21 January 2005

ageism hurts us all

Censorship is an obvious example of this, but also our policy of prioritizing flu vaccines for the elderly (who are more vulnerable to flu) rather than kids in schools (where flu is mostly spread) ironically means more adult deaths from flu. From a recent article in Science:
If, for example, coverage of schoolchildren increased from the current 5% to 20%, they predict it would reduce more deaths in the over-65 population than increasing their vaccination coverage from the current 68% to 90% (see graph).
Of course, this could also be because of our preference for individual rather than communal solutions.

02 January 2005

Susan Sontag on writing

and on New York, written in 1996:
I had come to New York at the start of the 1960's, eager to put to work the writer I had, since adolescence, pledged myself to become. My idea of a writer: someone interested in "everything." I had always had interests of many kinds, so it was natural for me to conceive of the vocation of a writer in this way. And reasonable to suppose that such fervency would find more scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of provincial life, including the excellent universities I had attended. The only surprise was that there weren't more people like me.
Her obituary is also good.

a better letter to the public editor

This one, titled "Writing columns about press releases," actually got a "maybe we'll use this" response.

Dear Public Editor,

When writing science columns, what is your policy on when to use press releases rather than preprints or published papers? In particular, this Oct 19 article [Danger From Depleted Uranium Is Found Low in Pentagon Study] is about a Pentagon study on depleted uranium, and appears to be based entirely on the Pentagon press release, since according to the article, the paper hasn't yet even been submitted for publication.

While I'm not familiar with all the background here, I have some obvious concerns with this practice of reporting based on a press release rather than an actual study. It is impossible to check the claimed results, let alone get reactions from other scientists. For example, the above article contains the line "opponents of using depleted uranium, who have not yet seen the study, were skeptical of the findings." This is especially problematic if the NYT never follows up with a longer and more detailed article once the actual study emerges.

Also, it becomes more difficult to decide what to report on. The article about the Pentagon study mentions that it is "a five-year, $6 million study," but this is a terrible way of connoting credibility. If you had the actual results you could tell how statistically significant they were, and if the paper had been published or presented at a conference, you could tell if its methods or analysis had been usefully critiqued by other scientists. Making editorial decisions based on press releases alone risks reducing journalists to mouthpieces of competing PR departments.

Finally, this practice risks doing a disservice to science by encouraging sloppy science that bypasses the normal peer review mechanisms. As a scientist in a trendy new field (quantum computing), I often see press releases for weak and over-hyped results. We wouldn't do this if you didn't encourage us.

I understand that some science reporting might be time sensitive. And most science reporters might not be qualified to evaluate the actual scientific papers. But you still might wait until the paper is published (or at least posted on a website or preprint server) so that you can get opinions of qualified and independent scientists.

I don't have many more examples on hand about articles based on press releases, so if I'm mistaken about how common this is, then I'm sorry for the criticism. But if the practice is as frequent as it seems, then maybe a review of your science writing guidelines would be in order.


aram harrow

to the (public) editor

In the hopes of having someone actually read what I write, I've been writing to public@nytimes.com instead of letters@nytimes.com. Unfortunately, the first thing I sent probably made me look like an idiot and a pedant at the same time.
From: me
To: public@nytimes.com
Date: Aug 17, 2004

Dear Mr. Okrent,

I know there are plenty of more important things out there, but do you think you could get the Times to stop misusing the term "exponential growth?" The common mistake is to use it to indicate rapidly increasing growth, as in "Charters are expected to grow exponentially under the new federal education law" from today's article Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal.

Actually, exponential growth (or decay) means growing (or shrinking) by a rate that is a percentage. So increasing the number of schools by a steady 1% per year is exponential growth, but a sudden one-shot increase in the number of charter schools is probably not.

If every occurence of "exponentially" were replaced by "rapidly" then in almost every case the desired meaning would be better communicated.

aram harrow

And the reply,
Dear Aram Harrow,

Maybe I've overlooked something here but the dictionary definition seems appropriate for use this way in the article.

2 entries found for exponential. To select an entry, click on it.
exponential:exponential function
Main Entry: ex·po·nen·tial
Pronunciation: ek-sp&-'nen-ch&l

Function: adjective
1 : of or relating to an exponent
2 : involving a variable in an exponent <10x is an exponential expression>
3 : expressible or approximately expressible by an exponential function; especially : characterized by or being an extremely rapid increase (as in size or extent)
- ex·po·nen·tial·ly /-'nench-(&-)lE/ adverb

Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

Instead of explaining why the dictionary is wrong (and why it's possible for dictionaries to be wrong), I gave up.

Update: This Dilbert strip sums up the situation pretty well (thanks to Mark Dowling for sending it to me). But whatever, I'm still right.

01 January 2005

putting the tyrants and the torturers on notice

[consider this a sketch of a real post. sort of meta-wit.]

People like Thomas Friedman are always saying that invading Iraq has put "the enemies of freedom" "on notice" (it's hard to write about this stuff w/o scare quotes), so that the undemocratic regimes elsewhere in the Middle East would be looking over the shoulder, wondering who's next, etc. Somehow this nervousness should cause them to be more accomodating towards the pro-democracy/theocracy reformers that so far we've only paid them to suppress.

A post I'd like to write would satirically take one of Bush's freedom on the march speeches and apply it to Morocco's recent and historic creation of a truth commission to investigate human rights abuses from 1956-1999 by the pro-Western King Hassan.

The idea is that Morocco is an example of how human rights advance in Muslim nations without bloody invasions and occupations from the West. This "puts on notice" the Crusader types who run Abu Ghraib while they're cutting deals with Qualcomm to install CDMA in Iraq instead of GSM. Combine it with lines like "justice will eventually come to those who run the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib" and Bush's line "All nations are in this struggle together. And all must fight the murderers" and the piece should write itself! Which is good, because at this rate I probably won't write it.

why I don't want to live in Westchester

From an article (interesting in its own right) about stay-at-home dads, titled "Housewives, try this for desperation":
Many stay-at-home fathers find that they are fish out of water, too.

"Conversations with men here [in Purchase, NY] revolve around banking, and the kinds of cars you drive, and the country club," Mr. Purinton said. "That gives me the heebie-jeebies. I'm socially ill at ease. I'd rather talk to the mothers about raising children."

Non-white racism (or Eurocentrism, part 2)

In House of Flying Daggers, a Chinese kung-fu movie, the heroine is much paler than the male leads. (Yes, I realize I use "kung-fu" with about as much precision as my grandfather uses the word "chop suey.") In old Miyazaki anime movies, the men look Japanese (if they're not animals), but the women are so light-skinned that I thought they were white at first. In Ray's The Lonely Wife, it's the same story with skin color, but in India.

How is this so universal? Is it because of contact with Western racism or because rich women who stayed indoors more were lighter skinned than men who worked outside?

Eurocentric every last one of 'em

FOX's tsunami coverage (which I watched w/o sound at a gym) spent several minutes with the story of a Czech supermodel who survived at a beach in Indonesia.

I didn't even know where to begin being upset. It's like the 7-layer burrito of Evil. Or the joke headline: "American tourist in India almost hit by falling body of man committing suicide."

Update: CNN did a feature on a different model, who I think dated a local boy. I know my blog should aim for wittiness and not inchoate rage, but these people are just such scum. It's so hard not to hate them.

Americans, not women.

Engraved on the World War II memorial in Washington D.C.:
Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women.... This was a people's war and everyone was in it.

Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby