Monday, February 28, 2011

Are Prostitutes Good for Our Health?

Prostitutes in Nevada, in countering Harry Reid's efforts to outlaw their business in his state, have offered to pay higher taxes in an attempt to mollify the good senator.

Gee, good old "sin" tax. Isn't it great that there are still "bad" guys out there who participate in horrible vices. Where would we be without the smokers, gamblers, lotto players, imbibers, not to mention the "johns" who patronize the tax-paying prostitutes in Nevada. These guys are responsible for supplying a good portion of the income various states acquire to fund activities such as education and health.

Just imagine if the propaganda to eliminate these bad habits succeeded! We'd have to find an alternative tax to replace monies lost with all that good behavior!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Darwin v. The Perfect World

Who should survive? The "fittest," as per Darwin - or everybody?

Just think for a minute. What if everybody survives; not just the "fittest." Imagine, cancer under control, no more heart disease, no more diabetes, no more fatal illness. Then there's always organ replacements in case of accidents, deterioration or non-function, etc. Not to mention cosmetic surgery for that everlasting look of youth and fitness. No more hunger, no more poverty! And ultimately, once we discover the molecular genetics of the aging process - no more getting older! Older in "real years", but not in "human years." Imagine - youthful function with youthful looks (you decide what "youth" mean to you) into your once-called "senior years." Age, as we know it, will become irrelevant! Ah Utopia!!

It's coming. No illness, limited tragedy, a true chance for survival for all - fit or unfit. Its what we all want. Or is it?

Well, maybe we'll still have adversities of one sort or another that will be out of our control - climate issues, earthquakes, asteroid bombardment and similar uncontrollable events - including, of course, human-engineered devastation. We may yet approach substituting the "survival of the fittest" dictum by the new "survival of everybody", but will it be mitigated by the natural aggression that is a piece of who we are?

We may all long for this Utopian world, but won't our reach for this "heaven on earth" always be exceeded by our naturally limited grasp? Isn't it a fact that even in our man-made Utopia, the "survival of the fittest" struggle will continue. We all can't have everything we want. We will remain primarily natural aggressive takers rather than tranquil givers or sharers. It's who we are. The Gordon Gekkos of the world will trump the Mother Teresas. But in the end, is that so bad? Darwin will prevail.

Or will he?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson wins at "Jeopardy"

"Computer Wins on 'Jeopardy!'" reports the New York Times in one of its lead articles today (Feb. 17, 2011). I, for one, would have been shocked if Watson the computer hadn't won. Computers, if properly algorithmically programmed, have to be superior in arriving at factual conclusions than are human beings. When a human analyzes a problem, his brain is also employing algorithmic analysis to arrive at a conclusion. Algorithms use appropriate input and go through well defined instructions to calculate results (one or more.) The brain considers all the possibilities when given certain facts and, when all the these facts are evaluated, arrives at the best possible conclusions, in the order of most probable to least probable. We put our brains though this process every day - making decisions based on past-entered input.

But a brain can not be as proficient as a computer at this function. A brain is subjected to immaterial input that may interfere with a defined algorithmic undertaking. Fatigue, the subconscious, prejudice, poor memory, and, possibly, our genetic composition, may unduly influence the defined algorithm. After all, "to err is human."

A computer is unaffected by such human traits. Computers, properly programmed, do not err. With relevant input, they will function far better - unaffected by memory issues, emotions, or prejudice. A computer's memory is essentially boundless. The retrieval of required algorithmic facts occurs at almost lightning speed. A computer can, therefore, outperform the human brain! "Jeopardy" has so demonstrated.

I am a physician. A physician's job is to obtain information from a patient using various techniques, then to input the accumulated data into his brain, and finally arrive at a diagnosis via mental algorithmic analysis. But we physicians are human! We err. We err as a consequence of these human variables.

I feel quite certain that a medically sophisticated Watson (Dr. Watson, I presume) will outscore the diagnostic acumen of the physician in the near future, and will become the physician's most valued "partner." Dr. Watson will "outdiagnose" all of us. Not only outdiagnose - but "outmanage" as well, because the management of a medical problem is also an algorithmic conclusion. We physicians won't accept Watson, at first. Like so many advances in medical management, we will have to be dragged to it "kicking and screaming," but eventually accepting it in the end.

But the human brain is still the master at innovation and new ideas in research and development.

