Friday, February 28, 2014

Dark Horse

“And I beheld, and lo a black horse” - Revelation 6:5 

“What’s the right thing to do?”

I asked the question was asked to a group of middle and high schoolers at SPLASH. Hands shot up. Answers were given. But not to the question I asked. They all conspired to, completely without my approval, answer a different question: “Why is it impossible to do the right thing?”

While no doubt an interesting question, it seemed to the students indistinguishable from my first. It seemed no matter how many times I repeated my question or clarified, they obstinately persisted in offering answers to the second question. I heard about studies in moral psychology, sociology, and evolutionary biology. I heard personal anecdotes of students doing what they seemed to think was the wrong thing, defeatedly declaring it inevitable. I was very familiar with relativism, the fashionable (and crazy) idea that all moral truth is relative [1]. I even knew about moral agnosticism, the slightly less fashionable and slightly less crazy idea that there is an objective moral world, but it was unknowable. The majority of the class wasn’t set on relativism, or at least not set on it deeply. But the class did seem to be utterly convinced of the depravity of the human condition: we know the right thing to do, but have no ability to actually do it.

The only philosophical system that I know of that has so low a view of human capacity is the extreme end of Reformed Theology, people like the Puritans. But even that system is optimistic because the solution (Jesus) is provided. The Ancients had ideas that things like tradition, education, religion, wisdom or reason were paths to a virtuous life. But my students had been told of no such paths. But their previous teachers had not been idle; they made sure to pile rocks of explicit doubt on the best paths, and obscure the rest under a light snow of relativism. The tragedy of my poor students was matchless.

“Part of me wants to do what’s right. But part of me just wants to be rich.”

So said my friend in the midst of a career decision. So far so good. We all have unholy desires and impure motives. It’s good that he recognizes it.

“So I don’t know what to choose.”

There are those boldly wicked men like Thrasymachus [2] (about whom much of Plato’s Republic is set out to refute), who actively argue that injustice is better than justice. But my unfortunate friend was in a different place. He wanted to be a good person, and he knew what a good person would do. But there is another part of himself which he could not deny which wanted something else, and he did not know which part of him had the valid claim: the rational, just part; or the greedy, unjust part. It is like his mind is the Manichean cosmos: there are two gods, a good one and a bad one, and neither has the ultimate claim to being Right.

This is a new thing. Humanity throughout the ages was pretty well convinced of how totally awesome Reason was. The question “should I follow reason?” was pretty well taken for granted. In fact, there’s not much of human craft that is possible if the answer turned out to be “no.” In fact, much of my future profession is dedicated to dealing with people who seem to have that question in the negative. To the Greeks and many Christians, Reason (not the Hokey Pokey), was what it was all about. This is Reason in the highest sense (all apprehension of capital T “Truth”), not just what you learned in Geometry. Aristotle says this about the purpose of life: “The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or at least not without reason.” The consequences of not living out this purpose are described in vivid (believe me, vivid) descriptions of H-E-double-hockey-sticks by Dante; the Inferno is a place for beings who, to varying degrees, abandon or corrupt their Reason. To Dante, Hell is nothing less and nothing more. Previous generations required that vice be concealed as virtue, that the irrational put on the clothes of reason. Today, it seems, vice can walk the streets naked and unashamed.

“I don’t know if I’m in love with him. Should we break up?”

She’d been in a relationship for over a year, but the passion faded and/or wasn’t as strong as it “should be.” This is a classic case. And, as numerous conversations with friends have demonstrated, we have no flipping idea how to make decisions about relationships. Sometimes, we don’t even think we should use “cold” reason in such a fiery thing as love.

“Love” apparently meant, “warm feelings” and these were, apparently, supposed to be really, really strong. And if they weren’t then it meant the many months of dedication and sacrifice were for naught. That person must not be “the one.” This conviction is cemented by the common experience of having a previous lover with whom one did have really, really warm feelings towards. Why that relationship (the one with the feelings) didn’t work out will not be reflected on.

