• An Old Man Reflects on the Era of Fire Drills, Not Lockdown Drills

    As an old man tottering into the sunset of his life, I would like to verify from my own experience that, yes, there was a time when kids went to high school without giving a moment’s thought to being gunned down by a mass murderer. Hard to believe, I know.

    As we all know, kids today are better behaved, on average, then kids in the 70s and 80s. So that’s obviously not the reason. But what else could it be? It’s a mystery.

  • What’s the Real Takeaway From Yesterday’s Big Low-Carb vs. Low-Fat Showdown?

    A number of people have pointed out to me that the New York Times has a very different take on yesterday’s big diet study:

    The Key to Weight Loss Is Diet Quality, Not Quantity, a New Study Finds

    A new study, published Tuesday in JAMA…found that people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year….The research lends strong support to the notion that diet quality, not quantity, is what helps people lose and manage their weight most easily in the long run. It also suggests that health authorities should shift away from telling the public to obsess over calories and instead encourage Americans to avoid processed foods that are made with refined starches and added sugar.

    This was not my emphasis. I led with the comparison of low-fat and low-carb diets. Why the difference?

    First things first. I didn’t have access to the study itself, which is often reason enough for me not to comment on something. On the other hand, here’s the abstract:

    Conclusions and Relevance In this 12-month weight loss diet study, there was no significant difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat diet vs a healthy low-carbohydrate diet, and neither genotype pattern nor baseline insulin secretion was associated with the dietary effects on weight loss. In the context of these 2 common weight loss diet approaches, neither of the 2 hypothesized predisposing factors was helpful in identifying which diet was better for whom.

    It sure seems like the main point of the study was to compare low-fat vs. low-carb diets, and to test the insulin secretion theory underlying low-carb diets. In any case, the reason I went ahead and commented even without reading the paper was because Examine.com had a long, detailed, and seemingly fair-minded description of the study. Here’s one of their charts:

    It’s true that the researchers didn’t emphasize calorie counting. They recommended generally healthy eating combined with an emphasis on either low-carb or low-fat diets. The result, however, was that participants ended up consuming about 500 fewer calories per day. That’s a huge amount, and is almost certainly the reason for the weight loss. In fact, I’m surprised the average weight loss wasn’t more. But what underlies this large reduction in calorie consumption? Here’s what the lead author, Christopher Gardner, told Examine.com:

    We did not “prescribe” a specific caloric restriction. We focused on reducing foods high in fats or foods high in carbs, and we advised the participants that they needed to find the lowest level of fat or carb intake they could achieve while not feeling hungry….We wanted for them to find a new eating pattern they could maintain without even thinking of it as a “diet”….Table 2 in the paper shows that the participants reported “achieving” a ≈500 calorie deficit, without us prescribing one … and it was fairly consistent through the 12 months. Now, I honestly think they likely exaggerated the caloric restriction. But in fact they did lose >6,500 lbs collectively…So they must have eaten less. I think this is an important area to explore.

    That highlighted section has been the advice of nutritionists forever. If you think of something as a “diet,” you’ll eventually fall off the wagon. But if you think of it as making a permanent, sustainable lifestyle change, you’ll…

    …well, as near as I can tell, you’ll probably still fall off the wagon eventually. But it will take longer. In any case, there’s exactly zero that’s new here. And the general advice to eat more vegetables and cut back on processed foods, added sugar, and refined grains is likewise of longstanding. My take is that there’s just nothing new in this part of the study. What’s new is comparing low-fat to low-carb diets in a fairly rigorous way, and then checking the insulin secretion theory of the low-carb diet. So that’s what I emphasized.

    POSTSCRIPT: There’s still the question of why a low-carb or low-fat diet leads to lower calorie consumption. One theory is that as you get used to it, your hunger decreases and you just naturally eat less. Another theory is that these diets are pretty boring and make eating less attractive. Yet another theory is that carbs and fats are the main sources of calories in American diets, so if you significantly cut back on one or the other you’re almost certain to cut back on calories too. It takes a helluva lot of vegetables to make up for not eating meat or bread, and few people are that crazy for vegetables.

    In any case, if you cut back on something with lots of calories, you’re cutting back on calories. As I said yesterday, “As near as I can tell, the bottom line is that if you want to lose weight, eat less.” The big difference between me and the New York Times is that they made this the lead, while I made it my last paragraph.

