Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tabs of Thanksgiving

Do more suds = better? -- Marilyn vos Savant's column in Parade magazine last Sunday featured a question about whether it makes sense to double or triple the amount of laundry detergent per load "to get more suds." vos Savant answered:

Why would any manufacturer ­direct consumers to use less than the optimal amount? Their laundry might not get clean, and the company would sell less product. That doesn’t make sense!

…Americans love suds so much that manufacturers use high-­foaming formulas whenever they can. Shampoo is a good example. The froth does nothing but make a mess in the sink that takes time and effort to wash down the drain. …The suds ... do not reflect their cleaning action.

In fact, using too much ­detergent can make laundry a bit dingy and stiff. Also, the suds can cause problems with the machine long-term. Some washing machines even have software designed to overcome our tendency to use too much detergent. They sense the ­excess suds and add extra rinses!

Is your phone a container or a conversation? A New York Times story (reprinted in the Star Tribune) related a series of court cases based on privacy questions about cell phones. Believe it or not, there is a legal question as to whether the contents of your phone are private. The story contained assertions and questions like this:
  • "A court in Washington compared text messages to voice-mail messages that can be overheard by anyone in a room and are therefore not protected by state privacy laws." What?! Voicemail isn't overheard by anyone unless you put it on speakerphone, just like any other conversation. Was the court thinking of an old-fashioned answering machine? Or have they based their knowledge of voicemail on how it is portrayed in television shows and movies, which need it to be played aloud so the audience know what was said?
  • "In Louisiana, a federal appeals court is weighing whether location records stored in smartphones deserve privacy protection, or whether they are "business records" that belong to the phone companies." Does any individual seriously think their movements are information that belongs to the business that provides their phone service? Does it make any sense to say I have to give up that most basic level of privacy in exchange for having a cell phone?
  • A federal law passed in 1986 contains a provision that makes emails older than 180 days open for warrantless surveillance. The Senate is currently considering an amendment to get rid of that bit of stupidity.
  • Courts have diverged on how to deal with cell phones. Ohio has ruled (logically, in my opinion) that a search warrant is needed to search phones because they are not like a piece of paper found in a suspect's pocket. California's Supreme Court, on the other hand, "said the police could look through a cellphone without a warrant so long as the phone was with the suspect at the time of arrest."
And get this: "Judges have written tomes about whether a cellphone is akin to a 'container' -- like a suitcase stuffed with pot that the police might find in a car trunk -- or whether, as the judge in the Rhode Island murder case suggested, it is more comparable to a face-to-face conversation. That judge, Judith C. Savage, described text messages as 'raw, unvarnished and immediate, revealing the most intimate of thoughts and emotions.' Citizens should expect them to be private, she said."

Obviously, a modern phone is full of conversations, let alone notes to self and who knows what other personal information about medications, diet, and so on. It has about as much in common with the trunk of your car as it does with the trunk of an elephant.

Shaking off the no-tax pledge -- In the stories about Republican members of Congress beginning to shake off Grover Norquist's grip upon their voting power, I thought there were some interesting rhetorical moves. First, we had Georgia's Saxby Chambliss saying "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge." This was followed by an even stronger statement by New York Rep. Peter King, who said, "A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress. For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I'm not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed and the economic situation is different." Wow, that's such fast footwork, it almost sounds like the work of Frank Luntz.

(Before we make heroes of these guys, let's not forget that Chambliss got into office by defaming his opponent, wounded Vietnam veteran Senator Max Cleland. Or that King is the House committee chair who held hearings on Muslim fanatics, refusing to include any testimony about fanatics from other religions.)

Is homework necessary? Alfie Kohn, summarizing some recent research in Psychology Today, is doubtful, at least when it comes to correlations between homework and outcomes on standardized tests. Even in math. Even in high school.

Vulnerability 101 -- I caught most of the public radio show On Being last Sunday. The guest was a social work professor named BrenĂ© Brown, whose research area is vulnerability. I recommend listening to it, particularly  the parts about gender roles, and also watching Brown's TED talk.

You have to give to get -- NPR yesterday carried a story about the psychology of reciprocation. It started with the story of a professor who sent out 6,000 Christmas cards to people he didn't know… and who got over 1,200 in return, including ones with three-page, hand-written letters. As we all know, receiving return address labels along with a fundraising appeal from a nonprofit makes it hard to not send them money. But the fact in the story that I didn't know was this: When restaurant servers present mints along with the check, their tips increase 3.3 percent. And if the server looks you in the eye and gives you an extra mint, tips go up over 20 percent.

Just because pharma is bad doesn't mean science is bad -- Science-Based Medicine's excellent pharmacist-in-residence Scott Gavura gives the best review I've seen of Ben Goldacre's book Bad Pharma. As he did in Bad Science, Goldacre does a thorough job of pointing out all the problems with his subject, especially, in this case, how drugs are evaluated and marketed. Gavura fairly summarizes Goldacre's points, yet grounds his review and the book in the science-based approach to medicine, rather than allowing it to become a launching pad for unproven alternative treatments.

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