Friday, February 27, 2009

Pedal power

You can't get much cheaper transportation than a bike. Or a more natural one, either--ah, muscle power! In the Netherlands, the national mode of transport is the bicycle. Not surprisingly: the cities are flat (where I live is considered "exceptionally hilly"), the streets are small, and the taxes for gasoline are painful. But I've been using a bike long before I became an ex-pat. My main mode of transportation in Philadelphia was also a bike, and public transit for meteorologically terrible days. I've since drawn some conclusions about bicycling in general, and hope to pass on some words of advice:

Conclusion #1: Jackasses are everywhere. You know who I'm talking about--the guy who rides on the wrong side of the street. Or the jerk who shoots through red lights like they don't exist. Don't be a jackass--ride on the right (unless you're in England) and at least pause to make sure there's no oncoming traffic before you ride into an intersection.

Conclusion #2: Parking your bike in front of doorways is a guaranteed way of getting it removed. Most cities in the Netherlands have regulations stipulating where you can park your bike, how long you can leave it there, what lock you should use, and when those parking hours are available. The rules are in place to prevent bike mobs from taking over sidewalks and entrances, and are enforced without mercy. In Philadelphia, which has no such rules, bikes which are left blocking the entrance of doors would just be shoved aside, but also sometimes taken, if the perpetrator were stupid enough not to have taken the hint. Please don't be a jerk and park your bike in front of a door. Any door.

Conclusion #3: Drivers are jackasses, too. If you assume every driver will be a road-hogging menace to bicyclists, you can't go wrong. I've met drivers who, in reverse, simply chose not to see me. Drivers who, in spite of there being three extra lanes with which they could use to pass me, chose to brush by with just the barest of space. Drivers who simply don't look before they make a turn (I was actually hit by one of these, fortunately it was a jam-packed street and I wasn't hurt beyond a scraped elbow). In other words, never assume the driver that's pulling up to the intersection will yield. Assume that he won't, and you'll stay alive.

Conclusion #4: Hand signals actually work. Hand signals are mostly dismissed by cyclists on both sides of the pond, but they actually work pretty well, provided you start using them before you make the indicated turn. This is especially critical for left turns on a two-way street, as the opposing traffic will usually slow down to enable you to make the turn.

Conclusion #5: Blind spots are bigger; or, just turn your head and look! This may seem strange, but the truth is when you're on a bike and you have to check behind you, you MUST turn your head. Especially when it's dark--most of the time, I can get away with a quick glance to the left and count on my peripheral vision to see the car, but when it's dark, I have to look over my shoulder. I can't tell you how many times I've been surprised by a car I could've sworn wasn't there when I looked.

Conclusion #6: Mom was wrong. When we were little my mom used to tell us to hug the curb, so that cars wouldn't hit us and we wouldn't obstruct traffic. When I started riding in Philadelphia, I quickly learned not to: people don't look when they open their doors. Not only that, riding as close to the curb as you can actually decreases your visibility to cars, and it forces you to take a snaky, windy, runaround around parked cars. A driver might lose sight of you, figure you've parked, only to be completely surprised when you pop out from behind a parked car (and in no position to stop in time). When you're on a bike, visibility counts most for your safety. Stay visible. Riding in front of a pissed off driver is better than popping up like a whack-a-bike in front of a nice one.

Conclusion #7: Helmets won't save you from yourself. I'm a bit on the short side, and this is doubly so in the country where women are regularly 5'9" and my 6' boyfriend is considered "short". Most of the bikes here are therefore made for significantly taller people, which means I have "issues" staying on mine when it's stopped (therefore I try not to stop). Helmets may save you from a crash with a car, but they probably won't do much if you're a klutz.

Conclusion #8: Headphones + Bike = Darwin Just. Don't.

Conclusion #9: Proper air pressure is a much bigger issue when you're the one doing the pushing. I know people who can't be bothered to check their tire pressure at all, unless the tire is visibly flat. I'm pretty sure they would do it religiously if they were the ones providing the energy, though--properly inflated tires make life a hell of a lot easier on wheels.

