Friday, October 28, 2005

intruiging monkey behavior studies

Two very interesting studies of primate behavior that I want to mention! Both have interesting and amusing parallels with human behavior, of course...

Both were also reported by Science Now, which is the journalism wing of the journal Science. (Not to be confused with the military wing...)

First, researchers at Harvard looked at when different species of monkey would be willing to forsake an immediate food reward for the opportunity to get a larger food reward later. They compared marmosets and tamarins, which have interestingly different lifestyles. Marmosets apparently spend a lot of time chewing on trees to get at sap, which takes a while, while tamarins grab bugs and eat them, which is fast. They found that marmosets will wait longer than tarmarins for a larger reward, but will move less far than tamarins for the reward. So you might say that marmosets are lazy, but not greedy, while tamarins are impatient, but active. I, for one, am definitely with the marmosets on this one...

I'm not so much with the chimps, though. Selfish bastards, really. A team at UCLA built this setup where they had two chimps in adjacent cages. Chimp A had two levers in its cage. One lever gave it a pellet of food, while the other lever gave a pellet of food to both it and to chimp B. That is, chimp A could see that it could give food to chimp B, or not, without affecting how much food it itself got. Alas, they found that the chimps weren't altruistic at all, and wouldn't give the other chimp food at a rate higher than chance. And this was true regardless of who the other chimp was -- even if it was a sibling or other close relative! And even if the other chimp was noisily complaining! This is, to me, quite surprising, given that chimps live in social groups with family, use tools and have at least some basic communication. Sociobiology would also predict that an animal should at least help out its relatives. Apparently even human teenagers, a selfish lot by and large, will give the reward very consistently, but one of our closest non-human relatives don't seem to. One wonders if bonobos, which are well known for their, uh, kindness towards their troop-mates, would respond differently in this task...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

copying restaurant recipes

Aside from the glitz and glamour of celebrity chefs and their cookbooks (I rather like Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef, incidentally), there's also interest in, shall we say, a more basic form of imitation/flattery. Kate at Accidental Hedonist has a note today about people who try to imitate the recipes at that culinary icon, McDonalds. She quotes from detailed recommendations about how to get just the right pickles! Says she:
I'm actually astounded that there is a group of people who are keen on copying the special sauce recipe for the Big Mac, an egg McMuffin, or a Fillet o' Fish. I'm not sure to be horrified or bemused.
Confession time: I've actually spent some time trying to figure out two related dishes from take-out-Chinese places. There was a place called First Wok in Urbana, IL that had this really great, garlicy dish called Tai Chen Chicken Special (best said with a fake Cantonese accent!), which turns out to be a variant of General Tso's Chicken with mixed vegetables. A guy named Eric Hochman has the "definitive" web page on General Tso's, and I combined that with a technique from some Chinese cookbooks called "velveting" chicken, and my memory of the vegetables and sauce. The resulting recipe is still not quite right, but is somewhat interesting nevertheless. One of these days I'll try again to improve it...

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Visions of Science Photographic Awards

There's an annual competition called the Visions of Science Photographic Awards, sponsored by Novartis Pharmeceuticals (!), of the best photographs of scientific research or concepts. Their awards this year have just been announced. To combine the two main themes of this blog, here's the winner of the Close-Up category, electron micrographs of a grain of salt and a peppercorn, by David McCarthy of the London School of Pharmacy. Image courtesy of National Geographic, which has good views of the winners in 5 of the categories...

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

new kitchen acquisitions

I got a few things for my kitchen the other day. Nothing fancy at all -- total cost was about $35 -- but I thought I'd mention them because they're mostly vaguely interesting... At least to me...

