ad astra per alia porci

explaining binging

Humans are creatures of habit, and once automated behaviour is programmed into our subconsciousness, we stick with it regardless of its ill effects on us. David A. Kessler in The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite argues that overeating has its roots in the practices of the food industry and natural consequences of modernisation.

People overeat because we are primed by our surrounding environment to do so. Kessler suggests that it is more nurture than nature that percipitates binge eating. Food today is readily available, and served in large portions that encourage overeating. Food comes in all sorts of fancy packing and “new” flavours that encourage people to buy and sample them. Kessler vividly uses the metaphor of the “purple cow”: a person will not bat an eyelid at an ordinary cow, but the sight of a purple cow excites and intrigues.

More damningly, Kessler opined that the food industry has been consciously producing food products that encourages overeating and make consumers want to have more and more, in a bid to earn profits. According to Kessler’s research, the tools are sugar, fat and salt – that is in essence the three elements that trigger off an orgy of overeating. Add more sugar, more salt and more fat, in the right “magic” proportions, and you instantly get a product that the masses go crazy for.

I can see how this is practised in my immediate life. Potato chips come in all sorts of flavours, and they are amazingly salty and not to mention, fried in oil. Fast food are largely all fried and laden with salt – from french fries to old Chang Kee curry puffs. And fast food chains “innovate” by periodically offering new selections made using the same methods.

Reversing a culture of overeating is not easy. The method of adding more salt, sugar and fat takes advantage of deeply-ingrained primal instincts in humans. Our ancestors are programmed to be deeply attracted to high carbo, high salt and high fat foods because of their harsh environment where rich sources of fat and energy are scarce and survival necessitates that a person should gorge whenever he finds food. Obviously the modern human does not require this primeval instinct anymore, but the problem is that we still have this inbuilt mechanism deep within our brains.

The essence of what Kessler propose we do to combat the evil of overeating is consciousness of instinct and active denial of the influence of instinct. We have to know that our brains are telling us to eat and actively decide not to take up what our instincts tell us to do. Easier said than done, that is for sure.

Yet what sets us apart from mere animals is our capacity to deal with our baser instincts to promote the greater good or achieve a more important personal goal. The dominance of will over instinct can and should be the status quo.

anonymous virtue
July 24, 2009, 5:47 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: ,

Can a person find peace with himself when he sacrifices the lives of people personally acquianted with him in exchange for the survival of an anonymous mass of people? Is the death of a friend worth exchanging for the survival of tens of other strangers?

This was the central recurring struggle that tormented the lead character Martin McGartland’s conscience in Fifty Dead Men Walking. I just watched the movie with J and I was well-entertained. While the cinematography and pacing were excellent and Jim Sturgess’s performance as a more animated and cocky counterpart of Tony Leung’s brooding, taciturn undercover cop character in Infernal Affairs was outstandingly believable, it was the fundamental conflict McGartland faced that most fascinated me.

As the title of the movie would suggest, is it morally, or at least personally, justifiable to sacrfice family and friends in exchange for the “greater good” of letting say, 50 men who one has never seen or heard before and are supposed to die, live?

Aside from the question of whether a crude and unfeeling utilitarian calculus can be used to justify or rationalise the sacrifice of human lives in exchange for others (e.g. 1 life can always be justifiable exchanged for 2 lives because 2 is more than 1), the problem of whether one is able to morally justify, and live with, the consequences of sacrificing everything that is real, tangible and personal in pursuit of an abstract ideal that seems so removed from one’s immediate concerns and perceptions.

In some sense, fidelity in this form is similar to religious belief. The Muslim God in particular has no physical manifestation, and in fact Muslims frown upon depictions of God. Hence to believe in God is in a way to believe in a pure idea, a non-corporal entity or ideal. Just like how McGartland betrays his “mates” (as he affectionately calls them) for the higher ideal of saving abstract lives, religious fundamentalists seek to fulfill their version of God’s abstract purpose and will by blowing themselves and others up.

I was also reminded of just how similar this form of love for the right is to the Duke Orsino’s rather ridiculous predicament in Twelfth Night: he was in love with the idea of love, and it took the trickery and cross-dressing of Viola to get him out of his self-imposed romantic stasis. Perhaps fidelity to an abstract ideal can indeed be counterproductive and undesirable, stymieing the proper order of life.

