Saturday, March 28, 2015

When the Depression comes before the Crash

The, er, "suspect" poses in front of Suicide Bridge between
San Francisco and Marin County

There is little doubt that the crash of Germanwings 9525 was a case of suicide/murder on the part of the co-pilot (what we call first officer) Andreas Lubitz. It has been established that he in the past suffered from depression, although based on the articles I've read his mental state on his last flight is a matter of speculation. Nevertheless, depression seems a reasonable guess.

This, however, is not primarily about Flight 9525. (Does Germanwings have so many flights that they must label them with four-digit numbers?) It's about the inevitable storm over whether antidepressant medicines -- which it's not clear Lubitz was taking -- do more harm than good, or if they do any good.

Consider a posting from Natural News. The site's owner calls himself the Health Ranger and is described as a food science researcher. If you like, you can scroll past the subhead "It's not unusual for pilots to fly planes into terrain in flight simulators" (something I never heard of in more than a dozen years in the aviation safety field) to the next subhead, "FAA bans pilots from flying while on antidepressant drugs" (wrong). You will then read a distressing list of "other mass murderers who were taking antidepressant drugs."

Well, that settles it, what? 

No it doesn't.

The 510 comments on the article, which suggest that antidepressant effects are one hot topic, are mostly anti-antidepressant. A sizable bunch of dissenters, however, point out a principle known to anyone who has taken a class in experimental science, and possibly to most educated people: "Correlation is not causation."

That's why researchers, including those who have had apparent success in well-designed (randomized, double-blind, etc.) tests, are careful how they word their conclusions, e.g., "The results suggest that X is associated with favorable outcomes in the treatment of ... ."  

Depressed killers and suicides might have been given antidepressants in the first place because they were ill, in some cases already displaying suicidal and/or homicidal ideation. The medical establishment prescribes antidepressants too casually and does not monitor patients well enough, using observation and common sense. But I cannot think of any kind of experiment that would demonstrate a cause-effect relationship between antidepressants and dangerous behavior. 

Even if someone came up with an ingenious protocol to check the hypothesis, it would be unethical. Potential cures or alleviations are tried on patients suffering from a disorder. Any researcher who gave antidepressants to presumably non-ill patients to see if it would mess their minds up would be, quite rightly, kicked out of the profession and probably be looking at criminal charges.

This debate will go on and on because most of what we know about meds and the mind is hypothetical. If there were any way to demonstrate the effects by statistical analysis of large populations treated, it would have been done already. But it can't be, because there is no benchmark against which to evaluate results.

For what it's worth, my own view, based on both personal experience and a reasonable amount of study, is this: Some meds help some depressed people some of the time. That is obviously not a ringing endorsement. The inverse may also be true -- some meds hurt some depressed people some of the time.

What about the raging greed of Big Pharma? Sending cute-dolly sales reps to visit male doctors and the equivalent for female doctors, giving out free samples to prime the prescription pump? Point taken. But that doesn't mean the Health Ranger runs his site strictly pro bono. He has to make a living, too. Check out the ads from what the Ranger, to his credit, calls sponsors. ("Pain in the Butt? Hemroid [sic] Harry.")
Perhaps the best treatment for depressed patients -- if they're clinically depressed, not just unhappy -- is a combination of drug therapy and individual or group "talking" therapy. Under today's conditions that's pretty hard to arrange and it's hard to imagine who's going to pay the bills.

Here's a suggestion for the anti-antidepressant crusaders, however.

While Martin Luther King never said such a thing, and possibly never heard of antidepressants, make up a quote from him: "Antidepressants are racist! Bull Connor gives them to his attack dogs!"

The mainstream media will gobble it up. Within days, it will be unchallengeable. You're done, Big Pharma.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Attention, members of the media (and perhaps anyone else). Hillary is keeping a dossier on you. You are in deep trouble if you use certain forbidden words in connection with her.
What do you call a polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, entitled, overconfident, secretive politician who will do anything to win and thinks she's inevitable even though she's out of touch and represents the past?

Not "Hillary Clinton," because, you know, that would be sexist.

The list of verboten words and phrases above came in the form of an email warning to a New York Times reporter from "Super Volunteers" for Hillary Clinton.
Hillary, my dear future Empress, I would not dream of describing you as polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, entitled, overconfident, and secretive. Far be it from me to commit, quote, coded sexism, unquote. Perish the thought!

But provided you approved the message from whatever brain-damaged Super Volunteers your enforcers rounded up -- and because you are brilliant and shrewd, I'm sure no such message would have been released into the aether without your sign-off -- I simply call you a fool.

Fools come in all sizes, shapes, and sexes. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Piero di Cosimo at the National Gallery

Piero di Cosimo's reputation as a Florentine Renaissance painter has suffered for the notion, going back as far as Vasari and as recently as a New Yorker article about the current exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Gallery, that he was a little touched in the head. Because of his eccentricity, he was not to be taken quite as seriously as the Great Names. But I left the exhibit feeling that there was much more to Piero than that.

Oh, his cup ran over with imagination at times, and the show leaves no doubt he had a sense of humor. The painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda has been widely reproduced in media articles and the museum's own promotion. He obviously had fun with the mythical animal who served as Andromeda's prison guard. The curatorial commentary itself next to the picture aptly suggests the beast is more likely to inspire sympathy for the wacky creature than to scare the viewer.

And then there's the Madonna and Child -- as conventional a subject as any at the time it was put on canvas -- with one delightful detail: a dove with a halo. The Holy Ghost is usually shown as part of the Trinity, up in the sky above the biblical figures, or descending straight down from Heaven as if lowered on an invisible wire. This halo-crowned bird is just off in a corner of the picture. You can almost see the twinkle in Piero's eye as he added that touch.

The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos. 
A larger version is shown in the New Yorker article,
 although the colors are curiously washed out 
compared with the original.

My favorite among the lighthearted paintings is a playful scene from mythology, in which the young Vulcan has just been tossed out of Mount Olympus by his parents, Jupiter and Juno. He has landed on the island of Lemnos, without a stitch of clothing, which seems pleasing to the flower-gathering nymphs who have found him. The nymphs show a nice bit of leg, and the one at the far right, dressed in the height of Renaissance finery, smiles charmingly with amusement and a touch of desire. There's a hole in the cloud where Vulcan tumbled through.

But the exhibit demonstrates that Piero was much more than a producer of jeux d'esprit. His able mind and hand were capable of richly colored, moving religious scenes.

Some of Piero's madonnas can be mentioned in the same breath as those of the great Giovanni Bellini. (For better or worse, Bellini's are mostly in Venice, which unfortunately I don't get to often.) The Venetian managed the impossible: showing Mary and Jesus, a look of unearthly beauty in Mary's face, and at the same time an infinite sadness. It is as if she knows the terrible death that will befall her son as well as, according to Christian doctrine, the end of death.

No, Pierro's works on the same theme (at least those shown at the Smithsonian) aren't as masterful as Bellini's, but in their own way are compellingly dramatic.

Piero seems to have understood what his miserableist contemporary, the monk Savonarola, did not: that joyous tones, a tickling wit, and sincere piety can coexist in love.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Burg

Fredericksburg, Virginia, is well known to historians -- academic and amateur -- of Lincoln's War. It's where I live now, after a long stretch in Falls Church, a District of Columbia suburb.

Moving to Fredericksburg has been like moving to a different country. (Locals usually shorten the town's name to "the Burg" or even "Burg" in speech, as they contract Spotsylvania County to "Spotsy." The early settlers had more time for multi-syllabic names than we do.)

A fairly small but historically and architecturally interesting historic district nudges the Rappahannock River (a name which, curiously, always seems to be fully pronounced, which is good, as the only likely short form would be "The Rap").

Contrary to what you might expect, only a few houses and churches predate the War. In its siege and occupation, the Union army tore up most of Fredericksburg. The wreckage inflicted by Sherman's army, still cursed by many southerners, at least was under orders and for a strategic purpose. In the Burg it was simply undisciplined looting.

