Sunday, July 31, 2011

Social Engineering Sucks

What people looked like before the government tried to fix things.
Mark Bittman, food writer at the NY Times wants to tax the hell out of unhealthy foods, and subsidize the healthy ones, because education just hasn't worked.
The need is dire: efforts to shift the national diet have failed, because education alone is no match for marketing dollars that push the very foods that are the worst for us. (The fast-food industry alone spent more than $4 billion on marketing in 2009; the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is asking for about a third of a percent of that in 2012: $13 million.) As a result, the percentage of obese adults has more than doubled over the last 30 years; the percentage of obese children has tripled. We eat nearly 10 percent more animal products than we did a generation or two ago, and though there may be value in eating at least some animal products, we could perhaps live with reduced consumption of triple bacon cheeseburgers.
Here's a clue, dickhead, people aren't getting diabetes from eating animals. Bittman mostly talks about sodas and processed food, something we in the paleo/real food community can all agree on, but he is also happy to see a tax on saturated fat.
Other countries are considering or have already started programs to tax foods with negative effects on health. Denmark’s saturated-fat tax is going into effect Oct. 1, and Romania passed (and then un-passed) something similar; earlier this month, a French minister raised the idea of tripling the value added tax on soda. Meanwhile, Hungary is proposing a new tax on foods with “too much” sugar, salt or fat, while increasing taxes on liquor and soft drinks, all to pay for state-financed health care; and Brazil’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program features subsidized produce markets and state-sponsored low-cost restaurants.
The reality is, of course, that the propaganda (or what Bittman calls education) has been way too successful. Sure, we can all agree that sodas are bad. What we don't agree on at all is that eating animals or salt is bad. We got into this situation in the first place thanks to wrongheaded social engineering policies (see the Food Pyramid). The solution is NOT MORE SOCIAL ENGINEERING. It's the same tired refrain from statists everywhere, state intervention hasn't worked because it wasn't enough, you know, because the evul corporashuns and and all their evul muney, hurr durr hurr durr. Communism didn't work in China, Soviet Union, et al, because it wasn't REAL communism, etc.

I believe that people ought to be allowed to engage in activities that are bad for them as long as they don't harm others in the process. If I want to chug a glass of soybean frankenoil for breakfast, whiled chain-smoking a pack of filterless cigarettes, that's my own damn business, not the government's. I also believe that if the governments of the world hadn't intervened in the what people ate, through subsidies, taxes, regulations, false propaganda, etc, there wouldn't be any obesity epidemic.

Education hasn't failed, Bittman, you fascist prick, the science has failed. At least the majority of what has passed for science in the arena of nutrition for the last fifty years. This is slowly changing thanks to people like Gary Taubes, Mark Sisson, the Drs Eades, etc. It is not going to be fixed by statist intervention.


Campbell's is adding salt back into their soups because, as the LA Times puts it, good health doesn't sell.
Eating too much salt has been widely associated with increased cases of high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes, though recently some researchers have raised questions about sodium's negative health effects (see related stories, to left). The FDA recommends no more than 2,300 mg of salt per day. A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine noted that most Americans get about 3,400 mg each day.  The biggest culprits? Restaurant food and packaged foods, such as canned soups.
I'm so happy that the old media giants are dying like dinosaurs chocking on asteroid fumes.

Good health doesn't sell? More like the CSPI's paradigm of good health, "heart healthy" grains, skim milk and zero fat doesn't sell. Although it's sold enough to cause the current obesity epidemic.

Gary Taubes wrote an excellent article on the terrible science behind salt back in the nineties (unfortunately no longer available on the web, as far as I know). So the question of whether or not salt is unhealthy isn't exactly "recent".

Personally, I prefer to buy foods with low sodium content, so that I can add my own grey salt that's loaded with minerals. As I wrote before, if you look at all the ingredients on a can of Campell's soup, the last thing you ought to be worried about is salt. Actually, I don't buy much in the way of processed food, although I do cheat and use bullion cubes sometimes, but not everyone has the time nor inclination to eat food they prepare themselves.

On the other hand, it pisses off everyone's favorite supernanny, so I am going to applaud the move, *claps*.
Health advocates expressed dismay at Campbell's move.  In a statement released Wednesday, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, asked, "Why resort to salt?  Why not improve tomato soup [flavor] with more and better-quality tomatoes, or chicken noodle soup with more chicken?"
If only the tomatoes could be more tomato-ey and the chicken more chicken-ey, we could do without all this salt that's killing people by the millions. Its a frickin' Saltacalypse!!!!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

They Grow Up So Quick

The falcon family that live outside our kitchen window have been carrying on with their lives and now there looks to be one quite curious juvenile(?) who seems pretty close to trying out his or her flight feathers.

