Blue Marble

The Best Doctor Blog You're Not Reading

| Thu Mar. 13, 2008 3:10 PM EDT

One of the most candid and well-written ER blogs out there had the grave misfortune to be mentioned on NPR today. I give it six months, tops, before twitchy hospital admin and and overzealous privacy lawyers team up to shut it, like its ill-fated kin, down.

In the meantime, WhiteCoat Rants is a fascinating window into our national healthcare policy woes, as well as an insidery look at the gallows humor needed to patch people up for the same lunkhead problems, day after day after day.

Where else can you find a satire on how to make a tranquilizer dartgun using only trauma shears and discarded chest tube containers? Or the reason why, which would be to capture gazelles for the family dinner "while waiting for Medicare payments and [health] insurance approvals to come through?"

The Emergency Room—really the Emergency Department as some will sniffily correct—is the last stop not just for the uninsured, but for all of us. So the next time you're in the ED getting sewn up after a bar fight, or treated for back pain on a weekend, or soothed at midnight because your goo-producing kid has a weird fever, say thanks. You'll be among the few who do.

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Enraged John McCain Charges Bears

| Mon Mar. 10, 2008 11:36 PM EDT

You know, Teddy Roosevelt got a lot of mileage for being nice to a bear. The ubiquitous Teddy bear was the upshot of his refusal to shoot. So you think John McCain would know better. The Washington Post reports a great piece on McCain's standard stump speech fare about a $3 million study of the DNA of bears in Montana. "Unbelievable," he says. Well, what's unbelievable is that no one on McCain's staff has bothered to inform him of the real purpose of the study he's spent so much energy despising since 2003. Katherine Kendall, a kick-ass biologist, and the mastermind of the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, is actually doing John McCain and his descendants a genuine favor by tackling the life-and-death issues of biodiversity. According to the WP:

Kendall is one tough field biologist: She's rafted wild rivers, forded swollen streams and hiked through remote backcountry for weeks at a time. She goes to places inhabited by all manner of large creatures with sharp teeth. She was once charged by an enraged grizzly. She stared the bear down… As a scientist with the US Geological Survey, she set out to get the first head count of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. She and her co-workers at the USGS have used DNA primarily as a bear-identifying tool… "There's never been any information about the status of this population. We didn't know what was going on—until this study," Kendall said. This was an astonishingly ambitious research project involving 207 paid workers, hundreds of volunteers, 7.8 million acres and 2,560 bear sampling sites [including the bear rub tree seen in the video]. The project did not cost $3 million, as McCain's ad alleges, but more than $5 million, including nearly $4.8 million in congressional appropriations. It had a strong advocate in Congress in Montana's three-term senator, Conrad Burns, a Republican who was defeated in his reelection bid in 2006.

Bear at a rubbing tree.

Bottom line: we need bears. We need tough field biologists whose dedication often means the difference between survival and extinction for their study animals. We need to stand up to McCain when he charges blindly and stare him down. Anyone up for attending a stump speech in a bear costume?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Prescription Drugs Are in our Drinking Water: What to do Now?

| Mon Mar. 10, 2008 7:26 PM EDT

The biggest sex story of the day, besides the expensive sex life of the New York Governor, is the revelation that prescription drugs (including sex hormones) are in the drinking water of 41 million Americans. Forget Room 871's minibar. Maybe Spitzer got horny on tap water.

That drugs are in our water isn't new news, but the AP's five-month investigation will be sure to prompt a rush on Brittas and bottled snowmelt from the Alps. It will also probably lead to a reexamination of our wastewater treatment systems, including the policy of spreading sewage sludge on farmland--sort of the stealth turd in the swimming pool of water politics. Sludge, the black goop that comes out of sewage plants, contains drug residues that have the potential to be absorbed into plants and animals and run off into streams. So does the "purified" water that comes out of the same plants, but the sludge has gotten less attention as of late. Now almost forgotten is the high-ranking EPA scientist, David Lewis, who raised a stink over sludge a few years ago. The EPA fired him, though not before he exposed shortfalls in the EPA's science on sludge and some shady ties between government and industry.

