Monday, August 31, 2009

The Prehistoric Human Diet and the Modern American Diet and Well ... My Diet

Richard Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthorpology at Harvard says that the invention of cooking enabled pre-humans to grow their large brain and gave rise to  our ancestor Homo erectus. Homo erectus and Homo habilis were meat-eaters unlike previous ancestors -- made possible by cooking and other food processing.

Apparently, modern chimps can eat meat, but they need to spend so much time chewing it that the caloric benefit is small. Cooking the food is far more efficient.   

H. habilis may not have cooked food, but spent time pounding it and making it easier to digest. This allowed them to digest it better. Pounding tools are common in H. habilis sites.

To support this view,  he says that humans have small teeth, a small mouth and a short digestive tract made possible by eating primarily cooked food. He further claims that cooked food allows greater absorption of calories and therefore allowed people to support their giant brain.

There is an interesting interview on NPR's site. Here he talks about the well-known evolutionary adaptation of cattle raising peoples to metabolise lactose in adulthood.

He pointed out that acrylamide, which is found in cooked foods including french fries, causes cancer in rats, but has not been shown to cause cancer in people -- suggesting an (unproven) resistance in people to acrylamide-caused disease. This might show that people are evolutionarily adapted to eating cooked food. [Not everyone believes this.]

Today the Raw Food Movement, justifies itself as a return to pre-modern diets, but actually the human diet has been cooked for a while -- 1.8 million years actually.

Vegetarians should also contemplate how natural a vegetable-only diet is. One cannot argue that this is part of some utopian past. One can make the case that meat and milk are literally in our genes. In fairness, vegetarians can point to some positive health studies, and that it is possible in the modern agricultural age that the benefits of cooked foods are not as great as before. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Only Eat Freshest Sushi from a Chef You Trust, Right?

Yesterday, DW Jenny brought home supermarket sushi. The first time I had raw fish sushi, the cognoscente said, "Always eat it at a Japanese restaurant from a chef you trust." Later I was lucky enough to go to a sushi bar in Japan and my Japanese host explained how it is so important to have the freshest fish so that you don't get sick.

Seven or eight years ago, when I saw sushi the first time at the discount supermarket, I thought "I am going to stay a million miles away from that". So yesterday, when I ate some supermarket sushi I was worried.

When I looked up sushi safety, it turns out the facts are surprisingly different.

Sushi Facts, Strange but True

1. There is more bacteria in restaurant raw fish sushi than in factory-made sushi. Home-made sushi is worst of all.

2. Bacteria is not the real health risk, its fish parasites. [This link is even more gross.]

3. Frozen fish is healthier than fresh fish because freezing kills most fish parasites. In most states sushi fish must be frozen before serving for this reason. Sushi chefs say that does not affect texture that much.

4. It is too complicated to keep track of the safest kind of sushi salmon -- best not to eat raw salmon. Supposedly, the Japanese use smoked salmon only.

5. Sushi-grade fish is better than regular fish.

6. Never eat raw fish sushi from fresh water fish or from a fish you never heard of. Never eat raw rockfish.

7. Raw tuna is a good choice. I know tuna is loaded with mercury, but the portion size in sushi is vanishly small.

The bottom line is that I like sushi and sashimi, and I am going to continue eating them. I probably will watch the varieties of fish more closely.

The supermarket sushi we bought at Kroger in Brownstown were pretty good. The simpler, less expensive roll was very good, and the fancy variety was average. I don't want to think about side effects. If I get sick today, I'm going to blame it on my picnic lunch.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Obama Roll: Change has Come to Sushi

Our local sushi place, Black Pine Tree, has a new sushi roll, called the Obama roll. Their roll is nothing like the one I found from Japan, made by Ken Kawasami. "Change has come to sushi."
This Japanese post shows how the roll was made.
I'll have a post on sushi safety for tomorrow.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aren't You Tired of Tributes to Edward Kennedy?

I was tired of Edward Kennedy bios and interviews with seemingly everyone who ever knew him.

I think he was a great guy, but I think I know all I need to know about him.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Leading Indicators Up!!

It made me happy to see such unabashedly positive economic news for a change.

This is an average of twelve economic measures that historically predict what the economy is going to do. The individual metrics are some positive, some negative.

Plus, check out the flash animation of the figure at You need to see how the little bars fan into position, and then bounce to their correct value. It is -- well -- flashy.

Why does this matter? Lots of reasons, including that I own a house in metro Detroit.

This is from the private economic consultatnts IHS Global Insight, who presumably was paid by USA Today for the forecast. The more widely accepted leading indicator is from the non-profit Conference Board. Their Aug 20 indexes are at right.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Got the Water Heater Blues

I've got the water heater blues.

I was surprised to learn when I arrived home tonight that the water heater had been out all day.

I am always in a bad mood when I have a car or appliance repair to deal with -- really grouchy.

This is a fancy electronic water heater, and the electronic controller is confused. It is seven years old, an AOSmith FPSH-75. The controller keeps lighting the burner then turning it off. It does that several times, then shuts off. Oh, and a little light blinks an error code: "General Controller Failure."

The internet says to clean my flame sensor, which I did but that did not help.

My neighbor who is in the trades recommended a heating/cooling guy to fix it, but the guy did not answer tonight.

It will be a shower at the Y in the morning.

More on water-heater blues tomorrow. If tomorrow's post is on buying a new hot waterheater, you will know how it turned out.

Epilogue: I called Flo-Aire Heating and Cooling here in Southgate, and they fixed it on the same day. The problem was the flame sensor as I thought. $435.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Independent Gas Supplier IGS Energy

I got a mailing from IGS Energy. I am sure hundreds of thousands of other people in Michigan did too.

If you punch IGS Energy into Google, you can find stories of IGS horrors. Like this. This. And this in nearby Ann Arbor. So I wondered whether this is a scam.

IGS offers a way to buy natural gas at a fixed price all season. If I stay with my utility, the gas price may go up or down -- IGS offers an insurance policy, and a chance to escape the utility monopoly in my town.

I wanted to crumple the letter up and throw it away. Last year I would have lost money, because last fall there was a big recession, and gas prices fell fast. It would not have paid to lock in.

On IGS's side, they have an A+ rating from the BBB. In their home state of Ohio, 40% of the state uses an alternate source gas company, so they are not a fly-by-night company.

IGS seems suspicious since it is hard to find out anything about it. It is a private company, and I can't find who the CEO is, where the headquarters is, and how large the company is -- not really a Red Flag, but troubling. It is not even clear if the name of the company is Interstate Gas Supply or IGS Energy.  [[Update: someone from IGS posted the CEO name and the headquarters location in the comment below. Nice to see them trying. That is a good sign.]]

IGS is offering me a gas rate of 0.69/SCF (Standard Cubic Feet) whereas DTE Energy is offering 0.79/SCF. This would save me about $9/month over the season. IGS does not replace my utility; most of my bill will be other fees from my gas company.

I am still thinking about what to do. Leave a comment if you have an opinion.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

All the News that is Fit to Print -- About Mosquitoes

I went for a walk in the woods yesterday evening, and I said, I'll do a post on mosquitos. There is probably some interesting fact about mosquitos -- maybe a good blog topic?

Well no. Generally this topic is too non-appetizing. Giant pictures of biting mosquitos are too gross. (That is why this post has a cartoon mosquito illustration.)

I also find mosquito anatomy gross, and doesn't everyone know about the mosquito life cycle and that only females bite.

Maybe it is interesting the antibody IgG binds to antigens in female mosquito saliva causing inflamation, but mostly it is disgusting.

One interesting tidbit is that mosquitos eat nector, fruit and foliage almost entirely. They spend most of their lives as little green multi-legged larva -- so they are not totally diabolical. A female mosquito may only bite for blood three times in her lifetime.

The other interesting tidbit is that mommy mosquitoes find prey by smelling octenol, which is in sweat and respirated air. It has been disproven that mosquitos sense carbon dioxide in respirated air. I wish I understood why there is octenol in the body, but I don't know. (Maybe someone could leave a comment on that.) Octenol is sold as a decoy for mosquitos too. It might also make a funny practical joke -- a little mean, but still funny.

diethyl meta-toluamide, (CAS# 134-62-3) is the universal mosquitto repellant. It was used as an insecticide before, but became popular for mosquitos during World War II. It numbs the noses of mosquitos so they can't smell the octenol.

Predictably and ironically, the MSDS for DEET from the Fisher Scientific website, says to avoid skin contact. It also has the LD50's, which is the dose that kills half the lab animals. (I know it is going to shock my wife that animals died for mosquito repellent.) These LD50's are pretty high -- that is pretty safe, but for the uninitiated it seems shocking. An LD50 of 3180ml means that 3.2 milliliters per kilogram of body weight killed half the rabbits tested. If I lost weight, and weighed 75 kg, then 233 ml of DEET would have a 50% chance of killing me.

Draize test, rabbit, eye: 100 mg; <-- Lots to read about Draize testing here.
Draize test, rabbit, eye: 10 mg Moderate;
Draize test, rabbit, skin: 500 mg Moderate;
Inhalation, rat: LC50 = 5950 mg/m3;
Oral, mouse: LD50 = 1170 mg/kg;
Oral, rabbit: LD50 = 1584 mg/kg;
Oral, rat: LD50 = 1892 mg/kg;
Skin, rabbit: LD50 = 3180 uL/kg;
Skin, rat: LD50 = 5 gm/kg;

My former employer, SC Johnson, makes OFF! mosquito spray, and it contains 10-30% DEET. I could use 1.1 liters of OFF! to give the 233 ml dose with its 50% toxicity. That is 37 ounces or about 6 six ounce bottles, which I 'd need to apply all-at-once.

The National Pesticide Info Center at Oregon State University puts this in context -- so don't be alarmed. The evidence is overwhelming that DEET can be used safely.

There are lots of other mosquito repellents. The government has 30,000 listed. My view is that DEET works better than all natural alternatives.

At last week's ACS (American Chemical Society) meeting, Bernier of the USDA used a neural net program to screen these 30,000 compounds. The program picked several, which they made and tested. Fourteen turned out to work as well as DEET. Of course, who knows how toxic these are, or more importantly whether anyone can afford to do all the toxicity testing to clear EPA, OHSA and REACH regulations?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Red Eye Flight and Me

The Red Eye flight, or a night flight from the west coast to the east, is dreaded by some, but it fits my temperament.

Last night I flew home from California, and ended up at work by nine. So I feel a little stretched today, but not sleepy -- not yet.

I would much rather fly home after my business meeting than spend the night in some hotel, and waste the daylight on the plane.

Of course, this means the dreaded sleeping on the plane. I have all the tools, the blindfold, the inflatable neck rest (better than the stuffed ones), earplugs. The watery airline wine helps me sleep too.

The defining experience of the night flight is half-awake, half-asleep, nether-world experience ... especially listening to sleepy music on the iPod.

When you get to the new city, its not clear what day it should be. The Red Eye is a disruption of the diurnal cycle. It seems like it should still be late at night, but its light and time for breakfast.

Today when I got home, I was still sleepy. Maybe I slept two hours. I took a taxi because I was too tired to drive, and then I napped a while before going to work.

Good to be gone, good to be back too.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9 - The Image Recognition Viral Game

District 9 is the new movie for this weekend, and I'll post my review tonight.

There is buzz about the game Sony put on the website, which uses your webcam to recognize a printed key. The image is at right.

So I had to try this out.

I printed out the image. Logged onto the website , and fiddled with my flash settings so that the computer's camera worked, and got into the website. It recognized the image --playing a little video and starting the game. Success.

Unfortunately, the game hung right there. I retried in Firefox since I had been running in Safari. Both did the same thing. Maybe there was too much traffic?

So, the image recognition worked OK. It was somewhat less than cool, and nothing like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. . . . . maybe this would have been cooler on an iPhone. I suppose everything is.

The overall experience was bad though, because the game never played. That is OK since I have better things to do than play video games anyway. The goal was just to see what the buzz was about.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Alzheimers and the "Greek Diet"

It's in the news: the "Greek Diet" prevents Alzheimer's disease. It drops the rate an astonishing 60% -- and that is probably under-estimated because the subjects, who were all urban-dwelling Americans, probably lied about how faithfully they followed the diet.

You'd think that the Greeks would have less Alzheimer's disease because they must eat the Greek diet, right?

Well no, a 1999 study on Alzheimers shows that the Greeks have the same Alzheimer's rate as everyone else. Perhaps the Greeks are modernizing like everyone else. However, real Greeks eating a traditional diet did have longer lifespan and less heart disease-- see below.

An 1999 study showing the Alzheimer's/diet connection was done at the University of Bari in Italy.

