Thursday, March 29, 2007

Travel Websites

Here in Connecticut it feels like spring is finally here. And I don't think any of us really travel any more during spring and summer than we do in winter (I for one try to get out of New England at least once during winter), but this is what passes for a segue on this blog. So, here are the travel sites I use most often. Please add in your favorites in the comments, and we'll post the on the sidebar to your right (unless you're looking at your screen from the other direction, then it's on the left, and you have x-ray vision). - So good, we mentioned it in the first post. A meta-search engine, with exceptional data presentation. It also forecasts whether the fare will go up or down, but that's actually not the main reason to like it. is another good meta-search engine. Both send you to the airline at the end and save you the $5. - Once you've picked your flight, pick the right seats. Shows what seats have a little more legroom, a power outlet, or won't recline. - I have to pimp my favorite rental car company. They rented to me when I was under twenty-five, and I've stuck with them. It helps that they're cheap and competent. If you book online, especially from neighboorhood locations and/or on the weekend, you can get ridiculously cheap deals. While I don't have collision insurance my Caltech Visa covers it as long as I use it to pay - check with your credit card info. By declining their insurance, which is a ripoff, I often get a decent car for about $20/day. - I haven't used their website very much, but it seems that much of the information for their top notch guidebooks is available.
- A site for last minute package deals, the same as travelocity's last-minute engine. I really like that you can have two people leaving from different cities and then sharing hotel and car in the destination city.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some, so add on in the comments.

Health Benefits of Cocoa

According to Dr Norman Hollenberg, of Harvard Medical School, the Kuna people of Panama have extremely low rates of stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Of course that doesn't really help me because, as you might have guessed, I'm not an Indigenous Panamanian . What's interesting about Hellenberg's research is that the death rates rise for Kuna populations who have migrated to mainland Panama, indicating an environmental mechanism rather than a genetic one. (BBC News report)

The suspected cause is something called a flavonoid, an anti-oxidant, high levels of which are found in natural cocoa (also in citrus fruits, green tea, red red wine). While the health benefits of anti-oxidants have been widely publicized, recent research has shed some light on how and what specific types of flavanoids effect health. So far, both the biochemical studies and the observational ones seem to support the hypothesis that the specific flavanoids in cocoa can have dramatic health benefits.

So we should all go get some cocoa powder and start drinking cocoa drink 5 times a day, right? Well, not quite. The cocoa which the Kuna people drink is flavanol-rich, while the cocoa available in the US is generally low in flavanoids, a consequence of processing techniques. Mars Inc. has developed a product called Cocoapro which is made using a proprietary processing method which apparently produces flavanol-rich cocoa. Unfortunately, this is not slave-labor free, so for now you'll have to choose between social justice and health benefits.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fish Consumption Guidelines

We know that eating too much fish can be harmful because of high levels or mercury. We also know that eating fish is healthy because it is low in artery-clogging saturated fat and has lots of omega-3 fatty acids, whatever they are. So how do we strike a balance between too little fish and too much. Contrary to popular believe, the answer is not "avoid eating fish", even for pregnant and nursing women. Recent research has shown that for the pregnant and non-pregnant alike, the benefits of eating fish out weight the risks. In fact, according to recent research, women who eat fish during pregnancy may even have smarter children.

According to the American Heart Association (a big fan of those omega-3's) normal people (ie the non-pregnant, non-nursing, non-kids among us) should eat no more than 14 oz (3 to 4 servings, or 2 normal meals) of low-mercury fish and no more than 7 oz (one meal) of high-mercury fish per week. For those of use who are pregnant, nursing or young children, the guideline are to avoid high-mercury fish all together and limit low-mercury fish consumption to 12 oz (2 average meals) per week.

High Mercury Fish (more than 0.6+ ppm)
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish (golden bass or golden snapper)
  • King mackerel

Moderate Mercury Fish (0.2 to 0.6 ppm)
  • Lobster
  • Grouper
  • Halibut
  • Fresh or frozen tuna
  • Canned tuna (albacore)
  • Red snapper
  • Orange roughy

Low Mercury Fish (less than 0.2 ppm)

  • Pollock
  • Salmon (fresh,frozen)
  • Cod
  • Catfish
  • Flounder or sole
  • Crabs
  • Scallops
  • Oysters
  • Clams
  • Shrimp
  • Canned tuna (light)
  • Herring

Social Change Driven by Free Markets

Being a pretty adamant libertarian (there, it's out), I'm often forced to explain how free markets can bring about a particular desired result. Usually I just dodge the question by asking, "desired by whom?" However, there have been a couple recent articles on the subject that I think are pretty interesting. The NYT talks about Burger King's decision to phase in cage-free eggs and crate-free pork. In this case, public pressure - I don't believe there was a sniff of government action here - was sufficient to get one major company on board. Burger King simply believes that enough people prefer a more socially conscious choice to justify the increased cost.

Do these people really just prefer the good that comes out of these changes? A WSJ editorial (subscription - see an extended blurb at the Volokh Conspiracy here) suggests that people make these choices in part to display to others that they're socially conscious, and therefore gain status. A prime example of this is the Prius - part of its success was probably that it looked different, and therefore you could easily be identified as driving a hybrid. But here's the best part - it doesn't matter! Theory A - Someone values animal welfare, and therefore supports businesses who use cage-free eggs. As more people agree, businesses are forced to respond, and animal welfare increases. Theory B - Someone values what other people think about them, and those people value animal welfare... In fact, Theory B is just a way for the effects of Theory A to be amplified, which in many cases is a good thing. (Humans display a great deal of pack thinking, which presumably was very useful in prehistoric times when information was limited. Perhaps more on this another time.)

Someone in my lab refuses to eat chocolate that is derived from child slave labor. The remainder of us haven't exactly followed suit, but I've certainly changed my behavior somewhat - I buy the non-slave labor chocolate when it's an alternative. It's a small step but I'm optimistic that in the end, Hershey, Nestle, and the others will pay the increased cost (and pass it on to a willing consumer) to be socially conscious.

Virtue is not only possible because we value being good to those around us. It's also because we have all evolved, to some extent, to get along in the group, and that includes making choices that benefit the group at a cost to the individual. Government isn't required, just the ability to remember a face (and even monkeys can do that).

The Science of Weight Loss

At the most basic level, losing weight simply involves consuming fewer calories than are burned by your body. This is called a calorie deficit. When people diet to achieve this calorie deficit, however, they often become so hungry that the diet is unsustainable and inevitably fails, causing any weight lost to be regained. Fortunately, utilizing some of the science of digestion and nutrition, we can begin to understand how to maintain a calorie-deficient diet while still being satiated (feeling full), and thus maximizing the chances of sustained weight loss.

The number of calories you burn in a day of doing absolutely nothing is called your basal metabolic rate (wikipedia) and can be estimated based on your age, weight, height and gender (here). If you then add in all the calories you burn walking, talking, brushing your teeth, chewing and everything else, you’ll get your calories expended. Here is an online calorie calculator for common activities. Subtract from that the number of calories you intake to get your calorie deficit. For every 3500 Calories (kcal) you are deficient, you’ll lose 1 lbs of fat, which means that if you have a daily calorie deficit of 500 Calories, you’ll lose one pound of fat per week. Interestingly, the act of keeping track of the calories you burn can actually help you be successful at maintaining a reduced calorie all on its own. Here is some information about what types of habits successful dieters have.

Studies on the effect of exercise on weight loss are, surprisingly, somewhat ambiguous. Two major factors are suspected which combine to limit the effectiveness of exercise on weight loss in certain situations. First, people tend to eat back a average of 30% of the calories they burn exercising, so if you aren’t keeping track of the calories you intake, you can unwittingly counteract the benefits of exercise by eating more. Second, some have suggested that people who are forced to exercise compensate by decrease their activity level while not exercising, thus reducing the effect of the exercise on the total calories burned. (I couldn’t find all the articles I read for this, but here’s a good review article on the topic)

So how does one maintain a calorie deficit without feeling hungry? One way is to eat foods that have a large physical volume relative to the number of calories or energy density. This concept is called Volumetrics (book), developed by Dr. Barbara J. Rolls at Penn Sate. The idea can be crudely summarized as: Eat half a burger and a huge salad rather than a small salad and two burgers. You’ll feel just as full, you’ll be content because you got you eat the burger you were craving and you’ll have eaten far few calories than you would have otherwise. Eating smaller portions is also a central tenant of Volumetrics. A good starting point is to learn the energy densities of the different types of food (sugar, carbohydrates, protein, fat) Wikipedia has a list.

Another way to achieve satiety on a reduced calorie diet is to eat a higher than normal proportion of protein. Protein has been shown to cause a greater level of satiety (fullness) than other forms of food, so you can feel more satiated on fewer calories. Also, it takes more energy for the body to digest protein than other forms of food. This is called the Thermic Effect (wikipedia) and some studies have suggested that it can be as high at 25% for protein. In other words, when you eat 100 calories of protein you will burn up to 25 of those calories just to digest the food, leaving only 75 to go toward your total caloric intake. High protein diets can cause some health problems associated with the metabolism of the abnormally large about of protein but is generally considered safe for otherwise healthy people, if done in moderation. This is a good review article on high protein diets, including safety issues. Unfortunately, only those of you with access to university journal subscriptions will be able to access the full article.

So, what does this all mean? In short, to diet effectively, start by keeping track of your caloric intake and expenditure with a goal between 500 and 1000 Calorie deficit per day. Try to eat eat foods that have low energy density (Volumetically) and replace some of your carbs/fat with some additional protein.

Obviously, this is easier said than done :-)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How I waste my day

I spend an inordinate amount of time online everyday, mostly when I should be running a gel or something. To get things rolling, here are the sites that I go to just about every day: - I've seen other cool news sites, and I'd rather a more directed news feed, but I still find myself going here first every day. - A law blog. Some things are interesting, some aren't, and the commenters are actually pretty reasonable (by blog standards). - The resident blogger on Slate. Mostly politics, where he is firmly in the center, with blogging on cars, the media, and whatever else is handy. Also started a video blog, that's often enjoyable to me at least. - Home for baseball talk of all sorts. I mostly visit Sox Therapy. I also have a subscription to baseball prospectus, but they haven't had as much solid material lately. - Less straightforward news than google, but often some good stuff here. Voting by users might be a better way to screen out information than a single authoritative source (like boingboing) or random webcrawling (like google). - Another way to do "news" - submit & approve. - Well, I am supposed to be a scientist, so I check this out every once in a while.

I often find myself checking plane fares just about every day, but we'll save those and other useful sites for another day.

Indroducing Infodder

Infodder is a group blog designed to facilitate sharing of quality information and ideas among friends. Rather than add to the mass of questionable sources, Infodder encourages users to develop and share well-informed ideas by delving more deeply into topics they find compelling. To this end, posts and comments will often contain links to sources related to the post topic.

We envision two primary uses for Infodder. The first is to share non-controversial but useful links like without an associated discussion. The second is to share articles and comments on an interesting topic regardless of whether they are viewpoint-neutral or not. These posts are intended to create discussion and additional links on the topic.

In our group of friends we have a huge range of interests and expertise -- musicians, lawyers, doctors, business people, scientists, educators, engineers, journalists, architects, artists, writers. There is much we can learn from each other. We encourage you to read as much as you can about the topics of interest to you and share what you find with all of us!

Anyone can read the blog and leave comments, but only registered authors can create new posts. Authors are registered by the administrators (Dave and Alan) ; Requests to add new authors can be emailed to and although we would like to keep the Infodder community somewhat restricted, if a current author wants to invite a new one, the confirmation process is mostly a formality.

Hopefully this site will help us all become a little more educated and better informed. If you have any suggestions for improvement, please let us know!

Alan and Dave
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