Passion is far too weak a glue to bind two people together for any significant time. It certainly does a very adaptive thing for humanity and gets us to commit to each other while intoxicated by love. But that was back when the good king Reason ruled and acknowledged that promises and commitments had force even when feelings faded. Now that the Passions are ruling, this is now a conscience-driven process. “Feelings are the Good, and if they are absent, then I’m out, promises be damned.” All the other things that people considered in their partner are now all but ignored. It is not temptation but Reason-endorsed conviction that causes me to consider breaking my commitment.

To Be or Not to Be?

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal tells the story of a girl who had recurrent suicidal thoughts, tried to suppress them, and had even more recurrent suicidal thoughts (a transient obsession that McGonigal attributes to the white bear effect). As a result, she concluded that the recurrence of these thoughts reflected the fact that, deep down, she really wanted to kill herself. Her conscious, rational self has no reasons to offer, but that must mean that the conscious, rational self is ignorant of the true reality.

Why would anyone think all subconscious ideas contained deep and irrefutable truths about us? I suppose it’s partly because of a watered down and corrupted legacy of Freud. But it may also be because that the thoughts and feelings that occur to us outside our conscious control arrive from a mysterious source. They, like visions or prophecies, have the appeal of mystery. And in an environment where we know everything is false, at least with the private idea-generator called the subconscious, we don’t know that it’s false; it stands alone in our minds as not having its epistemological foundations undermined.

The Reign of the Dark Horse

The common theme of all these stories is that many modern people seem to think feelings are inviolable. It’s a bizarre inversion of what has always been the ideal. Classically, when the Passions overpowered the Reason, it was a tragedy. Now the Passions rule, but the Reason is actually complicit. At best, Reason has one vote amongst the Passions. At best, Reason is as impotent as a junior congressman from Idaho. Sometimes, Reason is just an observer, along for the ride like a tick on a dog. Our minds are adequately muddled to permit for a new thing in the history of the world: not forced servitude, but voluntary commitment of Reason to the Passions.

One of Plato’s allegories compared the human soul to a chariot pulled by two horses. The driver is reason, one of the horses (white) represents the good emotions or “spiritedness” and the other horse (black) represents the carnal or base passions. The driver’s job was to bridle and direct the horses; not suppress them, or let them guide the chariot (for a fuller account, check out this Art of Manliness article). Plato called the failure of the rider and the triumph of the Passions, “…the ruthless enslavement of the divinest part of himself to the most despicable and godless part” and submitted that such a man should be “deemed wreched.” All Plato could imagine seemed to be an incompetent driver (which was just “wreched”). Our modern insanity seems to have been unforeseen: he couldn’t imagine a rider so insane he would yoke himself beside the other horses and allow the Dark Horse to lead. I don’t think he could have imagined conscious and intentional mutiny of Reason against Wisdom, not just being enslaved by the Passions, but swearing allegiance to them.

My students seemed as if they were trained from childhood to yoke their Reason beside their passions and to pull with it in whatever direction the Dark Horse was inclined to go. My money-loving friend knew what was right, on some level wanted to do right, but gave his Reason an equal vote. My friend in the relationship thought the Dark Horse’s inclinations were the only reliable guide. The suicidal girl allowed her Passions to persuade her Reason.

After thousands of years of trying by a multitude of means, humanity seems to have finally given up trying to break the Dark Horse. But rather than just enjoying a directionless chariot ride, we have kept our Reason active, pulling the now-empty chariot beside the Dark Horse here and there and everywhere. Plato described the integrated soul, when the rider and two horses worked together: he told of how such a soul could rise up into the heavens with the gods. But such cannot be our fate. Our souls will be scattered across the plains and deserts of the earth, driving madly in a direction we know not.




Unless Reason rules again.

[1] Paul Blume famously opens his book on American universities with this line: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” As for its craziness, the strong defenders of the hypothesis are hard to find.
[2] “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterful than justice.”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mediterranean Diet in a Bowl: SuperStew 4.0

Mediterranean Diet in a Bowl: SuperStew 4.0

This is a super filling, super low glycemic index, evidence-based food. It has several ingredients which are proven to be good for diabetics or preventing diabetes. As with all my SuperStews, it’s designed to be a “desert island food,” that is, you wouldn't die if it’s all you ever ate.

3 onions
½ bunch of celery
2 bell peppers
½ lb Jalapenos
2 large cans of diced tomatoes
1 large can of crushed tomatoes
½ lb navy beans
½ lb soybeans
1/8 lb wild rice
1.5 lbs chicken thighs
Montreal steak seasoning
2 cups olive oil
½ lb peanut butter (crunchy, natural)
½ lb almonds (sliced)
½ lb sunflower seeds (shelled)
¼ lb ground flaxseed
2 cups Greek Yogurt
1 cup shredded coconut
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup molasses

Spices (part 1)
4 tbsp (1/4 cup) black pepper
2 tbsp cayenne
2 tbsp coriander

Spices (part 2)
2 tbsp mustard seed
2 tbsp cumin
½ cup Italian spice

Makes 25 servings.

1. Rinse the beans (navy and soy). Put them in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 hour.
2. Roughly chop all the veggies except the greens (don’t worry about deseeding the jalapenos… unless you’re a wimp). Put ½ cup of olive oil in the stock pot. Fry on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add coriander, cayenne and black pepper. Fry for another 5-10 minutes (the onions should start to look a little see-through).
3. Add the tomatoes, broth (and/or cubes), remaining oil, and remaining spices. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Drain the beans. Add to the main pot and mix in.
5. Heat the grill to the high “grill” range. Cover the chicken with copious steak seasoning (yeah, I know, it says “steak” on it; trust me on this one). 5 minutes per side should work if the meat’s not too thick (i.e. you didn’t buy genetically engineered “I can’t walk because I’m so fat, but it doesn't even matter because my cage is too small to stand up in anyways” chickens). Cut into ~1 inch pieces and add to pot. [note: if you don’t have a grill, prepare the chicken however you like, or just add it to the pot at step 3]
5. Add in wild rice and stir. Add water as is necessary to keep it liquid. Simmer for 15 minutes.
6. Add in everything else. Stir.
7. Done! (you can use step 7 as an occasion to put it into Tupperware and/or do the dishes)


The stew has several unique features which I will reference when I have more time (I actually pulled the papers this time). First of all, I want to talk briefly about the fats. It has 40g of fat (eek!) by design (???). In one of the few well-designed randomized trials done on diet, Atkins actually came out on top (beating the Ornish “eat mostly plants” diet and other “intuitive” diets). Surprising I know. Even in terms of cholesterol readings. Even more surprising. This is probably because we all have metabolic syndrome and have way too much sugar/carbs floating around to be good for us. Previous iterations of this stew went partway, incorporating more low glycemic index grains. But this time, I went further. More fats. They fill you up, and improve your cholesterol and health. In a randomized (nonscience people read that “totally believable”) study, adding nuts or olive oil to a diet reduced cardiovascular events by around 30%. You don’t really need the oil for frying purposes, but I’ve told you to add it so that you have more healthy fats: monounsaturated fats in olive oil increase your good cholesterol and decrease you bad. There is also a decent literature on dairy (especially cultured dairy) preventing development of diabetes, so I added yogurt (and Greek yogurt had more protein and less sugar than normal). Flaxseed is good for your heart (Omega 3 fats). Coconut oil is also supposed to be good for you (that’s where a lot of the “saturated fat” is coming from… don’t worry, it’s not bad!). In looking how to cheaply get coconut oil into my stew, I discovered that the oil was hella expensive. But shredded coconut is cheap, and as it turns out, has coconut oil inside (I snuck out of Whole Foods without them knowing I had gotten coconut oil out of the building without losing my shirt). There is a ton of work about how inflammation is bad, and how anti-inflammatory stuff is good, and hence the large amounts of spice (for cheap, high quality spice, try or visit the planet Dune). One bowl of this has 7x what is good for a full day. Stuff that is “anti-inflammatory” tends also to have anti-cancer anti-oxidants. But, alas, inflammation and anti-oxidation is hard to actually measure by science as it’s so variable, so there’s not spectacular evidence to support so heavy a use of spice (at least not in the nutrition section… but the taste is another story). I had done vegetarian versions before, but the grilled chicken wasn’t that expensive, tasted great, and was actually pretty good health-wise. Vinegar has been shown to increase satiety and improve insulin response. The fiber is good (41% of daily value), but has been reduced from prior versions because it generally comes with carbohydrates. Fiber independently is good for your heart, reduces cholesterol and (some research suggests) helps transport the antioxidants down to the colon where they can work to help prevent colon cancer. And, of course, there’s a ton of veggies which are, as your mother said, good for you. I haven’t recalculated for this version, but the original (which had a similar amount of veggies) contained >5 vegetable servings in 2 bowls.

It’s got a good amount of calories, macronutrients, minerals, and all the vitamins except for D and B12. So go outside, see the sun, and eat a steak every once in a while and you’ll be fine.


For a 574 Calorie bowl of stew, the cost is $1.56. Not too shabby. The Dollars Per 1000 Calories (a unit I explain in more detail here) is 2.71. Food Stamps cutoff, that is, the cost where one could actually live on nothing but the food provided by food stamps, is 2.44. Black beans alone come in at 0.9 and a Big Mac is 7.6. My 2.71 number was arrived at by buying most of this at Whole Foods (except the veggies, which I went to my local Mexican supermarket). In other words, I bought things like Run-Around Chickens (i.e. pasture-centric; Whole Foods Grade 4). If you bought the stuff at Costco or a normal grocery store, you’d considerably increase the value (as well as the guilt on your soul :P).


It took about 1 hour to shop and 2 hours to cook (and I doubled the recipe, so ~50 meals) and about 30 minutes cleaning and storing. Not counting the 3 hour literature review (yeah… that’s how I roll. And cook. I both cook and roll via reviews of the primary scientific literature), it took me ~4.2 minutes per meal of cook time. From fridge to microwaved takes another 3 minutes per meal. So for about 7.2 minutes of my time, I can have this super healthy stew that tastes great (for reference, it takes  7.5 minutes to prepare a Hungry Man TV dinner; and yes, I did have to Google that).


Best yet. It’s amazing! I think I am white enough to prefer the Jambalaya-style spices over the Indian-style spices I had been using before. Probably because it’s so fatty, it is, dare I say it, scrumtrulescent. It is spicy (caliente) enough to keep me interested, and the yogurt and maybe vinegar move the taste into the sour axis just slightly, just enough to get interesting. And the grilled chicken was a very, very good decision. As this is what I will literally eat just about every day for a month or more, I am always happy when it turns out J. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Willpower Instinct (McGonigal) - Review and Critique

The Willpower Instinct is the best book out there for building the virtue of Temperance. Kelly McGonigal does an incredible job helping us make sense of our “willpower failures” and to learn to better respond to them. This is one of America’s greatest failures, and so I can understand why her class is so wildly popular.

There is little on the subject that she does not cover; there are few modern perspectives that are not considered. She then goes the extra mile and proposes ways to think about these failures in the reader’s own life, and exercises for trying to overcome the failures. It is eminently practical, one of the most practical self-help books I’ve come across.

Chapter by Chapter Summary and Discussion
In chapter 1, McGonigal makes the case that there are three kinds of “willpower”: I will, I won’t and I want. She advises that it is often useful to reframe challenges; for example, instead of “I will go to bed on time” she suggests trying things like “I will not use the internet after 10pm.” She also points out that focusing on our desire for “long term goals” is an important way to keep on track.

In chapter 2, she describes stress biology. She describes “fight or flight” versus “pause and plan” and talks about heart rate variability as a “store” of willpower. She describes how slowing down can improve your ability to make good choices and recommends relaxation exercises to aid with this process. A feature that comes up in a big way in this chapter is the translation of everything into cave-man fairy tales. Don’t get me wrong: I love fairy tales. I don't mean that she proposes developed evolutionary hypotheses that I happen to disagree with. Though well read on neuroscience and psychology, she didn't seem to bother studying evolutionary biology, but instead uses it as a narrative inspiration. The problem with this is that there are plenty of poor schmucks who probably can't tell the difference between McGonigals otherwise superb ability to summarize complex science and her speculations on human evolution. While showing remarkable restraint in staying within the bounds of the science in most places, she seems to be unable to exert “I won’t” power, and so we are transported back to the savanna every few pages to forage for hyena carcass or wear hippopotamus loin cloths.

She briefly summarizes the totally awesome work of Roy Baumeister in chapter 3: that willpower is like a muscle, can be depleted, built with practice and how it even runs on sugar (this work gets a little bit of a short shrift; for fuller treatment see Willpower by Baumeister). Otherwise, I think she did quite a good job on this front.

