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11 February 2016

I’ve caught my chin on stones from foolish steps,
and bled and been ashamed of clumsy feet.
I’ve challenged daunting chasms, run and lept,
and fallen when the rift outclassed my reach.

A thousand thousand times I’ve knelt defeated.
I’ve lost and blundered every chance I’ve earned.
But from all my stupidities repeated,
I pray you’ll let me tell what I have learned:

Endured defeat is victory’s other guise.
And all the ways I’ve lost have led me here.
Though broken, bloodied – Love, for you I rise,
Though lost, the road we travel next is clear.

Alone I fall and fail and bleed and weep,
For you, I dream and rise and stand and leap.

Thinking of a Sabbatical.

10 February 2016

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak in Valencia on the paper I wrote about bias in peer review. I can’t go, which is sad, but today the group invited me to speak in Rome in September and I will move earth to go to that one. Even if it means I have to miss a half-marathon I was planning on running. But I don’t think it will.

I’ve planted the idea in my boss’s and VP’s head that I would like to do a short sabbatical. Not soon, really, and I’d have to find a grant to cover some salary to do it. But the same group that’s now invited me to speak in Europe twice is willing to consider hosting me – as well as helping to find funds to host me – at a university in southern Europe.

Hopefully, I’d be able to take a season, like 3-4 months, to live there and work on a simulation project and advance some of my ideas about how to model and improve the dissemination of science. Maybe write a couple of papers or book chapters. Maybe even work on my symphony again. It remains languishing at 2.5 movements, unconsidered for four years.

I don’t know if it’s even possible. My boss was enthusiastic but cautious about the idea. My VP said he’s supportive of such things if my regular work can be managed so that I wouldn’t be too badly missed during the time. I’ll find a way, I hope, to make it happen. Doesn’t a few months doing a little meta-scientific navel-gazing sound wonderful?

Sex and Alcohol.

4 February 2016

Dangerous waters these. With two news events hitting the academic world – the Dr. Lieb fiasco and the CDC’s infographic on women and alcohol – I thought I’d try to bring an alcoholic’s perspective to the issues of alcohol and sex. There are a lot of those issues. It’s complex and unpleasant. Nothing is as simple as we’d like it to be when it comes to humans, drugs, and sex.

Before we get into the nuances, let’s dispense with the obvious. Having sex with someone who is incapacitated due to alcohol consumption is rape. And it is solely the culpability of the person committing the rape, and not the person who is incapacitated. Rape is primarily a male problem: men need to stop raping people. Nothing that follows should be construed to amend those statements.

Furthermore, I strongly condemn any professor having a sexual relationship with any student or trainee in their entire university, a fortiori any student in their department or lab. Not only is this wrong, it’s unbelievably stupid, and represents ridiculously poor judgement and should be a dismissable act at every university. Faculty shouldn’t fuck students. Period.

Now it gets a little messy. And I know there are those who don’t believe there’s any messiness about mixing alcohol and sex. I think they’re wrong. I think there are situations where many people happily and consensually mix alcohol and sex and that that’s ok. It sort of breaks down into categories.

There exist people in sexual relationships where consent is explicit and clear, who can have happy, unambiguously consensual sex while one is or both are intoxicated. These relationships can also go wrong, and there are many instances where consent in these circumstances is retracted, and sex between them unambiguously becomes rape. Consent is key, it is rarely unclear when it is retracted, and intoxicated or not the instant consent is retracted sex must stop.

There are situations where people go out with the explicit and clear intention of getting drunk and having consensual sex with a new or recently-encountered partner. In these situations, where the decision is made while sober, and consent is never retracted, it seems that this, while perhaps foolish and dangerous, remains within the realm of consensual. But this is especially stupid for men to do: this is how we become rapists. We go out, sober, intending to have sex if possible, and once drunk some of us are not careful about consent. And my position, once again, is that alcohol is an exacerbating factor, not a mitigating one. A drunk man who rapes someone is MORE culpable, not less.

Because of the existence of consensual sex during intoxication, it is often used to cast doubt on the claims of a victim of rape. It should not be. When someone makes a conscious decision to have sex, it is vanishingly rare that they later claim to have been raped. So rare as to be beyond reasonable doubt unless there is some other evidence. And if a person is so intoxicated that they cannot make that conscious decision, it is always rape to have sex with them.

The prudent and wise thing to do is to not have sex with drunk people. And don’t have sex drunk. There is no such thing as being “led on” by a drunk person, and being drunk does not excuse or exculpate raping someone.

But if you’re in a happy consensual relationship, and you and your partner both enjoy having sex while one or both of you are drunk, and you make those decisions sober? Well, I don’t enjoy that kind of thing anymore. I think alcohol and sex make a lot of problems. But I believe it’s possible to have consensual sex in those circumstances.

