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Entries in vj (11)

Thinking Out Loud: Happiness in the Uphill Climb

by, VJ Tocco

It's been a minute since VJ did one of these, but hopefully this isa sign of things to come. If you are late to the game, here's his previous Thinking Out Loud installments. Now enough  of me, on to the good stuff.


ABC’s Shark Tank is one of my favorite shows. Besides the quirky inventions and new products, I love getting a glimpse of how wealthy people think during the negotiations. While the Sharks carefully ask questions, weigh their risk and calculate potential returns, I often wonder why they bother. After all, to a billionaire, buying $100,000 worth of a company is like the average person buying a soda.  Even a 100% return on an investment of this size, while substantial to the average person, is only like two sodas in few years to Mark Cuban.  Clearly, at a net worth of a few billion dollars, he has enough money for him to live the rest of his life, and to live well (and for many generations to live well beyond that). So why does he bother? Why put up with the stress and work of trying to build a company and mentoring young entrepreneurs?

“Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in some fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak”

I obtained this quote from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s recent book “The 12 Rules for Life”. It stuck with me as a Ph.D. student, as someone who has felt like the journey of my last four years has been almost directly uphill. Previously, happiness to me was about having fun.  I was happy when I was playing a sport or spending a day at the beach. I would not characterize Ph.D. research as fun, and therefore it did not make me happy, and I initially dismissed this thought.

However, as I continued to read, Peterson explained more. How many days could you sit on the beach before you got bored?, he asked. While it may be fun for a vacation, or even a nice place to visit often, you need something else in your life. Ideally, that something else comes with the hope for a better future, and that hope is what makes people happy. In this context, his quote makes much more sense. My Ph.D. research came with the hope of better career prospects and better job security.  The work and energy that we expend lifting weights in a gym comes with the hope of living a longer, healthier lifestyle. We teach, coach, or mentor young people in the hope that they may one day pay it forward.

Now that I’m aware of it, this concept has been popping up a lot for me lately. It explains the thrill I feel when the pepper plant that I tend sprouts new growth, or when an investment in my portfolio appreciates, or when one of my students suddenly understands an engineering problem.

Mark Cuban must derive happiness from the uphill climb of building companies and seeing them prosper.  After all, he probably wouldn’t be a billionaire if he didn’t.

The Jersey Poll

This week's poll idea came in from VJ this morning:

The new Miami Heat jerseys are the best NBA jerseys since...?

If you're not an NBA fan, then what's your favorite sports team jerseys? College or pro.

Thinking Out Loud: How Much Should Your Doctor Know?

by, VJ Tocco

During a recent eye exam, my optometrist administered eye drops to dilate my pupils. Being the curious type, I asked the doctor how the drops worked.

“Oh, um… They stimulate your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.”

Granted, I’m no medical doctor, but I know that those nervous systems are two different things. Unsatisfied with this answer, I probed deeper, clarifying that I do research in the biomedical field, and my questions were out of genuine interest.

“Well, they, um, activate surface receptors that signal other receptors in the eye muscles”

My raised eyebrows must have betrayed my skepticism, because the doctor quickly clarified,

“You know, I’m not really sure much more past that.  It’s been a while since I’ve looked at that stuff.”

I accepted this answer, but it got me thinking: in general, when doctors prescribe a medicine or medication, do they actually know the biochemistry behind what the pharmacological agent does to your body? Should they? Or should that burden fall on the pharmaceutical company who manufactures the drugs? Is it enough for doctors to simply know the cause-and-(intended) effects?

TV ads for certain prescription medications usually include some kind of disclaimer about the side effects. Obviously, everyone is different, and some people should respond to treatment differently than others.  But, if doctors knew the mechanism of action, could they more accurately prescribe treatments?

For example, consider the drugs Zoloft and Prozac, both used to treat depression and anxiety, among other conditions.  A quick google search reveals that they have different chemical formulas, and slightly different intended effects and side effects, although they are both selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.  When your doctor prescribes one over the other, what is the basis of that decision?

I would hope that it is thorough knowledge of biochemistry and specific mechanism of action, with careful consideration for the unintended and unforeseen side effects.  But maybe I’m being unreasonable. 

I’m interested to hear other thoughts on this one.

Thinking out Loud: Published Paper Politics pt. III

by, VJ Tocco

Like many other kids who grew up in the 90s, I was very excited to learn about the new Bill Nye (the science guy) series on Netflix. I had cleared my entire schedule one Sunday evening, intending to binge the whole series.  Much to my dismay, I quickly realized the show was much different than the old Bill Nye show, and began to skim the content after two episodes and ultimately shut it off entirely in favor of The Office re-runs.

My biggest beef with the show was that Bill Nye was telling, not showing. Very little (if any) actual data or evidence was displayed. Rather "experts" and comedians joined the show to pontificate, promote their ideas and ridicule those with different viewpoints.  This ridicule reminded me of a news story from earlier this year, when NBA star Kyrie Irving made headlines for his beliefs that the earth is flat. Although I disagree, I admire and respect Kyrie's train of thought. He had never experienced direct evidence to the contrary, and refused to simply believe what others had taught him. The media who covered the story completely missed this point, and instead vilified him as a role model to young children.

Too many people blindly accept "conventional wisdom" as truth although they have no direct, indisputable evidence. Examples: breakfast is the most important meal of the day, 30 minutes of exercise per day avoids health problems, re-using the same plastic water bottle leaches chemicals that give you cancer, a diet full of omega-3 oils is good for heart health, etc.

I haven't regularly eaten breakfast in about seven years. I stopped sometime in college because I enjoyed sleeping more in the time that I would have spent preparing and eating the food. Truthfully, I don't even get hungry before noon anymore. Yet, when I share this fact about myself to my friends, most are shocked at the damage I'm doing to my metabolism. When I challenge them on these beliefs, not a single person can point me to a peer-reviewed article that indisputably shows evidence.

The only way to really know these things for sure is to evaluate the primary scientific literature that proposes these claims. However, primary scientific literature is mostly inaccessible to the public for three main reasons:

  1. Written in confusing and pretentious language:
  2. Many literature articles are written for other experts:
  3. Journal articles cost money to read: Unless the article is open access (free), scientific papers cost about $35! (Link:

So is all hope lost? Maybe not. Here is a blog I found for ways to access literature ( As for actually understanding what you read, I can personally ensure that it gets easier with practice. It's also easier if you can discuss with a friend who shares your interest.

Whatever you do, never ridicule those who think differently than you do without having done your research. Also do not be offended by being challenged on your beliefs. Healthy debate is good for your brain.

Thinking Out Loud: Published Paper Politics pt. 2

by, VJ Tocco


“In God we trust; all others bring data”

-W. Edwards Deming 

In 2006, my classmate Louis Eakins introduced me to Wikipedia during an assignment in Mr. Swanson's anatomy class. My world was transformed as we finished our lab in about 15 minutes by quickly finding our answers on the online encyclopedia. Wikipedia became my go-to website for looking up anything from chemistry to NBA trivia. Sadly, teachers began banning Wikipedia on assignments (especially essays) soon afterwards.

To this day, I still use Wikipedia judiciously to learn about unfamiliar topics. Wikipedia excels at educating the inexperienced to indisputable facts. However, for as informative as Wikipedia is, it suffers a critical flaw: its entries have not sustained peer-review.

Peer Review: What is it?

Peer review is the quality-control system to ensure the integrity and validity of scientific publications. After a scientist has finished writing a manuscript, he or she will submit it to a journal. The editor of the journal will quickly consider the suitability of the manuscript for the journal. If it passes, the editor sends the manuscript to several (usually three) experts in the particular area of science, who are instructed to objectively scrutinize the article. If the reviewers approve the work, the manuscript becomes published.

Very little journalism and media targeting the public is peer-reviewed.  For example, Dr. Oz advertises  miracle weight-loss solutions under the guise that scientific research has demonstrated their effectiveness. While the original research he references might have been peer review, his commentary has not. For this reason alone, I hope you will re-think your trust in anything that has not been peer-reviewed.  By the end of this post, I hope that you would also re-think your trust everything that has been peer-reviewed as well.

