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Friday, September 19, 2014

Washington Post in Need of Editors

At 10:18 yesterday morning, on PostEverything, Elizabeth Hawksworth, a Toronto-based writer, posted an article making the claims that "It’s estimated that 1.5 students out of every 100 will commit suicide at some point during their college career," and that "Suicide rates among college students have increased by 200 percent since the 1950s."   

For the casual reader, both of the cited statistics might have been alarming. Thankfully, they are both wrong.  As of this morning (i.e. the next day) at 7:10 a.m., there has been no correction of either. 

Don't get me wrong -- Ms. Hawksworth has an important message to convey, based on her own experience.  Articles like this are worth reading.  But they should be accurate.

The first statistic -- 1.5% out of 100 will commit suicide -- if true, would make college more dangerous than a military combat tour of duty (ok, I don't have statistics on that, but I'm pretty sure fewer than one in a hundred have died in recent wars).  If you click on the link and scroll around a bit, you find that the 1.5% relates to suicide attempts, which is obviously going to be a much higher number.  The link doesn't give a statistic for how many commit suicide "at some point during their college career," but it does say that there are 1100 suicides at colleges per year, which is 7.5% out of 100,000 students (per year).  We'd have to have additional information to convert the "per year" figure to "at some point during their college career," but in any event, it's clear that the actual suicide rate is much lower than 1.5%.  Still, 1100 is a lot of kids, and that's something we should all worry about.

The author links to a secondary source -- for these statistics, and cites additional secondary sources.  So it's hard to tell if the statistics they report are even accurate.

Some of the commenters noticed this problem, but those comments were not at the top of the comment list, so casual readers would have missed them.   

As for the second statistic -- that suicide rates among college students have increased by 200 percent since the 1950s, that sounds very believable to me, but that's not what the linked source says either.  The linked source (something with the "American Association of Suicidology" logo) says:  

"8. Youth (ages 15-24) suicide rates increased more than 200% from the 1950’s to the late 1970’s. From the late 1970’s to the mid 1990’s, suicide rates for youth remained stable and, since then, have slightly decreased."

So that's different on two counts -- first, it's not talking about college students, it's just talking about "youth", and second, the actual statistic makes it clear that the 200% increase occurred 35 years ago (between the 1950s and late 1970s) and that the rate has "slightly decreased" since then.  

But to add to the confusion, this statistic is inconsistent with the statistic presented in her other source, which says that suicide rates in the 15-24 age group have tripled since the 1950s.

It would be very interesting to have some honest statistics about college students here, e.g. how suicide rates among college students differ from non-college students in the same age group -- I had heard that the prevalence of depression among college students has escalated, simply because today there are medications available to control depression.  But I don't know which way that cuts -- if there are more depressed college students, maybe that should mean more suicides, but if the medication is working, then maybe not.  But we're not getting helpful statistics here on PostEverything. 

Suicide is serious and tragic, and public awareness of the problem is important.  But let's keep the statistics straight.

So what exactly is "PostEverything"?  If they are simply in the business of posting everything, then perhaps I shouldn't complain.  But the "Post" appears to stand for Washington Post, and the "everything" just seems to be a reference to the scope of possible subject matter.  According to the  kickoff description by Adam B. Kushner, PostEverything "is an attempt to expand the conversation outward," to topics like"

"Should we worry about the robot takeover of U.S. jobs? Ask an economist. What are some of the dumbest things people think about American foreign policy? Ask a political scientist. How do football teams draft prospects, what does it feel like to confess to atheism in a deeply religious place, is Russia really seeding Crimea with more Russian citizens, and how did university sexual-assault policies get to be so daft? Ask the people who are in a position to answer."

I still think they have a responsibility to read what is posted, and get the author to make corrections as necessary.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tony Robbins Firewalk Scam

I have to admit that even though I don't like or really believe in Tony Robbins, I honestly believed the idea that doing the fire walk -- walking over hot coals without getting hurt -- was an issue of mind of matter.

Maybe that's because I'm a gullible idiot.

Today I just happened upon this video.  This reports on the July 2012 San Jose firewalk incident in which several people suffered burns and may or may not have been hospitalized.  The initial reports (including from this video) were that there were screams of agony and that some people suffered third degree burns.  Robbins' defenders quickly jumped in and claimed that nobody was hospitalized and nobody suffered third degree burns, and that it's not unusual for some participants -- maybe 1% -- to experience some blistering.

