Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Urgh, Firefox

I must apologize for the delay: not only is my job keeping me busy as hell, but the days are getting shorter here fast. Night now falls at 8:30 pm, which means that I tend to get sleepy at around 9 pm. The upside to being solar-powered is that during the summer I quite literally do not have to sleep more than 5 hours a day. The downside is that during the winters I practically hibernate. Furthermore Firefox 3.0 is having some issues loading the "Edit blog" part of this site. Safari doesn't work quite as well, and I hate firing up my boyfriend's desktop and generally avoid doing so because it sucks power like a Hoover, amongst other things.

Anyways, with all that out of the way...well, it's not really out of the way, is it? Because all the stressful things in my life haven't been fixed: my job is keeping me busy as hell, the days will continue to get shorter until the winter solstice, I still have no idea what's up with Firefox, and there are two cats and one boyfriend that demand their fair share of my time and attention.

That's the thing with stress--it's always there. If you're not under some kind of stress, then you're dead.

How you deal with it, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ah, stress! Part 1 of 3

I'm going through a rather strenuous time right now--one consequence of doing your job a bit too well is that you suddenly get heaped with tons of work. Added to this is a four-hour commute and my usual life and it's no wonder I've given up on trying to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep (I might almost get there on the weekends).

Stress, strictly speaking, is anything from the outside world that affects you. It is not, by definition, a bad thing: if tomorrow you won the lottery, that too is stress.

In the days of yore, when we hadn't yet earned the genus Homo, stress was running from a jaguar--and fighting like hell when it caught you. The release of epinephrine and norepinephrine enables the muscles to work much harder. Pain responses get blunted. Blood is shunted from organs that don't need it (your gut) to those that do at this moment, as your entire body is devoted to one thing--getting the hell out of there, or beating the crap out of whatever's trying to beat the crap out of you.

Nowadays, we have a more evolved brain, and far more involved lives. Social interactions are no longer limited to who gets pickings at the termite mound. Being able to think means that what we make of a scenario can greatly affect our body's response to it. Someone who has a breakdown on I-95 can panic, get angry, rant at an angry God, or call AAA. These days, very few of us will ever encounter stress of the sort our ancestors did, unless you're unfortunate enough to fall into a den of lions. But the evolutionary mechanisms by which we deal with stress--open the floodgates for epinephrine--have remained the same.

Is this a good thing, or not? Stay tuned.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Skinny: Part 3 of 3

Women are supposedly neurotically insecure about their bodies. I'll admit that I am, though I conceal it better than most (I think--does this confession count?). We think our boobs are too big/small and our asses are too this or that and the glossies have a ball every summer before bikini season when we're supposedly at our wits' end about looking like a walrus. But you know what? It really doesn't matter--if you have boobs and an ass, you'll get hit on--only not by that cute artsy guy in the cafe (who is, of course, taken), alas. Men, it seems, really don't see much else--at least, not if my observations of ogling behavior along Kelly Drive is correct.

At this point I'd also put in a statement about what physical features about men attract women, but in this respect there's perilously little consistency. Women are far more slick about how they ogle men, and their tastes are far more divergent: the Chippendales would have you believe that the ideal man is 200 pounds of pure muscle, but the variety of body types available amongst the Hollywood elite would suggest otherwise (personally, I go for the more slightly-built, like Eric McCormack, but I have to admit, seeing Daniel Craig in Casino Royale took my breath away).

All of which suggests that there is no one true body type that's universally beautiful. Some characteristics are appreciated, undoubtedly--ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, one nose--but if you're reading this odds are you meet someone's expectations of beauty.

So why all the pressure to be thin? Or rather, why, in spite of Marilyn Monroe and the zaftig figures of previous generations, and a resurgence of more normal figures, are women still airbrushed to "perfection" and the figure of a prepubescent boy still considered desirable?

Actually, the real question isn't even why we're still told that we need to look a certain way to be "beautiful". It's why we fall for the line that our bodies, as they are, are not enough--that they must somehow be modified to be beautiful. If you think about it, this is a puzzle: female apes don't feel the need to don high heels and strut their stuff in couture--but I betcha they would if another did it and won the ultimate Darwinian prize: a male.

Which gender self-modifies is irrelevant from this point on. In most species where sexual dimorphism occurs, it's usually the male that gets decked out like a drag queen. Sexual selection is certainly a powerful force when it comes to designing traits that the other gender "likes". But it's not the end of the story. I would suggest that a somewhat more subtle psychological need to be assimilated, especially in social animals (like humans) also plays a key role in why we get gussied up.

That is: women dress up because it makes them more attractive to men. But it also unifies them with other women. Assimilation is not just for the Borg. It makes civilized life possible. And leads to an interesting array of neuroses, like that involving bikinis.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beast: part 2 of 3

Collagen. Copper. Alpha-hydroxy acids. Petrolatum. Retinoic acid.

You can be forgiven if you thought I was talking about a chemistry course. Beauty is as much about looking young as it is about looking, well, beautiful, and today's beauty products promise to reduce wrinkles and cover up age spots and protect from UV rays and do all but wash out the kitchen sink.

There is, alas, no real way to stop looking older. Collagen creams are a hot item, but if you stop and think about it, it's highly improbable that they work the way the ads say they do. It is true that, as you get older, the collagen levels in your skin decrease. It is not true, however, that collagen creams work by "replenishing" collagen levels in your skin. Perhaps they will temporarily, thanks to the addition of retinoic acid. Even more depressing is that simple, inexpensive moisturizers are just as effective at temporarily reducing the appearance of wrinkles than the $30/jar stuff sold at cosmetics counters.

There is sad news for anti-aging diets, too: they don't work. That's not to say that eating tons of fruits and veggies are bad for you--au contraire--but rather, that the aging process is more genetic than anything that you can control.

But what about the magic of calorie-restriction diets? I would posit that, if you're eating tons of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, you're probably not eating as many calories as the person who dines regularly at Big 'n Fatty. I would also posit that, because most healthy foods--such as those found in Japanese and Mediterranean cuisines--tend to be high in fiber, you'll probably get full eating less of it. But neither of these truly illustrate a calorie-restricted diet, which is cutting your caloric intake to 1000-1200 cal/day.

What happens to your body--and, perhaps more importantly, to your mind--when you drop 25-50% of your regular caloric intake (I tend towards the low end, at around 1600/day--it's usually recommended that a man take in 2000 cal/day)? Epigentic changes are almost inevitable when the body takes punishment long enough; there is nearly indisputable evidence that most, if not all, psychiatric illnesses are due to how the genes are changed in response to environmental stressors. It only follows that the body's responses to constant near-starvation would be to go through some changes, too. The science is still terribly convoluted as to exactly which genes get turned on and off and to what extent, but epigentic changes in response to calorie restriction happens, in yeast and mice, and, presumably, humans.

It is unlikely that calorie restriction will ever enter a clinical trial on the scale that would be required to produce meaningful results. Not only do humans tend to live an inconveniently long time, the genetic backgrounds of the participants would need to be far better understood than they are today if we are to avoid the devestating effects of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. While most of the men came though the experience intact, it's a gateway to anorexia in those who are prone to it. Anorexia, with it's 20% mortality rate, is by far the more deadly, whereas even if you're doing everything right with a calorie-restriction diet, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow.

How long you live matters far less than what you do with your life, and how you look while doing it matters far less than whether you enjoy doing it. If you're paying for your wisdom with age, you may as well get the most for your time.