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) to drop 16 charges against him related to several billion dollars in bribes for arms deals, also well-covered by the media. More recently, the Sunday Times reported that Zuma's government spokesperson Mac Maharaj sued newspapers reporting about the 1.2 million French francs paid to his wife to facilitate arms deals. In the two years of Zuma's presidency, the press has fairly well documented this steady stream of allegations and misuse of official funds.

Hypocrisies of the Powerful

Perhaps there's no reason to ask then, if Zuma will sign the bill. Acronym Required has checked-in on the ANC's continued attempts to censor the vibrant South African media over public health issues over the years. Former President Thabo Mbeki expended hundred of thousands of spoken as well as written words typed into his weekly reports excoriating the media for covering the horrific conditions in hospitals, corruption, the lack of public infrastructure, the broken promises of his administration, and his twisted logic for not dealing with the AIDS crisis.

President Zuma seems to be taking it one step further by backing up rhetoric with more publicly forceful maneuvers. Last year we told parts of journalist Mzilikazi wa Africa's story of being kidnapped by the police as he was investigating ANC corruption in "South Africa'a Media Crackdown."

The officers who kidnapped wa Africa pestered him about his investigation of ANC officers in the Mpumalanga province. They tried to extract his sources. They trumped up charges accusing him of fraud, forgery and passing forged documents that were later dismissed, and tried to force him to sign an admission of guilt. Under the new law, the documents that wa Africa received about the corruption and murders in Mpumalanga would be illegal for him to possess.

President Zuma has vigorously put down widespread outcry against the secrecy bill. He said that concerns were absurd and proclaimed the ANC to be a vigorous defender of the constitution. He continually accuses journalists of trampling the rights of others, who must "have recourse through legitimate institutions". As Zuma said in weekly address (August, 2010):

"The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian? All institutions, even parliament, has mechanisms in place to keep them in check."

Zuma accused the media, as did Mbeki before him, of not "reflecting the society it claims to protect and represent". Worst of all, he said, deploying the usual ANC strategy, the media defames the ANC party that worked so hard against apartheid. This isn't just Africa's problem, he pointed out, using Russia as an improbable example:

"Let us move beyond the hysteria, let the real debate begin. Our first point is that before looking at what they regard as external threats and perceived external threats, the media should conduct introspection first. During our State visit to Russia a week ago, Russian television was running a promotional jingle saying: 'How dependent is the independent media? Who pays for the news?'"

There's hardly a need to point out again, as we did last year, that using Russia, where investigative journalists and state critics regularly get murdered, to bolster professed ANC benevolence seems cynical and sinister.

Rebukes From Those Who Know

Many see the bill as a harbinger of more serious curtailments of freedom that the country has struggled to overcome in the 17 years since apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in an address about the Chinese suppression of Tibetans that the current ANC government was worse than the apartheid government, when "at least you could expect to eat." He said that by now you should expect a South African government to be "sensitive to the sentiments of the constitution", and continued:

"You, President Zuma and your government, you do not represent me. You and your government represent your own interests. I am warning you, as I warned the [pro-apartheid] nationalists, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government."

A strong independent media (if there is such a thing), and investigative journalism are keystones to democracy, in South Africa, America, and everywhere else. A strong democracy is critical to science, to commerce, to health, to welfare, and to all of civil society. South Africa's Bill of Rights supposedly supports these ideas, supports:

"freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research".

It also gives anyone the right to:

"Any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights."

Constitutional scholars lay out excellent arguments why this bill is unconstitutional2, and the opposition party has said that if Zuma signs the bill, they would push for constitutional review in the Constitutional Court. Zuma's highly political evasion of charges against him, as well as other irregularities, have shown that the judiciary and other institutions are increasingly in the grip of the ANC. Snuffing out investigative journalism will accelerate that trend.

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1 I should note that the move is not endorsed by smaller press who think that "Black Wednesday" should not be conflated with "press freedom" by major newspapers dependent on advertisers in their battle with the government over advertising spend. (Here's an article on that.)

2 The website Constitutionally Speaking has an excellent discussion of this issue, that I found unfortunately, after this was post was written. Go there for a thorough presentation of that scholar's reasoning and for the comment discussion that follows.

