Category Archives: Society

Tips for using your cellphone

A cellphone

Congratulations on your purchase of a new cellphone! While this tiny rectangle of metal and glass may not look like much, you will soon find yourself drawn into its world  —  inexorably. So as not to become one of those zombie cellphone users you see around you, crashing their cars, walking off cliffs, and ruining friendships, we have some tips for you. What’s that? This is your 10th cellphone purchase? Well pay attention, sonny boy, you might learn something too.

Like all technologies, cellphones are neither good nor evil. It is how they are used that matters. True, there are certain technologies, like nuclear weapons and cellphones, for which finding good uses is a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless we will try.

  • Waste time more efficiently
    You’re stuck in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Go ahead and use your cellphone. It’s got to be better than that tattered June 2010 edition of People Magazine.
  • Read good stuff
    Millions of books, articles, online courses, and other good stuff are available to read via your cellphone. Use it to learn. Avoid mindless social media and amateur videos. If you’re going to walk off a cliff, do it while reading Tolstoy instead of while perusing cat videos.
  • Push vs Pull
    Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was the first disrupting — no, interrupting — technology created (thank you very much!), and the cellphone is a much more malignant interrupter. Not only is it already a telephone, liable to go off at any moment — and unlike an old-fashioned telephone you can’t go outside to escape it — but it will also cheerfully beep or ping or vibrate incessantly with so-called “push notifications.” You need to set limits. Who’s the boss here: you or the cellphone? Do you really need to be alerted to the astounding fact that so-and-so, someone you’ve forgotten about, has finally tweeted something after not tweeting for a long time? Push notifications are usually on by default, and need to be turned off for each app, which is a pain. Nevertheless it is worth the effort to do so. Short of North Korea declaring war on the US, these notifications can wait until you decide you want to check them.
  • Don’t be rude, there are other people out there
    Long ago, at the dawn of the cellphone age, I saw a woman at the train station seemingly talking to herself in the middle of a crowd of people. I thought she was schizophrenic, talking to an imaginery person. Now such a sight is common, and people share their end of a private conversation with abandon in the midst of a crowd of perfect strangers via their cellphone plus or minus some bluetooth accessory. Don’t do this.
  • Put it away
    Two people at a restaurant. Man and woman. A lovely couple. Ignoring each other while fully mesmerized by their cellphones. This scene is repeated everywhere thousands of times a day. Why? Even if the other person is more boring than a cat video, can’t you at least pretend to be a human being who still is interested in others of your species?

It is hoped that by following the guidelines above, you will remain a sane and productive cellphone user.

Reacting to Terrorism in Nice

Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France
Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France

Every other year Cardiostim, a major international convention for cardiac electrophysiologists, is held in Nice, France. Starting in 2000, and up until I retired, I made it a point to attend this meeting. The sessions were fun, but more fun was the chance to get away from it all and enjoy the sunny ambiance of the French Riviera. Knowing Nice quite well, it was especially horrifying to see the images on television last night of murder and mayhem. A man drove a large truck through a crowd along the Promenade des Anglais, mowing down dozens of people who had just finished watching a fireworks display celebrating Bastille Day, France’s equivalent of our Independence Day. All the details aren’t in yet, but sadly we have all become so familiar with this type of atrocity that there’s little doubt what investigators will find. A Muslim, heeding the exhortations of ISIS or al-Qaeda or some other jihadist group, decided to martyr himself in the cause of killing the “unbelievers” in as gruesome and dramatic way as possible. Perhaps the worst part of this is the palpable sense of frustration that most people (I included) feel. Since September 11, 2001, when the “War on Terror” was declared, things only seem to have gotten worse, with more and more terrorist attacks happening closer and closer to home. How can our leaders have so bungled things? What can be done to stop the insanity?

I grew up in the industrial Northeast of the United States, so predictably I am a progressive on most issues. I don’t like the evangelical social agenda and trickle-down economics of the right wing in this country. But I am exasperated with our left wing’s political correctness that refuses to acknowledge that religious doctrine is the main problem here. I’m sure if you asked the truck driver why he did it, he would answer it was his religious beliefs. For Hilary Clinton or President Obama to say that this is not the “true” Islam begs the question: who defines what is the “true” Islam? Presumably neither one of them is a Muslim, so neither one actually believes that any strain of Islam is true. If it’s all imaginary, what makes one imaginary belief more true than another? The main problem is the tendency to magical thinking in the first place, the innate gullibility of humans to accept outrageous ideas without adequate proof (a good definition of “faith”), in other words, religion. We underestimate religion as a destructive force. It has brought down the world before. The classical world of Greece and Roman was brought to its knees by Christianity. The subsequent period of religious dominance is aptly named “The Dark Ages.” And now, in the Age of Technology, with our smart phones and space probes orbiting the planet Jupiter, we again face a return to barbarism inflicted on us by the latest iteration of belief in that miserable vindictive God of Abraham.

