Friday, January 29, 2016

Yet Another Magic Bullet

January must be the month for “magic bullets,” products, services and secret tricks to help you avoid the hard work of staying healthy in a simple, but often not affordable, way.  On January 4, I gave examples of magic bullets for physical health in the form of “healthier” foods that are natural, organic or some other special description that has been accepted without proof to be better.  On January 8, I discussed the “brain training” industry and their claims to be able to stave off any number of mental problems. What all these have in common is that they present or imply scary problems, like contaminated food or Alzheimer’s disease, and then try to sell a solution that requires less effort or less critical thinking with an unscientific solution.

The topic this time is detox.  This website gives a detailed description about how popular promotion of detox programs are not legitimate.  The term is a real medical service term “provided in hospitals under life-threatening circumstances—usually when there are dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or other poisons in the body.”  What is popularly promoted is not the same.

What's being promoted today as detox is “little different than eons-old religious rituals of cleansing and purification,” but in the twenty-first century they must use science as justification instead of religion.

No scientific evidence exists to prove that detox treatments have any positive effects on the body's ability to eliminate waste products.  They are promoted either by charlatans or by people who do not understand the way the body works.  They are another distraction, an empty promise, a magic bullet that only serves to distract people from what needs to be done on a daily basis to stay healthy. The website goes on in more detail but concludes that it is not possible to “undo lifestyle decisions with quick fixes.”

Nothing is scarier than some unknown threat that may be lurking around the corner waiting to pounce when you least expect it.  The appeal of all these magic bullet solutions is that they offer to let you in on some secret that relieves you from the fear of the unknown, whether it’s pesticides, dementia or imaginary toxins building up in the body.  The snake oil salesmen are more sophisticated than when they drove from town to town in horse-drawn wagons, but their products and methods are pretty much the same.  (The result is pretty much the same too, with people falling for the scientific-sounding jargon without a clue about the probable ineffectiveness and the possible danger.)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Cats Are Cuter Than People

Here is a story from the PBS News Hour about a group of people trying to help with the problem of stray cats.  They endorse neutering the cats instead of euthanizing them as being more humane, a better solution.  The program is called “trap, neuter and return” (TNR).  They are backed by animal rights activists and are working to spread the practice nationwide.  On the surface it seems like a nice cause to be involved with, however, as the story progresses, several flaws become apparent.

It starts with the story of Antioch, California where there are an estimated 17,000 strays, one cat for every 6 citizens.  This is a microcosm of the 80-million feral-cat problem across the US.  Most are wild animals, not appropriate for adoption, leaving euthanasia as the traditional solution.

Cat lovers rally to the rescue organizing “a network of a quarter million advocates who fight for feral cats.”  They boast of changing cat care forever.  The objective of TNR is to stop the breeding of wild cats so there are no more litters of kittens.  They trap the cats in bated cages, neuter them, mark them and return them to the wild (streets, alleys and woods in neighborhoods).  More than 400 cities and counties have adopted this practice raising “tens of millions of dollars” in donations.

But there are problems.  Wild cats are considered invasive predators by the American bird conservancy and others.  “[A] study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute...estimates cats kill around 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals every year – not only rats and mice, but frogs, reptiles, amphibians and other small mammals.  Studies show that even well fed cats in TNR programs continue to hunt, from instinct rather than hunger.  The food used to attract the cats to traps also draws in raccoons, skunks, and possums, all of which may carry disease. 

To address this, Antioch tried to ban the feeding of cats in public, but had to back down due to the public outcry in favor of the cats.

Yet another problem is that experts don’t believe it will work.  “Dr. Patrick Foley teaches at California State University in Sacramento. He says there’s no proof TNR reduces large populations of cats. They just reproduce too quickly.”  He estimates they must neuter 10 times more cats than they do today to be effective.  The advocates’ solution is to pour more money and resources into the program, which “continues to gain political clout.”  By disregarding the evidence, the conclusion is clear.  “When it comes to controlling cats, it’s not only about science. It’s about our emotions.”

Finally, what struck me as the scariest part, but was not emphasized at all, was the mention of groups "wanting to end homelessness – cat homelessness."  Cat homelessness?  Have we run out of homeless people?  I don’t think so.  Yet we have hundreds of thousands of people and tens of thousands of donated dollars dedicated to the problem of cat homelessness. 

