Human microbiome transplant

Responses to Josiah Zayner’s attempt to replace his body’s bacteria are almost as interesting as the experiment itself. It seems like most of the medical community believe professional approval of one’s theory and practice is what determines therapeutic success, and not the actual measurement of physical outcomes.

Anyway, as is usual in gut flora replacement therapy, Mr. Zayner has successfully remediated his long standing intestinal problems. Genetic tests show that he is now host to a new, healthier mix of internal bacteria harvested from a friend’s feces. The rest of his homemade treatment was less successful; he was not able to completely eradicate his skin bacteria, nor was he able to prevent re-infection from his surroundings. The article is sort of simultaneously horrifying and illuminating; scientists who self-experiment are strange birds more often than not.

You can do science just as badly as you can do religion

I can’t read the Science Based Medicine website, despite my complete agreement with many of its conclusions, without getting annoyed by the priestly attitude of its authors.

They make broad generalizations that could often be equally well applied to the mainstream physicians the site claims are qualitatively superior. For example, from Scott Gavura, Naturopaths offer an array of disparate health practices like homeopathy, acupuncture and herbalism that are linked by the (now discarded) belief in vitalism – the idea we have a “life force”. I’ve certainly never had any difficulty finding doctors who believe in “life forces” and “souls” and such – the churches are full of ’em, seriously. And I’ve heard at least one physician recommend acupuncture, because it had worked on other patients of his.

SBM’s authors also often seem to promote a Medieval doctrine of contagion when they talk about alternative medicine – if any person who claims to be an herbalist or chiropractor does something wrong, this proves that all herbalists and chiropractors are equally wrong. Such a doctrine, if applied equally harshly to mainstream medicine, would make SBM’s own doctors somehow guilty for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. I can’t abide that kind of sloppy thinking.

I wish I could choose less preachy, more convincing allies. It’s good that SBM names and exposes actual quacks, and homeopathic superdilution remedies truly are outmoded nonsense… but I keep finding myself wondering if perhaps Medieval witch-hunters burned some folks who actually deserved it, occasionally.

killing wildlife doesn’t make your food safer

In an ill-considered response to a 2006 e. coli outbreak, for years now food sellers have been pressuring food growers to turn the areas surrounding farms into a blasted, sterile wasteland, devoid of any wildlife.

A recently published paper shows that this practice is not beneficial, and has measurably decreased food safety.

Blasted wasteland surrounding a farm

“There is this misguided idea that agricultural fields should be a sanitized, sterilized environment, like a hospital, but nature doesn’t work that way.” — Daniel Karp, postdoctoral research fellow UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Well, now, about those hospitals, Dr. Karp…

Slate shilling for GMOs

William Saletan, author of Bearing Right, has a lengthy column up on Slate explaining how purposely withholding information from common folks like me in order to fatten the coffers of giant agribusinesses is really, really totally morally OK, because Golden Rice. It makes some good points and provides lots of information, but ultimately reads like a catalog of formal logic errors papered over with pseudo-moralistic posturing.

The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you. They’re using you. They tell food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to segregate GMOs, and ultimately not to sell them, because people like you won’t buy them. They tell politicians and regulators to label and restrict GMOs because people like you don’t trust the technology. They use your anxiety to justify GMO labels, and then they use GMO labels to justify your anxiety. Keeping you scared is the key to their political and business strategy.

Oh, my support for product labeling, including GMO labeling, is me using people. Because I’m the one with a profit motive? Seriously? People are supposed to believe that generic salarymen somehow magically make money by wanting labeling, and that food mega-producers are living in such abject poverty that they simply can’t afford to print meaningful labels? Really?

Wait, didn’t big corporate food producers also oppose the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act? Despite the history of food and drug regulation in the USA, we are to believe that they oppose labeling because of their inherent saintliness, and it has nothing to do with their profits? We’re supposed to take seriously claims that 21st century science is too backward and primitive to define a labeling regime that would be of any use?

GMO shills commonly ignore all the regular everyday people who just want informative labeling, and characterize their opposition as being solely composed of loony Californian anti-vaccine anti-GMO crystal worshippers. Saletan goes on from there to paint the completely amoral American food industry (despite many examples of what typical behavior is when regulation is lax) as merely timid, brownbeaten victims whose great flaw is unwillingness to force GMOs into every market.

