Descent into farce continued…

From The Oregonian:

When Oregon’s bars went smoke-free on New Year’s Day, nonsmokers breathed a sigh of relief — and so can smokers’ pets…

The consequences can be significant. A study conducted about seven years ago showed that cats living with smokers are two to four times more at risk for intestinal lymphoma, said Kristi Ellis, a veterinarian at the Oregon Humane Society. This type of cancer usually kills the cat within one year of diagnosis. The reason cats end up with cancer in their bowels, not their lungs, is that smoke particles settle on their fur and are ingested when cats groom, Ellis said.

This, however, is a worst-case scenario, and some say secondhand smoke hasn’t been proved to directly cause cancer in cats.

“It’s important to note that there’s no absolute direct link between smoking and cancer in pets,” said Nancy Zimmermann, director of medical support at Banfield, the Pet Hospital, one of the world’s largest veterinary practices.

Fortunately, I don’t think anyone is seriously proposing banning smoking in bars for the sake of pets at home. And this article, written by Jaques Von Lunen, is actually far more level-headed in its coverage of tobacco science than The New York Times or Scientific American have been lately. If only reporters could be this balanced when it comes to humans.


Science on the Edge

This year’s Edge question and answers are up. After a nicely libertarian introduction, John Brockman asks, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

Here, somewhat at random, is Daniel Dennett’s answer:

Will universities and newspapers become obsolete? Will hospitals and churches go the way of corner grocery stores and livery stables? Will reading music soon become as arcane a talent as reading hieroglyphics? Will reading and writing themselves soon be obsolete? What will we use our minds for? Some see a revolution in our concept of intelligence, either because of “neurocosmetics” (Marcel Kinsbourne) or quantum-computing (W. H. Hoffman), or “just in time storytelling” (Roger Schank). Nick Humphrey reminds us that when we get back to basics — procreating, eating, just staying alive — not that much has changed since Roman times, but I think that these are not really fixed points after all.

Our species’ stroll through Design Space is picking up speed. Recreational sex, recreational eating, and recreational perception (hallucinogens, alcohol), have been popular since Roman times, but we are now on the verge of recreational self-transformations that will dwarf the modifications the Romans indulged in. When you no longer need to eat to stay alive, or procreate to have offspring, or locomote to have an adventure — packed life, when the residual instincts for these activities might be simply turned off by genetic tweaking, there may be no constants of human nature left at all. Except, maybe, our incessant curiosity.

There are more than a hundred other responses, to have fun scrolling through.


Salt in my coffee

Kenneth Chang has an interesting guest post about salt on John Tierney’s blog:

… salt can remove bitterness without removing the bitter compounds.

Ms. [Shirley] Corriher described a demonstration given by Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. It’s an experiment you can try at home.

Get a bottle of tonic water. Take a taste. The bitterness is quinine, a compound derived from bark of the cinchona tree. There’s also a bit of sweetness from sugar or corn syrup added to offset the bitterness.

Add a bit of salt to the bottle. Take another taste. “It’s almost like sugar water,” Ms. Corriher said. “You taste a little quinine, but it’s just the change is amazing, how the salt suppresses bitterness.”

Surprisingly, salt suppresses bitterness better than sugar.

That is why some people sprinkle salt on grapefruit, cantaloupe and other fruit. (It’s apparently not known how salt suppresses the bitterness, whether the salt somehow disrupts the bitter receptors on the tongue or whether it’s some sort of post-processing by the brain.)

This reminded me of the article I linked to last week about “salt coffee” catching on in Taiwan:

A Taiwan coffee chain is enjoying sweet results after launching “salt coffee”, which produces a unique but not entirely salty taste.

Since launching salt coffee on Dec 11, the 85 Degree Bakery Cafe, Taiwan’s largest coffee chain, has changed coffee drinkers’ habits and customers are increasingly ordering it rather than black or sugared coffee.

“Public reaction surprised us. Nowadays an outlet in north Taiwan can sell 700 cups of salt coffee per day and a store in south Taiwan can sell 700 cups, which is 20 to 30 percent more than the daily sale of our brand coffee, American coffee,” Cathy Chung, spokeswoman for 85 Degree Bakery Cafe, says.

Chung says her company hit upon the idea of launching salt coffee because the trend of using sea-salt as a health ingredient in food or as cosmetics is sweeping Taiwan.

