☛ Christopher Hitchens is dead

After fighting cancer for a while, Christopher Hitchens is no more. I’ve only read (and heard) a tiny fraction of his writings (and talks), but was fascinated even in that small exposure to him. A fiery and uninhibited speaker and writer, what struck me most were his clarity of thought and lucidity of expression, and how his ideas seemed to flow, languidly almost, from thesis to conclusion.

Another terrible loss for humankind this year. Rest in Peace, sir.

(Cross-posted at GlobeTrekker)

☛ The rat that’s ‘immune’ to acid

This is a very interesting article about why the naked mole rat can’t feel pain from acid burns. Apparently it was already known that they don’t feel the pain; their hypothesis about why it happened—that the acid sensing ion channels that tell neurons to transmit pain would be missing—was not true.

Because it turns out that mole rats — despite being the only known vertebrates that are insensitive to the painful stimulus of acid — have the same two fully-functional, acid-sensing channels regulating their pain receptors as the rest of us, and even produce the channels in similar quantities. And this is where things get interesting.

Now they know the actual reason. There’s another way neuron-firing can be controlled, and it is this (sodium) channel that is highly inhibited in the naked rat mole. Similar phenomenons are observed in humans too:

Furthermore — and this doesn’t happen often — humans lacking the Nav1.7 channel have been known to feel no pain whatsoever.

Very interesting, yes, but my question is this: the naked rat mole is insensitive to pain due to acids; but does that mean that it is in fact unaffected by acids? It does not seem so—the phenomenon is purely neurological, and there seems to be nothing physiological that would protect the rat against acids.

Does this not make this a counterproductive adaptation? Why would this adaptation survive? Is it because the natural environments of these rats are entirely devoid of harmful acids, thus making that pain sensation redundant? (Is this also why they’re “naked”, rather than furry?)


Forks over Knives’

I recently found this very interesting documentary, called ‘Forks over Knives’, that deals with the idea that much of our modern health problems can be solved by changing our diets. This in itself is, of course, not a revolutionary idea—most of us are quite aware of what we need to do to stay healthy. (That we don’t actually do it is another matter entirely!)

What piqued my interest (and great dismay) was some of the views in the documentary—were some of the ideas that I currently have so wrong? And the theses were from respected doctors, who seemed to have done quite a bit of research, and extensive research at that, in coming up with their ideas!

Some of the ideas that I already had, before watching this movie:

  • Processed foods are worse than ‘natural’ foods
  • Veggies and fish are ‘healthier’ than platefuls of red meat.
  • Refined sugars are certainly pretty bad
  • Fast foods are certainly bad.
  • Balanced diets, based on veggies, small portions of meat and fish, and dairy products are good.

With this background, I was dismayed to hear that:

  • ANY animal proteins are apparently bad
  • Even milk is bad!
  • Plant based diets” are the way to go (no animal foods)
  • Animal proteins can cause cancer (and tumors)!
  • … and other ‘facts’ along these lines.

While I’m no dietician, and have no background in nutrition sciences, my senses were troubled because of the following:

The movie’s point of view veers extremely close to the textbook definition of “being a vegan”. No animal products, period. They chose to use the less controversial “plant based diet”, but the idea is pretty much the same. This is not a problem in itself, but–

I don’t think “vegan” diets are natural to homo sapiens (i.e. evolutionarily consistent). Historically, evolutionarily, it seems to me extremely unlikely that we’d have adapted to using nothing from animals in our diets. Indeed, most sources caution that “careful planning”[1,2,3] is needed to ensure that all nutrients are present in a vegan diet—it’s apparently easy to miss out especially on the essential Vitamin B12 if you’re not mindful.

It seems much more natural that given our hunting-gathering backgrounds, we’d much rather be the omnivores that most of us are—eating whatever we found (and hunted down), and being extremely pleased with such a diet. I’m perfectly comfortable with “vegetarian” diets that add milk and other dairy products, but I found it dubious that simply coming from animals made certain foods harmful.

And so I looked it up, and came across this extremely detailed critique of the movie–well, at least the science in the movie. And after a few minutes of glancing through the article, I’m a little more relieved—according to this author, the movie does gloss over certain additional information that would be helpful, and does sometimes mistake correlation for causation.

And it does overstate the harmful effects of animal products on our health, sometimes going to the length of being inaccurate.

As of now, my takeaway is this: certainly watch the movie—it’s a nice overview of the effect of a balanced diet and nutrition on our bodies. But remember the word “balanced” more than the words “plant based diet”. Also, read through the blog article above for a thorough discussion, after you watch the movie.

Do you know of other sources of information that either support or detract from the ideas in the movie (and the blog)? Can you point to relevant research?

