Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Here is a (not so) Faddish Diet Tip

Food is energy. There you have it. Now what on earth does that mean? Well, you may find it ironic seeing dietary advice from a blogger who also wrote a brief ode to Cheesy Nuggets. Also, you may object that the statement has little meaning, or even that it is incorrect, since in addition to energy, food contains other important things like vitamins, trace elements, fiber etcetera. This is all very true. Well, this three word statement is not much good on its own, that is true. Where I found it useful as as a 'handle' for referring to a whole lot of other thinking around diet and around values associated with diet. Please bear with me while I explain.

The term 'energy' here can be read not as a nutritionist may read such a term, but as a physicist may do so. Energy is the potential to do work. The potential to make the human body operate, with all that that entails, but meeting all of its very complex requirements. It is that simple, and that complex. Now, if the term is including all of that meaning, then what, if anything does it exclude? What other dialogue exists around food that is not at play here? Well, there are several and they relate to the social and aesthetic properties that food also carries. Food is a signifier. It is part of systems of communication and of the forming of culture. 

Now hang on a minute, you are saying: how can any way of viewing food exclude those very important qualities, which determine so much of what food actually IS?! Well of course it can't. We are social and aesthetic beings. That is key to our identity. It is what separates us from the auditors (meaning no offense anyone in that line of work. I imagine if you are reading this you are not there by choice). So what then? What possible use can a term devoid of this meaning possibly be? 

Well, it can be of use for one thing: It draws into focus the dual nature of food. Food is both nutrition and meaning. By being aware of this and by carrying with us this three word phrase that can be instantly called to mind to remind us of it, we equip ourselves with the ability to interrogate our food choices as follows: Is this my hunger for meaning or my hunger for nutrition that is calling  to me and to what extent do they coincide? That ability is absolutely fundamental to bringing about lasting dietary change. Most dietary advice focuses on what to eat, rather than on actually changing one's self so that one will naturally eat differently and that is arguably where it fails. Use the three words. Think differently. The eating and the interest in what is known of nutrition will follow. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Use Your Loaf: Poor Quality Discussion Over Bike Helmet Legislation

Today during my drive home, I heard Professor Chris Rissel of the University of Sydney's School of Public Health giving an interview on ABC Radio. 

Professor Rissel said that he had been conducting research into whether legislation that requires cyclists in Australia to wear helmets is beneficial to public health. He said that there is evidence to suggest that the reduction in fatalities and brain damage achieved by the legislation is outweighed by its contribution to other health issues relating to obesity, through the decline in the rate of bicycle usage in the Australian population.
Yesterday, according to The Drum he cited statistics indicating that the number had of bicycles had grown only 21 percent between 1986 and 2006; a period in which the Australian population grew by 58 percent. In his radio interview today, he said there were many studies internationally citing Australia as an example of "what not to do to encourage cycling." 

The interview was followed by another interview with a Professor of Medicine, who was asked to give a detailed description of the kinds of brain injuries that can take place during bicycle crashes. This he did, in rather graphic detail.

Many radio listeners called after that and gave descriptions of injuries they had sustained themselves and stories of how bicycle helmets had saved their lives. The only slight interruption to this narrative of 'helmet as savior' and 'bare headed rider as irresponsible' was a single caller who described how he survived a bare headed bicycle crash into the back of a car and was told afterwards by a surgeon that had he been wearing a helmet he would have certainly been either dead or paralysed, based on some form of wedge effect that may or may not be applicable to other such cases.

There was no discussion of the public bicycle stations around Melbourne, the possible nature of a relationship between the helmet requirement and rates of usage, the actual rates of bicycle related head trauma and other conditions or changes therein since the introduction of helmet legislation. 

Now my aim here isn't to argue either way. All I would like to point out is that the outcome of the discussion occurred, whether right or wrong, had far more to do with the rules of newsworthiness than it did with any actual understanding of the research that had been conducted. How so? I shall endeavor to explain. 

Imagine for a moment that Professor Rissel's interview had been followed by an interview with a heart surgeon and the journalist (in this case it w as Libbi Gorr, but let us not blame her for the nature of her occupation) had asked him to describe, in graphic detail, the effects of various heart conditions upon a person't well being and the gradual process of one's internal organs being overwhelmed and choked with fat until they are no longer able to function and we die. Imagine then, if a number of people suffering from obesity were to have called and given testament to the debilitating effects of their condition and their constant fear of death through heart failure or diabetes. After all, as a report later in the evening pointed out, one in four Australians are obese and those are two of the most common health risks to the population, with numbers vastly greater than the incidence of those particular cycling related head injuries that could have been survived through the use of a helmet. Would that have left listeners feeling rather differently about it all? Might the percentage of listeners who spent this evening thinking 'well, perhaps professor Rissel may have had a point' have been somewhat larger?

Maybe, maybe not. After all, people do have other means of forming views on such matters. What is very clear is that we are far, far less likely to hear the kind of radio broadcast I just described than we are to hear shows that run something like Libbi Gorr's effort. Slow and gradual processes cannot compete for news worthiness with the immediacy and impact (if you'll excuse the unfortunate pun) of a head hitting a hard surface. Complex social relationships with multiple causes have no chance against the obvious causality of a simple, blow by blow description of a physical event. A disease is relatively shrouded in mystery when compared to physical trauma. This means that inevitably public sentiment must be distorted. It means that a first hand description of an evocative but statistically inferior (perhaps statistically inferior: Professor Rissel didn't get a chance to tell us whether or not he was able to identify a statistical correlation between helmet legislation and obesity) can influence what we think more than the presumably careful and meticulous work of a researcher over several years. Professor Rissel has been looking into the matter at least since 2010 which is the date given on his public profile for 'Safer cycling: A partnership project to better understand cycling patterns, hazards and incidents' and probably for longer. Though it is right that journalists should question what he is saying and compare it to other sources, the treatment that actually eventuated in this case, and in many such cases where the complex seeks to be heard amid the chorus of simplicity that dominates mainstream media (even the ABC) was dismissive and misleading. 

Prof. Rissel's profile on the University website can be viewed here:http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/people/academics/profiles/crissel.php

A relevant ABC article can be viewed here:

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Saturday, September 08, 2012

VC and PM Have Heartwarming Public Talk about Education


  "He said that Victoria needed the “best higher education, secondary and vocational education we can offer”"  (See linked article)

This is very true. So why are our state government refusing to honor their election promise to make Victorian school teachers the highest paid in Australia? Why are universities still facing financial pressure and reducing staff numbers? All this rhetoric is heartwarming, but there  seems to be somewhat of a gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the situation. Getting the federal government on side is a great start, but they need help (rather than hindrance) at a state level and university governance also needs to be improved.

Universities need to invest more in pure research. It's always easier to get funding for applied research, but most of that relies on pure research that has been done before. We need social theorists in this country too. At the moment there really aren't any. There are many scholars who do social research, but the theory theories they study come predominantly from Europe, the UK and the US. Politicians can easily see the link between developing certain skills in graduates and the economic benefits they provide in the workforce. They can also see the benefit of applied research because it leads relatively directly to new industrial processes and practices. It is far harder to demonstrate that the original concepts being applied are a finite resource and that replenishing that resource also requires investment, as does the building of the expertise for doing so, which has been all but lost.

Saturday, April 07, 2012


Not much time for blogging at the moment. More updates when things are less busy.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What do these two have in common?

Anyone know? Please post your answer below as a comment. No idea? I'll tell you in a few days.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Art of Innovative Consumption - Part 2

Continued from here...

The extreme price differences found in the market for computer hardware in Australia are not necessarily shared by other types of products. What, then, can an innovative consumer do when the product they want is universally costly? What about where there is a monopoly or near monopoly? Well, there are still some options. There are always options.

The second hand market is always worth considering. I grew up with most things bought second hand. New items in our home were a rarity. Most were bought from opportunity shops, but sometimes, just for a treat, we would save up and buy something through the trading post. Now, since the advent of computers - available for less than you think, as those who read part 1 will be aware - we can search through extensive classifieds, bid on eBay auctions, contact locals with things for sale through Gumtree and look up vast amounts of information on the item we intend to buy so as not to get ripped off.

Books are a good example of a product that costs significantly less when purchased online than it does over the counter. Though I do love to look through a book shop and sit in its cafe reading books I am considering purchasing and I will miss the many book shops that have closed recently in Melbourne, the fact is, none of us are made of money and not everyone can afford to pay double or triple the price simply to keep over the counter retailers afloat: they're not a charity. By the way, one way you can buy books is by clicking the adds below this article and ordering them online - new or second hand, digital or hard copy.

The reality is, though, not all the items we want are for sale at reasonable prices and not all the ones at reasonable prices are within our budget. Even if they are, further savings can allow us to invest for the future or make our budgeting more rewarding. The next step in creative consumption is to stop viewing an item in its entirety and begin to consider its component parts.

There are a number of reasons why the cost of a complete item may be more than the sum of it's component parts. Key among these are cost of assembly and the desirability of a complete and usable product.

The mere act of assembling the parts must have required resources. More often than not those resources are human resources and human resources cost money, no matter how much that cost can be minimized by outsourcing to countries without minimum wage laws. By completing as much of the assembly process one's self, one can trade one's time for money. Often the relatively small amount of time that this takes can seem grossly disproportionate to the amount of money it would have cost for the already assembled item. Ikea are hinting at this when they sell you flat packed furniture. As their communication team are keen to emphasize, this also makes it easier to carry home on your car roof rack.

Referring back to the example of computers mentioned in part 1, many computer parts suppliers will charge you for an hour or more of labor at a rate far in excess of what they actually pay their employees, for the assembly of the parts you have purchased. However, this is not always the case: some stores such as Yamada Denki in Japan will assemble your computer parts for you for little or no cost. Of course it still pays to do your homework and research the parts you will choose, since this will enable your to purchase a computer that suits your needs based on parts that represent a good balance between reliability, cost effectiveness and performance.

Assembly costs aside, there is another key factor that inflates the price of complete items when compared to the sum or their components. That is, desirability. It is far easier to market an item that looks complete and is ready to perform its function than one that will require work to assemble. Where components or items not yet assembled are marketed, communication usually centers around images representing their potential. Ikea achieve this by placing on display fully assembled items in a setting that demonstrates their usefulness, mutual compatibility and function. Cake mixes are usually sold with a photo on the box not depicting the little white sachets contained within, but rather the cake you could potentially create by adding the right amount of water and baking in the right dish at the right temperature for the right amount of time. The packaging of computer graphics cards often depicts examples of the computer graphics that may potentially be displayed on your monitor after you have installed the card in your computer, as long as you have the right combination of other components, complimented with the right software.

The point of all those examples is this: products' prices have far more to do with the laws of supply and demand than they do with the cost of manufacture. Demand, in the case of non essential items, relates to desirability and desirability increases dramatically once a product is completed. A completed product performs a function and it looks and feels complete.

However, to the innovative consumer, these virtues offer a completed product only a very short term advantage over the components though, since once we purchase and assemble them, they will gain exactly the same properties as the completed item.

We may even make improvements along the way. We can choose the precise components that suit us, rather than settling for the combination a manufacturer chose. This is very important, because many manufacturers choose the components that will slightly out compete a rival product or slightly outlast a warranty. We, on the other hand, can choose the best combination, giving the product exactly the performance and features we need and finding our own balance between cost and longevity.

One final benefit of self assembly is that by gaining knowledge of the components, we are able to replace them individually when they fail, calling on manufactures' warranties while they apply, or choosing second hand parts once they expire. This saves a great deal of inconvenience and potential cost.

As innovative consumers who assemble our possessions from their component parts, we achieve the next level of mastery over our material lives. The process bears rewards that extend well beyond the financial. We learn and develop as people through interaction with the man made artifacts that constitute a large part of our culture. We become increasingly self reliant, able to recombine parts in new and creative ways. We can perform repairs and modifications. These things are highly satisfying and enrich our lives.

To be continued...

In the mean time, please consider the following books/eBooks. Prices start from $0.99. Part of the proceeds will support this blog. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Art of Innovative Consumption - Part 1

When competition is lacking and prices rise, are there still choices
When competition is lacking and prices rise, are there still choices? Often there are not, certainly not obvious and appealing ones. However, with some creativity and resourcefulness, we as consumers have the ability to move about the market place and fins alternatives in ways business doesn’t factor into its modelling because they are not statistically significant. Doing this can save us a great deal and can enrich our lives in surprising ways. This article will introduce some alternative approaches to being a consumer and discuss some of their merits.

            Being an innovative consumer is a good way to save money. However, other benefits include reducing waste and choosing to support companies and businesses that are good employers and choose environmentally sustainable business models.

            A good first step for many in terms of becoming an innovative consumer is to shop around. Simply calling a few businesses out of the Yellow Pages for quotes is better than nothing, but often the quotes are altogether too similar and the results can be disappointing. Therefore, assuming that one has made a decision to obtain a particular product, one needs to think creatively about alternative ways to obtain it. This means looking beyond the brands and retailers that market directly to one’s own location and demographic and searching further afield.

Though prices are said to be set through supply and demand in the market place, this is slightly misleading because it suggests that there is one marketplace. There are in fact many, and the same product may be competing in several. For example, buying a desk top computer from a major retailer can be a costly business, with retail mark ups in excess of fifty percent and manufacturers using the most basic possible parts in order to keep their profit margins as high as possible. If we compare their prices with some smaller computer shops they may appear reasonable, since many small computer shops aim to compete for the same market segment by keeping prices only slightly lower and offering a similar quality product. It is only when we actively go in search of businesses appealing to a different target market that we are able to see any real difference. For example, if we look for businesses that aim to sell computers to the IT savvy, we see that we are able to obtain a similar system for less than half the price. We may need to wait in line for it and have someone talk to us in high speed jargon with a strong accent, but if we knew what we were after in the first place and did our homework, there it would be. What is more, we would have many options and be able to buy something tailored to our individual needs.
A crucial aspect of innovative consumption that makes the above scenario possible is our ability to do research and know what products will suit us before we approach whomever is selling them. Reading the tech blurbs on the Harvey Norman website it is sometimes difficult to imagine that the products and technologies they offer have anything to do with the jargon and model codes that are used to represent products in the catalogues of IT catalogues. Their language is modified to suit their communication team’s target audience, of whom you may unwittingly find yourself a member if your knowledge of language is restricted to commonly known terminology. To be a truly innovative consumer, you have to learn specialised vocabulary. Learning one or more second language also helps as will be elaborated in part two. Stay tuned.

To be continued…

In the mean time, here is some further reading on the subject. Proceeds appreciated by this blogger.