The real AHJ conclusion: Prayer kills

There's been a lot of ink in the last few days about the study published in the American Heart Journal focussing on the impact of prayer in a population of cardiac patients. Almost everyone noticed the counterintuitive result, that people who were prayed for and knew it did worse. But the article acknowledges what cannot be spoken in Christian AmeriKa: If prayer was an OTC drug, it we would now have people screaming for it to be pulled from the shelves.

Via AHJ:
Compared with the very high level of study design, conduct, and analysis, the STEP investigators' interpretation of the study results appears to reflect more the cultural bias that healing prayer could only seriously be explored for effectiveness, not for safety issues. Culturally, “harm” resulting from prayer is generally ascribed to overtly “negative” prayer, such as hateful prayer, voodoo, spells, or other black magic. Positively intended intercessory prayer is considered a priori to be only capable of doing good, if it does anything at all. But this cultural dichotomy is medically problematic and ethically unacceptable in the setting of a clinical trial performing structured experimentation on human subjects. Particularly in the absence of mechanistic insight, outcome researchers must be vigilant in asking the question of whether a well-intentioned, loving, heartfelt healing prayer might inadvertently harm or kill vulnerable patients in certain circumstances. Although the STEP data do not actually prove that prayer had an untoward effect on coronary artery bypass graft patients, to simply write off significantly worse outcomes in one of the experimental arms as the play of chance is in striking contrast to all the other measures the STEP coordinating center and investigators took to ensure the safety of participating patients and quality of the study data. Thus, although the STEP investigators used every appropriate means of protection of the human subjects who participated in their study, the casual approach to the question of safety in the final data interpretation promotes a dangerously ambiguous message to investigators who might be inclined to do research in this area in the future.
[From efficacy to safety concerns: A STEP forward or a step back for clinical research and intercessory prayer?: The Study of Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP)]

Yeah, you read that right. Human subjects review boards are now on notice. And Padre? We see you round this hospital again, you better be wearing Kevlar.

Lead Reebok charm kills Minneapolis toddler

A 4-year-old goes to the hospital with vomiting, and is dead of lead poisoning days later. The culprit, revealed in X-ray, is a swallowed charm from a bracelet that accompanied a pair of sneakers. Turned out to be 99.1% lead.

Via the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report:
This report describes the death of a child from acute lead poisoning caused by lead encephalopathy after ingestion of a heart-shaped metallic charm containing lead; the charm had been attached to a metal bracelet provided as a free gift with the purchase of shoes manufactured by Reebok International Ltd. On March 23, a voluntary recall of 300,000 heart-shaped charm bracelets was announced by CPSC and Reebok† (Figure). Health-care providers should consider lead poisoning in young children with increased intracranial pressure, unexplained and prolonged gastric symptoms, or a history of mouthing or ingesting nonfood items. Health-care providers also should warn caregivers against allowing children to mouth any metal objects.
[Death of a Child After Ingestion of a Metallic Charm --- Minnesota, 2006]

Subsequent tests of charms from different sales locations showed an extreme variation in lead content -- from .004% up to 67% by weight. I guess the real question is why there was any lead in these things in the first place.

In memoriam: Stanislaw Lem

This has already been a sad year for sf, with the loss of Octavia Butler, and now Stanislaw Lem, who died yesterday at 84.

It is sad that so many of the references to his passing cite him for only the most visible, mass-market part of his work, Solaris. I want to remember and celebrate one of his later collections of short fiction, Imaginary Magnitude, which is as close to true literature as anything sf has yet produced.

In this collection of summaries and introductions to future texts, Lem approaches a perfection of form and function in sf storytelling. They are clean, spare, uncluttered with exposition and infodump, and yet unutterably dense, compelling visions of intensely imagined futures, narrated entirely through artifact (in a way very reminiscent of another of sf's great literary works, LeGuin's Always Coming Home.)

One of the key stories features a description of AI-written stories, "bitistic" literature, where, once the computer has intuited the splines and textures of an author's oeuvre, it can continue to produce the works which the author never lived to complete. It is a great shame that we have no such device to see what else might have come from Lem's great mind. I'll miss his vision, and so will science fiction.

Jim Propp BoingBoinged: Web zen: testing zen

Today's BB had a neat collection of Web test links, Web zen: testing zen including a brain-edema-inducing self-referential  test by my buddy mathematician Jim Propp. A devastating critique of standardized testing delivered in a recursive little confection of a test. Yaay.

Trip report: E-Fest 2006 at Brown

Rhode Island is fortunate to have one of the most active literary hypertext communities in the country, and this week they sponsored E-Fest which brought together theorists and artists for discussion and performance.

Only had time to get there for one panel yesterday, on "The Game of Fiction." Some interesting ideas from Lutz Hamel of URI on using evolutionary computation to generate both game moves and textual content.

