All posts by NickM

About NickM

I type words into a diary. I also live on a planet in this universe.

My Unsurance Policy

I can often appear a cocky git, especially when discussing nutritional controversies; however, I try to entertain doubts as vehemently as I herald certainties. To keep myself honest, I must air these doubts, these areas where I cannot proclaim sure knowledge, whether through a fault in my own wisdom, a personal lack of understanding, or a true ambiguity in the field.
So I present here my current “Unsurance Policy” against Dunning Kruger Effectitis:

How does hyperinsulinaemia hate? diabetes, injection, insulin, treatment icon

In metabolically enlightened circles, all the coolest kids finger insulin resistance (IR) as the root of the so-called diseases of civilisation. I have become increasingly convinced that we find not IR, per se, but hyperinsulinaemia itself, at the root of the problem. Don’t blame the body for drawing up the drawbridges after a flood of insulin deluges each cell. Blame the deluge.

Whatever your average blood glucose level, living a life marinaded in constant excess insulin devastates your healthful longevity, whether you’re a worm or a woman, a mouse or a man.

Whilst hyperglycaemia causes substantial harm, excess insulin causes many problems all on its own: the inflammatory responses, the anabolic state that encourages potentially mutagenic cell proliferation, as well as the general kick in the nuts to endocrine homoeostasis.

But I still don’t enjoy a complete mechanistic understanding of exactly how having so much insulin in the body lies precisely at the feet of so many maladies. I would love someone to write a pop-sci book, using helpful analogies, beautiful illustrations and, if necessary, scratch-and-sniff stickers, that explains how excessive insulin really plays its part as the bad actor. At a cellular molecular level, what naughtiness lurks? And if, in fact, insulin lies upstream from that which actually does the in-situ damage, then I want to know all about it.

gym, muscles, protein, training icon Protein, antitein?

The pendulum of opinion about protein swings predictably – even tediously. A few years ago,  we found Jimmy Moore suggesting that chomping down on protein had little to differentiate it from gorging on chocolate cake! More seriously, researchers like Dr Ron Rosedale started reading the Rosetta Stone of the ancient mTor pathway and not liking the tale that emerged: excess protein, it suggested, encourages life’s candle to burn more quickly – the soma detects structural superfluity and energy abundance, so nature suggests one just breed and then bugger off. The way to longevity, then, requires us to eschew the whey.

While the sugary Carbaliers battled the fatty Roundheads, they both batted about the “third” macronutrient, protein, as a pawn in the primary battle.

And, yes, the pendulum has swung again. Low Carb doctors like Ted Naiman have adapted a kind of post-modern CICO (however they protest that accusation). They proclaim that eating more protein and stopping your fat gluttony will help you lose weight and become generally healthier. mTor? Meh-tor more like.

Beyond the swinging pendulum lie perennial questions, never conclusively answered, about how protein does or does not interfere with ketosis, and whether this matters, and how it does, or does not, promote additional gluconeogenesis to replace that ketotic deficit. For every person who claims additional protein as a silver bullet to satiety, another retorts that a protein glut shoots one in the fat-adapted foot, leading to ravenous annoyance.

Honestly, I don’t really know what to believe about this one. As a lover of biltong, I’d welcome it if ad-libitum protein had the blessings of my favourite gurus. But anyone who’s attended one of Rosedale’s talks emerges certain that, at the very least, protein has a case to answer. Perhaps a powerful one.

Does anyone have any convincing data here, one way or the other? Let me know!

bread, loaf, sliced icon Carby conundrum?

LCHF works. We have the data. Anyone who argues against it now as an effective strategy against hyperinsulinaemia thus makes an extraordinary claim, for which I demand extraordinary evidence to repudiate such an obviously successful methodology. Of course, because the body relies largely on insulin signalling to process digestible carbohydrates, and because science agrees that those carbs have no essential role for humans, limiting their ingestion makes logical sense.

We bolster that logic further when we realise our species went through a number of evolutionary funnels which demanded we thrive without any carbs.

Nevertheless, we do seem to find a few populations that survive, and perhaps even do well, on a higher carb diet. The Blessed Kitavans among them, perhaps. Clearly, they have many factors at play. Modern civilisation provides many more wonky paving-stones we can trip over than just a glut of exogenous glucose: air pollution, cocked-up circadian rhythms, even the stressful alienation from our evolved mores of socialisation. And, of course, the dreaded seed oils.

So do the happy-yet-carby civilisations thrive because of the carbs, or despite them? Have they inadvertently tipped the scales of health so profoundly that even a pile of insulin-spiking carbs can’t quite tip it askew the other way? Or do their diets actively promote their healthful normo-insulinaemia?

A few years ago, Denise Minger wrote a thought-provoking post about what she termed Carbosis. If the magical realm of ketosis happens on a high-fat, low carb diet, then Carbosis reflects its mirror image on a low-fat, high carb diet. Whilst I disagree with some of her conclusions (it seems, for example, we might, fairly, call Kempner a bit of a crook), I still find much to intrigue me in her argument.

I do believe that hyperinsulinaemia provides the key to unlocking much disease and disorder; so perhaps we can find not one, but two ways, to avoid turning that key:

1) LCHF. Eat food that doesn’t require much insulin intervention at all: namely, high fat food. Avoid glycolytic foods that spike insulin in this regimen, because high fat foods reduce the cellular response to insulin (what some have termed “glucose sparing adaptation” or “benign physiological insulin resistance”). As such, any exogenous glucose causes a hyperglycaemic emergency in this context.

2) HCLF: Eat food that forces your body to use insulin efficiently: namely, high carb foods. Avoid foods that induce glucose-sparing adaptation in this regimen (namely fats), to ensure that every cell listens carefully to insulin’s signal. The body needs to get the message that you provide glucose alone as its exogenous fuel. No mixed messages!

Both regimens, it seems, would result in a relatively low, and pulsatile, insulin pattern. I know which one I prefer, but perhaps a highly-restrictive HCLF doesn’t simply tell a just-so story, but has some bearing in reality. If it does, then it still leaves unanswered to me some of the other problems one experiences when relying entirely on glycolysis: the AGE damage, the satiety deficit, the potential lack of ketogenic benefits. But we need convincing answers to these carby black cygnets that paddle about on our otherwise calm LCHF pond.

artery, cardiology, cholesterol, clogged, diet, health, heart icon Lipidy doo-dah?

Yes, the simple Ancel Keys lipid hypothesis has died. Only anti-science organisations like the American Heart Association, or the British Dietetic Association, still try to animate the rotting corpse.

The wonderful work by Ivor Cumins reveals how only a profoundly stupid – or myopic – person could rely on LDL-C or even LDL-P as a reliable causal marker of anything in particular. That said, I retain some tinges of concern. At some threshold, can the LDL particles themselves cause mischief all on their own, however much you’ve got the insulin beast under control? If so, who should worry about this? And how must they respond?

Since most data show that diets high in saturated fats do generally promote LDL traffic, as they should (see Dave Feldman’s amazing experiments), should a few of us revert to a mild Keysian paranoia, and keep a little remnant of the lipid hypothesis close to our ApoE4-cursed hearts? Do scare-mongerers like Gundry have a modicum of horrible validity when they preach at some of us to down olive oil and little else? I hope not, because we’ve worked so hard to awaken ourselves from last century’s lipophobic nightmare, that it’d annoy me to have to revivify a stubborn rump of that bad dream. And yet. And yet..

medicine, pills, tablets icon Statin shenanigans?

Statins: the mycotoxic medication everyone likes to mull over. People perceive it as either an angelic saviour of all our arteries, or a nearly-useless expensive paeon to a failed hypothesis, bringing debilitation of muscle and mind, and slyly inducing diabetes.

I tend more to the “expensive, useless and mildly debilitating” wing, but I cannot conclude that statins have no use in anybody. Of course, I don’t believe in their putative mechanism: lowering LDL to assuage the gods of the Lipid Hypothesis. So I have only two further questions:

  1. Do statins provide any actual pleiotropic benefits at all?
  2. Why do they not exhibit even more harm than they appear to do?

A Strong Statin-Apologist, of course, assumes the pills have a near miraculous effect on primary and secondary cohorts, thanks to their LDL-lowering mechanism, and waves away tales of debilitating side-effects as hysterical anecdotes.

The typical Weak Statin-Apologist, largely free from lipid-hypothesis bias, nevertheless concedes some mild pleiotropic benefit. The weak-apologist usually concocts some story about reducing inflammation, limiting some aggravating protein prenylation by the spanner it throws in the mevalonate pathway, or an effect the statin has on blood-clotting factors. The apologist acknowledges side-effects, but accedes to statins’ utility, nevertheless, in high-risk cohorts.

I wonder whether even a Weak Statin Apologist bends over backwards in too much fielty to utterly corrupt data. The only studies showing that statins have any effect at all, in any population, come from pharmaceutical sources, and their well-funded, well-briefed researchers. We know that pharmaceutical companies and their pets have substantially cherry-picked and manipulated which data we get to see and verify. Sources less prone to industry bias, surprise surprise, show statins working no better than placebo, for pretty much anyone.

Interestingly, whatever source you use, statins seem to have little to no effect on all-cause mortality. So even their pleiotropic benefits, if any actually survive scrutiny of the compromised data, may have some debilitating counterbalance.

Even if we assume statins have no substantive benefit at all, something still puzzles me, though. Having studied the mevalonate pathway, and what statins do to stymie it, I do not understand why statins do not have an unambiguous and uncompromisingly catastrophic effect on us. Perhaps their dosage screws up a sufficiently small proportion of HMG-CoA-Reductase such that enough unaffected cells get to go about their business unmolested?

I’d love someone to explain why statins don’t mess us up even worse than they appear to do so. Or do they, in fact, mess us up as badly as their spanner-in-the-works mechanism predicts, and the dam of legal ramifications will soon break, washing us all with a horrible torrent of truth.

attracting customers, magnet icon Ferric irony?

We know that nobody enjoys suffering from anaemia. But those with high blood iron have problems too. Researchers have long associated high blood iron with mortality, probably via increased oxidative damage. Iron-filled folk basically become rust-buckets. But I have some questions. As with LDL, what context lies behind the epidemiology? If you have low insulin, and low systemic inflammation, does having a high ferritin count matter that much? And, in any case, should we necessarily heed high ferritin itself as the marker of concern? After all, ferritin does not measure free iron.

And if we find we have high iron, does this provide us for an annoyingly legitimate reason suddenly to find red meat scary all over again? And, if someone does have a high ferritin count, how frequently should they donate blood? Lots of people have lots of opinions. But no research provides clear-cut answers here.

chicken, leg, meat icon Meat the ancestors?

Nobody but the most rabid vegan jihadi now denies that meat played a crucial role in our evolution; but researchers still debate about how often, and to what degree, we acted as exclusive carnivores. This matters, because evolutionary science tells us important stories about the viability of modern eating strategies – or otherwise; and whether modern carnivores recapitulate a grand tradition of our species, or find themselves treading utterly novel ground. These nuances matter. So long as our history maintains even the smallest green sprig in its continuous narrative, veggiementalists can argue for that sprig’s essentiality. But should that sprig wither and disappear for any meaningful duration of our species’ successful propagation, then that last gasp of obligate omnivory disappears.

People like Nora Gedgaudas point to the isotopic evidence that suggests we often enjoyed ancestral carnivory beyond that of foxes and wolves. Others, like Wrangham, have decided we controlled fire a million or more years before most think we did, and that we munched on tubers with alacrity. I don’t find his arguments particularly convincing – it seems more of a desperate retcon than proper science; but still, we must at least entertain any plausible hypothesis until we can falsify it conclusively.

Whether you believe we lived as tater-heads much of the time or not, I note that too many people ignore evolutionary bottlenecks when discussing our nutritional adaptation. Even if you’ve convinced yourself that our steady-state included tubers, fruit, honey or whatever else, we have substantial evidence that our species passed through a number of evolutionary funnels between any steady states. Some large-scale disasters brought our numbers down to mere thousands, and we had to endure pretty harsh, necessarily carnivorous, conditions as we replenished our populations. These conditions quickly and radically tested our metabolic mettle. Whether the Toba catastrophe itself happened or not, we know that our species faced similar events and survived to tell the tale. And the more icy and dusty of these catastrophes filtered out any individual unable to thrive and reproduce well on a meat-only diet, passing on the hardy, meaty genes we enjoy today.

Even with all this fleshy reasoning, I still muse on the gemüse: does a side-salad give us an an ancient edge, or perhaps even a novel one? No argument has convinced me yet, but perhaps you have one.

salt icon Salty sanity?

Halophobia has at least as murky a history as the fear of saturated fats. Indeed, Gary Taubes wrote one of his earliest nutritive investigations into debunking the pseudo-science lurking behind the fear of salt.

I came from a household that held to that fear of salt, whilst nevertheless succumbing to its savoury siren call. The salt shaker might as well have contained strychnine for all the hysteria that attended its use. As with many childhood imprints, I cannot quite reach for the Maldon flakes without a pinch of guilty doubt, even today.

So when James DiNicolantonio wrote The Salt Fix, which purported to blast out of the briny water once and for all any suspicion against our favourite edible rock, you would have expected nothing but cathartic elation from me. Sadly, my personal experience in conversing with Dr DiNicolantonio meant that I had to take his work, if you’ll forgive me, with a pinch of salt. I had verified his making obviously exaggerated or patently false statements too often for me to take blithely any theory he proposed thereafter (the last straw came in a lively discussion I had with him on Twitter about pigs in Okinawa, if you must ask. Dear reader, he blocked me). So, ironically, his paeon to salt made me want to question the tasty crystals again.

I love salty and sour flavours. Even when I used to mainline carbs, salt and vinegar crisps lay as my drug of choice rather more than anything particularly sweet. And my palate adjusts itself to increasing amounts of salt with remarkable ease. And I have seen enough data from Taubes and others to reassure me that salt’s bad rep lies largely with its hyperinsulinaemia-inducing fellow travellers, whatever suspicions I may have with DiNicolantonio’s rigour.

That said, the ongoing debates about how much salt we really evolved to expect to obtain leave me in a tizzy. On the one hand, folk like DiNicolantonio suggest we basically fooded our salt, rather than the other way round; and the more abstemious fathers of Paleo suggested only the most lucky of our ancestors managed to ingest a grain or two in a week’s foraging. Does it matter if either proves finally true? If we have functioning kidneys, does excess salt do anything more egregious than get urinated out? I hope not. But I don’t quite know not.

canada, cold, eskimo, extreme, ice, igloo, inuit icon Fat burning sans keto?

You can burn sugar. Or you can burn fat. More accurately, you can convert either into ATP. (You can also convert some scrap material, like lactate, to ATP too). When you burn fat, your liver turns some of the partial combustion products into ketones, from which cells can extract yet further energy and which, unlike triglycerides, can traverse the blood-brain barrier.

So far so neat.

But in the last several years, some (including my brother, in his AHS 2017 talk) have suggested that certain well fat-adapted populations nevertheless show little sign of ketogenesis. Some Inuit people with specific genetic markers lie as the inevitable darlings of this puzzling hypothesis.

What does it all mean? Who knows. Nobody. Whatever they’d like to suggest. And some do suggest they know rather more than they can justify, like Tom Naughton and Richard Nikoley, who use sketchy facts about the Inuit somehow to justify their tater addiction. Others, like Petro Dobromylskyj, who writes the complex but astonishing Hyperlipid blog, muse more thoughtfully on what Inuit adaptations might imply. He concluded his piece about the Inuit and their ketogenic status thus:

Ultimately, point scoring on the internet about what the Inuit did or didn’t eat shouldn’t destroy people’s chances of health. Destroying a circular argument about Inuit diets may make the destructor feel good. Destroying the feet, eyes and kidneys of a person with type 2 diabetes, who need a ketogenic diet, as a spin off from that victory must be difficult to live with. I don’t know how anyone can do this.

Beautifully put. But I still wonder: what does it mean to burn fat without creating ketone bodies in the liver? Does that actually even happen, or did the folk who purported to measure this in the Inuit so long ago simply not then have tools sophisticated enough to measure the ketones that actually did lurk in this population?

This whole ambiguous area represents another controversy where having a strong opinion about it marks you out as a zealot of some sort, I think. And it will do until we have better data, and better interpretations of that data.

flying, superhero, superman icon Replete keto a human superpower?

Lots of animals can produce ketones and use them for fuel. And, controversy about Inuit aside, humans can too. For most animals, ketogenesis only really begins when an animal starves, or has had insufficient protein in its diet, or both. It clearly acts as an emergency fuelling system, which the liver switches on in times of need.

That animals – even carnivorous mammals – don’t spend much time in ketosis comes as a surprise to some people. Your cat converts much of its protein into glucose, which it then burns. A weird kind of inverted irony of the fact that a cow gets much of its carbs (as grass or grains) converted to fat! When a cat or a cow doesn’t get enough to eat then, eventually, ketosis kicks in. Farmers don’t like their cows to exhibit ketosis, because it suggests they haven’t fed them properly.

