Exiled from the Underworld

Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tonga

Sunday, May 29, 2005


Philocrites posted Saturday about the new Harvard humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein. Noting that the "language of reverence" is an issue for Harvard humanists, Philocrites captured this from the Boston Globe:

Liberal and conservative believers bicker over the particulars of belief, and humanists are no different, frequently disagreeing over the meaning of humanism and even vocabulary. Take a simple word like faith.

''I personally see a humanist as a person of faith," Epstein says. ''Humanism is a faith that people do have the strength to solve enough of their problems, if they work together and they care about one another, to live meaningful lives" without a belief in an almighty god.

But as he talks, senior Kerry Dingle, joining him and other humanists for a group interview, shakes her head. ''I really, really hate the word 'faith,' " she says. ''Faith is by definition believing something without evidence."

I, too, hated the word "faith" for most of my youth because it seemed to be the sole property of fools. As used, it almost invariably meant "belief in the incredible."

Fortunately, in the early 1970s I was lucky enough to take classes from a professor at the University of Tulsa. The professor, Harold E. Hill (yes, he capitalized on the Music Man identity), had a triple Ph D from Yale, in religion, anthopology, and something else (I have forgotten the third). He was an ordained Presbyterian minister as well, and co-taught a classes with various scientists; one of the most fascinating of these classes centered upon the works of William James. (I remember distinctly that Dr. Hill was more scientifically critical of James than was the "scientist"-- a research psychologist!)

Dr. Hill detested the word "faith' when it was used to refer to uncritical acceptance, and would break into rants when he encountered a phrase like "faith in miracles".

According to Dr. Hill, faith was a reasonable expectation for the future, based upon one's empirical experiences. One could, for example, have faith in gravity because one had experienced the functioning of gravity since the womb. A gravity failure-- when objects would behave in ways counter to the laws of gravity-- would result in a crisis of faith, among other crises.

Real faith-- and for him, as a Christian-- meant that he had seen evidence of the truth in Jesus's teachings (that love is critical to human survival, that forgiveness is liberating, that commitment to ideals of human goodness is evidence itself of that human goodness) and had a reasonable expectation that those truths would remain valid over time. Misplaced statements of faith, asserting a belief in the unbelievable, were acknowledgments of superstition and the power of magic.

Ironically, I took my first course from Dr. Hill only when the University of Tulsa dropped its requirement that all undergraduates take a course in religion (TU was founded by the Presbyterian Church). I abhored the idea of required courses,not because the concept is invalid, but because I was young, arrogant, and immature, and abhored much that was reasonable. Once I discovered that Dr. Hill's religion courses were intellectually and academically challenging-- and not indoctrination platforms-- I signed up for as many as I could get. Dr. Hill was (and is still) a great friend. I benefitted immeasurably from his mentoring when I was young; he inspired me to greater integrity.

Not unexpectedly, Dr. Hill spoke to the Humanist Association in Tulsa on 12 May 2005.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Do you suppose...

Breaking headline story from the New York Times:

F.D.A. Gets Reports of Blindness Tied to Male Impotence Drugs

The F.D.A. said it had received reports of partial vision loss among 38 men taking Viagra and among four men taking Cialis.

The story inside:

Whether the popular drugs can actually cause blindness is unclear, but the Food and Drug Administration said it had suggested changes in the drugs' labeling as a precaution.

Pfizer Inc., the maker of Viagra, is in talks with the agency to list vision loss among the drug's side effects, while the makers of Cialis, Eli Lilly & Company and the Icos Corporation., have already added such a warning.

"We're not able to specifically say that these 38 cases are a result of the patients' taking Viagra, because they may have other predisposing conditions," said Suzanne Trevino, a spokeswoman for the F.D.A.

The type of blindness reported, a disorder known as non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, or NAION, is in fact common among people over 50 who have conditions like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol - factors that also contribute to erectile dysfunction.

"With that said, we are taking this seriously and are working with the company to make sure that doctors and patients are aware of it," Ms. Trevino said.

She said Levitra, which is newer than Viagra and Cialis, had not been linked with any such cases. The drug is made by Bayer A.G. and GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. and marketed by the Schering-Plough Corporation.

Pfizer, the world's largest drug maker, said in a statement that more than 100 clinical trials, involving 13,000 patients, had found no reports of such vision loss. "There is no evidence showing that NAION occurred more frequently in men taking Viagra than men of similar age and health who did not take Viagra," the company said.

Pharmaceutical news travels fast these days:

This afternoon, Pfizer's shares were trading down 65 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $28.25 on the New York Stock xchange.

Even if clinical trials reported no loss of vision, other sight-related adverse events emerged.

Available since 1998, Viagra has long listed certain vision problems, like "bluish or blurred vision, or being sensitive to light," among its possible side effects, and the 38 cases reported to the F.D.A. represent a tiny fraction of the 23 million people who have taken the drug.

