Monday, March 25, 2013

A Weird Brand Partnership

Robert alerted me to this little piece of insanity:

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you -- this is tofu ("protein from soybeans") co-branded with The Croods, an animated film featuring a prehistoric family on humanity's first road trip.  Because nothing screams primal/paleo diet like tofu, right?  When I think of prehistoric man hunting down something to eat, I imagine them opening a nice container of tofu and making a stir fry.  (Hey, at least it's organic tofu in this photo, but they're co-branding on the non-organic tofu also.)

Most most modern (neo-) paleo eaters avoid tofu for a variety of reasons, the most compelling to me being that they contain lectins like other legumes.

It appears that the marketers involved are trying to get consumers to associate tofu with family fun times, etc., but the co-branding effort here is pretty hopeless in my eyes.  The disconnect, nay, the contradiction, between "tofu" and "prehistoric man" is just too big.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hi-Lo Shopping Weekend

Yesterday Robert and I took the light rail (and also, for a short distance, a shuttle bus due to a disruption on the track) to the Mall of America so that I could get a bra fitting at Nordstrom and he could look at new shoes for work.  $318 later, I had purchased 4 bras.  $170 later, Robert had purchased a pair of shoes from Bostonian. 

Today Robert and I drove to the suburbs so I could buy a bunch of craft supplies at Wal-Mart ($96), he could buy some hiking shoes at a sporting goods store ($??), and I could check out the new Goodwill location, where I purchased 7 skirts, 8 knit shirts, and 3 button-up shirts (and Robert got a brand-new looking belt, which he really needed).  Total price: under $64.  Average price per item: $3.37.

Most of the brands I was familiar with -- Merona (Target), Croft & Barrow and Apt 9 (Kohl's), Old Navy, H&M (the Swedish brand that looks/feels a lot like Target to me), Style & Co (Macy's), Lands End, Liz Claiborne, Talbots.  I have also purchased Studio Works at Goodwill before -- apparently it is sold at the Bon-Ton chain of stores, with which I am unfamiliar (the Studio Works clothes I've purchased seem like Kohl's type things to me).  My google fu is not up to the task of identifying "Bass" as a brand of clothing.  I have purchased Christopher & Banks items at Goodwill several times before, and they are a very common brand there.  I wondered why this brand has such a large presence here (more so than other places I've lived) and ... oh, their headquarters is located in a suburb of Snow City.  (As for the fact that the brand targets the age 40-60 demographic?  I guess I'm just ahead of my time.)  Finally, I was previously totally unfamiliar with the brand Monsoon, which turns out to be a UK brand; their cheapest skirt is 45 pounds (i.e., $68.50) so I can feel happy that I bought this whole set of clothing for less than one of the skirts brand-new.

I'm also happy that any of several of the skirts I bought should work well to form the basis of the outfit I will need to put together for my cousin's wedding in early June.  If all else fails, I can always walk over to the Neiman Marcus on the pedestrian mall and buy a $250 blouse to go with the $3 skirt.

Check out the lovely stripes on the mysterious Bass shirt!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sexism in Silicon Valley

My mom sent this article about sexism in the supposed meritocracy of Silicon Valley.  I don't know whether I've been selectively reading comments lately to avoid this kind of garbage or whether the comment thread is particularly idiotic, but holy hell, dudes, get a grip.  There is something special about seeing a bunch of people making unfounded, extreme sexist statements to "refute" the idea that women are discriminated against in the tech world.  It's like, If these are your arguments against the idea of sexism in tech, I would hate to see your arguments/evidence supporting it.

My sister has spent most of her career in Silicon Valley and can attest many times over about the pervasive sexism in the industry.

To be charitable toward some of the clueless commenters for a moment, I think one thing that gets lost in these discussions is an important distinction between conscious/explicit sexism and unconscious/implicit sexism.  I have no doubt that there are a lot of men (and women!) in the tech sector who think that they are choosing the most qualified candidates available to them, and that those candidates just happen to be male.  They aren't overt chauvinists; they just aren't aware of their bias that makes male candidates seem more attractive than female ones.  The text of this talk about unconscious bias presented at a women in astronomy conference (start on p. 60 of the PDF) gives a really nice background on the relevant research on unconscious sexism.  This includes the famous analysis of actual data on orchestra hiring that found that women had a 50% higher chance of advancing past the preliminary audition and a "severalfold" increase in being hired in the final round if they auditioned behind a screen so that their sex did not influence how the judges rated their performance (i.e., blind auditions).  It also discusses the results of "fake resume" type studies in which otherwise identical resumes, differing only in the applicant's name, are used; when the resume has a male name, the applicant is rated more highly than when it has a female name. 

