Thursday, July 16, 2009

To Sleep, Perchance to Analyze


In the last nine years, I’ve reviewed nearly 1,000 products for The New York Times. Can you guess what every single one of them has had in common?

All of them were intended for use while you’re awake.

Today, the exception.

Studies show that about half of all Americans don’t get the recommended amount of sleep. ( For adults it’s seven to nine hours.) And as we stumble our way through each day, groggy and cranky, we pay a terrible price in our relationships, productivity and health.

Science has learned all kinds of things about sleep. We now know, for example, that during the night, we experience several cycles of different kinds of sleep. There’s REM (rapid eye-movement) sleep, which restores and refreshes our brains. There’s deep sleep, which restores and refreshes our muscles. There’s light sleep, which is better than nothing. And there are all those times we wake up but don’t even remember we slept.

Now, to find out why you feel so wretched in the morning, you could go to a sleep lab, pay thousands of dollars, and spend the night hooked up to wires and sensors. Or you could pay $400 and get yourself a Zeo alarm clock.

That’s expensive, sure, but this one does a few things your basic Wal-Mart special doesn’t do.

It comes with an elastic headband, which you’re supposed to wear to bed each night. In its center, resting against the skin of your forehead, there’s a little transmitter pod, something like a digital watch without the band. All night long, this thing measures your brainwaves and transmits them wirelessly to the clock on your nightstand.

When you wake, you put the headband back onto its charging shelf on the clock. The screen comes to life, showing you a very cool graph of your night.

You can walk through it using arrow keys. The clock, and the graph, indicate where you were at each five-minute interval: awake, in light sleep, in REM sleep or in deep sleep. You can also step through screens that display your sleep-cycle tallies in huge digital numbers: “2:54 REM,” “0:35 deep” and so on.

Everything is polished and easy to use, from the way the headband snaps magnetically onto its charging shelf to the way the alarms themselves (music or nature sounds) slowly grow louder the longer you ignore them. If you like, the alarm can try to wake you where you’re sleeping lightly, to prevent the grogginess that comes from being awakened from a deep sleep. (It will never wake you later than the time you’ve set; you specify how much earlier you’re willing to accept.)

And it’s truly amazing, if not a little creepy, to see all of this data about a part of your existence that you’ve known nothing about until now.

But as my wife said, “If I wake up and feel lousy, I don’t need a $400 gadget to tell me it’s because I didn’t sleep well.”

Ah, but that’s where the coaching comes in.

The Zeo stores your sleep records on a memory card. As often as you can, you’re supposed to pop it out and insert it into a U.S.B. card reader (also included) on your computer. At this point, you can go to and upload your data to the Web.

Now the real fun begins. This Web site lets you slice, dice and cross-compare your sleep data in a million ways.

It starts with a bar chart of your nightly sleep scores. This number (your ZQ, as the company cutely calls it) is a single convenient score that takes into account both the negatives (like disruptions) and the positives (REM and deep sleep). During the month I wore the Zeo, my average was about 70, which is typical for middle-agers like me.

My highest was 105. That was for a luscious 10-hour sleep after an all-nighter.

But you can go much deeper with your statistics. You can plot the quality of your sleep, or one type of sleep, over time, by week or month. Or plot these characteristics against each other, looking for cause and effect. See whether your bedtime affects how long you sleep, whether you get more deep sleep on weekends, whether caffeine in the afternoon affects the number of times you wake up in the night, and so on.

Weirdly, the Zeo system almost completely ignores exercise. There’s no way to report how much you exercised on a given day, to see if it affects your sleep. (Hint: It does. A lot.)

In any case, you get much more utility from all of this if you take the trouble to fill out the Sleep Journal online, where you’re interviewed about events of the previous night: “How sleepy were you when you went to bed?” “How much alcohol did you have within three hours of bedtime?” And so on. The analysis can take these factors into account.

