Friday, May 27, 2011

The Bastrop Case: A reasonable Request

We expected the ACLU to respond, and respond they did in a joint statement with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation:
Our organizations are deeply troubled by Bastrop High School’s long history of presenting prayers as part of the official program at graduation ceremonies. Although the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear almost two decades ago that public schools cannot include prayers as part of school events, School District officials have persisted with this practice.
Ouch.  Still, their request is fairly reasonable.  A formal apology to the student, a statement condemning the action, considering disciplining the student who recited the Lord's Prayer in equal measure with similar infractions of protocol, and use a staff member to lead the moment of silence in the future.  I think the disciplining the student is a tricky one: yes, she should be disciplined, but she's graduated now and I don't know what the school could reasonably do.  Take away her diploma?  The infraction wasn't severe enough to warrant that.  Everything else, though?  I absolutely, 100% agree.

I'm interested to see how the school responds.

Fat Friday: Broke the 320 mark

Unlike last week, I'm not going to talk in quite as much detail for this week.  I've found that, much like I have trouble tracking calories, I have an equally hard amount of time tracking the food I'm eating for more than a week or so at a time.  It's some mental disconnect that tells me (possibly due to my upbringing) that tracking what I eat is the path to madness.  My mother insisted that actually tracking calories was one of the things that really hurt her when she was trying to lose weight, and I'm careful to try and learn from her mistakes.  She also said one should never go on a weird diet since going off is extra-bad, which is why if I decide to stick with this I won't be going "off" the diet, and will be turning it into a general lifestyle, or possibly modifying it a little.

Starting Weight: 323 lbs
Final Weight: 319.5 lbs
Net Change: 3.5 lbs

That makes for a total change of roughly 10 lbs in 2 weeks (since when I started I couldn't measure on the Wii Fit with its barrier of 330 lbs).  The more accurate account from recordable results is 7.5 lbs in 11 days, or 0.6818 lbs per day.

One thing I'm wondering with this diet is if it's not the diet so much as the difficulty in procuring high caloric food. If I want to eat a sandwich, I'm cutting out 200 calories from the bread alone in eating said sandwich.  Protein seems to be more filling than carbs, which means I don't suspect I'm eating as many calories altogether.  That makes it difficult to discern if the calories in-calories out mentality is what's working or if it's legitimately something to do with the lack of carbohydrates in my diet.

Finally, I got my blood report back this week.  Here are the results:

Blood Glucose - Fasting: 79  (Normal 56-99)

Kidney Functions
Urea Nitrogen: 11 (Normal 7-25)
Creatinine: 0.88 (Normal 0.80-1.30)
EGFR: 117 (Normal >59)

All general chemicals within normal ranges

Cholesterol Total in Serum: 187 (Normal 125-200)
HDL Cholesterol: 39 (Normal >=40)     Abnormal Result
LDL: 212 (Optimal <100, Near Optimal 0-129)
Cholesterol/HDL Ratio: 4.8 (Normal <=5.0)
Triglycerides: 136 (Normal <150)

Bilirubin Total: 0.4 (Normal 0.2-1.2)
Bilirubin, Direct: 0.1 (Normal 0.0-0.2)
Alkaline Phosphatase: 52 (Normal 40-115)
GGT: 33 (Normal 3-70)
LD, Serum: 212 (Normal 100-220)
AST: 21 (Normal 10-40)
ALT: 33 (Normal 9-60)
Iron: 86 (Normal 45-225)

Blood Count Looks Fine

T-3 Uptake: 32 (Normal 22-35)
T-4 Total: 6.6 (Normal 4.5-12.0)
Free Thyroxine Index: 2.11 (Normal 1.4-3.8)
TSH, 3rd Generation: 4.49 (Normal 0.40-4.50)

So all in all I'm pretty darn healthy, blood wise.  My HDL is a little low for what the doctor would like, but my overall cholesterol is somewhat low (in the normal range though) so the ratio between good and bad isn't all that worrisome.  My kidney function is something else I'm interested in looking at as this diet progresses, as a high protein diet may not be nice on my kidneys.  My kidneys are in good shape, though, so I'm pretty sure they can handle it.

The Thyroid result was interesting, too.  It's normal like everything else (save HDL), but just barely.  The TSH was 0.01 away from being abnormal, with higher results suggesting lower thyroid function (and thus a slower metabolism).  I'm not really all that surprised about that result.  I'm normal, but just barely.

So anyways, the diet still seems to be working, but I'm not really sure how sustainable it will be.  I'm not craving carbs anymore, but I'm missing the raw convenience of them.  I miss being able to grab a burrito and just run with it, and I frankly don't know if I'll be able to sustain a diet where I can't do that once the school semester starts in the fall.  It's certainly showing it to be somewhat effective, and it will be interesting to see where I am with this diet in another two weeks.

One thing I'm starting to consider is, when this is over, switching to a lifestyle plan where carbs are okay for meals, but I avoid them in snacks or when fixing something just for myself.  That means if I go out with friends I'm not limited in choices, but I'm still lowering my overall carb intake and also keeping me from overconsuming in-between meals.  It's not something I'm going to try until after the summer's over, but it's worth considering.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Well, Golly, I guess I'm still here.

My bags were packed and everything.  Legitimately so were those of many others.

"I do not understand," said Robert Fitzpatrick, a 60-year-old MTA worker from Staten Island, said after the Rapture never arrived. "I do not understand why nothing has happened."
"I had some skepticism but I was trying to push the skepticism away because I believe in God," said Keith Bauer, who drove his family across the country from Maryland to California for the supposed Rapture to visit Camping's Oakland headquarters of Family Radio International.
"I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth," he said.

This is the danger of belief when not tempered with some logic and rationality.  I'm not against belief, only the blind faith that refuses to look at the evidence, such as Camping's previous erroneous claims.  This is a lot like the wish fulfillment hopes that the Rabbi vs Atheist debate I linked to last week talks about.  (Seriously, if you haven't gone and watched the video, it's well worth it).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

These people are awful

I don't really have anything left to add on this one.  All I can say is I'm glad I never moved to the south.  I think I'd lose hope for humanity after a week there.

EDIT: I just wanted to quote the same quote Damon Fowler wrote on his facebook page.  It seems appropriate.

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fat Friday: The week in review

After taking BMR tests from 8 different sites, my basal metabolic rate ranged from 2537 to 2878.1 calories per day.  As I mentioned in my original post, I am not aiming to count calories, though I am tracking them to keep record.  Ending weight was measured today, on Friday, which is why I'm not including today as part of my report.

Starting Weight: 327 lbs
Ending Weight: 323 lbs

Net Change: 4 lbs

Day 1: Monday, May 16th
I missed breakfast as I was getting blood drawn around noon, so my total caloric intake was lower than it normally would.  By the time I finished getting blood drawn, I was starving and had to walk home from the bus stop, so I stopped at Qdoba.  I ordered a naked chicken taco salad (naked as in sans the shell).  For lunch I made myself a ham lettuce wrap with cheddar cheese and mayonnaise and cut up some leftover rotisserie chicken to eat on the side along with some citrus fruits.  Dinner was a couple of cheeseburgers sans bun, steamed veggie mix, and a barbecued artichoke which didn't turn out as well as I would have liked.  Snacks involved a few more oranges and a hard boiled egg.  Total calories equalled 2,158.

For exercise, I walked the 1.5 miles to the bus stop and back again.  I remained well hydrated throughout the day (mostly because they had so much trouble drawing blood so they made me consume water virtually nonstop for 15 minutes straight).

Day 2: Tuesday, May 17th
Lots of meat, pecans for snacking, some fruit and delicious veggies.  Total calories for the day: 3481.  Percent from carbs was listed at 13%, mostly from the veggies and fruits, although I suspect I was a little off since I overestimated the vegetables with my dinner, I think.

Very little exercise today as I spent most of my day reading and preparing for a tutoring assignment I had in the evening.  Had to take an ibuprofin in the evening because I had a major headache, presumably from the lack of the carbs I'm so used to.  I've been advised this is normal for the first week.

Day 3: Wednesday, May 18th
I was bad.  Not bad in that I ate a lot of carbs, but bad in that I wasn't very thorough in tracking my food, so I'm not paying attention to the caloric total.  I had some burgers, some tuna spread out onto lettuce, hot dogs, and more nuts for snacking.  Dinner was a hot dog and a huge (200 calorie) serving of broccoli and melted cheese.  Had friends over, and I even bought them a celebratory pie and ice cream, of which I had neither.  I feel very good about that, even though I really wanted some of each.  I did have some alcohol with them, though it was rum and diet coke.  Neither of these have carbs, so that was fine.  Although I know that alcohol will slow weight loss, I feel okay with this consumption since it will help factor out alcohol as a potential variable.  If I can keep my alcohol consumption relatively constant (which is very low...a few drinks every 2-3 weeks) I shouldn't have to worry about that mucking up any results.

Still feel kinda crummy, though I also feel a little bit more energetic.  It's possible that this is because of the psychosomatic component of dieting.

Day 4: Thursday, May 19th
I've decided not to go into great detail on each segment of my meals, since I eat a lot.  Still, no major snacking, I just prepared small meals throughout the day.  Baked some chicken with a marinade involving soy sauce, olive oil, Chinese fivespice, garlic, and a little bit of cayenne pepper.  That turned out pretty well.  Total carbs for the day made up roughly 10% of my meal.

I am feeling a little bit more energetic, though I'm also noticing that when I eat, I feel almost desperate about what I'm consuming.  It's possibly because I have fewer snacks in between my meals, even though it takes more time to prepare each individual meal.

Weekly Summary
Oy, this diet is rough.  If it becomes a habit, though, it very well might be sustainable.  I'm not as dedicated to low carb as some people.  I haven't cheated from the original plan, but as I've come to understand some people kick out all carbohydrates, including the small amount from some sauces or mixes, or even avoiding things like tomatoes.  I can't do that.  Still, I'm not having too much trouble avoiding refined carbohydrates like  breads or sugars that you wouldn't find in fruits, and it seems to be having something of an effect.  4 lbs in 4 days seems pretty reasonable to me.  We'll see if it keeps up like this.

News around Bastrop

The local newspaper continues to cover Damon Fowler's protest.  For the first time since this began, though, they actually covered the issue from a slightly positive angle.

Within hours after the public learned that the prayer had been removed from the program, principals in the story began receiving hundreds of e-mails of support for the student’s decision to, as Christina Niermann stated, “... finally gain the courage to speak out.”

What really chokes me up is a reported letter from Michelle Robinson, a local, self-professed Christian.  Unlike the more vocal majority,  Robinson was in support of Damon.  Even though she reports that she doesn't have a personal problem with the prayer,
“... I shudder to think of what would happen if a MUSLIM or JEWISH prayer was read. Because of that we must be free of all religious influence in our public institutions. My church will always stand strong and so will my faith. Keep your government out of my religion and I will keep my religion out of your government.”
 The wording is a little iffy, but I understand and respect the sentiment.  Robinson is clearly strongly religious, and holds convictions I no doubt disagree with, but this is a person who is at the very least trying to find that middle ground, to respect the secular law while still holding strongly to their own personal convictions.  It's a little judgmental, but being judgmental really only seems to be wrong when it's a stance one disagreed with.  So yeah, thank you, Michelle Robinson, for proving that not every Christian in Bastrop, LA is completely insane.

Of course, the newspaper also includes an opinion piece by a local pastor, and I don't really know what to make of it.  Ok, well, I do know what to make of it.  It's kinda icky.

As followers of Jesus Christ we should not be surprised of the secular world’s resistance to our beliefs.  The movement of Christianity has met resistance at every turn.  Jesus Christ himself was rejected and removed from many portions of society.

He warned his disciples and future Christians of the resistance we would face related to our faith.  In the Bible Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)  The power of evil through Satan is largely at work to hinder the love of Jesus in this world.  Anything God is for, Satan is against. Anything Satan is for, God is against.  Scripture warns us time and time again to expect resistance and to persevere in the Christian faith.
The "Christians are so persecuted" complex that seems to pervade religious thought in america is bullshit.  If you want to talk about persecution, move to Iraq or some other strongly Muslim country where your life is at risk for being Christian.  Being denied public, government sponsored prayer is not persecution.  Get over yourselves.  Being told your beliefs are stupid is not persecution.  It's called being in america, where open discourse involves open criticism.  Yuck.

The graduation is today, and I'm sure there will be a video or two of the actual ceremony.  I'll probably post one more response on that this evening, and that will be it.  I can't help but be passionate about this.  I call myself an atheist but don't feel any strong drive to be vocal about it or challenge religion in general.  What I do feel strongly about is the secular condition of our nation, and any efforts by any aspect of that government to sponsor prayer or deny others from personal prayer is anathema to me.

A friend asked me regarding this, "What if they do as Damon Fowler fears, and have a large group of students loudly start praying during the moment of silence."  Although I find that in poor taste, as long as it's not being led by someone (even another student) in a way that could be construed as being sponsored by the school, I think they legally have the right to do that.  It's crude, mean, and spiteful (all the things that make up a good prayer in Louisiana, I guess?), but I don't think it's illegal.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I shouldn't be surprised.

I really shouldn't, not when it comes to people from Louisiana.  The folks at Bastrop High School that I talked about earlier decided to pray in spite of the principal's decision during Senior night.  Watch the video.

Ugh.  I don't normally get angry, but this just makes me furious.  It's blatantly disrespectful, not to mention illegal.  I don't have a problem with these people wanting to pray, but when the government (in the form of a high school here) actively sponsors or allows a captive audience, they break the establishment clause.

Damon Fowler continues to astound me with his courage:

Back from Class Night... with people staring at me, calling me names, talking about me behind my back (even teachers). I'll walk across that stage tomorrow, whether they want me to or not.
I can't even begin to imagine living in that environment, to have my teachers berate me like that.  I went to a catholic high school, and the teachers would never have treated an atheist student like that; in fact, one of my best friends was an atheist and he never once was treated with anything but the utmost respect.  Those teachers should be ashamed of themselves.  If there is a christian God, I'm sure Jesus is.

Remember the Establishment Clause? Damon Fowler does.

My graduation from high school is this Friday. I live in the Bible Belt of the United States. The school was going to perform a prayer at graduation, but due to me sending the superintendent an email stating it was against Louisiana state law and that I would be forced to contact the ACLU if they ignored me, they ceased it. The school backed down, but that's when the shitstorm rolled in. Everyone is trying to get it back in the ceremony now. I'm not worried about it, but everyone hates me... kind of worried about attending graduation now. It's attracted more hostility than I thought.
My reasoning behind it is that it's emotionally stressing on anyone who isn't Christian. No one else wanted to stand up for their constitutional right of having freedom of and FROM religion. I was also hoping to encourage other atheists to come out and be heard. I'm one of maybe three atheists in this town that I currently know of. One of the others is afraid to come out of the (atheist) closet.
Though I've caused my classmates to hate me, I feel like I've done the right thing. Regardless of their thoughts on it, basically saying I am ruining their fun and their lives, I feel like I've helped someone out there. I didn't do this for me or just atheists, but anyone who doesn't believe in their god that prayer to Yahweh may affect.
Moral of the story: though the opposition may be great, majority doesn't necessarily mean right. Thank you for reading. Wish me luck at graduation.
EDIT: Well, it hit the fan a couple hours ago. They've already assembled a group of supporters at a local church and called in the newspaper. I've had to deactivate my Facebook account and I can't reason with any of them. They refuse to listen. The whole town hates me, aside from a few closet atheists that are silently supporting, which I don't blame them looking at what I've incited here. Thanks for the support though.
If anyone would like to offer support, the superintendent is who I emailed and the school's website is
Thanks for the support. It's really helping. This has just gotten sickening.
Edit: I've had requests for my Facebook info... I don't mind giving that out at all. Damon Fowler - Bastrop, LA. I could use all of the support I can get. Not sure if this link will work:

The guy has serious courage to stand up to his entire class, knowing he's getting ostracized for it.  Of course, the local news paints things against him.

Mitzi Quinn has been on the staff at BHS for almost 25 years, much of that time as a senior advisor. In the past, Quinn said there have been students who were atheist, agnostic and other non-Christian religions who “had no problems” with the prayer.

“They respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” Quinn said. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”

She sounds so shocked.  With an environment like the Bible belt and the way people there were and are treated for being atheist, being vocal about your rights is a dangerous, humiliating task.  I'm grateful that I've never had to live in a part of the nation where being atheist marks you as a second class citizen, and where speaking out would give you this kind of negative attention.  The worst part about Mitzi Quinn's response, though, was this:

“And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates,” Quinn said.
This woman is an educator (an english teacher according to the school's website) and she treats one of her own students in such a disparaging way.  This argument only serves to make the student feel bad and offers no real substance.  It is despicable.  I messaged Damon Fowler with some small words of encouragement, but I also e-mailed Mitzi Quinn.  I encourage you to also e-mail Ms. Quinn yourself ( and let her know that this is absolutely inappropriate.  A school should be a welcoming environment for any student, no matter their faith.  Here's my e-mail to her.
Ms. Quinn,

I'm writing to you regarding your comments on the Bastrop Enterprises website regarding Damon Fowler's demand that prayer be removed from commencement. (  While I certainly respect your disagreement with the student in question, I find your treatment of the student to be entirely unprofessional and inappropriate.  To say that the student in question "really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates" is an inappropriate and hurtful statement directed to one of your students that is altogether questionable.  Whether you agree with his stance or not, there is no reason to ever throw ad hominems at the young students that you are supposed to be supporting.

Beyond that, he is in the right to protest.  If a school were to have a prayer to Allah, or to Vishnu, or to the Goddess of many Pagan faiths, you would feel any student would be within their rights to protest and rightly so, even if that student were the only non-muslim/hindu/pagan in the school.  The right of the students and parents to pray during graduation has not been impacted, only the official state endorsement of the prayer.  I trust you are a reasonable woman, and I ask that you listen to reason in this regard and offer a public apology for speaking rudely to one of your students, even as you strongly and passionately disagree with him.

David Merriam

Thoughts on an afterlife

There's a really nifty video involving debate between a pair of rabbis and two prominent atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I know it's a little dated (although Hitchens is still dealing with cancer here, he looks a lot better than I've heard he's been doing lately), but it's the first time I've had a chance to sit down and really listen to it.  It's good.  Really good.  I think anyone listening will think their "side" of the argument won the debate.  I like that quite a lot, since it means that the unbiased listener should (hopefully) walk away with some different arguments from both sides.

If you don't listen to the whole thing, at least listen for the first 6 minutes or so.  Sam Harris speaks so very eloquently in a way I'm inclined to agree:
The afterlife comes into the midst of this reality as a promise that all of this is going to make some sense in the end, that somehow at the end of existence we're all going to be let in on the punchline and have a mightly laugh with the almighty god for eternity.  Now there's no evidence for that and I think therefore that this concept of the afterlife really functions as a substitute for wisdom, as a substitute for really absorbing our predicament that everyone is going to die.  There are circumstances that are just catastrophically unfair.  Evil sometimes wins and injustice sometimes wins and the only justice we are going to find in the world is the justice we make and I think we have an ethical responsibility to absorb this really down to the souls of our feet, and this notion of an afterlife, the happy thought that it's all going to work out and it's all part of god's plan, is a way of shirking this responsibility.

This is the crux of my problems with the afterlife.  There are a lot of other people who seem smarter and wiser than I who assert that they are comfortable with the idea of everything just ending when you die, but it's a concept I've struggled with and will undoubtedly continue to struggle with.  I do not like the idea of my own mortality, yet somehow I equally do not like the idea of my own immortality.  No matter how I feel about this inimical shadow of death, though, my desires should not rule over my wisdom.  I don't want to cease existing, but the truth of the matter is, as far as I can tell, I will at some point.  There would be no greater surprise nor greater joy to find consciousness is not tied to the mind, but I have to be honest about what I see.  If it turns out the joyous surprise is real, then I can enjoy that after I die.  If it is not, then I will be gone and there will be no agony nor pain to worry about.

Some of the rabbis' points are really quite good, too.  Bradley Artson Shavit makes a very good counter-argument to the statement that religion is man made 38 minutes in:
As you say, it's man made, and I agree, it is man made, as is medicine and law. But the solution to bad medicine and bad law is not to get rid of it, the solution is to have open discussions and continue to refine it and surpass it.
 Kudos to Hitchens for quoting Star Wars and saying, "I can quote literature and scripture, too."

Also, much love for David Wolpe.  I know nothing of him outside of this, but he took the debate with a great amount of cheer and good humor, and I can respect him for that.  He also made a really good argument towards the end about how you should not bother with anyone who argues their stance from logic and reason and your own from psychology, playing you as the weak-minded one.  "There are believers in the afterlife who are weak and fearful, there are believers in the afterlife who are courageous and strong.  There are atheists who are weak and fearful, there are atheists who are courageous and strong."  Seriously, major kudos for arguing that point.  Additionally, his statement, "Can we all agree that whether there's an afterlife or not, the point of life is to live in such a way that you deserve one?" is quite possibly my new favorite line.

There's a lot of brilliant quotes from both sides that I didn't include.  Even though it's an hour and a half long, it's really worth listening to!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Subduct THIS!

My very good friend Rachael wrote an article for Clarion called "Spec Tech: Making Mountains".  It's all about how horribly impractical many mountain ranges are in fantasy novels, the most notorious being Lord of the Rings and it's magical right-angle mountain ranges like the ones that surround mordor.  She finishes her story with a great line, "Nature often curves in interesting ways, but rarely does it work at right angles."

Go take a gander at the whole article.  It's a great read that does a fantastic job of explaining how mountain formations should look compared to how fantasy writers think they should look.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lord of the Diet: The Fellowship of the Carb-free

Today I began my low-carb diet.

As I've expressed previously, I am skeptical of low-carb diets, or really any diet that isn't purely focused on limiting my caloric intake.  The research I've seen thus far isn't enough to convince me, but I'm continuing to read Good Calories, Bad Calories and I am investigating sources elsewhere to come to a conclusion for myself.  My current hypothesis from the limited data I've collected thus far is that low-carb diets are not inherently bad for you and that the thing which is causing the success in the diet is that carb-rich foods tend to be higher in calories. I'm not discounting the possibility that the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis is correct.  As I continue on this diet I'll continue my investigations and refine my thoughts on the matter, while also documenting my experiences as completely as I can.

