Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Daily Mail's embarrassingly bad drug reporting

The Daily Mail is certainly no stranger to atrociously uninformed and alarmist drug reporting, but this story from about two years ago about a "schoolboy" in England who died after snorting heroin which he thought was cocaine takes the cake. It's too ridiculous for a summary to do it justice, so I'm going to go through it line-by-line.

Francis Clapham, 16, bought the drug for £1 from a teenager in a park, an inquest heard.

Really? £1? Because that sounds like an incredibly tiny amount of heroin – so tiny that I question if anyone would really go to the trouble to make such a transaction. Your average bag of UK heroin costs £11.13 and contains 200 mg of powder that is, being generous, 50% pure, yielding 100 mg of pure heroin. Divide this by 11.13 and you get a little less than 9 mg of pure dope, which is about equivalent to two Percocets or Vicodins here in the States. Definitely not enough to kill anyone who weighs more than 10 pounds. And all these calculations are generous – how much you get for your money is a hugely dependent on how experienced you are, and people buying £1 bags of drugs of uncertain provenance generally get the dregs, if anything at all (I'd suspect that precisely of 100.00% of all "£1 bags of dope" are entirely baking soda. At most, this kid was getting the equivalent of a little less than one weak pain pill.

But after sniffing the heroin with a friend he collapsed and was taken to hospital where he was put on a life-support machine.

The drug caused organ failure resulting in brain damage through oxygen starvation and he died two months later.

Huh? Overdose deaths happen very rapidly – I've never heard of pure heroin killing someone over the span of two months – and fatalies from overdoses are very low if an ambulance is called and naloxone is used, which appears to have been the case.

The inquest heard that Francis, who did not have a history of drug taking or dealing, was drinking vodka with a friend in a park in Nelson, Lancashire, when he decided to buy the drug.

Ah ha, so the truth comes out! He wasn't only doing [incredibly tiny amounts of heroin] – he was drinking too. Mixing alcohol and heroin (or any painkillers or anti-anxiety medications) is incredibly dangerous – the total risk is greater than the sum of the individual risks – and there is established medical literature that questions the use of the term "heroin overdose" to describe what are really caused in equal parts by heroin and other CNS depressants like benzos and alcohol.

And about that lack of "history of drug taking or dealing" – says who? His friends, who are scared that they're gonna get in trouble? And I dunno how it goes in the UK, but in the US, it's almost unheard of for someone to buy cocaine before they tried marijuana, and given the popularity of ecstasy in the UK, I'm guessing coke generally comes after E, as well. And, as I'll later explain, he was clearly very drunk when this incident occurred, and those 16-year-olds who drink heavily have a tendency to do other drugs as well. So I sort of doubt that he had no history of using illegal drugs (leaving aside the fact that alcohol is definitely a drug, and I'll bet this wasn't the first time he drank).

Pathologist Dr Naomi Carter told the inquest the schoolboy contracted MRSA in hospital and had a reaction to antibiotics but would not have recovered from the brain damage he had already suffered.

Uh, okay, so he actually died of a superbug brought on my endemic overuse of antibiotics.

Not only that, but brain damage? Assuming they're implying that the brain damage "already suffered" was a result of the heroin overdose (and if that's not the case, then he manifestly did not die because of heroin), when the hell in the history of heroin use has anyone ever suffered permanent brain damage from an overdose? A search of Google Scholar reveals some cases of long-term heroin users developing brain damage, but a) it's not at all clear why, or if it even has anything to do with the heroin, and b) this 16-year-old kid, so inexperienced that he bought £1 worth of drugs that weren't even what he thought they were, seems unlikely to have been doing heroin for long.

"I only saw him taking a line of it but he might have had some more in his pocket. We had an argument about the drugs and he stormed out."

"I handed the rest of the package to the paramedics." [...]

Mr Morris added: "The drug was bought for £1 to £2 in the park."

