Wednesday, 30 July 2008

In order to balance complaints...

I've been getting some feedback form this Blog lately, which was nice. The general opinion is as follows:

"It's really funny, but way too long".

The only criticism I've received is that it's too long. Also, one person said it gave them vertigo. Seriously. I was oddly proud, but promised to address that.

I apologise for the length of my posts, it's a habit of mine. I admit that 28.3783244 % of people tell me I over-analyse things, and I tend to waffle. I don't really mind, the point of me doing this was so that I could discuss the ramifications of recent science stories. The media often reduces important stories down to the bare bones in order to meet the artificial requirements of brevity, and I think a lot of Science based news suffers for this. And the media we're exposed to today has given people such short attention spans, and I don't think it's necessarily a good thing.

There, that's my relatively brief rant over with. In the interest of fairness, here are some incredibly short commentaries, all with a science theme at least, in order to bring down the average length.

  • I have a phobia of dirty toilets, a very bad one. I can't stand to use them, and I pour copious amounts of bleach down my toilet in order to keep it hygienic. I keep hearing about the erosion of British coastal marine life and habitats and the altering pH levels of the sea. This is normally blamed on over-fishing and industrial chemical run off. However, judging by the amount of high strength alkaline I've released into the sewage system, it might be because of me. I'm sorry.
  • Scientists often mock artistic people for not understanding our field. But it works both ways. I work in a high profile Psychology building, my wife (an optometrist) works in a brand new state-of-the-art optometry teaching installation. Both of our buildings have extremely expensive art exhibits in the entrance areas. My wife's building's art (multi-million pound, by the way) is a number of sculptures made from glass beads and shapes suspended at eye level by high tension wires. The walls are white. My building has gone more post-modern, with a psychologically calculated interpretation of Dante's inferno, and the assorted monsters within. So we have transparent sculptures that normal sighted people find hard to see in a building for the visually impaired, and a recreation of hell itself in a building which hosts many people who suffer form psychological disorders. Either this is mind-bogglingly short-sighted (two puns there, neither intended) or utter genius, as it'll help us filter out those who are faking it.
  • There's a new Alzheimer's drug in development. Very good. It doesn't cure it, but it slows the progression. People still have Alzheimer's related dementia, but it takes longer to get to the point where you lose all cognitive function. Not to sound harsh, but this is possibly the only case where the characteristics of Alzheimer's make it preferable to other diseases. If there was a drug, let's say for cancer, that meant you still suffered the same hideous symptoms, but for longer, I doubt it would be as marketable.
  • In order to balance possible insensitivity from my last post, for my final year university assignment, I had to find a cure for Parkinson's. I kid you not. After conducting much research, I did find a mechanism that combined gene therapy, stem cell research and hormonal regulation that may have reduced Parkinson's to a diabetes-like illness. I got 65% for this, which I felt was a bit harsh. Obviously, I didn't have the experience, resources or wherewithal to investigate this cure further. 5 months later I went back to my project supervisor for a reference. He was gone, apparently he'd up and left one day unannounced. Almost as if he'd got his hands on something that potentially could make him rich but didn't want to tell anyone as he'd come by it by illicit means.
  • The above story is 100% true
  • Apparently, the Martian Phoenix lander has had trouble analysing the soil for ice because it's too sticky. The soil stay in the scoop and won't fall out into the analysing oven. Maybe I'm being dense about this, but didn't NASA invent Teflon? And what do we use Teflon for these days?
  • Now Bees might be used to hunt down serial killers. Are Alsatians really that hard to come by? I quite like this idea actually, the use of animals with special senses to help solve human problems is not an old one, with rats being able to sniff out tumours or wasps sensing bombs (I'll post links when I find them). But given the fact that, apparently, something mysterious is killing off the British Bee population, and now some of them are potentially being used to hunt down serial killers, I can't shake the feeling that this is going to be made into some prime time drama special one day, where a bumblebee constable goes it alone to track down the man who killed his mate/queen/hive/swarm/larvae. Maybe even a movie is possible. But I'll avoid any jokes about Bee movies. Apart from that one, obviously...
I think that'll do for now.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Shock! Horror! Incredulity! Homeopathy isn't real!

20th Anniversary of Homeopathy... yay

This article gives a brief summary of the history of homeopathy, and the genuine scientific experiment which seems to have given it such 'credibility' by hoards of 'experts' who espouse on about it's 'healing properties' and that 'ignorant' scientists are 'covering up' the 'truth' about homeopathy, and there's me using up my entire ration of inverted commas in one paragraph.

