Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 80

readingsHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

What to do with a simple-minded ruler, medieval edition.

Among the many excuses public figures make when they screw up, “I misspoke” is among the worst.

Apparently, fat but fit is a big fat myth.

More is more: a history of consumerism.

An important thing psychologists know, but most people don’t.

29 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 80

  1. SocraticGadfly

    On the readings:

    First, Trump was at the Vatican last week. Why didn’t Francis declare him praesidentis inutilis?

    Second, “I misspoke” still takes a weasel-words back seat to “mistakes were made.”

    Third, The “more is more” is pretty good; I had read it before. Perhaps the lining of hope is that high material acquisitiveness is not totally ingrained.

    Fourth, per the caveats noted in the piece, I think the end result will be the “fat but fit” idea will become much more nuanced but will not wind up being “busted.” BMI, after all, is NOT a good measure of obesity and was devised by insurers.

    Fifth, the happiness set point? I think it’s more like a happiness set neighborhood, not a point.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel Kaufman

    Rather an ugly title, that “Fat but fit” piece, not to mention the sort of thing that I could see having a very discouraging effect and actually decreasing wellness rather than increasing it.

    I am fat but fit, in the sense that I am overweight, but engaged in a vigorous exercise regimen, much of which many of my far thinner counterparts could not endure. I work out with a personal trainer pretty intensely twice a week, for an hour at a time and drill tennis three days a week, for an hour at a time, going through three or four baskets of 150 balls each session.

    Certainly, I am better off being this way — far better off — than I would be if I didn’t do the exercise, even though the exercise by itself has a negligible effect on weight.

    I am not suggesting that the article doesn’t indicate this — it does — but the title, tone, and organization of it is the sort of thing that might lead a fat person to cease his or her exercise regime, regardless. Losing weight, especially at older ages, is very very difficult, and if someone is told that they cannot be “fat and fit” they may throw up their hands.

    Not saying the article is technically inaccurate, but given the title and the way it is structured, I could see it doing more harm than good with any number of people.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Massimo Post author


    I agree. I think the title is an unfortunate example of the clickbait attitude. Then again, it’s not like newspapers didn’t go for attention grabbing titles before the internet.


  4. SocraticGadfly

    Oh, true on that, Massimo. That said, not all of us, on those headlines!

    That said, on weight, BMI, while promoted by insurers (easy way to raise rates!) actually goes back to the 19th century. An NPR Q&A on how it’s wrong:

    That said, extra weight may still have a mild effect on the cardio even for more fit people. And, if it’s not muscle or bone, extra weight can still have non-cardiovascular health affects, such as joint stress.

    At the third time, although individualized medicine or genomic medicine has a lot of fluff stories so far, there have been some interesting studies. One, on individualized digestion, found that some people can vary WIDELY from normal as far as what foods are high or low hypoglycemic index for them.


  5. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, on further thought, the “happiness set point” idea suffers from Gilbert et al never expressing it in “nature via nurture” terms. They wind up making it sound too genetically deterministic. In fact, on the Independent’s page for that story was a link to another story about the happiness (from a set of surveys) of gay couples around the world, and it varied HUGELY. I too would probably be kind of “sad,” at a minimum, if I were gay and in a country that promised to decapitate me if I were found out.

    We all have different temperaments, of course, but the heritable part of that is a “tendency towards” happiness, grumpiness, or whatever.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author

    By the way, dear readers, I declare the switch to moderation on this blog a huge success. There are fewer, but more thoughtful posts, and less nastiness. Pat on my own back, and you are welcome.

    Liked by 8 people

  7. ejwinner

    Some pretty light reading this week, with one exception. I was especially disappointed with the article on “misspeaking,” it doesn’t really go anywhere.

    The exception is the review of Empire of Things – an insightful discussion that inspires reading of the book. IT is remarkable that no matter what our posture on any social, political, cultural issue, we do end up increasing our consumerism. And the article raises the inevitable question, is there a breaking point to this multiplication of consumption? And have we reached it? Although I share that author’s pessimism, I’m not sure that there is such a breaking point that causes us to rethink our lifestyles. After all, constructing niche lifestyles in opposition to consumerism just creates new forms of consumerism.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, I know you’ve said in the past you don’t agree with all links you post, but … as you’re certainly not a “nature only” biologist yourself AND that piece’s ideas also don’t entirely square with Stoic ideas, why did you post it?


  9. synred

    Alternately, people predict they are going to be more devastated by losing their job

    Huh? I found losing my job as bad or worse than I thought it would be!

    Now I’m bored enough to read this blog and comment (mostly uselessly and/or stupidly). A ‘like’ from Massimo can be the high light of the day. Sad!

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Bradley Sherman

    BMI is no worse than say P.S.A., and it and never results in unnecessary surgery. All medical screening tests have false positives and false negatives. BMI is unreasonably good: Serena Williams (5′ 9″ 150 lbs) BMI 22.8. Willy Shoemaker (4′ 11″ 98 lbs) BMI 19.8. LaMarcus Aldridge (6′ 11″ 240 lbs) BMI 24.5. BMI test cost: $0.


  11. valariansteel

    On fat but fit:

    1) BMI was always a rough estimate, a shorthand way to evaluate a person’s body habitus. It was never proposed as an infallible rule, but neither is it completely worthless. Take it for what it is.

    2) Per Dan, if somebody reads the title or article and stops exercising, that would be overreacting to say the least. Obviously, the title is a “play on words” (big fat myth”), and yes, it is a “click bait”.

    3) The expression “fat but fit” is intended to serve as a corrective to the concept “fat and fit.” Unfortunately, the term “fat” is too vague and impossible to define. At least BMI is a first step in an attempt to define terms such as “overweight”, “obesity”, and “morbid obesity”).

    4) In many cases, excessive fat is “unhealthy.” There is a mass of medical studies supporting this notion. I recognize the term “excessive” is itself vague, but since my statement is a generalization, it serves a purpose.

    5) The obesity epidemic is the single most destructive contribution of the food industry. We definitely live in a food toxic environment, where sugar, salt, and fat are used to produce foods that are unhealthy and have high caloric count. Lousiana is the “fattest” state in the U.S., barely beating out Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia:

    6) Almost like a world wide viral epidemic, obesity rates have skyrocketed around the world. It’s a horrible and sad legacy that U.S. food manufacturers are responsible for. Roughy 30% of the world’s population — 2.1 billion people — are overweight or obese:

    7) I worked for three years with a general surgeon, and 85% of the practice was bariatric surgery. We performed lap bands, gastric sleeves, and bypass surgeries every week of the year. Our surgery schedule was always full.

    8) Dan is right on target in his statement that exercise has a “negligible effect” on weight loss. I taught patients that exercise is important for health, but it not effective as a strategy for weight loss. That exercise can burn a sufficient amount of calories to promote weight loss is a myth perpetuated by the exercise industry. Yes, calories are burned and consumed, but not in sufficient quantities to control our weight.

    9) What’s the key? Diet, diet, diet. Most people are clueless as to how many calories they consume in a day. To get a grip, start cataloging what you eat and drink on You will probably be stunned at how many calories you take it. Until you get a hold of daily caloric intake, there is no substitute for calorie counting. If people get serious about diet, almost all of them can and will lose weight. Don’t use you metabolism as an excuse (“oh, diet does work for me, because my metabolism is too slow, etc.) The problem is almost always excessive caloric intake. Step away from the fork.

    10) To sum up: cut calories to lose weight, and also exercise (e.g., aerobic & anerobic) for general health.

    11) Fat health professionals are just as hypocritical as the cardiologists who used to smoke.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Massimo Post author


    I don’t find a lot objectionable about the “big fat myth” article, if that’s what you were referring to. If you are talking about the set point stuff, I don’t believe there is a point either, but a natural range yes. Large disturbances and externalities can affect it, but it seems pretty clear that after a while people adjust and get back to their norm.


  13. wtc48

    As a personal observation on the fat/fit subject, I think my bio would refute almost any dietary/exercise plan. I am 81, somewhat undersized (5’7″, 135#), have eaten bountifully (my most outspoken child has never actually used the word “greedy” but it’s in the subtext) and my weight has varied by less than 5 pounds either way since high school, during which time I exercised sporadically, if at all, until my late 50’s, when I took up running. Since then I have run (more like walking lately) between two and three hundred miles a month. Obesity is rare in my family, but I certainly “deserved” to be overweight, at least in my pre-running days. I always thought genes must be accountable, but after reading Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes” I think microbiomes might present a better, more individual, explanation of things like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. sethleon2015

    My experience with regard to exercise and weight is somewhat inline WTC.

    I did lose some weight initially when I took up endurance running in my mid forties. I was running around 30-40 miles a week for about a year, then I had some injuries which kept me from significant running for a few years but was able to keep my stable ( I did do a lot of biking at that time). I then figured out how to deal with my injuries and increased my running to 65- 70 miles a week pretty consistently. Being very careful with my diet the whole time I am still a similar weight 155 lbs at 5 ‘8. I think there is likely a similar set individual point range to weight as to what was mentioned in the happiness research. I think the set point can be affected with a lot of diligence and effort, but that it likely varies quite a bit across individuals ( it’s response to exercise might also vary as well ). Studies show individual fitness change in response to training can vary quite a bit across individuals.

    I agree with Dan that article is poorly framed and titled. I know if I were to post it I would get a lot of scorn thrown my way. I think the basic results could be presented including accounting for the variations due to the bluntness of the BMI measure, issues around lifestyle controls, and individual variation, and the stand alone factor of the weight effect might then have a better chance of being heard.


  15. SocraticGadfly

    Sorry, Massimo that I might not have been clear. I was talking about the article on set point theory. I assume Stoics were indifferent (I see what I did there!) to body mass.

    That said, per the other article I mentioned, I think that even a baseline norm is displaced by chronic unhappiness-inducing conditions, like what I mentioned about being gay in a country like Saudi Arabia. The psychologists seem to look more at acute incidents. Self-reporting of happiness, vs the emotional equivalent of time-and-motion studies, is probably another factor. Also, like the old bimetal-based household HVAC thermostats, some people’s set points vary over more of a range than others.

    After all, Mark Twain told Abraham Lincoln that “You’re just about as happy as lies, damned lies and statistics.”

    (Did I tell you I love to deliberately mangle or mash up quotes about as much as I love bad puns?)

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the idea is useless. But, I don’t think it’s as “aha” as some psychologists might think.

    And, if we do have a set point of sorts, does that mean a lot of people are wasting a lot of money on Marty Seligman happiness seminars?


    WTC: I used to be that way, but in my mid-40s, the metabolism started slowing. I am 6-5, 215 pounds. Would love to be back down to an even 200. I think body weight is probably like longevity — moderately to fairly heritable, but with broad influences from a variety of environmental factors as well.


    Cousin: I hope Thomas and I also helped make your day more “likeable.”

    Liked by 1 person

  16. brodix

    The article on consumerism defines it a little too closely, in my view. We originated as hunter-gatherers, for Christ sake. As I’ve pointed out previously, it isn’t the objects of our desire that truly drive us, but the fact of our desire. In my view it is very much like appetite. We need it, but can’t let ourselves be totally controlled by it. All things in moderation.
    Which very much goes to the psychology article. We focus on ideals of our desires, but the only reality is the present state and happiness involves moderating our desires to our circumstances.
    Arthur offers up a good case example of the current environment. He spent his professional life in a very focused and important line of work and so it likely gave him a very strong sense of motivation, which is very difficult to replicate personally. When you have spent your life building linear colliders, gardening just is not going to have the same pizzazz.
    I, on the other hand, as 5th of six kids, on a family farm, learned very early on that personal happiness had to be carved out of leftovers. Philosophy often grew out of dealing with physical injuries, not studying Plato. As I say, I can’t feel sorry for myself, because I read the news every day. Life is a bitch and then you die.
    Consumerism builds on itself, because our expectations keep rising and like drugs, it takes a little more each time to create the same effect and like drugs, the hangover is a function of how much and far we ride it, before learning a little moderation. Set the expectations a little lower and there is less disappointment. After awhile, you learn to control your desires, almost as much as they control you.
    Life is still a bitch.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. wtc48

    In the fat/fit study, the increased health risk could have been the effect of carrying more weight around (like continually going up hill). They could have used a control group of healthy people of normal weight carrying backpacks.


  18. Iris

    Regarding the ‘important thing psychologists know’ article: I’ve read similar things elsewhere including that observation that your happiness equals the difference between your expectations and your reality. These all assume that people have specific expectations about an event. Yes, they might. But it isn’t automatic. Often people are aware that they don’t know what to expect – and just have a vague notion of ‘I hope the interview goes okay’. It does appear true though that people are poor predictors of their behaviour, which is why attitude tests aren’t very reliable. Thanks for your weekly readings.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. wtc48

    Brodix: “Consumerism builds on itself, because our expectations keep rising and like drugs.” This process may be driven more by the producers than the consumers. If people stop eating Twinkies, there will be many people making 6-figure salaries doing their best to boost Twinkie consumption.


  20. milesmutka

    The long-term health effects of overweight have been proven using statistical methods, in many studies. But there have not been many studies about the long-term health effects of dieting, Why? Sure, most people can lose excess weight and keep it off long enough to take “after” photos. But people who can lose overweight by dieting and keep it off consistently long enough for the long-term effects to appear (more than ten years) are so rare that no universally valid conclusion can be extrapolated.

    Why do we accept the statistical reasoning about overweight being unhealthy, but do not accept statistical reasoning when it comes to losing weight by dieting?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. valariansteel

    Hi milesmutka

    The purpose of dieting, hereby defined as decreased caloric intake, is to return a person to their previous “premorbid” state of health, which they “enjoyed” prior to gaining excess weight leading to obesity. I am not claiming that everything is entirely reversible, but plenty of people have dieted and kept it off for over ten years. Dieting has been studied an nauseum in medicine.

    In fact, bariatric surgery often functions as a “forced” diet. E.g. with the sleeve gastrectomy, the size of the stomach is reduced, and thus the patient is unable to consume the volumes of food that contributed to obesity, and attendant comorbid medical conditions (HTN, DM2, and OSA = obstructive sleep apnea, inter alia).

    Note, however, the sleeve can be circumvented by consuming liquid calories in excess — aren’t we humans clever?

    Though we can always do longer studies, medicine has noted that some hypertensive patients no longer need their anti-hypertensive medications, either altogether or they now need lower doses of the medication in question. Likewise, some patients with Diabetes Milletus Type 2 no longer have to use oral hypoglycemics after significant weight loss. Even primary care doctors have witnessed this positive health effects in their patients who simply dieted and loss significant weight.

    No mystery involved here, and medical science on this point is not guilty of inconsistency. The health benefits of dieting are not unsettled, awaiting further data before we can draw any firm conclusions.


  22. milesmutka

    I guess the topic here was “fat but fit” people, so there would not be any detectable comorbidity, or any abnormal diagnostics whatsoever associated with the overweight. So not the type of people typically referred to bariatric surgery. The article says “no evidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes”, in my reading that rules out being on medication for said diseases. Without reading the actual study it is hard to say if weaker signs such as snoring was controlled for.

    What has been known for some time is that yo-yo dieting is worse for your health than simply being overweight. And of course most people who want to lose weight are not primarily motivated by long-term health anyway. Eating disorders come in many forms.

    But it is interesting how blind we are to the small choices that we make in our everyday lives. Maybe in the not-too-distant future we will offload some of these decisions to all kinds of wearable sensors: Imagine your fitness wristband starting to vibrate angrily when it notices you raising your arm towards your mouth, your digital assistant having kept real-time account of each nutrient you ingest through the day with cameras and sensors.


  23. milesmutka

    In a sense all acquired dependency means offloading parts of your decision-making outside your biological self. That is a good observation. But no one is an island, we modern humans always depend on great many things outside ourselves. It just needs to be assessed case-by-case if the dependencies are parasitic or not.


  24. brodix


    Keep in mind addiction is a habit that becomes obsessive. There is no objective point the grove becomes a rut. We can know it can happen, or recognize it has happened, but the process itself is a continuum.

    The only counter amounts to using other habits to give broader context. At which point we become a generalist, rather than a specialist. “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

    Sometimes addictions can be useful, if the background is kept in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. synred

    Big Fat …

    For Martin Perl Book Club we read “The Big Fat Surprise” by Nina Teicholz. Its thesis is that a high fat diet is good for you.

    It spends a lot of time criticizing low fat diet currently recommended and accuses the scientist behind it of ‘cherry picking’ and worse, but she does the same thing. She finds groups of people such as Eskimos and an Watusi who eat high fat diet and yet have low heart disease rates. The common thread I see among these groups is that they get a lot of exercise obtaining there fat.

    I manged to escape the draft (4F) by eating no carbohydrates for 3 weeks; that was certainly good for my health!


Comments are closed.