Archive for the 'astonishment' Category

How to Write (and Teach): Tell a Story

Monday, November 11th, 2013

A Lifehacker post by Leo Widrich said you should tell a story instead of giving a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. Widrich did not make his point using stories. He made the written equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation. He wasn’t trying to be funny — at least, not that I could tell.

This semester I’m teaching a class on Academic Writing. Yesterday’s class marked the switch from personal statements to other sorts of writing. I decided to mark the transition with a lecture. I had just one piece of advice for my students: tell a story. For fun, and to avoid the oddity of Widrich’s presentation, I decided to make my point two ways: without and with stories. (more…)

What Was Mark Bittman Thinking?

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Stephen Dubner has drawn my attention to a recent comment by Mark Bittman, the main food writer at the New York Times (the most prestigious and influential newspaper in the world), on his NY Times blog:

Sysco is the latest food giant . . . to come out against gestation crate confinement of pigs. . . .

Speaking of pigs, the VP of PR for Chick-fil-A dropped dead of a heart attack the week after the chain’s latest homophobia/anti-gay marriage scandal.

As Dubner says, my first reaction is: Was the Times website hacked? Apparently not. My second reaction: Is Bittman in good health? If so, I hope he will explain why he thought it was a good idea to call a person a pig. That the person in question recently died and his family is grieving makes this even stranger. Dubner emailed Bittman about it but got an automated reply.

More. Bittman removed the comparison and apologized.

Can Vitamin D Replace Sunlight? A Stunning Discovery

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Primal Girl is a stay-at-home mom. I met her at the Ancestral Health Symposium. Her sleep was bad. I made recommendations. One of them was to get an hour of sunlight soon after you wake up. She can’t do that — too busy being a mom. So she decided to take Vitamin D early in the morning. After all, sunlight exposure produces Vitamin D. Here’s what happened:

One day as I was taking my supplements, I was thinking about how many units of Vitamin D your skin produces in 30 minutes of sun (20,000 I believe). I looked aghast at the 10,000 units of Vitamin D I was taking. It was 7 o’clock at night! I was essentially giving my body 15 minutes worth of bright sunlight energy. No wonder I was waking up in the middle of the night! I was telling my body that it wasn’t really time for bed, it was still the middle of the day. I wondered what would happen if I only took my Vitamin D first thing in the morning. It wouldn’t be an hour naked in the sun, but 15 minutes is better than nothing. That night I slept like shit. Worse than normal.

I usually took my supplements mid-afternoon. I vowed to take them first thing every morning. If I forgot, I would not take the Vitamin D at all that day. I tried it the next day and that night I slept like a rock. And the next night. And the next. Days I forgot and skipped the D3, I still slept great. That was the only change I made to my lifestyle and my sleep issues completely resolved. [emphasis added]

OMG! Double OMG! Like Primal Girl, I have never heard anything like this. Even I am stunned that such a simple safe easy change could have such a positive effect. (Taking Vitamin D at sunrise is a lot easier than standing on one leg four times!) I’ve read lots about circadian rhythms. Many studies showed that a drug would be much more powerful at certain times of day. Most of these studies were with rats. It never occurred to me that the time you take a vitamin could matter so much.

The Curious Case of Richard Muller

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

About fifteen years ago I had lunch with Richard Muller, a Berkeley professor of physics, at the Berkeley Faculty Club. He told me his theory that the “miracles” that the Bible says Jesus performed, such as changing water into wine, were magic tricks. He was writing a novel about it, he said. He also said he had submitted to Science a new theory of climate change based on Milankovitch cycles (cycles of changes in the Earth’s distance and tilt relative to the sun). The editor liked it; the problem was getting it past the reviewers. This press release shows the editor succeeded. So Muller was nice enough or curious enough to have lunch with a stranger (me) who could not possibly help him and was/is creative about big questions. He is now retired. He’s had great career success, including a MacArthur Fellowship (in 1982). He’s won a teaching award. A talented and decent person. (Steve McIntyre, whose comment I read after I wrote this, also says good things about Muller: “one of the few people in this field I regard as a friend.”)

Two years ago he started the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, devoted to improving the climate record. Fine. In March I liked a talk he gave about climate change. Fine.  Now he has done something astonishing. In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism” he took “skepticism about global warming” to be skepticism that the Earth has warmed recently. In it, he describes several problems with surface temperature measurements. Then he says:

Without good answers to all these complaints, global-warming skepticism seems sensible. But now let me explain why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.

The vast majority of skeptics, including me, believe the Earth has warmed substantially since the Little Ice Age. That’s not the issue. Here’s the issue: We are skeptical that we understand why it has warmed and in particular skeptical that humans have caused recent warming.  A big difference. Muller has ignored  the obvious: what skeptics actually think.

Muller’s view of “global warming skepticism” is so strange let me state what might be obvious. For me, and many others, there are three issues: 1. Can we trust climate models? I say no: They have never been shown to be good predictors of what they are being used to predict. The physics of clouds isn’t simple or well-understood. 2. Is it unusually hot now? I say no: The Medieval Warm Period was roughly as hot or hotter. 3. Has recent warming been unusually fast? (Which is what Michael Mann’s discredited Hockey Stick seemed to show.) I say no. Over the past 200 years, the temperature has increased as fast or faster at least twice. Muller’s new data doesn’t address any of these concerns. Whether surface temperatures are higher now than in 1950 (which is what Muller’s new data shows more conclusively than before) is not a big issue.

Why did Muller misrepresent so badly what skeptics say? I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to make his results seem more important than they are. Maybe he has never met a skeptic. I truly don’t know.  Lots of famous scientists (e.g., James Watson) have said what I consider wacky things about unverifiable stuff. But there is nothing vague or unverifiable about this. It is as if Muller had said Shanghai is the capital of China.

James Fallows, whose work I like, has taken Muller seriously. Paul Krugman has taken Muller seriously. Marc Morano, who runs Climate Depot, has responded at length and created a special Muller page.  In March, Morano points out, he (Morano) complained about exactly the same thing from Muller: “Who denies that warming has taken place?” Yes. Morano links to many scientists who are displeased by what Muller has done. One says, “It is not true that the Berkeley group has found relevant evidence for the core questions in the AGW debate.” Yes. “Doubts about the validity of the surface temperature record constitute something like 1% of the issues that climate skeptics as a community have ever raised.” Yes.

Muller’s error interests me because I can’t explain it. Perhaps  it illustrates how unwittingly we shape reality, as shown in a famous split-brain anecdote:

The split-brain patient had to point with his two hands at pictures of two objects corresponding to two images that he had seen on the divided screen (one with each of his two separated hemispheres). The patient’s left hand [pointed] at the card with a picture of a snow shovel, because the right hemisphere, which controls this hand, [had] seen the projected image of a winter scene. [The left hemisphere had seen a picture of a chicken. When asked why he chose a shovel, the patient said (via the left hemisphere, which controls speech):] you use a shovel to clean out the chicken house.

Split-brain patients do not have more mental tricks than the rest of us. Surely we all do this. My question is: When?

Thanks to Tim Beneke.

Billionaire, Genius, and This?

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Nathan Myhrvold is presumably a billionaire. He is regularly called a genius. Yet he is in charge of a business (Intellectual Ventures) that one person, in a great This American Life podcast, compared to the Mafia.

Walking and Learning Update

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I discovered a year ago that walking makes it pleasant to study boring stuff — as I put it then, boring + boring = pleasant. I am still a little amazed. (more…)

Law Schools Deceiving Students

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

In an article about how law schools deceive prospective students, one way astonished me. Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego reported that 92% of their graduates are employed 9 months after graduation. That 92% included the 25% of the students they couldn’t locate. Which is in accord with the guidelines, said the associate dean of student affairs.

Walking Creates A Thirst For Dry Knowledge

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

A few weeks ago I got a treadmill for my Beijing apartment. Two days ago I was walking on it (I try to walk 1 hr/day) while watching Leverage to make the activity more palatable. But Leverage bored me. It was too simple. So I took out some Chinese flashcards (character on one side, English and pinyin on the other) and started studying them. I was astonished how pleasant it was. An hour of walking and studying went by . . . uh, in a flash. In my entire life I have never had such a pleasant hour studying. The next day it happened again! The experience appears infinitely repeatable. I’ve previously mentioned the man who memorized Paradise Lost while walking on a treadmill.

