Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Science and Health News Chum: Detecting Gluten, Medicine Notes, Sex, Plastic, and Love

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Oct 03, 2015 @ 10:13 am PST

userpic=mad-scientistAs I noted in my highway headline post, it’s been very busy around here. Still, I’ve collected a few articles of interest. This collection is all connected by being related to recent science and health discoveries:

  • Detecting Gluten. One article I read recently led me to discover a handheld sensor about to hit the market: the Nima sensor. Nima, is a portable, handheld gluten detector. Users load a half-teaspoon sample of food into a test tube and pop that into a triangle-shaped sensor. (They’ll need to use a new disposable capsule for each test to avoid cross-contamination.) The sensor assesses the contents of the capsule—detecting trace elements of gluten down to 20 parts per million—and then spits out a “yes” or “no” within two minutes. “No” signals that the food is safe to eat; a “yes” indicates that gluten is present. We’ve added ourselves to the mailing list for more info.
  • Generic Medicines. Recently, I was prescribed a blood pressure medicine that was almost $100 after insurance (I’ve since switched to a generic that is much cheaper). With that experience, the problem with the pricing of generics was on my mind — and so this article on the pricing of generic medicines caught my eye. Part of the problem is bioequivalence studies. Generic drugs don’t need the excruciatingly drawn-out safety and efficacy studies required of new brand-name medications, but they do need to pass a bioequivalency study proving that their drug is absorbed the same way as the original. According to Wikipedia, the most common type of bioequivalence study is to “measure the time it takes the generic drug to reach the bloodstream in 24 to 36 healthy volunteers; this gives them the rate of absorption, or bioavailability, of the generic drug, which they can then compare to that of the innovator drug”. Making the chemical is cheap. If you also want FDA approval, it costs $2 million and takes two years. There’s also the problem of how pharmacies and insurance companies price things. It’s an interesting read.
  • Timing of Medicines. I mentioned blood pressure meds above. Here’s an interesting note related to that: taking your blood pressure meds before bed instead of in the morning lowers your diabetes risk. In one study, when adjusted for age, waist circumference, glucose, chronic kidney disease, and hypertension treatment the researchers found sleeping blood pressure was the most significant predictor of diabetes risk, while waking blood pressure was found to have no predictive value. A second study found, when accounting for age, waist circumference, glucose, chronic kidney disease and specific treatment, that taking the blood pressure medications at night resulted in a 57 percent decrease in the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Male Birth Controls. A new approach has been found towards a possible male birth control pill. This approach doesn’t focus on hormones, but proteins. A study in mice focused on a protein called calcineurin, which is found in the sperm-producing cells of the testes as well as other cells in the body. The researchers genetically engineered mice so that they lacked a gene that makes part of the calcineurin protein but is activated only in sperm-producing cells. When these mice had sex, they were infertile, the researchers said. When the researchers tried to figure out why their genetically engineered mice were infertile, they found that the mice’s sperm cells did not swim well and were not able to fertilize eggs. Further experiments found that the midpieces of these sperm didn’t bend normally, which prevented the sperm from penetrating the membrane of an egg. Now to see if this works with humans.
  • Ringing in the Ears. One side effect of my migraines is tinitus — what some call “ringing” in the ears, but which (for me) is a high-pitched squeal. For the longest time, we didn’t know what caused it…. but now we do. It turns out it shares a common source with chronic pain. Doctors compared tinnitus patients with those who did not have tinnitus and found volume loss in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area that plays a role in the limbic system and functions as a “gate” or control area for noise and pain signals that is also associated with depression. This is an area that also lights up when you play unpleasant noises, so it has to do with unpleasant sensations. They found the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens are part of a “gatekeeping” system that determines which sounds or other stimuli to admit. When the system is defective, affected patients can be subjected to constant stimuli and long-lasting disturbances. The area is also associated with depression and anxiety, conditions often arise “in lockstep” with chronic pain. Because of this, the researchers are now looking to drugs that regulate that system, like dopamine and serotonin, to restore the gatekeeping role and eliminate the chronic pain, but more research is needed.
  • Eliminating Plastics. One of the scourges of the model world is plastic. Very useful, it is also not biodegradable and becomes the waste that will list forever. But then again… it turns out the mealworms and mealmoth larvae eat plastic and generate biodegradable poop from it. This explains how they get into food wrapped in plastic.  Being serious: Larvae of the darkling beetle will not only feed on expanded polystyrene, but microorganisms in their guts biodegrade it internally. And then, they poop out a seemingly safe product that may be suitable as soil for crops. Another surprise is that the PS doesn’t seem to be toxic to the insects. This work is building on research initiated at the Beihang University in China, where researchers observed waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths, break down polyethylene in the form of plastic bags thanks to microorganisms in their guts. So far, the excreted waste appears safe to use as soil.
  • Picking a Boy/Girlfriend. Ever wonder why you don’t think your best friend’s partner is cute? Ever wonder why you think your love is beautiful, but no one else does? Science has figured out why.  According to a new study, it’s our life experiences—not a perfectly chiseled jaw or sultry bedroom eyes—that make a person’s face appealing to us. Sure, symmetrical features are generally more attractive than non-symmetrical ones, but an even face only partially accounts for someone’s overall “attractiveness,” researchers find. Physical attraction is highly personal—even among relations who’ve had similar upbringings. Researchers chalked up the differences to our own distinct life experiences, which can vary widely thanks to co-workers, peers, past relationships, and media exposure. Essentially, if you’ve had good experiences with people who have certain facial characteristics, you’ll most likely find them attractive. As time passes, others who look like them will seem good-looking to you as well.



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Saturday News Chum Stew: Theatre Etiquette, Water, Fat, Cybersecurity, and Science

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Aug 01, 2015 @ 9:47 am PST

Observation StewIt’s Saturday, and it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Time to clean out the accumulated links. Before I do, however, here’s a reminder link: If you are a Windows user and comtemplating upgrading to Windows 10, you should read my summary post about why I’m waiting, and what I want to remember when I finally do. On to the stew:


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Saturday News Chum: Pools, Morticians, Vinyl, Plutonium, and Facebook

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jul 18, 2015 @ 3:07 pm PST

Observation StewIt’s an oddly stormy July day here in Southern California (a bit worrisome because I have outdoor theatre tickets tonight). Still, storms make it a perfect time for some stew. I’ve also got two other themed articles brewing on the back burners (one on food, and one on cybersecurity), but the haven’t quite set up right yet. So let’s dig into the stew:

  • Benefitting from the Drought. Having a pool is a headache. You’ve got to keep it full; you’ve got to keep it clean. Additionally, when there is a drought, you worry about the water lost to evaporation… and leaks. Further, if you have a leak, think of the water bill if you have to drain and refill it to repair. I’m telling you this because some niche businesses benefit from a drought: In particular, a pool repair man who is able to repair pools under water has more work than he can handle. He’s developed a pool repair compound (trade secret) that can be applied and cure under water, meaning that pools do not require draining for repair. I found this very interesting, as I suspect my pool to have another leak… and for that leak to be somewhere deep where I can’t find it. During the summer, it is hard to differentiate water lost to a leak from water lost to evaporation.
  • No One Ever Plans to Be A Mortician. This is one of my favorite phrases… and so here’s an article about morticians. Specifically, it is about two Los Angeles morticians who are trying to effect a radical shakeup of the undertaking business. What they want to do is return death to the home. In other words, people are removed from death and their loved ones. People used to die at home; now they die in hospitals. They are handled in isolation by undertakers, who pump them full of chemicals to make them look alive. These two young morticians work with families to facilitate what the two call a “more natural” death — no formaldehyde cocktail, no pods that fill hollow eyes, no mouth former, no satin-lined casket, no metal vault. The goal is to promote home funerals. If family members care to, they can undress, bathe, and cool the body with ice themselves or they can watch them do so. Interesting concept.
  • The Rebirth of Vinyl. If you purchase music these days, you’ve probably heard about the rebirth of vinyl records; quite suprising in this day of digital music and CDs. But not everyone thinks it will last. In particular, Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter Paul and Mary, thinks the current resurgence of vinyl is just a fad. Specifically, he thinks a trend to oversampling will eliminate the sound advantage, but the tactile and emotional advantage will remain. Then again, if you don’t have a place or way to listen to the music you own, what difference does it make.
