Fact-checking Frontline’s Ass

So when I expressed skepticism over this piece on the meth “epidemic” on Frontline (in reality a video version of a series by The Oregonian), my friend Jason invited me to “fact-check Frontline’s ass” if I so desired. So I finally watched it online, rather than just reacting to the claims on its accompanying website.

Shoulda stuck with the website. Here are the sum total of factual claims related to the extent of methamphetamine drug abuse:

  • “A million different types of records” were collected by The Oregonian, and turned into maps to show the spread of the drug’s usage over time from west to east.
  • Meth “addicts” commit 85% of property crime in Oregon
  • “One puff off a pipe can keep you high all day”
  • 50% of children in foster care in Oregon “there because of meth”
  • # of people in programs rise and fall in unison across states
  • “Changes how brain operates”
  • “Most addictive drug there is”
  • Change in purity correlates with changes in usage
  • pseudoephedrine used as stimulant by people (I don’t personally find any stimulant effect, and many people claim that it puts them to sleep, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”)
  • In Western states, 50% of prison inmates are “meth addicts”
  • “As many addicts as Heroin and Cocaine combined” (UN claim)
  • “In America alone, there are 1.5 million addicts and rising”
  • America counts for the majority of world consumption of pseudoephedrine

It’s tough to fact-check somebody when they don’t provide the source for their numbers. Interestingly, I found one fact contested by their own website.

There are 1.4 million meth users in America, and the number is rising.

I’m prepared to be generous and overlook the inflation of the number by 100,000. But are they “users” or “addicts”? The two are very different. Nicotine is usually referred to as the most addictive drug, and even it does not have a 100% addiction rate. If the 1.4 million number refers to true addicts, the number of users is higher. If the number just includes “regular users”, whether or not they can be classified addicts, then we’re talking about less than 1/250th of the population. Cocaine, by contrast, was considered used by 3.7 million Americans (users, not addicts) in 1999. Even if 1.4 million of them switched exclusively from cocaine to methamphetamine use, cocaine has more users.

Why is this language important? Conflating two different things and fluffing over facts is a frequent tactic in a piece designed to appeal to emotions while hiding logical flaws. In other words, it’s a hallmark of a scare piece, not serious journalism.

Consider their claims of worldwide usage: if America is the primary consumer of pseudoephedrine, the remaining unregulated precursor chemical (and the primary claim of the documentary is that pharmaceutical companies have caused the meth “epidemic” by resisting efforts to regulate ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the latter of which they have prevented being as heavily regulated), how can there be so many more addicts outside the US than inside? Why is usage so much heavier outside the country? Why are we not hearing reports of meth destroying, say, France or Bolivia?

Frontline’s website, in the only acknowledgment of skepticism of drug warrior claims in the piece (there are none on the televised piece) links to this Slate piece which makes many of the same points, and then dismisses it by saying that meth is worse on communities. The data they cite to support this claim? Self-reports by police agencies saying what is their “worst problem”. No hard numbers on arrests, no counter-criticism of the data Slate provides, just a hand-waving and counting subjective impressions to make them look like hard data. 50% of people guessing arriving at one answer does not constitute evidence of a problem, but evidence of a mentality about a problem.

There are more facts to check that I’ll try to get to later, but I have a life, and the central claim looks dubious already. So here are some non-fact-checking things I noticed:

The vast majority of production in the piece is blamed on foreigners. Indians, Canadians, Mexicans, and “immigrants” are all mentioned specifically, either as suppliers of ephedrine, as workers in “superlabs,” or as part of a cartel to import it. Domestic labs are mentioned but not explicitly identified as such, and the focus is clearly not on them any time major suppliers are mentioned.

The word “profit” is attached like a leech to each mention of a drug company, but the word “budget” is never attached to the various local and federal government agencies pushing for greater regulation and resources to “fight” the “epidemic” of meth abuse. I wouldn’t ever want to suggest that as overall rates of drug abuse and crime fall, these agencies need a new “crack baby” or “hepped up Negro on Marijuana” with which to scare the middle class into funding SWAT teams and ever-bigger budgets. I’d like to directly state it.

