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Thursday, August 7, 2008

If trends continue, we’ll all be fat in 40 years

If the trends of the past three decades continue, it’s possible that every American adult could be overweight 40 years from now, a government-funded study projects.

The figure might sound alarming, or impossible, but researchers say that even if the actual rate never reaches the 100-percent mark, any upward movement is worrying; two-thirds of the population is already overweight.

“Genetically and physiologically, it should be impossible” for all U.S. adults to become overweight, said Dr. Lan Liang of the federal government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, one of the researchers on the study.

However, she told Reuters Health, the data suggest that if the trends of the past 30 years persist, “that is the direction we’re going.”

Already, she and her colleagues point out, some groups of U.S. adults have extremely high rates of overweight and obesity; among African- American women, for instance, 78 percent are currently overweight or obese.

A ‘wake-up call’?
The new projections, published in the journal Obesity, are based on government survey data collected between the 1970s and 2004.

If the trends of those years continue, the researchers estimate that 86 percent of American adults will be overweight by 2030, with an obesity rate of 51 percent. By 2048, all U.S. adults could be at least mildly overweight.

Weight problems will be most acute among African-Americans and Mexican- Americans, the study projects. All black women could be overweight by 2034, according to the researchers, as could more than 90 percent of Mexican-American men.

All of this rests on the “big assumption” that the trends of recent decades will march on unabated, Liang acknowledged.

“This is really intended as a wake-up call to show what could happen if nothing changes,” she said.

Waistlines aren’t the only thing poised to balloon in the future, according to Liang and her colleagues. They estimate that the healthcare costs directly related to excess pounds will double each decade, reaching $957 billion in 2030 — accounting for one of every six healthcare dollars spent in the U.S.

Those financial projections are based on Census data and published estimates of the current healthcare costs attributed to excess weight — and they are probably a “huge underestimate” of what the actual costs will be, Liang said.

The findings highlight a need for widespread efforts to improve Americans’ lifestyles and keep their weight in check, according to the researchers. Simply telling people to eat less and exercise more is not enough, Liang noted.

Broader social changes are needed as well, she said -- such as making communities more pedestrian-friendly so that people can walk regularly, or getting the food industry to offer healthier, calorie-conscious choices.

“It really needs to be more than an individual effort,” Liang said. “It needs to be a societal effort.”

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Three people held in raids at marijuana dispensaries

Narcotics agents raided four San Diego marijuana dispensaries, made three arrests at the locations and seized about 20 pounds of pot yesterday.
Federal authorities said the businesses were not selling the drug within the limits of state Proposition 215, a 1996 initiative legalizing the sale of marijuana by prescription to seriously ill patients.

Drug Enforcement Administration and county Narcotics Task Force agents served search warrants at Answerdam on Convoy Court, Plan B Coastal Care Group on Adams Avenue, Chronic Care Providers on Daggett Street and Safe California Access on Murphy Canyon Road. Three men, ages 59, 35 and 26, were arrested at three of the businesses on suspicion of marijuana sales and possession for sale, DEA spokeswoman Eileen Zeidler said.

A home on Marlborough Avenue in City Heights also was searched, and a 30-year-old resident was arrested on suspicion of the same marijuana charges and suspicion of possessing Ecstasy.

Zeidler said marijuana and pot-laced brownies, ice cream, chocolate and fruit bars were seized at the businesses, along with a loaded handgun and thousands of dollars. She said the investigation took several months, and continues, to trace where the pot came from.

Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors is continuing its court battle against the state's medical marijuana laws.

The board voted 4-1 yesterday, with Ron Roberts opposing, to ask the state Supreme Court to review its lawsuit challenging the state requirement that counties issue government identification to qualified medical marijuana patients.

The county contends the requirement conflicts with federal drug statutes that categorize marijuana as a dangerous drug with no medical benefits.

A Superior Court judge rejected the county's case in 2006, and an appellate court backed that decision Thursday. The state Supreme Court will be asked to review last week's ruling, said Tom Bunton, senior deputy county counsel.

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Americans Drinking Less Alcohol

Americans are drinking less alcohol, with middle-aged people consuming about one-third less than 50 years ago, researchers report.

Overall, Americans are drinking less beer, but more wine, while consumption of hard liquor has remained fairly constant. Also, more people say they don't drink, and those born later in the 20th century are more moderate drinkers than their parents.

"It looks like moderate drinking has been increasing, heavy drinking is down a little bit, and total alcohol consumption is down a little bit," said lead researcher Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, a professor of medicine and public health at Boston University School of Medicine.

"It is encouraging news that more people are drinking moderately, and the average intake is coming down rather than shooting up," he said.

For the study, Ellison's team collected data on 8,000 people who took part in the Framingham Heart Study. People in the initial arm of the study were born before 1900 up until 1959. Those from the initial enrollment group as well as their children were interviewed every four years from 1948 to 2003 about their alcohol consumption.

Ellison explained that the Framingham study consists primarily of white, middle-class individuals from the Massachusetts town of the same name. "It generally tends to reflect trends within the country among middle-class, white Americans," he said.

The researchers found that, overall, people are drinking less. "People drank about a third more back in the '50s and '60s than they did in the '70s up to 2004," Ellison said.

There's been a gradual decrease in the average amount of alcohol people drink. For instance, alcohol consumption among men has gone from about two-and-a-half drinks a day to one-and-a-half drinks a day, Ellison said.

"At the same time, there's been a decrease in beer and an increase in wine consumption among people. But the average intake has decreased," he said.

As for liquor, the average intake has remained pretty much the same, he added.

Despite the decline in alcohol consumption, the risk of alcohol dependence did not show a corresponding decrease, the study also found.

"We don't know why alcohol consumption has gone down," Ellison said. "The data are very clear that light to moderate drinking, without binge drinking, is generally good for health, whereas a larger amount of binge drinking is bad. It looks like, in this population, it's going in the right direction."

The study findings were published in the August issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

David L. Katz, director of the Yale University School of Medicine Prevention Research Center, noted that during "recent decades, the messages about alcohol have increasingly emphasized the potential to derive both pleasure and health benefits from wine, provided the dose is prudent. The trends in this study suggest those messages are having an impact, at least in Framingham, Massachusetts. Among those not vulnerable to alcohol abuse, intake patterns appear to be shifting in accord with expert recommendations."

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15th Anniversary: Absinthe Goes From Banned Drug to Legal Liquor

In the 20,000 years or so that humans have been getting piss-drunk, no spirit has earned a worse rap than absinthe. Said to turn mild-mannered imbibers into raving maniacs, it was banned in the US and much of Europe in the early 1900s. (Remember Van Gogh's ear incident? Some scholars blame the green fairy.) The chemical culprit was thujone, a toxic compound found in the crushed flowers and leaves of absinthe's key ingredient, wormwood. Or so we thought.

Three years ago, Wired sent me to meet Ted Breaux, a chemist and microbiologist who had reverse engineered the liquor's recipe and discovered that there was barely any thujone present (November 2005). During harvest and distillation, he explained, its concentration was reduced to a minuscule five parts per million.

Breaux's research — finally published this spring in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (.pdf) — and that Wired story have helped change absinthe's image from drug to drink. The US has been slowly peeling away its ban, and in March, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the sale of absinthes that were "thujone free" (containing less than 10 parts per million).

To date, there are four brands on US shelves: Lucid (Breaux's formula), Kuebler, Green Moon, and St. George Absinthe Verte. "The US is lucky in that its first absinthes are high-quality products, distilled from whole herbs," Breaux says. "In the European market, 80 to 90 percent is industrial junk."

Under the Jade label, Breaux is making his own absinthes in France and trying to get them green-lighted for sale in the US. "Even at this point, gaining that approval seems to involve more luck than anything," he says. Luck, and a little chemistry.


Pen Zen: Bring Clarity to Writing

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Have you ever read an email from someone that was too wordy, lacked focus, and left you confused? How can we learn from reading such emails to improve our own communication? How do we compose emails and writings that others will actually want to read?

The ability to write clearly is crucial to getting your message across no matter what you’re writing, whether it’s an email, a blog post, a magazine article, or a letter to a friend. Clear and concise writing is vital to having your words read and understood.

The whole purpose of most writing is to inform readers of something or to persuade people to do something. The more clear and concise your language, the easier your message will be understood, and the more likely your readers will respond to that message.

Before you can write clearly, you have to be able to think clearly. A big reason many writers don’t see desired success in conveying their message is that they were not focused on a clear message. Good writing usually stems directly from clear thinking.

In this post, we’ll first look at some common obstacles to clear thinking and writing, then offer some suggestions to develop the mental state for clear writing, and finally give some specific writing tips that, if implemented, will immediately add that magic touch of clarity to your writing.

Three Obstacles to Clear and Concise Writing


Obstacle 1: False ideas about what good writing is.

