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Jun. 22 2010 — 1:42 am | 130 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Lamest ‘Ideas’ Issue Ever To Hit The Newsstands

When we think innovation we think: powerful ideas. For all the talk about how American ingenuity—and our ability to innovate—will solve the myriad, complex and seemingly impossible problems we face, you see little evidence of that in the new issue of The Atlantic. The “Ideas Issue” with it’s oh-so-clever 14 and ¾ Most Powerful Ideas of the Year, is possibly the lamest “ideas” magazine  ever to hit newsstands. What a bunch of disappointing nonsense.

From Ky Rissdal (host of NPR’s Marketplace) whining about how well-intentioned green marketing is doing squat to solve the huge problem of climate change—the “idea” here is It’s Too Easy Being Green (is that actually an idea?)–to the oh-so-yesterday “idea” from Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute that Information Wants To Be Paid For (rather than free, as was Stewart Branch’s mantra at the dawn of the Internet Age), these  ideas are non-ideas. They are clever headlines.  Just look at Deficits Matter or Boredom Is Extinct. Really? Extinct? I’ve got a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old four days into summer vacation who can make mincemeat out of that claim.

Perhaps most disappointing in this issue is Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men: How Women are Taking Control of Everything.” Rosin is one of my favorites usually but this article is just a collection of study and survey statistics interspersed with quotes from feminists Rosin either knows (I can’t think why else she would mention Katie Rophie) or admires.  The whole thing feels, well, lazy. Why is it to get a sense of how women are outpacing men in so many aspects of life—employment, college, overall having-your-shit-togetherness–Rosin visits only Kansas City, deciding somehow that city should be the poster child.

She quotes Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress (who I have interviewed before and admire), which is clearly a left-leaning organization, but we hear nothing from a think tank that might oppose her premise. (And I say this as a card-carrying liberal feminist.) The studies feel old (2007, 2008) the books she quotes are dated (1991, 2007, and the movie Office Space from 1999), even the trends she cites have already been well-covered (“mommy track” morphing into “flex time.”)

By the end you’re completely unconvinced any of the progress we’ve made as women—hitting the 50% mark in the labor force last year, slowly increasing our numbers in the C-suites of America, and our heightened presence in law schools and MBA programs—has substantively changed much, except for the fact that now middle-class women don’t seem to have much need for husbands.

Rosin hammers home her points, at the end of the piece, with the recap of a commercial from the Superbowl for a Dodge Charger, where the male characters lament having to put the toilet seat down and carry their wives/girlfriends’ lip balm.  Is this really supposed to be damning evidence that the tide is turning?  Because my ex-husband kept the seat up, and so does my son. And no one but me carries my lip balm. I think women may be on the way up, but—unfortunately–we’ve got a way to go before we take over the world.

Jun. 18 2010 — 11:27 am | 399 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Low Sex Drive? Or Just Tired?

A committee of reproductive health experts at the FDA will vote today on the efficacy and safety of the drug flibanserin, an anti-depressant medication that didn’t work so well on depression, but whose makers found that instead, it boosted women’s libidos. For years we’ve been told women who didn’t want to have sex, say, as often as their male partners, were dysfunctional. Or had a low sex drive. Or needed something, and sometimes not just a glass of wine and an erotic movie. Maybe, perhaps, a pill.

The FDA’s not convinced. It reviewed studies and found that when you compared flibanserin  with a placebo, the response rate wasn’t that great and the drug gave women only a slight improvement in their sex drive.

For women with lagging sex drives looking for some help, there aren’t many options, it’s true. And some estimates have it that more than 40 million women have some problem with sexual desire. But does not having a strong sex drive qualify as a medical condition that needs fixing—in 40 million women? Or is that we’re all supposed to be Samantha in Sex and the City? The Mayo Clinic reports that although more than 40 percent of women complain of low sexual desire at some point, the percentage with actual, ongoing problems is much smaller: 5 to 15 percent. And researchers acknowledge, according to the Clinic’s information on low sex drive in women, that it’s difficult to measure what’s normal and what’s not.

