50 Year Lie: Sugar Industry Blames Fats

Whenever someone refers me to a story with alarming facts that should surprise or outrage any thinking human, my spider-sense is activated. Does the story make sense? Is it plausible? If the message contains evidence of being repeated (or forwarded to more than two friends), then whatever is claimed is almost certain to be false.

If the subject is important to me—or if there is any chance that it might influence my view of the world, I check it at Snopes. The reputable web site confirms or debunks many urban legends and all sorts of viral web hype.

You never know what you might learn at Snopes. You can easily be lured into a rabbit hole, digging into the site beyond whatever prompted your visit in the first place.

Fact-checking can be fun! For example:

  • Debunked: There are no alligators living in New York sewers. If a resident flushes a baby alligator in a toilet, it cannot survive the temperature or the toxic soup that flows through the sewers of a big city. Florida: perhaps; New York: impossible!
  • Debunked: Ronald Reagan did not write a diary entry in which he describes his vice president’s son (the future president George W. Bush) as a shiftless ne’er-do-well, who roams about the White House.*
  • Confirmed: This one is true! In 1976, during the filming of TV series, Six Million Dollar Man in Long Beach California, an arm fell off a scary, fun-house prop. A film crew found that it was the cadaver of outlaw Elmer McCurdy, who died in 1911.

I’m still occasionally guilty of passing along a story I long believed was gospel. In a few cases, it didn’t occur to me that something accepted as fact might be an urban legend—or that my acceptance of a tall tale is colored by my opinions about economics, society and business. Hopefully, this is a rare and diminishing lapse. I have learned to fact check narratives—especially if I feel compelled to pass one along.

Conspiracies Theories: Often false!

In general, I am unlikely to suspect a conspiracy behind events of the day—with the exception of national politics, where conspiracy is a natural and pervasive tactic. The problem is my optimistic view of human nature. While businesses have a profit motive and a responsibility to stakeholders, I feel that most are driven by ethics and that executing a plan within the bounds of ethics is simply good for business.

Let me tell you about one viral, big-business story that I had believed for decades and another that I did not believe until I was presented with too many facts to refute.

1. No Conspiracy Here

There was no secret meeting or conspiracy by titans of the car, rubber, oil or steel industries to kill off public transportation and alter city layouts to drive auto sales. Streetcars were already mired in politics and graft; family, income was increasing, and the car was already becoming popular.

That tall tale says that Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller conspired to eliminate street cars and redesign the urban landscape, so that Americans would need individual family cars, rather than use public transportation—Or that this is the reason that we must drive to a big mall today rather than live in towns centered around a community center, church, city hall and general store.

The theory claims that the three automobile bosses had a secret meeting in San Francisco with a goal of increasing sales of cars, rubber, steel and oil. (In some versions of the story, Rockefeller (oil) is replaced Andrew Carnegie (steel). Ironically, I only learned that the entire story was an urban legend as I started to write this introduction to the true story below.

2. Shocking Conspiracy — This one is true

More than any other lie, here is a food industry conspiracy crafted and delivered by big business. It manipulated one of our most trusted universities, a major medical journal and the public psyche. The result: Thousands of Americans died and millions were misled into obesity and heart disease. More than any other fiendish plot, this one event has killed people and damaged human health more than any other conspiracy in modern history.

In 1967, the sugar industry shaped 50 years of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, by paying Harvard researches to lie about the role of food in obesity and heart disease. They schemed and succeeded at shifting blame from sugar to fats.

Believing lies: I grew up becoming fully indoctrinated!…

For much of the next five decades, the wheat and grain industry promulgated the lie to enormous advantage. I grew up thinking that bread, pasta, rice and potato are terrific sources of healthy fiber and minerals (much like vegetables)—and that they ensure clean pipes. I thought that oil and fats are bad, because they deposit plaque in arteries. It never occurred to me that oils can maintain healthy weight, that your brain needs fat, that carbs lead a body to manufacture the fat that causes cardiovascular disease.

I believed that skim milk is less fattening than whole milk and that margarine is healthier than butter (dairy), tallow (beef fat) or lard (pig fat). Perhaps most damning: I believed that Canola oil (synthetically extracted from rape seed) was a healthy oil, because it is unsaturated. Today, I have learned it is toxic.

How does a 20th century academic
with advanced degrees get so misled?

Answer: I succumbed to a startlingly successful conspiracy; a long game in which it is now difficult to punish sugar industry perpetrators. Ultimately, they will be held to account by journalists, and a new generation of doctors, researchers and academics.

The New York Times article linked below appeared in 2016. More recently, the story is finally going viral. Citation by other reputable outlets is growing quickly.

Some conspiracy theories are true. Instead of passing along an urban legend, forward the shocking truth about sugar and carbs to a friend or colleague. Share this blog article. Think of the good achieved if you turn around the diet of just one acquaintance.


* Fiction: Ronald Reagan did not write this; (I believed it for 30 years):

“A moment I’ve been dreading. George brought his ne’re-do-well son around this morning and asked me to find the kid a job. Not the political one who lives in Florida. The one who hangs around here all the time looking shiftless. This so-called kid is already almost 40 and has never had a real job. Maybe I’ll call Kinsley over at The New Republic and see if they’ll hire him as a contributing editor or something. That looks like easy work.”

— Incorrectly attributed to Ronald Reagan in a diary entry published May 17, 1986

Holy Cow! I just discovered Almond Milk

Is almond milk healthier or better tasting than cow’s milk? Here is what Consumer Report says, but you may find my own experience more illuminating…

My Experience

For better or worse, I consume a large quantity of milk; a gallon of skim or 1% every week since early youth. I grew up in an era when kids were urged to drink 4 glasses each day. Breakfast cereals and oatmeal demand milk and ice cream was everyone’s favorite treat. But now, I am more health & environmentally conscious. I have finally begun to explore alternatives.

I can’t speak with authority on which is healthier—milk or a milk alternative. But, in just the past 24 hours, I certainly have formed an opinion about fat, carbs, taste, texture, sustainability, animal cruelty, shelf life and just about anything else you might ask.

Why Bother?

Take your pick: Fat, carbs, sustainability, fear of growth hormones and antibiotics—and for some consumers: a sensitivity to naturally occurring lactose or casein.

Why Not Soy Milk?

Soy is the #1 milk Alternative. But you won’t find me singing its praises. So, let’s get this one little detail off the table from the get go: Soy is banned from this analysis based solely on taste. For me, taste disqualifies it as a milk substitute. I never thought that soy milk tasted right—either straight up, in coffee or on cereal. It just seems a bit off.

What About Almonds?

I have no idea why I waited a lifetime to try almond milk, especially considering that milk is my comfort food and I love snacking on almonds.

I just bought my very first: a 96 oz plastic container of Silk brand, unsweetened almond milk, and I am totally floored. Wow—It is fantastic! Smooth, seductively aromatic and quite sweet (even though it is unsweetened, with only 30 calories per cup). It goes perfectly with breakfast cereal, both hot or cold. (N.B. I have not tried it in coffee, because I drink it black).

Appearance / Taste:

To my palate, Silk unsweetened almond milk tastes surprisingly close to 1% or 2% dairy milk. Any almond milk has a slight nut taste and a warm color (light tan instead of bright white).

Why did I wait decades to try almond milk? I have no idea. I will try making it at home, but—for me—stabilizers, calcium, vitamins, and preservatives are not important issues. My hot buttons, are taste, texture, carbs, fat content, animal cruelty and sustainability.

Protein, Vitamins & Calcium

Dairy and Soy have protein, but almond milk does not. Getting enough protein is not an issue for me. I eat plenty of meat, fish and peanut butter. On the other hand, store bought milk is an important source of calcium and vitamins. The two national brands of almond milk, Silk and Almond Breeze, are fortified with Vitamin A, D & E. They have 50% more calcium than cow’s milk.


For me, this is the big kahuna. Until recently, I was borderline diabetic. My doctor demanded that I lose weight, exercise and cut way back on carbs. I listened, and my health is much better for heeding his advice. If I hadn’t, I would be pricking my finger and shooting insulin. More importantly, I would prefer to keep my eyesight and toes.

A cup of 1% dairy milk has 12.2g of carbs; most of it from lactose, a form of sugar. Lactose-free milk has about the same carbs, because the dairy replaces lactose with another sugar. Silk unsweetened almond milk tastes great. I don’t find it lacking in flavor or sweetness. Yet, it has only 1g of carbs; 92% less than dairy milk. [continued]…

Cost, Shelf Life

I am slightly concerned about cost and shelf life. Compared with the house brand of dairy milk, Silk brand almost milk is about twice the cost. According to the label, it remains fresh for 7~10 days, while store bought dairy milk typically has an expiration of 10~12 days. Since almond milk comes in a slightly smaller container (96 -vs- 128 oz), hopefully, that this won’t be a problem.


