Friday, September 4, 2015

R.G. Collingwood: Words of Wisdom

If we want to abolish capitalism or war, and in doing so not only destroy them but to bring into existence something better, we must begin by understanding them: seeing what the problems are which our economic or international system succeeds in solving, and how the solution of these is related to other problems which it fails to solve. This understanding of the system we set out to supersede is a thing which we must retain throughout the work of superseding it, as a knowledge of the past conditioning our creation of the future. It may be impossible to do this; our hatred of the thing we are destroying may prevent us from understanding it, and we may love it so much that we cannot destroy it unless we are blinded by such hatred. But if that is so, there will once more, as so often in the past, be change but no progress; we shall have lost our hold on one group of problems in our anxiety to solve the next. And we ought by now to realize that no kindly law of nature will save us from the fruits of our ignorance.

R. G. Collingwood
The Idea of History (334)

Some brief comments: 

These words were written in the 1930's, thus references to "capitalism and war" seems an obvious choice among systems to supersede. But do not mistake the references a naivete on either topic. Collingwood can probably best be described as a classical--but not uncritical--liberal in politics and economics. His opposition to fascism and Nazism is forcibly argued in his book The New Leviathan

I find this quote especially applicable to the greatest issue of our time: the political response to climate change, both amelioration and adaptation (we've blown past prevention). Knowing how we've come to this point is indispensable for judging how we should act and what courses we should pursue.

By the way, this is but one part of a paragraph of a brilliant book. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life by James Hillman

I’ve recently sang the praises of James Hillman in my review of Kinds of Power, so I won’t repeat that here. This book deals another big topic: aging. Like power, we sometimes wish it would go away and we try to ignore it. But remember: only the lucky get to age.

Hillman looks at aging through his unique lens, paying heed to the literal but focusing upon the figurative—the images of aging. And as he often does, he provides us with a fresh perspective on this age-old topic. In the end, it may not make you happy about aging, but you’ll realize that it has its benefits, prerogatives, and even some blessings.  

Without further fanfare, and in the style of Brain Pickings, below is an array of quotes with comments that should provide you with opportunities for reflection and a taste of the book.

It is not old age as such, but the abandonment of character that dooms later years to ugliness. We can’t imagine aging’s beauty because we look only through the eyes of physiology. As Aristotle said, “The soul’s beauty is harder to see than beauty of the body.” 
Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life (Kindle Locations 558-560). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The further back you can reach in imagination, the more extended you become. 
Id. 743-744

This, I think, is the value of history: it extends our thinking, ourselves, back in time; imagination extends us forward in time. But because of its reality, history provides the more secure anchor.

Her character must consist in several characters—“ partial personalities,” as psychology calls these figures who stir your impulses and enter your dreams, figures who would dare what you would not, who push and pull you off the beaten track, whose truth breaks through after a carafe of wine in a strange town. Character is characters; our nature is a plural complexity, a multiphasic polysemous weave, a bundle, a tangle, a sleeve. That’s why we need a long old age: to ravel out the snarls and set things straight. 
Id. 819-822

Hillman established archetypal psychology, a descendant of Jung's project, with an emphasis on images and “polytheism”. This view highlights the multiplicity of reality, including the multiplicities in us and outside of us.

Access to character comes through the study of images, not the examination of morals. 
Id. 847-848

This is why the idea of character is so needed in a culture: It nourishes imagination. Without the idea we have no perplexing, comprehensive, and long-lasting framework to ponder; instead we have mere collections of people whose quirks have no depth, whose images have no resonance, and who are distinguishable only in terms of collective categories: occupation, age, gender, religion, nationality, income, IQ, diagnosis. 
Id. 921-926

Old is one of the deepest sources of pleasure humans know. Part of the misery of disasters like floods and fires is the irrecoverable loss of the old, just as one of the causes of suburban subdivision depression— and aging and death— is the similar loss of the old, exchanged for a brand-new house and yard. 
Id. 959-961

As the owner and occupant of a house for a quarter of a century  that approached its centenary by the time we sold it, and now as the first occupant of a new apartment, I can attest to the difference, even as we’ve tried to old this apartment.

