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    Saturday
    Jul092011

    Looking for Someone

    Sex, love, and loneliness on the Internet

    "Some research has suggested that it is men, more than women, who yearn for marriage, but this may be merely a case of stated preference. Men want someone who will take care of them, make them look good, and have sex with them—not necessarily in that order. It may be that this is all that women really want, too, but they are better at disguising or obscuring it. They deal in calculus, while men, for the most part, traffic in simple sums."

    by Nick Paumgarten

    From The New Yorker, July 4, 2011 issue

      

    In the fall of 1964, on a visit to the World’s Fair, in Queens, Lewis Altfest, a twenty-five-year-old accountant, came upon an open-air display called the Parker Pen Pavilion, where a giant computer clicked and whirred at the job of selecting foreign pen pals for curious pavilion visitors. You filled out a questionnaire, fed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale—your ideal match. Altfest thought this was pretty nifty. He called up his friend Robert Ross, a programmer at I.B.M., and they began considering ways to adapt this approach to find matches closer to home. They’d heard about some students at Harvard who’d come up with a program called Operation Match, which used a computer to find dates for people. A year later, Altfest and Ross had a prototype, which they called Project TACT, an acronym for Technical Automated Compatibility Testing—New York City’s first computer-dating service.

    Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. One section asked subjects to choose from a list of “dislikes”: “1. Affected people. 2. Birth control. 3. Foreigners. 4. Free love. 5. Homosexuals. 6. Interracial marriage,” and so on. Another question, in a section called “Philosophy of Life Values,” read, “Had I the ability I would most like to do the work of (choose two): (1) Schweitzer. (2) Einstein. (3) Picasso.” Some of the questions were gender-specific. Men were asked to rank drawings of women’s hair styles: a back-combed updo, a Patty Duke bob. Women were asked to look at a trio of sketches of men in various settings, and to say where they’d prefer to find their ideal man: in camp chopping wood, in a studio painting a canvas, or in a garage working a pillar drill. TACT transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I.B.M. 1400 Series computer, which then spit out your matches: five blue cards, if you were a woman, or five pink ones, if you were a man.

    In the beginning, TACT was restricted to the Upper East Side, an early sexual-revolution testing ground. The demolition of the Third Avenue Elevated subway line set off a building boom and a white-collar influx, most notably of young educated women who suddenly found themselves free of family, opprobrium, and, thanks to birth control, the problem of sexual consequence. Within a year, more than five thousand subscribers had signed on.

    Over time, TACT expanded to the rest of New York. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. Ross and Altfest enjoyed a brief media blitz. They wound up in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune and in Cosmopolitan. The Cosmo correspondent’s first match was with a gym teacher who told her over the phone that his favorite sport was “indoor wrestling—with girls.” (He stood her up, complaining of a backache.) One of TACT’s print advertisements featured a photograph of a beautiful blond woman. “Some people think Computer dating services attract only losers,” the copy read, quoting a TACT subscriber. “This loser happens to be a talented fashion illustrator for one of New York’s largest advertising agencies. She makes Quiche Lorraine, plays chess, and like me she loves to ski. Some loser!”

    One day, a woman named Patricia Lahrmer, from 1010 WINS, a local radio station, came to TACT to do an interview. She was the station’s first female reporter, and she had chosen, as her début feature, a three-part story on how New York couples meet. (A previous installment had been about a singles bar—Maxwell’s Plum, on the Upper East Side, one of the first that so-called “respectable” single women could patronize on their own.) She had planned to interview Altfest, but he was out of the office, and she ended up talking to Ross. The batteries died on her tape recorder, so they made a date to finish the interview later that week, which turned into dinner for two. They started seeing each other, and two years afterward they were married. Ross had hoped that TACT would help him meet someone, and, in a way, it had.

    After a couple of years, Ross grew bored with TACT and went into finance instead. He and Lahrmer moved to London. Looking back now, he says that he considered computer dating to be little more than a gimmick and a fad.

    The process of selecting and securing a partner, whether for conceiving and rearing children, or for enhancing one’s socioeconomic standing, or for attempting motel-room acrobatics, or merely for finding companionship in a cold and lonely universe, is as consequential as it can be inefficient or irresolute. Lives hang in the balance, and yet we have typically relied for our choices on happenstance—offhand referrals, late nights at the office, or the dream of meeting cute.

    Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way. They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand. They rely on algorithms, those often proprietary mathematical equations and processes which make it possible to perform computational feats beyond the reach of the naked brain. Some add an extra layer of projection and interpretation; they adhere to a certain theory of compatibility, rooted in psychology or brain chemistry or genetic coding, or they define themselves by other, more readily obvious indicators of similitude, such as race, religion, sexual predilection, sense of humor, or musical taste. There are those which basically allow you to browse through profiles as you would boxes of cereal on a shelf in the store. Others choose for you; they bring five boxes of cereal to your door, ask you to select one, and then return to the warehouse with the four others. Or else they leave you with all five.

