Are Your Christmas Lights Burning Your Cash?

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With the exception of eager retailers, December 1 and the passing of Thanksgiving mark the beginning of the Christmas season for most. We play Christmas songs on the radio, decorate Christmas trees, go Christmas shopping, and bake Christmas cookies. We foresee the potential financial setbacks of Christmas presents, but might neglect to acknowledge another Christmas tradition that hits our bank statement as well –  Christmas lights!

Christmas lights become so abundant this time of year that NASA claims their effect is recognizable from space! An article from The Washington Post states that “the light intensity in American suburbs increases by thirty to fifty percent” until the start of the new year. This luminous form of Christmas cheer doesn’t come cheap, however. The same article approximated the cost of running Christmas lights for 12 hours a day for 45 days at a rate of 12 cents per kilowatt hour. (Energy use calculations were made according to manufacturer power use approximations.)

The choice between LED and incandescent bulbs makes a huge difference! Let’s say that an average family uses two mini strings of 100 bulbs for a tree and other interior decorations in addition to three C9 strings of 25 bulbs on a house exterior. If all of these bulbs were incandescent, the total cost according to the above constraints and power use estimates would be $52.42. However if all of these bulbs were LED, the total cost would amount to $1.45. That difference could go back into your pocket or towards a nice gift. Furthermore that cost difference represents an energy difference of approximately 425 kilowatt hours. Imagine the difference that an entire community or city could make on energy usage if they opted to use LED lights rather than incandescents! Unfortunately according to another article by The Washington Post these savings might encourage consumers to simply buy more lights (see here). This Christmas consider your wallet and your planet while choosing Christmas lights!

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Can Owning a Dog Increase Your Lifespan?

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I will take any excuse I can get to justify getting a dog. They’re cute and loving, and they just make me want to smile. For me this is validation enough. However, a recent article in the New York Times stated that “Dog Owners Live Longer” too! Game changer.

The New York Times references a study from Scientific Reports in claiming that dog ownership is “associated with a 20 percent lower risk of all-cause death and a 23 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease”. Furthermore the article claimed that the association was stronger among specific breeds of dogs: labradors and pointers. I took a look at the study to learn more.

The observational study took place in Sweden using the Register of the Total Population, a national registry containing information for all Swedish citizens and residents. The study focused on the population most at risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and dog ownership by limiting the population to individuals between the ages of 40 and 80. Data regarding dog ownership was also collected through a nationally required dog registration, allowing individuals and dog ownership to be properly linked. Data was also collected on Swedish twins but this sample size was much smaller; we will focus on the nationwide study.

Scientists plugged all this information into a data base, creating two very important outcomes: crude and adjusted hazard ratios. The crude ratio was only adjusted for sex while the adjusted ration accounted for differences in “sex, marital status, presence of children in the home, population density, area of residence, region of birth, income and latitude”. Among the most shocking results were the adjusted hazard ratios of 0.77 for CVD mortality and 0.80 for all-cause mortality – a 23% and and 20% decrease, respectively.

These are pretty significant numbers – especially considering the large sample size, confidence intervals, and minimal sampling variation. The conclusion seems to be a no brainer, but we have to be mindful of what the conclusion is – correlation not causation. Of course dog ownership can encourage individuals to be more active. Dogs are kind of like the postal service; neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these dogs from needing their walks. However, one cannot attribute this study’s results to this reason.

Maybe another factor causes this link between lowered CVD deaths and dog ownership. Perhaps all dog owners – especially those of pointer breeds – have similar characteristics. Perhaps the responsibility necessary for dog ownership corresponds to a responsibility for one’s diet and health. Perhaps a large number of pointer owners are outdoor enthusiasts who maintain non-dog related physical activity. In fact, the study even lists these possible confounding variables in its conclusion.

Readers of the New York Times may see this article and view dog ownership as a ticket to a longer life. After all, it is a good bet. Something about dog ownership creates a shift in risk of death. But it’s not a guarantee. Owning a dog does not assure that you inherit the characteristics of most dog owners, of which one or some characteristics likely caused the correlation in the first place. Like most doctors will tell you the best mean for a long, healthy life is to eat right and exercise. Although exercise is a lot more fun with some floppy ears and a wagging tail by your side…

How Are We, America?

Pretty much every day you can count on hearing the phrase, “How are you?”. And pretty much everyday you can count on some version of the same response, “good”. This social exchange doesn’t appear to have changed much over the last few years or decade. However this is not necessarily an accurate reflection of how Americans, like you and me, really are doing. An annual Gallup survey aims to answer this question by quantifying the well-being of Americans on a 100 point scale. This year’s results are quite different from the last’s.

Gallup’s annual well-being survey measures American’s outlooks on five fundamental categories: sense of purpose, social relationships, financial security, relationship to community, and physical heath. Gallup acquires participants through phone interviews. For this survey, Gallup collected 135,426 participants across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Participants answered scaled questions for each category, and Gallup aggregated the results into a well-being index score. (More information regarding survey methods can be found at the end of the report or here.)

This year’s U.S. well-being index score came in at 61.5. This figure represents a 0.6 point drop from 2016. Although this number may seem ambiguously small, the sample size must come into consideration. With over 135,000 participants, the concern of sampling variation diminishes. Furthermore, Gallup states a sampling error of ±0.2 for the U.S. population. This means that a conservative conclusion would still arrive at a 0.4 point decrease over the last year. Not to mention, subsets of the sample demonstrated even more substantial aberrations between 2016 and 2017. The overall well-being index scores of females and blacks dropped 1.1 and 1.3 points, respectively. Both of these scores had increased or remained constant since 2014.

It’s easy to automatically attribute this change to the current climate – political division, mass shootings, and major scandals. While these factors likely had something to do with the survey results, it is important to remember that this survey is exactly that – a survey. It is observational not experimental, and causal conclusions cannot be made. Furthermore, as in any survey, the presence of biases and other factors must be considered. Under coverage, non-response bias, and dates of the survey are just a few of many factors that could lead to inaccurate results. (Gallup attempts to mitigate the concerns of under coverage and non-response bias by weighing the sample, and data collection ran from Jan. 2 to Sep. 30.) Even when accounting for error, however, these results point relatively clearly in one direction. American well-being has changed over the last year, and it is not for the better.

Is there plastic in your drinking water?

I first came across this question through a link on Goop.com. Intrigued and somewhat terrified, I followed the link to a webpage by Orb Media titled Invisibles: The plastic inside us. After reading the webpage I was awe-stricken yet curious for some clarification.

Firs off allow me to quickly sum up the report and, maybe, completely scare the s*#$ out of you.

OrbMedia and a few of its institutional partners collected 159 tap water samples from seven different regions: the United States, Beirut, Europe, Jakarta, Kampala, New Delhi, and Quito. These samples were sent to a lab at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health where they were tested by researcher Mary Kosuth. Each sample underwent vacuum filtration after which the filtrate was treated with Rose Bengal, a stain that binds to organic material. The researcher then used a microscope to examine the filtrate, and any unstained particles were agitated with a micro spatula. Particles that endured this test without breaking were deemed inorganic and plastic. Of the 159 samples, 83% were found to contain at least one micro plastic fiber. After adjusting for sample size, the data summary of the report concluded that this value was somewhere between 69% and 92%. According to the average contents, if you drink 3 liters of water a day that adds up to 14 plastic particles and 4,000 annually! Gross!

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Furthermore, OrbMedia’s webpage suggests that plastics absorb toxins more readily than most other environments. When fish are exposed to plastics, digestive enzymes can release the absorbed toxins into the body. OrbMedia proposes that humans should be quite concerned about this phenomenon taking place in our own bodies.

… Does anyone else feel the desperation of a child who thinks an apple seed might sprout into a tree inside his stomach?

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Before diving into too much of a tailspin, let us take a look at the fine print and the in-between the lines. Despite what the title of the report suggests (Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Global Drinking Water) not all of the samples were actual drinking water. All samples came from the tap, but only half came from taps that residents would drink from. This accounts for a significant number of the 159 samples. If all of these samples contained plastic and the true worldwide average for plastic particles is 69%, then the remaining 19% of contaminated samples came from actual drinking water. Though still unsettling, this figure is markedly  better than the aforementioned 83% or 92%.

I also found issue with the methods of the experiment. Inorganic particles (particles that were not stained by Rose Bengal) were subject to mechanical stress by a micro spatula. If the particle did not break under stress it was categorized as plastic. What about non-plastic particles that are insoluble in water? Examples include metals like iron or salts like magnesium hydroxide. These elements and compounds do not contain carbon (therefore they are not organic) and could be relatively challenging to break with a spatula. Imagine the difficulty of breaking a single grain of salt with a knife. I’m not sure that inorganic particles were incorrectly identified as plastics, but I believe the possibility exists.

Finally many of the fear-inducing statements included in the main webpage are not followed by data or sources. In my opinion this is perhaps even more concerning than citing a flawed study. The audience is simply left to accept the statements as truth.

There is no question that the topic of this blog post and corresponding article poses a great threat to the environment and public health. I would prefer not to have any micro plastic fibers in my water, let alone my body. However more research should be conducted before conclusions are made, and the claims in these documents should be taken with a grain of salt.

Are today’s children worse at the marshmallow test?

While scouring news sites for interesting, data driven stories over the weekend, I came across an intriguing article from the Washington Post. This article analyzed decades worth of marshmallow tests to consider how children’s self-control has changed over time. The main researcher behind this meta-analysis, John Protzko, surveyed 260 experts in cognitive development before commencing his study. In short these experts were not optimistic; fifty-two percent expected to see a decrease in children’s self-control over the last fifty years. However Protzko’s analysis showed an INCREASE. Despite the smartphones and tablets and constant stimulation that today’s children experience, their capacities for self-control have not only prevailed in comparison to past generations but improved! Let’s take a look at Protzko’s analysis for a deeper understanding of this supposed trend.

Protzko’s meta-analysis included thirty-one studies ranging from 1967 to 2017. The Washington Post article states that all of these studies were published. Meanwhile the study itself states that the researchers gathered ALL data possible – both published and unpublished – within this time range. This difference might seem trivial, but it is actually quite important. If the researchers gathered only published studies, the file-drawer effect  becomes increasingly worrisome. Past marshmallow tests that deviated from normal results might never have been published – with researchers worried they made some mistake. Yet if the researchers of this meta-analysis gathered all possible data, the question of HOW remains. Detailed methods are not listed in the study making it impossible to discount the file-drawer effect in this scenario as well. Furthermore not all studies are created equal. There is no mention of minimum sample sizes or procedural reviews in order for a marshmallow test study to appear in the meta-analysis.

Nonetheless let us move on from the methods to the data. Nearly all of the marshmallow test studies exhibited an average delay time at or under ten minutes. There were four exceptions to this trend: 11.4 minutes in 2014, 18.2 minutes in 2012, 23.7 minutes in 2000, and the 26.0 minutes in 2000. The gap between 11.4 minutes and the remaining three is large enough to spur some curiosity. The  average age of children in the 2012 study was 7.68 years. The average in both of the 2000 studies was 9.2 years. The majority of the studies included in the meta-anlysis had an average age of four years. The three most surprising examples above not only seem to be outliers, but an explanation for their aberration appears to exist as well. Although the analysis identified one of these points as an outlier and stated no difference in the results, I wonder how the results would look if all three points were removed – perhaps if an average age limit was enforced.

Despite my critiques of this analysis, the notion that children’s self-control has increased over time is reasonable. The analysis includes a citation from Flynn in 1984 stating that “all cognitive abilities have undergone secular increases in the past century”. If all realms of human cognition have improved then it would make sense for children’s self-control to improve as well. Not to mention society (for the most part) is progressing and evolving. That must mean that the children of the past have improved the world of their parents, demonstrating some type of cognitive achievement. Regardless, I don’t think this analysis warrants a final say for either end of the argument.

Is Daydreaming Linked To Intelligence?

A recent article from Fortune proposed this question in response to a study published in the academic journal, Neuropsychologiain August. This study tested 129 participants for a correlation between the tendency to mind-wander and cognitive function of the dorsal attention network (DAN) and frontoparietal control network (FPCN). In addition, the researchers collected information regarding the participants’ fluid intelligence, creativity, verbal working memory, and spatial working memory. The article in Fortune summarized the studies findings stating, “In general, the researchers found that people who got high scores on tests that require high intelligence were also the same people who tended to let their mind wander when working with easier tasks.” This is mainly true, though somewhat hastily generalized.

The research found a positive correlation between participants’ evaluation of their tendency to mind- wander and fluid intelligence and creativity. They found no correlation between tendency to mind-wander and verbal working memory or spatial working memory. The correlation between tendency to mind-wander and fluid intelligence was quite strong, with a p-value less than 0.001. The correlation between mind-wandering and creativity demonstrated a p-value of 0.007. Despite the limits of this study’s sample size, these p-values are small enough to be convincing of a true relationship.

Aside from intelligence tests, the researchers also performed a functional connectivity analyses on participants through resting state fMRI. They found significant correlations between mind-wandering and data mode network (DMN) connectivity (p-value = 0.006), DMN/FPCN connectivity (p-value = 0.014), and DMN/DAN connectivity (p-value = 0.072). However, the researchers warned that this overall correlation between mind-wandering and DMN connectivity “might simply reflect the extent of the DMN to support mind wandering processes in general”.

Overall, the evidence seems convincing that a positive relationship does in fact exist between tendency to mind-wander and fluid intelligence and creativity. However, it is important to remember that this is just one study, and only so much weight can be given to this conclusion based on the limiting factors of sample size.

What are the benefits of flotation REST?

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The moment I shut the door the tank went black. My limbs fell limp, and I could hardly feel the division of air and water save the occasional ripple against my skin. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and feared how slowly the next sixty minutes could go by. I was in a flotation tank experiencing what is known as flotation REST (restricted environmental stimulation therapy). Tanks like this contain 10 inches of water and 900 pounds of salt – enough for the body to float effortlessly near the surface. Flotation REST is rumored to reduce stress, lower cortisol levels, and quiet the mind. Athletes like Tom Brady and Aly Raisman float regularly. I felt great after my floating experience. I was clear headed, a little more relaxed than usual, and upbeat. However I wasn’t quite sure if this was just a placebo affect. I decided to do some research regarding the validity of some of flotation REST’s claimed benefits.

During my investigation I discovered a meta-analyses of flotation REST as a form of stress management. The research was published in Psychology and Health, a journal that aims to “promote the study and application of psychological approaches to health and illness”. The research was published by two psychologists from separate universities in the Netherlands.They gathered data from twenty-seven studies published between 1983 and 2002 for a total of 421 participants. As many of the individual studies were limited by small sample size, the researchers aimed to ameliorate any sampling variance by assigning weights based on respective values of sample error. They then measured a total “mean effect size” in three categories – physiological, well-being, and performance – and analyzed these values.

After interpreting the data individually (and before reading the conclusion) I was left optimistic about the possible effects of flotation REST but ultimately unconvinced. I identified a few concerns in the data that the authors failed to address. While the results of the observational studies approached significance, the results of the experimental studies did not. More importantly the results of the experimental studies demonstrated relatively wide confidence intervals. I questioned the degree to which flotation REST could be deemed beneficial knowing that experimental studies provide greater insight than observational studies. Furthermore I was curious how the researchers transferred the results of numerous individual studies to one scale. Meanwhile the authors concluded that flotation REST could be a beneficial form of stress management. They also suggested that the effects of flotation REST could strengthen with repeated exposure.

Although I enjoyed my floatation experience and will likely do it again, I would not feel comfortable praising the psychological or physiological benefits of floating to any audience. It seems plausible that flotation REST offers many benefits, but in my opinion the data is not yet conclusive. At this point, personal experience and individual preference may be the best determinants in deciding if flotation REST is a beneficial form of therapy and recovery.