Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lawns: American Dream or Waste of Time?

6 Minute Read

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?
-Henry David Thoreau

Out for a few jogs recently, I've observed massive amounts of manual labor in pursuit of beautiful lawns. Pausing to take note of the machinery, fuel consumption, man hours, and monetary considerations, I've become increasingly curious for the following reasons:

  • Aside from being nice to look at, lawns are objectively worthless. We don't eat them, don't graze animals on them (for fear of trampling and ruining aesthetic value), we don't harvest our grass clippings and sell them at a farmer's market, and many lawn owners forbid people to even set foot on them.
These policies are often enforced by snipers

  • I'm fairly certain our hunter-gatherer ancestors never gave a rat's ass about lawns, nor did anyone have a lawn around the entrance to their cave.
  • At some point in human history, we collectively agreed that a well-kept lawn was to be desired, and that a poorly-maintained lawn was good reason to believe ol' Gil Carruthers had been laid off from the hat factory again, and that his wife probably left him for good this time.
  • So where did all this come from? Why do lawns dominate the landscape despite a bewildering amount of upkeep and an equally bewildering lack of objective value?
History of Lawns

The concept of beautiful, worthless lawns at the entrances to private residences and public buildings dates back to the late Middle Ages in France and England. Back then, no peasant could afford to waste land, time or energy on grass, so lawns were reserved for aristocrats interested in showing everybody up. A rich, manicured lawn in front of the chateau shouted to every guest and passerby, "check me out, bro. I ball so hard I can just waste a bunch of land and have my serfs do all the labor."

Built in the early 1500s, Chateau de Chambord (roughly 200km south of Paris), is credited with originating the lawn as we know it.

During the ensuing centuries, we Homo Sapiens grew to associate lawns with power, wealth, and social status. As the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the middle class and provided it with mowing machines and automatic sprinkler systems, suddenly millions of people could afford to cultivate a home field and let all the neighbors know what time it was (metaphorically).

King Francis I? Nope. Kenny Powers.

We tend to think of the destruction of animal habitats as caused by industry, agriculture, oil pipelines, and republicans, but don't lawns do the same thing? According to this article in the Chicago Tribune, roughly 95% of land in the lower 48 United States has been developed into cities, suburbs, golf courses, and farmland. Lawns account for more land usage (over 40 million acres) than corn, wheat, and fruit combined. In fact, a whopping 20% of the land areas of Massachusetts and New Jersey are lawns. 

Meanwhile, the honey bees that pollinate our food are dying off at troubling rates, monarch butterflies are nearing extinction, and the global ecological balance grows increasingly out of whack with every new subdivision.

Some more fun facts:
To be fair, I'm aware that there are people who pride themselves on their lawns, that genuinely enjoy lawn maintenance as a meditative hobby, and that possess limitless wisdom when it comes to various sods, fertilizers, and edging techniques. If this makes them happy, of course they are free to mow.

But it is also true that one in five Americans rates lawn maintenance as his/her least enjoyable chore--below raking leaves, folding laundry, and even emptying the dishwasher (easily the worst one). Perhaps Washington Post columnist Christopher Ingraham was on to something when he wrote, Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them.

But what would go in their place? Field turf? Japanese rock garden? Having spent the majority of my life around homes in cities and suburbs of the American Midwest, I've had a hard time picturing a front yard without a lawn. What would that even look like?  Out for a jog earlier today in my native Plymouth and Canton, Michigan, I found two contrasting properties:

Hanford Rd., Canton, Michigan

Gyde Rd., Canton, Michigan

Which of these properties is more visually appealing and which is a more desirable place to live are both debatable. However, there is no debate when it comes to which requires more time, money and energy to maintain. The average American spends 70 hours per year on lawn care and that's including people who live in apartments AND those who don't enjoy that household responsibility. For those in charge of their lawns, that number is certainly much higher. 

Time is a non-renewable resource. Are lawns worth it?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Watch Your Language

3 Minute Read

Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
-William Shakespeare

Behold! Marcel Duchamp's 1917 work of art, Fountain:

Here's the backstory, 100 years ago (almost to the day), my man Duchamp purchased this mass-produced urinal, signed it with a pseudonym (R. Mutt?), and popped it into a museum. Initially, the Society of Independent Artists rejected Fountain and refused to display it at an exhibit. 87 years later (2004), a group of 500 selected British art world professionals named Fountain the most influential art work of the 20th century--ahead of works by guys like Picasso and Matisse.

Is it art? As it turns out, Fountain simply exists as an objective thing and it's up to us as individuals to determine its meaning--if there is one at all.

Art and urinals aside, what about the rest of our world and all of our opinions about it? Which foods we prefer, whether or not today's weather is convenient, whether or not we are successful, our emotions, on and on. Who decides what we call "good" and "bad"?

For example, Simon Sinek (so hot right now in the intellectual community) used to be nervous before speaking in front of large groups. Then he realized that the symptoms that accompany nervousness---increase in heart rate, perspiration, anticipation of what's coming, etc.--are the exact same as those that come along with excitement. In short, nervousness and excitement biochemically identical, and the difference is in how we choose to interpret these sensations.

Nervousness and excitement aren't the only emotions we make mistakes about, countless psychological studies have revealed that perceived "good" and "bad" emotions are so similar to one another that we often can't tell the difference. People mistake fear for romantic arousal, and often find jokes to be hilarious even though they can't understand what's so funny.

Is this love or am I terrified?

We often talk of weather as pleasant or unpleasant, but how can this be? Isn't weather just an objective reality? Can we choose to enjoy a cloudy day and call it good?

Defining Success

In addition to our difficulty in defining art and determining how we feel, we also seem to drive ourselves nuts trying to figure out if we are successful or not. Evolution has hard-wired us to want to fit in with the tribe, to compare ourselves to others, and to define our worldly success accordingly.

Now that we no longer live in tribes, any success we achieve is usually followed by meeting other people who are more successful and who make us feel insignificant. Then, we subconsciously define them as successful and we are (by default) striving for success again.

Up to Us

At the end of the day, it's up to us. There's the objective world--weather, the opinions of other people, and urinals--that is not our to change, and there's our opinion of that world which is entirely up to us. When defining success, are we using an inner or outer scorecard? As billionaire investor Warren Buffet explains, if we place our self worth on what we perceive the outside world thinks of us, we're setting ourselves up for disaster.

By directing attention inward, however, we take control and decide what everything means. We decide if life is a urinal or a work of art.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sugar is the New Stalin

7 Minute Read

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.
-Bob Marley, Redemption Song

You probably haven't recently thought to yourself, "I wonder what, if any, is the overlap between Stalin's tyrannical rule of the 20th century Soviet Union and the sugar industry's relationship to the current obesity epidemic?" Don't worry, I've got you covered. I'll even weave in some March Madness for entertainment purposes.

Here we go:

If there were a March Madness-style office pool for "worst human ever," the most popular pick is probably Hitler. Hitler's atrocities are well known, he had a trademark look (swastika and ridiculous mustache), much like North Carolina's basketball pedigree is well-documented. UNC frequently plays on primetime against Duke and other longtime rivals, and celebrated alums such as Michael Jordan and Rasheed Wallace are often in attendance.

Stalin, who I've lampooned before, is more of a Gonzaga. Yes, he's a #1 seed and not exactly on a surprise run, but there is less certainty around Joe Joe. The scale of his atrocities (such as how many Ukrainians he starved) are still debated, and the facts that do exist came to light long after his death. Similarly, even long-time college basketball enthusiasts such as myself couldn't tell you what conference Gonzaga plays in or who their arch rival is. Stalin's atrocities (much like sugar's) live in a Gonzaga-like uncertainty.

By the way, if such a bracket pool were to come up, I'm going with Uday Hussein as a sleepy five-seed to take the crown.

OK enough hoops. Let's get down to it.

Stalin ruled the then-Soviet Union from 1922 - 1953 (before just kinda mysteriously dying) and was pretty much a cheat and a liar the whole time. A few highlights:

  • Stalin is ultimately responsible for Holodomor, a man-made mass famine in the Ukraine from 1932-1933 that starved millions of Ukrainians. Soviet officials initially denied this even happened, then early estimates ranged from 1.8 million to 12 million starvations. Quite a range. More recent estimates are between 7 and 10 million.
  • Stalin's Gulag prison camps were home to actual criminals and anyone who disagreed with Stalin on anything...which was also a crime. These labor camps existed throughout the Soviet Union and were probably home to 15 million different people at one point or another. It's impossible to estimate how many people were killed as a result of this.
  • The one that really caught my eye is known as the Katyn Massacre: After ordering up the executions of over 25,000 Polish POWs in early 1940, Stalin personally told a Polish general that they'd "lost track" of the POWs somewhere in Manchuria. A year later, Polish rail workers found the mass grave of POWs, so Stalin blamed the Germans until the day he died. It wasn't until 1990 that the Soviets took responsibility.
At any rate, Stalin was able to pull this off largely because of the cult of personality he created early on. Cult of personality refers to the usage of propaganda, mass media control, and political thuggery to create a larger than life, often worshiped image. Soviet children grew up believing Stalin was their protector, their source of anything good, and that he was to be adored. 

Oh but he seems so grandfatherly!

This cultish brainwashing was so unavoidable for Soviet children that when they became adults, they were unable to know any other reality. So there's 31 years of Stalin for you.

Let's pivot and look at sugar:

Again to deliver a March Madness perspective, let's look at cigarettes and sugar. In terms of damage to your body, cigarettes are Hitler and North Carolina and sugar is Stalin and Gonzaga. We're well-aware of how bad cigarettes are, but sugar has been living in a confusing Stalin-zone since 1967, when the Sugar Research Foundation paid Harvard scientists about $50,000 to conduct BS studies that would find saturated fat--not sugar--to be responsible for heart disease and obesity.

As obesity related illnesses have annually killed millions of people in the 50 years since the Harvard study, big sugar companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle have thrown millions upon millions of dollars at various public health organizations and studies to--at the very least--keep us confused as to what's making us fat.

Look no further than the food nutrition label on anything in your cabinet to see the Stalinesque brainwashing in action. Today, when you look at the nutrition facts, there will be government recommended daily amounts of each nutrient. You will not find a daily recommendation for sugar:

This is called 'Pullin' a Stalin'!

It may be news to some that sugar is the worst thing to happen to public health since the plague, but countless recent studies have found that eating too much fat doesn't necessarily make us fat, but eating too much sugar definitely does. Looking at the top ten causes of death in the US, a high-sugar diet (aka, the typical American diet), is a direct contributor to at least six (heart disease, cancer, stroke, alzheimer's, diabetes, and kidney disease), and you wouldn't necessarily be considered a lunatic if you tried to argue sugar has at least an indirect hand in the other four (lower respiratory disease, accidents, influenza/pneumonia, and suicide). 

Sugar's tyranny developed a cult personality and turned turned full-blown Stalin in 1977, and continues today. Consider the early life of a middle-class American child:

These are real

  • Once able to operate (and crave) an iPad, YouTube soon follows and children barely a year old are peppered with advertisements for sugar nonsense. These ads, displaying Stalin-like contempt for human life, often involve adored movie and television characters--further twisting young imaginations and creating a nation of addicts:

Whatever it takes 

  • With mind-bending ads continuing in the background, children are then exposed to American cultural events such as holidays. These annual celebrations often began as religious and national days of remembrance, but sugar has rendered them almost unrecognizable:
    • While still sort of about love, Valentine's Day is the only time you'll ever buy a random box of chocolates and put yourself through the torture that is eating those chalky candy hearts with the writing on them.
    • Easter - Once a celebration of the resurrection of the son of God, today's child is exposed more to pursuits of sugar-filled plastic eggs, chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and the somehow-still-a-thing sugarbombs known as Peeps.
    • Although we've definitely lost sight of the meaning of the Fourth of July (the USA's first day as a place), American culture seems more focused on explosives, cheap beer, and assorted meats than sugar. 
    • Do yourself a favor and try to explain Halloween to a Slovenian. I did this once, and it went something like this, "well, alright, so I think it used to be about being scary or something, but now it's kinda morphed into kids dressing up like various cartoon characters, and going door to door to get sugary items from strangers. Then, when these kids grow up, the ladies dress like scary prostitutes and men use it as a reason to get hammered."
    • Throw in Thanksgiving pies and a month of Christmas cookies and you see the point I'm trying to make.

One striking difference between these two ruthless killers is that many of Stalin's kills involved horrifyingly slow starvations, while sugar's MO is directly responsible for the first time in human history that there is too much food, and overconsumption is the problem. For those who enjoy graphs as I do, I grabbed a few from this health blog (worth reading):

To bring this puppy full circle, I used to run two marathons per year (2013-2016) while eating whatever was in front of me and "doing my best" to eat vegetables now and again. I weighed well over two bills and just assumed that's how things were supposed to be until a nasty case of plantar fasciitis forced me to stop running for almost a year. During that time, I read a few books and decided to stop eating sugar and carbs in an effort to offset the new sedentary lifestyle. In three months of inaction, I lost thirty pounds, had to buy new jeans, and I found myself with more energy and focus throughout the day. 

Which brings us back to Stalin. It's weird to think about the life of a Soviet peasant, and the type of courage it probably took to even think there could be another way. Whereas Stalin died before communism fell, other communist dictators weren't so fortunate. 

Nicolae Ceasescu (chow-CHESS-koo), Romania's mustache-less version of Stalin from 1965-1989, was essentially overthrown during a speech in the middle of Bucharest on December 21st, 1989. You can see it in the video below at about the 2:15 mark, homeboy is delivering a seemingly routine speech complete with Trump-like statements such as "I believe in the best for Romania!" and "Hey this whole me being in charge thing is gonna continue and thus everything will continue to be rad!" Then, a small group (probably aware of the recent fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolutions in other Eastern Bloc countries) starts to boo and jeer. Please, do yourself a favor and watch the look on his face when this happens:

For those curious as to what happens to Ceasescu, after 80,000 Romanians collectively decided they don't buy his bullshit anymore AND that there are way more of them than there are of him and his cronies, they force themselves into Ceasescu Tower (or whatever), he escapes via helicopter, then is captured, tried, and executed (with his wife) four days later.

Here's my point with all this: If Romania can collectively shift their mindsets and overthrow their Stalin, is the same thing possible for us with Big Sugar? How can we collectively become aware of this imaginary order and Ceasescu the sugar industry?

I'll tell you how. Take the Fed Up 10 day challenge , Ceasescu your personal sugar industry for a week and a half, and see how you feel. I blogged about my experience about six months ago when I was eight days into it. A sip of soda is a sip of Stalin. It doesn't have to be this way!