March 10, 2007

Do Ionizing Air Cleaners Really Work?

Posted in Health, Life, Me, Psychology, Science at 9:22 am by mj

Recently, you-know-who came home with a Bionaire PERMAtech(tm) ionizing air cleaner from Costco. She did this because I’ve been having the sniffles brought on by the elevated Bay Area attack of the trees (or is it dust?), which is always compounded by my preference for sleeping with the window open.

If you know me, you know I’m a big-time deep-in-my-bones skeptic. I might not always know exactly the right questions to ask, or be able to tell exactly what psychological forces or fraudulant pseudo-science is at play, but I am always skeptical. Marrying a Chinese girl was a big change for me, because Chinese are much more accepting of alternative medicines and anecdotal evidence than us poor Westerners. (Despite my skepticism, I have discovered several Chinese herbs and concoctions that work for me for various ailments, including, as far as I can tell given my limited capacity for controlled testing, my persistent nausea.)

The first red flag was thrown a few minutes into reading the brief manual, which offered this doozie:

You may also note after extended use, that dust may have collected around the grills or front panel. This is from the ionization affect caused by the negative ions exiting from the air outlet. This is additional evidence of the air cleaning effectiveness of negative ions.

Um, OK. By that logic, any normal fan has the same effectiveness, because they’re always accumulating dust around the grills and front panel. Not to mention the average computer. (“But, love, I have to keep a full rack of servers in our house…they’re purifying the air!“) I digress.

Wikipedia’s entry on Ionizers confirmed my suspicions, and cited articles indicating that the ozone created by ionization may actually be dangerous, which is not something I knew.

So, this week, I performed an unintentional experiment. I turned on the Ionizer, but I neglected to turn on the Ionizer. That is, by default, the Ionizer simply has a fan. You have to press a second button to enable the high electricity necessary for ionization. Good safety precaution. It remembers whether ionization was on or off…unless you unplug it. Which is what happened in this case.

For several days, then, she commented on how clean the air smelled in our bedroom, and on my lack of sniffles, even though I’d been sleeping with the window open and the heated blanket off. I started believing that, maybe, possibly, it was worth the money, and that it really was working. I was ready to admit that I was wrong (that happens a lot when you’re married).

Then, this morning, I discovered my error. The best thing I can now say is that the filter was cleaning the air in our bedroom. Which , if true, probably makes it worth the money (I think it was 50% off), since most fans simply scatter dust and pollen and tree bombs and anti-MJ missiles around the air.

But you-know-who? Her comment was simply that it explains why last night I was still sniffling in my sleep.

I’m sure Robert Cialdini would have something to say about that.

What do you think?

March 9, 2006

Never Argue with a Doctor

Posted in Fun, Health at 10:10 pm by mj

Scott Adams on, among other things, arguing with doctors:

Now all I had to do was convince my doctor(s) that I wasn’t nuts and that I had a very rare condition. As you might imagine, when you tell a doctor that you think you have a very rare condition, that doctor will tell you that it’s very unlikely. Your first impulse might be to point out that “very rare? is a lot like “very unlikely,? but you don’t do that, because doctors have wide latitude in deciding which of your orifices they will use for various medical apparati. So you go with the protocol which involves systematically eliminating all the things that are more likely.

The next speech doctor had access to better technology than the first and determined that I almost certainly did not have the rare neurological disorder that both I and Google insisted I did. She based her opinion on how I sounded and the fact that it was very unlikely that I would have a very unlikely condition. But she did notice a facial tick that might indicate a brain tumor as the culprit.

I think I’ve noticed a pattern with doctors: when they’re stumped, they’ll suggest a brain tumor or some other vague brain thingy going on.

An optimist would say this is to fill you with relief and utter joy at eliminating the tumor, … or to scare you away if you’re a hypochondriac.

Me? I think it has something to do with the expensive MRI and CT equipment laying about waiting to be used. There’s nothing like a stumped doctor and a worried patient to stir up some business.

“Mister Jones, I’m afraid I don’t know exactly why your leg is turning dark blue. We could cut it off now, or… I know, how about an MRI? I’d just like to rule out a tumor.”

January 29, 2006

Details on the promising new avian flu vaccine

Posted in Health at 4:02 pm by mj

There’s a great explanation of the new H5N1 vaccine from the University of Pittsburgh. While most reports have been slim on details, this is an excellent article explaining how the vaccine was produced, how it differs from traditional flu vaccine production, and what the obstacles are to making it effective in humans.

After reading this and several other articles, I’ve added Effect Measure to my reading list. Yeah, it’s left-wing, but there are a ton of excellent posts over there. This post on the vaccine was apparently written within 24 hours of reading the original paper, and demonstrates a more thorough understanding of the topic than many articles you’ll read that take weeks to compose. I wish I could be that productive and concise.

Link via Silviu Dochia’s Avian Flu blog.

October 22, 2005

H5N1 and Tamiflu Patent “Confiscation”

Posted in Health, Politics at 10:27 am by mj

I’m a little late on this, but Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution recently asked Should we confiscate Tamiflu property rights?. Tyler says no, and instead proposes to offer large prizes for speeding up Tamiflu production. This is not really any better than the proposal he counters.

Tyler’s motive is to change the incentives for Roche to manufacture more Tamiflu, and to emphasize the incentives for drug manufacturers in general to pour money into R&D of new drugs. Being an economist, Tyler understands the role of incentives.

