Don’t forget to feed and walk your mitochondria

Yes, I’m still here – though I don’t know if any of YOU are.

The pay at my job is somewhat low for the skillset it requires, but makes up for that by having a very reasonable workload, a pleasant work environment, and certain perks – like access to the electronic journals that my employer subscribes to. I added an RSS feed from pubmed intended to cover my main interests – basically edible and industrial microbiology and biotechnology. Every day, a list of 300-600 or so new scientific articles pops up in my feedreader and I scan through the titles looking for anything interesting to me. Unintentionally, my selection appears to also result in quite a bit of diabetes, obesity, and sports medicine research. Lately I’ve taken a moderate interest in our own most blatantly bacterial components, the mitochondria.

Mitochondria are kind of like a nearly 2-billion-year-long case of typhus (or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, if you prefer). After infecting our ancestors (and now us) for so long, they’ve been reduced to dependency on living in our cells. Perhaps a bit like the progression from wolves to Chinese Crested dogs. On the other hand, having thoroughly domesticated them, we get a lot of use out of them, and couldn’t live without them. Their ability to harness the electron-sucking power of oxygen means we get almost 20 times more energy out of our food than we otherwise would, which is a good thing since biologically speaking, keeping the hideously complicated mess of biochemistry that makes up a human body takes a ridiculous amount of biochemical energy compared to that of normal organisms (i.e. prokaryotes).

Lately in the stream of new publications I’ve been seeing a number of papers suggesting that a lack of proper mitochondrial activity might be related to obesity and related problems (e.g. “metabolic syndrome”, type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, obesity-related “inflammation”, and so on) and even some age-related problems, both physical and mental. There is some seriously interesting research going on into treatments to potentially stimulate mitochondrial activity and whether this might help solve a number of health problems.

So…take good care of your mitochondria. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to pay special attention to properly feeding my mitochondria and making sure I take them for regular walks (and paddling trips and so on). It could, of course, be purely psychosomatic, but right now I feel better than James Brown

There’s a fair amount of rational skepticism over using drugs or nutritional supplements to stimulate mitochondria, but here’s a tip that I suspect everyone’s doctor would accept: make sure you take your mitochondria for regular walks. Frequent exercise (particularly endurance exercise) seems to be a scientifically well-accepted way to induce production of more mitochondria.

But now I have to go to bed. My main complaint with work these days is that it eats up essentially my entire day, leaving me with just enough time for some household chores between getting up in the morning and going to bed in the evening. Not their fault I live almost and hour and a half from work, though (and at least the commute is through relatively low-traffic and scenic terrain.). Still, it makes it hard to get blog posts and podcasts done (episode 4, on the subject of “heat-fixing” of bacteria for microscopy – particularly Mycobacterium tuberculosis – will be out as soon as I can manage. Still pondering the subject of Episode 5. I’m saving the “Two Mass Spectrometers, High Performance Liquid Chromatography, and a Female Donkey” episode for later when I manage to surpass the “nearly 3” listeners that I seem to be stuck at…)

“Stir-Fried Stochasticity” podcast: pilot episode

Cornelia the Happy Mutt with a tennis ballI’m still not sure I know why I have a desire to push recordings of my voice onto a more or less innocent worldwide population, but I do. And now I have a real theme to wrap an attempt at a podcast (or as I prefer – “oggcast”) around: scientific papers.

I finally got annoyed at press-release-based science stories one too many times, and thought to myself “why does almost nobody who does these stories at least cite the dang thing so I can go look it up and see what’s really in it, if they can’t be bothered to actually read and report on it themselves rather than just the press-release?” The story in question was the recent one about how babies understand dog-language (or something like that). Since I consider the dog to be a philosophical role-model, I wanted to read the actual paper and see if it was as silly as the headlines made it sound or (as I suspected) less flashy but more solid…but even “Science Daily” didn’t cite it.

Finally talking myself out of putting off doing audio recording, I tracked down the original paper, read it, and whipped out a rough show discussing what I found in the paper. I had fun doing it, so I’d like to turn it into a series.

I’ve put up a utilitarian page at with both a built-in <audio> tag interface and direct-download links for both Ogg Vorbis and MP3 versions.

I’m still deciding exactly how I’m going to decide on the papers to cover – should I pick obscure, forgotten ones that almost nobody else would ever read again without me stumbling on them and talking about them? Classic papers? Papers related to recent news stories like this one? All of the above? Depending on how long I end up trying to make the episodes, perhaps starting with some kind of scientific question and then reporting on a selection of papers I dig up to address the question, or just a selection of papers on the same subject? I’ve already gotten a request for an episode on the theme of prokaryotic extracellular polysaccharides…

The rate at which I can convince myself to try to crank these out (and improve their quality) is directly proportional to how much interest there might be out there in them, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if you think this might be interesting. Please don’t let me slack off! Also, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about anything I mention in the show or the attached show notes.

