J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Month: February 2010

The Inefficacy of Using Physical Objects as Reminder Flags

Last week I stayed at my friend’s place in Seattle — a sort of writing retreat to work on my novel.  I made huge progress on the book, took long walks in some of the area old-growth forests, ate fantastic food, and relaxed — a good week.

My friend, in addition to being a gracious host (he might even qualify as a patron of the arts — we’ll see how my book turns out), is one of the neatest people I know.  Not neat as in neato, but neat as in meticulously clean.  His house is spotless.  Granted, I arrived minutes after the housekeeper had cleaned the place, but it’s obvious he’s organized and keeps his house in order.

Really?

This is something I aspire to.  Coming home, I immediately started cleaning our place — after you’ve been away you see your own abode (and its grime) with fresh eyes.  With a toddler in the house, cleaning feels like running up the down escalator — as I’m scrubbing the countertops she’s scattering playing cards on the floor; as I’m picking up the playing cards she’s leaving a trail of cheese crumbs in another room.  Still, at the moment, the house looks and feels pretty clean.

All this got me thinking about stuff, and how we process stuff in our lives.  The idea in particular I was thinking about — I think it’s from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done — is that it’s almost always a BAD idea to put or leave something on your desk or workspace as a reminder that you need to do something about it.

Unless you have a freakishly low number of things that you need to do in your life (that makes me think of Doris Lessing’s creepy story “To Room Nineteen”) then using the “put it there so I remember” method will lead to nothing except a messy desk.  In the more severe cases, this method can lead to a kind of personal geology; strata of object/to-do-item matrices teetering in unstable stacks.  After the initial layer becomes visually obscured, the “reminder” function ceases to operate and the entire layer devolves into undifferentiated junk.

Not my wife's desk.

What is the alternative?  My wife, frustrated with her own less-than-orderly workspace, happened to ask me that very question this morning.  (As an aside, I’ve been trying to get her to read the David Allen book for about seven years.  Periodically she’ll accept the book and place it on her desk, where it will sit, unread, until buried by other papers and items.)

Since I’d been thinking about the subject for the last couple days, I had an answer ready: don’t use stuff as a reminder; instead put the thing (whatever it is) away, and put whatever action is required on your to-do list.  Kia immediately understood and implemented the idea, and within half an hour her desk was transformed into a postmodern minimalist’s masturbation fantasy.  Okay, not quite, but it looked clean and organized, with only one pile of papers.  The rare book she needed to return went to the bookshelf.  Her passport (which needs renewing) went to the drawer.  And so on.

Most of the time I accumulate things to do faster than I can do them.  This imbalance is reconciled by the fact that some things never get done.  I’m fine with this reality — there will always be more possible actions than actual actions in life.  If it’s not going to get done, I’d rather have the doomed to-do item be represented as a line of text in my calendar software than a piece of crap on my desk.  The extra typing is well worth it.

Find the little kid.

In some cases, putting the object away (like returning a book to your bookshelf) may not even reduce the chance that you see it and remember to do something with it.  This comes back to the zero percent chance that the visual reminder trigger will work if you put anything on top if it.

The Unlasting Benefits of Practically Everything

Habit trumps all.

All self-improvement efforts are ultimately irrelevant and ineffective if they don’t evolve into habits or routines.  A string of yoga classes you did last year?  Worthless.  A meditation retreat you completed two months ago?  Now adding nothing to your peace of mind.  A two week cleanse?  Why bother?

This is a frustrating reality of maintaining a biological, constantly regenerating organism.  You can’t build your body or mind like a house; there’s too much flux.

Brick hard abs -- nice one.

There are crucial moments in the development of a human being where the environment can exert a permanent effect.  Early-childhood education, prenatal nutrition, and a loving family home  are all important.  But in adult life, what matters far more is what we do every day.

Is this an obvious concept?  A truism?  It seems like it is, but it’s contrary to the way health, fitness, and personal development practices are presented to us.  Lose ten pounds in two weeks.  Participate in a ten day intensive, life-changing meditation retreat. To me these two pitches sound exactly the same.  Do something for awhile, then stop doing it and watch any positive effects fade away.

Is it implicit, in the “improve yourself temporarily” style pitch, that the behavioral change will be permanently implemented?  I don’t think so.  The pitch is usually to expend a great amount of willpower over a short amount of time to see fast results.  But if the practice is unsustainable — either because it requires too much effort or because it overstresses the organism — then it won’t be continued.  The id will rebel.  The results might be ugly.

ID REBELLION

Personality is not monolithic; we careen through life propelled by a chaotic network of warring motivational subcenters.  On good days our frontal cortex mediates the disputes and we present the world with something resembling a rational, consistent human being.  It’s a false front.  Free will is mostly illusory.  At best we can steer ourselves a little, modifying the well-worn pathways that control our behavior so that our habits better serve us.

The superego-heavy approach, where we whip ourselves like racehorses, compelling our bodies and minds to conform to whatever high expectations we have set up for ourselves (or others have set up for us), can work for a period of time.  There’s nothing wrong with driving ourselves hard, especially if we believe in what we’re working for or towards; if the result will pay lasting dividends to ourselves or our loved ones or all of humanity.  But if this period of intense self-control is not followed up by a more relaxed interval — either a conscious letdown, a vacation or stay-cation, or at least some relaxation of standards — then our subconscious minds may grab the reins and force the issue.  We act out.  We break down.  We hit creative blocks.  We burn bridges.  The reptilian brain, in its lowly position at the bottom of the spinal totem pole, still wields a great deal of power.  Respect the id.

HABIT AS LEVERAGE, OR WORK MULTIPLIER

I’ve discussed the idea that willpower is a commodity; we only have so much each day to spend.  The workaround is establishing a habit.  Habitual behavior doesn’t require willpower — it’s the default setting.  It’s cruise control.  If we can find ways of eating, sleeping, working, relating to people, and even thinking that serve us well, it’s in our interest to habituate those behaviors.  That’s where the willpower comes in — making the change.

