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15 Apr 23:01


by mugumogu

Security is the greatest enemy.

By tag play, Maru drove Hana into the cat tower.

Hana:[An opening!]

Hey Maru, security is the greatest enemy.

”BEAR’S365ぬいぐるみの帽子 ”
13 Apr 11:52


by mandy@ladyandpups

Two of my favorite foods... but together? I'm intrigued.




three cheese oyster gratin01

three cheese oyster gratin02

Hello.  Sorry.  I think it’s been awhile.  I don’t know if there was a guideline on the Successful Food Blogging Manual specifically on post-frequencies, but I’m sure an entire week of blankness and neglect would on the other hand, dominate the entire Troubleshoots Section (As well as questions like this: What to do when you accidentally publish an unfinished post?)(Answer: Call 911.)(And: What is a writer’s block?)(Answer: Eat a donut.).  Well, the truth is… that I wish there was a more socially excusable answer for my absence, you know, dog theft, broken hips, dead grandparents… house fire?  Because really, anything is better than what I’m about to confess, which is the silent gasps among food-bloggers, the leading Do-Not’s under the manual’s flashing red, Skull-headed Section that you should probably read before Getting Started (Side by side with: Bad-mouthing Jesus.)(And also: Cursing out children).  But the truth is that, in the past week, as honestly as I can put it… I simply got tired of foods.

Yes, if you were a food-blogger, along with the acute urge to weep after a deflated cake (Answer: Ingest alcohol and blog about that instead) and recipe-deficit (Answer: Put down the donut and make that a sandwich), this complication too can happen.  But different from how I’d imagine it, which should’ve been a natural and peaceful death following a long and beautiful journey, this temporary episode came prematurely due to a self-inflicted and unforeseeable cause.  In short, I simply got tired of foods because there had been simply, too much fooding.  Can there be such a thing?  Yes.  As briefly mentioned before, I partook in an annual Beijing’s restaurants review for a city magazine, thinking it was going to be the best blogging-perk ever, but after cramming almost twenty restaurants into the past mere four weeks (that’s 3~5 restaurants per week!), things started to get a little… overcooked.  Like a bridezilla on her third wedding, I had managed to turn the single, most appreciated aspect of my otherwise ungrateful life, into just another demeaning chore.  To say the least, it backfired.

Even though this miscalculated experiment, for my wellness sake, timely ended last Thursday, it has left me in a prolonged state of mental paralysis where I just wanted to suck my thumbs in peace and not having to come up with another word to describe a meal other than cursing it out.  I wanted to just exist… on soda crackers for a month.  Or so at least, fortunately, it only felt that way.  To my surprise as well, thanks to a book here and there, it only took a few days for the cravings to cook again to slowly creep back in, and literally, exploded over this weekend.  In hindsight, if the two dishes I made over the weekend had flopped, my mojo would’ve sank into a mental abyss so deep it would take a krispy krem-submarine to retrieve.  But no, they didn’t flop.  In fact, they were both smashing success, and one of them being what I’m about to tell you – the three cheese oyster gratin.

three cheese oyster gratin04

three cheese oyster gratin06

This recipe was inspired by what we didn’t have at Vin Vi, one of the better restaurants/izakaya we’ve dined at during this entire process, which was on their menu but unavailable the day we visited.  I’ve always loved izakaya-style cheesy grilled oysters/kaki mayo, where shucked in-shell oysters are topped with a mixture of Kewpie-mayonnaise and cheese, then go under high heat to be melted into the gloriously broken, greasy, and unapologetic beauties that they are.  Its absence from that meal (perhaps thankfully to that) had left a vacuum in my oyster-deprived heart that, even after the most vicious eating-fatigue, must be filled.  But if there was one thing I didn’t like about kaki mayo, it’d be the pool of oil they often sit on, being the aftermath of post-high heat mayonnaise that had inevitably separated.

So I substituted the mayonnaise with a thick béchamel sauce infused with dry white wine and loaded it with shredded white cheddar, gruyere, and a daring pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.  Then after blanketing the shucked oysters from all directions with this stringy goo, it was then covered again with freshly grated Parmigiano cheese, more freshly grated nutmegs (the key, people, the key), and a few/or many little nubs of unsalted butter.  Baked under the top-broiler for 13~15 minutes, the sweet oysters had released their juices to be blended as part of the cheesy pool of joy, slightly shrivelled and firmed up but still supple to the bite, smoldering under a crust of golden and bubbly surface.  I’d warn you that it was hot, but again it might had been too late.  After all, even I, who have been subjected to an entire month of human-foie gras feeding regimen and was already at the stage of over-ripened-for-harvest, couldn’t resist to (huff~ huff~ huff~) tuck one into my mouth right out of the oven and part the burning white sea with a torn piece of crusty sourdough.

And guess what, it was worth the burn, worth the paralyzing month of restaurant-hammering that ultimately led to it, worth every dragging agony to crawl back to the kitchen to make it, and now the what’s-one-more bulge of fat sticking out from places I don’t even know exist on my body.  Hey, my friends, if you ever feel tired of foods, going in or churning out.  Take a couple days off, eat some soda crackers.  Then come back, and make this.  And I promise you, all shall be good again.

three cheese oyster gratin07
three cheese oyster gratin08

three cheese oyster gratin11
three cheese oyster gratin13



  • 8~10 large shucked oysters
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) dry white wine
  • 3/4 cup (75 grams) shredded white cheddar
  • 3/4 cup (75 grams) shredded gruyere
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 1/3 tsp sea salt, plus more to adjust
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg, plus more to top
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano cheese to top


  1. Rinse and clean the oysters to get rid of any impurities, gently dab dry, then set aside. In a pot over medium heat, melt the unsalted butter then cook the flour for 1 min. Whisk in the whole milk and dry white wine, and continue whisking until the mixture comes to a simmer and has fully thickened, then keep cooking for 5~6 min until reduced slightly and the alcohol has evaporated. Turn off the heat, then add the shredded white cheddar, shredded gruyere, grated garlic, sea salt, ground black pepper, ground white pepper and freshly grated nutmeg, and stir with a fork until the cheese has fully melted (taste and re-season with sea salt if needed).
  2. Preheat the top broiler on high. In a shallow oven-proof skillet, spread 1/2 of the cheese sauce on the bottom, then arrange the oysters evenly and cover with the rest of the cheese sauce. Grate enough Parmigiano cheese to entirely cover the surface, then scatter a few extra nubs of unsalted butter here and there. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 13~15 min, until it's bubbly and golden browned. Grate another generous pinch of fresh nutmeg over the top (do not be shy with the nutmeg!), then serve immediately with crusty sourdough.
three cheese oyster gratin14

three cheese oyster gratin15
05 Apr 23:00


by mugumogu


Maru:[My clothes of today are white paper sacks.]

He heard a sound then.

And his clothes tore in no time!


03 Feb 13:00

Rotunda's Retail Plans

by Mobtown Shank

But I do love LPQ

Well, since the possibility of the Rotunda opening sometime in the next couple years has resulted in a handful of residents panicking about possible parking difficulties and screwing over the rest of the neighborhood, let's take a look at what they are so freaked about about.

Below is a leaked, tentative lease plan for the Rotunda - including businesses who've signed leases, those who have leases outstanding, those with Letters of Intent, and lots of available commercial space.

Rotundatenants Download [pdf]

Yeah. Totally looks like it's gonna be another Harbor East.

Related articles
16 Nov 23:03


by mugumogu

Hey Maru, do you have crisis management capability?

Hey Maru, do you have crisis management capability?

Maru:[Of course.]

Maru:[Look. Because danger approached to me, I protect myself.]

Hey Maru, you just put back your paws!

29 Oct 23:05


by mugumogu

No one surpasses me in the nose mustache!


Hey Hana, you look good with the glasses!
You seem to be very smart.

Hey Maru, is it the really same glasses?

Wow, the nose mustache is not so good for you.

Maru:[No one surpasses me in the nose mustache!]

02 Aug 00:45


by mugumogu

This is why we can't have nice things.

Maru goes in and out excitingly.

24 Jul 05:21

Lemongrass Miso Soup



One thing I've most enjoyed experimenting with over the past year is broth. I suppose the style of broth I'm interested in would technically be considered vegetable broth. That said, this isn't what one tends to think of as a typical vegetable broth - I rarely kick things off with the holy trinity of onion, carrots, and celery. Instead, I might focus one around a favorite chile pepper, or varietal of dried mushroom, or, in this case, lemongrass. It might be more helpful to think of this as thin, flavor-forward soup, where I attempt to build on a short list of intense flavors. I like broths to be compelling on their own, but also like them to function as a dynamic base for other preparations. Now, I know summer tends to be the time of year people rally around grilling and outdoor cooking, but I have to tell you, it's also the time of year I like a light, clean brothy soup. So the broth experiments continue. This one, in particular, was a standout - as a pot of water is on the stove, coming to a simmer, you add a host of ingredients like chopped lemongrass, shallots, ginger, tomatoes, and coriander. Simmer, season with miso, and you have a beautiful, unique component beautiful served straight, but also wonderful and surprising as a base for noodles, poached eggs, or rice soup.

Lemongrass Miso SoupLemongrass Miso SoupLemongrass Miso SoupLemongrass Miso Soup

Are many of you making broths from scratch? To enjoy on their own, or to use as a component?...As you can imagine, I'd love to hear any favorites. I feel like a lot of cooks, home cooks in particular, make the occasional vegetable broth. Or, if you're not vegetarian/vegan, chicken broth/stock seems like it is still a quite common endeavor. But, I'm curious about any favorites or a level of enthusiasm for this sort of thing beyond that. I always love hearing what you're doing in your kitchens surrounding various themes, and I'm particularly excited about this one - I suspect you might have great ideas. xo -h

Continue reading Lemongrass Miso Soup...
28 Jul 04:00

D.B. Cooper

'Why on Earth would someone commit air piracy just to finance a terrible movie decades later?' 'People are very strange these days.'
18 Jul 20:09

Within the Acela cocoon

by David Simon
There is something about human beings compacted in a cylindrical tube, hurtling between cities at a high speed, unable to maneuver in any other manner than to, say, grab a beer from the cafe car or visit the rest room. It is lost time. And when you’ve made all your cell calls, and answered the […]
22 Jul 13:00

One Stars: John Waters' Carsick

by Mobtown Shank

by Benn Ray

Carsick_1As I've said before, I'm a huge fan of one-star "reviews" on sites that collect amateur, anonymous reviews from an unvetted audience as a form of "content".

Here are a collection of excerpts from one-star reviews from John Waters New York Times bestseller, Carsick.

"Seeing as I'm 75 and have never been into what I consider porn, straight or homosexual, I found what little I have read to be disgusting. I can't see why it was recommended by the people on Morning Joe." -Ann

You take book recommendations from Morning Joe? Wait! Morning Joe recommended Carsick?!!

"...This was awful! I brought it on a plane, and even though it was the only book I had with me, after a few chapters, I could not take it anymore...." -readerrunnermom

I know what you mean. I've been on long flights next to people like you where I felt exactly the same way.

"Absolute trash from beginning to end. ..." -Holan

You know one of John's nicknames is "The Pope Of Trash", right? That being said, you should upgrade your review to 5 stars.

"Couldn't get by the sex crap - wish I hadn't purchased it." -Paul Ashworth

"Sex crap?" Sounds like you have some hangups to work out.

"...It took me a while to figure out that the first chapters are fiction. I thought the author was simply on acid. ..." -Larry E. Naylor

John pretty much spells it all out right up front.

"This book is sick. It's set up in three sections. The 'bad' rides turned my stomach. ..." -Michael Barcelona

That was kind of the point.



"This is a truly terrible book. I bought it thinking that it would be the story of John Waters hitchhiking across America. A reasonable assumption, no? Instead, it's a collection of his fantasies, most of them without any redeeming merit. (At least that's the reality of what I read, before giving up a quarter of the way through in disgust.) ..." -David E. Arnold

If you wouldn't have given up, you would have eventually gotten to the point of the book you're looking for. A little patience goes a long way.

"... There are certain things that I do not understand: Kim Kardashian's fame, rap music, horror pictures, Jello, blood sausages, and comb-overs. Now, I have to add John Waters. ...After I read the first eight chapters that covered his imaginary best hitchhiking trips, I was happy that I did not continue on to read his imaginary worst trips. While his material is high on imagination, it's low on content. In my opinion, the product is over-the-top, weird, perverted, and most important, not funny. ..." -bobbyr

Coming from someone who claims to not understand rap, Jello, blood sausages or horror pictures, you pretty much invalidate your own review.

"... Am sorry I ever wasted my money on this total waste of time and money. Will never buy another book by this author again." -David Goulhart

Are there other "total wastes of time and money" you aren't sorry for wasting your money on? Can you give examples?

"This was a waste of my money. Mr. Waters, you are full of yourself.... " -Corredor

Right - how dare an author make themselves the subject of their own book. The nerve!

"I stopped reading about halfway through. Waters mentions the recent discovery that Travels With Charlie was totally fabricated in the prologue, then tells a pulp hitchhiking story that’s so racy and short on detail as to seem even more fictional. There’s far too much luck and coincidence, and too little character development or discussion of the challenges of hitchhiking for this story to seem remotely plausible." -rs695

You do get the first 2/3s of the book was fiction right? As an astute reader, you did pick up on that?

"I don't believe a word of it. I want my money back. Fiction is fine, but if I wanted that I would have bought it." -Shoehorse

Actually, that's what you did buy. Fictitious fantasy stories. Nightmare stories. Then real stories. It's right in the front of the book.

"John Waters' writing, like his movies, are clearly an acquired which I, apparently, have not acquired. An unending saga of sexual escapades, real or not, this book is certainly NOT Travels with Charlie...." -Dohn D. Boyd

At least this "critic" acknowledges the problem is they have no taste.

"I called BS before his first ride was over-- when a stranger gives him $5 million cash to make a movie, explaining that he got rich selling pot and the money was chump change to him. I gave up on the book after 6 rides. That first ride was actually the most believable. ... I assumed this thing was supposed to be some parody of Fear and Loathing meets Alice in Wonderland, but when I poked around the Internet, apparently the author is claiming this to a a true story. Alice in Wonderland is more believe-able. This man tells stories like an 8 year old, not a 68 year old. I'm going to call Amazon and ask for a refund. This is the most ridiculous book I've ever downloaded." - Lindalealphamale

Can't get one by you. You figured it out. The first section was fantasy rides, the seconde section was nightmare rides, and the third was what really happened. It's not really rocket science here people.


Related articles
25 Jun 23:59


by mugumogu

I read with a cat magazine. A cat has a handedness.
This is an experiment to check the handedness of the cat.
The hand which a cat uses first is hand dominance.

Hana came over first.

Hana:[I found foods.]

Hana used the right hand first.

And she had food skillfully.

Maru came over, then.

Maru:[Wow, I found foods!]

What Maru used first is,

顔。 しかも残念、届かず!
his face. And unfortunately his face did not reach it!

Hana is right-handed.
And Maru is......face?


24 May 00:05


by mugumogu

This cat is such a jerk. I love him.

Happy 7th birthday!

Because the hat is brown, Maru's back figure does not almost change.

As a special plan of Maru's birthday, I made this with videos of 2013.


22 Apr 20:39

Keep On Ramen In The Free World

by Peter

Zack - let's make some fancy noodles.

The container of bones, a more or less permanent denizen of the fridge, was particularly full recently; I had grilled a couple of chickens on a lovely afternoon when some friends came over and there were also two beef bones from a decadent ribeye dinner a few evenings prior. There aren’t a lot of bones that make better stock than grilled chicken, and the addition of some deep beefiness to that flavor was too tempting to resist. I needed to make ramen.

Lacking kansui, the alkaline salts used to impart a yellow color and characteristic chew to the noodles, I used Harold McGee’s nifty trick: if you bake baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) for an hour or so at around 300˚F, you end up with sodium carbonate, one of the two components of kansui and a stronger alkali than bicarb. I used a teaspoon in two cups of AP flour, plus a handful of gluten, with about a cup of water, and let it knead in the mixer for about ten minutes. Then I wrapped and rested it in the fridge.

The extra gluten and alkali make for a seriously springy dough, much more rubbery than regular pasta dough with or without eggs. It required many more trips than usual through the pasta roller on the thickest setting before it was supple enough to begin cranking the rollers closer together. If you try this, remember that it will look like a shit show for the first few minutes. I stopped at the second-narrowest setting, then rested the sheets for a bit before running them through the spaghetti cutter. I made the noodles into little nests and tossed them in plenty of flour until it was time to cook them.

About 45 seconds is enough at a rolling boil. I had skimmed, strained, and seasoned the stock, soft-boiled some eggs, and chopped some wild chives and mustard greens. The last of the homemade sambal added the perfect punctuation. It’s deeply satisfying to make food this compelling with a minimum of effort. Once the garden really gets going, I’ll revisit this with different greens, fresh peas, and kimchi.

17 Apr 23:14


by mugumogu

Maru:[What is this strange thing?]

This is a shelf for cats which I can fit up without making a hole in the wall.

Maru:[Does a cat like such a thing?]

I think so.

27 Mar 23:15


by mugumogu

Maru is relaxed on the sofa.

Maru:[I have a bad feeling.]
Hana:[I want to go there, too.]

Hana:[Hey, may I sit down next to you?]

Because Maru was not angry when Hana touched him, she sat down next to him.

Maru:[Because I have a big heart almost as same as this face, I permit it. ]

Hana grew up!

10 Feb 13:41

Why Volkswagen is helping a union organize its own plant

by Lydia DePillis
The UAW's messaging around the works council idea. (

The UAW's messaging around the works council idea. (

This week at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., 1,570 workers will vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers. It's a big deal: While the big three American carmakers are all unionized, so far the foreign companies have avoided it by locating in Southern states with strong Right to Work laws. From their perspective, unions usually just mean work stoppages, expensive benefit plans, and the inability to fire people at will.

That's what's weird about the VW vote: The German company is campaigning for the UAW, not against it, in a kind of employer-union partnership America has seldom seen. What gives?

Well, VW is kind of different, as automakers go. It understands how having a union can boost productivity and allow it greater flexibility in adjusting to downturns. It should know: The rest of its plants are unionized too.

This would also be something new for the United Auto Workers. They wouldn't have the same relationship with VW as they do with Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford. Rather, the idea is to create something called a "works council," which are widespread across Europe and enjoy tremendous influence over how plants are run. In America, that kind of body can't be established without a union vote -- but crucially, the works council would be independent of the union, meaning the UAW would give up some control as soon as it gained it.

While the details of the arrangement would be ironed out after the election, works councils -- which are elected by all workers in a factory, both blue and white collar, whether or not they belong to the union -- usually help decide things like staffing schedules and working conditions, while the union bargains on wages and benefits. They have the right to review certain types of information about how the company is doing financially, which often means that they're more sympathetic towards management's desire to make cutbacks when times are tough. During the recession, for example, German works councils helped the company reduce hours across the board rather than laying people off, containing unemployment until the economy recovered.

In the early 1990s, Harvard labor law expert Paul C. Weiler interviewed managers about why they valued works councils. One representative executive told him:

There are three major advantages of councils. You're forced to consider in your decision making process the effect on the employees in advance…this avoids costly mistakes. Second, works councils will in the final run support the company. They will take into account the pressing needs of the company more than a trade union can, on the outside. And third, works councils explain and defend certain decisions of the company towards the employees. Once decisions are made, they are easier to implement.

In that way, works councils can be an ally of management in keeping the business strong for the sake of keeping workers employed over the long term. Weiler was given this example:

[The parent company made] an agreement with the works council to introduce a flexible work-time system, around-the-clock operation through Saturday, starting again Sunday night. They were under tremendous pressure from the union not to do this, but let us go ahead. We couldn't have gotten that out of the union.… Our works council people are not hostile to rationalization of automation. On the contrary, they ask us to automate, to modernize our machinery so that our operations can be competitive. They say, 'We know that we lose jobs by this, but we agree that this is a good thing.'

Works councils are also typically not allowed to call strikes, but they also don't usually need to, because their authority is baked into their agreements with the company (and, in Europe, usually enforced by law). If the UAW wants to strike over wages and benefits, it's still able to do so, but the likelihood of arriving at a mutually agreeable solution without one is much higher.

That's why VW wants its plant to go union. According to VW's global works council leader, Bernard Osterloh, the company even sees its culture of worker codetermination as a "competitive advantage."

That doesn't mean, however, that the vote is unopposed. National anti-union groups and the state's Republican leaders are campaigning against the UAW, saying unionization will spread like a contagion through Tennessee's other auto plants. “Then it’s BMW, then it’s Mercedes, then it’s Nissan, hurting the entire Southeast if they get the momentum," said Sen. Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.).

BMW likes its works councils too, though. Apparently, some politicians think they know what's good for auto makers better than the companies do themselves.

27 Jan 23:33


by mugumogu

Same thing happens in our house, daily.

Hey, Hana!

Hana:[Yes, I get it!]

When I and Hana are playing,

Maru:[I watch you.]

Hey Maru, let's play together!


Maru:[It's my turn!]


08 Dec 23:32


by mugumogu

What a strong unity power!

26 Nov 23:05


by mugumogu

Maru is relaxed in the box.

Maru:[How peaceful the inside of a box is!]


Maru:[This box became tight suddenly. Why?]

21 Nov 21:05

U.S. to propose allowing cell phones during flights

by Brian Fung


The nation’s top telecom regulator is planning to propose allowing passengers to make cellphone calls and use their data plans while on an airliner, officials said Thursday. Read more at the Switch.

31 Oct 18:47

Did the Salem Witches of 1692 Suffer from Food Poisoning?

by David Walpuck

Rumors of witchcraft began spreading through the Salem Massachusetts colony prior to 1692 and helped fuel the turmoil between the different religious sects in the area. Life at that time was strictly governed by the church. Music, dancing and the celebration of holidays were forbidden because the belief was this activity was Pagan. Ironically, the only celebrating tolerated was for the agricultural harvest.

The children of John Goodwin, a local mason, apparently were tempted by the Devil himself to steal linen from an old woman named Mary Glover who was miserable and often described as a “Witch”. She allegedly retaliated and was accused of casting a spell on the Goodwin children for their crime. When four of the six kids began to suffer from the “Disease of Astonishment,” with symptoms of hallucinations, back and neck pain, random outcries and loss of neurological control over body functionality, witchcraft was implicated and so began the craze of 1692.

Crops of rye were grown in the Salem vicinity around the time when many individuals were deemed “Possessed” by the Court of Law. The cold winter followed by a wet spring caused “Claviceps” (a group of fungi) to grow on some of the grains. The “Ergot” fungus blight, which formed an alkaloid producing mold was toxic and actually caused the strange behaviors exemplified by the people who were thought to be affected by witchcraft. A foodborne intoxication occurred when the contaminated rye was consumed and this theory was not discovered until 1976 by Linda Caporael.

Adulterated food can kill you in more ways than one.

Nineteen of the accused witches were hanged to death. Their bodies cut from the trees and throw into shallow ditches only to be recovered by family members under the cover of darkness and buried in unmarked graves. Others refused to testify in court and were subject to “Peine Forte Et Dure” where they were placed under rocks and pressed with the heavy load until information was disclosed or in one case, crushed to death.

Most of the evidence used to convict the witches in 1692 was “Spectral,” where the accused admitted to seeing a ghostly apparition, shape or Devil afflict them with the loss of body control, delirium and odd speech.

This tragic case of American history can repeat itself in the sometimes complacent food service industry in regards to food safety. Just like in 1692, some people are unaware of the ever changing, “Emerging” pathogenic dangers that are out there. Education through training is paramount in protecting the health and well-being of today’s consumer.

Unfortunately in some cases, it is the liability — not the witchcraft — that motivates compliance.

28 Oct 04:38


by mugumogu

I don't understand anything about anything.

Maru:[Hello, I am a Bake-danuki Maru. I will transform myself.]


[Hello, I am a butternut squash Maru.]

18 Oct 04:00

Reverse Identity Theft

I asked a few friends whether they'd had this happen, then looked up the popularity of their initials/names over time.  Based on those numbers, it looks like there must be at least 750,000 people in the US alone who think 'Sure, that's probably my email address' on a regular basis.
02 Oct 18:58

Grover Norquist on Ted Cruz: ‘He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away’

by Ezra Klein

If Grover Norquist thinks you're an asshole, you're definitely an asshole.

Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform and the creator of the anti-tax pledge that nearly every Republican in Congress has signed. We spoke on Tuesday about the government shutdown and its consequences for his agenda. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

"V" for "very low taxes." (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

"V" for "very low taxes." (Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post)


Ezra Klein: So, do you think a shutdown is good for the issues and ideas you’re trying to push?

Grover Norquist: Not necessarily. I think the original plan for the Republicans was to move the continuing resolution past the debt ceiling and then to sit down with Obama and decide whether he would be willing to trade some relaxation of the sequester for significant reforms of entitlements. That was something Obama might well do. Democrats in the House and the Senate are very concerned about caps and limits in sequestration. Republicans could get significant long-term entitlement reform -- all on the spending side, I’m assured by leadership -- for some relaxation of sequester.

Something like that might’ve worked out. There was also the possibility, and I was an advocate, of pushing for delay. I thought Obama might do that. And even if he didn’t, I liked the idea of a two-month conversation over how Obama has delayed Obamacare for big business and big contributors and organized labor but not for you. So how about all Americans get treated equally and we have rule of law and delay everything? Obama was thoughtful enough to time Obamacare and its taxes to kick in after he was safely reelected. Those senators running in 2014 were not given the same courtesy. Why not give them that?

EK: That sounds like the strategy that got us the shutdown, though.

GN: No, the leverage isn’t the debt ceiling. It’s not the CR. It’s the sequester. Democrats think this is desperate privation. It’s like the Kennedy kids with only one six-pack. They feel they’ve never been so mistreated. So there’s something they want. And there’s something Republicans want. So you could see a deal there. And the leverage was the sequester. That’s what struck me as what leadership was thinking about, and it made a great deal of sense.

The second thought was to have a conversation over the one-year delay. A two-month conversation about delay would be healthy for the body politic. And maybe you’d get the delay. There’s no shame in the delay. Microsoft is always delaying Office. You could do it without humiliating the president.

But that’s not what we did. Ted Cruz, from left field, said we have to defund Obamacare permanently in this CR. If they offered the Keystone pipeline and the privatization of Fannie and Freddie you couldn’t take that. We only want this, and we only want it on Tuesday -- Wednesday is no good. The debt ceiling is no good. So that got locked in as a principle. And people went out on talk radio and said if you’re not for this you’re a coward, you’re a RINO.

EK: And that got in the way of the larger strategy?

