Norway and food

This frozen pizza is ready to do battle against my digestive tract. I am going to fry it twice over in the microwave, but will it be enough? 

I love being a Norwegian in Norway in the early 21st century! It is like winning the powerball lottery of birth in time and space. It is like a reverse Book of Job … You may have heard that in the biblical Book of Job, God and Satan basically bet on how much suffering a righteous man could go through before he cursed God. But now it is like the two of them have a bet on how much good fortune they can put a sinner through before he praises God. Anyway, yes we love this country! But there is this one thing… There is always this one thing, is there not?

Food. To understand, let us jump back in time to my early childhood, in the 1950es and 1960es, and the time before oil was found in the North Sea. Norway was already an OK place, but it was very obviously poorer than neighboring Sweden and Denmark, although not as poor as Portugal and Greece. Although even this was probably mostly due to Protestant work ethic and saving money where they could. Norway was a decidedly Lutheran country at the time, although that was about to change. But mot the attitudes, as it turns out. Back then, because there was not a lot of money sloshing around, food made up a sizable part of the household budget, or at least of the part they could do anything about. So cheap food was the Norwegian way.

Fast forward two generations, and Norwegians are wallowing in money, driving Tesla and going on vacation to Bali. But they still buy cheap food. Except it is not actually cheap anymore: It looks cheap, it tastes cheap, and there are big posters saying “CHEAP!” but actually it is some of the most expensive food in the world. Almost all supermarkets and grocery shops are owned by three large chains; two of these are run by some of the closest Norway has to super-rich capitalists. The third is the COOP chain (as in co-operative) which is owned by the customers, such as me, and otherwise more or less by itself. Unsurprisingly they are steadily taking over more of the market. Anyway, despite the high prices, Norwegians remained obsessed with tricking themselves into thinking that they are buying cheap food.

And this, gentle reader, is probably why I go the supermarkets and almost without exception find that their fridges are about as cold as my kitchen is in winter, at best. The freezers are indeed below freezing, but nothing like the -18 degrees Celsius that is assumed on the “best before” date.

My reaction to this is, as one might expect from a sane person: “What the actual hell with fire and dead sinners? Are they trying to kill off their own customers?”

Norwegians, on the other hand, probably think something like this: “Oooh, they are saving money! This place must have cheap food, when they don’t even waste money on keeping it cold!” so they shop there.

Unsurprisingly to me, Norway has the highest sick leave in Northern Europe, if not the world. My conservative friends credit the generous pay during sick leave. Me, I suspect explosive diarrhea and general mayhem of the gastrointestinal tract. But I may be wrong. Perhaps paleontologists are right that humans actually evolved as scavengers first, competing with vultures rather than lions for their food, and that the human digestion evolved accordingly. If not, then I feel assured that over time the Norwegian digestion will evolve like that, because of the evolutionary pressure. You may not actually die of the food here, but it must be hard to reproduce while your bowels try to escape in all directions. Not that I have tried or anything.

(Update: In the end, I could only eat half of the pizza before the burning pain in my mouth made me rush for some yogurt instead. Not because of the heat, because of the spices. Evidently the medieval practice of camouflaging the taste of rotting food with spices is alive and well in Norway. Either that or terrorists are secretly poisoning our food supply.)

In praise of sugar

1.5 liter bottle of Pepsi Cola, 3/4 full

This acidic solution of sugar passes quickly through an empty stomach and is absorbed by the body in a matter of minutes. It also tastes quite good. I would not recommend downing a large bottle of the stuff in one sitting, though! One glass at a time is enough.

I notice lately that popular science and health sites brand ordinary table sugar as “toxic” and “white poison”. I hope to convince you, noble reader, that sugar is actually the power of this planet’s yellow sun, stored in crystals that can be readily used even by ordinary humans.

Let me say a few words about myself. I am a (physically) ordinary man in my fifties, with an office job but also an outdoors hobby: The Augmented Reality game “Ingress”, where players have to visit “portals” scattered around town. Because of this, it is normal for me to walk 10 kilometers in a day, some days 20 kilometers or above. (10 miles is about 16 km, for those on that side of the sea.)

When a man my age has walked 10 km, it is normal to feel a bit tired in the legs. I am not actually an athlete, after all, but an office worker. This is when I sit down, drink half a small bottle of Pepsi Cola, and wait for the effects to kick in.

Pepsi contains a small amount of caffeine, which probably helps with feeling a bit more energetic. But it also contains 10% sugar, your supposed “white poison”. Let us take a closer look at this substance, and what happens when it is ingested by the human body.

***

Sucrose or table sugar is at the same time one substance and two: Each molecule of sucrose contains one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose, held together by a single atomic bond. The combined molecule is stable when stored, but breaks readily into its two parts early in the digestion. What is absorbed from the small intestine is therefore actually molecules of glucose and fructose. These are treated differently by the body.

The glucose passes directly into the bloodstream and is brought to every cell in the body. Muscles will absorb glucose if they have been used, as they seek to replenish their energy and glucose is the easiest form of energy carrier to be shared through the blood. It can also be used by all other cells, and is the preferred fuel of the brain. (The brain can switch to an alternate fuel source in emergencies such as hunger, but will use glucose if this is found.)