Time is not only destructive; it toughens as well as weakens. Time lasts; it keeps on going and going and going and therefore is no enemy of age or of old. But time is indeed destructive to youth, which it eats away and finally stops dead. So when we hear of the corruption caused by time, we are listening to youth speaking, not age. 
Id. 1031-1033
 Certainly you know of someone that you'd describe as a "tough old bird". 

In old age, interest shifts from information to intelligence. By this I mean that information brings news, while intelligence searches it for insight. 
Id. 1164-1165

You just have to hope that the insight doesn’t come too late.

The words describing our approach will change: instead of “explanation,” “understanding”; instead of “new studies,” “old texts”; instead of “improvement,” “necessity”; instead of “health,” “soul”; instead of “experiment” and “statistic,” “philosophy”; instead of “information,” “intelligence,” “insight,” and “vision”; and instead of “empowerment” and “entitlement,” “idiosyncrasy,” “passion,” and “folly”. 
Id. 1235-1240

I don’t believe that Hillman is a scientific Luddite—not at all—but he perceives the limits of our scientific worldview. Where most of the culture followed Descartes, Hillman hearkens us back to the alternate path pointed out by Vico (among others).

All human evil comes from this, man’s inability to sit still in a room.
Id. 1477-1478

Dry souls are wisest and best.
 Id. 1514-1515

“It seems, as one becomes older, / That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets, which meditates on time, age, and memory, goes on to say, “We had the experience but missed the meaning, / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / In a different form, beyond any meaning.” 
Id. 1602-1606

Anyone quoting and appreciating Pascal, Heraclitus, and Eliot is on the right track.

The willful amnesia afflicting the sciences in general contrasts sharply with the importance given to memory by the humanities. Literature, philosophy, politics, and the visual arts, including photography and filmmaking, feed on memory. Practitioners of the humanities need memory to deepen and refine their thinking. 
Id. 1630-1632

St. Augustine (via Hannah Arendt): Sedis anima est in memoria (The seat of the mind [soul] is in the memory.) Science deludes and cripples itself when operates without an appreciation of history. It lacks depth.

Memory is always first of all imagination, secondarily qualified by time. 
Id. 1645

All the while we are losing acuity, we are intensifying Yeats’s “fantastical eye.” We can spin out from one wild strawberry a whole northern summer, from one tasty tea cake a vast French novel. 
Id. 2033-2035
 Robert Butler, the eminent researcher of old age, makes this telling point about heightened aesthetics in last years: “The elemental things in life— children, plants, nature, human touching (physical and emotional), color, shape— may assume greater significance as people sort out the more important from the less important.” Importance does not result from sensation only, or from simplicity. If it did, we would still prefer sugary childhood candies and the salty goo of fast-food pizza to the subtleties concocted by multistarred chefs. “Importance,” which Alfred North Whitehead placed among the first principles for understanding all human endeavors, governs our choices among values. “Importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite.”
 Id. 2068-2073
Contrition redeems no faults. It is wholly an inward act, relieving guilt to the past by reliving guilt for the past, an appeasement of ghosts. It is not the past that is tempered by contrition, but the gnawing guilt about it. 
Id. 2198-2200

I like the way my favorite philosopher, Plotinus, makes the contrast, because his metaphysical speculations are more psychological. Plotinus says that “the forward path is characteristic of the body”; “the body tend[ s] toward the straight line.” The soul, however, moves in circles. It circles “towards itself, the movement of self-concentrated awareness, of intellection, of the living of its life, reaching to all things so that nothing shall lie outside of it, nothing anywhere but [is] within its scope.” Because of these different kinds of movements, the soul “restrains” the body’s forwardness, says Plotinus. 
Id. 2244-2249

I think that this Plotinus/Hillman insight quite accurate. In my thoughts and interests, I seem to keep circling around something, something that I can’t quite make out, but which acts with a gravitational attraction.

