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Evo Bio, Health, Science

Thursday, September 10, 2009

At Mark Sisson's
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A great rant from Primal eating-and-fitness guru Mark Sisson. Take a look at how well Melissa is doing on Sisson's "Primal" regime. Read our interview with Mark: Intro, Part One, Part Two. I warmly recommend Mark's helpful and inspiring book, which you can buy here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 10, 2009 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, August 28, 2009

More Finds
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Maybe saturated fat is actually good for you. * The excellent Eadeses have a tempting new book on offer. * Filmmaker and comedian Tom Naughton -- creator of the eye-opening, amusing, and very informative low-carb documentary "Fat Head" -- is interviewed: Part One, Part Two. * Why not add a little daring and bravado to the social mix? Before anyone gets prissy on me: Really, what else do most kids have to contribute but their mischief and their sex appeal? (NSFW) * Strikeout king Nolan Ryan is now raising cattle. * Novelist Lev Grossman thinks that, where the novel goes, the 21st century is going to see a revival of plots and stories. This is modernism-has-passed-its-sell-by-date stuff of a kind that I've been hammering away at for 7 years on this blog, sigh -- but still, it's nice to see these ideas starting to show up in the mainstream. * I've been finding the week of user-generated content -- recipes, tales, and exercise routines -- over at Mark Sisson's blog very enjoyable and inspiring. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 28, 2009 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Weight and Brains
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * A new study shows that the brains of obese people deteriorate. * Michelle has lost more than 70 pounds by following a low-carbish / Primal-ish regime. Here's Michelle's own blog. * Read our q&a with Primal fitness guru Mark Sisson: Part One, Part Two. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 26, 2009 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Q&A With Mark Sisson, Part Two
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of days ago, I introduced the eating-and-fitness coach Mark Sisson, who advocates what he calls the Primal Blueprint. I'm crazy about Mark's website, and I think his new book is downright sensational. (Buy a copy at Amazon.) Speaking from personal experience: I've obtained excellent results from doing my eating and my exercising in a more Primal way. Yesterday I ran Part One of my interview with Mark. Today -- in the second part of my two-part interview with Mark -- I talk with him about the Food Pyramid, "herd medicine," and what it's like to publish your own book. *** AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK SISSON Part Two Michael Blowhard: What sort of efforts do you and your team put into evaluating the studies and the science? Mark Sisson: My staff and I spend thousands of hours collectively going over the research every year, updating our knowledge base and refining our philosophy and our advice. No practicing physician today has a tenth of the time to do that kind of research. MB: What's it like to be out there in public on a regular basis? MS: That brings its own benefits. My blog has hundreds of thousands of visitors who are free to comment on or critique anything I write, which often forces me to further substantiate (or even alter or abandon) my position. Conversely, most research scientists are so engrossed in the minutiae of their particular specialty that they haven’t the luxury of a wide perspective to provide general lifestyle and health advice, let alone synthesize a world-view on that. MB: Many scientists do seem to have a narrow focus. MS: I certainly respect and admire the work they do, and I call upon many of those studies every single day. But I do so understanding that not all research provides an actual answer to a specific question. MB: Where health issues go, so much so often turns to be less certain than a civilian thinks it’s going to be. MS: For any health issue you posit we can each find opposing research to support our points. How do we know which one is correct? The lipid hypothesis of heart disease drove every well-financed study and every major new heart disease drug for 40 years, but there’s extremely solid research now that proves that the lipid hypothesis is wickedly flawed if not downright inaccurate. The USDA's Food Pyramid has had grains as the very basis of a recommended daily diet for 40 or 50 years. MB: The authorities seem to have driven themselves into a corner on that one. MS: Despite overwhelming new evidence that excess carbs (mostly from grains) have driven the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics, do you think the US government would ever admit to having given wrong advice -- even if it were shown to be 100% conclusive? The process of Public Health Policy decision-making is as inefficient, unscientific and perverse a system as could ever be... posted by Michael at August 13, 2009 | perma-link | (22) comments

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Q&A With Mark Sisson, Part One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yesterday I introduced the eating-and-fitness coach Mark Sisson, who advocates what he calls the Primal Blueprint. I'm crazy about Mark's website, and I think his new book is downright sensational. (Buy a copy at Amazon.) Speaking from personal experience: I've obtained excellent results from doing my eating and my exercising in a more Primal way. Today -- in the first part of my two-part interview with Mark -- I talk with him about the downside of grain consumption, about the perils of overtraining, and about how basing your fitness program on evolutionary wisdom can bring fast and lasting benefits. *** AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK SISSON Part One Michael Blowhard: Hi, Mark. Fun to run into you again. I remember you as one of the best athletes at our boarding school, as well as one of the most health-aware people I've ever known. Mark Sisson: Yeah, I was pretty health-conscious as a kid, and that mindset certainly carried me through Exeter and Williams. Problem was, I had health issues largely as a result of my voracious reading, my training, and following Conventional Wisdom so closely. MB: What kind? MS: As a top runner, I was putting in far more miles than I ought to have, and I was fueling myself with a diet very high in complex carbs -- especially grains -- just as I had been told to do by some of the best coaches. I could perform pretty well on the track and the roads, but I was certainly not the picture of health. MB: Given how lean and fast you were, I'm surprised to hear that. MS: I had bad skin, chronic bouts of IBS that would often keep me from classes, constant upper respiratory tract infections and later started developing early onset osteoarthritis. It wasn’t until a decade later (a decade of competing at a very high level, yet doing more of the same in terms of training and diet) that the work load and the diet finally ended my competitive career. MB: Ouch. How’d you react? MS: I began to investigate the science behind training and peak performance, and realized that there wasn’t a lot of real science to back it all up. MB: Really? MS: Most of what was going on at the elite level was “monkey see monkey do.” God forbid you should log fewer training miles than the guys you were trying to beat. The high-tech carb-centric diet was based on the need to keep up the high level of training and not on what would promote health. As a result, many of my elite contemporaries have suffered health issues over the years. MB: What’s wrong with high-mileage training? MS: Humans were not meant to run long distances with elevated heart rates for days on end, like I and so many millions have done over the past few decades. MB: What were we built for? MS: Our genes -- the genetic recipe for a healthy, lean, fit... posted by Michael at August 12, 2009 | perma-link | (33) comments

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Introducing Mark Sisson
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As some visitors may have noticed, over the last few years I’ve been blogging a lot about food and fitness. Partly this has to do with having been laid off -- er, with having retired. As a downsizing casualty, I have the time and leisure to concern myself a lot more with quality-of-life questions than I once did. But it's mainly been because, despite having a lively-enough mind, I’ve always been a physical guy. I learned early in life that when I treat my body severely, or when I neglect it, I pay a price. Not only do aches and pains pile up, my soul starts to sag and moan too. When, by contrast, I make an effort to foster a respectful relationship with The Bod -- when I’m active, out in the world, and treating The Bod to some love and some pleasure -- my experience of life generally is much improved. I’m bright-eyed: alert, resilient, and optimistic. In the last couple of years I’ve found myself more and more interested in one particular branch of the food-and-fitness world. As far as most Americans are concerned, healthy eating is low-fat eating, and sensible exercise is either loads of cardio or regular sessions of wipe-you-out weightlifting. That’s the mainstream-expert antidote to the usual American-slob predicament. The people I’ve become fascinated by -- the low-carb people (my favorites are Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades); the Real Food and Slow Food crowds (especially Nina Planck); Dr. Barry Sears and his Zone Diet; the Weston A. Price Foundation; and the Paleo, Evolutionary, and Primal worlds (especially Loren Cordain, Arthur De Vany, and Mark Sisson) -- dispute all of this. They look at the usual American health-tips litany and wonder: What if lowfat eating contributes to diabetes, cancer, and heart disease? What if the heaps-of-cardio approach to activity produces not health and peace of mind but stress and boredom? What if, in other words, what’s usually thought of as the solution to the usual dispiriting American thing isn’t a solution at all? What if instead it’s contributing to the problem? So what does this crowd peddle as an Alternative Way? One thing they certainly share is a vision of the problem. They generally feel that many Americans are wildly out of touch with their innate rhythms, and that obesity, TV addiction, slobbiness, and distractedness are convincing evidence of this. (FWIW, I agree -- although I also feel that if anyone wants to live on chips and soda pop, spend his / her day driving from parking lot to minimall, and treat his / her brain to regular jolts of “American Idol,” it’s OK with me. It’s also none of my business -- at least until these people start imposing too many of their values and priorities on my life. Then it’s war.) The crowd I favor addresses the problem -- for those who experience it as a problem -- from two directions. One is paleoanthropology. Although some... posted by Michael at August 11, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, July 27, 2009

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Low-carb guru Dr. Michael Eades pays an entertainingly cranky visit to Disneyland. Verdict? "Carb heaven." Eades' book "The Protein Power Life Plan" (which he co-wrote with his wife Dr. Mary Dan Eades) is an excellent place for those tempted to begin cranking back on the carbs to start their reading. The Eadeses also make substantial appearances in Tom Naughton's resourceful and informative documentary "Fat Head." I interviewed Tom: Part One, Part Two, and a return visit. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Evolutionary pressures may be creating ever-more-beautiful women. Guys? Well, "men remain as aesthetically unappealing as their caveman ancestors." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 26, 2009 | perma-link | (12) comments

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Food Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Mark Sisson offers the definitive Primal Guide to saturated fat. Buy Mark's superb guide to the Primal thang here. * In praise of butter -- at least the good grass-fed stuff. * Richard Nikoley thinks that you owe it to yourself to go see "Food, Inc." * MBlowhard Rewind: Reading Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" got me musing a bit: here and here. Best, Michael UPDATE: Frank Bruni, the New York Times' restaurant critic, recalls what was like to be a food-obsessed fat kid.... posted by Michael at July 23, 2009 | perma-link | (40) comments

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eating and Fitness Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Jimmy Moore podcast-interviews Primal eating-and-fitness guru Mark Sisson. I'm crazy about Sisson's new book, which is full of startling information and helpful tips, and is the best intro I know of to the Paleo/Primal thang. Sisson's excellent -- and very lively -- blog is here. * FeministX could use some advice. * Scott Kustes offers a good intro to eating in the Paleo style. * Agnostic and the Times of London are asking the same question: Can eating sugar give you wrinkles? * Tom Naughton wonders why anyone would trust the health advice that's handed out by the federal government. * Yoga teacher Michelle found that a lot of her health problems vanished when she stopped avoiding fat. * Arthur De Vany thinks that you'd be wise to forget about running a marathon. By the way, De Vany -- a retired economics prof -- strikes me as one of the world's Really Interesting People. Those who (like me) are into both gene expression and nonlinearity may find him a real Pied Piper. I've subscribed to his private blog and have watched his DVD talks, and can recommend both. Read about him here. * Why do Americans seem so convinced that sterility is the answer to food-health problems? * MBlowhard Rewind: Back here I raved about Nina Planck's fab book "Real Food." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 19, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fitness, Health, Eating Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Agnostic has been much struck by the low-carb and Paleo critique of conventional nutrition advice, and has started a new blog to pass along his thoughts and discoveries. Good to see him linking to Tom Naughton, the director of the documentary "Fat Head." Tom's a fantastic blogger as well as a very gifted filmmaker. * A fun and sophisticated new blog on the theme of eating well while eating cheaply. * Have the French lost their food knack? If so: What a cultural tragedy! * Was the invention of farming the biggest mistake in the history of humanity? * Mark Sisson gets a shock when his blood pressure is checked. I'm midway through Sisson's new book, and I recommend it enthusiastically. * The top food trucks in America. * What -- if much of anything -- is really being measured when you get your choresterol levels checked? * Have food manufacturers captured our neuro-reward systems? The very interesting commentsfest is here. * Grape Nuts breakfast cereal has been around for 111 years, but it sounds like it isn't going to be around for much longer. * Has the fried food at chain restaurants been striking you as weirdly taste-free recently? Tom Naughton says that there's one particular guy to blame: Michael Jacobson, of the do-goodin' Center for Science in the Public Interest. * The world's oldest man shares the secrets of his longevity. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 30, 2009 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, June 26, 2009

Evo-Bio Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Razib wonders why the Andean highlands are still dominated by indigenous people. * Did modern humans eat Neanderthals? (Link thanks to ALD) * Richard Wrangham talks about cooking and evolution. (Link thanks to Razib) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 26, 2009 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Discrimination in the Theater
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Relatively few plays written by women are produced. Can we take this as definitive evidence of discrimination against women? Research has been done: More men than women write plays, and the men are also often more prolific. Taking these numbers into account, plays by men and women are in fact produced at the same rate. Plays by women do seem to need to be better (or at least more commercial) than plays by men in order to receive productions. But who enforces this state of affairs? As it turns out: women artistic directors and women literary managers. Ladies: Sometimes you do it to yourselves. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 24, 2009 | perma-link | (71) comments

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Evo-Bio-ish Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Roissy lays out the vision behind Game, and gets in some nice mentions of a couple of 2Blowhards favorites, Gregory Cochran and Randall Parker. * Read our recent interview with Gregory Cochran here. * Randall Parker explains why a slower rate of growth means bigger trouble than you think. Scary fact: "In the last 7 years Medicare's expected insolvency date has moved up 13 years sooner." * FeministX asks what it would take for HBD to catch on with a wider public. * What's it like when women are in charge? Upsides for da dudez: Men live better where women are in charge: you are responsible for almost nothing, you work much less and you spend the whole day with your friends. You're with a different woman every night. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 3, 2009 | perma-link | (57) comments

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Health, Food, Fitness Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Mark Sisson has some fun at the expense of fat-free food products. Good lord, what are the people who purchase this stuff thinking? Buy a copy of Mark's startling and excellent (and self-published) health-and-fitness book here. * Yum-o! * Double-yum! Incidentally, take a look at the picture the London Times is using to illustrate that story. Why don't American newspapers show a similar degree of playfulness and earthiness? * Stephan thinks that you might do well to avoid industrial liquid vegetable oils like corn oil, canola oil, and cottonseed oil. * Was it the invention of cooking that made us human? Razib points to a conversation about this possibility. * What makes people happy? (Link thanks to visitor Bryan) Best, Michael UPDATE: Is there any point to doing cardio at all?... posted by Michael at May 27, 2009 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, May 18, 2009

Food, Mood, Cooking, Evo-Bio
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * A podcast inteview with the brilliant Gregory Cochran. Access all five parts of our own recent interview with Cochran here. Buy "The 10,000 Year Explosion," the fascinating book Greg wrote with Henry Harpending, here. * Maybe people would do better if they skipped the "therapy" thing and just got onto a yoga mat. * Are dogs more like people than chimps are? "In my view, pet dogs can be regarded in many respects as 'preverbal infants in canine's clothing'," says a researcher. * Who's happy? * Alex Birch thinks you should start cooking for yourself. * Tom Naughton has begun posting some outtakes from his superb and very entertaining low-carb documentary "Fat Head." Excellent and informative stuff. Read our interviews with Tom here, here, and here. * Fab info enlighteningly presented: Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 18, 2009 | perma-link | (24) comments

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Health and Fitness Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Mark Sisson offers some cheese tips, and lays out some seriously unappealing facts about conventional American beef. You can pre-order Mark's new book here, and read an interview with Mark by Richard Nikoley. * Mr. Henry enjoys some damn fine prosciutto. * The online medical-industrial establishment at work. * Scott Kustes wonders if eating Paleo and getting some exercise is all about vanity. * Here's a brilliant look at the kind of research and thinking that too much health advice is based on. My favorite line from the posting: "Sometimes I think we should say 'I don’t know' rather more often." (Link thanks to Dr. Michael Eades.) * Dr. Malcolm Kendrick recounts how he lost faith in the "lipid hypothesis" -- the theory according to which saturated fat in the diet causes high cholesterol in the blood, which causes heart disease. * Maybe the reason so much good food can be found in New York City is that the natives demand it. * Evolutionary Fitness guru Arthur De Vany recommends this podcast about how and why modern lifestyles tend to lead to depression and out-of-shapeness. I'm interested in anything De Vany thinks highly of. He seems to me to be one of today's Really Interesting People. I've joined his private blog and have watched his DVD set -- highly recommended. * Jimmy Moore takes a look at 30 eating-and-diet books. * Time to start doing some Orgasmic Meditation? * Does "artisanal" automatically mean "good"? * Are today's veggies pale shadows of oldtime veggies, nutritionally speaking? * Jonny Bowden points out a necessary but often ignored point: Though much of the exercise and eating advice we're given would suit a marathoner or a serious weightlifter, most of it is worse than useless for the rest of us. Carb-loading? Not a good idea. Best, Michael UPDATE: As the New Jersey Assembly considers whether to permit the sale of raw milk, Andrew Martin takes a look at some recent food-contamination cases.... posted by Michael at May 13, 2009 | perma-link | (21) comments

Monday, May 11, 2009

More Tom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tom Naughton thinks you might want to skip those 100-calorie snack packs. I interviewed Tom back here, here, and here; his entertaining, brain-opening, and generally most-excellent documentary "Fat Head" can be bought here. Be sure to read the very informative Amazon Viewer Reviews of the film. And go ahead and hit the One-Click button, dammit. Like the Tom posting I've just linked to, "Fat Head" is smart, amusing, independent-minded, and surprisingly substantial -- the best intro I know of to the low-carb critique of conventional nutrition-and-eating advice. You'll actually watch the DVD, where a book on the topic is likely to sit on your shelf unread forever. And, when you're done with it, you can give the DVD to a friend. Who knows, you might even wind up a healthier and happier person. That's an awful lot of value for less than 20 bucks. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 11, 2009 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, April 20, 2009

More on Greg and Henry
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The New Scientist's Christopher Wills expresses shock at some of the thinking in Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's "The 10,000 Year Explosion." McClatchy's Robert S. Boyd views the book more sympathetically. The L.A. Times' Karen Kaplan visits with Cochran. But long before any of these mainstream pieces came out, visitors to 2Blowhard were enjoying our weeklong interview with Greg Cochran. You can access all five parts by clicking here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 20, 2009 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, April 17, 2009

Health Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Two of my favorites, together again: Tom Naughton interviews Jimmy Moore -- part one, part two. We recently interviewed Tom, and I warmly recommend his movie "Fat Head," a funny and smart new documentary that's the best intro I'm aware of to the low-carb critique of conventional eating advice. Jimmy Moore is a force of nature whose site is full of information, surprises, and fun. Podcast fans will have a field day exploring Jimmy's archive of downloadable interviews. Coming soon on Jimmy's podcast show: Nina Planck, whose wonderful book "Real Food" I raved about back here. Visit Nina's website here. * Another fitness-and-eating tipster I'm a huge fan of is Mark Sisson, who has formulated what he calls the Primal Blueprint. Mark is brainy, cheery, knowledgeable, and helpful, as well as a hugely impressive specimen of middle-age manhood. What I like most about his point of view, though, is how quality-of-life-oriented it is. Primal livin' isn't about being a fanatic or adhering to rigid doctrines, let alone struggling for the sake of struggle. It's about enhancing your experience of life. Let's hear it for taking the time to enjoy what we're lucky enough to have. No surprise then that many of Mark's postings are discussions about food -- excellent recipes abound on his site. New today: How Primal fans can make tasty use of a crock pot. I'm eagerly looking forward to Mark's book, due out real soon. * For many decades now, saturated fat has played the role of devil figure in American health advice. But is there in fact there any evidence -- any evidence whatsoever -- that saturated fat contributes to heart disease? * MBlowhard Rewind: I did a little musing about exercise and aging. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 17, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 90% of the cheeses produced in Switzerland are made from raw milk. Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 14, 2009 | perma-link | (11) comments

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tom Naughton and "Fat Head": A Revisit
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some months back I managed to get hold of a DVD workprint of what sounded like an intriguing new documentary: Tom Naughton's "Fat Head." Although the film was still being edited and polished, I found it fun and fascinating -- and for a number of reasons. For one, it's a very effective takedown of Morgan Spurlock's popular anti-McDonald's movie, "Super Size Me." For another, it's an amazingly fast and effective intro to the low-carb / Paleo / Primal critique of establishment diet-and-eating advice. For a third, the film is an example of a newish and fascinating development in the history of filmmaking: the homemade, completely personal, yet fullscale movie. (Realistically speaking, it's only in the last few years that digital videocams, computers, hard drives, and audiovisual programs have evolved to the point where non-professional people working in their kitchens can create ambitious, inventive, and / or expressive work. For more about how these factors have affected this longtime moviebuff's view of movies and video, read this recent posting.) Curious and enthusiastic, I got hold of the film's creator, Tom Naughton, and did an interview with him. Here's Part One; here's Part Two. Tom is smart, funny, and down-to-earth; he's also an unusual new figure on the filmmaking scene. He gave us a very generous interview, so I urge you to click on the links above and give the q&a a read. Now finished -- and polished to a high shine -- "Fat Head" is available for purchase at Amazon and for rental at Netflix. I recently watched the film again, liked it even better, and got back in touch with Tom Naughton to bring myself up-to-date with his adventures in filmmaking. *** A Revisit with Tom Naughton 2Blowhards: You're a real film director now. How has becoming a film director affected your life? Tom Naughton: I don't think having a credit as a director has changed my life much. Well, I did grow a beard. And I wear a safari jacket. And after reviewing the video footage I shot at Christmas, I shouted "This isn't right!" and made everyone go through Christmas morning again so I could use more creative angles. It was tough re-wrapping all the presents. Plus I fired my daughter from the role of "daughter" and hired another girl whose head is larger in proportion to her body. But other than that, no, life is pretty much the same. 2B: Great to see the movie available to the public. How did you arrange distribution, and get from "a guy with a movie" to "a guy whose movie is on Amazon and Netflix"? TN: I was turned down by all the film festivals I entered. That may sound discouraging, but I wasn't discouraged. It's kind of what I expected. The film-festival crowd, like the Hollywood crowd, is almost uniformly left-wing. Many of them talk about their commitment to "diversity" in their guidelines, but in Hollywood-speak that means "We want films made by... posted by Michael at March 31, 2009 | perma-link | (34) comments

Monday, March 16, 2009

Food, Eating, Health Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Did the discovery of cooking enable us to grow bigger brains? * Rich Green explains some of the reasons why the quarrels over raw milk are about more than just raw milk. They're of political interest too. * Dr. Mary Dan Eades lists her favorite cookbooks. * Men and women have their own, different ways of going about losing weight. * Scott Sonnon thinks that exercisers ought to be wary of regimes and instructors who are too hard-driving. My own exercise philosophy (small joke) doesn't consist of much more than "First, don't hurt yourself." * Orange juice is seeming a little less appealing these days ... Bonus link: Is Gobekli, in Eastern Turkey, the most important archaeological site in the world? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 16, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Razib and Greg
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- GNXP's Razib and 2Blowhards fave Gregory Cochran show a lot of flair -- and share a lot of info and thinking -- as they make the leap to the little screen. World domination is nigh. Access all five parts of our recent interview with Gregory Cocrhan here. Buy the fab and provocative new book that Greg has co-authored with Henry Harpending here. This book's very generous website is here. Best, Michael UPDATE: Razib's review of the book is here.... posted by Michael at February 28, 2009 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, February 27, 2009

Eating and Diet Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Jimmy Moore reports that Sweden is going low-carb. * Fat or not fat? (NSFW for the usual Roissy vulgarity.) * Lemmonex tells how she managed to take off 65 pounds. * Mark Sisson wants you to get more comfortable with broiling fish. * If the Mediterranean diet is so great, why are so many Italians fat? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 27, 2009 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hawks on "The 10,000 Year Explosion"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anthropologist John Hawks reads and reacts to Cochran and Harpending's "The 10,000 Year Explosion." Verdict: "I've read most of the recent popular books about human evolution or genetics. To me, this one stands above the others." Read the 2Blowhards interview with Gregory Cochran here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 19, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Accelerating Evolution
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- To celebrate the publication of the fun, informative and provocative new book "The 10,000 Year Explosion," 2Blowhards recently spent a week chatting with one of the book's co-authors, Gregory Cochran. Access all five of those postings here. So it's fun to see that the mainstream -- in the form of Discover magazine -- has now begun to take enthusiastic note of the book (and the people and the work behind it) too. Bonus link: John Tierney is hoping that someone will bring a Neanderthal to life. Bonus Link #2: Some reflecting about evolution and economics leads Gary Marcus to wonder about some of the different meanings of the word "fitness." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 14, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jimmy and Tom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The invaluable Jimmy Moore podcast-interviews Tom Naughton, director of the fun and startling new documentary "Fat Head." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 9, 2009 | perma-link | (0) comments

Steve on Greg and Henry
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A morning treat for you (I'm on west coast time): Steve Sailer writes a rowdy, smart, and links-rich review of Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's brilliant and entertaining "The 10,000 Year Explosion." I did a week-long series of q&a's with Greg about the book. Access 'em all here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 9, 2009 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Fat Head" Now Available
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here and here I interviewed Tom Naughton, a standup comedian and software guy who was in the process of finishing his first movie, "Fat Head." Amusing, likable, and amazingly informative, "Fat Head" is both a documentary response to Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" and a muckraking expose of the lowfat-eating dogma. (You think this is a trivial matter? One doctor involved in researching the supposed benefits of eating lowfat called its theoretical basis -- the "lipid hypothesis" -- "perhaps the greatest scientific fraud of the 20th century.") "Fat Head" is also, IMHO, a triumph of self-financed, hands-on, DYI filmmaking, plain-speaking funny-regular-guy division. I'm glad to learn that "Fat Head" is now finished and available. Though I don't see it listed at Netflix yet, you can buy yourself a copy at Amazon. Dr. Michael Eades -- a luminary in the low-carb-eating cosmos (buy the excellent "Protein Power Lifeplan" here). and a generous and enlightening interviewee in "Fat Head" -- interviews Tom Naughton here. Here's the website Tom has made for his movie. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 6, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Week with Gregory Cochran: Day Five
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's day five of our week with Gregory Cochran, celebrating the startling and exciting new book that Greg has co-written with Henry Harpending, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution." (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) On Monday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- come to a screeching halt 40,000 years ago. Tuesday's topic was culture and its impact on evolution. On Wednesday, we discussed Cochran and Harpending's contention that not only has human evolution continued during the last 10,000 years, it has sped up considerably. Yesterday we considered the possibility that early modern humans and Neanderthals might have interbred. Today Greg fields some of the questions and comments that visitors have left over the course of the week. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Five 2Blowhards: Julian Jaynes -- thoughts? Reactions? And what about that "bicameral mind" idea? Gregory Cochran: I read Jaynes' book years ago and thought at the time that he was deeply, entertainingly crazy. Nowadays, it seems likely that people have changed enough over recorded history to generate noticeable personality differences. That doesn't mean I buy his bicameral mind model: just the idea that people now may have significantly different minds from people then. 2B: One visitor thinks that "the best way to test Jaynes' ideas would be to study some of the uncontacted tribes in the Amazon and New Guinea and see if they are still of 'bicameral' mind." Has anyone bothered to do this? GC: If someone really believed in bicameralism -- some non-Nebraskan -- sure. I wouldn't myself. 2B: From another reader: "[You say that people will cling to the Blank Slate myth as long as it pleases them to.] The Catholic Church reluctantly stopped believing in the geocentric model of the universe long before there were important practical applications. They had an enormous investment in the geocentric model, but the empirical evidence was too strong. Are you saying that the scientific evidence against the 'Blank Slate myth' will never be strong enough, or that the motivation to cling to the myth is stronger than that for the geocentric model, or perhaps that heresies are suppressed more efficiently nowadays?" GC: I think people -- some people -- care a lot more about this than anyone ever cared about geocentrism. There are also practical political aspects. 2B: From another reader: "Depiction of trickster gods in West Africa seems a bit positive, at worst morally neutral. In Northern Europe, Loki was a clear-cut villain. Could that contrast come from selection-induced personality differences?" GC: And yet Bugs Bunny is our hero. I think this line of analysis is about as sound and solid as Citibank. 2B: "I have heard that the wide varieties of thalassemia are the result of reproductive isolation. If populations mixed in Italy, the best ones would be common, and the rest rare. Maybe that was from Cavalli-Sforza? But maybe... posted by Michael at January 30, 2009 | perma-link | (48) comments

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Week With Gregory Cochran: Day Four
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's day four of our week with Gregory Cochran, celebrating the startling and exciting new book that Greg has co-written with Henry Harpending, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution." (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) On Monday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- come to a screeching halt 40,000 years ago. Tuesday's topic was culture and its impact on evolution. On Wednesday, we discussed Cochran and Harpending's contention that not only has human evolution continued during the last 10,000 years, it has sped up considerably. Today: Did Neanderthals and modern humans interbreed? *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Four 2Blowhards: Your contention is that 1) modern humans and Neanderthals may well have interbred. 2) Any beneficial alleles we picked up from these interbreedings would have spread throughout the population even if the instances of interbreeding were few. 3) These developments may help explain the cultural explosion of 40,000ish years ago. Is that a fair summary? Gregory Cochran: Yes. 2B: How should readers take this contention? As a hypothesis? A provocation? GC: A hypothesis that we think probable. But there are unlikely circumstances that might have blocked such gene flow, so we could be wrong. 2B: What kinds of evidence is there so far for interbreeding with Neanderthals? GC: There are a lot of paleontologists who think that the skeletal record suggests some interbreeding. In addition, there are a few genes with strange patterns that might have parachuted in from another hominid species such as Neanderthals. 2B: How and why did you come to this hunch? GC: Before I learned some of the relevant theory in population genetics, playing with simulations left me aware of the fact that even a few copies of a better version of a gene had a good chance of becoming common. Turns out that there was an exact result that shows just how likely this is: for a single copy, the chance of ultimate success is twice the gene's advantage. For example, one copy of a gene with a 1% advantage has a 2% chance of becoming universal in the population. 2B: Why do you think that the possibility of interbreeding is a useful idea to float? GC: Well, if it is correct, we'll understand a bit more about prehistory and the development of modern cultural capabilities. 2B: Where might evidence for interbreeding pop up? GC: Out of the current work on sequencing the Neanderthal genome. With a little luck, we might also find some better skeletal evidence for interbreeding. 2B: What kind of evidence would nail it down one way or the other once and for all? GC: Neanderthal DNA. For example, if we found that Neanderthals had a particular favorable version of a gene before we did, a version that was quite different from the version humans used to have (and that some people might still have), we'd have to think it originated in Neanderthals.... posted by Michael at January 29, 2009 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Week with Gregory Cochran: Day Three
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's day three of our week with Gregory Cochran, celebrating the startling and exciting new book that Greg has co-written with Henry Harpending, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution." (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) On Monday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- come to a screeching halt 40,000 years ago. Yesterday's topic was culture and its impact on evolution.Today we discuss Cochran and Harpending's contention that not only has human evolution continued during the last 10,000 years, it has sped up considerably. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Three 2Blowhards: What are the main reasons you think that human evolution has accelerated over the last 10,000 years? Gregory Cochran: Theory and evidence. Theory says that humans would be less fitted to a new way of life, and that genetic changes that made the fit better would spread. It also says a greatly increased population would result in more of the rare mutations that cause such favored changes. We have lots of evidence of recent change, evidence of several kinds. We find unshuffled regions of the genome that have apparently increased in frequency recently (over the past few thousand years). We're just starting to look at ancient DNA, the genes of people who died thousands of years ago, and we see differences from the present. Of course we can look at their bones as well, and they look different -- human skulls have changed quite noticeably in the last 10,000 years, more among some groups than others. Along that line, we know of many other differences in phenotypes (bodies) that we don't yet understand the genetic underpinnings of. We know quite a bit about measureable differences involving disease between existing human populations: susceptibility to infections, diabetes and alcoholism: there is reason to think that these originated recently. In a number of cases, we know that risk alleles are ancestral alleles, the version of the gene everyone once had (and some still do). Populations vary in color-blindness, in the fraction of working olfactory genes, in visual acuity, in susceptibility to myopia. They vary in brain size by more than a standard deviation (from smallest to largest). And of course IQ scores vary by more than that. 2B: How certain a thing is it that human evolution is speeding up? Is it a settled fact? GC: Cranial capacity has shrunk 10% in 15,000 years: that's the fastest rate of change ever seen in the human fossil record, by far. Consider the number of genetic differences between humans and chimpanzees: they occurred over about six million years, from which you can determine the average rate or change. The number of genes that are apparently being replaced by new versions is much larger than you would expect from that long-term rate -- something like 100 times larger. 2B: What are your favorite examples of that evidence? GC: I tend to... posted by Michael at January 27, 2009 | perma-link | (10) comments

A Week With Gregory Cochran: Day Two
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This week, 2Blowhards is celebrating the release of Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's bold and exciting new book "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution" by interviewing Gregory Cochran. (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) Yesterday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- stop 40,000 years ago. Today: Culture and its impact on evolution. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Two 2Blowhards: We were all raised to laugh at the idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited. Yet now I learn from you and Henry that culture does affect evolution. What's the difference between Lamarckism and what you propose? Gregory Cochran: Cutting off a dog's tail will not result in tailless puppies in the next generation (or the next, or the next): Lamarck thought so, but he was wrong. But if you cut off dog tails for a very long time, eventually a mutation might arise that creates a Manx dog -- and that dog might do better in life, if only because it would be spared dangerous trauma. Then the no-tail mutation would gradually become common and might eventually become universal in that breed of dogs. We're saying that when people are subject to a new and different environment, gene variants that cause their bearers to have higher fitness (be better at surviving and having children) will gradually become more common. Given enough time (thousands of years, sometimes less than that) change can be substantial. It is also the case that gene variants that already exist and are fairly common can also influence the fitness of individuals under selection. Since they start out with higher frequency, they can respond more rapidly to new circumstances. An example: a 5% edge can increase a gene's frequency from 40% to 60% -- a 20% increase in gene frequency -- in just a few generations. A completely new mutation starts out with a single copy and takes thousands of years or more to increase from near-zero to 20%. 2B: Is part of what enables us to think of culture affecting evolution the fact that we now know that evolution is proceeding rapidly? GC: Yes. And because different cultures result in different selective pressures, sometimes quite strong ones. 2B: What should the interested Eng-Lit amateur make of the evolution-culture question? What picture could he carry around that would be useful and accurate-enough? GC: He should remember that people can and sometimes have changed biologically over historical time, and that the changes have not taken the same course in every population. He should not expect events over a single generation to have much genetic effect. And he should, if all possible, try to remember that cicumstances over the past 70 years are different than those experienced over most of history: also that 70 years is not enough time for much change. 2B: Would we generalists be wildly mistaken if we were to think... posted by Michael at January 27, 2009 | perma-link | (14) comments

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Week with Gregory Cochran: Day One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I raved about Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution," which I'd had the chance to read in proofs. This week -- to celebrate the book's actual publication date -- we're pleased to run an interview with Gregory Cochran. We'll run one part a day, Monday through Thursday. On Friday, Greg will return and address a selection of the comments and questions that visitors leave from Monday through Thursday. (Actually Greg will do as he damn well sees fit. But that's the plan.) A few words about the book, which I found a compact marvel. It's full of information, teaching, thinking, and speculation. It's also a civilized, even impish and playful, joy as a reading experience -- one of those easy-to-digest wonders that nonetheless leaves your head spinning for days. Briefly: The book is a discussion of the last 10,000 years of human evolution. Cochran and Harpending's contention is that humans have continued to evolve -- and in significant ways -- over this period of time. This makes for quite a contrast to the story many of us were raised on, namely that human evolution essentially stopped around 40-50,000 years ago, and that any changes that have taken place since are so superficial as to be insignificant. Cochran and Harpending argue not only that human evolution has continued, and in ways that are indeed significant, but that it has been accelerating thanks to the pressures brought to bear on our genome by civilization. It's fun to see that Cochran and Harpending give some of our own favorite bloggers -- John Hawks and da GNXP boyz -- a nod in their book's Acknowledgments. Let's all remember to visit Hawks and GNXP regularly, and to offer thanks for this new age when we civilians get so much better a chance to connect with the experts than we've ever had before. Now, on to the fun --- Part One of our q&a with Gregory Cochran. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part One 2Blowhards: We've been told for decades that human evolution ground to a halt 40,000ish years ago. Were we misled? Gregory Cochran: Sure, you were misled. Stephen Jay Gould said it, among others: "There’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain." Which is untrue; brains have shrunk about 10% over the last 30,000 years, and almost certainly changed in other ways as well. In his case, it's hard to tell whether any given statement was a deliberate falsehood or just mistaken. Paul Krugman summed it up pretty well: I have tried, in preparation for this talk, to read some evolutionary economics, and was particularly curious about what biologists people reference. What I encountered were quite a few references to Stephen Jay Gould, hardly any to other evolutionary theorists. Now it is not very hard to find out, if... posted by Michael at January 25, 2009 | perma-link | (46) comments

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Food and Eating Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Stephan thinks you'd do well to pass up the margarine and help yourself to some good-quality butter instead. * Richard Nikoley has found that eating more fat can cure food cravings. * After years of packing on unwanted weight, Diana Hshieh gives up "healthy" low-fat eating, goes Paleo, and loses 15 pounds. Diana describes her new eating habits here. * Mark Sisson has some thoughts about how many carbs you might want to be eating a day. * Charles Washington does well on precisely zero carbs. * Bill Kauffman celebrates North Carolina barbecue. * Women may be less able than men are to suppress hunger pangs. Best, Michael UPDATE: Jonny Bowden says that eating low-carb is guaranteed to bring your triglycerides down. Worked for me, and in fairly dramatic fashion.... posted by Michael at January 20, 2009 | perma-link | (29) comments

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Evo Bio Books
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A quick posting to let visitors know about two terrific new evo-bio books. In "The Art Instinct," philosopher Denis Dutton (of Arts & Letters Daily fame) tries to bridge the gap between biology and aesthetics. As a comprehensive evo-bio account of the arts, it's a heroic and (I hope) conversation-shifting work. Since it's also a book that nails many of the basics down in a way that the culture-world has been in bad need of for several decades now, I'm pleased to see that "The Art Instinct" is selling well and receiving numerous respectful reviews. Hey, the time may finally be right -- finally! -- for a sensibly down-to-earth yet sophisticated discussion of the nature of the arts. My favorite reviews of the book so far have been by John Derbyshire and Jonah Lehrer. The book's website is here. In "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution," Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending cheerily take on one of the most potentially explosive of all evo-bio topics: the fact of recent human evolution. So ... What if human evolution didn't stop 40,000 years ago? What if our social forms have placed evolutionarily significant pressures on us? What if the differences between population groups run far deeper than mere skin color? And what on earth might have been the cause of the cultural explosion that resulted in cave paintings and elaborate ritual burials? It's a mischievous, daring, and informative book that makes canny use of history, biology, and anthropology, and that teaches a lot about the way genes and alleles go about their business. It's also an exciting reading experience. Following the authors' minds as they reason their way (using vervey English and vivid imagery) through what's known now to explore possibilities and implications delivers a real buzz. I had many moments when I found myself thinking, "So maybe this is what being supersmart is like!" Fun. The book hasn't yet been released, but you can place a pre-order here. The book's very generous website is here. By the way: I notice that Cochran and Harpending created their book's website on the Squarespace platform. I'm a huge fan of Squarespace myself, and recommend it enthusiastically. If you want to build a website but would prefer not to devote your life to HTML, CSS, and/or Dreamweaver, Squarespace may be just what you're looking for. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 17, 2009 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fact for the Day: Toothlessness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- People don't lose many teeth these days. Toothlessness has declined 60 percent in the United States since 1960. Baby boomers will be the first generation in human history typically to go to their graves with most of their teeth. Source. An old lady once told me that back in the 1920s, when she was a child, you just assumed that anyone over 40 was wearing dentures. A dentist recently explained to me that one reason teeth-whitening has become such a big business in recent years is that people's teeth are generally so good these days that dentists otherwise don't have many services beyond cleaning to sell to most patients. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 5, 2009 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Food and Health Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Lard: Food comeback of 2008? * The Top Ten Food Safety Stories of 2008. * Food Renegade shows the influence of some of the people I think of as the Good Food Guys: Nina Planck, Michael Pollan, Gary Taubes, Sally Fallon and Mary Enig ... * People who adhere to a religion seem to develop more self-control. * Men's Health wants you to eat some fat. * Health guru Mark Sisson says that cutting back on sugars and taking up walking may be the best way to start getting healthy. * Napping, the whole story. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 31, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, December 29, 2008

Science, Perverted
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's almost New Year's. Pretty quiet on the Web. Here too. Good time to sneak in a rant. The subject is science and how it's misunderstood and perverted these days. For example, Instapundit called my attention to this item from a left-leaning British newspaper about celebrities not quite getting it. And then there's Australian newspaper columnist and blogger Tim Blair who, in this post, tosses off the following jabs: Of course, for these people -- who’d struggle to explain the workings of a simple internal combustion engine but somehow know how to reorganise the entire planet’s energy supply -- “science” includes everything from feng shui and numerology to the healing power of crystals. Ignorance of science is something that, in principle, is curable by tweaking the educational system. One needed ingredient is a couple of hours dealing with the philosophy of science at the start of each high school level science course. More specifically, it would be helpful to present the thinking of Karl Popper, who held that science advances by disproving flawed hypotheses and theories, not by attempting to "prove" things. I happen to agree with Popper, so therefore grind my teeth in anger and frustration when Al Gore and other Global Warming True Believers assert that their beliefs on the subject represent "settled science." Popper would contend that nothing is settled in science; the best that can be done is, by testing a variety of falsifiable hypotheses, reduce to a minimum plausible alternatives to a theory. By making the "settled science" assertion, the Algore crowd is simply trying to stifle opposition to its political agenda. And any scientists who go along with that claim have become politicized to the point that they have betrayed their scientific calling. Or so I think. Commenters please note: Nowhere above did I say that scientists should never speak out on public issues. My concern is about some politicians and scientists who want to stop other politicians and scientists from speaking out on public issues. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 29, 2008 | perma-link | (26) comments

Friday, December 26, 2008

Taubes, Contra-Taubes, More
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Here's an hour-long video of a presentation that Gary ("Good Calories, Bad Calories") Taubes has been doing around the country. It conveys a good chunk of what he has to say in his book. * Thanks to visitor Bill for pointing out this Michael Fumento anti-Taubes article. Taubes responds here. Fumento responds to Taubes' response. * Jenny shoots down what sounds like a particularly stupid recent study about diabetes and diet. * Stephan thinks that vegetable oils have played a big role in increasing obesity levels. More and more -- it's a great set of postings, and the comments on them are first-rate too. Get to know the abbreviation PUFA. * Dr. William Davis has a hunch that a grassroots rebellion against statin drugs may be taking shape, and wonders why hospital dieticians are so often so fat. * 10 things your gym probably won't tell you. * Jimmy Moore notices that Krispy Kreme, Wonder Bread, and Hostess Twinkies are all struggling financially, and interviews the brilliant economist and eating/exercise guru Arthur De Vany. * Being a vegan hasn't made Bijou Phillips a happy camper. "I'm sick and I've been sick four times since I've been vegan," she says, "and I hadn't been sick for five years before that." * Tracy takes a look at the zero-carb diet. Funny to learn that it's also known as the FUMP -- as in "f-u Michael Pollan" -- diet. * The recently-deceased World's Oldest Person loved bacon and eggs. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 26, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Self-Help Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Edward Bottone writes a wonderful ode to fat. (Link thanks to Cranium Creek.) * Jimmy Moore interviews a health expert who strikes me as sensible and helpful, Dr. John Briffa. * Exercise-and-eating guru Mark Sisson thinks that there are some very good reasons why Oprah can't control her weight. UPDATE: Dr. Michael Eades contributes some hunches too. * Is Matthieu Ricard the happiest man on earth? * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote about the Slow Movement, here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 10, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cochran and Harpending's New One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- John Derbyshire loves Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's new book about how the advent of civilization didn't slam the brakes on human evolution, it has instead speeded evolution up. I'm looking forward to the book myself, as one of the most bedrock of bedrock beliefs back in the day was that human evolution screeched to a halt 50,000 years ago. Fun to witness the Blank Slate mind-frame finally busting up, isn't it? 40 years of near-totalitarian denial and top-down mind-control -- man, that was one long and weird stretch. You can pre-order Cochran and Harpending's book here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 3, 2008 | perma-link | (29) comments

Monday, November 24, 2008

Winner Take All
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For The Guardian, GNXP's Razib surveys polygamy and monogamy, and wonders whether the increasing atomization of Western Civ since 1970 might be turning us into a winner-take-all society where sex goes too. That's a hunch that the Game crowd should find congenial. Nice passage: Hunter-gatherers are no angels, but the structural constraints of their economic system renders it impossible for an ambitious male to control all of a band's wealth and support dozens of wives. Many of the comments on Razib's piece are canny and thoughtful. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More Taubes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Dr. Michael Eades sponsors an ask-Gary-Taubes session. Taubes' paradigm-shifting "Good Calories, Bad Calories" is a fascinating (if exhausting) read for many reasons, including a number that have nothing to do with food and obesity. The tale he tells is, in a general sense, of experts (and their advice and guidance) going awry and becoming destructive under the sway of bad research, egos, p-r, and commercial and political pressure. This tale seems to me to parallel a lot of other tales that we've witnessed in recent decades. How did we wind up with building and space-making practices that so often result in sterile structures and dead spaces? How did we develop an un-nourishing "literary fiction" world that almost no one cares about? How did our financial, political, and economics elites create and lead us into our current mess? Taubes' long, detailed and meticulous dissection of how we wound up with a health-tips establishment that's handing out bad, even lethal, advice couldn't be more different in tone from Tom Wolfe's short, snappy and dazzling "From Bauhaus to Our House" and "The Painted Word." But, like them, it's a major contribution to the "How on earth did we get to this crazy place?" genre. It can help you make a whole lot more sense of the world around you. Related: Low-carbin' force of nature Jimmy Moore podcast-interviewed Gary Taubes here and here. Explore Jimmy's huge and valuable collection of audio interviews here. Steve Sailer shares some musings about the "What is art?" question. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 19, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More on IQ
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Rawness concludes his series on blacks and IQ. Great passage: I think rather than outright intellectualism, the mental skills slavery selected for were a high-level cunning. We still see this manifested in many aspects of modern black life such as creating slangs that nonblacks can’t understand, being extremely street smart, mastering high level con games, highly improvisational cognitive skills that can be seen in everything from off the cuff banter to improvisational jazz to freestyle rapping. Pimping “by the book” is another example of high level cunning. I don’t think IQ tests can properly test for these, but I think they’re very valid cognitive abilities ... I’ve seen plenty of high IQ people who are useless in a situation that requires street smart and ability to recognize when they’re being hustled. I’ve see socially inept high IQ people who would kill to be able to game women like many black players and pimps can. I think there are a lot of gifts and abilities that IQ tests can't measure. For instance: IQ-style intelligence and artistic talent have nothing to do with each other. As far as I can tell -- and, for what it's worth, I've spent three decades in the cultureworld -- brains and artistic talent are almost completely independent variables. It's a simple fact of life that there are 1) many intellectually brilliant people who are completely unable to create artistically, and 2) many people who are brimming over with artistic talent who are also real dimwits in an intellectual sense. It can be a lovely thing when IQ-style intelligence and artistic-creative talent coexist in a mutually-enhancing way in the same person -- but, c'mon, how often does this happen? As a culture-consumer, I'm too eager for enjoyment and pleasure to afford to be that choosy. And, as someone who has always done pretty well on standardized exams, I can testify to the fact that I've met many people less intellectually oomphy than I am who nonetheless know in their bones far more about life, people, and nature than will ever be mine to know. Semi-related: Back here I mused about G and the arts. T. shares some shrewd hunches about Pres. Obama here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 18, 2008 | perma-link | (48) comments

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Statin News
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Michael Eades, Hyperlipid, and Jenny take sober looks at a recent study that led the press to make great claims for Crestor. Eades' summary: Let’s look at [the study] in the best light possible. If we do, we find that a small group of unusual patients - those with low LDL-cholesterol AND high C-reactive protein - may slightly decrease their risk for all-cause mortality by taking a drug that costs them almost $1,300 per year and slightly increases their risk for developing diabetes. That’s the best spin possible given the data from this study. Compare that to the spin the media is giving it. Semi-related: What's really in that fast-food burger? Back here and here, I wrote about Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation." I don't know about you, but especially when it comes to meat I'm happy to pay a few extra bucks for the quality stuff. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 14, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Pleasures of Fat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's pleasing to see that bacon is having a big cultural moment. "Bacon," writes Scott Gold, hitting just the right tone, "is amazing." Edward Bottone writes in praise of fat. Here's some straight shooting about saturated fat. The short version: "Study after study has failed to provide definitive evidence that saturated-fat intake leads to heart disease." Best, Michael UDPATE: Maybe we should relax a little about sat-fat and be a whole lot more wary of corn. Note that corn -- a contributor to both obesity and various environmental ills, at least as currently used -- receives large subsidies from the U.S. government. How did we come to have a government that underwrites chubbiness?... posted by Michael at November 10, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Eating Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Stephan thinks you might want to consider giving up wheat and eating the fat on your steak. * Time to start using lard? The Wife is one major lard-lover. "Lard is what makes a good pie crust," she says adamantly. * Low-carbin' force of nature Jimmy Moore names the Top Ten Low-Carb Movers and Shakers of 2008. * Enjoy a BBC documentary about the Atkins diet: Part One, Two, Three, Four, Five. * Mark Sisson suggests enjoying some "paleo snacks." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 8, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, October 31, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Obese people anticipate enjoying food more than lean people do -- but when they actually eat it, they enjoy it less. * Diabetes is 'way up. (A small immigration angle here: "Diabetes is two to three times more common in Mexican American ... adults than in non-Hispanic whites." In other words, one reason the U.S.'s diabetes problem is becoming worse is that we have growing numbers of people of Mexican descent in the country. Not that you'll find this fact alluded to very often in the polite press ... ) * Dr. Michael Eades reports that obese people these days tend to underestimate how overweight they are. Why? Because fat has become the new normal. To demonstrate his point, Dr. Eades runs some clips of famous fatties from previous generations: Oliver Hardy, Curly of the Three Stooges, and Jackie Gleason, who called himself "The Fat Man." It's quite amazing how not-very-fat-at-all they look to present-day eyes. Big guys, sure. But not fat -- let alone obese -- by contempo standards. I'm not entirely surprised to learn that, where weight goes, surroundings do count. A major reason a Frenchperson will tend to be slim is that other Frenchpeople tend to be slim, for instance. And when the Wife and I visit relatives in the midwest, we giggle over the fact that we could put on 30 pounds each and still pass for slim among those sweet-natured but full-figured heartlanders. * Learn about Intermittent Fasting from the experts. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 31, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, October 24, 2008

Good, Bad, Carbs, Fat, Cardio
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Dennis Mangan finds Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories" not just impressive but persuasive. I found the book a paradigm-shifter too. (Link thanks to Dave Lull.) * Of the many good low-carb, unafraid-of-fat advice-givers, one of my favorites is the Englishman Barry Groves, who has an affable and low-key style that I find irresistible. I warmly recommend this book of Groves', and am glad to see that he has recently published a new one too. Groves is profiled in the Telegraph, and is interviewed by Jimmy Moore. * At the other end of the spectrum from Groves' genial and mild ways is the pugnacity and fire of Anthony Colpo, the bad boy of the low-carb world and a current fascination of mine. I haven't read Colpo's magnum opus yet, but as a big fan of all kinds of self-publishing I'm thrilled that he pulled it together and published it himself. * Dr. John Briffa can't see many reasons why otherwise-healthy women should ever take statins. Since I like Briffa's style and find him a sensible and modest eating-and-exercise guru, I'm hoping that his latest book will arrive in the U.S. soon. * Healthcare Episetemocrat manages to draw connections between paleolithic eating and MBlowhard favorite, the localist "reactionary radical" Bill Kauffman. (Another Dave Lull webfind.) * Yet another reason not to shun fat. Besides, as good cooks like to say, "Fat is flavor." * Arthur DeVany lists 10 reasons not to run a marathon. Mark Sisson wants you to be wary of extreme aerobic training generally. (Hey, I knew Mark back in high school. He was an awesome distance runner.) Intermittent Fasting says that 35-40 minutes of cardio should be more than enough. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 24, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Meet Sally Fallon
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Organic lefties ... Burkean righties ... Eat-local hippies ... ... Leave-me-alone anarchists ... Big-government-hating Ron Paul libertarians ... The raw milk wars ... The New Urbanism ... The rediscovery of "good fats" ... Speculations about secession ... It all kind of comes together, doesn't it? It does in my mind anyway. Enjoy a visit with one of the hotspots in all this -- the Weston A. Price Foundation's director Sally Fallon -- and learn something about the whole Weston A. Price thing. Weston A. Price seems to be emerging as some kind of significant culture-figure. A quack? Could well be. But also someone whose ideas resonate in the present moment -- much as, say, Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan's ideas resonated in their time. In any case, interesting developments, all of them ... Bonus point: An interesting Primal Nutrition-style eating-and-diet experiment. Time to quaff a mug of bone broth. Best, Michael UDPATES: * Dave Lull points out a Salon interview with Jennifer McLagan, the author of the new book "Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes." Jennifer McLagan tells the Carb Wars Blog: It took a long time for publishers to talk to me ... The opening chapter is all about the importance of animal fat in our diet and why in the last 30 years we have been (wrongly) convinced to cut it out....It gives us energy. It boosts the immune system and some fats have antimicrobial properties. Others can lower bad cholesterol. There are vitamins that are only fat-soluble. Your brain is mainly made of fat and cholesterol, as are the membranes of your cells. It helps you digest protein, which is why you should eat chicken with crispy skin or well-marbled steak. Here's another visit with her. Here's Jennifer McLagan's own blog. * Orthodox Agrarian weaves together some musings about philosopher Roger Scruton and a lot of enthusiasm for the art of John Constable. He also wonders why his parents think of him and his Crunchy-Con wife -- conservatives both -- as hippies.... posted by Michael at September 30, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, September 26, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- We're fatter these days partly because we move less than people used to. That's the standard expert's analysis and diagnosis, of course. But is it correct? Perhaps it's also possible that people get fat first, and only then move less. Gary Taubes explains to Jimmy Moore that the direction causation flows in is anything but as clear as the routine authorities would have you believe. Stephan takes on the same question. I found Gary Taubes' epic "Good Calories, Bad Calories" to be a real eye-opener. Much of what we've been told about eating, food, health, fat, and cholesterol for the last 40 years has been either demonstrably wrong, or based on flimsy evidence and weak experiments. Cheery news: More evidence that small amounts of dark chocolate are good for you. I'm off to have some. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 26, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, September 22, 2008

Health, Food, Fitness Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Tennis champ Martina Navratilova -- turning 50 -- uses Gyrotonics to help her stay flexible and balanced. I'm a huge Gyro fan myself. * Richard Nikoley throws some buffalo on the grill. * Another interview with the startling economist / fitness-guy Arthur De Vany. * More reasons to marvel at the low-fat insanity of the last three decades: Dr. John Briffa takes a look at a recent study and concludes: "The lower-fat regime utilised in the Women’s Health Initiative study did not protect women against cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes." * Hyperlipid's Peter -- who knows more about fats than you do or I do -- eats six egg yolks a day and gets 80 percent of his calories from animal fats. He's slim, his blood markers are good, and at age 52 he has never felt better. Here's a typical day's eating for Peter. * Read about Jan Kwasniewski's Optimal Diet -- the hardest-core high-fat diet around -- here, here, and here. * So is there any point to taking statins at all? Best, Michael UPDATE: The Nourished Kitchen prepares a scrumptious-looking meal out of foods that the revenooers have made illegal. Great passage: It’s important to note that many people may view these laws as a way to ensure that the public limit exposure to potential pathogens. Yet, the laws favor industrial agriculture and interfere with both the small farmers’ ability to making farming economically viable and the consumers’ ability to make an informed choice. Indeed, though I consistently choose to include these foods that skirt the law and bend health codes, they’ve never made me sick; rather, my health has improved with the inclusion of pasture-fed chicken, grass-fed meats and raw milk. Consider that spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, beef and a slew of other legal, industrial foods have made people across the US sick due to contamination with pathogens like e. coli and salmonella.... posted by Michael at September 22, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Monday, September 15, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Are scientists more rational than the rest of us? Or are they simply people -- as foolish, quirky, and squishy as any others -- whose field enforces an empiricism-oriented rationality? Nice passage from Razib's good posting: Many scientists believe that because science is such a superior method of extracting information about the world around us, and constructing predictive models which have been shown to have great utility, that that means that they as scientists can simply transfer their godlike powers to other domains with the greatest of ease. For a short while, many years ago, I dated the daughter of a scientist. And what a strange set of complexes, hangups, and weaknesses scientist-Daddy (who apparently really prided himself on being the possessor of rationality-superpowers) had endowed her with. And how hard it was for her to get used to the idea that her dad might be just a man. Hey, I've often thought that a study of artists' children should be written. What a weird and distinctive set of breeders-and-offspring they are. Perhaps a similar study should be done of scientists' kids. Bonus points: Andrew Sullivan approves, and gets in a nice mention of one of my heroes, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. I liked Sullivan's semi-recent book. Read a terrific talk Sullivan gave about Michael Oakeshott here. Razib adds more, and responds to Sullivan. Anti-Citizen One takes issue. Anti-Citizen One flips for Nietzsche's "The Gay Science." I remember finding the book wonderfully high-spirited too. Razib (and commenters) reviews some facts about Switzerland here. Pretty maps! Please note that this Blowhard makes no claims whatsoever to exceptional rationality, nor would he want to. As for superpowers, though ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 15, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Is The Flu Vaccination Really Helpful?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Does the flu vaccine really prevent deaths? The stats would seem to indicate such a conclusion. After all, a geezer who has had a flu shot is less likely to die during flu season than a geezer who hasn't had a flu shot. But a new study suggests that what we might really be witnessing is nothing but the consequence of the fact that the already-more-healthy are more likely to get a flu shot than the already-less-healthy. The geezer who gets a flu shot is already a more robust geezer than the geezer who fails to get a flu shot. FWIW: In my own case, I have had better luck, flu-wise, during years when I haven't submitted to a flu shot. Bonus point: What's in a flu shot. Yummy! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, September 1, 2008

Slow Food, Raw Milk, Butter
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- John Schwenkler -- already infamous as the guy who argued that good food should be a conservative cause -- writes the definitive article about today's raw milk wars. John has been covering Slow Food Nation too: here, here, here, and -- yummiest of all -- here. His day-to-day blog is here. Directly related: Food is Love adores butter so much that she eats chunks of it straight. But it's always the good stuff. Semi-related: Would Edmund Burke have approved of Michael Pollan? Completely unrelated: If Sarah Palin is elected, will she become our first VPILF? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 1, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bryan Meets Arthur
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "The Black Swan," complexity theory, the movie business, Gary Taubes, evolutionary thinking, behavioral economics ... and what all of them may be able to tell us about sensible eating and staying fit. Bryan Appleyard meets the fascinating Arthur De Vany, who's quite a phenom. Nice passage: Almost all dietary and fitness regimes are based on a homeostatic view of the body – meaning it is a self-regulating system that maintains itself in a continuous, stable condition. The average is the ideal. So we are told to eat regular meals consisting of a balance of the food groups and to take regular exercise, dominated by steady aerobic activity like cycling or jogging. This is all wrong. Link thanks to Dave Lull. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 18, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, August 8, 2008

What Is Making Us Fat?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Stephan catches the NYTimes making some dumb mistakes in a health story. It isn't fat that is making us fat, it's ... But best to hand it over to Stephan: Now that I've deconstructed the data, let's see what the three biggest changes in the American diet from 1970 to 2006 actually are: We're eating far more grains, especially white wheat flour We're eating more added sweeteners, especially high-fructose corn syrup Animal fats from milk and meat have been replaced by processed vegetable oils Wheat + sugar + processed vegetable oil = fat and unhealthy. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This NYT article is just another example of how superficial journalism can really obscure the truth. Fun to read the comments on Stephan's posting about his three-eggs-and-butter breakfast too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 8, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

More Dora
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Dora Torres? The 41-year-old Olympic swimmer whose physique -- and especially whose six-pack -- appalls and/or amazes? (Posting and commentsfest here.) She claims that the secret to her success is "resistance stretching": Did you catch that she's worked on like this for eight hours a day? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 8, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Parental Frankness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have less than zero interest in kids. I find them to be uninteresting not-yet-people that do nothing but absorb time, money, attention, and energy. 15 minutes of smiling benignly at friends' brats and I've had my fill of children for at least six months. (A word for the tender of heart: I'm not making a general case here, I'm just talking about my own reactions to children.) Despite my kid-aversion, I rather enjoy checking in on friends' experiences as parents, at least when they're being frank and forthright. You hear funny stories, for one thing. For another, it's fascinating how treacly the popular-culture image of parenthood and kid-raising seems to be by comparison to the reality of actually birthin' and raisin' kids. And it's fascinating too the way that most parents know damn well that raising kids is often an exhausting, life-devouring business. An example. One new mom told me that when she gave birth to her son she felt no instant bond with him at all. Her friends (and books and magazines) had rhapsodized about transformative gushes of mommy emotion. But in her case, she pushed the kid out, waited for the emotions to slam her ... And nothing. There he was, there she was, and it looked like they were going to be spending a number of years together. Oh well. Another example: When one of those crazy mothers in Texas or the South killed four or five of her children, the press was full of outraged talking heads -- the professionally sanctimonious -- going on about how inconceivable the act was. Who could imagine a mother doing such a thing? But one daddy-friend of mine laughed and said that as far as he was concerned, the bizarre thing wasn't that a mother would kill her kids, the bizarre thing was that such murders didn't happen every day. "Kids," he said. "They run you ragged, they test your limits, they eat your life up. And then they do it again the following day." (Not to worry: Over time the mom I've told about grew fond of her son, and my daddy-friend strikes me as a very good father.) A standout in this parents-being-frank line comes from Sister Wolf, who confesses that she has always been fascinated by mothers who kill. One of many powerful, harsh-'n'-juicy passages: I was a new mother once again, with a baby boy who arrived two months early. He was tiny and precious and when I was finally allowed to bring him home from the hospital, he cried continuously. He cried for forty days and forty nights, and then he cried some more. Sometimes, at dawn, I would turn to his weary dad and sob, “What’s the point of him?” I honestly couldn’t remember. How lovely to put the usual Family Circle uckiness aside for a few minutes, no? But how much of such honesty can we realistically stand? If more people were more forthright more often... posted by Michael at August 6, 2008 | perma-link | (33) comments

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Fate of the Six Pack
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Sigh: What a few decades will do to even the most heroic male physique. My own efforts at fitness stopped being a matter of "getting into shape" and started aiming at "stemming the decay" long ago. * Dora or Estelle? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 31, 2008 | perma-link | (34) comments

Slow Woodstock?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Get ready for a summer-ending Slow Food blowout. A great quote from Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini: "I always say a gastronome who isn’t an environmentalist is just stupid, and I say an environmentalist who isn’t a gastronome is just sad." Petrini gets my CultureHero of the Day award. I'm sorry to see, though, that the leaders of Slow Food USA are determined to make the movement even more political and diversity-obsessed than it already is. Why is good food and good eatin' -- let alone clean air and clean water -- so often a leftie thing? Righties ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting such causes slip through their fingers. Semi-related: I blogged about the Slow movement here and here. Here's the website of the worldwide Slow Food organization. Here's Slow Food USA. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 31, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Dubious Yet Perhaps Provocative Comparison
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As a cultureguy, I haven't been able to help being struck by something amidst all my low-carb readin'-and-research: the way the officially-endorsed low-fat gospel resembles the generally accepted view of the arts. It may work for a few, and it may have its theoretical appeal. But for the rest of us -- and on a day-to-day basis -- it may well be counterproductive, unhealthy, and perhaps even destructive. Interesting to learn that -- much like the conventional view of culture -- the low-fat gospel had its origins in the 1960s and 1970s. The idiotic Food Pyramid? That's something we owe to counterculture hero Sen. George McGovern. What to make of this? Semi-related: I made fun of what I called "the Arts Litany" back here; back here, I explained that our current conception of "literary fiction" is an artifact of the 1960s and 1970s. Here's one of my many bitch-fests about the New York Times Book Review and its bizarrely blinkered yet supposedly good-for-us vision of fiction. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 29, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Low-Carb Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For some people, the fun health news of the last few weeks was the publication in the New England Journal of Medicine of a study pitting the low-fat diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the low-carb diet against each other in a weight-loss race. Hard to declare a super-decisive winner, but one thing was definitely clear: The low-fat diet that our official health-tips class has been urging on us for 30 years didn't look so good. * Some interesting reactions to the study come from the excellent (and modest) low-carb advocate Dr. Mike. * I love the books that Dr. Mike has co-written with his wife, Dr. Mary Dan. I suggest starting with this one. * A couple of other helpful and easy-readin' pro-fat / anti-carbs books: "Eat Fat, Lose Fat" by Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, and "Natural Health & Weight Loss" by Barry Groves. * Enig and Fallon are associated with the Weston A. Price Foundation; Groves maintains a website here. Are Enig, Fallon, and Groves cranks? Oh, maybe they are, a little. Are they more useful and on-the-ball than the conventional U.S. health-tips establishment? It's looking more and more like they are that too. * Heavy-hittin' paradigm-shifter Gary ("Good Calories, Bad Calories") Taubes thinks that the one thing the study established beyond doubt is that the health-tips establishment has been completely wrong to demonize saturated fat. Don't skip the commentsthread. * Taubes' book is a pretty breath-taking (if also exhausting -- I certainly didn't read every single word of it) achievement in many ways. One of them: Taubes demonstrates step-by-step how the health establishment over-committed itself to the low-fat diet. In case you think this was a minor screwup: It's a policy that has likely contributed to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. What on earth is our government doing recommending a diet anyway? * Taubes takes readers' question: here, here, here. * Eggs? Now it turns out that those terrifying little bundles of sat-fat and cholesterol may in many ways be good for your heart. An eye-opening quote from U.Cal Berkeley: Dietary cholesterol, found in animal foods, raises blood cholesterol in only about one-third of people. And, as shown in some egg studies, dietary cholesterol causes the body to produce HDL (“good”) cholesterol along with LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in these “hyper-responders,” thus helping offset potential adverse effects. Moreover, the LDL particles that form are larger in size -- and larger LDL particles are thought to be less dangerous than small ones. In studies at the University of Connecticut, for example, eating three eggs a day for 30 days increased cholesterol in susceptible people, but their LDL particles were larger, and there was no change in the ratio between LDL and HDL, which suggests no major change in coronary risk. * A major tip of the hat to Dave Lull, who supplied most of the links in this posting. Dave has been low-carb / high-fatting it for a while now. (A... posted by Michael at July 29, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Munchies and Politics
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Rod ("Crunchy Cons") Dreher and Michael ("In Defense of Food") Pollan agree on who the enemy of Food Goodness is: corporate ag, and the governmental regs and agencies that service big ag. But they scratch their heads over the politics of the good stuff. Funny passage: DREHER: I mention Slow Food in my work and find it ironic that it was started by an Italian Marxist … POLLAN: Communist. DREHER: Yeah. But it’s very conservative. POLLAN: It is. I always saw myself as being to the Left of center, although whenever I write about food or nature, I feel like I am actually to the Right. Good for Pollan for being willing to be interviewed in something called -- horreurs -- The American Conservative. I'd sure like to see more lefties open up to the right, and more righties open up to the left. But that would mean getting the whole politics thing in perspective, and the Primarily Political crowd would rather die than let the rest of us do that. Rod Dreher blogs here. Long ago, Friedrich von Blowhard and I swapped reactions to Rod's Crunchy Cons notion: here, here, here, here, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 12, 2008 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The average goose deposits a pound of goose-crap every day. Source. And what a, er, relief to learn that geese don't do a lot of their copious crapping while in the air. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 9, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, July 7, 2008

Body Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * America's fattest states, 2008 edition. * Pin-up model, porn star, and producer Sarah Blake -- has there ever been a more cheerily entrepreneurial sex goddess? -- offers some tips for those who want to photograph themselves. Sarah has also finished her first book -- a how-to manual for those who want to enter the adult-film biz. Buy a copy here. * How do the Japanese stay so slim? And why do they put on so much weight once they leave Japan? More here. * Aimee Heckel reviews the workouts available in workout-crazy Boulder, CO, and decides that her favorite of them all is Gyrotonics. I'm a Gyro nut myself. "I don't remember ever feeling as good as I felt after I left this class. I felt like I'd just had the perfect massage," she writes. That's how I feel after Gyro too. San Francisco's Amy Moon gives Gyro a try and finds it good for stretching and posture. * "Vaginal rejuvenation surgeries" are becoming more commonplace. * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote about my discovery of Bikram yoga back here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 7, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Skip the Food
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Will Intermittent Fasting be the next health craze? But perhaps it's having its moment already -- behold the Intermittent Fasting Blog. Whatever the case, this particular low-carb-believin', Shangri-La-followin' Gary Taubes fan is eager to give IF a try. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 18, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, May 26, 2008

More Raw Milk
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Reason's Jacob Grier wonders why the guvmint should be preventing those who want raw milk from buying it. * Culinate's Cindy Burke writes about how yucky it is to come down sick from contaminated raw milk, but thinks the product should be available anyway. * Harper's' Nathanael Johnson writes about something that's often overlooked in these discussions, namely how awful conditions sometimes are on conventional milk-producers' farms. After all, if the milk is going to be sterilized at the end of the process, what reason does the farmer have for keeping the farm clean? Memorable passage: Pasteurization gave farmers license to be unsanitary. They knew that if fecal bacteria got in the milk, the heating process would eventually take care of it ... After a century of pasteurization, modern dairies, to put it bluntly, are covered in shit. Most have a viscous lagoon full of it. Cows lie in it. Wastewater is recycled to flush out their stalls. Farmers do dip cows’ teats in iodine, but standards mandate only that the number of germs swimming around their bulk tanks be below 100,000 per milliliter. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 26, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Another Helping of Raw Milk
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Raw milk: telltale issue of our time? (Link thanks to visitor Steve.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 6, 2008 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, May 5, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is political correctness hobbling the fight against AIDS in Africa? Fact for the day: "In Africa, the incidence of HIV infection is highest in the richest households and the richest countries." More. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 5, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Food and Health Links
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Are vegetarians really healthier than meat eaters? * No reason not to have some chuckles at the expense of the localism-and-organic crowd, of course. Still: How many of those chucklers are aware of what Monsanto is up to? * Another insane health tip is laid to rest. It turns out that there's no reason whatsoever to drink eight glasses of water a day. Which prompts a musing: If we're really serious about improving our health and our happiness, maybe the first thing we should do is dismantle the health-tips industry. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Radical Fat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Read about the world's most radical low-carb / high-fat diet. (Video here.) Here's a blogposting in praise of lard. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 27, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Milk, Eating, Fat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Boston Globe takes note of the surge of interest in raw milk. The curious may enjoy spending a few minutes at the website of raw-milk advocates, The Weston A. Price Foundation. With their praise for sauerkraut and kefir and their belief in coconut oil as a cure for almost anything that might ail you, the Weston A. Price bunch can seem like crackpots. But such solid food-and-eating types as Gary Taubes and Nina Planck respect Weston A. Price. I admire Taubes and Planck; I've enjoyed raw milk every time I've drunk it; and I'm currently getting a lot out of "Eat Fat, Lose Fat" by Weston A. Price honchos Sally Fallon and Mary Enig. Hey world, it's time to get over your terror of fat. Me, I've given up the dumb 'n' easy carbs and have taken to helping myself to a lot more fat than ever before, including regular servings of coconut oil (which tastes fine in coffee or chai tea). Result: No problems maintaining the weight-loss I was able to accomplish via Seth Roberts' "Shangri-La Diet." Alt-health guru Andrew Weil has cut back on the dumb carbs too, and has lost some of the Santa Claus poundage he was previously known for. Both Sally Fallon and Mary Enig appear as interviewees in Tom Naughton's entertaining and informative eating-and-weight-loss documentary "Fat Head." I interviewed Tom here and here. Jimmy Moore has done interviews with many of the people on the low-carb, don't-fear-fat side of the fence. Can I have a little more butter with that? Only, make it organic. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 26, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

More Gyro
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Julia Vitullo-Martin -- who usually covers urban affairs and architecture -- discovers the pleasures of Gyrotonics. I regularly visit two of the studios she visits, including this one. (Hi, Billy!) Nice sentence: "If every New Yorker regularly did Gyrotonics ... ours would be a far more beautiful, happy, and relaxed city." I think so too. Hot in Hollywood predicts that Gyro will be the next chic exercise fad. I wrote about Gyro back here, here, and here. Call me prescient, or call me a fashion victim ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 26, 2008 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pollan and Taubes and Kunstler
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Michael Pollan thinks that, where food and eating go, we ought to learn how to trust our instincts. I think that's good advice where art and culture more generally go too. * Gary Taubes discusses carbs, fat, and bad dietary advice at the Stevens Institute of Technology: * Standup intellectual James Kunstler takes a break from Peak Oil to deliver a fiery talk about American urbanism and suburbia: Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 21, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 30-Minute Meal diva Rachael Ray gives the exercise system called Gyrotonics a whirl: Though I don't giggle quite as infectiously as Rachael does, darn it, I enjoy Gyro too. I've been going to a class or two a week for about two years now, and I love the workout as much as I love yoga, which is saying a lot. For one thing, I love the activity itself. At first the machines can seem bizarre, the movements can be hard to imitate, and lord knows Gyro has its silly side. (That's a bad thing?) But the Gyro scene is a lot of fun. One reason is that Gyro hasn't been as thoroughly discovered and exploited as yoga and Pilates have been, so it's still a small and friendly universe. For another, Gyro teachers (most of them ex-dancers) seem nearly all to be sweet-natured, helpful, and easygoing -- less mystical than yoga teachers but far less Nazi-drill-Sergeant-esque than Pilates instructors. My physique hasn't exactly been transformed into a Greek god's -- far from it. But I'm well past the age when that's a realistic possibility anyway. What I love-love-love most about Gyro is the way it leaves me feeling: stretched, toned, and mellow. It isn't a sweaty-grunty, gym-style, testing-your-willpower activity, thank god. (Lost interest in those years ago.) The weights on the machines aren't there to exhaust you, they're there to dramatize and heighten the movements you perform. Instead it's great at helping you get the kinks out; at expanding your range of motion; at fostering body awareness; and at reminding you of how much fun it can be to have a contented and alert body. You may walk into a Gyro class feeling distracted, alienated from your body, and full of aches and pains -- but you're likely to walk out feeling blissy and playful. The sensation is a hyper-pleasing blend of "I just had a workout" and "I just got a massage." Hours after a Gyro session, I often find myself savoring the sensations in my hip joints, my shoulders, and my spine -- not something I'm likely to find myself doing otherwise. Gyro hasn't replaced yoga in my affections, but it has become a wonderful complement to it. I dragged The Wife to a few Gyro sessions not long ago. Though at first she dismissed it as one of my loonier passions, she has since become a regular at the Gyro studio herself. She likes the scene and the teachers, and she likes the way an hour of Gyro makes her feel. I like the way Gyro leaves her an even sweeter-natured, kittenish thing than she usually is. Here's another glimpse of some basic Gyro moves: A warning: Private classes with a Gyro instructor can be very expensive. So, if you're tempted to give Gyro a try but aren't rolling in dough, let me make a few suggestions. Do spring for five or ten private lessons despite the cost. The movements and... posted by Michael at February 21, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, January 25, 2008

Roberts / Taubes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Seth Roberts, thanks to whose Shangri-La Diet I've been able to lose 10 pounds with the greatest of ease, interviews Gary Taubes, the author of "Good Calories, Bad Calories," an expose of how far wrong our health-tips industry has gone in its love affair with carbs and its demonization of fat. While the Taubes book strikes me as a major achievement, the interview is a special treat. It offers some things the book doesn't, namely Taubes' reflections about the experience: How he woke up to the fat-and-carbs con, how the establishment has reacted to his work, and how it is that well-meaning "expertise" can turn destructive. In case I haven't been clear enough about this before: The Gary Taubes book reminds me of "The Painted Word" and "From Bauhaus to Our House," Tom Wolfe's books about postwar American art and architecture. In tone, of course, the two writers are very different. Taubes is earnest, detailed, and scholarly in a popular-magazine way, where Wolfe is a stylist, a flamboyant caricaturist, and a provocateur. But, in substance, these three books are all real eye-openers. (Let's just say that in each case the emperor really does seem to have no clothes.) They're also helpful culture-explainers -- the kind of books you read thinking, "Oh! So that's why ..." Incidentally: I have enough experience in the culturesphere to be confident that Tom Wolfe was right. But where Gary Taubes and other members of that team go? I don't have the independent knowledge to be anything but hopeful. It's possible that my bullshit-meter is failing me, and that I'm gullibly buying into a lot of craziness. I have no real way of knowing. Thanks to Dave Lull for the link. Here's Seth Roberts' website; here's Seth's blog. I talked to Tom ("Fat Head") Naughton, who has made a documentary about the carbs-and-fat silliness, here and here. By the way: Should you really be on statins? Link thanks to Dr. Michael Eades. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 25, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A major reason to be grateful for living in a First World country, IMHO: More than 65% of India's rural population defecates in the open, along roadsides, railway tracks and fields ... And about 70% of India's billion-plus population live in its rural areas. Wow, almost a half a billion Indians crap in the open every day ... Me, I say: "Praise the heavens for modern plumbing." Source. Link found thanks to Vdare. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 16, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When I read about Tom Naughton’s as-yet-unreleased food-and-diet documentary "Fat Head," I was instantly interested, and on two counts. In the first place, Naughton sounded as fascinated as I am by the way that the official health-tips class has put a lot of bad eating advice over on the public during the last few decades. How did this happen? In the second place, I was eager to learn more about Tom's experience as a first-time filmmaker. We're witnessing a major shift occurring in the world of audiovisual-through-time entertainment. As digital technology grows ever cheaper and ever easier-to-use, moviemaking has ceased being something that only fulltime professionals can afford and manage. Tom Naughton made his own feature-length movie almost entirely by himself. What was this like? So I contacted Tom and talked him into sending me a copy of his movie. I enjoyed it very much. Framed as a response to Morgan Spurlock's headline-grabbing, eating-all-month- at-McDonald’s film "Super Size Me," "Fat Head" is humorous, engaging, and informative. In only 80-odd minutes, Tom brings you up to speed with a lot of science and history -- and he does it all without strain, which is quite an accomplishment. Trust me on this, by the way: I've read a number of the books that cover this material, and I've done some professional writing myself. It's quite miraculous how efficiently and enjoyably Tom has conveyed the essence of a lot of very dense and dry work. Concision and easygoing-ness only look easy. But "Fat Head" is more than just sharp and entertaining. It's also resourceful, straight-shooting, and direct. Tom -- who has worked as a health writer and as a standup comedian -- is a very smart, droll, and agreeable host. As a filmmaker, one of his smarter choices was not to compete in the slickness sweepstakes. You might say that "Fat Head" is to the usual contempo documentary what a great blogposting is to a Vanity Fair production number: twice the substance presented with a tenth the clatter. And with graphics by his wife and a few appearances by his kids, "Fat Head" is nothing if not pleasingly handmade, and full of real-people personality and "touch" of a sort that we don’t often get from movies. Tom’s gimmick is that, like Morgan Spurlock, he too is going to eat at fast food places for a month. Will the experiment lead to a Spurlockian weight-gain and health-decline? At the end of the film, Tom caps this stunt by going on an Atkins-ish low-carb diet to see what ingesting all that saturated fat will do to his cholesterol profile. Not to give anything away, but ... Well, let’s just say that Tom’s doctor was surprised by the results. You may be too. I’m very glad that Tom Naughton has agreed to be interviewed by 2Blowhards. I wanted to ask him about the diet-and-health subject matter of his film as well as about his adventures as a first-time filmmaker in... posted by Michael at January 13, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, January 10, 2008

More Carb Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The Whole Grain Council and the Idaho Potato Commission want you to know that "carbs are back." General Mills does too. * Diet iconoclast Seth Roberts interviews Gary ("Good Calories, Bad Calories") Taubes. (Link thanks to Dave Lull.) * Dave also points out this Corby Kummer piece about a newly-established Slow Food University. Readable only by subscribers, alas. But here's a free-for-everyone Henry Hoffman slideshow entitled "A Slow Food Tour of the Po Valley." Coffee fiends won't want to miss this Corby-hosted video about high-end brew. Slow Coffee sounds good to me. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 10, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What Does "Plain" Mean?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I think I'll buy me some soy milk. Lookie there: Plain soy milk. My kinda thing. Now that's some honest and straightforward soy milk. None of that vanilla or chocolate or chai stuff, all of it ridiculously sweetened ... I sure feel sorry for the suckers who fall for that ruse, ho-ho ... What could be more wholesome? Health and nutrition-wise, no question about it: Silk Plain Soymilk is one piece of good news after another. Man oh man, I'm gonna live forever ... Whoa, check this out: Drinking Silk Plain Soymilk is even good for Mother Earth. That's not win-win, that's win-win-win: Taste plus healthiness plus virtue. But hold on a second ... Evaporated cane juice. That means sugar, doesn't it? They've snuck sugar into Plain Soymilk. Health food bastards! So how much are we talking about here? Ouch. 8 carbs ain't nothing. (Sound of your humble bloghost rummaging through dozens of containers of soy milk until finally ...) Aha! Now, let's give the ingredients list a very close perusal. God only knows what Carrageenan is, but at least there's no cane juice in there. So what kind of diff does it make? Bingo. If a little hard to find. America, eh? Land where almost anything's available. But also land where "Plain" means "with sugar," and only "Unsweetened" means "plain." Best, Michael UPDATE: In the comments on this posting, Prairie Mary points out that the excellent Michael Pollan has a new book out. Here's an NPR interview with Pollan. "Don't eat anything that your great-great grandmother would not recognize as food," Pollan likes to say. I wonder where he stands on soy milk ...... posted by Michael at January 1, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Friday, December 28, 2007

Raw Milk, Cont.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The raw-milk battles continue. In California, producers and fans are fighting a new law that some say would destroy the raw milk market. Apparently they have made their voices heard. Dr. John Zoldberg predicts that raw milk will be the top health story of 2008. I'm not going to gloat and say "you heard about it here first." But, hey, you might have. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 28, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, December 24, 2007

Low-Carb Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Jimmy Moore runs two terrific interviews. The first is with the excellent Nina Planck, who is generous with information and advice. Great Nina line: "Even the sorriest grocery story has a produce section. Use it." Nina's own website is here; "Real Food," her very rewarding book, can be bought here. I raved about "Real Food" here, and I ran a note that Nina wrote to 2Blowhards here. * Terrific Jimmy interview #2 is with Tom Naughton, who has made a documentary attacking the low-fat gospel of the official health-tips class. I'm intrigued by Naughton, who has worked as both a health writer and a standup comedian -- interesting combo! And I'm curious about his movie, "Fat Head," which looks like a smart and snappy piece of work, as well as an appealingly handmade and personal one. You can watch a lot of teasers for "Fat Head" here -- great use of Monty Python-style Flash animation. And you can check out the website that Tom has made for his movie here. It's an interesting, entertaining, and informative work in its own right. * Jimmy Moore has issued his own low-carb chocolate bar. Jimmy Moore is a low-carbin' force of nature. * Having lost a bunch of weight, Prairie Mary finds herself experiencing a lot of things very differently. Best, Michael UPDATE: Dennis Mangan registers some disagreements with the low-carb crowd: here, here, here, here.... posted by Michael at December 24, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Raw Milk: Telltale Issue of Our Time?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm finding it fascinating that raw milk has become a flash-point issue -- one of those possibly-unresolvable conundra that many establishment people wish would just go away, yet that permit some underlying feelings and convictions to show themselves off in more glory than they often have a chance to. A little background: In most states, it's against the law to sell or buy raw (ie., unpasteurized and unhomogenized, straight-from-the-cow-or-goat) milk because of fears of contamination. Yet some people feel that raw milk isn't just ultra-tasty (having tried raw milk, I agree wholeheartedly with this verdict), it also benefits their health. So: Perhaps the sale of raw milk should be strictly prevented on public-health grounds -- public-health grounds that we're justifiably proud of, and that we should be completely unyielding about. After all, in pre-pasteurization days, tons and tons of people used to get sick because of milk-borne infections. On the other hand, why shouldn't freedom and liberty prevail whenever possible? Provided that the public is made aware of the risks, why shouldn't people be allowed to conduct business as they see fit? After all, if we permit the sale of cigarettes ... The controversy seems to be emerging as a newsworthy one. (Here, here.) An informal coalition of hippies, home-schoolers, health buffs, libertarians, local-farming fans, and foodies are pushing the freedom-and-raw-milk cause, while governments are cracking down so hard on the raw-milk scene that they're beginning to make some people think, "Good lord, it's Waco all over again." And editors and policymakers are beginning, if reluctantly, to take note. Whee! It's also fun that, as with many up-to-date issues -- immigration policy is another example -- traditional notions of "left" and "right" have zero relevance to any of this. After all, what kind of guidance can you derive on the raw-milk issue from saying, "I'm a Democrat"? Is Ohio the state that's toughest on raw milk producers? Ron Paul seems to be the candidate most sympathetic to the raw-milk cause. (Tyler Cowen and many commenters are interesting on Ron Paul here.) Here's raw milk central. Nina Planck, whose book "Real Food" I liked very much, is a raw-milk fan. Here she manages to make the case for raw milk and for Gary Taubes' book "Good Calories, Bad Calories." On the third hand, this can't have been fun to endure. And here are some reasons why you might want to avoid raw milk. How deeply should our governments be involving themselves in public-health matters anyway? If we're OK with our rulers and bureaucrats swinging into action when a plague threatens, how about flus? Smoking? Obesity? Trans-fats? ... School meals? ... Raw milk? Not that my opinion matters (or should matter) one iota, but I certainly can't see why people who want to buy and drink raw milk shouldn't be allowed to. Tens of thousands are injured and killed every year because of cars ... Leafy greens and salad bars sicken many more people than raw... posted by Michael at December 20, 2007 | perma-link | (26) comments

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Race and Evolution
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Steve Sailer looks at the stats and concludes that the U.S. is turning Hispanic a lot faster than anyone expected -- even faster than alarmists have predicted, in fact. Fun passage: "Half of all Hispanic women who gave birth in 2006 were unmarried." These are the people who -- and these are the policies that -- are going to be saving Social Security? It sometimes seems to me that the people we're importing in such droves can't even do a good job of cleaning our hotels. * Fred Reed thinks that it's time for the mainstream media to stop concealing the race of people accused of horrifying crimes. * The new Cochran, Harpending, Hawks, Moyzis, and Wang paper is a corker. This particular Blowhard has always been unable to believe the usual polite thing, namely that evolution stopped 50,000 years ago. Why should it have? But Hawks, Cochran, Harpending and their posse argue something far more radical: that evolution has in fact dramatically accelerated in recent years. Swallow that one, polite society! Steve reprints an informative press release here. John Hawks blogs here. Here's Scientific American's report. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 11, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Food, Fat, and Health Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Alt-health guru Andrew Weil thinks that Gary Taubes has made a major contribution with his book "Good Calories, Bad Calories." * Say hello to "In Search of the Perfect Human Diet," the documentary film. Donate -- er, become an investor -- here. * A few clips from Tom Naughton's Taubesian film "FatHead, the Movie": Learn to boo and hiss at The McGovern Report, and especially at Ancel Keys. Tom himself somehow managed to eat nothing but fast food for four weeks and lose weight. * What if saturated fat is actually good for you? * What if there isn't any correlation at all between cholesterol levels and heart disease? * Michael ("Protein Power") Eades blogs, very generously, here. Jimmy Moore -- low-carb-diet enthusiast extraordinaire -- blogs here. (Jimmy has lost -- and kept off -- 180 pounds by following a low-carb diet.) The Weston A. Price Foundation is here. "Paleo Diet" guru Loren Cordain has a website here. I wrote enthusiastically about Nina Planck's book "Real Food" here. Nina's website is here. * Jimmy Moore interviews Gary Taubes. Here's a CBC audio interview with Taubes. Here's a WNYC audio interview with him. (Scroll down a bit.) Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to Dave Lull for sending along links to some talks given by Malcolm Kendrick (author of "The Great Cholesterol Con"): Cholesterol; Familial Hypercholesterolaemia; Statins; What Causes Heart Disease?; CVD Populations and Stress. For Spiked-Online, Kendrick explains his view of what's wrong with the cholesterol hypothesis. For one small thing: "Cholesterol in the diet has no effect on cholesterol levels in the bloodstream." For another: "No clinical trial on reducing saturated fat intake has ever shown a reduction in heart disease. Some have shown the exact opposite." For a third: "It is worth highlighting a critically important -- remarkably unheralded -- fact: After the age of 50, the lower your cholesterol level is, the lower your life expectancy."... posted by Michael at December 6, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, November 9, 2007

Saturated Fat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Saturated fat is to be avoided whenever possible, right? It's the ultimate dietary no-no: Clogged arteries ... Heart disease ... Avoid saturated fats and you'll live forever. Although the conviction that saturated fat is evil must be one of the most basic beliefs in the modern educated American's mental toolkit, there's in fact nothing at all behind it. "Study after study has failed to provide definitive evidence that saturated-fat intake leads to heart disease," writes Nina Teicholz, whose article reads like a much-condensed version of Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories." Taubes' book, which I've now finished going through, really is startling. He details convincingly -- at enormous length and in devastating detail -- how today's health-tips industry took shape, how unhelpful its advice has proven, and how unsound the science the whole edifice is based on is. His judgment: It's "an enterprise ... that purports to be a science and yet functions like a religion." Pass the pork chops, please. Here's a good Frontline interview with Taubes. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 9, 2007 | perma-link | (50) comments

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Watson, Population Groups, Etc
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Like many people, I've read the news reports about James Watson's comments about Africa and brainpower, and the other news reports about condemnations of Watson, about Watson's apology, about his dismissal from the institution he founded. Main reactions, not that my reactions deserve paying-attention-to: I'm as scandalized as many are by the spectacle of Watson being crucified. At the same time, I think you have to be a bit of a social-political retard not to realize that topics of the kind that Watson touched on and statements of the kind that Watson made carry a charge. You can't realistically say the kind of thing that Watson said and expect the world at large to act deferential and grateful towards you. Prick the giant monster that is political correctness and you will have a serious fight on your hands. Given that, once what was said was said ... Well, in the case of James Watson as in the case of Larry Summers, I felt let down. Both men tested a taboo -- yay to that -- and then both men backed down. (Boo, hiss.) Lordy, what wusses. To be fair, perhaps neither guy had any idea how badly he'd taunted the monster. Perhaps both men were taken by surprise by the reactions they provoked. Even so, once the fray was underway I'm sorry that Summers and Watson didn't grow a pair, find their inner "300" Spartan warrior, and put up a serious fight. Why? For a simple and practical reason. Some people I've met who work in the genetics field have assured me that tons of information about biological-genetic differences between the races is going to be emerging over the next few decades. Given that fact, it seems to me of the utmost importance that numerous discussions about how we're going to handle this kind of information get underway, and pronto. We seem already 'way past the point where denial, self-righteousness, and attempts to control the conversation will prove productive in anything but the shortest run. So far as getting started with these conversations go, Steve Sailer and GNXP's Jason Malloy have seemed to me to have a lot to contribute, agree with them or not. They also command about a thousand-trillion times the knowledge and information that I do. (Jason here, Steve here and here.) I also enjoyed scrolling through the comments on Jason and Steve's postings. The world is full of so many brainy, interesting people ... But, but ... Well, there are two things that emerge sometimes from the rightie side of the table that baffle me. #1. Some righties seem to feel that the West made a suicidal mistake when it let itself say, "All cultures are equally valuable." According to this crowd, the person who thinks that all cultures are interesting and valuable ensures that all values crumble. The culture that agrees that other cultures are nifty too succeeds only at paralyzing its own will and undermining its own self-preservation... posted by Michael at November 6, 2007 | perma-link | (62) comments

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More Taubes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The L.A Times interviews Gary ("Maybe It's All a Big Fat Lie") Taubes. I'm in the middle of Taubes' new book about how the low-fat / high-carb doctrine became America's semi-official diet despite a near-total lack of supporting evidence, and I'm finding it very impressive -- one of the most methodical and devastating jobs of whistle-blowing that I've ever read. Taubes does supply a lot more information than this lover of short books really needs to know. (In other words, Taubes' book is very long, and I gotta admit that I'm doing a fair amount of skimming.) But he also supplies a wide-ranging and toughminded look at the ways that science, politics, and journalism -- the "we know better than you do," Expertise class -- can wind up working against the public interest. Reminds me of the way that the modernist- government- NEA - academic, intellectual-arty class has blighted our cultural life, come to think of it, all the while telling us that they're doing it for our good. There's been a lot of that kind of thing around in recent decades, hasn't there? Semi-related: The National Animal Interest Alliance takes a look at some of the ways that feel-good and do-good laws can make life worse. (Link thanks to Terrierman.) Wal-Mart is now the nation's #1 retailer of organic food. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 30, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, October 12, 2007

Shangri-La Update
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Not to turn 2Blowhards into a diet-blog or anything but ... Well ... (Blush) ... I continue to stick to the Shangri-La Diet, and I continue to lose weight on it too. (I wrote back here about what it was like to begin the Shangri-La Diet.) No big deal: Only about a pound a week is coming off. Still, the weeks do go by ... I'm finding the experience not just pleasing from a losing-weight point of view but interesting in a variety of ways. For me, the most amazing thing about the Shangri-La Diet hasn't been that it works so far as losing weight goes. It's that it has been almost no trouble at all to follow. It's as simple as can be. That's why Seth Roberts, the Berkeley psychology prof who dreamed the diet up, gave it that "Shangri-La" name: This diet is almost too good, or at least too easy, to be true. (Roberts' website is here.) I won't go into the details of the diet; you can buy the book if you want those. But I will spill the central discipline of the Shangri-La routine: It involves ingesting some flavorless calories (in the form of oil or sugarwater) several times a day. And that's it. No carb-watching, no fat-forgoing, no vegetarianism, no tofu, no endless rows of grapefruit to consume. You ingest your flavorless calories three or four times a day; otherwise, you eat as you see fit. The fact is that -- for whatever reason -- you wind up eating less than you usually do. The theory behind why this should be has to do with how we evolved to flourish in Paleolithic conditions of scarcity instead of today's state of abundance and convenience; and about a calories-taste connection that gets forged, makes us fat, and needs to be broken. Much more important than the theory, though, is the fact that the diet is easy and it works. Perhaps I've taken to eating like a caveman. Perhaps some flavor-calories connection in me is being broken. I have no idea. I do know, though, that after five weeks of going to very little trouble I've dropped five pounds. From a dieter's point of view, I've found a number of things about the experience to be striking. One is the fact that the diet requires no willpower -- zero. You aren't put in the position of having to overcome your appetites and your instincts. Instead, the flavorless-calories routine changes your appetite, and soon after that your actual eating habits. You begin to want less food, and to feel full and satisfied sooner than usual. Yes, you do eat less -- but not because you're trying to eat less. You eat less because you feel like eating less. What's double-fascinating is that this process is largely involuntary and unconscious. When I'm eating a meal, at a certain moment -- ie., when I'm full -- I simply put my fork down. That's it,... posted by Michael at October 12, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bad Health Advice
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wrote back here wondering what might be done about it when public-health types, docs, and other health officials hand out bad advice. After all, when bad health advice comes from trustworthy-seeming -- and especially official and scientific -- sources, it can prove anything but harmless. People develop worse health than they'd otherwise have had; some people may even die. In The New York Times, John Tierney visits with Gary Taubes, the author whose new book about the low-fat craze set my own musings off. Tierney doesn't attempt an answer to my question, but he does a first-class job of showing both how flagrantly the public-health sector screwed up in this case, and of how that screwup came to be. Fact of the matter #1: No reputable study has ever shown that diets high in fat cause heart disease. Fact of the matter #2: For almost 50 years, the American health establishment touted low-fat diets as a good way to fight heart disease. It's like watching dominos knock each other over. Basing their judgment on a single, poorly-done study from the early 1950s, the American Heart Association announced in 1960 that people at risk for heart disease should eat a low-fat diet. Time magazine featured the researcher behind the lousy study on its cover. In the 1970s, a committee led by Sen. George McGovern urged Americans to eat low-fat. By 1980, the Dept. of Agriculture had adopted the advice and incorporated it into the Food Pyramid. Let me repeat that in a condensed version for emphasis: By 1980, the American Heart Association, Time magazine, a Senate Committee, and the U.S.D.A. were urging Americans to fight heart disease by eating a low-fat diet. Meanwhile, zero good scientific evidence supported their advice. But how were Mr. and Ms. Routine American to know that? And it didn't stop there. The "scientific" and public-health consensus continued to snowball. The National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society endorsed low-fat eating. Although the truth of the matter appears to be that fat in the diet has no significant impact on mortality whatsoever, the U.S. Surgeon General himself announced in 1988 that fat in the American diet was a health concern on a par with tobacco-smoking. Meanwhile, millions of Mr. and Ms. Americans were abandoning fat, were gobbling down carbs like they were going out of style, and were packing on weight at a rate never before seen. Aesthete that I am, I feel the moment may have come to remind visitors of what every good cook knows: "Fat is flavor." Our waistlines were expanding, our life-pleasure was on the decline -- and it was all for nothing. Gary Taubes of course deserves a lot of credit for his research. And John Tierney does an excellent job of describing how this mistaken public-health consensus cascaded into something that may well have done real damage to American health. If you're a sly, inside-the-media-beltway dog like me, you can't help but... posted by Michael at October 10, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Nutrition / Food
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Given how often scientists and nutritionists change their advice, Gary Taubes asks, why should we pay any attention to them at all? "Be skeptical," he writes. A question that often occurs to me when public-health debacles arise: Why shouldn't we be able to sue the experts and organizations who hand out advice that proves to be destructive? Gary Taubes points out that tens of thousands of women have died -- died! -- due to misguided enthusiasm about hormone-replacement therapy. Another example: The high-carb / low-fat diet that respectable docs and organizations urged on us for years resulted in many people growing much fatter than they otherwise would have, and even developing diabetes. That's a lot of damage that our experts have inflicted on us. I'm tempted to make a comparison between our nutrition- expertise industry and our architecture-and- urbanism-expertise industry ... * A refreshing antidote to the above is Yummy or Yucky, a charmer of a new foodblog. Vanessa, the proprietor of the blog, manages to combine expertise about eating and cooking, a lot of personality, and writing flair -- yet she never loses her frankness about the infantile energies that are the basis for all food-pleasure. Sophisticated, yet in happy touch with the bodily and emotional basics -- that's a combo I always find delightful. I like reading Vanessa's food writing as much as I enjoy reading Calvin Trillin's, and that's saying a lot. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 4, 2007 | perma-link | (24) comments

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Exercise and Weight
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Gary Taubes discloses an unnerving fact about exercise and weight control. (Link thanks to Arts and Letters Daily.) So far as they show anything, the studies that have been done on the topic suggest that exercise -- whatever its other virtues -- does nothing to control weight. For most people, the harder they exercise the more they'll eat. Exercisers may wind up with a toned body, they may enjoy peace and relaxation, they may get a kick out of being active for its own sake. But few of them will lose weight. My personal experience only semi-confirms Taubes' argument. For example: When he was his late 40s, my dad was told by doctors that he had only a few years to live unless he reformed his sedentary, beer-guzzling ways. Scared into long-overdue action, Dad took up jogging. When he first started up, he could barely walk a quarter of a mile. But within a couple of years he was jogging a mile and a half a day and had lost 25 pounds. He also cut 'way back on the beer, which was no doubt a big factor in the weight-loss. But did he drink less beer because he'd resolved to live more healthily, or because (thanks to jogging) he no longer needed to? In my own case, as a car-free Manhattanite who prefers to avoid cabs and public transportation, I spend around six hours a week walking. When I moved for a summer to Los Angeles, where walking opportunities are hard to come by, I put on ten pounds. Once I was back in Manhattan and once again walking nearly everywhere, the ten pounds came right off. So, in my book anyway, activity does tend to equal weight loss -- or at least a little weight loss. Or at least contributes to a little weight loss. Still, I take Taubes' larger point, which is that the health-and-eating-and-exercise industry has probably done more to mislead us than to enlighten us. In this essay for the New York Times, Michael Pollan goes even farther; he argues that the very existence of a nutrition-tips industry has made us fatter. Long ago, after I wrote something about health and eating here at the blog, I enjoyed an email exchange with a doctor who had read the posting. The point he wanted to stress to me was that medical people don't know nearly enough to be giving us the kind of -- and the volume of -- specific eating-and-exercise instructions that they and their journalistic p-r people do. He was really indignant about the way the health-tips industry is forever coming up with new discoveries and new regimens. ("Green Tea For Your Joints," etc.) Are eggs bad for you? Or was that last week? "Maybe in ten or twenty years they'll know enough to be handing out lots of advice," he wrote me. "But not now. At the moment they really don't know nearly as much as they claim... posted by Michael at September 25, 2007 | perma-link | (21) comments

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What's Your A.Q. (Aspie Quotient)?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Don't ask me why, but I can never pass up a "How Aspie are you?" quiz. I scored a very low 11 on this one. I evidently don't have much of a future before me as an Aspie -- my love of parties dooms that ambition every time. Best, Michael UPDATE: Steve Sailer has put up some interesting postings about nerds and nerdishness: here and here.... posted by Michael at August 7, 2007 | perma-link | (33) comments

Friday, July 20, 2007

Propagatin' and Populatin' 2: Raw Numbers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a recent posting I noted the surprise I often feel on encountering some of the conversations about propagatin' and populatin' that I run across online. My example there was the debate between breeders and nonbreeders. Hoo-eee, do some people get heated about that one. Another propagatin'-and-populatin' conversation that often startles me is the one about growth. It turns out -- to my intense surprise -- that there are people out there who think that growth in raw human numbers is always and everywhere a good thing. Who knew? Unlike the breeding-quarrel, the raw-numbers conversation doesn't usually take the form of a debate. (People who would make the opposing case seldom take on the growth-is-always-good crowd. They keep to their own pastures instead.) The growth-is-always-good crowd is out there fretting passionately about population sizes -- positing nightmare scenarios, and moving quickly from overblown worries into big-picture policy advocacy. Perhaps people drawn to this topic are more prone to monologue than to debate. I wonder why that should be. As in the previous posting, I'm going to let myself be impressionistic -- apologies for my failure to collect links to illustrate my points. I'll assume that you've bumped into the same kind of postings, personalities, rants, and articles that I have. If in fact you haven't, well, please come back in a day or two. Da Blowhards will be gabbing about some other topic soon, you can count on that. CONCERNS ABOUT RAW POPULATION NUMBERS MBlowhard description: Germany's birth rate is down! California is going to need millions of immigrants to pay for its retirees! Europe is in a state of demographic freefall! There's often a "the West vs. the Rest" subtext to these shrieks of concern, of course. But not always. Check out this Frank Furedi article in Spiked Online. Memorable sentence: "How can there be too many people?" My response: Easy! Fascinatin' too, the way that Furedi labels those who wince at the idea of a standing-room-only earth as humanity-haters. They're "strident and misanthrophic"; they're "anti-humanist"; they're "pessimistic"; they're "inhumane." "They harbour a powerful sense of loathing against the human species itself," roars Furedi, who apparently had one too many capuccinos the morning he wrote his piece. I guess the possibility that the people who disagree with him might wish humanity well isn't something Furedi cares to wrestle with. MBlowhard reactions and musings: Let me respond first with a visual. (I lifted the above from this place, but hundreds of versions of it can be found online.) I don't know about you, but when I eyeball that graphic what I most emphatically don't think is, "Wow, humanity has been running the risk of allowing itself to go extinct recently! We really gotta pump those numbers up!" Here's one way of looking at it: By 2050, there will be ten times the number of living humans as there were in 1800. Here's another: If I live to a ripe old age, the world will... posted by Michael at July 20, 2007 | perma-link | (46) comments

Saturday, July 14, 2007

John Derbyshire Recommends ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the reasons I'm wary of attributing too much significance to aptitude tests has to do with my own experience of math aptitude tests. As a student I always did well on them despite the fact that I have never had any actual aptitude for doing math. Year after year, I'd score well on a math aptitude test; I'd be assigned to a fast math class; I'd squirm out of it in two or three weeks; I'd just barely manage to squeak by in a slowish class ... And then I'd do well on another math aptitude test, and start the following year in a fast math class once again. This cycle repeated itself over and over until the authorities finally allowed me to ditch math entirely. (I can't tell you how many little pep talks I endured about how I wasn't living up to my math potential. Earth to authorities: I had no math potential, I just wanted out.) So I was left wondering: Given my complete lack of any actual math gift -- and I'm not being coy about this, let alone asking to be contradicted or reassured -- what on earth were these tests measuring? Still, despite my inability to do math, it seemed like an interesting field. All those brilliant mathematicians must have been up to something fascinating, no? What was it? I mean, roughly speaking. The many hours that I spent snoozing through conventional math classes I might well have spent happily indeed listening to someone talk about the history of math: what it was good for, how it worked, what the basic fields were, what the Larger Questions it raised were ... Why didn't anyone want to tell me about any of this? I mean, without requiring any actual math of me? But this line of thought may reflect a failing of mine: I was born with a deep-seated conviction that anything, no matter how complicated, can be turned into plain and vivid English. Further, I have the ego to be convinced that if I'm not following a line of discussion it isn't because I'm dim, it's because whoever is doing the presenting is falling down on the job. He / she isn't turning the material into accessible and enjoyable English. Is it in fact true that anything can be turned into plain and fun English? I've run into specialists who claim that this isn't the case. The argument seems to be that, past a certain level of complexity, abstraction, and technicality, there's simply no way plain English can suffice. Yet I've also read histories of thought that did what seemed to me to be bang-up jobs of presenting far-out ideas. I've lunched with philosophy profs who have made their interests and their fields of study clear and understandable to me. Hey: I once spent an afternoon with a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who explained his black-holish, string-theory-ish studies and findings in ways that I... posted by Michael at July 14, 2007 | perma-link | (28) comments

Friday, July 13, 2007

What If You Don't Taste What I Taste?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a fascinating series for Slate, wine critic Mike Steinberger looks into the biology of taste. It turns out that people are wildly different in their abilities to sense aromas and perceive tastes. You might be able to detect flavors that I'm unable to pick up. Not only that: People also differ in how the aromas and flavors that they do perceive affect them. What's repulsive to one person might be experienced by someone else as deeply satisfying. I may adore shaving a little Parmesan cheese onto my salad while the thought of doing such a thing makes you gag. (And for good reason: The main chemical contributing to the aroma of Parmesan cheese -- butyric acid -- is the same chemical that dominates the aroma of puke.) The series is interesting for the info it conveys as well as for the questions it raises. One example: How valid is food or wine criticism as an activity if each of us has a different makeup where our built-in -- ie., biologically-set -- capabilities and predilections go? Is there any way a wine or a dish can be declared "good" if it's a simple fact of life that different people experience it differently? Another: What to make of criticism more generally if this same kind of thing turns out to hold true where reading, watching, and listening go? I wouldn't be surprised if it does; people seem to have many built-in preferences and rhythms. An example: Some people find narrative suspense to be a pleasant heightener. (That group includes me. I love suspense, and I'm fascinated by the mechanics and psychology of it.) But for others, suspense is anything but enjoyable. I have one relative who finds narrative tension so unpleasant that she gets up and leaves the room whenever a movie's twists and surprises start to make the blood-pressure level go up. One dimension that I'm sorry Steinberger doesn't touch on is time -- ie., how our biological abilities and makeups change with age. My body certainly isn't the same thing it was when I was 15 or 20, and because of that I no longer crave the same kinds of experiences that I craved when I was that age. (Younger people have systems that fire off much more avidly than older people do.) I've learned from many people in the arts bits of folk wisdom about how older and younger people tend to react to stimuli and events. Sound engineers have told me, for example, that how a person experiences loudness depends on age and sex. Boys and young men find loud noises exciting; young women and girls find loudness OK, but far less immediately pleasurable. What teen girls and young women mainly like is having boyfriends. So if the boys like loud music and loud movies, well then, that's OK with the girls. Once past the age of 30 or 35, though, nearly all people find loud noises first annoying and then... posted by Michael at July 13, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Global Eats
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Wal-Mart, General Mills, and Kellogg's are importing ever-more food from China. Interesting facts for the day: In 2000, China accounted for 1 million pounds, or less than 1%, of all U.S. fresh garlic imports. By 2005, China dominated that market, exporting 112 million pounds, or 73%, of the total garlic import market. The same goes for strawberries: China exported just 1.5 million pounds in 2000 and now exports 33 million pounds to the U.S. "China's record with food imports isn't reassuring," continues BusinessWeek. "Just last month, 107 food imports from China were detained by the Food & Drug Administration at U.S. ports, according to The Washington Post. Among them were dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical and mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides." Best, Michael UPDATE: It isn't a foodstuff exactly, but cough syrup from China has been blamed in the recent deaths of at least 83 people in Panama.... posted by Michael at July 5, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This can't be good. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 21, 2007 | perma-link | (28) comments

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Diabetes Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The New York Times reports that surgery to reduce "man-boobs" is on the increase, especially among boys and teens. Although some kids are genetically unlucky, it seems that the main reason for the higher numbers is increased levels of obesity. Boys are gettin' fat=boys are developin' boobies, in other words. Which reminds me: On a recent flight The Wife and I found ourselves chatting with a doctor from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. According to him, people -- and children especially -- are growing fatter in that already-fat part of the country at a remarkable rate. Cases of adult-onset-style diabetes among kids are skyrocketing. When we asked our doctor what he thought might be done about it, this was his answer: "People would be amazed what cutting back on packaged food and taking three 45 minute walks a week can do." The Times also reports on growing levels of diabetes in Mexico. Hmm, Mexico ... Texas ... You don't suppose that ... Yep: Hispanics have twice as high a rate of diabetes as non-Hispanic whites do. Small hunch: Whatever else it might accomplish, importing a lot of Mexicans won't be solving our health-care problems. Greg Critser explains how we became such an obesity-embattled people. I don't think that The Guy From Boston will be following any of Greg Critser's advice, though ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 20, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dog-Training Video Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I blogged recently about a dog-training reality-TV show that I love, "It's Me or the Dog," starring the glamorous and expressive Victoria Stilwell. It's a wittily entertaining half-hour series that provides nifty clips of dogs learning how to behave as well as suggestive, touching, and hilarious footage of the lives and souls of dog owners. TV's real dog-training hit, though, is Cesar Millan's "The Dog Whisperer," which runs on the National Geographic Channel. The two shows -- and the two stars -- make for quite a contrast. Where Victoria is theatrical and quicksilvery, Cesar is blunt and direct. Where Victoria's likely to make a toy-breed intervention, Cesar generally grapples with the hard cases, physically powerful and aggressive dogs that have taken over households. Cesar is a bit of a street dog himself -- an impressively charismatic, tough, and insightful figure who masters difficult situations and dangerous animals amazingly quickly. If Victoria is like a slightly camp diva, Cesar reminds The Wife and me of a great, perhaps somewhat authoritarian, acting teacher. If his show is a little too souped-up for my tastes, and if it isn't quite as alert to household and personal dynamics as Victoria's is, it's full of its own kind of pugilistic drama. He does great dog impersonations too. Cesar Millan turns out to be quite the controversial figure in the dog-training world. Are his methods sensible or cruel? Is he giving people the skills they need to live with their dogs peacefully and rewardingly? Or are his methods not only not-transferable, but even dangerous? But perhaps those who carp about him are just jealous ... On this issue, I'm goin' with Terrierman -- a blogger I discovered thanks to the dog-lovin' boys at Querencia. Terrierman writes, "If a dog is going to learn anything it needs a calm, assertive and not-too-verbal person who consistently does the same thing over and over again. In fact, this is exactly what Cesar Millan offers and when he teaches -- along with a good dose of 'Your dog is not your child,' and 'this is a choke chain -- learn how to use it'." What possesses so many people to acquire high-energy, difficult, and belligerant dogs anyway? You can watch some clips from "The Dog Whisperer" here. * Train your whippet to slalom. * Cowtown Pattie sent along an irresistable snap of her dog -- and you better spell that d-a-w-g -- Rusty: Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 19, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Do We Make Too Much of Adolescence?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I blogged long ago about how completely the U.S. has given itself over to adolescent values. Stuart Buck points out a very rewarding interview with Robert Epstein in which Epstein argues that we too often isolate our adolescents from adults. Nice quote: We have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other "children." In most nonindustrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil. Many cultures do not even have a term for adolescence. But we not only created this stage of life: We declared it inevitable. And another one: Teens in America are in touch with their peers on average 65 hours a week, compared to about four hours a week in preindustrial cultures. In this country, teens learn virtually everything they know from other teens, who are in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive industries. This makes no sense. Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become. When young people exit the education system and are dumped into the real world, which is not the world of Britney Spears, they have no idea what's going on and have to spend considerable time figuring it out. Stuart reports that he enjoyed Epstein's current book. I wrote about Young Adult fiction (in other words, novels for teens) here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 7, 2007 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've just now awakened to the fact that Big Chocolate -- Hershey, Nestle, and Archer Daniels Midland -- is petitioning the FDA to let them market candy as chocolate even when the candy contains little or no cocoa butter. Lordy, what's the world coming to? This campaign is obviously a disgrace and an outrage, and perhaps even something these firms should never be allowed to live down. What the event really has me thinking about, though, is something more general, namely: Why do American companies seem so prone to making these trashing-their-own-reputation blunders? Don't they realize that respect and trust play an important role in consumers' feelings about their products -- especially where luxury and pleasure goods are concerned? Hey, CEOs: People want a nice experience, from the marketing to the buying to the consuming. Let's hear it for the chocolate makers See's and Guittard, who have taken a stand against their competitors in the chocolate biz. Here's a "Don't Mess With Our Chocolate" website sponsored by Guittard. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 31, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Green Tea
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Maybe it's time to start drinking green tea more regularly. I wish I liked the taste of green tea better than I do. In fact, as an Asia junkie (and Asia fantasist), I feel that I really ought to love green tea. Negative-spacey, non-monotheistic ways of being and perceiving delight me so much that I feel that my soul should mesh deeply with everything Asian, green tea included. Yet, sadly, it doesn't. I don't really like green tea in the same way that I don't really like the game of Go. I get something out of both, it's true. But in both cases I have to actively talk myself into facing them. Here are a few tricks I've learned to make green tea more pleasant: Spend extra. Using high-quality loose tea can take a considerable amount of the curse off of the morning cup. Green tea made from fresh loose tea is a funky, substantial brew so rich that it can remind you of hand-crafted fermented drinks like brew-pub beer or expensive sake. (Hey, did you know that sake is in fact a fermented-grain drink? Although Americans tend to think of sake as Japanese wine, and though it certainly has its taste-and-consistency similarities to white wine, it's in fact more closely related to beer than it is to wine. Another couple of neat things to know about sake: 1) Don't drink the cheap stuff, and don't drink it hot. Bad sake is thin and lame, and is heated-up in order to disguise its weaknesses. The best sake is complex -- it'll stop you in your tracks and make you examine its qualities. It also costs a few bucks more, and it's never heated. 2) While many sakes are a clear amber, like flat ginger ale, some of the best sakes are unfiltered, which means that they're cloudy or even milky in visual appearance. Short version: The next time you order sake at a Japanese restaurant, be willing spend a few extra bucks. Specify to your serviceperson that you have no interest in any such lousy thing as "hot sake" -- you want good sake, and you want it at room temperature or perhaps cooled. You might even think of asking about their unfiltered brands. And then enjoy.) Even if you can't face brewing your morning cup up from loose tea -- and I usually can't either; I'm too groggy -- buy the expensive tea bags. No matter what the brand, the quality really is better than that of cheap bagged green tea, which almost always consists not of crumbled-up tea leaves but of tea-sweepings and tea-dust. Don't let the water come to a boil. Water that's boiling hot does something awful to green tea leaves. I'm not sure what that would be in a technical sense. Boiling water seems to me to scald the leaves, or something. In any case, the results are very displeasing. Don't let the tea steep for too long. I've... posted by Michael at May 8, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Vernon Smith on Being Aspergery
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Those fascinated by Aspergers Syndrome should find this video interview with Nobel economist Vernon Smith a treat. Link thanks to Tyler Cowen, whose visitors' comments are pretty fascinating too. Steve Sailer suspects that economists are especially prone to having Aspergers. I have my own hunch that many systems-lovin' eggheads have Aspergers. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 2, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Global Warming -- Or Not -- Online
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is global warming really happening? And even if it is, is it really worth worrying about? (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 11, 2007 | perma-link | (37) comments

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Culture / Biology
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Agnostic has put up a nifty posting about how cultural evolution might affect biological evolution. In a comment I dropped on his posting I managed -- in however scatterbrained a way -- to ask a question I've meant to ask for a while, namely: I think there's a lot to it. New niches crop up, and -- to everyone's surprise -- previously unnoticed creatures take them over. Geeks are a good example. Anyone old enough can remember when "the geek" wasn't a big or at least much-visible part of society. Computers caught on, and suddenly geeks were everywhere. Everntually even geek taste (sci-fi, Wired) became culturally important, alas. Another example: When a quirky beauty becomes famous, suddenly you find yourself surrounded by girls who look like her. The world is suddenly full of Meg Ryans, or Britneys, or Lindsays. Were they always there, and we didn't notice them because we had no template to stick 'em in before the star established the the template? Or did the star's success make it possible for the girls to assert their quirky looks with some confidence? I remember noticing this happen with Claire Danes, for instance. She became an It Girl, and suddenly the world was full of Clarie Daneses. Where had they been hiding until then? Any thoughts? Best, Michael UPDATE: Another GNXP commenter provided a link to a fascinating -- and NSFW -- page featuring and discussing some ancient Etruscan art.... posted by Michael at April 4, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Howard Gardner: Seven? Eight? And Now Five?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What a nice franchise Howard Gardner has. First he sells the idea that intelligence doesn't come in one flavor but in seven. (He later upped the number to eight.) Now he's back with a new book, this time arguing that the future will demand and value five different types of thinking . How do you suppose Gardner settles on these magical numbers of his? I find Gardner a strange case. I dislike much of what he stands for. He's one of those progressive educators who believes that it isn't important whether students learn any facts, for instance -- instead they need to know how to "solve problems." My personal bullshit alarm goes off extra-loud when I run across that particular opinion. I also find it telling where Gardner's approach leads him. He's now questioning freedom of speech: The cartoons of Mohammad that caused such a fuss a while back shouldn't have been published, he argues. While being skeptical of tradition and custom, he seems to believe that it's possible to create laws that will guarantee courtesy and respect. And I'm happy to agree that the science behind his eight-types-of-intelligence notion seems shakey at best. All that said ... Well, I do think it's clear that talents come in many flavors, and I do think that that's a fact well worth standing up for. I wish Gardner weren't arguing about intelligence per se. There does seem to be such a thing as raw intellectual horsepower, after all, and why not assign it a number if your measuring-stick seems trustworthy? But Gardner wants no part of such a project. Why not? Though kindness may play a role in Gardner's thinking, his main motivation seems perfectly obvious: He dislikes the fact that some ethnic groups score higher on IQ tests than others. He finds the fact unacceptably harsh. It's hard to avoid thinking, "This Howard Gardner is a bit of a 'if the fact hurts, then ban the fact' kinda guy, isn't he?" Still: nothing wrong with kindness. And nothing wrong with recognizing that talent comes in many flavors. (If life teaches us anything ...) IQ may be an important topic, but it's certainly possible to make too much of it. Physical prowess, craftsmanship, musical ability, loyalty, a gift for relationships, verbal pizazz, erotic attunement, a knack in the kitchen, emotional insightfulness, persuasiveness, social adroitness, humor, visual flair -- these are all talents as well, each one of which strikes me as eminently worthy of respect, and of nurturing and guidance too. No need to feel bad for Howard Gardner, btw. Though he seems to have a knack for portraying himself as a beleaguered rebel -- hey, that's a talent too -- he has a secure position at Harvard, some of his books have been huge sellers, and he has even won a MacArthur "genius" grant. He hasn't lacked for influence either. Harvard is re-doing its curriculum to come more in line with his thinking, and he... posted by Michael at April 4, 2007 | perma-link | (21) comments

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chocolate Lifesaver
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Good news for those sweet of tooth: Chocolate -- or at least epicatechin, a type of flavonoid found in cocoa -- may help prevent heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 29, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sciatica Be Gone
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the most tangible benefits I've gotten from yoga has been relief from piriformis pain. Piriformis syndrome is a variety of sciatica, caused by spasming muscles pinching the sciatic nerve. The pain tends to start in the hip -- OK, in the very undignified butt-muscle area -- and then shoot down your leg. I'd been bugged by piriformis pain for years and years. No idea how I develped it initially, and in my case it never became anything debilitating. But it was enough: a constant ache in my hip that was occasionally amplified by electric-bolt-like zingers. Like many with sciatica, I found it annoying not just for the pain itself but also for how the pain affected me and my habits. Sciatica typically disrupts how you're comfortable, as well as how you find comfort. Your favorite sleeping and sitting positions might well become unavailable to you; your nightly sleep might be interrupted, over and over, because the pain wakens you and obliges you to find some new position to settle into. Over the years I'd tried a variety of treatments for my piriformis syndrome, but I obtained a little relief from only two sources: ceasing carrying my wallet in my back pocket (wallets can throw your back and hip alignment off), and acupuncture. Conventional exercise and stretching didn't help much, nor did a number of visits to health-insurance-style physical-therapy outfits. Acupuncture sometimes took the edge off the pain, except when it didn't. My very first Bikram yoga class was a head-turner in many ways. After it, I felt weird but wonderful: wrung-out and emptied, yet freed-up inside too. It was such an overwhelming experience both physically and mentally that it took me a few hours to notice what was missing from my normal state of being: my chronic sciatic pain. It was gone, poof, like that. That night, for the first time in years, I slept in whatever position I felt like and I slept the whole night through. I've been going to yoga three times a week ever since. Yoga hasn't been a complete cure for my sciatica. If I let four or five days go by without a yoga class, the pain starts to knock on my consciousness again. But so long as I do yoga regularly, I experience no piriformis pain. It ain't a part of my life any longer. Actually, doing yoga regularly means considerably fewer aches and pains generally for me. (Over the decades those little aches and pains that won't go away build up in vast, vast numbers ...) I feel more fluid and happy in my body -- ten years younger than I otherwise do in terms of flexibility, ease, and cheeriness. Aches and pains still show up, but then they go away. I'm as creaky as ever when I roll out of bed, but yoga works out that rust too. That tweak in my left knee that I picked up trying to learn how to... posted by Michael at March 29, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Dining Out
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tough-talking chef Anthony Bourdain disses Rachael Ray -- too bad, I like her myself, overperky though god knows she can be. But Bourdain shares a little political wisdom too: I don't think we should be legislating what people eat. We've reached the point where the government has to come in and tell us what to eat. That's wrong. I'm all for peer pressure. It's not a chef's job. A chef should be in the pleasure business. I'm all for vast publicity campaigns to let people know how bad this food is, but when you cross the line into legislating food, no. Now that's an attitude I can agree with. Plus, isn't his reference to "the pleasure business" great? Why does the cooking world have its head screwed on so much more securely these days than the other artworlds do? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 25, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ellen Dissanayake, Again
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A while back, I wrote a posting about evolutionary biology and the arts, and more specifically about Ellen Dissanayake, an independent scholar whose theories about art and culture I find useful and provocative. (See that posting for book suggestions.) The best intro to Dissanayake's work has long been an article about her that Caleb Crain wrote for the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca. A visitor recently pointed out to me that links to Crain's article's previous online incarnation had gone dead, and passed along a link to the article's current online location. It's here, and I once again enthusiastically recommend it. I suspect that fans of such iconoclastic yet down-to-earth brainiacs as Denis Dutton, Geoffrey Miller, Christopher Alexander, etc, will have their minds enjoyably blown apart by Dissanayake too, and in semi-similar ways. Dissanayake's website is here. Caleb Crain's own blog is also well worth visiting regularly. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 17, 2007 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Eye on Meat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Smart Money lists 10 good reasons to be wary of supermarket meats. Short version: Livestock-raising and meat processing have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Good, if unappetizing, quote: Americans are consuming more meat than ever. In 2004 we ate over 221 pounds of meat and poultry per person, up from 199 pounds in 1990. In order for the industry to turn a profit on the low prices Americans have come to expect, most livestock are kept and slaughtered on factory farms, where animals eat corn- and soybean-based feed -- 10 to 30% of which is often radically different from what the animal would consume naturally. For example, feathers, poultry manure and bedding are all acceptable in cattle feed, according to the Food and Drug Administration. I blogged about Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" here, here, and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 14, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, March 8, 2007

TV-Watching and Your Health
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems clear that excessive TV viewing can encourage obesity and stupidity. But can it also contribute to anything that's, like, really serious? One psychologist now argues that TV abuse can in fact be linked to cancer, autism, early-onset puberty, Alzheimer's, and much, much else. I wonder if your health depends in any way on whether you're watching MTV or The History Channel ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 8, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Boredom Studies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- We've taken note of the happiness debates -- both approvingly (here, here) and skeptically (here) -- before. How happy are we? Why don't we seem to be any happier than we were when life was less prosperous? And what can really be said about happiness anyway? Now comes the news that boredom is being studied too. It has apparently been clearly established that men are more easily bored than women, for instance. Yet what is boredom anyway? Science struggles with the question. A nice passage: Our culture's obsession with external sources of entertainment -- TV, movies, the Internet, video games -- may also play a role in increasing boredom. "I think there is something about our modern experience of sensory overload where there is not the chance and ability to figure out what your interests, what your passions are," says John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at York University in Toronto. It is possible that the roots of boredom lie in a fundamental breakdown in our understanding of what it is we want to do. Hmmm. I wonder how blog-writing and blog-surfing relate to boredom -- as well as to happiness. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 8, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fact for the Day -- Research Funding for Diseases per Fatality
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The following figures are a way of breaking down federal money spent on research into diseases. The number highlighted shows research money spent per fatality from each disease. The figures are from The National Center for Health Statistics and the National Institutes of Health. I found this set via, ahem, the AARP Bulletin. They reflect best estimates for 2007. I'll go lowest to highest. Stroke: $2143 are spent on research into stroke per person who dies of a stroke. Heart disease: $3,649 are spent researching heart disease per person who dies of heart disease. Lower respiratory diseases (such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis): $9,495 Alzheimer's: $10,164 Kidney Disease: $10,552 Diabetes: $13,474 Cancer: $14,006 Influenza and pneumonia: $58,315 HIV/AIDS: $212,330 Always interesting to see public research funds for health broken down on a per-disease / per-fatality basis, isn't it? Even though this exercise probably proves nothing definitive, it certainly whispers into my ear, "The funding of research on diseases is affected by, among many other things, politics." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 27, 2007 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Religious Enthusiasms
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I enjoyed reading John Emerson's notion that religious enthusiasm can inspire behaviors that -- though often crazy and destructive -- also sometimes lead to evolutionarily beneficial developments. That's evolutionarily in quotes, btw. Feeling a little nutty and inspired myself, I dropped this comment on his posting: I don't find much to take issue with here, although I'd propose that we're *all* subject to enthusiasms, belief systems, dreams, stories, etc -- that, basically, life simply has a religious dimension. You can tune into or out of it, you can be stupid about it or non-stupid about it, you can ignore it or ridicule it or embrace it (or just kinda, you know, allow it to be what it is and get on with life). But there it is. And a personal hunch: the people who are loudest about denouncing it are often the people most helplessly under its sway. I like your idea about how religious conviction can inspire people to take risks. A related thing might be the way that much of the greatest art has been made with some relationship with some "God"-type power or figure in mind: in praise of, as a channel to, under the inspiration of, etc. Much art has been a kind of nutty adventure inspired by religious feelings, in other words. You might even say that today's commercial art (movies, pop music, magazines, glitzy buildings, etc) is art made in praise of the religion known as "global capitalism." If we can say that Renaissance art was made in praise of Catholicism and the Borgias, why shouldn't we admit that today's art is made in praise of the belief structure most of us inhabit? Global capitalism (or however you want to label it) promises earthly goods now and final deliverance eventually -- what's not "religious" about that? Suits me, anyway. Curious to hear whether these notions strike anyone else as evolutionarily beneficial or not. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, February 1, 2007

AIDS and Immune Systems
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Researching the late '70s and early '80s for a project I'm fooling around with, I recently found myself looking through Richard Berkowitz's book "Stayin' Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex." Despite its title, it's mostly a memoir of growing up gay in '60s Jersey, living wild during the frenetic Christopher Street years of the '70s, and smacking into AIDS in the early '80s. The book falls apart as it goes along, but it's valuable for its frankness and its tales. I found it useful too. The book did what I was hoping it would do, which was to bring back a lot about those days. I'm more or less Berkowitz's age; I made my first gay friends in the early '70s; I arrived in NYC in the late '70s. Berkowitz and I might well have bumped into each other. Although I'm straight and I hung around the filmgoing and punk scenes while Berkowitz was a gay Christopher Street thumpa-thumpa disco habitue, these worlds overlapped in many ways. Plus gay life was such a potent force in the city at that time that it was impossible to avoid. Curious about what was after all a gaudy sociological phenomenon, I treated myself to two tours of the gay scene, guided both times by gay college friends. First I spent a day at The Pines, the famous gay beaches on Long Island's Fire Island. Lord 'a' mighty: It was the meat market to end all meat markets! Herds of men in eensie-weensie swim trunks putting the pouches and pecs on display while cruising each other in the most cold-blooded kind of way ... Men doing the nasty on the beach and god knows what else back in the dunes ... "It can be really hard on the ego," my friend confided to me. "What do you mean?" I asked. "The cruising is so objective that you're instantly aware of where you stand on the ladder of attractiveness," he said. "There's no pretending, and there's no getting away with anything. You settle for the guys who are in your own league. And that can be hard to get used to." One evening the following year I made my second venture into this strange land. I accompanied a group of gay friends as they made the rounds of Christopher Street. For those unfamiliar with the name: Christopher Street is in Manhattan's West Village. During the pre-AIDS gay-party days, it was Ground Zero for homosexual cruising and partying. If Fire Island was acres of beef on the hoof, Christopher Street was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only with fewer inhibitions and without a female to be seen. One club or bar after another ... Each establishment, and the street itself, filled with exuberant gayguys in freaky costumes ... Music, drugs, and booze everywhere ... Carousing of a pitch that would put beer-drinking Spring Break jocks to shame ... As well as the most aggressive and direct sexual behavior I've ever... posted by Michael at February 1, 2007 | perma-link | (39) comments

Sunday, January 28, 2007

How Much Does Species Genetic Commonality Matter?
Donald Pittenger writes Dear Blowhards -- I'm not a biologist -- just a foolish Blowhard. But I get irked when I see "news" articles gushing over how much genetic / DNA commonality there is between humans and other species. Especially when the article goes on to include a homily pooh-poohing our tendency to think of ourselves as being "superior" to other creatures. You know, our slavish devotion to that non-scientific rot found in the Book of Genesis. It is sort of a numbers game. Here Scientific American mentions a study asserting that chimps have only 94% overlap with humans instead of higher percentages proposed elsewhere. As for silly me, everywhere around me I see how immensely different humans are from the rest of the species. Just pop into a Subway shop, place your order, munch the sandwich. Then contemplate the totality of what it took to place you there with that food in your hand. Other species don't come remotely close. No matter how much DNA we share. Differences count -- far more than the similarities. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 28, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fact for the Day -- Breweries in the U.S.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Number of breweries in the U.S. in 1983: 60. * Number of breweries in the U.S. in 2005: more than 1400. The food revolution rocks, no? Source: an episode on beer in the History Channel's consistently terrific documentary series "Modern Marvels." Hey, Wikipedia has an entry about "Modern Marvels." God, I love Wikipedia. I also notice that you can now download some episodes of "Modern Marvels" from the iTunes Store for $1.99 a pop. Of the shows on offer there, I can recommend ... well, every last one of them. "Modern Marvels" is that good. Other terrific episodes for those with DVRs to be on the alert for: "Balls," "Assembly Lines," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Paving America," and "Tea." I really think "Modern Marvels" is quite the great thing. I mean really-really. I've watched scores of shows. Only a few haven't been first-class, and many have been awfully damned good: not too jazzed-up, direct and informative, gimmick-free, substantial, and -- at an hour per episode -- about as much as I want to learn about most subjects. And what an achievement to maintain this level of excellence year after year. Something I can't figure out: Why on earth is that awful, slow, looooooong Ken Burns so much more celebrated a figure in the TV documentary cosmos than the team behind the crisp and to-the-point "Modern Marvels"? Small musing: Do we tend to overvalue the One Heroic Creation at the expense of equally wonderful creations that take episodic form? I think we may. We make a big deal out of Ken Burns' "Civil War," for instance, while undervaluing the ever-ongoing (since 1994!) "Modern Marvels." Similarly, does it make sense to enshrine Toni Morrison's "Beloved" as a Great Thing without also sparing a few hosannas for the 12 high-quality novels that Donald Westlake wrote during the same time it took Morrison to finish "Beloved"? Not that I liked "Beloved" myself, of course ... Well, OK, why not just say it? I think Donald Westlake is 100 times the fiction writer Toni Morrison is even though he's written no single novel that compares in colossalness and impressiveness with "Beloved." But he's written an awful lot of tiptop and high-spirited fiction. Why shouldn't that qualify as a genuinely great thing in its own right? But back to the topic at hand. I've recently been sampling other current documentary series from cable. Alas: I haven't taken a liking to a one of them. What to do? These days my old favorites are wells that have been pumped almost dry. I don't seem to be finding many "Modern Marvels" episodes that I haven't already watched, and The Wife and I have exhausted what those excellent true-crime shows "American Justice" and "City Confidential" have to offer. Can any visitors recommend current documentary series that they've been enjoying? I do like me a good documentary series. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 27, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, January 26, 2007

Darwin's Regret
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Art, beauty, feeling, sensation ... Curlicues on the fringes of reality, or central to the fabric of existence? And what did the original evo-guy make of them anyway? Here's a passage from Charles Darwin: Up to the age of 30, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds gave me great pleasure. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have also almost lost my taste for picture or music. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. I found this thanks to Poynter Online's Monique Von Dusseldorp. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 26, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Food Linkage
Michael Blowhards writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Would you like some cleavage with that latte? * Obesity rates in France have doubled in recent years. To blame: television, soda pop, crazy work hours, and junk food. * The snobs may sneer at her, but the real people back home think the world of perky Food Network star Rachael Ray. I'm a Rachael fan myself. She may overdo the grins and giggles, but if her show helps real people class their eating lives up a bit, why not be forgiving? As an eternal-beginner cook myself, I'm a special fan of her magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray. The dishes I've prepared from the magazine's recipes have been tasty to eat and fun to make; they haven't taxed my very limited cooking skills either. And the magazine itself -- however middlebrow and friendly it may be -- is a gorgeously-designed and sweetly-edited thing of beauty. * Joseph Pearce explains why the agribusiness-vs.-organic debate is such a big deal for the Small is Beautiful crowd. * Niman Ranch is said by some reviewers to sell the tastiest and tenderest grass-fed meat available. Curious, The Wife and I ordered up some of their steaks. A quick sear on both sides ... Time in the oven till just not-bloody in the center ... And it was, it really was, some of the best steak we've ever eaten. I'd characterize it as luxurious yet light -- like filet mignon, only more informal. I'll be sending gift packs from the Niman Ranch out as birthday and holiday presents. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 25, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I understood maybe one one-hundredth of what was said in this interview, but I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway. The topic: the relationship between physics and math, and the relationship both of them might or might not have with anything we might think of as reality. If math is embedded in the nature of things, how and why did it get there? A nice line from Greg Chaitin: "Deep philosophical questions are never resolved, you just get tired of discussing them." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 16, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Are Asians the New Jews?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 41% of Berkeley undergrads are now of Asian descent, reports Timothy Egan: Asian-Americans make up less than 5 percent of the population but typically make up 10 to 30 percent of students at the nation's best colleges: In 2005, the last year with across-the-board numbers, Asians made up 24 percent of the undergraduate population at Carnegie Mellon and at Stanford, 27 percent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 14 percent at Yale and 13 percent at Princeton. Even so, according to Egan, their numbers on these campuses would be far higher if the schools were admitting students based purely on test scores: A study released in October by the Center for Equal Opportunity, an advocacy group opposing race-conscious admissions, showed that in 2005 Asian-Americans were admitted to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, at a much lower rate (54 percent) than black applicants (71 percent) and Hispanic applicants (79 percent) -- despite median SAT scores that were 140 points higher than Hispanics and 240 points higher than blacks. Who's being discriminated against, if anyone? And is there any way we can blame Affirmative Action? (I'm always up for blaming Affirmative Action.) As you can tell, I don't entirely know what to make of these figures, but there they are. Time to watch "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" again, I guess. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 9, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

50 Things ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's a fun list of 50 things we know now that we didn't know on Jan. 1, 2006. My favorite: "Most of us have microscopic, wormlike mites named Demodex that live in our eyelashes and have claws and a mouth." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 9, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Alley Oop, Mon Semblable, Or At Least Mon Frere
Michael Blowhard writes; Dear Blowhards -- The long-awaited paper by Greg Cochran and John Hawks arguing that it's likely we did the nasty with (and picked up some useful genes from) Neanderthals is now online. Was this the event that triggered the cultural Big Bang of 30-40,000ish years ago? You can download a PDF of the paper from this page. (Link via GNXP and Steve Sailer.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 19, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, December 15, 2006

Yoga Everywhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Musician and general rowdyguy Shouting Thomas turns out to be a yoga buff. "I can't live a pain free existence without Yoga," he writes. "If I practice my Yoga religiously, I don't even know I have arthritis." * Bishwanath Ghosh looks back slyly and amusingly on his own four-year-long experience with Yoga. "Coitus is a form of Yoga, to tell you the truth," he writes, "because sex is a combination of Yoga postures." (Link thanks to Alan Little.) * Robert Love reviews the history of Yoga in America here. (Link thanks to ALD.) * You can read an interview I did with the very talented Yoga teacher Margi Young here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four. My own current thought -- well, musing -- on the topic of Yoga is that it can help you create a much friendlier and kinder relationship with your body. And -- since your body is one of the things in the world closest to you, after all -- that means that Yoga can affect your experience more generally in dramatic ways. You can find yourself rolling with life more cheerfully and positively than you otherwise might. Nice! I don't know about you, but when I'm on bad terms with my body my whole universe turns in on itself. I get crabby. Of course, what this line of musing suggests is that ... you are not your body. Then what are you? One of the genius books of Yoga philosophy is Patanjali's "Yoga Sutras," and Patanjali has a lot to say about this "what are you?" question. (Many translations are available. Of the handful I've read, I've especially loved the one by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda.) And in case you're wondering: Indian philosophy is quite the equal of Western philosophy. As far as I'm concerned, Indian philosophy is in fact generally much superior to most of what western philosophy has to offer. Don't look me at me that way: Western-philo biggies Emerson and Schopenhauer thought highly of Indian philosophy too. I blogged about my discovery of the Indian religion / philosophy known as Vedanta here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 15, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Hard-to-take video of the week: closeups of a circumcision procedure. I confess that I didn't make it all the way through the videoclip. I was sympathizing much, much too strongly with the unhappy baby boy's yells. NSFW to the max, by the way, and not hosted by an appealing website either. Still, if you've ever been curious about what the doing of a boy-circumcision looks like, this is a link for you. Best, if with knees close together, Michael... posted by Michael at December 15, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pulling Our Weight
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Worldwide, overweight people now outnumber underweight people. In South Africa, 56 percent of women are now either obese or overweight, compared to fewer than 10 percent who are underweight. Health experts predict that diabetes will soon become a major health problem in Africa, and economists are concerned that obesity will be a drag on the world's economy. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 30, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More on Eating
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As far as Marion Nestle is concerned, the staying-not-fat problem is easily solved: "Eat less, move more, and eat your fruits and vegetables. It isn't any more complicated than that." So why do many people have such a lot of trouble with their weight? Brian Wansink has some thoughts about why we often eat more than we intend to. One of his findings: People eat 14 percent more of foods that are labeled "low-fat" than their full-fat counterparts. Wansink offers some eating strategies to help you survive the holidays here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 22, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

But Will They Ever Be White Enough?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Teeth-whitening is now the country's most requested cosmetic procedure, reports MSNBC's Diane Mapes. I wasn't entirely surprised to learn this fact. The radioactive-teeth epidemic of the last few years has left my own smile looking dingy -- nicotine-stained, despite the fact that I don't smoke. The success of the teeth-whitening industry has left me feeling like an old house in bad need of a fresh paint job. The demand for whitening continues to grow rapidly despite the fact that bleaching procedures can lead to hypersensitivity and even, in some cases, to a need for reparative root-canal work. One woman who overdid her treatment found six months later that her teeth had turned semi-transparent. "I thought if a little bleach is good, a lot must be really good," she told Mapes. "But it's not that way. Your teeth will never be porcelain white, like your toilet." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 21, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Amateur Gourmet falls hard for truffles -- and incidentally makes every visiting blogger dream about how cool it would be to do blog-postings in the form of fumetti, aka photo-comics. More on fumetti, a nifty popular art form, here. Comic Life -- the loads-of-fun, Mac-only software that the Amateur Gourmet used to create his blog posting -- can be bought here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 21, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, November 13, 2006

Choice or Not?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Donald's recent posting about Wal-Mart has got me wondering about a question I often chew on. To what extent is what Donald aptly called the "freewayscape" life a product of people making choices? And to what extent are the people living freewayscape lives simply accepting what the government and the corporations are handing out? On the one hand: Nobody who inhabits a McMansion, who shops at a big-box store, or who spends hours a day on the freeway is doing so because a gun is being held to his head. On the other hand, in many parts of the country it isn't as though alternatives to the freewayscape life are handily available. A person who might prefer to live in a walkable urban- or town-like situation might very well be unable to find such an option. Similar questions seem to hold with food, don't they? To what extent are the food processors, distributors, and retailers serving wants and desires, and to what extent are they forcing crap on a herdlike and captive populace? After all, no one is being obliged to shop at any given store, let alone choose any given product. Yet isn't it beyond-naive to think that the food companies aren't doing their awe-inspiring best to get us to contribute to their bottom line, our health and our pleasure be damned? Sweeteners are one way to focus the question. Americans buy scads of sweetened foods. Sweet tastes good! Yet consuming too many sweets isn't, healthwise, the finest thing. Do we buy so many sweetened products because we're totally-free, well-informed people asserting our Real Preferences? Or are we, to some extent, a busy, distracted people letting corporations (and their government lackeys) take advantage of our biologically-programmed weaknesses? And what to make of the very awkward fact that corn-sweetener production in America is subsidized by the federal government? Here's a passage from an article by Eric ("Fast Food Nation") Schlosser that illustrates how messy these questions can become: Despite a fondness for free-market rhetoric, the country's large food companies -- ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, McDonald's, Kraft -- have benefited enormously from the absence of real competition. They receive, directly and indirectly, huge subsidies from the federal government. About half of the annual income earned by U.S. corn farmers now comes from government crop-support programs. Cheap corn is turned into cheap fats, oils, sweeteners, and animal feed. Nearly three-quarters of the corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock, providing taxpayer support for inexpensive hamburgers and chicken nuggets. On the other hand, farmers who grow fresh fruits and vegetables receive few direct subsidies. Emphases mine, mine, all mine! BTW, if you don't have time to read "Fast Food Nation" -- and it is, IMHO, a good and interesting book if, sigh, far too long -- this article is a swell intro to Schlosser's point of view and information. Are the food corporations a bunch of nice, hard-working people playing by the rules as... posted by Michael at November 13, 2006 | perma-link | (31) comments

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So our direct ancestors and their Neanderthal neighbors did enjoy a little hanky-panky after all. What the culture-blogosphere wants to know is: Does grammie and gramps' naughtiness help explain the cultural explosion that led to the caves at Lascaux, "The Tale of Genji," and "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini"? Stay tuned for, apparently, much, much more. Best, Michael UPDATE: Razib has been putting up tons of cross-species luv-themed postings here.... posted by Michael at November 8, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Sexually Speaking ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The good news is that researchers are learning that sex is good for your health. The bad news is that they're thereby turning sex into yet another burdensome health chore ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 7, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Cousin Marriage in the MidEast
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Steve Sailer has done heroic work alerting us to the fact that many marriages in the mideast are between close relatives. His sensible political point is that it's nuts to expect such a region to behave like a collection of modern, bureaucratic states, and far more realistic to expect quarrelsome tribal behavior from these people instead. Today Steve links to a WashPost article from 2000 about the marriage situation in Saudi Arabia, and reproduces a chart showing how common close-relative marriages are in the region. They're very common, in fact. 57.9% of marriages in Iraq are between what Westerners would consider close relatives! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 1, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Today's Alley Oop?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Razib is teasing us with hints that Neanderthal genes may not be entirely extinct. Neanderthal-ish creatures, it seems, may still walk among us. Startling but substantial announcements (from Greg Cochran?) to be made soon. Any bets of which contempo population group is really a bunch of Neanderthals? I've already placed my bet on heavy-metal drummers. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 1, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Early Puberty
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Puberty is now hitting many girls by the age of 8. Scientists wonder why. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 1, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you been getting enough sleep? The news: The Institute of Medicine issued a report confirming links between sleep deprivation and an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke. Some scientists are exploring possible connections between inadequate sleep and a decline in immune function. More here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 28, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, October 27, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So maybe it really does come down to calories and exercise. OK, all that and fiber. Plus treating food as a sensual pleasure to be lingered over rather than a tanking-up to be hustled through. A nice passage from Michael Fumento, the bete noir of the fat-acceptance movement: Europeans get almost no wonderful diet advice thrown at them, like we do -- by the government and those wonderful women's magazines that regularly offer "the last diet you'll ever need." Only the U.K. provides food labels with fat and calorie content. Without our "solutions," Europeans are so much thinner than we. Why? Our food portions look like something out of Jurassic Park. Michael Fumento debates Richard ("Eat Fat") Klein here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 27, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

300 Million -- Or More?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Scary thought: What if the Census Bureau is guilty of undercounting? Virginia Abernathy thinks that we passed 300 million six years ago. She also thinks we're heading for a population of 800 million by 2100. Is anyone really in favor of this? Haya El Nasser provides a more establishment but still informative overview of the US and its population history. Nice graphic too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 25, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Religion, Anthropology, Belief, Etc.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Just because, as blog-proprietor, I can, I'm dolling up and reprinting here a few of the comments I made on our earlier yakfest about Terry Eagleton, Richard Dawkins, and religion. * I have a broad conception of religion that I owe to early immersion in anthropology-style thinking. (Nothing impressive: just book-learning and hanging with anthro friends.) It left me with the conviction that everyone is religious, and that every culture has its religion (or religions). After all, we all have hopes, we all take many things on faith, we all have our value systems, and we all have our ways of dealing with scary and glorious Larger Questions. Further, all societies have their myths, dreams, arts, gods, and directives. (Think of the American religion of success, for instance, as well as our fascination with celebrities.) Whether these folkways, habits, and processes happen to be written down, turned into formulas, and delivered articulately to audiences of well-dressed people for an hour every Sunday is interesting but not crucial. (All those self-help and how-to-succeed bestseller-wannabes? Maybe they're our holy books. All those photo-filled tabloids obsessed with fashions, scandals, Lindsay and Angelina? Maybe they're our religious visual art. Or maybe they are for some people, anyway.) To me -- soaked in anthro -- the religion-thang is as inescapable a human universal as art, music, storytelling, etc. Why fight this fact? * Here's one hyper-fuctional -- as far as I'm concerned -- way of looking at the "God" and "religion" questions. There's much that we know. There's also a huge amount that we don't know. We may or may not eventually know it all. (Unlikely, sez I, but what the heck.) And then there's undoubtedly 'way more than all that too. Hey, life is full of surprises! And then there's us. Here we are in the midst of all this churning cosmic bubbly custard, unquestionably part of it yet weirdly able to give it a little thought too. How'd that happen? Where'd the ability come from? And what purpose might it be serving? Take that whole bundle -- including what's known; we/us ourselves; what we know and don't know; what we don't even know we don't know; our ability to think a bit about it; our thoughts and fantasies and ideas and dreams; the many and often invisible forces animating and moving through It All; etc etc. OK, now why not give that mooshy, vaster-than-vast, pulsing 10-dimensional bundle a name? Why not ... call it "God"? I mean, you don't have to. But why not? Got a better name for it? I'm down with that too. Now let's discuss the topic -- the Infinite (Currently Incompletely Knowable) Churning Vastness Of It All, Of Which We're Only a Small Part. After all, just about everyone has some sense of wonder and fear in the face of It-All, and many people even have a few intuitions or flashes of maybe-insight or maybe-delusions about It-All, or maybe just the occasional feeling... posted by Michael at October 25, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Eagleton on Dawkins
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not usually much of a fan of Terry Eagleton, but I thought the working-over that Eagleton recently gave uber-atheist Richard Dawkins' current book about religion was a dazzler. Nice passage: Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins's own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn't go all the way down for believers, but it doesn't for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that 'rational' means 'scientific.' Link thanks to the ever-essential ALD. Razib expresses agreement with Dawkins and scorn for Eagleton in the comments on this posting. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 24, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Monday, October 9, 2006

Raw Milk
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Raw milk: risky food fad or good-for-you delicacy? And, in either case, should the FDA really be spending time and money chasing down people who sell and drink the stuff? The WashPost's Thomas Bartlett pulls his collars up high and infiltrates "the raw-milk underground." (Link thanks to Kirsten Mortenson.) Back here, I recommended Nina Planck's book "Real Food." Nina Planck likes raw milk too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 9, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

More on Fat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Are we putting on the weight because processed foods have gotten cheaper? Because more of us are desk-bound at work? In a fun debate between Darius Lakdawalla and Carol Graham, the most unexpected fact, as far as I was concerned, came from Graham: For all racial and ethnic groups combined, women of lower socioeconomic status are approximately 50% more likely to be obese than those with higher socioeconomic status. Men are about equally likely to be obese whether they are in a low or high socioeconomic group. Why should poverty be more likely to affect the poundage of women than of men? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 3, 2006 | perma-link | (20) comments

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Green Tea Moment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So I'm sipping my green tea this morning while surfing the web, and ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 1, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Alpha Psy
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Econ, philosophy, cog-sci, anthropology -- whee! Fans of the above combo will want to become regulars at Alpha-Psy, a smokin' and very civilized new interdisciplinary-brainiacs' blog that never forgets that culture is part of the human mix. (Found via GNXP.) Aesthetics and taste: you can run from 'em, but try as you may you'll never manage to hide from 'em. Alpha Psy's Olivier points to this good Nova segment about "mirror neurons," for example. Science, eh? On the one hand: Scientists discover empathy -- as though no one else ever knew about it before. Yawn. On the other ... Well, the implications for culturebuffs are pretty exciting. As V.S. Ramachandran, one of the segment's interviewees (and a fully-accredited 2Blowhards intellectual hero) says, "A lot of culture seems to have to do with imitation." After all, feeling what someone else is feeling is, to some extent, a matter of imitation. (I'd add that the imagination is probably involved here too.) But here's the question that occurs to me: In the light of this statement, what remains of the modernist obsession with originality? Although the preoccupation with originality is these days commonly thought to have everything to do with creativity, perhaps it actually erodes the functions (empathy, imitation) upon which culture normally depends. So perhaps the originality-fixation is anything but creativity- and culture-promoting. Perhaps it's actually destructive. Which reminds me of a wonderful quote from Leon Krier: "As is the case with all good things in life -- love, good manners, language, cooking -- personal creativity [by which Krier means self-expressive originality] is required only rarely." I loved this book by V.S. Ramachandran. This one, too. This book by Leon Krier struck me as pure genius. Check out the excellent Amazon review of it by our pal Nikos Salingaros. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 30, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Slow Fitness?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Dave Lull turns up what sounds like an exercise-and-activity program for the civilized. I blogged about the Slow movement here and here. Here's an article about Frank Forencich, the evo-bio exercise guru behind Slow Fitness. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 20, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Are Minor Facial Expressions Readable Across Cultures?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's an expression that -- in my experience anyway -- isn't a rare one to run across: (Image of actress Amy Locane lifted from some godawful trash movie The Wife and I watched the other evening. What can I say? Sometimes we're more in the mood for trash than we are for Great Art.) A familiar one, no? How do you read it? Here's my shot at an interpretation: "I know things are very hard right now, but I also want you to know that I sympathize with your predicament." As far as I can tell, the expression (which I have seldom if ever seen on a man's face, btw) conveys something like "pained empathy." Here's my real question: Is this a facial expression that exists in all cultures? Evo-bio eggheads tell us that certain basic facial expressions are in fact human univerals: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger. But are any of the more specialized facial expressions instantly comprehensible to everyone too? Even across cultures and time? But perhaps this one is unique to a narrow slice of Americans. It's certainly an expression that's a familiar one to me. But what do I know? My life has its limits and boundaries. Sometimes I even wonder if this expression is unique to vanilla blondes. My midwestern sister makes this face on a regular basis, for instance -- yet urban gal friends who are of Mediterranean descent seldom if ever look at anyone like this. And if the pained-empathy corrugated forehead really is distinctive to vanilla blondes, well, why should this be? A question for non-American visitors: Do you find Amy Locane's expression easy to interpret? And do you run across this particular expression often among gals in your own world? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 20, 2006 | perma-link | (23) comments

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From Nina Planck
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a recent posting I raved about Nina Planck's new book "Real Food." One quality the book has that I neglected to emphasize enough is that -- unlike many books on food, eating, and food-production -- Planck's is undogmatic. Her attitude seems to be: "It's probably possible to do better than you're doing, and to do it without becoming a neurotic pain in the neck. Why not give this a try and see if you experience some real satisfaction? You might! Many do! Here's some information. And here are some suggestions and sources." I see that Nina Planck herself dropped by the posting. The comment she left gives a taste of her enthusiasm, her brains, and her attitudes: "I grew up poor on real food. My mother's simple approach was to eat around the edges of the supermarket, where the real food is: meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, produce. We didn't eat from the middle, where the highly processed, low-nutrition, high profit-margin foods are. Vegans and most vegetarians (unless they are extremely careful about nutrition) and any American who eats industrial food, junk food, and fake foods (I'm referring to corn oil, corn syrup, white flour, and various fake soy 'burgers' and 'milk') would be healthier eating real food from the supermarket perimeter EVEN IF the food is not grass-fed, raw, organic, and artisinal. If you can find and afford the best real food - grass-fed beef, pastured poultry - great. But eat real food first, and delete industrial foods." Nina Planck's very generous website -- where she makes available numerous recipes, articles, and links -- is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, September 8, 2006

Real Food -- Or Not?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Pulling together my previous posting reminded me of a couple of recent food-news stories: Could raw milk help those with allergies? Now enhancing your luncheon meats: a virus-carrying spray that apparently fights bacteria. Yum-yum. It also reminded me of a comment Alec made a few weeks ago. He wrote, if I remember right, that he doesn't worry much about how the food he eats comes to be. It doesn't matter to him, in other words, if he's eating beef from a cow raised organically on grass or from one raised on corn and antibiotics in a feed lot. Fine with me, of course. But also a bit surprising. Given my own semi-crunchy predilections, I have a tendency to think that most people would, given a reasonable choice, generally prefer to eat more-natural rather than highly-tweaked foods. But maybe I'm wrong. Would anyone like to volunteer their own preferences? Let's play a game. Say you have two apples in front of you. One is an eye-grabbing, glossy red-green; it's also from a genetically modified species, and was grown a thousand miles away on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. The other apple is visually more gnarly, but it has been raised locally and "organically." The big shiney industrial apple costs a quarter; the irregular natural one costs 30 cents. It's up to you to pick one of them to eat. Which do you go for? And why? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 8, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

"Real Food"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Of the many books about food, eating, and food production that I've read in recent months, my favorite has been Nina Planck's "Real Food." It's a book with a simple message: If a food is traditional, then the odds are it's tasty, satisfying, and nourishing. If a food has been invented or developed in the last hundred years -- if it's what she calls "an industrial food" -- then you'd probably do well to be wary of it. (Hey, that's a good two-line summary of conservatism -- the political philosophy of conservatism, anyway, if not the sorry present-day Republican reality of it. When there's a question, odds are you should trust to experience and not to theory.) No accusations of Luddism, please. A nice passage from a q&a with Planck: Look, I love my ice cream maker. I love electricity. What I don't like is technology that reduces a food's flavor or nutrition. Chicken stock is great. The bouillon cube is an abomination. As I read it, Planck's book exists on two levels. One is the facts-and-arguments level. Here, I found the book extremely helpful and informative. Be warned, though: It isn't for the un-crunchy, let alone for those averse to a little eccentricity. (Those who dislike the book may accuse Planck of being vulnerable to cranks.) Planck doesn't play by the health-tip world's rules or current advice, to say the least. Lard? Most excellent -- "hardly anyone knows that lard is good for you." Tropical fats? Yum-o. Red meat? Dig in, but search out the grass-fed kind. Salt isn't a poison to be avoided; it's a godsend that brings out the flavors of many foods. Unrefined sea salt is best. Search out fermented foods: kefir, sauerkraut. Your gut will thank you for it. Eggs? "A nutritional bonanza." "I don't buy the low-fat version of anything," Planck writes. Planck is especially keen on milk, which she thinks we have become neurotic about. Full-fat milk doesn't just taste loads better than skim, it's also better for you. But make it organic if not raw. Feeling inspired by Planck, I drank my first raw milk last week. It was, as she wrote that it would be, a far more creamy, complex, and rich experience than supermarket milk. Maybe pasteurization and homogenization aren't all they're cracked up to be. To those who respond with shock or surprise to her very unorthodox views and advice, Planck has a -- to me, anyway -- plausible and convincing response. Since the health establishment changes its tune every five minutes -- are eggs good for you this week? -- we'd probably do well, much of the time, to ignore the people in the white lab coats and trust to experience and taste instead. At times the book feels like a concerted attempt to restore the reputation of fat. Planck argues that the more we know about fats, the more complicated the are-fats-good-or-bad-for-you? question becomes. There are many kinds of fats, and... posted by Michael at September 8, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A.W.F. Edwards and Overpopulation
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I loved reading GNXP's latest "10 Questions" q&a, this one with the British geneticist A.W.F. Edwards. Arty dude that I am, I confess that I loved the interview as much for Edwards'' clear and witty language as I did for the science he was discussing -- of which, despite his clarity, my dim brain was able to digest, oh, about 25%. But his focus! His language! The way he balances approachability with sophistication! If only all nonfiction were presented half so well. I even felt I grasped the diff between "probability" and "likeliness." OK, so the feeling lasted all of about five seconds. Still, what a high it was! One semi-passing remark of Edwards'' especially struck me. Here's the passage: In the early 1960s I was a founder-member of a body called, I think, the Conservation Society, which does not seem to exist today. Its main platform was that too large a population would be unsustainable. At the time there was much discussion about over-population which was seen as one of the greatest dangers facing mankind. Interestingly, the worse the problem gets, the less it is discussed. Yet the mounting dangers we face, such as the possibility of global warming, are all exacerbated by too high a world population, given its enthusiasm for motor-cars, aeroplanes, and environmentally-damaging activity generally. It seems that people fear the charge of racism if they comment on population growth. (Emphasis mine.) In a posting not long ago, I wondered why the major U.S. environmental groups have been so quiet on the topic of immigration, given that our current policies are leading to much higher population growth than we'd otherwise have. I ventured the thought that we should blame the silence on the fact that so many of the green groups are allied with the immigration-lovin' Democratic Party. (BTW, where immigration policies are concerned, a pox on the Republican Party too.) I think that Edwards'' hunch -- that the discussion of population has been silenced because of fears of charges of racism -- may strike closer to the real truth of the matter. Sigh: How many other important discussions have been shut off in this way? Down with racism, of course. But down as well with people and organizations who use our fears of the "racism" accusation to control the public conversation. Confirmation that a few other people may feel fed up with overuse of the racism-accusation card comes from Rod Liddle in the London Times, who writes that multiculturalism is now dead as an official UK policy. But the development, however welcome, may be coming a little late for those concerned about crowding and growth. The Guardian reports that the British population has now surpassed 60 million, is growing at its fastest rate since the 1960s -- and that 2/3 of this growth is due to immigration. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 29, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Friday, August 25, 2006

Oil, Corn, Cows
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The fertilizer that's fed to corn is a fossil fuel product ... Cows these days eat an awful lot of corn ... So how much oil does a full-grown cow represent? The answer: 100 gallons. You can learn more facts about our beef industry's bizarre infatuation with raising cattle on corn and antibiotics in this interview with Michael Pollan. "When you learn about the industrial food system, certain foods become unappetizing," he says to another interviewer. I'll second him on that. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 25, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Brown Girls
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love it when the parti-colored brainiacs at GNXP hash out which chicks are hot and why. It's a great and fun way for non-geeks to learn about ethnic characteristics. They're on about South Asian and Persian girls today. One of the commenters links to a hilarious video entitled "Curry-n-Rice Girl," by MC Vikram and Ludakrishna. Rap with an Indian sense of rueful humor: Is it a culture-meld or a culture-clash? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 17, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Common Sense and Social Science
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- All due honor paid to genuine advances and breakthroughs, of course, but ... Doesn't it sometimes seem as though the social sciences spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back for "discovering" what everyone already knows? Today's example: In an Economic Scene column in the NYTimes, Cornell economist Robert Frank informs us that "Economists increasingly recognize the importance of herd behavior in explaining ordinary purchase decisions." (The column is readable, if you're registered, here.) Citing the popularity of SUVs, Frank writes, "The conventional determinants of consumer demand cannot explain this astonishing trajectory." Gadzooks: A lotta people -- and perhaps all of us to one extent or another -- often mimic what everyone else is doing! Consider me newly enlightened. Making an effort to look on the positive side of this, I guess I'm glad that some eggheads have managed to abandon theory long enough to register a little bit of how people actually behave. Next: Economists discover that people shopping for groceries often don't bother to compare prices. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 3, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

