turn left

I’m a few years behind on this, for no reason I can figure. I recently came across an excerpt from one of Ricky Gervais’ podcasts, and now I’m hooked. The show features Gervais, his long-time work partner Stephen Merchant, and “producer” Karl Pilkington chatting about various subjects. The show has turned Pilkington into a cult favorite. The podcasts, downloaded so often they made Guinness World Records, were later turned into an animated series, seen in the States on HBO.

Basically, Pilkington is presented as a bloke with no brain but a great imagination. Gervais and Merchant egg him on, laugh hysterically at his jabber, and make merciless fun of him. There are elements Americans miss, or at least I do … Pilkington is from Manchester, the others are “college boys,” and there seems to be some snobbery in their interplay that we don’t quite get. Anyway, if you lock into the show’s humor, you will find yourself laughing along with Gervais and Merchant far more often than you’ll find yourself thinking Pilkington’s is a mind ahead of its time. Toss in one added ingredient, that it’s never quite clear if Pilkington is playing a role, and you have a fascinating, hilarious, but ultimately mean-spirited show.

And I’d leave it at that, but there is a personal connection, one that doesn’t likely make sense to anyone but my wife.  Because she is the sole recipient of a particular form of, I don’t know, showmanship, that I sometimes come up with. It grew out of times when she would ask me to tell her a story, and I’d make up a fantasy on the spot that usually involved a beautiful lady named Robin and a trip to outer space. Over time, these stories got blended into another type of “story” I would tell. For someone who believes in science as much as I do, I am frightfully uninformed about the actual physical world, disconnected and lacking knowledge. So I’ll start talking about something, and it will have about as much relation to reality as one of my fantasy stories, except I’ll work from a base that includes scientific “facts.” Neither of us is ever quite sure that I actually believe the tripe I come up with … my lack of knowledge really is remarkable, usually because I haven’t thought something through, so Robin will realize I think some off-the-wall thing about the world, and my stories will grow out of those “factual fantasies,” and the next thing you know, I’ve got myself on some ledge that won’t hold. At this point, we both realize I’m full of shit, which is almost a relief … if I really believed some of this stuff, I’d worry about myself.

I appreciate the above doesn’t make much sense … you kinda have to be there, and I’ll only allow myself to expose this aspect of my brain to Robin. But I’ve found an example of my little stories: Karl Pilkington. I’m like Karl, rolling off outrageous stories as if they were true, and Robin is Ricky, laughing at my misguided “intelligence.”

I guess I better offer a sample, or this will make no sense at all. Here is Karl, explaining how monkeys were used in the early days of rocketry:

My favorite moment, from a “Robin” perspective, is when Karl says the monkey would press a button to “turn left.” Honestly, this sounds exactly like a conversation she and I would have when I’m on a roll. And my favorite “Steven” moment is when Ricky says there is no way they’d put a banana dispenser on a space craft, and Karl replies, so you’re saying it’s easy to send someone into space but hard to imagine it would have a banana machine.

eric walker on drugs and baseball

One of the good things about having a blog is that you get to pass along things that catch your eye. For the most part, I’m not a big fan of Lists o’ Links … if you’re a good enough writer to have a blog, you’re good enough to write something about those links.

Once in awhile, though, something comes along that doesn’t really lend itself to a quickie summary. Eric Walker’s “Steroids, Other ‘Drugs’, and Baseball” is a clear example of such an item. The link will take you to the summary page, as Walker calls it. Well, I don’t know how to count pages on a web site … I guess it’s only one “web page” … but it took me 39 mouse clicks to get from the top of the summary to the bottom. So you can appreciate how hard it would be to reduce Walker’s work to 39 words.

Therefore, I’ll just encourage anyone interested in the subject of performance-enhancing drugs in sports to take in Walker’s tome. It will take awhile … just to read the summary will cut seriously into your afternoon … and I know people like to read-and-run online. But it is worth it. I’ll leave you with this quote:

The chief problem--as it always is--is that the crucial decisions are not being made by people with knowledge on the subject sitting down and considering the facts and the implications of those facts: they are being made by demagogues and irrational scare-mongers, many of whom have an obvious axe of self-interest to grind.


Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the day I started taking meds for my they-don’t-like-to-apply-labels-but-it’s-bipolar2. I’m glad I was too busy yesterday to post, so I can say a few words now, in the light of an interesting piece by Louis Bayard on Salon today:

In a study published last January by the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists conducting a meta-analysis of existing research found that antidepressants were unquestionably "useful in cases of severe depression" but frankly not much help for the rest of us. "The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo," the study's authors concluded, "may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."

In other words, antidepressants work, but only because we believe they're working. If we're not seriously depressed and we're taking a tricyclic or a serotonin reuptake inhibitor or a norepinephrine booster, we'd fare about as well with a sugar pill. Which means that antidepressants are, to borrow the phraseology of Newsweek writer Martha Begley, "basically expensive Tic Tacs."

And so, like millions of Americans, I'm left with the problem of it: that little white pill that travels down my gullet every morning. What is it really doing down there -- up there? What if it's not doing anything? Is there any good empirical unassailable reason that I should be swallowing it day after day after day? If I stop believing in it, will it stop working?

This hits home for me. I like to pretend I’m Mr. Rational, making fun of people who reject concrete evidence, but the truth is, I’ve often wondered if the reason my meds “work” for me is that I was ready for change. It took me until I was 51 to finally accept that nothing else was working … I started feeling better almost immediately after starting the meds, sooner than I would have expected for them to begin to affect me … maybe I just needed an excuse to quit being an asshole, and the meds gave me that excuse. I wasn’t trying to be nice, the meds were making me nice. (Yes, I’m aware of the twisted nature of that “logic,” that I preferred being controlled by drugs to admitting that I wanted to be nice.)

But … if you go back to the top of this post, you’ll see the term “bipolar2.” Yes, I had a tendency to get depressed, and yes, it occasionally got pretty serious, and no, I don’t feel that way anymore, for whatever reason. But it’s the “2” that really matters. The most evident difference between my life five years ago and my life today, a difference that I noticed right off, is that I no longer suffer from anxiety. As I said at the time, until I was 51, I didn’t know I suffered from anxiety, because I’d never known anything else … I thought the state of anxiety was just how life worked. You don’t recognize black unless you know white; I didn’t know the absence of anxiety, so I didn’t recognize anxiety. When I suddenly lost that feeling, when I realized I didn’t have to be afraid of every step I took, every tiny change in my schedule, every unanticipated event, every interaction with others … well, that was remarkable. And I don’t think I could have just wished that away … I don’t think a placebo would have gotten it … I didn’t need an excuse to quit being anxious, because I didn’t really know I was anxious.

So yes, it is possible I’ve taken an antidepressant for the last five years without the drug doing anything concrete for me. But I’m willing to bet my anti-anxiety meds are working on my chemistry. And I’m not sorry.

i read the news today, oh boy

From the UK, word of “The 10:23 Event,” to take place on January 30:

At 10:23am on January 30th, more than three hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic 'overdose' in protest at Boots' continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them.

Sceptics and consumer rights activists will publicly swallow an entire bottle of homeopathic 'pillules' to demonstrate that these 'remedies', prepared according to a long-discredited 18th century ritual, are nothing but sugar pills.

The protest will raise public awareness about the reality of homeopathy, and put further pressure on Boots to live up to its responsibilites as the 'scientist on the high street' and stop selling treatments which do not work.

i read the news today, oh boy

Phil Plait:

“You may have heard the recent news that an expert panel of pediatricians reviewed the literature on gastrointestinal disorders and autism, and found no link between them. A key phrase in their findings was

The existence of a gastrointestinal disturbance specific to persons with ASDs (eg, ‘autistic enterocolitis’) has not been established.

“They also found that there was no evidence that special diets help autistic kids. Mind you, this was a panel of 28 experts, scientists who have devoted their careers and lives to investigating autism.

“So if you were a reporter at ABC News, who would you turn to to get an opinion on this? If you said Jenny McCarthy, then give yourself a gold star, because that’s just what ABC News did. …

“Because people like Jenny McCarthy muddy the waters and add so much noise to the real science, people are turning away from real medicine and embracing ‘alternative’ methods that we know don’t work.

“The result it not just that kids who need help aren’t getting it (the so-called ’what’s the harm?’ fallacy). The result is that kids are getting sick, and some of them are dying. When you reject reality and turn to nonsense, it has real effects. And it’s not just affecting your kids, it affects all kids.”

i read the news today, oh boy

Phil Plait:

Those of us skeptical of these alternatives to modern medicine don’t want these things to fail. We already know that some mainstream medicines are based on what could once have been called herbal medicines — aspirin is the obvious example, originally made from willow bark — so we know better than to dismiss these potential additions to medicine out of hand.

What we do dismiss are anecdotes provided as evidence, or used to make claims that aren’t warranted from the evidence. All those anecdotes are is a place to start investigating the evidence for a potential medicine, not evidence in and of themselves.

i read the news today, oh boy

It would be easier to just cut-and-paste the entire article, but you should go to the source.

Nate Silver:

[T]he odds of being on [any] given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

i read the news today, oh boy

Roger Ebert:

New Age beliefs are the Creationism of the Progressives. I move in circles where most people would find it absurd to believe that humans didn't evolve from prehistoric ancestors, yet many of these same people quite happily believe in astrology, psychics, reincarnation, the Tarot deck, the i Ching, and sooth-saying. …

At dinner in my environs I rarely hear anyone share that they have been born again in Jesus. They may well have been, but they keep it to themselves.

They were raised to avoid religion and politics at dinner parties with strangers. Yet they assure everyone they are "a typical Gemini," were royalty in a previous lifetime, have a personal spirit guide, and have been told they will develop a serious disease but will recover from it. …

We live in the harrowing early years of a century when the nation must compete in a new way, and this battle will be fought on the grounds of science defined by the traditional Scientific Method. We can have no patience with a chief executive who professes the value of ancient superstitions in the forming of policy.

i read the news today, oh boy

With permission, I quote from an email my friend, Dr. Jean Smith of the CDC, wrote about vaccines (speaking as an individual here, not as a spokesperson for her organization):

[T]he young parents of today don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) can do, and of the remarkable dedication and work of scientists and doctors of the past 2 centuries to protect children from the early deaths that were a staple of every generation until OURS….. i.e., we were the first cohort (U.S. baby boomers) to benefit from the advances in vaccinology and development of life-saving vaccines.  Starting with Edward Jenner (smallpox vaccine) and continuing on…. Real break-throughs were only made in the very late 50s and mid-60s.  I am sure that all … will recall the breakthrough of polio vaccine… The Salk (“killed”- i.e. inactivated) vaccine coming first (injectable), when we were young children in 1955; later … the development of the attenuated live poliovirus vaccine by Alfred Sabin… which we all received on sugar cubes at school, 1962.  Our parents breathed a huge sigh of relief, as one of the biggest polio epidemics in history had hit [in] 1952 … .   In that epidemic/outbreak, 20.000 children in the US were paralyzed… poliovirus hits the spinal cord, and paralysis is fully evolved within 4 days.  As I am sure you all will recall, children ended up trapped in “iron lung” machines that provided external breath-in, breath-out pressure to allow the lungs to fill and empty out. …

Before our time, children died of pertussis (whooping cough) and diphtheria, and neonatal tetanus, and smallpox.  By the time we were young children, vaccines against these diseases were already widespread, so we were not plagued by these diseases, in general.  Go to an old-time cemetery and look at the grave-stones… you’ll be able to discern what was going on with infectious diseases at a certain time, especially when you see tomb-stones of children in a family who all died around the same time.

Since the days of the 60s-70s, more advances in vaccinology have been made … Pneumococcal vaccines, haemophilus influenza (Hib) vaccine, and others and resulted in sharp decreases in death and disability. …

At every ACIP meeting, we have members of the public come to the microphone, telling their sad stories of their children dying or being disabled by VPDs.  (These are healthy Americans!  Not people from India or Mexico….)   One mother came with her daughter, who has prosthetic arms and legs, as a result of meningococcal disease….  (widespread, meningococcal sepsis, which caused death of arteries/veins in legs/arms, necessitating amputation).  Others come with stories of their childrens’ deaths.  There is a group of parents called Families Fighting Flu, who had healthy children playing in the backyard one day, dead the next. …

I am sad to see such skepticism about the motives of those who work on continuous societal improvements and advances, of which vaccines are just one example. … [I]f your grandchildren have not been vaccinated against certain VPDs, they will be at risk if they should ever undertake int’l travel; and if they have kids from developing countries move into their communities.  There have been any number of cases of unvaccinated Americans being infected in these settings.