Wednesday, June 28, 2006


A study published in Science last week was particularly compelling to me, and I had a particularly visceral reaction to it. (If that link doesn't work, try this summary at the Brainethics blog.) The researchers, from 13 different universities, studied variations in altruistic behavior among 15 widely different societies around the world. Their conclusion is that people have evolved (both genetically and culturally) to be altruistic to the extent that their society punishes people who are selfish.
Culture-gene coevolutionary models that combine strategies of cooperation and punishment predict that local learning dynamics generate between-group variation as different groups arrive at different "cultural" equilibria. These local learning dynamics create social environments that favor the genetic evolution of psychologies that predispose people to administer, anticipate, and avoid punishment (by learning local norms).
The reason I pay such close attention to altrusim is that I am reacting against the philosophy of selfishness advocated by Ayn Rand. When I was a small child, my father unfortunately went through a phase where he was a supporter of Rand's Objectivism. To give you an idea of this noxious philosophy, let me quote from memory two metal plaques. The first, attached to the front door, stated "No Altruism Spoken Here." The second, hung in a bathroom, said "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." As soon as I understood these philosophies, I fairly rapidly rejected them (and my father became a traditional liberal, thankfully). But I still refuse to read any of Rand's work, and find her ethics and philosophy morally reprehensible.

Which brings me back to the study. As you can imagine, it's important to me that altruisim, that is kindness to people you are not related to, without expectation of future payback, has been shown to have a genetic basis. It has apparently been a bit of a mystery why it evolved, however. This new study follows up on some more limited research on American college students, as well as some theoretical work, that had suggested that people who live in cultures where a lack of altruisim was punished more severely were more likely to act in an altruistic manner. In the new study, subjects in the various cultures around the world (mostly small, non-industrial cultures) were asked to play several different games with two or three players. In one game, the ultimatum game, one player specifies what proportion of a pot of money they would accept, while the other player specifies how much of the pot the first player receives. If the second player makes an offer the first player won't accept, neither gets the money. So, for example, if we were given $10 to split, you might say you would accept any amount from $4 to $10. If I then (not knowing what your rule was) offered $5, we would both get $5, but if I offered only $3, we both get nothing (and I am punished!). Based on differences in how much people are punished in this game and altruistically rewarded in another game, the researchers could figure out how much an inclination to punish is related to an inclination to be altruistic. It turns out that there's a positive relationship; the more likely you are to punish someone who is not altruistic, the more likely you are to be altruistic. The key graph in the paper, below, shows the relationship. As you move right (more punishment), societies tend to move up (more altruism). Very intruiging.


stereo vision and stereo photos

Oliver Sacks (author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, among others), wrote a great essay in the latest New Yorker about stereo vision. Unfortunately, the essay is not available online, but a brief letter to the editor of Nature is available. The essay is about stereo vision, which is a property of our having two eyes, rather than one. In addition to other cues about the physical position of objects (focus, occlusion, size, motion parallax), we can directly tell the distance of objects up to a certain distance away (I think I read maybe 50 feet?) by the angle of our two eyes relative to each other as they focus on an object. After reviewing the history of how people discovered this property in the 19th century, and the stereo photograph craze of the Victorian era, Sacks then focuses on a unique medical case.

Many skills have what is known as a critical or sensitive period. If you don't learn a language in the first 5 years or so of life, you'll never really be able to learn one. If you're a kitten raised in the darkness for the first couple months of life, you'll never be able to really see, even though your eyes may be perfectly normal. The brain self-organizes when it's young, and if it doesn't have the right kind of stimulus during early development, it usually can't develop it later on.

