A Lesson in Contrast

On my ride to work today I passed several school zones. Near one school a mother and son, helmeted, were stopped at the side of the path, straddling their bikes, looking at their phones.

“What does that mean?” Mom asked as I rode past.

“You got rid of it,” the kid answered. He was teaching his mom to play Pokémon Go.

There are so many things I like about that little vignette. Parent and child, doing a healthy, safe, and fun activity, and even letting the kid be the teacher.

A few miles farther along I was passing near the entrance to another school. A woman in a Ford hybrid with a kid in the back ran a stop sign turning left, and almost get T-boned by another mom in a big-ass SUV in a frothing hurry to reach the school entrance.

We should all take a breath and be more like the first mom.

Requiem for my Crappy Little Office Chair

At work, I have a fancy chair, adjustable forty-seven different ways, and after a week of increasing back pain a trained professional was dispatched to get things just right for me. (The back pain was more about keyboard height than it was about the chair, but still…)

It’s a mighty comfy chair.

IMG_0395At home, I have a little piece of crap chair that apparently came from Big Lots and cost $16. It has no arms, the back rest is fixed and there’s no padding to speak of. Yet, I can sit in that chair indefinitely. I have fallen asleep in the spartan little-more-than-a-bench-with-wheels many times, whether watching bittersweet Japanese cartoons deep into the night or playing some stupid computer game.

For you, perhaps for everyone else on the planet Earth, this chair might be torture. But for me, it just fits. Also, when sharing a small office, a chair that doesn’t take up a lot of space is beneficial.

That chair and I have been friends for many years now. It’s the place I sit when it hurts to sit anywhere else. Only now, it’s breaking. The center post has pushed down through the ring that attaches it to the wheels, so that it sits up on the post instead of resting on the wheels. Today I tried, with steadily increasing force, to reverse the slippage. No success, but a wheel flew off in the process, even though that leg was not involved in my percussive maintenance. Like I said, increasing force.

Even if I force the stem back, the connection relies on friction, and once things start moving, that’s the end of the story. New slippage is pretty much guaranteed in the near future. And as you can see in the picture, the fabric won’t be holding on much longer, either. Pretty soon I’ll be getting a new chair. Big Lots apparently doesn’t carry this chair anymore; my new chair is likely to be fancier, but will it be better? Unlikely. And there’s no way to know in the store; it won’t be until my next research project based on Revolutionary Girl Utena that I discover whether the new chair is friend or foe.

So let’s raise a toast to all the simple things in life that just work, beyond all reasonable expectation. Not the fancy, glitzy things, but the spartan chairs that fit right and the stapler that never gives up and the bargain-store shoes you wear until they completely fall apart. Those things go beyond value, to become part of you.

2

The One Thing that will Make You Healthy

There’s a guy out there right now flogging a diet book, who, along with a few poignant anecdotes, points to scientific studies which show that foods that cause your blood sugar to spike lead to more organ fat. The one and only thing you need to do to be healthy is eat more veggies and nuts, and avoid sugar and white flour.

Another diet says (pretty much) if you eat a lot of fat, your body will learn to burn fat.

There are plenty of other diets that show that fewer carbs, or less fat, or whatever, will lead you to the better life you’ve been craving. Each of those diets will claim to be based on science, and delve into insulin, glucose, neurotransmitters, and so on.

Each diet says there’s ONE THING you have to do to be healthy. Well, mainly one thing, but it doesn’t hurt to adopt other healthy habits as well.

Some of the diets are downright contradictory, but they all claim to have science on their side. How can this be?

There’s something remarkably cool going on, right now: In the last fifteen years we’ve learned a lot of really interesting stuff about how the body responds to the food we eat and even the mechanisms that make us feel hungry in the first place. If nutrition and health is a puzzle, we are finally getting to understand what shape the pieces are. It is conceivable that in a couple more decades we’ll have a pretty good look at what the puzzle actually looks like.

In the meantime, folks with medical degrees are choosing individual pieces of that puzzle and they are selling them as a complete answer. They’re not wrong, really, but they are absolutely overselling the facts. Activity X leads to hormone Y and therefore you get fat.

A scientific survey of the experiments testing the diets, which, alas, I can no longer find the link to, discovered an interesting thread: All the diets, when carefully followed, were beneficial, and none of the diets was clearly better than any of the others.

In the end, it came down to the same thing your mother told you when you were a kid: eat more veggies, and get more exercise. You just didn’t know at the time that you mother was that far ahead of science.

The one thing you can do to be healthier? Listen to your mother.

1

Depression is Organic

Let’s pretend for a moment that the brain is an organ. Of course that’s a silly proposition, the brain is simply who we are. But indulge me for a moment and pretend.

If the brain were an organ, jesus what a complex mofo it would have to be to house our identities.

Now, if you follow me so far with this silly conceit, you have to accept that, just like any other organ, in some people the brain may not function in an ideal fashion. But for something as complex as an organ that defines out identities, “improper function” is hard to pin down. We accept a wide range of functionality and celebrate individuality. I know some messed-up, awesome people.

If we accept the idea that the brain is an organ, we are forced to accept that the brain might have well-documented weaknesses. After all, all the other organs in our bodies fail in well-documented ways. The most complex and mysterious organ in our bodies will naturally be the root of the most complex and mysterious troubles. We need to stop saying “mental illness” and start saying “brain malfunction”.

Hoo – even using the word malfunction rubs against the grain, even though it describes the situation exactly. I invite all out there to come up with a gentler phrase.

I get depressed now and then. I get the feeling that there’s no point in pushing forward. Shit don’t matter anyway. What I feel is a low. We all have lows. Since we all feel some version of the emotion, it is easier to diminish people who have lows lower than any low you will ever know. “I’ve been there,” you think. “I understand.” And implicitly because you survived your low, anyone else should survive theirs. But you don’t know low. Honestly, I don’t know low either. Not that low. For me, a trip into true organic sadness is something to savor, to milk for the characters it informs in my writing. It is not a song of self-destruction coming from somewhere behind my left ear.

There seems to be a chunk of folks (and insurance companies) that would like to pretend that brain malfunction is some invented discomfort designed to bilk you and me out of our hard-earned money. Insurance companies cover every organ except the most important of all. That, my friends, is bullshit.

Really

Good health habits will resume any day now.

Any day now.

1

Calculating Calories is Hard!

I’ve been using both MapMyRide and Strava to track my bicycle rides recently. In addition, I’ve been using the activity app on my slick new Apple Watch. Each estimates how many calories I burned on my ride, but the numbers are very different. For example, on my ride to work yesterday morning:

MapMyRide: 814 Calories
Strava: 643 Calories
Watch: 757 Calories

Dang – those are quite different numbers, especially when you consider that MapMyRide and Strava are using pretty much the same data and coming to very different conclusions. What gives? CAN I EAT THAT DONUT OR NOT?

Strava and MapMyRide use speed and (maybe) elevation change in a formula with the rider’s weight to come out with an estimate of how many calories the rider burned. Strava lets me set the weight of my bike; I don’t know what MapMyRide assumes. I’m pretty confident that neither really uses elevation changes well. And headwinds? Forget it.

Both services can come up with a better wild-ass guess if you use a special crank or pedals that directly measure how hard you are working. They directly measure the output of your muscles, so the only remaining guesswork is how many calories you burned to do that work (some people are more efficient than others). There’s a Garmin setup that will tell you if one leg is doing more work than the other. I have no such device.

The most accurate way available to measure calories burned is to measure how much carbon dioxide one exhales. Rather than measure the work you did, you’re measuring how much exhaust you produced. This is impractical on a bike ride, however.

Which brings me to the gizmo strapped to my wrist. It estimates calories based on my heart rate. I have no idea what formula it uses, but hopefully it incorporates my resting heart rate (which it measures throughout the day) and my weight (which I have to remember to tell it), and maybe even my age. The cool thing is that heart rate is directly related to carbon dioxide production. When I’m riding fifteen mph with a tail wind, I’m barely working at all. When I’m pushing against gale-force breezes at the same speed, I’m huffing and my heart is thumping. To Strava and MapMyRide, the rides look the same. The watch knows the truth.

When WatchOS 2 comes out (the “features we couldn’t get perfect in time for WatchOS 1” release), Strava will be able to access my heart data. I’m interested to see what that does to the numbers.

In the meantime, I’m listening to my watch.

Junk Science is Everywhere

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine (image lifted from the linked article on io9)

Perhaps you remember the headlines a while back: “Eat Chocolate to Lose Weight!” Every week we learn about a new study that shows that X helps you lose weight. And right there is the first problem:

A study.

Singular. Let’s get something straight right now: A single study has never proven anything, ever. This is a fundamental part of science. When someone makes a discovery, it’s exciting. When enough other people confirm that discovery, it’s knowledge. “A study” is useful to guide future research and to provide fun anecdotes on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. But that’s all.

Back to the chocolate. The finding that chocolate helped weight loss was discovered in a laboratory study with the proper protocols, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. So, that’s real science, right? Even if it hasn’t been independently reproduced, isn’t it still important health news? You can’t blame the health press for jumping on something as sexy as “chocolate makes you thin”.

But then the people who did the study came forward and told the world that it was all bullshit. They’d done it to prove how easy it is to get junk science into the mainstream. Even they had not imagined how easy it would be.

Let’s start with the scientific study itself. It’s generally considered scientifically significant if the result of the test is less than 5% likely to be the result of random chance. Yep, it’s considered acceptable that one in twenty scientific experiments is incorrect just based on random chance. Madness? Not really, when you consider that all the studies in a field eventually have to work into an interlocking puzzle that forms a bigger picture. The studies that were incorrect either by blind bad luck or poor procedures get weeded out when others cannot reproduce the results.

But what if you test twenty things at the same time? Statistically now you’re very likely to hit a false positive. To quote the article:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result.

In the jargon of the junk-science industry, this is called “p-stacking”. An incredible number of the health claims you read are likely the result of this film-flam.

“But,” you might ask, “aren’t there systems to filter this shit out before it goes mainstream?”

Well… yes, but those systems are pretty much broken. First off, science is a discourse, and all new ideas have to run a gauntlet of “peer review”. Ideally, the peers may not agree with the conclusions, but you damn well better dot your i’s and cross your t’s. If you take shortcuts in your process, your peers will keep you out of the journals. In the major journals, the reviewers take their work really seriously.

But now there are journals that, for a price will publish whatever twaddle you wish to sell. While they claim to be peer-reviewed, the peers seem only to be reviewing whether your check clears, and have little interest in the scientific validity of your study.

Academia may not be fooled, but the fifth estate certainly is. Journalists who are trusted to sort through the garbage and bring important health information to their readers instead just blare the sexiest headlines. In some cases, the online comments by the readers of those articles ask the questions the so-called journalist should have asked before even running the story.

In the chocolate scam, they recognized another important fact: if the press release is actually written as an article fit for a magazine, even fewer questions are asked. It’s jut cut, paste, and print.

The press is making hay selling junk science to you and me. We trust them to vet the information they bring us, and they are doing a terrible job. It’s not just health science, but that’s where most of the crap seems to be flying these days.

So if what passes for journalism these days won’t ask the hard questions, we have to. Don’t change your diet because of “a study”. Even honest studies are found to be false later on, and damn few of the health articles we read are based on honest studies. (That “damn few” assertion is totally baseless. I have no statistics to back it up. But you were right there with me, weren’t you?)

For your homework assignment, I’d like you to Stop And Think when you see something on Facebook, especially in the health industry. Maybe do five minutes of research on the people making the claim. Then CALL THEM ON IT. Say, “Hey! I call Junk Science on you!”

Get double-serious when you read the shit in magazines. Let’s publicly shame the so-called journalists who dump this stuff out without asking the hard questions first. Demand footnotes. Check sources. Someone has to teach those bozos their jobs.

2