Why I’m Cutting Down on Artificial Sweeteners

Why I’m Cutting Down on Artificial Sweeteners

I may have been wrong about artificial sweeteners. I’ve always been a big fan of them, because I love stuffing sweet things in my mouth, but also try to keep my daily calorie count somewhat reasonable.

Sweeteners also have an ideological draw — I love artificial things. I’m typing this on an artificial iPad, powered by artificial electricity, basking in artificial heat, under an artificial roof. So when I see people react with hostility to anything that isn’t “natural” (whatever that even means), I push back. You think artificial sweeteners are poison because Splenda packets aren’t plucked from the ground like potatoes? Well, then I’m gonna put Splenda on everything! I’ll sprinkle it on beef I don’t even care. Take that, hippy!

And in theory, my pettiness should be supported by science. If controlling weight is the goal, then all that matters is calories in and calories out, right? Sweeteners lead to fewer calories in, so they help control weight in a world where calories are frickin’ everywhere. That’s the theory.

The thing is, the best theory in the world is worthless without data. More and more data is coming out about artificial sweeteners, and the results often differ from what theory would predict.


Most data isn’t conclusive. When you look at the whole population, people who use artificial sweeteners tend to be overweight. That’s just a correlation — maybe bigger people are trying to lose weight with sweeteners. It’s not evidence that sweeteners don’t work, but it’s a lack of evidence that sweeteners do work.

True experiments, in which people changed their intake of artificial sweeteners, would be more definitive if they showed an effect. Here’s a recent meta-analysis reviewing studies on artificial sweeteners, including randomized controlled trials. The researchers concluded:

Evidence from [randomized controlled trials] does not clearly support the intended benefits of nonnutritive sweeteners for weight management.

So again, not evidence that they cause weight increases, or poison you, or have any negative effects. But also not evidence that they do have their intended effect: weight loss.

I’ve seen speculation and emerging research on why the theory doesn’t match up with the data. Some people think it’s a psychological thing — the classic “I had a Diet Coke, so I can order two Baconators instead of one” phenomenon. Some think it’s more biological, with sweeteners mixing up the critters in our guts so they suck at dealing with the calories we do consume.

Whatever the case, there’s simply a lack of evidence that artificial sweeteners help with weight loss, or have any other positive effects. When it comes to translating research into actual behavior, here’s where I’ve come down, personally, for now:

  • Artificial sweeteners won’t kill me, so I won’t avoid them. I’ll use up the packets and syrups that we have around the house.
  • But there’s no evidence that they’ll help me, either. That puts them on the same scientific level as any other bullshit health intervention, like eating organic food, fad diets, or acupuncture. I wouldn’t do those things, so why continue slurping down Splenda?
  • Therefore, I’ll reduce my intake of artificial sweeteners. I’ll use sugar when I need it, or better yet, just have fewer sweeter things overall. If I have the will power for that, it’ll almost certainly lead to fewer calories in, with no mysterious counteracting force.

That’s where I currently stand, but I’m a scientist, so I’ll keep updating my opinions and behaviour as new evidence comes out.

For now, I’m cutting down on sweet things …


… right after the holidays.

On the Political Correctness of “g”

I’m a scientist now. Specifically, a scientist at a neuroscience company. But not a neuroscientist.  I know, confusing, but the point is that I’ll probably be writing mostly about neuroscience at this blog now.

One project I’ve been working on involves intelligence. For decades, there has been a war between the idea that intelligence is one thing—i.e., there is a “g” factor that powers all intellectual feats—and the idea that intelligence is many things—i.e., there are several independent factors that power different intellectual feats.

I have no idea which is true. The data behind the debate is complicated, and I have a feeling it won’t be unambiguously interpreted until we have a better understanding of the physical workings of the brain. But one thing that I find fascinating is that the “g” idea is seen as the politically incorrect position.

Why? I suppose it’s because it simplifies people’s intellectual ability to a single number, which makes people uncomfortable. If your g factor is low, everything you can possibly do with your mind is held back. Which, scientifically speaking, sucks.

What I don’t understand is why adding more factors is more politically correct. Let’s say there are two independent factors underlying intelligence: g1 and g2. If you’re below average on g1, well, there’s still a 50% chance that you’re below average on g2 as well, which means your mind is still behind on every possible intellectual feat. But hey, any given person still has that 50% chance of not being bad at everything. Is that the difference between acceptable and offensive? A coin flip’s worth of hope?