I love that stare of a stone-cold predator

It was easy to take this picture because the young'un doesn't spook at all when I stick my head out the window, just looks at me with frank curiosity. The parents spook very easily and I don't like to stress them unnecessarily so I try to be careful about observing them.

The nest is only about 15 feet away but I'm no nature photographer. Here's the uncropped photo to give you an idea of how their nest is located.

It's not all fun and games. They are loud as hell when they are getting fed in the morning, around 4-5 AM (not sure if there are one or two of them at this point). I assume the parents hunt at night and return in the early morning. I've had to get up and close the windows just to get back to sleep. Also they leave plenty of crap, mice bones and fur on the sidewalk below. But it is easily worth it to observe these magnificent creatures at somewhat close-hand.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is Being Top Dog Bad For Your Health?

Matthew Phillips writes over at Freakonomics that it is better to be beta than alpha.

He cites this study which shows that in a stable baboon hierarchy the alpha male experiences much higher stress than the beta males.

He also talks about this interesting study using data from the Swedish Twin Registry which seems to show that social mobility is good for your health (specifically hypertension).
These findings suggest that the risk of hypertension associated with low parental social status can be modified by social status later in life. Possibly, this could be targeted by public health or political interventions. As parental social status has an impact on later health, such interventions should be introduced early.
Phillips concludes thus: "The lesson: social climbing is good for your health, as long as you stop before you reach the top."

Wait a second there, pardner.

What is the context of being "alpha" in our current society? Being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Or just being the head of your division? Should one aspire to be Vice President/Chancellor of the Exchequer/etc and stop there?

When it comes to stress, I always think of the rat study where two rats are connected to the same electric shocker, but Rat 1 can stop the shock by pressing a bar, whilst Rat 2 has the same amount of shock applied but has no control over it. Not surprisingly, Rat 2 experience much greater levels of stress than Rat 1. It's not the external stresses that kill us so much as our feeling of control over them.

This is why working in a office cubicle can lead to things like this:

Nerd rage ain't pretty
Anyone who's ever been an entrepreneur knows it's extremely stressful. You don't just worry about your job, you worry about every aspect of the company, since you are the company. Isn't it easier to just be an employee? In a way, but I think it's better to be the rat in control of the shock bar.

This is why I always think it's idiotic to compare the lifestyle of a modern lower class individual to, say, a medieval king. Sure, the former may have luxuries unthinkable to the medieval king, hot and cold running water, flush toilets, electricity, central heating, etc.

But it is always better to be king.

"Hail to the king, baby"
The question comes down to this: what is "alpha" in modern society? The days of existing in small groups of hunter-gatherers have (for anyone reading this, at least) long since passed. And it seems, from observing HG groups that survived into the 20th century, that there was much less of an alpha/beta hierarchy than exists in baboon and other primate societies. Certainly nothing close to the strict hierarchy of wolves.

Canis lupus, meet Vulpes vulpes
It seems that the modern struggle for hierarchy and status among humans really got started or was heavily exacerbated by the neolithic revolution. It was only the accumulation of wealth allowed by trade and fixed agricultural societies that an aristocracy was able to develop. Hunter-gatherers have no need to dig up and collect gold.

I'm of the Desmond Morris mindset that The Naked Ape is a collection of mixed impulses: alpha/beta primate hierarchy mixed with a couple million years of more egalitarian HG hunting (and child-rearing), with a brief period of neolithicism tacked on at the end.

The neolithic era seems to have re-awakened, or perhaps selected for, these buried dominance/hierarchical  genes. Not that there's anything wrong with that. People work hard and excel because they want to win, or at least to increase their social status. Einstein didn't "solve" Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect and discover special relativity in one year, while working at a patent office, simply because he was a bored.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, is it better to be a beta?

No. Fucking. Way.

Being alpha means trying to excel at what you do, and not taking shit from anyone. It also means not starting shit with anyone who's not going out of their way to mess with you (bullies are not alpha). At least that's my definition. I don't see why anyone would want to accept betahood.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Roasted Leg of Lamb and Bell Peppers

Some quick and dirty food pron.

Leg of lamb, browned in the skillet and coated with rub of salt, dijon mustard, onion (out of garlic--yeah I know), and lots of fresh rosemary which we brought home from our gracious landlord's garden (more like her jungle of a front yard) from our vacation. Then roasted in the oven at 200C. A bit overcooked (my specialty) but still quite tender.

I'm not the world's biggest rosemary fan, but it sure goes well with lamb.

I made a ton of this dijon rosemary sauce, so I added plenty of olive oil, and tossed with bell peppers:

And roasted as well.

Dobrou chut'!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Hayekian Argument Against Socialism

We are only beginning to understand on how subtle a communication system the functioning of an advanced industrial society is based — a communications system which we call the market and which turns out to be a more efficient mechanism for digesting dispersed information than any that man has deliberately designed. - FA Hayek-Nobel Prize Lecture
A couple of somewhat political posts (Richard Nikoley and Jamie Lewis) got me thinking about the nature of socialism. I used to think socialism (and communism which is just a more extreme case socialism) was bad because it went against human nature. When I came across Hayek's argument of the division of kowledge, which was fairly recently, I was completely astounded.

I'm just an economics dilletante, the concept of the division of knowledge is probably common knowledge to any student of economics, although I never came across it in the economics classes I took in college (five of them).

The profound idea is this: socialism--any sort of top-down structure or system--destroys information. Hayek made a lot of good arguments against socialism but, for me, this one really goes to heart of the problem. Socialism destroys knowledge. This is why it is so goddamned inefficient.
The dilemma of a socialized system is that the information flow overwhelms a centralized system if it is open to new ideas and data, that closing the system and forcing the plan to work forecloses alternatives and risks unhedged mistakes, and that decentralizing without real markets poses the problems discussed by Hayek. These information problems permeate virtually all economic processes. [Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, in An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (1982), p. 365]
Information theory is a fascinating subject. And by fascinating I mean ridiculously nuanced and incomprehensible. But the basic idea of Hayek's argument is that there is a hell of a lot of knowledge available in a free market.

People, no matter their education level, are very, very good at adjusting their levels of consumption. Price, in a free market, simply conveys information. If the price of gasoline increases, this signals that gasoline has become scarcer. Some people will decide to drive less. Others will decide it doesn't matter because they have more money or because most of their driving is necessary to their existence, like employment.

Millions of decisions will be made and the price of gasoline will fluctuate accordingly.

For a socialist these millions of independent decisions are some sort of necessary evil. For a communist, these millions of decisions simply don't exist, the government will decide the price of gasoline so shut the fuck up.
The key importance of the amount of information available and the frequent lack of relevant information have been dealt with only in the last decades. L. von Mises and F. A. von Hayek can rightly be regarded as pioneers in this connection. [Jan Tinbergen, in 1979, as quoted in Recollections of Eminent Economists (1988) by J. A. Kregel, Vol. 1, p. 90]
Under socialism information is destroyed. All these independent decisions are destroyed.

Humans are very good at looking out for their self interest. Call it what you want. Greed? When I shop for a better deal is that because I'm greedy? Or is it because I don't want to be exploited by the evil corporations who are so obviously greedy. When I'm fiercely protective of my child, is that because I'm greedily trying to foist my offspring/DNA onto the next generation?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Real Food On a Budget--Maria

The contest part is officially over, but anyone who wants to still participate can, of course.

Maria writes:
I ate breakfast around 0730ish, lunch around 1430ish (unless I skipped it, then dinner would be about 1730ish)..  Coffee/cream was through the day, but I put it in whichever slot was emptiest :) 

This was only for me, had it been for my family of 4, it'd have been thriftier and would prob come out to about $500/550 for a month.  As it is, they've pre-moved and finishing out the last two months of this on my own, so this menu is only for one (me).  But I am 7 months pregnant.. so sort of for two! :)) 

Lastly, I drank lots of water, didn't include that..  or vitamins.  (D/C/Iron/Magnesium).

[...] I put $9 for the heavy whipping cream, should be 6... changes the total to $61 for the week.  Small detail, but still...
Here's Maria's shopping list:

And meals for a week:

There you have it. I'd say $61 for 1 (and a half) people is quite reasonable. Especially given the quality of the meals and ingredients.

Maria adds:
Also, this particular week was a bit monotonous when compared to the possibilities, but I suppose that's what happens when you hardly have a kitchen and don't have a family to demand variety.. :) 

When it's solely me, I can tolerate a bit more monotony, but week-in, week-out of that menu would certainly get old. Also, I tried to elaborate on cost in the post, ended up with various versions and lots of re-dos, but was trying to say that, when cooking and shopping for a family of 4/5, it's easier to buy somewhat more in bulk, reducing the overall price..  Doesn't make sense I suppose on paper, but that's what I've found doing it.

For the past 6 months our monthly food budget has been $450 and we've easily been able to stay within those confines, but if we were to make higher-quality choices, we could still get away with $500/550.
Buying in bulk and cooking for a family is going to bring the cost per person down significantly. Maria's meals are a bit more monotonous than one might want week-in-week-out, but they look pretty damn good to me. The point is that a paleo-ish type diet is no more expensive than the crap-in-a-box diet typical in North America, actually less so.

Thanks, Maria, for contributing. This is my favorite format:  food bought in one table, meals eaten (et) in another.

Ron Swanson Doesn't Believe in Awards Anyway

Awards are stupid, which is why I fully intend to decline this nonsense and recommend it go to Leslie because she works really hard and I don't.  (Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation, Season 2, Episode 17: "Woman of the Year")
Nick Offerman has been snubbed by the Emmies. Again. But some guy from some TV show called Glee was nominated.

My only response is to give you Ron Swanson's Pyramid of Greatness (click for large):

I can't decide what's my favorite. There's the four basic foods: Cow, Pig, Chicken and Deer protein (Fish, for sports only, since it is almost a vegetable).

SKIM MILK:  That's right. It's on here twice. Avoid it. 

PERSPIRATION:  Only sweat during physical activity or love making. No emotional sweating.

FRIENDS:  One to three is sufficient.

TORSO:  Should be thick and impenetrable.

POISE:  Sting like a bee. Do not float like a butterfly. That's ridiculous.

INTENSITY:  Give 100%. 110% is impossible. Only idiots recommend that.

The only one thing I sortta disagree with is BUFFETS (choose quantity over quality). And the one about American, obviously, although it's hilarious. But no one is perfect, not even Ron Swanson.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is Paleo/LC/Primal a Fad Diet?

Over at Free the Animal, Rosemary made this comment which I strongly disagree with:
Good to see you ever-so-slowly moving away from the whole paleo thing. At least you’re doing it with far more grace than some (Girl Gone Primal, anyone?). I’ve seen this coming on for a while; the typical lifespan of any fad diet – and LC/paleo is no different – is limited by design. People discover it; get passionate about it (and start blogs); and then – eventually – crash and burn (out). Just peruse any of the LC forums out there. It was pretty clear something was happening when Kurt Harris began to equivocate – if not outright reverse himself – on a number of things – “no such thing as macronutrient”, his posts on “orthorexia” and eating Rice Krispies, etc. Hooray for intellectual honesty… The only exception to this rule seems to be people like Jimmy Moore and Dana Carpender and Charles Washington – True Believers who are so invested in their dietary worldview (financially and otherwise) that any deviation or questioning would simply be unthinkable. But I do applaud your evolution; people who complain simply don’t get it – and need to get a life, in point of fact.
I don't think paleo, low-carb (LC) or primal (which I see as a Sissonesque rebranding and rejigging of paleo) is some sort of fad diet. Subsisting on lemon juice, that's a fad diet. Cutting out frankenoils, sugar and glutens is simply a step in the right direction.

While I've tended to avoid the term paleo diet for quite a while (in favor of the term real food), this is because paleo has gotten a bit trendy and somewhat stylized, along with the annoying self-appointed paleo police puritans and maybe my innately contrarian nature. I don't think there's anything wrong with the basic principles of a paleo diet: that we are genetically optimized for hunter-gatherer type food, that neolithic foods such as grains are bad and uber-neolithic foods such as frankenoils, processed sugar (and most likely sugar substitutes) are really, really bad.

To get a perspective on the history of low-carb diets and the demonization of animal fats one really has to read Good Calories, Bad Calories. Long before the role of insulin was known and insulin itself was isolated (the first diabetic was given an insulin injection in 1922, thanks in large part to a guy named, coincidentally, Banting), the fattening effect of carbs was common knowledge among doctors and medical researchers of the 19th century, although there was certainly no consensus on the matter.

I see the revival of the LC paradigm to be somewhat like the Copernican "revolution". The heliocentric model wasn't invented by Copernicus (Philolaus might've had that honor back in 400 BC) but Copernicus was important in shattering the Ptolemaic system that had held sway in Europe, thanks to the Catholic and Orthodox Church, since the collapse of Rome.

Neither did Atkins invent the LC diet. What he did was bring it into the mainstream and in so doing he took a hell of a lot of flack and made a hell of a lot of money. The Atkins Diet is flawed, of course, but the general principles, to lose weight avoid carbs and especially simple carbs like processed sugar are sound.
It is incredible that in twentieth-century America a conscientious physician should have his hard-won professional reputation placed on the line for daring to suggest that an obesity victim might achieve some relief by cutting out sugars and starches.
-ROBERT ATKINS, author of Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, testifying before Congress, April 12, 1973 (GCBC, pp. 404)
Next we come to the paleo or evolutionary diet. This I would liken to the framework of Newtonian gravity. Newton did not discover gravity, he was simply the first person to write a pretty accurate equation to describe the force of gravity (along with co-inventing calculus and other such minutiae):

Newton didn't know how gravity worked, he was famously perturbed by the notion of action-at-a-distance. We still don't know how gravity works, but we've gotten closer with General Relativity. Just as Newtonian mechanics laid out a framework for, and extended, the ideas of Copernicus and Kepler (and that towering genius Galileo), proponents of a paleo, or evolutionary diet, created a framework to explain why a LC diet was so succesful at restoring health.

Long before evolution was accepted or even well-known, doctors had observed that neolithic foods like processed sugar and bread made people fat. Long before there was a comprehensive theory about gravity people had observed there were some pretty glaring problems with the Ptolemaic model.

Are there faddish aspect to the paleo diet? Yes of course. There were faddish aspects to Relativity. Think of all those posters of Einstein adorning dorm rooms and offices.

This image was really popular, therefore Relativity is faddish bullshit

Until we have a working biochemical model for the human body it's all guesswork. I think human biochemistry is in more or less in the same position physics was when Copernicus and Galileo dared to challenge the Catholic church. Except that instead of challenging the idea that the Earth is the center of the Universe, the heretics must challenge the doctrine of the Food Pyramid.

Human biochemistry is a knowable thing just as the nature of gravity is a knowable thing. We are (seemingly) much closer to understanding the latter. The low-carb paradigm and its successor, the evolutionary diet paradigm (paleo) go a long way towards getting us started on the road to understanding human biochemistry and leaving the dark ages of lipophobia, statins and idiotic food pyramids. The China Study and other such papal decrees by the Church of Heart Healthy Whole Grains can elect all the Grand Inquisitors they want, but they are the last gasp of a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Were Gladiators Really Fat Vegetarians?

Don Matesz, everyone's favorite apostate ex-paleo vegetarian shaman, points to this 2008 abstract, The Gladiator Diet, where Karl Grossschmidt (or more correctly Großschmidt) says essentially that gladiators were fat vegetarians, based on bone analysis from a gladiator graveyard found in Ephesus.

Unfortunately, the details in the article are very sketchy. I managed to dig a little deeper and found a couple more articles going way back where Dr Großschmidt says the same thing. Here's the text from a 2004 article (reproduced here) from the Telegraph, which in turn is about this 2004 documentary:
Dr Grossschmidt noticed from the bone analysis that, contrary to the normal effects of intensive training, the gladiators put on weight before a fight rather than lost it.

Bone samples were subjected to chemical analysis. While a normal meat and vegetable diet will show balanced levels of zinc and strontium, the gladiators' bones were very high in strontium and low in zinc - another indication of vegetarianism.

The density of the bone tissue was significantly higher than normal, exactly what one finds in modern athletes, he said. The bone enlargement was particularly pronounced in the feet - evidence that gladiators fought barefoot in the slippery arena sand.
 And here's another 2004 article with this quote from Dr Großschmidt:
"Tests performed on bits of bone taken from the skeletons of some 70 gladiators buried at Ephesus seem to prove that they ate mainly barley, beans and dried fruit," said Dr Karl Grossschmidt, who took part in the study by the Austrian Archaeological Institute

"This diet, which has been mentioned in the oral history, is rather sad but it gave the gladiators a lot of strength even if it made them fat," said Grossschmidt who is a member of the University of Vienna's Institute of Histology and Embryology.
So Dr Großschmidt has been quoted quite a bit saying basically the same thing. As far as I can tell, the only verifiable facts are that the bones had high density, not surprising, and that they had high levels of strontium and low levels of zinc. The low zinc thing could be indicative of a vegetarian diet, vegetarians are at risk for zinc deficiency.

And speaking of zinc deficiency, guess where soils were recently identified as being particularly low in zinc?
Central Anatolia, in Turkey, was a region with zinc-deficient soils and widespread zinc deficiency in humans. In 1993, a research project found that yields could be increased by 6 to 8-fold and children nutrition dramatically increased through zinc fertilization.

Through a partnership with Cukurova University, the State and the private company TOROS Agri Industry Group, zinc was added to fertilizers. While the product was initially made available at the same cost, the results were so convincing that Turkish farmers significantly increased the use of the zinc-fortified fertilizer (1 per cent of zinc) within a few short years, despite the repricing of the products to reflect the added value of the content.
And Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey, of course. Not a smoking gun, exactly, perhaps these soils were depleted of zinc over the last 1800 years, but if the soils are low in zinc then the animal that eat these plants are going to be low in zinc also, and the people who eat the animals will also be low in zinc. Maybe everyone in Ephesus was zinc deficient in circa 200 AD.

Next Dr Großschmidt says that the "oral history" supports his supposition of a diet of they ate mainly barley, beans and dried fruit. Oral history? What does that mean? Apparently there is some reference to gladiators as "barley-eaters". Where this comes from is left extremely vague. Color me skeptical.