The human race needs to grow up fast and shed its irrational religious crutches, or we are just going to continue to have our hearts broken again and again.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Inside Noah's Ark (photo from AP)
Inside Noah’s Ark (photo from AP)

Reading about the opening of the Noah’s Ark Theme Park in Kentucky brings to mind the days when I worked as a physician in that state. I had moved from an academic position in Colorado and joined a large group of private practice cardiologists in Louisville. I found that people in Kentucky were different from those in Colorado. They were much more overtly religious.

As an interventional electrophysiologist I would meet with each patient’s family before and after every procedure. Not infrequently one of the group sitting in the waiting room was introduced as “this is our pastor.” Usually at some point the pastor would suggest a round of prayer, and I was expected to participate, at least by bowing my head and maintaining a respectful silence. If the prayer was before the procedure the main focus was usually to make sure God guided my hand and the outcome would be good. Prayers after the procedure usually focused on thanking God for safely getting the patient through the procedure and asking for a speedy recovery.

It was not a good time to bring up the fact that I was an atheist. So I just went along with it, only briefly and mildly discomforted. Religion gives strength and comfort to people in the life and death situations that doctors often deal with. I rationalized that my silent participation was helping my patient and the family psychologically. Besides, how would they feel about my performing complicated heart procedures on their loved one if they thought I was an unbelieving heathen incapable of accepting God’s guiding hand?

It’s uncomfortable to be an atheist and a doctor, just as it uncomfortable in America to be an atheist in general. Polls show that the public distrust atheists to about the same degree they distrust Muslims. Being an atheist is practically taboo for someone running for public office. George H. W. Bush famously said “… I don’t think that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”   Atheists are considered immoral by religious people. They point to the atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao, or Hitler. Atheists in turn point out the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of witches, or, more recently, the atrocities of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Neither the religious or non-religious have a monopoly on morality.

As social consciousness is raised about oppressed groups such as the LGBT community, there has been little progress in the acceptance of atheists in American society (I mention America because the situation is quite different in Europe). And yet the non-religious are a fast growing group. In 2014, 22.8% of Americans did not identify with a religion.  Although a relatively small percentage of these people call themselves as atheists, probably because of the negative connotations of that term, this overall percentage is larger than the percentage of Catholics, Mormons, Jews, or Muslims.  It is amazing how unrepresented this large group is in our government! If one looks at scientists, (2009 Pew poll ), only 33% profess belief in God, vs 83% in the general public.  There is some evidence that the top, elite scientists are even less likely to believe in God (only 7%).  But do doctors hold beliefs similar to scientists? An older poll from 2005 showed that 77% believe in God, slightly fewer than the general population, but far more than scientists.  Nevertheless there are undoubtedly many doctors who do not share the religious faith of their patients.

To the religious patients who read this and feel they wouldn’t want a non-religious doctor:  I can assure you that I am a good person, with a sense of morals rooted in our common humanity. Not believing in an afterlife just makes me want to focus more on improving the quality of this earthly life, the only life I believe we have. I would only ask you not to assume that your doctor holds the same religious beliefs as you or that your doctor wants to participate in group prayer with you and your family.

To the non-religious doctors who read this I ask: how do you deal with your atheism in your practice? Are you, like I was, basically mum about it? Would your patients distrust you if they knew? Would they find another doctor? Is it better to pretend to be religious, just as pretending that a placebo is a real drug can be beneficial? In many parts of the country this question comes up rarely or not at all (I never faced it in Colorado), but in Kentucky, the state of Ken Hamm and Kim Davis, as well as throughout the Baptist South, I assure you that this is an issue you will face.

Back when the Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky in 2007, I was one of the protesters who stood by the entrance and waved signs touting science and reason over belief that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans lived together at the same time. I watched as families with small children and church buses filled with impressionable kids drove past. There were a number of obscene gestures pointed our way, but most people just seemed puzzled that anyone would question their beliefs.

Standing next to the hospital bed, I only wanted to help my patient and if that meant concurring with their religious beliefs, so be it. But I also think non-religious doctors, and non-religious people in general, are afraid to “come out of the closet” and assert their own beliefs — belief in the beauty of nature and science, and in our own innate morality. After the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, and Baghdad — just to mention some of the latest — the destructive force of extreme religious ideology is evident to all. Given what is at stake it isn’t helpful for non-religious doctors or for that matter for any non-religious people to hide their beliefs.

