Arguments Against the Paleo Diet

April 22nd, 2013

This video makes some fantastic points about the so-called “paleo diet”:

This post, which I wrote months ago, was originally much longer and incorporated many of the points Dr. Zuk makes, in particular my belief that evolution proceeds in a haphazard random way and does not necessarily lead to some supreme state.

She also puts some science behind the principle objection I have always had: that there is unlikely to be some idyllic point X at which our diet was perfectly suited to our physiology then and forever more. We have evolved with our diet. Our diet has been evolving since we were primordial slime. Claiming that our ancestors’ diet at some time X — even making the huge assumption that we know what our ancestors ate at point X — is arbitrary. Why go back to that point? Why not go back to the time when we were primordial slime eating protozoans?

Moreover, how do we know that our ancestors were eating the right foods in the first place? That’s a gigantic assumption to make based on what we know about evolution. Isn’t it possible that their paleo diet was actually bad for them? That they only ate it because they had no choice in the matter? That our technology and diet has evolved toward something better suited to us?

All that having been said, I’m not slamming the paleo diet, per se. Some people seem to have improved their health with it and I’ve found that cutting carbs benefits me. I do think the current received wisdom of cutting fat and protein and emphasizing carbs is not nearly as supported by the science as our government likes to pretend it is. But let’s not swing the pendulum too far back and pretend that the paleo diet has more science behind it. Or that any one-size-fits-all diet is appropriate. I think the point to take away is that diet is a lot more complex and a lot less well understood than we would like.

Baseball Player Salaries

April 15th, 2013

You know, I thought these articles had gone out of fashion:

In 1972, the year I became aware of baseball, its highest-paid player, Hank Aaron, earned $200,000 per season—the equivalent of around $1 million today. Aaron’s salary was 18 times the median household income in the United States. This year’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, stands to earn $29 million, which is 580 times the median income. (In fairness, Verlander may be a more egregious example of inequality than Rodriguez, since he pitches in the nation’s poorest big city. In the first year of his new contract, Verlander will earn $20 million—around 800 times as much as Detroit’s median household income.)
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Over the past 40 years—the period of rising economic inequality that former Slate columnist Timothy Noah called “The Great Divergence”—Americans’ incomes have not grown at all, in real dollars. But baseball players’ incomes have increased twentyfold in real dollars: the average major-league salary in 2012 was $3,213,479. The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1.

As baseball players accumulate plutocratic riches (Rodriguez will have earned a third of $1 billion by the time his contract expires), I find myself wondering why I’m supposed to cheer for a guy earning $27.5 million a year—he’s already a winner. When I was 11, I hero-worshipped the Tigers’ shortstop because I could imagine growing up to take his place. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now. Since my past two jobs disappeared in the Great Recession, I can’t watch a professional sporting event without thinking, Most of those guys are set for life, while I’ve been buying my own health insurance for 5 1/2 years. Paying to see a baseball game feels like paying to see a tax lawyer argue in federal court or a commodities trader work the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. They’re getting rich out there, but how am I profiting from the experience? I know we’re never going back to the days when Willie Mays lived in Harlem and sold cars in the offseason, but the market forces that have overvalued ballplayers’ skills while devaluing mine have made it impossible for me to just enjoy the damn game.

McClelland even criticizes the Seitz decision, thinking players would be better off if they were bound for life to one team. Or, actually … I don’t think he cares about the players. What seems to be damaged here is a deranged sense of economic justice.

I shouldn’t bother but … I’m in a fish-in-barrel kind of mood.

First, let’s consider the point made by honest liberal Matt Yglesias: owners will price tickets, concessions and TV for as much as they can get. There is a myth the media like to promulgate (and MLB owners like to hear) that high player salaries drive high prices for games. This is baloney. The owners will charge whatever they can. When was the last time a team dumped payroll and then cut prices? I remember when Peter Angelos was on Baltimore radio flogging this myth. Someone called up and asked if he was going to cut prices now that the Orioles had dumped all their expensive players. He didn’t have an answer.

All that free agency has done is give players a bigger piece of the pie — a pie that they actually baked since no one ever payed a plugged nickel to see an owner (and it’s not like the owners are struggling). Frankly, I wish more businesses were following their example and bumping up salaries.

A few more things to factor in: athletes are taxed at very high rates; they typically only play for a few years, if that; most of those that do reach the highest levels have pursued it with a single-minded devotion. They will have to live on those earnings for a long time. Frankly, if equity is what you’re worried about, I’d spend more time flogging the low salaries of minor league players compared to their MLB counterparts.

