Saturday, December 31, 2011

Margarine, Regulation and Conventional Wisdom

Margarine has an interesting history: first it was seen as a boon to the masses, and a frightening competitor to the dairy farmers, then it turned into a heart-healthy alternative to butter and lard, and now seems to be losing its credibility in the mainstream. Even my mother, a stalwart follower of conventional wisdom, has stopped buying margarine, even if she still buys skim milk.

Offering prizes is an awesome way to solve problems. Margarine came about because Napoleon III offered a prize for a cheap butter substitute, won by a guy with an unusual first name, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. Okay, nowadays we know it is vile, unhealthy stuff, but it was a neat solution. And let's face it, no one, from peasant to royalty actually prefers the taste of margarine to the creamy goodness of real butter.

An interesting aspect in the history of margarine is all the government interference on behalf of this unctuous substance. To quote from Wikipedia:
By the start of the 20th century, eight out of ten Americans could not buy yellow margarine, and those that could had to pay a hefty tax on it. Bootleg colored margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food-coloring capsules so that the consumer could knead the yellow color into margarine before serving it. Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect: the 1902 restrictions on margarine color, for example, cut annual U.S. consumption from 120,000,000 to 48,000,000 pounds (54,000 to 22,000 t).
Of course, with the spread of the lipid hypothesis margarine, despite its inferior flavor, came into puritan vogue. And it still seems to be riding this crest of madness.

Patented to improve cholesterol ratio? I'm pretty sure that in 50 years time, that will seem as ridiculous as this:

Both claims are technically correct. Doctors preferring to smoke Camels doesn't strictly mean they are healthy and neither does obtaining a patent to supposedly improve cholesterol ratio, although I think the latter claim is slightly more nefarious.

And let us not forget about the recent butter "shortage" in Norway which was caused by a government sponsored monopoly.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Healthy School Lunches Almost a Huge Success

In a manner that no one could've possibly saw coming a million miles away, the LA Country School systems politically correct, low fat, low salt, mostly vegetarian menu is a resounding success--with the US Dept of Agriculture and the guy from CSPI--with the very minor problem that it has been rejected en masse by the actual students.

From the LA Times:
It's lunchtime at Van Nuys High School and students stream into the cafeteria to check out the day's fare: black bean burgers, tostada salad, fresh pears and other items on a new healthful menu introduced this year by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But Iraides Renteria and Mayra Gutierrez don't even bother to line up. Iraides said the school food previously made her throw up, and Mayra calls it "nasty, rotty stuff." So what do they eat? The juniors pull three bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and soda from their backpacks.

"This is our daily lunch," Iraides says. "We're eating more junk food now than last year."
So chicken nuggets have been replaced by Cheetos.
Acknowledging the complaints, L.A. Unified's food services director, Dennis Barrett, announced this month that the menu would be revised. Hamburgers will be offered daily. Some of the more exotic dishes are out, including the beef jambalaya, vegetable curry, pad Thai, lentil and brown rice cutlets, and quinoa and black-eyed pea salads. And the Caribbean meatball sauce will be changed to the more familiar teriyaki flavor.
Actually, beef jambalaya and Caribbean meatball sauce sounds pretty good. Although if my school days are anything to go by, I wouldn't be too excited to taste a public school cafeteria's version.

This doesn't sound so great though:
The district is even bringing back pizza — albeit with a whole wheat crust, low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce, according to food services deputy director David Binkle.
Low fat, low sodium, whole wheat pizza, blech.
But some students said they still are not eating — including those who liked the food at the taste tests.

Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was "super good" at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified's central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy.
My guess is that the posole tastes terrible because it's made with lean chicken and not much in the way of spices so it consists of water, posole corn (hominy), and some chewy chicken chunks. Real tamales are pretty awesome, but they are a lot of work to make. I'd guess the school cafeterias are rather overwhelmed trying to cook complicated, exotic dishes, since they can't even seem to get noodles right.
Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they're suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.
Unopened skim milk cartons (AKA lactose water), since real 3.5% milk has been banned for some time. Headaches, stomach pains, anemia??? Wait, who is a prime candidate for anemia? Who gets headaches if they go without eating for a few hours?

On the plus side, it sounds like they've done a fantastic job lowering food reward. A statist who believes food reward is the prime cause of obesity would probably just call for more enforcement. US schools are already resembling prisons more and more every day, what with zero tolerance, metal detectors, locked-down campuses, jack-booted Sturmabteilung, I mean kindly police, and their drug-sniffing dogs doing random searches, etc. So why not go full gulag and enforce 100% compliance?

After all, it's for the children.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chicken Pox and Sunlight

The Beeb writes about this study that hypothesizes a negative correlation between UV exposure and chicken pox. I have to give the BBC credit, while they didn't actually link to the study, nor mention vit D, they also didn't put in the mainstream media requisite scare quotes about sunscreen and skin cancer. I going to call this a win.

