Science For Smart People

Tom Naughton recently gave a great presentation called Science For Smart People, and it’s well worth your time.  In it, he explains why there seems to be so much contradictory "scientific" evidence nowadays, especially regarding diet and health.  Tom also tells how to separate the wheat from the chaff to determine whether an alleged conclusion is actually supported by the evidence in a given study.

In one example, there was a clinical study involving three groups of people: one group on a low-carb, high-fat diet; a second group on a low-fat, moderate-carb diet; and a third group on an unmodified diet.  The actual results were that the low-carb group lost more body fat and showed the greatest improvements in all cardiovascular markers, including total cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL and LDL.  But what did the researchers write in their conclusion?  "Moderate approaches to weight loss such as a moderate-carbohydrate low-fat diet may be prudent."  Tom’s take on that:

Quoting Tom Naughton:

By "prudent" I guess they meant "we would like to continue receiving research grants from Kellogg’s, who funded this study."

This shows two big problems with much of the supposedly-scientific information reported on a daily basis: first, that research is often tainted by the simple fact that it’s funded by corporations; and second, that many people, including scientists, find it very difficult to accept the fact that eating fat is not bad for you, because they’ve been brainwashed by decades of government propaganda to the contrary.

Posted by Anthony on reply

How Vacations Affect Your Happiness

Quoting The New York Times:

The study, published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life,  showed that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation.  In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. [...]

The study didn’t find any relationship between the length of the vacation and overall happiness.  Since most of the happiness boost comes from planning and anticipating a vacation, the study suggests that people may get more out of several small trips a year than one big vacation, Mr. Nawijn said.

Posted by Anthony on 1 reply

Mysterious Dreams

I recently saw an episode of NOVA called What Are Dreams?  Dreams are such a fascinating subject, and it was a great show.  It’s so interesting for example that scientists have identified 5 stages of sleep, can recognize them based on brain activity and physiological factors, know how long they tend to last and the order in which they occur -- yet the only way to determine whether a subject is dreaming is to wake them up and ask them.

And why do we dream in the first place?  One theory is that the brain is running simulations in order to test how our actions affect situations, in order to be better prepared to face potentially dangerous situations in real life.  Another says it’s the brain running through newly-acquired information in order to better learn/remember it, or to try and find connections between pieces of information that our waking mind might not realize should be connected.

For the past few years I’ve had variations of the same dream many dozens, if not hundreds, of times.  In the dream, I’m in school -- sometimes it’s high school and sometimes it’s college -- and it’s late in the semester.  I realize that for one of my classes, I haven’t attended it for most of the semester and haven’t done the assignments and can’t possibly pass it.  For the past year or so, however, that recurring dream has been largely replaced with another one: I’m in a situation involving a river or a lake (this is a good and fun dream for me) and I end up jumping or falling into it, then suddenly realizing that I’ve left my iPhone in my pocket.

After watching this NOVA episode, it occurred to me that although I spend the majority of my time alone (except for the cats), I can’t think of a single dream that doesn’t involve other people.  And it’s usually lots of other people.  It seems that my threat simulator needs to upgrade itself to prepare me for the kinds of threats that I might actually encounter: stubbing my toe on the way to the bathroom, being fangoriously devoured by a small housecat, etc.

Posted by Anthony on 3 replies

TED Talks: the Counterintuitive Psychology of Freedom, Choice, and Happiness; and Invisibility

I watched a few fascinating TED talks recently.  In addition to being really interesting, these guys are pretty funny too.

In Dan Gilbert asks, Why are we happy?, he mentions a study on the reported happiness of two different groups of people: the first group is lottery-winners and the second is paraplegics.  One year after the event (winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic), the groups report the same level of happiness.

Dan also provides this quote from Adam Smith, the first sentence of which helps to explain that seemingly-wrong study:

Quoting Adam Smith:

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.  Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation.  The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.  The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented.  Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.

In other words, it’s all in your head.

Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice looks at opportunity cost, and the fact that more choice isn’t always a good thing.  He gives the example of jeans: he went to buy a new pair of jeans and was presented with a hundred different varieties, and his response was "I want the kind that used to be the only kind."  I can totally see my dad in that situation.  When he finally settled on a pair, he got them home and wore them and then was disappointed because they weren’t perfect, whereas in his mind it was easy to imagine that one of the other pairs that he failed to pick would have been perfect -- which is of course false, but nonetheless decreases his satisfaction with the choice he made.

John Lloyd inventories the invisible is less serious and more of a comedy.  I love this part:

You cannot remember what happened to you earlier than the age of two or three.  Which is great news for psychoanalysts, because otherwise they’d be out of a job, because that’s when all the stuff happens.

He also mentions this quote by W. H. Auden:

We are here on earth to help others.  What the others are here for, I’ve no idea.

Posted by Anthony on reply

People Who Faced Disaster - And How They Made it Out Alive

Here are 4 short interesting articles about people who survived disaster situations.  I like this part:

"The brain is an engineering system," says John Leach, a former Royal Air Force combat survival instructor who now works with the Norwegian military on survival training and research.  "Like any engineering system, it has limits in terms of what it can process and how fast it can do so.  We cope by taking in information about our environment, and then building a model of that environment.  We don’t respond to our environment, but to the model of our environment."  If there’s no model, the brain tries to create one, but there’s not enough time for that during an emergency.  Operating on an inadequate mental model, disaster victims often fail to take the actions needed to save their own lives.

Posted by Anthony on reply

Caring for Your Introvert

I wouldn’t say that this Atlantic article on introverts is quite spot-on, but it sounds mostly right to me.

Quoting Jonathan Rauch:

Science ... has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people. [...] Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say "Hell is other people at breakfast."  Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone.  They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression.  Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone.  In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge.  My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing.  This isn’t antisocial.  It isn’t a sign of depression.  It does not call for medication.  For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.

Posted by Anthony on reply

Training Drivers to Ignore the Road

Interesting article in The Atlantic comparing American and British road systems:

Quoting John Staddon:

The four-way stop deserves special recognition as a masterpiece of counterproductive public-safety efforts.  Where should the driver look?  What must he remember? ... "The rules for a four-way stop are like those for a two-way: Stop and look for oncoming traffic, and proceed when it is safe to do so."  So far so good, but then: "You may occasionally arrive at a four-way stop sign at the same time as another driver.  In such cases the driver to the right has the right of way.  However, not all drivers know this.  If someone to your left decides to go first, let them!"  Thanks! But remind me: aside from bewildering the driver, what’s the point of stopping traffic in all four directions? [...]

Speed limits in the U.S. are perhaps a more severe safety hazard than stop signs.  In many places, they change too frequently--sometimes every few hundred yards--once again training drivers to look for signs, not at the road. [...]

A particularly vexing aspect of the U.S. policy is that speed limits seem to be enforced more when speeding is safe.  As a colleague once pointed out, "An empty highway on a sunny day?  You’re dead meat!"  A more systematic effort to train drivers to ignore road conditions can hardly be imagined. [...]

When you’ve trained people to drive according to the signs, you need to keep adding more signs to tell them exactly when and in what fashion they need to adjust their behavior.  Otherwise, drivers may see no reason why they should slow down on a curve in the rain.

Posted by Anthony on reply

Exercise Makes You Fat

OK, so maybe that’s not exactly what this Time Magazine article says:

[T]he peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE ... published a remarkable study ... The findings were surprising.  On average, the women in all the groups, even the control group, lost weight, but the women who exercised - sweating it out with a trainer several days a week for six months - did not lose significantly more weight than the control subjects did. ... Some of the women in each of the four groups actually gained weight, some more than 10 lb. each. [...]

Whether because exercise made them hungry or because they wanted to reward themselves (or both), most of the women who exercised ate more than they did before they started the experiment.  Or they compensated in another way, by moving around a lot less than usual after they got home. [...]

"I see this anecdotally amongst, like, my wife’s friends," [Dr. Church] says.  "They’re like, ’Ah, I’m running an hour a day, and I’m not losing any weight.’"  He asks them, "What are you doing after you run?"  It turns out one group of friends was stopping at Starbucks for muffins afterward.  Says Church: "I don’t think most people would appreciate that, wow, you only burned 200 or 300 calories, which you’re going to neutralize with just half that muffin."

I recently discovered that my eating habits were affecting my weight far more than my level of exercise.

Sometime about 6-8 years ago, while I was in college, I noticed that I ate about every 4 hours.  At that point, I guess I subconsciously decided that that was when I was supposed to eat, because ever since then, that’s been the main determinant in deciding when I should eat.

A few months ago, I noticed that my stomach fat was getting a little out of hand, and for some reason it occurred to me that the whole every-4-hours thing was totally arbitrary.  I mean, sure I was hungry at ~4 hours, but what if I stretched it to 6 hours instead?  Over the course of a day that’d cut out an entire meal.

So I started doing that, and sure enough, in 2-3 months, I’ve lost 15 pounds.  I was previously right in the middle of the "overweight" range on the BMI scale -- and no the BMI theory is not perfect, but it’s a useful metric -- whereas now I’m just barely inside the "normal" range.

I’ve also started paying attention to the quantities of food that I eat.  For example, going out to a restaurant and eating the bread, the salad, the appetizer, and the whole entree -- which I used to do, even though I was stuffed afterwards -- is just ridiculous.  And for most of my life I’ve been able to eat huge amounts of everything and not gain weight; that of course changed in my mid-20s and it’s taken some conscious effort to stop eating that way.

But my point is that I achieved this not-insignificant change in my weight purely by adjusting my eating habits -- and only the timing and quantity, not what I eat.  I go for a 2-mile walk a couple times per week, and a ~10-mile bike ride maybe once or twice a week, which is the about same level of exercise I’ve done for the past few years.

Posted by Anthony on reply

The Rich and Famous

Being rich and famous must not be all bad.  Scott Adams posted an entry called Tuesday, the entirety of which is:

No blog post today.  Sick cat.

...and he still gets 20+ comments on it.

Of course based on the kinds of things he posts, this could be one of his experiments on humanity and psychology which will be explained in a later post.

Posted by Anthony on 1 reply

Why I Stopped Shopping at Circuit City

I don’t know when I first became aware of Circuit City, but once I turned 16 and was able to drive myself places, Circuit City was probably my most-visited store.  I was really into stereo equipment, and Circuit City had lots of stereo equipment.

I had never heard of Best Buy, and I think the first one in our area didn’t arrive until the late 90s.  But once I discovered Best Buy, I practically never set foot in a Circuit City again.

The reason is simple: Best Buy was bright, inside & out, whereas Circuit City was dark and depressing.  Best Buy’s colors are yellow, a little purple, and lots of white; Circuit City’s colors are... maroon and gray.

That may seem like a small thing, but I think it’s not.  I think that, all other things being equal, people will tend to shop at stores that are bright rather than ones that are dark, perhaps only subconsciously.  Certainly that’s true in my case.  You might argue that all other things aren’t equal in this case, but whatever other differences they had, Circuit City and Best Buy are fundamentally the same kind of store selling the same kind of stuff.

Or at least, they were.  Circuit City’s gone now.  There were probably many factors that led to their demise, but for me, Circuit City lost my business for reasons having nothing to do with products or services or prices.

Posted by Anthony on 1 reply

Gay groups angry at Pope remarks, make up stupid crap in response

Quoting some nut:

I’m someone who was born as male and has a spiritual and female soul, and it’s contradictory that a Pope just thinks of people just made as flesh and not made of a spiritual aspect.

And I’m sure he failed to see the irony in using the word "contradictory" in the middle of that statement.

Posted by Anthony on reply

Secrets of the Super-Healthy: People Who Never Get Sick

I only get sick about a couple times each year, and even then it’s usually mild, so I may be one of these people.  I checked out this article to see if I match any of their "secrets."

Training for the Body - I’m not an exercise nut, and I could stand to do more of it.  But I do exercise at least a couple times per week, even if it’s just 30 minutes of drumming.

Pay Attention to Your Mouth - gargling with antiseptic mouthwash?  No.

An Apple a Day - No.  One per month, maybe, and then only in pies.

Don’t Worry, Conquer Stress - Yes.  I rarely get stressed over anything.

Up Your Vitamin Intake - Yes; I take a multivitamin daily, and I drink milk daily (mentioned in the article for vitamin D).

Mind Over Body - Uh, this one is talking about some loon who "doesn’t believe in sickness" so... no.

Just Say Om - Yoga/meditation?  No.

Increase Your Social Ties - No.  I’m a hermit.

Accentuate the Positive - "a positive emotional style -- described as happy, enthusiastic, and calm" - yeah pretty much.

Wash Your Hands - Over and Over - Yes.  Also note this video wherein they recommend (a) turning off the faucet using a paper towel so as not to re-contaminate your hands and (b) using your shoe to press the toilet flusher.  Of course (a) is blindingly obvious to anyone who understands the purpose of hand-washing, and (b) is obvious to anyone who has seen a public toilet; unfortunately "obviousness" seems to fail just about everyone I ever see in a public restroom.

Get Your ZZZs - Yes.  Admittedly, being self-employed makes this much easier, since pretty much the only thing that determines when I go to sleep and get up is "when I feel like it."

Posted by Anthony on reply

Brainy women face handicap in marriage stakes: British survey

I think there are 3 reasons for this.  The first is in the article and men just want women like their "mum". 

The second is because career women don’t have time for a family.  Men want off-spring and we don’t want it to coincide with our mid-life-crisis. 

The last reason, which I think is one of the biggest amongst many males:  Men find dumber women more attractive for some reason.  I believe that this is because smarter women intimidate dumber men.  This reason perturbs me the most.  Men should be grateful to have a smart woman to back them up.  I know I am.  I’m pretty sure Anthony is (just kidding man).  Just suck it up men.  You don’t have to be the best at everything.  And if you are out for looks, those will fade in 10 years.  In 20 years they will be pretty much gone.  The "person" inside those looks will be there forever.

Posted by kaiser on 1 reply
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