Category Archives: Social issues ( be civil ! )

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?

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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.

Eat what you want, no one really knows what a healthy diet is.

All dietary recommendations are based on sand so eat what you want and enjoy your Thanksgiving meal.  How can I say this? Just in time for Thanksgiving, the  august pages of Science contain the following article entitled “Dietary Fat:  From Foe to Friend ?” [ Science vol. 362 pp.  764 – 770 ’18 ].  Think I’m kidding?  Here is a verbatim  list of NINE current controversies (translation — not settled science) from the article.

1. Do diets with various carbohydrate-to-fat proportions affect body composition (ratio of fat to lean tissue) independently of energy intake? Do they affect energy expenditure independently of body weight?

2. Do ketogenic diets provide metabolic benefits beyond those of moderate carbohydrate restriction? Can they help with prevention or treatment of cardiometabolic disease?

3. What are the optimal amounts of specific fatty acids (saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated) in the context of a very-low-carbohydrate diet?

4. What is the relative importance for cardiovascular disease of the amounts of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides in the blood, or of lipoprotein particle size, for persons on diets with distinct fat-to-carbohydrate ratios? Are other biomarkers of equivalent or greater importance?

5. What are the effects of dietary fat amount and quality across the lifespan on risk of neurodegenerative, pulmonary, and other diseases that have not been well studied?

6. What are the long-term efficacies of diets with different carbohydrate-to-fat proportions in chronic disease prevention and treatment under optimal intervention conditions (designed to maximize dietary compliance)?

7. What behavioral and environmental interventions can maximize long-term dietary compliance?

8. What individual genetic and phenotypic factors predict long-term beneficial outcomes on diets with various fat-to-carbohydrate compositions? Can this knowledge inform personalized nutrition, with translation to prevention and treatment?

9. How does variation in the carbohydrate-to-fat ratio and in sources of dietary fat affect the affordability andenvironmental sustainability of diets?

Then totally ignoring the above controversies — they say they agree on such bromides as

l. With a focus on nutrient quality, good health and low chronic disease risk can be achieved for many people on diets with a broad range of carbohydrate-to-fat ratios.

2. Replacement of saturated fat with naturally occurring unsaturated fats provides health benefits for the general population. Industrially produced trans fats are harmful and should be eliminated. The metabolism of saturated fat may differ on carbohydrate-restricted diets, an issue that requires study.

Basically I think you can eat what you want. Perhaps some day the research needed to base dietary recommendations on solid data will have been done, but that day is not here.

Here is an older post (March 2015) written when the dietary guidelines were changed yet again.

The dietary guidelines have been changed — what are the faithful to believe now ?

While we were in China dietary guidelines shifted. Cholesterol is no longer bad. Shades of Woody Allen and “Sleeper”. It’s life imitating art.

Sleeper is one of the great Woody Allen movies from the 70s. Woody plays Miles Monroe, the owner of (what else?) a health food store who through some medical mishap is frozen in nitrogen and is awakened 200 years later. He finds that scientific research has shown that cigarettes and fats are good for you. A McDonald’s restaurant is shown with a sign “Over 795 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 Served”

Seriously then, should you believe any dietary guidelines? In my opinion you shouldn’t. In particular I’d forget the guidelines for salt intake (unless you actually have high blood pressure in which case you should definitely limit your salt). People have been fighting over salt guidelines for decades, studies have been done and the results have been claimed to support both sides.

So what’s a body to do? Well here are 4 things which are pretty solid (which few docs would disagree with, myself included)

l. Don’t smoke
2. Don’t drink too much (over 2 drinks a day), or too little (no drinks). Study after study has shown that mortality is lowest with 1 – 2 drinks/day
3. Don’t get fat — by this I mean fat (Body Mass Index over 30) not overweight (Body Mass Index over 25). The mortality curve for BMI in this range is pretty flat. So eat whatever you want, it’s the quantities you must control.
4. Get some exercise — walking a few miles a week is incredibly much better than no exercise at all — it’s probably half as good as intense workouts — compared to doing nothing.

