Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is grape juice bad for you?

Our kids love grape juice, but there’s some controversy in our household whether we should indulge their taste or steer them to lower-sugar fruit juices instead. After all, a single cup contains a heaping 36g of sugar, and while the glycemic load of 12 may be low compared to some foods, it’s much higher than apple juice (6) or orange juice (9).

Still, while it's true that we shouldn’t overdose on sugar, I think it's dangerous to lump all the complexity of nature into that single term "sugar", as if all sweet-tasting drinks are biologically equivalent, or that the number of calories in a food is the most important determinant of health.

Nutrition scientists at Purdue University ran a double-blind placebo study of 76 slightly overweight people that concluded that grape juice doesn't cause changes in appetite and, in overweight people, may actually help with waist circumference.  The study was financed partly by Welch's, so you can argue that it may be biased, but that’s true of any study. I prefer to look carefully at a broad set of data points before making up my mind.

And there is intriguing evidence that grape juice, like other berries, may have a positive affect on brain aging. One double-blind three month study on older adults showed a nice bump in some cognitive function, though the small sample size makes it very hard to draw conclusions.

Of course, rather than look at broad studies, what I really want is something that will measure the affect on me. N=1. I could very well be an outlier, but that’s true about most things worth studying. Maybe I’ll add grape juice to my self-testing and see.

Harvesting Grapes in Zillah

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What's the appendix for?

My appendix was removed when I was five years old, at the hands of a well-meaning country doctor who thought it would cure my chronic childhood tummy aches. The finest medical scientists at the time knew, of course, that the appendix is a vestigial organ, an evolutionary leftover that was not needed in modern humans and would probably, in future generations, evolve itself away. I guess I’m proof, half a century later, that those scientists were right: you can live a perfectly healthy life (well, almost) without an appendix.

Still, the idea has always nagged at me and lately I’ve started reading the fascinating science writer Rob Dunn, who I learned about through one of his old blog posts at Scientific American. He summarizes his evidence in his book The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today, but the basic idea is that the appendix helps re-populate your gut bacteria after a major crash — a bout of food poisoning, say, or some terrible infection that takes over before your immune system has a chance to respond.

What’s inside a healthy person's appendix anyway?  Answer: immune tissue, various (normally good-for-you) bacteria, and IgA antibodies — all stuff that seems like you wouldn’t want to just cut out of a person, like that long-forgotten surgeon did to me.

Dunn’s book is interesting throughout, and besides the appendix discussion here are some additional things I learned:

  • Humans have taste buds in their gut (see Wu, S. et all in PNAS 99:2392-2397 . What are they doing in there? Who knows, but catfish have them all over their bodies. Maybe the sense of taste includes some measure of what’s already in our tummies.
  • Specially-modified mice that have no bacteria in their guts seem to live okay, but they need 30% more calories to get the same amount of nutrients as normal mice.
  • You may think you react with similar horror to something violent as you do to something pathogenic.  You feel the same stress, same heart rate increase and other body signs either way.  But your immune system can tell the difference (as measured by changes in measures of immune system response). 
There’s much more to like in the book as well as the other Rob Dunn writings. Definitely recommended.
By the way, if you would like to know more about what’s on my reading list, and (especially if you have suggestions for things I might like!) please follow me on Goodreads.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Y-Combinator Sam Altman's Future Predictions

From this week's Econtalk podcast

Sam Altman, president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, mentions three interesting startup investment trends:  wearables (it's inevitable that we'll all have computing devices that we wear), bitcoin (which he views a bit pessimistically, except for the block chain idea), and this one:
Health care: That is an area I think we're seeing great development, after having been ignored for a long period of time. Most investors interestingly enough are still not paying a lot of attention. And probably in two years, when some of these health care companies get successful, there will be a true flood of investment into this space, and it will already be too late.
Before the emergence of cloud-based computing services (like AWS, Azure, Rackspace, etc.), operating a server farm was an expensive hurdle for any new internet business. Similarly, interesting health-related products need access to expensive wet labs in order to put together their inventions. But the cost of lab time is plummeting, thanks to super-cool bioinformatics software plus robots that can make the lab work much more efficient, and now there are new ways to borrow time from other labs:  Science Exchange, QB3, and soon many more.

Of course, regulatory hurdles make the health + biotech businesses tricker than plain ole software, but that will get easier too. Innovation finds a way.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Microbes over time

Lawrence David, at Duke University, tracked two people’s microbes for a year, offering a rare peek into how the makeup of the gut changes over time. Similar experiments have been performed by other people (e.g. Larry Smarr, ) but this is the first time I’ve seen this much detail. Armed with the iPhone app Tap Forms, the two subjects kept track of 300+ variables daily, including diet/exercise/mood, etc.  (Yes, that’s pretty hard-core self-tracking, but they were chosen specifically because they were die-hard QSers).  The whole paper is worth studying, but here are a few highlights:
  • Overall microbial gut ecology is pretty stable over time — it takes a lot to change the bugs inside you
  • Eating fiber has the biggest, fastest effect on the microbial profile
  • What doesn’t change your microbes: sleep, exercise, mood (surprisingly)
  • Saliva has little effect on gut bacteria (even though you swallow more than 1 liter of the stuff per day!)
Especially interesting were the two times where there was a noticeable change in the ecology of the microbes.  The first was when the person moved to Southeast Asia for several weeks in the middle of the experiment:
Microbes Living Abroad

and here's when one of the people got sick:
Microbe makeup after an illness
 A little scary how permanently his gut bacteria were changed because of one sickness.
Very interesting experiment, and I look forward to being able to do the same thing on myself someday.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Break out the sriracha

Seth Roberts often came up with hunches, reasonable hypotheses, about various foods or habits. But don’t pick the hypotheses randomly; base it on something, make sure it fits a bigger theory about the world, and then devise experiments to prove the hunch wrong.  My hunch is that hot, spicy foods are good for you and that adding even a small amount to any food helps make it more nutritious.  Here’s the new one I’m going to try: sriracha sauce.
My reasons:
  • Highest rating by Cooks Illustrated. (btw, Tabasco sauce is “not recommended”)
  • Simple ingredients: red chilis, garlic, vinegar (though note: 1g of sugar / tsp)
  • It tastes good!
The web site Thatsnerdilicious claims it’s even the “cure to all your problems”!  What’s not to like?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Everyone an Emperor

Kevin Kelly asked via Twitter for people to offer, in 100 words, their vision for the future. Today he published the first 23 responses. I don’t have time right now to write my own short response, but here’s what I’m thinking:

In the future, everyone can choose and run their own private empire, commanding vast dominions of robotic serfs to do their bidding. Like emperors throughout history, some will devote themselves to travel and exploration, some to science, some to the arts. Each dabbles more or else in everything — there’s an empire to run, after all —  but ultimately they tend to specialize into a dynasty that is noteworthy for something, and that’s what you’ll be able to do.

Imagine if your ability to create or do anything was not constrained by your mastery of technique — computers can do that for you — but rather by your ability to imagine and then precisely articulate what you want instantiated.

You conceptualize something: a new product or service, perhaps, or a creative work like a novel or song. Imagine that the creation of that work is limited, not by your ability to build it yourself, but by your ability to describe it, or — perhaps — identify it.  "I’m not sure what I’m building, but I’ll know when I’m done.”

A lot of my ideas start out with “it’s kind of like X, only a little Y-er”. In the future, my robot minions will clamor for every clue I give them about my idea, offer proposed variations, then dutifully attempt to implement every  detail.

Computer graphics pioneer Alvy Ray Smith used to say “Reality is 80 million polygons”, and when machines can routinely give that to us, the ability to spend money on the physical world will matter less;  living and acting in the virtual world will matter more. When anyone can build a virtual empire, stocked with whatever science, art, products, — anything imaginable — then the value of “stuff” from the real world will change. The responses to Kevin Kelly’s question that involve “stuff” — environment, energy, health — that could all happen, but happen differently in each private, virtual empire.

It gets more interesting because we can each share bits and pieces of our empires. I can even take your empire and pretend it’s my own! In fact, the currency that will matter most — as it did to ancient emperors — will be the attention and respect of fellow empires. 

There’ll be a real world too, of course, and it’ll be much cleaner and wilder than it’s been in thousands of years. Physical property will have some value, but owning beachfront property or a private jet won’t have the relative prestige they did before everyone could get the bio-identical experience for free. Better to spend the land’s scarce resources on stuff to make the virtual world better: server farms, chip factories, biosensors.

That’s the basic idea, but every day that future gets closer.

Friday, July 25, 2014

[book] War! What Is It Good For? by Ian Morris

As with his seminal “Why the West Rules”, Stanford Professor Ian Morris’ new book makes you repeat “Aha!” as he explains the big picture of history with remarkable ease. Instead of simply telling a story, he gives the rules behind the story: how societies naturally evolve, almost inevitably, in fixed directions.  “Maps, not chaps”, as he summarizes it: geography matters more than great people in how history unfolds.

This time Morris presents the history of warfare, and how — bad as it is for the people involved at the time — normal people are better off when larger “Leviathan” states incorporate smaller, weaker political units. The Roman Empire, cruel as it was much of the time, provided law and order, secure trade routes, and long-term stability that ultimately brought more good than bad. The same goes, with rare exceptions, for all great empires, including the modern world’s Pax Americana.  The ironic paradox of history is how, the more swords you have, the more plowshares you get. When you’re strong enough that nobody can challenge you, generally nobody does, and the overall result is peace.

It leads to a cycle that, in Morris' telling, ultimately seems so predictable: for example, Britain’s role as globocop in the late 1800s slowly ended due to its own success in creating vigorous new markets, which later became rivals, especially Germany. Similarly, China’s rise — tied as it is with the US economy — can only weaken America’s undisputed globocop role, especially in strategic southeast Asia. How will it end?

One hint comes from the tectonic shifts identified in the National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2030:

  • growth of the global middle class
  • wider access to lethal and disruptive technologies
  • shift of economic power toward the East and South
  • unprecedented and widespread aging
  • urbanization
  • food and water pressures
  • return of American energy independence

Combining these trends, he references Ramez Naam’s books, Nexus and Crux  as examples of how the merging of computers and people may have an affect on the future. We’ll be fine if the US maintains its globocop role till then; not so much otherwise.

Let's hope.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Please join the Seth Roberts Community

Another big thing I miss about Seth Roberts is the interesting new links he always seemed to uncover from around the web.  He discovered most of the links himself, but much of it came from his various friends and followers who emailed him pointers.

The friends and followers are still around, but without his blog to send to, we're hanging out on a Google Community instead. Please join us, especially whenever you find news you think would be of interest to people thinking outside the box about wellness, personal science, or other generally under-reported ideas:  Seth Roberts Community

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How accurate are food labels?

We take for granted that a label printed with calorie and other nutrition information is accurate, but is that true?

A short 6-minute documentary and editorial published last year in the New York Times shows how wrong labels can be. Casey Neistat took normal foods and ran them through an expensive calorimeter — the gold standard to see how many calories an item contains -- to check the accuracy of the labels. In his random sample, he found the discrepancies between the labels and actual calories added up to 500+ calories in a typical day’s eating — the equivalent of a missing Big Mac or a couple of snickers bars.  This, on “normal” foods like a sandwich from Subway, a yogurt muffin at a convenience store, a Chipotle burrito, a vegan deli sandwich.

In NYC, and soon everywhere in the US, calorie labels are mandatory, but how will that help if the labels are wrong?

Incidentally, I think this applies not just to calories but to virtually anything relating to nutrition: vitamins, carbohydrates, fat, protein. The active nutritional content of something like broccoli, for example, degrades quickly after it’s been picked. The way it was prepared, the other foods consumed at the same time, the microbes in its surface — there are so many variables that often matter just as much as whatever is on the label. I wonder what the point is.

The solution, of course, is better sensors: handheld, pocket devices that can test the food right before you eat it. We’re still a few years from that becoming ubiquitous and cheap enough for everyday use, but there are early prototypes: the $200 SCiO, for example, the $200 TellSpec, or the 6SensorLabs Canary gluten detector (though it’s difficult to tell yet how accurate these are).  Microsoft, working with the EE Department at the University of Washington has a simple, cheap sensor that can detect the type of beverage you're drinking. Alexander Scheeline, a chemist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, teaches how to make a cheap, cellphone-based spectrometer (see Wired) that may someday be able to tell if your food has mercury in it, for example.

Until those cheap sensors are widely available, though, I’m afraid it’s hard to rely on labels alone.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Using the AliveCor Heart Monitor

Every few months, I feel a slight flutter in my chest, almost like a cough but coming not from the lungs or throat but from something deeper inside. It seems to come and go randomly, though I’ve noticed it is often triggered if I’ve had wine to drink or if I haven’t had enough sleep. No big deal, just something I observe about myself. Long ago, by coincidence, one of these episodes happened while I was at the doctor’s office having an annual physical, and the doctor too shrugged it off: a heart arrhythmia, perfectly normal. He told me the technical term for the exact type of arrhythmia, but that was long ago and I’ve forgotten. Now, maybe I’ve found a way to know for sure.

For the past week I’ve been using the new AliveCor Heart Monitor, a $200 iPhone case that gives me a high-fidelity Lead I ECG any time, any where I carry my smartphone. Here’s the sample I took this morning, right after waking up:
ECG 20140722052227 pdf 1 page
The device is just a normal iPhone case — with a funny two-part metal bulge on the back that acts as a two-lead electrode. You hold it with your fingers and it measures your ECG. Just like that! With FDA 510(k) clearance and scientifically validated for "excellent sensitivity (0.962), specificity (0.975), and accuracy (0.968) for beat-to-beat discrimination of an irregular pulse during AF from sinus rhythm”, it’s got serious medical chops too. The first time you use it, you send your results to trained technicians, who send you back a report (in my case, summarized as “normal sinus rhythm”). Each time after that, you’re given the option to send the results again as an in-app purchase:  $12 to a US Board Certified cardiologist, $5 for a 30-min turnaround by a certified technician, or $2 for 24-hour turnaround.

Unfortunately, there’s apparently no API, so although you can send each result (PDF) by email, there’s no automatic way to upload to Zenobase, for example, so you can easily compare with other self-tracking results.

The technology was invented by cardiologist David Albert using hardware that communicates with the phone via a clever, patented process that uses low-frequency, inaudible sound waves picked up by the phone’s microphone. No need to pair bluetooth with the device, no need for any physical connection to the phone at all.

Satish Misra is a medical doctor who wrote a balanced and thorough review, pointing out the wonderful breakthroughs possible with such a device, but also noting that because it doesn’t detect some important heart ailments as well as a full-scale ECG, it can provide false security. He notes, incidentally, that the US Preventative Services Task Force rates ECG screening generally (not just for this device) a “D” as a medical test:   “recommends against routinely providing to asymptomatic patients”. (They say that about exercise treadmill tests and coronary calcium scanning too, for what that’s worth.)

We’ll see what happens in my case. I really want to know more about my arrhythmia and it’s nice to know that, the next time it happens it’ll be easy for me to log it accurately.

By the way, whether you have an AliveCor or not, I wish everyone would join the Health eHeart study at the University of California San Francisco. You fill out a medical survey, give them your email address, and agree to be a long-term participant in their study. They especially want people who like to use gadgets — like the AliveCor — so they can collect as much data as possible. (Obviously, they have top-notch privacy standards to ensure your data remains confidential). If everyone did this, science would have a big head start in finding how to prevent heart disease.