Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 1st, 2012

A good use of GM crops: Making tomatoes tasty again

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Very interesting application of genetic modification, described in the NY Times by Gina Kolata:

Plant geneticists say they have discovered an answer to a near-universal question: Why are tomatoes usually so tasteless?

Yes, they are often picked green and shipped long distances. Often they are refrigerated, which destroys their flavor and texture. But now researchers have discovered a genetic reason that diminishes a tomato’s flavor even if the fruit is picked ripe and coddled.

The unexpected culprit is a gene mutation that occurred by chance and that was discovered by tomato breeders. It was deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes because it conferred an advantage: It made them a uniform luscious scarlet when ripe.

Now, in a paper published in the journal Science, researchers report that the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato. And these findings provide a road map for plant breeders to make better-tasting, evenly red tomatoes.

The discovery “is one piece of the puzzle about why the modern tomato stinks,” said Harry Klee, a tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was not involved in the research. “That mutation has been introduced into almost all modern tomatoes. Now we can say that in trying to make the fruit prettier, they reduced some of the important compounds that are linked to flavor.” . . .

Continue reading. Later in the story:

. . . The reason the tomatoes had been light green was that they had the uniform ripening mutation, which set up a sort of chain reaction. The mutation not only made tomatoes turn uniformly green and then red, but also disabled genes involved in ripening. Among them are genes that allow the fruit to make some of its own sugar instead of getting it only from leaves. Others increase the amount of carotenoids, which give tomatoes a full red color and, it is thought, are involved in flavor.To test their discovery, the researchers used genetic engineering to turn on the disabled genes while leaving the uniform ripening trait alone. The fruit was evenly dark green and then red and had 20 percent more sugar and 20 to 30 percent more carotenoids when ripe.

But were the genetically engineered tomatoes more flavorful? Because Department of Agriculture regulations forbid the consumption of experimental produce, no one tasted them.

And, Dr. Giovannoni says, do not look for those genetically engineered tomatoes at the grocery store. Producers would not dare to make such a tomato for fear that consumers would reject it. . .

I sure wouldn’t reject it. We have already had one genetic change in tomoatoes—the uniform ripening genetic change, which ruined the flavor. Why not turn the flavor genes back on again? I don’t understand what the objection would be. Wouldn’t it be nice to have tasty tomatoes once more? Though I suppose many today have never tasted a real tomato—that is, a tomato lacking the genetic change that made them ripen uniformly.

I guess the idea is that accidental genetic change is okay, but deliberate genetic change is bad? But what about breeding programs for (say) roses? And aren’t most accidental genetic changes harmful? I don’t quite get the thinking here (if that’s what it is).

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2012 at 8:41 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Science

A snack that turned into dinner

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Somehow I got mussels in mind—an excellent source of B6, though not so good as clams. But clams have a heavy shell and cost more per pound (with a higher proportion of the purchase price going to buy shell, which I find simply inedible), so I went with a pound of mussels, figuring I would get 6 or so ounces of meat. I also picked up a half-bottle of Chardonnay to have with them.

On reading some recipes on the Web, I did the following:

In my large sauté pan I put a small square of butter and about 1 Tbsp olive oil. I chopped small the bulb of a fresh cippolini onion and sautéed that, adding salt, pepper, a small pinch of dried thyme, and a good pinch of saffron thread.

When the onion was soft and cooked, I added probably 3-4 Tbs of minced garlic, sautéed that a minute or so, then a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes with roasted garlic and simmered that for 5-10 minutes.

I added a splash of the Chardonnay and the pound of mussels, covered, and simmered for 10 minutes, occasionally giving the pan a shake.

Using a slotted spoon, I removed all the mussels and added to the pan (with the tomatoes and sauce) 1/4 c fregola sarda pasta. I covered the pan again, turned the heat low to maintain a simmer, and cooked that for 16 minutes. While it cooked, I removed the meat from the shells and then discarded the shells.

Once the pasta was cooked I dumped the contents of the pan—pasta and sauce—over the mussels, and then enjoyed that with a glass of Chardonnay, eating a box of fresh red raspberries for dessert.

Extremely tasty and not a bad dinner, except for the absence of leaves. Still, not a totally bad meal.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2012 at 4:56 pm

Underground Supermodels

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Cool article on a cool animal, in The Scientist by Thomas Park and Rochelle Buffenstein. Photo above from Corbis, by Frans Lanting. Article begins:

Pitch dark, dank, and seething with saber-toothed, sausage-shaped creatures, the world of the African naked mole-rat is a hostile habitat. In the 1980s, scientists made the remarkable discovery that naked mole-rats live like termites with a single, dominant breeding queen and scores of nonbreeding adult helpers that never leave their natal colony. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Naked mole-rats, unlike other mammals, tolerate variable body temperatures, attributed to their lack of an insulatory layer of fur. Their pink skin is hairless except for sparse, whisker-like strands that crisscross the body to form a sensitive sensory array that helps them navigate in the dark. Both the naked mole-rat’s skin and its upper respiratory tract are completely insensitive to chemical irritants such as acids and capsaicin, the spicy ingredient in chili peppers. Most surprisingly, they can survive periods of oxygen deprivation that would cause irreversible brain damage in other mammals, and they are also resistant to a broad spectrum of other stressors, such as the plant toxins and heavy metals found in the soils in which they live. Unlike other mammals, they never get cancer, and this maintenance of genomic integrity, even as elderly mole-rats, most likely contributes to their extraordinarily long life span. In contrast to similar-size mice that only live 2–4 years, naked mole-rats can survive and thrive, maintaining normal function and reproduction, into their 30s.

The current hypotheses for the existence of this suite of unusual features center around the equally unusual lifestyle traits of the naked mole-rat. (See illustration on page 33.) Naked mole-rats live in large family groups in elaborate underground burrows. Although they are protected from large temperature fluctuations as well as from predators and pathogens, they have to contend with low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels, due to the large number of individuals—usually 100 to 300—living and respiring in close quarters under poorly ventilated conditions. The unusual ecology and social structure of the naked mole-rat make this an exciting system for understanding evolution and specialization, and details of the molecular mechanisms underlying the mole-rat’s unusually good health are providing insights into human disease.

No oxygen? No problem!

Most mammalian brains, including those of humans, start to suffer damage after just 3–4 minutes of oxygen deprivation. This is because brain tissue does not store much energy, and a steady supply of oxygen is needed to generate more. Hence, when the oxygen supply to the brain is reduced or blocked, brain cells run out of energy, and damage quickly ensues. This is a major concern for victims of heart attacks and strokes, in which the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. Brain tissue of naked mole-rats, on the other hand, remains functional with no oxygen supply for more than three times as long as brain tissue of laboratory mice. And when the oxygen level is restored, brain tissue from naked mole-rats frequently recovers fully, even after several minutes of inactivity.1

This remarkable ability no doubt stems from . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2012 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Science

Ending military rape—and the cover-ups

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Mary Elizabeth Williams has a sobering column in Salon:

Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” is already the darling of the festival circuit, a documentary that won the audience award at Sundance and critical praise for its sharp, skillful storytelling. But as compelling as his film is, the director of  “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and the Catholic Church sex abuse documentary “Twist of Faith” doesn’t merely want to impress you. This is a movie that intends to reform the entire United States military. And it stands a very good chance of succeeding.

Inspired by Helen Benedict’s 2007 Salon story “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” “The Invisible War” is a gut-wrenching condemnation of the way the military has, across the board and in every branch, failed to protect its members from sexual assault – and then failed them again and again afterward. In a series of harrowing personal accounts, victims – mostly women but a sampling of men as well – recount the trauma of their rapes while in uniform and the sickening personal consequences they experienced for reporting them. It’s estimated that over 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted during their service – and some believe the real figure is even higher. It’s an epidemic.

As the film demonstrates, because the military handles sexual assault internally, a stunning number of victims are simply brushed off by their superiors. But even more outrageously, many of them have faced retribution. The subjects speak of having their careers ruined, of being punished for committing “adultery” with their married rapists, or being denied veterans’ benefits for the long-term consequences of the emotional and physical batterings they received.

Dick’s film is a devastating, intimate portrait of the aftereffects of sexual abuse. It’s impossible to see the photographs of the astonishing number of women and men who talked to the filmmakers — each looking so fresh and sharp and proud in their uniforms — and not be heartbroken and enraged at the perpetrators and the institutions that protected them. . .

Continue reading. “Honor”—the military seems to have abandoned the idea.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2012 at 3:03 pm

Posted in Army, Law, Military

Interesting post on crime in Baltimore—and the story behind crime statistics

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I found this blog post by David Simon (author of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and creator of The Wire) to be interesting:

This is the dry story of a statistic.

By which, I mean to say, it is a story that today’s newspaper is no longer equipped to cover very well. And it is certainly not a story that could be easily gleaned by anyone who hasn’t at some point been a full-time beat reporter, a veteran who has covered an institution like, say, the Baltimore Police Department or the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office for year after year, learning to look behind the curtains, knowing enough not to accept a stat at face value.

You’re reading it here because I once covered crime in Baltimore for a decade and a half, and because I still live in Baltimore and still spend time now and then with detectives and lawyers in that ville. And after years of shared experience, some still talk freely enough in my company.

I have no doubt that a few simplistic souls will note that this is appearing on a blog, and that I am therefore, technically, a blogger. And if the story itself finds any traction anywhere, they will say, “See. Simon did that using the internet. He wasn’t working as a paid, professional journalist. So all that he claims for professional journalism, and the lower regard he has for our vaunted citizen journalism, is unwarranted. He is proof of our very argument.”

Which is lazy.  And dumb.  And embarrassing in its lack of intellectual rigor. But this being the internet, it will be said by some. They will tweet it, and it will have all the appearance of being clever in 140 characters or less. But it is flippant and useless, which, frankly, is a common outcome when people are thinking in 140-character morsels.

No, the reason I am able to tell you this story is not because I am now an amateur or because I have a blog. It is, above all, because a news organization paid me for years on end to cover the same approximate beat on a full-time basis. For the first three years or so, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I wrote a lot — more than 300 bylines in one year alone — but much of it was credulous and reactive, leavened only by what police and prosecutors told me; none of it carried much of the nuance or understanding required to actually acquire any deeper truth.  That stuff only began showing up after I’d had some years of learning the game, of rummaging documents, of learning which sources to trust.  I did all of that not as an amateur, and not as a hobby. I did it for 50 or 60 hours a week because the Baltimore Sun had a sufficient revenue stream to pay me a living wage and benefits so that I could take a mortgage and raise a family and  show up to do the work on a daily basis. I didn’t do it because I loved cops or hated cops, or loved or hated criminals or lawyers or bureaucrats. I didn’t have any other agenda than the news report itself. The sinecure of professional prose journalism, which is now threatened by a new economic model, was the only place in my city where resources were once allocated for an independent, unaligned voice to spend years in the bowels of a civic institution — long enough that I began to understand what a statistic might represent, and what it might not represent.

When I did the job, there were at least half a dozen different police reporters like me working at the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun. We covered some ground. Today, there are two such creatures struggling to keep up, not only with the daily headlines, but with the kind of institutional reporting that is required for a story like this one to be not only discovered, but understood in all of its obscure, but essential back-and-forth.   This is no reflection on those guys: In a newsroom with more empty desks every month, they are buried by the workload.  They get to as much as humanly possible, and indeed, they have at points undertaken fine institutional reporting, witness Mr. Fenton’s work on the underreporting of sexual assaults in Baltimore. But make no mistake: The Baltimore Sun of the 1980s or the 1990s — staffed with a half dozen or more police reporters, some of whom had been gathering sources since the late 1960s — would have acquired all of the motivations and implications as  the policy change was implemented, and it would have been not only a headline, but a full-blown controversy long ago.

