Super Size Me (Sony, 2004, PG-13)

When Morgan Spurlock was growing up, his mother made the family's meals at home; they ate at restaurants only on very rare, special occasions.  Once a common scenario, it is no longer true for Fast Food America.

Spurlock, young, healthy, and in fine physical condition, turned himself into a human guinea pig to investigate the health effects of fast food:  For 30 days, he ate at McDonalds, and only McDonalds, three meals a day, every day.  His progress (regress) was evaluated and monitored by three doctors, who expected to see no more problems from his change of diet than a moderate rise in his triglyceride levels.  Instead, nearly every aspect of his physical and mental health disintegrated rapidly; it took him more than a year to recover from his month-long binge.

Super Size Me is a dramatic condemnation of the fast food industry, and even more so of modern America's eating habits.  However, it would have been more effective, if less dramatic, had Spurlock have eaten reasonably instead of deliberately (and sickeningly) gorging himself at every meal.  He conflates problems of food quality and food quantity, muddying the results.

The movie is somewhat interesting, but I'd rate it worse than PG-13 for sexual content and language.  Unlike some reviewers, I don't find the graphic bariatric surgery to be a problem, but I wouldn't watch it while eating.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Edit
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altThe Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge (Penguin, New York, 2007)

Neuroplasticity.

The idea that our brains are fixed, hard-wired machines was (and in many cases still is) so deeply entrenched in the scientific establishment that evidence to the contrary was not only suppressed, but often not even seen because the minds of even respectable scientists could not absorb what they were certain was impossible.  Having been familiar since the 1960s with the work of Glenn Doman and the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, the idea that the human brain is continually changing itself and can recover from injury in astonishing ways did not surprise me. In fact, the only shock was that in a 400 page book on neuroplasticity and the persecution of its early pioneers I found not one mention of Doman's name. But the stories are none the less astonishing for that.

In Chapter 1 we meet woman whose vestibular system was destroyed by antibiotic side-effects.  She is freed by a sensor held on her tongue and a computerized helmet from the severely disabling feeling that she is falling all the time, even when lying flat.  That's the stuff of science fiction, but what's most astounding is that the effect lingers for a few minutes after she removes the apparatus the first time, and after several sessions she no longer needs the device(More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Edit
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Today's Mallard Fillmore comic inspired this post, which Li'l Writer Guy had actually been working on in the background ever since a conversation we had about the subject last night.

Mind you, I don't know any of the details of how it will work, and am only commenting on the theory that children should be covered on their parents' health insurance until they are 26 years old. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 8:18 am | Edit
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Janet alerted me to Jamie Oliver; DSTB followed up with what is apparently a new show on ABC.  It starts next Friday, but the pilot was shown last night; fortunately it's available both at the show site and Hulu, so I was able to watch it.  Jamie's attempt to get the people of Huntington, West Virginia to take a healthier approach to eating has the faults of American commercial television (just as does Who Do You Think You Are?), but it's not bad and (so far) is not as over the top as what I've seen of his British shows.  If his personality is a little too dramatic for my taste, there's no doubting the sincerity of his preaching and his mission.  His gospel is good, fresh food, and in this episode he takes on school lunches.

[Excuse me, school meals.  The only meal these children eat at home is dinner.  In Oliver's unfeigned horror at the meals served at our public schools, he misses what strikes me as the more important point:  Why are all these children eating school food?  Why aren't they bringing lunches from home, and why, for Pete's sake, don't they eat breakfast before going to school?  If the schools are going to offer food, certainly it should be healthy food, but where are the parents?  There's absolutely no need to subject one's children to American public school food, good or bad.  The school lunch (and now breakfast) program does serve a useful purpose, making sure children whose parents can't provide meals for them aren't trying to learn on empty stomachs.  That's a good thing.  But somehow the whole system got skewed; I know that the goal of the school lunch program at our kids' school was to have everyone participate.  (We didn't.)  I saw not one lunchbox in the show.  I hope that while he teaches the adults how easy it is to put together healthy meals, he also teaches the kids how easy it is to make their own healthy lunches.  But that's another issue; I know I'm taking on a Great American Icon by dissing the school lunch program.] (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, March 22, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Edit
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altIn Defense of Food:  An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (Penguin, New York, 2008)

I'm in the middle (okay, the beginning) of two rather hefty books at the moment, Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Ancient World, and my latest review book from Thomas Nelson, The Chronological Guide to the Bible.  It's great to be reading the two of them together, though that means it will be a long time before I can review either one.

