questions


I don’t carry a cell phone in my pants pocket any more, unless it’s in airplane mode or turned off. Several months ago I read and agreed with Tim Ferriss in The Four Hour Body that you probably don’t want a radiation emitter cuddling with your testicles. He apparently tripled his motile sperm per ejaculate during an eleven-week program of no phone-testicle cuddling, cold treatments, and eating Brazil nuts. So I carry my cell phone in my breast pocket if I have one and in my hand if I don’t.

The problem is, I also care about my heart, lungs, muscle, bone, and lymph nodes which my cell phone is now cuddling with. And I don’t care for the phone-strapped-to-arm look. I often just keep it turned off or in airplane mode, which is fine. I don’t mind not being on call to everyone who has my phone number.

But now I am actually  and professionally on call. My work has a two-week rotation for therapists to be on call 24 hours a day for crisis intervention and I’m on until next Monday. My work cell has to be on and it has to be on my person or I will likely miss a call. So now I’m carrying two phones.

Oh, what to do?

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I’ve listened to 247 podcasts of Planet Money over the last several years–about 80 hours. This show is the best way I’ve found way to learn about economics in fun, thought-provoking, 20-minute bursts.

I just finished a show called “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about six economic reforms that apparently almost all economists agree on, regardless of ideology. The major point of the show was that even though there is agreement, political candidates will not consider running on them. And if they did, they would stand no chance of winning.

One of the major points (though probably unintended) of my 80-hour economics education has been that economists are much closer to political pundits than scientists. The “facts” vary widely depending on their political stance. That’s why this show was so exciting: There actually are six things that economists agree on across the political spectrum!

1) Eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction. It is extremely regressive and distorts the housing market in bad ways. They make it sound here like almost all economists are in favor of eliminating all tax loopholes and deductions, though the point is less clear. Read on, though, and you’ll see that loopholes and deductions would become mostly obsolete under this platform.

2) Eliminate the deduction for employer-provided health insurance. It’s one of the main reasons for high healthcare costs in the US.

3) Eliminate taxes on corporations. If you want to tax rich people, do it directly. The idea is that tax rates serve as incentives/disincentives. Don’t tax things we like. We like American businesses making money.

4) Eliminate the individual income tax and payroll tax. We also like individuals making money and we like businesses creating jobs. Make up for the loss by taxing consumption, I think especially on luxury items–make it progressive in some way.

5) Tax things we don’t like. Use taxes as disincentives for things like cigarettes and pollution.

6) Legalize drugs, or at least marijuana. The war on drugs is basically a massive waste of money that makes drug cartels rich. Without it, we’d have another kind of consumption that we don’t like to tax.

Again, the major point of this show was that these ideas are political non-starters, but I wonder if that is true. Each plank on its own would have entrenched detractors, but as a system of reforms it’s more appealing. Pay more for your mortgage and gasoline, but pay no income tax. You would have to show people a model of it working.

Here’s a challenge for any math-oriented readers: Give us some examples. How much would we need to charge for cigarettes, pot, gambling, fossil fuels, yachts, and mansions to make up for the loss of all income taxes?

When I find myself in the presence of a new very smart person, my favorite question to ask is,”What is the most interesting question in your field?”* It both makes for great conversation and expands my sense of the envelope of human inquiry.

If you have an idea about the most interesting question in your field, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below. If you are the kind of person who creates and publicizes websites, though, what I’d like even more is for you to create a wiki-style site where folks can go, create a forum for their field or sub-discipline, and propose and vote on most interesting questions. This could generate what I want to look at: a home page that is a self-updating outline of what professionals believe are the most interesting questions in their field. If you want to go whole-hog, you could also let them vote on and link to what they believe are the best pieces of research on their question to date.

And since I posed the question, I should probably tackle it for my own field… I am a couples and family therapist, and I propose that the most interesting question in my field is, “What are the precise mechanisms of therapeutic change in couple and family systems?” In other words, how does therapy work? We know that it is helpful in most cases, and we have endless models and speculations about how it works, but virtually no evidence about the mechanisms of change. The best research I know about on the topic is the qualitative, two-part, “What Clients of Couple Therapy Model Developers and Their Former Students Say About Change,” by Davis & PiercyEdging into that territory from another angle is the research summarized in Gottman’s The Science of Trust.

*I stole this question from very-smart-person Ethan Mitchell.

Fair warning: This post is kind of gross.

I went swimming with Akira tonight and in the locker room I saw an elderly man with shocking feet.  This guy’s feet were crusted with fungus. His toenails were thick and white, and extended way past the ends of his toes. His skin was briney and cracked, and the cracks were bristling with fungus.

I think, “Darn. Not a good day to forget my flip-flops. I have to walk on the same floor as him.” I’ve been pretty rigorous about wearing flip-flops in locker rooms ever since I caught a fungus in the Eugene YMCA many years ago. (At least I think it was at the Y. How can you really tell?) It was a crappy case because it was exacerbated by sunlight, which is unusual. I could not go barefoot in the sun for years without it flaring up. And I love going barefoot in the sun. I went to a dermatologist in Springfield who said, and I quote, “I have never heard of that. I cannot help you with that.” I eventually cured it last summer with this wearying routine: I bought every topical antifungal I could find (tolnaftate, clotrimazole, miconazole nitrate, terbinafine hydrochloride, and butenafine hydrochloride) and used them twice a day, morning and night, rotating the medication every four days, until there had been no symptoms for 30 days. No flare-ups since then, even barefoot in the sun.

So I was walking around the locker room, feeling creeped out about invisible fungal spores everywhere, and it hit me that the place was teeming with people who were not wearing flip-flops. No one was wearing flip-flops at all. And I imagined that no one else was thinking about fungus, just running around, taking showers, getting dressed. Locker room stuff. I think, “These people are probably not going to go home with a fungal infection, and I’m probably not either, but this guy did at some point, and so did I, and what’s the difference?” Did that guy have feet like that because he’s old and has had a long time to collect crazy fungi with them? Is it because his immune system is not functioning in some way? Is it because his skin is extra-susceptible for some reason? Why him and not these kids? Why him and hopefully not me?

I’ve been a commute cyclist since 1992, biking between several hundred and a couple thousand miles a year, mostly in 15-30 minute chunks. I’ve also been a lap swimmer since the mid-80s. In October of 2010 I was diagnosed and treated for a sacroiliac sprain, which basically means that one of my pelvic bones had gotten stuck, rotated backwards compared to the bottom of my spine, called the sacrum. Part of the treatment was refraining from all exercise except walking for several months, while the joint healed. A big change. In January I started adding exercises back in, and last month I started biking and swimming again, slow and careful.

In the meantime, I had been paying close attention to my posture, and doing a lot of physiotherapy for my spine and hips. My experience the effects of biking and swimming is quite different than it used to be. The bikes that I’ve tried now feel badly designed. They make me lean forward too far, hunch my shoulders, round my upper back, and jut my neck forward. And after biking even a few minutes, my low back feels all crunched up, especially in the L5/S1 region, and my psoas muscles feel tight. Swimming feels good while I’m doing it, but afterwards my shoulders are rounded forward and my thoracic curve is exacerbated. Both exercises feel like they are working against the progress I’ve made with my posture.

Can anyone recommend some stretches or exercises to specifically counteract the negative effects of swimming or biking? (I mostly swim freestyle/crawl.) I’d appreciate the help!

My favorite answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” came from my friend, Taber Shadburne seven or eight years ago. He said that it’s a misleading question because we think of meaning as existing in language, so we imagine that the meaning of life will have a narrative, a set of values, a statement about the nature of reality. We expect mental games to do something that they just can’t do. The meaning of life, he said, is more like the meaning of skiing. If you ask yourself, “What is the meaning of skiing?” you see that you can’t answer that question with language. Instead, the meaning of skiing is something like this: He jumped up on a nearby bench, crouched into a skier stance with a delighted, slightly terrified look on his face, and shouted “Woohoo!”

The meaning of life is kind of like that.

Here’s Taber playing one of his songs:

My parents forwarded me an email from a family friend, Lauren (musician and poet), who is going off email for six months. She’s concerned about distraction (including in her email the quote “It’s commonly believed and understood that it takes about 4 minutes to recover from any interruption. If the computer dings at you and you look 30 times, that’s 120 minutes of recovery time. That’s the crisis.” —Marsha Egan, Author of Inbox Detox), concern over what seems like addictive behavior, valuing face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice communication, and this article about a study which found that emailing reduced productivity more than pot.

She had a series of questions about it email and her project, which I answered. By email. I think she’s starting on April 14, but if she’s already started,she can read my answers in six months.

1.     How many times a day do you check your email?
I don’t know. It varies between one and many–20?–depending on the style of my day. There have been days that I don’t check–camping, procrastinating. If I need to concentrate, I do not check email or even keep a browser open until I’m done.
 
2.     How many times a day do you send or receive a text?
Zero. I sent one text in my life, just to try it out, and I strongly encourage my friends not to text me. It doesn’t appeal to me. I’m also vaguely offended by the use of “text” as a verb.
 
3.     Have you ever had a miscommunication via email or text?
Yep, at least a few. It took a while to realize that the pragmatic (i.e. non-verbal) context of communication really does not come across in email.
 
4.     Do you feel anxious over the thought of not having email for
six months? Do you feel anything negative at all? Happy? Just tell me
how you think you would feel.
Hmm. It would be tough. First of all, I’m in grad school and email is how all of my profs and peers communicate important info. We often get our reading over email, and turn in our papers, too. Second, I’m in a long distance relationship, and email is helpful in keeping a sense of connection. We depend mostly on Skype, which is allowed in your plan, but I wouldn’t want to give up email before Reanna and I are living in the same house. Plus, she emails me mp3s of her reading articles I’ve been assigned, so I can “read” while cleaning my kitchen. Plus, she edits my writing over email. Third, I’m so busy that losing the super quick, no-strings-attached communication ability would mean isolating myself even more from my geographically dispersed family and community. Last, as I understand it you are going off of Facebook, blogging, texting, messaging, and chatting as well as email. That all sounds fine except for blogging. I’m pretty attached to my blog. It’s my most consistent form of creative expression these days.
 
On the other hand, I feel relieved and relaxed when the power goes out, and a big part of that is losing the computer. I went to a lecture years ago by a woman whose name I can’t remember who said “You’re not ‘connected,’ you’re ‘tethered.’ She recommended taking vacations from the leash–phone included. That appeals to me. When I climbed Mt. Whitney, ten years ago, two behaviors really confused me, seeming to miss the point: At the summit, a few people lit up a cigarette and many people immediately called home. It seemed like in sharing their moment they were also missing it. At least they weren’t texting, I guess.
 
 5.     Do you think there is anything important to be learned/gained
by not having email for six months?
Yes.
 
6.     Do you use email more for work related messages or for
family/friend correspondence?
Mostly school. Family and friends second. Work a distant third.
 
7.     How do you feel about me not emailing you for 6 months?
Well, we haven’t communicated in years, so I don’t feel much about it. If we were close I might have feelings.
 
8.     Are you sitting with a Bluetooth in your ear, reading and
sending a text with one hand, eating soup with the other, glancing
frequently at your To Do list, all on your twenty minute lunch break?
Don’t feel bad. While writing this letter I checked my email 3 times,
ate handfuls of dry Panda Puff cereal, and listened to my sweetheart
talk about his online class.
No, actually, I’m sitting at my first shift on the University of Oregon Crisis Line, waiting for someone with a crisis to call me. I do have my cell phone with me (and will almost certainly use it at least once), I am (obviously) using email, and have a to-do list that you wouldn’t believe, but I doubt that I’ll check my email more than three times today. Mostly I’ll be reading about counseling gifted children, assessing families, and conducting group therapy.
 

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