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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ab-by Normal

As I said in a previous post, Americans’ bodies have changed significantly, and alarmingly, in the past twenty years. But what I have learned since then is how much even “healthy” processed food in America has changed in the same amount of time.

No wonder it’s so hard for people to lose weight these days!

I'm at a point in my life where I have to work harder to maintain a lean look. And over the past decade I have noticed, in my admittedly nonscientific, anecdotal way, that certain people at the gym on those stationary bikes or on those runner belts, and certain people in dance classes and other activities, though they are definitely strong, have more endurance than I do, and are in reasonably good health, do not seem to get any thinner – year after mystifying year. I’ve wondered about it.

In dealing with my own metabolic changes, due to age (and having accepted the fact that I’m just not cut out for endurance sports, such as long-distance cycling and the like), I’ve been doing some new research into nutrition and exercise. Naturally, you have to be very careful about anything you read about health, especially on the Internet, and I had certainly never gone online for this before, because I didn’t think I could trust what I would find.

My basic rule is, if it’s popular it’s probably a fad, and all fads are scams.

99% of what you hear and see these days in the media is unbelievable garbage, just utter crap (another thing that has significantly changed in the past twenty years). I simply can’t stand mass media today, because now practically everyone is speaking in that overbearing, Dr. Phil-esque, obnoxious, revivalist-tent snake-handler drone. (Even on PBS: “Are PREDATORS out there COMING for your CHILDREN?” Dude, do you HAVE to TALK to us like we're STUPID?) Most of what talking heads say on television “news” programs is jaw-droppingly outrageous (and I'm glaring in your direction too, Dr. Sanjay Gupta!).

Therefore, when I stumbled upon one of the cheesiest-looking websites I’ve ever seen, touting an equally cheesy-looking book offering “The Truth About Six Pack Abs,” I rolled my eyes. Another snake-handler. (I roll my eyes anyway whenever I see anything about “abs.”) But I kept encountering the book, and the website.

So I researched this book – and came across testimonial after testimonial praising its exercise program and its dietary advice, including people who identified themselves as fitness trainers and physicians. (“I thought at first it was another gimmick at first, but…” Well, that’s just another gimmick, isn’t it?)

Finally, I got ahold of the book itself (for free – it’s there if you look, but don't violate copyright) and read it. And then I got a hold of a copy of the book to keep as a reference. I’m going to be one of those people who say, “I thought it was just another gimmick…”

Not only did Michael Geary’s information dovetail with much that I had learned in dance classes, from personal trainers at the Y, and from doctors, etc., what he had to say specifically about conditioning the abs shocked me and made a lot of sense. To whit:

1. Endurance training and endless moderate cardio repetitions (hours of cycling, jogging, swimming, walking, Stairmaster, etc.) do not trim your waist and may actually reduce your metabolic rate to the point that you burn muscle. I never liked the Stairmaster, preferring to take actual stairs, which I do every day as part of my routine. And I never jog or run anymore – it’s not good for most people’s joints, and I was told outright to quit. So that first point made sense.

2. Under an hour of “stop and go” anaerobic exercises, involving short bursts of intensity (wind sprints, short-interval intense weight training, and playing sports such as tennis, football, basketball, karate, any kind of boxing, etc.) 3-4 times a week will trim your waistline much better than hours of cardio training.

I always felt guilty about not being able to ride my bike for long distances, but now that I think about it, I never thought that long-distance runners and bikers looked that healthy! Compare them to sprinters next time you see them. Sprinters look buff – marathon runners/bikers, with some exceptions, look stringy. Strange, huh?

But think about it – we (as did all animals) evolved to perform “stop and go” activities, not to read magazines on the stationary bike for hours. Even gerbils won’t run a wheel that long. Humans are the only animals to force themselves to perform endurance activites – and for most people they’re actually harmful.

3. Carbs do not make you fat. (I knew this.) Fat does not make you fat. (I didn’t know this.) Processed carbs and fat make you fat. In other words, olive oil is better for you than corn or soybean oil (I knew this), butter is better for you to cook with than margarine or vegetable oil (I didn’t know this), and coconut or palm oil are also better for you than margarine or vegetable oil (what?). Saturated fat isn’t the problem – processed fat of any kind is! (Okay, pick your jaw off the floor.)

And there I was feeling guilty because I gave up both margarine and vegetable oil, because I can’t stand them, for butter! I figured I could “cheat” this way because I cook almost exclusively with olive oil – which is also very good for you. Well, as it turns out, popcorn (a complex carb) with butter (a natural saturated fat) is good for you! (Claps)

4. Eggs are good for you. (I knew this.) Meat and dairy fat is very good for you (gasp!) as long as you consume free-range grass-fed meat and raw milk that is not homogenized or pasteurized. If your meat is from a slaughterhouse or your milk is homogenized and pasteurized, go with lean meat and skim milk. Well, that’s not what they told us in Home Ec class (which for me was over twenty years ago).

*The FDA and the CDC do not recommend the consumption of raw milk, so until I find more recent research by these organizations I do not recommend it, either.