Which is why I wrote this.

Is Apple Really Serious About Protecting Privacy?

I had thought the answer to the question of the title was “yes,” given Tim Cook’s stance on strong encryption. But if a recent experience at my local Apple Store is any guide, the theoretical views of the Apple CEO on privacy have not trickled down to daily practice at the Apple Stores.

My wife’s Macbook Air developed an intermittent display glitch, so we brought it in to the Apple Store. On the initial visit the Genius Bar guy opened up the computer and reseated a video cable. This appeared to work for about a week and then the problem returned. So we brought it back.

At this point the person behind the bar recommended sending the machine off to a repair facility, with an expected 5 day turn-around time and a fairly reasonable price to fix it. This seemed like a good deal, since we were planning to travel in a couple weeks and my wife wanted her computer back before then. So the Genius Bar woman took the computer into the back room and told us to wait until she came back with some paperwork to sign.

After about 10 minutes she came back and said everything was ready. She passed her iPad over to us. The form she wanted us to fill out asked for the user name and password needed to log in to the computer.

I immediately felt uncomfortable. Reading the fine print on the form, it stated that supplying the user log in information was mandatory. We asked if that was so and it was confirmed. It seemed our only alternative was not to get the computer fixed. So, although worried that I was making a big mistake, I wrote in the password, which appeared in the textbox in plain text.

After walking out of the store I felt like I had just participated in a hacker’s social experiment demonstrating how easy it is to get someone to give their password to a complete stranger. My wife uses LastPass, but I know with some websites she has had the browser remember and automatically fill in passwords. Like most of us, she often reuses passwords and doesn’t use two-factor authentification. But even if all her other passwords were secure, there is still a lot of private information on her computer that we wouldn’t want anyone seeing.

So after we got home she and I spent a few hours changing passwords on our bank accounts and other important sites. It made us feel a little better, but not much.

The emailed receipt from Apple clearly stated that they were not responsible for any data loss or data breach from the computer repair. Great! Everything on the computer is backed up, so I wouldn’t care if they wiped the hard drive. I just don’t want anyone snooping around our data.

I don’t think Apple needed to do this. If they really needed access to the user account to fix the computer (which I doubt since they could tell if the screen was working just by turning the computer on without logging in), it would have taken just a few minutes in the store to activate the Guest User account or create a new user account specifically for them to use. Unfortunately I didn’t think of that until after the fact. But maybe this advice could help someone else in a similar situation.

Perhaps I am being paranoid.  I know people who work at a large computer repair facility. There are very strict rules to discourage copying of data from users’ computers. Or perhaps I’m just being naïve.  Much of my private data now lives in “the cloud,” A.K.A. a bunch of computers in unknown locations belonging to unknown people with unknown trustworthiness. So I know that digital security is a bit of a pipe-dream. Despite what we do to secure our data, the forces that want to steal it (crooks, governments, and businesses — in other words, crooks) will probably win out.

Nevertheless, I think that if Apple wants to portray itself as a paragon of privacy virtue, it had better clean up its act in the Apple Store first.

Paris, Je t’aime

Café in Paris
Café in Paris

It is said that one shouldn’t write an email when angry. That also probably applies to blog posts. But I am too angry to heed my own advice.

Since 2014 my wife and I have spent 6 or 7 months out of each year in Paris. We intend to go back again this January. There is no happier or better place on Earth than Paris on a Friday night. The restaurants and bars are full of people, mostly young, college-age. Besides the French there are visitors from everywhere: other Europeans, Americans, Asians, Africans, and Middle Easterners. The spirit of conviviality engendered by good food, good wine and good conversation is contagious. People go to the cinema, to plays, to opera, to concerts. The scene is a reflection of the best that Western Civilization has to offer.

So, like others, I was horrified by the events in Paris last night. It is a stab in the heart of all that is good in our culture. Like the attacks of 9/11/2001, this attack on the City of Lights brings into sharp focus the evil of the enemy, and the high stakes of this conflict. The world for an all-too-brief moment will unite in condemnation of this attack. But unfortunately prayers, kind thoughts, and lighting up buildings will not prevent future atrocities.  I am not willing to throw up my hands and accept a world where attacks like this are commonplace. Nor am I willing to live in a nanny security state, where my every move is monitored and Parisian cafés are guarded by metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. I believe the enemy must be confronted head-on and eliminated.

A first step is to accept that Islamic religious fundamentalism is a major, if not the ultimate, cause of yesterday’s terrorism. Certainly one can argue that there are also economic and other factors.  Nevertheless people are not recruited into this movement without religious enticement, and no one would strap bombs to their bodies without the faith that they are doing Allah’s work and their efforts will be rewarded in the afterlife. I feel that Middle-Eastern religions have long been a pernicious influence on our culture.  Our Western Civilization is based on Graeco-Roman values, not religions originating in the Middle East. Only when religion has been tamed (as during the Enlightenment) have we been able to make social progress. We went through similar troubles with Christianity during the Middle Ages, and, if Islam has its way, we will end up with Middle Ages version 2.0.

Certainly there are many good people who are religious, including Muslims. But religion is a little like alcohol. Most people can handle it fine, but some can’t. Some become alcoholics, and alcohol controls their lives. Similarly religion can control people’s lives, and since it is “faith-based” as opposed to “reality-based,” it doesn’t matter to them if their religion tells them to do things that are inhuman and monstrous. I can only wonder if those Muslim men who aimed their rifles at innocent men and women their own age and one by one shot them in that Paris theater had any second-thoughts, any thoughts that maybe, just maybe, what they were doing was wrong. If one’s morality is faith-based and not reality-based, then probably not.

The Eiffel Tower and the French Statue of Liberty

I am angry that in America, on the left, there are those who are so invested in diversity at any cost, who are so intent on the pursuit of political correctness, who are so unwilling to offend those who profess primitive religious beliefs like stoning for adulterers and female genital mutilation that they refuse to identify Islam as a root cause of terrorism. I am also angry with those on the right who kowtow to our own (admittedly more benign) religious fundamentalists to the point of being anti-science and behind the times on social issues.   We need a clear, objective discussion of the fundamental religious problem that is the root of terrorism, regardless of its potential to offend Muslims, and without adding in religious overtones suggestive of another Crusade.

To those who say an ideology can’t be defeated by military force, I wonder if they would have used the same arguments in World War II. Should we have just let Nazism spread through the world, because killing Nazis would just create more Nazis? The Islamic State (we shouldn’t call them ISIS or ISIL, it is a way to make us forget they are trying to impose Islam on us) has leaders who are living, breathing, vulnerable human beings. Their propaganda is spread though the Internet and via their madrasas, just as Nazi propaganda was spread via the radio, print media, and the Hitler Youth by Dr. Goebbels. Like the Nazis, they can be defeated.

It would take a world effort. America, Europe, Russia, China, and other countries all have a common interest in eliminating this threat. Half a million troops from each country could impose martial law in Syria and Iraq. Just like de-nazification was performed after World War II in Germany, de-jihadization of the Middle East would be necessary. Eliminate the madrasas and set up secular schools. Nazism is no longer a threat and Islam could be defanged as well. We spend tons of money on our military. We have over 2 million active duty and reserve troops. We need an all-out military effort, not a self-hampered, limited engagement. World War II was a good cause. Fixing the Middle East once and for all would be too.

There is nothing we can do to make the world completely safe from crazy people. But I think we can defeat this crazy religion that turns young men and women into walking bombs. At some point we will have to. What more is it going to take beyond what happened in Paris last night? How many more innocent people must die? How many planes need to be bombed out of the sky? How many journalists beheaded or pilots burned alive? How many ancient monuments destroyed? Do we need another attack in the US? The pyramids blown up? For me, I’ve already reached the point where enough is enough. Let’s roll.

Index Verborum Prohibitorum

Index_Clemente_VIII_1596The Catholic Church for centuries maintained a list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum,  only abolishing it in 1966.  Governments, particularly fascist ones, also have had a pronounced tendency to ban books for moral, religious, or political reasons.   Such censorship is a repugnant form of thought control.  It is no surprise that the fascist dystopias of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 center around the destruction or mutilation of the printed word.

While banning books may no longer be in vogue, it appears that banning individual words is fashionable if not de rigueur on today’s college campuses.  The justification is that some words are too hurtful to use.  Some words carry so much historical and racial baggage that their use is always off-limits.  Certain racial epithets can’t be used in any context, not even in a discussion of how bad it is to use racial epithets, because the very act of speaking these epithets is an act of violence.  Thus words are imbued with almost magical powers, and some words are so evil that they can never be spoken out loud.  The “N-word” is akin to “He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named” in the Harry Potter books.  People generally will avoid these forbidden words (as I will do here) partly out of a genuine desire to avoid hurting others’ feelings, but also, to be honest, out of fear — the fear of backlash, much like the fear of the media to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, though this is less a fear of outright violence than a fear of being ostracized and called racist.

This is what happened to the writer Wendy Kaminer when she used one of the proscribed words at a forum on free speech at Smith College in reference to teaching Huckleberry Finn, which, if anyone nowadays is allowed to read an unedited version, has a major character whose name contains that proscribed word.  Read her article in the Washington Post.  It is amazing that in this context (a free speech forum, in a discussion about a classic book that contains that word) she has been deemed a racist merely for using the actual word instead of its baby-talk equivalent.  This reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ film, High Anxiety, when, at a convention of psychiatrists, the word “woo-woo” is used instead of “vagina” because one of the psychiatrists brought his young children with him.  Political correctness is childish.  Political correctness and freedom of speech don’t mix.  The United States Bill of Rights makes a big deal out of freedom of speech.  It does not mention politically correct speech.

I have been living in Paris, France the past 6 months.  Despite being the home of Voltaire and Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech is more limited here than in the United States.   For example, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala was arrested in Paris for anti-semitism and hate-speech.   Broadly defined hate-speech and holocaust-denial are crimes here in France and in Germany.  As reprehensible as this kind of speech is, it is not a crime in America.  In America we put up with the Westboro Baptist Church and their God Hates Fags signs at military funerals.  We allowed the American Nazi Party to march in Skokie, Illinois (though ultimately their march took place in Chicago).   We allow hate-speech because we allow all speech short of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater.  We don’t want the government to decide what we are allowed to say, write, read, or hear.

It is unfortunate that in the name of political correctness some people think nothing of placing limits on such a wonderful and powerful freedom — the one freedom that really sets us apart from the rest of the world.  Americans seem all too willing to trade our hard-won freedoms for short-term comfort.  The Patriot Act is a case in point, with which we gave the government carte-blanche to spy on us in exchange for — what?  Is it so comforting that Big Brother is watching us all the time?  Personally I would rather apply the word “patriot” to Edward Snowden than to the act.

It is disappointing that after the Charlie Hebdo murders, despite the wide-spread Je suis Charlie signs, there was a tendency among some in the media to blame the cartoonists and writers, though stopping short of saying that they deserved to die for their “hate speech” (see here, for example).  And college campuses predictably went back to business as usual, promoting suppression rather than freedom of speech, denying (or attempting to deny) commencement speeches to figures such as Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Condoleezza Rice.   The Ivory Tower has never been so heavily defended against the onslaught of reality.

Words are powerful.   Words allow humans to download the contents of their brains in a format suitable for upload to other brains.  Words express ideas that can be disruptive and disconcerting to the status quo.  It is no wonder that others want to control our words.  The best weapon against bad ideas is unfettered freedom of expression.  Bad ideas need to be exposed to the light of day.  In the marketplace of ideas, good ideas will drive out the bad.  It is not necessary and indeed counterproductive to ban bad ideas, bad words, or bad books.  The most effective way to destroy the Westboro Baptist Church is not to ban their demonstrations, but rather to allow them to display their hateful ignorance in public.  In their own way, the Westboro Baptist Church has probably done more to advance the cause of the LGBT community than most pro-LGBT activist groups.

I find it sad that left-wing groups on college campuses, who in past years were at the forefront of freedom of expression are now the ones who are most willing to shut it down in the name of political correctness.


Memories of Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn
Van Cliburn

In the long struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, from the end of World War II until the end of the Soviet era in 1991, there were intense moments of high drama, like the Berlin Blockade and the Cuban Missile Crisis, intermixed with moments when the icy hostility melted a bit. With both countries armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons of a power sufficient to destroy out planet many times over and a firm policy on both sides with the ironically apt acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the stakes that world leaders were playing with could not have been higher. The path that eventually led to the defusing of this dangerous situation was not direct. Certainly the final act was played out by Ronald Reagan (undoubtedly his greatest role) and Mikhail Gorbachev, but long before that a young Texan, a classical pianist, was one of the first to breach the barriers between the two countries. In 1958 he won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, the first American to do so. He played two great Russian concertos in the last round of the competition: the Tchaikovsky 1st and the Rachmaninoff 3rd. He won the hearts of the Russian people as well as the judges of the competition. Nevertheless they cleared their decision with Premier Nikita Krushchev. Krushchev reportedly asked them: “Is he the best?” When answered affimatively he stated: “Then he should win.” After the competition he returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and a full concert schedule. His records (LPs) were all hits, and I personally bought a lot of them. In later years he received some criticism from music reviewers for a conservative repetoire and rote performances, but at his peak he was a tremendous musician. His recordings of the Prokofiev 3rd Concerto and the Rachmaninoff 2nd Sonata are cases in point.

