Archive for the “Random Musings” Category

Geez, time flies.  Blink twice, and it’s another birthday.

In two years, I’ll be 60.  I remember when 60 sounded old.  Maybe it is, but I predict I won’t feel old.  I’m 58 today, and I feel better than I did at 35.  No arthritis in the shoulder, no psoriasis on the back of my head, no bouts of mild asthma, no gastric reflux, no belly aches, no restless legs or mysterious backaches at night.

I should probably send Morgan Spurlock a thank-you card.  Super Size Me annoyed me, which inspired the idea for Fat Head, which led to me learning a lot more about diet and health than I’d ever planned to know.   None of this — the film, the blog, the little farm in rural Tennessee, the upcoming book — was what I envisioned 20 years ago, which just proves the universe had better plans for my life than I did.

We had the family celebration on Saturday night.  Tonight I’m just going to kick back and watch Monday Night Football and enjoy feeling alive and healthy and optimistic about the next 50 years.

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In case you hadn’t noticed, I haven’t had much time for posts lately. The programming job, Sara’s birthday (for which she chose a family zip-lining expedition over a party), sessions with Chareva to go over her graphics for the book, trying to wrap up a script for the film version of the book … not much bandwidth left at the end each week.

This won’t be a full post either, even though it’s long. Twitter brought me an essay I believe is worth sharing. The author is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and the essay is apparently from a work in progress titled Skin in the Game.

I first became aware of Taleb in March, when I quoted one of his Facebook posts because it seemed like a perfect comment on The Anointed. Several of you chimed in to say I should read his books, so I did, and I heartily recommend all of them.

Turns out that Facebook post was from the essay below (although I think the essay has since been updated.)  Taleb asked that people who reproduce the essay do so in its entirety, so I will.  The Intellectual Yet Idiot is, once again, a perfect commentary on the people who are so impressed with their own intelligence, they feel qualified to tell the rest of us how to live.  Enjoy.


The Intellectual Yet Idiot

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can’t tell science from scientism — in fact in their eyes scientism looks more scientific than real science. (For instance it is trivial to show the following: much of what the Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler types — those who want to “nudge” us into some behavior — much of what they would classify as “rational” or “irrational” (or some such categories indicating deviation from a desired or prescribed protocol) comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.) They are also prone to mistake the ensemble for the linear aggregation of its components as we saw in the chapter extending the minority rule.

The Intellectual Yet Idiot is a production of modernity hence has been accelerating since the mid twentieth century, to reach its local supremum today, along with the broad category of people without skin-in-the-game who have been invading many walks of life. Why? Simply, in most countries, the government’s role is between five and ten times what it was a century ago (expressed in percentage of GDP). The IYI seems ubiquitous in our lives but is still a small minority and is rarely seen outside specialized outlets, think tanks, the media, and universities — most people have proper jobs and there are not many openings for the IYI.

Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.

More socially, the IYI subscribes to The New Yorker. He never curses on twitter. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality” but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game as the concept is foreign to the IYI). Those in the U.K. have been taken for a ride by Tony Blair. The modern IYI has attended more than one TEDx talks in person or watched more than two TED talks on Youtube. Not only will he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

The IYI has a copy of the first hardback edition of The Black Swan on his shelves, but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence. He believes that GMOs are “science”, that the “technology” is not different from conventional breeding as a result of his readiness to confuse science with scientism.

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

The IYI is member of a club to get traveling privileges; if social scientist he uses statistics without knowing how they are derived (like Steven Pinker and psycholophasters in general); when in the UK, he goes to literary festivals; he drinks red wine with steak (never white); he used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed; he takes statins because his doctor told him to do so; he fails to understand ergodicity and when explained to him, he forgets about it soon later; he doesn’t use Yiddish words even when talking business; he studies grammar before speaking a language; he has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen; he has never read Frederic Dard, Libanius Antiochus, Michael Oakeshot, John Gray, Amianus Marcellinus, Ibn Battuta, Saadiah Gaon, or Joseph De Maistre; he has never gotten drunk with Russians; he never drank to the point when one starts breaking glasses (or, preferably, chairs); he doesn’t even know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba (which in Brooklynese is “can’t tell sh**t from shinola”); he doesn’t know that there is no difference between “pseudointellectual” and “intellectual” in the absence of skin in the game; has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past five years in conversations that had nothing to do with physics.

He knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation.

But a much easier marker: he doesn’t even deadlift.

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My daughter Sara is a big fan of the comedy troupe Studio C.  I’m a fan too, mostly because they do all clean comedy and I don’t have to worry about my kids picking up any interesting new words or ideas while watching.  Sara occasionally puts a dozen or so of their YouTube videos into a playlist, then we all enjoy a family Studio C night.

Anyway, I think some of you will relate to this skit.

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Interesting items from my inbox and elsewhere …

Everything causes cancer. Or prevents cancer.

But we already knew that, right? You can hardly open a newspaper without being told this-or-that is “linked” to a higher or lower rate of cancer. Some researchers with a sense of humor decided to randomly select ingredients from a cookbook and see how many of them have been associated with cancer in observational studies. Here are the opening paragraphs from the study:

Background: Nutritional epidemiology is a highly prolific field. Debates on associations of nutrients with disease risk are common in the literature and attract attention in public media.

Objective: We aimed to examine the conclusions, statistical significance, and reproducibility in the literature on associations between specific foods and cancer risk.

Design: We selected 50 common ingredients from random recipes in a cookbook. PubMed queries identified recent studies that evaluated the relation of each ingredient to cancer risk.

A “highly prolific field” … yeah, that’s one way to phrase it. Anyway, here’s what the researchers found:

At least one study was identified for 80% (n = 40) of the ingredients selected from random recipes that investigated the relation to cancer risk: veal, salt, pepper spice, flour, egg, bread, pork, butter, tomato, lemon, duck, onion, celery, carrot, parsley, mace, sherry, olive, mushroom, tripe, milk, cheese, coffee, bacon, sugar, lobster, potato, beef, lamb, mustard, nuts, wine, peas, corn, cinnamon, cayenne, orange, tea, rum, and raisin.

We found that 80% of ingredients from randomly selected recipes had been studied in relation to malignancy and the large majority of these studies were interpreted by their authors as offering evidence for increased or decreased risk of cancer.

So darned near everything causes or prevents cancer.

However, the vast majority of these claims were based on weak statistical evidence.

No kidding.  But I’ll bet most of them also led to big headlines.

At least okra doesn’t give me the munchies.

This is an old CNN story, but only came to my attention recently when a reader warned me that Chareva’s okra might lead to a raid by cops.

The grower was alarmed when the police helicopter swooped low over his property.

Soon, Bartow County, Georgia, deputies — “strapped to the gills” and with a drug dog in tow — converged on his doorstep. They had the grower dead to rights.

Except the plant that the chopper cops had spotted from the air was … okra.

The helicopter was combing the area in search of cannabis plants when it came across the five-leaflet okra plant, the station reported. Marijuana plants can have anywhere between one and 13 leaflets per leaf, depending on maturity and health, but they generally have seven or nine.

“It did have quite a number of characteristics that were similar to a cannabis plant,” Georgia State Patrol Capt. Kermit Stokes told WSB.

If you haven’t already heard Kermit the Frog in your head, explaining how okra looks a lot like marijuana, something went very, very wrong in your childhood.

“Here I am, at home and retired and you know I do the right thing,” Perry told the station. “Then they come to my house strapped with weapons for no reason. It ain’t right.”

Upon realizing that it had dispatched officers to confiscate a popular gumbo ingredient, the Georgia State Patrol, which operates the task force, issued an apology, both to Perry and publicly.

I’ll bet Mr. Perry was so annoyed with the cops, he gave them each a bag of okra.

How nutritionists deal with contrary evidence.

Yet another study recently declared butter not guilty of the crimes it’s been accused of, as reported in HealthDay online:

Spread the news: Butter may not be the unhealthy food many Americans believe it to be, new research suggests.

“Overall, our results suggest that butter should neither be demonized nor considered ‘back’ as a route to good health,” study senior author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, said in a university news release.

The new study was funded by the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Mozaffarian’s team reviewed data from nine studies that included more than 636,000 people living in 15 countries.

The findings showed that eating butter was only weakly associated with increased risk of premature death and not associated at all with heart disease. There was a slight association with protection against diabetes, the study found.

I’m sure those findings won’t surprise you. Unfortunately, this probably won’t surprise you either.

One nutritionist said her views on butter remain unchanged, however.

“Despite the findings of this study, I am not about to make a huge shift in the recommendations I make about consumption,” said Dana White. She is a dietitian and professor of sports medicine at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

“Butter remains a very high-calorie and high-fat food with little nutrient density to offer, and therefore still needs to be consumed in strict moderation,” White said.

In other words: I’ve been telling people to strictly limit their butter intake for years, and I’m going to keep on doing it, no matter what the evidence says.

Head. Bang. On. Desk.

The FDA plans to poops all over poop transplants.

If you’re a regular reader, you know I think our government’s regulations are often full of poop. So it seems rather appropriate that a branch of the government wants to regulate poop, as reported by BuzzFeed.

Gastroenterologist Colleen Kelly performed her first poop transplant eight years ago, on a young woman with a life-threatening gut infection who had run out of options. The bacterium Clostridium difficile had invaded the woman’s gut, bringing her constant diarrhea and pain, and antibiotics weren’t working.

Kelly’s patient persuaded her to try a fecal transplant, in which poop from a healthy person is put into a sick person’s colon in the hope of resetting the mix of microbes there. The patient’s boyfriend provided fresh stool, and Kelly introduced half a cup of it into her patient via a colonoscopy. To Kelly’s surprise, it worked — by the next day, the woman’s symptoms began to wane.

Kelly, an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, has since performed some 300 fecal transplants for C. diff infections. These days, she usually buys healthy stool samples from OpenBiome, a nonprofit “stool bank” in Somerville, Massachusetts that launched in 2013. “It’s really unlike any therapy to date,” she told BuzzFeed News.

So this spring, when the FDA announced that it intended to tighten its rules on the procedure, known as fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), making it harder for doctors to buy stool from banks, Kelly was among the commenters who wrote back, opposing the proposal.

It’s the typical pattern. People working in a profession find something that works. Businesses spring up to provide that something at a reasonable price. Then the feds, seeing something successful happening that they don’t control, step in to regulate.

“If the FDA makes it prohibitively difficult for clinicians to work with stool banks, I believe this will actually make the procedure less safe, and of course, less accessible,” wrote Sarah McGill, a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina Medical School who has performed about 30 fecal transplants on C. diff patients in the last two years.

Yes, of course that’s how it will play out. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said at least twice: most of the “protect the public” regulations that come along are backed by businesses who want to leverage the coercive power of government to stifle their competition. Public safety is merely the excuse. The BuzzFeed writer, unlike most media writers, actually understands that.

But one company, at least, welcomes more government regulation of stool. Rebiotix, a startup based in Minnesota that is developing an enema treatment of bacteria extracted from poop, told the FDA to shut down the stool banks and adopt the strictest regulation possible in dictating how samples are procured. The company contends that this is for the patients’ own good, as stool banks may not be fully screening their samples for diseases.

And now for the real reason …

Rebiotix is also worried about its bottom line. If the company’s poop-like drug for C. diff makes it through the rigorous clinical trial process before anybody else, it would win the rights to be an exclusive seller of the product for seven years, gaining a huge lead in a market expected to be worth $1.5 billion by 2024.

Anyone who tells you the FDA is imposing this limit on patient choice to protect the public is full of unregulated poop.

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It’s been a bit busy around here, what with the full-time job, trying to make progress on the book and film, four extra people living in the house, etc., etc.

I thought I’d finally have time tonight to write a post I’ve had in mind, but a client discovered a little bug in a software package I sell to law firms.  Fortunately, the client is also my best friend of 40-some years, so he told me about the bug over dinner and a couple of beers, as opposed to, say, in an angry email.

Now that I know I’ve got a bug, I feel obligated to track it down and kill it as soon as possible … before a less-chummy client runs across the same issue.  So there goes my evening.

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I confess:  during the programming marathon that lasted nearly three weeks, I took one evening off from coding, but didn’t write a post.  Instead, I bought a basketball hoop for Sara and got it set up.  It was important to her.  To understand why, I’ll share the opening paragraphs from our upcoming book for kids:

———————————————————

You probably remember someone like me from grade school.  I was what the other kids called a brain.  But that was almost 50 years ago, and I’m told kids nowadays wouldn’t insult me like that.  Today they’d call me a nerd, a dork, or possibly a dweeb. Anyway, you know the type.  I was usually the smartest kid in class, and I was lousy at sports.

How lousy?  Well, here’s one of my not-so-fond memories from gym class:  We were running a relay race where each guy on the team had to dribble a basketball down the court, make a layup, then dribble back and hand off to the next guy.  I was the last guy on our team, and when I got the ball, we were in the lead.  I bounced the ball down the court, tossed it towards the basket … and missed. By a lot.  I tried again and missed.  And missed again.  And again — mostly because my weak arms couldn’t fling the ball high enough.

The other team had already won, but the gym teacher growled, “You’re not quitting until you make that basket.”  So I leaned back and hurled the ball as hard as I could.  It bounced off the rim, smacked me in the face, and knocked me on my butt.  At that point the gym teacher decided I could quit after all.

———————————————————

That’s the type of kid I was.  The opening chapter goes on to briefly recount my life as a fat kid and fat adult, and how I finally lost weight and got healthy as I neared age 50.  Like many other people, I’ve often wondered what life would have been like if I’d figured out the diet thing decades earlier.  That’s why the title of the book is Fat Head Kids: stuff about diet and health I wish I knew when I was your age.

Anyway, back to the basketball hoop.  Sara inherited so many of my traits, she’s referred to herself as a female mini-me.  She has a quick sense of humor and likes to write.  (She already writes poems that are genuinely funny.)  She loves reading books and thinking about concepts and ideas.  She routinely scores 99 or 100 on standardized math and science tests.   She’s watched some online tutorials on programming and done the exercises just for kicks.  Often she’ll say or do something that prompts Chareva to turn to me and say, “She is SOOO your daughter.”

Unfortunately for Sara, she also inherited my athletic abilities.  Before summer vacation started, she asked if we could please get a basketball hoop so she can practice.  She explained that during basketball games in gym class, other kids had taken to chanting “Pass it to Sara!  Pass it to Sara!  SARA!  SARA!”  I was impressed … until she went on to explain that other kids want her to shoot so they can cheer another “spectacular miss.”  That’s how she put it.

Yeah, I know all about those spectacular misses.  My school gym-class career was full of them.

As I explain near the end of the book, I was never going to be a great athlete.  I don’t have the natural coordination or the preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibers that produce explosive power and quickness.  But I didn’t have to be the worst athlete in class, either.  I was weaker, fatter and slower than I should have been because of my lousy diet growing up.

As an adult, I worked out and got stronger.  I still had a belly, but not the weak muscles.  I found that with dedicated practice, I could become competent at some sports.  Back when I played a lot of golf, I usually shot between 85 and 95 – not great, but not embarrassing.  I’m pretty good at disc golf these days.  And at one time, I actually got to be a good shot with a basketball, thanks to hours of shooting baskets.  I still wasn’t a great player, since I can neither run fast nor jump high, but I could shoot.  I was no longer the guy nobody wanted on the team for pickup games.

I explained all that to Sara.  She replied that she has no illusions about becoming the star player during basketball games, but she’d like to become a decent shooter and silence those chants of “Pass it to Sara!”  I promised we’d go shopping for a hoop some weekend.

Next thing I know it’s late July, and the new school year is approaching.  Sara reminded me during my programming marathon that our driveway still lacked a hoop.  I looked at some portable hoops at our local sporting-goods store and mentally selected one that costs around $350.  But I wanted to check around for a service that would assemble and install the thing.  Last thing I wanted to tackle during a programming marathon was a huge box full of parts and badly-written instructions with little dotted lines pointing to bolts and such.

While I was at the office one day, Chareva sent me a link to an ad on Craigslist.  Someone was selling the same hoop for $125 as part of a moving-out-of-state garage sale.  She’d already called for a location, and the family selling the hoop was about 25 miles north of Nashville.  We live about 25 miles south of Nashville, so it would be a waste of time and gas for me drive home and pick her up, then drive 50 miles north, then 50 miles south.  Okay, I said, pick me up at work and we’ll drive up there.

Getting there was the easy part.  Figuring out how to get the whole contraption into the van was a royal pain in the @$$.

The seller was an engineer/baseball coach/basketball coach.  He was, not surprisingly, a very fit and strong guy.  But even with all us (including has athletic teenage son) tugging and pulling and banging with tools, we couldn’t get the two-section pole to come apart.  So after about an hour of sweating, we decided the only option was to remove the backboard and the base, then slide the entire pole into the van.  Fortunately, I’d had the good sense to tell Chareva to bring my socket set and some other tools.

The pole just … barely … fit … into the van.  I’m talking with the top of the pole touching the dashboard and the bottom of the pole almost resting against the back hatch.  We slid the backboard and hoop in alongside and wrapped a seatbelt around it.  But the real fun part was the base, which is filled with sand and must weigh 400 pounds.  That took some serious hoisting and yanking and wiggling.

By this time, I was hot and sweaty and tired and thinking about all the work I had to get done and sorry I hadn’t just bought a new hoop and paid someone to deliver it and put it together.  But we’d already paid for the $125 used model and loaded it into the van, so we thanked the seller and headed south … just in time to run smack into rush-hour traffic.  We crawled along to the office, where Chareva hopped out to drive my car home.  Then I drove the van back into the line of cars crawling along on the highway.

Frankly, I didn’t mind the slow traffic.  My worst fear at this point was having to slam on the brakes and watch the pole launch itself through the windshield like some medieval weapon of war.

Once we both arrived home, my worst fear was that we’d never 1) manage to wrestle the 400-pound base from the car, or 2) remember exactly how to attach the pole to the backboard and base.

Both fears were overrated, as it turned out.  We couldn’t just lift the base from the van, but as small-time farmers, we’re the proud owners of a good-sized crowbar.  So with the magic of leverage, we managed to scoot the thing out the hatch, onto the ground, and into position.  We used sawhorses to get the backboard positioned near the top of the pole, then I screwed it back into place while Chareva held it steady.  Then I held the pole – which is impressively heavy with a backboard attached – in its place at the base, and Chareva attached it.

Whew.  Done.   My visions of the pole falling over and the backboard shattering weren’t premonitions after all.

Most parents have had an experience like this:  child begs and pleads for some must-must-must-have object.  Parent eventually makes a mildly heroic effort to acquire the must-must-must-have object.  Child is delighted and enjoys the object immensely  … for approximately 137 minutes, then loses all interest.  Forever.

I’m happy to say that didn’t happen with the hoop.  Sara’s been out there shooting for at least a little while almost every day.  After dinner, she’ll often invite me to join her for a game of Horse or Pig.  Sometimes Alana joins in.  We’ve played a few pickup games, first one with five baskets wins.  (The rule is that I can’t attempt to block Sara’s shots.  I have a wee bit of height advantage.)

As a result, I don’t think the other kids will be chanting “Pass it to Sara!” this year.  She’s already improved her accuracy by something like a hundred million billion percent.  Okay, that might be exaggerating.  But she’s hitting a lot of shots, and her misses are no longer spectacular.

She’s my daughter, and I’m flattered that she likes being like me in so many ways.  But I don’t want her to re-live my gym-class career.

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