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U.S. health care system encourages cheating

Politicians are now fighting about health care reform. Many of them are defending the status quo and propose that there should be no changes, even though a report by the World Health Organization in 2000 ranked the United States in 37th place in health care after countries like Belgium, Chile, and Morocco. Many Americans do not have health insurance because they cannot afford it. Many middle-income families choose to be without health insurance even when coverage is offered by their employers because of the cost. In 2005, approximately 47 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, did not have health insurance.

The medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry benefit from the current system and consistently pressure congress to avoid changes. People who work for employers that offer medical Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSA) also benefit by cheating the system.

A medical Flexible Spending Arrangement allows you to set aside part of your yearly salary for health expenses. The limit is usually from two to five thousand dollars. This money is not taxed, but if you don't spend the money within the tax year that you allocated it, you lose it. People who have large medical expenses generally use all that they allocate. People with normal health expenses who use the money for prescriptions, medical deductibles, and over-the-counter drugs may risk to lose a lot of money unless they cheat. But cheating is easy. Toward the end of the year, when people know that they are not going to need the FSA money, they go to one or more drugstores to buy items that can be returned unopened. They buy crutches, blood pressure monitors, glucose meters, and any other items that qualify under the FSA plan. They then send copies of the receipts to the FSA administrator to get a check for their "medical expenses". Once they have the FSA check, the original receipts and the unopened items are brought back to the stores to get complete refunds. In essence, these people receive tax-free income corresponding to the cost of the fake medical expenses.

Medicare Health Insurance is also subject to a lot of fraud. It is not unusual for people with impaired cognitive abilities or a poor knowledge of English to sign multiple blank forms for goods and services which a dishonest provider will use to obtain money from the government. Medicare patients may notice unusual charges made on their behalf, but they usually do not complain because they get what they need from the provider at no cost. Let us say that a patient needs some specialized walker or equipment for mobility, but Medicare will only cover a portion of the cost. The shrewd (and dishonest) provider will tell the Medicare patient to sign two forms to get the item free. One of the forms will be used by the provider to cover part of the cost. The other form will be filled out with some fictitious claim that will cover the rest of the cost, plus a nice bonus for the provider. It is a win-win situation. Right?

Learn about Medicare Health Insurance

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MaineBob OConnor said,
2009-07-07 @ 23:52:24

Two things... I am a strong proponent of "Single Payer" "Medicare for All" plan. But Single Payer has not been allow at the table because the politicians have been paid off bigtime by drug and ins companies. The second part is to have a government plan that prevents waste as outlined by Dr. Gawande in the New Yorker article: "Cost Conundrum" [http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/06/01/090601fa_fact_gawande ]

"According to Gawande, switching to a single-payer system won't in itself control medical costs. He gives examples of communities where Medicare is the prime payer but where overall health care costs are extremely high. He also gives examples of US communities where health care costs are low. The difference is that in the expensive communities the model of medicine as a for-profit business predominates -- which leads to unnecessary tests, procedures and medication. In the low costs communities (such as where the Mayo Clinic is) physicians have banded together and created organizations in which patient care, not profit, is the primary driving force."

Lots of interesting facts and analysis, like:

"Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later?" [http://www.opednews.com/populum/diarypage.php?did=13502 ]

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How to pick your own blueberries

Wild blueberries can be found around lakes in acid soil. The good thing about wild blueberries is that they are free, but you are competing with animals like birds, bears and deer. Don't go into the woods alone. Go with someone else so that you can watch out for each other. Picking berries in a farm is a lot easier. In a couple of hours, you can collect many pounds of blueberries. The cost of picking your own berries is usually less than half of what you would pay at a store.

Wear appropriate clothing because you may get some blueberry stains. Wear comfortable shoes, and before you go out on the field, spray your pant legs, socks and shoes with insect repellent. This simple precaution will keep ticks from crawling up your legs. A hat with a large brim will protect you from the sun. And don't forget to take a basket or a bucket with a handle to hold the berries that you collect. You will probably step on some blueberries in the field. Clean your shoes when you get back home before stepping on any light-colored rugs.

The best blueberries are plump with a light gray-blue color. Berries that look red are not completely ripe, but they have a nice tart taste. Do not pick green blueberries; leave them on the bush so that they can ripen later. Blueberries tend to grow in clumps. There are two ways of harvesting them. You can hold the bucket under the bunch with one hand, while you release the ripe ones into the bucket with the other hand. But if your bucket is already too heavy to do this, you can leave the bucket on the ground, cup both hands under the bunch of blueberries, and with the tips of your fingers release the ripe ones into your hands.

Blueberries can be frozen without washing, and then they can be rinsed and drained before they are served. It is also possible to wash the blueberries before freezing them, as long as they are drained well so that the berries freeze individually and do not stick to each other.

Blueberries are low in calories and very nutritious. One cup of blueberries has 84 calories. Most of these calories come from about 20 grams of carbohydrates. One cup of blueberries has about 5% of the daily nutritional requirements of Vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), and B6 (pyridoxine). In addition, one cup of blueberries has 16% of the RDA for Vitamin C, 6% of Vitamin E, and 24% of Vitamin K. The blue color in blueberries is due to anthocyanins, and other antioxidant pigments and phytochemicals that may play a role in reducing the risks of some diseases.

There are hundreds of recipes that use blueberries, but the simplest are always the best:

This is my recipe for a blueberry milkshake with 344 calories:
1-1/2 cup skim milk
1/2 cup blueberries
2 tablespoons whey protein
1 teaspoon flax seed oil

Learn how to lose weight

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Nicotine is highly addictive

Today, President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The new legislation will put cigarettes under the control of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and will allow regulation of the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco products. The bill is expected to make it harder for minors to start smoking.

Before signing the bill at a White House ceremony, Obama said:
Almost 90 percent of all smokers began at or before their 18th birthday. I know -- I was one of these teenagers, and so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it's been with you for a long time.

President Obama has unsuccessfully fought against tobacco addiction. His wife Michelle has asked him repeatedly to quit, but he has not been able to do it completely. Obama has tried to quit smoking by chewing Nicorette Gum which contains nicotine.

Although nicotine is highly addictive, there are many social situations and daily rituals that establish Pavlovian reflexes and strengthen the urge to smoke. Put a cup of coffee in front of a smoker, and immediately they reach for their cigarettes. The nicotine addiction can be eliminated by gradually decreasing the daily dose, but the psychological factors that make it hard to quit require a radical restructuring of the smoker's social life.

Learn about the psychological reasons for smoking

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Comparing Blosxom and Wordpress weblogs

The old adage that "necessity is the mother of invention" is so true. When we are frustrated, or our current approach to a problem does not produce satisfactory results, we often try something else, and in the process we may discover something new.

I have had a WordPress blog since May of 2007. At the time, I did not know much about how blogs worked, and used the cookie-cutter approach provided by my web hosting service. I started learning about WordPress themes, syndication, database backups, MySQL databases, phpMyAdmin, and many technical details that were necessary to interface the blog with my website seamlessly and reliably.

All was well until, one day, I noticed that the RSS subscription to my own blog had not been updated. When I investigated, I found that my WordPress blog had been hacked. Someone had modified the WordPress wp-blog-header.php file and added some code that would divert search engine requests to a variety of casino and porno sites. The code was clever enough to avoid diverting direct accesses to the blog, thus reducing the chance of detection of the hack by someone who accessed the blog directly. I restored the original code, and determined that the hack had been made possible by a buffer overflow through the blog comments. I modified the WordPress code to prevent further changes. I described the technique here.

My original WordPress database was in Latin-1 code page and I wanted to convert it to UTF-8 to make internationalization easier. At the same time, I decided to upgrade the original version of WordPress that I had been using to the latest and greatest version. Disaster! The intelligible permanent links stopped working because the permalinks plugin from my host was not compatible with the new version of WordPress. The solution required being able to modify the .htaccess file, which I was not allowed to do on my host system. Disappointed, I decided to use an ugly default link format, and I had to modify my 404 processing (for pages not found) so that requests for pages from "permanent" links to my blog would be converted to blog searches to try to find the blog post.

It was at this time that I started looking for blogging alternatives to WordPress that did not involve a database, and I found Blosxom. Comparing WordPress to Blosxom is like comparing a modern automobile to a horse and buggy. They both can get you to the same place, but the ride in the horse carriage requires a lot more tending. So it is with Blosxom, but after a couple of days, I was able to convert my WordPress blog for use by Blosxom. The real strength of Blosxom becomes evident if you want to create static web pages and remove the dependency on PHP and MySQL. The dynamic version of Blosxom also works well, but unless you are a good Perl programmer, you better stick with WordPress. If you are still interested, click on the following link.

Learn how to convert a WordPress Blog to Blosxom

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Shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. opened in 1993 as a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazi persecution during World War II. The museum contains belongings of some of the victims, film footage of witnesses, testimony of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and pictures of the ghettos, gas chambers, and detention camps. The museum is a gruesome place that serves to remind us of the malice that one person can inflict on another.

On June 10, 2009, an 88-year old man who had a record as a white supremacist, brought a rifle into the museum and shot a guard. The shooter was immediately shot by security staff, thus preventing further chaos. At the time, there were many school children touring the museum and they fortunately escaped injury due to the fast action of the security staff.

In trying to find the motivation for the shooting, the news media have reported that the shooter had a long history of writing hateful racist and anti-Semitic diatribes, and that he had been arrested in 1981 for entering a Federal building with a handgun and a shotgun for the purpose of holding hostage the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board so that he could voice his opinions through the news media.

How is it that someone who emanates so much hatred and who has shown dangerous tendencies is free to walk the streets? It is equally incomprehensible that Muslims, Christians, and Jews should hate each other, given that the Biblical patriarch Abraham established the principles of monotheism practiced by all three religions. Frequently, Christians often forget that Jesus himself was Jewish. Is a harmonious world too much to hope for?

Learn about Famous Jews

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Lucky Numbers Gadget - New directions in the Internet

There is a revolution in the way people communicate with each other. Newspapers are getting thinner or going out of business. Television programs keep saying "go to our website for more details". Almost everybody has a cell phone, and cell phones have evolved into multi-function devices that, besides carrying voice messages, take pictures or act like Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that show maps and provide directions. The cell phones also can store and play your favorite music. Many of these advances are due to the way that the Internet is developing.

Google has become the major search engine in the world and neither Yahoo nor MSN (now Bing) comes close to the breadth and depth of coverage that Google offers. The greatest handicap for finding information has been the multiplicity of languages in the world. Google is making great strides in its statistical translation approach. A user can search in other languages and have the results translated into his native language. It is now possible to search information in Arabic or Russian even if you don't know these languages. The translations are somewhat rudimentary, but they are understandable. I can imagine that in twenty years many language barriers will disappear.

One of the latest trends in the Internet is the use of gadgets which perform functions such as displaying the weather, news, or other useful information. Gadgets are XML containers with HTML and JavaScript that may be easily manipulated within web pages. To get familiar with the technology, I developed the Lucky Numbers Gadget illustrated above. It is amazing what you can do with less than 90 lines of code. Anybody can now develop customized web pages by selecting the gadgets that they find most useful.

You can add the Lucky Numbers gadget to your iGoogle web page by pressing the button: Add to Google

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Nutrition of cruciferous Vegetables - Kale

Kale is a leafy green vegetable belonging to the Brassica family, a group of vegetables that includes cabbage, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts. Half a cup of chopped, boiled kale has only 18 calories, 30% of the daily requirement (RDA) of Vitamin C, and enough Vitamin A and Vitamin K for the whole day. Vitamin A is required for the formation of rhodopsin, a photoreceptor pigment in the retina. Vitamin K controls the formation of coagulation factors in the liver.

The sulfur-containing phytonutrients in cabbage, broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables have been shown to reduce the occurrence of a wide variety of cancers. It is thought that the sulfurous compounds activate detoxifing enzymes in the liver that help neutralize substances that are potentially carcinogenic.

A study found that people who ate the most cruciferous vegetables had a 29% lower risk of bladder cancer than those eating the least of this family of vegetables.[1] Another study found reduced intestinal polyps when the diet contained sulforaphane.[2] Sulforaphane is an isothiocyanate that is present abundantly in broccoli and cauliflower.

Kale, broccoli, and cabbage should be in your menu if you are trying to lose weight while maintaining good nutrition.

Learn more about vitamins

[1] Zhao H, Lin J, Grossman HB, Hernandez LM, Dinney CP, Wu X. Dietary isothiocyanates, GSTM1, GSTT1, NAT2 polymorphisms and bladder cancer risk. Int J Cancer. 2007 May 15;120(10):2208-13. 2007. PMID:17290402.

[2] Hu R, Khor TO, Shen G, Jeong WS, Hebbar V, Chen C, Xu C, Reddy B, Chada K, Kong AN. Cancer chemoprevention of intestinal polyposis in ApcMin/+ mice by sulforaphane, a natural product derived from cruciferous vegetable. Carcinogenesis. 2006 May 4; 2006. PMID:16675473.

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Ectomorph, Mesomorph, and Endomorph Body Types

Body Types

In the 1940's, psychologist William Herbert Sheldon proposed a classification of human physique into three categories. An ectomorph is a thin person with small muscles and a delicately built body. A mesomorph has well-defined muscles, large bones, and a torso that tapers to a well-defined waist. An endomorph has a rounded stocky body. The words endomorphic, mesomorphic and ectomorphic are still used to describe body types in association with weight training for the purpose of gaining muscle, but modern science is dispelling the idea that body shape is an intrinsic feature that cannot be altered. Only the bones seem to remain constant as a person gains or loses weight.

When I developed the Calorie Restriction Calculator, one of the criticisms was that it does not take into consideration the body types. If it were possible to quantify the body type, the calculation of %CR could be made more accurate. Recently, I came across some digital human modeling work done under Professor Zoran Popović at the University of Washington. His team has used measurements from 250 human body models and created a parametrization set that allows generation of a variety of applications for human body modeling, including: morphing, texture transfer, statistical analysis of shape, and the modification of multiple correlated parameters such as the weight and height of an individual.[1,2] The software makes it possible to visualize how persons look when they get fat or lose weight.

[1] Digital Humans. [link]
[2] The space of human body shapes: reconstruction and parameterization from range scans. [link]

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What is the difference between diets?

Before and After

As the waistlines of Americans expand, so do the number of diet books in library shelves. There is such a huge number of diet books, that it is impossible to figure out which one is the best. Every doctor who writes a book claims to have a superior diet, and all doctors criticize each other's diets. The average person is completely confused because they don't know whom to trust. The problem is compounded because anybody, even celebrities who know nothing of nutrition, can write diet books.

The purpose of a diet is to provide guidelines for healthful eating, but most diet books also give advice about how to lose excess weight. A basic diet is supposed to provide adequate amounts of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and trace minerals. The total number of calories can then be regulated to allow weight loss or to maintain weight. The differences in the diets like Atkins, South Beach, Ornish, and others, depends on the proportions and sources of proteins and fats. The Atkins diet allows a variety of meats, whereas the Ornish diet is mostly vegetarian. The big differences in the diets seem to be:

How much exercise should you get? Some diets emphasize exercise as a way of burning extra calories and firming up muscles.

How much protein should you eat? Protein provides satiety and makes you less hungry. High protein diets like the Protein Power Plan or the Zone Diet say that approximately 30% of the calories should come from protein sources such as meats, poultry, fish, and dairy.

What percent of your diet should be fat? The range can be anywhere from 15% to 50%. The Ornish diet tends toward the lower end of the range. The types of fats are also important. Fats are structural components of the body. The brain, for example, consists of 60% fat. Hydrogenated fats and trans fats are harmful for the heart and the brain. Polyunsturated fats, like those in walnuts, reduce cholesterol levels, whereas saturated fats from animal fats and tropical oils like coconut and palm kernel, increase cholesterol levels.

How many calories should you eat? This depends on whether you want to lose weight or maintain weight for a specific level of activity. Sedentary people need fewer calories than people who exercise. One hour of vigorous exercise burns approximately 400 calories.

What proportion of carbohydrates should you eat? This usually is decided by the amount of protein and fat in the diet. The real question is what type of carbohydrates should be consumed. Starchy carbohydrates don't have enough vitamins and nutrients to meet normal requirements, and excess starch is stored as fat in the body. Leafy green and non-starchy vegetables are nutritionally superior.

How do you spread your calorie intake over time?
Some diets say that it better to eat five small meals throughout the day to minimize insulin spikes. Other diets advocate taking most of the calories in one main meal to get the body into a ketogenic, fat-burning mode during the fasting period.

The success of a diet to lose weight depends on being able to maintain a lower calorie intake without being deprived. This is easier to achieve with high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets.

Learn more about weight control and diets

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FDA warns Cheerios about cholesterol claims

Cheerios cholesterol claim

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a notice to General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, saying that the claims that the cereal lowers cholesterol and treats heart disease are inappropriate. The FDA allows food labels to highlight some health benefits, but the language of those statements is highly regulated.

One of the missions of the FDA is to protect the public from snake oil salesmen who want to make a buck selling fake elixirs for health and longevity. The FDA is heavily lobbied by the pharmaceutical industry, and the agency often rules against claims for natural products that would divert profits away from drug manufacturers. The claim from General Mills that Cheerios can "lower cholesterol 4 percent in 6 weeks" is objectionable to the FDA because companies are not allowed to quantify the benefit of foods.

We never hear the whole story. The level of cholesterol in the body is regulated by the balance of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids in our diet. The level is also affected by the cholesterol in animal products that we eat, by hydrogenated fats, and by the amount of soluble fiber in our diet. Oats are a good source of soluble fiber, and it is an ingredient of Cheerios. (Learn more about controlling cholesterol)
Promise Fat Free Nonfat Margarine Promise Fat Free Nonfat Margarine

The FDA tries to protect consumers from false claims, but it does a very poor job. The rules for food labeling have so many loopholes, that PAM cooking spray, which is basically 100% fat, can claim that it can be used for "Fat Free Cooking" by specifying an unrealistically small serving size. Also, Promise Fat Free Nonfat Margarine can claim that a serving has 0 grams of fat by hiding all the fatty acids as mono- and diglycerides.

In 2003, I wrote a letter to the FDA asking for changes to the labeling rules to prevent these abuses, but my request was denied. You can read about it in the web pages about Food Labels.
Learn about Food Labels

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