Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th of July

Brandenburg 4th I'm in Berlin this 4th, attending a cardiology conference.  I was surprised to find that they were celebrating the 'American' 4th with gusto here: there were paired German and US flags fluttering everywhere and a soundstage near the Brandenburg Gate that wouldn't be out of place in Milwaukee.

It turns out that a new American embassy is opening here today, and the city is celebrating.  Inexplicably, the concert features Loony Tunes, but at least the hot dogs are off the grill and slathered with mustard.

So, Happy "AmerikaFest 2008" !

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Fighting obesity

 Gender and fat I received a study data set from a colleague yesterday that measures the weight and body fat percentage of a dozen normal people, three times a day, over the course of a month.  He asked if I could help with calculating the statistics, and I spent the morning organizing and importing the data, then doing some simple exploratory analysis to get a sense of what was in there.  After preprocessing to adjust the shapes of the distributions of raw data and to do a quality check on outliers, I like to pose questions and see if the answers match my intuition.

 Weight and TimeDo women have a higher body fat percentage than men?  They should, and, from the data (above), they do.

Does weight change from morning (A) to noon (B) to night (C)?  I expect it to increase, and it does (but not significantly).  Interestingly, most of this seems to be water weight gain: the percentage of fat drops, the percentage of liquid goes up.

To try to get a better understanding, I calculate Body Mass index (BMI) for each case: weight (in kg) divided by height, squared (in meters).  For fun, I calculate my own BMI: 5'10", 172 lbs: BMI 24.7. Comparing with the WHO charts gives a range for normal as 18.50 to 25, pre-obese from 25 to 30, obese above 30. 

"Borderline pre-obese?

Granted, I'm not Dutch-thin, but I am not overweight by any means.  I exercise, watch what I eat, stay close to the weight I had in grad school.  (I rationalize that muscle is dense, so at least a little weight should be what I build up at the health club?  'hope so...)

A graph of body mass index is shown above. The dashed lines represent subdivisions within a major class. For instance the “Underweight” classification is further divided into “severe,” “moderate,” and “mild” subclasses.Based on World Health Organization data here.The whole notion of 'pre-obese' is, in itself, troublesome to me.  Medical researchers have data to show that that people who develop disorders like hypertension, diabetes, and obesity actually start to trend that way years before the pathology develops.  As a result, they have started to label an early, mild increase in blood pressure, glucose, and weight as 'pre-xxx syndrome'.  The pharmaceutical companies have been delighted to expand their patient base for therapeutic medications to include this group, and to support studies that result in more stringent recommendations in the Guidelines.

For me, a single data point is not a trend, and a BMI of 24.7 is not 'borderline pre-obese'.  Two points suggest a trend, and three are needed to define the acceleration.  Then it would be clear whether someone is trending into obesity (or hypertension, or diabetes).  Without data, you don't know.

And I know that I've been stable or declining at this weight for at least two years.

I have to confess that the various pre-xxx syndromes, based on single, categorical measurements, irritate me.  It feels like a marketing ploy, not a real risk-reduction step.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Keeping it in; letting it out

Cam June 08 107Sometimes, blog writing is a struggle with my own inner demons.

There are days when things go badly, and I come home frustrated and disappointed.  Then I set down to write.  Usually I use the opportunity to try to find some happy things in my world to talk about.  And other times, well, I don't ('sorry, readers: sometimes it can't be helped...).

The 60-Second Science podcast alerted me to a recent publication on this topic from the University of Buffalo.  Dr. Mark Seery looked at how people cope with collective trauma, (in this case, 9/11) in the years following the event.  He compared adaptation among people who chose to express their thoughts and feelings vs. those who did not.  Surprisingly, he reports that those who chose not to express their feelings were less likely to experience negative mental and physical health symptoms over time.

So maybe bottling it up is, sometimes, for some folks, the right thing to do, rather than to sit down with the grief counselors?

I took this up with one of my Dutch colleagues today.  In the weeks following the announcement that our business would be transferred, the team went through an analogous collective trauma, angry about the decision, worried about their future.  They worked through it in a very open and emotionally direct process, using project meetings and counseling groups to talk through their feelings.  Within a few weeks, there was a widespread shift in attitude, as though a consensus had been reached about how to think and feel about the event.

So, we talked a bit about whether this group-process was better than the American approach of going it alone (I was not really comfortable with sharing my thoughts and feelings in social circles at the time).

Interestingly, he maintained that I missed the point of their meetings.  The Dutch are used to being included in decision-making, coming to consensus through their characteristic Poldermodel.  In this case, though, the announcement was sprung on them without warning or discussion.  So, it was natural to sit down and to argue about the rationale and fairness of the decision.  As a result, they could come to agreement about their attitude towards the parent company and to select the right response for their future.

I'm not sure that the exercise was as intellectual as he implies: I was there.  While their process was really healthy, it wasn't conducted like a parliamentary debate.  The sessions were often emotional.  And when they were over, there was a palpable shift in feeling, not just in perspective.

Nonetheless, I liked the outcome.  They achieved a relatively quick and individually positive adaptation to a very difficult situation.  They were able to let go and, as a group, turn and move on with life.

So I don't think that Dr. Seery's findings apply in the process as it unfolded here: despite talking it out, most folks will do fine in the coming years.  Limitations and suggestions for future work: It would really be interesting to be a fly on the wall for comparable counseling sessions in both cultures.  I bet there are really some instructive differences in how the conversations unfold.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Dutch humor

One of the things I've come to appreciate about the Dutch is a sly, frontal humor that is obvious once you see it, but easy to overlook.

Herewith, a few examples, popping up around the plant in the waning days of the company:

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By explanation (Top left to lower right, as if reading):

  • The company motto, originally with a timeline cut in half, now extended by ten (with a really exceptional research result appended).
  • The executive who delivered the announcement is made the target for the annual cherry-pit spitting contest (Kersenpitverspuuwwedstrijd, never to be found on the Dutch Word of the Day).
  • A bit of venting 'From the Board" on the hallway bulletin board.
  • The last 'Hup for Holland
  • Product line evolution
  • Of course, Dilbert, even here, amidst the news articles
  • And, could the last person out please erase the boards (and vacuum the floors...)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cross-border banking, taxes, investments (and learning to read)

'Clearing out a few notes of advice before the start of the new week...

Disclaimer: This essay describes my personal knowledge and experiences with cross-border finances. It is not intended to substitute for getting personal advice from a professional advisor. Getting started, I also recommend reading the US-Expatriate-Handbook, available on-line from the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics.

Banking: Some time back, I wrote of the perils of trying to get transfer accounts set up between US and Dutch banks. A change in our company's payroll system required me to set up a US-based direct-deposit system that could transfer monthly stipends out of the US each month. Washington Mutual and CitiBank could not reliably make regular transfers, and neither Fortis nor Barclay had the necessary US connections.

My solution was an HSBC Premier account, their globally linked accounts system. Once I set it up, it has worked work flawlessly with competitive exchange rates. The account requires a hefty minimum balance with HSBC or a monthly fee, but if your company or employer uses the bank, you can probably access the program for much less.

Taxes: The Economist reports that a new law, signed June 16, will require payment of asset penalties if a US expat renounces citizenship in order to avoid double taxation. This comes on top of earlier changes to the law, limiting US credit for foreign taxes paid.

The net effect is to make life more expensive for working expatriates. There are also much greater chances to make a mistake if you try to do your own taxes. My 2007 tax return is the size of a small novel: to the extent that you can negotiate the benefit, support for preparing and offsetting US taxes should be an essential part of an expatriate contract (or local work agreement).

Investments: US anti-terrorism and money-laundering laws have made it impossible to have European share accounts to invest in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds if you are a US citizen. US brokerages have closed offices, and local brokers screen out US expatriates. This makes it hard to make spare money work for you: European checking accounts pay virtually no interest.

Nonetheless, there is an alternative. Time deposit savings accounts, which pay an interest premium for limiting withdrawals, pay over 7% in the UK at the moment, and have very low minimums. (Barclay's Monthly Savings account is typical). And, as long as the dollar is falling, you get a boost by simply holding pounds and euros.

Learning to Read: Although I am still not able to think fast enough on my feet to keep up a conversational Dutch exchange, I am getting more confident by the month at reading and writing. Not surprisingly, children's books are a great source for getting started.

I have purchased used storybooks from the bookseller, either the "checkerboard" books or others of similar heft. Even better have been the WinklerPrins books sold at discount: the Kinder Woordenboek and Encyclopedie have been great. And I always have the Prisma Miniwoordenboek, available at Schiphol bookstores, close to hand.