WHO’s on First Watch?

A headline today had me do a double-take at the by-line. Surely the date was January 31, 2020, not 2021.

“WHO Team Visits Wet Market Linked to First Coronavirus Cases”

But no, the publication is correct. It took World Health Organization staff 15 months to get up from behind their desks and inspect the source of the biggest health issue in a century. Nothing about this should be surprising. WHO employees can do nothing without cooperation from host countries.

We must keep in mind the nature of organizations like the WHO before granting them out-size respect, funding, or influence. The WHO does not employ doctors or field researchers. It is a bureaucratic organization. It may coordinate efforts and collect data from a variety of sources, and may even provide good value in its analyses [for skeptical readers].

But in a world where the majority of the population live under autocratic regimes, which are not likely to cooperate in times of crisis, the value of the data and analysis from western office dwellers must be suspect.

Organizations like WHO must be challenged to be earnest, honest, and diligent. Direct practical research is the only thing that can support public health declarations in the face of novel infections accompanied by waves of uncontrolled and inconsistent data.

WHO staffers observed in native environment

Death of an Economist

In recent days the news machine put a sad note through its persistent, insistent, constant-volume grinder. A noted academic economist died at the modern-day-early age of 58 years.

Alan Krueger Dead at 58, bloomberg.com

Mainstream news outlets did the usual sedated shuffle. Quotes were re-quoted, wire articles were passed through largely without click-bait headlines, obituaries were written on short deadlines. No normal people thought to make up a graph to go with the articles.

Coverage in the financial news sector was different. Besides trying to explain some of Mr. Krueger’s work, leading quote-ready economists expressed confusion. The death of this man simply should not have happened. It didn’t fit any of the conventional models!

If one rigorously develops a model of the age of an economist, using all available data, the appropriate model is clear and plain. Some will note that it is still only a math model, and the data set is limited, so an honest economist will add high and low tolerance bands. Based on statistics, the size of the source data set can give us the probability of a model diverging from reality to a high confidence (e.g. three standard deviations). With an adequate sample size, there is a 99.7% chance of reality keeping with the data-based model, and Mr. Krueger is quite rude for violating these well established principles.

But wait! This is how ‘modern’ economics has been done for a century, but now we have neo-modern economics, aided by much more sophisticated math cranked through by powerful computers. This is also how Nobel-winning economists generate influential papers and foundational theories which will be cited by default for a generation.

If one fits all the available data, including recent events, through a multi-variable matrix curve-fit, extending classical statistics into a much wider space, a curve that fits both past and future reality can now be generated with supreme confidence.

The New Model for Age of an Economist will win medals from every quarter. Textbooks will be updated. National budgets will be adjusted. Banks will go broke (unrelated, it just happens all the time). And everyone involved will spend their direct-deposited royalty checks long before the New Model blows up and a New New Model is published which integrates ‘all the latest data’ and ‘provides confident projections’.

Easy Insanity in Seven LPs.

I was warned against this. In fact, it was Vince Harris who told me, “Dude, that is _evil_.” Yet I persist.

It’s a simple idea. It came to me years ago. It involves popular recorded music. It’s something of a challenge.

Imagine that you are somewhat involved in a young person’s life, enough to have that kid’s ear but not really day-to-day influence. You want to see him or her brought up right, exposed to decent music, titles which have stood the test of some little time. You can give the kid a stack of records to hear, but not outsize to your influence.

The challenge defined for you is this: pick just one album from each decade. JUST ONE. You can cheat a little, bumping the numbers off of the round zeros, or letting a double live LP slip in, but it has to come out to one every ten years.

“Oh, cool!” I thought. It’s fun at first. Some easy decisions are made quickly, like letting “Thriller” be taken as-read. I’m going to dig just a little deeper than that.

It’s still exciting thinking about the multi-way death match that will be the 70s, where Aqualung, Led Zeppelin II, Carole King, Day at the Races, Grand Illusion, and Live Bullet will all cut heads.

I knew going in that I would snarkily dismiss the 90s with some 80s holdover or a Diana Krall record.

But eventually I sat down to work things out in earnest… I started in the 1950s, where the 33 rpm LP finally grew in the market and 40+ minute albums really took hold for the first time. Immediately I was faced with a choice, between Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Let me say that again.

It’s Frank Sinatra, or Miles Davis.

There is no way to begin that comparison, let alone divine a conclusive result. Having even contemplated the problem will almost certainly drive me to insanity. I thought about it while working in the yard all weekend and wound up humming an entire Bangles album.

I have never heard an entire Bangles album.

My straight jacket size is 42 regular (I’ll want it comfortably snug). Send my mail to the asylum high security wing. Please write with little words so the pop-rap loving guards reading it to me can keep up.

Soap Tragic Opera

Lately we’re reading a lot of old Ernie Pyle (no, really old, as opposed to the “new” Ernie Pyle, which is barely 70 years old). It’s for background on the home front historical novels, and most comments on Pyle will go on the professional writery site [psst – www.sdmahaney.org], but the Bureau of the Impertinently Inane picked up on one story that is a better fit here.

Cincinnati, Ohio – …One more thing I learned about soap. You’ve heard the Saturday-night-bath gag all your life. Well, that joke is a bad understatement. Statistics show that the average American does not take even one bath a week. One in two weeks would come nearer to it. But even so, we are the best-washed nation in the world. [!!!]


Here is the proof: Americans buy, on the average, twenty-five pounds of soap each year per person. Holland is next cleanest, with twenty-four pounds per person. Canada and Denmark tie for third, with twenty-two pounds each. Then Germany, twenty-one pounds; France and England, twenty pounds each; Cuba and Sweden, eighteen pounds each; and then clear down to Italy, with only about ten pounds.

The Chinese are a people after my own heart. They can’t be bothered with appearances. They use just two ounces of soap each, per year. That means a cake of ordinary toilet soap would last a Chinese couple a whole year, and it would do their laundry, too.

It seems the American public is funny about taking baths. That’s one question on which Americans have a completely closed mind. They are not open to propaganda about more baths. Fourteen of the biggest soap companies got together and put on a terrific national propaganda campaign designed to make people wash oftener, so the soap companies could sell more soap.

They spent two million [1930s!] dollars, and they might as well have poured that two million dollars down the drain, or given part of it to me. Because when it was all over and the checkup was made, they found they had not increased the national bath-taking average by even so much as the dabble of one toe in the bathtub.


– Ernie Pyle, July 2, 1938

Does anyone have a reference to what the 1930s soap ad campaign was about? I’ve read a few things over the years about trying to sell cleaning and personal care products, and one thing is consistent: It doesn’t work to tell people they stink! A recent example is Febreze. It was a commercial dud at first, when sold strictly as an odor eliminator. It didn’t take off until the marketing switched over to the standard “reward” scene, the diligent mom looking back with satisfaction into a freshly cleaned room, spritzing it with Febreze as a matter of course.

I suspect the problem with selling soap for humans was much the same.

Flipped Out

I don’t flip channels very often any more. It’s disheartening having umpteen-thousand channels and finding that among them there are about three premises going at any one time but now it takes an hour to cycle through and confirm that there is still nothing on.

But Saturday was a long day. I got home late, didn’t want to start anything, and so dove into the UVerse program guide for a cycle. My expectations were low, and were largely met. Well up into the thousands, I paused on the SEC indoor track championships, before moving on to where I absolutely had to stop. What in the world could “Mollie B’s Polka Party” be, about to come on at 10 pm Saturday night? Was it really new programming? Will Mollie B turn out to be the silver haired square-waisted matron that I imagine? How much of a euphemism is “party” in this context?

Pre-emptively judgemental me is wrong some times.

I spent the first number watching and wondering if there was really a pretty, glamorous, talented young woman leading a polka band at a civic hall dance, playing a tenor sax. You betcha! Then she picked up a trumpet and came out with an impossibly sweet tone, one that does not come with less than a decade of playing. I scooted over to the living room laptop to look her up.

Mollie Busta is a formally trained musician with a BFA in trumpet. Her MFA came later, in instruction. She could perform or teach anywhere, and a lot of acts would do well to have her as front man. But she grew up with polka music and really really loves this stuff! A life of playing halls to slow dancing elderly couples, apparent graduates of Lawrence Welk reruns, is quite a fine life.

Incidentally, Ms. Busta married her band mate, a pasty paunchy accordion player who much more looks the postcard part. He was smart enough to leave his wife in front and keep the show called after Mollie B.

