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Archives for Modern Life

Hold That (Conservative) Thought

May
23
2008

Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. – Shakespeare, words spoken by Malvolio in Twelfth- Night

There is more than one way for a university to receive national recognition. One is to employ a faculty member who receives a Nobel Prize for his discovery. The other is to be governed by a chancellor who proposes a folly. The University of Colorado, has done both. It makes a citizen proud.

Thomas R. Cech was a professor at the University of Colorado in 1989. That was the year that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to him and Sidney Altman for their discovery, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Science said, “that RNA (ribonucleic acid) in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a biocatalyst.” Dr. Cech’s receipt of the prize was accompanied by the usual favorable publicity and redounded to the credit of the University of Colorado where he had been a distinguished member of the faculty since 1978.

Dr. Cech left the university in 2000 in order to become the president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., a post he recently announced he was leaving in order to return to the University of Colorado. Stories of his receipt of the Nobel Prize were published, as one would expect in all the major newspapers in the world including the Wall Street Journal. But, now, thanks to the discovery of a solution to a problem that does not exist by G.P. “Bud” Peterson, its chancellor, the University of Colorado has returned to the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

In mid-May it was reported that the chancellor had concluded that what the University of Colorado needed was an endowed university chair for a Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy, “conservative thought” he apparently believes, being somewhat different from normal thought, a belief in which he may actually be correct. Hoping to bring the university accolades similar to those brought by Thomas Cech when he received the Nobel Prize, Chancellor Peterson announced that he was hoping to raise $9 million to fund such a position. His proposal did not go unnoticed. It appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and was accompanied by an actual photograph of the chancellor on the second page of that paper, a sign of greatness bestowed on but a distinguished few.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, one of the more amusing examples of the sort of mindless wonders that inhabit the halls of Congress and, briefly, a candidate for the president of the United States, dislikes things intellectual as much as the next man. In a letter to the university he offered to become the first occupier of this chair if it is funded. He was, of course, only joking. In that same letter he suggested that a 20-foot high fence be built around the university, similar to the fence he has longed to see built on the border between the United States and Mexico. That, too, was a joke.

On a more serious note, other conservative commentators have criticized the idea. David Horowitz, who lives in mortal fear of liberal professors and has identified the 101 most dangerous academics in the country, is quoted in the Journal’s article as saying that creation of one token chair will brand the individual like “an animal in the zoo.”

One name that has surfaced as a candidate to fill the chair is columnist George Will. Upon learning of the new position he said: “Like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, they’re planning to study conservatives. That’s hilarious. I don’t think it would be a good fit.”

The University of Colorado is 49th in the country in terms of per-student state funding which accounts for less than 10 percent of the university’s total budget. Some may wonder whether a better use could be found for $9 million than the creation of a chair that is described as the first of its kind in the nation and the topic of which could easily be covered within the existing course curriculum at the university. The answer is not hard to find. It could. The discovery of more useful ways to spend $9 million – perhaps on students – would further remove from the conversation the mockery to which the chancellor and his proposal have been subject.

Bud Peterson did not intentionally play the fool and probably doesn’t think any of this is hilarious. He was just looking for a way to leave his mark. Perhaps some of his advisors will suggest that there are many other ways to do so.

But all is not despair in the academy. Tom Cech is returning to the university and his return will bring good cheer to its denizens. Sadly, the consequences of the chancellor’s folly will have many returns, all of them less felicitous.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:35 PM | Permalink

Savoir Faire

Apr
11
2008

‘Tis a pity she’s a whore. – Title of a John Ford play

Why can’t Americans be more like the French? The slightly mangled line from My Fair Lady is inspired by the fascination with which we in the United States have viewed the sexual peccadilloes of assorted leaders as compared with how such behavior is perceived by the French.

On June 18, 2007, France had an election featuring beautiful women and assorted men in the two parties competing for the presidency. On one side was Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and her partner of more than 20 years, François Hollande. During their time together they had four children and to all outward appearances were to live happily ever after. Within hours after the polls closed, the end of their partnership was announced. Mr. Hollande said the separation was a private affair. A book published after the election quoted Ms. Royale as saying that: “I asked François Hollande to leave our home, to pursue his love interest, which is now laid bare in books and newspapers, on his own.” The whole parting seemed, at least from this side of the Atlantic, remarkably tasteful.

Not to be outdone, her opponent and his wife-followed suit. During the campaign Cécilia Sarkozy, wife of Union for a Popular Movement candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was noticeably absent. Following the election she briefly played the role of first lady of France visiting Libya where she participated in obtaining the release of six health care workers who had been detained in Libya since 2004. Following their release she concluded that the world of politics was not for her, ended her marriage to Nicolas and resumed her relationship with Richard Attlas.

Divorced in October, Mr. Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, a singer and former model whom he met in November 2007, were wed on February 2, 2008. Upon learning of her former husband’s marriage, Cécilia and Richard were married on March 22 instead of marrying in June as originally planned. One paper described the wedding and the elaborate reception that followed as a “revenge”, wedding, the former Mme. Sarkozy having been annoyed that M. Sarkozy’s new wife was 10 years younger.

Both French partings were civilized. No prostitutes No sad spouses standing stolidly by, and no stoical statements by any of the parties. Compare similar events on this side of the Atlantic. There are more examples from which to choose space in a column such as this.

Kwame Kilpatrick had a bright future. He is the mayor of Detroit. If he lived in France he would still have a bright future because it would have been unnecessary to lie about the explicit emails he and another government worker exchanged. The city would not have negotiated the settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit that cost Detroit millions of taxpayer dollars. He and his wife would have said their private lives were their private lives and gone on to live them privately. Instead he may be going to jail, not for sex but for lying about sex.

From Detroit we move to New York where two governors have made the news. Upon becoming governor on March 17, David Paterson held a press conference in which he described the challenges facing New York. On March 18 he held a press conference with his wife, Michelle, in which he described challenges they faced during their marriage including their respective acts of adultery. The affairs were consensual and no one had to pay anything as a result of the companionship or its disclosure thus making it more French than American.

Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York is, of course, the pre-eminent example of how the French don’t do it. He was robbed of his dignity and because of that behavior lost a good post-mortem photo opportunity.

If Eliot lived in France he could have had as many lovers as he wanted and still prosecuted prostitution rings in his official capacity without being called a hypocrite. Instead of standing awkwardly with a stalwart wife by his side, confessing to the fact that he had to pay for the kind of friendship many people routinely enjoy, he would have said with great dignity that he had begun an affair but remained deeply in love with his wife and would/would not be divorcing her and would/would not marry his new friend.

But by consorting, instead, with prostitutes he deprived himself and his family of a dramatic post-death photo opportunity such as enjoyed by former French President François Mitterand.

It is impossible to forget the touching images published around the world at Mitterand’s funeral. Standing side by side, sadly viewing the coffin, were Messieur Mitterand’s wife, Danielle, and his mistress, Anne Pingeot and their illegitimate daughter, Mazarine. It was a touching scene, one Mr. Spitzer could not look forward to even if his nocturnal wanderings had not come to light. That’s because prostitutes don’t do funerals.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 10:42 AM | Permalink

The Cigarette

Feb
8
2008

And a woman is only a woman,
But a good cigar is a smoke. - Rudyard Kipling, The Betrothed, a poem inspired by an 1885 Breach of Promise case in which the plaintiff reportedly told her husband: “You must choose between me and your cigar.”

It is not often I feel compelled to offer an apology to a corporation but one is required this week. Last week, in poking fun at Merck and Schering-Plough for having failed to disclose the results of their unfavorable tests of Vytorin and Zetia, I made fun of Phillip Morris for an ad that appeared in a 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

The ad touted the virtues of its cigarettes and their endorsement by leading doctors. It might seem to some that I was mocking Phillip Morris and that was not my intention. I have nothing but admiration for the company and had an article in the Wall Street Journal appeared just a few days earlier the column would have been written differently. The WSJ article described all the things Phillip Morris International, (PMI) is doing to make cigarette smoking more attractive in those countries that have not yet concluded they are harmful to a smoker’s health.

One of the cleverest ideas devised by Phillip Morris addresses the undeniably difficult problem posed for smokers in those countries where cigarette smoking though not frowned upon, is nonetheless not permitted with the confines of public buildings, thus forcing smokers to sneak outdoors to enjoy their pleasures. To help those people, Phillip Morris has come up with a cigarette that is the opposite of the 1940′s version of Pall Mall cigarette. That cigarette bragged that it was 20% longer than other cigarettes and, therefore, healthier because, as its commercial said: “Pall Mall’s greater length, filters the smoke on the way to your throat.” No one ever pointed out to the maker that once the first half-inch had been smoked the remaining length was the same as that of its competitors and the filtering advantage ceased to exist. That omission was not important, however, since nothing about cigarette advertising is designed to appeal to reason.

The cigarette that is the opposite of the 1940′s Pall Mall is called Phillip Morris’s “Marlboro Intense.” It is one-half inch shorter than ordinary cigarettes but, according to its advertising, packs the same carcinogenic punch (my words – not Phillip Morris’s) as the longer variety because it is more heavily infused with whatever it is that gives the smoker simultaneously pleasure and cancer. According to the WSJ, that cigarette is not only short but a bit fatter than ordinary cigarettes. Its advantage is that its pleasure and toxin can be inhaled in only 7 puffs whereas ordinary cigarettes require 8 or 9 puffs to achieve the same result, a definite benefit for those who, being short on time, are eager to shorten their lives as well by getting the same effect a long cigarette would give them. That is not the only creativity displayed by the company. It has also created the Heatbar, a smoke, but also a pollution-reducing device.

Everyone knows that a by-product of smoking is a pollutant known as “smoke.” According to the WSJ the Heatbar looks a bit like an electric toothbrush. The cigarette is inserted into the device and the smoker then inhales. Inhaling causes the device to heat up “delivering a flavored aerosol, without causing any tobacco to burn.” It releases 90% less smoke into the atmosphere. Whether it is less harmful to the user is not disclosed in the article and the company’s website has distressingly little information about what will surely be a big hit among the environmentally concerned smoking crowd. Although not the sort of device one would expect to see Humphrey Bogart brandish in “To Have And Have Not” or any other films in which he starred, Phillip Morris hopes the device will find a place of honor in the smoker’s world.

The foregoing is not intended to cast aspersions on PMI and the website of its soon-to-be-former corporate parent Altria would refute any attempt to do so. Under the rubric “Commitment to Responsibility” Altria says Phillip Morris International tracks “whether the company measures up to society’s expectations of a major multinational company-and a tobacco company.” It says it supports “strong and effective tobacco regulation for both its products and the industry”, is “open about the health effects of smoking” and works “to address society’s concerns about its products” and supports “minimum age laws” and “youth smoking prevention programs across the globe.”

PMI is clearly a conscientious company and one can’t fault it for continuing to market the only thing it knows how to make. One can only praise it for its efforts to improve the environment and accommodate its customers who have found themselves caught up in government regulations imposed by people who have never appreciated the pleasures that can be found in a well-timed smoke.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 8:51 AM | Permalink

Lawyers, Drugs and Money

Feb
1
2008

The essence of lying is in deception, not in words. – John Ruskin, Modern Painters

The news about the newest cholesterol lowering drugs and disclosure of the fact that there had been non-disclosure. It was reminiscent of the cigarette ads of many years ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

An ad for Philip Morris that appeared in the May 22, 1943 Saturday Evening Post was full of great news about Philip Morris cigarettes, even though by then their creator knew they were killing their friends and devotees. The ad’s headline in large letters cheerfully inquired: “Smoking Less or Smoking More*?” The asterisk referred one to a small note that proudly proclaimed: “Gov’t Figure show all-time peak in smoking”. That was followed by the statement that “You’re safer smoking PHILIP MORRIS!” It then went on to proudly state that those cigarettes were “Scientifically Proved less irritating for the nose and throat.”

Having gotten through the hype, the ad continues in a more sober vein stating that: “Reported by eminent doctors-in medical journals. Their own findings that when smokers changed to Philip Morris ‘every case of irritation of the nose or throat-due to smoking-either cleared up completely, or definitely improved!’” The additional good news imparted by the ad was that the subject of the tests that proved the beneficial effects of smoking were “actual men and women” as distinguished from “laboratory analysis” thus demonstrating conclusively that Philip Morris cigarettes were “far less irritating to your nose and throat.” The only caveat to the obviously unmitigated benefits of switching to Philip Morris was the equivalent to today’s warning that they might kill you. It stated: “NOTE we do not claim curative power for Philip Morris. But, man! What solid proof they’re better . . . . . safer. . . to smoke.” There’s no indication what text was omitted from the ellipses.

It was all brought to mind by Merck/Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals full-page ads trumpeting the virtues of Zetia and Vytorin, the latter being a combination of Zetia and Zocor, a statin. The drug companies conducted a test called “Enhance” that ended almost two years ago. They forgot to disclose the results of the test until January 14, 2008. Among the results was the fact that Zetia failed to slow the accumulation of fatty plaque in the arteries and might have contributed to its formation. The tests also disclosed there might be adverse effects on the liver when Zetia was used in combination with statins, the drugs that lower cholesterol.

Dr. Harlan N. Krumholz, a Yale cardiologist faulted the drug companies’ failure to disclose the results of the study when they became available. Commenting to the New York Times he said: “People may have been on this drug without the ability to know that there was additional data that may have thrown into question its effectiveness. That’s extremely unfortunate, and that’s an understatement.” Dr. Steven E. Nissen, the chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, described the results of the tests to the Times as “shocking” and went on to say that the test results were “as bad a result for the drug as anybody could have feared.”