  • Invisible Girlfriends. On the Internet, there’s a service for everything — even being an invisible girlfriend who is there only in text messages. This service is provided in a way similar to a Mechanical Turk: it is crowdsourced. What is it like to be an Invisible Girlfriend? Funny you should ask: Someone wrote an article about the experience. This seems the perfect subject for a Reply All episode.
  • Magnets and Plutonium. Pluto has been in the news, so why not Plutonium. Plutonium is an odd metal: based on where it is in the periodic table, one would expect it to be magnetic — yet it isn’t. Scientists have just started to figure out why. The reason is that plutonium can have four, five or six electrons in the outer shell in the ground state (they previously thought the number was fixed); further, not only does it fluctuate between the three different configurations, it is in all three at the same time. Because the number of electrons in plutonium’s outer shell keeps changing, the unpaired electrons in the outer shell can never line up in a magnetic field and so plutonium can’t become magnetic.
  • Taking Control of Your Digital Life. One of the things that was nice about Livejournal was the ability to see what was happening with your friends chronologically, back to the point where you had last done so. Facebook and their algorithms made that difficult: you were never sure if you were seeing everything from everyone — Facebook tried to bring up what it thought was most important. That all may be changing. Supposedly, Facebook is going to soon let you bypass their algorithm. After years of sorting news feeds primarily by algorithm, Facebook is letting users choose what they want to see first.An update to Facebook’s iOS app expands the existing “News Feed Preferences” section with a way to choose whose updates appear at the top of the timeline. A similar update is coming to Facebook’s Android app and desktop website in the coming weeks. Users can check out the new settings by pressing the “More” button in the Facebook app’s bottom-right corner, then tapping on “News Feed Preferences” and selecting “Prioritize who to see first.” This brings up a list of friends and Pages that users can mark as favorites. Unread updates from favorite contacts will always appear at the top of the News Feed, overriding Facebook’s predictive algorithms.

That’s it — your stew for the weekend. Let’s now hope that the storm (we’ve got thunder and rain as I type this) doesn’t cancel tonight’s theatre. Update: It did :-(

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You Are What You Eat

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat May 02, 2015 @ 12:16 pm PST

userpic=gluten-freeHere are a few posts from the last few weeks related to what you eat, and its effects. This is timely, as the CDF Food Fair and Convention is this weekend.


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Something To Stew About

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jun 07, 2014 @ 10:55 pm PST

Observation StewThis has been another busy week, what with trying to get the truth out about the kerfluffle at the REP in Santa Clarita (#IStandWithTheREP),  my daughter Erin being in town getting ready to go off to a summer Yiddish program back east, installing and setting up a new password manager, and loads of stuff at work. Still, I grabbed a few articles of interest:


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It’s the Littlest Things…

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Apr 03, 2014 @ 12:22 pm PST

userpic=observationsToday’s collection of lunchtime news chum stories all have to do with the littlest things having big effects:

