Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bridge's Suicide Barriers Spark Debate


For many, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is a defining and iconic structure adored by Bay Area residents and tourists alike.

golden gate bridge
San Francisco residents are debating again whether to add taller barriers to the Golden Gate Bridge to ward off suicidal jumpers.

But for those who suffer from severe depression and contemplate taking their own lives, the 220-foot-tall suspension bridge has become one of the most popular places in the world to commit suicide.

It is for that reason that officials are once again debating whether to install taller barriers around the perimeter of the bridge to ward off potential jumpers, many of whom have long found it easy to clear the 4-foot-tall railings that are currently in place.

The Marin County coroner's office estimates there have been more than 1,300 recorded suicides since the bridge was constructed in 1937, and at least seven so far this year, making the bridge one of the most frequented U.S. destinations for those who want to end it all.

But as community members begin to mull several design options commissioned by the Golden Gate Bridge Physical Suicide Deterrent System Project, aimed at adapting the bridge to make it less convenient for jumpers, public opinion is divided.

While jump survivors and families of those who have killed themselves from the bridge, support the project, others are wary of changing the appearance of a landmark that is so signature to the area.

Save the Jumpers or Save the Bridge?

For Kevin Hines, a 26-year-old San Francisco resident who survived his own suicide attempt off the bridge at age 19, installing higher barriers has become his life's mission.

"I lived for a reason, and it is to speak out and help solve the [bridge's suicide problem']," said Hines.

Hines, who said he suffered from bi-polar disorder, severe depression and hallucinations when he jumped, knew almost immediately after beginning his free fall into the bay that he regretted his decision.

"You jump and you realize you're going to die and you get shocked into reality -- you start to think about your family and your friends," said Hines, who said that, before he jumped, he had wanted to die because he thought he was a burden to his loved ones.

It is because of his experience that Hines has become a regular at forums held by Golden Gate Bridge officials to poll public opinion on the design options for suicide barriers.

Under California state law, extensive review of the proposed construction by engineers -- who must make sure that any change will not jeopardize the bridge's integrity -- as well as a mandatory 30-day period for public discussion, is required. It is only after these steps are completed that the proposal can be put to a vote by the district's board of directors. No decision is expected until October.

"It's very obvious the bridge is a magnet for people who are suicidal and depressed," said Hines, who is a member of The Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization determined to raise the bridge's railings.

"Why did I choose the Golden Gate Bridge?" said Hines. "Because it's simple."

A 2008 study conducted by National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Director John Draper found barriers to be "the most effective means of bridge suicide prevention."

But despite testimony from survivors like Hines and family members of deceased jumpers, the majority of people who have responded to a poll on the bridge Web site do not support the proposed barriers.

"Seventy-five percent of the 938 respondents prefer a no-built alternative," Mary Currie, a spokesperson for the Golden Gate Bridge, told

Those who voted had a choice between five build and one non-build alternative, which range in cost from $40 million to $50 million. Of those who did support some sort of construction, the alternative that proposes building a horizontal net to catch jumpers off the side of the bridge was the most popular.

Among the stark barrier opponents is Mac Coffey, a retired clinical psychologist who doubts any taller railings will save any lives.

In fact, Coffey argues that improving the barrier will deter those who come there to get noticed and get help, and may even lead to an increased number of suicides.

"If you put up a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, nobody would come to the bridge to commit suicide," said Coffey. "But then they would go unidentified, and their friends and relatives would never know they were suicidal."

Coffey references studies that show over the past 30 years, approximately 20 people jumped and died and another 50 were rescued by passersby, security cameras or suicide-prevention hotline phones already present on the bridge.

"I'm convinced that a percentage of them would kill themselves in another way at another time because they were never identified," said Coffey.

"There is this benefit that nobody wants to talk about," added Coffey. "I would predict that there is no other site in the U.S. that saves as many people from suicide, because I don't think there's any place where people get identified as suicidal as they do on this bridge."

Coffey added that, like many other opponents of the barrier construction, he thinks a change to the bridge's design would likely be "aesthetically unappealing."

One commenter on Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle story on the barriers, identified only by his screen name "davenportdude," wrote, "They should never deface the most beautiful bridge in the world because some people are suicidal. It's a shame, a waste, and it's too bad, but they should never dictate how to run that bridge."

