I was interviewed recently on the Just Tap the Glass blog. You can read the interview here.
Now back to working on my speech …
Archive for February, 2012
I was interviewed recently on the Just Tap the Glass blog. You can read the interview here.
Now back to working on my speech …
I’m taking tonight off to work on my presentation at a meeting of the Office of Research Integrity in D.C., which is just over two weeks away now.
For those of you who don’t already know, I was recruited by Dr. Richard Feinman, who is on a mission to convince the ORI that biased, manipulated, and cherry-picked research is doing damage to the nation’s health. His group is giving four presentations in all.
My assignment (with input from Jimmy Moore and Laura Dolson) is to explain why large and growing numbers of people no longer trust doctors, nutritionists, government committees and other officially-recognized experts and are turning instead to the internet and social media to find health and nutrition advice that actually works.
Not that I’d know anything about that …
When we still lived in a subdivision, part of my exercise program was to take long walks at night and listen to audiobooks or podcasts. The other part was lifting weights once or twice per week using Fred Hahn’s Slow Burn method. I still do that.
I’ve given up the long night-time walks for a variety of reasons since moving to the farm. I don’t work at home anymore, so I can no longer take an evening walk that ends around midnight and then just sleep until my body decides to wake up. I’m up early these days (for me, anyway) and off to work in downtown Nashville. The commute is now my audiobook and podcast time.
Even if I could sleep in, there’s no place around here I’d feel safe walking in the dark. The subdivision had sidewalks and streetlights, with very little in the way of wildlife. Out here, there’s a good chance I’d step into a hole, trip over a rock, or end up with a surprise introduction to a critter I’d rather not meet … like a snake.
After giving up on the night-time walks, my plan was to get some paleo-type exercise by sprinting around our land. An unrelated plan was to create a Frisbee golf course around the property for weekend entertainment, which I did. I started out with three holes in one of the front pastures, but later expanded the course (with my lovely wife’s encouragement) to nine. Instead of setting up nine separate targets, I elected to go with six and create the extra holes by approaching three of the targets from different directions. You can see the official course layout below. The second and ninth holes require throwing between the trees and over the creek.
While playing last weekend, a thought occurred to me: You know, if you sprinted to your next shot instead of walking, this would be pretty decent exercise. Running, throwing, trying to hit a target … if you were half-naked and had a bone stuck through your nose, this would almost resemble a paleo hunting expedition. Let’s just call it play-leo exercise.
So that’s my excuse now for running around the land and throwing Frisbees at targets. (If you’re not familiar with Frisbee golf – or Disc Golf, as it’s properly called – you sink a “putt” by landing the disc in a basket. If you hit the chains, that will usually do the trick.)
It actually is good exercise. There’s a lot of slope in the land, so by the time I’ve sprinted after my shots for nine holes, I’m pretty winded. I usually reward this effort by playing another nine holes at a leisurely pace. By the time I play 18 holes, I’ve walked or sprinted several miles.
I can hear some of you already: What?! Several miles?! No way!
Yes, I understand your doubt. You probably looked at the course diagram above and correctly concluded that those distances can’t possibly add up to several miles. But here’s where you miscalculated: you assumed I’m blessed with enough athletic ability to throw a Frisbee more or less on a straight line. Sadly, that’s not the case. Below I’ve recreated a typical flight pattern for my shots on the first three holes:
The sharper angles are where I either hit a tree, have to toss out from behind a tree, or hang onto the Frisbee too long and throw it nearly sideways.
Now multiply by 18 holes … then try to tell me I don’t walk several miles in a typical round.
Years ago I read that Willie Nelson had a nine-hole golf course built on his property. I hoped someday I’d be able to do the same. I guess I succeeded in a manner of speaking.
Frisbee golf is different in several ways, of course. There are no fairways and greens to maintain, which is nice. The discs (there are drivers, mid-ranges and putters) are far less expensive a set of decent golf clubs, and unlike golf balls (which are engineered specifically to find their way into deep grass, bushes or leaves), they’re hard to lose. So far I’ve only lost one disc, and that was temporary. After searching all over the yard for it, I finally spotted it overhead, stuck in a tree. I’ve never lost a real golf ball in a tree as far as I know.