String Theory Online
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not sure my lame brain is capable of imagining 10 dimensions even after watching this. But I sure enjoyed the nifty little Flash presentation. String theory: anything to it? Or just something a certain kind of hyper-brilliant mind is prone to dreaming up? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 1, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Whole Milk
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Nina Planck thinks that whole milk's bad rep is undeserved. Nice line (from a related piece): "God did not create fats in order to raise or lower blood cholesterol. All fats ... have vital roles." I ran into Nina Planck's site thanks to a posting and commentsfest at Rod Dreher's blog. Tyler Cowen points out that educated people tend to be healthier people. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 19, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lab Notes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- According to MD, "pathologists are notorious for bad dressing." According to Derek Lowe, the labs chemists work in aren't glowy, colorful and glinty, or lit like a Jerry Bruckheimer tv series, the way they're so often portrayed in magazines and promotional materials. "This is addressed to all professional photographers," Derek writes: "Please, no more colored spotlights." A question for the professional-science types out there? Has there been a book or a movie that has done a good and fair job of presenting the science life as you've experienced it? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 14, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Doin' the Dental Drill
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Buck up, pessimists. Life actually does get better at times. I returned from the dentist just before starting to draft this article. It was the first phase of putting in a crown. Many over-50 readers are familiar with that "drill" (har, har). The dentist grinds the tooth down to near the gum line, impressions are taken, and a temporary crown is attached. A couple of weeks later the final crown arrives from the lab and replaces the temporary one to complete the second phase. What I found interesting was how quick the procedure was. Based on previous crown-jobs, I figured I might be in the chair for an hour and a quarter. But I was there for only 45 minutes! My dentist seems to be one of those souls who keeps up with the times technologically, so I'm surprised by some new gizmo or procedure almost every time I visit. For instance, he had a headband-mounted spotlight to supplement the regular dental lamp. Okay, he'd worn those before. But this time it had a blue-ish beam like those European car headlights you sometimes see. The drill holder was a streamlined affair and short: perhaps four inches long. And little yellow lights came on when the tiny electric motor was running. This drill was what got me to thinking. I got to thinking about dentist's drills past. Back in the 1940s I had my baby teeth filled way more than once. (Seattle's water was soft as could be, coming from snow-melt. No minerals to speak of. No fluoride either, because in the 40s and 50s fluoride was a Commie plot to poison everyone. By the 80s fluoride became a right-wing plot. Conclusion: fluoride is the result of a plot.) So my teeth were lousy and I went to the dentist a lot. Dental drills in those days were also powered by electric motors, but motors that were many times larger than now. The drill motor was mounted several feet away from the drill itself, perhaps in the base of the drill contraption. Rotation of the drill bit was imparted via a series of thin belts mounted on wheels about an inch in diameter. There were two or three sets of belts, one per segment of an arm that allowed the dentist to position the drill and its approximately six-inch long holder at the patient's mouth. By today's standards, those drills were slow. I remember times when the dentist was using a large drill to rough out the hole; I thought I could almost count the drill's rotations. Awful. High-speed drills were on the scene by the 1960s and marked a huge improvement over the belt-driven variety. For one thing they cut vibration, making drilling less painful. Other changes in dental technology have been more subtle, and I welcome readers with dental training of any sort to hop into Comments with interesting details. One thing I've noticed is that rubber mouth dams seem to be used... posted by Donald at July 13, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

More Fat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- On a plane flight back to NYC from a recent vacation, I read Greg Critser's "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World." Strangely, it was on another recent plane flight back to NYC that I read Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," which I blogged about here and here. Why do I read books about fast food and fat when returning via airplane to NYC? The only reason I can think of is that, when I'm outside NYC, I'm so struck by the fast-food-and-fat thing that I have no choice but to, er, digest my impressions on the way back home. Quick verdict: "Fat Land" is OK-to-pretty good. Greg Critser clearly wants to scare and mobilize -- more specifically, he wants Americans to be eating lots of greens and doing a lot of cardio-style exercise. Critser doesn't have quite the firebreathing flair that Eric Schlosser does, but he gets the job done. (A pause for a small rant. Like "Fast Food Nation," "Fat Land" would have been a lot better -- IMHO, of course -- as a long magazine article than as a book. How many readers really need all the "narrative" -- the scene-setting, the personalities, the on-sceners, the behind-the-sceners, the drama? Here's hoping we'll have to put up with less of this in the future. One of the great things about electronic publishing is that it's so much more elastic than print -- especially book-bound print -- is. An electronic project can be as long as it needs to be and no longer: three paragraphs is fine, and so is 70 pages -- no need for padding-out just to fill up a book. I'm avoiding all jokes about how overweight both Schlosser's and Critser's books are.) So how did Americans become so fat? Critser's argument is that it all comes down to the corn (as in high-fructose corn syrup) ... and the Nixon administration, which fought stagflation by loosening up food markets ... and, as far as I can tell, the free market more generally. If only corn weren't so darned plentiful and so darned cheap. And if only fast-food operations weren't quite so intent on making money. I oversimplify, of course, but that's roughly it. Parents grew more permissive about kids' eating habits ... Schools started making deals with fast-food chains ... TVs and computers seduced us into inactivity ... And here we are today, lumbering aroud in pyjama-like stretch clothes and wondering what happened to us. Some eye-catching facts: In the 1970s, Americans spent 25% of their food budget on what's known as "food away from home." By the late 1990s, that figure passed 40%. In 1977, fast food joints accounted for 3% of total American calories consumed. By 1997, that figure was 12%. Between 1966 and 1994, the obesity rate among kids jumped from 7 percent to 22 percent. The rate of overweight and obesity was relatively stable in the US for decades -- until the... posted by Michael at July 13, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Glycemic Index and Diabetes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The BBC reports that early infections may affect your likeliness to develop diabetes. (Link thanks to Dave Lull and Mary Scriver. Check out Mary's recent posting about having her eyes examined; she gives a very convincing demo of how much a real writer can do with a little.) Dave Lull tells me that he has been having weight-loss luck by following a low-GI diet. Here are a couple of links that Dave has found helpful. The low-GI diet is often said to be helpful in dealing with diabetes. Wikipedia's entry on the GI diet seems responsible and helpful. I wrote about Michel Montignac's "French Diet" (basically a low-GI way of eating) here. I've found Montignac's plan easy to follow and very effective. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 12, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Steve on Economists and Extended Families
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Steve Sailer is on another one of his hot streaks. Here and here, he argues that economists undervalue how much people tend to behave like members of extended families. Here he dismantles a dumb piece by the NYTimes' Tony Horwitz and gives an informative lesson in California history while doing so. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 12, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, July 7, 2006

Long Life, and Quality of Life
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Brits may be living a decently long time, but they're also suffering more years of ill-health than the citizens of most other EU countries. The average British male now lives for over 76 years -- but he's healthy for only 61 of them. Meanwhile, Italian men spend, on average, almost 72 years in good health. An Italian journalist gives the Brits some tips. Some of his recommendations: Take it easy. Avoid jogging. Don't agonize so much about work. Eat your pasta al dente. Drink a little red wine. Have a nap after lunch. Take a little walk after dinner. And live in a nice climate, for heaven's sake. (Links thanks to NewEconomist.) Best, Michael Blowhard... posted by Michael at July 7, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

GNXP Interviews Steven Pinker
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- GNXP's Darth Quixote interviews Steven Pinker. Pinker's "The Blank Slate" has a chapter that's the best intro I know of to the way evo-bio and brain science affect thinking about the arts. Culturefans can also learn a lot in a very short time from Denis Dutton's brilliant essay "Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 7, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Facts for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Among Americans, average daily calorie intake "increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000." (Source.) Meanwhile, for the first time in 20 years, soft-drink sales are falling. (Source.) The category isn't expected to bounce back any time soon. According to a Morgan Stanley beverage-industry analyst, soft drinks are expected to continue "to lose their positive image as a popular, versatile, fun beverage choice as consumers are cutting back on sugar, drinking more water and watching calories." Could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Fat-American era? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fact for the Day: Cheerleader Injuries
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- An item in Prevention Magazine informs me that "over the past 10 years, the number of cheerleaders sent to the hospital with an injury has more than doubled." (The fact isn't online that I can tell, but here's Prevention's website.) That's an impressive increase. Still, given how virtuosic -- not to say insane -- the stunts are that cheerleading teams perform these days, I can't say that I'm entirely surprised. Best, Michael UPDATE: Aha, here's an article citing the original research a little more directly: "In a study published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, the authors conclude the number of emergency room visits for cheerleaders between the ages of 5 and 18 increased 110 percent from 1990 to 2002." According to the report, 16,000 cheerleaders are injured "seriously" every year. I notice that typing "cheerleading" and "stunt" into YouTube yields over 500 video hits.... posted by Michael at June 10, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, June 9, 2006

Science Trivia
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 4/5ths of what the brash young Einsteins at GNXP discuss sails right over my head. But every now and then something comes along that even my English-major brain can latch onto. For instance: Did you know that East Asians have less b.o. -- er, fewer Apocrine sweat glands -- than people of Euro and African descent do? (It's true, says Wikipedia.) Nice of them to put up with the rest of us. I also loved being led by a comment on this posting to this jaw-dropping article about one of the most isolated population groups in the world: the Sentinelese, a tribe of around 250 living (almost) undisturbed in Stone Age conditions on an island in the Bay of Bengal. A fascinating passage: It is not certain whether, outside the Andaman Islands, there still exists any community that has had as little contact with civilization as the Sentinelese. Pandit and his colleagues say there is none. Several American anthropologists I have spoken to agree with them. (But then, they had not previously heard of the Sentinelese, either.) The "Stone Age" tribes I read about in college, ten years ago, were - I now discover - already well acquainted with the outside world, and are now even more so. The Yanomami ("the fierce people," as the subtitle of one of my textbooks described them) prostitute themselves to Brazilian gold miners, while the !Kung San are chased off game reserves to make way for eco-tourism in the Kalahari Desert. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 9, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Diet Books
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Eager to lose ten pounds, I've recently been spending time with diet books. (It's soooo much more satisfying to read and make plans than it is to take action, don't you think?) I've leafed through a bunch of them, and I've spent serious time with three. As someone who once followed the book-publishing industry closely, I enjoyed exploring these books as much for their characteristics as books as for their content. My general reaction: What an over-edited, by-the-numbers genre diet books have become! Start with a description of the crisis ... Devote 'way too many pages to the "science" of whatever your angle is ... Keep ringing and then re-ringing the alarm bells ... Finally volunteer the eating advice you've been withholding (it's usually worth about a dozen pages) ... Then finish with a small collection of recipes. Decorate the whole with bullet points, boxes, multiple fonts, quotes from authority figures, and bossy language ... Hey, isn't it strange how the business memo has become a model for books? In fact, isn't it strange how central the business memo has become as an organizing metaphor in American life? Note to self: Write heavily bullet-pointed blogposting about the business-memo form. And the length of diet books: Have there been many that really needed more than 100 pages? Yet few clock in at less than 350 pages. Why are books that are meant to guide us into living more elegantly themselves so overstuffed? Sad fact: Americans are impulse-buyers who love quantity, not quality. In the bookbiz this is widely felt to be the case anyway. Publishing efforts are forever being made to make books (especially pop and/or "bestseller"-style books) look thicker than they really should be. Check out how big the margins of thrillers are, and how very many chapters they're divided into. Publishers want the saps who buy their reading material from bins at discount stores to think, "Wow, for only $11.95 I can have myself a hardcover copy of a novel by someone whose name I've heard of! And it's really long! Now that's getting value for my money!" Hey, Americans: Grow up! Quit letting yourselves be taken advantage of by cynical big-city media operators who look down on you! Come to think of it, our preference for quantity over quality might be one of the main reasons we're so fat in the first place ... Some brief notes on the three books I looked at closely. Here come the bullet points! Although Joel Fuhrman's "Eat to Live" was my least-favorite of these books, I couldn't tear myself away from it. I found it transfixing in a gruesome kind of way. Fuhrman hits the ground running with a "You're gonna die if you don't take action now!" tone, and then cranks it up to a pitch of pure hysteria. And many of the recipes he supplies are recognizable by even a tyro foodie like me as awful. To be fair, there's probably some substance... posted by Michael at June 1, 2006 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Food-Prep for Newbies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since this seems to have become Food Week here at 2Blowhards, why not enjoy the theme and indulge in a little food-linkage? Although I woke up to the fascination of food over 30 years ago, I spent nearly all that time completely uninterested in food preparation. One morning a couple of years ago, though, I woke up thinking, "Am I nuts?" And since then, I've been edging my way in. Doing a little boiling and sauteeing ... a little chopping ... a lot of tasting and sniffing and feeling ... risking the occasional run to Whole Foods ... even taking a few classes. (Knife skills are a must.) Verdict: It has all been rewarding. Tastes! Nourishment! The pleasures of craft! Where's the downside? Part of the fun has been swapping notes with visitor Bryan Castaneda. Although Bryan has raced far ahead of me, he started out along the food-prep path at about the same time I did, and it has been valuable and interesting trading impressions and tips with him. Perhaps some people who are thinking about edging into food-prep but who feel a little lost might enjoy checking out some of the resources that Bryan and I have found most helpful. After all, so much seems to be taken for granted by those already in the food-know that it can be difficult to find early footing. And the experts who have access to the conventional press often have no idea how bewildering it can be to set off in a new field. Hey, isn't that one of the great things about blogging? Real people getting the chance to compare notes with each other about what it's like being a real person? Anyway: Bryan and I bond tightest over our enthusiasm for the Food Network's Alton Brown. Not to be too evasive about this: Alton Brown is the food-dude for the typical American male. He's a regular, if geekish, guy who happens to love the whole enjoying-food thing, and who has gone out and learned a lot about it, darn it. He doesn't even claim to be the world's greatest chef. ("I'm not into fancy presentations," I remember him saying in one episode.) Let's face it: Much of what's off-putting to many hetero-American males about the world of food is the way the vibe can seem snobbish, or feminine, or (gasp!) European. Alton takes away all those curses. He's as all-American-boy as can be -- in his eagerness, his energy, his curiosity, and his unpretentiousness. Which makes me wonder if women are as prone to be Alton fans as many men are ... Alton's show is as remarkable as his vibe and his advice. He doesn't just tell you to repeat after him. He gives you the whys and the wherefores: a little history, a little chemistry. And he doesn't just stand behind a counter and cook. Alton delivers a real TV show. (It's called "Good Eats," by the way). Media guy that I... posted by Michael at April 20, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Neanderthals: Hawt or Not?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love it when the postings-and-commentsfests at GNXP careen almost out of control, don't you? It's a wonderful chance to glimpse what's really on the minds of evo-bio brainiacs. Do Neanderthal genes still stir among us? Why are women and men so different? Is there anything special about blondeness? And -- crucially -- what's the best strategy for getting dates with hot chicks? Geeks, eh? More highly-evolved than the rest of us? Or just a little puzzled by this whole being-human thing? In any case, my congrats and thanks to Razib and company for sponsoring such a good party. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 11, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- According to The Straight Dope, "Per capita soft drink consumption has doubled since 1970; the typical American currently consumes 56 gallons per year." Pass me another Big Gulp, would you please? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 4, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Saturday, February 25, 2006

French Notes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Tyler Cowen and commenters recommend the Best of Paris. Time to book a table at Pierre Gagnaire. * Here's yet more on the French Paradox -- ie., how do they eat such rich food yet stay so slim? The key facts: The French eat smaller amounts than we do while making a bigger deal out of eating-rituals. Portion control plays a major role in the equation. Nearly every serving of every food-substance is larger in America than it is in Paris, and sometimes remarkably larger: "A supermarket soft drink in the US was 52 per cent larger, a hotdog 63 per cent larger, a carton of yoghurt 82 per cent larger." A croissant in America is likely to be twice the size of a French croissant. Plus, the French are vain, and they hardly ever snack. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 25, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Hot New Restaurant
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Julienned dog penis, anyone? (Link thanks to DazeReader). Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 25, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, February 17, 2006

Age, Energy, Exercise
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My cancer operation didn't just throw me for an emotional/spiritual loop, it also dramatically changed my experience of my body. Though I was 47 when I was wheeled into the operating room, I felt physically the same as I had at 32. I emerged from surgery-and-recovery in quite a different state. Five years after surgery, my body feels like anything but that of a boyish 32-year-old. These days it feels more than a little broken-down. Pretty much overnight, I went from having a resilient and eager physical frame to having equipment that is creaky and dilapidated. I don't know why this should have been the case. Did being scared and operated-on take something out of me in a once-and-for-all kind of way? Or perhaps at 47 I was simply refusing to admit to myself how old I'd actually grown. Maybe the scare and the surgery shocked me into letting go of a few self-delusions. I was certainly prepared to endure some significant disruptions. My surgeon told me it might take as long as a year before I'd feel like myself, and others who'd been through the same procedure warned me that full recovery would take much longer than that. (Expert techies though they often are, surgeons seldom seem to know what it's like to be the person going through surgery.) What I wasn't prepared for, though, was the fact that my body would change for good, and that it would never return to what it had been before. The main indicator of these developments was my energy level. During my first year post-surgery, I conducted myself as a near-model invalid. I was calm and self-protective, but I was also gently diligent about exploring and nursing my recuperating bod. And I was rewarded; recovery proceeded encouragingly. Six months after being cut, I was making it reasonably well through full workdays; nine months after the knife I was able to enjoy a real vacation. I was walking, sleeping, and eating comfortably. I'd even begun a very modest return to the gym. Hello, old ladies in aquacise class! God knows my emotions and my thoughts were all over the place: "I've been operated-on for cancer! Eeek!" But, where da bod and its recovery were concerned, I was content. I could feel my energy levels building back up, however slowly. I would be my fit and vigorous old self again soon, I knew it. Soon after the first anniversary of my surgery passed, though, my energy levels stopped creeping up. They'd returned to about 80% of the usual, and there matters stalled. Had I plateau'd? Surely it wouldn't be long until ... Maybe I was pushing too hard. Or perhaps I wasn't pushing hard enough. Maybe I wasn't getting enough sleep. I'd put on weight after surgery -- maybe that was a problem. (What good had years of being a food-and-health-nut done for me, after all? I'd come down with cancer at 47. So during my post-surgery year... posted by Michael at February 17, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Intuition and the Arts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was following an especially interesting commentsfest on a Razib posting over at GNXP when I found the following contribution leaping out of me. Not elegantly-put, to say the least. And certainly semi-off-topic where Razib's posting was concerned. (Sorry, Razib.) But I think I stand by it anyway. Actually I'm pleased with it -- it can be great fun to converse with hyper-smart people who have had little experience of the culture-game! It forces you to explain yourself in very basic terms while still respecting the overwhelming mass of IQ points in the room. So I'm treating myself to a little copying-and-pasting. Here's hoping others don't find my efforts a complete waste of time. The general topic -- so far as I was concerned, anyway -- were the questions: "What can be hoped-for from the social sciences?", and "Are intuition and folk psychology our friends or our enemies"? Here's my scribble: Am I sensing a general hostility towards intuition around here? If so: Not that intuition can't mislead us. But why view it as the enemy? Intuitions are often right, or at least helpful, god knows. And I'll take issue with the idea that they result entirely from experience. What experience has suggested to me is that intuitions often arise from some pre-experiential layer. BTW, aren't scientists often using their intuition and calling on their instincts? If not, then that's really scary. But I'll speak up for folk psychology and common sense too. They may be something to contend with and be wary of where advancing-science is concerned. But where leading-a-rewarding-life is concerned, they're often far more helpful than science is. I mean, it's nice to get your inoculations and your dental work done, etc. I like heating and air-conditioning too. But you also need to know how to deal with your boss, who to avoid on the street, what your wife may be up to, when it's time to change jobs, etc. And there's little that science can do to help you with any of that. And, since 90% of humanity is more interested in leading a rewarding life than in advancing-science, why not view intuition, folk psychology, and common sense in a more friendly and appreciative fashion? Perhaps they've evolved for good and understandable reasons, after all. They may be your enemies in the lab, but that doesn't mean they're "bad" in the abstract. It also doesn't mean they aren't often hyper-useful outside the lab. I like Razib's idea of "constraining the sample space" where the social sciences are concerned. That seems useful, as well as semi-possible. The prob with the social sciences is really the whole human factor. We aren't just wet machines. And so building probabalistic wiggle room into the equations, while better than not doing so, still misses a big part of life: the whole will/desire thang. We aren't just slightly-less-predictable ants, after all. We're actually out there making choices, taking conscious action, and altering contexts by doing so.... posted by Michael at February 9, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Low-Fat Begone
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So maybe a high-fat diet doesn't contribute to cancer or heart disease after all. (Link thanks to Shannon Love, who supplies a nice line: "Low-fat diets appeal to puritanical moralists of all stripes.") A Berkeley statistician is quoted: "We, in the scientific community, often give strong advice based on flimsy evidence." I'll say. Do you suppose the time will ever come when the health-tips industry learns a little modesty? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 8, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments

Group Differences 7
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * A Swiss study finds that the Italian-Swiss bond tightly with their families, while the German-Swiss tend to "keep a safe distance from their relatives." * Susan Crain Bakos has discovered that she has the hots for black men, and for reasons that probably won't surprise you. * In "Boy Vey!", her advice book for Christian gals dating Jewish guys, Kristina Grish reveals that Jewish guys like to make jokes, are germophobic, have scarily powerful mothers, can often be found in law and medical offices, are warm and eager-to-please in the sack, and kvetch a lot. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 8, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Which Way to Go?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Hmmm. Shall I skip the fish-oil pills and die of heart disease? Or shall I take them and die of prostate cancer? Choices, choices ... Best, Michael UPDATE: Oops, I misremembered the article. Fish oil is still safe. It's corn oil you want to consume if you're eager to die of prostate cancer.... posted by Michael at February 4, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is goal-oriented monotheistic Christianity the explanation for why the West developed capitalism and science? Rodney Stark certainly thinks so. The American Enterprise endorses his argument, but Razib has some nits to pick with it ... Speaking as an instinctively polytheistic/Om'ing kinda guy, I'm agnostic on this one. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 1, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, January 27, 2006

G and the Arts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Agnostic has written a couple of extensive, provocative, and informative postings about race, sex, brainpower, and success in the high-fashion world. (Here and here.) I'm not sure I fully understand them or even have the G to keep up, but I certainly enjoyed having myself a wrestle with his arguments. My main problem with much speculation about G/IQ and the arts is that most of what's asserted doesn't jibe with my experience. For the IQ-is-everything crowd, nothing explains success in the arts better than G. For me, nothing -- nothing -- has been more basic to my experience of the arts over the course of three decades than the fact that many talented and successful creative-types simply aren't very smart, and that many supersmart people who would like to be creative in the artistic sense simply don't have the creativity knack. This isn't what I expected to find when I went into the arts, by the way. Like many Smart Kids, I'd been led by profs (and my own gullibility) to expect that brainpower was always and everywhere a good thing. That being so, and all other things being equal, Smart Kids would do better creatively in the arts than not-so-Smart Kids. Wrong-o. Anything but. I write as no G/IQ skeptic. I'm happy to agree that there's such a thing as cognitive horsepower, and that it tends to make a big difference in a person's life. But the arts seem to be a bit of an exception to many of the G/IQ-fundamentalist crowd's rules. This isn't some theory I'm imposing. It's how I've found the arts to be. Creative artists certainly need to have the wherewithal to be semi-functional human beings. The severely mentally-defective generally aren't going to be creative artists, though the exceptions are certainly fascinating. But past a low level of acceptability, cognitive horsepower may or may not play a positive role in a given artist's life and work. As far as I've been able to tell, there's no hard and fast rule about this. A few practical questions that need wrestling with: How to define success in the arts? Answering this question is harder than it may look. Do you define success by comparing salaries? (But can Sly Stallone be called a better actor than many of the people he out-earns?) By asking profs to supply the rankings and make the judgment calls? (But profs ... Well, patooie on them.) And how about such basic questions as, How to compare across genres within a given art form? Was Mozart more or less successful than Robert Johnson? Mozart was a gift from the gods, of course. But Robert Johnson ... Well, he played a big role in establishing the Delta blues. That's a pretty divine thing too. My own solution to this dilemma: Mozart was a Very Big Deal, and so was Robert Johnson. Elegant! But it doesn't help sort the ranking question out much, does it? There's the subjective factor, which... posted by Michael at January 27, 2006 | perma-link | (42) comments

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Exercise (1)
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Suppose you're an expert, even an authority figure. Let's say you're the medical establishment! As you'd expect, everyday people come to you in good faith looking for useful and trustworthy advice. Perhaps they want to be fit and healthy, and to feel physically better! Let's say you give them your field's best advice. And let's say it turns out that almost no one is able to follow it. How would you explain this result? Would you wonder if something's amiss with your advice? Or would you conclude that everyday people are hopeless, disgraceful failures? It seems to me that, when reality proves balky, all too many experts put the blame on reality. Experts do seem to love looking at their studies, consulting with their peers, and laying their logically-deduced and inescapable advice on the rest of us. When we protest against it, dodge it, or drop out entirely, their response is to wash their hands contemptuously of us. After all, we aren't experts -- thus we must be losers. So it's a thing to be cherished and applauded when the experts show evidence of questioning their own role in this dynamic. Maybe impossible-to-follow advice contributes to making the original problem -- the one the expert advice was supposed to solve -- worse. Perhaps inhuman attitudes make many people rebel. Radical thought: Perhaps the experts' job isn't to boss us civilians around; perhaps it's to serve us. If the experts are handing out advice that 95% of us are unable to make use of, perhaps that isn't evidence of our inadequacy. Perhaps it's a sign that the experts have failed. Testy though I probably sound, these are in fact grateful reflections prompted by time spent with an excellent new how-to-be-healthy book, Dr. Harvey Simon's "The No Sweat Exercise Plan." Simon is a Harvard Med School doc who has taken note not just of the familiar fact that many Americans are leading sluggish, TV-addled, movement-free lives. (Interesting figure: the average American spends 101 minutes of the average day sitting in a car.) He has also taken note of the fact that most people haven't proven to be capable of being regular cardio-aerobic exercisers. This is no "You're outta shape, now get your sorry ass to the gym!" book, in other words. After all, as well-established as is the fact that many Americans are in sloppily-bad shape, so is the fact that very few people are capable of being regular gym maniacs. Although I'm as un-expert as a person can be, I still don't find this remotely surprising, do you? The prospect of exercising, sheesh ... You grit your way through a grueling cardio routine, you follow it up by pushing around a few weights -- and then you have to do it again tomorrow. And so on, unto eternity. Aches, pains, injuries ... What's appealing about this prescription? Isn't it enough to slog through the commute, stay awake at work, tend to the house, keep the... posted by Michael at January 10, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Evo-Bio and the Arts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Edge asks a lot of tiptop brainiacs "What's your dangerous idea?" Denis Dutton responds with a snappy intro to the promise evolutionary biology holds out to reinvogorate thinking about the arts. Writing for TCS, Nick Gillespie visits the Modern Language Association's recent get-together and returns with a report about the ways some arty academic scholars are beginning to make use of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. It's about time. After 30 years spent turning narcissistic, Frenchified pirouettes, arts-scholars really do owe it to the rest of us to start contributing a little something of substance to the conversation. I've been a big fan of these developments since the '80s: Darwinism and neuroscience hold out the possibility of mutual respect between high-level academic thinking and our everyday experience of culture. On the other hand, well, honestly: I sometimes wonder why we worry about academics, academic criticism, and academic scholarship at all. Do the arts derive much benefit from the attentions of academic intellectuals? With every passing year I'm less convinced they do. Perhaps those of us who get a lot out of the culture-thang would do better to ignore academia entirely. Let 'em play their stupid games, and let's get on with life. Still, it can be awfully nice when brainy people say helpful things. So if anyone's curious and wants to dip a toe in the evo-bio/neuroscience/arts waters, let me suggest a few resources. Ellen Dissanayake's "Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why" is a fabulous blend of anthropology and Darwinism: down-to-earth (Dissanayake has done a lot of field work), open-minded (she's an independent scholar, not a brown-noser out for tenure), and put together with an exciting fervor. Francis-Nol Thomas and Mark Turner's "Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose" is every bit as mind-blowing. It's a how-to-write-well book that's also a discussion of the connections between neuroscience and classicism. Like the Dissanayake, it's a fun and accessible read. The best web-freebie resource I'm aware of for this kind of material is Denis Dutton's own website, where he makes available a lot of his essays, all of them brilliant brain-openers, and all of them written with Dutton's brand of 18th-century-ish cheerful vigor and humane good sense. Here's Dutton on Dissanayake, and Dutton on Mark Turner. Dutton also guides the interested to many other books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, November 14, 2005

Save Dying Languages?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not sure there's an official list, but items in the press claim that around 6,000 languages are spoken in the world. It's axiomatic that languages develop in isolation, and a corollary of speedy modern travel and inexpensive telecommunication is that the isolation is rapidly ending and minor languages are dying. Academic analysts speculate that X% or Y% of all languages will disappear over the next 50, 100 or however-many years. A number of those same academicians have Declared A Crisis. In my opinion, the crisis is pretty much one for the academicians themselves, at least those who specialize in linguistics: they will run out of subject-matter. Some of their arguments are worthy of Spinmeister Hall of Fame status. (For example, read this or else Google on "dying languages." Even UNESCO and The Discovery Channel are in on the action.) One argument for language preservation is that isolated languages embody folk-wisdom offering insights into herbs or leaves or bark or other substances that can cure one disease or another. Therefore I must conclude if a language becomes lost, I might DIE!!! Uh, okay. Another argument that catches my attention is based on the assumption that languages are like genes or DNA and that the loss of a language is equivalent to the extinction of a biological species. I find the first argument a pathetic stretch and the second one absurd. What exactly might a language spoken by 250 people living near the Amazon River possess that, if lost, could never ever be reinvented in the future? If they have 12 names for beetles, that is nothing compared to taxonomies already performed by biologists. And if they have eight names for various types of tropical rainfall, so what? That information would be irrelevant to an Arabian nomad and the same information could be largely conveyed in other languages by use of adjectives. Furthermore, unlike biological traits that slowly change from generation to generation, languages can be modified almost instantaneously. English seems to be particularly adept at incorporating words. No English word expressing that tinge of pleasure people sometimes feel at others' misfortune? -- then borrow the German word schadenfreude. And in the far future if English is the last language standing? -- then invent a word if the concept is an important one ("blog," anyone?). With the end of isolation, a drastic reduction in the language-count is inevitable. Attempts by outsiders to maintain a small language's viability strike me as being elitist fantasies. The elitist can feel smug about doing A Good Thing while the speakers of the minor language remain mired in semi-isolated poverty, being little more than zoo-animals for the elitists and academics to coo over. Romantic fantasizing aside, it must be recognized that people are usually rational caretakers of their own well-being. The spread of railroads in Nineteenth Century France created motivation for villagers to abandon their dialects because they could be more prosperous if they could deal with traders who only... posted by Donald at November 14, 2005 | perma-link | (32) comments

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Weight Loss Industry
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to visitor (and weight-and-diet expert) PeggyNature, who called my attention to Paul Campos' "The Obesity Myth." Campos' book is a lot more than just provocative. Spiked Online runs a substantial excerpt here. Eye-opening passage: We should be encouraging Americans to be physically active, to eat well, and to provide reasonable access to medical care for those among us who lack it. What we should not be doing is telling Americans that they will improve their health by trying to lose weight. There is very little evidence that attempts to achieve weight loss will improve the health of most people who undertake them, and a great deal of evidence that such attempts do more harm than good. Perhaps the time has come to throw those diet books away. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2005 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, October 9, 2005

What We Eat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm down and nearly out with a bad cold. Since it's my first illness of any kind in more than two years, I'm not complaining. And, although I'm miffed that I'm spending weekend days rather than work days sick, I'm in fact having fun, if of a slow-moving, headachey kind: napping, blackmailing attention and sympathy out of The Wife, and solving Sudoku puzzles. Hey, free Sudoku puzzles -- including tons of the really, really easy kind that suit my mental capacities -- can be found here. I'm also having a good time subsisting on the kind of all-carbs, lousy food so many people seem to like eating when they're sick. In my case, I've gotten through the past two days on little but Wheat Thins and orange juice. Did you know that Wheat Thins now come in a "Whole Grain and No-Trans Fats" variety? Not to fear: They're as heavily salted and full of corn syrup as ever. My sick diet leaves me wondering: Do we eat the crappy way we do when we're sick because that's the way being sick makes us want to eat? Ie., is there some biochemical reason behind why we eat this way? Or do we eat the crappy way we do when we're sick because being sick gives us license to take a holiday from responsible eating? Searching my innermost soul at this moment, I have no idea what the answer to my question might be. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 9, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Group Characteristics 4
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's a rousing passage from Charles Murray's recent Commentary essay, "The Inequality Taboo": Let us start talking about group differences openlyall sorts of group differences, from the visuospatial skills of men and women to the vivaciousness of Italians and Scots. Let us talk about the nature of the manly versus the womanly virtues. About differences between Russians and Chinese that might affect their adoption of capitalism. About differences between Arabs and Europeans that might affect the assimilation of Arab immigrants into European democracies. About differences between the poor and non-poor that could inform policy for reducing poverty. Hear hear to that. And in that spirit, I've been citing rowdy, informal acknowledgments of group characteristics. Although in our public lives we're expected to play along with the PC dogma that we're all alike, on a day-to-day basis we know better --and we're often honest, friendly, and funny about our experience and our knowledge. My latest find: a blog posting by Maloy, a young woman of Asian descent who has been spending time in Italy. Maloy writes a posting she calls "An Asian Girl's Guide to Dating Asian Men Overseas." The prim are hereby forewarned: Maloy is one modern and verbally uninhibited gal. There are good reasons why she calls her blog "House of Whoreship." Here's some of what I learned from Maloy's posting: Australian Asians: "Usually have lots of hobbies and play at least one sport ... Has a pretty good idea of what the deal is in Asia, eg. you can only have sex in his parents' house and only if his parents are in Perth and it's the maid's day off ... They know how to kiss ass to your parents. Will immediately call them 'Auntie' and 'Uncle' and have the right kind of gift to give every time he sees them ..." British-born Asians: "They usually cook, after all those years of working in their parents' takeaways ... Hardly any meals at restaurants. They'd rather cook for you, plus they know what the truth is behind restaurants and are probably too scared to ever eat out again." Asian Canadians: "Are independent and fairly knowledgeable about other cultures, as well as being reliable. Willing to have sex in a karaoke joint. Cheap dates at local eateries. And you'll have to split the bill." Asian Americans: "Sexually repressed due to their upbringing, and they usually look at a lot of porn ... Talks about money to you. God, the shame. The only time you should talk to an Asian girl about money is when you're telling her how much you're planning to give her ... PDA abusers. Be prepared to have your ass fondled in public." Who knew? But now I do know, thanks to the "House of Whoreship" girl. By the way, did you notice Nicholas Wade's latest NYTimes piece? Wade is the Times' evo-bio guy, and the Times deserves a lot of credit for keeping a good reporter hard at work on... posted by Michael at September 11, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Athletes: Genetic Freaks?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There really are (in some cases) biologically-based differences between (some) people. Heavens, but it feels good to be living in a world where such a thing can be said out loud without everyone within earshot getting hysterical. So let me say it again: There really are (in some cases) biologically-based differences between (some) people. Wow, the sense of relief and expansiveness that I feel! I wonder if younger people have any idea what it was like to get an education in the '60s and the '70s, those decades of extreme Blank Slate-ism. We're all alike; all differences are purely cultural ... If you were trying to move in circles that fancied themselves to be "educated circles," you were obligated to bow down before these two claims. Anyone Who Was Anyone simply knew that they were true, after all. And Anyone Who Disagreed, ipso facto, deserved to be treated as a Nazi until he/she proved otherwise. So it's been fun -- and immensely satisfying -- to watch genetic and biological research pile up showing that biological differences can and do exist between individuals, as well as between population groups. God knows that it's a moment to be relished when scientific findings and common experience jibe. And an even more tasty treat when they contradict and confound the vanities and lies of privileged people. Great Steve Sailer quote: There are lots of important and popular people who don't seem to mind lying, and, indeed, think better of themselves for lying in a fashionable cause. In fact, the more blatant the lie, they appear to believe, the greater the moral credit they deserve. Some interesting data showed up yesterday in a good Wall Street Journal "On Sports" column by Sam Walker. It seems that, for a long time now, docs and researchers have been prodding elite athletes in order to determine if their athletic excellence has some biological bases. Answer: You betcha. As Walker writes: "While genetics is only one part of the formula for greatness, scientists agree that in order to be truly dominant, an athlete has to be -- to some degree -- a genetic freak." Some of the findings Walker cites: Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has flipper-like feet: size 14 monsters that are as flexible as a ballerina's. Andy Roddick, who owns tennis' fastest serve, can arch his back 44% farther than can the average tennis pro. The soccer star Mia Hamm produces half as much sweat as the average soccer player. While it takes a typical civilian 300 milliseconds to make a reactive decision, the average race car driver is able to react and respond in 270 milliseconds -- a difference that means a lot when your car is going 200 miles an hour. One of the most remarkable physical specimens in the world is the great bicyclist Lance Armstrong. Armstrong's heart is 20% larger than a normal person's, and his body produces one-third less lactic acid than do the bodies of other... posted by Michael at July 23, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, June 17, 2005

Women's Brains, Men's Brains
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Steve Sailer linked to a terrific article by the LATimes' Robert Lee Hotz. Its pretext is a Canadian psychologist who dissects and compares brains named Sandra Witelson. But its real subject is the anatomical differences between female and male brains. First, a handful of basic facts: In the prime of life, the cerebral cortex contains 25 billion neurons linked through 164 trillion synapses. Thoughts thread through 7.4 million miles of dendrite fibers and 62,000 miles of axons so compacted that the entire neural network is no larger than a coconut. Now to the sexy stuff: [Men's brains are on average larger than women's brains. But --]Women's brains ... seem to be faster and more efficient than men's. All in all, men appear to have more gray matter, made up of active neurons, and women more of the white matter responsible for communication between different areas of the brain. Overall, women's brains seem to be more complexly corrugated, suggesting that more complicated neural structures lie within, researchers at UCLA found in August. Men and women appear to use different parts of the brain to encode memories, sense emotions, recognize faces, solve certain problems and make decisions. Indeed, when men and women of similar intelligence and aptitude perform equally well, their brains appear to go about it differently, as if nature had separate blueprints. As far as I can tell, what this basically means is that, if people were computers, women would be Macs and men would be PC's. Meanwhile, a Royal Society study concludes (among other things) that "men [are] four times more likely than women to be working in or studying science." Interesting info that someone ought to forward to Larry Summers' office. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 17, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A medical doctor involved in research who I happened to talk with the other day told me that we're entering a fascinating but dicey time in medicine. Fascinating because treatments are emerging that are helpful for people of one race but not helpful for people of other races. Dicey because, for these treatments to become viable, various elites and establishments will have to wrestle with the idea that some distinctions between races really do exist -- and on fairly deep, indeed biological, levels. Talk about the ultimate challenge to Political Correctness! Logical Meme reviews some of what science knows about biological differences between races. I assume visitors have followed the news about the Cochran-Harpending-Hardy research suggesting that there may be genetic links between brainpower and certain diseases in Ashkenazi Jews. If not, Steve Sailer and GNXP will bring you up to date. Steve's Vdare article does a terrific job of summing up the story, as well as its ramifications. Congrats to Razib & Co., by the way: GNXP just turned the ripe old blog-age of three. I've learned a lot from hanging around the rowdy brainiacs at GNXP. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 9, 2005 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Incompleteness and Drug Development
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Was it circa 1990 when we were all informed that life as we knew was about to change? Designer drugs and genetic engineering were right on the horizon, and nothing would ever be the same again. What became of that excitement? Whatever happened to those miracle treatments? And were all those predictions just ... so much hooey? Derek Lowe writes a wonderful posting about the heady days. Key passage: Another drug [from the era] is an glycoprotein IIb/IIIa compound for cardiovascular disease from Genentech. This, I assume, is what eventually turned into sibrafiban. Unfortunately, that whole class of drugs didn't work out too well when compared head-to-head against aspirin, and that was pretty much that ... Those ... examples show you exactly why we're not awash in those wonderful 90's drugs right now. The most important parts of drug development are not yet amenable to a rational approach. We simply don't know enough. Hey, life isn't yet amenable to a rational approach. And I'm willing to bet we'll never know enough. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 18, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Thinking and Language
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Doesn't it sometimes seem as though scientists spend much of their time "discovering" what everyone already knows? Case in point: I don't know about you, but I've always been amazed by the way so many science and philosophy types are convinced that thought is language-dependent; it's only with the development of language that thinking became possible, etc., etc. Sez who? Am I really supposed to believe that my visual and music friends -- few of whom can put together a coherent sentence -- aren't doing any thinking? Am I being asked to agree that visuals and music can't be tools for thought? There goes art history; there goes Bach; there goes Louis Armstrong. What's so special about the wordy thing we speak anyway -- aren't there many kinds of languages? Classical architecture, for example. And aren't manners well-understood as a language of social behavior? To be even more basic: what am I meant to make of all those dogs, cats, and squirrels I've seen who are clearly puzzling problems out? ("Where's that doggy treat? Over here? If not, then maybe it's over here! No? OK, so maybe it's under the rug instead!") Why are we meant to agree that what these language-less creatures are doing doesn't qualify as thinking? It seems to me, for one thing, that what dogs-cats-squirrels are doing at such moments is the equal in "thinking" of what I spend much of my day doing. I'm more word-based than most, but even so, I seem to get through most days without doing much focused word-based thinking. I may have a nonsensical noodle-soup of words, images, and phrase fragments sloshing around my skull. But I kick into active word-based-thinking-mode only occasionally, and only when the situation really demands it. Granted that I may be on simple zombie-autopilot for some of these hours. During others, though, I can manage to be pretty sharp. Can we really say that during these on-the-ball hours I'm not-thinking? Again: sez who? Please explain, then, how I'm managing to get by. My own experience suggests that I'm not not-thinking at such times; it suggests instead that I'm doing thinking of a nonverbal kind. So I was pleased to run across this BBC report. New research suggests that thinking may not be entirely language-dependent after all. Sample passage: According to many academics, people are much cleverer than other animals because language gives them a higher order of thought. But these [new] findings suggest cleverness and language might not be as closely connected as once assumed ... 'Despite profound language deficits these guys showed advanced cognitive abilities,' [said a scientist about his subjects], 'which indicates considerable autonomy between language and thinking.' Not for the first time, science has -- after much ponderous deliberation -- reached the conclusion that snow is cold and fire is hot. Why do you suppose scientists often seem stunned to discover that reality is ... what reality is? And why do scientists focus so tightly on... posted by Michael at February 19, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Digital, and Prestidigital
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, A while back, you (Michael) wrote about the impact of digital technologies on culture. This is a delayed and lengthened response to your post, though I expect to wander off-topic from time to time (which reminds me of a comment of Archie's concerning Jughead: "his mind wanders but it never gets very far. . . . ") Is Digital a Big Deal? I spent a number of years at a well-regarded art school. My role as an administrator rather than as an artist or professor distanced me from the issues, but at the same time allowed me to consider them at a certain, potentially useful, remove. I remember asking various high-level academics some years ago whether digital photography would essentially supplant film in the academy, or whether the darkroom would live on. The answer at that time was that film would indeed live on, at least as a pedagogic device, much the way drawing continues to serve as a foundation. I was skeptical, concluding was that academics were the true conservatives (a proposition which, while surprising some academics, should come as no surprise to people who deal with them). But the impact of digital could be delayed but not denied. When I asked some of the same folks recently, they acknowledged that film might indeed go the way of the dodo and the daguerreotype. So, in answer to your question: sure, yeah, digital is a big deal. And mostly, I think, that's because of Moore's Law. As long as the power of digital increases at the rate Moore postulated, it's the better bet in the long run. Picture pictures fifty or a hundred years hence, digital vesus film . . . which medium will offer more in the way of visual chops? [note: film people invited to chime in here and call me a moron . . . ] But here's my caveat, and my segue. Caveat The caveat: my conservative art school pals also maintained that digital in the final analysis is "just another medium" and, at the risk of sounding like a conservative myself, on this I think I agree with them. To choose one application, digital photography may well make many new things possible, but in what way is it likely to be deeply transformative? I don't know. Will narrative be affected? Maybe, but is Sky Captain anything really new, even with the actors emoting in front of a blue screen? I don't mean to suggest that Sky Captain isn't a breakthough in any number of dimensions . . . I'm just not sure anything really deep has occured in this digital achievement. Segue And here's the segue: if you ask me, the more profound effects on culture will be felt from the genetic revolution, not the digital one. Digital technologies provide for new tools; genetic technologies for new toolmakers--that's a big difference. It seems to me that when the promise of digital was new, we were prone to think it would... posted by Fenster at October 17, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Being Happy
Dear Blowhards -- I've had a good time recently reading up on what scientists and behavioral economists have learned about happiness. I'm a mere fan of this work and so have got nothing to add to what the pros say -- nothing much beyond, "Hey, it's about time you people looked into this," anyway. But I hope some visitors will enjoy a bouquet of happiness facts, tips, and links. Some of what happiness researchers now think they know: Everyone seems to have a pre-programmed "set point" for happiness -- a level of happiness they're genetically programmed for, and to which they'll always tend to return. There isn't much that can be done to change this set point. Genetics and inheritance seem to be responsible for as much as half your tendency towards happiness or unhappiness. Even huge positive changes in a person's life -- getting married, winning the lottery -- only affect happiness levels for about six months. The rich are certainly happier than the abject poor. But for most people, more money doesn't tend to lead to much additional happiness, at least once basic material needs have been met. Three of the hardest things to cope with emotionally are widowhood (or widowerhood), longterm unemployment, and caring for a sick loved one. The best way to deal with a case of severe, long-lasting unhappiness is to take a mood-boosting pill. In many cases, a six-month course of treatment will effectively jolt the depressed person out of his or her rut. Pursuing sex and status don't make people happy. They're things that we, being human, do -- but they don't necessarily lead to happiness. People who are forever chasing after happiness -- who crave blasts of euphoria -- tend to be much less happy than people who are willing to let life (and their moods) take their own course. Some tips for being happy: If your job isn't especially rewarding, pursue a hobby you love, one that delivers experiences of "flow." Don't focus too much on making money and buying things. Maintain a wide variety of friendships, and don't spend too much time alone. Cultivate gratitude and forgiveness, including forgiveness towards yourself. Don't try to feel great all the time -- that's not the way life works. Hey, why aren't these facts and tips better-known than they are? Geoffrey Miller has a hunch: Popular culture is dominated by advertisements that offer the following promise: buy our good or service, and your subjective well-being will increase. The happiness research demonstrates that most such promises are empty ... Some journalists may have realized that the happiness research challenges the consumerist dream-world upon which their advertising revenues depend their failure to report on the implications of the research for consumerism is probably no accident. They are in the business of selling readers to advertisers, not telling readers that advertising is irrelevant to their subjective well-being. And a bunch of happiness links to explore: Here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 2, 2004 | perma-link | (24) comments

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Social Pyramids
Dear Friedrich -- Gene Expression brainiac Razib wonders about something I've wondered about too. It goes roughly this way: once upon a time, there was a social pyramid, and its construction relied on inheritance, connections, tradition, family ties, etc. Boo, hiss, tear it down. These days, thanks to various kinds of "liberalization," that old-style pyramid has been semi-demolished. But but but ... Doesn't it seem as though the result isn't a life without a social pyramid, it's just a life with a new-style, roughly meritocratic pyramid? And if IQ correlates with economic success -- some claim it does -- and if IQ is to some extent heritable (many claim this is true), doesn't that mean that we've now got ourselves a new social pyramid that's likely to prove just as sticky and self-entrenching as the old one? I'm sometimes left wondering: so, although this change went under the banner of opportunity for all, was it really just a matter of one group trying to seize power from another? Razib, happily, is much smarter and more informed than I am. You can read his thinking on the topic here. Best, Michael UPDATE: I should have linked to the terrific Randall Parker posting Razib was bouncing off of. It's here. I notice that a commenter points out a similarity between Randall's point and Amy Chua's argument in "World on Fire" -- these are topics and thoughts that are in the air.... posted by Michael at April 29, 2004 | perma-link | (32) comments

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Is this the Reason Men Vote Republican?
Michael: As I mentioned, Ive been reading Spencer Wells book, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. (You can buy it here.) In it he traces the probable routes and timetables by which anatomically modern humans ("AMHs") settled the world outside of Africa. His main tools in this analysis are family trees generated by mutations in mitochondrial DNA ("mtDNA")which passes solely from mother to daughterand by mutations in the Y-chromosomewhich passes solely from father to son. Both of these show, by the way, that humanitys most recent common ancestorsAdam and Eve, so speaklived in Africa prior to the dispersal of humanity across the rest of the world. Unlike the Biblical Adam and Eve, however, these two universal ancestors were by no means the first AMHs. Both of these figures had AMH ancestors of their own stretching back thousands of years; and each had many contemporary AMHs who were also busy having children. It is simply that all the other father-to-son-to-son and mother-to-daughter-to-daughter lineages that were around at the same time as Adam and Eve have died out over the subsequent years. Although for many purposes the two types of genetic data (that is, male-to-male and female-to-female) complement each other, there are instances where they show very interesting divergences. One of the most striking divergences is how much more geographically precise the information revealed by Y-chromosome mutations is. In the words of Mr. Wells: When the Y was first studied as a marker of population affinity, one of the results that kept popping up again and again is that it connected people to a particular location. With a few DNA polymorphisms, it was possible to achieve incredible geographic resolutionthere were even Y chromosome polymorphisms that were limited to particular villages. If you imagine population genetics as a game of twenty questions, most genetic systems, including blood groups and mitochondrial DNA, needed all twenty to identify even the coarsest pattern, such as which continent the individual came from. In contrast, the Y could typically identify subcontinental regions with a few questions. The observation, then was that Y-chromosome lineages were geographically localizedthey tended to define people as coming from a particular place. While this was fabulously useful to people studying population movements and origins genetically, why it was so was a puzzle. A hypothesis explaining it was suggested in 1998 by Mark Seielstadt, then a student working with Professor Cavalli-Sforza: Seielstads interpretation of these two patterns was that women moved more than men, dispersing their mitrochondrial lineages among neighbouring populations, producing a relatively homogenous mtDNA distribution. The men, meanwhile, stayed at home The extent of this staying at home is underlined by the fact that some 70 percent of human societies (constituting far more than 70% of the worlds population) practice patrilocality. This means group membership follows the male line; when a woman marries she goes to live with her husband and adopts his clan identity. As a result, a mans position in a patrilocal society has more to do with who... posted by Friedrich at April 21, 2004 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, April 19, 2004

Roots of Ornamentation
Michael: I spotted an interesting story in the Los Angeles Times on April 16. Written by Robert Lee Holtz, it was headlinedrather wittily, I thoughtWith Ancient Jewelry, Its the Thought That Counts. (You can read it here.) The story comes out of a continuing excavation of the Blombos cave in South Africa, which began in 1991. This excavation, one gathers, was designed to address several significant controversies in paleontology. While a variety of physical and genetic evidence points to the development of anatomically modern human beings in Africa (somewhere in the range of 300,000 160,000 years ago), the earliest evidence of creative and symbolic thinking dates only from around 40,000 years or soand comes largely from the Upper Palaeolithic sites outside of Africa, including the cave art of Western Europe and from artifacts dug up in Bulgaria, Turkey and Russia. (I blogged about European cave art here.) This large gap in time and place raises at least two interesting questions. Did the anatomically modern humans wait until they got to the Mideast and Europe to start thinking creatively and symbolically, or had they been doing it when they were still back in the old countryi.e., Africa? (The Africanist camp points out, rather reasonably, that many Western European and Middle Eastern sites have been exhaustively excavated for the past 100 years while hardly any sites in Africa have received an equivalent examination.) Second, was the development of such creative and symbolic thought gradual over the history of our ancestors, or did it happen in a sort of intellectual big bang? (One non-gradualist theory assumes that a genetic mutation affecting the brains of anatomically modern humans occurred roughly 60,000 years ago and led to the development of syntactically-complex speech, creative thinking, and an almost immediate inclination to head out for the territory ahead and settle the whole big wonderful world, as the African climate was worsening and consequently restricting the local food supply.) 75,000 Year Old Find Well, in a development that must cheer the Africanist and the gradualist camps, the busy paleontologists at Blombos have claimed a big discovery. In the words of Mr. Holtz: In a handful of pierced seashells found in a South African cave, scientists believe that they have discovered the worlds oldest known jewelry and the earliest reliabile evidence of creative symbolic thought at work. The 41 tiny shells, unearthed at Blombos Cave, were strung as beads more than 75,00 years ago, making them at least 30,000 years older than any other reliably dated personal ornaments, an international team of researchers said Thursday. As ancient jewelry, the orange and black beads are a priceless curiositydecorative tokens of prehistoric vanity that are the forerunners of hip-hop bangles and all the cultured glitter of Tiffanys and Cartier. But to those trying to understand the origins of the human mind, the pea-sized shells also are tangible evidence of one of the most mysterious events in the history of evolution: the advent of symbolic thought. Naturally, all of this... posted by Friedrich at April 19, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, April 8, 2004

Happiness? Evolution Don't Need No Stinkin' Happiness
Michael: Whats the deal with happiness, anyway? Happiness science seems to keep popping up wherever I go these days. I checked out the link you provided to the talk/essay by Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert (which can be read here) on why people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy. It contained the following remarks: If you actually looked at the correlates of happiness across the human population, you learn a few important things. First of all, wealth is a poor predictor of happiness. It's not a useless predictor, but it is quite limited. The first $40,000 or so buys you almost all of the happiness you can get from wealth. The difference between earning nothing and earning $20,000 is enormousthat's the difference between having shelter and food and being homeless and hungry On the [one] hand, once basic needs are met, further wealth doesn't seem to predict further happiness. So the relationship between money and happiness is complicated, and definitely not linear. If it were linear, then billionaires would be a thousand times happier than millionaires, who would be a hundred times happier than professors. That clearly isn't the case. On the other hand, social relationships are a powerful predictor of happinessmuch more so than money is. Happy people have extensive social networks and good relationships with the people in those networks. What's interesting to me is that while money is weakly and complexly correlated with happiness, and social relationships are strongly and simply correlated with happiness, most of us spend most of our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why? Why indeed? Well, one way of interpreting that apparently irrational behavior is to assume, as Professor Gilbert does, that people are happiness maximizers, but they are pretty inefficient at it: "Most of us spend most of our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why?" He suggests that people are either ignorant about what makes them happy or are unfortunately susceptible to deceptive stimuli (like advertising) that persuades them to make questionable lifestyle choices. Hence they waste their lives overworking and overspending, when they should be hanging out with their friends. I really have to question this conclusion for several reasons. First, the methodology of happiness science seems more than a bit spotty. (Professor Gilbert doesnt discuss the whole topic of methodology, but I assume for the following discussion that his approach is similar to that of other workers in the fieldto wit, hes measuring happiness by the extremely sophisticated approach of asking people how happy they are.) How accurate is self-reported happiness as a measure of well, anything? How much credibility would you give to self-reported data on the quality of peoples sex lives? (Especially if the question were phrased this way: Do you think your sex life is (1) poorer than that of an average member of your high school graduating class, (2) equal to that of an average member of your high school graduating class, or (3) better than... posted by Friedrich at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments

Thursday, April 1, 2004

If Reality is a Head of Hair, Is Language a Comb?
Dear Friedrich -- The first time I ran across linguistic relativism -- the doctrine that language determines thought -- I reacted with utter disbelief, as I did the first time I ran across philosophers arguing that we don't speak languages, languages speak us. "Ya gotta be kiddin', right?" -- such was my super-sophisticated, instant response. And yet, and yet ... I'd spent a teenaged year living in France, and it seemed clear to me even then that the French language had something to do with why the French love paradoxes; why they don't understand Anglo-style humor; and why they love logic-pirouettes ("wit"), highly-ornamented music, and haute couture. Language is embedded in, and an important part of, culture. And if culture doesn't dictate what you think and say, well, it certainly has an impact. I was a young twit who was bad at languages, but even I could tell that my brain operated differently when it was in French mode than it did when in its usual American mode. I was dimly aware that speaking French seemed to lead me into new kinds of conversations; because I was speaking French, I was hearing, thinking and saying different things than I usually did. Or was this happening not because of the language but simply because I was in France? I'd think about French, English and reality more generally, and I'd go around muttering things like "different combs; same head of hair." After some years, I settled on this way of thinking about language and culture: they don't determine much, but they certainly condition an awful lot. It seemed an accurate, and useful, way of summing up my experience. So I enjoyed this Philip Ross article for Scientific American about the Berkeley linguistics prof Paul Kay, here. Kay has spent years looking into how various languages attend to matters of color; the larger question he's been probing is, To what extent does language determine thought? I find his answer tres sympat -- as I do the provisional way he tenders it. Did I ever tell you about the college friend of mine who moved to Italy? She'd always been a charming, gabby woman in a stylized American-girl way. The first time I visited her in Italy, though, I was amazed. Speaking American-English, she was her usual self. But speaking Italian, she was something else entirely. Not only had she picked up Italian quickly and convincingly, she was waving her hands, moving the pitch of her voice up and down the musical staff, and making emotional faces that could be read from miles away ... When I asked her about the creature she'd become, she responded this way: "In Italy, if you simply say the words, no one pays attention -- no one really hears you. Unless you wave your hands, singsong your voice and make exaggerated facial expressions, you aren't really speaking Italian, at least not as far as the Italians are concerned." The little lesson I took away from this exchange: "language"... posted by Michael at April 1, 2004 | perma-link | (31) comments

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

String Theory Etc.
Dear Friedrich Long ago at Camp Massaweepie, my Boy Scout chums and I would occasionally gather in a tent and ponder The Big Questions. "Nothing" was one of our faves. If Nothing were really Nothing, then how could we talk about it? Yet here we were talking about it. Didn't the fact that we were managing to discuss Nothing prove that Nothing has a Something sort of existence, if only as a topic of conversation for a bunch of Boy Scouts? And if Nothing is Something, well then At this point, one of us would toss himself onto the ground and let out a holler of bewilderment and consternation. We loved that. Graybeard though I may now be, I'm having a Massaweepie Moment. Not long ago, I went through a couple of intros to relativity and quantum mechanics, and at the moment I'm in the middle of a Brian Greene introduction to string theory. Whee: is my head spinning. Have you had a wrestle with string theory? It's -- and I'm happy to admit that I speak here as nothing more than someone partway through a Brian Greene book an attempt at a Theory of Everything. The basic challenge string theory is meant to meet is this. On the one hand, there's relativity, which does a good job of explaining things at a big scale; while on the other hand, there's quantum mechanics, doing a fine job of explaining things at the subatomic scale. Two sets of circumstances; two sets of equations. This situation is apparently intolerable; it seems to rubs theoretical physicists the wrong way. They look at black holes, where the two sets of equations go haywire, and they want something to bind relativity and quantum mechanics together. Even better would be to arrive at the one Equation of All Equations that underlies both relativity and quantum mechanics. There must be such a thing, if only for the sake of elegance, or something. String theory is an attempt to be that Equation of All Equations. It's the idea that matter and forces both are made up of minuscule vibrating loops of energy; differences in vibrations account for differences in matters and forces. According to Greene, string theory is what the best young theoretical-physics minds are excited about at the moment. They find it promising and attractive, if not without its problems. My mediocre and arty mind finds it appealing too; I enjoy playing with the obvious connection between vibrating strings and ancient ideas about the Music of the Spheres. Why does music hit us the way it does? Why should it exist at all? Perhaps it really is an emanation of the basic Nature of Everything! In any case, it's an exciting moment: we may be on the verge of something really enormous. My heart goes pitty pat and then my feet start to drag. Not that my reactions could matter less, of course. Nonetheless, I'm feeling reckless tonight and will forge on.... posted by Michael at March 24, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Monday, March 8, 2004

Lives and Loves of Great Mathematicians
Michael: A while ago, as you may remember, I blogged about Carl B. Boyers and Uta C. Merzbachs A History of Mathematics. Well, having plowed through several hundred more pages of it, I must say that a historical account such as this one certainly humanizes the study of mathwhich otherwise can seem (to intellectual lightweights like me) a forbidding exercise in abstract thought. In fact, what strikes me on going through the book is that mathematicians, far from being ethereal creatures living on air and focused solely on matters of pure intellect, have often been rather remarkably accomplished in other areas as well. To start with, it turns out that some mathematicians, at least, are pretty good at earning money. I was intrigued to note that Thales of Miletus (c. 624-c. 548 B.C.)according to tradition, the first person to offer a demonstration or proof of a geometric theoremnot only wandered around doing mathematical things like measuring the height of the pyramids in Egypt by the lengths of their shadows, but was also shrewd enough to corner the supply of olive presses one year when a particularly massive olive crop made the need for such presses quite urgent. (That must have paid for a number of years of abstract speculation, huh?) And Hippias of Elis, a sophist of the latter fifth century B.C., who was responsible for introducing the first curve other than a circle into mathematics, considered his proudest accomplishment to be having earned more money as a teacher than all of his intellectual rivals in Athens combined. (He thereby, of course, earned the mortal enmity of Plato, who burlesqued him in a dialogue, but thats another story.) More recently, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), a strong candidate for the most-accomplished-mathematician-of-all-time award, somehow found it possible, despite having to raise a large family on a fairly modest salary, to amass a fortune by what Boyer and Merzbach describe as shrewd investments. Okay, if making money doesnt seem remote enough from the beauties of pure mathematics, how about making war? Archytas of Tarentum (428-350 B.C.) not only wrote on the application of mathematics to music (he apparently originated the term harmonic mean), but he was also a never-defeated general. Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 B.C.), the greatest mathematician of the ancient world, didnt scruple to devise, in the words of Boyer and Merzbach: ingenious war machines to keep the enemy at baycatapults to hurl stones; ropes, pulleys and hooks to raise and smash the Roman ships; devices to set fire to the ships [during the siege of Syracuse by the Romans in the 2nd Punic War.] Archimedes was so successful at sowing death and destruction that it took the Romans two full years to take Syracuse. Even when confronted by an enraged Roman soldier brandishing a sword in his face (a young man who seemed to take personally the many Roman deaths caused by Archimedes fiendish machines) the ultra-macho 75-year-old mathematician coolly ordered the boy to step away from the geometric diagram he... posted by Friedrich at March 8, 2004 | perma-link | (31) comments

Sunday, January 11, 2004

How Structuralist Is Your Fantasy Life?
Michael: I dont know if you agree with me, but consulting myself, I guess I would have considered sexual fantasies to be the most personal mental activity a person could engage in, and thus almost certain to be wildly individualistic. I mean, on the face of it I would think such fantasies should be as individual as snowflakes or fingerprints or DNA. As a result, it always strikes me as odd that the truth seems to be exactly the opposite. Although there are certainly a large number of such fantasies, the number seems oddly finite. If someone is intrigued by some erotic element, say X, then it is almost certain that he or she will not be alone in this interest. In fact, it is likely that there will be whole websites devoted to X no matter how arcane or specialized a taste it might be. Given that these websites are mostly financial ventures with up-front costs to recoup, the existence of a sufficiently large group of consumers devoted to X is an obvious assumption being made by the businesspeople behind them. The very existence of these websites, or any other commercial vehicles (books, magazines, etc.) offering what is presumably arousing content, suggests the shared nature of such fantasies. So what could the fact that our erotic fantasies appear to be shared, rather than individual, mean? I obviously dont have a definitive answer to this incredibly important question, but I can list a few hypotheses: The structuralist hypothesis: Its possible that erotic fantasies are made up of a finite number of building blocks, so to speak. A limited number of sexes, a limited number of primary and secondary sexual characteristics, etc., a limited number of relationships that seem to attract sexual fantasies (e.g., authoritarian relationships, relationships with some type of other, etc., etc.) and voilagrid them all out into a multidimensional matrix and you have a large-but-finite universe of sex fantasies, with a larger or smaller number of individuals clustering at each of the intersections. Of course, this hypothesis doesnt explain why some intersections would be so much more populous than others. The viral hypothesis: Perhaps a large-but-finite number of sex fantasies have a sort of underground life of their own, and infect our brains, using culture as a transmission vector. Maybe we catch sex fantasies from books, movies, T.V. shows, slutty girls who wear too much eye shadow, etc. Again, this doesnt explain why each of us is resistant to mostprobably the vast majorityof these mental viruses. The strategy hypothesis: Sex fantasies might be practice, so to speak, for different ways to play the game of sex. Since sex is in many respects a competitive activity, different fantasies might correspond to different competitive strategies. As in many games where there isnt a single best strategy, with sex it might often be best to adopt a contrarian one; hence, there would be a large number of sexual fantasies corresponding to a number of sexual strategies. But because there could be... posted by Friedrich at January 11, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Friday, January 9, 2004

Caleb Crain on Ellen Dissanayake
Dear Friedrich -- I've mentioned Ellen Dissanayake several times on this blog. The author of such books as What Is Art For? (buyable here) and Homo Aestheticus (buyable here), she was one of the first thinkers to start using evo-bio to help put the arts back on a firm footing. (She's also -- and I suspect this is telling -- not a fulltime, PhDish, official-academia-world person; she's an independent scholar.) Wouldn't it be lovely to pass along a link to some terrific online Dissanayake resources, I thought -- but none seemed to exist. Still, there was that first-class article that ran about her in Lingua Franca some years ago ... Pleased to report that I just stumbled across the article, which turns out to have been written by Caleb Crain, and which he has posted in two parts at his blog, here and here. I hope you (and interested visitors) will give Crain's article a try and let me know how you react. As you'd guess, I've found Dissanayake's work impressive, provocative and helpful. So why hasn't anyone read about her in the NYTimes, or in Film Comment, or ArtForum? Wouldn't you think that arty people would -- But that's for another posting. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 9, 2004 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Fat Like Me
Michael: My name is Friedrich and Im overweight. At the moment Im pretty seriously overweight (Im 6 1 tall and I weigh just under 300 pounds.) But Ive been overweight, if less overweight, most of my adult life, with only a few brief, shining moments of being in pretty good shape. I say all this because it seems to me that with the national epidemic of obesity and its familiar spirit, dieting, 2blowhards can no longer ignore this major element in todays culture. And I am just the man to take this blog where it has never gone before. Im currently doing Optifast, which is an 800 calorie-a-day, doctor-supervised liquid diet. I am dropping weight at a blistering pace, as one might expect (I am one of the few overweight people I know who never maintains that my weight problem is the result of a slow metabolism: the speed with which I can lose weightwhen I put my mind to itwould argue, I think, for a higher-than-average metabolism.) One element of the Optifast plan is a weekly Weight-Watchers-style meeting. My group is composed of fairly obese people, most of whom are women. (From this as well as my days at Weight-Watchersalso overwhelmingly femaleIm left scratching my head: where are all the guys? Its not like theres any shortage of fat men out there.) Every last one of the people in my group, who are probably looked on with a certain degree of pity and contempt by the average passer-by on the street, turned out to be surprisingly intelligent, articulate and accomplished. They own their own companies, hold serious management positions, cope with both work and family life, orif theyre youngare advancing their ambitions in a highly disciplined way. Sothe question has to be asked, why are they fat? I cant say for sure, but I did notice one factor that we all shared. The facilitator of the group passed out a form to all of us, asking us to rate how balanced our lives are. By balance they meant, do you take time for yourself? Do you rate your own needs highly? Can you say no to other people? None of us in the room thought our lives were in any way balanced according to this definition. Not one of us was good at carving out enough time to tend ourselves. While this is certainly not scientifically definitive, it suggest a hypothesis: fat people are fat not because theyre greedy or gluttonous, but because theyre not good at focusing on their own needs. Of course, other factors are almost certainly at work here. I would like to raise one: the impact of high-calorie, pre-prepared food, whether for snacking or from fast-food restaurants. There was an interesting article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page a week or so back which considered both the epidemic of obesity and this particular trend as a contributing factor. The author, whose name I regretfully cannot remember, pointed out that the biochemical mechanisms of appetite... posted by Friedrich at December 13, 2003 | perma-link | (31) comments

Friday, December 5, 2003

Blowhards Scoop Times Again
Dear Friedrich -- Arts and Letters Daily (here) linked to this Mary Duenwald NYTimes article here. The piece is interesting enough in its own right -- it's about the dads vs. cads phenomenon. But what I enjoyed most was Duenwald's reference to the "fledgling field of Darwinian literary studies." "Fledgling"? "Fledgling"? Well, maybe to a NYTimes culture reporter. Mary, darling: 2Blowhards visitors have been getting familiar with the impact of evo-bio on thinking about the arts for well over a year now. And, you know, Mary love, it's been the most interesting, freshest development in thinking about the arts for quite some time. Joseph Carroll's "Evolution and Literary Theory," for instance, was published in 1994. (It can be bought here.) And Ellen Dissanayake's "What Is Art For?" (buyable here) came out in 1990!!! I've already ventured the thought that, for all their showy up-to-dateness and edge, arts people are about as slow to catch on to really significant developments as it's possible to be, haven't I? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 5, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, December 4, 2003

Nietzsche and Pinker
Michael: I couldnt help but notice when I read the Edge interview with Steven Pinker (that you so thoughtfully linked to in your post below) that it almost seemed as if Mr. Pinker were channeling the spirit of Nietzsche. Obviously, Mr. Pinker has his own points of view, and I wouldnt assume that he shares all of, or even any of Nietzsches more wild-and-crazy points of view, but the echo of the one in the other is, to put it mildly, striking. I thought Id juxtapose quotes from the interview and from Beyond Good and Evil: PINKER: Most intellectuals today have a phobia of any explanation of the mind that invokes genetics. They're afraid of four things. First there is a fear of inequality. The great appeal of the doctrine that the mind is a blank slate is the simple mathematical fact that zero equals zero. If we all start out blank, then no one can have more stuff written on his slate than anyone else. Whereas if we come into the world endowed with a rich set of mental faculties, they could work differently, or better or worse, in some people than in others. The fear is that this would open the door to discrimination, oppression, or eugenics, or even slavery and genocide [[L]ife itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of ones own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation.But there is no point of which the ordinary consciousness of Europeans resists instruction as on this: everywhere people are now raving, even under scientific disguises, about coming conditions of society in which the exploitative aspect will be removedwhich sounds to me as if they promised to invent a way of life that would dispense with all organic functions.--Nietzsche] The second fear is the fear of imperfectability. If people are innately saddled with certain sins and flaws, like selfishness, prejudice, sort-sightedness, and self-deception, then political reform would seem to be a waste of time. [If however, a person should regard even the affects of hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule as conditions of life, as factors which, fundamentally and essentially, must be present in the general economy of life (and must, therefore, be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced)he will suffer from such a view of things as from seasickness. --Nietzsche] The third fear is a fear of determinism: that we will no longer be able to hold people responsible for their behavior because they can they can always blame it on their brain or their genes or their evolutionary historythe evolutionary-urge or killer-gene defense. [The desire for freedom of the will in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for ones actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance and society involves nothing less than to pull oneself up into existence by the hair,... posted by Friedrich at December 4, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Steven Pinker Interview
Dear Friedrich -- Here's a good Edge q&a with Steven Pinker, the author of the excellent evo-bio survey "The Blank Slate" (buyable here). What a brilliant guy, and how clearly he lays his points and arguments out. I can't resist quoting one arts-centric passage at length. The blank slate has had an enormous influence in far-flung fields. One example is architecture and urban planning. The 20th century saw the rise of a movement that has been called "authoritarian high modernism," which was contemporaneous with the ascendance of the blank slate. City planners believed that people's taste for green space, for ornament, for people-watching, for cozy places for intimate social gatherings, were just social constructions. They were archaic historical artifacts that were getting in the way of the orderly design of cities, and should be ignored by planners designing optimal cities according to so-called scientific principles. Le Corbusier was the clearest example. He and other planners had a minimalist conception of human nature. A human being needs so many cubic of air per day, a temperature within a certain range, so many gallons of water, and so many square feet in which to sleep and work. Houses became "machines for living," and cities were designed around the most efficient way to satisfy this short list of needs, namely freeways, huge rectangular concrete housing projects, and open plazas. In extreme cases this led to the wastelands of planned cities like Brasilia; in milder cases it gave us the so-called urban renewal projects in American cities and the dreary highrises in the Soviet Union and English council flats. Ornamentation, human scale, green space, gardens, and comfortable social meeting places were written out of the cities because the planners had a theory of human nature that omitted human esthetic and social needs. Another example is the arts. In the 20th century, modernism and post-modernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, and lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shockingagain, on the assumption that people's tastes for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any now that any schmo can afford a Mozart CD or can go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. And so art became baffling and uninterpretable without acquaintance with arcane theory. By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don't think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. By denying people's sense of visual beauty in painting and sculpture, melody in music, meter... posted by Michael at December 3, 2003 | perma-link | (17) comments

Friday, November 28, 2003

Dear Friedrich -- * Brian Micklethwait declares himself medium-agnostic where the visual arts are concerned, here. * Julie Iovine at the NYTimes (here) asks how much of a future the current generation of architecture-based memorials will have. They require lots of money and maintenance, it turns out; the Irish Hunger Memorial in lower Manhattan, for instance, is undergoing reconstruction a mere year after opening. * Criterion has brought out a DVD of Yasujiro Ozu's much-beloved "Tokyo Story," a film that's on just about every serious film nerd's best-of list. George Hunka (here) recommends the disc and has come up with some fresh things to say about the movie -- not an easy thing to do, given how much Ozu criticism there has been. * Aaron Haspel is once again up to some entertaining no-good, here. Would someone please give this man a satirical magazine to edit? * I have a theory that arty Americans live in mortal fear of a demon figure that they call "conservatism," and about which they know almost nothing. Ask them what they think they know about it and they'll get wild-eyed and mutter something bitter about Rush, homophobia and racism; it's dead certain they've never read any of the substantial and impressive conservative thinkers. Owen Harries, here, supplies a good, quick intro to what conservatism really means. My feeling is that we're all conservative to some degree, and necessarily so; and my conclusion is that we might as well get over being hung up about the fact. As some great writer or other once said, Everybody is right-wing about the things he knows about. * David Sucher wonders what Ah-nold's approach to urban issues (growth, sprawl) will be here. David also does me the honor of promoting a comment I left on his blog about genre fiction to a guest posting, here. I'm blushing, yes -- but I'm also not about to let this great moment go unnoticed. * Barry Humphries, touring his "Dame Edna" act through America, gets off some well-aimed wisecracks about our food and our art museums, here. * I was in the mood last week for reading interviews with and profiles of some of my favorite actresses. Diane Lane is earthy and funny here and here. That charming ragamuffin Miou-Miou is profiled by Alan Riding here. Kelly Lynch and Maggie Gyllenhaal horse around sweetly here. * Alice Bachini declares unbounded love for the mass media, here. * Joel Kotkin thinks "diversity training" should be done away with and that we should all study history instead, here. * Here's a visit with the burly and entertaining historian Paul Johnson on the occasion of his new book about art history. * I'm not sure Tyler Cowen's piece for TCS about media bias here will prove to be the absolute and final last word on the subject. But he certainly makes an important and all too often overlooked point. * This week's medal for Atrocious Architecture goes to the Briton Will Alsop for a... posted by Michael at November 28, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

High Pitched Voices
Friedrich -- I've been out in California, thus spending a lot of time in the car, and thus listening to the radio, something I otherwise almost never do. And OK, yes, sure, when I'm alone in the car I sometimes sing along to pop and country songs. Doesn't everyone? Huh? Well, anyway, I was once again reminded of something I've often been puzzled by: how very high-pitched the voices of most male singers are. As you well know, no one would accuse me of having a Barry White range (let alone any vocal talent), but when I sing along I often find myself having to do so an octave below the song's lead vocalist. Any theories that might explain this phenom? Do we hear higher voices better? Do they grab our attention more effectively? Is it related to the way adolescent girls often fall for girlish boys? I finally found a couple of singers whose range is pretty close to mine: Bobby Darin, and the c&w singer Toby Keith, who I'd never heard of before. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 19, 2003 | perma-link | (32) comments

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Cave Art Redux
Friedrich -- Apologies for the light blogging. I've been out of town attending to a hospitalized relative. Everything's going well, but available computer time has been minimal. I'll be back in the usual saddle early next week. I was fascinated by your cave art posting, though. By happy coincidence, I just finished reading (in the hospital waiting room) a paper you'll probably find provoctive. It's by one of my current cognitive/anthro/neuro/evo/arty thinkers, Nicholas Humphrey. It's entitled "Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind," and it can be read here. Humphrey compares cave art to the drawings of a young, nonverbal, retarded autistic girl and comes to some surprising conclusions, which may or may not jibe with the thesis of the book you read. I thought he was especially good on the question of why the animals cave artists drew were often realistically outlined and modeled, while the human figures they drew were almost always mere stick-figure icons. Amazing stuff, in any case. I see that Humphrey has written another paper, available online here, that may be of equal interest. This one's entitled "Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution" -- promising! But I haven't gotten around to it yet. Eager to hear what you make of Humphrey's take on cave art. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 13, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Sociobiological Song Lyrics
Michael: I recently heard an old song by the Georgia Satellites, Keep Your Hands to Yourself. The lyrics of the song have always cracked me up, particularly those of the second verse: I said, Baby, baby, baby, why do you treat me this way? Im still your lover boy, I still feel the same way. She told me a story about free milk and a cow She said No hugging no kissing until I get a wedding vow. My honey, my baby, dont put my love upon no shelf. She said, Dont hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself. After the song was over, I tried to express to myself what it is about the song that I like. What I came up with was: The song is just sososociobiological. (Hey, I was on my way to work, and not entirely awake.) Well, my terminology may be infelicitous, but the idea of song lyrics that say something (pithily) about human nature stuck with me. Are there any you would nominate for pith, wit and insight? Cheers, Friedrich P.S. I never knew a thing about the Georgia Satellites until I went looking for the lyrics to this song (which, by the way, appear incorrectly in most places on the Internet.) I found a very humorous profile of their artistic career which you can read here. It includes this priceless passage: According to Baird, "The most gratifying and shameful moment of that whole experience [of stardom] was at the Indiana State Fair. Some woman came up to me and said, 'I love that "huggie-kissie" song you do. My two-year-old dances every time we see it on CMT.' I knew then that I had reached the lowest common denominator."... posted by Friedrich at November 4, 2003 | perma-link | (29) comments

Monday, November 3, 2003

We Need a Sociobiological Economics
Michael: Ive been reading a lot about cooperation and private property recently, but what my reading has led me to ponder, somewhat paradoxically, has been the whole phenomenon of envyor whatever term you want to use for the desire to knock down, impede, or supplant more successful rivals, even if this might harm the desirer as well as his victims. (One writer I came across called this, rather acutely, negative altruisma willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to harm others.) Pondering this, in turn, led me to notice some shortcomings in current economic analysis, at least as seen through sociobiological eyes, and to wonder what a sociobiological economics might look like. Let me back and up take you through my chain of logic, however convoluted. I started out reading a book by Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. This is not, despite its title, a book on the history of cooperation, but rather one that attempts to analyze cooperation using a little game called the Prisoners Dilemma. As you may know, this is a game for two players. On each round, the players choose whether to either cooperate or defect. Neither knows what the other has decided to do until both choices are revealed. Clearly there are a fixed number of possibilities; both can cooperate, both can defect, or one can cooperate and the other can defect. The game then rewards each player with points for these outcomes with ascending scores for the following outcomes: #1) You choose to cooperate and your opponent chooses to defect (the suckers payoff) Sample payoff to you: -2 #2) You choose to defect and your opponent chooses to defect (mutual defection) Sample payoff to you: 0 #3) You choose to cooperate and your opponent chooses to cooperate (reward for mutual cooperation) Sample payoff to you: 2 #4) You choose to defect and your opponent chooses to cooperate: (temptation to defect) Sample payoff to you: 6 The scoring is arbitrary, as long as it increases at each step from situation #1 to #4. This simple game fairly accurately describes the issues surrounding two people cooperating on, say, writing a paper for school. #1 and #4 are mirror images of the same situation: If one takes the paper seriously, and the other blows it off, the one ends up writing the whole paper and the other shares the same grade, leaving the one feeling like a sucker, which he or she is, and the other very happy with the outcome. If neither party is willing to share the work, both have to write their own papers, leaving both no better off than if cooperation had never been attempted. If both responsibly share the work, each is better off for getting a good grade while having done only half the work. The dilemma comes about from trying to figure out what to do when confronted with having to play the game (and assuming you dont have a history of cooperation or defection with your partner.) If you... posted by Friedrich at November 3, 2003 | perma-link | (34) comments

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Visual Perception and Biology
Dear Friedrich -- Colors -- tons of them, an infinitely divisible spectrum. Don't even computers these days display something like 16 million of them? Yet the names of colors are so few ... Let's see: red, green, blue, yellow ... Er. Violet. Orange. Pink. Purple. Tangerine. ... And some of those colors that seem to mean something to chicks if not to most dudes: fuchsia, aqua, heliotrope, chartreuse. Why do we break down the spectrum in the limited way we do? We bundle all these colors and put the label "red" on them. We bundle all those colors and put the label "purple" on them. Why don't we slice and dice the spectrum in an entirely different way? Biology is apparently the answer, though don't ask me for specifics. It turns out that all -- or nearly all -- cultures slice and dice the spectrum in pretty much the same way: red, blue, green, yellow, etc. Our wiring is simply such that red, blue, green, yellow, etc, stand out; they speak to us and we recognize them. In between? I dunno, it's kinda muddy ... I've heard of a culture or two that don't recognize this or that color. But apparently these exceptions and deviations are rare. The lesson: there is no color perception without interpretation. To perceive is to interpret -- no one sees a color for what it really is. (Which of course is simply waves.) Anyway, I've just run across a study that reports that not only is the way we break down colors biologically based, so is the way we visually experience distance. Duke University Medical Center neurobiologists have run experiments, and the results support the theory that "the visual system has evolved to make the best statistical guess about distances and other features of visual scenes, based on past experience." In other words, we aren't general-purpose computers gathering an infinite amount of data and then sifting and sorting our way to the truth through an infinite number of possible interpretations. Instead, we're made up of special-purpose modules that zero in on what pertains, more or less, to our survival. Judging distances, like judging colors, isn't a logical process -- it's a series of statistically-based best-guesses. You riffle through a limited number of possibilities until you hit on the one that feels right. There are interpretive biases built into the very biology that is us. Cool! Though, really, who'd have expected otherwise? Here's a quote from one of the researchers, Dr. Dale Purves: You see distances in this way because reflected light from points in space that project onto your retina is completely ambiguous with respect to how far away that point really is. The observer nonetheless has to solve the problem of what's out there. The visual system has evidently evolved to use the statistics of past experience to 'understand' what those distances are most likely to be, and that is what you see. Here's a description of the study. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Culture as Mating Ritual
Michael: Are you intellectually attracted to reductionist arguments? I must admit that I am. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they tend to be coherent and they often suggest ways they can be experimentally validated or rejected. Hence I was amused, if not necessarily fully convinced, when I read a recent example of a violently reductionist bent. It is Geoffrey Millers essay, Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays. It even inspired me to try to test it out. Mr. Millers topic is the evolution of culture. To prepare the ground for his own theories, he first demolishes the fuzzy notions advanced by anthropologists to explain why humans spend time and calories on music, art, storytelling, etc.: Anthropology textbookspresent many functions for art, music, myth, ritual and other cultural phenomena, such as imposing order on the cosmos, coping with the unpredictability of life, appeasing ancestral spirits and maintaining tribal identity. To an evolutionary biologist, none of these even come close to qualifying as reasonable adaptive functions for costly, complex, evolved behavior. In a strictly Darwinian framework, behaviors only evolve when their fitness benefits exceed their fitness costsThe single thing we must demand of any theory concerning the evolution of human culture is: show me the fitness! Having dismissed the hapless anthropologists, Mr. Miller advances his own theory, which is that culture, in the broadest sense, is a set of mating rituals. Since culture doesnt really pay in terms of survival of the fittest, Mr. Miller suggests that culture pays for the time and energy it costs to pursue it by improving the chances of culturally talented individuals to recruit healthy, intelligent and generally genetically superior mates. (Or perhaps I should say, the strategy of culture pays by attracting lots of sexual partners, which allows the culturally blessed to then be choosy about whom to reproduce with.) As Mr. Miller so succinctly puts it: When a young male rock star stands up in front of a crowd and produces some pieces of human culture known as songs, he is not improving his survival prospects. Nor is he engaging in some bizarre maladaptive behavior that requires some new process of cultural evolution to explain. Rather he is doing something that fulfils exactly the same function as a male nightingale singing or a male peacock showing off his tail. He is attracting sexual partners. (Mr. Millers theory seems to be a variant of the old line: God invented rocknroll so ugly guys could score too.) In what manner does culture indicate reproductive fitness? According to Mr. Miller, culture does this by creating a context and a set of rules for artistic displays that highlight differences between one potential reproductive partner and another in terms intelligence, creativity, skill, strength, and health. Having put forth this theory, Mr. Miller goes on to suggest what it would take to demonstrate the truth or falseness of his theory. If culture functions as an indicator of reproductive fitness, then (1) observable cultural activity should kick in after... posted by Friedrich at October 18, 2003 | perma-link | (23) comments

Monday, October 13, 2003

Sexual Selection and Fashion Redux
Michael: Okay, Ill admit itoccasionally I blow a posting. I think Ive got a nice little idea all ready to roll out, but when I pop it up there on the blog, and look at it I think, wait a minute, you got way too cute with that, who could possibly tell what you were getting at, you bozo? Well, I want a do over and Im going to take one. My recent posting on fashion derived from a very interesting essay by Geoffrey F. Miller called Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays. This is one chapter in a book called The Evolution of Culture, which, as you might expect, is written from an evo-bio perspective. One of the major problems in trying to link evolution and culture is that most cultural activities dont enhance survival. In fact, by chewing up a lot of time and calories that people could be spending hunting or gathering, it would appear to actively reduce their survivability. So the development of culture seems unlikely to have been pushed forward by the processes of natural selectionthe so-called survival of the fittest mechanism. However, as Darwin noted, natural selection isnt the only evolutionary mechanism. Theres also sexual selection, which operates when individuals seeking to reproduce decide with whom to pair up. They dont want to invest their time and genes with a partner who will produce sickly or otherwise inadequate offspring, or who wont be a good parent or partner. In fact, to the extent they can pull it off, they want to go for the very best. (The widespread social role of Most Popular Guy/Girl in High School isnt an accidental cultural construct.) Of course, people dont have their reproductive fitness quotient tattooed on their foreheads; such fitness must be inferred from somatic (face and figure) cues or must be demonstrated by behavior. In other words, sexual selection involves signaling. The tricky part with signaling is that it is easier, evolutionarily speaking, to cook up a fake signal of reproductive fitness than it is to actually deliver the goods. I think youll understand the pressure to cheat when you consider that reproductive fitness isnt an absolute quality, but a relative one. Reproductive fitness is graded on a curve, and only a certain percentage of the population will get an A no matter how well everyone does on the final. So the natural tendency among individuals evaluating such signals is to look for ones that are hard to fake. In 1975 Amotz Zahavi realized that traits that actually inflicted a penalty or a handicap to the signaler fit this bill perfectly. He used this handicap theory to explain why peacocks grew such enormous tails, despite the fact that this reduced their odds of survival: the fact that the peacocks are still around and functioning despite their grotesque tails signals to peahens that these guys were extremely reproductively fit. Such a signal cant be faked; if youve got such a tail then it will handicap your individual survival... posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2003 | perma-link | (32) comments

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Sexual Selection and Fashion
Michael: Have you, like me, long been puzzled by certain aspects of feminine fashion? I never had any trouble with the kind of womens fashions that are designed to emphasize the good bits and hide the more questionable bits and generally present the wearer as a prime candidate for reproductionwhat I call, ahem, dressing for men. Then theres a strange subsection of fashion that appears to have an altogether different aim, only dimly comprehensible to me (and, I suspect, to most men.) What I am referring to is hip ugly fashion. (Perhaps I need to make a distinction here--hip ugly fashion in the sense I am using it is not slob fashion or the absence of fashion. It is intensely and often expensively designed to be...well...ugly. And hip.) Examples of Hip Ugly Fashion from Jeremy Scott's Sexybition of September 2003 For years I racked my brain trying to figure out what was going on here. I formulated many hypotheses. Noticing that much of this hip ugly fashion is quite expensive (it is quite a bit more prevalent at the couture level than at WalMart, and far more visible in Vogue than in Allure) I wondered if hip ugly fashion was a weapon in a status war between women. The only problem with this notion is that I couldnt see the value in winning such a status war, at least todayhow rewarding can it be to boss the other ladies in the Junior League? Wouldnt it be more gratifying to the power-hungry to be a Senior Vice President at Goldman Sachs? And hip ugly fashion doesnt seem designed to help one get ahead in the corporate world. I also wondered if hip ugly fashion was intended as a form of self-expression or rebellion. But this seemed dubious when I noticed that the fashion establishment disseminates hip ugly fashion in a far more command-and-control method than it does attractive fashion. Hip ugly fashion always seems to be accompanied by commandments from on high: Thou Shalt Wear This Now! This would seem to limit the opportunities for using it to burnish your credentials as a free spirit. However, I think Ive made a conceptual breakthrough. I was reading an essay by Geoffrey F. Miller, Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays, in a fascinating book, The Evolution of Culture, when I came across this quote: [In 1975] Amotz Zahavi stirred intense controversy with his Handicap Principle Zahavi proposed that the only way to reliably demonstrate ones quality during courtship is to display a high-cost signal such as a heavy peacocks tail, an exhausting bird-song concert or an expensive sports car. Only these costly handicap signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producers quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake Suddenly it all became clear. Hip ugly fashion is intended to be a handicap! If you can still look even remotely sexy in hip ugly fashion, you are one hot momma indeed! Just dressing to be ordinarily attractive as a sign... posted by Friedrich at October 11, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Evo-Bio of Music
Michael: Youre a lot more musical than I, so maybe you remember this differently, but when I was first introduced to atonal music I was lectured on how it sounded bad only because people were so accustomed to the tonal competition. In other words, like everything else about human beings (at least in the 1970s), musical preferences for tonality were entirely socially constructed. Well, a story in the NY Times, We Got Rythmn: The Mystery of Music and Evolution suggests that this notionlike most strict social construction theoriesappears to be wrong. Apparently there is a fair amount of evidence that the human preference for tonal music is innatei.e., present at birthand that it reflects the tuning of the human auditory system to the frequencies and harmonies of the human voice. As the article by Nicholas Wade (which you can read here) points out: All societies have music, all sing lullaby-like songs to their infants, and most produce tonal music, or music composed in subsets of the 12-tone chromatic scale, such as the diatonic or pentatonic scales. Some of the earliest known musical instruments, crane bone flutes from the Jiahu site in China, occupied from 7000 to 5700 B.C., produce a tonal scale. A Dr. Sandra Trehub at the University of Toronto has tested the musical preferences of infants as young as 2 months; they like consonance over dissonance and really like perfect fifths and fourths. Three Duke University neuroscientists (Dr. David A. Schwartz, Dr. Catherine Q. Howe and Dr. Dale Purves) think that the preference for tonality reflects the basic mechanics of human vocalization: Though every human voice, and maybe each utterance, is different, a certain commonality emerges when many different voices are analyzed. The human vocal tract shapes the vibrations of the vocal cords into a set of harmonics that are more intense at some frequencies than others relative to the fundamental note. The principal peaks of intensity occur at the fifth and the octave, with lesser peaks at other intervals that correspond to most of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, the Duke researchers say in an article published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience. Almost identical spectra were produced by speakers of English, Mandarin, Persian and Tamil. A related article, apparently not available online, Perfect Pitch: A Gift of Note for Just a Few, seems to suggest that the ability to distinguish sounds based on absolute pitch is a savant skill like those discussed in another posting here. In my previous posting the theory was advanced that savants are able to tap lower-level processing skills directly that in most people are suppressed by other brain functions. This notion seems supported by the fact that the human brains auditory cortex is set up with sets of neurons that respond to particular frequencies. As Josh McDermott of M.I.T. points out, everyone is hard wired to have perfect pitch: It should be relatively trivial [for the brain] to read out the absolute pitch of a stimulus. So its... posted by Friedrich at September 18, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Saturday, September 6, 2003

Magic Eye
Friedrich -- I recently picked up (at B&N, on sale, for next to nothing) one of those Magic Eye books. Remember Magic Eye images? Bizarro computer things that look like a screenful of color-TV static? You stare at them, let your eyes relax and your mind drift, and (holy cow!!!!) a 3-D image opens up before you. As long as you stay in that drifty-yet-alert optical-mental state, you can rove around inside the image, which usually resembles a miniature diorama carved out of confetti. But if you start to think too much about it, or try to focus your eyes too tightly on a detail, oops! And away it slips. I've always found the Magic Eye images intriguing. First because it's a neat trick. But mostly because I find the optical-mental state they demand (and foster) fascinating. It's close to a meditative state, and it's very refreshing. I come away from 10 or 30 minutes of staring at Magic Eye images as relaxed and calm as I do from a Zen session. I find myself thinking, gee, these images are like computer-generated mandalas! And I wonder if any CAT-scan-type research has been done on the brain activity of people looking at Magic Eye images. (Did a Web sweep; turned up nothing.) I also chuckle a bit. You know how people who rely on modernist ways of explaining art and who are trying to make art seem important and scientific often fall back on the "it changes your perceptions" argument? Well, I've run across very little art that's as effective at changing my perceptions as staring at Magic Eye images is. Does this mean they're art? Heck, given how powerfully and how quickly the Magic Eye images usher me into an altered state, perhaps it means that they've rendered art irrelevant. Or does it simply mean (as I suspect it does) that the "it changes your perceptions" art-justification line was always a weak one? In any case, here's Magic Eye's own website. I find making the 3-D thing happen while staring at a computer screen a little more difficult than it is when looking at a book but still quite do-able. How about you? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2003 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Genetics, Environment and IQ
Michael: Ive been reading a lot recently about environmental impacts on IQ, and I must admit it is kind of intriguing. (I should warn you before I go any further, however, that Im about to link up a bunch of disparate facts here, and may well end up adding two and two and getting twenty-two. Is your seat belt buckled? Here we go.) There are several paradoxes about the relationship between nature and nurture in the IQ field. On the one hand, IQ clearly has a major genetic element to it. Recent measurements suggest that it appears that variations in the IQ of late adolescents are about 75% explainable in terms of their parents IQs. Thats a pretty good theory, right? I mean, few cause-effect explanations in the world of the social sciences are remotely that strong. Case closedyour genes are 75% or more of your fate, intellectually speaking. Ah, but not so fast, buster. This measurement of heritability rises with age. The variations in the IQ of younger children are less explainable in terms of their parents IQ than those of late adolescents. Adult IQs are even more explainable in terms of parental IQ than are those of late adolescents. The environment seems to affect IQ more in the case of children than of adults, who appear to revert to their genetic mean. (The intellectual impacts of programs like Head Start, for example, are very noticeable in the first few years of school but vanish by the end of elementary school.) The main explanation Ive come across in books like Matt Ridley's "Nature via Nurture" is that what is being inherited is perhaps not so much a once-and-for-all serving of smarts, but rather a mixture of smarts and the taste for either using them or ignoring them. Whatever your serving of smarts, it is possible that if you spend a lot of time solving complex equations, playing chess and doing crossword puzzles that your IQ will measure higher than if you sit on the couch watching TV and burping. This explains why the heritability of IQ would go up through your life, because the older you get the more control you have over your time, and the more your environment will come to fit your taste either for or against intellectually stimulating pursuits. Well thats better, but not yet good enough. There are still more tricky facts that need explaining. It turns out that societys average IQ is rising with the passage of time, at a speed far greater than would seem explainable purely by genetics. Between 1950 and 2000, for example, the average IQ of draftees into the Dutch army rose by 20 IQ points, (i.e., from something like an average of 100 to something like 120). This translates into 1.5 standard deviation improvement in only a few generations. The obvious explanation would be that the environment became more encouraging of the use of smartsor at least the type of smarts measured by IQ testsbut remember, the standard... posted by Friedrich at September 2, 2003 | perma-link | (21) comments

Friday, July 25, 2003

"Envy," Immortality and Genes
Michael: Have you heard of an essay titled Envy thats causing some buzz in the literary world? Appearing in the U.K. magazine Granta, it is the work of Kathryn Chetkovich, who apparently for several years was the girlfriend of Jonathan Franzen. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit I dont read Granta, and I learned of all this from a story in the L.A. Times, which you can read here.) The envy in question occurred when Mr. Franzens book, The Corrections, became a big success and Mr. Franzens writing career came to greatly outshine that of Ms. Chetkovich. Which is not to slight Ms. Chetkovichs own career; she was the recipient of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award in 1998 and has published several well-regarded works. But one of Ms. Chetkovichs comments quoted in the story caught my attention: I was 40, then 41, then 42 years old. I had no children, the husband I had thought I would be with forever was gone, the father I had always assumed would one day really want to know me was dead, and I had no career to speak of. A few years ago I read an essay on the topic of immortality. Its point was that while humankinds hopes in this regard have historically rested on having children or on religion, today a new strategyfameis making a strong showing in the immortality sweepstakes. Ms. Chetkovichs essay would certainly seem to be exhibit #1 for this theory. If you think I am distorting her motives, check out this passage: as sections [of Mr. Franzens novel] were finished they flew almost immediately into print, and just as immediately, the phone would begin to ring with congratulatory messages, comparisons to dead writers and to living writers whose reputations were so established they might as well be dead.[emphasis added] I think theres not much doubt Ms. Chetkovich has at least literary immortality in her gunsights. (Actually, whats kind of amusing, given the flap this piece has caused in the U.K., is that by writing it she has successfully leveraged her envy into more fame and notoriety than she had previously achieved by writing fiction! Oh, well, any port in a storm.) Pondering over this little comedy, however, I found myself thinking about evo-bio. As you are well aware, Ive been coming up to speed on the whole topic for the last year or so. It certainly gives fairly elegant explanations for a number of issues in history, politics, culture, etc. However, in some ways it is a very odd field, intellectually. It starts from the hard-to-argue-with Darwinian notion that genes that promote behavior encouraging their own successful reproduction stick around and spread through populations, while those that dont, er, dont. However, having put forth this notion, evo-bio goes on to spend a great deal of time attempting to explain situations thaton their face, anywayseem to contradict this overarching observation. (One example from many: the persistence of homosexuality in the population, which one might... posted by Friedrich at July 25, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Qualia, Neuroscience and Art
Michael: Thanks for putting me on to another paper written by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, The Three Laws of Qualia: What Neurology Tells Us about the Biological Functions of Consciousness, Qualia and the Self (which you can read here.) Our readers may recall Dr. Ramachandran, as he is rapidly turning out to be 2blowhards go-to guy for neurology and cognitive science. (He put in appearances in two of our recent posts, here and here.) First, a small disclaimer: Dr. Ramachandran is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. I, on the other hand, am (in my more lucid moments) a middle-aged businessman. Obviously, Im in no position to either vouch for or challenge the neurological facts the good doctor and Mr. Hirstein present in their paper. So, making the assumption that he knows what hes talking about, I thought Id summarize those portions of his paper I think I understand, and make a few mild speculations about them. You may not recognize the term, qualia, but youve known about a long-standing philosophical argument that involves qualia since you were in grade school. To wit, one of your playground companions undoubtedly turned to you one day and said, Did it ever occur to you that even though we all call the color of the sky blue, what I see as blue could be what you see as red, or green? In short, qualia are the subjective aspects of sense perception, the parts that concern what perceptions feel like inside the brain of the perceiver. When I look up at the sky, I see light of a particular wavelength, but subjectively to me this light feels blue. Likewise, when I look at the grass, I see light of another particular wavelength, but in my head I see green. A robot with black and white vision might intellectually understand that I have a different neurological response to light depending on its wavelength, but it wouldnt get what my subjective response feels like to me. Equally, (to put myself in the place of the poor robot) I might intellectually understand that some fish can directly sense electric currents, and even study just how sensitive this reaction is, but I wont get what sensing an electric current feels like to the fish. Philosophers got about this far in thinking about qualia and more or less concluded that the damn things were inescapably subjective and impossible to communicate from one brain to another. (Well never know if our companion on the playground really sees my blue as his green, or my green as his red, etc.) Philosophers have also have been more or less stumped by what purpose, if any, qualia serve in the mind. This topic is, of course, closely related to what purpose, if any, consciousness itself serves in our mental economy. Well, Dr.... posted by Friedrich at June 28, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Hidden Capacities
Michael: Theres a fascinating piece in the New York Times of June 22, Savant for a Day (which you can read here) on how transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may make it possible for people to tap unusual mental powersby suppressing certain brain activity. The argument of Alan Snyder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sydney, is that (1) the unusual mental abilities of savants (autistics who are capable of amazing mental feats) are actually present in all human beings, (2) that these abilitiessuch as the ability to do complex mental arithmetic rapidly, to remember with photographic detail and accuracy, to instantly spot proofreading errors, etc.are actually just basic, lower-level brain processes that occur below the level of ordinary human consciousness, (3) that somehow our ordinary conscious processes mask these abilities or prevent us from accessing them, and (4) that these savant-like skills can be brought out by using TMS to turn down the volume on the "masking" processes. Professor Snyder claims that the TMS machine, which was originally utilized as an aid in brain surgery, may be the key to unlocking attributes ordinarily considered the property of geniuses or savants in ordinary people: You could call this a creativity-amplifying machine. It's a way of altering our states of mind without taking drugs like mescaline. You can make people see the raw data of the world as it is. As it is actually represented in the unconscious mind of all of us. And this line of thinking (and experimenting) is not confined to Professor Snyder: researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that TMS applied to the prefrontal cortex enabled subjects to solve geometric puzzles much more rapidly. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, associate professor of neurology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (who, through his work at the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation, has been one of the American visionaries of TMS), has even suggested that TMS could be used to ''prep'' students' minds before lessons. I'm sympathetic with this line of thinking because of three of my own life experiences. One occurred while I was an undergraduate at our Lousy Ivy University: for no particular reason (that I can remember) I made a hobby of doing mental arithmetic. I was astonished, after just a few months of this, at my ability to do things like multiply two- and three-digit numbers just by looking at them and pressing a sort of mental multiplication buttonnone of your usual carry the five stuff, just boom heres the answer. After a while, I got bored with this game and stopped practicing it, and thus gradually lost the ability. A few years later I noticed that if I concentrated while in a car, I could tell how fast the car was going (accurate to within a few miles per hour). To reassure all of you, I did this while driving around as a passenger in other peoples cars. When I got interested in art twenty years ao, I spent... posted by Friedrich at June 24, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, June 20, 2003

Religion, Politics and Temperament
Michael: Some time ago you mentioned in a posting that you (at least half jokingly) attributed the persistence of religion in modern secular society to the fact that people must have a gene for religious belief. Not long after, I was rather surprised to stumble across something at least supportive of this notion (although probably not as a result of anything so neat as the operation of a single gene) . In Matt Ridley's book, "Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human" he discusses some of the interesting differences in correlations found between identical twins reared apart (that is, individuals who share all their genes and little or none of their environment) and in fraternal twins reared apart (that is, individuals who share roughly half their genes and little or none of their environment) on the topic of religion: In a recent study [psychologist Thomas] Bouchard measured how [religiously] fundamentalist individuals are by giving them questionnaires about their beliefs. The correlation between the resulting scores for identical twins reared apart is 62 percent; for fraternal twins reared apart it is just 2 percent. Bourchard repeats the exercise with a different questionnaire designed to elicit a broader measure of religiosity and still gets a strong result: 58 percent [for identical twins reared apart] vs 27 percent [for fraternal twins reared apart]. And that ain't all. Similar effects seem to crop up in political opinions, or at least right-wing political opinions: [Bouchard] repeats the exercise with a different questionnaire designed to discover what he calls "right-wing attitudes." Again there is a high correlation in identical twins reared apart (69 percent) and no correlation at all in fraternal twins reared apart. He gives the twins a different questionnaire that simply lists single phrases and asks for approval or disapproval: immigrants, death penalty, X-rated movies, etc. Those who reply no to immigrants, yes to the death penalty, and so on are judged more "right-wing." The identical [twins reared] apart correlation is 62 percent, the fraternal [twins reared] apart correlation is only 21 percent. Similar huge differences [in the similarity between the political opinions of identical twins and fraternal twins reared apart] emerge from similar large studies in Australia. All this, of course depends on the (apparently reasonable) assumption, hopefully accounted for by Mr. Bouchard and his Australian counterparts, that adoptive homes represent a spectrum of religious and political opinion; if the adoptive parents were all right- or left-wing, and all highly religious or utterly irreligious, these results would be about how genes control the receptiveness of children to their parent's religious and political views. But this conclusion is unlikely if the studies embraced any very large group of adoptees and adoptee families.) Gee, do you suppose there are tests designed to measure or categorize aesthetic tastes (Elvis vs. the Beatles, abstract painting vs. representational, ballet vs. modern dance) that we could get introduced into these twin studies? I wonder how heritable such aesthetic preferences would turn out to be? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at June 20, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Half Baked Notions, Redux
Michael: A paragraph from your recent posting, Some Half-Baked Notions I Couldn't Figure Out How to Fit in Other Postings, prompted some rather half-baked notions of my own. (These notions are based on several ideas Ive come across recently; the half-baked element no doubt arises from how Im stringing them together, assuming Im understanding what Im reading in the first place.) You write: The American commercial-art world is often amazingly proficient and impressively dynamic. It's also, or so many people find, scarily aggressive. Its values, it seems to me, are basically the values of money, technology and business, with even sex and art put at the service of them. Plus, if you're a creative person making a living there, the chances that you'll ever be able to do much of your own thing are pretty slim. You'll be putting your talent and energy to work selling business values instead. My half-baked notion is that you may be mistaken in assuming that there is a contradiction between art and commerce, becauseat least in their originart and commerce seem to have shared the same root. I had this thought yesterday when reading an article in the July 2003 Scientific American by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Uncovering the Keys to Lost Indus Cities. Professor Kenoyer summarizes some of the findings of archeological studies of cities in the Indus Valley (in what is today Pakistan), which was the site of one of the four early urban cultural centers (the others being Mesopotamia, Egypt and Chinas Yellow River.) Much less is known, admittedly about this culture than the other three, because nobody has yet found an Indus-valley Rosetta Stone that would permit scholars to read the voluminous preserved writings of this culture. Nonetheless, certain elements seem well established. While the economics of the Indus valley cities appear to have been pretty much like those of the other ancient riverine civilizations, there appears from the beginning to have been a very significant role for trade: The Indus cities established their economic base on agricultural produce and livestock, supplemented by fishing and hunting. Both the common people and the elite classes derived additional income from the production and trade of commodities, including cotton and woolen textiles as well as a variety of craft items. During the oldest, or Ravi phase of the city-state of Harappa (approximately 3300 B.C.E. to 2800 B.C.E.), the locals were cranking out, and trading, a considerable amount of, well, art: Specialized craft technologies spread among the early settlements along trade networks, which likewise disseminated a shared set of religious symbols and artifact styles throughout the region...In the limited exposed areas of the Ravi-period Harappa, investigators have turned up signs of the production of both terra-cotta and stone beads and bangles. The terra-cotta items were probably worn by children or commoners, or both, whereas the more exotic stone and seashell ornaments most likely adorned local upper-class populations. Through careful analysis of the raw materials and comparison to known source regions, archeaeologists have shown that some... posted by Friedrich at June 17, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Free Reads -- Matt Ridley on Genes
Friedrich -- I'm sure this is nothing more than a sign of how shallow I am and how short my attention span has grown. But I got as much out of this excellent and informative short piece (here) that Matt Ridley wrote for The Spectator about what's the latest on the genes front as I did out of spending a couple of hours with his new book, "Nature Via Nurture." (Which, as I remember, you actually read all the way through.) No disrespect to the book intended -- I'm just enthusiastically recommending the Spectator piece, which answers most of my lame questions... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 14, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, June 6, 2003

Free Reads -- V.S. Ramachandran
Friedrich -- From a BBC 4-sponsored talk given by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Programme at the University of California, San Diego: I would say there is something special about humans - that is reflective self-consciousness and it's unlikely that dogs, for example, have that. But there's something even more unique about humans, which I don't think any of us can explain yet. Sometimes reporters come and; humour - you know, we're the laughing primate; we have free will; we can contemplate the consequences of our actions, so on and so forth. But there is one quality that I think is very special and that is the need to be more than human. In other words, you're constantly confronted with this dilemma. You know that everything that you hear from science and from neurology, that you are a beast, just a hairless ape which happens to be a little bit more clever than other apes. At the same time, you don't feel like that. You feel like you're an angel trapped inside this body, constantly craving immortality, craving transcendence trying to escape from this body. And this is the essential human predicament. Good, huh? It's from a terrific five-lecture introduction to contempo neuroscience, presented in very enjoyable, non-technical English. Go here to read them all. Arty 2Blowhards visitors won't want to miss Lecture 3, "The Artful Brain," or this brief discussion here, in which Prof. Ramachandran draws up a tentative list of ten laws of art. Both of these talks left me with an urge to introduce Prof. Ramachandran to our friend Nikos Salingaros. I think they'd find a lot of common ground. I'm tellin' ya: neuroscience, computer science, evo-bio and evo-psych, the classical revival, Alexander/Krier/Salingaros, the Web ... All these semi-parallel things are happening. They're live ideas and fields, and more and more they're feeding into and reinforcing each other. There's juice there to feed on and power there to surf on. Meanwhile the arts continue sucking on the long-dried-up corpse of Euro-theory -- po-mo, decon, etc. How can they be so completely unaware that the world left them in the dust about 20 years ago? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 6, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Schizophrenic Science
Michael: When you were leafing through a magazine, did you ever wonder if the editors ever read the whole publication? Or even the whole section? I recently had this experience in connection with the June issue of Scientific American. On page 20, in the News Scan section of the magazine, I saw a story on Acting Locally: In Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, States Go It Alone. The main thrust of this story is accurately summarized in its concluding paragraph: Still, the collective effort of the states is already beginning to compensate for the lack of reductions by the Bush Administration. You may have some American states that are better prepared, from a policy standpoint, to reduce greenhouse gases than a number of nations that have ratified Kyoto, [Barry] Raab [of the University of Michigan] comments. The earths atmosphere will take whatever help it can get. The Problem, Right? Okay, I thought, thats interesting, and then kept flipping until I reached page 28still in the News Scan section of the magazine. Now Im confronted with a little squib entitled, Rising Sun: Humans may be shouldering too much of the blame for global warming, according to a new look at data from six sun-gazing satellites. They suggest that Planet Earth has been drenched in a bath of solar radiation that has been intensifying over the past 24 yearsan increase of about 0.05 percent each decade. If that trend began early last century, it could account for a significant component of the climatic warm-up that is typically attributed to human-made greenhouse gases, says Richard C. Willson of Columbia Universitys Center for Climate Systems Research in Coronado, Calif[Willson thinks] the evidence merits keeping a close eye on both the sun and humans to better guage their relative influences on global climate. In 100 years I think well find the sun is in control, he says. Or the Problem...? Hey, Im resolutely agnostic on the whole topic of global warming, but it sure would be easier on us average-citizen types if Scientific American, to say nothing of the rest of the scientific community, could make up its mind. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at June 4, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Saturday, May 31, 2003

Family Trees
Michael: In the June edition of Scientific American, there is an interesting article by Charles H. Bennett, Ming Li and Bin Ma on a computer algorithm they devised to study the evolution of chain letters. And estimating the relatedness and evolutionary history of different organisms. And reconstructing the family tree of human languages. In short, this is one powerful algorithm. Apparently Mr. Bennett, an IBM fellow, owns a collection of 33 chain letters, all of which are descendants of the same aboriginal chain letter. All were acquired or received by Mr. Bennett over a 15-year period. Because this period was prior to the computer age, such documents were reproduced on typewriters and Xerox machines. Mr. Bennett mentioned his collection during a hike in the Hong Kong mountains with University of Waterloo (Ontario) bioinfomatics professor Li. It dawned on them that the chain letters had evolved through multiple generations as mutations (either deliberate or accidental) were introduced during the retyping of the letters. The problem of reconstructing the family tree of the chain letters was a very similar problem to figuring out from DNA evidence how closely related two different species are, a problem known as phylogeny. Morover, the chain letters could serve as a test of the methods currently used to estimate such interrelatedness. A Sample Phylogeny Finding that most existing methods didnt work very well on the chain letter problem, Bennett, Li and Ma (a professor of computer science) devised their own algorithm of relatedness. This involves retyping the letters into computer files in lower case, while ignoring the division of the text into paragraphs. This procedure converted a letter into a string of characters. The various strings are tested for relatedness by a file compression method. That is, the length of each compressed string is first measured independently, and then compared to the compressed length of a file made up of both strings arranged one after the other. If the two original strings were completely independent, the compressed length of the summed string would end up as the sum of the compressed lengths of the two original strings. The degree to which the compressed summed string is shorter than the sum of its parts indicates the degree of interrelatedness of the two strings. This method works much better on the chain letters, and apparently quite well on DNA strings as well. Thats nice for biologists doing phylogenetics, but what I find more interesting is that it can be applied to a wider set of culturally evolving items. Apparently three professors from La Sapienza University in Rome developed a phylogeny of human languages by applying this method to translations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into 52 different languages (which were conveniently available from the U. N.) The resulting family tree that the algorithm developed from the translations turns out to be quite close to the standard model of the historical relationships between the translation languages. Of course, the standard model has been developed by an immense analysis... posted by Friedrich at May 31, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, May 26, 2003

Blog-a-palooza redux
Michael: Following a link in your recent posting, Blog-a-palooza, I read two of Tim Hulseys interesting posts on the political philosophy of The Matrix Reloaded. I dont intend to beat a dead movie any further here, but Mr. Hulseys description of some postmodernist thought got me thinking about its underlying assumptions. Allow me to set up my tiny little conclusion with Mr. Hulseys highly lucid summary (you can read the entire post here): Now in postmodern radicalism, the American Revolution or the Magna Carta would exemplify a "top-down" revolution, while the French and Bolshevik Revolutions would be "bottom-up" models. All revolutions are ultimately controlled, to be sure, for they, too, are part of the Matrix. But a postmodern would argue that the controls get much tighter, and a lot more dishonest, when said revolution is implemented by the masters. Indeed a revolution implemented by the masters would be so insignificantly incremental that it would hardly be worthy of the name. Better to go big and ugly. You can guess where all this is going, gentle readers. According to postmodernist thought, the Matrix represents the state of life under not totalitarian despotism, but liberal democracy. In both cases tyranny is a fundamental, metaphysical fact of life, but pure totalitarian states are at least honest about it: You don't have a choice, and no one is going to try to convince you that you do. By contrast, in liberal democracy, you are granted the illusion of freedom, so that absolutely everything you do can be controlled. Fight back if you think you can. (This is the basic argument of Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, by the way.) Still, leave it to French theorist Michel Foucault to go one baby-step further, with his claim that classical liberalism is not equal to, but actually worse than outright dictatorship. The postmodernists were hardly the first thinkers along these linesNietzsche, for one, described homo sapiens as a herd animal. But there is a significant difference between Nietzsches view and those of the postmodern left, despite their attempt to co-opt so much of his thinking: herd animals dont follow a leader because theyre coerced into followingthey follow because they like following, because theyre comfortable following. I remember noticing, while still in college, that every human society and every organization I was personally aware of was hierarchical. I would occasionally ponder the gaping rift between what appeared to be an almost universal human preference for hierarchy (which, given the normal ratio between leaders and followers, means that most people are showing a preference for being an underling in a hierarchy) and what the radically egalitarian theorists of that era (the 1970s) were preaching. During my all-too-many years since in the working world, Ive noticed that very few people are emotionally comfortable exercising what might be called the central task of business: figuring out a vision of the future and being willing to take the risk of committing resources now to meet the needs of that (possibly illusory) future when... posted by Friedrich at May 26, 2003 | perma-link | (21) comments

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Behind Every Celebrity...
Michael: Did you ever notice that famous people often have parents or other ancestors who are as remarkable as they but who never got the publicity? The most recent example Ive run across of a famous person with perhaps even more remarkable parents was William Randolph Hearst. During our recent mini-hiatus, I drove up to see Hearst Castle at San Simeon. The tour took us through his private movie theater, which prompted a lecture from the docent on Hearsts own activities as a movie producer, which were more extensive than I had realized. The docent also told us about Hearsts ambivalent feelings regarding the film Citizen Kane, which was of course based loosely on his own life story. While owning a copy of the film that he would screen for guests (if they requested it), and being pleased with Orson Welles portrayal of himself, Hearst was nonetheless genuinely irritated at the films portrayal of his parents as a pair of little people. In reality, Hearsts father had lived a more mythical life than his son. The old man started dirt-poor in Missouri in 1820, educated himself in geology, earned a living mining in the Ozarks, and went out to California with the gold rush in 1850. After modest success in the gold fields, he discovered a major silver-mine in 1860 that made him a rich man. Hearsts father went on to build an international mining and cattle-ranching empire. Not content with a life in business, the old man got active in politics and made California a Democratic enclave at the height of Republican triumphalism in the 1870s and 1880s. He ended his life as a U.S. Senator. Not bad for a kid from nowhere. Hearsts mother was a much younger school-teaching neighbor of his father's family whom he courted after he came back to Missouri a rich man. She was not only a beauty, but raised Hearst more or less on her own, took him to Europe to learn about and appreciate art and culture, and was obviously quite a sparkplug herself. I, for one, can see how the portrayal of these two as nonentities would have been offensive to Hearst. These were people who didn't need to bask in their son's light. In fact, San Simeon actually makes the most sense viewed as a kind of tribute to his parents by Hearst. It combines the California landscape that his father seems to have loved (it was the first property bought with silver mine money) and the "culture" that his mother was crazy about (Hearst Castle is an amazing, if crazy-quilt, collection of tapestries, carvings, sculptures, paintings and mosaics from Europe.) The sense of a tribute is heightened when you consider that it was begun immediately after Hearst inherited the land at the death of his mother in 1919. So now all I need is for my children to become world famous, and perhaps someday a credulous biographer will believe that I had something to do with it. Hey, I... posted by Friedrich at May 15, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Culture and Scale-Free Networks
Michael: In the May issue of Scientific American, there is an article by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Eric Bonabeau on Scale-Free Networks that seems, to my mathematically ignorant eye, to have significant implications for the world of culture. According to this article, the traditional way of studying networks assumed that they were like the U.S. highway systemthat is, each node (major city) tends to be directly connected via superhighway to roughly the same number of other nodes. A few nodes had only one connection, most had four or five, a small number had as many as ten, but the number of connections per generally fit a bell curve with the largest number of nodes having a middling number of direct connections. (This is known, for reasons beyond my comprehension, as a random network.) However, a different type of network (known as scale-free) has recently been widely studied, in which most of the nodes have a very low number of direct connections, and some of the nodes have a very large number of direct connections. This creates what is known as a power law distribution, as opposed to a bell curve distribution, and is the technical definition of what makes the two types of networks different. For us limited-math types, the key is the fact that the nodes with tons of connections function as hubs in scale-free networks. An interesting example of such a scale-free network is the World Wide Web, where some pages are hyperlinked to (and from) zillions of other pages, while the vast majority of pages have few links. Examples of scale-free networks that have been studied in biology include cellular metabolism and protein interaction. But what, you say, does this have to do with 2Blowhards and our penetrating study of culture? Well, it so happens than many social networks are also scale-free, as Mssrs. Barabasi and Bonabeau report: A collaboration between scientists from Boston University and Stockholm University, for instance, has shown that a network of sexual relationships among people in Sweden followed a power law: although most individuals had only a few sexual partners during their lifetimes, a few (the hubs) had hundreds. A recent study led by Stefan Bornholdt of the University of Kiel in Germany concluded that the network of people connected by e-mail is likewise scale-free. Sidney Redner of Boston University demonstrated that the network of scientific papers, connected by citations, follows a power law as well. And Mark Newman of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor examined collaborations among scientists in several disciplines, including physicians and computer scientists, and found that those networks were also scale-free, corroborating a study we conducted focusing on mathematicians and neurologists. [You've got to wonder how they divvy up the work in the social sciences, don't you? I mean, we've got a choice between studying the sex lives of Scandinavian blondes and the citation patterns among neurologists. Gee, which one would I chose?] Assuming that artistic influence and prestige work in a scale-free manner (a hypothesis based... posted by Friedrich at April 16, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Sisterhood is Forever
Michael: In researching some aspects of my postings on Impressionism, I have entered new territory (for me, anyway): womens studies. I went looking for a history of feminism in the 19th century. At least as far as the Womens Studies shelves at my local Barnes and Noble went, I noticed that there werent a whole lot of studies present, at least not in my sense of the word. I was looking forward to thick analyses of the demographics, education, employment, reproductive activities, political positions, etc., etc., of women during the 1840s, the 1850s, etc. In short, ahem, facts. Fat chance, buster. At least as far as the titles on these shelves went, what I found were a series of book-length polemicse.g., Sisterhood is Forever. Forever, huh? I pondered, I wonder how they know that? However, Im a Blowhard and I take my responsibilities as an informed windbag seriously, so I didnt abandon ship. I finally found one volume that seemed like it might do the trick: A History of Women, Volume IV, Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War. It was edited by Georges Duby, (a member of the Academie Francaise), Michelle Perrot (Professor of Contemporary History, University of Paris) and Genevieve Fraisse (Research Associate in Philosophy, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris), all of whom seemed pretty respectable. And, the clincher, was that it was published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University. So I plunked my $19.45 down and bought the book. And, its true, there are some interesting and rather valuable facts scattered about in the book. (I plan to use some of them in my posting.) But in what I had assumed was the pure temple of objective scholarly research, I found what I would have to describe as a remarkably high incidence of outright opinion, wild overgeneralization and anachronistic reading of past behavior by todays standards. Let me give you an example from the chapter Bodies and Hearts by Yvonne Knibiehler: The French term for unwed mother, fille mere, first entered the language during the Revolution and is only now disappearing. For two centuries it connoted an affront to the very logic of patriarchy. At this point, I start looking around for a footnoteafter all, such an affront must have been noted by some of those darn patriarchs over two full centuries. No dice. I skip down a few lines: To be sure, illegitimate births were not unknown in previous centuries. But between 1750 and 1850 their status changed, as it were. There were a variety of reasons for this: the number of illegitimate births increased, seducers were denounced as irresponsible, and the authorities became increasingly concerned about the problem. The number of unwed mothers increased everywhere [footnote 50], although not always at the same pace. In France the illegitimacy rate rose from 3.3 percent of all births in 1790 to 7.4 percent in 1840, stabilizing at between 7 and 8 percent by the turn of the twentieth century. In Paris, however, a destination... posted by Friedrich at March 25, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, March 9, 2003

Why Don't You Know What I'm Thinking?
Friedrich Why does a woman expect her man to be able to read her mind? And why does she feel perfectly entitled to act indignant when it turns out he cant? Im going to assume this holds roughly true (many exceptions allowed for) across cultures and across time. By the way, have studies been done of this? And if not, why not? What might be a plausible evo-bio explanation for this tendency? Ill (bravely and stupidly) try to get the ball rolling here. A woman is hyper-focused and aware of her inner life (her feelings, her body, her urges and needs). When it turns out that her man hasnt got a clue what the hell shes talking about, let alone feeling, its quite simply a rude awakening, and rude awakenings make everyone feel irritable. So, two questions: why are women so hyper-focused on their inner lives? What evolutionary advantage does this confer? Question two? Well, what is a mans role in all this? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 9, 2003 | perma-link | (22) comments

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Nature v. Nurture
Michael: A few years ago I bought a book entitled Beyond Left and Right. I thought at the time that I might be in for some genuinely new political thought. Unfortunately, upon examination at home, I found the contents consisted of new fashioned ways to sell old-fashioned left-wing ideas, the desirableness of which were simply taken as a given. I mention Beyond Left and Right because I just read something in the New York Times that feels a lot like it. I refer to Natalie Angiers column, Not Just Genes: Moving Beyond Nature vs. Nurture. (You can read it here.) I wont keep you in suspense about the similarity; Ms. Angier ostensibly lists examples of how science doesnt support either position in the political debate over nature or nurture while managing to give the impression of wanting desperately to hang on to the nurture thesis. Ms. Angier notes what is the politically correct position in science, which is that genes are always dependent on their environment for expression. She also points out that scientists are, like everybody else, politically opinionated: Everyone calls themselves an interactionist," said Dr. David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York. "Yet often, when you scratch below the surface, you find a sociobiologist who marginalizes the importance of culture, or a social constructivist who hates the very idea of sociobiology, and they end up painting caricatures of each other. True integrative thinking is in the very early stages." Regrettably, Ms. Angier is among those who arent up to true integrative thinking at least at the political level. All the examples she selects appear to support a nature hypothesis, but viewed more closely (she claims) are really more ambiguous. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, she selects no examples that, at first glance, appear to support nurture but in reality turn out to be more ambiguous. Beginning her catalogue of ostensibly erroneously "naturist" thinking she cites phenylketonuria, or PKU. This disease results from a genetically inability to break down phenylalanine, found in foods like milk, eggs, meat and bread. Excess phenylalanine then builds up in the body, resulting in tremors, seizures and brain damage. She argues that because it is possible for sufferers to manage the condition by avoiding foods containing phenylaline, this condition cant be considered merely genetic. Say what?! Last time I looked, the nature-nurture argument had to do with the ability to create newand betterhuman relations by modifying social conditions. That is, the better society is the cause that leads to the effect of better human beings. Lefties, by and large, believe passionately that human beings are malleable enough to be manipulated into virtue by their social environment, while righties, by and large, have a much lower opinion of the malleability of human nature and fear that such manipulations are more likely to have extremely nasty unintended consequences. For this example to have supported the point that Ms. Angier seems to be makingthat human beings are more flexible than hard... posted by Friedrich at February 25, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, February 24, 2003

A Feathered T. Rex--Image Evolution
Michael: According to a story in Scientific American, the evolution of feathers seems to have occurred not in "birds" or even "proto-birds" but in dinosaurs. Specifically, feathers seem to have developed in therapod dinosaurs (the carnivorous types that ran about on two legs with prominent teeth.) Apparently feathers have a host of valuable properties not connected with flight, including being good heat insulators and being waterproof, to say nothing of allowing all sorts of interesting opportunities for sexual display and differentiation. So feathers came first, and flight was something that showed up later (possibly, much later) in the game. One consequence of this is to change the primary definition of birds from feathered, flying bipeds to the longest-running show among the therapod dinosaurs; another is eliminating the question: "Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?" What astonished me, however, is that the current thinking (if I'm reading this story correctly) is that all therapod dinosaurs may have been feathered, including famous macho nasties like the velociraptor and T. Rex. The cover of Scientific American shows what I think is a velociraptor running around like a really scarey (and rather demented-looking) chicken. I can understand why they didn't even try to illustrate a feathered T. Rex--it would go against too deeply ingrained a mental image. I keep thinking about what the damn thing would look like, and having my visual imagination conk out. I mean, it seems like I just got used to the idea that T. Rex walked around with its body held horizontally, and not dragging its tail. I wonder if this will hurt the popularity of dinosaurs--trying to match up the idea of T. Rex's tons of bone and tooth with cute ruff of fluffy feathers. Or will it end up pictured more like a giant vulture, dripping blood and dropping gore-stained feathers? (This image seems to be supported by recent theories that T. Rex was too big and slow to hunt and was therefore more of a scavenger or stealer of other dinosaurs' kills.) That has a messy reality that might put off children--and Hollywood, too! Evolution of T. Rex's Image From Tubby to Buff to...Avian? The "mutation" of T. Rex's image from upright, big-bellied tripod to horizontal menace (sort of a crocodile with really long back legs) at the time of "Jurassic Park" was speedily accepted, largely because it made our boy seem far more fit and athletic--a true tyrant king in tune with 90s ideas of masculine sexuality. But I'm guessing that aesthetic preferences may hold the notion of a feathered T. Rex back for a while. I guess Darwinism isn't just for living creatures; now that I think about it, mental images seem to have a "survival of the fittest" aspect as well. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Free Reads -- Jonathan Rauch
Friedrich -- In this month's Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch writes humorously about introverts (he admits that he's one) and extroverts. Sample passage: Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As you probably suspect, "up with introverts" is his theme. He mentions in passing how tragic it is that politics is dominated by extroverts. I'd push this idea a step further: I think it's tragic that politics is dominated by people who are interested in and care deeply about politics. Why entrust something so important to that awful bunch? The piece is readable here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, February 17, 2003

Fear and Memory
Michael: I thought you might be interested in an article in the March edition of Discover magazine, entitled Can the Brain Conquer Fear? by Steven Johnson. Although it focuses on the specific mechanics of fear-coded memories, what I found most interesting was the discussion of the brains multiple memory storage systems. As Mr. Johnson explains: Were accustomed to describing someone as having a good or a bad memory, as though memory were a single attribute that covers the entire range of storing and recalling information. We now know that the brains memory systems are far more diverse than this. There are systems devoted to explicit or declarative memories, like your childhood recollection of that pet python, and systems devoted to procedural memories that usually involve physical movement, like learning how to ride a bicycle. And then there are emotional memories. If you watch the activity in someones brain using a modern fMRI scanner, you see a different profile depending on which kind of memory the subject is conjuring up. If somethingsay a movement in the bushesreminds you of a previous encounter with danger, youll have a double reaction. Youll consciously summon up a declarative memory of the previous scary event, which was originally laid down by your brains hippocampus. (There I was walking down the path and I suddenly realized I had stepped right next to a rattlesnake). Youll also unconsciously access an emotional memory, which is routed through your brains amygdala. The declarative memory is rich, detailed and slowit takes a second or two to appear. The emotional memory is virtually instantaneous, and its impact is felt indirectly via increased blood pressure, sped-up heart rate, elevated hormone levels and other physiological responses. The existence of these two different memory systems explains why fearful people often arent very resourceful; their amygdala, having identified a dangerous situation, either falls back on what appears to be its default remedysimply hunkering down and freezingor on some other remedy that got them through this situation in the past, like screaming for help. (Interestingly, while there are many neural pathways leading from the amygdala to the neocortex, there are very few running back the other way, so it is difficult for your rational mental processes to win an argument with your amygdala.) And while the amygdala can be trained to associate the scary memory with a more intelligent response, simply explaining to the sufferer the irrationality of his or her phobia or the inadequacy of his or her reaction is a waste of breath. (Remember, the amygdala isnt listening.) I dont know if the mechanism of other emotional memories is similar to that of fear. If they were, however, it would tend to explain a lot of neurotic behavior, and to suggest that trying to modify emotional memories/reactions via talking therapy may be fighting an uphill battle. The very existence of multiple memory systems (which suggests the possibility of multiple, parallel versions of many of ones mental processes) also suggests that classical models of mental... posted by Friedrich at February 17, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, January 24, 2003

Aesthetic Impacts of Population Dynamics
Michael According to the Wall Street Journal of January 24, falling birth rates around the world may lead to the global population topping off at around 9 billion in 2050 and dropping to around 8.5 billion by 2075. Granted 9 billion people is still 50% more than we have today, but its a whole lot less than the 12 billion that was the estimated peak 10 years ago. The reasons for this shift are varied, although clearly the largest one (other, possibly, than the impact of governmental population control in China) is the desire and increasing ability of women to limit the number of their pregnancies. My questiongiven this blogs continuing interest in evolutionary biologyis how this squares with the desire to perpetuate ones genes. The best explanations I could come up with are these: (1) in poor societies having too many children involves a high a risk for women of dying in childbirth, which negatively impacts the likelihood of their children growing to adulthood and reproducing; (2) in urban environments, children cannot contribute to their own upkeep, so excessive numbers of children again reduces the economic resources available to support them to reproductive adulthood. Ergo, in both cases, women are limiting the number of their children to increase the odds of their childrens eventual reproductive success. (Along the way, its also less wear and tear on mom.) The interesting difference between the theories is that in the first situation (which seems to reflect a rural environment), mens and womens interests are not alignedthe men would press for more children than the women would want. Whereas, under the second (or urban) theory, mens and womens interests are far more aligned, as long as men feel compelled to economically provide for their children. If they dont feel so compelled, of course, we have another mismatch, in which women limit fertility and men seek out multiple partners. I wonder if this dynamic explains the shift in art from the Venus de Willendorfwho is loaded with symbols of fertility, including actually being pregnant, to today, when the most desirable woman is the one who obviously hasnt had her quota of children yet? Venus de Willendorf; Venus de Victoria's Secret What a Difference 10 Millenia or So Makes! Have you read discussions on this topic by a recognized sociobiologist? Cheers, Friedrich P.S. Women may find it amusing to note that in the era of the Venus de Willendorf, being fat was obviously considered deeply erotic (although practically no women got enough to eat to appear this ripe), while today very few women are as thin as the above model (who is, however, probably about as skinny as everyone was in the Paleolithic--excess calories being hard to come by). In short, ladies, you just can't win.... posted by Friedrich at January 24, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Free Reads -- Therapy for Immigrants
Friedrich -- A thought-provoking piece by Sarah Kershaw in the NYTimes about how immigrants bring (and act out) their own forms of distress, depression, and anxiety, readable here. Some fascinating stuff. Asians, for instance, seem to tolerate only about half as much medication as other ethnic groups. And there's apparently no word in Korean for "depression"; Koreans talk instead about being "a little bit irritable," or perhaps having a "down heart." Sample passage: Culture-bound syndromes, which are listed in the standard reference of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, are not limited to Asians. A common disorder among Hispanics, for example, is a condition called "ataque de nervios," in which so much pent-up anxiety and anger come out that a sufferer will fall on the floor and may experience uncontrollable shouting, attacks of crying and heat in the chest, said Dr. Julia Ramos-Grenier, a psychologist and professor at the University of Hartford. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 18, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Free Reads -- Tunes and the brain
Friedrich -- Researchers at Dartmouth using MRI studies have begun mapping out which parts of the brain are involved in recognizing musical tunes. What intrigues me more than the brain imaging news is the piece of music used in the study. Composed by a recent Dartmouth grad, Jeffrey Birk, it's 8 minutes long and moves through all 24 major and minor keys: The music was specifically crafted to shift in particular ways between and around the different keys.These relationships between the keys, representative of Western music, create a geometric pattern that is donut shaped, which is called a torus. The piece of music moves around on the surface of the torus. It moves around on the surface of a torus? Huh? What a virtuosic stunt of musical construction that must be! But what does it sound like? The press release can be read here. Found via the Human Nature Daily Review, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 8, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Free Reads -- Chess and intelligence
Friedrich -- Well, gee, if I have a brain cell or two, then I ought to be able to play chess well, right? But what if I can't play chess well? Does that mean I'm simply not smart? But I am, I am, I know I am... That mini-monologue, which I suspect runs in the head of more than a few people, can now come to an end, I'm thrilled to report. Helen Pearson writes in Nature magazine that brain scans suggest that the "intelligence" part of the brain appears to be inactive when someone's playing chess, or even go. "Inactive" -- that's the word she uses. Sample passage: Practice and expertise may actually account for a lot of winning moves. "Most of the stuff we think of as smart is based on experience," says psychology expert John Gabrieli of Stanford University in California. Pearson does write, though, that the research is preliminary. So maybe that self-torturing little monologue has a few years yet to run. The article is readable here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 8, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Michael I see from the NY Times of December 17 that one of my pet theories is being empirically validated: Dr. [Severino] Antinori, [an Italian fertility doctor] who became famous in 1994 for helping a 62-year-old woman become pregnant by implanting a donors fertilized egg in her uterus, says he has a clone pregnancy under way in an undisclosed country. The clone, he says, is a boy, due in early January. Panayiotis Michael Zavos in Kentucky, Dr. Antinoris onetime partner and now his bitter enemy, says he does not believe Dr. Antinori, and anyway he is working on something even better. Dr. Zavos, an embryologist, says he has collected cells from seven people who want to be cloned, and in the first two weeks of January he will insert the cells nuclei into donated human eggs. He promises that, unlike his rival, he will offer DNA evidence that each of the babies born of this adventure is an exact genetic replica of its parent. And to add a little spice, there are the Raelians, members of a religious cult who believe the first humans were cloned by space aliens 25,000 years ago and who have taken on human cloning as a sacred mission. Acoording to their chief scientist, Brigitte Boisselier, the Raelians now have five clone pregnancies under way, the first of which is to be delivered by the end of this month. My pet theory? That no amount of banning or regulation is going to stop the more science-fiction-y outcomes of biotechnology and reproductive science from coming to pass. Before this is all over, youll see not only designer babies--genetically engineered athletes, scholars and fashion models--but cloning with the goal of harvesting the clone for, er, spare parts. If you can think such a possibility up, I suspect that somewhere, in the not-too-distant future it will happen. Dr. Antinori--What Kind of Future Does He See, Exactly? I am not an advocate of any of this stuffto say I prefer making children the old-fashioned way is an understatement. But if people think buying a few score genes from Cindy Crawford will make their daughter more popular in high school, or buying some from Barry Bonds will make their son more athletic, they may well do it. (Think of it as throwing a few of your genes overboard to make the rest more reproductively successful.) And as for the more gruesome outcomes, human beings have long demonstrated that if they can get the upside of things without personally suffering from the downside they will rationalize their behavior one way or another. Fasten your safety belts, kids--we're in for a very weird ride. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at December 17, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Monday, December 16, 2002

New Ideas: Drawing Blind, Cheap Movies, Evo Lit Crit
Michael About once a month I seem to spend a sleepless night caused by middle-aged problems too mundane to mention here. While this is a bit of a problem on several fronts, it does allow me to get some reading done. As a result I went rummaging through the Sunday New York Times about 3 a.m. last night looking for something to read in a hot bath, and was grateful to come across their magazine, which this week is given over to The Second Annual Year in Ideas. Several of their stories would seem to be of interest to our readers: The first story Even Blind People Can Draw, showcases the work of Professor John M. Kennedy of the University of Toronto, who has been asking blind people to make drawings. (The blind people in question have been blind from infancy, so theyre not relying on skills developed during a period of sightedness.) Interestingly, from the standpoint of various artistic arguments that have been waged over the years, they make line drawings. The lines are of two typeslines separating figure/ground interfaces (outlines) and axial lines where two planes come together (contour). Very interestingly, they also make drawings in perspective! I believe some blind people are better at this than others, but the same could be said about the sighted. As Professor Kennedy notes: Can blind people draw, using outline? Yes, often somewhat recognizably and at times quite well. Further, occasionally vantage points are explicitly noted. Familiar complex objects such as dogs are difficult for the blindbut they are for the sighted too. And at least one person can draw such objects quite competently. Granted, mathematical perspective isnt technically dependent on vision, but it does require knowing where items are in three dimensionsthe surprise here is that blind people are capable of determining such coordinates quite accurately by touch, something that appears to have caught the cognitive science community by surprise. For the comfort of the non-academic draftsmen among us, the blind are also capable of deliberate distortion, if they are trying to emphasize some element of the drawing (for example, by putting it in another location than it is in natureor to make it larger or smaller relative to the rest of the drawing.) You can read the NY Times article here and an excerpt from Professor Kennedys Drawing and the Blind here. The second story concerned the rise of digital filmmaking, headlined Escape from Turnaround, The. Of course, the chief attraction of such digital productions currently is their low cost, butputting my business hat onlow cost is low risk, and low risk allows for a lot more experimentation. One firm profiled briefly in this story is InDigEnt, which produces digital films. Apparently their most successful production was Tadpole, which was made for $250,000, shown successfully at a film festival, and then sold to Miramax, which spent $5 million distributing the film to theaters. I never saw Tadpole and probably never willfor all I know it could be the worst... posted by Friedrich at December 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Funky Chickens
Friedrich -- Music has been found have a fast and dramatic impact on the moods of very young chickens, reports Larry O'Hanlon for Discovery News online (readable here). Sample passage: In the study, briefly isolated chicks who quickly cry out in distress were exposed to music. Their distress calls dropped and they showed other physical signs that the music had quelled their anxiety, apparently making them feel better. They seemed most soothed by a range of pop music, and calmed less by Mozart's Kronungconzert, said Panksepp. But there's no saying for certain, because chicks can't explain how they feel, he cautioned. Gotta admire that scientific caution. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 4, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, November 29, 2002

Aesthetics and Dogs
Michael A story from the New York Times, which you can read here, reveals recent progress made in understanding the domestication of wolves: On the basis of DNA from several wolf populations and from the hairs collected off 654 dogs around the world, Dr. Savolainen calculates a date for domestication either 40,000 years ago, if all dogs come from a single wolf, or around 15,000 years ago, the date he prefers, if three animals drawn from the same population were the wolf Eves [i.e., the ancestral females] of the dog lineage. Dr. Savolainen believes that dogs originated from wolves somewhere in East Asia, because there is greater genetic diversity, often a sign of greater antiquity, in Asian dogs than in European dogs. However, there remains a debate over exactly how this domestication took place, given the circumstances: The dates yielded by dog DNA suggest that wolves were domesticated by hunter-gatherers, before the invention of agriculture and permanent human settlements. But domestication is an arduous process, in which animals must be selected for a particular trait through many generations, by several generations of people. It is hard to see how hunter-gatherers could have foreseen the payoff from domesticating wolves, or would have known what traits to select for. I want to jump into this debate with my own, er, crackpot theory: humans selected which little wolf puppies to shower attention (and, more importantly, food) on because of how the little rascals looked. In short, the domestication of wolves was guided by (human) aesthetics. A related story in the Wall Street Journal lists the, ahem, design modifications that occurred as a result of domestication: (1) snouts became smaller and less overtly toothy; (2) ears became floppy; (3) tails curled up or became less rigid; and (4) coloring became more varied and splotchy. Canines: Early and Late Models Of course, one can argue about priorities here: whether people deliberately bred wolves to appear cuddly or whether people have learned to read canines that have shorter snouts, floppy ears, curled up tails and varied colors as unlikely to devour Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood. But either way, it suggests that people have good reasons to be conscious of design in their surroundings and certainly dont tolerate just anything around them because it happened to wander in from the cold. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 29, 2002 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Free ReadsThe Source of Consciousness
Michael In the Los Angeles Times of November 17, there is an interesting article on brain researchapparently my topic for the monthtitled Stalking the Rational Mind. It describes how Francis Crick (who won the Nobel Prize for deciphering the structure of DNA 40 years ago) and his band of merry men at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies are pursuing the physical basis of consciousness. (In the invariable habit of scientists, theyve given this physical mechanism its very own buzz word: the "neural correlate.") Raider of the Neural Correlate: Francis Crick One of the things that surprised me about the story is how literally Crick and his number one colleague, Caltech professor Christof Koch, take the idea that the neural correlate is a specific, identifiable mechanism: At one point, Crick and Koch speculated that the neural correlate of consciousness might be related to the synchronous firing of groups of neurons at about 40 hertz (40 times a second)But Crick and Koch have more recently backed off some of their broader claims for that theory. Still, they are inclined to believe that the neural correlate is a discrete process in the brain, whether of neurons acting individually or in groups. "Francis and I believe [it] is probably something very specific," Koch says. "The biological model is very specific--so many things in biology are little machines." You can read the whole story, here. I have no idea if Crick and Koch have a clue as to the nature of consciousness, but I must say the whole thing is quite fascinating. Could you recommend any accounts of current day brain research for the general reader? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 20, 2002 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Evobio Keeps Up With the Times
Michael I dont know if you noticed, but the NY Times Science Times section of November 5 was an orgy of sociobiology, or at least stories with a strong sociobiological dimension. The stories included Weighing the Grandma Factor which covered the first international conference devoted to grandmothers: It turns out that there is a reason children are perpetually yearning for the flour-dusted, mythical figure called grandma or granny or oma or abuelita. As a number of participants at the conference demonstrated, the presence or absence of a grandmother often spelled the difference in traditional subsistence cultures between life or death for the grandchildren. It also included a book review of Dr. Olivia Judsons Dr. Tatianas Sex Advice to All Creation which seems to be pretty entertaining, judging from the following: Eggs are few, and sperm are many. This microscopic-level asymmetry is the root cause of ardent civil war that in every species pits male against male, and male against female. Males, from sea lions and fruit bats to [the] Taliban, are driven to control females fertility so as to ensure their own paternity. But a females interest usually lies in having many lovers[enabling her] to guard against male sterility, to ensure diversity in her offspring, to encourage each male in her group to think that he is the father and protect her children accordingly and to encourage competition among the sperm of several males so as to ensure her egg gets the best. Natural selection, it seems, often smiles on strumpets, Dr. Tatiana writes without much hint of regret. Sorry, boys. Olivia Judson, Ph.D., a.k.a. Dr. Tatiana Of course, not everyone is a convinced sociobiologist. In Brain Power: The Search for Origins we hear from Dr. Terrence J. Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego who is advancing a more culture-centric view of brain development: Its true you cant separate the question of who we are from the world our ancestors passed through on their way to becoming us, Dr. Sejnowski said. But that evolution did not occur in the relatively stable savanna described by evolutionary psychologists, he said, but rather during a period of unusual, extreme and rapid oscillations in climate. If the brain evolved any trait during the Peistocene, he declared, it was flexibility. However, before arguing for a blanker-slate theory, Dr. Senjnoski should check in on another story in the section, On Profit, Loss and the Mysteries of the Mind: A Conversation with Daniel Kahneman I think the major phenomenon we [he and Dr. Tversky, his long-time research partner] observed is what we called loss aversion. There is an asymmetry between gains and losses, and it really is very dramatic and very easy to see. In my classes, I say: Im going to toss a coin, and if its tails, you lose $10. How much would have have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you? People want more than $20 before it is acceptable. And now Ive... posted by Friedrich at November 6, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Free Reads -- Steven Pinker
Friedrich -- The indispensable Steve Sailer does a q&a with Steven Pinker, author of the remarkable new "The Blank Slate," here. Sample passage: Q: You argue that the modernist high culture and post-modernist criticism have, on the whole, failed to engage humanity's interest because they ideologically rejected basic truths about human nature. What are some of modern art's flaws? A: My quarrel isn't with Modernism itself, but with the dogmatic versions that came to dominate the elite arts and bred the even more extreme doctrines of postmodernism. These movements were based on a militant denial of human nature, especially the idea that people are born with a capacity to experience aesthetic pleasure. Beauty in art, narrative in fiction, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, ornament and green space in architecture, were considered bourgeois and lightweight, or products of mass-marketing. Instead, modernist and postmodernist art was intended to raise our consciousnesses, illustrate a theory, or shock us out of our middle-class stupor. Q: Why, in contrast, did popular culture become so much more, well, popular? A: Popular culture, to become popular, had to please people, and (at least at its best) it perfected engrossing plots, catchy rhythms and melodies and gorgeous fashions and faces. Huzzah to that. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 31, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Saturday, October 26, 2002

Free Reads -- Trowbridge on dogs and music
Friedrich -- Dave Trowbridge at Redwood Dragon has been thinking about animals, in-born natures, and music, here. Not to be missed. Sample passage: While it may not make sense to characterize one kind of music as "better" than another, there does seem to be a sense in which some kinds of music are more "natural." That is, they seem to fit some basic sense of acoustic fitness that is shared by all human beings, and, it now seems, some higher animals as well. And paramount among these forms of music is the Western "classical" tradition, especially the baroque and classical periods. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 26, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, October 18, 2002

Evo Bio Questions -- Acne
Friedrich -- I couldn't be happier that evolutionary-biology thinking has been flourishing, and at the progress it's made in pushing aside the old models -- Marx, Freud, deconstruction, all of which have long outlived their usefulness, assuming they ever had any. And I couldn't be more eager to see evo-bio forms of thinking make more inroads in the arts. That said, there are questions the evo-bio crowd hasn't addressed that I'd like to see them take on. The first one is acne. What kind of evo-bio sense does it make that acne is so common during puberty? I don't think other animals suffer from it -- perhaps you, or some of our readers, know better. Why do we? Acne is so common among human teens that it should probably be considered a standard feature of adolescence. It's uncomfortable, humiliating, and disfiguring. Where's the evolutionary advantage in any of that? What exactly is being selected for? I seem to recall someone theorizing that acne might be a way of discouraging humans from procreating until they're past it, the idea being that acne is so gross that kids will avoid sex until they have the acne under control. It's a try, which I appreciate, but I'm not sure it stands up. Where's the evidence that teens avoid sex? Or that people are prone to have more sex after adolescence than during adolescence? Or that acne plays a role in people's decisions whether or not to have sex? Do we have to settle for an explanation along the lines of "well, it's an unintended consequence of blah blah blah"? That'd be lame. Evo bio people -- give me your ideas! Best, if still recovering from adolescence, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Free Reads -- Steve Sailer
Friedrich -- I love checking in on the protean Steve Sailer (here). He writes enlighteningly about evolutionary biology, he writes sensible political commentary, and he writes smart, brave, always-worth-wrestling-with things about race and immigration. (A standout piece on whether or not the concept of race has any validity is here.) In addition to all that, he's a movie critic who takes a distinctive approach to thinking about movies, treating their business and popular history not in the usual way (as gossip and matter for facile sociology) but as evidence of what works and what doesn't in the art form. It's a kind of evo-bio approach to writing about the arts -- let's see more of that. He even manages to get off the occasional good, yet informative, anti-P.C. crack, as he does in a review (here) of the Navajos-in-WW2 thriller "Windtalkers." Sample passage: The screenwriters...are so terrified of being accused of stereotyping Native Americans that they portray the Navajo with no particular traits. Look, you can't "celebrate diversity" unless you show some diversity. In reality, the Navajo are fascinating. They are possibly the most economically dynamic of all tribes. They were originally invaders from Canada who arrived in the Southwest not long before the conquistadors. Acquiring sheep from white people, they prudently shifted from hunting and gathering to herding, weaving, and crafts manufacturing. While the rest of the Native American population was in catastrophic decline due to European diseases, weapons and alcohol, the Navajo exploded in numbers, much to the distress of their neighbors and rivals, the more conservative Hopi tribe. You won't find that kind of thing in Film Comment. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Gross Over-Generalizations -- Women and Baked Goods
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Mood heighteners? What is it with women and baked goods? Last night, for example, I was at dinner with the Wife and a woman friend when the talk turned to food and thence to baked goods. The two women lit up: Which bakeries are are the best right now? Have you tried this pastry? How about that one? What about that recipe that was in the Times? And where do you buy your bread? The two gals were still happily discussing these pressing matters when the dessert menu arrived and gave the topic another boost. I can certainly enjoy a good piece of bread, but I don't have much to add to these conversations. Do you? Bakeries and pastries .... I've got as much to say about them as I do about manta rays or weather balloons. Plus there's the fact that sweet, chewy, grainy things just don't mean that much to me. Since it seems to be law that eating a lot of them will make you fat, I simply don't eat them. It's no big sacrifice. But women! Their moods go up and down; they really, really care. They feel better when they can have something sweet. They give the bread or cake or cookie a good look and feel before placing it in the mouth. They're crushed if they have to deny themselves a brioche. Becoming a woman in Paris Leafing through some evo-bio book a few years ago, I came across a passage where the (woman) author was writing about differences between women and men. She had looked at tons of cultures, modern and ancient. And her conclusion? She wrote that, if it were possible to factor out all variables, she'd bet that the the biggest difference between the sexes would prove to be that women would spend most of their time searching out and fussing over food, and men would spend most of their time and energy pursuing sex. Sounds about right to me. To you? Thiebaud likes painting them more than eating them Even allowing for many exceptions (male pastry chefs and bread bakers, for instance), doesn't it seem that women show an amazing affinity for cakey, moist things that tend to the sweet? (I recall, if dimly, some passage in Virginia Woolf where she referred to women and their gabble and their little cakes....) There are male customers at the local high-end bakery, but not many. It isn't men who make a detour just to see "what's in the window of that cute little patisserie over there." I don't recall ever seeing a table of non-gay men babbling while passing around and around a dish of little colored cookies. Look at the expressions on the faces of the women in the photos accompanying this posting -- angelic, foolish, "caught," eager, blissed-out. You get the impression that they could spend their lives with their hands in the cookie jar. And the symbolism of "the cookie jar" ... When... posted by Michael at October 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Free Reads -- Pygmy Negritos
Friedrich -- Steve Sailer talks with George Weber, a Swiss businessman who's knowledgeable about the Pygmy Negritos of the Andaman Islands (in the Indian Ocean), one of the few remaning Stone Age cultures, here. Sample passage: It is thought that the surviving Negritos are a remnant population representing an early -- perhaps the earliest -- migration out of Africa of modern Homo sapiens. That such an early population could have survived into our days is a major miracle, made possible only by the Andamanese ferocity toward outsiders and their geographical isolation over tens of thousands of years. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 12, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, September 6, 2002

The Mind, Part 7,342,941
Friedrich -- Another sensible science column by Sharon Begley in the Wall Street Journal, again, unfortunately, unavailable online. This one's about how research is suggesting that we can know little about why we feel what we feel. Some excerpts: Introspection about the unconscious can be worse than useless...We don't have meaningful access to the causes of our feelings...If you have a gut feeling about love, work or life, it's probably best not to analyze it to death. The unexamined life has its virtues. All of which jibes pretty closely with some of Michael Oakeshott's arguments -- that, for instance, we're by and large creatures of habit, taste, and temperament, and that that's ok, it's what it is to be human. And that the determination to pick 'em apart -- to make sense of them -- almost always represents the agenda of the power-and-control-hungry "rationalizer." And beware of them. You'd think this sort of research would make arts critics question what they do, not that many arts critics follow science, even the more popular expressions of science. After all, isn't much of what critics are up to an attempt to explain why a given work of art or entertainment made them feel the way they did? After years of befouling the air with too many rationalizations of my own, I've come to think that we like what we like and dislike what we dislike just because we do. Education, discussion, adventure -- all these can open us to experiences and pleasures we might not have encountered otherwise. But our responses remain based nonetheless in temperament. Lord knows that a big part of the fun of following the arts is letting our tastes and pleasures guide us, musing (in my case ad nauseum) about what we encounter. Lord knows it can be fun to give our responses a poke from time to time just to see how they respond. But fancy explanations for what are basically temperamental preferences are usually just disguises for political or esthetic agendas. And are much to be mistrusted. Or so I've found. You? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, September 5, 2002

Michael Have you ever read any Schopenhauer? I happened on this bizarre website called "Frownland: Pessimists speaking the truth," here., which has a couple translations of the old boy. He appears from these excerpts to be a German philosopher who could actually write (very surprising) and who possessed amazing 'tude (not so surprising, but still pretty amusing.) Following is an excerpt from "The Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes": So then, after what has been called to mind, no one can doubt either the reality or the importance of the matter [i.e., romantic love]; and therfore, instead of wondering that a philosophy should also for once make its own this constant theme of all poets, one ought rather to be surprised that a thing which plays throughout so important a part in human life has hitherto practically been disregarded by philosophers altogether, and lies before us as raw material. The one who has most concerned himself with it is Plato, especially in the "Symposium" and the "Phaedrus". Yet what he says on the subject is confined to the sphere of myths, fables, and jokes, and also for the most part concerns only the Greek love of youths. The little that Rousseau says upon our theme in the "Discours sur l'inegalite" (p. 96, ed. Bip.) is false and insufficient. Kant's explanation of the subject in the third part of the essay, "Ueber das Gefuhl des Schonen und Erhabenen" (p. 435 seq. of Rosenkranz' edition) is very superficial and without practical knowledge, therefore it is also partly incorrect. Lastly, Platner's treatment of the matter in his "Anthropology" (sect. 1347 seq.) every one will find dull and shallow. On the other hand, Spinoza's definition, on account of its excessive naivete, deserves to be quoted for the sake of amusement: "Amor est titillatio, concomitante idea causae externae" (Eth. iv., prop. 44, dem.). Accordingly I have no predecessors either to make use of or to refute. The subject has pressed itself upon me objectively, and has entered of its own accord into the connection of my consideration of the world. Moreover, least of all can I hope for approbation from those who are themselves under the power of this passion, and who accordingly seek to express the excess of their feelings in the sublimest and most ethereal images. To them my view will appear too physical, too material, however metaphysical and even transcendent it may be at bottom. Meanwhile let them reflect that if the object which to-day inspires them to write madrigals and sonnets had been born eighteen years earlier it would scarcely have won a glance from them. Moreover, his theory of love is extremely sociobiological. Richard Dawkins of "The Selfish Gene" would have little to argue with in this account: That this particular child shall be begotten is, although unknown to the parties concerned, the true end of the whole love story; the manner in which it is attained is a secondary consideration. Now, however loudly persons of lofty and sentimental... posted by Friedrich at September 5, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Surf's Up
Friedrich -- The Wife and I drove by a surfing beach recently. There were a few gals on surfboards and a few guys lolling about. But about 95% of the guys were strutting or surfing (ie., showing off their prowess), and about 95% of the gals were oiled, bikini'd and languourous (ie., showing off their desirable flesh, like juicy roasted chickens). I pointed this out to The Wife. She, a sexy, fit 6 footer who could probably bench-press me, laughed and said, "And so it ever shall be." One of many reasons we get along so well. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 4, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, August 30, 2002

Sigmund vs. Science
Friedrich -- A levelheaded science column by Sharon Begley in today's Wall Street Journal (not online) about the unconscious. Of course there's a lot of mental activity that's unconscious -- but none of it bears much resemblance to "the unconscious" as Freud imagined it. Some excerpts: This isn't Freud's unconscious, that maelstrom of primitive emotions and repressed memories. Instead, the unconscious being excavated by scientists processes data, sets goals, judges people, detects danger, formulates stereotypes and infers causes, all outside our conscious awareness... This sophisticated system operates under the radar of consciousness not because it has something to hide, as Freud argued, but for the sake of efficiency. We need to process so much information to survive that some of it has to occur unconsciously, much as a computer runs on machine language that no one wants to see on the monitor. It's a practical matter! I remember my amazement when I learned years ago that no scientific evidence whatsoever confirms Freud's version of the unconscious. What kind of baloney had been sold to us? Why had anyone accepted it? Why did anyone continue to stand for it? Much science in fact directly contradicts the Freudian model. Example: "repressed memories." Studies strongly suggest that the more awful an event, the less (not more) likely you are ever to forget it. (Why should this "discovery" strike anyone as a surprise?) Why are you resisting my theories? How did the Freudian version of mental and emotional life get as far as it did? I suppose it's like asking why Marxism got as far as it did, and maybe the answer is the same: they were all-enveloping replacements for traditional religion at a time when many were losing their religious faith. Freud and Marx both had a charismatic, prophetic fervor that came across in their visions and their writing -- they had a hypnotic effect, like cult leaders. You read them and you feel pumped. And they both offered redemptive goals that one could at least imagine achieving: Freud, to integrate one's personality; Marx, to overcome class divisions. Thank heavens: something to look forward to! A goal to pursue! My contribution to this discussion is to suggest that Freudianism and Marxism were attractive because they made life seem dramatic. They gave it a storyline (however ludicrous). They added color, fire and spectacle, and many people seem to want those in their lives. What a relief that both of these cults are losing their grip. (And how satisfying when science confirms one's own hunches!) Will academia ever catch on? Have you read Frederick Crews's attacks on Freud? Fantastically satisfying (and impressive) displays of intellectual carving-up. The expressions of outrage and wounded dignity (usually in the form of thunderous personal attacks) from Freudians that followed publication of Crews' essays and books only added to the deliciousness of it all. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 30, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Tales of Sociobiology
Michael Two short tales of the lefts reactions to sociobiology. The first is set during my least-favorite decade, both personally and ideologically. On 15 February 1978, a young woman carefully poured a pitcher of ice water onto the head of Edward O. Wilson while he sat waiting to address an audience at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A band of accomplices joined their pitcher-pouring confederate on stage to wave placards and chant, Wilson, youre all wet.. By his own account, he was utterly surprised to have achieved the kind of notoriety that evidently inspired his band of youthful appointments. But Wilson is also known as the inventor of sociobiology, having published a book of coffee table dimensions in 1975 entitled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. In the interval between the books appearance and the AAAS meeting, a group of Wilsons colleagues at Harvard University did some publishing of their own. Richard Lewontin, a leading geneticist, and Stephen Jay Gould, just beginning his own rise to fame and fortune as a writer on matters evolutionary, were among the authors of a manifesto printed in the New York Review of Books. In their broadsheet, Lewontin, Gould and fellow co-signers declared that Wilson had produced a theory that could be used to justify the political status quo and existing social inequalities. Worse, according to them, sociobiology was founded on the same kind of pseudoscience that was used as a foundation for the eugenics polices which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany. Although Wilson soon responded in print to these unnerving charges, the vehemence of the opposition to sociobiology and the personal nature of the initial attack and follow-ups colored the general view of Wilson and his apparent creation As a result, to this day many persons, academics and nonacademics alike, have the sense that sociobiology may be slightly or substantially tainted, all the more so because Gould has continued over the years to cast aspersions on the discipline and its practitioners In this he has found allies in various academic camps with some feminists and social scientists especially eager to dismiss sociobiology as misguided at best and socially pernicious at worst Wilsons postmortem of the affair is straightforward and plausibleThe mid-1970s were years of intense political activity on campuses, much of it initiated by left-wing professors and their students who opposed the war in Vietnam. At Harvard University, the war and various other injustices came under fire from a number of scholars of the Marxist or semi-Marxist persuasion, including Wilsons colleagues Lewontin and Gould. Lewontin and another colleague wrote at about this time, As working scientists in the field of evolutionary genetics and ecology, we have been attempting with some success to guide own own research by a conscious application of Marxist philosophy Marxist philosophy is founded on the premise of the perfectability of human institutions through ideological prescription. Therefore, persons with Marxist views were particularly unreceptive to the notion that an evolved... posted by Friedrich at August 29, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Eat this
Michael From a review by Joan Acocella of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food: But Fernandez-Armesto agrees with other historians that most cannibalism has been motivated not by physical hunger but by spiritual need. The Papuan Orokaiva, like many other cannibals on record, eat their enemies in order to capture their souls; the Gimi women of the Papuan highlands, until quite recently, ate their deceased menfolk in order to give them a congenial resting place. (" 'We could not have left a man to rot!' protest the women.") Fernandez-Armesto regards these practices as merely an extreme example of the attachment of symbolic meaning to food, and he compares them to contemporary 'health' diets aimed at enhancing one's beauty or tranquillity or moral worth. 'Strangely,' he writes, 'cannibals turn out to have a lot in common with vegans.' --the New Yorker, August 19 & 26, 2002, p. 164 Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at August 21, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments