Thursday, October 11, 2012

Defenestration

Speaking of uniquely Czech words, there are three that I know of off the top of my head that made it into English--pistol, robot, and howitzer. And quite frankly, those are some of coolest words in the English language.

Defenestration ought to be given honorable mention, though. The word is a Latin neologism, but it was coined in Prague (look it up biatches, I can't hyperlink with this damn ipad), and it became something of a famous tradition here.

The second defenestration of Prague led to the Thirty Years War, which essentially involved every country in Europe. And if you aren't familiar with Jan Hus, check him out. He was basically a less psycho version of Martin Luther, who was a little bit ahead of his time and suffered the painful consequences. The Humanists were to the Protestants what the beats were to the hippies.

Holidays For an Ex-Pat

First of all, my computer died, so I'm writing this on an iPad, which is not as painful as I imagined, at least not so far, although it seems pretty difficult to hyperlink so I'll have to skip that.

One of the more limbo-ish aspects of living abroad is the alien holidays. For me, as an American, I miss July 4th, Thanksgiving and Halloween. Not because they have any sort of cultural significance, just because they are really fun. Blowing stuff up, eating a 27 course meal, and dressing up in costumes, that's my idea of fun.

The thing about fun, it's kind of a group thing. I'm not much of a joiner, but anyone who's ever gone to see live comedy knows what I'm talking about. I laughed harder at small comedy clubs in the late 80s, falling out of my seat laughing, than I ever came close to doing watching even the funniest movie ever made (Team America, in case you didn't know) at home.

This is the upside to mob mentality.

The Czechs have actually nailed one holiday, and that's Christmas. The traditional Czech Christmas dinner is breaded carp and potato salad. Not exactly my ideal meal, nor most Czechs either I daresay, but I really like the extremely traditional aspect of eating something so bizarre. Unfortunately the tradition seems to be in decline. When I first came here there were carp vendors on almost every street corner running up to Christmas, now there are much less. I'm being such a hypocrite here because I actually bow out and bring salmon for myself (Do you have any idea how many random bones there are in carp?), but I love seeing actual strong traditions that are rather strange to my sensibilities.

So the three coolest holidays are basically gone for me, which is a very small tragedy in the scheme of things, but there also is a big upside: not having to deal with all the hype and commercialization. And while I'm not a big fan of the winnowing away of traditional things like Christmas carp, I'll take the upside that Halloween has been making inroads in Europe.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Free Speech and So-Called Pseudoscience

I'm not a huge fan of alternative medicine. Western medicine, despite its myriad of flaws, is still based on an empirical system of rules that ideally have the Scientific Method at their root. However, there are alt medicine doctors like Chris Kresser that I take quite seriously. And I'm wary of the fascist cop-out of denouncing anything off the conventional path on health, diet and nutrition as alternative pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo.

I also take a liberal view of free speech, not to mention a dim view of speech-strangling strict libel laws such as currently exist in Great Britain and many other European countries.

So I find interesting this dust-up between Simon Singh, PhD physicist and journalist, and the magazine What Doctors Don't Tell You (WDDTY).

Dr Singh, who rather heroically stood up to a libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association, doesn't feel WDDTY's health articles are fit for human consumption. And he took to Twitter to say so:
Earlier this week, Singh took to the social media network to denounce a magazine called What Doctors Don't Tell You (WDDTY). Described by its editor, Lynne McTaggart, as being aimed at "intelligent women between 35-55" the magazine claims to provide information about what works and what does not work in both conventional and alternative medicines. Coverlines on the current issue include "sunbathe your diabetes away" and "how I avoided my hysterectomy through diet".
So far so good. I don't have a problem with a magazine providing "unauthorized" medical advice, nor do I have a problem someone calling out said magazine's articles as their perceived bullshit.
Writing on Facebook on Tuesday, McTaggart called on the magazine's supporters to fight the actions of "bully boys" who wanted to push it off newsagents' shelves. "Simon Singh, who was leading the charge, was just told by our distributor essentially to shove off and reminded that tweeting untrue statements about us or them is, well, libel," she wrote.
Uh oh. Now we got the editor threatening libel and alluding to the newest of bugaboos and creeping victim card bullying. Not cool, dude, not cool. But Dr Singh has also crossed the line:
Singh confirmed that he had contacted Comag, the distributors of WDDTY, to say that in his opinion the magazine was largely unscientific and was promoting advice that could potentially harm readers.

"Also, many of the adverts appear to make pseudoscientific and unsubstantiated claims," he said. "I even offered to meet with Comag and introduce them to medical experts, but they have not accepted this invitation. When I suggested that I would blog about our email exchange, their reaction was to tell me in no uncertain terms: 'I should inform you that we have sought legal advice in respect of this matter. We would take any attempts to damage our reputation on social media or elsewhere very seriously.'"
You offered to introduce them to medical experts? Really? How patronizingly generous of you, Dr Singh. Did you also magnanimously offer to send them links to the Wikipedia entries on science and pseudoscience?

I took a look at WDDTY and it is something of a mixed bag. There's a news article about the non-efficacy of beta-blockers for instance, and an article about the dangers of salt restriction neither of which I'd consider pseudoscience. In fact their news articles seem to be pretty good in general, if somewhat dumbed down. Some of the adverts are probably trying to sell snake oil, I didn't bother to click on any of them, but so what? Cave Canem, I say.

