While reading an article called The Science of Loneliness, I found this interesting passage:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the experience of being snubbed lit up a part of the subjects’ brains (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) that also lights up when the body feels physical pain.

I asked Eisenberger why, if the same part of our brain processes social insult and bodily injury, we don’t confuse the two. She explained that physical harm simultaneously lights up another neural region as well, one whose job is to locate the ache—on an arm or leg, inside the body, and so on. What the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex registers is the emotional fact that pain is distressing, be it social or physical. She calls this the “affective component” of pain. In operations performed to relieve chronic pain, doctors have lesioned, or disabled, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. After the surgery, the patients report that they can still sense where the trouble comes from, but, they add, it just doesn’t bother them anymore.

What this means is that emotional pain isn’t a metaphorical, “all in your head” thing. It is literal pain, the difference from physical pain being that it is not located at a specific site in the body. From this we can see why people use alcohol and opiates to cope with emotional distress – they function as literal and functional anaesthetics. Which puts the matter of “substance abuse” in a different perspective. You don’t tell someone with a broken leg that their need for painkillers is a character flaw, do you?

(I must advise those tempted to self-medicate for anxiety that taking large amounts of paracetamol will cause liver damage.)

The healthy diet mantra of recent years has been to eat masses of green leafy vegetables, in order to replace excessive fat, carbs and sugar, increase antioxidants (to combat excess free radicals), and promote bowel health through fibre.

But now it seems that’s not the whole story, as this news item reveals:
‘Too many sprouts’: man in hospital

The excess vitamin K from eating extra Brussels sprouts for Christmas had the dangerous effect of countering his anticoagulant medication, which he was taking to prevent heart attack.

A hospital spokesperson said: “We think this is possibly the first-ever festive admission to hospital caused by the consumption of Brussels sprouts.” Actually, since sprouts are considered a traditional Christmas food in Britain, I think it’s possible that their consumption is an important factor in the annual heart attack season that coincides with the holiday period.

The irony here (if I need to point it out) is that vitamin K, chiefly found in green leafy vegetables, is necessary for cardiovascular health, but because it is an anticoagulant it can also be dangerous for those at risk of vascular blockage.

HOWEVER, it’s important to note that large doses of the vitamin will not cause increased blood clots in healthy people (according to the Wikipedia article on vitamin K linked above).

Okay, here’s where I willingly forfeit all credibility:

There’s nothing wrong with instant coffee. In fact, on average, it’s as good as “real” coffee.

I have had some mediocre-to-bad “real” coffees, including one memorable cup of gritty, oily swill which I refused to finish. Even drinkable “real” coffee is often somehow plasticy in taste to me. Is this what happens when coffee-snobs freeze their coffee to preserve its freshness? (My understanding is it actually ruins the coffee by changing the structure of the oils.)

There are some mediocre instants, of course. The worst I’ve had was Pablo, which was quite thin and sour. The “upmarket” instants are usually not as good as the generics. I think this is partly due to the granulated form which they impose to make the stuff look more authentic. In fact, instant coffee is coffee beans, cooked and ground to a dry powder. To granulate it may require a coagulant, which might alter the flavour.

Another thing to remember is that instant coffee should be made with water that is hot BUT NOT BOILING. Boiling overcooks the oils and changes the flavour. Otherwise, instant coffee is simply a brew made from roasted coffee beans – in other words, it’s coffee.

Perhaps you should take the above with a pinch of salt, though, as what inspired me to write on this topic was this: tonight I tried dry instant coffee powder for the first time. I’ve read about straight instant coffee being used in the military, and by students, and lately I’ve been annoyed by the extra minutes taken in the morning by the need to prepare and then drink my morning mug. So I stuck the teaspoon in the can, took out a medium size helping, and put it in my mouth.

I had wondered about how instant coffee could be swallowed, since it’s a dry powder – woud it stick to my mouth in an unshiftable film? Also, of course, I worried about the taste. Coffee is famously bitter – would pure coffee be “too much”?

Taste: I drink black coffee, with a little sweetener to take the edge off, and actually I found the powder no more bitter than the usual experience. More interestingly, the flavour had a bit more richness and complexity than the diluted form. It was not unpleasant; I didn’t go “Ick!” and instantly reach for the water. OTOH, I admit it’s not something I want stuck in my mouth for the rest of my life.

Dryness: It was not nearly as bad as I expected. The powder absorbed my saliva to become a paste not unpleasant in texture. A couple of swilled sips of water washed it down easily. There is a slightly deadened aftertaste in the centre of my tongue which I imagine would get a bit unpleasant if I did this frequently.

Caffeine: Well, I’m awake, aren’t I?

So, to sum up: The bad image of instant coffee is just that, an image. And taking the powder straight is doable, and indeed not unpleasant!

EDIT: I’m not sure if this is psychosomatic, but it does seem that eating coffee results in less efficient caffeine absorbtion. If I eat the same number of spoonfuls I would ordinarily put into a coffee drink, I do seem to end up with less of a buzz. Something to bear in mind.

Somehow this is so telling. A WordPress blog called “People are Garbage” has one “Hello world!” entry (full text: “Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!”) – and 316 comments consisting entirely of robospam.


Bret Stephens uses his column to bait “global warmists”.

The spark for this particular column is an item in the new book SuperFreakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner. They report a new solution to global warming proposed by Intellectual Ventures (a company which largely serves as a clearinghouse for technological and scientific patents): pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, in order to mimic the global temperature-lowering properties of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano.

After this announcement, various prominent global warming activists are quoted as calling the idea crazy. You can already see where Stephens is going with this, can’t you? He gets in a good dig with the First Commandment of global warming, which is Thou Shalt Not Call It A Religion, and then adds a handful of disputed facts to show that global warming is not an issue, if it is an issue it’s not our fault, and we can’t do anything about it either way.

This logical approach, quite common in the anti-global warming camp, always reminds me of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s eternal wisdom, the standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis:

In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.
Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do.
Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.

Stephens goes on to suggest that people who warn of the global warming crisis are all after a piece of the public-spending action. In some cases this may be true, though both scientists and professional activists tend not to find work difficult to get in any case. He doesn’t mention the possibility that people who’ve grown enormously rich via polluting industries (or who hope to do so) have at least equal incentive to find the facts as favouring their side of the argument. These rich people also have a lot more resources with which to promote their interests.

Finally, Stephens comes out and calls global warming activists and their many “fellow travellers” Marxists, as both ideas feed “man’s neurotic fear of social catastrophe while providing an avenue for moral transcendence”. I have no doubt that there are many mindless ideologues in the global warming camp, but True Believers are found in every avenue of life, and their existence is no proof of the falsity of their ideas. Many anti-global warming campaigners are obviously on the band wagon for the chance to relive the culture wars of old, regardless that the issues at stake do not exactly co-align.

What of the proposal itself, to pump sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere? Here are the obvious counterarguments, which I hope you will see are not merely ideological kneejerk reactions:

1. Sulphur dioxide has negative environmental effects: it contributes to acid rain (which is why industry in the West has been reducing its coal and petroleum emissions since the 1970s), which has a negative effect on foliage and water supplies, this eventually causing harm to living creatures. Atmospheric sulphur dioxide is also associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death.
2. Continually pumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere will require a large ongoing supply. If global warming causes increase in strength, more will be required. It may be easier to just set off a volcano.
3. If global warming is “solved” by sulphur dioxide, action to reduce emissions may be halted (will be halted, if we are honest about these things). As emissions increase unchecked, more sulphur dioxide will need to be used to offset the problem, which will exacerbate the issues mentioned in point one.

So, a less caustic substance would be better. But even so, the cause of the problem would increase.

But according to Stephens, the problem itself doesn’t exist in the first place, so why has he written a column about the “solution”?

Well, he is an ideologue, and his concern is with ideological combat, not the problems of the real world. Ideologues on both sides of the argument would best be ignored, leaving the grown-ups to manage the problems without their “help”.

An insightful interview with a 20-year employee of the American health care industry, now resigned and speaking out for health care reform.

Notable passages from the interview:

It doesn’t have to be stated directly to [corporate bureaucrats] that you will be paid a particular bonus if you deny X number of claims; it’s known, and it’s part of the culture.

For elective procedures in many of these countries, yes, you might wait longer for some elective procedure. You might wait longer for an MRI than you would in this country because, on a per capita basis, there are often more machines here than in some of those other systems. But life expectancy in almost every one of these other countries is greater than ours. People do not have to wait long for urgent or necessary care.

Reform without the public option would be far less meaningful and effective. The public option may not go as far as people would like in some ways, but we need a mechanism that controls costs and makes healthcare more available to citizens. It would go a long way toward keeping the insurance industry more honest, as the president has said.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. On the one hand, [Conservatives are] saying that [a public option] would put the private sector at an unfair disadvantage, while they’re also saying that the private sector can operate more efficiently. They are trying to have it both ways. But the reality is that the free-market simply does not work in the healthcare sector as it might in other sectors. A public insurance plan wouldn’t need to have the sales, marketing, and underwriting expenses—and would certainly not need to pay executives exorbitant salaries, and would not need to set aside a significant chunk of every premium dollar to pay shareholders—that private plans do.

The reason I started speaking out is I knew the insurance industry would come out with guns blazing to kill reform. I knew the tactics they’d be using and buzzwords they’d be repeating—especially through their shills in Congress, media and business. It’s the same old playbook. I know it because I essentially helped write it. … Because we’re talking about billions and billions of dollars at stake for those companies and investors.

Medicare is far more popular than almost any private health insurance program in the country. And people in [Veteran’s Administration programs] are certainly very grateful. But many of them don’t know that it’s a public program.

One of the big PR firms [for] the insurance industry is APCO Worldwide. They’ve represented the industry for quite a long time. They’re skilled at setting up front groups to spread disinformation to challenge proposals. So they will get talking points into the hands of conservative radio talk show hosts and editorial writers at conservative publications. It all comes from the health insurance industry, but they spread this stuff in such a way that their fingerprints are not directly on it. … The tragic thing about these town hall meetings is how some of these angry citizens are being manipulated. When you see these stories about the meetings and how the participants are so concerned about government takeover of our healthcare system, they use the very words that were fed to them by the health insurance industry, not realizing that that’s where they came from, not realizing that they are unwitting pawns of the industry. Because they hear that stuff from people they believe are credible, like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.


Is my friend dead?

9 April, 2009

Yesterday (Wednesday), I rang my friend to see if she was available for our regular Wednesday lunch. Her husband answered the phone, and said that my friend had had an asthma attack and was in intensive care. But he said not to worry.

Apparently, she’d had an attack in the middle of the night, and they’d spend 8 or 9 hours trying to get her breathing again. She was now in intensive care, with tubes down her throat. But he said not to worry.

I gave him my number, and told him to ring if anything happens. I asked about visiting, and he said she would be fine and I shouldn’t worry.

My best friend is in intensive care. I hope she’s not dead.