Getting The Salt Out

The issue:

Packaged grocery store foodstuffs are heavily over-salted to make them “taste good” and hide other flavoring and culinary deficiencies. If you are young, are not on a low-sodium diet by doctor’s order, and you enjoy canned soups or Top Ramen, for example, you are headed for medical issues. If you are already on a restricted sodium intake, you quickly find it’s almost impossible to shop for prepared foods that you like that also have low or even moderate sodium levels.

“On Tuesday, the prestigious Institute of Medicine said the food industry has made little progress in voluntarily reducing sodium. The advisers urged the FDA to set maximum sodium levels for different foods in a stepwise rollback, so that eventually average consumption would drop by about half a teaspoon.” — Yahoo news

The FDA:

“We believe we can achieve some substantial voluntary reductions,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We are shaping a strategy, and that strategy involves working in partnership.” — Yahoo news

The McLaughlin Group:

“Long-running panel discussions on topical (mostly political) issues that sometimes play like a noisy family dinner in which everyone speaks at once, until moderator John McLaughlin brings all to order. It’s punditry that can get loud and a bit frenzied, b…” — PBS

The truth is that the McLaughlin Group behaves like a dysfunctional family that’s having a really bad day. There is, in plain fact, no moderation of this free-for-all verbal brouhaha. In the histrionics over table salt, conservative Pat Buchanan (well-known known to liberals as the racist, homophobic commentator and former journalist) came across as one of the sanest and most level-headed.

Some air-head from the Washington Post said that the FDA proposal is further proof of the Obama Administration’s drive to increase government intrusion into the private sector, as evidenced by the proposal’s tendency to deprive Americans of free choice.

What Part of “Moron” Don’t They Understand?

This whole issue IS about free choice. There is no proposal to regulate the manufacture, sale or distribution of table salt, as is done with liquor, explosives, or prescription drugs. Reducing the salt content of prepared foods as a class restores free choice to Americans, since it is easy to add salt,  but impossible to remove it.

The shouters and screamers are always free to reach for the salt shaker and shower their dinner plates and soup bowls with thousands of extra milligrams of salt (and I hope they do), but the rest of us should be free to regulate our salt intake – up, or down – as we choose.

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Schrödinger’s Cat and Less Famous Felines

  • Amazing science, heard on the ra-didio the other day: folks with insomnia, and others who subsist on too few hours of sleep each night, tend to put on the pounds – compared to skinnier counterparts who get in their traditional eight hours a night. What about the obvious fact that “fat cat” sleeper A is presumably eating or snacking an extra couple of hours or so every day, compared to sleeper B, who by definition is fasting? The radio report just didn’t say.
  • The December Scientific American did a bit on Hugh Everett, who first (and controversially) proposed that the split between quantum physics and classical physics was needless. In the quantum world, the mathematical position of a particle in space and time may have either of one or two states, depending on its interaction with an observer. Superposed particle waves might be said to exist in two states at once. In the classical “macro” world that we know, an object may be at position A, or B, but never both at the same time.
  • You may think this pure twaddle, but as it turns out that math of the quantum world works beautifully, while the math of the classical world falls flat, in describing and predicting actual experimental quantum results. Everett’s way to reconcile this monstrous theoretical contradiction was to postulate alternative universes, where both macro states exist at the same time, but in parallel and diverging worlds. For this effort, Everett was theoretically lynched in absentia by the scientific community.
  • After being egged on by Albert Einstein, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger hatched up his famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. A geiger counter is rigged to detect the decay of a subatomic particle. If the particle decays, the geiger counter triggers release of a poison gas, which kills the cat. If the particle doesn’t decay, the cat lives. But, if in the quantum world we have to entertain the possibility of a particle in two different states at once, don’t we have to admit to the possibility of a dead-and-alive cat existing in both possible states at once?
  • My brother (who is neither as famous as Schrödinger or Einstein singularly, nor as both at the same time) was grudgingly adopted by a stray cat sometime in the 1980’s. People would say, “Oh, what a beautiful cat you have! What’s its name?” My brother would answer, “That’s not my cat”. They would say, “Yes, but what is the name of the cat?” And he would answer, “That’s not my cat“, for that indeed turned out to be the name of the cat.
  • As mean and hurtful as it sounds, there’s still more than one way to skin a cat (but not my cat). Happily, unless your cat is about the size of a subatomic particle, it can still only be skinned, so to speak, one way at a time.

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Old and New

Remember the Ice Man? This is the unfortunate neolithic hunter who died in the Alps some 5,300 years ago, becoming entombed in glacial ice until recently, when he was discovered by some hikers as the ice thawed. He became the world’s most perfectly preserved specimen of early european man, and the object of much study in the scientific community. We know what he ate, in which valleys he traveled enroute to his alpine ice grave (due to microscopic pollens found only in specific locales), what he wore, and now, the medical or forensic cause of death.

Forensic examination and CAT scans showed that he was shot in the back by an arrow. The human back is a particularly unfortunate way to be bushwhacked when you are alone, as you cannot reach the wound site to staunch blood flow, or, possibly, pull out the arrow. Once we realized he was bushwhacked, and hadn’t simply fallen into an ice crevasse as first speculated, the question was: was this the fatal wound, or did he carry the arrow into the mountains?

The CAT scan showed that the arrow hit an artery, maybe two, causing an aneurysm and massive hematoma (blood loss). It appears our Ice Man died within a few minutes of being struck down. A remarkable job of modern forensics on a 5,300 year old crime scene.

Driving home after work yesterday afternoon, I slowed down eastbound on the San Mateo Bridge instead of accelerating around what looked like a local bottleneck in the fast lane. Good thing. Seconds later, traffic came to a stop in all three lanes. I turned on the radio to see what was going on. In time, KCBS reported that “The Hayward Accident” was almost cleared. Finally, on land in the East Bay, I saw the mop-up in the opposite, westbound lanes. Our lanes were blocked only by rubber-neckers. For once, instead of being irritated, I saw why.

They had loaded one of the vehicles onto a flatbed. It had been a medium-size sedan of some kind. The front and back ends looked like aluminum foil tinsel that had been run through a shredder, or, if you will, a threshing machine. This vehicle wasn’t just smashed. It was cut to shreds. The passenger compartment was mostly intact. I never found out what happened, but memory of what I saw should make me a more cautious driver.

Speaking of threshing machines: about the time of Ice Man, contemporaries in warmer climes were figuring out how to domesticate wild grasses to produce foodstuff such as wheat and barley. As explained in the August 2007 Scientific American, in the domestication of cereal grains our ancestors favored annual grasses, perhaps because of bigger seeds, and we have favored annuals ever since. It started the annual cycles of cultivation, plowing, fertilization, tillage and harvest that we understand so well today. It also forced the hand of natural selection, favoring the grasses that bore the characteristics we favored for foodstuffs and ease of processing.

All this agriculture displaced huge land amsses populated by perennial grasses, such as found on the prairies of North America. It turns out that perennials are very much an Al Gore kind of plant. Perennials grow roots down to a depth of one or two meters, as opposed to perhaps a few inches to a foot for annuals. They require far less fertilization and irrigation, actually enrich the soil in which they grow, and make for an agriculturally much richer soil medium with a better texture and more nutrients for other plants in the ecology. To grow perennials, you do not need to resort to the expensive and destructive practice of turning and churning the soil every spring, nor of saturating it with nitrates and phosphates that ultimately poison the water table, and the soil does not blow or wash away as in modern fields.

It would seem that perennials are miracle plants that have been burned and plowed under for our more wasteful annuals. Indeed they are. Alas, we have spent five thousand years improving the annual seed stock through “natural” selection (the ones we plant are the ones that thrive) and through modern agricultural breeding and genetic research. Make no mistake, without modern plant hybridization, we could not produce or sustain ourselves much beyond near-starvation levels. It will take a while for science to come up with perennials that can produce comparable crops yields. But we have accumulated more agricultural and botanical know-how in the past 50 years than in the previous 5,000.

It won’t just be agribusiness that benefits from eliminating the enormously wasteful and polluting expense of plowing and fertilizing, but small farmers and poor sustenance farmers world wide. This could be the next big thing, comparable to the original domestication of plant foodstuffs. Imagine giant, cost-effective plains of cereal grasses, deeply rooted in their own moisture-preserving thicket of stable topsoil, stitched and bound together into a nutrient mat by those same root systems, that just keep producing and producing and producing … the Energizer Bunny of agriculture.

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