Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Are Kids' Books Dumbed-Down These Days?

To paraphrase the old expression: just because you are getting old doesn't mean society isn't going down the toilet. I could go on like any old fart about how technology seems to be shallowing out today's youth. For example, my son saw a schoolmate at a restaurant, and the kid was staring at a tablet the whole time he wasn't eating, even when my son went over to talk to him. This is what I consider bad parenting. I'll admit I carry an iPad with me when we go out, but it is for "emergency" situations or, say, if a friend and I are playing chess, not something my son is robotically allowed to play with.

I have an extra incentive to try and build my kid's English vocabulary due to his being bilingual and living in the Czech Republic, but I think it's important for all parents to fight against over-simplified language. Language really does influence how we think, which is why people, such as the politically correct mafia, go to such great lengths to manipulate it, and why Orwell's Newspeak was so prescient.

After much trial and error, I've ended up reading my son classic children's books such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyages of Dr Dolittle, and The Hobbit, mostly because he enjoys that sort of straightforward adventure/fantasy novel over more modern fare. While reading them, I was also struck by the sophistication of the language.

Here is a random quote from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
Harry lay flat on his back, breathing hard as though he had been running.  He had awoken from a vivid dream with his hands pressed over his face.  The old scar on his forehead, which was shaped like a bolt of lightning, was burning beneath his fingers as though someone had just pressed a white-hot wire to his skin.  He sat up, one hand still on his scar, the other hand reaching out in the darkness for his glasses, which were on the bedside table.  He put them on and his bedroom came into clearer focus, lit by a faint, misty orange light that was filtering through the curtains from the street lamp outside the window.     Harry ran his fingers over the scar again.  It was still painful.  He turned on the lamp beside him, scrambled out of bed, crossed the room, opened his wardrobe, and peered into the mirror on the inside of the door.  A skinny boy of fourteen looked back at him, his bright green eyes puzzled under his untidy black hair.  He examined the lightning-bolt scar of his reflection more closely.  It looked normal, but it was still stinging.     harry tried to recall what he had been dreaming about before he had awoken.  It had seemed so real...There had been two people he knew and one he didn't ...He concentrated hard, frowning, trying to remember...     The dim picture of a darkened room came to him...There had been a snake on a hearth rug...a small man called Peter, nicknamed Wormtail...and a cold, high voice...the voice of Lord Voldemort.  Harry felt as though an ice cube had slipped down into his stomach at the very thought...
I admit to having read one or two Harry Potter books way back when I had aspirations to be a novelist myself (they were also recommended by Stephen King in his book On Writing). I even struggled through the Da Vinci Code for the same reason, and believe me it was a struggle, that book is simply awful beyond the puzzle/plot. I'll take good dialog and characters (say Elmore Leonerd) over plot anytime. Anyway, I remember being unimpressed with Rowling's writing, though she certainly isn't a bad writer like Dan Brown, but mostly I was struck by how terrible contrived the plots were. You have a universe where basically anything can happen thanks to magic, and she still can't come up with something decent. Now one can say these are simply Young Adult (YA) books and at least it gets the kids to read, blah blah. To which I say, "Get off my lawn!" because I never read YA books myself, basically going from children's literature like Chronicles of Narnia to my dad's scifi, Asimov, Clarke, etc, which is admittedly somewhat simplistic genre stuff.

Here's a quote from The Hobbit:
    But the enchanted desire of the hoard had fallen from Bilbo. All through their talk he was only half listening to them. He sat nearest to the door with one ear cocked for any beginnings of a sound without, his other was alert or echoes beyond the murmurs of the dwarves, for any whisper of a movement from far below.
     Darkness grew deeper and he grew ever more uneasy. "Shut the door!" he begged them. "I fear that dragon in my marrow. I like this silence far less than the uproar of last night. Shut the door before it is too late!"
     Something in his voice gave the dwarves an uncomfortable feeling. Slowly Thorin shook off his dreams and getting up he kicked away the stone that wedged the door. Then they thrust upon it, and it closed with a snap and a clang. No trace of a keyhole was there left on the inside. They were shut in the Mountain!
     And not a moment too soon. They had hardly gone any distance down the tunnel when a blow smote the side of the Mountain like the crash of battering-rams made of forest oaks and swung by giants. The rock boomed, the walls cracked and stones fell from the roof on their heads. What would have happened if the door had still been open I don't like to think. They fled further down the tunnel glad to be still alive, while behind them outside they heard the roar and rumble of Smaug's fury. He was breaking rocks to pieces, smashing wall and cliff with the lashings of his huge tail, till their little lofty camping ground, the scorched grass, the thrush's stone, the snail-covered walls, the narrow ledge, and all disappeared in a jumble of smithereens, and an avalanche of splintered stones fell over the cliff into the valley below.
     Smaug had left his lair in silent stealth, quietly soared into the air, and then floated heavy and slow in the dark like a monstrous crow, down the wind towards the west of the Mountain, in the hopes of catching unawares something or somebody there, and of spying the outlet to the passage which the thief had used. This was the outburst of his wrath when he could find nobody and see nothing, even where he guessed the outlet must actually be.
"I fear that dragon in my marrow" "a jumble of smithereens, and an avalanche of splintered stones", this is a higher level of writing than Rowling, more complex, more descriptive, and certainly more challenging. I constantly have to stop to explain words or phrases, which is the point of reading to my son in the first place (other than to get him to fall asleep of course).

