Antifragility, information and noise

The last post was intended as an aside, but I think that it actually deserves a lot more. If you’ve ever started to delve into something more as your interest increases, you will understand the meaning of the old Venetian saying that the further you sail from the shore, the deeper the sea becomes; the more data you take in, the less you know what is going on. It is very easy to drown in the data which is available on the internet, in the newspapers, in the library. Newspapers and other news media are among the worst offenders: the need to provide information can skew the information actually received, creating mainly noise, rather than the sound you want to be receiving. The need to provide anecdotes and, often, sensationalism, makes for more sales, but also so much information, which when you lose yourself in it, you lose a sense of perspective. (If you’re reading this in the UK, take your average fuming Daily Mail reader; if in South Africa, The Daily Sun will provide you with all the evidence you need of this!)

If you get deeper into primal living, or vegan diets, or HIIT workouts, or barefoot running, or whatever it happens to be, you will soon be overwhelmed by the information which hits you. One school says one thing, backed up by books and papers of evidence, the other says the exact opposite, backed up by an equal amount of literature. It’s exhausting.

But I want to show you that there are different ways of approaching this very daunting place: it lies in antifragility, and this way of thinking can provide you with the framework you need.

The basic tenet is that detecting (anti)fragility is much easier than prediction and understanding the dynamics of events and complex systems. If your goal is to improve your physical well-being, you can research and find every kind of diet ever devised. You can find fitness regimes to keep you busy all day, every day for the rest of your life. It’s all there, a lot of it supported by very convincing arguments. Read a vegan book and you might come out the other side thinking of the evils of meat farming. Read a paleo book and you might come out thinking that the vegans are building themselves up for a big crash. If, however, you consider your body in the light of its antifragile nature, it is not long before you see that if the framework and the structure is right, then things become much easier. It is the quickest way to perceive the sound, and filter out the noise. You can almost consider it like a high-tech receiver device to pick up messages coming from long distances, which other receivers cannot pick up because of the background noise.

To recap, antifragility is a new term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe things which are the opposite of fragile, i.e. things which actually benefit from a certain degree of harm. Generally speaking, all complex systems can come under this category, unlike simple systems, like a washing machine or a drier which can be switched on and off. Your cat relaxing on top of the washing machine is however a complex, biological thing, and when it is subjected to certain types of stressors, it can actually benefit.

And your body is exactly the same. The complex biological nature is not something that any self-respecting scientist would claim to fully understand: the interactions of every cell, and the repercussions from one cell, to a group of cells, to an organ and to the rest of the body are often too varied and complex to say that there is anybody who fully understands how things work. The more detailed you get, the less you seem to know. But, if you understand and listen intuitively to the antifragile nature of your body, you can act appropriately.

If, for example, you choose to follow part of “primal” living and fast at random periods, depriving your body from food for about 24 to 36 hours, your body is initially relieved of the need to produce hormone spikes to deal with the influx of foods, but then undergoes periods of stress which start your body’s system firing on overdrive. Ignoring the biological reason for this (because this will provide too much information), try not eating from midday one day to midday the next. It’s difficult, but persevere, and make sure that you make up for the time not eating by feasting to balance the fasting (balance being the operative word!) I find that around about hour 14 I begin to feel a tingling sensation in my head, but from that point onwards, no shot of coffee has given me the same buzz and energy. The paleo crowd will tell you that this is part of our biological hard-wiring, and I’m inclined to agree. If you’ve ever been exposed to wild animals hunting, or have watched a wildlife documentary, you will likely recall David Attenborough’s soothing tones telling you about how, in its hunger-fed desperation, a cheetah/leopard/lion/other predator is at its fiercest, because its body tells it that it either eats or dies. Obviously you’re not going to die if you fast for 24 hours, but the body will react in the same way. Added to this, and also by-passing the biological reasons for now, you might find that you feel a lot fresher, lighter and almost detoxed after a fast. And your first meal after will taste like it’s been salted with angels’ tears and fried in the butter of holy cows.

On a side note, it’s interesting to think that in the West it has only been in the last two generations that the vast majority people have not gone hungry for periods on some kind of basis, and that this overabundance actually leads to a situation where people are mentally forcing themselves to fast!

Perhaps it is worth considering the similarities between fasting with food, and fasting with information. See what happens; you may well find that you have a much better grasp on things than when you’re swimming in the nitty gritty!

The same way of thinking applies to exercise as well. There is increasing evidence (all you need to know to begin your own experiments, really) that short but intense periods of exercise are far more effective in increasing your fitness, building muscle and burning fat than previously thought. Conventional thinking has always explained the narrative that hours of medium- or slow-paced cardio on a bike, treadmill or whatever is the way to burn fat, but that is being revolutionized – and antifragility is at the heart of it. Previous posts already explained the effects of short bursts of non-fatal stress on the body as opposed to chronic, drawn-out, daily stress (recap: the adrenaline from surviving a leopard ambush will actually benefit your body if you have ample recovery, as opposed to the small stress you experience on a daily basis, which never really abates, such as traffic jams, weekly reports etc.) and the same applies to exercise. Moderate exercise builds up stress hormones without proper release, whereas very intensive exercise over a short period makes your body into a lean, muscle-building, fat-burning furnace. And you don’t even need to take in the information to know why this is the case, but rather trust the principles of antifragility which dictate that the complex system which is your body will react well to this intense stress, but not so well to the slow build-up. And I must stress again: give it a go and see if you notice a difference!

So how do you go about approaching things to make them antifragile? The essence is that you have to have more upside to downside, by removing the fragility. We can use what is rather neatly called a barbell strategy, a barbell being what weightlifters use, made up of a central bar and weights on either side. If, for example, you are seeking to invest your hard-earned cash, use the barbell strategy to put 90% of your savings into conservative funds which have a very close to 0 chance of ruining you. But use the remaining 10% to invest aggressively. If you win, you can win big, but your loss is maximized at 10%. If you put your weight in the middle of the barbell, however, with moderate risk and moderate gains, you are far more fragile, that is to say that you are exposed to bigger losses, but smaller gains. As Oscar Wilde intuitively and wittily understood, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

When you understand how this works, you can apply it to so many things, particularly for our purposes: your physical fitness. It is being shown time and time again that short, intensive exercise – with regular weight training – supplemented with plenty of effortless long walks provides you with the barbell. On the other hand, spending hours in moderate exercise is making you physically fragile, vulnerable to injuries and illness. You can apply it to other things as well: it is good to expose children to a little bit of risk, but not a lot, so that they can learn from mistakes and avoid more serious injury. Constant protection, in the middle of the barbell, sets them up for serious harm, whether from germs or something more tangible. If you expose your body to huge amounts of adrenaline and stress from, say, bungee jumping or bridge swinging, followed up by plenty relaxation, you do your body a great service, making it more alert generally. Put yourself in a bubble, however, and you will find yourself stagnate. Moderation will kill you.

So to round things off, when you begin to drown in data, approach whatever the system is with the understanding of antifragility and then, both metaphorically and literally, step up to the barbell.

For an added element to this post, please try describing to me complex situations you find yourself in, and try to apply antifragility to it. Let me know what happens, and if your approach changed in any way!

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An Aside: Knowledge and Wisdom

I recently read a quote, the author of which I cannot remember, but it went something like this: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put tomatoes in a fruit salad.” With that in mind, in the last few weeks I have been reading a lot and acquiring a lot of knowledge, but it is only now that a modicum of wisdom has begun to show itself.

Taking off from the previous post, I started getting deeper into the food supply and the effects of different ways of eating on it. The vegans take the high ground on this one (and on everything else), saying that farming animals, particularly cattle, is hugely damaging to the environment, far more so than even, say, air travel. They say, correctly as far as I can tell, that the areas taken up by food for the animals is so inefficient in terms of the water use and the other potential uses of that land (the most common example is the Amazon rainforest being chopped down to make space for delicious Brazilian cattle).

Although they may be correct in this regard (but that depends on who you ask), I also read of so many cases of how a vegan diet can in fact be terrible for your body, depending on your individual body of course. Many people can thrive off of it, but not everybody, the most famous example (because she wrote a book about it) being Lierre Keith, author of “The Vegetarian Myth”. I once met a guy in his early 40’s who told me that his parents, as vegetarians, had brought him up in the same way from a very young age. Up until his 30’s he said he had very low energy levels until somebody suggested that he started to eat meat. When starting to eat meat, like a biblical miracle, his energy levels began to soar, he started to hit the gym, he was even promoted at work. He told me it had something to do with his blood type, suggesting that, again, what works for one, does not work for another. So although veganism might have an environmental point, I do find their militant writings about how nobody should eat meat very frustrating and close-minded. What I would rather see is a different way of supplying such meat, as a way of accepting that no size fits all.

