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Archive for August, 2011

Proof, at last, that chocolate is a wonder food! Yes, I know I’ve thousands of words debunking bad science and bogus ideas about health and bodies. (Offline, it’s upwards of a thousand pages.) But I’m also on record as supporting the health benefits of red wine and coffee (oh, and more on coffee here and here, for nervous new moms). And now, with chocolate, we’ve got the trifecta! A yummy, healthy hattrick!

From Moonstruck Chocolate in Champaign, Illinois, posted by Flicker user eszter, used under a Creative Commons license.

The bottom line is that a meta-study just published in the British Medical Journal found that the people who ate the most chocolate were  37% less likely to have cardiovascular disease and 29% less likely to suffer a stroke. No consistent, measurable impact was seen on diabetes or heart failure. Popular reporting on the new findings has actually been mighty thin, beyond the gleeful headlines. The New York Times and the medical newswire Ivanhoe both offered up the bare bones: the good news, plus a few cautionary phrases about the need for further research and a disclaimer that you shouldn’t just go hog out on chocolate because OH NOES, THE FATZ!

So I took a peek at the study, which is freely available on line. As all important research should be! I don’t care if we historians have to go through a library; the people who want to read my work know where to find me, anyway. But health is a public good, such research is often publicly underwritten, and most medical journals are part of a rapacious oligopoly raking in 40% profits on other people’s work. Earlier this week, the Guardian compared these journals to Rupert Murdoch, except with extra, surplus, bonus evil. Kudos to the BMJ for bucking this trend and letting regular folks view the full text without ponying up $35 or more for the privilege.

On to the study itself, which is a review of seven earlier studies that were mostly observational in character. None were randomized and controlled, so probably the whole lot would be discarded as rubbish by the Cochrane Review. They largely relied on questionnaires administered to patients, which raises the specter of recall bias. (I often can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday.) As in any meta-study, comparison is difficult because the individual studies relied on different measures and methods. But they weren’t crap science, either (that was the point of excluding other studies that weren’t adequately rigorous or informative).

Importantly, most of the studies under review did make serious attempts to control for confounding variables (even though this reader was prepared to forgive just about any methodological flaw):

Five of the seven studies included in this meta-analysis reported a significant reduction in the risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders associated with higher levels of chocolate intake (one on cocoa intake), even after adjustment for potential confounders, including age, physical activity, body mass index, smoking status, dietary factors, education, and drug use. Although we did not find any experimental studies (randomised controlled trials) evaluating the effect of chocolate on hard cardiometabolic outcomes, our findings corroborate those of previous meta-analyses of experimental and observational studies in different populations related to risk factors for cardiometabolic disorders.

In other words, the literature is pretty consistent: chocolate is good for the heart and your whole cardiovascular system. And contrary to how some commenters at the Times were trying to spin it, those benefits were not negated by fat, whether in the chocolate or in the human consumer. They accrued even in people who ate the cheap, sugary stuff (though this is one area where I’d like to see research, which would no doubt confirm my own prejudice in favor of very dark chocolate). I am not surprised by this, since chocolate milk has already gotten the Dr. SunGold stamp of healthy hedonism.

Another way in which this strikes me as pretty good science: The authors point to a couple of plausible biological mechanisms that could make chocolate protective, which include “increasing the bioavailability of nitric oxide, which subsequently might lead to improvements in endothelial function, reductions in platelet function, and additional beneficial effects on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and blood lipids.” Nitric oxide, as you may recall, is the linchpin behind the effectiveness of a certain little blue pill. Viagra was initially under development as a cardiovascular drug that just happened to have felicitous effects on blood vessels located further south.

So in conclusion, if your chocolate bar is still rigid after 4 hours, you may want to consult your physician. Or you could just take it in hand and nibble it ’til it softens. Melting it into a hot fudge sauce is another medically advisable option. And remember: all that erotic enjoyment is good for you!

As for me, I’m trying to get a syllabus together this evening, so no cocoa-inspired sexytimes for me! But I just poured a glass of red wine and broke out oa square of the dark stuff. For breakfast, it’ll be my classic homemade mocha with Snowville milk. Now some intrepid researcher just needs to reveal the wonder nutrients in cheese.

From Chocolatier Blue in Lincoln, Nebraska, taken by Flickr user J. Paxon Reyes, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Scary Caturday

If you thought last week’s Caturday post was alarming, this week’s is downright scary:

(Click here if you can’t see the clip.)

