Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Tarahumara and running shoes

January 14, 2010

Here is a piece that tackles two fascinating subjects – the Tarahumara and why expensive running shoes are bad for you:

Science and sceptical runners are catching up with something the Tarahumara Indians have known for ever: your naked feet are fine on their own. According to a growing body of clinical research, those expensive running shoes you’ve been relying on may be worse than useless: they could be causing the very injuries they’re supposed to prevent.

Perhaps the best research in the field has been going on for hundreds of years in a maze of canyons in northern Mexico. There, the reclusive Tarahumara tribe routinely engage in races of 150 miles or more, the equivalent of running the London Marathon six times in the same day. Despite this extreme mileage, as I learnt during several treks into the canyons, the Tarahumara are somehow immune to the injuries that plague the rest of the running world.

Out here in the non-Tarahumara world, where we have access to the best in sports medicine, training innovations and footwear, up to 90 per cent of all marathoners are injured every year. The Tarahumara, by contrast, remain spry and healthy deep into old age. I saw numerous men and women in their seventies loping up steep, cliffside switchbacks on their way to villages 30 miles away. Back in 1994, a Tarahumara man ventured out of the canyons to compete against an elite field of runners at the Leadville Trail Ultramarathon, a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains. He wore homemade sandals. He was 55 years old. He won.

So how do the Tarahumara protect their legs from all that pounding? Simple – they don’t. They don’t protect and, most critically, they don’t pound. When the Tarahumara aren’t barefoot, they wear nothing more cushioned than thin, hard sandals fashioned from discarded tire treads and leather thongs. In place of artificial shock absorption, they rely on an ancient running technique that creates a naturally gentle landing. Unlike the vast majority of modern runners, who come down heavily on their foam-covered heels and roll forward off their toes, the Tarahumara land lightly on their forefeet and bend their knees, as you would if you jumped from a chair.

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Artistic talent should not be a get out of jail free card

January 10, 2010

This may well be the first of Clive Hamilton’s pieces I am pretty much in unqualified agreement with:

When we project our love of an artistic work onto the artist, we cannot bear to accept the creator of something beautiful, inspiring or meaningful could not embody those qualities.

We want to believe the qualities we see in the creations must be direct emanations from the soul of the creator, and the more so as the culture becomes higher. Painters, composers and poets seem to be granted the greatest moral latitude …

Yet artists, all too human, are prone to interpret society’s leniency as a licence to do as they please, the more so as their renown grows.

Not all taboos are there to be broken. Perversion is not subversion (to borrow from Slavoj Zizek) and, painful as it may be, we must allow our heroes to fall when they cross into the forbidden zone. Grey areas it may have, but that zone always includes the sexual abuse of children.

Terrorism and high IQ underachievers

January 6, 2010

Some interesting thoughts from Half Sigma on the counterintuitive idea that terrrorists have higher than average IQ. Also related, why so many terrorists have engineering degrees:

A paper (PDF) released this summer by two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, adds empirical evidence to this observation. The pair looked at more than 400 radical Islamic terrorists from more than 30 nations in the Middle East and Africa born mostly between the 1950s and 1970s. Earlier studies had shown that terrorists tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, but Gambetta and Hertog found that engineers, in particular, were three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences. The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second, was Islamic Studies.

So what’s with all the terrorist-engineers? The simple explanation is that engineering happens to be an especially popular field of study in the countries that produce violent radicals. But Gambetta and Hertog corrected for national enrollment numbers in engineering programs and got similar results. Even among Islamic terrorists born or raised in the West, nearly 60 percent had engineering backgrounds.

Another possible explanation would be that engineers possess technical skills and architectural know-how that makes them attractive recruits for terrorist organizations. But the recent study found that engineers are just as likely to hold leadership roles within these organizations as they are to be working hands-on with explosives …

Gambetta and Hertog propose that a lack of appropriate jobs in their home countries may have radicalized some engineers in Arab countries. The graduates they studied came of age at a time when a degree from a competitive technical program was supposed to provide a guarantee of high-status employment. But the promises of modernization and development were often stymied by repression and corruption, and many young engineers in the 1980s were left jobless and frustrated. One exception was Saudi Arabia, where engineers had little trouble finding work in an ever-expanding economy. As it happens, Saudi Arabia is also the only Arab state where the study found that engineers are not disproportionately represented in the radical movement

This month’s Quadrant and Stoicism

January 4, 2010

The January-February edition of Quadrant marks the first time I’ve been published in the hard copy version as it reproduces a short essay I contributed to an online Quadrant symposium (see the Politics section called ‘What’s left of the left?’).

However the main reason I’m mentioning this issue is because I really could not recommend more highly an essay on Stoicism and its relevance to the military by Michael Evans. This was my favourite piece in the latest Quadrant not only because I have the highest regard for the Stoic philosophical tradition but because Evans explains its continued relevance so cogently.

The piece refers to some works by Vice Presidential candidate (with Ross Perot) Admiral Stockdale on stoicism. I didn’t know until I read this that Stockdale of all people wrote on philosophy but apparently so. One of his papers on Stoicism is available here (PDF).

Rain Man RIP

December 23, 2009

The real Rain Man has passed away:

Kim Peek, who died on December 19 aged 58, was the model for the autistic character Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman.

Hoffman’s portrayal of a middle-aged savant’s complex interaction with the world through astonishing mental facilities and childlike emotions earned him an Oscar for best actor. But it was Peek, who suffered from Agenesis of Corpus Callosum (a condition similar to autism), whom Hoffman and Barry Morrow – Rain Man’s writer, who also won an Oscar – acknowledged as the inspiration behind the performance …

Despite his mother’s uneventful pregnancy, Kim’s head was 30 per cent larger than normal at birth.

He was a sluggish baby who cried frequently, and doctors soon discovered that he had a blister inside his skull that had damaged the left hemisphere of his brain, which controls language and motor skills.

By the time he was nine months old he was expected to be mentally impaired for life.

His parents were advised to place him in an institution, but they dismissed the idea, deciding to bring him up normally alongside their other son and daughter.

They were soon astounded by his progress.

At the age of 16 months Kim taught himself to read children’s books.

When he was three he consulted a dictionary to clarify the meaning of the word “confidential”; it was then that his parents realised that he could also read newspapers.

Yet for all his brilliance, his oversized head required physical support because of its weight; and, unusually, he was unable to walk until he was four.

When Kim was six, a visit to Utah by the renowned brain surgeon Peter Lindstrom resulted in his being offered a lobotomy.

His parents declined, and Kim went on to memorise the entire Bible before his seventh birthday.

By the time he was 14, Kim had completed the high school curriculum, though the local authorities would not recognise the achievement and refused to award him a certificate.

Before the release of Rain Man – by which time he was 37 – Peek had an insular existence, knowing only about 20 people.

Unable to describe his condition, or to dress himself, cook, shave or brush his teeth without help, he was looked after by his mother, Jeanne, until 1981, when his parents divorced. Thereafter his father provided the supervision he required …

Neuroscientists who conducted tests discovered that he had no corpus callosum, the membrane that separates the two hemispheres of the brain and filters information.

This meant that Peek’s brain was effectively the equivalent of a giant databank, giving him his photographic memory.

He was also the only savant known to science who could read two pages of a book simultaneously – one with each eye, regardless of whether it was upside down or sideways on.

The milk bar

December 22, 2009

Andrew Norton writes a short piece in praise of milk bars after he hears his local one is closing down:

It was a slow way to make money, but by working 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week milk bars were a source of upward mobility for many migrant families, first the Italians and Greeks, and more recently for Asian families like the one who ran my local milk bar. Their son studied computer science at the U of M. Usually they lived behind or above the shop which allowed some family life between customers.

Their main commercial assets were that they were within walking distance and they were friendly and familiar. As you can see from the picture, there was no slick presentation. Beneath some graffiti to the left of this picture there is still a sign advertising The Sun, which was last sold inside on 5 October 1990, merging with The Herald to the become the Herald-Sun the next day. Partly obscured in the corner of the window is still an ad for Marlboro cigarettes. How this escaped the attention of the health police I have no idea.

Most milk bars couldn’t survive competition from supermarkets, 7-11s and service station convenience outlets (which my next-door neighbour in that childhood street started at Shell). The milk bar in my childhood street went many years ago. Though there are three service stations, two supermarkets and a 7-11 nearby in Carlton or Fitzroy, my current milk bar had survived – probably because many locals, like me, would rather do business with people we see regularly than the passing parade of students at a chain outlet.

I’d like to add my own sentiments here. My first experience of Australian commerce and cuisine (so to speak) when my family first moved here in 1990 was getting milk shakes and fish and chips from a milk bar owned by a Greek family in the local Seven Hills shops (I have no idea if it’s still there). To this day I still associate millk bars with a quick nice fry up and milkshakes.

Introductory post

December 16, 2009

Having done the whole poltical-blogging thing and engaged in too many heated and ultimately pointless debates with otherwise pleasant people who turn into trolls and sophists once one enters the realm of politics, I thought I’d try something different.

This will be a blog wherein I will  try to post and occasionally annotate interesting links on topics dealing with the rest of the rich tapestry of life, all the other stuff I’m interested in which isn’t politically loaded or at least not too much (I know that sometimes the personal can’t avoid being the political). Basically science, epistemology, music, literature, comics,  movies, boxing, exercise and whatever else takes my fancy.