The (Pseudo)-Science of Food: Why GMO Labeling Laws are Anti-Consumer

Posted in science with tags , , , , , on 10 November 2013 by Jerry

The editors of Scientific American have said it quite elegantly, but this bears repeating: GMO labeling laws are a terrible idea.  They do not give useful information to consumers, they play on public fear, and they create a false equivalence between all applications of GM technology.

Having a label of “genetically modified” would tell consumers one thing, and one thing only: that a gene was inserted into or removed from a plant.  What this does not tell consumers is what the gene codes for, whether it was added or removed, what the effect of the gene is, and so on.  The genetic makeup of an organism is important in that it carries the code for making proteins.  By changing the genetic makeup of a plant, producers of GM seeds are, in essence, giving the plant instructions for chemically treating itself.  The plant could be given the code to produce pesticides, a protein to resist herbicides, or precursors to vitamin A.  These are vastly different applications, and have vastly different effects on food quality, safety, and environmental impacts.  A GMO labeling law would treat all of these in the same manner.  This would be akin to requiring foods to be labeled “Contains crops that were sprayed from an airplane,” or, “This product was treated with chemicals from a hand sprayer”.  The method used to apply the treatment isn’t nearly as important as the nature of the treatment itself.

These laws, and the anti-GMO movement in general, play on fears in the public.  Genetically modified crops are referred to as “Franeknfoods” and dubious research linking GM foods to cancer in rats gain traction in headlines before gaining resounding criticism from the scientific community at large.  This kind of dishonest and intentionally misleading propaganda undermines scientific thought and rational policy discourse, and risks making the GM policy landscape as contentious and as untethered from reality as the climate change “debate”.   Furthermore, by working with visceral reactions rather than actual data, we run the distinct risk of missing the research that needs to be done to address legitimate concerns about GM crops.

The reality is that GM crops are a complicated field, needing continuing research and a nuanced policy approach.  GMO labeling laws oversimplify the complex issues, discourage work from being done with genetic modification, and dumb down the public discourse to visceral reactions.  To conclude: better oversight and more research are needed in the field of GMOs, but labeling laws provide neither.

TNG: Season 1 Highlights and Lowlights

Posted in geekery with tags , , , , , on 22 October 2011 by Jerry

When I started my journey through The Next Generation, I jotted down thoughts and impressions with each episode.  Not every episode was noteworthy, but here I present for your reading pleasure, the good, bad, and ugly moments of Season 1. [Note: I have the utmost respect for Wil Wheaton. Anything said here to disparage Wesley Crusher is aimed at the writers, not the actor]

Encounter at Farpoint:
This episode served to introduce the series to viewers. At this time, new episodes of Star Trek had not been broadcast on television for 18 years. And it starts with… the title sequence.

In a series known for establishing an episode’s tone with a teaser (notably when they destroyed the Enterprise before “Cause and Effect”) this is a jarringly bland opening.  Next, we have music underscoring the individual episode credits, and finally a pan across the Enterprise D.  I understand that this was meant to introduce viewers to the new ship, but the big reveal happened before the title of the series came up.  We’ve seen the ship already, thanks.  We can move on.

As Captain Picard enters the scene, we are treated to a great deal of forced and awkward exposition-speak.  Nothing actually happens in the episode until about the five minute mark.  And then Q appears.  Despite his initial use of Ye Olde Butchered English (such as “Go back whence thou camest”), his presence is the only thing that makes the episode tolerable.

Also notable in this episode are the following:

  • The first instance of saucer separation (which took way too much time to use effectively)
  • Truly poor selection of musical cues (saucer is separating, let’s play the theme from The Motion Picture)
  • Colm Meany as The-Character-Who-Will-Someday-Be-Known-As-Chief-O’Brien
  • Saucer re-connection, with Picard being a jerk to Riker, and post-maneuver smirks from everyone on the bridge
  • Q being done right (are you taking notes, Voyager?)
  • Picard telling Dr. Crusher to get Wesley the Hell off of the bridge (this is, of course, the proper reaction)
  • An all-too-brief cameo of Deforest Kelly

Where No One Has Gone Before:
I’m going to keep this one short, because the episode was so terribly dull that I fell asleep twice while watching it. I rewound to see what I had missed both times, and discovered that nothing of consequence had happened either time. This episode is notable for two things. First, it contains the Traveler, an alien who transcends dimensions (or something) and explains to Picard that Wesley is essentially the Chosen One. Second, it ends with Wesley’s promotion to “acting ensign”, which sets up all kinds of facepalm-inducingly bad fun plots where Wesley saves the ship and crew.

Justice:
This episode gave a perfect excuse to kill Wesley Crusher, but Picard would rather violate the Prime Directive and defy a mechanical god than let that happen. But I digress. The crew of the Enterprise discover a utopian planet populated by people with terrible fashion sense.

Seriously. Look at these guys. (Image copyright Paramount Pictures)

After some description of how idyllic this planet is, Wesley manages to break one of their few laws by falling on some flowers.  I’m not even joking.  Much hemming and hawing about the Prime Directive ensues, and Picard eventually decides to just beam Wesley up.  It is at this point that the planet’s godinterferes, blocking the transporter beam.  The god turns out to be some kind of alien ship that is never fully explained, and Picard argues with it until it decides to let them leave with Wesley.  My thought is that it watched the previous episodes in the series and realized what it was getting into.

The Big Goodbye:
The first episode to feature the holodeck going haywire as a plot point, and one of the better best episodes of the first season.  This one let the characters and actors have quite a bit of fun (although the fun was short-lived for the characters).  Picard, to relax before a tense diplomatic meeting, uses the holodeck to enter the film noir world of Dixon Hill.  He brings along his friend, the ship’s historian, Dr. Whalen, who is important enough to have a name but not important enough to not get shot.  Dr. Crusher and Data also come along for the fun.

The situation turns ugly when a power surge causes a malfunction on the holodeck.  The safety settings are disabled (leading one to wonder why there is an “unsafe” setting in the first place), and the heroes can’t even interact with the computer to end the program.  Dr. Whalen takes a bullet to the gut, and the captain, the doctor, and the android must avoid a similar fate while waiting for rescue.  The program is successfully reset, the villains try to storm the ship, only to disappear when they leave the holodeck, and everyone goes home happy.  Oh, and they took Whalen to sickbay.  He probably got better or something.

The Arsenal of Freedom:
The other best episode of the season.  This episode has the crew searching for the Drake, commanded by a friend of Riker’s.  Soon, the ship and crew are under attack by what amounts to a sales pitch for a planetwide armaments system.  After a pre-recorded sales pitch featuring the deliciously ironic tagline, “peace through superior firepower”, the planet’s systems enter demo mode, where “demo” is a word that is used here to most closely mean “kill everything and everyone in sight”.  The away team first encounters a hologram of Riker’s friend that asks pressing questions about Riker’s ship’s armaments.  Riker, sensing something is very wrong, responds that his ship is the Lollipop, “a good ship”.  The hologram eventually gives up and reveals itself to be an aerial drone, which begins the attack.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise finds herself under attack by an invisible assailant.  A rare saucer separation is performed, and in an even rarer moment, it adds to the episode rather than detracts from it.  Increasingly desperate battles ensue, and Picard finally solves the problem by telling the automated sales person that they want to buy the weapons system and that they can end the demo.  The episode strikes a good balance of action, character development, and comedy.

Skin of Evil:
This episode is infamous as being “that episode where Tasha Yar dies”.  Other than the fact that it is the first episode to actually kill a main character, there is absolutely no reason to watch it.  It is a terrible episode, and not even in a “so bad it’s good” way.  They use the exact same shot of Armus, the oil-slick monster, rising up out of itself, over and over.

Lamest. Looking. Villain. Ever. (Image copyright Paramount Pictures)

The infamous death is abrupt and nonsensical.  Jonathan Frakes takes a bath in Metamucil and printer ink.  Actually, that last bit is kind of hilarious.

Conspiracy:
This episode was a follow-up to a plot thread introduced in “Coming of Age”. In that episode, the crew was under investigation, due to odd behavior and mysterious happenings in the upper echelons of Starfleet. When I saw that episode, I was intrigued, and also curious as to why I didn’t remember this plotline. It felt like something that would have been too important to miss, even in hearing people talk about the series. This episode explains why the plot was swept under the rug.

The episode begins rather well, with a secret meeting between captains of different ships on an isolated planet. It seems that Starfleet command is acting under the influence of some kind of hostile force. Minutes after leaving the rendezvous, the Enterprise discovers that one of the ships involved has been destroyed, losing all hands. This prompts Picard to turn the ship around and fly back to Earth to confront the admirals about this conspiracy. So far, this sounds like an engaging premise.

Well, to make a long story short, it turns out that the conspiracy is caused by parasitic aliens that aren’t Ceti eels, we swear. They have taken over most of Starfleet command, and they decide to taunt Picard before converting him by making him eat live grubs. Riker comes in, saves Picard, and they stun the infected admirals. They look for the source of the infestation, and then this happens (viewer discretion was advised during the original broadcast, and is still advised now).

And that is why that plot thread is as dead as the Hydralisk that popped out of Remick’s chest.

 

…and that’s about all I can stand to write about Season 1.  Tune in next time for Season 2: Riker has a Beard Now!

Nostalgia Filters Disengaged

Posted in geekery with tags , , , , , on 17 October 2011 by Jerry

I have decided to do something dangerous.

I am going

to watch a

show I loved

as a kid

The show, to be specific, is Star Trek: The Next Generation.  To say that I grew up on this show is an understatement.  The series premiered the year after I was born.  My parents, both Star Trek fans, watched or taped nearly every episode as it came out.  Given, though, that the series wrapped up before I turned 8, my memory of it is a touch hazy.

Sure, I caught the odd episode when Spike TV started playing reruns while I was in college, but I haven’t had the experience of The Next Generation from start to finish.  This is what I am remedying with my little project.  Over the next year, I will watch all seven seasons.  After each season, I will provide a brief wrap-up, hitting the high (and low) points.  By the end of this, I will rekindle an intense hatred of Wesley Crusher (while keeping my geek admiration for Wil Wheaton), I will cringe repeatedly as they send the characters off to yet another holodeck adventure, and I will assuredly nerd rage to an entertaining degree.

Make it so.

Make it so

Image copyright Paramount Pictures

An open letter to Japan

Posted in geekery with tags , , , , on 12 October 2011 by Jerry

[To be fair, this is only to two companies within Japan, Miya Records and KO Records, but I'm making a leap and assuming this kind of thing is widespread, even rampant.  Feel free to correct my assumption in the comments.]

Dear Japan,

I greatly enjoy many of your exports.  Honda, Toyota, Sony, Nintendo, Toshiba, and Casio are companies I can name off the top of my head whose products I find wonderful.  I am enamored of your cuisine.  I love your musical exports (although this may just be because I can’t understand how trite the lyrics are).  The tentacle stuff is kind of weird, though, and I really wish you wouldn’t feel the need to share that with the world.  But that’s not what I’m writing to you about today, Japan.

I am writing to you because of this:

Nothing wrong here, right?

I know, I know, you’re looking at this and saying to me, “It’s a CD.  What’s the problem?”  Well, my dear Japan (may I call you that?), the problem is this.  When one buys a CD, one typically assumes that the cover on the case is securely inserted inside said case.  What you have provided to me is more of a… dust jacket of sorts.

What is this I don't even -

I wouldn’t normally be upset, but the information on the dust jacket isn’t duplicated anywhere else in any of the materials you gave me.

It's a little bit naked without its dust jacket

If I want to know what the tracks are, or, indeed, if I want to know what the album even is by looking at the spine, the flimsy dust jacket must be safely wrapped around the case, like a wrapping of nori around the delicious insides of an unagi roll… pardon me, the metaphor got away from me there.  I’ve since eaten, and I promise that won’t happen again.

Where was I?  Ah, yes.  If you’re going to give me important information, please put it where it won’t be destroyed or misplaced easily.  That’s all I’m asking for.  Oh, also – the liner notes?  They’re supposed to be about the same size as the space provided in the case for said liner notes.

Just small enough to fall out of the case unpredictably

Also, no matter how much you try to convince me, “All Hail Britannia!” does not actually have English lyrics.  You made a good try at it, but no.

Sincerely,

Jerry

P.S. Please send Layton vs. Ace Attorney to the US for localization.  I won’t even complain if the game’s case is inside out and occasionally spits fire.

[Addendum: The CD in question was the one produced by KO Records.  The album released by Miya Records had more sane packaging, but had an outside flap that I'm sure was designed to infuriate collectors and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  I fit neither category, but it still bugs me that it's going to fall off and get lost/damaged/destroyed or something]

Derivative (and double derivative) work

Posted in Uncategorized on 27 July 2011 by Jerry

It’s time, Internet, to have a little conversation about fan-fiction and other fan-works.  To make that phrase a bit less unwieldy, I’ll refer to them as derivative works.  This is a fantastic term to use, as the works “derive” something major (fictional universe, characters, or situations, to name a few possibilities) from another work.  Depending on the intent and the commercial impact of the work, they either enjoy protection from copyright violations or the creators can be held liable for losses or damages they inflict on the creators of the original work.  Luckily for me and for you, I’m not here to give a dissertation on the legalities or lack thereof of these works.  I will instead share a few that have come to my attention over the years, in the hopes that I can share some joy (and in a few cases, misery).

