An assessment of the Paleo Diet

Nothing too new for people already familiar with the Paleo or other low-carb diets and their supposed benefits, but this survey of the low-carb diet trend is a good 10,000 foot flyover.

In the midst of all the claims and counterclaims, there is a single clear piece of common ground. Experts of every stripe ask dieters to avoid refined sugars and grains. ‘Losing body weight on a plant-based diet is much less likely to occur if the diet includes too many refined carbohydrates,’ writes Cornell’s T. Colin Campbell in his book, The China Study , based in part on his Cornell-Oxford-China study research. Esselstyn instructs his dieters to consume only whole-grain products and avoid fruit juice. And McDougall urges his readers to eat complex carbohydrates instead of refined sugars and flours.

In essence, these scientists and doctors are recommending an Atkins diet that replaces the meat and fat with plants and certain complex (but never refined) carbohydrates.

...

It’s also safe to say that carbohydrates as we eat them today are indeed ‘unnatural’ for us. Even though our Paleolithic ancestors almost certainly enjoyed occasional treats of honey, they weren’t having Entenmann’s crumb coffee cake for breakfast; the technology to refine grains just wasn't available then. It’s likely that our bodies are not well-suited for such a regimen, either.

So Paleo dieters might be right – we could be more evolutionarily in tune with a diet like that of our ancestors, which almost certainly includes fewer refined carbs. We can’t say, based on today’s evidence, that carbs are the root cause of all our chronic ailments, but scientific evidence suggests that we might stay healthier if we take flour and added sugar off our plates. Still, human nature is a moving target. Cookie by cookie, we might be forging humanity into new evolutionary territory, re‑shaping our genes to handle our new dietary indulgences. Along the way, we will undoubtedly ease our problems with new medicines, technologies and lifestyle adaptations – the supine lifestyle depicted in the 2008 film WALL-E comes to mind. But we will undoubtedly have a smoother road ahead if we change our dietary ways, instead of letting our dietary ways change us.
 

Less sugar, less refined carbs, sure. But I don't think our paleolithic ancestors had wine or beer, either, and that's a problem for me. After a long day persistence hunting a saber-toothed tiger or wooly mammoth or whatever it was they were chasing, I think my ancient brethren would've appreciated a glass of the good stuff.

Life of a condom

When MetroCard meets GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld, he looks at me and says, No wonder Jordi Hirschfeld not yet use you. I become confused. Use me for what?

That night, MetroCard tells me many strange things about myself. At first, I do not believe what he says. But he insists all is true. When I start to panic, he laughs. He says, What did you think you were for? I am too embarrassed to admit truth, which is that I thought I was balloon.
 

Simon Rich, son of Frank Rich, is one of my favorite humorists. I wrote here about his great four-part comedic story “Sell Out” a while ago (you can start with Part One), and another of his comic masterpieces “Guy Walks Into Bar” has been atop The New Yorker's Most Popular list for much of the time since they opened their archives for the summer.

The excerpt above is from his short “Unprotected: Life of a condom.” It reminds me of this Google commercial.

The state of the romantic comedy

Richard Brody, perhaps the most interesting film critic working now (ironically he is relegated almost entirely to the online blog or Talk About Town sections of The New Yorker while colleagues David Denby and Anthony Lane split the weekly movie reviews), discusses romantic comedies with an aside on the new movie Sex Tape.

The modern romantic comedy is stretched on the rack of a dichotomy, one that I wrote about here a few years ago: the possibility of a polar disconnect between love and desire, between a meeting of the minds and a connection of the bodies. The classic romance, whether comic or tragic, is built on desire igniting a conflict that has to be resolved for a relationship to grow; modern romance is based on the premise of emotional and intellectual compatibility, the effort to kindle the sparks of love from friendship.
 

From the article linked in that excerpt:

In our time, the problem isn’t finding a reason to act on attraction (though Eric Rohmer has given us plenty of reasons not to), it’s whether there’s a point to having a relationship afterwards—it isn’t getting together but staying together. We’re forthright enough about desire to distinguish it from the many other things that life is made of; it’s necessary but not sufficient. The twist of “Knocked Up” is that desire quickly yields to practicalities; the terrible pathos of “Funny People” is that fierce mutual desire turns out not to be enough. The title of “The Royal Tenenbaums” could be (with apologies to Hal Hartley) “Surviving Desire.” What makes modern romance complicated is that our expectations are surprisingly high—they take in desire and four-syllable words, a meeting of the minds as well as an erotic charge. And the wisdom of our modern-day romantics, whether Judd Apatow or Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach or James Gray or Peyton Reed, is not Hitchcock’s but Joe E. Brown’s (rather, Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond’s): “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
 

The increased expectations for marriage is a topic I've covered here before:

Our expectations of our spouses have been lifted to new heights, and it's only natural that the romantic comedy would start to reflect that.

Incidentally, Grantland spent all of last week on romantic comedies, and a related piece of note is Wesley Morris' essay Knocked Out: Have romantic comedies become obsolete?

The downside of telecommuting

Robin Hanson on why telecommuting hasn't become more prevalent:

The standard proximate cause, described in the quote above, is that workers and their bosses get a lot of detailed emotional info via frequent in-person meetings. Such detailed emotional info can help to build stronger feelings of mutual trust and affiliation. But the key question is, why are firms willing to pay so much for that? How does it help firm productivity enough to pay for its huge costs?

My guess: frequent detailed emotional info helps political coalitions, even if not firms. Being able to read detailed loyalty signals is central to maintaining political coalitions. The strongest coalitions take over firms and push policies that help them resist their rivals. If a firm part adopted local policies that weakened the abilities of locals to play politics, that part would be taken over by coalitions from other parts of the firm, who would then push for policies that help them. A lack of telecommuting is only one of a long list of examples of inefficient firm policies than can be reasonably be attributed to coalition politics.

Minecraft as platform

Fun appreciation of Minecraft by Robin Sloan.

To play, you must seek information elsewhere.

Was it a conscious decision? A strategic bit of design? I don’t know. Maybe Markus Persson always intended to create an in-game tutorial but never got around to it. If so: lucky him, and lucky us, because by requiring the secret knowledge to be stored, and sought, elsewhere, he laid the foundation for Minecraft’s true form.

Minecraft-the-game, maintained in Sweden by Persson’s small studio, is just the seed, or maybe the soil. The true Minecraft (no italics, for we are speaking of something larger now) is the game plus the sprawling network of tutorials, wikis, galleries, videos—seriously, search for “minecraft” on YouTube and be amazed—mods, forum threads, and more. The true Minecraft is the oral tradition: secrets and rumors shared in chat rooms, across cafeteria tables, between block-faced players inside the game itself.
 

When I first started working on the Amazon Web Services team in 2003, one of the things Jeff Bezos hammered home to us was the importance of building everything at the most atomic level possible so they could be reassembled in ways unimaginable even to us. I had lunch with him once and we were talking about our interests outside of work, and he mentioned his love of this book Creation: Life and How to Make It by Steve Grand. The book discusses, among other things, how complex things can be built if you have the right building blocks, and one of the most important attributes of those building blocks was that they be defined as simply and atomically as possible.

So, for example, when we discussed a payment web service, Jeff didn't want a security layer built in. That was something separate from the core of an atomic payments service which should just be about sending and receiving money. 

I have not played Minecraft before, but Sloan's article gives me the sense it has that same atomic nature that characterizes generative platforms for really creative work.

My favorite networked services all have that quality, but capturing value from these building blocks in the form of revenue is a trickier problem and often involves building products and services on top of that very platform.

One of my favorite and most beautifully atomic building blocks of the web, Twitter, is grappling with that same issue. I've been meaning to share some thoughts on some possible ways forward for Twitter because the possibilities are fun to contemplate and it's a service I really love. That's a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that they have huge potential given their elegant architecture, and that can be both a blessing and a curse as some Chinese proverb goes. 

The biology of risk

That was the title of a fascinating opinion piece by John Coates from back in early June in the NYTimes.

Most of us tend to believe that stress is largely a psychological phenomenon, a state of being upset because something nasty has happened. But if you want to understand stress you must disabuse yourself of that view. The stress response is largely physical: It is your body priming itself for impending movement.

As such, most stress is not, well, stressful. For example, when you walk to the coffee room at work, your muscles need fuel, so the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol recruit glucose from your liver and muscles; you need oxygen to burn this fuel, so your breathing increases ever so slightly; and you need to deliver this fuel and oxygen to cells throughout your body, so your heart gently speeds up and blood pressure increases. This suite of physical reactions forms the core of the stress response, and, as you can see, there is nothing nasty about it at all.

Far from it. Many forms of stress, like playing sports, trading the markets, even watching an action movie, are highly enjoyable. In moderate amounts, we get a rush from stress, we thrive on risk taking. In fact, the stress response is such a healthy part of our lives that we should stop calling it stress at all and call it, say, the challenge response.
 

Coates notes that the challenge response in humans is particularly sensitive to uncertainty and novelty, causing an elevation in cortisol which reduces our appetite for risk.

Based on that thesis, Coates argues that in reducing uncertainty about upcoming interest rate movies, Greenspan and Bernanke have actually “one of the most powerful brakes on excessive risk taking in stocks was released,” leading to much greater stock market volatility and more dramatic stock market booms and busts.

It may seem counterintuitive to use uncertainty to quell volatility. But a small amount of uncertainty surrounding short-term interest rates may act much like a vaccine immunizing the stock market against bubbles. More generally, if we view humans as embodied brains instead of disembodied minds, we can see that the risk-taking pathologies found in traders also lead chief executives, trial lawyers, oil executives and others to swing from excessive and ill-conceived risks to petrified risk aversion. It will also teach us to manage these risk takers, much as sport physiologists manage athletes, to stabilize their risk taking and to lower stress.
 

I watched more soccer (I'd use football but most posts tagged football in my blog will be about the American rendition, so for disambiguation I'm going to use what soccer fans would consider the profane nomenclature) than I have in my entire life up until now this summer because of the World Cup. People put on the game in the office, and everywhere I went it seemed some American TV was dialed to a game.

[This is a topic for another post, but I am curious about what drove this noticeable uptick in interest in soccer in the U.S. this summer. Was it the greater build out of social media? The success of the U.S. team? Increased coverage on ESPN? The fact that games were in the U.S. timezone this time, unlike the next World Cup or this past Winter Olympics? The rise of MLS? All or none of the above?]

While I'm far from a soccer expert, I did detect a noticeable tightening of game play in overtime. This could purely be because of fatigue, but it led to a less interesting form of play in those periods.

Coates' theory of the relationship between risk-taking and uncertainty reminded me of one of my pet peeves about many sports: the many mental traps that reduce risk-taking in athletes and coaches. From a sports design perspective, I'd argue that fans would prefer greater daring from players and teams more often. Volatility, with dramatic boom and busts, may be not be desirable when it comes to your finances, but in sports and entertainment it's the building block for more compelling drama.

It's not just soccer. The reluctance of football coaches to go for it on fourth down more often is another example where reduced risk lowers entertainment value. The irony is that mathematically, what feels like riskier behavior may be the more rational play. The math supports going for it on fourth down most if not all the time. In soccer, ending overtime deadlocked leads to the randomness of penalty kicks. I'm not conversant on the statistics around soccer, but leaving your fate to penalty kicks feels less certain than just trying to win in overtime.

If the players and coaches won't behave rationally, however, they can have their hands forced by rule changes. What if the NFL just banned punting? Everyone would go for it on fourth down, and I'm confident that would be a more exciting game. What if soccer's overtime were sudden death?

My ideal sports design guiding philosophy: maximize entropy but still reward skilled play. That is, you can let the rough at the U.S. Open grow wild so golfers have to try to stay in the fairways or risk having to hack their way out of the weeds. You can shorten the first round 7 game series in the NBA to 5 games to give the underdog a greater chance.

Don't design a game so skill-based that the outcome is never in doubt. There's a reason why people don't watch televised checkers. But also don't design a game so random that every contestant has an equal chance of winning regardless of skill. You might as well watch two teams flip a coin.

Beware destination shareholder meetings

Li and Yermack look at data on 10,000 annual shareholder meetings held between 2006 and 2010. In one set of companies that in a certain year choose to hold their shareholder meeting at least 1,000 miles from the corporate headquarters. After such meetings, the company is more likely to announce unfavorable quarterly earnings, and also experiences an stock market return 3.7% less than a benchmark for the overall stock market over the following six months.

Similarly, when a company holds its shareholder meeting at least 50 miles from a major airport, its stock underperforms the market benchmarks in the following six months. When companies hold their meeting both more than 50 miles a major airport and more than 50 miles from corporate headquarters, the company's stock underperforms the market by 6.8% in the six months after the meeting.