Not very sexy, but you’re very unlikely to find anyone telling you the opposite 50years from now.

Typical of the crap foisted on the public (vitamin D and fish oil prevents cancer, heart disease and all sorts of horrible things) is it’s refutation once a decent study has been done

A large-scale trial has found no evidence that two popular supplements reduce the risk of cancer or the combined risk for a trio of cardiovascular problems.

JoAnn Manson at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and her colleagues recruited more than 25,000 healthy men and women in their fifties or older for a trial examining the effects of fish oil and vitamin D supplements. Some participants took both, others took only one type and the remaining participants took two placebos.

After an average of 5.3 years in the trial, participants who had taken fish oil had essentially the same likelihood of cancer as people who hadn’t. Compared with the placebo group, the fish-oil group had a lower rate of heart attack but the same rate of total cardiovascular events, a category that included heart attacks, strokes and death from cardiovascular disease.

Vitamin D supplements conferred no clear health benefits against cardiovascular disease or cancer, compared with a placebo.

A science fiction story (for the cognoscenti) — answer to the puzzle and a bit more

Comrade Chen we have a serious problem.

Don’t tell me one of our bugs escaped confinement.

Worse.  One of theirs did.  And it’s affecting the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).  Some are turning into pacifists.

It doesn’t kill them?

No. But for our purposes it might as well.

It’s a typical adenoassociated virus (AAV) like we use.

Well, what does the genome look like?

We’ve sequenced it and among other things, it codes for a protein which enters the brain and alters behavior.

What?

Well, the enemy has some excellent biologists, one of whom works on Wolbachia.

What’s that?

It’s a rickettsial organism which changes the sex life of some insects.

I don’t believe that.

Do you have a cat?

Yes.

Well many cats contain another organism (toxoplasma gondi).

So what.

Rats infected by the organism become less afraid of cats.

Another example please.

A fungus infecting carpenter ants causes the ant to leave its colony, climb a tree, chomp down on the underside of a leaf and die, freeing fungal spores to fall on the ground where they can reinfect new ants.

Well what is the genome of the virus?

It has some very unusual sequences, and one which proves that the Wolbachia biologist on the other side has a very large ego.

How so.

Well in addition to the brain infecting protein, there is a very unusual triplet of peptides all in a row.

Methionine Alanine Aspartic Acid Glutamic acid, then a stop codon, then Isoleucine Asparagine, than a stop codon, then Threonine Alanine Isoleucine Tryptophan Alanine Asparagine.  We think that the first two in some way cause readthrough of the stop codons so the protein following the short peptides is made.

Where does the big ego come in?

Sir, proteins can have hundreds and hundreds of amino acids.  People got tired of writing their full names out, so each of the 20 amino acids was given a single letter to stand for it.

M – Methionine

A – Alanine

D – Aspartic acid

What does D have to do with Aspartic acid?

Nothing sir, look on the letters as Chinese characters.

E -Glutamic Acid

I – isoleucine

What about the stop codon between Glutamic acid and Isoleucine

Just regard it as a space.

N – Asparagine

Nooo! ! ! I I’m beginning to get the picture.

Yes sir, it stands for MADE IN TAIWAN

—-

A few years later

Well the Taiwanese biologist outsmarted himself (or herself).   The Taiwanese soldiers wouldn’t fight either as the virus spread.  Most conflicts between nation states pretty much ended (Russia/Ukraine, North Korea/South Korea) etc. etc.  The Taiwanese biologist was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and did receive it in absentia, as every military type in the world was looking for him (or  her), so he (or she) went into hiding, and is believed to be living in an Ashram near Boulder, Colorado.

Unfortunately, the idea of using viruses to change human behavior spread past nation states, and private groups with their own agendas began using it.

The ‘new soviet man’ of the previous century looked rather benign compared to what subsequently happened.

The next story for the scientific cognoscenti will describe the events leading up to the impeachment trial of President Jon Tester in 2028.