The case that Sacks reports on may (or may not) be an interesting exception. A woman was born with severely uncoordinated eyes. Both eyes worked fine, but they didn't work together at all. She could see, but she didn't have stereo vision. (She may have had stereo vision for things a couple inches in front of her face, which is why it's not clear to what extent this case is as remarkable as it seems.) Her perception was very much like it would be as if she wore an eye patch over one eye. When she was an adult, a few years back, she started having worse problems with her eyes and went to a doctor who prescribed prism glasses that would help her eyes work together better. After just a few weeks of simple exercises, she developed stereo vision, a skill she (probably) never had, and a skill that, according to theories of critical periods, she should not have been able to develop as an adult. The woman writes eloquently about the experience:
"After almost three years," she wrote, "my new vision continues to surprise and delight me. One winter day, I was racing from the classroom to the deli for a quick lunch. After taking only a few steps from the classroom bulidng, I stopped short. The snow was falling lazily around me in large, wet flakes. I could see the space between each flake, and all the flakes together produces a beautiful three-dimensional dance. In the past, the snow would have appeared to fall in a flat sheet in one plane slightly in front of me. I would have felt like I was looking in on the snowfall. But now, I felt myself within the snowfall, among the snow flakes. Lunch forgotten, I watched the snow fall for several minutes, and, as I watched, I was overcome with a deep sense of joy. A snowfall can be quite beautiful -- especially when you see it for the first time."
It almost unimaginable to, well, imagine what it must be like to experience such a sense for the first time. Like imagining color if you've never seen red. But this particular experience, going from monocular to stereo vision, can be easily reproduced in photographs. It's easy to take a stereo photograph with a decent camera. Just set the focus and exposure to manual, so you're taking two photographs with all the same settings. Then, take one photo while leaning on one leg, then do a little "cha-cha" step to move the camera laterally a few inches, and take a second photo while leaning on the other leg. This works very well with architecture and sculpture and things that aren't going to move in between the exposures. Here are some 3-D photos I've taken over the years. To view them, just let your eyes diverge, like those random-dot stereographs that were popular about 10 years ago, and let the two images in the middle line up.

A lake in central Wisconsin

A sculpture at the Storm King Art Center, New York

Door of the Duomo, Milano, Italy

Water fountain, Milano, Italy


Monday, June 26, 2006

trans fats make you fatter

New Scientist is reporting (thanks to Megnut for the link) on a new study that found that monkeys fed strictly controlled diets showed that trans fats cause a lot more weight gain than other types of fat. One set of monkeys was fed a diet with 35% of calories from fat, and 8% from trans fats. Another set was fed a similar diet with no trans fats.
After six years on the diet, trans fat-fed monkeys gained an extra 7.2 per cent of their body weight, compared to just 1.8 per cent in the control monkeys. They also had 30 per cent more abdominal fat, which increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Yikes, that's a very remarkable difference! This FDA page has a listing of trans fat content in a number of processed foods. Trans fats are mostly found in hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as margarine and shortening, and also in relatively small amounts in dairy products and meat. For the record, Newman-Os do not contain trans fat.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

black bean cakes with papaya salsa

My most recent dish for the cooking club was (if I do say so myself) really good, although (1) it wasn't an original, and (2) everyone else's stuff was even better. Still, it's worth writing about! From Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, (a cookbook I've cited three times before) it's the Black Bean Cakes, which I served with a homemade papaya salsa and sour cream.

A detailed recipe is here, but here's the basic idea. First, find some cooked black beans. You can either cook them yourself, which is easy but takes a while, or you can open up a big can. I've tried the recipe both ways, and honestly, there's not much difference. Then you saute some onion in oil, then add the beans in their cooking liquid, some minced chipotle chile from a can packed with adobo, a chopped tomato, and some cilantro, and cook for 20 minutes or so. Then you drain the beans in a mesh strainer, add some grated smoked cheese, some cumin, cilantro, lime juice, and salt, and throw it in the fridge until it's cold. Then there's a particularly messy couple of steps. Make cakes out of the beans by flouring them and squishing balls of bean to about a half inch thickness, put them on some waxed paper, and put them back in the fridge for a little bit. Then, clean up the mess you just made and your bean-paste encrusted hands. To cook them, in a heavy pan (cast iron works great, of course!), heat up rather more oil than you think you need. Dust the cakes again with corn meal, and fry for 8 minutes or so on a side, until they're crusty. All that oil you put in? It's "gone"! Serve with salsa and sour cream, and you've got yourself some tasty black bean cakes!


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

dinner of the beast (two weeks late...)

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'd joined a CSA, on the day of the first pickup. That day was 6/6/06, the day of the beast. When flipping through recipe books, I ran across a recipe for stir-fried Beef with Asparagus, which would go well with the asparagus (I thought) we were getting that first day. Best yet, the recipe was on page 666 of The New Joy of Cooking! This would have been a killer food-blog article; dinner of the beast on the day of the beast! But, it was not to be. We got chives, rhubarb, and a few other things that week, but no asparagus.