Humans do things differently, though. We can produce ketones at the drop of a hat compared with other animals. Not only do we manufacture them when starving, but we can produce them when we have eaten enough protein and enough calories, when we cut the carbs. Admittedly, if we eat loads of protein, we do not produce as many ketone bodies as when we limit the protein; however, compared with other animals, we produce orders of magnitude more even then.

Let’s stop and think about the implications of this for a moment. A species with a ludicrously energetically expensive, big brain has evolved to extract as much brain-traversing energy from dietary fat as possible, except when exogenous glucose runs unusually high. I think that tells us a lot about us, and our evolved expectations. Indeed, I think it suggests that we have a superpower.

But does “replete ketosis” represent a unique superpower, or can you find another species that does it just the way we do? I know researchers like L Amber O’Hearn want to know. Perhaps you can help?

fruit, pear icon Fructose keto rehabilitation?

For many of us, learning about fructose’s naughtiness acted as a gateway to general nutritive enlightenment. Along with Taubes’s “Good Calories, Bad Calories“, Robert Lustig’s YouTube video, “Sugar, The Bitter Truth“, led to a collapse of lot of tired assumptions and stale narratives. I remember watching Lustig’s video and thinking “I can no longer eat sugar without thinking of it as a kind of poison”. And, indeed, Lustig makes the case for fructose in particular as alcohol without the buzz. Just as liver-toxic. Just as addictive. Just as deadly when abused.

Even back then, though, I had a feeling Lustig overstated his case. I also think that in focussing on fructose, he understates the general problem with excessive glucose. He also has to invent fibre fairy-stories to justify the eating of high-fructose fruit. Then, and now, advising people not to eat that much fruit gets you branded an unredeemable heretic. But, these objections aside, I took as read that we should avoid fructose as a metabolic plague.

But as I began to understand what happens when you burn fat as your primary fuel, and when you produce ketones, I also began to wonder again about fructose. Lustig agreed that fructose itself does not provoke insulin production, but can make one “insulin resistant”. For someone who lives on carbs, this indeed suggests a substantial problem. When your body needs to sponge up all the excess glucose, having fructose to frustrate the sponge can cause metabolic mayhem.

But what if you don’t rely on a glucose sponge? And what if, because you don’t gorge on carbs, your liver doesn’t overflow with glycogen? As a first port of call, fructose fills up the liver’s glycogen tanks – no bad thing. Only then does it do most of the other stuff we’d prefer it not do, like get converted to liver-clogging fat. And even if some of it does convert to liver fat, why should a habitual fat burner worry that much about a little extra fuel on the fire? Unlike hyperinsulinaemic folk always in storage mode, we should burn it off pretty quickly. Perhaps just a quick run or a day’s intermittent fasting should do it.

I know that fructose has some other undesirable metabolic by-products, and it shouldn’t suddenly become a keto staple; but could an occasional bolus of non-insulinaemic fructose for a keto-adapted, relative active person actually prove more benign than the equivalent pile of insulin-spiking glucose? I really don’t know for sure, but find the thought intriguing! Perhaps Dave Feldman could try this in one of his experiments.

bacteria, cell, microbe icon Biome metrics?

Forget the teacup pug: a gut bacterium of your very own represents the must-have pet of the season. Or several billion of them. The focus on gut flora has led some to believe, in a neo-classical revival, that the gut lies at the root of all maladies. If you don’t carefully – perhaps even neurotically – tend your biome, your “old friends” will wither and die, your intestines will rot, become cancerous and end up voting ‘yes’ in an ill-judged referendum.

Some suggest piling your gut full of rotting or rotted material to give your old friends a constant snack. Other have suggested a forced-migration policy of introducing yet more old friends into the kingdom. Either through the front door or the back.

Those backed into a corner by vegetables’ increasing apparent uselessness have found refuge in postulating that the most useless thing in vegetables – the stuff you cannot digest and has no nutritive value – as its most valuable. Fibre ftw!

So, as someone who eats lower carb, does one need to go out of one’s way to get extra fibre to avoid a Holodomor of one’s old friends? Or does the need for fibre really stem from the observation that when people eat nothing (fibre, essentially) rather than glycocarbs, their health improves? What if, instead of this, we cut out the glycocarbs almost entirely? When this gets tested, fibre’s magic disappears in a puff of smoke. Furthermore, the gut-energy benefits provided by fibre to those who never experience ketosis perhaps represent but an ersatz version of what your gut would enjoy on ketosis.

Furthermore, we know that fibre can actually cause substantial problems to those with adhesions, Crohn’s disease, IBS and other maladies of the gut. A relative’s doctor put her on a low sediment diet precisely because of this. She continues to enjoy rude health.

If “gut health” lies as sine qua none of general health, and “gut health” requires a specifically tended zoology, well supplemented by plenty of fibrous and fermented fertiliser, whence the health of zero-carb adherents. Certainly, they get some “animal fibre”, but nowhere near enough conventionally thought necessary to run the zoo.

Hucksters and shysters (both figurative and literal) plague the area of gut health and the biome. As ever, if anyone with a strong opinion about it sidles up to you, watch your wallet.

I have at hand my go-to aphorism for those tizzying about their gut biome:

We define a  generally healthy gut biome as any biome we find in the gut of a generally healthy person

That said, like the colon, I find this area dark and mysterious, with many strange kinks and crannies. Some research on germ-free mice truly made me stop in my stride. Researchers bred and kept these mice to have no gut biome at all. So, how did they cope without their “oldest friends”? Apparently, they lived happier and longer lives!

Hmmm..

cabbage, food, vegetable icon Persistent Vegetative Statements?

I eat green vegetables because my mother taught me to eat them, and I like them“. So said Gary Taubes. Behind the quip lies an interesting truth: despite their universal health halo, vegetables have a surprisingly sparse evidence-base to recommend them. I discussed this with some luminaries on a podcast.

Vegetables provide no unique vitamins or minerals that animal products cannot provide. Indeed, animal products usually provide them in higher concentrations and with better bio-availability. Some have thus postulated that special substances unique to vegetables may confer useful benefits to us. They have even presumptuously named these substances “phytonutrients“, so suffixed as if they have already proven their unique nutritious properties!

In reality, no in-vivo study has shown any proper benefit to humans of these phytochemicals, especially not in the concentrations made available to us through normal ingestion. In higher concentrations, some chemicals could have some medicinal benefit (in which case, as with all refined and concentrated plant extracts, we would name it “medicine'”).

More often than not, though, such extraction and concentration to metabolically-significant levels reveals these phytochemicals as highly toxic. Plants do manufacture many of these substances, after all, as endogenous pesticides! Until we have at least some persuasive data beyond speculative test-tube ramblings, or epidemiological wishful thinking, we cannot allow the propaganda term “phytonutrient” to go unchallenged.

Some try to turn the deficit into a benefit, arguing that the toxins and carcinogens in plants provide benefits through bracing “hormesis”. Too often, though, the hormetic hypothesis has the patina of a desperate last Hail Mary, when even the fibre fable has failed.

We certainly know that one can live and thrive without ingesting any vegetables. We have plenty of examples of this both now and historically. The neurotic ingestion of leaves, in fact, began relatively recently. We do not know, however, whether those who can process vegetation without the problems that some clearly have, might gain in that ingestion a finessed buffing of their diet, or whether they basically waste their chewing.

I do eat vegetables. As with Taubes, I enjoy them. Indeed, their status as probable “junk food” has enhanced my enjoyment of them! I know not whether, in sum, they provide me with anything of use beyond aesthetics. I’d like to understand, beyond all the Appeal to Nature, Garden of Eden nonsense, their true, unsentimental value. Assuming they have one.

Finally, even if we allow, for sake of argument, that vegetables do provide some unique benefit to those who can tolerate them, I have a question that no dietitian has answered when I have asked it: assuming you accept vegetables as healthful or even necessary, what benefit does also ingesting fruit bring you to counterbalance its added sugar load? Answers, I have received none.

bed, hotel, sleep icon Slumber on the clock?

Gurus enjoy hectoring people to get more sleep almost as vehemently as they preach the mysterious religion of the gut biome. We all know that feeling crabby and annoyed often requires little more than a good night’s sleep. Some of us acknowledge we’d like a lie-in more often than we get one. But what about forcing oneself to get an arbitrary number of hours of sleep per night, or else?

No matter how hard I try, my body doesn’t seem to let me have more than six hours of sleep a night. If I attempt to go to bed earlier, my brain usually won’t allow me to go to sleep until later in any case; and if I do fall asleep earlier, I’ll just wake up that much earlier too. Thus, when I hear the great and the good go on about getting more sleep, as if one can bully oneself into greater periods of unconsciousness, I get a little puzzled.

We have low red and orange lights on after dark. We don’t go to bed ridiculously late. I don’t usually have problems falling asleep. Waking up on a cold winter’s morning doesn’t feel the horrendous wrench it might. So, what do I miss in not somehow cudgelling my body into an extra hour or two of sleep? And if I do miss something, how might I remedy this? I note that my more hyperinsulinaemic friends need additional restorative sleep every night than I do. Perhaps my body gets everything done it needs in six hours, and I can chuck the guilt about not getting more shut-eye in my night-stand drawer?

antibiotics, medicine, protein, vitamin icon Vitamineraliexpialidocious?

To me, supplementation recommendations have now clashed and merged into nothing more than white noise. What, if any, supplements one should take seems almost impossible to discern rationally. One can argue that well-formulated LCHF diets require no supplementation. One nevertheless retains that niggling feeling that a little pill here or a powder there might optimise things.In particular, I wonder about taking in additional vitamin K2. We usually obtain it from fermented soy beans (natto), but I doubt that represents its ancestral source. More likely, we’d have obtained it from organs and fermented dairy products. It supposedly helps vitamin D to sequester calcium properly into the bones, and not into the arteries. And what about vitamin D, now that I mention it? Should one supplement? Or do we merely cargo-cult the myriad other benefits from sun exposure when we down a D3 capsule?

Other minerals of interest include magnesium and potassium. I occasionally have a teaspoon of magnesium citrate in some water before bedtime. Do I do something useful thereby? Who knows!

We do know for sure that the usual recommended daily allowances of most vitamins and minerals take into account the needs of sugar-burners. For example, a sugar burner demands much, much more vitamin C than someone who burns fat. I still wonder, though, whether I should perhaps take a small amount of ascorbate every day. Linus Pauling certainly thought so. The reality seems somewhat more complex!

build, lego, toy icon What the MTHFR?

My brother took one of the 23 and Me genetic tests, which found evidence of an MTHFR gene mutation. I have not taken such a test myself, but it would make my having this mutation relatively likely! That said, since 30 to 50% of people carry this mutation, one wonders whether pathologising it actually makes any sense at all!

It relates to the reduction of the production of a methyalation enzyme. Operatic sorts have proclaimed it a veritable death sentence, and that anyone “suffering” from this need take immediate action. I can’t react with quite that panic: for one thing, a mutation prevalent at that level of a population could not sustain itself if it so drastically affected health – specifically reproductive health. Clearly, it must confer some benefit to make up for any deficit. And perhaps its deficits only make themselves largely known in those who eat the standard modern western diets? I cannot say that the alt-site recommendations to take exotic supplements and to “detox” fill me with confidence that anyone really knows how appropriately to react – if at all – to this hardly-rare genetic circumstance!

Should I purchase expensive B vitamins to “fix” me? Or should I continue as normal and ignore the latest hysteria?

cube, cubes, sugar iconLCHF glucose creep?

This feels a bit like airing dirty laundry. Those who adopt a low carb, high fat diet sometimes have their fasting glucose levels creep up. This causes panic with some, who feel stung by a diet which promised to bring down blood glucose, yet appears to do something of the opposite.

The reality of this adaptation makes sense when you consider its likely root: as resting insulin levels drop, the glucose produced by gluconeogenesis circulates in slightly higher concentrations than one might initially expect. Make no mistake – I interpret any indication of a lack of hyperinsuliaemia a good news story. People under this regimen who report slightly higher fasting glucose numbers nevertheless tend to report good HbA1c values. This suggests that the slightly higher blood glucose, in this context, doesn’t do the spiky damage we might fear in others.

Even with this perfectly rational explanation for the glucose creep, I must admit some worry. After all, glucose on its own glycates. Ok, perhaps not as much as in other contexts, as the HbA1c demonstrates, but still – does one want to tell one’s liver to chill out a bit with the gluconeogenesis? A bit of metformin, perhaps? Or just leave well enough alone? Again, one feels that if this represents our evolved state, then fine; but perhaps not fine, for evolution doesn’t really care if I die a few more years than I otherwise might, whereas I do!

candy, lollipop, sugar iconSweets for the sweet?

I think the general advice not to consume sugar goes down surprisingly easily; as easy as, well, a spoonful of sugar.  Whether vegan or keto, whether the BDA or the AHA, we can all sit around the campfire and sing sugar-free Kumbaya. Why? Because we enjoy feeling the frisson of ascetic virtue. Sugar tastes sweet, so we need punishment for enjoying it!

Loving kale rewards one with a feeling of virtue, because it tastes vile. Avoiding sugar rewards one with a feeling of virtue, because it tastes good.

When we get addicted to such virtue, we forget that Karma does not actually exist. The universe does not particularly care whether we suffer, or whether we bliss ourselves in hedonic relish.

We tacitly assume that any pleasure we get from anything that tastes sweet must, by definition, punish us for the crime of that pleasure; or, at the very least, demand a price. If you stop to think about this for a minute, you’ll realise it utter bunkum. Nobody has written that Karmic Contract for you and, just because some pleasure can become problematic in some contexts, you have no reason to generalise that pleasures, alleviated of orthogonal side effects may, shock horror, just exist as pleasures, not sirens calling one to any rocks!

Of course, because we do assume the sensation of sweetness as far too suspiciously nice ever to have no negative consequence, we fight passionately against anyone who claims that we can, indeed, experience sweet flavour without needing to fear the gods’ wrathful judgement: artificial sweeteners, polyols and other non-nutritive options.

The usual reaction to any such suggestion entails conspiracy theory and dark ruminations on the metabolic and even moral ruin that such an attempt to cheat the fates might provoke. Saccharine and Aspartame will kill you. Sucralose will rot your gut. Erythritol and xylitol’s names even sound evil! Of course, if you try to find any convincing data on the true perfidy of any of these, you will come away empty handed. Plenty of online hysterics. A pile of crappy epidemiology suggesting that fat people, gasp, tend to try non-nutritive sweeteners and, therefore, non-nutritive sweeteners make you fat.

More serious speculation involves wondering about whether the body gets “tricked” by the non-calorific sweetness; or whether insulin nevertheless spikes into the void (presumably balanced by glucagon, lest we fall into a coma with ever Diet Coke?). Most studies, especially of sweeteners like erythritol, show no metabolic activity, no insulin spike, no glucose spike – nothing. And yet still, we scowl. Too good! I wrote a piece about the polyols, and how to make a good custard from them, where I already discussed much of this.

More sophisticated, recent attempts to resurrect the stern gods have involved taste-buds in our guts, and a suggestion that consuming non-nutritive sweeteners spikes our insulin more the next time we consume glucose.

Well then, fine, but what if we make a habit of not having many “next times” in which to consume glucose. “But you’ll crave more sweet things and revert to sugary junk”. Well, ok, but what if I instead revert to erythritolly goodness? So what? Unless you introduce me to one of these finger-wagging gods, I don’t feel I have the obligation to believe in them!

All this sweet bravado aside, I still have a quiet voice that reminds me that eschewing too much sweetness has its aesthetic benefits: a less dead palate, for one. But sharpening hedonism has a marked difference from wishing to blunt it. I also have another, quieter, voice which says, despite the bluster of these paragraphs.. what if the the ascetics have it right after all, and sweetness sins inherently?

exercise icon Exer-sighs?

The ascetic mindset approves of exercise, so long as one doesn’t make the mistake of finding it too fun. As with “eat your veggies”, exercise represents an almost universal recommendation. Unlike “eat your veggies”, exercise does come with some compelling evidence. The body has an evolutionary expectation of a certain amount of physical exertion properly to manage its hormonal, muscular and cardio-vascular status. Even just keeping the lymph system moving properly suggests the necessity of a brisk walk or two a day.

Beyond the bland prescription, though, I hope for some more specific, carefully evidenced arguments. People claim to have such arguments The paleo-bro contingent has long demonised what they term “chronic cardio” as either useless, or outright damaging. The bros’ recommendations, though, lie at odds with the notion that long distance running derives from our species persistence-hunting expertise, so interestingly studied by people like Dan Lieberman.

Clearly, exercise causes a stress response. It raises blood glucose. It damages, acutely. People bicker constantly about the degree to which this acute damage provides hormetic chronic benefits. They also cannot agree at what point too much becomes too much, and at what threshold we should consider too little as too little.  How little, how much, how frequent, what rest, what movements: as with other recommendations discussed here, it all dissolves into a white noise.

It gets worse. I find so dull the perennial arguments between those who believe Olympians could do fine on a few macadamia nuts, vs those who think that a 2km fun-run requires 2 kilos of sugary gel. Perhaps a top-flight sprinty sportsperson may indeed require some glucose to push to the front, whatever Phinney and Volek might say. That such a sportsperson might need the assistance of yet another a dodgy external chemical to help them win their race would not shock me – and it certainly doesn’t interest me! My interest lies in strategies to promote healthful longevity, not in hacking a few freak specimens to achieve the ghoulish limit of their mechanical capabilities, at the probably cost of that healthful longevity.

I hedge my bets: running at medium pace, daily, with occasional sprints. Weekly weight-bearing gymnastics. And hoping for the best.

cancer icon Cancer and Keto: quietly hopeful or hopefully quiet?

If you want to get into a firestorm, try to discuss the potential of ketogenic diets as a preventative strategy against cancer, or as an ajduvant to its treatment. Click to submit such a tweet, and before your finger has left the mouse, angry astroturfers and patients with Stockholm Syndrome will have already prepared the pyre and have tied you to the stake.

Anyone who dare suggest diet have anything to do with cancer, or might mediate its initiation, spread and metastasis, gets this treatment. Unless, of course, they suggest that evil meat could have something to do with it. In that case, tumour-shame away!

Despite the angry straw-man accusations, almost nobody suggests that a ketogenic diet provides guaranteed prevention against cancer; and certainly, nobody suggests one should ever rely on it as one’s only attempted cure! And, yes, much research lies in its early stages, so we cannot make anything but tentative, hopeful statements. People like Andrew Scarborough present powerful anecdotes, but we need more than anecdotes to counter pharmaceutical bulwarks.

Furthermore, anyone who states that cancer thrives on sugar, and therefore cutting back exogenous sugar marks the end of cancer’s story, commits a gross over-simplification of the tale. The body can produce plenty of glucose via gluconeogenesis, as well as other substrates upon which cancer might thrive.

That said, whether we believe in the conventional interpretation of cancer’s aetiology, or in a more Warburg-slanted metabolic story, only the most cretinous would suggest that keeping a patient (or someone who may well become a patient) in a hyperinsulinaemic state presents anything but rich manure in which cancer can sprout and bloom. Cancer cells and their damaged mitochondria absolutely do present opportunities for dietary differentiation. Only a pseudoscientist could possibly suggest otherwise.

However one might fear a heart-attack or a stroke, or even Alzheimer’s, cancer remains the terrible health bogeyman of our time. Whatever Pollyanna tales the drugs-company funded shills in the cancer-charity industry might tell us, conventional therapy has a horribly dismal record here. This lack of progress provides fertile ground for nasty woo-merchants and hucksters. One hopes that properly understood applications of the ketogenic diet might legitimately rise above such accusations soon, in all but the most bigoted of minds. I await the time when I can uncross my fingers. Do let me know when!

So there ends my Unsurance Policy. For now. This in no way exhausts my metabolic uncertainties or nutritional knowledge-gaps! It does lay out enough of the threadbare tapestry of ambiguity so some clever folk can darn it for me.

 

 

 

Scientists Who Listen

Sometimes, one can feel disheartened that people who identify as scientists nevertheless react with priestly outrage whenever anyone dare attempt falsify their pet theorems, or even question some of their assumptions.

We all understand the motivations behind such defensiveness, as exemplified so perfectly by Rory Collins and his ilk; however, we must remember that we do also find true scientists, with properly inquisitive minds, prepared to react and adapt to new information, and to the clarifications of old assumptions.

Molecule of the MonthImage result for acetyl coenzyme a

As part of my research into an upcoming post to explain in laypersons’ terms how statins work, I have looked into the molecules involved in the statin-affected metabolic pathway. I sought a model of one of these molecules, Acetyl Coenzyme-A, and stumbled upon a page which had just what I needed in a post at Bristol University’s Molecule of the Month series.

This laudable (and gloriously old-school styled) web-series has run for more than a decade. It picks a molecule, which it explores, in friendly and delectably understandable terms.

The Molecule of the Month page on Acetyl Coenzyme-A, written by Professor Paul May, describes nicely some of the important metabolic processes in which the co-enzyme involves itself. It discusses how it helps to provide energy directly to our cells, convert food to appropriate storage forms, and how to release energy from these pre-existing stores when needed.

A Problem of Excess and Suffering

The Acetyl CoA Molecule of the Month concluded with a paragraph on the molecule’s use in fatty acid metabolism

Snapshot illustrating the "suffering" that "excess" ketones induce
Screenshot of the paragraph about fatty acid metabolism, my emphasis

The text describes how acetyl CoA gets used in lipolysis, where fats get used for energy. The text then says the following:

In cases of starvation, or where the person has a low carbohydrate diet (such as the Atkins Diet), this process can occur to excess.

The piece then continues, to describe the production of ketone bodies when one burns fat, concluding:

In this situation, the person is said to be suffering from ketosis

Of course, we find a number of inaccuracies here.

Firstly, the paragraph conflates starvation and nutritional ketosis. Secondly, it perhaps has as a subtext a confusion of ketosis and diebetic ketoacidosis. Finally, it begs the question that we should consider a body using fat as its primary energy substrate as somehow behaving “excessively”, with owner of said body “suffering” from that “excess”.

Email to the AuthorImage result for envelope

Rather than just shrug my shoulders, or whine about this, I decided to get in touch with the author, Professor May. I sent him the following Email:

Dear Professor May,

Re: Molecule of the month:
http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/acetylcoa/acoajs.htm

I recently visited your molecule of the month, from over ten years ago, on Acetyl CoA. I found it a well-written example of science communication; however, I did have one issue:

On the page, you suggest that lipolysis can "occur to excess", and that the ketogenesis therefrom leads to the person's "suffering" from ketosis.

Could you please let me know how you qualify this "excess"? And could you explain the nature of said "suffering"?  Humans can thrive perfectly well on a zero-carbohydrate diet and, as an ice-age, big brained species, we spent plenty of evolutionarily significant time so doing.

I agree that for Type 1 diabetics, whose beta-cells cannot ensure ketone homeostasis via an insulin brake, runaway ketogenesis could lead to ketoacidosis. This does not concern anyone who has a working pancreas, though.

I hope that, as a man of science, you'll not resent this intrusion from a stranger.

Warm regards,

Nick Mailer
London

The Initial Response

To my surprise, Professor May responded within minutes. He has kindly allowed me to share his correspondence:

Hi Nick,

The term 'to excess' described what may happen with people suffering from starvation, or who were on low carbohydrate diets.  In these cases, where the stores of fat or glycogen have been completely used up, the body's cells are so deficient in sugar that lipolysis now occurs on the essential fats surrounding organs or within muscles. If this situation continues for long enough, this can ultimately lead to muscle wasting and organ failure.

The term 'suffers from' was not meant to imply that the person's ability was impaired or that they were somehow in distress as a result of ketosis.  In hindsight, perhaps 'exhibits ketosis' would have been a less judgmental choice of words.

regards,

Paul

My Clarification

I then replied once again, to deal with some of the points that Professor May brought up:

Hi Paul,

Thank you for taking the time to respond.

I agree with you that when one starves, the body uses whatever
endogenous substrate it can - muscles, essential fats and so forth - and will eventually catabolise itself to death.

However, research has found that low-carbohydrate milieus with otherwise nutritional sufficiency do not exhibit this characteristic. Humans have a unique ability, amongst all species, to continue ketogenesis even when replete with sufficient protein and calories. As the US Institute of Medicine put it: 
"The lower limit of dietary carbohydrate compatible with life
apparently is zero, provided that adequate amounts of protein and fat are consumed" [1]

How does the human species achieve this? Firstly, the metabolism down-regulates its requirements for glucose substantially. Very few cells actually demand glucose: red blood cells do, because they transport oxygen, and so cannot afford to burn the furniture for their own energy, so to speak; and certain brain cells require glucose too. Almost all other cells can use ketones and FFAs perfectly well and, indeed, more efficiently. [2]

Secondly, to provide the remaining glucose that the few glucose-
dependent cells still do require, the metabolism uses the glycerol from the triglycerides (as you illustrate in your piece), and engages in gluconeogenesis from ingested amino acids. [3] It thus need not draw down on its essential endogenous substrates at all.

Thus, the combination of the body's down-regulating its glucose
requirements, and the ability indefinitely to manufacture glucose
hepatically, means that the body can continue in this mode
indefinitely, and perfectly healthfully [4]. Thus, I think the notion of "excess" or suffering has little scientific merit :-)

Of course, when one considers our evolution, this makes sense. As a
fatty-brained, ice-aged species, we spent much of our time without
ready sources of digestible carbohydrate to hand. Stable isotopic
analysis of human bone-collagen remains confirm that we often exhibited a carb-free carnivory that exceeded that of foxes or wolves! [5] As such, we perhaps do not appropriately use the term "excess" or "suffering" to describe the state in which we probably spent most of our evolutionary time. 

Refs:

[1] https://www.nal.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fnic_uploads/energy_fu
ll_report.pdf

[2] http://www.ketotic.org/2013/09/the-ketogenic-diet-reverses-indicato
rs.html

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7351177

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2716748/

[5] http://www.primalbody-primalmind.com/fish-didnt-build-big-brains/

At this point, things could have  gone one of two ways. Professor May could have rejected me as an annoying crank for pestering him about an 11-year-old web-page; or he could have responded positively.

Professor May Responds Again

I received the following reply to my clarification:

Hi Nick,

The good thing about publishing documents on the web is that if any mistakes are found they can easily be rectified.  I've changed the online version to now read 'more readily and extensively' rather than 'to excess',  and 'exhibits' rather than 'suffers from'.

regards,

Paul

What a lovely response! And, indeed, Professor May has changed the page’s wording. No longer do people who burn fat “suffer” from ketosis, and nor does the page describe their state as “excessive”.

Note that, as a true scientist, he revels in setting the record straight.

I finally asked Professor May whether I could quote his correspondence, as I have just done. He affirmed:

Hi Nick,

Of course, no problem.   

Did you ever think of writing up your piece on statins as a Molecule of the Month contribution?

regards,
Paul

So now mevalonic acid could even have its 15 minutes of fame at Bristol!

Lesson Learned

We can suffer despondency when we continually encounter people who refuse to listen even to polite, reasoned argument. Their entrenched worldviews, or their hidden insecurities, or their corrupting  conflicts of interest, can make changing even a few neurons in a mind fraught.

My little episode here reminds us that we can still find people of science – true science, rather than a rigid chimera of science. These people continue to listen, continue to want to learn and continue to adapt. So, if you notice something awry in the public discourse, don’t let it lie. Send off a polite email, with references and reasoning and, who knows, maybe you too will receive the joy of a response from a person of honour like Paul May.

Beware the Seductive Enthymeme

In my 2017 Ketofest talk, I discussed some of the fallacies that beguile us in the nutritional realm. Platitudes and tropes, rhetorical cliches and quippy aphorisms can anaesthetise the mind against proper analysis of the complex, sometimes uncomfortable, always messy realities that confront us.

Dr Gary Fettke has to confront complex, uncomfortable and messy realities daily. It falls upon him to amputate limbs from diabetics. One day, he decided that his Hippocratic Oath demanded he suggest to his patients alternative strategies which may prevent or delay the necessity of such dismemberment. An angry dietary establishment denounced and oppressed him for this “appalling” behaviour, an oppression he bravely fights.

Gary investigated what lay behind the vehement, yet pseudoscientific, wordviews held by his oppressors. He sought the origins of much “common sense” modern nutritional thought, particularly that of the efficacy of a “plant based” diet. He discovered that these origins often lay more in religious dogma than in rigorous empiricism. Gary noted the profound effect the Seventh Day Adventist Church had on dietetics. This Church represents a specific case of what I discussed in my talk: the deeply “religious” impetuses behind our normative bases.

Even Fettkes can Flounder

We should never ourselves think that we, the enlightened few, cannot fall prey to the same beguiling faith-based fallacies. Even someone as perspicacious and brave as Gary. Let’s have a look at something he posted to twitter:

Gary Fettke's JERF Tweet
Gary’s tweet from Jan 4 2017.

Gary posted “If it comes in a plastic bag and a cardboard box it’s not going to be real food“. Followed by the hashtags lchf (Low Carb, High Fat), jerf (which stand for “just eat real food”), and a final “food” hashtag for good measure.

At first glance, you may well find Gary’s homily reasonable. Not scientifical rigorous, certainly, but at worst a harmless rule of thumb? As much as I admire Gary, I cannot agree that such rules of thumb do no harm. Indeed, I feel we lie in the hideous nutritive predicament we do precisely because we allowed too many “common sense” “rules of thumb” to wash over us. Too many of us drowned.

Why Autopsy a Tweet?

We could simply accuse Gary’s meme of Begging the Question, of Appealing to Nature, and of instantiating a No True Scotsman fallacy (all of which it does), and call it a day; however, we have deplored the meme’s imprecision, so let us not fall foul of the same charge. Let us examine how it crumbles.

Arguments

At this point, let’s summarise what we mean by an “argument”, and the difference between a valid argument and a sound one.

In logic, an argument represents the stepping-stones  you take when trying to convince someone to accept a conclusion. We call these linked stepping stones of logic premises, one leading to another. Whatever the specific content of an argument, a system of logic allows us to determine whether that form of argument can ever provide useful answers or not.

We determine whether an argument has valid form by asking whether it must have a true conclusion if we find all its premises also true. If a form of argument can have all its premises true, and yet an untrue conclusion, then we have not created a valid form of argument.

Syllogisms: introduction

We can have many different and complex types of arguments, with many, many premises and complex formal notation to define and solve them. For now, though, let us examine one type of argument, called a syllogism.

This elegant little argument form first described properly by Aristotle has three propositions: two premises and a conclusion. One premise usually makes a general statement about the world. The other then makes a specific statement about something in the world that shares or avoids one of those general properties just defined. The conclusion then explicitly confirms what truth we can derive from the specific entity that shares this general property. Or does not.

A valid syllogism has a conclusion which necessarily follows from the premises:

An example of a valid syllogism:

  • All men are mortal – True
  • Socrates is a man – True
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal – True, because we determine both premises as true

If we determine Socrates belongs to the set of “men”, and we assign “mortality” as a property of that set, then we must conclude that Socrates inherits that property of mortality.

An invalid syllogism has a conclusion which does not necessarily follow from the premises. In Aristotelian logic, an invalid syllogism can no longer even have the name “syllogism”, but modern logic allows one to consider a three-pronged argument with a nevertheless wonky form!

An example of an invalid syllogism (if you can even call it one!):

  • All men are mortal – True
  • Socrates is mortal – True
  • Therefore, Socrates is a man – Not necessarily true!

Here, we determine that both Socrates and Men lie in the same set, that of “mortality”; however, we cannot validly conclude that Socrates must also lie in the set of “men”, merely that he shares a characteristic also held by men – mortality. For example, perhaps this syllogism in fact discusses our prize pig, whom we named “Socrates”.

We call a valid argument with all its premises true a sound argument. A sound argument enjoys, in other words, both inherent structural integrity and contingent truth.

An example of a valid, sound argument:

  • If black swans exist, then stating all swans are white is untrue – true
  • A black swan exists – true
  • Thus, stating all swans are white is untrue – true

An example of a valid, but unsound argument:

  • If Atlantis exists, then modern maps are inaccurate – true
  • Atlantis exists – false
  • Thus, modern maps are inaccurate – false

Syllogisms: terminology

To help us to discuss the validity, or soundness, of a general syllogism, it helps if we can label the components that make up the premises and conclusions of that syllogism.

The Subject term

In a syllogism’s proposition, as in any sentence, the subject describes who or what we talk about. So in the proposition “Socrates is mortal“,  we have “Socrates” as the subject.

The Predicate term

A predicate term tells us something about the subject. It defines it further, or assigns it a property. So, in “Socrates is mortal”, we have “mortal” as a predicate of the subject “Socrates”. In the proposition “all sugars taste sweet”, we have “sweet” as the predicate of “sugars”. Note that we call a subject a “term”; we also call a predicate a “term”: any separately identifiable thing or idea we define a “term”.

Copulas and quantifiers

The “copulas” associate the subjects with the predicates, like the simple word “is“, or the verb “taste” in “all sugars taste sweet”. The quantifier includes words like “all” or “no“.

Categorical proposition

When you join a subject (“sugars“) with a predicate (“sweet“) via a copula (“taste“), and you filter it via a quantifier (“all“), you have put together a categorical proposition: in other words, a proposition which determines how X lies in the category Y.

Syllogisms: the major and minor premises

In a syllogism, we can divide the two premises into “major” and “minor”. To determine the major premise, we look at the conclusion.