The Slate readers are actually pretty savvy and make many of these points in the comments. However, you do get the occasional “why do we pay teachers and fireman so little and ball players so much!” This was always my favorite argument against high player salaries because it is so obviously absurd. At any given sporting event, an average of 30,000 people show up, buying tickets and concessions. They put in a significant amount of effort and money to watch someone like Justin Verlander pitch. How many teachers teach to 30,000 students at a time? If a teacher could teach that many 162 times a year, would she not be paid like Justin Verlander? The fact is that the skills needed to teach — patience, intelligence, hard work, empathy — are thankfully common. There are literally a few million people doing it. The skills needed to fight fires or fight wars — self-sacrifice, strength, courage — are also thankfully common. The skills needed to be a Cy Young winner — while having less value in an objective sense — are much more rare.

Yes, it’s true that Justin Verlander can’t teach a class or fight a fire or do astrophysics for that matter. It’s also true that I can’t hit a curveball. So what?

But doesn’t the huge amount of money spent on sports show that we have our priorities out of whack? Shouldn’t we spend more on education that we do on baseball? Well … we do. Major league baseball made $7.5 billion last year or about $10 for all 75 million people who went to a game and considerably less for those who watched it on television. We spent approximately $800 billion on education — over $10,000 per child in public schools. The difference is the number of people into whose hands that money is concentrated — three million teachers against a thousand athletes. If our devotion to a cause is judged by the how much we spend, how much we worry, how much we argue and how many people devote decades of their lives to it, education is far, far more valued in this country than all sports combined.

So, no, I don’t think athletes are paid too much. I think they are paid what they are worth. The market has not “overvalued” ballplayers nor has it “undervalued” writers. There are maybe a few hundred people in the entire world who can play baseball at a professional level. But there are millions who could write poorly reasoned articles that drip with wealth envy.

A final thought: my enthusiasm for sports bothered me a little bit when I was younger. Surely, I thought, I shouldn’t devote so much thought to such a trivial pursuit. Is not Shakespeare worth ten pennants? I departed from that thought when I realized that one can pursue all interests: Shakespeare, astrophysics, sports and, um, blogging. But it was actually Jonathan Swift who converted me, with his compelling argument that a truly enlightened race (the Houyhnhnms) would, once they had beaten down the necessities of nature, devote themselves to the pursuit of both mental and physical excellence. Whether it is writing, playing piano, measuring stars or hitting baseballs, the pursuit of a craft, the perfection of it the pinnacle of possibility — that is what drives us as a race.

When I watch a baseball game, I see Justin Verlander throw a ball 100 mph with the right spin to make it move just enough to be almost impossible to hit. I see Albert Pujols, in a split second, decide to swing and launch the bat into the precise position to hit the ball as hard as possible. I see Austin Jackson, at the crack of the bat, take off and pursue it into the gap at just the right angle that he can spear it with his outstretched arm. Every game, I see something that should be impossible but isn’t.

Isn’t that worth $10 a head?

Wedding Bills

April 4th, 2013

Ugh:

There is another, overlooked reason that low-income individuals are less likely to get married these days: they can’t afford to. Weddings are a form of conspicuous consumption. Couples, and their parents, are judged on everything from their attire, to the venue, to the flowers. As Zoe noted recently, the average wedding now costs around $27,000. Committed low-income couples could simply go get married at a courthouse, but settling for a low-cost wedding violates cultural expectations and announces the sorry state of your finances to immediate friends and family. It’s little surprise that many lower-income couples opt for no wedding rather than a dirt-cheap one.

Marriage has many intrinsic benefits, but the increasing cost of a wedding partially explains why, statistically speaking, married couples are better off than non-married couples. Being the type of person who has $27,000 to spare, or has parents who can foot the bill, undoubtedly increases the likelihood of success in all facets of life. If you compared households with $27,000 cars to those without any car, I imagine you’d find that owning a such a car likewise correlates with greater economic potential, physical health, and various other desirable traits.

I think this is completely wrong. Yes, the average wedding costs $27,000. But that’s not some kind of requirement. My wife and I had the means for a bigger wedding, but chose a smaller $10k affair. I’ve had friends, relatives and co-workers who had the means but chose a weddings that were under $1000. And that’s among a group of upper middle class people. For people living in poorer circumstances, big expensive weddings are not even on the radar.

One thing to notice: I’m not sure if the data sets are the same, but the last estimate I saw for the *median* wedding was was more like $15-18k. That means the average is being dragged up by mega-expensive weddings. I would love to see a distribution of the data. I suspect that a lot of cheap weddings are taking place and that the data are being driven by a big group of weddings in the $10-20k range and then a small group in the $100+ range. A wedding is the ultimate conspicuous consumption and it would only make sense it follows the same skewed distribution other consumption does.

Frankly, this point crosses me as a middle income misunderstanding of a lower income problem. I think that, if you are of low-income, the dearth of marriage-worthy men is MUCH more important. If your only spousal options stink, you’re not going to spend a red cent on a wedding.

