Sunday, December 28, 2008

Wallowing in Self-Pity

The Bad News: I've been sick with what can only be described (via availability heuristics pertaining to sickness which I have been working on for nearly 24 years cross-referenced with my favorite tool for everything from diagnosing diabetes to determining the most handy, no-doctors-note-needed way to call out of work for two days (food poisoning): WedMD) as a rhinovirus for the better part of the last three days.

The Good News: I'm at my parents house which is nice because, rather than loafing around in solitary, self-loathing agony in my house while my roommates trek off to work each day, leaving me alone for hours and hours each day without a medphone, fully aware of the possibility that I might fall asleep, choke on post-nasal drip and DIE while STILL feeling slightly yet embarrassingly embittered that I'm sick and don't have to go to work [for fear of contaminating the whole friggen' office!] and they still do. (You know it's like this. God forbid I ask them to bring me home some 'quiltini ingredients. Ignore the fact that I am one sniff, gasp, and degree away from my death bed.) Anyways, yeah, at my parents. It's nice because they not only let me lie on the couch all day watching trash television; they not only make me warm food; they also bring me Theraflu and other assorted meds without a pitiful, whispered, tears-welling up in my eyes request.

So, it's been getting better, I think. I've caught up on Anderson Cooper's favorite show, The Real Houswives of Atlanta, read a book, and watched Oprah two days in a row, which is completely unprecedented for me. I've also made a few realizations:

1. Tylenol Day/Night Multi-Symptom Cold Caplets with COOLBURST = WTF!? Coolburst is great for day time, but at night it gives me a completely unappreciated burst of coolness just as I'm trying to go to sleep. Stupid. Maybe you should make it have the "warmburst" that the warming Tylenol stuff presumably has.

2. Theraflu = awesome.

3. Zicam Nasal Spray Gel = weird as hell. It is so, so weird to shoot stuff up your nose. Is this how it would feel to do cocaine? You know, if it were in, like, gel form?

4. Taking mass quantities of cold medication gives you really freaky dreams.

5. I know I'm really sick because I tried to go to the mall today, lasted only about an hour, and had to go home because I felt sick and tired. I didn't buy a thing or even exchange the item I went to exchange.

6. My teeth hurt. Like, around my gums. I haven't had a cold in a really long time. Is this normal?

I'm dying. I hate this ENT sickness crap. Sucks. On the flip side, I've had such a lack of appetite that I've probably slept off all my Christmas dinner calories and then some. "I'm just one stomach flu away from my goal weight!" (The Devil Wears Prada movie reference.) Isn't it sick that most women probably welcome the occasional illness to lose a few?

I'm off to rest. I hope you're all healthier then I am! :)

The Cognitive Enhancing Drug Debate

A friend drew my attention to these two articles. I think they are interesting enough to re-post.
Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy
Henry Greely, Barbara Sahakian, John Harris, Ronald C. Kessler, Michael Gazzaniga, Philip Campbell & Martha J. Farah

Society must respond to the growing demand for cognitive enhancement. That response must start by rejecting the idea that 'enhancement' is a dirty word, argue Henry Greely and colleagues.

Today, on university campuses around the world, students are striking deals to buy and sell prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin — not to get high, but to get higher grades, to provide an edge over their fellow students or to increase in some measurable way their capacity for learning. These transactions are crimes in the United States, punishable by prison.

Many people see such penalties as appropriate, and consider the use of such drugs to be cheating, unnatural or dangerous. Yet one survey estimated that almost 7% of students in US universities have used prescription stimulants in this way, and that on some campuses, up to 25% of students had used them in the past year. These students are early adopters of a trend that is likely to grow, and indications suggest that they're not alone.

In this article, we propose actions that will help society accept the benefits of enhancement, given appropriate research and evolved regulation. Prescription drugs are regulated as such not for their enhancing properties but primarily for considerations of safety and potential abuse. Still, cognitive enhancement has much to offer individuals and society, and a proper societal response will involve making enhancements available while managing their risks.

Paths to enhancement

Many of the medications used to treat psychiatric and neurological conditions also improve the performance of the healthy. The drugs most commonly used for cognitive enhancement at present are stimulants, namely Ritalin (methyphenidate) and Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts), and are prescribed mainly for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because of their effects on the catecholamine system, these drugs increase executive functions in patients and most healthy normal people, improving their abilities to focus their attention, manipulate information in working memory and flexibly control their responses3. These drugs are widely used therapeutically. With rates of ADHD in the range of 4–7% among US college students using DSM criteria4, and stimulant medication the standard therapy, there are plenty of these drugs on campus to divert to enhancement use.

A newer drug, modafinil (Provigil), has also shown enhancement potential. Modafinil is approved for the treatment of fatigue caused by narcolepsy, sleep apnoea and shift-work sleep disorder. It is currently prescribed off label for a wide range of neuropsychiatric and other medical conditions involving fatigue as well as for healthy people who need to stay alert and awake when sleep deprived, such as physicians on night call. In addition, laboratory studies have shown that modafinil enhances aspects of executive function in rested healthy adults, particularly inhibitory control. Unlike Adderall and Ritalin, however, modafinil prescriptions are not common, and the drug is consequently rare on the college black market. But anecdotal evidence and a readers' survey both suggest that adults sometimes obtain modafinil from their physicians or online for enhancement purposes.

A modest degree of memory enhancement is possible with the ADHD medications just mentioned as well as with medications developed for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease such as Aricept (donepezil), which raise levels of acetylcholine in the brain. Several other compounds with different pharmacological actions are in early clinical trials, having shown positive effects on memory in healthy research subjects. It is too early to know whether any of these new drugs will be proven safe and effective, but if one is it will surely be sought by healthy middle-aged and elderly people contending with normal age-related memory decline, as well as by people of all ages preparing for academic or licensure examinations.

Favouring innovation

Human ingenuity has given us means of enhancing our brains through inventions such as written language, printing and the Internet. Most authors of this Commentary are teachers and strive to enhance the minds of their students, both by adding substantive information and by showing them new and better ways to process that information. And we are all aware of the abilities to enhance our brains with adequate exercise, nutrition and sleep. The drugs just reviewed, along with newer technologies such as brain stimulation and prosthetic brain chips, should be viewed in the same general category as education, good health habits, and information technology — ways that our uniquely innovative species tries to improve itself.

Of course, no two enhancements are equivalent in every way, and some of the differences have moral relevance. For example, the benefits of education require some effort at self-improvement whereas the benefits of sleep do not. Enhancing by nutrition involves changing what we ingest and is therefore invasive in a way that reading is not. The opportunity to benefit from Internet access is less equitably distributed than the opportunity to benefit from exercise. Cognitive-enhancing drugs require relatively little effort, are invasive and for the time being are not equitably distributed, but none of these provides reasonable grounds for prohibition. Drugs may seem distinctive among enhancements in that they bring about their effects by altering brain function, but in reality so does any intervention that enhances cognition. Recent research has identified beneficial neural changes engendered by exercise, nutrition and sleep, as well as instruction and reading. In short, cognitive-enhancing drugs seem morally equivalent to other, more familiar, enhancements.

Many people have doubts about the moral status of enhancement drugs for reasons ranging from the pragmatic to the philosophical, including concerns about short-circuiting personal agency and undermining the value of human effort. Kass, for example, has written of the subtle but, in his view, important differences between human enhancement through biotechnology and through more traditional means. Such arguments have been persuasively rejected. Three arguments against the use of cognitive enhancement by the healthy quickly bubble to the surface in most discussions: that it is cheating, that it is unnatural and that it amounts to drug abuse.

In the context of sports, pharmacological performance enhancement is indeed cheating. But, of course, it is cheating because it is against the rules. Any good set of rules would need to distinguish today's allowed cognitive enhancements, from private tutors to double espressos, from the newer methods, if they are to be banned.

As for an appeal to the 'natural', the lives of almost all living humans are deeply unnatural; our homes, our clothes and our food — to say nothing of the medical care we enjoy — bear little relation to our species' 'natural' state. Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say, thus far but no further?

As for enhancers' status as drugs, drug abuse is a major social ill, and both medicinal and recreational drugs are regulated because of possible harms to the individual and society. But drugs are regulated on a scale that subjectively judges the potential for harm from the very dangerous (heroin) to the relatively harmless (caffeine). Given such regulation, the mere fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them.

Based on our considerations, we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs.

Substantive concerns and policy goals

All technologies have risks as well as benefits. Although we reject the arguments against enhancement just reviewed, we recognize at least three substantive ethical concerns.

The first concern is safety. Cognitive enhancements affect the most complex and important human organ, and the risk of unintended side effects is therefore both high and consequential. Although regulations governing medicinal drugs ensure that they are safe and effective for their therapeutic indications, there is no equivalent vetting for unregulated 'off label' uses, including enhancement uses. Furthermore, acceptable safety in this context depends on the potential benefit. For example, a drug that restored good cognitive functioning to people with severe dementia but caused serious adverse medical events might be deemed safe enough to prescribe, but these risks would be unacceptable for healthy individuals seeking enhancement.

Enhancement in children raises additional issues related to the long-term effects on the developing brain. Moreover, the possibility of raising cognitive abilities beyond their species-typical upper bound may engender new classes of side effects. Persistence of unwanted recollections, for example, has clearly negative effects on the psyche.

An evidence-based approach is required to evaluate the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement. At a minimum, an adequate policy should include mechanisms for the assessment of both risks and benefits for enhancement uses of drugs and devices, with special attention to long-term effects on development and to the possibility of new types of side effects unique to enhancement. But such considerations should not lead to an insistence on higher thresholds than those applied to medications.

We call for an evidence-based approach to the evaluation of the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement.

The second concern is freedom, specifically freedom from coercion to enhance. Forcible medication is generally reserved for rare cases in which individuals are deemed threats to themselves or others. In contrast, cognitive enhancement in the form of education is required for almost all children at some substantial cost to their liberty, and employers are generally free to require employees to have certain educational credentials or to obtain them. Should schools and employers be allowed to require pharmaceutical enhancement as well? And if we answer 'no' to this question, could coercion occur indirectly, by the need to compete with enhanced classmates and colleagues?

