Saturday, February 2, 2013

Natural’s Not In It

Thanks to Klintron over at Technoccult for cluing me into this article and book!

image by banksy
How do you make a food fad appeal to libertarians? Invoke human nature.
Every dietary preference has its corresponding political stereotype. Vegans are to Ralph Nader as meat-and-potatoes types are to Dubya. Artisanal pickle-loving hipsters gravitate towards the Obamas, and anti-soda activists have a friend in Mike Bloomberg, at least for now. Omnivores, though seemingly agnostic, are split into two camps: those who will truly eat anything, and those who will eat anything so long as it contains organic ingredients their grandmother could pronounce.
 Then there are those who are concerned not with their grandmother, but their great-great-grandmother’s ancestral state of nature. Where does the Paleo diet fit in the politico-foodie spectrum?
Proponents of the Paleo, or Caveman, diet believe that to achieve optimal health, we ought to subsist off of foods that were available to our Pleistocene-era forebears. The Paleo philosophy rests on the notion that humans adapted to vastly different circumstances than the ones they live under today — that before the relatively recent shift to an agriculture, industry- and internet-based society, we lived for millennia as hunter-gatherers, and did so without the current very high levels of cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. For Paleos, the primal lifestyle is our true state of nature — our blueprint, as one advocate puts it — and we must mimic it as best we can.
In practical terms, living like a caveman typically means shunning all sugar, save a dab of  (raw) honey or an occasional piece of fruit, and banishing grains and beans in favor of vegetables, meat, fish, and poultry. White potatoes aren’t recommended, but yams are fine and dietary fats, including the maligned saturated kind, are upheld as the holy grail of nutrition. Milk is high on the Paleo blacklist, but butter, on the other hand, is encouraged. Nuts are acceptable, but don’t even think about peanuts — they’re actually legumes. Bacon occupies a sacred space on the plate of the Paleo dieter.
The trend is, for the most part, food-based, though the principles are sometimes applied to childbirth and parenting, exercise and fitness, and mental and emotional health. Some Paleo acolytes forgo shampoo; others complain about the “unnaturalness” of antibiotics, hormonal birth control, or monogamy. Judging from various Paleo forums online, homeschooling is fairly popular, as are hairy men, eating with one’s hands, and exercise that mimics the Primal life: running barefoot (or with fancy five-fingered shoes); lifting heavy rocks; avoiding “chronic cardio,” also known as distance running; and practicing sprints, even in the absence of pre-historic leopards.
Grok, a 30-year-old hunter-gatherer, is upheld by, a leading Paleo site, as a Paleo a role model. Grok, a caveman composite, is “simultaneously his own person/personality (incidentally male) and an inclusive, non-gendered representative of all our beloved primal ancestors.” He’s “a likeable fellow” who has a “strong, resourceful wife and two healthy children.” By modern standards, Grok “would be the pinnacle of physiological vigor . . . a tall, strapping man: lean, ripped, agile, even big-brained (by modern comparison)” with “low/no systemic inflammation, low insulin and blood glucose readings, healthy (i.e. ideally functional) cholesterol and triglyceride levels.”
Grok is healthy because he has relatively low stress levels and subsists on what nature designed him to eat: “Wild seeds, grasses, and indigenous nut varieties,” seasonal vegetables, roots, berries, meats and fish, small animals, and big game. Chasing animals made him a “solid, nimble sprinter”; foraging gave him “impressive physical endurance” and lifting beasts made him “tough and burly.”
Given the semi-mythical position of imaginary Groks in the Paleo world, it’s easy to accuse the modern cavemen of inconsistencies. How prehistoric is it to be living in condos, ordering grass-fed steaks from FreshDirect, enjoying heat and hot water, and sharing recipes online? The irony is not lost on Paleo advocates themselves — and, to be fair, if they shed their clothes and took to the woods they’d only be mocked the more for it. Charges of hypocrisy, however amusing, are facile. Paleo is an improvement on a diet of processed, sugary junk. It’s not the first diet to banish starches, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, by any other name, the Paleo diet would be just that — a diet.
