Stories

Dr. Steven Novella
Neurology, Yale University

Dr. Novella knew he was headed into the lion’s den when he accepted an invitation to go on the notorious Dr. Oz show, perhaps history’s most influential promoter of unscientific alternative medicine. He was there to represent science-based criticism of alternative medicine, and hoped to make the best of the opportunity the producers afforded him.

All signs were good until the cameras started rolling, and from that moment on, it was hopeless. Allowed only a few seconds to answer each of Dr. Oz’s questions, Dr. Novella did the best anyone could, but each of his points was followed up by counterpoints from:

• An alt-med doctor sitting beside him, given an unchallenged opportunity to refute each of Dr. Novella’s points;

• Other alt-med professionals stationed in the audience, also given chances to refute Novella’s points, with never a chance for him to counter; and

• Slick pre-produced taped segments blatantly misrepresenting alternative medicine as being backed by strong experimental evidence.

Even when they don’t quote mine or use the editor’s razor, the most motivated television producers still have plenty of tools in their arsenal to turn the tables against good science and promote nonsense.

Science Friction is a new documentary film that will expose these faux documentaries, and give the scientists a chance to clear the record. The film is being crowdfunded.

Skeptoid Media

https://sciencefriction.tv/stories/steve_novella.php

Buoyancy

I’m not doing nearly as well as I expected, despite some positive signs. In the pool yesterday, I spotted something someone had dropped in the deep end and dived to retrieve it. Successfully. That may not seem much of an accomplishment but not so long ago I was so buoyant with adiposity that I could not sink no matter how I tried. Though I could float on my back and snooze without fear of drowning, I could not reach the bottom of the pool no matter how hard I tried. Now, I can swim down.

This positive sign perhaps explains why my weight loss graph has plateaued in the last couple of weeks. I’m developing muscle, which is denser than fat. I am still incrementally tightening the drawstring in my waistband, so something positive is happening.

The best time of day is when I am weightless in the pool. I am virtually pain and discomfort free . I feel as fit as I was when I made my marathon swim around Mayor Island over 47 years ago. But climbing out and returning to the gravity of the world leaves me limping and hobbling like the old man I have become. Riding the bicycle is my second pleasure. Seated, so my knees bear no weight, and with my feet positioned properly on the pedals, the discomfort in my knees is minimal, and the ache in the muscles of my calves and thighs is an acceptable sign of effort being rewarded. Climbing off the bike at the end of my journey is a painful return to reality. I have to take care not to fall over. I believe it is time to talk to the doc about new knees, and get onto that waiting list.

My mental buoyancy is better. Despite occasional bouts of loneliness when I am acutely aware that I am far away from my family and closest friends, I am coming to embrace solitude, and the self-awareness that comes with it. I have left so much behind. Lost so much. I am not, and never was, the person I wanted to be. Perhaps I am where I am now because it is where I deserve to be. That is not self-pity, it is self-appraisal.

Part of me wants to return to New Zealand, but why? My family don’t need me. I actually have fewer friends there than I do in Western Australia – and the weather is worse. I’d be financially worse off. Plus there is the inertia that seems to come with old age. I find it difficult to even contemplate moving on from the camp I am in.

One of my neighbours has a sign on his cabin “Der Komandant, Stalag Luft 13”. The old chap has a sense of humour like mine. Despite the title he has given himself, he knows he is a prisoner, like the rest of us.

Swimming Uphill

I forgot my water bottle today, and swam 2hrs and 20 minutes at the pool. Swimming with a mask and snorkel seems to dry one out. I must not make that mistake again. It is stupidly ironic to suffer dehydration in a swimming pool.

I only managed to swim 80 lengths in just over 1 hr 15 mins, a very reasonable 2km distance, except it means my average time per length was 1.7 minutes. That is slow. I started out doing almost 11 lengths per quarter hour and gradually slowed.

I count the number of strokes it takes for me to swim a length. At the beginning it took me around 27 but at the end my strokes were clearly getting weaker and a length took me from 33 to 40.

I noticed one curious thing. Swimming from the deep end to the shallow end took me on average 1 to 2 strokes more than when I swam in the opposite direction. I pondered this as I swam looking through my mask at the bottom sloping up before me. I had a sudden epiphany. I realised I was swimming up hill. Of course it would require a little extra effort.

Yeah, nah. It was really that the kick off at the shallow end gave me more headway at the start.

Now, I am reconsidering my goals. I had hoped to manage 100 lengths – 2.5 km – in two hours. But that would require me to maintain an average of 1.2 mins a length. I don’t think I can. So I shall adopt the ancient adage “Just keep swimming”. I’ll maintain a comfortably steady pace and go for a time record instead. After all, it’s about the exercise. I’ve always been a stamina over speed person.

So, What Did You do While the World was Ending?

Just another day, really. I had the main pool to myself for almost an hour, which is good because I got lane one, with the steps. Starting early pays.

I swam for an hour and a quarter. In the first quarter hour I managed eight lengths of breast stroke in just over sixteen minutes. After that I settled down to a more easily maintained six lengths in around fourteen minutes. Every sixth length I switched to back stroke. I have learned that backstroke is much easier, much more efficient, but also burns much less energy. I want to burn energy.

I also learned it uses completely different muscles, or so it seems. I don’t get the lactic burn and could probably cruise all day doing it. So making every sixth length back stroke gave me a wee break from the building ache, and enough time to fill out the rest of each quarter-hour with some water-assisted step-ups on the pool steps, and some water-assisted chin-ups on the rail of the starting block.

Efficient.

There’s time to muse when swimming, I muse a lot.

