Sunday, March 27, 2011

Does eating (or not eating) animals have health implications?

At the request of Jim the Directrix, who has been discussing various issues of diets that don't include animal flesh in comments on "Temple Grandin's rationale for eating animals," I'm here opening a discussion on diet from the point of view of health (rather than of morality).
    It starts with an interchange begun on the Grandin post having to do with vitamin B12. Ken had commented:
Felt an obligation to do some extra research on the vitamin B12 question. I was mistaken to write that its absence would quickly cause a problem. However, predicting the point at which a problem will arise is difficult. It can be less or more than 3 years, depending on genetic factors, how much is secreted daily, and how much is absorbed. It varies from person to person. The danger is greater in a vegetarian family because the onset of vitamin B12 deficiency in children is much faster.
Jim the Directrix replied in an email directly to Ken and me:
Thanks for your response and especially for looking more into the B12 issue. Pundits for eating meat have blown the B12 issue way out of proportion to defend their position. Listening to these pundits gives the false impression that vegans are a great risk of B12 deficiency. Here's what my guru Dr. John McDougall says about the issue:
Vitamin B12 Deficiency—the Meat-eaters’ Last Stand
    Defending eating habits seems to be a primal instinct for people. These days Westerners are running out of excuses for their gluttony. Well-read people no longer believe meat is necessary to meet our protein needs or that milk is the favored source of calcium. With the crumbling of these two time-honored battle fronts, the vitamin B12 issue has become the trendy topic whenever a strict vegetarian (vegan) diet is discussed. Since the usual dietary source of vitamin B12 for omnivores is the flesh of other animals, the obvious conclusion is that those who choose to avoid eating meat are destined to become B12 deficient. There is a grain of truth in this concern, but in reality an otherwise healthy strict vegetarian’s risk of developing a disease from B12 deficiency by following a sensible diet is extremely rare—less than one chance in a million." complete article
Thanks, Ken and Jim, for getting this discussion started. I hope the neutral title I've given it meets with your approval.
    I'll return in a separate post to the question of the morality of eating animals.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Temple Grandin's rationale for eating animals

On Valentine's Day, I withheld judgment on "Temple Grandin's dilemma," pending further information.
    Further information I now have, from her wonderful book (a must read for anyone interested in other animals and our relationship with them), Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior:
If I had my druthers humans would have evolved to be plant eaters, so we wouldn't have to kill other animals for food. But we didn't, and I don't see the human race converting to vegetarianism anytime soon. I've tried to eat vegetarian myself, and I haven't been able to manage it physically. I get the same feeling you get with hypoglycemia; I get dizzy and light-headed, and I can't think straight. My mother is exactly the same way, and a lot of people with processing problems have told me they have this reaction, too, so I've always wondered if there's a connection. If there's something different about your sensory processing, is there something different about your metabolism, too?
    There could be. It's possible that a brain difference could also involve a metabolic difference, because the same genes can do different things in different parts of the body. A gene that contributed to autism might contribute to a metabolic difference, or any other kind of difference. Parents have always said that their autistic children have lots of physical problems, too, usually involving the gut, and mainstream researchers haven't paid a lot of attention to this.
    So until someone proves otherwise I'm operating from the hypothesis that at least some people are genetically built so that they have to eat meat to function. Even if that's not so, the fact that humans evolved as both plant and meat eaters means that the vast majority of human beings are going to continue to eat both. Humans are animals, too, and we do what our animal natures tell us to do.
    That means we are going to continue to have feedlots and slaughterhouses, so the question is: what should a humane feedlot and slaughterhouse be like?
    Everyone concerned with animal welfare has the basic answer to that: the animal shouldn't suffer. He should feel as little pain as possible, and he should die as quickly as possible.

...But eliminating pain isn't enough. We have to think about animals' emotional lives, not just their physical lives. We're responsible for slaughterhouse animals; they wouldn't even exist if it weren't for us. So we have to do more than just take away physical pain.
    The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid.... [pp. 179-80, 189]
So, what judgment am I now prepared to make?
    An observation or too first. In the first sentence quoted, Ms. Grandin says that because we evolved a certain way, we must eat animals. Clearly that is not so; many people are vegetarians.
    She also says that, because "humans are animals...we do what our animal natures tell us to do." Not entirely. Human animals are also moral animals; the aforementioned vegetarians have chosen not to eat meat, either because they think they ought not [morality as a set of principles for avoiding evil and doing good) or because they judge that avoiding meat affords a better (because healthier) life [morality as a set of principles for attaining the good life].
    That said, I still can't bring myself to judge Temple Grandin. Who would I be to judge someone who has done far more for animals than I could ever hope to do?