Many writers try to write more intelligently and attractively than they need to. Their writing can come across as trying too hard and that isn’t intelligent or attractive. There’s no cosmic law dictating that as soon as you start putting words on paper, you have to jazz it up and make it sound more intelligent than it really is.

Even writers with more knowledge and experience make this mistake. They want to impress readers with their grandiose grasp of the language, tossing about little-known, large words and trying to write in a clever way that ends up diminishing the clarity of their message. They’ve forgotten the most important piece of good writing: your first priority is to inform your readers, not to impress them.

If you seek first to impress, you probably won’t; nor will you often truly inform, as your message gets lost in the jungle of your arcane vocabulary. Seek first to inform, as clearly as you can. If you do that, you stand a better chance of also impressing your readers because you expressed your points clearly.

Obstacle 2: Not being clear about one’s message.

Many writers have a general idea of what they want to say, but they don’t crystallize it in one short, snappy sentence. Thus, they start out writing, touching on their topic from different angles, and including every bit of information they think is relevant.

The writing may end up readable and professional sounding, but the readers will come away thinking that, while they understood the gist of the author’s intent, they can’t precisely say what the take-home point was. This is usually because the writer never really knew what it was either.

Obstacle 3: Distractions.

Your mind has to be clear for your writing to be precise. If you’ve got the TV on in the background, if other people are coming in and out of your writing space, if you’ve got Twitter updates and email updates continually popping up on your screen, etc. - your focus will be eradicated.


How to Develop the Clear Mental State for Writing


1. Read, Read, Read

Reading broadly can accomplish two things: one, broaden your vocabulary so you more naturally use the right words instead of searching about for intelligent-sounding words which might not be a good fit; and two, you can get a much better, natural feel for what makes up good, clear, and fluid writing.

Additionally, you expose yourself to more ideas and perspectives, forcing yourself to think more critically in general, which will enable you to think more critically about the subjects on which you’re writing.

Respected magazines and newspapers which regularly include in-depth articles and essays have been extremely helpful to me in demonstrating how to write clear, engaging, intelligent prose which convey both a clear message and a colorful style. Two of my favorites are GQ Magazine and the Wall Street Journal newspaper.

2. Read Books and Blogs on Writing

The following are resources that have most directly and immediately benefited my writing mechanics.

3. Clear Your Writing Space

When it’s time to write, clear everything off your writing table except for what’s absolutely necessary to write the piece. There might be all kinds of unrelated notes, books, magazines, loose change, several pens, notepads, etc. Simply take a minute to rid the table of all the excess. Only keep resources directly related to the current project and set everything else aside. For example, a pen or notes might be good resources to keep close. Clarity and simplicity in your workspace lends itself to clarity and simplicity in your thinking, and so on down to your writing.

4. Block-Off Time

Determine how much time you realistically think you’ll need to write the piece and schedule that time period for writing only. Say it’ll take you maybe three hours. Block off that time and do nothing but work on the project for the full three hours, taking a five-minute break at the end of each hour to walk around and stretch.

5. Eliminate Distractions

Turn off the television, turn off your cell phone, turn off instant messaging, turn off Twitter and email updates, and anything else that’s likely to interrupt you, thus diminishing your focus. You might also consider turning off your Internet connection so you don’t surf the web.

All of that distracting infotainment will still be there in droves once you finish your project. Then info-binge all you want. But, for the time being, do nothing but write. Simple. Clear. Focused.

8 Keys to Clarity When Writing

1. Visualize Road Signs

Think about the street and highway signs you see around your city. People who write road signs have very little space within which to get their message across. In that very limited space, the fewer and larger the words, the more likely drivers are to see the words and process the conveyed message.

Examples:

  • Do Not Enter
  • Speed Limit 50: Next 400 Miles.
  • Stop

Notice the concise prose. The message is very clear. Do the same in your own writing. Choose the right words, the most descriptive words, and keep your words to a minimum. Say exactly what you have to say and be done with it. Don’t muddy up your meaning by writing more than is necessary to make your point.

2. Write a One-Liner Summary

You may remember writing a thesis statement in high school or college. Similar to a thesis statement, consider putting together a one sentence summary text describing the main purpose prior to writing.

Whenever you have something to write, take a few minutes to think your subject through, and then write out, in one or two short sentences, the main idea you’re trying to get across. Think about your purpose with this piece of writing and your expected outcome.

Do this for yourself, as a guiding structure for your writing, and refer back to it regularly to stay on track toward your primary argument.

A purposeful summary or thesis statement is like a company’s mission statement; it sets out our clear mission in whatever we’re writing.