We alcoholics though? We cannot. Alcohol changes us, fuels our impulses. Removes our inhibitions, and allows us to ignore the withdrawal of consent. I think nearly every alcoholic is a rapist. Being an alcoholic doesn’t expunge that from us. We alcoholics are no more capable of responsible sex than we are of responsible driving. Sobriety is the only way for us to engage in happy, consensual sexual relationships.

The “Exercise Plateau” Paper.

2 February 2016

Making the rounds at the moment is this new paper which purports to show that increasing exercise doesn’t increase calories burned, after a certain threshold. Their methods are a bit crude (estimating activity from wristwatch accelerometers like Fitbits, and comparing to measures of total calories expended that I don’t quite understand). There are a couple of basic caveats that ought to be mentioned up front too. I don’t know how relevant it is, because I don’t know if different races exhibit different exercise response, but their sample was heavily African and African-derived. Their sample was small, only 332 persons, and they had only mediocre compliance with their regimen.

But let’s take the study at face value for a moment. This study, and others, support the general idea that the human body will, in response to changes in diet and activity, up- or down- regulate the basal metabolic rate to compensate. This is unsurprising, if in some cases dismaying. I’ve seen it in my own life: I’ve run like hell for two straight years now and not lost an ounce of weight. And I don’t think I’m eating all that much more.

However, I did lose fifty pounds prior to that. I lost it by going from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one while not increasing my food intake. And this study supports that claim: going from minimal activity to significant activity has an enormous increase in calories burned. That’s just not the part that gets the headlines. It also says that you need to exercise a LOT before you hit the plateau.

Their main measure of activity is “counts per minute per day” on an accelerometer. This means that if you walk for an hour at two steps per second, you achieve a CPM/d of 5. The plateau doesn’t kick in until you hit CPM/d of 230, according to the researchers. That’s the equivalent of walking for 46 hours a day. So clearly, we’re talking about some SERIOUS exercise here. Casual exercisers are not going to reach these levels.

**EDIT: The author states that walking represents much more than this, and that the CPM/d where the plateau starts is around 6000 steps per day. 

So what this means is, yes, our bodies behave counterintuitively at extremely high levels of activity. But I’m not there, you’re not there. You’d have to be a serious athlete or have an extremely demanding job to hit the threshold where you start not increasing caloric output for increased activity. Either that, or their numbers are screwy, which seems as likely.  Also note that this was a cross sectional study, not a longitudinal one. That means they didn’t test individuals as their activity increased. So we know nothing about what happens when you or I increase our effort. We only know that in this population, individuals who naturally had higher activity levels also were more efficient.

So here’s the deal: the only reliable way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. Individuals vary in their genetic makeup that makes it easier for some and harder for others. There are no shortcuts. People who don’t care about fitness don’t have to. Judging people based on their size is petty and hateful. Don’t do it.

For the vast majority of us, “eat less and exercise more” is good advice. We have the power to influence our physical condition. Very few of us are at the margins where BMI is a bad metric, or where increasing activity won’t increase our caloric expenditures much. We have agency. If we want to make changes, and are disciplined about it, we can. Results like this are erroneously used to demoralize people and tell us our condition is out of our hands, when that’s not what the data show.

Decision Making – Learning the Hard Way.

1 February 2016

I had a bit of an anxious breakdown about the house sale this past week. I signed a contract with a buyer, and then was immediately wracked with the inability to sleep because I felt I’d been less than completely forthcoming about my disclosures. I was terrified that they’d find something, I’d get sued, and there would be a total clusterfuck. So I updated my disclosures and sent them to the buyer.

The buyer terminated. I’m quite happy they did (there was also a question over a tax issue). I felt that I had broken trust and I didn’t want to negotiate a sale with a buyer that didn’t trust me. That’s just setting myself up for a disaster. So now I have a clean slate, a completely forthcoming disclosure, and a clear conscience. But my process meant that I had to go through a deep and difficult bout of anxiety.

This happens to me a lot. I make bad decisions, like deciding to disclose things on my house in a slippery way, because I rationalize to myself that I’ll get what I want. Then my anxiety spikes, I can’t sleep, I panic, and I have to set things right. My honesty is subject to my fear and misery. Without that panic, I would not be thorough. That’s not a good way to be. But I suppose it’s better than just not giving a shit at all.

Sobriety requires rigorous honesty. And we alcoholics, including me personally, are liars. I have come to work hard at my honesty, and I often fail, like I did here. I wish I didn’t need the salt blast of terror and misery to come around to the honest way. But I did, and I do. And I don’t seem to learn from it. It takes the same thing every time. Maybe one day I’ll learn to avert the anxiety, and not just react to it.

Ten Miles.