It's easy for someone who's scientifically educated to PhD level, or even GCSE level come to that, to take the mickey out of homeopathy, what with it violating pretty much every established fact of physics, chemistry and biology, so I'd like to at least put the case forward in favour of homeopathy, before I slag it off.

But I can't, because there isn't one. I know of no feasible reason why water would retain the properties of molecules that used to be in it but aren't any more. And I'm not some pure sceptic, I like to try and think up feasible reasons for alternative medicines and techniques. Feng Shui, for example, a lot of people dismiss it as mindless nonsense, but our spatial awareness is a big part of our sensory make-up, we're always forming cognitive maps of our surroundings. So who's to say that some spatial arrangements wouldn't be more or less pleasing than others? I can't see why this would happen exactly, but then why would one specific arrangement of abstract noises be more or less pleasing than others? And yet, music exists.

But homeopathy can go and hang as far as I'm concerned. I think the worrying part of the article is this bit

"the number of prescriptions for homeopathic medicines written by GPs in England has nearly halved in just two years"

Since when were qualified GP's prescribing homeopathic medicines? There's no real evidence that it works at all, and yet NHS funded professionals seem to be pushing it? But then, I wondered, are they just prescribing it to people who don't have an illness anyway but believe they do? A placebo for hypochondriacs, perhaps. Makes sense, a non-existent cure for a non-existent illness.

My great gran, towards the end of her life, kept telling my mother to (seriously) call Columbo to come to her flat and find out who keeps rubbing jam tarts all over her couch. My mother kept trying to convince her that Columbo wasn't real, but as I kept pointing out, neither were the jam tarts. Or the couch. You might think it's wrong to mock senile dementia, and it is, but my great gran was the same person who once said "if I could live my life again, I wouldn't live this long, it gets boring", so I don't think she'd mind.

Another part of the article was the description of the scientist behind the one and only supposedly valid demonstration of homeopathy. Jacques Benveniste. I don't know about the guy, but even from the brief description offered, he seems shifty. And that's not because he's French. The article describers him as charismatic, a label also applied to L. Ron Hubbard, Hannibal Lecter and Hitler. It also describes how surprised he was when he first made the discovery.

It really bugs me when researchers do that. "I was so surprised by the results!" This is bilge, people don't do experiments that look for things they don't expect to happen. I'd be surprised if you could cure piles by rubbing mango juice on your hips, but I'm not going to conduct many experiments where I get people to do that, just to be sure. He must have suspected it might work, because he made the effort to research it. And what do you know! It did work!

He maintains the results were a complete surprise, and even after what I just said. But despite his surprise and shock, he still tried to sell it. Apparently, not only does water have a memory, but you can digitise it, email it to someone (for a fee) and download it into some different water, which you can then use as medicine. Sort of the ring tone market of medicine. You may be surprised to know that this guy was kicked out of academia.

It's very annoying when people take some concern and attention for whatever reason, and then promptly ruin it by going too far. He might have retained some credibility if he'd behaved rationally, rather than make up some complete gibberish in a disgusting attempt to get rich quick by exploiting people who are, let's be honest, morons.

I knew a guy in university. Complete wanker, arrogant, mouthy, self-obsessed and nobody could stand to talk to him for more than 5 minutes. However, he got seriously beaten coming out of a pub once, suffered some serious injury, everyone was shocked (but not surprised so much). He got sympathy for once, rather than derision. He could have become more popular, a more accepted person, but he ruined it. Always the attention seeker, he claimed that, during the attack, when the guy with a broken bottle jabbed at him, his liver became separated from his brain, and since then he couldn't get drunk.

He told this story to myself and a friend once, who just stared at him agog. My friend (a biologist) explained that in order to remove your liver without killing you, it takes a team of expert surgeons the best part of a day under operating theatre conditions. You can't do it in seconds with half a bottle. I (a neuroscientist) explained that that was irrelevant, as the Liver isn't attached to the brain in any direct manner, and even if it somehow was, the liver removes alcohol from your system, so you'd get drunk and stay drunk. And die.

He didn't talk to us after that, but carried on telling other people (who he'd met for the first time) the same story. Whilst drunk, ironically.

Jacques Benveniste has done the same. He got some attention from his bizarre data, but went way to far in exploiting it for personal gain. Even after he was debunked, he now has hoards of charlatans claiming his results were valid and ignorant and narrow minded experts are arrogantly refusing to accept the truth. I don't know where to begin pointing out the holes in that argument, so I won't bother. It won't make a difference anyway.

But let's take homeopathy to it's logical conclusion. Let's say water does have a memory, therefore embodies the characteristics of substances that have been in it. How long does that memory last? Seeing as adding more water doesn't dilute it, then the memory is clearly self-propagating, so technically has no limit. So the memory lasts for ever. Now, the water on earth isn't brand new. A lot of the water that we use has been around since the creation of the planet itself. Now how many chemicals has it encountered in that time? And it apparently remembers the 'active ingredient' of a drug? How can it tell? A paracetamol tablet is about 3% talk I think, so if I dissolve a paracetamol tablet in a glass of water, will 4% of the glass be talc like? A wet liquid form of a dry chalky powder?

Let's assume that water, which is a molecule made of 3 atoms don't forget, can somehow tell what's an active ingredient and what isn't. How does it know which active ingredient is the right one? Like I said, the water on this planet has been around a long time, and it must have encountered countless 'active' ingredients in that time. Every glass of 'fresh' water would be the equivalent of drinking a steaming glass of sulphur, pesticides, fertiliser, urine and dinosaur dung. Why bother purifying it, water 'remembers'.

So yeah, 20 years of homeopathy. Let's hope all practitioners get some disease that can only be cured by actual medicine.

And I'm sure many believers will dispute my rant. You could say I've just taken facts that support my argument and discarded the rest in a transparent attempt to disparage anyone who's opinion differs from my own.

You're right. Terrible behaviour isn't it.

Monday, 21 July 2008

40 winks helps you think....s

Believe it or not, sleep is good for you!

Ha! A brain related article, now we're talking. And from the Guardian as well, not the often linked BBC website. I don't normally read papers at all, I don't really trust any publication that has a well defined political agenda. Although I'm aware that most science publications may well have a bias of some sort, they have to have the data to back up conclusions, so there's more chance of forming your own opinions. I always prefer to read 'experiments showed this...' rather than the insane ramblings of some foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing fat-faced bigot (Richard Littlejohn or John Gaunt I was thinking of, UK readers may recognise them, any American people reading this, I'm sure you have plenty of your own media types who fit that description).

What is it with the right-wing columnists always going on about Gay people? Fundamentalist Christians are the same. Evolution and Gays, two things that really enrage the zealots. Gay people = "It's not Natural!". Evolution = "It's too natural!". Can't really win, can you. But taken logically, evolution depends on beneficial mutations in DNA passed on to the offspring, over time resulting in changes to the whole species. Homosexuality, by it's very nature, cannot be passed on to offspring, so according to evolution, Gay people shouldn't exist. But they do, clearly. So Gay people are miracles, thus proving the existence of God and defying evolution. Explain this to a Christian Bigot, see what happens.

But as usual, I digress. The article describes an experiment where people who've slept on a problem are better at solving it than those who aren't. This seems logical, as people who are tired aren't as alert as those who aren't, and by preventing someone from sleeping when they usually would, it can become very disorientating. Again, this may seem like common sense, but there's actually a lot more mystery around sleep than people think. The article itself is over simplified, and there clearly is some decent science going on there as they're presenting at the FENS conference, which is massively important and they don't allow wackos or fools to present there, they'll be torn to pieces by the academics in attendance. And don't think academics are all nice and well mannered, they're as territorial and opinionated as anyone. More so in some cases. You don't really appreciate this until you've heard a professor shout 'You're not at Cambridge now, you stupid fu**ing b**ch!". Priceless.

The actual function of sleep is still debatable. Obviously, the body gets rest during sleep, but the brain doesn't. A sleeping brain is as active as a conscious brain, just differently so. I had a three hour lecture which tried to explain this once, all to do with sleep phases, theta rhythms, REM significance. It was a dull lecture. Ironically, I feel asleep. Almost as bad as the time I felt like killing myself after a 4 hour seminar on depression.

