Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mythic Archetypes and The Myth of Educational TV

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The last few days my kid has been sick, and to keep him bouncing off the walls he got to watch umpteen episodes of The Justice League. Not only do I not have a problem with this, I've come to think this is actually "educational television" at its finest.

The kid is bilingual, he speaks both Czech and English as a mother tongue, although he started by speaking mostly Czech. Czech has the advantage that everyone speaks it in this country, but (American) English has the advantage that Daddy speaks it, and more importantly, so does Batman. Now that he's on the cusp of five, he's become a real connoisseur of language--totally fascinated by expressions--and it's pretty amazing to see him pick up on these things. Czech simply can't keep up in the cool phrases department. A few minutes ago he was watching Planet 51 and made me rewind the phrase, "...not full of sea-monkeys dancing to the oldies," five time because he thought it hilarious even if he didn't fully understand it. This also entailed explaining what "oldies" and "sea-monkeys" are.

The vocabulary my kid has picked up from watching such "mindless crap" has made my wife a believer. It won't be that long before my kid will have a better English vocabulary than she does, which is pretty amazing for a four-year-old living in a country where his only exposure to English is me, TV shows and the occasional long distance conversation with grandparents or our ex-pat friends (also my wife and I speak English together at home).

This is where I get deeply skeptical of the naturalistic ideal or hippie-dippie aspects of Paleo/Primal/etc mindset, or what Kurt Harris calls Paleo reenactment. I've seen Paleo-type bloggers complain about things like running or walking with mp3 players. When I go for walks I usually listen to podcasts and frankly see nothing wrong with it even if my HG predecessors didn't own a Walkman. Hell, I had a paper route for years and spent many tedious hours folding and throwing newspapers at ungodly hours with nothing to listen to but AM radio. This is why I still have a burning hatred for Stevie Nicks. I would've loved to have an MP3 player where "every song you've ever heard, or will ever hear or will ever be written can be put on that thing," as Patton Oswalt put it, yet cost less than 100 US monopoly money dollars.

Now I could point that stories about mythic archetypes have been with us forever, told while sitting around the fire talking of Odin or Coyote the Trickster or whatever, If I wanted to put some sort of What Would Grok Do spin on this, and I actually think there is something to that. What is Batman but a flawed demi-god who drives a really, really cool car?

I've written before how I consider educational (and especially moralistic) TV to be worthless as an educational tool and worse than useless by people who think these shows have some sort of intrinsic merit. But now I'm going to go even further and say, based on my n=1 parenthood experience, that it's the kind of television made for pure entertainment that can actually have the merit of being educational.

So my advice is, if you have a bilingual kid and you want them to improve their language skills, let them watch whatever they find most interesting--this will probably not be a show created by education "experts". But why should this stop at bilingual kids? I think that homo sap children in general, with their big ol' brains, naturally gravitate to the more complex and subtle, that there's a natural urge to unfold one's mental wings. This is probably accelerated by older sibling's perceptions of what is cool, and coolness usually entails a lot of subtle signalling that is (purposefully) opaque to other groups like parents or non-hipsters--again a drive towards more subtlety and complexity.

This is not to say I'm going to be enrolling my kid in a Sudbury School or homeschooling him with Michael Bay movies. There's a time for having stuff shoved down your throat by your parents, and that time is when your parents can beat you up. Seriously, I'm not even close to believing that all learning should be "fun". We've all known people with immense talent that was immensely squandered for lack of application and discipline, it's practically a cliché. There is the rote aspect of discipline to any enjoyable skill, be it tennis, mathematics or dwarf tossing. And while guys like Richard Federer and Aragorn may make such things look easy, there were countless hours of tedious practice behind their effortlessness.

But if your kid is going to watch some television (and why shouldn't they?), I think shows like The Justice League whip Dora's little ass.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

For The Man With a Macrophage, Everything is Inflammation

I was trying to explain to the kid how the immune system works in terms of superheros, ie leukocytes are like the Justice League, antibodies are like, uhm, sidekicks? Yeah well, doesn't really work. The whole point was to get him to understand that eating crap screws with the immune system, so stop asking for ice cream every day when we pass the shop. As you can guess, there's still a lot of work to do there.

Anyway, I came across these cool videos on YouTube trying to illustrate things, and it prompted me to read more about macrophages.

Here's some pathogens in the bloodstream glomming onto a white blood cell (lymphocyte? doesn't say what kind) then a pathogen getting glommed by antibodies, then eaten by a macrophage:


And here's a macrophage realizing there's a full-on alien invasion and sending out a distress signal in the form of  inflammatory (put out the Bat Signal) cytokines:


Best of all, here's a neutrophil chasing a bacterium with Benny Hill music:


I think it is pretty fascinating that macrophages not only eat pathogens (and debris), they repair muscle damage, including hormetic damage such as pumping iron. Macrophages repairing damage release anti-inflammatory cytokines.

To quote Robert McLeod, a much more knowledgeable person on this subject:
  • M1 macrophages are pro-inflammatory and fight infection.  They are the classical state for macrophages that you would find described in a textbook.  Primarily, they detect and fight foreign organisms (viruses, bacteria, and parasites).  They are characterized by the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemicals which alert the other cell types of your immune system to react and destroy the invader (as well as adjacent 'self' cells). 
  • M2 macrophages are anti-inflammatory and repair tissue damage.  For example, when you exercise and your muscle tissue is damaged, it is M2 macrophages that infiltrate your muscle organs and affect the repairs [Tidball, 2010] after the initial M1 surge.  The characteristic cytokine of M2 macrophages is interleukin-10 (IL-10), which encourages other macrophages to enter the tissue and differentiate into M2 phenotype but also discourage the attention of cyto-toxic 'killer' cells from the lymphocyte family of the immune system.
If one believes that diseases of civilization (DOCs) are caused by chronic inflammation which is in turn caused by neolithic agents of disease (NADs), which I definitely do, then the role of macrophages and their cytokines becomes of vital interest.

Now I'm going to add in another element, this one's more controversial, more tentative but it's been gaining a lot of traction in the last few years, that DOCs are caused by chronic infection. Robert McLeod gave a good summary of this back in 2009, and Paul Jaminet is a firm believer in this. Assuming the chronic infection theory is true, who is supposed to be gobbling up these pathogens that are hiding out in our bodies for years on end? That's right, macrophages. Now we have muscle repair, chronic inflammation, chronic disease and reality television all tied up with macrophages and cytokines.

McLeod again:
The differentiation of macrophages, from M1 to M2, is not all that distinct and is generally though to represent the two extremes of a continuum.   My reading suggests macrophage populations can make the transition from one phenotype to the other, without die-offs.  This is probably a bad thing for chronic modern diseases, in that many of the diseases that are as a result of macrophage dysfunction occur when apoptosis (programmed cell death) is impeded.

One of the beneficial effects of eating a diet low in inflammatory factors (e.g. fructose, wheat, smoking) is that the overall levels of pro-inflammatory hormones, such as cortisol or interferon, are low so the transition from high M1 expression to high M2 expression can occur more rapidly. I strongly suspect this is why most people who transition to the paleo-diet are much better able to put on muscle mass. As the Tidball article indicates, chronic exercise is another no-no because it doesn't give enough time for the M2 macrophages to enter and affect repairs, so the muscle is always in an inflamed state.   
First of all, I've got the chronic exercise thing totally nailed. I'm a world-class not chronic exerciser.

The ability to transition and ratio of inflamatory/anti-inflamatory (M1/M2) is apparently quite important and is likely related to the amount of NADs we eat. Oh and guess where tons of M1 macrophages belching out inflammatory cytokines love to congregate? Yeah, in fat tissue. Especially belly fat of fat people. McLeod quoting a gated article by Olefsky and Glass:
The discovery that adipose tissue from obese mice and humans is infiltrated with increased numbers of macrophages provided a major mechanistic advance into understanding how obesity propagates inflammation (4, 5). Adipose tissue contains bone marrow–derived macrophages, and the content of these macrophages tracks with the degree of obesity (4, 5, 31, 32). In some reports, greater than 40% of the total adipose tissue cell content from obese rodents and humans can be composed of macrophages, compared with ~10% in lean counterparts (32).
Wow, more than 40% of fat tissue composed of macrophages screaming, "CODE RED!!!" That's a pretty stunning number. The obvious solution is to make a drug that reduces M1 macrophages to combine with the statins right? Then we'll have fixed things right and proper!

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Sunday, October 02, 2011

Falsifiability and Footballs and Comics

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal does a great comic about induction and playing doctor:


The girl is a Popperian.

I'm not sure if Charlie Brown is a Popperian. He certainly doesn't seem to believe in induction when it comes to fussbudgets and footballs.


Or maybe he's just stuck hoping for a black swan event.

Popper, as I understand it, argued that science is not about proving hypotheses but about falsifying hypotheses, since no hypothesis can be proved true until every single case is examined.

Here's Martin Gardner expressing skepticism of Popper:
A familiar example of falsification concerns the assertion that all crows are black. Every find of another black crow obviously confirms the theory, but there is always the possibility that a non-black crow will turn up. If this happens, the conjecture is instantly discredited. The more often a conjecture passes efforts to falsify it, Popper maintained, the greater becomes its "corroboration," although corroboration is also uncertain and can never be quantified by degree of probability. Popper's critics insist that "corroboration" is a form of induction, and Popper has simply sneaked induction in through a back door by giving it a new name. David Hume's famous question was "How can induction be justified?" It can't be, said Popper, because there is no such thing as induction!
[...]
Consider the current hypothesis that there is a quantum field called the Higgs field, with its quantized particle. If a giant atom smasher some day, perhaps soon, detects a Higgs, it will confirm the conjecture that the field exist. At the same time it will falsify the opinion of some top physicists, Oxford's Roger Penrose for one, that there is no Higgs field.

To scientists and philosophers outside the Popperian fold, science operates mainly by induction (confirmation), and also and less often by disconfirmation (falsification). Its language is almost always one of induction. If Popper bet on a certain horse to win a race, and the horse won, you would not expect him to shout, "Great! My horse failed to lose!"
Not surprisingly, I'm with Gardner and Popper's critics (and poor half-naked Bobby) on this.

Anyway, screw all this philosophy stuff, what's on TV?


Needless to say, they are watching Dr Oz telling them to eat a low-fat diet with plenty of heart-healthy grains to fatten them up for slaughter.