The Only Question

I’m reading lately some ugly history and wretched anthropology. Previously it was a bunch of crime novels full of scared and evil people. Before that it was lots of Eastern philosophy and Western Ethics. The more I read the more I am sure that in all of life there is only one question: Ginger or Mary-Ann?

The question can be considered primarily two ways –
Who do you want to be? or,
Who do you want to do?

From there the question echoes in every choice presented in philosophy. What virtues will you espouse? To what do you aspire? What virtues do you really think will get you there? Does it matter if others recognize your integrity?

It’s all one question.

Here’s a hint on the answer:

Chumps Don’t Change

Don’t be fooled, don’t kid yourself — Guys are chumps. [Is there a word for that for women? I can’t see a lady being called a ‘chump’.] This exchange is as honest as real as guy can be about it.

“Sit down. I want to talk seriously to you.”

I sat down.

“Why did you go through all this with me — for me?” She was really serious now. “You didn’t have to, and it couldn’t have been pleasant. I was — I don’t know how bad I was.” She turned red from forehead to chest. “I know I was revolting, disgusting. I know how I must seem to you now. Why — why did you?”

I said:

“I’m twice your age, sister; an old man. I’m damned if I’ll make a chump of myself by telling you why I did it, why it was neither revolting nor disgusting, why I’d do it again and be glad of the chance.”

She jumped out of her chair, her eyes round and dark, her mouth trembling.

“You mean…?”

“I don’t mean anything that I’ll admit.”

[from The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett]

You Had One Job – Mega Container Ship Edition.

I stumbled across this story today. Didn’t get much mainstream press that I see, but it’s a huge deal in the shipping world, because it’s a HUGE mess.

One month ago a jumbo container ship leaving docks near Antwerp plowed directly up onto a river beach, effectively blocking access for everyone else at one of the world’s busiest ports. They say the ship was doing 13 knots and suffered a ‘steering failure’. I think that’s pretty fast for one of these loaded ships in a constricted channel, and I know the captain better hope an actual mechanical problem is found.

I first saw this cool drone video, showing the site and a dozen tug boats working the job (it would be 17 tugs eventually – it’s not like they had anything else to do!).

For sense of scale this video shows curious people wading right out to the bow of the giant ship.

I think this is the coolest one, showing satellite tracking data for every ship on the channel, including the busy tugs.

You can see the ship being hauled through locks back into the innermost harbor.

Latest news is the that the ship was inspected, repaired and is back in service. Current satellite data has her near Singapore. But before moving on all that cargo had to be off loaded and sent on another ship. The cost of all that was easily seven figures (in dollars or Euros), if not eight.

Dear Ian, August 24, 2017

It’s been three weeks, now. No, four, though the whole month before was off too. Things are to where almost three quarters of my thoughts are my own now, not about her, or what I could have done or should have said, or what the guy might be up to next, or what I wish I could get her to think about.

The telling, the formal declaration of the change in situation, was hard for her but it was the only decent thing to do. But for me it only resets the wondering, at best replacing worry with angst, plus depression, anger, confusion, and rejection, none of it with any target or even much substance. How should one be angry at something which is no longer one’s concern and which has not had a real cost? Yet these things have to be thought about. It’s how we get through, us ‘intelligent’ species, hopelessly wrapped up in our ideas and their pet emotions on tangled leashes.

So the process has to happen, with or without approval from all the books on how many steps one or another PhD says it takes to move on. But one does not have to, and should not, feed the cycle. Thoughts do not have to be a self-reinforcing cycle of frustration. One can help the memories and all the many ‘what-ifs’ stay put away, steering clear of avoidable reminders, and productive or amusing distractions can be exercised. My trick now is to find anything that works. You would find some curiosities to my predicament, parallel to the small social circle so well tested in Quantum of Solace.

As for modes of distraction, exercise is a productive sort, if not the most distracting. Certainly I relish the intellectual challenge of building a good training program, but it takes just minutes of thought for each of many hours of mindless toil. Thoughts can skip quickly during an intense workout, and most endurance runners will testify to the sober-drunken state that comes along during a long effort — mental inhibitions fall and nighttime dreams are drawn in daylight reality.

