Monday, May 23, 2011

Hunger Placebo

This is an interesting study. Some researchers fed people identical milkshakes, labeling one as low-calorie and another as high-calorie, and then did chemical tests of their blood.

Results: The mindset of indulgence produced a dramatically steeper decline in ghrelin after consuming the shake, whereas the mindset of sensibility produced a relatively flat ghrelin response. Participants' satiety was consistent with what they believed they were consuming rather than the actual nutritional value of what they consumed.

What this means is that eating something labeled as healthy causes the body to react as if it has eaten very little, so you sill still feel hungry after eating it and will want to eat more. Combine this with the 'Health Halo' effect and you have a recipe for overeating and obesity. If you think that a food is healthy, you will underestimate the calories it contains, and your body will actually react as if you ate less calories and make you feel like you need to eat more.

This is another reason why it is very important to know the calories in the food you eat. If you underestimate the calories, then your body will actually have the wrong biochemical response to the food, which could lead to nasty things like metabolic syndrome. Because people always underestimate the calories in restaurant food, you should avoid restaurants whenever possible, or only go to places that post the calorie counts.

The good news is that you can take advantage of this. This is speculation on my part, and assumes the effect is symmetric, but it might work. If you baked a low-calorie dessert but told your guests it was grandmother's recipe, with a whole stick of butter melted in, and served them a small portion of this "indulgent treat", they might react as if they had eaten a lot of calories. They should feel full, without actually consuming the calories.

You can also alter the way your own body reacts to food. This kind of conditioning is a bit trickier, but it can have huge payoffs. If you manage to convince yourself that an apple is a high-calorie, indulgent treat, then you can use it as a placebo to cure your feelings of hunger. Each time you bite into an apple, imagine yourself eating a rich apple pie. Close your eyes and imagine the dessert you ate last Thanksgiving. Visualize yourself eating several helpings of apple pie as you eat the apple. If you repeat this process each time you eat an apple, you might be able to trick your body into feeling full. It is worth a try.

If you already have a good way of making the placebo effect work in your favor, like prayer or meditation or exercise, then this is another thing that it can apply to. If you ask God to make you feel less hungry, and you really believe that He can and will do so, then you will feel less hungry and eat less. I am surprised that pastors have not told people this. It is less dramatic than most 'faith healing' and would require a long-term commitment, but it would work.

The broader lesson here is that the human subconscious is very complicated and powerful, and it often works against your better interests. People are programmed to seek out and consume as many calories as they can. This habit was necessary to stay alive for 99.9% of human history, but is a serious problem in modern society. There are a lot of other habits like it. In order to free yourself from those habits, it is necessary to understand and alter the way your mind works. This is hard work, but very rewarding. If you understand the desires and impulses of your primitive mind, you can deal with them and not let them control you.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Statistically Significant

It is very important for you to realize what 'statistically significant' means. The definition of a statistically significant result is:

"There is a 5% or less chance that we would see this result happen if there was really nothing going on"

This standard makes sense when you are running laboratory experiments, but it can be very misleading when applied to correlations you observe in the world. If you take a hundred surveys on things that have nothing to do with each other, then five of them will produce results that are 'statistically significant'. This is for exactly the same reason that if a hundred people go to Vegas and play the slot machines, five of them might get lucky and come home with more money then they started. The world is full of randomness. This comic illustrates the effect well.

It appears that the writers and editors at The Economist do not understand this fact:

According to his "Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine", around 95% of the treatments he and his colleagues examined—in fields as diverse as acupuncture, herbal medicine, homeopathy and reflexology—are statistically indistinguishable from placebo treatments. In only 5% of cases was there either a clear benefit above and beyond a placebo ..., or even just a hint that something interesting was happening to suggest that further research might be warranted.

Finding a 'benefit' in 5% of cases is exactly what you would expect to find if all of the treatments were just placebos. The article is pretty good otherwise, but they realy should have pointed this out. As printed, people might think that 5% of these things are actually doing something, and naturally they will assume that whatever they believe in is one of the things that has been 'proven' to work.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Martial Arts

Although collar-and-elbow was seen as a common man's sport in Ireland, it was considered a gentlemen's pastime in several areas of the colonies. It was part of the curriculum at the Reverend James Maury's Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia. George Washington, at the age of eighteen, held a collar-and-elbow championship that was at least county wide. Twenty-eight years later, in command of the Continental Armies, he demonstrated his wrestling skill by dealing flying mares to seven volunteers from Massachusetts. Washington was not the only grappling president of the United States. Zachary Taylor, William Howard Taft, Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge also practiced at one time or another the style of collar-and-elbow. Abe Lincoln was a champion of catch-as-catch-can wrestling and once referred to himself as possibly the second best wrestler in southern Illinois.

