Musings of the Great Eric

Archive for July 2007

Just who the hell is The Great Eric?

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For those of you who may have asked the above question at one point or another, I’ve finally put up an about page to sate your curiosity. This place is starting to look more and more like a real blog.

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Written by Eric

July 31, 2007 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Miscellany

The Great Eric’s Guide to Losing Weight

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(This is an older essay from an older version of this blog; but I decided it was one well worth re-posting. It’s also revised and expanded with a few new links that I’ve found since I originally wrote it. Now without further ado…)

I’m lucky enough to have a cool boss who likes taking everyone in the office out for lunch every day (it’s a small company and most of us telecommute, so typically we’re only talking 3-6 people in the office, depending on the day). I quite enjoy these lunch breaks; they’re pretty low key and I’m never one to complain about free food (since I don’t eat much to begin with, getting lunch like this significantly cuts down on my grocery bills).

Lately though, this otherwise pleasant ritual has been getting on my nerves. Or more precisely, one of my coworkers has been getting on my nerves every time we go to lunch with her. I don’t mean to badmouth her and that’s certainly not my intent. She’s actually a very nice person and we get along well, it just happens she’s been hitting on this pet peeve of mine.

You see, she’s gone on a diet. And she hasn’t just gone on any diet, but the Atkins Diet. So now, whenever we decide where to go to lunch (and there’s not many options around here), we have to be reminded how she “can’t have bread, because [she’s] on Atkins.”, and plan accordingly to make sure there will be something there for her to eat. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing about our lunchtime ritual that can pass without her making it known to the world that she’s dieting and which diet she’s on: she talks about it constantly. Quite frankly, I just don’t care and I don’t see why she feels the need to bring it up constantly. What makes it worse is that I don’t just have to listen to a female talk about a diet, but I have to listen to the sheer stupidity that is the Atkins diet.

Just take a second to really think about it:

Wheat is one of the earliest crops mankind domesticated, and was one of the enabling factors that directly led to the development of human civilization. We’ve been eating bread for 10,000+ years; it’s one of the most basic components of our diet. Just about every human civilization throughout history had some sort of high carbohydrate crop as a staple of their diet. This was the status quo up until about three or four years ago when Mr. Atkins (whoever granted him the title of “Doctor” should revoke it) managed to convince millions upon millions of Americans, including my coworker, that bread is somehow responsible for making them fat, and said that to lose weight they could eat as much as they wanted as long as it didn’t include carbohydrates. The idiocy is astounding.

The irrationality of this diet plan was epitomized the other day when we went to Burger King for lunch. My coworker – on a diet, trying to lose weight – orders a TRIPLE bacon cheeseburger. But to her, this is okay, because she took the bread off. I just kind of sat there with my mouth open the whole time, unsure how she could possibly rationalize this.

The truly sad part is that she’s not alone. Her behavior is indicative of just how deeply ignorant and downright screwed up our society is when it comes to food, health, and nutrition. It boggles my mind that anyone could think the Atkins diet could work in the first place, least of all after it’s been scientifically debunked time and time and time again. Yet it’s still one of the more popular diets out there.

I realized early on that my attempts to infuse reality into my coworker’s diet plan was most unwelcome, so now I simply hold my tongue at lunchtime while I count the days until she’s done with it (and hopefully, shuts up about it). For everyone who’ll listen to reason though, I’ve done the research for you. I’ve distilled the volumes of scientific research and nutritional information into a concise, easy to follow diet plan that’s guaranteed to work for pretty much everyone, based on everything we know about the human body.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Consult one. Don’t sue me.)

 

The Great Eric’s super duper double secret amazing guide to loosing weight:

 

Step 1:

 

Eat less.

 

Step 2:

 

Exercise more.

 

Simple, right? Yet millions of Americans are baffled by this approach to weight loss. Mostly, I suppose, because it involves a lifestyle change, complete with actual work and personal responsibility and discipline. Which is why I imagine the “still eat as many bacon cheeseburgers as you want” type diet plans are so popular; they make people feel like they’re doing something despite their ineffectiveness. People would rather be fat than be uncomfortable, even a little bit.

To state my diet plan another way: “You’re fat because you’re lazy; stop being lazy and you won’t be fat”. Harsh? Maybe. True? Yes. Sure, entities like the media, the food industry, biology, and even the government share culpability for the obesity epidemic now upon us. But at the end of the day, the only person who’s responsible for the shape your body in is you.

Still, I imagine there are those of you out there who are skeptical, so let’s break down the plan and examine it in more detail.

“Eat less” should probably read “Eat less and eat right”. I trimmed it down in the diet plan because the first half is the one that would make the biggest difference for most people, and is sufficient all by itself for loosing weight. But “eat right” is another factor which shouldn’t get ignored, so we’ll consider that here as well.

Most Americans eat too much. I’ll let the USDA qualify that (emphasis mine):

Americans at the beginning of the 21st century are consuming more food and several hundred more calories per person per day than did their counterparts in the late 1950s (when per capita calorie consumption was at the lowest level in the last century), or even in the 1970s. The aggregate food supply in 2000 provided 3,800 calories per person per day, 500 calories above the 1970 level and 800 calories above the record low in 1957 and 1958.

Of that 3,800 calories, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that roughly 1,100 calories were lost to spoilage, plate waste, and cooking and other losses, putting dietary intake of calories in 2000 at just under 2,700 calories per person per day. ERS data suggest that average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000. Of that 24.5-percent increase, grains (mainly refined grain products) contributed 9.5 percentage points; added fats and oils, 9.0 percentage points; added sugars, 4.7 percentage points; fruits and vegetables together, 1.5 percentage points; meats and nuts together, 1 percentage point; and dairy products and eggs together, -1.5 percentage point.

Some of the observed increase in caloric intake may be associated with the increase in eating out. Data from USDA’s food intake surveys show that the food-away-from-home sector provided 32 percent of total food energy consumption in 1994-96, up from 18 percent in 1977-78. The data also suggest that, when eating out, people either eat more or eat higher calorie foods–or both–and that this tendency appears to be increasing.

[…]

Although multiple factors can account for weight gain, the basic cause is an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure. In general, Americans’ activity levels have not kept pace with their increase in calorie consumption. Many people apparently are oblivious to the number of calories they consume. Calories consistently rank toward the bottom of consumer nutrition concerns, according to the annual national probability surveys “Trends–Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket” conducted by the Food Marketing Institute. Of respondents in the 2002 survey who said they were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the nutritional content of what they eat, only 13 percent cited calories as one of their concerns. That compared with fat (49 percent), sugar (18 percent), salt (17 percent), and cholesterol (16 percent).

Yeah yeah, I know. It’s like, rocket science. How can the average American be expected to understand something like that? There’s an 800 calorie difference between what Americans consumed in the 1950’s and what they consumed in 2000. Maybe, just maybe, you should look to cut about 800 calories from your diet, at least if you’re the average American. You won’t die of starvation if you do. Just a thought.

One thing you might not immediately get the significance of is why I highlighted the bit about eating out, or even why it’s mentioned at all. The correlation between going to restaurants and obesity is pretty clear and has a logical reason for existing. Although portion sizes have increased everywhere in recent decades, restaurants are especially bad in this regard: portions at restaurants have doubled and sometimes quadrupled in size since the 1970’s. And surprise: the bigger the portion, the more you eat, the fatter you get. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, “cleaning your plate” is shockingly bad advice.

Here’s some examples:

In the 1970’s a 12 ounce soda was a typical size you would get as a fountain drink from a restaurant or quick stop and now it is 20 ounces.

Bagels used to weigh 2-3 ounces and now weigh 4-7 ounces. A regular size serving of French fries from McDonalds (you remember…the one that came in the little white paper bag) weighs one third the weight of the largest size now. This becomes so normal to us that when we see the “smaller” servings it looks like a tiny amount of food and surely couldn’t fill us up. This is an even bigger problem for the youth today. This is all they know and when they see what a portion size should look like it will appear very small.

I could expand on the portion size issue a great deal more and talk about the economics of the food industry, psychological tricks, your body’s hunger cues, etc, but honestly I don’t think that’s necessary. While the “why” of all this is fascinating and important in it’s own right, it’s not germane to the point of my little rant here. Just eat less. That’s the long and short of it.

Now, that other part, “eat right” is admittedly more complex and legitimately confuses a lot of people. Nutritional science journalism is simply hideous. What’s good for you depends heavily on your individual traits and lifestyle. But news reports never say “Food X is good in amount A under condition B for type of person C”; instead they oversimplify it to “Food X is good for you”. The end result is that the news media will seemingly flip flop on the health benefits of (for example) eggs every year or so. One year they’re good, next year they’re bad. My advice: don’t listen to this kind of stuff.

Despite the complexity of the issue and how greatly individuals will vary in this regard, there’s still a couple of meta-trends that we can apply here. Like, here’s the big one: nothing you eat is really bad for you if eaten in small amounts, but anything you eat can be bad for you if you eat it in excess. The key to eating right, generally speaking, is to eat a little bit of a wide range of foods.

Recently, I’ve become a big fan of Michael Pollan, a journalist who’s written a great deal on the science and history of agriculture and food. He’s penned a number of great articles and essays on this subject, and his most recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, covers this subject in great depth. It’s all worth reading and I recommend it if you’re at all interested in learning more about this subject. I bring it up because everything I’m about to say mostly summarizes what he’s written on the subject, and it’s worth learning about more in depth (more links at the end of the post).

You see, our food industry is deeply fucked up. A combination of technological innovations, political factors, and simple corporate greed has resulted in an agribusiness that greatly overproduces corn, making it much cheaper than it ought to be in any rational market economy. As a result, this commodity finds its way into everything. Most of what you eat was once corn. It’s the main ingredient in any number of supermarket foods, gets fed to livestock, and gets mixed in with a whole lot of other unrelated foods. So far from having a wide ranging diet, ours is a remarkably narrow one. As Pollan explains:

Or perhaps a little of both. For the great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket rests on a remarkably narrow biological foundation: corn. It’s not merely the feed that the steers and the chickens and the pigs and the turkeys ate; it’s not just the source of the flour and the oil and the leavenings, the glycerides and coloring in the processed foods; it’s not just sweetening the soft drinks or lending a shine to the magazine cover over by the checkout. The supermarket itself–the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built–is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them contain corn. At the same time, the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the 45,000 different items or SKUs (stock keeping units) represent genuine variety rather than the clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant.

Basically, if you’re the average American, you’re eating a heck of a lot of corn, and probably have deficiencies elsewhere in your diet. As omnivores, we need balance, and there’s a good chance you’re not getting it.

The problem with corn gets even worse when you consider that much of our overproduced corn is turned into High Frustose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is a chemical sweetener and preservative that’s makes its way into just about everything on the supermarket shelf, and is particularly bad from a health perspective. You see, HFCS differs from regular sugar in three important respects:

  1. Rather than acting like sugar in your body (producing insulin and burning energy), it acts more like fat, stimulating your body to store energy.
  2. It never triggers the appetite suppressant hormones that make you feel full.
  3. Thanks in very large part to decades of unreasonably large government farm subsidies towards corn growers, it’s cheap to manufacture – cheaper than real sugar.

It has a couple of other properties as well: It’s sweeter than real sugar, it’s effective as a preservative in preventing freezer burn, and it stores longer. Oh, and it causes diabetes, though the industry denies it, much in the same way tobacco companies once denied the health effects of their products.

Add it all up, I shouldn’t have to spell it out.

Do we eat too much of it? Heck yeah.

Until the 1970s most of the sugar we ate came from sucrose derived from sugar beets or sugar cane. Then sugar from corn—corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, dextrine and especially high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—began to gain popularity as a sweetener because it was much less expensive to produce. High fructose corn syrup can be manipulated to contain equal amounts of fructose and glucose, or up to 80 percent fructose and 20 percent glucose.2 Thus, with almost twice the fructose, HFCS delivers a double danger compared to sugar.