I am hooked, even before comparing brands or testing recipes at home, I prefer almond from the very first taste. After consuming 2,600 gallons of cow’s milk (52 gal/yr * years since childhood), I am convinced that almonds beat cows hands down.

But, you may not share my priorities. You might react to lactose or casein or you might not like a slight nut flavor. You might want a natural source of protein or feel that almonds don’t do justice to morning coffee. Check out the comparison below and then try almond milk for yourself. Let me know what you think!

Primary Food
Shelf life
Total Carbs
Spectacular—better than milk
About 2x the cost of milk
Produced with no heat and little energy/resources
Once opened, it is 30% less than milk
30 calories and 2.5 grams (not saturated)
1g (no sugars!) -vs- 12.2g in cow’s milk

Several acquaintances have asked if I accepted cash or consideration for expressing this positive opinion about almond milk and Silk brand in particular. Not at all. My opinion and decision to publish is personal and extemporaneous. I have no commercial ties, referral fee, free samples or any consideration. I have no contacts with any vendor or food purveyor.

Dr. Steven Gundry says plant-based diets are the problem

Have you seen the clickbait campaign that focuses on the research of Dr. Steven Gundry. It employs a slimy, photo-tile lure that asks you to turn up your speakers and then hawks a product or service disguised as a breakthrough discovery. These scams force the viewer to stay on the page. Typically, there is no indication of how long the video is, or any way to skip forward,

But often, it is hard to tell if a photo tile is news or clickbait. Big companies like Yahoo and Outbrain intermingle genuine news with marketing scams, teasers and outright fake news into an array of little photos at the end of every feature. This particular clickbait may be a story of a dogged counter-cultural researcher with a genuinely relevant finding. It could be newsworthy…I’m just not sure. Dr. Gundry clearly believes that our health is adversely affected by many of the plant based foods that we thought was healthy, because of a defense mechanism linked to lectin.

Steven Gundry Food Pyramid

Passing judgement on Dr. Gundry’s evolutionary claims and diet recommendations begs for independent clinical studies, or at least the analysis and commentary of scholars in nutrition, gastroenterology and evolution. But, like Robert Atkins and Dean Ornish, Dr. Gundry seems earnest in his research and motives. I don’t think that he is selling anything other than his opinion.

I found web sites and white papers that summarize his research and conclusions without a scammy video. If true, this would be an eye-opener—completely unexpected! While his points fascinate, I don’t have the tools to determine if this may be legit. This certainly merits vetting.

For example, Gundry claims that farmers have selectively reinforced a genetic mutation in cows, which appeared only two thousand years ago—and that this has resulted in a lectin-like protein in milk called Casein A1. (Normal cows make Casein A2, a safe protein). Apparently, the only herds of “normal” cows are on farms in southern Europe. Could this result in food poisoning for the rest of us? Dr. Gundry is pretty convincing that the answer could be “Yes”.

This article is a stub without a conclusion. Rather than passing judgement, I encourage further inquiry. Reader feedback is invited. What do you think about Dr. Gundry’s analysis and claims. Might there be adverse problems associated with many “healthy” vegetables and out of season fruits? Tell me, doctor: Must I give up sun-dried tomato and eggplant?!

Stephen Hawking speaks with virtually no muscular movement

Next January Stephen Hawking will be 74 years old. He has lived much longer than most individuals with his debilitating condition. In addition to being an unquestionably gifted cosmologist, he has invited controversy by supporting the pro-Palestinian, Israel-BDS boycott and warning about the dangers of alien invaders who tap into our interstellar greetings

Antisemitism, notwithstanding, this man is a mental giant. He is Leonardo. He is Einstein. Like them, his discoveries and theories will echo for generations beyond his life on earth. He is that genius.

Forty years ago, when Stephen Hawking still had mobility, he delivered a paper on a mystery regarding information-loss for entities that cross the event boundary of a black hole.

In the mid 1970s, Astronomers were just discovering black holes and tossing about various theories about the event horizon and its effect on the surrounding space-time. Many individuals still considered black holes to be theoretical. Hawking’s analysis of the information paradox seemed extremely esoteric. Yet, last month (Aug 2015) , at Sweeden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Hawking presented a possible solution to the paradox that he sparked.

I can barely understand the issue and cannot articulately rephrase the problem. But my interest in the black hole event horizon takes a back seat to my interest in the amazing tool created to compensate for the famous cosmologist’s handicap. Watch closely as Stephen Hawking offers a new theory that provides a possible explanation for the paradox.