Conclusion #10: You don't always get what you pay for. It's generally true that a more expensive bike will be better than a cheap one--except in the secondhand bike market. You do have to sift through a lot of crap, but there's a lot of good stuff out there and it doesn't have to cost a fortune. My best bike was found in the trash room of my apartment building--I paid $35 to have the flywheel fixed.

Genetically modified, part 2

The fact is, we know that pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (even natural ones) are poisonous to the environment. We know that fertilizers cause algal blooms which decimate aquatic fauna. We know that arsenic is a deadly environmental toxin. We know that herbicides have unintended side effects when they spread beyond the neatly-defined borders of farmland.

What we don't know is what the genes of genetically modified organisms do once they're out there. Bacteria readily take up "excess" genetic material and happily swap plasmids with each other, but that doesn't mean they have to actually use the genes. Genes, after all, take energy to maintain, so if there's no need for a bacteria to possess a gene against rice fungi, it'll probably discard it eventually. Even if the gene does persist in the bacterial pool, the mere presence of it is not enough to do anything; a gene that remains quiescent for all eternity may as well not be there, as far as we're concerned. To put it another way: cars are noisy, dirty, pollutants of city streets. But if it just sits there in your driveway, it's not being noisy, dirty, or polluting (I'm not going to go into the idiocy surrounding the "carbon footprint" question). In fact, from the environment's point of view, a car that just sits in your driveway may as well not exist.

We also don't know how these rogue bits of genetic material will affect the surrounding wildlife--indeed, whether or not they will have any effect at all. They could render some plants inedible to wildlife, or increase their abundance to the point where there's a population explosion of herbivores. They could enable a plant to spread far beyond its native territory, and become an invasive species elsewhere, or they could drive it to extinction.

But we just don't know. The Law of Unintended Consequences has made quite clear that overlooking the smallest detail can lead to the biggest f*ck-ups; the corollary to that law is that the detail that's overlooked is the one that nobody knows about until it's too late.

On the other hand, what we do know is that using chemical fertilizers, poisonous pesticides, and herbicides is a) bad for us, b) bad for wildlife, and c) uses unsustainable technologies and produces tons upon tons of chemical waste. You can't have your cake and eat it too: either have farmers use conventional methods to farm but poison themselves and the world, or increase their capacity for going organic by allowing the unbridled sale of GMOs.

It is my belief that life can handle a few new genes being tossed around. Life is, after all, 3.5 billion years old. It's handled mass extinctions, to levels we can't even begin to fathom, the build-up and breakdown of millions of species, over millions of years. We're not going to inadvertently cause the next mass extinction by the accidental release of a few plasmids.

As Sherlock said to Watson, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data." But if one has data and chooses not to act on it, isn't that even worse?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Genetically modified


I'm usually pretty frugal when it comes to grocery shopping: I go for generic chocolate, for instance, and I follow the prices of basic staples (flour, milk) at the two grocery stores nearby with a zeal that borders on religious fervor. I tend to buy in-season produce, and store fliers get perused thoroughly should there be a sale item that we need (which is rare).

But I shell out for Braeburn apples. If I'm in the weekly farmer's market, it'll be Royal Gala or Fuji apples. Granny Smith apples will do in a pinch--it's more about the crunch, though I'll confess to having a sweet tooth.

Braeburn apples are only 50 years old, discovered as an accidental seedling in New Zealand, and hypothesized to be a cross between a Granny Smith and a Lady Hamilton. Most of the apples we know today, such as the Golden Delicious, Royal Gala, and Jonagold, are comparatively recent additions to the apple family tree, arising mostly as accidents or freak mutations in established orchards in the twentieth century. Cortlands, Romes, and Granny Smiths are amongst the few that have been cultivated since at least the nineteenth century.

I mention this because it seems that public opinion is still largely against GMOs--Genetically Modified Organisms. HRH the Crown Prince of Wales is still actively campaigning against them, and most people recoil at the thought of "Frankenfoods". Their fears aren't entirely unjustified: I still remember scientists marveling (completely oblivious to the horrible PR spin) that they were thinking of inserting a gene, "borrowed" from deep sea fish, into tomatoes so that the plants could withstand the frost better. The gene encodes a protein that prevents ice crystal seeds from forming--pretty nifty, if you ask me--and thereby keeps fish blood liquid.

But really, there's no difference between genes that have been modified by selective breeding and genes that have been modified by a scientist hovering over a petri dish. The only difference is time. And money. Lots of both, if you want to do it the old-fashioned way; lots of one if you want to pay a scientist to develop a strain of corn that will make a better popcorn.

So to suggest that my favorite Braeburns aren't genetically modified and the apples that have their own insecticides "built in" are, is to be completely oblivious to the fact that civilization would not exist were it not for people genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of time. (Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel makes this abundantly clear) Humans have been making cows bigger, chickens lay more eggs, dogs more friendly, horses faster, grains get the point. None of what you see in the supermarket exists in the wild, from whence it came.

Next: GMOs and the organic agenda

Saturday, February 21, 2009


In 2006 I was kinda sorta hijacked into psychiatric treatment. By "kinda sorta" I mean that the psychiatrist actually came up to the medical school where I was doing my PhD research at the time and dragged me all the way to the psychiatric hospital, where I then proceeded to spend an hour every week, talking about life, the universe, and everything.

The diagnosis was major depression, and I was also put on Lexapro. It worked, though I don't think I'll ever be completely out of the woods--I still "crash", for lack of a better word, but far less often than I used to, and for far shorter times.

But sometimes I have to wonder: where would I be without having gone through treatment, and knowing what it's like to be well and truly okay? Is it "real" if I'm only well and truly okay with the aid of prescription medications and/or St. John's Wort? What's better for you in the long run--to be unmedicated and so distraught you spend the entire day in bed (or worse--I've never gone much farther than sleeping all day), or to rely on pills for the rest of your life? Am I really who I am now, or is it just the meds talking?

You can go crazy thinking about questions like that. For me, I've decided that sometimes functionality, rather than "naturalness", is the best measurement of "better".

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Here we go again...

Sometimes I feel like I should title this blog "Everything the Greenies tell you is wrong". Except that, well--I actually do care about the environment. But what bugs me most about many green blogs is that they simply don't make sense.

Today's MSN article about conventional versus soy candles is a case in point: the idea is that burning conventional, paraffin-based candles are more toxic than burning candles made of soy wax. At first glance, this seems plausible--after all, paraffin is derived from petroleum, and we all know how it feels to be stuck behind a diesel truck inhaling the noxious fumes.

But then, ask yourself: what exactly is wax? All waxes are collections of long-chain alkanes and esters, varying only in the details of structure and the lengths of the chains. Soy-based wax, for that matter, doesn't even exist--it has to be manufactured, from soybean oil, using the same hydrogenation process that produces trans-fats.

(And here, I must digress for a moment on the lovely irony that the very people who say that eating trans-fats are terrible for you, would advocate burning them)

In other words, the chemical composition is more or less the same, and if we're talking about combustion, the end products are--wait for it--exactly the same. In other words, you'll get a lungful of chemical smoke no matter what you burn. In other words, if you want to avoid toxins in the air, don't burn stuff.

The only valid point the article makes is that there could be lead in the wick. According to some, 30% of candles have a lead wick (lead in the center of the wick). That would be very bad. But the study that the statement was based on makes no distinction between the usual paraffin candle and the plant-wax based candle. So to assume that all 30% of paraffin candles contain lead wicks, while all plant-wax based candles do not, is still a logical fallacy.

Ex-president Bush was often criticized loudly for ignoring the science and sticking to his agenda, especially on environmental issues. This just goes to show that the knife cuts both ways...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Two random discoveries

I made two random discoveries this weekend, although in hindsight neither were that remarkable. The first one isn't really mine; it was a tip from Wise Bread that was just simply irresistible: using bar soap to clean your bathroom (and, I suspect, anywhere else that needs it). It does, in fact, work the way Myscha says it does. It really is that quick and simple and wonderful, and AMAZING. I'd post before-and-after photos of our sink, but you probably don't need to know what we keep around it.

The other random discovery arose as I was building this:

It's two shelves for the balcony garden; the top one will hold the tomatoes, and the bottom one will hold the zucchini and cukes. It's pretty big; it's almost 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide (not exact dimensions), but it's almost finished--not bad for an afternoon's worth of work.

Anyway: because it's going to sit outdoors, the (cheap-ass yellow) pine* needed a water-repellent stain. Now, if you're like me, you tend to avoid projects that involve a lot of brushwork, because you're an absolute klutz with a brush, and worse than a pre-schooler when it comes to getting paints everywhere. But this couldn't be avoided, and so, with a heavy heart, I started staining the wood.

Needless to say I did, in fact, get the stain everywhere. However, our balcony really doesn't look any more stained than it did when I went in, thanks to...sunflower oil.

Organic chemistry is about two things: carboxyl groups and "like dissolves like". I honestly don't have an application for carboxyl groups yet, but I've used the "like dissolves like" to great effect, especially when cleaning. Generally speaking, the rule is that water-based compounds require an aqueous medium to remove, and oil-based compounds require--you guessed it--an oil-based medium.

Strictly speaking, the solvents in oil-based stains are not oils, at least not in the typical structure. But they are certainly hydrophobic enough to be mostly dissolved in oils.

So, for this project, if I saw a fresh drip, I'd dribble a little sunflower oil onto it, and watch it come right off. It doesn't work as well once the stuff is dry, though, so you still have to be vigilant. But it smells tons better than turpentine, and you don't have to feel terrible about the environmental effects--though, make no mistake, huge quantities of whatever oil are bad for the environment, but small quantities of turpentine are definitely more detrimental than small quanitities of sunflower oil

*Pine comes in two types: yellow and white. Yellow pine is notorious for: knots, splintering, and cracking. Try to avoid it if you can.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What's your version of "happy"?

According to most people, I'm deranged:

I don't want a big house. I don't want a pool. I don't want a fancy hi-fi set. I don't want a fancy car (at this rate, I'll be lucky to get my license), or lots of shoes.

I want a small farm, in the middle of nowhere, where we can keep chickens and a cow or two, and perhaps a goat to take care of what the chickens and compost heap can't handle. Where I have a writing career and can sell the occasional photograph. There are other details, but you get the picture--quiet life in the country.

It took me a long time to come to this conclusion, because I like so many things: I like living in the city, having places to go and things to see and restaurants to eat at. I liked my room when I was living with my parents; I liked their house, and the neighborhood it was in. I like being close by the train station and just a hop, skip, and jump away from a city like Paris.

But I love making things grow: I see it as a special challenge, to coax and wheedle a tiny speck of seed into a plant--which I did manage, for several plants (I maintain that it was not my fault that the cats killed them). I enjoy raising and caring for animals; I love being surrounded by nature.

The point is, happiness is not something that's easy to find. It's not something that's easy to get, either. You'll know it when you figure it out, because it'll be something you're willing to suffer hell and high water to get.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Why not?

One of the blogs that I follow, Science Based Medicine, is quite interesting and very informative. It is also surprisingly pathetic, in that the very people who write about how wonderful science is and how stupid complementary and alternative medicine is (CAM), have absolutely zero inclination to just try things and see for themselves what happens. I.e., the bloggers on that site seem to completely lack the intellectual curiosity that, in my opinion, basically defines science. Or perhaps they don't, but you wouldn't know it.

A particularly memorable argument involved breathing techniques. I don't particularly care for what they claim to do (energize, refresh, or whatever), but it is perfectly reasonable to assume that how you breathe can influence your state of mind. It's why we tell angry people to "take a deep breath" and calm down. It's why nervous and jittery runners tend to get stitches more often. I listed a few of the exercises--which basically induced a mild state of hyperventilation, which as anybody knows makes you feel a tad loopy. The truly pathetic thing? The person wouldn't even try it. Breathing!

Which I find kind of ironic: you blog about science, and yet have no curiosity to investigate plausible claims?

I'm almost always willing to try new things. I have my limits, of course--the things have to make sense, at least. Just the other day I read that newspaper is a great glass cleaner. Guess what I'm going to do this weekend?