And then there is this:
Dr Grossschmidt noticed from the bone analysis that, contrary to the normal effects of intensive training, the gladiators put on weight before a fight rather than lost it. 
Huh? How do you tell that from 1800 year old bones? Do bones have rings like trees? I'm no expert on bone analysis, but this sounds like a load of crap.

And this:
It was a boring diet, he admitted. "They got enough of this food every day to make them very fat and strong," he said. He concluded that they devised the diet primarily to protect themselves from slashing wounds and damage to nerves and blood vessels, with the layer of fat supplementing their scant armour.
I'm going to call this the sumo-gladiator hypothesis, and it's entirely supposition by Dr Großschmidt. It's also something I find very dubious.

First of all, sumo wrestling is a very specific sport which relies more than any other sport on very mass and inertia. Endurance and dexterity are minor factors. The body type required for knocking someone out of a small circle is going to be very different from that needed to fight an armed death match in a sandy arena, or for just about any other sport really.

Secondly, is a layer of fat really going to act as much protection against slashing wounds? Subcutaneous fat is also a lot easier to cut than hardened muscle, not to mention that it slows one down and impedes heat loss which would have likely been a factor on the coast of Asia Minor. I just don't buy it.

So the whole vegetarian sumo-gladiator hypothesis Dr Großschmidt puts forward seems to rest on low zinc bone content, some hearsay about gladiators being barley eaters, and his supposition that fat acts as some sort of armor. Personally, I don't think it is possible to say with any certainty what the gladiators ate. Perhaps, as slaves, they were denied access to the more expensive animal products. Maybe the low-zinc soil meant that most people in Ephesus were zinc deficient even if they ate an omnivorous diet. A comparison of gladiator bones to those of other contemporary citizens would be interesting in this regard.

I think it more likely that gladiators looked like this:

Boxer of Quirinal
Rather than this:

"I'm bigger than you and higher up the food chain. Get in my belly!!!"

Were they vegetarians? From the evidence Dr Großschmidt presents in these interviews, I think it's impossible to say. Is a vegetarian diet optimal for most humans, regardless whether or not they have to fight to the death with swords and tridents? Definitely not.

Addendum: the reference to gladiators as hordearii (the binomial name for common barley is hordeum vulgare), or barley-eater, apparently comes from Pliny although I've not found the actual quote.Wikipedia has this:
Pliny also noted barley was a special food of gladiators known as hordearii, "barley-eaters". However, by Roman times, he added that wheat had replaced barley as a staple.
But the footnoted reference is broken.

Also, the gladiator bones were compared to average contemporaries, my bad.
Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein.
It would be nice to read the actual article, rather than the abstract, but it doesn't seem to be available. Also I found this quote from Discovery Magazine (2007) on the relevance of high strontium:
Medical University of Vienna anthropologists Fabian Kanz and Karl Grossschmidt analyzed gladiator skeletons unearthed near an ancient Ephesus stadium in what is now Turkey. The researchers found high levels of the trace element strontium, associated with plant-based diets, in the athletes' bones. 
So the vegetarian argument, at least for these gladiators in Ephesus in the second century AD, seems to be stronger than my initial impression.

In the same article Discovery Magazine also wrote this:
The discovery validates historical accounts of what gladiators, who were rather hefty and short by today's standards, ate.

The tallest gladiators measured around 5 feet 5 inches tall.
Wait, what? So far as I can tell, the only historical "account" of what gladiators ate is this single reference by Pliny about hordearii. And what would this have to do with gladiators being short "by today's standards"? Were they short because they were eating a vegetarian diet since birth? Not getting enough protein? Because they were eating a neolithic diet full of "heart-healthy" whole grains?

Also, I think it is pretty clear Dr Großschmidt is not some sort of crypto-vegan with an agenda. He says this diet would have been "boring", and "rather sad" and would have made them fat. I'm just skeptical of his conclusions.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Metabolic Syndrome is NOT About Free Will

Ah, the old willpower and diet argument, will it never die?

Scott Adams (of Dillbert fame) is a highly intelligent guy who often has some interesting things to say. But recently he wrote a brief post on his blog titled "Chipping Away at the Superstition of Free Will" which linked to a typically idiotic Huffington Post piece about the "psychology" of losing weight: cut out the sugar (good, of course) AND FATS, cultivate self-discipline, surround yourself with like-minded people, blah blah blah.

The HuffPo piece simply parrots the shallow and idiotic party line so I won't bother dissecting it.

Adams writes:
Here's another blow to the Nature Deniers. Yes, I did just invent a new label for people who believe human nature is not an important factor in human actions.
Uhm, what?