Another is the distinction between sexism as an expression of dislike ("I have a negative attitude toward women") and sexism in terms of the specific beliefs about women ("I think women are great!  But they are emotional and aren't good at math and science stuff and don't make good leaders") -- the latter type of sexism is often called "benevolent sexism" because it pairs a positive attitude with damaging stereotyping content. 

If you've never taken a gender-science IAT (implicit association test), you can do so online.  It only takes a few minutes to complete, and if you're like me, you will be able to feel the difference in your responses as you take the test.  (Yes, there is a lot of inside-baseball type discussion amongst academics of what the IAT really measures, etc., but for our purposes, I think it's reasonable to look at it as a potential indicator of implicit bias.)

Confession:  It told me -- "Your data suggest a strong association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts." 

Saturday, March 16, 2013


I am completing a study on mTurk that asks me to describe an event I have planned in the next 3 weeks.  Ummmm....I don't have anything planned.

It's a weird life I'm living.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Nanny State and Nanny Plate

Tam sent this article, which she called "an interesting review of a book I already passionately disagree with" -- an assessment with which I concur.

My mom well summed up one of the problems with letting the government make these kinds of decisions: The government has already proven they can't be trusted by pushing a food pyramid that recommends more daily servings of grains than fruit and vegetables.

I agree with this.  Remember this guy?

Although it is good that at least the most recent recommendation, shown in the MyPlate materials, does give twice as much of the plate over to fruit & veg as it does grains.  But do any nutritionists really think that even whole grains (and I assume that by "grains" in the image, the government intends to recommend whole grains?  Oops, no, they say only half need to be whole grains) are as healthy as fruit & veg?  A quick google search shows a few links to news that popcorn might be as healthy or healthier than (some) fruit & veg, but I mostly come up with links saying that grains are inferior. 

And one thing that really bugs me about the plate image is, Where is the fat?  I mean, look at it.

OK, they do say in the online materials that oils/fat need to be eaten, but the recommendations are, indeed, still whack.  I am amused that my daily recommended quantity of fat from all sources, preferably from poly- or monounsaturated oils (saturated fat to be avoided), is 5 teaspoons.  And I don't see any mention of omega-3 vs. omega-6 in the oils/fats discussion, which surprises me.  I thought even the most mainstream, deep-in-the-pockets-of-industrialized-grain-farming nutritionists were clear on the omega-3 issue.  Strange.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


This is a fascinating post about how the cure for scurvy was found, lost, and found again.  (Hat tip: Seth Robert's blog.) 

Got to keep your lemons and limes straight, people.

As I read the Aubrey/Maturin novels set in the early 1800s Royal Navy, I keep a running list of all the ways that I would make a terrible (and soon dead) sailor in that world.  "Cannot tolerate citrus juice" is on the list.

(Also, I really want to read that book about Scott's expedition!  I'm now #5 on the queue at the library.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Science and Trendability

UPDATE:  Link to the Bones article fixed (I hope) - check it out!

The second point made on this blog post (about the precognition article "Dr. Bones" poked fun of, as I discussed here) is a good illustration of what we could call the equivalent to market research's "trendability" in the science context: exact repetition (or exact replication).

We (now: they?) don't do exact replication in social psychology.  Instead, in a single article, the researchers show "conceptual" replication (demonstration of the same basic effect but not doing the same exact study) in a series of experiments, but usually with extra bells and whistles as the experiments progress.  One cookie-cutter way a 3-study paper (to the extent you can publish 3 study papers anymore!) would look is:

Study 1 -- show the main effect (X causes Y)
Study 2 -- show moderation (X causes Y in group A but not in group B)
Study 3 -- show mediation (X causes Y because X causes Z and Z causes Y).

Notably, the stimuli (i.e., what the participants are responding to in the experiment) are usually different in each study and the measures are often different (e.g., measuring attitude differently across the various studies).