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    Thursday
    Jan272011

    A Pound of Prevention Is Worth a Closer Look

    A review of OVERDIAGNOSIS: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch


    By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D. (From The New York Times)


    Make no mistake about it: modern medicine is a religion. For all the complicated science, the bottom line is that either you believe in the science or you don’t. If you are an average citizen and have your doubts, then you can just go about your business. But suppose you are a doctor and have your doubts. Then what?

    Then, if you are smart and courageous enough, you may go the route taken by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch and his colleagues at the Dartmouth School of Medicine over the last decade or so, as they persistently, politely tack their theses to the church door. Their writings (some for this newspaper) add up to a substantial protest against portions of the received wisdom that keeps the modern medico-industrial complex humming along.

    Are they lunatics, heretics or prophets? I’d say the last, but never mind what I think; all health care consumers can and should decide this one for themselves, and the group’s new book is a fine place to begin, as they cast a critical eye on our national obsession with preventative medicine.

    This is the field of endeavor that aims to keep healthy people healthy, either by warding off fatal illness like heart disease or cancer before it begins, or by detecting it at such an early stage it has yet to cause symptoms. The apple is the prototype here (take one daily). Unlike that useful fruit, however, preventive medicine keeps healthy people and their doctors joined at the hip, what with the routine checkups, the monitoring of breasts, colons, prostates, hearts, lungs and thyroids, the tuning of blood pressure, the jiggering of cholesterol, and the obsessive tracking of a few dozen biochemical parameters in routine blood tests.

    It all makes intrinsic sense. Who wouldn’t want a tiny little cancer instead of a big bad cancer, or a touch of high blood pressure instead of the full-blown thing? In a perfectly configured world, finding and fixing every problem early on would guarantee long-term blooming health. But, alas, the world of medicine is far from perfect.

    Take, for example, high blood pressure, called the “silent killer” because until it gets high enough to damage organs, it causes no discomfort at all. As the authors remind us, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death at age 63 was clearly a result of uncontrolled high blood pressure in the days before it was a recognized medical problem. Had he been treated with today’s drugs, he almost certainly would not have died so young.

    But for a person with very mildly elevated blood pressure — or perhaps with the newly created condition of “prehypertension,” with readings at the upper limit of normal — the calculus is quite different. In mild disease, the risks of harm from medication begin to loom very large as the risk of harms from the disease falls very low. For some people, especially the fragile elderly, the problems of the treatment can predominate.

    The authors deplore our habit of showering prescription drugs on those unlikely to benefit from them. They trace it directly to the fact that once the experts have drawn the line in the sand that separates “health” from “disease,” we all tend to forget that both entities are etched in shades of gray, not the black and white the terms imply.

    Similarly, the line between “normal” and “abnormal” is not the closed border most people envision but a no man’s land of substantial width. And so in our wild enthusiasm for seeking out tiny abnormalities, we often find them — thanks especially to the wondrous eyes of the latest high-priced scanners. Not necessarily the abnormalities we were looking for, but abnormalities nonetheless.

    Talk about too much information. Many of these little bobbles aren’t problems until we find them. Counterintuitively, that includes some small cancers likely to stay quiescent for years, or even to vanish on their own. But once they are identified, they have to be dealt with. So: more scans, more drugs, more side effects, more anxiety and depression and all the usual fallout of illness ... but all in fundamentally healthy people.

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    Friday
    Nov122010

    Cancer World

    The making of a modern disease.

    by Steven Shapin

    Book Review of  The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee  (Scribner; $30) from: The New Yorker, November 8, 2010

    In the United States one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer in their lifetime. Targeted therapies hold out the promise of a new era in cancer treatment, but will we fear cancer any the less?

    This is how it starts. Carla wakes up one morning feeling that something is wrong. She has been having headaches, but not of the normal, take-a-pill-and-relax type. These headaches come with a sort of numbness, and now she notices some other things that aren’t as they should be. There are bruises on her back that she can’t explain; her gums have been going pale; and she’s very, very tired. She goes to her doctor, but he can’t tell her what’s wrong. Try some aspirin, he says; maybe it’s a migraine. The aspirin doesn’t help, so she finally asks for some blood tests and soon she winds up at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, where a young and talented physician gives her the preliminary diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia (A.L.L.). Carla knows nothing about lymphoblasts, or why she’s going to have to have a bone-marrow sample taken, but she knows about leukemia. It’s cancer of the blood. She’s terrified, and she may not be in a state of mind to take in the oncologist’s reassurance that A.L.L. is “often curable.”

    Carla now enters not just a cancer ward but a cancer world. The ward is what the sociologist Erving Goffman once called a “total institution,” like asylums, armies, prisons, monasteries, and Oxbridge colleges—an institution that strips you of your identity and equips you with a new one. She’s given a case number, a bracelet, a hospital gown. Some of her physicians will know her name and what she was before becoming a cancer patient, and some will not. Her chemotherapy ward is an environment made sterile in order to protect her soon to be therapeutically devastated immune system from infection, so her relations with family and friends are reconfigured along with the rhythms of her days and weeks. She’s now a case.

    The oncologist in the story is Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” (Scribner; $30), a history of the disease and of the attempts to describe it, explain it, manage it, and cure it, or just to reconcile its victims to their fate. It is a personal story, too, an account of the author’s own “coming-of-age as an oncologist,” and its historical narrative is crosscut with Mukherjee’s present predicaments. He is sure that he can do much more for his patients than the physicians of the past, yet he recognizes his fellowship with his medical ancestors; he knows that he shares many of their hopes and frustrations. At the same time, he wants to understand what his patients share with their ailing forebears and what is peculiarly modern about their predicament. He sees that cancer is a world unto itself; that Carla is now part of this world; and that he is part of it, too. For cancer patients and their physicians, the cancer world seems to expand to the whole of experience. As one victim of a muscle sarcoma told Mukherjee, “I am in the hospital even when I am outside the hospital.”

    Cancer has always been with us, but not always in the same way. Its care and management have differed over time, of course, but so, too, have its identity, visibility, and meanings. Pick up the thread of history at its most distant end and you have cancer the crab—so named either because of the ramifying venous processes spreading out from a tumor or because its pain is like the pinch of a crab’s claw. Premodern cancer is a lump, a swelling that sometimes breaks through the skin in ulcerations producing foul-smelling discharges. The ancient Egyptians knew about many tumors that had a bad outcome, and the Greeks made a distinction between benign tumors (oncos) and malignant ones (carcinos). In the second century A.D., Galen reckoned that the cause was systemic, an excess of melancholy or black bile, one of the body’s four “humors,” brought on by bad diet and environmental circumstances. Ancient medical practitioners sometimes cut tumors out, but the prognosis was known to be grim. Describing tumors of the breast, an Egyptian papyrus from about 1600 B.C. concluded: “There is no treatment.”

    The experience of cancer has always been terrible, but, until modern times, its mark on the culture has been light. In the past, fear coagulated around other ways of dying: infectious and epidemic diseases (plague, smallpox, cholera, typhus, typhoid fever); “apoplexies” (what we now call strokes and heart attacks); and, most notably in the nineteenth century, “consumption” (tuberculosis). The agonizing manner of cancer death was dreaded, but that fear was not centrally situated in the public mind—as it now is. This is one reason that the medical historian Roy Porter wrote that cancer is “the modern disease par excellence,” and that Mukherjee calls it “the quintessential product of modernity.”

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    Saturday
    Sep112010

    What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire?


    by Kelefa Sanneh
    September 13, 2010

    “You are meant to have an amazing life!” Byrne writes.


    On February 8, 2007, Oprah Winfrey greeted her television audience by brandishing a DVD and asking, “Have you heard about it?” The DVD was “The Secret,” a low-budget inspirational documentary that was already a cult favorite; with Winfrey’s endorsement, it went mainstream. “My guests today believe that once you discover the Secret, that you can immediately start creating the life you want, whether it’s getting out of debt, whether it’s finding a more fulfilling job, even falling in love,” Winfrey said. “They say you can have it all, and, in fact, you already hold the power to make that happen.” After Winfrey interviewed the film’s creator, a former television producer from Australia named Rhonda Byrne, she paid “The Secret” her highest compliment. “Watch it with your children,” she said, looking into the camera, narrowing her eyes for emphasis. “I think this would be amazing, to start your children with this kind of thinking—don’t you, Rhonda?”

    The film that made Byrne a star—a spiritual leader, even—contains surprisingly little information about her. She appears on a gloomy street, with platinum hair and in a black sundress, lugging a suitcase. “A year ago, my life had collapsed around me,” she says, in voice-over. “I’d worked myself into exhaustion, my father died suddenly, and my relationships were in turmoil.” That started to change when Byrne’s daughter gave her a book about the law of attraction, which decrees that thoughts have physical power, and that thinking about something is the way to get it. If you want to stay poor, keep obsessing about your poverty; if you want to be rich, imagine yourself rich. The film consists mainly of interviews with motivational speakers and teachers—emissaries from the law-of-attraction industry. Joe Vitale, an ecumenical healer, strikes an exultant note. “You are the Michelangelo of your own life,” he says. “The David that you are sculpting is you.” And Esther Hicks, who emerges as the film’s guiding light, delivers a series of mini-sermons that have a strange, hypnotic force, owing partly to her faintly musical voice and untraceable accent. “You are the only one who creates your reality,” she says, nodding reassuringly. “For no one else can think for you. No one else can do it. It is only you.”