This week, though, we got asparagus! So I defrosted the beef I had stored in the freezer, and made the dish. It's a fairly standard Chinese stir-fried recipe, and so I won't give the full recipe here. Basically, you marinade the beef in an oyster-sauce marinade, then fry it, then fry aromatics and the asparagus, then add some chicken stock for the sauce, then return the beef to the pan and thicken. The result, a two-week delayed dinner of the beast. It was fine, if a bit on the salty side, and a bit short of asparagus. (We only got a third of a pound, and the recipe could have easily used twice that much.) On the other hand, it was extremely evil.


Monday, June 19, 2006

the taste of lamb

An interesting blog article on the taste of lamb by Frank Bruni:
[T]wo friends and I bite into a cylinder of flesh encrusted with various herbs. One of those friends looks puzzled, concerned.

“This is lamb?” she asks.

“According to the menu,” I answer.

At which point her husband looks even more unsettled.

“I thought it was tuna,” he says. It sounds like a wild, ridiculous comment, but it really isn’t. The pale red flesh has a luscious texture — it’s a marvel of silken pliancy — but little discernible flavor.

Where has all the lamb-i-ness gone?

Bruni goes on to talk about how many diners prefer mild tasting meats, such as very young, lean, grass-fed lamb, and filet mignon. These meats have great texture, but not much flavor (which is why filet gets wrapped in bacon). As a result of this trend, lamb in many restaurants tends to be pretty flavorless, and not taste much lamb at all. (The lamb in Greek neighborhoods such as the one I live in tends to be cuts that are very flavorful, however! Especially when grilled on a skewer as souvlaki...)

He concludes by recommending a restaurant in Midtown called Keens Steakhouse, which features a 28-ounce "mutton" (actually 10-month old lamb, which is not quite mutton) chop. Very flavorful, and not at all like tuna. Coincidentally, blogger Amateur Gourmet went to that restaurant recently and has an amusing writeup of his experience.

(Image by Darragh Sherman, Some Rights Reserved)


Monday, June 12, 2006

the statistics of goals and the physics of soccer balls

One of the types of things that statistics can tell you about is whether events happen independently, or instead whether an event causes another event. Take soccer, for instance. As reports, there's been a longstanding assumption that the first team to score a goal will tend to score more goals. It's certainly the case that if you have two teams, and one is better than the other, that the better team is more likely to both score first and to win. That's not very interesting. The question is whether a consequence of scoring that first goal in fact makes the scoring team better (and/or the other team worse) for the rest of the game. Put a little more technically, is the probability of scoring a goal dependent on whether or not you've previously scored a goal?

Several mathematicians (and soccer fans) from the UK and Germany crunched the numbers and have an answer. It turns out that yes, scores turn out to be more asymmetric than you would expect, and so having a lead improves your odds of additional scores.

(Note that most streaks, in other sports, turn out not to be real, but are just chance events. Steven Jay Gould talked about this a lot. "Hot hands" in basketball, for instance, don't really exist. On the other hand, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is so unlikely that it should never have happened, but it did.)

Another thing that may make scores a bit larger for this World Cup compared with earlier series is that they've changed the ball. Instead of being made up of hexagons and pentagons, all stiched together, the new ball is more uniformly round, and is glued together. As National Geographic News reports, there's some concern that the smaller number of seams (14 panels instead of 32) may make the ball swerve more in the air, like a non-spinning knuckleball in baseball. (The single seam on a baseball causes the ball to act asymmetrically, and thus erratically, unless it's spinning.) Goalkeepers are concerned, naturally.

Perhaps today's 3-0 loss by the U.S. team to the Czechs may have had something to do with one or both of these effects...


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Next Pixar film: Ratatouille!

frame grab from trailer
Thanks to Boing Boing for noting the next Pixar film after Cars (which has gotten mostly good reviews, but I'm not all that enthusiastic about it). Opening next summer will be Ratatouille, the story of a foodie rat living in Paris! Such good food, but getting it (for a rat), is so dangerous...! The trailer is brilliant, and I can't wait to see this!