(With regards to fruit, the ratio is usually 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, but most commercial fruit juices have HFCS added. Fruit contains fiber which slows down the metabolism of fructose and other sugars, but the fructose in HFCS is absorbed very quickly.)

In 1980 the average person ate 39 pounds of fructose and 84 pounds of sucrose. In 1994 the average person ate 66 pounds of sucrose and 83 pounds of fructose, providing 19 percent of total caloric energy.3 Today approximately 25 percent of our average caloric intake comes from sugars, with the larger fraction as fructose.

Where do we consume the majority of it? Soda.

A single 12-ounce can of soda has as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup. And because the amount of soda we drink has more than doubled since 1970 to about 56 gallons per person a year, so has the amount of high fructose corn syrup we take in. In 2001, we consumed almost 63 pounds of it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you’re serious about losing weight, you’ll stop drinking it entirely, starting now. Even if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t drink it. The stuff is terribly unhealthy in most every regard.

New research published in the United States that followed 50,000 U.S. nurses reveals those who drank just one serving of soda or fruit punch a day gained weight more quickly than those who drank less than one soda a month. Those who drank more also had an 80% increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This risk, by the way, was associated with those who drank drinks sweetened with either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

I’m going to stop here to just to reiterate; when it comes to obesity, the culprit is your lifestyle. End of story. As I said above, the food industry, media, government, and HFCS aren’t excuses; I’m just explaining what’s what so you understand the context of my advice. I’d actually expand on this topic more but again, we’re getting off point. Just cut this shit out of your diet as much as it possible if you want to lose weight.

Alright, back on topic: how do you eat right? Look at it this way: Human beings got here by a process of evolution. Our diets were arrived at by a process of evolution too (Hmmm… I wonder if there’s a correlation between obesity and being a creationist?). The people who ate healthy generally managed to survive to pass their genes on, and their diet got passed down via cultural tradition. For a multitude of reasons, those cultural traditions have been all but ignored for the last fifty years, thanks to technology, marketing, and cultural shifts. But as a rule of thumb, to eat right, you should eat what your grandmother would have cooked in the 1950’s.

Michael Pollan actually explained “what to eat” pretty succinctly.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But for explanatory sake, and those of you too lazy to read the whole article, I’ll snip a little more:

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat ”food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

And to hammer home the most important point (IMHO) from that article:

1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

So that covers eating. This brings us to step two: exercise.

Balance is crucial. Going back to the USDA’s piece, the basic cause for weight gain is an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure. Simply cutting your intake isn’t enough, because there’s two sides to the equation. You have to exercise, too.

The sad reality of the modern world is that most people spend their lives sitting on their ass; at work, at home, driving, etc. So, walk more. Take up jogging. Go swimming. Play sports. Go to a gym. Eating a 1950’s diet won’t get you thin unless you also get as much physical activity as people did then too; it was a lot more than people get today. In other words, stop being a lardass. Burn off the calories you consume.

From the CDC :

Becoming a healthier you isn’t just about eating healthy – it’s also about physical activity. Regular physical activity is important for your overall health and fitness. It also helps you control body weight by balancing the calories you take in as food with the calories you expend each day.

  • Be physically active, at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Increasing the intensity or the amount of time that you are physically active can have even greater health benefits and may be needed to control body weight. About 60 minutes a day may be needed to prevent weight gain.
  • Children and teenagers should be physically active 60 minutes every day, or most every day.

At the end of the day, this is all kind of straightforward common sense if you just pause to think about it for a while. But it’s not always obvious; so my hope is that those of you who read this will be less inclined to try crap like Atkins diets and more inclined to simply make the lifestyle changes necessary to lose the weight you want to lose. Again, I’m not a doctor – but what I wrote here is kind of common sense.

Then again, I’m not a doctor. Plus, while I tried to keep this tightly focused on how to loose weight, there are a number of secondary issues that I raised. I feel that understanding just what’s wrong with our food industry and how it impacts us is critical to being able to do something about it. So here’s some references for further reading, from far more authoritative sources than me:

Sources:

Reference Materials:

World Health Organization’s Obesity Page
USDA Factbook
Department of Health and Human Services: Diet, Nutrition, and Eating Right
CDC: Overweight and Obesity
CDC: Nutrition

Articles:

Articles by Michael Pollan.