Real physical work, designing and building, is a step up. The whole self can be engaged in such a process, and I get plenty such jobs in paid employment and around my own house. Oh, but in this case there are far too many reminders (or worse) next to every tool, from shed to office desk. [Yes, you would certainly be bemused at the geographic details of this little plot.]

Of course there’s always porn. It never occurred to me before, but I think I come back to it because it’s one of the few things that can really occupy my mind in full (when it’s done right!). Not much will saturate the imagination better than a simultaneous spread of video, photo slideshow, forum threads, and text stories spread across multiple monitors. Jacking it all up to the most putrid tolerable limits can obliterate all notions of the real world, for a short span of time. So long as the fantasies stay fantastic, it’s possible to keep a very real someone out (most of the time).

I’m sure that what I really need to do is to get back into writing. But does that work? This is what I’m writing you to ask.

The thoughts I’d like to put behind me are mostly imagined conversations with real people, who I doubt would listen if I tried to realize the ideas. Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send, is the song lyric I keep repeating as I catch myself. So can I put away those imaginary conversations if I revisit my imaginary people and get to work building realistic conversations for them?

I’ve said before that I envied your private getaway, Goldeneye, an idyllic retreat where you could write freely. I see now a little better how necessary it may have been. The machinations of just a few real people might interfere badly with one who is trying to herd a dozen or more characters through their own troubles (which the author imposed in his laboriously contrived experiment).

I can’t materially escape the objects of my bewilderment. The physical proximity of the people involved really is comical, you would find, looking at it from a comfortable distance. They will be there as I write. They have already taught me things about people that I cannot un-know. It looks like one way or another, I’m going to be writing about them.

So the treatment for this affliction is simply going to be more of the same trouble. This odd sort of therapy that we share in practice, it has a curious modality to it. I do hope you can tell me that the prognosis is good.

Interference of Aerobic and Resistance Exercises (a critique and discussion)

Interference of Aerobic and Resistance Exercises (a critique and discussion), OR, The Sad State of Physical Training Academia.

In 2012 the Journal of Strength and Conditioning published a meta-study with Jacob M. Wilson as the lead author. The topic is of acute interest to this author, always looking to maintain or set new compound goals in physical training. A good run time is not enough, unless it’s a prize-winning finish (and it’s not going to be for me, not ever). One should want not just to get to a finish line in a good time, but to be able to do something substantial when one gets there.

A meta-study (a review of the data from many studies, integrating the data where compatible) is a good place to pick out some common defects in topical research literature. There are many in this topic of study, and some are serious.

The full text can be viewed at researchgate.net.

The problems with the Wilson, et al, article begin at the very top.

The title says this will be about aerobic exercise. The abstract says endurance exercise. These authors are not alone in mixing terminology. In fact their own efforts in this meta-study are hampered by different researchers using what should be precise technical jargon in different ways. How does one integrate data from different studies of the authors use different definitions between them?

The strict jargonist will insist, rightly, that aerobic exercise is that which can be sustained by that most efficient energy conversion scheme, limited only by supply of simple chemical energy to muscle cells, without diminishment of local stores. A general and literate meaning of endurance is to deliberately tolerate some level of discomfort, and this comes from exercise in many directions from different exercise intensities.

Reading the article charitably, one would assume that they mean training in the kind of exertion levels seen in long-distance competitions (e.g. running marathon). but still the term is imprecise. One could borrow from the bio-chemist and specify energy conversion modes, but we know that they do not work in isolation, and we don’t know that the chemists actually have it all figured out.

PROPOSITION – Timescale is the single best discriminator between different modes of exercise. In this context a timescale is the duration of an exercise at which something gives up and the exercise can’t be continued at the same intensity. We don’t need to know or even name the system that gives up, just that exactly one system reached its limit at that time.

The problem of imprecise and inconsistent labeling of different exertion regimes is common to the bulk of research literature on human training, not just this paper. The matter is of heightened importance in a paper which is all about different modes, which must be named. A fuller discussion will be left for another article. (It is very important, but the solution is very simple.)

The next problem is with the ancient rubric of hypertrophy – sustained swelling of muscles driven by appropriate exercise. It is one of the key variables tracked in this meta-study.

