Mint In The Morning

This morning I woke up with “morning breath.”  That’s what we call it these days, where we promptly take steps to try to get rid of that hot, coated, somewhat slimy feeling on our teeth and tongue that comes from keeping your mouth closed during a good night’s sleep.

mint2When you think about it, “morning breath” is really just the absence of minty freshness that we all expect to achieve as a result of our time standing at the bathroom sink, brushing and flossing and gargling and swishing.  We want to feel that frosty sensation and experience the rush of cool air when we inhale after a vigorous encounter with toothbrush and toothpaste.  And, thanks to the effective advocacy of toothpaste commercials, we are vaguely embarrassed to have “morning breath,” and we wouldn’t dream of walking outside and inflicting it upon people we encounter in the unsuspecting world.

Yesterday I went to the grocery store and needed to pick up some toothpaste.  Although there are the dozens of different toothpaste offerings, purportedly geared toward sensitive teeth and teeth whitening and plaque prevention, virtually all of them involve flavoring with spearmint, or peppermint, or some combination of the two.  The same is true of mouthwashes, and even dental floss is offered with mint flavoring.  Yes, mint is what we want, and mint is what we must have.  Have you ever gone to the dentist’s office for a tooth cleaning and had the oral hygienist offer you a choice of mint versus, say, cherry toothpaste?  Cherry?  Yeah, right!  Nobody wants their mouth to taste like a cough drop when they rise from the dentist’s chair!

Mint is supposed to have lots of health benefits, from aiding digestion to pain relief.  That all may be the case, but it’s that blast of arctic chill that we crave.  We must have mint in the morning!

The (Invisible) Empire Strikes Back

You hear a lot about federal employees who comprise the so-called “Deep State” these days.  They apparently don’t like the new President or his policies, and they’re concerned about what he’s going to do to their jobs.

top-secretSo, at least some of those federal employees apparently are doing what any honest, “merit-hired,” politically neutral “civil servants” would do — they’re figuring out ways to undercut the new Administration’s agenda, “slow walk” proposals, and otherwise thwart policy changes.  Politico calls it “the revenge of the bureaucrats,” and notes that the principal weapons of the “Deep State” are carefully aimed leaks, efforts to have the inspector generals of agencies investigate political appointees, and using “the tools of bureaucracy to slow or sandbag policy proposals.”  Is it any coincidence that, since the new Administration took office, leaks seem to have come fast and furious?

This is an interesting issue, because there’s a fine line between the right of federal bureaucrats to exercise their First Amendment rights and the need to have workers who will blow the whistle on misconduct, on the one hand, and the actions of politicized employees who simply don’t agree with the direction the new Administration is taking and want to try to use their special positions to stop it, on the other.  It may be a fine line, but it should be a clear line, with the former being acceptable but the latter not.  Federal employees aren’t elected, and their views of what is the best course aren’t entitled to more weight than, say, the people who voted and elected the new Administration in the first place.  Career bureaucrats shouldn’t be permitted to use passive-aggressive methods to block policy changes just because they disagree with them.

The “Deep State” employees might think they’re clever in playing a backroom game of leaks and bureaucratic maneuvers, but it’s a dangerous game for them, too — if people get the sense that the federal workforce is hopelessly politicized, it’s going to continue the long decline in public trust in government, and ultimately people who might otherwise protect the federal employees from cuts won’t do so.  The whole notion of civil service is that the federal workforce shouldn’t be political, and instead should be comprised of knowledgeable, experienced career employees ready to implement the policies of whichever Administration may take office.  If the workers themselves demonstrate that they are politicized, what’s the point of the civil service in the first place?

Porn On The Federal Payroll

A television station in Washington, D.C. sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 12 federal agencies.  The FOIA request, directed to the inspector generals of the 12 agencies, sought records of cases of “egregious on-the-job pornography” viewing by federal employees at the 12 agencies.

lawmaker-calls-to-block-federal-employees-porn-accessIn response, the inspector generals produced records showing that almost 100 federal employees at the 12 agencies were caught, or admitted to, watching vast amounts of porn while at work.  One employee, at the Environmental Protection Agency offices in Washington, D.C., said he had spent up to six hours a day watching porn for “several years.”  A patent and trademark employee at the Department of Commerce was found to have made 1,800 connections to pornographic websites and told investigators, by way of explanation:  “When I am working hard, I go to these images to take a mental break.”  A worker at the Federal Railroad Administration was found to have searched for porn for 252 hours in one year.  And some of the cases addressed in the inspector general records were criminal in nature, because they involved viewing child pornography.

Watching porn on the job apparently falls within the category of “computer misuse,” which is subject to different penalties at different federal agencies, with sanctions ranging from a written reprimand to suspensions and termination.  As one deputy assistant inspector general put it, the computer systems, and the employees, are supposed to be performing government work while on the job, and checking out porn instead constitutes some of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” we taxpayers often hear politicians talk about.  Notably, the TV station report provides no information on whether disciplinary action was taken against the supervisors of the employee who says he spent six hours a day watching porn on his work computer for several years without being detected, or whether the EPA concluded that his job clearly wasn’t necessary and could be eliminated.

About 100 employees out of the vast payrolls of the 12 federal agencies obviously isn’t a huge percentage; you’re going to find a few “bad apples” in just about any workplace.  But the TV station FOIA request was targeted specifically at “egregious” porn viewing, and the fact that federal employees can spend hours watching porn on the job watching pornography, undetected, just adds fuel to the budget-cutting and payroll-cutting fire.  President Trump’s budget plans already have federal employees worried that federal payrolls are going to be slashed.  Don’t be surprised if, in the debate about downsizing the federal government, bureaucratic porn-watching habits get trotted out as a talking point.

Feet Off The Furniture!

Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway has come under fierce criticism on social media after a picture showed her perched on one of the couches in the Oval Office, with her feet tucked under her.  Close-ups showed that she was wearing shoes at the time, and her heels were digging in to the fabric.

TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMPGasp!

Critics said she was being disrespectful of the Oval Office through her pose and her treatment of the furniture.  Conway says she meant no disrespect, and her defenders say she was just getting ready to use her phone to take a photo of President Trump meeting with leaders of historic black colleges.  They also cite pictures of President Obama with his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office.  (And, of course, it’s not just any desk, it’s the famous Resolute desk made from timbers of the British vessel  H.M.S. Resolute and presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria in 1880, and therefore presumably has a lot more history going for it than the sofa on which Conway was perched.)

Only one month or so into the new Administration, and already we’ve reached the point of arguing about treatment of furniture!  Hey, I know — let’s call it “Sofagate”!

desk1Maybe some of the angst about the furniture in the Oval Office comes from people whose parents were hyper-concerned about maintaining the condition the furniture in their home, and covered it with uncomfortable plastic slip covers for daily use so the furniture would always look brand new for company.  These were the people whose mothers were always yelling “feet off the furniture!” when you went over to their house as kids.  Other people, like the Webners, grew up in households where furniture was not viewed as a some kind of sacred item and putting your feet up on the coffee table, or stretching out on the sofa to watch TV, was a perfectly acceptable practice and a little wear and tear on the couch and chairs was to be expected.  And still other people recognize that putting your feet up on a wooden desk is different than putting shoe-clad feet up on a fabric-covered sofa.

This is a classic example of the kind of tempest in a teapot that makes Washington so baffling and weird, with people with an inside-the-Beltway mentality consciously trying to blow little things up into huge disputes.  It’s gotten worse in the social media age, where Twitter allows anyone (including our new President) to immediately make snide comments about anything and everything and create purportedly hilarious “memes.”

In the grand scheme of things, shoes with heels on an anonymous sofa, even one in the Oval Office, aren’t that big a deal.  With President Trump in office, there’s lots of meaningful, substantive stuff to argue about.  Can’t we at least focus on that, rather than feet on the furniture?

State Of The Union

Tonight President Donald Trump gives his first speech to a joint session of Congress.  It’s not being called a State of the Union speech, because by tradition a President is supposed to be in office a year before giving a State of the Union speech — but effectively, this speech is a SOTU.

gettyimages-84211317I’m trying to decide whether to watch.  As a general rule, I hate the bloviations and the planned standing ovations and the other political theater that has become part of any presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, and you’d be hard pressed to identify any SOTU speech that was especially memorable.

At the same time, even months after his election and weeks after his inauguration, I’m still having a difficult time comprehending that Donald Trump is the President.  It’s like I’m expecting that somebody else will step out from behind a curtain.  So maybe watching tonight’s speech, and seeing Trump walk down the aisle after the Sergeant at Arms of the United States House of Representatives bellows “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States,” will help to make Trump’s status as President more real.

I don’t expect Trump to say anything particularly meaningful, because that’s not what speeches to joint sessions of Congress are all about.  Instead, they tend to be laundry lists of proposals that, for the most part, are never heard from again.  When you think about it, the rapid-fire listing of initiatives that we often hear in such speeches is a lot more in line with Trump’s approach to speech-making than, say, what we expect from an inaugural address.  He doesn’t need to try to develop flowery language or deliver memorable phrases.  The SOTU and other presidential addresses to joint sessions are more like a CEO’s speech to shareholders at an annual meeting for a corporation.

Of course, the core purpose of the State of the Union is to discuss the state of the country, and even though this speech might not technically be a SOTU, we can expect President Trump to address that topic.  Presidents tend to characterize the state of the union through their own lens, and often what they describe seems to have little to do with what many of us perceive.  President Trump probably will say that we’ve got big problems in a number of areas.  We’ll hear about immigration, and tax reform, and repealing Obamacare, and trying to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States, and the other themes that seem to be part of every Trump speech.

What do I think is the state of the union these days?  If I had to describe it in one word, that word would be “divided.”

Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.

Rethinking Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease has been a known condition since it was discovered, in 1906, by a German doctor, and it has been the focus of lots of attention and research for decades.  It ranks as one of the top causes of death in the United States and is the third leading cause of death among people 60 and older, just behind heart disease and cancer.

So, after more than a hundred years, why haven’t we figured out how to treat this dread and deadly disease that robs people of their minds and personalities and leaves them empty shelves of their former selves?  Why, for example, have doctors and drug companies been able to develop effective treatments for HIV and AIDS, but not Alzheimer’s?

alzheimer_brainIt’s not that the scientific and medical community isn’t trying — but identifying the real cause of Alzheimer’s, and then devising a meaningful treatment, is proving to be an incredibly elusive challenge.  A brain with Alzheimer’s is like a car crash with no witnesses, where the accident reconstruction expert tries to find clues from the physical evidence.  Do those skid marks indicate that the driver was going too fast, or do they suggest that the driver was distracted, or was the driver paying attention when something like a deer unexpectedly came onto the road?  In the case of Alzheimer’s the brain is mangled and distorted and physically changed, both chemically and structurally.  Are those changes what caused the disease, or are they mere byproducts of the active agent that does the real harm?

For more than a quarter century, Alzheimer’s researchers and drug companies have been focusing on the “amyloid hypothesis,” which posits that an increase in amyloid deposits causes the disease, and have worked to develop drugs to target amyloid.  The hypothesis was devised because Alzheimer’s patients have an unusual buildup of amyloid in their brains, amyloid buildups have been found to be harmful in other bodily organs, and people with a genetic history of Alzheimer’s in their families also have been found to have mutations in the genes responsible for amyloid production.  With this kind of evidence, it’s not surprising that amyloid production has been the focus of treatment efforts.

Unfortunately, though, the trials of drugs that address amyloid production haven’t been successful — and after repeated failures, some scientists are wondering whether the amyloid hypothesis should be scrapped, and the disease should be examined afresh.  The amyloid hypothesis remains the prevailing view, but a minority of researchers think that the focus on amyloid buildup is like trying to close the barn door after the livestock have already escaped.  And they wonder whether the amyloid hypothesis has become entrenched with so many people, who invested so much time and money in developing amyloid-based treatments, that work on alternative approaches is being undercut.

It’s a classic test for the scientific method.  Over the years, there are countless examples of instances where prevailing views on medical, or physical, problems were overturned in favor of new approaches that turned out to accurately identify cause and effect.  The scientific method is supposed to objectively find the right answers.  For Alzheimer’s disease, maybe it is just a matter of tweaking how to develop the right treatment for the amyloid build-up — or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Those of us who have dealt with Alzheimer’s in our families hope the scientific and medical community put aside preconceived notions, dispassionately assess the evidence, and explore every avenue for developing a successful treatment.  This disease is just too devastating to go unaddressed.