GN: I’m cheerful because every Republicans is for repeal of Obamacare. When’s the last time we passed a big government entitlement and every Republican opposed it and kept pointing out that it’s a mistake? There’s unanimity among Republicans. They all voted against the thing being created and for it being repealed.

The only confusion that comes out is that Cruz stood on the side and confused people about the fact that every Republican agrees. He said if you don’t agree with my tactic and with the specific structure of my idea, you’re bad. He said if the House would simply pass the bill with defunding he would force the Senate to act. He would lead this grass-roots movement that would get Democrats to change their mind. So the House passed it, it went to the Senate, and Ted Cruz said, oh, we don’t have the votes over here. And I can’t find the e-mails or ads targeting Democrats to support it. Cruz said he would deliver the votes and he didn’t deliver any Democratic votes. He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away.

So then the House said, breaking completely with Cruz because Cruz thinks if you’re not defunding the whole thing it’s treason, that there’s delay. There’s getting rid of medical device taxes. They’ve done a series of things to hold together Republicans and break with Cruz. But because we started with the Cruz approach this got to the shutdown.

EK: What do you think happens next?

GN: I think the president must think he can spin a government shutdown. I think he’s already screwed it up. Putting up barriers so guys in wheelchairs can’t go to the World War II memorial. It’s an open-air memorial. They put up those barriers in the middle of the night. They did it on overtime!

The president threatened not to pay the military. So Republicans passed the bill paying the military. Democrats threatened to not pay veterans. So Republicans are passing a bill to pay veterans. Democrats cannot with a straight face blame Republicans for any of the things that happen in these agencies. It’s the president playing politics. I think it puts him in an awkward position.

And now we have a series of Democrats running for the Senate trying desperately to show they’re not clones of Reid and Obama, and they just made them vote once again for Obamacare. Just to remind everybody. We have enough votes in the last few days showing these Democrats do what Harry Reid and Barack Obama want and not what North Carolina and Arkansas and Alaska want. I don’t think Reid’s paying attention to what he’s doing to his candidates.

Look, these were the guys who thought sequestration was a great win for them and who made 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent. The Bush tax cuts were an upper hand he could have used to control the country for years. If he would have extended it for a year we’d be talking about whether there should be a tax increase right now. You shouldn’t spend too much time thinking you’re dealing with political geniuses here.

EK: Walk me through the endgame though. The day before the shutdown ends, what will have happened in Washington? 

GN: Unlike some other institutions in this town, I work to give some reasonable advice to members of Congress and shape public opinion. But I don’t micromanage the negotiations of House and Senate guys with the White House or stand outside the negotiations and announce somebody should lay down a nonnegotiable demand with a tactic and a date attached to it.

Republicans have their principles. Let’s have health-care be more consumer-oriented, let’s not raise taxes, let’s reform government. I could imagine many things that would work inside those principles, but I’m not in Obama’s head. I don’t know how he values those things. If I were him I’d trade some money off the sequester today for reforms in entitlements that take place a long time from now. Those reforms will be done by somebody. You might as well get something for them. Someday Republicans will hold the White House and the Senate and they’ll pass the Ryan plan. You might as well get something for it.

EK: One aspect of this that you mention quite a bit, but that’s been somewhat lost in the debate, is that Republicans have really managed to hold the spending levels in the CR down. They’re below the original Ryan budget, for instance, and well below what President Obama and the Senate Democrats wanted. Yet Republicans feel like they’re failing because they’re focused on Obamacare. Do you think Republicans are winning on spending?

GN: Yes, absolutely. We won in 2011 and then again with the president making 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent. We really did get caps and sequestration that limits government spending. If we just went home and put the government on autopilot it would be a win. This Republican Congress has made a fundamental shift in the size of government equation.

Sequester is the big win. It defines the decade. You still have to fix long-term entitlements, but the other team isn’t willing to do that. So you either wait for a Republican president and the Ryan plan or you get people so concerned about sequestration that they’re willing to come to the table and fix entitlements long-term.

EK: You say the other side isn’t willing to fix entitlements. But President Obama has a budget that includes chained-CPI. It includes the same level of Medicare savings that Ryan includes over the next decade. They’ve said they’re open to a deal on Social Security. They say the problem is that your side simply refuses to accept any tax increases -- even if it’s just in the form of cutting tax breaks -- as part of the deal and that that’s what is standing in the way of fixing entitlements.

GN: We’re in favor of phasing out any and all tax credits and deductions in return for lower rates. But we’re not for the effort by the administration to cripple tax reform by taking them and spending them.

The sequester changed the dynamic. You might’ve been able to sell some Republican bean counter on the idea that raising taxes and cutting spending are the same things because they reduce the deficit. But they’re not. We’re not raising taxes for entitlement reform. The Republican leadership has been very clear all along that no tax increase is on the table and if they did chained-CPI then the part of chained-CPI that’s a tax increase would have to be offset by rate reductions or tax cuts.

The administration asking us to raise taxes is not an offer; that’s not a compromise. That’s just losing. I’m in favor of compromise. When we did the $2.5 trillion spending restraint in the BCA, we wanted $6 trillion. I considered myself very compromised. Overly reasonable.

RELATED: 19 lawmakers who say they don't deserve salaries during the shutdown

02 Oct 05:02

A Few Ways the Government Shutdown Could Harm Your Health (and the World’s)

by Maryn McKenna

This was originally published Oct. 1 on Maryn McKenna’s Superbug Blog, hosted by Wired Science.

There’s going to be a lot — a lot — of coverage today on the federal shutdown, what it means and how long it might go on. I thought it might be worth quickly highlighting how it affects the parts of the government readers here care most about: public health, global health, food safety and the spread of scary diseases.

Most of those government functions are contained within the Cabinet-level Department of Health and Human Services, where 52 percent of the employees have been sent home. So the news is not good.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention furloughed 68 percent of its people — not just here in Atlanta, but globally. Yesterday I asked a longtime acquaintance there what was likely to happen and she said:

“I know that we will not be conducting multi-state outbreak investigations. States may continue to find outbreaks, but we won’t be doing the cross-state consultation and laboratory work to link outbreaks that might cross state borders, such as a recent Hep A outbreak. We will not be doing rapid response for vaccine preventable disease cases or outbreaks, such as measles. We won’t be monitoring seasonal influenza activity in the U.S. as flu season begins.

“Surveillance for other emerging infectious disease outbreaks, such as H7N9 and MERS, will be weakened. We won’t be doing routine inspections of BSL3 and BSL 4 labs as part of the select agent program. Our work to prevent HIV/STDs and TB in the states using molecular epidemiology will be discontinued.”

Let’s unpack that a little bit. In the U.S., the flu season is beginning. This year’s flu vaccine has been manufactured and is either already in the hands of state and local health departments or with doctors or on its way to them via the commercial middlemen who handle distribution for the manufacturers. (OnTwitter today, Jim Garrow of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health confirmed that they already have an inventory of flu vaccine.)

So flu prevention won’t necessarily be harmed — except for those people who don’t get a flu shot unless CDC’s public health campaigns remind them because there won’t be any such campaigns. But flu surveillance, which CDC conducts and also assembles out of data sent to it by health departments and by networks of physicians, is on the shelf. Here’s what CDC’s flu-surveillance homepage looks like right now:

(The original page is here.)

And here is what that means: We are now at the start of flu season. If this season becomes a bad one — a rogue virus, an uneven epidemic, a concentration of cases in the elderly or the very young or in a particular city or state — we’ll have no way of knowing. And, for what it’s worth, we’ll have no way of directing additional public-health or research help because they’ve all been sent home. In tracking flu, one of the most unpredictable and mutable human-disease viruses around, we have been blinded. And, if the shutdown continues more than a few weeks, then that blindness will also blanket development of next year’s flu vaccine — because, within a few weeks, CDC researchers would start analyzing this year’s northern and southern hemisphere viruses to determine what ought to be included in next year’s vaccine mix.

That blindness is not limited to the U.S. CDC loans scientists and sends money to the World Health Organization and to dozens of countries in the industrialized and developing worlds. One of its specialties is helping to track the emergence of new flu viruses that have pandemic potential. That global spyglass has just been shuttered. And, we are less than two weeks from the official beginning of the hajj, the worldwide pilgrimage of observant Muslims to the holy sites of Saudi Arabia — where, if you’ve been following along, MERS has been slowly growing for more than a year. Health planners have been quietly fretting for months that the hajj might allow the spread of MERS outside of the Middle East — a reasonable fear, as that has happened in past hajj seasons with other diseases. But with the shutdown, we lose some of the most accurate tools for finding that out.

This enforced ignorance of disease spread isn’t hypothetical. Just this morning, the WHO tweeted that there is a three-country outbreak of more than 200 cases of polio in the Horn of Africa. The top polio-hunters in the worldwide eradication effort, the ones who developed the “molecular clock” that allows the eradication campaign to trace new cases back to their source, work at  — yup, CDC.

The shutdown’s risks to health aren’t limited to what CDC does. The Food and Drug Administration has sent home 45 percent of its staff. The ones who remain can do so because they work in programs that receive user fees such as reviews of proposed new pharmaceuticals. Those can continue provided the application for review was already submitted. (New reviews, according to FDA’s statement today, are out of luck.) But food safety — always an underfunded mandate — is in real danger. HHS’s memo on shutdown staffing acknowledged this:

“FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities. FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.”

Translated, that means: No foodborne outbreak tracking; no inspection of food imports; no lab research; no publishing of guidance documents. (Food Safety News and Regulatory Focus have more.)

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which attends to about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply, including meat, compared to FDA’s 85 percent — things are a bit better. Eighty-seven percent of its staff have been retained, including most of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. In its shutdown memo, USDA says FSIS falls under an Office of Management and Budget shutdown category described as “necessary to perform activities necessarily implied by law” (for wonks, that’s No. 3 of the five categories). Thus, they can continue to conduct meat, poultry and egg inspections on-site; that is, at plants and packing houses. However, the agency loses personnel as follows:

“The following headquarters staffs performing the central program guidance, coordination, direction and planning functions described will be furloughed except as minimally required in direct support of Agency field operations:

  • Inspection Operations (Office of Field Operations): Responsible for planning, coordinating and directing the Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products Inspection programs. Due to the large numbers of in plant inspection personnel who support excepted activities, most individuals in this area would be excepted and on duty.
  • Public Health Science (Office of Public Health Science): The Public Health Science Program is responsible for planning, coordinating and directing all scientific guidance and support in chemistry, epidemiology, pathology, toxicology, nutrition, and parasitological. The Public Health Science Program also performs Agency risk assessments, directs the residue testing program, and also performs activities that address zoonotic diseases. With the exception of the laboratory function within Public Health Science, designations for these functions would be non-excepted, with limited individuals being identified as excepted and on duty. The majority of all Laboratory functions will be excepted.
  • International Programs (Office of Field Operations, Office of Policy and Program Development, and Office of Investigation, Enforcement and Audit): The International Programs are responsible for ensuring that meat, poultry, and egg products from foreign countries are safe and wholesome. Program personnel also confer with foreign governments on issues involving imports and exports of meat, poultry and egg products and international food safety standards. A substantial number of these programs other than inspection of imports and certifying products for export would not be excepted.”

I know other Wired colleagues are going to tackle the shutdown’s effect on the rest of the government science apparatus. There is no question, though, that public and global health and food safety are experiencing great impact. Better hope there are no major outbreaks brewing and that no food producer or manufacturer — or food importer in a country with lower standards — decides that now is the time to try to slip something by government-funded detection and response. As of this morning, the protections we rely on are no longer there.

26 Sep 14:00

The formal arts are in freefall. But that’s not the end of the story.

by Lydia DePillis

The National Endowment for the Arts came out Thursday with its quadrennial survey of public participation in the arts, and the topline numbers are pretty dismal. The percent of U.S. adults who attended at least one kind of arts performance or visited an art museum or gallery is the lowest it's ever been measured, having declined nearly 8 percent since 1992.

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 11.29.49 AM

The shrinkage was particularly pronounced for non-musical plays, which dove 12 percent over the last four years, though the percentage of those attending jazz and classical performances, outdoor music festivals and opera dropped as well.

What's going on here? Could it be falling public investment in the arts? Maybe, although that's not dramatically lower than it was in 1992, according to Americans for the Arts:

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 10.16.47 PM

That doesn't seem like it could be totally responsible. Perhaps, instead, it's because peoples' discretionary incomes took such a beating over the past five years. Movie-going was actually up substantially, suggesting that Americans might have opted for lower-cost entertainment. And it looks like Americans for the Arts' "Arts Index," which incorporates arts exports, tourism, the health of non-profits and education, closely tracks the broader economy:


Still, as far as willingness to shell out for concert tickets, it seems that there's something more fundamental going on. People just aren't as interested in sitting down and having art rendered unto them in a completely passive way, says Americans for the Arts' vice president for research and policy Randy Cohen. The Washington National Opera may have needed to be bailed out by the Kennedy Center, he points out, but its simulcasts before Washington Nationals games became popular.

"You could ask the question, are Washingtonians no longer interested in opera?" says Cohen. "The problem may not be opera so much, but rather how people want to experience it. Sometimes, wouldn't you rather have a chili dog and a beer while you watch the opera?"

Or even be in the opera -- or symphony, like the Baltimore Symphony allows fans to do with its "rusty musicians" program. There's evidence that Americans are more interested in making art part of their daily lives: Arts volunteerism is up, musical instrument sales are rising from their 2009 low point, the number of arts degrees conferred by colleges has grown from 75,000 per year a decade ago to 129,000 today, and more than a third of Americans in the NEA survey reported consuming art in some form through their mobile devices. Some of it looks a little different: There's the more technology-oriented Maker movement, for example, and a boom in the discipline of industrial design.

