Archive: July 2009

…with liberty and Medicare for all? 7/30/09

In the past few days, I’ve been hearing proponents of government-run health care pointing to Medicare as a model of how the government can run health care beautifully.  I have to weigh in on that because I don’t think most licensed health care professionals like me see Medicare as a panacea for America’s health, and you don’t need to be a licensed health care professional to understand why.  Medicare is funded by mandatory contributions deducted directly from the paychecks of everyone working (legally) in the United States, and all that money is dedicated to the health care of just a fraction of the population, and still, the program is projected to be bankrupt in just a few short years (without major benefit cuts, eligibility restrictions, and/or tax increases).  Imagine, just imagine, if everyone who’s not yet a senior citizen were made eligible for Medicare benefits?  The program would be insolvent in weeks or days, not years or even months.  Imagine the limitation of benefits (draconian cuts) and the level of taxation (massive, economy-crushing tax increases) that it would take to keep the program in existence under those conditions when it’s barely solvent now.  And all of that’s before I even get to the nightmarish, inefficient, provider-distracting paperwork required by Medicare, not to mention the paltry reimbursements to providers, all of which make many providers reluctant to treat Medicare patients.  Imagine lumping all patients into that category at a time when we need more people, not fewer, wanting to invest the considerable time and money to pursue careers in medicine.  Saying that Medicare should be the model for health care delivery in America is like saying that the Food Stamps program should be the model for food delivery in America – i.e. instead of having the vast majority of Americans going to grocery stores and buying whatever fattening, price-inflated food products they want, let’s massively raise everyone’s payroll taxes and give them food stamps that they can use to purchase only government-approved foods.  Sound good to you?  I’ve been to something like 35 countries now, and if you’re an American, even if it’s a struggle for you to maintain health insurance coverage, I can tell you first-hand that people who live under systems like the one being proposed here are wishing they were you, with your American health care system, just as it is, imperfect but still the very best in the world.

Jackson custody deal 7/30/09

There’s reportedly been a settlement in the Michael Jackson child custody case.  The two older children’s biological mother reportedly has agreed not to challenge Jackson’s octogenarian mother (she’ll be the “octo-genarian-mom” now) for custody of the children.  And believe it or not, the agreement reportedly was reached without additional money being funneled (at least not publicly) to the children’s bio-mom.  The bio-mom reportedly will continue to have some visitation with the children, but a mutually-selected and court-appointed psychologist reportedly is being retained to determine what kind of visitation arrangements are in the children’s best interests (I do that kind of work, so I know exactly what will be involved, and if you’re interested in a general rundown, see my post “Child custody evaluations” dated 3/1/07).  A judge still will have to approve the settlement, and a hearing for that purpose is scheduled for Monday.  Assuming the settlement is approved, I hope Mrs. Jackson stays healthy and able to parent the children at least until all three of them are adults so we don’t have a “round two” of this fight.

Study this:  Apparently there’s a bumper crop of ticks in the U.S.A. this summer, which could increase the frequency of reported cases of Lyme Disease, which has renewed interest in the psychological effects of Lyme Disease.  The tick-borne illness is known to cause physical symptoms like extreme fatigue, fever, headaches, etc., but its mental effects are debatable.  Some experts believe that it changes people’s personalities, and some even believe it can send them into rages wherein they might even commit crimes that they wouldn’t otherwise commit.  That’s where I draw the line, and I’ve had some specialized training in this — I don’t buy the rage thing, and especially not the “uncontrollable” rage thing (I didn’t buy it when it was used as an excuse for a raging chimp that almost killed its owner’s neighbor, and I didn’t buy it when a man who shot and killed a preacher in a church raised it as a defense, both in the past year).  I believe that some people with Lyme Disease become depressed, anxious, irritable, perhaps obsessive about health concerns, etc., but even in those cases, I believe that the psychological effects are indirect, brought on by having to cope with a chronic illness generally, rather than direct (attributable to the Lyme infection specifically).  Either way, I’d take preventive measures in tick-infested areas, be sure to get an attached tick removed quickly and properly, and when in doubt, see a doctor, just to be safe.

A dubious doctor and ANOTHER womb raider 7/30/09

First up, the dubious doctor:

I’m talking about Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician, who allegedly administered the powerful surgical sedative propofol to the singer.  Murray reportedly has quite a history of irresponsible behavior.  Reports include unpaid child support, an unpaid mortgage, unpaid credit card bills…  Now, being irresponsible financially doesn’t mean that a person is irresponsible professionally, but in my opinion the two are consistent.  It’s kind of like I always say when a politician is caught cheating on his wife — that voters would have to be crazy to expect the same politician to be totally honest with them even though he’s not honest with his wife.  Sure, cheating on one’s spouse doesn’t guarantee that a person cheats in other facets of his life, but it makes me far too wary of that possibility to ever vote for that person.  Bottom line:  I don’t often see a major character flaw, like dishonesty or irresponsibility, manifesting solely in one area of a person’s life.  Stay tuned.

Next up, the womb raider:

Believe it or not, there’s been another case — the fourth of its kind in the past five years (previous cases in 2004, 2008, and 2009) — of a kidnapper cutting an unborn baby from its mother’s womb, killing the mother in the process.  Thankfully, the baby survived and has been found, and a suspect is in custody in the current case (that’s what happened in the ’04 and ’08 cases, but both mother and baby died in the case that happened earlier this year).  In cases like these, I’m mostly asked about the mindset of a person who would attempt such a horrific crime.  Looking back over the cases, the perpetrator in the murder/kidnapping that occurred five years ago raised the defense that she suffered from childhood head injuries that limited her ability to control her aggression and from something called pseudocynesis (the false belief that she was in fact pregnant).  It didn’t fly (she was sentenced to death in 2008).  The defendant in the 2008 case had actually attempted to steal babies twice before, once by kidnapping an infant after its birth and once by cutting a pregnant woman’s abdomen, yet was inexcusably back out on the street to try it again.  She has since claimed incompetence to stand trial (she claims to be haunted by the woman she allegedly murdered) and sits in a mental institution.  In the case earlier this year, the victim was contacted and a relationship was established online for an extended period of time prior to the crime (same as in the 2004 case), and the murderess attempted to hide the victim’s body afterward.  Look at the planning beforehand and coverup efforts after the fact in these cases; they’re extensive.  That’s why I’ve said that these cases illustrate how mental illnesses and psychopathic behavior can coexist and how mentally ill people are still responsible for their psychopathic behavior.  Womb raiders are by no means mentally healthy — they want babies so badly that they usually lie to everyone around them about being pregnant.   I don’t think they really believe they’re pregnant though, at least not for long (the pseudocynesis defense), because they keep fabricating new lies to back up the lies they’ve already told (e.g. lies about doctors’ appointments that never happened, etc.).  On top of that, if they really thought they were pregnant, seems like they’d be at their doctors’ offices asking why their babies weren’t coming out instead of looking for babies to steal.  That’s where the psychopathy comes in.  Like many criminals, they probably have disordered desires, but they choose to act on those disordered desires.  See, when a woman wants to be pregnant, realizes that she’s not, and feels entitled then to kill another woman and steal her baby (simply to obtain a baby and/or to avoid having to admit the lies she’s told to others about being pregnant), that woman’s not just some pathetic, delusional mess — that woman’s a psychopath, not really that much different from someone like the “BTK” killer who felt entitled to kill people for sexual thrills or arsonists who feel entitled to kill people and destroy property for the “thrill” of watching fires burn.  I don’t doubt that they’re somewhat crazy, but I believe wholeheartedly that they know what they’re doing and that it’s wrong, which makes them legally responsible for their actions.

The psychology of health care reform, a few updates, and a heartbreaking “study this” 7/28/09

First up tonight, health care:

Among the many apparent flaws in the philosophical and practical underpinnings of the President’s vision of health care in America, I believe that he and his supporters have failed to take psychology (behaviorism specifically) into account in projecting future demand on the system that they envision – a system in which non-emergency access would be afforded to everyone in the country (citizens and non-citizens alike) by the federal government.  Here’s my point in a nutshell:  freebies create “needies.”  What do I mean?  I mean that as soon as you start guaranteeing something to anyone who “needs” and “can’t afford” it, lots of people who didn’t seem to need it previously and/or were affording it themselves previously suddenly start “needing” it and suddenly “can’t afford” it.  I’ll illustrate.  If you take a stack of pizzas to a street corner in the heart of Beverly Hills, and you put up a big sign saying, “Free pizza for anyone who needs a meal and can’t afford one,” those pizzas will be gone very quickly, and while we all need food, not a single person who took one of your pizzas will have been unable to afford it on his/her own.  How does this translate to health care reform?  If the Obama plan is implemented, not only will the currently uninsured (many if not most of whom are uninsured by choice) be afforded access to non-emergency health care, but many people who currently afford their own health care (and therefore think carefully about whether/when to access it) will start accessing it more often.  As far as I can tell, however, the Obama plan only takes the former into account – i.e. projects increased demand on the system when currently-uninsured people gain full access to it but fails to project a further increase in demand on the system due to the increase in accesses by currently-insured people.  Thus, if the Obama plan is implemented, the increased demand for health care in this country, I believe, will be much larger, unmanageably larger, than the Administration seems to contemplate.  Ergo, it seems to me that the only way to keep demand for health care manageable under the Obama plan would be to ration care.  That’s right, health care rationing in America – I see no way around it under the Obama plan.  Fortunately, hopefully, I think that the American people intuitively understand that.  A predominantly-private health care system, one that does not guarantee everyone in the country non-emergency access to health care, incentivizes every American who can possibly afford to secure his/her own access to care to do so – as the vast majority of Americans currently do, even by the Obama Administration’s estimates – and to then access that care judiciously.  That’s exactly as it should be – both philosophically and practically.  It’s fine, noble even, to want people (kids especially) who are unable to secure their own access to health care to be afforded access somehow, but it’s philosophically, practically, and psychologically unsound public policy to attempt to effectuate that goal by distributing freebies and creating “needies” among the vast majority of Americans who remain capable of securing and moderating their own health care access.

Next up, the updates:

Update #1:  Toxicology studies on Michael Jackson’s body reportedly will say that the surgical sedative propofol (a.k.a. Diprivan) was in his bloodstream at the time of his death and was a potential contributing factor to his death.  Stay tuned.

Update #2:  Another famous Michael, Michael Vick, is out of prison and is likely to be headed back onto a professional football field near you this fall.  Allow me to take this opportunity to remind all American parents to teach their children (and in some cases, themselves) the proper amount of emphasis to put on sports relative to other pursuits in life and the appropriate venues, if any, in which to emulate professional athletes (generally, at the very most, on the athletic field and nowhere else).

Update #3:  A judge reportedly has appointed a guardian to look out for the financial interests of Octomommy’s octuplets and hopefully prevent any exploitation of the children.  Good decision, but good luck to the guardian!

Finally tonight, study this:

Psychologists have long known that a divorce is one of the most stressful experiences that a person can go through.  A new study suggests that some negative effects of that stress can persist long after the divorce is over.  The study found that having been through a divorce correlated with a somewhat-increased risk of a range of long-term physical health problems including heart disease.  So maybe there’s actually something to that whole “broken heart” thing.  Of course it’s not a for-sure thing — the major take-home message is probably just that if you ever go through a divorce, you should try to take care of your physical, e.g. cardiovascular, health as much as possible during that very stressful time to try to minimize the long-term effects of all that stress.

Is this the kind of health insurance you want? 7/25/09

You may have noticed that I haven’t appeared on TV or written as much as I usually do in the months of June and July.  That’s because, sadly, my father passed away earlier this month after a long battle with esophageal cancer.  Simply put, he was a very good man.  I tell you this not for sympathy but to make a point about the proposed government takeover of the American health care system.  My dad was a former federal employee, and as such, he had obtained life insurance through the federal government.  There’s a phone number that beneficiaries are supposed to call to report the death on an insured to the government’s Office of Personnel Management.  I’ve now attempted to do that twice.  Both times, I’ve been put on hold by an automated system for 45 minutes.  The first time, I finally had to hang up to get some other important things done.  The second time, my call finally was dropped, and I’m guessing that was because it was almost 4:00 p.m. eastern time, quitting time at the Office of Personnel Management.  Hopefully, I’ll get my dad’s death reported and get the insurance benefit paid out eventually, but here’s my point:  This is how the federal government administers an insurance program.  Is it how you want your health insurance administered?  If you get sick, do you want to be on hold for 45 min. waiting to get permission to see a doctor from someone who eventually just drops your call and clocks out, leaving you to call back and go through it all again the next day until you either recover on your own, end up in the emergency room, or die?  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I really believe that’s the risk we’re running if we start getting our health insurance from the federal government.

The dog house 7/25/09

After neighbors smelled something putrid emanating from the home of a Michigan man, police on Friday found the man living with over 100 dogs in a house littered with feces and urine.  Some of the dogs were in poor health, and what’s worse, over 100 bodies of deceased dogs were found in the house as well.  The live dogs were picked up by the local humane society, and the man was picked up by the cops.  He’s reportedly undergoing a mental health evaluation to determine whether he’s mentally ill.  Ya think?  In one report I saw, a relative of the man said he was mentally ill because he had rubella (German measles) as a child.  I don’t doubt that he’s mentally ill, but I doubt that it’s solely because of rubella.  Rubella has been associated with mental retardation, and while that may be part of the explanation here, I think there’s going to be more to it than that, but I could be wrong.

Wrapping up the week 7/24/09

Last September, I told you about Tony Alamo, another nutty preacher like Warren Jeffs who was suspected at that time of having sex with underage girls under the guise of “religion.”  Well, he’s been convicted, and he’s likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Reports are surfacing that Michael Jackson was wearing a nasal prosthesis (a partially-plastic nose) at the time of his death to conceal irreparable damage from too much cosmetic surgery (e.g. scar tissue obstructing blood vessels to the point that blood could no longer get to part of his nose, resulting in tissue death — and I think there was probably some dermatological malpractice involved in ever doing that much plastic surgery on someone).  As unsettling as that may be to many of us, it’s nowhere close to as unsettling as Jackson’s own appearance — even before all of the surgeries and the prosthesis (if that’s true) — seemingly was to him.  I’ve said for a long time that it sounds to me like he had a “dysmorphic” disorder, a mental condition in which a person perceives his or her own body, or face in this case, as grotesque, disfigured, misshapen, etc., when it’s actually well within the realm of normalcy.  Still no arrest, but reminiscent of the Anna Nicole Smith case, it looks like the cops are really turning up the heat on Jackson’s personal physician, who’s apparently suspected of providing a deadly cocktail of prescription drugs to the singer.

