hasta luego

The wife and I are skipping town on Sunday for some R&R in Mexico D.F. and Oaxaca. I hope the NIH is still funding new science when we get back. If not...2013 could be kind of interesting.
Have a good Christmas, New Years, Boxing Day, and whatever else you find the time to celebrate.


confidential to no one in particular

Good work.

quick review: the man with the iron fists

I blew off work one afternoon last week (something I can do with a pretty clear conscience every once in a while considering how many nights, weekends, and holidays I do work) to unplug my brain. After grabbing lunch downtown, I headed over to the multiplexes (there are two within a block, which is terribly convenient if you like making up your mind at the last minute). I don't care about hobbits, the timing was off for Argo, and I just wasn't up for anything too serious.

So I saw The Man With the Iron Fists.

This is basically a kung-fu movie written, directed by, and starring the RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame). If you have even a passing familiarity with The Wu, this should come as no surprise; he's obsessed with this stuff.

There's really no point in trying to summarize the plot, because it's basically the same as every kung-fu movie ever made. Clans are fighting, someone kills someone's father, the son goes for revenge, bad people kill more people, the hero emerges with some sort of special power or weapon (hint: it's usually in the title), evil is defeated--often at a great price--peace returns, the end. Either this works for you or it doesn't.

And it has to be said: either the RZA is a savant at imitating literally the style of a somewhat impenetrable story and dialog translated from Chinese into English, or he's just not a very good writer. And his acting is...well let's just say he didn't do his acting career any favors by directing himself.

BUT...I think he has real potential as a director.

The movie has its flaws, but it looks great. The fight scenes are elaborate, but not overly so. He lingers on some really nicely composed shots, but shows some actual restraint in the whole slowing-down-time department. He lets his best acting talent (Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu) carry their scenes. And perhaps most impressively in this era of every action film being a 2.5 hour assault on the senses: it clocks in at a well-paced 90 minutes.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think RZA is going to be the next Scorsese or anything. But I'd definitely shell out the $11 to watch something else from him long before I'd sign up for another CGI abortion by Micheal Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer.

it's not a war on drugs, part infinity

Matt Taibbi writes:

So you might ask, what's the appropriate financial penalty for a bank in HSBC's position? Exactly how much money should one extract from a firm that has been shamelessly profiting from business with criminals for years and years? Remember, we're talking about a company that has admitted to a smorgasbord of serious banking crimes. If you're the prosecutor, you've got this bank by the balls. So how much money should you take?

How about all of it? How about every last dollar the bank has made since it started its illegal activity? How about you dive into every bank account of every single executive involved in this mess and take every last bonus dollar they've ever earned? Then take their houses, their cars, the paintings they bought at Sotheby's auctions, the clothes in their closets, the loose change in the jars on their kitchen counters, every last freaking thing. Take it all and don't think twice. And then throw them in jail.

Sound harsh? It does, doesn't it? The only problem is, that's exactly what the government does just about every day to ordinary people involved in ordinary drug cases.
He does go on. Read the whole thing.


Some days I look at the news, and I want nothing more than to tell the entire world to just shut the fuck up.

on "bigger fish" in washington and colorado

Washington Post:

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said of marijuana smokers in Colorado and Washington, the two states where recreational use is now legal.
“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” he said.
What is important here is what Mr. Obama doesn't say. By simply stating that the feds are not going to go after recreational users--something that they have never really done, anyway--he leaves more than ample wiggle-room for the DoJ to obstruct the implementation of state regimes to regulate the distribution and sale of marijuana in Washington and Colorado. I would be very surprised if they did not do so.

But even if Holder and company decline to fight that battle in the court, there is nothing in the president's statement that precludes going after anyone who attempts to open shop under state law on federal distribution charges. Indeed, this administration's aggressive stance on medical marijuana dispensaries suggests that this is exactly what they will do.

If I were a Machiavellian-minded drug warrior with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the drug war, this is exactly the course I would chart. The very real threat that drug warriors face right now is a shift in momentum against their highly lucrative enterprise. The absolute worst thing that could happen, from their perspective, is for a legal market in marijuana to flourish in the U.S. with little to no impact on overall use or crime rates, or even a drop in crime as the black market contracts.

If you render implementation of that legal market impossible, you perpetuate the criminal enterprise of distribution. You keep the criminal drug dealers in business. And if demand does go up as recreational users get comfortable with the idea they are unlikely to face sanctions, there is a good chance that crime ancillary to the (still illicit) trade will go up.

Then you get to say that legalizing pot increased crime, and you have the perfect argument to roll back reform.

This is a long way from over.


this and that

I'm deeply ambivalent about unions and right to work legislation. I think that the ability of closed shops to extract union dues whether you join the union or not is ridiculous. On the other hand, the unions have a point about the free rider problem.

I can certainly commiserate with those who bemoan the dead weight overly powerful unions--and especially those in the public sector--can create. The mostly unionized (and entirely publicly employed) administrative caste at my current employer are merely frustrating to deal with on their best days. On a typical day they actually create work that (non-union, largely externally funded) people like me then have to deal with.

But on the other other hand, I am not sure that I can accept the notion that the labor movement (generally)  has achieved all of its worthwhile goals, and can safely cease to be. I'm not sure what the best "third path" here is, but I suspect that it would involve making both sides of the ongoing tension between labor and capital less intimate with wider political struggles.

I have no idea how one does that.


I haven't been paying much attention to the back and forth on the fiscal cliff. Not because it doesn't matter, or doesn't have tremendous potential to affect me personally--it does--but because 1) there is a not a great deal I can do about any of it, and 2) the 'negotiations' will proceed right up until the last minute. The reason for the latter, simply put, is that no one has any incentive to wrap this thing up early. Since both parties to the negotiations have a number of constituencies at their back, the only reason either would have to end the negotiations before they absolutely have to is if they got everything their constituencies wanted. That simply isn't going to happen, for anyone.

But if you stop too soon, someone can always ask why you didn't hold out any longer. Which is why this won't be "over" until people are already gathering to watch the ball drop.

No point in holding one's breath until then.



I love how (some of) the same people that complain about being "bullied" for saying that gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married because GOD! are calling for Bob Costas to lose his livelihood for suggesting that there may be a connection between having a gun and using a gun to kill someone.

Asteroid, humanity, etc.

happy repeal day!

Man, I love it when the scolds lose.


coates on jefferson

If you would like to read something meaty (but short) I would commend to you Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent series of blog posts on Thomas Jefferson and slavery. An excerpt from the most recent installment:

When people say Jefferson was merely a "man of his times" they sell him short. I don't mean this as some sort of rhetorical jiu-jitsu. I find myself quoting these words when trying to explain slavery's problems. What Jefferson, the man, did doesn't make these words any less meaningful.

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Daddy was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In fact, Daddy was an avowed white supremacist, whose words help inspire the black freedom movement. Daddy was an American slave-holder to the end, who brilliantly elucidated the moral and practical problem of American slavery. Daddy railed against miscegenation, while practicing it.
There is a great deal more here and here. He's also busily picking apart Lincoln and continues to write some of the best contributions to the ongoing discussion of head injuries in football. The dude is prolific. But I really hope he finds a way to spin this Jefferson stuff into a book, or at least a feature in The Atlantic.

marijuana and "brain damage"

Much has been made of this recent study (probably behind a paywall unless accessed via a university network, sorry) out of Australia that purports to show that adolescent cannabis usage leads to "serious brain damage".

Actually, the paper does not purport to show such a thing at all; the reporting on the paper and the occasional triumphalist conservative blogger do.

What the paper does show is a significant alteration in the connectivity of certain white matter tracts correlating to earlier onset of cannabis use in a fairly small (59 people) cohort of users compared with a smaller (33) group of non-users. These "connectivity maps" are based on an algorithm that is rather impenetrable even for a pretty well-educated non-expert in diffusion-weighted MR imaging (i.e., me), so I won't get into it...suffice it to say that they looked at the diffusion of water through white matter structures and made inferences about their microstructure--specifically, how many interconnections existed among the axons (think of them as the "cables" of the brain, if you like).

Here is what the paper does not show:

1. Any evidence of measurable cognitive impairment in their cohort (they did not test this.)

2. Any evidence of increased psychiatric disorders in their cohort, other than to say: "Cannabis users had significantly greater trait anxiety and depressive symptoms, and smoked significantly greater amounts of tobacco than non-users. However, no participant had ever been diagnosed with an anxiety or depressive disorder or had sought treatment for such symptoms." [emphasis added] In other words, those traits were sub-clinical. It is every bit as possible (if not likely) that people with sub-clinical anxiety and/or depression are more likely to be cannabis users, rather than the other way around.

Oh, and there are several studies that have correlated tobacco use with white matter abnormalities.

The authors did do a post hoc analysis of their data and found that the correlation between cannibus use and decreased axonal connectivity "remained significant" when taking these possible confounding variables into account. All well and good, but the fact that they do not show the actual results of this post hoc analysis (i.e., we don't really know how much of an impact taking those variables into account had) is possibly telling. I'm kind of surprised the reviewers let them get away with that.

3. Most importantly: the relationship between axonal connectivity and any particular functional deficit is...more or less completely unknown. The authors write: "Disturbed brain connectivity in cannabis users may underlie cognitive impairment and vulnerability to psychosis, depression and anxiety disorders (Lim et al., 2002), all of which are significant public health concerns." Trust me, because I've written no small number of these things: this is science-speak for "we think that A leads to B, but nobody's proven it yet and we don't here, either, and there is potential public health relevance so please continue to fund our research."

I want to emphasize here that I think the researchers have made an important contribution, and that I do not think that they've done anything in bad faith, except possibly fall for the temptation that far too many in our profession do of talking up their results to the press. And there may very well be clinically important effects here; that certainly merits further investigation. However, these data (as always) must be taken in the context of every other data set addressing the same general question, which--as the authors themselves point out in the very first sentence--are "equivocal".

As to how or whether this ought to inform policy vis a vis the legal status of marijuana: no one is seriously lobbying for it to be legal for adolescents to use.

And of course, parents have much more compelling reasons to steer their children away from marijuana (and drug use generally, including alcohol) in adolescence than any possible developmental effects. Those are the years you should be doing your homework, learning new skills, learning how to interact socially, and generally learning how to be a responsible decent human being...which includes developing the skill set necessary (if you are so inclined) to indulge in the occasional intoxicant while remaining a productive member of society...as an adult.