The conclusion’s predicate represents the major term of the syllogism:

  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal (we have the “mortal” predicate as the major term)

The conclusion’s subject represents the minor term of the syllogism.

  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal (we have the subject “Socrates” as the minor term)

Now that we’ve looked at the conclusion, we can identify the major and minor premises.

Obviously, we identify the major premise as the only one containing the conclusion’s major term:

  • All men are mortal (this major premise contains the conclusion’s major term)

And the the other premise, the only one that contains the conclusion’s minor term, we call the minor premise:

  • Socrates is a man (this minor premise contains the conclusion’s minor term)

Finally, we have the middle term. The middle term joins the minor and major premises. Thus, it appears in both premises, but does not need to appear in the conclusion. Note that we can consider two middle terms as, effectively, one, even if they ppear in both singular and plural forms. In this case, “man” and “men” appear in both the major and minor premises, but not in the conclusion. Thus, we determine man as the middle term of the syllogism, that links the major to the minor.

Syllogism

 

Syllogisms: transformed into an enthymeme

So by now, you should have a basic idea of a syllogism. Things get surprisingly complicated, even with this little argument type, especially once you move into abstract notation, where you examine long argument forms, replete with negations, complex chains of quantifiers and so forth. Let’s leave things at this level for now: a syllogism, with a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion which shows how the premises validly conjoin.

So we have an idea what we mean by “syllogism”. What about “enthymeme”? The word “enthymeme” can mean a number of things, but in rhetoric, it names a syllogism where the speaker intentionally leaves out either the minor or major premises, or both, or even leaves out the conclusion.

Enthymeme: a syllogism without a major premise:

Enthymeme: a syllogism without a minor premise:

Why Make an Enthymeme?

Why on earth would we take a perfectly sound syllogism, and chop off one of its premises? Or leave the conclusion  hanging? Surely we want to show our working? Well, as part of making some pithy saying, or a meme, or a punchy speech, or a persuasive commercial, or any other sort of rhetoric, we might do it for effect. People have known, since the Ancient Greeks, that leaving out a premise and getting the audience to infer it lets them feel a little pleased with themselves. It’s like working out a tiny riddle.

Also, showing your working can make things seem a bit prosaic. After all, you want a punch and a conclusion, not necessarily punch, accountancy, and then prosaic conclusion.

Naughty Enthymemes

Sometimes, a rhetorician constructs an enthymeme because they suspect their audience might too quickly discover a complete syllogism’s lack of soundness (and perhaps even validity) if all its premises (or perhaps its conclusion) get an explicit airing. As with a magic trick, you don’t want the audience to have too long to look at it the mechanics of the illusion, lest they notice the wires, the fake finger or the forced card.

See a famous example of a somewhat obvious attempt at enthymeme naughtiness here:

We can see how an enthymeme allows a rhetorician to get away with making something that sounds logical, but actually fails the test when all its premises get revealed.

As  enthymeme:

  • There’s smoke
  • So there’s fire

Minor premise, conclusion. Bang, bang. Move on to the next topic and that little pithy observation lodges in the audience’s head, without any logical complications. Now let’s see what happens when we force the speaker to make the major premise explicit:

As  syllogism with its major premise restored:

  • No smoke appears except when there’s a fire
  • There’s smoke
  • So there’s fire

Oh dear. With the reappearance of the major premise, the middle term smoke’s association with fire gets contextualised and limited. The rhetorician gives the audience an invitation – perhaps even the obligation – to falsify the first premise. And with its falsification, the whole syllogism dies. Even a child can think of plenty of times smoke appears without gross fire.

Let’s Eat Some Real Food Syllogisms

Gary has provided us with a number of propositions which tacitly slot into place as an enthymeme. In particular:

  • If it comes in a plastic bag or a cardboard box, it’s not going to be real food (major premise)
  • Humans should just eat real food (minor premise)

We can add a conclusion to that enthymeme, of course, so we have Gary’s Syllogism.

  • Therefore, humans should not eat food that comes in a plastic bag or cardboard box (conclusion)

Let’s play around with the implications of Gary’s Syllogism:

  • If it comes in a plastic bag or a cardboard box, it’s not going to be real food
  • My supermarket sells cheese in a plastic bag
  • Therefore, cheese is not real food

Hmm. Maybe some would be happy to agree that “cheese is not real food”. We haven’t said why we should “just” eat real food, though. Nor have we defined “real”. Let’s at least justify our claim that we should strive to eat real food, whatever we think that might vaguely describe, even if we do not tightly define it. What happens to cheese then?

  • Humans only thrive eating real food
  • Cheese is not a real food (we just proved it with Gary’s Syllogism!)
  • Therefore, humans cannot thrive eating cheese

So, using Gary’s syllogism, and what initially seem some reasonable inferences therefrom, we have concluded that no human can thrive eating cheese. Oh dear.

Perhaps we should try the inverse of Gary’s Syllogism too. Whilst we do not necessarily have the right to do so, and in fact commit a Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle with our sleight of hand, we may as well see where it takes us, since we already find ourselves in the land of dodgy rhetoric in any case!

  • All food sold unboxed and unbagged is real food
  • My supermarket sells doughnuts loose
  • Therefore, doughnuts are real food

Combine that with the previous syllogism:

  • Humans only thrive eating real food
  • Doughnuts are real food
  • Therefore, humans thrive eating doughnuts

Hurray! “Logic” has proven we can eat doughnuts and thrive!

Who Gets to Define “Real”?

People will often suggest that reductio-ad-absurdum games as above bear little relation to “common sense” interpretations of “Just Eat Real Food” or the logical conclusions that one might make in determining how to act under that rubric. Not so! By not providing a specific,  concrete, water-tight, logically coherent definition for your little trope, you allow it to slip like quicksilver beneath any thumb that should act as its “rule”!

Don’t believe me? Then tell me you could never imagine this syllogism emanating from a vegan:

  • Real food is only plant-based food
  • Humans who eat real food are healthier, more ethical and environmentally sensible
  • Therefore, humans should only eat plant-based food

You can argue until your face turns blue that your “real” trounces their “real” , but while you hoot and holler, carry on with things like:

  • Real food is any plant-based food
  • Tofu is a plant-based food
  • Therefore, tofu is real food

You then continue your special pleading, and your no-True-Scotsman refinements. So you add a caveat that “real” food should receive minimal processing. We should consume it as close to its “unadulterated” or “natural” state as possible. Of course, this ignores the thousands of years of cultivation and hybridising, or the substantial “adulteration” that toiling and husbandry produces. But squint, and it seems we might have something. So the vegan continues:

  • A real food is any food that receives minimal processing
  • Cassava root usually receives minimal processing
  • Therefore, cassava root is a real food

Ok. Let’s concede cassava’s status as a “real food”. As something that humans should covet instead of some “packaged” cheese? Think again. Nice, natural, real-food, unprocessed, unrefined cassava poisons hundreds of thousands of people a year.

If you highly refine cassava (perhaps thereafter putting it in a box, shock-horror, or bag), you can get it somewhat close to acutely-safe for human consumption. Let’s ignore the chronic hyperglycaemia and insulin spikes that these “real” foods provoke even when “safe”. So, you take a “real” food chock full of cyanide, you refine it substantially, and if lucky, you get a mediocre starch. Hey, what did we mean by JERF again?

So this “rule of thumb”, this clever little aphorism, this enthymeme come syllogism, when we unpack it, appears thus:

  • Real food is [PREDICATE 1]
  • Humans who eat real food are [PREDICATE 2]
  • Therefore, humans should only eat real food

And, perhaps the inverse:

  • Unreal food is [PREDICATE 3]
  • Humans who eat unreal food are [PREDICATE 4]
  • Therfore, humans must never eat unreal food

You decide what to fill in as PREDICATES. As does anyone who disagrees with you. As does the huckster snake-oil salesman. Good luck with any choral Kumbaya on that!

Still, at least you might actually try to fill in the blanks. Most ignore this ambiguous mess, sweep the “blanks” under the rug of tropey convenience. They want the seductive enthymeme to pretend to sing for itself. Just don’t listen too hard to the nonsense lyrics!

Rule of Thumb or Rule of Dumb?

So no, I cannot accept an illogical platitude as a useful rule of thumb. The same hand wags its finger at me for using the “highly processed” erythritol that comes in a plastic bag. With a label! Perhaps the rule of thumb even implies that I can no longer consider my tinned mackerel as “real food”; but perhaps the soy flour I can buy from the loose tub at my WholeFoods I can?

Snobby rule-of-thumb aside, I eat the mackerel nevertheless, and its proteins and omega-3 fats provide me with what I desire. I sweeten my home-made egg custard (made with eggs that come in egg-boxes and cream that comes in a plastic tub) with that erythritol, and add some vanilla extract, that comes in a boxed bottle. It provides me with a delicious, nutritious food that ensures I do not suffer hyperinsulinaemia. Perhaps it does it in an “unreal” way. My pancreas doesn’t care.

The rule of thumb has not helped me at all. Indeed, had  I followed it to its illogical inconclusions, I may just have felt ascetic guilt at the erythritol and confusion about the cream. I may have thought that unless I paid a lot at the fishmonger’s counter, I might as well just avoid fish because it transmorphed into some “unreal” by its processing and tinned vessel. You can tell me that you could never call processed erythritol “real food”. I don’t care. Not a jot.

I care about the simple metabolic realities that the molecules I place in my mouth engender. I do not care about Appeal to Nature Sentimentality. I do not care about Genetic Fallacy or Begging the Question of “realness”. And I refuse to allow you to beguile me with an enthymeme whose ambiguous fog shrouds the clear and properly logical tales of metabolic reality we should instead tell.

Foreign children

My six-year-old daughter attends a state school in London where the children, between them, speak nearly 40 different languages. Over 70% of the new arrivals speak little to no English at all.

After three or four years, their improvement scores are, of course, off the charts. Miraculously, their absolute attainment scores in all areas, including reading and writing English, are by then also substantially above local and national averages.

I am a governor at this school, and beam with pride at what the teachers, parents and kids achieve with relatively meagre resources, all in an environment over-brimming with unselfconscious kindness and tolerance. Walk around the school corridors and you’ll find pinboards festooned with Union Jacked exhortations of “British values”. Turn your head and you’ll see the decorations created for Eid celebrations. Just down the passage, you’ll encounter a display depicting children in their St George’s Day “bakeoff”, replete with red and white fairy cakes. And, next to the dragon, this time not honouring St George, but made to commemorate Chinese New Year, you’ll see the photo of Jewish kids lighting a Chanukiah  in the school hall.

If you want to know why London voted Remain so vehemently, it wasn’t out of some cussed sentimentality or elitist snub; it was because of this sort of lived reality.

So when Brexiters and their xenophobic fellow-travellers stamp on such hopeful flowers, I can’t help but take it rather personally.

 

A Demi Banana Trifle

Trifle
A demi-trifle

I previously outlined an LCHF custard recipe which provides a very useful base for all sorts of good quality puddings for those on an LCHF or even ketogenic diet. The base custard recipe is good in and of itself, with some berries, or accompanying brownies and so forth; however, there’s something very enjoyable in the combination of gelatinous pudding, whipped cream, berries and chocolate. The traditional British trifle has all of this, but often also includes slightly stale sponge-cake, fruit compote and a splash of sherry. Feel free to add LCHF versions of those to this, but in honesty, this is sufficiently rich and fulfilling to preclude the need for such lilly-gilding.

This trifle easily serves 8 to 10 people – more if you’re not particularly greedy. Net carbs per person are certainly below 10g.

Ingredients

  • All the ingredients for an LCHF custard base
  • 350g of raspberries
  • 300ml of whipping cream
  • A square or two of 90% chocolate for grating
  • 10g of erythritol
  • 10g of powdered gelatin

Instructions

Prepare the custard base
  • As in my previous recipe, prepare the custard base. Add 10 or so drops of banana essence. The brand I use is surprisingly strong (and authentic) and flavours the whole custard with bananas without incurring the starchy, sugary cost.
  • Once the custard is mixed and in its final bowl, and still hot, stir in 10g or so of powdered gelatin. Whisk it very well, so it melts and dissolves completely.
  • Leave the mixture for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Put it in the fridge for around 2 hours, until set.

    Jelly with berries
    Custard jelly/berries
  • Once it has set, lay about 1/3 of the raspberries on top of the jelly.
Whip the sweet cream
  • In a separate bowl, pour in the whipping cream and add the erythritol
  • Whip the cream until it forms fairly well defined peaks

    Whipped cream
    Whipped cream
Spoon on with berries
  • Stir in the raspberries (keeping a few back) and carefully spoon the berry-cream mixture onto the trifle base, on top of the layer of berries already there.

    Custard jelly, cream and berries
    All together
Add the chocolate
  • Grate one or two squares of 90% dark chocolate. It goes a long way!
  • Sprinkle the grated chocolate generously on top of the trifle.
  • Scatter on the last remaining raspberries.
    Trifle
    A demi-trifle

     

 

LCHF custard

Sweet isn’t evil

Some see cutting out the carbs as a kind of hairshirt penance: a tight-lipped monastic partner to veganism or macrobiotics. Tears of lard instead of tears of tofu water, but tears all the same.

In reality, you have to work really hard to consider the luxurious possibilities in LCHF deprivation. This is because LCHF eaters are allowed the one thing that simply can’t be emulated in a low-fat, hairshirt diet: the one ingredient that gives food its unctuous satiation, its silky textures and its solvent for so many important flavours: fat. Whatever tricks one attempts, excising fat often leaves just dry, watery sullen petulance. Try a curry without ghee, coconut oil or other fats to carry the spices. Try a dry piece of turkey breast with some steamed broccoli and tell yourself you’re dining like a king all you want, but your fat-lusting brain knows you’re the basest knave. LCHF allows the full bounty of this sating luxury. LCHF’s primary curtailment, beyond the bland starches, usually involves instead a flavour rather than an ingredient: sweetness.

But, hey, the ability to enjoy sweet flavour is one of life’s pleasures; if we can find a way of servicing that pleasure that doesn’t nuke the metabolism, then only a fanatic would have a problem in promoting its use. The sensible use of sweeteners – obviously, not to the degree where the palate becomes jaded or cravey – means that a well-formulated LCHF diet needn’t be one of penance and puritanism, but can include pretty much the full range of culinary experience (sans, perhaps, flaky pastry!) at little metabolic cost.

Of course, artificial sweeteners have abounded for over a century, but some LCHF Calvinists, and Paleo Appeal-to-Nature Puritans abhor them. They’re suspicious that their chemical evilness will somehow creep up on the pancreas and give it a good kicking. There’s actually scant real-world evidence for this, and in the minute amounts people consume them (they’re so much sweeter than sugar that you’re consuming pinheads of the active ingredient at a time), I doubt that most of the popular sweeteners do much – if any – damage.

But I do abhor artificial sweeteners: not for ascetics but for aesthetics. To my palate, most artificial sweeteners taste absolutely disgusting. Some ghastly mirage of “sweet” isn’t sufficient reward for the soapy, throat-catchingly wretch-inducing perfidy I find in every aspartame/saccharine/ace-k/sucraolse mouthful. I’ve mused that artificial sweeteners are actually the most bitter substances in the world, but which some demon has somehow tricked the tongue into thinking are sweet – but the soul still screams the bitter truth. And just to show I’m not being a hippie about this, I also can’t stand except in very limited circumstances the naturotard-favourite, the lovely leafy natural-as-chlamidia Stevia. The Devil’s Liquorice, I call it.

The pretty little polyols

So, what’s left to sweeten without the sting? All my research leads to one obvious choice: the polyols. These are naturally occurring chemicals, some of which the body manufactures itself, that are like saturated sugar molecules. They’re usually manufactured by fermenting corn cobs, birch bark and other delicacies. They’re close enough to sugar that our tongues detect sweetness – a very clean sweetness, usually – but our bodies can’t play lego with them to release their energy like they could normal sugar. Depending on the polyol (or sugar alcohol as they’re sometimes called, resembling chemically something of a hybrid), the body will absorb its molecules and you’ll urinate most of them, unchanged (recycling opportunities!).  Some polyols will get dumped into the gut and get eaten by bacteria, and converted into biome-beneficial short-chain-fatty-acids. If your gut isn’t used to this, it could lead to some gassy distress – your gut gets used to it and this eventually calms down! Some polyols, however, do get a portion of themselves chopped and chipped into sugar equivalents, and then get digested like normal sugars, so they’re not really recommended. Sorbitol and maltitol, I’m looking at you.

Like sugars, there are many polyols, with different molecule shapes and sizes, but the ones which lead to the fewest gastric problems, and are the least digested into energy, are erythritol and xylitol. In study after study, these produce minimal (or no) glucose or insulin spikes. Erythritol tastes about 70% as sweet as table sugar, and looks almost identical. It tastes very clean, but has a slight “cooling” effect when not already in liquid – a bit like mild mint without the actual mint flavour. The erythritol molecule is so small that you urinate out 90% of it. The other 10% sits in the gut as good-bacteria-chow. Studies have shown that so little erythritol reaches the gut that, unlike other larger-molecule polyols, it doesn’t cause gastric distress even in relatively large amounts.

Xylitol is sweeter and more readily available to buy in normal shops than is erythritol, but unlike its smaller-moleculed cousin, it can be metabolised to a small degree (although getting it into our energy systems doesn’t require insulin – it’s complicated, but it does mean that even though xylitol digests into some calories, it’s still ok for diabetics to use without having to worry about any insulin effects). Some people also complain about initial gastric distress when they first start with xylitol, as their gut flora gets used to the new treat. I tend to use a combination of both: erythritol for “bulk” sweetening, and xylitol for more “focussed” sweetness. From all the evidence I’ve seen – and there’s quite a bit of it – I consider erythritol and xylitol perfectly safe for making treats. As a bonus, neither erythritol nor xylitol promotes any tooth decay. Indeed, xylitol appears actually to prevent it.

As it happens, one of the quickest, easiest, nutritious and versatile ways to bring a bit of sweet pleasure to an LCHF diet is an egg custard. Custards are full of great fats, highly satiating, a wonderful base for so much else, and, through richness, self limiting. For those who think sweetness is in itself crave-creating, I invite you to party on with a bag of smoked almonds vs an equi-calorific pot of custard. I’m pretty sure I know to which one you’ll first admit defeat!

Egg Custard Recipe

Making proper egg custard is often treated with suspicious reverence and timorous awe. It’s one of those culinary eggy-initiation tests – like mayonnaise, the mother sauces and so on – which have the reputation of being pernickety, cussed and requiring just the right combination of magic and skill not to jump out of the cooking pot and strangle you. Fortunately, this is obscurantist nonsense. You can avoid the usually-prescribed occult rituals with bain-maries and so forth by following my directions. The key is combining the cold beaten egg and the hot cream not on the stove, but in a separate bowl, and only after vigorous mixing, transferring the blend back to a gentle heat to thicken.

If you don’t mix it enough whilst thickening, or use too vigorous a heat, your custard could separate and curdle. Don’t worry: use a stick blender and force the mixture through a sieve. It’ll never be perfectly silky, but it will remain utterly delicious.

Note that the amount of sweetener used is obviously very individual, so adjust it to your tastes after your first go. Do be aware, though, that what tastes too sweet in initial preparation tastes much less sweet once the custard has had a chance to “set”, and especially if it is cold, or combined with gelatin (in later recipes).

Ingredients

Egg custard ingredients
Ingredients for an LCHF egg custard
  • 600ml (20 fl oz) of cream (I have used 300ml of single cream and 300ml of double cream here, as it makes just the right constituency. In the US, you’d probably use 600ml of so-called heavy cream
  • 5 eggs (of which you will use one whole egg, and four yolks. Save the four whites for meringues or something). The white helps to thicken the custard quickly.
  • 60g (2 oz) of erythritol to sweeten the cream
  • 20g (0.7oz) of xylitol to sweeten the beaten eggs
  • Vanilla extract (enough for 1.5 teaspoons)
  • Optional flavourings (banana extract, caramel etc)
  • Optional gelatin (for creating creme patissiere, panna cotta etc)

You’ll use a pot to heat the custard, a bowl to stir and mix it, a whisk to do the mixing and a spatula to make sure you don’t wash any down the sink!

Instructions

1) Prepare the egg-base
  • Crack one whole egg, including the egg-white, into a large bowl
  • Add four additional egg-yolks into the same large bowl. You can freeze the egg-whites for use in later projects.

    5 yolks one eggwhite
    Five yolks one white
  • Add the 20g of xylitol to the bowl
  • Add the half a teaspoon of vanilla extract to the bowl
  • Add optional flavouring essences, if you wish to go beyond a vanilla custard (eg: banana, caramel etc)
  • Whisk the eggs, erythritol and extract(s) well

    beaten eggs
    Beaten yolks et al
2) Warm the sweetened cream
  • Put the cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan

    warming cream
    Warming cream
  • Add one teaspoon of vanilla extract to the cream
  • Add 60g of erythritol to the cream
  • Warm the cream under medium heat, constantly stirring well
3) Add cream to the beaten eggs in the bowl
  • When the cream begins to give off steam, pour it into the bowl contain the egg mixture

    combined cream and eggs
    Hot cream and eggs
  • Whisk the cream and egg mixture very well together for about a minute
4) Pour the egg-cream mix back in the saucepan and heat
  • Thickened custard
    Thickened custard

    Add the egg-cream mix back to the saucepan under a low heat.

  • Continue to whisk the heating mixture vigorously for about 5 minutes. Do not over-heat or stop stirring, or it will curdle.
  • You will feel the custard thicken, and it’ll adhere to a spoon without immediately slidling off. Give the mixture a final vigorous whisk and take it off the heat.
5) Pour the custard back into the bowl
  • Done
    Warm custard, ready for serving

    Once the custard has thickened, pour it from the saucepan back into the bowl.

  • Continue to whisk the hot custard in the bowl vigorously for another minute or two
  • Even with care, some of the remnants of the custard will probably have curdled onto the side of the saucepan. Don’t worry! Enjoy the delicious eggy mixture as chef’s perk!

    curdled delight
    Fear not the curdle
6) Enjoy hot or cold
  • You can have the custard hot on berries, LCHF brownies etc. You can also chill it, or use it as the base of further recipes (trifles, ice-creams etc). If you chill it, expect to whisk it a few more times as it cools. You can also turn it into a kind of LCHF trifle, which I describe elsewhere.
7) Optional modifications
  • Once you take the custard off the boil and put it in its bowl, you can stir in 10g or so of powdered gelatin (less if you want it to be more like creme patissiere, more if you want it to be a very firm jelly). Make sure you whisk the mixture well so the gelatin dissolves, and leave it for 30 minutes before putting it in the fridge. It should be fully set after two further hours or so.

    Trifle
    A demi-trifle
  • If you can’t abide dairy, then it’s possible to use coconut milk – but it’s not quite as lovely, I’ll have to admit! If you can’t cope with eggs, then I can’t help you: for me, the egginess of a custard is sine-qua-non!

 

 

 

 

Deconstructing Sir Professor Collins of Statinshire

Many have written about Rory Collins, the man who would have pretty much all of us take statins. He has received even more publicity after his extraordinary outbursts against those who would question this “give statins to all” prescription. His interventions include attempting to over-reach the BMA’s editorial process, demonising those who disagree with him as “killers” and refusing to deal plainly with his manifest conflicts of interest. The fact that his lab is largely funded by the very drugs companies whose pills he works hard to exculpate had to be dragged out of him.
So what is one to make of the man? I considered it in some comment responses I made to other blogs. I distill those responses into the posting here:

Sir Professor Collins is inescapably corrupted. This is not to say that he wilfully and mendaciously manipulates facts and data, nor that he takes bribes, nor any other such gross malfeasance. Indeed, were he this caricature, twiddling his moustaches and cackling manically, he’d be simpler to deal with. The complexity of the truth makes it much *worse* to deal with.

He is corrupted not by any venal, simple sociopathy, easily detected and flushed out, but via deep enculturation. And that systemic infection is much, much harder to expose and disinfect than a single bad apple in an otherwise fresh barrel. He floats in a malignant meme-pool, and it’s not surprising that his whole worldview, his perception of truth and his opinions of those who dare disagree, be discoloured by that murky meme-pool. The pool in question is filled with a number of dark, unprobed, a-priori assumptions, all of which conveniently and “coincidentally” bolster the pharmaco-industrial status quo. Some of these memes derive directly and obviously from his funding sources. After all, they expect a return on their 300 million investment. Other assumptions derive from subtler patriarchal privileges. And a more innocent remnant can be seen as a genuine, if metastasised, desire to defend Enlightenment values against barbarism and dark superstition.

So, it’s not surprising that a man who has spent his whole life literally institutionalised should react like this to those who question both him and the very bases of his institution. Indeed, to try to separate man from institution in this instance is hopeless: it’s like asking “what is the cell – the mitochondrion or the nucleus”? So, he barks angrily not only out of anger, but incomprehension. An attack on his institution is an attack on him. And vice versa. Towered-ivory myopia is a wondrous malaise. His institution prizes a reductionist world-view, distilled into the “sell-a-pill” sine-qua-non notion of medicine so familiar to us all. Any deviation from this word-view, to Sir Professor, is a suspicious deviancy by Dark-Age infective agents. And when a whippersnapper cheekily demands to see the data his paymasters have hidden, safe for his anointed eyes only, he can only interpret such a request as impudence.

Furthermore, his institutions and those in its orbit prize hierarchies and status beyond mere coin. The members of those institutions are keen gatekeepers to “proper” knowledge, to status, and to their own more primal self-interests equally. And so they guard those gates as vehemently as any doberman.

Unfortunately for Sir Professor, the proliferation of the Internet has empowered independent researchers competently to partake in scientific analysis beyond those gates, despite the best intents of the gate keepers. This means that he must suffer impudent little barbarians – like you and me and everyone else here – who nip at his mighty heels and defy his haughty edicts, no matter how loudly he barks back. It must be very confusing for him, suddenly to have his citation-circle intruded upon by such “unwelcome externalities”.

It almost makes one feel sorry for the old dog. Until one remembers, again, the 300 mil or so his organisation pockets from organised crime*

* Before Sir Professor should sue in outrage at my painting his paymasters thus, he should note that I’m merely quoting a founder of the Cochrane Collaboration for evidence-based medicine, Peter Gøtzsche!

The Subjunctive Mood

A while ago, I was asked a question which involved my introducing the subjunctive mood. As it was on the ghastly Formspring service, the reply was difficult to find again. So I provide it here for those who have subsequently asked again:

    Question:

“Why does wish always use the past tense? If, for example, you said “i wish i had the power to change things around here,” you obviously meant you wish you had the power to change the present, not the past. And yet, the past tense is used.”

    Answer:

It might look like the past tense. It might taste like the past tense. But it’s not the past tense.

Let’s talk about moods. People can be in a good mood, a bad mood, a reflective mood. We interpret people’s actions and utterances by taking into account their mood. “Oh, ignore that – he’s just in a bad mood”.

So, people have moods. But did you know that language itself is said to have “moods” too? It doesn’t mean quite the same thing as when a person has a mood, but, as with people, the grammatical mood of the language can make a big difference to its meaning.

The most common-or-garden grammatical mood simply lets us describe things. It’s very matter of fact. It just indicates what’s what. Indeed, we call it the ‘indicative mood’. When I say “John eats cake“, I invoke the indicative mood. I’m simply describing reality as I see it, which includes John’s current consumption of cake. Even if I say “John ate cake” in the past tense, it remains in the indicative mood. The indicative mood describes what it believes to be existing facts about the existing world, whenever they happened to be true. Mood is thus separate from tense.

Another grammatical mood we use is when we want something done. In that mood, we’re not describing an existing state of affairs, but giving orders that are imperative. We thus term this the ‘imperative mood’. Whilst “John eats cake” is simply indicative, “John, eat cake! Now!” is imperative. Sergeant Majors operate almost exclusive in the imperative mood. Every time you give a direct command, you’re engaging in the imperative mood.

There are lots of other grammatical moods – some used in English and some not. Generally, we only call something a grammatical mood when it changes the form of a word in a sentence, rather than just the order of the words. Asking a question in English, for example, is not a ‘mood’ by this definition: this is because we just change the word order around or pop a “do” in front of it. So “you eat” turns into “Do you eat?“. The “eat” bit doesn’t change. So we’re not talking about a “morphological mood” here. In Welsh, though, you actually do change the verb to show you’re asking a question, so that language does, indeed, have a fully fledged ‘interrogative mood’.

So, we’ve talked about how grammatical moods involve the morphing of words to show we’re using that mood. In the imperative, we take the infinitive form of the verb (“to go“, “to run“, “to eat“) and chop off the “to”. So I can say “Go!” “Run!” “Eat!” and I have a full sentence. When we’re issuing commands, we never have to worry about changing that verb to “goes” or similar – the rules of the imperative are simple: chop off the “to” and you’re done.

Let’s see if the ‘indicative’ and the ‘imperative’ are enough to describe most English utterances. We know that most “X = Y” statements are covered by the indicative mood, and we know that most “X, do Y!” statements are covered by the imperative mood. What other sorts of things do we try to communicate? Well, let’s take your example: what if we WISH for something? Are we stating that “X = Y” in the world? Well, no, because if X DID equal Y, then we wouldn’t have to wish for it! So, it’s clearly not the indicative mood. What about the imperative? When we wish for something, are we commanding someone to do something? Nope. We clearly have another mood here, where we are imagining a hypothetical world, not describing a real one. We have actually entered the world of imagination. If I say “I wish X“, I am not saying that X exists or has happened – quite the contrary! I’m saying “X is not true, but I want X to be true“. I am imagining a world where X is true and yearning for it. So we’ve identified a different mood here that’s neither a matter of fact, nor is it bossy. As it happens, we have a fancy Latinate word for this hypothetical mood. We call it the “subjunctive”. It is a subtle and beautiful grammatical mood whose proper use is fading in English, which is a shame, because it’s an elegant way to separate reality from imagination in our utterances.

In some languages, the subjunctive mood has its own special world form unique to itself. Unfortunately, English likes to recycle, and so simply “re-uses” other forms – often from the past tense. Other times, as with the imperative, it simply chops off the “to” from the infinitive. So, you don’t say “I wish I HAVE the power to change things“. The form “have” here seems to show an indicative mood (“I have the power”, as He Man used to say – he could only say that because he was, indeed, in possession thereof!). But clearly, we are NOT “He Man” in your example – hence the wish. So, to show that we’re not indicating a truth, but are actually announcing a desire, we flip the verb into the subjunctive mood – where ‘have’ turns into ‘had’. Ok, it looks like the past tense, but it isn’t: again, don’t blame me for English’s abstemious recycling!

Where else can we see the subjunctive mood in action? Remember the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof? Notice that he doesn’t say “If I am a rich man” because “I am” is reserved for the indicative mood. He is in fact a poor man who imagines what would happen if that changed, and so the “am” flips to “were”. Again, it looks like a form of the past tense, but isn’t. Indeed, in that form of the subjunctive, “is, am, are” or whatever ALWAYS becomes “were”. That’s why Gwen Stefani’s horrible remake, where she sings “If I Was a Rich Girl” should now hurt your ears like fingernails on a blackboard. No, Gwen! If you’re imagining a moneyed life, you enunciate your hypothesis with “were”, not “was”! You are not describing something that “was” in the past but something that you wish WERE true but is not. Bad Gwen!

You can only use “was” if you actually believe that something that happened in the past is at least possibly true. But if you’re completely in the world of hypothetical imagination, you use “were”. Here’s an example which makes this clear: imagine someone enters a meeting late and simply sits down without a word. His boss looks up huffily and says “If *I* were late, then *I* would apologise“. (In other words, the boss knows that *HE* turned up to the meeting on time, and postulates a world in which that were not true, and imagines what he’d do in that hypothetical situation). The latecomer replies “If I *was* late, then I *do* apologise” (in other words, the latecomer admits that he may well have been late – this is not simply some hypothetical universe, but very possible describes the real one’s recent past, in which he was inadvertently rude!). I hope that reveals the subtle but useful difference between “was” and “were” in these contexts, and why Ms Stefani needs to be admonished severely. Perhaps she could sing “If I *was* a rich girl, then I have no memory of it, and God knows what happened to the money!“. But if she’s not describing the possible misremembered past, then it should be “were” every time!

The subjunctive mood goes even deeper than this. Indeed, any time you say a sentence with “should”, did you know that you can often use the subjunctive mood instead? After all, “should” imagines a world in which things are different, and so does the pure subjunctive mood. Let’s try it:
God should bless our Gracious Queen” has the “should” lopped out and turns into “God bless our Gracious Queen” in the subjunctive. Yep, all these years, you’ve been uttering a subjunctive in the UK anthem. We’re not ORDERING God to do anything. We’re not singing “God – you’d better bless our Gracious Queen – NOW!“. That’d be rather rude and probably make Him cross. So instead of the imperative, we use the subjunctive and politely postulate a desired world in which God does, indeed, continue to bless Her Majesty. And when you say “Bless you“, you’re using the subjunctive form of “[God should] bless you“. You simply lop off the implicit “should” bit and you have the subjunctive form, expressing a desire.

