The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, January 30, 2009
Current Affairs ... History ...

I was reading some thoughts from Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist scholar who is also a conservative commentator (say that three times fast!). I.e., he’s a guy who knows a lot about the history of ancient Rome and the Greeks of old. Obviously he has some things to say regarding whether America is in danger of going the same route, i.e. decline and fall after a few centuries of power, achievement and vast geo-political dominance. Mr. Hanson is pretty cautious about it; he’s not saying that America has turned rotten and deserves to get flushed down the tubes. But he is saying that if we’re not careful about maintaining our world power, our individual virtue, our patriotism, and other assorted conservative values, we could. Hanson is not a big fan of President Obama, but he’s not rabidly condemning him either; he seems to be giving Obama a chance, given Obama’s various moves away from doctrine liberalism towards centrist realism.

Anyway, I noticed a passage in one of Hanson’s book reviews that inadvertently summed up the situation in America today. Here it is:

Despite occasional revisionism, the story of Rome’s fall was pretty much universal . . . After some five centuries of imperial domination from the Sahara to the Rhine, and from the British Isles to Mesopotamia, the Western empire collapsed in the late fifth century . . . An exhausted global empire was so plagued by financial corruption, a bankrupt elite, and rural depopulation that few citizens joined the army. Fewer still knew what fifth-century Rome stood for, much less whether it was any longer worth defending.

In this review, Mr. Hanson was NOT trying to argue that America has caught the same infection that Rome had by the fourth century CE; he was actually arguing against two other writers who feel that it has. But look at the modern parallels: “exhausted global empire”, “plagued by financial corruption”, “bankrupt elite”, “rural depopulation”, “few citizens join the army”. Does a majority of our citizens know what twenty-first century America stands for? I guess that most people would say “democracy” and “political freedom”. But then again, the most recent GOP vice presidential candidate couldn’t think of those words when questioned by a newsman regarding the last President’s “doctrine”. (Yes, I’m referring to Charlie Gibson’s interview with Sarah Palin; and recall that when Gibson finally got tired of Palin’s lame attempt to respond to that question, his own answer ALSO failed to include democracy and freedom!).

Yea, I think that Mr. Hanson hit a nail on the head there, even if he wasn’t aiming for it. But as Hanson and many other historians contend, history is made not by anonymous forces but by people and ideas. Can Barack Obama come up with the right ideas to steer our nation’s evolving history back towards goodness and strength? Can he turn it back into something that every citizen can believe in? That’s the trillion dollar question.

PS, I also checked out a nine-part lecture on You Tube by Prof. J. Rufus Fears, another conservative academian who has pondered the parallels between the Roman Empire and the U.S.A. today. Fears seems to be saying that we’ve gone pretty far down the same one-way road to oblivion that Rome took, but it’s not too late yet for us to veer away from it. Fears says that we face a matrix of threats similar to what the Roman Republic faced in the first century BCE, including a debt crisis choking off the economy causing a severe recession; a crippling clash of partisan political forces; and a series of threats from powerful foes and rivals from foreign lands.

As with the late Roman Republic, some of our worst threats come from the Middle East. HOWEVER, the biggest threat to Rome’s future turned out to have hailed from north-central Europe, i.e. from the Germanic tribes. And here’s the jawdropper from Dr. Fears: we too face severe future threats from that region, but need to go another 200 miles to the east: i.e., Russia. Yes, Dr. Fears feels that the end of the Cold War and Communism in the early 1990’s was NOT the end of our Russian problem. He thinks that conditions in today’s Russia are ripe for the re-development of a powerful, barbaric and militaristic dictatorship bent on dominating as much of the world as it can; he feels that Vladimir Putin is already setting the stage for that. He goes so far as to say that Russia could become fertile ground for a new Hitler-like figure! Yikes.

