November 30, 2008

Here We Go Again

detail_GS_DHA_ARAI have said before in this blog that 'we need an agency whose overarching mission is to ensure the safety of our food and drugs.'

My point, one that I seem to be repeating a lot, is that our current FDA is more akin to a trade association. It's natural instincts are to downplay risks to prevent undue harm to large corporations, during which time great harm could be ensuing amongst the public at-large.

Here, for example is a quote from agency spokesperson, Judy Leon, concerning the recent discovery of melamine contamination in baby formula.  You'll detect that the reflex action of the FDA is to conceal information, rather than to put out information and let the consumer make up his own mind about what is safe.

“There’s no cause for concern or no risk from these levels,” said Judy Leon, an agency spokeswoman. Ms. Leon said the contamination was most likely the result of food contact with something like a can liner, or from some other manufacturing problems, but not from deliberate adulteration. She declined to name the company that made the tainted infant formula.

The effort to withhold the name of the formula maker was soon abandoned, however. Perhaps the agency didn't want infants to be denied their right to gorge themselves at Thanksgiving dinner like everyone else, and so waited a couple of days to release this new and decisive statement:

clipped from

Food and Drug Administration officials on Friday set a threshold of 1 part per million of melamine in formula, provided a related chemical is not present. They insisted the formulas are safe.

The FDA had said in early October it was unable to set a safety contamination level for melamine in infant formula.

The standard is the same as the one public health officials have set in Canada and China, but is 20 times higher than the most stringent level in Taiwan.

The small problem alluded to is that the danger of melamine is potentiated  by the presence of another substance, cyanuric acid. While none of the samples of US formulas tested positive for both chemicals, chemsetthey were each found separately in single samples. Lesson learned: don't mix and match formulas! I recommend that every parent test each container of formula they purchase before they feed their infant. Sound troublesome? Let's just say you're going to need one fancy chemistry set. Oh, and don't forget this:

The agency still will not set a safety level for melamine if cyanuric acid is also present, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's director of food safety.

So for now, parents, just wing it. After all, if your baby drinks 25 fluid ounces of formula a day, in the first 12 months, that only amounts to a total of 9,125 fluid ounces. At the recommended mixing level of 4.35 grams of Good Start powder per fluid ounce that is a mere 39,693.75 grams for the year. For those of you who still despise the metric system, that's a paltry 87.5 pounds of powder. My baby drank 34 fluid ounces a day, so this calculation may be a little conservative.

Those who argue that the potential exposure to melamine set by the new limits is small can feel good about it. As for me, I wonder how extensive a testing program will have to be deployed to determine the breadth of contamination. And I wonder what 'safe' means for infants with special risk factors, kidney problems for instance. Right now there are no answers and the only advice the FDA can come up with is 'don't do anything differently, for the moment.'

Here, perhaps, is an example of the kind of straight talk we need from the FDA:

"This is a slippery slope of rationalization by FDA," said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist with the Consumers Union in New York. "FDA needs to get a handle on how widespread the problem is and, most important, if both these chemicals are occurring in any products. They just haven't tested enough to know that yet."

raduraForemost, we need choices, and the agency should be capable of offering the public an array of them, so the individual can decide for herself what comfort level to target. This is the problem that arises time and again, choice is withheld from the consumer, whether it be by obstructing Country of Origin labeling, or preventing complete disclosure of food irradiation with an icon-based sticker program. The Agency is making safety decisions on your behalf, but it is altogether unclear for whom their greatest allegiance is reserved.

October 9, 2008

The Ironic Rule of Law

With regard to the imminent release of 17 Uighurs from their indefinite detention at Guantanamo, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has demanded their repatriation, offering assurances that they would not subsequently be tortured, because China is a nation ruled by law and does not torture. Did they copy this from a US Justice Department press release? First they pirate our DVDs and now our legalistic dissembling? Pioneering torture-policy authors like John Yoo are apt to be pretty steamed.

The main concern for the US is that they be deported to a Muslim nation where no one speaks Uighur, as it would be unseemly to have accounts of their Gitmo imprisonment appear concurrently with China's pitching of itself as a human-rights friendly country.
The US task would seem to be an easy one if it weren't for the fact that Albania has to be crossed off the list, having accepted the previous group of Uighur detainees. I'm sure they are enjoying their greatly-improved living conditions in Tirana, but their comrades may have to settle for the Maldives. Or perhaps India will allow them sanctuary in the Nicobar Islands, which, though generally off-limits to outsiders, might open its gates if Washington sends New Delhi a nice little gift of fissionable materials.
clipped from
In 2006, U.S. authorities released five Uighurs from Guantanamo and sent them to Albania.
Now, though, the Bush administration has been having a harder time finding a third country to accept the Chinese Muslims. The White House fears the detainees could be tortured if they are turned over to China.
Qin Gang talks to reporters in Beijing, 07 Oct 2008
Qin Gang talks to reporters in Beijing
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said fears of persecution are not valid.
Qin says people who worry that the Uighurs will be tortured if returned to China have a "biased mind." He says China is a country ruled by law, and that Chinese law forbids torture.

blog it

September 21, 2008

Krugman: Nostradamus in a Suit?

I read this when it first appeared and thought his analysis was an extreme worst-case scenario.

Of course, the reason I bother to keep up with Krugman is that his economic insight is always illuminating, even when I disagree with him. This time he gets extra points for seeing into the future. The date on the column is March 17, 2008.
clipped from

The U.S. savings and loan crisis of the 1980s ended up costing taxpayers 3.2 percent of G.D.P., the equivalent of $450 billion today. Some estimates put the fiscal cost of Japan’s post-bubble cleanup at more than 20 percent of G.D.P. — the equivalent of $3 trillion for the United States.

As Bear goes, so will go the rest of the financial system. And if history is any guide, the coming taxpayer-financed bailout will end up costing a lot of money.

If these numbers shock you, they should. But the big bailout is coming. The only question is how well it will be managed.

blog it

August 26, 2008

Simulated Fine Dining


Capgras Delusion is a psychiatric syndrome that manifests itself in this way: one morning a person awakes to find that the people close to him have seemingly been replaced by exact duplicates, each a perfect impostor in every way, lacking only in authenticity. It can happen also that one so stricken gains a sense that he, himself, is a mere facsimile.

Perhaps this is something like waking in Las Vegas, where the simulacrum of reality has appropriated the original, engulfing it in the way that one snake might swallow another. Any preservation of serpentine morphology asserts itself as a mockery, where the joke is on you. And though in many ways this can be, perhaps inexplicably, an entertaining experience, I am always left feeling that, somehow, reality is just out of reach. You grab for it and your fingers slip through handfuls of anhydrous desert air.

My bewilderment overflows its vessel at the prospect of having a gondola ride in a shopping mall. Nonetheless, I urge you to visit the Venetian Hotel and Casino. Watch the passengers, a fascinating demographic spectrum, from grannies with kids to mischievous intoxicated business travelers, all bobbing along peacefully as they traverse the 100 meter length of a concrete pool, led by the operatic whooping of their 'gondolier,' which echoes through the cavernous shopping arcade. After such an observation, I challenge you to compound your own explanation. Is this a representation or is it a real experience? The answer, I suppose, is that it is a little of both, yet surely one's 'willing suspension of disbelief ' must soar to previously unattainable heights to overcome the brute fact that the actual tour, through dyed and heavily-chlorinated 'canal water,' occurs not at ground level, but on the second floor of this miraculous destination-attraction.

Is it not delectable to imagine an abandoned, primordial, subterranean level, concealed beneath the verity of Venice, and what treasures, in place of gaming tables and slot machines, would now lie crumbling amongst long-forgotten ghostly forms of ancient pelagic concretions? For my part, I'll wager that more than a few American tourists would happily lob chlorine pellets into that renowned, opaque Venetian broth, which has steeped nastily for many more generations than there has been a nation called "The United States of America."

Some related ideas can be found in an essay by Ada Louise Huxtable, from her 1997 book The Unreal America, where she deconstructs Las Vegas at some length in a chapter originally appearing in the NY Times, as "The Real Fake and the Fake Fake." Certainly I've unearthed a few of her ideas from my cranium here, however, in the intervening years since the publication of her book, events have unfolded that transcend the situation she described. Huxtable drew a connecting line between Las Vegas and art museums, the traditional "guardians" of authenticity. But the notion of "authenticity" itself has been mutating lately, and is possibly, even perhaps probably, headed toward obsolescence. Enough has been written about the innate property of the digital world to reproduce artifacts as perfect clones, so I would like to turn to a different domain, the subject of "simulated fine dining." Its essence is the cloned restaurant, a high-brow manifestation of the franchise-restaurant form we have come to associate with McDonald's and its kin.


My first experience with simulated fine dining occurred a number of years ago at Todd English's Olives restaurant in the Bellagio. We ordered a few dishes we knew from his original restaurant in Charlestown, MA. The food arrived, plated elegantly and bearing an uncanny resemblance to real food. But the first bite gave me a shudder, as if I had watched a dear friend metamorphose into a Madame Tussaud wax doll, the wisp of animation departing for parts unknown via unseen routes. I suppose it was akin to eating the sushi in the window of the sushi restaurant instead of the sushi behind the sushi bar. Not that Todd's Las Vegas crew had served us actual plastic, just that they had served us something that tasted like actual plastic.

And as regards sushi, I recall a visit to Nobu, at the Hard Rock Casino in LV, which was kicked off by a memorable delivery from a young, mustachioed waiter with a Nevadan accent. "Now if you take a look at our menu," he said with a modest squeamishness, "you will see listed the 'sushi', and that's going to be your raw fish." It brings to mind a quote from the Huxtable essay, where André Corboz describes a quality he names the "the poverty of the re-invention of the not-known."


So here we find ourselves in the 21st century, an era replete with simulated happiness, simulated arousal, and even simulated money- itself a mere simulation of wealth. And this, perhaps, is the nature of the schism that separates the Information Age from all that has preceded it. We have now entered the Capgras World, where everyone has been replaced by their exact duplicate. tags: ,

March 30, 2008

Shred Everything


fire_blog_span When the Bush administration finally passes the torch, how much evidence will they need to destroy? Granted, their brand of hubris has been marked by a willingness to perpetrate crimes in the light of day, but still, there will likely be troves of documents in need of rapid destruction. Look for smoke coming out of the White House. Cheney, I suppose, has already had to get a jump on things.

That's why I wish I lived in a society where Elliot Spitzer could have only been caught by his wife. Because, in the aftermath of the purge of federal prosecutors by that disaster of a man, Alberto Gonzales, the investigation of the ex-governor bears all the hallmarks of a well-oiled political vendetta. I'm not saying it is, although the fact that he was ratted on by a Republican operative does appear unseemly. At least Boyd R. Johnson III, the prosecutor from the office of public corruption, looks like he's a sincere crime-fighter. Unfortunately, so did Spitzer, for a while at least.

610xSo I'm wondering, where is the dividing line between police state and free society? Elliot Spitzer was taken down by the existence of detailed financial reports provided by banks where he held accounts used to fund his adventures. Prior to 9/11, the Bank Secrecy Act, dating back to the 70s and designed to identify money laundering, generated 205,000 bank reports a year, and now, after the various Executive Omnipotence Acts have been shoved through Congress by the Bush administration, that number has swollen to over a million. Presumably someone somewhere has the job to look at them and stamp them with the FBI inkpad. Maybe they just sit on a shelf and collect dust, waiting for their moment in the sun.

brando_shredder_1 Throw in a little complicity from the telecommunications companies and the portrait is nearly complete. It reminds me of the Stasi, and their obsessively effective information-collection network of spies and collaborators. When the jig was up, they shredded, by shredding machine where available, by hand if necessary. Where is the dividing line between police state and free society? Well, the Stasi used intimidation and tortured prisoners...  Oops!

February 21, 2008

I'm with her

Why would any guy think this would be a cool thing to do?

Woman realizes how lame her boyfriend is while thousands of fans look on.