Archive for the “News and Reviews” Category

Whew! It’s nearly 4:00 PM, and I made my deadline an hour ago. Then I celebrated with a round of disc golf. I don’t know what my final score was, because my brain was too busy saying “The book is done! The book is done!” to bother remembering strokes.

Actually, “done” would be stretching the truth. The first draft is done. That’s huge, because it means I’ve said everything I want to say. Now I’ll do what I always do with a long piece of work: let it cool for several days, then give it a full read-through, then say everything again, only better. Second and third drafts are usually where I come up with a lot of ideas for adding humor into the mix.

My primary tool for writing isn’t a computer. It’s a recorder, for a couple of reasons. The recorder allows me to “write” while commuting to Nashville. Most writing time is actually thinking time, and I find it easy to think in a car. Back in the day, I wrote most of my new standup material by dictating during long road trips.

I use the recorder first even when I’m at home and could type on the computer. As I learned the hard way when I first tried doing standup, written English and spoken English are related, but not the same. If you’ve ever heard someone give a speech that sounded like a term paper read aloud, you know what I mean. Natural speech has a different rhythm. When I was a journalism major, the broadcast news professor insisted we learn to write TV copy by using what he called the “Hey, Joe, Didja Know” method. Turn to an imaginary person and tell him the story. Then write that down. Otherwise, you’ll probably write copy that looks fine on paper but sounds clunky spoken aloud.

This is a book, which of course means people will be reading it. But it’s a book for kids, so I want the text to read almost like someone talking. We also plan to produce a companion DVD, so I figured I may as well put the language in a to-be-heard format from the beginning.

We’ve got a loooong way to go to finish the entire project. Chareva has a ton of cartoons and graphics to draw, plus she’s learning InDesign so she can design the book. I haven’t used After Effects or other animation software in years, so I need to seriously upgrade my skillset and learn the latest version.

But the first draft is done. That’s the best birthday present I’ve given myself since the Fat Head premiere party on my 50th.

And now it’s time for my annual indulgence in pizza-with-everything and a few craft beers.  I’m pretty sure I deserve it.


Comments 21 Comments »

Almost there on the book.  I’ve got to finish the last full chapter, then I’ll be writing a wrap-up chapter — the title of which will be something like “It’s perfectly good to be good instead of perfect.”

So I may just make that self-imposed deadline, which comes around on Saturday … along with my 57th birthday.

Back to it …


Comments 10 Comments »

I had a couple of interesting items land in my inbox recently. One was an article about an analysis of statin trials. Specifically, the investigators (who reported their findings in the British Medical Journal) looked at the statistics on all-cause mortality.

That, of course, is the figure that matters – or should matter – more than any other. It’s also a figure the makers of statins don’t like to announce. They’d much rather talk about those tiny reductions in heart-attack rates. But if people on statins don’t live any longer on average despite having fewer heart attacks, you ought to be very suspicious. Here’s why:

Suppose I develop a new drug that’s basically rat poison in pill form. Then I conduct a trial in which one group takes the drug and another group takes the placebo. In which group will fewer people die of heart attacks?

The rat-poison group, of course. The poison will kill them before a heart attack can.  But if I want to sell my drug, I’d trumpet the reduction in heart-attack deaths.

Anyway, let’s see what the BMJ analysis says about all-cause mortality in statin trials:

6 studies for primary prevention and 5 for secondary prevention with a follow-up between 2.0 and 6.1 years were identified. Death was postponed between −5 and 19 days in primary prevention trials …

I haven’t taken a math class in quite some time, but I’m pretty sure if death is postponed by -5 days, that means the statin-takers died five days sooner. On a positive note, statin-takers lived an average of 19 days longer in one trial.

Well, the statin enthusiasts like to tell us that while statins may not be all that with a side of fries for primary prevention (that is, preventing a first heart attack), they’re just awesome for preventing a second heart attack. So let’s continue.

… and between −10 and 27 days in secondary prevention trials. The median postponement of death for primary and secondary prevention trials were 3.2 and 4.1 days, respectively.

The statin enthusiasts are clearly correct. The results are better for secondary prevention.  Compared to primary prevention, death was postponed by nine-tenths of an extra day! That certainly justifies taking a powerful prescription drug with a low incidence of side effects, as the statin-makers assure us.

Which brings us to the second item to land in my inbox. The subject line of the email was New Boob Statins Toxic Side Effects.

Holy crap, I thought, you mean statins cause toxic boobs now too?

Turns out I was confused by a typo. The email was from author and science junkie David Evans, letting me know his new book (not boob) Statins Toxic Side Effects is available.

