Tag Archives: food

New Chinese emperor, will famine not follow

For most of its 2300 year history, the Chinese empire has rattled between strong leaders who brought famine, and weak leaders who brought temporary reprieve. Mao, a strong leader, killed his associates plus over 100 million by his “great leap forward” famine. Since then, 30+ years, we’ve had some weaker leaders, semi-democracy, and some personal wealth, plus the occasional massacre, e.g. at Tiananmen square, and a growing demographic problem. And now a new strongman is establishing himself with hopes of solving China’s problems. I hope for the best, but fear the repeat of the worse parts of Chinese history.

Two weeks ago, Chairman Xi amended the Chinese constitution to make himself emperor for life, essentially. He’s already in charge of the government, the party, and the military. Yesterday (Tuesday), he consolidated his power further by replacing the head of the banks. The legal system is, in theory, is the last independent part of government, but there is hardly any legal system in the sense of a balance of power. If history is any guide, “Emperor” Xi will weaken the courts further before the year is out. He will also likely remove many or all of his close associates and relatives. It is not for nothing that Nero, Stalin, and Mao killed their relatives and friends — generally for “corruption” following a show trial.

China's Imperial past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

China’s past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

Xi might be different, but he faces a looming demographic problem that makes it likely he will follow the president of the stronger emperors. China’s growth was fueled in part by a one child policy. Left behind is an aging, rural population with no children to take care of the elderly. As top-down societies do not tolerate “useless workers,” I can expect a killing famine within the next 10 years. This would shed the rural burden while providing a warning to potential critics. “Burn the chicken to scare the monkey,” is a Chinese Imperial aphorism. Besides, who needs dirt farmers when we have modern machines.

Lazy beds (feannagan) use only half the soil are for planting. The English experts were sure this was inefficient and land-wasting. Plowing was imposed on Ireland, and famine followed

“Lazy beds” of potatoes were used in Ireland for a century until experts forced their abandonment in the mid 1800s. The experts saw the beds, and the Irish as lazy, inefficient, and land-wasting. Famine followed.

Currently about 40% of the country is rural, about 560 million people spread out over a country the size of Canada or the US. The rest, 60% or 830 million, live concentrated in a few cities. The cities are rich, industrial, and young. The countryside is old, agricultural and poor, salaries are about 1/3 those of the cities. The countryside holds about 2/3 of those over 65, about 100 million elderly with no social safety net. The demographic imbalance is likely to become worse — a lot worse — within the next decade.

What is likely to happen, I fear, is that the party leaders — all of whom live in the cities — will decide that the countryside is full of non-productive, uneducated whiners. They will demand that more food should be produced, and will help them achieve this by misguided science and severe punishments. Mao’s experts, like Stalin’s and Queen Victoria’s, demanded unachievable quotas and academic-based advice that neither the leaders nor the academics had ever tried to make work. Mao’s experts told peasants to kill the birds that were stealing their grain. It worked for a while until the insects multiplied. As for the quotas, the party took grain as if the quotas were being met. If the peasants starved, they starved.

I expect that China’s experts will propose machine-based modern agriculture, perhaps imported from the US or Israel: Whatever is in style at the time. The expert attitude exists everywhere to this day, and the results are always the same. See potato famine picture above. When the famine comes, the old will request food and healthcare, but the city leaders will provide none, or just opioids as they did to ailing Elvis. When the complaining stops the doctor is happy.

China's population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds.

China’s population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds. Note too that there are millions more males (blue) than females (pink).

In single leader societies, newspapers do not report bad news. Rather, they like to show happy, well-fed peasants singing the leaders’ praise. When there’s a riot too big to ignore, rioters are presented as lazy malcontents and counter-revolutionaries. Sympathizers are sent to work in the fields. American academia will sing the praises of the autocratic leader, or will be silent. We never see the peasants, but often see the experts. And we live in a society where newspapers report only the bad, and where we only believe when there pictures. No pictures, no story. As with Stalin’s Gulags, Mao’s famine, or North Korea today, there are likely to be few pictures released to the press. Eventually, a census will reveal that tens of million aged have vanished, and we’ll have to guess where they went.

I can expect China to continue its military buildup over the next decade. The military will be necessary to put down riots, and keep young men occupied, and to protect China from foreign intervention. China will especially need to protect its ill-gotten, new oil-assets. Oil is needed if China is to replace its farmers with machines. It will be a challenge for a wise American leader to avoid being drawn into war with China, while protecting some of our interests: Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. As with Theodore Roosevelt, he should offer support and non-biassed mediation. Is Trump up to this?  Hu Knows?

Robert Buxbaum, March 21, 2018. The above might be Xi-nephobia, Then again, this just in: Chairman Xi announces that Taiwan will face punishment if it attempts to break free. Doesn’t sound good.

Yogurt making for kids

Yogurt making is easy, and is a fun science project for kids and adults alike. It’s cheap, quick, easy, reasonably safe, and fairly useful. Like any real science, it requires mathematical thinking if you want to go anywhere really, but unlike most science, you can get somewhere even without math, and you can eat the experiments. Yogurt making has been done for centuries, and involves nothing more than adding some yogurt culture to a glass of milk and waiting. To do this the traditional way, you wait with the glass sitting outside of any refrigeration (they didn’t have refrigeration in the olden days). After a few days, you’ll have tasty yogurt. You can get taster yogurt if you add flavors. In one of my most successful attempts at flavoring, I added 1/2 ounce of “skinny syrup” (toffee flavor) to a glass of milk. The results were most satisfactory, IMHO.

My latest batch of home-made flavored yogurt, made in a warm spot behind this urn.

My latest batch of home-made flavored yogurt, made in a warm spot behind this coffee urn.

Now to turn yogurt-making into a science project. We’ll begin with a hypothesis. I generally tell people to not start with a hypothesis, (it biases your thinking), but here I will make an exception as I have a peculiarly non-biased hypothesis to suggest. Besides, most school kids are told they need one. My hypothesis is that there must be better ways to make yogurt and worse ways. A hypothesis should be avoided if it contains any unfounded assumptions, or if it points to a particular answer — especially an answer that no one would care about.

As with all science you’ll want to take numerical data of cause and effect. I’d suggest that temperature data is worth taking. The yogurt-making bacteria is called lactose thermophillis, and this suggests that warm temperatures will be good (lact = milk in Latin, thermophilic = loving heat). Also making things interesting is the suspicion that if you make things too warm, you’ll cook your organisms and you won’t get any yogurt. I’ve had this happen, both with over-heat and under-heat. My first attempt was to grow yogurt in the refrigerator, but I got no results. I then tried the kitchen counter and got yogurt, and then I heated things a bit more by growing next to a coffee urn, and got better yogurt; yet more heat and nothing.

For a science project, you might want to make a few batches of yogurt, at least 5, and these should be made at 2-3 different temperatures. If temperature is a cause for the yogurt to come out better or worse, you’ll need to be able to measure how much “better”? You may choose to study taste, and that’s important, but it’s hard to quantify, so that should not be the whole experiment. I would begin by testing thickness, or the time to a get some fixed degree of thickness; I’d measure thickness by seeing if a small weight sinks. A penny is a cheap, small weight, and I know it sinks in milk, but not in yogurt. You’ll want to wash your penny first, or no one will eat the yogurt. I used hot water from the urn to clean and sterilize my pennies.

Another thing that is worth testing is the effect of using different milks: whole milk, 2%, 1% or skim; goat milk, or almond milk. You can also try adding stuff to it, or starting with different starter cultures, or different amounts. Keep numerical records of these choices, then keep track of how they effect how long it takes for the gel to form, and how the stuff looks or tastes to you. Before you know it, you’ll have some very good product at half the price of the stuff in the store. If you really want to move forward fast, you might apply semi-random statistics to your experimental choices. Good luck.