I’ve noticed before that treadmill walking (by itself boring) and Chinese-character learning (by itself boring) become pleasant when combined. So why was I astonished? Because the increase in enjoyment was larger. The whole activity was really pleasant, like drinking water when thirsty. When an hour was up, I could have kept going. I wanted to do it again. When I noticed it earlier, I was using Anki to learn Chinese characters. Now I am using flashcards in blocks of ten (study 10 until learned, get a new set of 10, study them until learned . . . ). The flashcards provide much more sense of accomplishment and completion, which I thinks makes the activity more pleasant.

My progress with Chinese characters has been so slow that during the latest attempt (putting them on my wall) I didn’t even try to learn both the pinyin and the meaning at the same time; I had retreated to just trying to learn the meaning. That was hard enough. I have had about 100 character cards on the walls of my apartment for a month but I’ve only learned the meaning of about half of them. No pinyin at all. In contrast, in two one-hour treadmill sessions I’ve gotten through 60 cards  . . . including pinyin. For me, learning pinyin is much harder than learning meaning.

It’s like drinking water when you’re thirsty versus when you’re not thirsty. The walking turns a kind of switch that makes it pleasant to learn dry knowledge, just as lack of water creates thirst. Not only did studying dry materials become much more pleasant I suspect I also became more efficient — more retentive. I was surprised how fast I managed to reach a criterion of zero mistakes.

I had previously studied flashcards while walking around Tsinghua. This did not produce an oh-my-god experience. I can think of three reasons why the effect is now much stronger: 1. Ordinary walking is distracting. You have to watch where you’re going, there are other people, cars, trees, and so on. Distraction reduces learning. If the distractions are boring — and they usually are –  the experience becomes less pleasant. 2. Ordinary walking provides more information than treadmill walking (which provides no information at all — you’re staring at a wall). The non-flashcard info reduces desire to learn what’s on the flashcards. 3. On these Tsinghua walks I had about 100 flashcards which I cycled through. Using sets of 10, as I said, provides more sense of accomplishment. I’ve also had about 20 Chinese-speaking lessons while walking around. The walking made the lessons more pleasant, yes, but it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the treadmill/flashcard combination. And because lessons with a tutor are intrinsically more enjoyable than studying flashcards, the increase in enjoyment was less dramatic.

As I said earlier I think there’s an evolutionary reason for this effect: The thirst for knowledge (= novelty) created by walking pushed us to explore and learn about our surroundings. One interesting feature of my discovery about treadmill and flashcards is that it may take better advantage of this mechanism than did ordinary Stone-Age life — better in the sense that more pleasure/minute can be derived. In the Stone Age, novelty, new dry knowledge, was hard to come by. You could only walk so fast. After a while, it was hard to walk far enough away to be in a new place. Whereas I can easily switch from flashcards I’ve learned to new ones. An example of a supranormal stimulus.

“Give Us Our Dammed Data”

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

A large painting by Regina Holliday called “Give Us Our Dammed Data” shows 17 book authors, each holding the book they’d written about struggle with the health care system. For example, Lisa Lindell, who wrote 108 Days, which describes

her successful campaign to keep her husband alive. She was astounded when she read her husband’s medical record. The nurse’s notes specified that she had an “unreasonable” belief that her husband should live.

The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the king is naked but only a little girl says so. The king’s advisers don’t tell him. I suppose the intended lesson was that powerful people have trouble getting frank answers. That’s pretty obvious. For a CEO, it’s said, the scarcest commodity is truth. Bosses learn this all the time. I learned it the first time I asked one of my students what he thought of the class.

Andersen’s story can be taken differently, partly conveyed by the phrase elephant in the room: Something big and important is overlooked by the supposed experts (in the story, the king’s advisers). It should be obvious — but it isn’t. Or at least no one says anything. This is how Harry Markopolos used the term emperor’s new clothes in No One Would Listen: Madoff was a gigantic fraud, his returns were (to Markopolos) clearly too good to be true, he was enormously visible (in certain circles), but no one said anything. It was as astonishing as a king parading naked. How come no one sees this? Markopolos thought. If you looked at Madoff the right way, he was naked.

That this sort of thing happens isn’t obvious at all. Yet three books — which I’ve just blogged about — have recently appeared with examples. One is the Markopolos book. Another is The Hockey Stick Illusion. Surely there’s overwhelming evidence that humans are causing global warming, right? Well, no. The only clear evidence was that hockey stick — and that’s a statistical artifact. (It looks like an artifact.) The third is The Big Short. It wasn’t easy to find the right sight line from which it was clear that Goldman Sachs et al. were taking on far more risk than they realized but such views existed. I call these books The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy. Their broad lesson: Sometimes the “best people” aren’t right. Sometimes there’s a point of view from which they’re glaringly wrong. The Hockey Stick Illusion is about how Stephen McIntyre found this point of view. In No One Would Listen Markopolos found this point of view. In The Big Short several people found this point of view.

This relates to my self-experimentation in two ways. First, the “best people” say self-experimentation is bad. No weight-control researcher does self-experimentation. No sleep researcher does self-experimentation. Surely they know how to do research. It’s their job. Whereas to me it’s glaringly obvious that self-experimentation is an excellent research tool, not just because of my results but also because it makes it so much easier to try new things. The best way to learn is to do, I  believe; self-experimentation makes doing much easier. Second, my self-experimentation uncovered all sorts of results that implied that the expert consensus on this or that was glaringly wrong. The Shangri-La Diet is just one example. Breakfast is good, right? Well, no, breakfast may wake you up too early. And so on. At first, I didn’t grasp the broad lesson I stated earlier (“Sometimes the “best people” aren’t right. . . “) and was amazed by what I was finding. To me, The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy is support.

Is English My Native Language?

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Here’s the last paragraph of a New York Times book review by Janet Maslin:

“The Publisher” [a biography of Henry Luce] has its parched passages, most notably when it ventures into the thickets of Luce’s “big” ideas. It works best when the man is well within sight. But Mr. Brinkley is dauntless in assessing Luce’s most important accomplishments, like his “American Century” essay and other efforts to tell Americans what American life was like. Life magazine had no temerity about devoting a major series in the 1950s to “Man’s New World: How He Lives in It.” Now that Man’s New World is so different from anything Henry Luce could imagine, his life and times are more poignant than they once seemed.

As I read this, I wondered if English was my native language. It was so hard to understand. Then I wondered if New York Times writers are paid by the big word. “Parched”? “Thickets? At least I know what that sentence means. I don’t know what she means by “Mr. Brinkley is dauntless in assessing…” — dauntless means fearless. Nor do I understand what “Life magazine had no temerity about” means. Temerity means recklessness or boldness. The logic of the last sentence (“Now that . . . “) with its big word poignant also escapes me.

Perhaps Maslin has found that if she writes like this her editors will edit her less, not being quite sure what those words mean. I attended many talks at UC Berkeley in which the speaker left out crucial information, such as the meaning of the y axis of a graph. And, virtually every time, no one asked about it – not even the four or five professors present. Gradually I realized why: They were insecure.

Even More Astonishingly Bad Dreamhost Support

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Dreamhost supplies a way to backup your website. You click a button, a few hours later you get an email telling you to go to a certain place to download a set of files. Those files are supposed to be the backup. That’s what I did. I got a message that said:

Ta da!  Your ENTIRE DreamHost account has been backed up now here: . . .

Note the emphasis: ENTIRE. Now it appears those files don’t work. They aren’t a complete backup of my website!!!

In spite of this astonishing fact, someone in Dreamhost Customer Support told me ” We havent had any users report issues with the backups that we create.” Amazing. No users ever!

I want to hire someone to fix the problem. If you have the technical skills to (a) repair the SMF forums (which will require upgrading) and (b) help me transfer to a new hosting service, please contact me. You can reach me at twoutopias ..[at]…. gmail.com.

More Someone kindly offered to help me and the problem has been fixed. I still hate Dreamhost. When I complained bitterly about their bad backup, in reply they sent me an email that implied it was my fault! If you send me your stories about bad experiences with Dreamhost, I would be happy to post them.

Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 4)

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

I blogged earlier how I suddenly got better at an arithmetic task. The apparent causes of the improvement were butter and standing. I’m not sure this is right; I will do more tests.

While I was trying to figure out the cause something even more extreme happened:

2010-03-22 even more anomalous resultsNotice the last two points. The previous anomaly was slightly below 600 msec. The new one is close to 550 msec. After observing it, I repeated the test 20 minutes later and got essentially the same result.

I’m blown away. I’ve been doing tests like this — simple measures of mental function — for about two years. Nothing like this happened during those two years.

My scores on this particular test averaged about 640 msec. Sometimes they’d be lower (as low as 610) but I had no idea why. The average stayed around 640. Now, within days, the average goes down to about 600 (presumably because I was eating butter regularly) and then down to almost 550. In other words, that 640 could be improved almost 20%! The improvement has nothing to do with practice; I was extremely well-practiced on this task. (And practice doesn’t produce such a sudden improvement.)

This is something we care deeply about — how well our brains work. Unless I’m a lot worse at arithmetic than everyone else, this suggests that for many people great improvement is possible. In an astonishingly small way. (I didn’t make any big changes during this time.) In a week.

Breakthrough in Treating MS

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

When Paulo Zamboni’s wife came down with MS (multiple sclerosis), he was in an unusual position: He was a professor of medicine. Not only did he have technical expertise, he was going to care far more than than most MS researchers about finding a cure. (Likewise, when I suffered from early awakening, I had both technical expertise and cared more about finding a solution than any sleep researcher.)

Using ultrasound to examine the vessels leading in and out of the brain, Dr. Zamboni made a startling find: In more than 90 per cent of people with multiple sclerosis, including his spouse, the veins draining blood from the brain were malformed or blocked. In people without MS, they were not. [emphasis added] . . . More striking still was that, when Dr. Zamboni performed a simple operation to unclog veins and get blood flowing normally again, many of the symptoms of MS disappeared. . . . His wife, who had the surgery three years ago, has not had an attack since. . .
The initial studies done in Italy were small but the outcomes were dramatic. In a group of 65 patients with relapsing-remitting MS (the most common form) who underwent surgery, the number of active lesions in the brain fell sharply, to 12 per cent from 50 per cent; in the two years after surgery, 73 per cent of patients had no symptoms.

Clearly Dr. Zamboni has discovered something very important. Perhaps no true health breakthrough would be complete without appalling responses from powerful people within the biomedical establishment. The American MS society issued a comment on these findings that the rest of us can marvel at. According to them, people with MS should not get tested for malformed or blocked veins!

Q: I have MS. Should I be tested for signs of CCSVI?
A: No, unless you are involved in a research study exploring this phenomenon, since at this time there is no proven therapy to resolve any abnormalities that might be observed, and it is still not clear whether relieving venous obstructions would be beneficial.

Persons with MS cannot be trusted with the dangerous knowledge of whether or not their veins are malformed or blocked! The Chairman of the Board of the National MS society is Thomas R. Kuhn. The President is Joyce M. Nelson. I would love to know how they justify this position. I wrote to the National MS society asking how Kuhn justifies this. The Canadian MS society is far less negative, perhaps due to public pressure.

Over at This Is MS, the National MS position is derided. Someone has made the shrewd observation that if there is something to Zamboni’s idea, persons with MS should get a red head after exercise more often than persons without MS and is collecting data to see if this is true. There seems to be something to it.

Not only is this a wonderful discovery but it is wonderful how the National MS Society can simply be ignored. There are now much better sources of information.

Thanks to Anne Weiss, Charles Richardson, and James Andwartha.

JAMA Editors Continue to Display Staggeringly Poor Judgment

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

In an earlier post I called a certain JAMA editorial “the most self-righteous editorial I have ever read.” Perhaps the authors reluctantly agreed; the editorial, which used to be here, is gone. Since I quoted from it, you can still see what I was talking about. The BMJ has an article about the disappearance, which includes this:

The BMJ sent emails to JAMA’s editor, Catherine DeAngelis, and the journal’s media relations office asking about the disappearance of the March editorial. The BMJ also asked whether Dr DeAngelis could explain why the new July editorial had toned down the policy outlined in the March editorial.

The response from a JAMA spokeswoman was “no comment.”

Correct: It is indefensible. What I said earlier still holds: The whole incident — self-righteous editorial, trash-talking by DeAngelis to a WSJ blogger, deletion of the editorial, failure to explain the deletion — “sheds a hugely unflattering light on the very powerful doctors who run JAMA — and thus an hugely unflattering light on a culture in which such people, like Nemeroff, gain great power.”

What Causes Asthma? Not What the Tovars Think

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

From Joyce Cohen’s The Hunt column:

For reasons unknown, Florida didn’t agree with little Noah Tovar. Since his toddler years, Noah, now 7, had suffered terribly from asthma. His parents, Jari and Selene Tovar, moved their family several times, trying to escape the mold or pollen or whatever it was that caused his breathing problems. Nothing helped much.

Noah’s parents didn’t know, I can tell, about a 1992 study of childhood asthma and allergies in Germany. Maybe childhood asthma is caused by air pollution, the researchers thought. Let’s test that idea by comparing a clean West German city (Munich) with a dirty East German one (Leipzig). Here’s one of the results:

The lifetime prevalence of asthma diagnosed by a doctor was 7.3% (72) in Leipzig and 9.3% (435) in Munich.

Less asthma in the dirty city! It wasn’t a significant difference but similar differences, such as hay fever and rhinitis (runny nose), were in the same direction and significant. Hay fever was much rarer in Leipzig.

Noah’s asthma cleared up, to his parents’ surprise, on a trip to New York. So the family moved to New York.

Even though “everyone was under the impression that New York would cause him more distress, it was just the opposite,” Mrs. Tovar said. “Not one doctor nor myself can explain what it is.”

Mrs. Tovar’s doctors are badly out of date. The hygiene hypothesis has been around since the 1990s, supported by plenty of data that, like the German study, shows that childhood allergies are better in dirtier environments. Noah is better in New York because New York air is dirtier than Florida air — that’s the obvious explanation.

In The Probiotic Revolution (2007) by Gary Huffnagle with Sarah Wernick, which I’ve mentioned earlier, Dr. Huffnagle, a professor of immunology at the University of Michigan, describes a self-experiment he did:

Could probiotics relieve something as tenacious as my lifelong allergies and asthma? I decided to take a probiotic supplement and make a few simple changes to my diet to my diet, just to see what happened. Yogurt became my new breakfast and my new bedtime snack. I also upped my intake of fruits and vegetables. Whenever possible, I substituted whole grains for processed ones. And I tried to cut back on sugar. [Why he made the non-probiotic changes is not explained. In another part of the book he says he also increased his spice intake.] No big deal.

Because I doubted this little experiment would work, I didn’t mention it to anyone, not even my wife. And I didn’t bother to record my allergy symptoms. . . My “aha” moment came after about a month: I’d spent the evening writing a grant proposal, a box of tissues at my side. After all these years, I knew to be prepared for the inevitable sneezing and runny nose caused by my mold allergies, which kicked up at night. But when I finished working and cleared the table, I realized I hadn’t touched the tissues. And as I looked back on the previous month, I could see other changes. This wasn’t my first sneeze-free evening; I hadn’t needed my asthma inhaler for several months. To my astonishment, the experiment had been a great success.

This is a great and helpful story. Only after I read it did I realize I’d had a similar experience. I’ve never had serious allergies but I used to sneeze now and then in my apartment and my nose would run a lot; I went through more than one box of Kleenex in a month. Maybe 4 in one morning. In January, I made just one change: I started to eat lots more fermented foods (yogurt, kimchi, kefir, etc.). My sneezing and Kleenex use are now almost zero.

The Tovars can live wherever they want, I’m sure, if they feed their son plenty of fermented food.

Previous post about childhood allergies and fermented food.

More After the column appeared, someone wrote to the Tovars:

Funny, same thing happened to me.  I moved from England where I had chronic asthma, to New York City where I had none.  Stayed in NY for twenty years asthma free, then moved back to England with my wife for the last ten years and my asthma has returned all the time I’ve been back.

