Friday, August 22, 2014

Breaking refrigeration anxiety

The New York Times ruined an otherwise fascinating overview of refrigeration in China by spinning it as an article about climate change ("What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming?). Okay, I get how the advent of modern conveniences is increasing China’s use of greenhouse gases, but that’s not what makes it interesting. Here are some interesting facts you may have missed if you file it as just another story about carbon emissions:

  • "on average, a Chinese person experiences some kind of digestive upset twice a week”, at least partly due to poor food storage.
  • "Nearly half of everything that is grown in China rots before it even reaches the retail market” — refrigerated storage and transportation in this case would greatly help the environment by doubling food production.
  • The West has much lower rot-to-market losses, but ultimately we may still throw away just as much food, because we use refrigerators as an excuse to buy more stuff than we can eat — and it ends up rotting at home.
  • Refrigeration has many conveniences, but it also drives out the wonderful traditional ways people use for preserving food: salting, fermenting, brining, drying.
  • Refrigeration also results in a more homogeneous (and boring) market, because foods can be shipped from farther away without spoiling. Food growers face nationwide competition, driving out many of the local varieties of plants that often form the basis of different regional cuisines.

I think refrigeration in general is overused (which is why I say hold the ice), and I hope China can use the best of refrigeration technology without forgetting the special benefits of traditional food preservation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Aw heck, I don’t keep track of stuff like that anymore."

My grandmother’s reply to the doctor who, looking for signs of disorientation, asks her if she knows today’s date.

Grandma Sprague

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Alternative cancer therapies

I’m reading a fascinating book, Outsmart Your Cancer, that summaries dozens of “alternative” cancer treatments, some of which I’ve heard of (e.g. laetrile, Mexican cancer clinics), and many that were new to me. When you veer off the well-worn path of the “mainstream” medicine you’ll get from your local hospital, you are on shaky ground, easy prey for money-grubbing quacks and hucksters. I don’t know to what degree some of these therapies fit that bill (Quackwatch doesn’t think much of anything in this book), but I thought it was interesting for several reasons:

  • People in desperate medical situations are often much more open-minded than the rest of us are. What, literally, do they have to lose?
  • I don’t understand why the FDA or other regulatory bodies need to be involved with diseases that conventional medicine finds incurable (which is the case for many early-stage and probably most late-stage cancers). If the patient has nothing to lose, it seems to me it would be far better to encourage more experimentation, and have the FDA just keep score, to ensure that if an alternative treatment shows promise, at least we can have good record-keeping on who tried it and the results.
  • Some of the far-out approaches (the Rife Machine, 714X) rely on a micro-organism explanation for cancer. Since I’m intrigued by Paul Ewald's idea that cancer is an infection, I’d like to understand more about what happened with these various explanations.

So much of modern medicine is driven by top-down methods: big, expensive trials and therapies organized by large pharmaceutical companies, regulated by large bureaucracies, it makes me wonder what might have happened if medicine were much more of a free-for-all, where various cancer treatments really competed with one another purely on efficacy. No doubt, a lot of money would be wasted on charlatans, but if your mainstream doctor can’t cure you either, why is that a big deal?


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What's the point of a PhD?

Reading an old Slate article about why MOOCs (online classes) devalue the importance of a one-on-one relationship between professors and students, I have a few thoughts:

Sure, in the ideal case there is this fantasy that undergraduate classes are tight seminars, one-on-one with a professor who pushes you to learn more, who customizes everything to your needs. In reality, the vast majority of undergraduate education is more like the broadcast of a MOOC, a professor and his staff piping information out to students, who take it all in and produce homework assignments.  The TA (or, sure, in smaller classes, the professor) grades the assignments, and in the best classes the professor himself looks carefully at the student's output and critically evaluates it.

But Is society really better off with a group of "insiders", who learn from each other, and then produce theses and papers that nobody will ever, ever read. What percentage of PhD theses are ever read again, after the degree is granted? I bet the overwhelming majority are are never, ever checked out of the library, completely irrelevant to everyone for all time in the future. At what point is an academic PhD just a glorified blogger?  While it may be useful for them and their tight circle of colleagues, is what they're doing the most efficient way to expand knowledge?  

Compare a traditional academic experience with something like, a blog written by a “amateur” who wrote more than 1M words of history.  I can imagine a future where everything is a seminar.  You read  information jointly with a whole bunch of others who are exploring the same idea, and you need to produce new information, interacting with others who pursue the same goal. That’s what I’d like to see.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Don't eat fake sugar

Here’s my theory: artificial sweeteners affect the body the same way as the real stuff.

Although your taste buds may think a sucralose-flavored beverage tastes sweet, your brain is not stimulated the same way. Nobody knows for sure what difference this makes, but one theory is that it dials down your metabolism; The body tries to adjust to the lack of “oomph” coming from the sweet taste by slowing the fat burning process. 

Mainstream, legitimate scientific organizations that study these things will tell you that FDA-approved artificial sweeteners are safe  and I believe them. But even if it doesn’t cause cancer, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an effect on the body. For example, Aspartame has been shown to dull spatial awareness and cause decreased insulin sensitivity in mice. People with the rare genetic disease Phenylketonuria (PKU) are warned to stay away from the stuff. So I’m not convinced that it’s entirely without any effects on the rest of us.

I’m going to study this more, but meanwhile I’m sticking to real food.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Learning Nascar

I’m in Michigan this weekend, experiencing as much authentic America as I can. After too much of a lifetime spent out of the country, I need to raise my Coming Apart score. And how better to do than than watch the latest NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Michigan International Speedway?

NASCAR is much bigger than you might think if you’re not in their core audience. One of of three Americans is a fan (40% of whom are women). Although the National Football League takes in way more revenue overall ($9B vs. $650M), NASCAR earns $3B in sponsorship revenue each year (twice as much as the NFL). 

We’re fans of Joey Logano, so it was nice to see him finish the race in the top three today. (Here’s his car, traveling at 200+ mph and captured on my iPhone5s “burst” mode).

I’m probably not ready to devote myself whole-hog to becoming a NASCAR fan, but I’m glad I experienced a race like this. If you want to understand the real America, you could do worse than to spend some time with the 100,000+ people who packed today’s stadium with me.




Saturday, August 16, 2014

Are potatoes good for you?

Diabetics, and anyone watching the glycemic load from their food knows that potatoes, with their large amount of starch, raise blood sugar levels. The otherwise high nutrient value of a potato, then, must be balanced against the body’s ability to supply the insulin necessary to stabilize the amount of glucose running around.

Look at this chart, from nutrition expert G. Douglas Andersen: 

Test Meal Glycemic Index
1. Microwaved russet potatoes 76 ± 8.7
2. Instant mashed potatoes 87.7 ± 8
3. Oven-roasted white potatoes 73 ± 8.2
4. Microwaved white potatoes 72 ± 4.5
5. Boiled red potatoes 89 ± 7.2
6. Boiled red potatoes, refrigerated, and consumed cold 56 ± 5.2
7. French fries 63 ± 5.5

 The way it was cooked makes a huge difference.  The starches in the potato break down and change when cooked and stored cold. The affect on glycemic load is even greater if you mix the potatoes with vinegar.

I’m not saying anything original here — diabetics and others have known this for a long time — but it’s interesting to me because it shows again how limiting it is to look simply at out-of-the-box nutrition labels if you want to know whether something is good for you.