Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Evolution of Junk Food and Humans

Just wanted to pass on this great article on the (junk) food industry:
Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels. Sell more, keep your job! How do marketers often translate these 'rules' into action on food? Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt. . . . So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then 'supersize' to sell more. . . . And advertise/promote to lock in 'heavy users.'
While an evolutionary lens (and what anthropologists used to call among themselves the mismatch hypothesis) is useful to understand why we crave some foods that hurt us, and how that can be exploited and how we should eat other things, such a view is not the ultimate solution. And as with all things humans do, it can become just another way to reinforce pre-existing beliefs. This excellent article by an evolutionary biologist takes the paleo community to task for, among other things, a gaping blind spot in their dietary theory that many people including myself have been pointing out for a while. Essentially, it's this: if the way we ate for 500,000 years is so important to modern health (and everyone is sure it's somewhat important) then what about the 5 or 50 million years before that when we were obligate vegetarians? Why is only the romanticized caveman past a contributor? A killer quote is this:
It's common for people to talk about how we were "meant" to be, in areas ranging from diet to exercise to sex and family. Yet these notions are often flawed, making us unnecessarily wary of new foods and, in the long run, new ideas. I would not dream of denying the evolutionary heritage present in our bodies—and our minds. And it is clear that a life of sloth with a diet of junk food isn't doing us any favors. But to assume that we evolved until we reached a particular point and now are unlikely to change for the rest of history, or to view ourselves as relics hampered by a self-inflicted mismatch between our environment and our genes, is to miss out on some of the most exciting new developments in evolutionary biology. At the same time that we wistfully hold to our paleofantasy of a world where we were in sync with our environment, we are proud of ourselves for being so different from our apelike ancestors.
Theories can be useful but the proof is always and only in the data, in proactive and longitudinal epidemiological studies.

Another excellent quote showing that yes, population genetics can shift quickly:
Humans are not the only species whose environment has changed dramatically over the last few hundred years, or even the last few decades. Some of the work my students and I have been doing on crickets found in the Hawaiian islands and in the rest of the Pacific shows that a completely new trait, a wing mutation that renders males silent, spread in just five years, fewer than 20 generations. It is the equivalent of humans' becoming involuntarily mute during the time between the publication of the Gutenberg Bible and On the Origin of Species. This and similar research on animals is shedding light on which traits are likely to evolve quickly and under what circumstances, because we can test our ideas in real time under controlled conditions.
Sometimes the selection pressure comes from our own choices as humans. Tibetans split from their Han Chinese cousins on the low subtropical plains only 3,000 years ago, and yet Tibetans have already racked up 50 (!) mutations having to do with oxygen metabolism. And not surprisingly, some of the detoxification enzymes (the CYPs) differ dramatically between populations, based on foods they have adopted over the centuries; East Africans and Middle Easterners in particular have a cluster of mutations that make them better at metabolizing alkaloids not found in foods outside that part of the world. Is it really that difficult to see how this could apply to humans adopted starch-based agriculture in general? But again, the proof will be in the data.

The Creation of the California Cityscape

This is mostly an outdoors blog but it's driven largely by my love affair with California, so I thought this cross-post from my science fiction nerd blog Speculative Nonfiction was appropriate.

The Theme Building at LAX

The same guy (William Pereira) designed all of these buildings. In order roughly from south to north:

San Diego: San Diego Airport, Grossmont Hospital, Scripps Clinic, and Geisel Library at UCSD

Irvine: the entire city more or less, including UC Irvine

Newport Beach: the entire city more or less

LA: USC's campus (he was a professor there), and that weird central building at LAX

San Francisco: SFO, and the TransAmerica Pyramid

Geisel Library at UCSD. The first time I saw this I literally stumbled across it, and I started looking around for Gort and Clatu.