Ironically, Fears believes that the U.S. and Western Europe had a chance in the early 1990s to have prevented this. He implies that had we put lots of capital and redevelopment aid into Russia back then, something like we did afterWW2 with the Marshall Plan in Germany, we could have set the stage for democratic institutions to have finally taken root in Russia (as they did in post-war Germany). But we didn’t, and now we’re watching Russia fall back into it’s old nasty habits. With enough dictatorial mobilization and plentiful access to oil and natural gas, Russia could well re-create the specious prosperity that Germany experienced during the Great Depression, back in the mid and late 1930s.

So, if our economy doesn’t snap back within a year but instead sends our nation into a five to ten year malaise, then the USA is gonna be in serious hot water if the Middle East flares-up again (like when Iran goes nuclear), and at the same time a re-militarized Russia starts taking back what the old Soviet Union lost. Yep, it could be much like what the Roman Republic faced about 50 years before Jesus. How did the people of Rome react? Eventually, they gave in to political dictatorship; Julius Caesar set the stage for ending populist rule, and Augustus later sealed the deal. Is this happening today here in the USA? Dr. Fears said that we don’t have an equivalent to Julius Caesar right now; and that’s mainly because Caesar was so brilliant. George W. Bush certainly tried to become a Caesar, but he didn’t nearly have the brainpower. In the end he couldn’t do all that much damage to American democracy as we know it (thanks to screams of bloody murder from the liberal factions).

However, Dr. Fears notwithstanding, we now have a man in power with Caesar-like brilliance. (Recall that Caesar started out as a “Populare”, roughly comparable with today’s “Democrats”.) Obama got into power partly by repudiating the empire-building tendencies of his predecessor. Nevertheless, if things don’t go well during his tenure and our nation faces the real prospect of serious decline in living standards for almost every citizen, then I could imagine a scenario where President Obama tacitly convinces the citizens to forfeit much of their political freedom, so as to maintain personal, economic and national freedom. (Will the liberals then scream at Obama as they did at Bush? I don’t recall many screams when Obama tossed campaign financing reform aside. Love is blind.) As Professor Fears points out, this choice has been made by many other peoples over a wide variety of circumstances throughout the course of history. It would be a mistake to think “it couldn’t happen here” — given the extremely dangerous economic and international situation that America now faces.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:03 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Politics ...

Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency still surprises me a bit. Only four years before, American voters clearly rejected the Democratic alternative to the anti-government philosophy that Ronald Reagan popularized. Bill Clinton seemed like such a rejection, but he and his “third way” ideas regarding the social and economic place of government in modern America were not in fact a return to big government. Clinton was “Reagan-lite”; he was still fairly conservative, was still inclined toward small government and low taxes. It was under Clinton that the “bubble economy” got going; it made many people happy for many years (through rising stock prices, rising home values, and rising consumer spending). Then came Bush Junior and Osama Bin Laden, but even the 9-11 tragedy and the subsequent “war on terrorism” couldn’t stop the economic party that was going on in America. Until the final, fateful year of the Bush presidency, unemployment was low, mortgage loans in any amount could be had by almost anyone, gasoline and big SUVs were affordable enough, “must-have” consumer electronic goods were everywhere, and people were generally pretty happy with things.

Thus, in early 2007, it was still quite unimaginable that a relatively inexperienced Democrat with a solid liberal pedigree like Barack Obama could be taken seriously for the Presidency. Well, I should take that back; once we found out just how intelligent and charming Senator Obama was, it was clear that this guy would not go away. But his historic charisma and incredible political skills notwithstanding, it still didn’t seem as though the average American voter had good reason to reject the tried-and-true Republican formula. Despite John McCain’s many blunders (with Sarah Palin perhaps being the most egregious), Obama remained tied with him in the polls only two months before Election Day. The big swing towards Mr. Obama came only after it became clear that the growing economic problems in the banking and real estate sectors were going to affect just about every family in one way or another. Only when it became clear that foreclosure, layoffs, and bankruptcy were becoming a real threat throughout the middle and working classes did the Obama landslide fall into place.