 

The New York Times loves terrorism if it’s the right sort

The rehabilitation and eventual beatification of Cesar Sayoc

New York Times  27 Oct 2038 Columbia University announced today that Cesar Sayoc having served his debt to society would assume the newly created Kathy Boudin chair of Social Justice and Explosives.  The chair was named for Boudin who 20 years ago actively served as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work after her release from prison. Some faculty objected on the grounds that, unlike Boudin, his explosives never actually killed anyone — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathy_Boudin.  Members of the Bill Ayers society (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Ayers) were also upset, even though Sayoc, like Bill back then is a good friend of the current president.

You can’t con an honest man, but you can con yourself

How could Kavanaugh and Ford tell two diametrically opposed stories, which both sincerely believed to be true? Here are 3 examples of exactly how it could happen, the first from clinical neurologic practice, the other two from the New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As a neurologist I was asked to do an Independent Medical Evaluation (IME) on an unfortunate man who was electrocuted at work (he worked on high voltage transmission lines). He went into cardiac arrest and sustained severe brain damage. The issue was not fault, which the power company readily admitted, but whether in what appeared to be a vegetative state, with no visible response to verbal commands, he was in fact conscious but unable to respond. In the latter case the reward to the family would have been substantially larger (for pain and suffering in addition to loss of consortium, etc. etc.). It was claimed that facilitated communication showed that he was able to write the answer to simple calculations given verbally, not visually.

Reviewing the chart before seeing the man, showed that he and his wife were truly admirable people, adopting children that no one else wanted and raising them despite limited income. He was seen at the rehab facility, with attorneys for the insurer for the power company and his family present. It was apparent that the people caring for him were quite devoted, both to him and his wife and were very sincere, especially one of his young therapists.

The neurologic exam showed that although he did react to deep pain (sternal compression), he did not follow simple commands (e.g. blink). He appeared to be in a coma. Following the neurologic examination the young therapist then demonstrated how when he held the man’s hand to which a pencil was attached, the man could actually perform calculations — add 2 and 2 produce a 4, etc. etc. Several such calculations were produced all with correct answer.

What do you think I did next?

No peeking. Think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

I took the first sheet of paper away, placed a clean sheet under the man’s hand and asked for a repeat (this time with the therapist’s eyes closed).

This produced a bunch of random lines, nothing more.  When the therapist opened his eyes and saw the results, he was visibly shaken and close to tears.

Was therapist faking the whole time? At any time? I seriously doubt it. A fraudster could easily have produced a reasonable number with his eyes shut. Try it yourself. He didn’t.

“You can’t con an honest man” — http://www.amazon.com/The-Sting-Man-Inside-Abscam/dp/0143125273

True, but you certainly can con yourself.

The second example is of a highly educated woman (a tenured professor of ethics at Rutgers Newark) using ‘facilitated communication’ who convinced herself that a severely retarded individual could communicate, and was in fact in love with her.  The jury convicted her of sexual assault and sent her to prison.

The article appeared in 25 October 2015 New York Times Magazine — here is a link

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/magazine/the-strange-case-of-anna-stubblefield.html.

The third example is the product of the youngest author ever to appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Emily Rosa age 11). She put a definitive end to “Therapeutic Touch”— http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=187390

The point of all this is that highly intelligent people can con themselves.  I take no position on whether Ford or Kavanaugh (or both) conned themselves.  Syracuse, when I was practicing in the area in the 90s, was a hotbed of facilitated memory recollection, usually resulting in claims of sexual abuse, and I saw several parents whose life had been destroyed by it.  It would be of great interest to find out if Dr. Ford’s therapist used the technique.  We’ll likely never know and the Ford Kavanaugh affair will be the Patty Hearst affair of the decade.

Who doesn’t want to be smarter?

I’ve never met anyone (even future Nobel laureates) who didn’t wish they were smarter.  So cognitive training should do the trick.  Right?  Not so fast.  In a very well written (and even funny in parts) article in PNAS vol 115 pp. 9897 – 9904 ’18 titled “How to play 20 questions with nature and lose: Reflections on 100 years of brain training research” all the pitfalls of setting up a study to prove or disprove the benefits of cognitive training are laid out.  The paper is worth reading for anyone considered any sort of manipulation to change human behavior it (including medication which is why drug chemists should be interested in it).  You can read it for free at

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/09/26/161702114.full

This didn’t work for someone —

Try this one — http://www.pnas.org/content/115/40/9897

An enormous number of pitfalls of the work already done on the efficacy of cognitive training are laid out, far too numerous to summarize here.

I’ve written about one such pitfall (expectancy effects) earlier — here it is

Science proves cognitive training will raise your IQ 5 – 10 points

Who among you doesn’t want to be smarter? A placebo controlled study with 25 people in each group showed that cognitive training raised IQ 5 – 10 points [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 113 pp. 7470 – 7474 ’16 ].

You know that there has to be a catch and there is. The catch points to a problem with every placebo controlled trial ever done, particularly those with drugs, so drug chemists pay attention.

What was the placebo? It was the way subjects are recruited for these studies. Of 19 previous studies in the literature, 17 recruited patients using terms like ‘cognition’ or ‘brain training’, so the authors put out two ads for subjects.

Here are the two ads they used

Ad #1

Brain Training and Cognitive Enhancement
Numerous studies of ahown that working memory training can increase fluid intelligences (several references cited)
Participate in a study today !
EMail for more information GMUBrainTraining@Gmail.com

Ad #2

EMail Today and Participate in a study
Need SONA credits? (I have no idea what they are)
Sign up for a study today and earn up to 5 credits
Participate in a study today !
cforough@masonlive.gmu.edu

I might mention that the two ads were identical in total size, font sizes, coloration used etc. etc.

” Two individual difference metrics regarding beliefs about cognition and intelligence were also collected as potential moderators. The researchers who interacted with participants were blind to the goal of the experiment and to the experimental condition”  Not bad. Not bad at all.

The results: those recruited with ad #1 showed the increase in IQ, those recruited with ad #2 showed no improvement.

It was an expectancy effect. Those who thought intelligence could be raised by training, showed the greatest IQ improvement.   Every sick patient wants to get better, and any drug trial simply must mention what it is for, the risks and rewards, so this effect is impossible to avoid. It probably explains the high placebo response rate for migraine and depression (over 30% usually).

What is really impressive (to me at least) is that the improvement was not in a subjective rating scale (such as is used for depression), but in something as objective as it gets. IQ questions have a right and wrong answers. You can argue about whether they ‘really’ measure intelligence, but they measure what they measure and fluid intelligence is one of them.

Medicine is full of fads and fashions, sugar is poison, fat is bad (no it’s good) etc. etc. and this is true in spades for treatments, particularly those touted in the press. Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at the various nostrums mentioned in the magazines at the checkout stand.

When I first started out in practice, one particular headache remedy was getting great results. The rationale behind it seemed bizarre, so I asked a very smart  old GP about it — his advice — “use it while it works”. Rest in peace, Herb

How art and science differ

The difference between art and science was really brought home to me on a visit to a museum on our recent trip to Venice.  I’d never heard about the Memphis Group of artists before — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_Group.  They mostly made wacky looking furniture, as a revolt against the austere Bauhaus style –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bauhaus.   Back in the day, people living in the Harvard Law dorms Gropius (one of the Bauhaus founders) designed hated them as unlivable.  Similarly one can regard Pop art as a revolt against abstract expressionism, impressionism as a revolt against classicism, etc. etc.   The very notion of progress and building on the past is antithetical.

Science also produces a succession of theories, but they build on previously successful theories extending and incorporating them.  Special and general relativity subsume Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s laws merge electricity and magnetism.  Current molecular biology extends the classic dogma of the 60s and 70s — DNA makes RNA makes protein.  None of the older theories are rejected just improved.

So progress is inherent to the scientific enterprise, and is unheard of in the arts.  In one sense the arts are closer to the creative destruction of capitalism than its practitioners would like to admit.

I’ll be back to writing more scientific posts shortly, but here’s a question to be answered in a later post.

What extremely famous artist, spent more of his life as a mechanical and military engineer than as an artist?