Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Lose Weight, and Stay Healthy

I’ll begin this summary by saying that Herman Pontzer, in his book Burn, repeatedly remarks how important exercise is to maintain health into old age. The book is a new way of looking at how we gain, lose or maintain weight.  He illuminates how all primates use their metabolic energy for life’s essential tasks, including growth or reproduction, maintenance (e.g., immune function, tissue repair), and physical activity.

Humans, unlike other primates or other mammals, share surplus food with other members of their group. “Sharing increases the energy available for all tasks including reproduction and maintenance, leading to longer lives, larger families, larger brains, and increased activity. Humans burn more energy each day than other apes to fuel these traits.” (P.135) The greater energy available also directs, however, extra calories to fat to survive periods of energy shortage which we don’t see in other primates – even sedentary zoo inhabitants.

Pontzer used a doubly labeled water protocol developed for his study, to measure energy expenditures in a hunter-gatherer society (i.e., the Hadza). He found, to his surprise that “Hadza men and women were burning the same amount of energy each day as men and women in the United States, England, the Netherlands, Japan, Russia. Somehow the Hadza, who get more physical activity in a day than the typical American gets in a week, were nonetheless burning the same number of calories as everyone else.” He even controlled for age, sex, fat mass, and height, but none of it mattered. He saw a new way of understanding the body. Daily energy expenditure was being maintained within some narrow window, regardless of lifestyle. He calls this view of metabolism “constrained daily energy expenditure.” As we increase daily physical activity, daily energy expenditure does not increase with activity but plateaus.

After years of research, he found that “our metabolic engines shift and change to make room for increased activity costs, ultimately keeping daily energy expenditure within a narrow window.” (p.166) As a result, he concludes that physically active people burn the same amount of energy as people who are much more sedentary.

Our brains manipulate both our hunger and metabolic rate in ways that make it hard to maintain weight loss because our metabolic engines are exquisitely tuned to match the energy we burn each day with the energy we eat. “When we burn more, we eat more.” (p. 168) Our hypothalamus that controls body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep, and circadian cycles adjusts where our energy expenditures occurs on life’s essential tasks, including growth or reproduction, maintenance (e.g., immune function, tissue repair), and physical activity.  Eat less and our body uses less on functions that have less immediate needs – we are built to have long lives so we can avoid reproduction expenditures when we don’t have enough food unlike rodents who have to reproduce quickly because of short lives.

Although at times I felt like I was reading an anthropologist writing a physiology book, Pontzer makes it easy to understand by grounding the science in real life activities.

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The effects of the shelter-in-place order in Sacramento has me going from the treadmill to the bike (all while reading) to the computer to get new books.  My last great political read was The Fifth Risk.  In a few words, it describes how the Trump administration was not only unprepared and unwilling to prepare for taking power but continues to either not fill positions (some 700 top officials in numerous departments), fills top positions only with people who want to privatize or close the agencies, or closes departments critical to a functioning society such as the department of global health who used to watch and prepare for global pandemics (thus shelter-in-place).

I had not realized how critically important some departs are, such as the Dept of Ag, Commerce, or Energy or what they even did. Lewis enlightens us and was told in interviews with departing scientists and department heads that the biggest risk (the 5th risk) is a lack of management.  The dangers are real—and made far worse by an administration in Washington whose general incompetence has been compounded by its hostility to science and lack of management skill.  I loved the book and hated what I was reading.

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Fun reading in thrillers and such

I recently began reading more fiction than non-fiction or atleast read one of each at the same time. While still reading Fear: Trump in the White House (Bob Woodward, 2018), I have finished three very fun thrillers and a great nonfiction (Eight Flavors – which I highly recommend).

I just finished Good as Gone (Amy Gentry, 2016) and enjoyed it very much. It was a very interesting way to tell a story. Without giving something away, I hope, I sometimes became lost in the different stories but Gentry wraps it all up quite neatly in the end. I had to finish the last chapters in one sitting as things unfold very quickly as the end nears.

Another favorite is the The Alpha Predator (Steven Sterup, 2018).  The story begins when Adam, a lost young man working as a night watchman, witnesses the attempted murder of a man by a serial killer who has gone unchecked for nearly five years. He continues to try to investigate and is joined by Special Detective Torren. They become an unlikely team tracking the “Alpha Predator” who preys on predators of women and children. What a suspenseful story as they get closer and closer to finding the killer and stopping the murders – although I did think some of them really should have been murdered.

See my recent reads on Goodreads.com-chuck-wiseley

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Finished Dark Money

Just finished Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money. I highly recommend reading the reviews on Goodreads as many folks have written spectacular insights into the book.

In the book, Mayer illuminates the rise in political power of a handful of ultra conservative self-interested billionaires in the US over the last 40 years or so. She uses quotations from them to tell their stories and present their views. They have used insane amounts of their inherited money to influence public policy and discourse. She juxtaposes when W. C. Stone gave $2 million ($11 million in today’s dollars) to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 campaign. That donation “caused public outrage and contributed to a movement that produced the post-Watergate reforms in campaign financing” with the 2016 election, where the Kochs and their small circle of friends provided $889 million to defeat democrats, “completely dwarfing the scale of money that was considered deeply corrupt during the Watergate days.”

Using the same publicists as the tobacco companies had used years before to obfuscate the true dangers of tobacco, these individuals have formed think tanks, backed political candidates, and influenced the curricula in schools and universities in ways that have obfuscated issues such as global warming, public health care, the regulation of industry’s impact on the environment and the root causes of unemployment and poverty and have legitimized points of view that were considered beyond the fringe in the 1970’s.

They are using billions of dollars from their private foundations and funnelling it through their tax exempt institutions to alter not only the direction of American politics but even the conversations about what is appropriate in American democracy and normalizing ideas that were considered marginal just 40 years ago.

Like many others reviewing the book, I am afraid I have become a real bore as I constantly sway conversations to Mayers work in “Dark Money”, along with other books that describe other aspects of the same people such as Mclean’s work in “Democracy in Chains”, and Levitsky and Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die”.

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Political Books

My Renaissance Society class “Top 10 issues in the U.S.”, mentioned in the linked post, has started me reading a lot of political books.  One of the best was Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, but Mclean’s Democracy in Chains was an exceptional book and introduced political influences such as the Koch organizations.  I also really enjoyed Robert Reich’s book The Common Good.  But the most recent book I’ve read by Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die was the most sobering of all.  A short summary might help readers, without spoilers, I hope.

The authors talk about how the U.S.  Is creeping toward authoritarianism as our democracy begins to fail.  They begin with a little history lesson about how presidents in a democracy have been selected as candidates and then elected to office.  These examples from Germany, South America and the U.S.

They describe how “gatekeeping” functions evolved from: Politicians picking candidates in the 18th century, then Party Leaders in the 19th and early 20th century, then the primary system was instituted in 1972 and the electorate became involved in selecting the candidates.

The invisible primary began in the early-20th century, where political endorsements counted most (due to the need for PAC monies) even before the state primaries even began.

None of this, however, worked against Trump.  Even with no support from party leaders and limited funding, he won successive primaries.  And, Trump’s outrageous tweets and statements at campaign rallies got him an estimated two billion dollars’ worth of free marketing.

The next section of the book talks about the four key indicators that predict authoritarian behavior.

  1. Rejection of democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including media

Those of us who ever lived through the 2016 election might see where the book was heading.  “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.” Donald Trump, however, met all of them.  The primary process had failed in its Gatekeeping role and allowed him, as unfit for office as he is, if to run as a mainstream party candidate.  The authors argue that “when Gatekeeping institutions fail, mainstream politicians must do everything possible to keep dangerous figures away from the centers of power.” Instead, leading republican politicians endorsed Donald Trump.  That normalized the election.  Republicans backed the republican candidate and democrats backed the democratic candidate.  The authors maintain that had republican leaders publicly opposed Trump the electorate would have split with some heeding the warnings of the party leadership and the election would have gone the other way.

Published in 2017, the authors submit three likely scenarios that have our democracy turning into an authoritarian dictatorship although one of them has the electorate wake up and begin to restore the democracy in the United States.  Probably one of the best explanations of how the politics over the last 30 years has evolved.

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The Aftermath of Remedial Math

A comment from a friend about my blog (or lack of recent entries) made me realize I have not posted any of my reading summaries for quite some time.  Hope I haven’t lost all my readers.

This is a rather long summary of my most recent read of the journal article by Peter Riley Bahr titled:

The Aftermath of Remedial Math: Investigating the Low Rate of Certificate Completion among Remedial Math Students

This article describes Bahr’s investigation of student enrollment patterns before and after exit from the remedial math sequence in community colleges.  While this is more quantitative than I would like to see, or actually less qualitative, it provides lots of fodder for thought and would be a good read before the 2012 Grubb (with Gabriner) book Basic Skills Education in Community Colleges: Inside and Outside of Classrooms which explains much of why this occurs (as does the Mike Rose book described in a previous post).

He notes that the literature continues to reveal very high rates of students (2/3) entering community colleges who need remedial math assistance.  Three-quarters of those students who begin the remedial math sequence do not complete a college-level math course successfully and are very likely to leave college without a credential or transfer.  Yet, high percentages (61-70% CCC, 55-63% NELS88) of those students who drop out of the remedial math sequence continued to take courses at the community college.

Bahr notes his surprise that very few studies consider what those students, who drop out of the math sequence, are using the community college for and how we might assist a re-evaluation of goals.  He notes that most community college vocational certificates do not require college-level math.  He also suggests that “a certificate is a viable alternative credential for students who do not complete the remedial math sequence” (p. 174).  The literature he cites provides evidence of labor-market value for both short term certificates (employment) and long-term certificates (employment and earnings).  He then raises the question why 80% of those students dropping out of the math sequence depart from community college without a credential or transfer.  Are those students leaving without a college-level math competency simply “not adjusting their educational plans to account for the change in their level of math achievement and, consequently, not adjusting their course taking behavior in the after-math period” (p. 174)?

Although he also investigates whether those who exit the remedial math sequence are exhibiting long-term declining behavior in course taking, possibly explaining both failures in math competency and completion, he does not question whether this is due to a lack of engagement in college classrooms.  He considers three possible explanations for the low rate of certificate completion of remedial math sequence exiters: difficulty navigating to the alternative vocational credential (vocational course enrollment rate), declining participation in the community college (average course credit load), and declining academic performance (course success rate).

He uses two cohorts in the analysis, the NELS88 cohort and associated PETS (Postsecondary Education Transcript Study) data and a fall 2002 first-time student cohort from the California community colleges (CCC) System database  to investigate two questions:

  1. Are there differences in course-taking behavior before and after exiting the remedial math sequence?
  2. Does the remedial math sequence exit point predict after-math course taking behavior?

He found that two thirds of the students exiting the remedial math sequence continued in community colleges for an average of 3.2 additional semesters.  More importantly, 84% of those continuing students ultimately left without a credential or transfer.  In contrast, only 23% of remedial math students who achieved college-level math competency left without a credential or transfer.  He also raises the question of why students who did not achieve college-level math competency earned an additional 13 credits in the after-math period, but did not complete some short term certificate with those credits (the navigational question).

Vocational course enrollment rate or focus

As he tries to make sense of the navigational problem, he explains that the range of typical values of the proportion of vocational course credits earned for those not completing college-level math competencies increased in the after-math period except at the upper end of the before-math-exit proportion range.  In other words, if students had taken a high percentage of their coursework as vocational courses prior to taking math, the proportion of coursework that was vocational declined after exiting math.  Those who had lower proportions of vocational coursework before taking the math course increased the proportion of vocational coursework after exiting the math course.  While he does not address, or speculate from the literature, why this occurs in his analysis, he does call for future research to examine why student course taking behavior occurs at the end of the article.

Credit course load

In Bahr’s analysis of the changes in credit course load for these students, he does find a declining course-taking load trend.  While all students tended to reduce their course load in the after-math period regardless of the point at which they exited the remedial math sequence, students leaving the sequence without college-level math competencies experienced significantly higher course load declines.  Interesting enough, students with very low course credit loads prior to exiting the math sequence (six or fewer units per semester) increased their credit load after exit.

Academic performance

When looking at the impact of completing remedial math on course success, Bahr found progressively higher increases in academic performance with each step of math sequence completion.  Those who exit the sequence at basic arithmetic or Pre-Algebra, whether completing or not, experience declining academic performance at significantly higher rates in the after-math period than other exiters.  One might wonder, although Bahr does not speculate, whether this is due to the disengagement of students in the lower level math courses found by Grubb (1999, 2011, 2012).  Students exiting at the higher remedial math levels had no change in academic performance and students leaving with college-level math competencies had higher academic performance than and their pre-math enrollments.

In his discussion of the analysis, Bahr highlights the dilemma between the need for more community college completers, the very high need for remedial math assistance among entering students, and the very low rate of remedial math sequence success.  With that, high percentages of entering students are unlikely to experience the labor market benefits of a certificate or degree.  While it is likely that there will always be a fraction of incoming students that will not complete either a vocational certificate, a degree, or transfer to a university, he notes that it should not be a majority of the students that we see as it is currently.

Bahr sees three obstacles to the completion of certificates by students who do not achieve college-level math competency: a) slow progress, b) coursework not directed fully at necessary vocational coursework, and c) poor academic performance for those who exit the sequence well below college-level math.  He follows the work of Grubb (2001) suggesting the need for “unambiguous information and guidance concerning the availability and means” of completing a certificate with their limited progress in the mathematics sequence.  Bahr suggests that it may be long-term declining course taking behavior that results in a “premature exit from the sequence” (p. 196) rather than “premature exit” being the cause for declining course taking.  While he does not address whether engagement in mathematics might deter the gradual departure of students from college or whether other innovations might reduce the long-term declining course taking behavior, he does suggest that providing a clear alternative goal for students who do not achieve college-level math competencies for various interventions (i.e., student support systems, academic support systems, or financial aid) might increase student participation in completing a credential.

Bahr notes that although he did not include financial aid influences on student behavior in his study, but he adds a reference to “randomized controlled trials” research on performance-based scholarships that encourage future student participation as a contingency for receiving financial aid.  While he does not offer information into why the declining course taking behavior occurs, performance-based scholarships appear to increase both the number of credits earned and academic performance in that course work  (p. 197).

Two important concerns are developed in Bahr’s discussion of the need for future research.  The first question, although not actually stated as a question, is why we focus so much research on transfer and completion of associate degrees rather than focusing on growth in certificate completions.  He attributes some of that focus on college certificate growth as an undesirable development in much of the literature.

The second concern is that we look at persistence in and completion of college in much of our research rather than giving attention to why student behaviors change over time.  He calls for research that would help us “intervene to improve student chances of achieving positive academic outcomes” (p. 197).


Bahr, P. R. (2013). The aftermath of remedial math: Investigating the low rate of certificate completion among remedial math students.  Research in Higher Education, 54, 171-200.

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Finished “Back to School”

Just finished Back to School (Mike Rose, 2012).  A short summary of key points I got from the text:

Mike Rose begins with a story of Henry, about ready to finish his AA degree – Good student in high school, took a wrong turn, hit the streets, prison, more trouble, paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot. He eventually took some computer courses at a local college and his eyes were opened to the possibilities of a new life. These are the type of second chance stories Rose sprinkles throughout the book – telling, engaging, and common in most community colleges.

He talks about the dismal numbers we see in the press about community college statistical measures such as progress, transfer and graduation rates.  He notes that they fill in only part of the picture.  They don’t capture the guy who joined the navy while in school, the fashion student who took courses to move up from her low paying job and left when she got the promotion, and many others he encountered during his observations and documents in the book.

We then get the first warning: Continuing to broadcast high failure rates that don’t tell the real story develop a sense of hopelessness in the public and prompt policy makers to “do something about them.”  We see the effects of these kinds of influences on the federal No Child Left Behind that , although well intentioned, created more inequities than it reformed since it did not account for the realities on the ground in schools.  And, as we look to policy makers now, we see simplistic economic assumptions and often bigoted beliefs about people who need help driving policy.  While we hear about support of “second chance” institutions and training programs, we see cuts to the services students need to stay in school to make the second chance possible.

In a society where mobility has become severely restrained, the reasoning used as a justification to restrain it more look to blame the victims. It must be a lack of intelligence so trying to help won’t make a difference (see the Bell Curve) or the moral argument, common through history and still with us, that poor are poor because of character flaws: lack of work ethic, counterproductive behavior, failure to follow through, etc. – a good dose of social order theory and prejudice enhanced by isolation of rich and poor.

Then there is the “new gospel” of a skills mismatch: labor without the right skills leave jobs unfilled.  While there is some truth o the mismatch, there are simply fewer jobs due to changes in technology and the way work is organized.  Americans are more productive than ever in those fewer jobs, but blue-collar work is broken down into components and out-sourced. It is more job creation policy that shifts the blame for unemployment and income inequality onto the workers themselves.  “In fact, the jobs aren’t there, and short-term training in job-seeking strategies or basic skills does not make an appreciable difference in helping people get the limited number of jobs that do exist” (p. 27).  More importantly, most low-skilled workers don’t have the resources, or access to them, to do more than very short term training bursts and often are ashamed of their lack of skills and resources.

Rose intertwines  social, education, and economic policy along with cognition, instruction, career technical education and the terrible economic instability of many of our students lives.  He makes real what faculty experience daily. He asks the question that is at the center of the philosophical debate on schooling, will we have the political courage to stand against the rationing of education in the midst of a powerful anti-welfare, austerity climate – will working-class only get functional education geared toward work?

Enough for tonight.  Next we see the possible solutions he sees.

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Back to School – the new Mike Rose book

Just getting into the first chapters and this is one book that describes the problem we face with measuring success in community colleges. He addresses the policy maker tendancies I see in action regularly from those who count students making progress, create percentages, examine trends without the knowledge of the history, culture, and dailey reality of the place from which the data were collected.  This is such a huge blunder for education policymakers and it is going on as we speak in the implementation of the 2012 student success act.

