On the Reading Table: Money, Habits, & Open Science

I’m going to give this a run: A post every week or so on what I’m reading , have recently read, or have poked through enough to get a decent sense of.

The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers — and the Coming Cashless Society, by David Wolman

This is quite a romp, half digerotica, half travelogue. Wolman, a writer for WIRED and other magazines, looks at the possibility that a digital currency and other alternatives will soon render us cashless. He starts by going cashless himself for a year — not without funds, but without any paper or coin currency, using just credit cards, ATMs, and other forms of digital currency. This goes fairly well, which didn’t surprise me terribly; I performed a less committed form of this experiment when living in London last year; I kept a few pounds in paper currency in my wallet but found I rarely needed to use it. Only now and then would nothing else would do. Wolman’s visit to anti-cash crusader Dave Birch, who lived in London, produces a similar moment when Birch, amid rants about currency, digs a one-pound coin out of his pocket to toss into a busker’s guitar case. That London trip is part of a sort of world tour that Wolman leads us on to examine alt-currency experiments and rebellions ranging from digital currency, bartering, and local swap-based exchanges to tax-dodging and counterfeiting.

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Decoding a Contagious Devil-Killing Cancer

Tasmanian devil with contagious cancer. Image courtesy Wikimedia

In the wilds of Tasmania and in labs in England, researchers are making some encouraging advances in their attempt to decode what may be a ticking bomb: an ugly, lethal cancer — a contagious one, a potential nightmare — that has been spreading among Tasmanian devils. As Ewen Callaway reports  today at Nature:

The first cases of devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) were detected in the mid-1990s, when people noticed the disfigured faces of devils in northeast Tasmania. These tumour cells pass from devil to devil when the aggressive marsupials mate and fight for food.

Once seeded, the cancer cells divide swiftly to form large malignant growths, and most infected devils die from starvation or metastases to vital organs within months. DFTD has marched steadily across Tasmania, and now a pocket in the northwest part of the island is the only place home to whole populations of uninfected devils. In the hardest-hit areas, more than half of devils are infected and many die as they hit their reproductive prime.

Four years ago, in Harper’s, David Quammen examined this plague in one of the most riveting pieces of science writing I’ve ever read. As he explains there, the Tasmanian devil outbreak raises the frightening possibility that other cancers could develop the capacity to spread much as colds or skin infections do. The key to how they do so would presumably be found in the DNA of the ugly tumors the devils develop on their faces. The cancer seems to spread when the devils, which bite each other on the face while fighting or mating, get a bit of tumor in their teeth. Somehow, it seemed, DNA or other material from those cancerous tumors caused the cancer to spread — a highly alarming possibility.

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Your Habits Give You Away — As Companies Damn Well Know

Photo courtesy New York Times

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.

“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”

This is from “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” an absolutely fascinating feature from Charles Duhigg at the NY Times Magazine, drawn from his book “The Power of Habit,” a review copy of which I’m now reading. Both feature and book explore a startling and sometimes dismaying collision between the increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding of habits — how they’re formed, how they can be disrupted and changed — and, among other things, company’s efforts to use that knowledge to steer your habits and money their way. (You can also learn how not to eat too many chocolate chip cookies, if that’s knowledge you actually want.)

Really juicy, fascinating, sometimes confounding stuff here, including a look at Anne Graybiel’s work on habits at MIT; Graybiel described that work at the Society of Neuroscience meeting last November, and it’s one of the most intriguing lines of neuroscience research I’ve seen in a while. You can head over to read it right away. Or if you want, here’s another snippet, simultaneously splendid and somewhat creepy. Are we really this easy to move? Yes. Yes we are.

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George Clooney Robs A Bank With a Lie & A Smile, and Other Scenes In Media Res

Elmore Leonard likes to start scenes right in the middle of the scene, as he does, more or less, in the scene above from Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” adapted from Leonard’s novel of the same title.  At too many Daves, David Quigg considers the virtue of starting an entire book in its middle:

I turned randomly to page 104:

The fourth man, the big one, came out of the bank door as he watched, holding a Thomson gun in front of him, and as he backed out of the door the siren in the bank rose in a long breath-holding shriek and Harry saw the gun muzzle jump-jump-jump-jump and heard the bop-bop-bop-bop.