Van Cliburn and Krushchev
Van Cliburn and Krushchev

I first saw him perform live in a concert that I believe took place in 1966 in Philadelphia. He performed 3 piano concertos in one concert with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The 3 concertos were the Mozart number 25 in C major, the Beethoven 4th, and the Rachmaninoff 2nd. I well remember his appeararnce on stage, sitting very tall and straight-backed on the piano chair, swaying side to side with the music. Playing 3 concertos in one concert was and is quite a feat. It was rebroadcast on the Philadelphia classical music channel (WFLN) a few weeks later and I made a tape recording of the whole concert from my little transistor radio. Over the years I lost all my old tapes. I wish I still had that one. I have never heard of another recording of that historic concert.

Cliburn appeared frequently at the Robin Hood Dell concerts. These were summer concerts performed outdoors in Philadelphia. On these occasions he wore white formal attire. My friends and I attended these concerts and at the end of each concert, went up to stand in the front row to watch Cliburn give a series of encores. We went often enough to know that when he played Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat it would be the last encore of the evening. He was always generous with his encores and gracious to his audiences.

Van Cliburn died on February 27, 2013 at age 78. He played for presidents, world leaders, and for all the rest of us. He was a sorely needed bit of warmth in the midst of the Cold War. By any measure he was a great American and I count myself fortunate that I was able to see him perform in person on several occasions.

Whatever Happened to Netiquette?

Anita Sarkeesian
Anita Sarkeesian

Let’s harken back to the early days of the Internet, say the 1990s. In those days of yore, characterized by limited bandwidth and lack of flash animations, people by trial and error attempted to work out the dos and don’ts of online communication. This was before Facebook messaging and tweeting, before SMS and MMS. Communication was via email, or Usenet, or IRC (you may have to look up the last two, but they still exist). Even in those days it was quickly recognized that communicating electronically was not the same as communicating face-to-face, or even via telephone. The impersonal nature of online communication tends to insulate those communicating from the emotional feedback that occurs naturally during face-to-face communication. We don’t see the anger, or embarrassment, or sadness in the faces or in the voices of those with whom we are communicating. Talking with someone face-to-face, we can see how our words are affecting them. We might change the course of the conversation when we see that our words are making someone angry, or sad, based on concern that we might end up with a bloody nose, or because we hate to see someone upset. With digital communication, especially the anonymous sort, we don’t have these checks and balances, so the sky’s the limit as to how much hateful speech we can spew out without regard to consequences.

In response to this, rules of Netiquette were developed. Today these rules sound quaint, much like Emily Post’s rules of etiquette (do you remember to always leave a calling card after dining at a lady’s house?). Rules like: don’t make a big deal of spelling mistakes, or don’t post in all capital letters, or avoid off-topic posting. If only these were the worst of the problems we face when surfing the Internet today!

Online communication, if you still want to dignify the process with that term, has changed for the worse, with no end in sight. If you feel it’s always been this bad, I disagree.  It is getting worse.  Online rudeness has even spilled over into everyday life. How many times a day do you see some self-important jackass (see it’s affected even me) sitting in a public place (like an airport terminal) holding a loud conversation on his (I won’t neutralize the pronoun here, it’s usually a man) cell phone over his bluetooth headset? I remember the very first time I saw this happen, years ago in a train station. I was convinced the person was schizophrenic and talking to imaginary friends.

There is no civility online anymore. Accounts are hacked and private photos are leaked. Men post naked photos of ex-girlfriends online, where they circulate forever between Tumblr sites (links withheld intentionally). Poor Anita Sarkeesian, whose “crime” was that she produced a set of YouTube videos detailing the very stereotypical way women are depicted in many video games (as if that should be a shock to anyone) is the constant victim of rape and death threats (NSFW link). Nothing proves her thesis more than the response to her videos. And if you want to see for yourself how wild it is out there (on the Internet), go ahead and tweet something even mildly controversial, such as something about gun control, or Islam, or the depiction of women in games. Then sit back and wait for the barrage of ad-hominem attacks. Sure, with a 140 character limit in Twitter, it’s probably easier to launch an ad-hominem attack than to have a rational discussion. But there’s more going on here than just too limited space for a rebuttal. Trashing people online has become a sport that is increasing in popularity. And that’s sad.