  • High-O Silver! Recently, my wife picked up a new antibiotic gel at the pharmacy — an over-the-counter colloidal silver creme. I thought nothing of it (other than to try it and see it worked well) — after all, there are people who use colloidal silver to fight infections, although it has the side effect of turning your skin blue. Additionally, according to numerous studies, consumers may benefit from the silver specks’ ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungus and other microorganisms, including disease-causing Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. So, I was intrigued by this Discover article about the new silver antibiotic gel — it seems that it contains silver nanoparticals that may harm humans and wildlife. The problem is that silver nanoparticles’ tiny size allows them to enter parts of living things bodies that other molecules can’t reach. This can damage the inner workings of cells and inhibit protein production.  And of course, being stupid humans, we’re just tossing this stuff into the environment, along with plastic nanoparticles, gold nanoparticles, and copper nanoparticles.
  • Battling the Bulge. Everyone has heard, by now, of the various bariatric surgical approaches for weight loss. Two of the best approaches are the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass operation and the vertical sleeve gastrectomy. One might think that these approaches work by reducing the size of the stomach, and thus reducing the amount of food one can eat and/or absorb. But if you think that, you would be wrong. There’s some new research on how obesity surgery really works, and it is astounding. It appears that these surgeries actually work by setting in motion a cascade of signaling changes in the gut and elsewhere. Those changes, in turn, reshape the mix of gut bacteria in ways that appear to turn up metabolic function, lipid metabolism and signals that tell the brain it’s time to stop eating. Researchers have already observed that certain bile acids circulate more copiously in the guts and blood of patients in the wake of bariatric surgery, but could only guess at why. They also have observed that the community of bacteria colonizing the guts of obese patients changes in the wake of bariatric surgery. Researchers just found that that one link between these two changes is a genetic “switch,” or transcription factor, called FXR. Increased bile acid unlocks FXR, which improves metabolic function directly. But improved FXR signaling also promotes the growth of gut bacteria that help regulate fat metabolism, and suppresses gut bacteria that is linked to weight gain and metabolic disturbance. The next step is to figure out how to create the FXR signalling through medicine, not surgery.
  • Concrete Isn’t Forever. Most of us see something made of concrete, and we think “permanence” (well, I also wonder about the water trapped in the structure). But all of our concrete isn’t permanent, and that’s creating a problem. Here’s the scary headline related to this that caught my eye: Concrete-Dissolving Bacteria Are Destroying Our Sewers. The problem is that, within the sewer system, one set of microbes emits hydrogen sulfide, the gas that is also responsible for raw sewage’s unpleasant smell. This gas fills the empty space between the top of the pipe and the water flow. Another set of microbes living in this headspace turns hydrogen sulfide to sulfuric acid, which eats away at concrete, leaving behind gypsum, the powdery stuff you find in drywall. This turns the sewer pipes into wet drywall. Yuk. That’s worse than Orangeberg piping. The current solution is to put plastic liners into the concrete pipes, a process that is almost as expensive as digging them up entirely. A better approach might be to embed anti-bacteria in the concrete (but that can build resistance). Microbiologists are instead thinking about how to tinker with the water systems and DNA sequencing to create probacteria — bacteria in the water pipes that are harmless to humans (so they say) but can manage the sewer bacteria.
  • [ETA] Bugs from Birth. Here’s a P.S. item from Andrew Ducker on how the birth process was designed to colonize us with beneficial microbes that help keep the bad ones out. The implication of this is that, as more and more women opt go to the Caesarian route for convenience, we are entering life less prepared with the good stuff we need to get us started. As the article notes, “the founding populations of microbes found on C-section infants are not those selected by hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution or even longer.” In other words — we are too safe for our own good.

Scientists like to say that this is a bacteria’s world, and we just live with it. After all, humans carry more bacteria cells than human ones, and without bacteria, we couldn’t live in the world. In fact, small microbes now are believed to be responsible for one of the greatest mass extinctions on earth! We need to think more about our indiscriminate use of antibiotics,  and the impacts of our growing use of nanotechnology that we don’t fully understand.