Those differences aside, I’m finding that Frisbee golf is indeed a lot like traditional golf and every bit as enjoyable … same basic rules for scoring, much of the same terminology, and many of the same principles, such as:
Alana hasn’t shown any interest in the game, but Sara loves it. Pretty much anytime I suggest we go hit the course, she’s up for it. She’s even taken to playing after school now and then when I’m not around.
Good fun, good exercise, an outdoor sport I can play with my daughter. The only downside is knowing that once Chareva gets the farm up and running, I’ll probably be banking my shots off a few chickens.
I have to spend tonight fixing an issue for a software client, but I received a couple of interesting emails over the weekend I wanted to share. The first is from a woman named June:
I had two moments last week where I truly wanted to just bang my head against something.
I’ve been doing low carb, lost about 12 pounds since January eating all those nasty eggs and bacon and steaks and green veggies. Loving every minute of it. I’ve got another 70 pounds to go, and I’m looking forward to summer and the local farmer’s markets where I can get grass-fed beef and all those fresh veggies.
I work at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland and they frequently have guest lecturers on different topics. Last Wednesday the lecture was “The Obesity Epidemic: How Have We Failed.” Now, I wasn’t expecting that they would come out and admit that the whole low-fat thing has been a bust, but I did want to see what would be presented.
The gist was “Everybody’s fat, we don’t know why, we need more research.” There was the usually finger-pointing at fast food. But there was one part of the lecture that really got to me. The presenter showed a slide showing the obesity rates in the US going up-up-up. He later had a slide showing beef consumption in the US. There was an upturn, but then beef consumption rates just plummeted.
So, obesity rates rising, beef consumption plummeting. No correlation, right? Maybe a negative correlation?
Oh no! Even though the presenter had to admit that there was a decline in beef consumption along with the rise in obesity rates, we still eat more beef in the US than they do in Japan and obesity rates are lower in Japan, so we should eat even less beef. This reasoning was being presented in the National Institutes of Health, the “Premier Research Center” in the United States.
I wanted to bang my head against something, but I’m pretty sure if I banged my head against the seat in front of me I would have freaked out the person sitting there, so I just sat through the rest of the lecture. Oh, and, no, there wasn’t any slide plotting carb consumption against the obesity rates. Wonder why.
Yup, I think we know why. This is the same twisted logic the anti-cholesterol hysterics employed when a study showed that people with normal or low cholesterol suffer 3/4 of the heart attacks. Why, uh, ya see, that just means we need to set the targets even lower!
On to the rest of June’s email:
Next, I was watching a show on The Cooking Channel called “The Supersizers Go…” This is a show from England showing two people, Giles Coren and Sue Perkins, who pick a period of time from the past and try to eat like people of that time would have for an entire week. They are very funny (they dress in period costume) and are very honest about what they do and do not like.
The show starts with them going off to the doctor for a check-up and predictions of all the terrible things that are likely to happen to them during the week. They then spend the week sampling what people of different social classes would have dined on, with a nod toward the upper classes. Then when the week is over it is back to the doctors to see what damage has been wrought by their horrible diets. They have done Ancient Rome and Victorian and Edwardian and several others. Usually they go back to the doctor having gained weight and their cholesterol skyrocketing and other lab values wacked-out and it is all blamed on all the meat and fat they were eating.
So, last week, they went Elizabethan. They were eating almost nothing but meat, meat, and more meat except for the one day they ate fish, fish, and more fish. There was narry a veggie in sight, but they did eat a lot of organ meat. They ate bread and pastry crust from meat pies and they drank a lot of beer and sugar was fairly abundant, but mainly, it was wall to wall meat.
Now, when they went to the doctor at the beginning of the week they had their BMI calculated. Sue was at the very low end of normal and Giles was just in the range considered obese. As you probably can guess, no one would look at Giles and consider him to be overweight, let alone obese. The doctor duly voiced his concerns over all the protein they would be eating and what horrors that would do to their health.