Pereira was a major science fiction fan and intentionally designed things to look futuristic. Talk about life imitating art. (And some of these buildings ended up being used later in science fiction movies - that's the UC Irvine campus at that last link.) That said, a lot of these buildings do look pretty dated; to paraphrase the Simpsons, they look like what they thought the twenty-first century would look like in 1970.* But it's amazing that one person is responsible for so much of the iconic construction of this state, and more amazing that he's not more famous. One of Pereira's students also went on to some fame - Frank Gehry.

The whole state of California is named after a fictitious country in a sixteenth century science fiction novel, so maybe this kind of reification isn't so surprising.

*Ah, you read the footnote for more architecture-bashing! Excellent. Modern architecture in general often gets dated quickly because the ways it tries to be original become inextricably linked to a very narrow era - you don't look at a medieval cathedral and think "Oh my gosh, that's so tacky, it just screams fourteenth century." Another mid-to-late twentieth century American architect was Eero Saarinen, and his best-known works are probably the Arch in St. Louis, the international terminal at JFK, and the terminals at Dulles (you know, the ones that require a custom-made land-crawler as a shuttle. Stupid.) Note that of these, only the Arch has avoided looking dated, at least from outside. Even saint Wright suffers from this to some degree. Probably the worst offense in all architecture is here in San Diego, the Salk Institute, perpetrated by Louis Khan. Horrifyingly, every day one can find packs of drooling architecture students visting from Europe and Asia, memorizing this Golgotha of right angles, excited to return home and desecrate their own cities with a similar pile of cinder blocks. Just as with Wright's work and that of other famous architects, the bathrooms in the Salk are awful. (RE Wright, in Falling Water they're bad but in the Beth Shalom synagogue in Philadelphia they're criminal. Tiny, dungeon-like, insufficient for the facility, their function damaged by their size and remoteness - seemingly not an afterthought, but the victims of deliberate malice. The bathroom is the most important room in the building.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Del Mar Mesa Preserve

This morning I got out for a run to Del Mar Mesa Preserve. I'd been through there a few times before after noticing a blank spot on the map, and even led a little Poway-to-UTC multi-canyon run with some friends back in July. Today I wanted to connect Penasquitos Canyon to that single track you see leading south from the dead end of Camino del Sur right below the 56. What a day for it too - nice and warm and clear and a slight easterly breeze from this mild El Nino we were having. And in the process I was lucky enough to stumble across the amazing Deer Canyon/Tunnels area. I think the canyon's only competition in San Diego County is from next-door Penasquitos.

Who knew this was here? Well okay, lots of mountain bikers. According to one forum, this is the biggest stand of oaks south of Morro Bay. A lot of the area is technically off-limits, but looking at a satellite map you can clearly see all the unofficial trails. The most recent trail proposal I could find looks like this - the red circle and little connector is a trail that is NOT there (I was just there today) but is on the official proposal, and which I would be very excited to see get completed. (If I can join a work team, I'll help clear it! Though I would have really liked it about 10am today.)

Why is so much of the area off-limits? The surrounding communities have been deciding what to do with this area for a while, and part of it is under the jurisdiction of CA Fish & Game. There's a great article at Voice of SD about the delay and how it's damaged what's supposed to be protected and kept out the people who respect the land. And I've certainly never seen anything like an official patrol back there but today I ran into a couple of hikers who told me horror stories of people being ticketed and even bikes being confiscated. While putting preservation proposals into action legitimately takes time, there's a general feeling that maybe the foot-dragging has more to do with property owners not wanting an official park in their back yards that appears on maps - and maybe from property developers who don't want the area to be off-limits.

If you're an adjacent property owner, there are two good reasons you should be in favor of the preserve being made official ASAP, and open to access by trail-runners and -riders:

1) Being next to park land raises property values. Multiple studies have been done on this. Plus, what do you want to see to your north, more houses, or your current awesome view?

2) If there are legitimate park users there, there are far fewer squatters. If you don't believe me, read this 2008 SD Reader article about how many squatters used to live in the canyon before the mountain bikers started using it heavily. There was even a pot farm found there in '09. The more heavily used the area is by outdoors types, the less of this will go on. Once it's officially a park, there's clear law enforcement agency responsibility, and fewer people lighting fires at night. The riders and runners aren't the people to worry about!

Some of the controversy has been about why, and to what extent, the preserve remains a wildlife preserve. Whatever protects the land from development soonest is what we should be for. We can work out the details once it's official and open, so the public values it more and votes to protect it. This is in the San Diego city limits and it's in the political districts listed below. It took me 10 minutes to write all of these representatives!

Sherri Lightner (San Diego City Council District 1)
Brian Maienschein (CA Assembly District 77)
Marty Block (CA Senate District 39)
Scott Peters
(US Rep District 52)

I hope to meet you while we're both volunteering to dig or maintain a trail once it's official out there. Until then, here are some articles about the recent history of the struggle to protect the place in a publicly accessible way.

Years of Broken Promises on Protected Land, Dec 2012
Canyon Trails Traffic Jam, Dec 2008
Del Mar Mesa Preserve Trail Plan Discussion on the SoCal Trail Riders forum
Update on Del Mar Mesa Trails, 2008, San Diego Mountain Biking Association

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Trail La Jolla Half Marathon

From Solana Beach, through Crest Canyon, and then that disconnected piece of Torrey Pines, to regular Torrey Pines and up the trail, then back.  Better than that dumb old course they use in April with the running on streets the whole time and the people and everything.  What a great weekend though, the warmth was nice and I got a little sunburned.

Advanced Statistics in Football

A New Republic piece about how statistics isn't just for baseball anymore.  One statement that I did find interesting:  “'Most of the analytical brain power in football is on the financial side,' according to Burke, but teams are 'waking up' to the on-field possibilities."  To the extent that franchises believe their profits are related to their performance and win-loss record, they will care about their performance and win-loss record.  A future project of mine will be to correlate scores and win-loss records with team profits and changes in profits over time.  I submit that the teams with independently measured higher fan loyalties will show less of a difference; sure, it's kind of just common sense, but it relates to the business decisions made by the owners. 

Meanwhile, March Madness is coming up, and I'm planning a more expansive crowdsourcing experiment than the interesting one last year.  Let's see how the wisdom of crowds stacks up against the pundits that pundittracker.com follows!

The Altai Mountains, South-Central Siberia

This looks like an awesome place for trailrunning, as well as to be the origin of a language family. 

The Altaic language family must have been so successful because they all went running one day in different directions, and next thing you know, whammo!  From the Blacke Sea to the Pacific.  (For the record I support the inclusion of Japanese and Korean in Altaic.  Now that you know that, you can sleep at night.  You're welcome.)

We Hold Contests To See Which Humans Are Fastest And Strongest

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Santiago Peak For Real

Done. Didn't start in time for the side trip to Modjeska. The saddle of Saddleback doesn't look as pretty from the top as the pre-Divide Road portion of the route Santiago was, with lots of wooded areas and some of the biggest damn ferns you'll ever see. The view from the type is a nice look straight across to San Jacinto, Banning Pass and San Gorgonio. Baldy was there too, really the only snow yesterday in the San Gabriels, with the smog pouring east from LA still considerable. As for many SoCal hikes, Nobody Hikes in LA is a great resource to plan your hike. Just keep in mind how annoyingly indirect that Divide Road around the summit is. Since it's for cars that need a level surface, that road is pretty much the opposite of the shortest route.

If you've had any of the bugs going around this year - one of several* viral flus, or a nasty strain of Strep pneumo that I was lucky enough to host for two weeks - you know how hard it is coming back from this. Very frustrating! The up-side is that when you're coming back from an illness, those parts of your training you hate and neglect have a more obvious impact. For many people it's hills; for me (and also many people) it's sprints. See you at the track!

There must be several viral strains going around this season because there are many people who got their flu shots, your blogger among them, and still got sick. That's no excuse not to get immunized!