But more substantial problems lurk in the reasoning behind Paleo principles. By assuming that all that was once natural is now good, militant Paleo leans on biological determinism to back up its theories. While it may not advocate for a complete reversion to cave-dwelling, it accepts that we evolved in a certain way to do certain things and not others, and that advances in technology, civilization, and culture can do little to change that. This logic, however seductive, is incomplete. You can’t get an ought from a was.
There’s evidence that the “was” is vastly oversimplified, too. Marlene Zuk, a biologist at U.C. Riverside, appraises  the Paleo lifestyle in Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live (Norton, March 2013). Zuk notes that even if the good old days were, in fact, good, there was no singular primal lifestyle or even period for us to mimic. And while it’s true that humans existed for hundreds of thousands of years before forming societies around agriculture, that doesn’t mean we’ve been wholly unable to adapt to the so-called ravages of modern life. Rather, the time that has passed since the shift towards agriculture — about 9,000 years, though estimates can vary — has provided our bodies with ample time to adapt to diets that include grains and dairy. “What we are able to eat and thrive on depends on our more than 30 million years of history as primates,” writes Zuk, “not on a single arbitrarily more recent moment in time.”
A key example of this kind of adaptation can be found in our ability to consume dairy. A great many people in the world cannot digest milk, but there are nonetheless some lactose “persistent” individuals who can. Their ability to do so, writes Zuck, is a result of lactose persistence being passed along through natural selection. “People able to drink milk without gastrointestinal disturbance passed on their genes at a higher rate than did the lactose-intolerant, and the gene for lactase persistence spread quickly in Europe,” Zuk writes, citing research that suggests this took place over just 7,000 years — “the blink of an evolutionary eye.” What this shows is that humans can adapt over the course of a few thousand years to better absorb whatever nutrition is readily available to them — on a farm, for instance, or in a herding society.
Human adaptability doesn’t end there, though. When the genes aren’t passed on, other bodily functions step in: One example is the gut bacteria found in some Somalis that aided in their digestion of dairy, even though they lacked the gene normally associated with lactose persistence. And when all else fails, civilization comes in and ferments the milk to create yogurt or cheese — more easily digestible forms of dairy — that a greater number of people can consume. We even thought of Lactaid — lactose persistence in pill form.
Illustrations like these help Zuk undermine the Paleo assumption that we are not made for these times. “Consumption of dairy exquisitely illustrates the ongoing nature of evolution, in humans as in other living things,” she writes. “Our ancestors had different diets, and almost certainly different gut flora, than we have. We continue to evolve with our internal menagerie of microorganisms just as we did with our cattle, and they with us.”
That isn’t to say we’ve adapted perfectly — but according to Zuk, the idea of being perfectly adapted to any environment is a myth unto itself: “Paleofantasies call to mind a time when everything about us — body, mind, and behavior — was in sync with the environment…but no such time existed. We and every other living thing have always lurched along in evolutionary time, with the inevitable trade-offs that are a hallmark of life.”

Friday, February 1, 2013

Meet the One-Handed Man Behind America’s Most Dangerous Mail-Order Kits

Posted on  by Klint Finley over at

I've been a big fan of this guy since I was a kid and found his mail order catalog, along with Loompanics Unlimited, lying around in the dusty recesses of my father's bookstore.
Tesla coils
From Wired:
Meet America’s mad professor. For nearly 40 years Bob Iannini, founder of Information Unlimited, has been mail-order mentor and parts supplier to electronics hobbyists willing to take on some of the most dangerous DIY projects in the world.
Need kits, plans or supplies for a Tesla coil? Pick a size — Information Unlimited carries itty bitty 2-foot science-project-type Tesla coils, all the way up to terrifying 6.5-foot, 2-million-volt monstrosities. More practical consumers can pick up laser components, bug zappers and high-voltage transformers and switches. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, Iannini offers a massive EMP blaster gun kit capable of disrupting electronics or igniting explosive fuels with a radiating electromagnetic pulse — a pre-assembled unit will set you back just $32,000