To start everything off today, I went to my school's on-campus clinic and had blood drawn to check cholesterol (including LDL and HDL).  I go in a week from tuesday to find my results, which I will post.  At the beginning of next semester I plan to have my blood drawn and tested again and we will see what difference, if any, this diet had on me.  I tried to weigh myself, but the scale in our bathroom only goes to 300.  When I weighed myself on it it passed the 300 mark by 20, but I know from my last measurement a week ago (330) that there's no way I can weigh 320 lbs.  I tried utilizing the Wii Fit but the pad only goes to 330, and when I stepped on it confirmed that I was, in fact, over the 330 mark.  My current guess is roughly 330 lbs, but I plan on going to the gym tomorrow to get a better measurement.  I'll mark that weight as my "starting weight," as I suspect a day of being on the diet will not drastically impact my weight, and even if it does that impact should continue to be seen throughout this experience.

A little background about myself for those who don't know:  I have always been overweight.  My mother also has suffered weight problems, and was highly criticized by her mother about her weight.  She didn't want me to go through a similar childhood, so she was fairly lax about dieting.  She kept me active, however, and while I was overweight I was never morbidly so.  I never went on a diet, nor did I ever count calories growing up.  I also had exercise-induced asthma and allergies to just about everything outside, so physical activity was always something of a trial for me.

My adult life involved a lot of call-center work, which lends itself to a sedentary lifestyle.  Now that I'm in college I try to go out and be more active, but still have issues maintaining.  Up until this point, I still have never dieted.  Over six months ago, I cut out soda entirely from my diet.  Now I still drink soda once in a while, but it's usually diet cola and even then I limit it heavily.  I drink caffeine during the school year, but mostly avoid it save when I desperately need it.

Here are the plans for the diet (thank you to Isaac, my roommate, for helping me clarify my plans):

1. I will restrict completely all breads, potato chips, french fries, pastas, sweets, and other foods of that nature for the first two weeks.
2. I will not restrict my caloric intake or limit myself in terms of fat consumption, nor consumption of meat or dairy.
3. I will make certain I have one meal per day that includes lots of vegetables.
4. I will try to fix the majority of meals myself, though I will give myself a pass on sundays to eat out with friends.
5. I will slowly introduce moderate amounts of carbohydrates after the second week, though I will still keep the levels of carbohydrate consumption low.
6. I will track all of my meals, including caloric content, to verify that I am getting all of my necessary nutrients as well as to keep myself honest.

Here are the goals for the diet:

1. To investigate the efficacy of the diet as a weight-loss plan for myself.  The bottom line: do I lose weight?
2. To investigate the claims that this weight-loss plan does not increase cholesterol levels significantly.  Yes, I am aware that there are also arguments from data that say cholesterol levels do not lead to higher risk of heart disease.  As I investigate, I may find more information about this as well.
3. To investigate the sustainability of this diet.  Is this a diet I could live with for the rest of my life?  No diet is effective if you eventually go "off" of the diet, and a big part of any diet should be a lifestyle change and not a temporary change before going back to old, bad habits.  If this diet helps me lose weight but is too restrictive for me to sustain it comfortably, I will consider it a failure for myself (though not for everyone).

Note that actually losing weight is not a goal here.  If I do lose weight, fantastic, but I'm more interested in how well this diet works than the actual loss of weight.  I could stand to lose the weight and get in better shape, but I'm quite happy with myself and accepting of who I am.  I am not a failure in life if I never drop below 300 lbs again.

If anyone has further advice for how I should modify this diet, please let me know.  I'm not doing this alone: My roommate is going to be doing the diet with me and helping me make good choices while I adjust.  He is allowed a few concessions that I am not allowing myself, since he's done low carb diets before and doesn't want to go to the same extremes.

I'll post the starting data when I have it, and will also try to document mood and general feeling as I go along.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Good Calories, Bad Calories

     Now that the semester is over and I have a little free time and brainpower to do some light reading, I've decided to pick up Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.  As my friends who are on Paleo diets and other low-carb diets can attest, I've been highly skeptical of the low-carb movement but haven't had the time to really sit down and do the research.  Now that I've started, I'm doing my best to give this a thorough, legitimately critical read.  I'm only 17 pages in plus the 16 page prologue, and I'm thus far impressed with what I've been reading, though not convinced.  One of the problems I feel at this point is that he is so firmly convinced that the low-carb diet is the right diet that he may suffer from significant motivated reasoning, which I talked about previously.  That said, I'm far too early into the book to get a really good impression on his case.  I do approve of his stance regarding anecdotal evidence, which is a very good start:
Scientists justifyably dislike anecdotal evidence--the experience of a single individual like Eisenhower.  Nonetheless, such cases can raise interesting issues.  Eisenhower died of heart disease in 1969, age seventy eight.  By then, he'd had another half-dozen heart attacks or, technically speaking, myocardial infarctions.  Whether his diet extended his life will never be known.  It certainly didn't lower his cholesterol, and so Eisenhower's experience raises important questions.
      The fact that Taubes is willing to argue against anecdotal evidence as anything more than a starting place is good, and lends him credibility in his stance.  What I haven't liked, however, is his constant references to himself as a lone voice of dissent.  I hope once I get into the meat of the book that he'll focus more on the evidence and less on his own words.  Judging by the impressive 66-page bibliography, I suspect this to be true.
     As I mentioned above, I'm skeptical of Taubes' claims regarding this diet; however, in the interest of open experimentation and to legitimately show that I'm not completely discounting his claims, I'm going to try to follow a low-carb diet suggested in his book for the summer (3 months).  My roommate has been on this diet previously and has volunteered to do it with me to help keep me motivated and to make sure I'm following the diet faithfully and safely, and I'm going to continue reading this book as I do so.  I know that the results of this little mini-experiment will be highly anecdotal, so this isn't meant to be damning evidence for or against the hypothesis.  This is for my own edification and curiosity.  If this diet ends up helping me, great.  If it does not, that's fine too.  At least I'll have some solid information regarding the diet and what's best for me.
     I plan on utilizing this blog as a way to track the diet and how it works for me.  Trust me, not everything I write will be about this diet or my thoughts on Good Calories, Bad Calories, but I'd like to keep up with it in this way to keep myself honest and see how I've been doing.  Since tonight and tomorrow there are graduation parties galore, I plan on starting the diet officially on Monday.  At this point I will weigh myself and utilize the Wii Fit to track my weight and progress throughout this diet.  We'll see how it works.
     In the meantime, I'll keep reading this book and post my thoughts on it as they come up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Law does not equal Science. Say it with me now.

Fox news doesn't get it.  Feel free to take a look at that video.  Watch it as long as you can stomach, as they talk about this "bombshell report."  In fact, if you want, feel free to go look at the report itself.  Note that it's a legal report, not a scientific report.  Note that it even says clearly "This assessment of compensated cases showing an association between vaccines and autism is not, and does not purport to be, science." (p. 482 for those following along)

Law does not equal science.  Legal rulings do not determine science.  If you want to prove that vaccines cause autism, you do it using science, not using the logic that "if someone paid me compensation for having autism, I must have autism."  It seems an underhanded tactic to use this faulty logic to try to argue your point.  It's like running to dad for permission when mom already said no (moms are the smart ones, aren't they?).

Not that these cases really involved individuals with autism, either.  David Gorski yet again writes about this much more eloquently than I could.  Of note is his reference to the weakness in their legal study, since it's really not anything remotely close to a scientific study.

Sorry for the short post here.  I'd like to write more on it, but I'd have to read a lot more into this paper than I have the stomach to bother with, and I'm currently studying for my final in a class on cancer.  Scary stuff, cancer.  I find myself constantly looking at my skin these days, fearing I'll develop a new spot somewhere.  Two people I know got diagnosed with cancer this semester, one of which was my father.  Still, it's interesting, which is why I study it.

Update: As another interesting example of law messing up the science.  The Florida Senate accidentally outlawed sex.  It's not perfectly related to the antivax story above, but it's hilarious and I thought I should share.

Update^2: I suspected as much (as funny as it originally was), but the ruling did not *really* accidentally outlaw sex.  It's still hilarious based on the wording of the law.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Vaccines don't raise IMR. Period.

David Gorski wrote a great article ripping apart the latest in a series of poorly done studies linking infant mortality rate to vaccines on the blog Science Based Medicine.  Since Dr. Gorski is a little long-winded, I'd like to pull out the real big points for you here.  If you want to look at the study in question (which was in a peer-reviewed piece of literature), you can find it here.  Of course it's free, the antivaxxers are happy to toss money at a study like this to give open access to everyone.

As Gorski points out, this was a ridiculously simple paper.  The language was simple, the methods were simple, the entire process was simple.  I could have written most of this paper (sans the research/sources) within a week, and I'm not even a grad student yet.  They took some data about infant mortality in the US and other countries, compared them to number of vaccines given, and produced this lovely excel chart.

The thing that struck me when I looked at this chart was how all-over-the-place these data points were.  If you ignore the line they drew right through the middle, this wouldn't strike me as a great model for a linear fit.  As Gorski points out

Be that as it may, I looked at the data myself and played around with it One thing I noticed immediately is that the authors removed four nations, Andorra, Liechenstein, Monaco, and San Marino, the justification being that becayse they are all so small, each nation only recorded less than five infant deaths. Coincidentally, or not, when all the data are used, the r2=.426, whereas when those four nations are excluded, r2increases to 0.494, meaning that the goodness of fit improved. Even so, it’s not that fantastic, certainly not enough to be particularly convincing as a linear relationship.
The data isn't all that convincing, and worse yet, it's not all that rigorous.  The paper states that it pulled all of its information from a 2009 report.  Two years ago, and a single year taken (and many countries excluded).  Gorski points this out better than I could:
Miller and Goldman only looked at one year’s data. There are many years worth of data available; if such a relationship between IMR and vaccine doses is real, it will be robust, showing up in multiple analyses from multiple years’ data. Moreover, the authors took great pains to look at only the United States and the 33 nations with better infant mortality rates than the U.S. There is no statistical rationale for doing this, nor is there a scientific rationale. Again, if this is a true correlation, it will be robust enough to show up in comparisons of more nations than just the U.S. and nations with more favorable infant mortality rates. Basically, the choice of data analyzed leaves a strong suspicion of cherry picking. 
It's possible that they didn't cherry pick, in which case they weren't rigorous enough.  If the only result of this test is that it gets others to look at other data, so much the better.  Still, there's one last big problem that Gorski cites with the paper that makes the data look worse still.  He quotes from Bernadine Healy, M.D. , who says:
First, it’s shaky ground to compare U.S. infant mortality with reports from other countries. The United States counts all births as live if they show any sign of life, regardless of prematurity or size. This includes what many other countries report as stillbirths. In Austria and Germany, fetal weight must be at least 500 grams (1 pound) to count as a live birth; in other parts of Europe, such as Switzerland, the fetus must be at least 30 centimeters (12 inches) long. In Belgium and France, births at less than 26 weeks of pregnancy are registered as lifeless. And some countries don’t reliably register babies who die within the first 24 hours of birth. Thus, the United States is sure to report higher infant mortality rates. For this very reason, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which collects the European numbers, warns of head-to-head comparisons by country.
Infant mortality in developed countries is not about healthy babies dying of treatable conditions as in the past. Most of the infants we lose today are born critically ill, and 40 percent die within the first day of life. The major causes are low birth weight and prematurity, and congenital malformations. As Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, points out, Norway, which has one of the lowest infant mortality rates, shows no better infant survival than the United States when you factor in weight at birth.
Go ahead.  Go back and read that quote again.  In fact, I'll highlight the spot that struck me as most noteworthy: "Norway, which has one of the lowest infant mortality rates, shows no better infant survival than the United States when you factor in weight at birth."  In other wordsIMR in the US is relatively low compared to other countries, which flies directly in the face of their previous data.  Not that I'd suggest using this data to begin with.  Pulling from IMRs is a load of rubbish since you don't have a consistent definition for what constitutes infant mortality, and the authors of the paper certainly didn't make any effort to clarify that.  They do like to make some pretty hefty conjectures about SIDS and its connection to vaccines, though.  From the paper itself:
Although some studies were unable to find correlations between SIDS and vaccines, there is some evidence that a subset of infants may be more susceptible to SIDS shortly after being vaccinated. For example, Torch found that two-thirds of babies who had died from SIDS had been vaccinated against DPT (diphtheria–pertussis–tetanus toxoid) prior to death. Of these, 6.5% died within 12 hours of vaccination; 13% within 24 hours; 26% within 3 days; and 37%, 61%, and 70% within 1, 2, and 3 weeks, respectively.

In the interest of being fair and not just looking to David Gorski's analysis of this, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt about this Torch study and I looked it up.  Or rather, I tried to.  The report was from 1982.  Most of my sources go back to 1985 at best.  Doing a google search I found a few articles from anti-vaccination sites accusing scientists of silencing Torch because he "dared to use anectdotal data."  Almost everything I found was from anti-vaccination sites and generally involved something like this
Torch's report provoked an uproar in the American Academy of Pediatrics. At a hastily arranged press conference he was soundly chastised for using "anecdotal data," meaning (will you believe it?) that he actually interviewed the families concerned!
That's the best I have to offer.  A few references to his work, but very little results for the work itself.  I'm not the best at searching and don't have all the tools others have to find this information, so it's probably out there somewhere.  I'm just not able to find it myself.  Besides, I tend to be hesitant with any controversial data that's older than 1990 or so.  The older it gets, the more likely it is that there's a newer study with better information.  It's hard to say, though.  What I can say is that the American Academy of Pediatrics was right to react as they did if he used anecdotal evidence.  Anecdotal evidence is a great place to start research, but it's a horrible place to end it.  Anecdotal evidence raises the questions, but it does not give the answers.

Those wacky creationists!

They ought to have a sitcom.  Rocky Ramsey argues:

If people die when hearts, kidneys and livers fail, then how did anyone live while those organs “evolved?” The obvious answer is that they didn’t. Man began as he is today.
This is quite possibly the most hilarious argument I've heard in years.  When you look at the phylogenetic tree just for vertebrates, you can see the slow development of the heart.  We have a lovely four chambered heart that helps keep oxygenated blood from deoxygenated blood, but amphibians with their wacky three-chambered heart like to mix them up a bit.  Then further back in time you have the fishies with their single circulation model compared to the double-circulation model the rest of us have.  You can see how each step up the ladder the heart gets more and more complex, but if you keep going back far enough, you end up with things like phylum porifora (the sponges), members of kingdom animalia in only the strictest sense, which seem to get by just fine without hearts.

If you look at kidneys and livers, you see a similar transgression as you go up the tree.  Far enough back and you have unicellular organisms that seem to live just fine without these tissues because, well, they're unicellular.  These organs are beautiful examples of how colonial life leads to enhanced survival and is favored by natural selection.  By working together, our cells can deliver vital nutrients to trillions of cells and greatly enhance the survival of the whole.  Some end up dying off, but as they're all clones of one another (hopefully), their genetic material passes on to the next generation and the genes themselves continue to survive.

The truth is the ID proponents don't really have a leg to stand on.  They argue for "microevolution" but not "macroevolution" as if the mechanisms of one do not bleed into the other.  There is no distinction between these two kinds of evolutions.  To illustrate, I found a nifty little image that I'd like to share with you.  I wish I could quote the source, but my friend who found it didn't have a direct source for it either:

Their views are often hilarious and the efforts of the misinformed, citing sources such as "Irreducable Complexity" which hardly even need to be disproved, they're so silly, or arguing about the gaps in the evolutionary record, demanding an impossible amount of data for a very simple inference (Futurama does a great job of exploring it in an episode.  Sadly I cannot find a link to the scene in question, so instead here's a general review of the episode).  Most of these ideas have been disproved or discounted, and many arguments stem from an inaccurate understanding of evolution (Crocoduck, anyone?).

These misunderstandings are hilarious, but also create a problem when those same people choose to attack evolution.  Since they don't know what evolution is, what they are attacking is not evolution, and so cannot be argued with from a logical stance regarding evolution.  Since they don't understand it, they try to make laws and regulations based on an inaccurate understanding and further their belief that they are in the right.   As I said last week, our minds aren't wired to seek out truth but to win arguments, so trying to rationally show the evidence for evolution or even explain what evolution means will fall on deaf ears.

It would be laughable if it weren't so frightening.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Whatsoever you do to the least...

I'd like to think, as far as atheists go, that I'm pretty reasonable.  In that light, I'd like to think my displeasure at reading this is also fairly reasonable.
Well, yesterday's sermon was a big hit! We had a mass execution of 200 feeder fish that I pulled out of a fish tank and then threw all over the floor. The kids were in shock and then started to pic them up and put them back into the fish tank. Obviously, most of them died in the effort…the point however was made that they cared ore about .15 cent feeder fish then they do about their friends dying w/o Christ.
Pardon my language as I say "What the fuck?"

As far as I'm able to discern, this is a real event that happened with the Main Street Christian Church in Russiaville, Indiana.  I don't have a lot of details since they've turned their profile to private and I can't see the original thread (though it's been linked to on numerous different sites, just do a google search for any or all of the above text), though, so I can't confirm.  I'd like this to be a joke of some kind designed to make religious zealots look foolish, but I suspect it's all too true.

The really bad thing I see about this is how it related to the children.  The animals themselves suffered needlessly, which is bad, but the children were directly confronted with this pain, which was worse.  I remember my time in catholic elementary school, and I clearly remember that my pastor was a man who could do no wrong.  I was taught he was a holy man with a connection to God, and it wasn't until I grew older that I came to accept him as a man and not some divine figure.  The fact that it was this pastor who was deliberately cruel to these animals tells the children that it's okay to be deliberately cruel, especially if it's to make a point related to God.  How will that message be received by these children?

The torture of the animals directly is a more tricky subject.  We utilize animals for a number of purposes in our lives, from food to clothing to scientific experimentation, and it's not always pleasant for them.  I've looked at live goldfish under microscopy before, and I doubt the experience was a pleasant one for them, but it aided my learning and I feel no guilt for causing them temporary discomfort for the sake of furthering my education.  Animal experimentation in major laboratories is a very real thing, and people fish with live worms as bait.  Still, I think what really gets me about this case is the vast number of animals brought to suffer for a purpose that could just as easily be demonstrated by words or even in a way that utilized animals but brought no lasting harm to any of them.  To talk about a "mass execution" and tie it in as a "big hit" seems a break in thinking to me, not because animals were harmed but because the animals were harmed without any regard to their well-being.

It's ok that we use animals for a variety of things in our daily lives, but I worry about the philosophy that leads to the willful disregard for the suffering of any creatures.  Our willingness to cause harm to any animal without respect for life numbs us to suffering, and we should be aware of that.  Animals suffer due to our advances and our well-being, but those who work with them should always treat them with respect and minimize suffering as much as is realistic.

As a final point, the argument the pastor made was a very weak one at that.  The goldfish were not capable of telling these children to leave them alone, and probably would not have done so if they could.  The analogy to "friends dying without Christ" is flawed here because we are perfectly capable of telling people to leave us alone.  I respect a person who believes that I'm going to suffer forever trying to reach out to me, but when I say I'm not interested, I expect you to respect me in return by not pressing the issue.

In happier news, here's some pictures of animals with stuffed animals.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The unchanged mind.

Author Chris Mooney wrote an article a while back titled The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science. In it, he talks about various problems with getting the population to accept science in general. This is a clear-cut problem. The anti-vaccine movement is growing, belief in evolution is ridiculously low, and alternative medicine trends proven not to work like homeopathy continue to have millions of practitioners. Chris Mooney tries to explain why, in the fact of such evidence, people continue to believe:

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

In other words, that which is viewed as contrary to our beliefs or the patterns we feel we've witnessed are fought outright or run from more than that which coincides. If a study is posted that flies in the face of what we accept, we find ourselves more critical than studies that coincide or we ignore it outright. I know I've fallen victim to this kind of reasoning before; what I believe highly influences what I'm inclined to accept at face value. Some of this stems from my religious upbringing, some of it from my nature. Now that I strive the follow the road of the skeptic, I fall victim to it, too. I know this and try to work on it.

What this really means, though, is that the more certain we are that we are right, the more difficult it is to change our minds. Anyone who's tried to get into a legitimate debate with someone idealistically opposed will find that it's nigh impossible to truly change minds. The act of altering one's opinion is a lengthy process and a single discussion will not sway minds. It's why as a general rule I avoid debating with the most passionate; they are good arguers, and have at the forefront of their mind arguments that I would need to sit down and contemplate before rebutting. It's easy to see what we want to believe and ignore that which we don't, whether we be scientists or lay people.

Looking at all of this, I've come to a broad conclusion: I cannot legitimately discuss a point with someone who claims to have never changed their mind. It doesn't have to be about faith.  They could even eventually swing back to original ideas. The more firm and unyielding we become, the less often we are to admit our own foolishness.  I feel uncomfortable around anyone who speaks so brazenly that they cannot admit that they're wrong, and when that feeling is directed at me, the unease explodes to new levels.

This isn't to say that we don't know anything, or that we are more often wrong than we are right.  What it does say is that we need to be aware of our tendency to cherry-pick data and information, and we need to constantly seek out criticism of our ideas to see how well they withstand open critique.  I suspect many look at this as further evidence that science is flawed, that we don't know what we're talking about, and that we shouldn't knock homeopathy or blatantly accept evolution because science "requires as much faith" or "means we're probably just looking for studies that confirm what we believe".  The difference is in the scientific method, in our efforts to continually refine ideas and eliminate bias as much as is possible.  Forged results like the Andrew Wakefield study eventually get rooted out, because there will eventually be enough data that the more fallacious results will not withstand the test of time.  Certainly immediate studies and opinions may turn out to be wrong, but in the broad history of science, the truth tends to win in the end.

And maybe it doesn't.  Maybe tomorrow I'll find something that tells me I'm absolutely, completely wrong in my assumptions about science.  I don't think so, and as I grow older and wiser things seem to more elegantly coincide in support of science and away from my meager, small-minded instincts.  As Tim Minchin says in his song Storm

If you show me/ That, say, homeopathy works,/ Then I will change my mind/ I’ll spin on a fucking dime/ I’ll be embarrassed as hell,/ But I will run through the streets yelling/ It’s a miracle! Take physics and bin it!