Thursday, July 26, 2007

Later we'll discuss sex and lower back pain

A breakthrough would be when you link intelligence to science writing--When I taught science writing I forbade the students from using the word breakthrough, mostly on grounds there are in fact very few real breakthroughs in science. The discovery of the helical structure of DNA is a breakthrough. The discovery of penicillin is a breakthrough. Breakthroughs come about four or five times a century. And the word is greatly overused by journalists who are trying to make their stories seem more important than they are, or by scientists doing likewise.

I’d like to add another word: link. The word link should be banned in all stories about nutrition, to be sure. What is linked today, isn’t linked tomorrow and even if there is a correlation that does not prove causation, so, so what? Journals are filled with stories linking something we eat to either something that will make us ill or to a cure or a prevention of whatever that was. And if you wait a year or two, someone will come up with the opposite results. Have some recent examples.

Vitamin C prevents or treat colds, or then, maybe it doesn't—Few substances have been studied more and the results are mixed. The general conclusion was that data were lacking to support the notion vitamin C prevents colds, but there was solid evidence it shortened their duration. Not now, at any rate. Sort of.

In a study published in the Cochrane Library, a meta-analysis of 30 published studies involving 11,350 people who took at least 200 milligrams of vitamin C daily, researchers reported that the substance did nothing to lower the risk of the common cold. There was a slight reduction in the duration and severity of cold symptoms compared to a placebo, but it was not statistically significant. There was no reason to take vitamin C daily, a Finnish researcher said, unless—here comes the almost part—you are exposed to short periods of extreme physical stress, like running around in sub-arctic temperatures. Vitamin C showed a slight benefit in that case. Note this was a meta-analysis, which I’m beginning to think is a procedure that is at the root of this problem. Meta-analysis are studies of studies, statistically measuring whether a bunch of studies prove anything. Statistically speaking, of course.

Diet sodas are better for you than the corn syrup kind—Wrong, you silly person. You’ve been reading too much of the medical literature. It turns out drinking as little as one soda can a day, diet or regular, is “associated” (that’s another word, a synonym for “linked”) with a 48% increased risk of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease and diabetes. Everyone agrees drinking the regular kind (corn syrup, which long ago replaced sugar) was linked to ill results but everyone thought diet soda was safe. The results, published in the journal Circulation, were puzzling even to the guys at Boston University to who did the study. They think it isn’t anything in the soda, just that it is sweet and hence, it changes dietary patterns toward sweetness, leading to obesity etc. This wasn’t a meta-analysis, but part of the Framingham study, which is much better. People who (like me) slugged down a Diet Coke a day also had a 31% chance of becoming obese; a 30% chance of having a larger waist line (like me), a 25% chance of developing high blood triglycerides or high blood sugar, and a greater risk of having too little of the good cholesterol. The soda industry pointed out, in this case accurately, that soda is 99%+ water and it was not likely anything in the rest could have that huge an effect. The study didn’t count all the other things these people did in their lives that could lead to the increases; the increase could easily have been coincidental to the diet soda.

But wait, there’s more.

Grapefruit is not good for you—All that vitamin C and stuff? Forgetaboutit. A study of 50,000 post-menopausal women found that eating as little as one quarter of a grapefruit daily raised the risk of breast cancer 30%. According to the British Journal of Cancer, the grapefruit inceased the levels of estrogen, which increased the risk. The problem with this study is that it relied on voluntary questionnaires, the least reliable source of data. And the objections above pertain here just as well.

Think we’re through?

Lycopene in tomatoes prevents cancer—Lycopene in tomatoes is not necessarily good for you. The Food and Drug Administration did a meta-analysis (here we go again) and found that lycopene, an anti-oxidant thought beneficial in preventing cancer (especially prostate cancer), doesn’t. Or, more precisely, the evidence is not statistically compelling. There is no evidence anything in tomatoes prevents cancer, the FDA reported, studying scores of tests that said there was. I had tomatoes for lunch.


Organic tomatoes are better for you than non-organic tomatoes—Yes. Really. We agree on something. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (I have a copy by the bed for leisure reading) says that organic tomatoes have a higher percent of flavonoids, antioxidants “linked” to preventing heart disease and cancer. The study is one of the first to substantiate claims that organic vegetables have an advantage over the factory-farmed stuff. They certainly taste better. The researchers, at UC Davis, think organic vegetables are better because of the availability of nitrogen in the soil.

Are you confused, dear reader? I would like to suggest a tomato and cheese pizza and a good cold glass of beer for lunch. Maybe a little popcorn. Might I recommend the couch? We can’t live forever.

Damn, I'm hungry.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You are unbuttoned, you must be from Apple

You're going to have to file down those fingers, pal--A few weeks ago, during the iPhone hype season, I did a brief discourse on the aesthetics of Apple and how its industrial design philosophy is dramatically different from other companies, one of the reasons the company stirs such passion. This came in the context of the new cell phone which had only an on/off button. Everything else required that you press icons on the screen.  Apple's Jonathan Ive (Apple's chief designer) and Steve Jobs design from form to function. Sometimes, it turns out, that's good news; sometimes it isn't.

For instance: One of the more serious criticisms of the iPhone is that you can't replace the battery. You have to ship your iPhone to Apple. They send you a loaner while they remove your old battery, put in a new one, and then ship your phone back to you--a drag. But people who have taken the iPhone apart have figured out why: the battery setup is the result of the exterior design of the iPhone. In order to make the iPhone look like it does, as slim and sleek, they had to use a battery that was not easily replaced. Any other company would have sent the design back to the shop and told them to design around a replaceable battery. Not Jobs and Ive. They sent it back to find a battery that fit the case. So the user crashes into the design. The iPod has the same issue--a battery that you can't replace yourself--for the same reason. It would screw up the design.

However, another criticism was the lack of keyboard. You could not have the iPhone look like an iPhone with a button keyboard like the Blackberry. In this case, the user wins. Unless you have really, really tiny fingers, pressing icons on a screen is vastly more efficient than trying to press teeny buttons with big fingers. And it would look just as awful as a Blackberry. 

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting (and free on the web) take on all this. Steve Jobs hates buttons. He has minimized the buttons on every product Apple designed during his tenures, starting with the original Mac, which didn't even have arrow keys. The MacBook I'm using now has one-third fewer buttons that a similar HP or Dell laptop. The iPod has no buttons, the iPhone only one, and the mouse I'm using has one, not three. The Journal points out that Jobs doesn't even have buttons on his black shirts. (One presumes he uses a zipper on his jeans). According to the Journal, the main criteria for getting along in Apple's design department is not to add keys to a product unless there is a compelling reason, and there aren't any. Can't you see that discussion going on at the Dell design shop? Does Dell have a design shop?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mercy from the media

Pssst, little girl. If you get in my car I can tell you the ending of Harry Potter--I bet I'm not the only one who has noticed that all of the major newspapers have put off major reviewing the last Harry Potter book, apparently to give everyone a reasonable chance to finish it before giving away the ending. Good on them. You can't review the book or the series without discussing how it ends. Elizabeth Hand at the Washington Post does have an interesting review on the book in which she gives away some of the plot but not the ending. Maybe it's a review; it's hard to tell on the web. She says she wept reading it. If you want to go into the book without foreknowledge you probably would want to avoid clicking there.

I would love to be the director of the final movie just for the Battle of Hogwarts scene, which if done right might be one of the greatest battle scenes in movie history. The attack of the house elves did me in. Presumably, the major thoughtful reviews ("what does it all mean?") will come next week when most people have finished. I thank the editors one and all.

The Baltimore Sun has a story preceded by a warning not to read further if you don't know the ending and right below the warning is a sentence that would seem to give it all away. In fact, it doesn't, but shame on them.

Isn't it cool? Eight million of us have a secret.

I shut off my computer Friday night and went off to the bookstore to get my copy at midnight and started reading when I got home. I finished at 7 p.m. Sunday. I did not see the internet and tried to minimize social contact as much as possible. And I'm supposed to be an adult. I understand attendance out my synagogue was down. I can guess what some of them were doing.

It is the best book in the series and J.K. Rowling clearly clearly had this all laid out in advance. My wife heard me cheering once (it was the elves, Carol). It's no children's book. It's great fantasy, up with Tolkien and Lewis and Donaldson (bet you never heard of him. Stephen by name--see Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever).

Back to the real world shortly.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Oh gosh, frustrated telemarketers and pollister. What is this world coming to.

Of course we can talk now; I'm at a funeral and everyone is nice and quiet so I can hear you--Some day, someone will kill someone for interrupting a movie or a concert or a conversation--or a funeral--with a cell phone call. And when it happens, the prosecution would be hard-pressed to find a jury that would convict him.

Nonetheless, cell phones are a growing influence on life and not since Alexander Graham Bell summoned "Mr. Watson" from the next room, has there been such a great change in telephony (isn't that a great word?).

While cell phones in other countries work much better and are more useful than what we use here in the great American empire, even here, they are changing life. One of the best resources for knowing how is, believe it or not, the Centers for Disease Control. See here.