Ultraviolet radiation has long been used for sterilization purposes and viruses, unlike humans cells or bacteria, have no way to repair their DNA (which is really all they are), at least not that I know of, so it makes sense that UV from sunlight could destroy something like chicken pox. Increased levels of vit D obviously could be a factor. Studies have linked vit D levels to other viral diseases such as influenza. My guess is that both things are involved, assuming the link between UV and chicken pox is real.

World's Greatest Golfer Dies

North Korean television announced that Kim Jong Il's condition has been downgraded to Kim Jong Dead. The rule of threes has struck again, and this time in a good way. Golfer extraordinaire and alien supervillain Kim Jong Il has gone to that great propaganda machine in the sky.

On a serious note, it's hard to imagine things getting much worse in (The Democratic People’s Republic of) NK, at least in the longer term, so the world can be hopeful of some sort of perestroika happening with the new leadership. On the other hand, Asian stocks fell on the news, so this is making a lot of people very nervous.

On a less serious note, enjoy this clip of Mr Kim in an introspective moment:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

And So Long Vaclav

My wife just got back from placing a candle for Václav Havel at Václavské náměstí in the center. Here's some pics:

I don't have much to say about this great man that others haven't or will be saying much more eloquently. As with Hitchens, I didn't necesarily agree with him (Havel was always, like Orwell, firmly on the left), but he was a man of principle, someone willing to stand up and take a big hit for their beliefs.

Update: great video via Pavol Hardos, via Reason.

At the end Havel says, for what I assume was a theater PSA, ""Thank you all for turning off your mobile phones. Truth, love, must win over tanks and hatred. Turn off your telephones."

Correction: Ondřej, a native Czech speaker, writes that it is "lies and hatred".

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Twinkie Diet--Long Since Debunked

I bring this up because I still see the Twinkie diet pop up as "proof" of the calories in, calories out, or that food quality isn't important or some other BS. Tom Naughton, long ago looked at the actual diet and found it was low in calories (less than 1500 kcal/day) and moderate in carbs (~175 g/day).

As Mr Naughton puts it:
Now, 173 grams of carbohydrate per day certainly isn’t low, but it’s not high either. Depending on whose figures you use, that’s about half as many carbohydrates as an average American male consumes per day. It’s also at least 1,000 fewer daily calories than an average male consumes. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that Professor Haub lost weight on a “Twinkie Diet” that is actually moderate in carbohydrates and very low in calories. I’d lose weight on that diet, too.  (I’d hate it, but I’d lose weight.)
Tom, of course, lost weight and improved his blood panel by eating a fast food diet that was around 2000 kcal/day (if I remember right), which he documented for his movie Fathead.

Unlike the "professional" journalists who hyped this alleged junk food diet, Tom looked at Prof. Haubs' actual menu and did some calculations. Just one more reason to hate the mainstream media.

Friday, December 16, 2011

We Must Feed the Cute Little Animals--Heart Healthy Whole Grains!

Thanks to Wikipedia, it has recently came to my attention that cute little animals like hedgehogs are having health problems from high sugar, and more importantly, high fat diets. Isn't it time for the human race to step up and start feeding our animal cousins the same heart-healthy grains that we already know are the basis for a long and healthy life. Anything else is simply selfish, and specieist to boot.

That's why I'm hereby announcing my plan to start a worldwide charity whose sole function is to pressure governments around the world to funnel their citizen's taxes into this very, very worthy project, nay mission. It is (dare I say it?) our destiny as a species (oh yes, I dare!) to enrich all God's creatures, great and small (but especially small and cuddly), with the wisdom that is the USDA food pyramid.

I know times are tough, but I'm asking each and every one of you to look deep into your hearts, and especially your wallets, and give, give, give. The sooner we act, the sooner we can stop poor helpless bunny rabbit families from clogging their furry little arteries with bacon cheeseburgers.

So Long, Hitch

Even though I disagreed with many of his (sometimes willfully contrarian) positions, especially on interventionist wars and Americans playing world cop, I always had a ton of respect for Christopher Hitchens as one of the great minds of the times.

The guy was way up on my bucket list of people I'd love to have lunch with. Alas, it will never happen.

Addendum: here's Hitch taking on the unctuous Bill Maher and his sycophantic audience with loads of panache:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hedgehogs, Heart Disease and Fatty Livers

This stuff is just so insidious. I was looking up hedgehogs for the kid and came across this on Wikipedia:
Hedgehogs suffer many diseases common to humans. These include cancer, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Cancer is very common in hedgehogs. The most common is squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell spreads quickly from the bone to the organs in hedgehogs, unlike in humans. Surgery to remove the tumors is rare because it would result in removing too much bone structure.

