Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin

One weird bit from a New Republic post on McCain's choice of Sarah Palin (it seems to be credited to professor Alan Wolfe, but surely he wouldn't say something that is without evidence):
Sarah Palin named two of her children after witches, once took drugs, and refused to sign a bill forbidding domestic benefits for gay couples.
It's unclear where this "witches" claim is coming from, although I suspect it's due to this post from Andrew Sullivan:
A reader plumbs the weirdness: "Willow" was Buffy the Vampire Slayer's best friend and "Piper" was the eldest sister on the series Charmed played by Shannen Doherty. The governor obviously has a penchant for television shows of paranormal female empowerment.
Alas, one problem for this theory is the timing: Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn't start airing until 1997, whereas Sarah Palin's daughter Willow is described as being 14 years old. I don't know whether she turned 14 this year or will turn 15 later this year, but I'm pretty sure that 2008 minus 14 equals something before 1997.

Otherwise, that's a great theory . . . whenever a public figure's child has the same name as anyone who has ever been on television, you can be 99% sure it was in deliberate homage. (I look forward to the blog posts at The New Republic informing us that Barack Obama named his daughter Natasha after Natasha Fatale.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

New Deas Vail EP

One of my favorite bands in the genre of melodic progressive rock -- Deas Vail -- has a new EP out. I've seen them live twice, and they're just impressive all-around. The lead singer is up there in Freddie Mercury or Jeff Buckley territory as a rock vocalist, I think.

All of the new songs are well-written, produced, and performed. A couple of the full tracks are available here. You can order it for $5 here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Spikes and Steering Wheels

In the Armchair Economist, Steven Landsburg writes:
If you find it hard to believe that people drive less carefully when their cars are safer, consider the proposition that people drive more carefully when their cars are more dangerous. This is, of course, just another way of saying the same thing, but somehow people find it easier to believe. If the seat belts were removed from your car, wouldn’t you be more cautious in driving? Carrying this observation to the extreme, Armen Alchian of the University of California at Los Angeles has suggested a way to bring about a major reduction in the accident rate: Require every car to have a spear mounted on the steering wheel, pointing directly at the driver’s heart. Alchian confidently predicts that we would see a lot less tailgating.
But a colleague of Gordon Tullock's attributes it to him:
Gordon also has his own unique brand of humor. I remember his many outrageous examples that tickled my funny-bone. For instance, he'd insist that if the government were really serious about people driving safely, there ought to be a law mandating an iron spike protruding from the steering wheel in the direction of the driver's breast.
So is it Alchian or Tullock who first came up with this colorful hypothesis? Or someone else?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Health Misreporting

There's a new study that purports to tell us that fat people can be healthy:

The Obese Without Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Clustering and the Normal Weight With Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Clustering

Prevalence and Correlates of 2 Phenotypes Among the US Population (NHANES 1999-2004)

Rachel P. Wildman, PhD; Paul Muntner, PhD; Kristi Reynolds, PhD; Aileen P. McGinn, PhD; Swapnil Rajpathak, MD, DrPH; Judith Wylie-Rosett, EdD; MaryFran R. Sowers, PhD

Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(15):1617-1624.

Background The prevalence and correlates of obese individuals who are resistant to the development of the adiposity-associated cardiometabolic abnormalities and normal-weight individuals who display cardiometabolic risk factor clustering are not well known.

Methods The prevalence and correlates of combined body mass index (normal weight, <25.0; overweight, 25.0-29.9; and obese, ≥30.0 [calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared]) and cardiometabolic groups (metabolically healthy, 0 or 1 cardiometabolic abnormalities; and metabolically abnormal, ≥2 cardiometabolic abnormalities) were assessed in a cross-sectional sample of 5440 participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 1999-2004. Cardiometabolic abnormalities included elevated blood pressure; elevated levels of triglycerides, fasting plasma glucose, and C-reactive protein; elevated homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance value; and low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol level.

Results Among US adults 20 years and older, 23.5% (approximately 16.3 million adults) of normal-weight adults were metabolically abnormal, whereas 51.3% (approximately 35.9 million adults) of overweight adults and 31.7% (approximately 19.5 million adults) of obese adults were metabolically healthy. The independent correlates of clustering of cardiometabolic abnormalities among normal-weight individuals were older age, lower physical activity levels, and larger waist circumference. The independent correlates of 0 or 1 cardiometabolic abnormalities among overweight and obese individuals were younger age, non-Hispanic black race/ethnicity, higher physical activity levels, and smaller waist circumference.
According to the New York Times:
Stephen Blair, a co-author of the study and a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, said the lesson he took from the study was that instead of focusing only on weight loss, doctors should be talking to all patients about the value of physical activity, regardless of body size.

“Why is it such a stretch of the imagination,” he said, “to consider that someone overweight or obese might actually be healthy and fit?”
As is typical in such news stories, no one even bothers to mention the fact that body mass index (BMI) is a hopelessly inadequate measure of bodyfat in the first place. Seemingly skinny people can have high bodyfat because they are so lacking in muscle mass; and at the same time, building any muscle mass via exercise is a good way to fall into the "overweight" category of BMI regardless of your level of bodyfat. It's baffling to me that anyone like this would be counted as evidence that being "overweight" (a term that readers might associate with bodyfat) is healthy.

At a minimum, it ought to be clarified in such stories that having too much bodyfat is probably not a good idea, no matter what your weight.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New Paper on Competition in Education

Looks interesting:
School Competition and Efficiency with Publicly Funded Catholic Schools

David Card, Martin Dooley, Abigail Payne

NBER Working Paper No. 14176
Issued in July 2008

The province of Ontario has two publicly funded school systems: secular schools (known as public schools) that are open to all students, and separate schools that are open to children with Catholic backgrounds. The systems are administered independently and receive equal funding per student. In this paper we use detailed school and student-level data to assess whether competition between the systems leads to improved efficiency. Building on a simple model of school choice, we argue that incentives for effort will be greater in areas where there are more Catholic families, and where these families are less committed to a particular system. To measure the local determinants of cross-system competition we study the effects of school openings on enrollment growth at nearby elementary schools. We find significant cross-system responses to school openings, with a magnitude that is proportional to the fraction of Catholics in the area, and is higher in more rapidly growing areas. We then test whether schools that face greater cross-system competition have higher productivity, as measured by test score gains between 3rd and 6th grade.

We estimate a statistically significant but modest-sized impact of potential competition on the growth rate of student achievement. The estimates suggest that extending competition to all students would raise average test scores in 6th grade by 6-8% of a standard deviation.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More on Paul Campos

One thing that still bothers me about Paul Campos's book The Obesity Myth is that he focuses almost entirely on BMI studies to make his case that bodyfat isn't relevant to health or mortality. He constantly points out that there's a U-shaped curve in which underweight people (by BMI) have higher mortality, people technically classified as moderately overweight (by BMI) have lower mortality overall, and obese people then have the highest mortality.

But BMI studies don't tell us whether bodyfat is healthy or unhealthy. That's because BMI doesn't correlate very well with bodyfat in the first place. The most recent study I could find was this: Romero-Corral et al, "Accuracy of body mass index in diagnosing obesity in the adult general population," International Journal of Obesity 32 no. 6 (June 2008): 959-66. From the abstract:
Body mass index (BMI) is the most widely used measure to diagnose obesity. However, the accuracy of BMI in detecting excess body adiposity in the adult general population is largely unknown.

METHODS: A cross-sectional design of 13,601 subjects (age 20-79.9 years; 49% men) from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Bioelectrical impedance analysis was used to estimate body fat percent (BF%). We assessed the diagnostic performance of BMI using the World Health Organization reference standard for obesity of BF%>25% in men and>35% in women. We tested the correlation between BMI and both BF% and lean mass by sex and age groups adjusted for race.

RESULTS: BMI-defined obesity (> or =30 kg m(-2)) was present in 19.1% of men and 24.7% of women, while BF%-defined obesity was present in 43.9% of men and 52.3% of women. . . . However, in the intermediate range of BMI (25-29.9 kg m(-2)), BMI failed to discriminate between BF% and lean mass in both sexes. CONCLUSIONS: The accuracy of BMI in diagnosing obesity is limited, particularly for individuals in the intermediate BMI ranges, in men and in the elderly. A BMI cutoff of> or =30 kg m(-2) has good specificity but misses more than half of people with excess fat. These results may help to explain the unexpected better survival in overweight/mild obese patients.
Note the bolded text, because it rather starkly undermines Campos's whole argument that because BMI isn't linearly correlated to mortality, people shouldn't worry about being fat. BMI /= bodyfat.

What's more, there's a whole area of medical literature that, as far as I can tell, Campos's book completely ignores (again, it was a very poor endnoting system). Researchers have found for years that bodyfat cells produce inflammatory agents (such as C-reactive protein or its precursors).

One recent study isolated this process experimentally, by studying specific fat cells extracted from plastic surgery patients and observing the excretion of cytokines and resistin; on exposing the fat cells to statins or aspirin, the production of inflammatory agents declined. Another similar study isolated higher levels of interleukin-6 -- another inflammatory marker -- in blood that came from visceral fat in the abdomen.

In turn, chronic inflammation seems to cause cancer, heart disease and strokes, etc.

So when we are learning more and more about the specific biological mechanisms by which fat cells make a person less healthy, it's a waste of time to point out how BMI (not an accurate measure of bodyfat) and mortality are correlated.

To be sure, Campos is basically right that except for the morbidly obese, it doesn't make sense to worry about lowering your BMI or even your bodyweight per se. But it's still true that people should think about lowering bodyfat (or, rather, eating a healthy diet and exercising with high intensity several times a week, which, in my experience, inevitably does the trick).

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Pill for Exercise?

The hype on this new study seems way overstated. From the New York Times:
For all who have wondered if they could enjoy the benefits of exercise without the pain of exertion, the answer may one day be yes — just take a pill that tricks the muscles into thinking they have been working out furiously.

Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego reported that they had found two drugs that did wonders for the athletic endurance of couch potato mice. One drug, known as Aicar, increased the mice’s endurance on a treadmill by 44 percent after just four weeks of treatment.

* * *

Four years ago he found that PPAR-delta played a different role in muscle. Muscle fibers exist in two main forms. Type 1 fibers have copious numbers of mitochondria, which generate the cell’s energy and are therefore resistant to fatigue. Type 2 fibers have fewer mitochondria and tire easily. Athletes have lots of Type 1 fibers. People with obesity and diabetes have far fewer Type 1 and more Type 2 fibers.

Dr. Evans and his team found that the PPAR-delta protein remodeled the muscle, producing more of the high-endurance Type 1 fiber. They genetically engineered a strain of mice whose muscles produced extra amounts of PPAR-delta. These mice grew more Type 1 fibers and could run twice as far as on a treadmill as ordinary mice before collapsing.

Given that people cannot be engineered in this way, Dr. Evans wondered whether levels of the PPAR-delta protein could be raised by drugs. Pharmaceutical companies have long tried to manipulate PPAR-delta because of its role in fat metabolism, and Dr. Evans found several drugs were available, although they had been tested for different purposes.

In a report in the Friday issue of Cell, he described the two drugs that successfully activate the muscle-remodeling system in mice, generating more high-endurance Type 1 fiber. The drug GW1516 activates the PPAR-delta protein but the mice must also exercise to show increased endurance. It seems that PPAR-delta switches on one set of genes, and exercise another, and both are needed for endurance.

Aicar improves endurance without training. Dr. Evans believes that it both activates the PPAR-delta protein and mimics the effects of exercise, thus switching on both sets of genes needed for the endurance signal.
So they found that giving certain drugs to mice may ultimately have switched on certain genes that affect muscle endurance. We don't know that this drug would work in humans in the first place, let alone that the drug would have any of the many other benefits of exercise (decreased risk of many diseases, longer lifespan, better mood, improved cognitive performance, increased aerobic capacity, maintenance of bone mass, lowered blood pressure, etc.), let alone that it would do so without serious side effects. I'm not sure why, at this early point, this drug is being given publicity different from that of steroids.

Jack Benny

Jack Benny is one of my favorite comedians from all-time. I always loved it when Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny) made a guest appearance. Here's a clip where Mel Blanc delivers a telegram.

One of the funniest Jack Benny episodes of all time involved Mel Blanc as a plumber fixing Benny's pipes. That episode can be downloaded here, and Amazon has some used videos available here.

You can download dozens of clips from the Mel Blanc radio show (circa 1946) here or here.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


An interesting excerpt from an essay by Tom Vanderbilt, who has a new book: Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).
In the mid-1980s, Monderman, then a regional safety inspector for Friesland, was dispatched to the small village of Oudehaske to check the speed of car traffic through the town’s center (two children had been fatally struck). Previously, Monderman, like any good Dutch traffic engineer, would have deployed, if not an actual traffic light, the tools of what is known as “traffic calming”: speed bumps, warning signs, bollards, or any number of highly visible ­interventions.

But those solutions were falling out of favor with his superiors, because they were either ineffective or too expensive. At a loss, Monderman suggested to the villagers, who as it happens had hired a consultant to help improve the town’s aesthetics, that Oudehaske simply be made to seem more “villagelike.” The interventions were subtle. Signs were removed, curbs torn out, and the asphalt replaced with red paving brick, with two gray “gutters” on either side that were slightly curved but usable by cars. As Monderman noted, the road looked only five meters wide, “but had all the possibilities of six.”

The results were striking. Without bumps or flashing warning signs, drivers slowed, so much so that Monderman’s radar gun couldn’t even register their speeds. Rather than clarity and segregation, he had created confusion and ambiguity. Unsure of what space belonged to them, drivers became more accommodating. Rather than give drivers a simple behavioral mandate—­say, a speed limit sign or a speed ­bump—­he had, through the new road design, subtly suggested the proper course of action. And he did something else. He used context to change behavior. He had made the main road look like a narrow lane in a village, not simply a ­traffic-­way through some anonymous ­town.
Vanderbilt also reports on what happened when the traffic engineer replaced a traditional intersection with a roundabout:
A year after the change, the results of this “extreme makeover” were striking: Not only had congestion decreased in the ­intersection—­buses spent less time waiting to get through, for ­example—­but there were half as many accidents, even though total car traffic was up by a third. Students from a local engineering college who studied the intersection reported that both drivers and, unusually, cyclists were using ­signals—­of the electronic or hand ­variety—­more often. They also found, in surveys, that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he “would have changed it immediately.”
Which reminds me of another excellent article, John Staddon's Distracting Miss Daisy: Why stop signs and speed limits endanger Americans, which makes a similar point.

Friday, August 01, 2008

What's Important

A friend in the music business forwarded me this advertisement seeking guitarists, amused by the requisite qualifications:

If it's hard to read, the text says, "Rihanna is seeking 2 types of guitar players to join her current tour. The first is a guitarist that double on keyboards, and the second is someone with dreadlocks." No mention of musical talent, but maybe that's just assumed . . . .