The final benefit of all of this is the coaching. For six months, or longer if you’re willing to pay for it, Zeo’s busy little automated writer robots send you daily semi-personalized e-mail messages, filled with analysis and advice. “It looks like you held to a more consistent sleep schedule in this step than during your baseline,” an initial recording period, it might say. “Well done!”

So will spending $400 on the Zeo make you a better sleeper?

Well, no and yes.

First of all, the headband itself may make it harder for you to fall asleep at first; it has to be tight enough not to fall off during the night. (In my e-mail column next week, I’ll review a rival product, the SleepTracker, in the form of a watch. Sign up at

Here’s the part that may really bug you, though: the Zeo is soundly based on modern sleep science, and was developed with all kinds of experts. But its 7-Step Sleep Fitness Program, and all the coaching, basically boils down to a list of well-documented sleep tips that won’t come as a surprise to anyone.

You know: Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine before bed. Make your bedroom cool, dark and quiet. Don’t use your bed for anything but sleep and sex. Don’t watch TV, use the computer, do bills or fight in the hour before bed. Don’t sleep with your dog. And so on.

The real question is: if this information is so well known, why are half of us still exhausted all the time?

Simple: we know these rules, but we don’t follow them. They’re lifestyle changes. They’re a hassle. They’re low priority.

Just watching the Zeo track your sleep cycles doesn’t do anything to help you sleep better. Plotting your statistics on the Web doesn’t help, either.

But the funny thing is, you do wind up getting better sleep — because of what I call the Personal Trainer Phenomenon. People who hire a personal trainer at the gym wind up attending more workouts than people who are just members. Why? Because after spending that much money and effort, you take the whole thing much more seriously.

In the same way, the Zeo winds up focusing you so much on sleep that you wind up making some of the lifestyle changes that you could have made on your own, but didn’t. (“Otherwise,” a little voice in your head keeps arguing, “you’ve thrown away $400.”)

That’s the punch line: that in the end, the Zeo does make you a better sleeper. Not through sleep science — but through psychology.

‘No Excuses’ for Any Failure Obama Tells Fellow Blacks


President Obama delivered a fiery sermon to black America on Thursday night, warning black parents that they must accept their own responsibilities by “putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour,” and telling black children that growing up poor is no reason to get bad grades.

“No one has written your destiny for you,” he said, directing his remarks to “all the other Barack Obamas out there” who might one day grow up to be president. “Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”

Mr. Obama spoke for 45 minutes to an audience of several thousand people, most of them black, , clad in tuxedos and ball gowns, who had gathered in a ballroom of the Hilton New York to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.

He was one part politician and one part black preacher as he spoke in lilting cadences, his voice quiet at times, thundering at others, in unusually personal terms. At one point, when his audience shouted back at him, repeating his words, he threw back his head and laughed, saying, “I’ve got an amen corner back there.”

Mr. Obama spoke directly about his own upbringing, crediting his mother (who was white) with setting him straight, and departing from his prepared text to talk about how his life might have turned out had she not. “When I drive through Harlem and I drive through the South Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners,” he said, “I say there but for the grace of God go I.”

It was an unusual moment for a president who has sought to transcend race and has only reluctantly embraced his unique place in history. Six months into his presidency, Mr. Obama has seemed more comfortable embracing his identity as the first black American president overseas than at home, as was the case during his trip to Ghana last week, when he declared, “I have the blood of Africa within me.”

At home, though, Mr. Obama has largely avoided talking about himself in racial terms. As a candidate, he jumped into the issue of race relations when his campaign was threatened by the controversial remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and delivered a pointed speech to black fathers on Father’s Day in 2008.

But the White House was low-key in preparations for the N.A.A.C.P. event. When a reporter tried to cast the speech as Mr. Obama’s first to the black community, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, demurred, saying, “I think the first speech to black America and the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the Inaugural Address.”

But there was no mistaking Thursday night that Mr. Obama was speaking directly to black America. In part, it was a policy speech.

