Archive for August, 2010

Feeding the Machine

August 31, 2010 - 4:42 pm Comments Off

A word, up front, about what this is not intended to be: it is not intended to be a guide to weight loss or exercise. There are approximately ninety billion of those, many of them bogus, and a surprising number of which nonetheless work each about as well as the other. What this is meant to be is a 101 on how the body handles fueling itself and making more of itself; some schools of thought may well emerge as objectively more or less sensible than others with such knowledge, but it’s not meant to be a series of arrows pointing to any approach whatsoever. If the machine is an understandable machine with more-or-less comprehensible moving parts and processes rather than a mysterious and temperamental black box, evaluating approaches is vastly easier. I would also like to note that however much I wind up making snarky asides about nutrition as a scientific field and how profoundly political and murky it is, I have a great deal of sympathy for nutritionists. They are working in a byzantinely multivariable field in which it is nearly to completely impossible to properly isolate and control for almost all of those variables; they’re not so much stuck looking for needles in a haystack as they are stuck with evaluating to which degree each and every straw in the haystack is a load-bearing straw. Not easy, and it’s no surprise we get so many frustrating cases of completely honest and dedicated researchers coming to opposite conclusions based on the same data sets- because those multiple variables can turn the data sets into Rorschach blots. Yes, the politics are disgusting, but it’s no surprise.

So caveated, on with it.

Fuel- the raw materials

When considering any given food, the units of relevance are the three macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. There any many other things in food, including vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and fiber, but the substances that are broken down to either provide energy to run the body and the raw materials to repair it and produce more of it- food’s reason for existence and what defines it as food- are the fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

Fats are made of long, stable hydrocarbon chains. They vary in how many double bonds and little kinks in the chain there are, and this affects how stable in heat, light, and oxygen the fat is. “Saturated” fats have a hydrogen for every two available bonds a carbon atom has that’s not being taken up by the carbons upstream and downstream of it; “unsaturated” fats have fewer hydrogens and more double bonds between carbons. “Polyunsaturated” defines fats with lots of these double bonds. Since having a hydrogen attached to every free bond is a more stable configuration, saturated fats are those most stable in heat and light; this is why you can fry something in lard, a saturated fat, but flaxseed oil, a polyunsaturated fat, must be used raw or else it breaks down and turns rancid. This is also why you can put lard in the pantry while flaxseed oil must be kept refrigerated in an opaque bottle*. You’ll often see the word “lipid” used when discussing fats; all fats are lipids, but not all lipids are fats. Lipids are a broad class of compounds that may be briefly described as hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains; they include fats, waxes, sterols, and the various fat-soluble vitamins. Fats themselves are part of a more distinct subgroup of lipids called triglycerides. All of this biochemical terminology makes reading nutrition textbooks, and your blood chemistry results, very exciting.

Contrary to the overall public health message actually digested by the public (“fat is bad for you”), fats are highly necessary to maintaining good health; cell walls are made of lipids, and thus getting adequate fat in the diet is fairly crucial in order to be able to maintain and repair yourself. Without enough of it, hair will be dull and thin, nails will be brittle, skin will be dry and flaky, and wounds will heal slowly. All that said, unless you’re a vegan or on a food-sensitivity diet with a lengthy list of don’t’s, getting enough fat in the diet to maintain health is generally trivial. (You need at least 5% of your calories from fat to survive. At least 25% to thrive.) While fat is largely something the human body can produce itself (and the most frequent Western woe is that it does so with all too much enthusiasm), there’s a small subgroup of fats it requires, cannot manufacture, and must ingest: the essential fatty acids. These are used for a broad variety of cell-maintenance tasks rather than simply being broken down and used for fuel, and while how much of them is required for solid health is still very unclear; that they ARE necessary is undisputed. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in the modern developed-world diet in abundance; omega-3 are rather rarer and problematically tend to come in unstable forms. Omega-3 is why anyone would bother supplementing with fish or flax oil**.

Biologically speaking, fats are the energy storage medium of choice for animals and to a lesser degree for plants. Hydrocarbon chains can store a great deal of potential energy densely. As such, each gram of fat is worth about nine calories to a human.

Proteins are chains of amino acids folded into globules. While fat and carbohydrates are mostly two different ways of arranging carbon and hydrogen atoms into varyingly fast and potent forms of directly burned fuel, protein is the macronutrient that goes most directly into building more body rather than being burned for fuel. The amount of it you need depends on whether you’re growing, trying to recover from injury, have a rigorous normal activity level that involves having to make far more repairs than you would if you were sedentary (this process is broadly known as “becoming fit”), or even aging and getting less efficient in how the body uses its resources. “Protein” as a term represents a much more diverse class of molecules than “fat” does, but as all of them are put to roughly similar purpose by the body- being chopped into constituent amino acids to produce the proteins that comprise the body’s native toolkit- treating all proteins as roughly equivalent when it comes to nutrition works out anyway.

The body can manufacture most amino acids on its own, but there are eight that are essential and must be ingested. Fortunately, the essential amino acids are rather more common than omega-3 fatty acids; it’s generally trivial to get a full complement of amino acids, again unless you are a vegan, and even then you need to be a rather picky vegan in order to be missing out on one or more of the essentials. Many of the most common traditional food combinations- rice and beans or rice and tofu, for example- represent combining two sources of plant protein lacking one or more essentials into a single, complete protein sources. Most animal proteins are complete, so any carnivore and most vegetarians can generally cease to worry about essential amino acids no matter what supplement companies are trying to tell you.

Proteins break down to about four calories per gram.

Carbohydrates, as the name suggests, compounds that consist of nothing but carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. For the purposes of the subject, carbohydrates come in two forms: saccharides, which are relatively small and simple carbon-and-hydrogen structures, and polysaccharides, which are rather larger and more complex carbon-and-hydrogen structures. Polysaccharides do include glycogen, a substance we will discuss later, but for the purposes of figuring out what’s in food carbohydrates are either saccharides- sugars- or polysaccharides- starches.

No matter what any supplement company tells you, there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. Unlike fats and proteins, ingested carbohydrates exist from the body’s point of view as a pure energy-and-carbon-storage medium, with no esoteric side purpose. The body can produce the carbohydrate compounds it specifically needs from any carbohydrate or fat, provided it has the tools to take the molecule apart***. From a biological point of view, starches are the preferred long-term energy storage medium of plants; a potato, domesticated to produce and store vastly more starch than its wild cousins, is the vegetable equivalent of old-style massively fat domestic pigs.

Carbohydrates, like proteins, break down to about four calories per gram.

Speaking of calories, they are purely the shorthand for how much energy is contained in food; they aren’t a discrete item of their own, merely a mathematical shorthand for energetic potential that is being stored, or energy directly used. The “calorie” used in food is not equivalent to the “calorie” you may remember from your chemistry or physics laboratory days- a food calorie is actually a kilocalorie. Making this even more fun to keep track of is that the laboratory calorie as a unit of energy is now archaic, replaced by the joule****.

Fuel- the refined version

The body has its own energy currencies and storage mediums, which are far less varied than their sources. The most basic unit of cellular energy currency, the one that is actually burned to directly cause any cellular event to happen, is adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. The body is only toting around about three ounces of ATP at any given time, however; the vast, vast majority of its fuel is stored in either a short-term sugar storage form (glucose), a medium-term polysaccharide form (glycogen), or a long-term fat form (fat). The vast majority of metabolism is about transforming food into glucose and then storing the excess in one form or another.

Glucose is the most direct energy form for the body, the one that it splits and burns in order to fuel the creation of ATP. Any given metabolic process to create energy involves glucose, and everything else is about breaking down some more complex carbon and hydrogen structure into glucose to then be used in this fashion. It is pure fuel, ready for immediate use. It’s also slightly toxic; a healthy metabolism keeps the supply of circulating glucose limited and stores as much as it can in order to mitigate this effect. The damage caused by unregulated glucose can be seen in the long-term damage to nerves, vision, and blood vessels seen in people who have had diabetes for decades, particularly if it wasn’t well controlled.

Glycogen is glucose packaged for easy-access storage, which lives in the muscles and in a larger store in the liver. Glycogen is what the body expects to be using during non-resting times, and represents the reservoir of ready energy available for athletics, and almost all such exercise is fueled by burning off the current stores of glycogen. If we were to use a combustion engine analogy, glucose is the fuel moving through the engine, and glycogen is the fuel in the tank. When a marathon runner “hits the wall”, this is the moment when his body has run itself entirely out of glycogen. (Marathon runners, thanks to the extremity of their energy requirements, are actually an interesting example of the consequences of metabolic pathways I’ll get into more later.)

Fat is long-term storage, the Federal Oil Reserve of the body. Energy the body doesn’t expect to need any time soon goes here to help the body ride out times when a steady supply of food just isn’t coming in, or to cope with very high extra energy demands such as pregnancy, extreme cold- or running out of glycogen. If the glycogen is the fuel in the tank, fat is the fuel in the gas can you hope you don’t wind up needing at all. Fatty/adipose tissue also stores a few other things besides energy, like the fat-soluble vitamins (which can cause serious trouble in the case of chronic overdose)- and some storage and manufacture of the steroid hormones, which is as of yet not terribly well understood. Suffice to say the tendency of some chronically overweight mean to grow “man-breasts” is due to more than just fat- extra adipose tissue seems to make for extra estrogen which, nastily, tends to itself encourage extra adipose tissue.

Fuel- refining the raw materials

The intuitive thing for humans is to think of fats as what winds up as fatty tissue, sugars and starches as what wind up as blood sugar and glycogen, and the proteins and enzymes***** as things that are immediately pressed into service more or less in their original capacity. Digestion, however, is a relentless process of breakdown; our digestive enzymes exist to turn everything into basic units that the body then uses in the assembly of other compounds depending on its immediate needs. Fats become glucose or glycogen and carbohydrates become fat as metabolic priorities dictate; to the body, it’s all just a question of how best to store or use the carbons and in what configuration.