On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public.

After reading the entire article, I was left with the impression that Saletan is saying labels are bad, it’s just too hard to give poor people carrots, never mind that white rice is a cultural shibboleth, Chewbacca is a wookiee, and therefore you don’t need to know anything, and if we label food products so that people can make an informed choice the terrorists win. It’s exactly like global politics… or CRELM toothpaste!

Drink up, Monsanto.

Robert Chesebrough, the chemist who created Vaseline, was challenged to prove the safety of his product. His response was to eat three tablespoons of it, and he later claimed to eat a teaspoon of it every day as a health tonic. He lived to be 96, and white petroleum jelly is still considered safe and non-toxic.

More recently, Wang Chuan-Fu, the CEO of BYD, publicly drank the electrolyte liquid used in the lithium ion battery produced by his company.

But Monsanto doesn’t even want to label their products, and while their shills might say that it’d be safe to drink a quart of glyophosate pesticide, they certainly won’t do so.

Of course, if he’d drunk it, that wouldn’t have proved it was safe. Thomas Midgley publicly drank tetraethyl lead… and then snuck off to Europe for lead poisoning treatment!

Update: Monsanto tells Xeni Jardin:

Dr. Moore is not a Monsanto lobbyist or employee. Knowledgeable scientists, consumers and our farmer customers may be familiar with and confident in the safety of glyphosate, but their statements don’t make them lobbyists for our company. Dr. Patrick Moore is one of those individuals. He agrees with the science that supports the safety of glyphosate, and is an advocate for technology and innovation. But as I mentioned, he is not and never has been a paid lobbyist for or employee at Monsanto.

Homeopathy as the least worst choice

Interesting thing about homeopathy, that I learned from visiting the Mary Baker Eddy Museum in the Boston Christian Science Reading Room: less than 200 years ago, the best medical treatment you could get was probably homeopathy. It was unlikely to outright kill you, and would keep you well hydrated. The next best treatment was almost certainly prayer (because it might have psychological benefits and at the very least it didn’t involve bleeding or the administration of poisons) followed by herbalism (which could definitely kill you, but might also heal you) followed by a dog’s breakfast of other therapies which mostly involved greatly increasing your chance of an untimely death in the name of healing.

Over time, the bits and pieces of things that actually worked (such as keeping patients hydrated, and various herbal remedies such as willow bark and etc.) became the basis of modern medicine, mostly through the efforts of snake-oil hucksters and patent medicine companies who found ways to profit from them. The profit-driven system has mostly worked rather well (despite numerous debacles like aspirin, thalidomide, Coley’s cancer cure, etc.) because you couldn’t make profit from dead patients (until the development of mass media campaigns, anyway).

Today the snake oil industry has metastasized into modern corporate medicine, which primarily exists to sell pills. But most of those pills actually do something, so it’s a huge step up from the days of homeopathy, when the last thing any sick person needed was any treatment that actually did something.

Today it’s popular for self-aggrandizing Internet commentators to hold up homeopathy as a “fake science” that they lump in with whatever other targets of opportunity they think will make them look scientific and clever, such as chiropractery if the pundit is left-wing, and “global warming” if s/he’s right-wing. And invariably these critics know almost nothing of the history of medicine, and they’ll usually characterize medicine as a “science” (or possibly a “Science”) rather than the praxis that it is. But to my mind, today’s corporate medicine is very much the same as the homeopathy of Mary Baker Eddy’s time – it’s the least worst choice.

That pink stuff in your bathroom

No, a pink residue is not a problem with your water quality, and is not harmful in this situation. It is evidence of bacteria that are common inhabitants of our environment. The most typical of these bacteria is one known as Serratia marcescens. These bacteria come from any of a number of naturally-occurring sources, such as soil, mulch, dust, and surface waters, and they thrive in an environment that is moist and high in phosphates.

Serratia infection is responsible for about 2% of nosocomial infections of the bloodstream, lower respiratory tract, urinary tract, surgical wounds, and skin and soft tissues in adult patients.