Fatty liver disease is believed by many to be caused by bad diet. Hedgehogs will eagerly eat foods that are high in fat and sugar. Having a metabolism adapted for low-fat, protein-rich insects, this leads to common problems of obesity. Fatty liver disease is one sign, heart disease is another.
Fatty liver disease and heart disease caused in part by a high fat diet? Sugar I can see, but fat? My spidey sense immediately started tingling. Are insects really low in fat?

Apparently not. About three minutes of googling got me to this paper:
This study found that food insects supplied 16100Kcal/person/year and 513grams of protein/person/year. Results also showed that food insects were an expensive source of protein but not fat. The proximate composition showed that grasshoppers contained 32g/100g of protein and 54g/100g of fat whereas white ants contained 31g/100g of fat and 65g/100g of protein. Fatty acid analysis showed that grasshoppers and white ants fat was predominantly unsaturated with 60% and 57% unsaturated fats respectively. Grasshoppers and white ants had 13.4% and 6.7% linoleic acid respectively, and 44% and 48% of oleic acid respectively.
If grasshoppers and white ants are at all typical, their fat content is double that of protein and is the majority of their composition [Ed. grasshoppers are majority fat, white ants majority protein]. So insectivores such as many hedgehog species are adapted to eat a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet. Grasshopers are 14% carb and white ants are 4% carb. If hedgehogs are developing diseases of civilization, it's not because they aren't adapted to a high-fat diet, it's because they are eating the same crap that cause humans to do develop these same diseases.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gary Taubes on EconTalk

This is a few weeks old, but Gary Taubes talked with libertarian economist Russ Roberts about GCBC and bad science.

Roberts thinks that economics and nutrition have a lot in common, in they are both heavily politicized and it is difficult to prove hypotheses, or more importantly disprove, hypotheses because of the complexity of the body or the economy. This is why we still see Keynesian models being advocated by left wing economists such a Paul Krugman. There's no null hypothesis for the Keynesian model, they simple reply, "but things would've been so much worse if we hadn't wasted all this money".

Anyway, a few interesting quotes from Taubes:
Remember, Keys comes up with this hypothesis; he believes it. I think as early as 1952 he was telling everyone that he believed that all Americans should eat very low fat diets, even though he was admitting that there wasn't evidence to support the hypothesis. So, he could say those things simultaneously. Like Einstein did: I'm sure I'm right and we should act on it, even though I admit that we have no evidence. But we will; it's just a matter of time.
The word "yet" shows up all the time in these studies. You can see it in newspaper articles: We don't have the data yet. One of the things I'm always arguing to people in these fields is you may never have the data. Never use the word "yet." It's a hypothesis. As soon as you start thinking in terms of "yet," you know that you've become biased and you are not going to be able to do good science. Slippery slope. Keys, because he's the leading proponent of the idea, even though he's done one bad study after another and he's actually been spanked by one report that came out of the AHA back in 1956, 1957 where they had a team of cardiologists, bio-statisticians look into this and say there's just no evidence to support it. But because he's the leading proponent, he's the one you give money to test the study.
And this is how bias can interject itself into research from the very get-go. So, instead of saying: That's a very interesting idea, Ancel; why don't you come up with a study on the idea and we'll have a group of very smart people design it with you and then we'll fund somebody else who is unbiased to do it. Instead you say: Here's $200,000, you do the study. And Ancel's not that interested in refuting his hypothesis. There's not a Popperian bone in his body. But he's a doctor and he cares about people. I said that with irony. But academics, doctors get the benefit of the doubt and it's presumed that they are unbiased, that they only care about the truth. And of course they care about money--one thing--but they also care about their reputation, the glory, the fame; they don't want to be embarrassed. 
Taubes makes a good point about the incentives in the research field, which of course he's done before many times. As any good economist will tell you, incentives matter. I wonder what the solution is. Taubes thinks that people shouldn't be allowed to test their own hypotheses and that's a fair point. In physics there is a natural delineation between experimental physicists and theoretical physicists. In nutrition it seems that the people advocating hypotheses are actually running the experiments. Still, I wonder who these unbiased people would be to actually perform the experiment? That's a lot easier to say than actually implement. Especially in a politicized field such as economics or nutrition.