Trying to be too clean

Being conscious of our hygiene is a good thing, of course. But is it possible to overdo our hygiene routines for our own good? Have you noticed how more and more people use sanitizing hand wipes, or antibacterial hand soaps? Their function, of course, is to ‘wipe out’ all the bacteria around you—but is that always a good thing?

I’ve always had my theories, but now there’s actual evidence—it’s probably not a very good thing on the long run.

For one, not all micro-organisms that we’re exposed to (or that live on or inside us) are harmful for our health. Some are actually our friends! It’d suck to have them die out, right? Well, guess what the antimicrobial lotions that you use do.

For another, our bodies have their own incredible immune system, which is trusted with protecting the body against disease, and killing germs and tumors that affect us. Well, part of how the human immune system works is that it’s adaptive, which means, our body actually learns from experience whether a certain organism is harmful or not, and whether something in our body needs to be attacked or not. This is an incredible mechanism, but this, by definition, is dependent upon the body being exposed to some amount of microbes, so that it can keep itself healthy and at a cutting edge.

In fact, this is exactly the function of vaccines: expose the body to a small amount of impotent germs, so that the body can trigger its immune system and form a ‘memory’ of that particular disease. Next time an actual disease tries to attack—BAM!—the immune system is there to take care of it at the outset.

(As an aside, yes—all those people going on an on about getting rid of vaccines? They don’t know what they’re talking about. Some people are not in a position to make an informed choice on their own, and those that are, sometimes make their decisions based on something other than logic, science and information. For example, this (a video on the page starts autoplaying; please mute your speakers if that’s a problem).)

Given this mechanism, what do you think happens when you wipe out every kind of microbe on or around us, with those antimicrobial wipes of yours? The body loses all ability to adapt and keep its immune system updated and at peak working condition. This is fine as long as you allow nothing infectious to approach us—but the moment something does sneak through, the body has no mechanism to counter it. The effect—being sick at the first sign of disease. This, of course, is not such a great thing.

Most people are familiar with this effect—this is why we’re wary about drinking tap water when we visit a new place. Even though residents there are perfectly healthy—which means the water is nominally clean—we might get an upset stomach upon drinking the local water: our bodies were not ready for the local microbial action!

This effect is multiplied many times when we’re chronically using wipes to “sanitize” ourselves. Sanitize ourselves we do, but we also take the edge out of our immune systems.

Being hygienic is good, yes. But it’s also good to play in the mud sometimes, and to expose ourselves to our fellow invisible Earthlings. And it’s mostly fine—and in fact healthier—to wash ourselves with just good old soap!

The Mystery of the Abydos flying machines in ancient Egypt

I had not heard of the Abydos carvings before. But then we went to Egypt, and it turned out that my Dad had requested that Abydos be put on the schedule—even though it wasn’t a ‘usual’ tourist destination. (I still don’t know whether he’d come across these specific carvings as a reason to go there. Baba, will you leave a comment if you read this? :))

But the carvings were quite amazing. There they were—a few of them adjacent to each other, each apparently depicting something we’d recognize as a modern (or future) means of air travel. (I have my own photos, but it’s easier to link to photos online.)

Was this really evidence that the Egyptians knew how to fly—or at the least, had witnessed flying machines?

My immediate thought was an emphatic NO. Not simply because it sounds implausible, and not because I don’t believe in aliens. Even if it is possible, I had my own reasons: amongst other qualities, the Egyptians certainly had one—they were record-keepers. They kept extremely intricate records of everything they knew about—and repeated this knowledge everywhere they could: every temple, every column, every tomb.

Is it really possible that they witnessed something so—forgive my pun—out of this world, and only made ONE reference to it? One set of carvings, in one temple, located in a far corner, high above the ground, where it is easily missed? Now that is implausible.

Of course I looked online when I was back—and initially, this is the best explanation that I found. Apparently a set of carvings were recarved, i.e. more carvings were done on top of the original—each modification at different times, even—with the end result being what we see today. I did not like this explanation at all. The webpage has some detailed drawings, but—I didn’t like it. How many separate coincidences must there have been—over many centuries of recarvings, done intentionally by different sets of people—that such an intriguing piece would result? Again, implausible.

Now I’ve found a better explanation. And this involves more chance and less human intervention. Apparently there are other carvings found at the same temple, which have nothing at all to do with avionics, that can explain our mystery. It can be something as simple as an incomplete carving, coupled with damage over the millennia!

Seen side by side, this image and this one seem to indicate quite convincingly that our mystery panel was meant to be similar to the other, more conventional, carving.

Granted, it’s still quite a coincidence—alien theorists, you need not retire yet on this one—but it still seems an acceptable coincidence!

Are you convinced, or are you looking up at the sky, trying to look past those cloaking devices?

P.S.: It’s so easy to find anything alien related on the internet! The cloaking device thing was intended as a joke, stemming in large part from my teenage—and, ahem, later—Animorphs days. I did a Google search looking for interesting links, and voila!