She deals with “licensing” effects in chapter 4, and describes the dangers of our moral illogic: a woman losing weight may reason, “I just burned 200 Calories on the stepper; I deserve extra dessert.” She points out how our moral logic of good works vs. bad works is counterproductive. Her advice is: forget virtue and focus on goals and values.  The major shortcoming of the book is McGonigal’s treatment of morality. She seems to implicitly treat it like nothing more than social shame, a set of emotions that is either useful or not toward achieving “long-term goals.” Nowhere does the light of any other perspective break through the clouds of her post-modernism. Never does she consider that most people through most of history were pretty sure that the only worthwhile long-term goal was morality. Plato’s pursuit of Justice in the Polis, or Aristotle’s description of the virtuous life of Eudemonia, or Jesus’ appeals to holiness, or Paul’s calls to godly life in community, or Augustine’s Confessions and call purity; no eightfold paths; no five pillars. Long-term goals are personal, and generally seem to include things like “losing weight” or “checking Facebook less”; at best, “improving my relationship.” But coming from Harvard and now at Stanford, she can hardly be blamed; moral relativism is pretty well taken for granted and individual freedom and choice is unquestionably thought to be The Good. She may also be excused because she’s using the word ‘virtue’ in the vernacular, as used by members of her class with nothing at all to do with what the word has traditionally meant. The irony is that while she repudiates virtue, I consider “The Willpower Instinct” the most practical modern workbook for those wanting to build the virtue of Temperance.

In chapter 5 “The Brain’s Big Lie,” she provides a delightful discussion of the work on dopamine and motivation, starting with the Olds and Milner brain stimulation-seeking rat (here’s the unrelated-to-the-book actual video, go to 2:30) and moving into the more recent literature. She seems to want to frame it as “the stupid basically-still-chimpanzee brain is lying” rather than “the incredibly well-tuned motivation circuits are hijacked.” Otherwise, for a lay-audience, I saw little room for improvement.

The “what the hell” effect was discussed in chapter 6: what happens after the sobered alcoholic falls off the wagon, or the dieter “blows” the day. I never realized how moralizing people get about their willpower failures, and how badly wrong they are about how morality works. Here, she makes up somewhat for her bad advice in chapter 4 with the good advice: accept yourself in your present condition, and try again.
Chapter 7 was a discussion of behavioral economics. She talked about delayed discounting, and some of the human vs chimpanzee delay-of-gratification experiments, as well as the Walter Mischel marshmallow experiment (here’s an awesome kid-trying-not-to-eat-a-marshmallow video). What was new to me was some of the new work on improving “future self continuity.” Some of this included VR interactions with “old you,” but other exercises like writing letters to “future me.” It reminded me of GK Chesterton’s essay about rash vows: “The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place.”

Chapter 8 focused on the contagion of willpower, bringing up the intriguing studies on the Naval Academy and Framingham. She described evidence of both good and bad behaviors spreading and she brought up the concept of the “social self.” These ideas are thought-provoking as we are rediscovering what the Greeks took for granted; i.e. that the “self” is only really a “self” in community.

Chapter 9 was a great treatment of the “White Bear” paradigm: telling people not to think about a white bear and then watching them squirm. She discusses a strategy that is often used in dialectical behavioral therapy and/or mindfulness therapies of “Surfing the Urge”; she recommends not fighting negative feelings or urges, but just experiencing them and observing how they affect the body. She covers a lot of work done on this effect, but has significant omission of Jeff Schwartz’s work on OCD.

4 out of 5. While spectacular and eminently usable, the omission of a mature discussion on virtue when writing a book about a virtue leads me to leave off granting a perfect rating.

In the end, she and reminds the reader to be a scientist: that is, to test her claims. I think this was a really effective approach. The Buddhist idea to experience the truth for yourself, or the Psalmists admonition to “taste and see” are (perhaps subconsciously) applied. Though I may quibble with some points, I think the Willpower Instinct is an important book with a very important message. It is a message that Americans desperately need to hear in the cacophony of voices that seems to say nothing other than, “Your failures are inevitable.” I am in total agreement with McGonigal’s mission to enhance willpower, and I agree with the conclusion of her book: “The is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.”