Saturday, May 18, 2013

Weekend Reading: The More Problems Than Solutions Edition

This week's links are mostly about problems that I don't really know how to solve. That's sort of depressing, isn't it? But they're all interesting.

First: the problem of having to cook dinner every night. I used to like to cook, but I don't enjoy cooking in the incarnation in which it currently exists in my life: crammed into 30 minutes after a long day at work and a walk across Pumpkin's school in which I probably asked Petunia to please keep going at least 5 times, and with the knowledge that either it will be one of the same boring things I usually cook or two of the four people at the table will have a 90% probability of wrinkling their noses and refusing to eat it. (But oh, that 10% of the time when I make something new and one of them eats it! That's awesome.)

Let's just say that I don't find cooking for my family to be the fulfilling experience celebrated in our current cultural narrative. For me, right now, cooking is a chore that needs to be done, and not much more. So I rather enjoyed Maggie Koerth-Baker's short post "You Don't Have a Moral Obligation to Cook" and the podcast that it references, particularly this line from the podcast: "Dysfunction doesn't disappear if you cook."

Second: the problem of being judgy and/or being on the receiving end of judgy. I've made an uneasy peace with the judgmental streak that runs through our public discourse. I think that sometimes judgement is warranted, useful, and perhaps even necessary, and other times it is obviously harmful. The problem lies in the vast middle ground. I prefer to err on the side of not judging, at least partially because of the reasons Liz describes in this post about The Prada Moms and the judgment she used to aim at them.

Next: the problem of emerging diseases. I came across a story about superspreaders and their role in the SARS outbreak. It was fascinating, if it a little scary. I once worked on a biodefense project and found myself immersed in the world of emerging diseases and early detection of outbreaks. That was also fascinating and a little scary.

And then there is the problem of how to price drugs. My friend Stevil had a good "what would you do?" post on the question of drug pricing awhile back, when there was an uproar about the pricing of a new drug for multiple sclerosis. Like me, Steve works in drug discovery, and so knows something about the things that make drug discovery so expensive. Unlike me, he is the founder of a small start up, so he has even more direct experience with the expense- part of his job is to raise the funds to keep his company in business. I am also very sympathetic to the concerns of patients, so I can understand the outrage. But I think the public in general has no idea how complicated and risky drug discovery and development is, and how many aspects of it are basically never done anywhere except for at a company. Heck, even some highly educated academics think that drug companies are just doing the easy bit after public funded research does the hard part (this is not even remotely close to being true- but that is a rant for another day).

Of course, I am also a bit biased by my status as a drug company insider and the fact that this industry pays my salary. I don't really want to get into all of that (see, more problems than solutions), but I will just mention that I could probably increase my salary by ~50% if I switched to working in eCommerce and used my data management and analysis skills to help maximize your shopping experience.

The next problem is also in the drug industry, but I don't know how to label it. The problem of unfettered greed and callousness? The Fortune article about the fraud at Ranbaxy, a large generic drugs manufacturer, is so sickening that it took me three tries to actually read the entire thing. Like a lot of people in the industry, I'd heard that Ranbaxy had some problems and was under FDA supervision. But I had no idea how blatant and extensive the fraud was. If the allegations in this article are true, I think executives at Ranbaxy should go to jail. Fabricating data for FDA applications is reprehensible.

Also, I think I'll choose not to take any Ranbaxy generics.

This is a telling quote from the article:

"It is not a tale of cutting corners or lax manufacturing practices but one of outright fraud, in which the company knowingly sold substandard drugs around the world -- including in the U.S. -- while working to deceive regulators."

But even more sickening is the quote from one of the whistleblowers about how executives didn't care about selling substandard AIDS drugs in South Africa because "it was just blacks dying." That was the part where I had to stop on my second attempt to read the article.

Speaking of the problem of racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good article up about the social construction of race. The article was precipitated by the recent discussions about race and IQ.  I am so tired of earnest white researchers claiming that the data shows IQ differences based on race, so there must be in born race-based differences in intelligence. First of all, IQ is not a perfect measure of intelligence. Second, any measure that depends on test-taking is highly susceptible to stereotype threat effects. Third, the estimates I've seen by people who study brain development indicate that intelligence is probably only about 50% genetic.

All of this means that I think this is just the wrong conversation to be having about race. Let's talk about the structural things that are holding back people who aren't white in America. That is far more important than a questionable difference in a questionable measure of a complex trait that is probably only half-controlled by genetics.

This reminds me of a tweet I thought was great:

Since I'm a white woman, I am the inverse, of course. And this realization is why I'm fairly willing to forgive people who get it wrong, as long as I think they're trying to learn and get better. None of us controls the situation of our birth, and recognizing the structural things that benefit you is hard. It is hard to see past the way things have always been for you.

