Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Bite of China

After months of recommendations, I finally watched my first episode of the CCTV documentary A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国) and I was not disappointed. It’s a well-produced, professionally filmed tour of Chinese food.  There are seven one-hour episodes, each going into rich detail about various aspects of the cuisine from harvest to table.

One of the first things a serious China visitor learns is the incredible diversity of Chinese cuisine, with in reality bears no resemblance to the “sweet and sour pork” dishes you’ll find in most restaurants in America. This documentary isn’t a substitute for actually trying the wonderful flavors, but it’s a must-see for any foodie.

All episodes are now available dubbed in English, viewable free in HDTV. My favorite segment from  Episode 1: “Gifts From Nature” was the discussion of salt-cured Nuodeng ham from Dali.[start at the 18:00 mark]. The special salt used, high in potassium, has been harvested there for more than a thousand years and results in a rich flavor that puts Jamón ibérico to shame.

You can watch the whole series on Youtube, but you might have a better experience streaming directly from CCTV (in English) site.  Chowhound publishes links to all the English stream locations, and there's even a Wikipedia entry with more references and links.


Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

[Book] Epidemic of Absence

  Ecosystems go all the way up and all the way down. Just as humans affect -- and are affected by -- the bigger world of animals, forests, oceans, and sky, we are also part of a deeper micro-sized world of bacteria and viruses, many (most?) of them far older than we are, and constantly adapting to all the harshness of life, including the new realities of human-made antibiotics and hygiene. Control over nature is an old goal of science, but nature is never fooled forever. The great bridges and dams that make one side of our lives better can have unforeseen consequences to other parts of our world. 

So it is with the micro world too. Even the simplest steps we take to keep clean or warm, conveniences like indoor plumbing or heating, induce changes to the unseen world of microbes, which not only outnumber us but out-class us in diversity and complexity. Eliminate one from our lives and who knows what will happen.

Moises Velasquez-Manoff presents an intriguing and sometimes terrifying survey of what little is known about the microbes around us. Focusing on allergies and autoimmune diseases, he writes in detail about the "hygiene hypothesis", that as the world gets richer and cleaner, our under-stimulated immune systems get bored and turn on the body itself. A whole range of new diseases, from hay fever to asthma to Crohn's disease, all seem to co-occur with modernity. Even people of the same genetics and culture -- Finns separated by the Iron Curtain, for example -- suffer these diseases at very different rates. Even zoo animals develop afflictions unknown in the wild.  The more "clean" and "modern" you are, the more you invite previously unheard of conditions. 

Even more intriguing is the "old friends" hypothesis, that having co-evolved with us, many of these microbes are actually necessary for health. From digestion to mood, when you take away the organisms that have covered us for millions of years, you invite trouble. Sadly, by driving many of these creatures to extinction -- an inadvertent result of hygiene practices intended to wipe out other afflictions -- we may be adversely affecting our human ecosystem in ways we don't yet understand. Wipe out a wolf population to spare human livestock and the deer begin to trample wild plants, carving the forest in unpredictable directions. There is some good, of course, but some bad too, and the scary part is that science knows way too little about which is which.

I am extremely fortunate to have been spared many of the awful afflictions presented in this book: hay fever, peanut allergies, asthma, eczema and more. So little is known about how to treat the sometimes terrible discomforts involved, and if you suffer from them, you may understandably be willing to try just about anything, including treatments with parasites like hookworm, so mainly you want to know: does it work?  The answer is maybe, but not definitely, and you may also introduce other problems. The author recounts how he self-inflicted in a Tijuana clinic (sadly, the treatment is illegal in the US) and yes, it helped. But the side effects (headache, diarrhea) were no picnic, and the treatment is no cure: to maintain relief from allergies, he needs to continue taking the worms. With no independent auditors in place, you run the risk of acquiring other diseases along with the worms: HIV maybe or hepatitis -- the cure can be worse than the disease.  

This was one of the best science books I've read in a long time, and if you or a loved one suffers from autoimmune diseases, you'll appreciate the well-written and thorough survey of what is known (not much) and unknown (a lot). I doubt there is any work nearly as good; I think this is one of those areas of science that is so new, and so potentially different from centuries of medical progress, that you need somebody like this author -- not a scientist, but a science journalist -- to look into the issues and present them for you (which he does, well, and with the right amount of both optimism and skepticism).

A sampling of some ideas:  how pregnancy is central to the passing of important microbes.  Yes, you should lick your baby's pacifier, and chew their food for them if you can -- the microbes in your saliva are highly optimized for your genes and environment.  Even autism may have a microbe component: some kids reverse their symptoms when fighting a fever, or an infection. H. pylori, the strange bug whose role in ulcers earned its discoverers a Nobel prize, may actually be necessary in many of us.  

In fact, the lesson of h. pylori or the Epstein-Barr virus is a good summary of many of the bugs around us: often they are neither all good nor all bad. Nature is not a fight between pure good and pure evil, but rather a constant tension among multiple constituencies vying for power. Rather than focus on permanently vanquishing one or another "foe", we need to consider the entire ecosystem and realize how little we really know after all.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Notes from Puget Sound

We went today on a five-hour Pacific Marine Research cruise through Puget Sound operated by and I highly recommend it. The class was very well-structured, with trained instructors who managed to pack in a lot of learning in a short time. We were there with a group of fifth graders from Sanislo Elementary school, which has apparently been sending kids to this tour for at least fifteen years.  At $40/person, to continue such repeat visits so long is a big endorsement and I know why. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone interested in hands-on oceanography.

Here's what we did during the time we were onboard the ship:

Measuring the ocean: the class dropped real Nansen and Niskin bottles into the water, the same instruments oceanographers use for collecting seawater at different depths. These devices have special triggers that can trap water at its existing temperature and pressure, so that it can be measured carefully when brought to the surface. The water today was 49 degrees (brrr!) and the salinity was about 28 -- quite a bit less than the low-30s you'd see if we were out on the open ocean, where the saltwater is less diluted by various streams and rivers that flow into the area we are patrolling today.

Plankton nets: we dropped two kinds of nets, one for smaller organisms and another faster for larger ones. Even at a reasonably shallow depth of twenty-five feet or so, it was surprising how many living organisms come up in the nets.

Microscope station: after filling some cups with seawater collected from nets, we looked at them under the microscope. At 10x to 30x, you see tons of interesting lifeforms: some (photosynthesizing plankton) that just sit there, and others (zooplankton) whose small flagella let them move quickly through the water. Many of the organisms looked like small shrimp or crabs (and some probably were!)

Hands-on with animals: at the top of the boat, the instructors set up stations with small water tanks containing many interesting larger creatures: starfish, sea anemones, California sea cucumber, crabs, and more. They let the kids touch them and see up-close the various features on the animals. I hadn't heard of the marine pill bug before, for example, though apparently it's quite numerous just outside the tidal basins.

Environmental protection: the scientists who run the cruise obviously care a lot about the environment, and Puget Sound in particular, so they devoted return part of the ride to a discussion of the problems facing marine areas near Seattle. Nobody pollutes the ocean on purpose, but there are many ways we pollute without knowing it, just by not being aware of the little ways our carelessness can hurt. 

The key word of the day, Watershed, describes the area in which all Northwest people live: all land areas between the Olympic Mountains and the Cascades where waters flow into the Puget Sound. Until a hundred years ago, the Sound was protected by marshland and the various habitats that naturally recycled water and more from the land. Now that half or more of the marshlands are gone, much of the rainwater goes directly -- too directly -- into the Sound, producing muddier rivers that scare away salmon, which in turn create problems for the sea creatures, like Orca whales, that eat salmon and other fish.

I left feeling like I understand more about oceanography in general, and looking forward to another trip like this one.


Wednesday, May 08, 2013

A humbling look at the future of Los Angeles

In 1988, the Los Angeles Times Magazine interviewed dozens of experts and published their predictions for what the city would be like in 2013.  Many of their predictions came true (computers everywhere, GPS in cars, video conferencing from home, interactive classrooms), but plenty of predictions were wrong (robots everywhere, ISDN video tellers instead of internet banking).
Futurists know that the easiest predictions relate to demographics, since people age in a linear way.  The article didn’t get it completely wrong, although some of the measures are pretty far off.
Prediction Predicted Actual
Population 18.3M 17.8M
Ethnicity White (40%), Asian (9.3%), Latino (40%) Non-hispanic white (28.7%), Asian (11.3%), Latino (48.5%)
Manufacturing Jobs 16.9% 10% (500K out of 5M)
Crime Less than 7406 “index” about 2800
Trying to guess the future twenty five years ago without knowing about the internet or cellphones makes the rest of the exercise not very useful. Also, not knowing about the rise of China (and thinking, as the article did, that Japan would remain strong) further clouds whatever tidbits of truth you might get.
Predicting the future is hard, and this guess is far better than many other attempts. Still, the more I see how actual predictions turned out, the more humbling it all seems.

(via Singularity Hub)
Los Angeles Skyline