Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Peak Oil, the Validity of Torture and How We Dislike Being Wrong

Bonk by Mary Roach

A delightful book that was both funny and informative. It is often hard to mix science and humour successfully, let alone for a length of an entire book, but Roach ably delivers with her investigation into the history of sexual research and the science of sex.
Bonk had no main over-arching theme or thesis, just many interesting tales - Sedaris like in wit and style, but with factual content. There are so many fascinating factoids that they are too numerous to mention, but Roach covers orgasms in people and other animals, how our brains function when encountering sexual stimuli, sex toys and apparati that assists those with dysfunction, and usefully examines how what is stimulating physically may not be so mentally and vice-versa.
I highly recommended this 'curious coupling of science and sex.'

Monday, August 17, 2009

Economics is Not a Natural Science by Douglas Rushkoff recently featured an interesting original essay by Rushkoff where he argues that economics is not a natural system and should not be treated as a natural science.
In short, these economic theories are selecting examples from nature to confirm the properties of a wholly designed marketplace: self-interested actors, inevitable equilibrium, a scarcity of resources, competition for survival. In doing so, they confirm — or at the very least, reinforce — the false idea that the laws of an artificially scarce fiscal scheme are a species' inheritance rather than a social construction enforced with gunpowder. At the very least, the language of science confers undeserved authority on these blindly accepted economic assumptions.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The End of Overeating by David Kessler

An excellent book that analyzes why we are motivated to eat the foods we do as well as offers useful tips for altering negative behaviours. Kessler stresses the ideas that the major determinant of weight is simply caloric intake, and that we should all try to realize the difference between eating for hunger and eating for reward & motivation.

The initial chapters examine the role that sugar, fat and salt play in our consumption desires and how the food industry tries to hit all three with each bite of a product. While much of this was review, I found it quite useful to have it nicely laid out. For example, I have often said that when people say that they like broccoli what they really like is the cheese they put on it. In the book there is a line which basically says that many people like broccoli but what they are really being drawn to is the oil and fat of toppings on it. I like how this guy thinks.

An interesting finding that was presented was that access to food is sufficient to increase weight and throw off our homeostatic mechanisms. While obvious in retrospect, it was thought that the body’s self-regulatory mechanism would adjust to having too little or too much food. But when there is too much food continually available, these mechanisms cannot compensate and weight will increase. Similarly, I liked how he discussed the fact that what may start off as intentional behaviour becomes a habit. As in, in the middle of the afternoon I will treat myself with a cookie. If you engage in this behaviour enough, then it is likely you will start automatically seeking a cookie and perhaps not even notice that you eat one everyday (People often underreport how much they eat).

Kessler also shares some knowledge from food analysts. The first notable tidbit was that often manufacturers will use different sources of sugar so they don’t have to list sugar as the primary ingredient (even though it is cumulatively). Secondly, the notion of ‘layering’ - sugar, fat or salt is layered to increase flavour and motivation for greater consumption. I found it interesting to hear many pub foods described as “sugar on salt on fat on fat…”

The End of Overeating briefly examines the food industry and discusses the business imperative to make us eat more. Products like soft drinks or French fries (well, most products) can be increased in amount for a small marginal cost, but people are will to pay a price that is far higher than that marginal cost. Consequently, it is just logical to provide more food. Additionally, many restaurants like Chillies or Cinnabun market themselves as entertainment or as a respite from daily pressures. In this way, food is serving other goals, often to our detriment.
I found it both disconcerting and yet reasonable to learn that much restaurant food is “pre-chewed.” Often, the meat will be pierced with needles or undergo other treatments to make it easier for the customer to chew. The easier it is, the more you’ll eat (but they have to be careful because people do want to chew as least a little). Another one of the messages is that little in food is what it seems as the synthetic production of flavours and smells can create many illusory dishes.

Kessler discusses the French “paradox” and states that the most likely explanation is portion size, not genetics, type of fat, stress or red wine. Some evidence supporting this is that surveys of restaurants in France and U.S. found that in the U.S. portions were 25% larger in Pizza Hut and local bistros and Chinese eateries. In Europe, there are fewer environmental cues to suggest eating and there is a more overt meal structure, with no snacking.

