Don’t breathe the pig brains, revisited

So, a couple of years ago I wrote about workers at a hog processing factory in Minnesota developing a dymyelinating nerve disorder that arose from their job of blowing the brains out of pig skulls with high pressure air hoses.  Fun!  Thus, I was particularly intrigued to read this recent MoJo story that follows up on these cases and goes inside the plant.  Not all that surprisingly, it looks like the problems came from increasingly unsafe and unsanitary (i.e., more profitable) working conditions:

The new disease theory made sense, except that, according to company officials, QPP had been blowing brains, off and on, for more than a decade. So why did workers fall ill now and not earlier? The answer is complex. First, in April 2006, the line speed increased from 1,300 pig heads moving down the conveyor belt each hour to 1,350. This speedup was slight, but it was just the latest in a series of gradual increases. “The line speed, the line speed,” Lachance told the AP, when recounting patient interviews. “That’s what we heard over and over again.” The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen. Garcia told me that the speed made it hard to keep up. Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more mist to drift over the head table.

Working at the “head table” in a hog-processing plant is bad enough.  Is it asking too much that we at least give the people a chance to do their jobs at a non-crazy rate of speed?  Apparently.

Michelle Bachmann and the politics of resentment

Matt Taibbi has an absolutely fabulous profile of Michelle Bachmann in Rolling Stone.  I’m not 100% convinced of Taibbi’s insight, but damn if it is not the most entertaining piece of political journalism I’ve read in a very long time.  For example:

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution…

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you’ve always got a puncher’s chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she’s built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

In her runs for Congress, Bachmann discovered — or perhaps it is more accurate to say we all discovered — that a total absence of legislative accomplishment and a complete inability to tell the truth or even to identify objective reality are no longer hindrances to higher office.

That’s good stuff!  He also does a nice job of explaining how she so aptly ties into the politics of resentment that seems to so motivate Tea Party types:

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can’t tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don’t learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you’re a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they’re even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.

“There’s always this mechanism available to Bachmann,” says Elwyn Tinklenberg, the Democrat she defeated in the congressional election that fall. “No matter what they say, there is this attitude that ‘these poor Christians are being picked on.'” Cecconi agrees, saying that Bachmann has discovered her blunders only serve to underscore her martyrdom. “I’ve seen her parlay that into ‘Look how downtrodden I am,'” she says. “It works for her.”

Lastly, I’ve gotten the sense that she’s way overblown her foster-mothering (which, whatever else there is to say about her is certainly laudable)– it’s not like she ever had 28 kids in the house at once.  Indeed, that very much is the case:

A great example is the issue of her “28 children.” Bachmann has five kids and, something even her most withering critic should acknowledge, has cared for 23 foster kids. But in 2008 — 10 years after any of her foster children had been in her home — Bachmann was talking as though she was still dashing home from Congress to cook for them. “Every weekend now when I go home, I will go to the grocery store, I’ll buy food for the family,” she said. “We have five kids and 23 foster kids that we raise. So I go to the grocery store and buy a lot of food.”

I think as much as anything with the coming GOP Primary fight, I anticipate Michelle Bachmann playing a large role for the entertainment value alone.

Why Miss USA does not make science teaching policy

Probably not worth watching the full 15 minutes, but there’s some good stuff here:

Real judicial restraint

I really like Yglesias’ take on yesterday’s ruling about the Affordable Care Act.  What matters is not so much, what was said, but who said it.  The judge who ruled that the ACA was quite obviously Constitutional not only was appointed by George W. Bush, but clerked for Scalia.

The best way to get at the significance of this is just that thus far we’ve seen moderate-and-progressive Democrat-appointed judges uphold the law and conservative Republican-appointed judges strike it down. Today’s decision from Judge Jeffrey Sutton breaks that pattern. Sutton is a Republican. And not some kind of weird holdover from Gerald Ford, not some mistake made by Ronald Reagan, not a compromise candidate offered by George H.W.Bush, but a former Scalia clerk who was nominated in 2001 by George W Bush. Senate Democrats made sure he didn’t come up for a vote at that time, but after the GOP win in the 2002 midterms he got his vote in 2003 and secured confirmation by a relative narrow 52-41 vote. Only two Democrats voted for him. He is, in other words, an orthodox conservative.

What I really liked about his decision is he actually showed what conservatives generally only give lip service to– genuine judicial restraint.  Summary quote via Ezra:

The opinion ends with a pointed reminder that the Supreme Court has traditionally “erred on the side of allowing the political branches to resolve the conflict,” and an assurance that “time assuredly will bring to light the policy strengths and weaknesses of using the individual mandate as part of this national legislation, allowing the peoples’ political representatives, rather than their judges, to have the primary say over its utility.”

