Archive for January, 2018

Interesting items from my inbox and elsewhere …

Sugar finally getting the blame for cancer

We’ve been told since the 1980s that we should all be on low-fat diets to prevent cancer. Evidence has been mounting that sugar is the more likely culprit (I wrote about that in a 2013 post), but I haven’t seen much to that effect in the major media outlets.

So I was pleased to see an article in the Los Angeles Times pointing the finger at refined carbs:

In August of 2016, the New England Journal of Medicine published a striking report on cancer and body fat: Thirteen separate cancers can now be linked to being overweight or obese, among them a number of the most common and deadly cancers of all — colon, thyroid, ovarian, uterine, pancreatic and (in postmenopausal women) breast cancer.

I know what you’re thinking: If they’re linking cancer to obesity, they’re going to say it’s because people just eat too much or eat too many cheeseburgers. Wait for it …

The studies reflect whether someone is overweight upon being diagnosed with cancer, but they don’t show that the excess weight is responsible for the cancer. They are best understood as a warning sign that something about what or how much we eat is intimately linked to cancer. But what?

It’s a pleasant surprise when a newspaper article points out that correlation doesn’t prove causation.

Lewis Cantley, the director of the cancer center at Weill Cornell Medicine, has been at the forefront of the cancer metabolism revival. Cantley’s best explanation for the obesity-cancer connection is that both conditions are also linked to elevated levels of the hormone insulin. His research has revealed how insulin drives cells to grow and take up glucose (blood sugar) by activating a series of genes, a pathway that has been implicated in most human cancers.

Hallelujah. A researcher sees a connection between a disease and obesity and doesn’t immediately blame the obesity. And there I was, getting psyched up to bang my head on my desk.

The problem isn’t the presence of insulin in our blood. We all need insulin to live. But when insulin rises to abnormally high levels and remains elevated (a condition known as insulin resistance, common in obesity), it can promote the growth of tumors directly and indirectly. Too much insulin and many of our tissues are bombarded with more growth signals and more fuel than they would ever see under normal metabolic conditions. And because elevated insulin directs our bodies to store fat, it can also be linked to the various ways the fat tissue itself is thought to contribute to cancer.

Having recognized the risks of excess insulin-signaling, Cantley and other metabolism researchers are following the science to its logical conclusion: The danger may not be simply eating too much, as is commonly thought, but rather eating too much of the specific foods most likely to lead to elevated insulin levels — easily digestible carbohydrates in general, and sugar in particular.

Cancer, diabetes, heart disease … for years, almost all the diseases of civilization were blamed on animal fats. Lots of the (ahem) “experts” still want to blame fats (just read the previous post for an example), but it’s nice to see the tide turning.

She doesn’t eat animal fats, but she’s too annoying for the Swiss

Honestly, really and truly, I don’t care if people choose to be vegans. I only care when they won’t shut up about it. (Q: how can you spot the vegan in the room? A: Don’t worry, she’ll tell you.) Apparently the Swiss share my aversion to the preachy types:

A Dutch vegan who applied for a Swiss passport has had her application rejected because the locals found her too annoying. Nancy Holten, 42, moved to Switzerland from the Netherlands when she was eight years old and now has children who are Swiss nationals.

Does that make her a Vegan Dreamer?

However, when she tried to get a Swiss passport for herself, residents of Gipf-Oberfrick in the canton of Aargau rejected her application.

Ms Holten, a vegan and animal rights activist, has campaigned against the use of cowbells in the village and her actions have annoyed the locals. The resident’s committee argued that if she does not accept Swiss traditions and the Swiss way of life, she should not be able to become an official national.

I bet when she heard the news, she shouted something like Gipf Oberfrick!!

Ms Holten told local media: “The bells, which the cows have to wear when they walk to and from the pasture, are especially heavy. The animals carry around five kilograms around their neck. It causes friction and burns to their skin.”

Let’s see … a cowbell weighs about 11 pounds, and the average cow weighs 1,600 pounds. Yeah, I can see how that would really be a burden.  It would be like asking a human to carry a set of keys, a smartphone and a wallet all at the same time.

Ms Holten, who describes herself as a freelance journalist, model and drama student, has also campaigned against a number of other Swiss traditions like hunting, pig races and the noisy church bells in town.

Boy, I just can’t imagine why the local Swiss don’t want her as a fellow citizen.

Give it time, we’ll all have “high” blood pressure

In Fat Head, I described how members of the National Cholesterol Education Campaign (Dr. Frank Sucks … er, Sacks was one of them) redefined “high” cholesterol in the 1980s so that most of us fall into that category – which created millions of instant patients for statins.

Now new blood-pressure guidelines will apparently redefine millions of people as hypertensive:

New guidelines lower the threshold for high blood pressure, adding 30 million Americans to those who have the condition, which now plagues nearly half of U.S. adults.

Okay, stop right there. If nearly half of U.S. adults have “high” blood pressure and we’re about to add another 30 million, doesn’t that once again mean that average is being defined as high, just like with cholesterol?

High pressure, which for decades has been a top reading of at least 140 or a bottom one of 90, drops to 130 over 80 in advice announced Monday by a dozen medical groups.

“I have no doubt there will be controversy. I’m sure there will be people saying ‘We have a hard enough time getting to 140,'” said Dr. Paul Whelton, a Tulane University physician who led the guidelines panel.

But the risk for heart disease, stroke and other problems drops as blood pressure improves, and the new advice “is more honest” about how many people have a problem, he said.

Perhaps. But my suspicious side wonders if these new guidelines are appearing just in time for a new wonder drug to hit the market – the process Dr. Malcolm Kendrick described in his book Doctoring Data.

For people over 65, the guidelines undo a controversial tweak made three years ago to relax standards and not start medicines unless the top number was over 150.

Now, everyone that old should be treated if the top number is over 130 unless they’re too frail or have conditions that make it unwise.

Uh-huh. Sorry, but I think this is about selling drugs. And by the way, Dr. Kendrick also stated in Doctoring Data that no clinical studies have proved that lowering blood pressure actually saves lives.

Finally, a good use for Crisco

When the Bears went to the Super Bowl in 1986 and 2007, I was delighted. Excited. Ecstatic. But it never occurred to me to climb a city light pole to express my enthusiasm. Apparently that’s a potential problem among Eagles fans, and Philly officials found a good way to deal with it.

As the Philadelphia Eagles geared up for a championship playoff game at their home stadium on Sunday, the police were preparing to keep the city’s boisterous football fans safe.

They put up barricades, Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said in an email. They assigned officers to patrol on foot, on bikes and on horses. And they broke out cans of Crisco, slathering up street poles to try to stop people from climbing them.

The Guy From CSPI would no doubt approve. If city officials slathered those poles with lard, CSPI Guy would be out there with a megaphone and yelling, “Stop! The arterycloggingsaturatedfat will soak into your skin and give you heart disease!”

And of course, people with good taste would be licking the poles. So Crisco it is.

By the way, after I finished watching yesterday’s games, Alana showed me a note she saved to her iPad in November. She had asked me which two teams I’d pick to be in the Super Bowl if I had to place a bet. I told her the Patriots and the Eagles, and she saved the prediction as note, perhaps to wave in my face if I turned out to be wrong.

So I got that right. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I’m in a four-man football pool and ended up in last place this season. Obviously I’m better at predicting the final outcome of a season than the individual games.

Nonetheless, I’ll predict the winner of the only remaining game: Eagles.  I want as much Crisco as possible to end up on light poles instead of in the food supply.

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Back in June, the American Heart Association released a Presidential Advisory Report that I covered in posts titled The American Heart Association Bravely Admits They’ve Been Right All Along, part one and part two.

The lead author of the report was Dr. Frank Sucks … er, Sacks, who is a fine example of a scientist too firmly wedded to a particular hypothesis to ever be objective. Sucks was chairman of the AHA’s Nutrition Committee back when they were releasing guidelines warning us that saturated fats will kill us and vegetable oils (and Cocoa Puffs!) will save our lives.

He was the lead researcher on the DASH trial, which concluded that restricting salt produces “major” benefits for hypertension … even though the study’s own data showed that reducing salt intake by 75% led to a measly three-point drop in blood pressure.

Sucks .. er, Sacks was also a member of the National Cholesterol Education Program (the folks who decided we should all have a total cholesterol score below 200), and a member of the Whole Grains Council, which is generously supported by the grain industry.

In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more personally invested in the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! and hearthealthywholegrains! nutrition advice than Dr. Frank Sacks … with the possible exception of The Guy From CSPI. So naturally, The Guy From CSPI (or his organization’s newsletter, to be exact) recently interviewed Dr. Sacks to explain why they’ve both been right all along.

Here are some quotes from a CSPI article titled A refresher on fats:

Q: How strong is the evidence that saturated fat in foods like meat, butter, and cheese is harmful?

A: The evidence that saturated fat causes atherosclerosis and heart disease is compelling. It’s consistent across randomized trials, large observational epidemiologic studies, and animal studies.

This is, of course, complete poppycock. Consistent across randomized trials and epidemiologic studies?! Not even close. I’ve written about the glaring inconsistencies in the evidence in this post and many others.

Q: Why have some people heard that the evidence on saturated fat has gotten weaker?

Actually, CSPI Guy, the evidence hasn’t “gotten weaker.” It was never strong to begin with. But let’s see what Sucks has to say on the matter.

A: Some of the more recent studies take a standard epidemiologic approach, which is inadequate. Saturated fat seems to be harmless in those studies because it’s being compared, by default, to the typical American diet, which is high in refined, junk-food carbohydrates. They’re also linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

Ahh, I see! Recent studies – and apparently only recent studies – took a standard and therefore inadequate epidemiological approach! Gee, it’s nice to see a Harvard researcher finally speak out against drawing conclusions from observational evidence. Too bad Harvard spent decades scaring the hell out of people based on crappy observational studies.

Q: Why inadequate?

A: Let’s say you give someone advice to reduce their saturated fat. Well, what do they eat instead? If they just reduced their saturated fat, they’d lose weight, because they’d be getting fewer calories. That’s unlikely. So what do they actually do? In many cases, people who eat less saturated fat eat more refined carbohydrates.

Yeah, that tends to happen when you tell people bacon and eggs will kill them and then put the American Heart Association seal of approval on boxes of Cocoa Puffs. And Dr. Sacks was a big muckety-muck at the AHA back when that was happening.

A: But Walter Willett and Frank Hu—my colleagues at Harvard—devised a new epidemiology based on food substitutions that would occur in real life. And that’s really innovative.

Allow me to interpret that: Willet and Hu spent lord-only-knows how much time finding a new way to crunch the numbers so they can continue believing that 1) observational studies based on food surveys tell us anything meaningful, and 2) saturated fat is the killer they’ve always said it is.

Q: Didn’t you re-examine the clinical trials from the  1960s that assigned people to diets with different fats and then measured heart disease rates?

A: Yes. We separated them into core and non-core trials, because some were superb in quality, and some were kind of dreadful. So we set out uncontroversial criteria for a good clinical trial.

Allow me to interpret that as well: we looked at all the clinical trials and decided the ones that showed higher rates of heart disease after switching to vegetable oils just HAD TO WRONG, DAMNIT! So we put those in the ‘dreadful’ category. Then, after digging like crazy, we found a whopping four trials that seemed to suggest that switching to vegetable oils reduces heart disease. We labeled those ‘superb in quality.’ And our criteria are uncontroversial because we all agreed with ourselves.

Q: Is large LDL safer than small LDL, as some people argue?

A: No. It’s basically a non-issue. If you have a lot of big LDL, it’s no better than a lot of little LDL. In fact, big LDL is probably worse, because it’s loaded up with more cholesterol.

Q: Do high triglyceride levels cause heart disease?

A: We don’t have proof with triglycerides the way we have proof that LDL cholesterol causes heart disease. But the evidence linking triglycerides to heart disease is getting stronger.

Fascinating. Dr. Sacks believes we have proof that LDL causes heart disease, but don’t yet have proof triglycerides cause heart disease. Perhaps he missed this study and its conclusion:

Stepwise higher concentrations of nonfasting triglycerides were associated with stepwise higher risk of heart failure; however, concentrations of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol were not associated with risk of heart failure in the general population.

I suppose Sacks could dismiss the study as dreadful, but that could be embarrassing since it was published by The American Heart Association.

Q: What about coconut oil?

A: Some of the short-chain saturated fatty acids in coconut oil don’t raise LDL cholesterol. But they don’t counteract the effects of the oil’s longer-chain fatty acids, which do increase LDL cholesterol. So coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol in the same way that, say, butter does.

Ah, yes, in the Presidential Advisory Report, Dr. Sacks assured us that coconut oil is even worse for our hearts than butter because it’s higher in saturated fat. But Dr. Michael Moseley recently conducted a small study in which volunteers added 50 grams of butter, olive oil or coconut oil to their diets. A BBC article describes the results:

As expected the butter eaters saw an average rise in their LDL levels of about 10%, which was almost matched by a 5% rise in their HDL levels.

Those consuming olive oil saw a small reduction, albeit a non-significant drop, in LDL cholesterol, and a 5% rise in HDL. So olive oil lived up to its heart-friendly reputation.

But the big surprise was the coconut oil. Not only was there no rise in LDL levels, which was what we were expecting, but there was a particularly large rise in HDL, the “good” cholesterol, up by 15%. On the face of it that would suggest that the people consuming the coconut oil had actually reduced their risk of developing heart disease or stroke.

But there I go again, digging up contrary information. Dr. Sacks and The Guy From CSPI are worried that people like me are causing confusion:

Q: How can people avoid confusion?

A: If you want to sort out what is good scientific knowledge and what is speculation or biased, look at guidelines produced by the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, or American Cancer Society.

Riiiight. Because organizations whose very existence depends on generous contributions from the makers of vegetable oils and grain products couldn’t possibly be biased.

So what’s going on here? Are people like Sucks … er, Sacks and the The Guy From CSPI just pathological liars? Are they intentionally dishonest?

Actually, I don’t think so. I think we’re seeing yet another example of the phenomenon described in an excellent book I haven’t mentioned in quite a while: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). The subtitle is Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. That pretty much captures the subject matter.

The authors give many examples of the same basic behavior:

DNA evidence exonerates someone who spent 15 years in prison for murder, but the district attorney still insists he didn’t prosecute an innocent man. The lab screwed up, or someone tainted the samples, or the guy in prison must have had an accomplice whose DNA ended up on the victim.