Taubes also admits to being an advocate himself for his hypothesis:
Once you bet your reputation on a hypothesis, you cease to do science. You cease to test it, and now what you do is you look for data to confirm it. You are an advocate. It's true. I now have an alternative hypothesis and I'm an advocate for that hypothesis; and I hope it's right because it's going to be very hard for any data to come along and convince me it's otherwise.
He's right that very few people are willing to part with a hypothesis after they've bet their reputation on it. Personally I think Taubes and Stephan Guyenet are both advocates. Steve Landsburg points to a pretty amazing counter-example.
Just to be clear, here: That’s Ed Nelson cheerfully acknowledging that the book-length argument he’s been painstakingly constructing for (probably) years, and which was intended to shake the mathematical world to its foundations, doesn’t work. This says so many good things about the culture of mathematics, and so many good things about the Internet, and so many good things about the way they interact (see here and here for more examples), and it says those things so eloquently, that I see no further need for comment.
Oh Ed, you sure could've taught old Ancel Keys a thing or two. 

Also I enjoyed this from Taubes:
It's good here to remind the listener that Albert Einstein after the famous study that he had predicted that the gravitational field of the sun would bend starlight, and it was tested, beautiful experiment, and it was found to be true; somebody asked Einstein afterwards: What would you have done if the results hadn't confirmed your experiment? And he said: Well, I wouldn't have believed them because I know I'm right.
And if you are the smartest person in the world--actually, it's even a little more dangerous when you are the smartest person in the world. But that's a common view that most scientists have. And of course many times they are wrong. It's the nature of science to make mistakes. Hypotheses don't get borne out by the data; there are things you didn't observe or imagine that could have other effects.
And speaking of Einstein, he also apparently said this:
Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
Duh, like no wonder you couldn't come up with a unified field theory, dude. Honestly, I think a better solution would be to able to grow meat artificially. Yeah, I know, sort of goes against the whole real food mentality, but it ought to be possible to grow a steak (ie a muscle) and feed it on the bacteria that a ruminant would normally get from digesting cellulose. In other words, cheap grassfed meat that a vegan should have not ethical qualms about. I think they'd find an excuse to halve qualms anyway, but still it would pretty groovy.

Addendum: damn I forgot to mention that Russ Roberts is the guy (along with John Papola) behind these awesome Keynes vs Hayek rap videos:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Obesity Is Not the Government's Business

I didn't watch the last republican debate, but I saw the highlight clip of Ron Paul's responses. His reply to what the government should do about obesity and health was particularly spot on.

Here it is, starting around 9:20:

Diane Sawyer: "I was just at a pharmacy here in Iowa. And the pharmacists were talking about a big driver of healthcare costs, and they specifically mentioned habits, unhealthy habits that we all need to do better on at a young age, they talked about obesity, they talked about exercise, if I can ask you Congressman Paul, ANYTHING government should do on these fronts? [...] On these fronts specifically of healthy behavior at very young ages."

Ron Paul: "No, essentially not, but they have to be a referee. If people are doing things that hurt other people, yes. But if you embark on instituting a society where government protects you from yourself, you're in big trouble. And that's what they're doing. 
Awesome answer.

Paul goes on to say:
"Once government uses force to mold behavior or mold the economy, they've overstepped the bounds and violated the whole concept of our Revolution and our Constitution."
Beyond the core argument that it's not the job of the government to tell, and especially coerce, people into making lifestyle choices, there's the more practical argument that the government usually gets these things terribly wrong, as we've seen with the demonization of SFAs and lionization of "heart-healthy" grains that is still the party line of the US government and many others like Denmark who recently instituted a fat tax. 

Incidentally, the line about externalities that is always brought up in regard to health and other such issues as an excuse to control people's behavior is total bullshit. Obese people end up costing the system less in the long run, at least according to this Dutch study, because they die sooner, and frankly it's their own business, anyway. I think most obese people would prefer to be thin and healthy if they only knew how that was possible--here's a hint: don't take advice from the government.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don Matesz Goes Full Retard

Never go full retard, man.

It is with perverse pleasure that I still keep Don's feed. And since foreswearing a Paleo diet and becoming a vegetarian, he's not disappointed. Way back when I thought Don was a rational human I made a serious response to his equating modern physics with shamanism. Now that he's descended to the point of singing the praises of T Colon Campbell, I just have to shake my head in awe.

Never go full retard, man

But the point of this post is not to dis Don.

I'm a real 80/20 kind of guy. This is both a strength and a weakness. I've known a lot of gung-ho types, they are gung-ho into one thing and often gung-ho into the opposite thing six months later or six years later. Frankly, these people make me nervous.

Don Matesz has a degree in philosophy and I have a degree in electrical engineering. I would argue that there is an important lack of bullshit in the hard sciences and in the field of engineering. It's simply not possible to fake a mathematical proof or a microwave antenna array (yeah, my specialty was e-mag).

There are plenty of intelligent bloggers out there who only have degrees in the school of life, and I've nothing but respect for them. What I despise more than anything are the folks who use the guise of science to advance their own propoganda, and Don has definitely fallen into that rabbit hole.

And if anyone is offended by my use of the word retard, don't be, some of my best friends are liberals.