Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Blondes do have more fun.

The two most entertaining people in the country right now are both blondes who have no fear about saying whatever pops into their heads, the delightful Amy Shumer and the dastardly Donald Trump. Shumer has turned the American sex comedy on its ear, and Trump has knocked the Republican dream team of candidates on its collective rear. The real significance of Trump's candidacy is not his strength in the polls, but the way he's exposing the weakness of the rest of the field. Not one of his 16 rivals has demonstrated the guts, gravitas, or public speaking skills to get in front of a big audience, act like a leader, and send the Donald home. And eventually, someone will ask this embarrassing question: "Hey, tough guys, you guys who all want to bomb Iran and anyone else who comes to mind during your morning limo rides, how are you going to handle Putin, ISIS, the Chinese, et. al., if you can't take on Donald Trump?" Meanwhile, I'd suggest that everyone go see Trainwreck. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Memphis Blues

I’ve heard it said that writing a blog is like joining a gym. You start out like a house on fire, but before you know it, you're putting on weight and your membership has lapsed. In my case, it’s been a while since something has infuriated me sufficiently to get me back to the blog. Happily, last Wednesday (1/13/10), I found a fresh outrage on the front page of the New York Times. His name is Harold E. Ford, Jr.

Mr. Ford wants to run for the United States Senate from New York. Except that Mr. Ford isn’t from New York, he’s recently moved here from Tennessee, where he lost a race for the Senate in 2006. According to the Times, he said he would be “a fiercer advocate for New York” than Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand. Okay, fine. We like fierce in New York, but the notion that we have to import it—from Tennessee—does not make a lot of sense. Have you ridden the subways lately?

Of course, there are those who will argue that New York has had a history of carpetbaggers in the Senate, most notably Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. Despite RFK’s familial Boston accent, however, the fact is that he’d lived much of his life in New York at the time of his election. I can make no such claim for Mrs. Clinton (and I was against her, too), but, to paraphrase the famous description of Dan Quayle, Mr. Ford is no Hillary Clinton.

Harold E. Ford, Jr. is one of those politicians who has never held down a real job outside of government in his life. He had an elite education at St. Alban’s School for Boys and the University of Pennsylvania, followed by law school at the University of Michigan. Despite graduating from one of the nations finest law schools, he failed the bar exam in 1998 and never roused himself to take it again. After a couple of years as a capitol staff aide, in 1996 he inherited his father’s 10-term seat in the House. (The elder Ford was tried and acquitted in 1990 on bank fraud charges.) In fact, politics is the Ford family business. In all, seven family members have held political office, three of whom have been indicted on federal charges.

Mr. Ford, Jr. moved to New York in 2007, after becoming engaged to Emily Threlkeld, who works here for the Carolina Herrera fashion house. They married the following year, and, befitting his new responsibilities, Mr. Ford took his first real job—Vice Chairman at Bank of America, at a reported salary of $1 million per year. Who says there are no entry level jobs in New York? Okay, so his influence is for sale, what pol’s isn’t? What’s more distressing is the fact that he seems completely untethered to any political principles.

As a Congressman from Tennessee, he voted against same-sex marriage, described himself as pro-life, voted to protect gun makers from lawsuits and to repeal the District of Columbia’s restrictions on firearms (he’s still a card carrying NRA member), and voted to allow local police to arrest illegal immigrants ( a measure energetically opposed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on the grounds that it will prevent people from cooperating with the NYPD). Now, he says that his positions on all these issues have “evolved.”

Possibly, this Senate seat is just cursed. New York Governor Patterson has been a dead man walking since he appointed Ms. Gillibrand. And whatever happened to Caroline Kennedy, whom everyone thought was the governor’s presumptive appointee? Why haven’t the people who said she’d be a brilliant Senator mentioned a single word about her as a potential candidate? Possibly, Ms. Kennedy liked the idea of being Senator, she just didn’t want to bother running for Senator. Come to think of it, under those rules, I might just throw my hat in the ring. And one final thought on Mr. Ford: I’ve got a hundred bucks that says he doesn’t know how to pronounce “Houston Street.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Guilt, Shame, Denial: Elite Schools and the SATs

Searching for the right college with your kid is not the most entertaining process in the world, so if you need a break in the tension, ask the admissions officer about the school’s reliance on SAT scores. Then watch him or her react like a family-values politician who has been caught doing an Eliot Spitzer.

