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Debunking the Junk Science of Fat and Health Research

On June 4, 2012, the American heart Association (AHA) announced its official endorsement of the fast-food giant Subway, making Subway the first restaurant which could sport the AHA’s Heart-Check Meal Certification Logo.

The criteria for certification include meals containing no more than 700 calories, less than three grams of total fat—no more than one gram of which can be saturated fat—and ten percent or more of the Daily Value of a select list of nutrients, like vitamins A and C.

What information and science led the AHA set these criteria? Dietary science and research are a complex issue, and the data is open to gross misinterpretation and poor analogies. What research and interpretations led the AHA researchers and writers to their assertions?

Anyone familiar with American advertising and media is aware of the dominant role health plays in the psyche of people. We are likely to find a commercial with a new diet, pill, or piece of machinery enticing some percentage of viewers to purchase a product which promises to lower cholesterol or “melt away the fat.” Products endorsed by such a large organization like the AHA might or might not have merit, but while how-to articles and books are published every day with the promise of burning fat and getting us into shape, there is still debate over how these products are approached, tested, and how to interpret the data from the various studies.

Despite the complexities of the data, some researchers make bold claims on what constitutes a healthy diet and on what we must do to create and sustain optimal living standards. Any debate which requires scientific inquiry and experimentation—particularly those with many complex and interwoven data such as health and food—contains not only the information researchers are trying to find out, but how to interpret that information. And it seems the more complex the data, the hotter the debate.

Some of the debates and topics arguments include the environmental and economic impact of food production and consumption. There are also articles dealing specifically with the issues of the complexities of data themselves, along with the correct or erroneous interpretations and inferences drawn from that data.

One might assume that, thanks to all of this new research, we could figure out the cause of our health and environmental woes. Yet, in spite of all this research, debates rage, tempers flare, and some heavily researched and regulated subjects grow worse, whether in the form of a poor environment, poor economies, or expanding waistlines.

Perhaps we are missing something in the research and complexities of our studies.

Gary Taubes, a journalist and writer, joined the dietary debate around 2002, and published his first book on the subject in 2007, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, in which he attempts to find the cause of obesity with a focus specifically on these complexities.

He uses the analogy of confusing cause and correlation in his 2007 article “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” in which he shows us how the public move in droves to take some pill or some dietary change based on an authoritative studies but warns that the interpretations of the data extracted from those studies can be incredibly complex and will lead to poor interpretation, which in turn leads to poor advice and prescriptions from respected medical authorities.

Taubes mentions that in 2001, 15 million women were filling hormone-replacement therapy drugs every year—once considered a good idea according the AHA, the American College of Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. However, in 1998, a clinical trial called the Heart and Estrogen-progestin Replacement Study concluded that heart attacks increased as a result of the therapy. The study made its assessment after including the patients’ lifestyle factors rather than just plugging in the variable of taking the therapy.

Taubes details just a few reasons why even large studies can be and often are flawed, especially when we want to hear a bold assertion based on the studies. When research includes something as complex as the human body, there are so many variables that even one small variable can skew the data.

Taubes uses the “Bias of Healthy Users” as an example. What this means is that people who pay more attention to their health are more likely to do what respected authorities tell them to do when it comes to their health. When a large group of otherwise healthy people start taking a drug to increase their health and wellbeing, it could be that the results return well because such people live healthy lifestyles, not because of the drug.

Taubes also claims that the “compliance effect”—also called the adherer effect—shows that people who adhere to doctors’ orders behave differently than those who don’t; they are typically much healthier.

Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “Fist in the Eye of God” from her book Small Wonder takes a similar approach, complaining of the confounding data in health and food science, specifically genetics.

Kingsolver scorns the masses and authorities who claim they can circumvent millions years of evolutionary change through a few years of genetic modification. The industry of health is loaded with bumper sticker slogans and those slogans trickled into the issue of genetic engineering. She won’t even attempt to retort against such short arguments without diving into the complexities. She believes science is too complex for short ignorant arguments, particularly in a world whose evolutionary history spans 4.54 billion years. Now, thanks to mass willful ignorance, an entire nation is growing more and more ignorant to the potential long term damage tied to the issue of genetically engineered crops.

Kingsolver claims that the land and crops are insured by genetic variability, and that “genetic engineering is the antithesis of variability because it removes the wild card…” The wild card, she writes, is sex, which produces new variables of crops. She asserts that eliminating this variability is the real danger. This mystical nature of sex, which has sustained millions of years of evolution, has worked. And humans, according to Kingsolver, think they can circumvent those millions of years of evolutionary change through a few years of genetic engineering.

Though he doesn’t call for such fundamental genetic modifications of the food we eat, Robert Paarlberg claims in his 2010 article “Attention Whole Food Shoppers” that the drive for more organic foods is a roadblock on the path to solving world hunger. Paarlberg draws on many issues attached to the production and distribution of food. His article touches into the economic and environmental realms as well, though he doesn’t specifically mention the element of complexity, itself. His main concern is feeding the hungry, and that the drive for more organic and “greener” farm products is a roadblock on the path to solving world hunger—that output by volume should be our goal if we are to feed the world’s starving.

Paarlberg labels the demand for organic foods as “trendy” (later, he claims the Green Revolution was going strong thirty years ago and still is today) and that demand for such foods is a problem of the “pampered West.” According to him, most of the benefits of organic are a myth. One such erroneous assertion, he claims, is that industrial foods are less safe. He argues that modern industrial food packaging and refrigeration have significantly decreased illness and diseases such as E-coli contamination. He does admit that industrial foods might be unhealthy—an indirect recognition that this is a large, complex issue—but his point is that the food is safer and thus can be packaged and shipped in larger quantities more efficiently while maintaining high sanitation standards.

Much of Paarlberg’s concern lies in Africa’s hunger problem. He claims that we can do for Africa what we did for India. India’s poverty rate has dropped from 60 percent to 27 percent, and as of 1975 India was no longer dependant on such foreign aid (thanks to U.S. assistance). He argues that India would not have been able to rise from such poverty without this aid.

Another point of Paarlberg’s emphasis is the environmental impact of organic food production. He agrees that industrial production of foods isn’t necessarily the most environmentally friendly method, specifically citing the excess nitrogen fertilizer creating a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico as an example. Yet, according to Paarlberg, such examples don’t necessarily mean organic farming is the solution. He claims that the consequences could even be worse if we stopped using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Why? Because, according to Paarlberg, a switch to 100 percent organic farming would require five times the cattle to provide fertilizer and that much of the continental U.S. would have to convert to farmland, resulting in  mass deforestation.

One large element missing from Paarlberg’s choices is that he doesn’t bother tackling complex economic issues surrounding his recommendations such as subjective value, investment and savings, or the notion that it should be the consumer’s choice whether or not they eat organic or conventionally grown food. These are complex issues in their own right, no less when combining them with food, health, and world hunger. However, he wasn’t necessarily concentrated on the economics, but attempting to solve the problem of world hunger.

100% organic might or might not be environmentally friendly when compared to conventionally grown food, but there is a tradeoff, writer Mark Sisson would claim, as he did in his article “Is Organic a Scam?” In a 2012 study by the Annals of Internal Medicine, the conclusion states that “organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Sisson denies the assertion, claiming that conventionally grown food might not necessarily have deleterious health effects on adults—at least not significant effects—but that it can have cause harmful effects on children, babies, fetuses, or embryos. This is yet another example of a study missing a variable—one small element in a complex issue which can skew our interpretation of the data. Sisson does note that none of these studies establish that organic or conventional is a cause of anything. But bold conclusions like the one from the Annals of Internal Medicine can rarely establish causation where so many variables involved.

Writer Nicolette Hahn Niman points out a few of these complexities and variables in her article “The Carnivore’s Dilemma”. She specifically challenges not only the environmentalists, but also the vegans and vegetarians who claim meat production is the major contributor to global warming. She acknowledges that meat production does contribute to global warming, but with a major caveat: the way in which these animals are raised, fed, and carried through the processing stages of meat production are a significant factor in their contribution to global warming. She even argues in her article that some vegetarians contribute more the global warming than their fellow meat eaters: “It could be, in fact, that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian.”

Niman accuses the anti-omnivore’s conclusions as simplistic, then provides examples of how traditional ranchers, like her, limit their emissions of each of the three gasses—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides—contributing to global warming, such as feeding the animals grass instead of fertilized crops, raising them in open pastures, and buying and selling meat locally. She argues that carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, since less farm equipment, power, and transportation are used. She also claims methane gas is reduced because manure on traditional farms is deposited back into pastures. And she writes that three-quarters of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions come from manmade fertilizers, so consumers can reduce their emissions by buying meat where farmers didn’t use them.

Another element of the complexities of how food makes it from the farm or forest to our stomachs is the bureaucracy and politics of food and agriculture.  In the 2003 essay “Everything I want to Do is Illegal”, Joel Salatin rejects the notion that any bureaucratic agency can understand or oversee farming operations if for no other reason than their complexities. Salatin is upset enough that he is forced to adhere to innumerable laws and codes from agriculture to zoning and everything in between. He complains that this fragmentation of the entire agricultural process has separated of the consumer—specifically kids who want to learn how to farm—from the farm, disconnecting the people from their food. The farm is now “a production unit for commodities—nothing more and nothing less.”

However, Salatin shows some optimism. He warns that society can only tolerate so much bureaucratic strangling, but when the government grip is too tight, the system fails, and we will see where regulating every inch and act of agriculture takes us. When this happens, he claims, he can once again produce and distribute food with the stewardship of an experienced farmer who understands the intricacies and connectedness of the animals and his farm. When innumerable data are involved in running something as small as a farm, Salatin claims that only the stewardship of an experienced farmer can do it efficiently and successfully, and that bureaucrats sitting behind desks with little inclination of the complexities of agriculture should have little or no say in what happens on his farm.

The public might want some element of bureaucracy involved in the oversight of how food is produced, but Alice Waters proposed a solution to our food and agricultural woes in her 2009 article “A Healthy Constitution”. “Edible education is a radical yet common-sense approach to teaching that integrates classroom instruction, school lunch, cooking and gardening into the studies of math, science, history and reading,” Waters wrote. Her idea is to educate students on the importance of healthy eating while teaching them how to integrate a healthy growing, cooking, and cleaning lifestyle—the theory and practice of cultivating and preparing food.

Her claim is that teaching students to take responsibility for what they put in their bodies is a social responsibility, and that doing a better job of educating students on how and why taking control of what we put in our bodies will make for a healthier and more attentive classroom. She is asserting that students should have a hand in the process of what they will put into their bodies. This alone could spark conversations among young people and can encourage healthy self-experimentation—more eyes on the variables—with diet and nutrition and show kids how to properly nourish their bodies. This is what she means by teaching kids gardening, cooking, and nutrition “democratically” in public schools.

Wendell Berry takes one of Waters’s ideas a step further in “The Pleasures of Eating”—an excerpt from his 1990 book What Are People For? Berry argues that eating is part of the process of agriculture. He asserts that the mode of the common food consumer as one of ignorance—the consumer usually has little or no idea where the food came from, how it ended up in their shopping cart, and might not necessarily know what it is. We used to have more hands in the entire process of our food from its birth to its death—from planting to eating. We planted the seed, tended and nourished it during the entire cultivation process, reaped the harvest, then prepared the food like artists rather than ignorant, hungry beasts.

Berry complains that, to most consumers, the food birthplace is on a grocery store shelf, neatly packaged and usually ready to eat after a few minutes in the oven or microwave if not right out of the box. He also deplores the modern food industry, claiming that food industrialists want consumers to remain ignorant of the modern agricultural process: “The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” Who could complain of the variables of food production then, but the most conscientious of consumers?

Berry does offer solutions for this dietary predicament. First, he urges that the individual must be more conscious of the business of food, and that each person should have some participation in each phase of the food production process. He is particularly fond of learning of the life history of food species, claiming that if we understand the history and the complexities of food and the process by which it goes from the farm to our mouths, we will appreciate and respect the entire process of agriculture, including the eating itself. To gain the full pleasure of eating, he suggests we gain an understanding of our dependence on the life forms that are part of the agricultural process.

Among the complex issues of food, I have reviewed a tiny fraction of the literature available and dissected in the context of the environmental, economic, health, and even the psychological and perceptive complexities surrounding agricultural and food research. Whether or not all of the writers recognized it, they were attempting to boil an incredibly complex issue into a few bullets or pages to attempt to get an audience to take action on their words, many of which only deal with one or two of the many elements of food and agriculture.

What I think each writer and researcher must do in their research and interpretation is maintain an intense awareness and attention to these complexities, and that their assertions and interpretations can be a step in the right direction at best, and horribly misinterpreted and therefore incorrect at worst, taking the masses who follow their advice with them. When billions of dollars and man-hours are poured into all this painful research, it’s easy to see why a writer might ignore his or her opponents or immediately deny their valid arguments. While many scientists do carry out their research with such open-mindedness as to understand that their research might one day be debunked, many ideas remain unchecked and closed to critical thought or scrutiny. When the data and the interpretations of the data don’t add up, a reexamination of the data is necessary.

Of course, it is impossible to cover every minute detail of every economic, environmental, and dietary complexity as it relates to our bodies, our wallets and our environment. But writers can and should take caution in their research when making their claims. While some writers might have done well to recognize this inherent flaw in all research before carrying out their writing, this is often the exception rather than the norm. But if one researcher or writer conducts their study in such an open-minded manner, not only will they be more open to new and improved data, but that demeanor influences an entire spectrum of researchers and debates, disarming the callous and narrow-minded methods which is the unconscious mode of so much research.

This will be the first of many posts in which I’ll collect and relay some of my favorite posts of the last few weeks from various sources and subjects.

For Hackers, Coders, Developers, Programmers, etc…

If you are a newbie to Linux, or just want to learn a few commands, TecMint posted 60 Commands of Linux: A Guide from Newbies to System Administrator. an excellent supplement to Zed Shaw’s free command line crash course.

There’s an interesting interview at KDE.org on the Westcliff High School for Girls Academy. They switched to Linux desktops for a year. Here is an interview with schools Network manager, Malcolm Moore.

FromDev posted a collection of their 80+ Best Free Hacking Tutorials (ethical hacking, of course).

Java developers and object-oriented programmers might enjoy this post: Multiple Inheritance in Java and Composition vs Inheritance.

The PC gaming nerd in me couldn’t resist this one: SidhTech reports that and IGN blogger confirmed that Bethesda Softworks is working on Fallout 4. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are two of of my favorite time-wasters ever, so this one had me excited.

I also posted a couple of articles on coding, one on coding tutorials, and another on picking your first programming language.

In an article that might not be related to programming, I think it can benefit coders or other professionals who shun themselves from the sun and fresh air. Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple posted and article on 15 ways to get out and play (get out and do it). I find it sad that some of us need reminders and coercion to get out and be active, but a fellow coder might find it necessary and enlightening.

Speaking of Enlightening

For the fellow philosophizer, I came across a video from Eckhart Tolle, which I enjoyed. I also posted an essay titled The Sage and the Six-Year-Old—Where to Find Enlightenment.

Other Geekery

According to CNN, more than 100,000 people applied for a mission to colonize Mars in 2022. If the few who are picked actually do go to Mars, they will not return—the vacation of a lifetime.

I also posted My Top 10 Physics Websites and Blogs for the physics fans.

Entrepreneurs

Of the hundred billion or so marketing and business blogs on the interwebs, I would call few anything but trite and boring; Seth Godin is not one of them. This week, I really enjoyed his piece on the birthplace of inventions and ideas. Chances are, they all came not from some large bureaucratic committee, company, or university, but small businesses or unknown people (like you?). A fellow coder or entrepreneur might also enjoy his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?.

Speaking of trite marketing blogs, one way to tell if a marketing post is trite, rehashed drivel is to see how many list posts it has. Every “marketer” knows list posts get clicks, so they write them over and over and over, and they usually contain vague and boring information. I’ve found one way to tell if a list post has a chance is if the list post is unusually long, like James Altucher’s 100 Rules for Being an Entrepreneur (James usually writes excellent list posts). another one I came across recently was  50 Ways to Market Your Website to Generate Links by Dianna Huff. There’s nothing new here, but the information can be quite useful, and at least it isn’t the usual “7 Ways to Grow Your Brand” (yuck!).

There comes a point in every budding programmer’s career when he or she hits an early roadblock.

I hit this roadblock while coding my first Android app.

You’re writing your first app—like I am—with the help of tutorials and there’s a problem: you’re droning through programming tutorials whose software design doesn’t match with your software design—you aren’t using the same blueprint.

I hit this roadblock while using the New Boston Android tutorials.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good place to start if you’re familiar with Java. But here’s the problem: droning through tutorials doesn’t make you a good programmer. 

What’s worse is that most tutorials on the web and on YouTube are simply blueprints for building a specific application designed by another programmer, which means you have to change the code to do exactly what you want it to do.

And you probably aren’t changing a little bit of code. The entire structure of the program is wrong for your purposes.

That’s the problem with “tutorialing” your way to your own software. You’ll also be listening to information you don’t need for your app while building classes and designs by someone else’s app design.

Then there’s the brushing-over of important concepts and features of Android. For example, Intents and Activities. These Android features are so important to an Android application that they deserve more than one bullet point in a beginner Android tutorial.

Though we don’t want to get bogged down into the minutia and details of every programming concept, when you see Intents and Activities scattered all over someone else’s source code, you want to know what you’re looking at.

So what did I do after droning through hours of tutorials? I started over. It’s hard to reboot when you’ve trudged so far through a program, but I had to do it if i wanted to develop anything.

However, there was a silver lining in the old tutorials: I could still remember much of what I learned in the previous tutorials.

Now, all I had to do was skim through the videos to see which ideas and concepts were relevant for my purposes. If you understand some Java programming and are familiar enough with Android that you can understand what the teacher is talking about in the second go-around, you will be fine, and it will go much faster.

When you are using tutorials, always keep your program separate from the tutorial program and design of your program will be much cleaner and easy to write.

The prototypical image of a saint or a sage is often an old man with a beard who speaks in a certain tone, uses specific “spiritual” words, and dresses a certain wardrobe—the “fashion show” as J. Krishnamurti called it.

Yet an image of wisdom is not wisdom.

These mentally constructed images are judgments wrapped in ideals and expectations—things we make up in our head, moving through the world as if they were true.

So if we cannot rely on our images of wisdom, to whom or to what do we turn to find it? Where do we find the inspiring people who can help us remove clouds of judgment, expectations, and ideologies? Many of us go to a bookstore or church, or imagine some guru or yogi or a monk.

I found one of these gems of wisdom in the unlikely form of a fictional six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy’s wisdom, however, came without the pretentious words or demeanor found in the pseudo-sage who does little to change his mind and only changes outward appearances and words.The late Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj taught ideas similar to the story of Hushpuppy, though only slightly more formal.

He showed the appearance of what one might ordinarily think of an enlightened person. He wore the robe, lived in spiritual Mecca that is India, and used many of the words of Indian spiritual followers. Though he had no formal training and little education, seekers from all over the world sought him for wisdom.

He took on a more common form of a guru, yet his responses, like Hushpuppy’s responses to situations, were quite spontaneous. Neither Hushpuppy nor Maharaj sought happiness and wisdom. They lived it, moving through life with a relative ease and grace despite circumstances.

By most appearances, young Hushpuppy lived life like the rest of the residents in her small community in the Louisiana bayou they called “The Bathtub.”

In spite of disaster, Hushpuppy took everything as it came without judgment or denial. She accepted situations or did something about them, insofar as a six-year-old can deal with such problems, like setting her home on fire and blowing up a levee to start rebuilding The Bathtub. She was not tainted with the conventional society wisdom to “be what she wants to be” or “shoot for the stars”. She saw herself as a tiny piece of a vast universe, and moved through her life with the grace of a slow stream, dispensing the timeless wisdom of a sage, spoken through the words of a six-year-old: “All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting, and talking to each other the ways I can’t understand. Most of the time they probably be saying: I’m hungry, or I gotta poop.”

The non-intellectual Hushpuppy was aligned with the mode of the universe without books or gurus, and not tampering with it psychologically or fighting what is. She was, after all, “a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right,” as she put it.

Perhaps the finest example of taking what came to her without denial was when she faced her father’s death. Her father, Wink, told her that when most people get sick, doctors “plug them into walls,” which her father saw as a form of weakness. The sick Wink escaped the shelter where the doctors plugged him into a wall. Hushpuppy rushed to his side to be there for his death, but first she had to face the aurochs—an extinct species of cattle which her young imagination thought of as giant pot-bellied pigs with two long horns protruding from their foreheads. The aurochs conceded position and moved around her.

Hushpuppy then went to her father on his deathbed and listened to his final heartbeat. She didn’t like the fact of her father’s condition, but it was still a fact. And after facing the beasts of her imagination, she faced the death of her father.

This denial—the denial of death—permeates our entire society, yet Hushpuppy faced it with less denial and fear than most adults. She didn’t fall back on any of the strange ideals or forms we use to cover up the fact of death: the decorated corpses, the funeral procession, the image of an afterlife in which we retain a living version of the corpse with all its ideals and desires.

Few would likely turn to Hushpuppy for timeless advice, but she could still give it. I was not looking for anything inspiring or enlightening when I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I found it in Hushpuppy. And she did it without any claim to enlightenment. There are, however, those who have seen or claimed to see the fleeting nature of these mental boondoggles—judgments and ideologies—and released them. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, the central figure in the book I Am That, was one of those people.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

In reading I Am That, I could see that Maharaj exemplified many of the characteristics of the prototypical sage (minus the beard).

Maharaj grew up like many of his Indian counterparts in the late 19th to early 20th centuries in poverty. He claimed have followed the advice of his guru repeating a mantra to himself over and over: “I am…I am…” In some three years of meditation and the repetition of this mantra, “something exploded within him…giving birth to a cosmic consciousness, a sense of eternal life.”(xii)

He didn’t claim that this method was a cure-all for any seeker, only that he did as his guru advised and it worked. His reputation as a guru grew, and people would visit him and ask him many of the typical questions of a spiritual seeker. I Am That contains 101 of these translated conversations with Maharaj.

One particular feature that stands out among the conversations is that Maharaj meets the seeker where he or she is psychologically without remaining attached to any specific words or methods. The seeker might have been in a place where they needed mantras or meditations to remain focused or to move along to their own path of self-realization.

Some seekers, however, needed little or no specificity in action or even ideas. One questioner asked if “holy company”—the presence of holy people, however he or she defined holy—was enough for self realization. Maharaj responded, “It will take you to the river, but the crossing is your own.”(285) He responded to another, “Where is the need to change anything?”(311)

Maharaj usually left the questioner to decide. Thus different seekers required different paths just as they required different shoe sizes. To Maharaj, the road to self-realization is not as important as the destination, which remained his focus.

The means by which we seek happiness or find the answer to “Who am I?” are debated and fought over from arguments to wars. A common method is to look in books. I once read in Steven Pressfield’s book Do the Work about a New Yorker cartoon in which a perplexed man stood before two doors. One said “Heaven” and the other said “Books about Heaven.” Many of us have this strange psychological addiction which compels us to reach for the books.

While books might be helpful, as the Buddhist koan says, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. This is one characteristic Hushpuppy and Maharaj had in common: they had little or no education. The young and enlightening Hushpuppy needed no books. I saw little indication that she could even read.

Many spiritual seekers might gravitate toward such appearances. Maharaj had a few of the attributes of a common spiritual appearance, but this was trivial and unimportant. The importance lied in the ideas and teachings he imparted on his seekers. Yet many of his followers were still surprised by his answers.

Maharaj told one questioner that the forms of events in the world were irrelevant, like ripples on the surface of the ocean. The questioner called him callous for seeing a suffering world as irrelevant, to which Maharaj responded “It is you who is callous, not me. If your world is so full of suffering, do something about it; don’t add to it through greed or indolence(emphasis mine).”(485)

Maharaj saw the same things everyone else saw, but to him it wasn’t so dreadful. The world was something to accept or to change, but not to fuss about.

Hushpuppy ran on a similar mode: accept it or do something about it, whatever it was. She could move through her life understanding how small and seemingly irrelevant she was: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

At the same time, she was not a harsh judge of the events of her life. The residents of The Bathtub were not living up to any of society’s standards; they lived in poverty, as any government might define it. Yet she felt quite content with her situation, affirming her place in the universe.

Hushpuppy’s legacy was simple: “Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” The Bathtub residents and Hushpuppy enjoyed their little lot. They weren’t drawn into the shiny things the world chased. Everything was an experience. “The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the whole world,” Hushpuppy said. And they ate and lived as if every day were a holiday and every meal was a feast—a blessing from the world.

While outward appearances did little to sell Hushpuppy’s sagely advice, her reactions and six-year-old thoughts were a pleasant surprise among unpleasant events in The Bathtub. I stumbled across little Hushpuppy seemingly by accident, not knowing what to look for or what exactly to listen to, yet she gave me the spontaneous answers I did seek when I read Maharaj—surprising, unexpected, and unlikely forms showing themselves as blessings of the world.

Maharaj was a reliable book to which I could turn for sagely wisdom. Hushpuppy was an unexpected gift, but no less powerful—a reminder that I could find the timeless wisdom anywhere and in anyone.

My Top 10 Physics Websites and Blogs

I’d like to call myself a novice physicist (or a pro) but I am probably a couple of steps below that novice.

Still, that doesn’t stop me from browsing physics blogs and websites.

Below is a list of my favorite resources—blogs, forums, and websites—which focus on astronomy and physics. You’ll notice I haven’t included many presigious physics journals, as I likely wouldn’t understand them. I am new to physics, but utterly fascinated by it.

Here is the list:

  1. Physics Forums – With 404,903 (as of this post), and over 4-million threads, this is the hub for anyone who has any questions related to physics.
  2. American Physical Society – Yet another hub for physicists. You can become a member, which includes a subscription to Physics Today magazine, invitiations to APS meetings, and other perks.  There’s also their Physics site which features selected Physical Review journals.
  3. physics.org – Brought to you by the Institute of Physics, physics.org aims to grab people of all ages into the world of physics.
  4. Physics and Physicists is the blog of ZapperZ—a professor of physics. I highly recommend you read his essay on becoming a physicist if you want to make a career of it.
  5. NASA Blogs – The blog of NASA (duh).
  6. Out There – Astronomy and astrophysics from Discover Magazine.
  7. Space and Physics – More astronomy and physics from Discover Magazine.
  8. Starts With a Bang – is Ethan Siegel’s blog on Science Blogs. It is quite friendly to newbies and those probing to find out if physics is for them.
  9. New Scientist – Space and Physics&Math – New Scientist is a webiste on multiple facets of science, but I pay more attention to the space and physics parts.
  10. Kurzweil AI – The blog of futurist and the guy who is trying not to die, Ray Kurzweil. There are multiple daily posts. It’s an excellent source of incredible and interesting things happening in the owrld of technology and physics.

A common question in many computer programming forums is “Which is the best programming language to learn first?”

There seem to be three common answers:

  1. What do you want to do?
  2. It doesn’t matter.
  3. Someone’s favorite programming language.

Some recommendations are obviously going to be biased, but the answer should be based on what you want to do as a programmer.

Are you into games?

Many young programmers are aspiring game programmers, usually ignorant of the game developer’s lifestyle, or at least that’s what I hear in forums and articles. Game programming is not gaming any more than racing cars is the same as mechanical engineering.

That being said, any budding programmer aspiring to get into games should learn C++. There are recommendations against it since it is such a huge and daunting language. But for a couple of reasons I disagree.

First, it was my first language. I did have a hard time, but then again I had a hard time learning the piano and the guitar. Being hard is not a reason not to do it. What really set it off was Joel Spolsky’s article on the Perils of Java Schools.

Joel’s article is his old-man-curmudgeonly complaint that universities teaching Java as an introductory programming language doesn’t do a good job of weeding out the bad programmers from school, and after a few months of programming I could see why.

There is nothing wrong with Java, but there are inherent qualities that don’t force the new programmer to think about what’s going on inside the machine. No pointers. No memory management (Java takes care of that for us). No crusty old programmer barking over our shoulder about the good old days of C and Lisp.

What if you want to develop Android applications?

Then start with Java. There’s also some XML but you can learn that as you go.

What about iOS?

If you want to develop mobile apps, but would rather code for iOS, then you’ll want to learn Objective-C (you’ll need a Mac for this).

My Recommendations

While I do agree that you should code with the language(s) you’ll need to build the programs you want, I do have a couple of caveats with that advice.

First, after getting your feet wet with your first programming language, I recommend learning at least one more—if not two or three or more—programming language.

You might never use that language once you learn to write some simple programs, but learning new languages teaches you to think about the computer and software in new ways, much like introducing a new exercise to you workout routine will challenge your muscles in ways they haven’t been tested before.

All that said, here are some of my recommendations for choosing a specific programming language:

C++: While it goes against many recommendations as a first programming language, many young programmers will choose it simply because it is the preferred choice of many game developers. Or they might approach it as I did—as a complex, difficult language—and so choose it for just that reason. I recommend C++ Primer (5th Edition) as an introductory text. There are also several online resources, such as cplusplus.com.

Python: This is MIT’s language of choice for their introductory computer science and programming course. Think Python: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist is another great introductory text.

Lisp: For the pure sake of learning a great language which you will likely never use—unless you plan on getting into artificial intelligence—Lisp is a good start. I recommend the free courses offered by MIT. There is also more recent Berkeley version of the course.

Java (if you must): The best introductory text for Java I have come across is Thinking in Java (4th Edition) by Bruce Eckel. There are also the New Boston Java videos.

Linux: Linux isn’t a programming language, but an operating system. The first place I would play around with Linux is the command line, specifically the Command Line Crash Course by Zed Shaw.

Objective-C: I didn’t forget about the Mac enthusiast. You will need a Mac computer to do it. Check out iDeveloper to get started. There is also a free Stanford class on iPhone application development.

In the end, choosing your first language shouldn’t be a big deal. If you feel you have chosen the wrong language, you can always switch, and learning a new language will get easier and easier.

Programming isn’t about languages; it’s about using the tools available (and making new ones) to get the computer to do what you want.

Just pick one a stick with it for a few weeks. It will likely make you a better programmer in the long run just knowing the language, even if you don’t use it ever again.

What are your suggestions for choosing a first programming language?

My Top 8 Lucid Dreaming Resources

Despite its popularity, there are relatively few websites and resources dedicated to lucid dreaming.

There are however, a few excellent resources.

Here are a few sites and articles I highly recommend:

  • Dreamviews
    Dreamviews is the largest and most active forum for lucid dreamers on the web. They even have forums for sleep and out-of-body experiences (OBEs).
  • The Lucidity Institute
    The Lucidity Institute is Stephen LaBerge’s business. It is intended to support research and spread the word on lucid dreaming, and to help others learn about lucid dreaming.
  • A Beginner’s Guide to Lucid Dreaming
    A wonderful and quick article by Tim Ferriss to get you started in lucid dreaming. Tim Ferriss is a fan of accelerated learning, so this article might help you get going fast.
  • World of Lucid Dreaming
    Rebecca Turner’s site on lucid dreaming is one of the most popular of its kind. She is an avid lucid dreamer and has plenty of articles and programs to help you get started.

Also, my Top 3 Books on Lucid Dreaming

  • Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self by Robert Waggoner
    This was my first book on lucid dreaming. I recommend it for anyone who isn’t simply out to “try it” and plans on continuing with lucid dreaming.
  • Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D.
    This is the most essential book on lucid dreaming. Anyone who is experienced in lucid dreaming has ben influenced by LaBerge and his work.
  • The Lucid Dreamer: A Waking Guide for the Traveler Between Worlds by Malcolm Godwin
    Godwin’s book is a broad book that goes into many aspects of sleep and lucid dreaming, including elements of the metaphysics. There isn’t a lot of how-to, but it is still a fun read and should be a part of the serious lucid dreamer’s bookshelf.

Bonus: Advanced Lucid Dreaming: The Power of Supplements by Thomas Yuschak. I was a bit reluctant to include this book. It is for advanced lucid dreamers (you should be having lucid dreams regularly before you attempt using the supplements in this book).

I made the mistake of using a couple of the supplements and I think it stunted my lucid progress. However, I am still having vivid dreams. Buy and use this only when you are an advanced lucid dreamer.

If you feel I missed some important resources, post them in the comments.

11 Key Lessons of Scientific Advertising

Claude Hopkins, author of Scientific Advertising

Claude Hopkins, author of Scientific Advertising

How do you know whether your advertising is selling?

How can you tell if anyone is reading your copy?

In 1923, Claude Hopkins wrote a book on advertising that’s just as relevant and useful today as it was 90 years ago, and it makes every attempt to make advertising as scientific as possible.

Here are my 11 big takeaways from the book legendary advertiser David Ogilvy says every advertiser should read seven times before they should have anything to do with advertising:

  1. No two advertising campaigns are alike.

    It took Eugene Schwartz’s ad wisdom to get this one into my head. It means creativity and hard work are essential. No cookie cutter ad tricks. It’s like writing your own song or screenplay. As a musician, it doesn’t feel good to hear someone say my music sounds exactly like another band’s music. Similarly, you don’t want to copy or cut and paste too much advertising. Potential customers can see right through it and you’ll come off as a clone, rather than someone who can solve a customer’s problem.

  2. Advertising is salemanship.

    Specifically, advertising is multiplied salesmanship. It’s not about sweet talking, slogans, or showing off. You are merely trying to solve a customer’s problem. Leave your ego at the door.

  3. The best ads ask no one to buy.

    They sell information… for free. Even Hopkins knew this before information technology moved and sold information at the speed of light. Think of all those television commercials offering a free DVD (often telling you “only pay the shipping,” which oddly costs only $7.95) and nothing more. That’s just step one or two in the sales funnel process.

  4. Your headline’s purpose…

    … is to pick out a very specific person of interest. That’s it. It is to get a specific, targeted audience to read the next line. That is all. If you are trying to sell something via copy (and you should be if you have a product), the sales letter is completely worthless without a grabbing headline that will get the reader to read the next line. And the next line. And the next line…

  5. If you’re going to get and education…

    Get an education in human psychology. No you don’t have to pay $80,000 at a university to understand humans. There are plenty of good books out there and plenty of people to practice with. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a great copywriter boast about their university education—at least I never heard one claim that’s what made them a great copywriter. They studied a couple of things: copy and people. If you have to choose, ditch the MBA and marketing education and pay attention to people—they way they act, and the way they react.

  6. Be specific.

    Generalities are the death of credibility. They make you sound lazy. Do your research and get your facts. If I told you there were over 200,000 combat deaths during the U.S. Civil War, it probably tells you I heard that somewhere on the radio or something. If I tell you 214,938 died in combat in the Civil War, you get the impression I know what I’m talking about. Be specific.

  7. Tell the full story.

    This could be the last chance you have with them. Don’t beg. Don’t rush into a marriage with a potential customer, but understand that this might be the last time you see this person. You don’t have to withhold information. Tell them everything.

  8. Images are for support.

    Not entertainment. If you are trying to be cute or funny, you aren’t trying to sell. Images should support the idea or product you are trying to sell, not divert the prospect’s attention.

  9. Test.

    This is probably the most important thing you can ever do in marketing and science. Here is how Hopkins sums it up in his chapter on testing:

    Suppose a chemist would say in an arbitrary way that this compound was best, or that better. You would little respect his opinion. He makes tests – sometimes hundreds of tests – to actually know which is best. He will never state a supposition before he has proved it. How long before advertisers in general will apply that exactness to advertising?

  10. Stop the negativity.

    I’ve always thought attack advertising in products (and politics) was pathetic. I don’t think it works, at least not for long. It makes you look afraid and vulnerable. Look at the old Mac versus PC ads. Mac has gain tremendous popularity and becomes one of the biggest companies in the world, but relatively few people use OSX to Windows. I still love my iPad, but I think the commercials made them look a bit idiotic. Prove your product is the best by selling me on your benefits instead of writing nasty attack ads.

  11. Get them to act.

    Now! Remember the lesson on telling the whole story. It’s just as Hopkins said in that lesson, this is the one chance you have with them. If you don’t tackle it now—if you don’t get them to act—you might have just lost a customer for life. Get them to do something now or they will never do anything for you.

Pick up a copy of Scientific Advertising with Hopkins’s book My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising. Or you can download the free PDF version of Scientific Advertising.

I have a quiet relationship with visual art.

I love to look at it, but I can never talk about it and I generally avoid group discussions about it. The most I might say is “I like that one” or “These ones are nice.”

The best I can do is to gather some life events and weave them into a coherent story and give it meaning. Somewhere in the story, I stumble across a piece of art which connects the dots between seemingly disconnected events. An artist puts something into a form the intellect cannot comprehend, but somehow the art grabs the observer, though the observer has no idea who or what in him understands.

One piece of art that induced such surreal emotions in me is the 1943 lithograph print entitled Reptiles by M.C. Escher.

GEB

I first saw Reptiles in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (also known as GEB)—a textbook-sized 800-page tome in which author Douglas Hofstadter attempts to figure out how inanimate objects can become animate beings.

The publisher called it a “metaphorical fugue” in which Hofstadter fused the works of four of his biggest inspirations: writer Lewis Carroll, 18th-century composer Johann Sebastian Bach, mathematician Kurt Gödel, and graphic artist M.C. Escher.

