Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Prozac doesn't work?

According to a review of the literature on the efficacy of Prozac and other drugs like it, they simply don't work. The one caveat is that they may have some efficacy versus placebo on "severely" depressed patients, however that could be explained by the fact that patients simply figured out that they were on a placebo.

This isn't surprising at all. In the US (where I presume that these are most prescribed), and in most other industrialized countries, they have a board that reviews the efficacy of all new drugs, determines whether or not they are dangerous, etc. Unlike a for-profit regulatory agency, the FDA has no real incentive to make sure that their recommendations are good ones - they are legally obliged to review medicines, and patients and doctors can't really blamed for listening to recommendations that are supposedly of the highest quality. They can take as long as they want to review them, spend as much money as they want, and can making rulings obviously tainted by bias (both political and coming from drug companies) without much call for reform. Somethings tells me, though, that these findings will do little to tame the public's enthusiasm for public regulators like the FDA, and things like this will continue to come out. I'm very interested in studies on the effects of prescribed amphetamines (Adderall, Ritalin, etc.) - drugs which the FDA promises are safe, and which have burgeoned in popularity in recent years, with children in their single digits taking speed on a daily basis.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Homogenization of Eastern Europe

Middle-age Eastern European history can become pretty sad when you think about the huge mixes of peoples in a lot of the areas. Jews, Germans, Armenians, Greeks, and Turks, and Gypsies were scattered throughout, comprising a large percentage of the urban populations. Germans had settled far into Russia, Greeks were the favored civil servants of the Ottomans, Armenians had been wandering since the 14th century but were particularly scattered after the Armenian genocide, and Turks came from the Ottoman Empire, ruler of the Balkans till World War I. Gypsies had been wandering throughout Eurasia since 1000, and Jews have been wandering since biblical times.

Unfortunately, nationalism got the best of cosmopolitan multiculturalism. The story of the Jews is obvious, and the Germans were naturally expelled after World War II, and the ones who were allowed to stay took advantage of West Germany's offer of citizenship to all ethnic Germans and returned. In Romania, first under Gheorghiu-Dej and later under Ceauşescu, the Jews and Germans were actually sold to West Germany and Israel, respectively. Ceauşescu was even reported to have said that "oil, Germans, and Jews" were Romania's best export commodities. In any case, he destroyed most of the oldest parts of Romania's capital, erasing a lot of the evidence that they ever existed. With the coming of nationalism, minorities like the Armenians and Greeks were almost entirely assimilated into whatever the native culture, retaining only strange last names. The Gypsies that were not killed in the Holocaust assimilated somewhat, but their culture has been in some perverse way somewhat preserved due to poverty and racism. However, the use of the language has significantly decreased, and it remains to be seen to what extent Gypsy culture will have survived by the time they achieve socioeconomic parity with the dominant populations. Eastern Europe has become as homogenized as Western Europe.

The Battle of Kosovo and Vidovdan

Kosovo becoming independent from the Serbs shouldn't seem particularly momentous -- it was mostly not Serbian, and they'd already had Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro secede -- all of whom at least were Christians and spoke a Slavic language. The importance lies in the Battle of Kosovo -- a weird schadenfreude that brought the Serbs together in collective misery. They finally got it back when Serbia won independence from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, but they never really got it back, because it had gone from being ethnically mixed to almost totally Albanian.

The impact of the Battle of Kosovo can be seen in the fact that it was the first major event to fall on Vidovdan, or St. Vitus' day. After that, beginning in the 20th century and coinciding with the strengthening of nationalism, half the events in Serbian-related history has occured on that day: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; the treaty of Versailles; the founding of the Triune Kingdom of Serbs, Croates, and Slovenes (just rolls off your tongue!); the creation of the Cominform; Croatian independence; Milošević getting sent to the Hague; and finally Montenegro becoming independent. Too bad they couldn't have waited till June 28 and added Kosovo's independence to that list.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

John McCain's running mate

John McCain is 71. He was tortured (right?) when he was younger, and he's led a pretty stressful life. If he's president, it'll be more stressful. Given that the vice presidency is a pretty weak position, it's usually sought after for political ambition -- vice presidents get a leg up when it comes to coverage and "buzz" that drives the nominating process for the next election. However, when you're John McCain's vice president, there's the added advantage of a higher probability of death, meaning you've got a higher chance of becoming the real president. Unless it's obvious from the beginning that Obama is going to trounce McCain.