*

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Where's an investigative journalist when you want one?

I spent my life in the media. Today, I'm retired. And today, I am filled with guilt. There were a number of stories on which I worked that I now know were wrong. Some, I doubted were true at the time. But there was one I knew was wrong right from the start and yet I still helped spread the lies.


Why the guilt? Because of the scale of the financial pain caused by the oh-so-very-wrong media-spread story. Tens of thousands of people were affected, some reportedly lost their homes and the overall financial losses totaled in the millions.

The story: The urea formaldehyde foam insulation, or UFFI, story. Please, don't stop reading because you know all about the horrors of UFFI. You read all about it in your local paper or saw the story reported by television news. Possibly a well-known investigative journalist was behind the local exposé. Maybe you caught the story on 60 Minutes or Marketplace.

But, I won't ask you to simply take my word. Please read what Michael T Newhouse, MD, MSc, FRCP(C), FACP, FCCP, Clinical Professor of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences - McMaster University, Hamilton, ON Canada - Chief Medical Officer and Dr Jeff Norman of the Dept of Epidemiology of the McMaster Health Sciences Faculty have said after spending almost a decade investigating UFFI complaints.


They revealed the UFFI story "for the nonsense it was" and they revealed "the pseudo-science surrounding the hypothesized adverse health effects of urea-formaldehyde foam insulation and of formaldehyde in plywood and broadloom carpeting." Note quotation marks.

I ask: Where's Randy Richmond, the investigative reporter at The London Free Press? Why does Marketplace, the CBC Canadian consumer affairs program, still brag about the part Marketplace played in the entire fiasco? And why are newspapers still referencing the completely discredited story as if it were true?

It is time to raise the bar for journalists and to open journalism to criticism.
___________________________________________________________

If you are a journalist and want to know more, here are some links. Forgive the writing. I need an editor but that's another story.


Saturday, August 24, 2019

Don't you believe it; Head lice are not so super.

Head lice are not easily spread by hats, pillowcases, sofa backs or rugs.

Newspapers love a good story. The Globe and Mail, one of Canada's most respected newspapers, warned readers about the growing problem of super lice⁠—lice which have developed resistance to the insecticides in the traditional treatments. Hardy, resilient, tough to wipe out: No, I am not talking about head lice but about the stories, mostly myths, surrounding the pesky, little bugs.

When the Toronto District School Board announced it was reviewing its "no nits" policy, a media fire storm erupted. The "no nits" rule, once common in schools around the world, prevents those students with visible head lice eggs, nits, from attending school. The affected children cannot return until their heads are declared nit free. The rule sounds reasonable but isn't.

Teachers, parents and even health care workers often misdiagnose head lice infestations. When the Harvard School of Public Health examined samples of head lice and nits, more than 40 percent of the samples had nothing to do with head lice. This is why a "no nits" policy results in students being barred from school for such things as hat lint or dandruff. Of the remaining samples, approximately half or 30 percent indicated non-active infestations. Do the math. 70 percent of the samples were innocuous.

The Toronto Star fanned the fires of fear by conducting a highly suspect, online poll. The loaded questions determined most readers believed "nits are damaging to the kids." This came as no surprise since the story was replete with myths. Readers were warned, "Lice are a common problem among young children because they can be easily spread by sharing items like hats, brushes or combs." No they can't. Completely untrue. A myth.

Research has shown, and this is a quote, "the odds of head lice transmission via hats of lice-infested children is sufficiently low to be considered improbable and inconsequential."

With the school board in Toronto reconsidering its approach to the head lice problem, my local paper, The London Free Press, decided to do a take on the story but with a local twist. The fact that neither the public nor the separate school board was contemplating changes to the head lice policy should have made this a non-story but it didn't stop the paper. A grabber headline, a big picture of a concerned mother intent on protecting her young daughter from head lice, a separate fact-box with the usual stern warnings and voilĂ : a head lice story.

The Thames Valley District School Board cannot be faulted for being cautious. Without community support a move to discard the "no nits" policy may fail. Progressive boards which moved too fast have been forced to reinstate the discredited "no nits" policy after facing a flood of complaints from angry parents and, in some cases, teachers.

