Step away from the salad bar!

So no one gets hurt!

Why salad is so overrated
https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/why-salad-is-so-overrated/2015/08/21/ecc03d7a-4677-11e5-8ab4-c73967a143d3_story.html

Tamar is an interesting writer (her blog, the rest of her writing at the Post). She often takes a controversial subject in the world of food and does in-depth analysis on it (sort of like how the Do The Math blog does for alternative energy). In this article she looks at the value of salad, specifically the cost/benefit when including the farm and transportation costs. I knew things were bad, but didn’t realize how bad they were. She puts a comparison thus:

A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious [lettuce is 95 to 97 percent water].

This is an interesting image from the article:

Picture of salads, without the salad
Minus their greens, left to right: the Caesar Salad With Chicken from the Cheesecake Factory; the Quesadilla Explosion Salad from Chili’s Grill & Bar; the Waldorf Salad from California Pizza Kitchen. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)

Life companions: you and your microbiome

The Sum of Our Parts
Putting the microbiome front and center in health care, in preventive strategies, and in health-risk assessments could stem the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases.
http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/43379/title/The-Sum-of-Our-Parts/

This is a really interesting article that sums up the evolving state-of-the-art regarding the health impacts of our microbiome. I knew that things were rapidly evolving but hadn’t realized that this research had gone from fringe to mainstream. I have discussed the microbiome a number of times and see it as a critical missing element in our health care regime.

Below are a couple of quotes as teasers to try and get you to read the full article. Your continuing health depends on this, though you probably don’t know it, and the health of your children even more so.

Germ-free (gnotobiotic) mice provide a sobering model for what happens to a developing human immune system in the absence of microbiome-based training. When microbiota are absent, normal postnatal immune maturation is blocked, and tissue homeostasis is never fully established. Lymphoid deficiencies occur in both the body’s mucous membranes and its systemic tissues, such as the lymph nodes and spleen. Germ-free mice also develop imbalances among specialized immune cell populations that result in improper immune responses when challenged with injury or a pathogen. Depending on the nature of the challenge, defective host immune responses may include increased susceptibility to certain infections, reduced vaccine responses, and/or inflammation-induced tissue pathologies, such as asthma or colitis.

Given the undeniable importance of commensal microbes in both training our immune systems and serving as a barrier between ourselves and the outside world, one of us (R.D.) has posited that a complete microbiome, seeded at birth, is absolutely critical for a healthful life, an idea called “the completed self hypothesis.” Single-celled organisms from all three domains of life—eukaryotes, archaea, and bacteria—join our mammalian cells to create a superorganism. Inadequate or inappropriate seeding of the microbiome is in many ways the equivalent of being born with a serious birth defect, resulting in inappropriately matured physiological systems. In the absence of effective microbiome-based training, the immune system does not learn what is safe outside of the body, resulting in haphazard, inappropriate reactions to innocuous environmental factors—allergens such as pollen, mold, cat dander, and peanuts. It also fails to properly recognize and ignore internal targets, resulting in autoimmune and inflammatory responses that are misdirected, ineffective, and sometimes never-ending. Such reactions can eventually compromise the function of our own tissues and organs.

There is a sidebar at the end that talks about direct manipulation of the microbiome, but we are still in our infancy in that regard. Right now it is tedious and time consuming to get details on exactly what is growing in/on us, when that process has finally become quick and economical we will surely make great strides in determining what is an optimal microbiome.

Take THAT, Creationists: proof of human evolution

Adapting to Arsenic
Andean communities may have evolved the ability to metabolize arsenic, a trait that could be the first documented example of a toxic substance acting as an agent of natural selection in humans.
http://www.the-scientist.com//?articles.view/articleNo/43019/title/Adapting-to-Arsenic/

Really interesting article showing the power of evolution is with us even today, though as a biochemist in the laboratory I have seen proof of evolution many times in the past. Earlier I have blogged about arsenic and some research that initially was dramatically interesting, but then proved to be poor lab technique (lay people might be disappointingly shocked to learn how often that happens and this is far from the only case that made it through peer review and into publication). It is feasible this research won’t stand up to scrutiny, but such is the nature of science. It is an interesting topic, I have to imagine someone will want to try and reproduce the results.

Physicists ‘skeptical’ of global warming

Semantic battle among physicists forces a restatement of their stance on climate change
http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060016675

Semantics is very important in science and I agree that the 2007 version was non-scientific:

The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.

The key here is ‘incontrovertible’. Very little is such in science and to have an official statement representing a huge body of scientists use that word is rather offensive. Though physicists sometimes bandy about Einstein’s equations using such verbiage, they all know that doing so is a lazy approximation and is fine only in casual conversation. When they stand up to give presentations or write papers they get a lot more conservative and sprinkle caveats all over their statements. The person behind the change in verbiage, Dr. Steven E. Koonin, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (which, naturally, was controversial in itself since the WSJ has regularly been critical of climate science) where he basically laments the crappy state of the science of climate science and how both sides (‘denalists’ and what I term ‘end-of-the-world-ists’) have left no room for actual scientific discussion. As I talk about many times I have many of the exact same complaints about the science of climate science (I even talk about it here, toward the end) and while I seem to have missed Koonin’s original essay by a number of months, I do agree with his sentiment and so want to promulgate it to the extent my poor blog is capable of.

Finally!

Our fear of fat is melting
http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/06/opinion/teicholz-fear-of-dietary-fat-melting/index.html?hpt=hp_c4

It has been a long time coming, but it seems that the establishment has finally started to accept that high carbohydrate diets (otherwise known as low-fat diets) are bad for you. I speak about the evils of sugar from time to time, but along with Atkins and everyone else who has even hinted that refined carbohydrates are bad for you, no one cares to listen. Of course like everything else in our society, there are huge economic interests in keeping us fed with sugar, so it will be decades at least before anything fundamental changes, but such is life in the great USofA.

Stress is inherited

Pregnancy Stress Spans Generations
The stressors a female rat experiences during pregnancy can have repercussions for her granddaughters, a study shows.
http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/40716/title/Pregnancy-Stress-Spans-Generations/

Kind of scary: that something even your parents have no control over can have a dramatic impact on your own life. I wonder if this can also help explain things like autism since there never seems to be any genetic link. Of course, if it is an epigenetic link (as is the case in the above report) it won’t show up as changed genes, but to my knowledge no one really has an effective way to measure the epigenome at present, let alone compare it as it changes over life and/or generations.

Organic: better, the same or worse?

Is organic food better for you?
http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/05/opinion/carroll-organic-food-nutrition/index.html?hpt=hp_t3

While things _may_ have progressed to the point where we are getting negative returns on our investment, for the most part the last several centuries of steadily increasing technological application toward food has resulted in dramatically reduced deaths, dramatically increased yields and as a consequence, a whole lot more humans to deal with. The majority of organic products come with increased incidence of illness and reduced yields and as a consequence, can only support a smaller population. There have been reproducible differences detected between organic and conventional foods, but those differences are generally (scientifically) not considered significant. Much like the folderol regarding the supposed dangers of microwaving foods (interestingly there are fewer reports on the massively greater scientific documentation on the health hazards of charring food), there is no real evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than their non-organic counterparts. As a consequence, it boils down pure and simple to an emotional decision, there is no science to support the decision to go organic but there is clear science that overall organic has increased incidence of illnesses (due to the general lack of oversight, e.g., unpasteurized milk).

This isn’t to say that there aren’t viable methods to produce the same food with a vastly lower impact on our environment, just that ‘organic’ food isn’t worth the price unless you like overpaying for the same benefit.

Peak Everything

This is probably going to be a long and rambling post, but heck, I haven’t done one in a while (though I am sure some readers will object since I often run off at the keyboard). Over the last couple of days I have been reading a book that contains several sections regarding global warming, peak oil, etc. (I won’t name it, it is generally poorly written and is at least half the author making Tea Party rants against Obama). Then last night I watched part of a program about peak oil. I have also been a regular reader of the blog Do The Math where the author talks extensively (and with numbers, hence the title) about how alternatives have no prayer of replacing our dependence on crude oil. Anyway, I haven’t babble about the looming apocalypse for a while so felt now was a good time. With that as unnecessary introduction, let the rant begin…

