From the quote-of-the-day files:

I think you’re still salvageable.

–My witch doctor (rheumatologist), yesterday, commenting on my medical condition.  He said this in a clinical, matter-of-fact, non-humorous manner.

It’s nice to know that a medical professional has not yet relegated me to the scrapheap of humanity.

Incidentally, avoid the need to see a rheumatologist, if at all possible.  It’s a pseudoscience.  Despite medical advancements on other fronts, little is known about the causes, behavior, and treatments for autoimmune joint inflammation.

Letters From The Past

I came across this story: “Woman Posting Pennsylvania Couple’s 109 Love Letters From More Than 100 Years Ago

In short, a woman bought 109 letters (dated 1905 – 1910) from a street vendor and decided to start posting them on a blog,  109LOVELETTERS.

I’m curious what people wrote about 100 years ago, so I glanced at a few of them.  There’s nothing particularly remarkable in what I read–a young woman writing about daily things in her life: work, church, mutual acquaintances.  It’s pretty ordinary stuff, unlikely to land in the Smithsonian.

I had an unusual feeling when I was reading them, though.  I felt a bit voyeurish peering at the personal correspondence of the long-departed.  Often, when people discover human remains, they go to extra lengths to see that they are disturbed as little as possible.  Aren’t private letters just as personal as someone’s bones?

In one note, Daisy, the letters’ author, writes:

I am writing under difficulties. My Aunt, two cousins and a friend are in the same room talking and having a good time. And every once in a while I can’t resist and must talk too.

In my mind’s eye I imagine Daisy sitting at a table trying to focus on her letter to John.  I wonder if she had any idea that someday a guy in Tennessee, perched in front of a computer screen, would read what she was writing.

Probably not.

Two Topics I’m Following

In the last several months a couple topics have piqued my interest much more than I previously imagined they would.

(1) Conflict in Ukraine:  My initial attraction to Ukraine’s plight stems from my genealogical connection–my mom’s grandparents emigrated from there.  But it’s grown beyond that as I’ve watched the Euromaidan and subsequent war unfold.

Along the way I’ve learned about the history, people, culture, economy, religion, and politics in the region.  Eighteen months ago I knew very little about any of it.  I’m hardly an expert now, but I do know something.

I follow a large Twitter list to keep up on all the news, and am engage in discussion/debate at a couple forums (I’m Velo Vol).

Although the War in Eastern Ukraine receives only intermittent U.S. news media coverage, it’s one of the important foreign policy issues we face. This doesn’t have the ideological makeup of Cold War 2.0, as some have described it.  But it does jeopardize Eastern European stability.

(2) Research on the human microbiome: This, too, has a personal angle.  I have psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disorder which is not well understood at all.  We don’t know what causes it, what triggers the inflammation, why drugs to relieve symptoms work (or more often, don’t work) . . . it’s a big mystery.

But there’s a growing body of research linking these kinds of diseases to the microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, where most of the immune system resides.

For example, one small study shows that people with psoriatic arthritis have below normal levels of multiple intestinal bacteria.

Of course correlation does not equal causation, and we’re years away from translating these discoveries into new therapies, much less a cure.  But this kind of thing gives me hope that we’ll someday get there.  So I like to keep up on research news.

The Inverted U-Shaped Curve

Does more always mean better?  If devoting resource x to a social undertaking is good, shouldn’t x+1 be better?  And x+2 better still?

Not necessarily, argues Malcolm Gladwell in this talk at Microsoft regarding inverted U-shaped curves.

Humans intuitively visualize a linear-shaped model, where the more we input toward a desired outcome, the better.  In some cases, the slope may flatten the further you go (diminishing marginal returns), but it’s still going upward.

But with an inverted U-shaped curve, there is a point where the slope starts pointing downward.  In other words, allocating more resources toward a problem not only ceases to be helpful, it actually makes outcomes worse.

Gladwell elaborates on two examples to illustrate this phenomenon: school class size and imprisonment.

There’s a general public consensus that students learn better in smaller classes–and to some extent, they do.  But, according to Gladwell, when classes get smaller than 20 or so students, the benefit disappears.  A couple theories as to why are that class discussions suffer with fewer participants, and student peer support declines when there are too classmates.

The model is even more counter-intuitive when it comes to crime and punishment.  Isn’t society always better when it keeps criminals locked up?  Perhaps not, if you imprison too many people for too long.  The problem is that although they may not be great role models, prisoners often have dependents.  And if you remove too many fathers from their children, it can be detrimental to the community, perpetuating the cycle of crime.  Moreover, people are much less likely to commit crime once they reach their 40s.  So long sentences for some crimes–e.g., drug offenses–are an increasingly inefficient allocation of resources over time.

Gladwell cites a few more examples of this in the Q&A session–e.g., wealth and happiness. In fact, he goes so far as to state that it’s difficult to think of a case where the linear model is more useful than the U-shaped model.

What do we take from this?   That often there can be too much of a good thing.  We need to systematically monitor outcomes to ensure resources are being used efficiently.  And lastly, there’s wisdom in the adage: “Everything in moderation.”

Tracking Mind-Wandering

Does your mind stray? Do you daydream often?

I do, or at least it seems like I do. But according to this Matt Killingsworth TED talk, people think about something other than what they’re doing 47% of the time. So maybe I’m not unique in that regard.

Is mind-wandering a good or bad thing?  If a diverted focus causes you to be less productive, or worse, have an accident, it can clearly be detrimental.

But what if it doesn’t alter your performance? What if your mind strays, but it doesn’t change you outwardly? What inward impact might it have?

According to Killingsworth’s research, the effect tends to be slightly negative on people’s mood:

While most people think of mind-wandering as a lifting escape from daily drudgery, the Track Your Happiness data shows that this may not the case. In fact, mind-wandering appears to be correlated with unhappiness. When people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling happy only 56% of the time. Meanwhile, when they were focused on the present moment, they reported feeling happy 66% of the time. This effect was true regardless of the activity the person was doing — be it waiting in a traffic jam or eating a delicious dinner.

In my opinion, Killingsworth’s presentation over-dramatizes the impact mind wandering has on happiness scores.  For those thinking about something pleasant (other than their present activity), the happiness scores are virtually the same.  The scores for those mind-wandering on neutral thoughts is only slightly lower (59% versus 66%).  Only those dwelling on unpleasant topics had a significantly lower happiness scores than those focusing on the present (42% versus 66%).

It’s not surprising to hear that people are less upbeat when they are stressing out over something negative.

Nonetheless, this is interesting research and a reminder that sometimes being occupied with your work (or play) is a good way to mentally crowd out unnecessary anxiety.

Trumpet Solo: “Panis Angelicus”

I play the trumpet, at the intermediate level. Here I am recently performing at church:

I frequently accompany congregational hymns at church.  But I don’t often perform as a soloist, which is quite different, according to my nerves. There’s nothing to hide behind when you’re center stage.

“Panis Angelicus” is a hymn originally written by St. Thomas Aquinas.  César Franck composed this version of the hymn, often called “O Lord Most Holy,” in 1872.