Archive for the 'weight loss' Category

Tweet Given that there is an obesity epidemic, you might expect that when one of the world’s leading science writers, Gary Taubes, addresses the subject — challenging thirty years of official dietary advice — it would get a lot of press coverage. That the book took five years full-time to write, and has a 60-page […]

So, I was fretting about underdogs in the last post. This past weekend, the Sunday Times Magazine ran a long interview with Nassim Taleb in which he was described as “now the hottest thinker in the world”, charging up to $60,000 per speaking engagement, with the great and good beating a path to his door — from the world’s leading banks to NASA.

Interestingly, the interview by Bryan Appleyard included lunch and, naturally, had Nassim following Art De Vany‘s dietary prescriptions of evolutionary fitness. Well, some of my most loyal readers will have heard it here first.

For other reasons (and by accident) I found an old email pitch yesterday that I made in 2003 to a magazine on corporate governance; let’s say this was during my ugly duckling phase:-

Also, I have an interview idea which you might be interested in. Have you heard of a book Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb–a maths professor and hedge fund trader from the US? He is in town in a few weeks and I thought I might try and get a hold of him. Although his background is in quantitative trading, he has some interesting things to say about luck and probability in a business context, and it has struck me that this could provide some interesting reflections from a corporate governance point of view. The underlying theme would be that over-remunerating senior executives is even more hazardous than we think if both success and failure may owe more to luck than judgement, backed up by a good dose of sound mathematics of course.

Let me know if you think it a bit too outlandish. My owns sense is that Taleb and others are leading market thinkers and their ideas will permeate downwards in due course.

I didn’t get a commission.

Back in those days, even though Fooled By Randomness was a bestseller, you could still turn up at the now-disappeared Financial World Bookshop in Bishopsgate and hear Taleb talk for nothing to a small and select audience of besuited quants and the odd unshaven, head-scratching scribe. And you try and tell that to the young people of today — will they believe you? No.

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The Economist this week has two stories back-to-back in its Science and Technology section on cognitive enhancement. Not surprisingly the first one, which is about the widespread use of cognition-enhancing drugs (such as Ritalin and Provigil) to help you pass exams or improve performance, and the expectation of more to come, has been given the greater attention by the wider press. It’s a scare story about competition and cheating and raises the possibility of the need to test students as potential drug cheats. But The Economist takes a controversial tack in its editorial, likening this to “harmless” coffee and arguing it is a good thing.

It falls on deaf ears here because this is a week when I did not drink or eat any coffee, milk, wheat product, potato, rice or any refined carbohydrate excepting that contained in one bar of 85% cocoa chocolate. I drank no alcohol either. I’ve been doing this as a stricter enforcement of a paleo-style diet to help regulate my weight, but above all else to enhance cognition, and for longer-term preventative health. As far as I’m aware, it is working. With one or two qualifications. Those qualifications being a coincident virus that caused a migraine which lasted longer than I’d normally expect, prompting a little hypochondria and Googling for ideas about nutritional deficiency — to no avail.

The paleo-style diet (or lifestyle) is hard to sustain and I can tell you that it has been a lot harder in the short run than popping a few pills. But my argument with The Economist‘s view is that the brain is a complex system: don’t mess with it if you don’t need to. My own experience seems to suggest that I’m a little insulin-resistant, with diabetes in the family, so a lower-carb diet is likely to be beneficial.

But the second story in The Economist pairing owes more to my approach than the pill-popping. This other story describing research that social position can be detrimental to cognition has received no mainstream attention elsewhere, as far as Google can tell us. It has been, thus far, editorially cold-shouldered, and subordinated, and yet by far and away it is the more interesting story for self-experimenters, self-improvers, collaborationists, diversity specialists, managers, teachers, coaches and parents.

Pamela Smith and colleagues from Radboud University Nijmegen suspected that a lack of social power might reduce someone’s ability to keep track of information and make plans to achieve goals in difficult and distracting circumstances. This seems like common sense, not least because I’ve seen a number of situations, for example, where even senior executives have lost confidence and status and then suffered a quite immediate impairment. I’ve even experienced it myself at significant moments. I once had to pitch for $30 million for a management buy-out having been booked into a shoddy lower-Manhattan hotel where the breakfast was served on paper plates. Not a good start to the day. The next day, for the next pitch, I moved to a different hotel and a waterside suite — ironically for much the same price.

The Economist says:-

To explore this theory, she (Dr Smith) carried out three tests. In the first, participants were divided at random into groups of superiors and subordinates. They were told that the superiors would direct and evaluate the subordinates and that this evaluation would determine the subordinates’ payment for the experiment. Superiors were paid a fixed amount. The subordinates were then divided into two further groups: powerless and empowered. A sense of powerlessness was instilled, the researchers hoped, by having participants write for several minutes about a time when they were powerless or by asking them to unscramble sets of words including “obey”, “subordinate” and so on to form sentences. The empowered, by contrast, were asked to write about when they had been on top, or to form sentences including “authority”, “dominate” and similar words.

Not much, you might say, to induce a sense of inferiority or superiority when compared with the real-life stress of a domineering boss or other confidence-draining circumstance, but nevertheless enough to make an impact on several cognitive tasks:-

In all three tests Dr Smith found that low-power participants made 2-5% more errors than their high-power counterparts. She argues that these results were not caused by the low-power volunteers being less motivated, as they had the same financial incentive as the high-power volunteers to do well. Instead, she suspects that those lacking in power suffered adverse cognitive effects from that very lack, and thus had difficulty maintaining their focus on the tasks.

A common problem in evaluating how well someone is doing relative to their ability is the often-mentioned fundamental attribution error: a pretty universal cognitive bias where we will tend to ascribe another‘s failure in a task to their personality rather than their circumstances — largely because we will probably have more data about their personality than the circumstances. Conversely, we judge our own failures more kindly because we know what extenuates them.