(As a side note, our tight wedding budget was actually a good thing. We found a huge number of ways to save money. Rather than hire a professional florist, we went to a whole saler, bought tons of flowers and I spent a few days arranging them — a talent that neither I nor my wife suspected I had. We bought our cake from HEB and it was wonderful. We hired a friend’s band and they were great. We hired some high school kids to be a string orchestra for a processional and they were fine. We went with a friend of a friend for photography and got great pictures. I couldn’t sleep the night before so I went to Walmart, bought a color printer and spent the night making place cards for the tables. All told, these things cut the cost of our wedding by at least a third and probably in half. At normal prices, it would have been at least a $15k wedding, right in the heart of the bell curve. And if we’d done it in Atlanta instead of New Braunfels, it would have cost twice as much.

There’s no reason to pay $27,000 for a wedding when you can get the same bang for a LOT less buck with just a little bit of work.)

Big Damn Linkorama

March 20th, 2013

It’s been a while and I’ve been accumulating links. You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit.

  • This article, about the potential for solar-powered roads, reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll. But I am deeply skeptical that the kind of durable materials could be manufactured in the quantities needed. When people talk about alternative energy, they never seem to take into account the expense — financial and environmental — of manufacture and maintenance.
  • See, I told you Christopher Ryan was full of shit. He writes about our bleak future with sexbots taking over (or something). But Maggie McNeill — who knows a thing or two about sex — has frequently pointed out that people want intimacy for sex, not just pleasure. And a device capable of reproducing that would have rights of its own. Masturbation doesn’t cut down on the amount of sex people have. And I also haven’t noticed that the proliferation of dildos, vibrators and fleshlights has remotely cut down on the amount of sex going on (and reminder, dildos date back thousands of years). We have sex for intimacy as well as pleasure.
  • An impressive study reveals the age of the Iliad. Seems it was written about four or five centuries after the events.
  • This study disputes the idea that people’s political preferences change with age. You can clearly see that Democratic/Republic preferences are often based on who was in charge when the voter came of age. This doesn’t surprise me at all. As you can see in the graphs, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Ford, Bush I, Clinton, Obama and Ike were respected and made lifelong supporters. Truman, Johnson, Carter, Nixon, and Bush II were hated and made lifelong opponents. I knew teachers who would never vote Republican because of Nixon. And I know people who will never vote Democrat because of Carter. It will be interesting to see how history judges Obama. I suspect he will create more lifelong supporters than opponents.
  • The opposition to GMO’s grows ever more absurd. We now have a golden rice that could literally save millions per year. And the opposition to them is increasingly based on lies and distortions.
  • Boobs Again

    March 16th, 2013

    In a rather grammatically- and stylistically-challenged article, the Atlantic talks about the latest study:

    Viren Swami and Martin Tovée at the Universities of Manchester and Newcastle, respectively, look into the intricate world of why physical ideals are ideals, and in turn why they drive people beyond reason and morality in the current Archives of Sexual Behavior.

    Stylistic note: this lead make it sounds like the study is unique. But I’m guessing that the Archives of Sexual Behavior have published dozens if not hundreds of articles on why physical ideals are ideals. Indeed, the abstract says as much. So why are we talking about this one in particular? Is it the best done so far? I’m going to make the case below that it isn’t even close. What we’re about see is what I call the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly designed studies usually have the most attention-getting results.

    (Also, do ideals drive people beyond reason and morality? That’s an awfully loaded statement.)

    The problem is primal, so the research methods are not to be outdone. 361 white British men were “taken to a quiet private location” to look at women. Not real women; 3D computer renderings. The men were allowed to rotate them 360 degrees. The only difference among the women was breast size.

    The men were then asked to “make their ratings on a paper-and-pencil survey.”

    Emphasis mine. “Not to be outdone”? I can think of about a dozen ways I could outdo this study.

    Swami and Tovée compared the results with the men’s preferences in breast size, which showed that “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectified women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.”

    The study’s abstract, which is all I have access to, is rather stunning in its lack of humility. After noting that previous studies have been ambiguous, they boldly proclaim their results and then say:

    These results were discussed in relation to feminist theories, which postulate that beauty ideals and practices in contemporary societies serve to maintain the domination of one sex over the other.

    Even if we were to accept the conclusions of this article — and I don’t — it’s a long way from there to beauty ideals maintaining the domination of one sex over the other. Would you like some science with your ideology? Actually, we don’t even need to go to the abstract to see the boldly stated ideological bias. The title is: “Men’s Oppressive Beliefs Predict Their Breast Size Preferences in Women”.

    So, yeah.

    You probably know that I’m not going to be sympathetic to this and not just because of my distaste for ideology. In my previous post, I stated my hypothesis that the breast fetish is just like any other fetish — something that the male mind has latched onto as a way of identifying potential mates. It’s commonality is simply because of its obviousness — visible breasts are the easiest way to identify the female of our species. It’s not a social construct, per se. It is a preference that arises within a social construct. If it weren’t breasts, it would be something else (and almost always is). But the key point here is that fetishes are not really chosen. They just happen. It’s just something that, on a very primal level, the human sexual id locks onto.