It’s like the old argument for common ground (kinda) between atheists and religious folks: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” Similarly, little-g enthusiasts just believe in one (or more) fewer intelligence factors than their politically correct colleagues. They have even more common ground, because they agree that there is at least one measurable variation in intelligence. Is there really such a big difference between the positions? Can’t we all just get along?

I’m content to reserve judgement and follow the data in any direction, regardless of which direction is popular and deemed inoffensive for arbitrary reasons.

Why Horror Movies Are Scary, and Why People Like Them Anyway

A while ago, I was contacted by a PR agency who had seen one of my talks about the psychology of horror. A British media company was putting together a Halloween marketing campaign, and wanted some advice on how to use some scariness to make it more effective. I wrote them the below summary of why people regularly expose themselves to horror. I have no idea if the campaign ever went anywhere, but I figure it makes for an interesting read, so here it is.

Why are horror movies scary?

The answer to this is less obvious than it first appears. It might seem self-evident that scary movies are scary because they have scary things in them. But that just shifts the question to “what makes things scary?” Plus, fear is, by definition, an emotional response to danger. People sitting in a comfortable chair with their friends, munching on popcorn, are in no danger. They know they are in no danger.

So why are they scared anyway?

1) Because horror movies show us things that we were born scared of. Millions of years of evolution have programmed us to be frightened by things like spiders, growling monsters, and darkness. Early people who weren’t scared of these things tended to die, so they never got a chance to be our ancestors. With the survivors’ genes in us, we can’t help but feel the fear that kept them alive.

2) Because horror movies show us things that we’ve learned to be scared of. We may not be born scared of knives, needles, or clowns, but a few bad real-life encounters with them and we learn to fear them pretty quick. Movies can take advantage of the lessons we’ve learned from being scared for real.

3) Because we get scared when people we like are scared. Horror movies show us shots of people being scared just as much as they show us what is scaring them. When we’ve grown to like a character, we can’t help but feel some empathy for them when they appear to be frightened.

4) Because filmmakers exaggerate. No matter how realistic, a scary image on a screen pales in comparison to the real thing. That is why filmmakers need to exaggerate to make up for our safety from real danger. Extra dark settings, disorienting camera angles, anticipatory music, and discordant sounds (think the violins in Psycho) all make a scary image even scarier.

5) Because our bodies tell us we’re scared. For all the reasons above, our brains and our bodies are tricked into thinking we’re really scared. Our heart rates go up, we sweat more, and we breathe faster. These bodily reactions feed back into our conscious experience of fear. Furthermore, horror movies are one of the most visceral types of film. In one study, horror was one of only two genres that had a significant and identifiable physiological response. (The other was comedy).

So why would people watch something that scares them?

Again, fear is an emotional response to danger. Usually one that makes us want to run away, or at least turn off the TV. Why would we not only keep watching a scary movie, but pay money to do it?

6) Because some people like the rush of being scared for its own sake. Studies have found that the more scared people report being during a movie, the more they enjoy it. For some fans of horror movies (but not everyone), excitement is fun, whether it’s from joy or fear. My research shows that people high in sensation seeking—who say they frequently seek out intense thrills—said they like the horror genre more than people low in sensation seeking.

7) Because some people like the relief when it’s all over. The happy moments of a horror movie can be just as important as the horrifying parts. A moment of relief after escaping the bad guy can seem even more positive than it would normally, because our hearts are still beating with excitement. The leftover emotion from being scared can translate into happiness when the source of fear is gone.

8) Because you can control your image by controlling your reactions to a horror film. In my study, even though everyone had about the same “gut reaction” to horror imagery (a negative one), what they said they liked varied a lot. People with rebellious sorts of personalities were proud to say they liked horror movies.

9) Because it helps us hook up. Although they have the same negative “gut reaction” to horror, men say they like the genre more than women. Research has supported the fact that men and women who act “appropriately” to frightening films—men being fearless and women being fearful—tend to be liked by the opposite sex more. Horror films are perfect for dates.

There you go. Just a few of the many reasons that we’re happy to be horrified.

David Sedaris

I don’t usually admire people. Maybe it’s cynicism or maybe it’s a large ego, but I see the vast majority of celebrities as equals; average people who got lucky.

Yet I found myself in awe of David Sedaris when I saw him perform live on Friday night at Centennial Hall. His way with words was inspiring. His sentences were carefully constructed yet natural, weaved into not-quite-fables that jump and twist yet always feel cohesive.

It was clear that it wasn’t just a well-rehearsed routine. While answering audience questions, he was able to produce pure improvised wit. And while reading from his diary—which was kinda like hearing someone read a blog, except one actually worth reading—he still had enough cognitive resources left to simultaneously ponder and write down notes for improvements to future shows. That sort of mental athleticism impresses me far more than any sports star or guidar shredder.

When I met him at the book signing after the show, somehow, within a minute, he had me confessing how much I cried when my dog Willow died. Then he predicted that I’d get a cat soon. So, you know, he’s not perfect.

Still, it was nice to admire someone for a change.

The Emotional Ramifications of Bleeps and Bloops

The iPhone needs more options for the new text message sound. There are only six beeps, bongs, and honks available, with no ability to add new ones.

I say this not out of a vain need for customization, but for the emotional well-being of iPhone users.

This is modern life:

You meet someone you like, and she likes you enough to give you her phone number. You send her an innocuous text, then wait with breath abated for a reply. BONG, an innocuous text in return. You do this back-and-forth a few times and soon each message contains not just neutral words but embedded emotion.

Eventually it’s BEEP BEEP here are your plans for the evening; DING! here comes a compliment you’ll remember for the rest of your life. You precede those consequences with that sound enough times, and they become inextricably linked. A smile hits your lips and your heart leaps into your throat with every buzz of your pocket.

Maybe you go on a few adventures. Maybe you screw. Maybe you make plans for the future. But nothing lasts forever, and when things inevitably go sour, all the positive associations with that tone become ambivalent, then negative. Finally, DONG! we need 2 talk.

Those associations are embedded deep, and they never quite go away. Alerts for even the most frivolous texts now make your mouth go dry; they’re Pavlov’s bell in reverse.

It doesn’t take long to cycle through all six tones.

Technology is so embedded in our lives that we must increasingly consider not only its practical ramifications, but the full spectrum of human emotion as well.

Podcamp London + Contemplative Goose

On Saturday I attended Podcamp London. A podcamp is a gathering of people interested in blogging, podcasting, social media, and other technologyish internetty stuff. It’s referred to as an “unconference”, because the format is unconventional. There are few rules, and anyone is free to throw a presentation onto the schedule. I guess I count as “anyone,” so I inserted myself into the timetable, and prepared a little presentation.

I talked to a packed room about internet fame, blogging, and how social media and the accessibility of the internet are changing the way creative people do their thing. I was a bit nervous, since I’d never done anything like that before, but I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

If you wanna see my slides, you can get a clickable Quicktime movie (showing my spiffy slide transitions) here, or a PDF with all my secret notes (ruining the illusion that my witty jokes were improvised) here.

Actual audience reaction. I am mildly amusing.

I got a lot of flattering feedback, and some good suggestions for the coffee blog. From the always-creative Nik Harron came the idea for putting despair in coffee. That is, tears. I wonder if tears of shame taste difference than tears of mourning?

I imagine the former are a little more spicy.

It made no sense btw.

Also: I won a pool for predicting how many dongs would show up in Chatroulette in a 30 minute period (six). I’m like a psychic predicting how many children you’ll have, except it’s how many dongs you’ll see. (See also). It was good times.

There were more substantial thrills to be had, too. The sense of community was palpable. I have another psychic prediction: good things are coming in London Ontario’s future. There is an increasingly-less-underground group of diverse personalities who are passionate about making great things happen in this city and beyond. Upcoming projects like Changecamp London and UnLondon are just a few examples.

Between Podcamp itself and the sloppy after-party, I came across this Canada goose:

I’ve seen him there 3 or 4 times, always just standing there looking at his reflection in the window. He’s, like, a metaphor for life, man. Just staring, all day, pondering his place in this crumbling city. The goose is us, man. The goose is us.

Update May 10 9:30pm: I have been informed (thanks a lot @BillyW64) that the goose stares at his reflection because he thinks it’s his mate that he lost last year. There was a story about him on A Channel (I guess they interviewed the goose to obtain this information). The goose picture is now more sad-deep than intelligent-deep. Man.

Update May 11 3:15pm: Here is the fluffy A Channel story about the goose (thanks @joeradman, you are rad, man). Not sure about the veracity of the story or if it’s even the same goose (mine is in a totally different location). Maybe geese are just vain. Still, it’s sad to think about. There is also a Facebook page for him/her.

Me in Maclean’s. Also: Nuts.

Sooo there’s an article about me in Maclean’s Magazine (April 12th issue, page 62). It goes like so:

Plain old coffee can be boring, so Mike “Phronk” Battista of London, Ont., likes to put “weird things” in his (he keeps a blog about it). [etc.]

Conspicuously absent? The address of said blog. I guess there won’t be an influx of millions of visitors who will buy my crappy merchandise.

Oh well. At least when I’m old, I can brag to my grandkids about my greatest accomplishment. I’ll be all like, “STOP TALKING. Did you know that I was in Maclean’s?”

And they’ll be all like, “WTF is Maclean’s?”

And I’ll say, “It was one of Canada’s most popular magazines.”

And they’ll say, “WTF is a magazine?”

Then I will get angry and rant about the good old days when you had to physically leave the house to get information, then slowly absorb it from paper to your brain, rather than instantly downloading it into your neural implant. Then I’ll graphically demonstrate how the iPad can suck my wrinkly nuts.

Book Review: Marvellous Hairy, by Mark A. Rayner

The copy on the back of Marvellous Hairy bills it as a novel about a man who is turning into a monkey. However, it goes far beyond that. The story revolves around a giant, evil corporation nicknamed Gargantuan Enterprises and the people who want to bring it down, then before you know it, there are ghosts, kidnapping, lizards, sex, and drugs thrown in for good measure.

Let me make a confession: I don’t find monkeys inherently funny. Their similarity to humans is amusing, sure, but it’s been overdone. Given the premise of Marvellous Hairy, I was a bit worried that its humour would rely on “anything is funny if you mention the word monkey alongside it” school of thought. Luckily, its absurdity is only partially monkey-based, and it delivers some genuine funny. Many scenes had me smirking as hard as I have at any Douglas Adams novel (yeah, just smirking; it takes a lot for me to physically LOL at text).

A lot of the books I’ve reviewed recently, they’ve been trashily entertaining (see: Charlaine Harris), or had great ideas despite mediocre writing (see: Cory Doctorow). But Rayner is actually a damn good writer. Every paragraph is packed with clever wordplay and subtle allusions. E.g., “He had long greasy black hair that clung to his head like an octopus humping his skull” (ok ok, maybe not always subtle).

Not all is warm and fuzzy. The novel could have used some edits; the language can be wordy, the plot takes a while to get going, and a certain subplot doesn’t feel like it fully connects with the rest of the story. Also, the quasi-omnipotent first-person narrative is jarring, especially when it needs to be explained, though it does add to the surreal bizarreness of the whole thing.

That is where Marvellous Hairy shines: it is such a bizarre barrel of words that you can’t help but have fun reading it. Mark (full disclosure: I can go all first-name-basis because we’ve met IRL) recently tweeted that his next novel may be even sillier, and if that’s the case, I can’t wait to get my paws on whatever he comes up with.

Play TV Canada Complaint: Global’s Response

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I have, for some reason, been battling against crappy television.

I sent the following to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council a few weeks ago:

Hello. I have sent this concern to Global Television directly, but heard no response.

This “show” is a blatant scam, for several reasons. In sum, they make implicit promises (e.g., that it is possible to get through, or that the puzzles they present are solvable) that are not kept, which defrauds people of money. I do not believe that such an unethical practice should be encouraged by allowing it air time.

I have laid out many of the details of my concern in these blog posts:

Play TV Canada is a Scam
Play TV Canada Has No Legs

And I see that a CBSC decision has already been made about an identical scam: here (also here). But it it still on the air, so I’d like to lodge yet another complaint.

I hope there is something you can do about this. Thank you very much for your time.

My letter was forwarded to Canwest/Global (the company that airs, but does not produce, the program). I recently got a response. The letter can be viewed here.

I will compose a formal response soon. But a few things worth noting right away:
1) Staring at an unsolvable puzzle for 2 hours is not entertaining nor informative for any age, interest, or taste.
2) Having it be for ages 18+ is no excuse. It’s like, “but officer, the person I pickpocketed was 18! Should’ve known to be on the lookout for criminals.”
3) They did not address the implicit promises that are broken (e.g., the fake timer, the non-ringing phone, the random timing of getting on the air). Tiny text at the bottom does not excuse the lying host blabbering up top.
4) There is clearly not one and only one answer to each puzzle.

This last point is exemplified by last night’s “episode”:

Play TV Canada "Puzzle", December 19th 2009

The “correct” answer was 449.

Plugging in the same assumptions as the last bus/cat/leg puzzle does not get to the “correct” answer (even after accounting for, say, one girl having a leg off the bus, or one basket off the bus, etc.) The scam is in including assumptions that cannot possibly be uniquely derived from the question. Can anyone use their psychic powers to divine what arbitrary assumptions could lead to 449?

P.S. I found it rather funny when the host slipped up last night and said “euros” instead of dollars. It highlights that this cheaply produced crap is pumped in from halfway across the world just so Global can make a few bucks.

P.P.S. Here are some videos you might enjoy. 🙂

Play TV Canada Has No Legs

As a follow-up to my post Play TV Canada is a Scam, I watched it again last night. Once again, I couldn’t turn away; it’s like a train wreck. A train wreck with the conductor begging you for money while he wades through the victims.

One such victim was brave enough to speak up last night. What sounded like an older gentlemen said, through beeped out swearing, something like “you people sure are takin’ advantage of a lot of people, and I oughta-” before he got cut off. Good for you, angry old man. You’re fighting the good fight.

Here is one of last night’s “puzzles”:

I’ll write it out:

  • 4 girls are travelling on a bus
  • each of them have 3 baskets
  • in each basket there are 4 cats
  • each cat has 3 little kittens


Plastered on the bumper of the picture of the bus, for some reason, it says “1 cat 4 feet.”

The host constantly emphasized that this is a simple logic puzzle. And indeed, it does seem to be a straightforward math problem. Hey, let’s figure it out!

All we need to do is figure out how many cats there are, and how many humans there are, then count their legs. Let’s do cats first. There are 4 girls, with 3 baskets each, so there are 4*3 = 12 baskets. In each basket there are 4 cats, and each of them has 3 kittens, so each basket has 4*3 = 12 cats. With 12 baskets and 12 cats in each one, there are 12*12 = 144 cats.
[Edit: whoops… Heather on Facebook pointed out that I forgot to count the 4 cats in each basket. It should be 16 cats/kittens per basket.]

How about humans? Well, the question only said there are 4 girls travelling on the bus, so 4.

Each cat has 4 legs. 144 cats times 4 legs = 576 cat legs.
Each person has 2 legs. 4 people times 2 legs = 8 human legs.

Which brings us to a grand total of 584.

Someone called in with this answer. “No, I’m sorry, that’s not it,” said the host.

What? Well, we must have missed something. Hmm, ok they’re going by bus, maybe it’s reasonable to assume that there is a driver, even though the question doesn’t say that. He or she has two more legs, so that brings the total to 586.

Someone called this in. “Nooo, sorry.”

Maybe they’re counting the “legs” of each seat, and we’re supposed to use our psychic powers to determine how many seats this fictional bus has, then get some answer larger than 586. In any case, I couldn’t stand that crap any longer, so I shut it off.

Then, in the comments to my last post about this, Kathy (who actually managed to win some money from these people, but still doesn’t recommend calling), managed to wait until the end: “Well, of course no-one got the ‘right’ answer of 222 legs.”

what? Even if you add other ridiculous assumptions, the answer can’t be less than 586.

They don’t reveal how the answer was arrived at, so there is no way of verifying their solution. Even if there was (e.g., “lol, we meant kitten fetuses without fully developed legs”), it’s not the straightforward solution that they explicitly claim it is. PlayTV is a despicable scam. It’s not impossible to win, but the conditions of winning that they describe are completely different than the actual conditions of winning.

If you want to get involved in shutting Play TV (a.k.a. CallTV) down:

P.S. Please, debate and dispute my math. I’d love to see how anyone can get 222 out of that.

UPDATE: Gavin on Facebook made the suggestion that maybe the kittens aren’t actually in the bus (i.e., the cats “have” kittens in the sense that a person can “have kids” even if they’re not present at the time).

So ignoring the kittens:

4*3*4 cats * 4 legs = 192 cat legs.
4 girls + 1 driver * 2 legs = 10 human legs.
5 seats to sit in * 4 legs = 20 chair legs.

= 222 legs.

Which is the “right” answer. I guess that almost makes sense, except none of the weird assumptions are actually in the question, and what kind of bus only has 5 seats?

That’s right, the short bus. Which is probably what whoever wrote this quiz was riding.