I just hope that if there is ever an alien race investigating our world to see if we are worthy of joining the inter-galactic community they don’t base their judgment on reading the comments section to the Fox News website, or the Twitter posts with the #GamerGate hashtag. If they do, we’re in big trouble.

Doctors Concerned About Possible Brain Injury From the Ice Bucket Challenge

Ice-Bucket-2Well, not really.  But it does seem ironic to me that the ALS Foundation has embraced what is essentially a blow to the head with ice cubes and water as a fund-raising activity, in order to treat a disease which may in part be related to head trauma.  A large number of football players have developed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), and, although the science is debatable, there may be a link between CTE and ALS.  Regardless, any form of head trauma can cause brain injury, and there is no specific magnitude of impact force to the head that is required to cause a concussion.  Ice cubes are solid and some of these challenges have been done from a balcony, such as this one with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.cory-booker-ice-bucket-challenge

I won’t pretend to be a physicist, but let’s do some calculations.  A single ice cube weighs approximately 0.01875 kg.  Assuming a fall height of 5 meters (which looks about right for this picture), and a skull deformation of maybe 2 mm on impact (assuming the skull is pretty rigid), the calculated impact force is  459.37 Newtons per ice cube.  An average ice cube tray has 24 ice cubes, but an ice bucket might contain many more cubes.  Assuming 50 ice cubes (and assuming the ice has not melted), the overall force (not counting the weight of the water) is 22968.5 Newtons.  The average estimated force of two helmeted football player heads colliding has been calculated at 1450 to 1600 pounds.  Converting pounds to Newtons, that’s at best 7117 Newtons.  So the Ice Bucket wins.  All of which convinces me that I don’t know squat about physics, and I’m sure these calculations are wrong.  But in any case, maybe the ALS foundation should have picked something else for their campaign rather than a potential cause of brain injury.  The Pillow Fight Challenge perhaps?

A New Treatment for Chronic Health Syndrome

The XYZ Drug Company

Internal Memo
August 29, 2014
For internal use only

AntiRobustium™ Marketing Strategy


With the anticipated FDA approval of AntiRobustium™ (arsenic trioxide), the first and so far only treatment for CHS (Chronic Health Syndrome) will soon be available to the general public (prescription only). As with the introduction of drugs for other newly branded syndromes (e.g. Restless Leg Syndrome, Short Eyelash Syndrome, and Low-T), it is imperative that the public as well as medical professionals not only be made aware of the serious nature of the target syndrome (CHS), but also appreciate the unique nature and high success rate of the marketed treatment (AntiRobustium™), while at the same time minimizing the emotional impact of potential adverse effects of treatment. CHS poses greater than average challenges in this regard, as the public generally doesn’t consider “health” to be a medical problem. It is important to sell to the consumer the notion that CHS is insidious, debilitating, and, up until this point, difficult to treat. Fortunately though, relief is on its way.

The Hidden Epidemic of CHS

CHS is a relatively rare syndrome in the American population, and epidemiologically has the unusual and counterintuitive property of having decreasing prevalence with age. Although periods of Acute Health can occur fairly frequently in people with chronic illnesses, the long periods of unmitigated Health that are seen in victims of Chronic Health Syndrome are very unusual. These long periods (remarkably lasting up to years in some rare cases) are the striking feature of CHS. Probably due to the low prevalence of this condition, it has not been well-described or studied in the past. Particularly discouraging for us in the pharmaceutical industry, for a long time it was assumed that there was no feasible drug treatment for CHS. Of course all this has changed now with the development of AntiRobustium™!

The Heartbreak of CHS

Sufferers of CHS rarely spontaneously seek medical therapy. They may occasionally come up with weak reasons for seeking medical help, such as “getting a physical” or “having routine screening,” but in general doctor visits are few and far between. Because of this reluctance to seek help for their condition, many doctors are unfamiliar with diagnosing and treating these patients. One telltale sign of the CHS patient is a short or absent list of medications. While the average person seeing a physician will have a medication list of 5-15 drugs, patients with CHS may be taking no medications, or may be taking ineffective medications, such as vitamins, often used as a form of self-medication out of guilt that taking absolutely no medications is odd or even bizarre. This guilt about being healthy in an unhealthy world results in significant psychological stress, with sufferers often feeling like outcasts at social gatherings, unable to compare notes with their friends regarding their Low-T, chronic back pain, or restless legs. Other characteristics of patients with CHS include lower than average weight, excessive exercise (often more than 5 hours a week), extreme diets low in fat and sugar, abnormally elevated state of well-being, and a pink or rosy skin tone. Paradoxically, despite these unusual signs and symptoms, lab testing is often completely normal. In fact, no specific test has been developed that can definitively diagnose CHS, though a diagnostic score has been developed and shows promise. For physician education, XYZ drug reps are encouraged to inform physicians that for all practical purposes a likely diagnosis of CHS can be made if a patient is taking fewer than 3 prescription medications and any one of the signs or symptoms mentioned above is present.