    Still, even without my prior assumptions and biases, we can easily see that this study, which has now been widely cited by various mainstream sites (and not just because they like to talk about breasts), has some big problems.

    First, the study was of 361 men. 361 men who were willing to be taken to a “private, quiet location”. 361 whose age, employment and marital status is not exactly clear. That’s an awfully small and demographically narrow number to be drawing conclusions from.

    Second, if the 3D drawing in the Atlantic article is an accurate reproduction of what they were shown, this wasn’t a reasonable test at all. I hate to break this to the authors, but the average bust size in the Western World is quite large and increasing: at least a 36C by old standards and probably larger if the lamentations of bra fitters are to be believed. This is partly rising obesity, marginally because of implants and mostly for reasons that aren’t really clear. This has had a significant effect on the landscape in that men’s perception of what constitutes a big bust has changed. Looking at the figures, even the last one didn’t really cross me as “very large”. Were these informed by some statistical survey of women’s breasts sizes? That’s one way you could improve this “not to be outdone” study.

    There’s a related issue of body type. Critics of male sexuality often claim that men want big breasts on skinny bodies. Certainly, there is a subset of men who like that but most men who prefer busty women actually prefer curvy women. They like big hips and curvy backsides just as much as they like big breasts. Asking these men to look at 3-D computer models — frankly, none of which look like a real woman — is problematic at best.

    (Aside: as I argued in my previous blog, male preferences are not monopolar. All things being equal, a man may prefer a woman with bigger breasts. But in the real world, things are rarely equal. He may be fine with a woman with smaller breasts if she has other features he finds attractive — enchanting eyes, a warm smile, a slender frame, beautiful hair. And — this is a critical point — if a man likes a woman, finds her interesting, enjoys her company — he will begin to see her as attractive. She will become beautiful to him. He will see the beauty in her even if there really isn’t that much to see on an objective level.

    I would posit that there are very few men who date or are attracted to women entirely on bust size. Their preference in models and pornography — situations in which there is no interaction — may reflect a preference (although even then there is probably a broad range). But their behavior in real life can be wildly at variance with this. I would bet you that a significant fraction of the men who preferred “very large” breasts are dating or married to skinny women. And I would bet that some of the men who preferred “very small” breasts are dating or married to busty women. And I would further bet that they find the women in their lives attractive despite not conforming to their preferences in zombie-like computer models.)

    Third, the questions. I don’t have access to the study, but here are the sample questions they provided:

    Attitudes Toward Women Scale (sample prompt: ”Intoxication among women is worse than intoxication among men.”)

    Hostility Towards Women Scale (sample prompt: ”I feel that many times women flirt with men just to tease them or hurt them.”)

    Benevolent Sexism subscale of the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (sample prompt: “Women, as compared to men, tend to have a more refined sense of culture and good taste.”)

    Whoa, really? Those are your sample prompts? Those three prompts are all judgements. You would probably find lots of women who would agree with at least a couple of those. You would probably find that a man would agree or disagree based on his emotional state (if he’s just had a bad break-up, for example). And prompt three (and many of the questions on Ambivolet Sexism Inventory from which they are taken) aren’t clearly sexist. Many of even the most blatant ones probably probe misanthropy far more than they probe misogyny specifically.**

    (Another aside: the Atlantic author illustrates sexism by quoting a lawsuit in which a boss constantly commented on a co-worker’s breasts and once shook her breast as a substitute for shaking her hand. This is not the behavior of a man who likes big breasts or thinks women have a more refined sense of cultural taste. This is the behavior of a sociopath.)

    But I think the real flaw is highlighted by Ann Althouse:

    They were taking a science-y survey, so deference to authority and desire to be socially acceptable would be an influence along with real-world sexual preference.

    The scientists found “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectified women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.” Were these men really the ones who “idealized a large female breast size,” or were they simply the ones who didn’t feel as strongly compelled to moderate their opinions to conform to the perceived demands of polite society?

    Exactly. I keep harping on this in the social sciences: there is a huge difference between what people think and do and what they tell a group of leering scientists that they think and do. Most people do not want to be perceived as abnormal (or sexist). This is a big problem with this study since, if I read it correctly, the men were shown all five images at the same time. This creates a very obvious social pressure that is different from if five groups of men were shown five different images separately. Hell, if I were put in a room and asked which image I liked, I might say 3 or 4 even though I would prefer 4 or 5 (and would actually prefer a real women with real physical proportions).

    How would I improve this “not to be outdone” survey? First of all, I would have a lot more than 361 white British men. Second, I would show each man only one image and ask him to rate her on a scale of 1-10. Second, I would get images of real women and digitally alter them, using some statistical model based on women’s actual bust sizes. Third, I would make a second axis by having some women altered to have both bigger hips and bigger breasts and others to just have bigger breasts. Breast size and hip size are correlated, as anyone who has seen real women instead of 3-D models knows. Fourth, I would use something a little less ambiguous than these prompts. For example, I might give the men two different job applications and just change the gender and see how they rated the applicant. Or have some people enact a job situation and ask them what they thought of the woman’s behavior. Something a little more direct, at any rate.