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
This epically long piece of fan-fiction takes the world of Harry Potter and asks a seemingly simple question: what would happen if Petunia Evans did not marry Vernon Dursley?  In Methods of Rationality, she instead married a professor of biochemistry at Oxford.  Harry grew up reading science fact and science fiction.  Voldemort definitely read, and quite possibly wrote, the Evil Overlord List.  Defense Against the Dark Arts is run as a Battle Magic class, complete with a sort of Wizard Paintball that brings to mind the Battle School scrimmages in Ender’s Game.  Throw in a plethora of geek culture references (for instance, both Death Note and Gargoyles are stories that young Slytherins grow up hearing) and you have a recipe for an enjoyable piece of writing.  Be warned, however.  It stands at 72 chapters, each of significant length, and updates sporadically.  Addiction to this fic is likely.

There Will be Brawl
A webseries that takes a decidedly darkly comic look at the world of Super Smash Brothers, particularly Brawl.  The series makes nods to Silence of the Lambs, borrows its tone from Sin City and throws in a bit of Watchmen-esque deconstruction.  The story mostly follows Luigi, who is on the trail of a brutal murderer only known as “The Butcher”.  This case is set in the backdrop of a dystopian Mushroom Kingdom torn apart by gang violence.  This is full of plenty of continuity nods to the games, both in the Super Smash Brothers series and in the characters’ original game series.  In addition, it is chock full of nightmare fuel.  Not for the faint-hearted.

8-Bit Theater
A comic that starts off as a parody/retelling of Final Fantasy I using the original in-game sprites. It then deviates from the original story – which is a blessing – and incorporates more detailed pixel art and backgrounds.  The story follows Fighter, Black Mage, Red Mage, and Thief, the four dysfunctional Light Warriors.  With the exception of Fighter, who is only obsessed with swords, they are all self-centered to the point of being truly evil.  Luckily, they are so grossly incompetent that their attempts to destroy and/or take over the world actually work toward saving it.  Supporting characters include White Mage, who responds to Black Mage’s unwanted advances by using a giant hammer; Sarda the Sage, who is nearly-omnipotent, and completely insane; and King Steve, the incompetent ruler of Corneria, who sends the Light Warriors on their quest in the first place.  The comic has finished its run, and includes an epilogue with non-pixel art by Matt Speroni.

Ahab’s Wife
This is quite literally a novel-length piece of Moby Dick fan-fiction that was picked up by a major publisher.  Told entirely from the perspective of Captain Ahab’s wife – who was mentioned less than 5 times in Melville’s original – the story has Una hob-nobbing with abolitionists, taking to sea herself, and includes the aftermath of Ahab’s fateful final voyage.  In a notable improvement from the original, there are no chapters about cetology.  Chock-full of literary and historical references, and a decently entertaining read in its own right.

Jerry Vs. Shakespeare

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on 26 May 2011 by Jerry

Earlier this year I agreed to take on the mantle of drama advisor at the school where I work. As a first-year teacher, I thought this was a terrible idea going into it, but the phrase “there’s no one else who will do this” won me over.

When I first stepped into this role, I thought I would do a Shakespeare comedy.  It had everything I thought a high school drama production needed – an aura of culture, a large ensemble, and (most importantly) no royalties to be paid.  I didn’t want to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream – that show has been done to death in high school productions.  Instead, I opted for Twelfth Night.  Once I had chosen my play, I went on to what could be considered my second mistake in this whole process.  I tried to do a cutting of the entire script by myself.  In doing so I became more intimately familiar with the play than I ever thought possible.  I learned what bear-baiting is.  I chose which risque jokes to toss, and which ones I could get away with keeping.  I boiled the script down to something that could be doable for a high school cast (and audience) while staying mostly faithful to the original text.  I also very nearly lost my mind.

It was at this point that I discovered the joys of working around a school’s sports schedule.  To avoid conflicts (and to have a prayer of having a cast at all) I needed to have auditions in the last days of February and put the show up on the first weekend in April.  With Spring Break in the middle, the number of rehearsals we had was numbered in the teens.  At this point, I swore, made some more cuttings to the script, but otherwise continued undaunted to the audition process.

I knew going into the auditions that guys interested in trying out for a play would be few and far between.  I had planned on this, and realized that all of the parts I had labeled “gender-flexible” would be going to girls.  I did not count on the fact that I wouldn’t have enough gentlemen to fill all of the male roles.  This led to recasting Sir Toby Belch as a woman and hastily changing the script so that the now-female knight isn’t wooing the Countess’ faithful maidservant.