Meanwhile the fructose is held back in the liver, the gatekeeper of the inner body, as all blood from the intestines passes through there. The reason it is held back is that the cells of the body cannot burn fructose directly. But the liver can convert it into any of two other substances. The preferred substance is glycogen, which is the body’s medium-length energy storage. The liver contains enough glycogen to power the body for about 24 hours of normal activity. The more active you are, the more glycogen is stored. If this reserve is not full, the liver will mainly convert fructose to glycogen and put it away. When the body has burned through the glucose from the first sugar rush, and the blood sugar starts to fall below ideal values, glycogen is converted to glucose again and released in the blood. In this way, fructose become glucose by an indirect process, one that only releases the sugar into the blood when needed.

If the glycogen storage is full, the liver will instead seek to convert fructose into triglycerides, the building blocks of fat. These are then released in the bloodstream, and will hopefully find a hungry muscle eventually. If not, they may be put away in fat cells for further use, or if worst comes to worst, they may settle on the walls of arteries. This is widely agreed to be a bad thing, causing angina and heart infarct, blood clots and stroke.

So what happens to the sugar from my half bottle (about one and a half table glass) of Pepsi? Well, I have just walked 10 kilometers and burned about 500 calories. (That corresponds to more than a deciliter — half a glass — of pure white sugar, if you wondered.) It is a safe bet that the fructose will go straight in the liver’s storage this time. Your liver may vary, depending on your activity level.

When the first surge of glucose raises the blood sugar above normal levels, the pancreas releases insulin. This hormone basically declares hunting season on glucose: The muscles open up their membranes and draw in as much glucose as they can handle, burning it instead of fat while supplies last. They can also rebuild their own little storage of glycogen, if they have the time. This storage is local to each muscle cell and is not released in the blood like the liver does.

In addition to muscle cells, fat cells also are invited to the glucose rush. But they are slower and less efficient, and they are not going to get that time: The feedback from the muscles and the brain itself inform me that the sugar rush has begun. My body is now burning with the atomic power from the core of the sun, captured by unsuspecting sugar cane which made the ultimate sacrifice to bring me their precious sugar crystals. It is time to get to my feet again and enlighten the city for another hour or two!

***

And this, noble reader, is why I want to tell overly eager science journalists: It is not sugar which is toxic; it is the passive lifestyle that is toxic. If you don’t make a serious dip in your energy storage, then indeed sugar will do bad things to your body. Your muscles won’t absorb more sugar than they need, your fat cells will grow as fast as they can but the sugar may still linger in the blood for quite a while. The blood pressure will increase, the arterial walls will harden and attract fat made from fructose in the liver. So remember: Friends don’t let friends eat sugar and drive. Let’s go hack some Ingress portals instead … or play in the hay or whatever tide lifts all your boats. ^_^

Ingress (the Niantic Project)

Screenshot Ingress.com/intel

While the game is played on an Android phone or tablet, the PC can be used for planning. Here is a map of the southern tip of Norway, which I mostly have to myself.

Ingress is a game which blends with real life. You use your Android phone (although there is an unofficial version for Apple, the game developers are actually working for Google). While the Ingress app is running, your phone is called a “scanner” and displays a map of the terrain around you, but without text. It mostly displays the roads … and Portals and XM.

XM is “exotic matter”, a kind of fog or energy that enters our world from Elsewhere, mostly through portals but also where people spend a lot of time. Portals are places where XM leaks into our world, and are typically sculptures, unusual architecture, or other outdoors permanent art. You can submit pictures of such things with your scanner to get them evaluated as possible portals. After a while you may see XM start accumulating rapidly around them, or perhaps not. Read the guidelines carefully.

The scanner absorbs XM until it runs full. The capacity increases as you level up. The highest level is 8, which also happens to be the number of “resonators” you can have on one portal. Resonators are virtual gadgets placed around the portal, claiming it for your faction. They must be recharged, as they lose 15% of their maximum power each day. Like you, the resonators have levels, and you cannot place resonators higher than your level.

At higher levels, you can no longer place many resonators at your maximum level. For this reason, you will need allies if you want to make high-level portals. The range of a portal increases exponentially with level, so you need this high-level portal to make long-range links. If your faction’s links make geometric patterns (usually triangles, but it is also possible to make more complex patterns of straight lines) the area enclosed will take the color of your faction, blue for the Resistance and green for the Enlightenment. Roughly speaking, the Enlightenment welcomes the ingression of XM into our reality, believing it will spur human creativity (since it associates with creative structures). The Resistance prefer to keep unknown extradimensional entities outside, thank you very much.

The range at which you can access a portal is just under 40 meters / yards. It is possible to access some of them from a car if the traffic allows, but they have to be in pedestrian-friendly locations, so the game encourages people to get out and about on their feet. Bikes are also common.

The way to level up is to use XM to perform certain actions, which give you action points (AP), serving the same function as experience points (XP) in other roleplaying games. These actions can be claiming neutral portals by placing resonators – you get points for each resonator and a bonus for the final one – and for creating links and fields. Or you can get AP by destroying resonators, links and fields on portals claimed by the opposite faction. There is also a small amount of AP to gain from recharging resonators, either when they lose their daily 15% or when they are attacked by the other faction. If you own a portal, you will be alerted if it is attacked. You need a portal key to defend it from a distance, though, and even then you suffer a penalty depending on the distance.

You hack portals to get keys, resonators, xmp (bursters used for attack) and some other virtual gadgets. You generally get more stuff from portals belonging to your faction, but you get AP for hacking opponent portals. These also tend to drain much more of your XM when you hack them. Unlike recharging, hacking can only be done locally. By default you can hack four times every four hours, but there is a cooldown of 5 minutes as well so you can’t just chain hack a portal and then move on to the next. You have to either wait or wander back and forth between portals.

In other roleplaying games, you sit in a chair while your avatar moves around doing stuff, leveling up and getting stronger. In Ingress, you are the avatar. You are the one moving around on the map, leveling up, getting stronger, meeting people and either befriending them or competing with them. (Relationship between factions can be tense in some places, but generally it is understood that having opponents is good for your progress, since there is no AP from hacking your own portals and only a tiny drip from recharging them.)

Level 1: You watch the first video and is amused by them saying “this is not a game”, because it is totally a game. But the backstory is halfway cool, and it is a new and different type of game so you want to try it. You are led through a series of easy sample missions. If there is no nearby portal, a temporary portal appears so you can learn to use your scanner. You feel incredibly self-conscious walking around staring at your scanner.

Level 2: You notice that there always seem to be people staring at their cell phones, could they possibly be agents of the opposition? Your scanner can hold a bit more XM now. You wander around your town, noticing sculptures or buildings that did not interest you before. Perhaps you drive to a neighboring town or city and check out these as well. If the weather is too bad, you stay indoors though.

Level 3: You have submitted your own portals and probably had some of them accepted. You know where all the portals in your town is, and probably in the city where you work as well. You no longer need to have your nose in your scanner when navigating around the town, you have been to each spot often enough to know the way.

Level 4: You are thinking differently. Is it the XM? Probably not, but you find yourself getting up earlier in the morning so you can hack those portals before work. You stay in town for a while after you clock out so you can hack them again. You have bought new jogging shoes, or fixed up your old bike. Oh, and you ordered an extra battery pack for your phone.

Level 5: You have met and befriended other agents from your faction, and know the names on your scanner’s Comm channel so well that you can spot a newcomer or visitor. You have joined the Google+ communities, first the open and then the secret ones. You marvel at the high-level players and their intricate plans.

Level 6: You bought a portable battery charger or a second mobile phone or tablet because the battery lasts longer that way and you don’t want to risk having to change batteries in the middle of a heated battle over an important portal. You are biking everywhere, or if walking, you are walking fast. You regularly visit nearby towns to get portal keys, either by hacking or exchanging keys with local agents there.

Level 7: There is no mistaking it: The XM has changed you. Your stamina is greatly increased. You can cover long distances in a loping gait, and you find your way even in the night. Weather no longer affects you. You have at least one portal near your home or near your workplace, quite possibly both. You recognize all members of both factions in your area on sight. Newbies are in awe of you, as you travel from city to city taking down opponent portals so they can claim them for your faction. Then you upgrade their portal so it becomes harder to take down, but you let them gain the action points of linking the portals together locally. Your mind is working on a larger scale now.

Level 8: You are One of Those. You are trusted in the most secret of the secret communities on Google+, on a state level or perhaps, one day, even higher. You take part in daring plans to link together cities across the entire continent, swiftly and precisely. Travel for work or vacation means gathering keys, and your family knows better than to try to dissuade you. You recruit new members and teach them the ropes, but you don’t just recruit any warm body. You know what kind of agent to look for. The goal now is nothing less than world domination. Your doctor is amazed by your physical perfection, but you don’t tell him that it is caused by a mysterious energy from a parallel dimension. The humans will soon enough come to know…

Ascesis

Screenshot anime Sakurasou

I have no interest in most things in this world.” There is a particular detachment that is necessary to install a new operating system to the brain.

Wikipedia is helpful again. Here’s some words from its article on Asceticism: “The founders and earliest practitioners of these religions lived extremely austere lifestyles, refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. They practiced asceticism not as a rejection of the enjoyment of life, or because the practices themselves are virtuous, but as an aid in the pursuit of physical and metaphysical health.

Mostly metaphysical, I think. Let us go back to the metaphor of downloading a new operating system for our computer. We are talking about something really massive here, and there is a limited bandwidth. Now while you are downloading this, you also want to stream a movie, then play an online game, then download a folder full of music. All on the same trickle of a bandwidth that you use for downloading the new operating system. It’s going to take its sweet time, isn’t it? And unless you constantly set that big download on pause or at least low priority, it is going to make a hassle of the other things you want to do, so you don’t get the satisfaction you expected from them either.

It is like this with the new Human Operating System. Life is disturbingly short (despite what you may have thought as a teenager) and our capacity is limited. To first download and then implement the New Mind, replacing part by part of the Old Mind, we always have two alternatives from which to choose: Prioritize the Old, or prioritize the New.

There are two aspects in particular: Time and attention. These are always limited and they give strength to whatever you invest time and attention in. As the saying goes: “Which one will win? The one you feed.”

It is in this perspective we must also see the puzzling practice of celibacy. There are men who are born to sleep alone, there are men who are made to sleep alone, and there are men who have chosen to sleep alone for the sake of the New Mind. It is exceedingly difficult to download and install the New Mind, even in part, while you maintain a mutually interdependent intimate relationship. Of course, it is also difficult to be celibate. If your spouse is as interested in personal transformation as you are, they may even be a help. But then there are your children, if any. Children are an amazing and wonderful project to undertake. But they drain your time and attention like whoosh. Children are not pets. (And even pets are not toys.)

Food is a lot like sex (at least for men) except you actually can actually die from lack of food. So you can’t simply quit. You have to maintain a balance for the rest of your life. If you are too attached to food, you will think about it a lot, spend a lot of time on it, and possibly eat a lot of it and so ruin your health. (Somewhat depending on how physically active you are.) If you eat too little, hunger will keep hammering on the doors of the psyche, disturbing you at all times of the day. So to free up bandwidth, it is best to eat simple food and in moderation.

The ancient practice of fasting is still recommended from time to time. Think of it as a test on how attached we are to our personal body. We may think we have free will, but fasting will tell us something about the matter. Instead of waiting for unexpected tests to jump us, we may take the fight to the enemy, so to speak, testing ourselves under controlled conditions. Or not – unless this is a required part of a Tradition you have chosen to follow, it is voluntary, and it should not be done to excess.

In days of yore, food was scarce. (At the time of writing, the Earth produces enough food for the average person to get just a little chubby, but this has not always been so.) So there was also the element that if you ate less, someone else could eat more. And if you subsisted on gifts (as many monks did) it was just common decency to not fatten yourself.

Entertainment is a bit different from this again. On one hand, it is not really an urgent need. On the other hand, it is not something you bind yourself to with iron chains. Even if you watch a movie tonight, you don’t need to watch one tomorrow, or ever again really. Each case stands alone. Or that is how it looks like. But this also means that you can always, as game reviewers say, “just play five minutes more and then suddenly it is morning”.

There are a lot of things of which we can say: “But it is not a bad thing!” Asceticisms – from the Greek word askesis, meaning training or exercise – basically refers to abstaining from good things for the benefit of something better. It does not refer to abstaining from vices, much less outright evil. To abstain from evil is a necessity even in the current version of the Human Operating System, because evil is corrosive. Evil destroys our harmony with others and within ourselves and comes back to bite us for sure. It is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die, or like picking up burning coals with your bare hands to throw at others. It is utterly insane, but even this is hard to accept when we are excited by our emotions, on the verge of falling back into Human Operating System version 1 (“all problems can be solved with a hand axe.”)

Next to destroying the soul by hate and envy and such straight out poisonous thoughts, there are the lesser vices that erode our health and our relationships, typically greed in its many, many forms. Lust as a vice can be called “sexual greed”, for instance. Gluttony is “food greed”. Greed is a wish to have something that does not belong to us, or to control something (or someone) that is not ours to control. Evils and vices are bad for us in and of themselves, so it is not ascesis to drop those. (And even then it is hard for most of us.)

But the things that are good and praiseworthy in normal life for normal people, but have to be cut out to make room for an even greater good – making that sacrifice is ascesis.  It is not a coincidence that an expression from sports has been chosen, for even humans with no goal beyond the life of their own body still can make such sacrifices to win a sports competition or become a professional.

It is not that the practices themselves are virtuous, as Wikipedia points out. In fact, overdoing them can cause a surge of pride in the old Ego: I am holier than thou, better show me respect or all hell is loose! The Buddha recommended the middle way, and he was not the only one. Modern Judaism frowns on ascetic practices of any sort, encouraging instead the pious to remember the Creator whenever they enjoy anything created.

But if there is no ascesis at all, the Old Mind will happily expand to fill all available time, and all available attention, and the New Mind will never be downloaded, much less installed.

I am obviously not a god or an angel, I am pretty sure I am not even a saint. So if your religion tells you that there is a Higher Being that enjoys to see you suffer, I will not tell you otherwise. I am not a teacher of religion, I think. I just want to share a new branch of psychology, which has been hidden inside of religious and philosophical traditions for thousands of years and has only recently taken on a life of its own, now that many different cultures meet and people can compare their similarities (and their differences).

But if you want to download and install the Human Operating System version 3 beta, it will be necessary to make space for it by reducing the time and attention that goes into the Old Mind, the way of living according to this age which is about to end.

It will be necessary, but not enough. Even a very ascetic life will take you nowhere (in this context) unless you have a reliable source of the New Mind, and it resonates with you inside, and you meditate (or do some other corresponding practice).  “Meditation brings wisdom, lack of meditation leaves ignorance” to quote the Buddha.

You have to download the New Mind (from fellow disciples, Scriptures, or a living Master if you live in an age that has one). Then you have to install it, which requires slowing down the old mind through meditative practice. Then you have to test it in practice and see if the installation has worked, or if the Old Mind still runs the show. This is a process that is repeated over and over, leading to growth over time. If we stop, our progress stops as well. I know this too from experience.

Limits of redistribution

Screenshot anime GJ-bu

Redistribution of cake may seem like a good idea, but how will you redistribute the fat?

In “honor” of the international holy day of Socialism, I will write briefly again about why I am thoroughly anti-socialism.

Basically, socialism is a movement in which it is assumed that people should not need to take responsibility for their choices. But you can only do this up to a point. Even if we imagine that a society could exist where people will work just as eagerly for the common good as for their own – although no such society has ever existed – we would still only have come a short way. You can redistribute money, but you cannot for instance redistribute health, knowledge, happiness, meaning.

You can certainly redistribute health care. Those who are healthy can work and pay taxes which are then spent for medication, hospital stay, tests, surgery and so on for the sick. Indeed, if the government did not arrange for this, we ought to do it on our own accord. But this can only fix what is broken. We cannot transfer health itself. Health is something more than being repaired every time we break down. Living a healthy life is much more than that. To compare it to something else, even if you are not freezing to death, you are not necessarily warm. In the same way, even if you are not dying, you are not necessarily healthy.

If every person who had functioning legs decided to walk half an hour a day, we would not only save billions in preventable lifestyle diseases. People would also feel more energetic, their mood would improve, they would think more clearly, they would look more pleasing to the eye, and they would sleep better at night. This is not some revelation just I have had, this is solid scientific fact and ought to be in school textbooks if it isn’t there already. As you can understand, only a small part of the benefits can be transferred by taxing those who walk and using that money to patch up those who just sit there.

It is like this all around. If you don’t read good books, no amount of taxing me can give you the knowledge and insight and pleasure that I derive from reading. If you don’t meditate, no amount of taxing me can give you the peace and wisdom that should have been your birthright as a human. If you envy others, your frustration will never stop gnawing inside you. These things cannot be transferred by the state, or by any other human institution.

Redistribution is sometimes necessary, and we should have done so voluntarily. When we as a society did not, we were punished with socialism. But for the most part, redistribution is not possible. Most of life we must take responsibility for anyway, or suffer the consequences to some degree.

Old age: Wisdom or dementia?

Screenshot Sims 2 - elderly sims hobbying

At least my Sims stay vital until the last!

In olden days, a society where most people were gray-haired elders would have seemed like an impossible dream. Today it seems like an unavoidable nightmare. What changed? When did the natural condition of the old stop being wise and start being demented? When did they stop being a resource and start being clients? Has something physically changed, or is it just our perception of old age that has changed? Perhaps a bit of each?

It strikes me when reading books from centuries ago that old people were held in high regard all over the world. Clearly the young were stronger even then, but the wisdom of the old was expected to rule the strength of the young. While wisdom did not always come with gray hairs, there was expected to be a much higher chance of it. It was accepted as a fact of life that the old would grow frail and eventually die, but dementia seems to be either absent or very rare. Today this is considered the natural end of life for most people.

Perhaps dementia was always common, but it was just bad form to talk about it? The old were respected and looked up to, and children owed their parents and grandparents a debt of gratitude for being in the world in the first place. Honor your mother and your father! That might not go along well with recording their descent into babbling helplessness.  Still, you’d think there would be more references to it, even if in an indirect and opposite way, like “do not look down on the old when they become witless”. But there is no such commandment that I can remember.

Perhaps the old were not really that old? In a world where the average lifespan was 35 years, perhaps someone aged 50 was considered old and someone aged 60 ancient? At that age they would have almost all of their life experience and not yet much chance of dementia. But the figure of life expectancy includes a massive infant mortality. Even later in childhood, you were still vulnerable to epidemics: There were no vaccines against smallpox, polio, diphtheria, or even measles which could easily kill underfed children with no medical recourse.  A third of those who were born died while they were children, and then many young men were killed in war. Childbirth was not entirely safe either. So those who lived to 40 had already run the gauntlet; they stood an excellent chance of living till they were 70 or 80. Indeed, a normal lifespan of 70 – 80 is mentioned in the Old Testament, with a maximum of 120 (barring divine intervention). This is practically the same as today, except now most children grow up to experience it for themselves.

I have even considered whether there could be a genetic difference: The current civilization is largely dominated by people from Europe north of the alps; but if you read anything older than 500 years, it is likely written somewhere else in the world. What if the Germanic and Celtic tribes shared some particular weakness to Alzheimer’s or brain stroke? But if so, it ought to be all over the medical textbooks by now. There are indeed some ethnic groups who seem to be less susceptible to it, notably in the Far East, but this could be due to lifestyle rather than genes.

First, I think we should bear in mind that the current generation of elders, and the couple generations before, are a bit of a historical anomaly. For one thing, they are the only generations in human history where smoking was widespread. It is not just dementia that is uncommon in history, so was lung cancer and heart infarct at the age of 50. A diet rich in refined sugar and saturated fat, and a habit of smoking, were simply not possible until well after the Industrial Revolution was complete.

Some of these trends have already reversed. For instance, blood pressure is lower today than in the 1970es. More than that: Typical blood pressure is lower today in overweight/borderline obese people (BMI 30) than it was in normal-weight (BMI 20-25) in the 1970es! When hypertension occurs, it is treated at a much earlier stage and with drugs with less side effects. Since hypertension is a major predictor of stroke, this is a Big Deal. Another important flag for stroke is fat in the bloodstream, particularly cholesterol. This is also monitored much more closely today and treatment starts earlier.

There is in other words a good chance that you are not going to become demented from stroke at the age where your grandparents did. And there is a good chance that their grandparents again didn’t, either, or at least their great-grandparents.

Alzheimer’s is a little different. We know there is a genetic component, but there also seems to be geographical variations. Here in Norway, the south coast (where I live) has the highest prevalence. A study some years ago proposed that aluminum in the water might contribute to triggering the disease. This would be interesting, because a major reason for aluminum in the water is acid rain, which was very rare before the industrial revolution, and is becoming rare again recently in the rich world.

There are also a number of old people who are not actually demented, they have just always been stupid. You may have heard of the Flynn Effect, the continuous growth in IQ since the first IQ tests began in 1914. The growth is typically around 3 points per decade, so it is not something you notice at a glance, but it really adds up over the course of a long life. When someone is 80, their grandchildren at 20 will have on average 18 points higher IQ. In a family where the IQ runs a bit low already, it could be enough that the elderly person is unable to function normally in today’s complex society.

A final consideration is that when your brain function seriously starts shrinking, the last things to go are the memories from your childhood. In the past when elderly people were the libraries of the tribe, they would remember the tales they themselves listened to when they were children, even after they had forgotten the names of their own children. So they would still fulfill a valuable mission almost to the last breath.

But in today’s society, we have gone all out in the opposite direction. The knowledge of the old is held in low regard, if not actually worse than nothing. Anything that is new is supposed to be better than the old unless proven otherwise. And so the dream has become a nightmare, the secure foundation has become a heavy burden. Perhaps we should think that over one more time.

Are we rich enough?

Screenshot Sims 2 Apartment Life

In the last years of the Long Boom, when economists said recession was a thing of the past, I wrote the “Micropolis saga” about a near future where jobs were scarce and education expensive, and where it was natural to grow your own vegetables to save on the food budget. I tried to show that it was possible to find happiness in such times, and I still believe this.

Well, I probably am rich enough. I have food, clothes, a rented apartment, and a small gaggle of Android devices. What more can a man want in this world? It is nice to get a little more salary now and then, but it would have been nicer if the rest of the Norwegian workforce did not get twice that much increase. The relentless inflow of money squeezes housing prices, which again squeezes rent, which I pay. So if it were up to me, we would have wage- and salary-freeze for the next few years.

That would be nice for other reasons as well: Norwegian incomes are on average about 60% above EU average, and 25% above neighboring Nordic countries. I think we could safely take a breather now. We are awesome, but not THAT more awesome than our blood-brethren.

In America, where I have a bunch of online friends, people are gradually getting used to the new times where they will not automatically earn more money for each passing year. If they are lucky, they will keep their job, and maybe even work no more than last year for the same pay. The economy is picking up, so they say, although this is still largely for borrowed money. Now and then unemployment goes down a little, but there are still many who used to be employed but are now sliding helplessly into poverty. In a society where people pride themselves on being “self-made”, there are not a lot of handholds to stop that slide.

In southern Europe, official unemployment is extremely high in many countries. In all fairness it must be said that these nations have a large black economy, and even during the boom years many were officially unemployed, although they strangely seemed to always have money. Now that actual unemployment has skyrocketed, they may have second thought about not having paid taxes and earned pension rights and higher unemployment benefits. There is no doubt that things are pretty bad in such countries as Spain, Portugal and particularly Greece. But more than in the US, it is a shared misery. When school kids have to search garbage bins for food, as occasionally happens in Greece, you know things are pretty bad. If people had seen this coming, they would have made other decisions: Found a smaller place to live, perhaps, saved more and borrowed less. But every arrow was pointing upward for so long, people took it for granted.

This was the common theme of the rich world for so long, it became second nature. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and each year we earn a little more. Laws of nature. And then the sun turned.

If you can’t afford food or prescription medication, then I’d say no, you aren’t rich enough. (Somewhat depending on whether the reason is that you’ve borrowed a fortune to buy a palace, but I mean after you have tried to balance your economy.)

There are still a lot of us though who don’t face anything like poverty. I mean, basically the entire middle class and most of the working class in the first and second world are better off than my parents were when I was a child. They worked long hours and had little money. We had food and clothes, but the clothes we used at home were patched and darned and (for us kids) handed down, often more than once. Expensive luxuries like oranges were for special occasions, and chocolate and soda were known mainly from visitors – we did not buy those even for Christmas and New Years, if memory serves. On the other hand we managed to subscribe to a couple newspapers and my dad usually got me a book for Christmas or birthday or both each year, as well as some other books for himself and the rest of the family.

I don’t wish myself back to those days, but we survived. We were used to it – in fact, my parents were used to worse, so they felt pretty good about it. No invading armies since the 40es, for instance, and no rationing. Times were good.

I don’t wish myself back to those “good old days” – I rather enjoy the current affluence. But I think looking back a few decades can help us overcome the false despair induced by not getting richer and richer anymore.

 

Germans are intelligent now?

Screenshot anime Minami-ke.

“You can just go to America!” The USA has the highest proportion of people with a long education, but Japanese schoolkids do as much homework in a day as American kids do in a week, and a German high school diploma is roughly the equivalent of a Bachelor’s Degree in America.

More fun with Quora! Humans can ask the most amazing things. “Why does Germany tend to have a large amount of intelligent people?” This question is correctly marked with the label “Questions that contain assumptions” but is answered with great seriousness. There is even a short answer-wiki that sums up the consensus of the answers.

My first reaction was pretty much today’s subject heading. Germans are considered intelligent now? That was certainly news to me. But then I am Norwegian, while Quora is still somewhat America-centric. And in Norway, Americans are considered stupid (and fat and lazy). Of course, these are simply the stereotypes, we are well aware that there are many who are not. Even that stereotype may be wrong, since it is largely based on tourists. For a long time, America was the only country rich enough that even stupid people could afford to go abroad for fun. Therefore, the observation of stupid Americans.

As for Germans, the observation here in Norway is that they seem to be suicidal. German tourists rent a small boat and go out to sea when a storm is coming, then drown. They decide to hike in the mountains when a blizzard is coming, and freeze to death. They fall into raging rivers, or into cracks in glaciers, or drive with summer tires on icy narrow roads. Not what we consider intelligent, but I suppose they do well enough in their homeland, where nature is largely reduced to decorative parks rather than a main player in everyday life.

***

The generally agreed answer is that Germans are not more intelligent, exactly, they just have better education and live in a society where intellect is regarded more highly and money less, compared to the USA. German schools teach children many seemingly useless things, because a cultured German is supposed to have broad interests, including things that rarely earn money, like literature and arts. And because of that culture, they keep up with this knowledge later in life as well.

If I may here, I will point to my previous entry,  where I mention that children who learn many different things will have a head start on learning later, because as an adult you can associate things with what you already know, which is much more effective than learning something in a void, isolated from the rest of our life. I am surprised if American children don’t also learn many “useless” things, but perhaps these things are chosen differently, and the role of school in America may be more similar to daycare for a longer time than in Europe and specifically Germany.

One point that is mentioned repeatedly is that higher education is free in Germany. Actually I was of the impression that this is the normal in the civilized world, except if you want to attend an elite university and you don’t have any particular qualifications to commend you other than money. Well, it is that way here in Scandinavia, and evidently also in Germany. Of course, it is still not a life in luxury – you usually need to take a part-time job or borrow some money for your living expenses, even if tuition is free. Unless you are lucky enough to live with your parent(s) or working spouse within a short distance from the university, it may not be exactly literally free, but close enough that it won’t hold back those eager to learn.

But perhaps more important than the formal education is a culture where coming across as “cultured” is looked up to and respected, in much the same way as being rich is in America. You want to have a number of fully stocked bookshelves in your living room when guests come over, including classics you may not actually have read. You want to be seen at the opera or theater, and you want to be able to discuss arts and sciences instead of just the weather.

This is not just Germany. The Japanese are very much into this cultural refinement, and being intellectual is a badge of honor even if in many cases it earns you substantially less money than those who are less academic. There is some of it in much of Europe as well, and it used to be some of it here in Norway too when I grew up. We have always been a bit Americanized for a European country though, and we still are, although we may hesitate to admit it.

One thing however where Norwegians and Germans are on the same side, is the feeling that being exceptional is a bit suspicious (unless it is in sports, then it is great). If you are resourceful, you should be a little better at everything, not committed to one thing where you are the best of the best. People who specialize are referred to in Norwegian as vocational idiots (loosely translated, the original Norwegian word would probably be stopped by most English profanity filters.) This is a typical European attitude. An American may ask: “If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?” but in Europe, we might ask: “If you are so smart, why do you only speak two languages?”

One thing is the same on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: The day still only have 24 hours, and you cannot do everything in a lifetime. You have to choose. Germans often choose differently from Americans, and this is probably why many of them come across as more intelligent. They have used their time differently.

Do this for 5 years

Screenshot Sims 3: Sim meditating outside

Meditation is good for body and mind. (But playing The Sims 3 is more fun.)

Another question from Quora: What can I start doing now that will help me a lot in about five years?

The asker identifies as a 23-year old student, but the answer I will give here in some detail applies to pretty much everyone who is not a child and who expects to live for another five years or more.

Get started with meditation and/or brainwave entrainment.

Get started today, because the benefits accumulate over time. They actually compound, as in compound interest. Meaning: Not only is your brain slightly improved each time you meditate, but after you have meditated for five years, each 20-minute session is more effective than it was when you started. After ten year years, it is even more effective, and so on. After decades of reasonably regular meditation practice, meditation is amazingly powerful. You can enter into a deep state of meditation literally in a heartbeat, faster than a single breath. I am not making this up, I just tested this standing on my cold kitchen floor before I started writing this entry. There are others who are far more attuned to meditation than I am. But the point is, the sooner you get started, the more difference it will make every day for the rest of your life.

A habit of meditation will actually change your brain in ways that are visible on a tomography, but this takes many years. The changes first happen on a microscopic level. As more and more connections form in higher levels of your brain, the way it functions is slowly improved. This is how meditation becomes more powerful over time. It is not pure magic, although it was indistinguishable from magic until a few years ago. (And thus was often ridiculed by the would-be scientific classes of non-scientists.)

Get started today also because it does not take any time, so you won’t lose out on anything else you do. Meditation and brainwave entrainment both reduce the time you need to sleep to retain the same wakefulness, concentration and body repair. Most of you probably sleep too little as is, so I don’t recommend you sleep less. But you can, if you don’t want to be more clear-headed, energetic and healthy than you are today. A rule of thumb is that half an hour of meditation replaces an hour of sleep, but an hour of meditation does not replace two hours of sleep. In other words, you cannot simply replace sleep with meditation. But a moderate amount of meditation – up to an hour at least – will actually be free or more than free, leaving you as much time as before to do all the other things you want to do in life. More time, actually, especially as you get more attuned and your meditation becomes more powerful.

Secular meditation is now widely taught. If you already have a religion, you may want to learn the form of spiritual practice that is practiced in it, whether it be meditation, contemplation, chanting, holy dance, ritual prayers, holy reading or something else. But I will assume that the reader does not already practice wordless prayer or something equal to it, and recommend that you take up scientific meditation.

Rather than instruct you in meditation, as I did when the Internet was young, I think I should just refer you to the mostly harmless website Project Meditation. I am not really affiliated with them, I just hang out at their forum occasionally and also use their brainwave entrainment product, LifeFlow. You don’t need to be a customer to use their other services, including a thorough introduction to meditation, and a very good section called Principles of Meditation & Entrainment. It is written by one of the forum members, not the site staff. This particular person was the reason why I decided to go for Project Meditation rather than their more advertising competitor. His writing resonates so much with my heart that I would recommend him over myself if you want advice.