Insulin is the major determinant in what happens to the food once digestion has finished unpacking it and transforming it into amino acids and glucose. When blood glucose rises, insulin production steps up to move the excess glucose into cells for storage to prevent blood glucose from rising to damaging levels, as well as simply to prevent waste******.

The key thing to remember about insulin is that it’s not simply about moving glucose from the bloodstream into cells, it’s essentially the master control storage hormone. It moves amino acids into cells as well as glucose for assembly into various needed proteins, and it also stimulates adipose- body fat- cells to turn glucose into into triglycerides- the long-term storage fat format. Insulin also inhibits the metabolism of triglycerides back into glycerol and fatty acids for use as energy, which is what we generally mean when referring to “burning fat”- if insulin is present in significant amounts, fat will not be used for energy at all. If insulin is there and energy is needed, it will come preferentially from turning sugars into glucose and burning that.

Without insulin, glucose is not taken up by most of the body’s cells at all. The cells in the liver and the brain can take in glucose without insulin, but the rest of the body requires its signal. For an untreated diabetic, glucose levels continually rise while body cells, faced with an energy drought, turn to fat and the protein in the muscles. The byproducts, ketone bodies, eventually build up along with the glucose to the point of making blood acidotic. Insulin normally controls ketones as well, which is why type 1 diabetes can cause ketoacidosis but simple fasting or a very low carbohydrate diet can’t.

Since insulin production responds linearly to glucose released into the bloodstream as digestion finishes, the rate at which this happens and energy is produced depends largely on what is going on with digestion. Very simple sugars hit the bloodstream as glucose almost instantly; technically speaking, for glucose and sucrose, you don’t even need your stomach or intestines- they will begin entering your bloodstream starting at the mucous membranes in your mouth, which is why glucose gels may be used to revive someone in a hypoglycemic crisis without them being conscious and able to swallow. The enzymes that break down the simplest sugars are present in your saliva, and of course glucose needs no processing at all. More complex starches that require a more advanced digestive toolkit take longer to unpack and hit the bloodstream, and the addition of fiber and other macronutrients such as fat and protein also stretch out the period of digestion and the size, speed, and spread of the blood glucose rise. A spoonful of sugar goes straight to the bloodstream; a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with butter (but no added sweetener) stirred in takes so long to sort out between the fat, soluble and insoluble fibers, and various complex starches that the release of glucose to the bloodstream will be slow but also last for hours. If you’ve heard of the term glycemic index, it’s a figure obtained by feeding something with exactly fifty grams of available carbohydrates to ten test subjects and measuring their blood glucose response over a two-hour period; high glycemic index describes a carbohydrate source with a sudden, steep rise in blood sugar and low describes a much slower and more modest response.

The blood sugar = insulin = storage effect also causes the steep energy peaks and valleys associated with too many simple carbohydrates; insulin will store everything. Therefore, if you eat a meal that was sizeable but also predominantly simple carbohydrates, the high insulin response will diligently pack everything away- leaving relatively little left hanging around to provide readily available energy. This is the metabolic equivalent of going on a large grocery shopping trip, making one sandwich out of the haul to eat now, and then throwing the rest of the food into the freezer. Hunger returns quickly because, when the body goes looking for ready sources of energy, not much is there.

Glucagon is insulin’s partner; its release signals the liver to liberate the glycogen stores and turn them into free blood glucose. It also stimulates a certain amount of insulin release, since most tissues other than the brain and the liver itself will need the insulin in order to make the glucose available to the cells. It also encourages the production of glucose from non-glycogen stores- fat stored as triglycerides into glycerol, then into glucose, and the same from proteins. After the marathoner hits the wall, glucagon is what directs his body to start cannibalizing itself- fat stores where they can be found, and muscle mass- for more glucose to keep going.

Cortisol is widely known as a “stress hormone” because, while it maintains a constant low-level presence in normal individuals, physical and psychological stressors inspire the secretion of a lot more of it. Together with glucagon and adrenaline, a cortisol dump into your system (JESUS CHRIST IT’S A LION, GET IN THE CAR) will have the opposite effect of insulin and will induce the body to break open the stores, stop the transport of resources into fat cells, and liberate as much energy as glucose as it can. The system is actually fairly sophisticated- the marathoner we keep mentioning is soaking in cortisol, and while the entire signal chain is not understood, his body is peeling off protein to turn into glucose from his nonexercising muscle mass, blocking energy uptake by the nonexercising mass just as it is with the fat cells, and feeding the result to his legs. Part of the way cortisol makes energy less available to tissues that aren’t very busy attempting to save their owner from lion attack is by down-regulating the sensitivity of their insulin receptors, which can eventually cause major problems for someone living with chronic stress and will exacerbate any form of diabetes as a result. People who need massive doses of cortisol in order to keep other diseases in check not only suffer from a muscle wasting effect, they also may wind up with type II diabetes purely as a consequence of the hormone, referred to as “steroid diabetes”. Cortisol does a large number of other things as well, including encouraging leaching of calcium from bone for use by the nervous system, but its antagonistic relationship with insulin is the main relevant subject of concern.