Once rehearsals proper began, I discovered that the scheduling didn’t dodge sports as well as I had hoped.  On any given day, half of the cast had sports practice and couldn’t be present for rehearsal.  Throw this into the already-short timetable and I am still impressed I wasn’t driven to drink.  The students realized how profoundly stacked against them the deck was, so my main job as director became that of cheerleader.  I had to pretend that everything was fine and that I had the utmost faith in their abilities, when in reality I was contemplating fleeing the county before the show went up and promptly imploded.

Throughout this process, I had several moments of, “I really wish I had taken more theatre classes in college”.  These came when dealing with lighting design, sound design, stage management, publicity, and all of the pieces that just sort of get taken care of when you’re an actor or backstage crewperson.  I spent a late night near opening using trial software, youtube, and audacity to rip and edit music (some Elizabethan, some baroque, some Final Fantasy) and I rejiggered the entire lighting plot when a bulb burned out and there was no replacement.  In the midst of this I choreographed a sword fight and taught the students basic stage combat safety (including the Cue Reaction Action Principle, which was naturally a hit with the students).

By the time the show opened, we still had not had a rehearsal that went from the start of the show to the finish, and the actors still had a great deal of memorization to do on their lines.  This led to me, when debriefing the cast after a truly disastrous dress rehearsal, to ask if anyone had said “Macbeth” in the theatre.  I then had to explain that particular superstition.  Then, in one of the few times I betrayed my doubts about the play, I made a point of loudly saying “Macbeth” in every corner of the theatre, stating that it didn’t matter anymore and that the show was going to be what it was going to be.  The next day before warmups we had a short moment of silence for Mr. Turner’s last shred of dignity.

They say that a bad dress rehearsal is a prelude to a good opening night.  Nothing could be truer in the case of this production of Twelfth Night.  From the start of the preshow music to the curtain call, everything worked.  Lines were flubbed here and there, but the actors picked up the slack for each other, and the show went on.  Everyone who saw the show gave glowing reviews, especially when considering the material and the rehearsal time that we had.

My only regret in the whole process is that I’ve already done the impossible.  I’m not sure how I can top myself next year.

The Science of Cooking: Ceviche (probably) won’t kill you

Posted in science with tags , , , , on 7 February 2011 by Jerry

Food is wonderful.  It sustains us, it delights our senses, and at holidays it can bring together family members who would normally be at each others’ throats, most likely with switchblades.

Food is also incredibly scary.  If improperly prepared, it can sicken, or even kill.  And I’m not just referring to fugu.  With all of the potential risks in eating, it’s natural to be leery of food that is prepared in a non-traditional manner.

For an example of such a non-traditional food, I bring you ceviche.  Ceviche is prepared by cooking raw fish in a citrus-juice marinade.  The acid bath (citrus juice contains both citric acid and ascorbic acid – vitamin C) denatures the proteins in the fish, cooking it and killing some of the harmful organisms that could be in the food.  This is a good place, though, for an

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: ACID COOKING IS NOT AS EFFECTIVE AS HEAT COOKING AT KILLING HARMFUL ORGANISMS IN FOOD.

Let me clarify.  All living things use enzymes to carry out the basic functions of life.  For viruses, harmful bacteria, and parasites, the basic functions of their life include making your life miserable.  The enzymes that let them do this are, fortunately, fairly fragile.  Enzymes, and all proteins, react poorly when moved out of their comfort zone.  They can exist in small ranges of temperature and acidity.  Bump the environment out of that range, and the protein is denatured and rendered useless.  This denaturation is responsible for the browning of meat when it is cooked.

If changes to both acidity and temperature can denature proteins, why is acid cooking less effective at rendering the food safe?  The short answer is this: the acid can’t cook what it can’t reach.  When cooking meat, it’s important to make sure that the interior is cooked through.  This applies whether you are cooking with heat or with acid.  If the proteins haven’t been denatured, the microorganisms present haven’t been killed.  In the preparation of ceviche, the fish is not cooked through.  This occurs for a number of reasons.  First, the lime juice, while acidic, is not strongly acidic enough to kill all of the microorganisms present.  In addition, if the fish is marinated for a short time, the juice will not be fully absorbed into the fish, and it will not be denatured all the way through.

The problem posed by this is mitigated somewhat if the fish is fresh and healthy.  While a fish is alive, its immune system will fight off many kinds of harmful organisms.  Once caught and killed, however, it is open to invasion.  The fresher the fish, the better the chances of it being safe to eat.  In addition, longer marinating times and more concentrated juices will more thoroughly cook the fish – although this will change the flavor.

Although there have been outbreaks of food poisoning from ceviche and other acid-cooked foods, there have also been outbreaks from improperly handled fruits and vegetables.  In short, food cooked with acid is no more dangerous than a steak ordered rare.

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