Monthly Archives: February 2012

Will science create an army of Dry Drunks?

Many of you may have noticed a story this past week about researchers developing a possible heroin vaccine. The basic idea is this: the vaccine blocks the brain-receptors that respond to heroin, such that users no longer get a euphoric rush from the drug. There’s been corresponding work on a cocaine vaccine, as well as indications that some diet drugs that operate on a similar principle are not only good for decreasing overeating, but may also help with quitting smoking and drug and alcohol addiction.

These developments, and others like them, are the outgrowth of burgeoning research over the past decade into the neurochemistry of addiction and genetics of addiction. Given all of this, it is not absurd, in fact it is overwhelmingly likely, that science is well on its way to delivering the ability to block addiction at the neuro-chemical level. It may take a decade or two, it will no doubt have fits and starts, but a medical “cure” (or more likely, multiple cures) for addiction is on its way.

Given my own experience in recovery, I feel a little cautious about some possible side effects of this. I can absolutely see these vaccines and blocking drugs helping people and saving lives. But I wonder if they may also facilitate the creation of an army of dry drunks.

For those not familiar with the parlance, in recovery lingo a “dry drunk” is a person who is no longer active in their addiction, but is also not undertaking the self-work necessary to transform the psychological and character roots of addiction, and clean up the internal mental toll that active addiction leaves in its wake. Usually you can’t get away with this for too long without returning to using, but some people do for years, even decades. The Minnesota Recovery Center has a good online run-down of what this looks like on the ground.

To give a quick summation, it boils down to this: “dry drunks” are clean and sober, and may remain so their entire lives, but they’re not, to quote the AA Big Book, “happy, joyous and free.” This can be a pretty miserable way to live. It also tends to lead to a lifestyle that can spread misery to family and friends. 

I’m not trying to rain on science’s parade here. As I said above, I can see these medical measures doing a lot of good for a lot of people. But I can also see, especially in our “quick fix”-obsessed society, these treatments increasing the temptation to try to bypass the hard inner work that, in some cases, there may be no substitute for.   

  

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Whose "fault" is it?

About two years or so into the Obama administration I posted something on Facebook about cutting the guy some slack for not being able to totally undo in two years the destructive results of forty years of Republican policies. The usual back and forth started.

People: 40 years? How do you figure?

Me: From Nixon in 1968 to the 2008 election, Republican administrations have predominated.

People: Hey, what about Carter and Clinton?

Me: That would be 12 years versus 28, and by everyone’s account Carter was ineffectual, and Clinton actually implemented many Conservative policy goals (welfare reform, Defense of Marriage Act, etc.) to win reelection.

People: Hey, the President doesn’t really affect things that much anyway!

Me: (gritting teeth at the irony of getting this counterargument from people who post comments about Obama ruining our entire way of life) That may be so, but…

And so on.

The thing is, I got to thinking: They have a point. The Federal government, at least in theory, is made up of three co-equal branches, so you’d have to consider the Legislative and Judicial branches along with the Executive. Never mind that, there are also state and local levels of government that have a big effect on our lives. And never mind that, you could question how responsible government in total is for the way things are versus- corporations, religious bodies, mass media and all the other major players in society.

This obviously becomes a very big question, or series of questions. But I became curious, and decided to focus things more narrowly on something I could do some measurement of: 


To the extent that the Federal government has some effect on the way things are in the United States, which party has had a bigger overall effect on current conditions, good or bad, i.e. whose “fault” is it?

Keeping in mind our three branches, I decided to crunch some numbers. Starting with 1968 (not a bad point to pick, as it marks the start of the cultural transition from the 60s era, beginning of end of Vietnam, move to post-Civil Rights era, etc.), I gave each branch an equal weighting of 1/3, subdividing the Legislative branch 50/50 between the House and the Senate. For Executive and Legislative branches, I went with the most straightforward measurement- were the President, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority leader Democratic or Republican? Judicial is certainly trickier, so I went with tenure of Chief Justice for simplicity, counting the eras of the Warren and Burger courts (1968-1986, in our time-frame here) as tilting more Democratic in influence, and the Rehnquist and Roberts courts (1986-2012, so far) as tilting more Republican. And the results are:

Rounding up and down to the nearest whole percentage, we get the following answer to my above question:


To the extent that the Federal government has some effect on the way things are in the United States, for the 1968-2012 era, the way things are is 52% the “fault” of the Republican Party and 48% the “fault” of the Democratic Party. 


That is close enough to 50/50 that I have to conclude, in the interests of fairness, that each party is about equally responsible for the state things are in now, good or bad. So maybe it’s time to stop talking in the language of “fault” and “blame” about what “they” did, and accept that it was us. That being so, what can we do, together, to forge a new way forward? 

 

   

Review: Ultimatum, Superman/Batman: Enemies Among Us

As I believe I have mentioned in this blog once or twice, in my old age I’ve found myself becoming more than a little Bi. No, no, no, no! What I mean is: while in my youth I was a Marvel purist, I’ve developed quite a fondness for DC over the last few years. These days, I can swing either way. So, appropriately, here are reviews for trade paperbacks from both publishers that I recently finished. 

Ultimatum (Jeph Loeb/David Finch, Marvel, 2010, originally Ultimatum #1-5)

What a sad, ignoble end to one of the most noble creative ventures Marvel had launched since the early 80s. When I got back into comics again following separation and divorce in the early 00s, I discovered the “Ultimate” line that Marvel had launched, and it was a beautiful thing- They basically took their flagship characters and started a whole new Universe around them. One where powers were more limited, the world was more realistic, and decades of twisted storyline were erased, bringing the characters back to their essence. I wasn’t the only one who loved it, so much so that there was talk for a while of the Ultimate line replacing the “regular” Marvel Universe. Then sales for the “Ultimate” line of titles started falling toward the end of the decade, and Marvel decided, along with cancelling the series involved, to more or less destroy the whole damn world they were set in. And man does this series do that! Now, one could imagine an interesting, perhaps even revelatory, take on that. What you’ll get here, though, is just a ham-fisted bloodbath that seems keen on delivering shock, and totally uninterested in substance. As a result, all your favorite characters, and everything new and fresh that the Ultimate line delivered is lost, and nothing is gained. What a waste! I could go on about other defects of this series, but instead I’d like to point you to something more worth your time: read the first 6 Ultimate X-Men trade paperbacks, the first few Ultimate Spider-man ones, Ultimates Volume I and II and the Ultimate Galactus trilogy. This will remind you what a great thing they had going before they decided to take a dump all over it, and how disappointing it is that they couldn’t give it a more fitting swan song.           

Superman/Batman: Enemies Among US (Mark Verheiden/Ethan Van Sciver/Matthew Clark/Joe Benitez, DC, 2007, originally Superman/Batman #28-33)

I’m glad I was reading both of these at the same time, as this helped wash the bad taste of Ultimatum out of my mouth. I’ll go spoiler light and just note a few things that fancied my fancy about Enemies Among Us. Since Superman/Batman spent the first twenty-five some-odd issues on what was essentially one through storyline (collected in Public Enemies, Supergirl, Absolute Power & Vengeance), this volume had to be about something new. And it was! The storyline deals with aliens (and the irony that Earth’s greatest defender, Superman, is himself an alien), and in the process rolls out some of the great aliens of DC past and present. The entire story is also narrated by Alfred the Butler, Batman/Bruce Wayne’s ubiquitous manservant, which proves to be a nifty framing device. Beyond that, it’s just fun! Writer Mark Verheiden explains in the afterword how he deliberately sought to evoke the spontaneity and unselfconcious “anything goes” spirit of Silver Age DC. He succeeds beautifully in a way that nevertheless works with the more darkly nuanced storytelling of current comics. About my only complaint would be that having four artists in six issues does undermine the unity of your storytelling a little. But two of those four (Ethan Van Sciver and Joe Benitez) are excellent, one (Matthew Clark) is extraordinary, and the fourth, well, they only subject us to 8 pages of him. All in all, this trade paperback takes you on a ride I can heartily recommend.   

When do you call it quits?

One of the things I got for the Nook Color after getting that super-groovy present for Christmas (thanks everyone who pitched in!) was a subscription to Poets & Writers magazine:

It’s a great thing to read on a Nook before turning in for the night. It’s also helped focus my thinking on a question I’ve wrestled with repeatedly since turning 40: When do you call it quits?

Rest easy, dear readers. I’m not referring to cashing it in with strychnine, towering bridges, or anything so grim. But, since I started writing again in earnest in the wake of separation and divorce in 2002*, and then started trying to get that writing published a few years after that, I have wondered from time to time how long I should keep at it before deciding it’s not working?

One answer, of course, is the one that Diego Rivera gives Frida Kahlo in Frida when she asks the same question: If you’re a writer, you’ll write until you die, no matter what anyone says, and that’s that. (Okay, he said painter, but you get the point.) As far as writing itself goes, I think that’s a perfectly good answer, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be true. Year after year of this business of researching agents, publishers and contests, formatting submissions, paying entry and review fees, etc., however, can get a little tiring and discouraging. And so I’ve wondered during the the occasional sleepless night-when am I allowed to quit?

One answer that I’ve vaguely considered is: ten years. In other words, in August 2014, ten years from when I first submitted something for publication, if I haven’t had any major success so far, it’s time to quit. The part of my brain that thinks these kinds of things, of course, doesn’t consider any of the things I have done so far (essays in two journals and an anthology, poems and short prose pieces published in several online venues, writing, producing and directing short films that have screened for audiences of several hundred) to be suitably major success.

I could name things that might be “good enough”- getting a short story in a print publication, having a novel published, or a screenplay bought and produced by a real live studio. But I know myself well enough to know that even if some (or all!) of these things happened, I would probably still find reasons why it didn’t count and/or obsess on the next unachieved goal. After all, Buddhist psychology informs us that never being satisfied is one of the essential features of conditioned human existence, and as a person in recovery on top of it, my “enough” meter is inherently skewed. So, when I’m in my (mostly) right mind, I know this voice doesn’t give reliable advice.

But when do I get to quit? The latest issue of Poets & Writers provided some perspective, in a section that featured profiles of twelve poets who have just had their first print collection come out. Being as I’m working on a poetry collection to submit for publication myself this year, and being as I’m a statistics geek, I did some number crunching based on the profiles. The twelve authors profiled took however long they took doing the writing (often ten years or more), and then, on average, they took three years of active submissions, and an average of seventeen submissions, to find a publisher for that collection. What does this tell me? Rest easy, little one. It takes a while.

In the same issue, there was also an article about the new poetry book series that San Francisco publisher McSweeny’s is coming out with. One of the poets who has a volume coming out with them, Allan Peterson, has been writing since the 1960s, with very little recognition until the last few years. In the article, he said that he considered himself “an outsider to the literary world.” This reminded me of my good (literary) friend Charles Bukowski, who himself toiled in relative anonymity for twenty years until finally entering his heyday in the late 60s. Here blooms into view a goal I can get behind: If I don’t have any “suitable” “recognition” at the ten year mark- fuck them! I’ll just declare myself a literary outsider at that point, and keep going as long as I damn well please.

Literary outsider. I like that. 

* I think it’s worth noting in this context that, ten years after that separation, here I am today celebrating the first anniversary of my marriage to my heart’s delight, Abbey LaMay-West. Some pretty blessed things can happen, if you just give them the time to unfold…
                   

Will Romney be the weakest nominee ever?

Let’s begin with appropriate clarifications:

This is in no way, shape or form an attack on the former governor politically or personally. Personally, he seems like a pretty decent guy, and politically, as far as Republicans go, I actually liked him tolerably well in his original pragmatic, moderate form. This is, as you’ll see below, an examination of cold, hard mathematical fact. As for “ever”, well, it’s always nice when you can slip some hyperbole into your headline. “Weakest ever” may be a little over the top, but again, as you’ll see in cold hard numbers below, for Republican nominees after 1968, so far it’s an accurate statement.

Let’s start with some pictures. Nearly 1/10th of the states in the Union have now spoken:

Granted, these are mostly smaller states, adding up to less than 100 electoral votes in total. But a quick look at the tallies from these states is interesting (my figures, based on final tallies for all but Maine):

So far Romney is clearly running ahead of the pack, but somewhat underwhelmingly.

To get a sense of just how underwhelmingly, it helps to do some comparison. As I mentioned last week, Democrats, as a more fractious lot, often end up having nominees who barely clear 50% of total votes in their primary and caucus contests, or even fall under 50%. For Republicans, though, this is much more uncommon. Taking all contested nominations (i.e. not considering candidates like Reagan in 1984 or Clinton in 1996 who ran without any serious opposition for their nominations) since the modern primary system rules were substantially reformed after 1968, only one Republican nominee has received less than 50% of the total votes (figures from Wikipedia, so they must be accurate):

Think about these numbers for a second. John McCain in 2008, a candidate that the Conservative base of the party was very distrustful of and who was running when the party was having a major post-Bush crisis of confidence, is the only Republican in the modern era to get below 50% of his party’s votes on his way to the nomination. And Mitt Romney, so far, is running below that level.  

“Ah yes,” you might say, “so far!” Granted, you would expect Romney’s totals to build as the race goes on. But maybe not by a whole lot, and maybe not terribly fast. We can, for instance, look at current national polls at Real Clear Politics:

Santorum is now the fourth (or fifth, if you count Gingrich as having done it twice) candidate in the last six months to jump to a national lead versus Romney. The latest polls indicate he now ties Romney for favorability among Republicans generally, and leads among Conservatives. On a state-by-state basis, the latest polls from Michigan show Santorum ahead for the February 28th primary there, and, moving in to Super Tuesday (March 6th), Gingrich has about even odds for taking Ohio according to fivethirtyeight.com, and leads in his native Georgia according to almost all polls there. Even in Arizona, where Romney is heavily favored to win on February 28th, he struggles to get to 50%.

So, at least through Super Tuesday, by which time almost half the states in the union will have held primaries or caucuses, Romney is very unlikely to rise above 40-something percent of the total cumulative vote. I would even submit that Romney may be getting close to the point where he can’t sew up the nomination until June, and maybe not even by then. As Hillary Clinton can tell you, this point can creep up on you earlier than expected.

Again, a little math is in order:

2,043 Delegates remaining to be selected as of 2/14/12
1,046 What Romney still needs (1,144 total, minus 98  he currently has according to the Real Clear Politics tally)
51.2% Percentage needed

Skipping back to the vote tallies by state earlier in this column, Romney’s running at 39% so far. He’s only topped 40% in two of the nine states that have voted, and hasn’t reached 51% in any of them. The math is a little wrinklier than that, since there are several winner-take-all contests (though fewer than there were even as recently as 2008), but the point is, the math is already tilting towards this going on into June.

There’s only been one Republican nomination contest like that in the modern era, when Ronald Reagan nearly outran the incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976. Ford, of course, went on to lose the general election. Further food for thought: At 39%, Romney is not only bringing in a lower share of the total than any Republican nominee after 1968, he’s three spots from the bottom for any nominee of either party. Those spots belong to candidates who went on to lose 49 of 50 states in the general election.

I am not, of course, predicting that. While Obama’s chances for reelection have definitely ticked up over the past few weeks, all signs still indicate a close fight. But it is still an extraordinary sight to see a Republican nominee going in to that fight with support this soft.      

Book Review: The Field Guide to Bigfoot and The Romminghouse Madrigals

Goals, I hear, help give life direction and purpose. And while I have to tone down my own relentless goal-orientation at times to rediscover the joy of just being, I do find goal-setting to be a useful tool.

One goal that I’ve taken up for this year is a self-challenge to read 52 books. I’m being fairly liberal in my definition of “book”, including comic trade paperbacks, for example. I’m also being fairly liberal in my definition of “read in this year”, including books I began in 2011 but am finishing in 2012. All appropriate disclaimers now aside, you can track my progress on my Goodreads profile, and so far I’m doing pretty well. With these two that I’ve just finished, I’m at 5 out of 52! And now, for the reviews…

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates (Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe, Anomalist Books, 2006, 205 pp.)

I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, but after recently visiting the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine headed by the book’s author Loren Coleman, it became even more of a priority. I’m glad I got around to it, because it’s loads of fun. Originally written in 1999, and with two forwards now bringing it into the 2000s, the front section, in fine field guide fashion, aggregates worldwide reports of different kinds of mystery hominids to produce profiles (with track outlines and range maps) of nine “types” of possible undiscovered primate. This actually is very useful in that it clarifies how some dissimilar sightings that are lumped together as “Bigfoot” or “the Yeti” for example, may actually result from more than one species or variant. The bulk of the book then has two page descriptions of over 50 sightings, arranged by continent, one page being a full-page line drawing, and the other describing the details of the sighting, which subtype it corresponds to, and a general setting of related sightings, legends and fossil finds that resemble the case in question. The final section goes over the science of proving or disproving unknown primates, and makes some best guesses about which might soon be discovered. While one could certainly have a quibble or two (I, for example, would have liked range maps for the individual sightings, and was also left wondering why semi-legendary material about giants and mermaids was fair game, but equally widespread fairy lore was not) the book is fun and well-done. As with most books on the unexplained, it’s worth further research on what you read, as some things mentioned turn out to be less than meets the eye after further reading. The authors have generally been careful with their facts, though, and there are loads of things here that even an aficionado of cryptozoology like me had never heard of before.           

The Roominghouse Madrigals (Early Selected Poems 1946-1966) (Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, 1988, 256 pp.)

Speaking of goals for the year, one of mine is to finish putting together a collection of what I like to think is my best poetry from 2001-2010 and finding a publisher for it. As with many different kinds of writing and editing, one of the best things to do for inspiration is to read in the same genre, and I usually have a volume of poetry that I’m currently reading. Like this one that I just finished, which I LOVED. I’ve long been a fan of Bukowski, who is in the happy position of being an equally good poet, novelist and essayist. Interestingly, given the picture of him as a grizzled barfly, he’s like a classic 19th century man (or woman) of letters in that respect. And the fact that he focuses his powers on the gritty facts of urban life and the inner blight of wrestling with bitterness and failure makes it all the more glorious. This volume features his early poems, from before his success and wider fame of the late 60s/early 70s. Anybody who has ever spent time in the roominghouses of rough streets and/or their own soul will find things here that they recognize in their beauty, ugliness and honesty. And isn’t that what poetry, at it’s best, can do for us?    

Will Mini-Tuesday mix things up?

For those of you just tuning in, 10% of the states in the union have now held primaries or caucuses. This is also known mathematically as five states:

One has to note that, with the exception of Florida, they’re smaller states, collectively accounting for 54 electoral votes, only 1/5 the total someone would need to win this fall. That being said, the group to-date isn’t a bad mix- Northeast, West, South, Midwest, and one large state with cross-regional and cross-cultural population groups are all represented. Based on the voting so far, where do the Republican candidates stand?

Let’s take a look…

Looking at the numbers, I find a couple of things to be interesting:

  • Romney is clearly ahead, but if you total his and Huntsman’s votes versus 85% of the total so far for the conservative candidates (i.e. what you might expect a unified conservative candidate to have if there was one) it’s pretty close- 43% versus 40%, rounded off. 
  • If you’re Gingrich, you probably think you deserve to be the last Conservative standing, since you’ve gotten more than twice as many votes as Santorum has.
  • If you’re Santorum, you’re probably not totally convinced you should step down yet, since you’re third, you may have a good day today (more on that in a moment), and…
  • Romney’s lead is fairly weak, historically speaking.

To follow up on that last point, you’ll see above that he’s currently at around 41% of the total. Democrats tend to be a more fractious lot, and it’s not at all unusual for even a candidate that ends up tying up the nomination pretty handily to be under 50% of the total. For Republicans, though, it’s practically unheard of in the modern era. The lowest percentage I could find any Republican winning their nomination by post-1968 was McCain in 2008, who ended up with 46.5% of the party’s total votes. That was a nominee that the party was very lukewarm toward, running in an election that they expected to lose going in, and Romney is beneath that level.

Granted, you’d expect his total to rise as we go on, as the field narrows. And another three states (Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri) vote today in what’s being called Mini-Tuesday. Sort of. As Swing State Voter nicely explains, most of the voting today doesn’t directly result in delegates being awarded. Still, news is news, and it’s definitely an indication of where enthusiasm lies. So how’s it looking?

Actually, pretty scattered:

The most recent available polls for Colorado show Romney ahead, but as one of three candidates polling more than 20%, instead of as a runaway favorite. In Minnesota, he may actually be slightly behind Santorum. Missouri hasn’t attracted a lot of polling, but there’s a decent chance that Santorum could win there as well, or at least place strongly. Indeed, 538.com is noting that Romney is generally weaker in the Midwest and both Santorum and Gingrich could have some upset possibilities there.

So how much could today mix things up? A Santorum victory (or two) would certainly breathe some new life into his campaign. Gingrich is less likely to get any great news today, but he could continue to field double-digit results across the board, which will encourage him to stick around as well. This could make Michigan interesting later in the month. It also probably holds Romney down below 50% of the total until Super Tuesday at the earliest.

Could he lose the nomination? Unlikely. Ultimately, he remains the only candidate with the funds and organization to compete across the country (poor Newtie didn’t even manage to get on the ballot in Missouri for today!). But the longer Romney remains a circa 40% leader of a field that has three other candidates in double-digits, the longer the doubts that many of the Republican faithful have about him have to ferment. Which could leave the party less unified and enthusiastic than it typically is, making for a more difficult Fall campaign for them. Check back in next week!