Friday, August 30, 2013

Elevators, Tolls and Fast Food

A common thread runs through the items in the title.  I might also include gas stations, telephones and customer service.  This comes to mind because on Wednesday I saw a story about tolls on the bridges over the Ohio River and yesterday the big news was a strike by fast food workers demanding a $15 per hour wage.

The first report gave details about a new toll system for those bridges.  “Instead of using toll plazas where workers collect cash from motorists, the bridges will use tolling gantries that rely on electronic transponders and video cameras.”  Cars with transponders would be billed from a pre-paid account.  Those without would receive a bill in the mail sent to the address where the car was registered.  Canada has a similar system set up near Toronto, toll roads with no tollbooths.

Years ago each lane of a tollbooth had a toll taker.  Later they added exact change lanes and then the transponder lanes for cars with electronic passes.  In most places today real people occupy at most only about one third of the open lanes.  And then there were none (to quote Agatha Christie), at least on bridges to Louisville.

Those old enough will remember when gasoline was not self-service, when the only way to make a long-distance telephone call was to talk to an operator, when elevators had operators to drive them and manually open the doors, and when a call to customer service was answered by a live person.  In all these cases, companies figured out a way to use technology to eliminate most of these low skill jobs.  We now pump our own gas, push the elevator button, dial directly and wade through those aggravating telephone menus.

When I read the following day that “[f]ast-food workers staged strikes at McDonald's and Burger Kings and demonstrated at other stores in sixty U.S. cities,” I thought about, the telephone operators, the service station attendants, the elevator operators, and now the tollbooth workers, and wondered how many people at fast-food corporate headquarters are thinking of ways to replace jobs with technology and customer do-it-yourself requirements.  Do we really need someone else to push the button on the cash register with the picture of the fries?  We already check ourselves out at the grocery store.  It’s not a big leap to imagine many of these low-skill jobs, which were originally targeted at teens and not someone trying to support a family of four, disappearing.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Greek Yogurt: Fact or Fad?

It was all Greek to me.  I felt suddenly overwhelmed by ads for Greek yogurt, recipes for Greek yogurt, and the store shelves started filling up with Greek yogurt.  News reports said that sales of Greek yogurt had skyrocketed, increasing from 1% of the market in 2007 to 35% this year.  This had all the earmarks of a fad and required some research.

I did a little research on the Internet and some in the grocery store.  The Internet told me that it is smoother and creamier, that it has more protein and carbs, but also more fat.  Sugar is lower, but there is not as much calcium, which is one factor that women with worries of osteoporosis find important when considering adding yogurt to their diets.

Their conclusion:  “Though most experts agree that Greek yogurt has a nutritional edge, both kinds help you lose weight by keeping you full on fewer calories.”

Personal research drew slightly different conclusions.  The brand name Greek yogurt was smoother and creamier, a little more like a dessert.  The label corresponded to the facts in the Internet article with the exception of fat and sugar.  The fat in this brand was zero (not higher than regular yogurt), but the amount sugar was much higher.  At 19 grams, it was three times as high as shown in the on-line example and higher than both the regular yogurt on line and the one I bought.  Protein was a little lower than the Internet example, but still more than regular yogurt.

The big eye-opener was the price.  The Greek yogurt was on sale, but still cost twice as much as the store brand light yogurt at the regular price.  Although the Greek yogurt container looked bigger, it contained less than 90% as much yogurt.

My conclusion is that the Greek yogurt craze is mostly based on good advertising and a preference for the creamier taste rather than the nutritional differences.  I can see some benefits to vegetarians looking for an alternative source of protein, but for the rest of us, why pay more than twice as much for a substitute that is not substantially different?  Can you really afford to splurge on this item rather than on something else?

Another conclusion is to read the labels.  The government requires companies to provide us with good information.  Don’t assume that all Greek yogurts, or anything else with the same name, has the same ingredients and nutritional value.  You can be surprised.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Science Education

I see so many cases of scientific misinformation and errors on TV, in the press and in advertising that I think it would be a good idea for someone or some organization (perhaps a university or  Consumer Protection Agency) to provide high school science teachers with a set of weekly topics.  The thrust would be how to protect yourself against fraud and misinformation – how people will try to use your lack of understanding of science to mislead, trick and cheat you.  If you don't understand science, no one will help you.

Here is a shocking example from a newspaper report from earlier this year (May 7, 2013) showing how sloppy journalists can be about science.  Dateline Cape Canaveral, “Two robotic U.S. rovers are back in business on Mars after a month long solar blackout that blocked communications with engineers back on Earth [due to] a solar conjunction [when the] sun in early April moved into an orbit directly between Earth and Mars, interfering with communications between the planets."  [Emphasis added].  Really?  The sun moved into an orbit between the planets?  Didn’t the columnist or his editor know better?  This is scary - reporting based on 15th Century science.  With this in mind, how much other, more damaging, bad information is passed along through the sloppiness or ignorance of the press? 

Many subjects, some covered in these posts over the past two years, would be helpful to young adults to keep them from wasting their time and money or becoming unnecessarily panicked.  Suggested topics include:  the placebo effect, pros and cons of dietary supplements, what to look for in properly designed experiments or tests for effectiveness, genetic engineering of food, the pros and cons of organic farming, a brief history of diet scams, the truth about vaccines and autism, fluoride in drinking water, understanding irradiated food, and common scientific myths.  Without an understanding of these subjects along with training in critical thinking as part of a science education, future generations will be vulnerable to deceptive advertising and the pleas from advocates for every crackpot idea that comes along.

