Monthly Archives: January 2011

Staying Alive

The absurdity is beyond irony. In a country obsessed with “proactive” health, screenings and tests; a country where celebrity figures urge everyone to “fight” this or that cancer with mammograms or colonoscopies or PSA tests; a country that spends over 16% of GDP on health care and still has the poorest health outcomes of any developed country, one of the biggest threats to health is an amendment to a 300-year-old document professing the right to “bear arms”.

Originating in a different time and frame of mind, the American constitution was a masterpiece of hope and imagination; that “well armed militia” (bearing aforesaid arms) and hope, all that stood between a young country and its colonial past.

Today, in the age of iPads and wifi, environmental change and globalization, it all seems so sad and silly. Particularly in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson a few weeks ago, where a Congresswoman and many others were wounded and six people died.

In terms of health it seems to me that that the United States would do well to stop its preoccupation with political rhetoric (not to mention those colonoscopies) and – for five minutes – consider whether the number of guns in circulation might, just might, have something to do with the incident.

bang bang, you’re dead (the healthiest corpse I’ve ever seen)

As the Economist put it:  (January 15, 2011 print edition, here)

“Opportunists who seek to gain political advantage by blaming the shootings on words would do America better service if they focused on bullets. In no other country could any civilian, let alone a deranged one, legally get his hands on a Glock semi automatic. Even in America, the extended 31-shot magazine that Mr. Loughner used was banned until 2004. As the Brady Centre, established after the Reagan shooting to commemorate one of its victims, has noted, more Americans were killed by guns in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997 than died in all of America’s foreign wars since its independence from. Around 30,000 people a year are killed by one of the almost 300m guns in America – almost one for every citizen. Those deaths are not just murders and suicides: some are accidents, often involving children. The tragedy is that gun control is moving in the wrong direction….”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Loathsome Lycra

What do Lycra, Stainmaster carpet, Dixie cups and oil refineries in Alaska and Texas have in common?

They’re all owned by Koch Industries, ranked by Forbes as the second largest private company in the United States. The biggest corporation nobody’s heard of.

Owned by the brothers Koch, the company also has the distinction of being one of the top ten polluters in the U.S. not to mention a staunch (financial) supporter of the Tea Party movement. (The brothers’ father started the company – apparently Koch pere trained Bolshevik and helped Stalin set up some oil refineries in the Soviet Union, well, until Stalin turned on him), Not only for libertarian reasons but solid business ones: after all, less government means less government meddling in pesky details like environmental laws and lower corporate taxes.

So that, girls and boys, is what you’re supporting when you pay good money for stretch material, spandex  – or, as the labels proudly hanging on virtually every piece of clothing one sees these days, “Lycra”.  Jeans, dress pants, cotton shirts, sweaters: you name it, the damn thing has umpteen percent Lycra.

mah-ve-lous stretchy Lycra

I have never understood the attraction of clothes that stick to you, refuse to hold their shape after you’ve worn them once; have that synthetic feel and make Koch Industries richer. So ubiquitous is Lycra that even Levi jeans ostensibly made of “100% organic cotton” contain 3% of the vile stuff. I know this because I fell for the “organic cotton” line (I absolve the saleswoman of all guilt; I doubt she even realized there was Lycra in the jeans) and ended up giving them to the hotel chambermaid in disgust.

Maybe it’s my shape – or my orneriness – but on me, jeans with spandex/Lycra fit too tightly when washed, then start to droop upon second wearing. In a day, not only am I tugging at myself like some demented ferret but my crotch is hanging lower and lower. And trust me, nobody will mistake a woman of a certain age for Fi’ty Cent. Worse, Lycra, being synthetic (and a particularly noxious one at that) doesn’t breathe and if there is any humidity in the air I end up hot and cranky. OK, crankier than usual.

These days I’ve taken to walking into all manner of posh stores I didn’t used to frequent, secure in the knowledge there will be no natural fibres in sight, all our fine talk of “green” products notwithstanding. I saunter jauntily into Hugo Boss, Max Mara, Holt Renfrew … Once the statuesque salesperson has realized that like the universe I really do exist and do expect service, being posh they immediately treat me like royalty.

Whereupon I pleasantly ask if there’s anything in the store – a pant suit maybe – that consists of natural fibres: cotton, silk, hemp, wool, bamboo, whatever. “Of course,” they assure me in somewhat superior tones. Then I see The Look. Perplexed, followed by darting eyes back and forth across the hangers … and then the “Umm … actually …

Actually no. Yes, there’s one wool jacket in a noxious beige my grandmother wouldn’t have worn, lined in polyester and oh, there’s 5% Lycra. Occasionally there is a triumphant leap towards a cashmere sweater or a cotton shirt, neither of which I want (or would wear on a bet).

Does anyone even remember that cotton jersey stretches? That denim jeans are briefly tight after  being washed but then have plenty of give? That good fabrics feel nice – versus petroleum by-products, aka nylon, polyester, spandex that are slimy smooth, don’t breathe, pick up very jot of ambient odour and make one hot and sweaty?

I am actually beginning to wonder if spandex/Lycra isn’t one of the reasons we’re all so fat. After all, if your clothes never feel tight, you never know if your clothes are getting tight and perhaps you should cut back on calories for a week or two and get back to your normal weight. All normal cues disappear in the absence of clothes that fit.

Wasn’t this supposed to be the age of the whatsit graph, that long tail; the age of the choice? When even people with wants outside the norm should be able to tap into an existing market? The internet and globalization were going to make it all possible.

Instead, it’s all made in China and contains Lycra.A friend who’s a seamstress and tailour tells me that spandex “eats” cotton and other fabrics so clothes don’t last as long. Maybe that’s the real point.

If it’s not finding uses for all those leftovers from some nice oil refinery. Like the Koch brothers, who, according to a long article in The New Yorker, “have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize government environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry”. Who says industrialists don’t know how to spend wisely.

Too bad the rest of us don’t.

“Information is power” (not)

As I raced through Waterfront Station last week, late for something or t’other, I overheard a well-dressed young man intone, “Information is power.” The pretty young woman he was with enthusiastically agreed.I moved on, dodging slower pedestrians and trying to figure out why and how such a cockamamie truism had taken such a stranglehold on us all. Information is power? Says who?

Information, aka data, is not even knowledge, never mind power. Without context, without a hypothesis, without a narrative of some kind, simply having access to Google and disparate bits of information means nil.

Anyway, isn’t the usual phrase knowledge is power? And even knowledge, moreover, rarely translates into power- unless you’re a blackmailer.

Unfortunately, the cliché has taken off and far too many people actually believe that having access to information, be it minute by minute stock/business data, medical information or Google (“facts”) actually means something.

Let’s take one example of basic information: observational studies. We observe one thing, see that it seems to happen whenever something else does and presto, we have a correlation on our hands that we conveniently forget are simply disembodied bits of information that probably mean nothing – but which we assume reflect cause.

Epidemiology had one major success with that: cigarette smoking and lung cancer. And they’ve never let us forget it. The problem is that almost no observational studies epidemiology threw at us ever turned out to be accurate when properly scrutinized.

Take the estrogen debacle. For years observational studies and epidemiology insisted that women who took estrogen, particularly at midlife, were healthier, lived longer, had fewer heart attacks and even suffered less from dementia. The problem was that this link came from well-off women who had the time to fill out those surveys and questionnaires, which meant they were better educated and of a higher socio-economic background. This meant that they were also healthier – in fact there’s even a name for it: the healthy user bias. People who are from a higher socio-economic status are healthier. Period. Why? We don’t know.

Perhaps they eat better or have less stress; perhaps they have better genes and it’s that which has led them to be better off in the first place. Maybe they breathe cleaner air and live in nicer areas where they don’t breathe or step in toxic gunk. After all, it’s not the CEO of a company, whether in India or the United States, whose house abuts the factory runoff, it’s the hapless janitor and his family who can’t afford anything better.

The media loves reporting on observational studies, where the inevitable term used in the headline is “linked”. Vitamin D is “linked” to better health. In healthy societies women’s choice of mate is “linked” to more masculine features, which naturally means that evolution has had something to do with the preponderance of older men marrying women young enough to be their daughters.

We forget that correlation has nothing do with cause. The Women’s Health Initiative clinical trial was stopped early because it was the women who took estrogen who were dying in droves from breast cancer and heart disease. All those years researcher upon researcher had insisted that their hypothesis, namely that estrogen was the female hormone, was right and had absolutely nothing to do with the binary nature of our socio-cultural classifications. But gosh, they were wrong.

Failure of imagination follows in the tracks of information – simply knowing that something happens tells us absolutely nothing about why it happens or whether manipulating one factor will have an effect on the other. It could be incidental, an artifact, or just plain wrong.

Still, we walk around, secure in the knowledge that our platitudes, like information, give us an edge.  But it’s not power, just swagger.