Sunday, January 23, 2011

Who is The "We" That Must Sacrifice?

Those who are eagerly pressing for severe budget cuts to address state and federal budget problems should be aware of the practical consequences.  Most of those people have been looking for an excuse to  slash government programs all along, regardless of the consequences.

How do you feel about drinking water that is contaminated by raw sewage due improperly or unreliably treated sewage, which is paid for by your government? If your trash is collected once or twice a week, you should plan for every other week or every three-week trash removal.  As it sits in your drive way it will attract rats and other vermin.  Many people already complain about pot-holes in their streets and highways.  That will be the least of our problems.  Roads will be increasingly poorly maintained, and when there are ice and snow storms there will be no sand and salt to treat treacherous highways and insufficient staff to drive the snow removal vehicle.. Fire departments will be understaffed so it will take much longer to reach a house that is ablaze.  Ditto for Emergency Medical Services. In a heart attack, the first 60 minutes is critical.  It is a given that libraries, public beaches and community swimming pools and other community services will close.  When the next influenza epidemic strikes, there won't be enough vaccine because the government program's budget that paid for it was severely cut. There will be much less money for food and shelter for those who are indigent, there will be increased deaths. 

Services to individuals with disabilities will be among the first to be cut.  A recent article about California’s budget woes indicates, “Governor Jerry Brown, released his proposed 2011-2012 spending plan, is calling for massive permanent reductions to a wide range of state funded programs, including regional centers, In-Home Supportive Services, CalWORKs, Medi-Cal, SSI/SSP, mental health and more.” In various states, speech therapy services have already been cut or eliminated, personal care assistant support has been eliminated and other therapy cuts are in the pipeline. That's just the beginning.

I know the mantra, we are all going to have to sacrifice, but which “we” are we talking about?  The F22a Raptor aircraft costs over $380 million dollars apiece.  Secretary Gates announced the Pentagon would make cuts and experience real savings, and then in the fine print noted that savings in one budget area will be reinvested in another, for no net budget reductions.   According to the most recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, capital investments like oil field leases and oil drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general and lower than virtually any other industry. This amounts to about $4 billion annually.  I repeat, who is this “we” that is going to have to sacrifice?  It looks as though it is going to be the average and lower income American family if the budget Hawks have their way and especially individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Everyone accepts that idea that budget cuts will be necessary, but they must be equitable and balanced with increase revenue from those who have profited from the Wall Street disaster of 2008-9. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Science & Beauty: Review of Schoonover's, "Portraits of the Mind"

The 19th century American astronomer, Maria Mitchell (1811-1889) wrote, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.”   Periodically a book is published about scientific matters reminding us of the importance of Maria Mitchell’s dictum.  When Edward Tufte’s classic book on statistical graphics and tables was first published in 1983, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, most of us were stunned by the beauty of a book dealing with what is usually thought to be an exceptionally dry topic.

Nowhere is Mitchell’s notion expressed more powerfully than in Carl Schoonover,’s recently published book, Portraits of the mind: Visualizing the brain from antiquity to the 21st century, which is not only packed with valuable information but is remarkably beautiful to the eye (and amygdala and nucleus accumbens, too!).  I received it as a holiday gift from my grandson Christopher Thompson, which makes it doubly cool.  Each of the book’s seven sections begins with an essay by a distinguished neuroscientist, written for non-specialists.  The remainder of each section consists of remarkably beautiful original illustrations and a short description of the work written by Schoonover, who is himself a doctoral neuroscience student.  From Andreas Vesalius’s (1543) amazingly accurate and detailed engravings in Human Corpus Fabric (The Workings of the Human Body), through Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s (1906) detailed and highly accurate drawings of individual nerve cells, the basis for his book, Neuronisimo (The Neuron Doctrine) to Thomas Deernick and Mark Ellisman’s (2004) image of the brain’s hippocampus obtained with antibody staining, with hippocampal neurons resembling a field of blossoming poppies, the reader and viewer is awash in the stunningly beautiful visual images of scientific discovery.  The book includes images created with newer methodologies, such as Diffusion Magnetic Resonant images of major nerve fiber pathways, which permit tracking of water molecules in the living brain as information is transmitted from one structure to another.  Fiber tracts are color colded, green from front to back of the brain, red, from left to right and blue, from the brain’s top to bottom, creating an Escher-like image of the brain at work.

One is reminded of Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, celebrating the interwoven stories of scientific discovery and artistic achievement in the late 1700’s and 1800s in Europe.  Holmes’s book centers on the contributions of the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphrey Davy, though is entwined with literary works of Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Blake.

In his foreword to Schoonover’s book, Jonah Leher writes, “Keats knew that truth exits in a tangled relationship with beauty, and nothing illustrates that poetic concept better than tese scientific images.” [Leher is a contributing editor of Wired magazine and Scientific American Mind.]