A doctor’s procedure kills a patient, but the doctor insists the procedure was correct.  Some complication that was impossible to predict caused the death.

A therapist prods a young patient into “recovering” memories of sexual abuse that were supposedly repressed, but are later proven to be false.  The therapist insists the memories are accurate and rationalizes away all evidence that the abuse couldn’t have happened.

A woman stays married to a physically abusive husband, insisting to her friends and family that he’s really a sweet guy at heart and his behavior is his employer’s fault, or his parents’ fault, or whatever.

A researcher accepts generous funding from a pharmaceutical company, then fudges a few numbers in a study concluding that the company’s newest drug is wonderful, but tells himself the drug really is wonderful and the fudged numbers simply enhance the truth.

A boy who moves to a new school district and wants to fit in somewhat reluctantly joins a pack of bullies in tormenting a fat, weak kid … and the more he participates in the bullying, the more convinced he becomes that the fat, weak kid deserves every bit of it.

As the authors explain, humans are naturally inclined to engage in self-justification as a means to reduce cognitive dissonance. Most of us believe we’re basically decent and competent, and we selectively filter information and rewrite memories to support that belief. (People with low self-esteem do likewise to confirm their negative opinion of themselves, but that’s another matter.)

The result is that once we’ve chosen a path or a position, we’re quite brilliant at convincing ourselves the path or position is correct … and the longer we’re on that path, or the more public the position, or the more consequential the action, the more we’re psychologically driven to justify it.

DNA says the guy didn’t do it? That can’t be right! I’m a good person, and a good person wouldn’t railroad an innocent man, so he had to be involved in that murder.

The patient died the family are blaming me? That can’t be right! I’m a good doctor, and a good doctor wouldn’t make a mistake that killed a patient. It wasn’t my procedure; it was something else.

Does fudging a few numbers make me a dishonest researcher? No, I’m a good scientist. Those numbers were outliers, and I had to smooth them over so this life-saving drug can be approved and help people who need it.

I picked on a weakling just to fit in? No, that would make me a bad guy, and I know I’m a good guy. The weakling is pathetic and annoying and not a good person, so he had it coming to him.

You get the idea. I’m a good and competent person, but I made a stupid or harmful decision creates cognitive dissonance. So we convince ourselves the decision wasn’t stupid or harmful. We do that largely through confirmation bias; that is, by latching onto any evidence that we were right and ignoring or dismissing evidence that we were wrong.

So imagine you’ve spent decades very publicly promoting grains and vegetable oils as the key to health while warning people away from saturated fats. Imagine you’ve also received generous donations from the makers of grains and vegetable oils – which is fine, you tell yourself, because those funds merely help you fulfill your life-saving mission.

Now imagine the science is turning against you. New (and old but recently discovered) studies suggest that vegetable oils and grains are harmful to health, while animal fats and other saturated fats are either neutral or beneficial.

You only have a couple of choices. You can look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Oh my god. I’ve spent 30 years giving out advice that helped turn countless people into fat diabetics suffering from inflammation and autoimmune diseases they didn’t need to have.” Or you can tell yourself you’re a good scientist, the advice you’ve been handing out is actually beneficial, and those new studies can be ignored because they were conducted by people who are incompetent.

As the authors point out, Americans tend to forgive and sometimes even rally to support public figures who admit to their mistakes, take the blame, and sincerely apologize. Nonetheless, most public figures and organizations don’t go that route. They can’t admit to themselves that they were wrong, so they double down. They rationalize. They attack the critics. And so the correction, whatever it is, almost always happens as the result of outside forces.

That’s why whenever I receive one of those email petitions demanding that the AHA or USDA change their dietary advice, I toss it. They’ll never announce that they were wrong because their heads would probably explode as a result. All we can do is convince more and more of the public to stop listening to them. I’m pretty sure that’s already happening — even if Dr. Sacks and The Guy From CSPI have a psychological need to convince themselves we’re just confused.

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My previous post dealt with Morgan Spurlock’s recent confession that he’s been a drunk, a womanizer and a sexual harasser. He now promises to be part of the solution. Well, gee, that’s great. Here’s how he and all men can be “part of the solution”: don’t act like a jackass when you’re around women.  Don’t attempt to have sex with women who aren’t actually attracted to you, and if you’re married, don’t cheat on your wife.  It’s not that difficult to figure out.

If you watched the Golden Globe awards on Sunday (I didn’t), you know the rich and famous women of Hollywood wore black dresses and gave rousing speeches to publicly demonstrate their outrage over all that sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. They were, of course, praised for their courage by a mostly-fawning press.

Sorry, but I’m not impressed. According to what I’ve read, Harvey Weinstein’s status as a sexual predator was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood. Many of the women courageously donning $10,000 designer black dresses on Sunday night had to know, yet did nothing when Weinstein was still sitting atop the industry and could boost or bust careers.

Rose McGowan, the actress who had enough spine to call him out (and whose story was spiked by some of our “speak truth to power” journalists because they were afraid of Weinstein) wasn’t impressed either. As CBS reported:

Rose McGowan is still unimpressed with the black dress protest at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards. The outspoken actress claimed that all of the stars at the Golden Globes wearing black in protest against sexual harassment would not have done so if it weren’t for her.

Yup. Wearing a black dress and giving a rousing speech now, after years of remaining silent, is kind of like running out from the crowd to kick Goliath in the groin after David hurled the fatal stone, then patting yourself on the back for your bravery. I mean seriously, am I supposed to cheer for Meryl Streep and her black dress and her righteous speeches now, when she once stood and cheered for director Roman Polanski after he was convicted of drugging and raping a teenage girl?! Pardon me if I remain seated.

Perhaps you’re wondering how Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and all those other walking penises got away with it for so long. As someone who lived in Hollywood and worked in and around the entertainment industry, I can make an educated guess.

Here’s the brief version: the entertainment industry (including TV news) is a universe in which 1) a disproportionate number of powerful people at the top are amoral sociopaths, and 2) a disproportionate number of the people who aren’t at or near the top are so desperate for success, they’ll do or put up with almost anything.

In other words, it’s a perfect environment for abuse.

You can find various definitions of sociopath on the internet, but I like this list of traits:

  • Having an oversized ego.
  • Lying and exhibiting manipulative behavior.
  • Exhibiting a lack of empathy.
  • Showing a lack of remorse or shame.
  • Behaving irresponsibly or with extreme impulsivity.
  • Having few real friends.
  • Being charming—but only superficially.
  • Living by the “pleasure principle.”
  • Showing disregard for societal norms.

Doesn’t that sound rather a lot like some Hollywood bigshots we could all name?

There are, of course, some very nice people at the top in showbiz. I’ve yet to hear anyone say a bad word about Tom Hanks, for example. But as Chareva and I both noticed during our years in the L.A. area, something about the entertainment industry seems to both attract and reward a particular type of aggressive, amoral, me-first personality.

I’ll give you just one example from my corner of the entertainment industry, standup comedy. I’m actually talking about a couple of famous comedians (whose names I won’t reveal, so don’t ask), but the story is similar in each case, so we’ll just roll them into one guy named Freddy Funny.

When Freddy Funny first appeared in comedy clubs in Los Angeles, he already had a killer act. There’s a good reason for that: while working the comedy-club circuit around the country before moving to L.A., he wrote down the best bits of every comedian he worked with. Then he went to L.A. with an act that could have been titled The Best Of The Club-Circuit Comedians.

His punishment for stealing material that other comedians had meticulously written, worked and reworked was to become a TV star. After all, agents and producers saw him slaying audiences. Eventually, word got around that Freddy routinely stole his material from unknown comedians. Nobody cared. Freddy was a star now with millions of fans. His presence in a show drew the numbers that make producers rich.

I was first warned about Freddy by other comedians. “If you’re about to try that great new bit on stage and you see Freddy in the back of the room, don’t do it. Switch to your old material, finish your time, and get off the stage.”

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it help my career if Freddy Funny saw me and liked my stuff?”

“No, it will hurt your career. Because you’ll turn on The Tonight Show or The Letterman Show some night, and Freddy will be doing your best bit. Then you’ll have to drop it from your act, because audiences will think you stole it from him instead of the other way around.”

Eventually, a comedian who was outraged at hearing his best bit come out of Freddy’s mouth on TV cornered Freddy in a club, punched him in the face, and shoved him down a flight of stairs. After that, Freddy’s manager routinely paid the victims of Freddy’s thefts for their silence. But of course, the thefts continued … because despite the millions of fans who considered a Freddy a brilliant comedian, the guy never did learn to write a good act.

When Freddy died – one of them, anyway – some comedians posted an inside joke beneath his obituary in a showbiz magazine: When Freddy Funny died, a little bit of all of us died with him.

Keep in mind I never personally met Freddy, so I’m passing on what I was told by quite a few other comedians. But I did have a personal experience with a comedy thief. I was the headliner in a small club many years ago, and the opener was okay but not exactly rocking the house. About a year later, I worked another club where he was opening, and he seemed to have really improved. And yet some of his material seemed familiar … and then one of my best bits came out of his mouth.

I didn’t say anything to him, but went ahead and did the same bit in my act. When the audience responded with quizzical looks and a few nervous chuckles, I said, “Yeah, I know, you just heard that bit about an hour ago, right? Which is weird, because I wrote it.”

At that point, the opener left the club instead of fulfilling his duty to come up on stage after the show to wish the audience a good night and send them on their way. With such an a-hole attitude, I’m surprised he didn’t end up as a TV star.

