Friday, March 31, 2017

Importance of Clear Definitions

If you are familiar with the movie Ghostbusters (1984), you know about Zener Cards used for ESP testing.  Each card has one of five different patterns on the front (cross, star, square, circle, vertical lines) and the person being tested, the subject, is asked to identify the pattern while the tester looks at each card.  To determine if the subject has ESP, the tester is looking for a sufficient number of correct answers to rule out guessing.  Anyone should be able to guess around 20%, one out of five, consistently without any special powers.  Then again, anyone could role five sevens in a row with a pair of dice if you allowed enough tries – or it may happen on the first five tosses just by chance.  That’s why ESP experiments must be large and well controlled.

In the 1930s Dr. S.G. Soal, a British parapsychologist set up such a test.  “From 1936-1941, he performed over 120,000 trials of card-guessing with 160 participants without ever being able to report a significant finding.”  This turned him sour on ESP until a colleague suggested he review the data and see if, instead of correctly identifying the target card, anyone identified the card turned up before or after it.  Now he was getting somewhere!  He published his findings but years later they were challenged on the basis of errors and fraud in the data.

The point is not whether ESP is valid or not, but rather how important it is to decide what you are measuring before you measure it.  If what you are measuring isn’t clear to everyone or you decide after the fact to look at the data in a different way, the results will surely be suspect, at best.  If ESP can be identifying the target card or one near it, depending on the results, it may as well not be defined at all.

I think about the need for clear definition when I read news like this from NBC: “Sexual Assaults Increased at Two of the Three Military Academies.”  Coverage of this story was probably motivated by the recent Marines’ social media scandal. The article shows a graph of reported sexual assaults from each school annually since 2007.  The latest annual increases at the Military and Naval Academies were less than the reduction at the Air Force Academy to bring the total for all three down to 86. 

The article goes on to say:  “Survey responses indicated that 48 percent of female cadets and midshipmen and 12 percent of male cadets and midshipmen experienced sexual assault at their respective academies, according to the report by the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.”  Applying these percentages to the total enrollment by gender works out to 650 sexual assaults per year.  This is far more than the 86 reported above.

So they may have a couple of problems, one with reporting and one with consistent definitions.  It could be that the academies are not getting the compliance with their reporting policy, or it could be that each survey respondent has his or her own definition of what constitutes sexual assault.  This is not uncommon on self-reporting surveys, especially around sensitive subjects, especially in this case where an online search easily turns up multiple definitions.  Indeed this website states that “the exact definitions of the crimes that fall within the category of sexual assault differ from state to state.”

This is far more serious than whether someone has ESP, and far more important to clearly define what we are talking about and to push for conscientious and accurate reporting.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Whose Fault Is It?

There is an old story of a burglar falling through a skylight as he is attempting to ply his craft and suing either the skylight company or the owner of the building he is trying to break into.  Details are vague, and I could not find a reputable reference – at least not of that happening in the United States.

I did find cases of a burglar suing a homeowner in California for shooting back at him and wounding him after he broke into the house and one of a burglar suing a homeowner for shooting him as he tried to get away.  In another instance, the armed robber of a pizzeria thought he was owed about a quarter of a million dollars for being treated too roughly when he was arrested.

These all seem laughable, but how do we feel when a mayor sues a pharmaceutical company because his city has a problem with drug overdoses and the crime associated with the drug trade?  That’s what the mayor of Everett, WA is doing according to CBS News.  He “is suing Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid pain medication OxyContin, in an unusual case that alleges the drugmaker knowingly allowed pills to be funneled into the black market.”  The lawsuit is an attempt to recoup some of the millions spent on added police patrols, social workers and permanent housing for chronically homeless people to combat the spread of OxyContin and heroin abuse in the city.

When we are young, it’s common to blame our faults or inadequacies on inanimate objects – I wore the wrong shoes or the sun got in my eyes.  A few years ago the blame for all psychological problems was put on our parents.  But you can’t sue the sun or your parents, though in the latter case some have tried.

Today the perfect solution is to blame a big, faceless company and sue them for damages.  Blame the iPhone for not having the technology to prevent people from texting and driving.  Blame the Jeep for rolling down a hill when the driver failed to set the emergency brake before getting out.  Blame home tanning beds for the rise in skin cancer.  Or blame the drugmaker for not preventing the drugs from ending up in the black market.  Then expect companies to warn all customers not to misuse the product – don’t take the phone in the bathtub while it is plugged into the wall to recharge.  Every time a customer misuses a product, the company faces a potential lawsuit and then we wonder why our economy is bogged down by regulations, our costs are higher than they should be and every package is littered with often ridiculous warnings.

I'm sorry the city has a drug problem.  But shifting part of the cost of enforcement from the taxpayers to the drugmaker, does nothing to solve the core, behavioral problem.  It just raises the price of pain medicine for those who desperately need it and have nothing at all to do with the problem.  This is the lack of responsibility.  Blame the drugmaker (and their legitimate customers), not the abusers or ineffective city policies.  Perhaps a good argument in favor of legalizing all drugs is to give the mayor the tools to identify and sue the makers of the heroin as well.

Friday, March 24, 2017

iPhone Perspective

When the Utah representative, promoting the new healthcare plan, suggested that people could spend money on healthcare “[r]ather than getting that new iPhone,” it pushed some people’s hot button.  A few days later Wired came out with the headline “No, iPhones Aren’t Luxury Items. They’re Economic Necessities.”  In it the author explains how, only ten years after their introduction, iPhones and similar smartphones have moved from the novelty category to must-haves.  To get ahead and stay ahead, “you have to stay connected in an economy built on the assumption that anyone is always reachable anywhere.”

Of course, you would expect Wired to take this stance, just as Car and Driver might scoff at people wanting to ride their horses to work.  But they make some strong arguments.  Even if the lawmaker was referring only to those who buy the newest model, discarding a perfectly functional phone, he probably picked a poor analogy.  What Wired can’t argue is that all Americans make excellent decisions when prioritizing their spending.

Given that Wired is right and iPhones are in fact a necessity, there are still two disturbing aspects of the article.  One has to do with perspective and the other with magic-money-tree thinking.

Perspective helps us take the long view, in this case to look back and understand how we got here and where we are heading.  Only ten years ago this condition of constantly being connected was not nearly as urgent.  Twenty years ago, it was not even possible, except for a few very rich or innovative with their car phones or big, clunky handheld portable telephones, both of which were limited to making phone calls.

Today we must think about society in terms of Moore’s Law, the insight that processing power doubles every 18 to 24 months, exponential growth.  You buy a new computer and it seems obsolete a few months later.  By some accounts you have more computing power in your smartphone than on Apollo 11.  And things just keep getting smaller, faster and more connected.  On their website Intel proudly states, “The inexpensive, ubiquitous computing rapidly expanding all around us is fundamentally changing the way we work, play and communicate.”

The perspective question is how are we changing with it?  Are we struggling to keep up?  We may be technologically savvy, but how many parts of our lives are falling through the cracks?  How are we reacting to the big and small threats that accompany these rapid advances?  If we are getting so advanced and sophisticated, why do we still face so many basic problems:  retirement insecurity, the obesity epidemic, inadequate sleep, a struggling education system and fears that our children and grandchildren will have shorter, less happy lives as they struggle to pay off overwhelming personal and public debt?

That fundamental change in work, play and communication has not translated into a fundamental change in thinking and behavior.  So many decisions are still reactions.  We use social media to fight with strangers or stress about frightening potential outcomes based on politically motivated predictions.  We blithely share our personal data, while constantly on guard against hacking and identity theft.  Our focus is distracted from simple solutions (like eat less and exercise more) by the constant barrage of demands on our time.  Faulty behavior in the five key dimensions results from everyone walking through life staring at a device while processing the information with a primitive brain (evidenced by PSAs reminding parents to tell kids to stop texting while crossing the street).

The magic-money-tree aspect of that article is also a problem.  They cite the following:  “Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that the internet was a basic human right.”  This is the same organization that protested when Detroit turned off the water supply to those who were seriously delinquent in paying their bills.  The UN likewise called access to clean water a human right – even if you won’t or can’t pay for it. 

The UN, Wired and many others must understand that rights are recognized and respected not granted.  We have rights to free speech, religion, to bear arms, etc.  Those rights are guaranteed by a requirement on the government not to interfere or deny them.  They are not like these UN-established rights, a good or service you can demand that the government or someone else pay for.  A declaration of these rights does not make the cost go away.  

Yet we scurry through our lives as they become exponentially more complex, texting, taking calls or making appointments on the run, mystified by such basic economic concepts.  Without better performance in the five key dimensions, how will we ever be successful in this new, fundamentally changing society?  If what was brand new ten years ago can become a necessity today and technology is growing exponentially, we must be alert and approach new threats and risks deliberately, not with the same behavioral habits as our ancient ancestors.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Time To Look It Up

There are so many urban myths and other falsehoods arising out of social media and other sources.  As has always been the case, falsehoods spread quickly while the truth struggles to catch up.  Today with the Internet, the speed and range of these myths just increase, while people, even intelligent people, seldom take time to verify facts.  Generally, again with the accessibility of the Internet, it’s an easy lookup.

This came to mind earlier in the month when Chelsea Clinton posted pictures on Twitter of spinach pancakes for National Pancake Day.  The response was swift, as followers commented negatively both on their appearance and their imagined taste.  They certainly didn’t look very appetizing.

In response to the mild uproar she posted another Tweet:  “Dear internet, my daughter needs +iron so we put spinach in everything we can.”  After that the commotion died down.

But wait!  That belief that spinach is super-loaded with iron is a myth.  Look up on Google spinach-iron-myth and it comes up immediately.  Look up spinach-iron and the myth information is first or second on the listing of sources.  Here is a sample:

“For a hundred years or more spinach has been (and clearly still is) renowned for its high iron content compared with that of other vegetables, but to the joy of those who dislike the stuff this is quite untrue. In 1870 Dr E. von Wolff published the analyses of a number of foods, including spinach which was shown to be exceptionally rich in iron. The figures were repeated in succeeding generations of textbooks – after all one does not always verify the findings of others – including the ‘Handbook of Food Sciences’ (Handbuch der Ernahrungslehre) by von Noorden and Saloman[1] 1920.

