Assorted Links

Thanks to Navanit Arakeri and Patrick Vlaskovits.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Nick Gibb.

Two Cents about Renata Adler

Renata Adler’s two novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1988), have just been reissued by New York Review Books.  I was pleased to see a recent New York article about her. Here is my two cents:

1. Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker (2000) is one of my favorite books. It can be summed up like this: Genius corrupts. I first came across it in the Berkeley Barnes & Noble. I couldn’t stop reading it. When I left the store hours later my scooter had a parking ticket.

2. Her libel lawsuit is described here.

3. She wrote a book about the Bilderberg Group called Private Capacity. It was announced then cancelled.

4. During a panel discussion televised on C-Span, she took a phone call. It appeared to be from her daughter.

5. For several years she taught journalism at Boston University. A student said she told great stories.

6. In a book review, she said that Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat was made up. Apparently she was wrong about that.

7. During a dinner I had with Aaron Swartz last summer, he praised her article attacking Pauline Kael (“The Perils of Pauline”, 1980).

8. When her article about Kael came out, a friend of mine said, Now she’ll be known as the person who attacked Kael. My friend was wrong. She is better known as the person attacked by eight articles in the New York Times when Gone was published. One short non-best-selling book, eight negative articles from the most powerful pulpit on earth.

9. Gone and some books by Jane Jacobs were the only books I took to China. I also adore Totto-Chan but I suppose I have memorized it. I mostly read books by men, so I am puzzled that all my most favorite books are by women. A Chinese friend of mine stayed in my Beijing apartment while I was gone. Her English isn’t very good but she praised Gone, which she called Lost.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Vic Sarjoo.

Who is the Richest Person in China?

If you open the American edition of Forbes, you will find articles about the richest people in America. If you open the Russian edition, you will find articles about the richest people in Russia. If you open the Chinese edition, you will find articles about the richest people in America.

A Russian friend of mine noticed this. He happened to know an sophomore economics major at Tsinghua. It is incredibly difficult to get into Tsinghua and the economics major is the most desirable major of all. To be an economics major at Tsinghua you need a test score that is in something like the top 1 out of 100,000. Staggeringly high. My Russian friend asked the Tsinghua economics major, “Who is the richest person in China?”

The economics major didn’t know. He seemed a little angry. “Why should I know? We’ve never been taught that,” he said.


Assorted Links

Thanks to Dave Lull.

Assorted Links

  • American-Afghan detainee dispute. “The conflict over the Americans’ insistence that some detainees should continue to be held without charge had [become] public.” Via Ron Unz.
  • Hydrogen therapy
  • How to improve doctor performance. “Without telling his partners, Dr. Rex began reviewing videotapes of their [colonoscopy] procedures, measuring the time and assigning a quality score. After assessing 100 procedures, he announced to his partners that he would be timing and scoring the videos of their future procedures (even though he had already been doing this). Overnight, things changed radically. The average length of the procedures increased by 50%, and the quality scores by 30%. The doctors performed better when they knew someone was checking their work.”
  • Pistachio miso and other unusual fermented foods.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen, Alex Chernavsky, Patrick Vlaskovits, Chuck Currie and Bryan Castañeda.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Hal Pashler and Robin Barooah.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Tucker Max.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Tom George and Mark Griffith.

More About the This American Life Retraction

Mike Daisey had a perfectly good point about the shallowness of Steve Jobs. Too bad he took “dramatic license”. The more interesting part of the story for me is why This American Life (TAL) producers were fooled by Daisey and how they reacted when this became clear.

Suppose I make a short film in which Michael Jordan misses ten free throws in a row. Ten separate free throws, spliced together. Every detail is true, but the whole is false. Mostly he made free throws. You are never going to learn how false my film is by fact-checking it.  Because every fact is true. That was the first big mistake made by TAL producers. They assessed Daisey’s story by fact-checking. In their retraction they say nothing about this point and seem unaware of it. Had they assessed it more broadly they might have become aware of the exaggerations.

The second big mistake made by TAL was to accept the standard journalistic view that you should get “both sides” of a story. If Person X claims Y, try to find someone who disagrees. If a Democrat says such-and-such, find a Republican to comment. In the Daisey story broadcast in January, the TAL producers took Daisey to be saying “Chinese factories are bad” and countered this, in standard journalistic practice, by finding someone who would defend Chinese factories: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, of all people. Yeah, the salaries are low but they are better than rural jobs, said Kristof. I could have said that. Kristof knows almost nothing about Chinese factories — that was perfectly clear. Thinking they needed “the other side” confused TAL producers and wasted their time. Instead, they should have asked someone who knows a lot about Chinese electronics factories to comment. Again, if they had done this they might have realized that Daisey was not telling the truth. Most journalists know not to demonize. But many of them haven’t learned not to polarize.

From the retraction broadcast it is obvious that Ira Glass is furious. He lied to us! was the dominant note. Given how furious he is it is perfectly understandable that he and the rest of TAL didn’t manage to reach even one interesting conclusion the entire show. They simply wanted to set the record straight quickly, which is fine. If there are more stories about this, in-depth ones, I am afraid Glass is going to conclude We wanted to believe. That is going to be his deepest comment on this. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the real problem is We wanted things to be simple. In particular, they wanted (and still want) the simple-minded view of the world taught in journalism school to be correct. The one in which experts can be trusted, every story has two sides, and truth can be ascertained by fact-checking.

A medium-sized scandal in American journalism is the mainstream journalistic view of global warming — of course humans have caused it (= AGW). To say otherwise is “anti-science”. The question has complexities (e.g., how models are tested, how scientists distort stuff) that journalists ignore. I don’t think journalists “want” to believe anything about global warming. I think what they really want is simplicity. It makes their jobs easier.  A considerably larger scandal is the free pass given to medical schools and drug companies and their first, let them get sick attitude. The recognition that that this is horrible and there are alternatives seems beyond the thinking of most journalists who cover the subject. Again, the notion that our health care system is predatory is complex. Much simpler to believe it is good and not question basic assumptions. Both scandals — AGW and health care — are well in evidence at The New Yorker, an even more respected outlet than TAL, where Elizabeth Kolbert blindly accepts AGW and Atul Gawande, Michael Specter, and Jerome Groopman accept the first let them get sick way of doing things.

This American Life Retracts Daisey Show

This American Life has retracted the Mike Daisey show it did a few months ago because it turns out several details — not trivial ones — were wrong. Daisey knew this, and kept the TAL producers from finding out by concealing the cellphone number of his translator. He told them it no longer worked. TAL producers didn’t ask for her email address, apparently. It is a lot like Gleickgate — Daisey/Gleick  believing it was okay to stretch the truth in pursuit of some greater good (better Foxconn working conditions/less global warming). At least, I would like to think that is why Daisey did it. I hate to think he needed the money.

The position of This American Life is more complicated than their press release reveals. A few years ago Alex Heard revealed that parts of David Sedaris stories were made up. Sedaris is one of TAL’s biggest contributors. He is also their most famous. He probably owes his success to TAL. Did TAL retract his stories? Did it even mention the new information? Uh, no. But TAL remains a great show. These are missteps.

A few weeks ago I complained about Sedaris in a comment on the New Yorker website: Why does The New Yorker publish his stuff as memoir rather than fiction? What exactly is funny about making up derogatory stuff about living people (e.g., Sedaris’s guitar teacher) and spreading the false info far and wide?






Tara Parker-Pope, “The Fat Trap” and the Shangri-La Diet

Years ago I had lunch with a woman whose father ran a chain of weight-loss clinics. They were very successful and he was often invited to give talks. He never accepted these invitations, his daughter said, because he was seriously overweight — like 300 pounds.

I was reminded of this by Tara Parker-Pope’s recent New York Times Magazine article “The Fat Trap”. Parker-Pope tells us she is “at least 60 pounds” overweight, a bit of brave honesty for which I give her credit. I give her less credit for unskeptically quoting expert after expert — her article is essentially a review of expert opinion. If these experts are as wonderful and accurate as she says (by repeating their ideas), why is she 60 pounds overweight?

She never answers this question. She doesn’t even seem to ask it. However, someone else asks it. “The Fat Trap” includes this:

In most modern cultures  . . . to be fat is to be perceived as weak-willed and lazy. It’s also just embarrassing. Once, at a party, I met a well-respected writer who knew my work as a health writer. “You’re not at all what I expected,” she said, eyes widening. The man I was dating, perhaps trying to help, finished the thought. “You thought she’d be thinner, right?” he said. I wanted to disappear, but the woman was gracious. “No,” she said, casting a glare at the man and reaching to warmly shake my hand. “I thought you’d be older.”

I already knew it was “just embarrassing” to be fat. What’s interesting is that the story that follows this unremarkable idea doesn’t support it.  Her date wasn’t saying she’s fat. Sixty pounds overweight is not surprisingly fat. The “well-respected writer” can’t possibly have been surprised simply by that. Her date knows this. He’s bringing up something that puzzles him (“if you know so much about health, why are you fat?”), a reasonable question. By “you thought she’d be thinner, right?” he means “you thought, because of her job, she’d be thinner, right?” Parker-Pope and her editor don’t notice this.

Parker-Pope continued to reshape reality in an interview she gave, which included the following:

Q. What were your hopes in writing “The Fat Trap”?
A. My hope was that people would leave the article feeling informed and empowered. . . . [I got the story idea talking] with Dr. Michael Rosenbaum at Columbia about the science of weight loss. . . .  [He told me what dieters already know:] that most people who are fat, are going to stay fat. . . . The truth is: Once you’ve gained weight, it’s really, really hard for most people to lose weight and keep it off.

Is she sure this “truth” is empowering? To me it sounds discouraging.

The speed of the obesity epidemic — 30 years ago, Americans were much thinner — implies that the obesity epidemic has an environmental cause. Genes don’t change that fast. Something about the environment — something that controls weight — has changed. Not exercise. Thirty years ago, Americans probably exercised less than now. It is likely that something they ate kept them thin, without trying. Parker-Pope fails to understand this. Or at least failed to ask the experts she spoke to about it. What about the environment has changed? she should have asked. If I were her, I’d be angry. The obesity epidemic is 30 years old! Thirty f—ing years! Why is it taking so long to figure out the cause?

The length of the obesity epidemic reflects research failure. Against her own self-interest, she doesn’t grasp this. At the end of “The Fat Trap”, like a brainwashing victim,  she says:

I do, ultimately, blame myself for allowing my weight to get out of control.

I disagree. She should not blame herself for not knowing how to stay thin — hardly anyone knows. No, her failure is journalistic: (a) not grasping that the obesity epidemic must be due to changes in what we eat (lots of people understand this), (b) not grasping this means there must be a way to be almost effortlessly thin (in the 1970s  people were much thinner with little effort), and, above all, (c) not confronting the experts she interviews. Her insensitive date spoke an uncomfortable truth. Now she is failing to ask uncomfortable questions (why is it taking so long?) Much worse.

My theory of weight control says the crucial environmental change that caused the obesity epidemic was increased consumption of foods that produce very strong (= very fattening) smell-calorie associations. To produce a very strong smell-calorie association, a food must (a) have a strong smell (a strong “flavor”), (b) have quickly digested calories (e.g., a high glycemic index), and (c) have exactly the same smell each time. All three features, especially the third, are much more true of factory food, fast food, and junk food than of handmade food. Typical food processing almost always increases flavor (e.g., add spices) and speeds digestion (e.g., cooking). Factory and chain restaurant food processing produces much less variable flavor than ordinary human food processing. Exactly when the obesity epidemic started, there was a big shift toward factory and chain restaurant food. One reason was microwave ovens. Microwave entrees taste exactly the same each time. Another reason was an increase in eating at chain restaurants. The Shangri-La Diet goes into more detail.

At the end of “The Fat Trap” is this:

All the evidence suggests that it’s going to be very, very difficult for me to reduce my weight permanently.

No, not all the evidence. Alex Chernavsky used the Shangri-La Diet to lose 25 pounds and has kept it off easily and apparently permanently.

Assorted Links

  • One of my Tsinghua American colleagues writes an op-ed: “China wants you. Job prospects are abundant.”
  • Robert Anton Wilson’s skepticism about skeptics. “Those people claim to be rationalists, but they’re governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They’re so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic. . . . None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma.” I agree. They should be called one-way skeptics.
  • Excellent Vanity Fair article about Occupy Wall Street. Better than The New Yorker‘s article covering similar stuff.
  • The many side effects of statins. I am impressed by the new way of learning about drug side effects.

Thanks to Ryan Holiday and Gary Wolf.

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn Victory Dance

In May, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), as everyone knows, was accused of raping a maid. The story received huge worldwide coverage, reaching billions of people within days. Strauss-Kahn was greatly damaged. A week ago Edward Jay Epstein, whose work I’ve praised, published which I called “great journalism” — made this a lot more plausible.

One such fact is that soon after the assault was reported to 911 (after a long delay), two men involved in the call performed what Epstein called a “victory dance”. A plausible explanation of the celebration (which Epstein doesn’t state, it’s obvious) is that they were celebrating because they had succeeded in entrapping DSK and would get a huge payoff from his enemies. Epstein’s article said the dance lasted three minutes. Critics of his article said the dance lasted eight seconds. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker had the poor taste to joke about it.”But maybe it’s all true, and the BlackBerry is not a red herring but the key, and another cell phone was passed in the soccer match box, with news of a character assassination, whereupon Sarkozy did his own dance of celebration,” she wrote. Yesterday The New York Review of Books issued a correction: The dance lasted thirteen seconds (a correction with which Epstein agrees). Davidson continued her dismissiveness. “The victim of some sort of insidious conspiracy.” The victory dance, she wrote, “doesn’t seem outlandish, given the sorts of things men do in New York, particularly when talking about sport.”

Missing from criticism of Epstein’s article, which does suggest conspiracy, was a plausible alternative explanation. Why were the men celebrating? They can’t remember. Both of them. In spite of all the attention. Which began within hours. Perhaps a sport event, they said, but no such event has been identified. Excitement usually improves memory. The men are clearly excited. Failure to come up with a plausible alternative explanation supports Epstein’s point that there is something very important about this we don’t know.

What makes this especially interesting, at least to me, is that you can judge for yourself. (This blog is all about that.) Epstein has posted on his website three items: (a) a recording of the 911 call that led to DSK’s arrest (“she doesn’t have any sustained injuries,” says the caller), (b) CCTV video showing the security area at the time of the phone call, and (c) CCTV video showing the victory dance, which includes one man picking up the other man and swinging him around.


Duct Tape, the Eurozone, Status-Quo Bias, and Neglect of Innovation

In 1995, I visited my Swedish relatives. We argued about the Euro. They thought it was a good idea, I thought it had a serious weakness.

ME It ties together economies that are different.

MY AUNT It reduces the chance of war in Europe.

You could say we were both right. There have been no wars between Eurozone countries (supporting my aunt) and the Eurozone is now on the verge of breaking apart for exactly the reason I and many others pointed out (supporting me).

Last week a friend said to me that Europe was in worse shape than America. I was unconvinced. I said that I opposed Geithner’s “duct-tape solution”. It would have been better to let things fall apart and then put them back together in a safer way.

MY FRIEND Duct-tape works.

ME What Geithner did helped those who benefit from the status quo and hurt those who benefit from change. Just like duct tape.

This struck me as utterly banal until I read a one-sided editorial in The Economist:

The consequences of the euro’s destruction are so catastrophic that no sensible policymaker could stand by and let it happen. . . .  the threat of a disaster . . . can anything be done to avert disaster?

and similar remarks in The New Yorker (James Surowiecki):

The financial crisis in Europe . . . has now entered a potentially disastrous phase.. . . with dire consequences not just for Europe but also for the rest of us. . . . This is that rarest of problems—one that you really can solve just by throwing money at it [= duct tape]

Wait a sec. What if the Eurozone is a bad idea? Like I (and many others) said in 1995? Why perpetuate a bad idea? Why drive further in the wrong direction? Sure, the dissolution will bring temporary trouble (“disaster”, “dire consequences”), but that will be a small price to pay for getting rid of a bad idea. Of course the Euro had/has pluses and minuses. Anyone who claimed to know that the pluses outweighed the minuses (or vice-verse) was a fool or an expert. Now we know more. Given that what the nay-sayers said has come to pass, it is reasonable to think that they (or we) were right: The minuses outweigh the pluses.

You have seen the phrase Japan’s lost decade a thousand times. You have never seen the phrase Greece’s lost decade. But Greeks lost an enormous amount from being able to borrow money for stupid conventional projects at too low a rate. Had loans been less available, they would have been more original (the less debt involved, the easier it is to take risks) and started at a smaller scale. Which I believe would have been a better use of their time and led to more innovation. Both The Economist‘s editorial writer and Surowiecki have a status-quo “duct-tape” bias without realizing it.

What’s important here is not what two writers, however influential their magazines, think or fail to think. It is that they are so sure of themselves. They fail to take seriously an alternative (breakup of the Eurozone would in the long run be a good thing) that has at least as much to recommend it as what they are sure of (the breakup would be a “disaster”). I believe they are so sure of themselves because they have absorbed (and now imitate) the hemineglect of modern economics. The whole field, they haven’t noticed, has an enormous status-quo bias in its failure to study innovation. Innovation — how new goods and services are invented and prosper — should be half the field. Let me repeat: A few years ago I picked up an 800-page introductory economics textbook. It had one page (one worthless page) on innovation. In this staggering neglect, it reflected the entire field. The hemineglect of economics professors is just as bad as the hemineglect of epidemiologists (who ignore immune function, study of what makes us better or worse at fighting off microbes) and statisticians (who pay almost no attention to idea generation).

MORE Even Joe Nocera, whom I like, has trouble grasping that the Euro might be a bad idea. “The only thing that should matter is what works,” he writes. Not managing to see that the Euro isn’t working.

Assorted Links

  • Salem Comes to the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Herbert Needleman is harassed by the lead industry, with the help of two psychology professors.
  • Climate scientists “perpetuating rubbish”.
  • A humorous article in the BMJ that describes evidence-based medicine (EBM) as a religion. “Despite repeated denials by the high priests of EBM that they have founded a new religion, our report provides irrefutable proof that EBM is, indeed, a full-blown religious movement.” The article points out one unquestionable benefit of EBM — that some believers “demand that [the drug] industry divulge all of its secret evidence, instead of publishing only the evidence that favours its products.” Of course, you need not believe in EBM to want that. One of the responses to the article makes two of the criticisms of EBM I make: 1. Where is the evidence that EBM helps? 2. EBM stifles innovation.
  • What really happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Great journalism by Edward Jay Epstein.  This piece, like much of Epstein’s work, sheds a very harsh light on American mainstream media. They were made fools of by enemies of Strauss-Kahn. Epstein is a freelance journalist. He uncovered something enormously important that all major media outlets — NY Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, ABC, NBC, CBS (which includes 60 Minutes), the AP, not to mention French news organizations, all with great resources — missed.