I say this not as a paragon of good habits, but rather as someone who’s interested in seeing the effort that I do expend go further.  Essentially, I’m lazy.  I prefer both rest and recreation to back-breaking work.  I don’t mind work itself, but I hate pointless work, or work that doesn’t produce something of lasting value.

Deciding what is a good habit requires some degree of analytical thinking and experimentation.  Whatever analogy you want to use to describe our genetic, cultural, and historical predestination (“the hand we’re dealt” or “the set of tools we’re given”), the fact is that there is no single best way of living that works for everybody.  A lot of this has to do with what we like to do.  An exercise regimen based on jogging won’t work if you hate jogging.  Okra may be in high in vitamin C, but that won’t benefit you if you can’t make yourself eat it.  Making money by selling a product online and building your website via targeted marketing won’t work if you hate analyzing web traffic.

Thanks but no thanks.

We can force ourselves to do things that we hate doing, under the auspices that those things are “good for us,” or “smart things to do,” but ultimately we’re just burning willpower for no good reason.  There are hundreds of ways to stay fit and hundreds of ways to eat healthfully.  It makes sense to search the permutations until you find a method that you don’t detest.

On the other hand if we spend time and effort “locking in” effective behaviors that we essentially like to do anyway, repeating them so often that they became second nature, then that nervous system modification becomes a neurological asset.

With more effort we can also habituate behaviors we dislike.  This can play out one of two ways; a soul-crushing self-loathing feedback loop, or, if we’re lucky, we come to “like” what we’re good at and do every day — our sense of preference is as malleable as anything.  It’s worth remembering that the job is the reward.

In either case, behaviors we habituate are going to multiply the results of our efforts.  When we spend willpower, we’re going to get more bang for the buck.

DENTAL HYGIENE, MENTAL HYGIENE

I read an interview with David Lynch in which he marveled at people’s unwillingness to dedicate a little time each day to meditation.  People are willing to dedicate five minutes a day to dental hygiene so that their teeth don’t rot.  Yet they are unwilling (or don’t know how) to spend a few minutes clearing their mind and communing with the infinite.  The benefits of meditation include lowering blood pressure, improving immunity, increasing focus and recall ability, increasing empathy, and probably dozens of other positive effects.  So why don’t we all meditate every day?

Meditation isn’t hard … but culturally there is no expectation to do it every day (at least in the United States), so it’s up to the individual to establish a routine.  You also have to pick and learn a method, either from an ancient tradition (zazen, vipassana) or a more modern derivative.  But the key action to establishing a habit is to pick a time and a place and do the same thing, every day, until the behavior becomes as second nature as brushing your teeth at the bathroom sink before you go to bed (hopefully you do that, or the equivalent, already).

CLOSING THE GAPS, MY OWN HABIT-BUILDING INTENTIONS

I should note here that I haven’t yet established a rock-solid meditation routine for myself.  I keep waffling on the time — morning or evening — and end up only meditating three or four days a week.  The benefits I perceive when I meditate (even if just for a few minutes) are so enormous that it’s insane for me not to close this gap.

Writing every morning — another behavior I’m still working on cementing.  Too often I end up checking email, reading news feeds, responding to a client request, or getting distracted by one of a dozen other projects.  When I do write in the morning, it colors the entire day.  Even if I only write a few crap paragraphs, I still feel a sense of accomplishment that stays with me regardless of what else happens that day.

Why wouldn’t I meditate and write every day?  Both behaviors pay obvious, immediate dividends.  While I take 100% responsibility for my own behavior, I don’t believe that I control my own behavior 100% — “I” am a chaotic network of warring motivational subcenters.  But to the extent that I can actually steer myself — to act as a fully conscious human being — I see value in establishing both behaviors as more-or-less permanent aspects of my daily routine.

A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part II

In my last post, A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part I, I covered the odd eating habits of multi-billionaire/raw-juice enthusiast David H. Murdock, as well as the “all-meat” (in reality, “mostly grease”) diet of Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.  Both men had a strong interest in health.  My next subject is interested exclusively in taste, but is in good apparent health nonetheless.

PAUL RUDNICK’S ALL-CANDY DIET

A Drake's Yodel

Playwright and humorist Paul Rudnick, according to this New York Times article by David Colman, subsists on milk chocolate, pastries, ice-cream, and candy.  In addition, he eats some simple unsweetened foods, like peanuts, Cheerios, and plain bagels.  He abstains from meat, poultry & eggs, seafood & fish, whole-grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables.  He’s been eating like this as long as he can remember.  At fifty-two, he’s tall, lean, and in good health.  Interesting.

I should note here that Paul Rudnick is in no way suggesting that anyone else should eat the way he does.  He likes candy, he eats candy — end of story.

ANALYSIS: What do we take from this “case study”?  Is Rudnick a freak of nature?  Or does his all-candy diet suggest that eating whole, unprocessed food is less important than we think?  Maybe it’s more important that we don’t overeat (according to the article, Rudnick doesn’t eat actual meals — he sort of grazes all day).  If he’s not eating large amounts of candy at a time, and he abstains from soft drinks, it’s possible that his blood sugar doesn’t spike too badly throughout the course of a day.  He’s not eating plates of pasta or potatoes with his candy — he’s just eating the candy.

  • Driving philosophy:  eat exactly what Paul Rudnick wants to eat, and nothing else
  • Staple foods: Hershey’s kisses, Drakes Cakes Yodels, plain bagels, peanuts, ice-cream, dry cereal
  • Not allowed: anything allowed, but Rudnick doesn’t seem to eat fruit, vegetables, or meat
  • Supplements: unknown
  • Importance of organic foods: none
  • Health advantages: low in calories, some polyphenols from chocolate and peanuts
  • Possible health risks this diet overlooks or does not address:  scurvy, type-2 diabetes
  • Ecological impact: low (no meat, some packaged/processed foods)
  • Cost: low (no meat, no produce, organic foods not required, Rudnick prefers “low-brow” sweets)

Summary: Examples like Rudnick are important to keep in mind to avoid obsessing about food and what the “best” diet is.  People thrive in all sorts of strange ways.  Lamar Odom is another example.  On the one hand, these men may possess unusual metabolisms that allow them to effectively process massive amounts of refined sugar without detrimental effects to their health.  On the other, the rest of us might be underestimating the resiliency and adaptive powers of the human digestive system, or overestimating the negative effects of refined sugar.

My guess is that Rudnick is NOT a freak of nature, and that the health benefits of what is essentially a low calorie diet outweigh the negative effects of eating all that crap.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he sustains his health into old age.

As an aside, Paul Rudnick has an incredibly cool office.

THE PALEOLITHIC DIET (AN INTRODUCTION)

The Paleolithic Diet (also known as The Caveman Diet) is an eating plan that, in its strictest form, includes only pre-agricultural foods.  Grains, including pasta, bread, rice, oats — even fancy hippie grains like quinoa and amaranth — are OUT.  So are all legumes; beans, peanuts, and, depending on the variant of the diet, even innocent vegetable legumes like green beans, snow peas, alfalfa sprouts, and clover sprouts.

Paleo-fitness helps with the ladies

Dairy products are out too — our caveman ancestors had not yet learned to domesticate cows, goats, or sheep.  Nightshade fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, all varieties of peppers, tobacco, and even the antioxidant-packed goji berry are all considered to be Neolithic foods (products of agriculture), and are thus eliminated.  Salt isn’t allowed, nor are alcohol and caffeine.  Refined sugar is of course not allowed, nor are any industrially processed foods (basically anything you can buy in a package at the store).

What’s left?  Quite a lot, actually.  Most vegetables are allowed, including leafy greens and starchy tubers (the Paleolithic Diet isn’t necessarily a low carb diet).  Less sweet fruits, like berries, are allowed, but sweeter fruits that have been pumped-up with sugar via years of selective breeding and/or genetic manipulation are not recommended (think of a large, juicy, sweet, store-bought apple vs. a small, gnarled, sour, slightly starchy example you might find on a tree in your backyard).  Nuts and seeds are okay, and olive oil is usually allowed.  So are fatty fruits like avocado and coconut.

Wild game and wild-caught fish are preferred foods on the Paleolithic Diet.  Almost all animal foods are allowed, so long as they are wild or grass-fed.  A real Paleo enthusiast might have an extra freezer or two in the garage, where they store a side of grass-fed beef, or a whole hog.  Meats that some of us might consider unusual, like ostrich, venison, kangaroo, bison, crocodile, rabbit, goat, and springbok (antelope) might be considered regular Paleo fare.

The logic of the Paleolithic Diet is that our ability to produce novel kinds of nosh has far outpaced our ability to digest it.  In other words, cultural evolution proceeds at a faster pace than genetic evolution, and as a result our health suffers.  Human beings, and our hominid ancestors, evolved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years on simple fare like shellfish, antelope, mastodon, tubers, frogs, and berries, and that’s the kind of fare our digestive and metabolic systems are optimized to handle.  We invented agriculture, which ensured us a more-or-less reliable source of calories, but our bodies didn’t change; we could only derive sustenance from grains at a cost to our health.  Later, the negative effects of cheap calories were exasperated by the Industrial Revolution (and thus industrial food production, which gives us refined flour, low-fat pasteurized milk, and high-fructose corn syrup).  Sure, we can survive on Yodels, bagels, and Planters salted peanuts, but we can’t thrive on such food (Paul Rudnick would of course disagree).

The biochemical Axis of Evil, according to Paleo science, consists primarily of lectins, gluten, casein.  All three are substances that both interfere with digestion and muck with our hormonal profile.  Fructose and sucrose are also considered problematic, as are excess amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.

Grains -- they're EVIL

Lectins are proteins that interfere with digestion, prevent absorption of certain nutrients, and are associated with allergies and auto-immune diseases.  Lectins seems particularly adept at tearing up the epithelial lining of the gut, resulting in something called leaky gut syndrome where whole undigested protein molecules are allowed to enter the bloodstream.  The immune system, which only expects to encounter amino acids in the bloodstream (not whole proteins) mistakes the undigested food particles for invading pathogens.  Auto-immune problems can then result if the protein entering the bloodstream happens to resemble some sort of human tissue; the immune system is tricked into attacking its host body.  Yuck.

Lectins are found in grains, legumes, seeds, and to a lesser extent in other vegetables and nuts.  If an organism does not have an evolutionary interest in being eaten (like fruit), it tends to evolve ways to defend itself.  If you try to eat a zebra, you might find your jawbone shattered by a swift kick.  Plants, on the other hand, have more creative (and sometimes insidious) ways of defending themselves.  Nuts have tough shells.  Some plants produce phytoestrogens, which negatively impact the species dining on them (sheep eating fields of red clover may find their fertility reduced).  Grains and beans have lectins.  If you doubt the effect lectins can have on your digestive system, gently simmer (don’t boil) some dried red kidney beans until they are soft enough to eat, then chew on a few.  Just kidding, don’t try this.  Really, don’tyou might die.  Not all lectins (there are thousands of varieties) are harmful, but quite a few have been shown to have a negative impact on human and animal health.

Fried gluten balls

Gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat, rye, and barley (including the refined varieties) and can wreak similar havoc on the digestive system, at least in sensitive individuals.  Casein is a milk protein, and can cause health problems even for people who are lactose tolerant (casein is probably more of problem for people who consume high amounts of lectins and gluten — their torn up gut linings may allow casein to enter the bloodstream whole).

To most people, cutting out bread, pasta, cheese, milk, yogurt, ice-cream, candy, all desserts, beans, tofu, tomatoes, potatoes, grain-fed meat, refined sugar, alcohol, coffee, salt, and all processed food sounds overly restrictive.  You don’t say. In its strictest form, the Paleolithic Diet is as ascetic as raw-food veganism.  Consider, though, Stefansson’s experience in getting used to (and eventually coming to enjoy) a diet consisting solely of raw frozen and boiled unsalted trout, with only fermented whale oil as a garnish.  What a human being experiences as pleasurable is largely dependent on the available range of experience.  We acclimate quickly; a diet of champagne, caviar, and rich desserts, day in and day out, quickly becomes boring, just as fermented whale oil rapidly becomes a “special treat” if that’s the only thing you have to put on your raw fish.

Are there health benefits?  There seem to be, in spades.  Practitioners report rapid fat loss, muscle gain, increased energy, improved immunity, better mood/attitude, reduced blood pressure, freedom from allergies, increased sexual vitality, and improvement in auto-immune disorders.  Clinical trials indicate the Caveman Diet can improve glucose tolerance, potentially reverse Type 2 diabetes, and significantly improve body composition in as short a time as ten days.

Most modern practitioners of the Paleolithic Diet allow small to moderate amounts of salt, alcohol, and caffeine to be included, which instantly makes the diet about a thousand percent more palatable.  Some modern cavemen further add in delicious foods like tomatoes, green beans, and even the occasional chunk of pastured raw cheese or very dark chocolate.  This is starting to sound a little more manageable.

I’ll disclose here that my own eating style bears similarities to the Caveman Diet.  Significantly cutting back on grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar (and adding in a few supplements) helped reverse moderate asthma symptoms I experienced for a good portion of my thirties.  I’ll discuss this in detail in another post.

NEXT POST: There are three figureheads of the Paleolithic Diet I’d like to write about in detail, including Loren Cordain, Arthur DeVany, and Mark Sisson.  All three are interesting characters, and each has a somewhat different approach and emphasis.  I also want to put some of the ideological kookery behind some Paleo advocates under a magnifying glass.

I may also look at one or more of the hardcore raw-foodists — some of them are really extreme and therefore entertaining.  Maybe I can discover exactly what they mean by the word “toxin.”  Maybe they mean uric acid, which is a by-product of protein digestion.  Or maybe they mean oxalic acid, found in extremely high levels in both raw spinach and raw parsley.

A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part I

In the 1930’s a dentist named Weston Price traveled around the world studying indigenous populations and their traditional diets.  He was interested in why some populations remained free of tooth decay (despite the lack of availability of toothbrushes and toothpaste).  Traveling far and wide, hitting every continent, he studied Swiss mountain people, Scots of the Outer Hebrides, Eskimos, South Pacific Islanders, Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, the Watusi of Rwanda, and dozens more groups.  After many years of field work he concluded that modern illnesses and degenerative diseases (everything from caries to cancer, heart disease, asthma, allergies, and even tuberculosis) were due to the poor quality of the modern Western diet (one based on refined sugars, refined flours, canned and processed foods, etc.).  He published his research in this book (a public domain version is available here).

Picture from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price, with original caption: FIG. 7. Above: typical rugged Gaelic children, Isle of Harris, living on oats and sea food. Note the breadth of the faces and nostrils. Below: typical modernized Gaelics, Isle of Bardsey. Note narrowed faces and nostrils.

The most interesting thing, to me, is the wide variety of indigenous diets that Price discovered could support robust health and freedom from most degenerative diseases.  Eskimos ate a great deal of seal meat and blubber, but no fresh fruits or vegetables.  People living in an isolated valley in Switzerland subsisted mostly on whole-rye bread and raw, whole-milk dairy from pastured cows.  Scots on the Isle of Lewis ate primarily seafood and unsweetened oat-cakes.  Inland Australian Aborigines dined on kangaroo meat, ducks, wallabies, lizards, insects, berries, and wild bird eggs.  These diets could not have been more varied, but everyone was in excellent health (and had excellent teeth).

Dr. Weston Price concluded, and modern food philosophers like Michael Pollan would agree, that a healthful human diet can consist of a wide number of combinations of various plants and animals, so long as the food is whole, fresh, and relatively unprocessed.

So, that settles it, right?

These days the question of what we eat is anything but simple.  In the United States, there are no surviving traditional regional diets — immigrants come from hundreds of different dietary traditions and Native American diets have been degraded by modern foods like flour, sugar, processed meats, and alcohol (with some efforts to reverse this trend). Health-conscious modern society is in search of its ideal diet, a kind of nutritional holy grail.  We all want to be lean, strong, and energetic (with excellent teeth).  Unfortunately, the foods that are most readily available are of poor quality: fast-food burgers and fries, homogenized pasteurized low-fat milk from corn-fed cows, soft drinks and candy, and lots of bread and noodles made primarily from refined flour.  In response to these poor choices, we collectively invent alternatives — artificial dietary restrictions created to maintain our health (or, in some cases, to circumvent our scruples).  Lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, raw-food veganism, the Zone Diet, Atkins, the low-fat diet, etc.

I’m not going to write about any of these; they’ve all been covered fairly exhaustively.  What interests me are slightly more extreme diets, especially when accompanied by an founder (often an evangelist of sorts), and sometimes a popular movement replete with its own strangely consistent non-food related beliefs. (Why are most adherents of the Paleolithic Diet climate-change skeptics?  What’s up with that?  And are there any Republican vegans?)

Over the course of several blog entries, I’m going to do a Weston Price style survey of a number of unusual diets.  The practitioners don’t find the diets unusual of course — but most other people probably would.

DAVID H. MURDOCK’S FISH-VEGETARIAN WITH LOTS OF RAW JUICE DIET

I recently heard a radio interview with business mogul David Murdock, the 86-year-old multi-billionaire who owns Dole Food Company and the entire Hawaiian island of Lana’i.  Murdock founded the Dole Nutrition Institute, a kind of research-slash-PR company that works tirelessly to extol the health benefits of pineapples, bananas, packaged salads, and other Dole products.  Questions of research neutrality aside, Murdock does seem to have a genuine interest in spreading the word regarding the healthfulness of a plant-based diet.  After his first wife died of cancer in 1988, he changed his own diet, eliminating meat, dairy products, refined sugar, and refined grains.

David H. Murdock receiving his H.S. diploma

Murdock is an unapologetic fan of personal discipline, and espouses the typical conservative view that a person’s misfortunes can in almost all cases be traced to personal weakness, laziness, or ignorance.  This belief informs his style of nutritional evangelism, which can be summarized as “Eat fruits and vegetables, dumb-ass, so you can be healthy like me!”  Over the course of the interview, the British interviewer tossed mostly softballs at Murdock, but did press him on the possibility that some people might value “living the good life” over the promise of optimum health and longevity.  Murdock’s response was to recount a story about a meat-eating, cocktail-imbibing friend — the friend’s wife called Murdock in a panic, her husband had collapsed — what to do?  “Call 911,” said Murdock, “he’s probably had a heart attack from all the bad food and saturated fat he’s been eating!”  Never one to miss an opportunity for a lecture, apparently.

I found this video clip where Oprah interviews Murdock, goes shopping with him at Costco, and samples his baby-shit green health shake comprised of raw spinach, celery, grapes, tomatoes, carrots, kiwi, mango, red bell pepper, and a few other raw fruits and veggies (he drinks this concoction three or four times a day).  Breakfast is unsweetened oatmeal with fresh fruit.  Lunch is an egg-white omelet with vegetables.  Dinner is fresh fish and vegetables.

ANALYSIS: Murdock seems as fit and healthy as he says he is.  This means very little in itself; there are plenty of Scotch-swilling, chain-smoking 86-year-olds who are just as spunky.  However both modern nutritional science and traditional human diets back up Murdock’s approach on most counts.  His diet is incredibly high in vitamins, mineral, and phytonutrients, his meals have a low glycemic load, he gets plenty of protein and fiber, and his diet includes no processed or refined foods of any kind.

Murdock also restricts saturated fat to zero.  Nutritional science is split on this subject.  The latest research seems to point to the Omega-6/Omega-3 fatty acid balance as being more important than total saturated fat intake.  A number of studies have failed to find any positive correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease.  Still — Murdock’s avoidance of red meat is overcautious at worst — human beings don’t need to eat a side of beef every week to stay healthy.

From the looks of the foods Murdock is tossing into his cart at Costco in the Oprah clip, it appears that he doesn’t give a fart about organic food, or sustainably-grown food (circle of jumbo prawns grown in chemically fertilized dirt pits — check!).  He also disapproves of supplements and medications of all kinds, considering them absolutely unnecessary for people who are eating correctly.

  • Driving philosophy:  live for as long as possible, as vitally as possible, by eating lots of Dole fruits and vegetables
  • Staple foods: fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh-water fish, egg whites, nuts, oatmeal
  • Not allowed: meat, poultry, dairy products, bread/noodles, most grains, refined sugar
  • Supplements: none
  • Importance of organic foods: unknown, but apparently not very high
  • Health advantages: high in food-based antioxidants, high in soluble fiber, low glycemic load
  • Possible health risks this diet overlooks or does not address: pesticides, some saturated fat intake may be healthful
  • Ecological impact: low (no meat or dairy, very little grain)
  • Cost: moderate (no meat, organic foods not required, no supplement costs, fresh fish is expensive, lots of produce)

Summary: Murdock is the type who’s “in it to win it.” Life is a contest, and Murdock is going to be the last one standing (and the richest too — with the most land).  Choking down four slimy green vegetable shakes a day is a small price to pay for that kind of glory.  May he live to be a thousand.

VILHJALMUR STEFANSSON’S ALL-MEAT DIET

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an Artic explorer and anthropologist who extensively studied and lived with the Inuit Eskimo people for approximately eleven years.  During his first year he gradually adopted and came to enjoy the traditional Inuit diet of raw frozen fish and unsalted boiled fish.  At other times, engaged in Arctic exploration, he and his men would subsist for weeks on nothing but seal meat, caribou, and the occasional polar bear.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, chillin' on the steps

Stefansson’s first-person account of getting used to this diet, in this 1935 article in Harper’s Monthly, is fascinating.  At first he refuses to partake of the boiled fish (steelhead trout, referred to as “salmon trout” in the article), and has his specially baked.  As a fish-hater, he only nibbles at it, and desperately misses salt.  Over time, he tries and enjoys both the boiled and semi-thawed raw fish, which the Inuit eat like a cob of corn, tossing the bones and frozen entrails to the dogs.  Eventually he comes to enjoy such delicacies as fermented whale oil and spoiled fish in advanced stages of decay.  “I tried the rotten fish one day, and if memory serves, liked it better than my first taste of Camembert.”

Stefansson considers his own health to be excellent during these long periods abstaining from the vegetable kingdom, and even notes an occasion where his “all-meat” diet (which includes fish, organ meats, and generous quantities of animal fat) cures cases of scurvy in his fellow explorers.

Upon returning to New York City, Stefansson encounters many skeptics in the medical and dietetic communities; nobody believes that a diet devoid of vegetable matter can support human health (at least in the “white man” — the Eskimos are widely believed to have special constitutions or mutations that allow them to thrive on this diet).  Stefansson disagrees; the crews of his exploring ships hail from all regions of the world, and men of European, African, and South Pacific descent have all thrived on the all-meat diet (after a period of considerable complaining).  Stefansson volunteers to take part in a rigorously controlled scientific experiment at Bellevue hospital, where he and a colleague (a Danish former crewman by the name of Karsten Anderson) will eat nothing but meat for an entire year, and will be under medical supervision or surveillance 24 hours a day (no cheating allowed).

Both men thrive on the diet, becoming considerably leaner despite consuming most of their calories from animal fat.  This is not a white-meat chicken diet; typical fare includes brains fried in bacon drippings, juicy lamb chops, and fat sirloin steaks.  Stefansson notes that he is free of headaches (which otherwise plague him when he is on a “mixed” diet), has no digestive problems, and has improved strength and endurance.  Both men generally feels strong, happy, and optimistic during both summer and winter months.  The only problem occurs when, as an experiment within an experiment, the researchers at Bellevue deprive Stefansson of fatty meats and feed him only lean meat, an experience he has also undergone during his expeditions when, at times, the only available meat was half-starved caribou.  In his own words: “The symptoms brought on at Bellevue by an incomplete meat diet (lean without fat) were exactly the same as in the Arctic, except that they came on faster – diarrhea and a feeling of general baffling discomfort.” When Stefansson adds fat back into his diet, his good health returns (and remains for the duration of the study).

The results of the study, when published, are met with much skepticism, as is evident in the tone of this 1930 article in Time magazine (aside: reading an article from 1930 online is vaguely surreal).

ANALYSIS: The biggest risk from eating a so-called “all meat” diet is eating too much meat and not enough fat.  Too much protein, more than about 25% of calories, does seem to be associated with kidney inflammation and digestive problem.  The Bellevue experiment concluded that about 80% of Stefansson and Anderson’s calories came from fat — it should really be called the “mostly grease” diet.

A secondary risk is scurvy, especially if meats are overcooked, and fresh organ meats are not included in the diet.  Stefansson does note, in Part 3 of the same article, that eating fresh meat as you go provides superior protection against scurvy during polar voyages than do canisters of stale lime juice.  Apparently there’s plenty of vitamin C in a fresh penguin to stave off scurvy, provided you eat the whole thing.

Provided the diet is sufficiently varied and fresh, the “all meat” diet seems to support vigorous physical activity, a lean body, high immunity, freedom from dental caries, freedom from diabetes and heart disease, and no problems with osteoporosis despite being low in calcium.

  • Driving philosophy:  ideal and most efficient diet for supporting health during Arctic explorations
  • Staple foods: frozen fish, seal, caribou, polar bear
  • Not allowed: fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, dairy products, nuts, seeds, sugar
  • Supplements: none
  • Importance of organic foods: 100% wild meats, no agricultural foods = no pesticides
  • Health advantages: zero glycemic load, high in essential fats, overeating unlikely with no carbs
  • Possible health risks this diet overlooks or does not address: scurvy, parasites from raw meat or fish
  • Ecological impact: high, especially if animals are conventionally raised (on the other hand, no land lost to agriculture)
  • Cost: high, unless you hunt it yourself

Summary: Stefansson concludes, at the very end of Part 3, that eating meat as a primary food probably does not prolong life, but rather contributes to a more vigorous life, in effect speeding up all metabolic process, including aging.

Stefansson himself ate a diet heavy in meat for most of his life, and lived to be 83.  He maintained his health and fitness throughout his entire life.


NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES: THE ALL-CANDY DIET, THE PALEOLITHIC DIET

iHaters

I’m a member of a growing group — those people that judge people who use their iPhones and similar mobile devices at social occasions.  Recently I confessed to a group of friends that I was a part of this group, and suggested we needed a name.  Someone (I forget who — please identify yourself in the comments), threw out the term iHaters.  I think it’s going to stick.

Oooo ... sorry about that.

iHaters, like myself, project a holier-than-thou attitude if you deign to check your email, or friends’ Facebook statuses, while you’re at my house eating my cheese and drinking my whisky.  We’re an annoying group, sadly shaking our heads (the expression is meant to convey a combination of disgust and pity) while you suckle from your digital teat, your zombified face aglow from the little screen.  We’re part of the same general group who has insisted, over the ages, that television rots your brain, that sugar rots your teeth, and that marijuana rots your memory.  We’re probably right, too, but that’s not the point.  The point is, we’re better than you.

As an iHater with a modicum of self-awareness, I decided to question my own belief that going to party to read your email, or taking a call to have a conversation when you’re already engaged in a conversation, is bad.  Maybe I’m right, but maybe I’m just that old Gen-X geezer shouting “Get off my lawn,” refusing to give up my fax machine, and insisting that people should pay for music they download from the internets.

I’m old enough to have witnessed no small number of cultural trends that I’m resistant to.  Some are stupid (pants so baggy they impede normal movement) and some, in my view, are cool (young men wearing hats).  Sometimes I get on board, sometimes not.  At first I thought Twitter was idiotic, now I tweet and like it.  My point is that I don’t hate everything new, at least not forever.  But the whole walking-around-while-staring-at-your-phone thing … I just don’t get it.

Internet in your brain, now that I’d be down with, especially if it came with an artificial intelligence augmentation that allowed you to operate multiple threads of awareness and processing in a fully parallel mode.  Like Data on Star Trek — you’re having a conversation with him and he’s also modeling warp drive modification simulations and researching Klingon opera singers.  But his brain is so fast, with fully parallel streams, that you don’t notice.  He’s right there with you.  Most people can’t do that, at least not very well.

STATUS UPDATES

I’ve heard the argument that texting with friends or posting status updates is an inclusive activity, a digital glue that keeps the social circle together.  Poor Lars, he’s at home in bed with a cracked fibula, but at least he can see what a fabulous time we’re having.

