Sunday, March 28, 2010

Week 13: Grizzlies

Distribution Source:
Content Source: Exhibition Wild
Format: Video
Length: 45 minutes, 57 seconds
Link: 800 Pound Best Friend

Earlier today I came across the story of Casey Anderson, a man who apparently is "best friends" with a grizzly bear. The two spend time with each other daily, and the bear - perhaps ominously named Brutus - was Casey's best man and attended his recent wedding (you can find the wedding picture here). Brutus stands 7 ft. 8 in. and weighs over 800 pounds - and is still only an adolescent. This alone seemed ridiculous enough to merit further research.

I quickly confirmed that Casey was not the same person as Timothy Treadwell, the ill-fated "Grizzly Man" notorious for approaching and even touching wild bears in their native habitat. Unfortunately, he and his girlfriend were mauled to death and partially eaten by at least one grizzly in Alaska in 2003. So given this gory tragedy, why would Casey - a naturalist trained to know and understand the serious risks posed by grizzlies - befriend what I consider to be one of the most awe-inspiring and terrifying animals on the planet?

The story begins with young bearcub Brutus, who was born on an overpopulated wildlife preserve. He was therefore likely to be euthanized - there simply wasn't enough room for more grizzlies. So Casey saved Brutus by creating a bear sanctuary in Montana, and has raised him ever since. As Casey describes it, the difference between his story and Timothy's is simple: he would never come close to wild grizzlies. Brutus has grown up with Casey and recognizes him as his keeper and source of food. The cool part about having a large, well-trained grizzly bear (he can even give high fives) is that Casey can measure things like strength, speed and agility without having to risk an encounter with a wild grizzly. (He stays at least 100 yards away when tracking wild grizzlies.) In my opinion it is still outrageous to continually put yourself in such close contact with a grizzly bear, albeit a domesticated one. He is, however, using Brutus to educate people about grizzlies and more broadly about the impact of humans on the natural habitats of wildlife.

One look at the statistics on these animals is enough to send you running in the opposite direction... Not that you'd get away - grizzlies can in three strides reach a speed of 40 mph, equal to the speed of a race horse. Their sense of smell is seven times stronger than that of a bloodhound. Wild grizzlies have claws up to four inches long, to go along with dinner-plate sized paws. They have to eat 20,000 calories per day to sustain themselves. And the most incredible statistic? Grizzlies have a bite force of 1,200 pounds per square inch, enough to crush a bowling ball. Yes, a bowling ball. Ouch.

Apparently there used to be 100,000 grizzlies throughout North America. After decades of hunting and habitat destruction, only 1,500 grizzlies remain in the lower 48 states, of which 600 live in Yellowstone National Park. While still at very low levels, this is better than the all-time low of 200 bears in Yellowstone during the 1970s. At the time, bears had taken to eating from garbage dumps, which quickly became one of their primary food sources. The authorities subsequently decided to remove the garbage dumps. Ill-equipped to fend for themselves, the bears became more aggressive and human-bear incidents increased, resulting in the euthanization or removal of 200 grizzlies. Since the 1970s, the bears have returned to their natural food sources: roots, bulbs, rodents, leftover carcasses, salmon and other fish, and millions and millions of moths. One bear eats up to 40,000 miller moths in one day.

While it is certainly positive that the number of Yellowstone grizzlies has increased, and also that grizzlies are eating more moths and fewer Doritos, major issues concerning the survival of Yellowstone grizzlies remain. For bears, Yellowstone is basically an ecological island. Due to roads, human dwellings, and cattle ranches, the Yellowstone grizzly population continues to be separated from populations in Montana and Canada. As a result, the Yellowstone population is highly susceptible to changes to the environment. In particular, recent changes in climate seem to be affecting the migration of moths to the Yellowstone area. For grizzlies who return from hibernation to the same feeding areas year after year, the shock of removing a major food source could have very serious ramifications to the population.

As far as takeaways from this week's topic, I don't really have a profound message. If anything, I think the Yellowstone grizzly example reminds us of the impact exogenous forces can have on any kind of local environment. Grizzlies are fascinating, solitary, powerful creatures. While I don't necessarily want to raise one from birth, I will be rooting for their ongoing comeback.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Week 12: Why we eat more than we should

Distribution Source: CornellCast
Content Source: Cornell University/Professor Brian Wansink
Format: Video
Length: 1 hour, 18 minutes, 43 seconds
Link: Mindless Eating

In honor of my alma mater's historic win today over Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament, I decided to choose a video from Cornell's free collection of audio and video lectures. This week is focused on a fascinating talk by Professor Brian Wansink based on the findings chronicled in his book, Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. This topic is of recent interest thanks to numerous cues in my life focused on the issue of food, weight and health. Whether it was my girlfriend watching tonight's kick-off episode of Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" (a push to make Americans less fat), my co-worker's refusal to eat at 90% of restaurants around the office following a viewing of "Food, Inc.", or witnessing the intensity/insanity of a two-month extreme nutrition program undertaken recently by a good friend, it is clear to me that people care about food. More specifically, people care about how food relates to health (or lack of health).