1 February 2016

December and January have been pretty light months for me, running-wise. Well, as compared with the prior year. I just eclipsed 60 miles in each month. In January, I needed to have a nice long run over the weekend to achieve that. BB and I went out for ten miles on Saturday morning. It was hard. My endurance has definitely lapsed some. But I was happy to get it in.

The difference between running about 15 miles a week and about 25 miles a week is really a big difference for me. Looking at it on the screen doesn’t seem so big, but to run 25 miles in a week, I basically have to be doing double digit mile runs every weekend. That’s a big time commitment, and a big time commitment during the week to get in the three five milers I need to support a long weekend run like that.

What I’ve been doing with all the time I’m not running has been gym work. Gym work is weird. I can do chin-ups now, when I never could before. Sometimes as many as four in a row, if I only go down half way. Next I’m going to work on pull-ups, which target the back more than the biceps. Gym work is oddly satisfying because I can detect the work by how I can lift heavier things, and do more repetitions, but I don’t know if I see the physical results visually.

But I do need to maintain my focus on what matters. The reason I want to do pull-ups is not that I expect to need to pull myself up the side of any buildings, or expect somehow to have a back like Dwayne Johnson. I want to do pull-ups because the Latissimus is a huge muscle group, and by building it up it should help improve my insulin sensitivity. I’m doing the same thing with my glutes, which have been nonexistent since puberty.

As vain as I can be about all this fitness stuff, that really is the goal. Develop the constitutional robustness needed to stave off the inevitable onset of type 2 diabetes. That means especially developing the muscle groups that ought to be large consumers of sugar. Muscle groups that the indolence of my sedentary 20s and early 30s allowed to atrophy into uselessness.

But I’ve made great strides, and my work physical is coming up. I’ll know my A1c and my fasting glucose. I expect them to be about where they’ve been for 5 years: elevated but sub-diabetic. Which remains my goal. Normal sugar levels are probably beyond my reach at this point, but the efforts I’ve put in are keeping me healthy. And I am happy and gratified about that.

As Dreams are Vapor.

28 January 2016

I didn’t sleep last night. Well, a few hours. But I tossed awake for as many as I slumbered. Selling my house is provoking deep and difficult anxieties. I finally sat up and wrote a note to my agent to send to the buyer using the words “water damage” where I hadn’t in the original disclosure. Then, talking with a friend this morning I was reminded that I had a professional contractor look at the problems, and he didn’t recommend any repairs beyond the ones I’ve already disclosed. And I did all the repairs he recommended.

This morning I searched in vain for flights that would get me to Spain to give my invited lecture. It’s just not going to work. The talk is the week before my home is supposed to close. I am giving another talk in New Orleans the day I would have to leave. Things are just not lining up the right way. I’m disappointed.

But I also a bit relieved. I’m not an expert on the topic. I wrote a one-off paper about a thought experiment I did in a computer. The people who invited me are all giants in the field of simulating social processes. I’m a putz who jumped fields to write one short research note. I shouldn’t pretend to be something I’m not. It was exciting to get noticed for a minute for some cool work I did, but let’s not start thinking I’m a real researcher with a major contribution to make.

I’m not a professor. I’m not a real scientist. I’m a mediocre engineer doing hospital quality improvement who publishes case studies to satisfy my vanity. I do that mostly because I have more talented friends who do exciting things and get public recognition and I desperately want to be part of that club. I don’t want to be insignificant or unimportant. I want to be more than I am.

This is my ego. My ego has desires and dreams and visions that are beyond my grasp. And so I pretend to be bigger and better than I am to try to satisfy it, and then I hope no one notices the rot in my soul underneath. People talk a lot about Impostor Syndrome. But I am, I think, and actual impostor when it comes to academic science. Yes, I’ve gotten a few small grants and written a few unimportant papers. But I frequently and deliberately inflate the value of my experience.

I am an alcoholic. I am a liar. My first impulse is to conceal who I am and deceive people about my abilities. I have to fight that impulse all the time. There is a terror about telling the truth when it means I might not get what I want. But dishonesty is toxic to my sobriety. It all leaves me uncomfortable and askew. Constantly battling one destructive behavior or another.

The last week I’ve had this cold, which is over now. I took Alka-Seltzer cold to relieve my nasal congestion. One side effect this has (though I don’t see it noted on the package, so it may be a placebo) is to make me drowsy. Last night I felt fine. But I still thought about taking the medicine, for the drowsiness. I didn’t. That’s the first step back in. Anxiety triggers disquiet. My alcoholic mind seeks ways to anesthetize myself.

So I went to bed and I tossed and turned until midnight. Then again from 2-4. Then I was up at 5. Today I’m weary and angry and anxious. I have no relief from that. This is what I endure, rather than using chemicals to assuage it. And I send another statement because I don’t want to risk my serenity. What serenity I can imagine having, though I cannot find it now.

I am tired and sick to my heart and I am sad. I want silence and green meadows and golden light.


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