You could, clumsily but correctly, say “I would rather he should go to church than play his video games“. You’re uttering an opinion of a hypothetical world that you want to be true. As ever, you can use the simple subjunctive form like this instead: “I would rather he go to church“. Just lop off the “should” and you’re there. Note that some people mistakenly say “I would rather he GOES to church“. You can now see that this is incorrect. The “goes” form is reserved for the present indicative mood. You can say “He’s a good boy, because he goes to church instead of playing his video games”. That’s the indicative. You’re approvingly indicating a truth about the existing world. Otherwise, “goes” has no place in a sentence of desire. The subjunctive takes the “should” form instead, which is always “go” no matter to whom or to how many it relates. So, you would say “I would rather I/he/she/it go”. The “go” always remains “go” in the subjunctive, just as if it had the word “should” in front of it. Any time you’re expressing a hope, a desire, a need, a musing or simply stating something which has only happened in the parallel world of your mind, you use the subjunctive mood if you’re an elegant fellow. Let’s imagine that you’re fretting about your slow-eating friend’s being late for a play. So, you leave a message saying “I need that he eat early, in order that we be in time for the musical“. Nobody’s yet eaten when we say this. The musical hasn’t yet started. We’re talking about a hypothetical universe of our desires. And so we use the subjunctive twice: firstly to express our desire for early eating (“he eat“, which could have been “he should eat“) and secondly to express our desire for timeliness (“that we be on time“, which could have been “we should be on time“). Again, some people would have messed up the mood and said something like “in order that we ARE on time”. Again, though, they’re WRONG. We reserve “are” for the indicative here. We can indicate that we ARE, indeed, on time, when we actually arrive punctually, but if the deadline hasn’t arrived, then we can wish we BE on time, and if the deadline has passed and we fail, we can wish we WERE on time. When we shunt the verb to “be” or “were”, we make it clear that we’ve shifted our speech to describing the world of desires rather than the world of reality. And isn’t that a marvellous thing to be able to communicate? Is it not, indeed, the essence of what makes human communication so special? I hope that you treasure the subjunctive and use it well. (there’s one!)

First laugh

I note that Richard Herring has written a post every day for the last seven years. I found this somewhat shaming; I should do the same, of for the same reason that he does – to provide not only a record of the extraordinary, but in the banal, both of which are useful in providing later textured reminiscences.

So, where are we? Baby Judith is just over three months of age now, and is beginning to turn into a person. Last night, in her cot, I watched her laugh. I had not seen this yet, although Victoria claims she has done it before. A significant moment: Aristotle believed that this moment indicated the transition from mere organism to full human.

I have an annoying cold at the moment, which follows last week’s more-than-annoying bout of Noro Virus which I shared with Victoria. Thankfully, because Judith is still completely breastfed, she escaped this ghastly disease. Had she not, she’d have had to spend days in hospital, with IV fluids. Hooray for breast feeding and its magic Just In Time antibody production!

Anyway, a fairly quiet day at work, ended with a Burger King which I didn’t enjoy particularly. There’s something sad about being too ill to enjoy the greasy horror of junk food. Then an underwhelming episode of Lost, a bath and a fairly sleepless night, thanks to the cold and Judith, who has decided that her cot is evil.

A Brief History of Palestine

I began a thought experiment, to determine what sort of narrative must be running through an anti-Israel protester’s head to be able to distill such complex history and politics into a sign like this. The narrative below is, to an extent, a reductio ad absurdum. But then again, for many, it’ll be a fairly benign and relatively truthful explanation of their problems with Israel. For the hard of thinking, the below doesn’t represent the truth, nor the sane views of any individual, but surely encapsulates some of the insane miasma that inspires people to beat up Tesco employees because they “work for Jews/Israel”:

Before the First World War, the Democratic Republic of Palestine was peopled by a peaceful nation of Muslims and Christians, living together in harmony, as they had done there for thousands of years. A verdant proto-Socialist oasis in the Middle East, its capital Jerusalem was a beacon of architectural brilliance and societal tolerance that the war-mongering West could only envy, an envy turned bloodily real in the many attempted Crusades against it. As the most holy city of Islam and Christianity, it remained the cool, calm centre of contemplation for both religions, and welcomed pilgrims from all nations. Islam, meaning “peace”, could never have imagined the evil intents of the new generation of Crusaders who were just around the corner and, worse, the alien agents who would come in their wake to wreak vengeful devastation on this ancient utopia.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the rapacious West, particularly the newly energised United States, could not bear to think of the Democratic Republic of Palestine’s continued existence, a shining challenge to the venal mercantile colonialism so desired by the West and its Banker controllers.

So, after the 1st World War, the United States and the Great Britain took their moment to begin the flaying of the Democratic Republic of Palestine. Britain invaded the country and immediately deposed its democratically elected leaders, imposing a brutal colonial regime upon the unsuspecting populace. But this was not just any old ordinary colonial venture – there was a sting in the Imperial Tale by the name of Balfour.

Lord Balfour, a British war-mongerer, had been desperate to develop new weapons of mass destruction so better to quell the natives in Britain’s repressed colonies. To get them, he needed funding from The Jewish Bankers, and technical help from The Jewish Scientists. So, he payed for this assistance with the blood-money of a promise: that these Jewish interests might devour the British Colony of Palestine.

Now, why should The Jewish Establishment have desired Palestine? After all, Palestine was about as Jewish as a bacon sandwich, and contained none of the precious metals and minerals which historically attract Jewish interest. In fact, their interest was based on some vague “promises” in their bible about the territory, combined with a new form of ultra-right-wing racist supremacist nationalism, which had been born as a brother to fascism: Zionism. Zionism proclaimed that the Jews were, indeed the Chosen People, and thus needed to build a temporal empire from which they could extend their already-significant control. They perceived one significant threat to this: the increasing popularity of the ever-peaceful Islam, which banned usury as part of its proto-Socialist ideals. So where better for Zionists arbitrarily to seek subjugation than in the place where Muslims and Christians lived in such content equality: The Democratic Republic of Palestine! And thus, Zionism had begun its dark ascent, given demonic momentum by Lord Balfour and his declaration that Great Britain would agree to the Zionists’ plundering the Democratic Republic of Palestine under Great Britain’s benign watch.

And so, throughout the 20s and 30s, Jews started swarming, for the first time in history, to the Democratic Republic of Palestine (under British Occupation). Lord Rothschild and others provided the swarm with cash to buy up houses and farms below market rate by making the historical occupants an “offer they couldn’t refuse”. The citizens of the Democratic Republic of Palestine barely had time to recognise what had hit them. For the first time in the Middle East, peaceful Islam and turn-the-other-cheek Christianity had to contend with alien occupants, with alien, Old Testament notions of “An Eye for an Eye” and vengeful smiting. It began to seem as if these notions would infect the whole country – a new disease against which the native aboriginal inhabitants, as ever, had not previously had any exposure, and thus had no immunity.

Then came the West’s next Imperial adventure: the Second World War. The Jews in Germany had been envied for their evident control of the media, politics and the economy, and the Nazis exploited this unease and killed many Jews, along with many Gypsies, Catholics, Muslims and Gay people, in what has come to be termed “the Holocaust”.

The Zionists, ever to find gold in a mire, took advantage of this misfortune and began to encourage Jews from all over the world to descend upon the Democratic Republic of Palestine (under British Occupation). The British, finally realising their folly in allowing Balfour his tawdry deal, tried to repel them, but the waves of Zionists simply continued. Zionist terrorists began to slaughter the native occupants of the land, along with British soldiers and, eventually, used their influence to force the United Nations into ceding the Democratic Republic of Palestine to them, lock, stock and barrel. The world stood by, having been convinced by the wily Zionists to remain quiet out of shame for “the Holocaust”. The Zionists now had attained their wildest dreams, and wildly indeed would they wreak.

The Arab countries immediately made an offer of peaceful coexistence, as was their wont, but the Zionists rejected peace out of hand, flailing out in 1948 to try and annexe even more territory beyond the borders of the Democratic Republic of Palestine. The Arab countries whom the Zionists attacked had been used to living peacefully with their neighbours, and so had not the experience to repel these new invaders. Thus the Zionist, imbued in Old Testament aggression, won the day. They were free to pillage their way through their conquered dominion in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing, slaughtering anyone who did not flee from their newly captured country. The world looked on and said nothing.

The Zionists renamed their conquered territory as “Israel”, which means “The warmongers of God” in their language. They turned the secular proto-socialist democracy into a military theocracy, where only Jews would be allowed to live and work as citizens. Anyone else allowed into the country would, effectively, be a slave without rights.

Thus “Israel” remained an ever-spreading cancer upon the Middle East for the following decades, and the remaining survivors of the Democratic Republic of Palestine had been corralled into concentration camps along its borders, where they were treated like animals primed for slaughter. And slaughtered they often were. Their Arab brothers tried to help them and give them sustenance, but every time this was attempted “Israel” reacted violently and annexed even more land, as happened in 1967 (when the Zionists finally completed their pillage of Jerusalem) and 1973, when they stole Egyptian land.

By this time, even the most craven of Western nations began to realise the true perfidy of the Zionist project, and the UN put out resolution after resolution against the tyranny; but all were cowed into submission by the United States of America, whose strong Jewish Lobby forced the nation into supporting the “Israel” adventure, no matter what harm this support brought to America. And thus did the United States begin to provide billions of dollars and thousands of weapons to the Theocracy of Israel, turning the formerly peaceful Middle East into a seething tinderbox.

As the Jewish/Israel Lobby grew ever stronger (as documented by Mearsheimer and Walt), United States policy became utterly perverted to the will of its supposedly client state. Any powerful countermeasure to Zionist power needed to eradicated, at any cost. Thus, Afghanistan and Iraq were attacked, after fabricating any number of justifications. Afghanistan, because it contained freedom fighters opposed to US/Zionist hegemony, and Iraq because it contained a leader opposed to US/Zionist hegemony – and who happened to have an oil-rich state to boot. And thus, the West began its war against peaceful Islam, always at the behest of the cackling “Israel”, delighted to have such ostensibly powerful lackeys.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Democratic Republic of Palestine, shoved into the West Bank and Gaza, began to regain consciousness after their brutal beating. And, a Gandhi-like figure emerged: Yasser Arafat. A citizen born of the Democratic Republic of Palestine, he exuded a calm love of peace that nevertheless belied a strength of purpose and a determination that his people might one day be freed of Zionist oppression, to return to their homes, their farms and their peaceful life of productive coexistence. For decades, he battled to liberate his nation, but the Zionists threw everything at him that they could. He would constantly make generous offers of coexistence, and even to split the Democratic Republic into two, so that the Zionists could remain, even though illegitimate and alien to these lands. And the Zionists rejected every offer, no matter how generous. In the end, Arafat, for all his best efforts, died under suspicious circumstances. But even the most reactionary of Zionist-controlled news media realised that here was a passing of someone, like Nelson Mandela, who might be termed a worldly saint. For example, Barbara Plett of the BBC could not help but admit: “When the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry”. Even the strongest of Zionist brain-washing couldn’t hide the truth to her, and to millions of others, who started to campaign for the Palestinians throughout the world.

But, after Arafat, the Palestinians began to realise, with much sorrow, that turning the other cheek as they had done until now would not work against such a vicious opponent. And, with much regret, they began to fight back with the only things they had: stones, some primitive fireworks and their very bodies. The humiliation of the ghetto, of occupation and of such abject subjugation meant that they could only live to be martyrs, trying to dislodge the enemy by blowing up their very bodies as a cry of rage against their circumstance. Politicians around the world recognised the pathos of this, of freedom fighters who prepared to lose their life in the cause of freedom, but few were prepared to go on the record. The few who did, like Britain’s Jenny Tonge, were vilified as somehow “anti-semitic’.

Indeed, the Zionist had the accusation of “anti-semitism” as one of their most powerful weapons (other than their illegally produced nuclear arms, of course). They would lob this epithet at the most gentle of questioners about the ethics behind Zionism’s genocidal rampages. When “Israel” arbitrarily decided to destroy the Palestinian ghetto of Jenin, for example, an Italian cartoon that responded showing Jews re-crucifying Jesus with a girl asking “mama, why are they doing it to him again and again” was decried as somehow “anti-semitic”. A cartoon of the Prime Minister of Israel eating a Palestinian baby was also, somehow, construed as “anti-semitic”. The cover of a British magazine with a Star of David piercing the British flag with the headline “Kosher Conspiracy” was also determined, arbitrarily, “anti-semitic”. As with any currency, however, it became increasingly worthless by inflation. Soon, even the most sympathetic Zionist-appeasers were to tire of this meaningless term’s constant abuse. It was clear that “anti-semitism” did not exist. What did exist was Islamophobia, a phenomenon the Zionist media refused to report.

In Gaza, one of the Democratic Republic of Palestine ghettos, a group had formed called “Hamas”. This group combined progressive Socialism with the peace-loving attributes of Islam and vowed to regain the nation. Unlike “Israel”, the remnants of Palestine remained stubbornly democratic, and voted for Hamas, who quickly began providing collectivised services to Palestine and fighting back against “Israeli” aggression as best it could. The Zionists responded by building huge walls around the ghetto, and refused to allow any supplies or people through the checkpoints in these walls without substantial harassment, particularly of old women and young children. This frustration in trade brought the ghettos to an ever worse state of decrepitude, which seemed to suit the Zionists fine, because they were preparing for their Final Solution against the Gazan inhabitants – to wipe them and their freedom-fighting Hamas representatives out in one fell genocidal swoop.

In Operation Cast Lead, the “Israelis” began their genocidal attack, in accordance with the brutal Old Testament principles in their bible. They firebombed the ghetto, killed children, smashed schools and hospitals and reduced Gaza to mere rubble, all for the gleeful entertainment of the “Israeli” electorate, whose candidates vied with each other in proclaiming how bloody their further rampage would be, just as they had done years before in their invasion of the Socialist Republic of Lebanon, another thorn in their side for representing Christian/Muslim harmony so close to home.

So we are brought up to date: “Israel”, the most fascist, brutish, dangerous pseudo-state ever to have come into existence proves to be key to every single conflict and conflagration on the planet, be it the collapsed economies of the world (America’s having spent all its money in hoc to protecting the Zionists and refunding the Zionist bankers), global warming and environmentalism (“Israel” has massively distorted water ecology in the Middle East, as well as manufacturing any number of carbon-emitting electronica) and the Disillusion of Muslim Youth (who have no faith in Western Democracy when they see the West’s continuing to kowtow to the genocidal Zionists who slaughter their brothers).

A few brave souls are fighting back: the United Nations, despite its hampering from the US, continues to try to reveal the true extent of Zionist perfidy; leftist organisations like the Socialist Workers’ Party and the University and College Union in alliance with David Duke, the US politician; fearless and selfless politicians in RESPECT and its descendant parties; diplomats who dare speak their minds like Rowan Laxton; and an increasing number of brave protesters who, despite Zionist efforts, have begun to realise the nuanced history of the Middle East and the horror that the “Israel” project has brought forth.

Reduced Shakespeare Company

I note that BBC7 is re-broadcasting chunks of the repertoire of the “Reduced Shakespeare Company”. This troupe has been zanily crunching Shakespeare into hilarious bite-sized chunks for years now, showing in one slick performance after another the full extent of their manifold talents and The Bard’s joyful, timeless humour. Except, of course, that’s bollocks. Shakespeare is terminally unfunny. Frankly, he’s an astonishingly dull hack at the best of times; when he tries to be funny, you want to shove his stewed prunes and hey nonnie nos where the sun don’t shine. The man really was a tit. A racist, sexist, antisemitic, dull tit.

So when a bunch of Yanks try to perform one of his sonnets as rap (ooh, Shakey is kewl!) or pretend that Hamlet was a management consultant or some other sub-“Now Show” arse, it takes something bad and unfunny and metastasises it into something so cringe-worthy that you have to be in a strange position of cowed reverence and pseudy insecurity to pretend it has any worth. I shall discuss the polluting effects of Shakespeare worship soon. For now, it’s enough to get you to promise never to give these desperate stage-monkeys your cash. Just because they’re “clever” is no excuse to frequent them. The world is full of clever dullards. Go and see some modern comic theatre instead. Or better still, forget the dull and dusty medium and see a film. How now, sirrah? Oh, do shut up.

I do not KEA

This evening we went to Ikea to purchase some domestic oddments. This was a mistake. The place is hellish. From the confused car-park to the swarmed checkout cavern, you must avoid it. There is nothing there for you. Once, it might have seemed a refreshing suburban liberation. It might have represented an escape from British highstreets of worn and shoddy furniture on one hand, and heavy and stolid on the other. Then, Ikea swooshed its plywood wand and cast its Swedish spell on a whole swathe of aspirational but parsimonious bourgeoisie. Ooh, look at all that Nordic Style, its funny names, its restaurant, its cheery plastic gewgaws and pine frapped chairs! They evoked some sort of mass-produced sophistication: a Swedish Habitat without the Conran pretentions, perhaps.