Near the end of the video (beginning at 7:22), the camera begins a steady zoom up to Hawking’s face. Unlike a year ago, when he could still smile at a joke or move his eyes, he now appears completely motionless. Throughout his speech, there is no sense of animation—not even a twitch—with or without purpose. His eyebrow doesn’t move, his fingers are not restless, he doesn’t blink anymore.

Hawking-smile-sSo, how, then, does Hawking speak with normal cadence and just a short delay between sentences? (If we assume that his computer adds emphasis without additional effort, I estimate that his ASCII communications rate is roughly equivalent to a 1200-baud modem, circa 1980). Yet, clearly, there must be a muscular conduit between thought and speech. How is it that his thoughts are converted to speech at almost the same rate as someone who is not paralyzed?

That magic is enabled by a tiny camera that monitors a slowly deteriorating cheek muscle. It is Hawking’s last connection to the outside world. What began as index cards with words and then an Apple II computer, has evolved into a sophisticated upgrade process involving cutting edge analysis of the professor’s slightest tick combined with sophisticated computing algorithms. The camera and software that interprets this microscopic Morse code is tied to a process that optimizes options for successive words and phrases. He is actually communicating at far less than 1200 baud, because—like a court stenographer—he employs shorthand and Huffman encoding to compress words and phrases into his twitch pipeline. Drawing on a powerful processor and connected to the Web, his gear is constantly upgraded by a specialized Intel design team. StenographerThey are engaged in a race to offer Hawking the potential for communication up until he has no capacity for interaction at all.

In a recent documentary by Hawking himself,* he laments the likely day when he will no longer have any capacity for output at all. No ability to discuss physics and cosmology; no way to say “I need help” or “I love you”; no way to show any sign of cognition. At that time, he reflects, the outside world will no longer be certain that there is anything going on behind his blank stare. They will never really know when or if he wants them to pull the plug. Even more mind boggling, humanity will never know what secrets his brilliant mind has unlocked to mysteries of the cosmos.

* Referring to his 2013 autobiographical film and not the 2014 feature film about his life, Theory of Everything.

Planned Parenthood: Undercover Video Kicks Up Firestorm

When I started this Blog, I committed to publish clear and blunt Wild Duck opinions on even the most controversial issues. But I also made a promise to myself to refrain from commenting on a few things, simply because I didn’t want to use my Blog for these issues, nor defend my belief system:

  • Personal vendettas against vendors, no matter how egregious the practice
  • Religious beliefs of any public figure
  • gagThe abortion debate

Two Down; One to Go

Despite pure intentions, the gag rule had to go. I have already violiated the first two prohibitions…

a) Personal Vendettas

First, there was my interminable frustration over a ludicrous string of billing errors by Verizon (it was resolved only after 3 years, 150 phone calls and 120 statement credits). Incompetence and disrespect for customers of this magnitude begs to be shared.

Rent-a-Terstappen desk-s2Then, there was the unforgivable lies, deceipt and theft by Rent a Terstappen—the Dollar / Thrifty car rental franchise at the Frankfurt airport. If they tried these tricks in the US or anywhere else in Europe, the franchise owners would be in jail and the corporate office would be decimated by a class action suit.

Finally, Keurig/Green Mountain has finally removed restrictions from their Keurig 2.0 brewer,due, in part, to this scathing review of their haughty business practices.

b) Religious Beliefs

Religion keeps popping up, just like Whack-A-Mole. I have finally come to realize that it was an unrealistic and unnecessary editorial restriction. I don’t really care to debate your faith or my background—I just don’t feel that any reasonable and representative government should recognize, support, defend or lie in bed with any religions, period.

First, there was the town that wanted to balance the display of a public Christmas tree with a public Hanukkah menorah (Editor’s Tip: Get rid of both. Neither belong on public property). Then, there was the US congressman who believes that the universe is 6,000 years old and the New Testament is his working job manual. He is a member of the Space Sciences committee and makes decisions that affect NASA.

Finally, I wrote a popular piece that justifies an agnostic belief (or is it a lack of belief?). And, of course, I have frequently published stories about Islamic extremism and Daesh (aka ISIS OR ISIL). Anyone who participates, contributes or sympathizes with the so-called Islamic Caliphate SO-oo-o needs to be dragged out and shot.