With that in mind, Joan Sewell writes on her very entertaining Daily Beast blog:

The parade of TV psychologists approach me with those overly sympathetic, simpering smiles, explaining that if a woman has lower desire than her man, there is sadly something wrong with her world: she doesn’t feel emotionally safe enough to have sex, she’s too stressed, she’s too tired, she hasn’t been romanced enough, or she’s a stay-at-home mom, or she’s a working mom, or not a mom, and on and on. In other words, a mythos is posited that women would have equal sexual drives to men if it weren’t for the overly-full, over-extended, livin’-it-to-the-max life we girls have to live.

Teri Hatcher’s much ballyhooed lifestyle site, GetHatched, at family.go.com asked which women would prefer: eight hours of really great sex or eight hours of really great sleep? The subtext reads, boy that’s a toughie, Teri. I love sex, but jeepers, I’m so gosh darn busy with charity work, career, multiple babies, and exploring the effects of gamma rays, I barely have any me time! It’s a tableau straight out of an air freshener commercial. But the answer one woman gave in response to the question was revealing: “Who wants to have sex for eight hours?” Ask a dude. Ask even a tired dude. No contest.

As a tired, working mom, eight hours spent in the sack NOT sleeping would probably make me feel mighty sore and exhausted.  But that doesn’t mean I need a drug to kick up the libido. It probably means I’m pretty normal. On WebMD, Edward O. Laumann, professor of sociology and the author of The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States says that sexual desire in women is “extremely sensitive to environment and context.”  The site says many studies illustrate that men’s sex drives are not only stronger than women’s but much more straightforward. “The sources of women’s libidos, by contrast, are much more difficult to pin down.” Which makes me suspicious of any drug that says it can be pinned down and pumped up.

Northwestern University researcher Meredith Chivers and colleagues reported on the site that women don’t even seem to know, not always, what turns them on.  Laumann also had an interesting viewpoint on why women’s sex drives are seemingly weaker than men’s:

Men have every incentive to have sex to pass along their genetic material, Laumann says. By contrast, women may be hard-wired to choose their partners carefully, because they are the ones who can get pregnant and wind up taking care of the baby. They are likely to be more attuned to relationship quality because they want a partner who will stay around to take care of the child. They’re also more likely to choose a man with resources because of his greater ability to support a child.

There’s no denying some women really do have a sexual dysfunction that needs treating, and it has had a profound effect on their lives. But for the majority of women, I think the Mayo Clinic sums it up best. If you want to have sex less often than your partner does that doesn’t mean either of you is necessarily outside the norm for people your age or at your stage in life. “Similarly, even if your sex drive is weaker than it once was, your relationship may be stronger than ever. Bottom line: There is no magic number to define low sex drive. It varies from woman to woman.”

Jun. 14 2010 — 2:21 pm | 2,042 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Getting Cancer from Blood Pressure Medication

Drugs for blood pressure are widely prescribed and considered to be safe—life-saving even, in many cases. So it’s unnerving to learn that these same drugs could increase the risk of getting  cancer. A new study  meta-analyzed nine published studies of blood pressure drugs known as angiotesin-receptor blockers and found they were linked to a “modest but significant” increase in the risk of new cancer, according to Dr. Ilke Sipahi and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. The drugs include Novartis’ Diovan and Merck’s Cozaar among others.  The results were published in the medical journal The Lancet Oncology, which also reported there was no increased risk of dying of cancer. The risk is just getting it, not dying from it, apparently, but that’s also not particularly reassuring.

Further unnerving is that the study comes on the heels of the FDA saying it was looking at data from two clinical trials where patients with Type 2 diabetes taking the the blood pressure medication Benicar had a higher rate of death from cardiovascular problems compared to patients taking a placebo.

This kind of information is insanely confusing for patients. First, there’s the increased risk of new cancer but then, wait,  no increased risk of dying.  But maybe there’s a problem with death from heart problems? What?? Yet untreated high blood pressure can lead to lots of serious health problems, ones that do, indeed, increase your risk of dying. It affects about one in three adults in the United States and is believed to be a precursor to heart disease and stroke, the first and third leading causes of death in the country.