The American public can be pretty dumb; they clearly got duped by continually rising home and stock values and unemployment rates that stayed below 5%. They really believed that nothing could ever go wrong again, and thus did some very risky things with their money and credit. But despite their short-sightedness, when it comes to electing a President, they generally know what they’re getting into. IMHO, they knew that Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and then Bush again meant less government, less tax, and more economic growth (although they didn’t ponder whether the fruits of that growth were being fairly distributed). And with regard to Obama, they knew that voting for him meant more government, and eventually more taxes. They don’t like a lot of government and tax, but when their way of life is directly threatened (which Osama Bin Laden could never do on a nation-wide basis), they become more flexible. Better to have a job and a house and face higher taxes, than the other way around.

My question is whether the public mood will revert back to the Republican philosophies if and when the economy gets better. This will be really interesting to watch in 2012. Hopefully things WILL be better by then; the big government intervention that Obama is now orchestrating with the Democratic House and Senate will do its job (I hope) without imposing crushing levels of federal debt. Could an attractive Republican candidate then come along and argue for a “return to Reagan-like normalcy”?

The American public can be just as fickle as they are short-sighted. I realize that there have been demographic changes favoring the Democrats (including the aging of the Baby Boomers, who are increasingly concerned about securing what they earned during the “go-go years” and preserving their access to other retirement helpers like Medicare and Social Security). But I still can’t believe that the big changes in voting patterns between 2004 and 2008 were driven by these things. The always perspicacious Bill Clinton was right in saying “it’s the economy, stupid”. The American people are indeed stupid in a lot of ways, but they usually know where they stand with the economy; in the short-run, anyway. If a future GOP candidate can recapture the short-run economic ground, then we could be in for more big surprises – as if 2008 didn’t have enough surprises for a generation or so.

One more note on Obama and the new economic order. I was perusing the pundit-of-the-day lists on this morning and I noticed two different articles by Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia U. Both are found in British publications, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Both articles discuss the implications of the Obama fiscal stimulus package (which the House just approved tonight). In one article, Mr. Sachs hailed the package as the start of a new economic era; quote,

One of President Barack Obama’s historic contributions will be a grand act of policy jujitsu – turning the crushing economic crisis into the launch of a new age of sustainable development . . . Obama is already setting a new historic course by reorienting the economy from private consumption to public investments directed at the great challenges of energy, climate, food production, water and biodiversity.

Bottom line here: this is a return to an old historic course, the course of bigger government, much as our nation had from 1932 to about 1982. Mr. Sachs told of how America would regain its world leadership in this upcoming era, but didn’t say a peep about who is going to pay for it all. However, in the other article, Mr. Sachs was less celebratory and more hard-nosed about the bill for it all. Quoting again,

If the present stimulus package is adopted without a medium-term [taxation] plan, it will go the way of the earlier stimulus package and the TARP, yet also put the US into a fiscal straitjacket that could paralyze public sector action in critical areas for a decade or more to come…. there is certainly a cyclical case for deficit- financed public spending, but accompanied by phased-in tax increases to provide proper financing of crucial government functions in the medium term.

Bottom line this time: Taxes need to go up once the economy is out of danger, so we might as well get people committed to that as soon as possible, while they are still in a good mood about government. If we put it off too long there is the risk of an anti-tax revolt halting further government expansion. In other words, Mr. Sachs remembers Reagan and 1982.

Both articles were published on the same day. I thought it would have been more honest of Mr. Sachs to have combined the two themes and weighed them against eachother. Mr. Sachs clearly welcomes the return of big government to America, but worries whether the public will eventually turn against the Obama initiatives much as they turned against the New Deal / Great Society legacy after Jimmy Carter. Mr. Sachs seems to realize what I said above: the American public is fickle, and has only grown more-so in the age of information and instant gratification. Sachs probably also worries about 2012.

(PS – I myself am not against what Obama is trying to do here; I have said on this blog that I am very dissatisfied about where our economy has gone since the Reagan Revolution, with high levels of inequality caused by fast-growing unregulated markets. On the other hand, I worry that big government can cause economic distortions and undue growth burdens because of the “me-first” political influences behind much government decision-making. The European Communist bloc of the 50s, 60s and 70s provided ample evidence of that; socialism is extremely prone to infectious decay from leadership greed. I’m hoping that Obama can put a system in place such that he AND his successors can make long-term, public-oriented decisions about the economy, resisting the usual parochial pressures. If not, then perhaps we should go back to free markets and small government, cruel as the side-effects can be.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:43 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Photo ...