And, we still need the flesh and blood providers of medicine to furnish, through their "art," the very important human functions of compassion and concern, which, even today, remain, arguably, the primary content of the doctor-patient interaction, and among the most crucial forms of therapy.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Myth Trump Reality

I recently attended a lecture on Exodus - you know the second book of the Bible, not the movie. The distinguished professor who was discussing Exodus made it quite clear that there was absolutely no evidence that the events described in the book took place - Jews as slaves in Egypt and their consequent "exodus" which entailed some millions (using biblical references to arrive at this number) of people wandering through the Sinai desert for some 40 years. There is no archeological evidence supporting this. There is no reference to such events, or to Israelites, in any Egyptian documents of the time. These conclusions are shared by a number of other investigators and are not only those of the lecturer. If you are a believer in God and that the Bible is in fact the word of God, then any evidence to the contrary is meaningless to you. This essay will not persuade nor dissuade you one way or the other - nor is that its intention.

Let us assume that these conclusions were true and the lack of evidence for an "exodus" story is truly incontrovertible. Do you believe that Judaism and Christianity would disappear, or their traditions be significantly altered by these facts? If it were proven beyond any reasonable doubt that there never was an exodus, there never existed a Moses - or there never was a manger-birth of a baby to a mother who was a virgin, or there never existed a Jesus as detailed in the New Testament - do you believe that Judaism and/or Christianity would be cast aside?

I doubt it. True of false, the story would go on. True believers would "clarify" these "incontrovertible" truths with words such as "we humans are incapable of understanding the ways of God," or "the absence of evidence can never indicate that it didn't occur," or some other specious arguments too numerous to list.

I will conclude that the entire biblical story is a myth. But what of it? Myths fulfill a human need. We mythologize so as to attribute explanations where none may yet exist; we mythologize to create a credible and honorable history where none may exist. The reality of the "myth" is that the "myth" helps create an acceptable "reality" - even if this "reality" in fact, never existed! Humanity needs its myths much as it needs water to drink and air to breathe!

Other Examples:

We have mythologized Abraham Lincoln.

If you research his life and actions you will find that 1) he did not believe in the equality of races, though he did believe slavery was wrong. 2) the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. Slaves in border states and areas of the south not in secession were not required to free their slaves. The Proclamation applied only to areas in secession that came under control of Union forces. Had an uninvaded state of the Confederate States of America decided to rejoin the Union, slavery need not have been abolished. 3) he illegally confined prisoners by abrogating the habeas corpus clause of the Constitution. 4) his purpose for going to war was not to end slavery, but to preserve the Union. As a matter of fact, when reading certain works describing Lincoln and the Civil War, comparisons to George W. Bush and the Iraq War seem totally appropriate.

We have mythologized our Declaration of Independence.

Do you believe the intent truly was "all men are created equal," Were blacks equal, were women equal? Was slavery mentioned? Are you aware that the document cites the following reason for referring to King George as an oppressor: "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

Realities are lost in myths. We have a need to ignore the bad in order to uphold the good. Let the myths reign! Long live mythology!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cold or Cancer - Which

You have a cold. Your son has cancer. The cure for neither is known. Assuming a very limited number of research dollars, where should these dollars be directed - towards the cure for the cold, or the cure for cancer? Given this alternative - who would care about the cold? A "common cold" is irritating, but nothing more (except in some very rare and exceptional situations.)

Why are we so obsessed with minor infectious diseases? We are told about the possibilities of contagion when we use bathrooms, especially those tiny closets that serve as airplane lavatories. We worry about the sneeze and where it may be directed - into the hand or into the sleeve. People have rebuffed hugs with the phrase "I'm just getting over a cold - don't want to get you sick." We worry about grasping handrails in subways.

If the possibility of contracting some mild viral infection is frightening, one should consider never venturing out in public. Or if doing so, take appropriate protection! Worried about grasping a doorknob that some public lavatory user may have previously touched, then worry about shaking the hand of anyone at all. Perhaps the "hand-shaker" had just visited a "sanitary facility," - who knows if he properly "washed his hands." Or maybe he recently coughed into his hand - Hmmm, better not chance it. Maybe it would be best not to converse with someone unless he is at some properly removed distance. After all, talking involves opening one's mouth, the use of tongue against teeth or palate with a resultant torrent of emerging micro-organisms. Watching actors on a stage declaim their lines, spittle cascading as they speak, one must marvel at the consequent lack of illness!

