Monday, September 01, 2014

Notes on Seth Roberts Memorial Symposium

I had a long-planned family reunion in Maine the week of the Ancestral Health Symposium in Berkeley this month, so it was just not possible for me to attend the Seth Roberts Memorial Symposium, but thanks to Tess McEnulty there are videos of the public talks. The talks are well worth watching, but if you don’t have the time, here is my brief summary of the highlights:

Nassim Taleb explained how Seth’s philosophy (n=1) is the exact opposite of what you see in today’s fascination with Big Data. No matter how many data points you accumulate, a new theory can be disproven with a single counter example; and sometimes you can build a true theory based on a single example. (“OJ Simpson only killed once; does that mean you can’t prove he’s a murderer?”). In fact, the more variables you add to a model, the more likely you are to find spurious correlations, as he shows in this slide:Nassim Taleb: Tragedy of Big Data

Tim Ferris (Four Hour Work Week) credited much of his book The Four Hour Body to ideas he got from Seth, who taught him five things:
  • Extremes inform the means. New products and ideas rarely come from “normal” use cases. If you want to find something interesting, search for odd examples.
  • Choose fast results over big data. Look for quick-and-dirty experiments, not big-huge-complicated ones.
  • Track yourself regularly: don’t try to judge a soccer match from a single ultra-hi res photo; it’s much better to have multiple, low-res photos, so track what you can however you can. Seth tracked most stuff with pencil and paper.
  • Remember the “Minimum Effective Dose”: for example, he gets fantastic sleep by taking raw honey and a single tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before bed. No more.
  • Care about normal people: Seth didn’t care who you are or your background. You can learn something from anybody.
Gary Taubes says Seth was one of the only people he ever talked with (they hiked regularly in Berkeley). His talk started with an overview from 19th century doctor Claude Bernard, whose 1865 book Intro to the Study of Experimental Medicine "should be required reading for every med student”.  Key quote: "All human knowledge is limited to working back from observed effects to their cause”. The rest of the talk was a summary of the limitations of various approaches to scientific research (observational studies, randomized control trials, etc.). There are no really good solutions, other than the open-minded and humble approach of people like Seth.

There were several other speakers, like best-selling “fratire" author Tucker Max (who met Seth by randomly emailing him), Paleo author John Durant (who appreciates Seth’s example that you don’t need fancy equipment to do science), experimental psychologist Aaron Blaisdell (who founded the health crowdsourcing site thanks to collaborations with Seth), and many others.

So many great memories of Seth’s ideas, by people who knew him well. I wish I could have attended in person.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Keep this in mind when viewing the news

An excellent piece by a former AP reporter, discussing how news organizations report about Israel, but I find this point to be true about nearly all news reporting:

The world is not responding to events in this country, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations. The key to understanding the strange nature of the response is thus to be found in the practice of journalism

I don’t know President Obama or Sarah Palin, or for that matter people like Steve Ballmer or Steve Jobs (public figures I’ve met in person).  I only know the description provided to me by other people. Same thing goes for big organizations, even countries, the only (partial) exception being the ones where I have personally worked or lived. When I do have some first-hand experience, I almost always find that outside reporting, even when factually correct, puts emphasis differently than I would.

Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias blog is another source of wisdom on the overall subject of how to avoid being fooled by what you read or think you know.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How I use Evernote

I keep everything in Evernote. Well, not everything — my files and photos are kept mostly on OneDrive — but everything else, anything I might need in a new place, is always in Evernote.

My Evernote store includes the following notebooks:

  • Default: where everything goes unless (or until, if I’m in a hurry) I move it elsewhere. 
  • Clippings: anything of interest I see on the web. I used to merely post the link, but since living in China — where internet and firewall access can sometimes be iffy — I usually just copy the whole page. 
  • Records: a scan/photo of every document that might be useful someday: passport, drivers license, insurance information, Safeway card, etc. Of course, each one is tagged multiple times to ensure I can find them easily.
  • HowTo: I like a separate place for notes that explain how to do something. Lots of technical articles go in here.
  • Work: My work-related files go here, in a bunch of subfolders. Some are shared with colleagues.
  • Archive: old notes, large notes that I don’t need to carry with me. Scanned receipts usually go here.

The best part of Evernote is that all the notes are automatically synched among all my computers and devices. You can synch everything at the notebook level, which is nice because on devices where space or bandwidth are at a premium (e.g. my phone) I only synch the notebooks I think I’ll need on the road.

I also use tags on just about every note, and the search feature is fast and powerful enough that it often doesn’t matter much which notebook I use. I could probably be lazier and it wouldn’t affect my workflow very much.