As the week went on, their main complaint was that coffee and tea were not available to them, as these hadn’t made it to England yet. At no time did either Giles or Sue complain about feeling tired or having digestive problems and they looked as energetic at the end as they did at the beginning. Their only complaint was that there was no tea or coffee. They had huge meals, one or two banquets, and Giles even ate at a tavern to see what was available to the common folk.
So at the end of the week, back to the doctor. And what happened after this week of ‘unhealthy’ eating? They both lost weight. Giles lost about 5 pounds, but Sue lost over 10 pounds. The doctor was even surprised that Sue had lost so much weight in only one week. There was no mention of lab values, so we can assume that their blood work at worst didn’t change and at best actually improved, and both of them had blood pressure within normal range.
When asked about the weight loss, the doctor surmised that all that protein had suppressed their appetite so they just plain ate less, BUT he then quickly cautioned that he wouldn’t recommend anyone going on a diet like this for any length of time! And the episode ended with Sue happily going off to gain back the weight she had lost. I just banged my head against the back of my chair, which did scare the cat a bit.
Pardon me while I go bang my head against my desk …
… Okay, I’m back. So the doctor concluded that extra protein supressed their appetites, but he doesn’t want people to go on a diet that suppresses their appetites naturally. Nope, better they should be hungry and then just fight the urge to eat — for the rest of their lives.
Here’s another email that demonstates just how little some doctors know about nutrition:
I just watched Fat Head last night and I was very enlightened! Having a heavy dose of skepticism though, and seeing that you are a comedian, I’m wondering… are you pulling a fast one on us yourself?! I’m one of those overweight type 2 diabetics who is sick and tired of taking insulin, which is causing me to gain weight! So, I really hope your science is correct!
Which leads me to my next concern: I’m told my triglicyerides are too high and when I asked my doctor to explain, he said that means I have too much fat in my blood and so I need to cut out as much fat as possible from my diet except for fish oil tablets, which apparently are “good fats.”
I’m soooo confused!!! Why are my triglyceride levels so high when for years I haven’t touched red meat, butter and drink only skim milk? Oh, I’m depressed too and take medicine for that….
After watching Fat Head I thought, what the heck, I’ll give it a try and went out and bought the best looking Porterhouse steak, cooked it for dinner, felt soooo happy, satisfied, content and not still hungry! I also forgot to take my Lexapro but didn’t feel the need!
I really feel better, but guilty somehow for eating “arterycloggingredmeat!!!” So I hope you are telling the truth and could you please answer my triglyceride question?
Sharon, here’s why your triglycerides are so high: you’ve been living on a low-fat diet. Triglycerides are indeed a form of blood fat, but high fasting triglycerides are the result of fats being produced by your liver in response to carbohydrates. For most of us, low fat = high carb = high triglycerides.
In study after study, people who go on low-carb diets have seen dramatic reductions in triglycerides, often ending up with fasting triglyceride levels well below 100. Here are a couple of articles by doctors who (unlike yours) know what they’re talking about:
And Sharon, if you start eating steaks and find the depression going away, EAT MORE STEAKS. Your doctor means well, but he’s just plain wrong. Unfortunately, that puts him in the majority of doctors.
On a cheerier note, I received this email from woman who teaches English at a college right down the road from me:
I have taught Research and Argumentative Writing at Middle Tennessee State University for the past two semesters. Our course theme is food, which helps to ease students into the idea of looking at things critically, especially that which we do unconsciously. My students’ second assignment (which they are in the middle of writing) is an analysis of Super Size Me and Fat Head (which we finished watching this morning), in which they have to determine which film has a more rhetorically sound argument. My students always choose your film. Every student, every time.
Because I emphasize writing as a conversation between ideas, people, texts, etc., your film, as a response to Super Size Me, perfectly demonstrates this concept, as well as helps me to emphasize the critical thinking about that which we do automatically. Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me something so perfect to work with.
Also–I was delighted to see you live in Franklin. I grew up there (but moved to downtown Nashville about 4 years ago) and my parents still live there.
Emily, you made my day. Super Size Me appealed to people on an emotional level, not on a logical or common sense level, and I’m pleased to hear your students recognize that.
I plan to throw a big ol’ Fat Head party and cookout one of these days to celebrate getting the farm up to snuff. Consider yourself invited.
Feb 17 2012
I think Richard Nikoley and I may have switched personalities for a day. I read about a school official telling a four-year-old her lunch wasn’t USDA-approved and got REALLY ticked off, as last night’s post demonstrates. Richard wrote a laugh-out-loud funny post on the same subject.
Richard, I’d like my sense of humor back when you’re done with it.
Feb 16 2012
Back in April, I posted part of an email from a Fat Head fan I happen to have met in person, since he lives nearby:
My six-year-old niece Megan started school yesterday, her first day of school. She was already scared and upset and crying. After lunch, she went into orbit, threw up everywhere because she was so upset, and ultimately had to leave school. My brother, who has been looking desperately for work, had to cancel a “sure thing” job interview to go get her because the school was sending her home. Here’s the word from my dad on what happened:
What prompted the whole issue yesterday was Meagan’s teacher taking her lunch, which she had brought from home, away from her. David [my brother] had packed yogurt and fresh fruit, which Meagan likes. Her teacher told her mother that the school has to ensure that the children have a nutritious lunch, so they took Meagan’s yogurt and fruit and insisted she eat a corn dog. What a brilliant plan from a so-called “educator.”
At the time, a couple of other readers wondered if the story was true. I understand their doubt … after all, this doesn’t sound like something that should ever happen in a supposedly free country.
Well, we can put any lingering doubts to rest, because it happened again this week in a story that was widely reported. Here’s part of a newspaper account:
A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because the school told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.
The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the person who was inspecting all lunch boxes in the More at Four classroom that day.
The Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs – including in-home day care centers – to meet USDA guidelines. That means lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables, even if the lunches are brought from home. When home-packed lunches do not include all of the required items, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones.
That’s not a lunch I’d pack for my girls, but of course that’s not the issue here. The issue is: why the @#$% is some bozo from the federal government telling a mom in North Carolina what she may and may not pack in her own kid’s lunch? And why are putting up with it?
The girl’s mother – who said she wishes to remain anonymous to protect her daughter from retaliation – said she received a note from the school stating that students who did not bring a “healthy lunch” would be offered the missing portions, which could result in a fee from the cafeteria, in her case $1.25.
Well, that’s just peachy that the school will “offer” the missing foods. The only problem is that when government officials make you an “offer,” it’s an offer you can’t refuse.
“Hi, we’re from the government, and we’d like to offer you this approved lunch.”
“You don’t understand. We’re offering it to you.”
“Yeah, I got that. But I don’t want it. My kid won’t eat that stuff anyway.”
“Madam, let’s try this again. We’re offering you this lunch.”
“Uh … no thanks?”
“That will be $1.25. If you don’t pay, there will be a series of demands and further fines. If you choose to ignore them, this process will culminate with armed men showing up at your door. We are the government, after all. Now, would you like to take us up on our offer?”
WARNING: HERE COMES THE POLITICAL RANT
One of the great mysteries I’ve yet to solve is the people I’ve met who fully understand how badly our government screwed up the official dietary guidelines, fully understand that the USDA is far more interested in selling particular agricultural products than in promoting health, and yet still believe a big, powerful, intrusive government is necessary to prevent people from engaging in behaviors or making decisions some of us don’t happen to like. Then, after voting to grant government officials the power to insert themselves into our lives, they are shocked – shocked! – that the USDA would order school kids to pack a lunch that includes foods some of us may not want our kids to eat.
Here’s my question for those people: What the @#$% did you think was going to happen?!! This kind of nonsense from a government empowered to sticks its nose in everyone’s business is not only unsurprising, it’s utterly predictable.
Yes, yes, I can hear the retorts already … oh, well, sure, but we still the government to regulate our food supply … blah-blah-blah … government needs to help the stupid people who don’t know any better … blah-blah-blah … if we can just get the USDA to changes its policies … blah-blah-blah … we just need to get the right people in there … blah-blah-blah.
I’ve got news for you: we’ll never get the right people in there. The right people have no interest in wielding that kind of power over others.
People who’ve never read a single book on libertarianism and yet (stunningly) nonetheless imagine they know what libertarians think like to paint us as starry-eyed dreamers who believe businessmen are all kind-hearted angels … whereas they (not sharing our blissful ignorance) understand that without federal agencies issuing and enforcing a gazillion regulations, big bad business would run roughshod over us all.
That is not what libertarians believe. The seminal work on free-market economics was The Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith in 1776. Smith actually had a rather low opinion of the merchant class. In chapter after chapter, he shared his observation that people (including merchants) operate out of their own self-interest, period. Or if you prefer a more negative connotation, people act out of greed.
What Smith (unlike many contemporaries) also recognized is that government regulators are just self-interested as everyone else. When governments are granted the power to regulate economic activities, he warned, it’s only a matter of time before the greedy businessmen and the greedy government regulators get together and screw the rest of us for their own benefit. By stifling freedom and competition, regulators can make their hand-picked producers (and themselves) richer, while making the rest of the population poorer by denying them products that are better or cheaper or both.
Take government’s coercive powers out of the equation and all a merchant can do to you is offer you a product and hope you buy it. (We’re talking about a genuine offer here, not the kind of “offer” we get from government officials.) That requires businesses to compete with each other for customers, which in turn leads to better products, better service, lower prices, innovation and higher productivity. In short, Smith argued that the economic system that produces the most wealth and the highest degree of consumer satisfaction is one based on voluntary exchanges – free markets. Economic freedom makes the natural greed of the merchant work in our favor.
The attorneys who buy my docketing software can attest to this. I produced a better, cheaper docketing system for trademark and patent attorneys. I undercut my competition. I did this not because I love attorneys, but because I want their money. The attorneys benefited from my self-interest and “greed.”
Despite what some people will tell you, a market system based on voluntary exchanges does not mean that evil businessmen are allowed to screw people and get away with it. If a business defrauds you, you didn’t volunteer for that. If a product turns out to be faulty, you didn’t get what you agreed to buy, which means you didn’t volunteer for that. If a product kills or maims you, you didn’t volunteer for that. In any of those situations, the business should be rigorously punished. That’s the government’s legitimate job – to protect you from violence and fraud.
A free market simply means that if I want to sell you a product or service and you want to buy it, no third party gets to step in and prevent us from making that voluntary exchange. It also means no one gets to force us to make exchanges we don’t want to make … like, say, being ordered to buy a USDA-approved lunch for our children.
So what does all this economic theory have to do with the USDA and our inability to get the right people running it? I’m getting to that. Be patient.
As the great economics writer Thomas Sowell has pointed out many times, government agencies created to regulate a particular industry nearly always end up being run by muckety-mucks from that same industry – who then create policies to benefit the industry as whole or particular segments operating within it. We just saw that again recently when Obama appointed an executive from Monsanto – one of the worst corporations on the planet — to a high-level post in the USDA.
So why does this always seem to happen? Why do the foxes always seem to end up guarding the henhouse? Why can’t we get the right people in those agencies?
It all gets back to people acting in their own self-interest.
Once a government acquires the power to regulate an industry, it also has the ability to rig the game in ways that can be worth millions to particular corporations or segments of that industry. Being self-interested (and certainly not being stupid), the muckety-mucks from that industry recognize that if they can leverage government’s coercive powers, they can enrich themselves. Are there competitors we don’t like? No problem … we just need some health and safety regulations that cripple them. Is our industry faltering, or just not making as much profit as we’d like? Simple … we declare what we produce a public necessity and get some generous government subsidies. In other words, if we can just take away other people’s freedom to engage in voluntary exchanges and make their own decisions, we can do really, really well for ourselves!
To acquire this economic leverage, the muckety-mucks buy political influence through campaign contributions, junkets to exotic places, or offers of lucrative jobs for retiring politicians and regulators. The politicians and regulators are happy to let themselves be bought – it’s in their self-interest, after all. In many cases, generous industry donors end up being rewarded by seeing their executives placed in high positions with regulatory agencies. Those regulators certainly aren’t going to risk pissing off the industry that placed them in their jobs – after all, they’ll probably return to that industry when their government “service” is over. It’s in their self-interest to play along.
If only some crazed regulator would actually stand up and declare, “I’m issuing this regulation to please the people who bought my influence with their hard-earned dollars,” I might the find practice barely tolerable. But of course, that’s never what we’re told. We’re told the gazillion new regulations issued every year are necessary to protect the public. Riiiiight.
Protecting the public is the nominal excuse for all kinds of ridiculous legislation. Back when fellow comedian Tim Slagle and I were producing a political comedy show called The Slagle-Naughton Report, one of our bits highlighted a new regulation in Illinois that made it illegal to charge a fee to braid someone’s hair without first attending beauty school and obtaining a license. The regulation was rammed through at the behest of – you guessed it – beauty-shop owners who didn’t like the competition from cheap hair-braiding salons run by (horrors!) unqualified people — otherwise known as “poor people” and “immigrants.”
Now … can anyone explain to me exactly what threat to public health this regulation was intended to avoid? (Our bit ended with Slagle announcing, “In a related story, five people were rushed to Northwestern Hospital this week with bad braids.”) If you don’t like the way your hair was braided, you undo the braids and stop patronizing that shop. End of story. But thanks to a bit of influence-buying, the beauty-shop owners got their regulation passed … to protect the public, of course.
Over time, officially-sanctioned coercive power nearly always ends up in the wrong hands. That’s why we’ll never, ever get the right people running the USDA. The USDA is now and always will be largely populated by people from the grain industry. They will happily subsidize grains with your tax dollars, then happily order all schools, prisons, military bases and every other government institution to serve grains at every meal … an instant, huge, lucrative, reliable market, all created with the stroke of a legislative pen. The industry is happy, the politicians are happy, and the contributions and post-Washington job offers will keep flowing.
And here’s the real kicker: Most of these people probably consider themselves good public servants. As Milton Friedman noted in one of his books, people have an inexhaustible capacity to believe that whatever is good for them personally is also good for the public at large. Human beings are geniuses at justifying their own behavior. (I was made even more aware of this after having children.)
You and I can be angry about it, we can bang our heads on our desks about it, we can blog about it, Facebook and Twitter about it, but we will never be able to out-bribe the likes of Monsanto, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland. As long as the federal government has the power to order kids to include particular items in their school lunches, Big Food and Big Agriculture will always end up writing (if indirectly) the rules.
That’s why pizza is still counted as a vegetable. That’s why if the big dairy producers in your state don’t want you buying raw milk from local farmers, raw milk will be declared a health hazard and banned. That’s why whole milk is banned in schools, while low-fat chocolate milk sweetened with garbage produced by the Corn Refiners is okay. And that’s why the parents of school kids are told if they don’t pack a government-approved lunch, they’ll be fined.
We will never change this nonsense by trying to convince the USDA their dietary advice is misguided. They can’t be convinced. It’s not in their interest to be convinced. The only cure is to take away their power — and you will never take away the government’s power by asking it to pretty please do the right thing and only take away the freedoms you personally don’t think other people should have. You take away government’s power by telling it @#$% off and leave all of us alone unless we’re actually harming someone.
In short, if you support government controlling other people’s choices, you have no right to complain when your choices end up on the verboten list. Sieg Heil!
Okay, I’m done ranting … for now.
(Note to Rick Perry: the next time a debate moderator asks you which three federal agencies you’d dissolve, the third item on your list should be the USDA. Given that absolutely everybody needs to eat, I think it’s extremely unlikely we’d stop producing enough food if the industry were left to free-market forces.)