Ouch -- that's gotta hurt.

That’s what status updates are really for — they’re a digital “Hey, look at me!”  I’m traveling in Europe.  I’m eating pie in a pie shop.  Digitally posting something (especially with pictures) gives it weight and clear boundaries, an act of framing.  Sometimes this elevates the banal (drinking a cup of coffee), other times in trivializes the important (telling — perhaps unintentionally — the most minor of acquaintances that you just got engaged, or broke up).

Status updates are fun to read if you need a two-minute break.  Oh look, so-and-so is in Bali — it looks warm and mosquitoey there.  Hey look, you-know-who finally got a job — good for them.  It’s mildly entertaining and it helps us feel in the know.  It only becomes a problem when the posting and checking of updates becomes an involuntary compulsion … that’s when you get the iZombies at a party.

Oh wait, you say you weren’t even on Facebook?  You were just checking work email?  Whatever man.

CARS

Maybe phones, these days, are kind of like cars were in the Fifties.  It was new for everyone to have a car, and cars gave people (especially teenagers) a new kind of personal freedom.  For the first time, you could drive wherever you wanted to drive.  Cars were a new kind of personal space.  Your car defined your personality.  You could do stuff in your car, like eat, or watch movies, or have sex.  Why leave your car, ever?

Over the years people have become less enamored with cars.  Americans still love their cars, but drive-in movies, drive-in burger joints, giant back seats conducive to comfortable sex — those things have gone by the wayside.  For most people, a car is just a way to get around.  The car you drive (or not driving a car) can still be used to indicate your social status or political/ecological views, but the car is no longer the all-consuming center of modern life.  The phone is.

Back when cars were special.

When I was growing up, a phone was something that attached to a wall with a cord, that you used to call people.  These days, phones can still be used to call people (though not as easily or effectively), but they are also expected to function as entertainment centers, encyclopedias of all knowledge, dating support service providers, compasses, levels, GPS devices, scanners, cameras, video cameras, typewriters, faxes, computers, and personal security devices (I made the last one up, but there’s gotta be an app for that).  No wonder people are interfacing with their devices all the time, they do everything.  But will it last?

As an iHater, I hope the phone goes the way of the car, and we collectively start obsessing about something else, like flight shoes, or universal translator chips, or DNA remodeling.  If phone-obsessiveness faded, at some point staring at your phone while at a social event might become equivalent to taking out an iron and starting to iron a pile of shirts.  Dude, why are you ironing at this party?

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite phone-related clips.

David Lynch on iPhone

Flight of the Conchords – Camera budget

The Tyranny of Stuff

VINYL IS DEAD, LONG LIVE VINYL

Last week, Spesh, Silencefiction, and I drove to the dump and dropped off approximately 1100 pounds of vinyl records.  This amount consisted not of our personal collections, but of Loöq Records back catalog material from 1998 to 2002 (the years we were pressing our own vinyl and selling directly to distributors and stores).

Losers on the digital battlefield

Spesh posted a picture of the sad, large pile of records on Facebook, and received a range of reactions.  Some people were concerned that we didn’t recycle the material (in fact, SF Recology, aka the San Francisco dump, is a zero-waste facility, and hosts artists-in-residence — experts in creative reuse).  Others were horrified that we were throwing out valuable music.  Others seemed a little sad, but accepted it as a sign of the changing times.  DJ’s play CD’s, or laptops, these days, and buy (or beg/borrow/steal) all their music online.  Only the hardcore holdouts, and diehards in Berlin, still play vinyl.  Vinyl is making a comeback among indie rockers and the like, but in the realm of dance music its essentially dead (except, as noted above, in Germany).

Back in the day (before digital distribution like iTunes and Beatport) it was hard to estimate how much vinyl to press.  You could base your pressing quantity on pre-orders from distributors, but then get stuck with no inventory if the record took off (and thus miss the boat with a slow repress time).  You could take an optimistic stance and press a lot of records (often the same price as a lower pressing quantity — most of the costs are in setup) but then get stuck with a large pile of 50lb-boxes of worthless plastic disks.  Once in awhile we would press the perfect amount, but usually we’d overshoot on the initial pressing or repressing.  This was generally my fault — I hated being out of stock of anything (this was all before digital distribution or high-quality mp3’s — when you were out of stock that meant there was NO WAY TO GET THE MUSIC).

Orders from distributors used to come in for a few weeks after a release — sometimes for a few months (or even up to a year, if a record really took off).  Everything left after that initial run became back-stock, or back-catalog.  For a while Loöq Records was able to move its vinyl back-stock steadily.  Drive to a record store, leave as many records as they would take on consignment.  Drive back in a month or two and collect money with about a 50% success rate (usually the records had sold, but half the time the paperwork was lost or the guy who could pay you wasn’t working that day).  Surprisingly, we moved a lot of vinyl that way … hundreds if not thousands of 12″ singles.  DJ’s liked and bought our records, when they could find them.

Then all the record stores went out of business.

We held onto our precious back-catalog vinyl for years (over ten years, in fact).  But over time, the boxes on the shelf started to loom over us oppressively.  They just weren’t moving.  DJ’s were buying (and we were now selling) all of our music on Beatport, Juno, iTunes, eMusic, and other digital outlets.

When the time came to move out of our old office on Brannan, it was time to let the old vinyl go.  We’ve kept some, of course, for the archives, or to satisfy the odd request from Germany, or in case the original artist requests a few additional copies.  But the bulk of it went to the dump.  Here’s a clip of me hurling a Jondi & Spesh 12″ (Sky City, I think it is), against the wall, shuriken style.  Enjoy.

LIMITS TO DIGITIZATION, THE RETURN OF PERMANENT POSSESSIONS, CORE QUESTIONS OF SUSTAINABILITY

I think that people, in general, are better off with music commerce being digitized.  Music is now universally available for the price of an internet connection, and quality is simply a matter of bandwidth (I pay an extra buck to download the WAV format on Beatport, and I wish I could on iTunes).  Books, and certainly newspapers, seem to be on a similar trajectory.  Within a few years (or decades, at the most) physical information formats will exist only for diehards, fetishists, and the eccentric elite.

Music, print, photographs, film, and software products can all be distributed and utilized in a digital format.  What about everything else?  Are there any general trends worth noting regarding the development of products in general?

I would argue that one significant trend is temporal appropriateness.  Most products last either too long (plastic bags) or not long enough (laptop computers).  Ideally, I’d like my plastic bags to harmlessly biodegrade after a few weeks, and my laptop to be an indestructible, perpetually useful item that can be passed down through the generations, like a silver pocket watch or a samurai sword (instead, I buy a new one every few years, either because the keyboard gives out, the screen goes black, or the damn thing is just too slow).

Side-effect of civilization.

If we keep making disposable, non-biodegradable stuff, then we’re going to drown in a heap of our own garbage.  Annie Leonard discusses the ins and outs of this cycle in some detail in The Story of Stuff (my friend Ariane turned me on to Annie Leonard’s work).  I buy industrially produced products — I’m part of the problem.  I’m not sure how NOT to be.  If there was a laptop out there that would last a hundred years, I would buy it (if I could afford it).  My friend Thor Muller‘s thesis is that we’re currently entering a long recession, and that one positive effect of long-term lowered consumer demand will be that product quality will actually improve; things will once again be made to last.  I, for one, would love to buy a laptop that doesn’t break after three or four years, even if I DO always type like I’m angry (I’m not, I swear, I just like definitive keystrokes).

Even if we — human beings — drastically reduce our ecological footprints, carbon gas emissions, and toxin-spewing industries, we may still run into the problem that there are just too damn many of us.  Seven billion and counting?  Even if we manage world peace, sustainable ocean management, zero-emission vehicles, giant solar farms, vast areas of protected old-growth forests, high-rise greenhouses, intensive soil-enriching polyculture, and a 99% non-renewable resource recycling rate, we may still run out of food, space, energy, and raw materials.

Is this likely?  Probably not.  Humans are fairly clever — we’ll find a way to muddle through and survive.  The rate of population increase is already decreasing due to factors like higher literacy rates, availability of birth control, and the fact that it’s frikking expensive to raise a modern child.  What worries me more is how we’ll deal with the eventual, inevitable decrease in human population.  It’s not likely to be pretty — our entire global economic system is based on perpetual growth, and how can you sustain perpetual growth when you aren’t adding new people to the system?

The character Daniel Aoki thinks, writes, and acts on these questions in my first (and as yet unpublished) novel, A Falling Forward Motion.  One possible escape route for humanity he hypothesizes (escape from the closed system of living on a single planet with limited resources) is for humanity to evolve “into the box.”  Virtual people — not simulations but discrete instances of human consciousness — living in full resolution virtual worlds.  The Matrix, more or less, but without the secrecy.  A next step for humans after a full lifetime of corporeal living.  I think that after a century or two on this planet in the same body (even if I manage to rejuvenate and maintain a perpetual 25-year-oldness, Aubrey de Grey style), I’d probably be ready to change it up a bit.  Presented with the option, I would totally upload into a digital reality where I could switch bodies, fly at will, teleport, and perform any other tricks that the programming allowed.  As long as I could still experience myself as a human being, why not?

THE TYRANNY OF STUFF

Right now I have renter’s envy.  I’m engaged in several kill-me-slowly projects.  I mean home-improvement projects.  Things not in their place, cans of paint lying around, half-assembled IKEA furniture waiting for a missing wall-mount screw … it’s death by a thousand cuts.  OK, I exaggerate.  I have a sensitive psyche.  But I don’t understand how people manage things like getting their kitchen remodeled.

One element of our home improvement efforts consisted of the recent destruction of half our storage space (in order to make room for an additional home office).  Getting rid of old stuff in storage requires a great deal of mental energy (why am I keeping this?  will I ever use it?  will I ever be featured on Hoarders?).  But it’s  ultimately rewarding when you take the leap; give something away, sell it, recycle it, or chuck it.  Straight up chucking it is underrated in this eco-conscious day and age.  It can be satisfying to send certain objects straight to the landfill (once again, I’m part of the problem).  The ex-roommate’s furniture that you never liked but somehow ended up with.  Electronic toys that make awful noises that someone gave your toddler (and your toddler left out in the rain).  You know the kind of stuff I mean.

Unless we’re vigilant, we accumulate stuff throughout our lives, kind of like the way our DNA accumulates cumulative damage from minor replication errors.  This crap weight us down; it oppresses us.  Buying a bigger house, renting storage space — these things might temporarily mask the symptoms of having too many things but they don’t solve anything.

THE PRACTICE

This method won’t do anything for the landfills, but it might lift a layer of detritus from your abode (like a face lift, or chemical peel, for your house).  The idea, introduced to me by my friend Stephanie Morgan, is to get rid of 10 things a day for 10 days.  Easy enough to do — for the first pass you can probably wander around your place almost selecting objects at random — but after a few days there is a noticeable decluttering effect.

What else?  Next holiday season, why not conspire with your loved ones to engage in a Buy Nothing Christmas?  Or pool your resources and make a charitable donation to Heifer International, Doctors Without Borders, charity:water, or another organization involved in good works?

My next big purchase … I’m still considering it.  I’d been thinking about picking up a PS3 (ever since my XBox got 3ROD’ed — my DIY repair only lasted a couple months).  But you know, that’s just another piece of crap that’s going to break or be obsolete in a few years.  I should buy something that can stay in the family for generations; a permanent possession.  Something like this.

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