Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Calories-In-Calories-Out And The Fetish For Epistemological Simplicity

This post considers why, given all the evidence against it, the calorie-in-calorie-out theory of weight has such a grip on people's imaginations.

I started thinking about this because a couple of weeks ago I was looking up some boring nutrition thing online and I came across the website of Dr. Jason Fung, a doctor and kidney specialist. Dr. Fung has a theory about obesity being cause not by overeating but rather by excessive insulin. I found it interesting enough to buy and read his book, The Obesity Code.

The Obesity Code draws on a range of evidence to argue against the calories-in-calories-out model -- in which weight gain and loss is governed by amounts of food and exercise -- and in favor of a different model, in which there are many factors but hormones -- and especially insulin -- are central. Insulin acts to direct the body's regulatory system: too much insulin and we gain weight. It's like a thermostat set at the wrong temperature.

I gather this is similar to what other people, like Gary Taubes, have been saying. But Dr. Fung adds an interesting point about meal timing. The main problem, Dr Fung says, is that our modern way of eating -- lots of carbohydrates, lots of "small meals" and snacking -- generates a lot of insulin. Frequent eating means that insulin is released often, and this means that our bodies develop a resistance to it -- just as they develop resistance to other things like drugs. We need more and more to get the effect insulin is supposed to provide, of helping us process sugar, and the body produces more and more insulin. And we gain weight.

The solution is to eat fewer carbohydrates, especially processed ones, but also to pay attention to meal timing. Don't snack. And if you want to lose weight, try skipping meals or fasting.

I'm not a physiologist so obviously I can't assess the scientific evidence of this book, but you don't have to be a scientist to know there is something very wrong with the idea of "calories-in-calories-out." You can easily observe that if you give the same food to different people their bodies will respond differently. In fact, if you give the same food to the same people at different times of their lives their bodies will respond differently.

Right at the start of his book Dr. Fung mentions several obvious examples of the how the calories-in-calories-out model obviously fails. Prior to puberty, boys and girls have the same body fat percentage. After puberty, women have almost 50 percent more body fat, despite eating less. Pregnancy induces weight gain, beyond the effect of eating more. Various drugs are known to cause weight gain, regardless of food intake. If you give people insulin, they gain weight; in fact there's a thing called "diabulemia" where people with Type 1 diabetes deliberately give themselves less insulin than they need, in order to lose weight.

Given all of this easily observable evidence, isn't it strange how often people, including scientists and health care professionals, constantly bring up this idea of calories-in-calories-out? The idea that to lose weight you should eat less and move more is like gospel in this country.

Proponents of calories-in-calories out would, I expect, want to say something like this: Sure, we know that there are many factors influencing the body. The idea of calories-in-calories-out doesn't mean calories are the only factor. It just means that "all things being equal," the more calories you take in and the fewer you use, the more you'll gain weight. Sometimes this is followed up with "It's thermodynamics! You can't change the laws of thermodynamics!"

I find this response unpersuasive. Obviously, I think it's true at some level that biochemical processes obey the laws of science. But so what? If there are many factors contributing to weight, then what is the point of saying calories-in-calories out? Even if it is true, it is irrelevant.

It's especially irrelevant if you're looking for understanding and explanation of cause and effect. Adapting one of Dr. Fung's analogies, imagine if you were looking to explain why a plane crash happened, and the answer was "there was not enough lift to overcome gravity." Yes, this is a law of physics. But how is it relevant? What we want to know is whether there was human error or mechanical problems or weather or what.

To say calories-in-calories-out and imply that it is relevant is to say something else: that if a person choses to eat less and move more, they will lose weight, and vice versa. This is the statement we're arguing about. It is clearly debatable, and there is increasing evidence that it is false. There's a large genetic component to weight. Foods like olive oil are processed differently from foods like sugar. Fat stores are regulated through homeostasis. The body is not a machine, but rather a delicately responsive organism that regulates itself through all kinds of delicately tuned mechanisms. 

And yet, you can't get away from calories-in-calories-out. It's brought up all the time, sometimes in a sneering tone. It's the cornerstone of policies like the Obama administration's "Let's Move" campaign. Just the other day I read something on the Guardian presenting a multifactorial theory, and bam -- first comment I saw was about how, duh, you can't break the laws of thermodynamics. Why does everyone love to say and believe this? Here are a few thoughts.

1. The simplicity fetish
Modern westerners love a simple theory. I don't know what it is that makes people think a simpler theory is better than a more complicated one, especially when you're dealing with complex things like nutrition. In my book, Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World, I talk about how, even in ethics, people show a preference for simple theories organized around a single principle, despite the fact that most of us value various things -- such as justice, liberty, and overall well-being -- that are different and can obviously conflict.

I don't know if people just got over excited about the simplicity of modern physics, expressed in those elegant equations, or what, but this is definitely a thing. Somehow the idea that you could express the complexities of nutrition through a single equation -- I think it appeals to people on some visceral level.

2. The harmony myth

I think there's also a vague and often subconscious preference for seeing things all fit together, as if things that are good in one way are good in other ways and vice versa. High calorie foods strike some people as indulgent, and some high calorie foods, like meat, are a problem from an ethical and environmental point of view. As with the "harmony myth of human nature," we think it should all fit together. But of course it doesn't.

There's really no reason certain foods can't be bad from one point of view and good from another.

3. Politics and capitalism

One of the most interesting ideas in The Obesity Code is the idea that capitalism creates pressure for governments to endorse a calorie theory of weight. Because here's what the calories-in-calories-out theory doesn't say: it doesn't say "don't eat that." If official policy said to avoid starchy foods, the grain industry would have a freak out. By falsely treating all foods as the same, the calories-in-calories-out theory avoids demonizing any particular food, and thus satisfies certain political pressures.

In general, the capitalism angle on nutrition is pretty out of control. Nina Teicholz's book The Big Fat Surprise is full of hair-raising stories about how much of modern food science is funded by giant food corporations and industry. I think of myself as skeptical and cynical, but even I was shocked at the role olive oil companies played in organizing lush mega-conferences around the concept of the "Mediterranean diet."

Since this post is about weight gain and weight loss, I'd like to end by reminding everyone that weight is not a predictor of health, and that people can be healthy at any size. In fact, I expect the same dysfunctions creating chaos in the world of nutrition are also getting creating some of the misplaced hysteria over weight. 

Someday, a social epistemologist is going to have a field day with the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Guest Post: The Dream Of The Unvalenced Style Object And The Ill-Fated Honda Crosstour


This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal aka Felix Kent.

Who are the people who bought the Honda Crosstour, which ceased production in 2015? I have thoughts, but they are probably wrong. My qualifications: I drove the Honda Crosstour for almost a full day, which, given the sales figures cited in Car and Driver’s April 2015 obituary for the Crosstour, puts me ahead of most Americans. I am a Honda enthusiast. The only two cars I have owned have been Honda Civics and barring startling change in either Honda design or my own financial circumstances, I will buy a new Civic at 12-20 year intervals for the rest of my life. (The current Civic is probably the only two-door I will buy, though, which means that my car choices will only become even less remarkable over the course of my life.) I once spent a week being driven to elementary school in a series of incredibly exotic cars that included an Aston Martin and two different Rolls Royces because of an unlikely collision of circumstances (I was staying with my mother’s rich friend). These are not good qualifications, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t really plan on answering the question.

Here is how I came to drive a Honda Crosstour. At 7:30 in the morning I took my two-door Honda Civic in for its 60,000 mile service. I was going to make the service an excuse to call in late to work and sit in the brand new renovated lounge area with proprietary Honda television that my Honda dealership recently installed as its service center and surf the internet until I had forgotten who and where I was. But I was told that the service would take all day, that the service would cost three times as much as my most lavish estimate, and that I was eligible for a loaner car.

I am a bad driver, and for that reason I don’t like driving other people’s cars. I drove for one year in my twenties and then I gave up driving again until I was thirty-five because it freaked me out too much. But I actually had to drive somewhere that day and I had had too many awkward conversations with the dealership’s shuttle drivers in the last few months as the result of a rash of tire punctures and also I was still discombobulated from the early hour. So I accepted the gleaming white Honda Crosstour loaner car and was taught how to start it with a button. It felt like a scam, the whole thing, especially when they told me that I was eligible for an upgrade and if I traded my car in in the next 30 days they would refund the price of the service as well as give me an above-market trade-in value. (A month after I bought my current car the dealership started sending me letters suggesting that I might want another better, newer car.)

The thing that it felt the most like was one of those movies where the hero swaps bodies with somebody else. There I was, and the controls were more or less the same, but different and the steering wheel was different. The steering wheel was actually my favorite part of the Crosstour. I don’t know if it was really leather-wrapped or if it was a synthetic leather-like substance, but the thick braided grip around the edge of the steering wheel was very comforting. My steering wheel is rubbery and sometimes when I get nervous I gouge out small piece with my fingernails. My car, to be frank, looks terrible. There is a scratch along the side, and the bumper gives the impression that I drive with reckless abandon, which is untrue. I’m just not good at judging distances. And now I was in the Crosstour and everything was so big. The back window was so far away. The side and rear cameras made me feel that I was living in some kind of virtual reality, and I found that destabilizing. (I don’t like to wear sunglasses when I drive because the extra layer of lens is too complicating.)

