The paradox of Europe’s high-fat, low heart-disease diets

I am always fascinated by the way science occasionally comes up with ‘insoluble questions’ or ‘paradoxes’. After a while, these tricky queries go away because, it turns out, everybody was barking up a tree to which they had been led by an expert whose ideas had captured peer and public attention.

The Rue de Lafayette one night in 2004

Photo I took of the Rue de Lafayette in central Paris. I scoffed as much high-fat French cuisine as I could get down this boulevard. And it was delicious.

The big one, these days, is the link between high cholesterol and heart disease.  This has been dogma for decades. After the Second World War, US scientists theorised that saturated fats contributed to high cholesterol, hence clogged arteries, and therefore caused heart disease. The idea was enshrined in a US Department of Agriculture guideline in 1980.

Low fat, it seemed, was the way ahead – and it was embraced by the food industry in the US, followed by large parts of the rest of the western world.

Except Europe. They didn’t much change – and traditional French, German and Italian cuisine is awash with saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods. Yet they suffer less heart disease and are less obese than Americans. What’s more, since 1980 obesity has become a major issue in the United States and other countries that have followed the US low-fat lead, such as New Zealand.

A paradox! Something science can’t explain. Or is it?

The problem is that research often tests only what can be funded, something often framed by commercial priorities. This framework is further shaped by one of the philosophical flaws of western rational thinking; the notion that complex questions can be eventually reduced to single-cause questions and answers.

Reality is far less co-operative. The real world isn’t black-and-white. It’s not even shades of grey. It’s filled with mathematically complex systems that can sometimes settle into states of meta-stability, or which appear to present superficial patterns to initial human observation. An observation framed by the innate human tendency to see patterns in the first instance.

For me, from my philosophical perspective, it’s intriguing that recent research suggests that the link between saturated fat and ischemic (blood-flow related) heart disease is more tenuous than thought. Certainly it’s been well accepted – and was, even fifty years ago when the low-fat message was being developed – that types of cholesterol are utterly vital. If you had none at all in your system, you’d die, because it plays a crucial role in human biochemistry on a number of levels. Cholesterol even makes it possible for you to synthesise Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. It’s one of the things humans can produce – your liver actually makes it, for these reasons.

As I understand it, recent studies suggest that the effort to diagnose and fix the problem of ‘heart attacks’ based on a simplistic mid-twentieth century premise – something picked up by much of western society as dogma – has been one of the factors implicated in a new epidemic of health problems. There is evidence that the current epidemic of diabetes (especially Type 2) and other diseases is one symptom of the way carbohydrates were substituted for fatty foods a generation ago, and of the way food manufacturers also compensated for a reduction in saturated fats by adding sugar or artificial sweeteners. Use of corn syrup in the US, for example, is up by 198 percent on 1970 figures.

I’m not a medical doctor. And from the scientific perspective all this demands testing. But the intellectual mechanisms behind this picture seem obvious to me from the principles of logic and philosophy – I learned the latter, incidentally, at post-grad level from Peter Munz, one of only two students of both Karl Popper (the inventor of modern scientific method) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (who theorised that language distorts understanding). I am in no doubt that language alone cannot convey pure concept; and I think the onus is on us to extend our understanding through careful reason – which includes being reasonable.

What am I getting at? Start with a premise and an if-then chain of reasoning, and you can build a compelling argument that is watertight of itself – but it doesn’t mean the answer is right. Data may be incomplete; or the interplay of possibilities may not be fully considered.

What follows? A human failing – self-evident smugness, pride in the ‘discovery’, followed by over-compensation that reverses the old thinking without properly considering the lateral issues. Why? Because very few people are equipped to think ‘sideways’, and scientists aren’t exceptions.

Which would be fine if it was confined to academic papers. But it isn’t. Is it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Remembering the wars that never ended

The New Zealand Wars were fought over a generation from 1845 until the early 1870s. Despite the tendency to pin their closing curtain on the last pot-shots fired after the fleeing terror leader Te Kooti A Rikirangi Te Turuki in 1872, reality was not so sharp.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my latest book on the New Zealand Wars.

New Zealand of the early 1870s was in a state of turbulent peace. The war in the Waikato of 1863-64 had been a sharp British victory against the Waikato/King Country from a military perspective – but had not been pursued to a final conclusion. The reasons were largely political and economic. Wars were expensive. In order to attack and defeat around 2000 Maori toa (warriors), the British had deployed 10,000 men of their best regiments, gunboats, artillery, naval forces and marines. From the perspective of the Imperial government in London, New Zealand was a sideline. By late 1864 they had taken the declared territory. Maori were unwilling to continue fighting; and even at the height of their Imperial power, the British did not fight wars of annihilation. And so both peoples stood aside.

But they were not at peace, and that was as true in the early 1870s as it had been a decade earlier – even though the separate brush-fire wars of Te Kooti and Titokowaru had essentially ended by then. That was why Matamata resident Josiah Firth built a concrete tower on his property. Today, we know the wars were over. At the time, Firth didn’t.

What happened? My take on it is that Maori switched the focus of combat from the battlefield to the courts and parliament. The drive was led by Ngati Kahungunu, the people of Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay). It was warfare of a different kind; an acknowledgement that the colony was there to stay – but that there were still ways of resisting the intrusion. That left the King Country as a semi-independent state; but the government resolved that too. By the early 1880s, key King Country leaders, including  Tawhiao, were prepared to talk peace. But the real enforcement of it did not come until later in the 1880s, when the Main Trunk Line was quite deliberately pushed through the King Country.

I first published that interpretation in 2006, and you can read my latest discussion of it in The New Zealand Wars: A Brief History. Available now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Why it’s so hard for writers to be discovered in the online world

Ever wondered why you don’t get as much traffic as you’d like on your blog? Or why your book’s vanished without a trace of sales on Amazon? I did some checking. In this wired world, the web is one crowded place. Every second, people put:

23 posts on WordPress
463 posts on Tumblr
5700 tweets on Twitter
54,976 posts on Facebook
5757 +1’s on Google+
And over 3.4 million emails are sent.

Woah! That’s quite apart from the growth in those services over the same time-span. I only have figures for Twitter – which gains 11 new accounts a second. Doubtless some are bots, but that’s not the point. What this underscores, for me, is the key issue bedevilling activity on the internet – especially efforts by authors to get their cut of the 51 items sold in that same second by Amazon.

That issue is discovery. Being found amidst the noise.

You spend an hour prepping a WordPress post. In that time, 82,800 other posts have been put up. In the five seconds between clicking ‘publish’ and having it go live, 115 posts have gone up. Promote it on Twitter. In the 15 seconds you spend writing the tweet, 85,500 other tweets have been sent and 165 new accounts have joined the service. Got your publicise function set to push your WordPress post out to Tumblr? While you were writing the post, 16.6 million Tumblr posts went up. And in the 3715 seconds between starting your post and finishing the publishing process, Amazon sold 189,465 items, most of them probably books. Any of them yours? No? Mine neither.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

If internet traffic were real and needed carrying. I’m standing next to a Haulmax – 100 tons in one go, uphill. A giga-truck. I’m about 185 cm in the hat.

Ok, I’m a geek. But those numbers tell me that promotion by spam attack on whatever social media sites happen to be at hand isn’t going to make the slightest lasting difference. It’s a drop in the bucket against the quantity flowing through the internet – but a very toxic drop for those on whom it’s inflicted.

What those numbers also tell me is that the system, en masse, is anonymous and transient. Found a blog you liked, didn’t click ‘follow’, and never found it again? Happens all the time. Potential readers of yours, meanwhile, might miss your wisdom in the stream.

But you know the most important thing? The people who’ve found you through that incredible ‘noise’ – the like-minded people who find common ground and keep in contact regularly online over months or years, where you comment and ‘like’ each other’s posts, swap stories and tweets, and stay in touch – become real friends. Not artefacts of a transient 54,976-post-per-second ‘friend’ function, but real people you come to really know.

Just like our parents and grandparents had penfriends who they knew only remotely, but who became real friends. Of course we do things faster in the 21st century…

This is really what social media is about. He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata – people, people, people.

People are important.

As for that ‘discovery’ issue – well, more on that soon. Though I will say that those numbers – again – point to the obvious conclusion that pushing discovery through social media isn’t the answer. I don’t think you can sell that way either.

Time to deploy the Lateral Thinking Hat. Muahahahahaha.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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All about the ancient and modern art of book binding

Today I thought I’d reveal something about book binding. An ancient art – but also a modern one. And a subject that, really, authors need to know quite a bit about.

The cover of my next book.

My next book – being released on 29 July. This one is perfect bound with French flaps.

The basic principle of book binding hasn’t changed for centuries. The issue is simple enough; getting individual pages – which are often printed in multiples on large sheets of paper – to stack neatly and hold together. It has to be robust. The last thing a book-maker wants to have happen is an explosion of loose pages as the binding breaks. It also has to be cheap, the more so today in a competitive market where e-books are making sharp inroads.

Traditional printing methods usually print books on what are known as ‘forms’, multiple pages at a time. These are not in page order, but in what is known as ‘imposition’ . Because the form is folded and guillotined, the pages on it have to be arranged so that they produce the right order, AFTER folding. Exactly how the imposition is applied depends on the size of the book and the number of pages being printed per form, usually 4 or 8 but sometimes 16. That is why traditional print page numbers are always an even number, usually a multiple of 4, and why you sometimes see blank pages at the back. Digital printing is a little different, though not always.

There are three major ways in which books can be bound – each with their own costs, advantages and pitfalls.

Perfect Binding
Sometimes also called ‘burst’ binding or with a ‘drawn on’ cover. This is the way POD books are usually made. The pages are folded, assembled into the book, and the cover is wrapped around them (‘drawn on’ to the book) and glued along the spine. The book is then trimmed to size. Almost all books are produced by perfect binding these days, and it works well – even on large books such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, which topped 400 pages and 1kg in weight.

Saddle stitching
Magazines and a lot of reports are made this way; the book is folded and staples (‘wire’) used to stitch the pages together at the spine. The advantgage is that it’s cheap and robust. The disadvantage is scale. It works well up to about 80-88 pages, but after that, the outer pages have to be stretched too far and the spine-side of the book tends to bulge.

Case binding
This is the traditional hardback. It’s the same, generally, as perfect binding except that often a webbing is glued to the back of the pages, which themselves are frequently stitched – with thread – into place. The cover itself is then attached. It’s extremely robust. Curiously, board games are made exactly the same way – the board is, in effect, technically identical to the cover of a hardback, only without the pages. Often a case-bound book will be finished in un-patterned linen. Sometimes they are given a gold-leaf pattern. Usually they are wrapped with a printed dust jacket that carries the cover design. The wrap-around flaps, traditionally, have been used for author photo, jacket blurb and other useful material. Sometimes, a perfect bound book will also be given flaps – these, in that case, form part of the cover and are known as French Flaps.

Useful? I hope so. I’m open to questions…ask away…

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Control your writing inspiration with hidden thinking

I had an idea for a story the other day. Came in like a thunderbolt, fully formed.

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

Seeing oneself distorted in a dream? It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

After a while I figured it wouldn’t quite work that way, but it was a start. And that begs a question. Where did the idea come from? I wasn’t thinking about writing a story, or even idly contemplating plot ideas – the last little while I’ve been fully occupied with non-fiction projects.

But that’s how the best ideas usually arrive. Isaac Newton, for instance, was resting under a hedge one day when a new mathematical principle suddenly occurred to him. He called it ‘fluxions’, though today we know it as calculus (and Gottfried Liebniz, who’d had exactly the same idea, was very annoyed).

The reality is that our minds are always hard at work behind the scenes. It’s a more complex process than usually allowed, and I figure a fair number of ideas come to nothing – we forget them, or they don’t emerge other than in dreams. They’re random. Like the idea that hit me. Yet we CAN control it consciously. Instead of letting inspiration ‘float in’ randomly, try this. It’s VERY important to do this with pen and paper. What you’re thinking may not be able to be represented in words at this stage. That’s fine. Draw a picture, a diagram – whatever best works for you to express yourself.

1. Write down the end point. Starting with the end point is the sharpest way to focus direction. It has to be an emotional outcome for you, and for your reader. But don’t try to figure out the journey there…yet.
2. Write down any ideas, thoughts, concepts you already have. Snapshots of scenes? Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a specific project.
3. Work on these ideas a bit – refine them, see if they organise into patterns. Write them down again.
4. Take a fresh sheet of paper and copy the notes you’ve made, clean,  and manually copy the latest version. This manual copying is VERY important.
5. Now stick the clean copy in a drawer. And forget about it.
6. Go and do something totally different. Fishing, for instance.

What this does is set up relationships between ideas in your mind. The act of writing (or drawing) by hand and manually copying is vital because it involves so many different activities – reading, motor skills, memory, and thinking about the content. The aim is to get ideas moving & mixing ‘behind the scenes’. You might need to re-visit that piece of paper in a couple of weeks, re-read it – and maybe something will ‘click’. Or you could get an idea that mixes with what you’ve written – something totally left-field. That’s good too.

Does this work for you? Do you have a method of your own for triggering inspiration?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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