Archive for the ‘Aging’ category

Why Newspapers are Dying: George Will Has Reached His Sell-By Date edition

October 12, 2009

Some of the problems faced by traditional newspapers (the MSM, dead tree dept.) are imposed from without.  It’s not anyone in particular’s fault that the emergence of the intertubes and related digital developments is destroying most of the economic pillars on which newspapers have prospered for a long time.

But there are plenty of wounds that are self inflicted.  No one has forced newspapers to emphasize, say, style at the expense of reporting, especially the kind of gasbag opinionizing that dare not speak its name.  See this latest via Balloon Juice for just one small instance of major media deciding to render themselves irrelevant.

And most bizarrely, no one has forced folks to create a star system of punditry, despite the fact that the only unique advantage major media possesses over the digital wild west is a knowledge of journalistic craft and the institutional infrastructure that supports sustained inquiry and local and or investigative reporting.

But that’s a disastrous miscalculation.  Training up an institution to do real reporting well is hard — and would provide one distinctive competitive advantage over independent knights of the keyboard. Opinion writing does not.  Anyone, even yours truly, can take a whack at it; over time big, fixed cost dinosaurs can compete on neither quality nor quantity  (or, as we say in my house — both Rock and Roll.)

And if, for example, that house organ to the powerful, The Washington Post has to rely on work like  that George Will eructates to lay claim to a distinctive place in our media culture…well, on the evidence of his latest, the end can’t be far off now.

In fact, if I were Fred Hiatt (what a horrible thought…really for Fred or me….) I’d demand my money back.  There truly is nothing there, no actual facts, no analysis, no thoughts.  It’s got some of the Will trademarks — the mandarin disdain; the cocktail-party level faux sophistication (look at me! I look at paintings! the pretentious anglophilia); the relentless projection (I’m not really a sneering asshole;  YOU are!); but at bottom, this is just Will finally going alll Norma Desmond on us.  From top to bottom this reads as an almost pitiable cri de coeur:   “pay attention to me; I used to be somebody!”

The winceable stuff starts right at the top, with a typical Will trope:

Consider nature. Not the placid nature that Constable painted, but nature as Tennyson saw it, “red in tooth and claw.” To glimpse a state of nature as Hobbes imagined it, where human life is “nasty, brutish and short,” visit the Whole Foods store on River Road in Bethesda.

Ooh, ooh teacher, I know this one!

If you want to impress the gullibles, and you want to assert an authority you have not earned, make sure you scatter into your writing/speech — preferably near the top — two or three droplets from the handbook of safe bits of smart-people stuff.  Here we have a famous painter, a nicely canonical poet, and the one quote everyone has heard from someone you can be pretty sure most of your readers have not read well (or recently) enough to expose you for the superficial pseud you are.

Will does this all the time — he is glib, he affects a broad and deep knowledge, he has plenty of access to research assistants.  And particularly in a town like DC, which dotes on culture in the service of power, this kind of stuff goes down a treat.

It’s pitiable nonsense, of course, neither good writing nor in fact an intelligent reading of his sources.  Tennyson’s godawful poem* contrasts nature to human beings — the poet! —  and their relationship to the divine, which has in essence nothing to do with what Hobbes is talking about. But who cares — certainly not Will.  Rather, these are just cliches with Dior labels attached–  “red in tooth…” and so on, both familiar and useful reminders of the speaker’s status.

Will at this point isn’t worth a whole lot of effort to fisk or debunk.  All you will find in this latest evidence of fatal decline is a tally of imagined horror:

*Liberals arguing over parking spaces to buy expensive vegetables proves that those who think that George Will is an idiot are just as awful as those who bring guns to political rallies.

*He argues (really?  is that the verb?  — ed) that because he does not like liberals, therefore liberals are elitist hypocrites.

*He asserts that liberalism’s interest in rights has somehow destroyed the civility, even the legitimacy of the health care debate.

*He thinks that a local traffic dispute proves  that liberals stand on rights too much to resolve disputes — and that, by implication somehow this means that whatever it is that stands for conservatism ought still to command respect.

That is:  this is one long screed of “I hate you guys,” so much so that in the end, it is not worth the bother of deconstructing.  Just take one short quote for an illustration and you’ll get the whole.  Consider:

If our vocabulary is composed exclusively of references to rights, a.k.a. entitlements, we are condemned to endless jostling among elbow-throwing individuals irritably determined to protect, or enlarge, the boundaries of their rights. Among such people, all political discourse tends to be distilled to what Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls “rights talk.”

“If our vocabulary is composed exclusively…” And if it’s not, as patently it isn’t?  What’s there?  A lazy old man whose moral and intellectual hemmorrhoids are acting up.

See e.g., the very health care dispute to which Will makes reference.  The argument about the public option is heated indeed, but it’s not about a right.  Rather its about what would be the best politically possible way to reach a particular policy goal:  how to insure as near to everyone as possible at the lowest cost to society.  End of story. Which Will has to know, unless he picked this as the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.  (That universal health care can be expressed as a right isn’t what the left is arguing about.  It’s how to achieve the end of instantiating that right — or as it is sometimes conceived, that essential moral and pragmatically social-order-serving obligation of a modern developed society.)

“rights a.k.a. entitlements.”  So free speech is an entitlement?  The free exercise of religion?  How about the expectation as a human right that in detention one will not be subject to torture?  If these are entitlements, then the eternal Inigo Montoya rises up once more.

“Endless jostling among elbow throwing individuals?”… Timing is everything, but on the weekend of the LBGT march on Washington, I’d have to ask if Will thinks it inappropriate for someone to take to the streets, peaceably, elbows and all, to jostle his delicate sensibilities with demands for equal treatment under the law.  Note also the sleight of hand:  “to protect, or enlarge.”

Speaking as someone enjoying my bloggy moment of free speech, its protection in all kinds of ways (net neutrality, e.g.) seems important.  To condemn it ever so slickly by conflating it with enlarging…well, from the point of view of the writer’s craft, that’s slick, skilled, and wholly dishonest.  (Also, I’m not so sure what is so bad in the abstract about enlarging rights:  from sufferage to equal access to public benefits, as in Title 9 seems like exactly the logic of a view of humanity that accepts the essential notion of equal treatment under law.)

“Among such people” — ahh, here’s the real nub. Who are these people? Will never says. The wrong sort, no doubt.  They’re the imagined Prius drivers who dare to shop at Whole Foods.  They are pissed off drivers slowing for speed bumps, profiled in a strangely anachronistic Post piece that presents as new what has happened in neighborhoods all over America (all over the world) when traffic engineers use their tools to shift driving habits.**

Whoever they are, these mythical liberals, these hypocrites, these folks who dare speak of rights — they are not, in fact, the people who have truly provoked the great George Will.  Rather, those offenders would be, I think (a) the large subset of the governing party that is ignoring everything he has to say, and (b) the American voters who have sent a young, smart, not-one-of-us man to the White House, along with 60 of the wrong party to the Senate and a similarly large delegation to the House.

Which is to say that most of Will’s career has been, in effect, repudiated by those results.  The electorate and a growing (though not yet dominant) faction of the ruling party understands that Will has gotten most of the important calls wrong for a very long time now.  They and we realize that he has nothing much left to say, given how thoroughly his earlier arguments have been shown to be wrong — not through debate, nor the easy abstractions of armchair argument, nor by raising his Constable with any of a number of Turners, but in the hard school of the real world in which he has lined up on the side of grotesque political and policy failure.

Which leaves Will with this:  a column that says nothing, as little-boy-nastily as possible.

And that, my friends (channeling my inner McCain, there folks — sorry) leads back to the beginning at which we will end.  If the Post doesn’t start breaking some real journalism soon; if all it has to offer is “such people” kvetching by tired old Gloria Swanson impersonators, then what reason for being will they have?  Why would anyone lay down a buck or whatever they charge these days for wrap any self-respecting fish would reject?

*and endless.  I dare you to read the whole thing.  And I’ll bet dollars to donuts that Will has not.

**It may come as news to Will, but this has happened before.  And what usually goes down is this:  people get pissed off for a while about speed bumps or other bits of traffic engineering when they first are installed, and then they just deal, as most folks figure out that slowing down in neighborhoods full of kids is not the worst idea in the world.  Only a world-class asshole would assume that the “conflict” between neighborhoods and drivers passing through was a measure of political sincerity or sophistication.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, “Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)” 1890

McCain’s Can You Hear Me Now… possibilities

September 19, 2008

When I wrote this post, I was struck by Senator McCain’s verbal incoherence, and I took it to reflect genuine confusion and a mind not up to the task of constructing and communicating complex thoughts under pressure.

That is, I was picking up on a subterranean line of criticism that has poked above the surface occasionallly, that John McCain is an incurious and not terribly attentive man with a bad temper (in which qualities he does, in fact, seem to have found a soul mate in his ticket’s second banana (sure about that ordinal?– ed.).

But then the whole Spanish Prime Minister/Spain’s in Latin America thing came up.  Now the really telling part of that story is not that McCain botched a question in an interview, but that his campaign spent a day or more coming up with ever more preposterous explanations as to how McCain didn’t botch the question, answered it exactly as he intended, with all the wealth of nuance and sophistication required of a potential President.  Or not.

What most people aren’t saying in loud voices, though, is that the McCain attribute that links these two seemingly disparate verbal performances might simply be that he is…old.

The former instance — his odd, almost incomprehensible rambling on the fundamentals of the economy in Floriday on Monday afternoon —  has already brought comparisons to the waning days of the Bob Dole campaign , which is a pretty naked reference to the fact that McCain now, like Dole then,  has a lot more yesterdays than tomorrows to contemplate.

The notion that McCain is subject to senior moments, especially when tired and/or under pressure is one the campaign surely wants to downplay, but it did come into my mind watching the Florida video.

But when the Spanish interview hit the news, I wondered if there were a simpler explanation for at least some of McCain’s seemingly reckless winging of it on that occasion and in other interviews.

Hearing loss is one of the most common chronic conditions that afflict the aging.  It is more prevalent in men, and exposure to loud noises in one’s life (as, for example, a carrier pilot would have endured on a daily basis) can exacerbate the condition.  Between 25 and 40 percent of the population over 65 suffers from the some age-relating hearing loss, and that percentage jumps as you go over 75.

Now I am reasonably certain that the McCain campaign does not want to trot their candidate out there with a pair of hearing aids in his ears.  The campaign has worked hard to present the image of a candidate much younger in spirit and energy than the calendar would suggest.

But while practicing medicine at a distance and without a license is truly a mug’s game, moderate hearing loss would account for at least some of McCain’s confusion in the Spanish interview…and if this wild speculation turns out to be true, then it will continue to be a problem for McCain in other settings between now and the first Tuesday in November.

And even if it is not, contemplating the chronic conditions that accompany aging — hearing loss, arthritis, cognitive impairments, hypertension and so on — reminds us of the package we might get if we elect a 72 year old man with a history of cancer and of extreme physical hardship.

To put that another way. When you look at McCain, don’t just ponder the memory of our recent Alzheimer Presidency.*  Think about these three words:  President Sarah Palin.

That is all.

*The link leads to a Wikipedia entry that reports that Reagan’s doctors deny that he had Alzheimers in office.  Credible (to me) private communication from a source who was present in the Oval Office with Reagan in his second term suggests — anecdotally, to be sure — that he did show clear symptoms that match those of the disease.

Guest Post: Michelle Sipics on the limits to private sector R and D

August 10, 2008

Guest blogger and my former student Michelle Sipics is back with another post centered on her major area of interest — mental health, and especially the intersection of mental health inquiry and treatment and the care and well-being of the elderly.

It’s a crucial topic, IMHO, and it is one that does not get the attention it needs, as part of the larger neglect, at least in writing for the public, of the experience of aging in the United States (and presumably elsewhere, though my knowledge of science/medical journalism stops at the water, and certainly at the English language barrier).

So — see what Michelle has to say, and think about the question she leaves us with.


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Back in June, my good host posted about the media coverage of the psychological tolls of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He discussed the steps that the military is beginning
to take to address brain injury and mental illness, and I left a comment detailing my
feeling that we have a long way to go before these problems are anywhere near solved.

A fellow commenter–Tom Tyler, by name–suggested that waiting for politicians to fix or
even begin to address such problems is a loser’s bet, and that private R&D is the way to
go to get good research done. He may have a point. I’ve been thinking about that off
and on for the last month or so, and quite recently came across a news article that
highlighted the issue once again.

Those who have read my first guest post on this blog may recall that I have a particular
interest in mental health research, and especially in geriatric mental health. Well,
this article didn’t discuss mental health, but it did focus on an issue that primarily affects the
elderly. It seems that GM is working on a tech- heavy windshield that’s designed to aid
drivers with vision problems: a camera, lasers, and various sensors combine to “enhance”
what’s happening in the driver’s field of vision, so that the edge of the road is
highlighted more clearly, for example.

I think this is a potentially great example of what Tom Tyler discussed in his
aforementioned comment–private R&D leading to a product or service that addresses a
major problem facing ordinary people. Granted, it’s not as if this is pure medical
research; GM stands to make a bundle from it, and it’s clear that their primary
incentive is profit, not altruism. But is motivation, in and of itself, a problem? If,
in the end, people are helped by this system, and less accidents result from its use,
will we mind that it also helps GM’s bottom line–that it wasn’t developed by someone
with no major personal or financial interest in its use?

Personally, I don’t. I see this as an example of the private sector seeing a market
opportunity and jumping on it, to the potential benefit of millions of people. The AP
article about it specifically mentions the fact that the elderly population of the US is
on the verge of exploding, so that by 2030, one-fifth of the US population will be over
65. That, of course, is the group of folks with the most vision problems, and many of
them still drive, so this could be a big boon for both them and GM. Who loses?

Now, the big question for me: how does this concept–private-sector development that can
benefit ordinary people–apply to geriatric mental health?

One obvious issue that comes to mind is drug development. Pharmaceutical companies could
have a huge impact against a disease like Alzheimer’s with the development of an
effective drug. Yes, some are already on the market, but none that can help treat the
illness for more than a year or two at most. I’m sure many others are also in
development or trial stages, but the average time to market beyond discovery for a drug
is around 15 years. With the first of the baby boomers turning 65 in 2011, just three
years from now, things don’t look great at the moment.

A similar possibility is an anti-depressant targeted specifically for the elderly. Why
not? Narrow-focus drugs can be extremely effective. But to my knowledge, no such drug is
in existence or even being researched. (Please, anyone who knows of one, feel free to
correct me.) If one were discovered, brought to market, and widely adopted, it could
potentially prevent scores of suicides and increase the quality of life for elderly
patients suffering from depression. But one key word in that sentence is “adopted.” Many
elderly patients who are in fact suffering from depression are ashamed to admit it and
don’t seek treatment; and, compounding the problem, many don’t recognize aches, pains,
trouble sleeping, etc, as potential symptoms of depression. If they do go to a doctor,
it’s typically a general practitioner–and as I discovered while researching this topic
some years ago, the symptoms of depression are often overlooked by GPs when treating
elderly patients, so the underlying problem can be left undiscovered and the symptoms
cracked up to “old age.”

So with all of these problems, is it really to the benefit of pharmaceutical companies
to spend millions of dollars and so many years developing a drug that targets a problem
patients won’t admit to having? Is private R&D really the best answer here? No
pharmaceutical company is going to put itself in the red to develop a drug that won’t
result in a bottom line profit, even if it could help millions of people. So what’s the
best answer?

Personally, I do think private R&D can still have a huge impact in geriatric mental
health, but first we have to address the problem of stigma–and that problem is largely
left up to society as a whole. Before elderly patients, or any mental health patient,
can benefit from treatment, we have to convince them that it won’t come along with
rolled eyes from friends or condescending speeches about picking oneself up by one’s
bootstraps instead of accepting that treatment. Unfortunately, change like that also
takes time–and we’re running out of it.

My main reason for writing this post was to find out what others think. Can private R&D
help address the coming crisis in geriatric mental health? What issues stand in the way,
and what has to be done to get things rolling? Throw in your two cents, and let’s see
what we can do as a society to improve the situation.

I Hate the AARP

July 17, 2008

50 doesn’t come my way for another couple of months yet -50! Not 60, 0r 62, or Social Security’s retirement age of 66 and change, but 50! And already I’ve gotten a couple of those helpful mailings from the AARP. Loathsome.

In any event, I took this comment from a day or so ago as a kind of reassurance.

FWIW, the apple of my eye has just turned eight, as it happens, so apparently, there is still a little more up for him.

(h/t, with chuckles, to xkcd)