Here’s a handy guide for those ambitious neo-pharmacists ready to get busy-beavering away on placebo production for the brave new world. This piece in Wired has a full-color diagram showing what colors your pills should be for maximum efficacy: happy pills should be yellow, calming pills should be green. Oh, and more expensive pills work better – so don’t let any ethical qualms interfere with your profit margin. Set those street prices high!  And a truly enterprising soul could dig up the list of 679 physicians polled in a recent study – half of them admitted to regularly giving patients fake pills. Voila! Ready-made marketing email list!


I’ve heard a lot of water-cooler chat about the accumulating indications that antidepressant medications are no more effective than placebos. And it’s not just antidepressants that fail to outperform sugar pills: a diverse collection of illnesses, from psoriasis to “orange-sized tumors,” apparently respond as well to fake medicine as they do to the ‘real’ stuff.

And we’ve been all flustered about this affordable healthcare kerfluffle! Clearly, we can address exorbitant drug costs, public health, and unemployment in one fell swoop. After a brief examination by a traditionally educated allopathic physician (you know, one of the poor saps who spent decades in pursuit of training and degrees and board certifications and whatnot) most patients could be referred to ‘specialists’ in their placebo-responsive conditions. The new specialists would be responsible for administering courses of well-chosen placebos. They wouldn’t need a lot of fancy education, just an easy-to-read chart with the various colors and shapes of pills and their effects – and, of course, a convincing bedside manner. You could take an unemployed worker straight off the welfare rolls after a six-week acting class, give him a white coat and a stethoscope, and let the perceived authority of the medical profession work its magic on the health problems of our society!

And for those of you concerned about the welfare of Big Pharma, and whether their vital research budgets would be undermined by all this open-access placebo distribution, fear not. Big Pharma is a vital component of the new system. Merck and Eli Lilly and all our other beloved corps can keep on doing what they do best – ubiquitous, expensive campaigns of deceptive direct marketing to consumers. We’ll need them to keep churning out television ads with carefree folks frollicking in sundappled fields, urging us to ask our doctors about Perfecterol and Idealexa. After all, the placebo effect is only as durable as our collective faith in the ineffable power of Pill. And if Big Pharma is good at manufacturing anything, it’s faith!

(Here’s a link to the full text of the Scientific American article linked above – the one with the citrus-sized weeping tumors – in case you don’t have a subscription.)



Now that I’m symptom-free and have successfully crossed the membrane into olde Europa, I feel confident(ish) sharing about my recent quarantine anxieties. So, um, I had swine flu. Don’t believe the hype: it is unpleasant and certainly not to be scoffed at, but really, not much more dangerous, apparently, than a ‘normal’ influenza. It’s unusual for its rapid intercontinental spread, and for its failure to adhere to the regularly scheduled flu ‘season,’ which begins in mid- to late-autumn. I had it when the weather was still all summery with blazing sunshine, and it knocked me over for a couple of days. During that time, I was unable to remain conscious for for than a few hours, I had a high fever, and my body ached in a dispiriting preview of arthritis – every joint was creaky and painful, but the pain did not, unfortunately, give me the old-timer’s ability to predict the weather. After that, no other symptoms but a persistent chest cough and generalized exhaustion.

Not too bad, all things considered. Except that I was planning to travel to Austria. I read a bunch of interwebs and got my head all full of Gattaca-like visions: Passport Kontrol would include a sophisticated bioscan, and when I walked through the metal detector, my slightly-feverish body would be illuminated in alarming red on an imaging screen. Thereafter I would be shoved into a plastic biohazard suit, surrounded by stormtroopers with menacing-sounding breathing apparatuses, hustled into a starkly-lit white room, probed with painful silver needles and alien probosci, and have a large red ‘X’ painted across my forehead with indelible, photo-luminescent paint. After the administration of a strong paralytic that would render my body limp and useless while my mind remained acutely conscious, I would be subjected to extraordinary rendition in a modified butcher’s truck with human bloodstains on the filthy floor. And then awake to find myself nameless and without documents in some quarantine camp for lepers.

It didn’t quite play out like that. The border guard at Charles de Gaulle barely glanced at my precious American passport. It was 5 am; the customs officials weren’t even on duty yet; I passed unmolested through the nothing-to-declare door and into the chill pre-dawn air of Freedom. (Don’t think for a moment that I had left it to chance, however – Dr. Feelgood had provided me with a powerful combination of cough suppressants and industrial-strength fever reducers before the journey. BTW, who knew you could get a vicodin scrip for a COUGH?)

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I’ve been thinking a bit about the concept of quarantine. Edible Geography is sponsoring a cultural ‘workshop’ on quarantine: participants read texts and create artworks and discussion on the matter. The website has a lovely reading list that might interest you. Especially if you’ve been feeling a little peaked lately.

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