Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Advent Day 1: Feel-good Christmas decorations

Serotonin ornament from Made with MoleculesJust like a traditional Advent Calendar, I plan to share one holiday-related goodie every day until Christmas.

The first entry is sure to make the geek in your household smile: Made with Molecules has a whole line of holiday biochemistry-related goodies. They sell a seratonin molecule wreath card and Christmas tree ornament. As they point out "Serotonin binds to receptors in the brain to induce feelings of happiness, satiation, and relaxation."

They also have other holiday cards that depict either a DNA transcription tree or the PEACE peptide.

They also have gifts for all occasions. You (or someone you love) would probably get a kick out of their molecule jewelry (in the shape of estrogen, caffeine, theobromine (chocolate), serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters), testosterone boxer shorts, kid & baby clothes depicting glucose (sweet) or oxytocin (cuddle), or the dopamine love card.

(via Mind Hacks)

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Just a few more links

A few more Thanksgiving dinner-related links:

The Food Museum blog takes a look at what may have been the real first North American thanksgiving feast:
The first multi-cultural Thanksgiving gathering in North America involved neither them, nor turkeys, as far as researchers know. It took place on the banks of the Rio Grande in April of 1598, and featured a rag tag group of soldiers, families, the Manso native people, priests, and over 7000 domestic animals. The southwest feast on the border of El Nuevo Mexico marked a key confluence of Spanish, Native, and Other ( Anglo) culture.
Snopes has a few funny turkey-cooking legends.

Chaotic Utopia explains the science of gravy making, and provides recipes for both flour-thickened and cornstarch-thickened versions.

Now I'm back to the kitchen!

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Another Day, Another Fire

I've got a post of the latest local fire (with a few pictures) on my Yucaipa blog.firefighting helicopter with bucket
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Gobble Gobble Gobble - Yawn

It's likely that you'll feel drowsy after Thanksgiving feast, but do you know the reason why? It might not be the reason you think. If you want a more technical view, Coturnix has a explanation of how tryptophan in turkey could make you drowsy. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's a likely explanation for T-day drowsiness or not.

Wired tells you how to deal with turkey-day disasters. Believe it or not, the article is about cooking, not gadgets. The general solution to your problems: buy the dish partially or completely prepared from the grocery store.

Finally, if you are frying your turkey this year, be careful. This video shows how turkey frying can go horribly wrong.

Gobble Gobble Gobble

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving All!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!
Here are some fun and interesting links:

• The History Channel points out that the first Thanksgiving feast included venison and wild fowl (possibly wild turkey, goose, duck or swan) and possibly cod, lobster, and eel. There was no sugar for cranberry sauce or pies, and vegetables were few next to the meat.

• You can also listen to "first hand accounts" of the 1621 feast from Plimoth Plantation inhabitants "Myles Standish" and "Ellinor Billington".

SF Gate has the basics on cooking a turkey, making traditional side dishes, and preparing a Thanksgiving feast with an "Asian touch". (the cranberry chutney sounds yummy).

Epicurious has an "ultimate Thanksgiving guide", with How-to videos.

• FoodieView tells you How to Stay Sane on Turkey Day. They have a nifty online tool to plan your cooking timeline.

• Rose Levy Beranbaum has a tip on how to keep your pie crusts from overbrowning (the short version: put a foil circle around the edge of the crust before it goes into the oven).

• LifeHacker has a Thanksgiving roundup of helpful posts, including "how to fix mom & dad's computer" when you go to visit.

• The shopping day after Thanksgiving is called "black Friday". Consumerist has the scoop on expected deals. (Me, I just sleep in.)

The Improbable Research blog reports on Hull et al. "The effect of the Thanksgiving Holiday on weight gain" Nutrition Journal 25:29 (2006). The conclusion:
We found over the Thanksgiving holiday an increase of 0.5 kg [0.9 pounds] in body weight. Although this may seem like a trivial amount of weight, considering the short time frame, this is troublesome since previous research suggests weight gained during holiday periods is retained (Yanovski 2000). Therefore, we found in our sample, the Thanksgiving holiday represented a critical period for weight gain and obesity development. Additionally, it seems as though graduate students or those who are already overweight/obese are at increased risk of greater weight gain.
The LA Times points out:
Although this number is far below the tossed-around "5 pounds" statistic, Hull was disturbed by the change in body composition she found when the study was continued past the new year. She and her co-workers scanned 84 of the students with X-rays to determine the fat and muscle content of their bodies. Though their average body weight returned to pre-turkey day levels by January, their overall body fat rose by 1.5%. In other words, "they lost muscle and gained fat," Hull says. Fat they get to squish into their new Christmas clothes as tokens of an overly happy holiday season.
Bummer.

• The Public Domain Clip Art blog has lots of Thanksgiving-related images, including the one on this post.

Anyway, I am thankful for the people that read and comment here. Thank you!

Eat wisely and (American readers) enjoy your holiday.

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Real crime fighting is NOT like CSI

As I was waiting to have my oil changed this afternoon, I did something unusual: I read USA Today. The front page article, "Many DNA matches aren't acted on", caught my eye.
The FBI calls the DNA database CODIS, for Combined DNA Index System. It has cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars to build and has proved adept at making matches in "cold cases" in which police had no leads and little hope of finding a suspect. Its dozens of successes include clearing innocent suspects, bringing rapists to justice 30 years after their offenses, and linking burglars to murders, rapes and other violent crimes in which they never were suspects.
The FBI has counted more than 39,000 matches of DNA evidence since 1990. But, of course, there is a catch. The FBI does not keep track of how often the DNA evidence leads to an arrest, or whether the evidence is even acted on at all. According to USA Today's investigation there is often no followup after a DNA match . The reasons vary from the overload of "cold case" files to unusable hits (with the victim's DNA, for example) to simple incompetence. In some cases, the matches weren't acted on until after another crime had been committed.
In Oakland, in June 2004, the DNA of convicted child molester Kalonji Lee matched DNA from an attempted sexual assault of a 10-year-old Oakland girl the previous January. Police did not contact Lee until after he had molested another Oakland 10-year-old in December 2004, deputy chief Howard Jordan confirms. Lee was caught for the second assault after the victim's parents spotted his picture on California's "Megan's Law" website and alerted detectives.
Part of the problem seems to be that there is no coordination between the FBI, prosecutors and cops. CODIS churns out the data, whether it will be useful or not.
In Oakland, in at least 20% of the rape cases in which CODIS has identified a potential suspect, the victim had previously told police that she would not press charges, says Rockne Harmon, an assistant prosecutor who specializes in DNA cases.

The evidence was analyzed anyway, Harmon says, because crime labs received state and federal funding that paid for the analysis. Police and prosecutors were not consulted, Harmon says.

"All the money (to build CODIS) has gone to the lab side," Harmon says. "Nobody ever asked the cops what they wanted or how (CODIS matches) would affect what they do."

In both the UK and Canada police are required to report what happens after they are given the DNA match data. Since both money and manpower are limited, I think it makes sense for the US to implement some sort of accountability system as well.

On a lighter (but related) note, Cocktail Party Physics has an interesting post on the history and future of fingerprinting.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Global warming?

For some reason, the weather just seems wrong for the end of November . . .
(According to the Press-Enterprise, the record temperature for the inland area on this date was 88° in 1932 - we're definitely pushing that.)

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

What You Didn't Know About Me (or, I've Been Tagged!)

I was tagged by D.T. Kelly at the Secret Government EGGO project, to share "five things people don't know about me". OK, here goes.

#1 I'm a compulsive reader.

Now you're thinking, "So what, I like to read too", but do you read in the shower? I'm not too picky either - if no good novels are lying around, a cereal box will do.

#2 I'm afraid of heights.

I'm even affected when I'm watching TV. Just the image of someone walking along the edge of a cliff or hanging off a building ledge will get my hands trembling and palms sweating (they're actually sweating a bit right now, just thinking about it). Fortunately, it hasn't really directly affected my enjoyment of life. I've been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, along the rim trail of the Grand Canyon, and up the tramway in Palm Springs - I simply stay back from the edge and look ahead rather than down.

I will never be able to be a skyscraper construction worker, but I can live with that.

#3 I was a letterman in high school.

Do people even use the term letterman anymore? Anyway, people that are familiar with my bookish and currently largely (alas) sedentary self might be surprised that I was on the swim team in high school. I even have the varsity letter to prove it. I wasn't the worst on the team, but I couldn't come close to the top swimmers, who had Olympic qualifying times under their belts (or at least tucked under their swim suit straps). The closest I got to the swim team in college was ogling Matt Biondi, and it's been downhill ever since.

#4 I can do the hustle

Way back in the 70s, when I was in elementary school, dancing was part of the PE curriculum, and yes, we learned to do the hustle. At about that time - when I was 10 or 11 - my family took a trip through the Midwest. We stopped at an amusement park in Ohio (maybe Kings Island?) and, at one of the shows, I was one of several people picked from the audience to do the hustle on stage. I'm sure mom and dad have embarrassing video footage of it somewhere . . .

More recently, I've learned to do the country hustle (aka the "electric slide") to the tune of "Pink Cadillac". I think I could even remember the original hustle steps if only my husband's band would play a disco tune or two. (Yup, that was a shameless plug.)

#5 I like a bit of bitter

Strong black coffee, no sugar - dark chocolate - hoppy beer - I love them all.

Now for five new taggees:

Brian @ Atomic Bear Press
Talia @ The Centre for Emotional Well Being
Kira @ Loving Twilight
Tiffany @ Tiffany's Smorgasboard
Bhaswati @ At Home, Writing

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Maybe it was opposite day

Sometimes I wonder if the current administration is truly clueless or simply has a warped sense of humor (malicious is possible, but I really hate to think that). Why do I bring it up? It's the latest appointment to the department of Health and Human Services, the new chief of family planning programs, Dr. Eric Keroack.
Keroack, an obstetrician-gynecologist, will advise Secretary Mike Leavitt on matters such as reproductive health and adolescent pregnancy. He will oversee $283 million in annual family-planning grants that, according to the department, are "designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them with priority given to low-income persons." (from the LA Times)
He's not merely an OB-GYN, though, he also heads the non-profit group A Woman's Concern, which actively opposes contraception.
"A Woman's Concern is persuaded that the crass commercialization and distribution of birth control is demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness," the group's policy statement on contraception says.
Yup, being able to have sex without the concern of getting pregnant is really degrading. Maybe if the good doctor indicated that his views on sex and birth control were based on his religious beliefs, I'd have a bit of respect for him. Of course that isn't the case. He actually uses bad science arguments to support his arguments on abstinence.

Are we going to see millions of tax-payer dollars spent on ineffective "abstinence only" programs? Probably. Will we see a decrease in teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? Probably not. Could there be a less appropriate ob-gyn to give advice on family planning? Probably, but not by much.

Jessica at Feministing is much more blunt in her criticism of the appointment.
Corpus Callosum points out a presentation gen by Dr. Keroack in which he equates pre-marital sex to MODERN GERM WARFARE (Keroack's caps, not mine).

Other interesting (in a depressing way) links:
Salon.com has a report on the movement in the US to ban birth control.

• The Washington Post has reported that some Federally-funded abstinence-only programs actively lie to teens.
Many American youngsters participating in federally funded abstinence-only programs have been taught over the past three years that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person's genitals "can result in pregnancy," a congressional staff analysis has found.
• The teen birth rate hit a record low in the year 2000. Births to teens (age 15-19) were half the 1957 rate. Part of the reason for the decline: "higher rates of contraceptive use at first intercourse and a shift to highly reliable hormonal methods" of birth control. Even so, the teen birth rate in the US is the highest among developed countries. Interestingly, the South has the highest teen birth rates in the US, which I associate with conservative "family values". Perhaps they simply haven't gotten the message about birth control.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

You can catch more flies with . . . vinegar?

To file under "science you can do in your kitchen": Miss Prism has published her study on The Condimentary Preferences of Drosophila. The result: fruit flies do indeed appear to prefer vinegar over other condiments, but none were actually caught by any of the liquids.
We conclude that culinary seasonings make an ineffective substitute for conventional insecticide treatment.
(A commenter suggests that a trap baited with yeast paste works.)

See, science can be fun and useful!