I'm not here to judge that dispute -- I'm perfectly willing to believe that nobody was seriously hurt and that the initial news reports were exaggerated.

The video showed two Robbins acolytes talking about how the firewalk was a demonstration of mind over matter.  A contemporaneous Fox video featured a woman recalling that Tony Robbins had spent about an hour going over how to do the firewalk -- walk at a normal pace, don't look down, and keep repeating "cool feet" or something like that to yourself.

Other Tony Robbins' apologists managed to turn this thing into one more big advertisement for Tony Robbins.  Here's a paean to his greatness from Marianne Schnall, in the HuffingtonPost.  Marianne did the fire walk on a previous occasion and adores Tony Robbins, so she knew immediately that the news reports had to be wrong.  Apparently Arriana Huffington is an acolyte and firewalk-believer as well; Schnall quotes her as saying in an email: "It was a powerful experience of the inner strength we have to create the lives we want, not the lives we settle for -- an inner strength greater than we often give ourselves credit for. And my tiny blisters were a reminder of that!"

But what I learned from the ABCnews video is that the whole firewalking thing is just a sham.  Or maybe a scam.  There were clips of several people saying that it had been debunked, including someone from "Mythbusters" as well as Steven Salerno, author of "Sham," who says that coal is not a good conductor of heat -- if you get the temperature right and are walking fast enough, you won't feel a thing.  I guess it's like moving your finger through a lit candle flame -- you can do it without feeling a thing, but if you slow down too much, or hold your finger above the flame, you'll get burned.  If you've never tried that, go ahead -- it's cheaper than a Tony Robbins seminar.

So I'm not blaming Tony for causing people to get burned.  I'm blaming him for causing people to believe that they were NOT getting burned because of some "mind-over-matter" principle.

Don't get me wrong -- I absolutely believe in "mind over matter" in any number of contexts (that's the placebo effect).  Just not in firewalking.

So that's one more reason I don't like Tony Robbins.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Charles Severance and Leo Tolstoy

In an odd coincidence, Google is today celebrating Leo Tolstoy's 186th birthday, with a nifty Google Doodle celebrating some of his better works:

And today, the newspapers have also announced that former political candidate Charles Severance has been indicted in three murders of prominent citizens of Alexandria, Virginia.

I do not wish to make light of these murders, which were brutal and senseless in every sense of those words.  The Washington Post article itself does not clearly describe a motive, but one of the comments does, so I'll reproduce that comment in full, without vouching for it in any way:

9/8/2014 10:57 PM EDT
Severance had a long-running beef with Alexandria law enforcement and courts related to his child custody case. Inter alia, Severance has a history of mental illness, which warped his perceptions of everything that was happening. Dunning's husband was the Sheriff; Lodato's father was the Judge. I think there might have been a separate beef with Kirby. (WashPost and other local media ran a few stories detailing these connections shortly after the Lodato murder. You should be able to research it.)

If that's correct, and if everything else in the article is true, there's a pretty good circumstantial case against Severance.  Will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Anyway, I just felt that somebody had to point out the coincidence.  No offense intended.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The cruelty of owning a pet snake

If you've ever been inside a non-name-brand pet store, you might have wandered by a cage full of little rodents.  Mice or rats, mostly babies.  Crawling on top of each other.  Barely room to breathe.  And perhaps a few displays away there are also mice and rats, for sale as pets, in more comfortable surroundings.  What's up with the overcrowded rodents?  They are feeder animals.  They will be bought by snake owners, and fed to the snake.  They live their lives out in filth and discomfort, and end it between the jaws of a small-brained reptile.

I don't know why people own snakes as pets.  I have to think that most snake owners are trying to compensate for something.  There is no affection in a snake.  There is no shared understanding in the gaze of a snake.  They are reptiles.  They do no know us, they do not understand us, they do not think like us.  The common ancestor of humans, mice,and rats lived approximately 65 million years ago (sourcesourcesource).   And it looked like this:

(Photo Credit:  Carl Buell)

That animal (Protungulatum donnae) was thus your great-great-great-etc.-for-a-while grandmother, it was also a great-great-great-etc.-for-an-even-longer-while grandmother to today's mice and rats. Technically, therefore, we, mice, and rats are cousins, several times removed.

