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Archive for July, 2008

Ugh

[ 27 ] July 30, 2008 |

Detroit media outlets reporting Yankees have acquired Ivan Rodriguez. No word on what the Tigers got.

While obviously not close to the player he was in his prime, IRod is an exactly average AL hitter at this point, which makes him a better than average hitter for a catcher. Even though his defensive skills have deteriorated quite a bit from their once unparalleled height, he’s still a much better gloveman than Posada.

Hopefully Dave Dombrowski pried away a couple of good prospects, and this isn’t a salary dump (doesn’t seem likely as he’s a free agent at the end of the season).

BTW Rodriguez is only about 90 games away from the all-time MLB record for games caught.

Update: Sweet Jebus, apparently it’s a straight-up deal for Kyle Farnsworth. I’m a big fan of Dombrowski but if that’s accurate that’s ridiculous.

Further update: Just remembered that if anybody signs him as a free agent after this season the team that loses him gets two compensatory draft picks between the first and second round. So it looks like Detroit traded two months of IRod for Kyle Farnsworth and a couple of late first/early second round picks. I know Farnsworth has been decent this year but come on . . .

Obama’s Mythical "Woman Problem"

[ 10 ] July 30, 2008 |

Shorter Carol Marin: “Data is the plural of anecdote! And arbitrary subdivisions of broader classes — even Dick Morris can see the logic of that!”

Hands around a white man’s throat

[ 18 ] July 30, 2008 |

I suppose you’d have to be one of the more deliberately uninformed assholes on the planet — which is to say, you’d have to be Dan Riehl — to make this sort of argument:

The first “American” slaves weren’t black, they were white and usually from Europe. Shouldn’t we be given special credit for being first and all that?

Also, it was in large part a system of laws and government, otherwise known as Western Civilization, established in Europe that was most likely the primary reason why there weren’t even more European slaves brought to America. The societies there were somewhat able to protect their own. Logically, then, isn’t it ultimately the fault of an under-civilized tribal system which could not protect its own that is a key reason for why traders in men and women turned to another continent for more “product?” It was simply easier to be had, particularly, and often with the cooperation of competing tribes. In that sense, it would seem to me that the black descendants of slaves in America should really be thinking about apologizing to themselves.

Remarkable. I’m not sure what’s more obnoxious (or predictable) here: the overused cliche that Africans are to blame for the labor system that ensnared them; the ahistorical confusion of slavery with convict and orphan labor redemptioners and indentured servants; or the amnesia that allows one to forget that the first conscripted laborers in the Western Hemisphere were the people who happened to be living there when Europeans arrived. But I suppose that’s what makes Reihl such a special presence in the conservative blogosphere. Unlike your average wingnut, he’s not satisfied with merely one inane argument against the greatest act of white racial treachery since the Harper’s Ferry raid a meaningless Congressional apology for slavery and Jim Crow; instead, he offers a cornucopia of dumb.

That’s the sort of fortitude his kidnapped orphan great(x7)-grandfather must have needed to endure all those cold nights sleeping in a Pennsylvania hog pen.

Fall Woman

[ 0 ] July 30, 2008 |

I agree with Turley and Bazelon that it will be pathetic if Monica Goodling ends up taking all of the responsibility for the frequently illegal cronyism and ineptitude at the DOJ. It’s a nice scam they have going: immunize the subordinate so she can discuss illegal reactions without risk, while expecting that nothing she reveals will be used to go after her superiors. I wish I could say that it wouldn’t work, but…

The Real Drug War

[ 83 ] July 30, 2008 |

A top government research scientist I know has a theory about the “obesity epidemic.” Dr. X isn’t allowed to speak on the record to the media about X’s work without getting permission from X’s superiors (one thing that came as a shock to me when I started studying this stuff was the extent to which U.S. government scientists are censored by their employer) so X calls and emails me a lot to complain about the craziness currently engulfing X’s field.

X’s theory is that most of the current panic over fat is a product of a simple and cynical swindle: The pharmaceutical industry wants to increase the market for its products, so it spends lots of money in all sorts of creative ways in order to generate a sense of crisis, fueled by ridiculously unscientific definitions of what constitutes “diseases” that require “treatment.”

This NYT story, about medicating “overweight” and “obese” children, is a classic example. The news hook for the piece is that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending prescribing statins to kids as young as eight, as a response to — of course — the “childhood obesity crisis.” (I hate having to use so many scare quotes but there’s no good alternative when the discourse you’re analyzing consists of a bunch of terms that don’t actually make any sense).

As per usual the piece includes no explanation of the current definitions of overweight and obesity in children, let alone any hint of where those definitions come from, or why they might be controversial. Instead, its sole representative of these categories is a 267-pound 13-year-old girl whose grandmother’s leg was amputated as a consequence of diabetes. The author, Stephanie Saul, then adds that kids this fat were rarely seen more than ten years ago, but now as many as 30% of America’s children are “overweight.”

The piece, also per usual, is structured around a debate between people who want to make kids thinner via lifestyle interventions and those who say we tried that and it doesn’t work so now we have to drug them. Dr. X laughs and laughs when s/he reads this stuff: “The drug companies love these stories! Yes, by all means, lets debate whether we should use lifestyle interventions or drugs to ‘treat’ ‘overweight kids.’ Guess what? Lifestyle interventions never ‘work.’ Ever! Just like with adults. So I guess it’s time for Plan B — Lipitor for eight-year-olds!”

Some history: Until about a decade ago, there was no medical definiton of overweight or obesity in children. The Body Mass Index definitons for adults (BMI 25 = overweight, BMI 30 = obese) were considered inappropriate for kids, in part because BMI correlates positively with height in children (taller children have marginally higher BMI than shorter kids). Another reason was that there was very little data on correlations between weight and health risk in children.

But in the 1990s, as panic over fat in America began to build, people at the big federal public health agencies were put under pressure to come up with some definitions. As UCLA sociologist Abigail Saguy has suggested, the current concern over body weight displays many of the features of a moral panic — and moral panics often end up focusing on children.

So definitions were created. A complex bureacratic process at the Centers for Disease Control, which was beginning to get into obesity panic in a big way, ended up spitting out the following labels: kids in the 95th percentile of body mass for their age would be declared “overweight,” while those in the 85th and up would be labeled “at risk for overweight.”

It’s important to understand that these definitions were completely statistical, rather than outcome-based. In other words, they were based on literally no data whatsoever suggesting that these cutoffs correlated with increased risk for any particular medical problem, let alone increased mortality risk. CDC simply drew a couple of statistical lines and attached labels to everybody on one side of them — thereby pathologizing the bodies of millions of American children for no better reason that someone (lets call this person “William Dietz“) thought it was a good idea to do so.

Now a question that might occur to you is, if these are the definitions, why do I keep reading stories in the New York Times about how 30% of America’s children are “overweight?” How is that statistically possible? The answer is that, for those who are profiting from the panic over an “epidemic of childhood obesity,” the great disadvantage of these definitions is that they don’t allow for epidemics, which are by definition increases over some statistical baseline.

This problem was solved by using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey . This is the best data pool available on the health of the American population: NHANES has followed a statistically representative sample of Americans for several decades now. By examining the early versions of NHANES, it was possible to compare the weight of children today to those from the 1960s and 1970s. This data shows that in the late 1990s around 30% of children had a body mass that would have been in the 85th percentile or higher in the early NHANES surveys. Bingo: Epidemic!

Meanwhile, Dietz started lobbying to get CDC’s terminology changed. He wanted to change the definitions so that the 95th percentile of BMI among children in the early NHANES data would now be considered “obese” (not “overweight”), and the 85th percentile in the same 30 and 40 year-old data would be used to define “overweight” (not “at risk for overweight”). This is a battle he seems to have won.

So we’ve gone practically overnight from a situation where 5% of America’s children were defined as “overweight” according to an almost completely arbitrary definition, to one in which around 15% are now “obese” and more than 30% are “overweight,” by even more radically arbitrary definitions — even though America’s children weigh no more than they did ten years ago.

And none of this, of course, even begins to address such basic questions as whether the weight of American children 40 years ago (when malnutrition was more common than it is today) was “better” than it is at present — an extraordinarily complex question, given the complexity of the enormous number of medical, scientific, economic, political, social, and cultural variables involved.

One thing that frustrates Dr. X no end is that, just as in the case of adult definitions of “overweight” and “obesity,” people have no idea what any of this means. “The 85th percentile of body mass in NHANES I and II is nowhere close to what people think of as a fat child,” s/he tells me. “These are ordinary-sized kids. But people hear “childhood obesity” and in their heads they see a 250-pound ten year old.” (Of course the New York Times story is a perfect illustration).

