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Is the Universe Spinning?

Thursday, December 19th, 2013 - by Ronald R. Cherry

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Dark matter and the so-called dark energy of our universe can be accounted for by an alternative cosmological theory. We normally think of the Big Bang as a violently expanding universe where all the mass was flung out centrifugally in a bomb-like explosion leaving essentially nothing at the center. The presence of dark energy has been proposed in this now standard cosmology since observations indicate that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. An alternative theory is that the Big Bang was a violent rotational expansion of matter flung off from a rotating ultra-massive black hole at its center, with the universe in an expanding (but eventually stable) rotation around the remaining dark matter (the remaining ultra-massive black hole) at the center of the universe. Under this cosmology the universe would still be expanding from the center, but decelerating centrifugally (via centripetally opposing gravitational force) into a final average orbital radius, while maintaining fixed radial acceleration (average angular velocity squared divided by average radius) and fixed angular momentum (average angular velocity times average radius times mass). Physicists in India have proposed such a theory for the Big Bang.

“One possible explanation as to how all objects acquired the property of spin could be cosmological models which also contain a term involving the primordial spin of the universe. In homogenous and isotropic models, universe with matter may not only expand but also rotate… Recent work on the study of thousands of spiral galaxies imaged by Sloan Digital Sky Survey does in fact indicate that the universe could be spinning… Here we have cosmological model involving the primordial rotation of the universe, invoked to understand the origin of the rotation or spin of objects over a wide range of masses from stars to galaxies… a cosmological model with a large scale primordial rotation term of this order can give an accelerating universe mimicking [via radial acceleration] a dark energy term [for the commonly accepted centrifugally  accelerating universe].”  C Sivaram and Kenath Arun

Dark energy remains a theory since no one has observed it, or an effect from it, which cannot be accounted for by a better explanation. Dark energy need not be invoked in the case of rotational cosmology since the initial energy required for rotational expansion would be all that is necessary to explain a presently expanding universe in radial (orbital) acceleration around an ultra-massive black hole at its center. In addition to solving the problem of dark matter and dark energy, rotational cosmology also provides us with a picture of the universe which matches the observable rotation of planets in our own solar system, and the rotation of observable spiral galaxies, some or all of which may orbit super-massive black holes at their center.

*****

image courtesy shutterstock /  jupeart

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Comet ISON, RIP

Thursday, December 12th, 2013 - by Bryan Preston

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The “comet of the century” is dead.

Comet ISON, once optimistically called the comet of the century, is dead, the victim of a way-too-close brush with the sun. It was barely a year old.

Eh, I hate to get persnickety but it’s way older than one year. Maybe not as a comet per se, but certainly as a celestial snowball hanging out in the Oort Cloud. We’ve only known about it for a year. There are trillions of bits out there that we’ve never seen and will probably never see.

The comet, which excited astronomers and the media as it zipped within 730,000 miles of the sun on Thanksgiving Day, was pronounced dead at a scientific conference Tuesday. Astronomers who had followed the ice ball mourned the loss of the sky show that once promised to light up during December.

Naval Research Lab astronomer Karl Battams, who headed the observing campaign for the comet, said ISON (EYE’-sahn) was stretched and pulled by the sun’s powerful gravity. It was also hit with solar radiation. And the icy snowball just fell apart.

“At this point it seems like there is nothing left,” Battams said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. “Sorry, everyone, Comet ISON is dead. But its memory will live on.”

 

*****

Cross-posted from the PJ Tatler

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The End of Poverty in America

Thursday, December 5th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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President Obama, on Wednesday, made a big speech about “economic inequality” and vowed to spend his last three years in office working to increase the federal minimum wage, as well as a lot of other things.

Just as an aside, every time I hear talk about increasing the minimum wage — there’s a strike on today at some fast food places to raise their wage to $15 an hour as well — I have a conversation something like this.

“I think increasing the minimum wage is a wonderful idea. In fact, let’s raise it to $100 an hour.”

“Oh, you’re being silly.”

“No, imagine. Raise minimum wage to $100 an hour. That way, everyone will be making $200,000 a year. We’ll all be rich!

“Racist.”

Okay, I’ll grant that it usually takes two or three more exchanges before someone calls me racist, or a tea-bagger, or even an economic royalist if they’re of a classical turn of mind. The one thing I’ve never had anyone do is explain to me why if a $15 an hour minimum wage is a good idea, a $100 an hour minimum wage is a bad idea.

I suspect it’s because they realize that if they do, the jig is up: if they raise the minimum wage that high, companies won’t be able to pay the wage, and either there will be massive unemployment or massive inflation, as companies try to make up the difference. Mostly unemployment and shutdowns, because the money supply can’t grow that fast without a Weimar meltdown. But the trade-off is basically a linear function — raising the minimum wage by a lesser amount just means fewer people lose their jobs or go out of business. In the case of fast food workers, what would happen is that hamburger-making machines would become cheaper than burger-flippers. (In fact, that break-even is already past, the burger-flippers just don’t know it yet.)

In any case, though, this seems to be a solution in search of a problem, because there is no poverty in America, and I can prove it. According to a Cato Institute study published last year, the combined expenditures for federal and state governments directed to means-tested public assistance — “welfare” — is approximately $1 trillion (yes, with a “T”) a year.

There are approximately 48 million people in the U.S. with incomes at the poverty level or below.

The application of advanced mathematics — long division, and I did it in my head thank you very much — tells us that’s about $21,000 per person per year. Obviously, that’s $84,000 for a family of four.

That’s got a problem, though. According to the 2013 Federal Poverty Guidelines, the poverty level for a family of four is $23,950. The total of $84,000 is roughly 380 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Obviously, there’s no poverty left in America.

Unless, of course, that money isn’t actually being spent on the poor people at all. I wonder where it goes?

More: 

Striking Wendy’s Worker: Hike the Minimum Wage, and I Can Work Fewer Days

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13 Weeks: Frobbing the Knobs

Sunday, December 1st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Okay, look, the first thing is I owe you folks an apology: with the new day job and holidays and a half-dozen other ordinary-life crises, I’ve just not gotten columns done. I’m sorry.

The most important thing I think I’ve learned in the last year has been just how complicated the whole issue of body weight and glucose regulation can be. Here’s just a selection of diets that have had reports of dramatic weight loss and health effects:

  • Low Carbohydrate Diets
    • High Fat
      • Atkins
      • South Beach
    • Low Fat
      • Stillman’s Quick Weight Loss Diet
  • Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load diets
  • Low Fat, High Carb diets
    • Ornish Eat More, Weigh Less
    • The Okinawa Diet
  • Balanced, Calorie Restricted diets
    • Diabetic “Exchange” Diets
    • Weight Watchers
  • Radical Calorie Restriction
    • Scarsdale Diet
    • Duke Rice Diet
    • Protein-Sparing Fasts
  • Intermittent Fasting
    • Fasting 2 days a week
    • Sixteen hour fasts every day.
  • Eating more often
    • Body For Life
    • “Grazing”
  • Dietary Restrictions
    • Eliminating wheat or grain
    • Paleo
    • Vegetarian
      • Ovo-Lacto
      • “Pescatarian”
      • Macrobiotic
      • “Never Eat Anything With a Face”
    • Vegan
    • “Fruitarian”

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New Dinosaur! Meet Siats Meekerorum

Friday, November 29th, 2013 - by Stephen Green

Siats Meekerorum

Always a sucker for a cool new dinosaur find — yes, I am still a seven-year-old boy — I just stumbled across a little (big) something from Ars Technica:

A new fossil of a giant predatory dinosaur has shed light on the North American ecosystem during the Cretaceous period. The new species, Siats meekerorum, is a member of the allosaurs, a group of large predators that predate the tyrannosaurs that dominated later in the Cretaceous. By filling in a gap in the fossil record, Siats has helped paleontologists understand the changes that took pace during the transition between these groups of apex predators.

The fossil of Siats isn’t going to be the centerpiece of a museum display; the bones that are available are largely from the spinal column, accompanied by a few of the limb bones and variety of other fragments. Fortunately, the allosaurs are well known from examples on other continents, and the skeletal fragments show a clear relationship to a specific group of allosaurs called the carcharodontosaurs. This allows the paleontologists who discovered it to infer things about the physical appearance of the body parts that haven’t yet been found.

Although only a juvenile, the beast was probably already 30 feet long and was likely to weigh four tons.

That’s a big puppy.

*****

Cross-posted from Vodkapundit

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13 Weeks: Weekend Update

Sunday, November 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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The last two 13 Weeks columns could have been confused with science columns, which is good because I’ve actually missed the science columns, but bad because I haven’t talked about my progress or lack thereof at all. Well, the last couple of weeks have been confusing to me too, if it’s any consolation — I spent a week in San Francisco in an extended interview/audition for a new web startup called Sumazi. I’m now doing consulting for them, but they’re still operating under the radar so I can’t talk a lot about it, except to say they’re doing exciting things with social media data. But the result is that I’ve been busier than a — oh, hell, pick your own cliché. I’ve been really busy.

As a result, the whole diet-and-exercise thing has gotten away from me — hell, I haven’t left the house since last Sunday and last night I resorted to eating frozen burritos I didn’t even know I had because gleanings were getting pretty slim.

Yes, frozen burritos have wheat.

The results are interesting; my weight has crept back up to 269 — that same old stuck point. Glucose is doing fine, and with the exception of the burritos I have been quite good about eating few carbs — what carbs I’m getting are mostly in the yoghurt I’ve continued eating.

Of course we’re heading for the Season of Diet Horror — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

So here’s my plan. I’m declaring this 13 week season a Learning Experience. As my old therapist Joe Talley called it, an AFOG (“Another F-ing Opportunity for Growth.”) This season would be over on 1 December anyway, so I’m gonna roll with it, and just maintain blood sugar and weight until 1 January — or rather until 4 January, which is the convenient Saturday after New Year’s Day. That will give me a chance to consolidate my other life changes.

In the mean time, the plan is to make this first year of 13 Week Experiments into a book, so I want to use the column to consolidate some of my thoughts about this, and to think more about what I can do to help other people start making their own experiments.

So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts about the process and the results.

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13 Weeks: trans-gressions

Saturday, November 9th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
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Lard. Maybe it’s better for you than margarine.

This week’s big diet and nutrition news has been the news that the FDA has proposed removing the “generally recognized as safe” label from trans-fats. Now, if you’re like me, the first question you might want to ask is “what’s a trans-fat?”

A fat is composed of long carbon-hydrogen chains called fatty acids. A saturated fat has one hydrogen for every possible bond to a carbon; an unsaturated fat has some places where the possible hydrogen bond is replaced by a double-bond between carbon atoms. The terms trans- and its opposite cis- mean “on opposite sides” and “on the same side” respectively, and a trans-fat includes fatty acids that have those carbon-carbon bonds on opposite sides. The effect is that you can have two fats with the same chemical formula, but different geometric structures, like in these pictures cribbed from Wikipedia.

Eleadic acid, a trans-fatty acid.

Eleadic acid, a trans-fatty acid.

Oleic acid, a cis-fatty acid.

Oleic acid, a cis-fatty acid.

In general, the more hydrogenated, or saturated, a fat is, the higher its melting point. Butter, lard, and beef tallow all have lots of saturated fats, so they’re more waxy and solid at room temperatures; most vegetable oils are much less saturated, and so are liquid at room temperature. But around 1900, the French chemist Paul Sabatier discovered that hydrogen could be combined with carbon dioxide through the use of a nickel catalyst, producing methane or methanol; a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann applied the same process to hydrogenate fatty acids to make fats with higher melting points from vegetable oils. This process is the basis for making both margarine and old-fashioned vegetable shortening like Crisco.

It happens that most — although not all — of the less saturated fats from natural sources are in the cis-configuration, but artificially hydrogenated fats have a much higher concentration of the trans-configuration. So, products like margarine have relatively high amounts of trans-fats compared to natural fats.

Okay, so wake up, the chemistry lesson is over. Those of you who are old enough — most of my readers, I think — still get a little bit of a chill at the phrase “saturated fat”. For most of my lifetime, saturated fats were considered to be unhealthy; advertisements for margarine made a big point about how they were “lower in cholesterol” and therefore more “heart healthy”. In the 80′s, the conventional wisdom, pushed by groups like Ralph Nader’s Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPIRGs), was that fats were bad and saturated fats were really really bad.

So manufacturers reacted by replacing more saturated fats with hydrogenated fats that had lots of trans-fats.

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3 Reasons Why Dating is Especially Hard in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013 - by Becky Graebner

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At a recent convening of the “female minds” during a birthday party celebration, I was reminded of the challenges posed by the D.C. dating scene. A fellow friend at this birthday dinner was regaling the group with her predicament: she had to leave the birthday party early for a date.

Normally, this topic is the launching pad for well-wishes, compliments, and giggles. In this case, the poor girl was dreading her impending date. Subsequent conversations with the male in question after agreeing to the date had made her a little wary.  He was cocky and pushy–which made her question if he was interested in anything more than a quick hook-up.  However, she didn’t want to back out of the date 40 minutes before they were supposed to meet up.

We tried to psyche her up. It’s great to meet new people! A night on the town will be fun!

No go. She was all frowns and pessimism as she slid off her stool and collected her coat and purse.

“Why is dating in D.C. so hard?” she asked as she turned for the door.

We all knew from personal experience what she meant, but none of us had an answer…

Washington D.C. is always a nominee for those lists with titles like “worst city for singles” or “worst city for dating.” It’s not surprising, really. Washington, D.C. is not a normal city. Although the representatives of the nation live and work here, The Capital is in a fantasy land of its own, shielded from the real-world by a thick bubble. It makes sense that this removal from reality in the workplace would also translate to the playground. I do know good people who have met, dated, and married people that they met while living in D.C. However, these people seem to be either part of the lucky minority or are D.C.-dating-warriors who persevered after several harrowing attempts.

Here are three reasons why dating in D.C. is particularly difficult:

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13 Weeks: The Hard Boiled Egg Theory

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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People, including a lot of nutritionists and diet doctors, tend to treat people as if they were more or less homogenous all the way through, like a hard boiled egg: some fat on the outside and a metabolism on the inside. So, when they talk about diets and losing weight, they assume that it’s just all stuff going in versus stuff going out of a sort of blob in the middle. This results in the naive picture of weight regulation where the number of kilocalories you eat (measured by burning the food to ash in a calorimeter) goes in, and it’s either burned up or deposited in the egg white as new fat.

Real organisms aren’t that way, of course. When you eat something, there are long chains of complicated processes going on to transform the chicken meat and carrots and noodles in your chicken soup into amino acids, and fatty acids, and various ions in solutions in the bloodstream; a whole bunch (a whole bunch) of free riders are eating the food too, converting it to other forms that they use to breed their own descendants; some of the result of that turns into nutrients in our blood stream, some of it turns into bacteria, and a whole lot of that eventually turns into something I’m far too delicate to mention.

Once it’s in the bloodstream, there are lots of other complicated processes going on. I talked about them a little bit two weeks ago, but it’s worth remembering that sugars cause the body to release insulin, insulin causes adipocytes (fat cells) to store triglycerides, plump adipocytes release leptin, leptin reduces appetite, which means less food and less sugar, which makes the adipocytes release triglycerides, and so on. There is a complicated feedback going on there, and in a lot of people this feedback results in essentially perfect control of body fat and weight.

We tend to forget this, as talk about the “epidemic of obesity” gets around, but the fact that roughly one-third of adults are obese means that roughly two-thirds of adults are not obese. Most of those not-obese people eat the same general diet, live similar lifestyles, go to the same movies, watch TV and drink sugary sodas, and yet they stay more or less skinny.

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Time for Speculation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Salvador-Dali-Soft-Construction-with-Boiled-Beans-Premonition-of-Civil-War-1936

Time travel is a favorite trope of science fiction going back to at least A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Time Machine. It took until the mid-40s for someone to come up with the grandfather paradox, which has been pretty well beaten to death in the years since. (How many times has Star Trek alone used it?)

So I started thinking about time and time travel, primarily to see if I could find a theory that would result in new ideas for a time-travel story. While story ideas were not forthcoming, I did come up with a reasonably interesting idea.

Since Einstein and Minkowski, we’ve become used to thinking of time as the fourth dimension. In normal life, we think about locations basically in terms of three numbers: x, y, z, latitude, longitude, and elevation, Fifth and Broadway on the 14th floor, whatever. But if we want to meet someone at Fifth and broadway on the 14th floor, we have to also tell them what time we’re going to meet, say 1:00 PM. Einstein’s general relativity showed that we have to think about time in general as a fourth dimension for everything, not just dates with the brunette you met on the subway, so we always need x,y,z,t.

Now, imagine we could step back from the universe and look at the whole thing, all at once. Then what we think of as our history becomes a path through the whole four-dimensional universe: Fourth and Broadway on the street at 12:54 PM, Fifth and Broadway on the street at 12:56, in the elevator at 12:58, at the new friends office at 1:00 PM. Physicists call this a world line.

Now, you can also imagine that small changes lead to slightly different world lines: the elevator makes a few extra stops and you’re a minute late, or you took a taxi and you’re a few minutes early but you took a different path. Since we’ve stepped back, with Godlike omniscience we see not only everything that is actually on your world line, but every possible world line — so both of those along with all possible other choices are part of the whole picture, along with every other possible arrangement of the pieces: you took the subway, you walked, a taxi brought you down Broadway from uptown (to the sound of honking and shouting, I think Broadway is one way the other direction). In fact, our omniscient view even includes arrangements that aren’t possible, like the one where you simply levitated, or just disappeared one instant and re-appeared the next, teleporting where you wanted to go.

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The Math-iest Math Joke

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?
A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.

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In Australia, Gold Really Does Grow on Trees!

Friday, October 25th, 2013 - by Sarah Hoyt
of course, no tree looks like this!

of course, no tree looks like this!

According to the New York Post:

You won’t believe it when you read this – scientists have found gold growing on gum trees near Wudinnaon the Eyre Peninsula in Australia.

A team of CSIRO scientists discovered eucalyptus trees near the country town draw up tiny gold “nuggets” from the earth via their root system and then deposit the valuable metal on their leaves, bark and branches.

While scientists have found gold on trees before, it was never actually known how it got there.

CSIRO geochemist Dr. Mel Lintern, lead author of the multi-million dollar project, said the discovery could save mining and gold exploration companies “a lot of money”.

“If they’re able to sample the trees (for gold) in place of drilling, then they’re going to save some money,” he said.

“The other aspect about that of course is sampling the vegetation is more environmentally benign that digging big holes or drilling.”

While the latter comment is undoubtedly true, one can’t help but hope that the powers that be don’t become so fixated on this “environmentally sound” way of mining, that they stop doing the old, hard way altogether.  Gold is needed for many applications, and we have the example of the energy industry seeking after the mirage of “green energy” at the cost of industry and human comfort (and lives of the elderly.)

But the idea of gold on trees is, of course, fascinating. When I was a kid in Portugal, the rumor was one could go to Brazil, sit under the “gold tree” and wait for the gold to fall in one’s lap. (I think this was metaphorical, but as a kid I saw it literally.)

Apparently they were wrong.  For the real gold, you’d have to go to Australia.

****

Photo courtesy Shutterstock, © diez artwork

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Depression, Suffering, and Mindfulness

Sunday, October 20th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
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One of the cool things about writing these columns is that I’m always learning something new. Sometimes it’s reading new things — I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhist yogacara recently — sometimes it’s that I find new ideas as a result of trying to explain something in a column, and sometimes, like today, it’s that I’ve run into something I’d never seen before.

Regular readers know that I’ve suffered for most of my life from depression. In fact, “double depression”, chronic dysthymia with occasional acute episodes of depression. Chronic dysthymia is basically chronic low-level depression, what Shirley Maclaine is talking about in Steel Magnolias when she says “I”m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years!”

One of the characteristics of depression is obsessive thoughts: you find yourself obsessively thinking that there’s no hope, that you have failed and will always fail, that you’re unworthy of happiness, worthless, and a burden to yourself, your friends, and your family. For me, one of the striking things about antidepressants, especially Prozac, fluoxetine, the one that has worked best for me, is that my thinking about these things became clearer. I was more able to recognize when I was really unhappy above something, and when it was just depression “thinking me” that way.

So, as I’ve written about suffering and the end of suffering in the last couple of weeks, I’ve realized that there’s a sort of obsessiveness there too. Sitting zazen, meditating, gives you a look at your mental processes. You get yourself settled, you start watching your breath or counting or repeating a mantra, and you find yourself dragged away by other thoughts. You catch yourself dwelling on those thoughts, anticipating or remembering pleasures, worrying about things to come or remembering with embarrassment things that have happened, fantasizing about what you should have said, or what you are going to say.

Those are all examples of the roots of suffering: trishna, “thirst” or “desire”, for pleasant things, desire to avoid unpleasant things, desire to make or control things or simply be something else. I, for example, want to be a dragon.

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A Year of 13 Weeks

Saturday, October 19th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Today is 19 October. Yeah, I know, you can see it at the top of the article, but that’s an important date, because it’s now exactly a year since I determined I had to take some actions about my weight and glucose. (I came out about it in my first 13 Weeks post, “A Fat Nerd Does Diet,” on 28 October last year.)

The results overall have been good. I had several different issues when I started.

  • I weighed 301.5 on the 19th.
  • My A1c was 7.5. Although I struggled with admitting it, that’s real no-kidding diabetes mellitus. For me it appears to be type 2, (T2DM) characterized by lowered sensitivity to insulin. That was on a pretty much maximum dose of metformin, 2500 mg/day; if I were depending on drug treatment alone, I was heading for insulin.
  • I had a long-term problem with gastric reflux (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); I was on omeprazole every day and had been since a severe esophageal spasm and put me into the ER with chest pain two years before.
  • My total lipids were reasonable on 20mg/day of simvastatin but my high-density lipoproteins (HDL) were low, and my low-density (LDL) were high.
  • I also had a long-term problem with depression, although I hadn’t had a really acute episode in some years.

Now, a year later:

  • I’m down nearly 40 pounds; my recent low was 264.
  • My A1c is been between 5.9 and 6.4. The T2DM appears to be under control. I’m down to 1000 mg/day of metformin, and did a long stretch at 500 mg/day.
  • My lipids are enough better that I’m off statins, at least for this 13 week period.
  • The IBS no longer troubles me — I can’t say it’s completely resolved because, frankly, how would I know? But I haven’t had a painful episode in certainly almost a year. The GERD is also considerably better, and I’m slowly weaning myself off the omeprazole.
  • I think I can say the depression is significantly better. I haven’t had an acute episode this year, but then I hadn’t had a really acute episode in some years. But I had also been chronically dysthymic, which in combination with acute depression is called “double depression.” I really feel like that’s significantly better. I plan to write more about depression in the coming months; there are interesting suggestions that there may be some physiology that connects depression, obesity, and T2DM.

What did I do?

  • I’ve adopted a consistently low-carb, high-fat diet. I’ve played around with variants, and right now I’m around 50g carbs a day, with most of the carbs coming from fruits and yoghurt.
  • I’ve nearly completely eliminated wheat. Occasionally eating wheat seems to result in immediate exacerbation of the GERD and possibly of the IBS.
  • I’ve experimented with high-intensity interval training and high-intensity strength training, although I’ve had trouble making that a consistent practice.
  • I recently tried a broad-spectrum probiotic, which seems to have had very good effects.
  • I’ve largely structured these changes into a series of 13 week long experiments, which appears to be a sufficiently powerful model that a number of other people have adopted it for their own changes.

What have I learned in this year? It’s complicated.

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Infinity: Big and Bigger

Thursday, October 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Georg_Cantor3

On the Internet, you can never go wrong by quoting the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

Now, it’s kind of a cheat, because i’m not going to talk about that kind of space, I’m going to talk about spaces in a mathematical sense. But I’m offering something in exchange, because I’m going to talk about spaces that are much bigger than mere physical space.

The point of this is really to talk about (echo effect) infinity. And beyond.

Mathematically, space is much simpler than the thing in which your coffee cup is located just out of reach and that keeps your cat from being exactly where you’re sitting, no matter how much he tries. In mathematics, a space is simply a set of some sort with some kind of additional structure. (A set is just some collection of things with no duplicates, like {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}. By convention, we put sets into braces like that example.)

So far, that’s not a space — we haven’t said anything further about it than there is a bag full of things. But — since I’ve chosen a set we conveniently already know a lot about — we know that the set is ordered because we agree that 5 is bigger than 4. And we have a space.

Okay, it’s a pretty boring space, but it’s a space.

There are some other rules we think we know, like addition — 1+2=3. But in our little space, we immediately run into trouble, because 3+4 equals what? Oh, 7, but 7 isn’t in the set. To take care of 3+4, we need to expand the set to be at least {1,2,3,4,5,6,7} and then we’re immediately going to have the problem of 4+5, or for that matter, 7+1.

Now, with nothing more than the idea of addition (we talked about ordering, but we can define an order in terms of addition) we’ve run into our first experience with infinity. There is a set N that we can define like this:

  • 0 is part of N
  • For anything that is part of N, which we’ll call n, n+1 is also in N.

We call N the natural numbers.

Now, N is pretty big. After all, no matter what n we pick, there’s always something bigger. This is what we call infinite. And all is well, until we think about subtraction: we know 3-1=2, and we know 2-1=1, and we know 1-1=0, but 0-1 isn’t in our set. So we define a new set called the integers which has new elements -1, -2, -3, and so on. We can throw in multiplication now, and all is good, but when we put in division we’re in trouble again: 2÷3 and 1÷2 aren’t in there. So we define another set called the rational numbers, Q.

Now, we’ve pretty much defined all the numbers anyone had any use for until the Greeks and Egyptians screwed it all up by trying to measure fields and distances.

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Clown Car Web Design

Thursday, October 10th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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A Programming Sutra

This is the way I heard it. (That’s the way all sutras start.) Long long ago — about 1997 and I’m not naming names to protect the innocent and because I figure the statute of limitations is up for the guilty, and the company I’m going to talk about has been through bankruptcy and several acquisitions so it’s not the same company anyway — a major toy retailer ToysForKids (TFK) with stores in malls all over America heard about this nifty new thing called “the web.” As I heard the story, two programmers in IT had the idea that TFK should be selling toys on the internet. They got permission to do a sort of side project, semi-bootleg, to build a demonstration e-commerce web site, ToysForKids.com. (By the way, that domain name is now owned by a domain-squatter in Hong Kong called “iGenesis Limited”, but then ToysForKids never existed anyway.)

They built the web site on a desktop server using a scripting language called tcl, and demonstrated it. It looked so good they got permission to take it live, and they happily started making dozens of sales a day with it. It really was a lovely site, too, won lots of awards.

The CIO was so pleased that he arranged a demo for the CEO. The CEO was so pleased that he arranged a big advertising buy for Thanksgiving Day during the football game — as I recall, $50 million — so that everyone would know about the new ToysForKids.com.

Everyone did. And everyone’s mom, wife, and girlfriend that had a computer went and tried to start their Christmas Shopping sometime in the first quarter.

Now, remember this is 15 years ago. The desktop server they were using wouldn’t make a good iPad now, and the Internet connection, while good for the time, had less capacity than Comcast promises me.

And everyone who was bored with football and had computer access was trying to use it. The site pretty much melted down; it wasn’t long before the programmers had found different jobs, the CIO wanted to spend more time with his family, and the CEO, um, retired.

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13 Weeks: Bugs and More Bugs

Saturday, October 5th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
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As I wrote last week, I started using probiotics, along with fruit juice, whole fruit, and yogurt, on a vague intuition based on some reports that probiotics might improve my blood sugar, and somewhat better intuition that it might improve some other, er, passing problems.

So I’m just finishing my second jar of the 5-day probiotics (which lasts me about 7 days) and the results are that:

  • I’m down to 264, which is now a couple of standard deviations below where I was stuck for so long (and getting close to 40 pounds off my starting weight);
  • my morning fasting blood sugar has ranged from 95 to 117 with the average about 105, which is also a couple standard deviations down from what it had been.

Several people have also emailed me at ask.charlie.martin@gmail.com or commented on that last piece to tell me their experiences, and they’ve seen similar (or greater) improvements in blood sugar and comparable weight loss.

So, with n equal to about 5, there’s some success to report, and lots more questions to ask.

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Cocktail Napkin Website Planning and Obamacare

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Just for variety, today’s science column is about something I actually have some professional qualifications to write about.

Drinking-from-a-Hose

No, that really hasn’t ever slowed me down, I just wanted to note it.

In fact, my master’s thesis, “A Software Performance Engineering Environment,” was about tools to allow software engineers to develop performance models of software alongside the software. I spent some years in IBM and Sun’s consulting practices, usually dealing in one way or another with web-based businesses. I had a very popular talk, “Capacity Planning on a Cocktail Napkin,” which I later wrote as an article for SmartBear Software.

There really is only one explanation for the meltdown of the Obamacare exchanges since 1 October, and that’s utter incompetence.

Now, lemme ‘splain.

Back in the old days, at the Very Beginning Of The Web, all a web server could do was deliver a static piece of text. It was a brilliant hack by Tim Berners-Lee, who realized that he could build a little editor for a simple markup language and add one little change — a special tag that could address another page of text in the same markup language. To make it work, he needed a program that could return those files and a simple way the editor could ask for the files it wanted. The markup language was a subset of a commonly available commercial standard, SGML, called the Hyper Text Markup Language, HTML, the server program using a very simple text-based protocol called the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, HTTP, and the rest, as they say was ….

Yes, class, that’s right, “history.”

From this simple hack the whole World Wide Web was made.

Now, with the same foresight that led me to buy Borland stock over Microsoft when they both went public, I thought at the time that it was a mildly amusing notion, but I didn’t see much future in it. I was head-down in category theory working on my dissertation.

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13 Weeks: I Got Bugs!

Saturday, September 28th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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(Follow my 13 Week experiments in diet and health here at PJ Lifestyle, or at the 13 Weeks Facebook Group. Send any questions to ask.charlie.martin AT gmail.com.)

One of the interesting research areas recently has been a number of reports that obesity, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and more serious problems like various kinds of inflammatory bowel disease all seem to associate with differences in the population of the bugs in your gut.

Long-time readers of this column may notice that list is not unlike what I’ve been troubled with since I started it a year ago.

While I’m not quite ready to look for a skinny donor for a fecal transplant (eewwwww), I’d still been rather frustrated with the continuing weight plateau and difficulty lowering my blood sugar, even after raising the metformin dose.

I was also suffering from what I’d have to say was the worst constipation I’d ever had. (I know, TMI, but this is significant.) Let’s just say that for the first time since I swallowed a big wad of chewing gum when I was 4, I learned to appreciate “Fleet” as a brand name.

So I was walking through one of the local sprouthead stores. (Alfalfa’s, which through a complicated series of maneuvers was taken over by Wild Oats, which was acquired by Whole Foods, which had to spin off some stores, which were then re-acquired by the original owners of Alfalfas and renamed Alfalfa’s. Boulder is the Peyton Place of hipster grocery stores.)

My doc had already talked to me about probiotics for my digestion issues, and on her recommendation I’d gotten Arbonne Essentials Digestion Plus, but hadn’t started with it yet.

So there I was in Alfalfa’s, and I decided to look at the probiotics there.

There are a lot of probiotics there. Hell, there’s a whole refrigerator case full of probiotics. They have more varieties of probiotics than most grocery stores have kinds of yogurt. It’s a little intimidating, plus (damned cataracts) I can’t really read the fine print, so I find something by the heuristic of “if it has more kinds of bugs, it must be better,” and buy it. It’s called Garden of Life Raw Probiotics 5-Day Max Care and it says it has 400 Billion something and 34 live strains. It says something about taking it with juice, so I buy some 400ml mixed orange and mango juice bottles, plus a cranberry juice and an apple juice. It also says take it with yogurt, so I buy some greek yogurt, full-fat (which is harder to find than you might imagine) and live cultures, and I buy some apples.

Yeah, I know, where’s the low glycemic load thing? Bear with me.

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Why Are Science and Politics So Hard?

Thursday, September 26th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Climate change, the effects of the Affordable Care Act, environmental hazards of fracking, the effects of widespread gun ownership on crime — all of these are questions that should be answerable by science or mathematics. Somehow, though, they never seem to be.

Of course, the political left has had an explanation for this: conservatives are not grounded in reality like liberals are. Chris Mooney has made rather an industry out of this, with his books The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality, and of course the political left has tried for a long time to label themselves as “the reality-based community.” Recently, Salon reprinted an article by Marty Kaplan, originally published in Alternet, that is in turn based on an article by Chris Mooney in Grist, which was in turn based on a paper “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” posted on SSRN by Dan M. Kahan and others.

Here’s how Kaplan summarizes it:

[S]ay goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

Kaplan then goes on to summarize two papers by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. I’m just going to quote a couple of his summary paragraphs.

  • People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.
  • People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs.  They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same.  Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.

Now, here’s the interesting thing about these: in both cases, the “right” answer can be confirmed to be factually incorrect.

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Buddha in the Laboratory

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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If you want some admittedly esoteric fun, there’s probably no better way than to get a bunch of Buddhists talking about one of my favorite quotes from the Buddha. It’s usually stated as:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

Now, this one gets a whole post on the blog Fake Buddha Quotes run by a monk named Bodhipaksa. I’m certainly not one to shy away from a little pedantic quibbling about translations, and I certainly don’t want to spoil the fun of trying to effectively translate Pali into English and arguing over the details, but in this case I think that while it might be an imperfect translation, it is a “skillful” translation.

It helps to refer again to the basics of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. So, for convenience and because it’s my column by golly, let’s hit them once more.

  1. Our lives are filled with unsatisfactory unpleasant annoying and generally uncomfortable feelings — “suffering” (Duhkha).
  2. Those feelings arise from clinging: first, clinging to pleasant experiences; second, the desire to make things what they are not; and third clinging to the attempt to push away unpleasant experiences. (Samudaya)
  3. Those unpleasant feelings can be overcome by learning not to do the things that lead to unpleasant feelings. (Nirodha)
  4. You can learn not to cling by following the suggestions of the Noble Eightfold Path.(Aryastangamarga).

Things that lead you to not cling, and thereby to reduce suffering, are called “skillful”, so the whole collection is called “skillful means”. Oh, and skillful means aren’t limited to the Eightfold Path; anything that leads to reducing clinging and thereby reducing suffering is skillful.

So what’s the fuss about? The “fake Buddha quote” is usually linked to the Kalama Sutra (that link is to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, which is brilliant, but that isn’t going to stop me from paraphrasing it).

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13 Weeks: I Am a Diabetic

Saturday, September 21st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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A good friend of mine had a heart attack the other day. She did everything right — went to the ER right away when she had the first mild angina, she’d been taking care of herself with exercise and controlling her weight. In other words, pretty much the opposite of what my mother did two years ago.

It turned out to be mild, and she was given a stent and is rehabbing now. There were, however, two things that very possibly contributed: her blood sugar was elevated into “pre-diabetic” ranges and had been for years, and her blood lipids, cholesterol and the like, were pretty elevated.

So, now as well as doing the cardiac rehab routine of mild exercise, she’s starting to manage her blood sugar, and she’s on a statin drug for the lipids.

So we were talking about it this morning and she said something that struck a chord.

I bet you will identify with how much I cringe at the word diabetic. It is so associated with not taking care of yourself because of the media.

That really struck me, because I have noticed the same thing: I’ve found it very difficult to come out and say “I am a diabetic.”

Movies and fiction about people who recover from alcoholism pr drugs usually have this dramatic, climactic scene where, after hitting bottom in some dramatic and more or less disgusting way, the main character has the “moment of clarity” and stands up in a meeting and says “I am an alcoholic.” (Two great examples, by the way, are an under-appreciated Michael Keaton film Clean and Sober, and the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block.) It’s an important moment in recovery because it marks the point at which you are — at the risk of sounding like I live in Boulder — taking ownership of the problem. Your wife isn’t driving you to drink, if it’s genetic it’s still your problem, and however you got there, that’s where you are now and you have to deal with it.

It’s also really hard to say because of the social stigma: socially, we see drunks as morally flawed. Same thing with obesity, with depression, and with drug addiction. Theodore Dalrymple has an instructive, if in my opinion mistaken, piece on this in PJM, where he questions whether we’d think of having “Arthritics Anonymous” where someone stands up and says “I am arthritic.”

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The Sky Is Falling… Eventually!

Saturday, September 21st, 2013 - by Chris Queen

End of the world

We see warnings of the apocalypse everywhere. Maybe it’s an old man wearing a sandwich board that reads, “THE END IS NEAR.” Or perhaps we hear the yearly news report about some asteroid that just might come too close to earth for comfort. Or possibly we’ve received another message from Harold Camping warning us of Christ’s return. Either way, somebody somewhere wagers a guess as to when the world will end just about every day.

Well, now we need no longer fear, because scientists have now determined the date for the end of the world – and it’s a long way off.

The end of the world is no longer just some far-off notion; the event now has a date. New research shows how much time it will take for the Earth to basically dry up and no longer be able to support human life.

And as long as whatever is on your bucket list won’t take longer than 1.75 billion years, there’s not really anything for this generation or the next couple million generations to worry about.

That’s about how long researchers at the University of East Anglia predict will take the Earth to end up outside of the habitable zone. “These zones are defined by water. In the habitable zone, a planet is just the right distance from its star to have liquid water. Closer to the sun, in the ‘hot zone,’ the Earth’s oceans would evaporate.”

Yes, you read that right. It’s from the University of East Anglia, and those folks got it right about the whole global warming thing, didn’t they? Not only do they have a timeline figured out, they know how it’s going to happen.

The Earth won’t move, but it’s actually the sun we have to keep an eye on (not literally). As it gets older, the star is continuously growing hotter, brighter and bigger at about a 10th of an astronomical unit every billion years.

But if it helps you feel any better, all won’t be lost like that. It will actually be a very slow process as the Earth dries up and completely runs out of water reserves.

But according to the researchers, there’s still the chance our planet won’t make it that far — you know, with all the other likely doomsday scenarios, like a meteor strike, nuclear war, crazed robots, superinfections, aliens, black holes and, of course, zombies.

I can’t help but wonder what the preppers will do with this information. As for me, I’ll just stick with Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36 that “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It’s better not to know than to worry for the next billion years or so.

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Drugs and the Shooter

Friday, September 20th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Whenever something awful happens, there’s an impulse to look for something that might have caused it, something we could have done, some way to control things so it wouldn’t have happened. There’s a technical Buddhist term for this, bhavatrishna, and I’ll probably write more about it in my Buddhism column on Sunday, but what’s important now is that it happens regularly.

Many times, this shows up in the form of conspiracy theories: rather than feeling essentially helpless, people develop complicated stories of conspiracies to explain things; whether it’s the Mafia, the CIA, NSA, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, the Federal Reserve, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Communists, the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the Jews, the Moslems, the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, or shape-changing reptile people. At least if there’s a conspiracy, then someone has control.

So this time, we’ve got the Navy Yard gunman — you’ll forgive me if I don’t bother to name him — and, of course, people are looking for easy explanations. From the left, we’ve got the usual one of blaming it on the AR-15 he used (which was never there); from the right, in particular Infowars and that consummate ass Alex Jones, we’ve got the assertion that it was psychiatric medications — which it appears were also never there. According to several stories, yesterday and today, the gunman complained of insomnia and was given a sleeping pill that happens to be an ineffective antidepressant.

So, just like the Navy, guns, or Buddhism, it wasn’t psychiatric drugs. In fact, according to the reports:

Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis had sought treatment for insomnia in the emergency rooms of two Veterans Affairs hospitals in the past month, but he told doctors he was not depressed and was not thinking of harming others, federal officials said Wednesday.

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