And now longer still, as the library e-mailed to let me know that I'd made it to the top of the waiting list for In Defense of Food.  Michael Pollan is shaping up to be the next John Taylor Gatto for me:  a modern author whose books I simply can't resist and can't put down.  Reading was the easy part; reviewing without quoting from every page is the difficulty. The book is bristling with my neon green and pink sticky notes. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 12, 2010 at 11:03 am | Edit
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The Omnivore's Dilemma:  A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan (Penguin, New York, 2006)

My limited knowledge of Michael Pollan prior to devouring this book was primarily his mantra for healthy eating:  Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  There's a lot of wisdom there — not that I'm very good at following it — but that phrase itself is not found in The Omnivore's Dilemma.  It is the beginning, however, of an excellent Pollan article in the New York Times, Unhappy Meals.

I'll admit I was expecting a diatribe, a full-force blast against agri-business and the factory farm, more along the lines of what we hear from the more strident vegans and animal rights activists.  Pollan, however, is much too skilled as a journalist and writer for that.  If his journeys lead him to both Food Hell and Food Heaven, they also show him that there is no clear, simple, and easy path to salvation when it comes to eating. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 8, 2010 at 8:40 am | Edit
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Most of you can stop reading right now.  The Pap smear is not a subject of general interest, but I spent five years working in a cytopathology automation research laboratory, part of an attempt to make the reading of Pap smears easier and more accurate.  Thus the following headline was sure to catch my eye:  Should HPV Test Replace the Pap Smear?

The primary purpose of the Pap smear is the early detection of cervical cancer, it is argued, but testing for human papillomavirus is easier and actually does a better job, although it generates more false positives, especially in younger women.

[This] recommendation is based on a study that found that the human papillomavirus (HPV) test prevented more cases of cervical cancer than the conventional Pap smear. Results of the study were published online Jan. 19 in The Lancet Oncology.

The HPV test should become the screening tool of choice for women 35 and older, the researchers said. It could be done less frequently than the Pap test, which could be used only in women who have tested positive for HPV, they said.

What I find most interesting is the unmentioned, but logical implication that those who are at no risk of contracting HPV, due to the simple expediencies of virginity or faithful monogamy, can dispense with both tests—surely a course of action the medical industry would not wish to endorse!  Gastroenterologists have adopted a once-every-ten-year colonoscopy recommendation for low-risk patients, perhaps gynecologists should follow their example.
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Edit
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 Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall (Knopf, New York, 2009)

A book about running?  Not my thing.  On my daily walks (where by "daily" I mean five days a week and only when I'm not on the road) I've managed to work my way up to doing a quarter of my four miles at what could charitably be called a slow jog, but there my interest ended.  However, my nephew received Born to Run for Christmas, and I was curious enough to flip quickly through it.

Born to Run is a fascinating and groundbreaking book.  Actually, it's at least three books, interwoven, and it's no coincidence that when I perused it I couldn't decide if it was meant to be nonfiction or a novel. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 11:52 am | Edit
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More from the backblog . . .

The Strange Double Standards of Abortion  John Stackhouse muses on the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller, vigilantism, and hypocrisy. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:01 am | Edit
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Despite my efforts, my backblog appears to be growing faster than I can deal with it.  Here's a quick look at several interesting health-related issues that have come my way recently.  (Where "recently" is defined as "sometime within the last year or two"; that's how old some of my backblog is.)

Acknowledging Preindustrial Patterns of Sleep May Revolutionize Approach to Sleep Dysfunction  Do you worry when you awaken in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep?  Your body may be rebelling against unnatural sleep patterns imposed by artificial lighting and our frantic schedules. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 2, 2009 at 9:27 am | Edit
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President Obama has declared the swine flu outbreak to be a national emergency.  I'm not sure that's all that bad of a measure, given that it lifts some governmental rules for hospitals that probably weren't a good idea in the first place.  But as Susan McWilliams points out in this Front Porch Republic post, our media-hyped fears seem 'way out of line.  It's hard not to quote her entire post.

What Thucydides helps us to see [in his description of a plague in Athens during the Pelopponesian War], as George Kateb has written, is “the ways in which fear of death through contagion disorganizes all human relations”:

It is the peculiar power of contagious disease to isolate people from each other; normal communal ties give way before the desire of every man to avoid contact which could bring on the disease and with it, death. The wish to remain free of sickness overrides all duty and all affection.

The plague resulted in what Kateb calls “a kind of negative state of nature: instead of the war of all against all, there was the avoidance of all by all.” What is ultimately most horrifying about the plague is how it exposes the fragility of civilization.  You might not be able to build Rome in a day, but you can destroy Athens in a few weeks.

 (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 2:07 pm | Edit
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As a child, I always had trouble cleaning my room.  What should have been a 10-minute exercise turned into an all-day project, because of course the most important part of cleaning my room was reorganizing the bookshelves, and a book, once in my hand, demanded to be read.