Children of the Corn Syrup
The Murky World of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The Double Danger of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The Politics of Sugar: Why your government lies to you about this desease promoting ingredient

High Fructose Corn Syrup articles on Accidental Hedonist

Information From the Venerable Wikipedia:

The Atkins Nutritional Approach (See: Criticism)
Body Image (not talked about, but related)
Body Mass Index
Childhood Obesity
Dieting
Healthy Diet and Healthy Eating
Nutrition
Obesity

Some More Info on the Obesity epidemic:

Obesity in the US
The REAL Threat to Americans

Dieting tips:

Things You Didn’t Know About Your Body
The Hacker’s Diet
Diet Tips by Jeremy Zawdorny
Kicking Sugar to the Curb
Quitting Caffeine

(Disclaimer: Those who know me probably know I eat like crap. I eat very little, but what I do eat is mostly crap foods. I drink too much sod and too much caffeine. I don’t exercise nearly enough. I stay thin and healthy mostly by virtue of being young, I think. So this is definitely a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do post. Does it make me a hypocrite? A little bit, I admit. But then, I don’t have a weight problem… if I did, the above is what I’d do to fix it.)

Written by Eric

July 29, 2007 at 11:00 am

Posted in Health, Science, Society

We the People

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There’s something I don’t get about libertarians and conservatives, and pretty much everyone who’s ever expressed antipathy towards the government.

My confusion comes from reading the US Constitution. As it was originally written, that is – there’s something immediately striking about it when you see the version the founding fathers penned rather than a mere transcription of the text. Here, look for yourself:

Constitution_Pg1of4_AC

Do you notice the same thing I do?

Here’s a closer view:

Constitution_Pg1of4_AC-1

Those first three words are written big. Really big. “We the People”. It’s impressive enough that they started the document with those three words, but they went so far as to make them the biggest, most emphatic words in the whole document. The effect is to make it absolutely, undeniably, and incontrovertibly clear that ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently described it.

According to this document, the people are the highest authority in the land. Our government derives its power only from the people and no one but the people. The US government governs only by the consent of the governed, according to the rule of law, as proscribed in the document above.

Simply, in the United States America, the government indistinguishable and inseparable from We the People.

Now let me offer a few choice quotes from the late of Ronald Reagan, which express the world view that so endeared him to conservatives:

  • “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
  • “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
  • “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
  • “People don’t start wars, governments do.”

Of course, Ronald Reagan didn’t take such a dim view of the government when it came to using it to force school prayer on everyone. And he had no problem quoting “we the people” as I did above – when it suited him anyway. Which makes him somewhat of a hypocrite, but I digress. It’s the attitude above that became emblematic of the (stated) conservative worldview and represents the government-is-my-enemy attitude whose popularity persists to this day. And certainly, there are no shortage of Americans whose attitude is both more extreme and more consistently anti-government than the Gipper’s. For example, this one caught my attention on Reddit recently:

Government is a ravenous, drooling beast. For the protection of all citizens, it must be reigned and caged.

I have to scratch my head when I see statements like this though. Because, as the founding fathers went to such painstaking lengths to make clear, the government is the same as We the People. So everyone who expresses such antipathy towards “the government”, as many of the more vocal libertarians and some factions of the right wing do – aren’t they really expressing hatred of the American people? (And themselves, being Americans as they are?)

We do live in an imperfect society, and I myself am highly critical of many public and elected officials, and the actions taken by my government and my behalf. But blaming “the government” is no more than laying the blame on an imaginary scapegoat in order to shirk responsibility for it. As much as I despise Bush and cringe at his every action – I can’t escape the fact that the ultimate blame lies with the people, including myself. Because We the People are ultimately in charge. We ultimately choose the government. We ultimately choose whether to hold it accountable. We – Americans – are responsible for the Iraq war, and everything else Bush has done. We’re responsible for the cronyism and corruption that’s so endemic in our system. It’s not “the government” that’s failed, “the government” doing evil, or “the government” that’s corrupted by special interests. It’s the people that fail, that do evil, that get corrupted – if not by deliberately pursuing these ends, then by allowing them to happen.

And before you go blaming campaign finance or corporate money or nepotism or anything else along those lines – it’s We the People who have a responsibility to stay informed and be vigilant, and We the People who abdicate that responsibility when we pay credence to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, or campaign commercials. All the media can do is put Paris Hilton in front of us in place of real news – it’s We the People that decide to watch.

We the People are the government. It’s not some separate thing that can be feared or hated or fought against. Because if you do, you’re fearing and hating and tearing down the people themselves.

Written by Eric

July 27, 2007 at 8:00 am

Posted in Politics, Society

Musing of the Day

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Never attribute to stupidity that which can be adequately explained by malice. At least where Dick Cheney is concerned.

Written by Eric

July 25, 2007 at 11:00 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with

The Sin of High School English Class (or Why I Hate Classic Literature)

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It was towards the middle of my senior year of high school, just before senioritis took hold and rendered the rest of High School meaningless. We’d just finished covering a novel in AP English – I forget which one it was exactly, but that’s not important, except that it was yet another painfully boring work of literature. The teacher decided it was time to assign term papers – annual exercises in stupidity too narrow in scope and rigid in structure to have any real educational value beyond a lesson in how to bullshit. We were told that we’d be required to write 10,000 words on a randomly assigned topic concerning work of classic literature or its author. This was met with predictable whining by the class, who began calling out alternatives assignments to the paper that would be more interesting and bearable. Most of the suggestions were merely an attempt at work avoidance, but it did produce this exchange, which has stood out in my memory since:

(Paraphrasing a bit)

Student #1: Can I do it on Lord of the Rings? [1]

Teacher: That’s not any of the topics, sorry. Your term paper has to be on a book we’ve read in class.

Student #2: Hey, can we cover Lord of the Rings in class?

(Many others in the class signal their approval of this idea, offering comments like “Yeah can we?” and “That’d be cool”)

Teacher: No, I don’t think so.

Student #2: Why not?

Teacher: It’s not part of the canon. (He may have said “AP Curriculum” rather than canon, unfortunately this was 8 years ago and my memory is fuzzy.)

To recap: students showed a genuine interest in reading and learning a particular work of literature, but the idea was shot down because what they wanted to learn wasn’t on the pre-approved list of things that they’re supposed to learn. This one incident represents most of what’s wrong with our education system, but for this post I plan to dwell on how English class kills literature.

A brief aside:

From the time I was young, I was a voracious reader. I began with Berenstein Bears and progressed through Hardy Boys and Superfudge, which I read too many times to count. My first “real” book was Ender’s Game. I read Jurassic Park, my first “adult” novel, at the age of 11 during the summer before the 6th grade. Though I also liked and had no shortage of video games, TV and movies, I loved reading.

This love of reading was unquestionable right up until 9th grade English Honors (the precursor to 11 & 12th grade AP English courses), when we were assigned to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Attempting to be a good student, I put aside the book I was reading at the time and took up Great Expectations instead. It’s the first book I ever read that I didn’t enjoy reading. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say I hated it – I thought the book was boring and repetitive, the characters were irrational and stupid, and that the plot made little sense. (I’ve since come to appreciate Dickens a little more as an author, but I still don’t feel Great Expectations is one of his better works).

The only thing I learned from reading the novel was that there’s little that can sour a love of reading except for assigned reading. I was immediately annoyed by the fixed “pace” of the assigned reading. Though I was a voracious reader, I was also a sporadic one. Reading X chapters a night just didn’t fit with the way I liked to do it. I also found that there’s just something particularly distasteful about being forced to read a book you don’t like, in a way that doing other schoolwork I didn’t like wasn’t.

On completing Great Expectations, the assigned reading immediately switched to the next “classic” (which one I don’t now recall, though I know I didn’t like it any better), at which point I realized that it just wasn’t going to stop. So I opted for the Cliff’s notes and began doing the bare minimum to get through English class – I realized it was the only way that I’d actually get to read anything I actually wanted to read in the next four years.

The amount of despise that I came to have for “classic literature” shouldn’t be surprising given the basic form the class followed. My four years of high school English and the AP Curriculum were a never ending parade of assigned reading, with absolutely no suggestion of enjoying, exploring, or discovering literature on our own. We’d be given a book and we’d be told to read a couple of chapters a night. In class the next day, we’d be told what the major symbols and themes were, and the names of particular techniques the author might have used. Then we were quizzed on it. We were never really asked to analyze the novel for ourselves or taught how to do it. It was just an exercise in forcing down our throats novels written by authors that a teenager couldn’t relate to, set in times that a teenager couldn’t relate to, and featuring characters that a teenager couldn’t relate to.[2]

The most illustrative example I can recall of how painfully wrong this curriculum was comes in the form of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which I was made to read in the 10th grade. (I gave it an honest effort too – mostly because it was a solid week or two after beginning it in class before I was able to pick up a copy of the Cliff’s notes).

It’s worth giving a little context here. My favorite genre had always been science fiction, and at the time I’d just begun reading for the first time the “classic” science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein, among others. While these works vary considerably in terms of style, setting, plot, thematic elements, and quality, they do share some common elements with each other and with each other and the rest of the science fiction genre. They hold rationality as an ideal. Scientists, or at least scientific thinkers, are the heroes. They create worlds that are drastically different from anything that we’re familiar with, but share a common set of rules with our own – and are internally consistent with whatever deviations there are from those rules. And the characters approach these worlds by using reason to try to make sense of them, thus making them accessible to the characters and reader alike.

Which brings me back to The Scarlet Letter. My primary thought while reading it was as follows: “These people are all fucking idiots”.

I’d already known the puritans were all religious lunatics; I didn’t see why I needed to read a book that did little more than illustrate how stupid and irrational they were. By contrast to those science fiction novels I had been reading, there’s not one character in The Scarlet Letter who acts the slightest bit of logic or reason, or even demonstrate themselves capable of such. How and why the characters behaved the way they did made no intuitive or logical sense to me, and it’s hard to find much enjoyment in a novel where you just want to reach through the page and smack the characters for being stupid.

For contrast, take Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Thought militaristic fascism is just as alien to me as puritanism, and it’s a point of view that I disagree with every bit as vehemently, I was at least made to understand it. The author laid out the reasons the characters behaved and thought the way they did, and through world building, justified the society he was portraying. And because the explanations were fundamentally rational, I could make sense of that world and had a basis for considering (and challenging) the ideas in the book. In fact, Starship Troopers taught me more about fascism than pretty much anything else I’ve ever read, because it’s the only book that forced me to think about it on a higher level than “Hitler is evil!”

I just didn’t get that from The Scarlet Letter though – even if the characters were being rational in the context of their world, it appeared fundamentally irrational to me. I just couldn’t relate to it, and at no point did the author try to help me relate to it by explaining why the characters were acting the way they did in any kind of rational way. He just kind of assumed that puritanism would make sense to us and we could relate to that, even though puritanism itself is more alien to me than any alien culture yet conceived of by a science fiction author. (Just try to imagine Starship Troopers committing the same fallacy – a bunch of characters going about their lives in a fascist society, but without any of the world building Heinlein did that made that society defensible and believable)

This is the great failure of the English curriculum. I can imagine my experience with the novel being quite different had my English teacher done the kind of world-building that Hawthorne didn’t think necessary. (Note that this is different from providing historical context – who and what the puritans were is quite different from why the puritans were that way and how they got there). But my teacher didn’t do this, and I’ve never heard of a High School curriculum that would. Instead, we got a lecture on how the letter “A” was used as a symbol and were given a laundry list of themes. Eventually we were asked to regurgitate that information on a test, and then moved on. If the aim was that we’d understand or appreciate The Scarlet Letter, it failed.