So I guess what the title meant when it said "£1 bag of heroin" was maybe £2 worth of heroin, but really nobody knows. Well, the autopsy could tell us, but either none was done, or the Daily Mail reporter was just too lazy to look for it, or (more likely) too ignorant to even know to look for it, and what to look for. And how do they know that £2 was the maximum amount? Because the dealer, who has an obvious incentive to downplay the amount of heroin he sold the kid, told them so? (Later in the article it mentions that the dealer admitted to what he did and, given that he's a 16-year-old, was not sentenced to any "detention.")

Recording a verdict of accidental death, East Lancashire coroner Richard Taylor said: "It was clearly an accident that he took a substance which he had no idea would end in his death."

"It was entirely down to the heroin he died."

Wow, what an ignorant thing to say. First of all, it was already established that he had been drinking vodka, so to say that it was "entirely down to the heroin" is absurd and shows a total lack of knowledge of the established scientific literature. (Not to mention that 16-year-olds drinking hard liquor in a park is definitely illegal in Britain, and yet the story didn't seem too concerned about this illegal activity (but one that's societally acceptable) which contributed to his death. Secondly, should the antibiotic-resistant infection that he acquired in the hospital that ultimately killed him really get none of the blame?

For my money, I'd say that there are a few possibilities for what actually happened (given, of course, that the proximate cause of death was MSRA – or drug-induced brain damage, if you wanna be generous – not overdose):

  1. He actually took a lot more heroin than claimed, and died from complications of the interaction between heroin and alcohol (and possibly benzodiazepines, which aren't mentioned). However, I have never heard of patients getting brain damage from overdoses – even alcohol-enhanced ones. Lethal overdoses are common, but given that he survived the immediate aftermath of the overdose, even the polydrug use theory seems suspect.
  2. He drank a lot more than implied, and he was pretty close to death from alcohol poisoning anyway. From what I understand, brain damage is a much more likely symptom of alcohol poisoning than a non-lethal heroin overdose.
  3. What everyone thought was heroin was actually something else entirely – perhaps something highly toxic. This seems unlikely, though, given that no dealer would have an incentive to use something lethal as an adulterant as opposed to something simple and safe like baking soda or a crushed aspirin.
  4. Some incredibly rare reaction to one of the many substances he may have taken that day.

My money's on hypothesis 2 – alcohol poisoning – but still, the story doesn't make much sense, and the only thing we can say for certain is that the Daily Mail is publishing alarmist misinformation that will ultimately obscure the true risks of drug use and drug prohibition.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Californians to vote on legal weed for all in 2010

I know I've posted about California's 2010 marijuana legalization referendum twice already, but it's a little surreal, so I'm just making sure. But according to the LA Times, the referendum looks like a sure thing:

Supporters of legalized marijuana announced today that they have gathered about 700,000 signatures for their initiative, virtually guaranteeing voters will see it on the November ballot.

They plan to turn in the petitions today to elections officials in some of the state's major counties, including Los Angeles. Supporters need 433,971 valid signatures to qualify the measure.

What's interesting about the whole movement is that it isn't really a popular movement – if you believe the Times, it's the business community that has sprung up in the wake of Prop 215:

Four marijuana legalization initiatives have been proposed, but Lee’s is the only one that appears to have the financial support to make the ballot.

Lee's firm, one of the state's most successful marijuana businesses, has spent more than $1 million on the measure and hired professional consultants to run the campaign. Lee owns half a dozen mostly pot-related businesses in Oakland, including Coffeeshop Blue Sky, a medical marijuana dispensary, and Oaksterdam University, which offers classes on marijuana.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Axelrod's infamous "people will never know what's in that bill" quote

I've seen this quote by Obama adviser David Axelrod in a few places, but it still gets me every time:

...people will never know what's in that bill until we pass it...

To put it into context, he's saying that there's been so much disinformation about the bill by its opponents that the public doesn't realize what's in it, and they'll only understand once they experience life under Obamacare. He didn't mean that lawmakers and policy wonks don't know what's in the bill, but unfortunately, the quote is more true when you take it out of context than it is when you read it with everything else he was saying.

Hamid Karzai's hat's waning fortunes

I didn't know this, but apparently Hamid Karzai's iconic hat had a lot of political and cultural relevance:

Known as a karakul hat, and made of the pelt of fetal or newborn lambs of the karakul breed of sheep, traditionally it was something worn by Tajiks and Uzbeks from northern Afghanistan. When Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun from the turban-wearing south, took office in 2002, the karakul hat was part of his attempt to devise a wardrobe that was Afghan rather than ethnic or regional.

It was a move widely praised at the time, in Afghanistan and abroad. The American designer Tom Ford called the Afghan president “the chicest man on the planet.” Afghans looking for national symbols after decades of ethnic strife inspired a brisk trade in the hats, made of lambskins from Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and fashioned by Kabul’s hatters, whose shops lined both sides of Shah-e-do Shamshera Wali Road.

Evidently the hat's fortunes have waned along with Hamid Karzai's.

In any case, all the better for the poor lambs:

The more expensive ones are made from the skins of lambs taken from the pregnant ewe just before birth, by cutting open her abdomen, sometimes while she is still alive. Less costly are those made from lambs killed immediately after delivery; because karakul sheep are extremely protective of their young, that often means slaughtering both together, or forcibly separating them.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Obama should do his jury duty

Obama skips jury duty in Chicago. Personally, I'm all in favor of anything that keeps politicians from doing their jobs. I'd love for him to get some poor black kid busted for selling weed or something and be forced to actually have a concrete opinion on something.

Friday, January 22, 2010

US military blocking humanitarian aid from entering Haiti

It's hard to be sympathetic to former US Representative Cynthia McKinney. Among her achievements are putting forth the "Tupac Shakur Records Act" and being the sole member of the US Congress (as far as I know) to accuse Bush of having foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. After Hurricane Katrina, she took up the cause of an anonymous source who alleged that the Defense Department took advantage of the chaos after Katrina to dispose of 1,000 prisoners, whose bodies were "crushed by tanks, shot in the head, painted blue, and dumped in a Louisiana swamp."

That having been said, it seems that she's spot on in her criticism of the US military for turning back well-established humanitarian groups and even sovereign nations as they try to enter Haiti's ports and provide vitally important and time sensitive food, water, and medicine:

Every plane of humanitarian assistance that is turned away by the U.S. military (so far from CARICOM, the Caribbean Community, Médecins Sans Frontières, Brazil, France, Italy and even the U.S. Red Cross) – as was done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – and the expected arrival on this very day of up to 10,000 U.S. troops, are lasting reminders of the existential threat that now looms over the valiant, proud people and the Republic of Haiti.

Where exactly, in any law on the books or constitution of either Haiti or the United States, does it say that the US military has the authority to deny planes and boats entry to Haiti?

Tyler Cowen also links to an Al Jazeera piece about a brewing showdown between the US and Brazil over who runs what in Haiti.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Picture-driving programming for the masses" (warning: geekery ahead)

This is pretty fucking cool – essentially an extension to Python (a pretty accessible programming language) that can take data from screenshots. So, if your bus transit company only has a webpage that outputs a bus' location using HTML but doesn't offer any sort of XML/formatted document/RSS feed/whatever, you can use the webpage's screenshot as an input. It brings to mind Apple's not-so-successful Web Clips on Dashboard that let's you isolate a part of a web page to display as a widget. This takes that one step further and lets you use the clip as an input, likely turning it into data a little more refined than just a .jpg (perhaps using OCR technology to convert it into text). With straight HTML this is a bit convoluted, as you could just take the text straight off the .html (or .php or whatever) file, but this system seems easier for the end users, as you don't have to use regexes or whatever to isolate the text you want. Sorry if this post was a bit geeky for most readers, but the whole idea seems revolutionary to me.

The genetics and linguistics of delicious frankenfruit

Have you ever encountered a pluot, plumcot, aprium, or peacotum? You can figure out their constituent parts based on the linguistic roots, but they don't map perfectly.

A plumcot is genetically 50/50 plum/apricot, although linguistically, it's 4/7 plum, 3/7 apricot (close enough, but plumicot and pluicot would have mapped perfectly).

A pluot is, genetically, 75% plum, 25% apricot. Practically speaking, that means it's 50% plumcot and 50% straight-plum, but linguistically you'd expect it to be the same thing as pluot, just with smaller roots (you loose the m on the plum, but also the c on the cot). To further complicate matters, I know the Glover Park/Georgetown Whole Foods sells pluots as plumcots.

