30 December 2009

In praise of openness

Although I approve of virtually nothing Obama has done since becoming president, I have to give him credit for his recent move to prevent the U.S. government from classifying information indefinitely. It's impossible for citizens to evaluate their government if they don't know what it's doing. I don't think the measure goes nearly far enough--I'd like to see the government almost entirely stripped of its ability to operate in the dark--but it's definitely change in the right direction.

20 December 2009

Recent movies

I just saw Avatar and was impressed. I'd read "critics" claim that the movie has no plot and is simply visuals. I have no idea what they're comparing it to. It's good fun. I also watched The Union: Business Behind Getting High. I'd recommend it. My hope is that the U.S. will now simply legalize pot by making it a prescription drug. The better way, of course, would be to simply sell it openly, but we're evidently unable to talk about the issue (part of the great silence in U.S. media about all things real). I also watched The Botany of Desire--a film about the genetics of apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. Last but not least, I saw a Jump Tomorrow--a very clever film done without major actors and car crashes but with much verve. Long live verve!

15 December 2009

150th birthday of Zamenhof

The Esperanto flag is flying across the Google banner today!

10 December 2009

The great con

George Monbiot has a good post discussing the corporate campaign to use a few lines of hacked emails to undermine mountains of scientific data that point consistently toward a warming planet. The following is from the end of his excellent post:

In Climate Cover-Up, in Ross Gelbspan’s books The Heat is On and Boiling Point; in my book Heat and on the websites DeSmogBlog.com and exxonsecrets.org, you can find dozens of such examples. Together they expose a systematic, well-funded campaign to con the public. To judge by the comments you can read on this paper’s website, it has worked.

But people behind these campaigns know that their claims are untrue. One of the biggest was run by the Global Climate Coalition, which represented ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and several big motor manufacturers. In 1995 the coalition’s own scientists reported that “the scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” The coalition hid this finding from the public, and spent millions of dollars seeking to persuade people that the opposite was true.

These people haven’t fooled themselves, but they might have fooled you. Who, among those of you who claim that climate scientists are liars and environmentalists are stooges, has thought it through for himself?

6 December 2009

Wind + electric cars in Denmark

This is an exciting development:

By revamping the power grid, Dong Energy, Better Place’s partner and the biggest utility in Denmark, wants to power the anticipated fleet of electric cars with wind energy, which already supplies nearly 20 percent of the country’s power. With Better Place and the smart grid working together, cars would charge up as the winds blow at night, when power demand is lowest. Charging would soak up the utility’s extra power and sharply shrink the carbon footprint of electric vehicles.

5 December 2009

Thoughts on becoming strictly vegetarian

As I contemplate my 2010 New Year's resolutions, I'm considering returning to strictly vegetarian or perhaps even a vegan diet. Most of my adult life, I've either been vegetarian or close to it, and my diet has already been revamped quite a bit during the last year to reduce my weight. (I've lost 25 pounds thus far, going from the obese to the overweight category). The scientific establishment has made countless discoveries since the healthfood crazes of the '60s, but one fact that impresses me is that a person would have remained almost perfectly in line with all current medical advice if they simply ate a vegetarian diet (basically, a slightly de-Japanized version of the macrobiotic diet). The recent findings that lowering consumption of methionine (an essential protein) seems to correlate with longer lifespan puts one additional nail in the coffin of the meat and fish diet. All research that I've seen clearly shows significant health and longevity benefits (a good review can be found here in QJM). The concluding points of this 1997 article in Nutritional Reviews titled "Effects of vegetarian diets on aging and longevity," notes many of the key benefits found across studies:

1 ) From what we know, vegetarian diets result in a lower risk for many diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, constipation, hypertension, and type II diabetes. If we take the observed lower mortality rates as a parameter, longevity is higher.

Basically, these are the key "modern" diseases.

2) People on a vegan diet have an increased risk of iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, and calcium deficiency; eventually also zinc, n-3 fatty acids, and protein intake may not fulfill the basic requirements. Except for vitamin B12, it appears that a vegan diet can fulfill the requirements, but it takes quite a bit of knowledge and even expertise to choose the fruits and vegetables that contain all the necessary nutrients.

B12 is easy to get since it's put in pretty much everything (such as breakfast cereals) as a supplement, and vitamin D can be had through sunshine. The latest research even suggests that less protein might be a good thing.

3) Based on our present knowledge that high contents of vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates and low amounts of saturated fatty acids are correlated with a reduced risk for the same diseases mentioned under point 1, it is obvious that total abstinence from eating meat is not a major factor for the beneficial effects of vegetarian diets.

I guess it isn't necessary to be extreme. I might still eat an occasional fish that I catch on a hiking trip.

4) The vegetarian-type diet with lots of vegetables and fruits and complex carbohydrates can be considered a prudent diet in the sense of today's guidelines (see, e.g., Dietary Guidelines for Americans 1990).48

5) History has shown that vegetarians were right when they claimed more than 100 years ago that the vegetarian diet including fruits, vegetables, fibers, and complex carbohydrates is a healthy one.

People's intuition about food seems to be pretty good. The calorie-reduction diet (CRON) that's now been found to increase longevity significantly has been around in East Asia (it's called soshik in Korean and shoshoku in Japanese).

6) The inclusion of some low-fat meat and fish does not seem to be harmful; it could actually be beneficial in lowering the risk of deficiencies in some extreme cases of vegetarianism.

7) Finally, we should realize that about 40% of today's world grain production is used for meat-producing livestock. This conversion of cereal grains and other food concentrates to animal products involves large losses in energy; 1 kg of American beef requires 5 kg of grain. Therefore, if meat consumption could be lowered, more cereal grains and other valuable food components could be used to improve the world's nutrition.

This last point brings out the economic impact. My guess is that if we took the 1400 calories per day that each American (woman, man, and child) tosses into the trashcan each day and then added in the food saved from eating grain instead of animals and from eating corn instead of creating ethanol, we could probably feed the whole of Africa (and cut our current healthcare costs by more than half in the process).