Friday, December 30, 2005

Diet revolution

I don't think figuring out a proper diet for weight loss is hard. If you expend more calories than you consume, you'll lose weight. A lot of people try to make it seem more complicated than that, but I don't think it is. It's just physics. Newtonian physics, even.

I think the same physics dictates that, for us fat folks, adopting a general-purpose "healthy lifestyle" is necessary but not sufficient to bring us to a healthy weight. A proper healthy caloric intake is, by definition, whatever we need to maintain whatever weight we're at (and not gain more). So if we want to lose rather than maintain, then we need to cut the calories even further until we reach our target. Yes, that means "diet", and yes, that means potentially feeling deprived in the short term.

The more I've thought about it, the more I firmly believe in the physics. If I set a dieting caloric intake at 1,200 calories/day, in terms of weight loss it shouldn't matter whether I consume those calories in leafy green vegetables or potato chips. Calories are calories. (That doesn't mean I wouldn't have lots of other health problems if I chose the chips, but I assert that I'd lose weight.)

So why do we agonize over which diet we should choose for weight loss (Atkins, Zone, South Beach, low-fat, etc., etc.)? I don't think one's choice of diet has any effect on the physics of calories. I think it's about compliance. Barry Sears is somewhat honest about this in his Zone books, and it's the foundation of the low-carb craze, and I think it's legitimate.

Slashing caloric intake is hard when we're accustomed to eating way more than we should. And I tend to believe the key balanced-carb and ultra-low-carb claim: carbs give you a burst of energy and spike your blood sugar, but then they burn off quickly, leaving you feeling down and craving more. Cutting carbs doesn't change your caloric requirements, but may make it easier to stick to those requirements. I also agree with the related claims that proteins and (good) fats are more filling and more satisfying in smaller amounts, and that bulky (good, high-fiber) carbs allow you to eat high-volume but low-calorie, which can also be filling and satisfying. Again, the calories don't change, but how we feel about the calories makes a big difference.

This doesn't address the issues of emotional or stress eating, or sedentary lifestyle, or the natural evolutionary urge we humans and animals all have to acquire the richest possible foods with the least amount of effort and consume them in the largest possible quantities. I don't know how all those skinny people's ancestors' genes survived this long, but now that we're here, the tables have turned and those genes are well-suited to our post-scarcity era. The rest of us have work to do.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

At least one of us seems to be broken

Recently I have found myself reading columns by George F. Will and at least broadly agreeing with them.

Does this mean there's something seriously wrong with him or with me?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Miscellany and week in review

I don't care what the media says; "myriad" is not a noun.

So, by now, anybody who's reading will have noted that I'm a bit long-winded and I seem to take just about everything incredibly seriously. That isn't strictly true; I do possess a well-concealed sense of humor IRL. It's just that so far, I haven't felt like there was any point to putting up a blog of (intentionally) stupid stuff.

This is sort of the venue for me to work out the demons of all the theses and dissertations that I never wrote and never will. There are undoubtedly lots of people out there researching and writing about these issues in greater detail and far higher quality. If you find any, feel free to steer them here to educate me, or me there to educate myself.

And if you're not enjoying the blog so far, well, it's unlikely to change much. This is what bsktcase is kind of about.

An exercise in cultural relativism, feminist style

I was a women's studies major at a women's college, so this is by no means news to me. Really. But lately I've been really interested in examining the issue of "women as property" (say, historically, or in cultures where a Western-style "feminist" movement hasn't happened) from sort of a different angle.

In college, it was all about cataloguing the myriad ways in which women were oppressed by being considered property, and about being appropriately outraged thereby. And I'm not backing off from that. When one thinks of a woman as property, one is inherently not recognizing her as an intelligent human being endowed by her Creator with certain rights. Obviously I think women are the latter and thus I have a problem with the former. And this is not news.

What I've been thinking about, and this may or may not make any sense as I try to explain it, is the ways in which women-as-property and women-as-instruments really serve to illuminate certain cultural practices, laws, historical events, or what have you. Instead of getting distracted by being outraged, I'm just thinking about what it means.

