Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: December 2008

Fast Away the Old Year Passes

And so the curtain descends on 2008, surely one of the more bizarre years of the last decades.  The Bush era is about to end, a long eight years that began effectively with 9/11 and ended in the shards of the Roadmap to Peace, and during which Iraq was all but destroyed, Afghanistan reduced to rubble, and the global economy went into meltdown.  Such ruin came with a ten trillion dollar price tag, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz writing in the December Harpers.  I wonder where the money went….


The coming year may witness some kind of miraculous recovery with a new administration in place, but stability will more likely come at the end of a long, slow, and probably painful process of reconstruction.  Perhaps it was appropriate that the Chinese Olympics produced such spectacle last summer.  They do it supremely well, having invented fireworks and dragon parades along the way.  It is unlikely that the world will see the like for decades to come.


For many, and not only US citizens, the nomination and election of Barack Obama was a needed harbinger of hope, even as the economy began its seemingly inexorable slide toward depression.  He chose his emblem well.  A new day of freedom, truth, and peace may well dawn sometime, if not soon enough.  The task is urgent, the call is clear, and the will is present.  Hercules had lesser assignments.  Give the man a chance.  More than that: give him support.


A New Year’s salute from a wise, now distant voice:


Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,


And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.


I’ve heard it in the chilliest land

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.


(Emily Dickinson, c. 1861)

Holy Innocents

Catholic Christians will not observe the Feast of the Holy Innocents this Sunday, which has been eclipsed by the Feast of the Holy Family.  But no mind — Israel’s hugely disproportionate and cruel “pre-emptive retaliation raids” on suspected Hamas sites over the last three days provided an even bloodier sacrifice as the death toll nears 300, most of them “innocents” – women and children and other civilians caught in the crosshairs of Middle Eastern violence.


Perhaps the bombing raid was meant as a parting “gift” to George Bush and the death knell of the “Roadmap to Peace,” once the purported capstone of the desired Bush Legacy, now delivered to the lame-duck President as a burnt and broken brickbat.  Or perhaps Mr. Olmert construed it as the last chance for a crushing blow under the protective right wing of the vanishing Republican administration.  One way or another, the prospects for peace in the Middle East under the Obama administration seem dimmer than ever.


As the year draws to its lamentable close, world leaders might do more than offer lame objections to Israel’s defiance of international law and common decency.  The rest of us can pray and, like the thousand Israelis who marched today in Jerusalem to urge a peaceful resolution, make our outrage known.  A just and lasting peace in the Middle East will not be achieved through violence, which so far has served only to engender Hezbollah, Fatah, and Hamas on one side and increased military destruction on the other.  And the death of more innocents.


On St. Stephen’s Day

The English call it “Boxing Day,” but here in glorious and holy Ireland, it is the Feast of St. Stephen.  Good King Wenceslaus notwithstanding, it’s an old Irish custom (in the West, anyway) for groups of boys to chase down a hapless wren on this day and after the poor thing has died of exhaustion or worse, it is paraded around on a twig and a string from door to door as the lads beg “a penny for to bury the wren.”  The rite has ancient pagan origins, apparently, although a Christian tint was added with the legend that it was a wren who betrayed St. Stephen to his persecutors.

You can check it out at http://www.from-ireland.net/custetc/wrenboys.htm.  There are picture at this one: http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/wren.html

There are no Wren Boys around here, although I heard the sound of shotguns early this morning as hungry hunters went searching for pheasants.  With the economy in the shape it’s in, having a plump pheasant or partridge on the table would be a blessing for many. (I haven’t seen any pheasants yet, but I espied a fat bunny at the bottom of the garden yesterday.  He’d better be careful!  Roast rabbit is also not to be despised by the famished.)  I confess to having had a tiny bite of partridge myself yesterday.  A friend shot one in the forest and his wife cooked it up all proper like for Christmas dinner yesterday. It was excellent — gamier than chicken, but milder than goose.  Much like pheasant or quail, from the wee wigeon I sampled. Even vegetarians get curious now and then.)

The sun came out a while ago, and the morning is a pleasant 55 F. or so.  Almost warm enough to hang out some wash. I’m now listening to the Chieftain’s album, “The Bells of Dublin.”  It’s amazingly good after all these years.  (And it sports the “St. Stephen’s Day Massacre” on it, all about “Wran boys” and the like, especially my favorite, the Wexford Carol.)

May your hearts and homes be blessed with the spirit of Christmas now and throughout the New Year!

Remember, if some young lads covered in straw beg a penny to bury the wren, be generous.  Nowadays it goes to charity!

Drug Trials

A sobering footnote to Melody Petersen’s Our Daily Meds (see preceding) appeared in the November 25 Public Library of Science web site in the form of a review of reports by pharmaceutical companies submitted to the FDA over a six-year period.  According to the authors, of 164 reports following the approval of 33 drugs by the FDA in 2001-02, 22% were published only partially or entirely suppressed.  The suppressed information mainly reflected negative results.  In short, favorable reports were 70% more likely to be published. 


As Petersen amply documented, such manipulated information too commonly results in serious health problems including (as advertising caveats remind us hurriedly at the end of their nightly commercials on the evening news) sudden death.  Pharmaceuticals can be hazardous to your health!


A synopsis of the article can be found in the Dec. 20 Science News and on their web site: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/38881/title/Many_drug_trials_never_see_publication.  For the full article see Kristin Rising, Peter Bacchetti, and Lisa Bero, “Reporting Bias in Drug Trials Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration: Review of Publication and Presentation,” Public Library of Science / Medicine web page: http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0050217


The Medicated Society

The scariest film I saw in 2008 was Let the Right One In, the brilliant Swedish vampire movie.  The economy is pretty scary, too.  But the scariest of all was reading Melody Petersen’s new book, Our Daily Meds, a Sarah Crichton book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The subtitle sums it up: “How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs.” I suggest getting it with one of those gift certificates that will be rolling in and the read it all the way through.  Petersen is an investigative reporter who has written for the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the San Jose Mercury News.  She received the Gerald Loeb award for Business Journalism. She is also a certified public accountant, so do what she says: follow the money!

Memory Lapse

The surprise pre-dawn raid on Governor Rod Blagojevich’s home today resembled a scene from The Untouchables, with U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald later playing Elliot Ness redivivus.  The allegations are deeply serious, and according to the press corps, the tip of a dark and chilly iceberg of political corruption that has sunk more than one career.  Of course, there is a long path from “custody” to conviction, and even Illinois governors are entitled to the presumption of innocence until their pals turn state’s evidence in court.


Perhaps the lightest moment on a dark day came when a disgruntled man in the street said (with a straight face) that he would now definitely vote for a Republican in the next election. Perhaps former Republican Governor George Ryan will be out of prison by then.  Except for the fact that he is a convicted felon, he could be a write-in candidate.  Political memory is wonderfully short in Illinois.

Coming Clean

In a pivotal moment of Julius Caesar, as Marc Antony mulls over his plans, he utters one of the most memorable lines in the Bard’s long list:


All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds:

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge.

With Ate by his side come hot from hell,

Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice

Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…..

            (Julius Caesar, III, i, 269)


As India and Pakistan try to pull back from the brink of mutual destruction, and African nations contemplate invading Zimbabwe to oust Robert Mugabe, it is worth mulling over the aftermath of such slipping.  As Antony found out to his chagrin and eventual demise, it not easy to recall those dogs once they are off the leash. 


To watch George Bush and now Condoleezza Rice at last follow Colin Powell in admitting that the Administration acted without adequate intelligence (ironic choice of language) in declaring war on Iraq is hardly less painful after more than 4,000 American deaths and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths and the wholesale destruction of a once-prosperous nation. 


Eight years later, the dogs of war are still out there, feasting on the legacy of lies and duplicity.  Most ironically of all, the vast expenditure of national treasure deflected to prevent the destabilization of the Middle East has resulted in the greatest destabilization of the Middle East in the last fifty years, not to say playing out in the collapse of the US economy.  These dogs of war sported a trillion dollar price tag, in case no one noticed.  (The scary issue of war profiteering has yet to arise in any significant way.  Does anyone really care where all that money went?  The Romans had a term for that too: cui bono?)


Rice nevertheless insists that historical hindsight will reveal that toppling Saddam Hussein, a lame-duck dictator if one ever existed, was a “great strategic victory.”  Chances are future historians will regard it as the greatest military and diplomatic blunder of the early twenty-first century.  And only time will tell whether Barack Obama and his team can develop the art of “dog whispering” before the situation at home and abroad deteriorates even further.