I contacted a school board in the States that had to backpedal on its decision to drop its "no nits" policy. The person I talked to felt the local newspaper was of no help in getting out the true head lice story. The newspaper preferred yesterday's myths to today's news.

Head lice are not a health hazard, they do not spread disease, on this everyone is in agreement. What they do is carry is a nasty stigma. They spread fear, stress and anxiety. Possibly, The Free Press should have run a picture of a young mother who no longer wants her children exposed to the possibility of being barred from school for having hat lint. Don't laugh. Remember the study done by the Harvard School of Public Health.

The little critters, only as big as sesame seeds, are unable to hop, let alone leap tall buildings, yet in the press they are called "super lice." There is nothing super about them. After years of being controlled with insecticides, the little bugs have done what insects do best—adapt. Head lice have developed resistance to the insecticides in the hair treatments used to fight them. This adaptation took no one by surprise.

But this very adaptability may well be their undoing. After living thousands of years as our uninvited guests, head lice are perfectly adapted to life on a human head. Off the human head, they don't fare so well. They die. (Reportedly, 55 hours off the human head and they're dead. That said, 72 hours without a blood feeding and they are done is a more often quoted time frame.)

With newspaper stories goading them on, fearful parents toss out pillowcases complete with pillows. Hats, scarves, coats are washed or even dry cleaned at some expense. Toys are bagged and left bundled for weeks. Almost everything a child with head lice has touched is considered contaminated by these frightened folk.

Rather than focusing on the environment, parents should focus on the affected child's head. The fear-driven cleaning response is totally out of proportion to the risk and this is thanks in part to the myths spread by our newspapers.

When I contacted the local reporter who wrote the head lice story, she referred me to her source, something she found on the Web. I thought, "You can't believe everything you read on the Web." The reporter's nose was so far out of joint because I dared to question her story, she has not talked to me since. Clearly readers should not question journalists.

It's claimed that Edward R. Murrow said of his own profession, "Journalists don't have thin skins. They have no skins." Sadly, I have discovered this observation on the sensitivity of many reporters to criticism is all too accurate. In this age of the Internet, with the ability to check any and all questionable claims, journalists would be wise to listen to a little criticism.

Google enough sources and you will soon realize there is a battle being raged over head lice. I like to think one side studies lice in the lab while the other studies lice in their environment, in the community, in schools and on children's heads.

To get the whole story, the accurate story, I contacted the people behind the claims. My search led me to Richard Speare, professor emeritus, James Cook University, Australia. Speare is one of the major players in the unraveling of the myth-riddled head lice story. Speare graciously responded to my email and attached a number of documents detailing some of his work.

Speare and his cohorts accepted that hats were considered high-risk items but could find little hard data supporting the all-too-common claim. The research team examined over 1000 hats in four schools. They also examined the students. The team found no head lice in the hats but over 5500 head lice on the students' heads. One myth busted.

The Australians also investigated the possibility of contacting head lice from contaminated floors. 2,230 children were examined from 118 classrooms. A total of 14,033 lice were collected from the children but not one louse was recovered from a floor. Researcher Deon Canyon doesn't mince words. He calls the risk of contacting head lice from a floor "zero." It is, he says, another groundless myth.

The out-of-proportion fear and stigma attached to head lice can make the lives of our most sociable little children quite miserable. Why the most sociable? Because they are the kids most likely to be making the head to head contacts that are almost always the source of the problem.

The reward for their social nature can be exclusion from school, isolation from friends, over-treatment and under support. Toddlers can find themselves ostracized by their best friends. It can be emotionally traumatizing. It doesn't have to be this way. The next time I see a story in the newspaper on head lice, I want to see a picture of a mother protecting her child from unwarranted emotional trauma. This would be a great story and this would be news.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States has listed solid reasons for discontinuing "no nits" policies:
  • Nits more than ¼ inch from the scalp are usually not viable and thus are unlikely to hatch.
  • If nits are easily visible, they are most likely empty shells or nit casings.
  • Nits are cemented to hair shafts and are unlikely to be transferred to other people.
  • Misdiagnosis of nits is very common, resulting in children being banned from school in error.
  • Misdiagnosis can result in a child undergoing unnecessary chemical treatment.

Female head lice glue their eggs to the base of human hair shafts close to the scalp. And it must be a hair on a human head. A human body hair won't do. Nor will the hair of a favourite pet.

Also, the distance the egg is from the scalp is important. The eggs, called nits, are incubated by the warmth of the scalp. A growing hair can carry a nit too far from the warmth. It will fail to hatch. No oh-so-close warm scalp, no hatching. It's that simple. Adaptation is a weakness as well as a strength.

Now you can understand why the presence of nits does not indicate an active infestation. If the nits are easily seen, they are most likely not viable. Or the nits may be nothing but empty egg casing or bits of dandruff and the like, all misidentified by the untrained eye. The CDC knows all this but not all school boards and not many parents and certainly not many reporters.

It is claimed head lice have become difficult to eradicate. But it is not just head lice that have developed resistance to the insecticides used. Many parents have also developed strong resistance to the neurotoxins used in the treatments. More and more parents are hesitating to douse their child's head with powerful, poisonous chemicals to kill a benign pest.

Image courtesy: Community Hygiene Concern, Joanna Ibarra
The approach du jour is bug busting. A lubricant, often conditioner, is used with water to wet the hair. The lubricant makes it difficult for the lice to move quickly and thus avoid the fine-toothed nit comb sliding through the hair from the roots to the tips.

Bug busting is nit picky. The goal is to physically remove all nits and lice from the infested head. Many people have neither the time nor the patience to see the process through. The failure rate is quite high.

Others believe an oil, such as coconut oil, will coat the bugs and suffocate them. It will certainly slow them down but lice are resilient. This approach has yet to find clear support from scientific testing but those wanting to asphyxiate the little critters may be on to something.

One product available in Canada, Nyda, combats head lice by using the asphyxiation method but kicks it up a notch. During an interview on Radio New Zealand, Professor Rick Spears was asked, "How essential is a nit comb for getting rid of head lice and nits?" The professor answered:

With some of the new dimethicone based products, some of the silicone based oils penetrate the egg too, so the embryos die as well. In that case you don't have to comb them all.

That's Nyda! Nyda is a dimethicone based product. And it claims not only to kill lice but also nits. In many cases one treatment is often sufficient, the maker says. If necessary a second treatment ten days later guarantees a lice-free head. No neurotoxins are involved. Nyda is safe but keep it out of the eyes. You don't want a child fighting head lice to also be fighting the caregiver, you, and the treatment.



I chatted with a family that used Nyda as directed. The parents told me that Nyda appeared to eradicate the head lice after just one treatment. But the affected child was treated again after ten days just to be sure. The family asked me not to go into too many details as they had discovered the London school their child attends does not follow the "no nits" policy but mum's the word. It is a school policy and not a board directive. The principal and teaching staff are clearly enlightened.

The parents read The Free Press article and realized the paper wasn't enlightened. The paper and the reporter were still living in the head lice dark ages. Mythology still rules.

If it makes you feel better, wash that toque, put those sheets in the dryer and set it to hot, bag those toys, vacuum the floor and carefully dispose of the dust bag. But do try to relax, shake off your fears. Take comfort in the facts and forget the myths.

Remember: head lice are adaptable and they've adapted to heads. Off the human head they are dead within as little as six hours. You see, the damn little things aren't so super after all.
_______________________________________________________
Other links:



Follow link and do a search of the pages for chapter titled Lousy Science.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

A link to an article from Nautilus by Noson S. Yanofsky




I found the following worth a read -- or two.

Kolmogorov Complexity and Our Search for Meaning


From the last two paragraphs of the linked article:

While we travel through the seemingly random events in our life, we are searching for patterns, and structure. Life is full of “ups and downs.” There are the joys of falling in love, giggling with your child, and feeling a sense of great accomplishment when a hard job is completed. There is also the pain of a crumbling relationship, or the agony of failing at a task after great effort, or the tragedy of the death of a loved one. We try to make sense of all this. We abhor the feeling of total randomness and the idea that we are just following chaotic, habitual laws of physics. We want to know that there is some meaning, purpose, and significance in the world around us. We want a magical story of a life, so we tell ourselves stories. 

