On smuggling.

On smuggling.

While I was working in a research laboratory at Stanford, my advisor mentioned that she was waiting for a package from ________.

“Oh, we got something from him,” said our technician John, “but it was just an Invitrogen catalog.  Their rep brought us a newer copy last week, so I threw it out.”

“What!” my advisor shouted, causing him to jump.  “Which trash can?!” 

She and John rooted through the garbage together.  Luckily the package had arrived that day.  The now-gooey catalog (I was smashing a lot of cow brains in those days, and the bleached muck went into the trash) was still there.

We didn’t need another Invitrogen catalog.  But it’s illegal to ship DNA through the mail, so researchers often smuggle it by dotting some onto paper then circling the spot.  When you receive DNA this way, you cut out the circle, dip it in water, and then add bacteria.

The bacteria make more copies of your DNA.  Antibiotics kill off any bacteria that aren’t helping.  And the U.S. post office is none the wiser.

Then you can throw out the useless catalog.

I’ve been volunteering with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners project for about a decade.  We ship books to people who would be otherwise deprived.  Occasionally, though, administrators at a prison will instruct their mailroom staff to return all our packages.  Or, worse, quietly pitch them into the trash.  Months might pass before people inside let us know that our books aren’t getting in.

Usually, the administrators will relent and let us send books again, but it might take a few years of phone calls.  During one such frustrating episode, I wrote a poem.

Sympathy for the Devil

I am a writer as in a vulture, plucking words from

others’ pain. & sing penance, but never loud enough:

we feast upon this world of hurt we’ve made.

Words might salve even the poor, so we send free

books to inmates. At one prison, packages never

arrived. We called & were told we impregnated

literature with suboxone. We lacked both will &

way: we have no budget; drugged pages wilt &

yellow; no one would read. Later I heard the state

was shunting sex criminals there. Books were

a privilege, underhandedly revoked.

                                                               Gangs rule

inside: Aryan Brotherhood for whites, Gangland

Disciples for black men. We are free to believe in

post-racial America: in prison, meals might mean

a stack of trays sloughed inside a then-locked door.

Some men take two. Others will go hungry. The

ache of want sends us seeking for what symbols

of solidarity we find, hoping for allies against the


             AB oft allies with the guards. Members reap

cushy jobs, access to visitors, untrammelled mail.

At the prison binning our books, gang & guards

were very close, COs inked in crosses, runic letters,

shields & shamrocks. Yet AB, there, was weak. So

they were fed sex criminals – easy, friendless kills.

A guard outs the doomed man’s past – everyone

lies, asked why he’s doing time – and members

murder him in the shower.  They look tougher

than they are.

                         A dozen deaths. No indictments.

Activists began to smuggle phones, hoping to

document abuse. That’s when our packages ceased

to be received.

                           I’ve no deep love for these men –

friends of mine were abused.  But if those who molest

should be punished by death, let’s force judge & juries

to say it. Not read a shadow sentence of 10 or 20 years.

We should say what we mean:

I sentence you to a cruel and unusual death.  It will

come suddenly in a shower stall, faux-Odinist skin-

head slamming your head against the tile until your

bruised brain ruptures from repeated trauma.  Your

eyes will loosen from their sockets, your skull will

crack, blood will whelm through your nostrils.  In a

final indignity, bowels relax.  You will know the brief

hell of hoping to live when you cannot.  Your limp

body will drop while the water runs, cascading over

your corpse.  Although news of your death will not

reach those who sentenced you, they will know that

justice has been done.

Quite likely, drugs were being smuggled into that prison.  I’ve been told that it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than out on the street.  Which is rough – people who are recovering from addiction often relapse after being sent to prison.  In those bleak environs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to occupy your time.

The drugs weren’t coming from Pages to Prisoners, though.  We always embalm our packages in tape so that correctional officers can’t tamper with them (as easily) on their way in.  And, seriously, our organization doesn’t have the budget for drugs – we’re shipping donated books wrapped in old grocery bags!  I’ve never tried to buy opiates, but I assume they’re expensive.  Guys in jail sometimes mention how many thousands they were spending on their habits each week, which helps explain why they’re broke.

I understand why prison administrators worry, though.  Scientists use books to smuggle DNA; you could illicitly ship a variety of drugs that way.

Although our organization ships books to people incarcerated in twelve different states, local prisons are the only ones that ban us.  Which is sad.  From a community perspective, we’d like to help people locally.  We can recruit volunteers by mentioning that the people inside will be coming back to our community.

From a health and safety perspective, though, prison administrators would prefer that books come from out of state.  Then they can feel more confident that packages are being sent by people who’ve never met the inmates. 

The recipients would be like my colleague John, evaluating each book based solely on its title: an Invitrogen catalog?  We don’t need that! 

Or, after receiving one of the packages sent by Pages to Prisoners recently: sweet, advanced Dungeons & Dragons!

Prison administrators have good reason to keep drugs out.  People’s tolerance wanes during their time in jail – somebody might take too much and die.  Whereas they’re unlikely to OD on D&D.

 Of course, prisons don’t have to be so bleak & punitive, let alone violent & PTSD-inducing.  Prisons like we have in the U.S. don’t need to exist at all.  And then organizations like Pages to Prisoners wouldn’t need to send books.

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

The scientific method is the best way to investigate the world.

Do you want to know how something works?  Start by making a guess, consider the implications of your guess, and then take action.  Muck something up and see if it responds the way you expect it to.  If not, make a new guess and repeat the whole process.

Image by Derek K. Miller on Flickr.

This is slow and arduous, however.  If your goal is not to understand the world, but rather to convince other people that you do, the scientific method is a bad bet.  Instead you should muck something up, see how it responds, and then make your guess.  When you know the outcome in advance, you can appear to be much more clever.

A large proportion of biomedical science publications are inaccurate because researchers follow the second strategy.  Given our incentives, this is reasonable.  Yes, it’s nice to be right.  It’d be cool to understand all the nuances of how cells work, for instance.  But it’s more urgent to build a career.

Both labs I worked in at Stanford cheerfully published bad science.  Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible for an outsider to notice the flaws because primary data aren’t published.

A colleague of mine obtained data by varying several parameters simultaneously, but then graphed his findings against only one of these.  As it happens, his observations were caused by the variable he left out of his charts.  Whoops!

(Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel quickly responded that my colleague’s conclusions probably weren’t correct.  Unfortunately, Warshel’s argument was based on unrealistic simulations – in his model, a key molecule spins in unnatural ways.  This next sentence is pretty wonky, so feel free to skip it, but … to show the error in my colleague’s paper, Warshel should have modeled multiple molecules entering the enzyme active site, not molecules entering backward.  Whoops!)

Another colleague of mine published his findings about unusual behavior from a human protein.  But then his collaborator realized that they’d accidentally purified and studied a similarly-sized bacterial protein, and were attempting to map its location in cells with an antibody that didn’t work.  Whoops!

No apologies or corrections were ever given.  They rarely are, especially not from researchers at our nation’s fanciest universities.  When somebody with impressive credentials claims a thing is true, people often feel ready to believe.

antibodies.JPGIndeed, for my own thesis work, we wanted to test whether two proteins are in the same place inside cells.  You can do this by staining with light-up antibodies for each.  If one antibody is green and the other is red, you’ll know how often the proteins are in the same place based on how much yellow light you see.

Before conducting the experiment, I wrote a computer program that would assess the data.  My program could identify various cellular structures and check the fraction that were each color.

As it happened, I didn’t get the results we wanted.  My data suggested that our guess was wrong.

But we couldn’t publish that.  And so my advisor told me to count again, by hand, claiming that I should be counting things of a different size.  And then she continued to revise her instructions until we could plausibly claim that we’d seen what we expected.  We made a graph and published the paper.

This is crummy.  It’s falsehood with the veneer of truth.  But it’s also tragically routine.


41B1pZkOwmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Luke Dittrich intertwines two horror stories about scientific ethics in Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.

One of these nightmares is driven by the perverse incentives facing early neurosurgeons.  Perhaps you noticed, above, that an essential step of the scientific method involves mucking things up.  You can’t tell whether your guesses are correct until you perform an experiment.  Dittrich provides a lovely summary of this idea:

The broken illuminate the unbroken.

An underdeveloped dwarf with misfiring adrenal glands might shine a light on the functional purpose of these glands.  An impulsive man with rod-obliterated frontal lobes [Phineas Gage] might provide clues to what intact frontal lobes do.

This history of modern brain science has been particularly reliant on broken brains, and almost every significant step forward in our understanding of cerebral localization – that is, discovering what functions rely on which parts of the brain – has relied on breakthroughs provided by the study of individuals who lacked some portion of their gray matter.

. . .

While the therapeutic value of the lobotomy remained murky, its scientific potential was clear: Human beings were no longer off-limits as test subjects in brain-lesioning experiments.  This was a fundamental shift.  Broken men like Phineas Gage and Monsieur Tan may have always illuminated the unbroken, but in the past they had always become broken by accident.  No longer.  By the middle of the twentieth century, the breaking of human brains was intentional, premeditated, clinical.

Dittrich was dismayed to learn that his own grandfather had participated in this sort of research, intentionally wrecking at least one human brain in order to study the effects of his meddling.

Lacking a specific target in a specific hemisphere of Henry’s medial temporal lobes, my grandfather had decided to destroy both.

This decision was the riskiest possible one for Henry.  Whatever the functions of the medial temporal lobe structures were – and, again, nobody at the time had any idea what they were – my grandfather would be eliminating them.  The risks to Henry were as inarguable as they were unimaginable.

The risks to my grandfather, on the other hand, were not.

At that moment, the riskiest possible option for his patient was the one with the most potential rewards for him.


By destroying part of a brain, Dittrich’s grandfather could create a valuable research subject.  Yes, there was a chance of curing the patient – Henry agreed to surgery because he was suffering from epileptic seizures.  But Henry didn’t understand what the proposed “cure” would be.  This cure was very likely to be devastating.

At other times, devastation was the intent.  During an interview with one of his grandfather’s former colleagues, Dittrich is told that his grandmother was strapped to the operating table as well.

It was a different era,” he said.  “And he did what at the time he thought was okay: He lobotomized his wife.  And she became much more tractable.  And so he succeeded in getting what he wanted: a tractable wife.”


Compared to slicing up a brain so that its bearer might better conform to our society’s misogynistic expectations of female behavior, a bit of scientific fraud probably doesn’t sound so bad.  Which is a shame.  I love science.  I’ve written previously about the manifold virtues of the scientific method.  And we need truth to save the world.

Which is precisely why those who purport to search for truth need to live clean.  In the cut-throat world of modern academia, they often don’t.

Dittrich investigated the rest of Henry’s life: after part of his brain was destroyed, Henry became a famous study subject.  He unwittingly enabled the career of a striving scientist, Suzanne Corkin.

Dittrich writes that

Unlike Teuber’s patients, most of the research subjects Corkin had worked with were not “accidents of nature” [a bullet to the brain, for instance] but instead the willful products of surgery, and one of them, Patient H.M., was already clearly among the most important lesion patients in history.  There was a word that scientists had begun using to describe him.  They called him pure.  The purity in question didn’t have anything to do with morals or hygiene.  It was entirely anatomical.  My grandfather’s resection had produced a living, breathing test subject whose lesioned brain provided an opportunity to probe the neurological underpinnings of memory in unprecedented ways.  The unlikelihood that a patient like Henry could ever have come to be without an act of surgery was important.

. . .

By hiring Corkin, Teuber was acquiring not only a first-rate scientist practiced in his beloved lesion method but also by extension the world’s premier lesion patient.

. . .

According to [Howard] Eichenbaum, [a colleague at MIT,] Corkin’s fierceness as a gatekeeper was understandable.  After all, he said, “her career is based on having that exclusive access.”

Because Corkin had (coercively) gained exclusive access to this patient, most of her claims about the workings of memory would be difficult to contradict.  No one could conduct the experiments needed to rebut her.

Which makes me very skeptical of her claims.

Like most scientists, Corkin stumbled across occasional data that seemed to contradict the models she’d built her career around.  And so she reacted in the same was as the professors I’ve worked with: she hid the data.

Dittrich: Right.  And what’s going to happen to the files themselves?

She paused for several seconds.

Corkin: Shredded

Dittrich: Shredded?  Why would they be shredded?

Corkin: Nobody’s gonna look at them.

Dittrich: Really?  I can’t imagine shredding the files of the most important research subject in history.  Why would you do that?

. . .

Corkin: Well, the things that aren’t published are, you know, experiments that just didn’t … [another long pause] go right.


On the low-quality, highly-biased research attempting to dissuade you from wearing a bike helmet.

On the low-quality, highly-biased research attempting to dissuade you from wearing a bike helmet.

Just in case something urgent pops up and you don’t have a chance to finish reading this whole piece, here’s the condensed version: Wear a helmet!

Maybe you’re a great biker.  Maybe you would never, ever crash your bike.  So what?  Do you know how many dudes from my old high school drive around drunk at all times of day?  Doesn’t matter whether or not you’re superfly on two wheels if somebody in a pickup swipes you.

Image by waferboard on Flickr.

Conk your head hard, you might die.  Even if you don’t die, a traumatic brain injury can leave your thoughts fuzzy and eyesight blurry for the rest of your life.  Some five million people in the U.S. are suffering from traumatic brain injuries, picked up from concussions during youth sports, exposure to brain-pummeling blasts of sound in the military, sudden impact during car or bike wrecks.  Now they have throbbing headaches, chronic fatigue, troubled sleep, depression …

Your brain makes you you.  And there’s no good way to fix it.  This is tragic, obviously.  If you’re feeling too chipper, go ahead and search Pubmed for the wacky psuedoscience people are trying in their flailing attempts to feel better — and that’s the stuff that’s peer reviewed.  It gets even worse if you search the whole internet.  There’re plenty of quack doctors out there willing to profit off false hope.

It’s not worth risking all that just to keep your hair from getting mussed.

Image by Ruth Ellison on Flickr.

And yet.  Even though everybody knows now that football causes brain injuries, some hundred million people watch the Super Bowl, and over a million high schoolers play.  Even though everybody knows you’re safer wearing a bike helmet, something like 50% of neurosurgeons don’t.

Those doctors know better than anyone else how horrible traumatic brain injuries can be.  But the practice of medicine encourages cognitive dissonance.  Spending all day every day around sick people can wear you down unless you maintain a clear separation between you, the healer, and them, the sick people.  And so, even though their professional organization distributes information saying that everyone should wear a helmet every time they bike, they think of themselves as special.  Separate.

They’re wrong, of course.  Medical doctors get knocked off their bikes just like everybody else.  Indeed, the more training and expense that’s been poured into your brain, the more you ought to value it.  Seems absurd me that anyone would risk easily-preventable brain damage after spending several hundred thousand dollars on an education.

Researchers who don’t wear bike helmets must realize that their cognitive dissonance is absurd.  Because every so often another flawed study is published suggesting that bike helmets make you less safe.  The only explanation I can think of for all these studies is this: some researchers don’t want to wear helmets, and then, because they’re oh-so brilliant, they design & publish crappy experiments to justify their decision.

Image by Greg Raisman on Flickr.

The first time I learned about these studies was shortly after beginning graduate school.  The New York Times publishes an annual “year in ideas” magazine, and one of the great “ideas” that year was that drivers might think they need to be less cautious when passing a biker with a helmet.

There were obvious problems with this study.  The biggest problem is that only a single biker was studied: the researcher who designed the experiment and who acknowledges that he doesn’t like wearing helmets and wanted to find a negative consequence of helmet-wearing.  This is as far from a double-blinded study as you can get.

Even then, it took bizarre data analysis for him to get the conclusion he wanted.  (Insert obligatory Ronald Coase quotation here: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.”)

Any time you obtain lots of data and analyze it lots of different ways, you can make it seem to support the conclusion you want.  You can read a very clear description of this — replete with lots of fun examples — in Gary Smith’s Standard Deviations.

Even though the researcher’s bias probably led him to bicycle more recklessly when he had a helmet on, his data don’t support his conclusion.  Consider this scatterplot prepared by other researchers who re-analyzed his data.



Drivers often don’t pass any more closely when he has a helmet on.  At a glance, the only conclusion I’d make from looking at this is that he was probably safer when he was farther from the curb — there’s less debris farther into the road, and drivers were giving him just as much room.  But, regarding helmets?  The data are a wash.

Of course, given scientific publishing’s & our popular media’s preference for exciting, counter-intuitive results, the correction — you should wear a helmet, after all! — got much less press than the original, incorrect conclusion.

Yet another “maybe you shouldn’t wear a helmet” study was just published.  This one purports to investigate “risk compensation,” the idea that wearing a helmet makes you feel safer, and that the feeling of safety might cause you to bike recklessly, with the net result being that you’re even less safe than before, sans headgear.