Who are the peer-reviewers?

Most fields of science are sufficiently specialized such that only a handful of people on the planet are recognized as "experts". Accordingly, the experts in any particular field are highly likely to know each other. Most peer-review is single-blind, meaning the reviewers are anonymous, although they know who authored a manuscript. Thus, peer review is problematic if any of the following relationships apply to the reviewer and author:

  1. Competitors: Funding in science is limited, and as I asserted in part I, those who publish the most high-quality work are usually first in line to receive said funding. Validating the work of a competitor can be harmful to one's own career.
  2. Enemies: The fragile egos of some scientists can possibly be attributed to the fact that most of them are males. Reviewers are less likely to validate the work of those they don't like.
  3. Allies: Perhaps the most dangerous of relationships between reviewer and author in terms of integrity during the review process. Reviewers who have a personal relationship with the author have a conflict of interest; although these types of relationships should be disclosed, it is not always the case.

Assuming that these relationships don't cause problems, the reviewers need to find the motivation to evaluate the manuscript. Being asked to review is a bit like jury duty; it can be a major inconvenience with no incentives except a fulfillment of your civil duties. Most academics are too busy to devote the appropriate amount of time and effort to give a proper review.

How in-depth does the review go? There are surprisingly little guidelines for reviewers, and they are able to use their discretion. No study is bulletproof, if questions for long enough, something questionable is bound to appear any research study. Surprisingly, most papers only speculate on the results, not the methods. That is, there is no rationale for how they chose their subjects (or how many), how they designed their experiment or survey, or why they chose their control experiments.

All of these nuances present valid reasons to be skeptical of peer-reviewed literature.  Although peer-reviewed papers are held to higher standards than non-peer reviewed papers, they should not be considered gospel.

In the third and final installment of this mini-series, I'll discuss some strategies that non-experts can make the literature more accessible.

State of the Website Summer 2017 + Schedule Reminder

The schedule for this weekend is as follows:


9 am (kids team workout)*

11 am (babies)

*open to parents from 9-11 for mobility on their own



10 am (mobility)

11 am (parents team workout)


There will be a few new features coming up on the website starting next week: First, VJ has the next installment of his Published Paper Politics mini-series - this one about the peer review process and motivation. Also, I am excited to announce that Rachael Kroll is doing a mini-series on her training with her foot thing. The first part has been emailed to me and I am pleasantly surprised both with how well she writes and how honest she came off. Look for that on Monday.

Every Saturday we will post our Athlete of the Week sometime in the evening. The prize for this award is a few words from me and jealousy and envy among your peers. As with most things, this is heavily based on attendance, so show up!

Athlete Profiles and the Exercise and Demos pages are almost up to date. I'll do a post on those soon, but Bubs has been coming up big for me on those!

Finally, in previous Summer's we've done anywhere from 2-3 posts per day most of the time. We'll probably back off that a bit, as I'm sure you've been able to tell. If you could manage to pick up the comment game - especially on the new kid/new graduate posts - that would be appreciated. I'll work on getting good posts up that are discussion worthy like the Polls or some theory stuff to help this along. Any time we have new people I always take them through a tour of the website and encourage them to keep up. Put yourself in their shoes: if you are brand new and see a video of your first rope climb on the site along with 7 or 8 people showing their appreciation, it would definitely make you feel more at home. Plus with the babies, this will be going to their parents.

So again, if you guys can make an effort for that, it would be appreciated. As an incentive, here's a naked picture of Jacob.

Thinking Out Loud: Published Paper Politics pt. 1

by, VJ Tocco

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” - Buddha

I cringe when I hear or read the phrase "research has shown."  It is a pretentious way to make the statement or assertion that follows seem irrefutable, preying on the respect that the public has for science.  Although, I have to admit that even the most absurd statements appear at least plausible if a footnote referencing a scientific paper follows. For example, studies show that dairy cows produce more milk if you give them a name1. Other research has shown that rats that prefer to hear absolute silence instead of Miles Davis or Beethoven, unless they ingest cocaine2.  The trouble comes when an entire study is summarized into a single conclusive statement (as I've done above), by a person who hasn't read or fully understood the original research articles (full disclosure: I haven't).

