Wednesday Assorted Links

1. I wouldn’t normally be drawn to an essay titled The Gift of Menopause, but the Times’s preamble drew me in. So glad. Brilliant. Exquisitely written.

2. The Difference Between Being Broke and Being Poor.

3. The Fight for Iowa’s White Working-Class Soul. Is that DJ Byrnes’s future?

4. The Highest Court in the Land. For Richie. Who would dominate.

5A. The specious claims of the “wellness industrial complex” continued. Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness. 5B. Wellness Brands Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP Wage War on Science.

6. Flat Cokes, Relay Running, and 500 Pages of Notes: A Professor Prepares to Break a Guinness World Record for Longest Lesson. I will not be attending.

Rethinking Cancer

I was blown away by the scope, clarity, interdisciplinary artistry, and intelligence of Siddhartha Mukerjee’s 2010 book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer“. Like Atul Gawande, Mukerjee somehow practices medicine, runs a world class research lab, while being married with two school-aged children. I like this quote from his wife, Sarah Sze, a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and tenured art professor/sculptor at Columbia.

“‘You can’t get lost in the everyday details. Sid and I are both totally like that, which can be not good with things like parking tickets. Sure, things are falling through the cracks all the time, but that doesn’t matter. The big things matter.'”

I haven’t read Mukerjee’s 2016 book, “The Gene: An Intimate History,” but did just finish his recent New Yorker essay, “The Invasion Equation,” about how cancer biologists are rethinking cancer. And he’s done it again, written so clearly even I can make sense of the science. His writing is deeply engaging on top and will not disappoint anyone interested in the current state of oncology.

A one-sentence caption on the second page of the essay summarizes the shift in thinking:

“We’ve tended to focus on the cancer, but its host tissue—”soil,” rather than “seed”—could help us predict the danger it poses.”

Later, he elaborates:

“It was only natural that many cancer biologists, confronting the sheer complexity of the whole organism, trained their attention exclusively on our “pathogen”: the cancer cell. Investigating metastasis seems more straightforward than investigating non-metastasis; clinically speaking, it’s tough to study those who haven’t fallen ill. And we physicians have been drawn to the toggle-switch model of disease and health: the biopsy was positive; the blood test was negative; the scans find “no evidence of disease.” Good germs, bad germs. Ecologists, meanwhile, talk about webs of nutrition, predation, climate, topography, all subject to complex feedback loops, all context-dependent. To them, invasion is an equation, even a set of simultaneous equations.”

My take-away from Mukherjee—whether you or I are likely to die from cancer depends largely on whether oncologists learn to think like ecologists.

My Favorite Scientific Paper of All Time

Layperson summary:

“New research carried out online has found that 59% of 28,113 respondents preferred to eat chocolate rabbits starting with the ears, 33% indicated that they had no starting point preference, and 4% indicated that they started with the tail or feet.”

I’m concerned that 41% of you don’t know the proper way to eat a chocolate rabbit. Anything besides the ears is just wrong.

“Researchers conducting the online search also found increased reports of confectionary rabbit auricular amputation-that is, ear amputations of chocolate bunnies-in late March through mid-April for each of the 5 years studied.”

Fav scientific phrase of all time. . . confectionary rabbit auricular amputation.

“. . . human adults and children appeared to be wholly responsible for the amputations. Although several reconstructive efforts might be used to re-attach the ears, this may be a futile effort, since often the rest of the rabbit soon succumbs to a similar fate.”


Adolescent Literacy

Felt nostalgic for Europe I guess and took the train to PDX for a workshop on adolescent literacy. I WANT to be a train person, but Amtrak is making it hard. It’s bad enough the train takes longer than driving. My Squeeze and I planned on eating an early dinner in the big city and then returning on the 6:15p. Workshop ended an hour early and so we decided to take the 4:20p and eat at home. Headed to the iMax at 3:40p. At the train station we learned the 4:20p was delayed about an hour.

Long story short, it never arrived, something about a tree on the track. Instead of a romantic dinner, we took a walk and then sat in front of the station reading in the setting sun eating pistachios. The 6:15p originates in PDX so it would have to leave on time. . . right? Longer story shorter, we walked off the train at 7:40p, exactly four hours after leaving the hotel for home. Something about a broken brake line they couldn’t fix. The man sitting in front of us asked if we wanted a lift home, he was bailing on the train, taking the iMax to his car in Clakamass. He had a morning business meeting in Seattle. What a life, or at least, nightsaver.

But I digress.

Stanford research prof was the main presenter. Excellent researcher I’m sure, but how can I put this nicely, his presentation skills were not as well developed. Here’s what Dr. Stanford Expert and his co-presenter, a much better teacher from The U of Utah, recommended.

1. Strengthen adolescent reading fluency, vocab, and comprehension through scientifically researched (read quasi-experimental and other quantitative studies) teaching strategies that have been proven to be effective including explicit vocabulary instruction and classroom discussion of texts.

2. Explicit instruction involves three steps: I do it (modeling). We do it (guided practice). You do it (independent practice). If teaching a complex literacy skill like summarizing, the three steps may take an entire week. Teachers inevitably rush the steps.

3. There are three elements to classroom discussion of texts: 1) efferent (the who, what, where, and why of what was read. . . what did the writer say); 2) analysis and interpretation; and 3) evaluation. . . how did you feel about it, how convincing was the argument or engaging/illuminating the narrative. Research suggests teachers slight part one which low achieving students benefit the most from. Dr. SE made it clear he had “absolutely no interest” in evaluation/students’ opinions.

It was alternatingly interesting and exasperating. Throughout the day there was no discussion of the purposes of literacy; there wasn’t a single reference to digital, electronic, or multimedia texts; nor was there a single reference to the societal curriculum. Nevermind that adolescents are in school 22-23% of the time and outside it 77-78%.

Here’s an alternative, admittedly less scientific, more sociological perspective.

Immerse children and young adults in rich literary environments for long periods of time. Surround them by interesting reading material. Unplug more and read in front of them. Talk about what you’re reading. Demonstrate a love of reading in your daily life. Repeat year after year.

Here’s a related math literacy, or “numeracy” example. One Sunday morning, when seventeen was two or three, she crawled into bed and snuggled in between mom and dad. Dad started counting. “One.” She squeaked, “two.” And thus began Sunday morning math. Overtime, we counted by twos, threes, fours, whatever we felt like. We never called it multiplication. My hunch that my daughter’s success in math is in part explained by those Sunday mornings would not impress Dr. SE one bit.

I was impressed with how candidate Obama talked eloquently about parents being their childrens’ first and most important teachers. I wonder why he’s abandoned the Bully Pulpit.

The teachers and school leaders in the workshop politely and passively accepted the “literacy and numeracy as a teacher-centered science” way of thinking as if there are no alternatives. Few probably realized with that paradigm comes a narrow emphasis on technical skills, test scores, and national economic competitiveness.

Research and what happens in school matters, but magic can happen when young people are immersed in rich literary environments where word and number play are daily activities.