Monday, 25 February 2013

Become a Founder Member of the new Rationalist Association website

The Rationalist Association has a new website at, which is packed full of articles and podcasts etc. Many of these are from the excellent New Humanist magazine. The site is still under development but the goal is to establish a vibrant online community and so they are currently offering a free opportunity to become a Founder Member and help shape its future. If you are into promoting reason, debate and free thought, why not sign up? I have!

Friday, 22 February 2013

A sprayful of sugar helps the vegetables go down

Continuing the vegetable theme from the last post (and I should have more cabbage-related posts), the Science podcast this week had an interesting method for encouraging kids to eat their greens. It seems that the solution is to use a sugar spray on vegetables to mask their bitterness, to which children are apparently more sensitive. Valerie Duffy from the University of Connecticut presented the findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, Multi-Level Interventions To Improve Vegetable Consumption in Children. As reported in the ScienceNOW section of the Science Magazine website, A Little Sugar Helps the Broccoli Go Down:
"Bitterness can be minimized in several ways. Even a small amount of sugar spooned into a cup of coffee, for example, will send a strong signal to the brain. Salt blocks the sensation in the mouth, as does acidity. Fat coats the taste buds and prevents the offending molecules from reaching them; that's one reason salad dressings are popular around the world. Duffy and several colleagues conducted a laboratory study of some of these approaches in 37 adults. When the volunteers munched on asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and kale, sweetness was most effective at increasing the appeal of the vegetables. And only sugar was able to change the opinion of people who hadn't liked Brussels sprouts or kale".
It's about getting kids to develop a taste for vegetables that they then carry with them through later life, and the amount of sugar needed does not really make it a concern:
"All that's needed is a fraction of a teaspoon, just enough to balance the bitterness. In addition, after the kids have eaten the sweetened vegetables a few times, sugar can be eliminated and they will continue liking the vegetables, according to studies published by other researchers"
Following the recent horse-meat scandal in Europe, I am thinking that anything that encourages people to eat more fresh vegetables rather than processed junk has got to be a good thing.

Monday, 18 February 2013

A bit more than Three Good Things on a Plate - Mushrooms, scone and soured cream recipe

I'm a bit of a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's cookbooks and we have a few of the River Cottage series. I've blogged before
about Veg Every Day
. I also got The River Cottage Meat Book for Christmas and one of my New Year's Aspirations was to cook more/better meat. I've not yet been able to do that but the veg
front has been more successful and this weekend saw another Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall veg recipe triumph.

This one was not from Veg Every Day, though. Another Christmas present this year was Hugh's Three Good Things, which features recipes predominantly consisting of "three good things on a
plate". I think there is a bit of artistic license here, to be honest, as the recipe I made yesterday - Mushrooms, scone and soured cream - had considerably more then three things in it, although I guess that the "mushrooms" is really short for "mushroom stew". The stew was then topped with a cheese scone mix and baked in the oven, like a cobbler.

I'd never made a cobbler-style dish before and I haven't made scones for years - I'm not the baker in our house - so I was a bit nervous but it turned out pretty well, despite a couple of mistakes on my part. A "rustic" finish but exceptionally tasty and well recommended. The third "good thing" - soured cream - was just for serving.

I'm a big fan of mushrooms and they really are the star of this dish (although the scone topping was pretty fine too). The key, as ever with mushrooms, is to cook them for quite a long time to really concentrate their shroomy goodness. A healthy glug of red wine added to the richness of the dish further. We went for a very palatable Aussie McGuigan Bin No. 736 Shiraz Viognier blend, and a fine accompaniment it was too.

A dish this hearty and tasty does not need much on the side dishes and some simple stir fried savoy cabbage with a touch of soy sauce was great. Thanks to signing up with Abel & Cole, I think that more tasty River Cottage veg dishes are in our future.

Friday, 15 February 2013

A dancing peacock spider for Valentine's Day

If your Valentine's Day needs a bit more romance, or you just need cheering up, here is a peacock spider trying to woo a lady spider.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Some Darwin quotes for Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day, so why not visit and see if there are any activities in your area? Alternatively, you can follow Darwin's adventures on HMS Beagle in blog or tweet form. I've been reading the blog of his diary but I think he was too seasick to mention his birthday in the entry for 12th Feb 1832:
There has been a little swell on the sea to day, and I have been very uncomfortable: this has tried and quite overcome the small stock of patience that the early parts of the voyage left me. Here I have spent three days in painful indolence, whilst animals are staring me in the face, without labels and scientific epitaphs.
Of course, another great Darwin Day activity is to read/browse On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life? As well as the PDF linked there, you can also get it free on the Kindle. I've not read it for some time but whenever I dip into it I am struck by how much he seemed to understand the process of Natural Selection despite no one having a clue at that stage about the biology underlying heredity.

The term "Natural Selection" comes in for some criticism because, it is argued, there is no real selection taking place. Nature is not actively picking and choosing - it is a passive selection process. Such criticisms are, I think, ill-founded and usually just a semantic ploy born out of desperation when faced with the inescapable reality that Natural Selection is very real. When you read the Origin, it seems clear to me why Darwin chose the term "Natural Selection":
"From these considerations, I shall devote the first chapter of this Abstract to Variation under Domestication. We shall thus see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible, and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations. I will then pass on to the variability of species in a state of nature ... As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form." [Introduction]
This is still a good summary of the general principle and process of Natural Selection even in 2013. Darwin recognised that Artificial Selection and Natural Selection are essentially the same thing. We have filled in a lot of the details but Darwin really did get the basics largely right, which is one of the reasons he is still honored by evolutionary biologists. It is re-stated more clearly in Chapter XIV, Recapitulation and Conclusion, in a way that I like because it really lays out the challenge that stands before Creationists to this day - how could Natural Selection not happen?:
"If then we have under nature variability and a powerful agent always ready to act and select, why should we doubt that variations in any way useful to beings, under their excessively complex relations of life, would be preserved, accumulated, and inherited? Why, if man can by patience select variations most useful to himself, should nature fail in selecting variations useful, under changing conditions of life, to her living products? What limit can be put to this power, acting during long ages and rigidly scrutinising the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature,--favouring the good and rejecting the bad? I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life. The theory of natural selection, even if we looked no further than this, seems to me to be in itself probable."
And similarly in Chapter IV, Natural Selection:
"Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. ... Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic."
The other great thing about this paragraph is the last line. Another unfair criticism leveled at "Darwinists" is the idea that we think that Natural Selection explains everything. It never has and never will. Right from the outset, Darwin alluded to what we now know as Random Genetic Drift - the "fluctuating" evolution of neutral variants in traits that are "neither useful nor injurious".

Another thing that stands out is how little Creationist arguments against Natural Selection have progressed in the last 150 years. Like the good scientist that he was, Darwin outlined a number of potential difficulties to his theory. In the final chapter, however, he summarises the objections thus (my emphasis):
"Such is the sum of the several chief objections and difficulties which may justly be urged against my theory; and I have now briefly recapitulated the answers and explanations which can be given to them. I have felt these difficulties far too heavily during many years to doubt their weight. But it deserves especial notice that the more important objections relate to questions on which we are confessedly ignorant; nor do we know how ignorant we are. We do not know all the possible transitional gradations between the simplest and the most perfect organs; it cannot be pretended that we know all the varied means of Distribution during the long lapse of years, or that we know how imperfect the Geological Record is. Grave as these several difficulties are, in my judgment they do not overthrow the theory of descent with modification."
Creationists and Intelligent Design Creationists still go after these zones of ignorance. The big difference is that we often now have a very good idea of "how ignorant we are" and can say with great confidence that the remaining objections "do not overthrow the theory of descent with modification" and are, indeed, wholly consistent with it.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Roses are red but are they green?