In any case, my real gripe isn’t with this novel or any particular work of literature per se, it’s the way English class essentially tried to herd me away from the stuff I enjoyed reading in favor of stuff that easily could have turned me off to reading altogether (Thankfully, it didn’t). What’s funny is that I now appreciate literature a lot more than I did then – but that’s despite, not because of, English class. The way literature is taught is upside down and backwards, and fosters a dislike of reading rather than a love of it. The idea that students are discouraged from exploring and discovering on their own terms for the love of doing it should horrify educators, yet in in this domain it seems to be the status quo.

The seventh and final novel in the Harry Potter series will be released on Friday night. In an age of Cartoon Network, MySpace, the Nintendo Wii, and a thousand other media options – millions of children will be hanging around book stores on Friday to eagerly get their copy as soon as it goes on sale at midnight. The job of English teachers should be to foster that love of reading, not prematurely (and incompetently) force literature on students to the detriment of reading they’d be doing otherwise.

[1] – For the record, it’s my opinion that The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of literature of the 20th century. It’s every bit as complex, multi-layered, and worthy of study as anything else covered in English class. The books signature flaw seems to be that it’s popular, which lessens its value among stuffy English types who define the “canon”.

[2] – In fairness, it wasn’t all bad. I grew to like Shakespeare – say what you will about the man, but he wasn’t boring. Morte D’Arthur did nothing for me, but it did inspire me to pick up TH White’s Once and Future King. I liked Mark Twain quite a bit. Lord of the Flies and The Call of the Wild weren’t bad either.

Written by Eric

July 20, 2007 at 8:00 am

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident

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When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. —Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Written by Eric

July 4, 2007 at 9:00 am

Posted in Politics

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How the showdown between Bush and Congress will go

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In case anyone is unaware, Congress finally subpoenaed the White House this past week. To no ones surprise, the White House refused to answer them, and now Congress is pledging to use the “full force of law” if necessary.

Since this is no doubt confusing to some, I thought I’d provide a transcript of how this is all likely to go down:

BUSH: ‘Allo. Whoo is eet?

NANCY PELOSI (outside the White House gate): I am Nancy Pelosi and these are the Democrats of the Round Table. Whose castle is this?

BUSH: This is the castle of of my master, Cheney de Dick.

NANCY PELOSI: Please go and tell your master that we have been charged by the American people with a sacred quest, and if he will give us documents and testimony, he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail.

BUSH: Well, I’ll ask him, but I don’t think he’ll be very keen. He’s already got one, you see?

NANCY PELOSI: What?

HARRY REID: He says they’ve already got one!

NANCY PELOSI: Are you sure he’s got one?

BUSH: Oh yes. It’s very nice

NANCY PELOSI: Well … can we come up and have a look?

BUSH: Of course not! You are American pigs.

NANCY PELOSI: Well, what are you then?

BUSH: I’m French. Why do think I have this outrageous accent, you silly speaker of the house.

NANCY PELOSI: What are you doing in America?

BUSH: Mind your own business.

NANCY PELOSI: If you will not show us the documents we shall storm your castle.

BUSH: You don’t frighten us, American pig-dog! Go and boil your bottoms, son of a silly person. I blow my nose on you, so-called Nancy-Speaker, you and your silly American Kah-nogress.

Bush blows rasberry

HARRY REID: What a strange person.

NANCY PELOSI: Now look here, my good man!

BUSH: I don’t want to talk to you, no more, you empty-headed animal, food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.

HARRY REID: Is there someone else up there we could talk to?

BUSH: No. Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time.

NANCY PELOSI: Now this is your last chance. I’ve been more than reasonab…

Cut away to the interior of the White House, where a cow is being led through the hall.

Cut back to Nancy Pelosi.

NANCY PELOSI: Now that is my final offer. If you are not prepared to agree to my demands I shall be forced to take … Oh Christ!

The cow comes flying over the gate, The cow lands on a congressional, squashing him completely.

HARRY REID: What a cruel thing to do.

NANCY PELOSI: Right! Congressmen! Forward!

NANCY PELOSI leads a charge toward the castle. They battle on as they’re hit by more farm animals.

NANCY PELOSI (as the MAN next to her is squashed by a sheep): Run away! Run away!

Written by Eric

July 1, 2007 at 11:23 am

Posted in Politics

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