The main battle, Marye's Heights (December 1862) was a deadly defeat for the Northern army and, at least in 20/20 hindsight, a spectacular example of foolish tactics on the part of the Union commander, General Burnside. But various other battles swept through the area for the next two years. One of them, Salem Church, took place a mile from where I live.

Fredericksburg looks like it quickly regained material prosperity after the War. The residential part of the historic district includes grand Victorian houses, many restored to fine condition. This is the area of the Burg I'd like to live in, but it must be priced well out of my range. I'm looking forward to giving myself a walking tour in the springtime.

The town suburbs of course now stretch way beyond the Burg's original dimensions, west past the Great Wall of Interstate 95 and far to the south. The houses of Spotsy County aren't ugly, but they're bland, variations on three or four basic styles. Huge shopping centers offer all the standard national chains, except Trader Joe's. We have driven to Richmond several times just to go to Joe's.

This is where the Old South begins. To the north are ugly Washington spillover districts and the Marine base at Quantico, plus a few dreary historic Dogpatches. Maybe I should say an island of the Old South, since from what I hear northerners have colonized coastal cities farther south such as Wilmington, North Carolina, and metropolitan Charleston.

The local accents are still remarkable to me, especially the musical Virginia Tidewater speech, unlike anything I heard around Washington.

Manners are important here. Everyday transactions tend to be preceded by, or include, a little chit-chat. I have never lived in a place where pleasantries and warmth are so much a common element of interaction. Even black-white relations seem relatively smooth, but that might be only on the surface.

My only intermittent psychic ability is perceiving the atmosphere of places. When we were looking at houses for rent, we must have been in at least a dozen. One was good enough by every objective standard, but it didn't feel right to me. It had been the site of something unpleasant -- not necessarily haunted or the scene of a murder, but something. Maybe just a very dysfunctional family.

It might sound natural that the Burg, with its gory past, would have dark and heavy vibes. I don't experience that. It's hard to describe, but rather than negative, the ambiance is, for want of a better word, serious. Not overtly -- people don't walk around frowning -- but in some subtle way, Longfellow's "life is real, life is earnest" applies.

There's a large drawback for me living in The Burg: it's a cultural desert. There's a good regional library, where my wife works, but no concerts with big-name talent, no theater, one chain bookstore, one secondhand bookstore in the back of a tourist shop, no CD exchange, no art museum, no metaphysical churches. The small local college, Mary Washington, has a jazz festival with student performers. The festival lasts one hour.

It's like being in Lesser Podunk, Arkansas. To get any sense of the larger world, you have to go to DC, Richmond, or beyond.

As the cliché has it, there's good and bad everywhere. But the proportions differ, and differ for each person. We'll see.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Crime scenes

There's a crime wave on television. Detective series are all the rage. Sometimes it seems they're cranked out like sausages, and inevitably they struggle -- or don't bother to -- against a load of clichés: The surly unsympathetic boss; the mismatched, hostile partners; the public and media baying for an arrest; the obvious suspect who turns out to be innocent (especially if said subject belongs to an ethnic or sexual minority); "What've we got here?" from the detective arriving at the murder scene; etc.

The viewer who has seen and heard it too many times is tempted to jack the whole genre, especially after such duds as George Gently and the hash made out of the novels based on Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus and Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford.

But a lot of us, obviously, are drawn to detective series. I confess, without even consulting a lawyer, that I am one. With each new program I nurse the hope for something special.

Broadchurch has been a big-time ratings success in the U.K., maybe the hottest show since Downton Abbey. It's available in the States via Netflix DVDs. Broadchurch is above the baseline, though not especially because of the script. Screenwriting is virtually a lost art, most of all in well-trodden fields like police dramas. But Britain has a seemingly bottomless store of acting talent to call on, and it's evident here.

The thing is set in a small seaside town in Dorset, in southwestern England. The odd-couple detectives are Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) and Alec Hardy (David Tennant); in the first episode we learn that Hardy, who has been transferred from outside the local cop shop, has taken the lead position Ellie was expecting. Thank goodness, though, the series doesn't make a meal out of her resentment or a conflict between the two -- for the most part, they work together smoothly despite various procedural disagreements.

