the other theo

There is no dark side of the moon really… as a matter of fact, it's all dark.

Month: August, 2015

habeas verum corpus

Though I am sometimes rather insecure about it, having lost over 30 pounds and mostly kept it off means that I am someone who has done a somewhat rare thing: I transformed by body and made the changes stick.

I have an online friend who has transformed herself in the last few years too.   She got in shape and just ran her first marathon earlier this year after a long period of dealing with health problems that made fitness difficult.

So when she mentioned that a book named Body Of Truth by Harriet Brown was one of the most important books about nutrition and weight that she’d read in 2015, I thought I should give it a look.    Looking at the dust jacket, the book purports to be about “How Science, History, and Culture Drive OUR OBSESSION WITH WEIGHT — and What We Can Do About It”.    That certainly sounded interesting… an exploration of how modern food production in the 20th century, cultural concepts of beauty, and ideas of food science interacted to produce a society forever striving to be thinner seemed like fertile ground for important discussion.

The book is all that to some degree or another, but with a much more immediate and personal focus from the author.  She’s a woman who battled with food most of her life, and watched her daughter battle with serious anorexia as a teen.   This is a woman for whom simple scolding about weight and talk of the latest fad diets will not produce any kind of sympathetic reaction.   She’s fairly up front about this, which is good, because her personal experiences and attitudes very much drive the content and tone of the book.

The thesis of her book can be boiled down to a few sentences:  social and medical attitudes about weight loss are causing real hurt in America today.   Calling someone fat is considered to be a horrible insult by many people, possibly the worst insult that can be made, but the insult is spoken everywhere.  It is synonymous with physical and moral weakness, laziness, and turpitude.   It is as if, after the Sexual Revolution, society took all the prudery once reserved for sex and transferred it to food.    It also says that science and medicine jumped into this morass and offered little in the way of effective solutions.   Diets, at least in the popular sense, do not work long term.  Shame is causing harm, even to the point that some doctors appear to attribute their patient’s maladies simply to being “fat” or “overweight” without looking further.  Drugs and operations are drastic solutions whose long term outcomes are not well understood.    There needs to be another way.

If all this sounds provocative, it is also well-documented.   Within a book of just less than 250 pages; aside from footnotes, there are 36 pages reserved for additional end notes and a selected bibliography.  Ms. Brown has done her homework, collected research, done primary source interviews, and notated pretty much everything.

Yet for all that, I do take some issue with her approach:

  • She seems to lament the weakness of the scientific results, but she does fully state that those weak results are due to the nature of statistical analyses.   Statistics can point at a “what” but rarely describe a “how”.  The health science behind smoking is an illustrative case.   Statistical studies showed that smokers had much higher incidence of cancer, emphysema, and heart disease than non-smokers.  These conditions killed people.  That showed what was happening, which was an important public health reason to suggest that people don’t smoke.  It said nothing about why smoking caused any of those conditions (which turned out to combination of things — tar clogs the lungs, nicotene and carbon monoxide stress the heart.)  It was also a very strong result and was easy to separate the signal from the noise.  Nutrition is a more subtle problem where it’s much harder to separate signal from noise.  Everyone eats.  It’s impractical to put large numbers of people on controlled diets for a long time.  That makes the “what” harder to detect.  So, it would be useful to know more about the “how” in order to judge how big the “what” is.  Statistics don’t provide that answer.
  • She tends to paint some legitimate science questions as silly.  She spends the first couple of chapters of the book discussing the statistical relationships between weight and life expectancy.   She sets up a hero in Katherine Flegal, whose research shows that there is little in the way of connection between BMI and life expectancy.   She also creates a number of villains, including one of Flegal’s frequent critics, Walter Willet.   Willet’s research produces a result that is opposite to that of Flegal, and Brown faults Willet for deleting “not only anyone who every smoked but also anyone with a history of cancer or heart disease, ultimately eliminating nearly 80 percent of the deaths” in the data sets he uses as a source for his research.   The way that Brown initially puts it, that deletion makes no sense and makes her point.   As someone trained in science, I see it a little differently. If you want to understand the seriousness of the effect of BMI on health, you want to eliminate people who are dying from other obvious causes — causes that have little or nothing to do with BMI — from your study.   If a lot people are dying from heart disease, cancer, or smoking-related health problems by some age (say 40), that could be masking deaths due to BMI-related health problems by a later age (say 50.)   That makes BMI-related health issues something that happens later but possibly not less severe when it hits.  Brown uses other researchers to eventually bring some of that point out, but it also makes Willet sound illogical and arbitrary on a point that is a legitimate scientific question.
  • She also complains more than once that researchers like Willet seem to show a lot of ego and treat all this rather personally.   The bio on the dust jacket says Brown is an associate professor of magazine journalism at Syracuse University.   Does she meet with the faculty of other disciplines on campus at all?   In my personal experience of 13 years as a student in higher education, ego is not a characteristic lacking in university faculty.   Professors and university researchers are paid to have opinions, and (due to tenure) are given lifetime employment in order to insulate them from the consequences of their opinions.  They’re not often paid terrific amounts of money.  The key features of their jobs are the ability to create standing through thorough and reproducible science and their integrity.  Attacks on research can easily be taken personally.   Professors in the same department who work in the same field sometimes don’t talk to each other, if they can help it.   It happens.  It’s the nature of the beast.
  • She seems to expect that science experts live like cloistered religious or as saints.  She berates the scientific establishment for working with industry and taking money for research.   Who else is supposed to advise industry?  How is research supposed to be funded?  Money can have a corrosive influence because profitable solutions are not always the best ones.  Brown’s documentation suggests that the establishment needs to take another approach.  Ships are slow to turn.  Scientific ideas change, sometimes slowly. The first internationally regarded scientist to emigrate from Europe to the United States in the 19th century was an expert in phrenology and scientific racism.   Science does not generally countenance such ideas today.

So what do I think of the book?  It’s  tough read in parts, and though I have weight problems, it opened my eyes to how people with high BMI, especially women, are treated and generally shamed, constantly.  It’s not a book for the faint-hearted.   It’s also not a book with a lot of answers.   That’s not its purpose, and it’s not the state of nutritional science at the moment.   It does represent a good and mostly honest attempt by a non-scientist to understand the science.   The documentation is excellent.


The $250 Rubber Band

Summer is a season of unexpected repair bills this year.   Our gas clothes dryer suddenly burned out a coil and a relay in June.  One of our cars started accumulating water in the driver’s foot well in July.  Our dishwasher stopped working at some point on Sunday night or Monday morning.   The incident with the dryer took about a week to resolve (parts were ordered and a follow up appointment required for installation) and the car was about three weeks (two separate visits to the garage, plus most of a week for parts to arrive.)   We resolved the dishwasher incident in less than 36 hours.  I’m happy for that, but I wish that it didn’t cost so much.

The story of the dishwasher began yesterday at around 4am, when the Peanut came down the hall and woke me up.   After two HOT days (almost as Neil Simon would say “Africa hot”), the two air conditioners in two bedrooms of our house were running all night.   In the case of the one in the Peanut’s bedroom, it was doing too good a job because he was actually cold.   I led him back to his bed, turned off the A/C, and covered him up a little.   Since I generally wake up around 5am these days to go to the gym, I had trouble going back to sleep and decided to watch a little TV.   When I got to the living room, I immediately detected an off odor in the house.   It wasn’t exactly a burning smell, but it seemed related.   My first thought was that the air conditioners were over taxing the wiring of the house… but that could not be.   The wiring of our house runs through the attic, which is full of wood, fiber glass batting, and paper-backed wall board dried by decades of hot summers.   Nothing up there would smolder.   It’s too dry and crispy for that.  If something was failing and could burn, it would be burning… and quickly.    So, I put it down to smoke from forest fires elsewhere in the state (which made the air hazy and smokey over the weekend,) tried to air the house out while it was still cool outside, and thought nothing of it.

Fast forward to around 7am, and I returned from the gym and started to get breakfast ready.   I figured I would use clean dishes from the dishwasher instead of using something else.   I opened the dishwasher door to discover 1-2″ of murky water in the bottom.   After two hours of siphoning dirty water (with occasional and unwelcome help from the Peanut — he loves transferring water from one container to another) and another of cleaning still dirty dishes, plus half an hour of inspecting the dishwasher, I decided that this was one nut I didn’t want to crack myself.   Thankfully, our experience with the dryer back in June brought us to a trustworthy appliance repair company.

That brings me to today, where I had to spend $250 because of a rubber band.


A rubber band fell into the dishwasher and got tangled in the blue impeller of the drain pump.   It eventually wrapped itself around the spindle behind the impeller and was pulled behind the white plastic plate you see above.   There, it acted like a rubber friction brake and burned the motor out.    That was the smell in the air yesterday morning.

So, it was a flat $80 fee for the repairman to show up, an additional $70 flat fee for any repair requiring parts, $90 for a new OEM motor, and $10 tax on the part.   The repairman had the necessary part on the truck, so total repair time was less than one hour.

Going To The Shore

I learned this morning that my sister and my nephew are enjoying a few days down at the Jersey Shore.

That happened to trigger some fairly memories of my own youth.   My parents somehow discovered this hotel called the Diamond Beach Resort just south of the city limits of Wildwood Crest, NJ, almost wedged up against a US Coast Guard training center.

We went there a couple times.  It had to be in the late 70’s because I remember wearing a Hildebrandt Bros. Star Wars movie poster ringer tee on at least one of the trips.  I also recall marveling at the utility of the air conditioning in my parents’ new 1977 Chevrolet Impala station wagon in the humid summer heat, after years of driving in their mid-60’s Oldsmobile F85 station wagon with black vinyl seats that lacked such conveniences.

A series of disjoint experiences come to mind.   Walking out into the waves with my Dad.   Early morning walks along the beach with my parents, feeling hermit crabs in a sandy tide pool occasionally nip at my toes.   Swimming in the hotel pool… possibly going into a hotel pool for the first time ever.   Flying a kite on the beach.  Collecting shells.  Finding a living dinner plate-sized horseshoe crab and bringing it back to the hotel room for a short stay in the sink of the room’s kitchenette.   Visiting the boardwalk and being utterly scared by my first rollercoaster ride.   Going to dinner down the coast in Cape May, where my Dad (or was it all of us?) got these marvelous looking steamed crabs that he ate on newspaper at the table.

As I have become more interested (or nostalgic) for the architecture and artifacts of the mid-20th Century world into which I was born, one memory sticking out more and more is the motel architecture around Wildwood.   Colorful and delightfully different and the same at the same time, it was wholly fitting that I also learned today (coincidentally) that the remaining motels of that type that were somehow saved from re-development are on the National Register of Historic Places and are known as the Doo Wop Motels:


You can learn more about the Doo Wop motels here

As for the Diamond Beach Resort and its neighboring club/venue the Playpen, they fell to redevelopment wrecking ball sometime in the 80’s, as far as the Internet can tell me.   That’s fine.  I don’t expect to live life in a museum.  It’s nice to have the memories.

Maybe we should take the Peanut to the beach before the summer completely ends.   It’s a different ocean, but I’m sure he’ll still have fun.

Turning the ship around

I am pleased to report that I’ve now lost about 5 pounds since I last wrote about my weight loss almost two months ago.  I managed to increase the intensity of my daily workouts, and working out feels very good right now.   I can feel a change in the muscle groups of my lower body — both in terms of their size and shape as well as how they respond to exercise.  I’ve also managed to get my eating and portion sizing under control without feeling like I’m denying myself much.   Most important from an emotional standpoint (and probably least important as a practical matter,) I’ve blown past a weight number where my weight loss traditionally stopped before last year.

My doctor ran a lipid panel and glucose tests on my blood a few weeks ago, and while the results aren’t as stellar those of 18 months ago, they look pretty good.   Some are just above what’s considered a healthy range, and some are in the range.   We’ll have to see what the numbers look like next year.

Weight loss during the last three months was slow at first.   The scale did not change much at all during in the 4-6 weeks before my last posting on the subject.   Some time in early-to-mid-July, I started to notice changes in how my clothes were fitting and the reading on the scale started to drop.   I am weighing myself before I exercise in the morning, but I’m not recording the values.   I keep thinking that the information would be useful to look at later… but I never get around to it.   Is there a fitness iPhone app for that?

This puts me about one third of the way toward my first fitness goal; losing another 5 pounds would be nice, and another 10 pounds is the target.  The second, and more important, fitness goal of keeping off that lost weight… I’m not sure where I am with that.

In any case, I feel like changing your level of fitness is like turning a large ship.   Even after you’ve started turning the wheel, it takes a while to see the course changing.   I think my change is under way.