…And so, now there is but one frontier to cross. That is, my self-imposed prohibition on treading into the topic of abortion and public policy.

c) Abortion

Looking over the first three years of this Blog, I find that abortion has rarely been mentioned; only referenced in two political articles.

The problem isn’t that abortion is a contentious issue. A Wild Duck thrives on contention. In case you hadn’t noticed, I love to justify my opinions. fetusBut, the ethics and legal recourse are difficult to debate, because the Pro-Life camp believes that abortion is murder. If one party to a debate believes that the other side is engaged in unjustifiable homicide, the two will forever be locked in a stalemate. Sure, abortions will go on. But, depending upon prevailing winds—religion, ethics & politics—they will either be legal or illegal.

FWIW: Wild Duck is Pro-Choice

I am staunchly Pro-Choice. There! I have said it. But, beyond the next few paragraphs, I don’t care to justify my opinion on the issue. It could not possibly serve any point.

A women’s right to choose the disposition of her body, her womb and her unborn baby (or ‘fetal parts’, depending on your ilk) should be supreme and inviolate—until a child is born and is breathing apart from the mother. Pro-choice is not a nihilistic philosophy. Advocates do not set out to end the life of a fetus. We simply believe that incredibly difficult and personal medical decisions belong with family and physicians rather than government.

Pro-choice advocates believe in family and their capacity to make tough personal choices. We don’t survey the ethics and religious doctrine of neighbors and we don’t bring a community of pundits, analysts, and our neighbor’s clergy into the bedroom or our doctor’s office. Callout-abortionThere must be a clear delineation between an individual’s medical and ethical decisions and the rights granted to a new life—even if a fetus could survive apart from the mother. I feel strongly that government should stay uninvolved. The dividing line (the point at which society should forcibly intervene or punish) should be the birth of a child.

Sure, a fetus is viable and every bit as human just before birth, but a mother doesn’t abort at a late stage with callous recklessness. It is a very tough choice. One must ask if this difficult choice should be made by family with their doctor, or by a government, reigid rules and popular consent. The decision demarcation cannot be conception or anytime before birth.

I have often hoped that, someday, a simple, easily obtained medication (like Plan B) would make this entire debate moot. But nothing is that easy. Abortion options that are too quick, too simple and too easily concealed raise other serious questions… Has the family weighed all options? What if someone slips an abortion pill into a woman’s drink? I will not address these questions. This article is about a current news event.

Planned Parenthood: Signs of Trouble

One issue that is squarely in the spotlight this week is the sale of fetal body parts. When there is a potential for money to exchange hands, the incentive can drive the decision to abort or even influence a doctor’s methods and practices. For this reason, federal law prohibits the sale of human body parts. But it allows for the the donation of tissue and organs and it allows for the use of human tissue in medical research.

This video, released two days ago, has sparked a firestorm. It has also sparked the fury of Republican presidential candidates, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. They promise congressional investigations and a push to defund Planned Parenthood.

In the video, Deborah Nucatola, a senior director of medical services for planned parenthood, casually discusses abortion procedures and organ harvesting with an undercover investigator for a right wing group. Clearly, the investigator is after a smoking gun and he wants to generate media hysteria and a congressional backlash. He succeeds in spades. But what exactly does the smoke point to?

One day after the story broke, defenders of Planned Parenthood argued that although the discussion was in a shockingly cavalier, nothing illegal was offered or discussed. Dr. Nucatola mentioned a paltry $30 or $100 dollars to cover the added cost of having the doctor save and preserve specimens. Although details are gruesome, the fee clearly does not constitute “selling body parts” including some that may be illegal. Yesterday, The New York Times, defended Planned Parenthood in this article. Factcheck.org (admittedly, a democratic web project) makes the same point here.

But Is The Video Damning? You Bet.

I support Planned Parenthood. For nearly 100 years, they have been a beacon of truthful information, respect and victim empowerment. They balance fanatic zealots who seek to undermine a woman’s natural right to have providence over her own body.

The tangible issue raised by the undercover video is whether the incentive to sell or even donate fetal tissue and organs influences the choices made by pregnant women or the methods employed by abortion providers. And, of course, whether it influences the motives and actions of Planned Parenthood. But no one is selling body parts. This was not the 600 pound gorilla—the intangible issue hit home by the video. It is the tone with which life-terminating procedures are discussed. It comes across as cavalier and disrespectful…

I stand with Planned Parenthood, but I do not stand with supporters who feel that the video is anything less than destructive. Callout-Planned_ParenthoodIt points to a problem with attitude, ethos and consistent signaling. The video reflects poorly on Planned Parenthood and their mission.

