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Saturday, June 28, 2014

How long will I live: life span and life expectancy

There is no consistency in estimates of how long people have lived throughout history. This is largely because, prior to around 1500 Common Era, birth and death records were rare -- usually only available for royalty or others who had influence and power. The everyday person's birth and death were remarked upon only by friends and family.

In general, however, it is considered that the overall life expectancy has increased over the years. One set of estimates indicates around 25 to 30 years old in BCE, rising to 30 to 40 years old in the 1500 to 1800 and then ballooning up past the 1800s to current world expectancy of 65 to 75.

Life expectancy is a statistical measurement as to the AVERAGE life span for a larger population. This number can vary between regions of the world, countries, or even counties. In the previous paragraph, I was talking about global numbers. An individual's life span is dependent on different factors. Some of these factors are not under anyone's control, some are "per chance", and some are voluntary risks.

The primary factor for life span is how long your ancestors lived -- your genetic heritage. Robert A. Heinlein did a great job going into this in his book Methuselah's Children. This is the baseline -- something that we presently cannot change and which gives the maximum time our bodies have to be around without becoming zombies. Some people believe that this can be extended by various means but, in my opinion, it is really a matter of eliminating the many factors that can shorten this period -- the maximum has not truly changed.

We have succeeded in helping to prevent some events that shorten life -- which is why our global life expectancy has increased. One of the biggest boosts in overall global life expectancy has been from medical advances that have decreased infant and mother mortality. If a quarter of all children die before they are two years old, it decreases average life span (and population life expectancy) considerably. This is also a large part of why the life expectancy of women is now higher than that of men and why it used to be the other way around. Other medical advances and general sanitation have been the other primary method to avoid life shortening events.

So what are the common life shortening effects? War (and murder) is a huge one and one which historically has taken a greater direct toll on the expectancy of men. Drought and famine change localized life expectancy. Lack of nutritious food early in life can also affect health later in life even if food is then available. Death by disease has been reduced by immunizations, treatments, sanitation, and recognition and isolation. Finally, death by accident is with us and seems to be impossible to totally avoid.

Voluntary risks do not really add to the life shortening lists -- they just make them more likely to occur. Smoking, for example, can increase the chance for disease if one is genetically likely to get the disease -- a trigger effect rather than a causal one. Enjoying a dangerous hobby -- parachuting, mountain climbing, car racing -- can increase the chance for accidents.

Note that deliberately avoiding risks can sometimes actually increase shortening effects. For example, the overuse of antibiotics is increasing the likelihood of disease by making the diseases stronger as well as decreasing our immune systems' ability to fight disease. Living "in a bubble" (isolated) may decrease the chance of accidents and disease while one is "in the bubble" but it makes us even more vulnerable when we are no longer isolated.

So, aside from choosing our parents (which isn't possible), we can best increase life expectancy by having cooperative societies (lack of war and murder), producing and distributing nutritious food and healthy water, building up strong immune systems, and making reasonable choices to avoid preventable accidents and diseases. We still won't live forever but do we want to?

The next blog will address the downside of living a long life.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Race: The Invented Divider

The definition of race is primarily that of running as the word comes from the Middle English word ras meaning "to rush". However, although it may be one of the lesser definitions of the word, if one talks about "race" -- without article or pronoun -- the definition that comes to mind is often that of a division of humanity into different groups.

This idea first came into being to separate groups based on observable physical traits in the 1600s and continued in increasing use, and refined definition, through the early 1800s. Although some of the scientists had neutral goals for the use of the division, it was primarily used as a method of justifying colonization and subjugation of one group over another. It is largely discredited as a useful methodology within science at the present time.

In the elementary school that my children attended, there were about 850 children. If you lined up the children according to skin pigmentation, you would have a long continually varying set of shades and colors from near alabaster to ebony. If you lined them up on a summer day, you would get a different ordering of people from that on a winter day. The same thing holds true for color of eyes, or hair, or width of nose. Each physical characteristic varies on a continuous stream -- although there are certainly areas of the world that are more homogenous (similar between individuals) than others. This is why it has been abandoned by science -- it makes no sense to have discrete classifications.

Just because race has no reasonable definition does not mean there is not racism -- bias and prejudice based on observable (or known familial) physical traits. Racism, sexism, religionism, and other bias/prejudice are forms of xenophobia (fear of "the other"). It has existed since the beginning of recorded history and most likely since the rise of consciousness. The only cure for the syndrome is knowledge -- understanding of "the other" such that the similarities become more obvious than the differences. During periods of antagonism and preparation for war, differences are accentuated (made to seem greater) by governments in order to inflame xenophobia and the inclination to distrust and fear.

Some people say that an ism can only take place by the group in greater power toward the group having less power. Thus, there can be no sexism by women having bias or prejudice about men and there can be no bias or prejudice by pigmentally enhanced people towards those who are pigmentally challenged. This makes as much sense as the original xenophobic reaction. If there exists bias or prejudice based on an observable (or known association with a group who DOES have such observable) physical traits then the relation of power makes no difference.

In summary, the best way to work with, and reduce, xenophobia in all of its forms is knowledge and understanding.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Real" or "Artificial"

    First, I apologize for not getting back to my blog for a while. I have moved cross the U.S. and taken a new job that is quite a bit different from my previous job -- so it's been easy to get distracted. I'll try to post more regularly again.
    There is a tendency for people to talk about food items in terms of "real" or "natural" versus "artificial". In reality, there isn't such a dramatic division between the two. Sucrose is "natural" in that it occurs, without chemical manipulation, in nature and in food items. But, table sugar is far from "natural" as it is necessary to do a lot of refining to have it available in the form that we use it. However, although it is not "natural" nor is it "artificial" as the chemical substance is not different from that found in life.
    From the other direction, a chemist can duplicate a chemical compound found in nature. There is no difference between it (which is "artificial") and that which was "natural". Many flavorings, used in food, are of this nature. But there is actually a difference -- the one found in nature is mixed with many other flavors, textures, and other compounds (including inorganic fibers). Nature is rarely "pure". Sometimes this means the laboratory-created ingredient is "better" and sometimes it is not.
    From the previous blogs, we have tried to decide what is the reality behind the names used in marketing of sweeteners. Once again, we find that it is a "gray" area -- some "natural" sweeteners are rarely used as found in nature. Other "artificial" sweeteners may be present in inert (does not interact with other substances) forms -- or they may be metabolized (broken down into building blocks by the body).
    So, which is better? In answering that question, I will first say that I am not a food chemist, researcher, or any person who has a degree in a related area. I am a generalist.
    My general feeling of analysis is based on experiential analysis -- what happens, what can be observed, how is it used? In other words, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and lays eggs like a duck then it might just very well be a duck or, at least, something you can call a duck.
    When the body tastes something sweet, there are a number of reactions that the body undergoes. This is as a reaction to the quality "sweet". The body will react to this "sweetness" regardless of the source of the quality. Sucrose, Fructose, Sucralose, Stevia, and so forth will all make the body react because it is reacting to the defining quality of "sweetness". We can observe the body salivating. We can observe the swallowing reflex.
    We can not easily observe the internal reactions -- and this is where it is difficult to compare and "prove" results. Although it makes sense that the body will react internally to "sweetness" the same independent of the source -- I cannot prove it. Let's say that it is true -- what does that mean? Mostly, it means the body's metabolism will start trying to process the substances with which it associates sweetness. Insulin will be produced and gastric juices will be increased to break it into smaller building blocks and to store energy.
    So, the body does all these things based on "sweetness". What happens when it is NOT the substance for which the body has developed these reactions? What happens when insulin is released and there is nothing for it to react against? What happens when the metabolism tries to break down an inert substance? What happens when the body says "absorb" and the substance cannot be absorbed?
    I don't know the answers. I can make guesses but I do not know the answers. But I am rather certain that I do not want my body to be used as a test bed to determine the long-term reactions and effects. I know that there are various undesirable effects from refined table sugar -- but I know them and (although not in the refined version which has only been easily available for a century or two) it has been in use by people for a long time.
   "Natural" is not always good. "Artificial" is not always bad. But, in the area of food items, one can also look at it as "what is the body used to", 'how was it designed".
    That's my two cents on the subject. I'll stick to regular sugar. What do you think?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What's in a name: sugar and marketing

   When it comes down to looking at the way that words are used in marketing, the use of sugar is a prime candidate as an example. Have you heard of these terms? Unsweetened, no sugar added, sugar-free, naturally sweetened all seem to suggest a healthy drink or food but you had best examine the ingredient list carefully. What do these terms (and others) really mean? This is a situation where sometimes the literal meaning is usually the one that is "true" but most of us hear what we think it implies rather than what the word says.
   Let's start with the word unsweetened. It is not used consistently even in the market. Sometimes it is used to mean "without sweetness" -- such as unsweetened tea or coffee. However, it is also used for situations where added ingredients include sugar but no separate refined sugar or sweetener is added. For example, tea with cream is a sweetened drink because cream includes various sugars (primarily lactose). Unsweetened cereal means no refined sugar was added to the mix but almost all grains include sugars (maltose, fructose, and sucrose).
   I used to buy a slice of "no sugar added" apple pie at a local restaurant. I love to cook and bake (it's really an at-home chemical laboratory) and know that it is possible to make an apple pie without any added sugar (one does have to do something to "draw out" the moisture from the apples, however, or it will be quite dry) because the apples have enough sugar within. But, it turns out that, at this restaurant, they actually make use of Splenda (sucralose-based) which is an "artificial sugar substitute". So, their definition of "no sugar added" really means "no caloric natural sweeteners added". I guess that it doesn't have the same ring to it -- but it is a lot more direct.
  "Sugar free" is one of my least favorite marketing phrases. Unlike "unsweetened" which, at least sometimes, means no sweeteners are added -- it almost always means artificially sweetened. I guess that "chemically sweetened" doesn't have the same marketing pizazz as "sugar free". I keep hunting for a real sugar-free drink but water seems to be the only one that can be really trusted.
   Finally, there is the term "naturally sweetened". Generally, this does have a meaning -- no refined sugars are added and no artificial sweeteners are included. This does not often mean without considerable sweetness as it usually means that extracted fruit juices are used in combination with the "primary" flavors. For solid foods, it means the same but the added sweetness comes from the other ingredients (like the tea with cream) in the mix.
   So, how do we determine what is actually in the drink or food. Like most foods, one has to learn to read the labels (in countries where nutritional labels are required). First, read the list of ingredients. Ingredients that end with "alose" (NOT "ose" which is at the end of most natural sugars) or "itol" are likely to be artificial sweeteners. Natural sugars end with "ose" or are described with everyday words (sugar (sucrose), corn syrup (maple syrup is the only other included syrup of which I am aware is used). Check the order and frequency. The highest percentage come first but if the list includes sugar AND corn syrup AND fructose then the total might very well be first or second highest amount -- another marketing trick to shift the order of ingredients and help you to think it has less sugar.
   After checking the list of ingredients, one has to look at the nutritional label. In the "carbohydrates" section, it will be broken down into dietary fiber and sugar. The sugar should correspond to the natural sugars in the ingredient list. When you add up the amount of sugar and dietary fiber, it will usually be less than the total amount of carbohydrates. The difference between these two amounts indicates the amount of more "complex" carbohydrates.
   Carbohydrates are a classification of food elements that combine carbon and Hydrogen-Oxygen (think "hydration" -- or water added -- although hydrates are not quite the same as adding water). As from the previous blog on sugars, dietary carbohydrates can also be grouped into saccharides. The simple monosaccharides and bisaccharides are given the name of "sugar" while the polysaccharides are sometimes called "starches". Starches require the body to break them down into simpler molecules before using (as sugars). At any rate, the difference between the total of sugars and dietary fiber and total carbohydrates indicates the amount of "starch". As you can read from my earlier blogs on nutrition, the healthiness of starch depends on the mixture -- the ratio of dietary fiber versus sugar and simple starches should be kept high.
  So, let the "buyer beware" -- the names used (and with many other aspects of life) have multiple meanings and uses. Marketing terms are used to make the consumer interested in the product -- not to inform. I really will talk about differences between "natural" and "artificial" sweeteners in my next blog but I thought that the use of marketing terms and sugar was important to understand first.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How Sweet it Is; sugars and the body

    Our bodies, when we pay attention to them, include a group of tastes. These are usually referred to as sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. They work by the chemicals activating  specific sets of nerves on the tongue. Bitter tastes are associated with poisons and sweet with high-energy foods. It is rare, in nature, for one taste to dominate and this causes a huge set of possibilities. Also, the "flavor" of foods is how the brain interprets the taste, smell, and texture of the food in combination.
    Since sweet tastes are an indication of higher-energy (calorie) foods, our bodies tend to favor sweet foods. Sweet tastes also activate a swallowing reflex within the mouth. (If a person is dehydrated but has trouble swallowing, try adding a single teaspoon of sugar to a glass of water.)
    In the past, a "taste" for sugar has not been a problem as, within most of history, getting enough food has been a much greater problem than eating too much. With modern food processing, concentrated sweetness is a cheap method of making food more appealing and, thus, has become a problem for many people.
    Natural sugars are a group of carbohydrates called saccharides. These may be monosaccharides which include glucose (a "blood sugar"), fructose (a "fruit sugar"),  and galactose. Disaccharides include sucrose ("table sugar"), maltose ("grain sugar"), and lactose (a "dairy sugar"). I put these common referents in quotes because, although associated with these types of foods, the sugars are not exclusively in these foods. Other substances can also activate the sweet sensors of the tongue. These include a group of chemicals called glycosides, some proteins and amino acids, and even some inorganic compounds.
    All fruits and vegetables include sugar as it is a by-product of the process of photosynthesis (conversion of water and minerals into food using solar energy). Some vegetation is considered a primary sugar source because the concentration of sugar is sufficient to warrant extraction and can be used directly as a sweetening agent for foods during cooking. Three of these are sugarcane, sugar beets, and Stevia leaves (which includes a glycoside rather than a saccharide)
    Historically, natural sugars have been used as sweeteners -- adding to food to make them more enjoyable to eat. It is possible, by the process of extraction, to increase the percentage of sugar by eliminating the fiber (pulp) and leaving a solution of sugar and water (still including other water soluble vitamins and mineral compounds). A final method of concentration reduces, or eliminates, the amount of water and non-sweet compounds until only relatively "pure" sugar remains.
    From the body's point of view, the unprocessed sugars are what the body was designed to appreciate. Eating an orange, combined with the pulp, is healthy (in moderation). Orange juice,with the pulp extracted, is much less healthy -- and a tablespoon of sucrose is the least healthy. Our bodies were not designed to deal with "pure", refined, sugars and making use of such within a diet can cause various problems, including an overwhelming of the pancreas causing diabetes.
    In order to combat problems associated with natural sugars -- including high calorie intake and tooth decay (the sticky sugar can remain on the teeth as food for bacteria) -- humans have created "sugar substitutes". Many of these substitutes activate the sweet sensors on the tongue to a higher degree than natural sugars. This means that a much smaller amount may be used for equivalent sweetness (increasing profits and decreasing any caloric intake that may still exist).
   This sounds like a win-win for producers of food as well as consumers but, as we will cover in the next blog, fooling "mother nature" can cause the body to react in ways that are not easily foretold.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Body Sensors -- What Your Body Tells You

     Our bodies have the capacity to tell us a lot about our health and what we need to do to feel our best. Alas, we also have the ability to ignore these signs and an aspect of our modern society is to encourage us to do so.
     When people think about "sensors" they usually think about electronic automation. There is a sensor to tell your thermostat whether to turn on the heater or air conditioner. There are sensors in ovens and toasters to indicate when proper temperature at appropriate times has been applied. There are sensors in our cars to indicate proper fuel intake and when to shift gears and even to apply brakes or throttle. We have similar things within our bodies. Much of robotics is concerned with getting machines to be able to do the same things we do every day.
     The first sensors that come to mind for people is our " five senses". These are usually listed as sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Some people add a "sixth sense" to indicate information we take in that are not easily linked to the five physical senses.
     However, we also have a lot of internal sensors -- primarily associated with the way that our brains are able to interpret specific signals. We can tell, via pressure at specific points, whether we need to urinate or defecate. We can tell if our stomachs are adequately full. The sense of cold and heat can easily be fooled because it is associated with the way specific nerves under our skin react to temperature differences. Sometimes these interact with certain organs -- such as our inner ear -- to tell us whether we are level or spinning and help with the ability to move smoothly.
     The third category of sensors is difficult to understand fully. Our brains have access to much information that requires a host of tests to determine externally. They have access to insulin levels, to endocrine levels, to the amount of oxygen being carried by our blood, and to the levels of neurotransmitters and other chemicals in our brains and bodies. Much of the time, our bodies work with this data automatically by use of the "brain stem". However, it is possible for people to access this information consciously and actively apply responses.
     So, what does all of this information tell us? It tells us when we are hungry or full, whether we are hot or cold, and whether the food, drink, or other substance we might bring into our bodies is good for us or not. It tells us whether we need to use the restroom. It also tells us whether we are tired, sad, happy, stressed, excited, and just (all in all) how we feel.
     Consider now the various items that often exist in our homes, or in the supermarket/pharmacy, or being advertised as services for us. Many of these exist because we do not pay attention to the information our bodies tell us. Why not? The pressures of a time-obsessed society cause us to eat quickly (not giving time for us to listen to body signals), and schedules tell us when we can eat/drink and do other bodily functions. The allure of a "quick fix" stops us from adopting a lifestyle where we get the proper exercise and sleep. Calorie-dense food is easily available and our bodies did not develop to allow for such. Plus, we often feel that it is a "reward" to do things that our bodies do not want or need -- that extra large dessert or an "extra large drink".
     It isn't easy to change and our economic society does not encourage us to change. However, if we allow ourselves to listen to what our bodies tell us then we can be healthier and happier.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

BIG data and data mining

In my household, big data is most directly related to the piles of LEGOs (or LEGO-system building components) that my boys have scattered around the house. Needles in haystacks are more often used as examples. My library of books around the house would be another example. In each case, big data basically means a lot of data.

A lot of anything, of course, is subjective. There are thousands of pieces of straw in a haystack. There are a few thousand books around my house. My boys have a couple of thousands of LEGOs. However, in the world of business (and surveillance) big data usually refers to hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of records -- each of which may have many minutes (audio) or many members (items sold in purchase records or words in emails, for example). Big data is just a way to describe lots of data.

Data mining is the process of finding that special yellow 2 by 2 LEGO in the pile, or finding the needle in the haystack, or finding a specific audio record that talks about things that are considered suspicious or dangerous.

Data mining has three basic components -- collection, storage, and analysis. These are not necessarily discrete stages but we'll discuss them separately (calling out exceptions).

As evidenced by the physical examples at the beginning of this blog, big data has always existed. Consider the stacks of paper birth certificates, or other historical documents that exist and which may need, from time to time, to be searched. The ability to effectively handle, and use, big data has gotten much easier since electronic formats have become standard.

  • Collection. Collection usually occurs at the time of transmission (when the originated data is moved to a destination). This might be a phone call. It could be at a point-of-sale (POS) cash register after the order has been finalized. It might be the registration record for a class. Collection may either occur at the intended destination (the company invoice/purchase order database) or via interception. Interception is where collection occurs somewhere other than the intended destination -- "wire tapping", people looking over your shoulder when you enter your credit card security information, and so forth.

    Collection can occur anonymously or personalized. Personalization basically means that the record is associated with a corporate or living entity. In the case of a sale at a grocery store, the data will be associated with that store (and, possibly, that cashier and cash register). If you use a credit/debit card or a store "club" card, then the data can (and probably will) be associated with the person in addition. Generally, anonymous collection is considered innocuous while personalized collection is not. This does not mean there are not "legitimate" (proper, honorable) reasons to collect personal data but it does mean that the person may have concerns as to the purpose and safety of the data.

  • Storage. This always occurs at some point. However, it may be transitory if the data are removed upon receipt and analysis. Consider a "normal" phone call. The audio message exists (and is stored) from the origination (talking) until the receiving person analyzes it. If the message is redirected (to voice mail, for example), intercepted, or copied, this may turn into a permanent record requiring long-term storage.

    Transactions (purchases, registration, email correspondence) where the data needs to be used in the future are almost all "permanently" stored. Of course, they can still be deleted in the future -- but, without advance knowledge of when, or if, this will occur they must be considered permanent.

  • Analysis. This can occur during the process of collection or it may occur later (after storage). Anonymous data is often analyzed statistically. How many of product X were sold by store Y in city Z? How many of product X were sold in state B? How long is the average voice call within a state? Trends can be analyzed over time. Store Y in city X sold NN of product X at price B. They sold GG of product X at price C (can be used to determine overall profit using margin versus quantity sold). Product F sells very well during the time period D through G but not very well in period H through M (seasonal item to be stocked differently depending on time of year).

    Analysis can also be personalized. Customer ABC buys a lot of product F. Product G is similar but there is a greater profit margin on G -- send Customer ABC coupons for product G to get them to start buying product G on a regular basis. Or Customer DEF only buys product F if the price is below $ZZ.ZZ. Customer BEF is now buying baby products -- notify baby supply companies of contact information.

    Finally, analysis can be triggered. Surveillance can use trigger words, or sequences of words (either written or audio) to divert records to further analysis. If you start buying diabetic-related foods and medicines, the data CAN be forwarded to your insurance company (and yes -- if the data is associated with you, then they CAN find your insurance company).
Big data does not change the stages but it does change the methods. There will often be multiple layers of analysis so that each step reduces the number of records to be analyzed. Analysis upon collection will specifically affect the manner in which the data are sorted and stored. And so forth.

People usually don't object to anonymous statistical analysis. They may start feeling threatened with personalized statistical analysis although they may also benefit from the results.

They often will feel threatened with triggered analysis because their "private" data are being used without explicit permission and can be used to exploit the data in some way. In addition, triggers can lead to false conclusions quite easily (you were actually buying diabetes supplies for your great Aunt, you have been reading a book about bad thing XXX and were discussing it with a friend). Big data methods are particularly susceptible to false initial triggers (although, hopefully, further analysis will filter more appropriately).