The latter chapters of the book were even better because they examined the neurological and behavioural aspects of food consumption. The food industry attempts to manipulate the reward pathways and create associations and reinforcement ‘learning.’ This isn’t too difficult (or surprising) as food is its own reward. As I mentioned before, habit takes over from intention, and once patterns are ingrained in your lower brain, it is hard to undue them or understand why you engage in certain actions. After a delicious piece of food which has made us feel good, we then want more reward and are seeking the next ‘wow’ arousal experience; dopamine is released and there is layer upon layer of ‘reinforcement learning’ as you more easily notice the cues that signal reward, creating a greater urge to pursue and consume. As there is more and more delay in the actual, initial feeling of satisfaction from food, more barricades to repetitive behaviour have been toppled.

It is difficult because food truly does make you feel better. There is a spiral of wanting that easily develops due to the sensory and emotional associations with food. Despite this, Kessler does offer useful guidelines for those eating more than they desire. Primarily, do not engage in a battle of wills with your desire and your restraint. Instead, develop a series of rules, included If-Then scenarios, to enforce you eating goals. Basically, don’t be around fattening food or people who eat fattening food in front of you, and avoid routes or locations where you will be tempted by food cues.

In summation, great book! The End of Eating is accessible, informative and helpful. Go read it and think about if you are eating for reward or eating for hunger.*

*acknowledging that, evolutionarily, if hunger did not exist as a motivating factor and eating, or the reduction of hunger, was not reduced by food, we would not be able to survive (as we are).

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Truth: A Guide by Simon Blackburn

An interesting exploration of different notions of truth while presenting an argument for the continued usage of words like “truth,” “reason,” and “objectivity.”
Blackburn writes with wit and knowledge, discussing truthy issues and interpretations from Socrates and Plato to Bacon and Nietzsche, all the way up to Rorty and others.
Structurally, the style didn’t quite work for me. While I appreciated the discussion, I would have preferred more of a text-book layout. The book has the information within, but it was not displayed as accessibly as I would have hoped. It could also be that the subject is a bloody complicated one, what with trying to understand and remember the differences between realism, quietism, minimalism, eliminativism, real realism, constructivism… so what did I expect?

The book was useful in that it reinforced the notion that we can never compare our perception of the world to how it actually is. I did not believe this anyway, but I appreciated the discussion. In fact, of course, the notion that the world is ‘actually’ a certain way is part of the issue (i.e., actually to whom? To what?). I do tend to think there is an objective reality that is differentially experience subjectively and I was not dissuaded from this view after reading Truth. Yet, the book was useful in helping me understand various nuances and appreciate the perspectives of others – Blackburn was often excellently balanced in his treatment of others.

I enjoyed chapter 6 (Observation and Truth: from Locke to Rorty) the most. As it provided such a useful overview of truth concepts, it probably should have occurred earlier on in the book. Chapter 4’s examination of Nietzsche’s thoughts on truth was interesting but as I’ve only read two of his works and was not impressed by either, I didn’t really have the competence to evaluate Blackburn’s arguments. (Once again, it was affirmed that I seem to only like Nietzsche secondarily, when others describe his thoughts and impact.)

I did tend to dislike how Blackburn would so casually state that to see if something is true just go check the facts. For example, is Toronto South of Ottawa? This can be known by checking the fact of whether Toronto is indeed South of Ottawa. That’s all well and good, but some ‘facts’ are far thornier than others. Blackburn did validate the scientific method and the idea of certain descriptions of reality (maps) would be better than others (maps that don’t list where the cliffs are), yet I wanted a little more.

Additionally, Blackburn repeatedly presents the idea that there isn’t a difference between ‘p’ and ‘I believe that p.’ More explicitly, saying ‘the world is round’ and saying ‘I believe that the world is round’ is the same thing. While I understand why he supports this, I think he should have more forcefully acknowledged why they aren’t actually the same – reasons such as tactics or expressing degrees of certainty come to mind. When humans converse, they often appreciate when their discussion partners say things like ‘In my opinion,’ or ‘To me,’ even though it makes one wonder if every other time when the preface isn’t used the person is speaking plagiaristically or ‘to someone else.’ That is the tactical aspect. Similarly, but often differently, a speaker wants to acknowledge the provisional nature of their beliefs and explicitly stating that their beliefs are in fact beliefs and they know this, is one way to attempt to achieve such understanding.

Upon reflection, I probably wanted a neutral examination of the issue of truth, as much as possible, and the most popular perspectives among different groups of philosophers. This would include or be followed up by the main arguments for a particular position and then, one hopes, Blackburn would present his argument for a particular interpretation. Truth: A Guide probably did this, but not in the linear fashion I was seeking.

Still, recommended for those interested in the topic; if only to help them realize the divergence of views regarding truth among the necessary unity of such views so we can function in the world.