Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Pictures of Snowdonia

Here are some pictures I took from a trip to Snowdonia in north Wales last Spring. Click for larger images.

The view towards Mount Snowdon from Nant Peris.

Looking towards Snowdon.

The view between Y Garn and Elidir Fawr.

Y Garn to the left, Snowdon in the distance, Elidir Fawr to the right.

Looking northwest from Elidir Fawr.

Near the summit of Elidir Fawr.

Looking down 1200 feet from Elidir Fawr. We came down this way. Slowly.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

A Worm a Day Keeps the Immunological Disorders Away

There's an interesting article on BBC News about a relatively new theory of allergies and immunological disorders. As you probably know, allergies have really increased in recent years -- and I'm not just talking about a sniffly nose here and there, I'm talking about potentially lethal allergies. Both allergies, asthma, type 1 diabetes, and many other diseases appear to be on the rise, and the specific causes of this are still unclear.

One of the leading theoretical explanations is the hygiene hypothesis -- this states that in early childhood, exposure to infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites, train our immune system to recognize what is dangerous and what can be ignored. Thus, if children grow up in an environment that is "too clean," their immune systems may not learn what the appropriate targets are, and become indiscriminate in their attacks. After all, allergies are what happens when our immune systems go a little trigger happy, and start launching assaults on harmless substances, with our own bodies being the collateral damage.

A new refinement on the hygiene hypothesis is the old friends hypothesis. While the hygiene hypothesis is rather broad in claiming we need microbiologically diverse environments to train our immune system, the old friends hypothesis is more precise in that elderly Quakers specific micro-organisms -- and macro-organism parasites -- release substances that drive our immune systems. These organisms have become "old friends" with our immune system, each benefiting the other.

In an early illustration of the old friends hypothesis (Jeon & Jeon, 1976), amoebae were infected with bacteria, which they unsuccessfully tried to fight off. As time passed, the amoebae evolved to peacefully coexist with the bacteria by removing certain sequences from their genetic code -- but the result was the amoeba were now dependent on the bacteria and could not live without them. A pathogenic relationship had become symbiotic.

This principle -- of microbiological pathogens co-evolving with us to play a symbiotic role within our bodies -- has been demonstrated more recently in animals. Take type 1 diabetes (aka juvenile onset -- not the kind you get from poor diet), which is a disease of the immune system. Type 1 diabetes is rising in the UK at a rate of 4% per year -- a rate that far exceeds the possibility of genetic change alone. This increase is fast enough that an environmental cause is highly probable. In one study (Cooke et al, 1999), mice were predisposed to type 1 diabetes. However, when they were given an extract of the tropical worm that causes schistosomiasis, they did not develop diabetes. Mice without the worm extract developed diabetes as expected. Thus, a (dead) infectious worm appears to have prevented diabetes mellitus.

Another study involved dogs who had developed eczema, an immunologically mediated skin disorder. All of the dogs had been raised by their owners on bottled water and human food -- relatively sterile stuff. When they were exposed to bacteria found in cow patties, the eczema cleared up.

Similar processes appear to work in humans. A meta-analysis (Leonardi-Bee et al, 2006) of the relationship between parasites and asthma found that hookworm infections were associated with lower rates of asthma while Ascaris lumbricoides (round worms) were associated with much higher rates of asthma. Other parasites had no effect. Similarly, some types of pig worms appear to treat inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn's disease (Summers et al, 2005; Summers et al, 2003).

The exact processes at play here are still uncertain, unproven, and likely to be diverse, but a few conclusions seem likely: 1) The roles of pathogen and symbiote; disease and treatment; and the whole macro-/micro-organism ecosystem are much more complex, colourful, and intertwined than we have realized. 2) It is less likely that the live infectious organism itself must be present, but rather certain substances produced by the organism. Even an extract of a parasite appears to confer beneficial properties. 3) Although it is still a long way off, it may be possible to create a kind of vaccine from extracts of parasites, avoiding the suffering they can cause, while maintaining their benefits. Your grandchild may receive a medicinal smoothie of pureed hookworm, schistosoma, and pig worm designed to prevent asthma, diabetes, and Crohn's disease, respectively.

I'll drink to that!

Using worms as a treatment is not a new idea, but it has certainly evolved since this ad from 1903


Whoa, what happened there? I blinked and saw my last post was almost a year ago. Well, I'm not going to make any guarantees about posting frequency, but things should be a little more regular around here, at least for the short term.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Signs of Spring

I awoke suddenly this morning with a palpable sense of dread. I did not know the time, but I had the feeling that I was very late. I was supposed to be teaching at 9:30, and I felt I had already missed this. Why? Because there was sunlight in my room. The actual time was 7:40, and I was not late at all. But England is so freakin' depressingly dark in the winter that any hint of sunlight must mean it is nearly noon. A typical UK winter's day: dawn at 9, dusk at 3:30, and dim gray wetness inbetween. So waking up to sunlight must mean Spring is just about here! Thank you! My vitamin D reserves are most grateful!

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Recipe: Lentil Loaf Supreme

I enjoy cooking, especially when it involves completely making up a new dish of some kind. My lentil loaf supreme has been fairly popular and had many recipe requests. I always made it up as I went, but I finally wrote it down today to go into a cook book some friends are putting together.

Lentil Loaf Supreme

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 120 minutes

1 cup brown lentils
1 cup puy lentils
1/4 cup aduki beans
1/4 cup wild rice
1 cup couscous
3 bell peppers
2 onions
1 tube tomato puree
handful black olives
handful mushrooms
cooking oil
4 stock cubes
2 tablespoons dried chopped rosemary (or 4 fresh)
2 tablespoons dried chopped sage (or 4 fresh)
1 teaspoon chilli flakes

FYI... there is some general confusion about lentil nomenclature. When I say brown lentils, I mean the mostly flat, tan coloured lentils that are most commonly available. When I say puy lentils, I mean the dark green mottled lentils that are smaller and not as flat.

Put lentils, aduki beans, and wild rice in water, and simmer for 1 hour. Check every 10 minutes to stir, and add water if needed. The microwave is the easiest (and greenest) way to boil pulses like this. Once cooked, drain off cooking water, put in a large mixing bowl, and mash. The brown lentils should turn mushy, while the puy lentils, beans, and wild rice should hold their shape.

Chop peppers and onions finely into squares. Shallow fry in cooking oil for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add pepper/onion mix to lentil mix.

Bring 2 cups of water to boil, and add in the 4 stock cubes (crumbled), rosemary, sage, and chili flakes. Make sure the stock cubes are fully dissolved. Turn off heat, and stir in 1 cup couscous. Leave for 10 minutes to absorb water. After this, stir in couscous with lentil/pepper/onion mix. Also stir in 1/2 tube of tomato puree (100 g).

Grease a large, deep cooking pan (or two if they are small) with cooking oil, and add lentil/pepper/onion/couscous mix to fill the pan(s) evenly. Put the remaining 1/2 tube tomato puree in a bowl, and mix with 1/2 water. Spread this tomato sauce evenly over the lentil loaf in the pan. Put chopped olives and chopped mushrooms on top of this tomato covering. Bake for 50 minutes at 200 degrees. Let cool 15 minutes before slicing into squares. Keeps well for several days.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Best Campaign Video Yet

This is by far the best presidential campaign video I have seen:

FYI, that was made by a guy named William Adams (he's the first guy you see in the video), not the Obama campaign itself. You can watch Obama's speech here. Transcript here.

Now, if you are like me, you've suffered from low-level clinical depression that mysteriously appeared in November of 2000, that you expected to clear up in November of 2004, but then didn't, and now you expect it to clear up in November of 2008. In fact, if you are like me, you might suspect that GWB is on the payroll of anti-depressant manufacturers seeing as he has done such a great job of drumming up business.

Obama does something here which is so simple but so effective: he shares emotions with people. And the emotion people need the most now is hope. Obama is a master orator, and his speeches absolutely resonate with hopeful emotion (he's not so hot as a debater, to be fair.) If you watch some of MLK's and JFK's old speeches, you will find a very similar style. America is broken, most Americans know that, and we need hope. We need our leaders to understand that.

In polls over the last several years, the US Congress (and Vice President) have had an approval rating in the teens, while the President has been in the 30s, "peaking" at 29%. For reference, when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, his approval was in the 60s, and in July of 1973, when the Watergate scandal was in full force, Nixon's approval was 39%. America, when compared to the rest of the developed world, has one foot in the crapper, and people don't feel very good about that. Aside from the normal big issues of bitter partisanship, Iraq, the economy, and the environment, we've got a whole lot of other crap going on. Our infant mortality rates are worse than every other developed nation in the world, with the exception of Latvia. Americans consume more cocaine than any other developed nation. We have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs in the developed world (16 times as high as Sweden!) We imprison more of our own citizens by far than any other nation in the world, including Russia and China (both by proportion and absolute figures), and imprison seven times as of our own citizens as most developed nations (by proportion.) Educationally, we are dropping internationally, in K-12 comprehension, college enrolment, and university research output. Only 20% of Americans think the nation is on the right track. As a nation, we are getting downright grumpy.

But Americans are generally good people. I would say overwhelmingly so. And to see all these bad things happen to our country makes us sad, and yearn for hope. Obama sees that, and empathizes. Gore and Kerry saw it, and offered facts and statistics. (Bush doesn't see it at all -- he thinks we're all doing "a heckuva job.") Unfortunately, facts, figures, and policy plans don't win elections, and Democrats are big on presenting statistics and policy minutia. Do you know the only Democratic president in living memory to win re-election? Bill Clinton. Why? He could empathize with people, even if he was a slimeball in certain other regards. But this isn't just my opinion; there is a raft of empirical research showing that leaders (whether they be Presidents or just your boss) who empathize are the ones who are considered successful, facts be damned. The results are always the same: for most people, politics is all about emotion, and particularly emotions tied in with social groups. This has been demonstrated in countless studies conducted in the field, lab studies, and through fMRI scans (when thinking about political candidates, the logic parts of our brains don't light up -- the emotion parts do). Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory, has published extensively in this area, and has a good review of the research in The Political Brain (2007) for those who are interested.

Personally, I like facts and figures. Probably a little too much. So when I vote, it comes after a lot of time looking up statistics, checking on old senate votes, and comparing policy proposals. I do this for state elections in states I don't even live in. I realize that makes me about as lame as a two legged horse, but it's how I am. So trust me when I say policy is important. To me, it is all about utilitarianism. But policy does not win elections. Emotional intelligence does. It's a relief to finally see a candidate who can articulate and embrace the nation's feelings, and has a solid policy platform. Fingers crossed for Tuesday!

(Something else that needs to change: I received my absentee ballot just this week -- at least two weeks too late to guarantee arriving in time for Tuesday's primary. You guys will have to vote for me since mine won't be counted.)

I'm Back!

Hello again! Sorry to be gone for so long. Life has been busy. There's the usual workload, and on top of that, I've had colds or the flu for about 75% of the time for the last five months. Seriously, my body is not made for England's cold and wet climate. In college in Georgia, I would almost never get sick, and never miss work/class because of it. But in the UK, I often have a cold for months in the winter. Some of my Australian friends here have had similar experiences. But I'm back now, and feeling better. I'll aim for at least one or two posts a week, but no promises just yet!

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Thursday Ted: VIII Creativity, Copyright, and the Law

This week's TED is by Larry Lessig, someone I have been a fan of for about a year now. He is a Stanford professor specializing in the study of copyright, and in a social dialogue that is so often little more than ad hominem attacks and crude generalizations, his is always a voice of reason.

On a personal note, I apologize for the lack of posting. I've been mega-busy with work, and have been at some stage of a cold for 8 weeks running now. Hopefully more posting soon, but no guarantees.

Thursday, 1 November 2007


In case anyone forgot, there is still a war on. No wait, make that two wars. You didn't forget about Afghanistan, did you? If anyone needs a refresher on how utterly foolish and wasteful it was to invade Iraq, this graph compares the cost of the war to the amount spent on researching new energy technologies -- something that might actually make the world a universally better place. The units are millions of dollars; figures are from the Department of Energy.

Why can't we provide health care to poor children? "It's too expensive." Why can't we cut toxic emissions? "It's too expensive." Why can't we invest in renewable energy? "It's too expensive."

Uh huh.

The American Friends Service Committee also produces an excellent line of posters which illustrate what a day in Iraq could have been spent on. Print-quality downloads are available from their site.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Job Specialization in Academia

Having attended both a small university in the US and a large university in the UK for my undergraduate degree, and now studying/researching/teaching at a different large university in the UK during my postgraduate years, I've had some exposure to different styles of educational institutions, and experienced being on both sides of the desk.

One observation that has been increasingly on my mind is the nature of the dual teaching and researching responsibilities of academic staff at the larger universities. It is fairly standard that academics do both research and teaching as a part of their job description. However, almost without exception, every big-university professor I've met identifies more as a researcher than a teacher. Teaching becomes something that they appreciate the necessity of, much like committee meetings, but is often seen as just another job responsibility which must be done before they can get down to their "real" work -- research. This is a situation that appears to benefit neither the staff nor the students. To borrow an analogy from Mitch Hedberg, it is like asking that chefs also farm, and farmers also cook. Although their work shares the central element of food, requiring practitioners to both grow it and prepare it makes little sense. Similarly, researching and teaching revolve around knowledge, but generating new knowledge (research) and disseminating existing knowledge (teaching) rely on entirely different skill sets, and I cannot see why there is not more job specialization within academia. I've seen the current system produce a fair amount of both bad teaching and bad research by academics who are drawn more to the other component.

Of course, there are teaching-focused universities in the UK -- but they are generally considered a tier below the research universities. Why not have dedicated teaching staff teach most undergrad classes at all large universities? Allow the researchers to do more research, and have specially trained teachers do the actual teaching. It seems everyone would get a better deal: the students, the researchers, and those who love to teach, but do not wish to pursue research and grants. The current professors can continue to teach postgraduate classes -- this makes sense as most postgraduate work is heavily research based, and PGs are expected to learn for themselves from original source material.

These are just my recent thoughts -- there may be factors I've not yet thought of... can anyone give me a good reason why our current system is better?

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Thursday TED: VII Understanding the Brain

This is a great presentation from renowned neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, in which he talks about how unusual brain injuries and brain structures can reveal how normal brains work. In particular, he talks about phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear colour or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion, when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters. Great stuff.

I just love how he pronounces his Rs.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Blog Action Day: Local Veggie Boxes

As you may or may not know, today is Blog Action Day. (thanks earthchick!) The 15 of October is a day for bloggers to all write about a very important topic: our environment.

A fair chunk of posts on Exeterra are already about the environment, but it's time for another :)

This Saturday I went with some fellow members of the Green Society to Shillingford Organics, a local organic farm on 200-something acres. We had a great time getting a tour of their low-impact methods and trying our hands at farm work. We pulled dock, harvested more winter squash than I will eat in a hundred lifetimes, and planted garlic further than the eye can see. Here are some pictures:

Martyn shows us which yummy veggies to harvest.

We planted rows of garlic (one clove every six inches) on this strip of land, which was a few hundred metres long.

At the end, Martyn gave us as many free vegetables as we could carry. I have never seen people so ecstatic over carrots.

At the end of the day, I signed up for a weekly vegetable box. Shillingford delivers to a few hundred local households and restaurants, providing them with weekly vegetables that have been harvested no more than a day or two before arriving. You really have to taste this stuff to believe it -- there are lush flavours and sweet smells that I didn't know existed. The one bad thing I will say about their veg is that once you try it, you will never be able to eat supermarket vegetables again.

Although it is not as high-profile as automobiles, electricity use, or recycling, how our food is produced is just as environmentally important. With a local veggie box program -- or some other system of community supported agriculture -- you reach a win-win-win situation.

You win because you get the best vegetables ever delivered to you. Because there is no middle-man, the prices are comparable to supermarket prices. You actually know who grows your food, and have a connection with that person.

Your community wins because you are employing local small-scale farmers. You can also meet other like-minded people if you pick up your box from a neighbourhood delivery point. In some systems, the members spend a small portion of time working at the farm -- and believe it or not, this can be quite a lot of fun.

The environment wins because organic community supported agriculture can be very low-impact. Shillingford is within walking distance from my house, so not many food miles there. The vegetables are fertilized naturally through crop rotation (no petrochemicals in this food chain), pests are controlled biologically, and the harvest is gathered by hand. The farm supports us, but not at the expense of wildlife -- ponds, hedges, and woodland are integrated into the farm design to allow for co-existence rather than compartmentalization.

Most places in the US and UK have several organic vegetables box systems available -- try Googling it; you may be surprised at what you find. Most allow a trial veggie box so you can see if you like it -- so go ahead, give it a try! If you live in Exeter, I've already put a list together.