Genetically, an aprium is 75% apricot, 25% plum. However, linguistically you'd expect the aprium to be 2/3 apricot (APRI-um), and 1/3 plum (apri-UM).

Finally, we arrive at the peacotum – a very much more complicated proposition. Botanically speaking, it's supposedly equal parts peach, apricot, and plum, which genetically speaking is impossible. Unless you had some very complex multi-generational system of mating that well approximates a 1:1:1 split – the pluot is a basic example of this, as it takes two levels mating to produce (one which results in a 50/50 split between plum and apricot, and another which mates this frankenfruit with a regular old plum). I'd guess that within four generations you could come very close to achieving a 1:1:1 mix (say, 16 great, great grandparents, each original fruit gets 5 gggparents, except one which gets 6).

To complicate matters further, I've assumed that the linguistic breakdown takes each letter of the hybrid and determines genetics based on the proportion of letters which come from each original fruit. However, an alternative way to do it would be to use the proportion of letters taken from the original fruit to denote its genetic contribution, as opposed to using the percentage of the new word which comes from the original fruit. So, for example, a 1:1 cross between an pear and a grapefruit would be an pearuit (or pearruit, or peauit, or peit) under the system I was using, but it would be pefruit under the alternative system.

Disclaimer: I am neither geneticist, mathematician, linguist, grocer, nor farmer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The evolution and classification of Moscow's stray dogs

The Financial Times has a fascinating article on the lives of stray dogs in Moscow. They quote a wolf biologist who's taken to studying the dogs as dividing them into four categories: guard dogs (relatively domesticated, often "associated" with security guards), beggars (sort of socialized, adept at...begging), wild dogs, and some amorphous category between the beggars and the wild dogs.

But here's the best part:

There is one special sub-group of strays that stands apart from the rest: Moscow’s metro dogs. “The metro dog appeared for the simple reason that it was permitted to enter,” says Andrei Neuronov, an author and specialist in animal behaviour and psychology, who has worked with Vladimir Putin’s black female Labrador retriever, Connie (“a very nice pup”). “This began in the late 1980s during perestroika,” he says. “When more food appeared, people began to live better and feed strays.” The dogs started by riding on overground trams and buses, where supervisors were becoming increasingly thin on the ground.

Neuronov says there are some 500 strays that live in the metro stations, especially during the colder months, but only about 20 have learned how to ride the trains. This happened gradually, first as a way to broaden their territory. Later, it became a way of life. “Why should they go by foot if they can move around by public transport?” he asks.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Language Log corrects commenters' typos

Not sure why, but this from Mark Liberman, blogger on the number one linguistics blog Language Log, amused me:

As someone who frequently commits typos and brainos in writing, I silently correct such errors in comments when I notice them, regardless of the author's presumed linguistic history.

Sardinia as a staging ground for Soviet-backed terrorists

In an interesting TED Talk on the economics of terrorism, Italian economist Loretta Napoleoni relates a story told to her by a "part-timer" in the Red Brigades, a leftist Italian terrorist organization active in the '70s:

He was sailing every summer back and forth from Lebanon, where he would pick up Soviet weapons from the PLO and then carry them all the way to Sardina, where other armed organizations in Europe would go and take their share of the arms. For that service, the Red Brigades were actually paid a fee, which went to fund the organization.

She leaves some ambiguities. Were the weapons just manufactured in the USSR, or was the Soviet leadership actually directing the weapons through the PLO? (Others have claimed that the Soviet Union was directly responsible.) And were they being sold in some sort of market to all comers, or were the Red Brigades merely transporting them to groups pre-selected by the PLO (or Czechs/Soviets)? Her wording ("take their share") and the fact that they were paid a fee (as opposed to earning profit from the sales) hints at the latter.

This all happened decades ago, but Italy still hasn't escaped from the influence of Russian spies. As late as 2006, a British MEP gave a "one-minute speech" in the European Parliament where he quoted the late Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko as saying that he was warned:

Don’t go to Italy, there are many KGB agents among the politicians. Romano Prodi is our man there.

Romano Prodi, in fact, has a history of shady ties with the Red Brigades. In 1978, he was somehow privy to the location of a prominent politician kidnapped by the Brigades (and later killed), which he explained as having been revealed to him in a séance.

PS, this is my 500th post. Happy birthday, blog!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Wikileaks tragedy of the commons?

A German blog has an interview up with Julian Assange of Wikileaks. The focus is the financial aspect of Wikileaks, including its recent "strike" (see here, at least for now) as a plea for cash. One interesting thing mentioned is that the founders are "refugees from China and other places." Also interesting is that at least one of Wikileaks' five core staff members isn't averse to paying sources (hypothetically, of course – they don't even have enough for servers and staff right now):

Actually we would have no problem giving sources cash. We don’t do that, but for me there is no reason why only the lawyers and the journalists should be compensated for their effort. Somebody is taking the risk to do something and this will end up benefiting the public.

Paying sources is frowned upon in old media, but then again, stodgy old newspapers might not be the best companies for budding new media organizations to emulate. New media darling Gawker (which only "inadvertently" commits acts of journalism) has been toying around with paying sources, though it's not clear how that's worked out.

The article also deals heavily with Julian Assange's idea that Wikileaks' information falls prey to a sort of tragedy of the commons – Wikileaks will publish what its believes is an important but complex document, but no organization will spend the time combing through it, since they anticipate that someone else will beat them to it. As a result, according to Assange, nobody will end up writing about it. But if it's clear that no news organization is going to write about it, doesn't that essentially give whichever one decides to read the document de facto exclusivity? Couldn't the NYT, say, just do research for a month and not tell anyone it was doing it, and then release the synthesis all at once?

It just doesn't seem likely to me that there's a huge problem of news organizations demanding exclusivity in order to even bother reading something that's publicly available – I'll bet that in reality, the information just isn't as important as Wikileaks would like to believe. Unless anyone has a better explanation?

Google may pull out of China?

Google's got big news about its China operations (spoiler: they might pull out!). This Slashdot user's summary is good:

Following a sophisticated attack on Google infrastructure originating from China late last year, Google has decided to take 'a new approach' to China. In their investigation, Google found that more than 20 large companies had been infiltrated and dozens of Chinese human rights activists' Gmail accounts had been compromised. Google has decided to 'review the feasibility of [its] business operations in China,' no longer censoring results in, and if necessary, to 'shut down, and potentially [Google's] offices in China.'

"Don't be evil" is pretty much the only rule of Google's code of conduct.

Update: It looks like they've already started to make good on their promise to lift the censorship of

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Links: sex, assassination, and drug war wins and losses

I'm gonna try something new – a list of links! This is mostly so that I can practice being concise.

  1. Apparently Bill Clinton had a girlfriend during Hillary's presidential campaign. Gawker demands to know who.

  2. New Jersey legalizes medical marijuana (first state in the Northeast to do so), but definitely will not go the way of California.

  3. "Medvedev tells FSB to 'regularly' kill rebels," quoteth the Moscow Times.

  4. Chewing tobacco and snus are "10-1,000 times less hazardous than smoking" says Britain’s Royal College of Physicians, but tobacco companies are legally forbidden from advertising this fact (constitutionality to be determined).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Harry Reid's hopeless isolation

So as you surely know by now, Harry Reid said, during the 2008 campaign, that Obama was electable due to his lack of a "Negro dialect" and light skin tone. This is of course course literally true – Obama is just white enough (culturally and genetically) that he's clearly the anti-Willy Horton – but the word "Negro" has thrown a lot of people into a tizzy. But honestly, I don't think the crime is so much that Reid said something that's mildly offensive – it's that he said something so hopelessly out of date. Calling someone a "Negro" isn't an insult, it's just old-fashioned, and in a way that someone as powerful as Harry Reid shouldn't be. It indicates a sort of out-of-touchness with the world that shouldn't be acceptable in politicians, but is inevitable with that many years of "service." When's the last time the man engaged with the world outside of DC and North Dakota Nevada politics?