Another anonymous poster wrote: "Don't do it, suicide is a terrible tragedy, but ruining the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge is not the solution."

But jump survivor Hines has strong words for barrier critics.

"How callous have we become in San Francisco that we turn our backs and turn away?" said Hines.

"I think it's sad that we care more about the beauty of an inanimate object than we do about human life and life that deserves worth living."

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Conflicting marijuana laws take stage in trial

San Luis Obispo County businessman is fighting prosecutors' contention that he is a drug trafficker
By Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A highly anticipated trial involving conflicting marijuana laws got underway Friday in Los Angeles federal court with a prosecutor painting the owner of a Morro Bay medicinal marijuana store as a brazen drug trafficker who sold dope to teenagers and toted around a backpack stuffed with cash.

Defense attorneys struggled to provide context for their client's alleged crimes after being barred by the judge from mentioning the phrase "medical marijuana."

At the center of the case is Charlie Lynch, a 46-year-old businessman from San Luis Obispo County, who opened a facility called Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in the spring of 2006.

Prosecutors contend that Lynch violated federal law by selling $2.1 million worth of marijuana in less than a year, some of it to people "not yet old enough to legally drink."

Lynch's defense attorneys would like to present evidence that their client was dispensing doctor-prescribed medical marijuana to sick people in accordance with state law and with the blessing of elected officials in Morro Bay. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that federal drug laws trump those of the state and that the reasons why the drug is distributed are irrelevant.

But one of Lynch's lawyers hinted during opening statements that Lynch had sought -- and presumably received -- approval from an official with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration before he set up shop. If they are able to convince U.S. District Judge George Wu that there is a sufficient basis for mounting such a quasi-entrapment defense, they may be allowed to present evidence that Lynch believed he was operating within the law, which legal experts said would likely make him more sympathetic to jurors.

"It could have an enormous effect," said Rebecca Lonergan, a USC law professor and former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. "Any time you have a hot political or public policy issue like this, there is the risk that members of the jury will decide based on their politics, not the evidence in the case."

Though they were not explicitly told that the case involved medical marijuana, potential jurors revealed strong opinions on the topic and confusion about the law during the jury selection process. One man, an engineer, said he had trouble reconciling how it could be legal to sell marijuana under state law and prohibited by federal law.

"It just doesn't make sense to me," he said. The man was excused from the panel.

Other potential jurors were dismissed after revealing strong feelings on the issue.

"I don't think I'd be a fair juror because I tend to side with the state law," said a young woman from Torrance who told lawyers she had one friend with chronic back pain and another with stomach cancer who had used the drug medicinally.

"If a person is going to have a better quality of life, I'd prefer to give them that," she said.

Another potential juror said she was so troubled by the fact that someone would break any law -- state or federal -- that she had already concluded the defendant was guilty.

Opening statements began Friday morning with Assistant U.S. Atty. David P. Kowal telling jurors that Lynch had sold drugs to more than 2,000 people, 250 of them under the age of 21, which carries a special sentencing enhancement under federal law. Many of the young customers "came back time and again," Kowal said.

He told jurors that records seized from Lynch's store and home revealed that he distributed more than 100 kilos of marijuana worth about $2.1 million during the approximately 11 months he was in business. When police and federal agents raided Lynch's home in March 2007, they found a backpack containing $27,000, possible proceeds from recent sales at the store.

"It involved money. Lots of money," Kowal told jurors, "and he was at the center of everything."

If convicted, Lynch faces a minimum of five years in federal prison.

As the prosecutor spoke, Lynch, who looks as much like a bank manager as drug dealer, sat impassively between his two federal public defenders, Reuven Cohen and John Littrell.

Cohen told jurors that they "will hear directly from Charlie Lynch" when he takes the witness stand in his own defense. He also told jurors that there would be testimony from Lynch's patients, parents who took sick kids to his dispensary and elected officials from Morro Bay who supported Lynch's efforts.

How much of that testimony jurors will actually get to hear remains to be seen. The judge must still decide whether the entrapment defense is viable and opens the door to such testimony, a decision likely to be reached over the next several days.