That isn’t to credit myself at all. This is a story that a Roger Twigg or an Ann LoLordo would have nailed long before I ever found my way to the headquarters building.  The Baltimore Police Department was a beat; and it was covered as a beat, as an institution. The daily tally of crime and punishment is always the easy part. What happened yesterday is cake. A smart fourteen year old can call a police spokesman, get rote facts and report what occurred in the 1400 block of East Baltimore Street. But what is actually happening within the institutions themselves? And what that will mean to a city? That shit, my friends, is what makes journalism a career for grown-ups. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2012 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Weight-loss impatience

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I was mulling over the impatience that many feel about their progress in weight loss—an impatience I shared until I was more or less forced to wait it out, as described in earlier posts—and I suddenly grasped the probable source of the impatience.

Many people view their weight-loss effort as a regrettable but necessary detour from their regular life, rather than as a new route (to a new destination: fitness instead of fatness). With a detour, you eventually get back on the road you were following, and indeed many people do that: they go through a period of following a “special” diet in order to lose weight, and once that’s done, they are relieved that at last they can get back to their regular route and resume “normal” eating—the very kind of eating that created the problem in the first place.

This attitude is most obviously visible in people who lose weight through eating some sort of formula diet—the canned fortified protein drinks and such things, or even special packaged “weight-loss diet” foods—but it applies as well to those who try fad diets: the South Beach diet, the grapefruit diet, whatever. These generally don’t even pretend to be a permanent eating plan. They are “fat-buster” diets: use them to shed 10 or 20 pounds quickly, then get back to the hamburgers and pizza. People suffer through this sort of specialized eating, feeling that they can endure it because they know it’s only temporary.

Some perhaps may realize that they can’t simply return to the eating the way that got them to the point of having to diet and they intend to change their regular diet, but of course when they reach their goal and leave the canned formula or the packaged meals or the grapefruit diet restrictions, they have had no practice and no experience is building a sound diet from regular foods. Perhaps they tell themselves that they’ll eat their old favorite foods “in moderation,” but as I pointed out in yesterday’s post, that doesn’t work: the line that separates a “moderate” from an “excessive” amount is often blurry and hard to find, especially when eating foods that tap into an addictive response (fat, salty, sweet foods; or highly refined starches and sugars (ice cream and bread, for example); or alcohol). Even with regular foods, some—proteins, starches, and fats—require measured portions: it’s too easy to underestimate the amount you’re eating. On the other hand, you don’t really have to measure vegetables and greens (more accurately, “leaves,” since many “greens” are in fact red: red kale, red cabbage, and so on).

So some of the impatience dieters feel stems from, “I’m so tired of eating this way—I want to hurry and get to goal so I can get back to ‘regular’ eating” (the source of the problem). And of course, gross underestimates of the time it takes to lose, say, 10 lbs contribute to the impatience: to lose 10 lbs in 6 or 7 weeks is doing pretty well, but many people think they can do it in 1 week, maybe 2 at the most. But when it goes slower—and in particular when after a week or two their weight blips up a bit—quite a few think, “This isn’t working. To hell with it.”

In contrast, if you know and accept that you’re actually going a new route—and in fact, finding a new route (that is, figuring out how to eat from now on)—and will not be returning to the old road, you can lose the impatience and enjoy the scenery as you explore route possibilities. You don’t care about the slow but gradual progress of weight loss—you are weighing now just to get clues about your progress in finding the best new route (the new way of eating) by observing the effects of your current food experiments. Your focus shifts from checking your weight to figuring out what new pattern of eating will work best for you (using your weight as a route-finder), and that requires exploration, practice, and experimentation—and it continues for the rest of your life. You never go back to the old road.

Eating right is not a detour, it takes a new direction, going places with which you may be unfamiliar, and finding the best new route through unfamiliar terrain can be quite interesting as you continue to make new discoveries.

This morning I again modified the grub template, this time to accommodate (a) those who prefer their foods cooked separately and (b) those who work and have time to cook only on the weekend. Take a look.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2012 at 9:56 am

Posted in Daily life, Fitness, Food

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