Archive for the “Random Musings” Category

Sometimes that darned working-for-a-living thing gets in the way of more important stuff — like writing blog posts.

I was too swamped with work on Monday to write a post, and I still am.  Chareva’s visiting her parents, so I’m also on chickens-dogs-cat-kids duty for the next few days.

See you next week … I hope.

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Pop quiz: what’s the difference between the two x-y graphs below?

The answer is that they’re same graph  — but the first picture above, we’ve zoomed in on one side of the bell curve.

In the book How Not To Be Wrong: A Guide To Mathematical Thinking, author Jordan Ellenberg points out that if you focus on a small part of a curve, it looks rather a lot like a line. Human like lines because they’re easy to understand. Plot some data and draw a line, and you have visual evidence that more of this produces more of that, or that more of this results in less of that. If the x-axis represents a span of time, you can even predict what the data will look like years from now by extending the line into the future.

The trouble is, real life tends to be more curved and less tidy than our beloved trendlines would have us believe. Two variables that were happily holding hands and running uphill together on our chart can suddenly break up and go their separate ways. So the trendline flattens out or reverses direction completely. That’s often how real life is, and if we don’t want to be wrong (as the title of the book says), we shouldn’t assume that a trendline heading in a particular direction will continue in that direction forever.

For example, you’ve probably seen headlines announcing that by the year 2040, everyone in America will be obese. Yup, every single person. Those predictions are based on charts that look something like this:


Researchers take a 25-year trendline that runs from 1990 to 2015 and simply extend it another 25 years. That is, of course, a wee bit ridiculous. Some decent-sized fraction of the population is highly resistant to becoming fat. Even if the Standard American Diet doesn’t undergo a positive shift (which I think it already is), the likely scenario is that when the actual data is plotted in 2040, it will look something like this:


Trendlines can flatten out. It happens all the time. It’s what we see when the law of diminishing returns kicks in. If I’ve been lifting weights once per month and switch to twice per month, I’ll likely become stronger. Kick it up to once per week and I’ll probably become stronger again. But at some point, more frequent workouts won’t make me stronger. There’s a limit to how quickly a body can produce new, stronger muscle cells.

Trendlines can also rise and then fall, producing a bell curve. More of this means more of that up to a point, but then even more of this leads to less of that. Interestingly (at least for those of us who enjoy reading about economics), Ellenberg introduces the concept by writing about taxes and the revenues they produce.

I’ve had debates with big-government-lovin’ acquaintances who are convinced there’s no national problem we couldn’t solve if we just had the political courage to seriously jack up taxes – especially on those darned rich people. In their minds, the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues looks like this:


Higher tax rates always produce higher revenues and therefore more government goodies for all – no matter how high the rates go.

But that’s not how it works in real life. Ellenberg doesn’t argue in favor of any particular tax rate, but he points out what any sane economist knows: at some point, higher tax rates produce less revenue, not more, because (among other reasons):

  • People have less disposable income to buy goods and services, which means fewer people will be employed to provide them.
  • More people decide to participate in the underground economy to avoid high taxes.
  • Fewer people can save the capital to start a new business.
  • People who already have the capital to start a new business decide they won’t bother if they’re taking all the risks but Uncle Sam is going to take most of the reward.
  • People in the highest income brackets often quit working for the year once any additional income they earn is taxed at a rate they find unacceptable.

So the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues is a bell curve:

Again, Ellenberg doesn’t advocate for a particular tax rate. He simply points out that in any given set of economic circumstances, there’s going to be a rate far greater than 0% and far less than 100% that produces the most revenue. If we only focus on the left side of the curve, we’ll end up believing that higher rates always produce more revenue. If we only focus on the right side of the curve, we’ll end up believing that lower rates always produce more revenue. Both beliefs are wrong – and of course, the title of the book is How Not To Be Wrong.

One way to avoid being wrong is to understand that in real life, the relationship between this-and-that often takes the form of a bell curve. Starting from a low level, more of something may be good … but that doesn’t necessarily mean a LOT more is better. Starting at a high level, less of something might also be good … but that doesn’t mean zero is better.

We see the bell-curve relationship all the time in the health sciences. How much vitamin D should you get? The answer would surely look something like this:

Starting from a low level, more is better. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a LOT more is better. At some point, a LOT more is toxic.

How much protein should you eat? We know too little is bad for your health. You’ll lose muscle mass and your immune system will weaken. But too much can cause diarrhea and dehydration. So the relationship between protein and health is a bell curve.

But my bell curve probably doesn’t peak at the same point yours does. And a muscular athlete who engages in heavy workouts would need protein than I do. So the relationship between protein and health may look something like this:

Not every relationship in health is a bell curve, of course. If we’re talking about rat poison and health, the relationship probably looks like this:

Less is better, period. Sometimes that’s the reality. Chareva’s mother is highly allergic to walnuts. So for her at least, the walnut-to-health relationship would look very much like the rat poison-to-health relationship above.

But getting back to the How Not To Be Wrong theme, here’s a graphic representation of a belief I once held, but now consider wrong:

Metabolic health is the highest at close to zero carbs, then goes down from there. I believed that because I went from a high-carb diet to a low-carb diet, and my health dramatically improved. So for awhile, I figured if low is good, close to zero must be even better. It may be true for some people, but it’s clearly not true for everyone.

On the low-carb cruise, I was pleased to hear Dr. Justin Marchiagiani respond to a question about ketogenic diets by saying he doesn’t recommend them for everyone. He works with each patient to find his or her ideal carbohydrate intake, which will depend on a number of factors. For some, it’s 50 grams per day or less; others feel better and lose weight more easily at 100 grams per day or more. He said he feels at his best at between 75 and 100 grams per day. That’s about where I am now as well.

There is no level of carb intake that’s ideal for everyone. So the relationship between carbs and metabolic health looks something like this:

If we only focus on the right side of the curve, we’ll end up believing that more carbs always means worse metabolic health, so the ideal level of carb intake is close to zero.

But that ignores the left side of the curve. And that’s an easy way to be wrong.

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During the low-carb cruise, I interviewed Dr. Ann Childers about how diet affects mood and mental health. She’s a psychiatrist who works with children and has seen a real-food diet work wonders, so I wanted to get her on camera for the upcoming book and DVD companion. One clip I can pretty much guarantee will end up in the DVD is her describing when a teacher called to ask what new wonder drug she’d prescribed to a student previously diagnosed with behavior problems.

“Bacon and eggs,” Dr. Childers answered.

“Yes, but WHAT ELSE?” demanded the teacher.

Dr. Childers also mentioned something Dr. Weston A. Price observed during his travels around the world: people eating their traditional diets weren’t just physically healthier; they were mentally healthier too. Dr. Price noted many times how cheerful and optimistic these people were, and how quickly they rebounded from life’s setbacks.

I thought about that during our return trip home from the cruise, because it was the kind of day that could easily have produced a case of acute crankipantus extremitus in kids, but didn’t in ours.

We booked the cruise closer to the deadline than we should have. When we searched for return flights on Orbitz, our options were 1) a long day of travel or 2) an extra $200 per person for a short day of travel. We elected to save the $800 and endure the long day.

How long? Well, let’s see … we left the ship around 9:00 AM and were sitting inside the Ft. Lauderdale airport shortly after 10:00 AM. Our flight didn’t leave until 3:45 PM — and that flight was to Detroit to change planes. Three hours on that flight, then a three-hour-plus layover in the Detroit airport, then an hour-and-a-half flight to Nashville. Then wait for the luggage. Then catch a shuttle to long-term parking. Then make a half-hour drive to Franklin. By the time we walked into our house, we’d been traveling for 16 hours.

And here’s what surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have: the girls never got into a funk or whined about anything. They made a wisecrack or two, asking me if I couldn’t have found a longer and more roundabout way to get home, but they were laughing about it, not whining. (I told them I’d signed us up for the scenic route.)

They read, they played games on their Kindles, they commented on the view outside the airplane’s windows, they watched some of the in-flight TV offerings, they talked to us and to each other.  They laughed many times throughout the long day.  When the shuttle bus let us out in the long-term parking lot at the Nashville airport, Sara broke into a little musical ditty she’d written to memorize our row number. They were still cheerful when we finally pulled into our driveway.

They’re the daughters of two people who don’t much like whiners, so sure, heredity and upbringing both figure into how they handled themselves.  But I believe diet figured into it as well.  The long trip home was after a week of eating quality (mostly) food. During the cruise, they had bacon, sausage, fruit and eggs for breakfast – no pancakes, cereal, waffles or glasses of juice. Lots of meats, seafood and vegetables for lunches and dinners. They even ordered escargots in garlic butter several times for an appetizer.

Other than the couple of times we let them have sugar-free cookies as an indulgence, they were eating make-your-brain-happy foods all week. During our three-hour layover in the Detroit airport, we had dinner at a Texas Longhorn steakhouse. Then we sat for another two hours, waiting to board the plane to Nashville – again, with nobody complaining or getting cranky.

Now for the flipside …

Sunday was, as I’m sure you’re aware, Father’s Day. On Saturday, I went out in the 90-plus heat and high humidity and spent four hours mowing the back pastures. I was so soaked with perspiration, during one of my cooling-off breaks, Alana asked if I’d dumped a bucket of water over my head.

Hard work? Yup, especially in that heat. But after a shower and a change of clothes, I was re-energized and ready to go walk a few miles around the nearby Westhaven neighborhood, which sponsors an annual music festival called Porch Fest. (The bands play on porches. Nearly every house in Westhaven has a big front porch.)

Afterwards, we walked back to the Mexican restaurant in Westhaven for our Saturday dinner. That’s my “carb nite” meal most weeks. I eat the rice and beans that come with my fajitas, plus a few corn chips. It’s high-carb, but no wheat. I wake up Sunday mornings feeling no ill effects.

Yesterday morning was no exception. When Chareva asked what I wanted to do for Father’s Day, I replied that I wanted us to clean out the garage, sweep, and put away all the tools we’d let pile up during our big Spring Project. (Isn’t that every dad’s dream on Father’s Day?) So we did. It was 90-something and humid again, but my energy level was good.

After I showered and the girls gave me their home-made Father’s Day cards, I decided it was enough of a special occasion to head out for an indulgence meal. I put it up for a vote, and the consensus was that we’d go to Mellow Mushroom in downtown Franklin for pizzas. I haven’t had pizza since my birthday in November and probably won’t again until my next birthday, so I thought it was a fine idea.

As I often say, if you’re going to eat something you know is bad for you, at least choose a meal that’s worth it. The pizzas at Mellow Mushroom are excellent, and therefore worth it — assuming we’re talking about a very occasional indulgence, that is.

I was reminded today why I only eat wheat a couple of times per year. I slept nearly nine hours last night, but I’ve been low-energy all day. I don’t feel depressed – that would be stretching it – but I can safely call it a case of the blahs.  I drank three big mugs of coffee over the course of the morning but never felt totally awake.

Often after dinner, I run out to play a quick 18 holes of disc golf as the sun dips behind the tall trees across the highway from our property. Today the idea didn’t appeal to me.  Nothing requiring energy or exertion appealed to me.  If anything, I felt like taking an afternoon nap, although I didn’t because I had programming work to do.

In a previous post, I described how I considered myself a low-energy person back in my college days. I was also a regular wheat-eater in college. I felt today like I felt back then. Not exactly bad, but not good either. I certainly wouldn’t describe my mood today as optimistic, and if you’d told me to go push a lawnmower up and down a steep pasture for several hours in the heat and humidity, I can promise the reply wouldn’t have been cheerful.

The difference between today and my college days is that today’s low-energy feeling is temporary. I know the cause and the cure.

Good food, good mood. Not-so-good food, not-so-good mood.

Food equals mood.

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Our cat’s official name is Rascal, but we usually refer to him as Little Man. I gave him that name at some point after his successful campaign to convert me into a person who likes cats – at least one cat, anyway.

I’m pretty sure after he joined the family two years ago, he evaluated us all and figured out I was the only one who wasn’t delighted by his presence. Okay, he said to himself, I’ll work on him. He took to jumping on my lap when I was watching TV late at night – which scared me out of my skin the first few times – and settling down for a long purr.

Later, he decided to make me his sparring partner. Whenever he gets the chance, he jumps onto my office chair and adopts a fighting pose he probably imagines is intimidating. If I walk near the chair, he swipes at me, and the sparring is on. I try to poke him in various places, while he swipes at my hand and tries to catch a finger in his teeth. If he does catch a finger, he gives it an oh-so-gentle nip to let me know he won the round. I call this game of his En Garde, Mister!


(Little Man playing En Garde, Mister! with my hand.)

A couple of months before the cruise, Little Man and I were engaged in a spirited round of En Garde, Mister! when he rolled onto his back as part of some fancy martial-arts move. I poked him in the belly and was surprised at how big and soft it had become.

What the …?

Little Man had become Tubby Man.

Up until a month or two earlier, he’d been living on canned cat food that’s primarily meat and organ meat. There’s rice in some of the flavors, but not much. For variety, Chareva also fed him sardines, mackerel and tuna.

Then she found a brand of dry cat food that brags No Corn, Wheat or Soy, No Artificial Colors, Flavors or Ingredients on the label. Little Man liked the stuff, so she put it out along with the canned food. Over time, he ate less of the canned food and more of the dry food.

So when I found myself poking a newly-rotund cat belly, I checked the ingredients on the bag of dry food. The first ingredient listed is chicken. That’s good. The next three ingredients are pea powder, barley and brown rice. Well, I wouldn’t call those bad, but it’s clear the dry cat food is considerably more carb-laden than the canned stuff.

I wondered to myself, Did Little Man become Tubby Man because we inadvertently jacked up the carbohydrate content of his diet?

Naaaawww, that can’t be. Legions of internet cowboys have informed me (and everyone on the Fat Head Facebook group) that macronutrients are irrelevant. If you get fat, it’s because you eat too @#$%ing much, too @#$%ing often, period. It’s a simple matter of ingesting too many calories.

Therefore, it was obvious that our Little Man – who for nearly two years had exercised the willpower to limit his calories and maintained a sleek, feline body as a result – was developing a serious flaw in his character. He’d become a glutton without any of us noticing until it was too late. I don’t track his daily activity, but I’ll bet he was also getting lazy and moving less … fewer unexplained mad-dashes around the house and across the top of all the furniture, perhaps.

Anyway, despite being assured by legions of internet cowboys that macronutrients have nothing to do with weight gain, we put the dry food back in the pantry and started feeding him the canned meat again. A month later, he was looking sleek. Had to be a coincidence, of course.  I can only guess that somewhere around the time we put the pea-barley-rice dry food away, he happened to recognize himself in a mirror, was disgusted by his tubby appearance, and put himself on a diet.

When we went on the low-carb cruise, we boarded the dogs at a kennel but let Little Man stay at home. Chareva filled a big dispenser with the dry cat food and put out several dishes of water. A friend of Chareva’s also dropped by a couple of times to check on him after feeding our chickens.

Well, wouldn’t you know it … when we returned home eight days later, Little Man was turning into Tubby Man again. I’m not going to chalk it up to a character flaw, since he’d been disciplined enough to eat less and lose weight before we left for the cruise. The obvious explanation this time was emotional eating. The poor cat probably felt abandoned and unloved when we left him home alone, so he comforted himself by eating too much. As Dr. Oz once said about Oprah, “She isn’t really craving food; she’s craving love.” If Little Man had opposable thumbs, he probably would have picked up the TV remote and spent hours watching chick flicks while stuffing himself with the pea-barley-rice food.

But we’ve been back for more than a week, and he’s not engaging in emotional over-eating anymore. He’s even trimmed down noticeably. It has to be because he feels loved and supported again now that we’re home. It can’t have anything to do with the fact that he’s back to a meat-and-fish diet … because as legions of internet cowboys have assured me, macronutrient ratios don’t have anything to do with gaining or losing weight.

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We interrupt our normally scheduled blogging to bring you this commercial announcement.

Mother’s Day is May 10th.  We have about 20 of these left:

No, not 20 Charevas … she’s one of a kind.  We have about 20 of the Cool Moms Cook With Butter aprons left.  They’re available in the Fat Head store.

Or you could just send your mom a nice card.

 

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In a psychology class I took in college (during my brief stint as a psych major), there was a lecture on what determines our personalities.  One of the factors was what the professor called energy endowment.  Some people are born to be energetic and some aren’t.  Your energy level would certainly affect your personality.

