Recent Articles

More on Ayn Rand, from John Oliver

| September 30, 2014 | Reply

This sharped edged humor piece aimed at Ayn Rand gets it right. How is it possible that she can be seen as heroic or inspirational to anyone at all?

Answer: Intense cherry picking and the confirmation bias.

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Gluten Sensitivity as a Nocebo

| September 25, 2014 | 2 Replies

There’s an awfully large amount of money being spent on special gluten free products.  How many of the people who buy these products really need them?   According to this article on Buzzfeed, not many.    The most memorable passages from this article:

17 million people may unnecessarily believe that they are gluten-sensitive. (Source: A Mayo Clinic survey in 2012, cited in a NY Times article.)

[We] spent $10.5 billion last year on gluten-free products. (Source: Mintel, a market research company, cited in the NY Times article.)

It is especially important because a psychological disease can spread as fast as any virus but be more enduring.

A 2012 Mayo Clinic survey concluded that only 1.8 million Americans have Celiac disease. Only 1.8 million people should be on a non-gluten diet. Compare this to the 18 million people who consider themselves “gluten sensitive”

According to this article many of the people who spend lots of money on gluten-free products, gluten serves as a “nocebo,” defined below by Wikipedia:

nocebo (Latin for “I shall harm”) is a harmless substance that creates harmful effects in a patient who takes it. The nocebo effect is the negative reaction experienced by a patient who receives a nocebo. Conversely, a placebo is an inert substance that creates either a positive response or no response in a patient who takes it. The phenomenon in which a placebo creates a positive response in the patient to which it is administered is called the placebo effect. The nocebo effect is less well-studied and well-known, by both scientists and the public, than the placebo effect.

What’s the evidence that gluten is not detrimental to most people who are committed to gluten free products?

This disease is largely self-diagnosed, and studies are starting to show that it may be real in a great number of cases. Professor and scientist Peter Gibson is no stranger when it comes to studying gluten. He did a study in 2011 that gave a lot of credit to the belief in (non-Celiac) gluten sensitivity. Seeing that NCGS had become a worldwide phenomenon, he revisited the topic in 2013 with a critical look at the original assumptions. These are the measures he took to validate his results:
Subjects were given every single meal for the duration of the study.Any other potential causes of bad stomach symptoms were removed from the diet. (Think lactose from milk.) Just in case you do not think he was serious, Peter collected nine days worth of urine and fecal matter. (Now that’s a topic of conversation.) The results were pretty shocking. They concluded that gluten in no way could have caused any of the negative symptoms that the subjects were suffering from.


Most claims of the need to be gluten free are starting to remind me of the phenomenon of facilitated communication regarding autistics.

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Behind ALEC

| September 24, 2014 | Reply

Bill Moyers has done an in-depth analysis of ALEC.   If you wonder how so many conservative bills are being pushed through state legislature, look no further than ALEC:

A national consortium of state politicians and powerful corporations, ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — presents itself as a “nonpartisan public-private partnership”. But behind that mantra lies a vast network of corporate lobbying and political action aimed to increase corporate profits at public expense without public knowledge.

In state houses around the country, hundreds of pieces of boilerplate ALEC legislation are proposed or enacted that would, among other things, dilute collective bargaining rights, make it harder for some Americans to vote, and limit corporate liability for harm caused to consumers — each accomplished without the public ever knowing who’s behind it. Using interviews, documents, and field reporting, the episode explores ALEC’s self-serving machine at work, acting in a way one Wisconsin politician describes as “a corporate dating service for lonely legislators and corporate special interests.”

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Original Sin II

Original Sin II

| September 21, 2014 | 6 Replies

When I was young, I was given a thorough Catholic education that included the proclamation that I was cursed with “original sin” from the moment I was born. What did I do to deserve such a harsh condemnation? Nothing. It’s a very strange concept that you were “bad,” but not because of anything you did.

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What causes Middle East terrorism?

| September 20, 2014 | 6 Replies

I’m often hear Americans state as undeniable fact that Middle East terrorism is caused by religion. Their claim is that Islam is an extraordinarily violent religion, much worse than Christianity. I’m highly suspicious of this claim, recently made by Sam Harris. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that it contains hundreds of episodes of violence, many of them seemingly gratuitous. It is difficult for me to see how the Koran is any more violent than the Bible. Yet there is much violence in the Middle East and numerous commentators will thus conclude, simplistically, that Islam is especially violent and that therefore, Islam is the cause.

