Hypothetical Apostasy on Nutrition

As many of you know, I am a major proponent of paleo/primal/ancestral/etc type diets. At this point the term “paleo” has come to be applied to many very different diets, but for the record my own personal beliefs coincide most strongly with the Perfect Health Diet. Whatever you want to call it, it is certainly outside of conventional wisdom and mainstream scientific/medical opinion. This has been a point of contention between me and others who put more stock in mainstream opinion. I have spent many hundreds, or maybe thousands, of hours doing research into human metabolism, and as a result my ideas are starting to get sticky.

Periodically I like to subject my beliefs to one of my all-time favorite techniques, the hypothetical apostasy by philosopher Nick Bostrom. The basic idea is to produce a good faith effort at destroying your currently held position. This process has helped me improve my thinking on a number of topics, including the original mind-killer itself: politics. Given my particularly strong beliefs about diet, it is long past due for me to try this exercise. Below the fold is my best attempt to undermine the paleo position:

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My Current Productivity Stack

One of the main topics of conversation on this blog is productivity, as you can tell by its weighting in the tag cloud below. Much of the discussion thus far has been about productivity hacks, various techniques or environmental factors you can tweak to optimize your performance. What I haven’t talked much about is what my own personal setup looks like. While I expect everyone’s system to be a little different, this at least provides one specific example for people to work from.

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Religious Fasting Traditions

If you’ve ever talked to me about nutrition, you would know that I’m a huge proponent of fasting. I knew that cultural and religious traditions throughout the world had incorporated some form of fasting practice into their doctrines, though I had not systematically tried to document it myself at the time. There may be a decent review article on this somewhere, but I decided to sit down and do a little research myself last year, and these are my notes from that exercise.

tl;dr: there are lots of different kinds of fasting. Some commonalities include the use of sunrise/sunset, fasting as a spiritual practice (opposed to mere starvation) including prayer and charity, proscribed feasting days/periods, and not drinking water either. Longer-term fasts usually restrict eating during daylight hours and/or restricted types of food during the night, and these appear to be the most common. Fasts of 1-2 days can involve complete cessation of both food and water. The strictest fast is 2 meals over 5 days. Fasting is at most 250 days/year, and 1-2 times per week or month is very common. Exceptions for the young, the old, the sick, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, laborers, and travelers are relatively common. Not every religion has a fasting tradition.

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Parenting and the Non-Shared Environment

There is a major thread in the parenting literature that claims, in short, that parenting (short of outright abuse) has little to no effect on adult outcomes that we care about. Two exemplars in this category include The Nurture Assumption and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. This claim is largely based on twin and adoption studies, which allow us to attribute the observed variance in traits to genetic, shared environment, and non-shared environment factors. The general pattern is that lots of traits are about half genetic and half non-shared environment, with little contribution from shared environment. There is a major embedded assumption in this line of reasoning: that parenting effects are mainly in the shared environment. It turns out that this assumption is not a particularly good one.

A review article on research into the non-shared environment was released about two years ago, and it provides some fascinating data on this subject. I will quote some sections at length, but the entire paper is worth reading. Here is the first excerpt of interest:

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The Life of William Ryan from 2008 to 2013

I wrote a very long email about the events of my life during the past 5 years, and sent it to more or less everyone I knew. This will serve as a great introduction to who I am circa September 2013, and I want to refer new people back to it frequently, so I am posting it publicly here on my blog. Enjoy!

Dear friends, family, and associates,

I admit that I have not been the best at keeping in touch with you over the past several years. Some of you I have not spoken to since graduation! Many of you I have only met subsequently, and may not know the earlier parts of my history. Events have been happening in very rapid succession, and I keep thinking I will hold off on sending an update until I get over the next hump… which usually leaves me waiting perpetually for a time that never quite arrives. This email is my attempt at correcting this trend. Due to the ground I need to cover, it will be quite a long email, and I will try to be as brief as possible while hitting the critical details.

I realize that many people do not like to read long emails, so in true internet tradition I will include a “too long; didn’t read” summary now. If you want to know more details of my life, skip the spoilers in the next paragraph and then read on – I think you will enjoy the story. :)

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The Comcast Gambit, or How to Save $35 Per Month in Five Minutes

I really didn’t expect that was going to work.

By nature I am pretty conflict averse: I don’t like to directly confront people or get angry or fight for myself. For this reason I will almost never do things like return food at a restaurant, or complain to customer service, or anything like that. I considered this a personal failing – not because I was leaving money on the table, but because I was passing up opportunities because of my own fears. I managed to convince myself that I would rather pay that money to avoid conflict.

Once I developed more of a self-improvement mindset I recognized this as a valuable growth opportunity. Even knowing that this was something I wanted to do wasn’t enough – I had absolutely no practice, I had no idea how to have these kinds of negotiations. It wasn’t until reading some of Ramit Sethi‘s work that I found myself a script. Truthfully, I didn’t need a script, just having it was enough. Just knowing that it was there gave me confidence, something to fall back on.

At this point in my life I’ve done this a handful of times, but was still afraid of getting on the phone with Comcast this afternoon. They had raised my cable bill twice in the last year, once as part of a stepped promotion that I was expecting, the second not so expected. I had seen Ramit talking about this case, and I also read this helpful article that inspired me to call.

Sure enough, his advice worked. I called their hotline, pressed the buttons to disconnect my service (3-2-1-2 if I recall correctly), and they put me through to a representative. That article claims you have to threaten to disconnect to get their best deals – I have no idea if that’s true, but I wanted to maximize my chances. I was appropriately angry, complained about the double rate hike, and told them to disconnect my service. The operator said she would look at what they could offer me, and she gave me another year long promotion at the original rate I paid before, less than half my current bill. She ended with the caveat that this would end in one year and that I should be aware of that, I told her I’d have that conversation in a year from now.

In this case, I managed to cut my bill from $65 down to $30 for a year. That’s $420 for a year, in a phone call that took me just over 5 minutes including the wait time. In terms of an hourly rate that is over $5000/hour. Mind you, this is for cheap internet service. How much could I have saved if I had phone, internet, and cable? How much could I potentially save on other areas of my life? (Ramit definitely recommends getting your APR down on your credit cards, though I pay mine every month anyway.)

I highly recommend trying this for yourself, as either a lifehack or an exercise. Let me know if you have any more tips like this, because I want to try them!

Summary of A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a handbook of Stoic philosophy by professor William Irvine. He points out that Stoicism is very different than the stereotypes we have developed about unfeeling robots, and in fact it contains a lot of timeless advice for psychological well being. This is not an academic work of philosophy, it is written as a popular self-improvement book. Though he does discuss a bit of the philosophy and history behind Stoicism, the bulk of the book consists of practical and actionable advice to improve your life. My summary reorganizes the book chapters, with a brief intro in the beginning, followed by all the actionable advice and the author’s personal suggestions, and concluding with a discussion of Stoicism in the modern context and some brief notes on the history of Stoic philosophy.

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Preventing Peanut Allergies

My default position when I started looking into peanut allergies was that exposure to potential allergens (particularly the ones outside our evolutionary heritage) would sensitize children to that allergen in the future. Eliezer once described changing your mind as the penultimate technique of rationality, and I always enjoy the opportunity to stretch that particular muscle. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

Peanut allergies are one of the most common, and yet also most severe, food allergies. It tends to begin very early (unlike seafood allergies), and persist throughout life (unlike milk and soy allergies). The incidence is hard to measure, but potentially up to a few percent of the population will suffer from them over time. This may not seem large in an absolute sense, but it is one of the more common diseases, and is potentially fatal, requiring extensive lifestyle modification to avoid exposure. Allergies themselves, in one form or another, are much more common and often annoying, so if any underlying mechanism can be revealed and averted, so much the better.

I am involved with a small rationality and parenting mailing list, and in one thread I casually mentioned that we planned to exclusively breastfeed through 6 months, in part because of allergies. The benefits of (in some cases exclusive) breastfeeding are well established, and the WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding up through 6 months. Furthermore hunter-gatherers don’t seem to supplement food until at least 6 months of age. That part is not so controversial. But I offhandedly said I’d heard the advice to avoid allergenic foods until two years of age. That prompted a response. Particularly a link to this paper.

To summarize the methodology, the researchers sent out surveys to a few thousand Jewish families in Israel and the UK, asking them about their weaning behavior and incidence of various allergies and other atopic disease. They had some very stark findings.

[Update: the randomized controlled trials I mentioned were coming have finally started to arrive – and the LEAP study from the UK finds a dramatic 81% decrease in peanut allergies from early exposure.]

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Self-Improvement: What It Is And Why We Care

We like to talk about this concept we call “self-improvement” a lot. On the face of it, it’s a relatively simple and easy concept to understand: we are improving our selves. End of post!

…except it’s still a little bit vague what I mean by that, even in my own mind. Let’s forget about defining the “self” for a moment and just talk about “improvement”. By what standard are we judging improvement exactly? It’s not usually that clear cut. I might think adding delicious bacon to this dish is an improvement, but a vegetarian would beg to differ. Or to make it more personal, I might become a more assertive person, but to other people around me that might be relatively more off putting than allowing them to always get what they want.

Ultimately improvement ends up getting defined by my own standards. That’s one possible meaning of self-improvement: it’s my own improvement thank you very much! This is still only a partial answer, because we’ve passed the buck to the process that is setting our standards. I suspect that in many cases, we have an idealized vision of a human being in our minds, and we are trying to make ourselves look more like that vision. This can be a great motivator, and if human values are widely shared it will produce a great person. You could think of this as the virtue ethics model of self-improvement. [Read more…]

Productivity 101 Recap!

On Tuesday night, we gathered together to discuss the productivity techniques that me and Divia actually use in our daily lives (instead of the ones we think would be helpful, but never use in practice).

Some of the main topics we covered were:

  • Goal setting and formulation
  • Reducing cognitive load
  • Utilizing social pressure
  • Taking very small steps to get started
  • And many more smaller tricks and tips!

You can listen to a recording of the webinar here. If you listen through to the end, it will direct you to a feedback form, and we’d love to hear what you guys liked and what you want more of.

Thanks for showing up!