The evening demos were spectacular. Jim Carpenter ran three machines, two reading spontaneously generated poetry, and the third reading and projecting the source code; it was weirdly effective, and the emergent intersections of the texts were delightful.

Scott Rettberg read and showed Implementation, a cut-up novel distributed on the web as label templates to be printed out, stuck on, and photographed in the world. Quite cool juxtapositions of text and location.

And Stuart Moulthrop showed some new fictions, including one using a neat "deep dive" interface that plays with access to the text along a time dimension using a SCUBA metaphor. And as an encore, he read a bit of Pax, one of my all-time favorite works, a dreamy, terrifying meditation on air travel, security, and terror. Or something.

Didn't have time to get back today for the real-time demos of Robert Coover's Cave, but the clip he showed of this room-sized 3-D writing/audio/image space was amazing; I hadn't seen it for several years, and the fluidity of motion, and abilities for writers to directly create and interact in the room now looked most impressive.

Nixon:China::Bush:Alternative energy?

Would that it were so, but this is the hopeful part of Richard Lugar's recent talk at the Brookings Institution. I don't usually read speeches by Republican leaders, but Tom Friedman's NYTimes (select, dammit) piece indicated a widening schism between Bush's Strangelovian inner circle, and those with a grip on reality. And reality just can't be ignored any more, says Lugar:

"In other words, by the time a sustained energy crisis fully motivates the market, we are likely to be well past the point where we can save ourselves. Our motivation will come too late, and the resulting investment will come too slowly to prevent the severe economic and security consequences of our oil dependence. This is the very essence of a problem requiring government action. " [Transcript (pdf)]

What can one think when leading Republicans start calling for the government to do something about energy, and even — incroyable— c-c-could he be possibly talking about Kyoto?

"[T]he United States must be open to multilateral forums that attempt to achieve global solutions to the problem of greenhouse gases. "

Hah. I smell MIDTERM ELECTIONS. The rank, fear-sweat of pork-addicted, Abramoff-lubed congresscritters tied to the anchor of an out-of-control White House. It smells like... victory.

Can it be true? More "Futurama?"

Post on Slashdot cites Billy West (voice of Fry) that 26 new episodes are planned.

Grinning ear to ear.

Amtrak chair: new pres from the airlines; adios x-country

In an interview mostly notable for its focus on killing long distance rail service (when you hear phrases like "re-evaluate,""scrub," and "nothing is off the table," you're being prepped for an announcement) there was this gem:

"David Laney also told reporters in an interview after a Senate hearing the board probably will not name a new Amtrak president before mid-May but could consider someone from the airline industry to replace David Gunn.

Gunn, an experienced rail executive, was fired last fall after not supporting key elements of the board's business reform plan, which is being driven by the Bush administration."

— Via Reuters

It's not enough that they axed David Gunn for trying to run the system right, now they want to replace him with someone from the airline industry? Oh, well, I guess an airline exec will know a thing or two about running a corporation floated by government subsidies, but other than that, where's the experience base? Is there some merger-downsized-CEO Bush contributor who needs a place to "retire?"

Or just someone with no political aspirations who can take on the job of killing Amtrak and finally removing the alternative to expensive (in the TCO, environmental sense), federally monitored transportation, and funnel that extra traffic back to his former industry.

Check out Jonathan Coulton, awesome geek musician

I'd seen him blogged on BoingBoing a couple times, but heck, there' s just so MUCH good stuff there you can't follow every link. Do yourself a favor: go download Coulton's Xmas-postcard-from-a-robot-ruled-asteroid "Chiron Beta Prime", and you'll be hooked.

Coulton is more than just an sfnal bard (although "The Future Soon" nails adolescent cyborg fantasies, and "Skullcrusher Mountain" makes Dr. Moreau look like an intern.) But what's equally amazing is his range -- "Ikea," an anthem capturing the lingonberry essence of the franchise, a lounge version of "Baby Got Back," which channels James Taylor, and the raunchy power-rock "Mandelbrot Set," which contains perhaps the best non-mathematical description of that enigmatic 2.5d space. You'll know it when you hear it.

Suck down a whole mess of free mp3s from his "Thing a week" feed, and then you can buy the rest, DRM-less, from his site. Thanks, Ron for your persistence in spreading the JC meme!

Miss Deaf Texas killed by train; SMS gets blame

Less responsible media outlets (like, say, CNN) trumpet "while she was text messaging," but the local paper has it "minutes later," which is less likely to get national air. Blame the victim and the new technology, not any inherently unsafe rights-of-way. One has to wonder if there's a Railroad industry "Go Team" that just sits around, waiting to pounce on AP stringers with a bag of pre-spun bullshit.

Via the Austin American-Statesman.

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