Questions of coercion and autonomy are particularly acute for military personnel and for children. Soldiers in the United States and elsewhere have long been offered stimulant medications including amphetamine and modafinil to enhance alertness, and in the United States are legally required to take medications if ordered to for the sake of their military performance. For similar reasons, namely the safety of the individual in question and others who depend on that individual in dangerous situations, one could imagine other occupations for which enhancement might be justifiably required. A hypothetical example is an extremely safe drug that enabled surgeons to save more patients. Would it be wrong to require this drug for risky operations?

Appropriate policy should prohibit coercion except in specific circumstances for specific occupations, justified by substantial gains in safety. It should also discourage indirect coercion. Employers, schools or governments should not generally require the use of cognitive enhancements. If particular enhancements are shown to be sufficiently safe and effective, this position might be revisited for those interventions.

Children once again represent a special case as they cannot make their own decisions. Comparisons between estimates of ADHD prevalence and prescription numbers have led some to suspect that children in certain school districts are taking enhancing drugs at the behest of achievement-oriented parents, or teachers seeking more orderly classrooms. Governments may be willing to let competent adults take certain risks for the sake of enhancement while restricting the ability to take such risky decisions on behalf of children.

The third concern is fairness. Consider an examination that only a certain percentage can pass. It would seem unfair to allow some, but not all, students to use cognitive enhancements, akin to allowing some students taking a maths test to use a calculator while others must go without. (Mitigating such unfairness may raise issues of indirect coercion, as discussed above.) Of course, in some ways, this kind of unfairness already exists. Differences in education, including private tutoring, preparatory courses and other enriching experiences give some students an advantage over others.

Whether the cognitive enhancement is substantially unfair may depend on its availability, and on the nature of its effects. Does it actually improve learning or does it just temporarily boost exam performance? In the latter case it would prevent a valid measure of the competency of the examinee and would therefore be unfair. But if it were to enhance long-term learning, we may be more willing to accept enhancement. After all, unlike athletic competitions, in many cases cognitive enhancements are not zero-sum games. Cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world.

Fairness in cognitive enhancements has a dimension beyond the individual. If cognitive enhancements are costly, they may become the province of the rich, adding to the educational advantages they already enjoy. One could mitigate this inequity by giving every exam-taker free access to cognitive enhancements, as some schools provide computers during exam week to all students. This would help level the playing field.

Policy governing the use of cognitive enhancement in competitive situations should avoid exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities, and should take into account the validity of enhanced test performance. In developing policy for this purpose, problems of enforcement must also be considered. In spite of stringent regulation, athletes continue to use, and be caught using, banned performance-enhancing drugs.

We call for enforceable policies concerning the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs to support fairness, protect individuals from coercion and minimize enhancement-related socioeconomic disparities.

Maximum benefit, minimum harm

The new methods of cognitive enhancement are 'disruptive technologies' that could have a profound effect on human life in the twenty-first century. A laissez-faire approach to these methods will leave us at the mercy of powerful market forces that are bound to be unleashed by the promise of increased productivity and competitive advantage. The concerns about safety, freedom and fairness, just reviewed, may well seem less important than the attractions of enhancement, for sellers and users alike.

Motivated by some of the same considerations, Fukuyama has proposed the formation of new laws and regulatory structures to protect against the harms of unrestrained biotechnological enhancement. In contrast, we suggest a policy that is neither laissez-faire nor primarily legislative. We propose to use a variety of scientific, professional, educational and social resources, in addition to legislation, to shape a rational, evidence-based policy informed by a wide array of relevant experts and stake-holders. Specifically, we propose four types of policy mechanism.

The first mechanism is an accelerated programme of research to build a knowledge base concerning the usage, benefits and associated risks of cognitive enhancements. Good policy is based on good information, and there is currently much we do not know about the short- and long-term benefits and risks of the cognitive-enhancement drugs currently being used, and about who is using them and why. For example, what are the patterns of use outside of the United States and outside of college communities? What are the risks of dependence when used for cognitive enhancement? What special risks arise with the enhancement of children's cognition? How big are the effects of currently available enhancers? Do they change 'cognitive style', as well as increasing how quickly and accurately we think? And given that most research so far has focused on simple laboratory tasks, how do they affect cognition in the real world? Do they increase the total knowledge and understanding that students take with them from a course? How do they affect various aspects of occupational performance?

We call for a programme of research into the use and impacts of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals.

The second mechanism is the participation of relevant professional organizations in formulating guidelines for their members in relation to cognitive enhancement. Many different professions have a role in dispensing, using or working with people who use cognitive enhancers. By creating policy at the level of professional societies, it will be informed by the expertise of these professionals, and their commitment to the goals of their profession.

One group to which this recommendation applies is physicians, particularly in primary care, paediatrics and psychiatry, who are most likely to be asked for cognitive enhancers. These physicians are sometimes asked to prescribe for enhancement by patients who exaggerate or fabricate symptoms of ADHD, but they also receive frank requests, as when a patient says "I know I don't meet diagnostic criteria for ADHD, but I sometimes have trouble concentrating and staying organized, and it would help me to have some Ritalin on hand for days when I really need to be on top of things at work." Physicians who view medicine as devoted to healing will view such prescribing as inappropriate, whereas those who view medicine more broadly as helping patients live better or achieve their goals would be open to considering such a request. There is certainly a precedent for this broader view in certain branches of medicine, including plastic surgery, dermatology, sports medicine and fertility medicine.

Because physicians are the gatekeepers to medications discussed here, society looks to them for guidance on the use of these medications and devices, and guidelines from other professional groups will need to take into account the gatekeepers' policies. For this reason, the responsibilities that physicians bear for the consequences of their decisions are particularly sensitive, being effectively decisions for all of us. It would therefore be helpful if physicians as a profession gave serious consideration to the ethics of appropriate prescribing of cognitive enhancers, and consulted widely as to how to strike the balance of limits for patient benefit and protection in a liberal democracy. Examples of such limits in other areas of enhancement medicine include the psychological screening of candidates for cosmetic surgery or tubal ligation, and upper bounds on maternal age or number of embryos transferred in fertility treatments. These examples of limits may not be specified by law, but rather by professional standards.

Other professional groups to which this recommendation applies include educators and human-resource professionals. In different ways, each of these professions has responsibility for fostering and evaluating cognitive performance and for advising individuals who are seeking to improve their performance, and some responsibility also for protecting the interests of those in their charge. In contrast to physicians, these professionals have direct conflicts of interest that must be addressed in whatever guidelines they recommend: liberal use of cognitive enhancers would be expected to encourage classroom order and raise standardized measures of student achievement, both of which are in the interests of schools; it would also be expected to promote workplace productivity, which is in the interests of employers.

Educators, academic admissions officers and credentials evaluators are normally responsible for ensuring the validity and integrity of their examinations, and should be tasked with formulating policies concerning enhancement by test-takers. Laws pertaining to testing accommodations for people with disabilities provide a starting point for discussion of some of the key issues, such as how and when enhancements undermine the validity of a test result and the conditions under which enhancement should be disclosed by a test-taker.

The labour and professional organizations of individuals who are candidates for on-the-job cognitive enhancement make up our final category of organization that should formulate enhancement policy. From assembly line workers to surgeons, many different kinds of employee may benefit from enhancement and want access to it, yet they may also need protection from the pressure to enhance.

We call for physicians, educators, regulators and others to collaborate in developing policies that address the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals.

The third mechanism is education to increase public understanding of cognitive enhancement. This would be provided by physicians, teachers, college health centres and employers, similar to the way that information about nutrition, recreational drugs and other public-health information is now disseminated. Ideally it would also involve discussions of different ways of enhancing cognition, including through adequate sleep, exercise and education, and an examination of the social values and pressures that make cognitive enhancement so attractive and even, seemingly, necessary.

We call for information to be broadly disseminated concerning the risks, benefits and alternatives to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement.

The fourth mechanism is legislative. Fundamentally new laws or regulatory agencies are not needed. Instead, existing law should be brought into line with emerging social norms and information about safety. Drug law is one of the most controversial areas of law, and it would be naive to expect rapid or revolutionary change in the laws governing the use of controlled substances. Nevertheless, these laws should be adjusted to avoid making felons out of those who seek to use safe cognitive enhancements. And regulatory agencies should allow pharmaceutical companies to market cognitive-enhancing drugs to healthy adults provided they have supplied the necessary regulatory data for safety and efficacy.

We call for careful and limited legislative action to channel cognitive-enhancement technologies into useful paths.


Like all new technologies, cognitive enhancement can be used well or poorly. We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function. In a world in which human workspans and lifespans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools — including the pharmacological — will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age-related cognitive declines. Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.

But it would also be foolish to ignore problems that such use of drugs could create or exacerbate. With this, as with other technologies, we need to think and work hard to maximize its benefits and minimize its harms.

Join the debate on this topic at Nature Network (access to full article requires subscription)

And a New York Times op-ed responding to the above article:
Living the Off-Label Life

Published: December 26, 2008

What if you could just take a pill and all of a sudden remember to pay your bills on time? What if, thanks to modern neuroscience, you could, simultaneously, make New Year’s Eve plans, pay the mortgage, call the pediatrician, consolidate credit card debt and do your job — well — without forgetting dentist appointments or neglecting to pick up your children at school?

Would you do it? Tune out the distractions of our online, on-call, too-fast A.D.D.-ogenic world with focus and memory-enhancing medications like Ritalin or Adderall? Stay sharp as a knife — no matter how overworked and sleep-deprived — with a mental-alertness-boosting drug like the anti-narcolepsy medication Provigil?

I’ve always said no. Fantasy aside, I’ve always rejected the idea of using drugs meant for people with real neurological disorders to treat the pathologies of everyday life.

Most of us, viscerally, do. Cognitive enhancement — a practice typified by the widely reported abuse of psychostimulants by college students cramming for exams, and by the less reported but apparently growing use of mind-boosters like Provigil among in-the-know scientists and professors — goes against the grain of some of our most basic beliefs about fairness and meritocracy. It seems to many people to be unnatural, inhuman, hubristic, pure cheating.

