Category Archives: Social issues ( be civil ! )

If you are over 50 it’s healthier to be overweight than not

Seriously folks, the lowest mortality rates over 50 occur in people currently defined as overweight. This is not theory, but data based on millions of people (see later).

So how does medicine define who is overweight?  By the Body Mass Index (BMI) being over 25 and under 30.  Obesity is defined as a BMI over 30.

Saying that someone over 50 with a BMI between 25 and 30 is overweight is true by medical definition, but that doesn’t make being overweight unhealthy (which is of course the implication of the term).

Well medically, you can define words any way you want, but Abraham Lincoln had it right

” How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?


Saying that a tail is a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”


If you’re itching to find out what your BMI is, the following site works for meters and kilograms or pounds, feet and inches —

Here is where you can read the paper summarizing data on nearly 3 million people–

It’s better to read the following article in Nature.  It actually includes  the mortality curves at different ages which you can inspect at your leisure —

The only thing I don’t like about the BMI vs. mortality diagram, is that it is rather compressed, with data from BMI’s ranging from 15 to 45.  So the overweight range (25 – 30) doesn’t take up much space.  But look carefully at the overweight range — the curve is pretty flat here regardless of age showing that it really doesn’t matter how overweight you are (as long as you’re not obese, or superskinny).

Naturally this did not sit well people who’d staked their research careers on telling people to lose weight. One study by a Harvard guy removed 900,000 people from the JAMA study.    Robert Eckel, an endocrinologist at University of Colorado in Denver made the great comment that  “It’s hard to argue with data. We’re scientists. We pay attention to data, we don’t try to un-explain them.”

Now here is an explanation which I’ve not seen elsewhere so it might be original.

The BMI is far from perfect, but to calculate it all you need are two simple measurements that anyone can make — height and weight. It doesn’t rely on what people remember (how much they usually eat, what they weighed in the past.   However the calculation of BMI is not a simple ratio of weight divided by height but weight divided by height squared.

People lose height as they age, so the BMI is quite sensitive to it (remember the denominator has height squared). As a high school basketball player my height was 6′ 1”+, (at age 75) it was 6’0″ (God knows what it is now). So even with constant weight my BMI goes up.

It is now time to do the calculation to see what a fairly common shrinkage from 73.5 inches to 72 would to to the BMI (at a constant weight). Surprisingly it is not trivial — (72/73.5) * (72/73.5) = .9596. So the divisor is 4% less meaning the BMI is 4% more, which is almost exactly what the low point on the curve does with each passing decade after 50 ! ! !


I mistrust models

This is not a new post, but I think it’s worth republishing some old ones given the serious proposals out there to radically alter our society and economy based on what models have predicted about our climate.

Here are three, the second with a few apocalyptic predictions from the past, the third about why the US was smart to withdraw from the Paris accord

I mistrust models.

I have no special mistrust of climate models, I mistrust all models of complex systems.  Here are six reasons why.

Reason #1:  My cousin runs an advisory service for institutional investors (hedge funds, retirement funds, stock market funds etc. etc.)  Here is the beginning of his latest post 16 June ’17

There were 3 great reads yesterday.

First was Neil Irwin’s article in the NY Times “Janet Yellen, the Fed and the Case of the Missing Inflation.”  He points out that Yellen is a labor market scholar who anticipated the sharp decline in the unemployment rate. However the models on which the Fed has relied anticipate higher levels of inflation. Yet every inflation measure that the Fed uses has fallen well short of the Fed’s 2% stability rate. If they continue raising short-term rates in the face of low inflation, then “real” rates could restrain future economic growth.

Second was Greg Ip’s article “Lousy Raise? It Might Not Get Better.” Greg makes the point that tight labor markets are a global phenomenon in many industrialized countries, yet wage inflation remains muted. Writes Greg “If a labor market this tight can’t generate better pay, quite possibly it never will in Germany & Japan.”

Third was an article by Glenn Hubbard (Dean of Columbia Business School & former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush). His Wall Street Journal op-ed was titled “How to Keep the Fed from Following its Models off a Cliff.”  Hubbard suggests that Fed officials should interact more with market participants and business people. And Fed governors should be selected because of their varied life experiences, and they should encourage a healthy skepticism of prevailing economic models.

Serious money was spent developing these models.  Do you think that climate is in some way simpler than the US economy, so that they are more likely to be accurate?  I do not.