This is what America looked like maybe 50 or 60 years ago; this is where America once worked. But now the factories and watertanks and smokestacks are getting quite rare; mostly just reminants from the a different industrial era. Here are some views of what’s left of the old industrial zone in Dundee (Passaic) NJ, along the Passaic River. This is where my grandparents worked after they came over from Poland around 1912. This is what America looked like to them. Not exactly breathtaking, but compared to war and agrarian poverty in Russian or Austrian-controlled Poland, it probably looked just fine. And it probably looks pretty good to the Mexicans and Dominicans who hold down what few jobs are left here.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:09 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Philosophy ... Spirituality ...

Now that my mother is feeling a bit better, I can get back down to some abstract thinking (on a recreational basis; hey, whatever floats your boat, right?). My topic for today is one I’ve pondered in various ways over the past few years; and that is whether we humans are purely physical phenomenon; or is there an additional ontological dimension to the universe, which somehow weaves its way into us and thus makes us something more? The whole question seems to revolve around “being” and our awareness and love of being (and our usual fear of the opposite). “Being” seems so simple at first; it merely means “in a state of existence”. But then what is “existence”? Ultimately it means . . . . to be. It all gets a bit circular. The only thing that breaks the short circuit is our own awareness of being, and our desire and struggle to maintain and preserve our own being.

The evolutionists (and I generally consider myself an evolutionist; I’m not a fan of so-called “creation science”) say that our “desire to be” (aka “will to live”) isn’t hard to explain. They explain that it couldn’t have been otherwise; by some trial-and-error process over the multi-billion year history of life on earth, living systems with the most propensity to struggle for survival became the ones to propagate the genetic accidents that gave them their zest for life. Creatures born without the drive to fight and survive didn’t contribute much to the genetic pool.

But a problem arises when we humans act in ways that run counter to the “stay alive at all costs” heritage of the simple Darwinian rationale for our “being fetish”. Perhaps it’s just a quirk, but over the centuries, those having perhaps the greatest appreciation and love for “being” (not just self-being, but the being of the community, of society, and of the world) have at times offered up their own being as to protect the “higher” principals of “being”. You wouldn’t think that a purely Darwinian machine would even have the capacity to ponder such a “higher principal”, as it wouldn’t be expected to enhance survival and reproduction. (Unless you argue, as some evolutionists do, that the capacity to think and act socially was “selected” by the process in highly developed species like humans because such cooperation enhances the survival of the species as a whole; much lower life forms, like ants and termites, had also developed extremely social forms. However, such behavioral programming did not carry forward into the mammals and higher primates, for whatever reason).

In my opinion, humans are able to comprehend “being” beyond what a Darwinian machine would be expected to do, even granting that evolution sometimes creates superfluous abilities and interesting side-effects in its products. We are able to appreciate the nature of “being” far more than any other combination of matter, energy and information could. And it is that appreciation that drives us crazy. It makes us depressed, it makes us kill others and kill ourselves, it makes us into artists and musicians. And on rare occasion, it makes us into saints. It makes it equally foreseeable that humankind will eventually wipe itself out, and that humankind will eventually find the key to peace, harmony and balance for everyone.

The game that our species is playing seems well beyond anything that Darwin and his successors described. Evolution certainly did get us this far, but something else kicked-in somewhere along the road. The scientists have no way right now of getting a handle on this with their present means of measurement and analysis, so they deny that it exists. Religious people believe that it does exist, but are too tied up in ancient myths to do any fresh thinking about it. And the philosophers, who traditionally tried to walk the fine line between these two groups, now seem extremely fearful of criticism by the empiricists. So it’s hard to find a good, honest discussion on the subject (and admittedly, it’s harder still to get a grasp on it!).

But hey — ya can’t give up. “The Principal of Being”, in the broad sense of a universal force or fundamental dimension, is a “know it when you see it” proposition. And I recently saw my mother struggle back from a near-deadly medical condition; I have no doubt that I was viewing the power and reality of whatever this “BEING PRINCIPAL” is.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:44 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Monday, January 19, 2009
Photo ...

I’m trying to get things back to normal here. And I see that I haven’t posted a picture in a while. So here’s a picture, a winter picture. Just some geese on a snow-covered field on a gray January afternoon.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:06 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Medicine ...

As noted in my last two or three entries, I haven’t been writing much lately due to an illness in the family. My mother was in the hospital since Dec. 9 following a respiratory arrest. The medical people weren’t very optimistic about her chances at first, but God and my mother conspired to beat the odds. So she went home yesterday, 39 days after her “lung attack” (it was similar to a heart attack in many ways; in fact, her heart had stopped during the incident).

Thirty-nine days . . . . which is just shy of 40 days, recalling Jesus’s fast in the desert, Jonah’s timeline for the destruction of Ninevah, and Ezikiel’s sufferings for the sins of Judah. Yes, this incident was almost “Biblical in scope”.

The doctors never did give us a good explanation of what happened to my mother. In the end, we had to settle for the fact that the airway passages in her lungs got severely inflamed for awhile and nearly choked her. They couldn’t pin it on an infection, an environmental exposure like smoking or asbestos, or some other medical condition. I myself still think it was an autoimmune reaction. My mother never had a major immune disease (like lupus, MS, Crohn’s Disease, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Type 1 Diabetes, etc.). However, she has had rheumatoidal arthritis for a while now; not surprising for someone in their mid-eighties. So she has had some autoimmune activity in her body.

Another little factoid from her hospital stay: on her fourth day in the intensive care unit, my mother’s blood hemoglobin levels were found to be critically low, so the doctors ordered a blood transfusion. Following medical protocol, they performed a Coombs test to search for any antibodies in her blood that might interfere with the new blood. And they found them! They asked my brother and me whether she had any previous transfusions; we and her doctor had no such recollection. The hospital where she had a cancer operation eight years ago also had no record of any transfusions. So — why all the killer antibodies in her blood? Maybe they were the same antibodies that had attacked her lungs (and her kidneys, which were also in trouble for a while there)? The doctors brushed my suggestion off, of course.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of interest today in autoimmune disease in the medical research field. Some people feel that what we presently know about autoimmune disease is just the tip of an iceberg. I.e., the medical establishment knows a lot about the most apparent autoimmune conditions (again, like lupus and MS and now arthritis), and has come up with some treatments. However, medicine is not even close to coming up with a cure; the immune system is an extremely complex thing, second only to the brain. In effect it has a “mind of its own”, as it monitors, responds and learns from changing body conditions and internal threats that come from germs and other bad stuff (including when our own cells go awry, i.e. cancer). We don’t understand it, and thus can’t do much to put it right when it makes its own mistakes.

Over the past 30 years, the government and private funders have put millions, maybe billions, into finding the cause for cancer and then finding a cure. It’s starting to seem to me that this is like a child trying to dance or ice skate before it knows how to walk. There’s something we need to get a grip on before we take on cancer, and I’m now thinking that a thorough understanding of the immune system is a big part of it. Immune disease isn’t very “sexy” right now, because it seems so limited; only a relatively small percentage of people will develop one of the known forms of serious autoimmune disease. But again, that turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg. We’re now starting to see just how tied-in the immune system is to all sorts of disease, ranging from cancer itself, to pandemic infections (i.e., immune system response is what make bird flu such a threat), to heart disease, to the aging process.

Ah yes, the aging process — that’s where my mother comes into the picture. I’m getting the feeling that many sorts of illness and breakdowns in old age are related to immune system failures, but are analyzed and treated on a more immediate, localized basis (e.g., heart condition, liver condition, lung condition, etc.). Since we are only starting to understand the immune system and what happens when age or environmental factors (toxins, pollution, smoking, viruses, etc.) mess it up, there are few or no practical therapies, never mind any cures. Most doctors probably don’t even want to talk about it (my mother’s doctors included). It’s frustrating to me, thinking that my mother has a condition that medicine is just not ready for yet.

