Immortality at Midnight – The New York Times

Toward the end of another unexpected year of existence, outliving a poor prognosis of late-stage cancer rouses me in the dark. Such an awakening is quite different from the fretful insomnia that accompanied the dire diagnosis. Especially in this season of celebrated miracles, it somehow thrills me to be stirring at 2 or 3 a.m. Trepidation and grief dissolve in the weird awareness (can it possibly be true?) of still being alive.

Back in 2008, I was informed by a brilliant and dismayed oncologist that I would probably die before 2013. Do those of us in extended treatment become revenants? Although like many patients I continue to curse the disease, there may be one transient byproduct of even a brief reprieve for some lucky few: Cognizance of limited time can paradoxically expand time.

In my case, this oddly gratifying wakefulness seems to have little to do with meditation, handbooks, support groups, yoga classes, breathing exercises, massage, acupuncture, flax seeds, carrot juice, green tea or vitamin C. Has hardly anything to do with being responsible, not complaining, making a nutritious supper, washing the dishes, swabbing the surfaces, taking out the garbage. Or with phoning the relatives, telling stories, not complaining, listening to their fears and wishes.

Has little to do with belief in any god or gods, with redemption or resurrection, with going to heaven or, for that matter, elsewhere. Even less to do with researchers, physicians, radiologists, surgeons, nurses or technicians — the noble professionals who must be thanked — or with scans, blood tests, with living longer or better, procedures or trials or drugs, no, not at all.

The eerie quickening might have something to do with a storm passing, tossing the trees and lighting up the night sky, and then booming farther off in the distance. But, I concede as I get up out of the bed, it might not. It could be related to a partner snoring rhythmically in the abandoned bedroom or a tune in my head, bringing back memories of twirling around on a rug when I was young, spinning so rapidly that the pattern began to whirl round and round.

In other words, it may have to do with William Carlos Williams’s poem “Danse Russe.” But not exactly because I don’t take off my clothes to dance in front of a mirror, waving my shirt above my head, though I am reveling at being vertical, wide-awake, and the spirit of the household while everyone else, here and in the neighborhood, is fast asleep. At this point, I’m not much drawn to mirrors or nakedness.

It probably is connected to the prospect of beaded bubbles winking at the brim of a glass of wine, but not necessarily. Because it can descend so oddly, with simply donning slippers as the moon silvers a shade or a tremulous tree limb shivers on a window — and I am roaming in the shadowy house, savoring the bliss, the animation and vibrancy of life, how inexplicable it is, how thoroughly meaningless and incommunicable and incommensurate.

There I am, then, my body seeded with cancer that has recurred and may return, whereas now the air is sweet and quiet, with only me conscious, and I can inch forward into futures I weave for the ones I must leave behind. May they prosper and thrive through a series of tomorrows I will not experience but cherish envisioning. For they need to find — oh, please let them find! — love elsewhere and abundantly.

Yes, here I am, not the object of concern or pity that I will become later again, as before. But at this hour — because of a shivering or a silvering — alight with the frisson of being unknown in the night’s oasis, hugging my captivated self so as to capture a sliver of exhilaration and bring back a swatch for those circumstances when I will need to remember what it was all for.

Alone but not lonely, I creep down the dim hall to study photos on a shelf: friends, children, cousins, grandchildren. All of them at various stages of evolution with their unique expressions of expectation or anxiety, curiosity or self-consciousness — standing still for the intrusive camera. Each requires a long stare. Where are they going? Will they be happy? Each elicits a smile; tears flow, but tears of joy.

There are throngs of hard to visualize faces as well, strangers who have testified. Men and women whom I have read or who have read me and found the strength to comment with wisdom, irony, grit, caveats, quibbles, disputes, rants, confessions, jokes: lusciously swirling words. Editors and copy editors, too: the scrupulous sensibilities behind the outpouring. And countless storytellers, memoirists, filmmakers, poets, photographers, singers, scholars, activists setting the record straight, working for a cure, churning up insights.

What is this inebriated euphoria? Immortality at midnight! An intuition of the rightness and beauty and uniqueness of those I know and those I do not know but reverence from afar in my singular ecstasy of simply feeling fine, feeling good, staying in that sense that here is the genius of truth and the truth of genius because pleasure and exultation pulse now in this contingent place, inside just this illumined moment of being.

Susan Gubar writes about life with ovarian cancer.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/well/live/immortality-at-midnight.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Can a Fitness Tracker Help You Run a Better Race?

Data can be helpful, said Dr. Simon Marshall, a coach, performance psychologist and co-author of “The Brave Athlete.”

“One of the cornerstones of improving is self-monitoring,” he said. Wearables provide that information — and it’s also objective. You may feel one way, while the data your body spits out may say another. Wearables “reduce our tendency to rely on anecdotes, feelings and impressions and all the other reasons human brains interpret information in a biased way,” he said.

All that data, however, can exacerbate issues athletes already have with conditions like anxiety. “Sometimes gadgets or the ability to quantify what you’re doing — they can be enablers of those traits,” Dr. Marshall said. “They can bring out the worst in some people’s personalities and can lead to less happiness, not more.” An intense focus on data can “disconnect you from the experience of running,” he said.

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Andrew Begley, coach at the Atlanta Track Club who oversees its Olympic Development program, said that sometimes runners can be hurt by the numbers that wearables produce if they focus on just one aspect of their training and forget the other factors that make for a strong runner.

“They get it in their head the way to be a better runner is to work harder, to run faster. It’s not really about that. It’s about recovery. It’s about making sure you’re getting enough sleep. It’s eating well,” he said. “As a coach, you have to remind them not to focus so much on that one aspect of their training, and help them focus on the whole picture.”

And some studies show that tracking devices can hamper goals. A recent study published in The Journal of American Education found that many teenagers who wore activity trackers got frustrated with them, feeling discouraged if they didn’t fit in 10,000 steps a day and became less motivated to be active than before they had the device. A 2016 JAMA study also found that activity trackers can undermine weight loss goals.

And of course if we don’t use them, which many people don’t, the only purpose they’ll serve is as a dust catcher. Dr. Louis Manza, professor and chair of psychology at Lebanon Valley College and an ultrarunner, got a Fitbit as a gift last year but never really got past the initial setup phase. “I was playing around with it for an hour trying to set the thing up,” he said, before deciding, “I don’t need this.”

While he says that experienced runners can benefit from getting objective data on their progress via an activity tracker, he doubts their value for new runners. “Someone who’s just starting, they’ve got to get into the rhythm of just moving,” he said. “I don’t know how much it’s really going to help them if their primary goal is putting one foot in front of the other and getting in the habit of getting out the door and exercising.”

In addition, for many people, the data can be overwhelming and distract you from reading your body’s own natural feedback.

“When you’re listening to your body, you’re getting more out of the workout, whatever that experience is. If you’re relying on your technology for everything, you’re not listening to what your body is trying to do and not getting the best benefit from the workout,” Dr. Manza said.

So did the Performance Metrics tracker offer any insights about my running? Despite stopping four times to retape the puck to my body and reboot the device, it still didn’t record a heartbeat. That resulted in a very frustrated runner and Performance Metrics team, and two large chafing spots on my chest that still hadn’t quite healed a month later.

The device did, however, stay put on Tiki Barber, the former New York Giants running back, who had tested it out twice before running the marathon. He found that if he wore a strap around his body and shoulder it would stay in place during his run.

He has run seven marathons and said he hoped that the data would help him figure out why he has always bonked around mile 18. “Does my heart rate pick up? Does my sweat rate increase at some point? What about my body temperature? Does my posture change and I’m putting more stress on different parts of my body? That’s what I wanted to find out,” he said.

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Mr. Barber has yet to analyze the data but says he hopes to wear the tracker again in his next marathon. I, however, will probably pass.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/well/move/can-a-fitness-tracker-help-you-run-a-better-race.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Shopping List for Champagne – The New York Times

CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

The bigger producers of Champagne are producing excellent, distinctive celebratory wines, even at the entry level. Here are 10 big brands well worth seeking out, and a glossary to help you navigate the selections.

Billecart-Salmon

Refined Champagnes, particularly the Brut Réserve ($45), Brut Sous Bois, fermented and aged in barrels ($80), and the rosé ($65). (T. Edward, New York)

Bruno Paillard

Graceful Champagnes of great minerality and finesse, including the nonvintage Brut Première Cuvée ($45) and the vintage blanc de blancs ($75). (Verity Wine Partners, New York)

Charles Heidsieck

Nonvintage Brut Réserve ($55) is extraordinarily deep and complex; the other cuvées are just as good. (Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Calif.)

Delamotte

Nonvintage blanc de blancs ($60) is pure, chalky and elegant; the vintage ($100) is even better. (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.)

Duval-Leroy

From the nonvintage brut ($40) to the high-end Femme de Champagne ($180), a fine range of understated beauties. (Duval-Leroy Imports, Manhasset, N.Y.)

Jacquesson

Idiosyncratic yet gorgeous Champagnes, from the savory, numbered, extra brut nonvintages (currently No. 739, $50), to the higher end, site-specific cuvées. (Vintage ’59 Imports, Washington)

Louis Roederer

Across-the-board top quality, from energetic, harmonious nonvintage Brut Premier ($45) to the vintage blanc de blancs ($75) to the high-end Cristal ($250). (Maisons Marques & Domaines USA, Oakland, Calif.)

Philipponnat

Ripe, rich nonvintage Royale Réserve Brut ($60) is fine, but the higher-end blends are superb, especially the single-vineyard Clos des Goisses ($200). (Banville Wine Merchants, New York)

Ruinart

Nonvintage blanc de blancs ($70) is unusually full-bodied though elegant and fresh; vintage Dom Ruinart blanc de blancs ($140) is superb. (Moët Hennessy USA, New York)

Taittinger

Understated wines, from the lacy, toasty, nonvintage La Française ($40) to the complex Comtes de Champagne blanc de blancs ($150). (Kobrand, New York)

Champagne Cheat Sheet

Blanc de Blancs Champagne is ordinarily a blend of some combination of three grapes. Two, pinot noir and pinot meunier, are black grapes, ordinarily used to make red wines. One, chardonnay, is a white grape for white wine. A blanc de blancs, literally white from whites, is made solely from chardonnay and tends to have great elegance and finesse.

Blanc de Noirs “White from blacks” is a Champagne made only of black grapes, often but not always just pinot noir. It’s more robust than blanc de blancs and much rarer.

Disgorgement After the wine is fermented and bottled, a little sweetness and yeast are added to the bottle before it is sealed. This starts a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the carbonation. Before the Champagne is finished, the sediment left by the dead yeast is expelled, or disgorged, from the bottle.

Dosage After disgorgement, the Champagne is generally sweetened a bit before it’s corked to balance the often searing acidity of the wine.

Brut The amount of the dosage determines how dry the Champagne will be. Brut is the most common designation, indicating a wine that can range from 0 to 12 grams of residual sugar per liter, though nowadays most bruts are 6 to 10 grams.

Extra Brut indicates a very dry Champagne, 0 to 6 grams of residual sugar per liter.

Brut Nature Indicates no dosage, though technically it can have a small dosage of up to 3 grams of residual sugar per liter. Synonyms include brut zéro.

Extra Dry Paradoxically, this indicates a much sweeter Champagne than brut, up to 17 grams residual sugar per liter. Demi-sec is even sweeter.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/dining/best-champagne-shopping-list-definitions.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

What We Mean When We Say Evidence-Based Medicine

In medicine, the term “evidence-based” causes more arguments than you might expect.

And that’s quite apart from the recent political controversy over why certain words were avoided in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget documents.

The arguments don’t divide along predictable partisan lines, either.

The mission of “evidence-based medicine” is surprisingly recent. Before its arrival, much of medicine was based on clinical experience. Doctors tried to figure out what worked by trial and error, and they passed their knowledge along to those who trained under them.

The benefits of evidence-based medicine, when properly applied, are obvious. We can use evidence from treatments to help people make better choices.CreditJean-Christophe Bott/European Pressphoto Agency

Many were first introduced to evidence-based medicine through David Sackett’s handbook, first published in 1997. The book taught me how to use test characteristics, like sensitivity and specificity, to interpret medical tests. It taught me how to understand absolute risk versus relative risk. It taught me the proper ways to use statistics in diagnosis and treatment, and in weighing benefits and harms.

It also firmly established in my mind the importance of randomized controlled trials, and the great potential for meta-analyses, which group individual trials for greater impact. This influence is apparent in what I write for The Upshot.

But evidence-based medicine is often described quite differently.

Many of its supporters say that using evidence-based medicine can address the problems of cost, quality and access that bedevil the health care system. If we all agree upon best practices — based on data and research — we can reduce unnecessary care, save money and push people into pathways to yield better results.

Critics of evidence-based medicine, many of them from within the practice of medicine, point to weak evidence behind many guidelines. Some believe that medicine is more of an “art” than a “science” and that limiting the practice to a cookbook approach removes focus from the individual patient.

Some of these critics (as well as many readers who comment on my articles) worry that guidelines line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and radiologists by demanding more drugs and more scans. Others worry that evidence-based medicine makes it harder to get insurance companies to pay for needed care. Insurance companies worry that evidence-based recommendations put them on the hook for treatment with minimal proven value.

Everyone is a bit right here, and everyone is a bit wrong. This battle isn’t new; it has been going on for some time. It’s the old guard versus the new. It’s the patient versus the system. It’s freedom versus rationing. It’s even the individual physician versus the proclamations of a specialized elite.

Because of the tensions in that last conflict, this debate has become somewhat political.

The benefits of evidence-based medicine, when properly applied, are obvious. We can use test characteristics and results to make better diagnoses. We can use evidence from treatments to help people make better choices once diagnoses are made. We can devise research to give us the information we are lacking to improve lives. And, when we have enough studies available, we can look at them together to make widespread recommendations with more confidence than we’d otherwise be able.

When evidence-based medicine is not properly applied, though, it not only undermines its reasons for existence, but it also can lead to harm. Guidelines — and there are many — are often promoted as “evidence-based” even though they rely on “evidence” unsuited to its application. Sometimes, these guidelines are used by vested interests to advance an agenda or control providers.

Further, too often we treat all evidence as equivalent. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that “research” proves I’m wrong. All research is not the same. A hierarchy of quality exists, and we have to be sure not to overreach.

There is a difference between statistical significance and clinical significance. Get a large enough cohort together, and you will achieve the former. That by itself does not ensure that the result achieves clinical significance and should alter clinical practice.

Finally, we have to recognize that even when good studies are done, with clinically significant results, we shouldn’t over-extrapolate the findings. Just because something worked in a particular population doesn’t mean we should do the same things to another group and say that we have evidence for it.

Years ago, Trisha Greenhalgh and colleagues wrote an article in the BMJ citing evidence-based medicine as “a movement in crisis.” It argued that we’ve moved too much from focusing on disease to risk. This point, more than any other, highlights the problem evidence-based medicine seems to have in the public sphere.

Too many articles, studies and announcements are quick to point out that something or other has been proved to be dangerous to our health, without a good explanation of the magnitude of that risk, or what we might reasonably do about it.

Big data, gene sequencing, artificial intelligence — all of these may provide us with lots of information on how we might be at risk for various diseases. What we lack is knowledge about what to do with what we might learn.

If evidenced-based medicine is to live up to its potential, it seems the focus should be on that side of the equation as well, instead of taking best guesses and calling them evidence-based. This, probably more than anything else, has made the term so widely mistrusted.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/27/upshot/what-we-mean-when-we-say-evidence-based-medicine.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

The Pop Charts Were Crazy This Year. Here’s Why.

Making the Streams Count
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Post Malone’s “Rockstar” got a boost from a version posted on YouTube by his record label that looped part of the song over and over.

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Arthur Mola/Invision, via Associated Press

Sometimes a grass-roots push, such as the loosely organized social media campaign to vault Cardi B over Ms. Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” wasn’t quite enough. In the case of “Rockstar,” which was a smash on Spotify and Apple Music immediately upon release, Post Malone also got a wily assist from his label, Republic Records, which found a loophole on YouTube. While the video service has long been a target of the music industry for its low royalty payouts and pesky copyright infringers, free streams on YouTube do count toward Hot 100 placement. But instead of posting the entire song free, Republic uploaded a version of “Rockstar” that was exactly the same length as the actual track, but featured only its chorus, looped again and again. (It also closed comments on the video, preventing users from explaining to others what was going on.)

In its first few weeks, the video earned more than 40 million plays, contributing to the song’s reign on Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart, which preceded its peak on the Hot 100. The successful tactic even had copycats — Big Sean’s “Pull Up N Wreck,” for one — though YouTube has since had the videos removed and changed its rules, telling Pitchfork in a statement: “any upload of a song intended to mislead a user (preview, truncated, looped) posted on YouTube to look like the original song will not contribute to any charts.”

SoundCloud and YouTube: Early Warning Systems
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Lil Pump was one of a handful of SoundCloud rappers whose music crossed over and became a streaming smash.

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Rick Kern/WireImage, via Getty Images

Some of the most ubiquitous rap hits of the year weren’t supposed to be hits at all. While streaming success stories are typically dominated by Spotify, which counts more than 60 million paid subscribers, and Apple, which has some 30 million, the digital underground can be just as influential.