    Or I might go to the gigantic database compiled by the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts who gathered data from Google when men didn’t know they were being studied. The only problem is that I would probably find — as those researchers did — that men actually prefer curvy women, not just just busty ones. And that would ruin my thesis that a preference for big boobs is a results of sexism.

    So, let’s sum up: a small and poorly designed study asked men to look at unrealistic images of women. They were then asked leading questions of dubious utility. And from this, we conclude that men who like big boobs are more likely to be hostile to women and that feminist theory is vindicated.

    That makes me feel some hostility all right. But it’s not directed against women.

    **Update: Michael Talarski alerted me that there are links to the questions in the Atlantic article. Here is the attitude toward women quiz. The other triggers a download. The questions are mostly reasonable probes of attitudes toward women (although a few are bit ambiguous). But I would be curious to see how women score on that test. And I would be especially curious to see if these attitudes correlate with actual behavior.

    An Owl in A Lark World

    March 15th, 2013

    This article, about sleep, has been particularly relevant to me lately. Since returning from Australia, I’ve been struggling to sleep. It reached an awful nadir the past weekend when I was able to get only about two hours. Since then, I’ve been rebuilding things with better sleep hygiene (i.e., turning the computer off no later than 10:30) and was able to get five straight hours last night, which was a huge relief.

    What jumped out at me was this, which is relevant to my perennial struggles with sleep:

    Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg’s term, a “chronotype.” Either we’re inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we’re “larks,” or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us “owls.” (One’s chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the “genetics are complex.”) During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let’s say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can’t—they’re owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as “social jet lag”—each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they’re exhausted. They “fly back” to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.

    For larks, the problem is reversed. Social life is arranged so that it’s hard to have one unless you stay out late on Friday and Saturday nights. But, even when larks have partied till 3 a.m., they can’t sleep in the following day—they’re larks. So they stagger through until Monday, when they can finally get some rest.

    The moral equivalence here is staggering. First of all, the problem for “larks” is non-existent for most people. If you have a family or are past the age of 30, it’s rare to stay up partying late on weekends. But the problem for “owls” never ends. No matter what age you are, you are expected to be at work at 9 am or earlier.

    The simple fact is that the larks set the rules for the rest of us. And moreover, they cast their larkness as a sign of their virtue and industry (see Franklin, Ben). Those of us who are owls are seen as lazy sluggards. And this prejudice is only strengthened by our schools, government and military setting lark schedules (an especially odious practice in schools where, as the article notes, children are biologically prone to be owls but forced to live on adult lark schedules).

    But, in a way, I’m being too harsh on the larks. The problem is partially them but also our insistance, as a society, on conformity. Everyone has to go to work at the same time, everyone has to come home at the same time. This makes some sense — businesses have to be open simultaneously to interact. But we carry it to a ridiculous extreme. It manifests not just in the owl-lark problem but in the absurdity of Daylight Savings Time (it would make far more sense for businesses to adjust their hours to the season on an individual basis, rather than forcing uniformity on all of us; astronomers understand this).

    The Shakespeare Project: Henry V

    February 25th, 2013

    I said below that Shakespeare had a fascination with fallen characters and villains. Henry V is an exception. He is presented a full-throated heroic figure — a military genius, a just and wise ruler, a man with a touch for the common folk. Of course, this comes after his redemption over the course of Henry IV. But Henry is the rare memorable Shakespeare character is pure hero.

    I’ve said before that I don’t think Shakespeare is as subtle as some people like to pretend he is. There’s a school of thought that claims that Henry V is actually an anti-war play, especially given some of the vivid descriptions Henry gives of the horrors of war. I don’t think this is the case. Shakespeare can acknowledge the horrors of war while still making it out to be glorious. There’s a common refrain out there that war-mongers are necessarily “chicken-hawks” who do not understand the horror they contemplate. I find that attitude amusing. Some of the most aggressive warlike leaders in history were themselves veterans. They knew how awful war was. It either didn’t bother them or it pleased them.

    There are a few interesting issues with some of the scenes in the play. Branagh’s film version played the comedy bit straight, which was an interesting choice. I like them better as comedy myself to balanced out Henry’s seriousness. But the final scene — in which Henry “woos” Katherine — is a bit problematic. It is played straight in Branagh’s film but I read that many consider it comical or satirical. I must admit I lean a little bit toward the latter as the scene doesn’t really work as romance for me.

    Next Up: Henry VI Part 1. Probably be a while before I get to it.

