Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Marketing and Intellectual Dishonesty

I don't have a problem (okay, maybe just a little bit) with people who are very good at marketing themselves. Mark Sisson is a great example of that. But the guy clearly is sharp as hell and I've never detected the slightest hint of deception in anything Mark's written.

Now I'm not advocating a Procrustian regime of diet and exercise, just the opposite. Anything that gets people to eat more real food is a step in the right direction, yes even veganism, especially in the short term (speaking of vegans, check out this Robot Chicken clip). What I do have a big problem with are people who lie, or just bend the hell out of the truth.

Matt Metzgar wonders about Tim Ferriss' new book receiving a ton of five-star reviews the day it's released, by people who've never reviewed another product on Amazon. A commenter (who may or may not be another sockpuppet) on Matt's blog says:
I asked TF about this in a comment on his blog, when his previous book was released. The book was very long, and many reviews popped up within the first week after launch. TF stated that he sends out many advance copies to friends and fans, prior to the book launch, and then asks if they would be kind enough to provide a review when the book eventually is released. That sounds potentially plausible to me.
I don't know for sure that these people are sockpuppets, but I'm going to go with my instinct on this and say 'of course they are'. To suggest, if not saying outright, that all these rave reviews came from people who received advanced copies and created an Amazon account in order to rave about Timmah's book is not only dishonest but frankly insulting to anyone with a semblance of intelligence.

Mr Ferriss also managed to get a promotional article on the popular Cracked humor site, which was roundly trashed by the commenters as not being humorous, nor even being very good about cooking paraphernalia. Now I'm no wunderkind chef, but I agree with Alton Brown fan on just about everything in or out of the kitchen, especially, "Avoid Unitaskers".

Have you ever gone to open mic night at a comedy club and seen a drunk guy who was heckling everyone and thinks he's hilarious go up and bomb on stage? Not that Timmah heckles people, as far as I know, but this was painfully forced:
Forget about oven mitts and pot holders. You know who uses those? Your grandma, who is a very nice lady and a fine cook, but she probably never read this article when she was learning to cook (exceptions: grandma time travelers). Why use the frilly trinkets of an average cook when you can use what the pros use? The pros use folded towels for just about everything, and using them will teach you more than your grandma ever did.
Haha, your granny is so old she uses oven mitts. Of course one doesn't have to have a wicked sense of humor in order to have great ideas on health or cooking, and I'm sure Timmah will be crying all the way to the bank about the thousands of commenters of diverse backgrounds who managed to unite together in their hatred of his terribly written attempt to disguise naked self-promotion as hilarious entertainment. And like I said, my real beef is with people who try to get away with lying. Why would I expect intellectual honesty from someone who can't admit they sockpuppeted the hell out their own book?

PS This isn't the first time I've had my doubts about Timmah.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Praguestepchild's Wager

Blaise Pascal
Pascal's Wager is basically a cost/benefit argument for believing in God. It is also interesting because, as Wikipedia puts it:

Historically, Pascal's Wager was groundbreaking because it charted new territory in probability theory, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated future philosophies such as existentialism, pragmatism, and voluntarism.
Pretty awesome innovations. But Pascal's Wager itself fails, in my opinion, because it cheats by using infinity, which really isn't a number.

As someone who trained as an engineer, I'm pretty familiar with trade-offs. All design problems are about balancing trade-offs. Put a bigger engine in a car, you get more horsepower, but also more weight, more cost, worse handling, less-fuel efficiency, etc.

This is why Pascal's use of an infinite trade-off strikes me as cheating. In real life there simply are no infinite trade-offs unless one is a psychopath (my life is infinitely more valuable than anyone else's, so let the world burn).

Infinity is a pretty bizarre concept for us mortals. David Hilbert had some fantastic insights on infinity, but I'm not convinced that our understanding of infinity has progressed much since Hilbert.

Now let us look at a more realistic cost/benefit argument. Even if you are totally convinced that the conventional wisdom--heart-healthy whole grains are nifty, SFAs and dietary cholesterol clog your arteries, etc--is correct, don't you owe it to yourself to at least read through one of the Dark Triad of books on evolutionary diet: The Primal Blueprint, The Paleo Solution, & The Perfect Health Diet (or if they prefer ebooks and ancap philosophy, they could read Richard Nikoley's new book) just on the outside chance that the conventional wisdom is totally wrong? Especially if one is obese and/or suffering from a DOC like diabetes?

Obviously this doesn't mean that all alternative viewpoints should be considered equally. I for one don't place much stock in things like acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, etc. But that's because these things haven't been shown to have a sound footing in rigorous results based science.

I've taken the liberty of dubbing this particular variant of Pascal's Wager, Praguestepchild's Wager. It seems like a no-brainer: what is the trade-off of time and money in buying and reading a single book against the entire rest of your life with mediocre to bad health and an early grave? And yet I've rarely been successful in getting people to take this wager, even when I buy the book and give it to them.

