September 12th, 2014
A few weeks ago I went to a friend’s christening. Well, a friend’s son’s christening.
That was all fine though it did get a bit weird as in the middle of the service the vicar went into a massive rant about how he hates atheists because we insist that he isn’t allowed to teach his kids about religion (as we do). I seemed to get quite a lot of eye contact during that section…
September 11th, 2014
I only get chance to do any modelling when I’m not at work, spending time with Elina or volunteering at one of the charities or community groups I run. Which isn’t a lot of time. However, after 10 months, I’ve finally finished the Warriors of Chaos I inherited.
I forgot to include the Chaos Hounds in the photo and I’ve since added some Dragon Ogres and a Gorebeast Chariot too.
September 10th, 2014
I’ve been reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering Heights. As Elina predicted most of this time was spent with Kate Bush running through my head. There are definitely worse things in life.
What a horrible book it is though. I spent most of it hoping that one of the characters would snap and run a knife through Heathcliff. Sadly, nobody did. However, it did at least have an almost happy ending. I also had to draw a little diagram to track the family tree – though it turns out Wikipedia already has one prepared.
September 9th, 2014
I saw Lawrence Krauss speaking at QED last year and decided he was definitely worth reading. When I looked up his books, I found he has one entitled “The Physics of Star Trek”. Win.
It is pretty much what you expect. He looks at various aspects of the technology featured in Star Trek and talks about how possible they would be in the real world. It turns out that Gene Roddenberry put quite a lot of thought into this, especially as Trekkers kept asking difficult questions.
It was written in 1995 and is now starting to show its age. It was, for example, written well before we successfully build a cloaking device. Krauss writes in an engaging style that is on my wavelength.
Maybe there will one day be a sequel. As the author himself suggests, he could do The Physics of Star Trek 2: Wrath of Krauss.
September 8th, 2014
After writing her book Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent found herself struggling psychologically. So she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, whereupon she got her next idea for a book. The result is “Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin”.
In the book she checks herself into three different hospitals – a downtown public one named Meriwether, a private Catholic facility named St Luke’s, and an alternative therapy centre named Mobius.
She has no problems getting in. As she says, you can only look back and see the mental health problem. This is exactly the feature Daniel Kahneman talks about in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Staff at psychiatric hospital (or indeed anyone, but you would expect these people to be able to) cannot tell the difference between the sane and in the insane. Not that there is necessarily a line between the two.
The results are rather predictable. Meriwether is a cold, clinical hellhole, St Luke’s is tolerable and Mobius comes off the best.
How much we can draw from this, I am not sure. Firstly, you have to look at clinical outcomes and Norah being a sample of one is merely an anecdote about her experience rather than data to draw any conclusions from. Secondly, Mobius only take a select band of mental health issues, and so it is difficult to compare them like-for-like.
It is difficult to compare the financial costs of them because they are all in the United States, where prices are warped by the insurance system where there is little incentive to keep costs down. However, the fact that her insurance company pulled the plug because she was allowed out for runs and not drugged up to the eyeballs speak quite poorly of the US system. It would be interesting to read a similar book looking at British hospitals to compare the differences.
There are some no-brainers that we should take away from the book. Not providing health meals, or a gym, is just stupid. There is loads of clinical evidence to suggest a healthy physical lifestyle helps with mental health too, so these things should probably be the first things you put in.
Providing fresh air, using drugs sensibly, treating people like human beings, giving them a clean bathroom and some proper therapy would all probably be helpful too. However, it would be naive to think that there are not complex social reasons why these are not always provided.
In some ways, mental health could be the most exciting area of healthcare to work in. I suggest this because a lot of the ideas mentioned above are both a) easily to implement and b) would probably improve clinical outcomes.
Improving outcomes for cancer for example is really difficult. We need to find a whole new treatment, lab test it and role it out. Cancer Research UK spends nearly half a billion pounds a year on this. In comparison, to improve some mental health outcomes, you need to buy a treadmill. They’re £150 on eBay.
Of course that is a massive over-simplification and if it really was that easy you would hope that we would have done it by now. Nevertheless, it feels like we have room to make some positive changes in mental health that are easier than with physical health. Hopefully, with increased funding and research focusing on these areas, those changes will come.
September 7th, 2014
Last year, Business Insider and Time wrote about how non-drinkers die significantly younger than moderate (or even heavy!) drinkers. Non-drinkers and heavy drinkers are similar, while moderate drinks enjoy the longest life expectancy.
Of course I knew about similar studies already. These results have been floating around for a long time but it is difficult to apply it personally. Drinking is associated with being social and non-drinking is often associated with being a pessimist. Both of these factors would lead to drinkers living longer. However, those are all overall trends – whether I drink or not, I am still quite social (I think) and a pessimist.
However, Time then also linked to a 2009 study that indicated that non-drinkers are also at the highest risk from depression and anxiety. If true, the best think for your mental health would be to drink moderately. This study wasn’t controlled for underlying health conditions, so again it is difficult to draw conclusions about how to live my life.
Pacific Standard also wrote a lengthy article looking at a lot of different factors. They note that the biggest meta-analysis which looked at over a million people confirms the same results – drinking is the healthy option. Though again, it fails to control for underlying health problems that stop people from drinking.
September 6th, 2014
In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett looks at Darwinian theory and what follows from that.
It is packed with interesting ideas but is also incredibly long. When your book is significantly longer than Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, your book is probably too long. I struggled to take a lot of it in, partly because there were so many ideas, but partly also because it was such a huge text to really look at in perspective.
Dennett explains how evolution is a algorithmic process and yet is simultaneously capable of creating the entire tree of life. This includes the human mind of course, which is perhaps the most controversial part of the theory, even though the only alternative theory that has been proposed so far is “god did it”.
Many of the concepts he uses to explain the theory are well-thought-out too. For example, skyhooks and cranes. SKyhooks are a miracle that just happen (Dennett claims none exist) whereas cranes are structures that build on top of each other in slow steps (how things actually work). Notably, once the structure has been built, the crane may then disappear, though there is often a trace of it left.
It is also important to look at things from an evolutionary perspective. Take sleep for example. One of my friends once said to me “you know, there is no reason for sleep – we can’t find any biological reason why we need to do it! What’s it for?”
I never knew the answer to that question. However, as Dennett points out, the answer could be that we are looking at it from the wrong way round. Sleep is safe. Plants, and many simple lifeforms spend their entire lives in this state. It is the default state. We assume that we are supposed to be awake but from an evolutionary perspective this might not be the case. It could be that being awake is something Mother Nature cooked up to allow us to find food and procreate easier, but once that is done there is no point wasting more energy.
Overall, I am not suggesting that the 3.7 billion years of life fighting for survive can be compared with my struggle to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and its many big words. They are different things entirely. Despite it being tough going, I am glad I read it as it contains some incredibly insightful ideas packaged into one text about the origin of life from a philosophical perspective.
We should feel special because most genetic lines are now dead. But not us. We have an unbroken chain of ancestors right back to 3.7 billion years ago. That is amazing. But do not feel too special, as every blade of grass you can see has that too…
September 5th, 2014
September 4th, 2014
Last month Michael Mosley made a Horizon documentary on “should I eat meat?”.
The documentary started with a discussion similar to the one we recently held at Leeds Skeptics. The spoiler answer is yes. Meat is incredibly nutritious and often a centrepiece of family life. A non-meat diet can be very healthy (after all life-long vegetarian Lizzie Armitstead won an Olympic gold medal), but you do need to think a bit more about your nutrition. Meat makes it easy to get it.
The program dismissed white meat (chicken, poultry, fish) as not showing any signs of negative health effects, and so concentrated on red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meat (bacon, sausage, ham).
Red meat comes out somewhat negative. It could have some positive health effects, but overall it is a negative. We’re just not sure why. Originally it was thought to be saturated fats, but this does not seem to be the case.
Processed meats come out hugely negative. 35 grams per day could increase your risk of premature death by as much as 30%. While the Harvard study and European EPIC study disagree on red meat, they come together on the danger of processed meat.
So what should we conclude?
Cutting down on your meat is probably helpful. Processed meat should be cut out entirely; red meat should be eaten 1-2 times per week at most. Such a diet will not only extend lives by as much as five years on average but will increase the quality of life of those years as well.