Thursday, 26 June 2008

What is in a real treat? Hint: it's not junk food

Hurrah!! for eating close to the earth!

While the general level of understanding about food choices and the importance of healthy eating is certainly increasing, there is a hold-over from the Clean Your Plate Era that I believe just needs to die. 

Every time I hear someone tell me all about how they're improving their diet this, making healthy choices that, moving more, being conscious of this and that but...

...they like a treat now and then... 

My teeth meet and grind a little. Grrr.

How... how? 

How has the lowest-grade, nutrition-free simple salty-fatty-sugary flavour with artificial colours, flavours, emulsifiers and extenders and preservatives crap managed to get such a sweet, cute word? 
'Treat'... wheee. 
 It sounds light, delightful... Why is it attributed to such nasty grub? fresh, local, juicy and perfectly-ripe strawberry. That I could see is a 'treat'. 

A package of six different kinds of sugar, artificial colours made to look like drawings of surreal strawberries, and artificial flavours made to smell or taste like something else entirely, with bha and tri-sodium phosphate? That is supposed to be a treat? 


Is it just the 'fun' packaging?

A couple of years ago, I got over pop. And candy. However much you might be attached to the wonderfulness of candy, I suggest you stop eating it for 3 weeks and then go back to your absolute favourite kind first.

Just try it.
What you'll taste when you try it again is chemicals. Candy is not sweet and delicious... it's just sweet.

A friend noticed that people are no longer satisfied with naturally sweet foods, but prefer sweetened foods. I thought it was an important insight. 

If your palate doesn't experience fresh, ripe raspberries as sweet without sugar (or those ersatz chemical engineering feats called 'sweeteners'), there is something wrong with the palate not the raspberry...and the palate needs to be re-trained. 

So, once and for all... if it's not made out of nutritious food that nurtures and sustains a human body, could we just stop calling it a treat and call it what it really is:

Junk food.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

What Do Grades Have to Do With It?

Ah, grades... 

Remember the lovely, tight horror of seeing an entire year's effort nailed to a piece of paper in one letter or two digits? 

Now, when it's been announced, when you suddenly realize there is nothing at all you can do about it, you realize too late there was more you needed to do...

Had a conversation not too long about about the 'reality' of the fact that people will be grading you 'in the real world' for 'the rest of your life.' 

Well, someone else had that conversation at me. 

Wow, does it ever not match my personal experience. 

Even in the military, a very large organization that thinks it is forced to rate and classify, much the same way the school system does, people don't get 'graded by everyone for the rest of life.'
From this conversation, I remembered one that I'd had years ago with a principal who actually said out loud 
'grades are objective standards.' 
We were in a group setting, and my only response was a snort of derision (because sometimes even I can be restrained).

First, a couple of facts about grades:
  1. largely arbitrary, definitely judged by individuals, each according to their own scale or their own interpretation of the 'objective' scale,
  2. like the winner of the Stanley Cup, no more a statement about this whole person and their whole knowledge of a subject than any single game is a determination of the 'best' team in the league -- even when the grade is compiled from more than a single exam,
  3. determined from the grader's understanding of the material, which certainly may be based on dated information, and the grader may simply be less knowledgeable than the person being graded (this becomes a critical problem by post-secondary, when an instructor may be the person in the room with the least experience in the field in the real world),
  4. related far more, it has been very clearly demonstrated with some very creative and devious research, to the grader's opinion of the victim than the victims' actual knowledge (everything from 'the better looking the student the better the grade' to the instructor's prior knowledge of the student-- ask any third child in the same family going to the same school about this),
  5. related to the grader's preferred learning style-- expressions that match that style are marked more highly than expressions that conflict with it, even when they're both correct,
  6. sexism is alive and well in education, and grades reflect that bias, too,
  7. based on the unsupportable idea that what is known in 'this' context (whether that be 'right now during this test' or 'expressed in this assignment' or 'how extraverted the student is and whether or not said student participates enough in class'), which generally means that students with more stable lives have better grades overall, being the least likely to have something tremendously distracting demolish the score on even one assignment or exam,
  8. based on the hiliariously impossible theory that in a random, small group of individuals it is not possible for all of them to be extremely capable.
That last one really annoys me. 

I've been in groups of more than 30 people who were all, judging by their conversation and behaviour, true idiots. But if they were all in a classroom together, some of them would receive B's on their work anyhow. Potentially, some might even win an A. 

Conversely, I've been in a classroom with 17 geniuses who all understood the material at a very high level, and some of them actually got C's.
This is the 'statistically unlikely' idiocy that makes people who don't understand statistics attempt to force 'averages' onto very small populations. 

The fact is, if there are 10 people in a group, the chances of them scoring on a bell curve in any metric is ludicrously unlikely. 

It is much more likely that there will be clumps of identical scores. Teachers, who often know more than is good for them but less than they need to, are uncomfortable with this reality and will not give out 5 A's in a small class, even if there are no differences between those 5 students' knowledge or skills. 

Of course, this also reflects the insanity of the system that would certainly flag that many A's in one class as 'probable cheating.'

Now, having mostly been in the 'smart class' throughout school, that statistical unlikelihood became a subject of some controversy -- because the grades on the transcripts are the same. Why would a smart person (it was argued) take a 'smart' class and risk getting a B or even a C, by doing much more rigorous work, when the same student could take a 'regular' class and be virtually guaranteed all A's? 

If it's all GPA then, seriously, taking the 'dumb' class is the way to a university scholarship.
Don't you just love it when the carrot and stick methods reward completely the wrong things?

And here is my point from the beginning, in that initial conversation:

Grades are irrelevant to 'real life'.

They are also almost entirely self-referential. That is, they are made to use within the school system, and refer to things entirely within that system...

And yet grades (and GPAs) are considered by everyone in, and everyone supporting, the system as 'valuable', even when no one can articulate exactly how grades are valuable.

The troublesome logic is thus:

I know that grades are meaningless, really, but there has to be some way to rate and judge people we don't really know because there are too many of them to know... 
...and we have to communicate those ratings and judgments to the people we don't know who need to know how everyone 'scored' so they can use those ratings and judgments to ... further rate and judge these people ...instead of getting to know them.

Or, such:

Obviously grades are a poor way of rating someone's knowledge, being so easy to:

  • cheat  

  • fake

  • hire 

  • or otherwise bluster to a higher-than-justifiable mark we certainly don't know what any individual's most-accurate grade really is. 
Because we don't know how many are cheating or how many are having others do the work for them and we don't know how many (upwards or downwards) are based on instructor bias or school standing... 
...but we need some way to convey what we know about this student to others, even if we all know it's inaccurate, even if they know it's inaccurate, even if everyone knows it's inaccurate. 
We need a metric everyone already understands, so we use this deeply flawed one.
Well, now, that makes sense...

Friday, 20 June 2008

Tell me what breastmilk really is, please frequently field questions like:
  • when do I start feeding my baby real food?
  • she isn't eating very much real food, what should I do?
  • how much real food should my baby be getting?
My policy has long been to answer every question with a question... What I'd like to ask is:

What on earth have you been feeding the baby so far? Spackle?

I am familiar with the popular cultural idea that babies aren't really people, so I suppose it makes some deranged sense that the food made specifically for them (by a human body) probably can't be real either. 

I mean, truly, babyhood is just a transition period from non-existent to potential humanness (which happens on a sliding scale, generally just a bit older than the child currently is), so obviously anything that happens in that period is, by definition, not really happening. 

 At least not to a real person. 

They won't remember it anyhow, which is somehow justification for behaving as if their feelings or experiences aren't real. Hmm... back to that real thing, already.

Breastmilk (and all the commercial products made to look or, no, just look... vaguely like it when viewed from a great distance in a dim light) probably, by natural extension of the thought-process involved, would automatically not really be real or worth anything either.