Human growth hormone, if insulin is the storage hormone, is the “building” hormone. Growth hormone encourages the building of muscle mass, mineralization of bone, increased protein synthesis, liberation of fat stores for the energy to fuel these various activities, tickling the immune system encouragingly, and telling the liver to make glucose rather than storing it. If it sounds like a lovely hormone*******, athletes agree and this is why it’s up there next to the androgens in terms of substances banned by various sporting agencies. Aside from its obvious high presence during times when children are actively growing, human growth hormone is stimulated by intense exercise, deep sleep, and low blood sugar/fasting. As it is a resource that could cause profligate use of resources, HGH is tightly regulated by the body; it goes away once blood sugar rises, and cortisol will also chase it away, among other things. (Those other things mostly being a great deal of biochemistry not really relevant to the topic at hand.)

If I continued to list hormones that affect food in some way, I’d keep going for quite awhile; suffice to say that these are the major players that affect how food is sorted, stored, and used. Since we’re already seven footnotes and close to four thousand words in, I’ll close out here. In the second half to this monster I plan to cover in much more detail exactly how energy is used, as well as how the various popular forms of dieting actually work on a metabolic level.

*Speaking of snarky asides on nutritional science and public health, the focus on saturated and unsaturated fats as direct proxies for the “healthiness” of a fat has had some interesting consequences, especially as people try to make their food healthier by cooking with unsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. The products of a fat breaking down and oxidizing under heat too extreme for it can have some unfortunate interactions with the food being fried, such as acrylamide creation from frying starch with an oxidizing fat. Make your french fries in lard, tallow, or peanut oil, not soybean, olive, or canola oil. Poor McDonald’s can’t seem to win on this one no matter which way they jump.

**No, seriously, never cook with these.

***Lactose would be an example of a sugar that some but not others have the capacity to make use of. While enzymes to pick apart varying kinds of complex carbohydrate are something of a hot evolutionary commodity among bacteria, mammals that wish to exploit an unusual food source usually borrow a bacteria to keep in the gut for the purpose. Carbohydrates not digestible by humans are usually referred to as “fiber”.

****Chemistry is dense and frustrating at times. We should probably be glad of this, as the temperament required to learn it well is nearly incompatible with the temperament required for do-it-yourself political violence.

*****Again no matter what anyone selling or advocating anything tells you, for the most part active enzymes that we consume don’t wind up doing a thing except being chopped into amino acids like other proteins. There is no such thing as an enzyme deficiency unless your only possible food source is milk and the genetic lottery didn’t give you lactase persistence into adulthood.

******Actually, I’m oversimplifying by quite a bit here. Insulin does respond to blood glucose levels, but also to the ingestion of carbohydrates and proteins, and it rises in an anticipatory fashion at normal mealtimes and in response to sweet flavors, even artificial sweeteners. However, subsequent blood sugar responds very differently to an insulin spike induced purely by protein than it does to carbohydrates or carbohydrates plus protein, and we are now screaming into “here there be dragons” territory in terms of what is currently well understood, so it’s just as useful in practical terms to think of insulin as the reaction to glucose and back away slowly.

*******If you want to know why you don’t want to just take a bath in this stuff, do a Google image search for “acromegaly”. Then, for fun, always take a close look at athletes in sports in which anabolism-enhancing drugs are a powerful temptation.

Worse Than That Damn Paperclip

August 30, 2010 - 11:03 am Comments Off

Ahh, Blogorado. The traditional time of year when LabRat and I gather up a few necessary supplies and hie off for the middle of nowhere, that being a vastly preferable alternative to civilization, the latter having cell phones galore, powerpoint, and a general excess of assholes, the former having good friends, good conversation, and, most relevant to our story, a joint with a really good breakfast menu.

Last year, day after day a mass of hungry, rambunctious, and very visibly armed bloggers descended daily on The Obligatory Cow Reference* for breakfast. While we represented a non-trivial increase in their daily turn-over for the run of the visit, they were a bit unprepared for a regularly scheduled mob scene. This year, with a bit of forewarning and a bit** of foresight, they had sense to stuff the lot of us off into a separate room, safely sequestered from the regulars. All was good, and many arteries were filled with delicious gravy.

Now in some parts of the world, the job of waiter or waitress is given as much cachet as being a full blown chef. Culinary schools in France, for example, require all students to spend time working the front of the house as well as the line, and being a good waiter is taken as seriously as any other part of the restaurant world. Unfortunately, our waitress on Sunday did not get this memo.

Now, I like to give people a break when the situation warrants it. A party of 20 or so, with roughly 25 different conversations running in parallel can be a bit daunting to jump in the middle of to find who wants biscuits and gravy and who wants their eggs scrambled and who wants tomato juice and so on. I would have had more sympathy had I not recognized this same girl from last year, but still, this situation was a bit outside normal operating parameters. No, the main problem with this situation was not her inability to juggle the juice, but in her signboard.

Sitting next to Matt, and his father JPG, shortly after our coffee was refilled, The Comment came from Matt.

“It’s driving me nuts. I’ve gotta fix it.”

No discussion was necessary. Everybody in the immediate circle nodded solemnly in agreement.

She was wearing a sign around her neck, proclaiming “Its my last day! Please tip generously!”

“Does anybody have a marker?”
“I’ve got a sharpie in my range bag, but that’s back at the hotel. I could be back before she gets the hash browns out, I bet.”
Breakfast conversations at Blogorado being highly fluid, Vine had picked up on the discussion and joined in.
“Marker? I’ve got one in the truck, and I can get to that a damn sight faster than you can get to the hotel and back.”

We all considered this for a moment.

“Do it.”

Vine nipped out, and returned within moments carrying a large, black, chisel-tip sharpie of unnecessary proportions.

“Who’s going to do it?”
“JPG and I are closer, but we’d be at an angle. Straight on may be the way to go.”
“You’ve got reach. We can distract her when she brings the oatmeal.”
“All right. Hand it here.”

We waited for our plates. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. We even got bored and tried to snag her as she brought out a fresh carafe of coffee, since the consumption of same was measured in gallons per minute, but our collective cries of “Miss?” “Waitress?” “Hey, airhead!” and so forth bounced off her like raisins off a canoe.

Finally we got her attention. She slid into an open space to stand between JPG and myself, directly across from Matt. Almost like we’d set up such a position in advance. JPG started in, nice and friendly. Well, he started that way.

“Tell me, miss, what are you going to do since today is your last here?”
“Oh! I’m going to college!”
If you’re familiar with the late 90s TV series “Daria“, just imagine Brittney’s voice here. Suffice to say her response raised more than one eyebrow. JPG, being possessed of age and cunning, kept his poker face.
“Well that’s excellent. Where are you going?”
“WTU!”
“And where is that?”
“Um, west Texas?”
“I mean what is the name of the school.”
“WTU!”
“Miss, I don’t think they’re going to let you in if you can’t say the full name of the institution.”

Our prey was growing wary at this point, and beginning to shy away from the table full of people demanding such unreasonable precision. Matt, using keen hunting instincts, realized that our opportunity was dwindling and sprang.

“Miss,” he inquired, causing her to turn a few degrees towards him, presenting the sign straight on. He continued, “Miss, just one thing,” and began unfolding himself across the table. Now to put this in proper reference, our waitress was maybe four foot ten in her good heels. Matt is roughly eleven foot thirty when he slouches. Suddenly, this poor, beleaguered blonde bimbo found a creature best known for shouting “Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum” rising in the direction of her chest.

Strangely, this caused alarm.

She began to back away. “Miss, I just need to fix this.” JPG put a hand up behind her shoulder to block her retreat. Still unconvinced she moved towards me, whereupon I did the same. She was trapped.

Matt struck, and deftly drew an apostrophe. A relieved sigh went up from the conspirators, and Matt sat back down as we released her.

“Thank you, miss. I just needed to correct your sign.”
“Huh?” The deer-in-the-headlights effect remained in place.
“Your sign was incorrect. It had the possessive form of ‘it’ instead of the contraction. I don’t think they’d appreciate it if you showed up at college and didn’t know the difference.”
“Oh, um, the kitchen staff… they made… can I go now?”

We finished breakfast, studiously not looking too closely at our food, just in case, and tipped reasonably generously, considering.

Amazingly, we were not banned from The Obligatory Cow Reference for forcibly spell-checking their waitress, but the staff for the next few days did keep a bit of extra distance unless strictly necessary.

*I’d give the proper name, but I’d really like Secret Location, CO to remain secret. Otherwise it’d just become civilization and Blogorado would fill up with assholes, and if I have to put up with assholes on my vacation, the scene will Not Be Pretty. Suffice it to say it’s like every other small western agricultural town, and local establishments sport various names like “The Jersey Heffer” or “Hoofs n’ Horns” or “The Golden Spur.”
**A bit, but not enough. We ran them out of quite a bit of food before their resupply.

Outta the Park

August 30, 2010 - 9:22 am Comments Off

That’s where Roberta hit it. Having just tried to file a claim with my frickin dental insurance, and the associated gawd-awful you-have-got-to-be-shitting-me pain in the ass of refusing to use my social security number…. yeah.

Decision Bleg

August 29, 2010 - 6:42 pm Comments Off

So, Stingray’s credit card accumulates points with use, which may be redeemed for various and sundry consumer goods, a factoid we had all but entirely forgotten until recently. The card now has a lot of points, which may be redeemed for various semi high ticket items basically for free. Currently getting our attention are the bundle packs for the two current-generation video game consoles we don’t have, which we don’t have because the X-Box 360 pretty much fills our console desires. Nonetheless, either would go nicely replacing their previous-generation counterparts on the entertainment center shelves if, as is the case, the cost is essentially free. (Plus games, but the budget for games remains more or less constant regardless of which system they’re being bought for. It would merely expand our options.) Over time we’ll probably take both deals since using points for either would leave lots left over with the backlog we have now, we’re just debating which to do first.

Pros for the Nintendo Wii: Unique gameplay. A few available titles one or the other of us would really like to play but which weren’t worth getting a Wii just to play. Lower cost in points that would allow us to pick up something else sooner. LabRat is an old-school Nintendo gamer and this is where most of their mainstay series get their updates.

Cons: Unique gameplay doesn’t mean gameplay that works well. The worst reputation for high-quality titles and developers of the three. No extra features, just a game console. Limited appealing games outside of the series mainstays. There’s a reason we don’t have one already, as all of Nintendo’s best creative efforts seem to be reflected in the DS these days.

Pros for the Playstation 3: Most badass graphics engine of current-generation consoles. Also functions as a Bu-Ray player. May offer an alternative/better media management interface over the X-Box 360 for managing our NAS box content. Best reputation next to X-Box 360 for attracting good games/developers, bigger library of titles that at least look potentially interesting.

Cons: No titles either of us is really lusting to play. Neither of us had exactly perceived a Blu-Ray shaped hole in our lives before. Gameplay > graphics for us both, so a dubious bonus if the game stable doesn’t live up. Media management interface may simply be a larger, alternative pain in the ass. Larger point cost.

Yes, yes, we know, our childless yuppie existence is clearly full of profound hardships and excruciating decisions. Other than that, any thoughts?

To-Do

August 27, 2010 - 3:00 pm Comments Off

To borrow a concept from Roberta, and also to give myself a little reminder list about things I plan to do, the current state of the to-do list.

- How stuff works: your metabolism and you. No diet and exercise and this-is-healthy stuff, just the nuts and bolts of what the food is made of, what hardware and software you have to process it with and where it goes and how it’s used. Rather boring for me to write due to density, but evidently there is a desire for this sort of bare bones written readably without a sales pitch on the side.

- Evolution, yay: Why on earth do human women go through menopause, otherwise known as “This is probably not the end of the question you should be starting from”.

- Game review: Mass Effect 2. May not bother with this one, as it’s fairly similar to the Mass Effect review except they fixed most of the annoyances. Will consist mainly of “SQUEE I LOVE THIS GAME” if written.

- Fiction rant: the Sherlock Holmes universe and certain consistent trends in adaptation decay. If I’m fortunate will turn into a longer discussion on how we as a culture handle cerebral characters.

- Fiction rant: the scarcity of normal, stable relationships in mainstream fiction. Intense and lifelong bonds of friendship are not only permissible but admirable, but in romantic pairings couples who somehow remain in relationships despite apparently neither liking nor trusting one another are the norm. (Yes, I know the basic reason why this is- easy and continuously milked source of conflict to move the plot along or create B-plot fireworks- but it’s still lazy writing and lots of other forms of similarly motivated lazy writing are less common.)

If You Can't Say Something Nice, For Fuck's Sake Be Up-Front About It

August 26, 2010 - 4:54 pm Comments Off

I do have several more substantive and less choleric posts in the pipeline, but I’m running on limited time and ranting is easier than constructing “science and you” posts.

There is a phenomenon that I have repeatedly and gallingly encountered, which is of people that want to tear someone a new one but somehow want to do this by Queensbury rules. To wit, it is apparently okay to say any vile and insulting thing you wish to another person, so long as you do it without using any profanity whatsoever. Should the other person’s reaction involve profanity, you have therefore risen above them on the civility scale and anything else they say may be dismissed as the intemperate rantings of a lunatic. (I am interpreting these rules based on inference.) The exchange tends to go something like this:

*issue generating disagreement and friction*

“Your opinion on this issue can only indicate that you were dropped on your head as a child, and furthermore you are a filthy miserable liar who probably spent the last hour before posting on this thread receiving oral ministrations from an entire flock of goats. I hate you and and everyone who resembles your pusillanimous, sheep-faced self.”

“What the fuck does that have to do with (substance of disagreement), asshole?”

“If you’re just going to swear at me I don’t see how anyone can discuss anything with you.”

What the unholy fuckballs is the point of this? It’s not as though people will not understand they’ve been insulted and react like they’ve been insulted if the insult does not, technically, involve profanity. Insult is insult whether you use words you can’t say on television or not, just like an explicit sex scene is an explicit sex scene even if you replace all the “cock”, “prick”, “cunt”, and “fuck” with “penis”, “vagina”, and “thrust”. Granted, one is a dirty phone call and one is a Regency novel, but either way people aren’t going to agree it’s appropriate material for children merely because the language has been rearranged.

Profanity has a purpose, and that purpose is generally to be a verbal shorthand for an underline and a set of exclamation points. When you curse, it’s generally either to indicate strong emotion or to indicate powerful emphasis; it’s also a way of saying “I don’t care who my opinion offends”. Well and good. The point remains, however, that you can achieve all of the same goals in more words without using any profanity at all- it’s a signal device, not a self-contained Insult Missile. As anybody with much of a reading habit knows, it’s entirely possible to grotesquely and elaborately insult somebody without ever once using a word that couldn’t be spoken on Good Morning America.

It gets even more bizarre in my head when I try to look at it from a religious point of view*. Okay, saying bad words is something you’re not supposed to do as a serious practicioner, I get that. I may just be an atheistic rube, but I was under the impression that saying nasty things to people just because you disagree with them and venting anger and spite on them is emotionally satisfying was a bigger sin anyway. You’re not *supposed* to gratuitously abuse your fellow man, and if they aren’t fooled as to your meaning and intent because you didn’t use any Anglo-Saxon four letter words, the odds that God is going to be fooled are substantially lower.

Either way, what really irritates me about the practice is that it’s a game the person using it is playing with themselves and demands other people play too. No one is actually fooled and it accomplishes nothing except make that person feel satisfied because a completely artificial and arbitrary standard has been met by themselves but not by the other person; it’s like declaring that you won a footrace down a corridor because your opponent stepped on a black tile and the black ones are lava.

Throw insults if you mean them, fine. There’s no hall monitor and we’re all adults here. But if you’re going to act like an adult and be treated like an adult, you have to own them.

*One point of theology I have never, ever understood is why certain words are profane. I understand the concept of taking the Lord’s name in vain and why this is bad, but not why you’re not supposed to use certain words as opposed to others because they derive from an Anglo-Saxon root instead of a Latin one. Fuck, shit, piss, and cunt all fall into this category and I can’t for the life of me understand why they’re included next to an exclamation of “BLEEDING CHRIST!” or “OH MY FUCKING GOD! under “profane, don’t do that”.

Things I Learned At Blogorado II

August 25, 2010 - 3:32 pm Comments Off

- Even if you have a professional photographer, when the scene most requires a photograph, you will not be able to take a picture. Case in point: when the storytelling Cajun is reaching the dramatic climax of the story involving the chicken rendering plant, and an intent Russian stalks purposefully around behind him bearing a suppressed black rifle with laser sights, you will not be able to document the scene for posterity even if you fully intend to leave the CIA out of it. When you CAN photograph it, you will not be able to share the evidence with the public. This includes the scene with the pie and the dumbo octopus kiss and the one with the double rainbow and the re-enactment with many more firearms and much more camp.

- Breakfast should involve at least five thousand calories, two hours, and a flat minimum of five conversations running in parallel.

- Spending your weekends brewing rather than shooting will damage your range prowess but WILL make you popular.

- You will not be able to predict which beer you need three batches of and which you need one. Even if you have data from last year and it’s the same two recipes. That one set was drunk during a cold snap in November and one during a heat wave in August probably had a great deal to do with this.

- Accidental IPAs make giants happy. Should you ever find yourself contemplating an exceptionally large beanstalk, make sure you bring along a case of something you had to make at least three substitutions to the plan and an emergency beer store run to produce.

- Always bring twice as many antihistamines as you think you will need and four times as much water. Fewer books, though, if you have more time to read than it takes to go from “overstimulated” to “ready to sleep” something has gone wrong.

- If you are fair of skin and rosy of cheek, even multiple applications of SPF 100 will not save you from sunburn if your sun exposure consists of the bulk of daylight hours over four days. Try not to shoot the other bastards that burn once and then turn melanistic. If you want an environment your genotype suits, move to Norway.

- Yes, the elephant gun kicks. It still hurts less than a .38 airweight snub-nosed revolver. At least until you take the rifle away from your shoulder. That’s a pretty shade of purple, though, isn’t it?

- Even if you are a frosty hard-nosed introvert, given a motivation you still have the capacity to be warm and mushy. Maybe not in front of a camera though.

- Someone else always has a better story than you. Finding this out is a fun and time-consuming process.

- Goodbye will take half an hour or more and will still feel cut short. You will miss a few people on the last round of hugs.

- It will take more than one day to recover. Possibly more later due to this factor, perhaps not…

*whump*

August 24, 2010 - 5:46 pm Comments Off

We are home. That we had a fabulous time nearly goes without saying. So fabulous, in fact, that we did something of an imitation of little kids, in being far too wound up by the exciting cool kids and not wanting to be left out of anything to feel tired in anything but a background way, so that the trip went something like: *alarm rings at 7 am* *WHEEEEEEEEEEEE* *reluctantly leave gathering at 10:30 pm-12:00 am* *fall asleep hour to hour and a half later after sufficiently winding down* …. *alarm rings at 7 am.* It, plus one ongoing attack of hay fever that still has me feeling the need to claw my eyes out, builds up. As does hydration or the lack thereof at steady time under a vigorous sun; I made the interesting discovery yesterday that I can be feeling pretty steady on my feet and still be severely lacking in precious bodily fluids. This occurred to me after spending fully an hour fruitlessly trying to clean my glasses in between stops before other causes of blurry vision entered my head. I’m fine now, water is truly life, though as I found coffee and tomato juice are not adequate substitutes or even supplements if you’re to be spending all your time out of doors.

A much more complete rundown when we’ve had a loooong uninterrupted sleep and quiet time-out.