If you don’t want to comment here, you can also email me at epicanis at

Thank you, and good night…

Magical Miracle Elixir: “better than bleach”. Secret ingredient? Bleach.

The Los Angeles Times published a bewilderingly hyped article today about an electrolytic device that makes “miracle” liquid. The article describes what actually is a kind of nifty gadget that uses an electrical current and a couple of semi-permeable membranes to generate (separately but simultaneously) a “degreaser” and a “sanitizer” out of ordinary salt and tapwater. They say that not only can you use one output to clean your dishes, the other one is “10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria”(insert a long string of exclamation points there). I just have one thing to say about that:


Continue reading Magical Miracle Elixir: “better than bleach”. Secret ingredient? Bleach.

Wells Fargo Bank is evil

Submissions for the next edition of The Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival are due in the next couple of days. I actually had the paper I’m doing for this one picked out last month even as I was submitting last month’s paper on Lister’s experiments with fermenting milk. I expect I’ll have this month’s written up this weekend…but first, partly as a reminder to myself, I just wanted to say Wells Fargo Bank is a greedy evil bastard.

Seriously, if Wells Fargo Bank was a cartoon character, it’d be someone resembling Snidely Whiplash. I can totally hear the corporation saying “If you don’t give me the deed to your ranch I’m gonna throw you on the railroad tracks!” and twirling its evil little moustache.

What prompts this outburst of a blog post, you ask? Well, even if you don’t ask, I’ll tell you anyway.

I got a phone call this evening. Someone from Wells Fargo Bank calling to tell me they were going to mail me something. “Why the heck”, I thought to myself, “do they need to call me to tell me they’re mailing me something? Why can’t they just mail it?” You see, apparently I may be eligible for over a million dollars of death and disability coverage! And I’ll have sixty days to look it over and it won’t cost me anything! Isn’t that great? But still….”Why do they have to call me to tell me they’re mailing me something? Why can’t they just mail it?”

Here’s why: evidently they feel they’re not getting enough “raping people’s accounts with Mystery Fees” income these days…so unless I’m mistaken, this insurance from Wells Fargo is an “opt out” thing. They’re calling because when they say “hey, we’re doing this and mailing stuff to you”, and I say “Oh, okay”….That’d mean I’d just consented to it. If I get busy or the mailing they send gets “lost” and I forget, Wells Fargo gets to automatically start extracting “insurance premium” mystery fees from my account. (No doubt if they happen to do it on a day when my account is low, they get to charge me an overdraft fee along with the insurance premium. Isn’t that great?) Maybe I’m misinterpreting this, but it sure sounded like this was what was going on from the obfuscated sales-pitch script the caller was going through.

I asked them to go ahead and cancel me before even sending out the stuff, since I already have insurance. We’ll see if they honor my request. I was, incidentally, quite cordial with the poor person who has to do this evil crap for a living in the call center. I’ve done tech support, I know what it’s like having to deal with awful crap that’s not your fault…

Anyway, just wanted to mention this in case anyone else has their bank pull this trick – and so in case I forget and they try to send me the stuff anyway, I’ll hopefully see this post again and be reminded to go through whatever obnoxious “opt-out” procedure I’ll have to deal with…

(I’m reminded of when BlockBuster slipped a tiny, folded notice, buried in a full-size envelope with some other stuff, alerting me in tiny print that they wanted to sell my information to junkmail marketers but they wouldn’t if I filled out their tiny little form and mailed it back to them. As I recall, I had to buy the stamp to mail it, too…)

Anyway, I just had to get that out there. I’ll be back to microbiology and biochemistry shortly. We shall begin with another bit of spiffy practical microbiology from the late 19th century…

FoodTV’s new “Food Detectives” show…

That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more! I had intended to try to come up with another post for this month’s “The Giant’s Shoulders” anthology, but I’ve just encountered such an appalling concentration of disappointing un-science that I cannot restrain myself any further. Guess I’ll have to settle for one post in the anthology this month.

FoodTV’s new “Food Detectives” show sounded so promising. I thought to myself “‘MythBusters’ meets ‘Good Eats’!?!? That would be pure, refined, pharmaceutical-grade WIN!” Then I saw their premier episode. The “experiments” appeared blatantly and badly staged, and in some cases shockingly badly designed. For example, their “experiment” with refrigerator deodorants involved showing a guy sticking his face into a ‘fridge allegedly full of smelly stuff and filming him making faces while they timed how long he pretended to be willing to keep his face in there.

Continue reading FoodTV’s new “Food Detectives” show…

Drugs make you stupid. And so does fear.

Ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds terrorism. Terrorism breeds interruption of homebrewing. There was a disturbing article that came up today. Evidently, someone’s burglar alarm went off, so the security company drove by to check it out. They opened the garage (where I guess the alarm indicated an attempted break-in or something) and thought they saw a “still”. Naturally, anything that looks science-y with copper tubes or whatever can only be for one thing: drugs, right?

A bunch of police officers in both marked and unmarked cars AND the fire department later, somebody finally finds out it’s just somebody’s (completely legal!) homebrewing setup. Of course, officials describe the panic as “an appropriate response”. You might think this was in notoriously over-reacting Boston, but no – it was Hamilton, New Zealand.

My first thought was that it probably wasn’t even a “still”, which due to unrepealed prohibition-era laws is still treated pretty much the same that meth-lab equipment would be in terms of legality here in the US. I kind of assumed it was probably just the owner’s fermentation container, or possibly a wort-chiller (see image – click for context). Without some apparently-rather-expensive permits, it’s extremely illegal to have distillation equipment in the US, and I’m under the impression that most places around the world still criminalize home distillation. It’s worse, though – apparently New Zealand repealed the ban on home distillation for personal use over a decade ago. Even if what the panicky security guys saw really WAS a “still”, it’s STILL a completely legal piece of equipment there. And yet, surrounding the guy’s house with marked and unmarked police cars and firefighting equipment was “appropriate response.” Because somebody said “drugs”. The original article may be found here.

In fairness to the public officials, it sounds like once the police and fire department showed up, they actually talked to someone at the house (no tasing or teargas required) and had no trouble figuring out that nothing illegal was actually going on, so the damage was pretty much limited to the time wasted by the police and fire-department in responding. What I want to know is why the “security” company gets a free pass on causing all this fuss by reporting a completely legal piece of vaguely science-like equipment as a “clandestine drug lab”? At the very least, I’d expect people to want to know which “security” company is supposed to be protecting their houses but cannot tell the difference between legal homebrewing equipment and real criminal activity.

As a fairly hardcore nerd with an interest in intentional food microbiology (brewing, cheese, etc.) this kind of thing worries me. I intend to build myself a fairly decent science-lab setup for doing food microbiology. I’m already planning to label everything as though it were part of a public museum exhibit, just in case some idiot happens to see it and assume it’s some kind of terrorist drug lab or something.

Here in the US, I consider “amateur” science and technology to be part of the very foundation of my country’s greatness. Think Thomas Edison. Nikolai Tesla [yes, he was a naturalized American citizen]. Benjamin Franklin. And no doubt many, many others who are less famous but nonetheless made major contributions to the advancement of their country. When we set about attacking that, we’re harming our country – yes, you people outside the US, this applies to you, too.

The moral of the story is this: Please, people – science and technology are fun. Yes, there are many of us out here who quite happily set up “science-lab stuff” to play with food, or rocks, or plants, or electronic circuits or whatever else in a completely safe and legal manner. Sure, it’s a good thing when good police-work closes down some drug-crazed freak’s meth-production setup – I don’t want some idiot blowing up my neighborhood with unsafe chemical activity nor attracting violent criminals anywhere near where I live. All I’m asking is, will people please stop panicking and screaming “drugs!” or “terrorism!” every time you see some glass tubes or blinking lights? Please? Thank you.

This Public Service Announcement has been brought to you by the popular drug 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine. We now return you to your regularly scheduled (and, it should be emphasized, completely legal) nerdity.

Why you really do or don’t want me as a student…

Of the classes I took this last semester, there’s only one I haven’t blogged about at least once.

Masochist that I am, I went and took “Applied Calculus”, even though I’d gotten approval to count my previous semester of calculus (about 8 years ago) as fulfilling the mathematics requirement for graduation. The “applied” in the title of the class caught my eye, and after speaking to the instructor before the semester to find out what the class was like I decided that if there was time and money left I’d take the class. So I did.

Although I’d rank it as only the second most useful “Mathematics” course I’ve taken so far, Dr. Wolper was one of the best mathematics instructors I’ve had up to this point, so I’ve got no regrets for having spent the time and money to take it. I suspect I’ll remember a lot more of it than I did of the previous calculus class.

Anyway, getting to the point of this post:

There are times when I am unable to restrain myself and answer homework or exam questions in a terse, boring manner, regardless of the subject. If you’re an instructor and are wondering if you want me in your class, here is something to judge by.

Calculus (for those who don’t know) is more or less the math you use to deal with when, how, and how fast things change. In practical terms, when dealing with real-world applications this often means dealing with a graph of some data. A number of homework (and exam) problems this semester dealt with questions along the lines of “what would a graph of such-and-such a situation look like and how would you interpret it?”. Here’s one from early in the semester:

This was my answer:

You may judge for yourself whether this is a good answer or not…