Things that bug me: gluten

As I sift through the ruins of organized skepticism, I recall something that always bugged me.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes a bunch of chronic gastrointestinal problems.  The treatment to celiac disease is to switch to a completely gluten-free diet.  However, people with celiac are not by themselves the cause of the many gluten-free products sold in stores.  Many people buy those because they believe they have a different condition, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS).  They believe that when they go on a low-gluten or gluten-free diet, they have fewer gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g. they feel less bloated).  I say “believe”, because there is no consensus that NCGS exists.

The standard skeptic’s line on NCGS is that there is no evidence that it exists, and there is no reason for people to go on gluten-free diets unless they think they have celiac disease.  One study that has been used in support of this position, is a paper from 2013, which says in the title “No effects of gluten in patients with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity“.

The interesting thing about this paper is that it says that people who report NCGS do experience a significant reduction in symptoms when they change their diet.  However, the important change in their diet is not the elimination of gluten, but the elimination of another category of chemicals, known as FODMAPs.  FODMAPs are generally present in the same grains that include gluten, so it’s easy to get them confused without having a study designed specifically to separate them.  In other words, it is possible that people who believe they have NCGS are correct about having symptoms that improve with a change in diet, but incorrect about the source of those symptoms.

I recall that back in 2013, skeptics were saying, “This is another confirmation of what we’ve been saying all along: NCGS doesn’t exist.”  And I recall reading the news reports and thinking, wait.  This means we were wrong.  People who thought they had NCGS were correct to change their diets.  We were wrong.  Why weren’t skeptics acknowledging that they had been wrong?

[Read more…]

Link Roundup: January 2018

A smaller link roundup this month because I wasn’t really paying attention over break.  But here are a few things.

Recovered Memories and Sexual Assault – It’s true that with persistent and coercive questioning, you can cause people to “recover” memories of traumatic events that didn’t actually happen.  On the other hand, it’s very common for memory of traumatic events to be impaired.  It’s also common for people to report sexual assault a long time after the fact–not because people repressed the memories and later recovered them, but because many people don’t initially conceptualize sexual assault as such, and because there are many obstacles to reporting.  If you hear an account of sexual assault a long time after the fact, and involves some confused memories, it is completely wrong to conclude that therefore these are an example of fabricated “recovered” memories.

Philippines Extends Martial Law in South for Another Year – The fight with Islamist militants is already over, but they’re still extending martial law.  WTF.  I’ve said this before, but the Philippine president Duterte is easily worse than Trump.  This is a guy who has favorably compared himself to Hitler, no joke.

Sicklit Literally Traumatized Me – Books about people with cancer don’t appeal to me.  But apparently this is more than just a matter of taste.  Miri says that this genre tends to sensationalize the suffering in a way that can be actively harmful to readers with cancer.

Origami: Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt by Ekaterina Lukasheva

This is just a basic model I made, that I don’t have much to say about.  Icosahedral symmetry, 30 units.  Happy New Year!

Accessing difficult games

Cuphead is a recent video game hit, best known for its animation inspired by 1930s cartoons, and for being extremely difficult. This has led some game critics to discuss difficulty as a design choice. Is it justified to make a game so difficult that it excludes some players from seeing all the content? This isn’t the first time game critics have tried to answer this question. Last year, people were discussing the value and possibility of an easy mode in Dark Souls.

To make it clear, nobody disputes the value of a difficult game. But if it is feasible, should the designers also offer some sort of “easy mode” to make the content accessible to players who can’t complete the normal mode?

On the face of it, it seems that actively preventing some players from seeing content only reduces the amount of joy in the world. Some players might enjoy the feeling that they are accessing content that other players cannot access, but it’s not clear that this is enough to justify making the game less accessible.

On the other hand, that difficulty may be essential to the game design, at least for the particular game in question. From the linked article about Dark Souls:

I think Dark Souls might collapse if it compromised. If there was an easy mode, people would play it and then ask those of us who’d been here all along, ‘what was all the fuss about?’ That’s what happened to me when I had to cheat my way through sections of The Witness. The joy of a solution lost, I couldn’t understand the appeal.

[Read more…]

A music post for 2017

2017 was a good year for me in terms of discovering new music.  You might have seen this intrude upon my blogging a few times.  I even started a separate blog for music–which I won’t link to because I’d prefer to keep my followers in the single digits.

I have a few highlights below the fold.  And yes, this stuff is thoroughly inappropriate for Christmas.

[Read more…]

Star Wars wars against itself

[cn: mild Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers]

I dislike mainstream movies almost categorically. They cost too much to make, which means they need to appeal to broad audiences, and it turns out that broad audiences really like Hero’s Journey stories full of standard archetypes and tropes. The original Star Wars trilogy was a case in point, so you might imagine I don’t care for it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was okay though. One of the things I liked about it was its clear rejection of the Hero’s Journey. Usually in these stories–and Star Wars stories in particular–you have the hero take a huge risk, and achieve a brilliant victory. The Last Jedi makes nods to this trope, by focusing on characters who take huge risks to strike at the enemy’s critical weakpoint. But the characters fail, and in the process they screw up the more intelligent plans of Vice Admiral Holdo. (Later, Holdo herself takes a huge risk to strike at the enemy’s weakpoint, but I won’t dwell on this bit of thematic incoherence because I’m sure someone in the comments will explain how it all makes sense.)

Because of its rejection of conventional heroism, many critics have argued that The Last Jedi has progressive themes. The Guardian calls it “triumphantly feminist“. Vanity Fair says it offers a “condemnation of mansplaining“. Another critic says “toxic masculinity is the true villain“. Even anti-feminist fans agree, resulting in some backlash.

My reaction is, The Last Jedi sure is rejecting something, but is it really toxic masculinity? The whole idea of small band of heroes taking a huge risk to achieve a linchpin victory, that’s something that mostly happens in fiction (and Star Wars in particular), not in the real world. Neither the rejection nor acceptance of that trope seems to say anything about the real world. It’s just a dispute between works of fiction.  I agree more with the critic who says The Last Jedi doesn’t care what you think about Star Wars.

[Read more…]

One: the universe’s favorite digit

This is a repost of an article I wrote way back in 2011.  I’m still proud of figuring this one out.

Out of all the digits, from zero to nine, one is the most common.  This has to do with the log scale.

The log scale captures an important fact that is true of many quantities in life.  Take money for instance.  If you have one dollar, then earning another dollar is great because you’ve doubled your money!  If you have a million dollars, earning another dollar does not make much of a difference.  Small changes matter less the more you already have.

This is true on a log scale too.  On a log scale, 1 is the same distance from 2 as 100 is from 200.  The higher you go up, the more the numbers all get smooshed together.  What does that mean for the digits from zero to nine?

A picture of a log scale, highlighting the regions that have 1 as their first digit (eg 1-2 and 10-20)

In the above picture, I show a log scale.  And on that scale, I highlighted in blue all the regions where 1 is the first digit of the number.  You should see that the blue regions cover more than one tenth of the log scale.  In fact, they cover about 30%.  And so, if we pick numbers randomly on the log scale, about 30% of those numbers will have 1 as their first digit.

Just for fun, let’s apply this concept on the fundamental constants of nature.  I will compare two hypotheses: [Read more…]