Addendum 5 March 2019: In numbers just in today, US GDP grew by  3.1 percent between fourth quarter 2017 and fourth quarter 2018. The Federal Reserve’s December 2017 median projection of  growth for 2018 was 2.5%.  They were off by nearly 25%.  My wife’s college roommate is a very bright woman who worked for the Fed as a mathematical economist for years.  The problem is not her intelligence nor those of her colleagues, but the models they are using. 

Reason #2: Americans are getting fatter yet living longer, contradicting the model that being mildly overweight is bad for you.  It is far too long to go into so here’s the link —

The first part is particularly fascinating, in that data showed that overweight (not obese) people tended to live longer.  The article describes how people who had spent their research careers telling the public that being overweight was bad, tried to discount the data. The best quote in the article is the following ““We’re scientists. We pay attention to data, we don’t try to un-explain them.”,

Reason #3: The economic predictions of the Congressional Budget Office on just about anything –inflation, gross national product, economic growth, the deficit — are consistently wrong —

Addendum 28 June “White house economists overestimated annual economic growth by about 80 percent on average for a six year stretch during Barack Obama’s presidency, according to Freedom Works economic consultant Stephen Moore.

Economists predicted growth between 3.2 to 4.6 percent for the years 2010 through 2015. Actual economic growth never hit above 2.6 percent.”

Reason #4:  Animal models of stroke:  There were at least 60, in which some therapy or other was of benefit.  None of them worked in people. It got so bad I stopped reading the literature about it.  We still have no useful treatment for garden variety strokes

Reason #5:  The Club of Rome,  — dire prediction based on a computer model which got a lot of play in the 70s.  For details see —  The post also has a lot about “The Population Bomb” and its failed predictions and also a review of a book about “The Bet” between Paul Ehrlich and Simon

Reason #6: Live by the model, die by the model. A fascinating book “Shattered” about the Hillary Clinton campaign, explains why the campaign did no polling in the final 3 weeks of the campaign. The man running the ‘data analytics’ (translation: model) Robby Mook, thought the analytics were better and more accurate (p. 367).

A bit of history

I’ve been reading Nature since I’ve been able to afford a subscription, e.g. since about 1972. To put their undoubted coming hysteria about Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement into perspective, consider the fact that they bought the arguments of the Club of Rome, hook line and sinker. The Wikipedia article is quite sanitized, but here’s a direct quote from the jacket flap of the club’s book “The Limits to Growth” which came out in 1972.

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren with thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts. What is even more alarming, the collapse will not come gradually, but with awsome suddenness, with no way of stopping it”

Well, it’s 45 years later and their grandchildren have seen no such thing. Nature’s online available archives go back to 1975, but I’ve been unable to find a link to one of their articles. If anyone out there has found one, post a comment.

When we were down in New Haven, I picked up a book by a Yale Prof, Paul Sabin called “The Bet” concerning the intellectual conflict between Paul Ehrlich — he of the population bomb and Julian Simon. Ehrlich said we’d run out of just about everything shortly (presumably because of too many people), so economist Simon bet him that we wouldn’t. The intellectual war began in earnest in the 80’s and dragged on for a decade or so.

I recommend the book. In it you will find John Holdren, Obama’s ‘science’ advisor, also a devout malthusian, although with a degree in physics.

Perhaps Nature has it right this time, and that the models of warming which failed to predict the climate stasis of 17 years duration (the term pause gives away the game implying that temperature will continue to increase) are a reliable guide to the future.

Even if Nature is right, the Paris Agreement was terrible, no verification, no penalties for missing targets etc. etc. A massive expansion of governmental control and clamps on economic expansion, for minimal benefit.

So relax. Protest if you wish, it’s a cheap display of virtue which costs you nothing, even though you’re quite willing to fight global warming down to the last coal miner.

A climate treaty based on a failed model, a victory for the political class

Scientific theories stand or fall based on the accuracy of their predictions. Exactly 100 years ago Einstein’s theory of  gravity was welcomed because it corrected an inacurate prediction of Newton’s theory.

It’s worth staying the course to follow what I’m about to describe. The orbits of all our planets are nearly circular — but not exactly so. A circle has a single center; an ellipse has two ‘centers’ (focal points). Planetary orbits have the sun at one focal point of the ellipse (this was known even before Newton). This means that every orbit has a point at which the planet is farthest from the sun (called the aphelion) and a point at which it is closest (the perihelion).

The perihelion doesn’t stay in the same place with each succesive orbit. Rather it moves — this is called the precession of the perihelion. Newton’s formulation of gravity predicted a certain rate at which the perihelion of the planet Mercury moved between sucessive planetary orbits — which was not corroborated by actual measurement.

Physicists a century ago were seriously exercised by this inaccuracy. So how large was it? Quite small. Recall that a circle contains 360 degrees. A degree is far too large for astronomical work. So each degree contains 60 minutes and each minute contains 60 seconds. So a second is 1/3600 of a degree. The discrepancy was a mere 43 seconds per CENTURY.

Contrast this with the inaccuracy of the models of global warming, NONE of which predicted the current stability of global atmospheric temperature as measured by satellite for the past 18+ years. It’s not that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas the accumulation of which (other things being equal) should reflect radiation back to earth and warm the planet. No one disputes that. It is the magnitude of the CO2 effect and the importance of other factors determining global temperature which is crucial. Clearly global temperature should have continued to rise in the past 19 years as CO2 rose. This is what the models on which the Paris agreement is predicated predicted But there has been  no rise.

It’s also fairly sleazy that all the ‘adjustments’ being made to temperatures as measured on the surface of the earth mostly adjust past temperatures downward to preserve the rise. Note that satellite temperatures are the most accurate we have and there is no way to adjust them. Unfortunately they just don’t go back that far.

It is far more accurate to say that global warming has stopped for the past 18+ years. Saying that it has paused implies that it will continue.  Some 50 post-hoc explanations of ‘the pause’ have been published.

Bottom line: the concern over global warming is based on models which have failed in their predictions of the present. There is little reason to regard them as more accurate for their predictions of the future.


Book recommendation

“It’s complicated”.  No this isn’t about the movie with Meryl Streep but the response I got from several Harvard PhD physicists five years ago at Graduate Alumni Day in April 2014.  A month earlier the BICEP2 experiment claimed to have seen B-mode polarization in the cosmic background radiation, which would have been observational proof of cosmic inflation.  Nobel prize material for sure.  Unfortunately the signal turned out to be from dust in our galaxy, the milky way

You can read all about it in “Losing the Nobel Prize” by Brian Keating, who developed the instrumentation for BICEP2.  I recommend the book for several reasons.  The main reason is the discussion of cosmology and its various theories starting with Galileo (p. 28) getting up to  the B-Modes that BICEPs thought it saw by p. 138.  The discussion is incredibly clear, with discussions (to name a few) of how Galileo knew Ptolemy was wrong (the way the moons of Jupiter moved around it in time), refracting vs.reflecting telescopes, Hubble and cepheid variables, Vera Rubin and why she didn’t get a Nobel — she died too soon, how polaroid glasses work, and why bouncing of water is enough to polarize unpolarized light.  Want more? Fred Hoyle and steady state cosmology, the problems with the big bang (smoothness problem, horizon problem, flatness problem) solved by Alan Guth and inflation, false vacuum, and finally what B-modes actually are.

If you’ve a typical reader of blogs scientific but not a pro in physics, astronomy, cosmology, you’ve probably heard all these terms. Keating explains them clearly.

Even better, he writes well and is funny.  Here is the opening paragraph of the book.

“Each year, on December tenth, thousands of worshippers convene in Scandinavia to commemorate the passing of an arms dealer known as the merchant of death.  The eschatological ritual features all the rites and incantations befitting a pharaoh’s funeral.  Haunting dirges play as the worshippers, bedecked in mandatory regalia, mourn the merchant.  He is eerily present; his visage looms over the congregants as they feast on exotic game, surrounded by fresh-cut flowers imported from the merchant’s mausoleum.  The event culminates with the presentation of gilded, graven images bearing his likeness.”

Anything dealing with the creation of the universe has theological overtones, and we can regard the book as a history of various scientific creation myths, the difference being that they are abandoned when evidence is found which contradicts them.  Georges’ Lemaitre, a catholic priest and relativist puts in more than an appearance (p. 56) as he predicted what is probably the first big bang theory — the primeval atom with its subsequent expansion.

The book isn’t all science, and the author whose Jewish father abandoned them was raised by a catholic step-father describes being an altar boy for a time.   Then there are adventure stories of journeys to the south pole for the BICEP experiment.

There’s a lot more in the book, which is definitely worth a read.

Finally a few personal notes.  The man who brought BICEP2 down to earth David Spergel appears.  He’s a good guy.  At my 50th reunion there my wife and I  were standing in our reunion suits outside our hotel across route 1 waiting for a bus to take us across.  Some guy (Spergel) sees us an offers a ride to campus. On the ride over I asked what he did, and he says astronomy and physics.  So I asked how come the universe is said to be homogenous when all we see is clumpy galaxies and stars — you asked the right guy saith Spergel, and he launches into an explanation (which I’ve forgotten).  I mention that Jim Hartle is a class member.  “He’s very smart” saith David.  Later I tell Hartle the same story.  “He’s very smart” saith Jim.

Another good person is Meryl Streep.  A cousin is in movies both acting in the past and now directing and knows her.  Her father was a great admirer, so Meryl took the trouble to hike over to New Jersey and say hello.  She didn’t have to do that.  Unfortunately in the movie mentioned first, Meryl had to play a porn star with her aged scrawny body (probably Harvey Weinstein put her up to it).  I couldn’t stand it and walked out at that point.

Science fiction for the cognoscenti – III — not all the background you need will be explained

Now that every team in the NFL has its own molecular biologist and antiVirologist, you might be interested in knowing how it all started.  Like most technologies affecting our lives it had a military origin.

The escape of the Taiwanese pacifist virus started it all –

The technology of infectious gene transfer by recombinant adeno-associated virus  (AAV) was well advanced long before there were garage molecular biologists.

The NFL wars began with the New England Patriots, (who else?), they of deflategate and other nefarious ways to win.

Tom Brady was getting all set to win superbowl LVII in 2023 at age 45 when the first counterattack was successful.

His wife, the beautiful Gisele, hated the idea of him playing so long, being very worried about dementia pugilista from all the head trauma.  Tom had agreed to yearly PET scans with Pittsburgh compound B, an uncharged derivative of thioflavin T which gets through the blood brain barrier and which stains senile plaques.  They showed no evidence of plaques (although plenty of demented people don’t have them) so he kept on playing behind Belichick’s not so secret weapon — 400 pound linemen.  Even though he’d lost a step or two, his eye and arm were still good and the linemen gave him plenty of time to throw.

Football players have always been bulking up.  Even the early experience with extra testosterone (which causes testicular atrophy in high doses) didn’t dissuade them.  Newer anabolic steroids had somewhat fewer testicular effects.  Eventually players took to using HCG to help normalize things, but some testicular atrophy was a price they were willing to pay.  The cheerleaders felt a lot safer around those using them.

So how did the Patriots have 400 pound linemen when no one else did?  The answer goes back to Piedmontese and Belgian Blue cattle which were bred for their large muscles.  They turned out to have inactivating mutations in the gene for myostatin, a protein which causes muscles to stop growing.

Boston isn’t known as the home of biotech for nothing, and Belichick contracted with an as yet un-named biotech firm (their depositions having been sealed by the court) to come up with a small molecule (compound M) absorbable through the skin which inhibited myostatin.

No one caught on why Belicheck had separate showers installed for the lineman and defensive backs, but they had to use them and got  dosed that way.  Testing for performance enhancing drugs was always negative. The linemen loved it, as their testicles grew back to normal size.  The cheerleaders didn’t.

So there the Patriots were, about to play the Arizona Cardinals, a team only winning 3 games in 2018 in superbowl LVII. No one understood how the Cardinals turned around and how they got those very slippery running backs.

No one, except the molecular biologist they hired.  But that’s for next time.

A tragic way to start the new year !

Durgin Park is closing ! ! ! !

This is tragic.  In the fall of 1960 a bunch of us newly minted chemistry grad students went there and found that the life of a struggling graduate student wasn’t hard at all. A giant slab of roast beef, followed by a large bowl of strawberry shortcake all for $5 (minimum wage 1$).  Sad ! ! !

Update 10 Jan ’19 —

‘They’ve come out of the woodwork;’ business booms at Durgin Park as historic Boston restaurant prepares to close

Even sadder ! ! ! !

Happy New Year

Off to see the grandkids.  Next post next year.  All the best to you and yours.

If you liked or were interested in and have nothing better to do over the holidays, I suggest reading Cell vol. 175 pp.1842 – 1855 ’18 in which phase changes are described at enhancers and possibly a universal phenomenon at the start of mRNA transcription by pol II.

Were the initial native Americans inbred?

Usually when I eMail the author(s) of a paper or a math book with a question or a comment I get a quick response.  My cynical wife says thing this is because mathematicians don’t have much to do.  Not so in this case. Hence the hopefully attention getting title of this post.

I refer to the following papers [ Cell vol. 175 pp. 1173 – 1174, 1185 – 1197 ’18 ]  Nature vol. 563 pp. 303 – 304 ’18,Science vol. 362 pp. 1128 eaav2621  1 –> 11 ’18 ] I’ve sent a bunch letters to the authors and have heard nothing back in a week.

So what is all this about?  It’s about population bottlenecks and founder effects in the ancestors of what are now called ‘native Americans’ — although while living in Montana from ’72 – ’87, if you called an Indian, a Native American, you would have received some strange looks.

I am not a population geneticist, so I wonder just how many people made it over the Bering land bridge during the last ice age, and just how genetically diverse they were.  Northern Siberia today is a rather forbidding place, and I doubt that hordes of genetically different people lived here.  I’m not sure how long the land bridge was open and how many people crossed it.

So modern native Americans may be quite genetically homogeneous.  How to tell?  This is where the papers come in.  They sequenced genomes from a variety of locations in the western hemisphere, all dying over a thousand years ago (before the Europeans came and interbred with them).  It seems that they have around 100 such genomes.

I wrote to ask how similar these genomes are.  No response.  Is it because the answer might be politically incorrect?

I don’t think the question is idiotic.  Possibly we don’t have enough genomes to make a sensible statement, but if they’re all really close (however defined) we could say something.

Anybody out there have any thoughts (or even better)  knowledge about these matters?

We interrupt this fund drive to actually play some music

I don’t know what things are like in your neck of the woods, but the local public radio station just completed a 12 day fund drive ending 9 December.  I haven’t kept exact track, but this sort of thing happens 4 times a year, with additional stuff thrown in now and then.  This means they are raising funds close to or over 1 day out of 7.  The church only demands a tithe of 10% (not 14%).

Anything similar going on out there?  Any thoughts?

Book recommendation

“Losing the Nobel Prize”  by Brian Keating is a book you should read if you have any interest in l. physics. 2. astronomy 3. cosmology 4. the sociology of the scientific enterprise (physics division) 5. The Nobel prize 6. The BICEPs and BICEP2 experiments.

It contains extremely clear explanations of the following

l. The spiderweb bolometer detector used to measure the curvature of the universe

2. How Galileo’s telescope works and what he saw

3. How refracting and reflecting telescopes work

4. The Hubble expansion of the universe and the problems it caused

5. The history of the big bang, its inherent problems, how Guth solved some of them but created more

6. How bouncing off water (or dust) polarizes light

7. The smoothness problem, the flatness problem and the horizon problem.

8. The difference between B modes and E modes and why one would be evidence of gravitational waves which would be evidence for inflation.

9. Cosmic background radiation

The list could be much longer.  The writing style is clear and very informal.   Example: he calls the dust found all over the universe — cosmic schmutz.   Then there are the stories about explorers trying to reach the south pole, and what it’s like getting there (and existing there).

As you probably know BICEP2 found galactic dust and not the polarization pattern produced by gravitational waves.  The initial results were announced 17 March 2014 to much excitement.  It was the subject of a talk given the following month at Harvard Graduate Alumni Day, an always interesting set of talks.  I didn’t go to the talk but there were plenty of physicists around to ask about the results (which were nowhere nearly as clearly explained as this book).  All of them responded to my questions the same way — “It’s complicated.”

The author Brian Keating has a lot to say about Nobels and their pursuit and how distorting it is, but that’s the subject of another post, as purely through chance I’ve known 9 Nobelists before they received their prize.

It will also lead to another post about the general unhappiness of a group of physicists.

Buy and read the book

A modest proposal — take 2

The current dustup in France brought on by elites raising the price of gas  to demonstrate their climatological virtue at little cost to themselves warrants the republication of an earlier post in which I endeavor to show how they can put some of their own skin in the game and actually do something other than posture.

A modest proposal (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)

The New York Times magazine of 5 August 2018 was entirely devoted to global warming and our lack of response to it.  Doubtless it was read with great approval by the denizens of the upper East and East Sides as they sat in their million dollar apartments, vowing to fight until the last coal miner and oli field roughneck was out of work.  This will cost them nothing.

Virtue signaling notwithstanding, it’s time they had some skin of their own in the game. Having practiced medicine in the People’s Republic of New York, I know the love of New York state government for regulations and mandates, and the approval with which they have been met by the above denizens.

So here is a modest proposal for fighting global warming.  Mandate that governors be placed on air conditioners so that room temperatures can be no lower than 80 in the summer.  Similar governors should  be placed on heating, allowing room temperatures no warmer than 60 in the winter.  Start in the upper East and West sides of Manhattan, and if met with general approval extend it further.

I think it will be accepted as well they accepted the wind farms proposed off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket near their summer homes.