Just to be clear, this effect is not rooted in effects from companies that are already known to be performing poorly, or already facing controversy, before the shareholder meeting occurs.
 

More here.

Destination weddings are more fun, though, in my opinion.

Protecting heterogeneous activity

Freedom is the ability to allocate your resources differently.  The majority allocates their resources in one direction...and you can choose to allocate your resources in a different direction. 

The perfect example is the story of Noah's ark.  Does it bother you that the story is fictitious?  It really shouldn't.  As the story goes...God informs Noah that he's going to destroy the world with a flood.  This information provides Noah with the incentive to use his resources to build a giant boat.  Even though he shares his partial knowledge with others...he's the only one who acts on it.  Everybody else laughs at him because they really doubt the business model.  The majority believes one thing and an extremely small minority believes another thing.  Both groups can't be right.  And in this case, neither can both groups be wrong.  Either the world will be destroyed by a flood...or it won't be.  Despite the fact that each group is certain that the other is wrong...there's no attempt to restrict each other's freedom.  Each group can allocate their resources differently.  The majority takes one path...and the minority takes another path.  It's a good thing that Noah's freedom was not restricted because it turns out that he chose the right path. 

The moral of the story is that heterogeneous activity is essential.  Because the future is uncertain...we should hedge our bets by protecting individual freedom.  Doing so maximizes the variety of economic activity which maximizes discovery which maximizes progress.
 

More here, interesting throughout. Isn't this a great description of Silicon Valley? Worth remembering the next time someone is ready to publish another piece of outrage when some wacky startup like Yo raises a million dollars in financing or someone raises over $50,000 on Kickstarter to make potato salad (the latter is hilarious to me and not reason for mass outrage; consider it either as a mass Duchampian art installation or as an economic transfer from the gullible to the clever).

Cohen wants you to believe that your immediate intuition, sharing is caring, is the correct one.  But in reality, the correct intuition is that recognizing and respecting ownership results in far greater abundance of the things that we value enough to sacrifice for.  Protecting ownership incentivizes people to choose the paths that others have positively valuated or might positively valuate.  If we, as consumers, want a greater abundance of apples...then we have to reward the producers who've chosen to grow apples.  This ties into the idea of value signals...

Here's a summary...

  1. Sylvia discovers a bunch of apples (risk)
  2. Others are willing to pay for her apples (valuation)
  3. If the value signal is bright enough, others will start supplying apples (incentive)
  4. The result is the optimum supply of apples (abundance)
     

It's a long post that delves into many other topics including a discussion of war and its impact on government spending and whether that's an optimal outcome. But what struck a chord with me was the importance of a lack of centralized funding allocation structure in Silicon Valley, and why that's important to protecting heterogeneous activity within the technology sector. It's one of the secrets to the generative nature of this sector.

Pragmatarianism is one of the blogs I recently discovered that made it into my browser toolbar. I'll point you to one last passage from this same post.

Michael Michaud is the author of Contact with Alien Civilizations.  He's under the impression that chances are pretty good that alien visitors wouldn't have discovered that progress depends on freedom.  It shouldn't be a surprise though given that he himself hasn't made this discovery. 

As I've argued in a few blog entries...

...contrary to Michaud, I believe that it's highly unlikely that extraterrestrial visitors wouldn't have figured out that progress depends on discovery...and discovery depends on doing things differently.  You're really not going to get different results by doing the exact same thing over and over.  Thinking otherwise is, according to Einstein, insane. 

Regarding Michaud's specific example...as history clearly proves...a certain amount of progress can be made without understanding that progress depends on freedom.  This is because it's extremely difficult to completely eradicate freedom.  But if Hitler had successfully managed to conquer the world...would the rate of progress have increased or decreased?  The rate of progress would have plummeted because far fewer people would have been free to allocate their resources differently. 
 

Could it be that the premise of almost every movie about our first encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence is flawed? Could the difficulty of traveling through space be an effective filter on war-mongering alien races, and should we instead presume that any civilization enlightened enough to travel light years across space to reach us would understand more than anyone the value of leaving us humans our freedom?

I'd love to see more utopic science fiction movies that use technology as a source of improvements in life. Not all roads have to lead to Skynet, and most probably don't.