So if it's not for rest, why do we sleep? One rather abstract theory I once heard is that we spend night times asleep because, in evolutionary terms, that's when predators were most likely to be after us, so by remaining motionless 'indoors' for long periods we avoid them. This is assuming predators don't use their acute senses to find us in our hiding places, and if they do, being unconscious is probably a poor form of defense. And we don't remain completely motionless in our sleep. An ex-girlfriend of mine once head-butted me in her sleep. Well... she said she was asleep.

I once heard that you can die from lack of sleep before you die from lack of food. This is debatable, as trying not to sleep is like trying not to breathe, albeit takes a lot longer. If you hold your breath, you might manage it for long enough to pass out, at which point you start breathing again. Catch 22. Same with sleep, after a certain period without it, you start 'micro sleeping', which is where you just sleep for brief periods, mostly without realising it. Although it's uncertain how long you can manage like this. People seem to feel lack of sleep differently on an individual basis, some people start becoming very psychologically imbalanced after a few days without sleep, others don't seem to feel any ill effects apart from fatigue. It's odd. I'm not sure at what point no sleep becomes fatal, researchers aren't usually allowed to expose subjects to anything that might kill them, as even if they were fine with manslaughter, the paperwork generated would be incredibly tedious.

The consolidation of memories as a function of sleep has always been a popular theory, and this finding gives it more support. REM sleep, when dreaming happens, has been suggested as the time when the brain strengthens links between new memories and older ones. This fits in quite nicely when you think about it, as dreams tend to be an insane mish-mash of recent thoughts and events and things from your remote past. All of these things were from your perspective, so that's why dreams seem real. That would also explain why it's very hard to remember dreams, because you're generally activating old memories, not creating new ones. And this finding seems to suggest this is what happens.

Other interpretations of dreams are that they're just your subconscious mind telling you something important. I've never been one to believe this. Your subconscious is just that; sub. Meaning 'under'. If your subconscious mind could recognise and evaluate and communicate important aspects of your life, rather than just running the life-support system and processing the general info, maybe it wouldn't be content to be a subordinate, maybe it would try and stage a coup. Maybe this is what happens in people with multiple personalities or certain types of schizophrenia. It's not an illness, it's the subconscious after promotion.

It would be a bit of a double standard if so. If you're subconscious communicates with you through dreams, that's fine and some people who literally don't have a clue will charge you a lot of money to 'interpret' them. However, if your subconscious talks to you directly, you get medicated or locked up. Who was it who said 'if you talk to God, you're religious, if God talks back, you're insane"?

By the way, I'd like to point out I'm not one of those anti-religious uber-cynics. I feel the same way about fundamentalist zealots as I do about self-confessed atheists who go out of their way to make religious people unhappy. You get a lot of this on the comedy circuit. Religion causes a lot of problems, I won't deny that, but most of the religious people in the world are happy, friendly, harmless people who don't bother anyone and their faith grants them a measure of inner piece in increasingly turbulent times. Good luck to them, who are we to take that away? A lot of people have a go at religious types and justify their actions because religious people 'believe in something that doesn't exist'. Fine, but using that logic, neither does football.

Football is an entirely abstract concept that exists only in a shared set of beliefs. Nature does not endorse football, you don't get two teams of gazelles trying to boot a frightened armadillo past each other on a square patch of African Savannah. Yet people believe in football, they go to buildings to join others who share in their belief, they give money to the representatives of their "faith", they passionately believe in individuals who represent their chosen type of football, and generally react with violence towards those who believe in/support others. The parallels are many, so if you do think it's OK to attack and mock innocent people who just happen to be religious, you have to do the same to the Milwall supporters, and the Cardiff Soul Crew.

Go on...

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Me, doing stuff

Here's a video of me I made a while ago, filmed in the lab when I really should have been working, which attempts to combine Science and comedy. Whether I succeeded or not is up to you, but feel free to leave feedback/abuse. Saves reading long-winded rants that don't really go anywhere, at least.

Up the Apples and Pears

Apples: 1 - Pears: 0

Another example of 'how long's that been going on?' science, once again courtesy of the BBC website. And even though the science that gets the most publicity these days is the kind that tackles big issues and fundamental problems, like climate change, fighting diseases and the origins of the universe, it's very reassuring to know that there are still people out there tackling the much smaller, but far more tangible issues that affect us all, as in this case. Why do pears go off so quickly? They're rock solid for ages, then suddenly semi-liquid (making a colloid, if you're up on the terminology, a substance that exists between two states, like toothpaste [solid/liquid] or aerosols [liquid/gas], learning is fun isn't it!). I've heard so many people moan about that. Eddie Izzard has a whole inspired rant about it.
Now I'm wondering how many other irritating traits of modern life are being studied. Is there some biology lab somewhere with people investigating why flies never go to the open part of the window? Although, I had a more annoying experience recently when a large bluebottle kept buzzing around, then flew out the window. The flew back in again! It did this five times. I was not amused.
But these scientists have now established exactly why pears go off so quickly, and also why apples don't. I didn't know apples floated whereas pears don't, which is maybe why bobbing for pears never really took off. Hope nobody drowned finding that out. But this obviously shows that pears are denser, and apples have more air spaces in them. Apparently, this is what causes this faster decay. More air gets into apples, so the cells in the centre don't 'die' so quickly, whereas the structure of the pear means the core gets less air. This also explains the whole rotting from the inside out thing too.
This is all well and good, but I was amazed by the extent to which the researchers went to to establish why this is. It's all to do with the actual internal structure of the fruit. They put an apple and a pear into one of the moat powerful x-ray machines in the world. At first, I wouldn't have thought that would have worked, seeing as said fruits can't handle exposure to a household microwave. That's wrong logic though, of course, as X-rays are far more energetic than microwaves and pass straight through the fruit. Although I still doubt anyone ate them afterwards.
There seems to be a massive misconception about radiation these days. My wife bought a diet book, which gave advice for preparing food, and it warned about using microwaves as 'they can project electromagnetic radiation up to several metres away'. Yes they can. Microwaves can't actually leave the device, that mesh layer in the glass bit stops them due to the wavelengths. But some electromagnetic radiation does leave the device. This kind is more commonly known as light. My friends physicist brother gets outraged when people worry about the complaints and concerns about radiation 'dangers' from phone masts and wi-fi networks, seeing as your basic lightbulb gives out higher levels of 'radiation' and people don't seem too concerned about those. I never read the rest of the diet book, they've clearly got no idea what they're talking about. I follow the Catholic diet anyway, I eat what I want, when I want, and apologise for it on Sundays.
But this story is a brilliant example of the persistent nature of some scientists. Who would be so fanatically obsessed with what seems like such a trivial issue to actually put fruit in a massively expensive high-energy X-ray machine? Fair play for doing it though, that's properly seeing something through to the end. And it also proves that apples are the best fruit, as I've always maintained. Apples are the workhorse of the fruit world. They are the multi-skilled, rough and ready but under-appreciated stalwarts of the produce community. Strawberries? Timid little weaklings with upper class aspirations. Grapes? If it wasn't for wine, would we care about them at all? Convenience is all they offer. Oranges? Pips and skin, that's all they offer, aside form the overrated juice. Apples are where it's at. Breaburns though, not the wimpy golden delicious or those shiny red sods. Jonagold, Gala, Cox's at a push, but I still feel kind of weird eating a pink lady, despite my liberal leanings.
Scientists do take their fruit very seriously.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Singing with the Fishes

Fish Vocalisations are very old indeed

American scientists have localised the part of a fishes brain that proceses vocalisations, or 'noises', if you prefer. I always enjoy reading stories like this, where you just say to yourself 'how long has that been going on?' and more importantly, 'why are they doing that?'. I'm not an ichthyologist, but I do find this fascinating. Although there are a few examples of dumbing down for mass consumption in the article.

(Just so you know, I do read other things than the BBC Science news website, but that one has the most convenient links to stuff).

I understand the need to do this, I know many experts in a scientific field who speak to everyone is if they have a similar understanding/appreciation of their chosen field as they do, which they rarely ever do. But this isn't limited to scientists, even though they get the most flack for such behavior. Many people do it, and if you call them on it they can get angry, which is unfair.
My Barber insists on talking to me about sport whenever I go there. I don't know about sport, I don't care about sport, I certainly don't have the necessary appreciation of any sport to sustain a valid two-way conversation on the subject for a reasonable amount of time. And yet he persists. The last time I went, he talked to the customer before me for twenty minutes about house prices and things on TV, but talked to me about sport. I wouldn't mind so much, but the customer before me was Colin Jackson, the strangely camp former athlete and sports broadcaster. But I didn't say anything yet again. It's surprising how reluctant you get to criticise someone when they're holding sharp blades next your face. But I digress.