Tonight, trying to get my office in order, and with no time to spare for distractions, I came upon the paperwork I received along with my seasonal flu shot.

Plus ça change:  Twenty minutes later, I finally tossed the papers in the trash, and will be back to work as soon as I've posted this—meaning what should have taken half a second to deal with will have eaten up about 40 minutes.  I was inspired to try to find out where the vaccine had been manufactured, hoping it was in some country whose quality control I thought I could trust, i.e. not China.  The information is surprisingly hard to discover.  Although the papers were covered with remarkably fine print, I could see no point of origin.  "Manufactured by..." does not necessarily indicate where.  Once I found out the names of the company and  of the vaccine, however, I could do an Internet search.

Not that that helped, except negatively:  there was at least no evidence that the manufacturing facilities were in China.  I must also say that the name of the company itself was reassuring:  Novartis.  For no good reason, I must admit—but anything from Basel must be reliable, right?
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, October 12, 2009 at 9:56 pm | Edit
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Until recently, Cairo had a refuse-collection system unlike any you'll find in the United States, but it worked—and might even be commended for its efficiency and environmental responsibility.  Cairo's households enjoyed free or inexpensive garbage collection, right from the door, by the zabaleen ("garbage people"), an impoverished community of Egyptian Christians living in an area of Cairo known as "Garbage City."   The collectors and their families then sorted the trash, reusing, repairing, and recycling what they could, and feeding the organic waste to their livestock, primarily pigs.

Sanitation workers do not generally enjoy high status anywhere, and the zabaleen are despised not only for their jobs, but also for their poverty, their religion, and their willingness to keep pigs as livestock.  However, as even American cities discover during a protracted sanitation strike, we do not do well to devalue other human beings, least of all those responsible for keeping us from suffocating in trash. 

In a misguided effort to stave off a swine flu epidemic, Egypt ordered that all the pigs be killed, even though the disease is not, in fact, spread by pigs.  By the law of unintended consequences, Cairo's citizens are now more vulnerable to disease than before.  The zabaleen no longer collect the trash, and the government's effort to replace them with multinational corporations has largely failed.  The poorest of the poor have lost their only livelihood as well as their source of food, and Cairo's streets overflow with filth.

I don't write this to belittle Egypt or the Egyptian government, but as a warning.  Our country has a problem:  Our healthcare system, once arguably the best in the world, is falling apart.  (We can disagree over the causes, or even the definition, of "falling apart," but that's not the point here.)  There's no shortage of wrangling over what the intended consequences of a federally-imposed health plan might be, but whatever shakes out of that debate, I fervently hope that we will consider the possible unintended consequences before killing off the pigs.

(Sources used for this post included The New York Times and Wikipedia.)
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 11:19 am | Edit
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My Swiss family doesn't let me forget that "universal health care" does not necessarily mean a system like that in the United Kingdom.  For this I am grateful, because of the horror stories that keep emerging from that system, such as the cases of Charlotte Wyatt, Leslie Burke, Linda O'Boyle, Jayden Capewell, and too many others to write about.  It's worth looking at alternatives, and T. R. Reid's The Healing of America does just that.

I haven't read the book; my opinion is based on the New York Times review. There's much I don't agree with in the review, and I'm sure in the book also, but I like the gimmick:  Reid had shoulder problems that were interfering with his golf game, and he decided to present the case to 10 different doctors around the world.  The results?  (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Edit
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It would not be too strong to say that I loathe politics.  I vote, and have done so since I was first able to at age 19, but mostly without enthusiasm; choosing the least objectionable candidate is gritty, unsatisfactory work.  Other than that, I try to ignore politics.  Unfortunately, politics does not return the favor, so I occasionally give in to the prodding of my conscience and attempt to articulate a political opinion in a blog post, or write a letter to an elected official, or attend a political meeting.

The last is rare indeed, but that's what I did the other night.  Our state representative held a health care "town hall meeting."  On my list of preferred activities it was somewhat below scrubbing the bathroom floor with a toothbrush, but I put on my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and ventured out into the rain anyway.  Not without a bit of grumbling under my breath, but this was one of the few candidates in memory who actually impressed me in his campaign—or maybe credit goes to the campaign worker who rang my doorbell; those of you who know me know that it takes someone really special to impress me after starting out on such a wrong foot! Anyway, I decided to go because I can't very well complain about what they're doing to health care if I don't express my opinion, and because I think our representative is a good guy and what a shame it would be if he held a meeting to get people's opinions and no one showed up.  I thought I'd at least go and say hi and maybe get to know him better.  (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 11:30 am | Edit
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