A subtler, perhaps deeper read when it comes to the morality of eating animals seems to be on offer in Jonathan Safran Foer's 2009 book, uneuphemistically titled Eating Animals, which I've just begun to read, along with entering freshmen at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It's their assigned reading for book discussion their first week on campus this fall.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Steve Glossin's Watch List now available on Nook [& Kindle]

Says Steve Glossin of his latest published novel:
This is the cover I decided to use for the Nook E Book. I shot the photo on a trip to Malta some years ago. It’s a set of armor that was on display in the armory at the Grandmasters Palace in Valletta.
    I love the way Steve re-inset a portion of the photo, which, for me, creates a sort of "infinite mirrors" effect. As you might appreciate after reading the novel, the story's intrigue has a similar effect. Thematic perfection in a book's cover—you don't often see it rendered this well!
    Here's the link to the book on Barnes & Noble's website.

Next day. Now available on Amazon's Kindle too, with an alternative cover design, also by the author. Isn't electronic publishing something?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Motomynd: Quantity of life, or quality?

[The timely communique below comes from a mystery friend who calls himself "motomynd." Anyone who can write this well and significantly can find a receptive editorial staff here any time.]

Your intriguing posts about the conundrum of leap-year birthdates, and your follow-up about tiredness, motivated me to question why we even bother to measure life in years.
    What matters in life, quantity or quality? For that matter, when do we actually die? Is it when we quit breathing, or when we become afraid to do things we really want to do?
    This is not an updated take on some Twilight Zone episode or the “die young, stay pretty” slogan that folks my age grew up with. Nor is it a call to mass suicide at age 50, 60, or 70. But what is the obsession about thinking of people as living “long and happy” lives versus being “cheated” out of life by an early death? Look objectively at people who live long compared to those who die younger. Some who die young do have very untimely misfortune, but you often find that the people who lived to be older got there not by living great lives but by playing it safe and hardly ever living at all—much as many executives move up the ladder by excelling at office politics rather than contributing innovative ideas.

In recent years two acquaintances of mine died while still in their 40s.
    One climbed all the major peaks of the world, wrote books and was featured in books, helped film movies, had a beautiful wife and two wonderful children. He died buried beneath a freak avalanche in a place where avalanches hardly ever occurred. If he had run left he would have survived, as did his climbing partner. But he ran right.
    The other acquaintance was, frankly, a slob. He wouldn’t control his eating or drinking. He over-compensated with arrogance and bravado, and most of us did our best to avoid him. He died because his heart just couldn’t take the load. He couldn’t run at all.
    At both funeral services the same basic things were said. What a shame it was for lives to be cut so short, what a shame for them not to have the years to reach their full potential. Yadda, yadda. You know the drill.
    So are we supposed to believe that since both lives ended in basically the same number of years they are somehow similar in value? If the slob had taken enough medication to survive until 80, would he be perceived as having lived twice the life as our mountain climber friend? Really?
    If any of us could live to 150 it is doubtful we could build a life that would come close to the one constructed by the climber. And many of us lived more by age 20 than the slob did by age 40.
    If our climber friend had given up doing expeditions such as the one that killed him, yes, he might still be alive. Or would he? He might be eating, drinking, and breathing, but would the person spending time with his wife and children really be him, or would he be as much of a stranger to himself and his family and friends as the stepfather who now fills his void?
    It is similar with tiredness. Morris, you are of what we shall politely call advancing years. You have had some injuries, you work, you keep up with your blog—how could you not be tired? But what of the 20, 30, and 40-somethings who sit at a desk all day then tailgate manically on I-40 as they rush home to plop down in a recliner in front of a TV with a bag of chips? They’re tired too. But from what? Your clock will wind down someday, but is their clock really still ticking even now?
    Again, do years even matter in life?

I started thinking seriously about all this last year when I hit the “double nickel” and my friends—and my two decades younger wife—began encouraging me to start shopping for a recliner and a good cable package. This was a strange concept on two fronts. I never sit down unless I’m in a car. I never replaced the TV one of my burly rescue cats smashed fatally face down as it launched from atop a BBC broadcast to the top of a nearby wardrobe.
    Since their advice seemed pointless, I bought a motorcycle instead.
    And I set a goal of retracing the most important (to me at least) trips of my life. This was no small decision because I should have been killed at age 24 on a wonderfully cold and starry night, with the moon glowing full and low on the horizon, when a motorcycle dumped me on the interstate at something well upwards of 70 miles per hour. Change any variable a pittance and I was most likely broken into pieces. Instead, I found myself curled in a fetal position under a guard rail realizing that 1) I was not only miraculously alive but was mostly unhurt and 2) I had a lot of other things I wanted to do before I got back on a bike.
    In the next three decades I pursued adventure sports, traveled four continents, raced mountain bikes (the kind you have to pedal), incurred six concussions, and barely avoided being killed by: 1) an allergic reaction to an allergy medication, which was the least spectacular but closest call, since it did stop my heart for a few moments; 2) shots fired at us by drug traffickers while we were on a fly-fishing trip in the Florida Keys; 3) a hardened spike of ancient desert yucca that sliced into a lung during a mountain biking mishap; and 4) a charging lion that fell for a head fake as I ran for a Land Rover.
    It isn’t exactly a couch potato resume, yet during all those years I gazed wistfully at every motorcycle I saw and felt like a failed coward because I wasn’t riding one.

So was I really alive and living an exciting life those three decades, or did I die the night I survived that motorcycle accident but didn’t get right back on a bike? Am I trying to live fully now, or am I tired and bored and trying to get myself killed by endeavoring to ride a bike everywhere I have been by car, SUV, or van? Or is it just the Viking DNA, long subdued by its Norman and Scot dilutions, finally bubbling to the surface like Scandinavian lava cutting through a glacier?
    Is the fire winning, or the ice?
    It is impossible to know the answers to those questions in this realm, but the thought here is, if you’re tired and bored, do something different. And ponder more the quality of life and less the quantity.
    That thought of “quality over quantity” is the one I hope to carry into that great beyond if I am taken out by an avalanche while crossing Alaska’s Brooks Range on a road-weary moto. Much better to believe that than to bemoan the years I possibly could have had, if only I had bought another TV and a bag of potato chips.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I've had a sense for some weeks (or months?) now of pronounced physical decline. It got bad enough this week that I even talked about it. I wrote my son-in-law that:
I'm feeling more and more over-the-hill week-by-week of late. Some days, going to work is really difficult, in terms of my energy and how my body feels. But I think that giving in to this, saying "Enough!," would be the first day of a quicker decline to even worse levels of well-being. So I'm struggling to forestall the day. But a struggle it is.
    And now, obviously, I've decided to bring the topic here—not to ask for advice (although it wouldn't be unwelcome), but to try to clear my mind and maybe discover a better way to confront my inevitable downward journey than to just go on "struggling" in the way I currently am.
    What I'm currently doing seems to be to just keep on keeping on, or "more of the same old same old."
    A young colleague at work asked me today what I think our recently retired boss is doing. I said, "I don't know, but I don't think he's enjoying it. He's not cut out for retirement. And neither am in, in my own way."
    "But," she said, "you've got so many other interests. Books, movies—"
    And I rushed in with my working assumption about needing to keep struggling in order to forestall a quicker decline.

But maybe she's right. In checking the meaning or connotations of "same old same old," I discovered that it refers to something "especially when it is boring or annoying." I hadn't thought so, but perhaps my current occupations are somewhat boring. Maybe I think of my life as a struggle because I'm not enjoying the things I'm doing, although I like to think that I am.
    Maybe my energy would increase and my physical discomforts decrease (or become less noticeable) if I were doing something new and exciting.

At the very least, I could try reframing. Considering it a struggle to get up, get dressed, and get off in the morning might be a form of myopia, or nearsightedness, which is "when light entering the eye is focused incorrectly, making distant objects appear blurred."
    Maybe I'm not focusing correctly. Maybe I should stop focusing on my immediate feelings of sleepiness, tiredness, and aches and pains, and instead look at more distant objects: goals, things to look forward to today. Thinking continually about being tired and feeling achy is not only a downer in its own right, it's also rather boring!
    My wife probably feels a lot worse than I do, but she consistently avoids that kind of thinking. I should try to emulate her.
    And maybe I could include some new goals, some new sorts of things to look forward to, to make life more interesting....

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Theological fallout from "birthtime"

The ACLU directrix who proposed the "birthtime (b.t.) method" for calculating your next birthday ("When's your birthday time?") had trouble sleeping the next night. His dreams were haunted by profound theological rumblings, which, round about 3:30 a.m., gave rise to the following proof for the non-existence of God:
God, by definition, created the universe.
    But only a cruel God would have organized the clockwork of our planet around the sun in such a fashion that something as complicated as birthtime is needed to calculate accurate birthdays.
    Therefore, since God, also by definition, is not cruel, birthtime implies that there is no God and also implies that creation is the consequence of random happenstance.
This can't be right, can it? If you think you can refute this argment, please be so kind as to offer your refutation in a comment. Thanks in advance.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

When's your birthday time?

"February 29 birthdays" reminded us of the burden suffered by people born on February 29 when it comes to the question of when they may celebrate their birthdays. They have to decide between (1) aging only about one-fourth as fast at the people born the day before or after them and (2) having their own birthday cake seven times every four years.
    Well, the American Cerebral Liberties Union has come forth with a proposal for everyone to share the birthday burden. ACLU representative James Leland, Directrix, wrote me yesterday:
Age measures the number of years that have passed since birth. A year is the time it takes Earth to make one orbit around the Sun. So technically, your age increases by one year every time Earth is at the same point in its orbit around the Sun as it was at the time of your birth. The time this occurs each year would be your birthtime (b.t.) and the day on which your b.t. occurs would be your birthday.
    A year takes (roughly) 365.25 days, or 365 days, 6 hours to orbit the sun. (More precisely, it takes 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes, 9.7632 seconds.) So, for example, if you were born on 1/1/1971, at 9 p.m., your first birthday would have been on 1/2/1972 (b.t. ≈ 3 a.m.). Since 1972 was a leap year (it had 366 days), your second birthday would have been on 1/1/1973 (b.t. ≈ 9 a.m.). Your third birthday would have been on 1/1/1974 (b.t. ≈ 3 p.m.). Your fourth birthday would would have been on 1/1/1975 (b.t. ≈ 9 p.m.), and so on.
    But if you had been born at 3 a.m. on 1/1/1971, your first birthday would have been on 1/1/1972 (b.t. ≈ 3 p.m.), and your second birthday would have occurred the same year, on 12/31/1972 (b.t. ≈ 9 p.m.)!
    Directrix Leland notes that, "if you were born before 6 a.m. on 1/1, not only would there be calendar years in which you have two birthdays, but there would also be calender years in which you have no birthdays."

This is a very exciting proposal. I'm particularly encouraged by the prospect of a compelling new incentive's being injected into American mathematics education by which students would have to study more math in order to be able to calculate when their next birthday will be.
    It could revolutionize American education and help us catch up with the approximately ten countries whose students outscore ours in math. Write to your Congressperson today.
  1. March 3: Theological fallout from "birthtime"
  2. March 15: motomynd: "Quantity of life, or quality?"

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Angel-one, angel-two

Until around about 1996, I had counted seconds the usual way by saying "thousand-one, thousand-two," etc. But in 1996 (or thereabouts), when I was an active Toastmaster and working towards becoming a professional speaker (i.e., paid big bucks to deliver keynote addresses and entertain and motivate people from a stage), I got the idea of a sort of "trademark" for my speeches. I would suggest that people in the audience count "angel-one, angel-two" instead of the usual way, thereby reminding themselves that they had a guardian angel looking over them, guiding them, protecting them, and so on. A sort of touchstone, in other words, that everything was going to be okay, they had an ally when the going got rough. Supportive stuff.

In those days I was reading a book by Rupert Sheldrake, an English biochemist, plant physiologist (and, perhaps, pataphysicist1): The Physics of Angels: Exploring the Realm Where Science and Spirit Meet (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996).
    The fact that I was then trying to find a scientific foundation for things spiritual may have been the major reason that about ten years later I abandoned believing (or attempting to believe) in angels (and gods).
    But I still, from force of habit, count "angel-one, angel-two," and I do so even though I've made some effort (admittedly half-hearted) to switch over to "Darwin-one, Darwin-two."

I've decided I don't mind. It is a fact of my life that I need to honor that for many years I believed in angels (or, at any rate, tried to do so). And counting "angel-one, angel-two" always reminds me of another fact I honor more: I concluded that there aren't any angels (or any other supernatural beings) to believe in.
  1. Or pataphysician; see comments on "A most extraordinary mathematical proof."