Let's end the links with a solution- or a partial one. I want to see more diversity in STEM fields. How to make that happen? I don't know, but I suspect that supporting all sorts of kids who want to go to science camp is a good start. I can't send every interested kid to camp, but this fundraiser for a kid in New Jersey came across my Twitter stream, and I could help him. Maybe you want to, too?

And finally, some shameless self promotion: Taming the Work Week, my short ebook on productivity, is now available for pre-order! It will be out next week.

Happy weekend, everyone!


  1. Anonymous9:29 AM

    When I was in college, I thought, "I wish I could afford to eat all these fancy prepared foods from Trader Joe's freezer section every night."

    Now, of course, I can afford it, but alas, no Trader Joe's.

    Can one get tired of nightly TJ's? My parents will often bring us some of their jarred sauces at Christmas, and that's always fun. Especially the Thai red curry since we don't have a Thai place in town. But, of course, those provisions don't last long.

    "I am so tired of earnest white researchers claiming that the data shows IQ differences based on race, so there must be in born race-based differences in intelligence."
    These are not earnest white researchers. They are assholes and idiots. There's a difference. And not all of them are white, though the bigger names are. (Chauncy de Vega had a similar article this week, and we gave a similar comment to yours about other reasons.) Many of my professional friends do research on those "other reasons" for group differences.

    1. We don't have a Trader Joe's in a super convenient spot for us, so we only go once a month and stock up. They have some awesome stuff! I should check out their sauces again... one thing I've been doing is taking our Wednesday night taco night and mixing up the fillings more. No matter what filling I make, Pumpkin will only eat the tortilla and cheese. Petunia will eat eggs and bacon if I do breakfast tacos, but otherwise is also a tortilla and cheese only type. So I finally realized I could make any number of interesting fillings for the grown ups, just by varying the sauce I put on the chicken or what not. I think I need to do a Dinner during Dora post for my current fave, a "Cuban" garlic-lime-orange sauce. Next time I make it I'll take pictures and put a post up!

      I am glad to hear that the researchers who seem like asshole bigots really are. I don't have the academic background to assess that without taking a lot of time to do so, and I refuse to do that since I think the use of IQ to draw conclusions about intelligence is inherently flawed.

    2. Anonymous5:52 AM

      No, the professionals know that IQ tests are flawed when trying to make comparisons across groups (within group they're not so bad, though they still are only correlated with intelligence, whatever that is). We mostly use AFQT to substitute for IQ anyway because it tracks well and is much less expensive to administer. Even more common than that we use achievement tests which are not even meant to be a measure of intelligence.

      Here's chauncy de vega's post: . The insightful comments by grumpy rumblings are ours.

  2. Ah, cooking as fulfilling experience -- this is a narrative we're seeing a lot of these days. Some people throw the growing-your-own aspect in there too. I have three kids, none of whom have been raised differently, and of the three, some eat whole categories of foods that the others will not. I completely agree that cooking after a long day of work for people who complain about whatever you serve them isn't something to write an over-wrought let's-return-to-hearth-and-home essay about.

    1. I plant arugula. It grows like a weed and lets me be snobby about having a backyard garden with minimal effort. (I'm joking. I do plant arugula, but that is because it grows like a weed and I like to eat it.)

    2. Love the "You Don't Have a Moral Obligation to Cook" link. She nails what is wrong with all of the Michael Pollan worship.

      And amen, Laura! For me, cooking is unmitigated drudgery. Luckily my hubby loves cooking and is good at it so I never have to do it.

    3. @hush - I've been thinking maybe I need someone to cook for me. Actually, I'm happy to cook for me. I need someone to cook for my kids and figure out how to satisfy the one who ate a bowl full of bell peppers on a whim and the one who complains if his sliced banana touches his chicken nuggets.

    4. Anonymous3:50 PM

      We just let ours not eat (or pick stuff out) at dinner, and then he gets something boring and healthy for snack that either he prepares or doesn't need to be prepared (bananas and sardines are regulars).

  3. I cook to feed myself (and husband) wholesome food (sometimes) for lower cost (mostly). I definitely don't cook everyday, or even 4-5 times a week for that matter, but I always try to cook for health, rapidity in completion, and planning for leftovers in mind. It has mostly worked.
    I don't find that I truly enjoy the cooking process, but I do find a sense of accomplishment after completing the meal because well, not everything else I do can managed to be completed in one hour, while usually my cooking can!

    1. Yes, I cook to keep things healthy. There is a gigantic market opportunity for healthy convenience foods being missed. I doubt the food companies are stupid enough to not notice that, so I'm guessing they can't get a formulation that is healthy and cheap enough/stable enough/whatever to mass produce.

    2. Anonymous5:55 AM

      Our small town recently got one of those moms meals type home catering services that just does organic Paleo food(!) Haven't tried it, but it gets good reviews on Yelp.

  4. I cook a vat of soup every week, rotating among about 5-6 diff. faves. Half go in the fridge, half in the freezer. Then I rotate some from the freezer to the fridge.

    I also make a big salad weekly. We have these holders for microwaved potatoes in 8 min each or 3 for 15 min. TJ's chickenless or chicken tenders and 4-cheese pizza are also staples.

    Cook large amounts for leftovers. We strive for half fresh dinners and half foraged from pre-prepared or leftovers.

    Our kid is a picky eater. If she will eat only peas or corn (and not if they touch each other), then I don't have time to deal with it. She can get some out of the freezer and microwave them herself.

    1. I for some reason do not like to do the cook ahead on the weekend thing. This is totally irrational, as I admit it should be a good solution for my problem. I've tried to implement it several times, though, and it has not worked out. We do have leftovers every Tuesday night, and pizza (frozen or leftover takeout) every Friday night.

  5. ok I'm LMAO at the range of "problems" in this post. I'm so glad I"m not the only one ranging from the prosaic to the (more) profound during my daily commute. I also have picky kids and vacillate between OMG I'm the worse mom ever for not "forcing" them to eat, and OMG I learned to eat all sorts of stuff in my 20s. They will too.

    YAY e-book :)

    1. HA! Yes, it is not like the fact that I dislike to cook family dinners every weekday night is on anywhere near the same scale as racism! Or massive fraud at a generic drug maker.

      There are some things I didn't learn to eat until grad school. In fact, here are some things I still have learned to eat.

  6. Have you looked into hiring someone to cook for you? I have a few friends who do it here - once a month, their chef comes to their house, cooks up a storm, packages everything neatly in the freezer and voila - 4 weeks of dinners.

    If I were still working, I'd do it in a heartbeat. It's not nearly as expensive as you might think.

  7. Loved the one about cooking as moral obligation. Also wish people would catch on that being picky (or having picky kids) is not a moral failing. We do cook most of our meals (weekend batch cooking all the way!) but the kids often eat zero percent of it. And I occasionally fall back on frozen chicken nuggets & TJ's tortellini. They will learn with time. My sister ate a grand total of eight food items (one of which was doritos) until college---now she likes thai food and indian food & all kinds of exotic fare. She is now struggling with her own picky kids, which gives my mom some perverse pleasure, I think.

    1. She is now struggling with her own picky kids, which gives my mom some perverse pleasure, I think.


  8. What bothers me personally right now about not enjoying cooking is that I actually like to cook, the the point where if the hours and working conditions weren't so anti-family, I'd consider trying to be a professional chef. I even considered being a personal chef, however the main appeal of that was it being something I could do with all my personal kitchen tools and with kids underfoot, but darn health code rules were contrary to that idea.
    However I don't think *everyone* ought to enjoy cooking, just like I wouldn't expect *everyone* to enjoy rock climbing or camping!
    I do think part of the drudgery aspect is wearing on me (must they be fed *every* night?) but also because though my children aren't terribly picky, I have recently made a major change to my diet (gluten-free, on top of already being dairy-lite) and though it's been a few months now, I still haven't gotten into the groove (especially because the rest of the family isn't gluten/dairy-free.)

    I'll request you share your favorite Trader Joe's products and meals you make with them. We're fortunate to have two TJs within convenient drives (plus Whole Foods) however I've only recently started buying things there.

    Also, I second the idea Anandi has of looking into a personal chef. There are some that come up with their own menu, and you go along with it, but there are also some that will make a menu personalized to the tastes, nutritional needs, (and pickiness) of your family. Think of it as outsourcing!

  9. Irisevelyn1:12 PM

    We eat bread most evenings. That is, we put a loaf of bred and a variety of toppings on the table like butter, different cold cuts, cheeses, hummus etc. To this we usually add some vegetables (cucumbers, raw or pickled, tomatoes, carrots, bell pepper) or fruit and then everyone prepares their own sandwiches. Well, my 1.5 year old kid will point at what he wants. That only requires some cutting of vegetables and getting everything out of the fridge. And the adults can eat different things than the kids. A disadvantage might be that you'll have to do this fairly regularly if you want to offer a variety of things so that you can eat everything before it spoils. Might be worth a try.


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