the other theo

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

Category: Books

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.


First Adventures in A-B-C

The Peanut has an obsession for the written word lately.   As his verbal skills increase, he seems equally determined to learn more about the written word and speak those written words aloud (as our recent experience with Candy Crush attests.)   The Missus and I have encouraged this exploration whenever possible;  with the developmental apraxia we want to open as many avenues for communication as we can.  We include the Peanut in the reading of bedtime stories like Goodnight Moon by making him finish phrases or sentences by speaking aloud instead of us.

There are small signs that these efforts are paying off.  I sometimes let the Peanut watch an episode or two of Chuggington (his favorite) on Netflix while the Missus is at the gym in the morning.  Since he picked up most of the numbers below 20 several months ago, I can ask him which episode he wants to watch and he usually answers with a number.   Most often it’s 1 because he likes to binge watch from the beginning of seasons, at least until this morning.   Today, I asked what episode he wanted to watch and he said “Snowstruck Wilson” in a fairly firm, clear voice (Season 2, Episode 1.)

The Peanut also upped his game in another way this morning.  The Peanut insisted on constructing this, based entirely on his own initiative:


It took a while, with some anxiety along the way, and he needed some help to get it to look right.

Here’s how it happened:  the Peanut got some new wooden train cars, buildings, and track yesterday and was playing with them on the Pakastani rug with have in the living room.   He asked me to name the types of each of the freight cars in the train a couple times, much as we do for one of the trains in Trains, one of his favorite bedtime books.   After doing that for second or third time, he suddenly got up and went to his room.   I then heard the Missus saying “Peanut, what are you doing with that?   Peanut, why are you taking it to the living room?” from one of the back bedrooms with no answer.   I then turned around to see that he was bringing his collection of alphabet blocks to the living room.

Once he got them to the Pakastani rug, he immediately started getting individual blocks and laid them out in this pattern:


I pretty quickly got the idea that he was spelling out “train” but got one of the letters wrong (which I fixed).  After telling the Missus about this, I returned to the living room and he was trying to spell out something else, but was getting frustrated because he couldn’t find the letters he needed.   I asked him what he was trying to spell, and he said something like “arton”.  Since he has trouble saying “b” sounds, I pretty quickly got the idea and added an “S” to the “TRAIN”.

Knowing that the Missus made up a bunch of laminated paper letters a while back to help him learn the alphabet, I immediately started to looking around for those.   I eventually found them on top of a nearby media cabinet.   Once I did, I tried laying them down on the floor in a mess to get the Peanut to spell “Barton” but the Peanut seemed put off because they weren’t the same as the blocks.  He also kept pointing to an empty spot on the floor and saying something that sounded kind of like the word “by”.

I decided to take a different tack after a couple minutes.  I went to his room and found the book.  Maybe he wanted me to read it to him?   A small amount of frustration followed once I returned to the living room.   No, reading it was not what the Peanut wanted to do.   I put the book down on the floor and picked up all the paper letters.

Once I did, the Peanut looked the cover and began his spelling efforts again.  He immediately started taking blocks and spelled out “B Y R” under “TRAINS”.   Aha!  I helped him find an “O” but we were unable to find another “N” (it’s on the other side of the “A” block).   Another small amount of frustration on the Peanut’s part followed.

Finally, I got the paper letters out again and this time they were well received.   Once I pulled an “N” out of the pile, the Peanut placed it after the “O”.  After that, I tried to locate the next letter that the Peanut needed and he would pick it up, check the spelling on the cover of the book, and then put it in the right place.

Once we finished spelling out the title and author of the book, the Peanut had me read the book to him and all was smiles.

Go Set A Mockingbird

I’ve been reading a lot about the “new” Harper Lee novel, Go Set A Watchman, this week.   There appears to be a lot of hand wringing going on that boils down to “Dear Harper, what do you mean that Atticus Finch was really a racist all this time?   How could you do that to me?  I love me my Atticus and my To Kill A Mockingbird!”

Like many, many people, I was assigned to read To Kill A Mockingbird in school… in the 9th grade, if memory serves.  I treasure those memories.  I treasure seeing Gregory Peck play Atticus in the film adaptation.   Half of my ancestry comes from the Deep South, and the book confirms my personal experience from knowing people from there and visiting people there that it is a land populated with many different sorts of persons.  Some are better, some worse, and some are found more frequently, others more rarely.  That someone like the Atticus of Mockingbird could exist, I do not doubt… though when not seen through the eyes of a young girl (or an older woman reflecting on that young girl’s experiences), we might be a little surprised at the compromises that a more complex, layered reality might force that Atticus to make.

I haven’t decided if I will read Go Set A Watchman, but I know I will need to re-read Mockingbird first.

I also know that I do not consider the two books to exist in exactly the same fictional universe.   Though there evidently was talk at the publisher about making Watchman into the last book of a trilogy beginning with Mockingbird, the manuscript that comes down to us is not written or edited to be that book.   What comes to us is a first novel, a novel that the publisher did not feel was good enough for publication, but showed enough promise to continue working with the writer on revising the premise.  Those revisions took something on the order of two years, borrowed names, characters, places and some incidents from the original novel, but like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, they became something else.

I am not a fiction writer, but I’ve written enough (including technical papers, white papers, a 150 page Ph.D dissertation) to feel like I know something about writing.  I strongly suspect that the first manuscript taught Ms. Lee a lot, and the writer she was at the end of that novel (or her collaboration with her editor Tay Hohoff) was not the one that existed at the start.   So the tale she wanted to tell, and the characters she used to tell it, changed as Watchman became Mockingbird.   For me, Atticus is not Atticus and Jean Louise is not Scout.

I suspect I shall eventually read it.  I am generally taken with the beginnings and origins of things.  Reading Watchman is like going into the hills above the Dead Sea and finding an alternate version of some story from the Bible on a scroll in a cave.  Does it affect what I learned from the Bible?  No.  Does it teach me about what was on the minds of the writers of the Bible?  Definitely.

The Tale of Two Tales: My Thoughts Concerning Winter’s Tale (The Motion Picture)

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a motion picture called Winter’s Tale.  This is how it ended:

Peter Lake, a thief and mechanic mysteriously transported from Manhattan at the turn of the 20th Century to present day Manhattan by falling from the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River, fights his former patron Pearly Soames, crime boss and (secretly) demon in league with Satan (played by Will Smith), in front of the Summer Cottage of the Penn family at the Lake Of The Coheeries in Upstate New York.   Peter defeats Pearly by driving a lump of metal through his skull, and lays a recently deceased Abigail Gamely in a special bed in the house constructed by Willa Penn to save Peter’s true love Beverly Penn (Willa’s sister) a century earlier from consumption.   While the bed did not work for Beverly, it now works for Abigail and miraculously cures her cancer and brings her back to life.   Peter Lake then gets on his white horse named Athansor (also transported forward in time) and rides into the heavens to join the spirit of Beverly in the stars.

Once upon a time, about 30 years ago, there was a novel called Winter’s Tale.   This is how it ended:

Peter Lake, a thief and mechanic transported from Manhattan at the turn of the 20th Century to Manhattan at the turn of the Millennium by falling off his flying horse Athansor into a mysterious Cloud Wall existing outside space and time that appears just outside New York Harbor, fights his former patron Pearly Soames, crime boss brought forward in time with his gang the Shirt Tails as a cosmic balance to Peter’s growing supernatural powers, in Manhattan as three things happen:  all of New York City burns in a millennial reckoning that will re-make the city through a crucible of fire, a Promethean figure named Jackson Mead attempts to throw a bridge of light from the City to Heaven, and Hardesty Marratta and Virginia Gamely Marratta journey to a graveyard on one of the outer islands of the City where her daughter Abigail was recently buried after dying from a mysterious illness.  Pearly defeats Peter, who has become the registrar for the faces of all the lost, forgotten dead children of the City in a miraculous vision, by ramming a sword through his shoulder at the collar bone down through his torso.   As Peter dies, he sees his wounded horse, who also fell through the Cloud Wall, escape the Shirt Tails, leave the the bounds of the Earth, and fly to heaven.   Jackson Mead’s attempt to throw the bridge fails, but Peter’s sacrifice causes a change to the cosmic order, redeems the City, turns the Cloud Wall gold, and brings Abigail to life just as her parents dig her up.   Pearly lives on in the new, changed Manhattan in reduced influence and circumstance because a good, just city cannot exist without the balancing existence of evil.

Hollywood tried, honestly.  It was a valiant effort.  It took someone with talent to even make the attempt, though some questionable choices (like Will Smith) were made.  They just couldn’t come close in three hours, and failed miserably.