Friday, December 9, 2016

Cat Yoga?

This should be a lesson to me:  Never ask what’s coming next?  

CNN featured this story on cat yoga, and they have the nerve to put it under the Health section of the website.  Now I have nothing against cats, and I certainly have nothing against yoga; but cat yoga is not about health, it’s just a gimmick.  But CNN hasn’t got a section called gimmicks on their website, although almost every news website these days probably ought to.  Such a section would give the so-called journalists more permission to bombard us, as they already do, with news from their professional investigation into what is trending on Facebook and other social sites.  They also get a chance to show how clever they can be with puns.  This is not news and cat yoga is not yoga.

The story tells that people receive on-line invitations to a cats-only animal shelter – this one in Marietta, GA – three times a month to do yoga as the shelter cats are allowed to wander around the floor.  They got the idea by watching cat videos on the Internet and thought it might be one more way to get people to visit the shelter and possibly adopt a cat.  (Can you say “Gimmick”?)

The excuse for having it on the health page comes later.  Studies show that yoga can improve your balance, your breathing, your sense of self and your overall health. It can reduce anxiety and fight off depression. It strengthens your core and can help ease chronic pain.”  The endorsement for cat yoga comes from the teacher who says she sees a difference in her students and believes, "Cat yoga is good for your soul."  This is clearly where we move from scientific research into the land of the airy-fairies.  There is no research on cat yoga as such.

It is true that yoga is beneficial.  But that applies to yoga, not cat yoga or dog yoga or beer yoga or suspension yoga or rock & roll yoga or paddleboard yoga or naked yoga or yoga on horseback – Honest, I didn’t make any of these up!

The benefits from yoga come from the opportunity to focus inward, to stretch safely in an accepting environment, to sync the breath with movement and to practice a little guided meditation.  Do these quotes from the cat yoga story sound anything like that? 

Cats love yoga mats and can't help but be the center of the action”
“If you've ever tried a hero's pose with your cat around, you know the challenge has nothing to do with your breathing or flexibility.”
“Cats may be distracting”
"There's not as much pressure to make my form perfect."

All these intentional distractions and need for reassurance from being judged by yourself or others sound nothing like traditional yoga, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  So I’m not expecting studies of so-called cat yoga to show any benefits beyond what you might get just from hanging around with cats.  Of course if you are a cat person, cat yoga at the shelter is like being a grandparent: you can play with them, cuddle, and spoil them rotten, but you can also give them back when it’s time for the feeding, the litter box cleaning and the medicines.  Just stretching is optional – but it’s not yoga.

Just remind me from time to time not to ask, “What’s coming next?”

Monday, December 5, 2016

Where Do Those Numbers Come From?

You hear it all the time from politicians and news anchors:  97% of scientists agree on climate change; women are paid 79% of what a man is paid for the same job; and the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer.  But where do these numbers come from?

I found more information about the first number in a Forbes article written by Alex Epstein.  Now Epstein is the author of A Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, so he definitely is not unbiased.  But he says that a 2013 paper by John Cook and others “found that over 97 percent [of papers he surveyed] endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.”

To begin with the 97% refers to papers reviewed, not to scientists or even to all papers on the subject.  To get to 97% Cook developed three categories.  The first, “explicit endorsement with quantification,” refers to papers stating that at least half the problem is attributed to human activity.  This appears to be a small number of the papers.  The second category, “explicit endorsement without quantification,” includes papers that did not specify how much of the problem was due to human activity.  In the final category, “implicit endorsement,” are papers that only imply but do not state outright that some of the global warning is man-made.  Add all these categories up to get 97% of papers reviewed.  The only papers excluded were those that explicitly denied any man-made factor.

Epstein goes on to quote some of the authors of the reviewed papers who say Cook’s interpretation is not representative of their views.  So the source of this number gives no evidence that 97% of scientists agree and makes no mention that warming will be catastrophic, a thought the politicians and media automatically assume.  Finally, a reading of the paper itself shows that its stated purpose was to influence public opinion.

The pay issue is an easy one if you think it through.  The 79% number is probably accurate, but unfortunately meaningless.  It compares the pay of all women working full time to that of all men working full time.  It does not compare women in the same job to men in the same job.  In comparing the whole population, it doesn’t distinguish between the type of job, time on the job, or other factors (other than discrimination) that may affect pay level.  A more statistically accurate number is around 95.5%, which is still not acceptable but much closer to the truth.  And in some careers women earn more than men.  But even the department of labor publishes this bogus percentage as an argument for equal pay.

This Time article, written by a woman, gives good reasons for calling the 79% statistic a myth, but does not offer a more correct figure.

Finally we get to the earnings and wealth of the Top 1%, the rich who keep getting richer.  Well it’s true, the rich do continue to get richer, but the actual people in that category tends to change over time.  But I did wondered exactly how rich are they.  Do they have enough money to support all the programs that everyone wants to bill them for through higher taxes?

This should be an easy calculation – find out what percent of wealth they have and multiply by the total wealth in the US, a number probably available from census figures.  As it turns out, it is not so easy.  I looked up the percent of wealth held by the 1% in several different sources and found that it was almost 40% in April 2000, 35.4% as of 2010, 35% in 2007, but also 42% in 2007 (from another source), 40% in October 2011, and also 40% in 1995.  Where do these numbers come from?  They can't all be right.  Who do you trust?

It is also interesting that to be in the top 1% by income, you must earn more than about $470,000 per year.  So that evil top 1% by income, who are not paying their fair share, includes everyone playing in the NBA and all but the minimum salaried rookies in the NFL and top golfers and your favorite movie and TV stars, not just hedge fund managers and bankers on Wall Street.

With a little critical thinking, it turns out that numbers everyone throws around so confidently have problems.  And, by the way, the poor are not getting poorer.  According to a Congressional Budget Office report, the growth in average real after-tax household income for the bottom quintile of wage earners from 1979 to 2007 was about 18 percent, not a lot, but not poorer either.  ("Real" means inflation-adjusted.)

Friday, December 2, 2016

Predictable But Still Unexpected

In February 2013 when I wrote, “Will airlines charge based on the total weight of the luggage and the passenger?” some people thought I must have been joking.  Here is a reliable news source reporting another step in that direction.  “Two American Samoan businessmen have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation alledging [sic] they may have been the target of discrimination after being weighed while boarding a recent flight from Honolulu.

“In the complaints, the men also say they were assigned new seats on the aircraft that they did not originally select, to ensure that the weight on the flight was evenly distributed.”

I don’t claim any supernatural powers.  In most cases, any semblance of clairvoyance is merely a matter of looking at behavior and predicting the logical consequences.  Airlines already weigh baggage.  They also must estimate the weight of passengers to calculate the amount of fuel needed to safely make the flight.  In this case, after finding that the fuel burn on certain flights was consistently higher than expected, they ran a survey to find how far off their estimates had been and to make the appropriate adjustments.

The businessmen were not barred from the flight or apparently inconvenienced in any way except to be assigned new seats to better balance the plane.  It seems reasonable that passengers, even though they were customers of the airline, would be interested in cooperating to make sure the airplane they were riding in for many hours over open water was properly balanced and had enough fuel.  But as I noted last week, some people are so spoiled that they look for ways to be offended.

This was just a weight distribution issue, but the trend continues.  “In 2013, Samoa Air became the world's first airline to charge passengers according to size.”  Ticket prices are based on combined weight of passenger and baggage.  With an adult obesity rate estimated around 95 percent, it’s not surprising that American Samoans became the first to face this new fare scheme.  But as the issues of fuel and balance are real for every airline, will they be the last?   In what other unexpected areas will the consequences of our problems with discipline affect our lives and wallets?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Building Behavioral Muscles

“I have a device in my pocket that is capable of connecting me to all the information in the world.  I use it to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers.”

I am reading a book called Curious.  It tells how humans are the only animals capable of curiosity and how curiosity is beneficial to individuals and to society as a whole. 

At one point the author discusses whether the Internet is making people smarter or lazier and stupider.  During the 1990s experts talked of a digital divide, the idea that access to the Internet was limited by someone’s socioeconomic status.  With recent advances and government programs, that problem takes a back seat to what he describes as a curiosity divide.  According to Kaiser Family Foundation surveys, “children in the United States spend at least ten hours a day with digital devises, and the lower those families are on the economic scale the more time it is.”  The author of that study is quoted as saying, “the reality is their use for education . . . is miniscule compared to their use for entertainment.”  Instead of the extra time closing an achievement gap between the rich and the poor, it’s “widening the time-wasting gap.”