If jurors were to hear Lynch's story, it would go something like this, according court files and interviews:

Far from the cynical entrepreneur portrayed by prosecutors, Lynch is a compassionate and responsible man who wanted to help sick people and make a reasonable profit. He obtained a business license before opening his doors and was welcomed by city leaders in Morro Bay, some of whom mugged for photos with him at a Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting.

The facility itself was situated in the heart of the seaside community's downtown shopping district.

Among Lynch's patients was Owen Beck, a 17-year-old high school football and soccer player who developed bone cancer and had to have his leg amputated, Lynch's lawyers said. The teen's parents took him to Lynch's facility after traditional medicine took away his appetite and did little to ease his pain.

The pot lessened Owen's pain but not his appetite, he said in an interview on actor Drew Carey's website,

Steve Beck, Owen's father, said Lynch often gave his son marijuana at no charge because he was "a compassionate kind of guy."

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5 Painful Facts You Need to Know

By Robert Roy Britt, LiveScience Managing Editor

Pain forces an estimated 36 million U.S. residents to miss work every year and results in roughly 70 million doctor visits. Studies find that exercise is in many cases one of the best remedies for chronic pain. Image credit: Dreamstime

First off, let's set the record straight: Pain is normal. About 75 million U.S. residents endure chronic or recurrent pain. Migraines plague 25 million of us. One in six suffer arthritis.

The global pain industry peddles more than $50 billion in drugs a year. Yet for chronic pain sufferers, over-the-counter pills are typically little help, while morphine and other narcotics can be addictive sedatives.

An overview study published last month in the Journal of General Internal Medicine looked at multiple studies of pain and found "researchers don't yet know how to determine which [treatment] is best for individual patients." From studies of drugs to surgeries and alternative medicines, "We have found that there are huge gaps in our knowledge base," said Dr. Matthew J. Bair, assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

So what is pain and why do so many suffer so long?

Pain is felt when electrical signals are sent from nerve endings to your brain, which in turn can release painkillers called endorphins and generate reactions that range from instant and physical to long-term and emotional. Beyond that, scientific understanding gets painfully fuzzy. Here's what's known:

1. Scientist don't understand pain

When you're in pain, you know it. But if scientists could fully grasp how pain works and why, they might be able to help you more. The American Academy of Pain Medicine defines pain as "an unpleasant sensation and emotional response to that sensation." Some pain is the result of an obvious injury. Other times, it is caused by damaged nerves that are not so easy to pinpoint. "Pain is complex and defies our ability to establish a clear definition," says Kathryn Weiner, director of the American Academy of Pain Management. "Pain is far more than neural transmission and sensory transduction. Pain is a complex mixture of emotions, culture, experience, spirit and sensation."

2. Chronic pain shrinks brains

If you have chronic pain, you know how demoralizing and debilitating it can be, physically and mentally. It can prevent you from doing things and make you irritable for reasons nobody else understands. But that's only half the story. People with chronic backaches have brains as much as 11 percent smaller than those of non-sufferers, scientists reported in 2004. They don't know why. "It is possible it's just the stress of having to live with the condition," said study leader A. Vania Apkarian of Northwestern University. "The neurons become overactive or tired of the activity."

3. Migraines and sex go together

It may not eliminate the phrase "Not tonight, honey ..." but a 2006 study found that migraine sufferers had levels of sexual desire 20 percent higher than those suffering from tension headaches. The finding suggests sexual desire and migraines might be influenced by the same brain chemical, and getting a better handle on the link could lead to better treatments, at least for the pain portion of the equation.

4. Women feel more pain

Any man who has watched a woman having a baby without using drugs would swear that women can tolerate anything. But the truth is, guys, it hurts more than you can imagine. Women have more nerve receptors than men. As an example, women have 34 nerve fibers per square centimeter of facial skin, while men average just 17. And in a 2005 study, women were found to report more pain throughout their lifetimes and, compared to men, they feel pain in more areas of their body and for longer durations.

5. Some animals don't feel our pain

Animal research could offer clues to eventually relieve human suffering. Take the naked mole rat, a hairless and nearly blind subterranean creature. A study this year found it feels neither the pain of acid nor the sting of chili peppers. If researchers can figure out why, they might be on the road to new sorts of painkilling therapies for humans. In 2006, scientists found a pathway for the transmission of chronic pain in rats that they hope will translate into better understanding of human chronic pain. Lobsters feel no pain, even when boiled, scientists said in a 2005 report that is just one more salvo in a long-running debate.

What you can do

Meanwhile, exercise is a useful remedy for many types of chronic pain.

In an Italian study detailed in the May issue of the journal Cephalalgia, office workers did relaxation and posture exercises every two to three hours. Over an eight-month period, they kept diaries, which were then compared to those of a control group that did not change habits. In the end, the group that exercised reported that headaches and neck and shoulder pain decreased by more than 40 per cent, and their use of painkillers was cut in half.

"Physical activity is actually a natural pain reliever for most people suffering from arthritis," concludes another study published in the Arthritis Care and Research journal in April. "Even minor lifestyle changes like taking a 10-minute walk three times a day can reduce the impact of arthritis on a person's daily activities and help to prevent developing more painful arthritis," said Dr. Patience White, chief public health officer of the Arthritis Foundation. "Physical activity can actually reduce pain naturally and decrease dependence on pain medications."

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Why a fat friend could make you fat as well

Fat friends

Fat friends: As on the TV show, you're more likely to be overweight if your peers are, a study has found

Spending time with fat friends means you are more likely to become fat yourself, according to research.

Humans are subconsciously influenced by the weight of those around them, which could lead to rising obesity levels in the next decade, the study found.

Europeans decide if they are overweight by comparisons with those around them, rather than by the Body Mass Index.

If their peers are overweight, they are likely to see it as normal – and become fatter themselves.

Graduates, however, are more likely to feel overweight than someone of the same weight with little or no educational qualifications.

The researchers collected and analysed data from 27,000 European adults across 29 countries and found less than a third of men thought that they were overweight.

Professor Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick, said: 'Human beings compare themselves among their localised peer group even if they are not conscious of it.'

If fatness levels increase and 'we all start copying each other we will end up with quite serious health problems', he added.

'Rising obesity needs to be thought of as a sociological phenomenon, not a physiological one.'

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Ladies: 5 ways to get your sex life going

By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Sexually dysfunctional women in the United States are, well, mostly out of luck.

Women's sexual dysfunction is an area  of medicine that's highly neglected, experts say.

Women's sexual dysfunction is an area of medicine that's highly neglected, experts say.

Unlike men, there are no approved drugs to take. If you go strictly by the rules, the best medical science has to offer is counseling, or a device that applies suction to your clitoris, or physical therapy for your vagina. While not to diminish these choices, where's that convenient, little blue pill for women?

That's what Joanne wanted to know. This isn't her real name, but she's a 26-year-old nurse at the Cleveland Clinic who felt no sex drive -- nothing, nada, zilch -- for eight years. She wasn't happy, and neither was her boyfriend.

When Joanne asked her gynecologist for help, she told her to talk to her psychiatrist. Her psychiatrist said her antidepressants were to blame -- they're known to decrease libido in about a third to a half of women, experts say.

"My psychiatrist just kind of shrugged her shoulders," Joann says. "It was just like, well, that's a side effect of the drug. That's just the way it is." Watch more on how women can get their groove back Video

Finally, fate intervened on behalf of Joann's sex life. Last year, the anti-depressants she was taking stopped working, and her psychiatrist had to switch her to a new one. "All of a sudden, my sex drive went through the roof. It was awesome. It was wonderful," she says.

But it wasn't perfect, or even close to it. Probably because of her long-dormant sex drive, Joanne could get sexually excited, but couldn't reach orgasm. Again, after being shuffled around to various doctors, Joanne ended up with a urogynecologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

That doctor prescribed the anti-impotence drug, Cialis. At first Joanne thought it strange to take a drug meant for a man. But she tried it, and she says it's helped somewhat. "I'm still not able to achieve orgasm, but I'm getting closer each time," Joanne says. "We're working with changing the dosage."

Getting help for women's sexual problems is often a long and complicated road. "This is an area that's highly neglected," says Dr. Sharon Parish, an internist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine who treats sexually dysfunctional women. "Many primary care doctors have no idea what to do."