I told him about my confusion in a reply, and he responded with some links to studies showing that statins probably contribute to man-boobs. That might not be a toxic effect, but it’s not a pretty one, either. (Well, I suppose somewhere in the world there’s a female impersonator who looks better with the statin-induced boobs, but you get my point.)

Anyway, on to the book.

The subtitle is Evidence From 500 Scientific Papers. Yes, 500. On the off chance that you have any lingering doubts whether statins produce nasty side-effects, this book will convince you.

The format is the same as in Evans’ other two books, Low Cholesterol Leads To An Early Death and Cholesterol And Saturated Fat Prevent Heart Disease. (He also has an outstanding blog called Healthy Diets And Science, with a gazillion studies organized by topic.)

The studies are organized into chapters with titles such as The common association between statin use and muscle damage and Statins exacerbate asthma and inhibit lung function and exercise. For each of the 500 studies, there’s a consumer-friendly title written by Evans, a citation so you can look up the study yourself, and a summary of the study’s findings, with occasional commentary by Evans.

Thumbing through this thick book and reading some study summaries, I kept shaking my head, thinking of all the people I know who are on statins because the doctor said so.  When my doctor suggested thinking about a statin because of my “elevated” (read: normal) cholesterol, I replied, “I wouldn’t take a statin unless you had a gun to my head and I was convinced you’d pull the trigger.”  He didn’t argue.

Chapter 20 provides citations and summaries of articles written by health professionals who dare to question the statins-for-everyone trend. There are titles (again, the consumer-friendly versions by Evans) like UK doctors virtually compelled to write prescriptions for statins against their better judgment and Doctors’ low awareness of statin side-effects.

Chapter 21 is a bullet-point summary of the negative side-effects attributed to statins in studies. It runs on for two-and-half pages. That should tell you everything you need to know about a drug that by gosh might just extend your life for up to four days.

This isn’t, of course, a book you’ll sit down and read for pleasure while nursing a glass of red wine and a side of bacon. It’s a reference that will save you lord-only-know-how-many hours of research on the internet. I’ll be glad it’s on my bookshelf the next time some statin-pushing doctor sends me an email telling me I’ve just GOT to stop scaring people away from those wunnerful, wunnerful life-saving drugs.

You should be scared.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.


Comments 70 Comments »

One of the managers at work has another project in mind he’d like me to take on.  Since I’m already working on a big project, he wondered aloud in a meeting if I’d consider cloning myself.

Heck, if I could clone myself, I would have already done it.  It’s almost October, and I still have miles to go on that book project — which I originally wanted to have written last October.   Programming job, blogging, book writing, weekend farm chores, a bit of R & R time with Chareva and the girls … there just aren’t enough hours in a week.

So for now, I’m going to reduce the blogging workload to one post per week on Thursday.  My Monday-evening writing sessions will be dedicated to the book instead of the blog.

Promise I’ll do my best to make the book worth the wait.



Comments 21 Comments »

Interesting items from my inbox and elsewhere …

The Many Uses For Hogs

I’m a big fan of the hog (when they’re not smacking me around in a chute, that is), but I had no idea they’re this useful:

When we tuck into a bacon sandwich, few of us wonder what has happened to the other parts of the pig whose life has been sacrificed so we can enjoy a juicy breakfast.

But one inquisitive writer set out to trace where all the body parts of one porker ended up.

Christein Meindertsma, 29, said: ‘Like most people, I had little idea of what happens to a pig after it leaves the abattoir so I decided to try to find out. I approached a pig farmer friend who agreed let me follow one of his animals.’

Identified by its yellow ear tag number, 05049, her pig trail ended with her identifying an incredible 185 different uses to which it was put – from the manufacture of sweets and shampoo, to bread, body lotion, beer and bullets.

Virtually nothing in a pig goes to waste. The snout from Pig 05049 became a deep-fried dog snack, while pig ears are sometimes used for chemical weapon testing due to their similarity to human tissue.

Tattoo artists even buy sections of pig skin to practise their craft on due to its similarity to human skin, while it is occasionally used with burns patients for the same reason.

I’m starting to feel a bit chagrined that all we got from our hogs was 500 pounds of meat. I could have been practicing to become a tattoo artist while covering myself with body lotion, drinking a beer, and firing some bullets at a loaf of bread.

Bacon Laser?

We may need add another use for hogs to the list:

A team of Harvard scientists has paved the way for a deadly laser pig weapon by demonstrating that, with a little encouragement, pig fat cells can be made to lase.

According to MIT Technology Review, Seok Hyun Yun and Matjaž Humar stimulated spheres of fat inside porcine cells with an optical fibre, causing them to emit laser light.

And here I thought my belly was glowing because I’m happy.

Handily, pig cells contain “nearly perfectly spherical” fat balls, which are conducive to lasing by resonance when supplied with a suitable light source. The team has also cheated the effect by injecting oil droplets into other cells.

Seok Hyun Yun, lead author of the report which appears in Nature Photonics, reckons an ultimate use of his work might be to deploy “intracellular microlasers as research tools, sensors, or perhaps as part of a drug treatment”.

Drug treatment, my foot. Let’s put all the research dollars into that deadly laser pig weapon. Imagine if we have troops overseas in some future war:

“Achmed, what’s that smell coming from the American lines? Is it …?”

“Yes! I believe it’s BACON! Run! Run before they turn the pig-laser on us!”

And if would-be intruders are scared away from my house by the aroma of saugage, that’s fine by me.

Eggs With My Pig Laser, Please

In my Science For Smart People speech, I mentioned that when some researchers find a correlation in an observational study, they assume they’re looking at cause and effect. I gave the example of a meta-analysis which prompted the lead researcher to announce to the media, “The studies showed a significant increase of new onset diabetes with regular egg consumption.”

Sure sounds like cause and effect, doesn’t it?  Based on other interviews, that’s indeed what the researcher believes.  But of course, if eggs actually caused diabetes, we wouldn’t see observational studies like this one:

Men who ate more than five eggs a week had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than men who ate about one a week only, according to researchers in Finland.

In a study with an average follow-up of almost 20 years with 2,332 participants, researchers noticed that those in the highest quartile for egg intake had a lower risk of developing diabetes than those in the lowest quartile when cholesterol and other factors were controlled for.

Yunsheng Ma, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said in an email to MedPage Today that the study “provides welcome news to support the 2015 dietary guidelines, which are expected to drop the limit of egg consumption for blood cholesterol concerns.”

Ma said that he was aware of six studies that examined egg consumption and diabetes. One showed an increased risk, he said, and the other five showed no association. “So these results are not in line with other findings,” wrote Ma.

So here’s the official score in Observational Study Stadium: one study shows a higher risk of diabetes with higher egg consumption, one shows a lower risk, and five show no association at all. That means there’s no cause-and-effect relationship, period. Any good science teacher could tell you that.

Speaking of which …

A Science Teacher’s Opinion of Super Size Me

Several people besides me have demonstrated they could lose weight while eating nothing but fast food. The latest happens to be a science teacher:

Iowa high school science teacher John Cisna weighed 280 pounds and wore a size 51 pants.

Then he started eating at McDonalds.  Every meal. Every day. For 180 days.

By the end of his experiment, Cisna was down to a relatively svelte 220 and could slip into a size 36.

Unlike me, Cisna didn’t embrace a high-fat diet:

Cisna left it up to his students to plan his daily menus, with the stipulation that he could not eat more than 2,000 calories a day and had to stay within the FDA’s recommended daily allowances for fat, sugar, protein, carbohydrates and other nutrients.

I much prefer my “@#$% the government recommendations” diet. But I definitely enjoyed Cisna’s comments about Super Size Me:

“As a science teacher, I would never show ‘Super Size Me’ because when I watched that, I never saw the educational value in that,” Cisna said. “I mean, a guy eats uncontrollable amounts of food, stops exercising, and the whole world is surprised he puts on weight?’

“What I’m not proud about is probably 70 to 80 percent of my colleagues across the United States still show ‘Super Size Me’ in their health class or their biology class. I don’t get it.”

I get it. They like the anti-McDonald’s message, so they toss critical thinking out the window … assuming they had any critical-thinking skills to toss.

It’s 2015 … So Let’s See How the ‘90s Viewed the ‘60s

I never watched the TV show Quantum Leap, but a reader sent me a link to this YouTube clip. It’s part of an episode in which the main character visits his parents in 1969. Skip ahead to the 12-minute mark:

The episode aired in 1990. That’s right about when arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria was in full swing. The main character goes back in time and is horrified by all the fat and cholesterol his father is eating. Now we can go back in time and be horrified by the fact that the main character is horrified.

Junior was right about one thing, though: Dear Old Dad needs to stop smoking.

If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t tell my dad to stop eating eggs and butter. I’d tell him to give up sugar and stop taking those @#$%ing statins. His 81st birthday would have been tomorrow, and man, I wish I could call him up, rib him about getting old, then wait for one of his witty comebacks.

It’s 2015 … So Everything Good Must Be Candy

This isn’t from a news item. It’s something I’ve noticed in a handful of TV commercials: vitamins and even fiber tablets now come in the form of gummies– for adults. I didn’t find a commercial online, but I did find this:

So apparently some people won’t take vitamins unless they taste like candy. If that’s not a sad comment on our dietary habits, I don’t know what is.


Comments 31 Comments »

Interesting items from my inbox and elsewhere …

We’re under-statinated!

Yup, according to this article about a Harvard study, even more people should be on statins:

A new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers has found that it would be cost-effective to treat 48-67% of all adults aged 40-75 in the U.S. with cholesterol-lowering statins. By expanding the current recommended treatment guidelines and boosting the percentage of adults taking statins, an additional 161,560 cardiovascular-related events could be averted, according to the researchers.

Well, why the heck stop at 67 percent? The way these guidelines keep expanding the definition of “at risk,” you’ll soon be considered at risk for a heart attack the day you’re born.  Best start adding statins to baby formula just to be sure.  I’m reminded of something Dr. Malcom Kendrick wrote in his terrific book Doctoring Data:

The boundaries that define illness have narrowed inexorably. When I first graduated from medical school in 1981, a high cholesterol level was anything above 7.5 mmol/L. Over the years, this level has fallen and fallen to the point where a ‘healthy’ level is now 5.0 mmol/L. I suspect it will soon be 4.0 mmol/L. Anything above this figure, and you have an increased risk of heart disease – allegedly. Considering that over 85% of the adult population in the western world has a cholesterol level higher than 5.0 mmol/L this is a quite amazing concept. I will admit that I have never been that brilliant at statistics. However, it seems to me that attempting to claim that more than 80% of people are at high risk of heart disease stretches the concept of ‘average’ to the breaking point – and well beyond.

Back to the article about the Harvard study:

“We found that the new guidelines represent good value for money spent on healthcare, and that more lenient treatment thresholds might be justifiable on cost-effectiveness grounds even accounting for side-effects such as diabetes and myalgia,” said Ankur Pandya, assistant professor of health decision science at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study.

Yeah, what’s a little muscle pain, memory loss or diabetes when you might reduce your risk of a heart attack by teensy-weensy percentage?

They also found that the optimal treatment threshold was particularly sensitive to patient preferences for taking a pill daily, which suggests that the decision to initiate statins for primary CVD prevention should be made jointly by patients and physicians.

When your physician sits down with you to make that joint decision, I suggest you give the answer I gave when a doctor suggested a statin for my (ahem) “elevated” cholesterol:

“I wouldn’t take a statin unless you held a gun to my head and I was convinced you’d pull the trigger.”

Fat makes you feel full … and makes you fat … and … say what?

Pronouncements by nutritionists often make me want to bang my head on my desk. Others just leaving me scratching my head in wonder. A reader sent me a link to an article about avocadoes which includes this gem from a nutritionist:

As with many other fruits, avocados’ primary risks are related to overconsumption. “Consuming too many avocados may lead to weight gain because of the fat content, even though it is an unsaturated fat,” said Flores. “It can also lead to nutritional deficiencies, since fat is digested slower and leaves you feeling fuller longer than [do] other nutrients.”

Go ahead, try to wrap your head around that one. I double-dog dare ya. In just two sentences we learned that 1) fat makes you feel full longer than other nutrients, but 2) fat also makes you fat. So I guess the key to weight loss is to eat foods that don’t make you feel full. Oh, and 3) feeling full leads to nutrient deficiencies.

Uh … uh … because you stop eating before you eat enough to get your nutrients? But then you gain weight?

I’m starting to think every time a nutritionist leaves a crowded room, the average IQ goes up by at least 10 points.

Soy sorry about the soybean oil.

Somebody get Paul Newman on the phone and convince him to change the formula for those Newman’s Own salad dressings. A new study reported in an online article suggests soybean oil induces weight gain:

Sugar has been blasted in recent years for its link to obesity and a slew of health problems, but now experts say the food world has a new problem child: Soybean oil.

Soybean oil, considered a “healthier” alternative to some oils that contain more saturated fat, actually leads to more weight gain than fructose, according to new research on mice that was published in the journal PLOS One.

Okay, how many scientists and health organizations have to announce that saturated fat isn’t actually bad for us before we stop seeing products labeled as “healthier” because they’re low in saturated fat? A hundred? A few thousand? All of them? Anyway …

For their research, scientists divided the mice into four groups and fed them each a different diet that contained 40 percent fat (similar to the average American diet). One diet used coconut oil (which largely consists of saturated fat), another used half coconut oil and half soybean oil (which primarily contains polyunsaturated, or “good” fat). The third and fourth diets had fructose added.