“A study of teachers by Pew Research found that most agreed that digital technology is creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  They look for and get quick answers, which is an impediment to curiosity.  It is a disincentive to look deeply into problems, to ask questions based on the information given, to investigate further when the original answers are more complex, to ask more questions, and to really learn about a subject instead of just filling in the blanks.  These are exactly the skills that employers are looking for.  They don’t hire people to spit out the right answer (after looking it up on Wikipedia); they hire people to figure things out, people who might stumble onto seemingly unrelated information and put it together into creative solutions.  They hire people to do things computers can’t do.  This is a skill children need to learn early and continue throughout life, both for better job opportunities and for a more fulfilling life in general.

The Internet gives us the opportunity to be smarter and to dig deeper.  At the same time it gives us the opportunity to be lazy and fritter away our time.  The difference is in the habits each person develops.  The same is true of the five key behavioral dimensions.  Internet-induced laziness may be signs of poor discipline, some problems with perspective – appreciating the power at our fingertips, or responsibility – especially for parents.  But it is also an example of the need to develop the right habits and of the obstacles we face in doing so.

Developing habits is like building muscles.  It takes a firm intention, and it takes repetition.  Strong behavior in the dimensions will not come automatically to individuals or to society.  We need constant reminders – apparently the unfortunate consequences are not strong enough or not immediate enough.  We need practice.  That’s why I write this twice a week.  We can’t get from here to where we want to be by doing the same things in the same way.  Politicians and advocates can’t get us there either.  It’s up to everyone to build and exercise the behavioral “muscles” in daily lives.

Friday, November 25, 2016


Usually at this time of year I write about perspective.  Black Friday yields plenty of good behavioral examples.  It is common for people to throw perspective out the window, pay no attention to the distinction between wants and needs, line up or camp out in anticipation of the “door-buster” sales, and in some cases literally risk their lives and those of their neighbors in a human stampede to secure the best bargains.

This year I’d rather write about perspective from the standpoint of yesterday’s celebration, Thanksgiving, one day set aside for gratitude.  

We live in such a comfortable and convenient world.  Even those considered poor in America today have far more than many people living in the rest of the world.  The vast majority has access to indoor plumbing, refrigeration, microwave ovens, color television, the Internet and much more.  They can play games on their smartphones to pass time while waiting in line for free winter clothing for their children.

And the rest of us are much better off.  As we sit in front of the wide screen HDTV watching football, we don’t need to get out of our seat to change the channel or to run our own instant replays using the DVR.  The house is heated and the food plentiful.  A major worry is how to recover from having eaten too much, not where the next meal is coming from or how we are going to pay the rent.  This is a big step forward for many families over only a few generations, but we take most of this for granted.

Instead of appreciating all the conveniences and comfort, instead of being thankful for what we have, we complain about more and more trivial things.  We have hot buttons.  We experience outrage and offense at insignificant words and actions of others.  No one is allowed to tell jokes unless they are the right kind of jokes – “A shopping mall Santa Claus in Florida is out of a job for telling a 10-year-old girl that Hillary Clinton was on his ‘naughty list.’”  (The mother explained that the girl was a Clinton supporter.  So we have a politically savvy 10-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus!)

Gratitude, on the other hand, draws us toward the present.  It focuses our attention on what we have and how lucky we are to have it.  When we don’t take the time for gratitude, regrets from the past and worries about the future overwhelm us.  We make up scary scenarios about possible future disasters.  What if this happens?  We dwell on disappointments.  This may be the result of having too many possessions, too much food and too much free time, but it’s probably more of a case of searching for things to upset us to publish our distress and get sympathy from likeminded friends on social media.

When I teach yoga, I emphasize the need for gratitude.  It draws students to the present, to spending one hour on the mat away from the stresses and worries of a typical day.  Being grateful for just one circumstance or one relationship can drive out fears and worries.  Focus on the breath, and as you feel the cool inhale at the tip of the nose, know that even that single next breath was never guaranteed to you.  But we all take it for granted and instead compound our misery with imagined slights, while we play the prophet by manufacturing a future of ruination.

Our ancestors saw everyday as gift, as they struggled against nature to stay alive.  Our struggles are so minor that we have time and energy left over to stress over tomorrow’s possibilities and to be nasty to people who didn’t vote the same way we did in the last election (or the ones before that).