Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Year, New Life?

New Year's is a great time to make some resolutions, to start a new diet, to get a new haircut, begin (or finish) that damn novel*, or be a "better person", whatever the hell that means.

I'd like to propose that we use the New Year to start living greener. As in really, truly greener. Environmentalist thinking isn't just cool, it's also a money-saver, which is a nice bonus in these uncertain days.

Below are ten things I've resolved to do this year, things that are both green and frugal--I'll keep you all updated as the year goes on, about once a week.

1) Change the incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent ones: Unbelievably, we still use incandescents. For some of them, like the overheads in the bedrooms, it can't be helped--they simply don't make CFLs in the size that will fit into the sockets. But most of the lights here are incandescents for only one reason--my boyfriend can't stand the thought of using CFLs. Which, if you ask me, is a silly one, especially since the lights that I want to switch are shaded by yellowish shades, which will soften the glow considerably.

2) Eating more organic produce: This is kind of tricky because organic produce is expensive and I've got a limited budget. But I figure that I can cough up once a week for ingredients to make a nice dinner.

3) Not buying clothes: Actually, I've been very good about not buying from mass-produced lines, mostly because I can't afford €15 for a delicate t-shirt that'll rip after its first wear. But this year, I plan on going just a tad farther--I'll either buy secondhand or make them. Well, not socks or underwear. I suppose I could learn to knit my own socks, but I can't count for the life of me.

4) Start a balcony garden: We couldn't do this for the past year because the boyfriend has a load of crap that he can't get rid of. But we're getting a new kitchen, so along with the destruction of the old kitchen, we'll get rid of the crap that's cluttering our balcony, and hopefully be able to put in some spinach plants, basil, cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini this year.

5) Photography: I've kind of fallen off the wagon a bit as the days have gotten shorter and my time has been occupied by measuring and cutting and stenciling and what-all (presents for 16 people for around €200 means a lot of homemade stuff, and homemade stuff takes a lot of time). But photography is a cheap hobby--at least, it can be--and at the same time, documenting the beauty of nature really reminds you of what there is to preserve.

6) Better living through chemistry: I will freely confess to being a toxic-chemical-phobe here. Well, actually, not so much--I am quite happy to use chemical-laden shampoos and conditioners, the difference being that shampoos and conditioners generally aren't strong enough to take out the lining of your lungs if you breathe it in for long enough. Broadly speaking, my rule of thumb is that whatever you're using to clean shouldn't feel like it'll kill you if you're locked in an elevator with it. There are few chemicals that we really need to keep an apartment spic 'n span. Between spiritus alcohol (the kind that you put in alcohol lamps), plain vinegar, bleach, baking soda, washing soda, and a bit of borax, there really shouldn't be anything you can't clean. The resolution? Not using any pre-fabricated cleansers.

7) Maintenance: We do a terrible job of maintenance. That is to say, I've not once checked over my bike since I bought it--secondhand--last June. There are probably hundreds of things we could check--the weatherproofing, for instance. We could insulate the hot-water pipes. Take a moment to dust out the computers, vaccuum the refrigerator coils, etc. But also things like fixing holes in clothes before they become irreparable, cleaning out the trap in the dishwasher more often, and things like that--they also need to be done.

8) Turning things off, aka letting my pet peeve out to play: My peeve is leaving things on. I'm okay with forgetting to turn off the light occasionally (happens to us all) but constantly leaving lights burning is a frightful waste of energy (and money). Furthermore, we have things like the DVD player which is never truly off, and my boyfriend's seldom-used stereo system is never turned off, either. It irks me that we have so many power vampires in our apartment, and this year, the plan is to get rid of them all, one room at a time.

9) Learn to can stuff: The summers are rife with blackberries and elderberries. The markets are chock full of muscat grapes and fresh tomatoes: what better way to preserve the flavors of summer for the dead of winter? Not to mention that homemade preserves make excellent gifts.

10) Start yoga again: The reason I haven't is because getting up at 4:30 in the morning just isn't fun, no matter how you cut it. But I miss yoga more, and with the impetus of a New Year coming on I'll be motivated to start. Maybe I'll even start running again, who knows? Though with my ankles in the shape that they're in, I'll probably be better off buying a used stairmaster, instead...

With the exception of the last one, everything here is something that you, too, can do, to live a happier, and greener life. Actually, you, too, can start yoga. But I wouldn't recommend getting up at 4:30 am to do it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Actions and reactions

It's not exactly a surprise that partying too hard on New Year's Eve leads to hangovers the next day. Or that pigging out at the all-you-can-eat leads to an unpleasant surprise on the bathroom scale. Or that "taking advantage" of all those pre- and post-Christmas sales results in a guilt-ridden statement, from either your credit card or your bank.

Which is why it's not exactly a surprise that the market for credit has scrunched down. It's a natural reaction to excess.

Economists tend to project the image of the economy as pure math, where people's actions are based on what will make them the most money. But really, it's mob psychology, both the bubbles and the inevitable pop. People tend to do what everybody else is doing. If everybody else is living on credit cards to pay for the lifestyle of the Joneses, well...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

I realize that I've kind of drifted from the original tack of this blog, so the New Year will bring some changes in the type of stuff that gets put up here. And hopefully, I'll be able to update more regularly.

Our tree is a real tree, about 3 feet tall, blinged out in red and gold. Those are the colors we use as our main decor, too.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Real Greenies Don't Recycle

We recycle only about half the glass that comes into our apartment--mostly the wine bottles, and then only if I can't use them for a vase (some of them are really fugly).

The other half does not get thrown out. It gets put to good use--holding screws, blackberry jelly, acting as pseudo-tupperware, holding things like corks and pencils and beads, as containers for stock, etc. I sometimes wonder how I ever got along with virtually no glass jars.

Why do we recycle at all? There are only two good reasons to recycle:

1) Essentially nonrenewable resources: paper, for instance. Yes, I know, trees are grown in specially manicured forests etc etc, but the fact is they grow at a much slower rate than our current need for paper. Hence the "essentially".

2) To decrease the amount of crap going to the landfills. Especially the nonbiodegradeable crap. Like glass. And styrofoam, too--but that one might actually degrade, given enough gasoline.

From some points of view, recycling is a terrible waste of resources. You have to drive a special truck to pick it up. The crap gets sent down lots of conveyor belts--using tons of electricity from what is most likely going to be a fossil-fuel burning plant. People get paid to sift through it. More resources are used to reconstitute the crap into its original form.

Is it worth it? When you consider how much crap we throw away on a daily basis--coffee filters, coffee grounds, small paper scraps, food scraps, broken things, food containers--one must wonder exactly how much of a difference a single can of Coke is going to make to the net amount of crud going to the landfill.

But then consider how many resources are devoted to, say, quarrying aluminum, hauling the raw ore to a refinery/smelting plant, smelting out the metal from the slag, shipping it to companies who bang on it and make nuts and bolts and cans, etc.

Recycling is worthwhile. But it should not be considered Green, but rather as the lesser of two evils.

Why conserve?

Water is too cheap, which is why people don't care about wasting it.

There is also the fact that if you don't use it, it just evaporates, floats around as a cloud for a while, and then drops back to earth again, as rain. The water cycle, believe it or not, still works in the same way it did when you were a kid in elementary school. So really, there's no real shortage of water.

Except when there is:

It is impossible to predict which year will be a drought year. In the 1990s, when I lived in/around Philadelphia, there were at least two summers where you could be forgiven for wondering what happened to summer, because everything was brown. It didn't rain for three weeks straight, once--and given the average temperature of a Philadelphian summer, that's a big strain on plant life.

It is becoming even more difficult thanks to the weird climate changes we are all experiencing. Drought and famine in Africa. Drought and famine in India. Glaciers melting, Venice under water. Northern Europe caught in a web of freezing cold. More powerful hurricanes.

The problem is not that water actually runs out. It is that it runs out where people live. But it's not like you can keep it, either--evaporation occurs, no matter what.

So why "save" water?

1) Why not? If you're not using it, why run it? It's a profligate waste of money and resources.

2) Those "just a few bucks" you save--any little bit helps if you're struggling. Turn off the faucet, fix those leaks, and you'll breathe just that much easier.

3) Peace, quiet, and no green streaks. When I was in college I lived in an apartment where the bathtub's faucet leaked all the f*cking time. Eventually we were able to summon a groundskeeper to fix it, but by that time there was an irremovable scum of green stuff staining the white tub, marking where algae had grown along the trace of the water. Dripping faucets drive me nuts in general.

4) Water damages. See #3 about green scum. But a drippy pipe can cause floorboards and cupboards to rot, and those cost a helluva lot more to replace than calling the plumber to fix the leaks.

5) Save your skin. Washing too often dries out your skin, and washing your hair too often sucks the natural oils that give it shine right out. I wash my (long) hair every other day--it's oily--which is just about right.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bailing out!

The latest talk around the economic round table is on bailing out the auto industry. Don't worry, this won't turn into a long rant about the auto industry and how unions screw things up. The human cost if the Big Three went under would be tremendous--not necessarily catastrophic, but definitely painful--but at the same time, one must wonder whether the environment would see it that way.

If we go by the standard 10,000 miles driven per year, 15 mpg (we're talking SUVs, not Priuses), and 23 pounds of CO2 gas emitted per gallon, that adds up to almost 8 tons of carbon dioxide in the air per SUV, per year. Multiply that by however many millions of SUVs are idling in parking lots (er, I mean freeways) not just in the US, which is by far the biggest consumer but by no means the only one, China, and Europe, and it's a wonder that the oceans are still able to keep up.

This doesn't even take into consideration the acts of finding oil, drilling for it, shipping, and refining it, all of which produce their own small environmental catastrophes (and larger social ones, but I'm not up to dealing with things this complicated this late at night). Or the effects that roads have on the landscape--and how they shape the movements of animals, and the effects that has on conservation efforts. It's enough to give even an environmentally-inclined blogger a headache.

The point is that driving with reckless abandon will wreck the world--if you happen to live in Nigeria, then you know firsthand that it does, in fact, wreck your world. I'm not one to put much faith in doomsday prognostications of a world without oil, but let's realize: 1) oil renews itself at a much slower rate than we use it up (think millions of years--unless you're Sarah Palin and your brain can't physically cope with the idea that the world might be older than Genesis), and 2) there are much, much more urgent uses for oil than merely making things go zoom or zap.

It is actually the second that worries me more. It is possible to live without cars (we do). It is possible to deal without central heating, to scrape by on candlelight, and make do with microwaves.

But imagine a life without plastic, or try to--I can't. Most of the the world we live in is plastic. The couch I'm sitting on is plastic. My laptop--encased in plastic. Even the most plastics-averse person (my boyfriend) thinks nothing of buying chicken encased in a plastic box--and doubt anybody would even think of buying meat any other way. Consider how they keep things sterile in hospitals. Consider what rubber gloves are made of. Consider a life without polyester.

At some point in the (hopefully) far future, we're going to have to make decisions about what we can do without. Delaying this particular inevitable is one I think we can all agree on.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Does not compute

My lab works on proteins. A few of the people run "dry" experiments, meaning they enter equations and run simulations of molecules and how they interact with proteins. Needless to say, being as inept with computers as I am, I normally don't deal with that.

But recently I was giving a box of 32 compounds that I had to test for allosteric activity. According to the computers, they were all allosteric enhancers.

According to my experiments, they're not.

Admittedly, a hit rate of 3-4 out of 32 isn't half-bad. Random screening without using computers to narrow down the list of criteria for our allosteric compounds would have me pulling my hair out of pure stress--when you're testing that many compounds, you have to make sure that the labels on one tube matches the label on the other, or else...

The point of all this is that life doesn't compute well. We can plug data into our computers until we're blue in the face, and get all types of random, seemingly meaningless correlations (rainy weather, autism), or important, seemingly significant ones (cholesterol, heart attacks). But it takes getting your hands dirty--designing the surveys, running the statistics, cracking the math--before you might turn up something useful.

And all too often, you don't.

I've still got a few more tests to run, but at this point they're more for verification of what I already know (most of the compounds are not allosteric modulators) than to get new data.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bitten by the Bug

Politics and science are usually separate fields. Certainly, politicians control the money that scientists get, and within the scientific communities you get political squabbles. But mostly, science is a meritocracy and politics is a popularity contest. In politics it doesn't matter if you're as dumb as a rock as long as people like you. You don't have to know what you're talking about as long as you can "connect; as long as people like the way you say it, you could suggest eating babies. After all, if Hitler could get elected...

But every now and then they come together, namely in the election years, when we decide who gets to make the policies for the next two, four, or six years (depending on who's running). Most of the time science gets pushed aside as people discuss the issues more relevant, so they think, to the most people: taxes, health care, and that mythical thing called Reform, during which they swear to end corruption and limit the influence of the very cronies who are paying them to say that.

But I, and most scientists, probably, would argue that the state of scientific research in the United States is critical to the welfare of the country. Not just because Big Pharma makes all manners of lifesaving drugs (well...okay, maybe not), but because supporting the infrastructures that do the scientific research, be it particle physics or grizzly bear DNA, generate their own economies. To say nothing of the knowledge that gets put out there--knowledge that transforms industrial practices, knowledge that increases our understanding of the world we live in. Sarah Palin may mock the grizzly bear study, but won't she be sorry if hunters shoot the last bear?

Several factors contribute to the robust health of the intellectual sphere: The budget of the NIH to fund studies is still, despite cuts, larger than the GNP of many countries. The flexibility of the English language ensures that ideas can be communicated. The diversity of those involved in research guarantees that many ideas will be generated, and the system of peer review helps ensure that only the best succeed.

The problem is that politicans often have no idea what constitutes science. Scientists are already prone to interpreting data along the lines of their own personal beliefs, but politicians will flat-out deny the existence of data.

Basing public policies on what you want to think is the truth is very different from basing public policies on what is actually the truth. The truth is: evolution happens, stem cell research is no more or less evil than abortion, mercury in our water systems is bad, and climate change is a fact. Simply because these are inconvenient to us does not change that tey are, and we need politicians with the balls to acknowledge that we do not dictate how the world runs, the world runs and we deal with it.

Whenever and wehere ideology takes the place of knowledge--be it in tribal Pakistan or the halls of the Senate, in the Supreme Court or sub-Saharan Africa, in money or in medicine--shit happens. Ideology has its place; it gives us a platform from which we can jump off as we learn new things, but it should never replace knowledge. Let's pick a prez who knows the difference.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Feeling Good

Ups and downs are a normal part of life. In my day job, I'm a scientist/lab tech, and I'd recently mastered the art of a cAMP assay. This is a long, complicated assay involving live cells, lots of clear liquids in lots of clear plates, and calculations and back-calculations. It is, in many ways, the worst kind of assay one can run: expensive, easy to screw up, and completely dependent on how you grow your cells.

Recently my cells have been giving me a lot of flak, and after two weeks of piddling about and hoping that they'd come around, we've finally decided to just use new cells. What a bummer--I've lost two weeks' worth of work.

But oddly, despite the troubles these past two weeks, and the shortening days (anybody who says seasonal depression isn't real has never met me), I'm actually feeling quite good. Probably from a combination of chocolate, love, biking to and from the train stations, and the giddiness from not having eaten enough all week.

Feeling good, according to neuroscientists, is about brain biochemistry: having the right amounts of all the neurotransmitters in all their correct balances. Some people have a harder time of attaining this balance, others are magically "normal".

How do we go about assigning hedonistic values to the aspects of our lives that warrant it?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Science is not scientific: how to tell cells from cells

I go birdwatching on a regular basis--my favorite birds are waterfowl, and at this time of year there are a lot of migratory species coming through Holland (it's a very good time to have a pair of 8 x 56's). As with any region, you have your native common fauna, which consists of the same old 15-20 species you see EVERY time you go out, your native less-common fauna (the 10-15 species you don't see every time and are excited when you do), the non-native fauna (10-15 species that are SOO COOL! when you see them), and the rare birds.

When you pick up a birdwatching guide, it will contain a long list of field markers, habitats, songs, behaviors, notes about plumage changes, differences between age groups--there is no way to memorize all of the information. Yet I can tell you, sitting in a train whizzing by at 60 mph, that that white-ish goose is a domestic goose and that other white-ish goose is a dark variation of the snow goose.

OK, so compulsively reading my bird guide probably has something to do with this. But more than that is practice. It's how you learn to tell black-headed gulls apart from common gulls (red feet, red bill) during the winter, when they don't have their black heads. I don't check plumage points, behaviors, habitats, unless I'm really uncertain about a new strange bird--and the only reason it's new and strange is because I haven't seen it in the wild before, as most of the time I know where it is in my book and I can turn right to it.

But if you were to ask me how I go about quickly spotting birds and making my identificataions--what thoughts go through my head--I couldn't tell you. Just as I couldn't tell you exactly what makes my cells healthy and what makes them not--why I say they're "not behaving" even though they look plump and otherwise healthy. I don't think anybody who does cell culture can accurately describe what "healthy" cells look like, but they know "unhealthy" cells when they see them.

You might wonder why there's any fuss over the health of cells at all. Turns out that many of the assays run depend on the cells being "healthy"--i.e., not contaminated, in the log phase of their growth, not newly-split, not "hungry" (believe it or not, you can tell when they are), with a slightly-acidic-but-not-too-much media, evenly dispersed--the criteria go on and on, but the gestalt picture is that the cells just look "healthy".

When you work in science, you eventually acquire a feeling as to what should work and what doesn't. The minutiae of your system become intuitive--you know that's not a pigeon, even if all you can see is a black blob against a blue sky. You know your cat isn't feeling well, even if it's not doing anything other than what it normally does. You know that even if the protocol says nothing about gently stirring your reaction mixture, you'd better do it gently if you want results. You know that some equations are better than others.

This is the daily in-and-out of experimental science, ladies and gentlemen. It is predicated on a long list of assumptions, some of which only may be true. It is not very scientific at all.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Weight loss secrets, revealed!

One of the "hot research" areas I've been following for the past few months concerns the melanocortin receptor (I'm a pharmacology geek, what can I say?) and the regulation of appetite, the cooperation with dopamine receptors for pleasure, and the nebulous (so far) link with the hormones that are thought to regulate appetite: ghrelin, leptin, CCK (cholecystekinin), NPY (neuropeptide Y), and so on. Briefly, researchers are finding that melanocortin receptors cooperate with dopamine receptors to produce the hedonistic pleasure brought on by food. Exactly how the cooperation occurs and the effects of it are more technical matter that I will not get into here.

The article in question is, unfortunately, a closed one, meaning that you either have to be at a university library or pony up $32 to view it, unless Google has archived it somewhere.

But the main point is that this essentially debunks the "genetic set point" that irritates the hell out of me. The set point refers to a range of weights in which your body will fall, given an endless amount of food and constant metabolism. For most people, alas, this set point is not at the waif-like weight of what is being sold as beauty, but substantially above it.

There is no question that one's weight is naturally predisposed to falling at/around a certain point, and that for everybody, this point is different. For a society trained to find pixie sticks beautiful, this point is much heavier than what they would like it to be.

Allow me to digress a moment to point out that the pervasiveness of the diet industry is unique to the United States, and I would venture to guess that its success is largely unique to the US. Undoubtedly there are diet companies in Europe, but aside from an occasional flyer advertising a gym, there are few ads for apple cider vinegar pills, dietic green tea drinks, or body wraps. There is no media pressure to conform to a slender physique, though there is plenty of social pressure--for starters, cars are expensive, fuel even more so, and the stores catering to expansive waistlines are few and far between.

Anyway: it should come as no surprise, then, that one's weight tends to be a function of one's daily habits. Eating, drinking, sleeping, and all that good stuff. The operative words are "daily habits"--patterns of learned behaviors and thought that circumscribe everyday operation.

Behavioral experts say that it takes 2-3 weeks of sustained effort to create a new habit, and if my nail-biting is an accurate indicator, and old habits can never be fully destroyed--they can be overridden, but never vanquished.

What does this have to do with the set point?

My problem with the idea of a genetic set point is that it assumes that your body is entirely independent of your brain. If you've got a lifetime of, say, comfort eating (guilty) behind you, it is going to take much more than six weeks of bikini-body-dieting to break you of the habit of responding to emotional triggers with food. And, most likely, you'll find that no matter how long it's been, you'll probably relapse occasionally (guilty, too). When you go about "remaking yourself", not only do you have to learn a new habit to override the old one, you have to learn a new way to activate the pleasure centers to get that sense of achievement. This is hard. Very hard.

That young children have remarkably plastic brains is no surprise. Kids can learn to speak perfect French or Chinese if they start early enough, while adults might be able to if they persist at it for a decade or two. But what we have yet to appreciate is the full spectrum of plasticity of the adult brain. We, too, can train ourselves to like broccoli and delight in string beans. We, too, can teach ourselves new habits. It is hard. It takes a damn long time, and not only does it take a long time, it often involves pushing ourselves out of our comfort limits.

But it's not like we don't have that choice.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Science is not scientific

My background is scientific: I've got a BS in biology and biochemistry, and I've worked in pharmacology and/or molecular biology ever since I started working. Even my hobbies outside of work are more or less scientific; readers of my personal blog will probably wince in recollection of my birdwatching lists, and I prefer reading nonfiction (Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos is one of my favorites, while The Elegant Universe is on my reading list) to fiction.

So it always astounds me when people believe that science is scientific--that is, precise, exact, where the proof is irrefutable and the data conform to nice and pretty graphs. It's not. Science does allow you to answer the most mundane questions ("How do we taste?") in the most amazing ways, and if it's done properly you'll even be correct. But it's not math--that is, there is always uncertainty, there is always room for error, and different interpretations, and you may find that a solid, well-thought-through hypothesis is shot to hell when you do one more test as an afterthought.

Good science is not about doing good experiments as it is about asking the right questions. That is, the clinical trials that the people at Science-Based Medicine love to espouse are really just demonstrations of safety and/or efficacy, rather than actually uncovering anything new. One could argue that the science that led up to the development of drugs ready for clinical trials is good science, and I would have to concede that point--but few studies actually purport to change the way we think about the human body, or anything else, for that matter; the studies that actually add to our body of knowledge are usually not of social interest. I.e., you don't see membrane-protein crystal structures making the front page of anything except Science (which is a very remarkable feat and one that rightfully deserves all of the attention and praise that it gets, but I don't think mobs of girls are going to be swarming over to the Scripps Institute begging for autographs). If you don't know why crystal structures of membrane proteins are so important, that sort of proves the point--that the good science simply doesn't engender social interest.

Allow me a moment to rant about the science that does interest people: dieting and weight loss, drugs against obesity, and drugs against drug addictions (funny how the phrasing works out). For the most part, these studies are flawed, some more than others--the ones that are less-flawed tend to be the basic-science ones, where they find that Molecule Zed makes a mouse skinny or fat and then elucidate the pathway by which Molecule Zed works. They tend to rely on statistics and epidemiology, which in turn make the assumption that the people answering the questions are honest, or that there's no other compounding factor. I always read these studies with a skeptic's eye (though I don't always disagree with the findings), but it's ironic, in my book, that the studies that interest people are the ones that are the most lax in how they are controlled.

What I call "good science" is less a question of method and more a question of...well, questions. Methods can be improved--someone who wants to study the effects of acupuncture could do worse than stick random needles into random people--but you can't get more basic than asking whether acupuncture works, and how (answer is probably not, in case you're wondering). Asking the right questions makes good science far more than running the most rigorously-controlled experiments; asking the right questions usually requires a divergence from the state of reality as we know it today.

Aside: I am afraid my posts will continue to be sporadic. Suffice it to say that life is crazy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Urgh, Firefox

I must apologize for the delay: not only is my job keeping me busy as hell, but the days are getting shorter here fast. Night now falls at 8:30 pm, which means that I tend to get sleepy at around 9 pm. The upside to being solar-powered is that during the summer I quite literally do not have to sleep more than 5 hours a day. The downside is that during the winters I practically hibernate. Furthermore Firefox 3.0 is having some issues loading the "Edit blog" part of this site. Safari doesn't work quite as well, and I hate firing up my boyfriend's desktop and generally avoid doing so because it sucks power like a Hoover, amongst other things.

Anyways, with all that out of the way...well, it's not really out of the way, is it? Because all the stressful things in my life haven't been fixed: my job is keeping me busy as hell, the days will continue to get shorter until the winter solstice, I still have no idea what's up with Firefox, and there are two cats and one boyfriend that demand their fair share of my time and attention.

That's the thing with stress--it's always there. If you're not under some kind of stress, then you're dead.

How you deal with it, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ah, stress! Part 1 of 3

I'm going through a rather strenuous time right now--one consequence of doing your job a bit too well is that you suddenly get heaped with tons of work. Added to this is a four-hour commute and my usual life and it's no wonder I've given up on trying to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep (I might almost get there on the weekends).

Stress, strictly speaking, is anything from the outside world that affects you. It is not, by definition, a bad thing: if tomorrow you won the lottery, that too is stress.

In the days of yore, when we hadn't yet earned the genus Homo, stress was running from a jaguar--and fighting like hell when it caught you. The release of epinephrine and norepinephrine enables the muscles to work much harder. Pain responses get blunted. Blood is shunted from organs that don't need it (your gut) to those that do at this moment, as your entire body is devoted to one thing--getting the hell out of there, or beating the crap out of whatever's trying to beat the crap out of you.

Nowadays, we have a more evolved brain, and far more involved lives. Social interactions are no longer limited to who gets pickings at the termite mound. Being able to think means that what we make of a scenario can greatly affect our body's response to it. Someone who has a breakdown on I-95 can panic, get angry, rant at an angry God, or call AAA. These days, very few of us will ever encounter stress of the sort our ancestors did, unless you're unfortunate enough to fall into a den of lions. But the evolutionary mechanisms by which we deal with stress--open the floodgates for epinephrine--have remained the same.