If a culture considers a woman to be the non-sentient property of her husband, then it makes a certain kind of sense that such a culture would demand virginity (unopened in mint condition, if you will) and/or have no use for widows. It makes perfect sense that such a society might punish a man for his crimes by raping his sister or daughter; it devalues his property and thus is equivalent to assessing a fine. Women who are property would be saleable and barterable and could certainly be seen as consumer goods or appliances. One can imagine how someone in a women-as-property culture would consider [e.g.] electing women to parliament to be as absurd as electing his livestock or his dishwasher.

I'm not saying I agree. I'm recognizing that at a certain level, a culture's position on this matter is likely to be internally consistent. I would hope that by trying to understand the entire system and how its elements fit in, we can identify root causes of injustice instead of flailing around and vilifying the symptoms.

I'm also by no means targeting non-Western cultures. This sort of thing really sheds light on every practice from genital mutilation to pole dancing. In the West, we call it "low self-esteem" but it amounts to the same thing: women who believe, for whatever reason, that rather than actors they are mere instruments to be acted upon by others. I feel like that idea is at the heart of any practice we Western feminists might want to see changed anywhere in the world (including our own backyards), and that by approaching it in such a way, we might make progress with the world instead of stridently (and imperialistically) alienating it.

But it's also just interesting to think about how all these things work together and how bizarre and unsettling that can be.

Addendum, 1/19/2006:

Another point of all this is to consider that women-as-property was the unquestioned norm in virtually all agricultural societies going back 10,000-12,000 years. That's a pretty serious tide to turn, and we haven't been at it very long: women-as-individuals (collectively; tokens don't count) is an idea that has dawned in some modern societies over the last 250 years or so, with meaningful progress only within the last 50.

Just another reason to favor patience and understanding over outrage and colonialism in situations like these, I think.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Once upon a benefit concert

Just last week I read, and was intrigued by, The Rock Star's Burden, an NYT op-ed. (Subject to login and possible future archiving, sorry.)

The gist of it is that the West in general, and rock stars in particular, have got it all wrong where aid to developing nations is concerned. A specific way in which this is proposed to be so is the bottomless pit of corruption in so many of the world's poorest countries. The article raises an excellent question: when we send monetary aid, or promote debt relief, how carefully are we examining where that money will go and how it will be used?

I was a pre-teen Band-Aid/Live Aid junkie. Only after college did I start to learn things: that the Ethiopian famine (like many) was not a natural disaster, as it was presented to us, but largely was inflicted intentionally in the course of a civil war. That donations often don't reach their destinations due to theft, lack of transport vehicles, insecurity of roads, lack of roads. That aid can be seized and used as a tool to manipulate and repress people. That local farms fail when they can't compete with free food aid; that agriculture is abandoned when people have to move to centralized aid distribution camps. The list goes on.

It had not previously occurred to me that foreign aid, administered naïvely, could potentially cause harm.

Are these high-profile projects really about helping the needy, or are they about convincing ourselves that we've Done Something? That we've Done Enough?

Earlier this fall, there were articles reporting that for all the buzz generated by Live 8, not many actual accomplishments have materialized. I don't know for sure whether that's true, or fair.

Live Aid in 1985 asked for donations, which people sent in. I wonder what it means that Live 8 in 2005 focused so much attention on debt forgiveness. We're not even pretending to give of ourselves any more... we exhort somebody else to give and that feels like we've Done Enough?

But the op-ed writer's solutions didn't seem like a big improvement. He criticized Bill and Melinda Gates for proposing to send computers to schools in the developing world that currently don't have paper and pencils, which admittedly does seem at best premature, but he didn't give them any credit for their work on AIDS, malaria, and global health research in general. He talked about the brain-drain of doctors and professionals from their own countries and proposed "Northern Exposure" style educational contracts to keep them working locally for a few years. Do those work? It's easy to poke holes in someone else's work; much harder to come up with poke-resistant alternatives.

With all that fresh on my mind, Bono and the Gateses are Time magazine's Persons of the Year. I'm not sure what to make of that now.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Hymn to the Virgin

Of on that is so fayr and bright
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the day is light,
Parens et puella:
Ic crie to the, thou see to me,
Levedy, preye thi Sone for me,
Tam pia,
That ic mote come to thee

Al this world was for-lore
Eva peccatrice,
Tyl our Lord was y-bore
De te genetrice.
With ave it went away
Thuster nyth and comz the day
The welle springeth ut of the,

Levedy, flour of alle thing,
Rose sine spina,
Thu bere Jhesu, hevene king,
Gratia divina:
Of alle thu ber'st the pris,
Levedy, quene of paradys
Mayde milde, moder es

Anonymous, ca. 1300

Thursday, December 15, 2005

"Educational" saturation

This New York Times article, "See Baby Touch a Screen. but Does Baby Get It?" is right in line with conversations I've been having lately.

(Due to login required and future fee-based archiving by NYT, I'll try to include pertinent quotes below.)

NYT focuses specifically on media: video games, computer-based games, and videos. I'd immediately add "educational" television into the mix, but also any of the interactive "learning" toys pitched for infants and beyond. Some of these items are relatively recent crazes; others go back to my own childhood and beyond.
Despite the commercial success, though, a report released yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers and Pre-schoolers," indicates there is little understanding of how the new media affect young children - and almost no research to support the idea that they are educational.
Parents are asking, and I suppose not unreasonably so, all else being equal, why not have kids playing with "educational" toys and gadgets and watching "educational" shows rather than non-specifically-educational ones?
"I know one leading baby book says, very simply, it's a waste of money. But there's only one thing better than having a baby, and that's having a smart baby. And at the end of the day, what can it hurt?" [says the parent of a wired 11-month-old.]

"There's nothing that shows it helps, but there's nothing that shows it's does harm, either," said Marcia Grimsley, senior producer of "Brainy Baby" videos.
This brings to mind a few questions for me.

Is all else really equal?

Are educational media really better than entertainment media?

The parents and corporations quoted in NYT have already stipulated that there's no proof they're any better, and no research to show that they're really educational. So the best we can do at this point is that they're supposedly not harmful.

Are interactive toys really better than, we'll call them static toys?

Well, they certainly separate parents (and kids) from their money at a higher rate.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the barrage of interactivity is stifling kids' natural curiosity, creativity, and ability to entertain themselves. My mother's generation honest-to-God played in the yard without toys, for hours, every day. They explored; they improvised with sticks and rocks; they role-played. This had already become unfathomable to me even in my youth.

I've read authors who are concerned that we are raising generations whose drive to consume pre-packaged experiential and sensory products is practically insatiable.

That leads us right into....

Is it true that the interactive and educational versions do no harm?

Depression and other mental illnesses are caused by imbalances in the brain's stimulus and pleasure processing centers. I don't know whether it's true that rates of mental illness among Western youth are really increasing (as opposed to diagnostic tools improving), but it wouldn't be difficult to imagine a link between an unfillable and growing need for external stimulation and pleasure, and a brain's difficulty managing the same.

What about the mysteriously skyrocketing rates of autism, a disorder in which (among other things) kids can't manage sensory inputs?

OK, that's pretty tenuous. I'm not really a member of the "save just one child" school of risk management. But it's an interesting thing to ponder, especially considering how disproportionate the rates of these disorders are in the US compared to the rest of the West, and the West compared to the rest of the world.

Do I even need to mention obesity? No, I didn't think so.

Another angle is the question of whether parents are more likely to use interactive toys and media as a babysitter, and whether such things reduce their investment in personal interaction and directly teaching things to their own kids themselves. I'm cynical, so I definitely suspect that this is happening. If the presence of the "educational" gadgets results in children getting even less of adults' attention, I'd have to call that a harm as well, especially if the gadgets then turn out to have little or no educational benefit....

And finally, although I'd certainly grant that kids should play with toys, is it really inevitable that kids are going to be consuming media extensively? Preschoolers? Toddlers? Infants?
"There are all these babies watching videos, and we wanted to address the reality that's out there and come up with something that is at least appropriate," said Gary Knell, Sesame's president.
"All these babies watching videos"?

So the debate is over, and the Teletubbies won?

Infants and toddlers do not instinctively know how to watch and listen to TV. They're not clamoring to do it... they don't even know what it is, other than a noisy blinking box. (Realizing that a photograph is something different from an oblong piece of paper is considered a developmental milestone.) For them to become viewers of the Teletubbies, someone first has to teach them how to watch.

(Is that why LG never figured out, or cared anything about, her expensive Microsoft "Intellitable"? We didn't train her enough? )

There may or may not be a vast global consipiracy of media and marketers aimed at turning your infant into a TV consumer by appeasing you with "educational benefits". But I think it's undeniable that for well-meaning parents (and infants), this is an unintended consequence.

Does it make any sense for parents to put in time teaching a kid to watch TV so the TV can teach the kid to read, which it may or may not do? What if we cut out the middleman and just taught our kids to read?

I also wonder whether V.Smile and Leapster are more effective at educating, or more effective at training kids how to play video games (and training them to want to)?

These forms of media consumption are not inevitable... but as devices and programming are targeted at younger and younger "markets", parents are participating in making them inevitable.

If we think about it, I wonder, is that really what we want?
"As a society, we are in the middle of a vast uncontrolled experiment on our infants and toddlers growing up in homes saturated with electronic media," Mr. Anderson said.
I guess we'll find out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

On patriotism, part I

A few years ago, the newsletter for a supposedly apolitical and multifaith non-profit organization I belong to, published a copy of that inane email about boycotting French-owned companies due to France's criticism of the nascent Iraq war. When I questioned the writer about the appropriateness of such an article in such a milieu, I got back a vitriolic diatribe about the importance of loyalty and patriotism, clearly meant to suggest that I was lacking in both. Shortly after that, I got blackballed from a subcommittee on the say-so of the writer's husband.

(One possible lesson here is: do not fuck with sweet little old ladies when it comes to their inane email forwards.)

In any case, after that incident I found myself bending over backwards within my organization, again and again, to demonstrate that I was "loyal" and "patriotic" in spite of my progressive politics and opposition to the war.

I arranged for the right songs to be played at our ceremonies and for the flag to be escorted at every event with maximum pomp. I launched a program of community service benefiting the police officers and firefighters in our town. I put on an "All-American" themed fundraiser complete with a red, white and blue menu.

Looking back on it, there are all kinds of problems with my Campaign to Defend My Unfairly Impugned Patriotism. Other than the community service, which wasn't really very substantive either, my actions were limited to empty, even crass symbolism. That's pretty cynical, even for me. Isn't that exactly the sort of mindlessness the inane email forwarders are all about? Absolutely, but it's also what I hate about them. Strike one.

It also didn't work. I'm not a bumper sticker person, but I am all about the sentiments of "peace is patriotic" and "support our troops, bring them home". But nobody on the other side is falling for that stuff. They know perfectly well that those liberal/progressive/commie/peacenik bastards hate America, and no amount of flag-waving is ever going to convince them otherwise. And indeed it hasn't, in my case. Strike two.

But this stuff got me thinking. And re-thinking. And I have to wonder, why is patriotism a virtue anyway? Doesn't Medecins Sans Frontières have the right idea? I value humanity and human dignity. Why should I buy into the idea that arbitrary imaginary lines on maps make any one set of humans superior to any other? How is nationalism OK when white supremacy and patriarchy are so clearly (to me) not? Is this strike three?

I've been thinking about this, so occasionally perhaps I'll post my investigations into the various facets of "patriotism" and their merits.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Inaugural post

Here it is; a new blog. Welcome!

I have to confess that I'm terribly jealous of my friend Eszter and the widely-readness of her blog and widely-viewedness of her Flickr images. :) On the other hand, internet communication is a cornerstone of her career so this is hardly surprising. Plus, I think she actually likes people, which goes a long way toward building reciprocal relationships with them. ;)

Anyway, I'm experimenting again with the possibility of having things to say that might be of interest to others. If that goes anywhere, perhaps the blog'll even invite commentary and I might try to learn from it. Join me and let's see how it turns out.