Saturday, August 26, 2006


It's The Infrastructure, Baby

Plan B, the “morning after pill”, has been approved by the FDA for over the counter, well, under the counter, sales, without prescription, to persons 18 and over. Plan B has been available for many years, but the prescription requirement has effectively kept it off the market. We last visited this conundrum last November when the FDA postponed any decision because Dr. Galson, then director, decided that not enough girls under 16 had been asked whether they would be more likely to have sex if Plan B was available. Since then the struggle, involving multiple directors and many thousands of hours of top FDA management, which includes President Bush, has been over the age requirement. For the many reasons we will discuss, it turns out to be 18, which will at least keep temptation away from most high school girls.

Unfortunately the democrats injected politics into this complicated scientific issue. When Dr. Crawford was nominated last year to replace Galson as head of the FDA, Senator Clinton placed a legislative hold on the nomination until the FDA promised to make a decision by September 1 of last year. But once Crawford was in, the FDA announced further delays. Crawford resigned weeks later to spend more time with his family. Under the “fool me once” Senate rule, the nomination of his successor Dr. von Eschenbach (“Andy”) was again put on hold, this time until a decision was issued. Coincidentally the FDA has completed its study, so the hold proved to be unnecessary and will now be lifted.

Why 18? Dr. Andy says that is because that is the age used for nicotine and cold medicine. “This approach builds on well-established state and private-sector infrastructures to restrict certain products to consumers 18 and older”. This makes sense, given the established connection between sex and smoking after. But it also fits with some of the other common sense issues that have had to be resolved by the FDA.

First, there have been concerns about whether a high school girl could handle the requirement that the pill be taken within 72 hours, followed by the second pill 12 hours later. Think about this from a practical standpoint. The pill will be taken immediately, of course. This is not something you contemplate for a few days. Then, with the timing of most high school sex, given curfews and all, the teenager is going to have to get up early on the weekend, or at least before noon, to take that second pill in time.

And of course there is the original concern that some high school students might be more likely to have sex out of wedlock if Plan B was available. While the surveys got snickers and a lot of “like, what?” from the older girls, the fact that nobody went around asking grade school girls had to concern the no child left behind administration. And then there is the abortion issue. The pill proponents claim the pill will reduce abortions, while the pill poopers claim the pill is an abortion. How can we expect a 17 year old girl to take a position on that in the heat of the moment? At least an 18 year old is out of high school and can smoke if she wants to.

In a press conference President Bush announced “I support Andy’s decision”. This brave position was somewhat shadowed by the lack of a cute nickname for Andy, but that is understandable given the statement released by the Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer (Tommy Oot) of Human Life International. “Let there be no mistake about it. Today’s decision lies at the feet of President Bush and has created a lasting rift with the Catholic faithful….” The Onion also objected that the decision “undermines (the) attempt to turn America into the contraceptive-free utopia that is Africa.”

Note that boys who want to carry Plan B around in their wallet will also have to be 18 or over.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Neptune and Aquatic Biology Escape Censure

Item 26.1303 — evolutionary biology, no longer appears on the list of majors eligible for the SMART federal education grant for low-income college students. There is now an empty space between line 26.1302 (marine biology) and line 26.1304 (aquatic biology). Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, which administers the grants, says the omission was just a clerical error.

Scientists interviewed by the NYT were concerned, but suggested that students in the field might be able to slip by listing just “biology” as their major, or one of the other biology fields that remain legal. One professor allowed that “removing that one major is not going to make the nation stupid”. An on line search of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum showed no recent additions.

People majoring in planetary astronomy are watching the list, in view of the action by leading astronomers Thursday reducing the number of God’s planets from 9 to 8. Various proposals before International Astronomical Union meeting in Prague would have added planets, bringing the number to 12, or even 40, but were voted down. In the end, Pluto was eliminated even though it was round because it had failed to “clear the neighborhood around its orbit. The item it had not cleared was Neptune, with which its orbit overlaps. It would appear that Neptune has also failed to clear its orbit (of Pluto), but no action was taken, possibly to test the waters for reaction from either God or the Bush administration, or from Poseidon for that mater.

The motion erasing Pluto from the list passed by a majority of the 300 astronomers voting, with 2200 abstentions. Two other heavenly bodies that had earlier appeared to be shoe-ins for the list, the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted, and the recently discovered 2003 UB313, an icy object slightly larger than Pluto, lost out as well.

NASA said that this would not affect its New Horizons mission, which earlier this year began what had been thought to be a planetary exploration mission. It will affect My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.

As yet there has been no (known) reaction to either deletion from the Bush administration.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Big Wind From Vail

Environmentalists everywhere are cheering Vail Resorts’ move to 100% wind power. Not only that, but Vail is encouraging visitors to convert at home, giving out free ski passes to those who sign up. But don’t worry about running into those big poles on your way down the slope (or in your back yard if you sign up). Here is the way the NYT explains it:

“Buying wind, though, will not mean building mountain windmills. Rather [Vail will] buy the equivalent amount of their energy needs in wind power credits from a Boulder company called Renewable Choice Energy. Renewable Choice will then buy wind power from producers – mainly in Minnesota, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota - and inject the amount of power Vail uses into the national electric grid.”

Now the power Vail actually uses will still be generated locally, mostly by coal-fired generators. The good news is that individuals who sign up don’t have to change providers. They will still pay their regular electric bill. Those “switching” to wind power just pay an extra $15 a month to Renewable Choice, which will “buy credits for the amount of wind used by their household”. Now get this, that $15 gets you all you can use! It is a flat fee, regardless of how much wind you gobble up. Makes you wonder how they can do that!

What happens to your wind if you don’t sign up? Should you feel guilty? Well, yes, but not why you think. It turns out that the government requires the utilities to buy all the wind power produced in their area and put it in the national grid. Without that, your wind would be wasted, in fact, not harvested at all. Think about how wind mills work. The wind blows, you get power, it stops, you don’t. The utility (and the customers) can’t wait for an ill wind. It has to keep generating a regular supply (the old way) or your lights (and the ski lift) will only be on when the wind was blowing. So kind of like a sail boat, which has to have a backup motor, the utility has to have the ability to supply all the power demanded from its coal fired plants regardless of how much juice comes in from the wind farm. When the wind does blow, the utility simply operates its “backup” plants as less than full power, which is inefficient. The total cost to the utility, given this inefficiency and what it is required to pay the wind farmer, actually goes up when the wind blows. The utility is not one of those whom the ill wind blows good. Entrepreneurs, not utilities, build wind farms.

There are important reasons to buy one of those Vail wind packages. The Vail CEO says visitors expect high environments standards when deciding where to spend their money. “It’s a way to get closer to our guests” he says. But what about you as an individual? For most, just doing good is rewarding. Remember the old deal the Catholic Church had going, where you could buy indulgences to spring someone from purgatory early? It was wise to buy even if you didn’t have any relatives on the inside. Unspent indulgences were like wind credits, and could be used later for a besmirched loved one, or even yourself, heaven forbid. Nowadays you hear more about buying pollution credits, “carbon offsets”, and wind credits, but the principle is the same.

If you don’t believe in that sort of thing, consider the politics. Your wind credit money will ultimately encourage the building of more wind farms. How you say, considering that it goes to Renewable Choice and the utility who owns the power, having been required to purchase it? Remember what we said about the total cost to the utility going up when the wind blows? That happens only when nobody like you or Vail signs up. Buy enough wind credits and the utility starts to like wind power. At the next “not in my back yard” protest, you may find the utility CEO on the opposite side from Ted Kennedy

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


The Great Decider

The president has the power to veto bills he doesn’t like, but the problem is, the power is not unlimited. Congress might override the veto. And what do you do when you like some parts of a bill, but not others, and you don’t have a line item veto? The solution, of course, is just to pick out the parts you have decided should be unconstitutional and tell the executive branch officials (they are, after all, the only ones with the guns) not to enforce those parts. You do this with a presidential signing statement which you sort of append to a bill when you sign it.

This actually works better than the old fashioned system, because there is nothing for Congress to override, and if they try to restrict signing statements, its unconstitutional (see?). And so far, the Supreme Court, which early on said that the constitution said that the Supreme Court had the final say on what the constitution said (the Marbury bootstrap case), hasn’t really got a handle on the signing statement issue, unless it is a line item veto, which it isn’t. You have to be careful in this area, as you remember what Andrew Jackson said about the Indian-symp court: "they have made their decision, now let them enforce it".

Furthermore, when the Supreme Court declared that they were the “decider”, they didn’t say other branches couldn’t also be the decider, they just can’t be the decider of last resort. In fact, if a majority of the Court agrees, they will defer to Congress, who decided the law was constitutional or they wouldn’t have done it. President Bush is likewise the decider, having issued over 130 signing statements containing more than 750 constitutional challenges. You would think Congress would be a little more careful.

An American Bar Association report has condemned the presidential signing statement as a threat to the separation of powers. You might wonder why there would be any objection to President Bush being a decider if it is OK for Congress and the Court to be deciders. It is really a version of the “safety in numbers theory”. As President Bush said on July 9, 2004, “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job”. We are confident that the 535 in Congress and the 9 on the Court feel the same way. The thing is, when God speaks we always feel better if there is more than one witness.

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