All four diets had the same number of calories, and the mice were fed the same amount of food.

Here’s what researchers discovered: Mice that were on the soybean oil diet gained 12 percent more weight than those that ate a fructose diet, and 25 percent more weight than mice on the coconut oil diet.

The mice on the soybean oil diet also had larger fat deposits in their bodies and fatty livers, and were more likely to have developed diabetes and insulin resistance. Mice on the fructose diet didn’t get off easy, either — they had similar issues, but to a less severe degree.

It’s only a mouse study, so let’s not get too excited. We can’t conclude that the effects on human beings would be the same. But here’s what I find most interesting: the ol’ calories-in/calories-out theory sure didn’t hold up in this study, did it? Yes, these are mice, but we’re told over and over that CICO is A LAW OF PHYSICS. Mice aren’t immune from the laws of physics.

Neither are humans, of course. If you gain weight, you absolutely, positively consumed more calories than you burned. But what this study demonstrated (again) is that the quality of the calories consumed affects the number of calories burned. To repeat a quote from the article:

All four diets had the same number of calories, and the mice were fed the same amount of food.

So only an idiot would believe the mice on the soybean-oil diet gained 25% more weight because of calories alone.

It could also be a matter of calories alone, certified dietitian-nutritionist Jessica Cording tells Yahoo Health. Soybean oil is a fat, and fats contain nine calories per gram, she says. However, carbohydrates such as fructose contain four calories per gram.

Every time a nutritionist leaves a crowded room …

This thing will stop your weight from ballooning?

Up, up and away …. or down, down and in your belly. A balloon is the latest, greatest weapon in the Just Eat Less! battlefront, according to this article:

The FDA has approved a gastric balloon to treat obesity, adding to a fat-busting device arsenal that includes gastric banding and a vagal nerve stimulator.

The ReShape dual balloon system is indicated for obese adults who have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 to 40, and at least one other obesity-related comorbidity such as hypertension, high cholesterol, or diabetes.

It’s placed into the stomach using an endoscope, and once it’s inflated it is meant to diminish obesity by triggering feelings of fullness, “or by other mechanisms that are not yet understood,” according to the FDA press release.

It gives me great confidence in the FDA to hear that they’re approving medical devices whose mechanisms are not yet understood. But I totally understand that “triggering feelings of fullness” method for losing weight. I feel full after my meals. But those meals don’t include sugars or grains (or soybean oil) that induce weight gain.  In fact, I’ve lost weight while eating meals that made me feel full.

So what kind of dramatic weight loss does the up, up and away balloon induce?

In a 326-patient clinical trial, patients on the device lost an average of 14.3 pounds over 6 months, compared with 7.2 pounds for those in the control group.

Hmm, let’s do a little simple math here. The balloon-belly treatment group lost 14.3 pounds, while the control group lost 7.2 pounds. The trial lasted six months. Okay, hang on … subtract, divide … WOW!! That balloon was responsible for an additional weight loss of 1.18 pounds per month!

I think it would do more good if they filled it with helium and gave it a slow leak. Then people could at least sound like the munchkins from the Wizard of Oz when they say, “I walked around with an inflated balloon in my belly all month, and I only lost one extra pound? What the @#$% is the point of that?!”

Rice not nice to teeth?

This isn’t from an article; it’s from a book. When I commute to Nashville or spend five hours behind a mower cutting the back pastures, I listen to books. The one I just finished is Helmet For My Pillow, by Robert Leckie. If you saw the terrific HBO series The Pacific, Leckie was one of the marines featured. The audiobook is read by James Badge Dale, the same actor who portrayed Leckie in the series, which is a nice touch. You can listen to part of the book and then watch an episode of the series (as I did last week), and you’re hearing the same character speaking with the same voice.

Anyway, in Helmet For My Pillow, Leckie describes how after a battle, some marines would go prospecting in the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. Why? Because at the time, Japanese dentists filled cavities with gold – and according to Leckie, some of the Japanese soldiers had a treasure of gold in their mouths. Lots and lots of cavities.

The Japanese weren’t eating lots of sugar in the 1940s – even today, the Japanese consume less than half as much sugar per capita as Americans. But they were certainly eating plenty of white rice in the years before WWII. In fact, on Guadalcanal, the U.S. navy was forced to withdraw for awhile, which left the marines stranded without a food supply. They ended up living on rations captured from the Japanese — which mostly consisted of rice.

So I’m thinking whatever its status as a safe starch, perhaps white rice isn’t so great for keeping a pearly smile.

Good thing I don’t much like the stuff.


Comments 77 Comments »