Further Musings

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Archive for January 2007

Blogging Pollan

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I’m half-way through the NYTimes Magazine article “Unhappy Meals” and I really really like it . . . politics, science, ideologies, incentive structures and food. Pollan’s basic questions are why do we rely so much on experts to tell us what to eat and what effects have been produced by this?  I thought the whole thing was worth reading but in case you’re interested in the highlights I’ve pulled a couple of the key paragraphs.

What’s the ideology at play? 

“The first thing to understand about nutritionism is that it is not quite the same as nutrition. As the “ism” suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology. Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the weather, all pervasive and virtually inescapable. Still, we can try.

In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.””

What are the incentives at play? 

‘The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutritional science and — ahem — journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding what is, after all, the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist. (Or, for that matter, an eater. Who wants to hear, yet again, “Eat more fruits and vegetables”?) And so, like a large gray fog, a great Conspiracy of Confusion has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition — much to the advantage of everybody involved. Except perhaps the ostensible beneficiary of all this nutritional expertise and advice: us, and our health and happiness as eaters. ”

What’s the issue with science? 

“But if nutritionism leads to a kind of false consciousness in the mind of the eater, the ideology can just as easily mislead the scientist. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others; depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut. There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.”

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Written by furthermusings

January 28, 2007 at 10:30 pm

Perhaps I Should Turn Up the Heat

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In our household I play what I view as the traditionally male role of “temperature Scrooge.” It was a role modeled well for me by my father and I enjoy playing that role today.

In addition to being thrifty (always a good feeling) I think I feel some false bravado in wearing sweaters and wool socks in the house and still being slightly chilly.

But last night may finally have melted some of my icy heart.

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What made it worse was that Charity wasn’t being passive-aggressive.

She had just walked inside last night, chatted with me for 15 minutes and started cleaning. All the while never getting hot enough to merit talking off her winter coat.

Maybe 63 isn’t an unreasonable temperature setting after all . . .

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January 19, 2007 at 12:18 pm

Posted in At the House

Saying Goodbye

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Yesterday I visited Emma, a woman who held me when I was little, the woman whose house I inhabit. Equipped with a map, I fought my rising tears until I found her room deep inside the UNC Hospitals and stood in the doorway of her ICU room dangling my messenger bag and umbrella like a gangly teenager.

There Emma lay in her bed in the center of a large, pleasant room, head turned to the side with her eyes closed. She was pretty and thin and lay in a bed that surounded her as she lay tucked under white sheets and a blue blanket. She was dying, but she looked much as she had the last time I saw her two weeks ago.

Garnering a chair I sat silently beside her for a few minutes as she labored to breath, as she wrestled, and with each breath lost, a little more of the life that is left to her.

Choked with tears, choked with heartache for the loneliness of her struggle within her dying, I felt both our closeness and our distance. It was only Emma and me and I could not reach her. I could not distract her. I could not touch a distant memory and elicit a smile. I wondered if she would be able hear my voice or discern my words. I wondered what it is to die, to fight for breath and to be losing. I wondered what you can hear when you are so close to your death.

And I wondered, after three and a half-years of trying to love Emma, how to love Emma now.

In the stillness of her ICU room I sat for while as the monitor rhythmically beeped out her heartbeat and the sound of it blended into the low drone of CNN which was just audible behind her the labored, quiet battle of her breathing. I took me a long time to choke out the words I had come to say. In a voice barely louder than the news I choked out a few thank yous. I prayed for her. And eventually I stood, pressed my lips upon her brow, and said goodbye.

That’s the best I’ve got.

Written by furthermusings

January 17, 2007 at 12:03 pm

I think they need to target their marketing a bit

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Just this morning I was wondering what fashion trends I would embrace this spring. Thankfully JCrew came to the rescue and deposited this “trend tip” in my inbox.

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The suggestion that I wear ballet flats was almost enough to keep me from unsubscribing . . . almost . . .

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January 16, 2007 at 3:46 pm

Posted in Laughter

A Nice Find: Ruckus and Gaelic Storm

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Over the last week I’ve been making use of my student access to Ruckus, an online music program. I get a subscription from the university to as a part of my many hundreds of dollars in student fees every semester.

For the most part I’ve been downloading albums from the classical music selection (which is pretty good for a service called “Ruckus: Music, Media, Mayhem” and which has Jessica Simpson occupying two of the top three spots in the classical music genre’s “most listened to list.”)

Today I happened upon Gaelic Storm and have greatly enjoying the pep and lyrics as I’ve worked. Born to Be a Bachelor has had me laughing out-loud as I format my way through a bibliography. Sadly no concerts in the south-east. I’ll be keeping an eye out.

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January 8, 2007 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Reviews, UNC

Selections from God Laughs & Plays

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Since Christmas I’ve been working my way through God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right.  I asked for it for Christmas as I greatly enjoyed David James Duncan’s two novels. 

This book, a collection of essays, has interesting things to say.  It’s interesting to read the thoughts of someone who uses different key words, who takes them to represent different truths about politics and art and religion, that I am used to hearing. 

What’s great about his writing is that he takes apart and looks at the key words and investigates the truths inhabited by the “Fundamentalist Right” from a different perspective.  And part of what I really like about the book is the compassion and earnestness with which he engages and challenges those with more firm ideologies.

It’s doubly interesting as I think for the most part he is valuing and describing many of the same things I value from a different view point, different from my viewpoint and from that of the “Fundamentalist Right.”  It’s almost like reading a cross-cultural text and one that is elegantly and beautifully written to boot.  I think this kind of reading great alongside being a great pleasure is great to help me sort and think. 

So with that intro I thought I’d share a couple of selections from Duncan about the nature of writing and reading that I liked from the essay I read last night:

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Written by furthermusings

January 5, 2007 at 12:13 pm