by Sunita

I found this article in Wired really interesting, not least because I’ve been working on “unquantifying” my life (the quantified life is one in which you track your behavior, health, etc. to try and improve outcomes). I hadn’t heard of the “nocebo effect” before but it makes sense:

“The body’s response can be triggered by negative expectations,” says Luana Colloca, a University of Maryland neuroscientist and physician who studies placebo and nocebo effects. “It’s a mechanism of self-defense. From an evolutionary point of view, we’ve developed mechanisms to prevent dangerous situations.”

For Golden, a 38-year-old patient advocate who began with an Excel spreadsheet and later used specialized apps, tracking initially helped her provide better information to her doctor. But she became focused on every possible factor that could make her headache worse. “I’ve seen people become very obsessed with it. I was at one point,” she says. “What did I do at lunch? What did I do at dinner? It can be all-consuming.”

The symptom tracker doesn’t just reveal your highs and lows. It produces a state of anxiety—and possibly more pain.

As always, I’d like to see more studies and the underlying data, but it’s an interesting finding.

I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion of the Chernobyl miniseries just wrapping up on HBO and in the UK. I haven’t read either of the big nonfiction books on the subject which have recently come out, although when I do I’ll definitely go for the Plokhy. Rule of thumb: read the scholar’s accessible work before the heavily promoted release by the creative nonfiction person who writes on a different subject in each book.

Anyway, Masha Gessen’s latest article in The New Yorker confirms my apprehensions about making docudramas out of tragedies. I realize that for people who didn’t live through the Chernobyl or follow the developments in real time, this is an understandable way of learning about it. But Gessen reminds us of the pitfalls:

Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of “Chernobyl” imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable—and, in doing so, they cross the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie. The Belarusian scientist Ulyana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is even more confrontational than Legasov. “I am a nuclear physicist,” she tells an apparatchik, in Episode 2. “Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.” First, she’d never say this. Second, the apparatchik might have worked at a shoe factory, but, if he was an apparatchik, he was no cobbler; he has come up the Party ladder, which might indeed have begun at the factory—but in an office, not on the factory floor. The apparatchik—or, more accurately, the caricature of the apparatchik—pours himself a glass of vodka from a carafe that sits on his desk and responds, “Yes, I worked in a shoe factory. And now I’m in charge.” He toasts, in what appears to be the middle of the day: “To the workers of the world.” No. No carafe, no vodka in the workplace in front of a hostile stranger, and no boasting “I’m in charge.”

Citizens’ sense of resignation and institutional factors aren’t as interesting as action-oriented heroes and villains. But sometimes there just aren’t villains in the Hollywood sense, and Hollywood needs to figure out a way to convey this rather than changing the story to something that didn’t happen. Because however much we say we don’t get our history from fiction, we do.

This article is old news to anyone who’s ever been poor or poor-adjacent, but it bears repeating in our world of hyper market-liberalism: poor people aren’t poor because of their buying choices but because of their buying constraints:

As you can see from the chart above, the lowest 20 percent of income earners spend more than 100% of their income on basic necessities and have been doing so for decades. The y-axis represents the percentage of after-tax income that is spent on each category (combined). And keep in mind that the BLS includes government benefits, unemployment, retirement plans, and social security as a part of its income measure.

And it’s not much better for the next quintile:

While the 20–40th percentile of income earners are clearly better off than the lower 20%, they are still spending almost all of their income on the essentials. Once you add in other expenditure categories the 20–40th percentile have nothing left to save.

Needless to say, this argument also applies to the “stop eating avocado toast and you’ll be able to buy a house” argument thrown at millenials.

We have rampant inequality, folks, and that isn’t solved by a tweak here and a tweak there, or foregoing a 4k TV purchase. It’s about not having enough for food, shelter, and other basics.

And finally, the New York Times continues its ongoing tradition of Bad Hot Takes in the Op Ed section, where an AI entrepreneur argues that “It’s Time to Stop Fetishizing Privacy.” The piece features gems like this one:

And do we really want to emulate European rules if they undermine competitiveness?

Gosh no, we should never do anything to undermine competitiveness. Because as long as we don’t do anything, competition will flourish! By the way, how many choices for internet providers do you have in your neighborhood?

Also, fetishizing doesn’t mean what she thinks it means.