Open your eyes. If it was ever like this, it’s nothing like it now. It is nothing less than a con-job, trying to sell you planks for more than they’re worth in a venue designed to the Catholic Church’s plans for purgatory. I visited it on the way home from work,, so I turned up before Mrs Trellis. I wandered about the place, meandering amidst the kitsch and trashy, the pseudo-suave and the Bauhaus-come-deckchair faux-sophistication in the twee stage-set rooms, replete with their hollow plastic televisions regarded by hollow plastic minds. I cast my rapidly descaling eyes over the furniture. The gawping hoardes suddenly seemed like cattle, being tricked into grazing astroturf. I tried to give the pieces of furniture a greater critical appraisal than the average brand-sponged dribblers about me. And do you know what? The great veneered majority of it was utter tat. Cupboards that didn’t quite close. Chipboard that wasn’t quite encapsulated. Metal legs that weren’t quite flush in meeting buckling glass table-tops. The design was pedestrian. The finish was invariably lacklustre and chipped. The material was weary and its construction duncical.

Worse than any specific cut corners (sometimes literal) was the obvious fact that these objects were constructed for the benefit of the machines that hew them and boxed them – for the efficiency of their initial production rather than any variety or elegance in their final use. The cynicism-made-chipboard was palpable. Here’s a company that packages cheap boards with holes in them, adds a chamfer, and ramps up the “we’re stylish” brand to Emperor’s New Clothes heights. It puts them in a cattlepen warehouse of a store and ensures their supplicants have to wait in gargantuan queues for the privilege of purchasing the tat. God forbid one of the richest men in the world should employ a couple more checkout staff at minimum wage so that his wretchedly pliant customers might leave within an hour of joining a chaotic queue. Never mind the abasement of the experience – they’ll still come back in their swinish droves, even when that abasement leads to the savage Tat Riots at Ikea sales earlier this year. If you repeat the word “stylish” often enough, I guess people believe it. They believe it enough to maim. The glassy eyed maimers were there this evening too, in their hateful queue-barging droves. I realised that I would be duty-bound to include myself in this field of hate if I did not vow then and there never to return to this yellow and blue Hades again.

By the time Mrs Trellis arrived, my mood was dark. We were certainly not going to purchase any bookshelves here, with their hateful cardboard-thin backing and wobbly inadequacies. It is far more honest and attractive to place planks of wood between some bricks. If I could not afford a proper set of shelves made up by a craftsman who gives a damn, or from a shop that understands the true depths that the relationship between material, form and design needs to attain, then I would happily continue with said improvised brick-and-plank shelving until I could afford the real thing. Ikea is no the “real” thing. It does not represent a happy mean between style and affordability. It is just mean. Better to keep books in cardboard boxes or strewn across the floor.

Mrs Trellis had, by this time, though, picked up some wrapping paper and a small foot-wiper rug. She decided, by some dint of stubborness, that she would make the purchase, having picked it up, by hook or by crook, even though she agreed it was the last time she would do so. On seeing the mind-boggling queues, she almost lost her nerve. The aeroplane-hangar sized checkout area had about 5% of its available tills staffed, which meant that queues wound themselves into the dank collection area warehouse. How generous. It was as if here was a collection of dull and stupid middle class refugees queuing in some hellish processing centre, desperate for some sort of asylum at the other end. The horrible people with their horrible trollies filled with horrible slabs of horribly veneered horrible MDF. Chipboard is a bunch of cheap scraps of wood bound together under pressure by a thin veneer. Ikea customers are a bunch of cheap idiots bound together under the pressured delusion that they’re better than those who shop at MFI, and equal to craftsmen carpenters because they stick some glued dahls into an ill-fitting hole. If you are one of these people, and persist in defending this apotheosis of dismal post-modern Capitalism, I’ll be happy to sell you a melanin-lined self-assemble clue: Düll-ård.

Energy Crisis?

It seems our oleic free lunch is coming to an end. What oil remains to power our Western carnival shall soon be too expensive for mere burning. Our hundred-year whimsy is coming to an end, and we’re being sent home from the party with nary a Lucky Packet to hand. Peak oil, it seems, has come and gone; that it’s actually happening, after so many decades of prediction, is oddly surprising to us. Unless someone finds some massive new reserves, and soon, we’re in for a fascinating few years ahead.

There are two views on what we can expect in oil’s twilight years – the “oy vey” eschatological pessimism at one end, and the “what, me worry?” eupeptic mien at the other. I know of people who subscribe to both extremes, each with a joyous vehemency. My old colleague, Paul Smeddle, in between learning to eat olives and getting excited about space rockets, was wont to propound his “death of civilisation” Jeremiads. These were predicated on the supposition that we’re running out of oil, there’s nothing to replace it, and nobody’s working on any alternatives that’ll be ready in time. All that we value in the West – our heat, light, transport, plastics, medicine and technology – will come tumbling down, and our civilisation is doomed.

At the other extreme, I know several who believe that The Market Will Provide. We need not worry, because These Things Sort Themselves Out. After all, look at the fuss about the Y2K bug. Look at the Malthusian panic in the 1960s about over-population by the 1980s. Look at the prediction that we’d run out of protein. The latter one is a fascinating panic which, in fact, led to the development of Quorn. None of these panics turned out to be justified, and the ingeniousness of late capitalism provided a bounty for those lucky enough to live in the West.

I feel that neither extreme pessimism nor ludicrous optimism has much rational substance about it. Optimism relies on a secundum quid et simpliciter fallacy. To an extent, so does pessimism. One assumes that some observed machination of our economy, of our character and our reactive circumstances necessarily colours how we will deal with the end of oil. We are offered no such certainty. This makes things interesting.

Certainly, some expectations we currently enjoy will be confounded: no more cheap flights seems to be one of the safest predictions one might make. Enjoy aviation’s supernova while it lasts. Biofuels should allow hybrid cars to remain on the road, and passenger ships to remain afloat. It wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to find trans-atlantic liner travel resume as the less expensive way of traversing the pond. Zeppelins might make a return as well.

Centralised power will probably be primarily fission, initially. Who knows when, if ever, fusion will be viable. Newer generations of power stations should be less costly to build and decommision, and the lack of oil’s bounty will provide a fillip to further efficiency still. This relative abundance of centralised power will allow for the recharging of hybrid engines, or perhaps the mass production of hydrogen as a clean vehicular fuel. It’ll also probably power the trains that will have taken over much short-haul flying. Maglev rail could take over some medium haul over-land routes too, all powered by the nuclear centre and, to an extent, wind, hydroelectric and some biofuel power stations. This central power, then, will have a primary function of producing energy for the connected transport infrastructure, and to produce hydrogen gas.

Homes and small factories could be self-sufficient. Indeed, even now, replacing roof-tiles with modern solar collectors could provide all the energy required for every average household, even in a dim country like Britain. This is not space-age hopefulness, but the conservative possibility of current technology. Certainly, kitting out the nation’s roofs with such technology won’t come cheap, but as oil slides away, we’ll no doubt use the last dregs to fund the production of such facilities – nothing Star Trek, but just mundane solutions which, until now, we’ve had no need to consider on a wide scale.

I’ve a feeling – it’s admittedly little more than faith – that eventually, we’ll stumble on another “free lunch”, be it cold fusion, zero point energy or a similar panacea. Until then, we’ll muddle on, adapting with neither the grace proposed by the optimists, nor with the ineptitude imagine by the pessimists. Our transition from oil to whatever comes next will probably be somewhat anticlimactic. Maybe the years ahead won’t be quite so fascinating at all, as is usually the case with predicted calamities. It’s the unpredicted ones that are interesting.

Lift Lives

Few people feel perfectly at ease in a lift. This is not surprising. We are in uncomfortably close proximity to strangers. We are literally boxed in. There are few available displacement activities. In all, one needn’t be a general claustrophobic to feel specific mild social angst in a lift.

My company has a small office near Canary Wharf on the 33rd floor. I notice little rituals played out by the lifts on every visit. For example, I’ve realised that people often time their approach to the cluster of lifts so that they just miss one that appears already inhabited. This is especially true when they are confident another is on the way. They sort of slope up to the lifts, and suddenly become distracted by their watch, their phone or the plaque on the wall indicating fire regulations. The doors of the “missed” lift close. The deliberator pulls his eyes away from the watch/phone/plaque, waits a moment, and presses the button to summon the next one. There is amusing room for error in this routine, though: sometimes he presses the summoning button too quickly – the full lift he had tried to avoid hasn’t had time to leave, and so “helpfully” slides open. His strategy in tatters, he now has to make a sheepish entrance all the while other pristine lifts are arriving just around him. Sometimes I am he.

Of course, the Docklands Busy-busy-businessman more usually suffers from the Must Get The Next Lift mentality than the Must Avoid This Full Lift angst outlined above. The disease is related to the Must Get This Tube-train malady which afflicts all self-important Londoners. Even when an empty tube-train surely follows a packed sardine tin, Mr Busy-busy must barge his way into the present overflowing carriage, as if the minute’s delay he’d have to endure till the next train pulled up would make a difference worth millions of pounds, lives or Gilts. In all likelihood, of course, the minute he saved on arriving home would be used for little more than giving his scrotum a scratch or staring into the fridge. As with trains, though, a closing lift means urgent panic. Busy-busy runs toward the closing doors, jamming his hand, foot, briefcase or secretary in the gap, piling into the lift as if he’s just hopped on to the last rocket off a dying planet. “Ping”. Another two lifts have arrived in the time he’s performed his self-important acrobatics. He’s impervious to the glares, though. He’s Busy.

Of course, lift rituals continue once one’s in. It is important to stare at the floor number-indicator. The lifts in Canary Wharf have little television screens with, bizarrely, stills of people about to enter private jets. This makes a welcome focal point, and helps to prevent that supreme faux-pas of lift eye-contact. Where one positions oneself in a lift depends on its occupancy, and is fraught with complication well beyond this discussion. The placement matrix is subtle and the product of a highly complex set of innate rules – perhaps more so even than with men at urinals.

When I’m in a lift with a friend or colleague, I like to have some sort of odd conversation with him or her. It is entertaining to watch any other lift inhabitants try to ignore the discussion, or even, if we’re lucky, scowl or smirk. A rare achievement in the monastic cell of the lift. That said, one can find this disconcerting in the inverse: a colleague related to me how a couple of men got in a lift and cheerily waved good-bye to a woman who remained outside the lift. As soon as the door closed, the men suddenly began a leery discussion of the myriad sexual divertissements they’d like to perform with that woman. It became more and more graphic. Fortunately, the lifts in our building traverse the 33 floors very quickly, so my colleague was not present for the denouement of their outburst.

A taboo lift-practice we’ve all performed at some time or other is the quick-close attempt: we enter a lift and hear footsteps. We want the lift to ourselves, so we jab the door-close button repeatedly. The lift reacts slightly too slowly, and the owner of the stepping feet becomes visible. He can see our hand, suspiciously near the close-button. We quickly press the open-button, as if we’ve been desperately trying to get the damn thing open for our poor, lost foot-stepper all along. “Oh, what a relief the door didn’t close before I could hold it open for you, my new deserving friend, thank heavens”, we hope we’re projecting. Our unconscious mind begins its complex simultaneous equation to align us appropriately with regard to this new interloper. The bastard.

Egregiously Etiolated Adjectives

Adjectives. Cheap ways of throwing verbal paint about, but messy. Maybe that’s why German makes you think twice before using one. Mark Twain, in “The Awful German Language” quotes a German student who claimed he’d “rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”.

In English, “good” is always “good”. Dogs can be good. So can bitches. You can eat a good meal, or, indeed, good meals. You can give a good man’s pilchard to a good girl’s stoat. You just slot the word “good” in, and that’s that. In German, you have to worry – or have Angst. First, you need to think about whether the noun being described is male, female or neuter, singular or plural. A different “good” could go before each one.

This is just the first of many considerations you have to make before proclaiming something as good. That’s just the beginning. Is it “a” good man or “the” good man – or is there no article at all? Yes, it makes a difference. So can we say “good” yet? No – not so fast. What case does “good” govern? In other words, is the good man the subject (“the good man ate some cheese”), the direct object (“the dog bit the good man”), the indirect object (“the taxidermist gave the tongs to the good man”) or the genitive (“the Walking Coughdrop visited the house of the good man”). You see, which “good” you use depends on these cases too. So, you have to hold in your head this monstrous flowchart/linguistic junction box, the adjective flying down the tracks, switching at each set of points, until finally, one hopes, it arrives at the correct linguistic platform. Some hope – there are 48 different possible destinations for that adjective, 48 possible linguistic slots that need to be taken account of. Just to say the word “good”. In English, we just have to remember the word “good”. In German, that’s just 1/48th of the way there.

There are lots of languages with morpholoically-realised case, with arbitrarily gendered nouns and the rest, but many have noted German’s peculiar precision in its syntax, its compoundwordaddiction and so forth. There is a way that the language slots together which, at times, out-Latins Latin. One of Mrs Trellis’s colleagues, an Italian, noted this characteristic in German when he learned it. Any Romance language speaker detects it immediately.

Now, I am intuitively suspicious of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, which suggests an intimate connection between the language we speak and our very perceptions of the world; however, one must wonder at the cultural and meta-cultural effects of this German morphologically-realised pernicketiness. What effect has it had on national character? I wonder this myself, because my brief visit to Germany confirmed that many of the national stereotypes are just that. One seemed to ring true, though: the precision demanded in all circumstances, even when informality or irrelevancy might, in an Anglophone society, render such precision near autistic. An example – one of many examples: the night-train attendant asked when we’d like breakfast served. “So spaet wie moeglich, bitte”, I replied, “As late as possible”. The attendant looked mildly horrified at the implicitness of this all and demanded a specific time be enunciated. Thence ensued a bizarre Dutch Auction, in which I named a time, he claimed that it was too late, until eventually I hit on one that seemed properly balanced for both our needs.

German precision is, of course, renowned in its philosophy, its engineering or, with IBM’s help, in darker logistical areas. There are other cultural effects: German food is “explicit”. Their appreciation of comedy is either “explicit” slapstick or precise, dry and wry. Their philosophy tries to systematise totality in a pernickety way quite alien to the English philosophical school. To speak German, one needs to follow explicit rules instinctively. Too often across German society, this acquiescence to a panoply of petty rules has been noteworthy. Dare one mention the attraction of racial Darwinism to the mindset of a conversationalist whose adjective can fall in one of 48 slots? But no, that’s unfair, unworthy of even a Basil Fawlty. These are all flabby generalisations, but beneath the wobbly tummy is something of a beating heart.

The English and German language have common ancestors. Indeed, even by late Old English, the two languages can almost be considered dialects of one another. English became less anally retentive as time went by, ditching its arbitrary genders and leaving us with only a vestigial morphologically-realised case system (“I/me” and the increasingly rare “who/whom”, for example). German, in distinction, clung on to the explicit and, to an English speaker’s mind, ridiculous extrinsic belts-and-braces redundancy. Did restrictive cultural forces hold German in its waistcoat? Did English start letting it all hang out because of the productive miscegenation of its speakers? Or, more tantalisingly, did the changes in English language spark off a greater cultural effect? In other words, is the difference between BMW and British Leyland explained, in part, by the declination of adjectives, or are those pernickety Teutonic linguistic practices just a component in the greater cultural tendency to precision?

In an interesting twist, many have noted that German’s waistcoat buttons are beginning to pop open, and that the language is starting finally to “Englishify” itself – the genitive case is almost extinct in the spoken language, and the subjunctive mood is becoming ever more restricted – although it is not quite as ghostly as in English yet. The complicated carving of German grammar is tending towards the usefully corrosive effects that have formed whorish English. Will the eventual smoothed pebble lead Mercedes Benz to create anything like the Mini Metro? Alles ist nicht klar. (It could have also been klare, or klaren, or klares, or klarem…).

Turner Thermodynamics

Verdurin and I visited the Turner Prize last month before our Berlin trip. There, we saw a ramshackled shed, a bicycle with a canister of hydrogen, some photos of a quarry, an insipid watercolour of a cactus, a video of a fountain, a video of a Blackpool illuminations windwill, a video of some dancing feet, a video of a watching old lady, paintings of arses, forests and darkly-hued still lives, a room with silver, white and black gaffer tape on the floor, fibreglass birds bestrewn with paint and some handbags with mirror mosaics. Yes, of course it was all banal tat, a veritable Oxfam of an exhibition, but that’s what one expects of the Turner Prize.

My concern this time is not with the “art” (or, indeed, the arses, which weren’t bad), but with the earnest right-on claims made by one of the artists – the artist that this evening won the prize, as it happens. This is the artist whose exhibition consisted of the lean-to shack, the hydrogen-assisted bicycle, the photographs and the painting of the cactus.

His claim for the unifying theme of his work was the usual “Gaia Mother Earth Ooh Capitalism Tsk Consumes Bah Humbug Naughty Business Men” sentimental environmentalism/anti globalisation rubbish. What was particularly egregious about his brand of rubbish was his claim that his trip across some desert or other with his bicycle represented some snub to the inefficiencies of industrial capitalism. You see, his bike was powered with nothing more than hydrogen which, when it burns, produces nothing more than water. He used that water to paint the cactus, another conservative symbol of mother nature in frugal balance blah blah. People were looking at this bicycle with strapped-on canister of hydrogen and nodding sagely, in wonder at how efficient and environmentally friendly and divorced from the evils of global capital this is. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a trick, a lie, an idiocy easily inflicted on the scientifically illiterate arseholes who visit and judge such “art”.