That’s why when Henry Greely, director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, published an article, with a host of co-authors, in the science journal Nature earlier this month suggesting that we ought to rethink our gut reactions and “accept the benefits of enhancement,” he was deluged with irate responses from readers.

“There were three kinds of e-mail reactions,” he told me in a phone interview last week. “‘How much crack are you smoking? How much money did your friends in pharma give you? How much crack did you get from your friends in pharma?’ ”

As Americans, our default setting on matters of psychotropic drugs — particularly when it comes to medicating those who are not very ill — tends to be, as the psychiatrist Gerald Klerman called it in 1972, something akin to “pharmacological Calvinism.” People should suffer and endure, the thinking goes, accept what hard work and their God-given abilities bring them and hope for no more.

But Greely and his Nature co-authors suggest that such arguments are outdated and intellectually dishonest. We enhance our brain function all the time, they say — by drinking coffee, by eating nutritious food, by getting an education, even by getting a good night’s sleep. Taking brain-enhancing drugs should be viewed as just another step along that continuum, one that’s “morally equivalent” to such “other, more familiar, enhancements,” they write.

Normal life, unlike sports competitions, they argue, isn’t a zero-sum game, where one person’s doped advantage necessarily brings another’s disadvantage. A surgeon whose mind is extra-sharp, a pilot who’s extra alert, a medical researcher whose memory is fine-tuned to make extraordinary connections, is able to work not just to his or her own benefit, but for that of countless numbers of people. “Cognitive enhancement,” they write, “unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world.”

I’m not convinced of that. I’m not sure that pushing for your personal best — all the time — is tantamount to truly being the best person you can be. I have long thought that a life so frenetic and fractured that it drives “neuro-normal” people to distraction, leaving them sleep-deprived and exhausted, demands — indeed, screams for — systemic change.

But now I do wonder: What if the excessive demands of life today are creating ever-larger categories of people who can’t reach their potential due to handicaps that in an easier time were just quirks? (Absent-minded professor-types were, for generations, typically men who didn’t need to be present — organized and on-time — for their kids.) Is it any fairer to saddle a child with a chronically overwhelmed parent than with one suffering from untreated depression?

And, furthermore, how much can most of us, on a truly meaningful scale, change our lives? At a time of widespread layoffs and job anxiety among those still employed, can anyone but the most fortunate afford to cut their hours to give themselves time to breathe? Can working parents really sacrifice on either side of the wage-earning/life-making equation? It’s disturbing to think that we just have to make do with the world we now live in. But to do otherwise is for most people an impossible luxury.

For some of us, saddled with brains ill-adapted to this era, and taxed with way too many demands and distractions, pharmacological Calvinism may now be a luxury, too.

My opinion may follow.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Shopping for Bicycles

I'm in the market for a new bicycle. No real rush; it won't have the same dire-necessity quality my bike once held for me in Denmark, but I think it might be nice to have something to get me to and from the Metro faster than my current 10-15 minute morning meander. ... How I will accomplish said bike ride in a pencil skirt is yet to be determined.

I came across this 28000DKK Georg Jensen bike tonight and think it might fit the bill :

It's always fun to see a well-loved company experiment with pastures new - in this case, an urban bicycle, given a Georg Jensen makeover.

The limited edition model is an eye-catching brushed steel and leather affair done to the same detail as the handmade hammered surface of the company's own silver hollowware pieces. The handsome two-wheeler also comes complete with a handmade silver-plated bell, which similarly recalls the century-old firm's silversmithing heritage and leather grips and saddle by Brooks England. Produced in conjunction with leading Danish bike maker Sögreni, the thin-framed, skinny silhouette is bound to turn a few well-coiffed heads – although we don't like this one's chances locked up outside at night. - Wallpaper

Leather hand grips and saddle by Brooks are one of my new bike necessities. Seriously. I wonder if it comes in a girl model and if I could get one of my Danish friends or family members to pick it up at the Strøget flagship store and ship it over. Perhaps I will time my purchase of my fancy new $5300 (approx.) bike with my next visit, which will hopefully be in the next year (I'm not allowed back until after February due to visa constraints, but who really wants to visit Denmark in February anyway? Let's be real.)

I bet that picture of the bike was taken at Amager Strand, by the way. It makes me feel worldly to know things like that. ;)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Chinatown Glam

DCist coincidentally posted this picture today; the very day my workplace changed from F & 11th to 9th & E and my metro commute changed from Metro Center to Gallery Place/Chinatown:

The picture shows the glitzy glam and sparkly decorations that, as I discovered to my 9am delight, adorn every possible railing at the Chinatown Metro station. I haven't seen any other Metro stop with decorations like these. I think they unquestionably set it worlds apart from every other station on the red line and possibly in the entire WMATA system. It's like all the Chinese residents of the city got together and said "Hey, we're putting aside our Buddhism, our Taoism, and those dragon-dogs that sit on either side of doors this holiday season. Bring your God, bring your Virgin Mary, bring your baby Jesus. Come buy your friends Pocky, egg noodles, and those mesh and sequin grandma slippers in a variety of colors as stocking stuffers and gifts for your office secret santa!" Yay. Go Chinatown!

Truth be told, my new office is about equidistant between Metro Center and Chinatown. I was planning on switching it up depending on the weather and if I wanted Starbucks in the morning, but I might skip Starbucks, check out the Spy Museum every day, and make Gallery Place/Chinatown my new permanent stop. I can't wait to see if they switch up the decor throughout the year.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Did WMATA get, like, a terrorist threat today?

This picture was taken on the DC Metro's red line going from Metro Center towards Shady Grove at approximately 5:15pm today (Thursday, December 18). What the heck?! I know people have been disenchanted with Metro delays recently, especially on the red line, but I have never, ever seen the Metro this empty during RUSH HOUR. What's going on?! Usually I have to stand, jostle, and jockey for position during my entire commute home. All my stuff and I are currently sprawled across two seats. Granted, I usually don't leave work until 5:30, but does 15-30 minutes really make this much of a difference on a normal day? Seriously... I can't get over how Twilight-zone this feels. Was there a terrorist threat today or something?? Maybe by some one who is bitter about WMATA's whole anti-Google transport in the DC area thing...
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Morning Quick

This post is dedicated to TW:

Truthfully, my multiple alarms had already been going off; though I tried to pass your text message off as waking me up. I thought it was funny that I was racking my brain for whatever the acronym RSS stands for at 6:35am. (Real Simple Syndicate? Rich Site Summary?) It wasn't really that I was showing my nerdy interior... most people kind of know that's my closet thing. It's like the gay kid who hasn't come out of the closet yet but is so obviously, flamboyantly gay it's comical. I try to hide my nerdery in hopes of being socially acceptable, but everyone snickers that I'm a dork behind my back. I think the real scary part is that I'm becoming such a yuppie that the ding of a message to my phone CAN hasten me into turning the lights on, responding, and subsequently start reading emails via my phone at 6:35am. Yikes.

This post aside, keep me on the RSS, if I'm there. I write for myself, but it's kinda fun that other people sometimes tune in for irregularly scheduled broadcasting.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Danish Dish

Denmark's biggest news story since the Muhammed Cartoons, peppered with Danish silliness [italicized by yours truly] because, no matter what, Denmark just can't deny that they are a goofy country. From the Wall Street Journal:

For Denmark's Entrepreneur of Year, Something Was Rotten
Stein Bagger Pleads Guilty to Faking Software Deals; His Ph.D. Was Phony, Too

COPENHAGEN -- At a banquet here late last month, accounting firm Ernst & Young feted a Danish software company for runaway growth under Stein Bagger, its dynamic chief executive. About a thousand guests, including Denmark's tax minister and leading business people, were there to applaud.

Stein Bagger
But Mr. Bagger, the night's big winner, wasn't there to pick up the accolade of "Entrepreneur of the Year" and two other awards. He was busy fleeing from what investigators now describe as Denmark's biggest business scam in decades.

Shortly before the banquet began, Mr. Bagger, 41 years old, vanished from a hotel in Dubai. He flew to New York, drove across America and then surrendered to police in Los Angeles. In the meantime, his award-winning company, IT Factory, declared bankruptcy. A liquidator has taken over IT Factory and is sifting through its affairs.

Sent back to Denmark Tuesday, Mr. Bagger cried and pleaded guilty before a Danish court to charges of aggravated fraud and forgery, crimes that could land him in jail for eight years, according to his court-appointed lawyer, Jesper Madsen.

"Most of his business was fake," says Jens Madsen, head of an economic-crimes unit now investigating the spectacular rise and fall of Mr. Bagger. The entrepreneur also happens to be a former bodybuilder who, before becoming a Danish tech superstar, posed for a Swedish muscle magazine dressed as Superman. He's now suspected of pumping up IT Factory's profits -- which nearly tripled last year -- through phony deals.

The gist of the allegations is that Mr. Bagger used a web of phantom firms to get money from banks and then used these same companies to place big purchase orders for IT Factory software and services. He was buying from himself using other people's money.

Speaking to a Danish tabloid last week, Mr. Bagger said he felt guilty, sorry and "so happy that everything got revealed." Threats from unnamed extortionists, he added, had sent him astray. "I can understand that some people feel I let them down," he was quoted as saying. His lawyer doesn't dispute the interview.

The saga has fascinated and appalled a nation that takes pride in its Nordic rectitude.

The chief investigator estimates the swindle amounted to around $185 million, a modest sum next to the alleged fraud of America's Bernard Madoff but enough to fuel a jet-set lifestyle of sports cars and French Riviera holidays sharply at odds with the Danish norm.

Looking for clues to what went wrong, Denmark's media have dug into Mr. Bagger's personal life, particularly his obsession with physical fitness: how he met his second wife in a favorite gym, how he made money in his pretech days hawking muscle-boosting protein products and how he hired a burly Hells Angels Motorcycle Club member as a bodyguard. (They, too, met at the gym.)

Asger Jensby, IT Factory's chairman, says he is flabbergasted by the fate of what he thought was a "real company" run by a chief executive who was "sharp, a bit arrogant, very articulate and extremely orderly."

Leading banks meanwhile are trying to figure out how much money they lost in Mr. Bagger's blowout. Danske Bank, Denmark's biggest, says its exposure to IT Factory, is 350 million Danish kroner (around $64 million). Also taken for a ride is a champion cycling team that Mr. Bagger promised to sponsor. Badly jolted, too, are the accountants who did his books and found no irregularities.

KPMG audited IT Factory's accounts from 2005 through 2007. Deloitte did the same in the previous two years. From 2003 through 2007, IT Factory reported that its revenue grew 69 times and its profit rose 288 times, to 121 million kroner ($22 million). This year, says Mr. Jensby, the chairman, IT Factory expected to roughly quadruple its profit.

KPMG in Denmark says it is "shocked" and "cooperating with police." Deloitte's Danish unit said it has double-checked its 2003 and 2004 audits and found no problems.

Ernst & Young, for its part, has now withdrawn the three awards it gave to IT Factory on the day Mr. Bagger took flight. "We feel deceived," said Søren Strøm, head of Ernst & Young's "Entrepreneur of the Year" program, in a statement. The accounting firm, he added, is "unable to understand the last few days' developments."

"If things look too good to be true, they probably are too good to be true," says Bo Svensson, the head of a Danish software company who started sending out emails last year warning that IT Factory simply didn't have enough known customers to explain its explosive growth. He sent one to Mr. Jensby, IT Factory's chairman, who insisted there was no need for concern.

Mr. Jensby now says he was wrong and estimates that at least 95% of IT Factory's reported business was fictitious. He says Mr. Bagger stashed documents relating to fraudulent transactions in a secret office that was discovered only recently.

Mr. Svensson also sent warnings about IT Factory to International Business Machines Corp. A member of IBM's European Business Partner Advisory Board, Mr. Svensson sent a long email to IBM managers in Denmark describing IT Factory as a "house of cards" liable to collapse.

"Something is completely wrong," he wrote, warning that Mr. Bagger posed a risk to IBM's own reputation as IT Factory "in all contexts positions itself very close to IBM." Mr. Bagger, whose company had offices in India and the U.S., often boasted of close ties to IBM and helped sponsor a big IBM software conference in Florida.

An IBM spokesman, citing the current criminal investigation, declined to comment on what, if anything, was done in response to Mr. Svensson's messages.

A few months after Mr. Svensson's warning, IBM Denmark named Mr. Bagger's company as the year's "Best Partner" in a software business line. The head of IBM Denmark this year hailed IT Factory as "creative and visionary." IBM has now filed a claim with IT Factory's liquidator to try to get back the 125 million kroner ($23 million) it says it is owed by Mr. Bagger's now defunct company.

One person to come out of the mess looking good is Dorte Toft, a 64-year-old free-lance journalist and blogger. She, too, received an email message from Mr. Svensson last year. A former computer programmer, Ms. Toft began swapping notes with Mr. Svensson, whom she initially knew only as "John Doe." In December, she wrote a blog challenging Mr. Bagger's extraordinary growth figures.

But, she says, virtually no one wanted to listen to "an old woman."

Mr. Bagger, she says, went to great lengths to conceal his deceptions. Earlier this year, she began to question Mr. Bagger about boasts that he had a Ph.D. from San Francisco Technical University. She asked how that was possible when no such university exists. Mr. Bagger came up with an elaborate plan.

On the pretext of developing talking points for college employees to answer phone queries about academic records, he hired Vicki Lang, an American artist and actress living in Copenhagen, to play the role of an official at San Francisco State University, an institution that does exist. "If I'd thought about it, I might have said: 'Oh, this sounds strange,' but I was just happy to have a job," recalls Ms. Lang.

He wrote a script for a dialogue between himself and Ms Lang, who, as a university official, would explain that his nonexistent college had been folded into San Francisco State and confirm that he had a Ph.D. in international business. Mr. Bagger then told Ms. Lang he'd like to test the script over the phone on the afternoon of Oct. 29. He called Ms. Toft, the skeptical blogger, to his office for an interview at the same time.

When Ms. Toft showed up and started asking questions, Mr. Bagger announced that he would call San Francisco to prove that he was telling the truth about his Ph.D. Ms. Toft, smelling a rat, told him not to bother: "I knew him too well."

Ms. Lang says she forgot all about Mr. Bagger -- until he became the most infamous man in Denmark two weeks later.

Ms. Lang doesn't have hard feelings because, unlike so many others, she didn't lose anything. "He didn't cheat me. I got my money."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dayquiltinis and pondering 'Do meth addicts have friends?'

My current Facebook status message reads
Sarah is starting her days with dayquiltinis (open dayquil, take a swig straight from the bottle, add alcohol later by rinsing with listerine) just like in college.
Which is true. In college I got into a mildly "bad" habit when I had colds. I was one of those kids that hated to miss class. Lame, you might think, but it's actually pure laziness in play. I reasoned that I would rather just attend class, take notes, ask questions, etc. if the alternative was skipping and having to *gasp* teach myself the material. I mean, if you have a professor who is willing (or, okay, paid to) stand up in front of you teaching you the ins and outs of legal philosophy, how to do psych stats without the aid of the oh-so-handy SPSS, and look over your shoulder while you compose short lines of music using only correct chord progressions (yes, all of these are things I had to do in college), then I think "why not?" Go to class, be a sponge, soak it up. When the exam comes sit back smuggly and think to yourself "oh, I remeber this!" and then freak out because you're a perfectionist and your 20-page philosophy essay has to be reasoned to the end of the universe or within nine tenths of the law because you don't want your professor to think you are lazy or, worse, an idiot... but that's besides the point. The point is I went to class all the time. I can probably count on one hand the number of classes I missed in college*, and I graduated with close to 140 credits or something like that. Back to the Dayquil. Because I was often in a hurry in the morning (not because I would be late to class- more because I HAD to allow extra time to stop at Wawa or the coffee shop in the Student Union before I got there or else I would die of caffiene deprivation or develop sudden narcolepsy) I got in the habit of swigging Dayquil directly from the bottle. That's right. Instead of using the plastic measuring cup that so handily came with it, I would just take a shot of it. Exactly like the kinds of shots you would take in the last seconds before you left your aparment to "hit" the lame-to-the max bars in my "college town." Usually I forgot and brushed my teeth pre-'quil, so I'd have to swig some List-o after the 'quil. Thus, Dayquiltinis, which soothed my throat, made my nose breathable, and gave me just enough energy to get through the day were born. They were like a bar-goers liquid courage. Except they were my liquid-life. Or whatever. Maureen, this drunken rambling post is for you.

Anyways, so as my Facebook says, I've been swigging them again. I've come down with a cold, but I simply cannot stop my life for a cold. I've got a lot to do. Errands to run. I've got to run because I've got another race in less than two weeks and I want to do better than the 10k I ran on Thanksgiving day. Dayquiltinis to the rescue. As such, I've been going through a fair amount of Day (and Ny)quil. I needed to restock today when I was at Target. I decided to go with the Target brand because, c'mon now, we all know they contain the exact same amounts of the exact same ingredients and who really cares if you pay an extra $1.50 so you can have name brands in your medicine cabinet?! I was standing at checkout chatting with the checkout girl (I always do) and she apologetically asked for my drivers license. I was like "what?" She explained that they needed to see if for all purchases of that type because it could be used to make crystal meth. I handed my license over and she SCANNED IT. Which is fine, because I'm not planning on building or taking my precious 'quil to a meth lab. But what if I need to buy more?! I was slightly panicky. But then I realized I could always have a friend pick it up to me if I really got too paranoid that I couldn't buy it again (though I don't look like a meth addict - I have perfect teeth and my eyes are bright and sparkly with no sunken dark circles! - so I really don't think it would be a problem.). But couldn't meth addicts do the same thing? Have their friends pick up meth ingredients for them? How much of whatever is in dayquil do you need to make crystal meth anyway? Do meth addicts have friends?

With those ponderances, I bud you adieu for now. Maureen, as I said, I dedicate this Three-Buck-Chuck influenced post to you. :)

* Two of them I missed senior year were because I had to attend a funeral and a couple I missed sophomore year were because I was so sick they almost hooked me up to an IV drip at the STUDENT HEALTH CENTER which, in my opinion, is not even a "REAL" medical facility. Usually they just turn you away with instructions to take a few advil and go back to class. Being told I needed to be hooked up to an IV if I didn't drink a liter of the nastiest faux-Gatorade mix oh Earth was a huge "OMG, YOU'RE DYING" tip-off. I was afeared.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Snuggie or Slanket?

People who have lived with me or know me well enough to hang out with me in relaxed situations at home (as opposed to, say, house party/dinner party/getting ready to go out/etc. situations) know that I am a die-hard blanket fan. I like to wrap a blanket around me and go about my home life wrapped in it like some kind of deranged patient in a psychiatric ward with attachment and/or regression issues. This is a year-round thing. That's right, even in the summer I'm a blanket fan. I tend to favor fleece blankets, but I also like my down Laura Ashley one and this felt-ish quilt one my parents have. I'm not sure if my blanket adoration is some kind of weird carryover comfort thing from childhood, or what. I'm guessing it's not because blankets weren't even a huge part of my childhood. Sure, when I was young I had a blankie, but I outgrew it in favor of Minnie Mouse by the time I was, like, five. I think I just like being snuggly.

That said, one can only imagine my excitement when DCist featured a piece on blankets with arms!!! Marketed as either the Snuggie ($19.95) or Slanket ($44.95), my first thought was "Why didn't I think of that?!" My second thought was "I need it." They are kinda (okay, REALLY) gimmicky, but so perfect for me considering my blanket lounging habits and preferences. Now I have to decide which one I want, and what color. I'm leading towards the Slanket. Yeah, it's twice as expensive, but it looks more (dare I say it?) "snuggie" than the Snuggie. Plus, the guy lounging in the burnt orange colored one (which does not seem to be available anymore) looks like John Krasinski, so +1, Slanket.