Category Archives: Articles

Shopify Saved Main Street. Next Stop: Taking On Amazon

In Marker


The Canadian e-commerce company is breathing down Silicon Valley’s neck as the next great enterprise behemoth

From my article in Marker, posted July 22, 2020

In late March, 15,000 gallons of beer were sloshing around in Peter Bulut’s tanks and barrels with nowhere to go. Bulut, the owner of Great Lakes Brewing Co., first started working in his father’s tiny craft brewery in Toronto almost 30 years ago, when he was 21. Back on March 13, when Covid-19 was creeping its way into Toronto, Bulut started taking small precautions, like suspending in-store beer tastings.  Five days after that, facing a 50% drop in business, he laid off a quarter of his 52 employees. Then Bulut had an employee call Shopify to find out what it would take to convert the company’s online merch shop into an online beer-sales-and-delivery store. Bulut was surprised by Shopify’s response. “They jumped all over it,” he says. “They wanted to help us hit big sales volumes”….Read more

Humidity vs. Coronavirus

In Newsweek


From my article in Newsweek posted June 2, 2020

Walter Hugentobler, a Swiss physician who sometimes practices at a clinic in Zurich International Airport, noticed several years ago that pilots and flight attendants seemed unusually susceptible to the flu throughout the year, even though they were generally healthy. More recently, Hazhir Rahmandad, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, noticed that COVID-19 tended to spread in his native Iran at different rates from one region to the next, even when population densities were similar.

Those two observations each led to recent studies that have converged on an important insight into COVID-19: the spread of the disease is likely to vary significantly with temperature and humidity….Read more

Inside the Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession

In Marker

A bag of King Arthur Flour propped up next to a baguette, eggs, and a whisk.

How King Arthur Flour found itself in the unlikely crosshairs of a pandemic

From my article in Marker, posted May 20, 2020

Baking bread was a regular family affair in Linda Ely’s childhood home, leaving her with a lifelong bread-baking habit and some powerful memories. “I think of my family every single time I bake,” she says.

Ely has been able to pay some of that gift forward to the thousands of people she has advised over the Baker’s Hotline run by the company she works for — and is to a tiny degree a part-owner of — King Arthur Flour. But in early March, Ely noticed a change in the questions. Partly it was an increase in the sheer number of calls, a jump that seemed more sudden and pronounced than the normal mild pre-Easter build-up. But even stranger was how many of the callers seemed, well, clueless. How do you tell if bread is done? Do I really need yeast? And strangest of all: What can I use instead of flour?….Read more


Your Privacy or Your Life

In Newsweek

lockdown privacy google apple Newsweek cover smartphone

Would you let the government track your smartphone if it meant we could reopen sooner?

From my cover story in the May 20, 2020, edition of Newsweek

Before the pandemic, the plan would have seemed like something ripped from a distant dystopian future in which the human race fully surrenders to Big Tech. On the April 10 online document, the logos of Google and Apple sat atop a description of the companies’ joint plan to enable America’s cellphones to keep track of everyone with whom their owners come into contact….Read more

A Prophet of Scientific Rigor—and a Covid Contrarian

In Wired

Collage of text medical symbols and portrait of Iannidid

John Ioannidis laid bare the foibles of medical science. Now medical science is returning the favor.

From my article for Wired, posted May 1, 2020

I’M STARING AT a small sea of frowning faces on Zoom. “I’m really angry about this,” says one of them. These are medical students at Columbia University, and I’m speaking to a class on communicating medicine. They’ve been friendly up until now, but that all changed when I brought up Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis.

Ioannidis has been a fixture in medical-school curricula for years, achieving something akin to hero status. He’s one of the most-cited scientists of any type in the world, earning acclaim by dedicating his career to telling the fields of biomedicine (and others, too) how little trust one should have in their published research. But almost literally overnight Ioannidis has himself become a case study in how to screw up a medical study. And not just any study: This one concludes that Covid-19 isn’t all that dangerous….Read more


The Experiments Revealing How Marijuana Could Treat Dementia

In Discover


Slightly stoned mice show marijuana may fight age-related memory loss.

