Friday, June 17, 2011

Going Off-Grid

"Honey, would you mind unplugging me."
Off to Rab, Croatia for two weeks, and probably will have minimal internet connectivity. Instead, I will be spending my time outside, hopefully reading actual books, swimming in the Adriatic and all that kind of stuff.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Feedback Control and Metabolic Syndrome

When I was studying electrical engineering, one of the most interesting specialties was feedback control. Had I not specialized in electromagnetics and physics I think that's what I would have optioned. Like many things, my initial fascination stemmed from frustration. At first I really didn't get it at all. I found it pointless and tedious. Actually, I found most of EE to be pointless and tedious, I really wanted to study physics or mathematics (and did study music) but didn't feel it was "practical" enough.

Anyway, I didn't end up learning much about feedback control beyond the core basics and that was more than 20 years ago so this will just be some cursory ramblings on the subject.

As I wrote in my oft-maligned post criticizing Art DeVany's use of the butterfly effect, the body is far from being a chaotic system because of it's numerous feedback systems: insulin, leptin, ghrelin, etc, just to scratch the surface, with ghrelin and leptin being discovered very recently!

I'd also like to point out that I've not yet had anyone criticize this post on a scientific or mathematical level.

Yeah, that's me sort of gloating. If DeVany didn't make such a big deal about being an expert I wouldn't bother to point out his mistaken and sophomoric use of basic physics. 

But seriously, my knowledge of chaos theory and complexity could fit inside a nutshell with an infinite amount of  space leftover, or something like what Hamlet said. Ditto for feedback theory.

Feedback mechanisms are interesting, vitally important and they are what separates chaos from order. The body is very complex but it is also very far from being a chaotic system thanks to all these feedback systems. This all ties in with the idea of entropy which is also fascinating and also something I admit I know very little about.

The only reason I bring this up is that no matter how meager my knowledge of feedback mechanisms are, I'm sure most people who espouse the calorie-is-a-calorie bullshit--especially nutritionists and journalists-- know even less (paging Jane Brody).

So let's look at some feedback 101, shall we? Here's a classic graph of damping response:

Stolen from here

The classic example uses shock absorbers on a car, but it doesn't matter if the feedback system is mechanical, electrical or chemical (ie leptin, insulin, and other hormones).

So the system receives a shock, like driving over a pothole or a speed-bump or eating a pizza with a liter of Coke. The system responds. In the case of a car the default mechanism is some sort of spring, in the case of a pizza and a liter of coke (or beer), the default mechanism is a hormone called insulin that essentially tells all the cells in the body, "INCOMING!!!!"

The underdamped instance corresponds mechanically to having no shocks, you hit a bump and the car bounces for the next five miles. The overdamped instance corresponds to a serious sports car, like my old friend, an Alfa Romeo GTV6, sadly gone but not forgotten.

The ideal feedback response is critically damped. The system responds exactly enough to handle the shock.

This all depends on what sort of shocks the system has to deal with. A monster truck needs to have a different feedback system than a Cadillac.

In the case of metabolic syndrome, the insulin (and probably leptin and other hormones) feedback mechanism is damaged from overuse. Once the response mechanism is damaged (insulin sensitivity, or a worn-out shock absorber), the absorption mechanism (springs or pancreatic signalling with insulin) is soon to follow and the system is what we engineers technically refer to as FUBAR.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Diet and Pills and Mental Illness

An article in the New Yorker reviews three books that cast a skeptical eye on mental illness and especially the drugs given to fix or abate it.

I'm pretty skeptical myself that the majority of people who are taking stuff like anti-depressants really need them or that they have a net benefit. I remember watching a documentary a while back where Stephen Fry defended pharmaceuticals, saying they basically saved his life and maybe they did. One family he interviewed, however,  had their teenaged sons on an insane cocktail of pills saying that they'd been absolutely out of control. This frankly turned my stomach.

Nowadays, of course, I would point to diet as the first and foremost factor to be explored, especially for children.

From the article:
First, [the three authors] agree on the disturbing extent to which the companies that sell psychoactive drugs—through various forms of marketing, both legal and illegal, and what many people would describe as bribery—have come to determine what constitutes a mental illness and how the disorders should be diagnosed and treated. This is a subject to which I’ll return.

Second, none of the three authors subscribes to the popular theory that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. As Whitaker tells the story, that theory had its genesis shortly after psychoactive drugs were introduced in the 1950s.
Now I think putting kids on anti-depressants or whatever should be a very, very distant last measure. On the other hand, Tom Cruise thinks Brooke Shields was a bad mom for taking Paxil, an anti-depressant, for postpartum depression. And let's face it, Tom Cruise is a stupid asshole. Cruise is so stupid he makes other actors look intelligent by comparison. BTW, isn't it ironic that Dolph Lundgren is one of the most intelligent and well-educated actors ever to star in a Hollywood film? The dude graduated top in his class with a masters in Chemical Engineering.

I'm so dang STOOOOPID!!!
So while I'm not a big fan of popping pills for health and mental health, I just can't subscribe to the idea that mental illness is NEVER caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Somewhere in a box in storage I have a fascinating book by Mark Vonnegut, The Eden Express, about his (apparently schizophrenic) mental breakdown after taking mescaline at a commune (yeah, I know). Like Stephen Fry, he believes that pharmeceuticals saved his life, and I think both these guys are smart enough that I can easily respect their opinion on this.

Incidentally both Fry and Vonnegut are now believed (or themselves believe) to have bi-polar disorder.

And you know who else had bi-polar disorder? THIS GUY!!!!

Well, supposedly. He was also a vegetarian. COINCIDENCE?!?!?!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Walter The Farting Dog

I just found out about this and I'm totally ordering it. It's a NY Times bestseller and I've never even heard of it until now. That's what happens when you live under a rock, or in a foreign country. The best part is that it has been supposedly banned in some school libraries I couldn't find where it was actually banned, but it has been challenged several times, such as in Wisconson:

Walter the Farting Dog by William Kotzwinkle, and Glenn Murray. Frog, Ltd.
Challenged but retained on the library shelves of the West Salem Elementary School despite the book's use of the words "fart" and "farting" 24 times.
That made me laugh. So the word fart is allowed to be in the library, but 24 times in one book is grounds for possible censorship?

Now can someone tell my why it takes three people to write a children's book that has like 50 words in it?

PhD + PhD = Crap Diet for Toddler

I was reading the Freakonomics blog and a transcript of a show which basically discusses their ideas in Superfreakonomics that WHAT you do as a parent doesn't seem to make much difference.  Bryan Caplan further expands upon this in his book by saying people should have more kids and be less stressed out about raising them. It is an interesting concept and worth checking out. Good luck getting my wife to agree to any of that, though, as I write this she is having a speech therapist analyze my four-year-old son because she is worried that he doesn't pronounce his l's and r's. I already googled and found out that it's perfectly normal (yeah I got my degree in parenting from Google). Not to mention the fact that the kid is fluent in two frickin' languages.

But what really caught my eye were these helicopter parents sending their 19-month-old to all sorts of classes but not letting her eat meat and presumably much SFAs in general:


DUBNER: Rounding out the roundtable is another pair of mom-and-dad economists. Justin Wolfers is an Australian-born professor at Wharton. Betsey Stevenson, who’s also at Wharton, is currently serving as chief economist for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. That’s where I visited them and their absolutely beguiling 19-month-old daughter, Matilda.


DUBNER: What kind of classes does she take?
STEVENSON: She goes to music class.

DUBNER: How many days a week is that?

STEVENSON: Music class is one day a week. She goes to art class.

DUBNER: How many days a week is that?

STEVENSON: That’s one day a week. And she goes to a preschool prep class.

DUBNER: Preschool prep, uh huh, preschool prep. 


STEVENSON: Well, but we do do expensive things, although I think that we don’t think they’re necessary, we understand that they’re nice. So, Matilda goes to a lot of classes. She likes her classes.

WOLFERS: You know, buying her organic food. Certainly she’s going to be fine eating anything.

DUBNER: Yeah, let’s talk about the food. Tell me the foods that she does not eat.

WOLFERS: Meat, any kind of sugar.

DUBNER: Any kind of sugar.


WOLFERS: Except juice. I mean, so she’s allowed fruit.

DUBNER: So, has she ever eaten a doughnut?

WOLFERS: No, and she’s like a total Berkeley hippie.


Two economics professors at an elite university sending their toddler to preschool prep classes (?!?!?!?) but they don't let her eat animal protein and presumably animal fat. Here's a newsflash: if really you care about your kid ditch the pre-pre-preschool and give her a juicy, well-marbled steak. Her developing brain cells will thank you for it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

More Penrose and Entropy--Why WHAT You Eat Matters

The source of most of the energy on the Earth (except for nuclear and possibly fossil fuels) comes from the Sun, of course.

Here's an illustration from page 414 of Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind:

The net energy is in balance, but the type of energy is what's important. The Earth receives high energy photons, visible and ultraviolet, and radiates back into space more low energy infrared photons. Likewise, the human body intakes high energy food and oxygen and gives off low energy heat and CO2. Plants use photosynthesis to strip off that carbon, combine it with hydrogen (hence carbohydrates) from water and make plant. As Richard Feynman says, plants are made out of sunlight and air!

Here's the thing that blows my mind. The Sun is a huge ball of low-entropy. Where did the Sun come from? A gigantic cloud of extremely cold diffuse molecules of mostly hydrogen. Well a diffused cloud of cold hydrogen is extremely high in entropy.  But when that hydrogen cloud is collapsed by it's own gravity under enough pressure to start fusing into helium, BOOM we have a massively low entropy fireball like the Sun. As Penrose points out, it is gravity that is responsible for low entropy hot spots like the Sun. What I don't understand is how this jibes with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics? How did a high-entropy gas suddenly become a low-entropy fireball if entropy is always increasing?

Sometimes gravity DECREASES entropy as in the case of creating a star from gas. Other times gravity INCREASES entropy as in the case of black holes.

Illustration page 438
Wait, what? When gas clumps together to form stars entropy decreases, but when stars clump together entropy increases?

Entropy is a non-trivial concept.

So how does this relate to diet?

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie is simply bullshit.

Let's look at the Earth again. Let's suppose the Sun were to suddenly produce mostly infrared photons instead of visible and ultraviolet photons, but the energy flux was exactly the same. We'd be collectively screwed.

But hey, what's changed?

Well according to those who love to talk about the body-as-calorimeter and the first law of thermodynamics, nothing has changed at all. A joule is a joule and a calorie is a calorie, right? Wrong!

Joules and calories are measures of energy. They don't measure the entropy (quality) of that energy. In the case of humans this is even more complicated by eating things we haven't adapted to in quantities we haven't adapted to. Not only is it ridiculous to bring up the first law of thermodynamics in the context of diet from a perspective of basic physics, it is ridiculous in the context of metabolic response.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Musings on Entropy, Life, Penrose, Red Herrings, The Universe and Everything.

OK, let's start with some quotes from GCBC on the whole calories are calories thing:
[...] As Marian Burros wrote in the New York Times in 2004: “Those who consume more calories than they expend in energy will gain weight. There is no getting around the laws of thermodynamics.” This was the “very old and immutable scientific message,” she explained. And yet the great majority of those who attempt to expend more calories than they consume don’t lose weight. Those who do, lose only a little, and for short periods of time. This suggests that obesity is a disease, “a chronic condition,” as Albert Stunkard described it over thirty years ago, “resistant to treatment, prone to relapse, for which we have no cure.” (Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories; pp 270)
This conviction that positive caloric balance causes weight gain is founded on the belief that this proposition is an incontrovertible implication of the first law of thermodynamics. “The fact remains that no matter what people eat, it is calories that ultimately count,” as Jane Brody explained in the New York Times. “Eat more calories than your body uses and you will gain weight. Eat fewer calories and you will lose weight. The body, which is after all nothing more than a biochemical machine, knows no other arithmetic." (Gary Taubes, GCBC; pp 293)
Jane Brody, you are such a tool. So the body is like an abacus except made out of chemicals and stuff?

Besides GCBC, this classic post by Robert McLeod explains what is wrong with the body-as-calorimeter model:
Applying the 1st Law to living organisms is Proof by Tautology. Yes, 1 + 1 = 2, but this tells us absolutely nothing about the underlying mechanics. The 1st Law does not (I repeat N-O-T) tell us whether you store excess energy in the form of fat, or bleed it off into the atmosphere by dilating blood vessels next to the skin, sweating, etc. To do so would require an accounting of entropy.
Entropy is a fascinating subject which I'm convinced is like quantum mechanics, ie, no one really understands it. OK, entropy is probably better understood than quantum physics, I've no idea really, I just know that I don't understand it, and certainly never will. But I've been re-reading The Emporer's New Mind, by Roger Penrose and he has some interesting things to say about it.
...we do need to replace the energy that we continually lose in the form of heat. Indeed, the more 'energetic' that we are, the more energy we actually lose in this form. All this energy must be replaced. Heat is the most disordered form of energy that there is, ie, it is the highest entropy form of energy. We take in energy in a low entropy form (food and oxygen) and we discard it in a high-entropy form (heat, carbon dioxide, excreta) We do not need to gain energy from our environment, since energy is conserved. But we are continually fighting against the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is not conserved; it is increasing all the time. To keep ourselves alive we need to keep lowering the entropy that is within ourselves. We do this by feeding on the low-entropy combination of food and atmospheric oxygen, combining them within our bodies and discarding the energy that we would otherwise have gained, in a high-entropy form. In this way, we can keep the entropy in our bodies from risng, and we can maintain (and even increase) our internal organization. (See Schrodinger 1967.) [Roger Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind, 1990; pp412-413]
Food (and oxygen) are really important as sources of low-entropy, not energy. But isn't it the same thing to simply say that we need to take in energy in order to live? A charged battery has less entropy than a discharged one because it has more energy potential, so what?

The interesting distinction is that energy is always conserved. We take in energy (in a low-entropy form), we give off the same amount of energy (in a high entropy form, heat). We don't have any organs that can convert energy to matter a la e=mc2, or vice-versa. Energy is conserved but entropy isn't. Entropy must always be lowered since it is constantly increasing by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

What we are really doing when we eat and breathe is not consumimg energy but consuming anti-entropy. It is literally impossible for any form of life on earth to consume energy, in order to do that they'd need to convert that energy to matter since energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It is also impossible for any form of life to create mass. Consumed mass is either excreted, or assimilated.

Now let's go back to the first law of thermodynamics and the tedious a calorie is a calorie is a calorie bullshit.

A calorie is a measure of energy (specifically the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C). Since it is impossible to convert calories to fat (or muscle or whatever) the whole calories in equals calories out dogma is a fucking RED HERRING!

All life at all times must give off as much energy as it takes in. So the real question of obesity is: how does one stop taking in as much mass or converting that mass to fat? Now it becomes more obvious that it is the body's metabolic processes that are really the issue.

Our bodies are a complicated network of feedback mechanisms signaled by hormones (and other things) such as insulin, ghrelin, leptin, etc. These are the metabolic pathways that determine whether mass taken in will be used to build muscle, bone, generate heat, excreted, etc.

These feedback mechanisms have been finely honed over millions of years of evolution. But recently we've created or exploited foods that can screw up this finely tuned system.

Calories are a RED HERRING!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Stir-Fry--Don't Cross the Streams!

Quick and dirty beef and veggie stir-fry. My wife suggested not mixing the vegetables and beef as I usually do, which allows everyone to mix and match as they see fit. Or to use the meat and veg leftovers for something else.

So that's what I did. Seems like a good idea.

Vegetables--bell pepper, zucchini, and mushrooms.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Eating Real Food at a Real Table

For many years my wife and I ate dinner in front of the TV. I think I got into this habit being single (my dining room used to hold a weight set), then was a bad influence on my wife.

It's not like we watch that much TV, one or two shows, and occasionally a movie which usually gets broken up into two nights. We definitely prefer comedies like Parks and Recreation, or at the most Burn Notice (which has started to take itself rather too seriously lately). I'm sure The Wire is the greatest TV show ever in the history of the Universe, but we'd rather watch The Big Bang Theory or 2 1/2 men.

But with great power comes great responsibility, and by great power I mean having a kid, and by great responsibility I mean eating a real formal dinner at a real dining room table with real food.

Here was last night's layout.

Still working on that panorama thing
Eating dinner every night at a table was the last nail in the coffin of my squandered youth.



Here's what my plate looked like:

Fake-grilled éntrecote or filet mignon (hovězi svičková to be exact), potatoes and mushrooms fried in Kerrygold butter, and a lots of stuff to make it un-salady like cheese, sunflower seeds, bell pepper, fresh spinach, etc. The dressing was a honey-dijon from Jan's Sushi Bar, except I only use 1 tablespoon (or a little less) honey.

Speaking of mushrooms, I really ought to write about the Slavic obsession with mushrooms and mushroom picking one of these days. Come to think of it, forest mushrooms are about the most paleolithic food around. Ancient, seasonal, unchanged by managed cultivation, and primeval.