The FBI is investigating the recruitment of terrorists here in America by Al Qaeda and other similar groups.  For example, the son of Somali immigrants living in Minnesota disappeared from an engineering school in the United States, notified his parents shortly thereafter that he was in Somalia, and recently turned up — apparently dead — in photos posted on the Internet of civil warfare between rival Somali factions.  The parents have suggested that their son was “brainwashed” by a terrorist group, and they’re not the only parents who’ve suggested that.  Well, as sorry as I feel for them (the parents), I don’t really buy that, at least not in the sense that someone from the terror group erased their sons’ memories or exercised some kind of mind control over them.  I think that these have probably been disaffected young men, searching for something that the terror group offered (maybe a sense of purpose, maybe belongingness, maybe adventure, etc.), so they latched onto it.  It’s sad, and the FBI’s doing exactly the right thing trying to stop it, but I doubt that the actual recruiting process is really all that sophisticated psychologically.

Lastly, as you know if you’re a regular, I give credit where credit is due, so I applaud President Obama for phoning the lead police officer involved in the recent disorderly-conduct arrest of a prominent black professor in the Boston area to lament the unsupported assertion made during Wednesday-evening’s presidential press conference that the officers involved had acted “stupidly.”  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t — I don’t know, and neither does the President, who has now acknowledged that and affirmed that he has no reason to doubt the character or professionalism of the officers involved.

The naked truth about voyeurism 7/24/09

First off, a couple of updates:

Update #1:  The former campus mental health counselor who apparently had the Virginia Tech shooter’s psychotherapy records at his house since the massacre says that the records were taken off campus inadvertently (not in an effort to conceal anyone’s failure to act on any warning signs exhibited by the shooter).

Update #2:  The execution of a search warrant at Michael Jackson’s personal doctor’s office suggests that the doctor may in fact be the target of a criminal (e.g. manslaughter) investigation in connection with Jackson’s death.

Now here’s a new one:  Female ESPN reporter Erin Andrews was surreptitiously videotaped undressing in a hotel room by a voyeuristic pervert who apparently drilled a hole and inserted a small camera through a wall from an adjoining room.  That’s a crime, right?  Well, apparently not in the eyes of another female sports reporter, USA Today’s Christine Brennan, who’s been quoted as follows:  “If you trade off your sex appeal, if you trade off your looks, eventually you’re going to lose those…She doesn’t deserve what happened to her, but part of the shtick, seems to me, is being a little bit out there in a way that then are you encouraging the complete nutcase to drill a hole in a room…Erin did not deserve this.  I want to make that crystal clear.  But she’s got to be smarter and better…Women sports journalists need to be smart and not play to the frat house.”  What?  So I guess in Ms. Brennan’s world, no one who makes money on their looks – so basically no model, no newscaster, etc. – can ever be the victim of a criminal invasion of bodily privacy.  I’d say that’s nuts, but it actually sounds more like jealousy to me.

Finally tonight, study this:  A new study found that kids who live in high-stress households are more likely to have asthma attacks when exposed to air pollution relative to kids who live in calmer households.

Jack-son? 7/23/09

A U.S. Marine has received a bad-conduct discharge after deserting his unit and being found in possession of child pornography.  Now, here’s the kicker – apparently the recruiter who enlisted this guy knew that he had been diagnosed with at least one mental disorder, something in the autism spectrum.  As big a supporter of the U.S. military as I am, recruiters included, I believe that there may a problem with regard to recruiting people who are mentally unfit – i.e. unsafe – to be serving.  I’m not sure that the incentives for recruiters are aligned in such a way that they’re as motivated as they should be to identify and exclude recruits with potentially-dangerous mental disorders.  I’ve seen this first-hand – I once examined a former soldier who had an autism-spectrum disorder that should’ve been obvious to anyone, was recruited nevertheless, was sent to Iraq, couldn’t function anywhere close to military standards, was constantly getting into disciplinary and social trouble, and was finally sent home when another soldier found him on the verge of committing suicide with an M-16 rifle.  I would be happy to help the military to train recruiters to be better at spotting potential mental conditions that, if unnoticed or ignored, could create highly-dangerous situations down the road.

A young engineer at a factory in China where iPhones are made has committed suicide by jumping from his 12th-floor apartment window.  Apparently he became distraught after he was entrusted with 16 prototypes of the next-generation iPhone, and one of the phones went missing.  Chinese authorities reportedly are investigating the incident, but from the reports I’ve read, no one seems to think that the deceased engineer had done anything criminal.  On the contrary, it sounds like he truly was ridden with guilt and shame for having lost the phone.  Now, there were probably some pre-existing mental vulnerabilities involved because most people wouldn’t commit suicide after losing something at work, even something important, but if that’s what happened here, I do think it points out how devastating it can be to people when they perceive that they’ve lost their reputations.  At the risk of going too far off on a tangent, that’s why I’m always saying that we don’t do enough in this country to people who ruin the reputations of others by making false allegations against them.

Finally, Jack-son?  Surprise, surprise, in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, leaving an estimated $200 million fortune to his three children even after the singer’s staggering debts are paid, a potential fourth child has come out of the woodwork.  He’s a 25-year-old aspiring singer and dancer who apparently had been acquainted with Jackson since an early age, but his paternity is very much in question.  The Jackson family reportedly has agreed to resolve the issue quickly with a DNA test.

Catching up 7/23/09

Lots to catch up on tonight.  Here’s a rundown:

Three children, all apparently starving and at least one apparently a victim of sexual abuse, were found locked in a motel bathroom in Texas.  They’d apparently been living mainly in that bathroom for months while their mother, her boyfriend, and an infant lived mainly in the outer room.  It appears that the mother finally summoned police to help her and her children get away from the allegedly-abusive boyfriend, whereupon the children’s conditions were discovered, and both adults were taken into custody.  All of the kids are now in protective custody, but the kicker in this story is the mother’s reported explanation – that the mistreatment of the children was all her boyfriend’s doing, and that she couldn’t get them away from him before now, and that her only wrongdoing was making a poor choice of a boyfriend.  Yeah, right.  She’s equally guilty of any abuse that happened to those kids, period.

Also in Texas, there’s been a drive-by shooting on the campus of Texas Southern University, injuring several attendees at a charity event that distributed school supplies to needy children and featured – surprise, surprise – a rap artist.  Thankfully no one was killed, but I can guarantee you already that when the suspects are apprehended, the State of Texas will have had plenty of opportunities to get them off the street before this incident.  Sound familiar?

While we’re on the subject of mass shootings, records of on-campus psychological counseling provided to the Virginia Tech shooter have finally been located.  The records could not be found in the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, leading some victims’ family members to wonder whether the school was concealing evidence of warning signs that were readily apparent but nevertheless ignored.  Apparently the records ended up at the home of a former director of the school’s counseling center, and so far, it’s not clear whether they were taken off campus intentionally, and if so, why.  The contents of the records have not yet been released due to privacy concerns, but I expect at least the highlights to be made public eventually.

Now, back to violent rappers for a moment.  Rapper Chris Brown apologized publicly this week for attacking his then-girlfriend Rhianna last year.  Considering all of the negative publicity he’s gotten since then, I believe he’s sorry he did it, but I won’t believe he’s a changed man until he goes a few decades without another incident.  Don’t bet on it.

There are now eight – that’s right, eight – suspects in custody and seven actually charged with murder in this month’s purely-evil shootings and robbery of a Florida couple who had adopted 13 special-needs children.  As I’ve reported previously, there appears to be 100% certainty about the identities of the people responsible for these murders thanks to surveillance video at the crime scene, and if that’s true, I’ll reiterate my offer to pay for the electricity, gas, chemicals – take your pick – to take them all out.

Lots of talk but no major developments in the Jackson case.  Criminal charges against any doctor who prescribed lethal drugs to Jackson are an ongoing topic of conversation, but none have been filed.  We’re still waiting for toxicology results and a definitive cause of death.  In the meantime, Jackson’s mother is reportedly considering a legal challenge to Jackson’s appointment of two music industry big-shots as executors of his estate, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen, and if it does, I don’t think it’s likely to succeed (she’d have to show some kind of bad faith or incompetence on the part of the named executors for the court to go against Jackson’s wishes).  There’s been no resolution of the child custody issue either, but Jackson’s sister Janet has emerged as yet another contender for guardianship.

I think that the cops in Cambridge, MA may be getting an underserved bad rap for their brief detention of a prominent black professor who allegedly became belligerent with officers arriving at his home to investigate a reported burglary in progress.  It turned out that the professor, having lost his keys, had broken into his own home, but it’s not clear what happened between the arrival of the police and his arrest for disorderly conduct.  He was quickly released and the charge quickly dropped, and the professor and police issued a joint statement essentially saying that the incident had been a misunderstanding.  Immediately thereafter, however, the professor started suggesting that the cops exhibited racism during the incident, but it sounds to me like he may have jumped to that conclusion without provocation and therefore been uncooperative, perhaps even antagonistic with law enforcement officers who were just trying to do their jobs.  During a Wednesday-evening press conference, President Obama opined that the cops acted “stupidly,” but I don’t know how he could possibly know that unless and until we get a clear, objective depiction of the entire incident from start to finish.

In that same press conference, the President spent most of his time answering questions about his proposed plan to reform America’s health care system.  Now, I have two doctorates, two master’s degrees, and a bachelor’s degree, and I still don’t understand the Obama plan.  Keep in mind that I’m a licensed health care provider, lawyer, and MBA, so I have expertise in all aspects – health, legislative, and economic – of this issue.  If you’re interested in my thoughts on the past, present, and future of health care in America, my prescription for the U.S. health care system, originally written during last year’s election, re-ran just days ago in the online magazine of the politically-active women’s organization Smart Girl Politics.  You can find it by Googling “Dr. Brian’s Rx for Health Care.”  On a personal note, I took offense to a hypothetical that the President offered during his press conference to illustrate why his health care plan is needed – he said that a doctor might remove a child’s tonsils unnecessarily because that would generate more income than simply prescribing allergy medication to treat the child’s recurrent sore throats.  If that’s ever happened, it’s not happening with any significant frequency, certainly not with enough frequency to require a radical government takeover of the health care system, and the vast majority of us in the health care professions would never do anything like that.

Study this #1:  A new study, widely reported earlier this week, suggests that pregnant mothers’ exposure to air pollution is reducing their children’s future I.Q.’s.  Well, when I looked a little deeper into it, I learned that most of the mothers in the study appeared to have multiple other factors in play (e.g. being uneducated, living in areas with substandard schools, etc.) that seemed to me to be equally or more likely than air quality to account for any deficits in their children’s cognitive development.  I think it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism in cases like this because more and more dubious studies are being cited in support of massive, intrusive, expensive government programs like health care reform and the “cap and trade” anti-pollution program, both of which I’ve critiqued here previously.

Study this #2:  Could consuming adult beverages in their golden years actually help people combat Alzheimer’s?  That’s what another new study suggests.  Participants who had one or two drinks daily appeared to be at reduced risk for Alzheimer’s-type dementia relative to teetotalers.  Maggie Griffin, this study’s for you!

Why some cases get national TV coverage and others don’t 7/20/09

As a psychologist, lawyer, and expert on networks including Court TV, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN Headline News, I’ve been involved in the television coverage of most major American crime stories in the past few years.  Off the air, the question that I’m asked most frequently by viewers is this one:  “Why do some cases get so much national TV coverage and others don’t?”  That question often is accompanied by noteworthy observations like, “On the day Caylee Anthony was reported missing, approximately 2000 other children were reported missing in the United States according to the FBI,” with natural follow-up questions like, “So why don’t we see anything about them?” and “Why do we know all about JonBenet Ramsey and Natalee Holloway and Caylee but little or nothing about so many other worthy cases?”  These are valid questions, and I think they’re worthy of serious thought and straightforward answers from those of us in the national TV news media.  There are answers, I think, and they may be surprisingly simple.

The vast majority of serious crimes are covered at the local level, but only a small fraction of them make the jump to the national level.  Why?  Three key factors:  the national need to know, the time and resources available to the national media, and “sensationality.”  First, it’s not true that everything in the TV news business is ratings-driven.  The news media certainly isn’t just a public service institution – it’s a business – but it’s not just a business either.  It’s a business that performs a public service, and I think that most TV news professionals (100% of the ones I know) recognize a responsibility to give viewers information that they need to know, whether they necessarily want to know it or not.  The question in each individual case, however, is whether the need to know extends beyond the geographic area in which the underlying events took place.  That question has to be answered on a case-by-case basis, and when the answer is yes, there generally will be at least one national report on the “big three” broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and multiple reports on the cable news networks.  Second, even a 24-hour news cycle only has 24 hours in it, and that’s not enough time to give more than a few cases the kind of wall-to-wall coverage that we’ve been giving to the Caylee Anthony case.  On top of that, while a lot of footage and information can be obtained from local and regional “affiliate” stations, even networks with the vast resources of CNN and Fox News have to place limits on the numbers of network reporters, producers, expensively-outfitted camera crews, satellite trucks, etc. that they keep in the field for the extended periods of time necessary to cover each and every investigative and procedural development in complex criminal cases.  That’s where the third factor, “sensationality” for lack of a better (or real) term, comes into play.  It’s the extent to which each individual case involves elements that tend to draw the interest and attention of viewers far-removed geographically from the underlying events, and it has its own set of elements.

Certain types of cases, for better or worse, have proven over time to drive viewer empathy, interest, and consequently, ratings – to become “sensational.”  Why?  Seven key elements, in no particular order:  1) youth, 2) beauty, 3) sex, 4) celebrity, 5) mystery, 6) fear, and 7) victim innocence.  First, when children, like Caylee Anthony, are involved, viewers’ emotions get involved, and they tend to feel more empathic desire to follow stories than they do when only adults are involved.  Second, like it or not, people are more inclined to sustain the focus of their attention when the object of their attention, Natalee Holloway for example, is attractive to them.  People are also more inclined to keep watching when they identify with whomever they’re watching, which, given the demographics of the American television audience, partly explains the disparity in coverage between missing-persons cases involving white and middle-class victims versus minority and poor victims.  Third, human beings have an involuntary, evolutionary fascination with sex, so when someone’s turned on, as in the case of Debra LaFave (the Florida high school teacher who had sex with her male student), they tune in.  Fourth, the combination of our celebrity-obsessed culture and the psychological phenomenon known as “schadenfreude” (guilty pleasure in the downfalls of others) means that when we report on “falling stars,” like O.J. Simpson or former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ratings rise.  Fifth, most people are, to some extent, “armchair detectives,” and as such, when there are particularly good mysteries involved, as in the JonBenet Ramsey case, viewers become intellectually involved, just as they might become engrossed in a good mystery novel and want to stick with it to the end.

The sixth and seventh key elements of sensationality are the most complicated and require a little additional explanation.  The sixth element, fear, is among the most powerful motivators of human behavior, and in order to gain control over it, people crave understanding of that which they fear.  Therefore, when a case is particularly frightening, like the 2002 case of the “beltway snipers” in and around the D.C. area, people tend to look to the media for as much information as they can get.  There are limits, however, to the fear factor, and those limits involve the levels of gruesomeness and/or repulsiveness of the underlying acts in specific cases.  For example, the beheading of a passenger on a Canadian bus last year and the recently-discovered series of incestuous rapes and resulting stillbirths perpetrated by a Missouri man over the past decade were so gruesome and so repulsive respectively that viewer demand for continuing coverage of those cases was low.  The seventh element is victim innocence, perhaps more aptly named perceived victim innocence.  Viewers have more empathy for, and thus more interest in, following cases in which the victims are perceived to have been totally innocent, as in the case of Anne Pressly, the Arkansas newswoman who was brutally attacked and killed last year in a home invasion.  Pressly was in her own home, alone, in her own bed, when a vicious rapist and murderer burst in and assaulted her so savagely that she never regained consciousness.  In contrast, when victims are perceived, even inaccurately (perception is reality here), to have participated in creating the situations in which they were victimized, as in the case of Laura Garza, a New York woman who disappeared late last year after leaving a nightclub with a stranger now known to have been a registered sex offender, people’s empathy and demand for continuing coverage, rightly or wrongly, drop proportionally.  Interestingly but unfortunately, any perceived fault on the part of missing children’s parents can be projected onto the totally-innocent children and diminish interest in their cases.  If the parents are perceived, whether accurately or stereotypically, to have lived a lifestyle that put the children at risk, viewers won’t have as much empathy as they’d have if the parents were perceived to have “done everything right,” which, given again the demographics of the American television audience, also partly explains the disparity in coverage of such cases involving white and middle-class victims versus minority and poor victims.  (Sheer numbers, too, play a large part in the disparity in coverage along racial lines – according to the FBI, roughly twice as many white children as minority children are reported missing in the United States each year).

 

The more of the above seven elements of sensationality that are present in a specific case, the more likely it is to attract the attention of journalists and viewers alike and to make the jump from local to national coverage, to “go national.”  (Interestingly, those same elements also help explain why such a large proportion of the stories that do get national TV coverage are essentially “bad news” – try to think of a “good news” story involving more than three or four of the seven!)  Take the Caylee Anthony case for instance.  That began as a local missing-child story in Orlando, Florida and quickly drew such intense national coverage that Ms. Anthony’s trial, which probably won’t take place until 2010, has already been dubbed “the trial of the century,” a dubious distinction last ascribed to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial back in 1995.  The magnitude and breadth of interest in the Anthony case makes sense though, considering that it had all but two of the seven key elements.  It had youth, a precious child victim whose face became nationally-recognizable during the nearly six-month search that ultimately yielded her remains instead of the happy ending for which we all had hoped.  It had beauty, an attractive now-23-year-old female defendant who, at least until recently, seemed all but unable to keep from playing to the cameras, though they’ve been focused on her for the worst of reasons.  It had sex, a defendant whose promiscuous lifestyle has made it as yet impossible to determine the paternity of the victim and is suspected by many, myself included, to have contributed at least to the reckless neglect, if not the cold-blooded murder, of the child.  It had, above all, a captivating mystery, a child whose death has been ruled a homicide but cannot be forensically explained, a mountain of circumstantial evidence pointing toward her mother, and a cast of colorful characters including a set of emotionally-overloaded grandparents and an ensemble of investigators, witnesses, lawyers, and experts the likes of which haven’t been seen since last century’s “trial of the century.”  Finally, there was no question as to the complete innocence of the victim in the Anthony case, giving it a total of five out of a possible seven empathy and interest-inducing elements of sensationality.

 

Once a story makes the jump from local to national coverage, the extent to which it continues to be covered does depend largely on ratings.  Sometimes, as in the Canadian bus beheading or the Missouri incest cases that I mentioned previously, viewers express little interest in hearing more than the initial facts.  The stories are just “too ugly.”  Other times, as in the Anthony case, viewers are all but glued to their TV sets waiting for the next “shocking new development,” regardless of whether it’s a genuine bombshell or more like a time-filling dud.  It’s also worth noting that, just as the media’s time and resources limit the number of cases that can get wall-to-wall national coverage simultaneously, viewers’ time and emotional resources are limited such that they generally can only follow two or three major cases at once.  The attention spans and the “heartstrings” of even the most compassionate armchair detectives have limits.  Thus, once the initial facts of a case have been reported nationally, the level of continuing national coverage really does become almost entirely viewer-driven, at least until additional need-to-know facts come to light.

 

So, who determines which cases get wall-to-wall national coverage and which ones don’t, the media or the public?  I say, both.  Initially, the media decides, but eventually, you decide – you and everyone else who’s interested, for various combinations of reasons, in the cases that the media has needed, been able, and yes, chosen, to bring to your attention.  By demanding more or less information from us, you play a key role in helping the media to decide which cases get ongoing national coverage.  Then, by questioning us about those decisions, you again play a key role in keeping us thinking about why we do what we do, and for that – for watching, questioning, and now reading – I thank you.

A tragic double homicide, a sex abuse hoax, and a four-letter “study this” 7/12/09

Byrd and Melanie Billings, a Florida couple who had dedicated their lives to adopting and raising kids with developmental disabilities, were murdered this weekend in a home invasion with some of their children present.  Two men are in custody, thanks to security cameras at the crime scene, and additional arrests are expected.  There’s no apparent motive other than robbery at this point, but that remains under investigation as well.  Think about it — who would kill just to get someone else’s money or material things?  Are they insane, incapable of knowing that that’s wrong?  No, looks like a planned, coordinated effort to me, with consciousness of guilt after the fact (attempts to conceal evidence).  So what are they?  What word would you use to describe a person who feels entitled to take another human being’s life just to get his/her possessions?  Evil’s the word I use, pure evil, worthy of a trip to the electric chair if there’s enough evidence of guilt to rule out any possibility of error, as I predict there will be in this case.  (I know, it’s lethal injection now, but I’d be happy to pay for the electricity myself if the people of Florida would like to reinstate the chair just for these perpetrators, if convicted of course.  And lest anyone call me a hypocrite based on my opposition to Dr. Tiller’s abortion practices, there’s a difference between innocent life and guilty life — just because everyone has the right to be born doesn’t mean that a person can’t forfeit his/her right to continue living among us by refusing to do so peacefully.)  As usual, I guarantee you that the perpetrators should never have been loose on the streets to commit this tragic crime, and I again urge the people of Florida and every other state to adopt a zero-tolerance stance toward violent crime.  Sadly, I predict that such a stance would’ve taken these perpetrators off the streets well before this weekend.  Sure, that’ll happen now, but it’s too late for these parents and their children.  How about a little pro-action instead of just re-action?  How about getting a future murderer off the streets for a decade or two the very first time he takes a baseball bat into a convenience store and robs the clerk of $50?  I feel terrible for the Billings children, who were extremely fortunate to have been found by the Billingses and now must hope that equally selfless and loving caregivers will take them in.

Also tonight, the grown children of a Washington man jailed 20 years ago for allegedly sexually abusing them now say it never happened.  They’re saying that their mother, recently divorced from their father at the time, convinced them that he had abused them and that they had blocked it from their minds.  Now if you’ve been a regular viewer or reader, you know how tough I am on sex offenders, but if this is true, the law needs to come down just as hard on this mother as it ever did on the father because the false allegation has likely done comparable damage to the father’s life as the alleged abuse would’ve done to the children’s lives.

Now, study this:

A new study shows that veterans who suffer from PTSD are more likely than people in the general population to develop dementia later in life.  Just this weekend, a veteran barged into a VA hospital in Topeka, KS, approximately 20 miles from where I live, brandishing a handgun.  Fortunately, he was able to be subdued and admitted as a patient before anyone got hurt.  He has a history of service in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  Hopefully he’ll now get the help that he needs, but it’s all too familiar that a life-threatening incident had to happen first.  Speaking of dementia, another new study has identified a specific gene that may aid in predicting who will develop Alzheimer’s disease, while yet another new study found that Omega-3 fatty acids did little to combat Alzheimer’s symptoms.  Finally tonight, there’s a new study that found that cussing during painful experiences actually increased participants’ capacities to endure the pain, so perhaps there’s actually something scientific to yelling out a four-letter word or two next time you stub your toe.

Jackson memorial service 7/8/09

On Tuesday, the world, and probably you, saw what may have been the grandest memorial service ever held for an entertainer, at least in modern times.  Michael Jackson’s public memorial service, held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, drew roughly 30,000 people (combined inside and outside of the venue), and was remarkably well-controlled from a security standpoint (although that security came at an estimated cost of $4 million to the City of Los Angeles).  Numerous “A-list” entertainers performed and paid their respects to Jackson, but his 11-year-old daughter stole the show when she tearfully told the world how much she loved “Daddy.”  It seemed as if, at some level, she understood the controversy surrounding her father’s relationships with children and was defending him when she said that he had been the best father anyone could ever want.  (By the way, I know this isn’t scientific, but somehow, she reminds me of Jackson in his youth, so I’m going to bet he was her daddy in both the parenting sense and the biological sense.  Of course I could be wrong.  And, given that she apparently wanted to speak in front of that many people, I predict that, of the three children, she’s the most likely to follow in Jackson’s footsteps professionally.)  The other two children, ages 12 and seven, didn’t speak, and that was fine.  Memorials are really for the living, and that’s true especially when the survivors include children.  When deciding whether to even have children attend such an event, I think it’s important to consider whether they will get something out of it that’s worth going through an emotional experience that’s difficult for adults.  It looked to me like the daughter probably did, and I imagine that her older brother probably did too.  It’s more questionable with respect to the seven-year-old, as kids that young often don’t even fully grasp the concept, particularly the finality, of death, but I won’t second-guess the family’s decision to include him, particularly because he was able to share the experience with his two older siblings (or half-siblings, or adopted siblings, or whatever) and with Jackson’s nieces and nephews in addition to what appeared to be a loving, supportive group of adult relatives.  I think that public outpouring of support probably helped Jackson’s mother’s custody case, particularly if she demonstrates continuity in the children’s care by hiring the nanny who, until recently, worked for Jackson and served as the children’s primary “mother figure.”  I’ve been asked about the process that will unfold if the court appoints someone like me to evaluate the situation and render an expert opinion, and a good outline of what that process might look like can be found in the archives here, in a post dated March 1, 2007.  Stay tuned.  (Also, on the drug front, Diprivan, the surgical-strength sedative that reportedly was found in Jackson’s home, is used in veterinary medicine as well as in human medicine, and given the menagerie of animals residing at Jackson’s “Neverland” home over the years, it’s conceivable that the drug could have been procured ostensibly for veterinary use.  I think that’s less likely than the all-too-familiar “Hollywood health care” scenario, which I’ve also written about in the cases of Jackson and other celebrities whose deaths involved prescription drugs, but it’s conceivable.)

(While I’m here, there’s an update on the serial killer who was on the loose in South Carolina over the 4th of July weekend — the suspect is dead, killed in a shootout with police responding to a tip from a concerned citizen.  Props to the tipster!)

Busy holiday weekend 7/6/09

Hope you had a good 4th of July weekend.  It was a busy news weekend too.  Here’s a rundown.

On the crime front:

There’s an apparent serial killer on the loose in rural South Carolina; five victims (some of whom were bound first) shot to death in three separate incidents, apparently with the same weapon (police are linking the killings, and so far there don’t appear to be other connections between the victims, so I’m thinking that the ballistics must match).  It reminds me of the “Beltway Snipers” case in that the “enjoyment” of shooting people appears to be the primary motive (so far at least, it doesn’t appear that the shooter took anything of value from the victims).  Police have released a composite sketch of a suspect — 40’s, approximately 6’2″ and 200 lbs. with “salt and pepper” hair — and a description of the vehicle they think he may be driving, a silver Ford Explorer.  Believe it or not, this is the second serial killer on record in the same rural area — the other one, known as the “Gaffney Strangler,” killed four women in a ten-day period back in the 1960’s.

N.F.L. quarterback Steve McNair has been killed in an apparent murder-suicide.  Found dead with him was a woman with whom McNair, a married father of four, apparently was having an affair.  McNair was shot four times, twice in the torso and twice in the head; the woman only once, in the side of her head.  Looks to me like the woman became enraged with McNair for some reason — maybe he told her it was over — shot him, then shot herself.  Now I know some people are going to bristle at this next observation, but I’m used to that.  Engaging in extramarital affairs is risky business.  It exposes one’s spouse and children, at the very least, to severe emotional harm, and if anyone involved is emotionally unstable enough to become violent amid all the drama, it just might expose oneself and one’s loved ones to physical harm as well.  I’m not saying that McNair deserved to be shot for having an affair, just that he, like so many others I’ve covered, probably could’ve stayed out of harm’s way if he had behaved like a responsible husband and father.  No one’s responsible for the shooting except the person who pulled the trigger, but the fact remains that McNair’s four kids probably would still have a father today if he hadn’t involved himself with the deceased woman.

A group of inmates at a Massachusetts jail broke the building’s sprinkler system, flooding the building and requiring the inmates to be bussed to other facilities.  I’ve written previously about how jails and prisons are going to be run when I’m in charge — no air conditioning, no t.v., no workout rooms, etc. (places prisoners who get released won’t ever want to go back to).  Now how about adding this?  How about jail and prison inmates wearing devices similar to those electric collars that dogs wear to keep them in people’s yards without physical fences?  I know, I know, I’m horrible and inhumane, but just hear me out.  These collars would work like this — not only could they never escape, but the inmates also could never fight because if two inmates made physical contact with each other, they’d both automatically be shocked.  They also couldn’t touch the guards because if an inmate made physical contact with a guard, the inmate would automatically be shocked.  The inmates also couldn’t riot, or have food fights, or throw excrement at the guards, or tear sprinkler systems apart, etc., at least not for more than a second or two, because the guards would have a button that would shock every prisoner in entire cell blocks to the floor instantly.  Seriously, how about it?

Also in Massachusetts, another “mom” has been arrested for allegedly failing to give her son his cancer (leukemia) treatments.  The boy died in March at age nine, and the woman has been charged with attempted murder for an alleged series of failures to keep appointments and fill prescriptions for treatments.  I’m glad to see prosecutors taking this sort of thing this seriously because, as I wrote back in May when a similar case arose in Minnesota (the boy involved in that one, thankfully, is still alive and expected to recover), all parents, regardless of their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, must be expected to act in the best interests of their minor children who aren’t yet competent to choose to forego medical treatment.

On the psychopolitical front:

Marion Barry, former Washington, D.C. mayor and current city councilman, is in trouble with the law…again…this time for allegedly stalking a woman.  His priors include drug use, after which a majority of Washingtonians re-elected him as mayor, and tax evasion, after which a majority of Washingtonians in his ward re-elected him to the city council.  See a pattern?  (Maybe that’s part of the reason why my parents moved from D.C. to Kansas to raise their kids.)

Many are wondering why Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin resigned on Friday, effective at the end of this month.  Some are speculating that she did it so that she can focus on writing a book and on raising money and support for a presidential campaign.  That could be all of it, as her Facebook profile suggests, or just part of it, and if there’s another part, it may not be just what she cited in her resignation speech — a series of frivolous but distracting ethics complaints that have made it difficult for her to govern since last year’s presidential campaign in which she was Sen. John McCain’s running mate.  All I can say is that the Palin family has faced some major stressors in the past year, and she seems to me like the kind of person who would put politics aside, at least temporarily, if her marriage and/or children needed her full attention.  A special-needs child, for example, can require enough attention to put strain on a marriage and family.  Also, as someone who’s had just a tiny taste of it compared to Palin, I can only imagine what it’s like when a majority of Americans have formed opinions about you, many of them negative, without ever meeting you in person.  Given the numerous attacks on Palin in the media, most recently and notably a thoughtless remark about her daughter by comedian David Letterman, I wouldn’t be surprised if her husband and/or kids have developed some conscious or subconscious resentment of her high profile.  I think we’ll understand her reason(s) for resigning better when we see what she does in the coming weeks (whether she seems to be seeking the political spotlight or avoiding it).

Finally tonight, study this:

Two new studies suggest that caffeine may counter the memory decline observed in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Another new study found that 1/6 of British children are obese by the time they start elementary school, and I wouldn’t be surprised if American parents have a similarly-frightening track record of keeping their toddlers’ weights in the healthy range.

Speaking of obesity, yet another new study suggests that adult obesity isn’t the individual’s fault.  No, it’s…the economy’s fault!  You know, because poor people have no choice but to sit around and eat fattening food.  Yeah, right, tell that to the people in Darfur!

The true greatness of the U.S.A. 7/4/09

On this Independence Day, I’d like to get back to basics – as basic as it gets actually:  the reason why we’re here, and how this country serves that purpose better than any other in the history of the world.  Personally, I believe there’s a God, and I believe there’s a plan in which we humans are all participants.  To presume to understand the divine purpose and plan for our existence, the “grand scheme of things,” with human intellect is something akin to an infant on his/her first trip to the beach trying to comprehend the vastness and contents of the ocean, but like that infant, I try to make what sense of it I can.  What makes sense to me is that everything in the universe emanates from a single creative force.  Whatever you call it, it’s what existed before the point at which we think we can or ever will be able to comprehend, in physical and biological terms, what happened thereafter.  Astrophysicists sometimes call it the “singularity” – I call it God, but whatever you call it, in my human understanding of time, it once was alone.  It makes sense to me that a force that was benevolent and alone with the power to create anything and everything would want to create something that could relate to it, understand it on some rudimentary level, and appreciate it.  It makes sense to me that human beings are one and perhaps the only such creation, brought about through a process initiated eons ago in our time, an instant ago relative to eternity, with a “big bang” perhaps, by which a suitable habitat was created, followed by another process, an “evolution” perhaps, through which a suitable “vessel” was created and ultimately imbued with a quality, I believe a divine quality, that set the human apart from the rest of creation – an intellect, the ability to reason, the ability to contemplate and ultimately to relate to, on a rudimentary level, its Creator.  It makes sense to me that our purpose then is to do two things:  to create, and to love, because in doing so, we’re able to get a glimpse, a rudimentary understanding, of what our Creator is, what it’s like to be God.  We’re not forced to do them – if we were, we’d be no different from plants, and our actions would be meaningless – rather, we’re given the choice, the “free will” to do them or not, and it’s in choosing to do them that our actions gain meaning.

To create, I believe, means that we’re supposed to take stock of the skills, abilities, talents, “gifts,” that we’ve been given and to develop those to the fullness of their potentials.  In so doing, I believe that we gain a rudimentary understanding of one aspect of our benevolent Creator (the creative aspect).  I believe it gives us a sense of purpose to drive our lives (whether we can articulate that purpose or not), and simultaneously, supplies humankind with the goods and services that it needs.  You’ll note that none of the above is rooted in any religion – its foundations are purely intellectual – but even if you don’t buy any of it, even if you believe that we exist simply to “be happy,” there’s plenty of psychological research, from Maslow’s concept of “self-actualization” as the pinnacle of his “hierarchy of needs” to Seligman’s findings on “authentic happiness” to corroborate the assertion that human beings are happiest when they feel that they’ve reached the fullness of their potentials by identifying and effectuating their abilities to contribute something unique to the human condition.

To love, I believe, means giving of ourselves to help others to reach the fullness of their potentials.  In so doing, I believe that we gain a rudimentary understanding of a second aspect of our benevolent Creator (the benevolent aspect).  I believe that when we help others to achieve the fullness of their potentials, we simultaneously move closer to achieving the fullness of our own potentials as human beings.  In romantic relationships, it’s the idea, cheesy as Jerry Maguire made it sound, of two people “completing” one another, each becoming something more and making the other something more than they were before.  There’s then perhaps no better opportunity in the human condition to relate to our Creator than when the two become parents – they first create new people and new potentials, and then, by loving those new people, help them move toward the fullness of their potentials.  Marriage and parenting are, of course, just two of many ways in which we’re able to love and aid in the development of others’ potentials – teachers do it, clergy people do it, even (gasp) politicians do it, in their own ways.

On this Independence Day, I submit to you that the United States of America has afforded its citizens the best environment in the history of humankind in which to create and to love and thereby to achieve the fullness of their human potentials.  For each citizen to do that requires a high degree of personal and economic freedom, and the U.S.A. provides both, through a democratic government with strong protections for individuals, and through capitalism, which promotes competition between individuals and rewards the development of unique potential.  If you think about it, any country in human history that achieved power comparable to that of the U.S.A. in today’s world – a lone “superpower” – used that power to take freedom away from people, to conquer, and thereby to stifle the development of unique human potential.  For most of human history in fact, most human beings have lived in what I call “Braveheart” conditions, wherein whoever was physically stronger (individually or collectively) largely determined how much of their potentials physically-weaker humans could develop.  The U.S.A. has altered the course of human history, in a positive way, far more than would be expected considering the relatively short period of human history during which it has existed (it hasn’t had a perfect record, but at least it has literally torn itself apart and put itself back together again trying to right its own wrongs).  The post-Civil War U.S.A. has used its power to secure more freedom for more people than ever in the history of the world, making it possible for them to pursue and achieve the fullness of their human potentials, to relate to their Creator, to fulfill the purpose of their lives, and thereby to pursue and achieve that elusive state we call “happiness.”  Therefore, on this Independence Day, my hope is that we all realize the fundamental, transcendental greatness of this country and the responsibility to continue to protect and defend the principles that made it great from all enemies foreign and domestic.

A monstrous update, your semi-daily Jackson, and a schizophrenic “Study this” 7/2/09

Just when we were all set to hear the sentence for the Monstrous MySpace Mom — the woman who impersonated a teenage boy on MySpace and taunted one of her daughter’s classmates into committing suicide — the judge says that the case will be DISMISSED!  That’s right, dismissed.  Even though a jury considered the evidence, weighed it, and concluded that the MMM violated the law, the judge apparently has concluded that the law she was charged with violating — a federal law that makes it a crime to access an interstate computer network fraudulently — was misapplied (intended to apply to identity thieves and applied to the MMM basically because there wasn’t anything applicable with which to charge her at the federal level).  So, it appears that the MMM will get off with zero punishment…and a young girl is dead.  I think it’s a travesty.