From my cover story in the March, 2020, issue of Discover Magazine

A longtime U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) researcher who now runs an institute at Germany’s University of Bonn, Andreas Zimmer has been on a long journey to answer a question that few researchers had thought to ask: Is it possible that weed, long seen as the stuff of slackers, might actually contain the secret to sharpening the aging brain? His findings have suggested that may be the case, and research in the U.S. at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere hints the results seem to hold for humans. As the data continues to stream in, some in the Zimmer lab have begun quietly encouraging their aging parents to toke away….Read more

Tesla’s Cybertruck Has a Huge Cowboy Problem

In Medium’s Marker


Can Tesla and Rivian convince practical Ford-loving pickup drivers to buy their futuristic machismo machines?

From my article in Marker, posted February 5, 2020

America’s coasts may well harbor pockets of tech-friendly, eco-conscious early adopters eager to jump to a Cybertruck, or some other whizzy, cool urban-warrior or off-road vehicle that happens to have a bed for hauling Whole Foods groceries and Patagonia gear. But Tesla and other electric truck startups won’t get far hitching their future to those sort of sub-sub-markets. They’ll need to figure out how to sell electric pickups in Houston and other places where trucks are king….Read more

You’re on the Verge of Getting a Cold: Can You Stop It in Its Tracks?

In Medium’s Elemental


Most common advice won’t work. Surprisingly, though, the research suggests there are two supplements that might help.

From my article in Elemental posted February 5, 2020

….As with vitamin C, research on whether taking zinc at the onset of cold symptoms can shorten or ease the illness has been somewhat mixed. Harri Hemilä, a physician and public health researcher, and the author of the seminal 2017 study and co-author of the classic 2005 study on vitamin C, also recently tried to settle the question on zinc, in this case with a randomized controlled trial that he carried out with colleagues on 88 people who came down with colds. The results, just published in January, were surprising and a bit confusing, Hemilä confesses….Read more

Hunting for New Drugs with AI

In Nature


The pharmaceutical industry is in a drug-discovery slump. How much can AI help?

From my article in the December 18, 2019, issue of Nature (“Innovations In” section)

….Because finding new, successful drugs has become so much harder, the average cost of bringing one to market nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013 to $2.6 billion, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. These same challenges have increased the lab-to-market time line to 12 years, with 90 percent of drugs washing out in one of the phases of human trials. It’s no wonder, then, that the industry is enthusiastic about artificial-intelligence tools for drug development….Read more


Do You Trust Jeff Bezos With Your Life?

In Newsweek


Tech giants like Amazon are getting into the health care business

From my cover story in the December 3, 2019, Newsweek

NwswkDrAmazonCoverOnlyArmed with two-day delivery, Amazon put thousands of stores out of business and established hegemony in retail. Along with others in Big Tech, the company also turned what you might have thought were your private doings into a marketable product. Now Amazon is positioning itself to move into health care in a big way. Experts think the $230-billion-in-annual-revenues retail giant is preparing to launch a service aimed at bringing nearly all health care together in a single, user-friendly app with all the convenience and pricing-transparency of its online store–and all the privacy and competition-crushing concerns, too….Read more


How Medellín, Colombia, Became the World’s Smartest City

In Newsweek


With a combination of tech savvy, urban planning and public support, Colombia’s second-largest city rebounded from troubling times

From my cover story in the November 18, 2019, Newsweek


Think of a gondola suspended under a cable, floating high off the ground as it hauls a cabin full of passengers up a long, steep mountain slope. To most people, the image would suggest ski resorts and pricey vacations. To the people who live in the poor mountainside communities once known as favelas at the edges of Medellín, Colombia, the gondola system is a lifeline, and a powerful symbol of an extraordinary urban transformation led by technology and data….Read more

What Actually Goes Down When You Get Sick on a Plane


From paging a doctor to radioing one on the ground, airlines have ways of coping with illness. But none of them are ideal.

From my article in Elemental posted November 13, 2019

Cyrus Komer, MD, was flying on Delta Airlines from Boston to Vancouver, Canada, on a ski vacation, when a flight attendant asked a question over the PA system: “Is there a doctor onboard?” Komer, a physician specializing in internal medicine, who had never before been confronted with an in-flight medical situation, hesitated. “I had to think about it,” he says. “I worried about trying to help someone without any of the tools with me that I normally relied on”….Read more

Racing to Build the Starbucks of Weed


The next gold rush in legalizing cannabis is public consumption. Entrepreneur J.J. Walker is already one step ahead.

From my article in Marker posted October 3, 2019

Several states and cities are already cautiously opening the door to the so-called social consumption of marijuana. These new laws would permit any adult who purchases cannabis in a specially licensed business to also consume the products right there. In other words, a legal future in which enjoying weed is as simple as walking into a bar or restaurant and enjoying a glass of chardonnay. Currently there are no credible projections of the size of the social-consumption market, but there’s enough relevant math to suggest it will likely be massive….Read more

Reaction to my Atlantic article on “the world’s worst patients”

Letters from readers about my July article, and my response, from the September, 2019, issue of The Atlantic

AtlPatients“I found this article to be a refreshing departure from most writing about health care. Of course culture matters. As a medical anthropologist, however, I thought David H. Freedman missed a key factor in health outcomes. Many people who have the worst compliance rates and outcomes (Freedman lists smokers, diabetics, and people with sedentary lifestyles as examples) also have the same socioeconomic status. In other words, they’re broke or too busy to do everything they’re supposed to….” Read more

Why autoimmune diseases are hard to diagnose


Even specialists often struggle to make sense of the puzzling symptoms that come with these slow-moving disorders

From my article in Elemental posted September 30, 2019

Some 1.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with lupus erythematosus. And lupus is just one of more than 100 autoimmune diseases affecting nearly 25 million Americans, diseases that together present a challenging and often frustrating path to diagnosis for doctors and patients alike. “These patients often get sent on a long journey before they get an answer,” says Robert Lahita, M.D., the chairman of medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Wayne, N.J. “Some physicians will tell them it’s all in their head. It’s not, and they can be miserable for years until they get diagnosed.” Read more

How the five senses impact health


Hacking the sensory-health connection can improve well-being in surprising ways

From my article in Elemental posted September 5, 2019

About a quarter of the human brain’s mass is devoted to processing information from the five senses. Given that the brain plays such a central role in health, it’s not surprising that the five senses are closely tied to well-being.

But beyond merely proving those connections exist, researchers have recently started to explore ways to purposely manipulate them for people’s benefit. “Interventions based on what we see, feel, and even taste can have a seemingly dramatic effect on health,“ says Charles Spence, an Oxford University PhD researcher who runs a lab dedicated to studying the role that perception plays in behavior and health. “They can reduce pain, speed recovery from illness, and much more.” Read more

CBD: Looking Beyond the Hype

Pop culture says CBD cures everything—here’s what scientists say

From my cover story in the September 6, 2019, Newsweek


Hardly anyone had heard of CBD three years ago, but now two-thirds of Americans are familiar with it, according to a recent Gallup survey. One in seven Americans use it as an over-the-counter treatment for pain, anxiety and sleep problems. They have also turned to CBD for depression, muscle spasms, digestive issues and skin ailments. One in three pet owners give it to their dogs and cats, says a survey by market-research firm Packaged Facts. It’s also been touted as a treatment for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. One medical clinic reported that CBD relieved 90 percent of all symptoms in all its patients.

Trouble is, almost all of the claims are currently unsubstantiated. “Consumers are participating in one of the largest uncontrolled clinical trials in history, and no one really knows what it is they’re taking,” says Pal Pacher, an investigator at the National Institutes of Health and president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society. “It’s scary”….Read more

Do You Have a Drinking Problem?


The standard tools that flag high-risk imbibing don’t always send the right people for help

From my article in Elemental posted August 8, 2019

There are two fairly reliable ways to discern whether you may have a biological disposition for alcohol trouble, says one psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital who specializes in substance abuse. One is obvious: Look for alcohol trouble in your family history. The other is much less obvious: If you handle your alcohol better than most people around you, you’re at higher risk of a long-term problem….Read more

Precision Medicine Is Crushing Once-Untreatable Cancers–But There’s a Catch


For tens of thousands of patients, precision medicine is rewriting their cancer stories. But only a fraction of patients benefit. Can medicine close the gap?

From my cover story in the July 26, 2019, Newsweek

Linda Boyed, an energetic 52-year-old occupational therapist, was thrilled to be on vacation with her family in Hawaii, hitting the beaches and taking long walks. But she couldn’t shake a constant feeling of fatigue. When she returned home, her doctor delivered the bad news: Cancer of the bile ducts in her liver had already spread too far for chemotherapy or surgery to do any good. He offered to help keep her comfortable for her final few months.

But then Boyed’s husband found a doctor at Ohio State’s cancer center who was running studies of experimental drugs for gastrointestinal cancers. That doctor gave her an experimental drug called BGJ398. Boyed’s symptoms cleared up, the tumors stopped growing, and she regained the weight she had lost….Read more

Can you work better high?


Many insist that toking on the job improves their performance. Scientists and other experts are lending some surprising support to the claim.

From my article in Elemental posted July 17, 2019

Besides their outsized reputations in the annals of literature, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and Honoré de Balzac had something else in common: their interest in weed. They were all members of the Club des Hashischins — the “Hash Club” — formed in the 19th century as a way to provide opportunities for these towering figures and other celebrated creatives to explore the benefits of writing while high.

There’s reason to believe mixing pot and work may not be as problematic as once thought for others, too. Some scientists, physicians, and other experts are going as far as to suggest that for some people, pot can even be a tool for increasing productivity….Read more

The Worst Patients in the World

In The Atlantic


Americans are hypochondriacs, yet we skip our checkups. We demand drugs we don’t need, and fail to take the ones we do. No wonder the U.S. leads the world in health spending.

From my article in the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic

I was standing two feet away when my 74-year-old father slugged an emergency-room doctor who was trying to get a blood-pressure cuff around his arm. I wasn’t totally surprised: An accomplished scientist who was sharp as a tack right to the end, my father had nothing but disdain for the entire U.S. health-care system, which he believed piled on tests and treatments intended to benefit its bottom line rather than his health. He typically limited himself to berating or rolling his eyes at the unlucky clinicians tasked with ministering to him, but more than once I could tell he was itching to escalate….Read more


The Neuroscience of Cravings


Research explains why people have intense urges for specific foods — and reveals ways to train our brains to resist them

From my article in Elemental posted June 5, 2019

Serving as an experimental subject in the lab of Peter Hall means eating chocolate or potato chips — as much or as little of either as you want. And there’s no catch.

Well, maybe just a tiny one. While you’re scarfing down the goodies, you have to wear a device on your head that scrambles some of the signals in your brain with a blast of magnetic energy. It’s all in the service of advancing science. The science of food cravings, that is….Read more

What’s the Magic Behind Graphene’s ‘Magic’ Angle?

In Quanta


A new theoretical model may help explain the shocking onset of superconductivity in stacked, twisted carbon sheets.

From my May 27, 2019, article in Quanta Magazine

The blockbuster discovery last year of superconductivity in a material called twisted bilayer graphene caught theorists off guard. None of them had even speculated about the sudden loss of all electrical resistance when two sheets of graphene — honeycomb lattices of carbon atoms — were stacked and twisted at a relative angle of 1.1 degrees. But one prominent proposal from Harvard University condensed matter theorists offers a detailed picture of what might be going on….Read more

The Superbugs Are Here


Antibiotic-resistant bacteria will kill millions in the coming decades. Can we fix the broken economic and research models that could produce new treatments?

From my cover story in the May 31, 2019, Newsweek

In January, Columbia University revealed that four patients at its Irving Medical Center in New York had been sick with an unusual version of E. coli , a common gut bacterium. NwswkSuperbugsCoverAlthough the news largely escaped attention in the media, it ricocheted through the world of infectious disease experts. The Columbia E. coli had a mutation in a gene, MCR-1, that confers a terrifying attribute: imperviousness to colistin, the final-line-of-defense antibiotic for the bug. “We’re looking to the shelf for the next antibiotic, and there’s nothing there,” says Erica Shenoy, associate chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital….Read more

The Munchies Paradox


Researchers are trying to untangle the surprisingly complex relationship between pot and appetite

From my article in Elemental on May 13, 2019

Convenience stores in about 2,000 of the United States’ 3,200 or so counties saw a jump in junk food sales between 2006 and 2016. The indulgent counties were all in or close to states that legalized recreational marijuana at some point during that 10-year time period, just before sales surged.

The new data fits well with the experiences of hundreds of millions of people who use cannabis and with what science knows about pot. Or does it? In hundreds of studies of pot and appetite, the results are, well, disjointed. If there is any sort of consensus, it’s that longer-term use of pot is more closely associated with people maintaining what doctors classify as healthier weights than it is with people ending up glued to the couch, overeating….Read more

With a Simple Twist, a ‘Magic’ Material Is Now the Big Thing in Physics

In Quanta

QuantaGrapheneImage2The stunning emergence of a new type of superconductivity with the mere twist of a carbon sheet has left physicists giddy, and its discoverer nearly overwhelmed.

From my April 30, 2019, article in Quanta Magazine (also published in Wired)

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero is channeling some of his copious energy into a morning run, dodging startled pedestrians as he zips along, gradually disappearing into the distance. He’d doubtlessly be moving even faster if he weren’t dressed in a sports coat, slacks and dress shoes, and confined to one of the many weirdly long corridors that crisscross the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jarillo-Herrero has never been a slacker, but his activity has jumped several levels since his dramatic announcement in March 2018 that his lab at MIT had found superconductivity in twisted bilayer graphene — a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon crystal dropped on another one, and then rotated to leave the two layers slightly askew….Read more


China is Winning the 5G Race. Who Cares?

NwswkChina5gImageThe U.S. Lags China in the next big technological advance in cellphone networks. But not where it counts.

From my article (part of the cover story) in the May 10, 2019, issue of Newsweek

“The race to 5G is on, and America must win,” said Trump in mid-April.

It’s no secret that he’s focused on China, led by giant telecommunications manufacturer Huawei. But which 5G race can the U.S. hope to win? There are really three: one to provide the equipment on which the new networks are built; one to roll out the services widely; and another to develop the whole package—the software, devices, services and business processes that take advantage of 5G’s blinding speed and near-instant responsiveness. The distinction is critical, because the U.S. has already lost the first race and may lose the second. But the U.S. could still win the third race—and reap the main economic benefits of 5G….Read more

The Price of Digital Health


Personalized health care and artificial intelligence could improve your life—at a cost to your privacy

From my cover story in the April 5, 2019, issue of Newsweek

Andres Rubiano first got the news that his blood pressure was too high in the 1990s, when he was in his late 30s. His doctor prescribed medication and encouraged him to get more exercise and cut down on salt, a regimen Rubiano wasn’t very diligent in following. Then, four years ago, his doctor convinced him to enroll in a pilot project. Once a day, Rubiano slipped on an automatic cuff that wirelessly relayed blood pressure readings to a team of clinicians. His Apple Watch sent off heart-rate and physical-activity readings. Soon, Rubiano was getting text messages and emails about his readings, and his doctor called every month to discuss them. His blood pressure dropped from 150 over 100 to a reasonable 130 over 78….Read more

We all love Marie Kondo. So why is tidying up so hard?

The Japanese neatness consultant has inspired millions to declutter. But the mania also raises some interesting questions.

marie_kondoFrom my article in the January 19, 2019, issue of New Scientist

A CLUTTER-free kitchen, living room or office resonates with a clean, graceful aesthetic. Neatness implies organisation and discipline. Stress and inefficiency disappear with stray socks and the morning’s dishes. That’s the promise of Japanese neatness consultant Marie Kondo, as she espouses “the life-changing magic of tidying up” in her Netflix series. But why are so many of us obsessed—and defeated—by the demands of tidiness? Read more

Clinical Trials Have the Best Medicine but Do Not Enroll the Patients Who Need It

Most cancer patients never get into lifesaving drug trials because of barriers at community hospitals


From my article in the January 2019 issue of Scientific American

The drugs available in clinical trials often represent the latest in research, and many turn out to be significantly more effective than standard treatments. But whereas about one third of cancer patients in the U.S. meet the criteria for a trial with a new drug, only about 4 percent end up in such tests, according to National Cancer Institute estimates. The main reason for the massive shortfall: in the nonacademic community hospitals where most cancer patients are treated, doctors do not feel they have the time, the incentives or the support to learn about available trials, to qualify and enroll patients, or to provide the extra follow-up care such trials often call for. Because nationally about 85 per-cent of cancer patients end up at community hospitals, most of the low participation in cancer trials is attributable to the failure of those hospitals to enroll their patients. Major academic hospitals enroll about 20 percent or so of cancer patients in trials, but community hospitals typically enroll less than one percent.

All of which makes it astonishing that a small community hospital in the middle of rural Nebraska manages to place some 35 percent of its cancer patients in trials. That achievement is due almost entirely to the sheer determination and dedication of a single doctor named Mehmet Copur…. Read more (may be paywalled)