But, people: what is milk, if it isn't food? is the baby growing on, thriving on... surviving on, if it's not food? What possible other category could it go into? Here is a selection of options:
  • transportation methods
  • building materials
  • ideas
  • furniture
  • pets
  • genre fiction
  • sport
Life is filled with all kinds of spectacular mental gymnastics. The maneuver that puts breastmilk (or its artificial substitutes) into a category with wishful thinking and the tooth fairy is very odd to see in action.

So, to clarify: breastmilk is the ideal human food. In a healthy mother, there are no nutritional deficits (no nutrient required by a human body that is not supplied by milk) and the only reason we move on to a wider variety of food is... okay, there're 2 reasons:
  1. eventually mom would have to eat more than her bodyweight in food to satisfy the children's caloric needs, and;
  2. it would become a closed system with energy used up and not supplied from anywhere else which, until people can do photosynthesis, can't succeed.
It's food. 

It's real. 


Sunday, 15 June 2008

Co-Sleeping 'Dangers'...and the bias of media and doctors article has been circulated around the Canadian media, lambasting the perpetrators of the horror known as co-sleeping.

Now, there is a lot wrong with this media release, and the spin within... and not surprisingly. 

The author of the piece, Dr. Lauwers, who is also chairman of the Paediatric Death Review Committee and Deaths Under Five Committee, has taken a number of things for granted with no justification at all. 

The very first unjustifiable thing being taken for granted is the idea that it is intrinsically safe to sleep in a crib. Just for fun, I googled 'crib recall' just to see how 'safe' these baby cages are...
Over 1 million Simplicity cribs recalled after the deaths of 2 babies... oops, no, three deaths...
About 20,000 Simmons Kids Crib mattresses recalled for failing to meet the tight fit requirement...
Munire recalls 24,000 cribs because the mattress cannot be moved to the lowest position, enabling children to climb over the railing and fall out...
With many duplicates of the same news stories (about these three)... that was just the first 10 hits.

Over at Health Canada a quick search for crib recalls pops up a list of more than a dozen on the first page, dating way back to January 2002. Which, of course, means that all the hand-me-down and second-hand cribs that have already been recalled because of their lethal danger to babies are not on the front page of that search.

Of course that brings up the question: how to compare the statistics for 'co-sleeping'- attributed deaths with those associated with cribs? Well, here's the quote from Canada's Consumer Product Safety folks:
In recent years, CPSC has received reports of about 30 deaths of infants and toddlers each year from crib-related incidents.* While these deaths have declined considerably from the yearly toll of 150 to 200 in the early 1970s, the number of deaths associated with cribs remains higher than with any other nursery product.
For the diligent reader, the * refers to this footnote:
Products marketed as portable crib/play yard combinations were included only if the product was used primarily as a crib. Deaths involving Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) were excluded.
Well... that's nice. This survey of crib-related deaths actually removes SIDS statistics... meaning a great many more deaths are on the list to compare to the co-sleeping ones, because those were not separated out for SIDS. Is that bias? Or just bad stats?

While it is obviously unsafe for someone who is obese to fall asleep in a drunken stupor on a couch with a baby on his chest (one of the deaths included in a study of the 'risks' of co-sleeping)... it is difficult to see how this is even considered co-sleeping. 

Not the least because the adult in question isn't sleeping, he's unconscious. 

Another of the deaths, upon searching for the facts in the case, was found to be a baby, alone on a bed, who was trapped between the mattress and the headboard.

So, let's clarify the spin a bit: 30 babies die each year in Canada in cribs not including SIDS. 

Between 2006 and 2007 (that's two years) 41 babies died in Canada outside of cribs, including SIDS (who knows how many of the 219 SIDS deaths from the same time frame are in that number?) some reason this 'study' included one child who died on the floor, which just makes this whole thing confusing. 

Those 'co-sleeping' situations include babies who die in any kind of non-crib sleeping arrangement, whether that is a temporary or how that family actually chooses to sleep. That means that babies who die entrapped in couches and alone in a parent's or sibling's bed are (because they aren't in cribs) 'co-sleeping'. 

Even if it is known that they actually died of SIDS.

Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous.