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Science Snag #3: Iris Closing

Write with care, scribbling ones, in your blog or journal. Do your best, for it will be the baseline upon which an early diagnosis might depend. (Assuming you actually want to know about it, of course.)

A vocabulary analysis of the final book by British novelist Iris Murdoch reveals the early stages of the Alzheimer's disease that killed her, neuroscientists have found. The discovery shows that even before she was diagnosed with the disease, her work betrayed the subtle signs of her condition.

The vocabulary of Jackson's Dilemma, published shortly before Murdoch was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1995, is less rich than that of an earlier work The Sea, The Sea, published at the height of her powers in 1978. A team of British researchers made the discovery by using text-analysis software to compare the variety of words used in three of her novels.

From: "Iris Murdoch's last book reveals early Alzheimer's",

Vote Recount: "The Journalistic Gap"

In more WNYC  news, on Wednesday, December 1, 2004, at approximately 11:40 a.m. Eastern Time, Brian Lehrer will have a discussion on what he perceives as "the journalistic gap" between what the mainstream (mainlining?) media has to say about reports of voting irregularities, and what various  other organizations are doing and saying about it. I'm a little unclear on the parameters of the discussion, I only heard a brief promo, but he generally has very high quality guests with a great many intelligent things to say, so I think it would be worth checking it out.

I imagine sometime later today or early tomorrow he will have a description of the discussion (far more adept than mine) on his current episode page.

Update: Are You Average?

In another  indication that The Corpuscle rides the Zeitgeist's cutting edge (harhar), the doctor who wrote the New Yorker article I referenced in "Are You Average?" was interviewed today on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show. An audio file (probably .ra) of the interview should be up on their  archives page sometime today or early tomorrow. Worth a listen.

Are You Average?

Are you average? Most of us are, pretty much, in at least some important aspects of our lives. We come to terms with these patches of mediocrity in ourselves. It's not that big a deal. Most of us are better at things we care about. Not the best, maybe, but quite obviously not everybody can be the best.

What about your doctor? You want her to be average or the best? How do you know how good she is? Think she is going to tell you if she's just average?

Fact is, at least insofar as she compares with other doctors in her field, she probably doesn't even know herself how good, or average, or lousy she is. She has her own self-analysis of her skills, of course, which is likely skewed. She has the analysis of her medical partners and colleagues, which is likely skewed. She has the analysis of her patients, which is likely skewed. In most cases, the only objective data there is to look at is whether your doctor has ever been disciplined, or even suspended for practicing really bad medicine. I think you would be safe under those circumstance assuming your doctor could be doing better.

There's a bell curve, you know, and your doctor is somewhere on it. I'll bet you'd like to know where.

One small field in medicine has been far ahead of most others in measuring the performance of its practitioners: cystic-fibrosis care. For forty years, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has gathered detailed data from the country’s cystic-fibrosis treatment centers. It did not begin doing so because it was more enlightened than everyone else. It did so because, in the nineteen-sixties, a pediatrician from Cleveland named LeRoy Matthews was driving people in the field crazy.

That's from an article by writer and practicing surgeon Atul Gawande in the current New Yorker. The article is called "The Bell Curve: What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are?"

Matthews had started a cystic-fibrosis treatment program as a young pulmonary specialist at Babies and Children’s Hospital, in Cleveland, in 1957, and within a few years was claiming to have an annual mortality rate that was less than two per cent. To anyone treating CF at the time, it was a preposterous assertion. National mortality rates for the disease were estimated to be higher than twenty per cent a year, and the average patient died by the age of three. Yet here was Matthews saying that he and his colleagues could stop the disease from doing serious harm for years. “How long [our patients] will live remains to be seen, but I expect most of them to come to my funeral,” he told one conference of physicians.

In 1964, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation gave a University of Minnesota pediatrician named Warren Warwick a budget of ten thousand dollars to collect reports on every patient treated at the thirty-one CF centers in the United States that year—data that would test Matthews’s claim. Several months later, he had the results: the median estimated age at death for patients in Matthews’s center was twenty-one years, seven times the age of patients treated elsewhere. He had not had a single death among patients younger than six in at least five years.

I'll leave it to you to read the article and find out for yourself what was going on. In the meantime, I will drag in another interesting character: Don Berwick.

Berwick runs a small, nonprofit organization in Boston called the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. The institute provided multimillion-dollar grants to hospitals that were willing to try his ideas for improving medicine. Cincinnati’s CF program won one of the grants. And among Berwick’s key stipulations was that recipients had to open up their information to their patients—to “go naked,” as one doctor put it.
To fix medicine, Berwick maintained, we need to do two things: measure ourselves and be more open about what we are doing. This meant routinely comparing the performance of doctors and hospitals, looking at everything from complication rates to how often a drug ordered for a patient is delivered correctly and on time. And, he insisted, hospitals should give patients total access to the information. “‘No secrets’ is the new rule in my escape fire,” he said.