Likewise, another undercover video from Inhuman, captures Planned Parenthood CEO, Cecile Richards, in a wink-and-nod at the very end of the video. This, too, reflects poorly on Planned Parenthood. While it is likely that Ms. Richards was simply patronizing a visitor that she wanted to get rid of, it doesn’t reflect well on the organization or it’s mission.

Perception & Reputation

The survival of every organization—even churches, governments and non-profits—relies, in part, on a marketing component. I am less concerned with how the enemies of Planned Parent spin this video than I am with how it perceived by it’s supporters.

The bottom line is that the brand has been tarnished. Recovery will be arduous and, perhaps, long in coming. It is not a forgone conclusion that Planned Parenthood will recover. But it is also a fact that Planned Parenthood stands for freedom, privacy, woman’s rights, and the sanctity of family. Even if the organization is damaged or destroyed, we must never forget the noble mission for which they stand.


The Literalist: A case of Adult ADHD

Edward worked alongside me as co-founder and senior engineer at two high-tech ventures. He was a classical musician and had performed as a timpanist for the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Yet, Edward had no problem slipping into the role of senior software test engineer—and later—as operations manager for our computer network start up. He entered the venture knowing nothing about computer networks or the HVAC market that we planned to service. Yet, whatever the role—and no matter how technical—Edward made up for the background that he lacked.

Suffice it to say that Edward was one sharp business manager.

But Edward was a literalist and occasionally a procrastinator. At first, his colleagues and subordinates dismissed these traits as endearing eccentricities. Upon coming across Edward many years later, I learned that his peculiar way of processing information and an inability to communicate with those who are less precise not only lost him a job, it had a profound impact on his life. Ultimately, his symptoms—and events they provoked—led Edward to a diagnosis and treatment. But first, he had to acknowledge that he had a problem.

Let me illustrate one of Edward’s idiosyncrasies…


Edward in mid-thought

One morning, I was standing in line at McDonald’s. As I waited my turn, I heard a voice in the line ahead of me:

“I’ll have the Scrambled Egg Breakfast
—with the eggs ba-a-r-r-r-e-ly cooked”

 A wagging finger rose high above the crowd—to emphasize the syllable: ba-a-r-r-r-e. A trill hung in the air for several seconds. I recognized the phrase and the voice instantly. It was one of Edward’s lovable affectations. I knew exactly what was coming next. Well, at least I thought I did…

I had occasionally met Edward at other breakfast restaurants. He always asked for nearly-raw eggs in that same voice and with a wagging finger. Often, the order taker would explain that the restaurant cannot serve under cooked eggs. At a few franchise outlets, Edward was offered a liability waiver. This allowed them to serve under cooked food, but it explained that raw eggs may contain high levels of bacteria—and that compared with a supermarket supply chain, restaurants have diminished capacity to ensure continuous refrigeration. (I have always felt that the second method of dealing with this request is more reasonable and, certainly, more accommodating!)

But the counter clerk did not object to the preparation request nor did he produce a legal form. Instead, he simply pointed to a portable clock on top of a coffee machine and explained that breakfast had ended five minutes ago. “Is there anything I can get you from the lunch menu?”

Edward stared at the clock. He was stunned! He glanced alternatively at his watch and then back at the clock. For a long moment—he was speechless. Finally, he put together a very earnest and coherent question. In fact Edward was always precise in his choice of words. He said:

“In the future, can I assume that your switch-over will invariably be triggered
by a clock that is 7 minutes ahead of local time, as determined by a recog-
nized time standard? Or is it possible that your clock is accurate, but that
you adhere to something other than Universal Coordinated Time?”

This time, it was the order taker who was stunned. He stared at Edward trying to figure out if he was encountering humor, insolence or anger. Actually, he was encountering none of these emotions. Quite simply, Edward is a literalist. He is given to being punctual and precise. He is exceptionally bright, and—at the time—in constant need of reminding that not everyone else is so literal, demanding or bright.

I felt sympathy for both Edward and the order taker. Although I was several steps back in line, I inserted myself into the conversation, speaking loudly so that both could hear. I said “Look Edward! At some time in the minutes before 10:30, the restaurant stops the setup of breakfast ingredients. When they can no longer make a variety of items on the breakfast menu, they shut down the grills and switch over the cash registers and overhead menus!”

