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

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 forAtlStupid 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

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)