Life, the Universe, and Everything

Alternate day calorie restriction seems to be one of the most effective ways of increasing my life expectancy, but it isn’t easy. I tried it about three years ago, but gave up because it interfered with my sleep. I started it again three weeks ago, and this time I seem to be adjusting to it.

One important difference is that this time I’m better informed about what it takes to adjust to the diet. I planned a strict induction phase of 7 down days (about 550 calories) and 7 up days (unlimited food), followed by a less strict pattern of 2-3 days per week on which I’m limited to around 1000 calories a day. (I ended up adding an extra up day after each of the first two down days, then switched to strict alternation for the remainder of the induction phase). The severity of the induction phase may be important at triggering adaptation to this kind of diet.

The second difference is that this time I’ve been obsessive about measuring my food intake to the nearest gram. I suspect that when I intended to eat 1200 calories a day in my prior attempt, I was actually getting at least 1400 calories and fooling myself into thinking I was following the diet. This time I’m using a good scale to weigh each serving.

After the first down day, I slept poorly (as expected), getting impatient for sunrise to bring me an excuse to get up for food. After about the fourth down day, waking with an empty stomach seemed normal enough that it doesn’t provide a motive to get out of bed, or to get food quickly when I do get out of bed. I hardly notice the feelings of hunger then, even though I ought to be hungrier than late in the previous day when I did notice some of the standard hunger feelings. My sleep isn’t quite back to normal, but it seems close to normal and improving.

I’ve been feeling full about 50% of the time. I felt noticeably hungry about 30% of the time at first, and now it’s more like 20% of the time. Hunger feels a bit less important now than it used to feel (i.e. it affects my attention less).

Weight loss wasn’t an important motive for changing my diet, but I hoped I would lose about 7 pounds. I lost at least 5 pounds by the end of the 5th down day (my weight fluctuated enough that it’s hard to evaluate it precisely). I couldn’t comfortably eat enough on the up days to make up for what I lost on the 550 calorie days, even when I became mildly alarmed at my rate of weight loss.

Then my weight rebounded within a few days, without any apparent change in my diet, to roughly what it was at the start. The obvious guess is that my metabolism slowed down to compensate for the reduced calories. I did feel noticeably colder in bed after down days. I also felt less mental energy, and when doing an easy hike on the day after the 6th down day I felt a need to take rest breaks that was unusual in that it wasn’t caused by anything like muscle fatigue.

During the induction phase, I practiced strict protein fasting (< 15 grams of protein per day) on down days due to guesses that protein restriction is more effective at causing beneficial metabolic changes, which might cause faster psychological adaptation. My results seem to provide weak evidence in support of this guess. My diet on down days was mostly sweet potato and lettuce, with modest amounts of other vegetables and sugar-free chocolate. This provided more bulk to fill my gut than is typical for this kind of diet, but that was likely offset by the lack of protein related satiety. I’m not restricting protein now that I’m out of the induction phase (although I expect to do so maybe once a month).

My heart rate variability mysteriously increased after the first down day, then declined to a much lower than average level after the fourth down day, and has fluctuated a lot since then (averaging somewhat below normal).

Why did I have enough willpower to get this far, when I probably didn’t have the willpower needed to do it right three years ago?

One factor is that I now consider the CFAR community to be an important tribe to belong to, so my sense of self-identity has changed to attach more importance to being able to make big changes to my life.

Another factor is having information that led me to be somewhat confident that by a specific, not too distant, date it would become a good deal easier.

A third factor is being more obsessive about measuring how well I was complying with the rules I set down.

The induction phase cost me a fair amount of productivity. For 17 days I wasn’t close to having enough willpower/ambition to start writing a blog post (and had similar problems with most other non-routine tasks). But now I feel that writing this post is easier than normal. It’s too early to tell whether that means I have more mental energy than before.

I don’t know how to get strong evidence about whether it is worth the effort. I seem to feel more self-efficacy. I now think I can set my weight to any reasonable target simply by changing my calorie target on 2 or 3 down days per week. But in order to be clearly worthwhile it needs to improve my long-term health. I won’t know that for quite a while.

Ethical diets

I’ve seen some discussion of whether effective altruists have an obligation to be vegan or vegetarian.

The carnivores appear to underestimate the long-term effects of their actions. I see a nontrivial chance that we’re headed toward a society in which humans are less powerful than some other group of agents. This could result from slow AGI takeoff producing a heterogeneous society of superhuman agents. Or there could be a long period in which the world is dominated by ems before de novo AGI becomes possible. Establishing ethical (and maybe legal) rules that protect less powerful agents may influence how AGIs treat humans or how high-speed ems treat low-speed ems and biological humans [0]. A one in a billion chance that I can alter this would be worth some of my attention. There are probably other similar ways that an expanding circle of ethical concern can benefit future people.

I see very real costs to adopting an ethical diet, but it seems implausible that EAs are merely choosing alternate ways of being altruistic. How much does it cost MealSquares customers to occasionally bemoan MealSquares use of products from apparently factory-farmed animals? Instead, it seems like EAs have some tendency to actively raise the status of MealSquares [1].

I don’t find it useful to compare a more ethical diet to GiveWell donations for my personal choices, because I expect my costs to be mostly inconveniences, and the marginal value of my time seems small [2], with little fungibility between them.

I’m reluctant to adopt a vegan diet due to the difficulty of evaluating the health effects and due to the difficulty of evaluating whether it would mean fewer animals living lives that they’d prefer to nonexistence.

But there’s little dispute that most factory-farmed animals are much less happy than pasture-raised animals. And everything I know about the nutritional differences suggests that avoiding factory-farmed animals improves my health [3].

I plan not to worry about factory-farmed invertebrates for now (shrimp, oysters, insects), partly because some of the harmful factory-farm practices such as confining animals to cages not much bigger than the animals in question aren’t likely with animals that small.

So my diet will consist of vegan food plus shellfish, insects, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised birds/mammals (and their eggs/whey/butter). I will assume vertebrate animals are raised in cruel conditions unless they’re clearly marked as wild-caught, grass-fed, or pasture-raised [4].

I’ve made enough changes to my diet for health reasons that this won’t require large changes. I already eat at home mostly, and the biggest change to that part of my diet will involve replacing QuestBars with a home-made version using whey protein from grass-fed cows (my experiments so far indicate it’s inconvenient and hard to get a decent texture). I also have some uncertainty about pork belly [5] – the pasture-raised version I’ve tried didn’t seem as good, but that might be because I didn’t know it needed to be sliced very thin.

My main concern is large social gatherings. It has taken me a good deal of willpower to stick to a healthy diet under those conditions, and I expect it to take more willpower to observe ethical constraints.

A 100% pure diet would be much harder for me to achieve than an almost pure diet, and it takes some time for me to shift my habits. So for this year I plan to estimate how many calories I eat that don’t fit this diet, and aim to keep that less than 120 calories per month (about 0.2%) [6]. I’ll re-examine the specifics of this plan next Jan 1.

Does anyone know a convenient name for my planned diet?

footnotes

0. With no one agent able to conquer the world, it’s costly for a single agent to repudiate an existing rule. A homogeneous group of superhuman agents might coordinate to overcome this, but with heterogeneous agents the coordination costs may matter.

1. I bought 3 orders of MealSquares, but have stopped buying for now. If they sell a version whose animal products are ethically produced (which I’m guessing would cost $50/order more), I’ll resume buying them occasionally.

2. The average financial value of my time is unusually high, but I often have trouble estimating whether spending more time earning money has positive or negative financial results. I expect financial concerns will be more important to many people.

3 With the probable exception of factory-farmed insects, oysters, and maybe other shellfish.

4. In most restaurants, this will limit me to vegan food and shellfish.

5. Pork belly is unsliced bacon without the harm caused by smoking.

6. Yes, I’ll have some incentive to fudge those estimates. My experience from tracking food for health reasons suggests possible errors of 25%. That’s not too bad compared to other risks such as lack of willpower.

Book review: A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss.

This book has a few worthwhile sections, such as a good explanation of how virtual particles imply that matter came to exist in a previously empty region of space. But the book has much less substance than Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe (in particular, Tegmark comes much closer to answering why there is something rather than nothing).

One puzzling claim he makes is that scientists of the far future (when the visible universe is 100 times the current size) are likely to falsely conclude there was no big bang. Whatever problems they might have with new experiments, why wouldn’t they use results of experiments done when the universe was younger?

Book review: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

This book gives an interesting perspective on the obstacles to fixing poverty in the developing world. They criticize both Jeffrey Sach and William Easterly for overstating how easy/hard it is provide useful aid to the poor by attempting simple and sweeping generalizations, where Banerjee and Duflo want us to look carefully at evidence from mostly small-scale interventions which sometimes produce decent results.

They describe a few randomized controlled trials, but apparently there aren’t enough of those to occupy a full book, so they spend more time on less rigorous evidence of counter-intuitive ways that aid programs can fail.

They portray the poor as mostly rational and rarely making choices that are clearly stupid given the information that is readily available to them. But their cognitive abilities are sometimes suboptimal due to mediocre nutrition, disease, and/or stress from financial risks. Relieving any of those problems can sometimes enable them to become more productive workers.

The book advocates mild paternalism in the form of nudging weakly held beliefs about health-related questions where people can’t easily observe the results (e.g. vaccination, iodine supplementation), but probably not birth control (the poor generally choose how many children to have, although there are complex issues influencing those choices). They point out that the main reason people in developed countries make better health choices is due to better defaults, not more intelligence. I wish they’d gone a bit farther and speculated about how many of our current health practices will look pointlessly harmful to more advanced societies.

They give a lukewarm endorsement of microcredit, showing that it needs to be inflexible to avoid high default rates, and only provides small benefits overall. Most of the poor would be better off with a salaried job than borrowing money to run a shaky business.

The book fits in well with Givewell’s approach.

Book review: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, by Johnathan Rottenberg.

This book presents a clear explanation of why the basic outlines of depression look like an evolutionary adaptation to problems such as famine or humiliation. But he ignores many features that still puzzle me. Evolution seems unlikely to select for suicide. Why does loss of a child cause depression rather than some higher-energy negative emotion? What influences the breadth of learned helplessness?

He claims depression has been increasing over the last generation or so, but the evidence he presents can easily be explained by increased willingness to admit to and diagnose depression. He has at least one idea why it’s increasing (increased pressure to be happy), but I can come up with ideas that have the opposite effect (e.g. increased ease of finding a group where one can fit in).

Much of the book has little to do with the origins of depression, and is dominated by descriptions of and anecdotes about how depression works.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the frequently overlooked late stages of depression recovery, where antidepressants aren’t much use and people can easily fall back into depression.

The book includes a bit of self-help advice to use positive psychology, and to not rely on drugs for much more than an initial nudge in the right direction.

Folate

I recently tried larger-than-normal methylfolate supplements. I had known that my genes caused problems with processing folate (MTHFR T/T), but hadn’t noticed any effects from supplementing at 800mcg/day.

Due to a report that several milligrams/day helped with depression, I changed from 400mcg/day to 2mg/day. I felt like my mind started working better within hours (although I haven’t seen much change in behavior). I saw a clear and large improvement in my heart rate variability starting after one day.

I’ve experimented for 5 weeks randomly altering my dose from 1 to 3 mg/day. On the week when I switched from 3 to 1 mg, my mood slowly got worse. I felt much better withing hours of switching back to 3 mg. I haven’t noticed any clear difference between 2 and 3mg.

Crickets

I finally found a way to buy insects in enough quantity to satisfy my desire for nutrition from insects: World Ento, which sells dried crickets and cricket flour at a price per gram of protein comparable to seafood. (H/T Holden Karnofsky.)

According to Organic Value Recovery Solutions, crickets have impressive amounts of the nutrients I’ve found the hardest to get good amounts of. Here are examples of how much I’d get if I got my 2000 calories a day from crickets:

  • B12: 20 times the RDA (more than 3 times that of eggs)
  • Folate: 5 times the RDA (3 times that of eggs)
  • Zinc: 9 times the RDA (5 times that of eggs)

(using data for eggs from pastured chickens).

They have plenty of fiber and good amounts of most minerals and B vitamins.

The cricket flour tastes ok in brownies, but I’ll want some other recipe for regular use.

Update 2015-01-05: ThailandUnique has a better selection of insects. My favorite so far is the Big Cricket.

Book review: The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene.