5. The two evils in our food supply are not cholesterol (which is healing) and fat (which is necessary), but High Fructose Corn Syrup and Trans Fat. Check out the labels on all packaged food you buy – HFCS is in frigging everything, including “healthy” no-fat fruit juices and tomato paste. And what is trans fat? Well – margarine, for one thing, and vegetable oil, which is used to fry most of our restaurant foods – you know, the crap that all this popular propaganda tells us is “good for us.” Great. That is what has changed in the past twenty years.

In Europe, they don’t cook with vegetable oil or spread margarine on their bread – they cook with butter and animal fat. They don't use HFCS. Yes, their portions are smaller (and it helps that their food certainly tastes better ), probably due to the fact that supermarket chains never caught on over there, and so, they get their meat and dairy from (all together now) grass-fed animals on local farms. This was all coming together for me.

In Europe, I certainly didn’t see people cycling for hours on a stationary bike. Instead, they walked or biked around doing small errands, carrying items to work or home, and then went out to the café or the park. Hell, Europeans do quite a bit of sitting and talking, and a lot of drinking and smoking, and eating paté and such – and yet they’re quite thin, and apparently healthy and energetic. Americans seem to be slogging along (we’re overworked and underpaid, for one thing) without a lot of energy. What gives?

As Geary points out, man has eaten meat, eggs, and dairy for thousands of years, whereas heart disease and cancer became a major problem only with the rise of margarine and vegetable oil, and a sedentary existence, in the Twentieth Century. Yes, this was all making sense to me.

Also, a lot of European town are hilly, which helps. Doing cycles of running uphill and walking down for 15 minutes beats hours of cycling.

6. What you need to do to trim your waist (or maintain it when you’ve got it) is not hours of ab crunches and cardio exercises, but intense weight training 3-4 times a week (then 1-2 times a week for maintenance), plus some wind sprints (spurts of uphill or short distance sprinting or cycling so that you breathe heavier, alternated by moderate running or walking, or biking), and a diet that avoids processed food – even “healthy” foods such as canned veggies and juices – and a few ab exercises, not more than 5-10 minutes of them. And that’s it. If you’re going to do ab crunches, hang from a bar and lift your legs (keeping your back rounded – don’t arch your back) instead of just doing those frigging dancer sit-ups (which I’ve always hated, anyway - and from which I can no longer get a burn after years of doing them).

Well, I loved that. Lift your lower body more, rather than your upper – because your lower body is heavier! Duh! Why didn't I think of that?

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Portion control is important – as is eating simple carbs at the right time, and weekly overfeeding! (Huh?) Well, so here I go…

I thought this book was just another gimmick, but…

I do want to say something about Susan Powter’s program, however. I have used her fat calculation (multiply the number of fat grams by 9, then divide by the total number of calories to derive the fat percentage, and eat nothing with over 10% fat) ever since she came out with “Stop the Insanity” in the 1990s, and I still love her program.

Michael Geary is down on all “fad” diets (and rightly so), including low-fat diets, but in truth, Susan Powter’s program, which she touts as a “low-fat” diet, is very similar to Mr. Geary’s.

After you’ve eaten whatever’s left that is packaged and consists of only 10% fat (which cuts out almost all processed food, definitely a good thing), you’re going to want to snack – because you’ll be hungry – and you’re going to snack, as she suggests, on nuts, seeds, carrots, fruits, whole grains, etc. – thus getting most of your fat from unprocessed sources, just as Mr. Leary advocates. Susan Powter’s program is not a “fad” diet, and that was her whole point.

I think Susan Powter did women a great service in the 1990s by exposing the absurdities in the aerobic exercise industry and also in pointing all the crap that is in our food supply. (“You’re being lied to.” Yes, and we still are!) Her program was the closest thing I ever came to “dieting” in my life – and to be perfectly frank, her program works even if you don’t follow it rigorously. (Indian and Middle Eastern food has a lot of fat in it, and we eat lots of both). I read and loved her book, and I still recommend her program. However, I heartily recommend Michael Geary’s weight training exercises and dieting advice as well. Plus, as Susan Powter did, he explodes a lot of myths:

MYTH: Eating late at night makes you fat. Wrong! Geary even has a menu in which he suggests late-night snacks. (Claps) It does not, however, include late-night nachos, so I’ve cut that out.

MYTH: If 30-45 minutes of weight training is good for me, 2 hours is even better. WRONG! You’ll just start burning tissue. As with all exercise, it’s important to know when to stop.

MYTH: You should cut out all simple carbs. Again, WRONG! In fact, you should consume some white grains and/or bananas and/or cooked carrots after your weight training routine, because that’s when you’ll need that insulin rush (like cholesterol, insulin has gotten a bad rap). In fact, you need to overeat carbs one day a week, so that you won’t plateau due to a drop in your metabolic rate (a common problem people face when trying to lose weight – suddenly they can’t lose anymore). And let’s face it, you need to eat a ton of carrots to get diabetes, so forget the low-carb thingie.

Myself, I’ve never really focused on weight. (After I hit my thirties my weight was always high, even when I was at my leanest.) Your body fat index is a better indicator, since muscle weighs more than fat, and everyone is going to deviate from those government standards anyway. I see absolutely no reason to cut out any major nutrient, such as carbs, from your diet.

Therefore, I cannot comment on Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, because I’ve never gone that route. I’m not comfortable with actual “dieting,” which all too often seems to consist of mind-games such as, “I ate a piece of celery for lunch, so now I get to have that cupcake.” WTF? Don’t do that! (I am not saying that Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig advocate this, I'm just saying that that's what I consistently hear from women who are "on a diet.")

However, I will say that “Lean Cuisine,” energy bars, and other such foods are a total scam in my opinion. (Look at the label and do Susan Powter’s calculation – eeek!) Powders, pills, and most supplements are scams, too. I don't use them.

Another “stop and go” exercise that I recommend that often gets overlooked is figure skating. That, hockey, and rollerblading are excellent sports, because they, like the sports listed above and free weights, work your stabilizer muscles. Stationary bikes and weight training machines actually do too much of the work for you, and you risk injury due to the atrophying of your stabilizing muscles (including the abs, which you’re trying to work on in the first place).

Instead of walking on a conveyor belt, I recommend carrying your groceries home from the store if you can, and doing other short errands on foot. Let’s face it, nobody wants to exercise (unless you enjoy the high from workouts, as I do), so if you “trap” yourself into having to finish frequent errands on foot, that’s the best way to sneak it in.

Also, I’m pretty skeptical of those aerobic workout videos, but Angela Lansbury came out with an excellent one that included low-impact stretching and strengthening that, again, duplicates what I’ve learned in various dance classes. It is important to know how to protect your back and joints when you’re trying to get into shape – otherwise you risk injury. She does a good job. (I’m not fonda the more famous video.)

Lastly, Michael Geary solidified my respect for him when he assured his female readers that they won’t “bulk up” in some unsightly manner from weight training. That is the most nefarious myth about burning fat in my opinion, because when women are scared away from weights and resistance training, they spend their time on the stationary bike in front of the television, wasting their time, wondering why they’re not getting any thinner, and feeling guilty (and probably end up bingeing, because they’re frustrated and depressed).

To put it simply, you cannot get leaner without working with free weights. You need to carefully traumatize your skeletal muscles so that your metabolism works round the clock to repair them (which means you need to rest a day in between, or do some limited cardio on those days). Also, weight training is especially important for women to prevent osteoporosis.

A stability ball and some adjustable dumbbells or barbells are all that you need. No fancy clothes, no yoga mats, no cutesy feminine accessories. (I approve of yoga but it's become too commercial as well, with all the trapping you're supposed to buy, when in fact true yoga teachers are not supposed to accept payment for their instruction.)

Having said all this, my two rules are:

1. Never perform an exercise that you truly hate (I always loathed long distance cycling, so I never became good at it), and

2. Never choke down “healthy” foods that you just can’t stomach. (I detest peas, and nothing will change that.) Don’t turn your exercise/eating program into another “repent for your sins” ordeal. Make it yours, and enjoy it. You’re supposed to enjoy it!

(P.S. Michael Geary says that anyone, despite their genetics, can have well defined abs. Well, I don’t know about that – I never had them, even back when I weighed 95 pounds and did cross country running with ease. I’m not sure I want an insectile six-pack, but what the heck, I’m using his routines now and we’ll see what happens.)

UPDATED: The latest book I'm reading.

SECOND UPDATE: This book gets some facts wrong.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

They Don't Get It

Conservative Christians have launched a campaign (in response to Evangelicals’ sudden interest in the effects of global warming) to gather a million signatures on a petition that opposes human beings taking any action against global climate change. The name of this self-serving, anti-science petition drive? “We Get It.”

Getting Their Message a Cross

Conservative religious leaders have launched a "We Get It!" campaign that just goes to prove that saying something doesn't make it so. The campaign aims to gather a million signatures on a petition opposing climate-change action, with the argument that tackling global warming will hurt the world's poor. "Our stewardship of creation must be based on Biblical principles and factual evidence," says the petition. "We face important environmental challenges, but must be cautious of claims that our planet is in peril from speculative dangers like man-made global warming."

So far the petition doesn’t have many takers, but the usual suspects have already signed, including Senator James Inhofe (who just visited Minnesota), and James Dobson. No surprise there.

I wonder if Ben Stein will sign on. Look for DaveScot, William Dembski, and the whole Intelligent Design gaggle to flock to it as well. Good for them.

How sad. But as I’ve said before, the Internet provides us, for the first time, with a virtual paper trail of creationist/pseudoscientific movements that will prove beneficial in the future in counteracting the influence of these groups. As we saw with “creation science” in the 1980s, these groups follow the same pattern.

On the other end of the woo scale, “Peak Oil” cultists are constructing “satellite communities” on the same old romantic “survivalist” silliness.

BUSKIRK, N.Y. - A few years ago, Kathleen Breault was just another suburban grandma, driving countless hours every week, stopping for lunch at McDonald's, buying clothes at the mall, watching TV in the evenings.
That was before Breault heard an author talk about the bleak future of the world's oil supply. Now, she's preparing for the world as we know it to disappear.

Breault cut her driving time in half. She switched to a diet of locally grown foods near her upstate New York home and lost 70 pounds. She sliced up her credit cards, banished her television and swore off plane travel. She began relying on a wood-burning stove."

I was panic-stricken," the 50-year-old recalled, her voice shaking. "Devastated. Depressed. Afraid. Vulnerable. Weak. Alone. Just terrible."

Convinced the planet's oil supply is dwindling and the world's economies are heading for a crash, some people around the country are moving onto homesteads, learning to live off their land, conserving fuel and, in some cases, stocking up on guns they expect to use to defend themselves and their supplies from desperate crowds of people who didn't prepare.

The exact number of people taking such steps is impossible to determine, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the movement has been gaining momentum in the last few years.

(See also “Imagine there No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse.” Subscription required.)

Now, I certainly approve of weaning oneself off of junk food and driving and malls, turning off the television, eating local food (and losing 70 pounds, congratulations!), and paying down (but not cutting up) one's credit cards. However, fear and panic is no way to respond to what is, yes, a serious crisis. Though I accept that we are at or near global “peak oil,” that only represents the top of a bell curve, projecting not (as Ben Stein would have it) of all the oil in the world, but the portion of the world’s oil that is easily accessible and exploitable by us. There is still plenty of oil in the world - and we’ll probably never reach it all. Nor should we.

I wonder what these naive, self-styled pioneers are going to do when they figure out that modern corn is (like most wheat, wild rice, etc.) a hybrid, unable to reseed itself beyond a few generations, if at all. They'll need factories to produce their seeds. (I also wonder where they're going to get a renewable supply of canning jar lids, since reusing them risks breeding botulism. And toilet paper? They'll use leaves? Well, read on.)

We cannot know what the sum total of the effects of global climate change will be. The earth is a complicated system and will not get uniformly “hotter.” (The earth is tilted on its axis, for one thing.) Heat in one area can produce cooling in another. One scenario that particularly alarms me is the possible shutting down of the Gulf Stream, which would likely produce advancing ice sheets. Oh, goodie. A frightening hypothetical, but not worth scaring people silly about.*

What we will see in the short term is greater spread of airborne and insect-carried diseases in developing nations, and the encroachment of antibiotic-resistant Tuberculosis into the developed countries. (TB is following in the wake of the HIV-AIDS devastation of Africa and India.) We will see ocean levels rise, and the disruption of seasonal ocean currents, which will affect local ecosystems and spawning patterns. We will see the die-off of certain trees that rely on regular cold winters to repel parasites, to be replaced by fir trees (and so much for natural toilet paper).

Frankly, I think people like Kathleen Breault are doing the right thing - except for buying guns and cutting themselves off. It sounds like people like her are scared mostly of other people - and no matter what you think of Al Gore, that's not a reaction he ever advocated.

*For the ultimate Ice Age, which allegedly happened in the Precambrian, check out “How the Earth was Made” (a bad title, and some hammy commercial break transitions, but fun and basically a good documentary).


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Live Long and Prosper

California's Supreme Court overturned bans on gay marriage last week, and the fundies aren't happy - but George Takei is.

Shimmies to Sulu and his partner, Brad Altman! Does anyone have any anti-matter birdseed?
Seriously, it's about time. Maybe Minnesota will be next.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Now They Can Quit Pretending

The Discovery Institute does believe in eugenics after all.

Michael Medved claims that Americans are genetically superior to other human beings.

The radical notion that our national character stems from genetics as well as culture has always inspired angry controversy; many observers scoff at the whole idea of a unifying hereditary component in our multi-racial, multi-cultural society. Aside from the varied immigrants who now make up nearly 15% of the population, the forebears of today’s Americans journeyed to this continent from Asia, Africa, Latin America and every nation of Europe. Our stark differences in appearance, if nothing else, argue against the concept of common DNA connecting contemporary citizens of wildly divergent ancestry.

Gee, I guess different colors of paper also show that it can't all be made from trees. (I suppose that God made the nice colors - pink, blue, yellow - and Satan the colors that I like, like black, red, and hot pink.)

Nevertheless, two respected professors of psychiatry have recently come out with challenging books that contend that those who chose to settle this country in every generation possessed crucial common traits that they passed on to their descendents. In “American Mania,” Peter C. Whybrow of U.C.L.A. argues that even in grim epochs of starvation and persecution, only a small minority ever chooses to abandon its native land and to venture across forbidding oceans to pursue the elusive dream of a better life. The tiny percentage making that choice (perhaps only 2%, even in most periods of mass immigration) represents the very essence of a self-selecting group. Compared to the Irish or Germans or Italians or Chinese or Mexicans who remained behind in the “Old Country,” the newcomers to America would naturally display a propensity for risk-taking, for restlessness, for exuberance and self-confidence – traits readily passed down to subsequent generations. Whybrow explained to the New York Times Magazine that immigrants to the United States and their descendents seemed to possess a distinctive makeup of their “dopamine receptor system – the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking.”

John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University Medical School makes a similar case for an American-specific genotype in “The Hypomanic Edge”—celebrating the frenzied energy of American life that’s impressed every visitor since Tocqueville. The United States also benefited from our tradition of limited government, with only intermittent and ineffective efforts to suppress the competitive, entrepreneurial instincts of the populace. Professor Whybrow says: “Here you have the genes and the completely unrestricted marketplace. That’s what gives us our peculiar edge.” In other words, “anything goes capitalism” reflects and sustains the influence of immigrant genetics.

The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S. Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits. Among contemporary African-Americans, however, this very different historical background exerts a less decisive influence, because of vast waves of post-slavery black immigration. Some three million black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean arrived since 1980 alone and in big cities like New York, Boston and Miami close to half of the African-American population consists of immigrants, their children or grandchildren. The entrepreneurial energy of these newcomer communities indicates that their members display the same adventurous instincts associated with American DNA.

In other words, "Oh, we're not saying that white people are genetically superior to black people - we're just saying that white Americans are genetically superior to black Americans!" What a pig Medved is!

Naturally, PZ Myers takes down Medved's pseudo-genetics.

What utter nonsense! I've been to "command and control" Europe several times, and then had the shock of returning here. Europeans are lively - walking everywhere, meeting friends at the cafe instead of watching television, going out at night (without the kids, because they actually leave them with a babysitter or a nanny, whereas American parents drag their little darlings everywhere, even into bars and nightclubs, and then complain about the skimpy dress, raucous behavior, and unchurched language of child-free people like me who think that bars and nightclubs are for adults). I don't know how to put the difference more clearly than this photo:

And I wish this was an exaggeration.

As a consequence, Americans live shorter lives than West Europeans. Their children are more likely to die in infancy: the US ranks twenty-sixth among industrial nations in infant mortality, with a rate double that of Sweden, higher than Slovenia's, and only just ahead of Lithuania's—and this despite spending 15 percent of US gross domestic product on "health care" (much of it siphoned off in the administrative costs of for-profit private networks). Sweden, by contrast, devotes just 8 percent of its GDP to health. The picture in education is very similar. In the aggregate the United States spends much more on education than the nations of Western Europe; and it has by far the best research universities in the world. Yet a recent study suggests that for every dollar the US spends on education it gets worse results than any other industrial nation. American children consistently underperform their European peers in both literacy and numeracy.

Very well, you might conclude. Europeans are better—fairer—at distributing social goods. This is not news. But there can be no goods or services without wealth, and surely the one thing American capitalism is good at, and where leisure-bound, self-indulgent Europeans need to improve, is the dynamic generation of wealth. But this is by no means obvious today. Europeans work less: but when they do work they seem to put their time to better use. In 1970 GDP per hour in the EU was 35 percent below that of the US; today the gap is less than 7 percent and closing fast. Productivity per hour of work in Italy, Austria, and Denmark is similar to that of the United States; but the US is now distinctly outperformed in this key measure by Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, ...and France.

...Indeed, Europe is facing real problems. But they are not the ones that American free-market critics recount with such grim glee. Yes, the European Commission periodically makes an ass of itself, aspiring to regulate the size of condoms and the curvature of cucumbers. The much-vaunted Stability Pact to constrain national expenditure and debt has broken down in acrimony, though with no discernible damage to the euro it was designed to protect. And pensions and other social provisions will be seriously underfunded in decades to come unless Europeans have more children, welcome more immigrants, work a few more years before retiring, take somewhat less generous unemployment compensation, and make it easier for businesses to employ young people. But these are not deep structural failings of the European way of life: they are difficult policy choices with political consequences. None of them implies the dismantling of the welfare state.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't more and more Americans facing foreclosure on their homes and mountains of debt? Didn't we have another serious recession after eight years of another moron in the White House? Didn't we have a major Depression in the 1930s? So how many Americans, showing their natural grit and "risk taking" behavior, fled their country to seek adventure and fortune elsewhere? How many Americans even go abroad anymore? How many speak a second language, even?

Medved is just riffing on the tired old "How-come-it's-always-the-black-folk-who-win-all-the-racing-medals-at-the-Olympics" argument, conveniently forgetting that appearance doesn't indicate race. As a matter of fact, it's mostly black Americans who win those medals, not Africans, a fact resulting from a miriad of causes including mixed heritage with whites, Native Americans, and other ethnicities, nutrition, socio-economic status, individual talent, and personal choices. And that holds true for everyone.

That's why Americans, who used to be risk-takers, adventurers, and creative inventors, are now largely superstitious, fatalistic, consumerist couch-potatoes. (I don't think the Founding Fathers and Mothers would recognize us.) It's due to the choices we've made. And that doesn't have to be our future. Strict genetic determinism has never been the consequence of evolution. Strict genetic determinism is just a cartoon vision of those who don't know (again) what the hell they're talking about. (But then again, the concept of strict determinism, or "cause and effect," is what convinces many people that intelligent design is persuasive.)

Human beings belong to only one race. "Race" is a social construct. It's a relatively recent idea that has no genetic basis and is literally skin deep.

But it doesn't surprise me at all to find out how racist, provincial-minded, and hate-filled the Discovery Institute minions are. Their yawping about how Darwin "caused the Holocaust" is filled with more envy than alarm. Like most revisionists, what they truly want is to purify the nation - their way.

While crying "Censorship! Tyranny! I was expelled!" they seek to censor, to expel, and to impose their own tyranny - their way. What they are "rebelling" against is the perceived weaknesses, not the "tyranny" of the scientific community. They want an umbrella of certainty held above their whole lives, and science can't give anyone that.

"Freedom" and "academic inquiry" to them mean conformity and unquestioning obedience. They are guilty of those very crimes which they see in others, everywhere.

Rust Belt Philosophy also takes Medved to task for his unwarranted genetic generalizations.

UPDATED: Our President George W. Bush has funded with our tax a "study" (being that they're so sciency and all) on "human dignity," chaired by a crank named Leon Kass, who is the President's advisor and bioethics. In that capacity, Mr. Kass warns the President about grave dangers to our human "dignity," and in this capacity he is deeply troubled by the social adoption of "animal behavior" such as licking ice cream cones and eating hot dogs on the street:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone - a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. ... Eating on the street - even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat - displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. ... Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. ... This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

But he has no problem shaking his finger at "aging bachelors" and advocating that all women welp like bunnies in the backyard.

Call me catty, but I think the next round of "no new human-animal hybrids" is going to be something else. They just want to protect us! Keep repeating the word "Freedom!"

UPDATED: Ben Stein says, "Scotland is the most intelligent race in the world." And I thought Scotland was a country.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Of Hedges, Hot Dish, and Hogwash

Really, I’ve had it.

[UPDATED: I thought I had it until Ben Stein went on the "George Stroumboulopoulos Show" and said "Darwinism can't explain where physics come from." At this point, Stein must be pretending. Nobody can be that stupid! Art criticism can't explain where pigments come from! Science can't explain why 1/7 of all days are Mondays! You know what? This is my last post on Ben Stein. I think I'm going to have an irony hemorrhage.]

Ben Stein can diss Darwin and make his little equations to Nazism all he wants (does anyone remember that the flipping Nazis started that stupid Olympic Torch Relay? I don't see him protesting with the Tibetans, and by the way, Free Tibet!). He's not a scientist, after all - but when he fucks up economics in the New York Times again, I have to ask – nay, demand – why the hell is this snake-handler allowed to have a column in the first place? Writing about economics? And simply being wrong, wrong, wrong? About economics, for which he went to Columbia University?

How does one merit a column in a major newspaper when he is so grossly discombobulated about his own alleged subject? He's either going insane, or a smarmy liar.

Well, I fired off this letter to the New York Times:

Why is Ben Stein allowed to publish his glossolalia in the New York Times with little context supplied from those he regularly accuses of global conspiracies, namely traders and "Darwinists" and all the other assorted evil leprechauns that populate his fantasy world? Why when you publish articles on science you deliberately seek out some obscure crank "dissenter" from evolution, the age of the earth, or global climate change, but allow this increasingly deluded, middling (and fading) celebrity to rant unfettered in print like some homeless man in a park? If you must humor this self-styled "voice in the wilderness," shouldn't you at least offer a counter column in the name of "balance," which is otherwise fanatically, and annoyingly, pursued by your reporters who managed to tease out some pseudoscientific riposte whenever the article in question states, you know, facts?

If you're going to have a columnist speak in tongues at least publish one that can find his. Stein's pious braying, followed by his pathetic attempts at sex appeal and vainglory ("Dog fancier at night"? Well, at least it spares the goats), is simply embarrassing. I don't enjoy finding myself in the distateful position of feeling sorry for him, which I increasingly am. That sentiment does not extend to the New York Times, however.

Why would the New York Times print paranoiac drivel such as his? Here's his latest column, and a sight to behold it is:

My son is just now finishing his first year of college. People ask me what I would like for him to do. I always say, “Whatever the dear boy would like to do.” But in my heart, I would like for him to be a real-life counterpart of a character on my latest imaginary TV series brainchild: “The Hedges of Greenwich, Conn.” (It sounds a bit like “The Bridges of Madison County,” no?)

No duh it sounds like that. Does this man have any identity? “Hey, I’m just like Mel Gibson! I’m the right-wing Michael Moore! I’m Robert James Waller! I’m Moses! I’m Galileo!” (Yeah, and I’m Glenda, the good witch.) Read on:

This is my hypothetical series [sounds like somebody didn't enjoy a lot of royalties from a certain documentary] about powerful hedge fund traders and private equity players in Greenwich, whose wealth is so immense that they can live like maharajahs. But far more important, they have so much money — put up by Harvard and Yale endowments, among others, and then magnified by leverage — that they can plunge world markets into turmoil.

In my first episode, a cagey old trader and wheeler-dealer [played by himself, perhaps?] who lives in splendor surrounded by his German short-haired pointers and his cats, is about to be visited by his mysterious young mistress. [Yep - played by himself, the little devil!] Little does he know [well, that fits], she is about to give him a shot of lead because his private equity fund bought, ripped, stripped and flipped her father’s company in Lima, Ohio, putting her father out of a job and driving her mother to suicide. His son, meanwhile, is plotting to sell short the bonds his father issued, putting his father’s whole empire in jeopardy.

By the way, is anyone else sick of Ben Stein’s incessant characterization of women as whores, nurses, mistresses, models, and selfish money-grubbers?

Well, to be fair, he did bleat a tribute to our soldiers, in which he woodenly acknowledged female “true heroes” (be careful, the version being passed around the Net is not accurate), but I notice that this hypocrite didn’t love the military enough as a young man to interrupt his studies at Columbia and Yale and actually sign up. (Sound familiar?)

It’s all very well to claim to hate celebrities and love Middle America when you yourself are a celebrity (albeit a struggling one) who is safe from tractor-pull/high-school-bullies/McGlynn’s-doughnuts-and-Folger’s-coffee culture. I doubt this poseur Stein has ever eaten an elementary school pizzaburger (we simple folk call it “Barf on a Bun”) in his mincing, privileged life. And it’s so easy to “celebrate our heroes” as long as you don’t personally know anyone who is or ever was in the military, and weren’t in it yourself.

And what’s this “I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are” in his other ode to the virtues of the simple folk? Sorry, I don't believe that. In order to write that sentence, you (and your audience) have to know who Nick and Jessica are. What a phony.

But I digress. (That’s easy to do when talking about Stein, whose idea of an argument is akin to buckshot fired at a clay pigeon.) Here we get into the meat of what’s ailing the economy, and guess what, it’s those dastardly Darwinist traders!

You see the many directions in which my febrile brain goes, and all because nice people have asked me why the high price of oil does not act the way that Econ 101 says it should: by suppressing consumption, bringing on new supplies and lowering the price. Here’s why: the Hedges of Greenwich.

Look at oil and gasoline and natural gas. They have immense uses as consumer products. They power our cars. They heat our homes and our swimming pools. When their prices rise here in the United States, drivers, homeowners and swimmers cut back on the use of these fuels.

But there is much more to the story than that. First, the price we pay is denominated in dollars, and as the dollar falls, the price in dollars rises. Buyers who pay in euros or won do not see the same price appreciation because their currencies have been rising against the dollar. Hence, the commodity in question may be higher in dollars — suppressing demand here — but may be barely changed in euros day to day. This is one reason that worldwide demand is not much affected.

In fact, demand for some energy sources is softening ever so slightly in the United States, but world demand continues strongly upward.

This has little to do with the oil companies — usually called the “big” oil companies to distinguish them from the small oil companies we all have in our backyards. [So don't get any ideas about comparing them to the wicked "Big Science" monster, my fellow Americans.] They just float along with the tide, the way we consumers do. They are at the mercy of the traders, as we all are. [See? You can pet the nice lions!]

That’s just hogwash. The day that you get traders, of hedge funds or whatever, coordinated enough to manipulate prices more than a very short period is the day you get gnats to fly in formation at the Minnesota State Fair. It just simply can’t be done. The truth about conspiracies is, 1) yes, they do exist, but 2) their success rate is terrible. (Just look at how well the Wedge Strategy has turned out, for example.)

Felix Salmon ponders what on earth Stein means by his “febrile” mind.

Perhaps he meant “fertile.” That sounds like him. Or “ferial,” although that wouldn’t be my word for it. He seems to really be into feast-days, at least in terms of dishing up bullshit. Or “feral.” Again, that I wouldn’t choose. When we were kids, our idea of fun was whipping little hard green apples at each other – and I’m talking about the girls. I really can’t see Stein handling that, despite his tennis-shoes-with-suit gangsta-paint-can “rebel” attitude.

No, “febrile” seems to be another one of his unfunny attempts at self-depreciation (the man does nothing but seek approval), rather like the back-scratcher moment in Expelled – all it did was made me think of Stein’s flabby, whale-white flesh. Yuck.

The only time I’ve seen this man have an honest moment was when he lost Disney’s money on “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” (You didn't think he actually gambled with his own money, did you? By the stars, this genius couldn’t even get the date for the millennium right, but it gave us a look at him in a truly unscripted moment. His jaw dropped. He argued the results. He fretted and sweated. And there I was singing “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Neinstein may be Michael Moore’s shadow, but he sure is no Tycho Brahe.)

Pardon. Another digression.

As from the fact that the market shows no indication of malicious manipulation, Ben Stein acts like an astrologer in a small town newspaper, forging ahead with his predictions despite the fact that he has been wrong, wrong, wrong all this time. In fact, he’s been wrong more often than many astrologers. He predicted that foreign stock would fall. Wrong. He predicted that the collapse of the housing bubble would be short, and temporary. Wrong. Now he’s essentially claiming that hedge fund traders can stage a sweeping and sustained price fall on securities. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

But there is another hugely important factor now in world energy markets: the pricing of energy as a speculative item. Traders can and do buy vast amounts of energy futures. Right now, there is a worldwide mania to invest in them. In this situation, when investors and traders are pouring buckets of money into thimbles of energy quanta, to use a phrase from my pal Tobias M. Levkovich, chief United States equity strategist at Citigroup, the price is bid higher and higher.

And, as the price goes up, demand does not fall. It rises, because investors and traders think that it will keep rising and they will make money on it in the future. (Oil, gasoline and natural gas can be stored indefinitely.)

It’s like the bubble in Miami Beach condominiums. As the price of them soared, traders did not stay away. Instead, they kept buying, anticipating more or less endless gains.

Gee, there’s speculation in the pricing of energy, my gosh. There’s speculation in financial markets? Call out the army! Off with traders’ heads! Try them for treason!

Honestly, is this news to Ben Stein (or does he think it’s news to Middle America, whom he loves so much, making us loveable morons - or petable lions, like his friends the oil companies)? Does he think that his readers will believe that speculation equals market manipulation? Does he think we're fucking stupid? Speculation is temporary – it has to be – and manipulation, even if it happens, can also only last so long and will be localized. How in hell can one have a market without speculation, anyway?