You see, the curators had put up a sign saying that the hydrogen had been “taken from the desert air”. Oh, really? So the solution to our energy problems, then, is to scoop up air from desert regions and run our Happy Cars on it? All that free hydrogen that, of course, isn’t in the air. Yes, there’s lots and lots of hydrogen on this planet. Unfortunately, the reactive little devil tends to be bonded with oxygen (to produce water) and/or carbon (to produce fossil fuels). So, how do we get pure hydrogen from either of these sources? Well, in order to extricate the hydrogen atoms from their tightly promiscuous bonds, one needs to provide energy to break those bonds. Dry desert air has precious little water vapour, let alone free hydrogen. The dangly-earingged twunt who wrote the “scooped from air” sign hadn’t looked at the labelled canister. I had. It was just common-or-garden industrial hydrogen. This hydrogen would have been produced by electrolysing water, or by putting natural gas or coke through an energy inefficient conversion process. As the first law of thermodynamics makes clear, then, the artist would have wasted less energy if he’d just used a standard motorbike and run it on petrol. The picture of the cactus wouldn’t have been so pretty, admittedly.

Now, hydrogen electrolised from water via solar power, say, might have allowed him to make his point. But it wasn’t. He used standard industrial hydrogen, produced not as a part of the renewable energy cycle, but as a part of the non-renewable economy he’d thought he’d escaped: he was using the earth’s finite resources just the same, and probably creating just as much net pollution in the process. And either nobody noticed, or cared, and so allowed his little didactic lesson to pass without realising that its central premise, that which was supposed to be telling and poignant and oh so “aaaahhhh” – was, in fact, utter, total bilge. Scooped from the desert air? You stupid twat! Art? Arrgh, more like!

The Dream Fiddler

I went to see Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm today. I enjoyed it, but what final impression it shall have made on me, I cannot yet say. I have a terrible memory for films. Consider a movie I might have seen a week or two ago: if I had to narrate its story at gunpoint, I’d have my brains blown out. The specific details of a plot leave my short term memory and evaporate. It barely seems to matter whether I enjoyed the film or found it dull at the time – it fractures and dissipates in my recollection just the same. I’ve tried to think of any other aspect of my life where an intensely involving aesthetic activity can leave so little of its detail ingrained in conscious memory. There is only one, and that is when I dream.

Like many people, I don’t usually remember my dreams. When I do recall one, it is just as I slide awake, when I seem to have a yearning to grapple its memory, as if I am about to lose something precious, as though I am compelled to play with the fading textures and other-worldy emotional modes, to linger on the darkening images and wonder at their construction from the brickabrack of my mind. As I gain consciousness, slowly but surely, that peculiarly poignant brook along the border between sleep and consciousness evaporates. Just as surely dissipates my memory of a film after the credits roll.

What remains in my consciousness for any film, then, is just what remains of any dream. Not the story, the narrative, but fractured images, scenes and the emotional seasoning. Most films, like most dreams, leave precious few of these vivid shards. The best films, like the most significant dreams, leave the greatest number of discrete scenes, shimmering in my mind, recalled like an impressionist painting, or perhaps cubist: the clinical sequence will have dissipated, but telling details and a roped-off pervading atmosphere will remain, potent and heady, each shard overlaid on the other to provide the only notion of the totality of recalled experience for that dreamy film or filmy dream.

I cannot, therefore, know whether a film has been “good” in my terms until well after I’ve seen it. If it passes through my system, like glucose syrup or a gulp of water, then it remains fundamentally unaffecting beyond the immediate pep or distraction it provides, and has failed me in some deeply mimetic way. If, days, weeks and months hence, I find the film has left a residue in my consciousness, then it has worked its benign infection, and I consider it personally worthy.

Films that I find deeply involving and enjoyable at the time of viewing can disappoint me later with their scant imprint. Trivial and silly films can surprise me just as much when an embedded splinter of the film suddenly stings without warning, months later. The collection of film shards that hangs in my internal gallery is an eclectic one: the fractured images that glitter, the morsels of emotional intensity, the distilled mise en scene pervades like a heady incense. Visitors to my confused gallery will note the throbbing nostalgia for a past that was not mine as it wafts its way through from Radio Days. Down the hall, encounter the pit-of-the-stomach delight as the synchronised denouement in Fight Club slews past. The mindboggling industrial hell of the chicks on the conveyor belt in Baraka can haunt at a moment’s notice. The Hudsucker Proxy peppers the gallery with vignettes, from the expertly crafted innocence to the monumental clockface so crucial to the film’s conclusion. The tender ambiguity of “Stay Awake” in Mary Poppins echoes the hall with a baleful intensity (the first film I ever saw – my mother tells me that when the lights came up in the house, I burst into tears).

If my mind holds a collection of such impressionistic and expressionist shards from the affective cinema, then one film alone has its own museum wing. That film is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I cannot think of a movie that has left within me a greater number of images, tropes, scenes, colours, tones, cut-class motifs and enveloping ambiguities. Never mind the film’s grandiose set-pieces, which are all there, but things like the comically grating sound of the telephones, the little office-cubicle in the Department of Records, the leering drunk over the model city, the glass-brick subways, the Stalinist architecture and the thousands of individual moments of brilliance cascade themselves to me eternally. Amidst the tumult is Michael Kamen’s score, whose shattering resonance has not, for me, been equalled in any sound track. Kamen transforms the silly little ditty behind the film’s title into something quite Mahlerian in its heroic tragedy. Almost a complete record of it resides in some deep basement of my mind’s sound archive.

Appropriately for a film that so centrally deals with the ambivalent power of imagination over mundane or painful reality, it lies like no other in my mind as the vivid dream of a film that it is. Unlike a normal dream that evaporates in the morning sun, though, its images can be replenished and its emotional stock can be re-seasoned with the insertion of a DVD.

A History of Achilles-Heel Tickling

Well, that’s been an interesting week. The reaction to my article on the Open Rights Group has made me consider the issues discussed therein with some rigour. So, I am preparing a paper which hopes to detail the strategy that was only sketched in the report. To this end, I send out an appeal to any who might be reading this: I have at hand some historical analogies which seem to demonstrate that our strategy is not just a troll or a Gedankenexperiment, but has antecedents; I am sure there are many other examples of which I’m not aware. If you know of one, please include it in a comment below.

Now, what sort of analogy am I talking about? Specifically, I would like historical examples of where a powerbase has been tempered, subverted or overturned not through Fabian-like lobbying and bourgeois “education”, but either implicitly or explicitly by using the powerbase’s own hubris to destroy itself. In particular, I am interested in examples where a powerbase’s insecurity and greed has led to a bust flush, to its overreaching itself and enacting a reductio ad absurdem. A famous example I (and, it appears, others), can think of in this context is, of course, the 18th Amendment of the American Constitution, whose instigation of Prohibition did more to destroy the Temperance movement that had craved it than any lilly-livered letter-writers and libertarians. As the author of the above link wrote, “it affirms the economic theory, which predicts that prevention of mutually beneficial exchanges fails”. If that theory is sound, and I believe it is, then encouraging a radical “prevention of mutually beneficial exchange” in one fell swoop, rather than in halting increments, is sound. Not only is it extricated from accusations of Trollhood, but is one of the most rational courses imaginable, and enshrined in economic orthodoxy.

Further to this, please send historical examples of the raising of public consciousness through the encouragement of such reductio ad absurdems, where agents specifically catalysed what they realised as the fatal hubristic flaw at the heel of a powerbase.

A powerful example, of course, is the American Civil Rights movement, of which my brother (a Historian specialising in America) has just reminded me:

“The Civil Rights movement, and the rise of white ‘Massive Resistance’ in Birmingham Alabama, with their hosepipes on little kids, strikes me, off hand, as a good example. It was completely misjudged in the TV age, and got those who were uneasy about the end of segregation for ‘practical reasons’ to side with black civil rights leaders. Indeed, the policy of direct action without violence by the civil rights movement was predicated on the hope of an over-reactive, violent police/white counter-measure. This makes the policy of ‘non-violence’ precisely about violence, given that its raison d’etre was to provoke a violent counter response, whose violence would be contrasted to the ‘lack of violence’, and lead moderates who would have supported segretationists on grounds of maintaining ‘stability’ and ‘not rocking the boat’, to move to the side of the civil rights people. In other words, those who hosed the kids defeated their very aims by their actions”.

This is indeed directly analogous. Rosa Parks is the most famous single example of this principle. It was not the “production of press releases”, or “edutainment” which proved monumentally powerful: merely her sitting in the “wrong” seat on a bus, and calculating that the ludicrous official reaction would point tellingly, stingingly and devastatingly at the injustice abroad. The movement had prepared this action well in advance, and had trialled it many times before. No doubt, they would now be dubbed silly agit-prop trolls. Finally, true to form, the official reaction was just as obnoxious as had been hoped, and the rest is, literally, History. Had a proto-ORG been advising Rosa Parks, they’d have suggested contemporary equivalents of setting up a Wiki or contacting her MEP instead. Or edutaining her way through press-releases to freedom.

Fallacies Ahoy!

Last Tuesday evening, a couple of friends asked me how the Open Rights Group meeting had gone. Primarily as a response to them, I wrote the article below. Word of mouth seems to have given it an infamy it didn’t seek, and has led to a surprising number of vituperative comments. Some of the responses are considered and thoughtful. Some are entertainingly disdainful. Those that are sufficiently literate to parse, though, generally suffer from a number of fallacies.

The primary fallacy, of course, is the old favourite: Ad Hominem. “Public school teenage whinging Trot twats” and the rest, implications that none of us “get out”, kiss ladies and so on. No problem with this. Name calling is great fun, and I indulge in it in my original piece; but basing one’s whole “argument” on such outbursts is like serving a meal that consists of salt alone. It gives one logic-gallstones. Yes, I lambasted and attacked, but I also tried to provide a reasoned argument, to provoke some discussion beyond the puerile, even if just a robust counterblast. Amidst the twat-calls, some more analytical repudiation might have been useful.

Ad Hominem was not the only variety of fallacy in this bed of weeds. Danny O’Brien introduced a Straw Man with his attempted parallel of “being nasty to NHS workers”. How saying “Ah, imagine if you were being nasty to people in an organisation of which you approve. That would be nasty” relates to our suggestion that the Media Oligarchies might be made to trip on their own hubristic shoelaces is still beyond me. Perhaps others could explain. Many retorts also begged the question and engaged in the fallacy of the undistributed middle. For those few who managed to provide some actual counter analysis, I shall respond in a combined essay soon. I shall lay out what I think would need to be done in the sort of agit-prop campaign outlined in our gedankenexperiment, and how it might work in a real world. For the rest, fanboydom serves your cause no good. Your uncritical slavering does your Group no good.

The ferocity of the reaction to something that started as no more than a wry gedankenexperiment has revealed to my mind just how hostile people are to anything not shrouded in the current stifling consensual mode. Although I am playing Cassandra to the ORG, I am certainly not claiming some sort of omniscience. Nevertheless, I have helped to found a successful tech campaign which, in its whole existence, consumed about one quarter of one month of ORG’s projected income. If it is not to waste this bounty, ORG had better realise that it is displaying classic danger signs, which my friends and I have seen in several other nascent campaigns. Anyone who thinks that ORG is best served in the nauseatingly corporatist gushing that we saw in the meeting and subsequent retorts is deluded. Lewd comments by fanboys about “enticing ladies” do not bode well. A dismissal of Mr Levine’s pointed question about what comes after the press releases does not bode well. An organisation which thinks that Management Consultants are Big and Clever does not bode well. An organisation that wants to receive 5k a month, and yet cannot run a decent website does not bode well (a higgledypiggledy “blog” using the default template doth not a decent campaign website make). Lots of geeks and numeedjas are, no doubt, too excited by the fact that something is being done to realise that not all “somethings” are equal.

Another fallacy to be sliced into a thousand pieces and buried under the nearest patio is of the “If It’s So Bad, Why Don’t You Do It Yourself?” variety. Well, I have done it “myself” in the past, thanks; however, even if I were the laziest armchair punditing sod in the world, that in itself would not invalidate my criticisms or arguments. These arguments must be bolstered or shot down by logical analysis alone. The “Why Don’t You” idiocy can be illustrated quite simply:
“I don’t like Hitler”
“Well, if you can do better, why not take over a country and run it yourself!”
Idiots.

As it happens, I am ready to put my money where my mouth is. My company is quite willing to support and fund an organisation that truly has a hope. I would realistically have been happy to sign a company cheque doubling ORG’s monthly budget at a stroke, had I thought it had a chance of spending that money wisely. I would have been able to provide a full litany of lawyers prepared to work pro-bono, had I felt they wouldn’t have had their time wasted. I don’t say this in some empty branch-dragging cockery, but as a serious indication of how I genuinely would react to an organisation I felt had the remotest chance of anything other than counterproductive tinkering. I, and those who remain unconvinced, but do not write smarmy reports, will not find ORG the least bit convincing. Sorry ORG, but you, like the AFFS and others before you, just don’t seem to have it in you. To quote Larry Lessig, you’re in a battle with all the money and power in the world. You don’t fight that with press releases and Getting Your MEPs on Board. But, hell, I could be utterly, totally wrong. That would be a truly pleasant outcome. It would, without irony, delight me. Oh, despite it all, you’re probably worth a fiver a month bet. But only when you can at least get your arse in gear at least to receive credit card payments online, as we in CUT were able to do eight years ago.

Faster Food

A couple of my colleagues stayed all night in the office. They were helping to deal with problematic invoices, so we can produce our company accounts. To thank them, I went to the local supermarket to buy a bottle of nice sparkling red wine. At the checkout, I noticed that a woman had a trolley full of ready-meals and other convenience items. She hadn’t purchased any “real” raw food at all. She had no separate vegetables. She had no cuts of meat. She had no grains or pasta. She just had a cart filled with cardboard boxes of pre-prepared chillcooked and frozen miscellany.

It suddenly struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had consumed one of these microwave ready-meals. There was a period when I ate them frequently. While I worked at Easynet, a group of us got into the habit of buying some Tesco pasta dish or other at lunch and cooking it in the company microwave. The pasta would go a strange grey colour. It become mildly crispy on one edge, but half melted into the softening plastic container on the other. It was about then that I began to realise that the convenience meal did not quite live up to its promise.

My first step to gastronomic enlightenment was in actually using some raw ingredients. Unfortunately, I tended to spoil these ingredients with Chicken Tonight or some equivalent bottled slurry. With the advent of Mrs Trellis, however, emerged a different notion of food preparation: that it’s cheaper, nicer, fresher, tastier and, well, foodier to produce the stuff manually, so to speak. I was surprised to find that, despite the implications by Kraft Foods and their ilk, such Real Food doesn’t really take that much longer to prepare either. For example, what on earth is difficult about roasting a chicken? Put chicken in roasting pan, stick half a lemon up its backside and wipe on some oil and seasoning. The oven does the rest of the work whilst one watches television, goes to the gym or bathes the locust. Frying a steak is hardly more odious. A pasta sauce? Take a tin of tomatoes, add herbs and seasoning, simmer, and that’s it. And it’s always miles better than the suspiciously astringent Dolmios and their brethren.

The revelation, though, is stew and other one-pot meals and soups. One can purchase ready-meal stews. These consist of expensive punnets of fatty lumps of meat and slimy vegetables in a monosodium glutemate and guar-gum sauce. Sure, it takes just three minutes to heat up in the microwave, but making a real stew is hardly a chore. Just fill a pot with – well, whatever. Add plenty of liquid, including some wine. This is a good way of using up the last dregs of an old bottle. Then let the mixture simmer for as long as one can give it (the longer the merrier). The simmering can happen parallel with all those busy, busy middle class things one needs to do, so it doesn’t really factor in to the convenience equation. The notion that such food is time consuming is bizarre. If we’re going on a run, or to see a film, we sometimes put on a stew slowly to simmer, and consume it on returning. Our time is consumed in doing the things we would have done had our meal arrived in a plastic tray. Again, it’s the oven that’s breaking a sweat, not us. What’s more, we can bag and freeze the inevitable surplus from the pot. We can then consume it on another day, when we don’t feel like taking any time at all in even preparing a fresh meal: voila, our own ready-meal, but without the trans-fatty acids and sodium benzoate.

Yes, this is all rather bourgeois, but it deserves evangelising: extricating yourself from convenience food needn’t be inconvenient. Try giving up the habit for a week, at first, and then a month. Once the Kraft Crack has left your culinary neighbourhood, you’ll never look at another cellophaned punnet of their gloop again, let alone allow it privileged residence in your gut.