The 'flying mare' mentioned in the quote is basically the same thing as the ippon seoinage judo throw. Although 'George Washington, judo master' sounds like something from a bad webcomic, our first president would have a good chance of winning a judo match with a samurai. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Although martial arts is often associated with Oriental cultures, all European societies also have a long tradition of martial arts. Usually this involved some kind of wrestling or bare-knuckles brawling in a very competitive and brutal environment. Getting thrown into a ring with lots of different people is a very effective training method, if you survive.

Many Oriental martial arts also originated from this kind of atmosphere. But sometime in the last two centuries, western martial arts turned into a variety of competitive sports like boxing and catch wrestling, while Oriental styles lost the focus on intense competition and became more structured, traditional, and philosophical. The result of this was that Western champions usually won fights with Oriental 'masters'.

Ironically, the same attributes that make rigid Oriental martial arts styles ineffective also preserve them. There are a lot of people who would like to learn self-defense and fighting skills but do not want to be thrown into a competitive sport. A structured and safe curriculum is ideal, even if it comes at the expense of effectiveness. A year of high school wrestling will make you a better ground fighter than a year of martial arts, but the wrestling will not help you if you get injured, or simply stop training because the experience is so unpleasant.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Magic Government

There are a lot of issues where people accurately diagnose a problem with our society, but then assume that 'the government' is the solution to that problem. Here's an example:
The pressure starts early, with vending machines and fast food chains a significant presence on school campuses — something Nestle vociferously opposes. "Vending machines in schools was like the invasion of the Pandora's box," she said

So basically, government agencies are callously sacrificing the health of the children under their care for a quick buck. What is the solution to this?
Nestle believes that such deliberate targeting of children in the marketing strategies of food and beverage companies is unethical, which is why she suggests there is a role for government regulation in improving Americans' diets. "We have unbridled capitalism at work here," she said. "I think capitalism is fine, but you need to bridle it a little. There needs to be some kind of check and balances, and the only thing that can do that is government. You have to have government involved."

And what do we observe in the cases where government is most involved with what is fed to people?

More than regulation, though, caring is something Nestle emphasizes again and again in conversation. Discussing the recent recall by the USDA of 143 million pounds of beef — much of which had been sent to school lunch programs — due to evidence that the processor had sent sick cattle to slaughter in violation of federal regulations, Nestle said, "The school lunch program is looking for the lowest cost possible. That's one of the reasons why that company had low costs. That's just the government saving money. Because poor kids eat school lunches, right? Their parents don't vote; some of them are illegal immigrants. Nobody cares. In situations where people do care, they're able to be much more respectful about it, and the kids eat better.

So despite the fact that she chronicles all of the nutritional harm caused by the government, she wants to solve the problem with ... more government.

I think that when people say 'the government needs to do X' they really mean 'people like me need to be given power and put in control of X.' And it is certainly possible that nutrition in this country would be a lot better if people like this nutritionist were in charge of food. But somehow, that never happens.

"There was an inspector (from the USDA) in the plant," she recalled, "and I said to the people, 'What's with the inspector?' They said, 'You could butcher a dog in front of him, and he'd never notice!' I met the inspector; they were right. He had to check the paperwork. It was boring, routine work. He wasn't paying any attention to where he was; there was no thinking going on."

The best way to get people to eat healthier is to increase their income. On average, poor people eat badly, and rich people eat well. With the exception of the laws that correct for externalities and improve things like security and the rule of law, each new government regulation is sand in the gears of the economy, making everybody a little poorer. Every well-intentioned intervention has the side effect of making it harder to run a business, meaning fewer jobs, an increased cost of living, and more poverty.

I actually agree that in a perfect world, nobody would be allowed to advertise anything to children. They simply do not have the wisdom to cope with it, and it warps their desires in unhealthy ways. But instead of attacking the companies, start by reforming the government. Vending machines in public schools should be banned. There is no excuse for them.

They should also get rid of the school cafeterias. Just have the kids bring a bagged lunch like in the old days. All of the money currently spent on subsidized school lunches should be given directly to the EBT card balances of poor families. The multiple layers of government spend over $3 for each free lunch, and almost every parent could spend that $3 more wisely.  You can easily buy week's worth of apples, bananas, lunch meat, and bread for $15. If a kid comes to school without a lunch, then report the parents to social services; they would have no excuse for not feeding the kids.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Doing Things

I always used to think of salad dressing as something that came in a bottle from a factory. I never thought that you could make it without special tools and training. The idea of normal people making it themselves simply did not occur to me.

If I had thought about it, I would have realized that this was a foolish assumption. People have been eating salads for thousands of years, making salad toppings from scratch in farm kitchens. The industrial process is just an extension of that.

But I never thought about it. The assumption lay in my mind, unacknowledged, subtly constraining my behavior and choices.

Recently, I saw a friend on a sugar-free diet making her own salad dressing. It was very good. But for some reason, I thought of this process as a magical skill, requiring a deep knowledge of spices, and something that I would not be able to do.

Last night, I stopped by the store to buy some fresh fruit, and ended up grabbing a bag of spinach on impulse. When I got home with it, I wondered what I would do with it. I wanted to eat it, but did not have any dressing or hummus or other salad toppings. I was looking through my cabinets for inspiration, when I had the idea of making my own dressing.

I had no idea where to start, so I went to my bookshelf and grabbed a 'Better Homes and Gardens' salad cookbook from the 1960's that I had gotten at a yard sale years ago. A depressingly small percentage of the book was about fresh vegetable salads; the majority was devoted to jello-based concoctions and mayonnaise-laden 'potato salad' monstrosities. One of the pictures featured, prominently, a tin of anchovies.

I flipped through the bits on vegetable salads and dressing, picking up some basic tips and getting an idea of what should work well together.  It had what I was looking for: a page on making vinegar-based dressings; the cookbook called them French but nowadays we would call them Italian.

The recipe called for 'salad oil'. I had no idea what that was, so I figured that olive oil would have to do*. I got an old jar and poured the olive oil and some red wine vinegar into it. I did not bother measuring anything; that would have been too much work, and would have required washing all the measuring cups and spoons afterwards.

I started throwing and shaking things in the jar: powdered garlic, minced dried onions, dried chives, salt, pepper, paprika, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme**, and some powdered hot central american chilies.  Then I added a lot of chopped walnuts, screwed the lid on tight, shook the jar for about a minute, and then poured it over the spinach.

The resulting 'Mayan Walnut Vinigarette' was good. Not as good as my friend's dressing, but better than most commercial dressings. I credit the lack of sugar. I ended up eating half of the bag of spinach.

The important thing is that, with a little bit of instruction and a fairly simple spice cabinet, I was able to make my own salad dressing. It was amazingly easy. Any experienced cook could do the same thing, and probably do a lot better than I did. A procedure that seemed mysterious and out of reach became something that I could do quite easily.

Our minds are littered with these kinds of unknown assumptions. It is simply impossible to think carefully about everything in the world; you have to have assumptions and mental shortcuts to cope with a complicated reality.

But often it pays to challenge these assumptions. The process of buying bottled salad dressing is really inefficient. You have to buy a glass bottle, which then gets thrown away or recycled. You have to keep the thing refrigerated after you open it. The dressing is not really fresh, and it will not be exactly the way you want it.

The key to living a good life is to do things. When you try doing things, you will build up skills that will let you do more things. Watch other people and learn from them. Consume a variety of things. I am not sure why I knew that walnuts would be good in a spinach salad, but I guess I must have seen and/or eaten a fancy nut-laden salad somewhere.

It is both very easy and very hard to free yourself from bad assumptions and explore new possibilities. If you just try to think things through, it will be almost impossible. But if you interact with lots of different people, and see them working and doing things, you will discover a world of possibilities.

* It turns out that 'salad oil' in a recipe means 'any kind of vegetable oil you feel like using'.

** The last four were all in a single bag, a 'Simon and Garfunkel Spice Mix' that I got from Amazing Savngs.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Here are the things I have put stars on in Google Reader in the last few months:

Reputation Management: Glitzkrieg "Respectability is for sale. Here is a buyer's guide."

Even today, when the US desperately needs to cut spending to avoid going bankrupt, few dare to take such hippy-style positions, that most of the things we spend so much on just matter much less than most think, and so can be drastically cut. One might imagine starting a Party Party, based on a fun-loving hippy-style emphasis on simple living. But alas those who agree are less eager to be political. So I expect the usual political parties will continue to fall over themselves to emphasize how very important are things like war, medicine, school, parenting, etc., so important that you shouldn't dare to leave such things in the hands of those other incompetent parties.

How to be Happy A good, well-documented list of what modern scientific research says on the subject of happiness

I am anti-awareness and you should be too This is an excellent indictment of slacktivism, although she does not use that word.

And finally, a couple of comics: