You are currently browsing the Breaching The Web blog archives for November, 2010.

Exercise prevents colds

November 14th, 2010

I hate exercising in cold weather. Hate it. I don’t know if it’s the weather or the lack of sunlight, but I have a hard time motivating myself to get to the gym during winter. This might help though — it seems that people who exercise more have fewer colds:

The research team analyzed 1,002 men and women, ranging from ages 18 to 85 over a period of 12 weeks in the fall and winter of 2008. In addition to monitoring their health, the participants reported the types and amount of exercise they did weekly, as well as disclosing other factors, such as dietary patterns and stressful events. The frequency of colds among those who exercised at least five days a week was up to 46 percent less than those who exercised only one day a week or not at all, HealthDay reports.

Since I hate colds more than I hate exercising, this might help me get to the gym more often. Let’s hope!

Starting over

November 13th, 2010

Jack Bennet at Thirty two thousand days offers this advice for avoiding procrastination:

So the keys are (1) to know, with great clarity, where you actually are and (2) to start on your project, over and over, until it’s complete. When you’re aware you’re off track, then you can help yourself get back on track, and start again. Even within a 30 or 60 minute time block spent working on your project, you may need to “start” dozens of times, in response to small interruptions or distractions. You only give your power away to procrastination when you lie to yourself when answering the question “am I working?” or “am I off track?”

I like this emphasis on starting, over — rather than starting over. That seems to speak to my personal procrastination demons.

Graphic warning labels

November 12th, 2010

The FDA has proposed 33 different graphic warning labels for cigarette packages. Other countries have had graphic warning labels on cigarette packages for years. This Huffington Post slideshow includes pictures of some of the labels from around the world. Most of the research I’ve seen shows that these labels are effective in two ways: they deter experimental smokers from becoming regular smokers, and they push some smokers who are considering quitting to actually give it a try.

Most of the proposed FDA labels are fairly tame, at least compared to the most graphic images from other countries. My personal favorite is Egypt’s limp cigarette warning (scroll down). It will be very interesting to see smokers in the US react to the warnings. In other countries, smokers frequently cover them — you can even buy stickers to put over them.


November 11th, 2010

Frank Buckles, the last living World War I veteran in the United States, made a plea today for Congress to create a World War I memorial in Washington, D.C. Mr. Buckles is 109 years old and joined the Army when he was 16.

One of my favorite memorials in D.C. is the District’s own WWI Memorial. It’s a memorial to D.C. residents who fought in that war. It’s a small but beautiful memorial in a grove of tall shady trees. Sadly, not many people visit it. I find it moving to sit near the memorial and watch the crowd. Mr. Buckles and the World War I Memorial Foundation propose renovating and rededicating DC’s memorial to serve as a national memorial.

On the one hand, it’s disheartening that the war to end all wars should get such a small, unassuming memorial. But on the other hand, I’d hate to see another monument like the World War II monstrosity.

Some books shouldn’t need to be written

November 10th, 2010

As a social scientist, I have often heard the complaint that social science is just common sense, and that our research is a waste of time since our findings just confirm things that everyone already knows.

Of course, that doesn’t apply if the speaker disagrees with the findings. Then our research is a waste of time since it wasn’t done this year or in their state, or their city, or their neighborhood. Or (in my very, very favorite critique) that our research did not include the speaker him or herself.

This happens a lot in policy debates, for example when a state is considering passing a law against smoking tobacco inside bars & restaurants. The business lobby (generally astro-turfed by the cigarette industry) says that the law will cause them to lose money. When supporters report that all the research shows that in the history of clean indoor air laws, the local restaurant industry has never, ever lost money as a result of such laws, opponents say that those studies don’t apply to their locality. Sigh.

All of which is preface to say that this book should not have been needed: Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. Does anyone really need to be told that the insurance industry lies to us? Or that it’s likely not all that interested in health care? This Wonk Room interview with Wendell Potter, the author, is depressing. It’s not easy to pull a quote, so just go read the whole thing.

Practice, practice, practice

November 10th, 2010

A few weeks ago, at my favorite neighborhood Italian joint, I ordered the drink special. I didn’t look closely at what was in it — I saw the word port and gave it a try. I like ordering the drink specials at this restaurant. Their drinks are well-made, reasonably priced and not watered down.

That drink turned out to be an “Autumnal Equinox,” and I have since become obsessed with it. It’s port, Grand Marnier and amaretto poured over ice and stirred. The first one I had at the restaurant was divine. A week later I ordered it again and enjoyed it, although it seemed a bit more amaretto-y than the first one. And I keep ordering it, even though the special has changed (to an Italian Sunset, which does not appeal to me. It has far too much amaretto*).

The recipes I’ve found online for Autumnal Equinox give extremely consistent proportions: 2 ounces port, 1 ounce Grand Marnier, 1/2 ounce amaretto. Some versions use Triple Sec or Cointreau rather than Grand Marnier, and some include a bit of brandy, although that strikes me as unnecessary if Grand Marnier is used. I think my first one must have had either a lot of Grand Marnier or been made with Cointreau — I’m a sucker for orange-flavored cocktails. This is a drink my mother (who’s new hobby is making her own infused liquors — her lemoncello is to die for) will like. I plan to make it for her over the Christmas holiday, which means I had better keep practicing!
* I have a bottle of amaretto that’s 13 years old. It is a very cheap store brand — Albertson’s (that’s a grocery store chain out West). I’ve often wondered if it has evaporated over the years and become more intensely alcoholic. I’m obviously not a fan of amaretto, which is why this one bottle has lasted so long, but I find it useful in some applications, so I keep it around. Someday I will have to spring for a new bottle. I also have a can of SPAM that’s 17 years old, but that’s a whole other weblog entry.

I love denominators

November 9th, 2010

I’ve written about denominators and denominator effects before. Back in my days of teaching college students, my denominator effects lectures were my favorite. Basically, a denominator effect occurs when a statistic appears to be different (either across time or across groups) due to changes in the denominator rather than changes in the numerator. In the post I linked to above, I use the example of the divorce rate — many changes in the divorce rate occur because the number of marriages (the denominator) is different, not because the number of divorces (the numerator) is different.

It would be fair to say that most of my professional life has been an exploration of denominators. And the title of this post? I’m so going to get a t-shirt made that says that.

In any case, I was really pleased to read this Explainer column in Slate, 10,000 Potential Maniacs, about how many terrorism tips the government receives every day:

The FBI’s Internet tip line, which handles both terrorism and domestic crime reports, has received an average of more than 700 messages per day since it was set up after September 11, 2001. But that doesn’t come close to representing the total number of tips the government gets, since many leads come from people walking into U.S. embassies, pulling aside police officers, or calling state and local hotlines. Plus, the staggering volume of information that counterterrorism analysts have to deal with includes not only direct tips, but also wire intercepts and leads from paid informants. When you add all that up, National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter says the agency receives between 8,000 and 10,000 pieces of information per day, fingering just as many different people as potential threats. They also get information about 40 supposed plots against the United States or its allies daily.

This is not a denominator effect, however, it is a denominator — an important one that is often lacking from discussions of terrorism and security. If one could calculate the percentage of tips that turn out to be real plots with a chance of succeeding, it would likely be a vanishingly small number (of course, this is impossible, since the full extant of all tips is not known, and since many tips likely relate to the same plot). This is not to say that the government shouldn’t be vigilant (within the bounds set by our civil liberties and rights), but it adds a certain perspective to the “toner cartridge” bombs.

So many forgotten things

November 7th, 2010

It’s almost a cliche to rave about how great Evernote is  — but I’m going to do it any way. My friend Medley first tipped me to it, and since the first time I tried it, it just worked for me. Effortlessly.  Here’s a few notes about how I use it:

  • It’s everywhere. I use Evernote on my laptop, my desktop at work, my phone and on the web.  I can access all my notes from everywhere.  It’s amazing how much difference that makes.  Unfortunately, the iPhone app is pretty rudimentary.  The company says they are working on improvements — that can’t happen soon enough.
  • Collection is easy.  It’s so easy to get notes into Evernote.  Directly entering text, voice and photo notes is so easy (although the photo notes aren’t that useful since you can’t annotate the photos easily from an iPhone). The interface is simple and very easy to use. I can (and have) entered notes at stoplights while waiting for the light to change.
  • Evernote plays well with other programs.  It works particularly well with email. You get an email address for your account, and anything you send to that address becomes a note.  Articles I read in Instapaper that I want to keep?  Email full-text to evernote.  Schedules for church events that I get in my email?  Forward them to Evernote. But Evernote also works really well with Twitter. You can also send tweets to evernote via direct message. I do this most commonly with links other people post that I want to read later — I DM them straight to my own Evernote account.  I also love the webclipping tool — you can highlight something on a webpage, tap the web clipper, and it’s saved as a note — done.  If you don’t highlight anything, but tap the web clipper, the whole page is saved for you.  Given all the devices I can access Evernote with, and all the different ways I can create notes, it’s completely feasible for me to mind-dump everything. What surprises me about this is that with all these ways to create notes, it still feels effortless to me all the time. It’s not confusing to create notes all these different ways.
  • Tags. I have a love-hate relationship with tags.  I am a poor speller, so my tags often end up quite messy.  On the other hand, I’m also lazy, and tags are a fantastic short-cut for lazy organizers.  So I use them.  Evernote also allows you to create “notebooks” (which function like categories), but I find that it’s usually too much trouble to create notebooks for most things.  If I’m shopping for a new TV, I can dump a bunch of research notes into Evernote and tag them and retrieve them as needed. I don’t necessarily want a “TV” notebook taking up space in my Evernote menu, or in my head. The best thing about tags is that they get better the more I use Evernote.  As I find things and use my notes, I refine and add to my tags, which makes using and maintaining Evernote a self-reinforcing process.
  • Notebooks.  Like tags, I have a love-hate relationship with notebooks. I mostly use notebooks for very high-level organizing and processing.  Inspired by GTD, I have a default folder in Evernote called @Inbox. Everything I capture goes straight to @Inbox.  About once a day, I go through my @Inbox folder and process everything in it.  I edit the notes as needed (web clips in particular are messy), add tags, and file the notes into other folders.  My largest folder is called @None — it serves as a catch all for notes that don’t really belong in another notebook.  Since I rely more on tags to find my notes, this serves me well.  My other notebooks are for things that I want to have a visual reminder of, such as Work, Hobbies, Music, Vacation, Evernote (yes, I have an Evernote notebook about Evernote), Books to Read, and Books I’ve Read.  My favorite folder is called @Tickler.  I put notes in this folder that I want to see on a particular date, and I put the date in the title of the note.  For example, I want to remember to go to a particular Halloween Haunted House next year, so I created a note titled “2011-10-1 Haunted House” and put the Haunted House’s url in the note.  I stuck this in my @Tickler notebook.  I sort that notebook by title, which means that I will see that note next year in time to consider going to that haunted house.  Everything in @Tickler is dated for the future — once I’ve looked at it, I either change the date to another date in the future, or I change the title completely and move it to a different folder.
  • Sharing.  Aside from my @Inbox and @Tickler notebooks, the next most useful thing to me about a notebook is that it can be shared with others.  I share my vacation folder with my husband, and my Books I’ve Read folder with anyone who wants to read it. In the past, I’ve also shared other special-purpose folders with people.

I have forgotten so many things in my life.  I wish I could retrieve them.   I’m particularly sad about all the stuff I learned in graduate school that I’ve forgotten. Evernote won’t help me remember stuff. But it will help me recall it. Which is almost as important.


November 6th, 2010

Our TV died. This is extremely annoying — it was only 6 years old. So we’ve picked out a new TV (a 46-inch LCD that’s very shiny). The trouble is, we don’t have the right kind of furniture for a modern, flat-screen TV. We have a huge, old-school entertainment unit, with a hole in the center for the TV. I hate it, but I hate the idea of replacing it even more. It’s heavy. I’m hoping I can get rid of it via Freecycle.

It seems that contemporary TV furniture comes in three styles: credenzas that are long and low, cabinets that have big towers on the sides, and consoles that raise and lower the TV from inside at the push of a button.

That last style is really cool, but out of my price range (or more accurately — I’d rather put the money into design than technology). I’d love to have one though — every time I used it, I would imagine that I was in a swingin’ 60s bachelor pad. So that leaves the other two styles: long and low, or giant towers. And neither one of them appeals to me. Long and low looks a bit stodgy to me and invites clutter on the horizontal surface. But the giant towers will overpower my small living room. In fact, the large TV itself will overpower my small room, but I’m trying to reconcile myself to viewing the television as a modern fireplace. It’s the television’s furniture I can’t stand.

I haven’t seen a single solution that I like. The TV will be delivered Tuesday, and we have improvised something to hold it up temporarily. But I need to find a longer-term solution, and I’m just flummoxed.

Stink bugs don’t stink

November 5th, 2010

At work, the usual water-cooler conversation topics of traffic, weather and television have been abandoned in favor of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. These pests like hot dry places and congregate on western-exposed walls inside buildings, and they have taken over several offices in my building at work. They’re an Asian import that has invaded the mid-Atlantic region. They’ve been here a few years, but this year they’ve really taken hold. I hate them. I have them at home too, although not as bad as at work. They are also a garden pest, contributing to this past summer’s woeful bean harvest in this area (although heat at the wrong time and humidity caused problems with beans also). Here’s a few good sources of information about this annoying bug:

Veggie Gardening Tips on the March of the Brown Marmorated Stink bug
Rutgers Experimental Ag Station on ID (contains good pictures of eggs and larval stages)

The best way to deal with them is to keep them out in the first place. They are resistant to pesticides. Most sources say the best way to deal with them is vacuuming them up. The best way to prevent them is to seal up cracks which are open to the outdoors — conveniently, this is best practice for preparing for winter anyway.