    As I Predicted: EMR

    February 22nd, 2013

    I thought I’d put these three links into a separate post. Long ago, when electronic medical records were being cited as the way we could save money in our healthcare system, I was skeptical. I pointed out that these innovations might save lives and might make things easier on patients. But they were unlikely to save money. I based that on my dad’s experience with EMR, in which he found them to be very expensive, amazingly disorganized and somewhat bewildered by HIPPA requirements.

    Well, I was right. Here you can read about how EMR’s have encourage the use of boilerplate descriptions which leave critical information out of patient’s record. Here you can read about how it makes doctoring difficult. I’ve experience this personally, finding that doctors spend all their time screwing around with the EMR system rather than interacting with me (although this has improved in the last couple of years as doctors learn from their mistakes and save EMR maintenance until after the appointment). And here you can read about how the system are not saving money and don’t interact with each other.

    Some of these problems will eventually be solved. I expect that a uniform standard will eventually be created (probably by law). Improvements in computer transcription will probably restore dictation over boilerplate for making notes. And, as I noted, doctors are quickly improving their ability to use EMR without sabotaging their interaction with the patient. In the long run, I think this will improve healthcare.

    But easy-to-use systems that have a uniform standard, protect patient privacy and can correctly spell esophagogastroduodenoscopy (as I just did on the first try) are not cheap and are never going to be. This is not the solution to our healthcare woes. There is no silver bullet that is.

    Caloundra Linkorama

    February 22nd, 2013

    I just noticed I have about five Linkoramas lingering in my queue. So I’ll take out whole bunch here.

  • DARPA is looking into recycling satellites. This makes a huge amount of sense if it can be done. Space debris is a big problem. And the launch is one of the biggest expense of any mission. If you could put something up there cheap that could rove around and repair satellites, it would be worth a fortune.
  • Cracked has a nice article about how poverty isn’t the cliche we like to think it is.
  • An interview with James Alan Fox disputing Mother Jones on mass shootings.
  • This is an amazing story about how a family was cut off from civilization for 40 years. A modern-day Swiss Family Robinson.
  • I love this depiction of what Mars would look like with water. In actuality, it wouldn’t look quite like that, since erosion would wear down the extreme features.
  • I also love this depiction of what Cambrian creatures might have looked like.
  • When you make a little girl in a wheelchair cry that she doesn’t want to go to Disney World, you are slime.
  • Nine hilarious NYT corrections. I mean, even I knew the My Little Pony one.
  • Anatomy of a drug panic.
  • Anatomy of a female orgasm.
  • The Shakespeare Project: Henry IV, Part 2

    February 22nd, 2013

    It’s amazing how fast I can go through these things when I’m on vacation.

    I would have to say that 2 Henry IV is a bit of a letdown after Part 1. Oh, it’s still very good. But it suffers a bit from “middle chapter syndrome” between the outstanding Part 1 and the epic Henry V. Some plot threads from Part 1 are wrapped up too quickly and not much groundwork is laid for the next installment.

    Part 1 struck an excellent balance with the low comedy of the Falstaff scenes and the high drama of the politics. It featured an fantastic counterpart to Prince Harry in Hotspur and built to an exciting battle. Part 2 doesn’t quite balance as well, with the low comedy being a bit much and the high drama not working as well. Northumberland’s waffling and selling out of allies is dropped too early. York is never made into a great villain. The conflict is resolved hastily (and, to my mind, dishonorably). It only reaches a real high point when Henry IV is dying and immediately thereafter, as Harry assumed the mantle of leadership.

    Falstaff is wonderful, although I feel he played better off Prince Hal, who was his equal in verbal gymnastics, than he does off Lively or Doll. Henry’s rejection of him is heart-breaking, although not milked the way it should be (and indeed many, including Branagh, add this missing touch in their productions of Henry V).

    In any case, I’m loving the histories. Maybe it’s because Shakespeare was bound by actual events, which makes the plot more linear and less dependent on twists. Maybe it’s because it combines the best elements of comedy and tragedy instead of being hamstrung by the conventions of either. Maybe it’s just because I love history. Whatever, the case, don’t expect a long wait before my next update.

    Next Up: Henry V, of course. One of my favorites.

    The Shakespeare Project: Henry IV, Part I

    February 20th, 2013

    So that’s what everyone was on about.

    One of the reasons I started this project was the realization that my only encounter with Falstaff was his brief (but poignant) cameo in Branagh’s Henry V. And until two days ago, my only real experience was from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is fun in Wives, but nothing like what he is in this one. Whenever the action moved to Hotspur or Henry IV, I found myself wondering when they were going to get back to Falstaff. As noted by many, his recounting of the attack by the robbers, the way he turns the conversation when Hal reveals his own involvement, his verbal outfoxing of Quickly … all of it is pure joy. And the counterpoint of his relatively harmless shenanigans to the devastating wars of the honorable characters is unmissable.

    Would this play be as good without Falstaff? Yeah, I guess. Prince Harry and Prince Hostpsur are good characters and I’m fascinated by the history. I suspect without Falstaff, we would get more of the sub rosa politics of Richard II. But it’s clearly Falstaff and Harry who elevate this play to great.