What Pamela Smith’s findings suggest is that when we are judging an individual for promotion, for example, it is quite possible that their performance will be transformed once they emerge from a subordinate position, and even more so if we have failed to motivate them properly. They may have been swimming hard against a tidal flow that we cannot see.

Of course, this applies from hiring manager to teacher, coach, and parent, and should require CEOs and other leaders to show a little more humility given the cognitive momentum their high status affords them.

While I love what the cognitive sciences are doing these days, I can’t help but be reminded of the existing literature on these matters. This one evokes the first record I ever owned: Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Ugly Duckling. And this YouTube rendering is not so different from the way I used to enjoy it nearly 40 years ago.

Take a look. And believe that you are a swan.

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war and pizza


I am still recovering from a weekend jaunt in the countryside, which felt like some of the toughest training I’ve done for a while. The reason: I had to go to the woods with my just-turned teenager and play war games for his birthday party treat. This is evolutionary biology at its most visceral.

Anyway, it mostly involved me screaming “Geronimo!” and running through the undergrowth toting a laser rifle at frightened (?) kids who proceeded to gun me down with great glee — so fulfilling the journalist’s combat charter: to be the first casualty of war.

Well I fell off the paleo diet too and am struggling to get back on. Today was a bit more normal. [For the unitiated, paleo mostly means avoiding bread, potatoes, dairy etc] I’ve been on it mostly since Christmas. And the reason for the lapse? A ritual requirement these days, apart from barbecue, is for the male adult to be able to make homemade pizza for a party.

It was struggle enough with battle-fatigue to muster sufficient grub for 8 kids high on soda, let alone think what a hunter-gatherer might eat as an alternative. The smell of freshly-risen dough, tomato sauce slowly simmered with garlic, oregano, basil, a few flakes of dried chilli, and garlic bread too, is enough to drive the strictest dieter crazy. So I declare, there were times when I was so lonesome hungry I took some comfort there.

Thanks to brother-in-law, Ivor, for the post title. And take a look here for a bit of an urban legend that could support a theory that war is correlated with excessive carb ingestion by policy-makers; a class action by peace activists against Domino’s beckons.

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Bonking. It’s not such a good idea to mention this in polite company, unless you’re amongst cyclists. You’ll find that “bonking” means something quite different to these athletes. Whilst for most of us (in the correct circumstances) the idea of “a bonk” would normally be welcomed, for the cyclist it’s something to be avoided.

I used to understand “the bonk” as a sensation felt by a competitor towards the end of a Tour de France stage, where all the glycogen or fuel stores in their muscles has been exhausted. They’ve hit what marathoners call “the wall”. They are basically out of gas*.

For many years I commuted by bike between Twickenham (in West London) and Fleet Street. I would ride hard and fast. I knew nothing about modulating effort or recovery. And this intensity of a monotonous daily activity, I now understand, led to overtraining syndrome.

On occasions I’d cycle home late in the evening, perhaps delayed by a transatlantic conference call. I’d have eaten a chocolate bar (usually Snickers) earlier in the afternoon. By halfway, where I crossed the Thames at Putney Bridge (the famous start of the Boat Race) I was in an unexplained state of collapse, as if I had rowed stroke to the Mortlake finish for the Oxford eight. My head was light, my legs were leaden, like I was pedaling through treacle. Ready to faint, I’d dash to the nearest gas station and stuff my face with potato chips*.

I used to joke that these episodes were “the bonk”, thinking that I was probably misusing the term. Because how could 6 miles pretty much on the flat equate to a professional stage over the French Alps? However, while reading Art De Vany’s blog only a few weeks ago, I saw the term “bonk” applied to just such a modest implosion, and it gave me pause. It seemed to be saying something about my metabolism which confirmed a growing intuition that I had been, was, or was becoming, somewhat insulin-resistant.

The really bad part of all this is that there are a lot of high insulin people out there who can “bonk” from low blood sugar if they don’t get their carb hit. And then after the hit wears off, they may “bonk” again. They may be driving when this happens and are easily angered and lose concentration. They can be a danger to themselves and others when this happens. I would bet a fair number of auto accidents could be traced to blood glucose/insulin surges.”

And when you’re on a bike, you don’t want to meet those people coming the other way.

So, since Christmas I’ve been trying to apply De Vany’s paleo diet strictures (which have informed some of my thinking for a while now) with much greater observance. The effects on my current health — as far as I can determine — have been tangible, and arguably dramatic.

Way back in those glorious days when I used to dash home on my hand-built pillar-box red Condor racing bike, with its 27 gleaming Campagnolo gears (see below) I figured out a strategy to see off the bonk.


I called it “bringing the banana forward”. This terminology caused much mirth among my Canadian in-laws at the time. But I’d realised one thing about diet through this experience: the mid-afternoon Snickers bar was the principal cause of this strange loss of fuel-supply by late evening. I cut that out and ate a banana just before leaving the office instead. But that did not immediately do the trick. I guessed this was because, depending on how ripe a banana is, it can break down into sugars quite slowly. Timing the banana became an obsessive-compulsive ritual ahead of my evening departure. I eventually solved the problem by eating the banana a little earlier – i.e. bringing the banana forward.

Now, what De Vany’s blog was describing was in the context of hypoglycaemic episodes. The essence of much of this is that you don’t have to be diagnosed diabetic to experience wild swings in energy, attention, and perhaps even consciousness. In short, too many carbs at the wrong time can drive you bananas.

* I have self-consciously americanized this post, so apologies to all my British readers who expected to see the words “petroleum spirit” and “crisps”.

Photo credits: banana -eko- , campag: knackeredhack

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