Birthdays

Michael posted this on Facebook, but it's good for the blog too.

Apparently Christmas is a rare birthday. I wonder if it's a reporting issue or just that people don't want to have their kids on holidays. The opposite seems to be true for Valentine's.

And then there's the fact that September is one gestation period after Christmas/New Year's.

Birthday Probabilities

  

Jenny McCarthy > Medical Science

I don't actually think that she's truly to blame for everyone not vaccinating, but this is an "entertaining" site that tells how many children have become sick or died due to impropper or non-vaccination.

Disturbing, it's over 1000 kids.

Jenny McCarthy Body Count

The interesting thing that I read recently was that there might be problems with the Tdap vaccine. It's now the standard vaccine for Tetanus, Diptheria, and Pertussis replacing multiple vaccines that were used before. However, it looks like for pertussis, at least, it's much less effective than previously believed. Like you need to get a booster every three years instead of every 10.

  

Mandarin Oranges

Ok, last one for the moment. I try to get my students little food items during finals. My intro students had their choice of little chocolates. I went a little bit healthier for my astrophysics final, mandarin oranges. (Well, candy canes too, but I won't subvert my arguement too much.)

I just had one, and frankly, it was a little sour. Ok, more than a little. I bring this up because Sarah doesn't like sour mandarins or clementines. If she'd had it she would have said, "Daddy, take this back to the store. It's sour. Buy sweet ones."

Apparently we're raising a little consumerist. If you buy something and you don't like it, you take it back to the store.

  

In Defense of Food

We haven't had many book reviews on the blog recently, but I just finished re-reading Michael Pollan's 2008 NYT bestseller, and it's worth discussion, especially in light of a recent business trip to DC/Virginia.

Pollan condenses his entire answer to "what should we humans eat in order to be maximally healthy" as "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Each of those three sentences contains a wealth of meaning, and without running afoul of fair-use laws, or paraphrasing the whole book, I'll try to summarize the key elements, specifically with an eye towards "what should I eat" advice.

"Eat food" sounds obvious, but he spends a couple chapters pointing out that, thanks to the food industry and helped along by a few pivotal government policies, eating "food" is actually rather difficult these days, since most of what is available in supermarkets actually falls under the classification of "food-like substances". Much of the "Western Diet" has been turned away from whole foods and instead consists of products that have two primary components, a base or substrate, and nutrients added after the fact. This construct has the advantage of being cheaper for the food manufacturer* and cheaper for the vendor b/c of longer shelf lives, and the consumer has been hoodwinked by "nutritionism" into believing that this substitution has been in their best interests so there are no complaints from that corner.

The second sentence, "Not too much", is the most straightforward - we as a nation eat way too many calories, regardless of their source. Pollan mentions the (dubious) advice to limit our red meat and saturated fat intake, and notes that we have, to some degree, succeeded in decreasing the fraction of "bad" food in our diet. However, this isn't really a result of actually eating less of the "bad" foods but instead just consuming more total calories while holding our "bad food" intake roughly constant.

This leads into the third piece of advice, "mostly plants", which is where we as a culture so frequently fail. Eating is pretty much a zero-sum game, and so if we eat more industrial foods, we do so either at the expense of something else (or by increasing our total caloric intake which isn't great either)... and generally that sacrificed item are vegetables. But "mostly plants" means more than just trying to choke down xx servings of veggies per day; it means paying attention to what the meat that you consume itself consumed. It means eating more plants and fewer processed foods. It means eating grass-fed organic beef.

The sub-title of Pollan's book is "an eater's manifesto", having also mentioned the important distinction between "consuming calories" and "eating & enjoying food". In Defense of Food contains a very good chapter that includes his advice on how to eat well (you really should buy the book anyway), but here are a few nuggets.

  • Trans fats are REALLY, REALLY bad. Avoid them at all costs.
  • Saturated fats aren't necessarily bad, if they are a part of "food" and not "manufactured food-like stuff".
  • Don't automatically believe in nutritionism. This reductionist science claims that amazingly complex foods can be replaced with a substrate + 100% of USRDA of 40 or so vitamins and minerals.
  • Eat organic & from farmers' markets, whenever possible. Not just because the toxins in "conventionally grown" foods aren't good for you, but because veggies grown in healthy soils are twice (or more) as healthy as industrial veggies, and while "organic" doesn't guarantee healthy soils, it's often a good hint. Thus, local farmers market foods are probably better than supermarket organics, if you have the choice.
  • Diversify your portfolio. One of the problems with the 20th century industrialization of food was the extreme drop in the diversity of sources in what we eat. Today the per capita diet contains 554 calories from corn, 257 from soy, and 768 from wheat. Yikes. We evolved as omnivores, and it makes sense that it's a good idea to eat a variety of grains (not too much of each), a variety of meats (not too much, not corn-fed), and variety of vegetables (from healthy soils).

And here's where we touch on uncomfortable subjects - Pollan mentions that there is a trade-off in eating between quantity and quality, and that the American system has focussed on the former, at the cost of the latter. "Turning out vast quantities of so-so food sold in tremendous packages at a terrific price is what we do well." As such, eating in America has very significant socio-economic under-(over?)tones: one must make the choice between eating healthily and spending more $$, or saving money while giving inferior/unhealthy meals to your family. Those of us who are lucky enough to have the extra time and money to acquire good food can do so, depending on where we live, but a large portion of the country does not have that luxury. Certainly we can hope that the more of us that shop at farmers markets, join CSAs, and plant gardens, etc will slowly shift the nation's food culture in the right direction, but is that enough? Surely not, but if the effort to improve our personal diets seems daunting, overthrowing the industrial-food empire seems impossible.

* really, "food manufacturer" sums up a lot that is wrong with current society. Farmers no longer grow food, they grow plants that, through several mechanical and chemical processes, are turned into substances that end up on supermarket shelves. What are the top two crops in the midwest? Corn & Soybeans, neither of which can be eaten by humans straight off the plant. Why corn and soy? Because those two are "among nature's most efficient transformers of sunlight and chemical fertilizer into carbohydrate energy (corn) and fat and protein (soy)."[p117] Incidentally, I highly recommend the documentary "King Corn".

  

Unpacking

We are, very fortunately, NOT in the process of moving. Whenever K and I see a moving van, or others in the neighborhood carrying boxes or whatnot in/out of places, we high-five and are very glad to not be relocating.

This weekend, however, I needed to dig up some old class notes, and naturally that involved opening up several boxes trying to find the right one - and in so doing unearthed a bunch of fun (and dull) memories that reminded me of this friend-of-a-friends' post about digging up things from a little further back.

So, blogosphere, what school project from elementary school do you still remember? The first one that came to my mind was a "fog picture" in 1st grade, where constructed a scene from construction paper and wax paper, placing the background/distant items on the bottom, then laying down a sheet of wax paper, then the middle ground cutouts, then more wax paper, and then finally foreground items, with one more sheet of wax paper. Pretty clever idea really. I've no idea where that thing is, but I do remember it had whales in it. Funny, that.