In the end each of us chooses his own poison. Life is perhaps a question of trading precious and finite time, health and effort in exchange for meaning and value, in the form of whatever endeavour we choose to focus on.

At the end of the movie I felt that McGartland was a hero. Yes, lives were sacrificed along the way and he had to betray his closest connections. But his bravery, courage and steadfastness were admirable, and the fact remains that his unintentionally Machiavellian ways did save many lives. In a perfect world everyone is a saint, but clearly perfection is a dream. In an imperfect world where circumstances are often out of the control of the hands of men, McGartland did the best he could while listening to the voice of his conscience.

the problem of choice
July 11, 2009, 1:22 am
Filed under: diary, Lifeskills, miscellaneous | Tags: ,

I have just completed Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice at a very appropriate time. Somehow the reading of this book coincided with a period of time where I had to make several important choices, and I found the book to be rather illuminative and instructive. It helped me understand better the intricacies of choosing and gives me ideas on how I should go about selecting options and maximising happiness.

Perhaps maximising is not the right word to use. After all, Schwartz’s primary thesis in his book is that maximisers are more unhappy than satisficers, in this brave new world of endless choices.

He emphasises the distinction between the two; the former seeks to maximise utility and choose the optimal solution from all the options he has while the latter is happy to settle the moment he stumbles upon an option that meets his own internal standards.

Maximisers end up being unhappy because in this age of choice explosion, it is practically impossible to optimise. The ability of any human to imagine better outcomes (“if only I chose X, things would be so much better”) results in maximisers being constantly plagued by thoughts of alternative, better outcomes, hence reducing satisfaction with their present choices and circumstances.

I was able to immediately identify myself as a maximiser, within the first 50 pages of the book. I have a tendency to analyse all the options, and agonise over which is the optimal option before finally moving to select that option. And it has, as Schwartz predicted, been a source of unhappiness.

But I would not venture so far as to say that being a maximiser is an thoroughly unbeneficial enterprise. Yes, it results in a measure of unhappiness, especially where one has to choose from an extremely large pool of choices and/or the subject matter at hand is an important one.

However I believe that there is a strong correlation between being a maximiser and being a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist helps a person because it helps him strive for greater heights, instead of languishing and stagnating under the false comfort of previous achievements. And for the especially important areas of life, one should be a maximiser.

Conversely, being a satisficer is not all laughter and sunshine. If one is a satisficer in all areas of life, one will lead a distinctly… mediocre life. Imagine a person who has low standards for everything; he will be fine whether or not he receives proper service in a restaurant, achieves good grades in school or post a good time for his 5km race. And the emotional pitfalls of being a maximiser is similarly applicable where the satisficer adopts a standard that is too high. He will end up having to thrawl through countless options, seeking the one option that will meet his standards, which is probably going to be very rare indeed. What is the difference then, between being a maximiser and satisficer?

Hence we see the problem. Satisficers cannot set too high standards, and maximisers need to know when to stop. There are certain situations where being a maximiser would be very beneficial to oneself (e.g. career, caring for loved ones), and there are times where being a satisficer is pretty much alright (e.g. choosing a pair of jeans).

What is really important is self knowledge. We must know clearly what we want, in order to know how high we should set standards and when we should maximise or satisfice. To paraphrase Yogi Berra , if we don’t know where we want to go, we will not end up where you want to go. I think deep inside we all know what we want, it is a matter of unearthing and raising these deep wants and needs to the surface so that we can be consciously aware of them. Sadly in this fast and frantic modern age where everything is expedited, including education, most people end up being half-baked individuals who do not know what they really want in life and float aimlessly through each day. But we still should seek to find out what we really want.

Instead of being a pure satisficer or pure maximiser, we should strike a “golden mean”, as Artistotle would put it. The maximising and satisficing tendencies are essentially mindsets, attitudes that we apply to situations. They are tools that we can use, depending on the situation and what we feel are important in our lives.

So here’s my humble solution. Be a maximiser when it really matters, and be a satisficer when it really does not matter.

For me, my studies and career as well as my love for certain important people in my life are very important for me. I will adopt the maximising attitude in this areas of my life. Yes, I will agonise over decisions and spend much effort arriving at decisions, but this is the price to pay for the good things in life. Also, the process of maximising in relation to the important aspects of my life can be itself an experience that is instructive and educational.

As for the rest, like food and drink and clothing, I am content to be a satisficer. I just need plain, dark 5-pocket slim jeans with waist size of 28 inches, thank you very much. I wear a standard uniform of polo, jeans and sneakers or shirt, jeans and boat shoes. And certain aspects of my lif eis on autopilot: breakfast is muesli, always, while the BBC and Guardian website are my chief sources of foreign news.

That I feel, is the best solution to the problem of choice.

a new toy
July 9, 2009, 12:55 am
Filed under: diary


I just bought a new acoustic guitar. The sensation of excitement is something I have not experienced in quite a while. I feel like a boy with this exciting new toy that I want to play with all the time. And boy is this toy expensive, it set me back about 700 dollars.

But currently at least, every dollar shelled is worth it. The guitar is gorgeous, with its reddish solid cedar top, abalone inlays, deep brown rosewood sides and grainy nato neck. And boy is it playable; it is a  jumbo (i.e. larger than normal) but its curvy body remains manageable. And the sound. It booms. And it is so mellow and warm, yet articulate. Strumming is delightful, and solo-picking is fantastic with my acoustic guitar pick. It is the kind of guitar that will age gracefully and delight me consistently for years to come.

Here’s the guitar by the way:

exit music
July 1, 2009, 2:58 pm
Filed under: diary


Six Pence None the Richer’s Kiss Me floods my ear canals as I sat cross-legged, leaning backwards on a clean, smooth steel bench, gazing down the entire outer hallway of Bangalore International Airport at the clear blue sky squarely picture-framed at the end. I was waiting for the baggage checkin counter to be in service. The temperature was perfect at 28 degrees, with winds streaming gently through the hallway and my hair.

It almost too good to be true, after 50 days in India and Pakistan. I felt a welcomed and rare sense of blissful peace, a feeling almost always absent during this hectic and trying trip. It felt odd, strangely alien and it was almost numbing. It was the end of my longest, craziest and most dangerous ever soujourn into foreign lands, and endings invite introspection.

Curiously enough, this was the first time I plugged in my mp3 player and listened to music during the trip, and it came right at the end where I probably felt the least need to engage in aural escapism.

I struggled to find the reasons. Was it excitement and the sense of the unknown, like that present for most of our Chennai-Calcutta train ride, our first experience of Indian Rail? Or was it fear, like that which puntuated my Goecha La trek whenever the throbbing headaches and breathlessness rear their ugly heads? Or was it just the sheer heat, like that which suffocated us in Lahore? Or is it a bit of all? The boundaries beween my memories melt and they coalesce. Sieving for reasons seems futile.

Yet I crave for rationalisations. It can be safely said that a significant proportion of the tri pwas filled with discomfort and boredom, be it from the sweaty and stuffy bus rides or unwelcomed bouts of illness. It would be dishonest to say that I did not expect myself to survive the trip before or at anytime during the trip proper. I would never engage in anythign that spells certain death or injury.

That said, I also expected India and Pakistan to take its toil and leave some sort of scar, in particular on my health. And it did. Diarrhoea was the constant black dog in the corner and when I wasn’t emptying my guts and losing my body weight down India’s toilets, I carried a stomach that was queasy, bloated and cramping, all at the same time. My alimentary system work in incomprehensible ways now and danced out of step with the rest of my body. The relentless smog has also affected my respiratory system; since leaving smoggy Lahore I have been wheezing and coughing and hacking yellow phlegm laced with blood.

Yet I would not trade any of my experiences during this trip for any degree of compensating comfort, however tempting it might be. On hindsight, it was thoroughly worth it, even though I would probably respond otherwise if I was asked about it while panting my way up Goecha La or freezing the night in a shaky tent at the bottom of a windswept valley.

Perhaps this is the nub of it. Physical discomfort and illness are the price for spiritual understanding, opened eyes and a broader worldview – quid pro quo for another lesson on the world, myself and human beings. Suffering itself was part of the experience, the learning. And I am grateful for all that I have seen, heard and felt everything during the trip.