I believe human nature is an important factor in human actions, how does that make Free Will a superstition? I enjoy sex, I'm designed by evolution to enjoy sex, I'm aware that I'm designed to enjoy sex. Does that mean I can't control my actions and try to constantly hump the legs of pretty women I see walking down the street? Yes! Wait, maybe that was a bad example.

Seriously, the majority of people (in most western countries) are overweight and fail in their quest to lose weight. This is because these people have no idea that they are screwed up and addicted to neolithic agents of disease (NADs) thanks to the party line still being spouted by the mainstream. It is most certainly not because of a lack of discipline (although there is discipline involved in curbing the initial addiction) and definitely not because free will is a superstition. 

Here's Adams doing a typically funny strip on the subject back in 1993 (I suppose I'll get a takedown request for this although I'd argue it is fair use):

This is an interesting topic because the root of it is whether or not the brain is an algorithmic machine, which is something I'm very interested in, and which, of course (being a huge fan of Roger Penrose), I don't believe it is. If the brain is an algorithmic machine, like this computer I'm typing on, then there is no such thing as free will and hence true culpability goes out the window along with a lot of other things. We are all just very complex wind-up toys going through the motions with the illusion of free will.

If the human brain is simply an algorithmic machine then we should be on the verge of making a much better algorithmic machine out of silicon which will very quickly make another, etc, and then we are at the singularity and we all become redundant, blah blah blah.

If the brain is not an algorithmic machine then the question of what is free will is tied up with the question of what is self-awareness which is something we don't understand AT ALL. And something which Penrose argues we won't come close to understanding until we have a unifying knowledge of the laws of the Universe that can link together and explain quantum mechanics, gravity and entropy (the unidirectional flow of time).

Booze Doesn't Kill Neurons--Apparently

Well ya see Norm, it's like this... A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members.

"In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the lowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we all know, kills brain cells, but naturally it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. That's why you always feel smarter after a few beers.-Cliff Clavin, Cheers
Old Cliffy was wrong. A study at Washington University School of Medicine indicates that memory loss due to alcohol binging is caused by stress on the hippocampus not by killing brain cells.

So cases of Korsakoff syndrome like The Lost Mariner (If you haven't read Oliver Sacks you are missing some fascinating stuff) are probably a result of permanent damage to the hippocampus and perhaps other parts of the brain involved with memory formation rather than overall neuron damage.

via Reason

Growing Vegetables Now a Crime Against Humanity

The Bass family is being prosecuted for this terrible, disgraceful eyesore of a front yard (warning for those of weak constitution, avert your eyes now!):

Apparently, a neighbor filed a complaint and some officious little prick from the city government is prosecuting to the full extent of the law. Apparently growing basil in a neat planter is akin to having a rusty old Chevy up on blocks in the eyes of this city official.

The Basses are fighting it, but if they lose could face 93 days in jail.

Via Radley Balko

Update: this story is really going viral. I hope the asshole loses his job over this, but that's probably overly optimistic. 

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Borromean Rings and Biochemistry

While on my recent vacation I tried challenging myself by reading Martin Gardener and re-reading Roger Penrose, but I eventually broke down and indulged in some Raymond Chandler which is, for me at least, ideal beach reading. Specifically, The Long Goodbye, which I consider to be Chandler's best novel despite its numerous flaws: 
She hung up and I set out the chess board. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. (Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, 1953)
Does writing get any better than that?

Anyway, something I came across in Martin Gardner before I gave up the mental challenge is the odd topological concept of the Borromean rings.


These three rings are interlocked but no two rings are linked. Look carefully, if you remove any one ring, the other two will not be linked.

This is a great illustration of how systems can be interdependent without having a direct causal linkage.

It might also illustrate how the complicated feedback systems of the body can be very difficult to isolate and study independently.

Let us substitute the hormones ghrelin, insulin and leptin for these three rings since hormones are simply feedback loops. Two of these hormones were discovered quite recently, shockingly recent considering the supposedly advanced state of biochemistry and its bastard child nutrition (eat less, exercise more, eat healthy whole grains, avoid SFAs blah blah blah). Is it possible to remove one of these rings, say insulin, and study it all by itself? Or is it possible to study two of these feedback systems while leaving out the third?

Yes, perhaps it is, but I doubt it.

Roger Penrose makes a very strong argument why physics is incomplete and how this incompleteness is tied up with our inability to understand self-awareness and artificial intelligence. All physicists know physics is incomplete, of course (otherwise why bother?), but Penrose argues that the depth of this incompleteness is much greater and has more serious ramifications (such as with AI) than most physicists, and scientists in general, like to acknowledge.

Pointing out that modern physics is incomplete is a far cry from throwing it all away and embracing shamanism and Chinese medicine, of course.

