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Al Gore vs. Wallace Stevens

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 - by Roger Kimball

This morning, I walked out our front door and across the street to take a picture:

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It reminded me of something Al Gore said a few years back: “the world is changing in such dramatic ways right in front of our eyes because of global warming.”

Then I thought of something Wallace Stevens said:

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

I think I’ll stick with Stevens.

*****

Cross-posted from Roger’s Rules

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Taking Yogi Berra’s Advice

Friday, January 24th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

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Let’s take a road trip. We’re going to visit all the capitals of all the 48 contiguous states, starting from Denver.

Now, since we’re taking vacation days to do this, we don’t want to visit any capital more than once, and we want to do this in the least time, or in the shortest distance traveled, which is pretty much the same thing.

Starting from Denver, if we only want to visit one other state capital, planning the trip is easy. Denver to Cheyenne. Boom. Two capitals is easy — you can either go Denver to Cheyenne to Topeka, or Denver to Topeka to Cheyenne. Add in Santa Fe, well, there are several routes. Ignoring, for the sake of keeping my readers awake, some details, basically as we expand the number of cities, we have to explore every possible ordering of the cities. So if we stay in Denver, visiting exactly one capital, we have exactly one route. Visit one other city, we have two choices of trip plan — Denver Cheyenne Denver, or Cheyenne Denver Cheyenne. Visit two other cities — so three cities total — and there are six choices. (Remember this includes trips where someone wants to start and end in Santa Fe or, Gods forbid, Topeka.) So, no other cities, you have 1 choice. One other city, you still only have 2 choices. Two other cities, you have six route choices.

Three other cities? Well, you can use all the routes for two other cities, and go to the new city from each of them. So you multiply the number of routes you’ve already got by the total number of cities. In other words, if we have n cities, we want n × n-1×n-2 … 1.

Many of you already recognize this as n! — “n factorial” — which is an important idea in a lot of different areas of math.

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Should You Vaccinate Your Children?

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 - by Theodore Dalrymple

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There is no subject that provokes conspiracy theories quite like the immunization of children. That innocent, healthy creatures should have alien substances forcibly introduced into their bodies seems unnatural and almost cruel. As one internet blogger put it:

Don’t take your baby to get a shot, how do you know if they tell the truth when giving the baby the shot, I wouldn’t know because all vaccines are clear and who knows what crap is in that needle.

The most common conspiracy theory at the moment is that children are being poisoned with vaccines to boost the profits of the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines. No doubt such companies sometimes get up to no good, as do all organizations staffed by human beings, but that is not also to assert that they never get up to any good.

A relatively new vaccine is that against rotavirus, the virus that is the largest single cause of diarrhea in children. In poor countries this is a cause of death; in richer countries it is a leading cause of visits to the hospital but the cause of relatively few deaths.

Since rotavirus immunization of infants was introduced in the United States, hospital visits and admissions have declined by four fifths among the immunized. However, evidence of benefit is not the same as evidence of harmlessness, and one has the distinct impression that opponents of immunization on general, quasi-philosophical grounds, almost hope that proof of harmfulness will emerge.

A study published in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine examined the question of one possible harmful side-effect of immunization against rotavirus, namely intestinal intussusception, a condition in which a part of the intestine telescopes into an adjacent part, and which can lead to fatal bowel necrosis if untreated.

The authors compared the rate of intussusception among infants immunized with two types of vaccine between 2008 and 2013 with that among infants from 2001 to 2005, before the vaccine was used. There is always the possibility that rates of intussusception might have changed spontaneously, with or without the vaccine, but the authors think that this is slight: certainly there is no reason to think it.

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New Photos of Challenger Disaster Emerge

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Twenty-eight years ago next week, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded a little more than a minute after launch. I’ll never forget that day. I was in 7th grade, and we were out of school because of an extreme cold snap. The Teacher in Space program which put Christa McAuliffe made this launch special. As the day unfolded, we recorded news reports and tributes on the VCR, and my parents still have the tape even though they threw their VCR out years ago. For my generation, the Challenger disaster held the same sort of legendary status as the Kennedy assassination did for my parents – at least until 9/11.

As we get ready to mark another anniversary, new photos of the disaster have emerged from an unlikely source.

Last week, Michael Hindes of West Springfield, Mass., made a timely discovery:  Twenty-six previously misplaced photos of the disaster. To his knowledge, the photos had never been published before this past Tuesday.

While searching through the belongings of his grandmother, who had recently passed away, Hindes was looking for photos to display during the memorial service. Lo and behold, an amazing find. “I just happened to get the box with the Challenger pictures at the bottom, which was kind of special for me because I am the biggest NASA fan in the family,” Hindes wrote in the Reddit post where he first displayed the photos.

“As I [went] through them, I’m watching the shuttle go up and up and up,” he told KTAR. “Then I see that iconic cloud.” Hindes said his heart sank when he realized what the photos depicted.

Hindes’ asked his grandfather, who had worked as NASA electrician, about the photos. His grandfather explained that another electrician, one of his coworkers, had taken them and given him a set. Unfortunately, in the three decades that have past, the photographer’s name is, sadly, lost to history.

Honestly, the photos don’t reveal anything more that the hundreds we’ve seen since the day of the explosion, but the sequence shows the explosion unfolding in real time. Hindes has reached out to NASA offering to donate the photos, but he has not heard back from them. You can see the gallery in a slideshow on weather.com.

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13 Weeks: Diets and Black Swans

Saturday, January 11th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan introduced an old term and then, annoyingly, redefined it. For Sir Karl Popper, the black swan was an observation about logical quantification: if you assert “all swans are white” then the observation of a single black swan falsifies the assertion.

Taleb’s observation is different, although related: he’s observing that really unexpected events are unexpected: we have a model of the world that says “The US mainland is secure from attack” that seems perfectly plausible on 10 September 2001; we believe “Islamist terrorism is on the run” and then a bomb blows up in Boston.

(There’s a more sophisticated way to deal with all of these called Bayesian inference. We’ll leave the details for a science column, but in a few words, a Bayesian starts with an assumed a priori estimate of the probability of an event. After observation, they have a new a postieriori estimate that incorporates new experience.)

But there’s yet a third way to think about these that shows us how mathematics and probability can show us surprising things.

(Yes, this is a diet and exercise column, just a little further down.)

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Is Phone Sex a Sign of Conscious Thought?

Thursday, January 9th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

The new movie Her is just one of many in which a mechanical or electronic construct becomes a character in a human’s story. HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Commander Data, HARLIE, the robots of Lost in Space and Forbidden Planet, Asimov’s robots, and a hundred less-memorable movies and TV shows.

Okay, maybe Julie Newmar was memorable, but for other reasons.

Her carries it on a little further, when the main character falls in love with the personality that serves as the front end for a new operating system. They eventually consummate their love in what is supposed to be a rather steamy, and apparently mutually satisfying, episode of what’s a whole new meaning of “phone sex.” (I say “supposed to be” because I haven’t seen the movie yet; in any case, this isn’t a review of the movie.)

So here’s a question for you: when Samantha, the operating system’s personality, has an orgasm, is it real or is she faking it?

Expressed a little more generally, Alan Turing started asking the same questions in 1950 in his famous paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which begins with:

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

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NYT Columnist Charles Blow Embarrassed and Sad about the 33% Who Reject Evolution

Sunday, January 5th, 2014 - by Paula Bolyard

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Charles Blow over at the New York Times editorial page has his knickers all in a twist over a new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project that found many Americans still reject the atheistic view of evolution. Blow called the results of the survey “sad” and said “it’s embarrassing.” The December 30th survey found that  ”six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

Rejecting out of hand the notion that 33% of Americans might actually be able to think for themselves, Blow resurrects the vast right-wing conspiracy to account for the fact that Americans still reject evolution, despite the fact that virtually every public school child and every student attending college is taught as fact that they evolved from a common ancestor and that life on earth came about as a result of some sort of “highly energetic chemistry” that produced a self-replicating molecule rather than by the design of an intelligent Creator. Blow says,

But I believe that something else is also at play here, something more cynical. I believe this is a natural result of a long-running ploy by Republican party leaders to play on the most base convictions of conservative voters in order to solidify their support. Convince people that they’re fighting a religious war for religious freedom, a war in which passion and devotion are one’s weapons against doubt and confusion, and you make loyal soldiers.

So it’s those scheming Republicans who are to blame for this embarrassing display of ignorance, as Blow sees it. Probably Karl Rove, too. And the Koch brothers along with George Bush.

Charles Blow calls the views of a third of Americans — the 33% —  ”extreme religiosity” and “a form of dysfunction” and then turns around and mocks those who claim there is hostility toward religion in this country. He writes,  ”This is a tactic to keep the Republican rank-and-file riled up.”

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Can Scientists Create a Cure for Pain From Scorpions, Spiders, and Centipedes?

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013 - by Theodore Dalrymple

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Scientists are often portrayed as archetypally rational men, mere calculating machines in human form who propose correct new theories by infallible deduction from what is already known. Science cannot possibly advance in this way, however, and the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out long ago that leaps of the imagination are as necessary to science as they were to art

I have never been able to make such leaps myself, which is why I admire them in others. I remember meeting a researcher into malaria who was trying to produce a vaccine, not against the malarial parasite itself, but against the stomach lining of the mosquitoes that carried the parasite. He hoped that such a vaccine would kill the mosquitoes – causing them to explode in mid-flight, perhaps – and thus prevent the spread of the disease. The idea did not work, but I was impressed by the boldness of the conception.

For the scientist no information is too obscure to be of potential use. And what information could be more obscure than that the desert-dwelling grasshopper mouse that likes eating the bark scorpion, whose sting causes severe pain in all other possible predators and makes them avoid it? Most of us, I think, would say, “All very interesting, professor, but so what?” The scientist, however, asks why the grasshopper mouse is immune to the painful effects of the scorpion venom, and whether, on discovering the reason, it might not help in the development of new analgesics. Mankind has long believed that remedies for its afflictions are to be found in Nature, but only scientists can go about systematically investigating the possibilities. Imagination is a necessary but not sufficient quality for scientific research.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, in a long-running series that tries to connect basic scientific research with clinical progress, draws attention to research on the grasshopper mouse. The article is provocatively entitled Darwin 1, Pharma 0, thereby drawing our attention to the fact that millions of years of natural selection have done for the grasshopper mouse what a century of research by pharmaceutical companies has not been able to do for Man. The comparison seems neither apt nor fair, but any stick these days is good enough to beat Big Pharma with.

The grasshopper mouse, it seems, has a mutant gene that prevents a component in the scorpion venom from activating the peripheral nerve cells involved in the transmission of pain. Could human pain be alleviated or even abolished if a compound were found that acts on the mechanism that the normal version of the gene, present in all other mammal genomes, controls?

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Why Is It So Difficult to Translate Genetic Breakthroughs into Clinical Benefits?

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013 - by Theodore Dalrymple

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The enormous, even exponential, advance in the understanding of human genetics over the past three decades has so far yielded much less improvement in clinical results than was once hoped. It has proved more difficult than anticipated to translate biological knowledge into clinical benefit.

This is not, of course, to say that there have been no benefits at all from the advances in genetic understanding, particularly in such fields as prenatal counselling. Another superficially promising field is that of pharmacogenetics, that is to say the prediction of responses to medicaments according to the patients’ genetic type. This is very important, for hitherto it has proved difficult to predict whether a patient will respond positively or negatively to a given treatment, and whether he or she needs a higher or a lower dose to produce a desired effect.

The latter is particularly important in the case of treatment with anticoagulants (blood-thinners) because a therapeutic dose is usually so close to a dangerous dose. If we could predict who needs what dose rather than, as at present, proceed essentially by trial and error, it would be of great advantage to patients who need anticoagulation.  They would receive the benefit of anticoagulation – fewer heart attacks and strokes – without the risks of complications such as cerebral and other bleeds.

Three trials of attempts to tailor doses of anticoagulants according to the patients’ genetic type have been published in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors compared prescription of anticoagulants by the normal methods with determination by genetic type. The results of the three trials were contradictory.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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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