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Diet of the Future

Remember the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper? The health food-loving hero is frozen, and wakes up hundreds of years in the future, only to find that he was all wrong about junk food.
Dr. Melik: [puzzling over list of items sold at Miles' old health-food store] ... wheat germ, organic honey and... tiger's milk.
Dr. Aragon: Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible!
ABC news recently had a features on what nutrition will be like in 2031. Unfortunately, fried chicken and cheesecake probably won't be on the "nutritious" list, but there will be some good eatin':
Dark chocolate, long recognized as both a rich indulgence and a health food, will dominate stores and homes alike. Milk chocolate will be largely a historical curiosity.

The optimal dose of red wine will be known, and its health effects relative to other libations will be fully elaborated.
The assumption is that,in 25 years we will know and understand the health benefits of all of the vitamins, minerals and organic molecules that make up our food. Of course we will also have deciphered how each individual's genetic makeup responds to different diets, with the result a perfectly tailored diet for each individual. Let's just say I'm skeptical that 25 years is long enough to understand both the complex chemical composition of the foods we eat and how those chemicals interact with each other in our diet to affect our health. However, I'm willing to start eating dark chocolate now, just in case.

In other nutrition news:
• The food museum blog notes a report in the New England Journal of Medicine on nutritional information coming out of the Nurses' Health Study. After looking at the diets of more than 80,000 participants over the course of 20 years, they concluded:
Our findings suggest that diets lower in carbohydrate and higher in protein and fat are not associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease in women. When vegetable sources of fat and protein are chosen, these diets may moderately reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
They also found that "A higher glycemic load was strongly associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease". Sadly, that means less bread and more veggies. You can get more information about the glycemic load of commercial and prepared foods from around the world in this article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Foster-Powell et al. (2002). Needless to say, a "French baguette with butter and strawberry jam" has a much higher glycemic load than dry pumpernickel, alas. There are also some unusual results. For example, the "GL" of rice varies considerably, depending on the variety and possibly by cooking method. The effect of food on the body is complicated, and studies like these are part of the reason why I'm skeptical that there will be a "scientific diet" in the near future.

Alpha Psy has an interesting post on caffeine and cogition. A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology has shown that a dose of caffeine makes you more persuadable by strong arguments, or as the study concludes, "caffeine can increase the extent to which people systematically process and are influenced by a persuasive communication." The next time you are involved in a political debate, be sure coffee is available!

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Post-Election Hangover

Well, no surprises in my local election results: currently-under-investigation Representative Jerry Lewis was re-elected by a wide margin. With the new Democrat majority in the House, I guess he'll lose his plum position as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Last month Lewis came under criticism for firing 60 contract workers investigating spending fraud and waste. We may have lost our chance for a $1 million swimming pool.

Everything looks different today; new, shiny, or, as Stephen Colbert said last night*:
"Tomorrow you're all going to wake up in a brave new world - a world where the Constitution gets trampled by an army of terrorist clones created in a stem-cell research lab run by homosexual doctors who sterilize their instruments over burning American flags. Where tax-and-spend Democrats take all your hard-earned money and use it to buy electric cars for National Public Radio and teach evolution to illegal immigrants. Oh, and everybody's high!"
Let the fun begin!

* Note that you need Windows Media Player v. 9 (and Mac users need the "Windows Media Components for Quick Time") to watch the video.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Interesting Science News

I was just skimming through my newsreader headlines from the past week, and came across a bunch of interesting science articles. I present them here with little comment:

• The naming committee for the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) is renaming the human versions of some fruit fly genes. Why? Because the sometimes whimsical names might offend people who have mutations in those genes. On the list: lunatic fringe, radical fringe, manic fringe, sonic hedgehog, Indian hedgehog and others. The proposed solution: refer to them by their initials. (news@nature.com article, background from HUGO)

Of course the bloggers have weighed in: The Neurophilosphier's weblog notes ""Offensive" gene names to be changed", Evolgen opines "Human Geneticists Suck", Pharyngula shouts "Hands off those genes". In the course of discussion, they point out lots of interesting fly gene names.

• Toddlers learn complex actions from picture-book reading (press release, article: Simcock & DeLoache "Get the Picture? The Effects of Iconicity on Toddlers' Reenactment From Picture Books" Dev. Psych 42:1352-1357 (2006) (pdf))
Parents who engage in the age-old tradition of picture-book reading are not only encouraging early reading development in their children but are also teaching their toddlers about the world around them, according to a study in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA). This finding shows that interactions with life-like color pictures can aid in children's learning.
I think that anything that promotes reading is good advice!

