Category Archives: Articles

The Superbugs Are Here

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

How Autonomous Vehicles Will Transform Cities and Suburbs

NwswkDriverlessCoverOnly181206Driverless cars are coming fast. That could be a big upgrade to life in America—or a complete nightmare, if we don’t quickly take control of the situation

From my cover story in the Dec. 14, 2018, issue of Newsweek.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the automobile was heralded as a way to free cities from the scourge of horse manure. Cars delivered on that promise, and they made us a far more mobile society. But they also stuck us with a slew of pervasive problems that haunt us today: urban blight, suburban sprawl, congestion, a rich-poor divide, a health-crushing lack of physical activity and enough pollution to upend the Earth’s climate.

Most U.S. cities seem positioned to once again allow technology to overwhelm them. New York City, for example, currently has no testing program in place for driverless cars—General Motors was planning one for 2019 but canceled it when the City Council raised concerns about safety. Singapore, some European countries and China are taking steps to prepare for AVs, but not one major U.S. city has introduced new traffic or development laws intended to boost AVs or push drivers to use them. If cities don’t get their development acts together soon, driverless vehicles will likely make traffic far worse in the coming years….Read more

How to Almost Learn Italian

In The Atlantic

Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.

From my article in the December 2018 issue of The Atlantic

Late one chilly evening last September, I excused myself from a small group huddled around a campfire to peck at and mumble into my phone.

No way was a camping trip going to make me miss my Italian lesson.

For most of the preceding year, I had religiously attended to my 15-minute-or-so daily encounters with the language-learning app Duolingo. I used it on trains, while walking across town, during previews at the movie theater. I was planning a trip to Rome in the late spring, and I’ve always been of the mind that to properly visit a country, you’ve got to give the language a shot.

But I had another reason for sticking with it: Duolingo is addictive….Read more

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How Traveling Abroad for Medical Care Can Make Surprising Sense

Americans whose treatments aren’t covered by insurance are saving thousands and getting good care by going outside the country

From my article in the November 2018 issue of Men’s Journal

MensMedTourismThree years ago, Justin Bull was goofing around with friends, swinging on a tree rope, when he lost his grip. The 29-year-old multi-sport athlete and dirt biker plunged 35 feet, landing on his right shoulder and snapping a tendon. Worse yet, he was uninsured, which meant getting surgery in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, would cost $40,000, all out-of-pocket. “I was looking at going into serious debt,” he says.

Then Bull’s mother made a surprising suggestion: Go abroad to get it done. A few years before, she’d traveled to the Czech Republic for surgery on her ankle. The procedure had been top-notch, complication-free, and a huge cost-saver. Bull did some research and opted for the Hospitales Amerimed in Cancún, Mexico—an orthopedic-surgery destination for professional athletes worldwide. Bull says it couldn’t have gone better. Total cost of airfare, a week in a resort for two, and all medical costs: $7,400. He checked with two U.S. surgeons afterward who said the work on his shoulder passed muster….Read more

Russia May Have Already Hacked the 2018 Midterms

nwswkhackinsidephotoonlyObsolete, easily hacked voting machines in counties with close congressional elections–and no way to do a recount. How could Russia resist?

From my cover story in the October 26, 2018, issue of Newsweek

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Security is tight at the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Government Administration Building in Doylestown, a three-story brick structure with no windows. That’s where officials retreat on election night to tally the votes recorded on the county’s 900 or so voting machines. Unfortunately, Russian hackers won’t need to come calling there on Election Day. Cyberexperts warn that they could use more sophisticated means of changing the outcomes of close races or sowing confusion in an effort to throw the U.S. elections into disrepute….Read more

Is Someone Stealing Your Health Data?

Facebook and others are turning your personal health information into a hot business commodity

From my article in the August 2018 issue of Men’s Journal

When the news broke that Facebook had allowed third-party apps to harvest troves of data from its users to influence U.S. elections, people (rightfully) freaked out. Now here’s something else to worry about: Facebook and others are turning your personal health MensJournalHealthDatainformation into a hot business commodity. Facebook and others have reportedly been looking into selling user information to hospitals and medical institutions eager to identify patients and build digital profiles that might include diagnoses, tests, prescriptions, and even sex-drive data.

This health data can be found in your posts, app downloads, fitness trackers, and phone activity, where it can be gathered and sold. And what Facebook has attempted to do is only a snippet of the kinds of health privacy violations hanging over the online world….Read more

What If Elon Musk Succeeds?

nwswkmuskinsidephotoonlyEveryone is fixating on whether Tesla can succeed—and ignoring how that success could drive us closer to a future of jobless automation

From my cover story in the August 17, 2018, issue of Newsweek

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….If you’re focusing on Musk’s bad manners, you’re missing the point. His plan to transform the car industry is picking up speed. Along the way, it could put tens of millions of people out of work, dismantling what has been a foundation of the nation’s social and economic life for a century. And it’s happening in the service of plying the wealthy with cooler cars…. Read more

Should You Let Your Kid Play Football?

The truth about concussions is more nuanced than most of what we’ve heard 

From my article in June 2018 in Men’s Journal

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What the public has heard about research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy—the degenerative brain disease that seems to be caused by repeated blows to the head—suggests that suffering concussions as a kid is likely to cause depression, memory problems, and violent behavior years later. But what if this new conventional wisdom doesn’t get it quite right? Christopher Giza has been calling for a bit of calm and context. A pediatric neurologist who heads UCLA’s BrainSport program, Giza is one of the world’s leading experts on concussions in contact-heavy sports. Before you pull your youngsters from football—or sign them up for it—Giza has some advice. Read more

Health Care’s ‘Upstream’ Conundrum

In Politico

When it comes to the long-term health of the country, findings now show the big problem might not be health care at all—it might be everything else. Can researchers get politicians to pay attention?

From my article in January 2018 in Politico

At the heart of America’s vaunted health care system is a frustrating puzzle. The United States pays three times as much per citizen as the average of other wealthy nations—far more than even the second-highest spender, Switzerland, adding up to $3 trillion a year. Yet for all that enormous expenditure, we come in dead last among those nations in lifespan. And as the bills climb, our life expectancy is actually shrinking.

What’s going so wrong? If our national health care were a corporation, that return on investment would get its CEO immediately fired. Plenty of experts are ready to point fingers at various causes: our lack of universal health care, industrialized food system, PoliticoUpstreamsuburban lifestyles, and profit-driven tangle of insurers and drug companies and hospitals. Surely those play a role. And yet other countries face each of these, and other challenges as well, and still manage to spend less and enjoy better health overall.

Looming over the American conversation about public health is a growing suspicion that there’s a bigger reason for our uniquely poor showing, one that has been staring us in the face for years. It’s an explanation rooted in one simple statistic: While we pay more for health care than any other country in the world, when it comes to spending on social services—education, subsidized housing, food assistance and more—we rank in the bottom 10 among developed countries.

It’s easy to think of “health” as just another category of social-service spending. But a great deal of modern research suggests that it might be more accurate to think of it as the payoff of all the other services put together. Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar College and a former Yale researcher widely seen as the world’s foremost expert in the relationship between social services and health, has documented how the ratio of a country’s social-service spending to health care spending is highly correlated with health outcomes around the world. “The right question for our political agenda is, ‘What’s going to give us the most bang for the buck in health outcomes?'” says Bradley. “What our work has shown is that the answer is spending on social services.” Read more

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The missing Alzheimer’s pill

America faces explosive growth in chronic disease, but our drug system is set up to fail in fighting it. What needs to happen?

From my article in December 2017 in Politico

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If there’s a dream of what a new drug is supposed to do, it might look something like Kalydeco. In 2012, the new light-blue pill from Vertex Pharmaceuticals rocked the world of cystic fibrosis, a fatal disease that affects 30,000 people in the United State. It’s best known for its attack on the lungs, slowly suffocating its victims while attacking other organs—but when patients got the drug in its experimental phase, some started reporting such enormous improvement in their breathing and energy they were able to take up running, even marathoning.

Kalydeco is emblematic of the promise of new approaches in drug development. Built on a new understanding of how a particular defect in a gene can disrupt the workings of the body, the drug zeroes in on critical proteins inside cells to keep them functioning. “The drug was so good it broke the blind,” says Bernard Munos, a senior fellow at FasterCures, a think tank based at the Milken Institute—meaning the positive trial results were so clear that patients and doctors could easily tell who was receiving the drug and who got a placebo.

At the same time, Kalydeco serves as a cautionary tale. “The results for the patients it helps are absolutely spectacular, but those patients are only a sliver of the population with the disease,” says Munos. If you haven’t heard of Kalydeco—and you probably haven’t—that’s because this drug, which costs the U.S. health care system nearly half a billion dollars per year, currently helps fewer than 2,000 American patients.

The drug-development system that produced Kalydeco is one of proudest achievements of American medicine, and one of our biggest investments as a society. When American leaders talk about “innovation” in health care, they’re largely talking about the development of new pharmaceuticals. But as America looks squarely at the biggest health challenges of the future, there’s reason to worry that the system we’ve built may not be adequate to what’s in front of us. When it comes to the two diseases likely to become our biggest killers— Alzheimer’s and diabetes—death rates are relentlessly ticking up, with few solutions on the horizon. Read more

A Reality Check for IBM’s AI Ambitions

IBM may have overhyped its Watson machine-learning system, but the company still could have the best access to the kind of data needed to make medicine much smarter.

From my article in the July/August 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review

Paul Tang was with his wife in the hospital just after her knee replacement surgery, a procedure performed on about 700,000 people in the U.S. every year. The surgeon came by, and Tang, who is himself a primary-care physician, asked when he expected her to be Watsonback at her normal routines, given his experience with patients like her. The surgeon kept giving vague non-answers. “Finally it hit me,” says Tang. “He didn’t know.” Tang would soon learn that most physicians don’t know how their patients do in the ordinary measures of life back at home and at work—the measures that most matter to patients.

Tang still sees patients as a physician, but he’s also chief health transformation officer for IBM’s Watson Health (see “50 Smartest Companies 2017.”) That’s the business group developing health-care applications for Watson, the machine-learning system that IBM is essentially betting its future on. Watson could deliver information that physicians are not getting now, says Tang. It could tell a doctor, for instance, how long it took for patients similar to Tang’s wife to be walking without pain, or climbing stairs. It could even help analyze images and tissue samples and determine the best treatments for any given patient.

But lately, much of the press for Watson has been bad. A heavily promoted collaboration with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston fell apart this year. As IBM’s revenue has swooned and its stock price has seesawed, analysts have been questioning when Watson will actually deliver much value. “Watson is a joke,” Chamath Palihapitiya, an influential tech investor who founded the VC firm Social Capital, said on CNBC in May.

But if Watson has not, as of yet, accomplished a great deal, one big reason is that it needs certain types of data to be “trained.” And in many cases such data is in very short supply or difficult to access. That’s not a problem unique to Watson. It’s a catch-22 facing the entire field of machine learning for health care. Read more

How Your Suburb Can Make You Thinner

Inside the new movement to engineer healthier lives for Americans by rethinking the places they live

From my article in May 2017 in Politico

To appreciate the classic American town, go to Europe. The narrow streets of most European cities and towns meander past a parade of tightly packed homes, cafes, shops, markets and parks, all teeming with people on foot. Today, we think of this buzzing pedestrian existence as the kind of quaint thing you plan a vacation to experience. It used to be daily life for Americans too, says James Sallis, a public-health and behavioral medicine researcher at the University of California, San Diego—right up until the early middle of the 20th century, when we started rebuilding the American community around PoliticoSuburbthe automobile. “People liked riding in cars, and so we got the suburbs,” he says. “Now everybody has privacy, quiet and space.”

What they also got, Sallis adds, was fat and unhealthy. Suburban Americans came to build their lives around sitting—sitting on the sofa, sitting at an office desk and, most of all, sitting in the car. The car became essential, increasingly so as work shifted from the local factory to offices in the city; as the local butcher, baker and grocer were replaced by more distant supermarkets; as malls three towns over pulled business from local shops. Kids went from meeting up with friends at nearby playgrounds or soda shops to being shepherded in a car from school to math tutoring to tae kwon do to soccer practice. Lost along the way were the daily walking and biking that used to get people from place to place in their self-contained communities.

This loss might not be worth mourning as more than the march of progress, if it weren’t for the bonus it had quietly been delivering. We now have decades of ever-growing, nearly incontrovertible evidence that moving our bodies on a regular basis is a very healthy thing to do, and the loss of this habit in America has taken a horrific toll. Eight hours or more a day of sitting nearly doubles the risk of Type 2 diabetes and sharply increases risks for heart disease, cancer and earlier death, according to research from the University of Utah and the University of Colorado. The average American sits more than nine hours a day.

If people can’t be cajoled to walk for its own sake, is there another way to get them moving? In recent years, planners and policymakers have begun to pull back and consider another solution: If suburbs are the problem, maybe suburbs can be re-imagined as the solution. People drive because their neighborhoods encourage it—and sometimes even leave them with no choice. What, then, if their neighborhoods were built to foster walking? With the right layout and development, the notion goes, our suburban towns and sprawling new cities might become havens of human-powered rather than petroleum-fired motion. Along the way, health should soar. Read more

Self-Driving Trucks

Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon barrel onto highways near you. What will this mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck drivers?

From my article in the March/April 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review

Roman Mugriyev was driving his long-haul 18-wheeler down a two-lane Texas highway when he saw an oncoming car drift into his lane just a few hundred feet ahead. There was a ditch to his right and more oncoming cars to his left, so there was little for him to Truckdo but hit his horn and brake. “I could hear the man who taught me to drive telling me what he always said was rule number one: ‘Don’t hurt anybody,’” Mugriyev recalls.

But it wasn’t going to work out that way. The errant car collided with the front of Mugriyev’s truck. It shattered his front axle, and he struggled to keep his truck and the wrecked car now fused to it from hitting anyone else as it barreled down the road. After Mugriyev finally came to a stop, he learned that the woman driving the car had been killed in the collision.

Could a computer have done better at the wheel? Or would it have done worse?

We will probably find out in the next few years, because multiple companies are now testing self-driving trucks. Although many technical problems are still unresolved, proponents claim that self-driving trucks will be safer and less costly. “This system often drives better than I do,” says Greg Murphy, who’s been a professional truck driver for 40 years. Read more

Can a Whole Town Lose Weight Together?

PoliticoMuskegon

A report from a bold experiment in Michigan

From my article in March 2017 in Politico

MUSKEGON, MICH. — Try one of these, says Patti Moran, a drug pusher who operates in a large, humid hut covered by a thick plastic tarp and smelling strongly of dirt. Accepting the dare, I pluck the lurid green item from her hand and put it my mouth. In just a few seconds, I start to feel its effects. I’ve just ingested a leaf pulled off a mustard plant growing at our feet, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the mild wasabi-like burn working its way up my sinuses.

The hut serves as a greenhouse, and it sits in the middle of a 2-acre microfarm right on the grounds of Mercy Health Hospital. It’s not an exaggeration to call this a drug factory: Soon, some of the patients leaving the hospital will come straight here, clutching a prescription from their clinicians for freshly harvested vegetables. Most of the patients will be diabetics or pre-diabetics, but they might also be at high risk for heart disease, or for knee replacement—ills that are exacerbated or even caused by excess weight and poor diets. The vegetable Rx, which doctors will begin adding to some patients’ treatment plans in August, will be a small but important step toward reclaiming their health.

Moran’s prescription greenhouse is just one of a growing matrix of initiatives that are already starting to change attitudes and lifestyles in this rural, Middle American community. Muskegon County has struggled with job loss, large pockets of poverty, and the raft of health challenges that afflict a disproportionate number of American towns far from the coasts. Some of the biggest of these health challenges largely boil down to obesity—a problem that vexes the entire nation and has become particularly acute throughout the Midwest and South, especially in less affluent communities that, like Muskegon, are far from big cities. Read more

The War on Stupid People

In The Atlantic

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American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth

From my article in the July/August 2016 issue of The Atlantic

As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”

The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement. Read more

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Basic Income: A Sellout of the American Dream?

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Schemes for giving everyone a guaranteed income are gaining momentum in Silicon Valley and throughout Western Europe. It’s a great idea, until you look closely.

From my article in the June 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review

Matt Krisiloff is in a small, glass-walled conference room off the lobby of Y Combinator’s office in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, shouting distance from some of the country’s wealthiest startups, many of which Y Combinator has nurtured and helped fund. Krisiloff, who manages the operations of the tech incubator’s program for very early-stage companies, is explaining why it is committed to investing an amount said to be in the tens of millions of dollars in a venture that is guaranteed never to make a penny.

It’s the simplest business model conceivable: hand thousands of dollars over to individuals in return for nothing, no strings attached. Krisiloff insists he and his Y Combinator colleagues can’t wait to get started giving away the money. “This could be really transformative,” he says. “It may help change how humans, society, and technology all operate together in the future.”

Proponents say a “basic income” is a way to liberate those who have struggled to find acceptable work: currently 7.4 million people are unemployed in the United States, another six million want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs, millions more have given up looking, and perhaps tens of millions have settled for jobs with low wages, skimpy benefits, or poor working conditions. But it can also be argued that the idea is a way of buying these people off, making it easier to avoid developing the education and training programs that would actually help alleviate income inequality and reverse wage stagnation. Could it just be a way to give up on providing the wide access to decent jobs that has long been considered an essential element of a healthy society? Or, to put it more bluntly: at a time when the tech economy is generating huge amounts of wealth, is Silicon Valley just attempting to appease those left behind? Read more

Improving Public Perception of Behavior Analysis

In a journal article, I explore why the field that does the best job at helping people change problematic behaviors is slighted by the media

From my article in the May 2016 issue of The Behavior Analyst

The potential impact of behavior analysis is limited by the public’s dim awareness of the field. The mass media rarely cover behavior analysis, other than to echo inaccurate negative stereotypes about control and punishment. The media instead play up AbaJournalCoverGenericappealing but less-evidence-based approaches to problems, a key example being the touting of dubious diets over behavioral approaches to losing excess weight. These sorts of claims distort or skirt scientific evidence, undercutting the fidelity of behavior analysis to scientific rigor. Strategies for better connecting behavior analysis with the public might include reframing the field’s techniques and principles in friendlier, more resonant form; pushing direct outcome comparisons between behavior analysis and its rivals in simple terms; and playing up the “warm and fuzzy” side of behavior analysis. Read more (paywalled)

Inside NASA’s New $18-Billion Deep-Space Rocket

Is NASA’s Space Launch System a flying piece of congressional pork or our best shot at getting humans to deep space?

From my article in the June 2015 issue of Scientific American

Deep inside a giant but little-known NASA facility, crews have for years been staging elaborately faked space missions. This is not a conspiracy theory. It is the sad tale of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, the sprawling New Orleans complex where the space agency had for decades built its biggest rockets.

NasaSciamPicAfter the Space Shuttle’s last flight in 2011, Michoud’s massive hangar-like facilities were rented out to Hollywood studios, housing some of the production for Ender’s Game and other sci-fi movies. But lately a growing cadre of NASA engineers and other workers have been engaged on an important new production here—a sequel to NASA’s greatest days of human spaceflight. Michoud is back in the rocket-making business, serving as a factory for the biggest, most ambitious space vehicle ever to undergo construction: The Space Launch System, often called by its acronym, SLS.

The SLS is the rocket in which NASA hopes to thunder a crew of astronauts skyward from Cape Canaveral for roughly a year’s journey to the surface of Mars, while hauling the living quarters, vehicles and supplies they’ll need to spend at least a few weeks shuffling through the rusty dust there. That mission is still about 25 years away. But between now and then, SLS could carry people to the moon and an asteroid, and send a probe to search for life on one of Jupiter’s moons. It is an interplanetarily groundbreaking project, one of the most audacious NASA has ever undertaken.

Why, then, do so many people seem to hate it?  Read more (paywalled)

How Do You Sell a Product When You Can’t Really Say What It Does?

San Francisco startup Ploom has a high-tech spin on smoking tobacco (and certain other plants). It also has a huge marketing challenge.

From my article in the May, 2014, issue of Inc. Magazine

There are two big factors that favor Ploom’s James Monsees and his co-founder Adam Bowen in their quest to make tobacco cool again. One is that their devices let users pull from tobacco most of the nicotine and flavor of cigarettes in the form of vapor, without taking in the cigarette smoke–thus removing many of the health risks, according to some experts. And, as a major bonus, one of their devices has become the darling of the pot-smoking wojames-monsees-ploomrld, which is steadily converting to vapor even as that world swells with growing legitimacy.

But two big factors are also working against Ploom. One is predictable: fierce competition that’s likely to stiffen as both startups and tobacco giants invade the “e-cigarette” market–already worth nearly $2 billion a year and growing fast. The other is a bit less typical in the business world: Ploom can’t market on its strengths. That’s because making health claims and wooing drug users cause all sorts of problems for a company that’s trying to remain squeaky clean in the face of widespread disdain for, and the threat of regulation of, anything linked to tobacco.

That leaves Ploom with a burning problem: How do you expand a company when you can’t really talk about what your products are good for? Read more

America Is Burning: The Fight Against Wildfires

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Years of climate change, drought, and reckless development have transformed nearly all of the American West into a giant tinderbox. Is there anything we can do to keep from going up in flames?

From my article in the Aug, 2014, issue of Men’s Journal

Traffic jams are a fact of life in Southern California. But few motorists have seen the likes of the one that stranded thousands of vehicles in May on Interstate 5 near San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego. As vehicles idled, walls of flame arcing as high as 50 feet, and whipped by winds of up to 70 miles per hour, raced along an adjacent hillside, ripping through acres of parched trees and shrubs and blotting out the sky with roiling, glowing, thick smoke. And that wasn’t the only out-of-control blaze raging: At one point, San Diego County firefighters were grappling with nine separate wildfires – and six of those blazes were winning.

….Big, out-of-season fires are starting to look like the new normal. For as long back as there are records, California’s wildfire season hasn’t truly gotten under way until fall. But through most of 2013 and 2014, wildfires have been raging almost constantly, essentially leaving the state with a 12-month wildfire season.

And it’s not just California. In May, Arizona, Oklahoma, and even Alaska all were hit by large wildfires, months ahead of schedule. More blazes are occurring in fall and winter, as well. “In November, a fire in the Colorado Rockies burned across a snow-covered forest while firefighters watched, astounded,” says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, who studies wildfire. “That may be something no one has ever seen before.” Read more

The startups saving health care

3-mhealth_33254Obamacare is fueling a hot new industry that uses mobile technology to curb health care spending. Smart startups are already cashing in.

From my article in Inc. Magazine 

Three years ago, Sterling Lanier, a serial entrepreneur then running a successful market research firm, got a phone call from a medical researcher he knew at the University of California, San Francisco. The researcher wanted him to help with a pro bono project that involved gathering data on thousands of breast-cancer patients. The trick would be to find a good way to get patients to fill out tedious forms.

Nice guy that he is, Lanier agreed. The result, designed with a tech whiz named Boris Glants, was an iPad app that the two named Tonic. Tonic made it easy–almost fun–for patients to provide information about themselves and their health. Mission accomplished.

And that might have been that, except a few months later, Lanier got another call, this one from Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. It turned out the UCSF researcher had shown off Tonic at a health care conference and stirred up some interest. It wasn’t long before Lanier…read more.

Can processed food be healthy?

APMACNCHEESE1000-500x333Burger King makes a low-cal French fry. Processed food wants to compete on the health front. Can it?  Fake meat. Super soy. We’ll look.

From my September 2013 interview with NPR’s On Point 

We all know the mantra of healthy eating these days.  Lots of vegetables and fruit on the plate.  Not much meat.  Organic if you can.  And local is lovely.  We like to picture that armful of dinner ingredients fresh from the farmers market.

But what about all the people who don’t get close to that.  And maybe can’t afford it.  There’s a new buzz around processed food that’s being made and pitched as healthy.  Burger King’s low-cal fries.  Fake meat.  Seaweed chips.  Factory-engineered health goop.

This hour, On Point:  could processed food be re-engineered to save our health?  Or is that dreaming?…listen here (beginning at 15:20).

Foodie Heretic: Tackling the obesity health epidemic with -wait for it- fast food

From my interview with The Monthly TheMonthly-sub-too-much

For sure, an overreliance on fast food can lead to the fat farm, but what if it were less salty, fatty, sugary, and came in smaller portions? Science journalist David H. Freedman put forth this radical notion recently in his Atlantic cover story, “The Cure for Obesity.” Freedman argues that since fast (and processed) foods are what many of the mostly poor and obese can afford and prefer, it should be made healthier. Bring on the McDonald’s Egg White Delight. Of course, this challenges the conventional food wisdom espoused by Cal journalism professor Michael “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan, whom Freedman boldly calls out. Pollan and his followers, “Pollanites” as Freedman calls them, believe that no one should ever…read more.

FORGET THE VEGETABLES–JUNK FOOD COULD HELP FIGHT OBESITY

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Journalist David Freedman says engineering healthier versions of popular treats could finally help the poorest and most obese Americans lose weight.

From my December 2013 interview with smithsonianmag.com 

The 2004 release of Super Size Me—a documentary about Morgan Spurlock’s 24-pound weight gain and health decline during a month-long McDonald’s binge—and other books and exposés of the last decade, for that matter, have tarnished the reputation of fast food and other processed foods.

But what if the food Spurlock ate at the chain was healthier? What if, by eating food engineered to be lower-calorie, lower-fat versions of popular favorites, he lost weight in the course of 30 days rather than gain it?

Journalist David Freedman made this case—that fast food and processed food may actually help in the fight against obesity instead of hindering it—in an article this summer in The Atlantic. At a time when the loudest and clearest food message is to eat fresh, locally grown, organic foods, the piece prompted a range of reactions from scientists and fellow journalists in the food and health worlds…read more