Sometimes the stories are simply false. Sometimes we lie to ourselves and those around us. And sometimes the patterns we identify are correct. But even if the story is correct, it is not necessarily the best one. We can never know if there is a deeper story that is more exact. As we age and suffer from ennui, we gain certain insights about the universe that we did not see before. We find better patterns. Maybe we get to see things more clearly. Or maybe not. We will never know. But we do know that the search is guaranteed to never end.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Total Operating Expenses: 2017 VW Jetta Wolfsburg Edition

 

Important Numbers: 2017 VW Jetta TSI Wolfsburg Edition as of Jan. 27, 2020

  • Fuel cost per km: $0.09 (Canada, southwestern Ontario)
  • Total cost to run car per km: $0.50*
  • Fuel consumption: 8.05 litres/100 kms (This climbs during the winter months as I do more in-city driving at that time.)
Present distance traveled: 31178 kms
Fuel used: 2509.82 litres
Fuel cost: $2768.20
Total "directly out-of-pocket expenses": $15,657.01**

(** The above includes car payments, fuel costs, all maintenance charges, car washes, parking, etc.)
* Will change over time as distance traveled increases.
______________________________________________________________________

I had a 2011 VW Jetta TDI. Because of the diesel scandal, VW bought the car back at fair market value. VW Canada also paid a bonus to make full amends for their TDI lies. All in all, I got $16,700. I put it all into the purchase of a 2017 VW Jetta Wolfsburg Edition TSI.

I have a spreadsheet tracking all costs. The numbers above are from that spreadsheet.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Is it honor or honour? No clearly established Canadian standard according to one Canadian government source.

University of Western Ontario Convocation Diplomas Honors

". . . he’s here (at Western) to consider new ideas and points of view. He might learn something in the process."
— Arzie Chant

Arzie Chant took a solid, unassailable position in a letter to the editor of the Gazette, Western University's student newspaper. Perhaps Chant should re-read what he wrote.

Recently Chant, a member of the school's senate, questioned the use of the word honors rather than honours, with a 'u', on diplomas and certificates awarded by the university. The staff senator told the local paper: "It struck me as embarrassingly un-Canadian to spell honours without a 'u'."   

This isn't the first time someone has raised this issue. The last time it was debated was 22 years ago. At that time, the university made it clear that it had been consistent in its use of the spelling "honor" rather than "honour" on diploma parchments since its founding in 1878. 

If you are surprised, don't be. My grandparents, born in the 1870s, were taught from Canadian textbooks that used both spelling, sometime in the same book. Honor was not un-Canadian at that time. Then, around 1890, all began to change. No less a source than the Government of Canada itself states Canadians have Sir John A. Macdonald, born in Glasgow, Scotland, to thank for the confusion.

Our first prime minister felt strongly that all parts of the British Empire should hold to the system used in England. And he ordered that “the English practice be uniformly followed” in all government documents. Thus, British spelling was upheld as the standard in Canada.

Ideology proved a poor motivator and although governments in Canada fell into step, a lot of folk didn't. It took Canadian newspapers about a full century before the papers embraced the claimed Canadian spelling.


The London Free Press Style Guide June 1. 1986 honor
In June, 1986, The London Free Press style guide still accepted only one spelling, honor, no 'u', as correct. And color was the same. the LFP is not un-Canadian.

As the university senate pointed out 22 years ago, Brits prefer honour, Yanks write honor and Canadians, for the most part, are free to use whichever spelling they prefer. But soon, not at Western.

Arzie Chant claimed it was the "somewhat paternalistic approach of senior administrations" that allowed the continued use of honor without the 'u'. Really? When it comes to paternalistic, Arzie Chant appears to be the culprit and not the university. If he is not careful, his un-Canadian charge may stick to him as well.

To see what Western's former position was on this matter, please read the info posted below. It was taken from a university web page that may soon be taken down. 