If overall rates of drug use are declining, then the meth “epidemic” isn’t an epidemic at all, it’s a slight shift in drug use from one form to another in a declining market. The next time you want to throw around a term like “epidemic”, consider what a horror a real epidemic is: 1 in 5 people on the island of Reunion is sick from “Chikungunya” fever as I type. That is an epidemic.

Donnie Darko

I did something I really rarely do. I watched a movie based on mumblings and automatic recommendations with no prior knowledge of it, and then watched it through again with the commentary track. Partially, that’s because Kevin Smith did it with Richard Kelly.

I’m not going to review or describe the movie–it is not for everybody. Most people I know who should see it will already have seen it, because I’m always suspicious of cult stuff or critic-approved movies (I find Woody Allen completely overrated–amusing like The New Yorker, not hilarious and deep like Brazil). So when people tell me I’ve got to see something, I tend to resist.

Fortunately after the hype dies down I’ll give something a chance when it looks like it’s going to last, and I’m always happy to admit when I’ve been wrong. Firefly was one; Donnie Darko is another. So if you tend to like the films I like, get this and see it. Particularly if you liked Brazil, you’ll like this.

So it’s not for Ginger, with whom I was discussing Brazil today.

Update: I forgot to mention–I focused in on the “Eye” imagery in the director’s cut, and the computer code that goes by is a stack trace from either a Mac OS X box or a NeXT box–lots of references to the Mach microkernel. Sorry, Linus.

Wondering About Wonder Woman

Somehow, as often happens with my friend Todd, we got on a search for something cheesy and random. In this case, we got stuck perusing the entertaining TV Cream site’s theme song collection. Sadly, not all of them are the original recordings, but some are or are close enough for government work.

One bit of cheese that was too much dairy even for Todd was the Wonder Woman theme. I was never a fan of comic books in general, nor Wonder Woman in particular, but I did watch a bunch of episodes of hte Linda Carter series on weekday afternoons in elementary and middle school (you would not believe how little there was on TV in those days, particularly living in Taliban-wannabe South Carolina–we actually thought Diff’rent Strokes was entertaining, and not in a retro-camp kind of way). Being the only really breakout comic featuring a female superhero, it has an iconic status far beyond its sales, deeply intertwined with the modern feminist movement–none of which I was aware of until much later. However, that piano bass line is one of the underrated masterpieces of the TV genre, right up there with Barney Miller, and always gets me rockin’. Unfortunately the rest of the song doesn’t hold up to it, but that just served as a vehicle for me to remark that Joss Whedon, who Todd knew from my relentless flacking of Serenity, was hired to write and direct a Wonder Woman movie.

This of course led to a hunt for who was going to play Wonder Woman (nothing decided yet, sorry fellas hoping for hot actress shots) and seeing a bunch of interviews with Joss about it. In it he mentioned something I’d wondered about: he was definitely going to work in the bracelets, an updated version of the tights (well, duh), the golden lasso that makes people tell the truth, above-normal strength (no flying, possibly jumping), and the invisible plane if he could work it in. He mentioned that a key element would be that it’s an origins story, and it would treat Wonder Woman as a young woman or late teen new to our world, and coming to grips with its less savory aspects.

Of course, he gave no specifics and at this stage of the writing there may not be (m)any. But it set me to wondering tonight, as my brain did a weird turn as it is wont to do: how could you piece a story together that has a woman acquire or already have super-strength, get bracelets, the lariat, and maybe a jet–and want to cover herself in something at least somewhat patriotic (to the USA or some star-spangled red-white-and-blue country–sorry, Canadians).

So here’s my guess, based on pure speculation and almost no familiarity or great caring about the original material:

Continue reading

I Smell a Rat–A Government Rat

Once again, all hail Sploid, for it has a summary of news about the Intoonfada. It turns out that a newspaper in Egypt published these cartoons in October. The timing is suspicious, and I’m beginning to have more sympathy for the government conspiracy theory.

The good part for Muslims is that you may be able to partially blame your governments. The bad thing for Muslims is that, if so, you fell for it, which still doesn’t say good things about your tolerance level. It also says you ought ask yourself, to quote a religious text you’re supposed to respect:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest
not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Attempt to Prevent Idolatry Fails Miserably

Supposedly, the ban on the depiction of Mohammed (the prophet, not the oil baron or the gas station attendant or the goat-herder) was put in place to prevent Mohammed being a figure of worship to take away from the god of Islam. They didn’t want a repeat of the status of saints or the Virgin Mary in Catholicism.

But the universal uprising (four months late) over the cartoons published by a few newspapers run by non-muslims in the West suggests to me that this strategy has backfired. By giving Mohammed a special place in non-depiction, Islam has turned him into an invisible idol, idolized by his absence. Remember, they’re supposed to be focusing on submission to the will of their god, not on his prophet.

Of course the fact that muslims refer to him as the Prophet and always put Peace Be Upon Him after his name and are required to name him as a prophet of their god suggests that it’s not just in non-representation that Mohammed has been idolized in practice if not in theology.

Islam is hardly unique in such conceits, but it would be a good thing for thoughtful muslims to remember as they charge the gates in the name of non-idolatry…that’s pretty much the definition of idolatry you’re displaying, there.

I Felt A Million Health Fascists Crying Out…And Then Being Silenced

Looks like another attempt to eat your way to health has died. Low fat diets, in a long term, extremely large study, do nothing to affect your rates of cancer or heart disease.

The $415 million federal study involved nearly 49,000 women ages 50 to 79 who were followed for eight years. In the end, those assigned to a low-fat diet had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer, heart attacks and strokes as those who ate whatever they pleased, researchers are reporting today.

Even if they weren’t low fat enough, or didn’t cut out enough of the right fats, there should have been some measurable benefit for that many people over eight years. Instead, we’re left with body shape, smoking, activity level, and family history being the most important factors. Three of those you can control, but I’ve read the fourth matters as much or more.

One thing this means is that people who want to grab a study involving four or five subjects and mandate whatever the latest health fad is for everyone–for the children–need to enjoy a warm, tall glass of shut the fuck up. Yeah, if you dramatically reduce the variety of food you eat, eat more than you need, and stop exercising a la Morgan Spurlock, you will be worse off. But what if a later study says that certain fats excised from school diets turns out to be necessary for proper development in children?

We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die in different ways. Sure, don’t do anything stupid, but don’t live your life as if the next news report is going to save your life–it won’t. Being born is terminal.

I’m gonna have a cookie and do something nice for somebody tomorrow.

I’ll just brush my teeth afterwards.

Hey, remember the “don’t be stupid” bit?

Dutch Version of Photoshop Phriday Takes On Graven Images of Mohammed

So looks like the Dutch are gonna backstop the Danes on the whole Mohammed Cartoon controversy. They have a site that does the equivalent of Something Awful’s Photoshop Phriday, in which various people have satirical fun with found images, usually centered around a theme.

The site Retecool has this week’s Foto Fuck Vrijdag and imagines an alternate universe in which Mohammed is on every ad there is. It’s so not safe for work or anybody with a thin skin.

Hat tip: Nobody’s Business

And the First Nominee for Most Confusing Story of 2006 Is…

Office “marriages”.

Having a pseudo-wife or pseudo-husband at work may not only make you happier with your job but may even improve your chances for promotions and raises, according to a report Friday.

Non-romantic “marriages” in the workplace are the newest craze in office romance, the New York Post said, citing a survey by Vault Inc., a career research and consulting company.

Non-romantic “marriages” in the workplace are the newest craze in office romance. Marriages for convenience/arrangement or for whom the romance has died I get. But if it’s non-romantic it can’t be romance but if it’s romance it should be romantic and…

Well, there went my brain for the day.