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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.