There is nothing wrong with conceptual replication, of course.  But the lack of exact replication is problematic.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Creep of Subjectivity

When I worked at a market research company, our watchwords were accuracy and trendability (ensuring that results gathered at different time points were comparable).  Companies paid us to give them timely, real information about beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors toward their brands and competing brands.  Although I felt all kinds of pressure from clients, some of which could compromise the quality of information we provided (the main one being that they wanted their information to both accurate and fast), I never felt any pressure/incentive (internally or externally) to slant research results in any way.  Clients were not paying us to be their cheerleaders; we existed to tell them how things really are (from the consumer perspective).  In the case of my primary client, the news was bad and got worse over time.  I well remember finishing an analysis and seeing that consumers would be willing to pay more money for a no-name product than for my client's product, an indication that their brand equity had turned negative.  I felt a bit of "man, sucks to be you guys!" but no qualms at all about reporting these findings to the client.  To this day, I feel good about contributing in my small way to the company's realization that they could not continue what they were doing and their consequently making radical changes that turned their company around.

Working in government was more of a mixed bag.  For the majority of projects, accuracy and rigor were called for and respected, but there were occasions where this did not hold.  One time, we were forced by the legislature to collect and report data that was just stupid, and the director of the division called me into her office to apologize personally for having to tell me to do it -- she said that even she knew that the project was entirely bogus and worthless as research and that she knows it must feel like a violation of my professional ethics to even do it.  (Surely the quality of research in government was notably reduced on the day that politicians became aware of the existence of the free, online SurveyMonkey software.) 

Most notably, the last big project I worked on (and that was in part responsible for my being tired of the job and leaving the organization) was an evaluation of a new outreach program for kids (I can't believe I haven't blogged about this before but it seems I haven't).  A new program that my agency really, really wanted to work.  In retrospect, I know how I should have handled this situation: by saying, "I absolutely agree that evaluation of the project is a critical component.  It's my strong recommendation that we put together a request for proposal to find an outside company with significant evaluation experience to spearhead this evaluation and ensure that it is accurate, fair, and unbiased."  We even had enough funding from a grant that we could have paid for good professional help on this matter (not typically the case for us).  Instead, we did the evaluation ourselves, and when the project turned out to be a clusterfuck, shit rained down on the evaluators (i.e., me) rather than the people who did not even carry out the project in the way they were supposed to.  You can't evaluate something unless you actually do it first, you know.  In retrospect, my evaluation would have read:

"Process Evaluation:  The [name] Project was not implemented according to the [whatever] guidelines agreed to by all parties on [date].  [With details of where the implementation failed and original guiding documents attached.]

Outcome Evaluation:  Because the [name] Project was not implemented in accordance with its guidelines, we cannot measure the impact and effectiveness of the program as it was designed and intended."

(Remember this example of bad, wish-driven research in that field that found me almost sputtering with righteous anger over not just the shoddy research itself, but by the arrogant asshole response by the offending party to a person who dared question their conclusions?  Good times.)

Given this experience -- being dispassionate and not really caring all that much what result you find = ethical, accurate research; being hugely involved in the subject and caring strongly that the results turn out one way instead of another = bad research -- I don't know why I thought that becoming a scientist was a good idea.  (OK, it's not really a surprise -- I was thinking of a lot of other things and I was wrong about many of them.)  I guess I really held to the common, naive view that scientists are interested in uncovering the truth.  I expected that doing science would be like doing market research only more theoretical, more interesting, and with greater freedom (HAH!).  There's a great critique, that I can't put my hands on right now, that scientists are not objective truth seekers but instead are like lawyers -- they attempt to make winning arguments for their case.  (This position seems to be pretty much accepted by all the scientists in social psychology and consumer behavior that I know to have an opinion on the matter.  Multiple faculty members I know appeared to respond to this critique with a variant of, Yep, so you better go for it.) 

One of the best classes I took in my PhD program was on research methods in social psychology, in which we read a hundred papers that discussed what the fuck is wrong with the experimental and statistical methods being done in empirical psychology and related fields (e.g., medicine).  It was wonderful, thought-provoking and eye-opening, and I left the class with the feeling that I was now a part of this dirty, tainted, messed up enterprise and not really sure how to proceed.  I did not feel that I was at any great risk of becoming a Diederik Stapel-esque fraud -- flat making up data on a massive scale (my favorite perhaps being when he claimed to have collected data from a high school that does not even exist).  But it did feel that there was a slippery slope here that one could go down without even really trying, particularly given the "sloppy research culture" in the field and the increasing importance and difficulty of publishing papers in top journals that have come to expect, as my thesis advisor put it, "too much of the data." 