Portraits of the Mind is a truly wonderful book. 

Schoonover CE (2010) Portraits of the mind: Visualizing the brain from antiquity to the 21st century. New York: Abrams Books, Inc. ISBN: 0-8109-9033-4, EAN: 9780810990333; 240 pages $35.00

Tufte, E. (1983) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, PA: Graphics Press. 

Holmes, R. (2010) The age of wonder. New York: Vintage Books, Inc.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bowled Over

Time was that there were four post-season football bowl games: the grand daddy of them all was the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, then came the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and finally the Orange Bowl. They matched up the top two, four, six or eight teams in the country in a final showdown for the season.  Each event celebrated a captivating feature of a city or region of the country, like roses in Pasadena.  Bowl games were played on New Year’s Day or plus or minus a few days.  Today they begin a week before Christmas and extend midway into January in order to find enough open television slots for the onslaught of ads. There was a time when bowl games were actually sporting events, not just advertisements for products Little Caeser’s Pizza, Meineke Car Care or Tostitos as they are today.  By last count there are now at least 35 post-season advertisement bowls for advertsing a wide range of products.

There are a few unusual bowl games, like the Humanitarian Bowl sponsored by Roady’s Truck Stops, which I suspect isn’t all that humanitarian, and the Insight Bowl formerly called the Copper Bowl.   But don’t be misled by the “Insight Bowl” title; the latter bowl is sponsored by a computer hardware and software company (Insight Inc.); it’s not in competition with the Aspen Festival for Ideas, heaven forbid too much thinking might be involved.

Talk about grade inflation. Sponsored bowl games make it possible for nearly any college or university athletic program to cash in on the post-season financial bonanza.  Just imagine the possibilities, Yuma Community College versus Kaplan University Davenport campus competing in the SLIME Tire Care’s Pretty Good Bowl played in Gary Indiana’s US Steel Yard south shore stadium in 2012.  Bowl games are a great strategy for soliciting donations from alumni who love to bring their clients to bowl games where they can sit in fancy boxes, cavorting and drinking (which they can write off on their taxes as business expenses).  Mostly bowl games provide a vehicle for commercial enterprises to capture the attention of that all important television demographic, young adult males, for an hour or two between wardrobe-malfunctions and draughts of beer.  Bowl events also benefit the colleges and universities, though athletic donors are seldom interested in supporting the humanities, arts or science programs.  They want bigger and better stadium boxes and more expensive coaches. Needless to say, ESPN benefits a bit as well.

Why limit oneself to post-season football advertising?  Other types of bowl games could be appealing as well, like the Medtronics Heart By-Pass Bowl.  Two teams could compete, like one from Mayo Clinic and the other from Johns Hopkins Medical Center, each conducting cardiac by-pass surgery on a pair of matched 59 year-old male patients requiring a quadruple heart by-pass.  Live images of the patients’ pried-open thoracic cavities with tubes with pumps making weird sounds, and forceps hanging out could be projected on side-by-side 175 by 75 foot video screens in a stadium with the surgeons working at the 50 yard line surrounding by prancing cheerleaders.  Scoring would be pretty straightforward. Failure to adequately monitor hemodynamic stability would be charged a 10-point penalty and accidentally cutting the wrong blood vessel is a personal foul costing 15 points. Excessive blood loss counts as a touch back. Dropping the patient on the floor leads to expulsion of the lead surgeon.  Humus would be substituted for salsa as the preferred chip dip, for obvious reasons.  Wade Fisher, MD from Methodist Hospital in Houston would provide the cut-by-cut commentary and Vaughn A. Starnes, MD, Hastings Distinguished Professor and Chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at University of Southern California would provide the color commentary, reflecting on great heart surgeons of the past,  although hopefully not too colorful

Another innovative possibility would be the Twitter Sonnet Bowl. Writing teams from the top ranked collegiate writing programs, like the University of Iowa’s and Columbia University’s creative writing programs would compete for creation of a sonnet on a specified theme within 90 minutes. The quality of rhyming would be scored, with pedestrian rhymes subtracting points and more innovative rhyming adding points. Extra points are scored for using iambic hexameters, or hendecasyllable or Alexandrine meters. Cribbing from Emerson or Dickinson is definitely not allowed and counts as a personal foul. Opposing teams are allowed to make up to three disparaging remarks about their opposing team’s compositional progress.  Cumbrean Meade is the drink of choice with medium aged cheddar and tart apricot scones as nunchions. Martha Serpas, distinguished poet from the University of Houston would provide the color commentary and Anne Finnerman, writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis would deliver the line-by-line analysis, and very likely, stinging critique. 

As you can see, advertising bowls on nearly any topic are possible as long as they can be used to sell something to us gullible fans that are sick and tired of hearing politicians excoriate one another, so put on your thinking caps.