So if you want help for your sexual problems, you may have to make suggestions to your doctor. "I feel like if I hadn't aggressively pursued it, I'd still be stuck in the same spot," Joanne says.

Here are some treatments for sexual dysfunction you can discuss with your doctor.

1. Impotence drugs such as Viagra, Levitra and Cialis

Some studies, like one out this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, show they work for some women with sexual problems; others have shown they don't work.

A woman's biggest hurdle could be finding a doctor who'll prescribe them, since they're approved by the FDA only for men.

The solution: Be frank with your doctor. Ask if he or she is willing to consider prescribing these drugs "off label." Be clear that you recognize these medicines have not been approved for women, and that you want to know about the risks and benefits.

2. Testosterone

Experts we talked to said taking testosterone has helped many of their female patients. "It not only helps with sex drive, it will also help with arousal," says Dr. Cynthia Brewer, a clinical associate at the Center for Specialized Women's Health at the Cleveland Clinic.

Testosterone, produced naturally by both men and women, boosts libido. Synthetic testosterone, however, has been approved only for use with men. In 2004, the FDA declined to approve a testosterone patch for women, saying it hadn't been thoroughly tested.

As with Viagra and its cousins, if you're interested in possibly trying testosterone, tell your doctor you know it's off label, and you'd like to discuss the benefits and risks for women -- knowing that not all the risks are fully understood.

There's one big hitch: Testosterone is available only in men's doses, which are way too high for women. You'll need a doctor who's familiar with how to fit the dose to a woman. There's no one central place to find doctors who specialize in female sexual dysfunction, but you can start at the American Urological Association, or at the International Pelvic Pain Society.

3. Arginine

Some doctors suggest using a cream with arginine, an amino acid that's supposed to increase blood flow.

"It's supposed to act like Viagra," says Brewer. "I saw one patient try it, and it had benefits. For another it didn't. Women can try it and decide for themselves."

4. Anti-stress herbs

You don't have to be Dr. Ruth to know that when you're under stress, you're not in the mood for love. "Stress levels will affect a woman's libido. We're more sensitive to stress than our male counterparts," says Dr. Esther Konigsberg, medical director of the Family Practice Center of Integrative Health and Healing in Burlington, Ontario.

Konigsberg often suggests these anti-stress herbs to her patients with sexual problems: ashwagandha, astragalus, panax ginseng. Licorice can also be used for stress, but she says your physician must monitor your potassium levels.

5. Experimental medicines

"There are a few investigational drugs in the pipeline for both pre- and post-menopausal women," says Sheryl Kingsberg, a clinical psychologist and chief of the division of behavioral medicine at Case Western Reserve Medical School.

While you can't get these on the open market, women can try to join a clinical trial. Two experimental drugs, called flibanserin and bremelanotide, work on the brain to increase arousal. A third, Libigel, is a gel that boosts testosterone.

The National Institutes of Health has a list of clinical trials for female sexual dysfunction.

And the most important rule: Don't wait for your doctor to ask you about sexual problems. "Women should feel empowered to bring up the topic first, because lots of physicians aren't comfortable bringing it up themselves," Kingsberg says.

Also, be aware that drugs won't help every woman with a sex problem. Kingsberg says drugs have helped about half of her post-menopausal patients, and about 20 percent of her pre-menopausal patients. The rest, she said, benefited from counseling.

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Yale study shows why cigarette smoke makes flu, other viral infections worse

A new study by researchers at Yale School of Medicine could explain why the cold and flu virus symptoms that are often mild and transient in non-smokers can seriously sicken smokers. Published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the study also identified the mechanism by which viruses and cigarette smoke interact to increase lung inflammation and damage.

Until recently, scientists haven't been able to explain why smokers have more exaggerated responses to viral infections. Smokers have been more likely than non-smokers to die during previous influenza epidemics and are more prone to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Furthermore, children who are exposed to second-hand smoke have more severe responses when infected with respiratory synctial virus.

The prevailing view has been that cigarette smoke decreases anti-viral responses. But the Yale researchers—lead author Jack A. Elias, M.D., the Waldermar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Medicine and chair of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine, and first author Min-Jong Kang, M.D., associate research scientist—found the opposite to be true.