Food Expiration Dates: Reversal of Fortune

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

At a store today I saw two containers of Siggis “Icelandic style” yogurt I wanted. One said “best by 4/27/09″; the other said “best by 5/18/09″. To my shock I realized the older one was better. It had more bacteria.

The opposite of what we’re supposed to think.

Expired food — don’t throw it out, give it to me.

JAMA Editors Go Nuts

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Emory University professor Charles “Disgraced” Nemeroff was, you should remember, a respected psychiatric researcher. One of the most respected. What this says about academic psychiatry — and perhaps all academic medicine — is scary to think about.

Now comes a second episode along these lines: JAMA editors attack Jonathan Leo, a professor at Lincoln Memorial University, for daring to publish an article pointing out an undisclosed conflict of interest — exactly Nemeroff’s problem. In the most self-righteous editorial I have ever read, Catherine DeAngelis, JAMA‘s Editor in Chief, and Phil Fontanarosa, the Deputy Executive Editor,

  • say that Leo should not have contacted the New York Times
  • “A telephone conversation intended to inform Leo that his actions were inappropriate transformed into an argumentative discussion as Leo continued to refuse to acknowledge any problem with his actions.”
  • tell Leo to never submit anything to JAMA due to “his apparent lack of confidence in and regard for” the publication
  • “We felt an obligation to notify the dean of Leo’s institution . . . We sought the dean’s assistance in resolving the issue . . . “
  • “Our tone in these interactions was strong and emphatic . . . seriously . . . responsibility . . . fair process . . . integrity of science . . . We regret . . . “
  • make it more difficult to report future conflicts of interest

To make sure everyone understood this wasn’t temporary insanity, Catherine DeAngelis made similar comments to the Wall Street Journal:

“This guy is a nobody and a nothing” she said of Leo. “He is trying to make a name for himself. Please call me about something important.” She added that Leo “should be spending time with his students instead of doing this.”

Yes, nothing is less important than an unreported conflict of interest in JAMA.

The JAMA editorial, published a week after the WSJ article, claims that DeAngelis didn’t call Leo “a nobody and a nothing” but since the WSJ has not fixed the supposed error I conclude that the editorial claim of quote fabrication is wrong — not to mention highly implausible.

In their editorial, the JAMA editors write that “a rush to judgment [that is, Leo pointing out the conflict of interest himself rather than deferring to them] . . . rarely sheds light or advances medical discourse.” Au contraire. This “rush to judgment” has shed a hugely unflattering light on the very powerful doctors who run JAMA — and thus an hugely unflattering light on a culture in which such people, like Nemeroff, gain great power.

John Updike, RIP

Friday, January 30th, 2009

I was 15 or so when I first read a John Updike novel. To my amazement, it was fun to read. The novels I’d read in English class, such as Oliver Twist, had never been fun to read. I read a lot more Updike and figured out he liked Nabokov. So I picked up Pnin. I loved Nabokov, it turned out. You could say Updike was an easy-listening version of Nabokov. He was the first person who taught me to enjoy literature. He was the bridge.

For a long time I read almost everything he wrote (except The Poorhouse Fair) but around S. I stopped. Maybe because I was watching more TV. I continued to read all his stuff in The New Yorker, but maybe it is fitting that, in his entire career, the thing he said that I like best occurred on TV. In a National Book Award acceptance speech (1998) he said, “A book is beautiful in its relation to the human hand, to the human eye, to the human brain, and to the human spirit.”

Things That Work Much Better When Broken (part 2)

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

If six months ago you had told me such things existed I would have been very skeptical. But since then I have come across two examples. Example 1: contact lenses. Forced during a trip to wear just one lens (leaving one eye without a lens), I realized my sight was much better than when I wore two. I had sharp vision both close and far away. And the unlensed eye got more oxygen than usual.

Example 2 I also discovered by accident. My bike lock no longer locks. It is hard to see this, so if I fake-lock my bike — which I got for free — it is still sufficiently protected. My bike lock is now much easier to use. No more worry about the key. No way it can become impossible to unlock, which has happened once in two months. (To any Tsinghua students reading this: Please don’t steal my bike.)