Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that today Bryan Appleyard published his long-awaited interview with Art De Vany in The Sunday Times Magazine.

For new subscribers to this blog, Professor De Vany is a long-term advocate of a lifestyle that mimics that of our paleolithic ancestors, at least in terms of diet and exercise. The Knackered Hack has been echoing this approach, with increasing strictness, for well over a year now. Appleyard, who has himself adopted the diet and shed about a stone, noted how vigorous the professor was for a 71-year-old in various domains, about one of which I am myself still gathering data ;-) . If the professor’s nocturnal experience can be replicated, then this will probably be the clincher for a lot of people as they realise the value of the paleo diet in helping them with more than just weight-loss.


More seriously, you can’t help but feel pleased that De Vany’s devotion to the study, practice and dissemination of a more natural way of health is getting the recognition that it surely deserves. This is perhaps an important landmark when you consider that it was Nassim Taleb who told me in the same context that press coverage overstates the risk to society of terrorism and understates the risk of insulin insensitivity, so that we wander around with the wrong probabilistic map. Gary TaubesThe Diet Delusion gets a mention in the piece too.

One objection that could be raised is that economic pressures might now be pushing people towards a more refined-carb diet because it might appear cheaper. But in my own experience of stress — and there has been no shortage this year with a double bereavement and other tricky family matters to attend to — the cognitive benefits of the paleo lifestyle can also provide a necessary fresh energy and focus to tackle these new challenges. My basic advice would be to avoid “comfort” food at all costs.

I’m reading James Le Fanu‘s book on The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine at the moment (a tip also from Art’s early blogposts which I’m also in the process of re-reading). Like Taubes, Le Fanu debunks various post-war social and dietary theories of health, particularly with regard to cancer and heart disease. Cancer, Le Fanu says, is best understood as a disease of ageing rather than lifestyle. And yet, in contrast, it’s evident that De Vany (as Appleyard makes clear) is no quack, but someone who has applied the sciences of complexity to a rigorous examination of what we “modern lab-rats” really should be doing to forestall that process of terminal illness. Weight-loss is clearly such a central issue that a diet capable of returning you to your weight when you were 21 must be taken very seriously indeed.

Well, on my desk for a number of weeks (apart from many august tomes that I should have been reading and absorbing) one has stood out. It’s a 1936 children’s book, entitled Uncle Ray’s Story of the Stone-Age People. It looks like it came out just before De Vany was born. It belonged to my father-in-law: himself a sometime professor of mathematics, WHO health statistician, and poet. Alas, it certainly did not encourage him to follow anything like a paleo lifestyle. The one seemingly useful piece of science that the book contains is the suggestion that our ancestors broke the bones of their prey in order to consume the marrow.

Of course, while our diet may have changed a lot in the past 100,000 years (and arguably for the worse), this humble volume would indicate that casual male efforts to combine DIY and childcare have been alarming womankind for millennia with remarkable consistency. A more up-to-date orange-coloured book of Stone Age advice will soon be available here.

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AncestralFitnessCoverI thought I should point you in the direction of a new anthology of blog posts, written by some of the leading online proponents of ancestral fitness. It’ll soon be available at www.ancestralfitness.com and will make the ideal gift for the Neanderthal in your life in need of a little self-improvement.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of ancestral fitness, it describes a lifestyle philosophy which attempts to incorporate diet and exercise regimes consistent with our evolutionary biology. That translates as a diet avoiding “easy” carbs, and exercise revolving around high-intensity workouts. There’s more to it than that, naturally.

Of course, top of the list of contributors is Professor Art De Vany. But why they roped in the last guy is anybody’s guess. I bet he’s pleased to be in such illustrious company.

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I had a migraine a few weeks ago. As migraines go it was a breeze, really. There was no piercing headache, just a vice-like tension that I would normally associate with the before- and, to some extent, the after-effects. It was not a muscular tension-headache nor alcohol-related.

I didn’t experience the normal visual aura, but I’m sure it was a migraine because it was preceded by a strange faintness accompanied by shifting vision. I felt funny for most of the following week, then had a severe headache last Friday. The previous day I’d worked out hard in the gym. So I took medical advice. They said it was probably a virus that had triggered the original migraine; it was not surprising for the symptoms to be there a week later. Take paracetamol, they said. You’ll be fine. And so it turned out.

