A murder in my hometown

Narendra Dabholkar, an activist dedicated to eradicating superstition in my home state of Maharashtra, was shot dead in Pune yesterday. The news fills me with sadness, anger and shame. How can we do this to one another?

When the fog around this senseless murder clears, it will most likely reveal the age-old dictum that the interests of the tyrannical few are served by amplifying the ignorance of the many, that extremists of all kinds will thrive on the indifference of the moderates, that the brave ones who speak up will be brutally cut down.

I can summon enough clarity to understand this. However, I have no satisfactory explanation for the nature of the public internet discourse following Mr. Dabholkar’s death. On the Times of India’s website, for example, there are some who are saying that he got what he deserved for imposing rational views upon others. Some have compared him with the Taliban. Some have complained that he only found fault with so-called black magic within Hindu customs, and let Muslim or Christian superstitions go scot-free. Nowhere to be found in these messages is the awareness about the value of a human life, or a modicum of horror at the terrible way in which it was extinguished. The whole thing is enough to shake one’s faith in humanity.

The Surprise on Pothole Avenue

Pothole Avenue runs straight as an arrow, coinciding with the border between Cambridge and Somerville. In recent months, this street has seen an increasing number of bicycles of all kinds – road bikes, mountain bikes, commuter bikes, recumbent bikes and yes, even cargo bikes. The unsuspecting inhabitants refer to this street by its pseudonym – Beacon Street, its real name manifested only in the bone-jarring, sore-butt sensations that we experience while traveling up and down the gentle slopes bedecked with potholes and uneven tar patches.

I’ve been avoiding Beacon Street lately during my morning commute, trading off the straight pothole-punctuated ride for the more circuitous sedate paths that weave through Harvard, and then onward to Kendall. These last few evenings, my return commute has changed as well; after discovering that long-under-construction-Somerville Avenue is ready at last, smooth like a tennis court with a beautiful bike lane all the way up to Porter Square. Thus, Beacon Street has not been getting much mileage from me, and both bike and butt are grateful for that.

However, it so happened two weeks ago that a group of friends decided to ride from work to Lexington via the Minuteman Trail and as if by force of habit, all the cyclists made a beeline to Porter Square filing northward along Beacon Street. As I jangled miserably down the slope and past the Washington Street intersection, something unexpected came into view.

The Hubway has come to Cambridge and Somerville! People have already started using the bikes as evidenced by some empty stations. I have yet to ride one – even though they’ve been in Boston for the past year – and am eagerly awaiting the day when a similar bike station is set up at Porter Square. The bicycles themselves look sturdily made, painted in a somewhat understated gray color compared to their bright red cousins in Washington DC.

Many bicycling advocates say that the best way to make American cities safer for cycling is to have more cyclists on the road. In the years to come, Boston and its boroughs will get a chance to test that hypothesis. Whether due to the bad economy and gasoline prices, or owing to increased awareness of the benefits of cycling,  the number of people on bicycles has increased perceptibly in the last 5 years, and it is possible that the advent of the Hubway will continue to take more people out of their cars and onto the bikes. Maybe, increased awareness of the Hubway stations will cause car and truck drivers to become more mindful of sharing the road, and less prone to right-hooking or dooring an unfortunate cyclist.

In other bicycling-related happenings, Nicole Freedman recently left Boston to pursue a job with Maine Huts and Trails. As the city’s Bike Czar — appointed by the bicycle-friendly mayor Thomas Menino — Freedman was responsible for laying more than 50 miles of bike lanes in a very short time, and oversaw much of the feasibility studies, planning and deployment of the Hubway – generally transforming Boston from the worst bicycling city in the US to one of its best. Those are big shoes to fill, and one hopes that her replacement will be at least half as dedicated as she.


I read with a mixture of despair and cynicism the story of Jonah Lehrer’s stumble from public grace – despair because this was another in a line of confirmations that something has a hard time becoming noteworthy in the media today until it is sexed up, cynicism because some part of me sneered that Lehrer’s kind of meteoric success is often too good to be true.

As I continue to think and write about it, my cynicism starts to dissolve, but the despair remains. I first came to know of Lehrer a couple of months ago through my sister who recommended that I read his book, How We Decide, which she had liked a lot. Michael Moynihan, who brought to light the fact that Lehrer fabricated some quotes and attributed them to Bob Dylan, thinks that this may not be an isolated case. Having made a cursory examination of How We Decide, he reports that there may be more fake interviews and fabricated quotations there. My sister will be sad when she finds this out. I do hope to read the book someday, though it will certainly be through a different lens given this week’s events.

It is easy to see how we become conditioned by such experiences. Lehrer’s problem now is that whatever he writes in the future – even if it is the most honest and thoroughly researched piece imaginable – he has planted in our mind permanent seeds of doubt that he is powerless to stop from germinating. Sam Harris wrote a blog post about this affair, and pointed readers to a pertinent essay – in the form of a very short book – called Lying that he (Harris) wrote recently. Like his Letter to a Christian Nation, it gets straight to the point, is insightful and very much worth reading and thinking about.

5-minute calculation

Of all the things I thought I would be blogging about, this did not cross my mind.

If you’ve watched videos online, you’ve doubtless been bombarded by the annoyingly tacky commercials for 5-Hour Energy, an energy shot that is supposed to contain B-vitamins, amino acids and nutrients, and is supposed to provide benefits that are not confirmed by the Food and Drug Administration.

Sometime in the past few weeks, the folks who run 5-Hour Energy have been flooding the internet with a less tacky commercial in which a polished-looking model describes the results of a survey of primary care physicians:

We asked over 3000 doctors to review 5-Hour Energy and what they said is amazing! Over 73% who reviewed 5-Hour Energy said they would recommend a low-calorie energy supplements to their healthy patients who used energy supplements. 73%!

[…stuff about the product’s low-calorie property and how millions use it …]

Is 5-Hour Energy right for you? Ask your doctor. We already asked 3000!

There are the usual advertising gimmicks at work here. At first glance you would think that 73% of the 3000 doctors, i.e., 2190 doctors, recommended the product. However, as the lady (honestly!) points out, they only recommended a low-calorie energy supplement, not necessarily 5-Hour energy. To find out how many doctors recommended the product, we have to read the fine print on the page, which is not at all difficult given how many times the advertisement shows up in videos of the Daily Show. This fine print states:

Of the 73% of primary care physicians who said they would recommend a low-calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements, 56% would specifically recommend 5-Hour Energy …

This means that 56% of 2190, i.e., 1226 doctors truly recommend the product being advertised. That’s still a significant number, and a significant fraction of 3000, until you read more of the fine print about how the survey was conducted. Apparently, some doctors were interviewed online, and some were visited by 5-Hour Energy representatives (emphasis mine).

Two surveys were conducted to determine the opinions of primary care physicians regarding energy supplements and 5-Hour Energy: (1) An online survey of 503 participants, and (2) An in-person survey of 5-Hour Energy representatives of 2500 participants (50% of those approached)”. In both, participants agreed to review materials regarding 5-Hour Energy consisting of label and basic description of its ingredients.

Now, anyone with the slightest curiosity would wonder: What happened with the other 50%, i.e. 2500 doctors? Did they refuse the survey? If so, why? Did they not recommend 5-Hour Energy? And if you’re even slightly familiar with data collection and surveys, one would ask: How did you choose which 50% to report results on, and which 50% to reject? Why is your data-point selection criterion not given in the fine print. What is to stop me from believing that you reported the most favorable 50% and summarily rejected the other half?

At any rate, it is clear that the total number of physicians (assuming that they were truly primary care physicians) approached by the 5-Hour Energy representatives was not 3000, but roughly 500 + 2500 + 2500 = 5500. Of these, 1226 doctors, or 22% recommended 5-Hour Energy. Even though these folks choose their words carefully, the advertisement clearly wants you to believe that 73%, i.e., nearly 3 out of 4 doctors recommend the product, when in reality, slightly more than 1 out of 5 doctors do so.

If you want to nitpick further, you might ask: Why should I trust that one doctor out of 5 who makes a recommendation based on the “label and basic description of its ingredients”?. That is not how doctors recommend medicines in general. There has to be at least a proper double-blind study with placebos*. No wonder, the statements of 5-Hour Energy are not approved by the FDA. Still, it is apparently used 9 million times a week. That is a lot of suckers.

5-Hour Energy is owned by this guy, a businessman and philanthropist. He’s just doing what marketers in the lucrative supplement industry do over and over again. They want to mislead, so they choose their advertising monologues carefully while flashing the fine print just to keep their hands clear of the law. One wonders, do they need a 10-Hour-Sleep supplement to get through the night?

* In one of the comments below, a reader, Christy, has provided a link to the webpage containing more information about the test. It shows the label provided to the doctors being surveyed, and claims that a double-blind study was conducted in 2009 but that it is still in peer review. If you are familiar with studies of this sort, I would appreciate knowing from you  whether it is normal for peer review to take 3 years. [Edit added on August 13, 2012].
[Afterward: Just realized that I mentioned 5-Hour Energy so many times that the context-sensitive advertisement robot may want to advertise the product on this page. If you, faithful-reader-without-a-wordpress-account, find that this is indeed the case, do let me know in the comments, for that would be one messed-up irony in the age of the internet. This is when I really hate the fact that I still use the free version of wordpress.com, providing my implicit consent to the serving of ugly ads to non-wordpress netizens in order to pay Matt Mullenweg’s bills.]

Clothes maketh the man … obscure.

A colleague of mine selected a rather intriguing paragraph for some technical experiments that the two of us have been doing this month. Upon my inquiring, he said that it came from an excellent article that appeared last year in the Washington Post. The article narrates a real life experiment that turns a crowded metro station in Washington D.C. into a theater of public morality. To me, it reads almost like a short story; I was reminded of Saki and Maugham. Read it!

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? – [Gene Weingarten, Pearls Before Breakfast, April 8, 2007]

Hint: The article relates (rather obliquely) to a previous post on Mirkwood called The Morning Dollar.