The text also refers to brainwave entrainment. There are various technologies for doing this, and the LifeFlow sound track used three of them. There are also visual systems. I recommend first practicing meditation without entrainment for a couple weeks, then use entrainment if you want, and eventually you will no longer need it for ordinary meditation. You may use them for special purposes perhaps. I use delta entrainment as a prelude to sleep, since I have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and cannot naturally produce deep sleep early in the night. But I would not recommend a newbie to use delta entrainment. I have recommended it before, but it seems to cause various nasty side effects in untrained people, or at least some untrained people, such as headache or seeing double. I guess it is a bit like asking a couch potato to run a competition sprint. Start with something easier.

Project Meditation has a free 10Hz sample you can download. Looping this MP3 file, you can use it for as long as you want, so you don’t need to buy anything unless you want to proceed to the more fancy stuff. There are also various other free brainwave entrainment opportunities on the Web, including some YouTube videos. Video can help you concentrate in some cases if your mind tends to wander a lot.

Again, let me say: You don’t spend time on meditation. You gain time from meditation. The exception is the first day, when you learn what it is about and decide on which technique to use. After that, it is free and more than free. It improves your brain, it improves your immune system, and it makes you feel better throughout the days and years remaining of your life.

One small warning: I only recommend a modest amount of meditation for ordinary people who want to stay ordinary people. Excessive meditation can cause dramatic changes in personality, seemingly supernatural experiences, and in some cases actual psychosis (insanity), at least if there is a family disposition toward it. 20-40 minutes a day should be fine, but meditation for hours a day should only be undertaken under the guidance of an expert and after conferring with health professionals. Of course, the same goes for eating several pounds of oranges a day, so I am mostly disclaiming here.

Just say no to women

Screenshot anime Ore no Kanojo...

“Don’t get a case of love on the brain!” Men will go to great lengths to impress a beautiful woman (or, failing that, some other woman). Unfortunately the planet could pay the price.

Humans are amazingly intelligent and rational … compared to our furry and feathered friends. But primitive, instinctual tendencies still influence us, and now that we have the power to change the whole planet, this has dramatic effects. We change the climate, unravel food chains, drive thousands of species to extinction. We already have the capacity to erase multicellular life on Earth, and our power is still growing.

In light of this, my worry is not the women as such. My worry is the effect they have on men. Men instinctively try to impress women, and women instinctively encourage it, unless both of them are constantly keeping watch over themselves. There are also other forces pulling in the same direction, notably the need to keep up with the neighbors, to impress our peers. But the strongest motivation is the man’s unceasing drive to impress women, so that he can make at least one of them stay with him.

Modern capitalism – more specifically consumerism – has harnessed this drive. While it is still possible to impress women with physical prowess or rapier wit, modern capitalism has turned these things also into money. As a top athlete you can earn vast amounts of money, and so can a genius inventor who might otherwise be easily overlooked. Unfortunately, this also means someone else is always earning more than you, or may do so next year. To maximize your chance to win and keep a woman, you need to do better, always. If it means the end of life as we know it in some hazy future, well, that’s the way the biosphere crumbles.

Conveniently, the blossoming of consumerism / modern capitalism coincides with general legalization of divorce, and eventually “paperless marriages” – cohabitation – as the norm, as seen in the Nordic countries, the most advanced societies on Earth. It is hard to disagree that humans should have the freedom to leave an unhappy relationship. But the more we are encouraged by society to constantly compare our mates against the elite (as shown on TV), the more relationships become unhappy. And this is wonderful news for the capitalists, who earn money both from your hard work and your hard spending: Knowing that your wife may be gone (or, in Scandinavia, may have locked you out) tomorrow … that certainly spurs a man to do his best. Or if he fails to do so, he will learn his lesson. Unfortunately, doing his best usually means spending more money buying more stuff and dumping more old stuff at a landfill.

It would be an exaggeration to say that humans are like weaver birds, where the male depends on huge, elaborate, decorated nests to attract a mate. We are much more varied than that, and on the individual level the effect may be as good as invincible. But on a global scale, it has a huge effect. Because we are much smarter than the weaver birds, our nests change the whole planet. But because we are not quite smart enough to see through our instincts, there is not much we can do about it.

It is not necessary that all, or even most, men prioritize impressing women over preserving the environment. It is enough that substantially more do it – or more eagerly – than those who have the opposite priority. Opposite, not different. And the facts speak for themselves in that regard.

Celibacy is not a collective solution, obviously. It is a lot of fun on an individual level, and it allows one to see things that the paired must necessarily be blind to just to preserve their sanity and sense of coherent self. But if everyone was like me, this would be the last generation of humans. That would be a tragic loss for the cosmos indeed, since we seem to be the only species that even knows that the cosmos exists!

It is up the women, therefore, to start selecting for ecologically conscious mates, if they want their offspring to roam this (currently) blue and green planet for more than a few decades more. Or alternatively, we may reduce reproduction to a level where humans no longer swarm the planet in the billions. If there were 7 million instead of 7 billions of us, we could all live like Scandinavians without exterminating new species every day. So on that level, yeah, I guess celibacy would work. Just not all at once, please! Heh. Fat chance.