So is it possible to change the system of food supply to cater for widespread consumption based on the “primal” way of living? Can everybody on the planet possibly make 1/3 of their diet comprise of meat, fish and chicken? With a kind of painful inevitability, some say sure, some say definitely not. If everybody wants 100% organic, free-range etc. beef grown as locally as possible, this is going to require a lot of grassland close to big cities, and a huge number of cattle roaming across these seas of green. I am neither a farmer nor a city planner, but this seems unlikely.

This was the stage in my own reading that I reached information overload, and brings me to the point I want to make. You can have a huge amount of information and knowledge at your disposal, which is very useful if you can call on it at will, but everybody with an internet connection also has it at their disposal. And the fact is that the internet is a very loud place, with everybody talking at the same time. One of the reasons I started writing here was that I want to save people the time it has taken me to wade through the very thick waters of information (no, I haven’t had a lot of work recently, thanks for asking). What it boils down to is not the knowledge that you gain, but your approach to the knowledge: this is where the ideas of antifragility really come into their own, especially with what we’re talking about here.

What I have encountered in particular when talking about these things with people is that a lot of people will ask about credentials before they believe what you say: are you a scientist? Are you a doctor? No? So how do you know? Well, first of all a good scientist will always be the first to admit that he doesn’t know. All the knowledge that you can possibly acquire over decades of research and study lead to the same conclusion: there is far too much information, too many ins and outs to possibly comprehend the whole story. Every story I have ever read about a scientific breakthrough always ends with the same words, “but further research is required”. I am not saying to disregard the foundations of our entire scientific knowledge, only that you must always be open-minded, and fully aware that what we know, or think we know, changes very rapidly. It is therefore important for you to have a framework within which all the information that is fired at you can move within and adapt to everything that has come before. This is what I would call wisdom.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with a few rules of thumb when looking at the issues in this blog, that is to say with fitness, diet, lifestyle and, later, what that looks like on a much bigger scale:

  1. There are no set rules
  2. Listen to what your body tells you
  3. Know that nobody knows everything, even doctors and scientists
  4. Be open-minded, flexible and adaptable
  5. Try new things
  6. You are not a machine, so don’t treat your body like one
  7. What works for one, does not necessarily work for another

With that in mind, I strongly recommend that you try new things, and read the other posts here!

Post VII: The Evolution Issue

This post follows on from the last, but is something of an aside delving more into the ideas of living based on evolutionary biology, and as The Dude puts it so succinctly, “new sh*t has come to light”. I want to make you privy to this new sh*t. The key point that I want to put across is the way to look at human evolution and how it affects our health and fitness today. The last post tried to balance out two different schools of thought which claim that humans evolved to either run long distances, or to walk, sprint and lift. Or all of that. The importance of this post is to show that evolution works in such a way that it favours traits which help a species to reproduce. And that there is the bottom line. Every living thing lives to reproduce and the traits which they develop are what at that particular period was the most efficient way of acquiring the energy to reproduce.

With that in mind, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, humans began to switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle based in small, sparse populations, to farming and the enormous changes this brought to culture and civilization as we know it. It is the contention of this blog that human diets since the birth of farming and agriculture are worse than they were when humans lived as hunter-gatherers, but that with the knowledge we now have about evolution, the biological and health effects of the food we eat and the physical effects of particular exercises, we can adapt to essentially have the best of both worlds. We can eat as healthily and be as active as hunter-gatherers, but still enjoy the benefits which farming and subsequently civilization and modernity has brought us. Sounds great right?

Most people are familiar with the story of Genesis in the Bible: the Garden of Eden, inhabited by Adam and Eve. The archetypal humans lived in paradise until committing the original sin by consuming the forbidden fruit, following which man was condemned to “toil the fields” the rest of his days. There is increasing belief that this story is derived from perceptions that standards of living fell dramatically after humans began to farm instead of hunt and gather their food, that humans shifted from a place where they could simply pluck at fruits whenever they pleased to having to toil for every calorie of energy they consume. The hours of work which farmers put in (before mechanization) are certainly more than the hours hunter-gatherers need to get the energy they need on a daily basis. So why did people change?

Geological records show that the receding ice age of the epoch, although ultimately heating the planet, was by no means a smooth transition. Decades of heat were followed by decades of cold, leading to intense fluctuations and rapid changes in ecology. At some point, it must have been beneficial for people in South West Asia (modern day Syria, Lebanon and Turkey) to develop agriculture to provide them with enough energy to reproduce, rather than hunt and gather their food, which was not providing enough energy. The benefits of farming at the time became quickly apparent: a lot of energy could be gathered from the grains planted in the earth, and the surplus energy allowed the Neolithic farmers to reproduce more, which allowed their children to work the fields, and continue to produce more energy to increase the population. The surpluses which the farmers could create freed up labour to work on other things, and civilization began to grow on the basis of farming.

But these advances came at a cost. Although the increase in energy led to increases in population and, initially, increases in height, intense farming led to malnutrition, more incidences of disease and cavities in teeth, with significant reductions in height after a few generations. The very monotonous diet coupled with consumption of the less nutritious grains which the farmers grew was the cause of this malnutrition. Although they consumed more calories than hunter-gatherers, the quality of the food was lower and less diverse. The increased amount of starch led to dental cavities, less diverse vitamins and minerals led to increased disease and less protein consumption led to smaller, weaker people.

In our time we have passed through the agricultural revolution as well as the industrial revolution which have led to huge increases in population and the amount of food required to feed it, as well as the technologies we use to create more, and larger food (compare the size of the strawberries in the supermarket to wild strawberries, or supermarket apples compared to crab apples). The current problem is that the food that is used to feed people on an industrial scale is often made industrially, to the detriment of quality as vitamins and minerals are extracted from the soil over and over again. Grains and starches are easily the cheapest and most efficient way of feeding people, but although they provide energy, they provide little in the way of vitamins and minerals. They fill the belly, but they cannot provide you with the nutrition you need. If most of your energy comes from grains, you are likely malnourished, in spite of what the wholegrain cereal packets say!

So if our eating culture is based on relatively new developments in evolution (10,000 years is a drop in the ocean in evolutionary terms) but a very long time in terms of human memory, we have an issue. The vast majority of people look to grains like grain, rice, oats and the like as the basis of meals, the bulk to fill out a plate, and many will consider replacing the beige with the colourful veg as something too expensive, and perhaps time-consuming. But I do think that people intuitively understand that it is not so satisfying: for example, oats have been a staple food in Scotland for centuries because they can grow in difficult conditions, can take a good lashing from the rain and the wind, and can be stored over the winter. In Dr Samuel Johnson’s first English dictionary released in the 18th century, however, the definition of oats was “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Although he seemed to have become bored while writing his first dictionary and in need of humour, his definition seems to belie something intuitive, that the body knows that meals high in starch are lacking in nutrition, and are in fact better fed to support other animals besides humans (although I would dispute the health benefits for horses as well!) I challenge you to try and change the focus of the meals you make, to shift it from being mainly brown-coloured and based on grains to something very colourful with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and some meat which has been produced locally and organically. For example, this morning my breakfast consisted of two chicken drumsticks, tripe (a Zulu dish called usu; I’m staying in South Africa at the moment), spinach, carrots and green beans. My lunch was grilled fish with lemon which took up half of the plate, the other half being cabbage, pepper, cucumber, lettuce, parsley and onion. My dinner will likely consist of beef in a tomato sauce made with garlic and onions, and sweet potato. As snacks I have eaten a couple of handfuls of raw unsalted cashew nuts, two tangerines and half a melon. I am very far from being hungry! I strongly believe that eating in this way provides the body with a great deal more than standard ways of eating, based on starchy carbohydrates. A great deal more information is provided in publications like the Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, or New Evolution Fitness by Art de Vany, and it is not the purpose of this blog to parrot this information. It is already out there and easily accessible.

This post is to show the mismatch between how we eat and how we are designed to eat through millions of years of evolution. Farming has brought many wonderful things (I would not be sitting drinking coffee and writing on a laptop without it), but it has also brought negative consequences for our bodies. We have reached a stage where we are aware of the medical consequences of the way we eat, and it must be changed. This will come from how we produce our food: if the focus of an average diet shifts away from grains, this will radically change the look of your average farm. The next post will therefore look more into the issue of farming, agriculture, the environment and the resonance of individual choices.