As our bodies shrivel, we become our faces. Feet, hams, arms, and shoulders lose their shapeliness, while the face gains distinction, even beauty. The old naked body is unsightly, yet its naked face is a subject for long contemplation. 
Image result for Image: rembrandt self-portrait
Exhibit A: Rembrandt self-portrait

Have you ever contemplated a late Rembrandt self-portrait?

“After a certain age,” said Proust, “the more one becomes oneself, the more obvious one’s family traits become.” Owning our own faces = becoming more individualized = owning our ancestry. 
Id. 2518-2519

As I’ve aged I’ve often experienced a shock of recognition the mirror. In my youth I looked a lot like my maternal grandfather in his youth, but now I glimpse myself and see more of my father in his old age. How strange and yet revealing.

To be left. This possibility haunts any intimate union, especially the close friendships that marriages often become. 
Id. 2648-2649


I think the true agenda of the old is the agenda of the left: more fairness and less profit; more restoration and less development; community care, not more prescriptions; restoration of nature, not more harvesting from it; less wrangling over Medicare and more genuine nursing; more public transportation, fewer private enclaves; investment in schools to teach the young, not prisons that let them languish; more friendliness with people rather than user-friendly electronics; and peace, not guns. 
Id. 2694-2697
I long ago turned away from my Republican youth. And now I  have less patience with all types of nonsense. Fear drives so much of what we do and believe. Fear of loss of guns –fear of impotency? Fear of taking risks—“Iran might cheat”. Fear of changing the system even a little. Fear of reality—"climate change is irrelevant”—Republican flavor-of-the-week presidential candidate Ben Carson. How dreary!

In [character’s] place a bevy of substitutes appeared: the will, the individual, the subject, the personality, the ego. Each is a way of speaking about a characterless, unified subjective agent. This Objective Observer is what we believe to be our center of consciousness. The substitutes for character come empty. They are deliberately abstract, whereas the old idea of character presented rich and recognizable traits, a crowd of qualities. 
Id. 2760-2763

The one death that has caused so much death in the past century is the death of character. — The corpse invites an autopsy. It is hard, however, to isolate a single cause of death. 
Id. 2775-2777
This is a mighty tall statement, but one that demands careful investigation. If found true, it demands serious change. 

Current deficiencies of character, both as an idea and in behavior, result from epistemology, the study of how we know. If the character of the knower is irrelevant to knowing, or even interferes with truest knowing, then character does not belong within philosophy’s purview. Then knowledge and the methods of gaining knowledge can proceed unhampered by the character of the knower and by issues of value that are inescapably implied by the idea of character. Result: knowledge without value; valueless knowledge, which is euphemistically dubbed “objectivity.” 
Id. 2795-2799

To know the world “out there,” philosophy constructed a knowing subject “in here.” As the world was conceived to be, ultimately, a characterless abstraction of space, time, and motion, so the knower had to be equally transcendent and objectified, that is, shorn of characteristics. The method of knowing the world had to be purified; otherwise our human observations would be all-too-human, qualified by individual subjectivity, merely anecdotal, therefore unreliable, therefore untrue. The ideal human as knower of truth must be a vacant mirror of purified consciousness. 
Id. 2803-2807

Compare the last two quotes with the John Lukacs’s essay “Putting Man Before Descartes” and OwenBarfield's idea of “participation”. I think that all three thinkers are on the same (correct) page.

Adjectives and adverbs are the actual forces at work in perceiving the world and in our behavior. Our speech would return to a correspondence with the world, which does not show a sheer unqualified cloud, a shrub, a mouse, but each cloud shaped, still or moving, related to the land below and to other clouds; each shrub a species and one of a kind; that particular mouse doing its thing in its singular way. Language would be creatively imagined to equal the imagination of the creation. 
Id. 2839-2842

But Stephen King and writing software like Hemingway counsel us to junk the adverbs! Perhaps this is an instance of the (borrowed) injunction: “When you meet the Rule on the road, slay him!” Or perhaps it shows the value of knowing the history of expression. Compare the richness of language and images in Dante and Shakespeare to most contemporary authors, even knowledgeable ones like King. P.S. Brain Pickings shares a piece by Stephen King--using adverbs! 