At first I dismissed this as a fad, but if salt is reducing the bitterness of the coffee that could explain its popularity. I tried it out by adding sea salt to a small sample of my morning coffee today, Stumptown’s Wondo Yirgacheffe. Adding just a little salt noticeably reduced the bitterness in the cup. Adding a bit more removed it completely. Salt works! The second pinch also made the liquid undrinkably salty.

Now I’m not actually recommending you try this. The Wondo is an excellent, gentle coffee, and it needs that background bitterness to support its more delicate flavors. Taking it away just makes it taste insipid. But you can’t always get good coffee. If you’re stuck drinking acrid brew at the airport at 5 am, then maybe this salt trick could come in handy.

Chang’s article about cooking with Shirley Corriher is also worth a read. I’m currently learning from her book Cookwise, which pairs recipes with scientific background about why they work the way they do. I started cooking in earnest recently and come to it very naive about technique, so this has been very useful for me regardless of whether I’m making her recipes (since my interests tend more toward Asian and Indian dishes I haven’t tried many of them). It makes a great resource along with McGee’s On Food and Cooking.


Lazy reporting and the Pueblo ban study

The Centers for Disease Control have issued a new report about the impact of the smoking ban in Pueblo, Colorado. The study has the media breathlessly repeating claims that the ban dramatically saves lives. “A smoking ban caused heart attacks to drop by more than 40 percent in one U.S. city and the decrease lasted three years, federal health experts reported Wednesday,” writes Reuters reporter Maggie Fox, who doesn’t bother quoting any dissenting sources. Mary Engle at the LA Times health blog says uncritically that whatever the mechanism behind the fall in heart attacks, “Pueblo’s smoking ban can take the credit.” Bill Scanlon at the Rocky Mountain News throws science to the wind and extrapolates that Colorado will see a statewide “sharp decline” in heart attacks in 2009 — more than two years after its ban went into effect.

I realize times are tough in newsrooms, but there’s no excuse for such biased, lazy reporting. Journalists should treat the claims of ideologically driven anti-smoking groups with just as much skepticism as they would junk science coming from big tobacco companies.

Since the CDC’s report is going to be cited constantly by smoking ban advocates it’s worth taking a look at its methodology and limitations. Fortunately it’s straightforward enough that any moderately intelligent person can understand it. The following is my layman’s reading of the results, with the caveat that I’m approaching this without formal training. Nonetheless, it’s clear that one shouldn’t take this study’s conclusions at face value. Its use by anti-smoking groups, researchers, and the press to promote smoking bans is a case study in the abuse of science for political ends.
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Bring on the Frankenbrew

Ron Bailey’s one of my favorite science writers and I’m completely on board with his complaints about alarmist reactions against genetically modified food. Yet in this post of his about a newly passed Hawaiian ban on growing GM coffee, I’m sympathetic to the coffee farmers who supported it. They’ve succeeded in creating an immensely popular brand — rather above its actual quality, in my experience — and their livelihood depends on keeping it intact and protecting their organic certification. Their fears of losing certification in US markets are likely overblown, but I can understand why they have them. (Even so, as Ron has previously written, it’s not at all obvious that organic farmers deserve legal protection against potential contamination.)

If there’s anyone to blame here it’s the USDA’s and Europe’s organic certification programs and the consumers who demand products bearing their labels. It’s weird that certification, which depends mostly on the farming techniques used in production, also addresses the genetic composition of the plants at issue. It would be nice if we could decouple these standards because right now there’s no convenient way to convey to consumers that a product is GM yet otherwise grown under organic conditions. This is especially problematic given that a major aim of genetically modified crops is to make it easier to avoid the pesticide use that drives many people to prefer organics.

Is there a future for GM coffee? Maybe. Trials for pest-resistant varietals have been successful despite attacks from vandals hoping to derail the project. Coffee is an incredibly complex crop though, and it’s hard to predict how a new varietal will taste under different growing conditions. If scientists do create a GM bean that tastes great and makes it easier for farmers to work without pesticides, coffee lovers should welcome it with open arms. Under current regulations, however, we won’t be able to market it as organic no matter how naturally it’s grown.


Station spotting

If you have a clear night and not much light pollution (like I currently do in the UP), you can spot the International Space Station with the naked eye. NASA publishes a schedule of up-to-the-minute sighting times here. It looks like a bright, quickly moving star without magnification, taking 1-4 minutes to pass overhead. With magnification, it’s possible to capture an impressive level of detail. A cool thing to notice if you look up at the right time.