Actually Quigg is considering there a book that talks of starting books in the middle; that larger passage, starting with “I turned…” is from a novel Quigg is reading called Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles; the passage in italics is from Hemingway’s To Have or Have Not. Quigg has a wonderful riff on the Hemingway passage, which he quickly found in yet another book; do check it out.

I suspect the fun of starting in the middle — of being dropped into the middle — derives from being forced to rapidly create, in your mind as you read, a lot of context. It’s the fun of the jumpcut or, from real life, of walking into a room and finding two people in a conversation so heated or otherwise committed that they don’t stop to fill you in; instead, you have to fill the scene in. You become a creator.

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For Valentine’s Day: My Mom, Ashes, and A Puzzle

Hawaii, 1944

Tonight I’ll be in Brooklyn talking mothers and memoirs with Cris Beam, Clive Thompson, and the editors of The Atavist, which last year published my memoir about my mum, My Mother’s Lover. For those attending, thinking of attending, or curious about the book — a big hit for The Atavist, shooting to #1 among all Kindle Singles on publication, and a nice experiment in e-book form — I’ve excerpted below the first chapter.  For more, buy the book via The Atavist or Amazon, or join us in Brooklyn this evening, Valentine’s Day, for a free event with drinks and discussion about mothers, memoir in a digital age, love, and whatever else people want to discuss.

In any event, read on; my mom laid down quite a story.


 From My Mother’s Lover

The Atavist

I. Twenty Questions

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother’s ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat’s paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

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Madness, Genius, & Sherman’s Ruthless March

Sherman’s troops destroying the Atlanta rail depot — part of his methodical, seemingly mad destruction of the South’s infrastructure

 In 1864, in a radically risky move crucial to winning the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman led his army of some 80,000 men to Atlanta, burned it to the ground, and then marched to the coast of South Carolina, destroying almost all in his path. It was a wild, improbable gambit: He meant to and did destroy the South’s infrastructure, crops, railways, and will. But to do so he had to work for weeks without supply lines for his own army and in near total isolation — no supplies, little communication — from both civilian and military leadership to the north.

Was there a method to Sherman’s March? And what did it have to do with him being crazy? Nassir Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, which I’m now reading with mixed feelings and total fascination, raises these questions in a single, succinct, startling chapter, and answers Yes and Yes.

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Dissing the Disabled Without Data: A Biologist Mom Punches Back

This guest post is by biologist and writer Emily Willingham, who first published it yesterday at The Biology Files. I asked her if I could post it here because it speaks to the importance of writing about behavioral science in a way that draws on data carefully rather than casually or by convenience to one’s argument; an attempted corrective somewhat in the spirit of my own. Enough With the ‘Slut Gene’ Already: Behaviors Ain’t Traits.


Dissing the Disabled Without Data: A Biologist Mom Punches Back

by Emily Willingham

A flurry of articles has emerged in the last few weeks in which mental health professionals voice opinions about developmental disorders without providing scientific evidence to support them. Opinion is fine, except that these articles deliver it as gospel straight from the expert’s mouth while not providing an iota of scientific findings as a basis. Because the opinions relate to a developmental disorder in children, these writings carry not only the great weight of being vague and unsupported, but they also carry the even greater weight of damaging real people with real developmental disorders.

In these articles–one in the New York Times and authored by a psychiatrist and the other at the Daily Beast and quoting a handful of mental health practitioners–the tone is that people with an Asperger’s diagnosis are just quirky folk who don’t have anything sufficiently disabling to be considered to have a disorder. The misunderstanding of diagnostic criteria or even of what Asperger’s actually is makes both of these pieces worthless in terms of information. The fact that neither of them quotes a person with Asperger’s or the parent of a child with Asperger’s means that all the reader gets from them is the bias of the writer.

Each piece works hard, using generalizations and misinterpretations, to make sure that the public will perceive any human being walking around right now with an Asperger’s diagnosis as a diagnostic fraud who is undeserving of supports of any kind, who is simply odd or quirky and taking advantage of a “diagnosis du jour.” In other words, these articles with their clear bias and their lack of factual information do very real harm to real people who really have a developmental disorder. And that pisses me off because one of those people is my son.

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Open Science Revolt Occupies Congress

U.S. Capitol, by ttarasiuk. Some rights reserved; details below post

The open-science revolt, catalyzed just a few weeks ago as a reaction to publisher Elsevier’s backing of a clumsy bill introduced to the U.S. .Congress, now has a champion in that Congress, Representative Mike Doyle, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, who has introduced legislation to encourage open access to government-sponsored science. It’s notable that this bill, the Federal Research Public Access Act, seems to have bipartisan support in both houses, including from some, such as Texas’s Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who aren’t exactly of the the radical left. From Doyle’s office:

U.S. Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA) today introduced bipartisan legislation that directs federal agencies to encourage open public access to federally funded scientific research.

“Americans have the right to see the results of research funded with taxpayer dollars,” Congressman Doyle said in introducing the Federal Research Public Access Act.  “Yet such research too often gets locked away behind a pay-wall, forcing those who want to learn from it to pay expensive subscription fees for access.”  

“The Federal Research Public Access Act will encourage broader collaboration among scholars in the scientific community by permitting widespread dissemination of research findings.  Promoting greater collaboration will inevitably lead to more innovative research outcomes and more effective solutions in the fields of biomedicine, energy, education, and health care.”

The Federal Research Public Access Act would require federal agencies with an extramural research budget of $100 million or more to make federally-funded research available for free online access by the general public, no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

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Is Sensitivity a Curse or a Blessing? My Latest on The Orchid-Dandelion Hypothesis

Dandelion Clock
Dandelions are beautiful too.

As faithful readers know, I’m working on a book, provisionally titled The Orchid and the Dandelion and likely to be published next year, about the orchid-dandelion hypothesis: the notion that genes and traits that underlie some of humans’ biggest weaknesses — despair, madness, savage aggression — also underlie some of our greatest strengths —  resilience, lasting happiness, empathy. If you’re used to the disease model of genes that are associated with mood and behavioral problems, this hypothesis can seem puzzling. The turn lies in viewing problems such as depression, distractibility, or even aggression as downsides of a heightened sensitivity to experience that can also generate assets and contentment.

I first wrote about the orchid-dandelion hypothesis in an Atlantic article two years ago. Last week, New Scientist published a feature I wrote about some of the research I’ve come across while researching the book. The article is behind a paywall now, so you’ll need a subscription to read it; I’ll post the whole thing here in a few weeks when the New Scientist exclusive-run period ends. In the meantime,  I thought I’d excerpt here a couple passages of particular interest.

One is the opener, which describes how toddlers react to a clever test of their generosity and then lays out the gist of the hypothesis. The other is a multigenic study that sought to expand the hypothesis beyond single-gene candidate-gene studies.

First the toddlers; I couldn’t resist any trial this clever — or a treat called Bambas:

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What An Autopsy Looks Like — And Why You Need One

Autopsy tables. (Richard Bryant/Library of Congress)

NPR and ProPublica yesterday ran a fine story on why we need autopsies – but, alas, do them only rarely. Half a century ago, roughly half of all hospital deaths in the United States got autopsies. These post-mortems corrected tens of thousands of wrong or partial diagnoses, taught doctors and hospitals invaluable lessons (humility among them), and helped revealed both trends in misdiagnosis and new diseases ranging from Legionnaires disease to West Nile virus. The autopsy, as the NPR/Propublica report story put it, is the ultimate medical audit. It is a foundation of modern medicine, and its two greatest values are to show doctors where they tend to go wrong, both on the individual level and through all of medicine, and providing crucial medical information to the families of the dead. It ensures that instead of burying their mistakes, doctors learn from them.

In the NPR/ProPublica story, for instance, an autopsy revealed that an otherwise mysterious death was due to a pulmonary embolism — and that the embolism was in turn caused by widespread cancer in a woman who was thought healthy. This history of cancer will be of vital importance to her children and other relatives. It will also teach the doctors who cared for her some valuable lessons in diagnosis and treatment.

Unfortunately, the autopsy’s decline over the last half-century is not a brand-new story. Medical watchdogs have been howling about it for a couple decades. And seven years ago, I wrote “Buried Answers,” a New York Times Magazine feature, that explored at greater length much of the same information that is in the excellent NPR/Propublica story.

Yet I’m glad to see the NPR/ProPublica story; this is a tale that cannot be told too many times. To reinforce the NPR/ProPublica story, I thought it might be useful to run here the last section of my story. It describes a particular autopsy that I attended, its unexpected findings, and their implications, both for the particular patient — who left the room looking every bit as good as he did when he entered — and for those close to him both in his life and in his treatment.

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