Their experiments showed that the immune systems of mice exposed to cigarette smoke from as little as two cigarettes a day for two weeks overreacted when they were also exposed to a mimic of the flu virus. The mice's immune systems cleared the virus normally but the exaggerated inflammation caused increased levels of tissue damage.

"The anti-viral responses in the cigarette smoke exposed mice were not only not defective, but were hyperactive," said Elias. "These findings suggest that smokers do not get in trouble because they can't clear or fight off the virus; they get in trouble because they overreact to it."

"It's like smokers are using the equivalent of a sledge hammer, rather than a fly swatter, to get rid of a fly," said Elias.

The team found that mice with viral infections that had been exposed to cigarette smoke had accelerated emphysema and airway scarring. Elias and his team also defined the signaling pathway that mediates this exaggerated innate immune response.

"If the exaggerated responses are verified in human studies, it will be the first explanation for why viral infections are more serious in smokers," said Elias. "Once verified, we can find ways to prevent the destruction of lung tissue and the higher illness and death among smokers."

"These studies have identified molecular pathways that can explain how cigarette smoke exposure and viral infections interact to make breathing problems worse in diseases like COPD," said James P. Kiley, director, Division of Lung Diseases of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "With further research, these findings may even lead to more effective drug treatments for COPD."

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Using Music For Better Sleep

Did you know you can use music to help you sleep better? It might sound silly, but it’s true. Soothing music, or really any music that you like and that comforts you or makes you happy, can make you more relaxed and help you be less anxious, even if you don’t consider yourself an anxious or nervous person. This doesn’t mean that it will necessarily put you to sleep while you’re listening to it, especially if it’s rock and roll or another heavy style of music. However, music that makes you happier and more relaxed can lead to sleeping better simply because you feel better overall.

In studies of older women done within the last five years it was shown that they slept better when they listened to music that they liked before going to bed. It helped them fall asleep faster and sleep longer. If they woke up during the night and could turn the music back on and listen to it, they also fell asleep more quickly and didn’t wake up as often. In theory, this kind of ‘therapy’ would work for anyone. Music really does soothe the savage beast – and helps it sleep better, too.

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Japanese Vending Machine Robot

A Coke vending machine robot walking around outside of Shibuya Station in Tokyo. The Japanese schoolgirls looked shocked, as did many other people.

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Librarians want to turn us all into privacy fiends

By Nate Anderson

In my extended family, I have something of a reputation for being a privacy Nazi. This is due to my penchant for not giving out addresses and phone numbers to stores that seem to think my buying something from them is a good enough reason to ask for it, but it turns out I'm only playing in the minor leagues. The American Library Association is raising more than a million dollars to fund a new "Right to Information Privacy Campaign" with a goal of nothing less than getting Americans "to recommit to information privacy."

Librarians might not be the group you'd first imagine out in the streets, manning the barricades, but they can get pretty agitated about both censorship and privacy. (Note: never tell a librarian that you'd like to ban a particular book unless the two of you are separated by an inch of plexiglass.) In this case, the 64,000 librarians of the ALA believe that their work remains vital to a vibrant democracy, since "the right to read and search for information is the foundation of individual liberty."

The ALA's new campaign wants to 1) educate people, and then 2) turn them into activists. The education component of the three-year program will make people aware, for instance, that "checking out a biography of Osama Bin Laden could prompt seizure of their library records" or that "online searches create traceable records that make them vulnerable to questioning by the FBI." The ALA also worries about provisions in the law that "gag" the people who are on the receiving end of government orders to turn over these records.

"Law enforcement agencies at every level are exploiting fears about terrorism and child safety to encourage lawmakers to strip away statutory privacy protections for library records," says the ALA. "This eliminates anonymity in the library, and encourages the mind set that 'good' people should have nothing to hide."

But, as Cory Doctorow wittily points out in a talk he gave to the group last month, people have all sorts of behaviors for which they want "privacy," even if these behaviors aren't "secret." When someone heads off to the bathroom, for instance, and closes the door, their behavior isn't a "secret," but it is "private." And everyone's parents engaged in at least one nonsecret but private activity to produce a child.

The librarians are well suited to mount such a campaign. By nature, they're guardians of anonymity and free access to information, and they also have access to a huge variety of outlets for their message. US public libraries have more locations than McDonalds, and 62 percent of American adults hold library cards. That gives ALA members a natural place to educate the public about these issues and channel that education into public discourse and, hopefully, a new consensus on privacy and its importance.

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Like GM, Ford Decides They’d Better Start Producing Smaller, More Fuel-Efficient Cars

Daimler Announces Electric Smart for 2010

image: Mr. Thomas

A few months ago Daimler reported that they were testing 100 electric versions of its Smart car in London, and that if all went well they would work on putting the car into production for the general population to buy. Well, now Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche has said that all did go well. This means that the company will release its EV Smart in 2010, the same year the Chevy Volt is scheduled to come out.

Personally, I find it funny that Daimler can go from no electric car to a firm release date so easily and with so little fanfare, while the blogosphere seems poised to trip over every word that comes out of Bob Lutz’s mouth about the not-even-EV Chevy Volt. But, that’s really a story for another post.

No price has yet been released for the EV to be. Because the Smart is known not only as a fuel efficient car, but a cheap car, Daimler is deciding whether it wants to sell the batteries with the car or lease them. Leasing has the advantage of a lower up-front cost, but will also mean continued cost of ownership.

Also, no mention was made of whether or not the Smart EV would be released in the US. Seeing as how the car just made the jump across the pond, it’s likely that the first incarnation will be a Europe-only affair.

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Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk is talking dirty

You learn a lot from lunch with Chuck Palahniuk. For example, I now know that Adolf Hilter invented the blow-up sex doll. True fact, apparently. While the soon-to-be Führer was working as a messenger between the trenches in the First World War, he was appalled to see his fellow Aryans sloping off to French brothels. So he came up with the idea of an inflatable Fräulein. But Hilter didn't get around to manufacturing the doll until near the end of the Second World War when the factory was destroyed by the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

Thus it remains a little-known fact that Adolf Hilter invented the blow-up sex doll.

Palahniuk (“Puh-LAH-nick”) loves this kind of stuff. Tales that may or may not be taller than average. With his breakthrough 1996 novel Fight Club, you were never quite sure what was true and what was made up. Was there a real Fight Club? Was it the same thing as the Cacophony Society (organiser of the annual “Santa Rampage”, which involves pranks and drunkenness) to which the author allegedly belonged? No one knew. That was the genius.

Twelve years and eight books later, Palahniuk, 46 and now openly gay, remains something of an enigma. When I offer to fly to Portland, Oregon, to interview him about his new novel, Snuff, he suggests getting it over with at the airport, because he's going there anyway “to buy tickets”. Who the hell goes to an airport to buy tickets?

In the end I meet him in a burger joint by the departures lounge. He is dressed in upscale hikewear and I spend much of the meal wondering if he has a roll of duct tape and a power saw in his knapsack. He is outwardly calm but his right leg jiggles, and his face has the toxic hue of pencil lead. When he tells me that cheeseburgers always make for reliable airport food - “there's not a lot of variables” - he does so in the methodical tone of an IT helpdesk operator.

All of which serves to heighten the shock value of the author's subject matter.

Snuff, for example, is a typically pulpy affair, concerning the making of an epic gangbang video (“600 dudes, one porn queen”), in which the author's descriptions of bodily excretions are matched in number only by his relentlessly inventive porn-movie puns (Catch Her in the Eye, A Tale of Two Titties, World Whore One: The Whore To End All Whores, etc etc).

The book was inspired by Annabel Chong's real-life performance in The World's Biggest Gangbang, a movie in which she set an industry record by having sex with 70 men in a single ten-hour session. Anyone who has ever wondered about the biological logistics of such a feat will find Snuff endlessly fascinating - the story is told from the perspectives of the male performers Mr 72, Mr 137 and Mr 600 respectively - so long as they can make it through the bits about vaginal embolisms.

I ask Palahniuk how he goes about compiling such queasy research. “Before I start a book, I tell people I'm collecting stories,” he says. “So you send out this request for a certain type of information and it creates this kind of party game, a way of people being together, and they call you and they reward you. A lot of the time we don't know what to say to each other, so this gives us a kind of shared purpose.”

For a novelist it's an unusually collaborative way to work. Not for Palahniuk, however. When he was still undiscovered and working as a Portland lorry mechanic, he got hooked on writers' workshops.

“I decided, when I wasn't being paid [for writing], that I could do it and still do all those normal social things, rather than sit at home and throw my life away, being alone,” he says. “Also, I saw the value in people's stories, and I wanted to preserve all these quirky and funny-albeit-sometimes sad anecdotes that people were telling me.” Some of the anecdotes in Snuff were supplied by a physically deformed porn actress who came to one of Palahniuk's book readings.

And the book readings, of course, are infamous. Like a kind of literary circus freak, Palahniuk delights in delivering material that frequently causes his fans to pass out (he stopped counting the casualties at 72). His only concern about this phenomenon is that his most shocking prose might be now overfamiliar. Hence the reason he replaced it for a while with material that instead made people cry. That also proved troublesome. “It's really difficult to salvage an event when everyone starts crying,” he says, matter-of-factly. “You just can't bring the energy back up, it's impossible”.

Disgust is a big theme with Palahniuk. The author says that it's a function of trying to attract the kind of readers who would otherwise never pick up a book (ie, men). He cites studies which suggest that less than 10 per cent of human communication is actually done through words - the rest through sights, smells, etc. Yet the sheer visceral repulsion in Snuff suggests that something else is going on. I ask Palahniuk if he thinks that porn is inherently damaging. “Only if it's done right!” he blurts, with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm. Composing himself, he continues: “Porn is the adult version of the fairytale. There's a real comforting sameness to it. It's never going to end badly. In that respect porn is really no different than any other coping mechanism that people have, whether it's being funny, or being pretty, or being smart. At some point they just do too much of it and it no longer serves them, it enslaves them.”

Then again, perhaps Palahniuk is attracted to the extreme simply because that's what he has always known. He grew up in a half-abandoned town that had been moved, brick by brick, to make way for a new dam. His father, Fred, worked for the railroad. The most interesting fact about Fred Palahniuk was that, at the age of 3, he had watched his own father shoot dead his mother and then take his own life.

The story of Fred Palahniuk turned out to be no less tragic. Having taking early retirement after a back injury, he became obsessed first with entering mail-order contests and then with replying to personal ads. The woman he ultimately met had a jealous ex-boyfriend, who stalked the couple then shot them dead before burning their bodies.

Fred was hugely proud of his son's success with Fight Club - he had been a boxer in the navy - but never knew the truth about his sexuality. “Maybe because he chose not to,” concludes Palahniuk. “But we just, y'know, never brought it up. It's not something I can really affect, so it's not something I choose to really consider.” If Palahniuk failed to get acceptance from his father, he has also in some ways failed to get it from the literary establishment. His book tour stunts and his deliberately lurid prose have turned him into a kind of white trash anti-Martin Amis.

Indeed, the two men met at a literary festival recently, and by the sounds of it they despised each other. “Boy, I wish he'd start drinking again,” says Palahniuk. “He was in such a foul mood all the time, I just found myself wishing he'd just have one glass of wine. I think he was still smoking, but people said he was in this bad mood because he wasn't drinking any more.”

Palahniuk's verdict on Amis as a novelist is simply that he writes “beautifully padded sentences”. “We're living in a different world than Charles Dickens lived in,” he says. “My perception is that my readers just don't have that kind of patience. They're a lot more sophisticated.”

Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk
Cape, £12.99 Buy the book here

Five other writers who went on the offensive by Iain Finlayson

1. D.H. Lawrence
Lady Chatterley's Lover - written in 1928 - provided the first big test of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

2. Vladimir Nabokov
Copies of Lolita were seized by UK Customs and condemned by the Sunday Express as “filthy”.

3. Brett Easton Ellis
American Psycho was withdrawn from publication after protests about its alleged misogyny.

4. Gore Vidal
The New York Times was so shocked by the content of The City and the Pillar that it refused to review his next five novels.

5. Allen Ginsberg
Howl was declared by the courts to possess redeeming social importance after being banned for obscenity.

Original here