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The real story of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen"

Back in the 80s, Ronald Reagan paid a lot of rhetorical attention to the story of an anonymous "welfare queen" who drove a Cadillac and lived high on the taxpayer's dime. I'd long assumed that Reagan's queen was a fictional construct, but the truth is much, much more fascinating.

At Slate, Josh Levin has a long read on the life and times of "Linda Taylor" (in quotes because that's only one of her many, many aliases), the real woman who served as the basis for Reagan's story. Taylor really did drive a Cadillac and perpetrate a decent amount of welfare fraud. But her story isn't really representative of the typical sort of welfare fraud — let alone the typical welfare recipient, in general. In fact, Taylor was the sort of person that gets armchair diagnosed as a sociopath. She spent most of her life grifting somebody and was possibly involved in the deaths of multiple people.

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A crazed battle against the crazy ants

At The New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem has a story about a fight against an invasive species that began with a man called Mike the Hog-a-Nator shop-vac'd five gallons worth of ants out of his air conditioning ducts. Maggie 21

Two great long reads about fire, science, and the human lives caught in between

At Outside, Kyle Dickman interviews the lone survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting team and tells the story of the decisions that lead to the deaths of 19 men. Read it, and then head over to The New York Times Magazine, which has an amazing piece by Paul Tullis about the scientists, fire fighters, and forest rangers who are trying to get a better handle on how wildfires behave ... and how best to control and limit the damage they cause. That's no small task when you're talking about a force of nature capable of creating its own weather systems. Maggie 1

The neurosurgeon who saw heaven

In Esquire, you can read a deeply researched and very well-written profile of Dr. Eben Alexander, a former neurosurgeon whom you probably know best as the guy with the best-selling book about a near-death experience that's gotten major traction with both the Fox News crowd (because it features a sciency secular guy denouncing secularism) and the touchy-feely Chicken Soup for the Soul crowd (for obvious reasons). Now, Luke Dittrich takes you though Alexander's biography and his experience from a very different perspective — one that ties Alexander more to the ongoing problem of fabulists in the memoir genre than to god. (Note: Some people seem to be hitting a $1.99 paywall on this story. I didn't and I'm not sure why. Trying to figure that out.) Maggie 35

The power of the swarm

At Wired, Ed Yong has an incredible long-read story about the researchers who are figuring out how and why individual animals sometimes turn into groups operating on collective behavior. That research has implications far beyond the freakish, locust-filled laboratories where Yong's story begins. Turns out, bugs and birds can teach us a lot about the brain, cancer, and even how we make predictions about our own futures. Maggie

The 2013 Edge Question: What *Should* We Be Worried About? Xeni's essay: "Cancer."

Photo: “Clematis 2013” Copyright © 2013 by Katinka Matson. View larger size.

Each year, literary über-agent and big idea wrangler John Brockman of Edge.org poses a new question to an assortment of scientists, writers, and creative minds, and publishes a selection of the responding essays.

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A suicide draws attention to the ethics of psychiatric drug testing

This is a really important long read that we all need to pay attention to. It concerns how we treat people with who are suffering from paranoid delusions — and how we treat people whose families worry that they are a threat to others. It concerns the relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. It concerns the ethics of clinical trials — the risks we run as we test potential treatments that could help many, or hurt a few, or both. If we want to reform mental health care, this needs to be part of the discussion.

In 2004, Dan Markingson committed suicide. The story behind that death is complicated and depressing. At the Molecules to Medicine blog, Judy Stone documents the whole thing in three must-read chapters. Many people find help in psychiatric drugs, and credit those drugs with making their lives better. (Full disclosure, I'm one of them. I have used Ritalin for several years. I am temporarily on an anti-depressant.) But we have to pay attention to how those drugs get to us. This isn't just about treating people. It's about the process that gets us there. Because, if that process is compromised, the treatments we get won't be as effective and lives will be lost along the way.

Markingson began to show signs of paranoia and delusions in 2003, believing that he needed to murder his mother. He was committed to Fairview Hospital involuntarily after being evaluated by Dr. Stephen Olson, of the University of Minnesota. He was subsequently enrolled on a clinical trial of antipsychotic drugs—despite protests from his mother. This study was a comparison of atypical antipsychotics for the treatment of first episodes of schizophrenia (aka the CAFÉ study), sponsored by AstraZeneca. The study’s structure was that of a Phase 4 randomized, double-blind trial comparing the effectiveness of three different atypical antipsychotic drugs: Zyprexa (olanzapine), Risperdal (risperidone) and Seroquel (quetiapine), with each patient to be treated for a year.

After about two weeks on study treatment in the hospital, Markingson was discharged to a halfway house—again over his mother’s objections. Over the coming months, Dan’s mother, Mary Weiss, continued to express concerns about her son’s deterioration, even asking if her son might have to kill himself before anyone else would take notice…then, in fact, her son violently committed suicide on May 7, 2004, mutilating himself with a box cutter. The University of Minnesota and their IRB have maintained that the study was conducted appropriately and that they have no responsibility for Dan’s death. Dan’s mother and bioethicist Carl Elliott believe otherwise.

We’ll explore some of the major issues of contention in this case over several posts, as illustrative of basic clinical research principles, including adequacy of informed consent, IRB oversight, conflicts of interest, and coercion, including threats to a bioethicist whistleblower.

Read the first part of the story

Read the second part: How clinical trials should be done and how they were done in this case.

Read the third part: Conflicts of interest between the researchers and the pharmaceutical industry.

Image: Pills (white rabbit), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from erix's photostream

Steve Jobs, Romantic

At O'Reilly Radar, Doug Hill with a worthy read on the late Apple CEO: "I’d like to talk here about a spirit that Jobs carried within himself. It’s a spirit he relied on for inspiration, although he seemed at times to have lost track of its whisper. In any event, what it says can tell us a lot about our relationship to machines. I refer to the spirit of Romanticism. I spent much of this past summer reading about the Romantics — the original Romantics, that is, of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — and it’s remarkable how closely their most cherished beliefs correspond to principles that Jobs considered crucial to his success at Apple." Xeni

The Science and tragedy of "Bath Salts"

At PBS NewsHour, Jenny Marder has a truly epic report on so-called "bath salts," a term commonly used to refer to a variable cocktail of drugs linked to a number of violent episodes throughout the US. Her investigative feauture is the most extensive and authoritative I've seen on the topic, a long read full of the stuff that makes great reporting great: nitty-gritty chemistry mysteries, personal stories about the people who use the drug, and big-picture questions about why the stuff is so widely available, and why it seems to be so destructive. Don't miss the slide shows and video that accompany the beautifully laid-out feature. There's even an instructional animated gif!

Users are often hyper-agitated, hot and sweating, she said. Their heart rate is dangerously high, their blood pressure is up, and seizures are common. Often even high doses of common sedatives don't help them. Doctors instead must turn to antipsychotics or other powerful medications.

Early on, doctors began noticing something else that was strange. Compared with other drugs, bath salts didn't follow a normal dose-response pattern. With cocaine or methamphetamine, the drug entered the bloodstream, and, within hours, began to wear off. Not so for bath salts. “Some patients were in the hospital for 5 days, 10 days, 14 days,” Ryan said. “In some cases, they were under heavy sedation. As you try to taper off the sedation, the paranoia came back and the delusions."

As Ryan was scrambling to grasp the scope of the problem in Louisiana, scientists 1,000 miles away were beginning to tease out the drug's chemistry. What was it about this substance, they wondered, that could make a man cut his own throat or a mother leave her 2-year-old in the middle of a highway?

Read: "Bath Salts: The Drug That Never Lets Go" (newshour.org)

(Disclosure: I've worked with Jenny before, on PBS Newshour stories with science correspondent Miles O'Brien).

"Do things that have never been done before,” says guy who invented computer

Joel Runyon writes about "An Unexpected Ass Kicking," intellectually speaking, which he received in a Portland coffee shop from Russell Kirsch—the 80-year-old man who invented America's first internally programmable computer. Kirsch isn't a big fan of Apple products. Xeni

"Everyone Only Wants Temps"

In Mother Jones, Gabriel Thompson goes gonzo with a stint doing "on demand" grunt work for one of America's hottest growth industries: temping.