The bottom line is perhaps unsurprising: we Americans eat with our eyes, not with our (abnormally large) stomachs. We often don't know when we are full, why we are eating, or how much we should be eating. I saw more than a little irony when, over the course of the hour-long lecture, I realized I had eaten a small plate of leftovers, about 8 baby carrots (healthy, right?), and chips with bean dip. And it's not like I was hungry - I had a massive Qdoba taco salad just two hours ago. So why are we - and why was I - doing this?

First, because the stomach is not a good or timely indicator of how much (or what) we should be eating, we look to external cues to guide our rationing process. For instance, we add to our plate or glass until it is full. That is, containers instruct our serving-size choices. Alternatively, we look around us and do what other people do. If they are munching on popcorn at the theater then by God, so will I! Case in point: 150 Chicago natives were asked how they knew they were full; their top three responses were "when my plate is empty", "when everyone else is through," and, no joke, "when the TV show I was watching ended." Contrast this with an identical survey of 150 Parisians: "when I feel full", "when the food no longer tastes good to me," and "when the food is cold." You draw your conclusions on this one, folks.

Professor Wansink outlined three food and eating myths: that bowl size does not instruct serving size, that we know when we are full, and that we know what food we like to eat. It is not that unusual to conclude that a bigger plate leads to larger portions. However the professor takes this a step further - he selected 60 graduate students and lectured them for 90 minutes EXCLUSIVELY on how larger serving sizes are a result of bigger containers. In a covert test following this direct and comprehensive education, those grad students with bigger bowls nevertheless ate 53% more than their counterparts. Similarly, he demonstrated that on average people pour 77% more on short, wide glasses than on narrow, tall glasses with the same volume. He did this test with many bartenders, with the exact same results. We pour to fill up the glass - that is our cue, not the objective measure of what portion should be consumed. (Note to self: check for short, wide bar glasses before ordering a whiskey on the rocks.)

As for the "we know when we are full" myth, Professor Wansink conducted a study in which he created a "bottomless" soup bowl that unbeknownst to the subject slowly re-filled his or her bowl. First, and most interesting to me, was that only 2 of 160 actually noticed that the bowl was not becoming less full as soup consumption was quite obviously taking place. Second, after 20 minutes, those with the bottomless soup bowl had eaten 77% more than those with regular bowls and reported IDENTICAL feelings of hunger. In other words, after eating almost twice as much food, they claimed to feel the same as those who had eaten far less!

His point with the "I know what I like" myth is that our tastes are in fact quite suggestable. In one study, he put chocolate syrup into vanilla yogurt and packaged it with a picture of a strawberry on it. All of his subjects readily accepted and spoke to the "strong strawberry yogurt flavors" in the chocolate yogurt. Similarly, at a mock restaurant he served 2 Buck Chuck (a horrendous, cheap wine good for only two things: getting you drunk and giving you a hangover) disguised as either a "California Cabernet" or a "North Dakota Cabernet." The descriptive cues and associated expectation of the California Cabernet resulted in a dramatic difference in results: California drinkers ate more, ate longer, gave the meal better ratings, and said they were more likely to come back than the North Dakota drinkers. Across many studies he has shown that by raising expectations, people actually believe things taste better. Put simply, adding candles and nice plates WILL make your date think you're a better cook (assuming of course that you don't serve her raw chicken).

So how to correct these sneaky overeating cues and impulses? If you think his solution is to get a gym membership, think again. He found that on average, most people gained a few pounds after starting an exercise program. This was not because people were building muscle - rather it was due to calorie compensation. People felt deserving of further indulgences as a result of working out, and consistently overestimated the number of calories they burned. On average people ate 28% more than they did before their work-out programs, but only burned 18% more calories!

He did, however recommend changing your environment, which he claims is much easier than changing your behavior. In other words, get rid of your short/wide glasses and buy smaller bowls. Alternatively, move your chocolate a few feet away rather than keeping it right in front of you and relying on your ability to say "no" fifty times without indulging. He also recommended against eating family style meals, and suggested putting serving bowls in the kitchen as opposed to on the table.