Gone Fishin' Shootin'

August 19, 2010 - 7:18 pm Comments Off

Today we’re packing up and generally prepping for Blogorado. Stingray has busied himself for months with the brewing and today with the baking, seeing as how the concept of “overkill” only exists in his mind as a sort of abstract goal. We will be eating, shooting, drinking, and mostly, socializing, of which we’ll get at least half of our year’s recommended allowance in the weekend. The one thing we are NOT planning on doing is blogging, and we won’t even be hauling along a laptop- though if it’s anything like last year we’ll have access to no less than five separate netbooks or smartphones should we beg their users for a looksee. Personally, I’m not even planning on checking my e-mail.

Will update in great detail when we get back, and until then enjoy the folks on our sidebar.

Physiologist, Heal Thyself

August 18, 2010 - 3:28 pm Comments Off

So recently there was a kerfuffle in which “Doctor Laura” Laura Schlessinger, radio advice show host, bitch-slapped a black caller as being “hypersensitive” to her neighbor’s race-based taunting and elected to illustrate her point by tossing “nigger” around eleven times in the course of the call. As one does when one is attempting to demonstrate one’s philosophical superiority* and authority as the mature advice-giving party. In any case, the predictable shitstorm occurred and Schlessinger apologized and said she had said “the wrong thing”. I didn’t feel it worth comment at the time, since Schlessinger has been verbally abusing callers from a very socially conservative position for years and it would be a bit like waking up and making the horrifying discovery that Keith Olbermann had said something misogynistic about a conservative woman. You don’t excuse it, but you’re not SURPRISED by it, and at this point nobody who calls in can really expect to be shocked when she tears them a new one, fairly or no.

But it seems Schlessinger has felt so wounded after this experience (which is hardly a new one for her, as she’s suffered major media shitstorms before over other “direct” things she’s said) that she’s leaving radio. Why? Because, she says, she wants to regain her first amendment rights. No shit.

During an interview on “Larry King Live” on CNN, Schlessinger said, “My contract is up for my radio show at the end of the year, and I’ve made the decision not to do radio anymore.”

She added: “The reason is, I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special-interest group deciding this is the time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates, attack sponsors. I’m sort of done with that.” ……

Although she said her sponsors and affiliates have backed her, Schlessinger, 63 — who holds a PhD in physiology from Columbia University — told King that she lived in “constant fear” that critics would attack them for her remarks.

“I never called anybody a bad word. I was trying to bring — and obviously it has become a national discussion now — I was trying to make a philosophical point,” she said. “And I made it wrong, but I wasn’t dissing anybody. I was trying to make a point, and for that to say that I should be silenced is the reason why I’m saying to you that I’m obviously losing First Amendment rights.”

It’s more or less obligatory to note at this point that Schlessinger has no fucking idea what the First Amendment actually means; she’s made a long and very renumerative career out of broadcasting and publishing whatever she thinks. At no point has anybody of relevance ever, ever, actually suggested that she can or should be legally prevented from expressing her opinions. She can say whatever she likes without legal restriction so long as it is not libelous. This right is fully protected by the First Amendment whether you’re an internet crackpot, a street-corner preacher, or a radio show hostess, and it has never been restricted for her.

What she seems to THINK she has a right to is to be able to say whatever the hell she thinks and for her and her sponsors to experience no consequences for it. The First Amendment does NOT guarantee a funded soapbox, and it does not immunize anybody from criticism. It’s every bit as much the right of people, scary “special interest groups” or no, to engage in speech expressing their displeasure with her speech, and to withdraw monetary support for her speech. If she is so very worried about her tender little sponsors, who are making a monetary bet that more people will enjoy listening to her than not, she can think about what she fucking says before she says it. Her entire career is built on an audience, and nothing in the Constitution guarantees her that audience, and her sponsors’ monetary contribution is made because they are betting on that audience. Audiences have every bit as much right to react to what she says as she has to say it, even if she may regard those members of her audience who are minorities of varying sorts to be icky people that shouldn’t be able to influence her life.

This confusion about “freedom of speech” equating to “freedom from criticism that actually affects the speaker in any way” is a common one, and ordinarily I wouldn’t regard yet another instance of it as worth much comment. What pops the vein in my temple is that Laura Schlessinger has built her entire fucking career on outspoken criticism of others. What she evidently feels she deserves is complete freedom to say whatever she thinks of them without having to experience any negative backlash involving what others think of her. If you make a business out of acidic criticism, a lot of people will think less of you for it and if enough do they may make you feel it financially; if you want to be in that business, you roll with the punches. I don’t see Rush Limbaugh tearfully taking his ball and going home when people say nasty things about him and try to boycott him, and his media profile has always been far above hers.

Schlessinger should take one of her own book titles to heart and stop whining. And for that matter, if she wants to go out as a martyr and get anyone to take her seriously at all, maybe she shouldn’t have chosen such an unfuckingbelievably stupid hill to die on.

*Her point was that black comedians say it all the time, therefore it must not actually be a bad word. Which, no; there are some words that members of a group can say and out-group members can’t without the context and felt intent changing drastically. Culture and context aren’t run on a playground definition of “fair”. However, this is not the point of this post.