Although I have always known that buying roses on Valentine's Day is a romantic cliche that shows a lack of imagination, what I did not realise is that it usually also shows a serious lack of environmental awareness. Although I regularly think about the environmental impacts of food and fuel, I must admit that I've never really thought about flowers before. (OK, so I don't think about flowers too much in general but I do sometimes buy them!)

In yesterday's "60-Second Earth" Scientific American Podcast, "Roses Raise Environment Concerns", they draw attention to the negative environmental impacts of roses, from direct impacts of habitat destruction and water/pesticide usage to the carbon footprint of transport and refrigeration.

This is not news - Scientific American itself previously had an article in 2009, "Blooms Away: The Real Price of Flowers", exploring some of these issues. It is news to me, though, as is the idea that roses are particularly bad - presumably because of the excessive demand at an inappropriate (from a growth perspective) time of the year.

As with all environmental issues, however, it's also quite complicated. As the 2009 article states:
"First off, don't assume that imported roses are environmentally hostile. A 2007 study by Cranfield University in England found that raising 12,000 Kenyan roses resulted in 13,200 pounds (6,000 kilograms) of CO2; the equivalent number grown in a Dutch hothouse emitted 77,150 pounds (35,000 kilograms) of CO2. Both examples include energy used in production and delivery by plane and/or truck. The roses from Holland required artificial light, heat and cooling over the eight- to 12-week growing cycle, whereas Africa's strong sun boosted rose production by nearly 70 percent over those grown in  Europe's flower auction capital."
If you do want to give flowers then the best thing is probably to consider getting them from a company like Florverde:
"Florverde Sustainable Flowers FSF® are grown responsibly by growers. This means they follow best practices to protect the environment and their workers."
Likewise, if giving jewellery, consider a Fair trade supplier, like CRED. (Order by Wednesday for UK Valentine's Day delivery. We got our wedding rings from them so I wanted to give them a mention!)

It's not always easy to consider the environmental impact of our activities (and I could certainly do more) but when it comes to luxury goods like flowers and jewellery, I think we have a particular responsibility to do the right thing. It's the thought that counts, so spare a thought for the environment this Valentine's Day.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The stupidity of poaching rhino and the wider importance of evidence-based medicine

Extinction - and danger of extinction - is sad whatever the cause but when the cause is motivated by sheer nonsense it is particularly upsetting. Black Rhino are critically endangered and under increasing threat from poaching because of their horns. (The picture is actually of Southern white rhino at Dublin Zoo, which are "near threatened" rather than endangered.)

The stupid thing is that the horns have no intrinsic value - they are just keratin, which is essentially the same material as hair and nails. It is only because traditional medicine in several countries value rhino horn so highly, that poaching is so lucrative. Rhino horn has no clinically proven benefits. You might as well grind up your toe-nail clippings. (Try spinning that as an aphrodisiac.)

I've moaned before about Homeopathy and the like but the importance of evidence-based medicine goes well beyond the obvious issue of efficacious treatment. Promoting any woo indirectly supports all the tragedies associated with extreme cases, including using endangered species in "traditional" medicine. If it really works, the chances are that we can work what it is that is actually having an effect - and possibly why - and try to find an alternative source. All the time we embrace ignorance, we embrace ignorant practices.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Da Brasilians

A bit of a departure from my usual rock-centric musical musings Da Brasilians are a mellow blend of vocal harmonies and gentle percussive instrumentals. This is music to calm the soul rather than exorcise any inner demons.

I have their self-titled album and despite a lack of stand-out individual tunes that I would stick a list of all-time favourites, it's a pleasant listen. Like most good music, I think it's also a grower, as I appreciate it more each time I listen to it. That itself might be a reflection on the fact that this is music to be listened to and appreciated, as opposed to instantly catchy pop that makes great background music but lacks depth. If you like clear musical talent and don't mind a lack of instantly catchy tunes, this one's for you.