Cake pans. I've got some 9" non-stick cake pans, but I decided to get a pair of 8" aluminum pans. Non-stick cake pans are dark grey, meaning they absorb heat quickly and tend to cause your cake layers to cook too quickly on the edges, so they're rounded instead of flat. That's bad, since it makes the layers hard to stack. Aluminum reflects heat nicely, so (the theory goes) the layers will be flatter. We shall see. Hard-core bakers get these cloth things that you soak in water then wrap around the pans to make the edges cook even slower. I'm not that hard core. The narrower 8" layers make it easier to slice the layers in half and put in extra layers of frosting. I'm hard core about frosting. Oh, and I got some parchment paper circles to keep the cake from sticking to the pans. These are necessary even with the non-stick pans, which seem to stick badly for me...

V-shaped roasting rack. In my slow, painful process of learning how to cook meat, after years of cooking vegetarian, I finally learned how easy it is to roast a chicken. One important ingredient is a collapsible, non-stick roasting rack. It fits in a 13 x 9" roasting pan, and holds a chicken or a small turkey. And it collapses, so it'll actually fit in my crowded cabinets, and it's non-stick. Unlike non-stick cake pans, I endorse non-stick roasting racks.

Red flexible cutting board. As noted above, I'm cooking more flesh these days, and flesh is particularly full of bacteria. So I got a red cutting board to cut meat on and keep the salmonella from the broccoli. There's something pleasingly restaurant-kitchen about having color-coded cutting boards...

Plastic squeeze bottle. The magic trick that chefs use to get those fancy squiggles of colored sauces on your plate. They range in cost from 75 cents to (for the really big ones) two dollars. Impress your friends.

Plastic spoon. OK, this isn't impressive, but I did get a plastic cooking spoon to replace the one that I accidentally left on the stovetop too close to a flame and melted. Mmm, love the smell of burnt plastic with dinner...

Monday, October 17, 2005

marijuana, anxiety, and memory

A recent study that's gotten a bit of press suggests that marijuana-like compounds may aid in depression and anxiety. Some researchers in Saskatoon examined the effects of a synthetic cannabinoid (like THC but much stronger) on a part of the brain called the hippocampus, in mice. They found that the chemical causes new neurons to grow in the hippocampus, similar to the way anti-depressants work. That's interesting, of course, since marijuana is a drug often used by people with anxiety or depression to self-medicate themselves. (Modern SSRIs and therapy work rather better at treating these disorders than smoking weed, it should be noted...) The implication, then, is that some version of cannabinoids might be another approach to treating depression in the future.

OK, perhaps, but it should be noted that the hippocampus is also a major center for the encoding of new memories, which is why heavy use of marijuana causes short-term memory impairment. It would be very interesting if this coincides with an increase in the number of neurons. Usually, one would associate an increase in neurons with an increase in memory capacity. But perhaps not in this case. It should also be noted that, somewhat paradoxially, marijuana seems to slow memory loss in Alzheimer's patients.

I will be exceedingly interested to find out how this all resolves. Perhaps high doses of cannabinoids cause growth of new hippocampal neurons, which temporarily disrupts the encoding of new memories, but then can be used later on once those neurons are fully integrated into the network? And does this process cause a reduction in anxiety and depression, or are they independent effects of the drug?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

better bouncing through biochemistry

Ooh, as a fan of the superball, I must report on an article in the most recent issue of Nature! (press release)

A lab in Australia has been working on a biological elastic protein called resilin, which is used by insects like fleas to jump long distances (e.g., onto your dog). It has the distinction of being almost perfectly elastic, meaning you can squish it and it will bounce back without losing hardly any energy (3%) to friction/heat. By comparison, the chemical in superballs loses about 20% of its energy with every bounce. The resilin protein has been known for decades, and its appeal (commercial as well as bouncy) is obvious, but no one's been able to figure out how to make useful quantities.

Until a few years ago, when the flea's genome was decoded, and the genes that make resilin were decoded. Then it's a relatively easy step to put the gene into bacteria and mass-produce it, like they do for insulin and lots of other manufactured proteins. The last step, which took a few years of trial and error, was the process for getting the resilin to stick together in the right way. The trick was a catalyst of ruthenium plus bright light, which is fortunately relatively cheap.