Dr. Gawande takes us on a journey to an institution that has, by far, the best record in helping Cystic Fibrosis patients of any other institution in the country. Their oldest living CF patient right now is 64 years old. If you know anything about CF, that's just stunning.

What makes the situation especially puzzling is that our system for CF care is far more sophisticated than that for most diseases. The hundred and seventeen CF centers across the country are all ultra-specialized, undergo a rigorous certification process, and have lots of experience in caring for people with CF. They all follow the same detailed guidelines for CF treatment. They all participate in research trials to figure out new and better treatments.

And yet there is this Bell Curve, and it maps a pretty wide variation in the successful treatment of Cystic Fibrosis. Why? It's an interesting and enlightening story, not just for health care professionals.

And one last thing. Maybe you want to know where your doctor falls on that curve, but does she?

The hardest question for anyone who takes responsibility for what he or she does is, What if I turn out to be average? If we took all the surgeons at my level of experience, compared our results, and found that I am one of the worst, the answer would be easy: I’d turn in my scalpel. But what if I were a C? Working as I do in a city that’s mobbed with surgeons, how could I justify putting patients under the knife? I could tell myself, Someone’s got to be average. If the bell curve is a fact, then so is the reality that most doctors are going to be average. There is no shame in being one of them, right?

Except, of course, there is. Somehow, what troubles people isn’t so much being average as settling for it. Everyone knows that averageness is, for most of us, our fate. And in certain matters—looks, money, tennis—we would do well to accept this. But in your surgeon, your child’s pediatrician, your police department, your local high school? When the stakes are our lives and the lives of our children, we expect averageness to be resisted. And so I push to make myself the best. If I’m not the best already, I believe wholeheartedly that I will be. And you expect that of me, too. Whatever the next round of numbers may say.

I'm wid' you, Doc.

Science Snag #2: World Community Grid

Along the lines of SETI@Home, IBM and others have institued the World Community Grid.

World Community Grid's mission is to create the largest public computing grid benefiting humanity. Our work is built on the belief that technological innovation combined with visionary scientific research and large-scale volunteerism can change our world for the better. Our success depends on individuals - like you - collectively contributing their unused computer time.
Our work has developed the technical infrastructure that serves as the grid's foundation for scientific research. Our success depends upon individuals collectively contributing their unused computer time to change the world for the better.

World Community Grid is making technology available only to public and not-for-profit organizations to use in humanitarian research that might otherwise not be completed due to the high cost of the computer infrastructure required in the absence of a public grid. As part of our commitment to advancing human welfare, all results will be in the public domain and made public to the global research community.

At the moment, the only project you can volunteer to help on is the Human Proteome Folding Project.

Only a few years ago, scientists completed a draft sequence of the Human Genome. While our genes are an amazing repository of information, knowing the genes is only the beginning. It is the proteins made from these genes that actually carry out all the functions that keep us alive.

However, scientists still do not know the functions of a large fraction of human proteins. With an understanding of how each protein affects human health, scientists can develop new cures for human disease.

Huge amounts of data exist that can identify the role of individual proteins, but it must be analyzed to be useful. This analysis could take years to complete on super computers. World Community Grid hopes to shrink this time to months.

If you want some computing help on your particular idea to save the world, you'll be glad to hear they are actively seeking proposals for other worthwhile projects. Visit their Requests For Proposals page and download their guidelines and application.

Science Snag #1: Mars Parks

(First in a series of science news items that for one reason or another have snagged my interest.)

Charles Cockell, a microbiologist for the British Antarctic Survey, and Gerda Horneck, an astrobiologist from the German Aerospace Centre have proposed a series of conservation parks on Mars. From :

Next time you go for a stroll on Mars, be sure you don't leave any litter behind. A plan to keep parts of the red planet in their pristine state could see seven areas turned into 'planetary parks', regulated just like national parks here on Earth.


Although scientists have found no life on Mars, Cockell and Horneck point out that many national parks on Earth are protected partly for their geological interest and natural beauty, such as the Grand Canyon and Antarctica. "And if Mars has simple microbial life, there are even greater reasons for establishing planetary parks - to protect that life from human destruction," they write.


Cockell and Horneck have mapped out seven different areas for conservation that contain representative features of the martian landscape.

The Polar Park would protect the planet's ice cap for biological studies, while Olympus Park would encompass the Solar System's largest volcano, Olympus Mons, to prevent future mountaineers despoiling it, as has happened with Mount Everest.

Others parks would cover desert areas, impressive meteorite craters and the landing sites of the Viking 1 and Mars Pathfinder spacecraft.

The scientists are keen to see these areas explored, but say that the environmental impact of human activity must be limited. They suggest rules such as "no spacecraft parts to be left in the park", and would allow access only along predefined routes, like hiking trails in terrestrial parks.

Well, Bush said we were going to Mars. I'd say we better get crackin' on this parks idea. Assuming, of course, the Bureau of Land Management hasn't already handed out cut-rate leases on the rest of the Solar System.

All Aboard For Tuskegee!

The Independent is reporting that "under the auspices" of the New York City Administration for Children's Services [ACS], some poor children in New York are being forced to participate in trials of new AIDS drugs.

GSK linked to trials forcing Aids drugs on deprived US children
By Jason Nisse
28 November 2004


No tests can take place on children without parental consent and drug companies have had great difficulty in the past obtaining such consent for Aids drug trials.

However, the ACS is deemed to be the legal guardian for many HIV-positive children. According to a BBC2 documentary, "Guinea Pig Kids", to be shown on Tuesday, the ACS has forced children to be involved in these trials, removing them from foster homes if the foster parent did not comply and even physically making the children take the drugs.

The programme interviewed the family of Garfield Momodu, an HIV-positive child who was removed from his grandmother and taken into care when she stopped giving him the drugs prescribed in the trials. Researchers also interviewed an unnamed child who said he and others were physically forced to take drugs through a peg-tube inserted into their stomachs.


It added that the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, encouraged the studies.


The ACS says children were selected for trials only after a rigorous vetting process and has denied that it used any strong-arm tactics.

Note that these are drug trials.

Let's hope this is something other than what it first appears to be.

Letters to the Stars and Stripes

Sometime ago -- I don't recall exactly when but I guess it was about the time the ramp up for this foolish war in Iraq had started -- I began reading the web site for the venerable Stars and Stripes , newspaper to the Armed Forces of the United States of America.

I've become especially fond of the Letters to the Editor  page. It's a fascinating peek underneath my blanket of stereotypes, particularly those regarding what life in the U.S. Military is like and what sort of people populate our armed forces. I don't know that you can draw any reliable conclusions from reading these letters. The letters published are a selected set, after all. We only see those from people who choose to write and, from that set, only those letters the editor chooses to print. Still, reading the letters leaves me knowing more than I did before about these  folks.

Should you choose at some point to take up this reading habit of mine, you will note that many of the letters are repeated on different pages. This appears to be an effect of the paper being published in different editions, a Pacific edition, a Mideast edition, a European edition, and so forth. Also, not all the letter writers show an indication in their signatures of their military rank. Sometimes it seems the writer simply didn’t include it; at other times it appears the writer is a relative of a sailor, soldier or airman. In other cases the writer appears to be a civilian unrelated to any member of the service. Obviously the editor welcomes letters from anyone who cares to take the trouble to write.

Here's a taste, a selected set in summary form, of some of the letters that have appeared in the last two weeks.

  • Staff Sgt. Chad Rodrigues, Camp Buehring, Kuwait, writes objecting to the suggestion of an earlier writer that a Christian "Inspiration Column" in the Stars and Stripes would be a good idea. He advises that he is "a spiritual man", and that he fully believes "in God, our Father, the Creator", but adds that as he sits there "in the middle of the desert fighting the same war that was started hundreds of years ago by some other fine Christians (the Crusaders), [he'd] like to take a second to scoff at Christian ideals and arrogance." He thinks "it's beautiful that after years of rule by the moral majority, America is finally starting to adopt a more liberal frame of mind". He begs Stripes to "please keep religion out of the paper" and says that religion "belongs in a church, or chapel, where those who feel they need it can get it 24/7."
  • Spc. Brett Eldridge, Camp Falcon/Ferrin-Huggins, Iraq, fires back at Staff Sgt. Rodrigues.
  • Thomas Lawler, Wiesbaden, Germany, a high school student and a football player at H.H. Arnold High School in Wiesbaden reads the paper's sports section everyday and objects that there is far too little coverage of high school sports.
  • Josh Turner, a middle school student also in Wiesbaden wants to see more coverage of soccer.
  • Maj. Scott DeLorenzi, Misawa Air Base, Japan, writes to wonder why the Stars and Stripes can't find anything better to write about than a Thai transvestite winning a beauty pageant.
  • Alicia Linse, Plymouth, Indiana, the wife of a soldier serving in Fallujah, says she is glued to her T.V., watching the coverage of the attack there. She worries about the news updates stating that the attack is "going better than planned and our forces not coming up against much insurgent activity". She wonders "where the insurgents have gone."
  • It being Thanksgiving time, there are a number of letters from civilians thanking the troops for their sacrifice.
  • We will pass over a number of letters engaging an ongoing controversy regarding which groups of soldiers should be awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge.
  • Thomas Kierstad writes from Bagram, Afghanistan, with his concerns about a proposed new uniform for the Air Force.
  • Sgt. Don Asher, Kirkuk, Iraq, writes on the subject of the group of soldiers who refused to carry out the fuel supply mission so much in the news a few weeks ago. He agrees with a previous letter writer who argued that somebody needs to be punished for the incident, but says “the people that may need to be punished aren't the drivers of the supply trucks.”
  • Sgt. David C. McGuire, Baumholder, Germany, calls those same soldiers cowards.
  • Staff Sgt. Walter Challapa, Baghdad, participated in four Olympics on the U.S. team, but says the U.S. Army is “the best team in the world.”
  • Chuck Mann, Greensboro, N.C., says “Jesus was liberal” and wonders “What's wrong with that?”
  • Capt. Scott Hollander, Friedberg, Germany, says Jesus was a hard-right conservative.
  • Gabriel Rodriguez, Yokohama, Japan, wants the results of the recent U.S. election investigated. “With widespread election irregularities, how can we as a nation try and impose democracy around the world when our own democracy is in shambles?”
  • Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Lowe, Brunssum, Netherlands, writes to defend the Electoral College.
  • Doug Schumick, Stuttgart, Germany, doesn’t like liberals very much. “The only time unity means anything to these people is when they have lost an election. Liberals are perfectly happy to have a divided nation as long as they are in charge of it. But when they are losers, all they can do is whine about how divided we are.” And: “If the Democrats were really so concerned about unity, why didn't they forgo the 2004 elections in the name of national unity? If unity were so important to the liberals they could have simply said, ‘Because we are interested in national unity, we choose to not further divide the American people with a contentious election. We cede the control of the nation to the Republicans until such a time as we are more united.’"
  • Empress LeNoire, Camp Zama, Japan, fires back at Mr. Schumick.
  • 1st Lt. Billy Pope, USAF, Baghdad, recounts a lovely little story of almost being too busy, or thinking he was, to give “five scraggly looking U.S. Army soldiers”, the oldest no more than 22,  a tour of where he works. The soldiers “had just come in from the field and were resting before heading back out and they wanted to tour the palace that Saddam Hussein had once used as his hunting-and-fishing getaway.”
  • Richard Smith of Philadelphia grumps that if ‘Stripes must post opinion, it should post the opinions of our troops and their families.”
  • Capt. Joe Macri, Baghdad, vigorously objects. “We are a diverse country and a diverse military and as such there is no single one ‘opinion of the troops and their families’ (other than hoping we all come home safe) and I don't need anyone offering to give ‘my opinion’ for me.”
  • Sgt. Teresa Kennedy, Camp Virginia, Kuwait, relates the (sad) saga of getting her required flu shot.
  • Steven M. Roman, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, objects to the way third-country nationals ignore stop signs.
  • Nelson Harold, Garmisch, Germany, was “disturbed to see a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union appear on Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor reporting that the ACLU has successfully persuaded the Pentagon to forbid any further alliance of itself or its bases with the Boy Scouts of America.” He maintains “This has gone far enough. The ACLU has outlived its usefulness in our country. It is not American.”
  • 1st Lt. Bryan T. Andersen, Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, reminds Mr. Harold that “the power of the majority must be limited to ensure individual rights,” and that “your right to freedom of speech, equal protection, due process, your right to privacy are all rights that the ACLU protects.”
  • Judy Coomer, Vogelweh, Germany, says the kids at Vogelweh Elementary School need more time for recess.
  • Chuck Hayes, Ramstein, Germany, objects to the mismanagement of parking spaces at the commissary and base exchange.
  • Mark Ertz, Camp McTureous, Okinawa, heaps scorn on the people in charge of the Rising Sun Bowl, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools All-Japan football championship.
  • Charles Flint, Camp Doha, Kuwait, gives a history lesson to French President Jacques Chirac.
  • Capt. Darren W. Guillaume, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in reference to the widely published photo of the “smoking Marine”, objects to the glorification of tobacco.
  • Staff Sgt. Michael Steele, RAF Lakenheath, England, is in shock over the “riot that took place during the Nov. 19 basketball game between the Pacers and the Pistons.”
  • Cpl. Mike Curt, Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, Okinawa, writes an encomium to Yasser Arafat. “The spiteful reaction by Israel to forbid Arafat's burial in Jerusalem was petty, for his spirit is free to roam, transcending Israeli border controls…. May Yasser Arafat rest in peace knowing that his work to see an independent Palestine will be achieved in our Creator's time.”
  • John Lambert, Baumholder, Germany, questions the morality of the GOP in reference to the Republicans changing the rules for DeLay, and for the recent flap over the bill granting “two committee chairman, and their assistants access to individual income tax returns. Hello, that's a violation of privacy. And this is the party that, after the election, trumpeted its moral superiority. Boy I can't wait to see what happens the next four years. Hypocrites.”
  • Mike Appell, Okinawa City, Okinawa, says the Kerry crowd got its comeuppance.
  • Colleen McInerney-Graff, Clarks Summit, Pa., says that on March 27, 2003, she lost her husband, Army Maj. Peter C. Graff, to suicide. “Like many members of our armed forces, he was afraid to seek the help he needed, believing the stigma associated with mental illness would ruin his career. How wrong he was.” She adds “Pete was a wonderful man, and it breaks my heart that he won't be here to help me raise our daughter, now 5, and our son, almost 2. He won't be there to help his colleagues, and he won't be there to give comfort to his parents as they age.” She thanks Stars and Stripes for running an article on depression, and how members of the military can find help in their struggle with it. She prays that “no one else ever goes through this kind of pain. I hope the article saves many lives.”
  • On November 17, 2001, Airman 1st Class Charles F. Eskew was found murdered in his military dorm room on Kadena Air Base, Japan. Three years later, Airman Eskew’s mother, Patti J. Eskew of Great Falls, Montana writes in the hope that others will remember her son. “His big smile, courage and his love for God and family will never, ever be forgotten.”

Thanks to all Americans serving their country, and thanks to their families. May those serving overseas come home safely. And soon.

Here There Be Dragonfire

It's a beautiful autumnal day here in New York City. The streets are bright, the air is cool and crisp, left-over turkey awaits me, holiday shoppers crowd the sidewalks, and so naturally my mind turns to thoughts of nuclear terrorism.

I don't know how I missed this one, but I did. I'm usually up on all this stuff but this one slipped  me by up until a few weeks ago when somebody in another forum alluded to this particular incident.

Remember the "undisclosed location"? The "Shadow Government"?

Washington Post, Friday, March 1, 2002; Page A01

President Bush has dispatched a shadow government of about 100 senior civilian managers to live and work secretly outside Washington, activating for the first time long-standing plans to ensure survival of federal rule after catastrophic attack on the nation's capital.

Execution of the classified "Continuity of Operations Plan" resulted not from the Cold War threat of intercontinental missiles, the scenario rehearsed for decades, but from heightened fears that the al Qaeda terrorist network might somehow obtain a portable nuclear weapon, according to three officials with firsthand knowledge. U.S. intelligence has no specific knowledge of such a weapon, they said, but the risk is thought great enough to justify the shadow government's disruption and expense.

Well, I have before me a copy of a book called Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe by Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The Introduction to Mr. Allison's book begins:

On October 11, 2001, a month to the day after the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush faced an even more terrifying prospect.

I don't exactly recall what I was doing on October 11, 2001. The building that I work in down there (right next to where the World Trade Center had stood up until exactly one month earlier) was probably still behind the police line. I might have spent part of that day hiking up to the General Post Office right across from Madison Square Garden to fetch the mail. Our post office was closed and all mail for all homes and businesses in our zip code was being redirected to the GPO. Or I might have spent part of my day working on my laptop in my boss's living room. Or, hell, maybe I went to an afternoon movie. There's only so much work you can do when you don't have a place to work.

But here's what the Federal Government was doing on that day:

At the morning's Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, informed the president that a CIA agent code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda terrorists possessed a ten-kiloton nuclear bomb, evidently stolen from the Russian arsenal. According to Dragon fire, this nuclear weapon was now on American soil, in New York City.

OK, well, so while I was fetching the company's mail, or tapping away on my laptop in my boss's apartment, or sitting in a darkened movie theater munching popcorn, the federal government was in a complete panic, trying to figure out if this nightmarish report could possibly be true.

Concerned that Al Qaeda could have smuggled a nuclear weapon into Washington as well, the president ordered Vice President Dick Cheney to leave the capital for an "undisclosed location", where he would remain for many weeks to follow. This was standard procedure to ensure "continuity of government" in case of a decapitation strike against the U.S. political leadership. Several hundred federal employees from more than a dozen government agencies joined the vice president at this secret site, the core of an alternative government that would seek to cope in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion that destroyed Washington.

I recall thinking at the time I first heard of Cheney being moved to the famous undisclosed location, "That's a bit melodramatic, don't you think?" I reckoned they wouldn't do that if the concern was another attack with airplanes. I reckoned they had to be thinking nuclear bomb which seemed ridiculous to me at the time. This was before I had fully absorbed the effect of what had happened a month earlier. I was still in shock. My day-to-day life had been completely overturned and I wasn't thinking all that clearly about these sorts of things. I'm better now.