Yet Stein denies that the economy is faltering (he thinks it’s hunky-dory – just all the manipulation throwing things awry), that unemployment is not really climbing, and that there is no real danger of widespread default on loans (which he is right to say hasn’t happened yet). Ben Stein prefers to wave his “foreign-market-investments-are-bad” flag like it’s his last soggy sheet of salvageable toilet tissue in the woods two hours after bingeing on chipped beef with toast (we simple folk call it "Shit on a Shingle") on Randolph and Mortimer's yacht just before it sank.

Right now, the Hedges of Greenwich are bidding up the prices of hydrocarbons into the stratosphere by buying energy futures. Your switching from a Cadillac to a Prius won’t tilt the balance back to falling energy prices. Your earnest little efforts at conservation mean nothing when compared with the upward push coming from the speculative bubble.

And now the big boys have been joined by you and me. Little folks like us can buy our very own energy baskets of exchange-traded funds and the like, and are doing so in big numbers.

Oh, “you and me.” Pity poor little rich boy Ben Stein. He’s one of us! Yeah, right.

I'm sorry, but manipulating the market works in movies such as Trading Places and Wall Street, but it's not exactly business as usual. (Would it were that easy to stick it to an unscrupulous boss!)

If I were to place this wretched excuse for a commentator (no common tater he, Ben Stein, despite all his efforts) into a mythological pantheon, I’d call him a Trickster, a shape-shifter, fashioning himself as a “superstar” when he wants to be, then “one of us” when it’s convenient for him, a “godly man” when it suits him, a dashing womanizer when he’s feeling really insecure. And people said that Madonna’s image was fragmented! She’s a paragon of psychological centeredness compared to Benjamin (Nein)Stein.

Don’t conserve gas, people! It won’t do you any good – the traders control everything! Don’t switch “from a Cadillac to a Prius,” Middle America! (Somehow I don’t think there’ much danger of many working-class people doing that, Ben. Hello?) And whatever you do, don’t invest in faaarrrn stocks! Gee, that’s great advice, Neinstein. Really responsible, asshole, while the dollar is in free-fall in the void just like Venus, Jupiter, and Mars. (Of course, since "Darwinism can't explain what keeps the planets from falling down," I guess Darwinism can't explain how angels keep the dollar from falling against the Euro in Ben Stein's universe, either.)

(I confess that I still cannot watch this shameless queave of a press conference all the way through. Darwinism can't explain what makes yellow yellow! Uuuggghhhh!)

What else should we simple folk do to make ends meet besides not sell our Cadillacs, Ben? Cut back on caviar twice a month? Great idea. Stay at a friend’s house in the Hamptons instead of booking a hotel room in Stockholm over the summer? I'll consider that. Rough it alongside the other Cadillac owners and stage a tailgating party on Cape Cod every Saturday night, instead of eating at Spago? Stick it to the man, Middle America! Charter a private plane to Disneyworld and thumb your nose at the Northwest-Delta merger! Be a rebel! Wear sneakers and shorts with your suit and see how long you can keep your $9/hour data entry job!

What the fuck is this man’s problem? I really can’t believe how anyone buys his “just folks” posturing, but they do – they must want to, at least when he’s yawping about creationism (excuse me, intelligent divine), but when he deliberately dispenses bad advice, it’s time to cut his publicity umbilicus. The Unabomber was allowed to shoot his wad in a major newspaper once, in order to aid his capture, but Ben Stein is given a free outlet to repeatedly make unsubstantiated claims that, along with his bad advice, stretch that worse-than-Hillary whiney drone around the globe and up my spine, and then he's allowed to run free. Hillary has handlers. Doesn't he?

If Ben Stein wants to find a real conspiracy, here's a true Darwinian horror story staring him right in the face: predatory lending practices and the subsequent sale of these risky loans, which allowed the lenders to skip away after making gobs of money by splitting the high risk loans and packaging them with the high-quality debt for sell-off. That’s how those who were selfish and dishonest enough to grant these loans to the gullible will never have to face the consequences of foreclosures en masse.

The truth is, Middle America, we have lived an inflated life for a very long time, and now this is the new normal. But it’s also true that regulators have been asleep at the wheel while lenders offered crap loans and also made sure that artificially inflated housing values widened the balloon. Yes, regulators were asleep at the wheel and crooks bilked vulnerable people who were a bad financial risk, who to their credit believed in the value of home ownership, and who in order to make what they thought was a responsible investment in a home, signed papers that they didn't understand at all. (Sadly enough, this particular demographic is also prone to buying Cadillas that they really can't afford in the mistaken idea that they also represent an investment.)

In fact, the blame for this is shared (and at some point we have to take a good look at ourselves, too, Middle America, for not understanding more about how money works), and responsibility in a free market is decentralized. Funny how Ben Stein doesn’t talk about that, when heretofore (before he became Mr. Creationism) he had dispensed sound advice about proper handling of credit cards and saving for retirement.

Maybe that's because it would simultaneously sound too much like natural selection and like the “invisible hand of the market” of Adam Smith that he admires so much. That's another inconvenient truth. And shit, man, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Benjamin “America First” Stein has a lot of stocks in Canada, as many smart investors do right now.

We simple folk call this being a “snake in the grass,” Ben Stein.

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