Is this a good thing, or not? Stay tuned.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Skinny: Part 3 of 3

Women are supposedly neurotically insecure about their bodies. I'll admit that I am, though I conceal it better than most (I think--does this confession count?). We think our boobs are too big/small and our asses are too this or that and the glossies have a ball every summer before bikini season when we're supposedly at our wits' end about looking like a walrus. But you know what? It really doesn't matter--if you have boobs and an ass, you'll get hit on--only not by that cute artsy guy in the cafe (who is, of course, taken), alas. Men, it seems, really don't see much else--at least, not if my observations of ogling behavior along Kelly Drive is correct.

At this point I'd also put in a statement about what physical features about men attract women, but in this respect there's perilously little consistency. Women are far more slick about how they ogle men, and their tastes are far more divergent: the Chippendales would have you believe that the ideal man is 200 pounds of pure muscle, but the variety of body types available amongst the Hollywood elite would suggest otherwise (personally, I go for the more slightly-built, like Eric McCormack, but I have to admit, seeing Daniel Craig in Casino Royale took my breath away).

All of which suggests that there is no one true body type that's universally beautiful. Some characteristics are appreciated, undoubtedly--ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, one nose--but if you're reading this odds are you meet someone's expectations of beauty.

So why all the pressure to be thin? Or rather, why, in spite of Marilyn Monroe and the zaftig figures of previous generations, and a resurgence of more normal figures, are women still airbrushed to "perfection" and the figure of a prepubescent boy still considered desirable?

Actually, the real question isn't even why we're still told that we need to look a certain way to be "beautiful". It's why we fall for the line that our bodies, as they are, are not enough--that they must somehow be modified to be beautiful. If you think about it, this is a puzzle: female apes don't feel the need to don high heels and strut their stuff in couture--but I betcha they would if another did it and won the ultimate Darwinian prize: a male.

Which gender self-modifies is irrelevant from this point on. In most species where sexual dimorphism occurs, it's usually the male that gets decked out like a drag queen. Sexual selection is certainly a powerful force when it comes to designing traits that the other gender "likes". But it's not the end of the story. I would suggest that a somewhat more subtle psychological need to be assimilated, especially in social animals (like humans) also plays a key role in why we get gussied up.

That is: women dress up because it makes them more attractive to men. But it also unifies them with other women. Assimilation is not just for the Borg. It makes civilized life possible. And leads to an interesting array of neuroses, like that involving bikinis.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beast: part 2 of 3

Collagen. Copper. Alpha-hydroxy acids. Petrolatum. Retinoic acid.

You can be forgiven if you thought I was talking about a chemistry course. Beauty is as much about looking young as it is about looking, well, beautiful, and today's beauty products promise to reduce wrinkles and cover up age spots and protect from UV rays and do all but wash out the kitchen sink.

There is, alas, no real way to stop looking older. Collagen creams are a hot item, but if you stop and think about it, it's highly improbable that they work the way the ads say they do. It is true that, as you get older, the collagen levels in your skin decrease. It is not true, however, that collagen creams work by "replenishing" collagen levels in your skin. Perhaps they will temporarily, thanks to the addition of retinoic acid. Even more depressing is that simple, inexpensive moisturizers are just as effective at temporarily reducing the appearance of wrinkles than the $30/jar stuff sold at cosmetics counters.

There is sad news for anti-aging diets, too: they don't work. That's not to say that eating tons of fruits and veggies are bad for you--au contraire--but rather, that the aging process is more genetic than anything that you can control.

But what about the magic of calorie-restriction diets? I would posit that, if you're eating tons of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, you're probably not eating as many calories as the person who dines regularly at Big 'n Fatty. I would also posit that, because most healthy foods--such as those found in Japanese and Mediterranean cuisines--tend to be high in fiber, you'll probably get full eating less of it. But neither of these truly illustrate a calorie-restricted diet, which is cutting your caloric intake to 1000-1200 cal/day.

What happens to your body--and, perhaps more importantly, to your mind--when you drop 25-50% of your regular caloric intake (I tend towards the low end, at around 1600/day--it's usually recommended that a man take in 2000 cal/day)? Epigentic changes are almost inevitable when the body takes punishment long enough; there is nearly indisputable evidence that most, if not all, psychiatric illnesses are due to how the genes are changed in response to environmental stressors. It only follows that the body's responses to constant near-starvation would be to go through some changes, too. The science is still terribly convoluted as to exactly which genes get turned on and off and to what extent, but epigentic changes in response to calorie restriction happens, in yeast and mice, and, presumably, humans.

It is unlikely that calorie restriction will ever enter a clinical trial on the scale that would be required to produce meaningful results. Not only do humans tend to live an inconveniently long time, the genetic backgrounds of the participants would need to be far better understood than they are today if we are to avoid the devestating effects of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. While most of the men came though the experience intact, it's a gateway to anorexia in those who are prone to it. Anorexia, with it's 20% mortality rate, is by far the more deadly, whereas even if you're doing everything right with a calorie-restriction diet, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow.

How long you live matters far less than what you do with your life, and how you look while doing it matters far less than whether you enjoy doing it. If you're paying for your wisdom with age, you may as well get the most for your time.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Beauty: part 1 of 3

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is only skin deep. It is also a multi-billion dollar industry that thrives on never delivering what it promises and telling beautiful lies.

Is there any truth to claims of antioxidant prowess against aging? Any truth at all to the 8-glasses-of-water myth? Do collagen creams really work?

And that's not even touching on the "new and improved" versions of makeup. I'll grant you that today's powders and mousses and mattes are probably substantially safer than white lead paint in in the Roman days. But I don't think most women would care if tomorrow their makeup were named as the Cause of Cancer--my sex was willing to put poison in their eyes; I wouldn't put it beyond us to suffer cancer as the price we must pay to look good.

The cultural aspects of beauty make for interesting divergences as to what constitutes beauty, but less so, in my opinion, than what constitutes universal features of beauty. There is some speculation that there is a "perfect ratio" of features that beautiful people--or rather, women--possess: large eyes, small chin, clear skin, and so on--pick your favorite supermodel/actress.

However, it is interesting to note that there is no such universal standard for men--there is no psychological equivalent of the "perfect man", the way that there is for women. If you read books from the nineteenth century, authors tend to drivel endlessly about the set of the lips or the shape of the eye. It is especially interesting to note that although heroines are all depicted in more or less the same fashion (clear porcelain skin, liquid eyes of a light hue, gently arched lips), the heroes have a far greater variety in their appearance. Rather, it is their manners and their high "moral code" that makes them desirable.

Which sex has it more difficult? Women, because they must torture themselves to appeal to the fancies of men? Or men, because they must possess the right behaviors to attract the attentions of women?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends: part 2 of 2

Where we draw the line for what's acceptable and what's not poses an interesting conundrum: For instance, one study shows that recycled paper products contain lots of toxic "goodies", but I seriously doubt that any public-health-naysayer (a la Jenny McCarthy) is going to advocate not-recycling. Yet if you think about it, considering how much recycled plastic and paper is in our lives, the odds of those being the "cause" of autism (if there even is an environmental cause) would technically be much greater.

So why do we cling to erroneous beliefs in the face of good science showing that they're false? I think the answer is two-fold: first, that scientists can be "bought", and secondly, that people simply don't know enough.

The idea that Merck and Pfizer and Eli Lilly and all the big pharmaceuticals juggle the data in order to get their drugs out on the market is most likely false. I say "most likely" because undoubtedly someone will point to Vioxx and sneer, but if you look at the statistics--at the actual numbers--for the incidence of cardiovascular events of patients on rofecoxib (generic name for Vioxx), they don't vary between Vioxx and placebo.

"But those scientists are paid consultants! Of course they have a vested interest in keeping Vioxx on the market!"

Okay--well, then, another study, far less friendly towards Vioxx, says pretty much the same thing: no increase in cardiovascular events. What they do note is a slight increase in the number of annual myocardial infarcts in the Vioxx group--a difference of less than 1%. Yes, the difference is real. But less than 1%? You have a higher chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident, but nobody's suggesting that we ban cars.

Regardless of which side you believe, the outcome of this was hardly a picnic for Merck. But it also illustrates our f*cked up way of deciding what's worthwhile and what's not. To whit: parents who are terrified that vaccines can cause autism apparently have no fear of measles outbreaks, and with the way they're being portrayed as heroes, we can only surmise that children dying of easily-vaccinated diseases are acceptable casualties in a war against a disease that has no known cause.

And I though George W. Bush was insane when he decided to invade Iraq.

The problem is that people know enough to be skeptical, but not enough to know how to discern truth from smoke. Even today we're still terrified about radiation, so much that we treat foods that have been irradiated as though they've been poisoned. Yet we have no problem microwaving a can of soup, or basking in UV rays, or sitting in front of a TV--and if I'm not mistaken, there's a lot of TV-sitting.

Kinda makes you wonder how we ever made it this far.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends: part 1 of 2

There's been a lot of fuss in the press about bisphenol A, that cancer-autism-hormone-imbalancing-everything-horrible compound that's added as a stabilizer to plastics. Europe has declared it safe, although they've set limits to exposure to allay consumer fears (not being sworn to protect liberty lets you do a lot of things, apparently). Consumer advocates in the US want it banned, swearing left and right that it causes cancer and acts to disrupt male hormones.

So. Which side to believe?

On the one hand, consider that companies do not necessarily have the health of the consumer in mind when they peddle their wares. We read about formaldehyde in milk and sawdust in potted meat (I love that phrase) in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The fast-food industry has long been plagued by the image of their restuarant as a hotbed for food poisoning, an image not entirely unearned--think Jack in the Box in the 1980s. Today, flavorists are paid exorbitant sums to come up with ways to flavor food "naturally", even though there is really nothing natural about grinding dead bugs into strawberry yogurt, and still less about how the yogurt is flavored, even if it is organic*.

On the other hand, consumer advocate groups have been wrong before. As important as Erin Brockovich-like figures are in keeping people from sticking knives into electric sockets and slapping warnings about letting your kids play with a meat grinder (it saddens me to think that some people actually need these warnings), they do a great disservice when they pick the wrong causes to run with (the link is an example of what's wrong--I strongly advocate vaccines, though I'm less certain about following booster schedules to the letter).

In scenarios like this, an outside observer can't win: if you go with the science (both bisphenol A and vaccines are safe) you get labeled as a pawn for the industry; if you go with the consumer groups (both bisphenol A and vaccines are dangerous) you have to ignore pages upon pages of research and you get labeled as a rabid emotionally-invested moron.

Even if you try to take the middle of the road (vaccines, but titer before boosters; accept that plastics are needed, but try to use less--a stance that any environmentalist should agree with irrespective of the health risks) then you get called out for being indecisive and John Kerry. Which is just as bad, because most of the time the middle of the road is the most logical place to be.

Skimming through PubMed produces lots of studies that show BPA is safe. At ridiculously high dosages, of course, it's dangerous, but then again, so are carrots, so that's almost a non-argument. Most of the studies that demonstrate causality were done in rats or mice. If anybody cares to remember the saccharine saga, the moral of the story is that mice =/= humans.

But oddly, despite the studies, I still have misgivings about BPA. I don't doubt the science saying it's safe. I have a higher chance of being run over than I do of getting cancer because of my exposure to it. But...

That's the puzzling part about this whole thing: that we should have all the information pointing to the facts, that we should have all of these studies indicating that we don't have to give up plastics or change our way of life--and yet. And yet we continually question whether it's true. Why does the sidewalk end? Where do we get off the train of reasoning and board the Pseudoscience express?

*Let me tell you right now that unless you've had real homemade strawberry ice cream--and I'm not talking about the stuff you can get out of a Breyer's box--you cannot understand how false commercial strawberry ice cream is. There is a cloying sweetness about the commercial stuff that is replaced by a richness in taste and an element of tartness that makes true strawberry ice cream phenomenal.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What you can do

There's not much more to be said about what you can do to reduce your contribution to our collection of greenhouse gases. Not using electricity when you don't need it, eating local, eating organic, reduce, reuse, and recycle, etc etc. You can find all of these hints and more at sites like the National Geographic's Green Guide, so there's not much of a point in rehashing what's already out there.

But let's not kid ourselves: even the most eco-sensitive and frugal in the First World use a LOT, and we waste a lot. Just yesterday I bought almost 100 euros' worth of clothing--to be fair, a lot of my clothes were looking a bit ratty and I did set aside that money for the express purpose of clothes shopping. Even though my clothes were still serviceable, many of them looked worn and it was starting to get to the point where I looked a lot worse off than I am (maybe I'm a lot worse off than I think?). Still, if pressed, I'd have to say that no, I didn't really need new clothes.

I don't have a functional cell phone, something that most of us think is a necessity--my cell phone is basically a clock, because I still haven't managed to buy myself a nice watch yet. Most people today would rank Internet connection and a computer as necessary. They would probably also put down a washer/dryer system, a microwave oven, and cable TV as necessities, too--something that always baffled me when I volunteered to sign people up for food stamps was that the government apparently did not consider basic cable a frivolous expenditure, but a gym membership was. Other necessities-that-aren't include makeup, pets, any sort of entertainment expense (including books!), and most food.

To be absolutely clear: of course there are things you can do to minimize your impact on the environment, but you can't get away from the fact that if you're putting your organically-grown produce in a plastic bag of course you're using more resources than someone who puts his organically-grown produce in a fifteen-year-old canvas bag. If you make a phone call from a cell phone, of course you're going to be using more resources than waiting to see the person and tell them what's soooo vital in person (seriously, how many cell phone calls are actually of the "OMG I HAVE TO TELL YOU THIS OR ELSE SOMEONE DIES!" nature?).

In the Western world, we have a lot of resources to exploit, be they natural or man-made (which are dependent on natural resources), and most of us don't think about how we use them. It's not that we should feel guilty about using them--after all, what's the point of having resources if you don't use them?--but we should be more aware of how much we use and how we use them.

Awareness is, I think, 90% of the environmentalist's battle. Being aware of how much trash you generate, how much plastic is used, what you can reuse (even if you don't think you can), where you can reduce (and there is always more) requires reaching beyond your current comfort levels and exploring just how low you can go.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Life is hard

It's hard being at the bottom of the food chain. You get absolutely no respect, not even from wildlife protection agencies. The only way anybody even realizes you're there at all is when you disappear--i.e., die off, go extinct.

Yet the bottom feeders are one of the key players in maintaining the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Or rather, more correctly, the oceans are. The WWF and other similar organizations make a huge hullabaloo about saving the whales and pandas and other fuzzy, photogenic creatures, but to be completely and brutally honest I don't think the planet would miss them if the whales disappeared. We humans certainly would, and that goes double for the Japanese and Icelandic whalers as well as for anybody who makes a living giving whale watches. The Operation Cat Drop Principle prohibits me from stating this as a fact, but the fact still remains that there are many superfluous species in the world. Honestly, how many different types of bunting does an ecosystem really need?

The oceans are the biggest carbon sinks, absorbing 90 trillion tons of carbon dioxide every year, and releasing 88 trillion (I'm not entirely certain that I trust the link the numbers came from, but suffice it to say that the oceans sequester a lot of carbon dioxide). The oceans absorb carbon dioxide in two ways: the first is that carbon dioxide is naturally soluble in water and gets dissolved. The solubility increases as it gets colder, so the farther down you go, the colder the water, and the more carbon the water contains. The second is comprised of those trillions upon gazillions of plankton that float around. Plankton are essentially microscopic plants, which use carbon dioxide and make oxygen.

The disaster at Lake Nyos is a dramatic example of what would happen if the carbon sinks were to fail. Granted, the Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun incidents are unique, in the sense that these are volcanic lakes--some geologists believe there is a fissure that leaks carbon dioxide into the water. Because the water is so deep--and therefore, so cold--it contains a lot of carbon dioxide. Anybody who's opened a bottle of soda or a can of beer knows that carbon dioxide is not happily contained in water, and any kind of disturbance--some geologists speculate a deep-lake mudslide--will set the carbon dioxide free.

Even though the Lake Nyos tragedy is singular, the weakening of the oceanic carbon sinks should give us cause for concern. Plankton and many forms of aquatic life live within a very limited range of temperatures. Plankton are also limited to the surface layer of the ocean because they require sunlight. The increase in ocean water temperatures by a scant few degrees can affect the health of the plankton, and, by corollary, all of the animals that live on them.

It is not, therefore, for the sake of the whales that we must protect the oceans, but for our own sake. The oceans provide fish, and therefore an income and an industry's existence. The lives of farmers depends on the climate that is affected by these great bodies of water. Even in the first world, the dependence of farmers on the beneficence of the weather is important to the health of the people and the economy--when you consider that less than 1% of the people in the US farm for a living, it's obvious where a bottleneck would be if the weather were to be any more insane than it is now.

Tomorrow: what we can do. And don't worry, it won't be sappy.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Love one another right now

Eco-terrorists are to the green movement what fundamentalists are to religion--radical morons who pervert some pretty wonderful causes and make other people suffer for it.

But if Ayan Hirsi Ali is correct about Islam (at least, the more fundamental versions of it), at the very least the green movement is open to debate as to what's reasonable for most people to do in order to do their part to slow down the pace of global warming*.

How far would you go to be green? Comment below with the numbers on the list below. List first the ones you actually do, and then the ones you would do if you had the means. .

1) Cut back your driving mileage by 25%
2) Cut back your driving by 50%
3) Give up driving
4) Limit flight travel to once a year
5) Eliminate flights entirely
6) Use "green" laundry detergent
7) Use green personal hygiene products (toothpaste, shampoo)
8) Use "green" makeup
9) Give up makeup
10) Go vegetarian
11) Go vegan
12) Go freegan
13) Eat organically-produced meat
14) Eat organic produce
15) Eat local organic produce
16) Eat local organic meat/eggs/dairy products
17) Give up fast food
18) Carry a piece of trash an extra block until you find a trash can
19) Pick up litter
20) Switch to fluorescent lights
21) Better insulate your house
22) Use all-natural products to do the insulation
23) Live in an all-natural house (mud walls, thatched roof, power by windmills)
24) Give up electric lighting for candles/torches
25) Buy organic-cotton clothing
26) Buy secondhand clothing
27) Take up dumpster diving
28) Milk your own cow
29) Give up coffee
30) Give up tea
31) Give up vanilla, pepper, spices
32) Farm your own food
33) Make your own clothes
34) Butcher your own meat
35) Take shorter showers
36) Use a bidet instead of toilet paper
37) Give up chocolate
38) Reuse old jars and plastic bottles
39) Compost
40) Reuse plastic bags
41) Rinse and reuse sandwich bags
42) Rinse and reuse aluminum foil
43) Walk away from a relationship if the person bought a Hummer

*Global warming--at the very least, odd climate--is real. Whether it's manmade, and whether anything we do will make a whit of difference is debatable.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Carbon feet

The language of global warming is fraught with moral connotations, which is unfortunate because such language automatically divides things and actions into "good" and "bad". As we've seen, such language is neither helpful nor good for the causes they purport to further, because any free-thinking mind with half an ounce of logic can come up with cases against the both the good and bad sides. But what rankles me most about global warming is how imprecise the language is, and how slovenly the words are tossed around. To whit: carbon footprints.

I don't have carbon feet, nor do I walk on graphite or diamonds--but the most abstract definition of one's carbon footprint refers to how much carbon dioxide one generates throughout the course of one's life, day, year, month...and this is the first of the problems related to the words surrounding global warming. If I have a Hummer that I only drive once a year (I don't, nor would I ever get one), technically my carbon footprint would be smaller than that of a Prius that gets driven every day. But on the one day that I do drive it, yes, it leaves a major footprint behind--but I'm willing to bet that it's less than the impact of an everyday Prius.

This calculator
has a nifty little feature that enables you to calculate how big your carbon footprint is, and then it gives you tips to "offset" it. What exactly is meant by that, I don't know--unless you can magically remove all of the carbon dioxide that your actions have emitted, you're not offsetting anything. You can, obviously, engage in activities that use fewer or no fossil fuels, but that's not taking out the carbon dioxide from leaving your TV on all day when nobody's home to watch it. The whole idea that you can offset your carbon footprint is absurd. Certainly, you can and should minimize the amount of emissions your day-to-day activities involve. But there's no magic carbon quota that you can't exceed, so there's no logic in saying "Well, if we take the SUV, we'll have to hang our laundry out for a month to dry instead of using the dryer to offset our carbon footprint." The carbon dioxide from the SUV is still going to be there irrespective of how you do your laundry.

This is not to say that we shouldn't take steps to minimize our reliance on fossil fuels and all of the activities and items that stem from them--electricity, plastics, cars (obviously). But we need to quit deluding ourselves that driving a Prius could possibly be good for the environment. Most of the "offsetting" activities are, ate best, merely not bad, or not as bad, for the environment.

Our own carbon feet are pretty small: we don't own a car--we have bikes. We reuse plastic bags. We recycle. We don't eat organic all of the time, but I'm starting to get my in-season produce from the organic farmers' stall in the farmer's market. Appliances, for the most part, get turned off when they're not used. This blog is written from a laptop, which uses less energy than a full-sized desktop. Most of our furniture was acquired secondhand or built. We do these things partly by choice, but mostly by economics.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Environmentalism: global warming edition

Global warming is the cause du jour these days, and no serious science magazine or blog can exist without at least some mention of it.

But there's more to the reason for starting this next series than mere vanity or an overinflated sense of import (which I assure you, I do not have any more than the next man). Part of it is the frustration that's grown out of following the environmental news--what the hell is a "carbon footprint", and does buying a Prius really cancel out the impact of buying your clothes from a sweatshop in Bangladesh? Part of it is the headsmashing idiocy of pro-environmentalist movements in failing to grasp the bigger picture--hello, humans have to live on this planet, too! Part of it is sheer curiosity--which is worse, a Hummer or an Aston Martin?

And part of it will be my take on how to solve the problem--well, at the very least, keep it from getting worse. No, it does not involve ethanol from corn--something I've never believed in.

Those topics will all be addressed this week.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


Anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, erythropoeitin, albuterol, caffeine--all illegal (caffeine is limited to certain levels), barring a doctor's prescription for some of the fancier drugs. In the sports world, a positive test brings disgrace, and possibly ends a career.

The International Olympic Committee has laid out a rather extensive set of anti-doping rules in the hopes of having a clean Game. The Prohibited List is a veritable pharmacy of just about every drug ever conceived--even if there's no reason why it should work as a performance enhancer (alcohol? really?). The reasons for the anti-doping stance are that the athletes would suffer, and that it wouldn't be fair.

Since the Olympics are about the achievements of the human body, then only humans, unenhanced and undoped, should be allowed to participate. But the same arguments for not doping apply throughout the world of sports: it's not fair, and the athletes might kill themselves.

The latter is unquestionably true. People do crazy things for glory--shoot themselves up with anabolic steroids, train themselves to the point of collapse and death, go for 96 hours without sleep so they can run 100 miles, etc. There is also a tendency, unless you know better (and most don't) to think that if a little bit of XXXX works this well, then a lot should work much better. Well, yeah--snort a line too many of cocaine and you die. And there's no reason to think that education will help matters much. When it comes to feeling good, even if there's a bad reason for it, people will want to feel good (actually, the principle of positive reinforcement applies across most species of animal life).

But is it truly not fair? If golfers can have LASIK done to improve their golf games, baseball pitchers can have tendons grafted, swimmers can buy thousand-dollar shark suits, tennis players can have the latest in materials for their rackets, then what isn't fair is that others who can't afford these procedures or equipment should be forbidden to take performance-enhancing drugs so that their performance can match the ones who can.

Yes, I was being a tad facetious. But in all seriousness, what is the difference, philosophically, between taking a performance-enhancing drug and having the latest equipment? As a matter of fact, one could almost suggest, given the extensive list of prohibited drugs, that it would be more fair to allow athletes to use drugs (which they can get anywhere) than it would be for them to use top-of-the-line equipment (which they can't). Both confer unfair advantages when compared to a person who's not using either--or they could confer no advantage. Dependence on either drugs or technology is a dangerous position to be in for any athlete.

The difference, I suppose, is that technology does not guarantee success--you'd still have to a hell of a player to beat Roger Federer, latest racket be damned. But then, neither do steroids, or other drugs--the price exacted for temporary success comes later, though, and most people can't wait that long.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Yummy! Chemicals!

1) Carnitine: Carnitine (or l-carnitine, if you care to be that specific) is a fatty acid transporter. It basically helps fat move from one side of a mitochondria to the other, where it can be broken down, like a crossing guard helping kids across the street. Because fat yields 9 kcal/g of energy (as opposed to the 4 kcal/g in proteins and carbohydrates) it stands to reason that having plenty of carnitine should allow you to burn lots of fat, and either lose weight faster or, for athletes, get more energy--for the first 30 seconds of sustained physical effort, the muscles go through the glycogen that they've stored. For the next 4-6 minutes, they go through the sugar that's already in the blood. After that, they begin to utilize fat as an energy source as well as the sugar that the liver releases--hence, carnitine.

But does it work? First, let's consider the following: the kind of athlete who would most benefit from carnitine would be an endurance athlete, since they have taxed their muscles to the point where they would need fatty acids. So why, in most of the trials where they've studied carnitine, do they use "resistance-trained" subjects (resistance training referring to weights)?. And if carnitine does, in fact, help with weight training, does the condition of the athlete prior to the study matter? Given the current lack of evidence and a good study to look at, I'd have to venture NO on this one.

2) Carbohydrate loading This was first cooked up in 1957, by Gunthar Alvorg. The premise goes like this: you deplete your glycogen stores completely for about three days, going on long runs and not eating a single carbohydrate. Then, for three days, you replenish your glycogen stores by eating lots and lots of carbohydrates. And on the big day, you run forever, because your body has somehow "soaked up" the glycogen.

It's a very nice theory. And there is some merit to it--after all, endurance athletes go through carbohydrates like a chainsaw through butter. This article gives an extremely detailed account of how carbohydrate loading is supposed to work, but the science shows otherwise. In study after study, they've shown no significant between performance or glycogen storage capacity between those who were carb-loading and those who were not.

So the verdict on carb-loading is, again a NO. However, given that it is, for the most part, harmless and doesn't require spending a fortune on sugar pills, and that many of us feel better for it, go ahead and enjoy that pasta dinner before your marathon.

3) What are the protein requirements of athletes? Protein is what makes a body a body--amino acids are the molecular building blocks for the impressive biceps of gymnasts and the massive thighs of a cyclist. Muscles are constantly being broken down and rebuilt, and it is this sped-up cycle of break-down-build-up that makes the protein requirements of athletes higher than those of us ordinary mortals. Given that ordinary, relatively sedentary people require only 50-70 grams of protein a day, or about 10 ounces of meat a day (meat is mostly water, and only 10-20% protein), it is surprising, really, how little protein athletes really need: 90 g for a male triathlete is plenty. Obviously, if you're growing, or trying to grow muscle, you'll need to eat relatively more protein But again, like carbohydrate loading, this is more a question of personal opinion. I never paid much attention to how much protein I was eating, because I assumed that eating a varied vegetarian diet would suffice. And it did, for the most part. But others have to watch their protein intake carefully.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breakfast of champions: part 1 of 2

Huh--this series is turning out longer than I thought...

A normal, balanced diet (whatever the hell that means nowadays) will suffice if you are your average Joe, working out three, four, five times a week and otherwise keeping fit. But every four years, we get inundated with patriotic voyeurism as the lives of the athletes that are competing in the Olympics gets scrutinized as the celebrities they are, even if it is for the fifteen minutes, fifteen seconds, of fame, and we start to wonder--what the hell is in the water?

The science of sports nutrition is as old as the Olympic tradition itself, beginning in ancient Greece. Of course, they didn't have electronic treadmills and sensors to gauge their autonomic responses, nor lab notebooks to record the athletes' responses to various diets, so the "recommendation" of meat and wine must be taken with a grain of salt (perhaps an entire saltshaker). Obviously, these days, our understanding of physiology and nutrition are much better. The athletes are told to go easy on the alcohol and the best athletes have their carbohydrate, protein, and fat intakes carefully calibrated for them.

What makes sports nutrition so difficult to analyze objectively: 1) most theories floating around these days only came about in the last century, which is also when physiology was refined as a science, and materials science developed the stuff that many athletes take for granted--plastics for oars, rubber for running shoes. If there was any improvement by any group of athletes over the years, how are we to tell whether it's from better food, training, or materials? Reason 2) is that anybody who's seriously done any sport for any amount of time has probably worked out his own ideas of what's right and what's wrong for him, and God help the doctor who tries to tell him he's wrong. As irrational as this is, there is a certain amount of sense to sticking with what works, even if it shouldn't. For elite athletes, the win or loss is rarely about ability--at the Olympian level, the abilities of all are pretty comparable--but rather about the head game, what goes on in your head. Psyching oneself up--or out--can be as easy as sticking to your morning oatmeal (and adding raisins for luck).

The biggest problem, though, is that compared to other sciences, nutrition--never mind nutrition and sports--is newbie on the science circuit. Every other day we're told that product X is good for us, or bad for us, depending on which news outlet we follow, which scientist published his results in which journal, whether the journalist has any idea what the hell the paper is about (and many of them don't), whether anybody looks over the statistics, and so on. Science, for the most part, moves in one direction, towards more complexity, but nutrition tends to backpeddle, stagnate, and eventually become even more muddled as we seek to define the roles of genes, diet, and environment.

And undoubtedly, there is a large genetic component to who becomes an elite athlete and who doesn't. Whether diet makes or breaks the deal...?

Tomorrow: a brief glimpse into the (pseudo)science behind

1) L-carnitine
2) Carbohydrate loading
3) Protein requirements

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Flying through water


Once again, the lack of human subjects in my photograph collection shows itself, as I'm compelled again to substitute another animal (or animals, in this case) in lieu of a swimmer*.

The musculature of any elite athlete is impressive, but perhaps none more so than swimmers, because the range of motion they must achieve and the difficulty of moving through water for non-fish-shaped creatures necessitates acquiring both the strength and/or endurance to push through the water, and the flexibility to ensure that every ounce of your strength is not wasted.

So we begin to see the appeal of resistance stretching. As it's usually described, you resist an applied force as you stretch. Rather than just reaching over and touching your toes, you have to reach for your toes while pulling against an elastic band, for instance. This is what Dara Torres credits for her incredible swim times in the 50 and 100 m, after all, and since she's tested clean, we're led to believe that there must be something to it.

But if you clicked on the link, you'll see a lot of mumbo-jumbo about meridians, personalities, fluff about "empowerment", and not a single shred of how it works--or even a proposistion for how it works, if it is indeed the miracle workout that enabled Torres to do at 41 what she couldn't do at 14. It purports to protect the muscle, but there's not much science to show that it works. In fact, most of the studies that I've seen say it doesn't work--to the practitioner's detriment.

Muscles, as we have seen do indeed undergo lengthening contractions. But the consequences of routinely using lengthening contractions--in muscles where this was not intended as normal function--are less clear. What literature there is on this subject tends mostly towards the opinion that lengthening contractions actually cause damage to the muscle, albeit on the microscopic level. One study purports to demonstrate that stretching a muscle after it's fully contracted results in greater force generated, but that is hardly the same thing.

As of now, the evidence is against resistance stretching being the key to Torres's amazing performance. And so the skeptics look at her doping non-history. Frankly, no, I don't think she's doping, but it wouldn't surprise me if it later came out that she was. But I still think the best explanation for her success is practice. Tons of it. And being gifted with a freak genetic makeup that makes her so damn good at what she does--this blog does an adequate job summarizing a WSJ article that is no longer online--like so many other elite athletes.

There's a saying in the sports world that anybody who wants to make it as a major athlete must choose his parents wisely. As of now, we haven't quite figured out what makes Torres so freakishly good at what she does (maybe it's her telomeres), but that, I think, would be an interesting next step, much more so than the questionable (at the very least!) "benefits" of resistance stretching.

And for what it's worth: if someone could point me to a good study about resistance stretching and how it works, I'd be open to revising my opinion on it.

*Actually, I have some issues with publishing pictures of people online--I know I'd want permission before my photograph went up, and I feel obligated to extend the same courtesy to thers.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Muscle mechanics: part 1 of 2

I must apologize for the visual pun--I usually try to avoid having a photograph that is tangentially related to the topic, but in this case, I don't exactly have any photographs of hulking bodybuilders or pieces of muscle tissue--I take or have taken all of the photographs myself, and as of this moment my life is lacking in muscle-bound semi-naked men.

So a turkey will have to do: this particular turkey and its chick (what my sister and I like to call "gibblet") happened to land in the backyard of my parents' house last spring. Turkeys have a lot of muscle, most of it in their breast, which is where the prime cut is.

Muscle tissue is basically long strings of protein that slide past one another. The full biochemical story can be found here, and I recommend that you look at the figures (links on the right) in conjunction with the text to get the whole picture.

The human musculoskeletal system is really a very elaborate system of pulleys, where a contraction of one muscle gets transmitted into a movement across a particular joint. Bones, in this case, are more than merely the support structure for the rest of us--they provide the foundation upon which these pulleys are anchored. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hands:

The muscles that control the flexion and extension of our fingers are actually located in our forearms. There are two sets, one to bend the first knuckle, and one to bend the second. Another two sets are on the backside of the hand, to provide extension of the fingers. The tendons must be threaded through a very narrow gap in the wrist (and we wonder why carpal tunnel is such a problem) before they can attach to the their assigned bone, but when you are typing, it is the muscles in your forearm that are doing the work (even if it feels like the muscles in your wrist--which there aren't any).

The hands also serve to illustrate the principle of opposing pairs. Just like Newton's Third Law, muscles work in opposing pairs. The usual example is that of the biceps vs triceps, where one relaxes while the other contracts. While it's a useful illustration of the concept, it's not the whole story, as muscles can also "contract" even while they lengthen. The best example of this is to bend over and pick something up--if the muscles in your back were to go loose as you started to bend, you'd have a very hard time reaching the floor without injury.

Next: Dara Torres...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Olympic Games

In light of the upcoming Olympics, I've decided to postpone the planned environmental series in favor of a comparatively short series on the science of sports medicine in general, and possibly toss in a few training tidbits from my own experience in the triathlon sports (not that I'm actually a triathlete, by any stretch of the imagination, but I bike, and I used to run and swim. I'm trying to squeeze running back into my crazy life and looking for a pool).

Sports, more than most fields (even medicine), occupies that gray zone between hard reality and delusional ideology. Athletes do ridiculous things to themselves because they believe a certain regimen or supplement or protein powder works, but these are people in peak condition anyway--does it work, or doesn't it?

And of course, no discussion on sports medicine would be complete without the obligatory post on doping. Again, the lines are fuzzier than you might think.

So this week, gentle readers, you can look forward to pieces on:

1) Muscle mechanics
2) Food and sports
3) Doping

Once again, if there are any topics you'd like to see addressed, by all means let me know.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Problem of Purpose (part 2)

If there is no purpose for us to fulfill--if we are indeed here because the survivors of hecatomb after hecatomb (I love Steven Jay Gould) then we must question what all these genetic studies tell us. You know what I mean: the genetic studies telling us that we're "designed" to store fat, destined to get cancer, preordained to suffer mental illness, headed straight for addiction--that the few genetic diseases that we understand (sickle cell, cystic fibrosis) arose as adaptations to a new world order.

I don't mean to question the studies themselves. The studies are, more or less, quite sound: the melanocortin system's role in obesity is currently being teased out; single nucleotide polymorphisms of the MC receptor are believed to be responsible for the abnormal reward signals that lead to overeating. Nobody doubts the role of p53 in cancer--or any of the myriad pro-apoptotic genes. Epigenetics apparently has a bigger role in mental illness than genetics, strictly speaking, but there is definitely a genetic component to mental illness. The science is sound--genes, when they go wrong, definitely cause diseases.

But do they necessarily define who we are?

If you follow the "no purpose" argument to the logical conclusion, then the answer is yes: genes select themselves for the sole purpose of being passed down. They don't really care whether or not we survive the passing thereof. That's why otherwise nice men become assholes the moment a busty bleached blond bimbo walks into the room, why women feel obligated to make peace between warring factions, etc.

Or so the argument goes: genetics provides limitations within which an individual can succeed. Certain environments, certain societies, place certain emphases on which genes are prized, and these get propagated. So free will is really a myth.

Or is it?

You'll notice that, throughout this entire series, I've done my darndest not to justify leaning towards one side or the other (and I stated my bias in the beginning, so if I didn't succeed it wasn't for a lack of effort). The reason for this is twofold. First, if you're reading this, odds are you already have a good idea of where you stand on the whole evolution/creationism debacle and anything I write trying to persuade you that creationism isn't a science is just a waste of my time. Secondly, the goal of this series was never outright damnation of either side--to do that would run counter to my personal belief in God--but to ask why this debate is happening at all. Have I missed something? Undoubtedly I have. So please, comment, and let me know what your thoughts are on this whole thing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Problem of Purpose (part 1)

As humans, we like to think that everything has a purpose. And certainly, nature doesn't contradict that view: peacocks' tails exist to attract peahens, cats have claws so that they can kill mice, birds sing to mark their territories and attract mates, humans have a big brain which enabled the species to develop advanced technologies, cockroaches--okay, maybe those don't have a purpose. The point is that animals exist in certain shapes and forms for reasons, presumably to better fulfill their "destiny", to live out their "purpose".

Except this assumes that some force (the Guiding Hand of God, perhaps?) was directing a small furry mammal to become say, a lemur, and then the lemur to become an ape, and the ape to become a human. It assumes that there was a reason for the animal to evolve along the lines it did.

Scientists make this mistake a lot, actually. Genetic studies purporting to demonstrate why we are genetically predisposed to becoming obese, the link between abnormal proteins here and Alzheimer's/schizophrenia/drug addiction there, and sickle cell anemia and resistance to malaria, must be very careful not to ascribe the selection pressures for a particular gene as the purpose for the gene's existence. Genes exist, solely because the vehicle they are temporally transferred in (living creatures) managed to live long enough to pass it on. No lemur decided, "Hey, this tree-climbing thing is sure getting hard out here on the savanna. I think I'll evolve bipedalism!"

The fact is, there really is no reason for anything to exist, other than the fact that it's not dead already. And this, I think, is one of the biggest problems creationists have with evolution.

It is a stark picture: you exist only because your parents didn't die before they had you. There is no purpose to your life, no "reason" why you were born in the body that you have and with the brain that was given to you. No wonder creationists have such a problem with evolution: it runs counter to everything religious and/or spiritual belief we might have concerning our existence on this planet.

Natural selection is the reason why we evolved the way we did--God, if He's indeed out there, didn't coax anything along except death, destruction, and mayhem. One could hypothetically argue that He, in His divine might, decided that thus would be the vehicle by which He created all life, but that doesn't really change the essence of the argument: natural selection is a harsh and fickle mistress.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Is it possible to believe in both evolution and God? Of course. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that one is a science.

There is nothing wrong with teaching creationism as literature, philosophy, or as an adjunct to history. These things are important to understand why we know what we know--the history of science oftentimes reads like a soap opera replete with test tubes, gun powder, dumb luck, unlikely coincidences, and few happy endings. The history of knowledge can be as instructive, if not more instructive, as the actual knowledge. For instance, the idea that the earth was round was first posited by the ancient Greeks, but the proof of that was only ascertained nearly two millenia later, with Magellan's trip around the world, when, against all odds, they failed to fall off of the edge. The question: why did civilization have to wait for Magellan to sail around the world? Why not earlier seafarers, like Vikings or the Polynesians? What sort of economics, political structures, technology, and belief systemsmade circumnavigating the planet possible to Magellan and not to, say, Arab traders?

Creationism has its place in education, but not in science classes. The objective of teaching science is to teach kids that "this is what we know the world is", "this" being how plants photosynthesize, how proteins are synthesized, what crystal structures are, where the Horsehead Nebula resides (in Orion, visible only during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere). The objective of teaching science is not to teach that "everything in the world is commanded by something we can't see, our instruments can't detect, our best searches can't find, but we know it's out there anyway". As I said yesterday, if you teach the first well enough, the second will fall into place.

So let's quit worrying about our kids turning into blasphemous atheists. Let's point out, instead, how feathers help birds fly, the plethora of properties the humble water molecule possesses, how geese know where north is. Because if you really want to cultivate an appreciation for life, you kinda have to understand what life is to begin with.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Faith and Science

The entire contents of this page say essentially one thing: science is anything but logical, and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool.

The scientific method, perfected in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by enlightened thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, John Locke, etc., were really in search of God, or at least looking to get as close to the mind of God as possible. And in the four-hundred years since then, that hasn't really changed. Albert Einstein's more famous quotes reflect this Holy-Grail-like quest to understand what God is all about.

I would argue that faith is science, in that both hinge on the belief--because, let's face it, if there were such things as proof science wouldn't need to exist for us to know things--that there is something out there that will explain what we see here. Where they differ is merely in the tenants of belief: science has textbooks, faith has religious tomes. People have died for both, and just because we're in the 21st century doesn't make us any more immune to the prejudices of ignorance.

Not asking questions simply means that you're not thinking. That's true in religion and it's true in science and it's true in politics (which is partly why I'm leery of Obama--nobody's questioning him) and it's true in life. Evolution has holes in it, which creationists are all too happy to point out, but as far as I can tell, creationism also has holes in it. The big one being, "Why does there have to be a watchmaker?"

And there really is no good reason why there must be a higher power, only a purely internal belief that there is one, and that whatever it is, be it God or Allah or ancestral spirits or little gods of rocks and trees, has some stake in keeping you alive. That's the thing: we can't know anything at all for sure. If gravitational theory could be overturned (or at least, heavily modified), there's nothing to keep evolutionary theory from following the same fate.

But that doesn't mean evolution isn't real. It happens. We live with the consequences of it every day: our pets, our livestock, the MRSA strains of bacteria. We've reshaped the breeding habits of salmon and body lice. Environmental doomsday-ists like to say that so many species are going extinct every year, but I've yet to hear of a single study that purports to find out if there have been any new species arising lately. Part of the problem is that we have no baseline number for the number of species on the planet--a bigger problem, as Richard Dawkins explains, is that we have no real definition for "species", either.

Which, if you ask me, makes the whole creation-evolution debate moot. Whether you believe in God or not has no bearing on the fact that Nature is red in tooth and claw, even if the Sierra Club would rather have you believe it is pretty and fuzzy. Natural selection doesn't give a hoot about your belief in a higher power. Just ask the Darwin contenders.

I would like to end on this note: ironically, the more you study a science, the easier faith becomes. When you don't know much, it's easy to say that everything you don't understand is an act of God and leave it at that. But the more you know, the easier it becomes to believe that there is a God and He is indeed acting on the forces, because the perfection of life is so incredibly miraculous. However, as with all things, such faith must be earned. The difference between learning that God created the world, versus understanding why you believe God created the world, is that if you understand why you believe that, there is no danger that you'll change your mind.