    Next up: Well, I guess it’s Henry IV, Part 2. My goal is to complete the Henry tetralogy by the time I head back to the states.

    The Shakespeare Project: Richard II

    February 19th, 2013

    LIke many authors, Shakespeare seems much more fascinated with fallen characters and villains than with heroes. Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Prospero, Prince Hal before he becomes Henry V, etc. Just as his comedy centers around common people, his tragedy and drama center around those who have fallen from grace in some way, whether it is Hal’s antics or Iago’s treachery or Prospero’s vengeance.

    Richard II, as a character, is one of the better examples of this. When the play starts out, he is king and not terribly interesting. But as he loses power (and possibly his mind) his character becomes stronger and stronger, getting some of the bet speeches in the play. His melancholy dialogues in Act III are a highlight and he dominates Act IV, talking rings around everyone else.

    The thing I liked most about Richard II was that so much was sub rosa. The past conspiracy to kill Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s gradual rebellion even as he proclaims his loyalty, his evident relief at Richard’s death — these all are belied by the words that come out of the character’s mouths. Very rarely in Richard II does anyone say what they really mean; they always dance around it. And it is a demonstration of Shakespeare’s skill that I, five centuries later and having to read about the War of the Roses on Wikipedia, can grasp this, even incompletely.

    Next Up: Henry IV, Part I

    Mother Jones Hacks Again

    February 18th, 2013

    A few weeks ago Mother Jones, having not learned the lesson of their absurd article claiming mass shootings are on the rise, published a list of 10 Myths about guns and gun control from Dave Gilson. And I’m going to debunk their debunking again because the article represents what I believe is one of the worst sins in the field of Mathematical Malpractice: cherry-picking. As I went through this, it became obvious that MJ was not interested in the facts, really. What was motivating them was the argument. And so they picked any study — no matter how small, how biased or how old — to support their point. They frequently ignore obvious objections and biases. And they sometimes ignore larger more detailed studies in favor of the smaller ones if it will support their contention.

    We see this a lot in the punditocracy, unfortunately. As Bill James said, most people use studies the way a drunk uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination. In any sufficiently advanced but difficult field of study, you will find multiple studies examining an issue. Let’s say it’s a supposed connection between watching Glee and having a heart attack. If there is, in reality, no connection between the two, you might find eight studies that show no connection, one that shows an anti-correlation and one that shows a correlation. This is fine. This is science. There are always outlier studies even if all the researchers are completely ethical and honest. The outliers fall away when your interest is the question and you look at all the evidence. But the outliers dominate the discussion from those who have an agenda.

    This happens a lot in the gun debate. On both sides, really. But Mother Jones’ article is a particularly putrid example of this because that’s basically all it does: collect the cherry-picked nonsensical studies that support their anti-gun agenda. It’s quite remarkable actually; almost a clinic in how not to do research.

    But here’s the one thing that really tips you off. There is one myth that Mother Jones does not debunk. It’s a myth that’s really independent of what you think of gun ownership … unless you’ve already staked part of your reputation and agenda on the myth that gun violence is increasing. In fact, all forms of violent crime have been falling for twenty years. This is, in my mind, the single most important fact in debates over crime and violence and the single most important myth to debunk.

    MJ does not address this myth. They don’t even talk about it. That is a huge tell.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Mike’s Rule of Expertise

    February 17th, 2013

    Shortly after I graduated from college, I was on a kick to try to get healthy and lose weight. It still hasn’t worked, 19 years la- … holy crap, 19 years?! … let me see … 1994 .. good God, I’m old … anyway, it still hasn’t worked 19 year later.

    At one point, I tried Herbalife. This was not something I came to of my own accord. A friend’s husband was into it on the lowest tier of their multi-level marketing. I was too young and stupid to know just how idiotic herbal supplements were, so I figured “what the hell” and jumped.

    It was a big mistake. The compound contained ephedra and it caused my first incident of Premature Ventricular Contractions — a common harmless arrhythmia that nevertheless is scary as hell. Some time later I tried a prescription weight loss pill that also caused PVC’s. They went away after I stopped, mostly. I still get them occasionally, most notably right after my wedding and when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I had a full cardio workup six years ago and everything looks fine. But I still wonder if the ephedra did any permanent damage.

    The thing is that I’m not normally into that sort of thing. But it was sold to me because I wasn’t terribly familiar with high-pressure marketing techniques and certainly didn’t expect them from a friend’s husband. I’ve since … well not wised up, exactly. I’ve gotten confident enough to tell people to fuck off. In fact, high pressure sales pitches are the surest way to drive me away. When we bought our first home, I literally walked out on people who tried to get me to buy right then with “if you buy right now” incentives. The home we bought was sold in a low-pressure way. We felt — correctly as it happened — that this reflected the salesman’s confidence in his product.

    I’m rambling. Let me get to the point. Part of the sales pitch I got for Herbalife went like this:

    Mike, I’m telling you, I’ve investigated all kinds of supplements. I’ve looked into everything. And I’ve researched this product really thoroughly. I wouldn’t take anything I didn’t know everything about. So trust me: this is the real deal.

    Standard stuff, right? But hidden within that is something I’ve come to recognize as the mark of a shyster. If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.

    This instinct has served me well. When Neal Boortz began flogging the Fair Tax, he talked about how much research had been done and how he’d looked at every plan out there (really? every plan?). That pinged my radar and I did some research and found out that the Fair Tax had giant gaping problems (documented here). When a contractor came by and gave me a pitch about how he’d tried everything and he was the best expert, I went with someone else.

    And you see this constantly in the alternative medicine crowd. Sellers and promoters will constantly tell you how extensively they’ve surveyed things, how much research they’ve done, how much experience they have and, inevitably, it turns out not to be the case.

    So, in my roundabout way, here is Mike’s Rule of Expertise: Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.

    Let cite some good examples from my blogroll: Radley Balko doesn’t talk about what an expert he is on criminal justice matters; he tells you specifically what he’s learned, seen and read. The Bad Astronomer doesn’t talk about how much experience he has in astrophysics; he points you at research and researchers who’ve done the work. Maggie McNeill doesn’t pontificate about her extensive background in the sex industry; she links every study and opinion piece she can find. Joe Posnanski doesn’t talk about how many athletes he’s interviewed or how much Bill James likes him; he crunches the numbers, gets the quotes and presents the facts.

    I’ve been to hundreds of science talks. Not one has centered around the speaker’s credentials and how they’ve explored every alternate theory. They present hypothesis, data and conclusion. The best ones acknowledge their limitations and possible alternate theories. The kind of dead certainty you will encounter in, say, a homeopathy practitioner, is minimal in any good scientist and absent in the best ones.

    This is how real experts do it. Experts want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.

    (In a related note, I, like most astronomers, rarely affix “Ph.D.” to the end of my name unless I’m applying for a grant where the credential is required. I also only refer to myself as “Dr. Siegel” when yelling at the cable company. And the only time I’m called that at work is either as part of a running gag or when being addressed formally (grant correspondence, for example; and I usually encourage them to call me Mike). This is partially because astronomers are an informal bunch. It is also related to my time at UVa, where everyone except Ed School professors and medical doctors takes the moniker of “Mr.” and “Ms.” as a sign of respect to Mr. Jefferson.

    But I also I think this flows from the same skepticism of over-credentialing. A real scientist wants you to trust the data, not them. The only academics I know who use the Ph.D. suffix or the Doctor prefix are either a) pretentious; b) medical doctors, where I think it’s appropriate, and c) women or minorities in disciplines where they have trouble being taken seriously and it’s hard to begrudge them. And anyone who refers to themselves as “Dr. Smith, Ph.D.” is almost certainly full of it.)

    What brought this to my frontal lobe was a re-eruption (a few months ago now) of controversy over Sex at Dawn. I find the premise of Sex at Dawn — that humans are naturally polyamorous — interesting if flawed. But what has long bothered me is the certainty with which this supposedly scientific premise is discussed. Every time I hear Christopher Ryan speak, I feel like he’s about to sell me herbal supplements. He’s not quite as bad as my friend’s now ex-husband. He actually does know some stuff. But he seems stunningly unaware of what he doesn’t know or of what facts are inconsistent with his thesis. Is he right? Dammit, if this comes down to me reading his book, I give up.

    Anyway, there is some controversy over Christopher Ryan’s credentials. I took a look at his wikipedia page and this is what I found:

    He received a BA in English and American literature in 1984 and an MA and Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, CA twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan’s academic research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural. His doctoral dissertation analyzes the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the psychologist, Stanley Krippner.

    Ryan has guest lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School, consulted at various hospitals, contributed to publications ranging from Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press) to a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America and makes frequent mass media appearances. Ryan contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.[

    I read that and I heard, “I’m telling you, I’ve been all over the world and met all kinds of people and read all the papers. And this polyamory thing; this is the real deal.” Maybe Ryan is right. I’ve got an 80-book backlog right now, but I’m hoping to get to his at some point. But a Wikipedia entry filled with such a wide array of credentials combined with his “I’m such an expert” public statements make me suspect the work has flaws. And what I’ve read indicates this perception is correct. If and when I get to his book, I’ll know for sure.

    (I wrote the above a couple of months ago. When I went to it today, I was reminded of a recent post at Popehat that mocked a legal spammer for doing the same thing: talking himself up as some modern-day renaissance man. Ken has a lot more experience in dealing with shyster lawyers, obviously. His approach to this is different because he gets a lot of legal spamming. But the basic tenet is the same: a real hot shot lawyer doesn’t try to wow you with his credentials.)