Consider some realities. There are a multitude of people you encounter every day who are close at hand. The vast majority are completely unaware, as you may be, that they, or you, may be harboring a virus that is contagious and that could, in the next day or so, be responsible for causing active disease.

You and others are exchanging bugs with each other all the time. Surprise! You rarely get sick!! Think for moment - you are entitled to 10 "sick-days" at your job - how many is it necessary for you to use each year. Let's imagine that you actually are laid up with a "bad cold" 10 days each year. How astonishingly wonderful this minor "inconvenience" is, considering an exposure to an uncountable number of "bugs" on a daily basis!

Two choices are open to you: 1) if daring to venture out in public, wear appropriate attire (such as gloves, masks, or better yet, Hazmat protective clothing - or 2) stop worrying so much about the tiny possibility of contracting some virulent organism that will cause major damage or inconvenience!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Man IS Nature!

Natural products. Man-made products. Green products. Man v. Mother Nature.

We separate ourselves from Nature. We are not part of Nature. What we produce is not considered "natural." But the human being and his output are part of Nature. A plastic bottle is as much a product of Nature as is a tree! A tree has a chemical make-up - so does a plastic bottle. If we break them down into their atomic elements - the only difference would be which elements are used in the tree, which in the bottle, and how they are relate to each other chemically. All these chemical elements are "natural." Yes, one may be defined as "alive," but both are "natural." Somehow if man makes it, it isn't part of nature. If a bird builds a nest, the nest is considered part of nature. If a man builds a house - it is not.

When we separate the world into Mother Nature and everything else, we should accept that this is a specious division. What we are in fact doing, is disconnecting what may be good for man from what may not be so good for man. When man invents an atomic weapon, he is doing nothing more than assembling existing materials into a product. Mother Nature has provided him with the products and the means of assembly. Man can never "fight" Mother Nature because he is, and we are, all part of "her."

Mother Nature doesn't care what happens to the Planet Earth. Neither do giraffes or bacteria, or viruses. It seems that only we humans consciously "care" about the future of our planet. What we really are concerned with is not Mother Earth, but with ourselves! We want to preserve the "natural" so that our life-forms can somehow continue into the infinite future, a future that looks pretty much like the present, with fish and forests, giraffes and gerbils. However, if bacteria or mosquitoes had the right to vote, do you think they would vote as we might as to how this planet should be preserved?

We, as is true for all species everywhere, are dedicated to self-preservation - if necessary at the expense of other living forms. We have arrogated to ourselves the position of Number One. After all, in Genesis God grants humans dominion over all other earthly creatures! And we use this power to assume mastery over our "domain." We have been put by God, or by evolution - take your pick, at the pinnacle of the planet. We have determined the relative worth of all that exists. We have the right to direct Nature. We have the right to assign worth to natural forms. People are more important than dogs - dogs more important than oysters - oysters more important than mosquitoes.

A tree is interfering with the function of an adjacent cell phone tower that is so designed that it can easily be mistaken for a "real" tree. Should the tree or the cell tower be removed, assuming the expense is equal? The tree is "part of nature," the cell tower "is not." We would choose to relocate the cell tower, I presume. We now discover, however, that the tree can cause a lethal form of cancer in children. I think I would be correct in concluding that it would be the tree that would now have to go. We show little regard for the creatures that may be relying on the tree for food or shelter when the lives of children are at stake.

Once the existence of one form threatens the nature of another form - the threatened tries to eliminate the threatening. Have you, in destroying the tree, interfered with Mother Nature? Not to worry - you have not. The birds and the squirrels may not survive and you will. This is not interference with a process - this is part of a process. So is the cell phone tower.

Man is part of Nature. Nature (or God) created Jackson Pollock. Pollock created his art. His work, therefore, is as "natural" as a "directly created" sunset. We should not arrogate to ourselves some extra-natural powers that can somehow affect Mother Nature or disconnect ourselves from her.

Mother Nature couldn't care less about us. We are fragments of nature that may be affected by what we do, but we should not presume to be Nature's focus. Who we are and what we create are all nature's doing. Nature creates the tree and nature creates the cell phone tower. We humans cannot create anything without the elements provided by the natural environment of which we are a part. Natural? Man-made? Its all the same!