This book has a lot of overlap with Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe

Greene uses less provocative language than Tegmark, but makes up for that by suggesting 5 more multiverses than Tegmark (3 of which depend on string theory for credibility, and 2 that Tegmark probably wouldn’t label as multiverses).

I thought about making some snide remarks about string theory being less real than the other multiverses. Then I noticed that what Greene calls the ultimate multiverse (all possible universes) implies that string theory universes (or at least computable approximations) are real regardless of whether we live in one.

Like Tegmark, Greene convinces me that inflation which lasts for infinite time implies infinite space and infinite copies of earth, but fails to convince me that he has a strong reason for assuming infinite time.

The main text is mostly easy to read. Don’t overlook the more technical notes at the end – the one proposing an experiment that would distinguish the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics from the Copenhagen interpretation is one of the best parts of the book.

Ambronite

Yet another soylent competitor has appeared: Ambronite.

It’s higher quality and high price than Soylent or MealSquares. It has more B12 than MealSquares even though it’s vegan.

It’s low enough in saturated fat that I probably want to add an additional source of saturated fat to my diet, but that’s a nice problem to have – I’d want to add chocolate anyway. My biggest reservation is the high level of polyunsaturated fat – if I could get a version without the walnuts I’d probably be satisfied there.

Most ingredients look like what our ancestors evolved to eat, but the first two ingredients listed are oats and rice protein.

Book review: Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, by Max Tegmark.

His most important claim is the radical Platonist view that all well-defined mathematical structures exist, therefore most physics is the study of which of those we inhabit. His arguments are more tempting than any others I’ve seen for this view, but I’m left with plenty of doubt.

He points to ways that we can imagine this hypothesis being testable, such as via the fine-tuning of fundamental constants. But he doesn’t provide a good reason to think that those tests will distinguish his hypothesis from other popular approaches, as it’s easy to imagine that we’ll never find situations where they make different predictions.

The most valuable parts of the book involve the claim that the multiverse is spatially infinite. He mostly talks as if that’s likely to be true, but his explanations caused me to lower my probability estimate for that claim.

He gets that infinity by claiming that inflation continues in places for infinite time, and then claiming there are reference frames for which that infinite time is located in a spatial rather than a time direction. I have a vague intuition why that second step might be right (but I’m fairly sure he left something important out of the explanation).

For the infinite time part, I’m stuck with relying on argument from authority, without much evidence that the relevant authorities have much confidence in the claim.

Toward the end of the book he mentions reasons to doubt infinities in physics theories – it’s easy to find examples where we model substances such as air as infinitely divisible, when we know that at some levels of detail atomic theory is more accurate. The eternal inflation theory depends on an infinitely expandable space which we can easily imagine is only an approximation. Plus, when physicists explicitly ask whether the universe will last forever, they don’t seem very confident. I’m also tempted to say that the measure problem (i.e. the absence of a way to say some events are more likely than others if they all happen an infinite number of times) is a reason to doubt infinities, but I don’t have much confidence that reality obeys my desire for it to be comprehensible.

I’m disappointed by his claim that we can get good evidence that we’re not Boltzmann brains. He wants us to test our memories, because if I am a Boltzmann brain I’ll probably have a bunch of absurd memories. But suppose I remember having done that test in the past few minutes. The Boltzmann brain hypothesis suggests it’s much more likely for me to have randomly acquired the memory of having passed the test than for me to actually be have done the test. Maybe there’s a way to turn Tegmark’s argument into something rigorous, but it isn’t obvious.

He gives a surprising argument that the differences between the Everett and Copenhagen interpretations of quantum mechanics don’t matter much, because unrelated reasons involving multiverses lead us to expect results comparable to the Everett interpretation even if the Copenhagen interpretation is correct.

It’s a bit hard to figure out what the book’s target audience is – he hides the few equations he uses in footnotes to make it look easy for laymen to follow, but he also discusses hard concepts such as universes with more than one time dimension with little attempt to prepare laymen for them.

The first few chapters are intended for readers with little knowledge of physics. One theme is a historical trend which he mostly describes as expanding our estimate of how big reality is. But the evidence he provides only tells us that the lower bounds that people give keep increasing. Looking at the upper bound (typically infinity) makes that trend look less interesting.

The book has many interesting digressions such as a description of how to build Douglas Adams’ infinite improbability drive.