Will I change anything now that I learned more about the duplicitous nature of food consumption psychology? Probably not, but you should.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Week 11: What do Magic Johnson and a Paraglider Have in Common?

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: Open University
Format: Audio
Length: 54 minutes

This week's post focuses on a series of interviews with athletes conducted by Open University, a web-based learning center. I listened to six short interviews with athletes representing a variety of sports, including: a marathon runner, a paraglider, a judo practitioner, a fencer, a cyclist and a soccer player. The athletes focused primarily on a few themes: motivation, coaching, performance and nutrition. In general, they discussed the body as an engine and articulated how (and why) they go to such lengths to prepare for competition.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the reminder of how driven serious athletes have to be. The opportunity cost of what they do is astounding. Mental and physical preparation consumes almost every aspect of their lives. This is even more impressive when you consider that the marginal return of such training by definition has to be diminishing. In other words, there is the "best" you can ever be, and it takes increasingly more hours to move the needle from, say, 98% to 99% of your best.

So why do they do it? While the interviewees included Olympians and rising stars, none of them have been made wealthy by their sport. Indeed, they have spent large sums of money and countless hours on training. This dispassionate view of course ignores what is arguably the most important motivator: a love for the sport. I was in a book store today and flipped through Magic Johnson's autobiography; in it, he discusses how much he loved being with many women. However, he was clear that his love for basketball eclipsed even this intense love for women. As a rule, he would not have sex before any game, and would not invite women to his hotel room if he had a game the following day. Most athletes probably don't have to worry about turning down hundreds of women on the day of competition, but the point remains: sacrifice is crucial. In Magic's case, sacrificing women was a necessary part of his preparation; the young fencer described sacrificing her social life, the paraglider has sacrificed a substantial portion of his discretionary income to purchase equipment, and in the judo athlete's case most agonizing has been sacrificing "crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks."

In addition to sharing an intense love and dedication for their sport, the athletes interviewed all initially competed in many sports before settling on the "one." To me, this seems to suggest, like dedication, an inherent competitive trait of these athletes. Another striking point was the way in which these athletes framed competition. Of course, competition took place in races and matches, but these athletes were arguably more focused on internal competition (with themselves) than on external competition. They unanimously claimed to draw the most satisfaction from improving technique, learning new strategies, and strengthening weaknesses. I guess at the elite level this makes sense - if you get to your best physically and enter a competition with the right mental framework, what else can you do? At that point, the chips fall where they fall...

The issue of coaching was also focused on - in short, the conclusion was that coaching matters. Immensely. As I type this, the girl's basketball team of my high school is taking the court to play for the state championship. They are coached by my former classmate, who scored more points than anyone in our school's history and went on to play college basketball for four years. I have no doubt she has played an integral role in this success story. According to the interviewed athletes, the key for good coaching is to help athletes identify and travel the proper path to their stated goals. A coach first and foremost must have a scientific knowledge of the sport, but must also have the empathy with the athlete to coax her (or him) to where she needs to be mentally and physically. As the elder Olympic cyclist, now a coach, put it: "Psychology is huge. Just a word can ruin everything. Preparation on the day of the event has to be clinical. The impact of a proper diet is immeasurable." I couldn't agree more.

The same elder cyclist pointed out how far the science of elite athletics has come in the past few decades - as a young rider for the British national team, coaches advised him to eat a piece of beefsteak every day for breakfast (which takes three days to digest fully). They also recommended not hydrating during competitions, on the logic that a "drying out" period is good for you. This reminds me of my grandfather advising my father to breathe through his nose while running the mile for his high school track team. While given with the best of intentions, this advice is very clearly not ideal for peak athletic performance.

One lesson here is that in spite of obvious advancements in science, conventional wisdom should be questioned. If eating beefsteak makes you constipated, maybe you should respectfully tell your coaches that it is not something you'd like to eat going forward... Another lesson is that great success is very rarely an accident. In sports and perhaps in life, it takes a motivated, talented person with a dedicated, experienced team to inspire results at the highest level.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Week 10: How Marijuana Became Illegal

Distribution Source: YouTube
Content Source: The History Channel
Format: Video
Length: 42 minutes and 40 seconds
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

I'm not sure how Maryland public schools stack up against other states (and countries) in terms of drug education courses, but I distinctly remember mine. We had an austere state trooper named Trooper Hamby come to our sixth grade science class and lead a course called DARE - Drug Abuse Resistance Education. We were taught, basically, that doing any kind of drug would result in either going to jail or dying. The approach was very clearly to scare the hell out of us. We were taught about all drugs, but I remember them focusing specifically on marijuana. In particular, we learned that it was an addictive drug that also served as a "gateway" to all the other, more deadly drugs.

It's clear that America has a certain fascination with marijuana: from its place as the counter-culture drug of choice (perhaps shared with LSD) to Bill Clinton's infamous "I didn't inhale" nonsense, it has always garnered attention. More recently, states have begun decriminalizing it, and given the recent recession, a discussion of legalizing and taxing the drug has gained more support. While still illegal nationally, fourteen states have decriminalized marijuana. (Click here to see how your state stacks up...) Putting aside the politics of the issue, the facts are astounding: 20 million Americans have been arrested, convicted and incarcerated for using marijuana. As of 2006, 44% of all drug arrests are related to marijuana. So how did marijuana become illegal, anyway? And why?

To answer this question, we should start with the understanding that marijuana was not illegal in the United States until 1937. While marijuana had a long medicinal, functional (the word "canvas" comes from cannabis), and of course recreational history in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the drug did not come to the US until the World Fair of 1876. The sultan from Turkey introduced the drug at his booth, leading to perhaps the largest bakeout until Woodstock in 1969.

Following the expo, pot became more popular in the US. However it wasn't until 1920, when alcohol was outlawed, that marijuana's popularity took off. Indeed, it was the only legal recreational drug in the country. In particular, the drug became linked with the New Orleans culture of jazz and partying. It didn't take long for politicians to pay attention to the drug, and they soon began to blame the general chaos of the city - as well as its high violence rate - on marijuana. It was also a way to target the black population in the city. By 1924, Louisiana and fourteen other states had banned marijuana for non-medicinal purposes.

Each state had come up with different reasons for the ban - in the same way that Louisiana used the laws as a way to target blacks, the southwestern states used the laws to target Mexicans. By the early 1930s the Great Depression had set in, and with whites in breadlines, the surplus (Mexican) cheap labor was not at all appreciated by politicians. Following the 1931 Mexican Repatriation, the marijuana laws in these states became very strict. Possession of one joint could result in a life prison sentence, but more likely would result in a deportation.

The repeal of prohibition in 1934 placed pot squarely in the focus of authorities. Harry Anslinger, a senior prohibition official, was appointed as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The organization had previously focused on cocaine and heroine, but under Anslinger the focus came to marijuana. The southwestern states pushed Ansliger for a nationwide ban on marijuana, and eventually he took his case - that pot caused rampant sex and murder - to Congress. With strong support from states with immigrant and minority "problems", Anslinger's proposed legislation passed in 1937. At the time, it was believed that an outright law banning marijuana was unconstitutional. As a result, the law dictated that a "marijuana stamp" was necessary to possess pot legally. Conveniently, extremely few stamps were created. Furthermore, one needed the drug in possession to obtain a stamp... of course, this possession was already illegal, by the very same law!

Following the law's passage, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created a commission to study the affects of marijuana. The LaGuardia Commission released its findings four years later, and based on extensive research claimed that marijuana was significantly less damaging than suggested by Anslinger. However the law stuck. It wasn't until the 1960s that the constitutionality of the 1937 law was questioned, on the grounds that one could not adhere to the law without breaking it.

The Supreme Court overturned the law, but in 1970 the Controlled Substances Act passed, banning the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of a series of substances (including marijuana). This law came at a very divided time politically, and is considered by many to be a direct response to the "hippie" and anti-war movement. Not only did the law expand the nature of the nation's drug laws, it increased dramatically the federal government's policing powers. Similar to the LaGuardia Commission in the early 1940s, the Shafer Commission concluded soon after the law's passage that with respect to marijuana the law was unusually harsh and the punishments did not seem to be aligned with the crimes. Among other things, the CSA listed marijuana as a "Schedule 1" drug with LSD and heroin, and prevented doctors from prescribing the drug.

As we all know, today marijuana continues to be illegal in the United States. The Controlled Substances Act has been the basic framework for US drug policy for the last four decades. Without getting into a discussion of how things should be, there is a broader lesson to be learned from this case study. It is a lesson of how politics, and how the underlying societal forces that dictate the political discourse, drive the laws under which we live. It's clear from my research this week that cultural divides and extreme misperceptions about the effects of marijuana were what initially drove the passage of legislation against it. This is not to say marijuana should or shouldn't be illegal - the point is that objective and scientific study were not the basis of the legislative process. This reinforces to me the importance of observing - and thinking critically about - the political process, and how and why conclusions are reached.