I've tried going vegan (didn't work out, though I'm still a vegetarian), making my own cat food (still doing this) and laundry detergent (this, too). I've tried different furniture polishes on our pseudo-antique furniture, settling on olive oil (Pledge for when the stuff needs a really good shine). I've experimented with ways to kill aphids, and how to keep basil alive. I've tried several different things on cuts--honey is my favorite.

Science is all about systematically trying out what's only slightly plausible, within reason. Right now, I'm currently running an experiment which, according to the current paradigms used, shouldn't work, but since the actual experiment has never been done before, we'll just have to wait and see what the evidence says (actually, I didn't want to run the experiment, but since I'm just the tech, well).

If you don't try something, you'll never figure out what works, why it works, and how to make it better. I'm always looking out for tips and tricks to: save time, save money, save effort, do things better, do things faster, eat healthier. Most of these tips and tricks are useless to me--no such thing as coupons, here--but every now and then, I find things where I think, "Hey, that might work."

It's why we now have the Heap, our affectionate nickname for a box of potting soil and kitchen scraps which will hopefully turn into compost over these next few weeks, and I'll be raising tomato plants well into the summer. There's a first time for everything, and the first step to the first time is having an inquiring mind.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Pets au natural

I've never been able to understand why people who think about GMOs, certified organic produce, free-range eggs--people who drive Priuses, use canvas shopping bags (ours are made of something like Tyvek), recycle, and have programmable thermostats, will think nothing of feeding their pets Purina.

I'm talking mostly about dogs and cats, of course. But the same is true for most other pets: why do people feed generally-species-inappropriate diets?

You don't see wolves at the zoo being fed kibble, which should, in my opinion, ring a few bells--if wolves are, essentially, wild dogs, then why shouldn't they be fed kibble? If they're not, could it be because kibble isn't actually a good food for dogs? And ditto for cats, and tigers.

Links here and here deal with raw diets for cats and dogs--it's all been written, and I'm not going to go into the supposed benefits for them, in part because I myself do not believe many of the claims. I do believe that raw diets have dental benefits--Shadow's teeth are still as pearly white as they were the day I got her--and that they are healthy and at least as good as if not better than prepared foods, when done right. I do not believe that a raw diet will cure diseases such as renal failure, although I do believe that they can mitigate the effects for quite a while. I am skeptical of claims that it helps mitigate behavioral problems, but willing to give the benefit of the doubt in most cases--but not because of "toxins" or any of that crap. I do not believe that feeding a raw diet is without risk--for me, with my biochemistry background, it's pretty much a practical application of my undergraduate degree, but for others, who have not bothered to look up things like the urea cycle online, it can be difficult to separate the information from the misinformation out there.

But I do believe that feeding a species-appropriate diet, or as close to it as one can get, is, in fact, what is best for one's pet. We humans have come a long way since the days "food safety" meant "let the other monkey eat those berries first", so it's hard to say exactly what a "natural" diet is for us. This is not to disparage the modern diet--nutritious and plentiful--but to point out that for humans, culture and environment are far more important dictators of what we eat than they are for animals, who not only are completely dependent upon their environment for their food, but also cannot be said to have any culture.

Pet food companies make a killing out of selling "Natural" stuff, but if you look at the ingredients' list, well--good luck finding any of that stuff outside of a chemistry plant. Some of the better companies actually do sell pet foods made of meat--and I don't want to know how much that costs, especially when the cost of adding one portion of meat to the weekly grocery list is so low.

That's the other thing: feeding a raw diet doesn't have to take a lot of money. It can, if you like buying those hamburger patties filled with "wholesome goodness". But my cats get mostly chicken, or whatever's cheap that week, and a bit of canned food if the drumstick is unusually small. It works out to about 1 euro/day to feed them, which is actually less than feeding them a brand name cat food.

If done properly, I do believe that feeding a raw diet is better than any brand of dog or cat food out there. Going natural, for them, makes as much sense as it does for you.

Disclaimer: I do not make any money from any of the pet food websites that I have linked to. They are merely the most prevalent brands that I can think of, and most likely to be universally available.