Which brings us back to statins. Consider the following:

(1) There is little evidence that statins are an effective primary prevention tool for lessening the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in adults. The tables in this story about a recent meta-analysis of the data from eight large studies show no statistically significant lessening of risk for mortality, or serious adverse medical events, among adults using statins for primary prevention of heart disease (that is, adults who don’t already have heart disease). Nor was there any lessening of risk for cardiovascular disease in women. The only group that seemed to benefit from using statins to lessen the risk of heart disease (although not mortality risk or medical risk overall) consisted of high risk men under the age of 70 — and even there the effect was marginal enough that it brings into question whether the cost of use was worth the benefit.

(2) There is no data at all on what effect statins have on children in terms of disease risk.

In other words, what the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending is that an (enormously profitable) class of drugs that seem to be of little or no value to adults who don’t already have heart disease be given to eight-year-old children, on the grounds of the following chain of reasoning:

There is a very weak association (approximately .10) between CVD risk and obesity in adults. It’s possible that statins might be of benefit to adults who don’t already have CVD although we don’t actually have any data at this point demonstrating that. It’s possible that “overweight” kids might develop as adults the very weak association between CVD risk and heart disease seen in “obese” adults, although we have no data on that either. Therefore it’s also possible that giving statins to kids might benefit them somehow in the future, although we have less than no data on that.

Q.E.D.

The Suspense Is Over!

[ 30 ] July 29, 2008 |

I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath to see which wholly arbitrary subdivision of the center-right white bourgeoisie Mark Penn would invent this year and claim requires the maximum amount of pandering. The answer is: “active grannies.” Hopefully lazy journalists looking for think-pieces composed entirely of cliches will update their vocabularies accordingly!

Apocalypse Now

[ 38 ] July 29, 2008 |

I’ve just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Robert Farley reviewed on LGM back when it was published a couple of years ago. I hadn’t read anything by McCarthy before, and was very impressed with his stylistic talents, which reminded me of a sort of poor man’s Joyce, in the same sense that Bobby Bonds was a poor man’s Willie Mays, i.e., a great player in his own right, although one who could be harmed by too much being made of a loose parallel.

It’s a compelling book, and it made me want to touch on something Rob mentioned in his original review, which is the enduring popularity of apocalyptic literature in American culture — a genre that’s diverse enought to include, among many other things, Jonathan Edwards sermons, and Jonathan Schell New Yorker articles, and the frighteningly successful Left Behind series.

My sense is that this tradition is wrapped up with a deep if largely unconscious cultural faith that in some sense America represents the End of History, and that there’s nowhere to go from here than up (or down). It’s a kind of millenialism that gets expressed in both obviously religious contexts, but also in the world views of various secular ideologues, who use supposed American exceptionalism to justify all sorts of utopian views of their own, that end up producing a kind of apocalyptic imperialism. The City on a Hill Reagan rhetoric drew on this tradition, as does the “national greatness” conservatism of McCain, who sees foreign policy in terms of a single idea: that America is a unique country that has a special obligation to bring freedom and justice to the whole world (Bush II used to talk this way, but the disturbing thing about McCain is that he seems to take such ideas far more seriously).

A curious thing about the psychology of utopianism and anti-utopianism, or optimistic and pessimistic eschatologies, is how quickly they shift. In the first years of the 20th century, as Orwell notes somewhere in a passage I’m too lazy to look up at the moment, the knowledge classes had a largely unlimited faith in progress, technology, and a great gleaming future of concrete and steel. By the late 1940s it was a routine assumption that civilization would blow itself up definitively within a few decades at the most. (Richard Feynman wrote about how the day after the atom bomb he helped build was detonated over Hiroshima he walked down the streets of New York City with an unreal feeling, wondering why people were continuing to engage in such ridiculous activities as building skyscrapers and bridges and roads).

That feeling gradually ebbed away, until by the 1990s the End of History was being proclaimed by various neo-Hegelians. Then a couple of skyscrapers got knocked down and we were plunged into the current strange mixture of utopianism and dread, as represented by the absurd and childish idea that 9/11 “changed everything.”

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the movie.

Stevens Indicted

[ 26 ] July 29, 2008 |

Drink the news like sweet, sweet wine.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate and one of the chamber’s most powerful members, was indicted Tuesday in Washington, a result of a year-long investigation into corruption in Alaska politics.

The indictment comes nearly one year after federal agents raided Stevens’ home in Girdwood, a resort town about 40 miles south of Anchorage.

Since my political predictions rarely pan out, I’ll note that I was half right in November: Stevens did wind up indicted, but the state Democratic party is actually running a candidate who can, and now should, defeat him.

The Mobster Genre will Never Produce a Serious Film..

[ 77 ] July 29, 2008 |

A fair number of folks have been linking to this A.O. Scott piece on comic book genre films; it’s interesting enough, but I thought that the final paragraph undermines the point that Scott is trying to make. The core of Scott’s argument:

Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that “Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Dark Knight” together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists.

He later develops the argument to say that the comic book genre has a certain set of rules, and that these rules serve to place something of an upper limit on the quality of the genre. For example, the genre requires a climactic battle sequence in which the superhero prevails, and in the three films (Hancock, Iron Man, and Dark Knight) that sequence is the weakest part of the film. Fair enough, but the “limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists” is a curious statement; is there any reason to believe that the next superhero film (Watchmen, for example) won’t transcend those limitations? I’m particularly curious because Scott ends with this:

The westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, obsessed with similar themes, were somehow able, at their best, as in John Ford’s “Searchers” and Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo,” to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms.

But the cowboys of old did not labor under the same burdens as their masked and caped descendants. Those poor, misunderstood crusaders must turn big profits on a global scale and satisfy an audience hungry for the thrill of novelty and the comforts of the familiar.

I’m sure that Hawks and Ford would be surprised to learn that Rio Bravo and the Searchers didn’t need to turn a profit; I’d expect that the studio heads would be even more surprised. I’m glad that John Ford didn’t need to “satisfy and audience hungry for the thrill of novelty and the comforts of the familiar” and therefore didn’t need to hire John Wayne to play what amounted to different facets of the same character in several dozen movies. The problem is that Scott can’t engage in a general bashing of genre film, because he recognizes that probably a third to half of the best American films ever made belong to either the Mobster or the Western genre, but he doesn’t give a convincing explanation for why it was possible for the great Westerns and mafia movies to transcend the limitations of their genres, but won’t similarly be possible for the superhero movie.

For my own part, I think that Spiderman 2 is considerably better than any of the films Scott discusses, and as such that this year’s crop doesn’t really represent a peak. At the same time, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that the superhero genre has seen, beginning with Tim Burton’s Batman, a rather radical leap forward in quality, mostly as the result of the presence of real talent in writing, screenwriting (in adaptation), and direction. Scott doesn’t provide me a compelling reason to think that this trend has been arrested.

The Death of the Action Scene

[ 46 ] July 29, 2008 |

Again, I can’t say whether this is applicable to The Dark Knight, but I strongly applaud the arguments about how Bay and Tony Scott seemed to have killed the competent, intelligible action sequence. The idea that commercial-style quick cutting represents a technically competent way of shooting and editing action scenes (even if it makes it impossible to tell where the characters are, or who’s doing what for who, not for any artistic reason but because it draws attention to the director) needs to die as quickly as possible.

Scandal fatigue

[ 11 ] July 29, 2008 |

In more ordinary times this would be a very big scandal indeed, but the Bush administration has made flagrant lawbreaking at the highest levels of government very much a dog bites man story.

One brilliant feature of the winger noise machine is that those operating it realize that an extra added bonus to making up a never-ending series of either wildly exaggerated or completely imaginary “scandals” is that the public gets desensitized to the term. So you didn’t pay your nanny’s social security taxes, and I ordered some people to be tortured to death — I guess we’re all sinners before God!

At least Alberto Gonzales still can’t get a job. (And shame on any law school who pays the man’s well-earned legal bills by handing him a 30K speaking engagement).

That Doesn’t Sound Like a Very Good Idea…

[ 0 ] July 29, 2008 |

Huh.

Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne are looking to the future — literally.

The New Line founders-turned-producers have signed on to produce their first project since they received their post-New Line deal at Warners, boarding an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s futuristic sci-fi epic “Foundation” that they’ll produce through their Unique Features banner.

… Shaye and Lynne’s goal is to adapt the first book for now, and, if it’s successful, potentially follow the New Line “Lord of the Rings” template by developing adaptations down the road of the second and third books.

The Foundation Trilogy strikes me as about as unfilmable as any one story can be; I could imagine putting together a film based on “The Mule” and “Second Foundation: The Search by the Mule”, but the rest doesn’t exactly lend itself to the cinematic form. Not only do the episodes only rarely share characters, but much of the “action” doesn’t actually consist of action. If you insist upon a screen adaptation, a tv mini-series would make a lot more sense.

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