Mealworms and stomachs: a story with a scary headline

My partner has a hedgehog, and we feed her mealworms.  So I was terrified when, scrolling through Boing Boing, I saw the headline "Dinner's Revenge: mealworms that survive in the stomach, then eat their way out of predators." The author, Mary Roach, takes a long time getting to whether or not it happens, as explored by some scientists doing some casual experimenting.  But I'm not worried about Violet -- she chews her food.

As so often is the case with apocryphal tales like this, finding someone who knows someone who’s seen it is easy. Less easy is tracking down an actual eyewitness. One who claims to have seen is John Gray, the animal care technician at the Tracy Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno. His boss, Richard Tracy, is a physiological ecologist. [...] Eighteen lizards, forty toads, and fifty frogs are under John Gray’s care, but he has not seen it happen to any of them. It happened to a fence lizard he caught in his backyard as a twelve-year-old. He recalls feeding a superworm to his new pet in the evening, and finding the lizard dead the next morning with the superworm “hanging out of its side.”

Tracy is skeptical. He has a theory that the story took root in the public’s consciousness with the 1979 release of Alien, a film in which the title character hatches inside one of the crew and breaks through the skin of the man’s abdomen during a meeting.

Read the article here.

Applied Aquaponics

Roman Gaus, an entrepreneur in aquaponics, has written an article about his journey from curiosity to trailblazing, ending up where he is now, running (among other farms) a farm on a rooftop in Switzerland.  The article is called The Farming Technique That Could Revolutionize the Way We Eat.

Aquaponics is a method of combined fish and vegetable farming that requires no soil. The farmer cultivates freshwater fish (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics) in a recirculating water system that exchanges nutrients between the two. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish feces and urine. The net result: a 90 percent reduction in freshwater use compared with conventional fish farming, and a significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilizers. The system can be run without pesticides and, because the fish environment is spacious and clean, without antibiotics.

The above is a good summary of what aquaponics entails, and highlights one of the huge advantages of the method that's not really dealt with in this article:  It's a way to mass-produce food that might be able to replace the environmentally damaging fertilizers that are necessary to produce enough food to keep all the people currently on earth still-alive.  (Hank Green talks about this near the end of his SciShow video, Fritz Haber: Great Minds.)

To test and prove my idea, I investigated urban-farm options and came across a French design for a 20-foot cargo ship container with a greenhouse module built on top. It looked like it could house an aquaponics system. The container was relatively small and portable — the size of two parking spaces — and could be easily toured in public places: in front of schools, supermarkets, or parking lots. All it required were electrical and water hookups. I liked the ruggedness of the cargo container combined with the leafy beauty of cultivation. The UrbanFarmers Box was born.

[...]

We are building a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse farm on a rooftop in Basel, Switzerland. We started selling fresh produce to five local restaurants in January 2013, just six months after construction started. This roof-garden-on-steroids should yield more than five tons of fresh vegetables and nearly a ton of fish per year, feeding a local community of 100 people year-round.

Gaus also brings up one of the other cool qualities of aquaponics:  the inherent bias towards moderation and balance.  It might be a little bit aggressively optimistic to say, but I imagine if the majority of our food was produced in a process that required excruciating attention to a complex balance, we might generally be forced to be a little less all-or-nothing as a civilization.

Amid the excitement, however, we must remember that commercial-scale aquaponics is a delicate technology requiring a sensitive balance between the cultivation of fish and vegetables. You cannot maximize yields for either part without creating problems. Maintaining food safety and quality in these systems is critical. Going forward, it will take time, ingenuity, and significant investment to perfect our methods, become profitable, and make an impact.

Check out the whole article -- it's really good, and it's great to hear about examples of aquaponics farms having direct success in real life.  My fingers are crossed that this is the future of food in America.  (And, hey.  My town just passed a ballot measure to allow the construction of casinos.  Maybe I can try and persuade someone running a casino that organic, aquaponic fresh fish and vegetables would be a good novelty draw for people who feel a bit morally queasy about gambling.)