The researchers get a doubtless lucrative patent, a publication in Nature, and the adulation of millions of superball fans...

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

science in courtrooms

A very interesting article in Science News last week on a topic that I wasn't aware of, the controversy about scientific expert testimony in courtrooms. It seems that prior to 1993, lawyers had basically a free hand to bring expert witnesses into the courtroom. That is, in cases where scientific evidence is important, the jury was responsible for weighing the conclusions of the competing experts and coming to a decision about what evidence was reliable and what was not. Clearly, there is some compelling interest in making sure that juries aren't bamboozled by unscrupulous lawyers and unethical scientists.

In 1993, a Supreme Court Decision called Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals allowed judges to evaluate the reliability and relevance of scientific evidence, prior to testimony in front of a jury. That is, a judge can decide, for example, that epidemiological evidence of toxicity of a chemical is admissible, but test-tube or animal studies are not. Importantly, since lower-court judges are considered the final arbiters of "evidence" in legal cases (just as juries are the final arbiters of "fact"), their decisions about what is admissible cannot generally be reversed by a higher court. As a result, there is a wide amount of inconsistency about what kinds of scientific evidence is admissible.
Some judges, [Margaret A. ] Berger [of the Brooklyn Law School] notes, "find all animal studies irrelevant"; others allow animal results in conjunction with findings on people. Many judges—but not all—throw out test-tube studies and analyses of chemical structures to gauge the activity of related compounds.
In addition, although judges are generally considered particularly intelligent people (I heard at one point that the IQ of lawyers is typically a bit higher than the IQ of scientists, and judges are generally more intelligent than the average lawyer), their understanding of the principles of scientific research can often be incorrect.
Berger says that few judges understand the scientific method... [J]udges who had applied Daubert standards to evidence "had little understanding of the key concept of hypothesis testing or of the significance of error rates," Berger says.
There are ongoing workshops and so forth that train judges in scientific methods and standards of evidence. One particularly interesting insight comes from philosopher Susan Haack of the University of Miami, who points out that:
this weighing of disparate but often interlocking bits of scientific evidence is little different from assembling forensic and other conventional evidence to establish a defendant's means, motive, and opportunity to have committed some crime.
That is, despite the compelling nature of (for example) null results in epidemiological studies of hundreds of thousands of people, there are many ways that such studies could be looking for the wrong thing or in the wrong population, and that evidence from other areas, including test-tube experiments and animal models, needs to be integrated to find the most probable state of affairs. Also, with regards to the apparent supremacy of epidemiological evidence by many judges, David Michaels of George Washington University points out:
because of the Daubert decision, the work, theories, and interpretation of data by even careful and credible scientists are often barred from trials. Restricting a jury's access to such information can diminish the likelihood that justice will be served, he argues.

This exclusion of science, he adds, might also affect the conduct and stature of research, as "judges essentially tell scientists that certain of their avenues of inquiry are not valued."

A very interesting article, with lots of things to think about, and worry about. From the descriptions of the situation in this article, I guess I'm of the opinion that judges should be able to exclude some scientific evidence, particularly pseudo-scientific evidence, but that the standards by which such exclusion can take place have been excessively lowered.

It's hard to know the best way to present potentially conflicting scientific evidence to a jury of laypeople with little to no knowledge of statistical evidence. Do juries weigh conflicting evidence fairly, or does the fact that evidence can be inconclusive make them throw out scientific evidence entirely? Certainly the system is not served by whole classes of evidence being thrown out, but nor is it likely to be served by allowing a jury to think that there is a controversy present when in fact there really isn't. (Bogus evidence against the addictiveness of cancer by tobacco companies, for example.)

Friday, October 07, 2005

conspiricy theory/racism in Astoria

I live in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, of course, which is a primarily Greek neighborhood, with some remnants of the Italians who lived here before the Greeks moved in 30 years ago or so. There are also fairly sizable populations of Columbians, Arabs, and latte-drinking yuppies.

Someone wrote into one of my favorite blogs, Curbed, a snarky New York real estate blog, with the following interesting conspiricy theory:
Wanted to tell you about whats going down up on the Ditmars area in Astoria. First of all, Burger King closed without any explanation, which was really odd because it was popular (busy).

THEN..... McDonalds burned down in a "mysterious" 3-alarm Fire.

THIRD.... KFC "lost its lease" does a billion dollar international company lose its lease?

All of these places had been operating for years. And you can't blame gentrification; there are still lots of nasty-ass shops on the 31st street where these places are. One dude who tried to raise the rent on the medical office space he owned has had to eat about 14 months of vacancy.

The upshot of this is that there are now no fast food joints near the Ditmars station. Been hearing some wispers that it's some sort of Greek conspiracy to keep out a certain ethnic group that really loves fried foods.

Very interesting. It's true that said implied ethnic group is nowhere to be seen in the neighborhood, despite being about 25% of the population of New York City. And when we were apartment-hunting in the neighborhood a year ago, our real estate broker mentioned this racism. She said that many Greek property owners won't rent to said ethnic group, and that it's a real problem for real estate brokers. Apparently, if a broker is in any way complicit in real estate discrimination, and a complaint is filed, they can lose their real estate license.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Trader Joes?

OK, I've never lived in the same town as a Trader Joe's. All I know about them is that they sell a $2 bottle of wine called "Two-Buck Chuck", and that they're very "California".

Now comes word that a Trader Joe's is going to be opening near Union Square, in fact in the very same building that one of the NYU gyms is in. (Cross-promotions coming our way, no doubt. Some cheese between reps?) This is two blocks from a brand-spankin' new Whole Foods, too.

So, what's the story? Why is TJ so popular? What do you, my faithful readers (or more likely, lone faithful reader), have to say about this? Or do you like Whole Paycheck better?

Post me comments, yo!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

on sleep and consciousness

There are a couple of areas of research in the cognitive sciences that are so mysterious and philosophical that they tend to be the topics of wild speculation when scientists get drunk at the hotel bar at conferences.

One area is of course the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is really really hard to study, since you can't see it or measure it. Lots of the interesting work on consciousness is written by philosophers who navel-gaze until they come up with something new. A few neuroscientists study consciousness, such as Antonio Damasio, looking at how sensation and emotion and consciousness interact in people with brain damage. Avoid any speculation on consciousness by mathematicians or physicists -- big time crackpots.

Another fun area of speculation is sleep and dreaming. We know a bit more about this. For example, there are fairly plausible arguments, with empirical support, that say that dreams are basically a side-effect of a process wherein things that you learned the previous day get moved from shorter-term memory stores in the hippocampus (in the middle of your brain) into your long term memory stores in the cortex (the surface of your brain). But there are lots of ways that we don't understand sleep at all. For example, although the brain is quite active during sleep, we're pretty remarkably unconscious.

A new study published in Science this week, by researchers at the University of Wisconsin (my alma matter, of course!), describes a really straightforward experiment that hints at the nature of sleep, and perhaps even consciousness.

They used two techonologies. One is EEG, which is where they put a bunch of electrodes against your scalp and record the electrical fields from your brain. They can kinda tell where there's electrical activity, although not very accurately. The other technology is called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which always seemed to me a little scary, although it's supposedly pretty safe... They stick an electromagnet next to your scalp and pulse a magnetic field in such a way that causes electrical signals to be created in a particular spot in the brain. The neurons in your brain communicate primarily with electrical signals, of course, so this technique sort of disrupts everything in a small area for a fraction of a second. Kinda like a tiny seizure...!

The researchers from the UW tried this on people while they were awake, and then later when they were asleep (but not dreaming). When the subjects were awake, the electrical impulse bounced around from the original location of the stimulation, to a few other locations in the brain, for a period of a couple tenths of a second. That is, the parts of the brain were communicating with each other, as they normally do. When the subjects were asleep, however, the impulse didn't spread at all, but spiked right under the electromagnet and then died away quickly. It's as if that section of the cortex wasn't communicating with other areas of the brain. Any signal in that area stayed in that area without being shared.

This is a very cool result. It suggests that sleep isn't so much a process where nothing is happening in your brain, as a state where the bits of the brain are each doing their own thing, not communicating with each other. And the reason you're unconscious when you're asleep is that there's no coherent single "you" that's made up of the integrated signals from all over your brain. When you're awake, the parts talk to each other, sharing information, building up the different experiences that make you feel awake. When you're asleep, the parts are isolated (how?!), doing their own thing (what?!).

Of course, this is just one result, and I'll be very very surprised if we have good understandings of how consciousness or sleep work by the time I retire in 40 years or so. But still, this is to me a really interesting piece of the puzzle.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Cookbook Review: Healthy Mexican Regional Cookery

I've got a relatively modest cookbook collection of 30-40 volumes, and most of them aren't really worth reviewing, but from time to time I'm going to indulge myself and write a review here. Particularly of cookbooks that have particular personal importance or that I think are overlooked. I'm not, for example, going to review Joy of Cooking.

Seven or eight years ago I picked up a cookbook called Healthy Mexican Regional Cookery: A Culinary Travelogue, by Lotte Mendelsohn. Living in the culinary wasteland of Urbana, Illinois, I was looking for real Mexican food, perhaps as a way of connecting with my New Mexican roots. (Despite the fact that New Mexican food, although better than Americanized Tex-Mex food, is not particularly "authentic".) Aside from a couple of New Mexican cookbooks, it's the only Mexican cookbook I've ever purchased.

About the title. The book is definitely about Mexican Regional cuisine, with recipes organized by region, starting out with the border cuisine most familiar to Americans, and ending with Oaxaca and the Yucatan. And there's some travelogue going on, with short essays about topics like chiles, and tomatos, and the author's experiences in various parts of Mexico. And each recipe has a brief note about where she first encountered the dish, or why it's important. So that's entertaining.

But "healthy"?! Compared with a couple of Tacos Grande from Taco Bell, maybe. But there is the recipe for Chiles Rellenos Los Mochis, where you stuff chiles with chorizo sausage and cheese, then smother them with sour cream and bake. Low fat in no way, shape, or form. Some astonishing proportion of the recipes in this cookbook feature bacon. This said, eating healthy is, in my view, about reasonable portions of great food, and maybe if you only had one chile relleno, you might survive. As long as you didn't have the canteloupe pudding, Postre de Melon de Apatzingan, for dessert... ingredients: 1/2 pound almonds, 2 canteloupes, 6 egg yolks, 3 cups (!) sugar, 1 cup heavy cream. Mmm...

OK, back to the review. One of things I particularly like about this cookbook is that it emphasizes the regional differences, and specialties, of what is a very diverse, but not very rich country. From the gulf coast, there are recipes for crab soup and chiles stuffed with sardines. I just made a Salsa Verde de Pepita, with tomatillos, epazote, and pumpkin seeds, so be served over chicken or wild fowl. (Epizote is kinda like cilantro, but with a sharper flavor. Available pretty much only in Mexican markets.) Very good, and not like anything I've had before. Many of the recipes seem like rural festival food to me -- somewhat complicated, but relying on spices (and yes, fats!) rather than expensive cuts of meat or fancy non-local ingredients.

The book covers good versions of standards like Mexican-style rice, several types of mole, and black beans, but these are intersperced in with other much less familiar dishes from the same regions. Or there are surprising regional variations, like tacos from the Yucatan, with eggs instead of meat. I should plug the booze recipes too, like the fermented fruit beer...

I do recommend this cookbook, but more than that, I appreciate cookbooks that explore regional cuisines, much more than those written by celebrity chefs. And I would love to find a restaurant in New York City that serves the kind of food described in this cookbook.