Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Metaphysics and Politics Of "A Calorie Is A Calorie"

I've always been fascinated by the staying power of "a calorie is a calorie" and the way people enjoy deploying this phrase.

In some literal sense, this statement is true -- but that sense is the one in which it is also a tautology, which means that it is true but empty of content. It may be true by definition, but it doesn't tell you anything about the way the world is.

When people say "a calorie is a calorie," though, they definitely mean to say something about the way the world is. They mean to say that what foods you eat doesn't matter for your weight, as long as you eat the same number of calories. Or they mean that your weight can be calculated through finding the difference between the calories you consume in food and the calories you burn in exercise and living. Or they mean that if two people eat the same way and move the same way, they will have the same experience in terms of weight gain or weight loss.

Stated this way, these things seem obviously false. I have an acquaintance who was in a bad car accident years ago. His digestive system was damaged, and he had to have a lot of surgeries. Now he is fine, but for a long time he struggled to keep his weight up, even when eating a lot of food, because his system didn't work well. Obviously, his condition contradicts the previous statements.

Maybe you're thinking, Well, those are exceptional circumstances. But there are many ordinary examples. Regular readers know that I'm a fan of the work of Dr. Jason Fung, whose book The Obesity Code proposes that weight is a matter of hormones and biology, not thermodynamics, so that you have to look at how your body is reacting to food and not just at its caloric content. Roughly speaking, frequent small meals mean your body produces a lot of insulin; this can cause insulin resistance, which causes the body to produce more insulin, which changes how your body responds to food. Even short periods of fasting can counter these effects.

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 these complicated factors, what is the point of "a calorie is a calorie"? I wrote before about why this strange tautology might be so attractive to people. But there's also an interesting kind of metaphysical way to look at it. I was recently reading Philip Mirowski's More Heat Than Light, about the relationship of economics and physics. In an early chapter, he discusses the work of Emile Meyerson, who Mirowski says proposed that "a sweeping postulate of the identity of things in time" was "central to all human thought." Things are always changing, but we can't understand things unless we take them as, in some sense, fixed.

In a passage I really like, Mirowski says that the story goes like this: "Someone proposes some hypothesis, and then a mathematical savant constructs an "equivalent" statement H*(x) of the hypothesis, highlighting some mathematical quantity x. The Meyersonian tendency then exerts its sway, and x begins to be treated analogously to the general philosophical category of substance: Namely, it is thought to obey some conservation laws [e. g., -- "a calorie is a calorie!"]... These conservation laws, in turn, provide the accounting framework that enables quantitative manipulation. Somewhere along the line, entity x gets conflated with object x', which becomes associated with all sorts of metaphysical overtones, such as the permanence of natural law, the bedrock of phenomenological reality, the identity of mind and body, and so forth."

That is, the whole concept of a calorie might just be a reifying projection of the fact that the science of thermodynamics works well with one mathematical formalism rather than another. We then make the leap, possibly unjustified, to the idea of reality that is conserved and unchanging, so that a calorie is a calorie. 

Of course, statements like "a calorie is a calorie" also take on a life of their own because they fit into people's social and political commitments and allow them to blame "individual responsibility" for things that, as Dr. Fung elegantly explains, have nothing to do with choices and everything to do with the social and political aspects of food and nutrition science -- for example, the fact that "eat small frequent meals" and "a calorie is a calorie" both allow for nutrition "advice" that doesn't harm the bottom line of large food corporation.

In fact, in "The Foreign Policy of the Calorie," historian Nick Cullather traces the emergence of the calorie framework through its use as a social, political and cultural tool, arguing that the calorie framework "popularized and factualized a set of assumptions that allowed Americans to see food as an instrument of power, and to envisage a 'world food problem' amenable to political and scientific intervention."

Well. After decades of calorie-is-a-calorie bullshit, the New York Times just ran an article saying it might not be just "what" you eat, but also "when" you eat that matters. In my opinion, the focus of the article on circadian rhythms makes no sense -- as commenters pointed out, many cultures have late night dining habits and excellent health. But at least they will willing to break away from the ridiculous metaphysics and get into the fact that there are, in fact, many variables in play, and they may well interact in complicated ways that we just don't understand. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Guide To Quitting Amazon From Someone Who Cares

There are many reasons to want to quit Amazon. Maybe you're worried by the fact that one company dominates the book-selling industry, so their trade wars dramatically affect what books you can buy. Maybe you're weirded out by the fact that when a tech reporter was recently asked "Is it possible to buy used books on the internet without buying from Amazon?" he said "It's certainly not easy" -- because Amazon owns Abe.com, Book Depository, and everything else. Maybe you're still haunted -- as I am! -- by the fact that Amazon secretly removed Orwell's 1984 from people's Kindles in 2009.

Maybe you're disturbed that Amazon creates "intolerable" working conditions, where people are punished for taking sick days and have to camp outside the workplace. Maybe it bothers you that pickers are under constant surveillance and can't talk to one another or sit as they walk the 10-12 miles usually demanded per shift. Maybe you're outraged that in addition to all the other pressures, Amazon requires temporary low-paid workers to sign 18-month non-compete clauses, so they can't get another job if they quit.

Maybe you're annoyed that the low prices are partly attributable to the fact that Amazon isn't really selling you things, it's more using things to collect your data, which they make a profit off of. Maybe you dread a future in which Amazon can charge you more because your browsing or buying habits put you in a high-flyer category.

Even if none of that matters to you: doesn't it just creep you out one private online company is going to completely control the economy of medium-sized durable goods and five of them will control ... everything?

For many people, quitting Amazon isn't easy. I get it. Everyone has things they rely on to make the chaos of modern life manageable, and I'm not here to tell you what to do. These are just some nudges from someone who loves you. Most of these options are marginally more expensive, so if you're poor, you're off the hook -- this is for people who can afford a few extra dollars.

First: what are you buying? I am often a little unclear what, exactly, people buy so much of on Amazon. Books, groceries, and ... what exactly? Let's call that last category "everything else."

Books: The number of book-related sites and apps that Amazon has purchased truly verges into the dystopian future category. There used to be an app called Stanza you could use to read free Gutenberg books: Amazon bought it and closed it down. There used to be Audible for audiobooks: Amazon bought it. As mentioned above, people often try to use Abe.com and Book Depository: Amazon owns both of these.

My advice: if you're buying hardcopies new, you can use good old Barnes and Noble in the US or Indigo.ca in Canada. If you're buying used books, you can use Biblio.com. For e-books, I use Kobo.com with the Kobo app. There's also the Nook, which I know nothing about. Of course the best thing is to buy your books at a bookstore. I am crazy enough to intentionally travel out to bookstores to see if they have what I want before going and buying it online, but I don't expect that level of commitment from everyone.

Groceries: Especially with food, the more you buy in a store near your home the better. Won't you hate it if all your grocery stores go out of business? But I know, sometimes you need heavy and cumbersome things. I don't have a car, so I sympathize. It depends a lot where you live, but in many communities there are delivery services that specialized in groceries. Even in the poor run-down town of Rockville, CT, where my mom lived, there was PeaPod, associated with Stop & Shop.

Yes, these services often come with a fee, and yes the prices are often higher. That's what happens when the delivery people are getting paid and the company is trying to make a profit in the old-fashioned way, by selling you things. If you can't afford it, no judgment!

Everything else: I don't have a lot of experience with everything else. I never buy clothes online, because everything fits me weirdly and I have to try stuff on. I spend a lot of money on things like lunch and coffee and wine, but as we've discussed, I am sick of stuff in general and want less of it, not more, so I don't buy a lot of things.

But really, if you can't get to a store, almost every major retailer will sell you you things online. You can buy things online from Target, and Bed Bath and Beyond, and Best Buy, and a million clothing stores.

It's true that shopping this way can be a pain. You have to get different things from different places, and it costs more in shipping, and it's more of a hassle. I tried to buy a book directly from Duke University Press recently, because it wasn't available on Indigo, and weeks later I got some kind of slip about paying for customs, and I went online and did that, but I still don't have the book. Who knows what happened.

That's why I am not judging. I recently read that book about Not Giving A Fuck that people are talking about, and one thing in it that I liked was about how life was always pain, you just had to choose the kind of pain you were best at dealing with, the kind of pain you wanted. For me, quitting Amazon is bearable pain. It's a pain I can absorb easily, not like giving up Pinot Grigio. As always, your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

I Scattered My Mom's Ashes In The Ocean

I didn't have time to write a TKIN post, because I was too busy traveling to Cape Cod to scatter my mom's ashes.

If you're following along at home, my mom died about a year ago. You can read my post about her here. We had a small memorial for her at the time, but then last weekend a larger group of family members got together in Hyannis and took a small boat with a crew who knew all about the ashes scattering process.

It was an incredibly beautiful day, and here's a picture of me watching the ashes slowly disperse into the ocean:

Au revoir, Audrey!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Things That Annoyed Me Between 6:00 And 7:30 PM On Monday July 9

These aren't big life problems. They're not even my big life problems. I'm going to write about them anyway.

At 6:00 PM I showed up for a yoga class, and I was immediately annoyed to see that the instructor had brought a bunch of those mini plastic fake candles and was putting one of them at each person's mat. I know this is crabby, but all I could think of was how each candle had a battery, and each battery had some small amount of those compounds that make batteries work that are bad for the environment, and how once the batteries wore out the candles would probably be thrown in the trash.

Let me be clear: it's not the idea of candles I'm complaining about. It's the pointless waste of plastic and other crap. All this future landfill -- and for what? And during yoga class? Aren't we supposed to be extra mindful of our relation to the earth when we're doing yoga? Somehow I feel like there's this environmentalism frame of mind, and there's the "other" frame of mind, and when we're doing one we're not doing the other.

Yoga class was fine, but it's supposed to end at 7:00, and as the clock said 6:58, the instructor started winding things down and getting ready for the meditation. The reason I'm fussy about the ending time is that on Mondays I take a bus back from yoga, and here in Waterloo (where I work) the bus goes only every half hour. If I leave yoga class at 7, I almost always make an earlier bus. If I leave at 7:05, I often miss it.

It's a measure of the power of the social environment of yoga, I guess, that I don't pack up my stuff and leave before we're done. This seems disruptive, and wrong. So, instead, I lie there getting mad that it's getting late and I'm going to miss my bus. I know -- it's the opposite of the whole point of the exercise. But what can I do?

This time I caught the bus and stopped by the grocery store. This store always plays some kind of classic rock, which always annoys me, because classic rock might have its time and place but grocery shopping is not it. On Monday, it was The Rolling Stones, Shattered. I have nothing against the Rolling Stones and if I heard this at a party I might have a moment of light nostalgia. But it's a song about sex and NYC. Do I want to think about these things while I'm selecting a red pepper? No.

When I'm in Waterloo it's a ten-minute walk from the grocery store to my place. It's along a wide road with a lot of cars, which always reminds me how a ten-minute walk along a lovely path or an urban street feels like nothing, while a ten minute walk by the side of cars, cars, cars feels like forever. When I lived in Palo Alto, it was a ten-minute walk from my apartment, on the edge of Menlo Park, to this large outdoor mall-type thing with restaurants and cafes. The walk took me along a busy road, with drivers rushing past, car dealerships on the sides, and a narrow sidewalk. The longest ten-minute walk ever.

While I was walking along on Monday, I encountered an automated sprinkler system. I have come to think of these as the bane of pedestrian existence. When I was in graduate school in Irvine, California, the working assumption seemed to be that no one would ever actually use a path or sidewalk -- they were there just to look nice. Walking, I was constantly attacked by these systems. In Irvine, they were set on timers, which meant I'd be quietly ambling to class or back from the pub, and BOOM -- suddenly I'd be drenched with water. On Monday the sprinkler was already on, so I just had to pick my way through the drenched grass on the side of the sidewalk.

On one level this is just complaining, but I think there is something interesting in the fact that the modern world so often feels hostile, aggressive, or just annoying. You might think several of the items above are particular to me as a non-driver, but in my experience the drivers have it even worse. Often, yoga class starts with an acknowledgement that if you battled your way through traffic and fought for a parking space before showing up, you're going to need extra time to decompress.

These are first-world problems. As I said, they're not big problems -- and if I were describing my life, I probably wouldn't even mention them. But I don't think I'm the only one who feels that even just the regular texture of daily life in modern society can be stressful and exhausting. Somehow, we've set things up so that buying a flat-screen TV is easy and fun, while walking on a sidewalk is difficult. And forget about things like feeding kids healthy food or getting a plumbing problem fixed while working a full-time job. How did the treats become the center of things and the ordinary essentials become so strange and difficult?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Irrationality: Why Not Make It Work For You?

Sometimes I read an advice column that advises people to save money by avoiding general or monthly fees in favor of a more pay-as-you-go approach. So, for example, as I understand it a lot of people who sign up for a gym at X dollars per month then use the gym less often than they expected, to the extent that they would have been better off financially paying per visit or something like that.

I think that often this is bad advice. It assumes several things that are certainly or maybe false:  that the number of times you go to the gym doesn't depend on how you pay, that your goal is to get as much gym time for as few dollars as possible, and that you are a rational decision maker.

If you drop all those assumptions, you get a different perspective on the problem. What if you articulate your main goal as working out as much as possible without spending more than X dollars? Suddenly the monthly payment system starts to look pretty good, even if you could have saved money by doing it the other way.

The reason this difference arises, I think, is that having paid a monthly fee incentivizes you to work out, while paying per use incentivizes you not to work out. What's interesting about this is that strictly speaking, there's a sense in which being incentivized to work out by having paid a monthly fee is irrational. And yet, it's such a common and familiar feeling. And you can use it to your advantage.

The reason it's seen as irrational has to do with the "sunk cost" fallacy. According to one strand of decision-making theory, the only factors you should consider when evaluating what to do are factors that actually come into play in your decision. When it's time to decide whether to go to the gym or stay on the sofa, this system says, the only things you should be considering are the options you have and how well those options satisfy your current needs and desires. The fact that you paid a non-recoverable fee for a gym membership is irrelevant, because you can't change it: it's the same no matter what you choose.

But we know from behavioral economics and from life that this isn't how it works. Of course having paid a fixed fee, you feel you should go to the gym -- to "get your money's worth," whatever that means. You pay a fee and you don't use the gym, you feel like an idiot. So you feel you should get to the gym. The pay-per-use is almost the opposite, encouraging you to think, again, on every occasion, are these dollars maximally satisfying my happiness and well-being when I spend them on the gym? Or would ice cream be even better?

Of course, if you pay a flat fee, you may pay more than you would have paid per-use. But you may also work out more than you would have worked out had you paid-per-visit. So it really depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to go to the gym more, even though it costs a bit extra per time, then the flat fee makes total sense. You can think of it like a self-nudge: you structure your own environment to exploit your own systematic irrationalities for your own gain. A nudge without the creepier effects of being nudged by the other people, because you're doing the nudging yourself.

I do this all the time -- structuring my own environment to make my impulses draw me toward a more desirable rather than a less desirable conclusion. And I can tell you: there's a lot to be said for seeing the emotive force aspect of your self and the logical structure aspect of yourself as cooperating friends, rather than enemies at war.