Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 1st, 2019

What America Gets Wrong About Tracy Flick

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A.O. Scott has a convincing take on the movie Election:

Even if you’ve never seen “Election,” Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy about high school politics run amok, you probably know something about Tracy Flick. She is, after all, a pop-culture archetype. In the 20 years since the movie, adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta, was released to critical praise and disappointing ticket sales, Tracy’s name has become a synonym for relentless drive and obnoxious self-confidence. Her image — sending her hand skyward in class when she knows the answer, which is always; passing out cupcakes frosted with her own name; haranguing her schoolmates at Carver High to “Pick Flick” for student body president — has been immortalized in countless memes. Reese Witherspoon may have gone on to win an Oscar and run with the mean moms on “Big Little Lies,” but Tracy remains (along with Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde”) her defining role.

Even if you have seen “Election,” you may have trouble remembering the name of Tracy’s antagonist, the social studies teacher played by Matthew Broderick. “Jim McAllister” rings no particular pop-cultural bells. The guy is too bland, too ordinary in both his virtues and his shortcomings, to stand as an archetype of anything. He lingers in the collective memory as Tracy’s foil, a flawed fellow whose modest aspirations and pathetic lapses are all but obliterated by the locomotive of her ambition.

It’s not that anyone thinks of Mr. M — as his students call him — as the hero of the story. Just as Reese Witherspoon’s perkiness scores a few points in Tracy’s favor, so does Broderick’s affability make it hard to hate Jim. This was even truer in 1999, when we knew him primarily as Ferris Bueller, the voice of Simba in “The Lion King” and the kid who saved the world from nuclear destruction by playing tic-tac-toe with a computer. How can you not root for this guy, even if he makes some pretty outrageous mistakes?

That’s more or less how I remembered “Election” until I watched it again recently, and 20 years of accumulated criticism suggests that I’m not alone. Here I should issue a spoiler warning, both for readers who haven’t seen “Election” — who should stop reading and stream it right now — and for those who think they know what it’s all about: The movie has been persistently and egregiously misunderstood, and I count myself among the many admirers who got it wrong. Because somehow I didn’t remember — or didn’t see — what has been right there onscreen the whole time.

Which is that Mr. M is a monster — a distillation of human moral squalor with few equals in modern American cinema — and that Tracy Flick is the heroine who bravely, if imperfectly, resists his efforts to destroy her. She’s not Moby-Dick to his Ahab so much as Jean Valjean to his Inspector Javert.

But it’s trickier than that, because the movie’s moral structure is hidden. Maybe the apt literary analogy is to Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” — a narrator whose vileness is camouflaged by self-delusion and charm. “Lolita” invites misreading in a way that puts the reader’s soul at risk, and “Election” poses a similar test for its audience. How despicably does a man have to behave before he forfeits our sympathy? How much does a woman — a teenage girl — have to suffer before she earns it? The results, as enshrined in Tracy’s status as a near-universal object of contempt (and Mr. M’s as an afterthought) aren’t especially edifying. Nor are they surprising.

A recent article by Charles Bramesco in The Guardian affirms the conventional wisdom about how “smug and annoying” Tracy is, and cites the fact that she ultimately goes to work for a Republican congressman as further proof of her “unslakable thirst for power.” Pieces published during the 2016 presidential campaign emphasized Tracy’s similarity to Hillary Clinton, rarely in ways that complimented either one.

But let’s review the tape. One of the very first things we learn about Tracy Flick is a graphically sexual description of her anatomy, offered by Jim’s colleague, Dave Novotny. Dave’s words, delivered straight to the camera, come out of nowhere, one of a number of jarring plot transitions and tonal shifts that Payne throws in to keep us alert and off balance.

Jim fills in the tawdry back story for the audience, detailing what most accounts of the movie characterize as an affair between a student and a teacher. Really, though, it’s a textbook case of predatory grooming. Dave undermines Tracy’s self-esteem and separates her from her peers by telling her how lonely she seems to him, and offering himself as a special friend, someone who understands her in a way nobody else can. He swears her to secrecy, takes her to his house, puts “Three Times a Lady” on the stereo and drags her into the bedroom. Right before that happens, she’s shown sitting on his sofa sipping root beer from a can, her posture and facial expressions decidedly childlike.

The consequences of Dave’s transgression — he’s fired from his teaching job, divorced by his wife and exiled from the modern-day Eden of Omaha, Neb. — leave Jim in an uncomfortable spot. His festering grudge against Tracy grows from his unstated, unmistakable conviction that she ruined Dave’s life and made his own less fulfilling. The loss of his best friend is one of a series of grievances lurking behind Jim’s cheerful Midwestern demeanor. His self-pity is the engine that drives the plot.

Disgusted by Tracy’s apparently uncontested path to the presidency — she wants the job, takes it seriously and is willing to work hard to get it — Jim recruits Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Paul, a popular football player sidelined by a skiing injury, might be a worthier target for his teacher’s scorn than Tracy, but that’s not how the world works.

Even though he’s not all that bright or studious, Paul has the air of a born winner. He’s a jock, the son of a wealthy businessman and, it’s important to note, a genuinely nice person. Tracy, in contrast, is a striver, the only daughter of a single mother who works as a paralegal and has raised Tracy in a regimen of up-by-the-bootstraps positive thinking. More often than not, a mediocrity like Jim will choose privilege over merit, even as he persuades himself he’s doing the opposite — leveling the playing field, giving everyone a fair shot and a free choice, upholding the principles of democracy.

What he does, by the end, goes far beyond meddling, and also beyond the confines of the campaign. Jim, who is married, pursues an affair with Dave’s ex-wife, Linda, using some of the same passive-aggressive pickup-artist tactics with her that Dave did with Tracy. When Tracy wins the election — there’s an asterisk here that I’ll return to shortly — Jim destroys the ballot that would have given her a one-vote victory over Paul, reversing the outcome. (And also, curiously enough, canceling his protégé’s vote, since Paul didn’t feel right about checking the box next to his own name.)

What precipitates this final, outrageous act of cheating isn’t any fresh treachery on Tracy’s part. Jim, humiliated by Linda and nursing a bee sting on his eyelid, is pushed over the edge by Tracy’s pure and spontaneous expression of joy. She peeks into the room where the ballots are being tallied and gets a discreet thumbs-up from one of the student counters. The sight of her jumping up and down in the hall — having fought hard and won fairly, the way you’re supposed to — is too much for Jim to bear.

To be sure, that kind of gloating, even when nobody seems to be watching, isn’t the best etiquette. And Tracy isn’t perfect. She can play hardball in a way that seems a little intense for high school. We know that after accidentally damaging one of her campaign posters, she lost control and tore them all down, covering up her rampage and letting someone else take the fall for it.

Still, when measured against Mr. M’s sins, Tracy’s peccadilloes look pretty trivial. Or so “Election” tells us, whether or not we absorb the lesson. A recurring theme — first explored in Mr. M’s class — is the difference between ethics and morals. The distinction is fuzzy in most of the characters’ minds, but Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, hone it to a very sharp point. Some of what Tracy does is surely unethical. But Jim McAllister is thoroughly immoral.

Does anybody care? When “Election” was first released, it was recognized as a clever satire of American life. Twenty years later, the satire, and the political allegory, seem much darker and deeper. Maybe this is because the movie has been misunderstood for so long. Or maybe it springs from of a deeper set of misunderstandings and collective delusions.

More than Perrotta’s novel, which highlights Tracy’s sexual agency in the whole Dave Novotny business, Payne’s film exposes the casual misogyny baked into the structures of civic and scholastic life. But two years after what was then commonly called the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the public was perhaps disinclined to see it that way. Nor, a year before the Florida recount and Bush vs. Gore, was anyone prepared to listen to Payne and Taylor’s prescient warnings about the fragility of democratic norms or to acknowledge their diagnosis of the rot afflicting the whole system.

When he first presses Paul to throw his hat into the ring against Tracy, Mr. M offers up a pretty weak defense of democracy, belaboring a shaky metaphor about apples and oranges and freedom of choice. Paul buys the idea even though he’s unable to decide on a favorite fruit of his own. Since he’s accustomed to getting what he wants — sex, friends, attention — before he even knows he wants it, he doesn’t have much stake in a system designed to allocate imaginary goods. But he’s happy to go along with it.

For Tracy, though, the stakes are utterly real — her identity and her future depend on succeeding in every competition she enters — and her faith in the system is correspondingly fervent. She has made herself (with her mother’s encouragement) into the living embodiment of everything we say we value, in ordinary citizens as well as in our leaders. She cares. She participates. She works hard. She refuses to see herself as a victim. She’s everything America celebrates in theory and, as often as not, despises in practice.

The truth — here comes that asterisk — is that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. And I’m going to rewatch the movie.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 6:39 pm

Kids See Bearded Men As Strong — But Unattractive, Study Finds

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Nell Greenfieldboyce reports at NPR:

Science has some bad news for the bearded: young children think you’re really, really unattractive.

A new study suggests that, until they reach puberty, kids are strongly anti-beard — although children with bearded fathers did feel more warmly toward facial hair.

Scientists going all the way back to Charles Darwin have pondered the purpose of beards. Darwin, who spent his later years sporting a large, bushy beard, thought beards had somehow helped men charm the opposite sex.

“Until very recent history, beards were a very prominent element of men’s faces, and so we must have expectations related to those, and it turns out that adults do,” says Nicole Nelson, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia who studies face perception.

Actual scientific research on beards is, regrettably, scant. But Nelson says that over the last decade or so, work pioneered by her colleague Barnaby Dixson has shown that beards make men look older, stronger and more masculine — at least, to adults.

“And so we were wondering whether or not all of those expectations emerge in adulthood or if they are there throughout our lives,” says Nelson.

Her team tested this in 470 kids, from toddlers to teenagers. Researchers had kids look at a series of paired photos. Each pair showed a man with a beard and the same man clean-shaven, presented side-by-side.

“Then we just ask kids, ‘Which man looks stronger?’ ‘Which man looks older?’ ‘Which man looks best?'” explains Nelson.

Even little kids associated beards with being older and stronger. But when asked which face looked “best,” young kids overwhelmingly avoided bearded men.

“As early as 1 year 9 months, they dislike beards,” says Nelson, “and kids, as they got older, up to about 13 years, continue to dislike beards even more.”

Interestingly, around the age of puberty, young peoples’ views changed. “Kids all of a sudden had a jump in beard preferences,” says Nelson. They started to like beards more and judged them more like adults do.

“So it seems like probably other people’s faces mean different things to children depending on where they are developmentally,” she explains.

And personal experience seems to count, too — because “having a bearded father was associated with positive judgements of bearded faces,” according to the researchers’ report in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Nelson says that she and her colleagues have been doing additional studies of how children perceive bearded men. In one, kids engage with a story that involves a magical island and a series of challenges. Children tended to pick bearded men to help them with feats involving strength, such as fighting a dragon or moving a large stone. But for tasks that involved trustworthiness, like hiding a treasure map, children preferred a smooth-faced partner.

“The understanding that beards are linked to strength is there very early, but they don’t seem to trust beards at all,” says Nelson.

Research shows that beards seem to enhance observers’ ability to recognize facial expressions associated with anger, but not other emotions. Beards did not seem to offer any competitive advantage in mixed martial arts fighting, however, suggesting that beards might offer “dishonest signals of formidability.” . . .

Continue reading.

I had a beard for 30+ years, but I now regret missing all those years of shaving pleasure.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Maybe we’ve been blaming salt unjustly and instead look to the company it keeps

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This video is quite intriguing. He’s certainly right that a lot of the sodium people get in the Standard American Diet comes not from shaking salt on food but because it is baked in (sometimes literally) into foods that cause the problems we’ve blamed on salt: cured meats (salami, ham, bacon, sausage); red meat (generally well salted and sometimes even injected with salt water); chicken (again salted and injected with salt water); cheese (very high in sodium); ultraprocessed foods (product foods, branded and packaged and refined to remove nutrients, some of which are included in the many additives such foods carry, among which is generally quite a bit of salt).

Maybe the problem is with the foods, not with the salt. As McDougall states in the video, salt is the scapegoat for the problems caused by other parts of our diet.

Eating a whole-food plant-based diet—abstaining from meat, dairy, eggs, and ultraprocessed product foods—may well allow me to increase my salt intake because the salt would be in more healthful company.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 4:31 pm

Why the low-carb diet is bad

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This is quite interesting, particularly to me since I was on a low-carb diet for a few years:

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 4:24 pm

Speaking of “processed food,” take a look at Beyond Meat’s burger

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The ingredients for the Impossible Burger:

Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

The article at the link notes:

Other than water, the main ingredient is soy protein concentrate. In and of themselves, soybeans are perfectly healthy, but soy protein concentrate is heavily processed, which means many of the benefits of the raw food are lost.

For example, raw soybeans provide a great deal of calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B-6, iron and magnesium, but Impossible Foods fortifies its burgers with vitamins and minerals, likely to make up for the lost nutrients during processing.

The article also gives the ingredients of the Beyond Beef burger, with som explanation:

Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Contains 2% or less of the following: Cellulose from Bamboo, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Natural Flavor, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Dried Yeast, Gum Arabic, Citrus Extract (to protect quality), Ascorbic Acid (to maintain color), Beet Juice Extract (for color), Acetic Acid, Succinic Acid, Modified Food Starch, Annatto (for color).

In terms of ingredients, the two burgers are pretty similar, the exception being the main protein source. Beyond Meat uses pea protein instead of soy protein, and there’s no soy leghemoglobin, which is Impossible’s key ingredient that makes the burger “bleed.”

Also, Beyond Burger’s red color comes from beet extract, rather than heme from the leghemoglobin like in the Impossible patty.

I personally avoid processed foods, preferring to eat whole foods, so neither of these is of interest to me. I did try a couple of Beyond Beef burgers (they’re sold 2 to a package) out of curiosity. Meh.

I think these products are aimed at people who want to change their diet without changing their diet.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 11:33 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food

A Genetic Reason Why Humans Have More Heart Attacks than Other Mammals

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JvR emails an interesting newsletter from Dr. Gabe Mirkin, who writes:

Two to three million years ago, our pre-human ancestors had a single genetic mutation in their CMAH gene that protected them from a deadly form of malaria but set them up for risk for heart attacks that increases when they eat a lot of meat from any kind of mammal (PNAS, July 22, 2019). No other mammals developed this genetic mutation.

Apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other human progenitors were dying from a type of malaria called Plasmodium reichenowi. Then along came a pre-human with a CMAH gene changed from making a cell surface sugar-protein called Neu5Gc to another molecule called Neu5Ac (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, Sept 6, 2005;102(36): 12819–12824). That pre-human did not die from malaria like other apes, monkeys and gorillas, so his or her children lived and proliferated, and today all humans have Neu5Ac instead of Neu5Gc. Chimpanzees share more than 99 percent of their genes with modern humans, but the CMAH gene is one of the areas of difference. As often happens in nature, the malaria parasite then modified its genetic makeup into a variant called Plasmodium falciparum which can infect humans, but not chimpanzees, so today humans can be infected only with Plasmodium falciparum and chimpanzees can be infected only with Plasmodium reichenowi.

Neu5Gc, Neu5Ac and Heart Disease
Heart disease causes one-third of the deaths in North America, and while risk factors for heart attacks can include high blood cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, or lack of exercise, 15 percent of people who suffer heart attacks have none of these risk factors (CDC, NCHS, Underlying Cause of Death, 1999-2013). Other mammals can suffer heart attacks when they have these risk factors (often caused by human lifestyle habits), but they seldom suffer heart attacks if they do not have these risk factors (Evol Appl, 2009 Feb; 2(1): 101–112).

Mice that have been genetically modified to have the same CMAH gene mutation that is found in humans have the same:
• high risk for heart disease and arteriosclerosis, and
• increased heart attack risk from eating mammal meat that humans have (PNAS, July 22, 2019). These CMAH gene-modified mice suffered double the risk of atherosclerosis compared to unmodified mice. Like humans, they were also at increased risk for inflammation, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and some types of cancers.

How This CMAH Gene Modification Can Harm
Your immune system recognizes invading germs by the surface proteins on cell membranes. If the surface proteins are different from your own surface proteins, your immune system makes:
• proteins called antibodies that attach to and kill the invading germs, and
• immune cells that eat and destroy germs.