While I have significant doubts about the concept of ‘global warming‘ being the result of human’s use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe (quite strongly!) that humans are destroying the value in our globe’s ecosystem at an accelerating, unsustainable rate. For the most part humans have almost completely decimated the land surface (where that surface has any value, of course; trackless deserts are pretty much left to themselves), though there has been a small trend in the opposite direction lately. We have been so steadily raping the ocean that we have almost removed all the apex predators completely and have been steadily working our way down the food chain (though we already harvest tons of krill, pretty close to the bottom of the food chain). We pump massive amounts of antibiotics and other assorted pharmaceuticals into our waterways on a daily basis that lead to dramatic impacts on sensitive life (some leading to ‘feminization‘ of fish and amphibians) not to mention flooding the oceans with nutrient runoff leading to algae blooms and thence to ‘dead zones‘. And, as is fairly well known already, our steady destruction of old growth forest (tropical and temperate) have been resulting in the lost of species at the rate that many ecologists are talking about a new extinction event (the time of the ‘Anthropocene‘). Here in the US we have created additional problems entirely fabricated by humans: the ability of nation/states or even random hackers to plunge our infrastructure into the stone age at the press of a button. We have put so much junk in Earth orbit that it is becoming problematic to launch new satellites, so we are even trashing parts of our solar system!

So, humans are having a huge impact on our planet even before we break out discussions of peak oil and the conflicts thereafter. We have already passed peaks in so many other places (fish harvest have been steadily declining for a century or longer, only by going to ‘lower quality’ fish have we been able to keep our faces stuffed) and are in the down slide that it is almost quaint to talk about something like oil. However, because humans have such a strong, wide aggressive streak, it is quite certain that these various peak-sliding-down-events will eventually (where that is likely measured in years, but could conceivably be decades if we are lucky) there will be even more massive impact on our environment as we start to wholesale slaughter one another in a desperate, but useless (actually counter productive), attempt to stave off the inevitable decline. When I have talked about the apocalypse I have generally focused on it being a US centric event, but over the last couple of days I am now thinking it will be a much more global event and there will be few places to hide. There is almost certainly going to be a sudden, sharp and seemingly instantaneous ‘flip’ from everything seeming to go well one day to the entire globe is in the shit the next day. While it is possible to predict with almost certainty that this event will happen, the timing is the result of countless actions feeding back towards one another in a non-linear fashion. Sort of like the events that unfolded in the Philippines when the typhoon struck a year or so ago, the aftermath is fairly easy to document and the resultant steps taken by various governments and groups easy to outline. Positioning yourself to be on the right side, though, may be very non-trivial. I saw the looming housing crash years in advanced and put together a very pretty plan to take advantage of it, but moved too slow and instead wound up even more screwed.

The ironic thing to me is that none of this needs to happen. Based on my research we can produce such a huge amount of food using a technique called aquaponics that we could easily manage a human population of more than a trillion without _any_ impact on the ecosystem (other than the 10% of land surface we would use)! We could continue our love of liquid fuels by utilizing duckweed and supply our electricity using nuclear energy. We could likely even harvest solar energy (thus doing away with the nuclear ‘bogyman’) using something called ‘osmotic energy‘ (see the lower half of the post) and skip the expense of solar panels (I have read several analyses that suggest the energy it takes to produce the panel is greater than the panel’s lifetime output). However, in order to prepare for the consequences of a major peak (such as oil, food, etc.) one must start long before the peak is realized as the consequences of the downside are abrupt and devastating. Since by many estimates we may have already reached peak oil and food (by conventional means, of course) we are teetering on the cusp of the slide into oblivion already giving us essentially negative time to react.

So is there any way to prepare for such an event (besides keeping cyanide capsules with you at all time so you can simply skip to the end)? The so-called ‘preppers‘ are already attempting to lay the ground work, but I consider most of those efforts doomed (e.g.). It is fairly easy to estimate what the world will look like after (with about one tenth of its population in 3-5 years and a steadily declining population for decades to come, for instance), but the actual crumbling will be much like the events inside a hurricane or tornado. Inches will matter and luck will have a disproportionate impact on who survives what. Disease will become rampant and the inner cores of cities will become wastelands where only a few hardy (or foolhardy) groups will eek out a living on the scraps left over by the riots. The countryside will be dotted with Amish inspired communities where the inhabitants will aggressively defend their territory and way of life and skeletons will litter the highways and byways.