Robert Buxbaum, March 2, 2018. My latest observation: what happens if you leave the yogurt to mold too long? It doesn’t get moldy, perhaps the lactic acid formed kills germs (?), but the yogurt separated into curds and whey. I poured off the whey, the unappealing, bitter yellow liquid. The thick white remainder is called “Greek” yogurt. I’m not convinced this tastes better, or is healthier, BTW.

Fat people live longer, show less dementia

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal - overweight- obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal – overweight – obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Lets imagine you are a 5’10” man and you weigh 140 lbs. In that case, you have a BMI of 20, and you probably think you’re pretty healthy, or perhaps you think you’re a bit overweight. Our institutes of health will say that you are an “average-wight” or “normal-weight” American, and then claim that the average-weight American is overweight. What they don’t tell you, is that low weight, and so-called average weight people in the US live shorter lives. Other things being equal, the morbidity (chance of death) for a thin American, BMI 18.5 is nearly triple that of someone who’s obese, BMI 32. The morbidity of the normal-weight American is better, but is still nearly double that of the obese fellow whose BMI is 32.

Our NIH has created a crisis of overweight Americans, that is not based on health. They work hard to solve this obesity crisis by telling people to jog to work, and by creating ever-more complicated food pyramids. Those who listen live shorter lives. A prime example is Jim Fixx, author of several running books including “The complete Book of Running.” He was 52 when he died of a heart attack while running. Similar to this is the diet-expert, Adelle Davis, author of “Let’s eat right to keep fit”. She died at 70 of cancer — somewhat younger than the average American woman. She attributed her cancer to having eaten junk food as a youth. I would attribute it to being thin. Not only do thin people live shorter lives, but their chances of recovering from cancer, or living with it, seem to improve if you start with some fat.

The same patter exists where age-related dementia is concerned. If you divide the population into quartiles of weight, the heaviest has the least likelihood of dementia, the second heaviest has the second-least, the third has the third-least, and the lightest Americans have the highest likelihood of dementia. Here are two studies to that effect, “Association between late-life body mass index and dementia”, The Kame Project, Neurology. 2009 May 19; 72(20): 1741–1746. And “BMI and risk of dementia in two million people over two decades: a retrospective cohort study” The Lancet, Volume 3, No. 6, p431–436, June 2015.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented. The likelihood of dementia decreases with weight.

Now you may think that there is a confounding, cause and effect here: that crazy old people don’t live as long. You’d be right there, crazy people don’t live as long. Still, if you correct the BMI-mortality data to remove those with dementia, you still find that in terms of life-span, for men and women, it pays to be overweight or obese but not morbidly so. The study concludes as follows: “Weight loss was related to a higher mortality risk (HR = 1.5; 95% CI: 1.2,1.9) but this association was attenuated when persons with short follow-up or persons with dementia were excluded.” As advice to those who are planning a weight loss program, you might go crazy and reduce your life-span a lot, but if you don’t go crazy, you’re only reducing your life-span a little.

In terms of health food, I’ve noticed that many non-health foods, like alcohol and chocolate are associated with longevity and mental health. And while low-impact exercise helps increase life-span, that exercise is only minimally associated with weight loss. Mostly weight loss involves changing the amount you eat and changing your clothes choices to maximize radiant heat loss.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, October 26, 2017. A joke: Last week I was mugged by a vegan. You may ask how I know it was a vegan. He told be before running off with my wallet.

Chinese jokes

At college, my chinese room-mate wanted to make a surprise birthday dinner for his girlfriend.

….. But someone let the cat out of the bag.


Then there was the fellow who broke into the Fortune Cookie Factory with a hammer and broke virtually all the fortune cookies — as many as he could find — in an act of wonton destruction.


And finally,


I don’t believe racial jokes are evil, but suppose it all comes down on your idea of good humor. Comedy always involves odd people, or people doing things differently. The difference doesn’t have to be insulting, just different, and all good jokes provide some new insight.

Robert E. Buxbaum, October 29, 2015. Every now and again I post jokes– and then I analyze them to death (it’s funny because ….). Recent ones include an Italian Funeral joke, a fetish lawyer joke, and things on, engineers, dentists, piratessurrealism. Just click the “jokes” tab at right for the whole, unsightly assortment.

you are what you eat?

The simplest understanding of this phrase is that you should eat good, healthy foods to be healthy, and that this will make you healthy in body and mind.

The author of the study published this book against GM foods simultaneously with release of his paper.

The author of this book against unhealthy foods faked his analysis to support the book.

Clearly there is some truth to this. Crazy people look crazy and often eat crazy. Even ‘normal’ people, if they eat too much are likely to become fat, lazy, and sick. There is a socio- economic effect (fat people earn less), and a physiological evidence that gut bacteria affects anxiety and depression (at least in rats). My sense here is at the diet extremes though. There is little, or no evidence to suggest you can make yourself more intelligent (or kind or good) by eating more of the right stuff, or just the right foods in just the right amounts. A better diet can make you look better, but there is a core lie at work when you extend this to imply that the real you is your body, or so tied to your body that a healthy mind can not be found in a sickly body. But most evidence is that the mind is the real you, and (following Socrates) that beautiful minds are found in sickly bodies. I’ve seen few (basically, no) healthy poets, writers, or great artists. Neither are there scientists of note (that I can recall) who lived without smoking, drinking, and any bad habits. Many creative people did drugs. George Orwell smoked cigarette, and died of TB, but wrote well to the end. There is no evidence that bad writing or thinking can be improved by health foods. Stupid is as stupid does, and many healthy people are clearly dolts.

Not that it’s always clear what constitutes good health, or what constitutes good food for health, or what constitutes a good mind. Skinny people may be admired and may earn more, but it is not clear they are healthy. Yule Gibbons, the natural food guru died young of stomach cancer. Adele Davis, another the author of “eat right to be healthy,” died of brain cancer. And Jim Fix, “the running doctor” died young of a heat attack while running. Their health foods may have killed them, and that unhealthy foods, like chocolate and coffee can be good for you. It’s likely a question of balance. While a person will feel better who dresses well, the extreme is probably no good. Very often, a person is drawn after his self-image to be the person he pretends. Show me a man who eats only vegetarian, and I’ll show you someone who sees himself as spiritual, or wants to be seen as spiritual. And that man is likely to be drawn to acting spiritual. Among the vegetarians you find Einstein, George B. Shaw, and Gandhi, people who may have been spiritual from the start, but may have been kept to spirituality from their diets. You also find Hitler: spirituality can take all sorts of forms.

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker. People eat, drink, and dress like who they are. And people become like those they eat drink and dress like.

Choice of diet also helps select the people you run into. If you eat vegetarian, you’re likely to associate with other vegetarians, and you will likely behave like them. If you eat Chinese, Greek, or Mexican food, you’re likely to associate with these communities and behave like them. Similarly, an orthodox Jew or Moslem is tied to his community with every dinner and every purchase from the kosher or halal store.

And now we come to the bizarre science of bio-systems. Each person is a complex bio-system, with more non-human DNA than human, and more non-human cells than human. A person has a vast army of bugs on him, and a similarly vast pool of bugs within him. Recent research suggests that what we eat affects this bio-system, and through it our mental state. For whatever the mechanism, show me someone who drinks only 30 year Scotch or 40-year-old French wine, and I’ll show you a food snob. By contrast, show me someone who eats good, cheap food, and drinks good, cheap wine or Scotch (Lauder’s or Dewar’s), and I’ll show you a decent person very much like myself, a clever man who either is a man of the people or who wants to be known as one.”Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are].

Robert E. Buxbaum, February, 2015. My 16-year-old daughter asked me to write on this topic. Perhaps she didn’t know what it meant, or how true I thought it was, or perhaps she liked my challenges of being 16.

Of Scrooge and rising wheat production

The Christmas Carol tells a tale that, for all the magic and fantasy, presents as true an economic picture of a man and his times as any in real-life history. Scrooge is a miserable character at the beginning of the tale, he lives alone in a dark house, without a wife or children, disliked by those around him. Scrooge has an office with a single employee (Bob Cratchit) in a tank-like office heated by a single lump of coal. He doesn’t associate much with friends or family, and one senses that he has few customers. He is poor by any life measure, and is likely poor relative to other bankers. At the end, through giving, he finds he enjoys life, is liked more, and (one has the sense) he may even get more business, and more money.

Scrooge (as best I can read him) believes in Malthus’s economic error of zero-sum wealth: That there is a limited amount of food, clothing, jobs, etc. and therefore Scrooge uses only the minimum, employs only the minimum, and spends only the minimum. Having more people would only mean more mouths to feed. As Scrooge says, “I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [the workhouses]. They cost enough, and … If they [the poor] would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge, the poor rich man.

Scrooge, the poor rich man with a tiny carbon footprint.

The teaching of the spirits is the opposite, and neither that of the Democrats or Republicans. Neither that a big government is needed to redistribute the wealth, nor that the free market will do everything. But, as I read it, the spirits bring a spiritual message of personal charity and happiness. That one enriches ones-self when one give of and by ones-self — just from the desire to be good and do good. The spirit of Christmas Present assures Scrooge that no famine will result from the excess population, but tells him of his 1800 brothers and shows him the unending cornucopia of food in the marketplace: spanish onions, oranges, fat chestnuts, grapes, and squab. Christmas future then shows him his funeral, and Tim’s: the dismal end of all men, rich and not:  “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live.” And Scrooge reforms, learns: gives a smile and a laugh, and employs a young runner to get Cratchit a fat goose. He visits his nephew Fred, a cheerful businessman for dinner, and laughs while watching Tom Topper court Fred’s plump sister-in-law.

The spirits do not redistribute Scrooge’s wealth for him, and certainly don’t present a formula for how much to give whom. Instead they present a picture of the value of joy and societal fellowship (as I read it). The spirits help Scrooge out of his mental rut so he’s sees worthy endeavors everywhere. Both hoarding and redistribution are Malthusian-Scroogian messages, as I read them. Both are based on the idea that there is only so much that the world can provide.

World wheet production

World wheat production tripled from 1960 to 2012 (faostat.fao.org), but acreage remained constant. More and more wheat from the same number of acres.

The history of food production suggests the spirits are right. The population is now three times what it was in Dickens’s day and mass starvation is not here. Instead we live among an “apoplectic opulence” of food. In a sense these are the product of new fertilizers, new tractors, and GMOs (Genetically modified organisms), but I would say it’s more the influence of better people. Plus, perhaps some extra CO2 in the air. Britons now complain about being too fat — and blame free markets for making them so. Over the last 50 years, wheat production has tripled, while the world population doubled, and the production of delicacies, like meat has expanded even faster. Unexpectedly, one sees that the opulence does not come from bringing new fields on-line — a process that would have to stop — but instead from increased production by the same tilled acres.

The opulence is not uniformly distributed, I should note. Countries that believe in Malthus and resort to hoarding or redistribution have been rewarded to see their grim prophesies fulfilled, as was Scrooge. Under Stalin, The Soviet Union redistributed grain from the unworthy farmer to the worth factory worker. The result was famine and Stalin felt vindicated by it. Even after Stalin, production never really grew under Soviet oversight, but remained at 75 Mtons/year from 1960 until the soviet collapse in 1990. Tellingly, nearly half of Soviet production was from the 3% of land under private cultivation. An unintended benefit: it appears the lack of Soviet grain was a major motivation for détente.  England had famine problems too when they enacted Malthusian “corn acts” and when they prevented worker migration Irish ownership during the potato famine. They saw starvation again under Attlee’s managed redistribution. In the US, it’s possible that behaviors like FDR scattering the bonus army may have helped prolong the depression. My sense is that the modern-day Scrooges are those against immigration “the foreigners will take our jobs,” and those who oppose paying folks on time, or nuclear and coal for fear that we will warm the planet. Their vision of America-yet-to-be matches Scrooge’s: a one-man work-force in a tank office heated by a single piece of coal.

Now I must admit that I have no simple formula for the correct charity standard. How does a nation provide enough, but not so much that it removes motivation– and the joy of success. Perhaps all I can say is that there is a best path between hoarding and false generosity. Those pushing the extremes are not helping, but creating a Dickensian world of sadness and gloom. Rejoice with me then, and with the reformed Scrooge. God bless us all, each and every one.

Robert Buxbaum, January 7, 2015. Some ideas here from Jerry Bowyer in last year’s Forbes.

General Tso’s chicken

Self promotion. It's not for everyone.

Self promotion. It’s not for everyone.

Is funny because …. it’s classical metaphysical humor. The lowly chicken becomes the hero and leader, and the troops are following him/it (to victory).

We know that some unlikely leaders are successful, perhaps just because they’ve the pluck to get up and do something (that’s the secret of American success). Presumably the troops are too timid to lead, and are following this chicken because of his determined air, and his hat and horse: clothes make the man. You should not follow every leader with determination, a fancy hat and a horse, by the way. Some leaders will devour their followers, and most do not care for self promoting underlings.

Robert Buxbaum, Nov.12, 2014.

Genetically modified food not found to cause cancer.

It’s always nice when a study is retracted, especially so if the study alerts the world to a danger that is found to not exist. Retractions don’t happen often enough, I think, given that false positives should occur in at least 5% of all biological studies. Biological studies typically use 95% confidence limits, a confidence limit that indicates there will be false positives 5% of the time for the best-run versions (or 10% if both 5% tails are taken to be significant). These false positives will appear in 5-10% of all papers as an expected result of statistics, no matter how carefully the study is done, or how many rats used. Still, one hopes that researchers will check for confirmation from other researchers and other groups within the study. Neither check was not done in a well publicized, recent paper claiming genetically modified foods cause cancer. Worse yet, the experiment design was such that false positives were almost guaranteed.

Séralini published this book, “We are all Guinea Pigs,” simultaneously with the paper.

As reported in Nature, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a 2012 paper by Gilles-Eric Séralini claiming that eating genetically modified (GM) maize causes cancerous tumors in rats despite “no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation.” I would not exactly say no evidence. For one, the choice of rats and length of the study was such that a 30% of the rats would be expected to get cancer and die even under the best of circumstances. Also, Séralini failed to mention that earlier studies had come to the opposite conclusion about GM foods. Even the same journal had published a review of 12 long-term studies, between 90 days and two years, that showed no harm from GM corn or other GM crops. Those reports didn’t get much press because it is hard to get excited at good news, still you’d have hoped the journal editors would demand their review, at least, would be referenced in a paper stating the contrary.

A wonderful book on understanding the correct and incorrect uses of statistics.

A wonderful book on understanding the correct and incorrect uses of statistics.

The main problem I found is that the study was organized to virtually guarantee false positives. Séralini took 200 rats and divided them into 20 groups of 10. Taking two groups of ten (one male, one female) as a control, he fed the other 18 groups of ten various doses of genetically modified grain, either alone of mixed with roundup, a pesticide often used with GM foods. Based on pure statistics, and 95% confidence, you should expect that, out of the 18 groups fed GM grain there is a 1- .9518 chance (60%) that at least one group will show cancer increase, and a similar 60% chance that at least one group will show cancer decrease at the 95% confidence level. Séralini’s study found both these results: One group, the female rats fed with 10% GM grain and no roundup, showed cancer increase; another group, the female rats fed 33% GM grain and no roundup, showed cancer decrease — both at the 95% confidence level. Séralini then dismissed the observation of cancer decrease, and published the inflammatory article and a companion book (“We are all Guinea Pigs,” pictured above) proclaiming that GM grain causes cancer. Better editors would have forced Séralini to acknowledge the observation of cancer decrease, or demanded he analyze the data by linear regression. If he had, Séralini would have found no net cancer effect. Instead he got to publish his bad statistics, and (since non of the counter studies were mentioned) unleashed a firestorm of GM grain products pulled from store shelves.

Did Séralini knowingly design a research method aimed to produce false positives? In a sense, I’d hope so; the alternative is pure ignorance. Séralini is a long-time, anti GM-activist. He claims he used few rats because he was not expecting to find any cancer — no previous tests on GM foods had suggested a cancer risk!? But this is mis-direction; no matter how many rats in each group, if you use 20 groups this way, there is a 60% chance you’ll find at least one group with cancer at the 95% confidence limit. (This is Poisson-type statistics see here). My suspicion is that Séralini knowingly gamed the experiments in an effort to save the world from something he was sure was bad. That he was a do-gooder twisting science for the greater good.

The most common reason for retraction is that the article has appeared elsewhere, either as a substantial repeat from the authors, or from other authors by plagiarism or coincidence. (BC Comics, by Johnny Hart, 11/25/10).

It’s important to cite previous work and aspects of the current work that may undermine the story you’d like to tell; BC Comics, Johnny Hart.

This was not the only major  retraction of the month, by the way. The Harrisburg Patriot & Union retracted its 1863 review of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech the editors originally panned as “silly remarks”, deserving “a veil of oblivion….” In a sense, it’s nice that they reconsidered, and “…have come to a different conclusion…” My guess is that the editors were originally motivated by do-gooder instinct; they hoped to shorten the war by panning the speech.

There is an entire blog devoted to retractions, by the way:  http://retractionwatch.com. A good friend, Richard Fezza alerted me to it. I went to high school with him, then through under-grad at Cooper Union, and to grad school at Princeton, where we both earned PhDs. We’ll probably end up in the same old-age home. Cooper Union tried to foster a skeptical attitude against group-think.

Robert Buxbaum, Dec 23, 2013. Here is a short essay on the correct way to do science, and how to organize experiments (randomly) to make biassed analysis less likely. I’ve also written on nearly normal statistics, and near poisson statistics. Plus on other random stuff in the science and art world: Time travel, anti-matter, the size of the universe, Surrealism, Architecture, Music.

How to make fine lemonade

As part of discussing a comment by H.L. Mencken, that a philosopher was a man in a dark room looking for a black cat that wasn’t there, I alluded to the idea that a good person should make something or do something, perhaps make lemonade, but I gave no recipe. Here is the recipe for lemonade something you can do with your life that benefits everyone around:

The key is to use lots of water, and not too much lemon. Start a fresh lemon and two 16 oz glasses. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze half into each glass, squeezing out all of the juice by hand (you can use a squeezer). Ideally, you should pass the juice through a screen for the pits, but if you don’t have one it’s OK — pits sink to the bottom. Add 8 oz of water and 2 tbs of sugar to each (1/8 cup). Stir well until the sugar dissolves, add the lemon rind (I like to cut this into 3rds); stir again and add a handful of ice. This should get you to 3/4″ of the top, but if not add more water. Enjoy.

For a more-adult version, use less water and sugar, but add a shot of Cognac and a shot of Cointreau. It’s called a side-car, one of the greatest of all drinks.

Robert E. Buxbaum *82

Slowing Cancer with Fish and Unhealth Food

Some 25 years ago, while still a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, I did some statistical work for a group in the Physiology department on the relationship between diet and cancer. The research involved giving cancer to groups of rats and feeding them different diets of the same calorie intake to see which promoted or slowed the disease. It had been determined that low-calorie diets slowed cancer growth, and were good for longevity in general, while overweight rats died young (true in humans too, by the way, though there’s a limit and starvation will kill you).

The group found that fish oil was generally good for you, but they found that there were several unhealthy foods that slowed cancer growth in rats. The statistics were clouded by the fact that cancer growth rates are not normally distributed, and I was brought in to help untangle the observations.

With help from probability paper (a favorite trick of mine), I confirmed that healthy rats fared better on healthily diets, but cancerous rats did better with some unhealth food. Sick or well, all rats did best with fish oil, and all rats did pretty well with olive oil, but the cancerous rats did better with lard or palm oil (normally an unhealthy diet) and very poorly with corn oil or canola, oils that are normally healthful. The results are published in several articles in the journals “Cancer” and “Cancer Research.”

Among vitamins, they found something similar (it was before I joined the group). Several anti-oxidizing vitamins, A, D and E made things worse for carcinogenic rats while being good for healthy rats (and for people in moderation). Moderation is key; too much of a good thing isn’t good, and a diet with too much fish oil promotes cancer.

What seems to be happening is that the cancer cells grow at the same rate with all of the equi-caloric diets, but that there was a difference the rate of natural cancer cell death. More cancer cells died when the rat was fed junk food oils than those fed a diet of corn oil and canola. Similarly, the reason anti-oxidizing vitamins hurt cancerous rats was that fewer cancer cells died when the rats were fed these vitamins. A working hypothesis is that the junk oils (and the fish oil) produced free radicals that did more damage to the cancer than to the rats. In healthy rats (and people), these free radicals are bad, promoting cell mutation, cell degradation, and sometimes cancer. But perhaps our body use these same free radicals to fight disease.

Larger amounts of vitamins A, D, and E hurt cancerous-rats by removing the free radicals they normally use fight the disease, or so our model went. Bad oils and fish-oil in moderation, with calorie intake held constant, helped slow the cancer, by a presumed mechanism of adding a few more free radicals. Fish oil, it can be assumed, killed some healthy cells in the healthy rats too, but not enough to cause problems when taken in moderation. Even healthy people are often benefitted by poisons like sunlight, coffee, alcohol and radiation.

At this point, a warning is in-order: Don’t rely on fish oil and lard as home remedies if you’ve got cancer. Rats are not people, and your calorie intake is not held artificially constant with no other treatments given. Get treated by a real doctor — he or she will use radiation and/ or real drugs, and those will form the right amount of free radicals, targeted to the right places. Our rats were given massive amounts of cancer and had no other treatment besides diet. Excess vitamin A has been shown to be bad for humans under treatment for lung cancer, and that’s perhaps because of the mechanism we imagine, or perhaps everything works by some other mechanism. However it works, a little fish in your diet is probably a good idea whether you are sick or well.

A simpler health trick is that it couldn’t hurt most Americans is a lower calorie diet, especially if combined with exercise. Dr. Mites, a colleague of mine in the department (now deceased at 90+) liked to say that, if exercise could be put into a pill, it would be the most prescribed drug in America. There are few things that would benefit most Americans more than (moderate) exercise. There was a sign in the physiology office, perhaps his doing, “If it’s physical, it’s therapy.”

Anyway these are some useful things I learned as an associate professor in the physiology department at Michigan State. I ended up writing 30-35 physiology papers, e.g. on how cells crawl and cell regulation through architecture; and I met a lot of cool people. Perhaps I’ll blog more about health, biology, the body, or about non-normal statistics and probability paper. Please tell me what you’re interested in, or give me some keen insights of your own.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum is a Chemical Engineer who mostly works in hydrogen I’ve published some 75 technical papers, including two each in Science and Nature: fancy magazines that you’d normally have to pay for, but this blog is free. August 14, 2013