Breakthough! A New Use for an Old Drug

AntiRobustium™ (arsenic trioxide) is not new to the pharmaceutical world. Originally developed as insecticides and then later used to treat syphillis, arsenic compounds have not found much medicinal use in modern times. Until now! AntiRobustium™is the solution to the dilemma the pharmaceutical industry has had in finding an agent useful in the treatment of CHS, in order to monetize this small, but significant segment of the population. The problem that the industry has had in finding a drug for these underserved patients is that most drugs developed up to this point have had both healthful and healthful effects. Due to this dual action, most drugs will cause some (even if only minor) improvement in Health and this will not work in a patient with CHS, as these patients are already healthy by definition. AntiRobustium™ is the first drug to come to market with absolutely no healthful effects, while still having multiple side-effects. Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) show that over 99% of CHS patients taking AntiRobustium™ within a 4 week period develop skin pallor, generalized malaise, gastrointestinal complaints, abdominal pain, cardiac problems, and, rarely, death. In the landmark UNHEALTH Study (roUtiNe use of antirobustium™ in HEALTHy compared to unhealthy patients Study) regular usage of AntiRobustium™ at a 5 mg BID dose resulted in no significant difference in morbidity and mortality compared with a control population of patients with end-stage renal disease, terminal cancer, and hepatic failure. These results are impressive because the comparison group was particularly unhealthy and yet the results were similar to the results of the earlier MAKEMESICK Study (Multicenter Antirobustium™ Keeps Everyone Mostly Equal in SICKness Study) which was criticized in some corners because of the relative health of the comparison group (patients with Restless Leg Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or Low-T). A meta-analysis of these 2 studies, the earlier RCTs, and 5 studies using 30 lab rats each did result in P values < 10-18 for a dystherapeutic effect that was convincing enough to get the drug through the FDA committee, with approval imminent.


As usual direct marketing to physicians will take a high priority, mostly concentrating on bagel breakfasts, burrito and Chinese food lunches, with occasional big dinner presentations. Selected physicians will serve as members of our Speaker Panel, generally the same physicians who have served on all our other Speaker Panels. Slide sets will be provided of course. XYZ reps will distribute reprints of the major studies (UNHEALTH, MAKEMESICK, etc.) along with iPads preloaded with our Poor Healthy Joe multimedia educational presentation. As always NO DISTRIBUTION OF COMPANY LOGO PENS WILL BE PERMITTED!! SUCH DISTRIBUTION WILL BE CONSIDERED GROUNDS FOR DISMISSAL!!

A major push will be aimed at the consumer. Not many people have heard of CHS. We need to change that. A good parallel is that with the Low-T compaign. A few years ago no one would have known what was meant by Low-T. Now someone can be considered stupid if they don’t know what it is. We need to create the same situation with CHS. Our TV marketing department is already working on ads featuring Poor Healthy Joe. An example: Poor Healthy Joe is at a cocktail party, standing in the corner, while a group of beautiful young women (professional models) are discussing their diabetes, cancer diagnoses, and other chronic conditions, when Joe’s rival, call him Ill Fred (another professional model) comes over and starts telling them about the low back pain he got from his old football injury. As the women fawn over Fred, Joe decides to do something about his Chronic Health Syndrome. He starts AntiRobustium™. A month later he is back at the same cocktail party with the same professional models, where he is now the center of attention, the women remarking on how pale and sick he looks. While the viewer is distracted by the curvaceous models, the narrator in super fast-foward mode rattles off the list of side-effects of the drug, and the commercial ends with Joe smiling due to his attaining the ill-health that had eluded him in the past. Audience testing of this commercial has been very positive, with less than 1% of the audience able to list any of the side-effects of the drug after seeing the commercial. Other high production value commercials featuring Joe and his chronically healthy friends (Jogging Judy, Vegan Valerie, and others) are in the works.

Last Words

We anticipate a healthy market for AntiRobustium™ (no pun intended)! Once we get formal FDA approval (it should be within the month) the above campaign will be launched at full throttle. And finally remember to use our new slogan: “Too healthy?  Fight back with AntiRobustium™!