Paris' dead nightlife

Apparently Paris is getting boring (at least according to the New York Times). Here's why:

A sampling of the city’s problems: densely packed, mixed-zoned neighborhoods; a lack of late-night transportation (the last metro leaves at 2 a.m. on the weekends, 1 a.m. during the week); and an unwieldy tangle of rules and regulations on bars and nightclubs, applied with uncommon zeal by a “repressive” police force. [...]

All of these tensions, though, have been exacerbated by the 2008 tobacco ban, which has sent legions of smokers onto the sidewalks at all hours of the night. Noise complaints and fines have increased sharply, club owners say; the Paris police prefecture declined to provide statistics.

This bit is funny/sad:

The club is currently facing another potential closing after the police discovered there was dancing there in October; Mr. Simon does not hold the required license.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Iranian leader's family flees to Moscow

Via A Step At A Time, an Iranian opposition group is claiming that relatives of Iran's leader Khamenei have been flown to Russia for safekeeping amidst the violence. This indicates two things: the Iranian leadership is frightened, and Iran's relationship with Russia is still strong. I've discussed the latter many times before on this blog.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bloated newspaper articles

Michael Kinsley at the Atlantic has an interesting piece online arguing that newspapers are losing relevance and readers because of their increasingly anachronistic style and conventions, which have become sacrosanct in journalism, but which are about as useful as twenty little pillows on a bed. The whole piece is great and worth reading – I especially like the analyses of random NYT/WaPo quotes – but here's what I'm gonna excerpt:

Quotes from outside experts or observers are also a rich source of unnecessary verbiage in newspaper articles. Another New York Times story from the November 8 front page provides a good example here. It’s about how the crackdown on some Wall Street bonuses may have backfired. Executives were forced to take stock instead of cash, but then the stock went up, damn it. This is an “enterprise” story—one the reporter or an editor came up with, not one dictated by events. And the reporter clearly views the information it contains as falling somewhere between ironic and appalling, which seems about right. But it’s not her job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Markets in everything: unwitting drug smuggling decoys

RFE/RL reports from the Afghan-Tajik border:

Here, ordinary villagers can be "sold" across the border by drug smugglers without warning. And once they are sold, they may not return for decades.

The "selling" -- as the villagers call it -- works very simply. Smugglers hire the victim to carry a package of drugs, wittingly or unwittingly, across the border. Then, they tip off the Tajik border police to arrest him.

The man and the drugs in the package are the small sacrifices the smugglers make to keep authorities away from their larger-scale shipments.

Naturally, the police are in on it. Kind of a grander version of the big city beat cop arresting a bunch of small time dealers to meet quota and distract from the pay-offs he's getting from the neighborhood gang. In fact, the practice may have its roots in American-style drug war:

The charade also helps explain why despite millions of dollars of Western aid for the regional drug war – including more than $37 million from Washington to help Tajik law enforcement since 1992 – smuggling continues unabated across the border.

I suspect that the intended audience for these arrests is the Americans.

On a totally unrelated note, I liked this bit from the opening of the article:

Even the poor can eke out a living along the highway, filling in potholes with sand in return for small change thrown by passing truck drivers.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Consumer-scale fuel cell battery hits the Japanese market

This sounds pretty mundane at first, but revolutionary when you think about it. Here's Engadget's description from a few months ago:

[T]he long promised and highly anticipated direct methanol fuel-cell (DMFC) with dedicated fuel cartridge for on-the-go refueling will go on sale October 29th in Japan for ¥29,800 (about $328) plus another ¥3,150 (about $34) for a set of five, 50ml fuel cartridges. Dynario takes about 20 seconds to fill its 14ml fuel tank with an injection of a concentrated methanol solution at which point it's ready to charge USB-connected devices. Dynario's hybrid structure uses a lithium-ion battery to store enough electricity to charge two typical cellphones, according to Tosh. That works out to be about $1 per recharge, if our calculations are correct, based on the fuel costs alone. We assume the battery can be charged via wall socket power too but this isn't explicitly stated in the press release. The first run consists of only 3,000 units after which Toshiba will gauge consumer reaction before extending the launch outside of Japan. Boy oh boy, a new age in portability has begun.