Until the 1950s, S. marcescens was erroneously believed to be a nonpathogenic “saprophyte”, and its reddish coloration was used in school experiments to track infections. It was also used in biological warfare testing by the U.S. military as a substitute for weaponized tularemia bacteria. On September 26 and 27, 1950, the U.S. Navy conducted a secret experiment named “Operation Sea-Spray” in which S. marcescens was released by bursting balloons of it over the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area in California. Although the Navy apparently believed the bacteria were harmless, beginning on September 29, 11 patients at a local hospital developed very rare, serious urinary tract infections, and one of these individuals, Edward J. Nevin, died. Cases of pneumonia in San Francisco also increased after S. marcescens was released.

2014 IgNobels awarded

Winners were ceremonially announced last night. I haven’t yet watched the awards video, so I do not know if Miss Sweetie-Poo was called into service.

The Medicine Prize was won by Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for developing a means of treating uncontrollable nosebleeds that involves packing the patient’s nose with bacon.

Still half dead

Bhil says I should stay away from “probiotic seafood” in the future.

I lost so much fluid yesterday, so quickly, that I started drinking warm sugar water with chamomile just to keep hydrated enough to stay out of the hospital. I was working alone, which was in some ways convenient, since I didn’t have to worry about offending cow-orkers with my fever, sweats, vomiting and diarrhea, but also a little scary, since there was nobody to pick me up if I completely collapsed.

Managed to stomach a little oatmeal at breakfast, and I’ve been sipping at chocolate milk all day, but I probably shouldn’t have attempted that cheeseburger at lunchtime. I’m regretting it. Not ready for anything flavorful yet.

Flying back out tonight. I plan to recline my seat despite the kerfuffle.

Adding the final element to the migraine experience

I’ve always said, when discussing my infrequent migraines with physicians, “well, at least I don’t have any nausea.” I get all the other symptoms – pain, confusion, light and sound sensitivity, polychromatic visual aberrations, etc. – to a pretty extreme degree. But at least I’m not actively throwing up at the same time, right?

As I staggered off the plane in Boston’s Logan Airport, my six-hour migraine finally ebbing, it seemed like a good idea to have a nice fisherman’s platter and let the medication wear off before picking up the rental car.

The scrod was delicious, but the shrimp were tough and the oysters seemed a little off. Oysters vary quite a bit regionally (I’m used to the big, sweet oysters of Tappahannock) so I ate several of them anyway.

Thanks for the food poisoning, Legal Seafood.

Go Baby Go

GoBabyGo is an ongoing project started in 2006 by pediatric researchers Cole Galloway and Sunil Agrawal. The basic concept, which has evolved significantly since the project’s inception, is to provide mobility to kids who have trouble moving on their own by modifying off-the-shelf toy racecars, empowering them to be part of the action at home, in the daycare center, and on the playground.

“Fun is key here—it unlocks brain development and exploratory drive for the child, and ignites active, engaged play from adults and peers. When your main goal is mobility and socialization of young children and their families, you can’t ask for better collaborators than Barbie and Mater.” –Cole Galloway

The team is also trying to develop kid-friendly exoskeletons to promote upper-body movement and harness systems to provide partial body-weight support and free the hands and feet for sports-type activities.

“There are no commercially available powered wheelchairs for children under three” – Galloway

To learn more about the research, or volunteer to help, contact Cole Galloway through the project page.

Wood of Life

Wikipedia and Google Translate both say that “Lignum vitae” is Latin for “tree of life”. Though no Latin scholar, I disagree; tree of life would be “Arbor vitae”. Lignum vitae is the lumber of life; lignum being the ancient Roman word for a beam or roof timber.

Confusingly, lignum vitae wood does not come from Thuja occidentalis, the arbor vitae tree. Instead it is harvested from small ironwood trees of the genus Guaiacum, which are native to the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America. Lignum vitae has been an important export crop to Europe since the beginning of the 16th century, so much so that it’s now an endangered species. The trees take three to four hundred years to mature, so it’s not particularly amenable to tree farming, especially given the long-term political instability of the regions where it is found.

Lignum vitae’s claim to lasting fame is a remarkable combination of strength, toughness, and density. The wood is so dense it sinks in water, and it’s so tough that it has been used for submerged bearings in hydro turbines in continuous operation for a hundred years. Yes, I said in continuous use as a bearing supporting a heavily loaded rotating shaft for a hundred years. Bearings made of lignum vitae were used for the rudders of great sailing ships, for the propellor shafts of steamships, for the main bearings of water-powered mills, for nearly anything you can imagine including wheelbarrows and snowblowers. Any place that bronze isn’t tough enough and steel is too likely to corrode, you’ll find a use for lignum vitae, and somebody’s probably used it. There’s just no other material like it – which is why the US Navy still uses it for jackshaft bearings in nuclear submarines, and it’s still used in huge modern hydroelectric plants. It’s been used for pulleys in steel mills, for British police batons, for cannon balls, and for gears in wooden clockworks. Only two woods have ever tested harder – South American Quebracho or “axe breaker” wood (Schinopsis spp.) and Australian Bull-Oak (Allocasuarina luehmannii) – neither of which have the workability or durability of lignum vitae.

DENSITY: 80 lbs./cu.ft.
SPECIFIC GRAVITY: 1.37
TANGENTIAL MOVEMENT: less than 1%
RADIAL MOVEMENT: less than 1%
VOLUMETRIC SHRINKAGE: less than 1%
JANKA HARDNESS: 4,500 lbf (20,000 N)
DURABILITY: Exceptional resistance to moisture, fungi and rot
DESCRIPTION: Reddish brown when freshly cut, with pale yellow sapwood. As it oxidizes, the color turns to a deep green, often with black details. The grain is highly interlocked, making it difficult to work with edge tools, but it machines well and takes a high polish.

But it’s not just these exceptional engineering properties that make lignum vitae marvelous.

The flowers, resin, bark, and wood chips of Guaiacum trees have dozens of medicinal uses, some traditional and unverified, others well-documented in modern medicine. The resin is used for coughs, arthritis, and is a traditional West Indies pick-me-up and reputed aphrodisiac. The modern expectorant guaifenesin, (which is also used by veterinary surgeons as a horse muscle relaxant) is derived from the wood. Cellini cites it as a treatment for syphilis. Teas made from the bark and flowers have spawned more folk medicine than ginseng, and guac cards are still used for fecal blood testing. As a food additive Guaiacum has the E number of E314 and is classified as an antioxidant (insert eye roll here). Oil of guaiac is used as a soap fragrance. The list of uses just goes on indefinitely!

There are a lot of names for the various species of guaiacum. It’s called “caltrop tree” because of the foot puncturing seeds of some varieties, and the Spaniards called it palo santo or “holy wood”. If you live in an area where it can survive, you’ll find it under various names in garden centers, where its sold for its muscled trunks and pretty blue flowers. Because yes, it’s not just amazingly useful, it’s also attractive – Guaiacum Officinale, the common or true guaiacum, is the Jamaican national flower, and Guaiacum sanctum is the national tree of the Bahamas.


WordPress lets me fake the posting date appropriately.

Megrim megrim megrim

My heid did yak yester nicht,
This day to mak that I na micht.
So sair the magryme dois me menyie,
Perseing my brow as ony ganyie,
That scant I luik may on the licht.

And now, schir, laitlie eftir mes
To dyt thocht I begowthe to dres,
The sentence lay full evill till find,
Unsleipit in my heid behind,
Dullit in dulnes and distres.

Full oft at morrow I upryse
Quhen that my curage sleipeing lyis.
For mirth, for menstrallie and play,
For din nor danceing nor deray,
It will not walkin me no wise.

Image by Cruikshank, poem by Dunbar.

3 states now blocking Tesla sales

New Jersey has joined Arizona and Texas in banning direct sales of Tesla electric vehicles to the public.

Chris Christie, that fearless champion of free enterprise and democracy, used his personal control of the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission to end-run the representative branch of New Jersey’s government, who might have raised some sort of ethical objections to what Christie called “the cold, hard hand of government determining winners and losers.”

