News Chew

Last week the Federal Trade Commission approved orders settling charges against two companies selling caffeine-infused underwear.  Norm Thompson Outfitters, Inc. and Wacoal America, Inc. don’t have to recall the underwear made from fabric with microencapsulated caffeine, retinol and other ingredients, but they have to stop pretending the items will do anything but keep your junk in place. Also, they have to pay a combined about $1.5 million towards refunds for those souls that dared to believe.

Do you have questions? Naturally.

Curtain up 

TIC: Have you heard about this caffeine underwear?

TAC: No I haven’t. By all means, tell me about the caffeine underwear. For starters, huh?

TIC: The underwear is infused with caffeine. It’s shapewear and boxer briefs—

TAC: —that you wear? Like, on your body?

TIC: Yes yes of course. That’s the point.

TAC: How bizarre. So, the caffeine in the underwear is meant to leave the fabric and go into your body?

TIC: Well sure. But these two companies that sell them just got fined by the FTC.

TAC: Yea that sounds kind of shady. But, I dunno, I guess the nicotine patch is pretty standard. And don’t they sell transdermal patches with birth control hormones in them? Say, my initial opinion on the topic of caffeine underwear is beginning to change!

TIC: Oh, no no no. That’s not—I see that I’ve confused you.

Continue reading “News Chew”

Lead, evil, and corporate free speech

The Supreme Court’s “corporate free speech” doctrine guarantees that the next time an industry wants to poison the country, as the petroleum industry did with leaded gasoline, it will have the political muscle to do so with impunity

Kevin Drum, who’s been doing Pulitzer-quality science and policy reporting on the behavioral effects of environmental lead, has yet another item today, once again reporting a new paper by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes of Amherst, who’s been doing the fancy number-crunching on the topic. No real surprise: in addition to greatly increasing rates of criminal behavior, lead exposure also increase the risk of other consequences of poor self-command, such as early pregnancy. Kevin draws one of the right morals of the story: that biology matters, while liberals and conservatives tend to unite in blaming everything on society, economics, and culture:

It’s a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn’t just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn’t related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn’t suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn’t suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down. Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline. This doesn’t mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. Maybe poverty makes a difference, maybe single parenting makes a difference, and maybe evolving societal attitudes toward child-rearing make a difference. But they probably don’t make nearly as much difference as we all thought. In the end, we’ve learned a valuable lesson: don’t poison your kids. That makes more difference than all the other stuff put together.

But there’s another moral to be drawn.  The toxicity of lead has been known for at least a century. The introduction of tetraethyl lead into gasoline in the 1920s sparked a controversy, which the automobile industry, the petroleum industry, and Ethyl Corporation (a GM/Esso joint venture) won, using the usual mix of dirty tricks including lying and threatening scientists with lawsuits. A similar battle was fought over lead paint in the 197os, with the lead-paint vendors in the bad-guy role, and over lead emissions from smelters, with the American Iron and Steel institute trying to destroy Herb Needleman’s scientific career.
Then, mostly by the accident that leaded pain fouled catalytic converters, the battle was rejoined over lead in gasoline, with the old pro-toxin coalition fighting a drawn-out rearguard action to delay regulation as much as possible.
As far as I know, not a single executive, lobbyist, or scientist working for any of the companies that were making money by poisoning children and causing a crime wave spoke out in favor of public health and safety. Why should they? After all, they were just doing their jobs and paying their mortgages, and Milton Friedman had proclaimed that the only social responsibility of business was to make money (and that anyone who believed otherwise was a closet socialist): a morally insane proposition still widely repeated.
All of which makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s preface to The Screwtape Letters, explaining his image of Hell as the realm of the Organization Man:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in … sordid “dens of crime.” … It is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

The plutocrat majority on the Supreme Court has ruled that, whatever the facts, as a matter of law using money to influence the outcome of elections does not constitute “corruption,” because “there is no such thing as too much speech.”  Soon it will probably rule that the companies can cut the comedy and make contributions directly from corporate coffers to campaign accounts, but by now the rules are so leaky that it hardly matters anymore. As a result, quiet men (and women) in pleasant offices, who have not only neatly-trimmed fingernails but utterly clear consciences – men and women most of whom would be psychologically incapable of injuring a child with their own hands - will continue to poison other people’s children (with environmental toxins, unhealthy foods, alcohol, tobacco, and, shortly, cannabis), call anyone who tries to interfere a socialist, and use everything short of explicit bribery to get their way.

And that, my friends, is what’s at stake this year, and in 2016, and – unless we’re very lucky – in every election for the rest of my lifetime.

Glasgow Art School Fire

This is a terrible, terrible loss.  I never saw the building in person, but we studied it in school and even from photos you can see an elegant, original work of enormous presence and competence.  It was probably well documented, as it’s a major monument of modern architecture, so it can be restored.  All the student work and library, not so much…

What I don’t understand is how this happened.  Buildings with sprinklers don’t burn this way, even if (as is likely) they’re full of dangerous stuff like paint and solvents, and paper.  Heads need to roll; did some nitwit nix sprinkler installation because the pipes would be ugly?

UPDATE 25/V: a “fire suppression system” but not sprinklers “due to the risk of water damage” was due to be installed in three weeks.  “In buildings completely protected by fire sprinkler systems, over 99% of fires were controlled by fire sprinklers alone”, says this interesting entry, along with  “In Scotland, all new schools are sprinklered.” Canny Scots, indeed, to know the value of the lives of their children so precisely: right in between the cost of new-construction and retrofit sprinklers! If a few students and profs had been incinerated in the art school, I wonder if its flack would have been as insouciant as this: “Early speculation about a water sprinkler system either not working or yet to be installed was brushed away by a spokesman for the school, who said: ‘There has never been a sprinkler system here because of the risk of water damage to fragile artefacts if it were activated in error.'”

In any case, they now have (personal safety aside) the worst possible outcome. In 2004, retrofit sprinkler costs were about $3/ft.2 at the high end, and dry-pipe systems for locations where water damage is a concern are well-developed. If this building had been sprinklered, it would have had a small fire in the basement, promptly extinguished by sprinklers, and one room full of wet stuff. Instead the fire propagated up to the roof while the fire department was en route, the latter pumped a Niagara of water throughout the building, and taxpayers will pay tens of millions for restoration.

Fires happen. Sprinklers are ugly (though they can be hidden at a price); secondary means of egress are expensive, fire doors are a nuisance.  Right; now lets hear it for those commie oppressive job-killing thug regulators, writing and enforcing codes, that have saved us so much blood and treasure (and the firefighters who go into harm’s way when things go bad, even when the bean-counters and building owners have set them up).

By the way, do you have a nice red 5ABC extinguisher in your kitchen in plain view, near the way out? Is it in date and fully charged? Does everyone in the house know how to use it (aim at the base of the flames!)?