One of the best things about leaving academia is not being in the shitty position of:

(1) Staying ethical as I see it (despite feeling all kinds of pressure to take little short-cuts and engage in questionable practices that people in the field conveniently do not see as cheating) and finding it frustrating/difficult/impossible? to get published and hence, be a scholarly failure... or try to work 100 hour weeks (compared to other people's 80) to run even more studies and still probably be a (relative) scholarly failure.

(2) Starting to see the short-cuts and questionable practices as necessary evils, required for competing for journal pages on an equal footing with everyone else.  (Robert and I both thought of the situation facing racers in the Tour de France on this issue.)

(3) Starting to see all those things as reasonable, rationalizing and justifying my behavior as just part of the way the work in the field is done, not really so bad, not compromising the quality of the work or my professional integrity.

(4)  Starting to engage in these behaviors without really even being consciously aware that I'm doing so.  I'm just eliminating some outliers (not cherry picking data to conform to my hypotheses).  I'm just refining my stimuli (not re-running the same experiment over and over until I get the results I want).

Bottom line, I'm really glad that I'm not facing the serious risk of becoming a scientific creep of subjectivity.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Do Reasons Matter?

Earlier I wrote about the idea that long-term weight loss (e.g., for several years) seems practically impossible, supporting the position that for doctors to prescribe weight loss for patients is very unhelpful -- especially given that doctors do not really have any advice for how to make this happen and stick, beyond some variant on "eat less, exercise more" whatever, information that will not be new to 99.9999999.....% of overweight people.  (It is possible that one patient in a gazillion might have literally been raised by wolves and have not heard this slogan before, but I doubt it.) 

So for the individual person, there may be little point in attempting to lose weight, and failed attempts to achieve and maintain weight loss could even be counterproductive.  (I have historically been of the hesitant opinion that a moderate loss-regain-loss-regain wasn't harmful, and that many people who gained back their weight might have gained even more weight if they hadn't lost some earlier.  I still don't know how this all plays out, really, but it's increasingly plausible to me that the cycle is bad or dangerous.)  The reasons that most people are not capable of maintaining weight loss probably don't make a lot of difference in making the decision to attempt vs. not attempt / prescribe vs. not prescribe long-term weight loss.  For most people in this world as it is and as they are, it's not going to happen, so time to move on to other ideas about how to live and be healthy / how to help your patients.

Nevertheless, it does seem at least a point of scientific curiosity to understand why long-term weight loss is so fucking difficult...  (I started to write, "more than a point of scientific curiosity" but I couldn't actually back that feeling up.  Any thoughts?  Do I just hold an implicit naive theory that to understand something gives you the power to change it?  [I don't actually believe this to be true on the explicit level.])  ...and how these reasons relate to what people do.

1a.  It's possible that after losing weight, people regain even if they do the same exact things they did before.  As a thought experiment, imagine that people lost weight on a diet of a precisely and perfectly measured, prepackaged quantity of Human Chow, a substance with no variation from one bit to the next.  And after weight loss, they kept eating this package of Human Chow but started regaining weight back.  (We should also assume that they get the same amount of exercise, etc., for the strongest possible case.)  This scenario might be consistent with set point theory -- the idea that each person has a range of weights that are in some sense natural to them and that the body strongly seeks to keep the person within that range (an example of homeostasis), e.g., by reducing metabolism.  The individual seems kind of screwed in this case, unless and until scientists can figure out a method to reliably and safely lower this set point long-term. 

1b.  It occurred to me when writing "assume that they get the same amount of exercise" that the issue is complicated on the "calories out" side as well.  I strongly believe that over time, my body became more efficient at walking on the treadmill so that the same exercise I did five years ago burns a lot fewer calories than it does now.  By various back-of-the-envelope calculations, I guesstimate that I get about half the calorie advantage from walking on the treadmill now as I did when I started.  I mean, it does make sense that this would happen -- I believe Tam put it along the line of "that's what fitness is."  Certainly I can tell a big difference in how difficult/onerous/tiring it is for me to do the same workout now compared to when I started.