For now, consumers will have to sort out how to deal with the drug-laced water problem on their own. In case you're wondering, one sure-fire water filtration method for removing pharmaceuticals from your tap is reverse osmosis. In arid Southern California, Orange County began operating a reverse osmosis system late last year that extracts drinking water from sewage (they call it "toilet to tap'). The superior cleanliness of this source relative to drinking water from lakes and rivers might have struck me as ironic--before Spitzer exploded my brain's irony synapse.

Foldable Cars Park (Stack) Like Grocery Carts

| Fri Mar. 7, 2008 6:55 PM EST

citystack.jpg

It's still only an idea. But a fine one from MIT's The Media Lab's Smart Cities. A futuristic electric CityCar that can drive itself and, at the press of a button, look for a parking spot behind others like itself, then fold in half and stack like a shopping cart. Reuters reports that a miniature mock-up version has gone on display at a campus museum, and there are plans to build a full-scale model this spring. Wired's blog Autotopia explained the car's premise some time ago:

The GM-backed CityCar prototype is a lightweight electric vehicle that's cheap to make and could be folded and stacked at transit hubs for rental by commuters under a shared-use model. The trick is to rethink the wheel. In the CityCar, a robotic drive system controls electric motors, steering and braking mechanisms, suspension, and digital controls embedded in each wheel — all integrated into plug-and-play sealed units that can be snapped on and off… Besides its stackability, its omnidirectional wheel configuration enables a turning radius of zero, turning U-turns into O-turns… Other features: push-button start, handlebars where the steering wheel would be, and a body made of Kevlar, carbon fiber, or some other lightweight composite.

Imagine if parking, drive time, congestion, navigation, and your fellow driver was no longer an issue. Imagine what that might do to emotional health, personal time & energy budgets, neighborly love, and the big CO2 footprint in the sky. Imagine if we didn't need to compete for space but could happily piggyback on each other. Okay, call me an idealist but there are days when the future looks good enough for hope... You'll have to navigate on your own through the Smart Cities pages to find the City Car. But it's a really fun ride.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Corporations Need Green Police

| Thu Mar. 6, 2008 7:09 PM EST

623962630_a88b833cf6_m.jpg Voluntary environmental programs among businesses don't work. This according to a new study from George Mason University of more than 30,000 firms. Some of those firms were participants in the Environmental Protection Agency's VEPs (Voluntary Environmental Programs), some weren't. Participants received $69 million from the EPA last year (1.6 percent of the agency's budget). Yet nonparticipating companies performed 7.7 percent better than participants in meeting environmental goals.

Why? Well, self-monitored companies performed worst of all (nonparticipators outperformed them by 24 percent). The absence of third-party oversight invites 'free ridership,' says Nicole Darnall, lead author. "Companies are taking part in these programs and receive credit for doing so, but some aren't really adhering to the goals. Nonparticipating companies may have stronger goals… [and] a higher performance." The study is published in Policy Studies Journal.

In other words, slacker companies with no genuinely good intentions get the money under Bush's castrated EPA… Sigh. Practice compassionate impeachment.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.


EPA Union Leaders Take on Top Brass Over CA Waiver Decision

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 2:40 PM EST

On Friday, 19 union local presidents representing more than 10,000 EPA employees submitted a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson accusing him of "abuses of our good nature and trust." The complaint cited the California greenhouse gas waiver decision and several other issues, including the oversight of mercury emissions from power plants. It expanded upon a protest of the waiver decision submitted by a smaller group of EPA staffers in January.

That same Friday I happened to attend a forum at UC Davis on California's greenhouse gas regulation efforts. Ken Davis, the point man on global warming lawsuits for the AG's office, mentioned that the EPA had earlier that day submitted a 40-page declaration expanding upon its reasoning for denying the waiver. The EPA was calling the declaration its "final rule," which, he speculated, was an effort to reset the clock on the AG's appeal of the decision. He considered the move a shameless delaying tactic.

Clearly, we haven't heard the last of the global warming fight between California and the EPA. Johnson is increasingly isolated: public opinion, state legislatures, and, of course, the world at large are moving in the opposite direction. Expect an increasing amount of high profile dissent from within the EPA as the political season unfolds--especially if it looks more likely that a Democrat will retake the White House.

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Cow Poo Powers California's Grid

| Tue Mar. 4, 2008 11:01 PM EST

542696674_1a7a164508_m.jpg Cows crap a lot. As of today, BioEnergy Solutions of California's Central Valley is using a vat of liquid cow poo the size of five football fields and 33 feet deep to produce natural gas. Planet Ark reports that David Albers, lifelong dairyman, aims to provide natural gas to power 1,200 homes a day through his Vintage Dairy Biogas Project. Albers is a partner in the 5,000-head Vintage Dairy and president of BioEnergy Solutions, which funded and built the facility at a cost of millions of dollars. The natural gas he's collecting is now plugged into California's grid via the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, part of an agreement to deliver up to three billion cubic feet of renewable natural gas a year—enough to meet the electricity needs of approximately 50,000 PG&E residential customers.

Good job. Even better: human poo power. Shiteloads of that to go around.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Philip Morris Stubs Out Tobacco Research

| Tue Mar. 4, 2008 10:09 PM EST

108877184_c7c6942c61_m.jpg At last, the tobacco company Philip Morris has ended its program supporting research at dozens of U.S. universities after the University of California decided to monitor such support in its 10-campus system. The Philip Morris External Research Program funded 470 research proposals at about 60 U.S. medical schools for the last 8 years, reports Science. Critics charged the program was no different from earlier, discredited Philip Morris programs, likewise designed to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking…. There might be a spark left in the ashtray though. Look for future tobacco- industry funded studies aimed at "reducing the harm of smoking." —Like quitting?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Why Superdelegates Are a Mob

| Mon Mar. 3, 2008 9:13 PM EST

Prison.jpg What happens to the Democratic primary when you plug it into the Prisoner's Dilemma? You know, that classic game theory tool (born from mathematics and economics and now used across many disciplines to analyze optimal behavior strategies when the outcome is uncertain and is dependent on the choices of others). Well, you might think superdelegates are good. You might think they're bad. But according to polysciblogger Jay Cost at RealClearPolitics the outcome is essentially anarchy:

The core problem is that the Democrats have empowered the super delegates to break a tie, but they have not empowered anybody to manage the super delegates. There are no rules that demand the super delegates convene and discuss with one another. There is nobody in charge of regulating the debate. There is nothing to punish the super delegates who are small-minded, nothing to reward the big-minded. There are no time restrictions that require them to make up their minds prior to the convention. They are wholly unfettered. Thus, the super delegates have a great deal in common with a mob. They're a mob of experienced, qualified politicos who care about the party. If the Democratic Party were to be put at the mercy of a mob—this is the mob you'd want. But it is a mob nonetheless. This is why large institutions—like the House and the Senate—have reams of rules governing member behavior. If the members of those institutions are to do their jobs ably, they need a framework for interaction. Otherwise, their talents may be squandered amidst the chaos.

Squandered talents. Amidst the chaos. Sounds like Normal to me… Thanks to Jake Young blogging at Pure Pedantry for pointing the way on this.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Who Does Your Unconscious Want to Vote For?

| Mon Mar. 3, 2008 7:41 PM EST

228705707_b26afccb91_m.jpg Maybe not who your conscious mind prefers. Want to find out? Take the 10-minute online Project Implicit test designed by psycholowonks at the U of Washington, the U of Virginia and Harvard. The test is fun, made me laugh, and will crack that oh-so-dark door to your secret feelings about the main candidates. Thanks to Peter Aldhous at Short Sharp Science for the heads-up on this, and for his results revealing a secret crush on Hillary. He's not alone, the test shows that many rate Clinton higher on the implicit test than their conscious attitudes speak—for both men and women.

As for my unconscious, it's, well, so unconscious and insists on paralleling my conscious, which rates Clinton high anyway... The really fun part, the one we'll surely never know, is: Who would the candidates themselves secretly prefer?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.