Friday, June 09, 2006

"The Warriors" at Coney Island

This is only partly on-topic for this blog, but I thought it was such a great idea I had to mention it! There's going to be a series of "classic" movies screened on location (!) in August, courtesy of Netflix. The first one will be The Warriors, the late-70s cult favorite about gangs in New York City. A gang from Coney Island has to make it back home, through the territory of other gangs, and mayhem ensues. It will be shown August 2nd, at Coney Island. That's so cool.

From the AP article:
"Field of Dreams" will be shown at the Dyersville, Iowa, baseball field surrounded by cornstalks. "Jaws" will be played at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" will get a screening by the Cedar Lane Water Tower in Northbrook, Ill.

Other stops include Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., and the classic Western "The Searchers" at Gouldings Lodge in Monument Valley, Utah.

Director Kevin Smith and cast members are expected to be on hand for a screening of "Clerks" at the Quick Stop in Leonardo, N.J. Other screenings will include activities related to the films, like raft floating in the ocean during "Jaws."

Also to be screened on location is the Coen brothers'"Raising Arizona" at the Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction, Ariz., "The Poseidon Adventure" on the H.M.S. Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., and Clint Eastwood's "Escape From Alcatraz" on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.
(Image by d.r.lynch, some rights reserved)


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

rhubarb cake

Today was the first distribution day for the CSA (community-supported agriculture--buy a share in a farmer's crop, get a selection of fresh produce once a week) I joined here in Astoria, and as part of the loot we got some rhubarb. The traditional thing to do with rhubarb is of course strawberry-rhubarb pie, which is great, but I prefer a different recipe. Rhubarb "bread" is a quickbread, like banana bread, but with rhubarb and vast amounts of sugar. It's rather more a thick cake than a bread, and it's incredibly fantastic!

The recipe I use is from a CSA cookbook, and is originally from someone named Mary Eberle at Harmony Valley Farm. You can see the recipe should you like to try this yourself. The recipe does make two loaves, so be sure you have friends you can bring slices to!


Monday, June 05, 2006

an anti-food blog

Are you tired of the excessively elegant food you cook, eat, and read about on food blogs? Are the elegant photos of crispy and flakey butter cookies at Chocolate & Zucchini getting your down? The Freakonomics Blog, of all places, points out the answer. Adam Scott, a Canadian video blogger, has embarked on a project to avoid cooking, shopping, and dishes, by eating nothing but ZuPreem brand monkey chow (for great apes too!) for a week. (Well, he does confess he'll be drinking black coffee in the morning and vodka in the evening...) The project is called The Monkey Chow Diaries, and he is so far two days into the project, with no particularly severe side effects. (But no great-ape-like super strength either, alas.)
His daily video has been hilarious. Especially the first day, as he describes the horribleness of the chow, which he describes as shredded wheat and dog food, mixed together and baked for half an hour at 400 degrees. Or as he justifies his decision to try to eat the kibble in three meals a day, instead of grazing, because it makes him a little nauseous to eat it.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

two scary science-of-food notes

From ScienceNow, two stories this morning about scary things in food...

First is a story about some new research suggesting that the metal manganese may, in part, cause the initial mis-folding of proteins that ends up causing Mad Cow Disease and related prion problems. Those diseases happen when proteins, whose function is determined by the shape that they naturally fold, fold in the wrong way. And not just any wrong way, but a wrong way that is contagious. So once you get one mis-folded protein, you then get many many misfolded proteins, none of which can be broken down in your body, and then you're in real trouble. The new research, in yeast, suggests that manganese binding to the proteins can cause the mis-folding. "That could explain why outbreaks of prion diseases have popped up in Iceland, Slovakia, and Colorado--regions with soils high in manganese."

And second is a story about those anti-bacterial agents (triclosan and triclocarbon) that are now in almost every hand soap you can buy. It's long been suggested that having anti-bacterials in everything will breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the new study shows that the triclocarbon ends up in high concentrations in wastewater sludge. Which wouldn't be a big deal, except that that sludge, after being treated in sewage treatment plants, is often spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer. Using some new technology, the researchers shows that the concentration of the chemical in sludge is similar to the concentration in the original hand soap! The chemical, which causes infertility and possibly cancer when ingested in large quantities, may then show up in food, or may affect bacteria in the soil. And nobody knows the consequences...

Have a nice day!

Labels: ,