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December 23, 2004

BehindTheMedspeak: worstpills.org


Public Citizen's Health Research Group, directed by Sidney Wolfe, M.D., has created a website called worstpills.org to highlight the 181 drugs - and counting - it currently believes are unsafe.

The site has an excellent search engine which searches by drug name, family of drugs, disease or condition, drug-induced disease or condition, and more.

If you're really troubled by something, it's probably worth the $15 annual subscription fee for unlimited full access.

The site also carries analyses of drug pricing, advertising, and other drug-related issues.

I guarantee you that every U.S. reporter on health-related issues subscribes to this site.

Public Citizen has been consistently ahead of the curve and correct far more often than not in its alerts and "heads-up" notices over the more than 30 years of its existence.

On many occasions, it's taken years for the FDA to come to the same conclusions as Wolfe and his colleagues.

December 23, 2004 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Genetic Savings & Clone


I gotta say, the year's ending with a bang: first the Understatement of the Year Award, bestowed in today's noon post, and now the Best Company Name of the Year Award, given to the firm whose name headlines this post.

No, it's not a comic-book creation in an upcoming Batman sequel, nor is it a recently unearthed lost film of Roger B. Corman but, rather, the cutting edge of genetic research.

The Sausalito, California-based company, co-founded by billionaire John Sperling in an effort to clone his dog Missy, hasn't quite got to canines yet, but in the meantime, cats 'R them.

The company created the very first cloned cat - a calico born in 2001 named CC.

They've got five more in the works, being weaned before delivery to their owners-to-be.

The first of the current batch to make it home - and for Christmas, yet - is Little Nicky, pictured above.

The kitten is a clone of the beloved pet cat Nicky of a Texas woman.

Nicky died earlier this year, but not before a skin cell from his body was removed and fused with another cat's hollowed-out egg cell to create Little Nicky.

Before you get your hopes up, though, you'd better hit that piggy bank really hard: it costs $50,000 - and no, your insurance won't cover it - to recreate your pretty purring pet.

Here's the full story by Dan Vergano, from today's USA Today.


    A first: Cash register jingles at Genetic Savings & Clone

    Just in time for that last-minute holiday gift, a bioscience firm has announced the first sale of a cloned kitten, a male named "Little Nicky."

    Genetics Savings & Clone (GSC) of Sausalito, California, reports selling the kitten to a Texas woman for $50,000.

    Genetically, the kitten is a twin of the buyer's Maine Coon cat "Nicky," who died earlier this year.

    The owner declined to be identified in print.

    The kitten is reported to resemble the original cat in both temperament - mellow - and behavior, quickly learning commands and enjoying water play, as well as being identical in appearance.

    The sale of the kitten, born October 17 in an Austin lab, is the first of six similar transactions the cloning firm has in the works.

    More clone kittens are alive and are being weaned before delivery to their owners, says firm spokesman Ben Carlson.

    The Humane Society and other pet advocacy groups have criticized pet cloning as wasteful, noting that 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs enter shelters each year nationwide, where 3 million to 4 million are put to death.

    "We've gotten along fine for millions of years the old-fashioned way of breeding cats. We don't need cloning," says Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society.

    He also questions the decision to expose pets to an experimental procedure like cloning.

    GSC says that while it hopes to eventually bring prices down, cat clones would only be for relatively few pet owners and shouldn't affect the number of adoptions.

    The firm also financed the first cloning of a cat - CC, a calico born in 2001 whose stripes differed from its genetic original.

    The fact that Little Nicky and three other such kittens produced by the firm this year more closely resemble the animals being cloned is the result of a process called chromatin transfer, Carlson says.

    Reproductive cloning works by fusing a hollowed-out egg cell with a cell - usually a skin cell - from the animal being cloned.

    The resulting fused egg begins dividing, creating a clone embryo that is implanted into a surrogate mother.

    Fewer than 5% of attempts typically result in a successful birth.

    Chromatin transfer, a process that GSC licenses from a cattle-cloning firm, adds an additional step to cloning by exposing the donor cell genes more cleanly, in theory, to the egg cell.

    However, the firm has not published statistics on its findings in a scientific journal, leaving outside researchers uncertain about the claim.

    How it works: Before cloning, technicians chemically remove extraneous genetic material from the donor skin cell.

    To do this, they make holes in the nuclear membrane of the skin cell, soaking it in a substance that dissolves the membrane.