Mr. Allison is kind enough to describe for me what such an attack on my city would be like:

If Al Qaeda was to rent a van to carry the ten-kiloton Russian weapon into the heart of Times Square and detonate it adjacent to the Morgan Stanley headquarters at 1585 Broadway, Times Square would vanish in the twinkling of an eye. The blast would generate temperatures reaching into the tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting fireball and blast wave would destroy instantaneously the theater district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, and every other structure within a third of a mile of the point of detonation. The ensuing firestorm would engulf Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall,  the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden, leaving a landscape resembling the World Trade Center site. From the United Nations headquarters on the East River and the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, to the Metropolitan Museum in the eighties and the Flatiron Building in the twenties, structures would remind one of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building following the Oklahoma City bombing.

On a normal workday, more than half a million people crowd the area within a half-mile radius of Times Square. A noon detonation in midtown Manhattan could kill them all. Hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings, fire, and fallout in the ensuing hours....

By the way, if you would like to see what the end of your particular world would be like, Mr. Allison's web site helpfully provides a handy blast map generator. Just plug in your zip code and checkout the extent of your personal fireball.

It's at times like these I'm really reminded what teeny little corpuscles we all are in History's Great Bloodstream. Cheney and a hundred technocrats are evacuated to an undisclosed location when Washington thinks it could have a nuke in its belly. The president stays because if he didn't, the rest of us would get The Really Big Clue about what was really going on. Or, since the Dragonfire report turned out to be false, what the government thought might be going on. They couldn't tell us about it here in New York City. We've all seen enough End-of-the-World movies to know that much.

A CNN flash that the White House had information about an Al Qaeda nuclear weapon in Manhattan would create chaos. New Yorkers would flee the city in terror, and residents of other metropolitan areas would panic. The stock market, which was just then stabilizing from the shock of 9/11, could collapse.

Of course, when you compare that possibility with the possibility of losing over half a million lives, I don't know, maybe chaos doesn't seem so bad. But no, they didn't know if it was true or not. They didn't know if there really was a bomb. No, they were right to keep it from us.

I guess.

No, they were right.

I think.

Yes, Cheney and a hundred technocrats get to know. They get to go to an undisclosed location. And the rest of us, delivery men, CEOs, sandwich counter guys, lawyers, accountants, secretaries, doormen, taxi drivers, school kids, landlords and renters alike... the rest of us need to be kept in the dark. We need to go about our lives unaware of the possible threat of nuclear annihilation maybe parked in a rent-a-van on 39th Street between 5th and 6th (assuming the terrorists could find a parking space, of course).

I can't really be angry that Cheney and the blessed 100 get the chance to save themselves from possible vaporization. And it isn't really a matter of the Big Shots getting know of the danger and the rest of us having to take the hindmost. Somebody has to be left to run the federal government if Washington disappears. Over 250 million of my surviving fellow citizens would need that, even taking into account the fact that the president would then be Cheney.

I don't know what to be angry about, really. There is the generalized fury at the cosmos that my life matters so little to it, but I mean, come on, get a grip, Mike. You think you are the first sentient being to feel that way? I suppose I could be angry at History and how I have such little to say about how things go, but that's just a little league version of being mad at the Cosmos. I can go out and get involved and give money to my candidate and vote in every election and so forth and so on, but if an idiot gets elected, there's not much I can do about it until the next election. If the idiot gets me into a position where there is a nuclear bomb parked 18 blocks from my house and telling me about it would Create Chaos, well, then, that's just too bad for me, I guess. The needs of the many, and all that.

So, I don't know. Maybe I don't get to be angry. Maybe I just get to be scared and helpless. Except, now that I think about it, maybe there is one thing I could be usefully mad at...

Are they, like, doing anything about keeping this stuff out of my city? Graham Allison says it can be done. He says if we used our heads and went about this thing in an organized and careful manner, we could actually prevent such a catastrophe.

I don't know if they are or they aren't taking such care. It seems unlikely to me, on the face of things. They are $225 billion into a war that has nothing to do with this. They seem a bit distracted at the moment. I'm going to have to look into this matter more closely.

And if they aren't doing enough to keep this stuff out of my city, then, yeah, there's something I can be usefully angry about. I don't exactly know what I could do with that anger, though.   I'm just one little Brave American Hero waiting to have his name show up on a plaque somewhere in acknowledgement of never having done much of anything for his country except pay his taxes on time, vote in every election, and die in a nuclear holocaust.

Maybe before you can figure out what you have to do to actually change history, you have to get really, really, really angry at them for treating your life as something so expendable. Maybe getting that angry helps you figure out what to do. Maybe that's it.

Yes. I shall have to look into this matter further. You look into it as well. Maybe the bunch of us can come up with something.

The Difference Between Love and Like

I had a roommate once, a compatriot from college who moved to New York along with a number of us other Theater Hopefuls. He and I were friendly enough with each other. We liked each other, we were pleasant with each other, but we didn't share much of ourselves.

Time passed, and at some point my roommate developed an unfortunate cyst right on top of his head. He went to the doctor who put him in the hospital. The knives came out and after a suitably (for the HMO) short recovery time, he came back home to the apartment.

A certain amount of home treatment of the wound was required and he needed someone to do it for him, this being a consequence of the wound being right on top of his head and out of his view and reach, so he recruited a very reluctant me. It's not that I'm particularly squeamish; it's just that this thing in particular really grossed me out.

But. I did it anyway. I guess I thought it was the right thing to do.

So that's what it's like when you like but don't love the one to whom's cyst you are attending. For an alternative view, this time argued from love, I refer you to a piece in the current New Yorker, "Old Faithful", by David Sedaris. It's funny. It's sweet. It's a little bit gross.

A Few More Minutes

As the momentum for reforming our intelligence system peters out , I think back a couple of months to when I went out and -- like millions of other Americans -- bought the 9-11 Commission Report. Yep, I read it, cover to cover, and it's true what they say about it; it does read like a techno-terrorist-thriller for much of the way. Near the end it kind of bogs down in, you know, hard questions and difficult choices, but then I think that was rather the point.

But this recent failure of Congress to actually get anything done about the dire state of our intelligence systems, and the concomitant discussion of the 9-11 Report, reminds me that no matter how good a read that report is, there's really only one passage in it that still sticks with me in any sort of emotional way. I knew it would, of course, the moment I read it. It was one of those moments I think of as a "text fricative" -- a moment when the breath of the story is stopped, briefly, by a crystallizing thought in the mind of the reader.

If you haven't read the report, you should at least read the first chapter ("We Have Some Planes") in which the stories of the four hijackings are told. In the section called "The Battle for United 93", we read:

The hijackers had planned to take flights scheduled to depart at 7:45 (American 11), 8:00 (United 175 and United 93), and 8:10 (American 77). Three of the flights had actually taken off within 10 to 15 minutes of their planned departure times. United 93 would ordinarily have taken off about 15 minutes after pulling away from the gate. When it left the ground at 8:42, the flight was running more than 25 minutes late.

Note the time: 8:42 a.m.

American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., four minutes after United 93 was wheels up out of Newark just across the harbor. Kind of makes you wish it was possible to put rearview mirrors on airliners. How different things might have gone for 93 if as they climbed out of Newark, heading west, First Officer Leroy Homer had glanced into his  mirror to see what was going on behind them. "Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear."

Around 9:00, the FAA, American, and United were facing the staggering realization of apparent multiple hijackings. At 9:03, they would see another aircraft strike the World Trade Center. Crisis managers at the FAA and the airlines did not yet act to warn other aircraft.
As news of the hijackings filtered through the FAA and the airlines, it does not seem to have occurred to their leadership that they needed to alert other aircraft in the air that they too might be at risk.

In the following, "Herndon Command Center" refers to the FAA's National Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, which oversees all air traffic in U.S. airspace and coordinates with the FAA's 22 regional Control Centers.

FAA controllers at Boston Center, which had tracked the first two hijackings, requested at 9:07 that Herndon Command Center "get messages to airborne aircraft to increase security for the cockpit." There is no evidence that Herndon took such action. Boston Center immediately began speculating about other aircraft that might be in danger, leading them to worry about a transcontinental flight-Delta 1989-that in fact was not hijacked. At 9:19, the FAA's New England regional office called Herndon and asked that Cleveland Center advise Delta 1989 to use extra cockpit security.

Several FAA air traffic control officials told us it was the air carriers' responsibility to notify their planes of security problems. One senior FAA air traffic control manager said that it was simply not the FAA's place to order the airlines what to tell their pilots.
United's first decisive action to notify its airborne aircraft to take defensive action did not come until 9:19, when a United flight dispatcher, Ed Ballinger, took the initiative to begin transmitting warnings to his 16 transcontinental flights: "Beware any cockpit intrusion- Two a/c [aircraft] hit World Trade Center." One of the flights that received the warning was United 93. Because Ballinger was still responsible for his other flights as well as Flight 175, his warning message was not transmitted to Flight 93 until 9:23.

By all accounts, the first 46 minutes of Flight 93's cross-country trip proceeded routinely. Radio communications from the plane were normal. Heading, speed, and altitude ran according to plan. At 9:24, Ballinger's warning to United 93 was received in the cockpit. Within two minutes, at 9:26, the pilot, Jason Dahl, responded with a note of puzzlement: "Ed, confirm latest mssg plz-Jason."

The hijackers attacked at 9:28...

That moment, that last sentence there, is the one that still sticks with me.

Look at the timeline:

9:24: Ballinger sends his warning to United 93 to secure its cockpit.

9:26: Captain Jason Dahl comes back with a request for clarification which never comes.

9:28: The hijackers attack the cockpit

What a difference even ten more minutes might have made. A few more minutes for the clarification to come back to Captain Dahl. A few more minutes for the meaning of this bizarre message to sink in. A few more minutes for the Captain and First Officer to come to believe this impossible thing could actually happen to them. A few more minutes to take whatever steps they could take to try to secure their aircraft...

Here's the thing: unlike the passengers and crew of United 93, we have been warned in time. We don't need clarification and our flight crew, up there in front, knows the score as well as we do. We don't have to wait around for the consequences of failing to secure the aircraft to sink in. We don't have to end up like the poor desperate heroes of Flight 93 huddling in the back of the airplane, calling our loved ones to express our mutually forlorn hopes of ever seeing each other again, devising a brave but doomed plan for making our own assault on the cockpit.

We are in the air at 35,000 feet and Congress needs to stop kidding itself. The people who want to kill us are seated up there in We-Mean-Business Class. The time for securing the aircraft is now.

The Error And The Pity

One day this last summer I was descending the stairs in my building, just about to land in the lobby, when I heard the tell-tale sounds of keys jingling in an apartment door. I cleared the last step and glanced to my right, down the short hallway, and there was a stranger: a shortish woman, a bit roundish, gray or silver hair or maybe even blond, I can't recall.

"Are you our visiting playwright?" I asked. I mentioned one of my pals who lives in the building had told me she would be subletting for the summer. We introduced ourselves and had a very brief conversation then we parted.

The woman was Bryony Lavery, a British playwright and author of the Tony-nominated play "Frozen", in town over the summer to rehearse another play, "Last Easter", which opened October 7, 2004. A little less than two weeks before that opening night a story appeared in the New York Times, subsequently carried by the A.P. and referenced widely, reporting that Lavery had been accused of plagiarism by Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a Yale psychiatric expert on serial killers, and by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker.

It's painful for me to imagine what that two weeks might have been like for Lavery. Talk about taking the bloom off the rose. I've had some plays produced and the last two weeks before opening can be hellish enough, especially with a new play, but to have this accusation hanging over you at a time like that must have made her life deeply miserable.

In the November 22, 2004 issue of the New Yorker (online now) Gladwell has an article named "Something Borrowed" -- partly a personal history of the episode, but mostly a look at plagiarism itself. Or at least plagiarism as we define it these days.

Is what Lavery did plagiarism? Pretty much, but you might be surprised by what the guy whose words Lavery used has to say about it.

Then I got a copy of the script for “Frozen.” I found it breathtaking. I realize that this isn’t supposed to be a relevant consideration. And yet it was: instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause. In late September, the story broke. The Times, the Observer in England, and the Associated Press all ran stories about Lavery’s alleged plagiarism, and the articles were picked up by newspapers around the world. Bryony Lavery had seen one of my articles, responded to what she read, and used it as she constructed a work of art. And now her reputation was in tatters. Something about that didn’t seem right.

Creative property, Lessig reminds us, has many lives—the newspaper arrives at our door, it becomes part of the archive of human knowledge, then it wraps fish. And, by the time ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we lose track of where they came from, and we lose control of where they are going. The final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.

He seems an extraordinarily generous man. At some point late in the story he invites Lavery to his house and she seems almost painfully grateful for the chance to sit down with him at his kitchen table. But what makes the article interesting isn't simply that he is generous. He has clearly given some careful thought to the subject of plagiarism as colored by the experience of having his own words used by another writer in a very public way.

And Lavery, too, has been doing some thinking.

“It’s been absolutely bloody, really, because it attacks my own notion of my character,” Lavery said, sitting at my kitchen table. A bouquet of flowers she had brought were on the counter behind her. “It feels absolutely terrible. I’ve had to go through the pain for being careless. I’d like to repair what happened, and I don’t know how to do that. I just didn’t think I was doing the wrong thing . . . and then the article comes out in the New York Times and every continent in the world.” There was a long silence. She was heartbroken. But, more than that, she was confused, because she didn’t understand how six hundred and seventy-five rather ordinary words could bring the walls tumbling down. “It’s been horrible and bloody.” She began to cry. “I’m still composting what happened. It will be for a purpose . . . whatever that purpose is.”

Very worthwhile reading for anybody who ever puts pen to paper, or fingertip to key, to produce work that may eventually find its way into the world-wide "archive of human knowledge".

In Memory

May 2006

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