  • Republicans Are Having Second Thoughts About Abandoning TPP

    Yesterday I read that a couple of Republican senators thought Donald Trump should rethink his decision to pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade treaty with 11 other nations. But the Washington Post reports today that support for TPP has expanded:

    The latest: Half of the Senate GOP is urging Trump to reconsider his year-old decision to yank the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership. In a Friday letter, 25 of them encouraged him to “work aggressively” to renegotiate terms and rejoin the sweeping pact with 11 other Pacific Rim nations that the Obama administration originally organized. The push comes as the final version of the deal was released Wednesday.

    Trump himself cracked the door open for this particular appeal when he dangled the possibility of reviving U.S. participation in the agreement during a CNBC interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “I would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal,” the president said. “The deal was terrible, the way it was structured was terrible. If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.”

    Huh. I wonder what finally prompted so many of them to do this? Pressure from the pharmaceutical and entertainment industries, who benefit quite a bit from TPP? Fear of being left out, as the other 11 countries sign a treaty of their own? Concern that China will fill the vacuum left by the lack of American leadership in the Pacific?

    At this point, though, I wonder if the other 11 countries are even interested in talking? The whole point of TPP was the American presence, so they’d probably welcome a second chance at getting that. At the same time, would they be willing to waste time negotiating with Trump? His antics over NAFTA don’t make it seem like a worthwhile use of time. We’ll see.

  • No, Trump Hasn’t Been Harder on Russia Than Obama

    Jonah Goldberg says Donald Trump is right to say he’s been tougher on Russia than President Obama:

    Barack Obama sold out our Eastern European allies on missile defense. He slow-walked aid to Ukraine and did little more than shrug when Crimea was annexed. He said “never mind” on his own “red line” in Syria and turned a blind eye to Putin’s intervention there, in large part because of his obsessions with getting the Iran deal. The Russian meddling in our elections started on Obama’s watch — and not just our elections but those of many of our allies. When Mitt Romney famously said Russia was our No. 1 geopolitical foe, Obama mocked him for it as did countless liberal journalists who are now converts to anti-Russia hawkery.

    Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made life harder for Russia diplomatically and economically thanks to revving up our oil and gas production. It hasn’t been as tough as some — including me — would like, but it’s been tougher than the Obama administration. Or at least it’s not unreasonable.

    Well now. Obama did cancel George Bush’s missile defense plan, but he did it on the advice of the same guy who created the plan in the first place: Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It was designed as a shield against Iranian missiles, and it wouldn’t have worked very well. In 2016 Obama approved a new missile defense plan based in Romania—also part of Eastern Europe and also blasted by the Russians as “an attempt to destroy the strategic balance.”

    When Russia annexed Crimea, Obama put in place deep and painful sanctions against Russia. This was no easy task, since our European allies were reluctant to go along. As for who’s our No. 1 geopolitical foe, I think Obama was right not to choose Russia, though I suppose your mileage might vary on that. Ditto for Syria. I think Obama did the right thing to stay out, but those more hawkish than me probably disagree.

    Now let’s move on to Trump. He has, according to Goldberg himself

    …literally done nothing except to “rev up” our oil and gas production. Really?

    Production of oil and gas rose a bit in September, but it rose for the same reason as always: because fracking operations increased output in response to a rise in prices (partly due to Hurricane Harvey). Fracking operations always respond to price spikes. It had nothing to do with Trump and nothing to do with Russia, which has been producing crude at the same rate all year:

    Russia benefited from the increase in crude oil prices just like everyone else. In terms of oil revenue, at least, their life has gotten easier over the past year, not harder.¹

    This is American conservatism in a nutshell. Goldberg despises Trump, but he despises Obama even more. The end result is pretzel-bending arguments about things like this that ignore every scrap of evidence about Trump and Russia. It’s fair to say that Vladimir Putin hasn’t gotten the breather he hoped for when Trump beat Hillary Clinton, but that’s only because Congress and public opinion have forced Trump to back off. And in any case, surely the fact that Putin was so hellbent on defeating Hillary in the first place is evidence enough of how difficult the Obama administration made his life?

    ¹Although this has nothing to do with Trump either.