It’s a cute idea.  And it’s been studied extensively.  Bikers who usually wear helmets do seem to bike more slowly when they don’t have a helmet on.  That same study found that bikers unaccustomed to helmets didn’t change their behavior when wearing one.  And another study found that helmeted bicyclists typically engage in less risky maneuvers.  (That last study simply tracked people who did & did not choose to wear helmets, as opposed to randomizing the population.  It’s quite possible that people who choose helmets are less likely to take risks in general.)

All of which indicates that, yes, you should wear a helmet.  Don’t worry, kid, you’re not going to psych yourself out and get the itch to careen in front of cars as soon as you strap one on!

But some researchers don’t like these results.  They want to bike without helmets, and they want to feel brilliant while doing so.

Thus, the new study.

This one used a highly contrived scenario, where research subjects were awarded prizes based on how large they could inflate a computer-simulated balloon.  They had to wear headgear, ostensibly to track their eye motion, during the experiment.  For some participants, the eye-tracking cameras were attached to baseball caps, for other participants the cameras were attached to helmets.  Voila!  A blinded study!  These people are now wearing helmets without even realizing it!

The researchers found that helmeted subjects inflated their virtual balloons some 30% larger than baseball-capped subjects.  Voila!  The researchers demonstrated risk compensation!

Except … people don’t act riskier in the real world when they strap on helmets.  Yeah, it’d be somewhat curious if having a helmet on — which clearly won’t protect a digital balloon from disaster — caused people to behave more cavalierly.

Their results hardly show that, however.  They barely even published their results!


Each “virtual balloon” was designed to “pop” after a random number of inflations, between 1 and 128.  Participants “inflated” the balloon by clicking a mouse.  Which seems odd in and of itself — if they’re using balloon imagery, why wouldn’t the thing be more likely to pop when it was big than when it was small?  If you’re claiming that people’s sense of real-world protection from wearing a helmet affects their decisions, you should make your virtual design as close to the real-world as possible.  Otherwise you’re just introducing a strange cognitive disconnect between expectations and results.

What the researchers published was, for each of the 80 study participants, the average number of clicks for all trials in which the virtual balloon did not pop.  I looked through their paper, but I couldn’t find the number of trials excluded because the balloons popped.  So even if they found a significantly lower average number of clicks between helmeted & baseball-capped participants, this doesn’t mean anything.  You’d see this same result if the effect of a helmet was to make people less erratic, i.e. safer.

An erratic participant might choose a number of clicks with high variance — in one trial she might click 30 times, in the next trial 90 times.  A safety-conscious participant might always click the same number of times — always 60 clicks.  Well, if the second balloon for the erratic participant popped, the averages recorded would be 30 clicks for her, 60 clicks for the other subject.  The reckless participant, because of this strange data manipulation, looks more risk averse!

This very well might be what the researchers saw.  With a quick calculation, you can find the optimal strategy for number of clicks… it turns out to be 64 clicks.

Here’s that calculation.

Half the time you use this strategy, your balloon will pop, but your total prize will be as high as possible.  And, with the researcher’s strange way of calculating the average number of clicks, someone using this strategy would have an average of 64.  In each trial, they either clicked this number of times, or the balloon popped.

bike helmet graphHere’s the researchers’ graph of their data.  What you can see: zero study subjects wearing caps used the optimal strategy — everyone from that population had an average below 64.  No one from the helmet-wearing group had an average of exactly 64 either, but there’s a cluster of scores nearby.

My conclusion?  Wearing a bike helmet makes people smarter.  The helmet group was much closer to playing the game optimally.

(Um, sure, my conclusion is spurious too.  Most people in both groups played the game the same way.  All that these data show is a small number of players in the helmet group with higher average click numbers — again with the caveat that the method used to calculate the average is bizarre, and wrong.  You can’t really conclude anything from this study.  But you certainly can’t conclude that wearing a helmet influences people to take more risks.)

On biomedical research (and why I no longer do it).

CaptureGetting a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford is excellent preparation for two careers.  One, becoming a research professor at one of our nation’s universities, in which case you get to help mint more Ph.D.s because the workforce employed by research professors is primarily composed of doctoral candidates.  Two, conducting bioscience science research at one of our nation’s many private medical companies.

Most of my colleagues from Stanford are pursuing one of those two careers.  There are a couple who went into teaching, either high school or college students, but a Ph.D. is actually not very good training to become a teacher.  Sure, a la Michael Spence’s job-market-signaling model, their degrees indicate that they are smart people who could probably learn to teach well.  But the process of getting a Ph.D. doesn’t train people to do it, even though this is the only training that many teachers at the university level receive.  I don’t think K would be comfortable in a classroom if she hadn’t then earned a less-prestigious-sounding master’s in education, and even that quantity of training might be insufficient for someone who gets hired at a school district where teachers aren’t often observed and critiqued in their practice, i.e. the vast majority of all U.S. schools.

Needless to say, a Ph.D. is also pretty poor training for somebody who wants to be a writer.  And I knew this at the time.  I showed up, was paired with a second-year student who was supposed to show me the ropes, and he asked me:

“So what do you want to do after you finish your degree?”

“I want to be a writer.”

“Then you shouldn’t be here!  This isn’t going to help you!”

“Well, I’ll be learning, right?  And, if you’re going to write, everything you learn can help.”

As it happens, my big buddy was correct (he is, after all, a very smart guy; he now does fancy microscopy at UCSF and completed his Ph.D. under a winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry).  Sure, every bit of education helps, but finishing a doctorate is a very lengthy, labor-intensive, psychologically-draining way to learn something.  I do know a lot about biomedical research now… but one thing I know is that, given my philosophical stance, I definitely don’t want to do it.  It’s not just that I don’t enjoy it, it’s that I don’t believe it’s what I should be doing with my time.

A cheeky way to reason through this is to invoke illogical extremes.  This is similar to the reasoning behind Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (“act according to maxims that can at the same time have as their object themselves as universal laws of nature,”translated by Mary Gregor), i.e. only do something if you’d be happy to live in a world where everyone did it.

In this case, imagine a world in which the work you’re pursuing was done perfectly.  Is that a world you’d want to live in?  With both K’s current work (perfect teaching would result in knowledgeable people) and my own (honestly, I could say the same thing about writing that I did about teaching; writing is like teaching for agoraphobes), I think this is satisfied.  With biomedical research, though, I don’t think it is.  Perfect success would mean that no one would die.  And, yes, immortality sounds nice.  But immortality for all sounds like a nightmare.

CaptureAs our biomedical knowledge increases, medical care gets better.  And, sure, I take my daughter to the doctor.  I’d be devastated if anything happened to her.  One of my friend’s sons is very sick (his situation is slightly less scary than it was previously, at least as of this writing, but it’s still scary), and obviously I want him to get better.  And I myself receive excellent healthcare via cellphone from my father.

Nobody wants young people to die.

But a majority of the gains from biomedical research have always gone to extending the time remaining for the old and sick.  And this is bad in many ways.  For one, it doesn’t really help the world to prolong relatively unproductive existences.  But that’s me as a selfish young person writing.  More to the point, it doesn’t really help patients to prolong that time.  From Michael Bell’s article in Forbes:

“It seems that no matter how much money you use during that last year / month, if the person is sick enough, the effort makes things worse.  A lot of the money being spent is not only not helping, it is making that patient endure more bad experiences on a daily basis.  The patient’s quality of life is being sacrificed by increasing the cost of death.”

Or you could read Samuel Shem’s House of God.  But you’ll have to remember that his book was written in 1978.  Since then, medical care has gotten better, which means that in some ways the situation he describes has gotten worse.  Here’s a dialogue between a supervisor and the interns at the end of their first year:

“Strange.  Boys, when I was an intern, I loved my admitting days.  All of us did.  We looked forward to them, we fought for those ‘toughies’ so we could show our Chief what we could do.  And we did damn well.  What’s happened?  What’s going on?”

“Gomers,” said Howie, “gomers are what’s going on.”

“You mean old people?  We took care of old people too.”

“Gomers are different,” said Eddie.  “They didn’t exist when you were a tern, ’cause then they used to die.  Now they don’t.”

Which, right, I guess it’d help to give you a definition for Shem’s term “gomer” here: it stands for Get Out of My Emergency Room, for people with numerous medical complications, enough aches, pains and physiological turmoil to bring them repeatedly to the hospital, but a sufficiently stable condition that with sound care they might survive in that state for years.  As we pursue medical advances (like the fight to “cure cancer,” which always sounds strange to me because cancer is an inevitable corollary to cell division), we will convert more maladies from things that kill us into things that will shunt us into the peculiar stasis of gomer-hood.

Shem, or rather the actual human who writes under this pseudonym, and his protagonist both responded to this philosophical conundrum by switching to psychiatry.  Instead of treating the body so that life can be longer, he would treat the mind so that life could be better.  And that is why I write.  Good books have done that for me.  My darling Marcel was in many ways my closest friend during graduate school (of course, K disagrees with this.  But even so, Marcel probably earned second place), and without his help I’m not sure I could have finished my degree.  But although there are already many, many lovely books, there are a few things I wanted to read that did not exist.  In my ill-trained, shambling way, I’ve been trying to create them.

On returning books unread.

On returning books unread.

I would’ve liked to write a post about Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told,” because it seemed like he had an interesting thesis.  From what I gathered reading the first five chapters and the short blurb on the dust jacket, he wanted to write about the contribution of the American slave trade, especially during the big westward expansion toward the Mississippi, to the birth of the modern financial system.  It seemed as though his argument was that the slave trade involved many more large transactions on credit, and sales of credit documents from one person to another, than had occurred previously.

But I don’t know if that’s the argument he wound up making.  Because I didn’t get to finish reading his book.

Instead, K. said to me, “Can your next draft be done by the end of December?”

“No,” I told her.

“Why not?”

“Well, it takes me a while to type.  And I still have all this research to do.”

At which point she swept through my stack of library books and vetoed them all.  Just like that! Said I wasn’t allowed to finish reading Baptist’s book until this next draft was finished.

I was halfway through Sandeep Jauhar’s “Doctored” (which was well written and has many relevant personal anecdotes but didn’t have anything surprising in it so far, at least from my perspective – I’ve already read a fair bit about problems of our health care system), but it was vetoed also.

I complained.  “I’m writing about the philosophy of medicine!”

“You can read this later.”

Needless to say, “The Philosophy of Pornography” was also vetoed – apparently the ~2 pages (13 point font, 1.5 spaced) I am writing about pornography do not qualify as a good argument to finish reading that book.  My favorite essay in that book, at least of the ones I was able to read before K. vetoed all my research, oddly echoed the folksy rebuttal to gun control laws – “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” – in that its thesis seemed to be, “pornography doesn’t hurt women, our society’s pervasively sexualized, demeaning culture hurts women.”  Several other essays argued that feminists shouldn’t hate pornography because, look, somewhere out there is some playful, non-demeaning trans-sexual porn.  But I don’t know if that’s a fair argument to make without statistics showing that videos of that sort are viewed at a comparable rate to other more objectionable kinds.

I can’t quote anything in this terse summary, by the way, because I no longer have the book.  It’s back at the library.

Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus” was also vetoed.  Just temporarily, at least, and I did have a chance to read it about two years ago – I had checked it out again to flip through and find something to write a post about.  I would have been sad if it’d been perma-banned from my home.

When I was reading it, I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be considered inflammatory.  Hinduism is very old – of course a plurality of voices has contributed to its current form.  It seemed as though her aim was simply to draw attention to some of the less-often heralded contributors.

And then, fittingly, the last book K. vetoed was Fernando Baez’s “A Universal History of the Destruction of Books.”  I’d read only part of the first chapter.

Luckily, she didn’t burn my collection.  Just forced me to put them into a bag and return them to the library until later.

I was allowed to keep only “Wrongs of Passage,” about fraternity initiation rituals, and “Fortunate Son,” a biography of George W. Bush.

I suppose the list as a whole should make me feel, um, a bit of concern about the focus of my project.


I  received an email from my library telling me that the hold request for Christine Kennealy’s “The Invisible History of The Human Race” – which obviously I need to read, as it might well relate to the themes of “broad political happenings shaping the fortunes of individuals,” “do humans have free will or are we subject to physics-based / DNA-based / divine-based determinism,” and “popular retellings of scientific findings make them sound like mythology” – was just processed.

Of course, her book might not be about any of the things I think it’ll be about – those are suspicions I wound up with based on reading a review in the newspaper.  I’ll have to read it to be sure!

But what devious stratagem can I come up with to borrow it without K. noticing?