“XO Tour Llif3,” a Top 10 hit by Lil Uzi Vert, began as a freebie on SoundCloud, only to gain so much steam that it left his label, Atlantic Records, no choice but to monetize it. The song eventually made its way to Spotify’s prominent Rap Caviar playlist and reached No. 7 on the Hot 100 in June. Similarly, Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” dominated the SoundCloud charts long before it got a proper commercial push, hitting No. 3 in December. YouTube worked in much the same way, elevating to the mainstream harsh and sometimes troubling viral songs like “The Race” by Tay-K, a teenage fugitive; “Gummo” by the controversial Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine; and “Rubbin Off the Paint” by YBN Nahmir.

Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3” Video by LIL UZI VERT

This trend may not hold: Billboard has announced that beginning in 2018, streams on unpaid or ad-supported services — like YouTube, most of SoundCloud and Spotify’s unpaid tier — would be weighted less than streams on paid services like Apple Music and Google Play. One potential consequence? Fewer niche rappers rubbing shoulders with Bruno Mars and Sam Smith on the pop charts.

In a Year of Streaming, How About Not?

Warning: It may not work for everyone. But for Taylor Swift, like Adele before her, this year was not yet time to follow the flock. By keeping her new album, “Reputation,” off streaming services for its first three weeks, Ms. Swift guaranteed herself an old-fashioned blockbuster, selling 1.2 million copies in her debut week. In the album’s first three days alone, it moved 925,000 units, some 600,000 as downloads and the rest as physical copies, both of which pay out higher royalty rates than streaming. Nice work if you can get it.

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Albums as Add-Ons
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Shania Twain and other artists who rely less on streaming numbers for their success took an alternate route to No. 1: bundling their albums with ticket sales for upcoming tours.

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Justin Tang/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

For other acts whose strengths may not necessarily lie in streaming — in other words, nonrappers — there was the ticket bundle. Though it has been around for a decade, the strategy gained prominence this year as Pink, Katy Perry, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain and U2 topped the album chart in part by including copies of their new releases with the purchase of concert tickets.

Though the sale counts only if the buyer actually redeems the album, the cost is factored into the ticket price and proved a pretty surefire way to gain a first-week sales boost for these reliable live acts. “About 20 percent to 30 percent of fans tend to redeem their album offers, with most favoring CDs or vinyl over downloads, though nudges on email and social media can drive better results,” Billboard reported.

The Remix Comes Through

The big-name remix, another tried-and-true maneuver that found new relevance this year, breathed extra life into a few big hits. “Despacito,” the pop-reggaeton gamechanger, was already huge, especially on YouTube and the Spotify global chart, before Mr. Bieber’s verse was added. But the remix made it a supernova that led the Hot 100 for a record-tying 16 straight weeks and earned Grammy nominations for record and song of the year. Beyoncé provided a similar bit of magic to J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” lifting it up to No. 3 from No. 21; she later jumped on Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” taking it all the way to No. 1. More quietly, Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” got a crunchtime bump from a Spanish-language remix and one featuring Kodak Black, both of which counted toward the main version’s chart position as it reached its apex.

J Balvin, Willy William – “Mi Gente” ft. Beyoncé Video by jbalvinVEVO

Endless Albums

From vinyl through the peak CD era, album length was often dictated by how much music could fit on the disc. The internet has done away with that constraint, too, leading some artists to pile on the tracks in hopes of racking up the streams. For a juggernaut like Drake, more did indeed mean more: “More Life,” his so-called playlist, was 22 songs long and broke digital records. Chris Brown upped the ante in October with “Heartbreak on a Full Moon,” which came in at 45 tracks, and he even instructed his fans on how to send it up the charts (“leave the album on repeat”), though he failed to reach Drake heights. And a new compilation by the stream-heavy label Quality Control, featuring Migos and Lil Yachty, has 30 songs, indicating that the idea has not yet reached saturation.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/27/arts/music/pop-charts-trends-streaming-taylor-swift.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

The Best Poetry of 2017

August Kleinzahler, “Before Dawn on Bluff Road: Selected New Jersey Poems / Hollyhocks in the Fog: Selected San Francisco Poems.” A double book that offers a two-state tour from one of America’s most agile and musical writers. The complexities of the concept — or feeling? — of home have rarely been given such subtly tender treatment.

Alessandra Lynch, “Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment.” You can read 20 pages into Lynch’s book before you fully realize it’s about a sexual assault — and this is to her credit. She wants to show an act of violence in all its terrible particularity and also in the way it becomes a background against which identity trembles and sometimes fractures. It’s difficult to read this collection without thinking about how timely it is, but its force is in no sense dependent on that congruity.

Meghan O’Rourke, “Sun in Days.” O’Rourke’s third book, “Sun in Days” takes up illness, motherhood and death in lyrics with an essayistic sense of exploration and self-adjustment (“The surface more slippery, slick / and white the ice. I stand at the pond’s edge / gather the information darkening there / hello algae hello fish pond / my mind in the depths going…”).

Kiki Petrosino, “Witch Wife.” Petrosino is a canny, wide-ranging and formally nimble writer with a magician’s command of atmosphere. Consider the beginning of her unsettling villanelle “Nursery”: “We opened the door to the fairy house / & took our tea on matching pebble seats. / Somehow we got out of there alive / though something crystalline of us / remains in that dark, growing its facets…” Stranger things indeed. (A bonus is this collection’s fantastic cover, which is a reminder of how potently poems and art can reinforce each other.)

Tom Pickard, “Fiends Fell.” The chronicle of a year on a wind-blasted ridge on the Scottish-English border called Fiends Fell (or less poetically, Cross Fell), this collection is a mix of poetry and plainspoken prose that meditates on loneliness, sex, geography, art and occasionally pies. The closing poem, “Lark & Merlin,” is a showcase for Pickard’s extraordinary acoustical precision.

Craig Morgan Teicher, “The Trembling Answers.” Teicher’s gentle, technically adroit poems are openly autobiographical, often to good effect. The best poems here move quietly into strange places, as in the deliberately banally titled “The Hairdryer Cord Is All Tangled,” in which the cord is … more than a hairdryer cord.

Wendy Xu, “Phrasis.” Xu’s warmly intelligent collection is phrase-based, as you might expect given the title, and thus does its work through juxtaposition, quick shifts and odd, dreamlike combinations (“The cactus blooms itself / in air, is going places, is not / and never has been a vision / of anyone’s hand / laboring nightly…”).

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/books/review/best-poetry.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

In Winter, You Might Wish You Had This Rodent Superpower

The new research brings scientists closer to understanding enigmas of hibernation and solving a mystery of how this molecular sensor works. The work also may lead to therapies for allodynia, a nerve condition that causes some people to misperceive something normally not-so-cold as painful.

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The Syrian hamster, too, can adjust its body temperature to withstand prolonged cold.

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Arterra/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images

TRPM8 is an ion channel located on some neurons in skin covering the body and face. When exposed to cold air or certain chemicals, like menthol, the pores open, allowing a flood of ions into the cell like cool air through a window. This sends a signal that says something like “hey, it’s cold” to the central nervous system. Humans and other animals use the system to detect cold and, along with other organs, to feel a range of temperatures.

But something is different in the TRPM8 of thirteen-lined ground squirrels and Syrian hamsters (also called Teddy bear hamsters), so the researchers compared their behavior, neurons and proteins with that of standard lab mice and rats.

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In one test involving surfaces of varying temperatures, they found that the squirrels and hamsters (to a lesser extent) didn’t seem to notice a temperature gradient that for us might be like the difference between jacket-and-jeans or tank-top-and-shorts weather. The mice were very aware of these temperature differences.

After additional study of extracted TRPM8 proteins, the team found a set of amino acids inside the channel that were the source of the ground squirrel’s seeming imperviousness to cold down to a certain temperature.

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Elena Gracheva, a neurophysiologist at Yale University.” data-mediaviewer-credit=”Phil Myers/Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan” itemprop=”url” itemid=”https://static01.nyt.com/images/2017/12/28/science/28TB-RODENTS2/28TB-RODENTS2-master675.jpg”/>

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels “combine warm and cold blooded animals in one,” said Elena Gracheva, a neurophysiologist at Yale University.

Credit
Phil Myers/Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan

If she swapped some of my TRPM8’s amino acids with those of a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, would walking around New York City in winter feel less miserable? Would I have a superpower?

While TRPM8 explains some cold tolerance, it does not fully explain how I in New York or a ground squirrel in, say, Michigan would sense temperatures just above or below freezing. And although it’s a cold detector, it’s not clear what the brain and the rest of the body does with the signal. And while TRPM8 plays a role in the squirrel’s hibernation, it doesn’t trigger it.

“Changing its ability to sense cold, for example, TRPM8, is an important part of the puzzle but not the only one,” said Slav Bagriantsev, a neurophysiologist at Yale University who shares a lab with Dr. Gracheva and a co-author of the study. Lowered metabolism, heart rate and breathing also aid in survival during hibernation.

So maybe becoming a superhuman who doesn’t hate winter so much isn’t a reason to care about TRPM8. But it’s a nice reminder that nature’s diversity produces some real superpowers.

“It’s a fantastic time in science to look outside the mouse book,” said Dr. Gracheva. “You can learn a lot about our human biology, and biology in general, by looking at animals with sensory diversification.”

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/27/science/squirrels-hamsters-winter.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Measles Deaths Fall to a Record Low Worldwide

“Sadly, this excellent progress threatens to be undermined by low coverage, not only in many developing countries, but also in some wealthy ones,” Dr. Seth Berkley, Gavi’s chief executive officer, said in his year-end letter.

Because measles is so contagious — one child can infect a dozen others in a classroom or at a playground, even before the telltale rash appears — outbreaks in any community or school can be prevented only by pushing vaccination rates to 95 percent.

Outbreaks crop up in many countries. More than 30 children died of measles in Romania this year, and in the last two months, the C.D.C. has issued Watch Level 1 travel alerts regarding measles outbreaks in England, Greece, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Romania, Italy, Indonesia and Ukraine. (The alerts encourage travelers to “practice usual precautions,” meaning vaccination before departure.)

The Disneyland measles outbreak of 2014-15 led California to pass tough new laws requiring vaccination, and vaccination rates among Southern California kindergartners are now close to 98 percent.

In wealthy countries, deaths from measles are rare — only about one case in 5,000 is fatal. More common complications include encephalitis, which can cause brain damage in about one in 1,500 measles cases, and pneumonia, which occurs in about one in 16 cases. About one child in 12 with measles will get a related ear infection; some lead to deafness.

In unvaccinated pregnant women, the virus can kill the fetus, leading to miscarriage.

The disease kills up to 6 percent of malnourished children in poor countries, the W.H.O. estimates, and up to 30 percent in some outbreaks among refugees. Half of the world’s unvaccinated children live in six countries: Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/26/health/measles-deaths-vaccination.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

You Want to Climb Mount Everest? Here’s What It Takes

Q: How many bodies are on Everest?

Nearly 300 people are known to have died on Everest. Nepal’s government estimates that most of them, perhaps 200, remain there.

Q: How do people die, and what are the primary dangers?

Most famously, as depicted in popular culture, climbers die from exposure to the elements — the subfreezing temperatures and the high altitude, especially after running out of supplemental oxygen and getting caught in sudden storms. But many climbers die from falls and avalanches, and others from health problems like heart attacks. Increasingly, climbers worry about the role of the crowds on Everest, where routes can be jammed with people desperate to reach the summit. More than 20 years after it was published, Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” remains the cautionary tale.

Q: What does extreme altitude do to the body?

The area above 8,000 meters (about 26,000 feet), from Camp 4 to the summit, is called the “death zone,” because of its thin air and brutal weather. With gains in altitude, each breath draws less oxygen for the lungs and bloodstream, which is why most climbers, including guides, use supplemental oxygen.

Typical effects of altitude include headaches, nausea and exhaustion. But in the death zone, high-altitude cerebral edema can create a lack of muscle control, impaired speech, confusion and hallucinations. High-altitude pulmonary edema results in coughing and breathing problems. Frostbite, snow blindness and hypothermia are major threats.

Q: I want to climb Everest someday. Can anyone do it?

The primary barriers are money and fitness. While Nepal’s government has placed restrictions on foreigners — expensive permits, the necessity of hiring an outfitter with guides, and an age requirement of 18, for example — it is only now considering ways to restrict attempts to highly experienced mountaineers.

Q: How much does it cost?

The range is wide — from nearly $30,000 to $100,000 or more. Foreigners must buy an $11,000 permit from the Nepalese government, plus pay other fees, but the variance has to do with the outfitters hired. Some offer Western guides for Western clients, which can be more expensive than local ones, or some hybrid in the ratio between climbers and guides. (For example, 1 local guide per climber, plus one Western guide for every four climbers.) Other substantial costs include travel, gear, oxygen and weeks of food and camping while acclimatizing at Base Camp (17,600 feet).

Q: Who are the sherpas?

Guides in the Himalayas are often called “sherpas,” though not all are part of the ethnic group of Sherpa, from which many take their surname. Most are young men, living anywhere from small villages to the chaotic city of Kathmandu, who find they can make more money as a guide than in other lines of work. The Nepal government said that most guides earn about $6,000 per expedition, but the range is broad, from camp cooks (perhaps $2,500) to lead guides ($10,000). They are not immune to the dangers; nearly half the people who have died on Everest have been sherpa guides.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/18/sports/climb-mount-everest.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

At Vice, Cutting-Edge Media and Allegations of Old-School Sexual Harassment

“People marveled at their ability to make their own rules and blindly disregard everyone else’s,” Ms. Hopper said in an interview. She declined to comment on the existence of a settlement.

“The editor of the piece at that time has not been with the company in a decade,” Vice said in a statement. “Ms. Hopper was right to call us on our conduct at the time, and we are still ashamed of it.’’

Mr. Smith, who had long celebrated a life of hard-partying excess, married a woman in 2009 who had worked at Vice and started wearing suits to the office, current and former employees said. But they also suggested that he oversaw a company where issues of sexual misconduct and harassment festered.

In their statement, Mr. Smith and Mr. Alvi admitted that dysfunction and mismanagement from the company’s early days “were allowed to flourish unchecked.”

Women said that they felt that rejecting sexual advances from bosses could result in reassignment or lost work, and that when they reported problems, executives downplayed the allegations. Some said that while they considered taking legal action, they thought they lacked the financial resources to sue and feared that Vice would retaliate.

“There is a toxic environment where men can say the most disgusting things, joke about sex openly, and overall a toxic environment where women are treated far inferior than men,” said Sandra Miller, who worked as head of branded production at Vice from 2014 to 2016.

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Sandra Miller, who led Vice’s branded production efforts from 2014 to 2016, said she never experienced harassment there, but said it was “overall a toxic environment where women are treated far inferior than men.”

Credit
Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times

She said that as a 50-year-old woman she did not face harassment but witnessed “the complicity of accepting that behavior, covering up for it, and having even the most progressive people look the other way.”

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The workplace problems were particularly disappointing, many women said, because they had viewed Vice as their dream opportunity. The company didn’t pay well, some said, but it was the definition of cool for those who wanted to create entertainment and journalism on the cutting edge. The company bestowed select staff members rings that spell V-I-C-E — considered the ultimate prize.

People worked long hours and partied together afterward. And that’s where the lines often blurred. Multiple women said that after a night of drinking, they wound up fending off touching, kissing and other advances from their superiors.

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An issue of Vice magazine.

Two women told The Times about episodes involving Mike Germano, Vice’s chief digital officer who founded Carrot Creative, the digital ad agency that Vice acquired in 2013. Amanda Rue, a former strategist, said that at Carrot’s holiday party in 2012 Mr. Germano told her that he hadn’t wanted to hire her because he wanted to have sex with her.

Gabrielle Schaefer, who worked closely with Mr. Germano as director of communications at Carrot, said he made her feel uncomfortable during a work event at a bar one night in 2014 when he pulled her onto his lap. After Ms. Schaefer reported the incident to human resources, she said, she felt that she fell out of favor at the company and eventually left.

“Carrot has been repeatedly recognized as one of the industry’s best places to work, and I do not believe that these allegations reflect the company’s culture — or the way we treat each other,” Mr. Germano said in a statement. “With regards to the incident with Ms. Schaefer, I agreed at that time it was inappropriate, I apologized, and it was resolved with the help of HR.” He said that days later Ms. Schaefer joined his family for dinner and that they “continued to work together amicably.”

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Andrew Creighton, left, president of Vice Media, with Mr. Smith at a company party in 2011.

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Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In the settlement involving Mr. Creighton, the woman claimed she felt pressured to submit to advances he made during a series of work meetings from 2013 to 2015, according to people familiar with the matter and letters sent between lawyers for the woman and Vice.

In a letter to the woman’s lawyer, Vice denied the allegations and said the woman had initiated and pursued a sexual relationship with Mr. Creighton. The company said in the letter that her termination was based on poor performance.

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The dispute was settled in December 2016 after the woman filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (She withdrew her complaint as a condition of the agreement.)

In a statement, Mr. Creighton said that he and the woman were “close friends for several years before she joined Vice,” and that they were “occasionally intimate” once she began working there. He said he was not involved in the decision to let her go.

“I apologize for the situation, and it has caused much thought in my responsibilities of care for my colleagues, and I will hold myself and others accountable in constructing a respectful workplace environment.”

Agreements Encourage Silence

Executives erected a wall of silence around the company. Employees were required to sign a confidentiality agreement when they joined Vice, stating that during and after their employment they would not publicly disparage the company, according to a copy viewed by The Times.

Until recently, Vice also required employees to sign a nontraditional workplace agreement acknowledging that they would be exposed to explicit, potentially disturbing material but that they did not find such content or “the workplace environment” to be offensive or disturbing.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/23/business/media/vice-sexual-harassment.html?partner=rss&emc=rss