Confirming The Stoner Effect

A study of about 1,000 New Zealanders has concluded that individuals who began smoking marijuana before age 18, and then smoked it for years, experienced a drop in IQ — a drop that persisted even if the individual quit.

This is one of those studies that draws awfully broad conclusions, and is a bit disturbing, besides.  The researchers began assessing the study participants, a group from Dunedin, New Zealand, when they were children, before they started smoking, and then interviewed them regularly about their pot-smoking habits, and other activities, for more than 20 years.  The researchers took the resulting data and sought to screen for other factors, including use of alcohol and other drugs, as well as education levels.  They concluded that persistent marijuana smokers — defined as someone who smoked at least four times a week, year after year, into their 20s and 30s — experienced noticeable drops in IQ, with the amount of marijuana consumption correlating to the amount of IQ loss.  The study found that persistent marijuana use over 20 years is associated with neuropsychological decline and that the drug may have neurotoxic effects in adolescents.

There’s no real surprise in these conclusions.  Many of us know people who never moved past the heavy stoner lifestyle and ended up sapped of energy and ambition, not doing much of anything with their lives except listening to Dark Side of the Moon and complaining about their latest bad break.  If you go to any college town, you’ll likely see some of them, scraping by somehow.

What’s disturbing about the study is that the scientists seem to have treated real people like lab rats, testing and interviewing and assessing them as they continued a habit that apparently was producing irrevocable mental decline.  There’s no indication in the article linked above that researchers did anything to try to convince participants to stop their use — even in the case of adolescents.  What are the ethical obligations of researchers under such circumstances?  When should a scientist stop being a neutral observer and recorder of clinical facts, and start being a person who tries to help a kid avoid a permanent downward spiral?

David Brooks, “The Real Romney”

David Brooks is the only New York Times columnist I always make a point of reading, even though his politics don’t accord with mine. I like his insight and the way he strives for moderation. I like how he seeks out unusual topics for his columns when every other columnist lazily picks partisan themes.

Last week, he wrote a column in which he declared his support for Romney/Ryan because he thinks they will do something to halt the growth of Medicare. Yet, in the same column, he criticizes them for being unwilling to raise taxes. In his next column, he criticized Ryan for not voting for the Simpson/Bowles deficit-reduction plan. This sort of independent-mindedness and appreciation for nuance is the most important quality of a columnist.

Brooks doesn’t usually tickle my funny bone – the tone of his columns is usually as serious as he looks in his picture – but he did with today’s column, which made me laugh out loud more than once. It is top-notch political satire worthy of The Onion or MAD Magazine in its prime, poking fun at the way both parties distort a candidate’s history to inflame their bases.

Brooks has changed his tone radically for this column. Instead of reasoning about politics, he’s lampooning it. But he’s kept his independent perspective.

Dealing With The Overly Intrusive Waiter

Yesterday I went to lunch with a group of friends.  Shortly after we sat down we all realized, with a groan, that we had been cursed with an overly intrusive waiter.

It wasn’t difficult to reach that conclusion.  He would hang around our table, clearly eavesdropping on our conversation, and then offer his extended and thoroughly unwelcome comments about whatever we were discussing — be it music, or weddings, or whether the restaurant in question would be a good place for a first date.  After the third or fourth such incident, I felt like checking under the table or looking behind nearby chairs to confirm that the waiter wasn’t lurking nearby, ready to spring up and offer another lame joke or awkward self-reference.

I’m sure he thought his trenchant observations and amusing anecdotes culled from the rich tapestry of his life were adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of our meal.  We, on the other hand, came to dread his presence and windy comments like the people of the Middle Ages came to dread the bubonic plague.

I suppose there’s a well-mannered way to tell the overly intrusive waiter that he’s ruining the meal, but I don’t know how.  So we all sat, listening politely as he talked, and talked, and talked, and hoped that our lack of affirmation or follow-up questions would send an obvious message that we weren’t interested in what he had to say.  Unfortunately, the waiter utterly lacked the sensitivity to pick up on those signals.  And every second we had to listen to the blatherings of this complete stranger cost us a second of each other’s company.

I used to be a waiter and still admire those in the food-service industry, but there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.  Waiters should be friendly, sure . . . but mostly they should be responsive and ready to serve.  Tell us the daily specials, keep the drink glasses filled, take our orders, and bring us our food and, eventually, the check — but otherwise please leave us alone!