In this three-part miniseries, I'll discuss the problems with accepting the results of science at face value. In reality, research is fraught with caveats and nuances that can sometimes devalue the conclusions. Interpreting research demands skepticism; as Buddha taught, you should believe only what you choose to believe after you've given it careful consideration, not everything that you've been told.

Part I is about the motivation of researchers to publish their work. When I started doing my own scientific research, I naively misconceived that all research was motivated solely by a desire to expand human knowledge.  To be fair, I've become more cynical in the last few years, and this is probably  the primary motivator in science. However, I've learned that there are alternative, less benevolent motivations as well.


All research requires money.  Lots and lots of money. In addition to researcher's salaries and bureaucratic overhead, reagents and laboratory materials cost a shocking amount of money. Earlier this year, I personally spent over 10k for a set of reagents that totaled less than ten micrograms of material. Most money that funds research comes from federal grants.  Consequently, researchers may feel the need to produce something (even if the work isn't up to par) to show that the spent taxpayer money went to good use. In fact, grant-awarding government agencies usually require a quota of output (in the form of papers) every few years in order to renew the grant.  

Sometimes, companies and corporations provide funding for research. As in politics, those who pick up the tab can becomes stakeholders in the results. For example, consider this article about research funded by Coca-Cola. Can you imagine any study funded by Coca-Cola concluding that drinking soda is harmful to your health? For this reason, knowledge of the funding source is critical to interpretation of any research paper – authors usually provide this information in the "acknowledgements" section.


“Publish or perish” is the most common mantra in academia. Perversely, the most important criteria in judging an academic’s work is quantity. Of course, the quality of the work is important too, but the metric of evaluating quality is seriously flawed (more on that in part II). Put another way, if rappers held to the same criteria as academics, Lil B might be considered the GOAT.

Because the number of publications is so critical to a scientist's reputation, scientists can sometimes resort to tactics that are frowned upon (albeit ethical) by the scientific community. For example, a not-uncommon practice is to withhold some data on a paper in the hopes of publishing a smaller, separate follow-up paper soon afterwards. For this reason, I usually check the publication record of the lead scientist when I read papers. An alarm bell rings in my brain if  the scientist is publishing more than ten papers per year, similar to Lil B's ten or so mixtapes per year.

Confirmation Bias

A sad reality in the sciences is that nobody gets excited about negative or neutral results. That is probably for a good reason; after all, who cares if it turns out that a new disease-treating drug doesn't improve patient health in clinical trials? But now imagine how disheartened a scientist might feel after arriving at a dead-end after a year or two of hard work. Neutral results, while still publishable, are not perceived as influential as positive results. This fact tempts scientists to enter the spin zone: downplaying negative results and inflating the impact of positive results.

The spin zone may even be an unconscious phenomenon. Humans are predisposed to seek out only evidence that supports their hypothesis, and to disregard any evidence that contradicts their beliefs (this is a psychological concept known as confirmation bias). It seems counter-intuitive, but science should be far more concerned with disproving hypotheses than supporting them. Notice my word choices there; hypotheses can never be proven; only supported.

Unfortunately, for all the reasons listed above, scientists have no motivation to tirelessly work to disprove their hypotheses. It is far easier to publish work that thoughtlessly support their hypotheses, thereby achieving the funding and accolades associated with publishing as much as possible.

Next week, I'll dive into the peer-review process, which is how the scientific community decides which papers get published.



  1. 1.      Catherine Bertenshaw & Peter Rowlinson (2009) Exploring Stock Managers' Perceptions of the Human—Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production, Anthrozoös, 22:1, 59-69
  2. 2.      JE Polston and SD Glick, (2011) Music-induced Context Preference Following Cocaine Conditioning in Rats, Behav Neurosci 125(4): 674-680