What is going on?

First of all, the Greek diet is characterized like this:
  • Increasing the amount of food consumed from plant sources, incuding fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Emphasizing minimally processed and seasonally fresh/locally grown foods when possible.
  • Focusing on small portions of high quality food and eliminating low-nutrient-value snack foods
  • Using olive oil and other monounsaturated fats to replace other fats such as butter and margarine.
  • Reducing red meat consumption to a few times per month and eating fish and lean poultry a few times a week.
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Optionally consuming a moderate amount of wine (one to two glasses) with meals.

One study showed that the benefits for real Greek people were different for each characteristic of the diet. The percentages reflect the healthfulness of each factor for increased lifespan.

>moderate ethanol consumption 23.5%,
>low consumption of meat and meat products 16.6%,
>high vegetable consumption 16.2%,
>high fruit and nut consumption 11.2%,
>high monounsaturated to saturated lipid ratio 10.6%,
>and high legume consumption 9.7%.
>High cereal consumption -- minimal benefit
> Low dairy -- minimal benefit
> high fish and seafood consumption - insignificant benefit

It is nice that this is a diet where alcohol is a HEALTH FOOD.

There are lots of studies talking about how healthy this Greek or Mediterranean diet is: less belly fat; inflammation; lower heart disease, and lower mortality.

So how does this work? It is well known that Alzheimer's is caused by the build-up of amyloid (starchy) plaques in the brain. It is unclear if the plaques grow where dead cells were, or if the plaques kill cells.

Alzheimer's researchers think that heart healthy behaviors help Alzheimer's too, but they don't understand how. It is possible the Greek diet is helping general healthfulness, or cardiac health, and these indirectly benefit Alzheimer's disease. The most recent study also showed exercise benefitted Alzheimer's too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Bad News for BisPhenol A Cans and Bottles

There is more bad news about bisphenol A. This is a chemical used in plastic bottles and as a liner in metal cans & bottles.

First, it seems that there is a serious charge that bisphenol-A disrupts the HOXA10 gene, which I had never heard of before, but it seems to be important in fetal development. This is different and potentially more serious than the sexual disfunction worries we knew about previously -- like feminized male babies with undersized "male parts" and young girls going through puberty too early. This news threatens birth defects, and birth defects mean multi-million dollar lawsuits.

Yesterday, Canada found that bottles that advertised being bis-phenol-A free actually had bis-phenol. There is really no reason why this should be so -- perhaps inaccurate labeling or dishonesty on the part of producers.

I occasionally encounter the container coatings industry, and last year my contacts were not worried that bis-phenol was going to be banned, but I think that we have reached the tipping point. I believe that bisphenol-A's days are numbered.

Most people don't know that there is bis-phenol A in almost all food, soda and beer cans. Only a little gets into the food, but with our legal system, I don't think it will matter.

It is completely possible that the transition from metal food cans will not be possible, and that we will end up with sterilized pouches or PET bottles.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cooper's Hawk Comes for Breakfast

We have seen some large birds circling over the woods this summer, but this morning I had a visitor on the deck. It was a Cooper's Hawk, accipiter cooperii, which is not uncommon in Michigan in the summer. It migrates into Michigan in the summer, being found further south most of time -- all the way to Mexico. This bird is still brown, which means it is a juvenile.

The hawk was attracted to the deck by the small birds (sparrows, finches) that are on our bird feeder. The rainy weather the last few days has caused a population explosion at the feeder, and attracted a predator.

[Yes, this is my second avian post in two days. Choose your own pun ... going to the birds, ...bird brain, ...nest-cafe for breakfast, ...nevermore.]

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Synthetic Organisms and Synthetic Biology

In my post about Exxon's investment in algae-based biofuel, I touched on Synthetic Genomics, a company that promotes Synthetic Biology -- that is making completely de novo (new, from scratch) organisms.

A big player in Synthetic Biology (or SynBio) is the Biobricks Foundation, which is makes DNA kits available for various cellular functions. There is catalog of cellular parts called the "Registry of Standard Biological Parts," which seems like it should be a joke, but its real. The metaphor is clever -- building an organism from Biobricks like building a wall with real bricks.

Aside from the Biobricks people, most of this field seems to be information science people trying build build "wet-ware" and bioethicists toying with interesting up-to-now theoretical issues. The information science types need to harden up and do some molecular biology. Bioethics is fun, but that is not getting the science done either.