What will happen when they step into high school chemistry class and find out that everything in the universe is made of chemicals and that "chemical" is not a bad word, nor is it the opposite of natural or organic – ideas that seem contrary to what they've encountered from family and the media?  It has almost come to the point where science is being replaced by religion in the public mind, not a standard religion, but a new quasi-religion where the truth is based more on what you believe or believe in than what can be scientifically tested.  Unless this behavior changes Americans will continue to waste money and energy supporting products and services backed only by scientific-sounding arguments and celebrity endorsements.  Let's change it early, before another generation is taken in.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Does Acupuncture Really Work?

When you think about it critically, there is no such thing as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).  There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t.  The trick is to tell the difference.  Medicine that works has been tested under the strictest possible experimental conditions and proves itself to be more effective than a placebo or no treatment at all.  From the results of such clinical tests, not from relatives, friends or celebrity endorsements comes the determination.  This allows us to make wise and careful spending and treatment decisions.  Even under these conditions, errors are made, decisions overturned and sometimes recalls result.  If strict testing can sometimes be wrong, think of the possibility of misinformation when we take medical advice from TV, magazine ads, the Internet or even trusted friends.  We leave ourselves open to fraud and worse.

Until recently I had heard good reports about research on acupuncture.  Although it’s hard to have a control or placebo group – maybe put the needles in the wrong places to measure results – and hard to have a double blind situation – practitioners not knowing who is getting the real treatment – some testing is possible.

Now I find this editorial by a pharmacologist and a physician describing a review of all the research on acupuncture.  According to them, studies show no significant effect on pain relief or any other of the many benefits attributed to acupuncture.  Other reviews published by the National Institute of Health seem to back this up.  One in 2009 concluded: “Whether needling at acupuncture points, or at any site, reduces pain independently of the psychological impact of the treatment ritual is unclear.” Another in 2010 more generally treats the whole area of CAM, including acupuncture, saying: “The benefit of CAM treatments was mostly evident immediately or shortly after the end of the treatment and then faded with time. Very few studies reported long-term outcomes.”  According to the earlier-mentioned editorial, there have been so many attempts to verify acupuncture without favorable results, except in cases where proponents reported data in only the most favorable light, that it makes little sense to continue research.  

Those authors, however, are no advocates of acupuncture and may be biased toward a negative conclusion.  To account for this I checked other sources.  The Mayo Clinic gives what I would characterize as only a half-hearted endorsement, which you can read by following the link.  So at best the jury is still out; at worst it’s a waste of time and money.  And it seems that this conclusion would generalize to include similar interventions.

Many people will not want to accept this information because it goes against their basic beliefs that old and Chinese equals natural and effective.  They forget that science is not about beliefs; it’s about finding things out.  And medicine is science.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Equal Pay for Women

Equal pay for women is not only the right thing to do; it’s the law.  Yet we continue to hear stories of glass ceilings and inequality.  The latest comes in this USA Today article reviewing progress in the IT field.  The claim seems to be that women are underrepresented and underpaid, but as usual in these stories, a closer look shows some discrepancies in that generalization.

The article’s introduction tells of a woman who was an early adapter in terms of computer education.  Her explanation is that today there is “not that mental block or stigma that women in my generation held in what we were supposed to do."  In her opinion, women’s avoidance of the computer science major was an interest and a comfort issue, but now that’s changing.  The article continues:  “Even with advances, a gender gap still exists. An executive summary prepared for Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce notes that women represent 23% of the workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. But women make up 48% of workers in all occupations across the board.”

This implies a problem of exclusion, but from another source we learn that:  “According to a new report from the Census Bureau, foreign-born Americans are earning STEM degrees in disproportionately large numbers, compared to the native-born U.S. population.”  They account for 16.5% of the population, but 33% of graduates with engineering degrees, 27% with degrees in computers, math, and statistics."  Furthermore, part of the immigration debate involves the disproportionate number of international students receiving advanced STEM degrees.  Over 60% of graduate students in computer science in American universities are not American citizens.  Do these facts imply a similar kind of exclusion, a citizenship or place-of-birth gap? – Of course not.  In fact universities and employers favor American citizens over those requiring visas.  The underrepresentation of women that is complained of is an artifact of past lack of interest in the field plus, perhaps, a problem with the overall US education system.

What about the pay issue?  The USA Today article states that:  “On average, of the 15,000 employers contacted through an online poll, the survey found that male tech workers made $95,900 compared with $87,500 for women.”  Although we don’t know how well controlled or how representative this survey was, that does sound unfair.  The next sentence clarifies as follows:  However, the compensation gender gap has narrowed, with average salaries equal for male and female tech pros with comparable levels of experience and education and parallel job titles.” [Emphasis added.]  It’s easy to understand from the prior information that if women once avoided computer degrees, they would not yet have the tenure or experience that some men do.  Hence the discrepancy.  Where other factors are equal, no problem exists, and there is no reason to search for or accuse glass ceilings or other forms of covert discrimination.

Despite research findings to the contrary, based on true comparisons using like education, experience, etc., the issue of the gender gap continues to arise, often raised by politicians and advocates, based on general data or anecdotal evidence.  People believe and repeat the claim.  But why would anyone seek out reasons to portray herself or himself as a victim?  Victimhood is not a solution.  It’s only a path to resentment, a barrier to constructive problem solving, and an opportunity for those same politicians and advocates to gain power from other’s abdication of responsibility.