For Pfizer, based in New York, sales of Viagra are supposed to help offset the anticipated loss in revenues from Bextra, a pain reliever, which was pulled off the market last month after being linked to strokes and a rare skin disease. Concerns about the heart-related side effects of Pfizer's drug Celebrex, a similar pain reliever, have also hurt profits.

Blurred vision, blindness... makes you wonder how they are linked to Viagra. Perhaps-- no,no, if that were so, there would be additional reports of hairy palms, too, doncha think?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Queen me!

At least I'm not a Sith, or Jar-Jar Binks, or...

I just love the way these quizzes make me seem to be much, much nicer and more interesting than I really am. Younger, too.

I really want to see Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith soon, but I am even more eager to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy . With any luck, I'll see one or the other before they come out on DVD. I finally saw Star Wars I last week and still haven't seen Star Wars II .

At least now I have a clue who Queen Amidala is, and will no longer mistakenly call her Queen Amygdala. If I only had a brain-- or a relevant part thereof.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Specter, something informs me that our parting moment is at hand.

"Spectre," said Scrooge, "something informs me that our parting moment is at hand. I know it, but I know not how. Tell me what man that was whom we saw lying dead?"

Just how prescient was Dickens, anyway? The spelling is different, but the sense is the same.

Last Friday's New York Times shook the earth with this relevation:

Republican Moderates in Senate Sense Pressures

Reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote, "The unusual pact that permitted the nomination of John R. Bolton to go forward on Thursday without the support of a crucial Republican senator has exposed, in a very raw and public way, the extreme pressures facing Republican moderates in a Senate that is increasingly dominated by conservatives."

Stolberg's article cited White House pressure on Senator George Voinovich over the Bolton nomination, quoting Lincoln Chafee (who sounded just the teensiest bit whiny) as further testimony to the issue.

"Bolton is a perfect example of putting the moderates in an impossible situation," said Senator Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and who agonized publicly over Mr. Bolton for weeks. "It's a no-win. Either we don't support the president or we vote for a very unpopular pick to represent us at the United Nations."

Since when is a Senator's allegiance to his President, rather than to the Constitution and the best interests of his constituents? Didn't they teach civics at Andover? Maybe Chafee would have been better off with a public school education.

Stolberg noted that the few moderate Republicans in the Senate reflected the general state of the national picture, and continued:

But here in the Capitol, their numbers are so few, said Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, that they quit having their weekly lunches about a year ago.

"Susan and I were there alone for so much of the time," Mr. Specter he said, referring to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, "we worked through all of our conversation and decided to disband."

Regarding Senator Frist's Nuclear Attack on Democrats, Stolberg wrote:

Mr. Specter is in a particularly tight spot. He is trying to remain neutral, but as Judiciary Committee chairman is expected to advocate for the nominees. John Breaux, a centrist Democrat who was in the Senate until last year, said defying party leaders could be especially risky for a committee chairman.

"They can put an awful lot of pressure on you," he said of the leaders. "They say, 'Look, you're a chairman because your party is in control, and you've got to be with the party.' So when you break with them, you have to be fast on foot to explain it."

Today Senator Specter shows us that he's ready to get serious with the footwork. In an Opinion piece for the New York Times, titled "Paying for Asbestos," Sen. Specter sides with Patrick Leahy against Dick Armey.

FOR over two decades, Congress has wrestled unsuccessfully with the difficult problem of asbestos. Now, with Congress about to produce legislation that will compensate Americans hurt by asbestos without clogging the courts and causing undue economic hardship, Dick Armey, a Republican and the former House majority leader, has led a huge and misleading advertising campaign to defeat the bill.

The bill, which Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and I introduced last month with broad bipartisan support, would use a $140 billion trust fund to pay asbestos victims in a no-fault program similar to workers' compensation. Workers exposed to asbestos would be paid based on severity of injuries without proving in court who would be liable under existing tort laws, eliminating the high costs of litigation. Unlike current law, under which those who have been exposed to asbestos may be compensated for potential future injuries, damages can be collected only on proof of existing harm. These and other provisions are the result of 40 bargaining sessions over the last two years among manufacturers, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., insurers and trial lawyers.

Uh-oh. Now he's really in trouble. His bill doesn't absolve asbestos-related businesses from responsibility, he acknowledges collaborating with Vice President Cheney's least-favorite Dem Sen, and he admits to --gasp-- having negotiated with labor unions and trial lawyers. Never mind that the trial lawyers and the labor unions have expressed their own unhappiness with the bill; the asbestos industry is not uniformly pleased.

Specter fights back against Armey.

What Mr. Armey didn't tell his radio listeners was that, as reported by the Washington newspaper Roll Call, the lobbying firm that he works for has received nearly $1 million from Equitas, a British insurer that has fought to stop this legislation. Posing as a disinterested spokesman on behalf of the public interest, Mr. Armey is instead just another paid lobbyist spreading disinformation.