Ginkgo Bioworks has a kit for assembling Biobricks. The instructions read like the Bioengineering for Dummies, with pictures and very basic instructions. I wonder if this is directed at hobbyists rather than scientists.

A light-hearted intro to synthetic biology is in this comic from Nature magazine.
The article is from way back in 2005, and it shows the information systems brand of synthetic biology, wherein these new cells are like electronic computers. The comic makes an interesting point about the bioengineers not really understanding what they are doing. (Is that typical of engineers?)

I have not seen any convincing accounts of real synthetic organisms to this point.

Mother and Baby Swans

A mother swan covers her six chicks with her wing at the Bicton Botanical Gardens in Devon England. The photo is by Caters News/Zuma Press.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What is a Fair Price for Cable TV?

I don't watch that much TV. Usually I watch for an hour before bed.

I have digital cable from Comcast with an HD Comcast DVR. We are getting it for $72/month or $2.40/day.

My cable bill is more than my electric bill, my water bill or my heating bill. What is more valuable TV or electricity?

Cable TV seems like it costs more money that it is worth. I like watching Burn Notice, but paying $2.40 per episode for the right to do that seems high. I have been thinking of other video providers.

In our area, I can get ATT U-Verse. I dug through the different rates, and it is very similar in price to Comcast --for similar service, and when the temporary discounts end. It is about $70/month. Direct TV seems a little cheaper, if we got the dish, I think it would be $10/month less.

There is a big price upcharge to move from standard analog cable to HD DVR service. I am not paying for all the TV I watch, since I don't watch that much, but I am paying for the right to watch it in HD when I do watch.

The intriguing option is to pull down some FREE HDTV from the local TV stations. Living in a close-in suburb, our reception is pretty good. Unfortunately, our Comcast DVR does not record broadcast TV, naturally, why would it?

A step forward is a Tivo, which is just a DVR really. With a Tivo, I can start recording some free broadcast TV, download some programming from Amazon, iTunes or maybe Hulu. I could download Burn Noticefor $1.99.

Leave a comment on the kind of TV you have, and whether I should get a Tivo!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dow Invests in Algae too! Why All the Money Flowing to Algae Biofuel??

C&E News reports that Dow has joined the biofuel algae fad. This makes two giant multinationals to plunk down money on biofuel from algae in the last month. [See my previous post on Exxon & BP's investment in Synthetic Genomics.]

Dow and Algenol is building a plant next to Dow's giant chemical complex in Freeport, Texas. Algenols technology is interesting because if makes ethanol directly. It would be particularly interesting if the cells excrete the ethanol, so they don't have to be killed.

Note that the Algenol plants has open tanks. These are easier to build, but previous algae plants have had trouble keeping the algae healthy because of rainwater and evaporation.

Why are big oil and chemical companies buying into algae?

1. Algae plants are big consumers of CO2, carbon dioxide. This could be a cheap way to get carbon dioxide credits in some future greenhouse gas tariff system.

2. Algenol's technology generates ethanol directly, and Synthetic Genomic's technology generates biodiesel. This is much better than other biofuels that need extensive processing. For example corn needs to be fermented to make ethanol.

3. Blogger Christopher Haase says algae plants also transform salt water into fresh water.

[See my follow-up post on Synthetic Genomics and Synthetic Biology.]

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Bicycles with Square Wheels

I found this picture while I was looking for bikes to illustrate yesterday's post. I also found out about Math Professor Stan Wagen (Macalester College, St Paul, MN) who has actually built two bikes with square wheels that you can ride.

In 1960, J. B. Robison found that a bicycle with square wheels could ride down a road, if the road were covered with a nearly parabolic shape. The shape is actually a hyperbolic cosine or catenary, and it is a problem in differential equations to prove that. This link outlines the math.

If the shape of the road is right, then the rider stays level despite the surface.

At right, Prof Wagon rides his a bicycle with square wheels; although the "bicycle" pictured is actually a three wheeler. Link The secret is the shape of the road over which the wheels roll.

Watch a video of students riding on the bike:

Stan Wagen posted a demonstration of the solution, on the Wolfram site, and you can watch the video. I was unable to load the Wolfram player to work with the model interactively. Here is a low tech animation.