Podcast recommendation – Self-Improvement and Research Ethics with Rob Wiblin and Spencer Greenberg

This was one of my favourite podcast episodes of all time. Not just in terms of the content (which was great), but also the quality of the conversation and how engaging it was. Both speakers were making their case, respectfully disagreeing where relevant, and even coming up with counterarguments for their own views. Well done Robert Wiblin and Spencer Greenberg, keep it up.

The main topics were on the best strategies for improving ourselves (a lot of science-based conversation in a field often with little science), the sorts of things humans value and why, and the shortcomings of research ethics. If you’ve never thought about any of these things, I strongly encourage you to listen.

For what it’s worth, I agreed with Rob Wiblin on the values argument (humans really only value avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure, and if they think they value something else they are tricking themselves or using it as a proxy for suffering/pleasure).

Why I’m Considering a Vasectomy (Change My Mind)

Here is my rationale for wanting a vasectomy. Change my mind!

If I don’t change my mind by the 1st of July, I’m booking my appointment. This is not a video about *why* I don’t want children.

This is a video about whether, as someone who doesn’t want kids, I should get a vasectomy. For the video on why I don’t want kids, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oKLA…

For Matt Rota’s informative video on the process of getting a vasectomy, see: https://www.facebook.com/matt.rota1/v…


My sports climbing and fitness journey

If you’re reading this by email, please note the videos will not show up for you.

I started bouldering (indoor climbing without harness) 4 months ago. I’ve since been fascinated by the sport and have been having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I injured my right rotator cuff (a muscle/tendon group in the shoulder) and had to take a break for a few weeks. After some physiotherapy work including strengthening exercises, I started easing back in to climbing today. I was so excited that I wanted to share a little about my experience.

This is not quite my usual beat (science/ethics), but it’s something I’ve become passionate about, so I think it warrants a post.

One of the things that I think appeals to me most about bouldering is its similarity to the types of videogames I enjoy. In particular, it reminds me of a boss fight from MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft (for anyone familiar with it). It’s about going up against a specific climbing route (called a ‘problem’) and trying to complete it. There are some parts of the route which are harder than others, and you slowly improve the more times you attempt the problem. You get closer to the top, with the earlier parts eventually becoming easier to the point of triviality once you work out how to do them. Finally, you reach the top (called ‘sending the problem’!).

This feeling of slowly improving at a specific problem and completing it is incredibly satisfying for me, whether in a videogame or otherwise. There is something nice about a very clear set of goals with an easy way to tell whether you’re improving (see Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken for her take on how we can take these aspects from games and put them in real world situations like jobs, which is called ‘gamification’).

In addition to improving at bouldering in the technical sense, you also improve over time in terms of fitness and strength. To go back to the MMORPG example, improving these feels like acquiring better items and getting a higher level, while improving at the technical aspects feels like just getting more competent at the specific actions to take in the game.

Compare these two reactions from a boulderer sending a big problem after many attempts and a top World of Warcraft guild Complexity Limit being the first in the world to complete a new boss after many attempts (skip ahead to 12:10 and 13:00 respectively).

Speaking of the ‘better items and levels’ aspect of bouldering, I realised after I started climbing that I was very unfit. I went to the gym 4 times a week for around 6 months around 2018-2019, and stopped going almost entirely due to a lack of time and energy while I was running in the state and federal elections. When I stopped, I weighed around 76 kg. After almost two years of barely doing any strength training at all, I weighed 82 kg in October 2020.

I was pretty shocked. I was quite certain that most or all of the 6 kg I’d gained in that time was fat, not muscle. I also realised that I had come to not be very proud of my body. I wanted to change that. There was also the part of me that thought about how I was carrying an extra 6 kg I didn’t need to up the wall. Over the past 4 months, I have been exercising more including cardio and strength training, and eating less and more consciously. I’m back to 76 kg (I’m fairly confident that most of the 6 kg lost is fat, not muscle), and I couldn’t be happier. People who know me might be surprised I wanted to lose weight, as I’ve always been fairly slim. But my goal has simply been to cut away some excess fat and replace it with muscle.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed my mood has drastically improved recently. Whether that’s due to eating healthily, exercising more, a recent move to a new apartment or some other factor, I’m not sure. But whatever it was, I want to keep it up.

I want to talk a little about what I did to lose 6 kg, and some of the nutrition science I’ve learned recently. A lot of what I’ve learned is from a fitness Youtuber by the name of Jeremy Ethier, who I highly recommend. Their videos are science-based and well-researched, which is not something I can say for all fitness/health commentators today.

First and foremost, to lose fat you need a calorie (or joule for us metric folk) deficit. When you eat food, you are consuming calories, and when you do any activity (or even when you’re not), you’re burning calories. If you’re burning more energy than you’re consuming, you’ll ‘burn’ fat.

An interesting anecdote about losing fat – most people have no idea how the body actually disposes of fat, including many medical doctors. I certainly didn’t until recently. The chemical composition of human body fat is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms (e.g. oleate – C18H34O2). When you ‘burn fat’, your body is mostly converting it in to water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), most of which you end up breathing out. Some small amount of excess water may also leave the body through various bodily fluids, but most weight will leave the body during weight loss through the lungs. I confess I simplify the biology a little here.

Armed with the knowledge of how the body actually loses fat, we can better think about how to best achieve that. The basic premise is simple, but there is a lot of complexity, so I won’t even try to cover it. I can’t recommend the below video by Jeremy Ethier enough.

For me, it mostly came down to just jogging more and changing how I eat. I’ve almost entirely cut down on dessert and highly processed foods, e.g. faux meat. I want to stress that I don’t think there is anything especially bad about eating processed food such as faux meats. The problem is primarily that they usually have fewer nutrients and more calories. If you exercise more to compensate that, no big deal. But if you’re trying to lose fat, it can be best to avoid that.

To illustrate just how big a difference a small amount of certain foods can make to your fat weight, consider this. A serving of olive oil (~15 ml) has 508 kilojoules. To burn that energy by running at 10 km per hour would take around 8 minutes for someone my weight, or around 14 minutes at 8 km per hour. For someone trying to lose weight, it’s hard to see a teaspoon of olive oil as anything other than a setback.

My line of thinking recently has been to try and cut out inefficient calories. In other words, foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients. I’ve stopped cooking with oil (I use a splash of vegetable stock to fry with now), avoid desserts and processed food, and eat mostly whole foods. So far it seems to be going well. I’m probably getting more nutrients now than I ever have in my life.

Finally, a comment on various diets like intermittent fasting (e.g. only eating in a window of time such as 12 pm to 8 pm). There doesn’t seem to be any special science behind these. The most useful part of intermittent fasting seems to be that only eating in a certain window makes it easier to stick to a calorie deficit. It may also help you feel more full, again assisting with the calorie deficit. But based on my reading, there is no benefit of intermittent fasting over just a regular eating schedule if you are consuming the same number of calories and exercising the same amount. Having said that, some people may find it useful to help restrict calories and stay on a calorie deficit.

Non-humans as a second-class animal in the eyes of some vegans

I’ve noticed that even some vegans will often consider non-human animals as being worthy of different relevant moral consideration than human animals. They will be willing to make concessions about non-humans that they wouldn’t be willing to make for humans. Speciesism is so ingrained in us and our society/culture that even some people who fight for animal rights can be influenced by it.

There are some rights that I don’t think all animals should have. For example, I think only humans should be given the right to drive a car and to vote. But equal consideration in the right to not be exploited and the right to not suffer should be applied equally to all animals, humans included.

One example is relating to a vegan food company which packages (some of? all of?) it’s products in sheep’s wool. I saw at least one vegan defend, arguing that it’s a waste product and therefore is better than non-degradable plastic packaging. I would argue that if we wouldn’t accept the hair of a human taken against their will as being better than plastic, we shouldn’t accept the wool of a sheep taken against their will (let alone the fact that there are other biodegradable materials we can use).

Another example is around health. I know some vegans who will argue that if it turned out that consuming some animal products were necessary for optimal health (I don’t think it is, but IF), then people would be justified in doing so. I don’t think so, for the same reasons that I don’t think it would be justified to eat human babies (even if they were bred specifically for that purpose and had a good life!) if it meant being more optimally healthy.

Finally, I’ve seen vegans willing to make concessions to vote for a politician who has better human policies but doesn’t care about non-humans, but baulk at the thought of voting for a politician who has slightly worse human policies but cares about non-humans. Bernie Sanders vs Cory Booker is a prime recent example.

Given that human and non-human animals are all sentient and can experience suffering and pleasure, I’d argue that they should be treated similarly or the same in such situations.

tl;dr non-humans should not have the right to vote or to drive cars, but they should have the same right to be free of ANY exploitation and suffering as humans.

NB: As a utilitarian I don’t believe rights are an inherently valuable or tangible thing, but I think they’re a useful tool to maximise happiness and minimise suffering.

A new and more useful way to rate how much you like something (e.g. food, experiences)

Usually when you ask someone to rate how ‘good’ something, people will rate it out of 0 to 10. For example, if you ask someone ‘how much did you enjoy that food?’, people will give a number from 0 to 10 where 0 means it was bad and 10 means it was perfect. This is fine in theory, but in practice I think it isn’t the best scale to use.

I prefer to use a scale of -10 to 10 where 0 is the neutral point. 0 means that you would be equally happy experiencing vs not experiencing that food or thing. Anything negative means you would have rather not eaten it, and anything positive means you are glad you ate it.

The benefit of using this scale is that it makes it clear whether the experience was positive or negative. With the scale of 0 to 10, the halfway point of 5 should in theory mean a neutral point, but the scale doesn’t seem to get used that way all of the time. Sometimes it seems like people use 3 to mean ‘it was a little bit good’. There also seems to be asymmetry between the peak of 10 and the trough of 0. 10 usually means ‘perfect’ while 0 usually means ‘mediocre to below average’. -10 to 10 removes this confusion.

Another example is for watching a movie. If I’m rating a movie, a negative score means I would rather have done something else (some average, mundane activity for example) than watch that movie in hindsight. I think this is more useful when someone is considering whether or not to watch a movie and wants your thoughts. Assuming they have similar tastes to you, a negative score clearly implies that they should not watch the movie.

Why am I writing about this? Who cares?

Well, I think communication is important, and this could be a tool to improve communication.

There it goes, the very last tree [environmental poem/art]

My mum Janine Dello and I made this together (I wrote the poem, she put everything together) for a fundraiser event to support artist studios.

There it goes, the very last tree. 

This will make a great spot for our new factory. 

The koala watched from the top of the hill, 

As foul fluid from a dozer began to spill. 

The bear felt despair, but no longer cared, 

With their family gone they were no longer scared. 

It wasn’t their fault you see, 

That’s just the way they were raised to be. 

Their society tells them that this is normal, 

And they all desperately want to be conformal. 

To clear the land for the sake of a steak, 

This practice is humanity’s greatest mistake.  

To take a native’s home to breed others, 

Then take the children away from their mothers. 

If this is the way of the human race, 

Then this koala hopes that they will be replaced. 

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Should we cull known reservoirs of COVID-19 such as minks and humans?

Denmark is engaging in a mass cull of millions of mink, individuals who are farmed for their fur, because they are a reservoir of COVID-19. Funnily enough, humans are also a reservoir of COVID-19, but the thought of culling humans to save humans is unfathomable (and rightly so).

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen became tearful when discussing (get this) the plight of the mink *farmers*. Apparently not so much sympathy for the minks themselves. Our desire to get get flesh, fur and secretions from non-humans is what produces most zoonotic pandemics in the first place, and yet it’s the farmed animals who are chosen to suffer and die first.

The problem with this whole thing is that none of the rationales we commonly use to justify doing what we do to non-humans would work if applied to humans.

“We need to eat them to be healthy.”

“We need to cull them to protect ourselves.”

“Their flesh and secretions just taste soo good.”

“I’d stop eating them but it’s just so inconvenient.”

Ultimately what it comes down to, whether people admit it or not, is that they just see non-humans as not being worthy of moral consideration as soon as our convenience or way of life is threatened. There is no reason for this. Non-humans can feel pain just like us, and some might even have a greater capacity to feel pain than humans. Should we cull humans to protect the interests of such non-humans with a greater capacity for suffering? No? Then maybe we should rethink how we view non-humans in the first place.

Danish MP Mette Frederiksen weeping, 26 Nov 20

The risks of a raw vegan diet

Once when someone found out I was vegan they asked me: Don’t you miss cooked food?

Some people conflate a raw vegan diet with veganism in general, and I know some people who follow a raw vegan diet over simply being vegan for health reasons. I’m quite critical of the claims made by proponents of a raw food diet, and wanted to make a comment on it. If you disagree, please let me know ASAP so I can change my mind.

One of the core claims of the raw food movement is that cooking destroys some of the enzymes and nutrients in food, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence behind this. Stomach acid destroys most of the enzymes in food anyway, and cooking food can often have a positive effect. For some examples:

Cooking tomatoes increases by five-fold the bioavailabilty of the antioxidant lycopene.

Cooking foods with beta-carotene (like squash and sweet potatoes) helps release their nutrients and makes them more absorbable.

Vegetables in the cruciferous vegetables family (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts) contain goitrogen compounds, which in excess can contribute to hypothyroidism – but they are mostly deactivated by heat.

A 100 percent raw plant-based diet has been associated with a lower bone mass (though note this is from 1 study with a not very impressive sample size).

I’d say the only saving grace of a raw food (vegan) diet is that it forces you to consume a whole foods plant-based diet, which is more nutrient and less calorie dense than say a diet with many processed foods. There is nothing wrong with a processed food per se, but they typically have fewer nutrients and more calories, which can be a problem.

Of course, for me veganism has nothing to do with health. I happen to agree that avoiding animal products and eating more plant-based whole foods are generally beneficial for health, but if it were the opposite, I wouldn’t start including animal products in my diet for the same reason I wouldn’t start including human products in my diet if it turned out that were a little healthier.