I really didn’t know if this is how McDonald’s works, but I wanted to move the conversation away from a discussion of clock precision. After all, no one could maintain a clock as carefully as Edward. Not the phone company. Not Big Ben. Heck—not even the folks who run the atomic clocks in Greenwich and Colorado. They probably take their cue from Edward!

Not surprisingly, the counter clerk considered me to be his new best friend. Suddenly excised from a predicament, he raised his eyebrows and flashed a big smile. He pointed to me and exclaimed “Yeah! Exactly what he said!”

Edward acknowledged my presence in the line behind him, but quickly froze again. He slowly raised a crooked finger to his lips and reflected for awhile—too long for a person holding up a line of hungry patrons. Then he looked at the clerk with a serious but welcoming gaze and warmly said “Suppose I were to visit at 10:15 or earlier—according to my clock which is synchronized with my mobile phone service. If I visited earlier, could I reasonably expect that you will still offer me breakfast?”

As before, the question was phrased with über-precision. Not the precision of a nerd or Geek, but the precision of someone who relates only to those who communicate in the syntax of a peer-reviewed, technical journal. But this time, the clerk understood the question: Edward just wanted a breakfast routine that he could count on. He wanted to know how early he had to arrive, so that he wouldn’t miss the morning menu.

The clerk beamed with a smile. “Yes, Sir!” He exclaimed. “If you arrive fifteen minutes early [according to any reasonable clock, I presumed], I am certain that we can serve you eggs!”

Crisis resolved. At least regarding the change of restaurant menus…

Calamities Brewing

Back at our computer company, Edward’s professional relationship with the executive team was deteriorating. We admired his skill and liked him personally. But, our venture was small, underfunded and trying to cover 3 jobs for every manager. Edward’s difficulty in thinking quickly and his need for precise and literal language made it too difficult for any of us to make progress. During the next quarter, the board voted Edward out of our computer start up. Because he was also a board member, we stood on shaky legal ground. But we simply lacked the funds and the patience to be stuck in a looping-thought every time we needed a meeting of the executive staff.

There was a brief legal battle over Edward’s severance. No animosity; just a quick exchange of papers, a group conference and a resolution that everyone could live with.

I lost touch with Edward. The last time we saw each other was 17 years ago. I never learned that he lost his home and his girlfriend over the same peculiar idiosyncrasies. Perhaps the events surrounding our professional separation made each of us too timid to look up the other. Occasionally, I reflected on our former friendship with melancholy. I missed Edward’s wit, his smile and especially, his sense of humor. In many ways, we were kindred spirits. I wondered if he ever heard that I met and married a wonderful girl, that I now have a child, and that I still think of him occasionally.

The Present  [17 years later]

During the time that I lost contact with Edward, he was diagnosed with adult ADHD and treated by pioneer in the field. It’s not schizophrenia and it’s not a sign of bipolar disorder. In adults, it is the inability to deal with organizing thought and action, especially in advance of the last minute. It is not a problem with knowledge or learning. Those functions take place in the back of the brain, but they must later be accessed by the fore brain to execute effectively.

Edward’s inability to accept imprecise language is just one of the symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of ADHD. It is more often expressed by procrastination, an inability to focus—and sometimes—unreasonable demands for rapid answers from others.

Over the years, I have encountered others like Edward. At first, it never occurred to me that these traits are anything other than endearing eccentricities. But those who study these things consider it to be a disorder. And to their credit, they have developed effective treatments.

Certainly, it seems a stretch to call it a ‘disorder’ for individuals who are successful in both their career and their family life. For these individuals, I think of ADHD as a symptomatic label rather than a disorder. But, what if the difficulty in communicating with others—or the inability to organize thought and execute on a deadline—interferes with earning a living? What if an individual demands answers from loved ones with the precision and rapidity at which their mind functions?

In such a case, might these interfering traits be a “condition” that warrants evaluation and treatment? If it is not treatable, I would think that something about their environment needs to be adjusted to suit an unalterable condition.

What Can be Done?

Today, adult ADHD is highly researched. Pioneering, academic and clinical research from Massachusetts and South Carolina have resulted in enormous strides in treatment. These methods are being adopted by clinics all over the world.

Fortunately, Edward connected with one of these pioneers even before the clinics began adopting their methods. He credits that relationship to cognitive improvements that have percolated throughout his personal and business affairs.

But don’t take it from me. I’m just a columnist. For information about adult ADHD, click on the video below and get it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. That would be Dr. Barkley.

Cause and Effect: Salt, ball games & heart risk

Years ago, I began to hear warnings about salt consumption. Salt is known to cause high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a risk for heart disease or at least undesirable heart events.

This puzzled me, because we had known both of these things for decades, but—somehow—I felt unsure that the two facts were transitive. That is,

If A leads to B and if B leads to C
does A necessarily lead to C?

I was also puzzled, because my mother used to give me salt pills on very hot days, whenever I was drenched in sweat after physical activity. Salt pills help retain fluids and they also re-establish electrolytes, along with plenty of water, of course. Was my mother ignorant of the dangers of salt? Why didn’t she realize that it leads to heart disease?

Later, as the salt scare reached a crescendo, I was seeing a cardiologist every 6 months. I visited him for my regular checkups, accessing his services as if he were an internist. But he wasn’t an internist. His other patients were referred to him as a high-value specialist. And he wasn’t just any cardiologist. He was a heart surgeon affiliated with the famous Framingham Heart Study. He was a pioneer in health research and respected as a teacher.

Relax. It’s not cocaine! It’s just salt.

Relax. It’s not cocaine! It’s just salt.

I asked this cardiologist about salt. First, he explained that his opinion was in the minority (i.e. I should take it with a grain of salt! — pun intended). He said that there was no merit to the popular fear about salt consumption. He felt strongly that, someday, the salt bogeyman would be de-mythed.

While he agreed that blood pressure is an indicator of cardiovascular health (because blocked arteries cause an increase in pressure), an increase caused by a temporary stimulant, such as salt, caffeine or exercise, was not cause for alarm. He believed it to be a risk only for individuals with long term hypertension due to an existing, systemic condition.

The experience taught be to be vigilant for the very common error of overlooking cause and effect. This can be tricky to unwind, because the nature of our language makes it subtle and because we all tend to make this mistake. And so, I prefer the following ‘Ball Game’ example. It is not part of my cardiologist’s explanation, but he agrees that it perfectly illustrates the point:

In the 1960s, a historical study of several thousand middle age males in the Chicago area found a high correlation between those who attend 2 more professional sporting events each week and a reduced incidence of heart attack. Although the study was not a double-blind, clinical trial (it was conducted by survey), the controls were rigorous. It included verification of facts, re-interview, and a statistical analysis to ensure that selection and participation represented a random cross section of the population.

The study concludes that men who frequently attend ball games have fewer heart attacks and live longer. But wait!… That’s not how the results were reported. Or at least, it’s not what people remember after hearing of the results.

What most people chose to hear was this:

       “If you go to two or more ball games each week, you will live longer”
       “If you go to two or more ball games each week, you will live longer—even if you hate professional sports”

David Wells

Former Yankees pitcher, David Wells, loves baseball

Of course, neither statement is true. Not even the first one. The first words, “If you”, distort the conclusion. In fact, they suggest the opposite result! The report said “People who”, not “If you”

To say that ball games improve or prolong life is to confuse cause and effect. Although the study didn’t isolate cause and effect, a bit of reflection suggests that perhaps the reason people who regularly attend ball games live longer is because they…

  • are doing something that they love
  • have the luxury of spending weekdays away from work
  • have more money and less stress than individuals of average means
  • have partners who allow time for their favorite leisure activity

Now, suppose you don’t care at all for professional sports. If you twist the conclusion and assume that ball games cause health or wealth (rather than the other way around), then giving up your job and forcing yourself to attend sporting events will probably lead to marital problems, stress, poverty and premature death. In fact, this contradicts the conclusion of a good study.

So what about salt?

Today, the Wall Street Journal published a very short article at the bottom of page A7. Although it is called out as a feature story, I think that it is getting far too little attention. Low-Salt Benefits Questioned. It ends with these words:

“The chairman of the committee that wrote the report said [that it] fo-
on actual health outcomes rather than just high blood pressure.”

In the mid 1980s, perhaps my cardiologist was ahead of his time. Or, perhaps salt will be implicated again, when new studies control for cause and effect. But my point was not about salt or ball games. My point was to illustrate a famous statement that is alternatively attributed to Mark Twain and to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli:

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Learning to recognize that a conclusion has made an assumption of cause and effect (or more likely, that ‘cause’ was attributed by someone rephrasing the conclusion of a study) goes a long way to restoring the validity and value of an accurate statistic.

Ellery is neither a linguist nor philosopher. But he is troubled
that cause-and-effect are so often confused or overlooked.