“The most salient characteristic of most of the languages of the North American Indians is the care they take to express concrete details which our languages leave understood or unexpressed.” 
Id. 2856-2857

This thought is beautifully displayed by meditations on American Indian language contained in Robert Pirsig’s Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

In keeping with a characteristically American priority— judgment before curiosity— we still declare a phenomenon good or bad before we become interested in it. This shelters our innocence from deeper engagement. 
Id. 2917-2919

American Innocence! When will our nation moved beyond adolescence? Not soon enough, I fear. The current election process (vastly extended out from a real election) does not bode well for maturity.

“Grandmothers empowered the human species to become the planet’s dominant animal,” writes Theodore Roszak in his exposition of the “grandmother hypothesis.”  They also carry cultural knowledge.
Id. 3090-3092


Friday, August 28, 2015

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts

First, an apologia. I haven’t completed reading Adam Smith’s The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. I’m reminded of this when I log into goodreads and it inquires about how I’m progressing. (It’s annoying. "I know, I know.") Right now, it’s on the backburner. But it’s not there because it’s not worthwhile (it is), nor because it’s poorly written (it’s not), but because, as Roberts mentions, it’s written in 18th century prose that—for all its beauty—can prove challenging to those of us living in the Age of Twitter. 

In addition to all of that, Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments is only one of many of the Great Books that I haven’t completed. I read a lot, but sometimes it seems like climbing an endless mountain. One must cast aside so many worthy candidates to delve into one. If I’m reading The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, I’m not reading Smith’s more famous An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

All of this brings me to an important point: secondary works, commentaries that riff off the original, provide a valuable service when we can’t manage a complete St. John’s-style—original texts only—reading diet. Is reading a commentary as good as delving into the original? No. But it’s better than no exposure at all. It reminds me of going to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence this summer. I did the audio tour, skipping careful examination of many great works, but with limited time—the ultimate scarce resource—it was the way to go. Thus, with secondary works (more than Cliff Notes, of course) you can follow someone like Roberts as he explores Smith’s work. The quality of the guide can vary. But it’s clear that Roberts has put in the time to qualify as our docent.

So why Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments and why via Russ Roberts? First, Smith.

A sketch of Adam Smith facing to the right
Smith without sunglasses, not in profile
Most recognize Smith as the intellectual father of modern economics via The Wealth of Nations. The “invisible hand” and all that. But The Wealth of Nations was just one end of the spectrum for Smith. His first and last book (in that he revised it up to near the time of his death) is Moral Sentiments. At appears that Smith considered this the more important of the two books. Moral Sentiments deals foremost with our life in face-to-face social circles and how we interact with one another through emotions (“sentiments”). The Wealth of Nations, at the other end, deals more with markets, those places where strangers (at least initially) come together to “truck, barter & exchange”. These insights make Smith one of the founders not just of modern economics, but also of modern social theory that deals with more than just markets.

Russ Roberts, The EconTalker
The other reason that I listened to this book was Russ Roberts. I’ve listened to many episodes of EconTalk that Roberts hosts, and I enjoy it very much. Roberts is a Chicago-trained economist who knows his econ, but he’s also a gracious and inquiring interviewer (his podcast consists of guest interviews). Roberts does a good job, even with guests with whom he disagrees. Not afraid to raise a point of contention, he’s also willing to hear the answer. He provides thoughtful conversation, not entertainment (if you can call people talking past one another entertaining). I sometimes disagree with Roberts, such as on the usefulness of government action (its flaws notwithstanding), on the ability of civil society along to deal appropriately with the mega-institutions of contemporary global capitalism, and on the wisdom and efficacy of sensible Keynesianism*. But I have a strong sense that if we sat down for a chat about politics and economics, we’d both benefit from the conversation, finding more points of agreement than disagreement. Disagreeing without being disagreeable. It’s refreshing.

As to the book itself, it’s a reflection on Smith’s insights into human nature and sociability. Roberts puts Smith’s insights into contemporary contexts and idioms. Smith, despite his bachelor life, developed some terrific insights into how society worked, how people work (their sentiments, emotions), and how people interact. In fact, along with his friend Hume and other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith helped develop theories of sociability and morality that deserve greater consideration. (For the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, read Garry Wills’s Inventing America. These Scots, more than Locke, provided the intellectual foundations of Jefferson’s thought.) Smith was not an ideologue of individualism—far from it. Instead, he always located the individual within his or her interactions with others. Roberts explores these themes, teasing out their contemporary manifestations and applications. It’s a well-written, entertaining, and enlightening introduction to this neglected aspect of Smith’s work.

My guilt at not having read Moral Sentiments is assuaged by the fact that Roberts, well into a career as an econ professor, admits to having read the work only relatively recently. And now with his book, Roberts has helped take a bit more of my sting of shame away.

Postscript: I listened to this book instead of having read it. It was on my reading list (such a long list and still growing!), but serendipity struck by way of a sale offer on Audible. Listening works well for this book, but I have to say that despite the fine reading, I was disappointed not to have Roberts reading it. After having listened to so many of his podcasts, and with his relaxed manner—not as folksy as Garrison Keillor—but still with an inviting air, it would have been good to have Roberts read it. But as it was, I simply substituted his voice in my head as I listened.

*For a fun example of Roberts’s fairness, watch the brilliant videos of Keynes and Hayek that (among other things) poke fun at the perpetual sense of inferiority that Hayek and Hayekians feel about Keynes, Hayek’s Nobel notwithstanding.

(That is what’s going on, right?) 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Fat Chance by Dr. Robert Lustig, M.D.

Few topics are as fraught with controversy as diet. Everyone has one (whether recognized as such or
not), and most everyone has a high degree of confidence that their chosen diet is The Right One. However, most everyone knows that we’re suffering from a pandemic of obesity that continues to grow (literally) and that threatens to shorten life expectancy in the next generation. If you don’t trust statistics about this burgeoning problem, then fly around the world and see for yourself. At airports, it’s easy to spot people likely to be Americans: we’re No. 1—in waist girth and fat fannies. And to make matters worse, the rest of the world is catching up quickly. While most Indians and Chinese remain slender, the younger and wealthier among them are getting bigger and puffier, including more and more kids.

So what do we do about it? We can safely say that we don’t lack for advice. Diet and health books and articles abound. And they all seem to contradict one another. From vegan to Primal/Paleo, from low-fat to low-carb, from Pritikin to Ornish to Atkins we’ve been told, “This is the true path”. We’ve seen villains come and go: fat, salt, meat, carbs—just about everything edible will either kills us or save us. (Which is probably true, but that’s diving to a really deep level.) So what’s a person to do? Keep inquiring.

I’ve been reading books of fitness and nutrition for a long time. I’ve always been interested in how the human body works, how to improve performance, and I aspire to die young when I’m old. Thus, I’ve tried diet experiments of all sorts, including a stint as a vegetarian and fasting. The vegetarian thing was too boring to continue (I love a good steak), but occasional fasting remains a part of my repertoire, albeit not used enough. I’ve read John Robbins of Healthy at 100 (vegan-ish), Colin Campbell of The China Study (meat is the culprit), and Pritikin and Ornish pieces (very low fat—fat bad). I’ve also read in the Paleo/Primal world of Art De Vany and Mark Sisson (among others), and I’ve read Gary Taubes (Good Calories, Bad Calories), who comes down close to the Paleo/Primal perspective. (Taubes's perspective comes mostly from scientific studies for the last two centuries and anthropologic data more than from an evolutionary viewpoint.) I’ve also learned from bio-hacker Dave Asprey (The Bulletproof Diet) and Dr. Peter Atilla, an N=1 student of a ketogenic diet.

I don’t follow any one lead strictly, although the Paleo/Primal, and lower-carb perspectives guide my current train of thought and practice (with some grains and some dairy—who’s perfect?). And I live in China, home of rice and of wheat noodles. Yet, for some reason, I couldn’t resist reading Lustig’s book, although I feared it would only add to my uncertainty and create a risk of dietary nihilism. 