All mammals except humans have a surface sugar-protein on their cells called Neu5Gc, while humans have a surface sugar-protein called Neu5Ac. When humans eat mammal meat, their immune systems make antibodies and cells that attack the Neu5Gc that they absorb into their bloodstreams, so people who eat mammal meat regularly are likely to have an immune system that is overactive all the time, called chronic inflammation (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, Jan 13, 2015;112(2):542–547). An overactive immune system can use the same cells and proteins that it uses to kill germs to attack and destroy your own cells. It can punch holes in the inner linings of your arteries to form plaques, and break plaques off to cause heart attacks and strokes. Inflammation can also damage your DNA to cause cancers, and damage various tissues to cause arthritis, fatty liver, diabetes and so forth.

My Recommendations
The theory of Neu5Gc in mammal meat causing chronic inflammation is strong enough that I believe you should not eat mammal meat regularly. We have extensive data to show that regular meat eaters are at increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancers (Genome Biol Evol, Jan 1, 2018;10(1):207-219). We do not have enough data to know if eating mammal meat on occasion is harmful. I recently reported on Neu5Gc and other theories that may help to explain the association between eating meat and heart attacks in Heart Attacks Again Linked to Red Meat

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 9:48 am

Interesting look at the Paleo diet

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I’ve never thought the Paleo diet made any sense at all—the foods in the supermarket are nothing like what was available to our Paleolithic forebears—and it doesn’t even seem to be a particularly good diet. Dr. Michael Greger blogs:

There have been about a half dozen studies published on Paleo-type diets, starting around 20 years ago. For example, in what sounds like a reality TV show: ten diabetic Australian Aborigines were dropped off in a remote location to fend for themselves, hunting and gathering foods like figs and crocodiles.

In Modern Meat Not Ahead of the Game, my video on wild game, I showed that kangaroo meat causes a significantly smaller spike of inflammation compared to retail meat like beef. Of course, ideally we’d eat anti-inflammatory foods, but wild game is so low in fat that you can design a game-based diet with under 7 percent of calories from fat. Skinless chicken breast, in comparison, has 14 times more fat than kangaroo meat. So you can eat curried kangaroo with your cantaloupe (as they did in the study) and drop your cholesterol almost as much as eating vegetarian.

So, how did the “contestants” do? Well, nearly anything would have been preferable to the diet they were eating before, which was centered on refined carbs, soda, beer, milk, and cheap fatty meat. They did pretty well, though, showing a significantly better blood sugar response—but it was due to a ton of weight loss because they were starving. Evidently, they couldn’t catch enough kangaroos, so even if they had been running around the desert for seven weeks on 1,200 daily calories of their original junky diet, they may have done just as well. We’ll never know, though, because there was no control group.

Some of the other Paleo studies have the same problem: They’re small and short with no control groups, yet still report favorable results. The findings of one such study are no surprise, given that subjects cut their saturated fat intake in half, presumably because they cut out so much cheese, sausage, or ice cream. In another study, nine people went Paleo for ten days. They halved their saturated fat and salt intake, and, as one might expect, their cholesterol and blood pressure dropped.

The longest Paleo study had been only 3 months in duration, until a 15-month study was conducted—but it was done on pigs. The pigs did better because they gained less weight on the Paleo diet. Why? Because they fed the Paleo group 20 percent fewer calories. The improvement in insulin sensitivity in pigs was not reproduced in a study on people, however. Although, there were some benefits like improved glucose tolerance, thanks to these dietary changes: The Paleo group ate less dairy, cereals, oil, and margarine, and ate more fruits and nuts, with no significant change in meat consumption.

A follow-up study also failed to find improved glucose tolerance in the Paleo group over the control group, but did show other risk factor benefits. And no wonder! Any diet cutting out dairy, doughnuts, oil, sugar, candy, soda, beer, and salt is likely to make people healthier and feel better. In my video Paleo Diet Studies Show Benefits, you can see a day’s worth of food on the Standard American Diet, filled with pizza, soda, burgers, processed foods, and sweets, versus a Paleo diet, which, surprisingly, has lots of foods that actually grew out of the ground.

But the Paleo diet also prohibits beans. Should we really be telling people to stop eating beans? Well, it seems hardly anyone eats them anyway. Only about 1 in 200 middle-aged American women get enough, with more than 96 percent of Americans not even reaching the minimum recommended amount. So telling people to stop isn’t going to change their diet very much. I’m all for condemning the Standard American Diet’s refined carbs, “nonhuman mammalian milk”, and junk foods, but proscribing legumes is a mistake. As I’ve noted before, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 9:04 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health, Science

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