The 1987 movie Cry Freedom offers a look at a South African reporter muzzled covering the anti-apartheid movement and the suspicious murder of activist-hero Steve Biko. I liked the movie when I watched it a couple of years ago, although I have to warn you that the mainstream media reviews called the movie a watered down version of the real story, with Robert Ebert saying it was: "sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom." I'm sure it would be fascinating to compare their harsh criticism of the movie to the MSM watered down coverage of years of South Africa's apartheid, but I'll leave that for another time.

Thanksgiving - Politicians, Recipes & Brussel Sprouts

We're big fans of Thanksgiving and usually try to write a post. This year we wanted to stick with our preferred genre and write about something undercovered or underloved in other media. In 2005 we wrote about that the myth that tryptophan causes post Thanksgiving meal sleepiness, a myth that is now pretty much a Thanksgiving Day media meme.

BrusselSproutsOnVine

Image is from Wikipedia Commons, and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (CC by-SA 3.0).

Happy Thanksgiving

We didn't want to write a Thanksgiving holiday-history story because whatever is not covered in 1st and 2nd grade is almost always politically freighted. Wanting to stay away from politics, we decided to write about food again. But ironically, we were inspired by politicians who, collectively deadlocked on all the really important issues, always manage to muster up recipes to share with reporters. What in this world isn't political, I guess?

We can't imagine where the recipe sharing inclinations came from. Is this a lingering tradition from times when churches, ladies groups, and neighborhood potluck groups all put out recipe books full of jello salads and Aunt So-and-so's meatloaf? Still, I can't imagine announcing that for tonight's dessert we'll be enjoying Rick Santorum's "Apple Tarte Tatin"!!

But it seems popular. Last week, for instance, Representative Nancy Pelosi shared her chocolate mousse recipe -- a Thanksgiving Day tradition in her home. It has 1 pound of dark chocolate, 8 ounces of butter, 8 eggs, 4 tablespoons of sugar and 1/2 a cup of heavy cream. She's thin, she's not eating too much of this. It's probably delicious -- The Hill has to whole recipe -- but you have to admit it's not exactly a heart-happy dessert. Michelle Obama would disapprove of this recipe, and the GOP would no doubt accuse Pelosi of excessive caloric spending. To model the antithetic thriftiness, I'm sure, Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) told The Hill he was looking forward to his mother's turkey brine. He wouldn't give the publication the recipe.

What To Write

I don't know about turkey brine, so I looked on the Food Network, which has this. Turkey brine has peppercorns, allspice berries, salt, rosemary, sage, and other sundry spices and herbs, plus vinegar. Don't knock turkey brine, a whopping 3,603 people endorsed that Food Network recipe. Perhaps Mrs. Boehner's secret recipe is better, but I'd bet my party on 3,603 votes if I were going that way. Apparently one soaks their turkey in the brine before cooking. The whole process takes about 10 hours, so you have to be comfortable cooking on Congress-Time. Hopefully John's mom adds extra "sage" that is magically, surrealistically absorbed by anyone who eats/drinks the brine.

Speaking of sage and wisdom, North Carolina Congressman Howard Coble had a truly brain related recipe called, actually, "Brains N'Eggs", which he described as a can of "brains in gravy", "preferably" Rose Brand, with bacon grease and eggs. His mother served served him this "not at all unusual" breakfast, that alas it can't be found in Washington D.C., he reported.

What To Write

If your a politician, your recipe can send a message. Chocolate mousse would be a universal people-pleaser. Pork brains sends a different message, obviously it depends on what you're going for. Politicians also use recipes to remind people of their heritage, like Olympia Snowe's "Baklava". Others donate recipe's reminiscent of their state, Senator John Kerry's "Massachusetts Cranberry Bread" for instance. Some offer what I think of as anti-cooking, like former NY Congressman Sue Kelly's "microwave chicken": chicken, microwave, a bottle of your "favorite" salad dressing, and water.

Some long-serving productive politicians like former Senator Edward Kennedy never dished out recipes to the media. One Rockefeller gave out four. Others who were only very briefly in office must have entered with a recipe in hand, like Sarah Palin and her Alaska Crab Wrap Sandwich, which, if I weren't allergic to crab, I might like her best for.

Ignoring all good evidence, Californians ousted Governor Gray Davis in favor of Governor Schwarzenegger, who was obviously too busy with other household chores to write recipes for reporters. Davis got served up lemons and gave the press his Lemon Chicken recipe.

Happy Thanksgiving

So back to our unchosen subject. We're weary of pumpkin pie, we've done turkey, cranberries are all bogs and antioxidants, what's left? We could talk about the turkey dinner where they actually go and feed the turkeys? Hmmm...Brussels sprouts? The thing about Brussels sprouts is nobody writes about them because they're only slightly more popular, I wager, than canned pork brains scrambled with eggs and grease.

Nobody knows where Brussels sprouts originated, unlike the excellently documented domesticated turkey. Most people agree they don't come from Belgium but some say they're actually a centuries old source of "Flemish national pride". It seems like when it comes to Brussel Sprout's, everyone's making something up. A few say they originated in Rome where they were thought to make people smarter, or maybe they were popularized in WWI, or maybe they came to Louisiana when the French immigrated, or maybe they're the most disliked British vegetable...on and on.

But they are considered healthy for many reasons, like because they contain sulfoaphane and indole-3-carbinol and a lot of research finds they have anti-cancer properties.. They look pretty cool on the vine. And to eat? Curried? Roasted?

Best wishes to all and Happy Thanksgiving to those readers who have a holiday.

NIMBY-ing the Keystone XL Pipeline

"God help us if this becomes like baby seals", said a University of Alberta energy economist after research about the extent of pollution downstream from the Athabasca Tar Sands became public a couple of years ago. Protests decrying the Keystone XL pipeline with its associated tar sands may not have reached "baby seals" fervor, but the plan to pump crude oil from Alberta to Texas certainly hasn't raised the popularity of Alberta and its oil extraction industry.

Baby-Sealing the Pipeline, If Not The Tar Sands

The extended pipeline would route through Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies millions of people drinking and agriculture water. Nebraskans are especially apoplectic about the prospect of the pipeline with all its hazards running through their lands.KeystoneXLUSDeptState.jpg They worry about how 91 predicted leaks in the next 50 years will endanger drinking water.

Meanwhile, the company is urging the US to approve laxer standards to allow them to pump more oil at higher pressure through a thinner steel pipeline. TransCanada has promised the safety of the pipeline running over the aquifer and backed that up with bonds.

Of course people have challenged TransCanada's promises, but in corroboration, the US State Department reviews of the project had also been reassuring. That is, until this week, when the agency announced an independent investigation of the pipeline following revelations that the contractor hired by State to do environmental studies and public relations listed TransCanada as a client.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for its part, issued a scathing review of the pipeline project, criticizing projected greenhouse gas emissions, the history of Keystone pipeline spills, probable wetlands destruction, migratory bird disruption, and the impacts the pipeline could have on poor and indigenous populations.

Obama: Not In My Backyard (At Least Not Until After The Election)

Striking against the greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands and the pipeline, the continued investment in oil energy technologies, and the related environmental affronts, protestors had noisily decamped to Washington DC over the last few months, letting their opinions be known as they marched around the White House and the EPA.

The total of all this -- the thousand turning up to hold hands in a giant circle round President Obama's home, the uncovering of conflicting interests, and the affected state governments discontents built to a grand crescendo until finally the White House announced it needed more time to study the situation.

The administration effectively put the decision off until after the election. (OK, I know, I Obama built my reputation on community organization, but enough for now...) The White House protestors went home to declare success.

Lobbying So Hard It's "Not Lobbying"

It's not for lack of lobbying that the pipeline was postponed. TransCanada and friends did just about all they could do. They spent millions, wrote editorials in places like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and got good support from entities like the American Petroleum Institute, not to mention economists, journalists and citizens on all sides of the political spectrum who impressed talking points like jobs, energy, international cooperation, and opportunity.

The Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, so new to the job that an internet search results shows her predecessor as Premier, will visit Washington D.C. next week. "Not to lobby", she says, rather she'll explain the economic situation of her oil dependent province and try to improve Alberta's public image. The previous Premier was a big lobbyist for both the tar sands and the pipeline, as depicted in "Ed Stelmach's Clumsy American Romance". British Columbia's The Tyee scoffed at the duplicity of the full page "get out the facts" ad former Premier Stelmach posted in the Washington Post, and winced over the $55,800 of tax payers' dollars he spent on it after the Post rejected his editorial. Between this and visuals of the province as a giant tar sand pit, the new Premier is wasting no time trying to remake Alberta's image in order to sell some oil.

Who Will Love The Pipeline In Their Backyard?

In announcing the postponement, the State Department said it wanted to look at "alternate routes" for the pipeline. While protestors had been promising to stop the pipeline, the Governor of Nebraska was also busy taking his state's cause to Washington. He's not opposed to the pipeline, he said, explaining why he was pushing to get the pipeline rerouted, just didn't want it in that particular part of his state.

This delay that the Obama Administration just served to TransCanada is exactly what corporations do to everyone else when they're trying to keep business the same. One delay at a time, it is actually an end game, and the oil companies play it well. And it turns out they're not happy when someone else is doing the delaying. TransCanada has not been responsive to requests for it to voluntarily change its route. A company spokesperson had warned The Guardian: "You can't just erase a line on a map and draw one somewhere else", and said the move would put the whole project in doubt.

That's doubtful, given how much oil and money is on the table. As Nebraska and grassroots efforts claim a coup, TransCanada will accelerate its lobbying, of course. And where will the pipeline end up? If they keep the current siting, it runs not only through the Ogallala aquifer, the Sandhills and a Nebraska seismic zone, it also crosses through Oklahoma's seismic zone with its recent 5.6 earthquake (and 36 aftershocks in the past week). Would that be good? But what state wants the pipeline in their backyard?

Whatever the new plan, however positive the delay, I'm not sure the protestors can necessarily claim victory quite yet.

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Acronym Required wrote about the Alberta Tar Sands in Gas Pipeline: Open Season Coming to Alaska; Higher Pollution From Alberta Tar Sands, and others.

FDA Goes One Nudge Over "The Line" on Tobacco

A US Court blocked the FDA from requiring cigarette warnings on boxes this week, calling the graphics "emotion-provoking images...". U.S. District Judge Richard Leon Smoking.gif decided in a Washington court yesterday that tobacco companies shouldn't have to display images of diseased lungs or a cadaver bearing chest staples on an autopsy table, because this would "unconstitutionally compel speech." Nor should companies have to print 1-800-QUIT on cigarette boxes.

I guess what he's saying is that cigarette companies have the right to package fantasies up in the tobacco they manufacture, fantasies of how cool smokers are, that blithely omit the disease and death their product metes out. The FDA, on the other hand, has no right to present the more accurate side of the story.

You know that smoking causes cancer, heart disease, vascular problems. Did you know that smokers have 7 times the risk of abdominal aortic aneurism (AAA) than non-smokers? You probably know about second-hand smoke. Did you know about third hand smoke which stays in home and hotel walls and ceiling tiles for 30 or 40 years, affecting the health of not only present but future occupants?

The judge says the images on cigarette boxes crossed the line between "factual information" and "government advocacy". The line is "frustratingly blurry", he says, but he sees it.

Vaccine Preventable Deaths

The Map

Acronym Required previously wrote about parents who self-vaccinate in lieu of getting vaccinations, a sort of barbaric hazing for this era's unlucky children. And while some people in the West shun vaccines because they think they're dangerous, people in Africa shun them because they suspect shots are a Western plot to kill them. VaccineMap.jpg The US shockingly fanned the flames of the vaccine avoidance trend when it faked a vaccine campaign in Pakistan in order to to get access to Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, tragically, people continue to die because there aren't enough vaccines to protect them.

When people refuse vaccinations, we lose herd immunity; microbes have get a chance to mutate; and of course people get sick and die. The trend has contributed to large outbreaks of whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox, and measles world-wide, as well as polio, typhoid fever, meningitis and hepatitis A. Now there's a great map Vaccine-Preventable Outbreaks, put out by the Council on Foreign Affairs, so you can see the impact of this all.

(The vaccination map ranks as one of my favorite maps, as does Newspaper Map.1)

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1 Granted the UI's sometimes not entirely there

We previously discussed vaccinations in Maher's Mainstream Media Anti-Vaccination Campaign; The Wild Wooly Internet; Polio Vaccines, The End of a Scourge?; Vaccine Development For Developing Countries and others.

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