I think nutrition today is something like what alchemy was to physics and chemistry in the middle ages, a bridge to a proper understanding of the chemicals and their ratios that best fuel the body. This requires a deep understanding of the biochemistry of the body, right now we are stuck using hueristics like ancestral diets, paleolithic vs neolithic diets, and various studies of varying qualities and institutional bias.

I strongly believe in minimizing or eliminating neolithic foods that we aren't well adapted for. But this is simply a heuristic. We are not even close to is a real understanding of the biochemistry of the body so these heuristics and studies are what we're stuck with.

A true biochemical understanding of what we should eat would be from first principles, from a deep understanding of DNA and how it produces this complicated machine called human. Until that happens (and I doubt it will happen in my lifetime), I'll stick with avoiding neolithic agents of disease.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

I Still Hate 1984 AND The Wonder Pets--A Philisophical Manifesto

Back in 2008 I wrote a blog post about why I can't stand didactic dystopian novels. And a while back I wrote a short post about why I dislike The Wonder Pets and Dora the Explorer, which pissed off a lot soccer moms (and dads) who were apparently googling for Wonder Pets pictures. These are really two sides of the same coin.

About didactic dystopian novels I wrote way back when:
Not all dystopian books are awful, of course. When a book is an extension of the author's world view such as Phillip K. Dick's paranoia and belief in the questionable nature of reality, some very interesting dystopias can emerge.

But if you need to read an "important" book like 1984 in order to understand that a totalitarian society sucks or Fahrenheit 451 in order to realize that burning books is bad, then you are also going to be stupid enough to fall for the newest form of fascism rolling down the pike, like Political Correctness or Obamamania, because you never were able to master the concept of thinking for yourself. 
I would go even further and say that when a dystopian novel is based on good characters and dialogue I don't have a problem with it, even if it has an agenda I disagree with (I'm thinking Cat's Cradle). What I can't stand is to get beaten over the head by a 'novel' that is really just a barely readable piece of propaganda that is later declared a classic by the very establishment that misunderstands it. 

The problem with 1984 is that it ends up being a shortcut to conceptual thinking about what fascism really is (not to mention that it is really boring).


"What's this fascism stuff, dude?"

"It's that 1984 thing, dude, the greatest novel of the 20th century about a society that didn't tolerate dissent. I didn't actually read it but it is my favorite novel ever."

"Cool, let's all go to a protest wearing the exact same clothes and chanting the exact same slogans."

"Yeah I heard there'll be tons of babes there."


Any kid who gets their morality or worldview from a TV show is in serious trouble. If they are going to learn ethics from a TV show, the last thing they need is a show like The Wonder Pets teaching the joys of conformity. The most difficult and important part of growing up is learning to avoid peer pressure and the need to conform to the popular hive mind. In other words, learning to think for oneself.

The last thing any society needs is more conformity.

Original thinking is not something that can be taught, per se, but it can be cultivated in an environment where questioning things is de rigueur. I was recently trying to get my son to question the nature of gravity. At 4 1/2 he's not quite ready for Relativity but simple questions (why does this cup fall?) lead to greater truths (because this part of space is warped), and when those simple questions can't be answered (why does warped space cause things to fall?) there is something wrong in either the understanding or the paradigm.

I do think children's TV shows (and TV in general) can teach something--creativity. I prefer my kid to watch shows like Spongebob or Phineas and Ferb for their originality, surrealism and characterization rather than a repetitive, politically correct piece of moralistic fluff like Wonder Pets or something "educational" like Dora the Explorer.

No kid is going to turn into a socialist vegetarian simply by watching Wonder Pets and no one is going to gain much insight into fascism by simply reading 1984. I dislike these things because they've either become (in the case of 1984) or represent (in the case of Wonder Pets) a pale substitution for original thought.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Will The Real Mediterranean Diet Please Stand Up?

I was thinking of titling this post, "My Vacation Rental" after reading Girl Gone Primal's advice, "If you haven't got anything interesting to say, don't tell us about your vacation rental."

Our vacation rental was pretty cool, but with the incessant drone of scooters and tractors towing boats in and out of the water it wasn't exactly idyllic.

Here's a shot:

Having spent some time in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Spain, and now Croatia, I would say that the main thing these countries have in common is a love of food. What I've seen little evidence of is this mythical beast known as the Mediterranean Diet.

And now for some food porn from Croatia.

Mussels with red sauce. 

Fish and vegetables:

Mixed grill. Note the Croatian red sauce in an onion "bowl", this stuff was pretty tasty and ubiquitous. At it's best it's simply amazing.

Bread was served with every meal and it was pretty damned good. But I mostly used it to make toys like Mr BreadHead here. Bread is a great construction material, not so great as a source of calories.

Amazing how kids can get so much more playtime out of a piece of bread than an actual toy.