ABC News reported today that there has been a lot of noise from doctors and researchers saying the study in the Lancet is flawed. Dr. Henry Blackof NYU’s School of Medicine told ABC:

The follow-up in the nine studies was so short that “the most you could blame a drug for in such short studies would be that it ‘unmasked’ a cancer that was already present.” Also missing from the analysis, he said, was a plausible biological mechanism by which the drugs could cause cancer.

The Wall Street Journal reported that  “much of the data in the new analysis was from use of the drug telmisartan, sold under the brand Micardis by Boehringer Ingelheim.”  That company told the journals that it had done a comprehensive internal safety data analysis of the data and it contradicted the Lancet study’s conclusions. The company said its drug

has been studied in clinical trials in more than 50,000 patients, and has a positive safety profile.

So what are consumers to do? In a commentary with the Lancet study, Steven Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, advised the obvious: exercising caution when prescribing and using those now-suspect medications.  But his commentary raised another really crucial issue—the over-prescribing of drugs because of aggressive marketing to consumers. The Lancet study may not be aimed at that, but it’s one reason why too many people take medication they may not need—or may not need yet.

Earlier this month, in fact, two groups critical of drug companies’ aggressive marketing and the lack of reporting about harmful side effects released humorous, but biting, campaigns to fight back. The healthcare advocacy group Community Catalyst released its “Bitter Pill Awards.” The Consumers Union released a satirical audio and animate video called “The Drugs I Need” on its website PrescriptionForChange.org.  Community Catalyst awarded the “Performance Anxiety Award for Exploitation of Male Fears of Inadequacy” to Eli Lilly, Pfizer and Schering-Plough for their blockbuster drugs Viagra, Cialis and Levitra.  The company cited commercials that pander to unrealistic fantasy—like one featuring a couple of seniors reigniting their passion in a pair of bath tubs overlooking wine country. (Can you think of anything less sexy?)

“We’re intending to shine a light on what we think are some irresponsible practices,” Alex Sugerman-Brozan, director of the Community Catalyst’s Prescription Access Litigation Project, told the WSJ’s MarketWatch.

He was outraged at an awards presentation made by DTC Perspectives Magazine during a–what else?–national direct-to-consumer ad conference in March.

“Is there an award for finding the most people who have undiagnosed hypertension and treating them with a diuretic, which is the most cost-effective? I don’t think so,” Sugarman was quoted as saying in MarketWatch. “Is there an award for educating people so they understand the greatest determinant of heart disease has to do with the choices they make about diet, exercise and smoking? No, the award is for selling more drugs.”

Jun. 1 2010 — 12:09 pm | 158 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Aviation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Could Triple in the Next 50 Years

A new study, “Flying into the Future: Aviation Emissions Scenarios to 2050” in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology journal, reports that aviation is now a main driver of global warming. Right now, international aviation isn’t even included in the Kyoto Protocol, although it’s a source of 60 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft, according to study author Bethan Owen and her colleagues, David S. Lee and Ling Lim. And although it’s not a main driver of global warming right now, it will be. According to the study:

Even though there have been significant improvements in fuel efficiency through aircraft technology and operational management, this has been outweighed by the increase in air traffic.

Global air traffic is contributing between 2-3 percent of carbon dioxide emissions—the main greenhouse gas in global warming. Scientists predict those emissions will probably double or triple within the next 50 years, which means by 2100 they could be seven times what they are now.

It seems the news linking airlines and carbon dioxide emissions just keeps getting worse. Two years ago a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Eurocontrol, the Manchester Metropolitan University and a technology company, QinetiQ, used various models to calculate fuel use and projected out to 2025 what emissions would be like. Jeff Gazzard, a spokesperson for the Aviation Environment Federation was quoted in Wired saying:

Growth of CO2 emissions on this scale will comfortably outstrip any gains made by improved technology and ensure aviation is an even larger contributor to global warming by 2025 than previously thought.

What’s to be done? It often seems an intractable problem. We could all fly less, for one, but that’s neither likely nor realistic. The aviation industry has acknowledged that if it goes unchecked, the industry will become the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas in the developed world. A year ago, the European airline industry pledged to slash carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2050, which would likely involve carbon offsets or trading schemes and force up airfares. But there could be another race that comes out of it: one among manufacturers,  trying to harness new technologies to create greener airplanes.

May. 26 2010 — 8:49 pm | 1,137 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Why You Shouldn’t Do Genetic Testing On Yourself

DNA testing has been in the news a lot lately.  This week Jayann Sepich was in San Diego to promote DNA testing for felons upon arrest. Her daughter, Katie, was brutally raped and murdered while a grad student at New Mexico State University in 2003, and her body was set on fire and abandoned. Because she fought her attacker, Katie’s fingernails had traces of his blood and skin—DNA from that skin and blood were taken, but a match wasn’t made until three years later, when a man convicted of burglary had his DNA sampled. Although this man had been arrested for burglary three months after he murdered Katie,  no DNA sample had been taken then, because the law said that only if a felon is convicted—not arrested– is a DNA sample taken. Jayann Sepich is trying to change that, to get states to adopt Katie’s Law—which says when a person is arrested for a felony–at the time of booking when fingerprints and mugshots are taken–the inside of their cheek is swabbed, and a DNA profile is extracted and entered into a database.

Largely because of her efforts, 23 states now have Katie’s Law on the books. Prop 69, California’s version of the law, passed in 2004. The ACLU though, has challenged the law’s constitutionality—they say it violated the “unreasonable search” protection of the Fourth Amendment and citizen’s fundamental right to privacy under the 4th Amendment.

Jayann was the guest of Life Technologies, a Carlsbad, Calif. company that manufactures forensic DNA kits.  And although genetic testing helped find Katie Sepich’s murderer—forensic DNA tests are more like fingerprints, used for identification, and “provide identification while providing anonymity in terms of a person’s medical history,” wrote Tim Ingersoll, a spokesperson for Life Technologies, in an email.

A different animal, however, are consumer-friendly, over-the-counter genetic test kits–and they are generating controversy.  On May 19th, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a nasty letter to CEOs of three companies that make these kits—23andMe, Navigenics and Pathways Genomics Corp.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

The Committee is requesting information from the companies on several aspects of the tests: How the companies analyze test results to determine consumers’ risk for any conditions, diseases, drug responses, and adverse reactions; the ability of the companies’ genetic testing products to accurately identify any genetic risks; and the companies’ policies for the collection, storage, and processing of individual genetic samples collected from consumers.

According to Genomics Law Report:

The Committee appears to be interested in gathering information. Lots and lots of information. The letters are impressively broad in their scope, which is unsurprising given that this is the first publicly reported Congressional investigation into the current generation of DTC genetic testing companies.

Walgreens and CVS had announced agreements with Pathway Genomics to sell its genetic testing kit in their stores nationwide—and those kits claim the ability to test for more than 70 health issues, according to a story in Technology Review, including predispositions to Alzheimer’s, breast cancer and diabetes. But after the Committee started questioning the tests, the FDA began questioning the legality of selling them direct to consumers, and Walgreens decided to put its plans on hold.

The problem is one of a lack of consistency among states, in terms of regulating these tests.  Although you can get tests like these online, something about having them poking out of the shelves of CVS and Walgreens made Congress and the FDA nervous, but the folks at the Genomics Law Report say a regulatory response to direct-to-consumer genetic test kits is way overdue anyway, so maybe the freakout is a good thing.

Letting consumers conduct genetic testing on themselves to determine what diseases they might be at risk for raises a lot of thorny issues, but one big concern is how consumers will use the information, and if they will even really understand it. Regulation may not be the best way to figure this out, since regulation doesn’t necessarily educate. It would be far better to work on improving the FDA’s and the general public’s understanding of just what the results of these tests mean and how best to use the information.  And companies like Pathway Genomics need to increase their transparency, disclosing more thoroughly the limitations of their tests and services and make it clear that the results of a test—without some guidance, interpretation and context from a doctor—can be a dangerous thing.

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    I'm a freelance journalist based in San Diego, Calif. I do a lot of business writing but also write about education, family life, social issues and politics. I have an interest in companies doing innovative work in science and technology. Over the years my work has been published in a variety of national publications, including The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Self, Glamour, Psychology Today, CNNMoney.com, FORTUNE Small Business Magazine, Slate.com, Salon.com and others. I write a monthly column in the Sunday New York Times Business section called "Career Couch."

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