I’m happy to report that I’m glad I read the book and that as a result, I’ve altered my diet. 

Dr. Lustig. Note the cup.
Some may recognize Lustig’s name for his viral YouTube video, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth". (Viral by health and diet standards, anyway. We’re talking 5,856,147 viewings; we’re not talking “Gangnam Style” (239,582,696 viewings) or “What Does the Fox Say?” (537,697,900 viewings) —priorities, right?) Or perhaps you’ve seen or heard about his “60 Minutes” interview. But now he’s written a book, and it’s the most comprehensive look at the obesity epidemic that I’ve seen or could imagine.  

Let me warn you if you’re going to read this book: it covers everything from biochemistry to public policy—and rightly so, because it’s all a part of the understanding the challenge of rampant obesity. So brush off your Krebs cycle cobwebs and put on your political scientist hat to read this. Just kidding! Don’t panic. Dr. Lustig, aiming at a general audience, doesn’t presume you know the process of the Krebs cycle or that you have your degree in biochemistry. He explains it all very well for the lay person. Ditto with the public policy. It’s a matter of clear conceptual thinking and understanding the incentives, and he does just as well in this field as he does with the biochemistry and endocrinology.

In making the rounds with Dr. Lustig, the first thing that you learn is that a calorie is not just a calorie, something that I’d learned earlier from Gary Taubes’s brilliant Good Calories, Bad Calories. A gram of protein, of fat, or of carbohydrate is not just a measure of energy (calorie), but a complex chemical that serves as a signal to the body. In other words, the body responds differently to fats than to proteins than to carbs. Put simply, based on evolution and the uncertain and often sparse food environment in which humans evolved, we developed the capability to store sugars (as in fruit) as fat when it exceeded our immediate energy needs. Insulin, which regulates sugars, prompts the body to store excess sugars as fat. Essential for survival in the wild. A killer in the convenience store. 

The other key biochemical and physiological fact is that fructose (the sweetness in any sugar) is a potential problem. It’s found in any fruit off the vine or tree, honey, processed cane sugar (table sugar), high-fructose corn syrup, and every other natural sweetener. As Dr. Lustig writes: “Finally, we come to the Voldemort of the dietary hit list: the sweet molecule in sugar. If it’s sweet, and it’s caloric, it’s fructose.” Lustig, Robert H. (2012-12-27). Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (p. 100). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. And what’s so bad about fructose? When we consume fructose, especially in large quantities as we are wont to do today, and it isn’t needed right away for energy, it's stored as fat (via insulin, the fat-storage hormone). The more sugar we eat, the more fat we create. (Starches, glucose without fructose, do something similar, but as Lustig puts it, starches will make you fat, but they won’t make you sick.) 

Here’s where a difficult problem that has long perplexed me (and I imagine others) becomes resolved. As I mentioned above, there are all sorts of diets, including some that have survived the test of time (i.e., not just fads) that seem to contract one another, but they have one common trait. Lustig decodes the dietary Rosetta Stone: 

Can low-fat and low-carb diets both be right? Or both wrong? What do the Atkins diet (protein and fat), the Ornish diet (vegetables and whole grains), and the traditional Japanese diet (carbohydrate and protein) have in common? On the surface they seem to be diametrically opposite. But they all have one thing in common: they restrict sugar. Every successful diet in history restricts sugar. Sugar is, bar none, the most successful food additive known to man. When the food industry adds it for “palatability,” we buy more. And because it’s cheap, some version of sugar appears in virtually every processed foodstuff now manufactured in the world. Sugar, and specifically fructose, is the Lex Luthor of this story.
Id. 117-118

By the way, if you thinking “Oh, damn! No fruit?” you’re like me. But Lustig points out that fruit—real fruit—always comes with fiber. And fiber prevents all that fructose from flooding into the body. But beware! Orange juice and other fruit drinks—even 100% fruit—along with “juiced” fruits that destroy the fiber, can provide a fructose jolt even greater than a can of Coke. 