The best news

If you could choose any food, and that food would be the only one you'd eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? After ruling out some of the more blatantly appealing cases:  too much ice cream makes me nauseous, as much as I like it I think I'd get sick of steak, noodles aren't as versatile as I'd like, especially without other ingredients, I decided that there could only be one correct answer: Potatoes.

Which is why I'm thrilled to discover that that's actually a real option!

According to Wikipedia, the quoted source for this image:

Humans can actually survive healthily on a diet of potatoes supplemented only with milk or butter, which contain the two vitamins not provided by potatoes (vitamins A and D).[37][38] The potato contains vitamins and minerals, as well as an assortment of phytochemicals, such as carotenoids and natural phenols.

I now have a well-researched answer to this popular hypothetical:  Potatoes are not just a great answer, they are the correct answer.

Contextualizing money

I'm bad with money.  And I don't want to think too hard about that, because it makes me feel sad and overwhelmed.  So I'm going to talk about food instead for a little bit, then circle back.

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This is a Ze Frank video, about cholesterol.  It's called Cholesterol.  In it, Ze talks about the impulse that persuades him to make bad food decisions, and has put him in a state of health that reduces his projected lifespan substantially.  He describes a voice inside his head, that decides what's going to happen ("He'll tell you not to have the sandwich.  And we've already established, that's happening." [emphasis mine]) even though it directly contradicts the advice on healthy eating he literally just got, in the building he was walking out of at that moment.

I used to have a problem with healthy eating.  I mean, I still do.  I ate an entire Ben & Jerry's ice cream today.  But I've got my problem in control to a level where I'm pretty healthy -- two years ago, my weight fluctuated between 240 and 260 pounds.  I'm 5'9", so that's not healthy.  And if you're thinking, "The BMI is total crap, it's possible to be healthy at that weight!" -- you're right.  But I'm not a weight lifter.  None of that extra weight was muscle.  I wasn't healthy.

But my mental block about dieting was so massive that I could barely even begin to do anything about my health.  The only times I ever lost any was when I got dumped, and I'd drop twenty or thirty pounds because I wasn't eating because I was sad.  Or, when I was working every day around the holiday season, and barely eating enough to keep myself from passing out at work, where I was standing up for eight hour shifts every day.

And I didn't decide to eat healthy.  That never happened.  What I decided was to switch my lifestyle around food.  I took up Weekday Vegetarianism. ([TED talk] [Vlogbrothers video])  That worked, for several reasons:

(1.) Meat is bad for you, and eating substantially less of it significantly improved the quality of my diet.

(2.) There are several reasons for doing Weeekday Veg, so it was easy for me to avoid annoying self-justification arguments about whether I should make that decision, both with myself, and with people whom I didn't want involved in my dietary choices.

(3.) It created a concrete, easy to follow commitment that allowed me to limit my consumption without thinking too hard about why I was doing it.

(4.) I was doing it for myself, on my own terms, so I didn't feel like I was doing it just because people expected it of me.

My weight dropped at a healthy, steady rate of about 2 pounds a week, until I leveled out at 195, which is where I've been for, so far, all of this year.  I'm still not skinny.  I'm not the embodiment of any ideal of beauty in Western culture.  But I'm not unhealthy, in the way I was before, and I feel ethically better about my eating decisions than I did before.

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Now, I said earlier in this post that I had a whole Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  Which is fine.  I do that sometimes, and I'm not worried about it, because it's not my whole diet and it's not every day.  Reasonably frequent bowls of ice cream have still been better for my health than reasonably frequent burgers, chicken and steak.[1. Especially considering that I didn't skip the ice cream when I was still eating meat every day.]

But I bought that ice cream.  And if you've been following my blog, you know I'm in quite a lot of debt.  But I had some money, so I ended up spending it.

I hate having money.  It makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe and guilty.  Having money, and relying on money, always implies that I risk losing that money, or losing access to money.  I hate having bills, too, for the same reason.  I hate that money is a thing, though I recognize and acknowledge its utility.

I hate money like I love steak, and I don't know any easy way to control my spending.  If I could, I'd just give all my money away to charity, but while that solves the problem of having it, it doesn't solve any of the problems of not having it.  I haven't yet figured out any way that better spending can be a lifestyle choice, the way Weekday Veg is.  People's advice for lifestyle changes with money generally seem to be, "Be better with money."  It's not that easy, and that approach has never worked for me, with anything.

