An interesting examination of Barak Obama’s inaugural speech, by Jonathan Raban.

Just a couple of things to mention: Roosevelt’s Depression-era first inauguration speech contained a condemnation of bankers and financiers, with a strong allusion to Jesus driving the corrupt money changers out of the temple. Raban says this was an unconscionable antisemitism, which FDR must have overlooked or else agreed with. It is a shame that he should make this association, which is not forthcoming from the biblical story, in which the money changers were indeed Jewish, but so was everyone else in the temple, including Jesus himself.

Raban looks askance at the use of “forbearers” in the sentence “we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers”. However, while it is true that “forbear”, when it doesn’t mean ancestor, generally means endure, withstand or put up with, it should also be usuable in its most literal sense, “to carry before”. While it is most likely that “forbearers” is simply an error, it also has a perfectly acceptable alternative meaning as a reference to those who previously maintained the ideals of the United States.

The sentence “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America” contains a musical reference I haven’t seen noted elsewhere: the song Pick Yourself Up, by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, as first heard in the Fred Astaire film Swing Time (1936). Was this a conscious reference to the spirit of the Depression, a sly pointer to a love of Broadway tunes or Astaire films, or mere coincidence?

Obama gives an historical quote from “the father of our nation”, who listeners naturally assumed to be George Washington, but who was actually Thomas Paine. But would anyone refer to Paine as “the father of our nation”? Rather than a subtle piece of historical knowledge, this attribution may actually be a simple mistake.

Finally, Raban says the most unusual thing about this speech is that, for all its deference to archaic forms and niceties, it strongly condemns the inauguree’s predecessor. I think history will say that the real innovation is that the speech was addressed not just to America, but to the citizens of the world. In a way, this globalised address out-Bushes Bush, and his pretentions to be the teacher of the world. At the same time, it matches Obama’s revolutionary use of new communication methods to build popular support. I think this may be the first time the inaugural ceremony has been broadcast live around the world (following a similar precedent for the presidential, and, indeed, vice presidential debates). It may not be the last, and if it is not, Obama’s reign may see the dawn of what the neoconservatives have been calling for, “the new American century”. (Which will, of course, be nothing at all like “the thousand year Reich”!)

An interesting article published in the second half of last year went largely uncommented (to my knowledge), despite its potential to “ignite a media firestorm”. It went unnoticed because it was published in an academic journal (popular journalists usually begin and end their research with the latest issue of Popular Science), and because drug researchers in the United States have had enough of being the whipping boy for each “unhelpful” piece of research that is allowed to emerge from their tenuously-funded labs.

I am drawing some small attention to it here because I think such an unusual finding should not be hidden from view. However, I should caution the unwary with one of the most fundamental principles for assessing scientific literature: ONE STUDY PROVES NOTHING. There have been plenty of medical stories published on slow news days that rely on one single paper (or sometimes just a press release), which may be statistically or methodologically flawed, biased, ignorant of relevant discoveries in related research, or just lumbered with a misleading abstract (summary). Only repeated examination by multiple researchers and reviewers will allow us to draw a strong conclusion one way or another.

A.L.C. Chen, T.J.H. Chen, et al. (2008). Hypothesizing that marijuana smokers are at a significantly lower risk of carcinogenicity relative to tobacco-non-marijuana smokers: evidenced based on statistical reevaluation of current literature. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 40(3): 263-272.


A hypothetical link between marijuana smoking and cancer has been established based on a number of misleading assumptions. However, recent studies tend to suggest, if anything, an inverse association between marijuana use and cancers. To test the hypothesis that marijuana smoking significantly lowers the risk of developing cancer in humans, we analyzed published data from a prospective cohort study on cancer incidence among nonsmokers (NS), marijuana-only smokers (MS), tobacco-only smokers (TS), and marijuana and tobacco smokers (MTS). Using the log linear model to calculate the probability of developing each cancer form as a function of the interaction between marijuana and tobacco smoking, as well as functions of marijuana and tobacco smoking main effects whereby chi square statistics were calculated for the interaction and main effect estimates, we found that in all cases tested there was a significantly lower risk for MS compared to TS. Male and female TS had a greater probability of developing lung cancer (r = 0.72) than did MS (r = 0.02). Males and females TS had a greater probability of developing lung cancer (r = 0.72) compared with NS (r = 0.05). Males and female MTS had a slightly higher probability of developing lung cancer (r = 0.73) than did MS (r = 0.07). This difference was statistically significant: c2 = 30.51, p < .00001, with a correlation coefficient of -0.75, Z = -7.84, p < .05. Male and female MTS had a lower probability of developing lung cancer (0.23) than did TS (0.77). This difference was statistically significant: c2 = 71.61, p = .00003, with a correlation coefficient of0 .61, Z = 5.06, p < .05.

The study they examine is in:
S. Sidney, C.P. Quesenberry Jr, G.D. Friedman, I.S. Tekawa (1997). Marijuana use and cancer incidence. Cancer Causes and Control 8(5): 722-8.

As the authors say in their conclusion, “our re-evaluation of a large cohort study indicates that marijuana smokers are at a significantly lower risk of cancer relative to those who smoke tobacco and not marijuana.”

What the authors do not dare to state in their abstract or conclusion is that Marijuana-only smokers have a lower probability of developing lung cancer than Non-smokers. This information is available within the body of the paper (p.269): “For all sites [i.e. all cancer sites examined: colorectal, lung, melanoma, prostate, breast, cervix], males and females had a lower probability of developing cancer if they smoked marijuana and not tobacco (r = 0.13) than if they smoked neither marijuana nor tobacco (r = 0.32).” However, in the discussion, they do suggest that “smoking marijuana may treat lung cancer at its roots early on, while treatment still matters”.

They also cite a number of animal studies to support their thesis, and they assert that, unlike for tobacco smoking, there is no convincing epidemiological link between marijuana smoking and cancer. The role of adulterants in commercially-sold tobacco, as opposed to illegally-produced marijuana, is not considered here.

Why low-carb isn’t crazy

21 January, 2009

I had a short argument with my boss the other day about my current diet, which cuts out pretty much all carbs except an apple or two a day. She insisted that this is unhealthy – she said that “The brain needs sugar.”

I tried arguing that losing weight ultimately means reducing energy intake, or increasing energy usage. When she goes walking to lose weight, where does she think the energy to walk comes from? The body uses what joules are in the blood (coming in via digestion of carbs and sugars), but this doesn’t cause weight loss, having a preventive effect at most. The weight loss comes when this energy has been depleted – now the body begins using its fat stores.

Why is a low carb diet still so shocking? People are used to taking in a large amount of carbohydrate, sugar and fat every day, and they get cravings if they attempt to cut down or desist. Thus they assume that this high energy diet is crucial to normal health.

However, our hunter-gather ancestors did not have bread and pasta and rice in their diets, yet somehow managed to live to adulthood, reproduce, and spread their species all over the earth. Most other animals do not share our modern high-energy diet; our primate relatives largely subsist on leaves.

Here’s an interesting thing: about 10,000 years ago, people started living in permanent settlements and farming their food. In particular, they farmed wheat and other grains for bread. What attracted humans to grain foods? If you’ve ever seen a head of wheat, you’ll know that getting the grains out is difficult. Once you have a few grains, you’ll find they are very hard and almost impossible to chew. And these are the domesticated breeds we’ve developed over 10,000 years – the original wild grains would have been even more recalcitrant.

You have to have a very large field of grain to feed a tribe their daily bread. You have to reap the grain, thresh out the grain, and do this a lot if you want more than a couple of biscuits’ worth. You have to grind the grains with stones, then combine the powder with water to make handling it easier. Some bright spark discovered that cooking this mixture made it taste better, and also reduced the indigestion caused by eating something that is essentially glue.

Why was this so attractive to our ancestors, when our hunter-gatherer diet had consisted largely of foods that did not require such time and effort to make edible? What drove them to abandon their old way of life, and their old diet?

The cause is biological. In the wild, certain nutrients that are essential for our survival are very rare. Of our ancestors, those who craved the taste of foods containing these nutrients out-survived those who did not, and so these cravings became universal characteristics. We can deduce what these food properties are simply by examining our own cravings: we like salt, we like sugar, we like fat, we like protein, we like carbohydrates (which our body converts to sugar).

Now, silly old evolution didn’t know that we would crave these things so much that we would actually settle in farming communities in order to produce more of these foodstuffs, nor that our intelligence would eventually enable us to produce an overabundance of these foods. Evolution never imagined that our cravings would drive us, and our culture, to our current situation, where we can freely eat so much of this stuff that it’s not good for us, it’s bad for us.

Now those of us who are healthiest are those who do not crave the essential nutrients, and those of us who are conscious of what we eat. You don’t need to be pro-ana to see that our ultra high-energy diets are abnormal and unhealthy, but you do need to realise that when dieticians say “eat more green leafy vegetables and fruits”, what they don’t go on to say, but should, is “cut down drastically on high energy foods like grains and potatoes”.

Grains and potatoes, by the way, are touted by the WHO and other do-gooders as the solution to the world’s food problems. Yeah, they are cheap and easy to grow, but why not just recommend eating at McDonald’s instead? You’ll be at least as healthy as if you subsisted on bread and potatoes – just ask the Irish. This simplistic dietary solution to world hunger exacerbates our blindness to the abnormality and unhealthiness of the modern, civilised diet.

The healthiest way to eat is lots of vegetables, and a little bit of meat. I’m not even sure we should still be eating dairy – after all, what wandering tribesman gets to regularly milk a large quadruped for his pleasure? (Oo-er, that sounds rude!) Sure you need calcium, but you are probably losing a lot of calcium due to eating too much salt and protein (including milk protein); (also alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, and foods containing phosphorus). You can get a good amount of calcium from green leafy vegetables (but not spinach and chard), eggs, nuts and fish (broccoli and oranges are both a great source of calcium). Exercise also helps stop the bones losing calcium.

So go ahead and cut out carbs – it’s a healthy thing to do. You will suffer cravings, but it’s probably not as bad as coming off heroin, right?

(But if you start fainting, or your skin turns a funny colour, you should probably examine your diet a bit more closely. And after you turn 40, you should probably have your calcium levels occasionally checked, just in case.)