Of course I might be full of crap, it isn’t like anything like this has ever happened before, right? Oh yea, there are a couple of examples in human history, such as the fall of Rome, several revolutions in China, you know, stuff like that. We won’t be like that, you say, things are different now. Well, the long sustained upward trajectory we have been enjoying for well over a century (really going back to the industrial revolution) has pretty much robbed us of the collective knowledge to anticipate such an event, so when the tornado strikes we will be collectively shocked that it could ever happen.

Ok, I believe I got this out of my system, thanks for reading…

Microbiome being hacked away by antibiotics

The antibiotics that could kill you
http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/22/opinion/blaser-antibiotic-winter/index.html?hpt=hp_t4

I talk about the dangers associated with antibiotics from time to time, this is an opinion piece that sort of wraps things up, but in a more personal nature. I am now pretty much against taking antibiotics except in serious life threatening situations; first I have read a number of studies that indicates that in some of cases where they are prescribed there is no measureable benefit (e.g., ear or sinus infections). Second, I have personally have had long-term discomfort after taking antibiotics (I had the runs for over 6 months once) and according to my math, another day or so of discomfort with the infection is well worth the sacrafice to avoid all those hours sitting on the toilet.

As the article discusses, we are ripe for a global pandemic that has the potential to wipe out huge chunks of our population (though not enough, I am quite certain, to change, even slightly, our environmental destroying trajectory). Given the abuse we have been putting on antibiotics (and the few antivirals) when we need them they will be of no value. Sadly, I am sure, the coming pandemic will take out people largely equally (though the wealthy will, of course, get preferential treatments, I doubt they will have any better luck buying their way out of antibiotic resistance than the poor), which means the geniuses as well as the morons.

Of course, much like solar flares or impacts from comets, there is no way to predict when it will happen with any usefulness, so it is just sit around and either cower in fear, continue as usual or potentially waste a huge amount of resources (a la ‘preppers’) for something that might not even happen in your lifetime.

Born lucky

Practice and Genes
http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/practice_and_genes/

I used to believe that plenty of perspiration with a dash of inspiration would lead to success achieving goals. Now, in my cynical old age, I believe it boils down to the three factors of real estate: luck, luck and luck. If you aren’t born to the right parents (or have the right genes), don’t go to the right schools (or get the right training) and hang out with the right friends (have the right training partners/coaches) your chance of success is about the same as winning the lotto, or, as I like to say, about the same chance of getting struck by lightning, dancing naked on a golf course, at midnight. Though I have achieved notable success on an average scale (though, to be fair, much of that was from the cratering ‘middle class‘ and not so much on me), I have achieved, statistically speaking, zero along my chosen path (to build space stations, for those of you not regular reader(s)). Maybe it was rose colored glasses when I was a youth, but it seems to me that when I was young (going on 35 years ago now, man that is a big number!) there were people who achieved their goals through perspiration and inspiration. Today those people are lotto winners (also for you not-regular-readers: ‘lotto winners’ is a generic term for me to represent big payouts at very long odds) and for the most part are individually trumpeted. Back in the ‘good old days’ these kinds of success were not lauded because they (as I recall) were common enough to be boring.

Genes go a very long way to having success in many areas, but genes alone, meaning without extensive practice AND the determination to succeed, account for very little once one is out of high school. Self successful people tend to have a variety of common traits and while the right genes (parents) are certainly among them, they also have a wide streak of determination and the willingness to put in long hours training (which, for a more sedentary position, like a PhD or MBA, might be hours and hours of research). Genes without perspiration and genes without determination are just amusing stories to tell others about ‘lost’ potential. So, yes, luck plays a huge part (get a lock on the parents, schools and friends and you have to work hard to screw it up), but not an exclusive part. Luck without the ‘genes’ to take advantage of the random opportunities that life throws at you on a daily basis is just more sad stories about ‘lost’ potential.