    “The Secret” was released around the same time as the film version of “The Da Vinci Code,” and it was cleverly packaged as a historical mystery. There are lingering shots of faded cursive script on parchment paper, often accompanied by pounding drums or wordless choirs, and Byrne talks about “tracing the Secret back through history,” revealing all the great thinkers who have harnessed its power. (According to one title card, “The Secret was suppressed,” though we never learn how, or by whom.)

    Eight months after the film came out, Byrne published a book, also called “The Secret,” which eventually sold more than nineteen million copies worldwide. It urges readers to rid themselves of illness through “harmonious thoughts,” to attract love by loving themselves, and to express gratitude for what they want before they get it. There are also scientific claims meant to demystify the law of attraction, although they invariably have the opposite effect. (“Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think, those thoughts are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency.”) And there are paeans to the mysterious power of joy. In one passage, Byrne offers seekers a grand bargain: “You can have whatever you want in your life, no limits. But there’s one catch: You have to feel good. And when you think about it, isn’t that all you ever want? The law is indeed perfect.”

    The final pages of “The Secret” are given over to biographies of its teachers and inspirational figures, but Esther Hicks is not among them. By the time the book was published, Byrne and Hicks had parted ways, after a financial dispute; Hicks even disappeared from later versions of the DVD. Two months after endorsing “The Secret” on television, Winfrey conducted a sympathetic radio interview with Hicks, who said that she had been ill-treated by Byrne. “It felt to me like we were drawn in, in one way, and utilized, and then sort of discarded,” Hicks said. (She said that Byrne did some of the filming for “The Secret” on a cruise organized by Hicks and her husband, Jerry.) Then another teacher from “The Secret,” James Arthur Ray, made headlines last year after he led a sweat-lodge ceremony in Arizona that caused the deaths of three participants; Ray was arrested and charged with manslaughter. (He has pleaded not guilty.) By then, Winfrey had started distancing herself from the movement. When she returned to the topic for a 2008 show, she sounded a note of skepticism: “It’s been a year since ‘The Secret’ caused a worldwide stir. There were cheers for its focus on positive thinking, and some jeers for its emphasis on getting stuff, on getting cars and money and things.”

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    Sunday
    Aug222010

    Data mining the heart

    How do we choose a mate? What scientists are learning from online dating.

    By Courtney Humphries  |  August 22, 2010

    To be single these days is to face a sea of advice about how to attract a partner. Men are attracted to youth and beauty; women are attracted to wealth and prestige. Or are they? There’s no shortage of impassioned opinion about what men and women want, yet there is little real evidence to support it. Even though finding love is one of our primary preoccupations, it has always been shrouded in mystery and guesswork. Adages like “opposites attract” feel comforting, but it would be even better to know what qualities actually entice potential partners in the real world.

    To really answer the question in a scientific way, we’d need to be able to observe the behavior of thousands of single people and see whom they choose to pursue and whom they pass over. We would need a peephole into the dating world.

    As it turns out, for the first time in history such a thing exists: It’s called online dating. Research presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association found that 22 percent of heterosexual couples surveyed met online, and researchers believe the Web could soon eclipse friends as the primary means of finding mates. As dating interactions have moved from the privacy of bars and social gatherings to the digital world of websites and e-mails, they are generating an unprecedented trove of data about how the initial phases of romance unfold. Online profiles contain detailed personal and demographic information about website users, and their interactions are indelibly recorded in digital form.

    Unlike participants in a dating research study, online daters are behaving candidly, not modifying their behavior for an audience. “It gives us a window into the difference between what people say they want and what they actually do,” says Andrew Fiore, a social psychologist at Michigan State University.

    This mountain of information is beginning to yield intriguing findings. The dating website OKCupid has begun publishing statistics about its users’ behavior on its blog, and using the numbers to generate real-world advice. For example: Men get more responses from women if they don’t smile in their profile pictures, and women find most men below average in attractiveness — but write to them anyway. More recently, the site has begun inviting collaboration with academics to do more thorough studies with the data. And in the past few years, several other researchers used data from other online dating and speed dating companies to uncover insights into what makes men and women actually respond to each other. The sheer number of interactions makes it possible for the first time to get a detailed look at how different characteristics — weight, height, race, income, age, appearance, and political leanings, to name a few — influence a person’s ability to get a date. Researchers have found, for example, that a man needs to make several extra tens of thousands of dollars to compensate for being an inch shorter, and that race matters more than people admit.

    All of this information promises to give singles advice based on real evidence rather than anecdote. But it also raises questions about how much we can learn about the intricacies of individual relationships by taking a bird’s-eye view of the dating world. Does the opportunity to catalog the flirtations of thousands of daters really tell us what makes two people choose to be together?

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