Personally, I am afraid of any policy that reverses Roche’s patent. The argument runs that this is an emergency, so reversing a single patent in an emergency, which can help save lives, will have no effect on the incentives for drug companies to continue to throw money into R&D for new drugs.

But what’s getting missed is that mass-producing Tamiflu DOES NOT GUARANTEE AN END TO THE CRISIS. In fact, many experts are forecasting widespread resistance to Tamiflu should H5N1 or another strain mutate. In 12 months, any Tamilfu stockpile we have could be completely useless.

What does this mean? It means drug companies need to throw money into R&D for Tamiflu replacements, and/or into mechanisms by which Tamiflu or other anti-virals can be produced more efficiently/quickly. They need to do this now. But what is their incentive for doing so, if they know any patent claims to their results will be thrown out? That’s right: they have vritually no incentive.

Similarly, if governments offer large prizes for mass producing Tamiflu, guess what? Drug companies–even Roche’s competitors–will have little or no incentive to research and develop alternative, and possibly more effective, medicines. It’s clear to me, then, that while Tyler’s proposal might be ideologically purer, it’s still solving the wrong problem.

So what happens if, tomorrow, every member of the G8 decides to give every drug company free (or cheap) reign to mass produce Tamiflu (or large incentives for Roche to do so)? The result is we prepare for one scenario, at the risk of being massively underprepared for the other, say, 50% of likely scenarios.

From a risk avoidance perspective, I’d rather take my chances of being able to (a) avoid contact with others, and (b) acquire Tamiflu if I need it, in the scenario where Tamiflu remains effective, but is underproduced. That is preferrable to having a stockpile of Tamiflu that could be administered to every human on Earth, but have no alternative if and when the dominant flu strain becomes totally resistant.

And that’s to say nothing for the ability of governments to administer Tamiflu efficiently to those who need it even if we had a stockpile large enough for everybody. Or of the increased likelihood that the dominant flu strain will develop complete resistance should every government and health worker on Earth start administering Tamiflu–and often ineffectively–to every infected or potentially infected person.

I’m hoping that politicians from every nation understand this, are developing their strategies accordingly, and are not coerced into going along with everybody else. The result could very well be a host of different strategies applied in different regions, with the most effective winning out in the long run. Why? Because there’s not a single solution that will save the lives of 100% of infected persons, or prevent wasting valuable resources on solutions that turn out to be useless.

September 22, 2005

Getting over

Posted in Health, Life, Me at 10:23 pm by mj

After two years of not being able to eat much of anything without feeling nauseous (or nauseated), and needing medicine to feel even halfway normal, I started recovering earlier this year. It may be linked to my trying some Chinese poison herb medicine, or drinking ginseng tea every morning, or just to intentionally reducing my stress. Or maybe whatever was causing my problems basically ran its course (though I still have occasional recurrences). Whatever changed, it was welcome.

Now I’m battling a different problem: I gained too much weight!

This time last year, I was joking that if I ever did recover, I’d be in an excellent position to pursue my dream of becoming a hunk: I was waif thin, I had developed a taste for consistently eating bland foods, and, most of all, I had promised myself that I would never, ever treat my gastrointestinal tract poorly again. I was willing to give up spicy hot pot, satay, sushi, even cooked seafood, if only I could eat regular food again.

But a funny thing happened on my way to the bank… food.

Part of it is understandable. My symptoms first appeared in February 2003, but it wasn’t until a week before Easter that it hit me that I wasn’t going to recover so quickly. I had bought tons of Easter candy (I have a thing for peanut butter eggs), but every bite had me on my knees. This year, I started recovering, slowly, in January, and it wasn’t until around Easter that I was confident enough to become more adventurous with my diet. You can guess what happened next. Uh-huh. I had waited two years to get a taste of Easter themed candy, and this year that’s practically all I ate for a month.

Once I’d had my fill of chocolate, I started eating normally, but just more of it. I guess I was afraid I was living on borrowed time, and any day I’d be back to chicken noodle soup and homemade chicken salad and dry pasta and water. Every. Single. Day.

It was made worse because exercising seemed to bring on bouts of mild to severe nausea. Or so it seems. Every time I’ve had a recurrence since April, it’s been shortly after I started “working out.” I can control my eating pretty easily. I know it’s not a matter of willpower, it’s a matter of intelligently controlling what you bring home from the grocery. Creating a budget also helps prevent excessive dining out. That part is easy. But not being able to even do sit-ups? That’s just crazy. But then, I guess I’d rather double my weight than go through life not being able to eat anything. (Though I have trouble imagining myself as a 320+ pound behemoth. Instead of a hunk, maybe I could be a mobster. I have that “look” about me already.)

Do the problems never cease? Wasn’t there a paragraph in the Life Passage contract I signed on my way out of the womb–maybe around paragraph 42, subsection 8–about all life’s problems ending once I finish puberty???

I’ll admit, though. I am much happier now–even with all the zaniness at work–than I have been, well, maybe ever. Getting off that creepy medicine that sucked my energy like a vampire…finding out that I really do still love what I do for a living…holding my wife who’s stuck with me even when I was sick, depressed and frustrated…I guess I can deal.

Now, what do I do with all that money I allocated to my FSA at the beginning of the year, in anticipation of having thousands in hospital/doctors expenses?