All of which may not be good news for the professional arts organizations that have served as our suppliers of high culture for centuries. But we do know, at least, that America has not collapsed into Philistinism yet.

12 Sep 00:58

Formaldehyde Detected in Supermarket Fish Imported from Asia

by James Andrews

More things you can never eat again.

A large number of fish imported from China and Vietnam and sold in at least some U.S. supermarkets contain unnatural levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, according to tests performed and verified by researchers at a North Carolina chemical engineering firm and North Carolina State University.

Around 25 percent of all the fish purchased from supermarkets by researchers in the Raleigh, N.C., area were found to contain formaldehyde, a toxic chemical compound commonly used as a medical disinfectant or embalming agent. All of the fish found to contain the compound were imported from Asian countries, and it was not found in fish from the U.S. or other regions.

The researchers only collected samples from supermarkets around Raleigh, N.C., and could not comment on whether or not the same results could be applied to fish sold nationwide.

Formaldehyde is illegal in food beyond any naturally occurring trace amounts. But, according to chemical engineer A. James Attar and his colleagues who conducted the tests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not test any imported fish for formaldehyde contamination, and only 4 percent of imported fish gets tested for any contaminants at all.

“The look on my face when we found this – it was a complete shocker,” said Jason Morton, Attar’s colleague at N.C.-based Appealing Products, Inc.

Attar, Morton and another colleague at Appealing Products, Matthew Schwartz, came across the alarming revelation when they set out to validate a new formaldehyde test they developed for Bangladeshi clients who needed a cheap way to detect contaminated fish.

To verify the accuracy of their test, the team purchased domestic and imported fish from supermarkets around Raleigh, NC, with the intent of purposefully contaminating them with formaldehyde and then verifying that their test worked.

Instead, they found that about one in four fish was already contaminated with formaldehyde. The commonality between all the contaminated fish? They were imported from Asian countries, predominantly China and Vietnam.

Not all of the Asian fish were contaminated, but many were, Attar said.

The FDA has not had the opportunity to analyze the fish samples tested by Appealing Products, nor has the agency had the opportunity to review the test methods utilized.

“The FDA’s priority is to ensure that both domestic and imported seafood is safe and that we are protecting consumers from products that can cause illness,” the agency told Food Safety News. “To accomplish this, FDA oversees a comprehensive food safety program designed to ensure the safety of all seafood sold in the United States. This prevention-oriented program includes risk based inspections, product testing, and assessments of foreign countries regulation of aquaculture facilities.”

All foods imports entering the U.S. are screened electronically by the FDA. A subset of those foods are physically inspected at rates based on the potential risk associated with them, with some samples undergoing lab analysis.

“FDA encourages anyone who has evidence that an FDA regulated product violates food safety laws and regulations to contact FDA,” the agency added.

Attar and Morton stopped short of accusing Asian fish companies of intentionally adding formaldehyde to fish to prevent spoilage, though it appears to be a common problem in Bangladesh, where formaldehyde might preserve fish when refrigerators or ice aren’t available. (Think of frogs preserved for dissection in a high-school science lab.)

Attar and his team first uncovered the issue in February 2013, and then spent six months routinely testing samples, finding the same results. Their results were then verified by researchers at North Carolina State.

Attar said the sampling was restricted to purchases from Raleigh only and might not reflect fish in supermarkets nationwide.

“But, empirically, this is what we found,” he added.

Formaldehyde is present in some fish at small, naturally occurring levels. But everything observed in the Asian fish found that they were contaminated with far higher-than-normal or acceptable levels, Attar said.

The team tested whether or not levels of formaldehyde increased in cuts of fish as they aged, but the levels remained the same. They also tested the same species harvested from both Chinese and U.S. companies, finding that the Chinese-caught fish contained formaldehyde, while the U.S.-caught fish of the same species did not.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the U.S. imports approximately 91 percent of its seafood. China alone accounts for approximately 89 percent of global aquaculture production.

Appealing Products’ formaldehyde test costs approximately $1 per swab, which is applied to a cut of fish and turns purple in the presence of formaldehyde. The company has shipped 100,000 tests to Bangladesh and anticipates orders from companies in other Asian countries. More information on the tests can be found at

Documented instances of intentional formaldehyde contamination of food have occurred in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.

Attar and Morton said that their evidence makes a strong case for improved testing on seafood imports in the U.S., especially from Asian countries.

“I cannot say that companies are adding formaldehyde to fish, but our findings are higher than what naturally occurs,” Morton said.

11 Sep 23:40


by mugumogu

Maru:[It is impossib......]



27 Aug 13:00

Genomic Research Ethics: Special Rules for HeLa Cells

by Jennifer K. Wagner

Perhaps of interest to Zack, who is reading the Henrietta Lacks book now.

In her 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot told the story of Henrietta Lacks and the cell lines derived from her cervical tumor biospecimen (cell lines known to scientists simply as “HeLa cells”). To make a long story short, in 1951 physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a biopsy from a patient, Henrietta Lacks, and from that biospecimen developed the first human cancer cell line. The biospecimen was taken without Lacks’ knowledge or informed consent. No laws were broken in the creation of the HeLa cell lines that are now recognized (pdf) as “the most widely used human cell line in the world.” She died in 1951, and it was reportedly not until 1973 that her family learned about the HeLa cells (two years after Henrietta Lacks’ name was published as the source of HeLa cells in a scientific journal). As the table below shows, this incident occurred long before the adoption of regulations and ethical guidelines for biomedical research that, today, generally require researchers to obtain voluntary, informed consent from individuals before performing biomedical experiments.

Significant Developments in Ethical and Legal Governance of Biomedical Research

Year Policy Policy Summary Source of Policy
1947 Nuremburg Code (pdf) Advocates for informed consent and voluntary participation in medical research United States v. Brandt (Nuremberg Military Tribunal)
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights Includes Art. 27 (1): “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” United Nations
1964 Declaration of Helsinki Issues ethical principles for medical research World Medical Association
1974 National Research Act (pdf),
Pub. L. 93-348
Creates the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research and requiring creation of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to review study protocols – Prompted by publicity of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study U.S. Congress
1979 Belmont Report Articulates ethical principles of (1) respect for persons, (2) beneficence, and (3) justice for research involving human subjects National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research
1991 The Common Rule,
45 CFR 46 subpart A
Establishes basic protections for human subjects in research conducted by or supported by the DHHS Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies and departments
2011 “Human Subjects Research Protections: Enhancing Protections for Research Subjects and Reducing Burden, Delay, and Ambiguity for Investigators” Advance Notice of Public Rulemaking (ANPRM) (pdf), 76 FR 44512 Proposes policy changes to the basic protections for research involving human subjects/participants Department of Health and Human Services

Recent HeLa Genome Sequencing Efforts and Bioethical Controversy

In March 2013, scientists from European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, published the genomic sequencing of a HeLa cell line and deposited that genomic sequence data in an online, open-access database (JJ Landry et al. 2013). At that time, a separate, more detailed sequencing effort of a second HeLa cell line was in preparation for publication by scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA (Adey et al. 2013). The family of Henrietta Lacks had not been consulted or notified prior to the publication of the HeLa cell line sequence. While there was no law requiring such action, the circumstances surrounding the Henrietta Lacks story led many bioethicists to question why the family was left in the dark yet again.