CLAIM – Hypertrophy is not a desirable sport-specific adaptation, for any activity outside of heavyweight-class bodybuilding. Of course muscle size is of keen interest to most recreational lifters, actors. models, and really most of us. But in any competitive sport, performance is what matters. The force a muscle can generate, while closely correlated to size at many timescales, is the objective variable of training. In activities where self-locomotion is important (i.e being fast), added mass is a penalty. If contact is to be made, inertia helps, but Newton will not judge if the mass involved is fat or muscle or a lunch burrito. In any weight class contest obviously mass is one’s first opponent.

Hypertrophy may be observed as a secondary marker of training success. But in most sport-focused papers it should not be a primary criteria for evaluating a training method.

The next problem in the Wilson article is another inconsistent use of imprecise terms. In the text “strength training” is used sometimes interchangeably with “resistance training”.

SIMPLE TRUTH – It’s all resistance training! Any exercise we talk about outside of space exploration bureaus is done in a gravity field. A ‘zero-load’ move like a jumping jack involves jumping a whole human body up off the ground and lifting multi-dozen-pound limbs up much farther. Running takes effort because the whole body is raised up every step, etc.

The researcher should take care to define what is meant by ‘resistance’ work, and what should be classed in with ‘endurance’ training. Is an all-out uphill sprint that exhausts the trainee in 20 seconds an endurance training regimen (actually, it is, and a very good one!) that should not be compared to a 5-rep-max all-out barbell squat effort that takes the same amount of time? (of course not!!) A useful distinction might be found, again, in timescale – how long does it take for failure to be reached, if it does? The exercise intensities in which failure is practically never reached might be the ones we call ‘endurance’ exercises.

The Wilson paper notes that the endurance/resistance distinction was pre-made arbitrarily, different data sets then sorted by percentage of max lift or percentage of VO2max, resistance and endurance data respectively.

With so many challenges to coherently merging data from studies built around different definitions, the reader should not be surprised to see poor consistency in the statistical results. Many of the stated results have confidence bands larger than the measured effect size, leaving open ready possibility of opposite results to the stated claims.

The graphical results presented show obvious quirks which beg for explanations. This endurance duration chart one would expect to be monotonic on each curve.

One could ignore troubles in that chart, were it not for the preceding figure.

The multiple reversals of the hypertrophy line scream for more detail, which is not provided. A few things that were ignored in the article are offered here as possible culprits in the poor data alignment.

– It was not noted among the groups that did strength and endurance work on the same day if it was attempted in the same session or spread out across the day. (believe it or not, some people still advocate the former!)
– In strength work the rest between sets (or between intervals of ‘endurance’ work) was not controlled for. It is known that the adaptive response in muscles varies greatly if the cells are allowed to reload and resynthesize supplies or if they are forced to repeatedly tax limited resources, the latter being hypothetically linked to greater hypertrophy and the former to greater circulatory efficiency.
– Intensity of ‘endurance’ work was not mentioned. Sustained effort in anaerobic regimes is expected to yield different results than slow disciplined workouts that try to be wholly aerobic (and a good performance program will include both).

CLAIM – Gym rats going back to the Edwardian strongmen had all this figured out (and probably some of the ancients beck to Milo of Croton). For well over a century strength and physique athletes have used body part splits together with concepts like time-to-failure to cycle through stimuli which induce continuous gains of the desired sort in different body systems.

Here in the data is a clue that coaches and researchers should take to heart and pursue. Physical training can be split in location and time and timescale to drive different responses. It is strongly suspected that a well designed study can show that what we call strength and endurance adaptations may be competing, but they are not necessarily exclusive. During training and recovery they will compete for limited resources, but if smartly and sharply split in time (day or time of day), driven by efforts at different timescales (time to failure or effort level), productive responses can be found toward any combination of training goals.

One of the few practical guides one will find to multi-mode training is The Edge from the Weider brothers.

Some research has already been done showing that not only can one get both stronger and faster, but the stronger athletes have better endurance – if the strength stimulus is intense enough to not overlap with endurance modes.
Endurance and strength training effects on physiological and muscular parameters during prolonged cycling, Christophe Hausswirth et al

Something of a bible on the topic of converting generalized training to sport-specific adaptations, collected works of Tudor Bompa will be found the shelves of many successful coaches.