Advice not to trust

Yesterday morning I came across the gentleman pictured below in New York's Union Square. I've been meaning to take more pictures of "things you only see in NYC" -- a category which generally consists of extremes of pets and fashion -- but I think this deserves its own post:

He was either selling or trying to give away copies of a book titled Uropathy: The Most Powerful Holistic Therapy by one Martin Lara. Since the review of Uropathy on is from the Village Voice, I assume that the evangelist was either Lara or one of his disciples. The review:

Vitamin Pee! Urine is a natural remedy, so raise a glass! That's what alternative therapist Martin Lara wants everyone to do. In his Uropathy: The Most Powerful Holistic Therapy, pee's the ultimate cure-all. Gagging aside, it's not so unconventional: former Indian prime minister Morarji Desai guzzled ounces each morning, observing an ancient Hindu practice. Lara learned about it 11 years ago, when the self-taught therapist he's never studied traditional medicine became disenchanted with science's inability to cure his ailments. Since then he's lectured to thousands. Not any pee will do it must be your own, which Lara says is a nontoxic biofeedback stimulator that boosts immunity by activating the lymphatic system, thus restoring the body to an internally balanced state of health. Dosages range from a few drops of Lara's "Ultimate Universal Remedy" an elixir of water, urine, and white rum to several ounces for serious conditions like cancer, dysentery, or Alzheimer's. Of course, not everyone is ready for this leap of faith. On his Web site Lara argues against obsessing over taste and smell: "Urine is a sample of what is flowing through your veins and repulsive urine should be a motivation to improve the internal conditions, rather than an excuse for not using Uropathy." -- The Village Voice

He was quite earnest. I didn't engage him in conversation because two other passersby were already talking to him. A girl was explaining that urine is what your kidneys decide your body doesn't need. But she wasn't just explaining it, she was disgusted, and angry. His response was similar to a major defense of homeopathic medicine, that the "toxin makes the remedy" (or something like that). The girl got exasperated and left with her friend, and you could hear her ranting as she walked away. I chose not to continue the conversation because I was on my way to meet friends, but in hindsight I wish I had stayed because there are some questions I don't have the answers to:

  • How often does he talk publicly about this? What does he do for a living? Ie, is this it, or does he have a boring day job and this is his true passion?
  • Does he feel that drinking urine has cured whatever health problems that he originally sought help for? (I would guess so.)
  • Why does he think drinking urine has not been more widely adopted?
  • Does he think that his approach (especially the t-shirt and public 'evangelism') is the most effective way to spread his message? I would guess he enjoys the attention on some level, but also promotes his beliefs through other, more effective channels.
  • What are the typical reactions he gets? How many people stay and talk with him at length, and of those how many eventually adopt his therapy?
  • I'd like to talk a bit about Western medicine. Not necessarily the biomedical interventions we favor, but the scientific process by which we (ideally) establish that a practice is beneficial. Does he think urine therapy could be tested by a randomized controlled trial? If not, why not?
  • If the passerby had stuck around: why did she choose to argue with him? Did she really think that a guy wearing a bright yellow "Drink Urine" t-shirt in Union Square was likely to change his mind? And for the man himself: how common is her argumentative reaction?

I think a natural first reaction to something this out of the ordinary is laughter or mockery, or the assumption that he's clinically insane. On further thought, what he believes -- in factual support and argumentative method, if not in substance -- isn't that different from much of alternative medicine, and his methods have been widely adopted by many mainstream religions and social movements as well as less-respected 'fringe' beliefs. If those are both true, why isn't his belief more widely adopted? Is it just too taboo?

I think I could have learned valuable things about the mixture of reason and emotion and belief that guide human choices if I had stayed and asked some of these questions. I don't think I'll change his mind, but I plan to look for him if I'm ever strolling through Union Square on a weekend again.

(Note: evidently "urine therapy" is a thing. The Wikipedia page starts with "In alternative medicine..." -- never a good sign.)

Stuff wannabe aid workers like

The blog Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like is really tearing it up lately. Their latest post is#45 - Blogging to Display Their Superior Thinking. An excerpt:

Microlending?  Oversold uncritically as a silver bullet and only your Kiva-donating grandma still thinks this is a cure-all.  Girl Effect? Undoes its own message with its objectionable messaging.  Advocacy? You mean, “badvocacy?” Perilously reductionist and, anyway, spearheaded by way too many celebrities, neo-hippies and naive idealists for it to do any real good.  In-kind donations?  Logistical nightmare and destroyer of local markets.  Popular journalists on the developing country beat (and Nicolas Kristof in particular)?  Dangerously oversimplify complex global issues that only the real EAW bloggers truly understand.

The secret and deep hope of the EAW blogger is to get the blessing of the aid blog patriarch, Bill Easterly, and any of his disciples, and get a shout out or, better yet, featured on his blogroll.

Ouch. Of course, none of this applies to me yet because I am not a real expat aid worker, but rather a grad student intending to be one. But hopefully this fall I will be able to start fulfilling this post (which I think is their best yet): #44 - Blogging for the Folks Back Home.

Update/clarification: the "wannabe" in the title is a reference to me. Thought that was clear, but maybe it wasn't.

Behavioral observation: Powerpointia grad-studentus

Slide proliferation is a well-documented evolutionary phenomena that results from cooperative behavior in the species powerpointia grad-studentus. Not observed in solitary p. grad-studentus, but in ecological systems where p. grad-studentus must work together to forage for grades, we observe an arms race to add more slides. Each p. grad-studentus thinks that adding another slide will yield a better grade, when in reality their collective action makes the whole presentation less compelling, and the entire flock may starve (ie, not get an A). By limiting the number of slides, faculty are applying selective pressure which in the end will result in a more fit powerpointia grad-studentus. Punctuated equilibrium for powerpoint.

Atlas Shrugged

My oldest brother, Drew, is a professional oboist, reedmaker, and composer. He also writes witty things on Facebook which don't get out the wider world, like the bullet-point review of Atlas Shrugged below. While I still haven't gotten around to reading anything by Ayn Rand (shocking!), this hits the high points of pretty much everything I've heard of her, so I'm re-posting it here (with his permission). With a new movie coming soon we're all going to be inundated with a new generation of Objectivists, so it's time to read up. His review:

  • Atlas Shrugged is 50% story and 50% sermon. It would've been a better book had it been half as long, or at least half a venomous.
  • Atlas Shrugged is an eloquent expression of a beautiful idea that (like all beautiful ideas) becomes grotesque when unchecked by counterbalancing forces.
  • Atlas Shrugged is a fantasy novel. The real world is not powered exclusively by a dozen productive geniuses who all happen to agree on everything. Elves and dwarves are more believable.
  • In the real world, businessmen are not demigods, and politicians are not devils.
  • In the real world, wealth is inherited by George W Bush, not Francisco d'Anconia.
  • Ivy Starnes says, "The plan was a noble ideal, but human nature was not good enough for it." Sadly, Rand does not realize that her villain's words apply equally to her own ideology.
  • At first it's confusing that an author capable of such brilliantly concise dialogue so often launches into long-winded and half-baked rambles. But there's a reason for it: outrageous ideas seem less outrageous with repetition. Partisan media understand this. You don't have to justify a claim if you repeat it often enough. I laughed out loud when Rand first referred to the "looters." But by the end of the book, that peculiar usage seemed almost normal.
  • Not since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a book so clearly shown that brilliant novelists often make lousy philosophers. Of course, brilliant philosphers often make lousy philosophers, too.


From a lab assignment for my Professional Epidemiology Methods course:

...but part of this exercise is to remember that public health practice does not happen in a vacuum.  And if you do your job well, nothing happens and you may be blamed for interrupting daily life activities.  If you do not do your job well, people get sick or die--and you still get blamed.

Hangman for Stata

Yes, you can load a .do file and play Hangman in Stata. But only true stats nerds are allowed to play.

And on a related note, have you ever wondered how a game as morbid as hangman became so popular? Can you imagine if you visited another culture and they had a word game that everyone -- adults and children -- knew how to play, and it was based on the electric chair or decapitation, would you judge them? Wikipedia tells me its origins are obscure...


As evidenced by my posting schedule, things have been busy. The quarter system is kind of fast -- since August we've already had first quarter midterms and finals and second quarter midterms and are now finishing those up and gearing up for finals. I have a lot of thoughts I want to share -- and a whole folder full of PDFs to post about -- but for now I'll just share this comic I drew in my biostats class: