Elsewhere on the Interweb (5/8/08)

In honor of Mother's Day, NPR has a great piece on the difficulties of being a modern Mom and delaying having children:

Fertility seems to peak at about age 22, says Marcel Cedars, director of reproductive endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. After that, it gradually declines, and past the age of 35, pregnancy is much harder to achieve.

"Each egg is more likely to be genetically abnormal," Cedars says. "And a genetically abnormal egg is less likely to fertilize, is less likely to develop. It is less likely to implant. If it implants, it is more likely to miscarry."

Amy Harrison, of Norwell, Mass., has found that to be the case. At 38, she has a good job, a nice home and a husband who she thinks "will be a wonderful father," she says. "I finally feel like I'm ready to give a child or children a good home."

Her body isn't as ready. Harrison has endured fertility treatments for two years. "When I look at these people who get pregnant at a drop by accident ... yeah, it makes me very angry," she says, noting she'd wrongly believed she'd succeed as long as she began trying "by the time I was 38 or 40."

Science details the continuing controversy over whether it is cost-effective to screen smokers for lung cancer using CT scans:

The [Lung Cancer] alliance kicked a hornets' nest last year, criticizing the cancer-research establishment for passivity and demanding that the U.S. government investigate two clinical leaders for alleged financial conflicts (see sidebar, p. 602). That was merely a side skirmish in a battle over early detection of lung cancer, a fight that has split the cancer-research and treatment communities. At issue is whether an advanced x-ray imaging technique known as low-dose spiral computed tomography (CT) scanning should be widely used to catch tumors when they're small, in hope of removing them before they spread. The alliance, along with an assertive group of scientists, argues that CT's effectiveness is already established and that it should be widely used to screen those who have a high risk of lung cancer, primarily smokers and former smokers.

An equally impassioned group of scientists argues that without better information, such a step would be folly. They say the benefits of CT screening for lung cancer aren't proven and that its widespread use could do more harm than good. It would be expensive, too, adding billions of dollars to the annual cost of Medicare and private insurance. Some argue that the government would get more reliable results by investing in tough measures to curb smoking, which is the biggest cause of lung cancer. "Essentially no one believes the current data support the hypothesis that screening is beneficial," says outspoken skeptic Peter Bach, a lung-cancer specialist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Caught in the middle of this dispute is the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It is investing in a huge clinical trial, the largest cancer screening test it has ever run, in the hope of getting some guidance. The first data are due by 2010, although it may take longer to sift out key results. The trial itself has come under fire from the alliance, which wants to cut short what it considers an agonizing wait for action. The advocacy group has appealed to the U.S. Congress and government agencies to bypass the academic debate and move straight to screening. On the other side, the skeptics say that although the trial may not be perfect, it must be completed before a decision on screening is made.

Marginal Revolution discusses seasteading -- a means for the libertarian-minded to escape government regulations:

Long-term trends are somewhat favorable for seasteading because with a cell phone and internet access more and more people could live on a seastead and make a living. Cruise ships are already floating cities with few regulations or taxes. Harold Berman argues that the rise of the West was due to competitive law. Homeowner's organizations, hotels and condos are private governments...

Competitive law appears to increase efficiency but it's less clear that competition among governments gives rise to a libertarian world. Homeowner associations, for example, often impose stricter zoning regulations than cities. You could say that the system as a whole is more libertarian, but no one lives in the system as a whole.

The plot thickens on absinthe. The chemical we thought caused hallucinations is not present in large concentrations in some tested samples:

The modern scientific consensus is that absinthe's reputation could simply be traced back to alcoholism, or perhaps toxic compounds that leaked in during faulty distillation. Still, others have pointed at a chemical named thujone in wormwood, one of the herbs used to prepare absinthe and the one that gives the drink its green color. Thujone was blamed for "absinthe madness" and "absinthism," a collection of symptoms including hallucinations, facial tics, numbness and dementia.

Prior studies suggested that absinthe had only trace levels of thujone. But critics claimed that absinthe made before it got banned in France in 1915 had much higher levels of thujone than modern absinthe produced since 1988, when the European Union lifted the ban on making absinthe.

"Today it seems a substantial minority of consumers want these myths to be true, even if there is no empirical evidence that they are," said researcher Dirk Lachenmeier, a chemist with the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe in Germany.

Lachenmeier and his colleagues analyzed 13 samples of absinthe from old, sealed bottles in France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the United States dated back to the early 1900s before the ban. After uncorking the bottles, they found relatively small concentrations of thujone in that absinthe, about the same as those in modern varieties.

Laboratory tests found no other compound that could explain absinthe's effects. "All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome of absinthism," Lachenmeier said. (Ethanol is a word for common drinking alcohol.)

It may be that the items they sampled were unrepresentative. However, to quote Black Books: "What do they say? Absinthe, the drink that makes you want to kill yourself." Maybe it should be avoided regardless of whether it has hallucinogenic compounds in it.

Annual Review of Psychology has an excellent review of neuroeconomics.

Read the whole thing.

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