365 Days - Day 208 - Migraine

I’ve had one or two really severe migraines, but I’ve been very lucky. Apart from the couple in my teenage years that would conform to the agonising archetype blighting many people’s lives, I’ve been a light sufferer, by any measure. For 10 years of adulthood I had none. Then just a handful with no pattern or recognizable trigger. And some of those were easily knocked on the head by the early ingestion of paracetamol.

Most recently, my first half-marathon triggered one. And after the London marathon in 2005, I succumbed. In both cases my training had been incomplete: I’d overstretched myself. That would constitute a huge stress: an obvious trigger. I’ve wondered too if the demand for calcium/magnesium following that excessive hammering on bones and joints might not have helped. Too much to know.

Because I’ve escaped lightly, my knowledge of the significant progress of migraine science has been almost (but not entirely) non-existent. I noticed only yesterday, for instance, that Oliver Sacks wrote a book called Migraine in 1970 (with a revised edition published in 1992).

But the subject hove back into my view for a couple of reasons recently. I learned, for instance, that migraine as a neurological condition has a close genetic alignment with epilepsy, and that migraine sufferers are more susceptible to background noise; there is a similar phenomenon (which I don’t fully understand) in relation to eyesight.

My late brother suffered from epilepsy. But, because his epilepsy was apparently brought under control by a similar progress of pharmaceutical research, the family had been largely able to forget the underlying seriousness of a condition which reportedly affects 60 million people worldwide; migraine, by contrast, may affect as many as 300 million. The general impression — certainly one that my brother held — was that the major risk to his health came from the long-term effect of such chronic drug dependency on his vital organs. But it seemed that we could feel blessed that it wasn’t a whole lot worse; going back a generation or two, some family members’ lives had been completely wrecked, and this had chronic knock-on consequences for their carers. These days there are still those whose condition does not respond to treatment.

So, when I was researching my earlier post on Didier Sornette and the housing market, I came across a presentation he delivered in Oxford in January. It revealed some of the wider applications of complexity theory beyond the geophysics where Sornette started. In collaboration with several others, Sornette has published a paper or two explaining how the study of data sets of the brain activity of epileptics (specifically those whose condition does not respond to drugs) showed patterns akin to seismic data of earthquake incidence. The hope is that this might lead to some better method of prediction for sufferers.

The maths is rather intimidating and I’ll try to paraphrase the following as I go along, and link to definitions. Fingers crossed:-

That the pdf [probability density function] of SZ [seizure] energies E follows a power law, and more importantly that its exponent is beta almost equal to 2/3 (as for EQ [earthquake]), has far-reaching, statistical-clinical implications: the mean and variance of E are mathematically infinite, which means in practice that the largest SZ in a given time series controls their values (3). As a consequence, variability is dominant and “typical” has no meaning. The energy pdf, and specifically its heavy tail, also suggests an explanation, at a mathematical-conceptual level, for the proclivity and capacity of the human brain to support status epilepticus, a potentially fatal condition characterized by prolonged/frequent SZ during which the brain does not return to its “normal” state, even when SZ activity abates.

Well, I think the key point is ‘variability is dominant and “typical” has no meaning’, which we liberal artists would tend to capture with the expression ‘to be in a constant state of flux’ although that does not quite cover the sense of unbounded potential for an extreme spike. The problem is that we like to convince ourselves that there is some “normal”, some stability. And, on the surface, so it may appear.

And then Sornette explains:-

In seismology, it has been recognized that the many small, undetected EQ provide a major if not dominant contribution to the triggering future of EQ of any size (7). Prolonged recordings of brain cortical electrical activity (ECoG), the equivalent of seismographs, from epileptic humans and animals contain frequent, low intensity, short bursts of abnormal activity unperceived by the patient and observers and interspersed with infrequent, but longer, more widespread, and more intense bursts (convulsions) (4). The SZ-EQ analogy, including the evidence presented here for an inherent capacity of SZ to trigger future SZ, suggest that a workable prediction scheme should use the triggering by, not only past perceived (clinical) SZ, but also the myriad of unperceived (subclinical) abnormal neuronal bursts.

Sornette’s applied work highlights the cross-disciplinary relationship of the science of complexity and reminds us too that some part of our population suffers from extreme non-linearities in their day-to-day lives. And how more vivid can it be, as the picture above shows, than the fractal manifestation that is the migraine aura; when I first used to experience it, it would mark the beginning of hours of debilitation.

Meanwhile, news was reported a few weeks ago that untreatable epilepsy in children responded to a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet. This is not particularly new. I notice now that Mark’s Daily Apple picked up a Science Daily report back in January to similar effect. Mark was also the original pointer to the picture above (thanks again Mark). So-called ketogenic diets have been known to be effective in treating even the worst sufferers from epilepsy as far back as the 1920s. And I even found a 1910 medical report quoted on a low-carb forum where a doctor had noted high levels of candy consumption among two chronic epileptic sufferers, one adult, one child, he’d been asked to treat. Drug therapies became preferred later because the higher-fat diets were found to be more difficult to follow, ostensibly for cultural reasons. Today there is a shortage of dieticians to help apply what you might call a clinical diet, where each gram of carbohydrate is very closely measured.

Well, it makes more and more sense to me that diet — and our modern carb-laden diet — has much more to answer for than we allow when we think that we are eating a “healthy mixed diet”. But it’s a struggle to remove easy grain-based carbs, and one has to wonder whether it is a sustainable option for the planet as a whole. Since I can afford it, I’m making the switch, but mainly because of the evidence that grains may play a role in activating cancer genes. I can’t ignore those pointers; I’m 43 and since January the oldest surviving member of my immediate family. Both my parents lived ostensibly healthy lives. That alone should predict that at least one would still be with us since my grandmother was alive just 7 years ago at 91.

Because of the complex, fast-moving chain of events that led to my brother’s death in January, it was hard for the surgeons to provide the family with a satisfactory narrative. I missed the chance to speak in person with the clinician; I was racing down the interstate in (melo)dramatic fashion in order to arrive before what turned out to be a technical pronouncement of death. My brother’s state on arrival in hospital the previous day was not materially different from when I arrived 10 minutes after the certification; he was on life-support simply for the purposes of organ-donation.

But that does not matter. What was described was a total neurological event — a seizure that affected all his vital functions. SUDEP — or sudden unexplained death in epilepsy — is what I understand it to have been, although that was not the word the doctor used. Or perhaps it was status epilepticus.

It’s ironic that neither SUDEP nor status epilepticus was something we knew about beforehand, or ever discussed as a possibility within our family. As I said, my brother’s principle pre-occupation in terms of epilepsy-related health (based on counselling I assume he received quite early on in his life) was that his long-term health would be compromised by the medicine he took rather than the diet he was exposed to. I think it made him fatalistic. I have no recollection that a low-carbohydrate diet would have improved his teenage outcomes, and it was something my mother would surely have responded to, had she known.

Later in life, my brother ate a standard North American diet, and there is no suggestion that this was a contributory factor to his SUDEP, but I have to wonder. Not least because the science of low-carb and the science of earthquakes both point to epilepsy from different perspectives. And scientists like Sornette and De Vany are using the same maths across these various domains.

Changing diet may not be a panacea, and I may already have sown the seeds of my own demise, but you don’t not pay into a pension scheme because you didn’t pay in before. That sort of fatalism does lead to literal and metaphorical penury. But above all else, these findings all suggest that a lot more critical reporting should be applied to questions of public health, preventative medicine, exercise, diet fads and even agricultural subsidy. That obviously ain’t happening at the moment. Indeed, the recent coverage of the ketogenic diet in the BBC/Lancet does not consider whether a lower carb diet contributes to a reduced risk of seizure more generally, and therefore might act to forestall a sufferer reaching the kind of tipping point that Sornette’s science is point toward. It is dealt with in the specific of untreatable epilepsy with no extrapolation that more general metabolic risk factors need to be considered or highlighted for all sufferers.

Well, when I asked in one of the leading cookery shops with a vast, if not complete, array of cookery titles if they had anything on the paleo diet, they had no clue what I was talking about, unsurprisingly. So there is much work to be done. That said, Nassim Taleb‘s advocacy in The Sunday Times the other day certainly has led to more Googling of “paleo diet” and other associated terms, from what I can see here, including searches for Prof De Vany.

Photo credit Auntie P @ Flickr (CC)

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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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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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