    This facilitates the removal of specific cell regulatory proteins associated with the skin itself, leaving behind the basic genetic material, or chromatin, inside the cell.

    The chromatin, rather than the entire donor skin cell, is then placed inside the egg cell.

    GSC was originally co-founded by billionaire John Sperling in an effort to clone his dog Missy.

    The company hopes to start selling canine clones next year, Carlson says.

    Dog clones have proven harder to produce than cats because dogs ovulate eggs too immature for cloning until they are aged in the lab, a dicey process.

    "We think we're pretty close. It could be as soon as a few months," Carlson says.

December 23, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Why being poor is expensive


Rising gasoline prices and food costs hit much harder when your household income's $35,000 a year, the average for Wal-Mart shoppers.

If you prefer Target - whose households average $50,000/year - you're still feeling the squeeze.


It's only when you breath the rarified air of Neiman-Marcus, where the average shopper's household income is over $200,000 a year, that you can take a deep breath and smell the leather and Jo Malone shower gel.


These numbers come from a story in yesterday's Washington Post Business section.

But it's not just that necessities take a larger percentage of the income of lower earning families and individuals.

They pay more for the same products than wealthier individuals.

Because without sufficient capital it's impossible to buy in bulk, which can significantly lower an item's cost.

So you buy things one at time, often paying 50%-100% more than if you purchased a dozen at once.

You pay a higher interest rate if you make less money and have less in the way of assets.

Its not apocryphal, the story about the difference between owing the bank $1,000 and $10,000,000.

When you owe $1,000 and are late with a payment, they're all over you like a cheap suit.

When you $10,000,000 and you miss a payment, they're on the phone offering you another million so you can keep up.

Ask Donald Trump if you don't believe me: he does it for a living.

And not a bad one, if I do say so myself.

December 23, 2004 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Slow Fat Triathlete: Live Your Athletic Dreams in the Body You Have Now'


In the same way that devices designed for the elderly and infirm turn out to be popular among the greater part of the not-elderly-or-infirm population, so this book, written by Jayne Williams (above), a self-described "slow fat triathlete," has much of value for those who are not slow or fat.

Jayne's back cover biography describes her as a woman who graduated from Harvard with a degree in Russian Literature, then acquired "an equally impractical MA in Slavic Literature from U.C. Berkeley."

"She has organized white-water rafting expeditions in Siberia [see, that Russian Literature degree did come in handy] and around the world and enjoyed years of frantic poverty as a freelance writer, interpreter, and editor."

The introduction to the book, subtitled, "Don't Be Afraid of the F-Word," sets the tone nicely:

    Slow Fat Triathlete is me.

    I'm a triathlete at a very modest local level.

    I've been training and racing for two years now.

    I'm also fairly slow and kind of fat, especially as triathletes go.

    I used to be a lot slower and a lot fatter, though, and this book is about my journey.

    This is a book for people like me.

    Folks who may have struggled with a few extra pounds all their lives, or people who haven't exercised as consistently as they wanted to.

    But here's the thing - you can do it anyway.

    You can start out fifty or more pounds overweight, with no experience in any of the three sports of triathlon, and you can get yourself to the starting line and even to the finish.

    You take it slowly and patiently, you accept your limitations even as you push against them, and you commit to being a total and utter beginner, and you can do it.

Jayne's got a website: slowfattriathlete.com - and I have a feeling she answers her email.

She seems like that sort of person.

Her book's $11.17 at amazon.

There are a ton of reviews of the book on amazon's website, each and every one of them a 5-Star/Top Rating encomium.

Even if you don't plan to break a sweat, it's just pleasant to spend time with her and her sunny, resilient nature.

December 23, 2004 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Time Tracker - 'It's obviously not the type of thing kids would want for themselves'


bookofjoe's Understatement of the Year Award goes to... Andrea Galinski, product development manager at Chelsea & Scott, the company that owns Leaps and Bounds, which sells the Time Tracker.

But wait, sayeth thou: what is the Time Tracker?

It's this year's hot toy, except it brings a kind of grim pleasure to parents and none that I can see to kids.

But what is it, already?

OK, then. It's a device to help children improve their performances on standardized tests.

Recommended ages: 4 and up.



From Constance L. Hays's article in Monday's New York Times:

    Shaped like a colorful peppermill, with a digital readout panel, lights that suggest a traffic intersection and an electronic male voice that booms "Begin" and "Time's Up," the Time Tracker... has turned into a surprise hit of the holiday season.