Mr. Obama told his audience what it wanted to hear on housing, the criminal justice system, education, health care, and jobs — all issues central to the N.A.A.C.P.’s agenda.

Even as he urged blacks to take responsibility for themselves, he spoke of the societal ills — high unemployment, the housing and energy crisis — that have created the conditions for black joblessness. And he said the legacy of the Jim Crow era is still felt, albeit in different ways today.

“Make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” Mr. Obama said, by African-American women who are paid less for the same work as white men, by Latinos “made to feel unwelcome,” by Muslim Americans “viewed with suspicion” and by “our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.”

Mr. Obama paid particular attention to education, declaring that more than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, “the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across this country” as African-American students lag behind white classmates in reading and math.

The organization’s president, Benjamin T. Jealous, said afterward that the address “was the most forthright speech on the racial disparities still plaguing our nation” Mr. Obama has given since moving into the White House.

But as much as a policy speech, it was a personal one. Details of the address were closely held, partly because Mr. Obama was still working on it through the afternoon.

Aides said he intended to make the case for personal responsibility — a frequent theme of his presidency — in the context of the civil rights movement and how it has shaped his own life. But he also wanted to send a message to black parents, and especially to black children.

“They might think they’ve got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow,” Mr. Obama said, “but our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States of America.”

Ginsburg Defends Sotomayor

Ginsburg Calls ‘Wise Latina’ Flap Ridiculous

By Debra Cassens Weiss

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg thinks it’s ridiculous for critics to make a big deal about the “wise Latina” comment by Sonia Sotomayor, the federal appeals judge nominated to join Ginsburg as a second female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a New York Times interview, Ginsburg delved into the controversy over a 2001 appearance by Sotomayor in which she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Interviewer: “Did you think that all the attention to the criticism of Sotomayor as being ‘bullying’ or not as smart is sex-inflected? Does that have to do with the rarity of a woman in her position, and the particular challenges?"

Ginsburg: “I can’t say that it was just that she was a woman. There are some people in Congress who would criticize severely anyone President Obama nominated. They’ll seize on any handle. One is that she’s a woman, another is that she made the remark about Latina women. And I thought it was ridiculous for them to make a big deal out of that. Think of how many times you’ve said something that you didn’t get out quite right, and you would edit your statement if you could. I’m sure she meant no more than what I mean when I say: Yes, women bring a different life experience to the table. All of our differences make the conference better. That I’m a woman, that’s part of it, that I’m Jewish, that’s part of it, that I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks, all these things are part of me.

“Once Justice O’Connor was questioning counsel at oral argument. I thought she was done, so I asked a question, and Sandra said: Just a minute, I’m not finished. So I apologized to her and she said, It’s OK, Ruth. The guys do it to each other all the time, they step on each other’s questions. And then there appeared an item in USA Today, and the headline was something like ‘Rude Ruth Interrupts Sandra.' ”

Interviewer: “It seemed to me that male judges do much more abrasive things all the time, and it goes unremarked.”

Ginsburg: “Yes, the notion that Sonia is an aggressive questioner—what else is new? Has anybody watched Scalia or Breyer up on the bench?”

Interviewer: “She’ll fit right in?”

Ginsburg: “She’ll hold her own.”

Ginsburg also responded to a question about Sotomayor’s claim that she is a product of affirmative action. Ginsburg said she has benefited too, becoming the first tenured woman at Columbia law school because of affirmative-action pressure from the Nixon administration. She added that it’s important for feminists to work with men: “If you’re going to change things, you have to be with the people who hold the levers,” she told the interviewer.

Ginsburg told the interviewer that she is “doubtful” about academic studies finding a difference in the way male and female judges of similar ideologies vote in some cases. But she appeared to waffle when the interviewer asked what the U.S. Supreme Court would be like if three or four women were justices.

Asked if the results might be different in discrimination cases, Ginsburg gave this answer: “I think for the most part, yes. I would suspect that, because the women will relate to their own experiences.”

Ginsburg also touched on Roe v. Wade in the interview, saying she believes the right to abortion will one day be rooted in the constitutional right to sex equality. If she were a lawyer, rather than a justice, reproductive choice would be on her legal agenda, she said.

In another part of the interview, Ginsburg reveals the truth behind a newspaper account that told of her taking a long time to rise from the bench. “They worried, was I frail?” Ginsburg said. “To be truthful I had kicked off my shoes, and I couldn’t find my right shoe; it traveled way underneath.”

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF Chemicals and Our Health


However careful you are about your health, your body is almost certainly home to troubling chemicals called phthalates. These are ubiquitous in modern life, found in plastic bottles, cosmetics, some toys, hair conditioners, and fragrances — and many scientists have linked them to everything from sexual deformities in babies to obesity and diabetes.

The problem is that phthalates suppress male hormones and sometimes mimic female hormones. As I’ve written before, chemicals called endocrine disruptors are believed to explain the proliferation of “intersex fish” — male fish that produce eggs — as well as sexual deformities in animals and humans. Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are among the most common endocrine disruptors, and among the most difficult to avoid. They’re even in tap water, and levels soar in certain plastic water bottles.

They probably are not harmful to us adults, but it is another story for children. In girls, some research suggests that phthalates may cause early onset puberty. Most vulnerable of all, it seems, are male fetuses in the first trimester of pregnancy, just as they are differentiating their sex. At that stage, scholars believe, phthalates may “feminize” these boys.

“Commonly used phthalates may undervirilize humans,” concluded a study by the University of Rochester. The study, which was small, based its conclusion, in part, on measurements of “anogenital distance” — the distance between the anus and the genitals, which is typically twice as long for males as for females. Some scholars believe that shrinkage of this distance reflects “feminization” of male anatomy.

The researchers found that pregnant women with higher levels of phthalates delivered babies with a shorter anogenital distance. It’s possible this won’t cause any complications. But baby boys with shorter anogenital distance were more likely to have undescended testicles and less penile volume, and phthalates have been linked in humans to problems with sperm count and sperm quality.

In China, researchers found that female rats given phthalates gave birth to males with a penis deformity called hypospadias (in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis, not the tip). Many other animal studies around the world have found similar results.

Some endocrinologists refer to the “phthalate syndrome,” including hypospadias and undescended testicles.

“Accumulating human epidemiological data point to a relationship between adverse fetal development and phthalate exposure,” concluded an article this spring in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. Just last month, the Endocrine Society — composed of thousands of doctors in the field — issued a powerful warning that endocrine disruptors including phthalates are “a significant concern to public health.”

One of the conundrums for scientists and journalists alike is how to call prudent attention to murky and uncertain risks, without sensationalizing dangers that may not exist? Increasingly, endocrinologists are concluding that the mounting evidence is enough to raise alarms.

Indeed, there has also been a flurry of scientific articles questioning whether endocrine disruptors are tied to obesity, autism and allergies, although the evidence there is less firm than with genital abnormalities and depressed sperm count.

The American Chemistry Council argues that phthalates are not a problem, that they do not migrate out of products easily and that they quickly break down in the body. The chemical industry has noted an apparently reassuring study in the Journal of Urology finding that hypospadias does not seem to be increasing in New York State (although different studies showed increases both in the United States and in Denmark).

James Yager, a professor of toxicology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agrees that there are huge uncertainties but says that pregnant women and children should be cautious. “When my wife was pregnant, we worried about drinking or smoking,” Professor Yager said. Now, he said, he would be more focused on exposure to chemicals such as phthalates in baby bottles.

Dr. Theo Colborn, the founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, goes further. She tells researchers working with her to toss out plastic water bottles and use stainless steel instead. “I don’t have plastic food containers in my house,” she added. “I use glass.”

Certain phthalates have been banned from new toys sold in the United States, but kids continue to be exposed to these chemicals from the moment they are conceived. Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network says that the way regulators examine risks — studying the impact of one chemical at a time — is bankrupt, for we’re exposed to a cocktail of them daily. Regulation is so pathetic that there’s not even disclosure when products contain phthalates.

If terrorists were putting phthalates in our drinking water, we would be galvanized to defend ourselves and to spend billions of dollars to ensure our safety. But the risks are just as serious if we’re poisoning ourselves, and it’s time for the Obama administration and Congress to show leadership in this area.

3 Days of the Sotomayor GAIL COLLINS



JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN PATRICK LEAHY: Judge Sotomayor, welcome to you and your large and lovely family, including your mother, who I believe saved up to buy your first encyclopedia when she was a hard-working widow. Let me begin the opening statements by noting that you have more federal court judicial experience than any nominee to the United States Supreme Court in nearly a hundred years. And the Constitution — is that a great document or what? And now, the ranking Republican from Alabama.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: Thank you, Chairman. Judge Sotomayor, let’s talk about empathy. I find it shocking that President Obama said that judges should have empathy. I hate empathy. My Republican colleagues hate empathy. In fact, I am proud to say that we’ve reached an all-time low in the “understands the problems of ordinary people” category.

SENATOR RUSS FEINGOLD: Judge Sotomayor, if confirmed, you will join the Supreme Court with more federal judicial experience than any justice in the past 100 years. And, therefore, I will devote my time to complaining about the way the Bush administration pummeled our civil liberties.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to point out that we once had a Hispanic nominee for something, and the Democrats filibustered him.

SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Mr. Chairman, as the newly appointed junior senator from New York, I want to thank you for the opportunity to introduce Judge Sotomayor. Normally I speak really, really fast, but due to the importance of this occasion I am going to go really, really slow. Which will mean that my five minutes will be over before I get anywhere near ...

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: Thank you, committee members. In recent weeks, I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting with 89 senators. Thank God Senator Inhofe said he didn’t need to talk to me because he’d already made up his mind to vote No.


CHAIRMAN LEAHY: We’re now going to start with the question period. I would like to begin by asking how it feels to have more federal court judicial experience than any nominee to the United States Supreme Court in nearly a hundred years.

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: Thank you for that interesting question. What my 17-year record on two courts has taught me is the importance of keeping an open mind. And following precedent. And not answering any hypothetical questions about abortion or gun control.

SENATOR SESSIONS: Judge, to get back to that “wise Latina” speech, I want to know if you think judges should allow their prejudices to impact decision-making. For instance, if I were a plaintiff before your court, would you be less inclined to rule in my favor because my middle name is Beauregard?

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: Senator, I do not permit my sympathies, personal views or prejudices to influence the outcome of my cases. But thank you for sharing.

SENATOR HERB KOHL: I believe I heard somewhere that you would join the Supreme Court with more federal judicial experience than any justice in the past 100 years. Doesn’t your very, very low reversal rate show how exceptionally well you have performed?

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: Senator, thank you for that softball question. Which reminds me to point out that in 1995 I ended the baseball strike.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Judge, before I read a string of anonymous comments about your temperament problem, I’d like to make you repeat that wise Latina remark again just for the heck of it.

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: Thank you, Senator, for the opportunity to revisit that matter. I appreciate that the man who once said he’d drown himself if North Carolina went for Obama has a special contribution to make when it comes to the importance of thinking before you speak.


SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER: Before we get to my questions, I would like to tell you several anecdotes about my own interesting history. Did I mention that I used to be chairman of this committee?

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: I have here a newspaper story quoting a corporate lawyer who worked with you 17 years ago as saying that you would vote for abortion rights. What does he know that we don’t?

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: That was sometime between my graduating summa cum laude from Princeton and the year I ended the baseball strike. While I can’t answer your question, perhaps it would help if I said that I am bound by precedent and my mind is always open.

SENATOR TOM COBURN: Judge, I’d like to ask you a number of hypothetical questions about abortion and gun control. A lot of Americans are watching these hearings.

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: Hardly likely at this point, Senator.