Note: if you put as much important stuff in Evernote as I do, you absolutely must use their two-factor authentication. It can be annoying if you need to access a note from a new device — you’ll need your phone authentication app — but it’s much more secure. Also, remember you can encrypt notes at the paragraph level. I do this a lot, for things that might be sensitive if somebody happens to look over my shoulder while writing, or as extra protection in case the notebook is somehow broken into.

Much as I like Evernote, I don’t trust that it’ll be around forever. I’ve been burned many times in the past when I adopt some file format only to see it become irrelevant or worse (I’m looking at you, WMV). Fortunately, it’s easy to export everything, and I do that a couple times a year, saving it in PDF and XML so I’ll never lose it.

Evernote is not perfect. The iPhone UI is cumbersome. Rich text and tables are too primitive.  There’s no outline mode to make complicated drafts easier to write. You can’t encrypt individual notebooks. Etc. OneNote is still my overall favorite, but its underpowered cross-platform synch, plus the huge investment I’ve already made in Evernote makes it impractical for me to switch. But Evernote is good enough for what I need, and I expect to be using it for many more years.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My sleep genes

I’ve tracked and analyzed my sleep for years, and of course I also have a long-time interest in understanding my genome, but I’ve been unable to combine both pieces of information until now. The new issue of the journal Sleep identifies a gene that seems associated with an ability to function just fine on six hours of sleep per night.  (also see the New Yorker overview)

23andme doesn’t tell me the exact genes in my genome — only the SNPs that tell who my genes differ from a reference genome in key places — so this is not necessarily the final word about the BHLHE41 Variant identified in the journal Sleep, but here’s the next best thing:

rs4963955 TT
rs4963956 CC
rs1480037 CC

These are my SNPs in those locations, and they appear to correspond to the gene variant that means I can survive just fine on six hours of sleep.

Having said this, it’s now past my bedtime. Good night.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Breaking refrigeration anxiety

The New York Times ruined an otherwise fascinating overview of refrigeration in China by spinning it as an article about climate change ("What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming?). Okay, I get how the advent of modern conveniences is increasing China’s use of greenhouse gases, but that’s not what makes it interesting. Here are some interesting facts you may have missed if you file it as just another story about carbon emissions:

  • "on average, a Chinese person experiences some kind of digestive upset twice a week”, at least partly due to poor food storage.
  • "Nearly half of everything that is grown in China rots before it even reaches the retail market” — refrigerated storage and transportation in this case would greatly help the environment by doubling food production.
  • The West has much lower rot-to-market losses, but ultimately we may still throw away just as much food, because we use refrigerators as an excuse to buy more stuff than we can eat — and it ends up rotting at home.
  • Refrigeration has many conveniences, but it also drives out the wonderful traditional ways people use for preserving food: salting, fermenting, brining, drying.
  • Refrigeration also results in a more homogeneous (and boring) market, because foods can be shipped from farther away without spoiling. Food growers face nationwide competition, driving out many of the local varieties of plants that often form the basis of different regional cuisines.

I think refrigeration in general is overused (which is why I say hold the ice), and I hope China can use the best of refrigeration technology without forgetting the special benefits of traditional food preservation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Aw heck, I don’t keep track of stuff like that anymore."

My grandmother’s reply to the doctor who, looking for signs of disorientation, asks her if she knows today’s date.

Grandma Sprague

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Alternative cancer therapies

I’m reading a fascinating book, Outsmart Your Cancer, that summaries dozens of “alternative” cancer treatments, some of which I’ve heard of (e.g. laetrile, Mexican cancer clinics), and many that were new to me. When you veer off the well-worn path of the “mainstream” medicine you’ll get from your local hospital, you are on shaky ground, easy prey for money-grubbing quacks and hucksters. I don’t know to what degree some of these therapies fit that bill (Quackwatch doesn’t think much of anything in this book), but I thought it was interesting for several reasons:

  • People in desperate medical situations are often much more open-minded than the rest of us are. What, literally, do they have to lose?
  • I don’t understand why the FDA or other regulatory bodies need to be involved with diseases that conventional medicine finds incurable (which is the case for many early-stage and probably most late-stage cancers). If the patient has nothing to lose, it seems to me it would be far better to encourage more experimentation, and have the FDA just keep score, to ensure that if an alternative treatment shows promise, at least we can have good record-keeping on who tried it and the results.
  • Some of the far-out approaches (the Rife Machine, 714X) rely on a micro-organism explanation for cancer. Since I’m intrigued by Paul Ewald's idea that cancer is an infection, I’d like to understand more about what happened with these various explanations.

So much of modern medicine is driven by top-down methods: big, expensive trials and therapies organized by large pharmaceutical companies, regulated by large bureaucracies, it makes me wonder what might have happened if medicine were much more of a free-for-all, where various cancer treatments really competed with one another purely on efficacy. No doubt, a lot of money would be wasted on charlatans, but if your mainstream doctor can’t cure you either, why is that a big deal?