    Siren sounds indicate when a certain period has gone by, and the lights switch from green to yellow to red to demonstrate how close the child is to the end of the allotted time.

The manufacturer, Learning Resources, said the company has had to reorder the product multiple times to meet the demand.

It's become their top-selling toy, with thousands sold.

Joseph J. Pedulla, director of the Center for the Study of Testing, Education and Educational Policy at the Peter and Carolyn Lynch School of Education, at Boston College, wondered, "Whatever happened to the egg timer?"

Clarisse Cowdery, senior buyer for the Young Explorers catalog, which sells the device, pointed out that there were other uses than test prep.

She noted it could be used for piano practice or for setting limits on TV watching.

"You could even use it as a timeout clock," she said.

Is this a nightmare?

Then why am I not waking up?


The Time Tracker is $34.95 here.

December 23, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: First non-invasive test for Alzheimer's Disease?


Among the many troubling aspects of Alzheimer's disease is that there is, at present, no predictive test for it.

The only way to diagnose it with certainty is by the onset of dementia and at autopsy, where the characteristic plaques are seen on brain examination.

Dr. D.P. Devenand, professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Neurology at Columbia University, presented the results of his study on a predictive test for Alzheimer's at the American College of Psychopharmacology annual meeting earlier this month.

His findings: mildly impaired patients who later develop Alzheimer's disease have difficulty smelling common odors.

Thus, the smell test may become a cheap, fast, and effective way of predicting who is at risk for the disease, at least allowing some measure of preparation on the part of those affected and their families.

The screening test uses the following 10 odors:

• Clove

• Leather

• Lemon

• Lilac

• Menthol

• Natural gas

• Pineapple

• Smoke

• Soap

• Strawberry

December 23, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Prairie Home Companion' cruise with Garrison Keillor


Far be it from the creator of "A Prairie Home Companion" to let sports and movie stars be the only ones to offer proximity to their famous selves for a fine bit of coin of the realm.

In August of 2005, Keillor will be piped aboard a cruise ship that will spend a week sailing around the maritime provinces of Canada.

Said Keillor in Tuesday's New York Times story, "I can't think of a better way to spend the dog days of August than sailing to the Canadian maritime provinces with like-minded odd people."

Deluxe suites cost over $6,000.

That's an awful lot of bushels of hard red winter wheat.

But not to worry, joeheads: the cruise sold out within days of its being announced, so you can instead spend August of next year cruising the internet with moi.

What I find the single most fascinating thing about Keillor is that he makes up his monologue, "The News From Lake Wobegon," each week on the fly.

Can you imagine?

He simply steps up to the microphone and wings it, live and on the air to listeners world-wide.

I completely agree with David Carr, the writer of the Times story, who wrote, "It is a feat that makes the scripted jokes of a Jay Leno or David Letterman very much besides the point."


I haven't listened to the show for years, but writing this, I think I'm gonna make a note to keep this coming Saturday evening open.

December 23, 2004 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

'Grateful Dead Songwriter Contests TSA Search'


That's the headline of a story in this past Monday's Washington Post about John Perry Barlow's arrest on five counts of misdemeanor drug possession in September of 2003 at San Francisco International Airport.

It seems that Barlow, also a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyber-rights organization, had checked his suitcase, which when X-rayed showed the presence of suspicious-looking wires.

When the screener opened the bag to investigate, further probing found a hypodermic needle, marijuana, and illegal hallucinogenic drugs in a bottle of ibuprofen.

After being told to leave the plane, where he'd already been seated and was waiting to take off, Barlow was arrested and jailed in Redwood City.

He's just lost his motion for dismissal of his case on the grounds that it was an illegal seizure, but plans to appeal.

Barlow contends that the Transportation Safety Administration went beyond its authority because the bottle containing the drugs was located inside a pocket of Barlow's bag that wasn't near the wires that first caused the suspicion.

Well, whatever the merits of Barlow's case, one has to wonder about his common sense.

Who in their right mind would travel on a plane with illegal drugs in the current security climate?

What was he thinking?

What are you thinking if you're doing this sort of thing?

Why would anyone risk the dogs, the machines, the searchers, the whole security apparatus now in place at airports, growing more intense by the day?


If nothing else, it shows yet another reason you should never, ever check luggage.

That's if the events reported here recently weren't compelling enough to have convinced you.

Remember, Barlow's got a fall-back in case he's placed on the "No-Fly" list: he can easily afford to travel by private jet.

You and I, we're out of luck if we mess up.

So don't.

As I always think to myself when I'm considering doing something dicey in the O.R.: it's so much easier to avoid trouble than to deal with it.

And I'm right every time.


Here's the Post story, by Sara Kehaulani Goo.

    Grateful Dead Songwriter Contests TSA Search

    John Perry Barlow, a 56-year-old former songwriter for the Grateful Dead, was settled into his airline seat for departure when a flight attendant asked him to get his belongings and leave the plane immediately.

    Airport security workers at San Francisco International Airport had come upon some suspicious-looking wires inside his checked luggage while conducting a routine inspection.

    No explosives turned up, but screeners allegedly did find a hypodermic needle in a suitcase along with a small amount of marijuana and illegal hallucinogenic drugs in a bottle of ibuprofen.

    Barlow's travel plans suddenly changed that day in September 2003: he was charged with five counts of misdemeanor possession of illegal drugs and carted off to the Redwood City jail.

    Barlow is battling the government in the latest legal case to question the breadth of the Transportation Security Administration's searches and the secrecy of the agency's screening policies.

    Barlow, co-founder of the cyber-rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, contends that the alleged drugs cannot be admitted as evidence because they were seized illegally.

    He has sought information on TSA's policies as part of his defense.

    In his case and in several other ones, TSA has claimed it cannot reveal anything about its practices for fear of compromising "security sensitive information."

    The agency made such a claim in a California case involving two peace activists who want to know why they and hundreds of others are on the agency's secret "No Fly" list.

    TSA invoked a similar concern when a wealthy technology entrepreneur, John Gilmore, challenged the agency's requirement that passengers show government identification in order to board an aircraft.

    Judge Harry Papadakis ruled against Barlow's motion on illegal seizure earlier this week in California Superior Court in San Mateo County.

    Barlow said he plans to appeal and continue his push for information about TSA's policies.

    "The defendant is trying to make this case something it is not," said Sheryl Wolcott, deputy district attorney for San Mateo County.

    "It was a standard type of search. We have to balance the privacy interest of a person's luggage versus the security interest of the public who is boarding the plane. It's a pretty simple case."

    Security screeners open and search millions of checked bags every day.

    The searches are so common that TSA now recommends that passengers leave their luggage unlocked because of the high likelihood a screener's hand will find its way inside.

    Legal experts said the court has not clearly ruled as to whether security screeners - in this case a security worker employed by a private company contracting with TSA - can go beyond their duties of looking for explosives in checked bags.

    "What we hope to achieve is to shed some light on how these airport searches are conducted... whether screeners can do whatever they want, wherever they want. It's all been kept under a shroud of secrecy," Barlow said.

    TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said the agency has "an obligation as federal employees to bring any discovered contraband to the attention of proper law enforcement authorities."

    She did not provide a tally of the amount of drugs or other items screeners had turned over to authorities.

    "We don't open bags to discover contraband, but if we do uncover it, we can't ignore it."

    Courts have been clear about the authority of officials to seize illegal items in plain sight.

    But Barlow claims that TSA went beyond its authority because, according to police documents, the bottle containing the drugs was located inside a pocket of Barlow's bag that was not near the wires that first caused suspicion.

    According to police documents, the screener looked at the wires first, and then continued to probe the suitcase and found the alleged drugs.

    Paul Rothstein, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University, said the extent to which airport screeners can probe for illegal materials is still a legally unexplored area.

    But, he said, he doesn't think Barlow will win.

    "It's fairly clear that if you're searching for one thing and you find another, that the other may be used" in a prosecution so long as the official did not go beyond the area where they are allowed to search, Rothstein said.

    The TSA will have to explain why it continued to search Barlow's luggage if the agency and the state want to proceed with the case, said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "If they start charging people with crimes, particularly crimes not relevant to their mission, they're going to have to turn over their security directives" that explain what they are doing and how, he said.

    If found guilty, Barlow faces court-ordered drug treatment.

    "Anytime you can get the government to stop and think about whether or not they're still on target with their mission, that's a valuable piece of a citizen's work," Barlow said.

    "You find yourself in situations where you know something has to be done. If you're not going to do it, who is?"

December 23, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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