It was not only a bad result for patients. It was also a bad result for stockholders in the two companies since the two drugs generated $5 billion in sales in 2007. Although the tests only raised the possibility of damage to the liver and threw into doubt whether or not those taking the drugs lowered their risk of heart attack, the tests actually did lower-the companies’ profits from sales of the drugs. Following disclosure of the report, the stock price dropped as it is expected that sales of the drugs will follow suit. Fortunately for stockholders, the two drug companies are not sitting quietly by. They have begun an advertising campaign to counter the bad results of the study believing, as all drug companies do, in the magical power of advertising.

In full-page ads in major newspapers around the country they describe the study one that has “generated a lot of confusion,” although apparently not in the minds of the doctors quoted above. The ad states that the “American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association agree that lowering bad cholesterol is important,” conveniently overlooking the fact that while the drug lowered bad cholesterol it increased the growth of fatty plaque in the arteries when compared with patients taking Zocor alone. There is one difference between today’s ad and the cigarette ads of yore. Less than half of the Vitorin and Zetia ads extolled the virtues of the drugs. The remainder described in excruciating detail all the terrible things that might happen to those taking the drug as is the requirement in drug advertisements.

The ad won’t help those who have taken the medication. They can only hope it hasn’t harmed them. Whether it helps the stockholders to whom the companies appear to have greater loyalty, only time will tell.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 9:33 AM | Permalink

Ain’t Dead Yet

Nov
9
2007

Yet ‘tain’t being dead-it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last
remains. – Robert Service,
The Cremation of Sam McGee

Although this writer enjoys reasonably good health and has no expectation of dying in the near future, the envelope that came from an organization called the Neptune Society, hinted at exciting news. On the face of the envelope beneath the name of the addressee was printed “Free Pre-paid cremation! DETAILS INSIDE.” Although such an announcement is not quite as exciting as being notified that you have won millions in a contest you had no idea you’d entered, the prospect of receiving anything free, even cremation, excites the average postal patron. I am no exception.

Nonetheless, I was slightly apprehensive since I was sure the contents would disclose, as do so many seemingly irresistible offers, that there was a time limit associated with the offer and that in order to take advantage of it I would have to agree to be cremated by, for example, August 31, 2009 or some other date selected by the Neptune Society, probably a month in which cremations are typically low. That is how offers of free things such as free printers when buying a new Apple Computer, etc. typically work. So it was with some relief that upon opening the envelope I learned that although the contents breached the envelope’s promise of a free cremation, there was no time limit for taking advantage of the offer. It would be valid even if I chose to live another 40 or 50 years. That good news was more than offset, however, by the bad news that I had not won a free cremation as promised. In that respect the envelope was no different from the envelope one gets from the Publishers’ Clearing House addressed to “occupant” and informing the occupant that he or she has just won hundreds of thousands if not hundreds of millions of dollars in a Publishers’ Clearing House contest the occupant had no idea he or she had entered.

The enclosed letter explained that the Neptune Society has the distinction of being “America’s Cremation Specialists” and informs that Neptune’s motto is “Simple, Economical and Dignified.” The letter sets forth a number of reasons why cremation (after death) makes sense including the fact that by paying for the cremation now you “lock in today’s price” no matter when you decide to die. Somewhat mysteriously, the letter concludes with a footnote apologizing “if this letter has reached you at a time of serious illness or death in your family.” That seems odd since that is exactly the time when such a letter would be most relevant and, depending on the time of the next drawing, welcomed by its recipient.

Just because I got the letter did not mean I was entitled to a free cremation, even if the envelope suggested otherwise. All I was being offered was a chance to participate in a drawing where, if successful, I would be entitled to be cremated for free no matter how long after the drawing I became eligible to take advantage of my good fortune.

Enclosed with the letter was the ticket to participate in the drawing. It was in the form of a card, the completion and return of which entitles me to be entered in the free cremation lottery. On one side of the card is a tranquil picture of a misty forest with shades of green faintly visible through the mist, an apparent attempt to inspire thoughts of death and perhaps anticipation of what the environment in the long awaited hereafter will be. Such a picture though a touch maudlin is certainly preferable to a picture depicting the process Neptune is selling.

On the back of the card the misty forest is again presented, this time accompanied by a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt that has no particular relevance to cremation but is a nice quotation nonetheless. It says: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.” The quotation would be more meaningful if it meant that each recipient of the card got the present of a free cremation. That, the reverse of the card informs, is not the case since only a lucky few receive the free cremation. In large bold letters the reader of the card is informed that he or she can WIN A PRE-PAID CREMATION by simply completing and returning the reply slip, thus rendering the card’s recipient eligible for the monthly drawing.

I have not returned the card. I am waiting to see if those selling cryogenic preservation with the tantalizing prospect of possible future resurrection will be having a drawing in which I can participate. Then I can decide whether to go for the hot or the cold. I’ll not enter both.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 10:31 AM | Permalink

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