I recall thinking at the time, Well, that explains a lot.  I’m not blessed with much of an energy endowment.  I wasn’t especially lazy or anything, you understand.  I went to my classes, I was diligent about my homework, and I worked as a waiter on weekends to make a few bucks.  But I didn’t crave physical activity.  I liked reading, playing in a band, and talking about every subject under the sun with my friends.  I was never the guy who said, “Hey, let’s go play football in park!”  Sometimes I did go play football in the park if other guys invited me, but I was kind of relieved when it was over and we all went to sit down in a pub.

Fast-forward 35 years …

The forecast for Saturday was rain all day.  Just as well … I knew Chareva and I wouldn’t be doing farm work together because she took Sara to a seminar for girls on math and science careers.  So I figured I’d spend the day indoors, working on my speech for the upcoming cruise.

As I was sitting at my desk and going over the speech, I noticed a ray of sunshine peeking through the window blinds.  Then I felt mild tension in my right calf.  I looked down to see my right foot inching towards the door.

“Excuse me, foot.  What do you think you’re doing?”

“It hasn’t rained all day.  I want to go out.”

“And do what, exactly?”

“Well, I’m a foot, so it would probably be something that involves walking, genius.”

Not wanting an angry foot on my hands, I gave in and played 18 holes of disc golf in the front pastures.  Then Alana and I took food and water to the chickens in the front pasture and collected the eggs.  Then we took food and water to both flocks of chickens in the back pasture.  Then we took food and water to the hogs.

Feeling I’d done right by the foot, I sat at my desk to go over the speech.

“You know, it’s still not raining.”

“Yes, I know.  The forecast was wrong.  Big surprise.”

“Well, I want to go back out.”

“But I have to—”

“You can always write later if it rains.”

Can’t argue with that logic.  So I went out and played another 18 holes of disc golf.  When I tried to take my shoes off to go inside, the right foot refused to let go of the leather.

“What now?  That’s 36 holes already!”

“I’m just negotiating on behalf of your arms.  They don’t talk much.”

“Well, what do they want?”

“Work.  I mean, real work.  Tossing those little discs around isn’t work.”

“Tell them Chareva is gone, and the next farm chore is stringing more fencing.  That’s a two-person job.”

“Hang on … They say the driveway could use more patching.”

“Well, yeah, now that you mention it …”

“You need to fill in the holes with rocks.  They like that idea.  Rocks are heavy.”

Chareva’s garden cart was full of tools, tarps, gloves, zip-ties and other items dumped in there in no apparent order, which means she planned it that way.   I decided not to mess with her system, even though the garden cart is good for hauling rocks.

So I took a big bucket down to the creek, which serves as my quarry when I need rocks.  For the next couple of hours, I scooped rocks and gravel from the creek into the bucket.  Then I hand-carried the loaded bucket from the creek, across the front pasture, and to the top of our driveway, making sure to switch arms so neither would feel left out.  Then I filled canyons and craters in the driveway with rocks and gravel.  When we get a few days with no rain in the forecast, I’ll mix up some Quikrete and pour it between and on top of the rocks.

The rain that had been forecast all day finally came.  My muscles were tired by then, so the foot and his silent companions didn’t complain when I went inside.

In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes wrote about what he calls the compulsion to move.  We see lean people who move around a lot and fat people who don’t, so we assume the lean people are lean because they’re active.

Taubes says that’s getting the causality backwards.  Lean people are lean because their bodies aren’t hormonally geared to store a disproportionate share of calories as fat.  When they eat, their bodies would rather burn the calories than store them – so they feel a compulsion to move.  Longitudinal studies have shown that despite what most people think, kids don’t sit around and then get fat.  They start getting fat first, then sit around more – because they’ve lost the compulsion to move.

I believe there is such a thing as an energy endowment and that it’s partly genetic.  Some people are born bouncy and stay bouncy.  Others, not so much.  But diet has to figure into it as well.  When I was college, hardly a day went by when I didn’t eat wheat.  Toast or cereal in the morning, a sandwich for lunch, noodles or a roll with dinner – heck, that’s just normal food, right?

Now I rarely touch wheat.  But when I do – like, say, for my very rare pizza indulgence – I can feel the difference the next day.  I lose my enthusiasm for physical activity.  I feel like I did back in the days when I believed I was born with a low energy endowment.

I don’t have that low energy endowment anymore.  I’m not the bouncy type and never will be.  But when the weekend rolls around, I feel a compulsion to move.

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