And yes, I realize this blog is in danger of turning into a mere catblog. That’s what the Kittywood conspiracy is all about. I’m hoping, though, that with the kids back in school I’ll have a little more time to devote to writing about gender and politics.

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Did you know that reading a book about vintage aircraft now falls under the umbrella of suspicious activity for airline passengers? Actually, it’s safe to say you can probably get away with it if you look like me: white, female, not visibly Muslim (my suspicious skirt notwithstanding).

If you’re male and black? Well, you can expect to be hauled off the airplane and interrogated.

Earlier this month, singer Vance Gilbert was waiting for take-off at Logan when he was asked by a United flight attendant to move his fanny pack from behind his ankles to the upper bin. He suggested shifting it in front of his feet, to keep his wallet at hand. She agreed.

No one is claiming that any conflict occurred. If you read the comments at the link, Lisa Simeone (frequent commenter on this blog) vouches for Gilbert’s character. So does Robyn Ochs, who I “know” through her work on sexuality. Both Lisa and Robyn have known Gilbert personally for years. They and others describe him as a calm, kind man who wouldn’t overreact. We are talking about a graying 50something guy who sports Hawaiian shirts who’s a doggie-dad to two standard poodles.

But moments later, evidently alarmed by the fact that Gilbert was perusing a book about airplanes – we’re talking cutting-edge machines made in Poland circa 1946! – flight personnel diverted the plane from the take-off queue and had a group of state police and TSA officers remove Gilbert from the plane. He was whisked back into a breezeway where he was questioned by police. Here’s how Gilbert describes it on his blog:

Policeman: “Did you have a problem with your bag earlier?”

Me: “No sir, not at all. The flight attendant wanted it secured elsewhere other than behind my feet, and I opted to put it under the seat in front of me. It’s my wallet, even though there’s only 30 bucks in it…And all that was done without belligerence, or words for that matter…it was all good.

A few beats…

Policeman: “Sir, were you looking at a book of airplanes?”

Me: “Yes sir I was. I am a musician for money, but for fun I study old aircraft and build models of them, and the book I was reading was of Polish Aircraft from 1946.”

Policeman: “Would you please go get that book so that i can see it?”

I go back onto the plane – all eyes are on me like I was a common criminal. Total humiliation part 2.

After a couple of minutes he says, “Why, this is all Snoopy Red Baron stuff…”

Me: “Yes sir, actually the triplane you see is Italian, from 1921 a little after World War 1…”

Policeman: “No problem here then, you can go on back on to the plane, sorry to inconvenience you…and have a nice flight”.

“Inconvenience” is hardly the word. The flight was delayed and Gilbert missed his connection. He was out money and time, as were numerous other passengers. But far worse, he was shamed in public. He was frightened. He was reminded that in all the blather about keeping “us” safe, “we” and “us” are always construed as white. (The title of this post isn’t original; it comes from Gilbert’s realization that he was singled out – racially profiled – for flying while black.)

And the persecution of “flying while black,” like “driving/walking/BREATHING while black,” is only intensifying in the post-9/11 era. This isn’t coincidental. It’s built right into our society, from the cult of “Homeland Security” to the concentration of MP-style police ops in non-white neighborhoods. In her book Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the ‘War on the Terror’, Gargi Bhattacharyya details how the WOT isn’t just demonizing and victimizing brown men abroad. It’s also heightening and militarizing the oppression of brown and black men here in the United States.

Gilbert’s ugly experience is just one quotidian example of how the WOT is being brought home to men who aren’t protected by Whiteness. (Brown women are singled out, too, but mostly for the perceived infraction of “flying while Muslim”). It’s also a classic instance of covert racism; every white person involved can point to the manifestly DANGEROUS sketches of Snoopy’s dream plane. No racism here, no-sirree, moving right along …

Gilbert is fighting back. He has contacted the ACLU. United is making apologetic noises (though not yet issuing the abject apology Gilbert deserves). I think they might have messed with the wrong Snoopy/Red Baron aircraft geek, judging from his music:

(Click here if you don’t see the clip.)

A change is gonna come. A change has gotta come. The alternative is a racist dictatorship of the Tea Party-military complex.

On a wholly different plane (ahem), I think one good thing may have come out of Gilbert’s ordeal: wider awareness of his music. It was new to this humble blogger, anyway. So here’s one more … “Some Great Thing.”

(Clickety click if need be.)

Vance Gilbert, I hope you will get your measure of justice. I hope you can take your story to a national audience. Now, could you just add Athens, Ohio, to your tour schedule, pretty please? You truly are Some Great Thing.

(Hat tip to Lisa Simeone for alerting my to Gilbert’s ordeal, and kudos to her and his other friends for jumping to his defense.)

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Conspiracy Caturday

Ever wondered if there’s an elaborate plot for kittehs to take over the Internets? Well, here’s the expose we’ve all been waiting for.

(If you can’t see the clip, click here.)

“If you don’t want to do your job and put Maru in a box, I’ll find someone who can!”

Perhaps more alarming than the conspiracy is the fact that I recognized nearly all the kittyvids mentioned in the clip.

Oh, I believe! And so should you! The kitteh conspiracy is real. Just be skeptical when they say that kittens don’t dream. We all know they do.

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Earlier this week, coming off a wonderful visit with family in Northern California, I was about to board a flight home from Sacramento, my two kids in tow. We walked through the metal detector without a beep. Better yet, no Rapiscan in sight! Our luggage rolled right through the x-ray machine without a glitch. But then, just when I thought we were home free, I was summoned for a pat-down.

Aside from my principled objections to invasive and needless patdowns, I feel an extra layer of anxiety when I’m pulled aside while traveling with my kids, especially as a (temporarily) solo parent. What if the officers decide to separate you from the kids? This had happened to us once in Berlin, when my husband was hauled off to the bomb-detection room; fortunately, the whole family was traveling that day, so the kids were never left alone.

The TSO who conducted the search informed me that the kids had to stay with our luggage and I couldn’t touch our bags or, for that matter, my kids until she was finished with me. I have to say that she was warm and reassuring as well as professional. I have no beef with the Sacramento TSA personnel, who acquitted themselves well. My gripe is the TSA’s silly policy, obsessed as it is with security theater.

I asked the TSO why I’d been singled out. She said, “Because you’re wearing a loose skirt.”

Behold the skirt of terror!

The astute reader will have already noticed that this skirt contains four of the five colors from Homeland Security’s sadly defunct terror-threat color chart: blue, green, yellow, and orange. Logically, the red must be somewhere, too … perhaps under my skirt?

No, the TSO didn’t inspect my underwear, and the patdown stopped just short of the “enhanced” standard. She did not move her hand up my thigh until she met “resistance.”  My ladyparts were left undisturbed. She also didn’t search above my waist.

But the patdown was still an exercise in foolery. Being separated from my kids would have been stressful if my younger son were still of the age where he routinely ran away in public. The delay, too, would’ve been irksome if we’d been short on time.

I spoke to the supervisor on the way out and asked him why long skirts weren’t listed on the TSA website as objects of interest. I said that if travelers were forewarned, we might choose to wear clothes that didn’t trigger a patdown. He, too, was warm and professional, but his response just floored me:

“Because we don’t want to let the bad guys know all about our methods. They might find someone who looks just like you and use that person to try and sneak through a bomb.”

Leaving aside the extreme shortage of blonde female terrorists since the demise of the Red Army Faction, what purpose does this faux secrecy serve? Blogger Bob at the TSA likes to emphasize that different methods are used at different airports to keep the terrorists off balance. That’s always been a transparent excuse for TSA excesses.

My own personal theory is that searching passengers with long, loose skirts is a way to target women who appear to be Muslims. Inclusion of a few blonde gals creates a smokescreen of plausible deniability in case anyone charges the TSA with racial or religious profiling. I’m positive the policy is motivated by xenophobia, but you can’t prove it.

All you can do is wear jeggings (eek!) the next time you fly.

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Just when you think Rick Santorum’s “Google problem” had set a new standard for disgust, Dan Savage proposes a new meme far ickier than the one he has propagated as a neo-definition of “santorum”: “The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.”

(If you can’t see the clip, click here.)

Because we really need a laugh after the “clusterfuck” (ballgame’s word) that was the debt-ceiling bloodless coup. And because I’d promised ballgame I’d lighten up.

My condolences if you happen to be named Rick. Or Ricky. Or Richard … Unless, of course, you’ve got your own “man-on-dog” issues.

Oh, and if you figure out the bleeped portions, please do share in comments! Filthy minds want to know.

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Monday afternoon, while driving along U.S. Highway 50 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, my family and I came upon two blazes consuming a steep hillside. The second fire was so hot, and so close to the road, we could feel the ovens of Satan through the car doors, from the far side of a divided highway.

The next day, I happened to bump into a couple of forest service firefighters at a community event, and they confirmed that these were not planned burns. They don’t know how the conflagrations started, but they got the flames under control before the fire could endanger the town of Placerville.

Evidently, a firebug is afoot.

The same ethos – a spirit of wanton, senseless, indiscriminate destruction – animates our Tea Party leaders. That rhetoric about financial “terrorism” and “hostage-taking”? It’s spot-on, and I hope Joe Biden won’t have to apologize abjectly for it. After all, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder had no trouble calling his seizure of local democracy “financial martial law.”

These guys know what they’re doing. The Tea Partiers and their enablers, both Repub and Dem, are simply following Grover Norquist’s blueprint for “shrinking government” until it’s small enough to “drown it in a bathtub.” They’re now backed by a burgeoning number of voter-suppression bills and anti-union legislation at the state level, intended to neuter the remaining sectors of the electorate still capable of kicking up a stink about Citizens United and the wholesale selling-out of democracy to the best-paid lobbyists and think tanks.

For now a global financial meltdown has been averted, but for how long? And at what cost? Even as Congress voted to back the economy away from the edge of a cliff, it was pushing democracy straight into the canyon. Into the flames.

The Tea Partiers just learned what many parents eventually learn through painful trial-and-error. If you give in to a child when she tantrums, screams, and threatens to throw all of her toys at you, you’ve got a problem. The child learns: Heh. The more bratty I act, the more my parents will cave! Note, in this scenario, the Tea Partiers are not the adults.

Most of us don’t become sociopaths. Most parents learn to set reasonable boundaries with reasonable consistency, most of the time. Most kids learn to play nicely with others.

A few kids don’t learn. They grow up to be firebugs. Or Tea Partiers. Or maybe both?

Barack Obama and the Democratic caucuses did exactly what a smart parent would avoid. They caved into bullying. They failed to set boundaries (the time for which would’ve been last fall, when the Bush tax cuts were on the table). They followed the recipe for creating a juvenile delinquent with “materials easily available at home.”

With this shit-sandwich – nay, “Satan sandwich” – of a debt ceiling agreement, we’ve averted a global meltdown in the finance markets. We’ve kept consumer interest rates at a reasonable level – for now, at least. We’ve also shot the recovery in the gut (hey, that terrorism metaphor is handy!) and ensured that job growth will be anemic or negative over the next few years. (The debt-ceiling’s terrible effects on the recovery – and on jobs, in particular – would belong in a separate post wherein I sing the praises of Keynesianism. Just go read Robert Reich, ‘kay? It’ll hurt less. And then watch this:)

But the economic impact of the deal, ugly though it be, is far from the worst of its repercussions. On a fundamental level, we have abandoned representative democracy. We’re left with a terrible spoof of Orwell in which all congresscritters may vote, but some congresscritters’ votes count more than others.

We’re also at the mercy of sociopathic brats. The next time the Repubs want to enforce their will, they need only promise economic Armageddon (or threaten Medicare’s very existence, or strangle the ongoing operations of the Federal Aviation Administration, which they’re doing right now as I write this). Yes, the Tea Partiers may – may – be voted out in the next electoral cycle, but since they don’t want to build or grow anything, they merely need to destroy. They can break an awful lot before they’re through. (Planned Parenthood, anyone? Which – perhaps not coincidentally – was firebombed this week at a Texas clinic that doesn’t even perform abortions?)

The Tea Partiers have learned that hostage-taking pays. Financial terrorism pays. They’ve made themselves over into unstoppable veto actors. The only question is: who – apart from the FAA – will be their next hostage?

Or as Robert Kuttner puts it (with metaphors only slightly less jumbled than my own):

Let us face the momentous truth: The United States has been rendered ungovernable except on the extortionate terms of the far-right.

(His whole piece is terrific.)

Ironically, the necessary advice du jour comes from Ronald Reagan – an ex-prez much disposed to driving up the debt: “Never negotiate with terrorists.” Despite his adulation of Reagan, Obama did just that. Now we’ve got government-by-terrorist-fiat.

Burn, baby, burn.

The financial terrorists have won.

 

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