Tuesday, April 07, 2009
It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.Samuel Adams (HT: HBL)
Why Super Powers?
Science fiction fans who enjoyed yesterday's post on religion in science fiction might find Doug Reich's thoughts on "Why Super Heroes Need Super Powers" apropos.
[T]o be a Super Altruist would require Super Sacrifices.This is an elaboration on and a sort of flip side to something I said a while back: "The whole idea of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged being re-cast as comic book-style heroes instead of normal men is completely inane."
This presents a practical problem for the producer or author of the fictional hero and exposes the essence of altruism. To the extent that you practice altruism, you will necessarily have to come close to death or actually die thus ending the series in the first scene. So for the Super Altruist to survive stepping in front of bullets and the like he must have supernatural powers. Otherwise, he would not live to the next episode nor could he perform super sacrifices.
Surprise, Surprise, More Panic in the Pantry
(Or: Why I Don't Do Paleo)
[Update: Or: Haste Makes Waste
I'd like to thank Diana Hsieh for her helpful comments on this post, which, as it turns out is a mish-mash of my own thoughts on the "Paleo" diet and some thinking I have recently done indirectly as a result of my encountering blog posts about it. Specifically, (cough) "Taubes' book is not a weight loss or diet book. "
Assuming crow was part of the Paleo diet, it would appear that she has managed to get me to adopt it, after all!
Note: It was, some time later, brought to my attention that someone took my use of the term "orthorexia" in the comments as a slight to advocates of the Paleo diet. That was not my intention.]
Amy Mossoff reviews a book many other bloggers in my neck of the woods have been raving about for some time, Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories.
Taubes has a much more ambitious purpose than just to debunk the conventional wisdom, though. His goal is to inspire more formal study of the harmful effects of refined carbohydrates and sugars in the diet. Overall, I agree that this absolutely needs to be done, but I think, along the way, Taubes ends up making some of the same mistakes he identifies in the low-fat advocates. He puts too much faith in observational studies and anecdotal evidence. I was much more convinced by his skepticism than his positive thesis. To be more specific, I’ll use the author's summary of his own conclusions based on the evidence he collected, and put in my two cents (in italics)The comments that follow are also worthwhile. Travis Norsen's, particularly, seem closest to where I suspect I would be after reading it:
[S]witching to a fully "paleo" diet (especially if it's to include only pastured meat) is very expensive and inconvenient, so I think it would only be reasonable to do that if the evidence for "carbs are bad" and "corn-fed beef products are bad" were fully conclusive -- or, I suppose, if you tried it and found that it was good for you personally. But at least given the evidence I've seen (which is admittedly not much, but still), I cannot accept that "carbs are bad, for everybody, always, period".Another commenter weighs in (at a BMI of 18.5 no less) whose diet sounds almost "anti-paleo".
I am, if anything, underweight, not a nutritionist (but do understand what, chemically, happens to food during digestion), and have not read this book. But, based on what others have said about it, I will put in my $0.02 on a few points, anyway. Note that this is not intended to be a rebuttal of Gary Taubes, or of any of his fans.
First, the book does not resonate for me, personally, at least in part because I have long taken heavy government promotion of nutritional studies as prima facie evidence that something is amiss and have, therefore, largely ignored them. I have no government-sponsored "healthy" habits to break or misconceptions to shed.
This includes my not panicking when my cholesterol popped 270 during routine blood work in New Orleans a few years ago. Concerned about possible side-effects from taking them, I also decided not to rush to take statins until I did my own research even if a subsequent test confirmed the result. That was not the case, but then, I had had lots of fried seafood the night before.
Second, I am highly skeptical of any diet that rules out entire classifications of food wholesale. Practically all proteins are made up of the same 20 amino acids, all fats of glycerol and various combinations of fatty acids, and all carbohydrates of one or more of a variety of sugar molecules. The body breaks all of these down into their more basic constituents in order to use or store them. Chemically -- but read on -- all food "looks" the same to your body.
This diet appears to be low carbohydrate, with some debate over whether root vegetables like potatoes might be permissible. The two main justifications I have gathered for this are either that (a) a surfeit of simple sugars -- such as refining makes possible -- goofs up the body's metabolic regulation by introducing too many simple sugars into the bloodstream at once, or (b) grains contain "toxins" that act as slow poisons. I see merit in studying the first of these. And, along the lines of "not reverting", wonder whether the second of these, if true, can't simply be fixed by better processing -- or even (if the body can eliminate the chemicals, even if slowly) simply by not eating as much grain-based food at every meal.