These cat advocates are hard working and dedicated.  They have such devotion to the cause that they use their energy and precious spare time to raise money, to feed the cats, to trap them for neutering so as to avoid euthanasia, and to build a nationwide network with similar goals and growing political clout, all the while ignoring expert opinion about the inadequacy of their solution and the damage and potential disease caused by the feral cat population and the program itself.

At the same time, statistics remind us that on any given night we have “643,067 people experiencing homelessness in America” with about 17% of those (just over 100,000) considered as chronically homeless.  Maybe what we need are a few more people lovers instead of cat lovers.  Maybe what we need is a little more perspective in America.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Oscar Observations

The Academy Awards have managed again to stir up the diversity controversy.  The dispute and talk of a boycott is all over the news.  Last year I commented on a similar fuss pointing out that the Academy Awards show is really just one long commercial to sell movie tickets, that one or two years without a nominee of color had to be considered against the 16 years in a row prior to last year, and that those with good perspective understand that the issue of entertainment awards should be small potatoes when it comes to setting priorities in real life.  In the end, this is just a bunch of narcissists crying about not getting the attention they crave.

Then I asked myself, what about diversity in other areas?  Doesn’t the lack of diversity in the NBA, for example, teach us something?  Last season 74.4% of NBA players were African American and 23.3% were white.  The reason for this apparent imbalance is that fans reward their teams for winning basketball games.  Generally, those teams with the best players and the best teamwork win the most games, go to the playoffs, and rake in the big bucks from ticket sales, team apparel and television.  The sport is objective.  Whoever scores the most points wins.

Best movie (or actor), on the other hand, is not objective.  It’s a case of preference or opinion.  Maybe there are underlying prejudices, but like any category in the arts these days, it is very subjective.  In addition, the best picture voting process is complicated, and it is very possible that the winner isn’t even the one with the most first place votes.  (In case you are curious, here is a brief explanation of how it works.)  So the meaningfulness of advertising a movie as best picture is greatly diminished.  But either way it’s still no big deal.

In doing the research, though, I learned something even more surprising.  Diversity does not mean what I always thought it did.  It doesn’t mean a range of different perspectives or backgrounds or experiences at all!  The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gives the NBA an A+ rating for diversity.  This is how they explain their calculations:  “Currently, 24 percent of the U.S. population is comprised of people of color, thus an A was achieved if 24 percent of the positions were held by people of color. A position was determined to have earned a B if people of color held 12 percent of the positions, and a C was earned if people of color held only 9 percent of positions.”  (By “position” they mean player, front office, coach, owner, etc.)

So all people of color represented 76.6%, which is more than 24%.  That equals an A+.  One would assume from the above concept of diversity that the curve would go down on both sides from the 24%, that too many would be as bad as too few and cause diversity to start to diminish.  The more people were alike, the less diversity.  Since that is clearly not the case, this organization has a different definition; and if there were no white players at all, the diversity grade would still be A+.  (Regular readers know from my other posts that I don’t buy a definition of diversity that relies on skin color.  You can’t walk into a room and see into people’s heads, but that is another topic.)

So before we get too excited about lack of diversity in Hollywood, we should probably decide whether everybody agrees on a single definition.  I guess we need to mix everyone together by some formula, which is easy to do when the whole exercise is subjective anyway.  The alternative would be to treat everyone the same – but that might mean having only a single category for best actor and best supporting actor, not splitting into male and female categories.  Wow, that would open up another can of worms!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Please Pass the Turkey?

About ten years ago was the first time that I saw something on the Internet where I couldn’t figure out whether or not it was a legitimate news story or a creative work of fiction.  This type of puzzle has become more and more common since then.

The latest comes from Fox News, and I had to read the entire article to make sure it wasn’t from the Onion or another satirical site.  It involved a turkey allowed to board a Delta flight as a support or comfort animal.  “The passenger provided proper documentation proving the fowl was indeed their emotional support animal, so Delta let the bird on board, and even gave it its own seat.”  No information was available to determine if the passenger was pulling someone’s leg, trying to win a bet, or putting one over on the airline; but according to Federal law, airlines are required to accommodate support animals or face fines up to $150,000 for refusing legitimate requests.  The article points out that airlines have little recourse since “as those requests increase, so does the threat of a lawsuit.”

Increasingly and regardless of the paperwork, there is some question about the legitimacy of these claims as it is very easy to get a therapist to write a note, which is all it takes.  In addition websites are available where, for a fee of between $60 and $200, people can order emotional support vests and necessary letters allowing them to fly with their pets for free at any time while possibly faking the disability.

A few questions come to mind.  Aren’t airlines crowded enough with the smaller seats, less legroom and the mad dash for overhead bin space to avoid baggage fees without having to share the row with someone’s “support” critter?  After the turkey precedent to what ridiculous lengths will some people be willing to take this privilege to overcome their fear of flying?  Will you be sitting next to a parakeet cage or a goat on your next flight?

The most important question is whether America, with all our compassion, is turning into a “victimocracy,” a form of government, or at least a form of commerce where the vote of one victim outweighs the votes of dozens or even hundreds of other people just trying to live routine lives?  Will the claim of having a disease, a phobia, or some minor disability override the rights of the majority in more and more situations.  Notice that these people are never asked to compromise.  They insist on their full rights (sometimes threatening to sue if they don't get them).  As I have pointed out before, every right granted to one introduces an obligation to everyone else to respect that right, regardless of cost or inconvenience.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Pros and Cons of Social Media

Like most everything else, social media is a double-edged sword.  It has its good points and bad points.  Both revolve around the ability to instantly communicate opinions to a wide range of people.  I say opinions, because it would be hard to accuse social media of being unbiased and fact-based even at the best of times.

One positive is the ability to spread the word about products or services.  When consumers are dissatisfied, it has become very easy to spread the word, to alert friends and neighbors about a bad experience or to make recommendations.  This has become common and, if you are careful and understand that certain people are usually reliable while others easily fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, it can be quite helpful in making personal spending decisions.

I did pick up one watch-out from a couple of Health Digest articles (#15-49 and #15-51).  In both these cases vendors are trying to defend themselves against social media criticism.  In one case the Federal Trade Commission is going after a marketer of “alleged weight-loss supplements,” not only because of false claims about effectiveness about their high-price products, but also because of a gag clause in their Terms and Conditions, by which they “sued or threatened to sue consumers who shared their negative experiences online or complained to the Better Business Bureau.”  They also paid customers to appear in positive videos and to post positive reviews on line.

In the second case a New York City dentist “required new patients to sign a form called mutual agreement to maintain privacy giving up their right to criticize her publicly on the Internet and assigning to her the copyright for any material or comments that the patient might later write about her.  When a patient later complained over the Internet about overcharges, she claimed that the postings violated her copyright and demanded compensation until they were removed.  Courts have nullified both these sneaky attempts to silence criticism.

Communicating opinions of performance or customer service can be a good thing, but there is also a downside.  Social media can be used to whip readers into a frenzy about trivial things.  It takes so little effort to "like" or repost or sign a petition that (often unfounded or half-true) opinions and accusations spread like wildfire.

Examples like this appear in the media and on-line frequently, but take the case of a woman from Indianapolis who posted on Facebook how upset she was that someone in a bar where she was celebrating New Years had the nerve to have a heart attack and spoil the evening.  She complained of how traumatic it was for her, “having our meal ruined by watching a dead person being wheeled out,” and her post went on ranting.  The news was not limited to the Indy area.  It moved thousands of miles in an instant.  Here it is reported on a British website!

Unfortunately a woman with the same name, also living in Indianapolis began receiving “nasty messages on Facebook from all over the world.”  She described them as “disgusting, hateful," including death threats – from total strangers.  She was near calling the police before the confusion was cleared up.  But as this second woman put it, "She did something stupid. That's all. She had some bad behavior, [but] I don't think you deserve to die or be killed or choked or have a heart attack and there were a lot of pretty awful things that people said assuming I was that person."  People around the world read the story and took it upon themselves to administer “justice.”  Suddenly an insensitive post results in death threats; perfect strangers are out for blood.  Can you say “lynch mob”?

Now before I am accused of being a racist for that last remark and it goes viral on the Internet inciting a bunch of hate mail and death threats, let me point out: a) they also had lynch mobs in the wild west; b) the term was used figuratively; and c) it was given as a negative example.  Now you see how easily social media and other Internet sites can be used to stifle free speech with reactions far out of proportion to reality.  

In a sense it's ironic that the Internet, a media with the potential to enhance free speech, can be turned around to instantly threaten, censor or try to silence the writer over minor offenses, opinions that don't fit a particular world view or a word or phrase that happens to rub some unknown person the wrong way.