More to come…

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Contexts – Summer ’11

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Today’s summaries come from the American Sociological Association
magazine Contexts (vol. 10, no.3).  My summaries include the sections on sociologists in the field, & from the journals – discoveries. I don’t write about every article, just those that I thought were noteworthy and interesting.  I’ll try to keep them short, but you know me…

From the editors

As with every edition of contexts, the one page “from the editors”, starts the publication with, not only a preview of coming attractions in this edition, but an upbeat focus on sociologists and their relationship to society.  They begin the essay commenting on the Slate article “What’s the matter with sociology?”  Venkatesh criticizes sociology as having lost its way.  While sociology once “examined cherished beliefs and institutions…  Stereotypes and misguided policies”, Venkatesh suggests that it is not taking on big public problems and divisive social issues that were once the focus of attention.  Hartman and Uggen (contexts editors) disagree with his proposition and begin their highlighting of the articles in this edition that take on big issues (as did the last issues). I’ll get to those on later posts.

They write about the problem with making sociology public and the impression that the public gets when sociologist speak of social problems.  I’ve experienced the comments they cite when discussing articles on social inquiry as sociologists being the “Debbie Downers” of the social science world.  They contend that sociology and sociologists have responsibilities to conduct research and ensure that it finds its way to those who need it, “and sometimes  even when they don’t even realize that they need it”.

Sociology of culture – canines and class conflict

K.G. cites the popularity of cat videos on the Internet and high ratings of animal behavior shows as a safe bet that pets fill important roles in society.  Blouin, Indiana university, provides three categories of pet owners: a) dominionists love their pets but see them as replaceable and rent both teams; humanists, cherish their pets and treat them as children; and protectionists, try to consider the needs of each animal.  As with most group interactions, they are critical of each other.

What sociologist Elizabeth Terrien found that these views vary dramatically by class, ethnicity, and geographic location. Whether the dog should be nestled under the covers or relegated to the yard isn’t just personal preference.  People from roll backgrounds of sea dogs as Guardians to be kept outside were middle class folks generally treat them as children.

Benedict Carey, in a recent New York Times article, explored the pet’s position within the family.  In the article he reminds us that sometimes even the most personal choices are linked to larger social forces.  “Class matters, even for dogs and cats.”

War on terror – goodbye, bin Laden

H.N. discusses how the United States perceived the death of bin laden.  People across the United States spoke of a sense of closure and relief. Others partied.  Revelers draped themselves and flags and openly celebrated. Sociologists suggest that it was actually to be expected.

Because of the high percentage of Americans who embrace competition, his death was confirmation that our approach is superior to his.  “that’s what’s being  celebrated, and that’s why you see the flags.” Sociologists point to both political and generational differences for an explanation.  While older cohorts interpreted the events as an attack and a solemn event, those who were children, or even adolescents, at the time of 911 have experienced it only as an interpreted and thoroughly understood cultural event.  For these young people “when enemy #1 gets taken out, it’s time to break out the champagne”.

A fall guy on the stand

This short piece talks about the options of a corporation mired in scandal: court and a public airing of the details, settle out of court for a hefty sum, or “blame individual bad apples for the crime”.  Benediktsson’s 2010 article analyzed six large-scale scandals between 2001 and 2002.  He found that most corporations pick option C.

Think of the Enron scandal.  CEO Kenneth Lay took the heat to divert public attention from the corporation itself. Letting individuals tend for themselves protects the company’s
reputation and saves millions of dollars in legal fees and other services.  It reduces corporate costs – in 2001, Xerox paid $10 million but the six fall guys paid $22 million – and it satisfies the media’s preference (and us readers) for a face and a story that’s much more interesting than the legal proceedings against some faceless corporation.


In four paragraphs, S.S. summarizes a forthcoming American Statistical Association article on projecting the incidence of crime.  The authors used a seismological model, normally used to predict aftershocks from earthquakes, to analyze the occurrence of burglaries in Los Angeles during 2004 and 2005.

This predictive method did a much better job than the retrospective crime-mapping system currently in use.  “If your neighbor’s house is burglarized, yours might be next in line… burglary and gang violence tend to happen close to each other in both time and space.”

Hate housework?  get rich

This cute summary by H.N. Affirms what most of us already realize.  Across 33 countries, lower-income men and women spend more time on housework than their higher-income counterparts.  Differences were greatest for women when economic inequality was high and domestic work was outsourced.

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