Tesla will presumably have to shut down its two dealerships in New Jersey, which were giving well-heeled NJ residents a way they could personally and individually choose to reduce the tailpipe-emission pollution problem that sends 53,000 Americans to an early grave every year.

Is the inevitable apotheosis of the Reagan “Revolution”? Parasitic middle-men and Ayn Rand worshipping dirty energy producers using their control over the machines of government to prevent individuals from taking effective action on the behalf of their neighbors and descendants? These people believe that any action that is not motivated by greed should be forbidden, and it seems that they have the power to make it so.

A big week in science…

I didn’t believe in black holes until very recently. But my friends and relatives in the space telescope biz kept seeing things I couldn’t explain any other way, so despite my deep misgivings about Stephen Hawking’s attempts to explain how such things must work, and despite Einstein’s suspicions that their predicted existence was really simply a place where physics formulae break down (a “mathematical singularity” not necessarily corresponding to any real object), I eventually gave in.

So, now that I’ve grudgingly admitted black holes really do seem to exist, Hawking publishes a paper saying “The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes – in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are however apparent horizons which persist for a period of time. This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field.” Arrgh! Now I have to find time to read more physics.

A more interesting and less aggravating scientific announcement was that physicists at Amherst have created a magnetic monopole! Their synthetic monopole exists at the particle level, but proving submicroscopic monopoles can exist is the first step towards finding out if larger monopoles can exist (most physicists say they can’t) and quite possibly a major step towards finding out if they occur in nature (most physicists say they can).

Finally and most importantly, a team of scientists working in the USA and Japan announced a breakthrough in stem-cell creation that potentially obviates all the kerfuffle about existing medical markets for aborted fetus cells.

Stainless steel, the metal bacteria love.

Hospitals love stainless steel, because it looks so “clean”. Unfortunately it is a fantastic media for growing pretty much any pathogen, so it’s a major vector for hospital illnesses. Despite appearances, stainless steel is a filthy metal. Should medical care facilities have prioritized an appearance of cleanliness before testing the reality? Most people outside of the profession would say no, especially given how simple the testing is.

But hospitals in North America have been ripping out their old brass hardware for decades, in response to complaints that it “always looks dirty”. Removing those crusty old doorknobs has put patients and visitors at risk. Brass is a copper alloy, and both copper and silver are self-sterilizing metals (although curiously neither one is listed in the antimicrobial index at this time).

All this is pretty obvious from simple observation in my opinion, but there’s been some research done too. Plow through this quote:

small strips of stainless steel, brass, aluminum, and copper were inoculated with broths of Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus group D, and Pseudomonas species. […] The results were striking. The copper and brass showed little or no growth, while the aluminum and stainless steel produced a heavy growth of all microbes. How fast did the microbes die on copper and brass? The test was repeated at drying intervals of 15 minutes, I hour, 5 hours, 7 hours, 20 hours, and 24 hours. Brass disinfected itself in seven hours or less, depending on the inoculum size and the condition of the surface of the metal, freshly scoured brass disinfecting itself in one hour. Copper disinfected itself of some microbes within 15 minutes. Aluminum and stainless steel produced heavy growths of all isolates after eight days and growths of most isolates (except Pseudomonas) when I ended that part of my investigation after three weeks -link to original here, with pictures.

If you choose to use stainless steel in your kitchen or lunchbox, that’s fine as long as you scour it thoroughly between uses. I don’t recommend those tiny-necked stainless bottles that can’t be properly cleaned, though – I’ve seen stuff grow in the bottoms of those that looked like kelp, I swear. Inch-long strands of waving black kelp.

And don’t ever touch anything made of stainless steel in a sickroom environment. Research from the EPA and others critical of hospitals’ love affair with stainless shows that superbugs like MRSA and clostridium difficile will happily thrive on stainless steel or aluminum indefinitely, but brass rapidly self-sterilizes without the application of antiseptic toxins or antibiotics… and we all know that these superbugs were created by overuse of antibiotics, right?.

If you want a safer home, office or school environment, never use stainless or aluminum where you could use brass or silver instead. And tell your doctor to change his gloves if he’s going to touch a stainless doorknob, that’s just nasty.