The latest of the National Health Interview Survey (I won't ask what this has to do with health) shows a staggering change in how we do things because of the little darlings. For instance:
  • At least 12.8 % of American households no longer have landlines but did have at least one cell phone.
  • At least 11.8% of individuals live in households with only cell phones, including 11.6% of all children.
Those figures have been steadily rising since 2003, and they are likely to continue to grow.
Here's more:
  • The population group with the most reliance on cell phones are adults living with unrelated roommates (54%)
  • Renters are more likely (26.4%) to rip out their land lines than property owners.
  • People under 30 are more likely to have cellphone-only homes. Half of all wireless-only were under 30.
  • The older the people in the household, the less likely they are to give up their land lines.
  • Men were more likely to go cellphone only than women (13.1%-10.5%), and the poor were more likely than the non-poor.
  • Southern adults (14%)were more likely to rely on cell phones only than northerners (8.6%).
  • Hispanics (15.3%) are more likely to go cellphone only.
There are a number of ramifications of this trend worth mentioning. One is the generational thing: an entire generation is moving from conventional telephones, which is not good news for the traditional telephone companies. Telephone marketers (phooey) and pollsters are screwed because there is no directory of cell phones. Mike Himowitz of the Baltimore Sun points out that this is because American phone companies charge you for both incoming and outgoing calls so there is considerable pressure not to create a directory. If your caller ID sees a number she doesn't recognize, she just won't pick it up. In Europe, the caller pays. There also is a federal law against random digit dialing of cell phones which is a serious handicap.

The effect on pollsters is particularly interesting considering what the CDC study found. As one generation weans itself away from land lines, that generation is more difficult to poll and some political experts think this showed up in polling in the last presidential election, giving John Kerry lower poll numbers during the campaign than he should have had. Since you can now take telephone numbers with you (I'll be using a Maryland number in Alaska), it becomes more difficult for a pollster to figure out where he has called. Hispanics become under represented. The people in these telephone categories are different enough to produce an 2% divergence between cellphone only respondents and those with land-lines, not enough to render current polling problematic, but enough to scare the hell out of people doing polls.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How come that trout that swam by is already cooked?

If you eat that salami sandwich and go back into the ocean you will get struck by lightning! --When I was a kid, my mother would drive me crazy when we were down the shore (that's a Jerseyism). She insisted that I had to wait a half hour after lunch before going back into the water. You'd get cramps if you didn't wait, she said. I did not want to wait. Everyone was told that, and it became a factoid (original meaning of the word: a small factually incorrect statement that is repeated so often it is believed to be true). It isn't true. You don't get cramps if you go back into the water within a half hour.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to get my daughter and her friend from the local swimming pool. There were thunderstorms in the area and of course they cleared the pool. Sounds reasonable. This is a universally held safety measure--clearing pools in thunderstorms--but I can't actually remember a single instance of reading about someone getting killed when lightning hit a swimming pool. I have a vague recollection of someone zapped while swimming in the ocean, but not a pool. With too much time I my hands, I did a bit of research. I still haven't found a case of someone dying from a lightning strike to a swimming pool, indoor or outdoor. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen or that you should stay in the pool when thunder booms about you, but it must be a really rare occurrence. Moreover, I have yet to find a single database containing information on people killed in pools by lightning.

In one survey, data from 1990-1994, showed 51,835 people died in swimming pools for unspecified reasons, almost all, I would think drowning. Thirteen hundred died in wading pools. Not one death was recorded specifically from lightning strikes. One survey of indoor pools made by a professional organization reported not a single database included deaths from lightning in indoor pools, which also are supposed to be cleared in thunderstorms. Standing in an open field seems to be the most dangerous thing you can do in a storm (27% of deaths) and of course there's golf (5%), another reason not to play the silly game. Eight percent of deaths were water related, but that included boating and fishing as well as swimming. The swimming component was not broken down, but I'll bet most of those people were in metal boats. (The most dangerous state, by the way, is Florida, another reason not to live in that awful place).

I am fully aware that if everyone got out of pools during storms, there wouldn't be any instances on Google or Yahoo. But this is a species in which thousands of people "tough it out" in hurricanes, build houses on flood plains and believe in creation science. Surely some idiots stay in swimming pools when the sky opens up.

You get sentences like: "Nearly 100 Americans die from lightning strikes each year, and a high percentage of these deaths occur in summer when people are swimming and participating in other water sports." I bet some of them were also barbecuing, playing golf or up on the roof fixing the antenna.

All the experts agree you should evacuate the pool at the first sign of lightning. I just wonder if the risk isn't greatly exaggerated. If you know of any incidence of death by bolt in a pool, pass it on and I'll post it.

Now my favorite lightning story of the year, A man named Hailu Kidane Marian was roaming the streets of Hialeah, Florida, selling religious books when he was struck by lightning out of a clear blue sky. When paramedics arrived he was not breathing and his heart had stopped beating, and he was essentially dead. They revived him, however, and he is in critical condition at a local hospital. "He's unconscious, he's in a coma," the head of the religious group said. "It's difficult what happened, you now, but what can we do? Things happen in life, but we still believe in God."

I would.

[Thank you, Gayle]