University of Western Ontario Convocation
After posting this blog, I got a response from one reader questioning the statement: ". . . actual usage in Canada varies." They went on to say, " I disagree. I've never seen the 'or' version used in Canada, unless by mistake. I wonder where that author got that strange idea."

I know the answer: Fowler. But, I know another source as well: the Canadian government. I found this days after my original post on a page, dedicated to The Canadian Style. It claims: " . . . as a result of our historical links with Britain and our proximity to the United States, Canadian spelling has tended to waver between the forms used in these two countries, so that, to this day, there is no clearly established Canadian standard."

If you feel like reading anymore on this topic, here is suggestion: Testing Canada's 'honour'.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Be wary of saturated fats in your diet: red meats, dairy and eggs

I have a friend who likes to promote dairy products, red meats and eggs. This friend has no fear of cholesterol nor saturated fat. It's not my approach and it's not the one promoted by my heart doctors.

Recently, I read this article from the Harvard Medical School: The truth about fats: the good, the bad and the in-between. The piece argued:

A diet rich in saturated fats can drive up total cholesterol, and tip the balance toward more harmful LDL cholesterol, which prompts blockages to form in arteries in the heart and elsewhere in the body. For that reason, most nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated fat to under 10% of calories a day.

And where do we encounter saturated fats? Harvard tells us:

Common sources of saturated fat include red meat, whole milk and other whole-milk dairy foods, cheese, coconut oil, and many commercially prepared baked goods and other foods.

When working to reduce the amount of saturated fat in one's diet, one must not replace the lost calories with increased consumption of refined carbohydrates: for instance, white sugar. Instead, keep two alternative fats in mind: mono-saturated and poly-saturated.

For mono-saturated fats, look to: olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and most nuts, as well as high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils.

For poly-saturated, think: fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and unhydrogenated soybean oil.

Note the word unhydrogenated. Hydrogenation creates trans-fats and these are the worst offenders. One must take every measure to get trans-fats out of one's diet.

If you read this post, you are clearly seeking information on diet. Keep googling, keep an open mind but be wary of any diet that makes extreme claims or promotes the consumption of saturated fats.

(Note: both photos show actual dinners I have served recently. Before dining, I take a moment to grab a photo illuminated by the large window beside our dinner table.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Journalism, Journalists and Twitter


The video of the teen wearing the red Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat in a face to face confrontation with a drum-pounding Native American went viral on social media.

Having spent more than four decade in the media, I am not surprised that newspaper journalists and television news reporters quickly cobbled together a narrative for publication and for broadcast.

Sadly, but not expectedly, the story as first reported may have been wrong. One reason for the errors may be found in the way journalist complete for stories and for attention. For years I have contended that journalists should cooperate rather than compete. To a certain extent this position has been validated by the recent ICIJ stories, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. If the hundreds of journalists working on this story had worked together, a far more accurate story could have been written and quickly as well.

For instance: it would have been clear that the Native American gentleman approached the teens and not the other way around as originally reported by many media outlets. Also, someone would have done the simple math and questioned the claim that the drummer was a Vietnam vet. It took days before this fact made it into the Washington Post.

I've also believed that stories should not be rushed into print. Stories should be done with accuracy in mind, not speed. All too often journalists make assumptions. Assumptions are quick. But, assumptions are also often wrong. A quivering BS detector can become a stand-in for facts.

Personally, I think there is a good story here. But, sorting it out will take a bit of time. In my humble opinion, journalists must not add to the confusion. I want to look to journalists for truth and not for conjecture.

The chap featured below, was the inspiration for this post. I do hope everyone understands I am treating him as the voice of journalism. After all, he was the chair of one of the most respected  journalism departments in the province. His position, his actions, are the one's often followed by the industry today.

Journalists can rely too heavily on their BS detectors.

The other day I saw the above tweet in my Twitter feed. It was posted by Paul Knox, a retired journalism professor from Ryerson in Toronto. Knox had tweeted that his BS detector was left quivering by the response of the teenage boy featured in the viral video of a standoff between the boy and a Native American gentleman.

I tweeted a reply. I didn't mean to upset Knox. I simply wanted to tell him that, after looking at the time stamp on his post, I was surprised a journalism professor was still pumping out the all-too-quickly reported original take on the incident. Many news outlets were retracting their original stories. The story as it was unfolding was becoming more and more complex.

Knox got his knickers in a knot. He took great offence at being accused of "pumping out" a premature take on the incident. He responded by pumping out a number of rapid-fire, defensive tweets.

Knox put me in my place, telling me I was wrong to think he had any preconceived opinions. He didn't. But, "as for more questions, yes, I have them," he tweeted. He continued, "If I were a reporter chasing the story I’d ask them. I’m not. I’m retired and on Twitter." And putting his much BS-Detector to good use, I might add.

I told Knox, "I feel very strongly about journalism. It's an incredibly important job. But, since retiring, I've learned Edward R. Murrow was right: journalists have thin skins. Journalists are quick with fast quibs but slow with meaningful responses. I added, Twitter is not the best venue." I wasn't just thinking of Knox here but all the journalists reporting this story. I wondered if the chap with drum was really a Vietnam vet but I didn't contact any reporters with my question. I've tried that in the past and it lead nowhere good.

Knox didn't appreciate my reference to Edward R. Murrow and a famous remark of his. He took my remark very personally. In retrospect, I'm not surprised. At one point, Knox told me, "Please don’t lecture me about journalism. I spent years and years dealing with these issues. The best journalists are skeptics [sic] as hell. But counter-narratives emerge all the time, on many different kinds of stories. People finally speak up. Another video surfaces ..."

Knox sure knows how to bring out the snorting, charging bull in me. Counter-narratives are one of my personal red flags. Get the story right the first time. And be damn careful with the counter-narratives.

A journalist must do the job properly the first time, make the background calls and check all the facts. And tread lightly when it comes to counter-narratives. These put my own BS-detector a quivering.

Think of the famous 60 Minutes Benghazi Report. The show, based on a counter-narrative, had one flaw: the counter-narrative was wrong.

According to the Poynter Institute:

. . . “60 Minutes” aired a report that called into question the official version of what happened when the U.S. diplomatic compound was attacked in Benghazi, Libya. At the core of the story was a source, Dylan Davies, who worked as a security contractor for the State Department. Davies had a book coming out that purported to share new facts about what happened that night, and what he did.

Problem one: he lied to the show about what he did and saw, thereby making a core piece of evidence in the “60 Minutes” counter-narrative false and undercutting the entire segment.

Problem two: it only took days for other news outlets, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, to reveal significant flaws with the story, and with Davies. . . . "

I bow to the professor. He is, of course, right when he talks about journalism. He's been a guiding force in the industry for years. I'm sure his positions, when it comes to journalism, are completely defensible. It is how things are done. But, my contention is that folk, like the good professor, should be confronted. The old rules have let us down time and time again. It is time for a new playbook.

The old BS-detector has let us down too many times. Need proof? Read:

Who's a photojournalist?

The New York Times couldn't recognize a staged photo!

Or think of the infamous UFFI story. Thousands of people's lives were severely impacted by that bit of shoddy journalism. Retirees who had put their faith in their home as their retirement nest-egg saw it shrivel because a lot of journalists wanted to be first with the story. The counter-narrative, although true, never got traction.


UFFI urea formaldehyde foam insulation Homes section newspaper
The counter-narrative never got traction. I still see the UFFI myth treated as truth by the media.

Or how about another famous BS-Detector failure: Liberation Therapy?

People, people full of hope, died having this procedure preformed out-of-country. My heart doctors were not fooled but journalists were. Today, even the doctor behind the theory admits it does not work.

I believe journalists need more than a BS-Detector. Journalists need time and facts and money.

__________________________________

It is looking as if we can add the Covington students to our list of infamous BS-detector generated stories.

  • Nathan Phillips approached the students not the other way around.
  • Nathan Phillips did not serve in Vietnam. He is not a Vietnam War vet.
  • Most students bought their MAGA hat for the March of Life.
  • In years past, students bought Obama-era "Hope" hats while visiting Washington, D.C. 
  • Nathan Phillips attempted to disrupt Mass at DC’s National Shrine