It seemed the oddest form of synchronicity to find later the Guardian’s First Dog on the Moon cartoon today covered exactly what I was musing about. Hence my previous post. It should be depressing, but I am way past that. I really have reached a stage in which my philosophy is “Shit Happens, It Doesn’t Matter”.

Also, whilst swimming on my back and looking unfocused up at an overcast sky, I saw just how many floaters I have in my eyeballs. I named the biggest one Eric.

One of my earliest memories is of seeing floaters in my eyes at bedtime and trying to tell my mother what I saw. I must have been four or so. I thought there was snow in my bedroom. She thought I was silly and told me to go to sleep.

I then moved to the indoor therapy pool. I had that completely to myself. The water, at 33C seemed very hot at first, after the cooling swim and a wet walk through a chilly breeze. Half an hour of side stepping, squats and leg stretches and assorted joint mobility exercises a hot shower and shampoo, then off to Aldi to hunt for a kitchen seive. They didn’t have one. When it comes to stuff like that Aldi can be hit and miss.

What they do have is a really good range of good quality foods Fresh meat and really fresh produce at astonishingly good prices. Today for the first time I spent a while just looking around at what they stock. There seems very little need to shop elsewhere for staples or luxury foods.

Almost seems a shame to discover this just as the world is ending.

Bloody Hydrangeas

I haven’t seen many hydrangeas since I was in Australia. I came upon a bush the other day while exploring the area around Toorbul. I immediately had a distinct feeling of dislike and anger. I was repulsed by this innocent and seemingly attractive flower that changes colour with the pH of the soil in which it grows.

I had almost completely forgotten how my self-esteem had been smashed by a hydrangea way back in 1959. We then lived in Palmerston North, in New Zealand, and I attended Westend Primary School. In those days the school fair was a popular annual event. Bring and buy, cake stalls, funfair activities, and art and craft competitions for the pupils.

It was decided that my class would participate in a flower arranging competition. On the Friday before the fair we were to bring flowers to school and arrange them artistically in a saucer of wet sand. These would be judged at the fair the next day and the best three would win a prize. I told mum and we went out looking for flowers around the block of flats where we lived. We found a few dandelions and a hydrangea bush. That was it.

By the time I got to school the dandelions had wilted. I threw them away. That left me with a couple of hydrangea inflorescences. I picked apart the individual flowers and florets and arranged them in an artistic spiral with the colour graduating from the palest on the outside to the deepest blue in the centre. When it was done, I did not think much of it, and I knew it would not win a prize, but it was the best I could do.

Next day, with a shilling in my pocket to spend on anything I liked, I went to the fair. In our classroom on a trestle table I found the flower arrangements, arranged in order from best to least favoured. As I expected mine was not amongst the top choices. I went to the other end of the table and was surprised to see it was not there either. Maybe it was better than I thought. I searched along the table to find it, and see exactly where it fit into the scale of artistic expression. After several passes, I could not see it anywhere. I was perplexed. Where was it?

Then with a sinking feeling in my stomach and a sense of foreboding far more serious than the occasion warranted, I spotted the rubbish bin beside the teacher’s desk and went over to look inside. There, inside was a pile of sand, and my hydrangea arrangement, now tumbled in disarray. I saw the saucer on the teacher’s desk.

I still cannot express how very devastated I was, not that my flower arrangement was not any good, but that it was not even considered worthy enough to be put on display with the other failures. It was the utterest of utter failures.

And therefore so was I.

I still fuckin’ hate hydrangeas.

Many years later…

A Modest Proposal

At University, so very long ago, we learned about the PTC taste test. We all took test papers home and charted our families’ ability or inability to taste the bitter chemical, which is apparently not found in nature, though the story circulating at the time was that it was derived from horse piss.

PTC stands for phenylthiocarbamide. Also known as phenylthiourea, the chemical structure of PTC resembles toxic alkaloids found in some poisonous plants. The ability to taste it would be an evolutionary advantage. Roughly 25% of the population cannot taste it.

Informally, amongst ourselves, we also discovered there was a small proportion of people who actually liked the taste. Most of us didn’t. I was reminded of this many years later when my younger daughter developed pica, and was prescribed a nasty tasting iron solution to be dispensed only a drop at a time due to its toxicity. I was expecting to have trouble getting her to take it. To me, it tasted Nasty. Very Nasty. On the contrary, she begged for more.

What I am leading up to, is that people are Different. And Different is not necessarily Wrong.

There is a huge difference between liking pineapple on pizza or being gay, and being a paedophilic cannibalistic serial killer. The line is crossed, to my mind, only when someone is harmed.

The problem is that too many people draw the line in ridiculously arbitrary ways. Religion and other erroneous beliefs, such as those held by believers of feng shui and by antivaxxers are only of importance when someone is harmed as a result of those beliefs.

Increasingly, the failure to accept ANY difference of opinion or of lifestyle is becoming a serious problem in society. The line is becoming so blurred that it is now my opinion that it should be firmly placed by law, at the place it should be; where beliefs and practices cause harm to others. Intolerance of racism, paedophilia and homicidal behaviour must be encouraged. Intolerance of sexual identity, the telling of Irish jokes, or belittling those with a fondness for pineapple on pizza should be considered as hate speech and acted upon accordingly.

Search Google for…

Given the lack of personal social intercourse with humans, apart from watching Netflix, one of the ways I spend the long quiet evenings here is to follow up on little references that I encounter on Facebook.

I learn interesting things that I have forgotten again within days. Sometimes hours. So I look them up again.

I was thinking about this when I was searching through Netflix for something new to watch. I saw that I had rated some movies and series with a thumbs up, but I could not remember the title or the plot of a significantly large proportion of those I had clearly already watched at some time not too long ago.

So. I am losing my short term memory.

Where was I going with this?