All posts by Stocker Cary

Their god was called Gun

Maybe you’ve heard this little story about aliens visiting us. Aliens, on first observing humans, might think we serve dogs. As soon a dog poops, their attending human quickly recovers the precious gift from the dog in a special bag.

Maybe future historians, after reviewing the actions of modern Americans, might assume the American religion was built around a god called Gun. They’d see the records of mass killings using guns occurring fairly regularly, daily self sacrifices using guns, and the constant settling of disputes (usually with someone close to the shooter) with guns. Future historians would even discover there’re more pre-schoolers shot dead in America (about 75) than police officers are in a typical year.

These future historians might speculate that mental illness, criminal activity, or racial issues were the root of the problem before coming to the conclusion current researchers have come to. Namely that American violence comes down to the vast number of guns in America. These findings could lead future historians to theorize that the  US culture’s predominate god is named Gun.

They’re a couple of good articles about in the NYT , here and here, about gun violence and possible solutions. Here’re a few takeaways from the articles. The bottom line is this: The only variable explaining the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.

Worldwide, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting. This relationship held even when excluding the US, indicating that it couldn’t be explained by some other factor particular. And it held when controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence. 

Americans make up about 4.4% of the global population but own 42% of the world’s guns. Only in the U.S. do we lose one person every 15 minutes to gun violence.

While there’s crime in other countries, American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.

While mass shootings can happen anywhere, they are only a matter of routine in the US.

In 2013, American gun-related deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides and 505 deaths from accidental discharge. That same year in Japan, a country with one-third America’s population, guns were involved in only 13 deaths. America’s gun ownership rate is 150 times higher than Japan’s.

The US is one of only three countries, along with Mexico and Guatemala, that begin with the assumption that people have an inherent right to own guns. But the US has determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society.

Gun safety or reducing gun violence should be framed as a public health issue using auto safety as a model with its constant efforts to make the products safer and limiting access by people who are most likely to misuse them.

We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them – and limit access to them – so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven by 95% since 1921.

States where guns are more regulated tend to have lower gun death rates.

But the problem is that lax laws too often make it easy not only for good guys to get guns, but also for bad guys to get guns. The evidence is overwhelming that overall more guns and more relaxed gun laws lead to more violent deaths and injuries. One study found that a gun in the house was associated with an increased risk of a gun death, particularly by suicide but also by homicide.

Although it’s mass shootings that get our attention, they’re not the main cause of loss of life. Much more typical is a friend who shoots another, a husband who kills his wife – or, most common of all, a man who kills himself.

Skeptics will say that if people want to kill themselves, there’s nothing we can do. In fact, it turns out that if you make suicide more difficult, suicide rates drop.

After tightening gun laws, firearm homicide rates dropped 40 percent in Connecticut. And after Missouri eased gun laws, gun homicide rates rose 25 percent.

Our laws have often focused more on weapons themselves (such as the assault weapons ban) rather than on access. In many places, there is more rigorous screening of people who want to adopt dogs than of people who want to purchase firearms. A car or gun is usually safe in the hands of a 45-year-old woman with no criminal record, but may be dangerous when used by a 19-year-old felon with a history of alcohol offenses or domestic violence protection orders.

Sunday’s horror at a church in Texas was 100% predictable. After each such incident, we mourn the deaths and sympathize with the victims, but we do nothing fundamental to reduce our vulnerability. The question isn’t whether we’ll restrict firearms, but where to draw the line. The real impetus for change will come because the public favors it.

Black helicopters in Finland

“Black helicopters are part of a conspiracy theory claiming special silent running “black” helicopters are used by secret agents of the New World Order… in short, any farfetched theory concerning any government or other conspiracy…” from the Urban dictionary.

About six weeks ago, my wife and I happened to chat briefly with a Finnish guy in restaurant. He lives a couple of hundred kilometers north of Helsinki, in the middle of nowhere.

We were in Estonia, a small country across the Baltic sea from Sweden. It didn’t take long for him to figure out we were Americans and he said he wanted to ask us something. He wanted to know if the 9/11 attacks in the US actually happened. We assured him it was true. And that the moon landings in the late sixties happened too.

For a guy living in the middle of nowhere from the standpoint of US culture, he was pretty up to date on conspiracy theories, ones predating “fake news.” With the internet, conspiracy theories are like a mutant pollen drifting across continents. And apparently there’re minds receptive to mutant pollen all over the world.

Sleeping

Here’s some highlights on the importance of sleep from an article in The Guardian.

  • After being awake for 19 hours, you’re as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk.
  • Two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain eight hours of sleep.
  • If you drive having had only four hours of sleep, you’re 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident.
  • To successfully initiate sleep, your core temperature needs to drop about 1C.
  • A hot bath aids sleep because your dilated blood vessels radiate inner heat, and your core body temperature drops.
  • The time taken to reach physical exhaustion by athletes who obtain less than eight hours of sleep, and especially less than six hours, drops by 10-30%.
  • It’s a myth that older adults need less sleep.
  • Morning types, who prefer to awake around dawn, make up about 40% of the population. Evening types, who prefer to go to bed late and wake up late, account for about 30%. The remaining 30% lie somewhere in between.

Matthew Walker is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC, Berkeley and was formerly a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Walker has written “Why We Sleep,”  examining the powerful links between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says.

“First, we electrified the night,” Walker says. “Second, our work: not only the porous borders between start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society.”

But Walker also says that in the developed world, sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame, “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness.”

More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime.

By looking at the brainwave patterns of people with different forms of dementia, sleep could be a new early diagnostic litmus test for different subtypes of dementia.

A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the body’s effective control of blood sugar, the cells become less responsive to insulin causing a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short you’re susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. “I’m not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone. It’s not. However, processed food and sedentary lifestyles don’t adequately explain its rise. Something’s missing. It’s now clear that sleep is that third ingredient.”

Getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In essence it has to do with amyloid deposits (a toxin protein) accumulating in the brains of those suffering from the disease, killing the surrounding cells. During deep sleep, such deposits are effectively cleaned from the brain. Without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up, especially in the brain’s deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens our ability to remove them from the brain at night. More amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on.

Sleep aids our ability to make new memories, and restores our capacity for learning.

A lack of sleep also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived.

We sleep in 90-minute cycles, and it’s only towards the end of each one of these that we go into deep sleep. Each cycle comprises two kinds of sleep. First, there is NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep); this is then followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

“During NREM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting,” he says. “There’s a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on. To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for. REM sleep, on the other hand, is sometimes known as paradoxical sleep, because the brain patterns are identical to when you’re awake. It’s an incredibly active brain state. Your heart and nervous system go through spurts of activity: we’re still not exactly sure why.”

Does the 90-minute cycle mean that so-called power naps are worthless? “They can take the edge off basic sleepiness. But you need 90 minutes to get to deep sleep, and one cycle isn’t enough to do all the work. You need four or five cycles to get all the benefit.”

Walker says, “I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence.”

How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. “I see it all the time,” he says. “I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.”

Life’s great pleasures

“I know you’re not married, but if you were, can you imagine paying somebody to screw your wife?”

“No…” I said slowly, unsure what he was getting at. But before I could relax my eyebrows, he answered for me, “Of course not,” pausing before making his point, “It’d be the same thing as paying someone to walk your dog, why would you? It’s one of life’s great pleasures.”

Should I blame it on the fumes, I wondered?

We were hanging in a yoga studio out after working late installing a new floor. The new flooring was interlocking blue foam squares, which arrived bound together in stacks of fifteen.

After unstacking the squares and interlocking them like puzzle pieces, the off-gassing of petro chemical fumes was in high gear. The place smelled like a flip flop factory, a sickening sweet new car smell times twenty.

Then he started in about his college wrestling days as being one of his life’s great pleasures. Maybe he was breathing too many fumes because next he began trying to crush me into the new mat with wrestling moves. Kinda disrespectful, fighting in a yoga place right?

People don’t really care I guess. I remember seeing a church converted to a restaurant. And the restaurant was called “Christians.” That struck me as disrespectful somehow. But maybe it’s just no different than what cell phones and bottled water did to pay phones and drinking fountains.

 

The mystery skull

I saw an exhibit of Irving Penn’s photos covering several subjects with one part featuring pictures of animal skulls.

For most of skulls, I could  match the animal it belonged to. But the coolest looking skull stumped me. It’s here on the right.

I thought maybe it was from an extinct cave bear. It wasn’t. It was the skull of a spotted hyena.

Even knowing they have an incredibly powerful bite and they’re good scavengers and hunters, how could such a gnarly looking skull be inside of a spotted hyena’s head?

The skull was sleek and compact compared to the other skulls Penn photographed. The teeth fit so neatly together, even the really broad one the side.

Looking at those teeth it’s hard to image surviving a bite from them. I doubt any live animal survives if a hyena gets a good bite in place. And as a scavenger, a hyena can probably make off quickly with a nice meal.

