Break out the tinfoil helmets!

From "Signs," 2002

From “Signs,” 2002

I find the tinfoil helmet image is always good for a laugh – don’t want those pesky aliens messing with our thought patterns! At the same time, we all know aliens aren’t the problem. I recently read a statistic that in the US, we see as many advertisements in a year as people 50 years ago did in their lifetimes. Advertisers explicitly set out to mess with our thought patterns. Now an NPR post reveals that “Facebook scientists” have messed with our thoughts as well.

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

Here’s the gist of their experiment:

“For one week back in 2012, Facebook scientists altered what appeared on the News Feed of more than 600,000 users. One group got mostly positive items; the other got mostly negative items.

Scientists then monitored the posts of those people and found that they were more negative if they received the negative News Feed and more positive if they received positive items.”

Experimental methods rapidly followed the birth of psychology in the last century as social scientists sought acceptance into the real community of science. Freud, after all, won his Nobel Prize in literature, not science.

Back in the day, psych experiments were conducted on helpless animals and hapless college students who needed to make a buck. Now, Facebook Scientists (don’t you wish you could see their credentials?) can run such tests on all of us for free, because no human being now living has ever read the Terms of Service for anything online that they wish to join.

I actually find it interesting that this particular test confirmed a hunch I’ve been working out on this blog over the last few months:  Reading negative news makes me crabby, while reading positive news improves my disposition. Only took me four years of blogging to work that out, a truth that could also be summarized by these wise words of British author, Kingsley Amis:  “Nice things are nicer than nasty ones.”

Oh yes, and I was being precise when I said four years – I launched this blog four years ago on June 28. They say most blogs don’t last that long, and I know I’m posting less often lately – it seems like I always get lazy in summer, especially in June. But all of you readers keep me hunting for interesting things, or weird things (like Facebook scientists) to share.  So thanks, I appreciate it, and please stay tuned!

Wild Eating

animal house food fight

This post isn’t really about food fights in school cafeterias – some of us have matured (a bit) since those days.  Actually, the photo of John Belushi was a classic bait-and-switch, a ploy to draw you into a post about foods that are good for us.

At the end of November, I caught an interview on NPR’s Science Friday with Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist who specializes in science and health.  She discussed the way humans, since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, have bred the nutrition out of plants, and what the science of micro-nutrition has recently learned about optimizing our food choices.

eating on the wild side

The interview was a good introduction to Robinson’s bestseller, Eating on the Wild Side, and she led off with a discussion of corn.

Wild corn came with tough husks and only a few kernels per ear. It didn’t taste very good, but it was healthy, with 20% protein and only 2% sugar.  In contrast, modern corn has 2%-4% protein and sugar as high as 40%.  Still better than Ding Dongs, but headed in that direction.

At the core of this research are phytonutrients, molecular level nutrients that are natural wonder drugs.  Lab work over the last 15-20 years reveals that some phytonutriets increase resistance to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.  Unfortunately, they tend to make foods bitter, a taste we would rather avoid.

Taste hasn’t been the only factor in denaturing our food.  Carrots were red and purple until 400 years ago, when a group of Dutch growers, paying political homage to the House of Orange, used mutant yellow carrots to create the orange variety we know today.  Unfortunately, orange carrots have 16 times fewer antioxidants than red and purple varieties.

There’s good news on the carrot front; Robinson says we can find the older varieties in seed catalogs, and they actually taste better.  During the rest of the interview, she presented ways to maximize nutrition and the number of beneficial phytonutrients we eat.  Her suggestions included:

  • Eat the skins.  The skin of carrots of any variety contains half the nutritional value, so wash them but don’t peel them and throw the skins away.  Don’t skin potatoes before mashing them.
Blue Jade corn

Blue Jade corn

  • When choosing fruits and vegetables, a rule of thumb is the healthiest colors are red, blue, black, and purple.  There are exceptions, however, like artichokes, which Robinson says are among the best veggie choices.

  • Garlic really is a “wonder drug,” but it’s value depends on two substances combining after the cloves are cut or crushed, and one of these can be damaged if heated too soon.  The solution is to crush garlic then set it aside for 1o minutes before sautéing.

  • In one study three to four servings a week from the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens, kale, and others) reduced the risk of prostate cancer in men by up to 60%.

  • Daily servings of Welches grape juice, made from Concord grapes, appears to improve the memory of seniors with early signs of Alzheimer’s.

  • The nutritional value of many fruits and veggies increases with cooking.  This includes berries, which makes berry pies and cobblers among the healthiest deserts.

***

Once, when I was younger, I lived as a strict vegetarian for two years.  At the time I was learning to meditate and tried out advice (which proved to be true) that a moderate diet and occasional fasting helps concentration.  My diet is different now, but I’m equally attentive to what I eat; my motive is overall health.

Wherever one stands on the issue of health care, no one can argue that the best way to stay healthy is not to get sick.  Next to quitting smoking and exercise, diet is a major behavioral variable we can tilt in our favor.  The effort is enjoyable to, in a mildly subversive way, like buying nothing on Black Friday.  In an era when the next big corporate move in fruit is patenting GMO apples that don’t turn brown, I find heirloom veggies like blue corn and purple carrots to be especially attractive.

Take a look at Jo Robinson’s website, eatwild.com; you’ll find it informative and inspiration.

***

PS:  Based on several comments, I’m adding links to possible sources of interesting seeds.

burpee.com:  For a long time, the seed catalog of choice.  Now online with info tailored to your climate zone.  I poked around enough to see that they have purple carrot seeds.

Heirloom Seed Companies: I found this link on Facebook. Haven’t checked it out yet, but it looks interesting.

Getting rid of those pesky memories

In my previous post, I wrote of advances in the field of virtual reality, and posted a video clip that brought to mind the dystopian landscape of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Word (1932).  Huxley imagined life in “The World State” in 2540, where children are born in “hatcheries.”  They are raised in “conditioning centers” and learn to be avid consumers and abhor the thought of solitude.

Happy face thumbs up

One of the World State’s tools for keeping people docile are “the feelies,” multi-sensory movies, most often centered on sex.  The connection to virtual reality should be obvious.  Another conditioning tool was “soma,” a side-effect free hallucinogenic drug that World State citizens used to go on “holidays.”  Soma relates to the subject of this post – a potential advance in the technology of feeling happy, happy.

In “Unwanted Memories Erased in Experiment,” an article in The Wall Street Journal (12/23/13, p. A1), Gautam Naik writes that scientists used electrical currents to erase memories they had implanted earlier.  Someday doctors may be able to zap painful memories and leave the rest in tact.  Assuming the technology becomes (relatively) safe, would this be a wise thing to do?

In a few cases it might be – the 39 patients who volunteered for the experiment were already undergoing electroshock therapy for severe clinical depression after all other treatments had failed.  But the article’s assertion that memory erasing might be useful to remove “associations linked to smoking, drug-taking, or emotional trauma” suggests the kind of social engineering Huxley wrote about.

Last year at a Buddhist teaching, I met an elderly woman who had spent her youth in a Soviet gulag.  As difficult as the hardship was, she had written a memoir for her family to read, “So they’ll know who I really am.”  Her core identity, as well as her later practice of Buddhism were direct results of those years of suffering.

In my late 20’s, I knew a woman who lost her closest male friends over a short period of time; they died of cancers related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.  After surviving a deep depression, my friend enrolled for training to work in a hospice.  Without the pain of loss, she wouldn’t have found her calling.

The poet, Rilke, declined Jung’s offer of therapy work saying, “If you take away my devils, I fear my angels might flee.”  

The disowned parts of ourselves are especially important in scripture.  When Jesus offers living water (Jn 4:10-13), only those who know they are thirsty will hear him.  When Buddha teaches a path beyond suffering, we won’t listen if we’ve deadened ourselves with soma or reality TV.

A tour of America 80 years ago sparked Huxley’s vision of an economic and political culture at war with soul values.  Now that another “holiday season” has run its course, as the media waits for the next distraction, I am reminded once again of the cautionary words in this wonderful poem that William Stafford published in 1960:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

The 2013 Ig Nobel Prizes

2013 Ig Nobel

Though I reported on last year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, I missed the 2013 edition of this annual Harvard laugh fest, which was held in September.  I only heard the details yesterday, on NPR’s “Science Friday.”  Much better late than never for this look at the work of international scientists whose “research makes people laugh and then think,” according to Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of “The Annals of Improbable Research.”

The ten 2013 winners Ig Nobel winners, who received their prizes from (real) Nobel Laureates, include:

The Prize in Psychology, which went to a multinational team that confirmed empirically that “people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive.”  Their article, “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder,” was published in the May 15, 2012 issue of The British Journal of Psychology.

A Joint Prize in Astronomy and Biology, awarded to Marie Dacke, Emily Baird, Marcus Byrne, Eric Warrant, and Clarke Scholtz, proves that dung beetles use the Milky Way for navigation; they can push their balls in a straight line when the night sky is clear, but not when it is overcast.

A Probability Prize was given for two related findings: “First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and Second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.”  Bert Tolkamp of the Netherlands accepted the award and expressed his team’s gratitude for the honor, noting that they need the laughs, since researching cows can be “really boring.”

The Prize in Medicine went to a joint team from China and Japan for proving that post-heart transplant mice survive longer when listening to the Verdi opera, La Traviata, than to the music of Enya. (1)  These findings were chronicled in The Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery.

The Operatic Heart Transplant team

The Operatic Heart Transplant team

This year’s prize ceremony, like those in the past, sold out early. As South African entomologist, Marcus Byrne, who took part in the dung beetle study, said, “It shows how much people appreciate good science. It doesn’t have to make money. It doesn’t have to save lives. It’s just part of the human condition to be curious.” 

And, I would add, to enjoy a good laugh!

101 Things that Made America

Apollo suit.  NASA photo, Public Domain

Apollo suit. NASA photo, Public Domain

The Novermber, 2013 issue of The Smithsonian Magazine is devoted to 101 things that made America.  The magazine lists 33 contributors who chose these items from among the 137 million artifacts housed in 19 Smithsonian museums and research centers.

Animals, vegetables, and minerals are represented, and the objects chosen evoke the range of both light and dark aspects of our history.  The opening photograph of a stuffed buffalo is as sad as it is iconic, and the inclusion of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atom bomb, reminds us that weapons of mass destruction are part of what made us what we are.

The chosen artifacts include:

– The Lewis and Clark Compass (1804). At a cost of $5, it wasn’t cheap, but it survived the 7,000 mile trip.

– A California Gold Nugget (1848)

– Polio Vaccine (1952)

– Abraham Lincoln’s Stovepipe Hat (1865)

– Barbie Doll (1959)

Edison Light Bulb.  Public Domain.

Edison Light Bulb. Public Domain.

– Louis Armstrong’s Trumpet (1946)

– Glass Shards from the Birmingham Church Bombing (1963). Barely a month after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech, a bomb blast killed four African-American girls at their sunday school. Outrage over the murder of children at church lent a powerful impetus to the civil rights movement.

– Birth Control Pills (1965)

– The original, tattered Star Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Keys to compose the national anthem.

– Table and Chairs from Appomattox Court House, where General Lee surrendered to General Grant to end the Civil War (1865)

– The Model T Ford (1913)

– Section of a California Costal Redwood tree.

– Passenger Pigeons: Once there were billions of these birds, but 19th century communities slaughtered them to bake in pigeon pies. The last surviving bird died in 1914 and is stuffed in the Smithsonian.

– The Eniac Computer (1945). I would have chosen an Apple IIE, or even a TRS-80, since it was personal computers, not this behemoth, that changed the world.

Geronimo, 1887.  Public Domain

Geronimo, 1887. Public Domain

This photograph of Geronimo, taken in 1887. The previous year, Geronimo surrendered his small band and was transported from his beloved Arizona to Florida. He spent the rest of his life in federal prison, though in 1905 he was brought out to ride in the inaugural parade of Theodore Roosevelt. His request to the president to return to his home was denied. On his deathbed in 1909, he reportedly said, “I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”

– Levi’s Jeans (1873)

– Singer Sewing Machine (1851)

– The Colt Revolver (1839)

– Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone (1876)

– Wright Brothers’ Airplane (1903)

– The Huey Helicopter (1966).  Think of the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now

– Section of the Aids Quilt (1987)

– The first Kodak camera (1888)

– Stage Coach (1851).  I would have included a covered wagon.

– The Teddy Bear (1903).  During a hunting trip in Mississippi, President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that guides had tied to a tree.  This inspired a political cartoon which featured a wide-eyed cub, and led to the toy that is still found in millions of nurseries.

Vintage Teddy Bear by David Crane, 2003, CC BY-SA-2.0

Vintage Teddy Bear by David Crane, 2003, CC BY-SA-2.0

– Ruby Slippers – the ones that Judy Garland wore to take us home in the 1938 Wizard of Oz.

– R2D2 (1983). Here’s the fun story from the Smithsonian Magazine: when filmmaker, George Lucas was finishing production of American Graffiti, the sound designer called for “R2-D2,” which meant, “Reel 2, Dialogue 2.” Lucas, who was already working on Star Wars, said, “What a great name!”

***

This is just a partial list.  You can see all the choices on the website.  No two people are likely to agree on all the artifacts.  What do you think is missing?  Which items should be dropped?  And for those who live in other countries, what are some of your key artifacts and their stories?

It’s mostly insubstantial

This morning, on friend and author Amy Rogers’ website, Sciencethrillers.com, I found the link to a great article by New York Times bestselling author James Rollins.  Rollins writes science thrillers, and the article, Turning Science Into Fiction, details a tour he took of Fermilab, near Chicago, the conversations he had with physicists there, and how he turns such information into riveting stories like his most recent novel, The Eye of God.

The Eye of God

The article holds points of interest for writers of all sorts.  When Rollins sat down with a group of Fermilab physicists, his question was, “Tell me what scares you about your research, what keeps you up at night?”  Not only did the answers become central to The Eye of God, but they hold great interest to me as a student of Eastern thought.

All religions hold that the world we perceive with our senses hides much of what is really real, but according to Rollins, his conversation with these scientists centered on “the insubstantiality of the physical world.”  He gives this quote he discovered after his visit:

“If you remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body, every person that’s ever lived would fit inside a baseball.” – Brian Greene, physicist

Beyond such ultimate pondering, Rollins’ article is full of details on his research which should be of interest to any novelist who wonders how much one needs to learn of an esoteric topic to be able to tell a convincing story.

I highly recommend this article, and for more of the same, Sciencethrillers.com, which you will find in the link above and on my blogroll.

Nights of shooting stars

I wasn’t even thinking of the Perseid meteor showers when I posted my review of Stardust, a movie in which a shooting star is central to the story.  Since then I’vs spotted news articles which reminded me that the annual peak time to see shooting stars is upon us!

Nasa photo: public domain

Every August for the last 2000 years, we have been treated to meteor showers as the earth passes by remnants of the Swift-Tuttle comet.  This year, because light from the waning crescent moon will be dim, the celestial light show should be especially dramatic.

The meteors will be visible from now through August 24, peaking this weekend, on the 11th and 12th.  NASA estimates we could see as many as 80-100 shooting stars per hour on those nights.  Best viewing will naturally be in places away from city lights, but in past years, I’ve seen the Perseids from the back yard, where there is plenty of ambient light.

This is really worth checking out if you get the chance.  No matter how many other distractions we face, celestial events like this can stop us in our tracks, open our eyes of wonder, and remind us again of the things that really matter.

Washedashore.org: art to save the sea

Meet Lidia the Seal. She stands as tall as I can reach, in a vacant lot in Bandon, Oregon, the creation of artists and volunteers of the Washed Ashore Project.

Lidia2

The group’s goal is to turn plastic and other ocean garbage into art that illustrates the harm to marine life and the entire food chain resulting from careless dumping.  So far, 1000 volunteers have collected three and a half tons of marine debris along 20 miles of coastline and used it to create 18 giant sculptures.

Detail of Henry the Fish, showing the kinds of objects used to make the sculptures.  Henry is 15'x9'x8'

Detail of Henry the Fish, showing the kinds of objects used to make the sculptures. Henry is 15’x9’x8′

Plaques beside the sculptures explain a little about the dangers of the degrading petrochemicals in plastics in the ocean, as well as the process of collecting, washing, sorting, and recycling what the volunteers collect.

One of the plaques affirms that, “Every action you make in your life has an impact.  Even small actions make a positive difference.  People working together CAN create results.  This project proves it!”

I wish you could have been there to share the delight of rounding a corner to find Lidia and Henry, but for the next best thing, please visit the project website: washedashore.org. There are many more photos and descriptions illustrating the process of turning these castoff items into art, as well as information on exhibits in other locations.

Maybe one day soon, one of these washed ashore creatures will visit a spot near you!  Meanwhile, enjoy these, and perhaps, as one of the plaques says, you will be moved to see art where others see garbage, right where you are today!