So they've found the vocal centre in fish. Some people may be surprised that fish make noise at all. The article addresses that.
"Andrew Bass from Cornell University, who is the lead author of the paper, said: "You'll hear frogs calling, birds singing and we hear this all the time - we are familiar with this.But I think it's fair to say that most people are unaware of the fact that many fish use sound for social communication."
A reasonable point, but I think this is oversimplified bordering on patronizing. Most fish, lets be honest, don't make any noise detectable by humans. If they did, aquariums would be a lot less popular. And I doubt fishing could ever be described as relaxing if every time you caught one it flopped around, shrieking in mindless agony. And even if most fish did make noises, lets not forget they live in a completely different medium to us air breathers (some people in the past have used the term oxygen breathers, which is inaccurate as fish breathe oxygen too, just oxygen that's dissolved in water, which is really an unimportant point to make but I feel better for doing it, and it's my blog, so deal with it!). Fish live in water, we don't, people don't habitually dunk their heads in rivers or the sea to listen to the fish. And sound travels better underwater as it's a denser medium, so fish wouldn't have to make as much effort to be heard as we do.
I think it's the borderline eerie silence of fish that makes people treat them differently to other animals. It's very hard to anthropomorphise a fish. Some 'vegetarians' seem to believe that fish are a form of plant, whereas other people are happy to eat innocent fish as long as no playful mammals were harmed in the process, i.e. 'Dolphin friendly tuna'. I doubt any Tuna are particularly friendly towards dolphins, I imagine they think of them the same way as right-wingers in this country think of immigrants, "Bloody Mammals, coming down here, taking our jobs". Actually, that probably doesn't happen.
So yeah, fish aren't normally credited with any vocal skill, but that's wrong apprently.

"The closely related toadfish and midshipman fish are nocturnal, living along the north-west coast of the US and Canada. Professor Bass said: "They make different kinds of sounds in different social contexts. Just as birds will use one call to attract a mate and another call to scare a rival off, the fish do exactly the same thing. A deep hum lures females to a male's nest; a sharp grunt is used to defend territory".

I heard those fish on a nature programme once, they sound like someone tuning up a rusty Oboe. It's kind of unsettling. But thanks to these fish, they've been able to track the evolutionary origins of vocalisations. Apparently, the team were stunned when they found that the vocal centres of frogs, birds and fish were all in the same place. I would question that, seeing as all three have completely different brain shapes, but they probably mean relative to brain configuration. And they must have guessed that it would be the case that they're in the same area, as they had to insert the probes into the brain to find the region, so they must have thought to put them in the relevant spot. I doubt they used an MRI machine, as that requires the subject to be completely motionless. If they managed to get a water tank with a fish in an MRI machine, and somehow got it to remain completely still while also making noises, give them the Nobel prize right now, they clearly deserve it.

But according to their research, the fish do have vocal centres, and because fish development can be traced much further back in time than most other species, they claim that vocalisations originated around 400 million years ago, around the time bony fish first appeared. So vocalisation is very old indeed. To me, this is evidence in favour of evolution. Because when the first sea creature crawled out on to land all those millions of years ago, why did he do it? Competition for resources? To avoid predators? Now, there's the possibility he just got out to get some bloody peace and quiet. And I do mean to say 'he', as if everyone is nattering away constantly, it's always the men who run away and hide. This may have been the very first case of the man escaping to the shed to avoid the gossip. And as he lay there suffocating to death on the sand, I'm sure he was glad it was quiet.

So let's hear it for the noisy fish, as they may have been the cause of our existence. And I think this is true, somewhere in our genes, there's an ancient memory of the babble of fish, and what it led us to, and in recent times we've subconsciously been paying homage to it. How else do you explain these things?

Singing fish

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Disordered eating

Pregnancy, nuts and asthma

The guy who wrote the story above must have had a confusing time of it. Three health hot topics, Nut allergies, the effects of mothers diet on the foetus, and childhood asthma. Although admittedly, Asthma seems to have something of an 80's feel these days, it's a bit simplistic in these days of ADHD and MMR-Autism hysteria. It's a well understood disease that affects the lungs, and lungs are boring, right? Everyone knows about them, mental disorders are where it's at in the new millennium. I imagine a modern mother would be embarrassed if her child had asthma, sneaking them out of the playground after school, as all the other trendy mums laugh and scoff at her offspring with the outdated illness, as their own children stare into space in a Ritailin induced semi-coma.
(Ritailin is the most commonly perscribed drug for treating ADHD, it curbs the main symptoms such as lack of attention and impulsivity, and if you up the dose it can even get rid of some of those annoying habits children have like curiosity, playfulness and free will, and it can't do any harm surely as it's all medicine, medicine is good for you, right? And you can leave the child staring at the wall while you go off and get your nails done and do some shopping, and all those other things you can do now that you don't have to waste all that time doing actual parenting!)
You may have guessed, I'm not a big fan of medicating children with powerful stimulants, particularly as their brains are still developing. I'm sure there are plenty of occasions when it has to be done, but it's surely a last resort, not a first one, and I can't abide it when a parent says 'my child is out of control' when they actually mean 'my child has an illness that cramps my lifestyle, can't we tranquilize him or something?' You people know who you are!
Where was I?
Ah, right. Asthma, nut allergies and pregnancy. Three health concerns rolled into one. Apparently, if pregnant women eat nuts they risk giving their children asthma. I'm not sure how that works, but it's probably a very convoluted process. But do you remember when peanut allergies were weird? I remember hearing about it for the first time as a child, and it sounded very odd. Now they're everywhere, I know several people who suffer from serious nut allergies. Has it always been like this? Were there always many peanut sufferers who were too afraid to come forward? If so, why? Or is there an increase in allergies as time goes on.
Western living is, apparently, largely to blame. You don't get many peanut allergies in Africa, and they eat copious amounts. It's because their immune systems have more important things to do. (An allergic reaction is caused by the immune system responding rather overenthusiastically to an essentially harmless substance, by the way, in case that didn't make any sense). People in Africa have, on average, a much lower standard of living and their immune systems have to fight of germs and disease all the time. We in the west have a habit of sterilizing everything. My own mother did it, when I was born she went hygiene crazy, even sterilizing the phones, although who she expected to be calling a 2 week old baby I never established. So our immune systems get bored and twitchy, and allergies occur. Peanuts seem to be especially prone to causing a bad reaction.
I remember reading an article in New Scientist about this, where a woman died after eating peanuts at a party. Her husband said she must have eaten a peanut that "was hiding in a bowl of mixed nuts". It's a terrible tragedy and my sympathies go out to the guy, but if someone said to me 'find me a peanut', a bowl of mixed nuts would be the 2nd place I'd look. The 1st would be a bowl of peanuts. Why was she eating nuts if she had an allergy? Was this 'Russian roulette: The Christmas party edition'? Maybe she didn't know she had an allergy, but in that case, why blame the peanut? It could have been any other nut*, they were mixed. I've always been wary of Walnuts. All crumpled up like that, what are they hiding?
But this sort of story gets lost in the tide of articles and programmes about 'Food is bad for you!' There's nothing we can eat any more without some self-confessed expert lecturing us like idiot children or sifting through our bowel movements for some undisclosed reason. Jamie Oliver was practically Knighted for trying to stop kids eating 'junk', Gillian McKeith is a millionaire thanks to the nonsensical guff she spouts about nutrition, all because people are so paranoid about what they eat, and everyone seems hell bent on making it worse!
A lot of people don't trust GM food. Why? As if all other produce hasn't been cultivated and designed for maximum output over decades/centuries. But no, speed the process up in a lab and you can't trust it. 'Organic only' sections in Supermarkets annoy me, if they're going to have those, they should have 'GM only' as well. Discriminating against something because of its genes is otherwise known as racism, and I want no part of it!
There seems to be some sort of bandwagon, and everyone wants to jump on. Apparently, Janet Street Porter has recently been criticising smoothies and fruit drinks because of all the natural sugar they contain. never mind the vitamins and all that, it's the sugar that's important apprently. That just makes me want to consume smoothies until the stuff starts dripping from my ears, if Janet Street-porter is against it, I'm all for it. She's just massively infuriating.
But think about it. Red Meat = Very bad for your heart. Chicken = Probably Chemically enhanced, and they make Hugh cry. Fish = Heavy metal poisoning. Carrots = Possible vitamin A overdose. Citrus fruits = Too much sugar and acid damages your teeth. Other fruits = Sugar again, and don't forget pesticides and germs etc. Potatoes = too many carbs. Rice = Not enough carbs. Pasta = Too many carbs. Broccoli = High in carcinogens. Nuts = Fattening, too many oils. Mushrooms = Fungus? Eeeurgh. Sausages = Do you know what they putin that stuff? Eyes and anus and stuff! Curry = too many colourings. Smoothies = Janet say NO! Salad = Is it fresh? negative calories you know, if you eat it too often you might die. Coffee= Do you know what's in that? Tea = And that! Pizza = They spit in it you know, my mate saw them do it. Chinese food = All that MSG damages your eyes, you could go blind.
It goes on. There's literally nothing we can eat any more which doesn't maim or kill us in some way. Just be responsible, don't overindulge but don't starve to death either. Everything you do damages you in some way, that's life. For some people, a perfect world would be one where everyone just stays indoors hooked up to an IV drip and staring at the wall. If we're lucky, maybe they'll add some garlic to it, because there's nothing wrong with that. Yet.

* I am aware that a peanut is a legume. To anyone who was compelled to write to me to point that out, I'd advise you to go outside and talk to someone. Anyone, as you clearly need to.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Pollution Threatens Olympics! (again)

It's not been long since the people of China were working round the clock to get rid of hideous amounts of bright green algae that were swamping their beaches (seriosuly, look it up, The authorities stated that this was a natural, if extreme, occurence, and that is possible, but the more likely explanation is extremely high levels of chemical fertilizers, flowing untreated into the chinese sea as a reuslt of intense agriculture. We're just as guilty of this in the UK, albeit to less extreme effect.
But now the quality of air in Beijing is being called into question. Apparently, the air quality is well below international standards. After seeing all those desperate people on boats scooping algae out of the sea with buckets, I couldn't help but imagine the people of Beijing running around with nets and hand held fans, trying to collect all the airborne dirt. This would never happen because it;

a) Is incredibly impractical
b) Would require far more people than even china can muster
c) Is too soon to the Olympics for this to have any effect
d) Impossible
e) All of the above.

The answer is obviously e). Thanks for playing. But as a result of this news, there have been a number of petitions for the athletes to use Asthma medication. On the surface, I see no issue with this. Although asthma sprays do contai steroids, going by my own observations, at school, the kids who use asthma medication are generally crap at sports. They're picked last for every team, like the fat children (of which I was one, so I know what I'm talking about). But on reflection, I question this appeal. I don't think it'll give the athletes unfair advantages, especially if they're all doing it. And I admit I'm not a pharmacologist, but it was my understanding that asthma was caused by a constriction of the airways, and inhalers released medication that widened the airways, allowing sufficient air in.

How is this going to help with air pollution? I understand that they're not getting enough air because of the pollution, but opening the lungs isn't going to solve anything if the problem is with the air itself. Maybe it's a different type of medication, but I struggle to imagine any medication or chemical that can somehow allow a person to filter the air they breathe before it gets to the lungs, seeing as we don't have any biological system for doing so. Many athletes train at high altitude (so low oxygen) environments, meaning their respiratory systems increase in efficiency to compensate, so they already have lungs like beach-balls. But you can have a trachea like the channel tunnel, if the air you breath is rank, it's not going to help.

On the BBC article, there's a typical piece of media friendly 'science' from John Brewer, "performance director at the Lucozade Sport Science Academy in Slough". To be fair to him, it's possible he gave a very detailed explanation of the variabilities involved and they editted it down to what is presented. Either that, or he's one of those media hungry managers/idiots who use long winded explanations to mask a lack of intelligence. He basically states that air pollution can have an effect "but the extent of the effect will depend on the event". Sprinters and shot-putters won't be too badly affected, whereas marathon runners and cyclists, endurence athletes, will suffer the most. So to put it briefly, the more time you spend breathing the polluted air, the more it will affect you.

Thanks for that. Who'd have thought?

The only sollution is for all competitors to use scuba gear or some sort of life-saving respiratory gear. Nothing else will get round the problem. But this is another reason to put forward my idea of Lotterlympics. Get rid of all these highly trained professional atheletes, it's boring watching someone do something when you know they're really good at it, spectacular failures is what people want. So I think we should select all athletes from the general populace at random. It would be amazing! Imagine it, a 35 year old plumber from Croydon in the 100m dash against a 20 stone New York Cop and a 43 year old New Zealand Sheep herder. Boxing between a 6ft Kenyan Soldier and a 28 stone Japanese Sumo wrestler. The possibilities are endless.

Throw in text votes for peoples favourite competitors and I guarantee the powers that be wil lgo for it.

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