The inquiry into the common ancestor of snakes and humans is basically ungooglable, mainly because nobody in their right mind cares.  In fact, we know that the common ancestor lived more than 315 million years ago, because by that time, there were already synapsids (an umbrella group that includes our ancestor mammals but not reptiles) running around.  So the difference is at least 250 million years worth of generations.

Our great-great- . . . - grandmother on our "snake" side might have looked like this Crassigyrinus (credit:  Dmitri Bogdanov)

Or possibly like this cacops (credit:  Dmitri Bogdanov):

You can look a rat in the eye and empathize with one another.  Some people think that a rat has about the same intelligence as a dog (of course, some people don't).  And rats can do some pretty cool tricks.  Although mice are not as intelligent as rats (at least in the way we humans tend to measure intelligence), you can look into their eyes and reach an understanding, of sorts. Can't do that with a snake.  Snakes are scaly and alien to us.

And there's no snake in this picture.

So if you're thinking about getting a snake, just don't.  There will always be people in this world who think nothing of feeding mammals to reptiles.  But if you haven't thought about it in these terms, and it disturbs you, then you and I are alike.  Just get a pet rat instead.  Maybe even choose from the feeder rats.  Sometimes these are actually just unwanted former pet rats.

You won't regret it.  Rats are much cooler than snakes.

Note at the beginning I said "non-name-brand".  That's right.  PetCo and PetSmart are a bit more humane -- they don't sell live mice and rats as feeders.  But they will sell you pre-killed mice and rats, I'm told.  So that's not really all that much better, is it?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Over-enforcement of traffic laws ruins lives

I just find it an annoyance -- every few years I inadvertently go a bit too fast and I get pulled over.  Maybe once every 50,000 miles.  And recently, I've gotten two photo-enforcement tickets.  The result is an annoyance -- I have to pay some money -- I think the worst has been $150 or so, and my insurance rates go up, even though I've never had an accident and never filed a claim.  So it's annoying and it's unfair and it's inefficient.  If I'm speeding, it's typically very temporary and I'm not going abnormally faster than anyone else on the road.  There's no danger.  But somebody has to make money, and it's the every-more-prevalent urge to make money without actually MAKING SOMETHING or somehow making the world a better place.

I acknowledge that this is a tricky issue.  I actually think on the whole, the idea of having cops patrolling the highways isn't such a bad thing -- they can be there to help when there's an accident, and they can stop the truly dangerous drivers.  And yes, it's also important that the speed limits be enforced, at least to some extent (if you're going more than 15 mph over the speed limit, you're risking getting caught).  So even though I'm annoyed by what I see as over-enforcement, in the end I have to admit it's my own fault -- I just need to be more careful 100% of the time.  If the alternative is some kind of automatic enforcement -- like photo enforcement -- such that everybody gets a ticket when they go above a certain speed, I tend to prefer extra "chances" I get with human police.

But today's WashingtonPost article by Rodney Balko reminded me that once again, what for me might be an annoyance is for many people a devastating and life crushing defeat.   The article is extremely long and full of anecdotes, but the upshot is this:  poor people get pulled over a lot more than rich people,  I'm talking about what defense lawyers in Missouri call “poverty violations” -- driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration, and a failure to provide proof of insurance -- all violations that tend to occur if you're poor and have to make hard choices about how to spend your money.  Anyway, the poor tend to rack up these violations, and then they can't afford the fines, and eventually warrants issue, and the poor are thrown in jail.  All because of a few traffic violations.

I don't have a solution.  I think some of these "poverty violations" are problems -- cars should have current registrations, people should have insurance etc.  But there's something wrong when people get thrown in jail over this stuff.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pay Day Loans and John Oliver

I loved John Oliver on the Daily Show, and kept meaning to catch up with him on "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."  This morning, I went to the youtube video on payday lending -- from last Sunday night's show (8/10/14) that his site steered me to.  I found it mostly annoying.

Googling it, I see a number of articles from the mainstream press that express their joy that someone big has finally shone a spotlight on this issue.  E.g. LA Times, Huffington Post.

I gleaned the following facts from the video:

-- A payday loan is supposedly to be a short term loan for an emergency, where you agree to pay the money back on your next payday.

-- There are more payday loan places than McDonalds restaurants in the U.S.

-- They use attractive pitch-people, including Montel Williams

-- They often charge several hundred percent interest (on an annual basis).  He mentioned an example where the rate was 1900%.

-- They have a strong lobbying arm.

-- Oliver had an interesting clip of a Texas legislator defending the payday loan industry, and another Texas legislator calling him out because he happened to own a dozen or so payday loan outlets.  The punchline was that the second legislator -- Vicki Truitt -- very soon thereafter turned around and became a lobbyist for the payday loan industry.

-- A majority of people who use payday loans say that they felt taken advantage of, but a majority also said they really needed it (that's not an exact quote, but it was something like that).

-- Legislating against it (per Oliver) is like whack-a-mole -- Ohio banned payday loans, but in stepped something called mortgage loans.  In other states, legislation is circumvented by places that sell short-term auto loans.  Other payday lenders have managed to affiliate themselves with Indian tribes, and thus benefit from sovereign immunity.

-- A large percentage of loan-taker are NOT able to pay the loan off by the next payday, and end up taking out a new loan (I guess to pay off the old loan).

-- A payday loan employee training manual portrays the business as a cycle -- the customer gets the loan, can't pay it off, and then gets another loan.  In the end, the debt (including interest and fees) is a multiple of the money that was actually borrowed.

-- Often, the cycle goes out of control, and the debt-taker needs to find other means -- e.g. pawning stuff, going to family members -- to pay off the loan.  The implication is that this is what the people should have been doing in the first place.

Sarah Silverman came on at the end in a "counter-ad" where she suggested doing "Anything Else" rather than get a payday loan.  That included getting paid to urinate or defecate on people.

That's what I remember from one viewing.  But it's stuff that we middle-class and rich people already know.  I've noticed those places, and never in a million years would go to one.  If I need money, I'll take out a loan on my house, I'll borrow money from my retirement plan, I'll accept another low interest introductory rate credit card offer, I'll dip into the line of credit at my bank (on a very short term basis) or (if for some reason none of these work out, which has never happened), I'll ask one of my relatively rich or middle class family members for short-term help.  And I suspect that John Oliver and Sarah Silverman are even more removed from the problem than I am.

So it's easy for us rich and middle-class people to hate payday lenders, because they take advantage of people who are less fortunate than we are.  It's all the more troubling because this is the "working poor" we are talking about -- people who have paychecks and might be supporting families, but are nevertheless poor.  It's easy for us to run around yelling about how it must stop.  But I didn't hear any real solutions.  "Anything else" is not a solution.  Obviously, the people who take out payday loans have made that calculus -- they have their pride, and they hope that they will be able to pay the loans off without having to go to family members.  Often, they've already done that.  Yes, if they realized that they would have to pay $700 on a $200 loan, they would have gone to their families for the $200 in the first place.  But they had their dignity, and hoped it wouldn't come to that.  And dignity is probably why they don't go out and try to get paid for defecating or urinating on people, Sarah.

This is the first time I've ever thought about these issues, so rather than write out all of my thoughts, I'll just link to economist Tom Lehman's defense of  payday lending here, and then say a few things about what I think it probably says (I don't have time to read it myself, but I'm sure it's worth reading). 

The bottom line is that if we believe in the free market, payday lending should not be a problem.  The solution is not "anything else," but it's for rich do-gooders like Sarah Silverman and John Oliver to open up their own payday lending shops and run the business the way they think it ought to be run.  The fact is, payday loans make a lot of sense -- if you know you'll get some money next paycheck, and you're willing to sign that over to me, I'm willing to lend you money.  There must be a reason that they are so ubiquitous and profitable -- they are filling a need.  A need that was formerly filled by loan sharks.  There was a reference to "loan sharking" toward the end of the video, but it contained the implicit assumption that loan sharking was no longer around because we had made it illegal, and the suggestion that payday loans are just legalized loan-sharking.  In fact, I'd have to guess that the rise of payday lending can be credited with the decline of loan-sharking.  If we end up regulating payday lending out of business, you can bet that loan sharking (yes, *gasp* -- illegal loan sharking!) will rise to meet the need.   

The funny thing is that this is clearly a market where the barriers to entry are very low.  The competition are a bunch of people who are hated for their usurious rates, and it should be easy pickings for the good guys to come in and start a chain that would put them all out of business, by simply charging lower rates.  If Oliver is to believed, charging a mere 100% (APR) might well make you the best deal in town, and should ensure a healthy profit margin as well. 

There are a lot of "markets" where I support government intervention.  Pharmaceuticals, for instance, where the government has intervened, although not in a very smart way.  There are places where consumers just don't have and can't get enough information for the free market to really work (although the internet is making things better for most consumers and most products on that score).  But payday lending is one where consumers really should be able to watch out for themselves.  There were no allegations in the video (or if they were I missed them) that there were hidden fees and that the consumers weren't told exactly what they were getting into.  Yes, the business takes advantage of people who are in dire straits, but it also provides relief for those people.  The people have done the math, have considered the alternatives, and are choosing the most palatable option.  Yes, it sucks for them, but if it's the most palatable option for them, what business do the rest of us -- who never find ourselves in those circumstances -- have trying to take that option away from them?

It seems to me that there is an analogy to be drawn between payday lending and the pharmaceutical industry.  Patented drugs often costs patients thousands of times what they cost to produce.  The patients (or their insurance companies, or medicaid, or medicare) have no choice but to buy the drugs, at the prices that pharma charges.  But those prices are outrageous, you say.  The drug companies are preying on the fact that paying those prices is more palatable than getting sicker and sicker and dying.  I hope John Oliver's next "expose" is on that system.

I wish I had a bit more time or money -- I'd get into the payday lending business myself.  It really could be a very beneficial to a lot of people.  And since I'm a nice guy, I'd only charge reasonable rates, and would have reasonable payback plans, etc etc.  And if I had a LOT more money, I'd go into the pharmaceutical business.

After writing all that, I found this, which makes some of the same points, quite eloquently.  I don't think I'd ever heard of The Washington Free Beacon before, but I see now that it's a deeply conservative publication.  I hope that doesn't mean I am becoming a conservative.  If you're a liberal, and understand why John Oliver and Sarah Silverman went too far on this one, please let me know.  And if you want to start a campaign to get them to start a humane payday lending business, I'll be there to help out.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Banana-induced headache, anyone?

Nobody believes me when I say that having more than one banana at a time -- really more than one over the course of a day -- gives me an instant, pounding headache.  Well, some people believe me -- I have a reputation for great honesty and integrity -- but nobody has any answers as to why.  Nobody else gets them.  And until recently, this particular medical problem was completely ungoogleable, which, for all practical purposes, meant it did not exist.

In truth, I haven't googled it for several years -- I just avoid eating more than one banana a day.  But I googled it just now, and I finally found some validation.  There is no scientific research on this issue, but several websites -- including now this one -- report that tyramine (something that shows up in bananas, nuts, citrus fruit, and aged cheese) might be a migraine trigger.  I have never had a migraine in my life, as far as I know.  But at least now I have something to blame my headaches on.  One article suggests that the tyramine concentration is greatest in the peel, so (if you have the same problem that I do), it might help to scrape the banana before eating it, or before putting it in your smoothie.

Here, here, and here are some links that mention the problem.

I should note that the main reason that there is no firmly established link between foods like bananas and headaches is because (supposedly) the headaches only come on many hours after ingestion of the trigger.  For that reason, it's very hard to test or confirm any particular trigger, because headaches might be caused by other triggers.  With me, however, the headache is almost immediate.

I also note that I have not made any similar connections to any other kinds of food.  I eat oranges and grapefruits with no problem, although, come to think of it, rarely more than one a day.  I occasionally eat nuts, but never noticed a problem.  I hardly ever eat aged cheese.

I will be the first to admit that I don't think this is a problem for the general population.  I'm the only person I know who has experienced it, even though my life in general is very headache-free.  I don't know if something like this qualifies as an allergy, but I'm going to say the words banana allergy right here just in case that's what people are googling for.

If you have experienced banana-induced headache symptoms similar to mine -- i.e. a very quick onset of a pounding headache within seconds of having eaten one banana too many -- let me know!