There’s much, much more about the physiology of food and the biochemistry of obesity and its evil off-spring, metabolic syndrome, but I want to skip over that here to share another aspect of the book that proved compelling. 

Lustig emphasizes that obesity is not a matter of sloth and gluttony, as we’re often inclined to think. Lustig notes that we have a number of seats at what he terms “the table of blame” for obesity, with different “guests” having different degrees of culpability. While gluttony and sloth are usually seated at the head of the table commensurate with our individualistic culture and cult of “personal responsibility”, seats are also provided for:
  • the health insurance industry (“obesity is not a disease”); 
  • the medical profession (simple: eat less and exercise more);
  •  the “obesity profiteers” (selling diet books and plans); 
  • “fat activists” (it’s okay to be fat, “make bigger seats”); 
  • the commercial food industry (more food, more profits); and
  •  the federal government (keep crop prices high to please farmers; recommend a diet with lots of cheap carbs). 

Quite a list of suspects.  And all guilty in some measure, but not in the order that you may think. 

Lustig discounts sloth and gluttony as factors. This seems based on the fact that he’s a pediatrician and he can’t see blaming kids for their obesity. In fact, some obesity is the result of purely physiological defects in the body, such as a congenital lack of a hormone. But whatever the source, Lustig emphasizes that hormones drive behavior. And our outside environment shapes our hormonal environment (inside our body). “Biochemistry and hormones drive our behavior”. Id. 34. (If you doubt this, please consider a near-by teenager.) Lustig then expands our horizon: “The obesity pandemic is due to our altered biochemistry, which is a result of our altered environment.” Id. 30.

In the second part of the book especially, Lustig comes to grip with the fact that the worldwide obesity pandemic is a public health problem that screams for public policy remedies, but these remedies encounter the reality of political economics. Lustig discards the still-reigning paradigm of the rational, freely choosing individual as the model of decision-making. As Lustig notes, have you ever met a rational addict? Instead, he focuses on the larger environment of the political economy. (His insights reinforce my maxim that all economics is really political economy; that is, all decisions arise from within a framework shaped by political decisions and social habits created outside of market mechanisms.) Think about it: farmers are paid to grow corn and beans to supply all kinds of processed food (especially after the advent of high-fructose corn syrup). Food companies don’t make money selling raw fruits and veggies. They sell convenient, “tasty”, “low-fat” (extra sugar) foods at almost every street corner (including where we live in China). How do we continually say “no” in this environment? One can (I’m on it now), but it takes energy to say “no” to constant temptation. It’s the way of contemporary consumer capitalism. Lustig identifies the political and economic pressures that make eating healthy (i.e., real food) so challenging. He acknowledges that poor neighborhoods often only have access to a “convenience store” and a McDonald’s. When a mom arrives home late from work and the kids are hungry and cranky, what’s she going to do? Lustig sorts all of these issues out very well, and he isn’t afraid to mark sacred cows for extermination, although he’s enough of a realist to know that change will only come slowly. 

The depth and breadth of this book is truly amazing. It’s written by someone who writes as a scientist for non-scientists, combing the two registers with ease. For your own well-being and that of your loved ones, as well as to satisfy your scientific curiosity, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. 

And I have to admit—with some shame—that I’m glad that I read this book after our trip to Italy and all that delicious gelato. I’m on the sugar wagon now, but—Oh!—what a sweet farewell!

P.S. If you don't have time now to read the book, you might read "Is Sugar Toxic" by Gary Taubes. The article opens with a consideration of Lustig's work. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall

What do the following have in common?