In Thursday’s Jackson news, it appears that the federal D.E.A. is getting involved in the case, raising suspicion that what I’ve called “Hollywood health care” — celebrities like Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Chris Benoit, and probably Jackson getting prescriptions for just about anything they want from sycophantic doctors who’ll compromise their medical ethics to be part of a celebrity’s “inner circle” — is in play here.  Good, I’m glad the D.E.A.’s getting involved.  As I’ve said, the only way to curtail the practice of Hollywood health care is for doctors who might consider administering it to see doctors who have in fact administered it spending less time in L.A. nightclubs with the stars and more time in prison with other felons.  Also on Thursday, Debbie Rowe, the “mother” of Jackson’s oldest two children, reportedly expressed a desire to be involved in the determination of their permanent guardianship, suggesting that maybe she wants custody.  While a biological mother, assuming that’s what she is, normally would be ahead of a grandmother in the custody line, Rowe’s claim, as I’ve said, is tainted by her lack of involvement in the children’s lives until this point, when their guardian may also get some control over the minors’ likely-substantial future assets.  As a child custody expert, it’s tough to imagine a court determining that the best interests of the children would be best served by placing them in Rowe’s care, especially when that would mean splitting them up from the youngest Jackson child, but this case does illustrate something fairly typical of custody cases — no candidate for custody is ideal (e.g. a nearly-80-year-old woman who’s married to a man with a reported history of child abuse vs. a virtual stranger who apparently was willing to abandon the children in exchange for money until it seemed like maybe there was more money involved in parenting them).  Stay tuned.

Study this:  It’s been accepted for quite some time that schizophrenia has a strong genetic component to it.  It’s also been known, however, that there are other causal factors in play (because in about half of the cases in which one identical twin has the disorder, the other twin, whose genetics are identical, doesn’t).  A new study has identified some specific gene combinations that appear to be involved in the genetic component.  The study also found that there appears to be significant overlap between the genetic combinations observed in schizophrenics and in people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, suggesting a higher degree of similarity between those disorders, at least causally, than many in the mental health field previously thought.  Hopefully, this and similar studies will help in identifying diagnostic tests and interventions for both disorders.

Stupid pet ownership, your semi-daily Jackson, and a smoking “Study this” 7/2/09

A two-year-old was killed in Florida on Wednesday by a 12-foot python — a “family pet” — that escaped from its cage, slithered into the little girl’s room, coiled itself around her, and crushed her to death.  I think the parents belong in a cage of their own!  For a long time!  And once again, if you have a dangerous pet, like a chimpanzee or a python or a tiger or even a large aggressive dog that hasn’t hurt anyone (yet), I think you’re weird.  Human beings have been trying to avoid being killed by dangerous animals for most of human history.  It’s instinctive and adaptive, and anyone who feels the need to show how “fearless” he or she is by keeping one of these things in his or her home has some serious psychological issues in my opinion.

Michael Jackson’s will was filed in California probate court Wednesday.  In it, Jackson nominated his nearly-80-year-old mother as his first choice to be his children’s guardian, but if she’s unable to serve in that capacity, guess who he named as the backup?  Singer Diana Ross.  Jackson wanted his assets to be held in trust for the children.  Also on Wednesday, it was reported that Jackson may have taken a powerful, surgical-strength sedative called Diprivan for insomnia, which could’ve caused his heart to stop, almost-certainly would indicate medical malpractice if prescribed for sleep, and may be consistent with numerous injection marks reported to have been found on his body during the autopsy.  We’re still waiting for toxicology results though, so stay tuned.

Study this:  The smoking cessation drugs Chantix and Zyban will now be required to carry “black-box” warnings about suicidal ideation as a potential side effect.  The manufacturers of the two drugs are supposed to be conducting studies to determine just how risky they are, but representatives reportedly have already bemoaned how “difficult” it will be because, they argue, smokers who are trying to quit are more likely than other people to become suicidal simply from giving up cigarettes.  Yeah, don’t think so, not on any significant scale anyway.  See how these companies are?  If you know someone who’s had a loved one commit suicide on one of these drugs, tell the person to look me up.  I’d be interested in hearing his or her story, and maybe I can help.

Presumed paternal in California and presumed completed in Michigan 7/1/09

On the Jackson front, there was a lot of buzz on Tuesday about whether Jackson truly was the biological father of any of the three children involved.  Some are buzzing about that just because it’s great t.v. fodder, but I think some are honestly overestimating its importance.  In California, a man is presumed to be a child’s father if that man was married to the child’s mother at the time the child was born, as apparently was the case with the two oldest Jackson children, even if he is not in fact the biological father.  This presumption exists in many states for public policy reasons including clear identification of the support obligations for the child.  It’s controversial because it’s conceivable that a married man could end up having to support a child born to his wife but fathered by another man during an adulterous affair.  In the case of Jackson, who wanted to be these children’s father, however, it could establish his legal parentage even if it’s true that another man’s sperm was used to conceive them.  A man who was not married to a child’s mother at the time the child was born, as apparently was the case with the youngest Jackson child, California law still allows that man to be presumed the child’s father if the man accepted the child into his home, supported the child, and claimed the child as his own, as Jackson did.  And of course the legal paternity of the youngest child would already have been resolved in Jackson’s favor if he had formally adopted the child, which I’ll bet he did if the child truly was born under a surrogacy contract.  Therefore, I don’t think we’re as likely as some in the media seem to be hoping that we’ll see a formerly-anonymous sperm and/or egg donor or surrogate mother injecting him/herself into the Jackson custody case.  Then again, family law is rarely as simple as it first seems, and there is a lot of money involved (by some reports, as much as $200-300 million even after all of Jackson’s creditors are paid).  Stay tuned.

Also on Tuesday, seven teenaged students were shot at a bus stop near a Detroit school by two gunmen who reportedly pulled up in a mini-van, asked for one student by name, and then opened fire on the entire group.  At this hour, the victims are seriously wounded at best and clinging to life at worst, and the shooters are at large.  This isn’t the kind of “school” shooting we’ve seen over and over in recent years — there’s no indication whatsoever that the shooters in this case are mentally ill (not that it would necessarily make any difference in their responsibility for their actions, as I’ve explained many times).  No, these shooters appear to be stone-cold, premeditated, would-be mass murderers.  A witness who owns a business in the neighborhood where the shooting happened lamented that the youth in the area were plagued by feelings of “hopelessness.”  Yeah, uh-huh, or maybe in the shooters’ cases, feelings of contempt for society and the law, entitlement to impose their wills on others, you know, psychopathic feelings rather than pathetic feelings?  That’s what I predict, and while I certainly hope they’re not murderers by the time they’re caught (for the victims’ sake), this is a classic illustration of why we need to punish people who attempt crimes as if they’d completed those crimes.  In other words, these shooters need to be punished as if all seven victims had died, even if all of the victims live, as I hope they do.  The law generally allows for this, but in our current culture of second, third, fourth, fifth…chances, it doesn’t happen often enough (and as usual, I guarantee you that these shooters should’ve been locked up long before now!).  When I’m in charge, it’ll be the rule rather than the exception that attempters and completers get the same punishment — that’d go a long way toward preventing today’s attempters from being tomorrow’s completers.

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