Homo homini rodentius est

How to quit smoking

I have smoked for over 10 years, but as of today it has been exactly one year since I had my last cigarette. Although I knew within a few days of quitting that I would never smoke again, we rely on temporal benchmarks to reassure us of the solidity of our resolutions and, so, I feel I can safely once again refer to myself as a non-smoker. It’s a good feeling. It’s been good for a year.

I wrote once before in a [post] about the meanings of smoke that I was then in the midst of an attempt to quit — using nicotine patches. That attempt failed. Within days of ceasing use of the patches I was back on the butts. I suppose the patches work for some but, for me, they simply shifted the source of nicotine from smoke to the patch and — even at the lowest available dose — once the patch was discontinued my body still needed a source of the 7mg or so of nicotine it expected daily. It occurred to me that the goal should not be nicotine replacement but nicotine reduction through slow titration — dose reduction — to a point where quitting would be relatively easy. Commercial products, produced at only a few dose levels would not do it.

I was smoking about a half pack of Camel Ultra-lights (approx. 0.4 mg nicotine per cigarette according to [this] FTC source) at the time I began the reduction project = 4 mg. of nicotine per day. Irony – my “normal” daily dose was already about half of what the lowest level of patch provided. No wonder I didn’t quit using the patch — it was actually making me more dependent on nicotine. My goal was to slowly reduce the number of cigarettes I smoked each day until I was down to just 3 or 4 per day — assuming that at a daily dose of only 1 to 2 mg. of nicotine, my dependency would be mostly psychological rather than physiological and easier to quit. I gave myself no time limit and did not rush the process, coaching myself that since it took me a long time to become a half-pack a day smoker it should take awhile to comfortably get back to being a 3 or 4 cigarette a day smoker.

It took a few months to get down to my target of 3 to 4 cigarettes a day (one for each of the major triggers: morning coffee and after meals). And, just as I was debating about how to actually go about quitting, Providence intervened: I got food poisoning from eating a bad hot dog last July 4th. I was sick as a dog for days and, of course, could not smoke at all. After the fourth day it dawned on me that I was completely free of nicotine dependence — since it only takes 4 days to completely get through nicotine withdrawal. Had there been any side effects of the final withdrawal (e.g., stomach cramps, constipation, headaches, etc.) they were completely masked by the far more severe symptoms of food poisoning. I realized I need never smoke another cigarette — I was free.

People have asked me if I found it difficult to quit smoking — and are surprised when I say “no”. The method I hit on — slow reduction of dose dependence and then just wait to get sick (hopefully nothing as dire as food poisoning) so you can get through withdrawal with any symptoms masked by the illness — was really pretty easy. Interestingly, I have also never experienced any cravings since I quit. There were a few behavioral triggers that made me think of smoking sometimes (the strongest: dealing with work stress, which I had adapted to by relying on smoke breaks that got me away from the office for a few blessed minutes…) but they were eventually extinguished.

The takeaway: nicotine is an addiction, but a fairly manageable one using standard dose titration methods and reliance on “masking symptoms” of any transient illness that can help you through the final 4-day withdrawal.

Could Al Gore crush Hillary? Well, obviously.

Last prayer, or fat chance?

Al Gore, having won an Emmy, an Oscar and now the Nobel Peace Prize, is on a roll. There’s just one prize left that many would like to see him claim that has eluded him — one that he came within a hanging chad’s breadth of receiving in 2000. It’s a sign not only of his popularity but also of the rising sense of panic among Democrats that they seem destined for a ticket headed by Hillary Clinton. The [grumblings] in the lefty media about how to stop our gal from Illinois Arkansas New York began about the time that wunderkind Barack Obama started showing [signs of flagging] in his media-fueled race for the nomination. Suddenly [stories] about the nascent Draft Gore movement increased in frequency and, now with the Nobel win, have reached a fevered pace. CNN [reports] on the pressure on him to join the race (including a hilarious quote from Jimmy Carter, who has been badgering him for so long on the issue that Gore finally had to ask Carter to stop calling his house), while the Washington Post [raises questions] about whether he could successfully raise enough money this late in the primary run-up. That would certainly be a significant obstacle to overcome were he to decide to join the race, but I think there’s an even bigger factor weighing against him, so to speak: he’s too fat to be president.

The Presidential Body Mass Index (PBMI)

[Click to view] chart of US presidents ranked according to their Body Mass Index

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Tracing the causes of scientific illiteracy

If it comes out of a lab it’s science, right?
In 2005, a political scientist at Northwestern [found] that one out of every five Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Given this situation, when I wrote a piece on [genetic fundamentalism], I had no illusions about it making the slightest dent in the popular obsession with finding the “cause” of homosexuality. Even still, it’s disheartening to see the same uninformed debate play out [over] and [over]. Worse, even a respected magazine like New York trots out a puff piece (so to speak…) called [The Science of Gaydar] by David France that catalogs a string of meaningless correlations (Gay men’s cowlicks turn the wrong way!) that explain nothing because they don’t belong to any kind of rational theoretical framework. What is perhaps most disheartening is the profound ignorance of science and theory that makes any pseudo-scientific claptrap look reasonable not just to the general public, but to the editors of the piece.

The Medium is the (wrong) Message
Standing between the impenetrable opaqueness of the scientific academy and the man on the street are the science writers in the mass media who are playing an ever more important role in our society as translators and guides. In the gene piece I wrote I singled out a New York Times writer for contributing to the simplistic genes = culture meme that winds its way through our discourse. Well, over the weekend the NYT published [a story] on new understanding of the complexity of gene effects that implies refutation of some of the more breathless genetic coverage they’ve done in the past. Alas, those implications are not fleshed out in the article — out of scope perhaps. Too bad for readers who look to the Times to provide meaning to what they read. Is it too much to ask that writers for the most important newspaper in the country think about what their own paper has written in the past and place new findings in some context that will help their readers better understand the world?

Why is this man smiling?
Ultimately, the state of scientific literacy is a reflection of public policy priorities and political leadership. During the Cold War, when the Russians were breathing down our necks with a bazillion ICBMs and satellites floating over our heads, science education was a public priority — you better believe it was. One of the untoward outcomes of Cold Peace was the [relaxation] of science education priorities and [redirection of federal funding] from science programs. Coincidentally, conservative politicians came to rely on fundamentalist voting blocs who exert extraordinary influence over social policy. That helps explain the prominence of idiots like Senator Sam Brownback who, in a presidential debate, [brags his ignorance] of evolution theory and somehow doesn’t get laughed out of the building. In his case he probably believes the stupid things he says, other fellow-traveling ignoramuses are more likely pandering to their electorates when they backpedal on rationalist explanations of natural phenomena. And so the cycle of illiteracy is reinforced. Very disheartening, indeed.

On Gay Sheep and Shepherds

Wouldn’t you know! It turns out Pastor Ted Haggard isn’t gay after all — he was just dealing with a particularly stressful period in his life by going down the old dirt road with a gay hooker while tweaked out on crank. Hasn’t this guy heard of Valium? Much easier on the hiney. And then, of course, there’s prayer as a way to relieve stress. Or golf. Oh well, to each his own.

Comic aspects aside (and who doesn’t notice the biologically determined resemblance to Paul Lynde..?) the absurd announcement that after 3 weeks of “counseling” Haggard is now “completely heterosexual” is only the most recent example of the tragic ignorance of sexuality that afflicts this society. Granted, in his case there are extenuating circumstances that require a rapid conversion: this joker was spiritual leader of 30 million evangelicals. The ministry had to do something dramatic to staunch the risk of defection by a disillusioned flock, hence the 3 week miracle. Not too much to ask of people who fiercely believe in miracles. Especially when they want to believe. Poof! (no pun intended), the problem disappears. But the real problem is ignorance.

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Sex and Death, cont.

It’s still here.


Another World AIDS Day passes, in the twenty-fifth year of the plague, and these are the sad facts:

  • 40 Million people in the world are infected
  • 3 Million people died last year from AIDS
  • In the US, to date 529,113 people have died. More than our battlefield casualties in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf war and Iraq combined
  • While infection rates worldwide leveled off in the late 90’s there are pockets of resurgence: Uganda, the UK and among young gay men in the US

Fifteen years ago, when the plague was laying waste to a generation of gay men, the question was whether action could be taken in time to build a firewall around the epidemic until a vaccine or drug to eradicate the virus could be developed. Despite the profound and wrenching violence done to bodies, societies and sex itself, people still spoke of cures. We just had to be vigilant until the beast was destroyed. But we underestimated the threat from this pathogen and its infernal genius for destruction — a virus that doesn’t just lurk in the marrow of our bones, but also in the dark places in our brains where our deepest needs and desires are hidden from the earnest instructions of safe sex pamphlets.

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