• Chronic jet-lag conditions hasten death in aged mice (ScienceNOW report, article: Davidson et al.: "Correspondence: Chronic jet-lag increases mortality in aged mice." Current Biology 16, R914-R916 (2006) (abstract))
Researchers have found that aged mice undergoing weekly light-cycle shifts--similar to those that humans experience with jet lag or rotating shift work--experienced significantly higher death rates than did old mice kept on a normal daylight schedule over the same eight-week period. The findings may not come as a great surprise to exhausted globe-trotting business travelers, but the research nonetheless provides, in rather stark terms, new insight into how the disruption of circadian rhythms can impact well-being and physiology, and how those impacts might change with age.
This is important research for both frequent travelers and shift workers.

• Cake Cutting Milestone! Actually, I don't really follow the math, but the methodology could be used for dividing land fairly, for example (New Scientist article, article: Brams et al. "Better Ways to Cut a Cake" Notices of the AMS 53:1314-1321 (2006) (pdf))
Traditional methods, such as the "you cut, I choose" method, where one person halves the cake and the other chooses a piece, are flawed because though both get equal shares and neither is envious, the division is not equitable - one piece may have more icing or fruit on it than another, for example.

Enter the “Surplus Procedure” (SP) for cake-sharing between two people, and the "Equitability Procedure" (EP) for sharing between three or more. Both involve asking guests to tell the cake-cutter how they value different parts of the cake. For example, one guest may prefer chocolate, another may prefer marzipan.

Under SP, the two parties first receive just half of the cake portion that they subjectively valued the most. Then the "surplus" left over is divided proportionally according to the value they gave it. EP works in a similar way: the guests first get an equal proportion of the part of the cake they each value the highest – a third each if they are three; a quarter each if they are four, etc – and then the remainder is again divided along the lines of subjective value.

The result is everyone is left feeling happy, Klamler says. Two people, for example, may feel they are each getting 65% of what they want rather than just half.
Cocktail Party Physics has a fuller explanation.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Autumn in Oak Glen

Los Rios Rancho, Oak GlenIn autumn deciduous trees lose their leaves. Some varieties produce red and yellow pigments as the green chlorophyll fades, producing colorful leaves. The biological purpose of the colors is still unclear. Really beautiful fall foliage requires very cold nights, which we don't really get here in SoCal - at least not the same kind of cold that makes Vermont and New Hampshire Columbus Day weekend destinations. We do get some fall color, though.

My parents were in town visiting the past week, and we took a short trip up into the apple growing area of Oak Glen. It was a bit hazy, but the air was fresh and the scenery was lovely. Some of the trees, such as the liquidambars, had beautiful red leaves, while the oak leaves were simply turning brown. The apple tree leaves were still green and there were a few apples still left on the trees. Lovely! (And the apples were good too.)


Oak Glen actually gets some snow in the winter, and the local woodpeckers were preparing by stuffing the telephone poles full of acorns. It's a clever storage location (no pesky branches in the way), but probably not so good for the poles.



Speaking of storage for the winter, if you are ever in Oak Glen, try the apple cider donuts fresh from the fryer at Snow-Line Orchards. They are delicious!

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

I'm sure this will hit all the news broadcasts tonight:
Huge amounts of a red wine extract seemed to help obese mice eat a high-fat diet and still live a long and healthy life, suggests a new study that some experts are calling "landmark" research.
[snip]
The study by the Harvard Medical School and the National Institute of Aging shows that heavy doses of red wine extract lowers the rate of diabetes, liver problems and other fat-related ill effects in obese mice.
According to the abstract of the study there is evidence from studies in mice, flies and nematodes that resveratrol (found in red wine) "produces changes associated with longer lifespan", with effects similar to caloric restriction. Of course there is no evidence (as yet) that this would work in people, but I am willing to up my red wine intake*, just in case.
* Yes, I know the test used resveratrol extract, but I like to take it in a more "natural" form. High levels of resveratrol are also found in Itadori tea, and at lower levels in grapes, peanuts and soy sauce.

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