Dr Singh is called a libel reform campaigner, and I suppose he is. But one shouldn't confuse that with a free speech campaigner. By trying to get the publisher to shut down this magazine, he shows that he belongs to fascist mindset that thinks only the right people ought to be allowed free speech. Only high priests of the Temple of Science who've been vetted by the priesthood of Academia can tell the prole public what to think about their health. I'm not crazy about WDDTY pulling the bullying victim card and threatening libel, but let's face it, Dr Singh drew first blood.

All that being said, Dr Singh is an excellent pop journalist in physics and mathematics and most likely an excellent physicist. I enjoyed his series about special numbers (available for listening), among other things he has done. Too bad he falls into the typical fallacy of thinking that being an expert in one intellectual field gives him the right to regulate what other people (ie the barely literate prole masses) are allowed to read and (essentially) think.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Evolutionary Diet and Fat-Acceptance

Despite claims otherwise, for most people who are obese, losing that weight is about more than just switching to a healthy diet. One has to want to lose the weight, and probably want it quite a lot. There's going to be the pain of breaking an addiction to processed carbs (especially sugar), the necessity of adding in some high and low intensity exercise (HITT/weights + walking) for the metabolic and mental advantages, the pain of just making a lifestyle change in general. Just the necessity of breaking out of the conventional wisdom and thinking for oneself about diet takes time and effort.

The bad diet still being pushed by mainstream doctors, nutritionists and media, along with the ubiquitousness of processed foods with their neolithic agents of disease is a huge problem, of course, but let's not compound it by pretending that obesity isn't unhealthy.

No one is going to bother going to the real effort of losing weight when people think it is OK to be fat, that being fat is just about body image or that it is totally natural, etc. Yes, people have genetically different weight dispositions, women are selected to have more adipose tissue than men, blah blah blah. But the fact of the matter being very fat, obese, is quite simply unhealthy. Not only does demonstrably shorten a person's life, it lowers the quality of their physical existence when tying one's shoes or climbing a flight of stairs becomes a major event. Obesity is technically defined by having a BMI over 30, which we all know is rather a load of horseshit, since it doesn't distinguish between body fat and muscle. But there's no question that a person who is obese due to a high proportion of body fat is unhealthy and at much higher risk of an early grave.

This brings us to Jennifer Livingston, a fat news anchor who essentially accused someone of a bullying hate crime for sending in this letter:
Hi Jennifer,

It's unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn't improved for many years. Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this not hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.
I see nothing bombastic or especially rude about this email. There are no attacks on Ms Livingston's character, nothing about her doing her job badly. The letter writer is simply wondering if Ms Livingston is setting a good example with her unhealthy lifestyle.

I do find the email somewhat obnoxious, but that's because I don't think it's the responsibility for a public personality of an adult oriented show like the news to have some sort of responsibility to promote any sort of lifestyle or act as some sort of role model for the children. However, I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority opinion on this, which is why smoking (more or less) and cigarette ads are banned from TV these days.

And here is the four minute clip of Ms Livingston's righteously indignant response:


Ms Livingston reluctantly acknowledges that she is obese in her heartfelt response, but what she never acknowledges the main point of the email: that obesity is the result of an unhealthy lifestyle, and is itself unhealthy.

The similarities and differences between smoking and obesity in this modern era of political correctness are quite telling. While both are acknowledged to be unhealthy by most people smoking has increasingly come to be considered trashy and a sign of moral turpitude, especially by the professional classes. Meanwhile, obesity has become more and more acceptable, not only as it has become more common, but because of the feminist embrace of fat-acceptance. And this has led to a growing attempt to marginalize the unhealthiness of obesity. I don't care if someone wants to engage in unhealthy behaviors, as long as they don't impinge on my own life, but don't expect me to try and pretend that those behaviors aren't unhealthy.

Speaking of smoking, let's go back to this "bullying" email and replace obesity with on-air smoking (assuming such a thing was still legal). I say on-air smoking because it's a visible sign of someone engaging in unhealthy behavior, just as being visibly obese is
Hi Jennifer,

It's unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your on-air smoking hasn't improved for many years. Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. Smoking is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this not hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.
How many out of the hordes of people that are already rushing to defend this poor defamed gravitational anomaly of a news anchor would find this slightly altered email to be excoriable?

I'm guessing like zero.

But even people who acknowledge that this email wasn't bullying, dismiss it as sexist, like Stephanie Hanes at the Christian Science Monitor:
Here’s the thing, folks. I’m just going to come out and say it. Krause’s letter? Not bullying.

Obnoxious, sure. Calling it unsolicited or unnecessary “advice” would be kind. Despite the cordial tone, it is simply unacceptable – and rather sexist, I’ll add – to comment on a woman’s physical appearance as if that appearance was the substance of her work. Even with all that window dressing of the obesity epidemic. The fact that people feel entitled to these sorts of comments – and even feel helpful making them – says a lot about how far (or short, really) we’ve come in terms of accepting women as professional equals.
So the fact that obesity actually is unhealthy is again completely ignored--or rather dismissed as simple "window dressing". What's this is really about is that some sexist pig had the audacity to criticize a women for being a bad role model, because she is fat, that men (I mean people, right Steph?) still can't even come close to accepting women as equals. See Jennifer Livingston isn't a victim of bullying just of society's still overwhelming sexism. Ms Hanes feels it's important to keep the victim cards in their proper place.

Most people indulge in unhealthy behaviors occasionally or sometimes on a regular basis, whether it's over-eating crappy foods, smoking, drinking too much booze or watching reality television. But no one's going to do themselves any favors by pretending these behaviors aren't detrimental to their health.