Tennant speaks in a Scottish accent you need a pickax to get through (unless you're Scottish). He's a bear with a permanent sore paw, who looks like he sleeps in his suit (the tie always knotted below the top shirt button) and would still wear a scowl if he were being massaged with a peacock feather.

This actor is, I understand, the most recent Doctor Who. I don't watch Doctor Who, but my wife does, and she says he was excellent. Tennant makes a strong impression, more by his portrayed unpleasant temperament as any attempt to win the audience's favor.

But it's Olivia Colman who steals scene after scene. She appears to be wrapped up in her police work to hide, especially from herself, some deep sadness. Colman has the gift of being able to express several moods at once.

The supporting roles, especially the parents of the murdered young boy who is the subject of the investigation, ably hold up their end.

We are told that the series was shot in the sequence of the episodes, with the writer and director keeping the cast in the dark about who the guilty party was until the final revelation. Supposedly this was to keep them from unconsciously signaling anything to viewers in advance. That sounds like public relations bunk, to give the media something to write about. Actors of this caliber aren't going to drop any hints by mistake. Whatever, Broadchurch is well worth a look for fans of this kind of entertainment.

Let me tell you about something even better.

A while back I wrote about the British TV series based on Swedish writer Henning Mankell's inspector Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role. Other than the compulsively watchable Branagh, I didn't find a great deal to cheer about.

There had also been two Swedish-made series centered on Wallander: The first, which ran between 1994 and 2007, starred Rolf Lassgärd. I don't think it's ever been available in the U.S. or U.K.

I was aware of a second Wallander production, first shown in 2005, but either Netflix hadn't distributed it yet or I was tired of the character and setting. Recently, though, when three seasons of the second series were offered on Netflix, curiosity drove me to check them out.

Wham. This production beats that with Branagh all hollow. For one thing, it pays attention to the rest of the cast in the investigations, not just Wallander. These are genuine ensemble pieces, not just settings for the central character.

The mood isn't exactly light -- these are murder investigations, after all -- but this Kurt Wallander doesn't wear a rain cloud for a hat like Branagh. He's troubled, but the troubles are not so much individual as  the kind that aging people have to contend with: health problems, upcoming retirement, isolation. The director keeps the tension up, without periodic interruptions for picture postcard countryside scenes.

And what a great choice for the Wallander role! Krister Henricksson amazes me every time I see him (I'm about halfway through the second season). No subtlety seems beyond him, but he can be thrillingly forceful when he needs to be. Watch the last 15 minutes or so of season two's opener, "The Revenge" (not that I'm suggesting you view it out of context) to see a top-class actor at work.

As with Broadchurch, the rest of the cast is firmly in charge of their part of the stories.

Netflix has dropped the ball, unfortunately. Before I could watch the whole first season, it took discs 5, 6, and 7 out of circulation or streaming. So you must miss about six episodes and then start with the second season, where one prominent cast member is missing and several new ones have appeared.

Johanna Sällström, who played (very well) the important role of Linda, Wallander's daughter and a uniformed policewoman in his outfit, committed suicide in real life. It's just incomprehensible. I am not against assisted suicide for the very old who have incurable illnesses and are in constant pain, but what could drive a beautiful young woman, who had already reached a high level of achievement in her profession, presumably had plenty of money, and was in good health, to peg out by her own choice? The human mind is an insoluble mystery. 

Anyway, Linda had to be written out of the script, but I would have liked to see how it was handled as well as to have the pleasure of watching Henricksson more. (Off topic: I am guessing that Swedish names by now are conventional, and that Krister Henricksson didn't have a father named Henrick.)

Netflix customers are now writing to complain that season three is only in Swedish, with no subtitles.

Whatever frustrations it entails, I can easily recommend this series.

It's not a detective story, but I'll mention the 2000 German production (with a strong Turkish component) In July. I found it so appealing I've seen it twice. The story is too lightweight to take time describing, but it's a romance balanced with just the right degree of tough-mindedness to temper the sweetness. There's something about astrological sun and moon signs that makes no sense to me, but adds a little metaphysical note to the mix.

The woman lead, Christiane Paul, is the world's most beautiful actress (or was in 2000), even with her corn-row hairstyle.