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. There’s an elegant looking skull inside an animal that looks a bit awkward on the outside.

Assholery

Whatever differences you might have had with President Obama, one thing you couldn’t say about him was that he was an asshole. The same thing goes for the presidents before him.

Now we have President Trump who many,even in his own party, feel is an asshole. Not too presidential unfortunately.

Here’s my shortened version of an interview with a Stanford psychologist about his book on dealing with assholes. It seems timely.

An asshole is someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt.

An asshole needs someone in their life to tell them they’re being an asshole.

There’s a distinction between temporary and certified assholes. Anyone, under certain conditions, can be a temporary asshole.  It’s more complicated than saying a certified asshole is someone who doesn’t care about other people. Certifiable assholes actually want to make you feel hurt and upset, and take pleasure in that.

Assuming you’re not the CEO and can’t simply fire an asshole, you have to do two things in terms of strategy.

First, you’ve got to build your case and a coalition. A important distinction is that some people are clueless assholes and don’t realize they’re jerks, but maybe they mean well. In that situation, you can have backstage conversations, gently informing them that they’ve crossed a line.

But if it’s one of those Machiavellian assholes who’s treating you badly because they believe that’s how to get ahead,  then you’ve got to get out of there if you can.

Say you have an asshole boss, there’s a power asymmetry, so it’s not as simple as telling him he’s an asshole. What’s your advice?

First, can you quit or transfer? If you’re stuck under a asshole, that means you’re suffering and you should get out – it’s that simple.

The second question is, if you must endure, are you going to fight or are you just going to take it? If you’re going to fight, you need a plan and a posse, you need to collect your evidence, and then you have to take your chances.

Try to have as little contact as possible with assholes.

One of the simplest, but admittedly hardest, things is learning not to give a shit – which takes the wind out of an asshole’s sails. When an asshole’s being nasty to you, ignore him.

Think about how a year from now he won’t be in your life, but he’ll still be the asshole he always was.

What if you’ve got an asshole as a peer or a colleague? Your chances of getting rid of them are higher because you have more power.

I’m in academia, which means there’re lots of assholes we can’t fire. But we can absolutely freeze them out. Don’t  invite them to events or gatherings. We can shun them politely and smile at them as necessary, but other than that we just ignore them. That’s how we deal with assholes.

But there’re some situations in which you may have to be an asshole to survive because you’ve got no choice but to push back against them. This isn’t ideal, but if that’s what you have to do, then that’s what you do.

If somebody has a history of hurting you, and they have a Machiavellian personality, the only thing they’ll understand is a display of force. The best way to protect yourself is firing back with everything you’ve got.

Some people deserve and need to be treated badly. Sometimes you have to speak in the only language they understand, and that means  getting your hands dirty.

We know that assholes have a corrosive effect on the people around them. There’re studies demonstrating that people working for assholes for many years end up being more depressed, more anxious, and less healthy. So there’s compelling evidence that assholes are terrible humans doing harm to other people.

What else is there to say? If you’re an asshole, you’re a failure as a human because you promote unnecessary suffering.

Keep It Simple

The fundamental tenets of training haven’t changed much in decades.

When planning your workouts, keep these general principles in mind:

If intensity is high, volume is low.

Volume never increases more than 10 percent per week or more than three weeks in a row.

Weekly intensity is measured by the number of hard workouts, from none to three.

Follow hard days with easy days, not rest.

At least one day per week, and one week per five-week cycle, is devoted to recovery.

—“To Each His Zone,” May 1993 Outside Magazine

Hunter-gather life

Jared Diamond called the adoption of agriculture “the worst mistake in human history,” a claim that is, among historians of the era, not very controversial.

Here’re some takeaway ideas from a New Yorker article making a case against civilization.

Most modern people are generally living in a cage of accumulation and coping with a constant low-grade stress.

Before farming, we couldn’t accumulate much more than we could carry and we likely had mainly brief episodes of coping with intense stress.

The fossil record shows that life for early agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers.

So why did our ancestors switch from the hunter-gatherers’ complex web of food to the concentrated cultivation of single crops? We don’t know, but two things are clear.

The bones of early farmers show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Plus living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases crossing the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities.

The other conclusion is that there’s a crucial, direct link between  cultivating grains and state formation.

Grains encouraged the formation of states. History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit or sweet potato states.

What’s so special about grains? Grains, unlike other crops, are easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) grow underground and so can be hidden from the tax collector. And other crops ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season.

Only grains are visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’  So grain became the main food starch, the unit of taxation in kind, and the basis for an agrarian calendar.

The ability to tax and to extract a surplus from grains led to the formation of the state, and creating complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an élite presiding over them.

Because states required huge amounts of manual work to irrigate the crops, they needed forms of forced labor, including slavery.  The easiest way to find slaves was capturing them, so the states had a drive to wage war. Some of the earliest images in human history are of slaves being marched along in neck shackles.

War, slavery, and rule by elites were made easier by numerical record keeping – writing. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club. For 500 years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used only for bookkeeping. Early tablets consist of lists, and the subjects are, in order of frequency, barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, and slaves.

If most of us weren’t miserable most of the time as hunter-gatherers, the arrival of civilization is a more ambiguous event. The question of what life was like for a hunter-gatherer is important for assessing human history.

It turns out that hunting and gathering can be a good way to live.

A 1966 study found that, on average, it took Bushmen only about 17 hours a week to find enough food; another 19 hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was 2,300 a day, close to the recommended amount. In 1966, a comparable week in the United States involved 40 hours of work and 36 of domestic labor. Bushmen don’t accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, and then stop, exhibiting confidence that their environment will provide for their needs.

In one column of the ledger, we would have the development of a complex material culture permitting the glories of modern science and medicine and the accumulated wonders of art. In the other column, we would have the less good stuff, such as plague, war, slavery, social stratification, and rule by mercilessly appropriating elites.

Robin Hanson’s take on civilization include these thoughts.

Farmer lives had new dangers of war and disease, and more threatening neighboring groups. There was more support in the farmer’s world for spouses and material goods as property. Farmer law relied less on general discussion within the group.

More reliable food meant redistribution amongst the group was less important. Farmers worked more and had less time for play. Together, these tended to reduce the scope of previous hunter-gatherer group dynamics, moving society in a rightward direction relative to foragers.

It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when we became richer we could afford to revert to more natural-feeling hunter-gatherer ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace hierarchies are required to generate industry-level wealth.

A lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways. Older hunter-gatherer ways have been slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution.

The accessorizing spectrum

I remember Lilly Tomlin saying, “it’s our ability to accessorize that separates us from the lower life forms.”

The other day I saw the first two pics on a “seen on the street” blog called the “Satorialist.” The (I’m guessing unintentional) juxtaposition of these two looks made each one stand out more.

Both people are accessorized, one is after a traditional look of feminine beauty, while the other is striving more towards self-expression and mixing cultures.

The other three pics are from around the web representing different takes feminine beauty and accessorizing from only using body paint, to a small bikini and fake boobs, to a formal full length evening gown.

I’m not trying to leave out men entirely, it’s just easier to focus more on the spectrum of accessorizing used by women. It’s in general a richer and broader palette.

Other animals differentiate themselves but not by accessorizing and without regard to evolutionary pressures. Humans do it for fun and often times without being concerned about attracting a mating partner, although at the extreme end some people are attractive because they’re different.

Any “look” is a message, even the choice to not have a “look.” A person’s look is a signal to other people. Once the look transgresses the traditional the signal can be and is interpreted unpredictably.

The human animal is endlessly fascinating if you leave yourself open to appreciate the spectrum of human expression we use when accessorizing.

 

 

Katy Bowman

A friend stopped by our house last night. She wanted to introduce her new baby.

Before having a baby she was a free spirit untethered by a regular job or home. She even camped out in the jungle here in Mexico for a bit between house sitting gigs. Not the life for most, but she seemed to like it.

We started talking about carrying her baby around. I told her about Katy Bowman who only carries her kids. Everywhere. Even traveling around Europe she and her husband carried their small kids or had them walk.

Katy Bowman is a biomechanist, author, and mom with a couple of kids. I thought my friend might like her because of the way Katy lives her life.

Katy says most of us are basically sedentary when we aren’t in the gym or on the road, no matter how ‘fit’ we think we are because at a cellular level, hours of sitting leave our cells starved for movement. Just like bad eating habits stave our bodies of nutrients.

Katy thinks structured exercise is the movement equivalent of nutritional supplements. If you just run for exercise it’s like eating just one type of food at every meal. A healthy diet calls for a wide range of foods. In the same way, our bodies require a constant variety of movements throughout the day.

One of Katy’s solutions was removing all the chairs and sofas from her house ensuring regular getting up and down movements plus changing positions often while seating on the floor.

I’ll check in on our friend after a while to see if she can implement any of Katy’s ideas.