Between each chapter, Hofstadter draws inspiration from two of Carroll’s characters, Tortoise and Achilles, in twenty stories of his own. In one story, the characters are caught in a precarious situation in which they can “push” into and “pop” out of books and pictures, one of which is Escher’s Reptiles.

Reptiles

The print shows seven or eight small alligator-looking reptiles, each with two tusks protruding downward from the upper lip. One of them is blowing smoke from his nostrils. The reptiles are crawling in a circle over several objects, including a book, a dodecahedron, and a small metal pot. Three of the reptiles are crawling into and out of a two-dimensional drawing of tessellated reptiles.

A small empty glass sits on the right side of the canvas next to a corked jug—Hofstadter used this as part of a “pushing and popping” potion for his own story. An open book sits on the top side of the canvas—more pushing and popping for Hofstadter’s story—and a plant below the canvas. A small pack of JOB-brand cigarette papers sits below the drawing.

Hofstadter uses the reptiles’ dimensional pushing and popping to set up a chapter in his book in which he uses the pushing and popping in other forms including computer science. Although the book was not necessarily written for programmers, I bought GEB as an aspiring computer science major. In my early computer science lessons I learned how useful and common pushing and popping are in writing programs.

I saw pushing and popping everywhere: writing my own computer programs, going from waking to dreaming, hypothetical reasoning, and even in religious ideas. I saw the patterns Hofstadter pointed out, not only in his book, but in many areas of my own experience.

Lucid Dreaming

In 2010, one of my good friends told me he had been experimenting with lucid dreaming—becoming consciously aware he was dreaming during sleep. He thought I might be interested and recommended some books and techniques. It certainly piqued my interests in the metaphysical, so I gave it a try.

After practicing some of the techniques, I could recall more dreams and they were more and more vivid with each passing week. On Labor Day weekend in 2010, I had my first lucid dream. Achieving lucidity was surreal enough, but lucid dreaming now had me inquiring into the nature of my own consciousness. I wake from my typical dreams assured that the last twenty minutes or so never actually happened, but now I was aware I was pushing and popping into and out of realities.

I questioned who was dreaming and who was aware of the dream. I wondered how I could know whether I “popped” out of my sleeping dreams into another dream which has a much longer story and many more complex characters who share in the same dream.

GEB and Reptiles inadvertently became part of my dream experiments, if only by invoking that strange surreal emotion I feel when a work of art weaves into my experience. Neither GEB nor Reptiles confirmed anything about the nature of my dreams or the nature of the world as I see it, but I could not ignore the feelings or the odd sequence of events which led to GEB and Hofstadter’s use of Escher’s work.

While Escher claimed there was little meaning in the picture and that he was merely trying to draw something funny and paradoxical, even a casual observer can see why someone else can draw deeper meaning. One woman told Escher she thought Reptiles was a “striking illusion of reincarnation”.

I take no definite stance on reincarnation, but I have looked into it and have come across some readings that at least entertain the idea, most notably in a self-study religious book I have read several times since 2007 entitled A Course In Miracles, which also takes no definite stance on reincarnation, but it does refer to this world and this life—our physical world and bodies—as a “dream world” and indirectly says that we go through many of them.

I did not read A Course in Miracles for the purpose of dreaming. I seemed to have stumbled across it as I did GEB and Reptiles—out of curiosity or causal interest. But it does use sleeping dreams within the physical realm as an example of waking from one order of reality to another: “All your times is spent in dreaming. Your sleeping and waking dreams have different forms, and that is all. Their content is the same.”

So if A Course in Miracles is right, when I wake from my sleeping dreams, I am simply “popping” into another dream world and I have yet to pop out to reality. My point is not to convince anyone that what our physical eyes see is not real, but that A Course in Miracles was another piece in my own “metaphorical fugue.”

The Fugue

Reptiles might simply be one of Escher’s attempts at a paradox and humor, but like an instrumental ballad that invokes different memories and emotions through different ears, Hofstadter took an artist’s print and gave it a new meaning, weaving it into one of his own tales.

And among my lucid dreams, reading GEB, computer programming, and A Course in Miracles, I found Reptiles as a casual reader. That triggered an awareness of my own metaphorical fugue. The story (my fugue) might be nothing more than confirmation bias. I have no intentions of convincing anyone that their life is predetermined, or that such objects were placed in front of me to spark questions about reality. I merely stumbled across an image which triggered an awareness of some emotion—emotions I could not explain but neither can I ignore.

A ballad can remind us of heartbreak or of a fun childhood summer. Likewise, an image can draw brooding emotions or remind us of joyous memories and inspire.

I find it hard to believe Escher could create such a picture and see little or no meaning in it beyond paradox and humor. Questions about our own consciousness and the dimensions in which they exist are littered throughout the psychological and physical sciences.

Eventually, my eyes found Escher’s work. For me, it would be a reminder that I still did not know who I was or where I was, and he did it with tiny reptiles crawling in and out of a two-dimensional drawing in a small black and white lithograph print.

Works Cited
Escher, Maurits Cornelius. Reptiles. 1943. Lithograph Print. Web. 29 May 2013
Foundation for Inner Peace. A Course in Miracles. Foundation for Inner Peace; 2nd Edition. 1992.
Hofstadter, Douglas A. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Basic Books; 20th-Anniversary Edition. 5 February 1999
Unknown Author. Reptiles (M.C. Escher).Wikipedia. 3 June 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reptiles_%28M._C._Escher%29. Web.5 June 2013