08.27.12

Could Obama-care cure obesity?

Posted in Society at 21:16 by RjZ

Is obesity the government’s problem? Debaters during a recent Intelligence2 US faced off over this topic. Those for the motion suggesting that the government is responsible and needs to, among other things, build more parks; while their opponents, including Paul Campos (of University of Colorado, Boulder), suggest that obesity is a myth altogether and that maybe we should stop accusing people of it if we really don’t want them to feel bad.

Just looking around during my travels, I can’t believe that obesity is only a problem of body types. Overweight appearing people are more common in some states than others and, judging by airplane seats, some countries have less of a problem than others too. Something must be going on and the government, through subsidies that have dramatically effected our food chain might well be culpable. The thing is, what could the government do about it?

Is education really the answer? Well, we’ve tried that before, with, for example, smoking, and it rarely moves the needle much in terms of public behavior. Rachel Herz’s book That’s Disgusting may have an answer.

Herz’s book surprises us by revealing that the complex emotion of disgust is learned, not innate. Little children aren’t the least bit disgusted by mud pies and their own poo, and, it turns out, the older we get, the less often we’re disgusted as well. Disgust is socially acquired and it helps shape our behavior in everything from what foods to avoid to which laws not to break.

Smokers continued smoking long after they learned how bad it was for them. American society is especially individualistic and thus, few of us care about what someone does of their own volition. If education did little to stop smoking, what finally changed people’s habits? Once it became known that second-hand smoke might be harming your baby, it became difficult to avoid accusing looks from others as you pushed the carriage, cigarette in hand. When the health risks of smoking became a social problem, opinions started to change. Disgust is social—when the group impact of smoking was seen not in its individual effects, but in a broader, you’re-killing-the-bartender, way it began to lose its coolness and smoking has certainly decreased dramatically.

Stigmatizing over-weight people has done little to lower shrink our waste bands. Of course, we haven’t yet closed the circle on obesity. Obesity is, of course, linked to a range of health problems later in life, but here we are, an individualistic society, and, well, that’s that individual fat-guy’s problem!

I don’t believe that obesity is the government’s business, but it’s quite likely that many will start disagreeing with me once the Affordable Health Care Act (Obama-care) is in full swing. Suddenly, that fat guy’s later-in-life health problems are my problems. They’re costing me money! The stigma of obesity could suddenly become real enough to effect change. Could this be an unintended (and positive) side-effect of Obama-care?

I believe it could, but there are a few problems. First, we can readily stigmatize smokers because, addicted as they may have become, it was, and still remains, their choice (even if a difficult one) to smoke. Obesity is sometimes a choice and sometimes genetics, and we barely know enough about why, let alone who is just eating too much of the wrong foods, and who has a much tougher battle that diet alone will not solve. It seems a bit callous, and hardly helpful, to sneer at every fat person for wasting our money if there is no fault to be found. Thus, some will get a free ride, living an unhealthy lifestyle free of disgusted looks from others because we can’t yet know if they’re “to blame” or not.

Sadly, perhaps we won’t have such an easy solution to a growing, (weak pun intended) problem. But while the government is busy trying to make obesity its business, maybe our money would be better spent removing and rationalizing the food and farm subsidies which have made so many empty calories so inexpensive to produce. If it’s not one set of unintended consequences, it’s another. Let’s fix one problem before adding some more.

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08.10.12

Math is beautiful, or just learning to think

Posted in Society at 19:36 by RjZ

The other day I got the chance to tutor my niece. She needed some algebra help; solving equations with exponents. I actually don’t think she really needed much help; what she needed was a chance to concentrate. I could hear her little brother bouncing around the room and vying for her attention and even her father was trying to facilitate the phone call. All this distraction seemed to make her want, most of all, was just to get this over with, and who can blame her?

I was pretty glad about one question she didn’t ask though. At no point did she raise the classic teenage reaction to troublesome mathematics, namely “when am I gonna use this stuff anyway?” It’s a fair question, actually. How often have you had to simplify equations of the sort x3y-2/x5y4? Note: hers were much more daunting than this! Working with exponents beyond knowing approximately what they are, isn’t something we have to do much in order to be sure our bank balance right, and I bet you just trust the bank’s computers to do that nowadays. Who balances a check book, or even uses checks, any more?

What high school teachers and parents alike fail to mention (and this too is understandable since not many students would likely listen) is that you learn this stuff not for the content alone, but rather to sharpen your brain and learn how to think. To learn that with some quiet contemplation and concentration, you too, can do it. Learning how to think is as much of the battle as studying algebra.

“I’m never gonna be a rocket scientist!” is another argument a teenager might make against annoying homework. Problem is, that’s today. Tomorrow, things might change and only by being exposed to this broad range of thought and experience can you reliably choose just what moves you. There is more than one reason most of us don’t end up becoming what we thought we’d be when we were 10 years old. It might not have been realistic to plan on being an astronaut or astronomer (which was certainly my plan). But even if it were, learning a wide enough range of things gives you the chance to realize that maybe you really want to be a ceramicist, neuroscientist, accountant, fireman, or teacher instead.

I’d already given up on the astronomer plan by the time I chose physics in college. Today, my degree mostly just makes people go “oooo, sounds hard” but I don’t use it very often either. Still, I’ll never forget the moment in my electro-magnetism class when we finally arrived at an equation that related two mundane natural constants for electricity and magnetism to…wait for it…the speed of light ( c2 = 1/(ε0μ0, in case you’re wondering). I was floored. I felt like Maxwell himself. How could the speed of light suddenly fall out of equations dealing with things like Ohm’s law for resistance. One minute we’re talking about capacitors and resistors and the next the speed of light is on the board. Sometimes the seeing the beauty in art is an inspiration. Other times, it’s the beauty of an equation. If you never got the hang of math, I can tell you, you’re missing out. (stop your snickering!) Hopefully, at least you gave it a fair try.

My niece resisted the typical teenager temptations, and I’ll call that a victory, even if she’s still having trouble with algebra right now (if you read this, feel free to call and ask for more help!) Loads of things give us trouble and that too is a lesson. Math may end up coming easier to her with time, or it may not, but learning your limits isn’t a bad thing either. Following your strengths is often a great path to happiness, and it works better if you have an idea what you’re actually good at. You can only know that if you keep trying at a bunch of things. And sometimes just letting your brain work on something in silence is enough for all that magic to happen.

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