As Seinfeld would say:

I don't think it's as counter-intuitive as it seems when so baldly stated. One of the problems with Pascal's Wager is that even if one buys into what I would consider to be a false dilemma, I don't think it's possible to will oneself into a belief of God. Likewise, I don't think there are many smokers who don't know on a philosophical level that smoking is detrimental to health. A heavy smoker is really wagering a shortened, unhealthy life (not to mention the monetary cost of buying two or three packs a day) against jonesing for another cigarette. It doesn't make logical sense, except in the logic of addiction. But of course we humans aren't always perfectly rational creatures.

In the same vein, a lot of people know they should eat better, but don't bother, although the fact that the conventional view of eating better is salads with low-fat dressing and brown rice doesn't exactly help things along.

There's also the fact that the general public has a serious case of health-awareness fatigue. People have been told that everything they do is bad for them for so long that they don't pay much attention anymore.

And finally, the majority of people in this world are simply uncomfortable with questioning authority. Whether it's the authority of their doctors, the mainstream media, or their political ideologues, they've got their paradigm, damnit, and they are sticking with it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Salad Addiction

Lately, we've been on something of a salad kick. Not the kid, he still wants mostly meat and potatoes, but my wife and I have been primarily eating big ass salads for dinner. Here's a pretty typical mix of vegetables: romaine lettuce, spinach, red cabbage, bell pepper, and tomato:

And plenty of balkánský sýr (feta but made locally from cow's milk--what am, I made of money?) and chicken chunks on top. You didn't think I was talking about a vegetarian salad, did you? The wine was pretty decent for 160 Kč (~ 8 bucks).

The dressing is a basic honey mustard vinaigrette:

1 cup olive oil
4 1/2 tbsp vinegar (I used balsamic)
3-4 cloves of diced garlic
1 1/2 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp honey
lots of black pepper and some salt

Dobrou Chut'!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Today is Backwards Day--Thoughts on Parenting and Why Kids Need Fathers

The other day I was racing my five-year-old up the stairs. He won as usual, though I was carrying plenty of groceries as usual. As he shouted, "I won, I won!", I told him that actually I won because today was backwards day, so first was last and last was first. He got really mad and kept saying there's no such thing as backwards day, that I was cheating, etc. But I was relentless and he ended up in a huff.

Which was fine as far as I was concerned.

While I don't do these things as some sort of conscious parenting strategy, I do think they serve as a useful learning experience. I also think it's a learning experience that is mostly imparted by fathers upon their offspring. It's the mother's natural role to provide a rock solid base of unconditional love for their children and it's the father's natural role to teach them not to take themselves too seriously (and develop their own sense of humor), and to reason outside the box.

Of course I just enjoy messing around with my son: teasing, joking, explaining the laws of physics, etc, generally engaging in play behavior. But I enjoy it for a reason, because play is important. Just as predator species incessantly wrestle and chase each other around in their youth because it serves a useful purpose: honing skills, strategy, paw-eye coordination, etc.

Self-confidence is important, but it is difficult to teach. Actually doing things, and failing more often than not, is what builds self-confidence. Self-esteem, its more vulgar cousin, is much more easily acquired, and is vastly overrated in the West. Unfiltered praise is useless praise, and kids are going to sense that early on, even if they continue to seek it. But with enough of it, they can acquire an empty sense of self-esteem and entitlement that has little to do with their ability to apply themselves or view reality in a realistic manner.

Petulance is a very natural bargaining tactic for children since they start out by simply screaming in order to get their basic needs met. Once they get old enough to speak and reason it's important for parents to wean their children off of petulance, by not rewarding petulant behavior, of course.

Of course.

Much easier said than done.

The typical feminine approach to The Petulance Problem is ideally the no-nonsense approach, I'd give examples but I think they'd be superfluous, or un-ideally the forced dominance approach, "You'll clean your room because I say so!"

The typical masculine approach to The Petulance Problem is ideally amused mockery, "You are getting pissy about backwards day? Do you think Batman is afraid of backwards day?", or un-ideally more of the forced dominance approach.

I think the two-pronged male/female approach works best for The Petulance Problem, and child-rearing in general, and that this diverse approach to raising kids has probably been the norm for much longer than we homo saps have been engaging in neolithic activities. 

It should go without saying that both parenting styles have their advantages and disadvantages, and work best in combination, or that other combinations of styles also work, or that single parents can do a great job raising children, etc. But to pretend that single parents are optimal for children is just as reality-dodging as trying to pretend that that obesity is optimal for health, or is somehow more sexy.

I also doubt it's optimal for children to not have close age siblings (my kid is an only child and I was an only child for ten years, which ends up being the same thing).