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I Have Great Lungs

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 8:13 PM EDT

In addition to the whole multiple myeloma thing, regular readers may recall that about a year ago I suddenly developed breathing difficulties. Things have improved since then, but I still have regular spells of shortness of breath. In fact, I'm going through one right now, which is likely contributing to all my other woes.

I mention this because today was the last of my pre-stem-cell-transplant workups, which happened to be a lung test. And just as always, I passed with flying colors. It even included a blood draw directly from an artery, which confirmed that my hemoglobin count is outstanding and the oxygen content of the blood in my extremities is normal or even a little above normal. And my lung volume? Better than 100 percent, whatever that means.

So the mystery continues. My lungs are getting plenty of air; they're producing plenty of oxygen; my heart is pumping perfectly; and the oxygen content of my blood is just peachy. Almost by definition, it sounds like there can't be anything wrong. Except that there is. Go figure.

In any case, all my tests are complete, and as far as I know there were no red flags. Next Wednesday I spend the day at City of Hope getting oriented. On Friday I get a nice big bonus round of chemotherapy, after which I spend a week injecting myself with a drug that stimulates white cell production. Then I get a Hickman port installed in my shoulder. Following that, I spend three or four days at City of Hope, where they draw blood through the port, centrifuge it, keep the stem cells, and send the rest back. When they have enough stem cells, they process and freeze them and send me home for a week of rest.

Then comes the stem cell transplant itself. I get a gigantic blast of chemotherapy that kills everything in its path—which includes all the remaining cancerous cells in my bone marrow but also all my non-cancerous plasma stem cells. That would kill me too, so the next day they unfreeze my stem cells and pump them into my body. Then I spend several weeks recuperating.

That's the short version. More later. Despite everything, it appears that all systems are go.

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Want Some Metal With That Kraft Mac & Cheese?

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 7:54 PM EDT

Today, Kraft Foods recalled 242,000 cases—or about 6.5 million boxes—of its signature macaroni and cheese after customers reported finding small pieces of metal in the product. Yummy!

Eight customers, like the one below, have found the metal, though no injuries have been reported.

According to a company press release, the recalled boxes are 7.25 oz, "Original Flavor" Macaroni & Cheese Dinner with expiration dates between September 18, 2015 and October 11, 2015, and they're marked with the code "C2"  below the date (referring to the box's production line). The boxes have been distributed across the United States and Puerto Rico, as well as some Caribbean and South American countries. The company's statement read, "We deeply regret this situation and apologize to any consumers we have disappointed," and added, "Consumers who purchased this product should not eat it."

Trolls Attacked Ashley Judd for Tweeting About Sports. Now She's Fighting Back.

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 3:18 PM EDT

Actress Ashley Judd, a well known University of Kentucky basketball fan and alumnus of the Division 1 school, is striking back at Twitter users who launched a tirade of sexually violent tweets aimed at her while she attended a Wildcats game over the weekend.

The explicit messages, which include being called a cunt and suggestions that she "suck a dick," were prompted by her Tweet saying the opposing team was "playing dirty." Now Judd indicates that she hopes to pursue charges against her trolls.

"The amount of gender violence that I experience is absolutely extraordinary," Judd said on the Today show Tuesday. "And a significant part of my day today will be spent filing police reports at home about gender violence that's directed at me in social media."

Judd's harassment comes at a time when more women are speaking out against online abuse, whether via cyber-stalking and threats or movements such as #Gamergate. However, prosecuting such threats has proved notoriously difficult. Some members of Congress are asking the federal government to beef up enforcement of laws that already prohibit such threats of violence. From 2010-2013, federal prosecutors only investigated 10 cyber-stalking reports, despite 2.5 million cases of women being harassed online.

Former Major League pitcher Curt Schilling recently used an alternative strategy to punish the men who trolled his daughter on Twitter: He tracked down their identities and outed them. At least one man lost his job as a result; others were suspended from their college sports teams.

As for the uncomfortable kiss from ESPN's Dick Vitale photographed during the same Wildcats game, Judd says they are friends, and that she's "adored him" for 10 years.

"Arming Our Allies" a Fiasco Yet Again in Yemen

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 2:38 PM EDT

No surprise here:

The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.

....“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” said a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"Arming our allies" works sometimes, but just as often it ends up like this. If we'd done this in Syria two years ago, those arms would most likely be in the hands of ISIS or Iranian militias by now.

There just aren't very many good middle grounds between staying out of a fight and getting fully engaged in it. Iraq is our latest stab at this middle ground, and so far it's too early to say how it's going. But recent history is not kind to the idea.

Wind Energy Will Be Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels Within a Decade

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 1:56 PM EDT

Wind energy is growing fast. While it still accounts for less than 5 percent of the United States' total electricity mix, wind is by far the biggest source of renewable energy other than hydroelectric dams, and it accounted for 23 percent of new power production capacity built last year. Some experts think wind could provide a fifth of the world's energy by 2030. But wind in the US is always in a perilous position, thanks to its heavy reliance on a federal tax credit that is routinely attacked in Congress; the subsidy was allowed to expire at the end of last year, and its ultimate fate remains unclear.

Fortunately, wind won't be subject to the whims of legislators for much longer, according to a new analysis from the Energy Department. The new report found that within a decade, wind will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels like natural gas, even without a federal tax incentive.

From Bloomberg Business:

Cost reductions and technology improvements will reduce the price of wind power to below that of fossil-fuel generation, even after a $23-per-megawatt-hour subsidy provided now to wind farm owners ends, according to a report released Thursday.

"Wind offers a power resource that's already the most competitive option in many parts of the nation," Lynn Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the Energy Department, said on a conference call with reporters. "With continued commitment, wind can be the cheapest, cleanest power option in all 50 states by 2050."

That would be a huge win for slowing climate change. The report finds that it could also lead to billions of dollars of benefits to the American public, from lower monthly electric bills to fewer air-pollution-related deaths.

My Un-Miracle

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 1:16 PM EDT

If a miracle happened on Friday, an un-miracle happened on Sunday. I was fine all day Friday, fine on Saturday, and fine Sunday. Until lunchtime. Then I collapsed again. Ditto on Monday around 10 am. Ditto again today.

As usual, no idea what's going on. But I'll blog whenever I have spurts of energy.

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Obama Just Officially Decided White House Emails Aren't Subject to the Freedom of Information Act

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 1:14 PM EDT

Civil liberties advocates are adding another strike to the Obama administration's record on transparency: on Monday, the White House announced that it is officially ending the Freedom of Information Act obligations of its Office of Administration. That office provides broad administrative support to the White House—including the archiving of emails—and had been subject to FOIA for much of its nearly four-decade history.

In 2007, the George W. Bush administration decided that its OA would reject any FOIA requests, freeing it from the burden to release emails regarding any number of Bush-era scandals. When President Obama took office in 2009, transparency advocates were hopeful that he'd strike down the Bush policy—especially after he claimed transparency would be a "touchstone" of his presidency. In a letter that year, advocates from dozens of organizations urged Obama to restore transparency to the OA.

He never did, and Monday's move from the White House makes the long-standing policy official. Coincidentally, March 16th was Freedom of Information Day, and this week marks the annual Sunshine Week, which focuses on open government. 

Your Cellphone Might Be Making You Fat

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Like most things you love in life, your cellphone might be contributing to your growing waistline—along with your tablet, videogame console, computer, and television. Electronic devices with chips contain flame retardants to cool those chips so they don't catch fire while you are using them. Researchers at the University of Houston are now finding that these commonly used chemicals may be connected to weight gain.

The compounds in question, Tetrabromobisphoneol A (TBBPA) and tetrachlorobisphenol A (TCBPA) can leach out of the devices and often end up settling on dust particles in the air we breathe, the study found. The compounds are a form of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical ubiquitously used in food containers and plastic water battles that has already already been linked to obesity and increases in metabolic disorders

After previous studies showed that these chemicals could activate stem cells to grow fat cells, the scientists set out to study their effect on living organisms.

Using sibling pairs of zebrafish, the researchers administered low doses of the chemicals to only one group for 11 days. Though both groups ate the same diet, after a month the zebrafish in the chemical group were heavier and showed signs of increased fat cell build up (zebrafish are transparent so scientists could see fat build up around vital organs as well as around the fish's sides).

The team was hopeful that the findings will lead to more in depth research on chemicals that can cause weight gain, said researcher Maria Bondesson in a University of Houston press release. "Our goal is to find the worst ones and then replace them with safer alternatives."

5 Must-See True-Crime Documentaries to Catch After "The Jinx"

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 10:56 PM EDT

Sunday's finale of the HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst ended with the eccentric protagonist muttering a seeming confession to three murders over the last 30 years.

"What the hell did I do?" Durst said. "Killed them all, of course."

The revelation culminated an eight-year investigation into the life and trials of Durst, the estranged son of a New York real estate dynasty. He has maintained his innocence in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife and was acquitted in the 2001 slaying of Morris Black in Galveston, Texas. But Durst was arrested on Saturday, a day before the finale aired, in a New Orleans hotel after new evidence emerged that law enforcement officials allege linked him to the 2000 murder of confidante Susan Berman. On Monday, Los Angeles prosecutors charged Durst with first-degree murder in California, in addition to weapons charges in Louisiana. 

All eyes will surely stay glued to Durst's case as it unfolds, but The Jinx, a well-paced journalistic masterpiece, is over. The inevitable question for today's budding Sherlock Holmes becomes: What to watch next?

Since True Detective reportedly won't return until this summer, and the second season of Serial isn't out yet, here are a few true-crime documentaries to check out now:

Central Park Five

The 2012 Ken Burns documentary looks into the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. The film, which is on Netflix, takes a look at the case and its aftermath from the perspectives of the accused, whose convictions were later tossed out after a convicted rapist confessed to the crime.

 

Into The Abyss

Acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog dives into the aftermath of a triple homicide in the small city of Conroe, Texas as part of a larger examination into capital punishment in the United States. This 2011 doc is still on Netflix.

 

The Imposter

A 13-year-old boy in Texas disappears in 1994, then reportedly resurfaces three years later in Spain. But that's not the whole story. A French con artist tells all in this gripping 2012 documentary, which can be seen on Netflix.

 

The Paradise Lost trilogy

In this three-part series, renowned filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky focus on the infamous case of the "West Memphis Three," a trio of teenagers who were convicted of the brutal triple homicide in 1993 of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three men were later freed after 18 years in prison. You can find this one on Amazon Prime.

 

The Thin Blue Line

A throwback from 1988, Errol Morris investigates the questionable conviction of Randall Dale Adams, who was wrongly sentenced to life in prison for killing a Dallas police officer in 1976. The film, which is on Netflix, played a role in exonerating Adams a year later.

Meet the New Endocrine-Disrupting Plastic Chemical, Same as the Old One

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 6:13 PM EDT

By now, most people know about the common plastic additive bisphenol A (BPA), which behaves like estrogen in our bodies and has been linked to a range of health problems, including cancerbirth defects, and irregular brain development in kids. Like other endocrine-disrupting chemicals, BPA seems to cause hormonal damage at extremely low levels. In a 2014 story, my colleague Mariah Blake brought home an unsettling point: The chemical compounds that manufacturers have been scrambling to use in place of BPA might be just as bad.

And now a new paper, published on the peer-reviewed Environmental Health Perspectives, examines the science around two common chemicals used in "BPA-Free" packaging: BPS and BPF. The authors looked at 32 studies and concluded that "based on the current literature, BPS and BPF are as hormonally active as BPA, and have endocrine-disrupting effects." In other words, the cure may be just as bad as the disease.

It's not clear how widely these substitutes are being used, because manufacturers aren't required to disclose what they put in packaging. But there's evidence that BPS is quite common. BPA, for example, is widely used in paper receipts to make them more durable; and in a 2014 study, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tested paper receipts from 19 facilities, and found that nine contained BPA and nine contained BPS. The researchers concluded that BPS is "being used as a common alternative to BPA in thermal paper applications, and in comparable concentrations."

Because "BPS has also been found to be an endocrine active chemical," the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency urges the state's businesses to shift to electronic receipts. I've taken on a similar strategy—I'm even phasing out my beloved canned craft beer, because cans used by the food and beverage industries tend to be lined with BPA. Unlike the businessman in The Graduate, I've got two words, not one—at least until the chemical industry can prove it can create a genuinely safe BPA substitute: Avoid plastics.