2.  The problem could be more indirect than an effect on metabolism, though.  Perhaps people who've achieved weight X through dieting are hungrier and/or experience much stronger cravings at that weight than people who are at weight X without dieting.  Is it reasonable to expect people (or yourself) to ignore hunger and cravings, given the cheap availability of food?  I think many people (it seems to me, drawn mostly from the group of the perhaps wrongly named "naturally thin") discount this possibility or just take the opinion that ex-fatties need to suck it up, use more willpower, etc.  That latter opinion seems to me a hugely morally tinged position, at least implicitly -- you let yourself get fat and so you deserve to suffer!  Personally, I believe that the evidence supporting the idea that the bodies (including the brains) of people who dieted to a lower weight differ in meaningful ways from those who did not diet to the same weight is strong, and I think that asking people to expend a huge amount of willpower ignoring a drive to eat (that can be satisfied easily now! and now! and now!) is an unrealistic expectation, and among those who can with great effort accomplish it, a pretty dumb use of a precious and limited resource.

3.  A big stumbling block could be that people start getting sloppy with their eating habits -- e.g., eyeballing quantities -- so that even though they think they're eating the same amounts of the same foods (or, worse, the same overall number of calories/carbs/whatever of different foods from before), they really are eating more.  Here, the issue is whether it's reasonable to expect people (or yourself) to continue to measure/record/monitor their eating at such a close level and with such a great deal of vigilance for extended periods of time, even when they're kind of no longer being rewarded for it by weight loss. Even for data geeks, this is asking a lot.  (And if they're eating somewhat different foods, the opportunity for error and the inconvenience factor are both greater.) 

4.  And it's pretty damn clear that after a certain period of time, people get tired of dieting... because they're "lazy," "self-indulgent," want to be able to attend their niece's wedding and enjoy the experience and eat a piece of wedding cake like a everyone else and flat not have everything in their lives dictated by calorie content. It reaches a point where you think, Sure, this behavior is controllable, but does that mean it should be controlled?  The person can avoid the wedding cake and it won't ruin their life, but it's also kind of a downer.  To channel my inner 11th grader, Where do we draw the line?

(Also on the laziness issue: I simply do not take seriously the idea that people weigh more now than people did 30 years ago because Americans/humanity has gotten lazier and more self-indulgent over this period.  For example, are people equally lazier and more self-indulgent in other spheres of life?  I would expect rampant laziness to lead to people working less and sleeping more, but I doubt those things are true.  I would actually guess that people sleep less now than they did 30 years ago.  Of course, maybe people's laziness and their self-indulgence are working against each other these days: too self-indulgent to turn off the TV and go to bed?  In any event, I don't buy the "People these days are just too lazy...hey, get off my lawn!" argument.)

5.  But surely even being lazy and self-indulgent does not lead to serious overweight for most people outside an environment that is full of highly available hyper-palatable foods, and this is where things get really sticky.  People can, to a certain extent, limit their exposure to food cues and the foods themselves, but yummy food is pretty much ubiquitous.  (I have about as much of a limitation as it's possible to get short of being in a zoo: I usually don't go to the grocery store, I don't let Robert bring some foods into the house, I don't watch TV or otherwise see much food advertising, I don't go to a job where people have brought food or there is food for sale, I don't go to restaurants to meet friends, etc.  So yeah, I guess you can make this work if you are an unemployed shut-in, but that's not applicable to the vast majority of people.)  And this is where the differences in opinion among the libertarians, the paternalistic libertarians, and the nanny-state types about what can be done and what should be done become very stark indeed.

So did I have a point here?  I guess it comes down to this: there are probably a lot of reasons that long-term weight loss is practically impossible and a lot of these factors are not controllable by the individual, controllable only through extreme effort (of willpower, limiting exposure to eating opportunities, etc.), or just flat kind of suck to control.  Even if the primary reason people have gotten fatter to begin with and have difficulty maintaining weight loss is environmental, it's still not at all clear to me that we can change the environment enough, and certainly without very possibly making it worse in other ways.  (I mean, yes, we could actually decide to have all people in the planet live in zoos where we are fed strict diets under the authority of a World Food Czar, but...yeah.)  [And don't even get me started on the idea that the problem is cultural and that we need more fat shaming!  Seriously, do not go there.]  Defeatist?  Realist?  I don't know.  I just wonder if the huge effort going into worrying about the obesity epidemic might be better put toward more important issues, such as the obvious problem that people aren't wearing enough hats.