Friday, March 24, 2006
Sexsomnia: Not as funny as it sounds
Sexsomnia is one of those words that's both titillating and disarming to hear.
It's the name for a condition in which someone has a sexual experience while asleep, sort of like how people walk or talk in their sleep. It spawns jokes from the people it affects and from the people who are lucky enough not to have to deal with this sleep disorder.
Many of the emails I received in the week since beginning research about sexsomnia for tonight's show have had a joking tenor. Like the one from "O.S." in Boston who says that to his horror, sometimes he'd rip his wife's clothes off during one of his episodes of sexsomnia, but still they "laugh about it later."
Or the one from "M.M." in San Francisco who says he wakes up after his "episodes" -- which involve loudly talking about sex and moaning -- only to find that his neighbors have heard and "snicker and make gestures."
Or the one from a woman in Europe who says she would masturbate in her sleep. It was 10 years before her husband even mentioned it. It's sometimes fodder for jokes between them, but she and her husband are at the same time trying to save their troubled marriage.
The jokes, well, they're understandable. It's an uncomfortable thing to talk about.
But after all of the conversations I've had the past week with "sexsomniacs" and all the time spent researching people it affects, including two who were tried in courts of law for initiating unwanted "sleep sex," I'm erring on the side of seriousness.
Sexsomnia is one of those fascinating conditions that give us an opportunity not only to examine questions about what is sleep or consciousness, but a chance to examine our views about sex.
Jailbreak: $58 million prison sits empty
It might be one of the most expensive pieces of government property never to be used.
Oregon's Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, built a $58 million jail. The "Wapato Facility," as it is known, was completed two years ago, yet it's completely vacant. The local sheriff, Bernie Giusto, it calls an "echo chamber."
It's not like there's a shortage of potential inmates. Portland actually has a jail overcrowding problem. Last year, the county released more than 4,500 inmates because they ran out of jail beds, according to the sheriff's department. What's going on here?
Voters signed-off on the money for the jail to be built, but the county didn't and still doesn't have the money to operate it. Local leaders say shrinking taxes are to blame, which is forcing tough choices between funding classrooms or prisons, for example.
For Sheriff Giusto, the most frustrating element is having a perfectly good facility sit empty. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he offered the jail as a solution for short-term housing for evacuees. (The Red Cross said "no" because it didn't think it would be appropriate to have storm refugees in a jail.)
Anyone who tours the jail can't help but feel a little perplexed by the situation. Despite being a jail, it's an impressive facility. It's clean and modern. There are two flat screen televisions for the inmates to watch. The kitchen is stainless steel.
Why did the government build a jail it can't operate? I kept wondering that as I looked around. And as of this writing, I still don't have an answer.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
Trading beer bongs for sledgehammers
OK, so you probably won't see these spring-breakers on MTV anytime soon, but thousands of young college students have passed up beer bongs in Daytona for the opportunity to volunteer in Mississippi and New Orleans, gutting homes and helping residents try to clean up.
I spent today with a number of volunteers, and I gotta say, while some people fret about the future of our country, if these young people are any indication, the kids are alright. There is nothing glamorous or fun about the work they are doing. Ripping out dry wall in mold-infested homes is not exactly easy or pleasurable, and yet, these students have paid their own way here for the privilege.
Nearly every person said the same thing: "I had no idea it was this bad" and "I can't believe more isn't being done."
I wish everyone had an opportunity to come down to the Gulf Coast. Nearly seven months since Katrina, and still no clear rebuilding plan is in place.
It's interesting to see it through the eyes of these young volunteers. I think the danger of coming here as often as I have is that it starts to seem normal. The destroyed homes, the lack of progress. For the volunteers it is a shock, and it still should shock us all.
Black market puppies crossing southern border
People will do most anything for a buck. That's one reason why border smuggling is so prevalent. But while most of us are familiar with stories of human beings and drugs being smuggled across the border, I wasn't quite so familiar with another type of smuggling...that of puppies.
Smugglers are going to puppy farms in Mexico, where they are able to buy very young and often very sick puppies for a low price. They then gamble they won't be stopped at the border. Once they get into the United States, they place want ads and sell the puppies for a huge markup in arranged meeting places to people who think they're getting a good deal.
But it is illegal in some places, such as California, to sell puppies under eight weeks old. And what often happens is the people who buy these very young puppies see them get sick very quickly.
We spent time going undercover with puppy sellers in Mexico who wanted to sell us 6-week-old ill-looking puppies. We then watched police conduct a sting operation to arrest a woman they claim makes a living by selling young, sick puppies in California. And we spent time with two families who bought puppies on the street for their children, only to see the dogs die in a matter of days.
The story is very sad and increasingly prevalent, according to U.S. authorities and human society officials. Small dogs are trendy right now, and when people see a sad puppy on the street, sometimes their better instincts leave them and they decide to buy them. And that is what is leading to an increase in this puppy black market.
This 'folk hero' sheriff could face charges
It was less than a week after Katrina laid waste to the gulf coast, and Billy McGee, the sheriff of Forrest County, Mississippi, was tired of waiting for help to arrive. So he ordered his deputies to nearby Camp Shelby, a FEMA staging area, and told them to commandeer two 18-wheelers loaded with ice that were being held under lock and key.
The officers followed McGee's orders. In the process, a National Guard soldier who tried to stop the hijacking was handcuffed. McGee is in hot water and may face criminal charges. But his community is backing him.
The opinion page editor of the local newspaper says, "Hang on." Six days after Katrina, the county had no power, no ice, and temperatures were in the 90s. The editor says FEMA's response to the disaster was anemic. People were hurting. Someone had to do something. A poll shows 88 percent of the county supports McGee.
In fact there is even a song out in the area, a tribute to McGee's actions. It tugs at heartstrings, but is a little rough on the ears.
I talked to McGee and his attorney for about an hour, all off camera. They don't like the attention and won't talk about the case with cameras running.
The investigation into the sheriff's action was being handled by a U.S. attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, but he recused himself. The case was transferred to a U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who is deciding what to do with it.
I popped into a place where people are only too willing to talk about the case -- a blue-collar diner called Mom and Dad's Country Cooking, in Petal, Mississippi, just outside Hattiesburg.
The place was filled with burly folks who look as though they don't miss many meals. In between bites, we learned the sheriff isn't some cowboy. Far from it. They say he's soft-spoken, a local fellow who's serving his fourth term. He was a good softball player, and a guy who cheated death by beating leukemia. And to a person, they support what he did 100 percent. It's elevated the sheriff to folk hero status.
One fellow summed up the sentiment in the diner, saying, "He stepped up and did something for the people. That's it."
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Five months in prison: Free of charge
By law, the state of Louisiana has no more than 60 days to charge someone arrested for a crime, but Hurricane Katrina has left hundreds of inmates behind bars with no access to a lawyer.
We interviewed one man, Ace Martin, who was arrested for an alleged fistfight a few days before the storm. He was evacuated from the Orleans Parish Prison the night Katrina hit, and bounced around to different prisons around the state. Five months later, he was still in jail.
It wasn't until he read about an attorney, Neal Walker, and contacted him that he finally got released. Walker has helped more than a thousand other inmates get released. He says they were being held longer than state law allows because the district attorney, the public defenders and the courts can't keep up with the number of cases.
I've been looking into the apparent collapse of the New Orleans justice system for months now. The situation doesn't seem to be getting any better. The district court is still pretty much unusable. The office of District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. was flooded. Now, he and his reduced staff are working out of a former nightclub. And there are just six public defenders left in town to defend the poorest of the city's prisoners.
Jordan Jr., the district attorney, told us that because of Katrina, he thinks it is acceptable for prisoners to be held longer than is allowed under state law. We also talked to Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, who says help is on the way in the form of new funding from Washington, D.C.
But not everyone is pleased with how the situation is progressing. One attorney, Rick Tessier, put it this way: "I think eventually people are going to look at this situation and say, 'Saddam Hussein had six lawyers in Iraq and 4,000 people in Lousiana have no lawyers and that's not fair.'"
After five months behind bars for that alleged fistfight, Ace Martin was never charged. That's five months of his life he won't ever get back.
Angelenos and New Yorkers hunted by 'assassins'
Not being Mike Wallace or part of a contingent of paparazzi, I usually don't hide in bushes or dark stairways to ambush people. But that's exactly where I was a few days ago -- and, oh yeah, on the roof of someone's apartment, too.
We're doing a story on these amateur "assassins," who hide out looking to "kill" their target. Sounds violent, but it's actually part of an elaborate game called "StreetWars: Killer." Think paintball, but played with water guns. And not in some arena, but on the streets of Los Angeles or New York City.
Some 200 people are given a list of targets to kill -- and when I say "kill," I mean shoot with a water gun or hit with a water balloon. So you've got your list. But at the same time, you are on someone else's list. So while you're out there looking for your targets, someone else is looking for you. All you get to start is a picture, a name, some basic info. The players Google each other, look through records, and do all kinds of other stuff to find out where their targets work and play.
We were assigned to "Agent Tuna," a 20-something woman living in Hollywood. We scheduled the interview days earlier and called when we were on our way, but when I knocked on her door, she was so paranoid she wouldn't let us in for 5 minutes, not until we proved we were with CNN and not trying to set her up.
Pretty soon we were on the road, driving by her targets' homes. We were literally crouching in bushes, crawling on the ground, waiting for these people to come home.
I thought this game was silly at first, but after a few hours, I started to feel paranoid too. I was looking around, watching my back, getting nervous about getting found out. Then I would get excited when cars pulled up, thinking it might be our -- or rather, her -- target.
At one point, we climbed up a lady's balcony to hop over to the roof. Later that night, we crouched in a dark stairwell for hours, after "Agent Tuna" got a lead that her target was on her way home.
I asked her: Do you realize how ridiculous we seem sitting here in some alley on a Thursday night? She said she asks herself that question all the time, but the adrenaline rush is so incredible she keeps coming back for more. I found this out for myself.
Just as we were packing to leave, "Agent Tuna's" target finally came home. But she missed. And then she missed her second one too. We waited hours in that dark stairway for her third to arrive. Just when it looked like the night would be a bust, targets two and three ambushed her. Number three got away, but "Agent Tuna" recorded her first "kill" when she blasted target two. Now all she has to do is get the other ones...and watch her own back.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
What doomed Iraqi police?
Looking at video of the overrun police headquarters
in Moqdadia, the first question that comes to my mind is: Why so little damage?
Burnt out police vehicles, yes. Gutted building, yes. Bloodied clothes, yes. But nothing recorded on the camera footage I saw to indicate a massive, long, drawn-out fight. It begs the question: How could police in a secure compound allow themselves to be overrun?
It's happened before, most notably in Mosul in November 2004, when insurgents stormed multiple police outposts, torching and destroying many of them. Almost over night, the police ran away. The assessment at the time was many of the police were sympathetic to or afraid of the insurgents.
The police force in Moqdadia should be better trained and by most accounts is better motivated than the force in Mosul two years ago. So was there an informer among their ranks giving insurgents vital information about weaknesses? Or were they simply so ill-equipped or poorly trained they couldn't match the insurgents?
U.S. military officers have told me they believe infiltration of Iraq's new security forces is so significant it may take years to eradicate. But if the police were let down by poor equipment or a lack of training, then that raises other questions about the speed with which they are being put in harm's way.
The area around Moqdadia is typical of regions in Iraq where U.S. forces are handing over "battle space" to Iraqis. It puts Iraq's police and army in operational control of a clearly defined area, allowing U.S. troops to scale back and ultimately leave the country.
Regardless of which explanation answers my initial question, the simple answer may be the one provided by U.S. field commanders: Iraq's police and army are a long way from standing alone.
Democrats to Bush: Bring it on
Ok. The truth is I've been vacationing for nine days on a beach where the TV news is not spoken in a language I understand and the New York Times costs $11. (I said, no thanks, but I tried to read 'above the fold' stories while my sons ran around getting overpriced food in the local grocery store).
All by way of saying, usually I can return from a news-free vacation and find stories I'm pretty sure I read before I left. Nothing much changes, especially in politics. Except this time, there was something new.
Democrats seem ready to actually challenge President Bush on security issues.
For last night's show, I looked at the politics of the Iraq War. Despite the falling poll numbers on public views of and the president's handling of the war, it has been a political given that Democrats couldn't find a way to turn that to their advantage politically.
But stop the presses and consider Howard Dean's statement yesterday: "The president's chief advisor Karl Rove says he is going to run on security. Well, to quote a famous American, 'Bring it on.'"
For those of you who don't think Howard Dean speaks for Capitol Hill Democrats, I present to you Senator Harry Reid, whose office sent out a note to Democratic operatives, urging them to tell their bosses to use their holiday breaks to challenge the administration on homeland security, the treatment of veterans and the war in Iraq, with incompetence being the unifying theme of this challenge.
All that talk from Democrats about "the culture of corruption" seems to have been replaced by new buzz words -- "dangerously incompetent" or "amazingly incompetent" or the like, as long as they contain the word "incompetent."
You pay. They don't. How come?