·         LeBron James
·         Brazil
·         Arthur Evans
·         Patrick Leigh Fermor
·         Tom Myers
·         Fairbairn & Sykes
·         Shanghai
·         Pankration (Greek)
·         George Hebert
·         Norina Bentzel
·         Xan Fielding
·         The Minotaur
·         Wing Chun
·         Steve Maxwell
·         The Arizona desert
·         John Pendleberry
·         a glass eye
·         Fritz Schubert, a/k/a “the Turk”
·         Erwan Le Corre
·         Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller
·         Dr. Phil Maffetone
·         Dwight Howard
·         William Banting
·         Hitler
·         Churchill
·         Crete

If you had a difficult time discerning connections, don’t feel badly about it (although the last three items provide a strong indication of one topic). These topics—among dozens of other possible examples—are tied together in the two books written by Chris McDougall as one book: Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance (2015). In this book, McDougall examines the German invasion and subsequent resistance movement on Crete during WWII. British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents aided the Cretans during the occupation. These tales provide the central core of the book. Around this central core—fascinating and cinematic in its own right--McDougall constructs a second book about human performance from ancient Minoan culture to contemporary Parkour. In lesser hands this could have resulted in a mess, but as McDougall displayed in another favorite book of mine, Born to Run, he can weave and integrate stories as a master. The end result is a delightfully fun and entertaining book. 
Christopher McDougall. Notice the bare feet

The story of the invasion of Crete and the Cretan resistance probably isn’t well known among Americans, but it includes some incredible tales. Certainly the most astonishing feat—anywhere—involved successfully kidnapping a German general. The heist was conducted by British agents, led by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Cretan resistance-fighters (and a largely sympathetic populace). Some may recognize Fermor as among the best English prose stylists of the 20th century. His books include an account of his walk across Europe starting in 1933 (as a teenager) as well as accounts of Greece, monastic life, and the Caribbean. But one topic that he did not write at length about (other than in official reports) was his part in successfully kidnapping the German general and getting the general off the island of Crete to Egypt. (If you think that this begs for a movie, it spawned one long ago: “Ill Met ByMoonlight” (or “Night Ambush”), starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor. Bogarde, by the way, was a dashing British film star of his era. Billy Moss, one of Fermor’s accomplices in the exploit, wrote the book.)

The film version with Bogarde as Fermor

The actual kidnappers of General Kreipe: Georgios Tyrakis, William Stanley Moss, Leigh Fermor, Emmanouil Paterakis and Antonios Papaleonidas

 But McDougall wanted to write a book about human performance, also. And so in recounting this tale of adventure—with lots of James Bond-like suave from the Brits—he also dives into the issue of how these men, Cretans and Britons, could have mastered such as harsh terrain while eluding capture by the forces of “The Butcher”, the other German general on the island. This tale of extraordinary human performance allows McDougall to tell about Brits learning to survive in the harsh Shanghai underworld of the early 20th century; about how the Frenchman George Hebert developed and trained people to survive and thrive using nature as a training ground; about how Erwan Le Corre resurrected Hebert’s genius and brought it into the 21st century; about how Tom Myers revealed that the fascia (connective tissue) provides the architecture and elastic energy that powers the human body; and about how Parkour demonstrates practical application of Myers’s insights about the elastic energy of the fascia. McDougall also hunted down the reclusive Phil Maffetone to learn about how he revolutionized diet and training techniques for distance runners like Stu Mittleman along lines that Paleo/Primal adherents will recognize as kindred thinking. And McDougall relates how distance running guru Dr. Timothy Noakes, the high priest of high-carb for distance runners, underwent a conversion of Pauline-like intensity to embrace a low-carb, high-fat “Banting” diet. (“I was quite wrong. Sorry, everyone.”) 

I could go on at great length about this book because it contains so many different angles, so many intriguing side-stories. But I will stop here to and sum it all up by saying that I found the book great fun. It provided well-told stories about fascinating stuff (WWII history and human performance are among my favorite topics), but even if you don’t’ share my predilections, I believe that most readers would enjoy this book. 

Side note: Because I didn’t read Born to Run but listened to it twice, I decide to listen to Natural Born Heroes. Alas, the listening experience was not as good. Mostly because the reader attempted—rather poorly—too many accents: British, Greek, American, French, and so on. He mastered none. Perhaps you’d have to get Meryl Streep or resurrect Olivier to do it right. In addition, because there was so much information, so much learning, I bought the book for my Kindle for my second and later readings.