3. Do Your Headline First

A headline is a one-sentence encapsulation of your subject and will act as a guiding force for your entire piece. While the thesis statement is a promise you make to yourself, your writing will reflect the thesis statement - a headline “is a promise to prospective readers. Its job is to clearly communicate the benefit that you will deliver to the reader in exchange for their valuable time,” says Brian Clark.

Figure out what you really want your piece to say, and after putting together a good thesis statement, write up a good, snappy, eye-catching, bold, informative, and short headline.

Once you have a good title, it functions as a reference point for your piece. As you’re writing, imagine yourself in the place of your readers; continually ask yourself if the arguments you’re making, the prose you’re writing, truly fulfills the promise made to your readers. Combining a good thesis statement with a good headline before you begin writing can have a powerful, laser-like effect on your focus, enabling you to write with more clarity and purpose.


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Photo via Peter Gene

4. Write Like You Talk

Instead of reaching about for soaring words and phrases, simply write like normal people speak. Of course, you’ll have to adjust for legitimate differences between spoken and written words, but you should use the language your readers will clearly understand and relate to. Don’t confuse your prose’s clarity by using jargon or stilted, “intelligent” words.

An example of what you shouldn’t write:

I do believe that the most important action that could be taken to improve customer satisfaction is to truly engage customers by establishing a significant relationship with them through extended attention to what motivates them to take a particular stance in correlation to the company.

Most normal people don’t speak like that. Change it to:

Let’s really pay attention to what our customers say they want from us.

Remember, simple, short, and clear.

Another benefit to writing like you speak is that you retain your own voice and can express yourself authentically. You don’t need to search for unfamiliar language to sound more professional. Simply be yourself and write the way you speak. Your prose will become clearer and your own voice will shine through.

5. Use Simple Words to Evoke Vivid Images

Often the simple short word will do much better than any large word, to convey your idea, and be more clearly understood. Try to create concrete images in your writing by using real, earthy words; words that describe actual things. Here are some related quotes from respected authors:

  • “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”-George Orwell.
  • “Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”-C.S. Lewis.
  • “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”-Ernest Hemingway.

6. Eliminate Redundant Words and Phrases

Some redundancy is necessary to stress your main points, but too much indicates that you don’t really have much to say or know how to say it well. An easy way of reducing redundancy is to not use two or more words which mean the same thing.

Examples,

  • Past history - if something is history, it clearly happened in the past;
  • Armed gunman - if someone has a gun, they’re clearly armed;
  • Foreign imports - if something is imported, it’s clearly foreign;
  • Screaming loudly - if someone is screaming, they’re clearly being loud.

Only use the words you need to use and eliminate excess. After writing, go back to each paragraph and sentence with a fine toothed comb and see how you can rephrase the same meaning using fewer words. Do this several times. Don’t be afraid to cut text out, if it means a more effective piece of writing.

7. Minimize Clichés.

A cliché is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. Dulling your writing or speaking with clichés is lazy thinking. It shows you don’t value your subject enough to invest the energy and time to really describe it in more colorful, unique, and accurate language.

George Orwell called clichés dying metaphors and ready-made phrases that do your thinking for you. Instead of using clichés to fill in space, aim to think critically about meaning and choose words that accurately and freshly conjure the image and meaning you are trying to convey.

Examples of long-standing clichés:

  • Light at the end of the tunnel
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • Put it on the back burner

Examples of popular clichés today:

Orwell offers this advice for using more colorful language without resorting to clichés:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you - even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent - and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

8. Cut Out Most Metadiscourse.

Metadiscourse is simply writing about writing. It occurs when a writer comments on what he is saying. Examples are: I believe, I think, In my opinion. These are unnecessary because it is clear that you are the one expressing your opinion, and excessive usage can make your writing sound extra verbose.

An example of especially verbose metadiscourse:

I would like to take this opportunity to offer a hearty congratulations to you.

No need to say you would like to take this opportunity; just take it. Don’t tell him that you would like to, or are about to, offer congratulations - just congratulate him.

Here’s an alternative version projecting the same meaning:

Congratulations!

There are times when metadiscourse is helpful. Particularly, when the topic is controversial, it is wise to be clear that a statement is our opinion.

The point here is to become aware of when we add extra words to justify ourselves. Constantly adding metadiscourse adds unnecessary words and buries the main point.

What components have you noticed in writing making it easy to read? Any tips for keeping your emails and writing as simple and clear as possible? Share your thoughts with us in the comments. See you there.

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