Finally, the hypothesis that man hasn't (fully?) evolved coping mechanisms for the newer items in his diet is intriguing, but I doubt it is completely (or at least universally) true, either. I am really speaking off the cuff here, but many people of European descent have metabolic enzymes that are "missing" or not as functional in many members of other races. Among them are alcohol dehydrogenase and lactase (in adults):
Alcohol Dehydrogenase activity varies between men and women, between young and old, and between populations from different areas of the world. For example, young women are unable to process alcohol at the same rate as young men because they do not express the Alcohol Dehydrogenase as highly. Though, the inverse is true amongst the middle-aged. The level of activity may not only be dependent on level of expression but due to allelic diversity among the population. These allelic differences have been linked to region of origin. For example, populations from Europe have been found to express an allele for the alcohol dehydrogenase gene that makes it much more active than those found in populations from Asia or the Americas. This may be a correlating evolution with the rise of aldehyde dehydrogenase, which has been suggested as one of the more recognizable recent evolutionary changes in humans (along with lactose tolerance) - in order to make water safe in cities too dense to use springs, Europeans fermented alcoholic (and hence antiseptic) beverages, while Asians typically boiled their water (creating, among other things, tea). This selected for those who didn't suffer from violent alcohol flush response in European populations. [bold added]At least 95% of the people in Northern Europe (versus fewer than 10% in parts of Asia, for example) can metabolize lactose. Might there not be other metabolic or regulatory enzymes, as yet undiscovered, that allow some people to live for a very long time even though they eat things man might not have used as food during the Paleolithic Era?
In short, based on my limited knowledge of this diet and my less limited knowledge of how the body deals with food, the variability of the human genome, and the infancy of nutrition as a science (which government interference is crippling), I think Taubes probably is worth reading. However, I also think that whether one follows his dietary suggestions lies in a murky area between the purely optional and the somewhat empirical. If it sounds appealing, try it, and if it helps you achieve fitness goals that you judge beneficial, then stick with it.
One final point. Several people I respect follow this diet and strongly advocate it. The above is not to be taken as an indication that I respect them any less, but only that my layman's opinion differs from theirs. I have, however, gotten emails to the effect (based on one possible reading) that I am somehow not a "real scientist" (and, by implication, lacking in integrity as an Objectivist) if I don't read this book and spend as much time researching nutrition as some of the more fervent proponents of this diet do.
I am not accusing the sender of this email of making such an accusation, nor have I asked for any clarification. But in today's modern cultural context, it is very common to take one's level of interest in physical fitness and, especially, food, as a shorthand gauge of their moral stature. (And yes, in a completely different context, I have seen professed Objectivists do exactly this, hence my bringing this up at all.) Thus, it is extraordinarily easy for someone on the receiving end of such a missive (i.e., me) to wonder whether this is what's going on.
Using interest in diet or exercise as a kind of shortcut (as opposed to one of many data points) for passing moral judgment is wrong in part because it is context-dropping, and in part for the same reason that division of labor exists in an economy. Different people have different interests and needs (as the "anti-Paleo" dieter eloquently demonstrates), and all of us have only so much time to spend on anything.
Speaking for myself, the prospect of losing weight if I switch to this diet is completely unappealing, thin as I already am. Heck, my grandfather lived to be nearly a hundred without spending any time thinking about his diet. I already can't stand sweets and starches. The cost-benefit ratio of adopting this diet -- or even studying it -- currently makes absolutely no sense to me. The risks and consequences of this decision are mine.
Some people need to pay lots of attention to what they eat, and some people don't. Some people are fascinated by this topic, and some aren't. Within the present context of my knowledge, my interests, and my needs, my time is better spent on other things. This is something that should go without saying. If I discover a need to learn more about nutrition, I will do so and, thanks to Gary Taubes' fans, I know of a good place to start.
[Note: It was, some time later, brought to my attention that someone took my use of the term "orthorexia" in the comments as a slight to advocates of the Paleo diet. That was not my intention.]
Pillow Fight Stopped by Police
A news story out of Detroit speaks of the police breaking up a pillow fight in a "public" park.
My first reaction was, "What the hell?" But reading the story indicates that this was a huge, organized event that was going to trash a large area with feathers.
Were public parks privately-owned, people would not presume to be able to just go around littering "common" property. People would be in the habit of checking with the private owner whether such activity is all right, and paying for or arranging for cleanup.
This "raid", as Orwellian as it first looks, is actually the government performing a function it might in a fully free economy: stopping trespassers and vandals. But the improper context of the publicly-owned park makes it look improper.
Amit Ghate points to a timely article by Peter Schwartz:
The administration's latest proposal, for a "systemic risk regulator," should leave little doubt that it seeks carte blanche in ruling the economy. This is a plan for an economic dictator, an "enforcer" who will have the frightening authority to oversee every decision that, in his opinion, significantly influences the economy.All the idiots clamoring for the heads of AIGs executives and anyone wonder what this means would do well to read this.
Of course, once the mob-rule mentality takes hold, everyone becomes a potential target. If you obtain a mortgage or a college loan, the government may subject you too to "risk regulation." You may be told that you can’t buy a plasma TV or take a vacation or quit your job, because the risk to your finances is "unacceptable." But isn't that a purely private decision?--you will indignantly demand. If government power keeps expanding, however, there may no longer be any private decisions.
Today: About an hour after comment number four, added note on an error in "Surprise, Surprise."
9-22-10: Added a note to beginning (and at the end) of same section.