What Mr. Specter didn't tell his readers is that Mr. Armey's lobbying firm is FreedomWorks, the successor organization to Citizens for a Sound Economy and Empower America. Citizens for a Sound Economy was founded by David and Charles Koch (who also co-founded the Cato Institute).

[By the way, our own Sen. Dr. Tom Coburn is featured on the FreedomWorks home page right now, with a link to an article titled, "Coburn to the Rescue!" , and subtitled "Stopping a Specter-backed asbestos trust fund."

I bet that FreedomWorks backers and Koch interests don't forget to fund Dr. Tom in his next election run!]

Some of us thought that Senator Specter sold his pro-choice soul last fall in exchange for the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. When, in February, Specter announced his diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease, I wondered if the cancer would compromise his remaining strength.

By the evidence of his op-ed piece today, I think that he is back in the fight. I also think that the Republican party majority will not look to him for solidarity on the senate floor. Conversely, Specter--even if his health permits the a run at re-election in 2010-- may be politically dead to the Republican party long before the campaign.

Scrooge said to the Spirit, "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me."

Dickens wrote of the spectre: "The Spirit was immovable as ever."

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Oldies but Ghoulies

[UPDATE: See also blog.bioethics.net, the American Journal of Bioethics editors blog, for the story titled, "Living Wills Save Money? Dude, Did You Really Say That Out Loud?"]

Last week Tom Burka at Opinions You Should Have posted this:

Vaccine Shortage Solution To Social Security Problem, Says Thompson

Secretary of Health and Human Resources Tommy Thompson said today that the flu vaccine shortage thus demonstrated the kind of "careful, long-range planning" that the Bush Administration brings to bear on difficult problems. "One or two more vaccine shortages, and we'll be able to put away that so-called lockbox," Thompson boasted.

Burka commented, "This plan is certainly as good, if not better, than what Bush just unveiled."

Hahahahahaha! That Tom Burka is really funny, I thought.

Mike Leavitt agreed, and operating under the principle [and you were wondering if he had any principles, weren't you?] that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, announced his innovative cost-containment program:

U.S. Official Touts Medicare Living Wills

By KEVIN FREKING The Associated Press Monday, May 2, 2005; 8:47 PM

WASHINGTON -- Encouraging new Medicare participants to write living wills could end up saving the government large amounts of money, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Monday.

Even funnier than Tom Burka, no? Cut Medicare costs, reduce the burden on Social Security, and avert suspicion that the Bush Administration would like to offer tax incentives for private contractors to satisfy the Soylent Green market. Hahahahaha!

Almost as funny as Laura Bush!

I mean, after all the whoop-de-don't that the White House went through regarding "end-of-life" decision-making with Terry Schiavo, who would think that such a suggestion could be anything more than a jest?

Not that anyone would actually deny medical care on the crass notion that it was cheaper to let people die than to provide treatment. No President or Governor, certainly no Texas Governor, would ever sign a Culture of Death bill that would allow a state to intrude into the private health care decisions of, say, a family? Would he? Not if it were called the Texas Futile Care Law. Not without the Religious Right getting reallyreallyreally upset, right?

Yeah, right.

Unfortunately for Secretary Thompson, so-called "experts" with no sense of humor took the whole thing seriously, and the laughs died down faster than you could shout "Grandma!"

Experts Dispute Remark That Living Wills Save Money

By Ceci Connolly Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, May 6, 2005; Page A09

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said this week that encouraging senior citizens to write living wills could dramatically reduce Medicare's skyrocketing health care costs.

But a large body of scientific data -- including an article co-written by the Bush administration's Medicare chief -- offers little or no evidence that living wills or hospice care lower medical bills.

Old people-- screw 'em if they can't take a joke.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Hello Muddah

Good grief-- have we no decency?

From CNN: Student suspended over call from mom in Iraq

COLUMBUS, Georgia (AP) -- A high school student was suspended for 10 days for refusing to end a cell phone call with his mother, a soldier serving in Iraq, school officials said.

The 10-day suspension was issued because Kevin Francois was "defiant and disorderly" and was imposed in lieu of an arrest, Spencer High School assistant principal Alfred Parham said.

The confrontation Wednesday began after the 17-year-old junior got a call at lunchtime from his mother, Sgt. 1st Class Monique Bates, who left in
January for a one-year tour with the 203rd Forward Support Battalion.

Cell phones are allowed on campus but may not be used during school hours. When a teacher told him to hang up, he refused. He said he told the teacher, "This is my mom in Iraq. I'm not about to hang up on my mom."

Parham said the teen's suspension was based on his reaction to the teacher's request. He said the teen used profanity when taken to the office.

"Kevin got defiant and disorderly," Parham said. "When a kid becomes out of control like that they can either be arrested or suspended for 10 days. Now being that his mother is in Iraq, we're not trying to cause her any undue hardship; he was suspended for 10 days."