Friday, July 31, 2009

Old Man River

The song Old Man River is one of my favorite songs. Lawrence Beaman recently sang Old Man River to riotous applause on America's Got Talent:

The version from the 1936 film version of Show Boat:

Julie Garland's version is considered by some to be a classic:

Another rendition by Screamin' Jay Hawkins:

Of course, the song is also popular in other parts of the world. The late Azerbaijani operatic and pop singer Muslim Magomayev gives us this operatic version:

Also, from Norway (methinks), there is this version:

Monday, July 20, 2009


I have a rough BMI of 30. What does this mean? It means that I'm in the "Obese" category, as defined by the CDC. There is no category above mine.

But wait, am I obese? I don't think so... I cycle 8 miles each day, do manual labor, and eat (relatively) healthily. I haven't checked my resting heart rate recently, but I'm guessing that it's between 60 and 70. I have a 36" waist, and 48" shoulders. I can benchpress 200 pounds, easily leg press 500 pounds, and do calf extensions at 250 pounds per side. How is this obese?

Recently, Devlin's Angle did a piece on BMI - the history, and stupidity of it. On the one hand, the usage of the BMI to indicate a single person's relative health is a good example of misuing a [simplistic] formula meant to determine population level characteristics, not individual ones. On another hand, this is also a story of how numbers and scientific wrappings seem to hold social significance. On yet another hand (this is turning into a Vishnu-statue of "other hands"), the BMI is a major tool in looking at trends in obesity. Finally, on the remaining hand (of Vishnu), it's completely meaningless, mathematically speaking.

Here's the equation:
BMI = weight in pounds/(height in inches^2) x 703

Devlin's Angle goes on to explain where the 703 comes from, and ponders the question of why the height is squared...

Devlin's Angle outlines two reasons why the BMI is useless as a individual measure: it's a population-based measure, and populations are made up of sedentary individuals (not atheletes) and it was derived at an early time in the statistic-ization of sociology. On the first point, the formula assumes that all "extra" weight on an individual is from fat. On the second point, the formula is derived to measure the trend of the majority of the population.

I would like to outline two other reasons why the BMI sucks for people like me: height and body proportion. Devlin's Angle points out that the BMI was derived in the early 1900s in Belgium. Looking at Wikipedia's entry on human height, one finds that in the mid-nineteenth century the average height in the Netherlands and France (they don't list Belgium) was164 cm and 165 cm, respectively. Looking at these measures "today", one sees a "slight" difference: 182 cm (169.7 cm) and 177 cm (164.6 cm), respectively (female heights in parenthesis). I assume that female heights weren't included in the mid-nineteenth century measurements, but we see that after 150 years, Dutch females are taller (males much taller) and French females as tall (males much taller) than their ancestors. What is so important about this? Well, remember that the equation for BMI was based on the average person. The average person being (among males) as much as 12-18 cm taller than the people measured to derive the BMI.

Let's try and make two individuals who matches the criteria of different BMI groupings; one from the mid-nineteenth century, and one from today. Since BMI is only a relationship between height and weight, this shouldn't be difficult to figure out. Therefore, a mid-nineteenth century Dutchman of average height (roughly 65 inches), would have the following BMI table:

Underweight (below 18.5): below 110 lbs.
Ideal (18.5 to 24.9): 110 lbs. to 148 lbs.
Overweight (25.0 to 29.9): 148 lbs. to 178 lbs.
Obese (30.0 and above): 178 lbs. and above.

We can imagine the "average build" 5'5" person and think, "Okay, that works." However, now let's look at what the BMI chart would mean for the average height Duchman of 6'0":

Underweight (below 18.5): below 135 lbs.
Ideal (18.5 to 24.9): 135 lbs. to 183 lbs.
Overweight (25.0 to 29.9): 183 lbs. to 219 lbs.
Obese (30.0 and above): 219 lbs. and above.

That man would have to be one skinny person. Imagine a person who is 6'0" and 135 lbs. Jim Carrey - someone we might think of as tall and skinny - is according to this site - 6'1" and 180 lbs. That's on the upper end of "ideal". President Barack Obama is - according to this site - 6'1.5" and 180 lbs. (Which, strangely, gives him a slightly higher BMI of 23.4 compared to John Kerry's 22.5, even though I would say that Obama's more atheltic now than Kerry was in 2004).

So, height is a determinant. Therefore, BMI was a good measure of estimating the height/weight relationship of early 1900s Belgians, not necessarily early 21st century Americans.

Also, there is body proportion. Having a relatively long torso, I have been blessed with not having to worry about too little leg room on aircrafts (yet), but I am annoyed at how low the backs of seats cut me (usually well below the shoulder, even on "tall" chairs). There are trends on body proportions, both in terms of proportions of height (i.e., long torso vs. long legs) and width (e.g., hip-to-waist ratios). Neither of these are included in the BMI. True: certain regions have slightly different cut-off points for BMI measurements, such as in SE Asia where there is a relatively consistent height body proportion, however, in the United States - where there is such a wide range of different height and width body proportions that BMI loses its meaning even faster. But why?

Well, take me for example. I have a long torso. What does that mean, though. Well, a single inch of height that is comprised of torso has more mass than an inch of height comprised of leg; there are more organs, more girth, and more water in the torso than in the leg. Therefore, if someone has a relatively short torso compared to me (i.e., they are my height, but have much longer legs than me), having a 240 lbs. somewhat athetic build would mean that individual would have legs even more massive than mine (or a torso that was gigantic). In other words, body proportions will have a direct bearing on the amount of mass you are carrying around (and therefore, your weight), irregardless of how much muscle or fat you have.

Related to the issue of body proportion is the issue of amputation. If you amputated a leg, you could lower your total body weight by 20-40 pounds (depending, obviously, on the weight of your legs). If I cut off legs, then my BMI would drop to about 25 (still "overweight", but not "obese"). However, if you had both your legs amputated (or weren't born with both legs), then you could shorten your height by 27" (plus or minus) and your weight by 40-80 lbs. However, due to the formula, my BMI would actually increase to 44 if that happened to me.

What to do? Well, I have a novel idea of doing a BMI survey of a cohort of incoming students, combined with a number of other measures that will give an indication of body proportion, muscle mass, and fitness. Then, look at doing statistics on the whole set to see what sort of relationship one would get for "modern" BMI cut-offs, and determine if there is any easier way of determining a general figure of fitness that can be used by an individual (as opposed to being a proxy for an entire population, mostly made up of sedentary individuals).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Friends Like These

Before traveling to Britain, I had no idea who Danny Wallace was. Indeed, I didn't know anything about the book until I was making my way back to my friend's R.M.'s house in Charlton (near London): there was a poster of the book plastered on the side of some building (or maybe it was a bus), and I read the subtitle: "How far would YOU go to get the old gang back together?" This subtitle piqued my attention because I felt that - having lived in several different countries, lost touch with some good friends over the years, and having just celebrated by 32nd birthday - the idea of getting the "old gang" back together was something that I could relate to; a yearning that I have had in the past that led me first to Friendster, MySpace, and Bebo, and leading (now) to Facebook, and connecting (even just today) with friends - both close and casual - from different periods of my past.

The book describes in first-person narrative, the travels of Danny Wallace as he goes to find and meet up with the twelve people who were the most important to him growing up. (So important, in fact, that they were the only ones that made it into his special address book.) It's a trip not only of rediscovery, but also of approaching, inevitable adulthood taking him from London to Loughborough, Berlin, LA, Melbourne, Tokyo and Dundee in order to find the people who were the most significant to him.

I still don't really know much about Danny Wallace, but after reading his book Friends Like These, I think I know more about him. Similar to his mother, I know that mine is holding boxes in the crawlspace in their house full of my "stuff" from school (she has other boxes of my brother's stuff, too). There are yearbooks full of people I haven't seen or really thought about in years (decades in some cases).

The book took place in 2006, and now - three years later - some of the events seem haunting. The recent death of Michael Jackson was juxtaposed quite strangely in my head as I read all the references to MJ in the book, for who could deny that Jackson was a major cultural figure to people born in the late 1970s, like Danny and me. Still, learning about Danny's journeys two weeks after the death of the King of Pop was somewhat haunting, since it seemed like - for a moment - two realities existed simultaneously: the reality of the book (taking place in an indefinite "present") where Danny ends up going to a Michael Jackson concert with one of his old friends (sorry for the spoiler) and the reality of (well) reality.

Another thing that the book did for me was make me start to realize that I, too, am growing older. The book depicts events leading up to Danny's 30th birthday in 2006. It is now 2009, and I just celebrated my 32nd, learning yet more about myself and the connections I have to my own friends from my undergraduate studies in St Andrews. Time flies when you're having fun, and yet (and yet) it is with only a certain few that robust connections - no matter how thin - remain. However, although these connections are thin, their strength allows one to build stronger bridges upon them - a network of connections holding together that social fabric against which we identify ourselves.

This book may not be for everyone. Indeed, I think that Danny's voice is very strong in the book (it is, after all, written in the first person about personal events and personal thoughts), and it may not be for everybody. It might be difficult - for example - to identify with a man who grew up in different parts of the UK and Europe with friends from a similarly diverse background. It might be difficult, too, understand some of the cultural references or significances of certain types of statements about pubs, mates, and display cushions. However, if you are a kind of person who is interested and trying to reconnect with childhood friends (even passively through online "social networking" sites like Facebook), then this book might just be for you.

(Also, as a person who lived in Japan, his chapters about finding his friend in Japan, and his experiences in Tokyo and outside it, had me cracking up with laughter. But then again, most Westerners' takes on the "bizarre" nature of Japan - Tokyo in particular - often seem to be quite humorous to me, since I am able - I believe - to see both sides of that Lost in Translation coin.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Back in Ann Arbor... for Art Fair

I'm back in Ann Arbor, and have returned to the start of Art Fair. (Yay?) Although I do understand that Art Fair is a major financial shot in the arm for Ann Arbor's businesses, especially for those along Main Street, Liberty Street, State Street, and South University Street, I still don't have to enjoy the massive throngs of people (expected 500,000 people), the closing off of major streets that I normally take to my work, and the increased traffic load along alternative streets.

Ah, well, I'll likely be taking photos of the throngs and throngs of people quietly and slowly milling among stalls, looking at pieces of artwork that have been lovingly positioned in booths - many of them being the same things that were on sale last year. Hopefully for these artists, there will be purchasing this year, irregardless of the ongoing recession.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

le Tour

After a very late start to the day, I went to the pâtisserie to purchase sone pain au chocolat for Rafys as well as find out what time le Tour de France would commence - making its way up the nearby Avenue de l'Ecole de l'Agriculture Gabriel Bouchet. I was met almost immediately on this sourjourn by a lone, bored-looking policeman.

"Well, at least we won't have to go far to see the riders go by," I thought, but at what time zould they actually go by? Stepping into the avenue, I saw many people lining both sides of the street in an expectant air, causing me to quicken my pace as I continued toward the pâtisseri. There, I joined a short queue of people waiting to join the even larger group standing outside eating the various breads and pastries from that particular shop. (I had been coached very thoroughly on the pronunciation of 'pain au chocolat,' and was quite confident of my ability to be understood with that particular order). Unfortunately for me (and my practice), pain au chocolat is a very popular pastry among the French (at least among those waiting for le Tour), so there were none available at 12:20 PM, although I suspect they were making more in the back. Therefore, I decided to bucher the pronunciaction of croissants avec aumandes et chocolat and a brioche (also avec chcolat).

After paying the lady and wishing her bounjour née, I crossed the street to the tabac, and purchased a paper for 1€ after unsuccessfully trying to ask the man what time le Tour was going to pass. I then headed back to Rafys'.

The paper said something about a procession leaving the place de la comedie at 12:45, so I decided to head out to catch it before it passed us by. What I failed to do was read further, for I would have then learned that "procession" didn't mean "race". However, this didn' happen, and out I went to catch the procession.

The procession was a motorcade of the sponsors, with pretty men and women throwing things to the crowds. I collected a few things, including three hats, a bag, gummy bears, newspapers, a mouse pad, and clothes detergent. (I was hoping that Škoda would be giving out cars, but no such luck). At some point, Rafys joined me outside, and we both waited for le Tour to begin. At some point, there was a lull in the procession, and she suggested we moved to a space of grass further up the avenue in order to wait for the riders in a little more comfort.

After our move, and a little more of a wait, eight or nine brightly clad riders with their escort of police and cameramen flew past. After they were gone, there was a lull, which was followed by another group of nine riders and escort about ten minutes later. Had I read the newspaper closely, I would have (possibly) understood that the teams would be riding together in today's stages, each about seven minutes apart. No exciting peleton today, but there continues, even now, to be teams racing the 39 km around Montpellier.