“In 1937 Professor Schupan eventually repeated the analyses of spinach and found that it contained no more iron than did any other leafy vegetable, only one-tenth of the amount previously reported. The fame of spinach appears to have been based on a misplaced decimal point.”

That’s right.  Due to a typographical error made almost 150 years ago and initially corrected 80 years ago, many people still credit spinach with an exceptional amount of iron.

But it gets better.  Another source points out:  “The problem, however, is that the iron from plant-based foods, including spinach, is not absorbed as well as iron from meat and poultry.”  Liver pancakes, anyone?

This phenomenon is not limited to iron and spinach.  Several times I’ve heard people tell me they don’t like to use the microwave because they believe all that zapping with radiation make the food not taste as good and destroys the nutrition.  The fact is that “nuking” food cooks it faster with less water, so it is usually more nutritious. 

Likewise cranberries have earned a reputation for being friendly to your urinary system.  But the latest information, reflected in this long quote from a WebMD posting, and confirmed by other sources, tells a different story:  “Cranberry juice is high in salts called oxalates, which can make kidney stones more likely, especially if you already tend to get these types of stones.

“If you take the blood-thinning medication warfarin, you should avoid cranberry products, because cranberries can interact with warfarin and cause bleeding.

“But the weight of evidence, especially those from larger and better-designed trials, points towards the likelihood that cranberry products are ineffective for preventing UTIs” (urinary tract infections).

The lesson for all is to take the time to look it up, even if it’s considered common knowledge.  It’s usually easy to find a reputable source or two.  It saves time and money, and is sometimes safer.  I hope Chelsea Clinton’s defense that her baby needs extra iron is based on a doctor’s testing and recommendation and not just a common belief that babies need extra iron.

Friday, March 17, 2017

What is a Natural Baby Wipe?

Over the last six years I have written many times about how the terms natural and all-natural should not be taken seriously.  I labeled them and other such terms as trigger words, used by advertisers to get you buying without thinking.  Now the public is striking back.  Unfortunately, it is not doing so by stopping to think but by calling in the lawyers.

CBS Money Watch tells how Kimberly Clark has gotten into big trouble for labeling its baby wipes as natural when they contain a synthetic chemical called phenoxyethanol.  The company faces a lawsuit “seeking damages for unlawful business practices and acts and deceptive advertising.”  The mother on whose behalf the suit was filed says that had she known the “truth” about the baby wipes, she would have purchased a different product – presumably one with no artificial ingredients.

So what is the truth about phenoxyethanol?  Honest Company uses it as a preservative and to fight bacteria in five of its cleaning products.  Their website says, “Phenoxyethanol can be found naturally in green tea, but the commercial ingredient is synthetically produced in a laboratory creating what’s termed a ‘nature identical’ chemical.”  They go on to say that they have been getting questions from customers due to a concern raised by an on-going on-line controversy about the chemical’s safety.  But surprise!  Just like every other chemical in the world, including good old H2O, too much can be bad.  They reassure their customers:  “Most of the studies that have found significant negative health impacts are based on full-strength or high-dose exposures. In real life usage, exposures are quite small. That’s why it’s approved at levels up to 1%.”

Likewise, according to the Honest Company and CBS, Whole Foods, an icon for natural products, uses it in its Premium Body Care products.  It is also listed in something called The Handbook of Green Chemicals. It may be found in a range of products including many cosmetics, soap, shaving cream, deodorant, ultrasound gel and toothpaste.

In this skin care dictionary of ingredients it’s listed as GOOD as a preservative.  “Phenoxyethanol is approved worldwide (including in Japan and in the EU) for use in all types of water-based cosmetics, up to a 1% concentration.”  Despite some negative comments elsewhere, this site declares it safe and effective, providing external references.

And another point from the FDA website: “FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.”  This confirms that to date natural is primarily an advertising term, not a defined category.

What’s really at issue here is summed up later in the CBS article by Kimberly Clark’s response.  “This complaint does not allege a single safety event or evidence of any injury to a consumer.”  In other words, there are no damages to the baby.  The only problem may be a distressed mother, distressed because she thought that natural had a real legal meaning.  And that she, like so many other poorly informed shoppers, is “willing to pay and have paid, a premium for products advertised, marketed, and labeled as ‘natural’ over products containing nonnatural, synthetic ingredients.”  

Thinking about baby wipes in isolation - how natural is the idea pulling a moist towelette out of a plastic container you bought at Target?  All this doesn't seem to matter.

I have been known to make predictions before.  In this case, despite the wide use of the chemical, the lack of definition of natural and the industry standard that it is safe to use in appropriate amounts, here's what is likely.  KC will settle out of court, calculating it to be cheaper than fighting it out in court, faced with a sympathetic jury with no economic understanding, overwhelmed by the dispute between expert witnesses and in the presence of the poor distressed mother.  That’s just a hunch about the direction of today’s America where being a victim of social-media-induced panic or any other irrational behavior is so often rewarded.