I grab a chair from a stack in the corner and take a seat, studying a sign that implores me to be "true" and "passionate" and "creative." In reality, passion and creativity have nothing to do with it. Labor Ready provides warm bodies for grunt work that pays minimum wage or thereabouts. "Here's a sledgehammer, there's the wall," is how Stacey Burke, the company's vice-president of communications, characterized the work to Businessweek back in 2006.

Read the whole piece here: "Everyone Only Wants Temps" (Mother Jones).

"How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet"—Mat Honan

An excellent long-read about Flickr and Yahoo by Mat Honan at Gizmodo today. Anyone who has loved and been let down by the once-great photo-sharing site now caught in the purple zombie's death spiral will nod in agreement throughout. The opening graf:

Web startups are made out of two things: people and code. The people make the code, and the code makes the people rich. Code is like a poem; it has to follow certain structural requirements, and yet out of that structure can come art. But code is art that does something. It is the assembly of something brand new from nothing but an idea.

Read: How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet. (Gizmodo)

Margie Profet: a controversial scientist who went missing

Margie Profet did not have a Ph.D. In fact, she didn't even have a bachelor's degree in evolutionary biology, the field that most of her work revolved around. But she won a McArthur Genius grant and presented some really interesting theories on the body's defenses against cancer and poisonous substances that might turn out to be correct. And then she disappeared.

Nobody has seen or heard from Margie Profet since at least 2004 or 2005, writes Mike Martin at Psychology Today. His piece is an interesting biography of a woman who was incredibly intelligent, and who also likely suffered from some serious symptoms of mental illness for years. Only her closest family and friends seem to have been aware of what was going on in Profet's personal world. Over the course of the late 90s and early 2000s, Profet shut them, and everyone else, out of her life so successfully that nobody is really sure when she vanished.

This is one of those long reads that will take you a little while to get through, but it's worth checking out. Even aside from the mysterious disappearance, I found Martin's explanation of Margie Profet's contribution to science really fascinating. Profet presented several, interconnected theories suggesting that allergies, morning sickness, and menstruation all evolved as means of blocking or removing poisonous, cancer-causing, and disease-causing substances from the body.

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After 20 years, a former teacher returns to Tanzania

Frank Bures is a friend of mine here in the Twin Cities. He's also one of the best travel writers I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. You might remember his work from a post a couple of years ago, about Bigfoot hunting in northern Minnesota.

He has a more-serious piece out in the recent issue of The Washington Post magazine. Twenty years ago, Frank spent a little over a year working as an English teacher in Tanzania, just outside the town of Arusha. Recently, he went back, both to re-connect with the people he'd met so many years ago, and to make a trip he'd always regretted not taking the first time around—climb Mount Meru.

Unlike most people who travel to Tanzania, I had no desire to climb Kilimanjaro, which seemed like an overrun fundraising cliche. But Meru was different. Meru was difficult, unforgiving, temperamental, with an air of hard beauty and mystery.

Our bus rolled forward, and I stared out the window at the mountain’s outline. After all these years, it looked the same, though much else had changed. Seeing it again reminded me of my last glimpse of it through a bus window, and of the ache of departure, of the bitterness of leaving all my friends and students and neighbors, but also of the sweetness of having known them.

This was a reunion of several kinds. After too long I was back in this place — to reconnect with people, to find out how things had changed.

But also, I was finally here to meet the mountain.

This is a long read, but worthwhile. At it's heart is a story you don't often hear about Tanzania, and other African countries. Turns out, some of the biggest changes that have happened over the last 20 years have been economic. In a good way. When Frank returns to Arusha, he finds that many of his former students have pulled themselves into the middle class. They're creating comfortable, happy lives for themselves and making their own country better.

In the photo above (taken by Washington Post photographer Sarah Elliot), you can see Simon Moses, and his wife Nai, in front of the home they built themselves. Moses was one of Frank's students. Twenty years ago, he asked Frank to take him to America, because he was afraid of having no future in Arusha. Today, Moses owns a travel company. His wife is an accountant.

Read the rest of Frank's story in The Washington Post.

Via Doug Mack

Lions on the lam

Remember last fall when an entire small zoo's worth of exotic animals briefly ran amok through an Ohio town? GQ has a feature that explains what the hell happened. Maggie