This analysis by C.J.Werleman provides some raw numbers and some history to work with.

The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which documents all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, demonstrates that it is politics, not religious fanaticism that leads terrorists to blow themselves up. This is supported by research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, which was partly funded by the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency. The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force.

We’ve spent the last half century waging and funding wars in the Middle East, playing one side off against the other, stoking ethnic rivalries, and arming regimes that inflict economic oppression upon their people. We’ve encircled the entire region with nearly 50 U.S. military bases and parked an aircraft carrier group permanently at their shores. The 17 Saudi 9/11 hijackers made their intent clear; they wanted the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia.

The belief that Islam is the root of terrorism doesn’t explain how Western-targeted terrorism coincides with the period post oil being discovered in the Middle East during the 1930-’60s and the establishment of the Jewish state on Arab Palestinian land. Harris also ignores the fact that Palestinian Muslims welcomed Zionist Jews in the 19th century. It was only when Jewish settlers began taking their land, and when Jews made it clear they did not wish to share the remaining land, that violence ensued.

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About achilles tendinitus

| September 19, 2014 | 3 Replies

I found myself in an unusual situation last week. A man kept reaching down and touching my feet while we were trying to have a conversation. It actually wasn’t so bad, because he was my new podiatrist, and he was excellent. I learned that I have achilles tendinitis. It’s time to implement several conservative measures and it will likely go away over the next few months. Which is good, because I hit a low yesterday, limping all day. It’s great to know what is going on, and now I also have x-rays of my feet as souvenirs (maybe I’ll frame them and put them on my walls). He said that this is not a disease, but an injury. It’s not an “old” person’s problem. He said that professional athletes have this issue. I think he was trying to portray me to be like a professional athlete.

For those in St. Louis, my new doctor’s name is Richard Brandel, DPM, a board certified podiatrist located in Clayton, MO. It was an amazingly pleasant experience. I called today, and the receptionist slipped me in a few hours later, due to a cancellation. Dr. Brandel spent LOTS of time explaining the situation to me in clear detail, answering all of my many questions for a condition that has frustrated me for several months.

The frustrating news is that it takes about as long to get over achilles tendinitis as it took to get into bad shape.

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About the Pratfall Effect

| September 18, 2014 | Reply

The Pratfall Effect gives me hope; people like imperfect people better. Perfectionism is not all it’s cracked up to be. Fascinating.

The basis of the effect was a study at the University of California led by Elliot Aronson where a researcher was invited to answer a series of quiz questions. The contestant answered competently and scored 90%. A team of scientists then created two tapes: one that was unchanged and one in which the contestant could be heard spilling a fictitious cup of coffee over himself at the end. These two tapes were then played to a series of panels who were asked to rate the likeability of the contestants. In all of the studies, the panels rated the person spilling the cup of coffee in the second tape higher than the person in the first tape.

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How to get started on your writing project

| September 16, 2014 | Reply

I just read Anne Lamott’s 2005 essay, “Shitty First Drafts” from her book, Bird by Bird.  Delightful read. Excellent advice to get writers started.

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Cyclist getting wiped out by car door

| September 12, 2014 | 1 Reply

I’m really ambivalent about what happened in this video. Cycling is my preferred method of transportation. I’ve never yet been doored. I assume that every door I pass can open at any time and wipe me out. Therefore, I slow down quite a bit when in a hazardous situation. The guy in this video likes to take changes as part of asserting his rights. Check out the way he shot through the pedestrians before the crash. The narrow path right before the crash and his insistence at traveling at a brisk pace were accidents waiting to happen. That he was wiped out by a door thrown into the bike lane angers me, people should be more careful opening car doors. On the other hand, almost all people who open car doors do it blindly. It’s a fact of life, like the fact that the tides go in and out. Further, the consequences of riding fast through hazardous areas will be an injury suffered by the cyclist, not those who throw their doors open. Hence, my approach of riding very slowly in such zones, even though I would be legally entitled to go as fast as I want in the bike lane. I’m sorry to see this guy wiped out, of course, but the video leaves me quite ambivalent about who was the victim.

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