It’s not just performers who lie, cheat and steal. As you may recall, the first two distributors for Fat Head never paid us. One of them sold the film to TV markets around the world, but reported zero profit because of huge and unexplained expenses – for a film I produced and financed out of my own pocket. (Gravitas, our current distributor, is one of the good guys, by the way. They send regular quarterly checks and document the rare expenses they charge against the film’s sales.)

Bottom line: the glamor of showbiz lures a lot people who have no qualms about lying, cheating, stealing or screwing other people — literally or figuratively. And those at the top, the ones who can make or break careers, have access to plenty of people who will put up with being abused.

That’s where the desperate-to-make-it aspect comes in.

When Chareva and I first moved to Hollywood, her sister – who at the time was a documentary producer and knew quite a few industry people – gave us a friendly warning about relationships among showbiz types. Dating isn’t really dating; it’s a career move. People jump into bed with whoever might open doors for them. Same for friendships; if you’re in a position to boost careers, you’ll have more new “friends” than you can handle – which in turn makes you suspicious of anyone who wants to be your friend.

I saw that from both angles. Some years ago, I was in a sketch-comedy show at a small theater near Burbank. After our opening night, we went out to celebrate at a local pub. One of the actresses had a friend with her, a middle-aged woman. I ended up chatting a bit with the friend and eventually asked what she did for a living.

After just a hint of hesitation, she replied, “I’m a photographer.” She seemed uncomfortable, so I didn’t ask any more questions about her profession.

Later I said something about “your photographer friend” to the actress.

“My what friend?”

“Your photographer friend. She was with you at the cast party after opening night.”

“She’s not a photographer. She’s a director.”

“Why didn’t she just say that?”

“Because if she tells people she’s a director, they start schmoozing with her, hoping she can give them an acting job.”

The year before we moved, I was in an acting workshop I’d been attending for several weeks. One of the actors and I had become chit-chat friendly, and he asked if I’d done any standup shows recently. I told him I’d given up the comedy gigs for the time being and was shooting some footage for an independent film I wrote, a comedy-documentary of sorts.

Boom, next thing I know, a pretty young actress-wannabe who had never spoken to me before was chatting me up and being very friendly – and of course, she handed me a copy of her headshot and resume.

I had no interest in her, but I’m guessing I could have asked her out for a drink right then, despite the wedding ring on my finger.  I was a nobody, but I was shooting a film, so she suddenly found me interesting.  Imagine what a Harvey Weinstein could do.  Well, you don’t have to imagine anymore.

People in the industry just seemed to accept this as normal. I once attended a workshop run by a brutally honest casting director. He’d worked in various aspects of the industry, including a brief stint as a producer.

“I never actually got anything produced, but having Producer on my business card made it easy to pick up girls,” he said, prompting chuckles in the room. Ha-ha. I don’t doubt it.

During Q&A, a good-looking wannabe actress asked him (perhaps speaking from experience) what she should do if a big-name producer decided to put his hand on her thigh during an audition.

“If you’re smart and you want the role, you’ll reach out and pat his hand with yours,” he replied.

Like I said, brutally honest. And that, of course, is why Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long. Actors desperately want the next role. Agents desperately want their actors to get the next role. Writers desperately want their scripts produced. Directors, designers, composers, whatever, countless people fighting for a spot in the industry are desperate.

That includes many people who, to mere mortals, already appear successful. I found that to be one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole showbiz culture: almost everyone seemed to be suffering from some degree of career frustration. Actors who actually had roles on TV shows were frustrated because they wanted to be acting in films. Actors who were in films were frustrated because they wanted to be in the meaningful films, or wanted top billing. I remember reading an interview with Alec Baldwin in which he said he felt like a failure as an actor because he never got the kind of meaningful roles he wanted. I kid you not.

Same goes for directors, producers, agents, you name it. Below the tippy-top of the industry, it seemed damned near everyone was in a constant career-climbing, claw-my-way-to-the-top mode. Chareva and I used to wonder if that’s why there are so many incredibly rude and angry drivers in L.A. They’re frustrated by the traffic, but more frustrated by their careers … or lack of careers.

The desire to be discovered prompted some truly strange behavior.  Chareva and I were having dinner at a restaurant for one of our anniversaries, and an adolescent boy at another table was annoying the crap out of other diners by singing show tunes — and his parents were encouraging him.  They apparently hoped a producer would be somewhere in the restaurant and sign junior to a three-picture deal.

I once filled in for Chareva and took Alana to a dance class.  While I was sitting in a waiting room with other parents, a young dad was reading to a toddler whose older sibling was in the dance class.  I noticed with growing irritation that the young dad was reading way too loudly and with way too much expression.  Is this guy deaf?  Does he think his toddler is deaf?  And then it hit me: he’s an actor, and he’s acting the character parts — loudly, just in case one of us might be a producer or agent or whatever.

Meanwhile, my Midwest friends working in other fields were nothing like the people I met in L.A. My friend who set out to be an attorney as a young man was one – a partner in a prestigious firm, in fact. My buddy who wanted to work in finance was a manager for an investment firm in Chicago. My pal who wanted to teach yoga owned a yoga studio. No desperate, never-ending career-climbing for them. They had achieved their primary goals and were enjoying life.  If Kevin Spacey had grabbed one of them by the privates, they would have punched him in the nose, not complain to a manager who would tell them to keep quiet because Spacey has serious mojo in Hollywood.

I wasn’t aware of any specific sexual abuse at the time, but I was keenly aware of the toxic combination of desperate wannabes and amoral sociopaths in power positions. I suspected there plenty of people engaging in Harvey Weinstein behavior. I just didn’t know their names yet.

So there I was in 2008, with Fat Head done and in the hands of distributors who would later rip me off. I looked out the window of our townhouse one afternoon and saw my girls “playing outside” on the little strip of grass in front of our building.

That’s when it hit me:

This is going to be their childhood. They’re going to be L.A. kids.  They’re never going to just run around outdoors unsupervised, because parents don’t let kids do that around here.  As they grow up, they’re going to be surrounded by all those desperate, career-climbing, attention-seeking, needy people in the industry. And if, heaven forbid, they get caught up in the culture and want to be actresses, there’s a chance they’ll be meeting the amoral slimeballs who prey on pretty young actresses.

And why am I here? Because I love being a writer and entertainer and want to do it for a living. But what would that mean? It would mean working with a lot of people I don’t like, people whose me-first, aggressive personalities and loony-lefty politics (which they seem compelled to preach about at every opportunity) make me want to vomit — all so I can perhaps someday make enough money as an entertainer to afford a nice house with a big yard in a state run by big-government morons who are spending it into bankruptcy.

Holy crap … I’m an idiot. I know now I could have made Fat Head while living almost anywhere, and yet I’m still in a part of the country dominated by a bat-shit-crazy culture I’ve come to loathe.

So we moved to Tennessee. And the big yard is pretty nice indeed.

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Just before I took a holiday vacation from blogging, several readers and Twitter followers alerted me to news stories about Morgan Spurlock confessing to being a sexual harasser. Here’s an example from a BBC article online:

US documentary film-maker Morgan Spurlock has publicly confessed to a history of sexual misconduct, referring to himself as “part of the problem”.

Spurlock, who made the hit film Super Size Me, wrote on Twitter that he had been accused of rape and had paid to settle a claim of sexual harassment.

He also admitted cheating on “every wife and girlfriend I have ever had”.

Sounds like an awesome guy. And here I thought he only cheated on his Super Size Me rules.

Truth is, Spurlock being who he is, my first thought was that his confession would turn out to be part of an upcoming publicity stunt. But three weeks have passed and I haven’t seen a promo for Morgan Spurlock Spends 30 Days Acting Like A Dick, so perhaps the confession and regret are genuine. Let’s read on.

In a lengthy statement, Spurlock said that after months of such revelations he had come to the conclusion that “I am not some innocent bystander, I am also a part of the problem”.

“As I sit around watching hero after hero, man after man, fall at the realisation of their past indiscretions, I don’t sit by and wonder ‘who will be next?’ I wonder, ‘when will they come for me?’,” he wrote.

So now I’m wondering if the confession and apparent regret were a calculated decision to pre-empt any headlines by making his own first. Anyway …

He said the allegations of rape took place at college. It did not lead to charges or investigations but he said the woman had written about the incident in a story writing class and had named Spurlock.

The settlement for alleged harassment involved a female employee and took place about eight years ago, he said.

“It wasn’t a gropy, feely harassment. It was verbal, and it was just as bad,” he wrote.

“I would call my female assistant ‘hot pants’ or ‘sex pants’ when I was yelling to her from the other side of the office. Something I thought was funny at the time, but then realised I had completely demeaned and belittled her to a place of non-existence.”

Spurlock, 47, said that when the woman decided to leave she asked for a settlement in return for her silence.

“Being who I was, it was the last thing I wanted, so of course I paid,” he said.

“I paid for peace of mind. I paid for her silence and co-operation. Most of all, I paid so I could remain who I was.”

I may raise a poop-storm by saying this, but I think we need to be careful of sliding into a witch-hunt mentality on the sexual harassment front. Yes, calling a female assistant “sex pants” is stupid and shouldn’t be tolerated. But let’s not put that into the same category as actually groping a woman or promising her a role in a film in return for sex.

The part of Spurlock’s confession I found most interesting was this:

“I haven’t been sober for more than a week in 30 years, something our society doesn’t shun or condemn but which only served to fill the emotional hole inside me and the daily depression I coped with,” he wrote.

Hmmm … remember those rules he established at the beginning of Super Size Me? One of them was that he’d only eat and drink what McDonald’s sold. In fact, in one scene he refused to drink water because McDonald’s didn’t sell water at the time.

He wouldn’t drink water, but apparently he drank enough alcohol to get drunk at least once a week while spending 30 days buying all his meals at McDonald’s. So much for the rules – which, as I demonstrated in Fat Head, he couldn’t have followed anyway. Given the theme of Super Size Me, I’m surprised he didn’t blame his alcohol problem on the liquor stores for selling him too much liquor. It’s those darned super-sized McScotches, ya see. Perhaps he should have made this documentary instead:

You may also recall the scene in Super Size Me in which a doctor tells Spurlock he’s developed a fatty liver. I thought the doctor was a bit of an idiot for blaming the fatty liver on fatty foods instead of all that sugar Spurlock was slugging down at McDonald’s. Now I also think the doctor should have asked, “By the way, Mr. Spurlock, have you been getting drunk at least once per week for the past couple of decades?  Because that will definitely trash your liver.”

Anyway, I can’t say I’m surprised. When I first watched Super Size Me, my impression of Spurlock was that he’s a good entertainer, but also full of @#$% — or full of bologna, as I put it in Fat Head. Based on his recent revelations, I’ll update that opinion and say he’s a lying, cheating, womanizing drunk. Put him in prison for a spell or kick him off a train, and he could be the subject of a country song.

Sexual harassment in Hollywood isn’t exactly a health topic, but as someone who lived in Hollywood and worked in and around the entertainment industry, I have some opinions on why it went on for so long.  The reasons are directly related to why I left Los Angeles for Tennessee.  I’ll get into those next time.

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I hope you all had a terrific holiday season. Mine was pretty enjoyable, considering I’m still feeling post-surgical pain in the shoulder and am limited in my activities. I can tie my own shoes and button my own shirts now, so at least I don’t feel like an overgrown toddler.

Now that Chareva’s parents live here instead of just outside Chicago, we stayed home for the holidays. We used to make a triangle trip every year; first to central Illinois to visit my family, then on Chicago visit hers. I won’t miss making those drives.

Perhaps the best present we received was the surprise news that Chareva’s younger brother Alex bought a house in Franklin. He has a baby daughter who’s as adorable as adorable gets. Now we know we’ll get to see her grow up. My girls are already lining up for future baby-sitting duties.

Last we’d heard, Alex and his wife were planning to live in either Portland or the Chicago area. The whole time he was looking at and bidding on a house about 10 miles from us, he managed to keep it a secret. Fortunately, his wife had a video camera running when he broke the news by giving keys to the new house to Chareva and her mom. Their reactions were priceless. You can bet that scene made it into the DVD I create at the end of each year.

Speaking of which, I just managed to finish all the video editing and get the DVD done before my vacation ended. Here’s a sample, the video I put together to commemorate the low-carb cruise to Alaska:

Jimmy and Christine Moore arrived a few days before Christmas and left on Christmas day. The weather is certainly better around Thanksgiving, but it was nice to spend a Christmas with them for a change. As far as my girls are concerned, Jimmy and Christine are Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Christine. The more family around on Christmas, the better.

We managed to squeeze in a few rounds of disc golf, but agreed not to make them part of the official record. It was cold outside, and we played after rains had soaked the pastures. Between the slippin’ and slidin’ and my post-surgery weakness, I didn’t exactly rack up impressive scores. Jimmy whooped me quite convincingly in the last two rounds, but he’s such a good friend, he only mentioned it a couple dozen times. (Just kidding, Bro.)

I finally got around to writing down plans for the new year yesterday. I’m not against New Year’s resolutions, but as I’ve mentioned before, I think too many people go about them in a way that sets them up to fail – that is, they make promises in terms of results (I’m going to lose 30 pounds by June) instead of actions (I’m going to follow this-or-that diet and exercise plan). Take it from an old guy: you can control your actions, but you can’t control the results.

I know what my diet plans are, but of course the exercise plans at this point boil down to Whatever the surgeon and physical therapist say I can do. If I had my way, I’d be at lifting at the gym tomorrow, since the atrophy on my left side is already becoming obvious. I made the mistake of flexing both arms in front of a mirror over the weekend to see what they’d tell me. The right arm said Adult Male. The left arm said Probably Hasn’t Started Shaving Yet.

I had a follow-up visit with the surgeon today and asked what I can do for upper-body exercise. The short answer is: almost nothing outside of physical therapy. The physical therapist told me I’ll start working out with weights in another couple of weeks. The “workout” will consist of curling two-pound dumbbells. I saw the two-pound dumbbells sitting in a rack nearby. They’re pink.

Pink?! Seriously? Am I required to wear a skirt as well? Next thing you know, I’ll start crying during the she’s-going-to-lose-him scene in chick-flicks and stopping to ask directions if I’m lost. I may need to watch a Schwarzenegger film or two every weekend just to maintain a sense of balance.

My main goal in the upcoming months is, of course, to finish the film version of Fat Head Kids. That one’s very much under my control, and I know I can get it done … even with a left bicep that looks like it belongs to an adolescent.

Happy 2018, everyone.

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