SIDENOTE: Many of the classic autoimmune diseases are NOT old-age related; they manifest earlier in life, when the immune system is most potent. However, the control mechanisms for the immune system clearly deteriorate with age. So, if a person still has a strong immune response in their later years, as my mother does, the chance that their strength will turn against them increases.

I took a look on Google and the Amazon to see if there are any other autoimmune disciples out there. There does seem to be one; her name is Donna Jackson Nakazawa. She has a book out titled “The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World Out of Balance”. I’ve just ordered a copy of it; given my mother’s recent experience, I will give it priority over the many other interesting books stacked up in my apartment waiting to be read. The reviews and previews for Ms. Nakazawa’s book indicate that she focuses a lot on environmental factors, e.g. pollution and toxins in the air and water and our foods. She is mainly concerned about the possibility that a lot of people in their prime, and even children, are becoming weak and even sick before their time because of non-specific (and thus-far non-diagnosed) autoimmune processes triggered by these poisons.

My mother is now 86 and was fairly healthy most of her life. So, I can’t complain that the high levels of nasty stuff that we live with here in northern New Jersey prematurely robbed her of her vitality. But still, it’s a shame to think that perhaps she could have been up and kicking even longer if our industrial economy had done more to keep its noxious by-products from mucking up our planet (and if we knew how to eat the right things and avoid the wrong things so as to strengthen ourselves against it — which Ms. Nakazawa dwells on in her book).

And also if our medical establishment had not tried to jump over the immune system in its attempt to deal with cancer. Hopefully, the public and the political process will someday learn that medical researchers would do better right now by focusing on intermediate topics like the immune system; and thus stop throwing so much tax money at a problem that we just don’t have the tools yet to deal with (i.e., cancer). Let’s take a decade or two to develop those tools; that’s what make sense to me. But the researchers don’t want to say that out loud for fear of losing government and foundation grants. Oh well, such is the way of the world. I wish Ms. Nakazawa much success, but for now she seems to be a prophet crying out in the desert. Ah yes, back to the “40 days” theme!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:31 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

My mother is still in the hospital following a respiratory arrest back in early December. So I haven’t had much time to write. However, I have kept up with world events in dribs and drabs. It seems that the Israelis and Palestinians are going at it again. I can’t help but wonder if Hamas was put up to their rocket attacks by Iran. There was lots of speculation that Israel was going to bomb Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities sometime after the November US Presidential election and before the inauguration, when the Bush Administration would have nothing to lose by letting it happen or even helping out (e.g., by allowing Israeli war planes to use Iraqi airspace). So the increased rocket harassment by Hamas came at a suspicious time; were the Iranians trying to distract the Israelis? If so, they sure did a good job!

As to the economic picture here in the US, perhaps it has been a blessing that I haven’t had much time to dwell on it. It will hit home for me; my office is going to furlough me and my fellow workers for a handful of days in 2009. I.e., I’m taking a salary cut, maybe around 3 to 5%. That’s gonna hurt. But it’s better than being laid off. I’ve heard Obama making a lot of doomsday speeches about the economy, in conjunction with his plans for a quick and massive federal spending (and borrowing) program (including infrastructure projects and tax cuts). Well, I can’t help but wonder if all that gloom and doom by the guy in charge is a good thing. The “economy” is a strange phenomenon, something like walking on air. Things go OK when there’s confidence, and fall apart when there’s not. If we could get some confidence going amidst investors and lenders, things might get better faster; sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Gloom and doom might have just the opposite effect. I can’t help but wonder if Obama is going for a political home-run here, setting himself up to look like an economic savior. His stimulus plan will help the economy by year’s end, and if things start looking brighter at that point, Obama’s popularity will certainly be quite high. But all the borrowing that it will require will, in the long run, be an economic drag. Hopefully, his plan will invest in projects that have a countervailing efficiency effect on the macroeconomy, e.g. better highways and other transport facilities, or more scientific research and engineering development (say on fuel efficiency and green energy projects). But he seems to be giving in to the temptation to give out “political candy”, e.g. middle-class tax cuts. As with the Bush tax rebate program last year, it probably won’t do much, given that most people use the money to pay off debt. Even if they did spend it on something, it would only serve to give the consumer sector of the economy one last hurrah; America has got to bite the bullet sooner or later that we were spending (and borrowing) too much on goodies and need to get used to “living plain” again.

I’d like to think that Barack Obama is making a good start to his Presidency, but from what I’ve seen so far on the economic side, I don’t see too much farsightedness and political courage. But I’m staying tuned.

NEXT TIME ON THIS BLOG: All about “Do Not Resuscitate” orders and how my brother and I were almost “sleepwalked” by the doctor and hospital staff into approving something in writing that we did not want (so as to cover the hospital’s butt, financially). Yeah, welcome to modern healthcare; let’s hope that President Obama can fix it!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:51 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Medicine ...

As discussed in my last two entries, my mother is recovering, albeit slowly, from a respiratory arrest that occurred three weeks ago. About a week before that, Mom was in the hospital briefly for tests regarding her lungs. She had been experiencing coughing and breathing difficulties for some time, and my brother and the doctor wisely decided to order some tests.

However, those tests didn’t say much. My mother’s heart seemed fine, as did most of her other organs. Her chest X-ray didn’t show much, other than minor congestion. There was no indication of pneumonia or other big infection; she didn’t have a fever and her white blood cell count was normal. It probably wasn’t the flu, as she had gotten a flu shot more than a month before. So maybe it was just a minor bacterial infection. They gave her some antibiotics and let it go at that. My brother took her home and she soon seemed better.

Five days later, her breathing just stopped. And thus began her stay in the intensive care unit. The new X-rays clearly showed something — but what? Again, it wasn’t pneumonia. All the doctors could say was that her lungs were inflamed. As to the cause of that inflammation, they were rather hazy; she never smoked and had no appreciable asbestos exposure. The medical experts said that it was probably some kind of infection, even though culture tests couldn’t identify an infectious germ. So what was it?

My mother’s case is a reminder that medicine still does NOT know it all. She was not suffering from any super-rare, exotic symptoms; she was coughing and having trouble breathing. And yet, the experts cannot tell us for sure what’s going on. So what can it be? I’m not a doctor or medical researcher, but I decided to take a stupid wild-assed guess: maybe the inflammation had something to do with an auto-immune response, something akin to rheumatoid arthritis or MS or lupus (clearly my mother did not have the latter two diseases, although she has had bouts of arthritis). I did some web searches, and found out that the University of Pittsburgh is currently researching a possible connection between autoimmune attacks and lung inflammation for people with COPD (my mother was previously diagnosed with a mild form of COPD — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — although not to the point of emphysema). They seem to have made some progress in establishing such a link.

I relayed this fact to my mother’s physician, and he told me that even if this turns out to be true and then if it actually applies to my mother, there aren’t any therapies. I then asked, “if you can’t control the autoimmune reaction, what about drugs to control the inflammation, as they have for arthritis? The doc said that nothing really exists for lung inflammation; they’ve never developed drugs specific to lung inflammation. (Steroid inhalants are sometimes used for people who smoked or have asbestos conditions, but they have many side-effects and might backfire on someone my mother’s age). This amazed me; with millions of people suffering with lung problems from smoking, pollution, asbestos, etc., the researchers and drug companies haven’t yet come across anything to specifically alleviate lung inflammation (with acceptable side-effect risks).

My quick research indicates that medical science is still in an early stage of understanding (and appreciating) inflammation, especially in the context of autoimmune responses. Given that lung tissue is extremely complex, it may be a long time until medical science fills this void. But this situation still surprises me. Sure, it’s not hard to understand why medicine is having a hard time with cancer and brain disorders, but a seemingly apparent thing like lung inflammation? Medicine may be a modern miracle, but there are still plenty of gaps in that miracle!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:25 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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