Another Impending Benefit Of The Utica Shale

Eastern Ohio is enjoying an economic boom from the discovery of apparently enormous natural gas deposits in the Utica Shale formation, far underground.  The discovery not only has led to economic growth and lower unemployment rates — as well as the promise of less dependence on foreign sources of energy — but it also is likely to have a significant positive environmental impact.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency, a part of the Energy Department, said this month that total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions for the first four months of this year fell abruptly to the lowest level in 20 years.  CO2, of course, is one of the dreaded “greenhouse gases” that are blamed for “global warming.”  The drop in CO2 emissions is attributed to power plants switching from coal to cheap, and plentiful, natural gas.  The discovery of large natural gas deposits elsewhere in the U.S. has caused the price of natural gas to fall dramatically in recent years.  With the Utica Shale drilling coming on line, the surge in the supply of natural gas means that the price should stay low — even if the demand for natural gas increases.

As the linked story indicates, businesses pay attention to price, and when it comes to behavior modification good intentions about reducing greenhouse gases can’t hold a candle to lower prices.

Making A Federal Case Out Of It

In a courtroom in Cleveland, a federal judge is presiding over jury selection in a federal criminal action.  The case does not involve drug trafficking, or terrorism, or any of the other offenses typically at issue in federal criminal cases.  Instead, the trial will address the actions of a breakaway Amish sect who disciplined recalcitrant members by, among other things, cutting the beards of Amish men.

The defendants insist their actions in “disciplining” disobedient sect members are expressions of religious freedom, not federal crimes.  The federal government says the defendants’ actions are part of a campaign of intimidation designed to humiliate the uncooperative men, because the Amish believe adult males should be fully bearded.  The defendants are being prosecuted for conspiracy to commit “hate crimes” in violation of the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

It’s odd to see the Amish in the news.  Ohio has a huge Amish population that is largely confined to remote, rural areas of the state.  If you are on a country road it’s not unusual to see a buggy up ahead — but other than that, it’s rare to encounter the Amish.  They keep to themselves and tend to trouble no one.

Of equal interest is the question whether the beard-cutting actions of the Amish sect should really be prosecuted as a federal offense.  Presumably the beard-cutters could have been charged with assault and battery under state law, if the men who were their victims chose to press charges.  Why should the full weight of the federal government be brought to bear against the defendants who did not kill or physically injure anyone — and who, besides, can plausibly claim to be embroiled in a religious dispute, however bizarre the dispute might seem to the rest of us?

A Speech To College Freshmen

College classes are starting again, and everywhere excited college freshmen are heading off to their new schools, accompanied by worried parents.

Every college makes a big deal about graduation and brings in big-name speakers to talk about what the graduates should do with their degrees.  I think that approach is backward.  By the time you’ve got your degree, you’ve already made a bunch of choices that have put you on a certain path.  Kids could use some honest advice at the beginning of their college career, not the end.  Here is my advice to the incoming freshman class.

Greetings, you freshmen, and welcome!  Now that you’re settled in and have met your roommates, it’s time for you to consider an important question:  are you sure you want to be here?

In case you haven’t heard about it, getting an education at a college like this one is very expensive.  Chances are that you, or your parents, are borrowing the money to pay for your chance to study in these ivy-covered buildings all around us.   Those loans are going to be with you and your family for a long time, and the need to pay back what you have borrowed may affect a lot of the choices you will be making after you graduate.  If you are taking out student loans, you may well still be repaying them when you are in your 30s, or even 40s.  So, before you make that kind of long-term commitment, think for a minute:  Are you sure you want to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to get a college degree?

If your answer to that is “yes,” then you need to think about what you can do to achieve some kind of meaningful return on your investment in yourself.  Do you have a real interest that you want to pursue, or are you here because everyone knows that a college degree helps your job prospects?  If you are in the former category, follow your interest, but do it seriously.  Don’t dabble!  Take the courses that give you the best grounding in that area of interest, get to know your professors and advisors in that area, and look carefully at the training programs and internships that are available here.  If you are in the latter category, look to take the toughest schedule you can.  Don’t avoid the math and science courses because you think they’ll be too hard.  In our world of constant technological advances, people who have some grounding in math and science are better positioned than those who never ventured outside the humanities curriculum.

And speaking of long-term consequences, try to avoid them in your personal life, too.  That means having a little self-respect, and not heading down to the 24-hour soft-serve ice cream dispenser in your dorm cafeteria every night.  In case you haven’t noticed, we have an obesity problem in this country, and you don’t want to become part of it.  Your goal should be to avoid putting on the “freshman 10” — or 15, or 20, or 25.  And if you’re given the chance to engage in underage drinking — and we all know that chance will come, don’t we? — think before you drink!  You don’t want to drink and drive, or lose control of your senses and end up with a splitting headache and hangover in a stranger’s bed, or develop a life-long drinking problem.  In short, show some self-respect!

I’ve got only one more bit of advice for you:  accept that your new roommates seem a bit weird — but also understand that you are, too.  Notwithstanding what your parents have been telling you for the last 18 years, you aren’t perfect or the pinnacle of human evolution.  You’ve got your faults and foibles and odd habits, and your roommates do, too.  Accept their idiosyncrasies, and they’ll accept yours.  As you move through life, you’ll come to realize that cheerfully accepting other people’s differences, and being able to interact civilly with them despite those differences, is one of the most important lessons you can learn.

Good luck to you all!  In today’s world, you’re going to need it.

“Courage”

The political conventions start this week.  Many speeches will be given, and we’ll have to see whether any of them stack up with the greatest speeches ever delivered.  Like Shakespeare’s speech about St. Crispin’s Day in Henry V.  Or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Or Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” stemwinder during the dark days of World War II.

But as we look forward to the gatherings of our gutsy political leaders, right and left, in this our nation’s hour of need, my thoughts turn to another famous oration — the Cowardly Lion’s remarks on “courage” prior to his first encounter with the Wizard of Oz: 

Courage!

What makes a King out of a slave? Courage!

What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage!

What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage!

What makes the Sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage!

What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the ape in ape-ricot? What have they got that I ain’t got? (Courage)

You can say that again!

Seems particularly apt these days, doesn’t it?

Russell’s Political Artwork

The Webner House encompasses a broad range of political views, most of which (unfortunately) don’t get expressed in our blog.

But there are other ways of making your views known.  Russell has been using his tumblr account to create some interesting political pieces, along with his photographic treatments of duality in the world.  The piece accompanying this post is just one of several political commentary pieces that Russell has posted lately.  From looking at them, I think it’s safe to say that Russell is not a big fan of Mitt Romney — or, for that matter, many of the standard symbols of American consumer culture.

Whether we agree or disagree on the candidates or the presidential campaign, I think Russell’s unique artistic creations — bold and colorful, pungent and direct in their viewpoint, and rich in symbolism — are pretty darned interesting.  They also show how art can be an effective and intriguing communications medium.

We may not agree on every political topic, but I’ll always applaud the ingenuity underlying Russell’s creations.

At The Crack Of Dawn

My grandmother was an early riser.  She liked to get up “at the crack of dawn,” she said — and she passed that trait along to me.

I like being out at dawn.  There is something special about the refraction of the light at that moment and the colors that are painted as a result.  When dawn came today, the shadows seemed deeper and richer, the pastels in the sky and clouds were softer, and the grass and trees seemed especially dewy and lush.

The crack of dawn is a magical time.

A Great Loss For Man . . . And Mankind

Neil Armstrong has died.  He was a native Ohioan, a fine fighter pilot, a Korean War veteran, a successful businessman — but he will forever be remembered as the first man to set foot on the Moon.

On July 20, 1969, millions of people around the world watched with hope and anticipation as Armstrong backed down the ladder of the Eagle landing craft, moving slowly in his bulky white space suit adorned with an American flag.  When he finally put his boot print on the lunar surface — and made his famous, crackly statement, “That’s one small step for man . . . one giant leap for mankind” — every American felt a huge rush of national pride.

It was a magnificent achievement, and Armstrong’s humble, moving words captured the moment, and the emotions, perfectly.  Those of us who watched that grainy broadcast live will never forget it.  The fact that Armstrong was an Ohioan just made the moment a little sweeter.

Neil Armstrong’s legacy cannot be separated from Apollo 11, its historic lunar landing, and the boot print he left on the Moon’s dusty surface, but he was an interesting, and estimable, person for other reasons.  A private person, Armstrong never tried to cash in on his fame or take advantage of the circumstances that made him the first man on the Moon.  When he returned from the lunar surface he worked for NASA, taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati,  served on corporate boards and investigatory commissions, and spoke out in favor of space exploration — and he did it all without fanfare.

Neil Armstrong was 82.  He will be missed.

Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Years Ago?

Anyone who lived through the 1980 presidential election remembers the very basic question:  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  Ronald Reagan used that question — and the anticipated answer of most Americans — to devastating effect against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

President Obama had better hope voters don’t ask themselves that question this year, because new economic data analyzed by former Census Department statisticians at the Sentier Research firm reveals that the answers of most Americans are not going to be favorable.  The data shows that, amazingly, median household income fell more during the “recovery” from June 2009 to June 2012 than it did during the preceding recession.  What’s more, the drop in median household income happened across the board, in virtually every demographic group.

For example, family households lost 4.7 percent; people who live alone lost 7.5 percent. Households headed by African-Americans lost 11.1 percent. The income in married-couple households dropped 3.6 percent. Households headed by full-time workers lost 5.1 percent. People with “some college, no degree” lost 9.3 percent, people with associate’s degrees lost 8.6 percent, high school grads lost 6.9 percent, and people with bachelor’s degrees or more lost 5.9 percent.

The only group that came our ahead during the period from June 2009 to June 2012 was senior citizens.   The incomes of those between the ages of 65 to 74 grew by 6.5 percent, and the incomes of those over 75 increased by 2.8 percent.

The Sentier Research findings help to illustrate just how bad the performance of our economy has been during recent years.  There have been lots of losers and few winners — not exactly the record that an incumbent President would want to run on.  When almost everyone has taken a big hit to the pocketbook, it’s not easy to convince them that, bad as things are, they would be even worse if you hadn’t been in charge.

The President’s Ego

Republicans are making sport of a comment made by President Obama at a recent fundraiser featuring NBA athletes.  “It is very rare that I come to an event where I’m like the fifth or sixth most interesting person,” the President reportedly joked.  Republicans and conservatives are citing the comment to lampoon the President’s ego — which they want to depict as enormous.

Obviously, Presidents must be self-confident to be successful.  It’s a demanding job; the individual who fills it has to be decisive, and a big part of being decisive is having confidence in your judgment.   You don’t want someone who is wringing their hands about every decision.  That’s one reason why people were so concerned about President Carter’s famous retreat to Camp David, where he seemed to be inviting advice from every Tom, Dick and Harry about how to get the country headed in the right direction.  Americans wondered whether the President had lost his nerve — and that possibility made people very uneasy.

Of course, you’d like to think that the President isn’t an arrogant SOB, either.  We want Presidents who are humble about being chosen to lead us and modest about their ability to perform the various tasks required of The Most Powerful Man in the World.  Presidents shouldn’t be know-it-alls; they clearly need to be willing to listen and learn about a broad range of topics from subject matter experts.  And conceit and narcissism aren’t very attractive qualities, in a President or anyone else. There’s a reason why pride is the first of the seven deadly sins.

I think there’s a fine line here, and President Obama should be paying careful attention to it.  Polling data shows that even people who don’t agree with his positions on the issues often still say they like him, personally.  That’s an important attribute going into what looks like it will be a close election.  If I were the President, I’d leave the jokes about how fascinating and interesting he is on the cutting room floor — at least until after Election Day.

Straining At The Leash

The picture below aptly captures Kasey’s approach to walks.  When we leave the house, she promptly trots ahead until the leash scrolls out to its maximum extent.

The leash stays taut as a bowstring throughout the walk, as Kasey pulls relentlessly forward, head swiveling from side to side, looking for anything that might be worth noticing.  And if she sees something interesting, she heads for it at ramming speed.  It’s as if every vista is so exciting that she can’t resist straining to get there as fast as possible, as if every smell is so absorbing that it merits immediate and deep attention.  The world isn’t going to pass Kasey by — she’s going to dive in head first and fully experience every second.

I compare her headlong approach to mine, as I saunter down the path and am barely able to conceal my ennui about walking past things I’ve seen hundreds of times before.  And then I wonder:  what would it be like if you spent every moment of every day straining at the leash and eager to see what might be found around the next corner?

Crime . . . And “Punishment”

Anders Breivik killed 77 people, many of them kids, in carefully planned attacks on government buildings and a youth camp in Norway.  Today he was determined to be sane, was found guilty of the mass murder — deemed “terrorist acts” under Norwegian law — and received the maximum sentence of 21 years in prison.

A man who kills 77 people is found to be legally sane?  Sentenced to a mere 21 years in prison, as the maximum available penalty for the cold-blooded killing of dozens of people?  And, according to the news article linked above, the “guilty verdict comes as welcome relief to victims and their families, who have been looking for closure 13 months after the tragic event”?

It is unimaginable that a disturbed mass murderer like Breivik, who is only 33 years old, could be walking the streets, a free man, in only two decades.  What better indication could there be of the differences between the United States and Norway — their people, their criminal justice systems, and their concepts of just punishment — than this absurdly lenient sentence?

Many Americans applaud the European social model and decry the harshness of punishments meted out by American courts.  Does anyone, however, seriously defend this grossly inadequate penalty and the notion that 21 years in prison is sufficient punishment for an unrepentant fanatic who gunned down 77 innocent people and now plans to write books about his attacks and his crazed political views?