“SATs?” they’ll respond with an avuncular chuckle and twinkle in the eye, “Oh, I wouldn’t obsess so much about the SATs. You know, we really pride ourselves on looking at the whole student.” Translation: “What do you take us for?! Do you think we’re so horribly shallow as to pay attention to something as meaningless, as common as the SATs? My God, that would be like dating a girl just because she’s pretty! You may find some rival institutions who sink to that level, but not us. Of course, we require SATs, but just so we can glance at them, in the most cursory way, for divertissement, if you will.”

I’m not sure where this outpouring of guilt is coming from, but it’s spread to the high school college counselors, as well. I heard one of them suggest that the entire SAT process is a conspiracy between the College Board (which administers the test) and the Princeton Review (the biggest test prep company). In fact, he said, “The SATs don’t measure intelligence, they don’t measure knowledge, all they measure is the ability to take the SATs.”

Well, maybe. But when my first born was tutored for the SATs, no one planted a secret test taking chip in his brain. (I was watching.) His scores went up, because he studied and learned more vocabulary words and mathematical formulas than he knew before he started. Could all that educational time, effort, and expense have been put to even better use? No doubt. But the colleges and universities are calling the shots, and they remain addicted to the SATs, despite how clearly embarrassed they are by their own behavior.

So if the young scholar in your house is attempting to scale the ivy covered walls of academia, should you eschew the expense of SAT tutoring and have your kid read T.S. Eliot or memorize the chord structure to Beowulf instead? Well, let’s look at some of last year’s average SAT scores.
Harvard: 700-800 (Critical Reading) 700-790 (Math) 690-790 (Writing)
U of South Florida: 500-600 (Critical Reading) 510-610 (Math) 470-570 (Writing)
Seton Hall: 470-580 (Critical Reading) 480-590 (Math) n/a (Writing)

I discern a trend. But hey, that’s just me. You really don’t need to obsess over SAT scores if you’re applying to Harvard—unless you want to get in.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Anti-Semites from Topeka, Birth Control Pills, and The New York Times

I had some troubles with the first amendment today.

I was awakened from a blissful, Saturday morning sleep by the cries of a woman urging me to die and burn in hell. Actually, not just me, as it turned out. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, across the street from the large synagogue where my daughter had her Bat Mitzvah. This morning, the day before the start of Yom Kippur, the most important and solemn day on the Jewish calendar, the synagogue was being picketed by representatives of another congregation—the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.

Looking out my living room window, I saw that the demonstration consisted of about four women, one man, and two stunned-looking children no more than 8-years old, all sporting tee shirts emblazoned with the URL, Which goes to show you this internet thing really is catching on. Each of the demonstrators carried a sign with a little piece of wisdom such as God Hates Jews, Jews Killed Christ, and God Hates Obama. (No matter that the only two things I've never heard the president accused of are being Jewish—too calm—or gay—wife too hot. For haters, the guy's a one-stop shopping mall.)

So these fine Americans are on the sidewalk, right in front of my house, fenced in by a little pen made of police barriers. Across the street on the temple steps are about 200 Saturday morning worshippers, guests of the 13-year old girl having her Bat Mitzvah today, neighborhood people, and passersby. The harridan who seemed like the demonstrators' captain led them in anti-semitic chants and songs, as she danced a jig with an Israeli flag, merrily pretending to blow her nose in it. Clearly, she was having the time of her life, protected by a small army of grim looking cops.

The crowd around the temple shouted back fitfully, not wanting to allow themselves to be provoked, not sure what to do. At the top of the temple steps, Rabbi Andy Bachman stood urging calm and occasionally attempting to lead the crowd in song. Then he had a better idea. Suddenly the rabbi was holding the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn blown to usher in the new year on Yom Kippur and, in biblical times, to rally Jewish armies against their enemies. Rabbi Andy blew the shofar, and its ancient sound filled the street more beautifully than I have ever heard it before. Many in the crowd chanted the traditional response. My beautiful daughter and her friends began singing Havah Nagilah and joyfully dancing the hora in a circle, as the rest of us clapped and sang along, some through tears.

The first amendment protects free speech, even hate speech, and I would never want to see that right abridged. But I was taught, in elementary school, that the guiding principle of the Bill of Rights was that the rights of all groups are assured, as long as they don’t infringe upon the rights of others. So my view is, let the hate mongers picket in Times Square. Let them rent Madison Square Garden for a Hitler’s birthday weekend hate-a-thon. But when they come to a synagogue to attack Jews, or an African-American church to attack people of color, or an AIDS clinic to attack gays, they are infringing upon the rights of others as clearly and purposefully as if they were throwing rocks and bottles. And no American should have to tolerate that.

As the Westboro Baptist Church members packed up to slink away to their next shul, I was impressed by the neat, black portfolio cases that seemed custom-made to hold their signs. I guess when you’re moving around between hate demonstrations, without a police escort, you’ve got to keep a low profile. I’m even guessing that, once in their car, they covered their tee shirts with some Topeka RoadRunners minor league hockey jerseys. After all, even hate nuts have to eat. As long as they’re in New York, they might want to make an incognito stop at a deli for a pastrami on white with mayo. It shouldn’t be a total loss. Without doubt, however, the best sign of the day was held aloft by our pretty 15-year old upstairs neighbor, btw, not Jewish. It told the demonstrators, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Part II

Next, I took part in my daily first amendment ritual, I read The New York Times. Let me say up front that the Times is my second favorite paper, next only to The Castine (Maine) Patriot, and I read it every day. That’s why I cannot fathom the paper’s near comical obsession with skewering the pharmaceutical industry, a goal they pursue as relentlessly as lesser papers go after glimpses of Paris Hilton’s thong. On the front page of today’s (9/26/09) Business Section, The Times attacks Bayer under the headline, Health Concerns Over Popular Contraceptives, by Natasha Singer. (I should mention at this point that I work for Flaum Partners, a healthcare consultancy that has done work in the past for Bayer. One thing I’ve noticed The Times is scrupulous about is disclosing possible conflicts it may have.)

In the story’s lead, Ms. Singer introduces the oral contraceptives Yasmin and Yaz as Bayer’s top products, “…largely as a result of (insert evil musical accent here) MARKETING…” She continues, “Yaz, in particular, the top-selling birth control pill in the United States, owes much of its popularity to multimillion-dollar ad campaigns that have promoted the drug as a quality-of-life treatment to combat acne and severe premenstrual depression.”

Excuse me? This is like saying that the iPod is successful, because Apple has cool commercials. Women and their physicians have switched to Yaz, because it’s a great product. If a woman who is using an oral contraceptive anyway can get relief from pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder and help controlling her acne, why wouldn’t she switch to Yaz?

Of course, the Times’ answer to that question is that “the Yaz line’s image has been clouded by concerns from some researchers, health advocates and plaintiffs’ lawyers. They say that the drugs put women at higher risk for blood clots, strokes and other health problems than some other birth control pills do.” The article continues, “Those critics, though, are up against a large European health study, sponsored by Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant, that reported the opposite conclusion. The Bayer-financed study said that cardiovascular risks in women taking Bayer products were comparable to those taking an older formula of birth control pills.”

Okay, a few things. First, let’s address the nasty implication that the European study is skewed, because Bayer paid for it. Clearly, if Bayer hadn’t conducted this study, The Times would be excoriating them for failing to responsibly monitor Yaz’s performance in the real world. Conducting clinical trials on new drugs, even after they’ve come to market, and spending billions of dollars in the process, is what pharmaceutical companies do. How does the Times imagine new drugs get developed? Who does Ms. Singer think usually foots the bill, the tooth fairy?

Let’s get to the crux of the medical issue. Yaz contains a relatively new progestin called drospirenone, which, in rare instances, can raise potassium levels in the blood to dangerous levels. (As The Times notes, 5.81 million prescriptions for Yaz were filled in the first half of this year alone, yet all the ambulance chasers in the country have been able to round up only 74 women willing to sue.) But even that very low risk can be made nearly undetectable, if doctors and patients follow the recommendation in the drug’s label that potassium levels be monitored with a simple blood test.

“Not so fast, Sparky,” I can already hear the managed care companies screaming, “We’re not paying for any clot preventing, defensive medicine blood tests!” (Memo to NY Times: Looking for people who don’t give a damn about a few strokes here, a few heart attacks there? Think Insurance Industry.) Even from a health economics point of view, I would argue that the cost of those blood tests would be more than offset by dollars not spent on dermatologist visits, acne medications, antidepressants, ob-gyn visits, and menstrual pain medicines. And that’s without factoring in—excuse the expression—the well-being of patients.

The article also notes that the FDA recently sent Bayer a warning letter about a quality control problem at one of the plants manufacturing Yaz in Germany. Maintaining manufacturing standards is one of the most important things the FDA does, and discovering irregularities is not uncommon. Bayer has responded that it will take the matter seriously and fix it. But portraying a technical problem in a factory as additional proof that Bayer is trying to trick women into using an unsafe product is just plain irresponsible on the part of The Times.

I never thought I’d say this, but where’s Paris Hilton when you need her?