And here's a passage from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe:
"I say, Lu! I'm sorry I didn't believe you. I see now you were right all along. Do come out. Make it Pax."

Still there was no answer.

"Just like a girl," said Edmund to himself, "Sulking somewhere, and won't accept an apology." He looked round him again and decided he did not much like this place, and had almost made up his mind to go home, when he heard, very far off in the wood, a sound of bells. He listened and the sound came nearer and nearer and at last there swept into sight a sledge drawn by two reindeer.

The reindeer were about the size of Shetland ponies and their hair was so white that even the snow hardly looked white compared with them; their branching horns were gilded and shone like something on fire when the sunrise caught them. Their harness was of scarlet leather and covered with bells. On the sledge, driving the reindeer, sat a fat dwarf who would have been about three feet high if he had been standing. He was dressed in polar bear's fur and on his head he wore a red hood with a long gold tassel hanging down from its point; his huge beard covered his knees and served him instead of a rug. But behind him, on a much higher seat in the middle of the sledge sat a very different person - a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white - not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.
"their branching horns were gilded and shone like something on fire" "Their harness was of scarlet leather and covered with bells" While written for children, there is nothing patronizingly over-simplified here. Children were expected to know (or look up) what gilded, scarlet and many other such words meant.

And just for the hell of it, here's a short passage from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:
     He got home pretty late that night, and when he climbed cautiously in
at the window, he uncovered an ambuscade, in the person of his aunt; and
when she saw the state his clothes were in her resolution to turn his
Saturday holiday into captivity at hard labor became adamantine in its
Ambuscade! Adamantine (not even in the Firefox spellchecker)! Is that the stuff that Wolverine's bones are made out of? No, I guess not.

Perhaps some of this is because of the changing fashion of language styles, especially after the huge influence of Hemingway. I don't have a problem with Hem, I think he is rightly lionized. But I think a lot of it has to do with the dumbing down of writing in general, for both adults and children. This is somewhat mollified by the long tail of the internet, one can find a venue for whatever level of discourse you want these days, but without having been challenged intellectually when young, I think it becomes too easy to float along to get along when one gets older.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Why I Don't Consider Myself an Atheist or a Skeptic Even Though I Am Both

I don't believe in God. My wife doesn't believe in God. But when my seven-year-old asks what happens after we die I'm sort of stumped. This recently came up when his classmate's younger sibling died of cancer, over Christmas vacation, no less.

My response was, "Well, no one really knows. I think that nothing happens but a lot of people think we go to heaven."

My son believes in Jesus because in the Czech Republic Jesus is literally Santa Claus who brings the presents on Xmas eve, so he was having none of my cautious nihilism. And I'm okay with that. I'm okay with kids believing in Santa Claus or baby Jesus as Santa Claus or heaven.

As a matter of fact I'm okay with adults believing in Jesus and heaven (although Santa Claus is pushing it).

New Atheist thinkers such as Richard Dawkins think that teaching a child religion is a form of child abuse. And Sam Harris thinks that lying to your child about anything, even the existence of Santa Claus (or Ježíšek) is immoral.

While I'm too lazy to go into the details, the whole skeptic movement has been co-opted by the same sort of Culture War as Atheism. Genuine skeptics like James Randi have been replaced by Culture Warrior skeptics such as Rebecca Watson.

While I'm skeptical as hell I try not to be close-minded or intellectually arrogant. So in a recent Twitter dust-up with Paleo-Osteo I was pretty critical of earthing as someone with an electrical engineering degree, but my conclusion was that I really don't know enough to debunk this, and perhaps there's even something to it, even though I'm pretty doubtful.

To be skeptical of something but still be open to it's possibility is the proper frame of mind for scientific and intellectual inquiry, but most people who consider themselves fans of Science (with a big S), skeptics and intellectuals are really just going through the motions. Simply playing: this is what our side believes and that's what your yucky side believe.

My father, who grew up with Irish Catholicism shoved down his throat, is an atheist. But he also had piano lessons shoved down his throat by his throat, and stopped playing after his high school recital of the Bumblebee. My grandmother was an old school immigrant who lived through the depression and was tough as nails. Was her forcing her kids to go to catechism and church child abuse? And if so, were the piano lessons also?

While I can't claim to understand what it was like to have been raised in a strict religious household, and therefore have insight into this supposed form of child abuse, I don't buy that this is unique to religion or that religious upbringing in itself is a form a child abuse.

The problem with groups that turn into -isms, whether it's skepticism, paleoism, atheism or feminism is that they invariably suffer from a form of Gresham's Law. Dogmatic extremists displace thoughtful moderates.

The fact of the matter is, things like atheism can and do become just as doctrinal as any form of religion. And people like myself tend to distance themselves from it as a result.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Man Cold--Do Men Respond Worse To System-Wide Inflammation?

You know how there is a kernel of truth behind every successful joke? Well I'm convinced there's one behind the joke of the Man Cold

Having been completely debilitated by a recent Man Cold around Christmas I hypothesized that there might be something to the apparent sex differences cold/flu reactions.

There is evidence that men respond worse to being woken in the middle of the night than women (note: I remember reading about this a while back on BBC, I think, but when I tried to Google "men, women sleep disruption" it was just thousands of articles about women's sleep problems, why men don't feed babies at night, men snoring and waking up women, etc. So you'll just have to take my word for it or use your own Google-fu).

My own anecdotal evidence is that women seem to be able to fall back asleep (say after getting up to pee, or feeding a crying baby) quicker in the night than men. This would jive with women being more evolutionarily capable of dealing with the constant nightly interruptions of infants, pregnancy, menstruation, shopping withdrawal jitters, etc.

Which leads us to the MAN COLD.

Now when I was a youngin', it was the early 70s and my mother was going to college and she picked up a lot of pop feminism that was rampant at the time. One thing she used to say over and over again is that women can handle much more pain than men because they are adapted to childbirth. This was contradicted by the fact that my mother was always a huge wimp when it came to any sort of pain, whereas my father was basically a tough guy who did sports all his life, played through the pain, got a hip replacement, knee surgeries, etc, kept on working out every single day. But the thing that really would lay him out was--you guessed it--the Man Cold.

Perhaps my father just grew up in that macho sports culture (plus he had a mean-ass older brother that used to wail on him) and my mom didn't, and that culture didn't extend to getting a cold/flu. But I suspect there could be another mechanism involved. Just as women would need to be more tolerant of sleep interruption and deprivation than men, it would make sense for women to be more resistant to things like the flu or other sorts of systemic inflamation like obesity.

So, working on anecdote and just-so, perhaps men are better adapted for dealing with localized injury and inflammation such as being gored by an aurochs and women are better at dealing with system-wide inflammation like a flu or obesity.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Butyric Acid and Ghee

For quite a while ghee has been my goto cooking fat, mostly out of convenience. I don't trust the lard they sell here in stores (I suspect it's hydrogenated or processed in some manner to preserve it), so every few weeks I get about five cubes of butter and make a batch of ghee.

When I was first making ghee I looked at a few YouTube videos and they seemed to overdo the effort involved, so here's what I've found to be easiest. Dump butter in stainless steel pan, put the pan smallest burner and cook on lowest possible heat for 60-90 minutes. No stirring, no messing with it, just let it slow cook. Let the ghee cool to lukewarm, spoon off the froth on top, pour the remaining through fine mesh filter into jars. Pretty simple.

The problem with ghee, even if one isn't making it from grass-fed butter (I can't afford that shit), is that it's still rather expensive. But it is probably better than lard and some other fats because it contains butyric acid. I haven't paid much attention to butyric acid, but Dave Asprey thinks it's important enough that he puts butter in his coffee, and he seems to be a pretty smart guy, so I'll take his word for it. Mainly butyric acid is good for gut health. Stephan Guyenet, way back before he went full retard, had a good post about its health benefits.

So thanks to butyric acid, I feel more justified in using a lot of rather expensive ghee, cheapskate that I am.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mediocre Science Is the Real Problem, Not the Bad Stuff

Statistic analysis ninjas Thomas Lumley, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung (Oh come on, is that a real name? Does he moonlight as a super-villain?) take down a recent meta-analysis study on the alleged dangers of high consumption of coffee. A study like this (56% higher risk of death!!!!) published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal like Mayo Clinic Proceedings is perfect media-bait, and the media was quite happy to oblige, and oblige, and oblige.

Anyone who has ever looked at these media-bait studies knows that the large majority of them are meta-analyses. People like Tom Naughton make a regular habit of pointing out the flaws in such studies. This coffee study isn't as flawed as many other media-bait studies, but as Messrs Lumly, Gelman and Fung point out, it isn't exactly stellar science. And this is where I think the real problem lies, the insidious nature of such mediocre science.

Kaiser Fung writes:
Absent is the context for understanding what 56% means. How many additional deaths for every 10,000 heavy coffee drinkers? Amusingly, you can't figure this out even after reading the entire paper. The authors got away with presenting data in aggregate (33,900 males, 2198 male deaths, etc.) without showing age group breakouts (Where were the editors??) Stymied, I glance at their other result, the one for "all" men.

In men, those who drank more than 28 cups of coffee weekly had a 21% higher risk of dying compared with their non-coffee-consuming peers.

By the way, the error bar on this result is 4% to 40%. Now, I can't interpret this result either. The baseline death rate in the study was 6.48%. Nowhere in the paper does it break out the number of deaths by the level of coffee drinking. There is no way to know how many of those 2,198 male deaths were men who did not drink coffee at all.

While the important data on the outcomes being analyzed are not published, the authors of the paper regale us with numbers such as the N=11 people who were excluded from the population because they had a history of stroke.

So I ask again: where were the editors? how did they miss this?
While the average journalist acting as science editor at a mainstream publication seems to know about as much about science as I know about where to find the best appletini in Manhattan, the problems with this and other such media-bait meta-analysis studies are rather too technical (or sciencey, to put it in terms a journalist would understand) to lay too much at their feet. This paper was published in a reputable journal, it's got a dramatic finding, roll with it baby. Not to mention the fact that it is very likely the journalists were contacted by the someone anxious to self-promote this study.

The Weakness of Meta-Studies

Wikipedia does a good job of discussing some of the problems with meta-studies, especially the file-drawer problem which sounds abstract when described but is made very clear and succinct with these two graphs:

Put simply, if all the results of studies testing a hypothesis that has a null result in reality were published, then the meta-result should converge on the null hypothesis. Unfortunately, the entire grant/publishing system discourages the publication, or even the search for, negative results.

So meta-studies, even when perfectly executed, tend to start with cherry-picked results thanks to the file-drawer problem. In reality, meta-studies take mediocre studies using self-reported results, people who dropped out of the study, etc, and amplify their diverse flaws by aggregating the data.

Mediocrity squared. The reason why one brilliant person is usually better at solving a problem rather than 50 dim ones.

It's a recipe for disaster, and the regular reports telling us things like red meat is poison that regularly grace the pages of the mainstream media are the result.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Near vs Far in Politics And Diet

A while back Rhys Southan at Let Them Eat Meat had some quotes from a vegan that I can't seem to find now, or else it was just one of those delusional hallucinations I'm prone to (note to self: cut down on the opium dens, at least on weekdays). The gist of it was a vegan saying that they would never take another life, human or animal of any sort, even if they were starving to death on a desert island. A more interesting Sophie's choice would be if this vegan would kill an animal to save the life of their child, but one needs to actually have a kid to truly understand the appalling brutality of Sophie's choice, damn you William Styron and your tragic conundrums. And I'm pretty sure such hardcore vegans don't believe in polluting the planet with more children.

This reminded me of the whole near vs far dichotomy between typical left/right political paradigms. Veganism is really just an extreme version of far, equating the life of a sentient leech in Myanmar with the life of a vegan in Portlandia.

Now it's pretty easy (and really fun) to mock this sort of vegan mentality, but it comes from a genuine source. The near/far duality is a conflict that has no clear answer except from extremists of either side. The other side of the near/far spectrum is extreme clanninshness, inbreeding, and Burt Reynolds having to save people with a compound bow.

Ned Beatty has thankfully stopped squealing
There is no simple delineation of right or wrong in the near/far paradigm. Extreme near: clannishness, isolation, fear of any sort of new idea, etc is obviously bad. Extreme far: new ideas are always superior, the life of a butterfly on the other side of the planet is equal to my own or my family's (ie the Butterfly Effect), etc is just as ridiculous, okay more ridiculous.

Somewhere in the middle we have nation-states where people extend their idea of clan and shared values to national borders. This has some obvious drawbacks as well, as the seemingly continuous wars of nation-states can attest, but one has to temper all these wars with the incessant fighting that clans typically engage in. It also has advantages, reduction or elimination of trade restrictions inside the nation state, a larger area of shared values and ideas, unified military, etc.

Too large a nation-state ends up a static entity like Imperial China (and perhaps Imperial Rome). Too small a nation-state ends up being defensive and inward looking, or simply overrun by stronger neighbors.

The unique mix of medium-sized nation-states that existed in middle-aged Europe had a pretty healthy mix of jostling for power combined with the shared identity of being part of loose coalition called Christendom that allowed an exchange of ideas and led to such things as the Scientific Revolution, advances in art and architecture, and so on, that mostly fall under the umbrella of the Renaissance.

For me it goes back to the fact that morality is a human construct. I can't really justify why I think it's okay to eat bacon but find it detestable to eat cats or dogs. One could waste lifetimes arguing the philosophical and moral imperatives of veganism vs paleo and it would all be vanity of vanities.

The truth is, pets are in the middle of my near/far paradigm but if it came down to my life or theirs, or especially my family's--Fido and Tigger are going on the grill with extreme prejudice. This is not to say that I don't believe in principles in politics or morality. Simply that I find it silly to try and argue these things from a first principles/axiomatic perspective as if human morality was a mathematical proof.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Gut Flora--Another Thing Atkins Sorta Got Right

Way back before I'd heard of paleo, in those halcyon days of the early aughts, a friend of mine went to the US, heard about this Atkins diet craze, came back and lost a shit-ton of weight in about six months using it. I had a knee-jerk reaction against it at the time--it's not that I didn't eat a lot of meat, but I'd always felt some sort of nagging guilt that it wasn't healthy to eat too much of it.

Eventually, I was convinced to look into it and frankly it was hard to argue with success. Later on when paleo came around, it made a lot more sense to me and put a scientific framework around why some foods, what Kurt Harris coined as Neolithic Agents of Disease (NADs).

My basic take on Atkins is that the success of his books and diet allowed for the first big, mainstream pushback against the conventional party line that meat, dietary cholesterol and especially SFAs were unhealthy and hearthealthywholegrains were health ambrosia. Atkins never really got deep into the science aspect of LC and never seemed to touch on the evolutionary aspect of grains and other NADs at all, which led to a lot of flaws and weaknesses in his dietary paradigm. Atkins' big strength was that he was a doctor who had been treating people for a long time and had found something that just plain worked.

Which reminds me of something which sounded pretty witchdoctory to me when I first read Atkins book, his chapter on yeast.

Nowadays gut flora is perhaps the hottest topic in the post-paleosphere and on into the mainstream, with studies linking gut flora to obesity and the interest in the obesophobic and other apparently wondrous effects of fecal transplants (teenage girl says "ewwww").

But Atkins stumbled onto it first. With his real world experience he decided that with stubborn cases, yeast overgrowth was an important factor.

From Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution:
If you've been eating a high-sugar diet for years, it's quite possible that your digestive tract has an overgrowth of an organism called Candida albicans. In addition to overgrowth of yeast in the gastrointestinal tract, most people also experience an allergic inflammation of the mucous membranes throughout the body. This can result from exposure to environmental mold (in your cellar, for example) or eating foods that contain yeast. Symptoms include constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, heartburn and even abdominal pain and rectal or vaginal itching. All are a sign of yeast overgrowth in the mucous membranes. Symptoms such as fatigue, depression, headaches (even migraines), post-nasal drip, brain fog and water retention are often signs of allergy resulting from exposure to environmental mold or mold in food products such as cheese and nuts.

In addition to its other annoying or painful symptoms, Candida overgrowth or allergy can keep you from losing weight by causing cravings for sweets. Indulging those cravings will cause unstable blood sugar and more carbohydrate cravings. Candida thrives on sugar, but with Atkins you've already sent all that wretched, tempting sweet stuff into deep Siberian exile. However, Atkins does allow cheese, nuts, vinegar, mushrooms and pickles-all of which are aged or fermented items-and will provoke symptoms. If you discover or suspect you have a yeast problem, those foods will have to go for at least some period of time to give your body a rest from exposure. 
Yeast is usually kept in check by other bacteria in the body, of course, and its population only explodes when that balance is messed up somehow, through antibiotics, lousy diet, possibly stress, etc. Nowadays, the probiotic crowd, including folks like Mark Sisson believe that fermented foods are actually the key to gut flora, and hence overall body health, but I think that Atkins' basic instinct is being shown to be essentially correct.