$35 billion. As much money as China will spend on its military this year. As much as Americans will spend on weight loss plans. That's how much money is owed to the U.S. government in fines and penalties from corporations and individuals, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
And yet the money goes uncollected. Why?
None of the government agencies we contacted wanted to talk publicly about the problem, but they admit it is real. Some agencies suggest they just don't have the people to collect. Some say these offenders who have broken all sorts of regulations for workplace safety, the environment, consumer protection, you name it, often can't pay anyway. So, these regulators suggest, it is good to at least use the threat of fines to extract promises of better behavior.
Still, at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Washington, D.C., I met Oscar Keys, who had just finished paying $270 worth of parking tickets. He wasn't happy when we told him the federal government has let $35 billion of fines go uncollected. As he put it: If the government is collecting money from me, shouldn't it collect money from everyone, including big businesses?
Monday, March 20, 2006
Dying for a good night's sleep
I usually sleep no more than five or six hours a night. Between my jobs as a neurosurgeon, CNN medical correspondent, TIME contributor and new daddy, that's all I can afford. And frankly, it always seemed like enough.
Sure, I might get a little tired by mid-afternoon, and I know that experts recommend eight hours. But you can get a lot done in those extra two or three hours, especially when the rest of the world (not to mention the baby) is asleep. So when my CNN producers and I decided to put together a series of stories on sleep
, it seemed a good opportunity to figure out just how much I really need.
For six months, we crisscrossed the country, interviewing sleep experts, getting tested in sleep labs and even flying a 747 simulator after being awake for 30 hours. I got my first clue that I might be more sleep deprived than I thought in a lab run by Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.
I was wired with electrodes all over my head (including my eyelids) and two cameras recorded my every move. Everybody figured that with all the distractions, I would have trouble sleeping. As it happens, I was out almost immediately -- faster, according to the researchers, than anybody they had ever studied. It has given me new insight into my wife's complaint that I'm often asleep before my head hits the pillow.
I was sleep deprived. So what? Still confident that there was nothing wrong with my ability to function at full capacity, I flew to San Francisco, where NASA's Ames Research Center keeps a full-size virtual-motion simulator of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. It's the next best thing to really flying. After a few hours of training and several takeoffs and landings, I had mastered the 747 -- or so I thought.
My assignment was to stay awake to the point of sleep deprivation and then try to fly again. After being awake for 30 hours, I felt more exhausted than I could ever remember. Then I was back in the cockpit. Remarkably, all those simple landing sequences were suddenly much harder to remember. Just keeping the nose of the plane level was a real challenge. Had I been flying a real 747, my passengers would have had a very bumpy ride.
My experience, I learned, is hardly unique.
If you have been up for more than 20 hours, your reflexes are roughly comparable to those of someone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08, which in many states is enough to be considered legally drunk. You should not drive, and you most certainly should not fly a plane, in that condition. Moreover, the effects add up. Sleeping only six hours a night for a week makes you as tired on the seventh night as if you had had no sleep at all.
Having seen firsthand what sleep deprivation can do, I'm now making a conscious effort to get more shut-eye. I still don't know why we sleep in the first place, but I have a much better feel for what happens if we don't.
Daytona Beach on guard for serial killer
On the streets of Daytona Beach, volunteers with the Halifax Urban Ministries try to help out the homeless and people down on their luck.
On this night, they are walking the streets, handing out flyers that warn women of a very real, very deadly danger. Local police say a serial killer is out there. Since December, three women have been shot and killed. They all went willingly with their killer, police say.
For the volunteers this is a two-pronged effort. One group canvasses the beach where the spring break crowd is. The college women say they are cautious. They stay in groups.
But across the inter-coastal waterway on some of the city's hard-boiled streets, the mood is different. This is where the killer has struck, targeting women police say lived a "high risk" lifestyle.
One woman who calls herself Carol says she's a former prostitute. She says the women on the street are more careful now. They don't get in cars with men they don't know. Police say there is no connection between the killings and special events like spring break.
Another woman, Scholanda, sat alone on a darkened street corner. She told us she always carries a cell phone. "It doesn't have no minutes on it," she said. "But I can call 911 real quick." Scholanda said she usually carries a knife, but didn't have it with her this night.
We stopped by the corner of Madison and Beach streets. Just off the corner in a narrow alleyway is where the first victim's body was found. A piece of cardboard was slid behind a pipe on the side of one of the buildings. On it, the woman's friends wrote notes to her, messages of peace and love.
As one of the ministry volunteers put it, every time a woman on the street gets in a car with someone she doesn't know, she's playing Russian roulette.