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Thanksgiving Left-Over News Chum Stew

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Nov 30, 2013 @ 12:49 pm PST

Observation StewAh, the weekend after Thanksgiving. Time to sit down to a hearty bowl of Turkey Stew, with nice chucks of news:

  • Smelling The Subway. This is a real interesting article (and quite likely of interest to Andrew Ducker and those in the UK). A fellow who has synaesthesia, a neurological condition which prompts an involuntary reaction to sensory experiences, tastes things that he hears. In particular, place names provoke real tastes and intense cravings for particular foods. Using this knowledge, he has made a “taste map” of the London Underground. For example, to this fellow, Tottenham Court Road provokes a particularly strong taste of a sausage and egg breakfast, whilst nearby Bond Street prompts the less appealing tang of hairspray. Among the flavors that appear on the map are apple pie, bubble and squeak, HP sauce, purple grapes, chicken soup and soft boiled egg. Others include sweets such as love hearts, poppets, soft wine gums and jelly tots. Obscure flavors include coal dust, putrid meat, burnt rubber, wet wool, pencil eraser, fuzzy felt and dried blood.
  • Shel Silverstein. One of my favorite warped authors is Shel Silverstein. His kids stuff is great; his adult stuff is even better. He was also an accomplished songwriter, penning many folk and comedy songs. Here’s an interesting article on the unlikely way he rose to fame. Here’s a hint: Whenever you read his children’s stuff, look for the hidden subversive adult message.
  • I’m Bored. Many of us, I’m sure, get bored. But most of us don’t make it their job to boredom. Luckily, there are researchers that do. Did you know, for example, that there are five types of boredom … one more than researchers expected? (Well, you did if you were bored enough to listen to Wait Wait).  The types of boredom that they expected were: (1) Indifferent boredom, a relaxing and slightly positive type of boredom that “reflected a general indifference to, and withdrawal from, the external world”; (2)Calibrating boredom, the slightly unpleasant state of having wandering thoughts and “a general openness to behaviors aimed at changing the situation”; (3) Searching boredom, the kind that makes you feel restless and leaves you “actively seeking out specific ways of minimizing feelings of boredom”; and (4) Reactant boredom, which is so bad that it prompts sufferers “to leave the boredom-inducing situation and avoid those responsible for this situation (e.g., teachers).” What they discovered was a fifth type of boredom: Apathetic boredom. I’d go on, but I’m sure you’re bored by now.
  • Next on Wait Wait. Do you ever see scientific studies, and go “That’ll be on Wait Wait”. Here’s one for Wait Wait: Sexual frustration decreases lifespan — at least in flies. Specifically, the chemical attractant wafting from a female fruit fly shortened the lifespan of male flies when the femme fatale didn’t deliver on the signal’s promise, according to a new study.
  • Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning. I’m a morning person. In fact, I often get up just shortly before my alarm goes off. Turns out, there’s a reason why. It’s due to having a very accurate body clock. The body happens to love predictability. Your body is most efficient when there’s a routine to follow. So if you hit the hay the same time each night and awake the same time each morning, your body locks that behavior in.  The implication of this, of course, is that having constantly changing bedtimes and waking times puts stress on your body. That’s one of the reasons that, for me, sleeping me means sleeping until 530am.
  • Good News for Steve Stepanek. Dr. Steve Stepanek is one of the folks I work with regularly at CSUN, as he is head of the Computer Science Liaison Council. The Daily Sundial is reporting that Steve just got elected to the CSU Board of Trustees. That’s great news — they’ve got a great educator, an engineer, and a computer scientist (as well as a train aficionado) as a member.
  • Eating the Brain. One last science related item: Scientists have discovered an overlooked type of brain cell that may be responsible for learning. What it does is prune connections (essentially, eating them) in the brain, permitting new connections (and thus new learning) to be recorded. This could carry important implications for the battle against neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, for psychiatric disorders, and for the nagging loss of memory that comes with aging.


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The Jokes Just Write Themselves

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Jun 06, 2013 @ 7:14 pm PST

userpic=blushingSometimes the headline says it all: “Why did the chicken lose its penis?”

(This is one where you really need to read the comments)

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