  • New Right-Wing Nutball Theory: Michael Flynn About to Go Free!

    Ting Shen/ZUMA

    Here’s the latest conspiracy theory among the nutball right: a judge recently ordered special prosecutor Robert Mueller to produce “any exculpatory evidence” in the Michael Flynn case. J’accuse! Obviously Mueller held something back and the judge is pissed. Perhaps Flynn plans to rescind his guilty plea?

    Short answer: nope. Judge Emmet Sullivan, it turns out, issues a standing order to produce exculpatory evidence for every case brought before him. When he took over the Flynn case, he accidentally issued an old version of the order:

    Sullivan did his best, but it wasn’t enough. The Trumperati are convinced that something is going on that will blow the whole Russiagate affair out of the water and expose it for the liberal scheming it really is. And when that doesn’t happen? As with Benghazi and the “stand down” order, they’ll just move on to something else. If they clap their hands loud enough, they’re just sure that eventually they’ll find a smoking gun.

  • Humans Are Responsible for Nearly All Modern Global Warming

    No special reason for this post, but in case anyone ever suggests to you that, sure, global warming is real, but we don’t know how much is caused by humans—well, yes we do:

    This is from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which states with high confidence that “the likely contributions of natural forcing and internal variability to global temperature change over that period [1951-2010] are minor.” If you want to see all the human causes broken down further, here you go:

    We humans have done things that both increase and decrease the amount of solar heat being trapped on the earth. However, they don’t balance out: the increases are far greater than the decreases. The result is global warming.

  • Low-Fat vs. Low-Carb: A New Study Puts Them to the Test

    The Nutrition Science Initiative was co-founded by Gary Taubes, one of the leading advocates of a low-carb/low-sugar diet. He argues that sugar is the real enemy in the American diet, not fat. I’ve been intrigued by this for a long time, and recently NSI teamed up with Stanford University and the National Institutes of Health to test low-fat vs. low-carb diets. This was a pretty high-quality random trial, and via Examine.com here’s what the weight loss looked like for every participant in each group:

    Those are…remarkably similar. Apparently you can choose to lose weight any way you want, and it works fine as long as you consume fewer calories.

    Now, there are caveats, of course. For starters, virtually no one fully adhered to either diet. And although weight loss was about the same for both groups, the low-fat group ended up with lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, while the low-carb group ended up with lower triglycerides and higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels. However:

    Within each group, differences in genotypes or insulin secretion made no significant difference in weight change…Both groups were able to improve certain health markers (BMI, body fat percentage, waist circumference, blood pressure, and fasting insulin and glucose levels), although no significant differences were seen between groups….Resting energy expenditure (REE) was not significantly different between groups at any point….Total energy expenditure (TEE) was not significantly different between groups or compared to baseline. Lastly, although a little over 10% of each group improved their metabolic syndrome during the trial, there was no significant difference between diets.

    Insulin secretion is the causal mechanism that underlies the low-carb diet, but this study suggests that there were no clinical differences in insulin changes between the low-fat and low-carb groups.

    This is just one study, and it’s hardly the final word. Somehow, though, every time we study this stuff, it seems as though it makes less and less difference what we eat. As near as I can tell, the bottom line is that if you want to lose weight, eat less. If you want to get healthier, exercise more. Beyond that, it’s hard to say with confidence that anything makes a very big difference.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is an egret in the San Diego Creek, which runs a few hundred yards from my house. I don’t know why it’s called that, since it’s nowhere near San Diego, but perhaps the early Mexican settlers around here were fans of Juan Diego. It’s not as if the folks down south with the famous zoo have a trademark on the name, after all. In any case, it’s not really a creek these days, it’s a storm channel that drains about a hundred square miles around these parts. At least, that’s what it does when we have any rain, which we don’t right now. At the moment, the whole creek bed is sort of marshy, perfect for egrets and ducks and sandpipers.

  • Judicial Watch: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

    Look what popped up in my inbox this morning from Judicial Watch:

    Rumors have been floating up from Little Rock for months now of a new investigation into the Clinton Foundation….

    Do tell. Please go on:

    John Solomon advanced the story recently….The Wall Street Journal is tracking the story….Investigative journalist Peter Schweizer¹ cryptically told SiriusXM radio that federal authorities should “convene a grand jury” in Little Rock.

    ….Smelling a rat in Arkansas when it comes to the Clintons of course is nothing new, and the former First Couple are masters of the gray areas around pay-to-play….The tenacious financial expert Charles Ortel, who has been digging deep into Clinton finances for years, told us back in 2015 that there are “epic problems” with the entire Clinton Foundation edifice, which traces its origins back to Arkansas….Law enforcement may be finally catching up with Ortel’s insights.

    Has there ever been an outfit as bullheaded and longlasting as Judicial Watch? Last week it was Sid Blumenthal. The week before it was JW’s endless lawsuit to expose “draft indictments” of Hillary Clinton in the Whitewater case. This week it’s the Clinton Foundation. Arkansas politics is a sewer, and Judicial Watch has mucked around down there for decades, determined to dredge every bit of Little Rock tittle-tattle into the national limelight. The national press has followed them since the start, for reasons only Bob Somerby can fathom. And they’re still at it! Both Clintons are now out of politics. One was impeached and the other was defeated in the most humiliating way possible. But that’s not enough. Has any group ever been as fanatical in its hatred as Judicial Watch is of the Clintons?

    ¹Former YAF up-and-comer, Steve Bannon crony, Breitbart contributor, and, in case you’ve forgotten, author of Clinton Cash, which the New York Times credulously excerpted and followed up on during the 2016 campaign.

  • The Robots Are Coming! But Not For a While.

    Things are slow this morning, so I’m going to rail against one of my pet peeves: analogies to the Industrial Revolution as evidence that robots won’t reduce employment. My victim today is Heather Long at Wonkblog:

    History suggests new jobs will replace old ones. As the Industrial Revolution demonstrated, technological transformations create new jobs no one has thought of yet. The same trend appears to be happening today.

    Companies shed workers during the Great Recession and rapidly tried to cut costs, including by introducing more machines on assembly lines and in fast casual restaurants like Panera, where you can now order on a touch screen. Yet even with those trends, the U.S. economy has added more than 16.4 million jobs since the low point for employment in December 2009.

    “Tom Cotton is woefully misinformed,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM. “Robots will create more jobs.” Brusuelas points out that many of the fastest-growing jobs today, such as “user design” and “cloud engineers,” weren’t around a decade ago. We like to talk about how robots kill jobs, but we tend to talk a lot less about how many other jobs are being created in the economy.

    Ah yes: user design and cloud engineers. All those displaced truck drivers will just transition into Silicon Valley engineering jobs. Sure they will.

    We have had one (1) “technological transformation” in recent human history. It did, eventually, create new jobs for the class of workers¹ who had been displaced. However, this sample size of one provides no evidence that all technological transformations will work the same way.

    In fact, it’s vanishingly unlikely that the AI Revolution will work the same way as the Industrial Revolution. The latter displaced human muscle power, but all those machines still had to be run by humans with brains. That’s where the new jobs came from. The AI Revolution will displace human brainpower, and that means there will be nothing left for most humans to do. If a robot is both mentally and physically equal (or superior) to a human being, then by definition they can do whatever a human can do. We don’t have to argue one by one about every job category, or even think about every possible new job that might be created in their place. The answer to all of them is: robots will do that too.

    Now, if you don’t think AI will ever get to human level, that’s fine. Then the AI Revolution will never happen. I’d still argue that enough of it will happen to cause considerable upheaval, but now we’re in a technological argument. What happens, for example, if AI and robotics get smart enough to perform all unskilled and semiskilled labor, but never advance further than that? We won’t have 100 percent unemployment, but we’ll have 30-40 percent unemployment, and that strikes me as still a big enough problem to worry about.

    However, if you accept that AI will eventually get to human level, then yes, robots will take all our jobs. And they’ll take all the new jobs too.

    As for Cotton, though, he’s also wrong. There’s no conflict between the American economy needing more workers in the short term but being in danger of having too many workers in the longer term. Today we’re short of workers. In 20 years we’ll be wondering what to do with all the workers we have. There’s no reason to think those two things are in tension.

    ¹I say “class of workers” because many of the actual workers displaced by the Industrial Revolution were indeed put out of jobs. It was only later that other jobs cropped up to replace them. Workers of similar skill levels then took those jobs, but that was no help to the original folks who had lost their livelihoods.