And there I was, puttering around in this gleaming unmarked Crosstour and wondering who the hell would decide that this was the car of their dreams. It was a weird mix of the fancy and the unfancy. There were seat warmers. I didn’t like the seat warmers, especially because I didn’t realize mine was on at first and then when I did realize it I didn’t know how to turn it off. There was an AC control that purported to allow you to set the precise degree of cooling. And it was huge. But it didn’t feel luxurious. Partly that was because I thought it was so ugly. It was the kind of car that has a small or at least normal-sized car shape, and then when you get up close to it it turns out to be large. But not so large as to be comical, not so large as to be obviously a joke, just large enough to be constantly disorienting. Which is my least favorite genre of car. Along the same lines, the chair returned to an extreme reclining position every time I turned off the engine, so every time I turned it on I had to crank it upright again so I could drive the way I like to, in the manner of an eighty year old.

It turns out nobody thinks the Crosstour is the car of their dreams, or at least only a statistically and capitalistically insignificant portion of the population thinks that. That segment was out in force in the comments to the Car and Driver article, talking about the secret excellence of the Crosstour. One person was taking pleasure in how the demise of the Crosstour would give the extant ones rarity value. One person was asking, plaintively, what happened to owners of the Crosstour once it was discontinued, which is a beautiful question.

The Crosstour made me think of the Lotto brand sneakers I had my mother buy me when I was eleven or so. I knew my previous sneakers were uncool. I also knew that I was uncool. If I showed up in school in sneakers that were actively cool, it would be too obvious that I was striving to fit in. If I showed up in school with sneakers that were the same as I had previously worn, I would be stuck where I was. No, I needed to find something new, I needed to find something unvalenced. Lotto — I had never seen anyone wearing Lotto sneakers. But of course the out-of-left-field choice only reinforced everything that everybody already knew about me. Nothing is actually unvalenced; it’s just that sometimes you haven’t done the math.

There are people that have the courage of their convictions and love their Crosstours, but if I had bought a Crosstour I wouldn’t have been one of them. Which is why I have given up trying and why when I bought a car I bought a Civic, so ubiquitous that it admits its defeat up front. Also, for a car, it’s pretty cheap. Which is nice, except when you’ve been scammed into paying too much for your 60,000 mile tuneup. I complained, at the end when I had turned in the Crosstour. I said that they should have told me when I scheduled the appointment how much it would cost. Oh, the guy said, well, how about I take ten percent off? I really appreciate, he said, the chance to make this right. I was just happy to be back in my Civic. I love my Civic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dancehall, Nordic Kids Songs, The Golden Age Of Magic, Other Things

I'm traveling this week, and I don't have time to write a proper post, but let me share with you this little story.

It all starts with this song "Too Original,' by Major Lazer, featuring Elliphant and Jovi Rockwell. As regular readers know, I usually get exposed to new music during my Les Mills exercise classes. "Too Original" was Track 5 for release 92 of BodyAttack, and I fell in love with it right away.

If you know the song or you've watched this video, maybe you had the same experience that I had, namely: WTF is this song about? In fact, most things about this song were obscure to me. So I started looking things up.

First I learned that "Too Original" is a song in the tradition of Jamaican dancehall. Like other people, I inferred from this that the lead singer was Jamaican. But then I learned that Elliphant is "a Swedish singer, songwriter and rapper." (Also, "Elliphant,"as Wikipedia warns, is "not to be confused with elephant.").

Elliphant in the other video for "Too Original."
Over at genius.com, I learned that in the chorus Elliphant is saying "Too original fi dem pawdie," and from the internet I learned that "pawdie" is Jamaican patois for friend and that "fi dem" means "for them." I learned from the comments of Diplo, the actual producer, that when it comes to the meaning of lyrics like "Drop baba juice, make it goddamn strong," don't bother trying to figure it out, because, as he says, "Elliphant makes up her own language. That’s why we love her."

Then I got to the middle of the lyrics, where Elliphant says "Simsalabim naah, I'm a norden gyal, Bim bim sala, kicking dreadlock style." With respect to "Simsalabim," some random commenter wrote: "'Simsalabim' is a word for 'abracadabra' used almost everywhere in Europe. Her trick consists in being a northern Swedish girl with a Jamaican music style."