The initial reaction to the publication of the HeLa cell line sequence data prompted the researchers to remove the data from the online databases. While some scholars wondered how this drastic action could be warranted given the vast amounts of genomic data for HeLa cell lines already published, other scholars questioned how the peer-review process failed to consider the interests of the family of Henrietta Lacks.  Skloot herself responded critically to the publication in an op-ed piece published in the New York Times as “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: the Sequel.” There, Skloot underscored that privacy concerns by and respect for members of the Lacks family are at the heart of the controversy. And while she acknowledged that consent had not been required, Skloot condemned the “whole system” of biomedical research for failing to raise questions about consent during the peer-review process.

For further reading on the March incident and discussion:

Special Rules for HeLa Genomic Research

Over the following four months (April to July 2013), engagement with family members of Henrietta Lacks by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – along with the assistance of Rebecca Skloot – culminated in a consent agreement setting forth how genome sequence data from HeLa cell lines can be published and shared for additional research. The agreement requires (1) any publication of HeLa sequence data to be placed in a controlled-access database (known as dbGaP, the Database of Genotypes And Phenotypes), (2) the creation of a HeLa Genome Data Access Working Group that will process applications for access to the data and on which the Henrietta Lacks family members will have representation, and (3) a request that any research study provide acknowledgement to Henrietta Lacks and her family for their generous contributions to the biomedical community. The agreement does not involve any compensation or rights to benefit from products and discoveries generated with or derived from the HeLa cell lines or genomic data. These rules – involvement of family members to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether access to HeLa genomic data should be granted and a mandate regarding where data can be deposited – are described by the NIH Director and NIH Deputy Director for Science, Outreach, and Policy as “not setting a precedent for research with previously stored, de-identified specimens.” The factors identified by Hudson and Collins as setting the Lacks case apart and justifying the special rules for HeLa genome research are (1) the collection of the biospecimens without consent for collection and use, (2) the pervasive usage of the resulting cell lines in biomedical research, and (3) the extent to which the family members of the biospecimen’s source are known by name. The researchers who sequenced two HeLa cell lines have cooperated with the consent agreement described above.

For further reading on the August updates:

Beyond Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cell Lines

There are many challenging ethical and legal issues raised by the Henrietta Lacks case:

  • What is “informed consent”? Who can provide it?
  • Can open or blanket consent be effective?
  • Is “informed consent” a one-and-done transaction or an iterative process?
  • What ongoing duties do researchers have to those individuals who contributed biospecimens to research prior to current guidelines?
  • Who owns our biospecimens? Who owns our genome? Who owns commercial products derived from our biomedical research contributions?
  • What privacy interests does an individual have in his/her genome, biospecimens, medical information, personal information, and other data? How are those privacy interests protected? Do these privacy rights or protections extend to family members?
  • Who can dictate the terms for biomedical research? To what extent do family members get a say in an individual’s participation in biomedical research? Can family members, heirs, executors, administrators, and the like withdraw an individual’s data from biomedical studies?
  • What is “de-identification” of data? Are genomes ever de-identified? What are individual risks of re-identification?
  • How can archived samples be studied ethically? How can research be conducted ethically using specimens of deceased individuals?
  • Can surreptitious research of biospecimens ever be considered ethical?

These topics — informed consent, open access for genomic research, property rights in genetic material and data, gene patents, familial searching, and surreptitious testing — are familiar and frequent topics in the Genomics Law Report. While the Lacks case is the focus of much attention these days, the challenges of informed consent were also brought to the forefront not too long ago in the controversial research involving the Havasupai Indians. In 2010 the Havasupai, challenging the adequacy of the informed consent when biospecimens were believed to have been collected only for diabetes research but were later discovered to have been used in research for other purposes, successfully limited genomic research using their samples and settled litigation against the researchers at Arizona State University. Another example of the bioethical challenges with research involving samples collected prior to modern bioethical research principles is the persistent controversy surrounding Yanomami studies by James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon in the 1960s and 1970s. (For further reading on the Yanomami controversy, see “Sociobalderdash and the Yanomami?” Part I and Part II at The Mermaid’s Tale). Even the Personal Genome Project — with an intricate informed consent process (including an entrance exam), participant control of their profile information, and participant assumption of risk associated with the placement of their genomic data into the public domain — has had its own brush with controversy, as differing expectations popped up regarding demonstrations of participant’s risk of re-identification.

While policymakers debate potential reforms to provide better protection for research participants in this global, mobile, genomic, informational age, there are no easy answers. Context has always been key, and what is “reasonable” is an evolving standard. It is also important to avoid falling into the trap of the historian’s fallacy. Practices considered appropriate and acceptable for biomedical research decades ago may be considered wholly unacceptable today. Using one family’s experience as a case study to advocate for policy reform can be persuasive and effective. But there is a point at which the advocacy itself becomes exploitative and even counter-productive. Has Skloot (any of the bioethicists, journalists, or others for that matter) crossed that line by continuing to draw attention to the Lacks family? Declaring HeLa cells as her “legacy” or the Lacks family legacy (as has been done in reporting the agreement reached for HeLa genomic research to continue with Lacks family support) does not demonstrate that the important lessons of the Henrietta Lacks case have been learned. Indeed, it seems quite presumptuous of us all to declare what someone else’s (or indeed what an entire family’s) legacy is – a point more fully articulated by Ken Weiss at The Mermaid’s Tale. To learn the lesson requires all of us to engage in active and proactive policymaking rather than reactive cries for policy reform. Personally, I am tired of the lack of political will to do anything on any issue unless we have a tragedy with which to force the reforms through. That type of policymaking is bad for all of us.

We must consider the diverse perspectives, needs, and interests of the individuals making generous contributions to science. At the same time, we must determine the boundaries of their say regarding what happens with those contributions (whether biospecimens or data), both now and in the future. We need to throw away the “one-size-fits-none” approach to the protection of research participants. Transforming the biomedical research enterprise into a participatory process is one step in the right direction, but it is not possible for all situations (unless research with archived samples were to cease). There is no one (singular) ethical “right way” to conduct scientific research. Ethical issues are not just implications, complications, or after-the-fact consequences of genomic research. The ethical dimensions must be integrated within research design and practice in order, quite simply, to do better science.