Now the truth is, sometimes the people’s duly elected representatives are just flat-out wrong and something needs to be done about it (e.g., Civil Rights for both Blacks and women), but the general idea of judicial restraint is clearly a worthy one.  Unfortunately, the conservatives on the Supreme Court and rarely so restrained in their conservatism.

Sports and aging

Fascinating and terrific article in this past Sunday’s NYT magazine about sports and aging through the lens of Derek Jeter.  Even if you are only a casual sports fan (or have any interest in the physiology of athletic performance and aging) you should definitely give it a read. Really.   Lots of stuff, I really enjoyed learning about, especially how natural deterioration with age that we don’t notice at all with most activities, is crucially important to hitting a major-league-pitched baseball:

The pitcher-hitter confrontation is weighted against any hitter, but particularly older ones, because the batter’s success depends almost entirely on attributes that decline with age — eyesight, visual processing and fast-twitch muscle. Most big-league hitters tend to have good eyesight (they’re young), but even if they retain it into their 30s, it has probably already degraded in subtle ways. “There’s 20-20, and there’s amazing 20-20,” Don Teig, a Connecticut optometrist who works with professional athletes, told me. “You may still be able to read the line on the eye chart, but after your early 20s, you probably won’t see it with the same clarity and detail.”

According to Teig, the “visual-motor system,” as he called it — nerves and muscles that control the focusing of the lens, as well as the lens itself — becomes less supple with age. At the same time, an athlete Jeter’s age is going through changes in muscle composition that make him less explosive. Human muscle is made up of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers, which people have in different proportions. No matter what your starting mix is, you lose fast-twitch fibers before you notice a decline in overall muscle mass.

The article also looks at how steroids are uniquely well-suited to overcoming these aging effects and helps explain a lot of the amazing performances that baseball players in the 30’s had during the steroid era, when otherwise, players almost universally perform worse in their 30’s than their 20’s.  Good stuff.

Law school… apparently commentary is necessary

So, I noted the major imbalance between those who passed the bar and actual law jobs.  Apparently my readers think I’m not being fair to the law degree.  A few comments:

1) This is people who passed the bar.  Presumably, you don’t take the bar unless you actually want to practice as a lawyer.  Thus, even though a number of people put their law degree in other fields, i.e., running a non-profit that advocates for election reform, I suspect that most people taking the bar actually want to be a practicing attorney.  Thus, there really is a glut of lawyers in that sense.

2) When you are a Political Science professor/adviser you simply see way way too many students who think they should get a law degree because a) it’s an obvious path to riches; b) their parents think they should; c) they don’t know what else to do.  All to rarely do I see students who are actually interested in the law.  I think that’s kind of depressing.  Being an attorney can be a great and noble calling, or putting that law degree to work leading an advocacy organization, lobbying, etc., can also be terrific.  But, I sense that far too many people end up with a law degree as hopeless and adrift as many a person with a BA in Political Science.

3) Personally, I’m a big fan of learning the (social) scientific method and if the goal is just to learn higher-level analytic skills, I think many would be better off with a high quality MA (e.g., in Public Policy or Applied Economics).  Thus, for these reasons I believe too many people are, in fact, pursuing law degrees and I’m not going to back down from that.

United Corporations of America

Watched a fabulous HBO documentary, “Hot Coffee,” on Monday night.  If you don’t have HBO, get this in your Netflix queue.  Seriously.

It uses the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit (what you think you know is probably wrong) as a jumping off point to look at tort reform.  Basically, companies have decided they don’t want to be held accountable for gross negligence of malfeasance, so they have convinced must states to put caps on lawsuits while decrying the scourge of “frivolous lawsuits.”  Here’s the thing: frivolous lawsuits don’t get $2 million settlements; they get thrown out by a judge.  If you’re getting $2 million, chances are pretty good you deserved it (i.e. McDonald’s ignored over 700 complaints that their coffee was too hot and the victim had unbelievably nasty burns– they show them).  In Nebraska, if a doctor makes a mistake that means you’ll need $5 million in life-time medical expenses, tough luck.  $1.25 million cap no matter what.  Ain’t that nice for the insurance companies.  In a number of states, Appeals courts have declared these caps to be in violation of state Constitutions.  Next step?  Run incredibly well-funded and scurrilous campaigns to take advantage of the absurd fact that most states rely on elections for their judges.  And, when all else fails, have people sign contracts for binding arbitration in which case, you the company, choose the arbitrator and the victim losing all other legal recourse.  Oh, and the arbitrators basically always side with the company or they never work in arbitration again.  If you are Halliburton subsidiary KBR, you can just house a young women in a dormitory in Iraq with hundreds of men, ignore her complaints about harrassment, “lose” the rape kit, and then lock her up after she reports that she’s been drugged and brutally raped.  And she has no legal recourse beyond KBR’s arbitrator.

Welcome to the United Corporations of America.

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