And I was like, "wait, what?" I'd never heard "simsalabim." It's used "almost everywhere in Europe?" I looked it up. Turns out "Sim Sala Bim" is the famous because of a guy named "Dante the Magician," who was born in 1883 and worked in "vaudeville, burlesque, legitimate theatre, films, and in later years, television."

Dante, who was born Harry August Jansen in Copenhagen, took "Sim Sala Bim" from a Danish children's song. Wikipedia notes that Dante the Magician "can be seen using these words in the Swedish 1931 feature Dantes mysterier and in the 1942 Laurel and Hardy comedy "A-Haunting We Will Go," and also that "with Dante's death, what historically has been known as the 'Golden Age of Magic' came to an end."

I don't know if Elliphant knows "Sim Sala Bim," because she's Swedish and it comes from a Danish children's song, or whether some causal chain links Dante the musician to dancehall, or whether random commenter has the right story about "Europe," or what. But I was very happy to learn all these things. For a brief shining moment, it all felt like one peaceful and interconnected world.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Airspace, Cosmpolitanism, Frictionlessness, And Global Gentrification

Last week in my post about cash I mentioned this idea about how the drive toward the frictionless world sometimes ends up leading us away from where we want to go. Silent cars are dangerous unless we build in fake noises. Virtual payment schemes screw up our spending unless we build in fake pain. As we've noted before, dreams of a frictionless world run into the hard fact that even the internet needs things like energy-sucking data centres and so on.

After the post went up, my friend directed me toward this discussion of "Airspace." "Airspace" is that space of modern capitalist nowhere: the coffee shop, office, or shared work space that all have the same comfort symbols: fast wifi, innocuous background music, wood tables, exposed brick, minimalist furniture.

Noting the increasing homogenization in AirBbB rentals, this article explores the "aesthetic gentrification" that is causing the rise in global sameness. As Lambert says over at Naked Capitalism, one thing about Airspace is that it's frictionless.

This was all on my mind  a few days ago when I encountered this profile of a guy who only owns fifteen objects. James Altucher, described here as "the world's least likely success guru," got rich from being involved with a successful start-up, lived lavishly, tried to make even more money through investments, then went broke.

After losing all his money, he had various epiphanies. He gave away or threw away everything he owns, and now he travels with his laptop and three pairs of chinos and three T-shirts, staying with friends and in AirBnB rentals.

In a way, this whole "own nothing" trend is really the height of frictionlessness, and of course it goes hand in hand with Airspace. To me, it is also annoying. "Own nothing" is always treated as some kind of anti-materialism, but in fact it's only the most ultra privileged, and usually male, people who can live with no objects. Most of us have objects because we are using them to do things -- often with and for other people. We cook meals with our pots and pans, we eat off our dishes, and we sit on our sofas with friends. If we have kids, we provide them with toys and educational materials and things they like to wear. Shared activities require objects, so either you own those objects or you're using someone else's.

And speaking of this whole "other people" thing, there is one moment in the interview where Mr. Altucher makes a joke about his "kids." Does he have children? Did the reporter ask? If he does, how does he make food for them? Where are their toys? As we've noted before, if you're reading about "Mister Interesting," somehow the whole fatherhood thing never comes up. If "Ms. Interesting" was running around being the "Oprah of the internet" and owning fifteen objects -- wouldn't the very first question be "OMG, how do you take care of your children?!"

Anyway, this was all percolating in my mind when I read this article about how "Intellectuals are Freaks." The article points out that intellectuals are atypical, which is absolutely true. I think often about how my hours and hours of education and time alone in a library reading make the texture of my life radically unlike that of most other people. Many intellectuals probably start off atypical, and then become even more atypical as they go along.

One of the ways the article says intellectuals are atypical is in their cosmopolitanism. Intellectuals often consider themselves "citizens of the world" and see borders and boundaries as arbitrary and meaningless. Sometimes this extends to the idea that being invested in the local -- a family, a community, a nation -- is somehow stupidly parochial or naive. Intellectuals, seeing their own experience, are likely to endorse education as a means of curing the inequality and other ills that forces like globalization sometimes create.

I consider myself an intellectual, and I think this critique points to something real and important. It's not naive or stupid to want to live in a particular community, tied to particular people, with a particular way of life. For many people, these are the things that make up a good life.

And while education is wonderful, it's not a cure for inequality. As long as there are agricultural workers and baristas and Amazon warehouse workers and call center employees, there are going to be people who are deeply vulnerable to the forces of inequality. It doesn't matter what degrees they have.

I feel like that whole idea of cosmopolitanism, of feeling at home anywhere, a citizen of the world -- it has something to do with frictionlessness, with the idea of transcending specifics and ties, with owning nothing, with the feeling of Airspace.

This is not to say that frictionlessness is always bad. I spend a huge amount of time in Airspace, and I feel like I thrive there. Traveling the world is wonderful, and it's one of the great things of our time that we communicate with a zillion different people and feel like citizens of the world.

It's just that there's lot to say for friction too -- for the feeling that specific people, specific ways of life, and even specific objects are part of what makes human life what it is.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Why Is Cash Disappearing, Just When We Need It Most?

Did you know: Cash Cats is a thing?

I know things are crashing down all around us, but do you have a few minutes to listen to me talk about cash? Specifically, why is cash disappearing now, just when we need it most?

Cash offers so many huge and unappreciated benefits. For one thing, it is mostly untracked. In the surveillance state and the surveillance economy, everything you do is being watched. The government is watching. Corporations are watching. Retailers are watching. Don't you find it a little creepy being followed around the internet by targeted advertising?

I recently recommitted to using cash on a regular basis, and I found that some retailers go out of their way to make this payment method painful. I wanted to buy a simple Wüstof at Williams-Sonoma, and when I said I'd pay with cash and refrained from giving my email address, the salesclerk said, in a threatening tone, "Really? I have to warn you, you're going to get a huge receipt, it's a big pain. Is that going to be OK for you?" Luckily I carry a backpack, so the "huge receipt" was not a problem.

I know cash is now going to be trackable and whatever, but still. For now, if you're a regular person using it to buy stuff, you're basically flying under the radar.

Another benefit of cash is that it is harder to spend than other, more up-to-date forms of money. It is a bit obscure to me why this should be true, since cash is a symbol of something and not, itself, the thing. And yet cash is harder to spend. In one study, MBA students were willing to pay twice as much for something if they paid by credit card than if they had to pay with cash.

This certainly resonates with my experience. If I'm thinking about buying some sort-of-optional thing, like a piece of clothing or a new backpack or whatever, I find my feelings shift noticeably if I think about paying in cash than paying by card. There's something about handing over a wad of twenties that just hurts in a way that paying by card doesn't. In fact, I'd say that paying by card can feel downright pleasant -- and this aesthetic aspect is surely something people are thinking about when they design systems like ApplePay.

I recommitted to using cash for several reasons. I fear that if people don't use cash, cash will disappear, and I don't want that to happen. I want to incentivize the ongoing existence of cash. I use it to keep track of how much I am spending over time. I occasionally take taxi cabs in cities where drivers really really prefer cash.

But my cash quest is a lonely one. People seem to prefer cards so deeply and by such a wide margin that using cash is almost unthinkable. On campus, students use cards even to buy a cup of coffee -- they even use bank cards, where you have to wait and type in a PIN, and wait again! Aren't young people supposed to  be the impatient ones?

Even though this article in the New York Times showcases research showing that because is harder to pay cash for things you end up liking them more, the researcher seems to treat the idea of cash as almost unthinkable: "I’m not saying we should revert back to cash," she says, adding that maybe there could be a buzzing noise or email associated with a transaction that would bring back the pain of paying by cash.

As with fake noises for electric cars, this makes me think how odd it is that our new frictionless systems have to build the friction back in somehow.

I live in Canada, where the cash system is working pretty well. Theres' a sensible distribution of coins and paper, no pennies, and fresh bills. I'm from the US, and whenever I come back to the US for a visit, I'm appalled by the cash situation, and especially by the ongoing inclusion of pennies in a cash transaction -- which is the main thing making carrying cash, paying with exact change, and receiving change all a huge pain in the ass.

This has gotten to the point where I have started considering the possibility that the powers-that-be are intentionally letting the US cash situation get annoying. How else to march everyone off to the promised land, where we all pay by app, there's no shady markets, there's no coins to give to people on the street, and there's 100 percent tracking and 100 percent surveillance?

Anyway, it's interesting to me to think about why modern consumers find the idea of cash so unthinkable. Is it just that carrying around some paper and metal is now an unbearable convenience? Is it self-surveillance, life-hacking style? Is it that the "pain" of paying cash is too painful, given all the other painful things going on? Is it something to do with wanting "payment" to feel like the fun of a video game?

Is it all of these things?