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Sometimes, I hear people talk about a "Welfare state," like it's some sort of evil system that only people who want to lay around all day and not do anything would want.  But when I think about my money problems, I tend to find myself fantasizing about exactly that kind of system.  I would happily work a full-time job, doing whatever the government decided I was needed for, as long as I didn't have to end up with money as a consequence.  I want a place to sleep, food to eat, the freedom to do and say what I want in my free time, to possibly earn enough admiration in an artistic field to shift into doing what I want to do for my living, and access to the resources like libraries and workshops in which I can do and say those things I want to.

don't want to have to be an accountant.  I don't want my success in the world to be contingent, not just upon my talents and dedication within whatever field in which I might excel, but also my talent at keeping track of finances and spotting good deals and financing plans.

When I think too much about money, I get wrapped up in that daydream, and anger at the unfairness that the system in which we live artificially enhances the success of people who are good at money over people who are good at anything else, like engineers and teachers and medical workers.[1. Until they're making enough to hire someone good at money.]  And that anger makes it difficult for me to accept the world I do live in, and makes it difficult for me to explore solutions to my financial problems that don't rely on the civilization I live in being fundamentally different.

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So, that's it.  That's my money problem, wrapped up in a neat little psychological, socialist-idealist bow.  I'm hoping that having this out of my system and up on the internet will free up the mental space necessary to work with the capitalist environment I've got [1. Which has loads of advantages, don't get me wrong, and I do see the practical and theoretical problems with my socialist fantasy too -- I'm talking about my fantasy here, not making a serious Utopian proposal.  Please don't jump down my throat about being a commie pinko fascist.] instead of getting angry, daydreaming, and stress-spending fifty bucks on scratch tickets and booze.

According to Science! -- Food porn makes you hungry

(via ABC News) I know, I was shocked. ABC News reports, Pictures of fatty foods could trigger cravings.  According to the study the article reports on, it's worse if you're drinking something sweet, like soda.  It triggers reward centers in your brain, promoting impulse eating.

The article says that this information may have "Important health implications," which is science reporting speak for "It's important.  We swear.  Learning stuff matters.  Please keep giving us funding?"

The thing that's most galling about this report, though, is that in the article about the worrying potential effects of pictures of fatty foods, they open with this picture (below the fold; warning, there will be lots of food porn)

It's horrible, isn't it?  I mean, it looks delicious.   I totally want one... but that's exactly the point.  It's the kind of scandalous behavior you expect from tumblrs like this one,

or this one,

or this one,

or even this one.

But not from a respected news source.

Or a slightly less respected news source.

Or even highly-respected online educational video serieses.

On an unrelated note

I'm about 150 words short of goal today -- this gallery of delicious looking brain-manipulation is my way of apologizing.

Keeping people healthy

My position on healthcare can be boiled down to a simple policy question, and method of answering it.  Should it be possible to die of starvation in America?  The answer:  if it's possible for the answer to be 'no,' it's not okay for the answer to be 'yes.'  Everything beyond that builds upon that foundation -- harm we can avoid, we should avoid. Rebecca Onie has a great TED talk about her program, Health Leads, that seeks to deal with that basic level of care.  She encourages her audience to seek to recontextualize the hospital waiting room, as a place not to wait in when you're sick, but a place to get and to stay healthy.

I love the way she talks about healthcare in this talk, especially at the end -- 

I believe that at the end of the day when we measure our healthcare, it will not be by the diseases cured, but by the diseases prevented. It will not be by the excellence of our technologies or the sophistication of our specialists, but by how rarely we needed them. And most of all, I believe that when we measure healthcare, it will be, not by what the system was, but by what we chose it to be.

[emphasis mine]

I hear a lot of talk about how we need more doctors.  How we need people to funnel into the profession, how important it is that we keep them here, in America.  I like the argument that we should need less -- that we ought to be trying to minimize the number of doctors necessary, replacing them with much less demanding jobs that basically entail offering people help to stay healthy.

This talk is a great example of one of the ways in which our common sense view of healthcare is best served by simply reversing it.